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Did the Early Church Fathers Believe in Sola Scriptura?

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Definition of Sola Scriptura

Sola Scriptura: the reformed Protestant belief that the Scriptures alone are the final and only infallible authority for the Christian. This does not mean that Scriptures are the only authority (nuda or solo Scriptura), as Protestants believe in the authority of tradition, reason, experience, and emotions to varying degrees (after all, “sola scriptura” itself is an authoritative tradition in Protestantism). It does mean that Scripture trumps all other authorities (it is the norma normans sed non normata Lat. “norm that norms which is not normed”).

Controversy of Sola Scriptura

Sometimes people get the idea that sola Scriptura was a 16th-century invention. While it was definitely articulated a great deal through the controversies during the Reformation, its basic principles can be found deep in church history. Take a look at some of these early church fathers who seemed to believe in the primacy of Scripture:

Related Resource: Six Myths About Sola Scriptura by C. Michael Patton Continue Reading →

5 Reasons I Reject the Doctrine of Transubstantiation

Eucharist

The doctrine of Transubstantiation is the belief that the elements of the Lord’s table (bread and wine) supernaturally transform into the body and blood of Christ during the Mass. This is uniquely held by Roman Catholics but some form of a “Real Presence” view is held by Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans, and some Anglicans. The Calvinist/Reformed tradition believes in a real spiritual presence but not one of substance. Most of the remaining Protestant traditions (myself included) don’t believe in any real presence, either spiritual or physical, but believe that the Eucharist is a memorial and a proclamation of Christ’s work on the cross (this is often called Zwinglianism). The Roman Catholic Council of Trent (1545-1563) defined Transubstantiation this way:

By the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation” (Session XIII, chapter IV)

As well, there is an abiding curse (anathema) placed on all Christians who deny this doctrine:

If anyone denies that in the sacrament of the most Holy Eucharist are contained truly, really and substantially the body and blood together with the soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, and consequently the whole Christ,[42] but says that He is in it only as in a sign, or figure or force, let him be anathema. (Session XII, Canon I)

It is very important to note that Roman Catholics not only believe that taking the Eucharist in the right manner is essential for salvation, but that belief in the doctrine is just as essential.

Here are the five primary reasons why I reject the doctrine of Transubstantiation:

1. It takes Christ too literally

There does not seem to be any reason to take Christ literally when he institutes the Eucharist with the words, “This is my body” and “This is my blood” (Matt. 26:26-28, et al). Christ often used metaphor in order to communicate a point. For example, he says “I am the door,” “I am the vine,” “You are the salt of the earth,” and “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:13-14) but people know that we don’t take such statement literally. After all, who believes that Christ is literally a door swinging on a hinge? Continue Reading →

Five Views of Tradition’s Role in the Christian Life

“If it ain’t in the Bible, I don’t believe it.” Have you ever heard said that? How about this one: “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.” You might have that bumper sticker. Why not? Doesn’t this represent the glory of the Protestant Reformation’s elevation of Scripture to a position of the sole source of authority in the Christian’s life? Don’t these pithy statements represent the best of what it means to adhere to the doctrine of sola Scriptura?

No, they don’t. In fact they unfortunately represent a common misunderstanding of what sola Scriptura means.

Where does one go for authority? In whom do we place our trust? The Church? Tradition? Scripture? The Pope? These represent important questions that are normally not understood outside the perspective of individual traditions.

There are essentially five views that exist in the church today concerning the important issue of authority.

1. Dual-source theory

Belief that Tradition, represented by the magisterial authority of the Roman Catholic Church, is infallible and equal to Scripture as a basis for doctrine; the Church itself is the final authority in all matters of faith and practice since it must define and interpret Scripture and Tradition.

Adherents: Roman Catholics

Notice that there is one complete deposit of faith, given by Christ to the Apostles. This one deposit is transmitted by two sources, written tradition (Scripture) and unwritten tradition. Notice also the dotted line as Scripture moves from the “Age of the Apostles” to the “Age of the Church.” This represents that the Scriptures were not complete in canonized form (all the books were not decided upon) until the forth century. The Roman Catholic church believes itself responsible for the interpretation of both written and unwritten tradition. Because of their belief that the Holy Spirit protects the Roman Catholic church from error, they believe that they are the ultimate and final authority for the Christian. This is why this view is often referred to as sola ecclesia (”the church alone”). Continue Reading →

Another Protestant Converts to Catholicism – Why?

News broke in early March that well-known and highly influential Christian leader Ulf Ekman had converted to Roman Catholicism (hereafter RC). Ekman had served for many years as pastor of the charismatic church, Word of Life, in Uppsala, Sweden. My interest was stirred not only because of the impact Ekman’s “conversion” will have on others but also because he cites his son’s “conversion” to Catholicism as exerting an influence on his own thinking. Benjamin Ekman was a student of mine when I taught at Wheaton College, an exceptionally bright one at that.

But all of this raises yet again the question of why certain Protestants turn to Rome. Ekman himself cites his deep yearning for unity in the body of Christ as one of the principal factors. Some time ago I posted a blog article that addresses this issue, and I want to revisit it again today.

It’s important to understand why most Protestants remain suspicious of Roman Catholicism. The following are merely observations. I make no attempt to determine whether or not these evangelical fears are justified or misguided.

(1) Many Protestant evangelicals are energized by the Protestant martyrs of the reformation and post-reformation period: Hus, Cranmer, Tyndale, Hugh Latimer, Ridley, etc. They fear that dialogue with the RCC is a disservice and dishonor to those who gave their lives for their convictions. They were tortured and died for their refusal to embrace the RC Mass or bow to papal authority. Attempts such as Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) represent for many evangelicals a tacit dismissal of such heroes of the faith: “Are we selling out those who sacrificed so much? Why are we willing to compromise so easily on matters that were to them a question of life and death?”

(2) Evangelicals also fear the loss of theological integrity. They believe that the only way to enter a dialogue with Rome is by compromising on several key theological issues. Most evangelicals believe that unity is theologically based. Cooperative efforts must be grounded in theological consensus. Is this biblical? Is it feasible? Continue Reading →

Six Myths About Sola Scriptura

The Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura is one of the most misunderstood doctrines I know of. The misconceptions come not only from those who repudiate the doctrine (such as Roman Catholics), but also from those who affirm it. Here is a list of some myths regarding sola Scriptura.

1. Sola Scriptura means that Scripture is the only source of spiritual insight.

Spiritual insight can come from any number of sources, both secular and Christian. I remember in 1995, I received quite a bit of spiritual motivation and inspiration from the movie Braveheart. My thoughts and hopes were infiltrated by the idea of a person giving up his life for something bigger than himself. There are many things – songs, wise words, books, and movies (Christian and secular), to name a few – that can be sources of insight and inspiration. Remember, all truth is God’s truth. It does not have to be in the Scriptures to be true.

2. Sola Scriptura means that there are no other authorities in our lives.

We believe that the Scriptures are our final and only infallible authority, but not that they are our only authority. For example, we believe that our pastors and church leaders have authority in our lives. Hebrews 13:7 says that we are to obey our leaders. Wives are to submit to their husbands (Eph. 5:2). People are to obey the government (1 Pet. 2:13). Children are to do what their parents say (Eph. 6:1). There can be no excuse like, “Dad, the Bible does not say I have to clean my room, so I choose not to.” Or “Officer, it says nothing specific about running red lights in the Bible.”

As well, tradition (church history) is an authority in our lives. Those who have gone before us in the faith must be respected. Their collective and unified influence creates an authority which, I believe, is second only to Scripture. After all, they had the same Holy Spirit as us, didn’t they? The Holy Spirit does not teach us everything new as individuals, but educates and inspires us in and with those who have gone before us. That is why I love dead theologians!

As I read through John Calvin’s Institutes a couple of years ago, I did so with a fine-toothed comb, underlining every time another source was referenced, especially a source from another church father. One cannot study the Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura and come away with the idea that the Reformers ever meant that the Scriptures were our only authority. Ultimate, yes. Only, no.

None of these are our final authority, and if the Scriptures contradict what these authorities say, the Scriptures trump.

3. Sola Scriptura means that if it is not in the Bible, it is not divinely binding.

Romans 1 speaks of the binding authority of the message of creation: “For since the creation of the world, his eternal attributes, divine power and nature have been clearly understood so that they are without excuse” (Romans 1:20). As well, in Romans 2, we are told that our conscience testifies to us about God’s will (Rom. 2:14-16). As Christians, we must be willing to take our cue from all forms of what we call “general revelation”: rationality, moral conscience, and the message of creation all qualify.

Whether it is rationality or the message of creation and the conclusions drawn from it, we cannot turn a blind eye and say that since it is not in the Scripture, it does not make any difference. Continue Reading →

The Great Reformation in a Nutshell

There used to be a time when your loyalty to the Protestant cause was judged by how much you hated Catholics. But today, with all the ecumenical dialogue, the Manhattan Declarations, the ECT council, and the postmodern virtue of tolerance, people are much more willing to let bygones be bygones. “Maybe we overreacted” is the thought of many.

To the Catholics, Protestants are no longer anathema (which is pretty bad), but are “separated brethren” (which is not so bad).

Attitudes are changing, we could argue, for the better. But have the issues changed?

Four hundred years ago we had a “situation” in the church. We call it the “Great Reformation.” Catholics understand it as yet another rebellious schism. The first major division in the Christian church happened in 1054 when the Eastern church got fed up with the Pope and thumbed its nose at him (or something like that). The Great Reformation was the second. For Protestants, this was not only a reforming of the church, but a reclaiming of the Gospel, which had been obscured and overshadowed by the institutionalized church of the day.

While there were and are a lot of issues that divide Roman Catholics and Protestants, there are two which overshadow the rest: authority and justification. The issue of authority has been called the “formal” cause of the Reformation, while the issue of justification was the “material” cause. In this brief post I would like to focus on these two issues.

1. Authority: Where do we go for truth?

To the institutionalized church of the day (now known as the Roman Catholic Church), both Scripture (written tradition) and Tradition (unwritten tradition – notice the capital “T”) represented the one ”deposit of faith” that was handed down from the Apostles. The church, as represented by the Pope and the congregation of bishops, protected and guided by the Holy Spirit, could interpret both infallibly. Think of a three-legged stool. These three entities (Scripture, Tradition, and the Church) support the stool of ultimate authority for the church.

To the Protestants, this represented an abuse of authority. While the institutionalized church had authority, it did not have ultimate authority. While tradition (notice the lower case “t”) was very important and to be respected, it did not share equal authority with Scripture; rather, it served Scripture. Everything, including unwritten tradition, the councils, and the Pope, had to be tested by and submit to Scripture. Protestants repositioned both the church and tradition underneath Scripture. Continue Reading →

Five Reasons I Reject the Doctrine of Transubstantiation

The doctrine of Transubstantiation is the belief that the elements of the Lord’s table (bread and wine) supernaturally transform into the body and blood of Christ during the Mass. This is uniquely held by Roman Catholics but some form of a “Real Presence” view is held by Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans, and some Anglicans. The Calvinist/Reformed tradition believes in a real spiritual presence but not one of substance. Most of the remaining Protestant traditions (myself included) don’t believe in any real presence, either spiritual or physical, but believe that the Eucharist is a memorial and a proclamation of Christ’s work on the cross (this is often called Zwinglianism). The Roman Catholic Council of Trent (1545-1563) defined Transubstantiation this way:

By the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation” (Session XIII, chapter IV)

As well, there is an abiding curse (anathema) placed on all Christians who deny this doctrine:

If anyone denies that in the sacrament of the most Holy Eucharist are contained truly, really and substantially the body and blood together with the soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, and consequently the whole Christ,[42] but says that He is in it only as in a sign, or figure or force, let him be anathema. (Session XII, Canon I)

It is very important to note that Roman Catholics not only believe that taking the Eucharist in the right manner is essential for salvation, but that belief in the doctrine is just as essential.

Here are the five primary reasons why I reject the doctrine of Transubstantiation:

1. It takes Christ too literally

There does not seem to be any reason to take Christ literally when he institutes the Eucharist with the words, “This is my body” and “This is my blood” (Matt. 26:26-28, et al). Christ often used metaphor in order to communicate a point. For example, he says “I am the door,” “I am the vine,” “You are the salt of the earth,” and “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:13-14) but people know that we don’t take such statement literally. After all, who believes that Christ is literally a door swinging on a hinge? Continue Reading →

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