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Sola Scriptura
What Does It Really Mean?


"Sola Scriptura" is a phrase that means "Bible alone". Any English speaking person - even a non-English speaking person like me- can understand that it is only a phrase that needs additional explanation. Bible alone is what? Evidently such a phrase will be utterly foolish and useless unless we know what Scripture is. But the phrase assumes that this is defined. When a Protestant scholar speaks of scripture he uses his definition. Unfortunately this may be different from the definition used by the Catholics. Authority of the Catholic Church and the Evangelicals are totally in divergence. From this arises a large argument. The point is because the definitions are different what one says is not intelligible to the other.

"Sacred scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit".

This is the definition given by the Catechism of the Catholic Church and that is the same definition the Protestants give also. In the absolute sense Scripture is the word of God - the expression of God and Jesus was the ultimate expression and revelation of God for mankind. The "speech of God" is what Jesus spoke. Thus for the evangelicals all authority rests on Jesus. If the written word has any authority it is derived from Jesus. Therefore the cannon is determined by Jesus and not by any Church. As for Old Testament the cannon is determined by what Jesus granted as scripture. What was the cannon that Jesus accepted? All those from which he quoted certainly form part of cannon. As regards to New Testament we still have problem. Everyone knows that Jesus did not write any book, nor did many of the apostles. . An apostle was one who had been with Jesus in person.

The faith was delivered to the faithful once and for all by Jesus and then by the Apostles and these cannot be abrogated nor changed even by the Apostles themselves or even by an Angel.

Gal 1:6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel--7 which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ.8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!9 As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!

This was probably the first anathema stated excathedra by Paul. Whether this is a valid anathema or not because he was not Peter, so not the proper authority will be left open. Eastern churches proclaim Paul to be the "builder and the architect of the Church" in the midst of the liturgical service of Holy Quarbana. As opposed to this, Catholic Church claims a deposit of faith with the Holy Roman Catholic Church (particular church) and this solely rests of the Pontiff (Particular person)of the Roman Church as the predecessors of the "chief of the Apostles" viz. Peter.

Now then how do we define the cannon of the New Testament?.

The Catholic approach is that the "Holy Catholic Church" defines it. This Church did not define the scripture for centuries and the church was ignorant of what was the scripture until then. "You have the scripture because we gave it to you." I was once told.

Cannon of scripture as understood by the evangelicals have nothing to do with any institution. It was solely written down during the Apostolic period and by people who have seen and heard Jesus (including Paul) or by people who did extensive research during the Apostolic age in collaboration with the Apostles. As such evangelicals do not accept any document which were written down after the Apostolic Period as part of the scripture. The cannon was closed by the death of John. The reason is simply that any documentation after that period may be considered hearsay and may not be valid. I am not saying that they are wrong. They are unreliable as it doesn't have the approval of the apostolic authority, who alone were the witnesses. Witnesses of the witnesses may be there. They are not valid witnesses even in a secular court of law. Again these writings of latter period may be good Christian literature, but it will not be an argument to establish any matter relating to the dogma and faith. In this matter evangelicals differ from the Catholics. So there are objective methods of defining the cannon of the scriptures without reference to any institution or councils. If any institution or council announces the cannon, it is only a recognition of these objective standards and not in any way arbitrary.

When Evangelicals emphasize Sola Scriptura they are not saying Bible alone is the ultimate authority. Is not Jesus the ultimate authority? Is not God the Father the ultimate authority? Even when we talk about authority we need to define "authority in what?". Is bible the authority for the determination of speed of light or the nature of elementary particles or on biology or chemistry or astronomy?

Evangelical stand is that

for matters of faith and salvation

the written scriptures are the final court of arbitration. It is like the Supreme Court. When there is a conflict of opinion we turn back to the scriptures and check whether there is anything that is contrary to it. If there is, it is invalid, if there is not it may or may not be valid because we are not sure. This is all what Sola Scriptura means.

On the other hand the Catholic Church has the final court of arbitration as the Church - and in particular "The Roman Catholic Church" (because that is the only true church) - who alone has the authority to interpret the meaning of what scripture says.

How do we interpret the scriptures?

Scripture is a document. Every document is written to explain or make one understand what the author of the document wants us to understand. A good author expounds his message clearly. What was the purpose of writing the scriptures down? To hide or to reveal? So most part at least we need only to read the scriptures. In case we are ignorant we have the methods of interpretation we use for any other document to use. After all scripture is a document. This is the basis on which principles of hermeneutics stand. Assuming that it is not clear even then what do we do? The evangelical stand is that the author of the scripture is essentially the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit in the believer is the expounder of the scripture. This of course leaves the interpretation of the Bible to individual understanding. At any rate all understanding is individual. Each person in their own way understands any message. As long as a medium of transmission of a message is required, all interpretations depend on the perception of the person and his mental reinterpretation of the signals. This can only be helped by a person who resides within the person - the Holy Spirit. The Catholic Church does not leave the matter to individuals. They take the interpretation as a matter of Apostolic Authority and therefore rests solely on the Pope. This leads to the situation where what the Pope in consultation with the rest of the megisterium declares - even when it contradicts the direct message of the scripture - is the truth.

Roman Catechism states:" The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys, this infallibility in virtue of his office as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful- who confirms his brethren in the faith - he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals.... the infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops when, together with Peter's successor, they exercise the supreme Magisterium.... above all in an Ecumenical Council. When the Church through its supreme Magisterium proposes a doctrine "for belief as being divinely revealed", and as the teaching of Christ, the definitions "must be adhered to with the obedience of faith." This infallibility extends as far as the deposit of divine Revelation itself."

The difference therefore between the two stands is simply this: Evangelical rely on the authority of the scriptures to determine all matters connected with faith on the bible while Catholics rely on the Pope. The main difference what the evangelical fear in the Papal authority is that because of the human and institutional structure of the office it is corruptible and therefore cannot be relied upon. They have a long history of corruption and subterfuge in the office along with the magisterium to point out. It was this actually that triggered the reformation of Luther Calvin, Zwigli etc. Catholic retort will be: doesn't Christ with his authority safeguard the position? The evangelical question is: What does the history say? Did He? Will He?

Assuming again the Papal infallibility in interpretation, the interpretation is still a medium, either in writing or in speech. Who will interpret this to the individuals? Again we come down to the individual interpretation and the Holy Spirit as the final interpreter.

So the real issue in Sola Scriptora is simply one of authority. It is in the question of authority that Roman Catholic Church and Protestants and other Catholic Churches elsewhere really differ. What does the scripture say in this matter. Let us hear Peter himself:

2 Pe 2:19 And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.

--The words of the prophets are made certain by the direct experience. We are sure we are right when our experience concord with the Scriptures.

--We should pay attention to the scriptures as to a light shining in a dark place

--Until the day dawns and the morning star- Jesus- rise in our hearts. The presence of the Holy Spirit transforms us into the likeness of Jesus. Until then scripture is the lamp that guide us in this dark world.

20 Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation.

21 For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit

The reason for keeping this scripture as the lamp in darkness is because of false prophets and false dogmas. False scriptures will be written and used. . Heresies will develop denying the centrality and sovereignty of Jesus. They will add other authorities and gods and goddesses. They will exploit people with stories they have made up. In the midst of these the safety then lies in the scripture and not in any external human authority..

3:1 But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them--bringing swift destruction on themselves.

2 Many will follow their shameful ways and will bring the way of truth into disrepute.

3 In their greed these teachers will exploit you with stories they have made up.

It is this obvious fact that Sola Scriptura declares.

Traditions

It is probably relevant to make some remarks in matters of tradition. By tradition what do we understand? There are oral traditions - i.e teachings that are not written down. There are liturgical, ritualistic and behavioural traditions. These are all medium of communication. No doubt the apostles received the messages from Jesus through all these means. However there is a vast difference between the written word and the message transmitted by tradition. Written word is frozen in time so that it is least affected and changed in time. That is to say, it is least likely that they can err. (Of course there could be errors in scribing and sometimes scribes do make redactions and notes which are errorneously considered as original text etc. But since we do have a multiple of texts we could easily discern these, in practice these do not lead to much variations) But in case of tradition it is far different. In almost all parties we play a game of whispering a message which is to be passed on from person to person. After a few passage from person to person, the final message can be shockingly different. Thus because of this likelihood of error in transmission, the evangelical churches places least emphasis on the tradition. These have undergone drastic changes as they are handed down the generations and most of all as they are handed down to other nations and cultures.

The Catholic Church maintains that this purity of transmission is maintained because of the magisterium. Catholic Church declares also that these traditions can also be nullified or changed as the Pope with the magisterium decides. "In the light of Tradition, these traditions can be retained, modified or even abandoned under the guidance of the Church's magisterium" - Catechism of Catholic Church

Thus essentially what is truth is decided by the Pope and the magisterium, irrespective of what is written in the scriptures and what is handed down by tradition. In contrast the evangelical stand is that even in progressive revelation, the written word cannot be abrogated. Tradition being an unreliable transmission method is not considered as consistent enough at this period of time to be a measure of discerning the truth. Reformations from time to time have tried to correct such errors in traditions that have crept into the church with time. These are attempts to go back to the biblical judgement and assessment of existing traditions and practices most of which evangelicals feel have been imposed extraneously.

As anyone can see, the logic of the Catholic position is different from the logic of the evangelical position. The question is not whether the logic is wrong or right. The question each individual will have to decide is simply which one he or she want choose. If you choose the Primacy of Peter, the Supremacy of the Roman Church, the monopoly of truth through succession of Popes and the magisterium of the Roman Church alone you reach the Roman Catholic stand. But if you choose the Royal priesthood of all believers and the authority of the scripture as interpreted by the infilling Holy Spirit without external institutional authority you arrive at the evangelical stand. Thus the only external authority that one can appeal to remain as the scriptures. This is what we understand by Sola Scriptora. It is simply not the only infallible authority and none beside it. But it is the only external authority we have. This is an indirect statement of negation of the Primacy of Peter and the Supremacy of the Roman Church.