Sola Scriptura and Bible Availability

When discussing the topic of Sola Scriptura (the Bible only for doctrine) with Catholics, you are like to run into something similar to the following rational from the Experts Forum of EWTN to discredit it:

Availability of the Bible in early history
Question from Brian on 12-05-1999:

I have three arguments, dealing with the history of the early Church, against those who believe in the "Bible Alone" theory, and I'm wondering about the validity of these statements:

1) Isn't it true that written manuscripts, of any kind, were VERY rare to the "common folk" and peasants back in the days of the early Church?

2) Isn't it true that a full-length Bible would be VERY expensive back then, virtually putting it out of the reach of most of these common folk?

3) Isn't it true that most peasants and commoners simply couldn't read or write back in the time of the early Church, so even if they did have a Bible, it wouldn't do them much good without some oral teaching?

Based upon these 3 statements, it seems to me that its simply common sense to say that oral tradition was necessary in early Church history, to keep Christ's teachings alive. Are these fair statements to make?

Answer by Warren H. Carroll, Ph.D on 12-06-1999:

These are all excellent arguments against Sola Scripture.

The above premise is that Sola Scriptura fails if you do not have access to or own a personal copy of the Bible, but that is a total misconception of the Sola Scriptura principal. It is quite true that the Protestants made every effort to put a vernacular Bible into the hands of the laity despite strenuous efforts of the Catholic Church to prevent it. Protestants wanted everyone to be able to read the Word of God in their own tongue, in a Bible they could call their own, but that is not the meaning of Sola Scriptura. The term was coined by Martin Luther, who was trying to reform the Church and return it to scriptural truths that Tradition had so effectively obscured. Sola Scriptura is epitomized by Martin Luther's appearance at the Diet of Worms:

The Archbishop of Trier, John Eck asked Martin Luther:

I ask you, Martin - answer candidly and without horns - do you or do you not repudiate your books and the errors which they contain?

To which Luther replied,

Since then Your Majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason - I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other - my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me. Amen.  (Martin Luther, the Diet of Worms - April 18, 1521)

Because the Bible was effectively locked away from the common people while in Latin, and very scarce too, the reformers felt compelled to translate it into the common languages that people could read, and make it cheaply, so that every church might have one. Even the average person could then hope to eventually own and read his own copy of the Bible. But distribution of the Bible among the laity was viewed as a dangerous threat to Catholic authority and Church Tradition and stirred the anger of the Church, whose Traditions were exposed as apostasy. They diligently went about banning and burning as many vernacular Bibles (and its owner or translator) as they could get their hands on, until the task became unmanageable, and then impossibly huge.

The Catholic mentality was that if the Bible could be kept scarce (in the custody of the Church) and in Latin, the laity would remain ignorant of what it really contained, and Church Authority and Tradition would be unchallenged. The Catholic Church also claimed sole authority to interpret Scripture's meaning, and declared anyone who dared to depart from its definitions (like Martin Luther) was a criminal, punishable under the law:

Furthermore, to check unbridled spirits, it [the Catholic Church] decrees that no one relying on his own judgment shall, in matters of faith and morals pertaining to the edification of Christian Doctrine, distorting the Holy Scriptures in accordance with his own conception, presume to interpret them contrary to that sense which holy Mother Church, to whom it belongs to judge of their true sense and interpretation, has held and holds, or even contrary to the unanimous teaching of the Fathers, even though such interpretations should never at any time be published. Those who act contrary to this shall be made known by the ordinaries and punished in accordance with the penalties prescribed by the law.

Source: Council of Trent, Fourth Session, April 8th, 1546, Decree Concerning the Edition and Use of the Sacred Books, Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, English Translation by Rev. H. J. Schroeder, O.P., copyright 1978 and published by Tan Books and publishers, ISBN: 0:89555-074-1, pages 18-19.

Martin Luther was standing firmly on Scripture as his only guide and counselor regarding doctrine, and not the dictates of popes or Church councils which were contrary to the Word of God and promoted their own unbiblical Traditions. This is the true meaning of Sola Scriptura, and it is not dependent on the availability of the Bible to each and every person. Were there only a single copy of the Bible in existence, Sola Scriptura would not be diminished in the slightest degree. It would still contain the authentic Word of God and be the only sure ruler for faith and doctrine, to the complete exclusion of Church Councils, Traditions, and Papal decrees. One need not be able to read, or even have a Bible, for Sola Scriptura to be in effect.

Let the pulpits and churches echo with the doctrines of the Gospel found in God's Word, the Holy Scriptures, and not with the Traditions and decrees of men, whether there be only one Bible or as many as the leaves of Autumn - that is Sola Scriptura and the only safe ground on which to stand!

Mat 7:24 Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock:
Mat 7:25 And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock.
Mat 7:26 And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand:
Mat 7:27 And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.
Mat 7:28 And it came to pass, when Jesus had ended these sayings, the people were astonished at his doctrine:
Mat 7:29 For he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.



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