“Sola Scriptura” (Latin for “Bible only”) – you’ll hear this term often in discussions and debates between Catholics and Protestants. It simply means that Scripture is the final authority for the church, since it is the only infallible authority we have today.
Protestants generally believe in Sola Scriptura, but Catholics will often tell us that Jesus didn’t leave us a book, He left us a church.
But what does that mean, “Jesus left us a church”? Who is the “us” in this sentence? I think that we can safely assume that Catholics mean the “us” is referring to believers, those who are saved, those who are right with God. But according to the Bible, believers ARE the church! Since we are the church, it doesn’t make sense to say that Jesus left the church a church! That would mean that He left us ourselves, and that is ridiculous.
When they say that Jesus didn’t leave us a book, but a church, what they mean is He left a final authority for all believers, and they believe that this authority is the Catholic Magisterium.
But Catholics are defining “church” in an unbiblical way. According to Scripture, the church is not a building, nor is it a “magisterium” of infallible leaders. Catholics will often say things like, “The Church teaches…” or “The Church has always believed…”, etc. When they use the term in this way, they are speaking of their leaders, the Magisterium. But the Bible never uses the term “church” when referring to leaders only. Never. The Bible uses the term to mean either the local assembly of believers, e.g., the church of Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:2) or the church of Ephesus (Revelation 2:1), or to mean the universal assembly of believers worldwide (Ephesians 5:23; Colossians 1:17-18).
Yes, Jesus did indeed establish a church. No one is denying that. But we Protestants could counter and say that Jesus didn’t give us an infallible church, but an infallible book, the Bible, as the final authority. Catholics act as though the Bible has less authority than the church. Are they suggesting that Jesus did not leave us an infallible book? Would they dare say that Scripture is not inspired (God-breathed)? 2 Timothy 3:16-17 tells us:
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for instruction, for conviction, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, fully equipped for every good work. (BSB)
Keep in mind the fact that 2 Timothy is the Apostle Paul’s last letter he ever wrote to the church, and that he knew he would soon be martyred. And because of that, we know that he wanted to impart some very critical information to believers in this letter, but he never said that the church or church leaders were God-breathed. Not in this or any other of his many letters does he state or imply this. If the church’s leaders were the final authority for the rest of the church, it seems that this would have been the time to say so. But Paul leaves us with the understanding that Scripture is the only thing God-breathed today. Not only is it inspired/God-breathed, it also equips us for every good work.
Catholics admit that Scripture is inspired. In fact, it is the official position of the Catholic Church that Scripture is above, or greater than, the Magisterium:
“This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it…” (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, chapter 2, paragraph 10)
“Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #86)
Ok, that sounds really good, even biblical. But in actual practice, it is the Catholic Magisterium that is over Scripture. I say this because it is supposedly the Magisterium alone that infallibly determines what Scripture is, and it is the Catholic Magisterium alone that officially and infallibly interprets Scripture. Therefore, for the Catholic, the Magisterium is really the ultimate authority.
If common sense dictates that verse “A” should be interpreted a certain way, but the Magisterium demands that it be interpreted a different way (even if it appears to be contradictory), then they must obey the Magisterium.
If other Bible passages, as a whole, taken together, dictate that verse “A” should be interpreted a certain way, but the Magisterium demands that it be interpreted a different way (even if it makes the Bible contradict itself) the will of the Magisterium must prevail. That’s why they say that Jesus gave us a church, not a book.
For Catholics, lip service to the idea of the Bible being over the Magisterium is just that – lip service. But the Catholic idea of an infallible Magisterium does not line up with the very Bible that the Magisterium claims to follow! They want their members to think that the Catholic Church holds the Bible in high regard, yet in practice, the Bible is down-played.
But according to Scripture, the bottom line is this: Jesus Christ made believers (imperfect, common, fallible people) to be a church, both as part of a universal entity and as part of a local assembly, and He gave us an infallible book to guide us.