Sola Scriptura?: Heretics apart from Tradition, Magisterium

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joel_peters
-by Joel Peters

“If you look at the history of the early Church, you will see that it continually struggled against heresies and those who promoted them. We also see the Church responding to those threats again and again by convening Councils (15) and turning to Rome to settle disputes in matters of doctrine and discipline. For example, Pope Clement intervened in a controversy in the Church at Corinth at the end of the 1st century and put an end to a schism there. In the 2nd century, Pope Victor threatened to excommunicate a large portion of the Church in the East because of a dispute about when Easter should be celebrated. In the earlier part of the 3rd century, Pope Callistus pronounced the condemnation of the Sabellian heresy.

In the case of these heresies and/or conflicts in discipline that would arise, the people involved would defend their erroneous beliefs by their respective interpretations of Scripture, apart from the Sacred Tradition and the teaching Magisterium of the Church. A good illustration of this point is the case of Arius, the 4th-century priest who declared that the Son of God was a creature and was not co-equal with the Father.

Arius and those who followed him quoted verses from the Bible to “prove” their claims. (16) The disputes and controversies which arose over his teachings became so great that the first Ecumenical Council was convened in Nicaea in 325 A.D. to settle them. The Council, under the authority of the Pope, declared Arius’ teachings to be heretical and made some decisive declarations about the Person of Christ, and it did so based on what Sacred Tradition had to say regarding the Scripture verses in question.

Here we see the teaching authority of the Church being used as the final say in an extremely important doctrinal matter. If there had been no teaching authority to appeal to, then Arius’ error could have overtaken the Church. As it is, a majority of the bishops at the time fell for the Arian heresy. (17) Even though Arius had based his arguments on the Bible and probably “compared Scripture with Scripture,” the fact is that he arrived at an heretical conclusion. It was the teaching authority of the Church – hierarchically constituted – which stepped in and declared he was wrong.

The application is obvious. If you ask a Protestant whether or not Arius was correct in his belief that the Son was created, he will, of course, respond in the negative. Emphasize, then, that even though Arius presumably “compared Scripture with Scripture,” he nonetheless arrived at an erroneous conclusion. If this were true for Arius, what guarantee does the Protestant have that it is not also true for his interpretation of a given Bible passage? The very fact that the Protestant knows Arius’ interpretations were heretical implies that an objectively true or “right” interpretation exists for the Biblical passages he used. The issue, then, becomes a question of how we can know what that true interpretation is. The only possible answer is that there must be, out of necessity, an infallible authority to tell us. That infallible authority, the Catholic Church, declared Arius heretical. Had the Catholic Church not been both infallible and authoritative in its declaration, then believers would have had no reason whatsoever to reject Arius’ teachings, and the whole of Christianity today might have been comprised of modern-day Arians.

It is evident, then, that using the Bible alone is not a guarantee of arriving at doctrinal truth. The above-described result is what happens when the erroneous doctrine of Sola Scriptura is used as a guiding principle, and the history of the Church and the numerous heresies it has had to address are undeniable testimony to this fact.”

Love,
Matthew

(15) Bear in mind that the decrees of an Ecumenical Council had no binding force unless they were ratified by the Pope.

(16) Two favorite verses for Arians of all ages to cite in support of their beliefs are Proverbs 8:22 and John 14:28.

(17) See John Henry Newman, The Arians of the Fourth Century.

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