Conservative Colloquium

An Intellectual Forum for All Things Conservative

The History of Sola Scriptura (Revised)

Posted by Tony Listi on December 11, 2007

In this discussion, I would like to focus only on the history of the doctrine of sola Scriptura and what it means to the Protestant. I appreciate your charitable cooperation in confining your comments to these subjects alone.  Surely Protestants have some appreciation for history, no?

I would like to know the answers to the following questions: Historically, who held this belief of sola Scriptura? When did these believers live? Who were the very first people to hold this belief? When in history did these first believers live? etc.

As far as I know, the first people to hold the doctrine of sola Scriptura, or something like it, were the early (first four centuries AD) heretics such as the Arians. They believed this because they couldn’t trace the doctrine further back than their leader Arius (d.c. 336). And except for these heretics, early Christians did not believe in sola Scriptura. In fact, strictly speaking, such a doctrine was impossible: there was no commonly defined “Scripture” to which one should “only” refer until 397 AD when the canon was created by the Church. Additionally, Bibles were not plentiful or capable of being mass produced. The Gospel was preached, not handed out. If the first 400 years worth of Christians, those closest to the time and culture of Christ and the Bible’s authors, did not believe in sola Scriptura, why should today’s Christians?

The Church Fathers (e.g. St. Augustine, Origen, Irenaeus, etc.) certainly did not hold this view. They always appealed to the history of doctrine and apostolic succession, which for them were always the clincher and coup de grace in their arguments against heretics.

With this past history (or, more appropriately, lack thereof) in mind, one can conclude that the doctrine of sola Scriptura, for all practical purposes, was created by Martin Luther (and thus widely adopted because of him) in 1521 at the Diet of Worms, a whole 15 centuries after the life of Christ.

The implications of this fact of history for the Protestant are quite interesting and profound. He would have to believe that all Christians from the time of St. Peter up until the time of Luther were all dead wrong in not accepting the doctrine of sola Scriptura. That’s a long time and a lot of people weighed against Luther’s conscience and “plain reason.” In fact, it seems as if the Protestant, to hold true to sola Scriptura, must despise all of historical precedent and the opinions of his spiritual ancestors (like a modern American liberal actually), at least selectively on particular important issues, which they are also the ones they disagree with Catholicism on. Additionally, he would be conferring greater authority on one man, Luther, than 15 centuries of consistent Christian thought and tradition on this issue going back to the very beginning of the Church. You tell me, does this seem plainly reasonable?

Now, I am open to objections to this account of history. Tell me why it is wrong and cite your historical sources for me, if you would be so kind. No groundless conspiracy theories please.

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