Whose truth is the real truth, and how can we know?

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… or does Sola Scriptura work?

When Christians study the Bible and reach different conclusions, how can they figure out which conclusion is the correct one? Is there a way to know that one is right, apart from the conviction that the Holy Spirit has led one in one’s study of the Bible?

Hebrew Bible

Hebrew Bible

When someone has a different interpretation of the Bible to ours, how do we know the Holy Spirit has led us, and not them? How can we be sure that we are right? Or is there a possibility that we’re wrong?

Let us take, for example, the case of Antony, an Adventist, and Patrick, a Presbyterian. Antony has studied the Bible, and believes that infant baptism is wrong, but Patrick has studied the Bible too, and believes that infant baptism is right.

Both are Christians with genuine faith, both prayed for guidance, both studied the Bible diligently, but they came to opposite conclusions.

So I ask them, how do you know you’re right. Each one says they know because they feel the Holy Spirit has led them to their respective understandings, because they studied the Bible and prayed about it.

Let’s put them in the same room and get each of them to try to persuade the other. Out come the Bibles, and they show each other their evidence. Neither is convinced. Out come the website links arguing each case. Out come the references to scholars who have also prayed, studied the Bible, and read the original Hebrew and Greek.

Neither is convinced. Each thinks that the Holy Spirit must have led them, because to them, their conclusions are so obvious from the pages of Scripture. Antony looks at Scripture and concludes that it says that infants should not be baptised, while Patrick looks at Scripture and concludes that it says infants can be baptised.

To what authority can Antony and Patrick turn to resolve their differences? Both might say that the only authority is the Bible and the Holy Spirit (actually two authorities.) But we’ve done that, and the Bible doesn’t say “Antony is right and Patrick is wrong” anywhere, and the Holy Spirit has not intervened by appearing and stating which is correct. For Antony and Patrick, there seems to be only the subjective sense that the Holy Spirit has guided them to understand the Bible correctly. Is there an objective arbiter we can turn to?

One might suggest their pastors. But their pastors have the same authority as each other, and so we end up with Antony and a pastor against Patrick and a pastor.

Antony might turn to Ellen White or the 28 Fundamental Beliefs, the official creed of the Adventist church, while Patrick might turn to the Westminster Confession of Faith, a major doctrinal standard of the Reformed Churches.

This is where things get a bit more subtle, and the distinction between Sola Scriptura, Prima Scriptura, and Solo Scriptura comes in. The Reformers came up with the concept of Sola Scriptura, basically meaning that the Bible contains all the knowledge we need for salvation and following God correctly. Sola Scriptura is a sort of middle ground between Prima Scriptura and Solo Scriptura. Solo Scriptura teaches that the Bible alone, without history or tradition, is our only source of truth. Prima Scriptura teaches that the Bible, along with tradition and reason, supply that truth, but the Bible has primacy over the others. Protestant churches are divided into these three camps, but typically most Protestants don’t realise the distinction, and most likely Antony and possibly Patrick fall into the camp of Solo Scriptura – the Bible alone without reference to apostolic tradition and ecumenical councils like the Councils of Nicaea in 325 AD and 787 AD.

Where does the idea of Sola/Solo Scriptura come from? In short, from this passage:

All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works. – 2 Timothy 3:16-17 (KJV)

There are multiple problems with interpreting this verse in this way, which I will briefly summarise in a footnote.*

Still life with Bible, Vincent van Gogh

Still life with Bible, Vincent van Gogh

So what are the implications of the three variants of Sola Scriptura for Antony and Patrick?

Solo Scriptura – at first glance, the Bible alone sounds good. But the problem is that the Bible doesn’t provide a list of correct interpretations of what it says. One can use one passage from the Bible to interpret another passage of Scripture, but what about in the case of Antony and Patrick? All they can do is go back and forth quoting different passages of the Bible to each other, with no objective authority other than themselves to arbitrate and inform them as to who is right.

Sola Scriptura and Prima Scriptura – the problem here lies with the nature of any extra-biblical authority that Antony or Patrick turn to. Both will probably trust their own pastors, but not each other’s. Antony may recognise Ellen White as an authority to guide interpretation of Scripture, but Paul won’t. Paul may refer to Luther and Calvin who both supported infant baptism, but Antony won’t accept that because he feels his church has more revealed light than the original reformers had, as he thinks they had not completely come out of Babylon, although he thinks they had made good progress.

And there we get to the crux of the matter. Whichever authority either Antony or Patrick turns to, the other is free to reject, because he feels his interpretation of Scripture is more in line with Scripture itself. Antony will reject any authority that disagrees with him. Patrick is probably more Sola than Solo Scriptura, and will respect many Christian authorities as being guided by the Holy Spirit, but ultimately, if pressed, he would probably reject these authorities.

Most Adventists believe in the Trinity, that God is three persons in one being – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Some Adventists don’t believe in the Trinity, however (see Early Adventists’ Struggle with the Truth about the Trinity). Antony has a cousin, Alan, who is also Adventist. Unlike Antony, Alan has recently come to reject the doctrine of the Trinity. Let’s put Alan into the same room as Antony and Patrick.

The topic of discussion changes to the Trinity. Antony was under the impression that the Trinity was found in the Bible. Patrick points out that this is correct, but not explicitly so. He says the teaching is found in the Bible but through proper interpretation, it can be explained. Alan disagrees, and says his interpretation is different – the Holy Spirit is just a force, and the Father and the Son are two separate beings. Patrick points out that early in Christian history, Christian leaders got together and debated and finally confirmed that the Trinity is official Christian doctrine. He says the Holy Spirit led them to this conclusion at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. Alan disagrees, and says that Patrick is following the traditions of men, that the Council of Nicaea had no authority from the Holy Spirit, and Christianity had already been corrupted by then. He says he used to accept the Trinity, but then he studied the Bible with an Armstrongite friend and decided it was wrong. Antony now sides with Patrick, and says that his study of the Bible has led him to believe in the Trinity.

What now?

Patrick respected the authority of the Christian leaders gathered together 1700 years ago, much like in Acts 15. But he realised that Alan is right – there is no authority that requires him to do so. At any point his study of the Bible could lead to a disagreement between his interpretation and the historical interpretation of the rest of Christianity. There was no biblical reason that keeps him bound to the Westminster Confession, or to the Council of Nicaea. There was not even a biblical reason to keep him bound to the New Testament itself – after all, the decision as to which first century writings were New Testament and what were not was made later, by some of the same people. The list of New Testament books is not even found in the Bible.

Angry antAntony and Alan continued to disagree about what the Bible said. The one said the Bible taught the Trinity, and the other said the Bible did not. What they did not realise is that they were not differentiating between what the Bible said on the one hand, and their interpretation on the other. What they also did not realise was that they were not differentiating between an internal conviction that they were right on the one hand, and true leading of the Holy Spirit on the other – it’s all a subjective feeling. And even if they did manage to differentiate, they had no authority to tell them whose interpretation was the right one.

Alan even held the opinion that Christianity had become corrupt early on, and that the doctrines taught in 325 AD were false teachings. He thought original Christianity had gone under the radar, only to re-emerge hundreds of years later. He’d seen historical evidence that the Christians of 325 AD were very similar in their teachings to the Catholic Church, and concluded that they were therefore not the real Christian church.

The problems this case presents us with are many. I’ll address a few.

First, we all think we’re right. After studying the Bible and finding something particularly notable, we all feel we’ve been moved by the Holy Spirit to see that. Antony felt moved like that when he studied baptism and concluded that infants should not be baptised. Patrick likewise felt that movement when he studied baptism and concluded that infants may be baptised. Both are internally convicted that the Holy Spirit has been leading them to their conclusions. Yet only one can be right. Neither of them can offer a final solution to resolving their dilemma. All they can do is say they are personally led by the Holy Spirit, while the other is not.

Second, there is no final authority to which Antony and Patrick can turn for an answer. They have only themselves. Any authority they can provide is considered non-authoritative by the other. As Antony claimed and as Patrick realised, any authority can be rejected in favour of one’s own interpretation.

And that is the essence of Protestantism. The Bible alone without any interpreter that has clout. Luther rejected Catholic authority. John Smyth, the founder of the Baptists, rejected Luther’s authority. Anyone, at any time, can reject any authority in favour of their own interpretation. And that is why there are so many Protestant variants.

Jesus founded a Church, so that Church has to be somewhere. Throughout Acts and the Epistles, we see that this Church had visible leaders. And they had clout.

No Protestant denomination today can claim to be the original visible Church, although they all claim to be part of the invisible Church. Where is the original visible Church that is continuous with the first century Church led by the Apostles? Or does it not matter? Did Jesus create a visible Church that continued to exist in all sorts of differing groups equally?

The Bible tells us that the Church is the pillar and foundation of truth.

But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth. – 1 Timothy 3:15 (KJV)

No, in this verse it is not God who is the pillar and ground of the truth. The cases of the nouns in the original Greek make the Church the pillar and ground of the truth.

Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican. Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
– Matthew 18:15-18

The Church Jesus founded has clout. It can make decisions. The Protestant denominations today may claim that clout over their members, but as we saw above, anyone is free to leave and determine their own doctrine – many have done so.

Leonardo da Vinci - The Last Supper (1495-1498)

Leonardo da Vinci – The Last Supper (1495-1498)

Protestant churches are – must be – fallible authorities that can be wrong. Certainly Antony and Alan believed that – they were their own authorities. For Protestants, there are only fallible authorities, along with a subjective conviction that the Holy Spirit guided them individually. For Antony, Alan, and Patrick, that inner feeling was all they had.

Is there an original Church? Or do 1 Tim 3:15 and Matt 18:17-18 have no modern Church that fulfills their role?

If we say No, then somehow Christ must have failed to leave us any certainty. If we say Yes, then where is it?

There are only two real options – the Catholic Church, or a hidden Church that existed unknown for centuries.

Let’s briefly look at the two cases:

Option 1: Hidden Church unknown for centuries

Some claim that groups like the Albigensians and Waldenses and Paulicians etc. were this hidden Church. They carried the torch through the centuries under different names. Even Ellen White claimed this. The problem is that, if we used modern denominations as examples, it would be the same as claiming that the hidden Church carried the torch through the centuries in the form of Mormonism, Christian Science, Anglicans, and Pentecostals. Yes, the alleged true church groups were that radically different from each other. They believed things of this sort: two Gods, an evil God of the Old Testament, and a good God of the New Testament; marriage was sinful; ritual suicide ensured heaven; some sacraments came from their own priests, while others they got from Catholic priests; no forgiveness for sin was possible after baptism; etc. Even the Adventist Review acknowledges this problem. See these two articles for more:
Albigensians, Waldensians, and Ellen White
Adventist Review’s indirect admission of Ellen White’s errors

If these were indeed the true Christians, then we have the following problems:

  1. They got their list of New Testament books from the Catholics, and didn’t fully know what was and wasn’t Scripture for 2 centuries until then. Alternatively, God either inspired them to compile the correct list separately AND inspired the Catholics to do the same, or the Catholics got it right by accident.
  2. Each group was doctrinally different from the others to an extent that makes it absurd.
  3. History as we know it needs to be ignored, and rejected as false.
  4. The true Church can then only be identified historically using a fictional history.
The Synaxis of the holy and the most praiseworthy Twelve Apostles

The Synaxis of the holy and the most praiseworthy Twelve Apostles

Option 2: The Catholic Church is the original

Historically, the Catholic and Orthodox Churches have the only historically supportable claim to be the original Christian Church. (If we use imaginary history, then Mormons and Albigensians and Herbert Armstrong may have a case.)

However, this is fraught with problems for Protestantism. And what makes it worse is that Protestants (those in the Sola / Prima Scriptura camps) cite Catholic authorities as valid authorities. For example, the Council of Nicaea, the Council of Chalcedon, the Council of Ephesus, etc.

Many Protestants are unaware that there are many writings that survive from the early Church. The Early Church Fathers, and in particular, the Ante-Nicene Fathers, are a very interesting read. They give us the context of Christianity in the first few centuries. And the disturbing thing for Protestants is that they were thoroughly Catholic. In fact, this is one of the big things that leads people to the Catholic faith – that the earliest historical writings of Christians immediately after the New Testament were Catholic in theology. (Go and read A Protestant Historian Discovers the Catholic Church by Dr A David Anders, and visit his website here).

The first complete list of New Testament writings comes from people who:

  1. Believed in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist (transubstantiation)
  2. Believed in a sacramental priesthood in addition to the priesthood of all believers
  3. Believed in prayer for the dead
  4. Believed in prayer to saints and angels
  5. Believed Mary was a perpetual Virgin, the New Eve, the Mother of the Church
  6. Observed Sunday as the principal day of worship
    • Typically Christians celebrated the Eucharist every day, with Sunday as a special day, and often with the 7th day Sabbath as a fast commemorating the day Jesus was in the tomb. See the full quote from Socrates that Adventists won’t show you at Adventists abusing Socrates.
  7. Many other specifically Catholic teachings

These Catholic bishops finalised the New Testament Canon based on those books generally accepted by them and their predecessors to be authentic Apostolic heritage, suitable for reading publicly in their churches.

Protestants considering the Councils of Nicaea, Chalcedon, and Ephesus to be authoritative are really just selective in their application – the bishops of these councils:

  1. Believed in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist (transubstantiation)
  2. Believed in a sacramental priesthood in addition to the priesthood of all believers
  3. Believed in prayer for the dead
  4. Believed in prayer to saints and angels
  5. Believed Mary was a perpetual Virgin, the New Eve, the Mother of the Church
  6. Observed Sunday as the principal day of worship
  7. Many other specifically Catholic teachings
Eve and Mary

Eve and Mary

The same St Athanasius who defended the doctrine of the Trinity was a Catholic bishop to the core. The very disciples of the Apostle John – St Ignatius and St Polycarp – were Sunday keepers who believed in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. St Ignatius’ disciple, St Irenaeus, wrote a lengthy treatise on the Virgin Mary. The same St Augustine who inspired Luther taught Catholic doctrine about purgatory, Mary, the Eucharist, and much, much more.

Ultimately there are three roads to take –

  1. The authority of the early Church vanished and we have no certain guide today other than our own conviction that the Holy Spirit leads us; none of us can know with any certainty that we’re right because the next person feels exactly the same way; the only resolution to this is to accept that there is no authoritative doctrine today, or else wait for the Holy Spirit to publicly say who is right, which hasn’t happened in a while;
  2. There is an authoritative Church today that cannot be proven using legitimate historical sources; in this case we can make up any doctrine and claim it to be the teaching of the original Christians, as Mormonism and Armstrongism do;
  3. The original Christians were Catholic, and their collective legacy shows where we can turn for authoritative answers.

Further reading:

Interpreting 2 Tim 3:16-17 as teaching Sola Scriptura is problematic as follows: First, the translation doesn’t reflect the Greek nuances. “All” means “every” – and we know that each and every verse in the Bible does not stand on its own as a single authority. So we could put in a subset of Scripture here and say “All four Gospels are given by inspiration of God, and are profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” – and this would still be correct, but the language would not limit us to the four Gospels. Second, the word “only” is not found in this passage at all. Third, what is profitable is not necessarily sufficient. Titus 3:8 uses the same word to describe good works, and which Protestant will agree that good works are sufficient? The Greek word means advantageous, useful, profitable, but not sufficient. Water is advantageous, useful, profitable, as well as necessary for us to survive, but it is not sufficient – we need food and shelter also. Fourth, the Bible did not exist in its current form in the first few centuries of Christianity. The Gospels and Epistles and Revelation circulated among Christians and were read in their liturgies, but they circulated with other books like Hermas and Clement and Barnabas, and there was no final decision regarding which were truly Scripture until the 300s AD. Interpreting this verse to mean Sola Scriptura was simply not part of early Christian teaching.

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  1. Hey I’ve read a bunch of stuff like this showing how Sola Scrip really works. This one is very pithy, not long, clear, yet in some ways reflects original thinking. Well done.

    • Paul Ramos on July 14, 2014 at 2:45 pm

    Very well done, and clearly explained. I visited your blog over a year ago, and I now point many Seventh Day Adventists who are considering the Catholic Church to read many of your articles. You’re doing a fine job in sharing God’s truth, I hope you realize with your time and efforts you’re playing a part in changing peoples spiritual lives, much more than you may think.

    God Bless.

    1. Thanks! … So thanks for the comment, and the referrals! God bless you too!

  2. Have you ever thought about writing an e-book or guest
    authoring on other blogs? I have a blog based upon on the same topics you discuss and would love to have you share some
    stories/information. I know my readers would value your work.
    If you are even remotely interested, feel free to send me an e-mail.

    • Louis on November 1, 2014 at 11:09 am

    Well done Steve.

    We have a lot of SDAs coming to our Church and this is a supplement in the quest for their true faith.

    Thanks alot and God Bless.

    1. Thanks – I’m glad it’s useful.

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