Likelihood, Plausibility, and Sola Scriptura
This is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, tentatively titled I Fought the Church (and the Church Won). Enjoy. And play nice.
As I continued wrestling through the issues of church authority and its relation to Scripture, one of the questions I kept returning to was that of likelihood. “All things being equal,” I would ask myself, “which is more likely: that Jesus had intended to establish his church in such a way that it was to be governed by Scripture alone (with leaders whose role was to interpret Scripture to the best of their abilities), or that he intended his church to be governed by leaders who, in some way and under certain conditions, were protected from error when exercising their authority?”
Now, I should issue a word of caution here. It can be a dangerous thing to judge the actions of God on the basis of what seems most plausible to us, and the conclusions I reached resulted from a lot more than this simple thought experiment. Nevertheless, the more I thought about it the more struck I became with the sheer unlikelihood of Sola Scriptura.
To illustrate this, let’s walk through the conditions that would have been necessary in the apostolic church for Sola Scriptura to be true. We’ll start with something obvious. In Matthew 16:18, Jesus said the words, “I will build My church.” Hence we can gather that our Lord intended for there to be a church after he passed from the earthly scene. Hardly a controversial point, I trust! Here’s where things get interesting, though: This “church” that Christ said he would establish and build would need some sort of mechanism in place by which it could be governed, right? I mean, it’s not too much of a stretch of the imagination to expect that Jesus would not have gone to all the hassle of founding a church and then leaving it in such a state due to a lack of planning or foresight. No, if he was going to found a church, he would have also come up with some way for it to be governed after he was gone.
Now, Protestants insist that the mechanism by which the church would be governed is Sola Scriptura, as we saw in our last chapter. But as we continue our thought experiment, a number of questions arise, which we’ll consider one by one. First and most obviously, “Did Jesus ever indicate that Scripture alone would the sole infallible authority that was to govern his church?” Seems like a pretty reasonable question to me. If Christ founded a church that he intended to continue to build after his departure, and if the way he planned to do this was by means of the authority of Scripture alone, then surely he would have said so somewhere, and surely one of the four gospels would have recorded such instruction. But inexplicably, neither Matthew, Mark, Luke, nor John contains even a hint at such an arrangement.
Of course, it’s possible that Jesus did indeed give such instruction and the evangelists simply decided not to include it (an argument from silence, but whatever, let’s allow it anyway). But if this were the case, then it would not only be extremely likely for it to have been written down elsewhere in the New Testament, it would be absolutely necessary. Why would it be necessary? Well, if Jesus taught his apostles that the church’s sole source of infallible revelation was to be the written words of Scripture, and if they did not write that instruction down as Scripture, then Sola Scriptura would fail its own test! I mean, talk about irony! The idea—completely foundational to the church’s identity and very existence—that Scripture alone would be the church’s sole source of infallible revelation was not communicated by Scripture but by fallible oral tradition! I must admit, it’s more than a little humorous to imagine the leaders of the post-apostolic church saying to the members of their congregations, “OK, you’re all going to have to just take our word for it on this, but Jesus told the apostles that you should never ‘just take our word for it’ on anything, but only listen to Scripture. Except when it comes to the command to only listen to Scripture. For that one, just take our word for it. And once you have, never just take our word for it again.”
But all this just gives rise to another question: “If Scripture was to be the church’s sole source of infallible revelation, how was the church to know which books counted as Scripture?” Think about it: Unless the Bible’s Table of Contents is itself a part of the Bible and therefore infallible, then there’s no way of infallibly knowing what counts as “The Bible” in the first place. Now, this is not to say that there weren’t certain criteria that the early church used to determine whether a certain book was truly inspired and canonical or not. Those tests existed then as they do today. But if all of the church’s extra-canonical determinations are by definition fallible and prone to error, then this would apply to the recognition of the canon of Scripture as well. The ramifications of this are legion. For example, not only must we admit that the Gospel of Matthew might not actually belong in the New Testament since the inclusion of it was done by fallible decision-makers, but we can’t even be sure who wrote it.
“Wait a minute,” the Protestant might say, “the title of the book is ‘The Gospel According to Matthew !’ Of course Matthew wrote it!” Yes, it’s true that that is indeed the title of the New Testament’s first book, but that title is not itself a part of the book, but was given to it much later. And moreover, the first Gospel doesn’t end with the words, “Love, Matthew.” How, then, did we come to believe that the first-century Levite and former tax collector is its author? Simply put, it was an unquestioned part of the church’s tradition from the very beginning. “Well, why can’t that be enough for us today?”, the Protestant might ask (and in fact, this was a question that I had asked as a Protestant). The problems that arise, however, are pretty clear: First, even a complete consensus reached by a fallible body of men can still possibly be wrong, and if those who initially recognized the 27 books that we call the New Testament made even a single mistake (whether by excluding a book that ought to have been included, or vice versa), then Sola Scriptura cannot be trusted.
And further, it would be completely arbitrary to conclude that Matthew wrote Matthew on the basis of a broad consensus in the early church, when other universally agreed-upon issues (like baptismal regeneration) are rejected for being “unbiblical.” I mean, even if baptismal regeneration is false, at least a biblical case can be made for it, which is more than one can say about the Mathean authorship of the New Testament’s first book! For that one, we need to rely completely on sources outside the Bible.