“To Each Believer a Bible and a Miter”: A Response to Brad East on Sola Scriptura

In his recent book, “The Doctrine of Scripture,” the Protestant theologian Brad East constructs a sustained argument against classical formulations of the doctrine of sola scriptura. While his argument is primarily constructive, his proposal is informed by historical judgments at crucial junctures. In this paper, I examine and critique two interrelated historical claims that underlie his argument.

The first concerns the sufficiency of Scripture. “All agree,” East claims, “that Scripture is materially sufficient . . . There is no revelation in addition to Scripture.” Where the heirs of Luther and Calvin depart from their Catholic forebears (East and West) is in their rejection of the “formal sufficiency” of Scripture. East sides with “the older view” that denies Scripture’s formal sufficiency. (p. 74-75)

The second historical judgment concerns the doctrine of sola scriptura. East argues that this principle “is not itself found in Scripture, nor does it belong to a catholic hermeneutic of Scripture. It is an innovation datable to the sixteenth century, with a few antecedents scatted in the church’s prior history.” (p. 163) “The catholic answer—is that the church authoritatively teaches how Scripture’s authoritative teaching out to be understood and received by the faithful.” In a footnote, he describes this view as “the common heritage of the one church… a heritage more or less universal for the first 1,000 to 1,500 years.” (p. 165)

This paper proceeds in two parts. The first section demonstrates that it is not the case that “all agree that Scripture is materially sufficient.” This view, while prominent among contemporary Roman Catholic theologians—including Congar, Ratzinger, Rahner, and Daniélou—was a departure from an earlier near consensus on the relationship between scripture and tradition. Prior to the influential arguments of Joseph Geiselmann (1956, 1959, 1962), the majority of Roman Catholic theologians interpreted the Fourth Session of the Council of Trent as teaching what has been called the partim-partim formulation: the view that the truth of the Gospel is contained partly [partim] in written books (i.e., holy Scripture) and partly [partim] in unwritten traditions. The first section demonstrates the prevalence of this view among 16th-century Roman Catholic theologians, focusing on Robert Bellarmine and Peter Canisius. Depicting this 20th-century revisionist interpretation of the Tridentine formula as the universal Catholic opinion fundamentally misconstrues the historical views the Protestant Reformers were reacting against.

The second section argues that the doctrine of sola scriptura was not “an innovation datable to the sixteenth century.” In this section I first note the doctrine’s numerous antecedents in patristic literature outlined in Martin Chemnitz’s Examination of the Council of Trent, then develop an account of the debates spanning the high to late middle ages over the authority of Scripture vis-à-vis church tradition, focusing on Gratian of Bologna, Henry of Ghent, and Duns Scotus. Contrary to East’s historical judgments, the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura did not spring de novo from the pens of Luther and Calvin. Inasmuch as East’s case against the doctrine presupposes these historical judgments, it requires further support.

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