Sola Scriptura: the belief, held by Protestants, that the Bible is the sole infallible authority that Christians can and should use for the purpose of salvation. This is not to say that church fellowship and leadership are not important, or that history should not be considered; it simply says that despite the importance of those aspects and others, only the Bible is capable of being used in an infallible (i.e. unerring) light; the Bible and the Bible alone should be the final authority when it comes to Christian Doctrine, Teaching, and so on. This is believed for numerous reasons. One such reason is that Protestants believe the Bible itself says and proves that it is the only infallible authority; in other words, the Bible proves the Bible’s authority.
This a very bold declaration to make that drastically affects the Christian way of life. There are very few questions more important than this one. Is the Bible truly the only infallible authority? The answer to this question means a great deal to anybody and everybody that professes to be a Christian, for it affects the way we approach nearly every other Doctrine and belief that we hold.
So what is that truth? Well, one can certainly agree with our Protestant brothers and sisters that the Bible is an infallible source of authority. The disagreement comes with the idea that the Bible is the only infallible source of authority.
Why, then, is Sola Scriptura ungrounded? There are a few answers that theologians have given over the years. But there is one in particular that should be focused on, and that is the question of the Canon of the Bible.
If Sola Scriptura says that Sacred Scripture is the only infallible authority for salvation, then it is perfectly logical and necessary for one to ask: what makes up Sacred Scripture? We must, after all, know the contents of what we are talking about before we can determine if it is truly infallible or not.
“Well the Bible does,” a Protestant might answer in response. “The 66 books that make up the Bible are the ones that are authoritative. They claim their inspiration for themselves.”
Sidestepping the issue of how many books truly belong in the Bible, one response to this might be that even if certain books claim to be inspired by God that cannot be our sole criteria for determining what books are Sacred, for there were many books a couple of millennia ago that claimed the same status and yet would not be considered today as Sacred Scripture, such as the Gnostic Gospels (The Gospel of Thomas, for example, claimed inspiration for being written by St. Thomas the Apostle, even though this has been proven to be untrue). I could write a book now and say somewhere within it that it is completely infallible, God-breathed, and is part of the Canon of Scripture; but that in no way makes said book part of the actual Canon.
The only way to get around this is to say that the Scriptures are different because they are the books that are actually inspired by God. The problem with this form of thinking is that it assumes the very conclusion that one is trying to argue for. This is what is known in logic as ‘begging the question.’ To ‘beg the question’ is to assume the very point one is trying to prove. So for the statement ‘I know what is in the Canon of Sacred Scripture because the Sacred Scriptures say they are Sacred Scripture’ to work it must already be implying within the argument itself that the Scriptures as we understand them now should be part of the Canon; but that is the very issue that one is trying to prove. As a result, the argument is invalid.
Another response might be that the early Christians knew what books belonged in the Bible. Assuming that this is true (though it isn’t), there are still two problems here: a) it is unknown as to why this criteria is a truly valid reason to accept these books (why does the opinion of the early Christians matter at all? A reason needs to be given).
But even more importantly, b) this argument actually contradicts the very Doctrine of Sola Scriptura.
If any other source outside of the Bible is the criteria for deciding what books belong in the Bible, then wouldn’t that reasoning ultimately put those outside sources up on the level of or above the level of Sacred Scripture? After all, one can say all they want concerning Scripture being infallible and unerring, but seeing as how it is illogical to prove from Scripture alone exactly what books make up Scripture (as we have seen above) one has to use some sort of outside source (early Christians, one’s church, etc) to determine what books should be considered as Sacred Scripture. However, if something other than Sacred Scripture determines what is Sacred Scripture then that something has power that Scripture does not have; in fact, not only does it have power that Scripture does not have, but it has power that, in a sense, controls Scripture; it controls it in the sense that it is ultimately the determiner of what is to be considered Scripture and thus determines the fate of this outcome of infallible books. It would be, as Tom Brown in his article on the same topic called it, a ‘canon above the canon’ of Scripture.
So if this were to be put in syllogism form it would go something like this:
- Sola Scriptura, by definition, requires all sources and forms of authority other than the Bible to be subordinate to the authority of the Bible due to the Bible’s sole infallibility
- The Bible cannot determine, in and of itself, what books constitute the Bible
- Thus, another source or authority other than the Bible must be used to determine what books constitute the Bible
- Any source or authority that determines which books belong in the Bible must have equal or greater authority in order to do so
- Therefore, Sola Scriptura is false
Now the above example of early Christian acceptance is just one of numerous tests for the sole infallibility of the books of the Bible that Protestants use; others do exist, such as the idea that only those books attested to by the Apostles in one way or another are part of Sacred Scripture, or that the inward testimony of the Holy Spirit guides one to know which books truly belong. But the point is that regardless of what those tests are they all force Sola Scriptura to fall because they all, by their very nature, put themselves on equal footing with or above Sacred Scripture in relation to matters of salvation and authority, which is contradictory to the very notion of Sola Scriptura.
Logically speaking, there are only two possible ways to address this. One of them is to admit, ‘Okay, your argument makes sense. But what if the Canon of the Bible is simply an exception to the rule? All other doctrines and teachings can be figured out from Scripture alone, but simply not this one, but that’s okay because this is merely an exception to the general rule of Sola Scriptura.’
The problem here is that there is no good reason to justify it as being an exception. If there is an exception to the rule then there must be a reason why the exception is an exception. This is what is known as an ad hoc fallacy, where one simply states an exception or a change in the argument without having a justifiable reason for the exception or change, and this would be done only to avoid the conclusion laid out by the opponent. In this case, there is no reason given as to why the Canon of the Bible does not or should not be included under the rules of Sola Scriptura like every other Christian doctrine and teaching; thus the person who posits such a position is doing so not because there is a good reason to do so but merely to avoid the conundrum that was just provided in the above argument against Sola Scriptura.
It should be noted that the above-stated extra-biblical reasons also imply ad hoc reasoning, which is what makes them illogical in the first place.
The second way to get around the conclusion is to ‘bite the bullet’ and admit, ‘Yes, I must agree that there is no way to know for certain which books belong in the Bible by Scripture alone; but all the other arguments that are not as authoritative as Sacred Scripture (i.e. prophecy, early Christian testimony, etc) can still help in determining which books should be part of the Canon; they just cannot determine for certain if the books truly belong in the Bible or not. In other words we have ‘a fallible list of infallible books’’.
Such a position is not unheard of, as it is held by the Protestant theologian R.C. Sproul for instance. This position must certainly be praised for its consistency. However, the major and obvious flaw in such an argument is that if we have a fallible list of infallible books then what does that do to our faith? For it is entirely possible on this reasoning alone that all the books in the Bible are not really inspired by God, or that there are multiple books of the Bible missing that should be included in the Canon. In other words, if anything should be and needs to be infallible it is not just the books themselves but the list of books as well, for without an infallible list the idea of having infallible Scripture becomes a moot point.
Using the Protestants’ own beliefs, then, it is logically impossible to determine for certain what the Canon of the Bible is, at least not without outside help. And without that the whole idea of Sola Scriptura, and with it the Protestant faith itself, is rendered illogical.