There is a theory which I have heard proposed in many different ways by many different groups over the years. It is always vaguely articulated, but generally it loosely follows the same formula, namely that sometime during the first 1,500 years of Christianity, the church was led into error and that human reason and meaningless church tradition gradually replaced the true authority of the Scriptures. At face value, I have a sizable problem with any theory that proposes itself in contradiction to the words of Christ who said, “And I tell you, …I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”1 Every Christian denomination which has since split from that Church, has essentially proposed some variation of the theory above. Namely that Christ was wrong, His Church was not preserved by Him, the gates of Hell did prevail against it, and it has now become necessary to split from the Church which he founded and start an entirely new church in order to return to the original teachings of Christ and the original foundation of His Church, namely (in Protestant theology), the bible alone. I plan on writing another blog post later in order to dive into that a bit deeper, but for now I would like to focus on why the theology of sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) doesn’t fit within the historical time-frame prior to the time of the Reformation. I would like to ask the question, “Why is it anachronistic to attempt to apply this theological belief to early Christians?”
Let’s start with a definition: An anachronism (from the Greek ἀνά ana, “against” and χρόνος khronos, “time”), is a chronological inconsistency in some arrangement, especially a juxtaposition of person(s), events, objects, or customs from different periods of time.
Often the item misplaced in time is an object, but it may be a verbal expression, a technology, a philosophical idea, a musical style, a material, a custom, or anything else associated with a particular period in time, so that it is incorrect to place it outside its proper temporal domain. Lincoln using a laptop would be an example of an anachronism. The geeks in the park dressed in armor and engaging in full medieval style combat would be another…and yes, I am a little jealous 😉
Date of Writing: The New Testament is what we would commonly refer to today as an anthology, a collection of Christian works written in the common Greek language of the first century, at different times, and by various writers, all of whom were early Jewish disciples of Jesus of Nazareth. Within almost every Christian tradition today, the New Testament consists of 27 books. Almost all scholars agree that the original texts were probably written entirely in the first century of the Christian Era in the language of the day – Koine Greek.
The Epistles of St. Paul seem to have been the earliest writings of the New Testament beginning approximately 51 – 58 AD, with the Synoptic Gospels composed around 65 – 85 AD, and St. John’s Gospel, Epistles, and Revelation coming ca. 90’s AD. In other words, the earliest New Testament documents may have been written some 20 years after Christ’s death, with the latest ones following some 60 plus years after his death. For the earliest Christian’s – the first and even second generation of believers after Christ – the idea of sola Scriptura or Scripture alone, would have been an anachronism because the New Testament literally hadn’t been written yet, much less compiled. For the earliest Christians, when it came to God’s revelation which culminated in Christ and the good news of the Gospel, they would have had only the oral testimony of the Apostles and other Christians to rely on.
Lack of an Official Canon: Not only had the documents of the New Testament not been written until 60 or so years after Christ, they were also not compiled into an official canon (or anthology) for several hundred years after Christ. In compiling this anthology, which we refer to as the New Testament, collections of related texts such as collections of the letters of the Apostle Paul (a major collection of which must have been made already by the early 2nd century)2 and the Canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (spoken of by Irenaeus of Lyon in the late-2nd century as the Four Gospels) gradually were joined to other collections and individual works in different combinations to form various Christian canons of Scripture. Over time, some disputed books, such as the Book of Revelation and the minor catholic (i.e. general or universal) Epistles were introduced into canons in which they were originally absent, while other works previously held to be Scripture, such as the first letter of Clement to the Corinthians, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the Didache, were excluded from the New Testament.
We have to remember that until the time of Emperor Constantine, the early Church was often aggressively persecuted. With this persecution in mind, it was practically impossible for the Bishops to gather together and decide amongst themselves which documents were and were not inspired, and which books should or shouldn’t be a part of the canon of Scripture. By the early 3rd century, Christian theologians like Origen of Alexandria may have been using—or at least were familiar with—the same 27 books found in modern New Testament editions, though there were still disputes over the canonicity of some of the writings (see also Antilegomena).3 Likewise by 200 AD, the Muratorian fragment shows that there existed a set of Christian writings somewhat similar to what is now the New Testament, which included four gospels and argued against objections to them.4 Thus, while there was a good measure of debate in the Early Church over the New Testament canon, the major writings were accepted by almost all Christians by the middle of the 3rd century. It wasn’t until the end of the 4th century however, that we see Church Councils moving to begin to officially canonize the New Testament writings and the Septuagint.
The first council that accepted the present Catholic canon (the Canon of Trent) may have been the Synod of Hippo Regius in North Africa (393 AD); the acts of this council, however, are lost. A brief summary of the acts was read at and accepted by the Councils of Carthage in 397 AD and 419 AD.5 These councils were under the authority of St. Augustine, who regarded the canon as already closed.6 Pope Damasus I’s Council of Rome in 382 AD, if the Decretum Gelasianum is correctly associated with it, issued a biblical canon identical to that mentioned above,7 or if not, the list is at least a 6th-century compilation.8 Likewise, Damasus’ commissioning of the Latin Vulgate edition of the Bible, c. 383 AD, was instrumental in the fixation of the canon in the West.9 In 405 AD, Pope Innocent I sent a list of the sacred books to a Gallic bishop, Exsuperius of Toulouse. When these bishops and councils spoke on the matter, however, they were not defining something new, but instead “were ratifying what had already become the mind of the Church.”10 Thus, from the 4th century, there existed unanimity in the West concerning the New Testament canon (as it is today),11 and by the 5th century the East, with a few exceptions taking well into the 7th century, had come to accept the Book of Revelation and thus had come into harmony on the matter of the New Testament canon.
Nevertheless, we are speaking of an interval of almost 400 years from the time of Christ, to the canonization of the official New Testament books. Stephen Ray points out that,
“The span of time between the crucifixion and the determination of the canonization of Scripture was equivalent to the time between the Pilgrim’s Mayflower sailing from Plymouth, England, to our current day. Christians did not have a collected New Testament for almost four hundred years after the resurrection of Christ! Compare that to another recent example from American history. It has been only two hundred years since the American Revolution, but it seems to be ages ago. Imagine if the founding documents of the United States were still uncertain – not yet collected and codified. What would be the basis for jurisprudence and constitutional government today? In the early Church, books, epistles, and writings were disputed; no sure list of canonical books was agreed upon. How did the Christians survive without a leather-bound New Testament under their arms? How did they blossom and spread throughout the inhabited world? How did they convert the whole Roman Empire? Was their foundational and operative principle sola Scriptura? What sufficient rule of faith did they have to govern the Church, teach the catechumens, and resist heresy, all of which they did so well? The answer to all these questions is, in short, the apostolic tradition, preserved through apostolic succession within the Catholic Church. The apostolic writings were an integral part, but only a small part, of the entire deposit of faith.”12
For the early Church – approximately the first sixteen generations of believers – the idea of, “the bible alone” would have been anachronistic quite simply because there was no bible to be had.
Technology: Scrolls were the most hard-wearing portable writing technology of the day. Around 320 the codex book form replaced the roll or scroll, and parchment made from the skin of sheep or goats replaced papyrus. The durability of codices was much less than that of a modern, “mass market paperback.” That is, a person could not expect a “book” to last more than a couple of years with frequent use, while a scroll might last a lifetime with care. Also around this time the Roman emperor Constantine became a Christian and authorized the production of many copies of the Scriptures. Now the making of copies of the Bible began in earnest, but it was still a huge undertaking. Nor was much translation attempted. The first translation of the New Testament was probably into Latin ca. 175 AD, and by the year 600, the Gospels had been translated into only eight languages. With this copying and translation activity, a confusing variety of Scriptures began to circulate through the early church. Finally, Pope Damasus commissioned the great scholar Jerome to make a definitive translation into Latin, which was completed in 405. For nearly a thousand years this translation, known as the Vulgate, reigned supreme.
The work of copying the Scriptures was undertaken in earnest in the monasteries in the Middle Ages. Several thousand monasteries were established across Europe, and for many of the monks making copies of the Scriptures was their chief task. They became the true guardians of the text and produced literally thousands of magnificent Bibles. Teams of scribes and artists worked with parchment to produce incredibly beautiful works of art. A scribe taking dictation might use as many as 80 quills a day, and artists embellished the work with intricate designs and illustrations. The scribes often spent their entire life in an ill-lit scriptorium with some experts reckoning that it would require ten months for a scribe of those days to copy out a Bible.13 Manuscript-writing was a laborious process that could damage one’s health. One prior complained in the tenth century: “Only try to do it yourself and you will learn how arduous is the writer’s task. It dims your eyes, makes your back ache, and knits your chest and belly together. It is a terrible ordeal for the whole body.”14 Day by day, year after year, the monks would persevere in their holy labors, copying with loving care every letter of the sacred text from some old manuscript of the Bible, adorning and illuminating the pages of vellum with pictures and illustrations in purple and gold and silver coloring, and so producing real works of art that excite the envy and admiration of modern generations.
(The Book of Kells is an excellent example of this)
Every monastery and cathedral possessed at least one copy of the Bible and the Gospels, with some of the larger ones possessing several copies. In those ages it was a common thing to copy particular parts of the Bible only (i.e. the Gospels, or the Psalms, or Epistles) so that many who could not afford to purchase a complete Bible, were able to possess at least some small part which was specially interesting or popular.
It is interesting to note that the term, “people of the book” was initially applied by Muslims to designate non-Muslim adherents to other faiths which have a revealed scripture – namely the Jews, Sabians, and Christians. (Check out my post, 7 Myths About the Crusades for more on this.) The Catholic Church has always rejected the similar expression “religion of the book” as a description of the Christian faith, preferring the term “religion of the Word of God”,((Catechism of the Catholic Church (1997), n. 108)) since the faith of Christ, according to Catholic teaching, is not found solely in the Christian Scriptures, but also in the Sacred Tradition and Magisterium of the Church. In contrast, many other denominations, such as the Baptists, Methodists, Seventh-day Adventist Church15,16 as well as Puritans and Shakers, have embraced the term “People of the Book.” Nevertheless, the idea of a “People of the Book”, would have been anachronistic to the Christians living prior to the time of the invention of the printing press. Prior to it’s invention, copies of bibles were only produced by hand and were exceedingly scarce. The technology that we now know of as a “book” hadn’t yet been invented, meaning that manuscripts were preserved primarily in scrolls and codices.
Literacy Rates: Estimates are that the Roman Empire literacy rates were averaging perhaps not much above 10 percent in the Roman empire, though with wide regional variations, probably never rising above 5 percent in the western provinces,17 and that the literate in classical Greece did not much exceed 5 percent of the population.18 Even had the technology for bibles been available, fully 90-95% of the adult population would not have been able to read them. During the Early Middle Ages, the monasteries of the Roman Catholic Church were the centers of education and literacy, preserving the Church’s selection from Latin learning and maintaining the art of writing.19 Cathedral schools and monasteries remained important throughout the Middle Ages; when monasteries were the last bastion of an educated populace. Even there, however, literacy was limited: A number of factors suggests that certain scribes who were engaged in copyist work in the first seven centuries or so of the Christian era were trained in a very mechanistic form of writing. The use of continuous script, without word breaks, suggests a very mechanical, letter by letter, approach to copying. Petrucci20 goes so far as to suggest that such works were copies for the sake of copying, rather than works for proper reading, and that some of the scribes selected for this work were actually the less intellectually able, who were trained in it as a mechanical skill.
At the Third Lateran Council of 1179 the Church mandated that priests provide the opportunity of a free education to their flocks, and the 12th and 13th century renascence known as the Scholastic Movement was spread through the monasteries. These however ceased to be the sole sources of education in the 11th century when universities, which grew out of the monasticism began to be established in major European cities. Literacy became available to a wider class of people.21 In 12th and 13th century England, the ability to recite a particular passage from the Bible in Latin entitled a common law defendant to the so-called benefit of clergy—i.e., trial before an ecclesiastical court, where sentences were more lenient, instead of a secular one, where hanging was a likely sentence. Thus literate lay defendants often claimed the right to benefit of clergy, while an illiterate person who had memorized the psalm used as the literacy test, Psalm 51 (“O God, have mercy upon me…”), could also claim benefit of clergy.22 At the end of the Middle Ages, the ability to write was restricted to less than 10% of men and hardly any women possessed it. Between the Renaissance and the age of Romanticism, Europe experienced the beginnings of a profound transformation from restricted to mass literacy. In 1500 very few people could read and write, but by 1800 a majority of adults in north-western Europe were literate, some able to enjoy an unprecedented volume and variety of print and writing.23 Both the dramatic rise in literacy rates, and the Protestant theology of sola Scriptura, can be tied definitively to the invention of the Gutenberg’s printing press in 1450. It is commonly asserted that Protestantism is the religion of the Book and most early Protestant educational movements came out of evangelical needs. The Duchy of Württemberg had 89 schools in 1520 compared with over 400 by 1600. Across Germany in this period many rulers issued ordinances providing for or regulating elementary education.24 Indeed, Protestant countries tended to be more literate than Catholic ones and where the faiths co-existed, as in France, Ireland and the Low Countries, Calvinists were usually more educated than Catholics.25 Early Christians, until the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press and the rise of the Protestant Reformation did not have bibles because the vast majority could not have read them.
Exorbitant Expense: Because of the huge size of complete Bibles, they were divided into several volumes, and each was very costly. Only the very rich and the universities could afford them. Even Gutenberg’s first printed book – a Latin Bible – cost much more than the average person earned in a year. The Bible seems to have sold out immediately, with initial sales to owners as far away as England and possibly Sweden and Hungary.26 At least some copies are known to have sold for 30 florins – about three years wages for a clerk.27 Although this made them significantly cheaper than hand copied manuscript Bibles, most students, priests or other people of ordinary income would have been unable to afford them. It is assumed that most were sold to monasteries, universities and particularly wealthy individuals.28 In the first millennia and a half after Christ, such a huge collection of documents would have been fantastically expensive as they all would have to be copied by hand! If a copy from a printing press brought a price of three years wages, imagine paying for a handwritten copy of the bible – an endeavor that often took a year or longer! Before the printing press, many of the smallest churches were literally unable to afford a bible of their own; one can only imagine just how wealthy an individual was who owned a private bible! Earlier Christians, even for quite some time after the invention of the printing press, did not have the bible, because they could not afford it.
This theory of the reformers, that they were called by God in order to return His Church to it’s foundations – foundations based on the doctrine of Scripture alone, is a deeply flawed one at best, and logically incoherent at worst. Aside from the obvious anachronisms involved, you must also be willing to disregard the words of Christ Himself who promised that His Church, would prevail against the very gates of Hell themselves. Don’t be fooled by the unsupported claims of Scripture alone as the foundation upon which the Church was built. It doesn’t hold up. The Christian tradition has always been one of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition within the Teaching Authority of the Church. The doctrine of sola Scriptura doesn’t show up for over 1,500 years of Christian history because it couldn’t! There was no way to claim Scripture alone prior to the books themselves being written and compiled, the advent of the printing press, the rise in literacy rates, and the increasing affordability of bound books. The Gideon’s didn’t begin their mission to put free bibles into hotel rooms until 1908, and believe it or not there wasn’t a Gideon bible at the stable where Mary and Joseph stayed in Bethlehem!
Truly, the Scriptures are a blessing to all who call themselves Christians! “In Sacred Scripture, the Church constantly finds her nourishment and her strength, for she welcomes it not as a human word, ‘but as what it really is, the word of God.'”29 But, we must not forget the Church which Christ established and preserves! The Church who through Divine Inspiration both authored and compiled the Scriptures. The Church which Saint Paul reminds us is, “…the household of God, …the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.”30 For we are not merely, “People of the Book” as the Muslims would label us, but rather a People of the Word – whether written or proclaimed! “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.”31
Also check out part two in the series: Sola Scriptura – Logically Flawed
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Matthew 16:18 ↩
See, e.g., Clabeaux, J. J.: A Lost Edition of the Letters of Paul: A Reassessment of the Text of the Pauline Corpus Attested by Marcion. Catholic Biblical Quarterly Monograph Series 21; Washington, D.C.: Catholic Biblical Association, 1989 ↩
Both points taken from Mark A. Noll’s Turning Points, (Baker Academic, 1997) pp 36–37 ↩
H. J. De Jonge, “The New Testament Canon,” in The Biblical Canons. eds. de Jonge & J. M. Auwers (Leuven University Press, 2003) p. 315 ↩
McDonald & Sanders’ The Canon Debate, Appendix D-2, note 19: “Revelation was added later in 419 AD at the subsequent synod of Carthage.” ↩
Everett Ferguson, “Factors leading to the Selection and Closure of the New Testament Canon,” in The Canon Debate. eds. L. M. McDonald & J. A. Sanders (Hendrickson, 2002) p. 320; F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Intervarsity Press, 1988) p. 230; cf. Augustine, De Civitate Dei 22.8 ↩
Lindberg, Carter (2006). A Brief History of Christianity. Blackwell Publishing. p. 15. ↩
F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Intervarsity Press, 1988) p. 234 ↩
F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Intervarsity Press, 1988) p. 225 ↩
Everett Ferguson, “Factors leading to the Selection and Closure of the New Testament Canon,” in The Canon Debate. eds. L. M. McDonald & J. A. Sanders (Hendrickson, 2002) p. 320; Bruce Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origins, Development, and Significance (Oxford: Clarendon, 1987) pp. 237–238; F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Intervarsity Press, 1988) p. 97 ↩
F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Intervarsity Press, 1988) p. 215 ↩
Stephen K. Ray, Crossing the Tiber – Evangelical Protestants Discover the Historical Church (Ignatius Press, 1997) p. 53 & 54 ↩
Samuel Roffey Maitland, The Dark Ages: a Series of Essays intended to illustrate the State of Religion and Literature in the ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth Centuries (1844), ↩
Quoted in: Greer, Germaine. The Obstacle Race: The Fortunes of Women Painters and Their Work. Tauris Parke, 2001. Page 155 ↩
Harris W.V. “Ancient literacy”, 1989, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. ↩
Scragg D. G.; “Textual and Material Culture in Anglo-Saxon England”, 2003, DS Brewer, ISBN 0-85991-773-8, ISBN 978-0-85991-773-5, at page 185: “The numbers of the literate …. even in classical Greece did not much exceed 5 percent of the population”, citing Harris W. V.; “Ancient Literacy”, 1989, Cambridge, at page 328 ↩
Riché, Pierre (1978): “Education and Culture in the Barbarian West: From the Sixth through the Eighth Century”, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, pp. 126-7, 282-98 ↩
Petrucci 1995 ↩
Joseph W. Koterski (2005). Medieval Education. Fordham U. Press. p. 83. ↩
Baker, John R. (2002). An Introduction to English Legal History. London: Butterworths LexisNexis. ↩
Houston, Literacy 2001 ↩
Stone, Educational Revolution 1964, pp. 42–47 ↩
Daly / Dickson, Popular Literacy 1990; Van der Woude, De alfabetisering 1980, pp. 262–263. ↩
Davies, Martin (1996). The Gutenberg Bible. British Library. ↩
Cormack, Lesley B.; Ede, Andrew (2004). A History of Science in Society: From Philosophy to Utility. Broadview Press. p. 95. ↩
Kapr, Albert (1996). Johann Gutenberg: The Man and His Invention. Scolar Press. ↩
Catholic Church. (2000). Catechism of the Catholic Church (2nd Ed., p. 30). Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference. ↩
1 Timothy 3:15b ↩
2 Thessalonians 2:15 ↩