Prefatory note: The purpose of this post is not to delve into the “practical” side of the debate over sola Scriptura (i.e. Who determines proper interpretation? What about the thousands of Protestant denominations?). Nor does it intend to deal with claims about its alleged lack of support in church history and tradition or even mount an argument in its defense. Its goal is simply to clarify the historic meaning of sola Scriptura over against the pervasive misunderstandings of it that make profitable debate difficult if not impossible. In doing so, it makes a plea to all critics of sola Scriptura to, at the very least, challenge it according to its actual meaning rather than on the basis of a caricature or straw man.
On January 20, Catholic apologist Kathy Schiffer posted an article on the National Catholic Register recommending a new book entitled The Bible Alone: Is the Bible Alone Sufficient? The book, which critiques the Protestant view of sola Scriptura, is, according to Schiffer, a “handy little guide [that] is a great refresher for the budding apologist, and a great short book to pass along to a Protestant friend with whom you’ve started a conversation”. Schiffer leads into her praise of the book by writing the following:
The Bible, the inspired Word of God, is “the Church’s only rule of faith and practice.” At least, that’s what many Protestant denominations teach: that we are to believe ONLY what is written on the pages of Scripture. As a Catholic, I respectfully disagree.
Catholic apologist Patrick Madrid has called the principle of Sola Scriptura, of dependence solely on the Bible for all truth, “unhistorical, unbiblical and unworkable.” If you take a walk down Main Street in any town in America, the problem is evident: There is one Protestant church, then another, and then another—each of which finds certain “truths” in the Scriptures, and each of which interprets them differently.
Statements like these, which seem to be a dime a dozen today, take aim at what many Roman Catholics regard as the lowest-hanging fruit on the Reformation vine. With a few remarks about how sola Scriptura is “unhistorical, unbiblical and unworkable”, the proverbial final nail is thought to be hammered into the coffin of the Protestant faith. There is just one problem: Schiffer’s comments are based on a pervasive yet gross mischaracterization of what sola Scriptura actually means. As a Protestant who zealously holds to this principle, I do not take issue when people want to challenge it. I will vociferously disagree with them, but I will respect their willingness to engage in dialogue and debate. What I do have a problem with, however, is when people attack a sola Scriptura that has been distorted beyond recognition, thinking that somehow they have defeated the “formal principle” of the Reformation. I am somewhat sympathetic: straw men are always far easier to demolish. Unfortunately, however, straw man arguments are neither effective nor, when those making them should no better, respectful to their opponents.
So what exactly is the problem with what Schiffer and countless other critics assert? Quite simply this: sola Scriptura does not mean that “we are to believe ONLY what is written on the pages of Scripture”. Sola Scriptura does not mean that Scripture is the sole authority in the church but rather that it is the highest authority inasmuch as through it speaks the living voice of God. The difference between these two concepts cannot be overstated. Whereas the first effectively undermines any authority exercised by the church, the second gives it full place in submission to the authority of God exercised in Scripture. No doubt there are some so-called Protestants or evangelicals who say things akin to the notion voiced by Schiffer. They do not, however, represent the historical Protestant position and practice, the meaning of which, despite perceptions to the contrary, is not at all in doubt.
We can see this in two ways. First, the phrase itself – sola Scriptura – is in the ablative, or instrumental, case of the Latin language. This is massively important, for if the phrase had been intended to say that “Scripture alone is the authority in the church”, then it would have been formulated in the nominative case so as to point to Scripture as the sole subject of the action. Since, however, it is in the ablative, it is properly interpreted not as “Scripture alone” but “by Scripture alone”. What this means is that “Scripture alone” is not a subject standing on its own; rather it finds its place in the church as an instrument, as the supreme means by which Christ governs and guides his church. This does not exclude any other form of authority in the church but actually undergirds that authority with its own infallible rule.
Characteristic of this perspective is John Calvin who in the Institutes wrote:
Now we must speak of the order by which the Lord willed his church to be governed. He alone should rule and reign in the church as well as have authority or pre-eminence in it, and this authority should be exercised and administered by his Word alone. Nevertheless, because he does not dwell among us in visible presence [Matt. 26:11], we have said that he uses the ministry of men to declare openly his will to us by mouth, as a sort of delegated work, not by transferring to them his right and honor, but only that through their mouths he may do his own work—just as a workman uses a tool to do his work.
After the first-generation Reformers, this position was not abandoned but developed and ultimately given confessional status, culminating in the view – considered as the historic and orthodox view of Protestant Christianity – outlined in the Westminster Confession:
The supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture…
For the better government, and farther edification of the church, there ought to be such assemblies as are commonly called Synods or Councils. As magistrates may lawfully call a synod of ministers, and other fit persons, to consult and advise with about matters of religion; so it magistrates be open enemies to the church, the ministers of Christ, of themselves, by virtue of their office, or they, with other fit persons upon delegation from their churches, may meet together in such assemblies.
It belongeth to synods and councils ministerially to determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience; to set down rules and directions for the better ordering of the public worship of God, and government of his church; to receive complaints in cases of mal-administration, and authoritatively to determine the same: which decrees and determinations, if consonant to the word of God, are to be received with reverence and submission, not only for their agreement with the word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God, appointed thereunto in his word.
As can be seen here, the authority attributed to “the Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture” is unparalleled but not exclusive. The Confession fully recognizes the authority of creeds, councils, and church fathers (to say nothing of the authority resident in the Confession itself!) when each is ordered according to its proper place. Indeed, the Confession explicitly calls for synods and councils to ministerially (rather than magisterially) make authoritative declarations and pronouncements on matters of faith, worship, and church government. This is a far cry from the caricature that Schiffer and many other Catholic apologists present, for it does not mean “Scripture alone” is authoritative in the church, but that it is “by Scripture alone” that God exercises his supreme authority over his church and delegates secondary authority to his church, yet not in such a way that the church comes to possess an authority equal to or independent of God’s. Despite whatever misconceptions may exist, this is without doubt the true, historic meaning and practice of sola Scriptura. As Richard Muller, a scholar who is considered by many to be the foremost living expert on the history of Reformation and Protestant thought, writes:
From its very beginnings, the Reformation assumed its catholicity over against the abuses and dogmatic accretions of late medieval Roman Christianity. In other words, the Reformers and their successors understood their theology to stand in continuity with the great tradition of the church, particularly with the theology of the ecumenical councils, the Church Fathers, and the “sounder” of the medieval doctors. Scripture was certainly the prior norm for theology on the basis of which all other norms were to be judged, including the ecumenical creeds and the Fathers. Nonetheless, the orthodox theologies of the Reformation and post-Reformation accepted the larger part of the Christian exegetical and dogmatic tradition – and rather than reinvent theological system, they reshaped it in terms of the Reformation insights.
In conclusion, my final plea to any Catholic critics of sola Scriptura is this: if you think it necessary to challenge this fundamental Protestant principle, then please challenge it according to its actual, historical meaning and not on the basis of a false or skewed misrepresentation of it. Dialogue between Catholics and Protestants on this issue is important, but such dialogue will only be profitable if the true meaning of sola Scriptura is respected. It greatly saddens me that Schiffer, like the new book she recommends, is training budding Catholic apologists to do precisely the opposite.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2 J. T. McNeill, ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), IV.iii.1.
 Westminster Assembly, 1851. The Westminster Confession of Faith: Edinburgh Edition, Philadelphia: William S. Young. I.X; XXXI.I-III.
 Richard A. Muller, After Calvin: Studies in the Development of a Theological Tradition. (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 51.