November 09, 2004

Further rumination on sola Scriptura

After I posted an old Sunday school lesson on 2 Tim. 3:16-17, The Authority and Sufficiency of Scripture, I received a comment from a Catholic blogger, who said there were "inherent problems" with the doctrine, and raised three specific objections, which I list here:

  1. "It requires scripture to be mass produced and distributed - something that was impossible prior to the printing press."
  2. "[I]t requires a literate readership - something else that was absent until the past couple of centuries."
  3. "[S]cripture itself doesn't give itself sole authority."

I'll tackle objection 3 first, because here my reader and I are simply in factual disagreement. I submit that in 2 Tim. 3:16-17, Paul indeed does say that Scripture is uniquely God-breathed, and that it is able to thoroughly equip the man of God for his task. If an extrabiblical authority or "sacred tradition" is required to supplement the written Scriptures, then the Scriptures cannot be said to be thorough. That was the whole point of the lesson. If I am wrong in my interpretation of 2 Tim. 3:16-17, show me how I am wrong; don't just say "is not!" and expect me to change my mind.

Objections 1 and 2 are really the same, except in the details: sola Scriptura cannot be true unless everyone can read the Scriptures off the page personally. I respond first by way of analogy: Am I under the authority of the Criminal Code of Canada? Where does it get this authority? From the government that drafted it. Does the Code cease to have authority if I cannot find or read it? Of course not. In fact, if I asserted this, I would be guilty of a major category error, because I have shifted the issue away from the objective authority of the law to my subjective ability to read it. (And it wouldn't get me off that petty theft rap, either!)

My objector makes the same category error with respect to the Scripture. She has shifted the issue away from the objective authority of Scripture, which it inherently possesses by virtue of being God-breathed, to the subjective ability of early Christians to read them.

Specifically, objection 1 also fails because history testifies that lack of movable type was no impediment to the distribution of the Scriptures. There are literally thousands of extant manuscripts and fragments of the New Testament, dating back to within a generation of the apostolic era. There are more ancient copies of the Bible than the next ten works of classical literature combined. And these are only the copies still extant, to say nothing of the countless others that must have been lost to time and the elements! The early Church was obviously concerned with disseminating the Scriptures; even without Gutenberg's press, they seem to have had no trouble in the mass-production department. Even if there wasn't a Bible in every household, they were readily available from other Christians, in the synagogue, later chained to pulpits in the churches, and so forth.

Furthermore, the objection downplays the importance of memory and oral transmission in a pre-printing press culture. Even in the 14th century, the Lollards, followers of John Wycliffe, memorized whole books of Scripture and could recite them. These people could adhere to sola Scriptura because what they heard and recited came from the written page.

Objection 2 fails because even if believers were unable to read the Scriptures for themselves, they were nonetheless able to hear them taught in church, read to them by friends, and so forth.

As another commenter points out, the inability for specific Christians to read the Scriptures from the page did not stop Augustine from writing to Jerome:

I have learned to yield this respect and honour only to the canonical books of Scripture: of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error. And if in these writings I am perplexed by anything which appears to me opposed to truth, I do not hesitate to suppose that either the Ms. is faulty, or the translator has not caught the meaning of what was said, or I myself have failed to understand it. As to all other writings, in reading them, however great the superiority of the authors to myself in sanctity and learning, I do not accept their teaching as true on the mere ground of the opinion being held by them; but only because they have succeeded in convincing my judgment of its truth either by means of these canonical writings themselves, or by arguments addressed to my reason.1

This is the same argument Martin Luther made at Worms. Sola Scriptura stands.


1 Augustine, Letter 82, 1:3, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff, vol. 1, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1 Nov. 2004, 9 Nov. 2004 <>.