When I began to look critically the idea of sola scriptura, as an evangelical Protestant and Bible Christian I had one question foremost in my mind: What does Scripture say about this?
Does the Bible teach sola scriptura? Does the New Testament actually teach us that the Bible is to function in our lives as our “sole” and “sufficient” infallible rule for deciding what we are to believe and how we are to live as Christians? Does the Bible teach us that, as Protestant scholars Norman Geisler and Ralph MacKenzie put it, “the Bible—nothing more, nothing less, and nothing else—is all that is necessary for faith and practice”?
After all, since sola scriptura says that a Christian should believe only what can be shown to be clearly taught in Scripture, surely the New Testament must clearly teach sola scriptura.
If it doesn’t, then wouldn’t the doctrine seem to refute itself?
New Testament practice
Let’s start with the practice of Jesus, the apostles, and the earliest believers. What did they take to be authoritative and binding in their lives?
When we look into the New Testament, what do we see?
1. We see firm faith in the authority of Sacred Scripture.
For Jesus, the apostles, and the earliest Christians, Scripture is the inspired and authoritative revelation of God. Three times Jesus responds to the temptations of the devil by quoting Scripture as authoritative and final: “It is written, it is written, it is written!” He cites Scripture constantly as binding.
The apostles do the same. For them Scripture is the inspired word of God.
St. Paul tells us:
All Scripture is inspired by God (“God-breathed”) and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
But, of course, there’s no dispute on this. Protestants and Catholics agree that Scripture is divinely inspired and authoritatively binding. So let’s move on.
2. When we look at the practice of those living during New Testament times, we also see firm faith in the oral teaching of Jesus and the apostles.
This also is taken as binding.
Now, of course, this would be true of our Lord. After all, Jesus didn’t always say, “It is written.” Sometimes he said, “Truly, truly, I say to you,” and when he did, his words carried the very authority of God speaking. As the Son of God, the spoken word of the Messiah was as binding on those who heard him as the written words of Scripture.
And the same was true of the apostles, with some clarification.
The apostles weren’t “inspired” in the sense that everything they said was special revelation from God. But when Jesus sent them out, he gave them his Spirit and his authority and said to them, “The one who listens to you listens to me” (Luke 10:16). It’s clear that the apostles taught with an awareness of divine authority, with an awareness that the substance of their teaching was as binding when spoken as it was when written down.
On the day of Pentecost, Peter stood and addressed the crowds in Jerusalem, “Men of Israel, listen to these words.” He went on to announce to them authoritatively things that had not yet been written down in the pages of inspired Scripture and yet were to be received as God’s word.
Paul wrote to the believers in the Greek city of Thessalonica:
For this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received from us the word of God’s message, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God (1 Thess. 2:13).
Again in 2 Thessalonians 2:15,
So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us (emphasis added).
Whether it was something Paul wrote in a letter to the Christians in Thessalonica or taught them when he was with them, it was to be received with docility as the word of God.
When you think of it, wouldn’t it be a bit absurd to maintain that when Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica (“For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first”; 1 Thess. 4:16), his words were authoritative and binding; but when he was teaching in Thessalonica and he said the same thing, his words weren’t necessarily authoritative and binding for those who heard him?
No. The oral teaching of Christ and the apostles is viewed in the New Testament as authoritative.
So we see faith in Scripture as authoritative. We see faith in the oral teaching of Jesus and the apostles as authoritative. But there’s another aspect to this issue of authority.
3. We also see faith in an authoritative Church.
In Acts 15, we read about the first serious theological dispute in the early Church. I’m going to quote from this passage at some length because of how much light it sheds on our subject:
Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.’ This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question (Acts 15:1-2).
The chapter goes on to describe the first council of the Christian Church, referred to ever since as the Council of Jerusalem. What do we see at this council? We see the apostles and elders meeting to discuss and debate the issue. In the end we see a decree issued and a letter sent out to all the churches informing the believers of the ruling that had been reached. And (this is important!) we see this “letter”—this “decree”—described as the decision of the Holy Spirit.
Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements (Acts 15:27-28).
And how did the churches scattered throughout Antioch and Syria and Cilicia receive the letter? Do we see them responding, “Thank you for your guidance on this matter. Give us some time to study the issue and we’ll let you know what position we take”? Not exactly.
So when they were sent off, they went down to Antioch, and when they had gathered the congregation together they delivered the letter. And when they read it they rejoiced at the exhortation (Acts 15:30-31).
Again, we’re doing nothing more at this point than describing what we actually see in the practice of those believers living during the time of our Lord and his apostles. And at least at this point, we emphatically do not see sola scriptura. We do not see what Protestant Anthony Lane has described as being “the heart of sola scriptura”: the idea that, for the individual Christian, “Scripture remains the final authority, to which one can appeal against all ecclesiastical authority.”
As a matter of simple fact, in terms of a basic pattern of practice, what we see in the New Testament is what we see throughout church history and to this day in the Catholic Church: (1) the authority of Sacred Scripture, (2) the authority of apostolic Tradition, and (3) the authority of the Church, especially when its leaders meet in council to settle disputes and decide important matters relating to doctrine and morals.
Objection, your honor!
At this point the thoughtful Protestant will respond:
“May I approach the bench? With all due respect to my Catholic brother, this proves absolutely nothing. Obviously, Christians weren’t practicing sola scriptura at that early time in the church’s existence. How could they when the New Testament was still in the process of being written and the apostles were still in their midst, possessing the ability to speak with the authority of Christ himself?
“The question that needs to be asked, therefore, is not ‘What was the practice of believers during the time in which revelation was still being given?’ but rather ‘What should the practice of believers be now that revelation is no longer being given?
What should the practice of believers be now that there are no longer inspired apostles and prophets possessing divine authority to author and infallibly interpret inspired Scripture; now that there are no longer apostles who can meet in council and decide issues and issue letters that begin with words such as ‘It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us’?
“That’s the question we need to ask!”
So let’s ask that question. And in good sola scriptura fashion, let’s examine the New Testament to see how Jesus and the apostles themselves answer it.
And as we think this through, it’s important that we have clarity on what exactly is being proposed by Protestantism. What Protestantism proposes is that the rule of faith and practice for Christians fundamentally and radically changed with the death of the apostles.
While the apostles were still on Earth, authority within the church was not the Bible alone. Instead it involved (1) Scripture, (2) the oral teaching of the apostles, and (3) the ability of the church’s leadership, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to meet in council when needed and authoritatively decide issues of faith and practice, to settle disputes and issue decrees that were binding on all believers.
After the apostles died, binding authority resided in the Bible alone.
This is what Protestantism proposes.
What Catholicism proposes (keeping it simple at this point) is that the basic pattern of practice we see while the apostles were alive didn’t radically change once they died—that Christians continued to look to (1) Scripture, (2) the apostolic tradition, and (3) the ability of the church’s leadership, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to meet in council when needed and authoritatively decide issues of faith and practice, to settle disputes and issue decrees binding on all believers.
(It’s important to remember that apostolic Tradition is not conceived in Catholicism as some word-for-word transcription or recording of the apostles’ oral teaching but rather as the substance of what the apostles taught as it was preserved in the belief, practice, and worship of the early Church.)
With this in mind, in our next post we’ll be asking this question: from the data of the New Testament, what do Jesus and the apostles lead us to believe would be the Christian’s rule of faith and practice once Jesus and the apostles were no longer on Earth, once revelation was no longer being given?
Are there any direct statements to the effect that, with the death of the apostles, Scripture will become the sole and sufficient infallible rule of faith and practice for each believer?
Are there hints in the New Testament writings that the apostles understood that once they had departed the scene, authority would reside in Scripture alone?
Do we see the apostles preparing the churches they established for such a fundamental change in how Christian doctrine would be determined and how disputes would be settled?
What do we actually see in the inspired writings of Paul and Peter and John and the rest?