I've been thinking lately about the evolution of my thinking with regard to Sola Scriptura from my earliest life as a Christian to my Catholic conversion.
The Earliest Days
In my earliest consciously Christian days (age 13 to when I went to college, 1991-1996), I was not aware of Sola Scriptura. I had been raised in an Evangelical Christian context, and so, for practical purposes, when I started thinking as a Christian, I mostly practiced Sola Scriptura, but I had simply inherited that without being aware of it or having chosen it consciously over other alternatives. I considered the Bible to be the Word of God and authoritative. When I started reading C. S. Lewis, I got a greater sense of Christianity as having this long history from ancient times through the Middle Ages and into modern times. I knew very little about this history in terms of details, but I was aware of some major parts of it--for example, that there had been great Church councils in the early days of the Church, like Nicaea and Chalcedon. Lewis taught me to value the idea of a great Christian Tradition with classic doctrines like the Trinity and the Incarnation of Christ, which had been spelled out by early Church councils, but the question of how this Tradition related to Scripture never (so far as I can now recall) entered my mind in those days.
My sense of Christianity in those days was rooted in C. S. Lewis's "mere Christianity". I was aware there were denominational divisions, but I didn't take them at all seriously. I didn't believe they were over anything important, and I thought of them pretty much as a nuisance that unnecessarily caused division in the one Body of Christ. I identified with none of them. Although, in practice, I was broadly Protestant, since I did not accept any infallible Tradition associated with a particular group like Catholicism or Orthodoxy, I did not think of myself as Protestant, and I strongly objected when anyone tried to describe me as a Protestant. My view of the Church was a vast, worldwide body of people who believe in and follow Christ and hold to the core "essentials" of the Christian worldview--the Trinity, the Incarnation, etc. I had no clear sense of the formal visibility of the Church or the importance of a Church hierarchy, elders one had to submit to, etc. I was very active in the Evangelical churches we were a part of during this time, but I never joined in formal membership, nor did it ever occur to me that this was something worth doing. (I was never even baptized formally until my 11th grade year.)
So, during this time, for the most part I practiced Sola Scriptura, but was not consciously aware of holding a distinct position on the topic, and so I had no real argument for that position.
The Reformed Period
When I went to college in 1996, I encountered Calvinism and the Reformed tradition. I became a five-point Calvinist (meaning I adopted certain beliefs about God's sovereignty and salvation by grace that tended to be labeled as "Calvinistic"), and this led me to identify more and more with the Reformed tradition, because I came to feel that these "doctrines of grace" were crucially important in defining true, orthodox Christianity, and it appeared to me that it was the Reformed tradition that held to these doctrines consistently. My association with the Reformed tradition taught me several things. It increased my awareness of the formal visibility of the Church. I learned about formal Church membership, and having pastors/elders one must submit to, and how being a Christian involves being formally a part of a visible Church structure. I learned the importance of having a systematic theology beyond simply a very small list of "essential doctrines". I learned to associate with a definite group with a definite set of beliefs, a distinct identity, and a common doctrinal heritage. My association with the Reformed tradition increased over the years. We became members of the OPC (Orthodox Presbyterian Church) in 2000, and in 2005 I became a ruling elder in our OPC church and formally embraced the full doctrinal standards of the OPC. It was during this time, I believe, that I first became aware of my own position on Scripture and Tradition as the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. I became more consciously aware that Sola Scriptura is a position that Protestants hold but that Catholics and Orthodox don't, and that I identified with the Protestant position and not the Catholic or Orthodox position.
Since I had become aware of my own position on Sola Scriptura, and that others argued against it, I began during this time also to articulate reasons and arguments to support it. When I wrote my book, Why Christianity is True, in 2010, for the first time I wrote out a brief argument for Sola Scriptura. I still had no substantial awareness of much of Church history or the importance of Church history. Even though I had become more aware of the formal, visible, organizational aspects of the Church, and the history of the Reformed tradition, I still thought of the Church as something that was defined not historically but doctrinally. That is, unlike Catholics and Orthodox, who define the visible Church in terms of historical continuity from the apostles, I still thought of the Church as an institution that forms around a correct articulation of the central doctrines of the Christian worldview. So, for example, it didn't matter how the OPC came into existence; all that mattered was that it held to the doctrines I considered essential to Christianity. And every other denomination that held to those essentials was likewise a true church. Its history was unimportant to its identity or authority. I knew that Catholics and Orthodox thought differently about this, that they held to a concept that linked their authority to their historical continuity with the apostles, and I also knew they rejected Sola Scriptura and believed in an infallible Church and an infallible Tradition in addition to an infallible Scripture, but I didn't take their position on these things seriously because I didn't see any reason to believe them to be true. I didn't know a great deal about the doctrinal positions of the Church Fathers, but I had seen some arguments that they held to Sola Scriptura, which seemed convincing enough at that time. Protestant apologists like William Webster could produce quotes from various Fathers that sounded pretty clearly like they were teaching Sola Scriptura, so I thought that at least some of them did, and that Sola Scriptura had a pedigree in the early Church.
My argument for Sola Scriptura at that time went basically like this: Christianity is a divine revelation. Since that is so, there must be a locus for that revelation. That is, there must be a place where that revelation is found. How are we going to know what that place is? I saw that I had no choice but to look back to the early history of the Church and see what the early Christian Tradition decided on that point. Since Christianity is a divine revelation, and since a revelation needs a locus, God must have made it possible for us to find this locus. Therefore, I could be confident that whatever the early history of the Church points to as the most likely location of this locus must be the right way to go, that God must have guided Church history so that the providential course of that history in the development of the Christian Tradition gave us the right answer on that point, for otherwise we could never know the right answer. I was aware that all the mainstream Christian groups that came out of the early orthodox Church--Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism--agreed that the Scripture was at least one of the loci of the Christian revelation. Therefore, I reasoned, the Scripture must in fact be a locus of that revelation (for if it is not, nothing is, for nothing has a better case arguing for it). I knew that after this agreement, Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox disagree on whether there is another locus of revelation besides Scripture. Protestants say Scripture is our only infallible rule, Catholics and Orthodox say there is also an infallible Tradition and that both Scripture and Tradition are interpreted by an infallible Church. My argument was that we should go with the Protestant position, because this is the default position. There must be a locus of revelation. If there must be a locus, Scripture is the surest candidate. All the groups growing out of early, orthodox Christianity agree that Scripture is a locus of revelation. Therefore, we must take Scripture as our locus of revelation. But now that we have Scripture, our need for a locus of revelation is satisfied. We need nothing more. My only reason for looking to the historic Church was because there was no other way available to answer the locus question. I defined the Church doctrinally and not in terms of a historical succession, and I wasn't aware of any reason to give any preference to Catholicism or Orthodoxy above Protestantism because of some greater historical pedigree (because, after all, the Fathers, or at least some of them, believed in Sola Scriptura anyway), and so I saw no reason to trust Church Tradition simply because it was Church Tradition. I trusted the historic Church Tradition only insofar as it was necessary to solve a logical problem--Where is to be found the locus of divine revelation?--and I saw no need to trust it beyond that. So once I ascertained that Scripture is where divine revelation is to be found, I didn't look to historical Tradition to give me any further information. (Well, to be fully accurate, I did trust the Tradition for the canon of Scripture as well, but I saw this as part of the original question about the locus of revelation. After all, if we are to look to Scripture as our divine revelation, we have to know what books are in it, and I saw that the only way to answer that was to look to the historical Tradition of the Church. But once I had solved that problem, I believed I had no more logical need to trust Tradition because there was no more need for it, and so I dropped it as a source of doctrinal knowledge for anything further.)
To reiterate, in short, my argument for Sola Scriptura went like this: 1. Christianity is a divine revelation. 2. A divine revelation must have a locus. 3. The only way to know what that locus is is to trust that God guided the historical transmission of the Christian faith so that that historic faith ended up affirming the right answer to the locus question. 4. The historical Tradition of the Christian faith clearly affirmed Scripture as the locus of revelation. 5. Some churches coming out of that Tradition (Catholics and Orthodox) affirmed additional loci, in the Church and in Tradition, but other churches (Protestants) affirmed Scripture alone. The early Church, at least to some degree, held to Sola Scriptura, or at least there was no clear and universal repudiation of it. The Catholic and Orthodox positions evolved later. Therefore, we could only be sure of Scripture, the other alleged loci being suspect. Since Scripture gives us a locus of revelation, it satisfies that logical requirement of the Christian faith, and so there is no reason to trust implicitly the traditions of the Catholic or Orthodox churches when they claim to give us additional loci. 6. Therefore, we can conclude that Scripture alone is our locus of revelation, our infallible source of information about what God has revealed.
The Catholic Transition
In 2011-2012, for several reasons, I began to become more aware of Church history. The Reformed tradition had helped me recognize the importance of the formal, organizational visibility of the Christian Church and the importance of the authority of the Church's hierarchy in the elders of the Church. Early in 2012, those ideas developed in my mind to the point that I started to think of the identity of the Church not just in doctrinal terms but in historical terms as well. I realized that the Bible calls for a unified Church, and that when churches are formally separate from each other in competing denominations, there is a kind of mutual rejection of each other's authority that goes along with that. I knew that the elders of the Church are to function collegially. The elders of particular churches are part of a larger body of elders governing the entire Church, and they are required to mutually submit to each other's authority in larger Church councils. This is how the Church functions in Presbyterianism, and I was convinced this was biblical. So if we have two denominations, like the OPC and the PCA, that are not in formal communion with each other and whose elders don't mutually submit to each other in common Church councils, this implies that the OPC and the PCA are refusing to fully recognize each other's de jure legitimacy and authority as formal parts of the visible, organizational Church. This led me to the realization that, in choosing a denomination, one must do more than simply figure out which denominations hold to the doctrinal essentials of the faith. One must also look at the history of the denominations and determine how they came into existence. The OPC, for example, split from the PCUSA in 1936. Was that split justified or not? My answer to this question determines which side of the split I ought to follow. And, today, the PCA and the OPC are not in full communion. Who is on the right side in this continuing division? I have an obligation to join with the right side. So this line of reasoning led me to start looking at Church identity in a more historical way.
During this same time, a couple from our OPC church became Catholic, and they began to send us Catholic literature. Among that literature was St. Francis de Sales's great work, The Catholic Controversy, as well as Patrick Madrid's collection of Catholic conversion testimonies, Surprised by Truth. I read all of this with great interest, since I was now thinking more about the history of the Church. My wife and I also began to read the Church fathers systematically, and I began to spend more time dialoguing and arguing with both Catholics and Orthodox. So my understanding of what the early Church actually believed was increasing greatly during this time period.
Over time, this investigation led me to realize that the Catholic and Orthodox traditions have a much stronger historical claim than I had previously been aware of. I became more and more aware of the fact that the early Church fathers did not believe in Sola Scriptura, but that they in fact looked to Tradition and the Church as infallibly-guided as well. They saw Scripture, Tradition, and Church authority as three legs in a three-legged stool. You need all three to know and understand God's revelation. All three have been divinely-guided and protected from error. I became more aware that it was the Protestants who had broken off from an earlier tradition, and so the burden of proof was on the Protestants to provide justification for veering off of the earlier Tradition of the Church. I now had a reason to trust the Church's historic Tradition beyond merely its usefulness in answering my logical question about the locus of revelation. The historic Church called me to receive the faith as it had been handed down before the Reformation. It called me to the authority of the bishops who had succeeded the apostles, and to the unity of the historic Church. It challenged me that if I was going to remain Protestant, I could not take Sola Scriptura as a default any longer. The historical testimony of the Church and the reliability of her Tradition put forth a claim too strong to be simply turned on to solve a particular logical problem and then turned off again because I felt I had found my answer. It wasn't, as I had previously thought, that the default is with Sola Scriptura and the other Catholic/Orthodox ideas had to bring proof to me as to why I should add them on to Scripture, but, rather, the historically aware question was could I justify the Protestant Reformation's decision to remove Scripture from its earlier, historical context as one of the three legs of the three-legged stool of Scripture-Tradition-Church and set it up to function on its own. Could I justify the removal of an infallible Tradition and an infallible Church from the infallible Scripture? Because of my lack of historical awareness, I had not seen the basis and the strength of the Catholic/Orthodox position, and so I had treated those traditions as if they were trying to add on to something I already had, when in reality it was I, as a Protestant, who had taken Scripture away from them and had to justify that. When once I realized the default was the reverse of what I had thought it was, I saw that I could not positively prove Sola Scriptura. Without its default status, it could not support itself. Therefore, I finally concluded, I needed to abandon Sola Scriptura and return to the historic faith of the Catholic/Orthodox Church and its three-legged stool. (I realized, also, that the Eastern Orthodox and other non-Catholic Eastern churches couldn't justify their separation from Rome, and that the See of Rome is a necessary component of the authority of the historic Church, which led me to the Catholic Church in particular, but that's a story for another time.
Published on the feast of the First Martyrs of the Church of Rome.