Oops, I did it again. . .

And by ‘it’ I mean joined a conversation about the respective merits of Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. I don’t know how I keep doing this, but in for the penny is in for the pound so . . .

My friend, colleague and erstwhile fellow-protestant Rob Porwoll hopes to catch the unsavvy Protestant believer by pointing out a logical inconsistency in the doctrine of sola Scriptura. I’m just going to post the first half of his piece, because I don’t think there is a good way to link it.

Whether the Reformation doctrine of Sola Scriptura is logically or theologically tenable?

Clarification of the Question

SS as understood by the continental reformers, Luther and Calvin, is an umbrella category that subsumes several minor points necessary for the position. These minor points are articulated differently between Luther and Calvin and in different works, but roughly one finds:

a. “The Internal Perspicacity of Scripture” – That Scripture itself is not obscure but rather wholly or largely clear. Scripture illuminates itself by self-interpretation. (I will add my citations at some point. Luther dwells on this point on Bondage of the Will.)

b. “External Perspicacity of Scripture” or “The Priesthood of All Believers” – All Christians are in-dwelt by the Holy Spirit and illuminated so to understand and interpret the Scriptures, such that each believer can rightfully interpret doctrine from Scripture. (I want to emphasize this last point, as it is the crux of Protestant “epistemology” and the nub as well.)

c. Scripture is the Final and Only True Authority – Scripture is the only infallible source of revelation and is must be the final authority in all matters of doctrine. Further nothing ought to be believed as Christian doctrine except that which is found in or proven by Scripture.

d. Tradition: Tradition, for Luther and Calvin, was to be respected and continually mined for its insights into faith and praxis. Yet Scripture interprets and judges the ideas with tradition, not the other way around.

This is a sketch of how the Continental Reformers meant SS. We need not dwell, I think, on the subtle differences between the two or various formulations. I have stuck to what appear the essentials of the doctrine for the Protestant position in general.
Objections to the Doctrine:

1. Logical Objection from Internal Inconsistency

According the doctrine of SS (as from the above articulation)
1. If doctrine is not in Scripture, it ought not to be believed.
2. SS is not in Scripture
3. According to the doctrine of SS itself, SS ought not to be believed.

[Version 2 for the sake of argument.

1. One can believe no doctrine or tradition not present in Scripture
2. SS is a doctrine of Christian tradition.
3. The doctrine of SS is not present in Scripture.
4. According to the doctrine of SS itself, SS ought not to be believed.]

Thus, SS is internally inconsistent by fault of self-contradiction (which is symbolized: P —> – P, Self-contradiction, – P).

Thus, if [SS is to be believed] THEN [SS is NOT to be believed].

My response is to reject (1) in Rob’s argument because I don’t believe it gets at what the Reformers mean by sola scriptura, indeed, (1) seems much closer to the view the Reformers call ‘solo scriptura’ or ‘nuda scriptura’ which they expressly reject. This occasions the question how Rob derives the principle he expresses in premise (1) from the four characterizations of Protestant opinions about Scripture (a)-(d). In fact he does not derive it at all, (1) seems to me simply to repeat what he asserts in (c), namely that SS means that nothing ought to be believed except what is ‘taught in’ scripture.

I don’t think the Reformers would agree with this version of SS. Since Rob is the one charging Luther and Calvin with inconsistency, I think it is incumbent upon him to demonstrate textually where they adopt (c) or (1). (It wouldn’t surprise me if somewhere Luther actually does say something like that–he’s prone to overstatement and contradicting himself–but I would be surprised if Calvin did so.) I think it is unlikely that Luther or Calvin would support (c) simply because the doctrine of the Trinity is not taught in so many words in the scripture. We can make a distinction between what is taught explicitly and what is taught implicitly, but I’m not sure that really moves things forwards.


22 Responses to Oops, I did it again. . .

  1. robporwoll says:

    Wow! This discussion is zipping all about cyberspace! Well, I’ve tracked it here. I wonder where else it may appear. Hopefully back at my joint when it originated. = )

    I’ve already written a couple of time to protest because I do not think you are doing my entry justice. Now I feel that I have to defend myself, as if under the Inquisition. Hopefully this will let the conversation can move forward.

    You think I depict “solo” Scriptura rather than Sola Scriptura. This was not my intention. I realize the difference and so took the trouble to set forth what I mean in A)-D) the other points.
    I never claimed Premise 1 was derived from anything. The preceding material is a definition of the term SS. Naturally, I repeat the essential attributes of SS in my argument.

    Ironically, this situation is often reversed for me. I often find myself in the tricky situation of explaining the protestants that their view of SS (what we here call “solo”) is not actually the view of the Reformers, but a modern amnesia of tradition. You, among others, liken this form to “solo” or “nudo” Scriptura. Such is a straw-man of the Continental Reformers’ view and does not do them or the Reformation justice. This view I studied from the writings of Luther and Calvin in my own thinking on this matter.

  2. robporwoll says:

    You clearly do not like my premise formulation of:
    1) If doctrine is not in Scripture, it ought not to be believed.
    Perhaps it is simplistic (but it is a premise, not an explanation).

    But at what point do you disagree precisely? You have yet to point that out.
    Do you not agree that the Reformers used Scripture as criteria to judge tradition?
    Was not this judgment by whether Scripture could be cited to support or indicate or “prove” a doctrine?
    For example, purgatory, Transubstantiation, Episcopal authority: is it supported scripturally? The Councils and opinions of the Fathers: naturally venerable but still to be checked with Scripture.
    If you disagree with this, then please cite a doctrine Luther or Calvin advocated that they viewed as unsupported from Scripture.

  3. robporwoll says:

    (Of course, this is not to say SS means prohibiting everything Scripture does not allow or mention. Neither does this view a priori rule out doctrinal developments such as the Trinity or hypostatic union. These, of course, would be seen as derived from Scriptural thinking.)

    Finally, I would ask: How would you formulate Premise 1?
    There is clearly something about my phraseology, despite my repeated disclaimers, that sets your teeth on edge.

    Yet this is mostly all repeated. So far you haven’t responded my comments to this effect. Excuse me if I sound excessively defensive, but as I said before I feel I ought to pipe up. And I confess it is a little disconcerting to be posted elsewhere with the suggestion of making a fallacious argument.

  4. scholasticus says:

    @ Rob,

    I see I’ve been unclear. I’m not accusing you of fallacious reasoning, I just don’t think that you’ve captured the essence of SS because I don’t recognize my own position in what you’ve formulated as (1).

    Here’s your first premise:

    “1) If doctrine is not in Scripture, it ought not to be believed.”

    So far you haven’t adduced any textual support that (1) is something that Luther and Calvin (or presumably their protestant successors) are committed to. Moreover, I just can’t see any distinction between this proposition and the ‘solo scriptura’ view, although you acknowledge that you are trying to attack ‘sola scriptura’ and not the straw man. What, in your view, is the difference between (1) and ‘solo scriptura’? As it stands I think (1) is pretty close to how I would have formulated the ‘solo’ position, not the ‘sola’ one.

    Here’s how I would explicitly define sola scriptura:

    (1*) The Bible alone contains infallible revelation from God.

    (1*) seems to suggest (though perhaps it does not quite ‘imply’) a couple of the other points that characterize protestantism:

    (1*.a) The church, though entrusted with the task of teaching the gospel, may err.

    (1*.b) If one is responsible for what one believes, one must judge the adequacy of church teachings by the biblical revelation.

    (1*.c) If God holds us responsible for what we believe and we must, therefore, judge the church by the Bible, then it seems likely that God would inspire the Bible in such a way that it is minimally perspicacious, i.e. clear enough that one may understand the rudiments of Christian doctrine necessary for salvation.

    I think (1*) and (1*.a)-(c) encapsulate the core of what is at stake in the protestant objection against (Tridentine) Catholicism. Note also that 1* escapes the force of your argument, i.e. from

    (1*) The Bible alone contains infallible revelation from God.


    (2) SS (= “If doctrine is not in Scripture, it ought not to be believed”) is not in scripture,

    one cannot prove the protestant inconsistent. I do not see how my version of SS (1*) would fall prey to the same objection, because I do not claim that no doctrines are to believed except those that are ‘taught in’ the bible. In fact, in an earlier post I gave you an example of one doctrine I believe but which I see nowhere taught in the Bible (whether explicitly or implicitly), namely the doctrine of the trinity. Now, it seems to me that (1*) has much greater chances of finding solid biblical (and patristic) support than (1), but even if 1* turns out not to be taught in scripture, I will still not be proven to have contradicted myself.

    Does this clarify things at all?


  5. scholasticus says:

    I do, of course, concede that many contemporary protestants don’t understand the sola scriptura view and adopt all sorts of stupid and confused things. In God’s providence he seems to be using a catholic to teach them the fundamentals of reformed theology!

  6. scholasticus says:

    Ok, I’ve been digging around a bit looking to see who actually coined the phrase ‘sola scriptura’ and how it was originally defined. I have been unsuccessful so far. However, I have found a couple places where one might suspect both Luther and Calvin are operating with (1) in mind instead of my weaker (1*). Luther in the Smalcald articles and Calvin in Institutes 4.8-11 both make comments to the effect that they won’t believe in some particular thing (purgatory, etc) unless it is proven to them to be in scripture.

    see here:


    I think the issue there is what the church has the legitimate authority to compel one to believe. In other words, I take it that the point L and C are prosecuting is that no one is compelled to believe X unless X is revealed in the written word of God. This is slightly different than saying no one should believe X unless X is revealed in the written word of God because I might believe X even though I don’t see it taught in scripture and yet also reasonably believe that I ought not to tell other people that they too must believe in X if they want to be saved.

    Of course, my interpretation of L and C could be wrong. Maybe they are advocating the view Rob attributes to them. If so, then I take it that Rob has proven them wrong. But I think 1* still stands.

  7. nekliw says:

    “(1*) The Bible alone contains infallible revelation from God.”

    Question: How does one come to conclude this? I would not challenge the logical consistency of SS. Why does it make sense for you to believe SS. The answer to such is authority as we all know. However, when one studies the development of the scriptures and doctrine, one realizes that the canonization of the Scriptures surely fell prey to “human” fallacies. Where upon is the legitimacy of our Faith if there is no ecclesial authority and no revelation exogenous to the written Word? I suppose it could all be crock…

  8. scholasticus says:


    Out of curiousity, is your last name Enahs?

    I’m not sure I can prove 1*, but there is a motivation for it.

    Suppose that God gave revelation to a group of apostles. Now suppose those apostles start to grow old and observe that as the faith spreads so do erroneous teachings. So they write down their teachings so that future generations will have a reliable record of what the original apostles who received revelation taught.

    Now so far I think that the story I’ve told is one that both catholics (after vatican II) and protestants can endorse. Where the protestants and catholics part way concerns what happens next.

    The protestant will claim that the Bible is authoritative just because it contains the authoritative teachings of the original apostolic generation and that all subsequent church teaching has to be judged for its consistency with that original apostolic deposit of faith. (This is what protestants mean by ‘apostolic’ in the creed.)

    The catholic is commited to saying that that original apostolic authority does not die with the original apostles but that their successors (the bishops and especally the pope) inherit that authority. This is why historic episcopate is so important to the catholics, right?

    I’m not sure exactly what the reformers say about the canon. I’ll think on it a bit more and get back to you if i come up with a better answer for you.


  9. nekliw says:

    No. You wouldn’t be able to guess my last name 😛 I’m just a soul grasping in the darkness of God…

    I am familiar with the position.

    But one must note that the Apostles did not scribe their epistles with the notion that these paper thingies would be later assembled into a theological textbook.

    Still, the question remains, “Who decided what to put in and out of the Bible?” The Apostles did not decide that. Their disciples who some later became bishops did. But that just makes me wonder wonder how we can accept these facts without asserting some sort of continuity…

  10. scholasticus says:

    ‘Some sort of continuity’ is a bit weak to support the RC position I think.

    Perhaps we should say something like this: the selection criteria for canonicity is historical–which texts came from apostles (or early apostolic communities that could be trusted to have accurate records of the apostolic teachings)? If that is the question then one does not need to posit that the fathers of nicea had some superspecial canonizing magic. Just that they had access to enough historical material to make an informed judgment about which texts could be trusted and which could not.

    (Elaine Pagels and da vinci code canonization conspiracy theories can go hang. Some texts were rejected from the canon because they were heretical.)

    So, no, I don’t see any need to say that there was some mystical continuity of the original apostolic charism to their successors.

  11. scholasticus says:

    I just realized that the example I adduced may only be sufficient to suppor the canonicity of the NT and not the OT as well.

    back to the thinkingboard.


  12. nekliw says:

    Historically speaking, if that were the case, then the Church Fathers were wrong in assuming any sort of apostolic succession outside of your view. Thus, the faith, as you would posit, boils down to a historical puzzle of who had the closest truth handed from the Apostles. Why not be Orthodox? IMHO they are probably the closest to the Fathers…

    I’ll post more later… gotta do a problem set…

  13. scholasticus says:

    I’m not sure what your first sentence asserts. I do believe the church fathers can be wrong–so it wouldn’t be an effective argument against me that if i’m right then they are wrong. of course, i also doubt that ‘the fathers’ is a united unified group. there are very few things that really fall under that ‘semper ubique et ab omnibus’ canon and I doubt this is one.


  14. scholasticus says:


    I’m sorry, I accidentally deleted what you wanted your last comment. please repost. also please explain how it was supposed to show how there is a unified consent of the fathers that the bishops inherit the authority of the apostles and that the bishops’ teachings are therefore on a par with the original apostles.

  15. robporwoll says:

    Hey Shane,
    Sorry for the long delay. I see the conversation has, naturally, moved ahead. However, I want to reply to your post.

    I guess I will have to exegete Calvin and Luther to give evidence for my thinking. I don’t know if I have time right now. We’ll see…

    However, for the sake of argument, let us push that whole issue aside for now. You have presented what you mean by SS and I think that is sufficient for my argument to proceed.

  16. robporwoll says:

    You write:


  17. robporwoll says:

    You write:

    “(1*) The Bible alone contains infallible revelation from God.

    (1*) seems to suggest (though perhaps it does not quite ‘imply’) a couple of the other points that characterize Protestantism:

    (1*.a) The church, though entrusted with the task of teaching the gospel, may err.

    (1*.b) If one is responsible for what one believes, one must judge the adequacy of church teachings by the biblical revelation.

    (1*.c) If God holds us responsible for what we believe and we must, therefore, judge the church by the Bible, then it seems likely that God would inspire the Bible in such a way that it is minimally perspicacious, i.e. clear enough that one may understand the rudiments of Christian doctrine necessary for salvation.”

  18. robporwoll says:

    Now, my whole point is to ask how one supports this doctrine of SS?
    Is SS is doctrine, then must it not be of revelation? I think so. (If SS is not of revelation, then why is it a doctrine or authoritative?)
    So if SS is revelation, then there is only one available source for it to have come, the Bible. (Point 1*)
    SS must, somehow, come from the Bible.

    How does SS come from the Bible?
    Or you might say, if SS is revealed doctrine, where is it in the body of revelation, that is, Scripture?
    Mind you, it need not be explicit in Scripture. A doctrine may be seen as a valid interpretation of Scripture while not being explicit within. For your example, the Trinity appears to be a valid interpretation of Scripture, though never explicated. Doctrines are most often interpretations from inference and discernment on things never spelled out explicitly. SS may not be explicit in Scripture, but is it a valid interpretation?

  19. robporwoll says:

    It is my belief, that points <> are not valid interpretations (that is, are neither supported, indicated, inferred nor involved) of the revelation of Scripture. (This is what I meant by my own Premise 2.)
    In other words, if we are only to believe the Bible is revelation (1*), does the Bible ‘reveal’ that truth itself? If it does not, then on what other authority do we believe the Bible (as a whole and its parts) is revelation?

    Or, (1*.b) If one is responsible for what one believes, one must judge the adequacy of church teachings by the biblical revelation.
    Does Bible judge affirmatively of SS (a doctrine of all protestant churches)?

    Obviously, I do not think the revelation of the Bible includes these things. However, no one can prove a negative, so the burden of proof is on the protestant if he or she would want to argue for SS.

  20. scholasticus says:

    “Is SS is doctrine, then must it not be of revelation? I think so. (If SS is not of revelation, then why is it a doctrine or authoritative?)”

    I think I finally see your point! Forgive my obtuseness.

    I am asserting that there are some things that are doctrine–i.e. things which one ought to believe–which are not contained in the canonical scriptures. Let’s call such teachings ‘extrabiblical doctrines’. The list of the canonical scriptures and the SS principle I’ve elaborated and the doctrine of the trinity, the doctrine of Christ’s two wills, etc. are all ‘extrabiblical doctrines’ in my opinion. Because I don’t see where they are taught even implicitly in scripture, rather, it seems to me they are principles we must posit to make sense of what is contained in the scriptures.

    Your objection to my formulation, if I understand it right, regards the justification of these kinds of extrabiblical doctrines. If you are a Catholic, this isn’t a problem, because you believe that the bishops as the successors of the apostles inherit the ability to make authoritative proclamations and they can ratify these extrabiblical doctrines by their own authority. But obviously this route is not open to the protestant.

    So what justifies extrabiblical doctrines for the protestant? Well, here I can make two responses. First, I think it is clear that these extrabiblical teachings have to be regarded as below the par of those things that are taught in scripture. (So, I’m willing to have my doctrine of SS proven wrong if a RC can show me how it is incompatible with Scripture.) Second, I think the best justification we can hope for for these kinds of extrabiblical doctrines is something like their catholicity–this is why i’ve been interested in vincent of lérins recently. We should believe that jude is in the canon just because that’s the conclusion that most of the churches in the early church drew.

    Note that it seems to me that this appeal to catholicity is a sort of pragmatic appeal. How do we know that we need to postulate the SS principle (or trinity, or . . . )? Well, look, pretty much everybody found it necessary to do so. Obviously, this is a much weaker justification than that provided by revelation–which seems to me entirely just and proper.

    Note also that I’ve put in your hands the means by which to demonstrate protestantism false. Show me how the consensus of the early church implies the magisterium’s infallibility (if the magisterium is infallible then my SS is false)–how lots of different church fathers from the beginning saw it necessary to hold that the church is infallible and then I have no leg left to stand on. In the same way, I would try to show against the RC that lots of church fathers did not find it necessary to posit an infallible magisterium.

  21. scholasticus says:

    There may be a better way for a protestant to respond to this dilemma, but i don’t know what it would be at the moment.


  22. scholasticus says:

    I’m nothappy with my previous answer. i’ll have to think of a better one.

    the point that i think i’m missing has to do with inspiration.

    we believe the scriptures to be authoritative because they are inspired. we know they are inspired because they are apostolic. we know they are apostolic becuase of the testimony of the church. I don’t think this means we have to believe the church itself is inspired, just that it had good historical reasons for making the choices it did about the canon.

    that’s the general line i want to take, but i want to read a couple more things on canonization first.


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