Rome: Sola Ecclesia, not Sola Scriptura

Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books A short while ago I posted some helpful and critical comments about Rome’s view of Scripture by Michael Kruger (in Canon Revisited).  Here is part two of that post.  The quote is a bit longer than my usual ones, but it is well worth the time.

“…The most fundamental concern [is] whether the Roman Catholic model, in some sense, makes the Scripture subordinate to the church.  The answer to that question is revealed when we ask another question: How does the Roman Catholic Church establish its own infallible authority?  If the Roman Catholic church believes that infallible authorities (like the Scriptures) require external authentication, then to what authority does the church turn to establish the grounds for its own infallible authority?  Here is where the Roman Catholic model runs into some difficulties.  There are three options for how to answer this question.”

(1) The church could claim that its infallible authority is authenticated by (and derived from) the Scriptures.  But this proves to be rather vicious circular reasoning.  If the Scriptures cannot be known and authenticated without the authority of the church, then you cannot establish the authority of the church on the basis of the Scriptures.  You cannot have it both ways.  Moreover, on an exegetical level, one would be hard-pressed to find much scriptural support for an infallible church….”

(2) The church could claim that its infallible authority is authenticated by external evidence from the history of the church: the origins of the church, the character of the church, the progress of the church, and so forth.  However, these are not infallible grounds by which the church’s infallibility could be established.  In addition, the history of the Roman Church is not a pure one – the abuses, corruption, documented papal errors, and the like do not naturally lead one to conclude that the church is infallible regarding ‘faith and morals.’”

(3) It seems that the only option left to the Catholic model is to declare that the church’s authority is self-authenticating and needs no external authority to validate it.  Or, more bluntly put, we ought to believe in the infallibility of the Roman Catholic Church because it says so.”

“The Roman Catholic Church, then, finds itself in the awkward place of having chided the Reformers for having a self-authenticating authority (sola scriptura), while all the while it has engaged in that very same activity by setting itself up as a self-authenticating authority (sola ecclesia).  On the Catholic model, the Scripture’s own claims should be received on their own authority.  The Roman Catholic Church, functionally speaking, is committed to sola ecclesia.”

Here’s Kruger’s helpful critique of Rome’s view of the church over the Word.

“…This presents challenges for the Catholic model.  Most pertinent is the question of how there can be a canon at all – at least one that can genuinely challenge, correct, and transform the church – if the validation structure for the canon, in effect, already presupposes that the church bears an authority that is even higher?  On the Catholic system, then, the canon’s authority is substantially diminished.  What authority it does have must be construed as purely derivative – less a rule over the church and more of an arm of the church, not something that determines the church’s identity but something that merely expresses it.”

This sheds some new light on the Reformation phrase, “always reforming according to the Word.”  Rome can’t logically say this phrase because it does not believe that the Scriptures alone are the highest authority for faith and life; Rome believes in sola ecclesia, not sola scriptura.  One cannot have it both ways.

The above quotes are found in Michael J. Kruger, Canon Revisited (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 47-48.

rev. shane lems

3 Replies to “Rome: Sola Ecclesia, not Sola Scriptura”

  1. The fallibility of tradition
    At its best, tradition can be a means of spiritual formation, a means of nurturing individuals in the virtues and practices of a particular community. Tradition helps shape Christian identity by initiating members into certain practices of biblical interpretation. At its worst, however, traditions can become self-glorifying instruments of corporate pride that turn a deaf hear to voices external to the community, be they from science, philosophy, culture, or other Christian groups. When traditions begin to think too much of themselves, they degenerate into what Francis Bacon calls the “Idols of the Theatre” that mistake their own performances for the truth itself: “all the received systems are but so many stage-plays, representing worlds of their own creation”. Though Bacon does not use the term “pride”, its presence is implicit in his analysis. Once we have adopted an opinion, we tend to make everything else support it: “by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate”. Corporate pride is worse than that of the individual because it is more entrenched.

    There is sin in tradition; there is sin in the church. Church tradition – the ongoing attempt to follow the Word of God – is a task, not a fait accompli. Exhibit number one: church unity. The present church exists in a state of disorder, so much so that it risks putting the integrity of the gospel into question. This disorder may be less an institutional than a spiritual problem, the result of a conspicuous unwillingness to limit human pride’s self-assertiveness as it comes to corporate expression in denominationalism. Ecclesiology cannot be first theology because the church enjoys only the first fruits of its salvation. As an eschatological reality, it is indeed already in union with Christ, but “not yet” completely so. The visible unity of the church is something for which we work and hope.

    I believe in the church. God has called a people to be his own, the body of Christ, the creation and temple of the Holy Spirit. The question is whether, and to what extent, this “church” may be identified with the diverse ecclesial bodies and their human histories. I believe that the church is one; but I do not see it. I believe the church is holy; yet the visible church does not always appear so. It is precisely because of its eschatological nature – its position between the “already” and the “not yet” – that the church’s life and language cannot – not yet! – serve as the primary criterion for Christian doctrine. This is also why we cannot simply presume that visible “tradition” and invisible “Tradition” invariably coincide.


  2. The naïveté of tradition
    The intent of these remarks is not to denigrate church tradition but to locate it properly within the economy of salvation and the pattern of divine authority. From this perspective, conforming to church tradition is not what is primary: what is primary is attending to the Spirit who speaks in the Scripture of Jesus Christ. The early church had a “realist” understanding of tradition: the church’s interpretation is to be preferred because it is right – in accordance with the Scriptures – not simply because it comes from the church. In the postmodern context, however, tradition has become associated, and perhaps confused, with a reader-reception hermeneutic. But we cannot take for granted that the content of the apostolic tradition is found in the teaching of the church. To presume such a coincidence is altogether too naive.

    Sola traditio (“tradition alone”) is an unworkable criterion for validity. Such a principle would idolize the historical process so that everything that happened in the church would be evidence of the Spirit’s work. Again we must ask: which church? whose interpretative tradition? Those who appeal to the “canonicity” of tradition lay themselves open to the same kind of historical-critical investigation (and refutation) of claims for unity that has hitherto been directed at the biblical text. Few among the most vocal contemporary champions of tradition are able to muster any enthusiasm for the idea of the eternal punishment of the wicked, for instance, even though this notion figures consistently in formulations of the ancient Rule of Faith. Is it possible that those who appeal to the great tradition tacitly work with a “canon within the canon” of tradition?

    It is hardly controversial to admit that the church has often failed in its witness (examples readily come to mind; there is no need to name names!). Acknowledging ecclesial sinfulness is therefore an essential part of our Christian witness. What is needed is a critical principle to offset the naïveté of tradition. This is precisely one of the purposes of the practice of sola scriptura.

    There is acute irony in a situation where those who champion the authority of tradition neglect its actual content. I have already mentioned the conspicuous absence of the notion of eternal punishment of the wicked from present-day accounts of the Rule of Faith. More pointedly, it was a virtually unanimous assumption in the early church that the Holy Spirit was the author of Scripture and that its meaning, even where it was multiple, was determinate. Church tradition accorded supreme authority to Scripture. Doctrine was to be accepted primarily because it was biblical. The irony, then, is that many of those today who speak up for tradition turn a deaf ear to what tradition has actually handed down concerning the supremacy of Scripture. Chemnitz raised the same point with regard to the Council of Trent and its disregard of the ancient tradition’s ambivalence with regard to the apocrypha: “Why do such men pretend to honor the judgments of antiquity, when they overthrow the opinion of the first and ancient church concerning the canon of faith and dogmas from its very foundations?” Indeed.


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