One of the common Catholic objections to the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura is that without the Church to offer authoritative interpretations we are all just left with our own personal readings of Scripture. So, the argument goes, evangelicals may talk a big game about the Bible being our ultimate authority, but actually the final authority rests with each individual interpretation of Scripture. In light of this chaotic free-for-all, consider how much better is the Catholic understanding of authoritative Tradition with a capital T.

There are a number of ways an evangelical could respond to this argument.

1. Illumination. We believe the Spirit opens the eyes of his people so that spiritual things can be spiritually discerned (1 Cor. 2:6-16). This illumination is not limited to church councils.

2. Perspictuity. We believe that the main things of the Bible–sin, salvation, Christ, man, God, faith–can be clearly understood. Our God speaks and knows how to speak. Jesus and the apostles quoted Scripture all the time as if they believed there was a meaning in the text that they could understand and others ought to have understood as well.

3. History. At our best, evangelicals do not confuse sola scriptura with solo scriptura, the latter entailing a complete rejection of theological tradition. Creeds and confessions matter. The historic Christian faith matters. All councils, catechisms, and theologians are fallible, but this doesn’t mean we ignore the communion of the saints that have gone before. Biblical interpretation must be informed by and rooted in tradition, just not controlled by it.

Those three points could be elaborated for a thousand pages, but I want to focus on one other response to the Catholic argument against sola scriptura.

Interpretations Need Not Apply?

I respect Catholic theology for its intellectual history, its commitment to doctrinal precision, and for the many places it promotes historic orthodoxy. But I do not see how an appeal to authoritative church tradition, in its practical outworking, makes the interpretation of Scripture any more settled. In my experience, what it does is push the boundaries of the debate away from Scripture out to papal encyclicals and the like. This is fine to do as a means for establishing what Catholics have believed about Christian doctrine (much like I don’t think it’s a waste of time for Presbyterians to discuss the Westminster Confession of Faith). But here’s my point: just because you have an authoritative tradition doesn’t mean you won’t argue over the interpretation of that tradition.

For example, take the immigration debate. How should Christians view the ethics of immigration? Two evangelicals might both turn to the Bible and come up with a difference response. I’m not saying one answer wouldn’t be more right than the other (we’re not relativists or hard postmodernists when it comes to texts), but they could very well disagree even though they both adhere to sola scriptura. So do Catholics have an easier time giving a definitive answer? Clearly not.

In May 2008, First Things printed an exchange between two Catholics on the issue of immigration. This was how the “conservative” author began (three paragraphs in):

Is there a Christian answer to these urgent question? For Catholics at least, there are relevant teachings in the Catechism: (1) The “more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able,” to welcome foreigners in search of security or a livelihood; (2) there should be not “unjust discrimination” in employment against immigrants, and (3) the immigrants themselves should “obey” the receiving country’s laws. (40)

The author on the “left” also began with an appeal to Catholic Social Teaching:

Deriving its understanding from revelation and reason, the Catholic Church teaches (1) that persons have  right to emigrate in search of a better life when poverty, hunger, unemployment, unrest, and similar factors greatly hinder human flourishing; (2) that states have a right to limit immigration when the common good of society requires it in due consideration of such factors as national security and the domestic economy, but not out of inconvenience, selfishness, or minor cost; and (3) that “more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin,” as the Catechism puts it. (44)

Both authors are obviously working with the same material, and both quote the part about prosperous nations being obliged to welcome immigrants. But you can already see they are going in different directions. The first author’s third point highlights the need for immigrants to obey the laws of the land, while the second author’s second point goes out of the way to say that nations cannot refuse immigrants out of selfishness. Same tradition, but still a debate.

Interestingly, both authors go on to interact with various Cardinals and Bishops, but neither quotes from Scripture. This doesn’t mean their arguments can’t be scriptural, it is simply to make the point that the debate centers on interpretations of interpretations.

A Tangled Mess Too

This leads to one last thought. Just because Protestants have a bazillion denominations and Catholics have, well, the Catholic Church, doesn’t mean that the Catholic Church is any less a mishmash of traditions. They have under a more formal unity just as many competing ideologies and theologies.

For example, here’s Russell Hittinger, Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Tulsa, writing about the thought of Thomas Aquinas:

The past century and a half of papal teaching on modern times often seems like a tangle: any number of different strands–theology, Thomistic philosophy, social theory, economics–all snarled together. And yet a little historical analysis may help loosen the know. In fact, a careful reading of papal documents reveals one of the main causes of the tangle. Throughout Catholic thought over the past hundred and fifty years, they have run two quite different uses of Thomism–a combination of four threads weaving in and out of the Catholic Church’s response to the strangeness of modern times. (First Things June/July 2008, 33)

Later, as a case in point, Hittenger explains (in a sentence that will make sense to few Protestants):

The affirmations to be negated in Pius IX’s 1864 Syllabus became affirmation to be affirmed in Leo XIII’s famous 1892 encyclical Rerum Novarum–positive statements on Catholic teaching on modern social and political issues. (35)

In the end, the best arguments of sola scriptura come from the way Scripture views Scripture. I recognize I haven’t done much of that here. But clearing away counter-arguments is important too. And one of the most common is the charge that Protestantism got rid of one infallible Pope, just to put a million little popes in his place. Makes a good evangelical wince a little, doesn’t it? But before you take a step or two in the direction of Rome, remember that even one Pope has a million interpreters.