No matter what we actually say, we all behave as if Sola Scriptura is true. This is obvious in that there is a qualitative difference how we treat the words of Scriptures versus that of the words of ecclesiastical documents or theologians.

For any piece of ecclesiastical document or writing of a past Father, it is always a possible move to say that “Well, he’s wrong”, while this move is categorically denied to the Scriptures. That is, it is impossible to say that what the Scriptures says is wrong, while it is always a possible move to say that some theologian or church document is wrong. And of course, if for any Father or Church document, it is possible for us to judge that it has erred, then they are by definition not infallible, that is impossible for it to err, but fallible instead.

Of course, the first move of a high church Christian, when one cites some church document or Father which contradicts his claims, is always to ask what does this piece “really” mean, often a rather tedious exercise in logomachy and nitpicking (and a somewhat ironic activity in that the appeal to traditional documents is meant to resolve problems of interpreting the Bible now ends up having interpretative difficulties of their own!), with very little returns to show for it.

But eventually when one is truly backed into a corner, like in the case of St Thomas Aquinas or St Bernard of Clairvaux denying the infallible dogmas of the Immaculate Conception, they would then admit that they were in fact wrong.

In short, the phrase “the Church is infallible” is a somewhat vacuous statement without identifying exactly where this infallible Church is. Councils have arisen throughout the history of the Church and have been revoked by subsequent councils, the Fathers have contradicted each other and contradicted councils, and canonised Doctors of Theology have been known to err, even by their own standards.

Perhaps the only consistent claim to infallibility is that of Papal infallibility. While of course we may grant that there are certain times in the Church of Rome’s history whereby a dogma is clearly infallible, such as the Marian dogmas and the definition of infallibility itself, the ambiguities sets in beyond these borders. Some extend the infallibility to “ecumenical councils”, or to “certain” documents of the teaching Magisterium (although which documents depends upon a host of mutable conditions which shifts from Catholic theologian to Catholic theologian), others simply restrict the infallible pronouncements to the Marian dogmas and papal infallibility.

In short, the “Church” which is supposedly infallible, the patrum consensus or sacred tradition which is supposedly a source of divine revelation, are entities which boundaries are constantly gerrymandered to suit the theological conclusions of their interlocutor. The Church is infallible, except when it is not, we believe the patrum consensus, but there is no consensus as to what they are. We demand that Protestants prove that the Fathers taught this, except for when the Fathers didn’t mention our doctrine in which case it “developed”. Rather than admit outright that councils, canonised theologians and Fathers can and have erred and have contradicted their present teachings, or that their present teachings can’t be found in the early church, the high church advocate would rather take the challenger on a fantastic merry go round of trying to reconcile their writings and thoughts with their present claims and only when finally backed into a corner (which occurs only after the most tedious examination and arguments about their texts), they would then simply shrug and admit that they were fallible and wrong but their claims still hold!

Functionally, we are all Sola Scripturists, in that we all do believe that the Scriptures alone are infallible, everything else is fallible, and can and have erred. A council, Father or canonised Doctor of Theology is right, not because they are a council, Father or canonised Doctor of Theology, but because they speak the truth. To have been taught by an ecclesiastical council or theologians does not by itself prove one’s theological conclusions, at most it can tell us what a particular church believed at a particular moment. However Truth itself is always the judge of the Church, never the other way round. Protestants are saying what everyone is already practising.

This point, ironically, has already been noted by St Thomas Aquinas himself who wrote:

It should be noted that though many might write concerning Catholic truth, there is this difference: that those who wrote the canonical Scripture, the Evangelists and Apostles, and others of this kind, so constantly assert it that they leave no room for doubt. That is his meaning when he says ‘we know his testimony is true.’ Galatians 1:9, “If anyone preach a gospel to you other than that which you have received, let him be anathema!” The reason is that only canonical Scripture is a measure of faith. Others, however, so wrote of the truth that they should not be believed save insofar as they say true things.

-Thomas Aquinas, Lectures on the Gospel of John, ed. P. Raphaelis Cai, O.P., Editio V revisa (Romae: Marietti Editori Ltd., 1952) n. 2656, p. 488.

But of course, one can always retort that St Thomas Aquinas is here wrong. Again.

11 thought on “We all Behave like Sola Scriptura is True, Whether we Admit it or Not”
  1. I’m not so sure. The final frontier of all of this is the liminal question of canon. Thus, I believe Scripture is infallible, but what is Scripture? The answer “the Church wrote the Scriptures”, one is then faced with, again, the necessity to lay upon the ipse dixit of papal infallibility. I think Rome has enough inertia to not change, but it is, and always will be, two steps from the Episcopal Church’s recent statements, excising parts of Scripture out that are considered exclusive, homophobic, and misogynistic.

      1. This is a good start, but it doesn’t deal with the question of canon more basically. We see Scripture as the inscripturated word of Christ and His Apostles, but there was an awareness of what this meant when these books were collected and held-together. This is not democratic, nor should it be strictly historic (i.e. they were closer in time), but a question of canon, the “regula”, that many post-Apostolic fathers referenced time and time again. If we ask to locate the canon/rule, it exists in a threshhold, being both inside and outside of Scripture simultaneously. I think this should be the locus of discussion, saving a form of sola scriptura while maintaining the best of the arguments for tradition.

        Because the question that haunts all of these discussions is what makes up the number of books within Scripture? The lesser lights of reason and historical process are fine, but not primary. We don’t want to create a neo-magisterium of scholars shorn of their priestly robes. We need to appreciate the ‘how’ and the good of thinking about the contents of Scripture. Was Jerome right to agree with late 1c Rabbis in sheering off the “deuterocanonical”? Why do we not take Luther seriously when he wanted to eject James as “straw”? The latter, particularly, deals with a question of canon, but certainly Luther’s rule was not exactly the same as that of, say, Irenaeus or Tertullian.

        This is an epistemic question, though not purely one per Newman’s crisis. The saving knowledge of Jesus Christ is the canon by which we recognize the Master’s voice. Rome, in a sense, has changed this paradigm fundamentally. While they appreciate Scripture, they have relegated it as an outcropping of what is, essentially, ‘vox papa, vox dei’. They’ve basically collapsed apostolic authority into papal authority, and on that, at least systematically, they have become quasi-Chrisitans.


        1. It doesn’t deal with the question of canoncity because it wasn’t intended to. It was meant to deal with something else, the question of divine revelation more broadly conceived.

          The question canoncity maybe the question which may interest you and which you think is central or should be the locus, it is however not the question which I think should be the locus or focus nor was it meant to be in that article. We obviously cannot discuss everything within a single sitting, we need to address each issue piece-meal and bit by bit, and canonicty was not the bit addressed in that article.

          Furthermore I flatly deny that the question of canocity haunts all such discussions on these matters. We can discuss divine revelation without necessarily discussing the question of canocity or what how to engage in canoncity except indirectly. Furthermore I don’t know what it means to say that reason and historical processes are “lesser lights” or “primary”, again those are Cartesian foundationalist premises about the hierarchical ordering of knowledge into primary or secondary and so on and so forth down the line, premises which I firmly reject. Determining what books are canon is a historical question which reason is involved, full stop. Reason is involved in all theological thinking and there is no such ordering between different types of knowledge.

          As such, I don’t feel compelled to answer epistemological quandaries about ordering or primary or secondary knowledge because I don’t accept the premise upon which such questions are based. Furthermore, I don’t accept the idea that everything is connected to everything else. We can distinguish and segment various issues and propositions and deal with the merits of each on its own terms, not via some master epistemological principle or system.

      2. Obviously, no one can address everything in one post. My comment was, in essence, saying you’re going about it the wrong way, ignoring the deep concerns the post-Apostolic fathers engaged in with Scripture, authority, and heresy, and some explication on why. Not all epistemic questions are Cartesian, saying reason is involved in everything does mean much, and no one is making the claim that we need some master system for everything. So, a cute polemic isn’t getting us anywhere.

        I don’t mean this to sound harsh. I like a lot of your work, even when I don’t agree with it. I wish I could buy you a coffee and chat in person.


        1. I am going about a different way but so far you haven’t given me any reasons to believe that it is the wrong way. Secondly I said very clearly that you are enploying Cartesian foundationist *premises* not asking Cartesian questions. Thirdly I firmly maintain that my polemic is entirely serious and not merely cute and merely labelling it so is not a demonstration of the same.

  2. The question of canon is a question of content and method. This is what I meant by primacy of this viz. the unbreakable words of Scripture. A kind of Foundationalism is not necessarily Cartesian, nor does it intend to be a super system. How else do you understand the ‘regula fidei’ in the post-Apostolic fathers? Or the use of Baptismal creeds? Yes, I think this is more important for unraveling inter-confessional differences, and these were passing thoughts, and lack much substantiating argument.

    The ‘lesser lights’ comment was off-hand. Also, this post came up in my feed, I didn’t realize that it was many years old. I guess that explains more emphases on Barth in the newer post.

    1. In which case then I would make a broader point to reject all forms of foundationalism, Cartesian or otherwise. Furthermore I would argue that these are epistemological issues which doesn’t constitute core theological concerns. I can make first order claims to knowing particular claims without needing to address general second order epistemological claims of how I know that I know.

      As far as the rule of faith is concerned, it merely enunciates one standard as it were for evaluating theological claims, but it is hardly the foundation from which all theological claims are evaluated or determined.

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