The Fruits of Sola Scriptura: A Rebuttal to a Common Protestant Response

Catholics often point to the wide variety of Protestant churches as evidence that the Reformation principle of sola scriptura, by scripture alone, is an unworkable standard that leads to infinite fragmentation and division within the church. Protestants of course have responses to this objection. One prominent response which I will rebut here is that while there are many divisions among Protestants, among those whole truly follow sola scriptura, there is actually a large amount of doctrinal agreement. It is Protestants who don’t actually believe in sola scriptura who have veered off into various theological and moral errors. Those who hold to this Reformation principle are as united if not more united than Catholics, or so the reply goes. What I will show is first, that there are obvious counterexamples which falsify this reply and second, that such a reply misses the point of this Catholic objection to sola scriptura. I will show how the objection can be reformulated to completely bypass this Protestant response.

The Protestant Response

I will look at one recent example of a Protestant giving this response though many other similar examples of the same kind could be given. This example is from Jordan Cooper, a prominent Lutheran theologian who himself is fairly friendly towards Catholicism and particularly to scholastic theology. Cooper, in a discussion with a number of other Protestant thinkers attempts to answer the objection of why there are so many Protestant denominations. Luther points out that many Protestant denominations, particularly those who “fly rainbow flags” don’t actually believe in sola scriptura. He then says that Catholics posses merely “institutional unity” while (at least those on Twitter) disagree on “almost every single issue”. He then says that those who do believe in sola scriptura do agree on many substantial issues and that the disagreements are mere “felicitous inconsistencies” among brethren. Much can be said about this brief answer.

Obvious Counterexamples

First, it is worth refuting the notion that Protestant sects that truly believe in sola scriptura are united in doctrine. Cooper offered the easy example of liberal LGBTQ affirming Protestants as an example of people who don’t really believe in sola scriptura. Let’s just accept this claim for sake of argument. The fact that some liberal Protestants don’t believe in the inerrancy of Scripture does not show that all Christians who do have any substantial unity whatsoever. Consider just two examples: Biblical Unitarians and Christadelphians.

Biblical Unitarians

Biblical Unitarians, people like Dale Tuggy, clearly do believe in sola scriptura and yet deny the fundamental doctrine of Christianity: the Trinity. Consider what says about Scripture

We believe that the Scriptures are “God-breathed,” perfect in their original writing, without flaw or contradiction, and provide the only sure and steadfast basis for faith. Understanding the Scripture is attainable by applying logic and sound principles of biblical interpretation, in conjunction with the spirit of God in us.

Affirming both the inerrancy of Scripture and that Scripture is the “only sure” basis for faith just is to teach sola scriptura i.e that Scripture is the sole infallible rule of faith. Yet neither Cooper nor I would even consider these fellows Christians. Thus, Biblical Unitarianism seems to be a clear instance of a group who follows sola scriptura and yet has little doctrinal unity with other sola scriptura Protestants.


A second example of sola scriptura believers who reject essentials of the Christian faith are Christadelphains, members of a lesser known sect started in the 19th century by John Thomas. In their creed, they begin by stating

THE FOUNDATION — That the book currently known as the Bible, consisting of the Scriptures of Moses, the prophets, and the apostles, is the only source of knowledge concerning God and His purposes at present extant or available in the earth, and that the same were wholly given by inspiration of God in the writers, and are consequently without error in all parts of them, except such as may be due to errors of transcription or translation.

Notice again that the inerrancy of Scripture is affirmed as is the belief that Scripture is the “only source” of knowledge of God. Clearly this is an affirmation of a rather strong form of sola scriptura. And yet, while reading a list of the “doctrines to be rejected” on their website we find that in addition to rejecting the Trinity, they reject things such as “that Christ’s nature was immaculate”, “that man has an immortal soul”, and even “that the devil is a supernatural being”. Needless to say, this group is not Christian while plainly holding to sola scriptura.

These two examples alone suffice to refute Cooper’s answer. However, what I will show below is that even if we granted Cooper’s point about those who believe in sola scriptura, his answer misses a more fundamental point about Church authority that bypasses his reply. And lest it be said that I am picking recent fringe movements within Protestantism, it should be noted that Unitarianism, in one form or another including so called Biblical Unitarianism has been around for many of the ages in Church history. Tuggy’s Socinianism comes straight out of the Reformation itself. Christadelphians are more recent but still date back to the 19th century which, among Protestantism is not all that recent.

What Really Unites Protestants

While sola scriptura is the so called formal principle of the Reformation, something more fundamental unites the various Protestant sects that have been created since the time of the Reformation and not merely an affirmation of Scripture as being the unique source of divine revelation. Fundamentally, Protestants deny the Church’s ability to bind the faithful definitively to doctrinal beliefs. Whether one Methodist or one Lutheran affirms this or that version of sola scriptura or prima scriptura or what not, all Protestants, from Cooper to John Thomas would deny that the church, either in an ecumenical council, or through the universal teaching of the bishops, or through the Pope can infallibly teach in such a way that their teaching is irreformable and binding on all of the faithful. Thus, even while if it is true that some non-binary two-spirited lesbian United Methodist “pastor” might not believe in the inerrancy of Scripture, she certainly rejects the notion that Christ established a Church which could (and has) issued definitive teaching on e.g. same sex marriage. She might be quite far from Jordan Cooper on theology, and may not hold to sola scriptura. But for all their disagreements, both would hold that no institutional Church can issue a decree to bind the consciences of all Christians on the matters that divide them both. It is this agreement that unites them as Protestants, separates them from the Catholic Church, and, relating to this article, makes them susceptible to a reformulated version of the objection we have been considering.

That objection would be this: among those who reject the Church’s authority to definitively settle doctrinal disputes, there is virtually no unity of belief and only endless division precisely because of this rejection. Such division contradicts Christ’s prayer in John 17 that his followers “be one” and therefore shows that this rejection of the authority of the Church is wrong.

This argument does not prove that Catholicism is true since Catholicism is not alone in holding to the Church’s ability to teach infallibly. Interestingly though, among groups that hold to what we can call ecclesial infallibility, there is arguably far more doctrinal unity than in Protestantism. Disagreements between e.g. Eastern Orthodox and Catholics on the papacy or the Filioque pale in comparison to disagreements between even two conservative Protestants like William Lane Craig and Jordan Cooper on issues such as Baptism, the Incarnation, the Eucharist etc.

Without the ability for the Church to step in and settle doctrinal disputes, such disputes simply will not end. This is manifestly clear from the last 500 years of Church history. Doctrinal dispute over major issues e.g. the Trinity, are not unique to the past 500 years. What is new, is the lack, in certain branches of Christianity at least, of an ability of a Church to step in and settle the dispute once and for all. Without this ability, the endless splintering of Protestantism will not cease and Catholics can continue to show that such sad division is the result of a rejection of Church authority.

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