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Sola Scriptura and Anarchy – Clay Whitteberry


Clay is personal friend of mine and undergraduate Philosophy student. I’ve asked his permission to re-post his short essay on the issue of Sola Scriptura and how it relates to authority in the Church.


So, I’ll start this post off as I have many others. This will not be the same as the others, however. I would like to focus on one issue in particular. The shift in authorial systems the Protestant must claim, and prove, took place with the death of the Apostles.

Sola is Solo:

We’ll define Sola Scriptura as the idea that Scripture is our sole infallible authority on matters of faith and practice. This allows for secondary fallible authorities.

We’ll define Solo Scriptura as the idea that Scripture is our sole authority on matters of faith and practice. This does not allow for secondary fallible authorities, as Scripture is the sole authority altogether.

Given the definition of Sola Scriptura, these sources outside of Scripture are only binding insofar as they agree with Scripture on the issue. So, the individual checks the council to what it has declared to be true, and then checks the relevant passages of Scripture to see if the council is in agreement with Scripture on this issue. If it is, the individual “submits”. If it is not, the individual does not “submit”. Now, the reason I put “submit” in quotes like that is because the individual is not truly submitting at all. Due to the complexity of Scripture, and its need to be interpreted (All appeals to Scripture are appeals to interpretations of Scripture.), the individual is checking the council to see if its doctrinal declaration agrees with his own interpretation of Scripture. If you only submit to that which agrees with you, you are only submitting to yourself, which is to say you are not submitting at all. You are merely recognizing your agreement with a particular source’s claim.

There is no principled difference between Sola and Solo. In both situations, the Scriptures serve as the only binding authority.

Protestantism as Anarchy:

Now, from here, I have made the claim that Protestantism is an anarchistic system given the fact that Sola is Solo. Given the complexity of Scripture, and the fact the individual has no authority outside the Scriptures he must interpret, Protestantism seems to be properly labeled anarchy. However, I do not think I took this far enough. The Protestant could claim to have a unifying authority. Now, what I mean by unifying authority is not that it gears the system to unity, but rather there is a single authority they are all under. The Scriptures. This is why I spoke on the complexity of the Scriptures in my previous posts. However, there is a problem here. Yes, Scripture is a binding authority for the Protestant, but who determines what is and is not Scripture (You know what I mean given my language and the rest of this post; Nobody needs to reply “God does”)? Given the Protestant system, that there is no binding authority outside the Scriptures themselves, the individual is left to determine what is and is not Scripture. So, to claim that the Scriptures are a unifying authority is a mistake. What Scriptures? Even the determining of what exactly is authority is left to the individual.

So, we see that Protestantism is inherently and entirely anarchistic.

A Question:

This is typically where I would go into laying out various problems I see with this. Implications for unity, problems from History, and problems from Scripture. Here, I would like to focus on Scripture:

So, when looking to the Scriptures we see Christ set up a particular system of authority for His Church. Two pieces of Scripture I would like to point out here come from 2 Thessalonians and Acts 15. Assuming you all are familiar with these pieces of Scripture, I will not quote them. This is to save time and space.

In 2 Thessalonians we see Paul command the believers at Thessalonica to hold fast to the traditions they (the Apostles) have passed to them, whether it comes in written or oral form. Here, we see that the Church was given a binding written word (Scripture) and a binding oral word (Tradition). Tradition is simply teaching on faith and practice meant to be passed on.

In Acts 15 we see the Apostles, among other leaders in the Church, meet in council. The Council of Jerusalem. They met on circumcision and settled the issue dogmatically. What we see here is the leaders of the Church acting as the extraordinary magisterium of the Church in council declaring dogma. We see a structured authority for the Church, a binding magisterial head for the Church.

Church, Scripture, Tradition. This is the system claimed by both the Catholics and Orthodox. Of course, there will be differences in detail, and the Orthodox would not recognize the Papacy as defined by the Catholic Church today, but the basic structure is the same. Church, Scripture, Tradition. All binding.

As shown above, Protestantism is anarchistic. The Catholic and Orthodox Churches are most definitely not. I actually have two questions:

  • When did the shift from this, quite obviously superior authorial system, to complete anarchy take place? With the death of the Apostles? When John was still alive, was there still a system of a binding Church, Scripture, and Tradition in place? Could they still have met in council to dogmatically settle an issue of faith and/or practice? Perhaps complete anarchy became the system with the death of just a few Apostles? Maybe when there were but two or three left?
  • Why would Christ not carry this system all the way through? Why a shift to anarchy from a system that would necessarily keep His Church in one visible body? From a Church that was inherently visible, such that outside her walls there was no salvation, to a Church with no walls? One that truly represents Christ body as being both truly visible and truly spiritual, to one that only appears to be visible (Ecclesial Docetism)? From a Church that had the possibility of having a clearly defined set of dogma, a strict and set line between orthodoxy and heresy, to a Church with no possibility of such a thing? Surely the answer is not going to be, “Because the Apostles died.” The Apostles were Apostles because of the Holy Spirit. Yes, they are of a special breed given that they personally witnessed Christ, and were put in place to establish Christianity. Surely the omnipotent God could continue this system in a similar fashion, leaving the Church to be able to settle issues as they came up in Council? Surely anarchy was not a necessarily result?

Perhaps some of you Protestants can sufficiently answer these questions?

And, as always, here is the Sola/solo article if some of you have still not taken the time to read it. It should explain that portion of the argument better than I believe I am capable of:


16 comments on “Sola Scriptura and Anarchy – Clay Whitteberry

  1. Steven Hoyt
    September 22, 2015

    well written but ultimately doesn’t account for any solutions to the problems put forward. put this way:

    in talking about what is “true”, generally philosophy comes around to the conclusion after millennia of thoughts about it, that there’s not anything to say about truth but much to say about justification; “truth” is the name for “justified belief”.

    the worry of course is that we have relativity in play, perhaps, when we ask who’s criteria we’re to use, because it can’t be a “solo” affair.

    the answer there starts as you have here. however, appeals to culture and tradition are not rational grounds for justification, lest copernicus instead of galileo, newton instead of einstein. it does begin with consensus none the less.

    but what justification entails has little to do with a group of people agreeing. intersubjective agreement is a tell. the basis of the agreement lay in “reasons to assert” and that any “perfectly rational person” (one who seeks the truth and only believes the most justified assertions regardless of what they’d like to believe or are already committed to believing) would agree what is asserted is justified in the sense that it is reasonable and believable, though they may still themselves hold an alternative as “being the case”. this is the predicate, mind you, of justice systems that use a jury of one’s peers, for example.

    in this way, it isn’t group-think, traditionalism, or culture and the like that grounds some belief. it is the fact that people are not generally unique; we reason the same way, which is the only fact that makes first-order logic at all possible, and we generally feel the same ways when experiencing similar circumstances, et. al.

    having said all of that, if you find your solution in stopping where you have, you only enjoin cultural relativism in suggesting there are governors and then, anarchists because it is left “solely” to a fiated populous.

    should we go farther and as whether or not we can separate group-speak from justification in the theological sphere? if not, then there’s no real complaint to make about any pod of christianity regardless of their differing views. if so, however, then we have to accept outright there are many things one can authoritatively believe because it is found in scripture, can be expressed in many ways, seems reasonable, and importantly too, leads to the same experience of “the truth” (ie “the way”, in greek, a reality with no illusions).

    what we have to account for, and you start to here, is there may be one book, but like reality, we can say many things about it and, like reality, only come to realize that we can only speak to the models we create to understand it; the only real test being whether or not one model versus another is “paying its own way”; worth believing because it bears fruit.

    taken farther and in the language of “model dependent theory”, no matter what the asserrions are or how much they differ or even run counter to each other, when they bear fruit, it doesn’t make sense to talk about which are true because we honestly have no other means to judge what we mean by “true”, and in that case, one is free to use either, whichever is simply most convenient.

    make sense?

    • Yoshua Scribes
      September 22, 2015

      The argument is not that Protestantism is less structured and then ought not to be followed. The argument is that the underpinning worldview is problematic in light of scriptural teaching on authority, emphasis on unity and the witness and fruit of the Church prior to the reformation. It is also a worldview that starts on begged question of what counts as scripture, and ultimately puts the individual as their own formal authority. It’s not primarily a thesis about whether or not scripture is clear, or that nothing can be known from it without formal authority. Sola Scriptura teaches that the biblical view is that each person is subject to biding their own conscience by private interpretation and that no external authority can do likewise.

      The answer is not a blanket appeal to authority and tradition. But is rather a reasonable worldview which implies that such a binding authority and unbroken tradition that ought to be followed does in fact exist. One does not need to start with tradition in order to determine that tradition X is more reasonable than tradition Y (and sola Scriptura is a tradition). I’ve a blog post on this and then a lengthy conversation that I’ve had with a friend that I’ll link here in a few minutes.

      • Steven Hoyt
        September 22, 2015

        right. but that’s not at all what i’m addressing nor calling into question. what i am is calling into question the whole idea of appealing to the phrase “authority of scripture” which again by analogy like a scientist finding some or any utility in the phrase, “authority of reality”, in order to say his theory of gravity, for instance, is true because it “corresponds” to it.

        as a philosophy professor, i’m sure you realize the great abandonment of cohering, corresponding, or adherence mentalities over the matters of language, interpretation, assertion, proposition, and truth.

        i am suggesting that while i find most protestant theology in adequate, and calvinism abhorrent, i do not find any sense to suggesting catholicism is true because of tradition, and not authoritative in any sense but that people subject themselves to it … which is exactly the same authoritative sense of “being a calvinist” or “being nazarene” or “being wesleyan”; here, one is “being catholic” because one thinks catholicism best represents their expectations of christ.

        i appreciate very much the scholasticism in catholicism. were i to “become catholic”, it would indeed be because of this. but reasonable theology has nothing to do with authority. one can be an authority on catholicism or on scripture for sure, but this is because one is “being a historian” where as epistemology doesn’t care one jot for authority, just how well accepted an idea is via how well justified it is.

        perhaps we’re agreeing here, but i read your student’s article as suggestion anarchy exists because the protestant goes against the orthodox tradition. as repugnant as i find sola scriptura, if that’s his point, i can’t agree that catholicism differs in any significant sense to the protestant in that i think it is in many ways, a departure from christ. but to defend that point, we’d both have rejoinders to … “authority of scripture” and appeals to history. and so, as i said originally, don’t see your student having sufficiently resolved any of the problems he set out to resolve; the he was again, well spoken.

      • Steven Hoyt
        September 22, 2015

        hey, also, i apologize for the typos and such … i’m on my phone and at my age, i have to squint while typing and fight autocorrect constantly.

      • Yoshua Scribes
        September 22, 2015

        Ah I think I understand you more. It’s true that everyone reasons to a position and thus submits to that position/system. The question is then, what does that position say of itself? And is it adequate? I’ll copy and past an excerpt from the second link I gave you which should more or less show that I’m aware of the point you’re making. Actually my *entire* second article was about this very idea. The person in question (the second link is a convo) thought I was making an appeal to authority of sorts. Or equating reason with authority.

      • Yoshua Scribes
        September 22, 2015

        ” the *content* of the dogma to their own individual satisfaction, if they already have reasons/belief in the infallibility of the authority which gives it. So yes, we both agree reasons are necessary, but on different applications. I for one do not believe I in LFW because I’ve skilled philosophical arguments for it. But I know that Church doctrine (at least for me) doesn’t make sense without it. So as difficult as LFW is for me to grasp, as a result of dogma I affirm it. And then defend it from reason.

        It is true that in the ultimate sense, the individual chooses which system, as it were, to submit to. That’s not the question. The question becomes, how does that system operate, once the individual is committed to it? An unbeliever upon hearing the gospel and coming to faith in 36 AD, would choose to come under the authority of the Apostles and no longer live according to let’s say, their Roman morality (no more idol worship). Everyone makes the choice of ultimate commitments. Question then is what that commitment looks like.
        Thus a fair comparison would be:
        X now believes in the infallibility of Church Y. Y can make decisions Z which now bind the conscience of X, whether or not X understands Z.
        Under Sola Scriptura: A believes in the infallibility of B alone. But B can only bind the conscience of A to the degree that A understands or believes B.
        In the first scenario, the believer in submitting to the Church believes he is submitting to scripture, since there can be no dichotomy between the two in dogma. Binding power rests in the Church.
        In the second scenario, the believer in submitting to their chosen interpretation and conscience believes they are submitting to scripture. But in this system there can logically be a dichotomy between their dogma or anyone else’s contra the truth of the text. Therefore, the believer has no commitment to another body or person in binding their conscience. But is bound only to what they themselves agree on in each issue.”

      • Steven Hoyt
        September 22, 2015

        i suppose my contention is wanting to buy the cow if all i have use for is the milk? i would largely agree to the above with that one exception. i commit to being a part of a particular christian community, but i don’t advocate for any dogma; at most, being a historian of how the community gathers round it and why. for example were i catholic, i would certainly see the import communally with confession and the eucharist, but could not advocate they have any other function; i cannot believe the “other stuff” these are supposed to represent because i cannot justify believing the whole of those dogmas “are the case” … my commitment in those cases with “the other stuff” being to “truth”; believing only what i feel most justified in believing.

        but i get the gist and would in general agree; my objections just standing as a way i can better be understood.

  2. Steven Hoyt
    September 22, 2015

    i do hope that’s sufficient, by the way, though i’m neither catholic nor protestant.

    • Yoshua Scribes
      September 22, 2015

      I understand, you’re coming from a unique position. And you’re cordial. I’m happy to have you around! 🙂

      • Steven Hoyt
        September 22, 2015

        i’m not too unique; i find ibn rushd on fitrah, extended by aquinas’ natural theory and the paramount of reason to be some of the most elegant theological philosophy around.

        anyway, i’ll give your paper a read and appreciate your chatting with me.

  3. Steven Hoyt
    September 22, 2015

    on a related note, i think protestants conflate “infallible” with “inerrant” and that the catholic mistakes “infallible” with “absolute”.

    the bible of course is not inerrant. in the sense that it is infallible, we presume only that whatever was god’s intent with it, it will be done, and the same is true of an infallible pope or infallible church. mainly, that is all three become only marginally meaningful in the future, we’d have only to suggest that whatever jobs these are left doing, then we’re closer to their teleology.

    so for the holder of inerrancy, it’s foolish, and for the catholic or holder of infallibility in general, there’s a caution not to be too eager to demand we know more than we can guess, the truest sense any of what we make of popes, churches, and books are infallible because we first presume infallibility and then presume teleology of each from there. there’s no problem at all in having things in mind that it does mean, but just that we have to be humble about what we insist on.

    • Yoshua Scribes
      September 22, 2015

      I think there is much wisdom to what you’re saying. One thing Church history has taught me is that things are meaty.

      • Steven Hoyt
        September 22, 2015

        i assure, if there’s any wisdom there, it is by pure luck. =)

    • Yoshua Scribes
      September 22, 2015


      • Steven Hoyt
        September 22, 2015

        messy and meaty … there’s so much to learn and trying to sort it all out ecumenically is nearly impossible if some absolute is what we’re after.

        i will applaud loudly for the comments about protestants being way too comfortable in forming beliefs outside of catholic orthodoxy, especially when they claim to have cornered the truth. often, as has been my experience, someone offers a neat aphorism and then a whole theology evolves around it, incoherent of course. it kills me.

        i’m happy to know i’m a heretic to catholic communities, but at least i know i’m on the same page as many jesuits and not too far astray from aquinas or augustine. when a protestant tells me i’m not a christian and am a heretic or satan himself, i just giggle from the irony and double standards.

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This entry was posted on September 22, 2015 by in Theology and tagged , , , , , , .
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