As Christians, we believe some teachings to be true and others to be false. But how can we tell which is which? Where does true Christian doctrine come from, and what gives it its authority? Can those doctrines change or develop?
Among Christians, there are two major views on the source of doctrine. Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox say that doctrine comes from the decisions and traditions of their church—they believe that their church has authority even over the Scriptures. On the other hand, many other groups believe that doctrine comes from the Scriptures. There are different variations of this view; one of the most common among Protestants is Sola Scriptura.
In this article, I’ll argue for the second view. I hope to show that doctrine comes from the New Testament. However, I’ll be propose a variation that’s a bit different from the typical Protestant view; instead, it’s based on the historic faith. I will show that the teachings of Jesus and his apostles, which are found in the New Testament, are our infallible authority for Christian doctrine. I’ll also weigh in on whether doctrine can change or develop.
Why Is This Important?
There are two reasons why its worthwhile to give arguments for the trustworthiness of Scripture. First, some people, like me, find it important to have assurance that our faith is well-evidenced by history, as well as by the Holy Spirit.
Second, Roman Catholic apologists today argue that their church gave us the Scriptures, so we should be in submission to their church. They often say that Protestants and Anabaptists have an authority problem—supposedly, the only way to be sure of what the Christian faith is, is to accept their church’s authority. To show why this is incorrect, I need to offer reasons for trusting Scripture that don’t depend on their church.
This article will present a case for the Protestant and Anabaptist view of the Bible. I’m creating an extensive resource so that we can see that our trust in the New Testament is well-founded, without appealing to the decisions of an institutional church. This post will be helpful to those who want to understand the firm and extensive foundation beneath our trust of Scripture.
However, if you are satisfied that Scripture is authoritative, feel free to skip this article and instead see my post on the source of Christian doctrine according to Scripture, which mainly just lays out the Scriptural reasons we have for believing that doctrine comes from Jesus’ and the apostles’ teachings.
If you’re in for the long haul, here’s what I’ll be doing in this article:
- Based on a survey of the earliest Christian documents, we will find that the original Christian position, was that Christian doctrine comes solely from the authoritative teachings of Jesus and the apostles.
- We’ll look at several reasons for believing this early view to be correct.
- Since the apostolic teachings are found in books that were undisputedly written by apostles, we’ll see that we don’t need to lean on the decisions of an institutional church to verify which doctrines are apostolic.
- We will evaluate the case for the New Testament canon, wholly apart from the decisions of an institutional church, and see that the books that make up our New Testament are the books that can be trusted to contain the authoritative teachings of Jesus and the apostles.
Is This Circular?
Before I even defend this view, I will anticipate an objection. Our conclusion will be that the New Testament books are authoritative. But we will be using New Testament books as part of the evidence for this conclusion. Isn’t that a circular argument?
In fact, it is not. If we were to use the New Testament’s authority as evidence for its authority, then the argument would be circular, since the conclusion is the same as the premise. However, we are not doing that.
Not everyone agrees that the New Testament is authoritative. But everyone who is knowledgeable in the subject, including Catholics, Protestants, Anabaptists, and secular historians, agrees that the New Testament books are representative of early Christianity. We are starting off from this point, on which everyone agrees, and using it as evidence for the point that not everyone agrees on.
If everyone agrees with the premise, but not everyone agrees with the conclusion, obviously the premise isn’t the same thing as the conclusion. This further demonstrates that this isn’t a circular argument.1It’s worth noting that, even if the premise were the same thing as the conclusion, that would mean that everyone who agrees with the premise also agrees with the conclusion. But everybody doesn’t agree, so my argument isn’t circular. So if this is a circular argument, that just means that everyone agrees that my conclusion is true, since they all agree with the premise—the books of the New Testament are our authority for doctrine.
In other words, we will not be using the New Testament’s authority as evidence for its authority; we will simply be using it as a gauge for what the original Christian position was. So we will start out by simply using these books as representative documents, rather than as authoritative Scripture. In the end, however, it will become clear that they are not merely representative; they are also authoritative.
What Was the Original Belief?
So what was the original Christian position on the source of doctrine? In this section, I will summarize my findings from an earlier post that surveys the New Testament, as well as other early Christian documents, to see where doctrine originates. For the full support for these statements, see that post.
Surveying the earliest Christian documents, we find the following beliefs. To see an evaluation of the evidence for these points, see my post on who can define the faith.
- Jesus had authority to define the faith. (Matthew 28:18, Luke 4:32, John 7:16–17, 8:28, 12:48–50, 14:9–11)
- The eleven faithful apostles had authority to define the faith. (Matt 28:19–20, John 15:20, 16:12–15)
- Paul had authority to define the faith. (Acts 26:15-18, 1 Cor 9:1, 2 Pet 3:16, Gal 1:11-24, 2:1-10)
- The faith taught in the first years of Christianity cannot be changed. Christian doctrine was complete and known by Christians by the end of the apostles’ lives, and it cannot be further developed. (Gal 1:6–9, 1 Cor 11:1–2, 2 Thes 2:15, Hebrews 13:7–9, 1 Tim 6:20, 2 Tim 1:13-14, 2 Pet 1:5–15, Jude 3, Rev 2:24-26)
In another post, I apply these points to the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox view that their church can make further authoritative statements on the faith, and show that their view isn’t consistent with apostolic teaching.
Is the Original Belief True?
So this is the original Christian position, according to the earliest representative texts. Is that position true? Should we trust the information we find in these texts?
In fact, we have good reason to believe that these representative texts are telling the truth. In this section, I’ll show how we can tell that the New Testament’s claims about the apostles’ authority are correct.
We have just discussed what the early texts say about doctrinal authority. To show that what the texts say is true, I’ll give evidence for each of the following statements:
- What the existing texts say is in essence what the original authors wrote.
- What the original authors wrote is what the original speakers (Jesus and the apostles) said.
- What the original speakers said is true.
If I can show that these three statements are true, then we will know, through non-circular reasoning, that the original belief is in fact true—that only Jesus and the apostles had authority to define the faith.
We have good reason to believe that what the texts say now is what was written by the original authors.
Some have suggested that we can’t be sure what the authors of the New Testament books wrote, since there are a lot of textual variants among the manuscripts that we have. If the manuscripts don’t all agree, how can we be sure that we know what the original authors wrote?
Fortunately, scholars have developed methods for evaluating textual variants in manuscripts. Because of the importance which we Christians place on the 27 books found in our New Testament, critical scholarship has been especially exacting with its scrutiny of those books. No ancient documents have been more analyzed. This has really annoyed Christians, but the unforeseen effect is that, as a result, we have extremely good reason to trust the New Testament books. They have passed the test, and scholars have concluded that the texts that our modern Bibles are translated from don’t differ in any substantial way from what the original authors wrote. There are places in the text where scholars aren’t quite sure what the original author wrote; however, none of those places call any Christian doctrine into question. Typically they’re just small wording differences that you can find in the notes of a study Bible.
We have thousands of ancient manuscripts of the New Testament books, and though each one has its share of scribal errors, there is overwhelming agreement among them on substantive issues. Thus, all of the major Greek texts in use today in Bible translation (the Textus Receptus, the Critical Text, or the Majority Text) contain essentially what the original authors wrote.
In my linked article, I included some other early Christian texts that aren’t in the New Testament. Much less work on textual criticism has been done on those texts, but that shouldn’t alarm us, because scholars don’t receive those texts with the same level of skepticism as they receive the New Testament books. Scholars of church history typically hold that these texts give us a very good idea of what the early church believed.
We have good reason to believe that what was written by the original authors is what was said by the original speakers (Jesus and the apostles).
So we know what the original writers wrote. But did they know what they were talking about? What if they didn’t have a high enough familiarity with Jesus and the apostles? They might have misrepresented them through lack of knowledge.
We have good external and internal evidence that shows this not to be true.
- External: For most of the books in our New Testament, Christians from the beginning did not dispute their accuracy to the apostolic teachings. For the rest, they were accepted within a few generations. Later in this article I’ll give more details. In any case, this fact is not under dispute by the Christians in my general audience: Catholics, Orthodox, or Evangelicals.
- Internal: The contents of the books themselves provides evidence that these books—especially the Gospels, Acts, and Paul’s letters—were written by people who knew what they were talking about. They have all the signs of having been written by eyewitnesses.2Arguments for this have been put forward by such as Lydia McGrew, Peter J. Williams, and many other Evangelical scholars.
So we can tell that the books that make up our New Testament accurately contain the words of Jesus, his apostles, and others who faithfully represented their teachings.
We have good reason to believe that what was said by the original speakers is true.
So we know what the original authors wrote, and they accurately conveyed what Jesus and the apostles said. But this doesn’t automatically make what Jesus and the apostles said true. So is it true that Jesus and the apostles actually have authority?
The central thing we need to know is whether Jesus had authority to teach. If he did, then the apostles and Paul did as well, since the best evidence we have shows that Jesus gave them the authority to teach. And of course, if the apostles had authority to teach, then what they taught about the faith being complete in their day must have been true.
I won’t go into an in-depth analysis of whether Jesus had authority to teach or not, because that question has been addressed by many people. If Jesus rose from the dead, and if Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecies, and if Jesus really prophesied the fall of Jerusalem—then he can be trusted. Based on the evidence, Christians can trust that all this is true.3People like William Lane Craig, Gary Habermas, Mike Licona, and Jonathan McLatchie have made excellent arguments based especially on the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection. Other arguments could be made from fulfilled Old Testament prophecies, Jesus’ prophecy of the fall of Jerusalem, and the goodness of Jesus’ example and teachings. Besides, if you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit, you know that he has authority to deliver truth—you don’t need any arguments for it from his resurrection.
Were they lying?
So Jesus had authority and what he said is true. What about the apostles? Jesus’ words and the message of Christianity only comes to us through the apostles. Might they have been lying?
Here are several reasons to believe the apostles were telling the truth.
- First, note that they don’t typically make a big fuss about their authority. The passages I cited are clear enough, but they aren’t mentioned very often. These are incidental passages that the apostles don’t draw attention to. If the apostles were making up their authority, you would think that they would be more specific. If you’re trying to get people to think you have authority that you don’t, there are much more direct ways of doing it.
- Paul does mention his authority, but it’s corroborated by other apostles, even one that he disagreed with! (Gal 2:9, 11, 2 Pet 3:15-16)
- There’s no self-aggrandizement. The apostles record even very stupid things that they’ve done. For example, your first impression of them when reading the gospels is that they’re singularly dense. And Paul even admits that he persecuted the church; and, though he boasts about his authority at times, he says that he’s only speaking like a fool. If the apostles were making things up, they wouldn’t make up things that were so embarrassing about themselves.
- The apostles didn’t grasp for places of power. They put others in positions of power, going through and appointing elders in churches. They appointed Jesus’ brother James, not one of the twelve, as bishop of Jerusalem, their early hub, rather than one of themselves. Likely, he hadn’t always believed in Jesus (Mark 3:21, John 7:3-5), so he wouldn’t have been one of the “in” group. They made decisions with the whole church and even deferred to James (Acts 15). He sent people like Timothy and Titus to make leaders rather than making sure he knew who was chosen (1 Tim 3:1-15, Titus 1:5-9). So if they wanted authority, they didn’t get very much.
- They risked their lives; some, if not all, were even martyred. Just because they risked their lives doesn’t make it true, but it sure does make it unlikely that they were lying! If you know that something is not true, you are unlikely to be willing to die for it. However, they were willing to die for it, so it is unlikely that they knew it not to be true.
- The books are accurate in details and show no tendency to fabrication. You don’t see mythologizing or sensationalism. Even the miracle stories just read like regular accounts of everyday occurences.
So they could have grasped for authority in many ways that they didn’t. All they did was say that what they had preached in the beginning was the truth. Then they spread this truth through the world and entrusted it to other people to spread as well.
Furthermore, the apostolic teachings are highly unified. There’s no disagreement between apostles or between them and later believers. For nearly three hundred years, the same faith was proclaimed, even though many different weird beliefs came to be held by people here and there. The harmonious and consistent witness of the church provides good evidence that they were speaking the truth, not fabrications.
Doctrine Comes From Jesus and the Apostles
So we can safely conclude that the original Christian belief, as I laid it out before, is true. I’ll repeat those tenets below:
- Jesus had authority to define the faith.
- The eleven faithful apostles had authority to define the faith.
- Paul had authority to define the faith.
- The faith taught in the first years of Christianity cannot be changed. Christian doctrine was complete and known by Christians by the end of the apostles’ lives, and it cannot be further developed.
Could the Correct Source of Doctrine Have Changed Since Then?
So doctrine originated from Jesus and the apostles. But could this have changed later? Could it be that later church leaders inherited this ability? No. As I pointed out in my linked article, there are no indications given that anyone beyond Jesus and the apostles can define Christian doctrine. Just like Jesus passed his authority to the twelve apostles and Paul, someone who had authority would have needed to pass their authority on to future church leaders. But no one did—apostolic succession did not pass on apostolic authority.
The ones who had authority to define the faith said that it could not change, and since they had authority to say so, they were right. To change would contradict them, which doesn’t work, since truth can’t contradict truth. Neither they nor generations of Christians following them taught that doctrine could develop or that anyone else had authority to define the faith. See, for example, this quote by Irenaeus:
We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith. For it is unlawful to assert that they preached before they possessed “perfect knowledge,” as some do even venture to say, boasting themselves as improvers of the apostles. For, after our Lord rose from the dead, [the apostles] were invested with power from on high when the Holy Spirit came down [upon them], were filled from all [His gifts], and had perfect knowledge: they departed to the ends of the earth, preaching the glad tidings of the good things [sent] from God to us, and proclaiming the peace of heaven to men, who indeed do all equally and individually possess the Gospel of God.
Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.1
Thus, the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox beliefs that the church can make infallible statements on the faith is an aberration from Christianity.
So now we know that Jesus and the apostles, including Paul, had full authority to define the faith. However, if we want to follow the true faith, we need to know where we can find it. So the question is, “What sources can be trusted to contain the unchanging faith revealed through Jesus and the apostles?”
Which Sources Can We Trust?
In this post, I evaluate the New Testament canon. Here are my conclusions:
- All Christian doctrines are found in books universally agreed to having been written by apostles. So we don’t even need a canon in order to know what is true doctrine.
- No books that contradicted the 27 canonical books in any point of doctrine were proposed as authoritative by the pre-Nicene church.
- So, if we consider the books to be authoritative that everyone agreed on, we have the exact same faith that we’d have if we consider the books to be authoritative that anyone proposed as authoritative.
- The least-supported canonical book has significantly more historical support than the most-supported non-canonical book.
- We have no need of the decisions of an institutional church in order to know that the books nearly universally accepted (without any ecumenical council or heavy-handed top-down decision) by the fourth-century Christians, can safely be considered our canon.
- The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox additional beliefs do not meet the criteria for being definitive apostolic traditions.
As I’ve shown, there is no authority problem for Anabaptists or Protestants. We have no difficulty in knowing what the apostolic teachings are. There is also no problem of the canon. We can know which books are authoritative without referring to the decisions of an institutional church.
What Do We Need?
However, I want to put this argument to rest once and for all. Considering the amount of weight that Roman Catholic apologists give to this argument, it’s worth considering one more thing that will completely refute it.
What do we need, at minimum, in order to answer the authority problem? In other words, what do we need, at minimum, in order to know whether a particular doctrine was taught by the apostles? And have we passed that minimum bar?
To answer that question, let’s suppose your doctor prescribed you some treatments, and then left for a vacation in a no-cell-service area. There is no way to contact him. What evidence would you need in order to find out what treatments he had prescribed?
Any of the following will do:
- A document written by the doctor that prescribes that medication to you.
- A document written by someone who would be expected to know your prescription and to represent it accurately. This might be your pharmacy or the nurse who heard him prescribe it.
- A document thought to be your prescription by someone who would be expected to know (and state with accuracy) which treatments were prescribed. For example, maybe the nurse found a prescription list on the floor. Knowing that all the medications on it were medications that the doctor prescribed to you, she gives it to you.
You certainly wouldn’t listen to a guy on the street wearing scrubs and a stethoscope, even if he told you that he actually knew the real contents of the prescription list.
Thus, if we want to know what the apostolic doctrines are, all we need to know is the following:
- A document written by someone with authority to teach (an apostle) that mentions that doctrine, or
- A document written by someone who would be expected to know the apostolic doctrines and represent them accurately, or
- A document considered authoritative by someone who would be expected to know the apostolic doctrines and represent them accurately.
So we need just one of these per doctrine in order to know whether that doctrine is true. What do we have instead? The apostolic doctrines are found throughout
- Multiple documents written by apostles, and
- Multiple documents written by people who associated with the apostles, and
- Multiple documents considered authoritative by the early church.
All the books in the New Testament canon and all the books proposed for the canon fit these criteria. Of all the possible canons that we might have had, every one of them would have fit this category.
Therefore, there is no problem of the canon for Anabaptists. There is no reason we cannot rely on the canon provided by the church; after all, (a) we think it’s the best canon and (b) it is useful as a set of books the Western church has, as a whole, agreed on as part of the canon.
Is the apostolic teaching in the NT sufficient for complete doctrine?
So we can tell that the books in the New Testament can be trusted to teach us the apostolic faith. But might the apostles have said or written something that’s not recorded in the New Testament? Might there be other authoritative sources for Christian doctrine?
Remember that the Greek word translated “tradition” indicates teachings that were handed down. The New Testament is full of apostolic traditions, in that sense.
The Elusive Traditions of Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox
However, the Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox place a lot of emphasis on tradition, and claim that they have access to apostolic traditions that weren’t written down in the New Testament. Thus, they sound like they are following the apostles more closely than other groups are. Strangely, however, when I try to find out what are some examples of apostolic teachings outside of the New Testament that they have preserved, I’m unable to find a good answer.
The clearest answer I’ve found is the general sense that these traditions need to be experienced in order to be passed down—it’s somehow doing violence to the traditions to ask for specific ones, as though they could be listed. Instead, we should come and experience church with the Orthodox and apprehend these traditions. Maybe I’m missing something. If you are Catholic or Orthodox, please let me know of any apostolic teachings outside of the New Testament that actually change how the faith is practiced.
In any case, there are so many problems with this approach.
- Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox worship services, with their lavish sanctuaries and choreographed worship, will always be appealing to those who like symbolism and ceremony. But that has nothing to do with their proximity to the apostolic traditions. In fact, many elements of their worship practices go back no further than the fourth or fifth century. Their services aren’t especially close to the services described in the New Testament, the Didache, or Justin Martyr.41 Cor 14, Didache 9-10, 14, Justin Apology 1.67 And their icons are an innovation. Should we be convinced that a church has special apostolic traditions by an experience when the appealing aspects of it don’t go back to the apostles?
- Even if we aren’t sure whether or not the emotional appeal comes from traditions that go back to the apostles, doesn’t it seem likely that these sorts of emotional appeals could mislead us into accepting non-apostolic practices?
- The apostles seemed most concerned about our lifestyle and less concerned about worship practices. When the apostolic traditions that we do know about aren’t being followed (such as nonresistance), why would we follow a church because of its supposed apostolic worship practices?
- The apostles were able to put their traditions into words (cf. 2 Thes 2:15). Why can’t these churches put the apostolic traditions into words, if they really have them?
- All of our Christian churches have descended from the original apostolic churches. Why would the Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox have better access to the apostolic traditions? It can’t be through apostolic succession of ordination, because that, too, is an innovation. (In fact, there are even Protestant denominations that continue the high-church worship experiences of the Roman Catholics and who claim apostolic succession, so neither of those leads us to an exclusively Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Christianity.)
I think some of this confusion is because people aren’t often very clear on the different possible meanings of “tradition.” I’ve stressed the importance of apostolic traditions, as in “teachings given by the apostles that define the faith.” However, these churches also have traditions that they’ve held to for many years, but which weren’t taught by the apostles. Because they reverence “tradition,” these teachings are given authority as though they were as valuable as the apostolic teachings. There’s a big difference between “oral traditions,” as in any beliefs that have been passed down for a while, and “apostolic traditions,” which are the doctrines that we must follow.
How Can We Tell?
How could we tell whether there are apostolic teachings that aren’t recorded in the New Testament?
First, where could we find such traditions? (Soon we’ll look at qualifications for considering a tradition to be apostolic.)
- Either it was handed down orally until someone wrote it down,
- Or it has never been written down, but is still handed down orally.
Are there oral teachings that are still oral?
Let’s deal with the second possibility first. Is it possible that there are apostolic traditions that have been handed down orally until now? That’s highly unlikely, since it would be so ubiquitous that nearly every church would be practicing it for many years, in which case, someone would have written it down—Christianity has a propensity for writing things down. Worshiping on Sunday would be a good example. It’s still practiced by nearly all Christians, and it’s often been written about throughout church history.
But even if some teaching that is not in the New Testament and is not ubiquitous were claimed to be such a tradition, we would have to ask the following: Have the people proposing this tradition kept to the traditions that are in the New Testament? If they can’t hold to a tradition that is written down in the apostolic writings, how can we trust them to communicate a tradition for thousands of years orally?
So the only people we can trust to communicate oral apostolic traditions are the ones who are faithfully keeping written apostolic traditions. The pre-Nicene Christians, who still held to teachings like nonresistance, would need to be the people who recorded these traditions.
Qualifications for written teachings
So any binding apostolic traditions would need to be written down. What are some qualifications that these possible traditions would need to meet before we can consider them to be binding?
- There must be no substantial reason from Scripture against its authority.
- There must not be a high likelihood that it would have arisen from cultural influences.
- It must be attested to as early as the Scriptural apostolic traditions are attested in extra-biblical sources. There must be good evidence that it was believed or practiced from the very beginning. This would necessarily mean that it was recorded by pre-Nicene writers.
- When discussed in sources, the contextual elements surrounding the tradition must speak of it in the ways that apostolic traditions found in Scripture are spoken of in those sources.
- Since all apostolic traditions were made available to every church that the apostles founded, there must be good evidence that it was believed or practiced as widely throughout the Christian world as Scriptural apostolic traditions were.
- Since all apostolic traditions were made available to every church that the apostles founded, there must be only one viable candidate for the content of the tradition. If different beliefs were held during the same early time period by apostolic churches, it is highly improbable that either one is an apostolic tradition.
These six qualifications disqualify all of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox doctrines that aren’t found in the New Testament.
So are there any teachings that match the criteria I listed above? This is an issue I’m researching currently and am not ready to weigh in on yet. However, to my knowledge, Catholics and Orthodox have not yet proposed any of their beliefs that match these criteria.
If you read the pre-Nicene writings, you’ll find that, for the first two or three hundred years of the Church, the early Christian writers were very conservative in their view of the faith. When describing what is necessary to the faith, they overwhelmingly held to what is included in the Scriptures.
What If Apostolic Traditions Were Obscured by Persecution?
When new doctrines show up in the post-Nicene era, sometimes their proponents claim that these weren’t actually changes, but were instead the way people had always practiced. They just couldn’t practice those doctrines publicly while they were being persecuted.
First, there is just no evidence that Christians pretended not to have certain traditions because of persecution. They were very bold about what they believed and how they lived (just read people like Justin Martyr, if you don’t believe me).
Second, there are contradictions between the earlier and later practices. When the pre-Nicene Christians were very clear that they didn’t do X, but the post-Nicene Christians did do X, we can’t just say it’s because they were hiding.
Finally, Jesus said that his followers would be persecuted. With all the freedom that we have, we are the ones who should be concerned that we might lose the faith through complacency and satisfaction. I’d rather go by the persecuted church that was indubitably living for Jesus, than the leisurely, well-fed church that followed Constantine.
Scripture Is Sufficient
At this point, I conclude that Jesus’ and the apostles’ teachings in the New Testament are sufficient to teach us the essentials of Christian doctrine. Until a tradition has been proposed that meets the qualifications of an apostolic traditions, we can rely on Scripture.
Can this view be called Sola Scriptura?
In this article, I’ve argued, essentially, that the New Testament is our infallible authority for belief and practice. Sola Scriptura is a view that argues for a very similar conclusion, and it’s the view typically espoused by Protestants.
There are many different formulations of Sola Scriptura, and I’m comfortable with some of them. However, I don’t use the term for a few reasons. First, it’s ambiguous. When you use the term, it’s not clear which view you mean to espouse; however, many people think they know which view you espouse when you use that term. So it can cause more confusion than it’s worth.
Second, Sola Scriptura is often defended in different ways from the way I defend the historic faith view. Most ways of arguing for it, to my mind, aren’t as clear or compelling as this argument is. Some of them are fairly subjective or even circular arguments. So I stay away from them.
If one were to give this view a name, I would suggest Sola Apostolica, since the defining feature of the view is that doctrines are authoritative if they are apostolic. But if Sola Scriptura advocates would like to use this argument and call it Sola Scriptura, I don’t mind.
Objections to Sola Scriptura
The following are objections that Catholics and Orthodox typically raise against Sola Scriptura. I’ll check each one and see whether it invalidates Sola Apostolica.
- The Bible itself doesn’t teach that it’s the sole infallible authority for faith and practice, so how can a Sola Scriptura advocate hold that view? But apostolic teachings in the Bible do say that the apostolic teachings are our sole infallible authority, as I’ve shown.
- Scripture upholds the apostles’ oral teachings as well as what was written. This view does as well. It simply points out that the extra doctrines of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy don’t qualify to be considered apostolic.
- Sola Scriptura is a circular position, since it uses the Bible to prove the Bible. I don’t think that is true, but, in any case, I showed at the outset that my view is not circular.
- Sola Scriptura is an ahistorical doctrine. That may or may not be true; however, Sola Apostolica is rooted in history—in fact, it’s more historical than the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox views, as I’ve shown.
I think one of the best aspects of Sola Apostolica is the ease with which it deals with the classic issues that are often brought up against Sola Scriptura.
Objections to Sola Apostolica
This is my section for objections that actually apply to Sola Apostolica and not only to Sola Scriptura.
- We can’t just go by what the Bible says, because the Bible still needs to be interpreted. Of course; every text needs to be interpreted. I don’t believe we need extrabiblical sources in order to ensure the correct interpretation of Scripture, but in any case, we can compare the pre-Nicene Christian writings, which support the view that I put forward on this site. Furthermore, the Catholic magisterium (official church teachings) is not a better alternative. Note that the magisterium consists of texts, and these texts can typically be interpreted even more variously than Scripture can be. See, for example, this video where an apologist tries to show that burning heretics isn’t necessarily part of the Roman Catholic Church’s infallible teachings—but instead impresses on my mind how complicated and uncertain the magisterium is.
- This view makes everybody their own Pope, since everybody has the authority to interpret Scripture. We don’t believe that everybody has the authority to interpret Scripture. In fact, we believe that no one’s interpretations of Scripture are authoritative. But we do have the responsibility to read/hear Scripture and to obey it, just like Roman Catholic lay people do.
- We need a teaching authority, or our interpretations are just too subjective. Just look at all the different interpretations people come up with. How will we know which is right, if the church doesn’t tell us? This suffers from so many philosophical issues. First, if our own understanding is so subjective, then our conclusion of what we need in order to overcome that subjectivity is subjective. So why trust our conclusion that we need the church, if that conclusion comes from subjective thinking? Second, how can we trust the authority of ongoing magisterial teaching, if we are so helplessly subjective and can’t trust what we think we can? Third, if we are able to understand the magisterium without being held back by subjectivity, why not the Bible? The Bible is often clearer. And finally, this is a very ahistorical claim. The early church went by the Bible, and they didn’t have an infallible teaching authority other than the apostolic writings in Scripture. Why can’t we do as they did? And how can the magisterium claim our authority when it is such a late development?
This is my section for including formal syllogisms that could be used to defend some of the claims in this article. Feel free to skip it.
From Doctrinal Conservatism
- If developments and clarifications to an infallible teaching are fallible, then we should prefer the earlier infallible teaching over the later fallible teaching.
- Developments and clarifications to apostolic teachings (themselves infallible) are fallible.
- Therefore, we should prefer the infallible apostolic teachings over the later developments and clarifications.
Conclusion: There Is No Authority Problem
Catholics and Orthodox have said for many years that there is an authority problem in groups who, like the Protestants and Anabaptists, rely on the text of Scripture for their doctrine. Where do these texts get their authority? Only from the decisions of their institutional church, they say.
However, this article has demonstrated that there is no authority problem in Protestantism or Anabaptism. The New Testament can be shown to be authoritative without either a circular argument or any kind of appeal to the decisions of an institutional church.
This view is based on the historic faith method, which is a growing view among Anabaptists and Christians with similar beliefs. However, it isn’t confined to that system, and it could be used by any Anabaptists and Protestants. For those who hold to Sola Apostolica, there is no authority problem. Our faith can be defined without reference to the decisions of a Catholic or Orthodox institutional church.
- 1It’s worth noting that, even if the premise were the same thing as the conclusion, that would mean that everyone who agrees with the premise also agrees with the conclusion. But everybody doesn’t agree, so my argument isn’t circular. So if this is a circular argument, that just means that everyone agrees that my conclusion is true, since they all agree with the premise—the books of the New Testament are our authority for doctrine.
- 2Arguments for this have been put forward by such as Lydia McGrew, Peter J. Williams, and many other Evangelical scholars.
- 3People like William Lane Craig, Gary Habermas, Mike Licona, and Jonathan McLatchie have made excellent arguments based especially on the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection. Other arguments could be made from fulfilled Old Testament prophecies, Jesus’ prophecy of the fall of Jerusalem, and the goodness of Jesus’ example and teachings.
- 41 Cor 14, Didache 9-10, 14, Justin Apology 1.67