The Practical Problems of Sola Scriptura
Featuring James Akin/
March 3, 2010
Simply stated, the Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”) teaches that every teaching in Christian theology (everything pertaining to “faith and practice”) must be able to be derived from Scripture alone. This is expressed by the Reformation slogan Quod non est biblicum, non est theologicum (“What is not biblical is not theological,” cf. Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology, Richard A. Muller, Baker, 1985).
An essential part of this doctrine, as it has been historically articulated by Protestants, is that theology must be done without allowing Tradition or a Magisterium (teaching authority) any binding authority. If Tradition or a Magisterium could bind the conscience of the believer as to what he was to believe then the believer would not be looking to Scripture alone as his authority.
A necessary corollary of the doctrine of sola Scriptura is, therefore, the idea of an absolute right of private judgment in the interpretation of the Scriptures. Each individual has the final prerogative to decide for himself what the correct interpretation of a given passage of Scripture means, irrespective of what anyone-or everyone-else says. If anyone or even everyone else together could tell the believer what to believe, Scripture would not be his sole authority; something else would have binding authority. Thus, according to sola Scriptura, any role Tradition, a Magisterium, Bible commentaries, or anything else may play in theology is simply to suggest interpretations and evidence to the believer as he makes his decision. Each individual Christian is thus put in the position of being his own theologian.
Of course, we all know that the average Christian does not exercise this role in any consistent way, even the average person admitted by Fundamentalists to be a genuine, “born again” believer. There are simply too many godly people who are very devout in their faith in Jesus, but who are in no way inclined to become theologians.
Not only is the average Christian totally disinclined to fulfill the role of theologian, but if they try to do so, and if they arrive at conclusions different than those of the church they belong to — an easy task considering the number of different theological issues — then they will quickly discover that their right to private judgment amounts to a right to shut up or leave the congregation. Protestant pastors, even Luther and Calvin, have long realized that, although they must preach the doctrine of private judgment, to ensure their own right to preach, they must prohibit the exercise of this right in practice for others, lest the group be torn apart by strife and finally break up. It is the failure of the prohibition of the right of private judgment that has resulted in the over 30,000 Christian Protestant denominations listed in the Oxford University Press’s World Christian Encyclopedia. The disintegration of Protestantism into so many competing factions, teaching different doctrines on key theological issues (What kind of faith saves? Is Baptism necessary? Is Baptism for infants? Must Baptism be by immersion only? Can one lose salvation? How? Can it be gotten back? How? Is the Real Presence true? Are spiritual gifts like tongues and healing for today? For everyone? What about predestination? What about free will? What about church government?) is itself an important indicator of the practical failure of the doctrine of private judgment, and thus the doctrine of sola Scriptura. However, there is a whole set of practical presuppositions that the doctrine of sola Scriptura makes, every one of which provides not just an argument against the doctrine, but a fatal blow to it. Sola Scriptura simply cannot be God’s plan for Christian theology.
In fact, it could never even have been thought to be God’s plan before a certain stage in European history because, as we will see, it could have only arisen after a certain technological development which was unknown in the ancient world. Before that one development, nobody would have ever thought that sola Scriptura could be the principle God intended people to use, meaning it was no accident that the Reformation occurred when it did. If God had intended the individual Christian to use sola Scriptura as His operating principle then it would have to be something the average Christian could implement. We can therefore judge whether sola Scriptura could have been God’s plan for the individual Christian by asking whether the average Christian in world history could have implemented it.
Not only that, but since God promised that the Church would never pass out of existence (Matt 16:18, 28:20), the normal Christian of each age must be able to implement sola Scriptura, including the crucial patristic era, when the early Church Fathers hammered out the most basic tenets of Christian orthodoxy. It is in this practical area that the doctrine comes crashing down, for it has a number of presuppositions which are in no way true of the average Christian of world history, and certainly not of the average Christian of early Church history.
First, if each Christian is to make a thorough study of the Scriptures and decide for himself what they mean (even taking into consideration the interpretations of others) then it follows that he must have a copy of the Scriptures to use in making his thorough study (a non-thorough study being a dangerous thing, as any Protestant apologist will tell you, warning against the cults and their Bible study tactics). Thus the universal application of sola Scriptura presupposes the mass manufacturing of books, and of the Bible in particular.
This, however, was completely impossible before invention of the printing press, for without that there could not be enough copies of the Scriptures for the individual Christians to use. Sola Scriptura therefore presupposes the inventing of the printing press, something that did not happen for the first 1,400 years of Church history.
It is often noted by even Protestant historians that the Reformation could not have taken off like it did in the early 1500s if the printing press had not been invented in the mid-1400s. This is more true than they know, because the printing press not only allowed the early Protestant to mass produce works containing their teachings about what the Bible meant, it allowed the mass production of the Bible itself (as Catholics were already doing — one does realize, of course, that the Gutenberg Bible and the other versions of the Bible being produced before Protestantism were all Catholic Bibles). Without the ability to mass produce copies of the Scriptures for the individual Christians to interpret, the doctrine of sola Scriptura could not function, since one would only have very limited access to the texts otherwise-via the Scripture readings at Mass and the costly, hand-made copies of the Bible kept on public display at the church. Thus sola Scriptura presupposes the printing press.
This is a key reason why the Reformation happened when it did — several decades after the invention of the printing press. It took time for the idea of the printing press to make its mark on the European mind and get people excited about the idea of easily available books. It was in this heady atmosphere, the first time in human history when dozens of ancient works were being mass produced and sold, that people suddenly got excited with the thought, “Hey! We could give copies of the Bible to everyone! Everyone could read the Scriptures for themselves!” — a thought which led very quickly into sola Scriptura in the minds of those who wished to oppose historic Christian theology, as it would provide a justification for their own desire to depart from orthodoxy (“Hey, I read the Scriptures, and this is what they said to me!”). Of course, the invention of the printing press does not itself enable us to give Bibles to every Christian in the world (as all the calls for Bibles to be sent to Russia illustrate), which leads to the next practical presupposition of sola Scriptura.
Second, besides the printing press, sola Scriptura also presupposes the universal distribution of books and of the Bible in particular. For it is no good if enough copies of the Bible exist but they can’t be gotten into the hands of the average believer. Thus there must be a distribution network capable of delivering affordable copies of the Bible to the average Christian. This is the case today in the developed world. However, even today we cannot get enough Bibles into many lands due to economic and political restraints, as the fund raising appeals of Bible societies and their stories of Bible smuggling inform us. However, in the great majority of Christian history, the universal distribution of books would have been totally impossible even in what is now the developed world. During most of Church history, the “developed world” was undeveloped.
The political systems, economies, logistical networks, and travel infrastructure that make the mass distribution of Bibles possible today simply did not exist for three-quarters of Church history. There was no way to get the books to the peasants, and no way the peasants could have afforded them in the first place. There just wasn’t enough cash in circulation (just try giving a printer 5,000 chickens for the 1,000 Bibles he has just printed — much less keeping the chickens alive and transported from the time the peasants pay them to the time the printer gets them).
Third, if the average Christian is going to read the Scriptures and decide for himself what they mean, then he obviously must be able to read. Having someone read them to him simply is not sufficient, not only because the person would only be able to do it occasionally (what with a bunch of illiterates to read to), but also because the person needs to be able to go over the passage multiple times. He must look at its exact wording and grammatical structure, quickly flip to other passages bearing on the topic to formulate the different aspects of a doctrine as he is thinking about it, and finally record his insights so he doesn’t forget them and keep the evidence straight in his mind. He therefore must be literate and able to read for himself. Thus sola Scriptura presupposes universal literacy.
Fourth, if the average Christian is going to make a study of what Scripture says and decide what it teaches, he must possess adequate scholarly support material, for he must either be able to read the texts in the original languages or have material capable of telling him when there is a translation question that could affect doctrine (for example, does the Greek word for “baptize” mean “immerse” or does it have a broader meaning? Does the biblical term for “justify” mean to make righteous in only a legal sense or sometimes in a broader one?). He must also have these scholarly support works (commentaries and such) to suggest to him possible alternate interpretations to evaluate, for no one person is going to be able to think of every interpretive option on every passage of Scripture that is relevant to every major Christian doctrine. No Protestant pastor (at least no pastors who are not in extreme anti-intellectual circles) would dream of formulating his views without such support materials, and he thus cannot expect the average Christian to do so either. Indeed! The average Christian is going to need such support materials even more than a trained pastor. Thus sola Scriptura also presupposes the possession — not just the existence — of adequate support materials.
Fifth, if the average Christian is to do a thorough study of the Bible for himself, then he obviously must have adequate time in which to do this study. If he is working in the fields or a home (or, later, in the factory) for ten, twelve, fifteen, or eighteen hours a day, he obviously doesn’t have time to do this, especially not in addition to the care and raising of his family and his own need to eat and sleep and recreate. Not even a Sunday rest will provide him with the adequate time, for nobody becomes adept in the Bible just by reading the Bible on Sundays — as Protestants stress to their own members when encouraging daily Bible reading. Thus sola Scriptura presupposes the universal possession of adequate leisure time in which to make a thorough study the Bible for oneself.
Sixth, even if a Christian had adequate time to study the Bible sufficiently, it will do him no good if he doesn’t have a diet sufficiently nutritious to let his brain function properly and his mind work clearly. This is something we often forget today because our diets are so rich, but for most of Christian history the average person had barely enough food to survive, and it was almost all bread. “Everything else,” as the British historian James Burke put it, “was just something you ate with bread” — as a condiment or side-dish. This means that the average Christian of world history was malnourished, and as any public school dietitian can tell you, malnutrition causes an inability to study and learn properly. That is one of the big motivating forces behind the school lunch program. If kids don’t eat right, they don’t study right, and they don’t learn right, because they don’t think clearly. The same is true of Bible students. Thus sola Scriptura also presupposes universal nutrition.
Seventh, if the average Christian is going to evaluate competing interpretations for himself then he must have a significant amount of skill in evaluating arguments. He must be able to recognize what is a good argument and what is not, what is a fallacy and what is not, what counts as evidence and what does not. That is quite a bit of critical thinking skill, and anyone who has ever tried to teach basic, introductory logic to college students or anyone who had tried to read and grade the persuasive essays they write for philosophy tests can tell you (I’m speaking from personal experience here), that level of critical thinking does not exist in the average, literate, well-nourished, modern college senior, much less the average, illiterate, malnourished, Medieval peasant. This is especially true when it comes to the abstract concepts and truth claims involved in philosophy and theology. Thus sola Scriptura also presupposes a high level of universal education in critical thinking skills (a level which does not even exist today).
Therefore sola Scriptura presupposes (1) the existence of the printing press, (2) the universal distribution of Bibles, (3) universal literacy, (4) the universal possession of scholarly support materials, (5) the universal possession of adequate time for study, (6) universal nutrition, and (7) a universal education in a high level of critical thinking skills. Needless to say, this group of conditions was not true in the crucial early centuries of the Church, was not true through the main course of Church history, and is not even true today. The non-existence of the printing press alone means sola Scriptura was totally unthinkable for almost three-quarters of Christian history! All of this is besides the limitations we mentioned earlier — the fact that the average Christian, even the average devout Christian has no inclination whatsoever to conduct the kind of Bible study needed to become his own theologian and the fact that he is encouraged by many pressures from his own pastor and congregation (including the threat of being cast out) to fall in line and not challenge — especially publicly challenge — the party platform.
Christianity For The Common Man?
It is thus hard to think of sola Scriptura as anything but the theory spawned by a bunch of idealistic, Renaissance-era dilettantes — people who had an interest in being their own theologians, who had a classical education in critical thinking skills, who had adequate nutrition, who had plenty of leisure time for study, who had plenty of scholarly support materials, who had good reading skills, who had access to Bible-sellers, and most importantly, who had printed Bibles!
The average Christian today, even the average Christian in the developed world, does not fit that profile, and the average Christian in world history certainly did not, much less the average Christian in the early centuries. What this means, since God does not ask a person to do what they are incapable of doing, is that God does not expect the average Christian of world history to use sola Scriptura. He expects the average Christian to obtain and maintain his knowledge of theology in some other way.
But if God expects the average Christian to obtain and maintain the Christian faith without using sola Scriptura, then sola Scriptura is not God’s plan.