Sunday, November 17, 2019
Sola Scriptura – the “Bible Alone” doctrine – is one of the main teachings of the Reformation. It can be briefly and accurately described in one short sentence: “Scripture is the only infallible source of truth for the post-apostolic church.” That is, after the apostles died off, there is no more need of new revelation from God. We have all the infallible truth we need today in the Bible. (2 Timothy 3:16)
“Infallible” means “unable to make mistakes or be wrong.” This teaching of “Bible Alone” is loved by some and hated by others, often either fully embraced or completely rejected. Many Catholics (and others) would love to see the end of Sola Scriptura. It seems that those who believe in “the Bible plus some other source for infallible guidance” would prefer that the doctrine of Sola Scriptura just die.
Catholic apologist John Martignoni is one of those people and he often openly speaks against this doctrine. In a recent newsletter of his (Apologetics for the Masses #357), he attempts to tackle a very important and relevant question. His newsletter can be found here:
In John’s newsletter, a fellow Catholic named Robert writes in and asks him:
“You constantly argue against the Protestant view because it is strictly their opinion and carries no more weight than my opinion, but can’t the same be said about the claims of the Catholic church being infallible just be your opinion and your interpretation of those verses in the bible?”
Excellent question! I have often seen John attack Sola Scriptura (and often misrepresent it, by the way), but I have never seen him address this particular question before. So I was eager to see how he would answer this.
To answer, John Martignoni starts off by presenting three premises. In a nutshell, they are:
1) Jesus Christ is God and He is a historical fact
2) Jesus started a church
3) The Bible is inspired
Ok, Protestants and Catholics will both agree with these premises.
But then he says that the idea that “anyone’s opinions or interpretation of Scripture are no more valid than anyone else’s” is only true in Protestantism, and that this “fact” is the Catholic’s “ace in the hole” when discussing theology with a Protestant. He also calls it the “Achilles heel of Protestantism.” Then Martignoni says that it all comes down to the question of who wrote the Bible and how do we know we have the right canon?
Actually, Robert’s question has nothing to do with the canon (list of Bible books) and much more to do with proper interpretation of the Bible texts. But anyway, let’s address his assumption about who wrote the Bible.
Of course, John’s answer to that question is the Catholic Church, which is supposedly “the Church founded by Jesus Christ.” He says that for us to trust that the Bible is inspired and without error, we have to trust “someone, somewhere, that we can rely on as being absolutely authoritative and trustworthy.” I would actually agree with that, and those with such authority were the prophets and apostles, and those very close to the apostles, those who were inspired by God to infallibly write Scripture down (2 Peter 1:20-21). So John, there’s your answer to the question of who wrote the Bible: It was GOD who wrote the Bible, through certain temporarily inspired men: Old Testament prophets (Hebrews 1:1), New Testament apostles (Matthew, John, Paul, Peter) and some very close associates of the apostles (e.g., non-apostle Bible authors like Mark, Luke, James and Jude).
But John Martignoni goes on to say that we can know for sure that we can trust the Bible only if we have someone who came after the apostles who is “infallible in their decision regarding which books are, and are not, to be considered the inspired, inerrant, Word of God.” In other words, we can only be sure of the Bible if we have someone today who knows the canon of Scripture infallibly.
See how he unnecessarily brings the canon into the equation? But this has nothing to do with Robert’s question.
At the beginning of his answer, Martignoni first gives three premises, with which we agree. But his conclusion is that we can only trust Scripture if an infallible person or persons (the Catholic Church) gives Scripture to us and tells us what it is. In other words, he is telling us that one has to be infallible to recognize infallible Scripture. But that’s not true.
An infallible person is not needed to recognize an infallible source (Matthew 27:54). If he were, a fallible person could NEVER recognize when God (Who is infallible) is speaking to him. But Martignoni’s view would create an infinite regress like this:
1) God speaks infallibly to person A.
2) Person A (who must be infallible to recognize it) hands down the infallible information to Person B.
3) But since infallible information is being passed on, Person B must necessarily be infallible, also… etc., etc. Thus, producing a never-ending chain of “infallible” people. But this is ridiculous.
If Martignoni were correct about this, an infallible leadership would be no good to a fallible congregation. At some point, the fallible MUST meet, and understand, the infallible. And this is, in fact, exactly what happened in history – infallible Scripture was given to fallible men (the universal church – all true believers worldwide).
John also mentions “logic” a dozen times in this particular newsletter, but ironically his conclusion here is not based on good logic, because his belief that the Catholic Church is infallible does not at all follow from his premises. Catholics start off with the assumption of the need for an infallible church. But that is neither logical nor scriptural.
He also claims that his arguments are based on common sense. We agree that common sense is certainly useful, so why can’t we simply use that common sense up front when interpreting Scripture to start with?
The bottom line is that John Martignoni does not really answer Robert’s question in a satisfactory way. Robert’s question was basically, “If Protestants can never be sure of their interpretation of Scripture because Protestants are fallible, then shouldn’t we say the same thing about Catholics, since they, too, are fallible?”
The answer to this question is yes, because we are all fallible, and we are all prone to make mistakes. No one today is infallible, individually or collectively. Only the Scriptures (God’s word) are infallible (2 Timothy 3:16-17) – that’s why it is called “Sola Scriptura.”
But John’s response to Robert’s question was basically, “We have an infallible Church to interpret for us and Protestants don’t.”
That is not true, but even if that were true, it wouldn’t help Catholics at all. If the Catholic Church is infallible, they’d have to have another infallible middle-man between the infallible Magisterium and the Catholic in the pew. But, as we pointed out above, that wouldn’t solve what Catholics see as the “problem.”
The point is, fallible interpretation of Scripture is not a problem at all, but simply a fact of life. Again, because every one of us is fallible, and if we want to approach and interpret infallible Scripture, we must use our own fallible reasoning and imperfect understanding to do so. And that goes for every person on the planet.
John Martignoni needs to quit pretending that Protestants are “reduced” to using their fallible reasoning to interpret Scripture, but that Catholics are not. Catholics are not exempt from fallible interpretation, even when it comes to trying to prove the infallibility of their Church. They appeal to Scripture, but when they do that, they must still first use their fallible reasoning to interpret those Scripture passages that they claim “prove” the Church’s infallibility. Fallible interpretation is unavoidable.
Again, the infallible must intersect with the fallible somewhere down the line. There is no need for the existence of infallible people or infallible institutions today in order for “the common man” to understand the Bible (Matthew 7:24; Mark 4:9; Luke 6:47).
Now, no one is suggesting that we can interpret Scripture just any way we want. It is possible for someone to carelessly, foolishly, or unreasonably interpret the Bible. But a fallible interpretation does not automatically mean a WRONG interpretation. There are basic hermeneutical (interpretation) principles that we use all the time, e.g., context, history, Scripture interpreting Scripture, etc. Though we are not infallible, God gives us sufficient ability to interpret and understand.
In the newsletter, John Martignoni states that he is not merely expressing his own opinion, but rather, his logic, based on “what the Church founded by Jesus Christ teaches.” But have the verses that he uses to attack Sola Scriptura been “infallibly interpreted” by the Catholic Church? No, most of them he generally uses have not. In fact, there are very, very few verses that have this exalted status.
But why are there actually so few Bible passages that are supposedly interpreted “infallibly” by the Catholic Church to become dogma? Why is there such a very tiny percentage interpreted in this way if there is such a need for it? Shouldn’t the Catholic Church have infallibly interpreted all of the Bible, or at least most of it if infallible interpretation is really that important? One has to wonder. See also this related article:
Catholics put down Protestants because of their “lack of certainty” in Bible interpretation, but you see, Catholics don’t really have the certainty that they claim to have, or would like to have. Their “infallible certainty” is simply a mirage.
So, with all the Catholic apologists attacking the “Bible Alone” doctrine today, is this the end of Sola Scriptura? Not even close. The Bible and its teachings are not merely profitable, but they are God-breathed (i.e., God-inspired) and sufficient to equip Christians for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17) and it will be so until the end of time.