The perennial question in the debate over sola Scriptura is whether the church is over the Bible or the Bible is over the church. If you take the latter position, then you are (generally speaking) a Protestant who believes the Scriptures, and the Scriptures alone, are the only infallible rule and therefore the supreme authority over the church. But, here is the irony: Roman Catholics also claim to be “under” the authority of the Bible.
The Roman Catholic church insists that the Scripture is always superior to the Magisterium. Dei Verbum declares, “This teaching office is not above the Word of God, but serves it” (2.10), and the Catholic Catechism declares: “Yet, this Magisterium is not superior to the word of God, but its servant” (86). However, despite these qualifications, one still wonders how Scripture can be deemed the ultimate authority if the Magisterium is able to define, determine, and interpret the Scripture in the first place. Moreover, the Magisterium seems to “discover” doctrines that are not consistent with the original meaning of Scripture itself—e.g,, the immaculate conception, purgatory, papal infallibility and the like. Thus, despite these declarations from Rome, residual concerns remain about whether the Magisterium functionally has authority over the Scriptures.
My friend and colleague James Anderson has written a helpful blog post that brings even further clarity to this issue. He begins by observing the judicial activism that happens all too often in the American political system. Judges go well beyond the original intent of the constitution and actually create new laws from the bench. He then argues:
What has happened in the US system of government almost exactly parallels what happened in the government of the Christian church over the course of many centuries, a development that finds its fullest expression in the Roman Catholic Church.
The Bible serves as the constitution of the Christian faith. It is the covenant documentation. It defines the Christian church: what constitutes the church, what is its mission, who runs the church and how it should be run, what are the responsibilities of the church, what is the scope of its authority, what laws govern the church and its members, and so forth. Once the constitution has been written, the task of the ‘judges’ (the elders/overseers of the church) is to interpret and apply it according to its original intent. Their task is not to create new laws or to come up with “interpretations” that cannot be found in the text of the constitution itself (interpreted according to original intent) and would never have crossed the minds of the “founding fathers” (Eph. 2:20).
Yet that’s just what happened over the course of time with the development of episcopacy, the rise of the papacy, and the increasing weight given to church tradition. To borrow Grudem’s phrasing: If the Bible didn’t say something something that the bishops wanted it to say, or thought it should say, they could claim to “discover” new doctrines in the Bible — purgatory, indulgences, apostolic succession, papal infallibility, etc. — and no one would have power to overrule them.
Adapting the candid statement of Chief Justice Hughes, today’s Roman Catholic might well put it thus: “We are under the Bible, but the Bible is what the Pope says it is.” In fact, that’s exactly how things stand in practice. Functionally the Pope has become the highest governing authority in his church: higher even than the Bible. The church has been derailed by “ecclesial activism”.
Thus, even though Rome claims that the Bible is its ultimate authority, practically speaking it is the church that is the ultimate authority. Rome is committed to sola ecclesia. And this clarifies the real difference between Protestants and Catholics. Something has to be the ultimate authority. It is either Scripture or the church.