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Sola Scriptura II: The Authority & Unity Problem (Why We Need Them)

I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there is quarreling among you, my brethren. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Is Christ divided? - 1 Corinthians 1:10-13

Before beginning, I do want to clarify that there are defined and undefined teachings within the Church. There are essential, and, for lack of a better term, "non-essential" teachings in relation to salvation. What I will be referring to and thinking of when speaking on necessity for unity under a single authority are those teachings which the Magisterium has defined, ratified, and declared essential, such as, but not limited to, the Sacraments, the understanding of justification and sanctification, grace, role of faith, Tradition, etc.; teachings which Protestants and Catholics could reference as foundational and crucial in understanding salvation, Christ's ministry, and His Passion, which we may have fundamental differences on. This topic of essential and non-essential deserves it's own book in all honesty, though to keep this part of the series within in a reasonable length and without needing extensive expository in each paragraph I wanted to set this piece within these parameters. I am not here to say what are or are not “essential teachings” but I believe all Christians can agree that such a thing exists.

So, in addressing Sola Scriptura, we must address the problem of varying interpretations amongst Christians and the problem of authority and disunity. If two Christians left in a room together with their Bibles and their own devices, without guidance, come to disagree on a teaching of a particular passage, who among them can declare who is correct on their interpretation of the Scriptures, assuming it is over a matter which is essential?

If two Catholics were to come to a disagreement over a doctrine which is already defined, if they were to take Christ up on His gift of the Church, they could look to the declared teachings of the Magisterium and align themselves to it and remain in union as Catholics. They have this available to them because their foundation is in the Church, the authoritative interpreter. This authority was bestowed to the Bride of Christ, by Jesus Himself, for the sake of His sheep so that they may not be tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine (Matt 16:18-19, 18:18; Acts 15; Eph 4:11-14, etc. (We will expand on this in Part 3 and Part 4)). But what can keep two Protestants unified in their faith over matters which are essential (Eph 4:13)?

Denominationalism is the greatest obstacle to Christian unity. It is also the unavoidable result of Sola Scriptura. For instance, one Protestant church may disagree with another Protestant church that is directly across the street under a different name on their beliefs of regenerative baptism and baptizing infants. Then these two churches together will disagree with the church down the road in the same neighborhood on their teachings of double-predestination. The first church mentioned may take seriously the charge of “do this in remembrance of me” and offer the Lord’s Supper weekly, whereas the other two churches will have it only two to four times a year. Then there is a fourth church in town that is led by a charismatic pastor who preaches on abundance, prosperity, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and leads his congregation to believe that the other three Protestant churches in the neighborhood are too liturgical and put God in a box. Is this how Christ intended for His Church to look? How can a dismembered Body do His work efficiently? And who can say which of them is correct?

Denominationalism in itself proves the importance of needing an authoritative and unifying interpreter. We can see this within Scripture with St. Philip and the Ethiopian in Acts 8:30-31. Philip is called to take a certain road southbound by which he comes across the eunuch reading from the prophet Isaiah, and he asks:

“Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.

There is vast importance in this passage, especially in its mere inclusion within St. Luke’s recording of the Acts of the Apostles. If the eunuch were a follower of Martin Luther’s Sola Scriptura there is absolutely no valid reason why he should adhere to any of St. Philip’s explanations on the Book of Isaiah. By whose authority does Philip interpret for him? If you say he is operating under the authority of Christ, or perhaps the authority of the Apostles by proxy, then you are admitting that authority can be bestowed, was bestowed on the Apostles, and that said authority given to the Apostles by Christ can be passed down onto others (this will be expanded upon in Part 3 and Part 4)

Of course one could argue that God led and told Philip to go to the eunuch, therefore the eunuch’s heart was already predisposed by the grace of God to hear the true explanation of Isaiah in light of Christ’s life and Passion; however that would seem to disprove denominationalism even further. That would be an argument for there being one true interpretation for Scripture, and therefore a confession that there are denominations, or perhaps aspects of denominations, which have interpreted wrongly, seeing how they differ on so many teachings.

You could also argue that God, by the Holy Spirit, worked through Philip to reach the Ethiopian, bypassing any hierarchy which may or may not be there, using Philip as a lone instrument outside the confines of a visible Church. That is an understandable approach, however, it does not refute the fact that God wished and willed for the eunuch to know and understand the true and fulfilled reading of the prophet Isaiah, and thus still gives credence to the fact that there is only one true way to interpret Holy Scripture. And the Lord accomplished this through a member of the leaders of the Early Church that the Apostles laid hands on (Acts 6: 5-6).

If the eunuch held to Luther's Sola, rather than submitting his understanding to that of St. Philip, he most likely would have lived an unfulfilled life outside of Christ and would not have been baptized. Had the eunuch not had this man of God at his side, he would have interpreted wrongly, or at least insufficiently. It is because of St Philip (being a representative of the Church who was commissioned by the Apostles, who were in turn commissioned by Christ) and his guidance on Scripture that the eunuch came to be baptized and believe in Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Pope Peter himself, in his second epistle, warns his intended audience on the difficulty of reading and understanding the Scriptures, and also on the writings of St. Paul and self-interpretation:

First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God. – 2 Peter 1:20-21

And then two chapters later:

So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, beware lest you be carried away with the error of lawless men and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. - 2 Peter 3:15-18

These two passages written by Peter lead us to see that there were problems of differing interpretations causing dissension amongst early Christians that required addressing. It also shows that there are indeed right and wrong ways to interpret, giving credence to there being one true interpretation. This, along with St. Paul's call for unity in 1 Corinthians should show us the priority and emphasis put on communion within the Faith by the Apostles.

I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there is quarreling among you, my brethren. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Is Christ divided?

- 1 Corinthians 1:10-13

These two faithful followers of Christ are pleading with those who are Christians to live in the manner that Christ prayed for in John 17:20-23:

“I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me."

Are all of these pleas for unity to be ignored?


Dr. Mark Ward, a Protestant Christian and writer for The Logos Blog, in his piece Why Do So Many Christians Disagree over the Bible while addressing Jesus' teachings around divorce states:

Jesus held people morally responsible for their hermeneutics, for their reading practices—particularly people who had reason to know what they were doing. And we know this because of the way he answered the Pharisees several times. He would say, “Have you not read . . . ?”
And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, ‘Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?’ He answered, ‘Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”?’ (Matthew 19:3–5 ESV)
Genesis 1 and 2, the passages Jesus cites, don’t mention divorce at all. But Jesus expected his hearers to draw the appropriate lessons about divorce from them. Jesus held God’s people responsible for not coming to the right conclusion, because he says at the end of the paragraph that whoever violates the implications of Genesis 1 and 2 “commits adultery” (Matt 19:9). And notice that Jesus didn’t say, “Have you not reasoned?” but “Have you not read?” It’s not necessarily that one set of interpreters is sinning—though that is a possibility that must not be discounted (2 Pet 3:16). It’s not even that any Christian can know with 100% certainty in this life which interpretation or application of the Bible’s divorce passages is correct—even though sometimes we simply must make a decision which assumes that our interpretation of a passage is right. (You’re either going to perform a remarriage for a divorced man or you’re going to refuse. There’s no third way.)
No, the doctrine claims that the scriptural statements about divorce are sufficiently clear for “teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). You have access through the Bible to God’s will for you on the issue of divorce. Jesus will have the right to hold us all morally responsible for our interpretations of divorce passages. Preachers and teachers will be held more responsible than the rest of the church (James 3:1); everyone with more gifts and opportunities will be held more responsible (Luke 12:48; Heb 13:17). That’s why Jesus’ harshest denunciations were always against the Pharisees and other teachers of the law (Mark 7:9–13). But the average Christian can’t let himself off the moral hook by blaming bad teaching: Jesus can say to him, “Have you not read?”

What a terrifying reality for someone who follows this particular teaching of Martin Luther; that you may be sinning against God with your interpretation and by living out that interpretation. Yet you also do not have a way to fully know if you are correct or perhaps even sinning/offending God by your interpretation. How is this the true way intended by Christ? Is the Christian life truly meant to be so ambiguous on Truth?

If you deny there is an authority to lead us in the Truth, by whose authority can you declare that there is no authority? Continuing with that thought, if you declare that there is not an authority which can define a particular interpretation as binding for all Christians then you are stating this by your own authority and thus defeating your own argument. If you state that Tradition is not biblical nor necessary, however you also encounter Christians with whom you disagree with on certain doctrinal teachings, you will be appealing to the tradition of interpretation that you inherited from teachers and pastors to formulate your points against them; you are adhering to your own traditions of interpretation, your own hermeneutics, declaring yourself authoritative and thus defeating your own argument.

To better understand the importance and weight behind correct interpretation from a different perspective, let us also look to a simple English sentence:

I did not say you stole money from me

It seems simple enough, but can you verify with 100% certainty what this sentence means? To explain what I mean let us look at it again from a few different perspectives:

I did not say you stole money from me

I did not say you stole money from me

I did not say you stole money from me

I did not say you stole money from me

I did not say you stole money from me

I did not say you stole money from me

What seemed to be a simple and straightforward sentence to you in one particular way, may be read differently by someone else and they may come away with a completely opposing view. Keep in mind there were six different ways to read this sentence that was written in our own vernacular. One could say: But what is the context? The context matters!

That is true. Context is important, but how much weight will that context actually carry when we also will disagree on said context because of reading from different perspectives? All Christians have their own tradition of hermeneutics and it affects deeply how they read Scripture. There must be, and can only be, one true interpretation. But who can declare which perspective is true? No one under Sola Scriptura is able to do so.

A follower of Sola Scriptura reading Scripture at face value should see that:

  1. There must be unity in interpretation and teachings

  2. There is one true interpretation

  3. We can't interpret for ourselves because there are wrong ways to interpret

  4. We should not be divided and have dissension among ourselves as Christians

  5. Scripture does not declare itself the ultimate infallible authority for all Christians

This is what Scripture shows us. And with this in mind, the question that should then persist in our minds and hearts is: how can we achieve Christian unity?

The Answer: The Catholic Church

Continuation can be found in Sola Scriptura III: The Case for Peter, apart of a four part series on Sola Scriptura

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