Why Not the Bible Alone?

My Protestant friends all subscribe to the doctrine of “Bible Alone” (aka Sola Scriptura). Their claim is we shouldn’t believe anything unless it is found in the Bible.

As Catholics, we agree with them that the Bible is the word of God, and that the Bible is inerrant. But we hold to a doctrine of Prima Scriptura, which holds that Scripture is the primary, inspired source of doctrine, but that it is not the only source – sacred Tradition and the Magisterium have a role in understanding Scripture and defining doctrine.

Ironically, when asked where the doctrine of Sola Scriptura is found in the Bible most Protestants will freely admit that the notion is not found in the Bible, but they believe it anyway. So their whole mind set is based on the very real “traditions of men” that they are condemning as “unbiblical.” It can be very frustrating to talk to people like that.

As an argument against Sola Scriptura, I have heard people (notably Tim Staples and other apologists on the Catholic Answers Live radio show) describe how Jesus, in Matthew 18:15-17 states that the Church, not Scripture, is the final arbiter.

 15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britain). (1994). The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Catholic edition (Mt 18:15–17). New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA.)

According to Haydock’s Catholic commentary

Ver. 17. Tell the church. This not only shews the order of fraternal correction, but also every man’s duty in submitting to the judgment of the Church. Wi.—There cannot be a plainer condemnation of those who make particular creeds, and will not submit the articles of their belief to the judgment of the authority appointed by Christ. A. (Haydock, G. L. (1859). Haydock’s Catholic Bible Commentary (Mt 18:17). New York: Edward Dunigan and Brother.)

But I have never found this effective, because Protestant commentary has interpreted the words differently.

First off, the notion of “sin” is taken privately (i.e. one person has done wrong to another) rather than sin as “error.” Secondly, “Church” is taken to mean “community of believers” or “an appointed magistrate” or even translated as “the multitude.” They point out that any “church” mentioned couldn’t be the Church as Catholics understand it because that church did not exist, overlooking the fact that Jesus had, in fact, established the Church two chapters earlier, in Matthew 16:18.

Another way to approach the issue is to ask “Why believe the Bible at all?” Many Protestants have no answer to that. Some will say “because it’s God’s word” but that leads to the question “how do you know that?” Because you can’t answer “the Bible says so” without getting into some shaky circular reasoning. If the answer is “my heart tells me” or “the spirit lead me to it” or some such we are in Mormon territory, because Mormon’s claim that they know the Book of Mormon is true because the spirit gives them a feeling – “But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.”

So there are really only two logical answers to the question “Why believe the Bible?” First is the reliability of the person who told it to you, the second is based on your own research.

In the first case, I ask “Who is that person?” Sometimes it is a parent, or a friend, or a pastor. But if you follow that chain “Why did they believe the Bible?” you inevitably get to the Catholic Church. If you do your research you get to the same point. Yes, I will concede that the Old testament existed before the Catholic Church, but the New Testament books are there because the Catholic Church decided they should be there. There is no getting around that issue.

There are people out there who will argue that Paul shouldn’t really be in there, or James, or Peter – all arguments based on them not liking the theology expressed by those authors – but by and large everyone agrees that the Bible is the Bible. So there are two possibilities. Either the Catholic Church is a reliable source for the faith – more reliable than the Bible, because how can you trust a document any more than the source which gave it to you – or the Catholic Church is not reliable in terms of faith, but got this right, either through good scholarship or God’s providence.

Some will argue that the Catholic Church was once the Church Christ founded, but then went off the rails, and they will give you various dates and reasons for it (Constantine seems to be a big player in this question). Either way, we still haven’t demonstrated conclusively why the Catholic Church is trustworthy (or “Biblical”). That’s a topic I will save for another post, as this one is getting long and I’m just getting started.

Copyright © 2014, Michael Lindner

Michael Lindner

Michael Lindner

Mike is a scouter, a science geek, a dad, a husband and a Catholic. He earns a living as a software engineer in beautiful New Jersey. In his spare time (ha ha) he muses at his blog What Does Mike Think? He is not a writer (which will be painfully obvious after reading his posts) but feels called to apologetics and evangelization anyway. You have been warned.

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