An Orthodox Response to Sola Scriptura

I am often engaged in conversation with Protestants and Evangelicals of various different backgrounds, and almost invariably the discussion will come down to a difference of opinion about authority. In one form of words or another we will be asking each other – on what basis do you believe what you say you believe? With what authority do you confess the faith that you are presenting?

This was one of the questions that led to my very earliest steps away from Evangelicalism over thirty years ago. There was an issue which developed in my local evangelical congregation and I started trying to understand how it had been dealt with and with what authority the leadership in the congregation had acted.

It is a question that requires asking. There is no problem at all in Evangelicals asking it of Orthodox. If we do not know the authority for our faith then we have no foundation for embracing it. But equally reasonably, it is proper to ask of Evangelicals why they hold to a variety of different views about almost every aspect of Christianity and on what basis any particular view is given weight.

In this presentation I want to consider one Protestant and Evangelical doctrine which almost always has some relevance in discussion about the Christian Faith. It is the doctrine or teaching often called sola scriptura, or by scripture alone. What does it mean? It means essentially that the Bible must be the authoritative source of doctrine and practice. This perhaps sounds very reasonable, we would all want to insist that the Scriptures are authoritative. But it means more than that. It means that what a person finds themselves in the Scriptures is the basis and content of the Christian message and nothing else.

The problem with such a definition is that what is being given authority is not the Scripture but a person’s interpretation of Scripture. Evangelicals do not read the words of Christ, this is my body, and find in it the doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. But all Christians for the first 1500 years of the Church read the account of the Last Supper and understood it in exactly that way. Were all Christians entirely wrong when they read the Scripture and interpreted it in such a way for 1500 years, and when all Orthodox and Catholics continue to do so? On what basis can the Evangelical rejection of this universal interpretation be considered authoritative? It is surely the same Scripture which is being read, and all that differs is the interpretation given to passages such as this.

And the variety of opinions is not only found between Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism but within Evangelicalism itself. When a personal opinion is given supreme authority, which is what sola scriptura must ultimately stand for, then it is very easy to understand how tens of thousands of modern protestant groups can spring into existence. If every pastor and church leader is equally able to teach the truth directly from their own reading of Scripture then how is it possible to suggest they are wrong.

Sola Scriptura developed as a response to what was seen in the 15th/16th century as a corrupt Roman Catholic Church. If the Church was considered to no longer be living and teaching the Christian life in its fullness and purity then it could no longer be represented as speaking with the authority of God, even if it claimed such authority. How could a sincere and committed Christian come to a knowledge of the truth if the Church was in error? Martin Luther proposed that the answer was to turn directly to the Scriptures and find within them the unadulterated Christianity that the Roman Catholic Church had distorted.

He said…

… A simple layman armed with Scripture is to be believed above a pope or a council without it.…Neither the Church nor the pope can establish articles of faith. These must come from Scripture. For the sake of Scripture we should reject pope and councils..

Now perhaps when Luther read the Bible he felt confident that he had understood it correctly, indeed he was willing to insist that his own opinion had more authority in his thinking than that of anyone else. He says…

I will confidently confess what appears to me to be true, whether it has been asserted by a Catholic or a heretic, whether it has been approved or reproved by a council.

So what does Luther mean? He surely means that whatever appears to him to be true will be insisted upon, even if others disagree, even if others have always disagreed. And that even a simple layman, picking up the Bible for themselves, and seeking to understand it will come to a greater understanding of the truth than through obedience and submission to the tradition and teaching of the Church.

Of course the problem with such a view is that if I pick up the Scripture and develop an understanding of some doctrine, what happens if in fact I am wrong? There seems little scope in Luther’s view for dealing with misunderstanding and error. This is understandable when we think of Luther defending himself against the weight of Roman Catholic Church tradition and authority. He is essentially saying, I am so sure that I have discovered true Christianity in my reading of Scripture that nothing will shake my opinion.

But not everyone was Luther, and once the door was opened to the elevation of personal opinion to a supreme authority, because this is what sola scriptura means, then the opinion of a simple layman really did come to be the basis for faith, even if this was not what Luther entirely intended.

Luther held to a relatively traditional view of the Eucharist, and of the Scriptures which had always been considered as teaching it. He believed that Christ was truly and really present in the Eucharist. He says for instance…

Of this Sacrament of the Altar, we hold that the bread and wine in the Supper are the true body and blood of Christ, and are given to, and received by, not only the pious, but also to and by the impious Christians.

Now this presentation is not about the doctrine of the Eucharist in particular, but this is a useful means of understanding that as soon as the idea of the supreme authority of personal interpretation of Scripture was introduced it also introduced different authoritative interpretations. Luther had read the New Testament and discovered the ancient and Orthodox understanding of the Eucharist there. Indeed his followers stated in their own confession of Faith…

We believe, teach, and confess that in the Lord’s Supper the body and blood of Christ are truly and substantially present, and that they are truly distributed and taken together with the bread and wine.

There were others who followed Luther in his rejection of an authority beyond his own personal interpretation of Scripture. One of the leading figures was Ulrich Zwingli, a Swiss Protestant. His personal interpretation of Scripture was much more radical than even Martin Luther. He denied that Christ was present materially in the Eucharist and insisted that it was only a symbolic and spiritual representation. He said that since the human nature of Christ could not be present in all places it was not possible to say that the bread and wine offered on the altar could materially become that body and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Within a very short space of time there was an even greater variety of views among these early Protestants on the doctrine of the Eucharist. There were at least four different and contradictory Protestant views even while Luther and Zwingli were alive. Each of those proposing these different views was certain that they were doing no more than reading the Scriptures and explaining what it obviously meant.

Luther’s followers, for instance, held to a view which was close to that of the Roman Catholic Church and insisted..

We believe, teach, and confess that the words of the Testament of Christ are not to be understood otherwise than as the words themselves literally sound, so that the bread does not signify the absent body of Christ, and the wine the absent blood of Christ, but that on account of the sacramental union the bread and wine are truly the body and blood of Christ.

But Zwingli, though willing to agree that Christ is spiritually present in the Eucharist, as he is spiritually present in all places, absolutely denied that Christ was physically and materially present in the bread and wine so that it was truly his own body and blood. He says..

But the very body of Christ is the body which is seated at the right hand of God, and the sacrament of his body is the bread, and the sacrament of his blood is the wine, of which we partake with thanksgiving. Now the sign and the thing signified cannot be one and the same. Therefore the sacrament of the body of Christ cannot be the body itself.

There were even other views, which I will not consider here, which proposed that the Eucharist was only a memorial, a reminder of the passion of Christ. But what all had in common was a definite belief that the contradictory doctrine of the Eucharist which was confessed was the one which was plainly found in the Scriptures. The same teaching of Sola Scriptura was promoted by Luther, Zwingli and the other early Protestants. It was presented as the only proper means of determining the substance of the Christian message, but at the very beginning of the so-called Reformation, using the same method, several mutually incompatible understandings of the Eucharist had arisen.

Luther found the material and substantial presence of Christ in the Eucharist when he read the Scriptures. But Zwingli denied this interpretation and was just as insistent that his opinion was validated by Scripture. He says..

We ourselves…  have shown quite clearly that in the teaching brought before us in John 6:43 when Christ referred to eating his flesh and drinking his blood he simply meant believing in him as the one who has given his flesh and blood for our redemption and the cleansing of our sins.

What does this mean? It surely means that the Protestant teaching of Sola Scriptura does not produce what it promises. It has never produced what it promises. It was introduced as a means of discovering an authority apart from the Roman Catholic Church, and as a means of determining the substance of the Christian Faith free from all human error and directly from the words of the Scriptures.

But it can only ever actually represent the interpretations and opinions of those reading the Bible. If Luther and Zwingli were both absolutely committed to rejecting the perceived errors of the Roman Catholic Church, and both were absolutely committed to allowing the Bible to speak for itself, how is it that using the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, they came up with mutually incompatible and irreconcilable teachings on the Eucharist, and indeed on other important doctrines as well. And this was not a difference of opinion that developed slowly over centuries, it was right there at the beginning of Protestantism.

How could it be otherwise? Sola Scriptura does not mean treating the Bible as important, it means, unavoidably, treating particular interpretations and opinions of the Bible as supremely important. This is what Luther and Zwingli were doing. Luther read the Bible and thought it meant one thing, Zwingli read the same Bible and was sure it meant something entirely different.

Over the last four hundred years Protestants have continued to read the Bible and produce an even greater variety of teachings, while all insist that their contradictory teachings are the result of simply reading the Scriptures. Now of course if the doctrine of sola scriptura had brought about a uniformity of interpretation, if almost all Protestants believed the same things, then this would be strong evidence that the Bible could and should simply be studied by all people independently and that it would reveal the same truth to all. But as we have seen, even in the first generation of Protestantism in the 16th century this method of interpreting Scripture led immediately to division and contradiction, and not to any sort of doctrinal unity.

Sola Scriptura does not work. But in fact there are reasons why this is so.

In the first place the early Church did not have a Bible with which to practice sola scriptura. There was no New Testament as we understand it today throughout the first century. The Gospels were not written down immediately. This does not mean that they are not accurate accounts of the life of Christ, but the Synoptic Gospels, those of St Matthew, Mark and Luke were probably composed by the mid-60s of the first century, while that of St John not until the end of the first century. He lived until about 100 AD and was the teacher of many of the early Church leaders. The letters of St Paul were not sent to their respective audiences until the same period but before his own martyrdom in about 67 AD. These were not sent out for general distribution but were sent to particular communities and addressed particular issues. Many of them were intended to be read in neighbouring communities, and from an early period there must have been collections of some of these letters, and the Gospels as they became more widely available.

But hardly any of the local congregations of Christians, even by the end of the first century, would have had all of the Gospels and Letters in their little Church library. And it is almost impossible to believe that any individual could have accumulated all that became the official and canonical New Testament. There was, in fact, for some time, a discrepancy in various places between the list of books and letters that were considered authoritative. No great difference. But in some places the Book of Revelation was slow to be accepted, and in other places the Book of Hebrews was disputed. Generally speaking the early Christians valued the same Books and Letters, but none had access to the New Testament as we expect to read and study it today.

How was it possible for these earliest Christians to understand and live out the Christian life if the Bible is the supreme authority, and in the sense we mean the Bible today it did not exist then? It was because the Bible was not the supreme authority at all, even though all of the Gospels and Letters were of very great value and importance. The authority in the early Church was the ministry of the Holy Spirit acting in and through the Apostles, their disciples and the bishops they established to continue their ministry in every place.

When St Paul visited a town and established a new missionary community there, he did not leave a copy of the Bible and invite the new Christians to read it for themselves and decide what it meant. On the contrary, he left a way of life which he had taught them himself, and he left a hermeneutic, a way of understanding the Old Testament, which followed his own instruction and was not intended as an alternative to it. He did not invite them to discover Christianity for themselves as they read the Old Testament and create their own unique interpretation. On the contrary, he was insistent that they must always follow what he had taught them, and any reading of Scripture, which of course meant the Old Testament at first, was to be consistent with his teaching, not their own opinions.

St Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:1-2..

Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you.

And in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 he says..

So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.

The basis of the early life of the Christian community was therefore not sola scriptura, but a commitment to the Christian message, the tradition, which had been handed on to them by St Paul and the other Apostolic ministers. Nor was this only a temporary thing, as if once the New Testament was available, and in fact it was never available in the way we have it today, as if once it was available Christians were expected to start reading and deciding for themselves what was the substance of the Christian message.

We can see this easily from an account of the life of St Polycarp, one of the most famous Church leaders in the early second century. He was Bishop of Smyrna, and became a martyr. In his earlier life he had been a disciple of St John the Apostle and learned the Christian Faith from him. His own disciple. Irenaeus of Lyons, another famous bishop, who had sat at the feet of St Polycarp himself, writes about him and says…

But Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried on earth a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true.

We see here that St Polycarp is recommended for having learned his faith from the Apostles and their disciples, and then for only passing on those things which he had heard from them, neither adding nor taking away. And it is this Apostolic teaching which St Irenaeus, writing towards the end of the second century, was personally committed to passing on himself, and which he saw the Church around him in every place passing on.

St Paul tells his spiritual children to be sure to believe what he has taught them, and the disciples of the Apostles, such as St Polycarp listened and learned from the Apostles. And their own disciples, well into the second century of the early Church, followed this same methodology. Not reading whatever Scriptures they had to hand and deciding for themselves what the Christian message meant. But passing on what they had learned from the Apostles as a living Gospel.

The New Testament Scriptures confirmed this Apostolic message, they did not replace it. Sola Scriptura was therefore unknown to the early Church. There was no Scripture at the beginning to give supreme authority to, and for the first centuries the supreme authority was not given to a text, but to the Apostolic and teaching ministry in the Church. First of all to the Apostles and their Apostolic colleagues, and then to the Bishops in every place, as they were ordained by the Apostles to continue their ministry in the local community.

But it is also the case that sola scriptura could never work because the Bible is neither a guide to systematic theology, nor is it always easy to understand properly. We have already seen this from the fact that the first Protestants disagreed completely with each other, though they all believed they were simply reading the Bible and teaching what it said.

If God had intended the Bible to be a comprehensive guide to Christianity then he could quite easily have inspired the authors in such a way that it was a formal textbook. We would be able to start at the beginning and by the time we reached the end we would know all that there was to know and all that was necessary for us to know. But this is not what the Scriptures are at all.

In the first place, the Gospels are a selection of episodes from the life and ministry of Christ. John 21:25 tells us..

Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.

There were many other sayings of our Lord. Many other parables. Many other explanations of what he meant. Many other miracles. But the Gospel writers were inspired to compile and edit a certain selection in each of their Gospels, with a particular audience and purpose in mind. In so many passages in the Gospel we ask ourselves what our Lord meant, and the meaning is not always clear. It was not always clear at the time to his own disciples, as they often confess, why should we expect it to be clear to us? The fact that Luther and Zwingli had a violent disagreement surely indicates that the Scriptures are not a simple textbook that explain comprehensively and simply what Christianity stands for.

The Ethiopian eunuch was a man seeking after God. Surely the Holy Spirit was with him and guiding him. We read in Acts 8:30-31 that St Philip joined him in his chariot…

Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked. “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.

Here is a man seriously seeking God and yet he admits that the Scriptures are not clear to him. But we are warned about developing our own interpretations of Scripture in the Scriptures themselves, and this passage in the Acts of the Apostles is hardly added just as an interesting event, but because it says something about how we understand the Gospel.

St Peter in his Letters warns against personal interpretation. And speaking of the Letters of St Paul he says…

His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.

Now if the Apostles themselves point out that Scripture is not always easy to understand, and that it is not for personal interpretation, and that we can find ourselves distorting its meaning, then clearly sola scriptura is not a teaching they support. Indeed the Apostles insist that they are passing on an entire tradition, a comprehensive way of life and faith, and not simply producing a text which others can make of as they choose or feel led.

It has often been noted that sola scriptura is not found in the Scriptures. St Paul repeats many times that it is his teaching which is to be held fast, and it can hardly mean only the letters which he wrote since they deal with particular situations and cannot be called comprehensive at all. He tells the Thessalonians to hold fast to what he has taught them in word and letter, but his letters to them are only a few pages in length. They have gained their knowledge of the Christian message from his personal presence with them, and the communication of the Gospel from his own mouth.

Of course this does not mean that the Letters of St Paul, and the Gospels, and the other content of the New Testament, was not highly valued from the very beginning. It was the importance of these writings which led to other texts being excluded. One very popular early document was the Shepherd of Hermas, it was considered almost worthy of inclusion in the New Testament, but the fact that its author was not an Apostle and was of the generation after the Apostles, led to it being excluded, though remaining often read.

But the New Testament witnessed and confirmed what was taught everywhere by the early Church from the beginning. It did not create their Faith, much less was it subject to local interpretation so that different teachings could all be based on the same Scripture. St Irenaeus, writing in the second half of the second century notes that…

The Church having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, carefully preserves it… For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, or in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor in Egypt, nor in Libya… For the faith is one and the same.

Now this was the case when there was no thought of every man reading the Bible and determining what it meant, nor even every bishop or Church leader. At this time, as St Irenaeus writes elsewhere, the concern was to pass on faithfully the Apostolic teaching which had been received. With this principle there was unity and uniformity of faith. But as soon as the principle of sola scriptura was introduced there was division and an ever increasing variety of contradictory teachings.

Why are there tens of thousands of Protestant groups? It is essentially because the doctrine of sola scriptura leads to the fragmentation of communities and not to unity. Once it is accepted that with Luther we can read the Scripture and insist that we have understood it correctly, even if everyone else disagrees, then there is no basis for unity. And in our modern and individualistic age the problem of personal interpretation of Scripture becomes worse and not better.

Now it might be said that Protestants are not interpreting the Scripture simply for themselves but are following the interpretation provided by their pastor or Church leader. But this is, to a great extent, the same thing. As long as the interpretation of the pastor fits in with my own understanding then a person will remain a member of this group. But if the individual’s  views change then they will join another group. This is a universal experience and practice among Protestants.

Does the Holy Spirit not guide people into a proper understanding? Well we have already seen that the Ethiopian eunuch needed someone to come and teach him. His own interpretation was not enough. But we have also seen that the early Church led by the Apostles never gave any support to the idea that we should read the Scriptures ourselves in the power of the Holy Spirit and would come to the truth. If we consider the words of Christ, he says in John 16…

I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth.

Now our Lord Jesus is speaking to the Apostles. This is not a promise that we can claim for ourselves as being especially guided by the Holy Spirit apart from the Apostles. This passage says that the Lord Jesus wishes to teach the Apostles more, and that he will accomplish this when the Holy Spirit comes upon them. It is the Holy Spirit that will guide the Apostles into all truth.

This is the basis for the early Church considering the Apostolic testimony to be the supreme authority and not any texts, however important. The Holy Spirit was promised to lead a group of people into truth, not primarily to write a book. And this is what history reveals to us in the experience of the early Christians. They were people who were committed to the message and life they were taught, and not to the texts which bore witness to that message and life. This is why the word tradition is used so often. It is the Christian life passed on in its entirety, and this life includes the texts of the New Testament but is not limited to them, nor are they the supreme authority as if they existed apart from this life passed on.

Certainly the Holy Spirit will lead us into truth, but surely not if we abandon and reject the witness of the Apostles to whom this promise was essentially and primarily made. We can only properly understand the Scriptures when we read them in the Apostolic community in which they were written. When we read them apart from the Apostles and the Apostolic community, as if it was a neutral and transparent text that would always teach the same things, then like Luther and Zwingli, and the hundreds and thousands of other Protestants, all insisting on contrary interpretations, we will deceive ourselves.

Sola Scriptura does not work. It has never worked and is not a Scriptural principle. But reading Scripture in the Apostolic community continues to bring about illumination and unity of understanding. This is how Scripture was intended to be understood and this is how the Christians who were disciples of the Apostles always used it. We are not to pick up Scripture and ask what we think it means, nor listen to the interpretation of someone outside the Orthodox and Apostolic Church. But we are to ask ourselves how the Church has always understood the Scripture, and what it has always taught as the substance and content of our Faith, and in such a way we will be rooted in the Apostolic Faith for our salvation.


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