Sola Scriptura is the essential component of Protestant theology. Jacob Andreae (ca. 1570 a. D.) defines sola Scriptura as follows:
“We believe, teach, and confess that the only rule and guiding principle according to which all teachings and teachers are to be evaluated and judged are the prophetic and apostolic writings of the Old and New Testaments alone […] Other writings of ancient or contemporary teachers, whatever their names may be, shall not be regarded as equal to Holy Scripture, but all of them together shall be subjected to it…”
Followers of sola Scriptura declare that the Bible alone is sufficient to determine Christian faith and life. This belief developed in an adversarial form predicated on the false premise that certain Christian teachings and practices common during the Middle Ages did not have a biblical foundation but rather developed as a result of a corruption of the real and ancient faith received from Christ and the apostles. The German Reformation and many other Protestant movements that followed claim that the Bible — and only the Bible — is a reliable source of information for sincere Christians that want to practice the true faith of Christ.
Regardless of the sincerity of those who grew up Protestant and order their lives to what they believe to be sound biblical principles, this particular theology is faulty. Five hundred years after Luther’s rebellion, it is easy to see that the human doctrine of sola Scriptura is the main reason why there are thousands of Protestant denominations and sects, and why some of them are home to individuals whose interpretations and beliefs differ even among themselves.
The first thing we must consider is: What is the authority behind this teaching? In all truth any person using the Bible to critique or deny the teaching of the Catholic Church has to rely on the very authority of the Catholic Church. Why? Because the Bible is a Catholic book. The Old Testament was received by the Church from the Jews who faithfully preserved it since antiquity. But the New Testament is a collection of Christian writings collected, preserved, and eventually sanctioned as divinely inspired by the authority of several synods and councils of the Catholic Church.
Some believe to have the right to personally interpret those things that they obviously know rather imperfectly. In doing so they position themselves outside of the ecclesial tradition trying to turn the sense of the Scriptures against the millennial life and practice of the Church. That is exactly what Satan, the enemy of God, does when he tempts Christ using the Old Testament in Matthew 4:1-11. It is unreasonable and audacious to believe that the Christian tradition of twenty centuries is wrong and then someone has finally figured out the way to set things straight.
Speaking to the Church Jesus said very clearly: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” John 16:13 RSVCE. To believe that error has entered the doctrine of the Church is also to believe that Jesus and the Holy Spirit have failed to keep this important promise.
This manner of interpretation is absolute and literal. It usually happens that Protestant objections to the millenary Catholic practice of the faith reduce the sense of Scripture to a literal interpretation that is convenient to advance the heterodox argument. Let us take for example the common Protestant objection to the Catholic use of images in religious practice.
Exodus 20:4 — “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.”
For a person reading this for the first time, this may appear as a straightforward instruction. To make it even clearer this is one of the Ten Commandments. Fortunately we do not have to follow written instructions by ourselves. Please do not burn your photo albums, dispose of all figurative art, shred all holy cards, etc. Let us see how that commandment is practiced in the Church.
For any theological construct to be valid it has to be consistent with itself and with Holy Scripture. What happens if this adversarial use of literal interpretation is applied consistently to all Scripture, especially to Christ words?
Matthew 18: 9 — “And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.” NIV
Luke 14: 27 — “And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” NIV
Luke 9: 60 — Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” NIV
If we take these words of Our Lord literally and interpret them consistently there would be many Christians missing an eye. We should also carry a Roman cross all day long, and there would be no Christian burial grounds. Obviously those words are directed to a community of followers (the Church) that is knowledgeable of the language and metaphors used by Jesus and even has some dexterity understanding his parables: to “cut off a limb” or “gouge out an eye” is to renounce to the illicit pleasures of this world; to “carry the cross” is to accept the suffering attached to the Christian way of life; those who do not follow Christ are spiritually dead people; etc. The community and later the Church share with Christ (and with those past and future members of the community) a familiar language, a manner of understanding things.
This Protestant problem with consistency becomes evident when considering the Eucharistic verse:
John 6: 53 — So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves.”
Some Protestants opposed to traditional Catholic Eucharistic beliefs change hats at this point and dispose of any literal interpretation to affirm that Christ must be talking symbolically. The problem with this inconsistency is that the interpreters must become absolute judges of what is literal and what is symbolic. In all truth they have been tempted adroitly by the enemy of God and now they are usurping the authority that God Himself placed upon His Church to interpret and guide the life of the Christian community.
The amateur interpreters now blinded by this devilishly clever trick end up opposing God and His people. The devil has convinced them that their mission is urgent and holy! Now they go to preach his doctrine of confusion and darkness to other souls. It all began when they failed to trust in the promise of Christ to keep His Church free of doctrinal error by means of the Holy Spirit. It is easy to see the grave sin they have been led to commit.
Historical context — One example
For the Hebrews in ancient times, and for us in our time the written Law of God is a “tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith.” (Galatians 3:24) not an inflexible ruler that limits us to the strict letter of the Law. “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2Timothy 3:16) but it does not contain all the information that the community of the faithful believes and practices. The Church keeps the doctrine of the faith:
“ if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.” (1Timothy 3:15)
Never in the ancient Covenant with Israel, never in the New Covenant were the practices of the community reduced to a book but it was inherited by the wise men that “tie and untie” reasoning the Law as demanded by the living experience of the people of God. Both the written word and the lives of the faithful must be consistent. One cannot contradict the other. And yet the Law does not contain every liturgical detail, every legal decision, or every practical application. To determine those things there’s the “Chair of Moses” mentioned by Christ in Matthew 23, 2-4;
“The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” ‘
Christ clearly points at the good instructions that come from those who are erudite enough to study the Law but he also notices that they are human. Even when their decisions are guided by the Law, their way of life may not perfectly reflect the wisdom of God. Christ reminds us that the Law operates within the context of original sin. We are “unjust judges” and personal individual perfection is not achievable for us. What we can achieve is to live in the community of faith helping each other to live the Law. That is why Israel is a “holy nation” set aside for God and the Law.
The Church is also a holy community set aside by God to inherit the same mission. The Church keeps those things that God has sanctified: Holy Scripture, Holy Liturgy, and Holy Tradition. Those things are too great to be trusted to the interpretation of one man reading a book. Even today insolent daring groups are tempted to violate God’s Law even among bishops and cardinals just as it happened before with Scribes and Pharisees who failed to read the Scriptures properly later committing the greatest crime in history. How could we possibly affirm that one man by the simple device of reading Scripture can deduct the whole practice of Christian life, as it is acceptable to God! The Church, under God’s direction is the community that will act as “pillar and foundation of the truth” keeping what has been revealed by God in her. There is simply no other way.
Neither the Jews nor the Christians ever guided themselves exclusively by a book to determine formal liturgy, for example. The Hebrews did not keep in writing every detail of the Levitical duties, although those are sometimes described in the Bible in a general way. It is impossible to reconstruct the liturgical duties of the Levites from the text of the Mosaic Law. Let us take for example the most important celebration of the Day of Atonement:
What is the work of each priest during Yom Kippur? How many of them should participate? Where do they stand? What do they sing? How should they dress? It is true that are details here and there in the Old Testament but isn’t it true that if we have to reconstruct all of it using only the Bible we would lack enough precise information? One could try to figure out a way that somewhat coincides with the biblical record but it will still be guesswork and — at every turn, in every guess — we could be very wrong just as those who leave the Church are wrong when they build a “church” according to their own best understanding of what the Christian faith should be.
Christianity is not limited to a book of instructions; it is a way of life. My father did not write a book with fixed instructions on how I should be his son; there is no detailed written instruction on how to be a good American, or a good Mexican, or a good Britton, etc. In the same manner there is not one book with instructions about how a Christian should be and how to build a Christian community. It is in our family life where we learn to be sons, and it is in the ecclesial community where we learn to be Christians. Again, check 1Timothy 3,15.
Sacred Tradition is the equivalent of family life where each generation of Christians learns from the preceding generation because they live together in the Church under God’s guidance and care just as He promised it. Otherwise there is no way to avoid fracture and schism. We clearly see that in the history of Protestant ecclesial groups. After five centuries of “reformation” each new splinter has its own final and absolute “free interpretation”, each man his own pope, each one his own god. All of them working hard at their own spiritual destruction and the destruction of other souls that follow that version of “the truth.”
 The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, eds. Robert Kolb and Timothy Wengert (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2000) p. 486.