The Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura, simply put, is the belief that the Bible, the Word of God alone is the final authority in all matters of Christian faith and practice. Where Popes or church councils have seemed to violate the plain meaning of Scripture on these matters, it is Scripture alone that has the power of veto, it does not stand side by side in authority with tradition.
The most common objection I have heard from Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox brothers to this doctrine is that it is not itself found in Scripture. Nor is the list (canon) of books that ought to count as Scripture found in Scripture. At first brush this seems rather embarrassing, if not outright contradictory. But I feel this objection has been given far more attention than it deserves, and here I will attempt a brief response.
First, a simple but all too important point must be made: There are many items of true knowledge to be found outside of the Scriptures, and we can know them. My belief that the external world exists (including the Bible I’m holding in my hands) is one such item of knowledge. But this belief, it could be argued, is found at least implicitly within Scripture. Fair enough. Another example would be the deliverances of modern Science, or of History beyond the date of the last New Testament book. The Bible is neither a Science nor a History textbook. But no one would attempt to argue that the doctrine of sola scriptura precludes Christians from engaging in and learning from these disciplines.
Likewise, I see no reason why the list of books determined to be canonical or the doctrine of sola scriptura itself cannot be such items of knowledge, arrived at by sound arguments and the use of God-given reason.
To illustrate the point, one need only study church history. In the earliest days after the Apostles, there were a few books widely accepted as Scripture (such as the letters of Clement and the Shepherd of Hermas). There was no single council convened to answer the question of which books belonged in the canon and which did not. There were several, some with slightly differing opinions than others. There were also prominent individuals who compiled their own lists (such as Athanasius, who was probably the first whose list comprised only and all of the 27 books we now call the New Testament). What is important to note about all of these is that each group or individual offered arguments on behalf of their selections. The church did not arbitrarily pick which books it liked and which it didn’t. Good reasons were given for including books like Revelation and excluding Clement and Hermas, and in the end, the best arguments won the day. And very recently, such arguments came in handy once more, as many Christians, especially Catholics, had to rebut the claims of the best selling Da Vinci Code.
If this was sufficient to convince the church at the time, why not now? Why now must infallible church authority be added to the mix in order for us to be confident that we have the right canon? Catholic and Orthodox Christians readily admit that the church never sat down and self-consciously used its belief in its own infallible authority to declare the canon into existence by fiat. So why is infallibility necessary to be confident in the reliability of the canon today? This at least seems to lead us to the conclusion that the list of books belonging in the canon need not be in Scripture itself in order for sola scriptura to be coherent.
But what of the original charge, that sola scriptura itself is not discovered by Scripture alone? Again, this objection simply misses the point. If I have good reason to believe, based on the best evidence (both historical and logical) that the Bible (in its final, canonized form) is the infallible Word of God, and moreover, if I likewise have good reason to believe, based on the best evidence, that no other earthly institution bears the mark of divine infallibility, then sola scriptura follows quite naturally. It is a deliverance of sound argument and reason, and need not be found in Scripture itself (which would be circular anyway).
As a side note, it’s worth pointing out that whatever can be said in favor of church infallibility can likewise be said in favor of the infallibility of Scripture, and whatever can be said against the doctrine of sola scriptura can likewise be said against the infallibility of the church. Consider, upon what basis does the church claim infallible authority? If the basis is on either tradition or Scripture (which is really a written derivation of tradition anyway), then the argument is circular. But if the basis is upon reason (or even faith…which are by no means opposed), then whatever can be said for church infallibility can be said for sola scriptura.
(I recognize that my Catholic and Orthodox brothers have other concerns with sola scriptura, but in this brief post I meant only to deal with this one common objection).