A Brief Theology and History of Sola Scriptura and the Roman Catholic Church
For the Reformers, sola scriptura did not mean that the church and its official summaries of Scripture (creeds, confessions, catechisms, and decisions in wider assemblies) had no authority. Rather, it meant that their ministerial authority was dependent entirely on the magisterial authority of Scripture. Scripture is the master; the church is the minister.
The following theses summarize some of the issues that people should wrestle with before embracing a Roman Catholic perspective on authority.
- The Reformers did not separate sola scriptura (by Scripture alone) from solo Christo (Christ alone), sola gratia (by grace alone), sola fide (through faith alone). As Herman Bavinck said, “Faith in Scripture rises or falls with faith in Christ.” Revealed from heaven, the gospel message itself (Christ as the central content of Scripture) is as much the basis for the Bible’s authority as the fact that it comes from the Father through the inspiration of the Spirit. Jesus Christ, raised on the third day, certified his divine authority. Furthermore, he credited the Old Testament writings as “scripture,” equating the words of the prophets with the very word of God himself and commissioned his apostles to speak authoritatively in his name. Their words are his words; those who receive them also receive the Son and the Father. So Scripture is the authoritative Word of God because it comes from the unerring Father, concerning the Son, in the power of the Spirit. Neither the authority of the Bible nor that of the church can stand apart from the truth of Christ as he is clothed in his gospel.
- Every covenant is contained in a canon (like a constitution). The biblical canon is the norm for the history of God’s saving purposes in Christ under the old and new covenants. The Old Testament canon closed with the end of the prophetic era, so that Jesus could mark a sharp division between Scripture and the traditions of the rabbis (Mk 7:8). The New Testament canon was closed at the end of the apostolic era, so that even during that era the Apostle Paul could warn the Corinthians against the “super-apostles” by urging, “Do not go beyond what is written” (1 Co 4:6). While the apostles were living, the churches were to “maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you” (1 Co 11:2), “…either by our spoken word or by our letter” (2 Th 2:15). There were indeed written and unwritten traditions in the apostolic church, but only those that eventually found their way by the Spirit’s guidance into the New Testament are now for us the apostolic canon. The apostles (extraordinary ministers) laid the foundation and after them workers (ordinary ministers) build on that foundation (1 Co 3:10). The apostles could appeal to their own eye-witness, direct, and immediate vocation given to them by Christ, while they instructed ordinary pastors (like Timothy) to deliver to others what they had received from the apostles. As Calvin noted, Rome and the Anabaptists were ironically similar in that they affirmed a continuing apostolic office. In this way, both in effect made God’s Word subordinate to the supposedly inspired prophets and teachers of today.
- Just as the extraordinary office of prophets and apostles is qualitatively distinct from that of ordinary ministers, the constitution (Scripture) is qualitatively distinct from the Spirit-illumined but non-inspired courts (tradition) that interpret it. Thus, Scripture is magisterial in its authority, while the church’s tradition of interpretation is ministerial.
To embrace these theses, he argues, is to embrace sola Scriptura. From here Horton provides a brief history overview, especially with regard to the Roman Catholic Church. His points can be summarized as follows:
- The view summarized above is what we find in the church fathers.
- Roman Catholic scholars acknowledge that the early Christian community in Rome was not unified under a single head.
- Ancient Christian leaders of the East gave special honor to the bishop of Rome, but considered any claim of one bishop’s supremacy to be an act of schism.
- Nevertheless, building on the claims of Roman bishops Leo I and Galsius in the 5th century, later bishops of Rome did claim precisely this “proud address.”
- Papal pretensions contributed to the Great Schism in 1054, when the churches of the East formally excommunicated the Church of Rome, and the pope reacted in kind.
- The Avignon Papacy (1309-76) relocated the throne to France and was followed by the Western Schism (1378-1417), with three rival popes excommunicating each other and their sees.
- Medieval debates erupted over whether Scripture, popes, or councils had the final say.
- Papal claims were only strengthened in reaction to the Reformation, all the way to the promulgation of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council in 1870.
- Rome argues that an infallible canon needs an infallible interpreter.
- Those of us who remain Reformed must examine the Scriptures and the relevant arguments before concluding that Rome’s claims are not justified and its teaching is at variance with crucial biblical doctrines.
- Rome’s ambitious claims are tested by its faithfulness to the gospel.
You can read the whole thing here.