The Practical Problems of Sola Scriptura
Challenge: God wants us to determine our theology sola scriptura (Latin, “by Scripture alone”). Each Christian should read the Bible and decide for himself what is true.
Defense: This is a view that couldn’t have been entertained until the early 1500s. Until then, multiple practical problems prevented it.
Among the problems are these:
(1) If every Christian is to read the Bible for himself and do the kind of study needed to decide delicate theological questions, then he must first have a Bible. But before the invention of the printing press (in the mid-1400s), Bibles had to be hand copied, and so they were fantastically expensive, costing far more than an ordinary person could afford. The widespread application of sola scriptura thus presupposes the invention of the printing press.
(2) It also presupposes universal distribution of Bibles. Copies not only have to be made, they have to be put in the hands of the people who are to use them. This requires a society with a developed economy and infrastructure capable of producing the wealth needed to print and distribute millions of Bibles.
(3) The recipients of these Bibles must be well educated. Illiterates can’t do the kind of detailed study needed to settle numerous theological questions. Sola scriptura thus requires universal literacy among Christians, as well as a high level of education in the critical thinking skills needed to sort through technical arguments about biblical passages and theological propositions.
(4) In addition to the Bibles, Christians would need to possess extensive scholarly support materials—commentaries, concordances, Bible dictionaries, Greek and Hebrew lexicons, and so on. No competent theologian would dream of doing his work without these resources, and they would be all the more necessary for a less-educated layman to accurately determine theological matters for himself.
Needless to say, these conditions didn’t apply in the early Church or for most of Christian history (or for many Christians today).
It’s easy to see why the Reformers—a group of well-educated individuals in the 1500s—got excited about the mass printing of Bibles and thought of having everyone decide his own theology. But this was not God’s plan for the first Christians, or for most Christians, which means it’s an anachronistic view that is not God’s plan.
You make the question much too complex. The average peasant farmer in history, being either illiterate or else lacking access to a Bible of his own, would certainly not be expected to do his own independent study of the scriptures, and would be dependent upon the teaching provided in the churches. This means it is incumbent on the churches to teach faithfully what the scripture teach, since so many congregants depend upon them for their knowledge of God (James 3:1).
Of course, it is expected that the teachers of the church do have access to the Bible, or (in the earliest centuries) at least to some parts of it. If they do not, then they can hardly be responsible to teach what is not available to them. They and their churches would necessarily have to live with a great deal of unavoidable ignorance. It is possible to have a saving knowledge of Christ without a thorough knowledge of the Bible—but such ignorance is not desirable.
However, the condition of biblical illiteracy, even among church leaders, does not mean that they would then teach church traditions in place of the biblical teachings. It is highly unlikely that a church leader who lacks a Bible would, nonetheless, be schooled in the traditions of the church. Access to biblical truth, and usually a physical Bible, generally comes to a region along with the introduction of Christianity. If a generation of church leaders had learned traditions, but had not learned what the Bible teaches, then the fault is with the earlier generation, who educated those church leaders.
Luther did not initially intend to have every Christian develop his own individual theological system by personally reading the Bible. It was his intention to reform the teaching authority of the church itself, favoring scripture over hidebound human traditions. When the church excommunicated him for his efforts, he took the Bible to the masses, assuming (correctly, in my view) that the people should not be deprived of the truth available to them in scripture simply because corrupt church authorities refused to teach it.
People are not saved or lost because they can or cannot read a Bible, nor because they have adopted the most perfect theological system. People are saved or lost by their response to Jesus Christ—just as was the case when He was here and the New Testament did not yet exist.
My position is that we are obligated to follow the Truth as much as we are able to know and understand it. There are many who will be saved with very limited access to the truth. However, we are not in that circumstance. Our discussion relates to the responsibility of persons like ourselves, who have unprecedented access to scripture and to tools for biblical study. More is required of those to whom more has been given (Luke 12:48).
Since we are expected to embrace Truth to the extent that we have it available to us, the only question remaining is: Where is this Truth, in its most pure and reliable form, to be found? The reformers said "in scripture." The Catholic Church said, "in scripture and tradition." As one responsible before God to be a pursuer of Truth, my studies have brought me to the conclusion that the answer given by the reformers is the more correct answer.