Yes, this is a trick question.
I came into the world for this; to bear witness to the truth; and all who are on the side of truth listen to My voice. (John 18:37*)
The intuitive answer is, “Of course, the Bible alone is my pillar and foundation of truth!” How can it be otherwise? The Bible itself, however, answers the question differently. Please keep reading.
So, Sola Scriptura’s unscriptural?
The purpose of this post, and more to follow, is to explain my discovery that the Christian’s pillar and foundation of truth is not the Bible alone. So says Sacred Scripture. Sola Scriptura, a cornerstone of Protestantism, is not in the Bible. This is a critical issue. I wish to make some introductory remarks before we consider this centerpiece that divides the Body of Christ to this very day. Sola Scriptura divides Protestants from the Catholic Church. That is the classic setting for the debate. However, with 500 years of evidence in the books, Sola Scriptura is responsible for many of the gashes and lacerations in the Body of Christ solely within Protestant ranks.
Who has the burden of proof?
The burden is not mine to disprove Sola Scriptura. In my quest to know whether Martin Luther was justified, or not, in breaking from the Catholic Church, I discovered that the Protestants fail to prove the very foundation of their position. Onus probandi, or burden of proof, obligates a disputant to affirmatively prove, to show warrant for, the issue raised by that same party. For example, the plaintiff in a personal injury lawsuit has the burden to prove the defendant owed a duty of care to the plaintiff, breached that duty, and the breach proximately caused injury to the plaintiff. If any element is missing, the case fails. The concept of burden of proof is patently reasonable and fair.
Accordingly, with Sola Scriptura in the balance, we must remember who claims what. We must not forget who brought the case, and who makes the allegations. That party bears the burden of proof. Of course, since 1517, Protestants have claimed Scripture as the sole and final authority for the faith. Sola Scriptura was the ground upon which Martin Luther stood when he broke from the Catholic Church. Since then, in addition to the separation from Rome, Protestants continue to divide and separate based on the same foundational principle of Sola Scriptura.
Protestants claimed the Roman Catholic Church adulterated the truths of the Gospel. According to the Protestants, Sola Scriptura is the way to right the ship. Since Protestants assert Sola Scriptura, they bear the burden of proof. Can the Protestants prove from Scripture alone this foundation and pillar of Protestantism?
As I began the difficult work of thinking through the great division in Christendom, I concluded that the sixteenth century’s battle cry of Sola Scriptura was a lynchpin in the debate. Protestantism stands or falls on this singular doctrine. Also, I realized in my own Protestant world this was one of those doctrines that rested more on assumption than proof. We grew up assuming it to be true. I discovered the doctrine does not require a lot of explaining and proving when you grow up “knowing” Rome was wrong and we were right. Prejudice is baked in long before reason is required. By the time reason gets involved, the prejudice is almost insurmountable.
A word in defense of Sola Scripturists
I defend lawsuits for a living. Let me say a word in defense of Protestants who, like I did for decades, stand on the foundation of Sola Scriptura. It is easy and it feels right. Indeed, since we are talking about God’s written and infallible Word, Sola Scriptura seems to carry with it a built-in, almost self-proving and intuitive feature. To believe otherwise seems almost sacrilegious. In other words, how can it not be true? These feelings, without more information, are justified. God’s Word should instill in us such holy fear and reverence and awe. Accordingly, if you are bristling at the idea of Sola Scriptura falling, thank God for that special grace to hold His Word in high esteem. I was in your shoes in the spring of 2017. As I got deeper into my study, I recall being afraid the Catholic Church might be right.
First, a peak behind the curtain
Before considering whether the protester’s meet their burden of proof, let’s pause and look at what existed for almost sixteen centuries before the great rending of the Body of Christ. Also know, the sky does not fall. Rather, the sky actually opens up quite gloriously. A nearly-2,000-year-old truth will beautifully fill the void of Protestantism’s soup of subjectivity caused by Sola Scriptura. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we read
96 What Christ entrusted to the apostles, they in turn handed on by their preaching and writing, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to all generations, until Christ returns in glory.
97 “Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture make up a single sacred deposit of the Word of God” (DV 10) in which, as in a mirror, the pilgrim Church contemplates God, the source of all her riches.
98 “The Church, in her doctrine, life and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes” (DV 8 # 1).
99 Thanks to its supernatural sense of faith, the People of God as a whole never ceases to welcome, to penetrate more deeply and to live more fully from the gift of divine Revelation.
100 The task of interpreting the Word of God authentically has been entrusted solely to the Magisterium of the Church, that is, to the Pope and to the bishops in communion with him.
(Part One, Chapter Two, Article 2)
Truth and goodness and beauty
I worked my way through the Catechism in the spring and summer of 2017, kept good notes and discovered a counter-intuitive truth. I discovered something I did not know could exist. Since my youth (periods of real sin, subjectivity and compromise notwithstanding), I have had a high view of Scripture. Since very young, I knew, however imperfectly, the reality and fear of God, and the truth of Sacred Scripture. Intuitively, I might have guessed that Sola Scriptura is what provides the foundation for a high view of Scripture. Actually, I found the reverse to be true.
I saw flaws in Sola Scriptura. At the same time, the Catechism dripped with truths of Scripture. As I progressed, it seemed I was on a slippery slope into the Catholic Church. The deeper I got into the Catechism, the more I saw goodness and beauty in addition to truth. Of all the issues I studied, Sola Scriptura probably occupied the central place. So key was this issue, once Sola Scriptura was seen as untrue, my slow-slide toward Rome began to feel like a free-fall.
The beauty of objectivity and authority
Once inside the Catholic Church, having submitted to the authority of the Church, I discovered that my high view of Scripture unexpectedly got exponentially higher. I had not read or heard that that would happen. It did. Now, no longer does my belief in Scripture just so happen to coincide with my own subjective interpretation of Scripture. Now, I seek to follow Christ in the fullness of the faith as found in the truth of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition of the Catholic Church. I am no longer my own pope. I am no longer my own bishop. I am no longer my own teaching Magisterium. Now, there is an objectivity, an authority, a Thus-saith-the-Lord-element, that elevates Scripture higher than any Sola Scriptura scheme ever could.
The replacement of Sola Scriptura with Sacred Scripture under the authority of the Church is huge. Do not pass too quickly over that monumental word — authority. I discovered in this process an amazing truth of Scripture: submission to authority. In almost fifty years, if I had ever heard or seen it, it was so weak or watered down as to be unrecognizable. Authority in Protestantism, I found, was about like unity; fine-sounding words, but no real meaning.
There was little room for humility when it was just “me and my Bible”. The Faith gives no place for pride and arrogance on the one hand, or sloth and indifference on the other. That is, I am not the final authority – my own interpreter of Scripture. Jesus did not set things up that way. Nor am I free to passively submit to some teacher or commentator’s subjective interpretation of Scripture. By God’s grace, there was a way out of the morass. I entered the one, holy apostolic Church of Jesus Christ. I submitted to that authority.
The question answered
My discovery of the truth and goodness and beauty of the Catholic Church was more than I dared ask or think. Nor did it come until the issue of Sola Scriptura was addressed and resolved. Here is the answer to the question that began this post:
Writing to Timothy in his first epistle, Saint Paul exhorts his son in the Lord: “But if I should be delayed, you should know how to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of truth.” (1 Tim. 3:15) The household of God is the church of the living God. The church is the pillar and foundation of truth. That was like a verse (though read and re-read many, many times over decades) I had never seen before.
Later, we will look more thoroughly at Scripture. As a Protestant who believed the Bible, however, how could it be true that the church was the pillar and foundation of truth? We had hundreds, or thousands, of Protestant and “non-demoninational” congregations. They were in a constant state of disagreement, division and schism. They teach different “truths”. How could I reconcile this reality with God’s Word that I knew to be true?: the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of truth. Something was wrong.
We will leave the question there for now. Until next post, recall our Lord’s words to Peter at Caesarea-Phiippi, and then to Saul on the road to Damascus: “But who do you say that I am?” (Mat. 16:15) “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). Jesus expressly identifies the church with Himself. It is His Body. Our Lord’s Body was so gashed and lacerated at Pilate’s pillar. How long will we continue the rending of His flesh?
AS FOR ME, I KNOW THAT MY VINDICATOR LIVES, AND THAT HE WILL AT LAST STAND FORTH UPON THE DUST. THIS WILL HAPPEN WHEN MY SKIN HAS BEEN STRIPPED OFF, AND FROM MY FLESH I WILL SEE GOD: I WILL SEE FOR MYSELF, MY OWN EYES, NOT ANOTHER’S, WILL BEHOLD HIM: MY INMOST BEING IS CONSUMED WITH LONGING. JOB 19:25-27
*All Scripture from the New American Bible Revised Edition