It is often asserted that sola Scriptura devolves into rank individualism. Once the right to judge Church tradition by Scripture is given to individuals, rampant doctrinal confusion is the inevitable result. This criticism, however, is often based on a fallacious conflation of a post-Enlightenment individualism imbued in some modern Evangelicals and the doctrine of the Magisterial Reformers and their intellectual successors. Credible attempts to critique the doctrine of sola Scriptura must first aim to properly represent it.
(This post contains some extended quotations. For those with limited time, I have done my best to highlight their essential content through bolding.)
Asserting the Fallibility of Councils Produces a Regular Objection
Anticipating the Reformed approach to church councils, Calvin argues in the Institutes that councils are not infallible (and, therefore, to be judged by the higher standard of Scripture). Calvin summarizes his position as follows:
Wherefore, we cannot on any account admit that the Church consists in a meeting of pastors [at a council], as to whom the Lord has nowhere promised that they would always be good, but has sometimes foretold that they would be wicked. When he warns us of danger, it is to make us use greater caution.1
I suspect, however, that the articulation of this position in other contexts had produced a regular objection from Catholics—that this kind of judgment reduces to rank individualism. Perhaps that is why Calvin immediately proceeds to write (bold mine):
What, then, you will say, is there no authority in the definitions of councils? Yes, indeed; for I do not contend that all councils are to be condemned, and all their acts rescinded, or, as it is said, made one complete erasure. But you are bringing them all (it will be said) under subordination, and so leaving every one at liberty to receive or reject the decrees of councils as he pleases. By no means; but whenever the decree of a council is produced, the first thing I would wish to be done is, to examine at what time it was held, on what occasion, with what intention, and who were present at it; next I would bring the subject discussed to the standard of Scripture. And this I would do in such a way that the decision of the council should have its weight, and be regarded in the light of a prior judgment, yet not so as to prevent the application of test which I have mentioned. I wish all had observed the method which Augustine prescribes in his Third Book against Maximinus, when he wished to silence the cavils of this heretic against the decrees of councils, "I ought not to oppose the Council of Nice to you, nor ought you to oppose that of Ariminum to me, as prejudging the question. I am not bound by the authority of the latter, nor you by that of the former. Let thing contend with thing, cause with cause, reason with reason, on the authority of Scripture, an authority not peculiar to either, but common to all." In this way, councils would be duly respected, and yet the highest place would be given to Scripture, everything being brought to it as a test. Thus those ancient Councils of Nice, Constantinople, the first of Ephesus, Chalcedon, and the like, which were held for refuting errors, we willingly embrace, and reverence as sacred, in so far as relates to doctrines of faith, for they contain nothing but the pure and genuine interpretation of Scripture, which the holy Fathers with spiritual prudence adopted to crush the enemies of religion who had then arisen. In some later councils, also, we see displayed a true zeal for religion, and moreover unequivocal marks of genius, learning, and prudence. But as matters usually become worse and worse, it is easy to see in more modern councils how much the Church gradually degenerated from the purity of that golden age.2
The Charge of Individualism Today
The substance of the objection Calvin addressed has not changed since the Reformation; only its form has been altered. Take two modern examples by Catholic apologists who assert that the right to judge the merits of tradition through Scriptural interpretation (which is the broader issue through which councils act as a particular lens) reduces to rank individualism (bolding mine):
The most scandalous fruit of Luther's linear lie has been the ballooning of over thirty-three thousand different Protestant denominations, as the due result of private interpretations apart from the true teachings of the Magisterium. The reason why there are over three-three [sic] thousand different denominations is because definitive and authoritative truths cannot be known through sola-scriptura.
The first fruit of sola-scriptura is not denominations or division, but is actually Christian relativism. Because sola-scriptura empowers its adherents to discover the truth according to their own light, the truth of sacred Scripture remains elusive to them and it proves to be the gateway to Christian secularism and the rejection of the authority of sacred Scripture all together. This is not hyperbolic rhetoric; the proof is [sic] these statements are all around us.
It is an odd thing indeed to suggest that a Christian can be guilty of being a relativist or an individualist, but such is the case in the Protestant religion, which is the seed of the so-called 'age of enlightenment'...it is their praxis [i.e. the natural outworking of their theological position, as opposed to their stated position] of sola-scriptura that Protestants hold that the definitive truth of God is unknowable.
In individualism, the human person exists as an isolated individual who has himself as his own moral arbiter and who enters into relationship with others only if he so chooses. Sola-scriptura inevitably leads to Individualism because through Scripture-alone each Christian can arrive at his or her own interpretation of the truth, relative to themselves. Sola-scriptura does not require a prayerful community effort.3
Sadly, for the last 2,000 years, many have followed that tragic course of ignoring the teaching authority of the Church. Notice also that Christ shows the Church as being the court of final appeal, the last resort, the place whence the final decision on an issue would emanate. This clearly shows that the Church was established with a teaching authority that supersedes that of the individual. And Christ did not arrange things in such a way to hinder or "straightjacket" the individual believer, but to protect him from the dangers of heresy, disunity, and sin. By establishing the Church's Magisterium as the "court of final appeal" on doctrinal issues, and endowing the Magisterium with his own authority to preach and teach in his name (cf. Luke 10:16), believers are safeguarded from the theological and moral vagaries that arise when the principle of "private interpretation" of Scripture and Tradition (i.e., when dissociated from Church teaching) are put into play.4
A Respect for Councils and a Community-Oriented Approach to Doctrinal Truth
As with a number of Catholic objections to Protestantism, these only seem applicable to those Protestants who reject all tradition and/or hold to the post-Enlightenment value of the supreme autonomy of the individual to determine his own beliefs and identity. But that isn't what Calvin promoted, and neither is it what the modern children of the Reformation promote; these kinds of arguments fail to address the positions put forward by the confessional Protestantism born out of the Magisterial Reformation. Consider how irreconcilable these criticisms are with the following perspectives:
A. Here is another excerpt from Calvin:
Having proved that no power was given to the Church to set up any new doctrine, let us now treat of the power attributed to them in the interpretation of Scripture. We readily admit, that when any doctrine is brought under discussion, there is not a better or surer remedy than for a council of true bishops to meet and discuss the controverted point. There will be much more weight in a decision of this kind, to which the pastors of churches have agreed in common after invoking the Spirit of Christ, than if each, adopting it for himself, should deliver it to his people, or a few individuals should meet in private and decide.5
B. I've previously discussed how Berkhof describes Scriptural interpretation as a community-oriented task. I'd like to add the following with respect to the validity of councils:
The Roman Catholic Church ascribes to its dogmas absolute authority, not only because they are revealed truths, but even more particularly because they are infallibly apprehended and proposed by the Church for the belief of the faithful...
The Churches of the Reformation broke with this view. While they maintain that a doctrine does not become a dogma, and does not acquire ecclesiastical authority, until it is officially defined and accepted by the Church, they ascribe authority to it only because, and in so far as, it is founded on the Word of God. Their view of the matter can perhaps be best stated as follows. Materially (that is, as to contents) dogmas derive their authority exclusively from the infallible Word of God, but formally (as to form) they derive it from the Church...Church proclamation is an approximation to the original revelation, and not a perfect reproduction of it; but in so far as it does agree with it and is therefore really God speaking to sinners in the present, it is clothed with divine authority. The dogmas so conceived should be distinguished from the dogmas (plural), in which it is not God who speaks, but the Church, and which for that reason have only relative authority.6
C. Consider Whitaker's remarks:
We do not say that each individual should acquiesce in that interpretation which his own private spirit frames and dictates to him; for this would be to open a door to fanatical tempers and spirits: but we say that that Spirit should be the judge, who speaks openly and expressly in the scriptures, and whom all may hear; by him we desire that all other spirits, that is, all doctrines, (for so the word is to be taken in this place,) should be examined. We recognise no public judge save scripture, and the Spirit teaching us in scripture: yet this man speaks as if we made the spirit within the judge of others; which should never be done. For we are not so mad or foolish as to deal thus: You ought to acquiesce in this doctrine, because my spirit judges it to be true; but we say, You should receive this doctrine because the Holy Spirit in the scriptures hath taught us thus to think and to believe...For we allow that it is a highly convenient way of finding the true sense of scripture, for devout and learned men to assemble, examine the cause diligently, and investigate the truth; yet with this proviso, that they govern their decision wholly by the scriptures. Such a proceeding we, for our parts, have long wished for; for it is attended with a twofold advantage: first, that what is sought by many is found the more readily; second, that errors, and heretics the patrons of errors, are the more easily repressed, when they are condemned by the common consent and judgment of a great number.7
D. Consider the WCF as well:
For the better government, and further edification of the Church, there ought to be such assemblies as are commonly called synods or councils.
As magistrates may lawfully call a synod of ministers, and other fit persons, to consult and advise with, about matters of religion; so, if magistrates be open enemies to the Church, the ministers of Christ, of themselves, by virtue of their office, or they, with other fit persons upon delegation from their Churches, may meet together in such assemblies.
It belongs to synods and councils, ministerially to determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience; to set down rules and directions for the better ordering of the public worship of God, and government of his Church; to receive complaints in cases of maladministration, and authoritatively to determine the same; which decrees and determinations, if consonant to the Word of God, are to be received with reverence and submission; not only for their agreement with the Word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God appointed thereunto in His Word.8
E. And, finally, Mathison:
Instead of being defined as the sole infallible authority, the Bible is said to be the “sole basis of authority” Tradition is not allowed in any sense; the ecumenical creeds are virtually dismissed; and the Church is denied any real authority. On the surface it would seem that this modern Evangelical doctrine would have nothing in common with the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox doctrines of authority. But despite the very real differences, the modern Evangelical position shares one major flaw with both the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox positions. Each results in autonomy. Each results in final authority being placed somewhere other than God and His Word. Unlike the Roman Catholic position and the Eastern Orthodox position, however, which invariably result in the autonomy of the Church, the modern Evangelical position inevitably results in the autonomy of the individual believer.
The Bible nowhere gives any hint of wanting every individual believer to decide for himself and by himself what is and is not the true meaning of Scripture. The classical Reformed doctrine of sola scriptura meant that Scripture is the sole final and infallible authority. It does not mean that the lone individual is the one to determine what that Scripture means. Scripture was given to the Church within a certain pre-existing doctrinal context that had been preached by the Apostles for decades. Solo scriptura denies the necessity of that context, and it denies the necessity of that Church. In doing so it denies Christ who established that Church and who taught that doctrine to His disciples. It is rebellion in the name of God against the authority of God for the sake of preserving the authority of man.9
When Roman Catholic apologists produce this dichotomy between rank individualism and the authority of the Magisterium, they assert a false dilemma. Reformed Protestants do not promote the authority of the individual to decide matters of doctrine in the same manner secular society promotes individualism. Rather, they stake out a position in which the Church still has real and functional authority. Subordinating the Church to Scripture is not the same as subordinating the Church to rank individualism, and rejecting the Roman Catholic view of authority does not entail a rejection of all authority outside of the individual.
Perhaps a detailed argument could be made that even the more sophisticated and nuanced version of sola Scriptura entails radical individualism. But I'm not aware of what a successful version of that argument would look like.
And, of course, even if there are proposed arguments like this, the critical problem is how little sola Scriptura is properly engaged in published literature or distinguished between the approach used by some radically individualistic Evangelical Protestants.10 This is neither honest nor intelligent, and deserves to be dismissed for what it is.
1. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV.9.7. Supporting arguments are developed (rather well) in the previous sections of the chapter.
2. Ibid., IV.9.8.
3. David, L. Gray, Dead on Arrival: The Seven Fatal Errors of Sola-Scriptura, Vol. I, (Xenia, Ohio: Erehmai Uoyevoli, 2010), 75-77.
4. Patrick Madrid, Where is That In the Bible? (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 2001), 20-21.
5. Calvin, Institutes, IV.9.13
6. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, New Combined Edition (Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 1996), 25.
7. William Whitaker, Disputations on Holy Scripture (Cambridge: Parker Society, 1894; reprint, Orlando: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 2005), 433-434.
8. Westminster Confession of Faith, XXXI/i-iii.
9. Keith Mathison, "A Critique of the Evangelical Doctrine of Solo Scriptura." http://www.the-highway.com/Sola_Scriptura_Mathison.html (accessed 8/13/10).
10. I haven't kept up with all of the most recent literature, so it's possible the polemical landscape has changed in recent years to reflect a more nuanced approach to sola Scriptura. My experience in both reading Roman Catholic literature and engaging the fruits of the teachings of popular Catholic apologetic ministries and resources (via discussions on blogs, online boards, in person, etc.) strongly suggests otherwise. However, it is an area in which I hope my conclusions turn out to be false; it would be much better to have a proper representation of sola Scriptura in discussions of the subject.