sola scriptura: a question of religious authority

Both Protestants and Catholics believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. A fundamental doctrinal difference about the role of the Bible has led to methods of interpretations that are quite different, however. The Protestant Reformation, in addition to removing books from the long-established Catholic canon, also led to the development of the doctrine of sola scriptura, a Latin phrase that means “Bible alone.” In practical terms, this means that most Protestants believe that the Bible is the only religious authority. In contrast, Catholics view the teaching body of the Church, called the Magisterium, as the primary religious authority. The Magisterium is composed of the bishops, who are the successors of the apostles, and includes the Pope, who is the bishop of Rome.

These opposing views of religious authority have an impact on doctrine. When the Bible is the sole religious authority, every interpretation is equally authoritative. Under this model of authority, thousands of Protestant denominations have arisen—all having an equal claim to the authority of their differing interpretations of the Bible. Under such a model, there can be no clear religious truth.

the specific question raised by sola scriptura

The history of the Bible raises a challenging question for those who believe in sola scriptura. To accept the canon of the New Testament, which was defined at the Church councils of Carthage, one must accept that the Church councils were authoritative on this matter—that is, that they had the authority to determine which books should be declared inspired by God. Denying the authority of the Church to determine the canon of Scripture reduces the Bible to an interesting collection of stories and letters.

Paul describes the Church as “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (First Letter to Timothy 3:15). This biblical passage supports the Catholic belief that the Church has the authority to rule definitively on matters of faith or morals. Paragraph 85 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that the task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living, teaching office of the Church alone.

an admittedly circular position

Obviously, the Church interpretation of the Bible to say that she alone has the authority to interpret the Bible is a circular position. The Catholic view of authority is based on the idea of apostolic succession—Catholic bishops are the successors of the apostles, who received authority directly from Jesus. This is no more difficult to accept as a matter of faith than that the Bible itself is the inspired Word of God. In 2,000 years, the Catholic Church never has veered from any of its teaching about faith and morals. This would indicate that, practically speaking, apostolic succession provides a more solid foundation, or pillar, for truth than sola scriptura.