Sola Scriptura: Can Rome Save Us?

Yesterday we had a discussion about Sola Scriptura, and the challenge of coming to a canon under this doctrine. And some of what we said might make people uncomfortable: that we have to rely on recognising it, something that might seem subjective and vague.

Given this, one might be tempted to say that Rome offers us a solution. We have no quick and easy way of coming up with a canon, but Rome might. Perhaps an appeal to the Tradition or Magisterium can give us not only an infallible scripture, but an infallible contents page.

This is however not the case. Putting aside all of the good reasons we have to stay on this side of the Tiber, reasons about salvation by grace alone, Rome still has no good solution.

Yes, it is true that Rome has infallibly defined a canon.  But they didn’t do this in the first century, or the second, or the third. They did it int he fifteenth. For fourteen hundred years, Christians had no infallible declaration of the canon. For fourteen hundred years, Roman Catholics (though if we are precise, I would argue that Roman Catholics haven’t existed for that long) haven’t had an infallible declaration of the canon.

Yesterday we had an important question: how can the faithful first century BC Jew know what the scriptures are? With Rome, this is exacerbated: if an infallible canon list is necessary, then how did a believing 10th century Christian know what it is? Rome doesn’t help the situation here.

But I think there is an even deeper problem here, a problem that is endemic to authority in general. No matter what our authority is (Scripture, Tradition, Magisterium), then the man of God has to be able to recognise that it is an authority. And it’s no good for that authority to tell us that they are an authority. Yesterday we avoided the accusation of circularity, but that would be circular.

Suppose that soon, the current Pope speaks ex-cathedra and says something which is heretical. Many Roman Catholics would claim that this immediately causes him to become an antipope, and he immediately anathematizes himself. Suppose that the Cardinals agree, but the Pope does not. Suppose that the Cardinals elect a new Pope. Now there are two claims.

Who are we to believe holds the authority of the Magisterium? (Permit me to simplify a bit here). Each claims to. It comes down to the individual to investigate (under the advice of wise friends and clergy) and decide who is the true Pontiff and who is not. The recognition of authority eventually always comes down to the individual, and in principle, no authority can ever get around that.

So while we may have some work to do, and perhaps some uncomfortable conclusions to accept, when it comes to the formation of the canon, we cannot appeal to Rome. Rome doesn’t make our problem any easier, or our situation any more comfortable.

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