To Catholics who know their Faith the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura seems self-evidently silly.  It is obvious from the vast and ever growing number of Protestant denominations that Scripture alone is not the all sufficient norm of doctrine. The problem with this is that a certain number of perfectly intelligent and intellectually honest people who are not themselves necessarily apostates (having been raised apart from the Catholic Church) hold to this doctrine. Consequently, were it as completely absurd as it seems it would be hard to understand how such persons could be duped.

In attempting to understand the perspective of such persons I was recently struck by the analogy of logical positivism. If one held that nature subjected to the hypothetico-inductive method was the only valid source of knowledge then the fact that one clearly cannot pursue this method without scholarly literature (analogous to the Fathers) and universities (analogous to the Magisterium) is not really an objection. It remains the case that the scholarly literature and universities are only useful insofar as they accurately and rigourously apply the right method to nature. Looked at in this way one can see why Protestants would make use of a ‘church’ and have recourse to the Fathers and yet still hold to the doctrine of sola scripture.

Of course sola scriptura is open to the same sorts of criticisms as logical positivism. The method cannot be vindicated in its own terms (i.e. scripture never says it is the all-sufficent norm of doctrine, in fact it denies it). The exegesis of scripture like the hypothetico-inductive method presupposes certain things it cannot provide, logic & mathematics for the latter the canon for the former.

This second problem also illustrates a difficulty faced by sola scriptura which logical positivism does not face. Whereas the existence of nature is not controversial (modernist philosophers pretend to doubt it but they don’t really)  the material content of revelation needs to be established by authority and the scriptures cannot authorise themselves. The counter-argument that Scripture is self authenticating (because the believer recognizes  its saving truth) doesn’t seem much of a runner as a) this doesn’t seem to work as a form of textual criticism b) it renders scripture itself redundant as doctrine is really transmitted through a kind of private revelation of which the text is merely the occasion.

Another problem peculiar to sola scriptura is the fact that the method and its strange results (or alleged results) did not arise until the sixteenth century and consequently the means of knowing the saving truth and key elements of that truth were not adequately established until one and a half thousand years after the Incarnation. So for the Protestants, like the Muslims, Jesus might be the messiah but the seal of the prophets (in this case Calvin or Luther) still had to come along to complete his work.

So I’m not saying that sola scriptura isn’t silly but it is  possible to see how its superficial neatness can hold the mind entranced without necessarily imputing stupidity or malice to its victims.