SOLA SCRIPTURA AND LITERACY
By Deborah Danielski
Dionysius poured red-hot iron into a mold made to represent the goddess Athena. As he worked, a familiar and almost incessant train of thought rolled through his mind. "This is the work of my hands," he thought. "How can I accept that it should have any power over me?"
The year was 210 A.D. Dionysius was a blacksmith living in a small village not far from Antioch. He had long-since rejected the religion of his culture with its gods and goddesses, but his observations of the death and rebirth of nature each year led him to believe that for man there must also be some form of life after death. So Dionysius led a good life, unselfishly loving and serving his family and neighbors. Still, he longed for knowledge of a god or gods he could truly believe in.
As Dionysius worked, a young man entered the blacksmith shop, taking note of the idol in progress. "Has anyone told you of the one true God?" the young man asked. "The creator of the heavens and earth."
Dionysius felt his heart leap within his chest. "Of which god do you speak?" he asked.
"The Jewish God, before whom there are no others," the young man responded.
Before long, he had shared with Dionysius the good news of God's incarnation in Jesus, his death on the cross in atonement for man's sins and his resurrection from the dead. "This man, Jesus, was truly God and truly man," he said. "He calls all men to come to Him for eternal life."
Intrigued by the man's story, Dionysius asked how he could learn more. "Come to our service this Sunday," the man responded. "We're a small group, but knowledgeable and devoted to Christ."
On Sunday, Dionysius walked alone to the church service. He'd decided it would be best not to involve his family until he learned for himself whether this incredible story could be true.
"God has given us His word in this Holy Bible handed down from the Jewish nation," a man standing before the group of about twenty said, waving a bound codice in the air. "These written words of the Old Testament testify to the one true God and foretell his coming in the flesh. And since His coming, we've been given these New Testament writings -- 27 more books written by the apostles of Christ. The apostles have all died now, but they left us everything we need to know for our salvation right here in the Holy Bible. Search these Scriptures, for in them you will find eternal life."
Placing the Bible on the podium in front of him, the man gestured toward it as he related more information about this god and his son. Dionysius was intrigued by the story and longed to believe, but he immediately recognized a problem. If this god is contained in these books, how can I learn the truth about him, he wondered, when I cannot read? How can I be sure the words this man is reading are truly the words written in those scrolls he so cherishes?
When the service ended, the man who'd been reading left immediately. So Dionysius explained his dilemma to another man from the audience.
"Every Sunday, we read a verse or two from the New Testament and expound upon it," the man responded. "Just come each week and listen. You'll soon learn that what we tell you is true."
So Dionysius returned to the church for the next five Sundays. During that time, the preacher told them many things, always reminding them that the so-called truths he related were contained in these sacred writings. Dionysius' doubts remained. Though the preacher frequently gesticulated toward the sacred scrolls, he rarely looked at the words. Dionysius doubted the preacher himself had the ability to read them. "If he can't read either, how can I be sure that what he's telling me is true?" he continued to ponder.
Dionysius had learned there was a group of believers in this same God meeting in Antioch, two day's journey from his home. "The only way, I can know for sure is to go to Antioch," he decided. "Perhaps the leader of that group can truly read the words from the sacred books. If his testimony agrees with the one here, then I will believe."
Friday morning, Dionysius packed a few provisions and set out on foot for Antioch. "Believe and be baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ," the preacher of this church commanded. When a young boy presented himself for baptism, however, the man blessed him but refused baptism. "You are too young, yet my son," the man said. "Come back when you are old enough to understand what it is you are doing." Dionysius immediately realized there was something wrong with this teaching. Back home, he'd seen the man who led the group baptize infants. If both groups found their truth in these sacred writings, why were their practices so different?
Dionysius stayed behind after the service to talk to the preacher about his concerns. "It is not baptism which saves you but faith in the finished work of Christ," the man said. "Baptism is just an outward sign of an inward reality. Since faith must come first, baptism must not be performed on anyone below the age of reason."
"But our church back home claims for its authority the same Scriptures you use here," Dionysius responded. "And there, infants are baptized."
"In their zeal to protect their children, they have misinterpreted the Scriptures," the man said. "See, here in the book of Acts: 'Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.' (Acts 2:38) First you must repent. A child cannot repent." Though he looked at the book in the man's hands, Dionysius, of course, had no way of knowing if the man accurately related the words it contained.
As Dionysius returned home, his confusion mounted. His sincere desire to learn the truth, however, forced him to continue his evaluation of this new religion. The following week, he made an even longer trip to the city of Palmyra to compare what was being taught there.
In Palmyra, he heard yet another version of the Gospel. " ... for if ye live after the flesh, ye must die; but if by the Spirit ye put to death the deeds of the body, ye shall live," (Rom 8:13-14) the preacher intoned. "Repentance is not a once-for-all action as some would have you believe. If you are to live and not die, you must repent and surrender to the Holy Spirit every waking moment of your life."
At the church in Antioch, Dionysius had been told that all he had to do to receive eternal life was believe in Christ and invite Him into his heart. Having done that, his salvation could never be lost, he was told. Now, this church taught a completely contradictory belief, supposedly from the exact same Scriptures."
On his way home, Dionysius prayed to the unknown God. "Do you purposely confuse me?" he asked. "What is an unlearned man such as I to do? To whom shall I turn? Must I first learn to read before I can know what you would have me to do? These men I have heard appear to be trusted by their followers, when they disagree, how is an illiterate man to choose between them?"
Receiving no answer, Dionysius abandoned his new-found hope in this unknown God and soon died -- a bitter man.
Long before you reached the end of this quite imaginative and purely fictional tale, you may have found yourself saying, "Wait a minute. That's not how it was." And you'd be right. It wasn't. It does, however, illustrate how things might have been if today's Protestant apologists were correct in their assertions about "sola scriptura." Many would have us believe this doctrine dates back to the earliest days of the Church. They use quotations taken out of context from early Church Fathers such as Athanasius and Cyril of Jerusalem to prove their assertion. A thorough reading of the writings of these early fathers of the Church proves otherwise, however, as does a reasonable look at how the doctrine would have played out in that age.
In fact, the doctrine of sola scriptura, as understood by most of it adherents, could have found little support prior to the 16th century. In addition to presupposing that we can know from Scripture alone what is and is not Scripture, belief in sola scriptura presupposes a number of other conditions not present before the Protestant revolt:
1. That everyone can read.
In the early centuries of the Church, only men who lived in major cities could read. Women and men who resided in the rural areas were not only illiterate, but generally too poor to afford the exorbitant cost of owning even one book of the Bible. How could anyone who couldn't read place their faith in "Scripture alone"?
As illogical as the doctrine of "sola scriptura" would appear to have been in the early church, it would have been even more preposterous during the Dark Ages, when even fewer people could read and fewer still could afford their own copy of the Scriptures. Is it just "coincidence" then that the invention of the doctrine of sola scriptura came right on the heels of the invention of the printing press?
As illustrated by the story above, it seems absurd to believe that at a time when few could read and fewer still knew any language other than their own, Christ would have confined to the written word a Gospel he commanded to be taught to all nations. At the very least, the illiterate would have been forced to place their faith, not in the Scriptures alone, but in the persons reading them.
In defending sola scriptura, a favorite ploy of Protestants is to accuse the Catholic Church of deliberately withholding the Scriptures from the laity by banning translations - implying such action is contrary to the Gospel. To a certain extent, what they claim is true. Their implications, however, are not.
In reaction to the Protestant revolt, the Council of Trent
(1545-1563 A.D.) asserted.
In our current culture, where the individual has been elevated to a status above the corporate Body of Christ, we Catholics are expected to recoil in horror when confronted with this quote. If instead, we compare these words to the historical evidence we now have - the birth of more than 22,000 different Protestant "churches" in fewer than 500 years -- these words from the Council of Trent seem quite prophetic indeed. Only a blatant disregard for history allows for any other conclusion.
Writing just 80 years after the beginning of the Protestant
revolt, St. Francis deSales had this to say:
In regard to "what is and is not Scripture," consider how the French 'reformers" claimed to recognize the truncated Canon they accepted. "We know these books to be canonical and a most safe rule of our faith, not so much by the common accord and consent of the Church, as by the testimony and interior persuasion of the Holy Spirit."
How did this belief play out? According to St. Francis, Luther advocated removing from the canon not only the books Protestants consider apocryphal today, but also the New Testament books of James, Jude, 2nd Peter, 2nd & 3rd John and Hebrews. Just a few short years later, Calvin came along and supported the divine inspiration of the same New Testament books Luther opposed. This very early confusion was claimed to have been inspired by the exact same spirit and had thus far to do only with which books should and should not be considered Scripture - the same Scripture upon which they claimed all faith and practice should be based. All of this occurred, even before the Scriptures had made it into the hands of the majority of individuals.
If that in itself was not enough to cause people to question the source of the "spirit" that inspired them, Luther believed in baptismal regeneration and advocated retaining the Catholic doctrine of infant baptism. Calvin, on the other hand, insisted upon "believer's baptism." Both basing their beliefs, as their followers continue to claim today, on the self-same Scriptures.
" Do you not perceive the stratagem," wrote St. Francis. "All authority is taken away from Tradition, the Church, the Councils, the Pastors: what further remains? The Scripture. The enemy is crafty. If he would tear it all away at once, he would cause an alarm; he takes away a great part of it in the very beginning, then first one piece, then the other, at last he will have you stripped entirely, without Scripture and without the Word of God."
As history attests, it took only a few hundred years for the stratagem to work. While some Evangelicals and Fundamentalists continue in the early Protestant faith, clinging obstinately to sola scripura, the majority of the populace - the modernists -- have forsaken any belief in the Scriptures at all. The louder and more insistently Protestantism kicks against he pricks (of Catholicism) and promotes individual interpretation of the Sacred Scriptures, the more irrevocably the ancient belief in their inerrancy is lost.
In addition to presupposing that everyone can read and has access to a copy of the Scriptures, the concept of Sola Scriptura demands that everyone either know how to read Greek and Hebrew, or that we believe the Holy Spirit inspired our modern translators with the same infallibility he gave to the original authors. What do you suppose St. Francis would say today, when individuals don't consider it necessary even to know "two words of Greek, and the letters of Hebrew" to interpret for themselves what the Bible "really" says?
Protestants today still hold as a black mark against Catholicism, its hesitancy to make translations into popular language readily available. That hesitancy, however, was based on sound reason.
"But I inform you," wrote St. Francis, "that the holy Council of Trent does not reject translations in the vulgar tongue printed by the authority of the Ordinaries; only it commands that we should not begin to read them without leave of superiors. This is a very reasonable precaution against putting this sharp and two-edged sword into the hands of one who might kill himself therewith."
As early as the beginning of the third century, Tertullian warned against those who would twist the sacred Scriptures for their own purposes. "This [gnostic] heresy does not receive some of the Scriptures; and if it receives some it does not receive them whole .. and what it receives in a certain sense whole, it still perverts, devising various interpretations."
In like manner, Protestants promote "various interpretations" today, not only to support their diverse doctrines, but also to support their accusations against Catholicism. "Rome cannot maintain its power and influence among people who truly know the Scriptures," Protestant apologists claim.
Losing "power and influence," has indeed been the Church's concern, but not for the reasons proposed. What She feared, rather, was that her sheep would be led astray by self-proclaimed "prophets" who take the sacred writings into their own hands and "distort [them] to their own destruction." (2nd Peter 3:16)
The danger of sola scriptura is not in its promotion of individual Scripture study. Since we all now have the ability to do so, we should read and study the Scriptures for ourselves. The danger is believing each individual has the right and the duty to interpret for themselves what the Scriptures actually teach.
"Try to harmonize, I pray you, this spirit and his persuasions, who persuades the one to reject what he persuades the other to receive," wrote St. Francis. "You will say perhaps that Luther is mistaken. He will say as much of you. Which is to be believed? Luther ridicules Ecclesiastics, he considers Job a fable. Will you oppose him your persuasion? He will oppose you his. So this spirit, divided against himself, will leave you no other conclusion except to grow thoroughly obstinate, each in his own opinion."
Can anyone deny that this is exactly what has occurred? What would previously have been considered presumption - the claim that the Holy Spirit has revealed to an individual something contrary to what He has revealed to His Church for centuries - is today considered "freedom."
"Luther's inspiration," a modern-day Lutheran recently reminded me, "came from reading these words of our Lord: 'To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said. If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free."
As long as Protestants continue to follow the example or their leaders, advocating that opposition to established authority is not presumptuous, but honorable, we will continue to see the birth of more and more "churches" and the falling away of more and more modernists
" ... here is one of the most successful artifices adopted by the enemy of Christianity and of unity in our age ... He knew the curiosity of men, and how much one esteems one's own judgment; and therefore he has induced his sectaries to translate the Holy Scriptures ... and to maintain this unheard-of opinion that everyone is capable of understanding the Scriptures.
Ignoring the disastrous result, Protestantism continues to equate "freedom" with individuality and persists in thrusting a Bible into the hands of anyone who expresses interest. "Here, decide for yourself," Sola Scriptura demands. And, like our fictional Dionysius, sincere seekers find themselves incapable of discernment. "To whom shall I turn?" they rightfully ask. Exchanging the Truth for a lie, they soon abandon the Holy Word altogether.
Just before His arrest, Christ prayed to the Father.
With nearly 500 years of 'sola scriptura" behind us, and more than 22,000 denominations to its "credit," is it any wonder so much of the world no longer believes?
1 All quotations from St. Francis deSales are taken from
"The Catholic Controversy," TAN, 1989
© 1998 Deborah Danielski, published in Catholic Faith magazine, March/April 1998.
Use this link to order St. Francis deSales "Catholic Controversy"