Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Sola Scriptura Self Refuting

Is Sola Scriptura Self Refuting?

So goes the title of an article by Steve Hays on Triablogue. The real problem with defining sola scriptura is that there is no one, single definition by which all adherents to sola scriptura accept. Some definitions are quite vague while others very precise. One such "precise" definition is "If it's not in the Bible, don't believe it!" Now some who would hold to the more vague definitions have begun with an odd labelling of that as "solo scriptura." I say it is odd because it pairs the masculine Latin word for "only" (solo) with the feminine noun for "Scripture" (scriptura), in short "solo scriptura" is just bad grammar to say the same thing. James White defines it this way: "Sola scriptura teaches that the Scriptures are the sole infallible rule of faith for the Church." (qtd on: http://vintage.aomin.org/SS.html). In this essay I will go through Steve Hays article in rebuttal then present an article from Dr. Frank Beckwith, then offer my concluding comments.

Is Sola Scriptura Self Refuting?
1. It’s become increasingly popular for Catholic apologists to counter sola Scriptura by claiming that sola Scriptura is self-refuting. For example, Francis Beckwith has been touting this objection at every available venue.

2. Their objection goes as follows:

Unless Scripture teaches sola Scriptura, then sola Scriptura is self-refuting.

As I stated earlier, it's not quite as simple as that - nor is Dr. Beckwith's objection, his latest we shall examine below. In the example I cited above "If it's not in the Bible, don't believe it!" then this objection fits! Sola scriptura is not taught in the Scriptures, the canon of Scripture is not taught BY Scripture, thus without Scripture telling us which books should be contained therein, by this standard sola scriptura is most definitely self-refuting. Let us continue with Hays' article.

3. Now, there are different ways of fielding this objection. For example, Scripture could implicitly teach sola Scriptura even if it didn’t explicitly teach sola Scriptura.
The problem with relying on implicit teaching is that reduces the definition to a matter of interpretation. For example, many Protestant apologists will turn to 2 Timothy 3:16 "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness". The problem they have here though is that St. Paul is not saying Scripture is the sole rule of faith, but that it is profitable or sufficient. Teaching sufficiency cannot be equated to teaching sola, or the sole infallible rule of faith. Let us continue with Hays' article, but try to avoid getting too dizzy by the spinning about to take place...

4. However, I’d like to address the objection on its own grounds. The objection seems to be a special case of a more general argument:

A rule of faith is self-refuting unless the rule of faith is self-referential.

In other words, a rule of faith must include itself, and in order to do so it must designate itself as the rule of faith.

5.Despite its facile, sales-worthy appeal, it isn’t clear to me that this is logically sound. I think its true that a rule of faith is self-inclusive. But it isn’t obvious to me that a rule of faith must also be self-referential.

For that’s not the rule of faith in itself. That isn’t built into the very nature or intrinsic definition of the rule.

Rather, that’s a statement about the rule of faith. That’s a convenient way to identify the rule of faith.

But a statement about the rule of faith is not, itself, the rule of faith–although it’s possible for the rule of faith to make a statement about itself. A statement about the rule of faith can obviously come from the outside. It can also come from the within, but that isn’t inherent in what makes it a rule of faith, that I can see.

For example, consider the need to standardize weights and measures. The BIPM issues the International System of Units. Yet it would be fallacious to say the units are self-refuting unless they refer back to the BIPM.

The problem we'd have with this logic is that while the BIPM may be a standard of measure it is not the sole standard of measure. But what is the BIPM? It's not just that acronym! On their homepage www.bipm.org/en/home it explains: "The task of the BIPM is to ensure world-wide uniformity of measurements and their traceability to the International System of Units (SI)." Thus it tells us flat out its limitation - and that is that it is based on the International System of Units (SI). Whereas I'm sure many Europeans and some others would like to see this standard made into the "sole" standard, it makes no claim to be such.

Therefore, I think the objection is fallacious. But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that it’s sound.

6. To reiterate the principle:

A rule of faith is self-refuting unless the rule of faith is self-referential.

Again I would have to reiterate that when one hears "sola scriptura" the next question has to be "which definition are you going by?" The phrase alone is not self-explanatory or self-defining whereas a reference to the BIPM, for those who even have a clue about this, know exactly what that refers to (it is A standard of measure). On the other hand, sola scriptura does not tell us what it means or which definition of sola scriptura we should use. Taken strictly literally it would be "Scripture Only" or "Scripture Alone" - and without qualifiers - that would be the earlier definition I cited, "If it isn't in the Bible, don't believe it!"

The other definition, that from James White "Sola scriptura teaches that the Scriptures are the sole infallible rule of faith for the Church." Again, sola scriptura, alone, doesn't teach us anything beyond "Scripture Alone" - White needs to add "infallible rule of faith for the Church" to give some sort of definition to it. Now for that rule to be valid, we should expect that that rule exists within Scripture - and for that matter - how does one even KNOW what Scripture is? The teaching of sola scriptura does not exist in Scripture; and to KNOW what Scripture is - we have to go with some OTHER SOURCE and if we don't trust that source to have infallibly declared the Canon of Sacred Scripture, then we don't really have infallible knowledge of exactly what constitutes Scripture! Thus, the existence of an infallible and closed canon of Sacred Scripture, as most if not all Protestants would agree the Canon is closed and infallible (even though their canon didn't exist as such until the 16th century, more on that in a bit). So, if the canon is closed - who closed it? Does Scripture itself, anywhere, list all the books which should be contained therein? The truth of the matter is that for the first four hundred years of the Church the canon was not set, and then when it was set that same authority which set the New Testament Canon set the Old Testament Canon with seven more books than the Protestant Bibles have. Logically speaking, if you're trusting THAT authority for the Christian New Testament, then why turn to a DIFFERENT authority for the Christian Old Testament? Ironically, the authority Protestants turn to for the Old Testament is that of those who had Jesus put to death as an imposter and false prophet. If though there were some disputes on the canon, St. Jerome for example argued for the deuterocanonicals to NOT be counted as canonical - however in HIS CANON, the Latin Vulgate, those books are indeed included. Why are they included? Because he yielded to due and proper authority. Every authorized Bible from that time forward contains the deuterocanonicals. It would not be until the time of Protestantism in the 16th century that some translations would be published without them. Even the initial King James Version includes the deuterocanonicals - without putting them in a separate appendix, that would come later - and then later still they would be left out entirely.

Next Hays gets into some Catholic arguments:

Now, Catholics sometimes try to prooftext their rule of faith by appeal to certain Biblical or patristic statements.

7.However, there is also a popular, a priori argument for the Catholic rule of faith. Let’s take a classic statement of this argument:

Surely, then, if the revelations and lessons in Scripture are addressed to us personally and practically, the presence among us of a formal judge and standing expositor of its words, is imperative. It is antecedently unreasonable to suppose that a book so complex, so systematic, in parts so obscure, the outcome of so many minds, times, and places, should be given us from above without the safeguard of some authority; as if it could possibly, from the nature of the case, interpret itself. Its inspiration does but guarantee its truth, not its interpretation. How are private readers satisfactorily to distinguish what is didactic and what is historical, what is fact and what is vision, what is allegorical and what is literal, what is idiomatic and what is grammatical, what is enunciated formally and what occurs obiter, what is only of temporary and what is of lasting obligation? Such is our natural anticipation, and it is only too exactly justified in the events of the last three centuries, in the many countries where private judgment on the text of Scripture has prevailed. The gift of inspiration requires as its complement the gift of infallibility.

Where then is this gift lodged, which is so necessary for the due use of the written word of God? Thus we are introduced to the second dogma in respect to Holy Scripture taught by the Catholic religion. The first is that Scripture is inspired, the second that the Church is the infallible interpreter of that inspiration.
Not only is that how Newman argues, but Liccione, for one, also uses the same type of argument.

According to this form of the argument, you don’t really need to have the Catholic rule of faith asserted in Scripture or tradition. Rather, the Catholic rule of faith is treated like a necessary precondition or presupposition or self-evident truth-condition.

We should accept the Catholic rule of faith simply because the consequences of the Protestant alternative are unacceptable. So its status is axiomatic. A first principle.

Hays here oversimplifies the "Catholic rule of faith" and then makes it dependent upon the Protestant rule of faith for validity. His argument is flawed to the core. First off, the Catholic Faith (and thus rule) existed long before there ever was a Protestant rule of faith, and long before anyone ever heard of sola scriptura. Thus to begin with Hays assertion is wholly anachronistic. Secondly, Catholics do not base their acceptance of the authority of the Church based on the consequences of accepting the Protestant rule of faith. Catholics accept the authority of the Catholic Church because Jesus Christ established the Church Himself and even the book which Protestants hold so high affirms this truth! It must be noted as well, the Catholic Church does not receive this authority from Scripture, she received it directly from Jesus Christ - and Scripture just happens to record this granting and transfer of power.
8.Yet that invites a comparison. For if the Protestant rule of faith is self-refuting unless it is self-referential, then why isn’t the Catholic rule of faith self-refuting unless it is self-referential?
Well, first off, Hays is building upon the faulty premise we've already exposed here, but the fact of the matter is - the Catholic rule of faith IS self-referential! Scripture is PART OF the Catholic Faith and Scripture records Jesus giving His Church this infallible authority (Matthew 16:18-19 and 18:18). Thus in Hays haste, he seems to overlook this fact which utterly destroys his comparison.
Conversely, if the Catholic rule of faith can be treated as simply axiomatic, then why can’t the Protestant rule of faith be treated as simply axiomatic? If an a priori type of argument is sufficient for the Catholic rule of faith, then why can’t the same reasoning be applicable to the Protestant rule of faith?
Again, the Catholic argument is not simply axiomatic nor a priori, in fact Hays himself states that Catholicism bases her argument on the consequences of accepting the Protestant argument - which by default would make his argument for Catholicism an a posteriori argument! Neither is the Catholic argument axiomatic (self evident) for as we have seen, it is supported by Scripture - the source Protestants accept as authoritative!
9.Is it just because the Protestant rule of faith contains the word “only,” whereas the Catholic rule of faith does not? But that’s a superficial, semantic difference–depending on how your verbally formulate the respective positions.

Yet Catholics also regard their rule of faith as the only true rule of faith, so there’s no material difference in terms of exclusivity.

No Mr. Hays, it is not just because the Protestant rule of faith contains the word "only" and ours does not. Yes, that would be superficial and a foolish reason to base ones acceptance or rejection of a rule of faith. You present no Catholic making such an argument, you're merely inventing this argument and throwing it at the wall to see if it sticks - well, it doesn't. All you've done is establish a straw man and then proceed to knock it down.
From what I can tell, the Catholic objection is nothing more than a muddleheaded, verbal trick.
Clearly Mr. Hays has not examined the Catholic objections objectively and the only muddleheaded verbal tricks we see are coming from his invented straw man arguments.

Dr. Frank Beckwith offers these thoughts:

Sola Scriptura and the canon of Scripture: a philosophical reflection
Because the list of canonical books is itself not found in Scripture—as one can find the Ten Commandments or the names of Christ’s Apostles—any such list, whether Protestant or Catholic, would be an item of extra-Biblical theological knowledge. Take for example a portion of the revised and expanded Evangelical Theological Society statement of faith suggested by the two ETS members following my return to the Catholic Church. (The proposed change failed to garner enough votes for passage, losing by a 2-1 margin).

It states that “this written word of God consists of the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments and is the supreme authority in all matters of belief and behavior.” But the belief that the Bible consists only of 66 books is not a claim of Scripture—since one cannot find the list in it—but a claim about Scripture as a whole. That is, the whole has a property—“consisting of 66 books”—that is not found in any of the parts.

In other words, if the 66 books are the supreme authority on matters of belief, and the number of books is a belief, and one cannot find that belief in any of the books, then the belief that Scripture consists of 66 particular books is an extra-biblical belief, an item of theological knowledge that is prima facie non-Biblical.

Where have I gone wrong in this reasoning?

Dr. Beckwith, you have not gone wrong in your reasoning, but another thing to consider from the statement you quoted - they claim "the 66 books are the supreme authority on matters of belief..." - that would be a definition of "suprema scriptura," not "sola scriptura." Saying something has supreme authority does not give it sole authority - I submit those writing that are not true sola scripturists, at least not if that is their credo.

Perhaps the best objection to sola scriptura, outside of the fact that Scripture itself does not teach this rule, is that Scripture itself provides us with ANOTHER INFALLIBLE RULE! In both Matthew 16:18-19 and Matthew 18:18 Jesus states that His bishops have the authority to bind or loose whatsoever they choose and whatsoever they bind or loose on Earth is bound or loosed in Heaven. Since we would all agree that error cannot be bound in Heaven, this authority given to MEN demonstrates at least a second, if not a second and third infallible rule of faith. So, given that typically all Christians accept that the Bible itself is God's infallible word - then if the Bible itself points to something other than itself as also infallible then there is no "sola."   

I do also like Dr. Beckwith's argument (and have used it myself in the past) that nowhere in Scripture does Scripture teach what the Canon of Sacred Scripture is to be.  There is no "66 book list" and the fact that the number of books considered canonical for the New Testament fluctuated for the first 400 or so years of Christendom.  It would not be until the late 4th century at the councils of Rome, Carthage and Hippo that this canon would be firmed up, and at the same time the Old Testament canon was declared as well by these same councils.  Even St. Jerome, who had some reservations about some of the books declared to be canonical in the Old Testament, when all was said and done, his Vulgate contains them within its canon - and every approved Catholic Bible since that time has as well.

Mr. Hays has not produced a valid argument against the Catholic rule of faith and further has not given us a valid reason for accepting sola scriptura.  Scripture does not teach sola scriptura and in fact teaches the bishops of Christ's Church have infallible authority whenever they choose to bind or loose whatsoever.  Hays' problem here is that our infallible authority is rooted in scriptural reference - which is his allegedly sole infallible authority (assuming he agrees with James White's definition).  Hays is left with an internal contradiction - a self-refuting position since his own authority refutes that it is the sole authority.

I thank you for your time and appreciate your comments.



  1. White responds to Beckwith:

    Beckwith begins:
    Because the list of canonical books is itself not found in Scripture—as one can find the Ten Commandments or the names of Christ’s Apostles—any such list, whether Protestant or Catholic, would be an item of extra-Biblical theological knowledge.

    There is a rather obvious problem with this claim. Given Scripture (as Beckwith does for the Ten Commandments or the names of Christ's apostles) a list of canonical books is readily derivable from the Scriptures. As a thought experiment, one could imagine receiving a Bible with the table of contents accidentally smudged beyond recognition. That table of contents could be easily restored from the text in a matter of moments. Given Scripture the list of canonical books, while not found as such, is easily derived.

    Of course, if one doesn't grant that we already have the Scriptures, as such, the matter of creating a list becomes more difficult. But that's not a challenge facing sola Scriptura. Sola Scriptura begins with the reader possessing the Scriptures. It is a given of the system.

    So let us ask White, "If it is a given of the system, in which system was this list given?"

  2. Actually, the above was "Tur8infan" and White was quoting him from here:


    So let either of them answer the question.

    In JMJ,

  3. I think the self-refuting charge does fit, because one is not free to assume SS is the way a Christian should live and derive their theology. Rather, if God hasn't instructed them to proceed that way (i.e. SS), they are following a tradition of men by definition, and thus make SS self-refuting because Scripture never told them to proceed with SS in the first place.

    Here is my argument:
    (1) SS teaches all doctrines binding on Christians must come from Scripture alone.

    (2) SS is a doctrine binding on Christians.

    (3) Thus, SS must be taught in Scripture.

    (4) If SS is binding but not taught in Scripture, then this contradicts item (1) - making SS self-refuting (via contradiction) by definition.

    1. Hi Nick,
      If I may add to your reply - but first of all, thanks for the reply!

      > Here is my argument:
      > (1) SS teaches all doctrines binding on Christians must come from
      > Scripture alone.

      Well, some adherents to SS believe that. The argument I responded to was the definition used by James White (and Steve Hays) which states "Scriptures are the sole infallible rule of faith for the Christian." It then becomes our task to show "another infallible rule of faith," and we need look no further than Scripture to demonstrate this other infallible rule of faith. Of course I refer to Matthew 16:18-19 and Matthew 18:18 - wherein first *A* man and the a "group" of men are given infallible authority, by Jesus Christ Himself!

      > (2) SS is a doctrine binding on Christians.

      Since it is "their" rule of faith - it is binding upon "them," yes.

      > (3) Thus, SS must be taught in Scripture.

      Well, per my approach - if it is not taught in Scripture then it is not an infallible teaching. Given then that it is fallible, we must look at who first taught sola scriptura. Since it is virtually unheard of until the 16th century (that's 1500 years of Christendom WITHOUT the teaching) we can validly surmise that this teaching comes from men, not from God, and these men who taught and teach it do not have valid authority in the Church to teach, or bind others to this belief.

      > (4) If SS is binding but not taught in Scripture, then this contradicts
      > item (1) - making SS self-refuting (via contradiction) by definition.

      Protestants who adhere to SS do indeed believe that teaching is binding on all Christians - but this leads us back to what I said - they have no authority to teach and/or bind anything. Thus, if it is not found in Scripture (by their standard) then it is not infallible and if it is not infallible, how could it be binding upon all Christians?


  4. As for the claim that the canon is "a given in the system" - I agree, that is a pretty serious claim that needs to be addressed. It wouldn't be fair if such a thing can just be assumed, all the while denying Catholics the right to claim Tradition.


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