“If a teaching isn’t explicit in the Bible, then we don’t accept it as doctrine!” That belief, commonly known as sola scriptura, was a central component of all I believed as a Protestant. This bedrock Protestant teaching claims that Scripture alone is the sole rule of faith and morals for Christians. Diving deeper into its meaning to defend my Protestant faith against Catholicism about twenty years ago, I found that there was no uniform understanding of this teaching among Protestant pastors and no book I could read to get a better understanding of it.
What role does tradition play? How explicit does something have to be in Scripture before it can be called doctrine? Does Scripture tell us what is absolutely essential for us to believe as Christians? How can we determine the canon using sola scriptura? All these questions and more pointed to the central question: Where is sola scriptura itself taught in the Bible?
Most Protestants find it in 2 Timothy 3:16-17:
All scripture is inspired by God 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 work.
The fact is that this passage (or any other) does not even hint at Scripture being the sole rule of faith. It says that Scripture is inspired and necessary—a rule of faith—but in no way does it teach that Scripture alone is all one needs to determine the truth about faith and morals in the Church. My attempt to defend this bedrock teaching of Protestantism led me to conclude that sola scriptura is unreasonable, unbiblical, and unworkable.
The Protestant appeal to the sole authority of Scripture to defend sola scriptura is a textbook example of circular reasoning, and it betrays an essential problem with the doctrine itself: It is contrary to reason. One cannot prove the inspiration of Scripture, or any text, from the text itself. The Book of Mormon, the Hindu Vedas, the Qur’an, the writings of Mary Baker Eddy, and other books all claim inspiration, but this does not make them inspired.
Closely related to this is the question of the canon. After all, if the Bible is the sole rule of faith, we first have to know which books are included in the Bible. Many books were believed to be inspired and, therefore, canonical in the early Church. How do we separate the wheat from the chaff? The Protestant must use the principle of sola scriptura to answer the question of the canon. It simply cannot be done.
I recall a conversation with a Protestant friend about this. He said, “The Holy Spirit guided the early Christians and helped them gather the canon of Scripture and declare it to be the inspired word of God, as Jesus said in John 16:13.” I thought that that answer was more Catholic than Protestant. John 16:13 does tells us that the Spirit will lead the apostles, and by extension, the Church, into truth. But it has nothing to say about sola scriptura or the nature or number of books in the canon.
The Bible does not and cannot answer questions about its own inspiration or about the canon. Historically, the Church used sacred Tradition outside of Scripture as its criterion for the canon. The early Christians, many of whom disagreed on the issue, needed the Church in council to give an authoritative decree to settle the question. Those are the historical facts.
To put my friend’s argument into perspective, imagine a Catholic making a similar claim to demonstrate that Mary is the Mother of God. “We believe the Holy Spirit guides us into all truth and guided the early Christians to declare this truth.” Would the Protestant respond with a hearty amen? No. He would be more likely to say, “Show me where it says in the Bible that Mary is the Mother of God!” The same question, of course, applies to Protestants concerning the canon: “Show me where the canon of Scripture is in the Bible!”
Will the Circle Be Unbroken?
The issues of the inspiration and canon of Scripture are the Achilles heel of any intellectual defense of sola scriptura. So weak are the biblical attempts at an answer that often the Protestant response just turns the argument against the Catholic. “How do you know Scripture is inspired? Your reasoning is just as circular. You say the Church is infallible because the inspired Scripture says so, then you say that Scripture is inspired and infallible because the Church says so!”
Not only is this not an answer, but it also misrepresents the Catholic position. Catholics do not claim the Church is infallible because Scripture says so. The Church is infallible because Jesus said so. The Church was established and functioning as the infallible spokesperson for the Lord decades before the New Testament was written.
It is true that we know Scripture to be inspired and canonical only because the Church has told us so. That is historical fact. Catholics reason to inspiration of Scripture through demonstrating first its historical reliability and the truth about Christ and the Church. Then we can reasonably rely upon the testimony of the Church to tell us the text is inspired. This is not circular reasoning. The New Testament is the most accurate and verifiable historical document in all of ancient history, but one cannot deduce from this that it is inspired.
The testimony of the New Testament is backed up by hundreds of works by early Christian and non-Christian writers. We have the first-century testimonies of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, the Church Fathers—some of whom were contemporaries of the apostles—and highly reliable non-Christian writers such as Suetonius, Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Josephus, and others, all testifying to the veracity of the Christ-event in various ways. It is on the basis of the historical evidence that we can say it is a historical fact that Jesus lived, died and was reported to be resurrected from the dead by over 500 eyewitnesses (1 Cor. 15:6). Many of these eyewitnesses went to their deaths testifying to the truth of the Resurrection of Christ (Luke 1:1-4; John 21:18-19; 24-25; Acts 1:1-11).
The historical record also tells us that Jesus Christ established a Church—not a book—to be the foundation of the Christian faith (Matt. 16:15-18; 18:15-18; cf. Eph. 2:20; 3:10, 20-21; 4:11-15; 1 Tim. 3:15; Heb. 13:7, 17). Christ said of his Church, “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Luke 10:16).
The many books that comprise the Bible never tell us that they are inspired, nor do they answer many other essential questions about their canonicity. Who can or cannot be the human authors of the texts? Who wrote them in the first place? But Scripture does tell us—remarkably clearly—that Jesus established a kingdom on earth, the Church, with a hierarchy and the authority to speak for him (Luke 20:29-32; Matt. 10:40; 28:18-20). If we did not have Scripture, we would still have the Church. But without the Church, there would be no New Testament Scripture. It was members of this kingdom, the Church, who wrote Scripture, preserved its many texts, and eventually canonized it. Scripture alone could not do any of this.
The bottom line is that the truth of the Catholic Church is rooted in history. Jesus Christ is a historical person who gave his authority to his Church to teach, govern, and sanctify in his place. His Church gave us the New Testament with the authority of Christ. Reason rejects sola scriptura as a self-refuting principle.
There are four problems with the defense of sola scriptura using 2 Timothy 3:16. First, it does not speak of the New Testament at all. The two verses preceding 2 Timothy 3:16 say:
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.
This passage does not refer to the New Testament. In fact, none of the New Testament books had been written when Timothy was a child. Claiming this verse as authentication for a book that had not been written yet goes far beyond what the text claims.
Second, 2 Timothy 3:16 does not claim Scripture to be the sole rule of faith for Christians. As a Protestant, I was guilty of seeing more than one sola in Scripture that simply did not exist. The Bible teaches justification by faith, and we Catholics believe it, but we do not believe in justification by faith alone, as Protestants do. Among other reasons, the Bible says that we are “justified by works and not by faith alone” (Jas. 2:24). There is no sola in 2 Timothy 3:16 either. The passage never claims Scripture to be the sole rule of faith.
James 1:4 illustrates the problem:
And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
If we apply the same principle of exegesis to this text that the Protestant does to 2 Timothy 3:16, then we would have to say that all we need is patience (steadfastness) to be perfected. We don’t need faith, hope, charity, the Church, baptism, or anything else.
Of course, any Christian knows this would be absurd. But James’s emphasis on the central importance of patience is even stronger than Paul’s emphasis on Scripture. The key is to see that there is not a sola in either text. Sola patientia would be just as wrong as sola scriptura.
Third, the Bible teaches that oral Tradition is equal to Scripture. It is silent when it comes to sola scriptura, but it is remarkably clear in teaching that oral Tradition is just as much the word of God as Scripture is. In what most scholars believe was the first book written in the New Testament, Paul said:
And we also thank God . . . that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God. (1 Thess. 2:13)
According to Paul, the spoken words of the apostles were the word of God. In fact, when Paul wrote his second letter to the Thessalonians, he urged Christians there to receive the oral and written Traditions as equally authoritative. This would be expected because both are the word of God:
So, then, brethren stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter. (2 Thess. 2:15)
Finally, 2 Timothy 3:16 is specifically addressed to members of the hierarchy. It is a pastoral epistle, written to a young bishop Paul had ordained. R. J. Foster points out that the phrase “man of God” refers to ministers, not to the average layperson (A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1149). This title was used in the Old Testament to describe those consecrated to the service of God (Deut. 33:1; 1 Sam. 2:27; 1 Kgs. 12:22). Not only does the text not say Scripture sola, but Paul’s exhortation for Timothy to study the word of God is in the context of an exhortation to “preach the word” as a minister of Christ. To use this text to claim that sola scriptura is being taught to the average layperson is—to borrow a phrase from Paul—going far “beyond what is written” (1 Cor. 4:6).
The silence of Scripture on sola scriptura is deafening. But when it comes to the true authority of Scripture and Tradition and to the teaching and governing authority of the Church, the text is clear:
If your brother sins against you go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. . . . But if he does not listen, take one or two others with you. . . . If he refuses to listen . . . tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (Matt. 18:15-17)
According to Scripture, the Church is the final court of appeal for the people of God in matters of faith, morals, and discipline. It is telling that since the Reformation of almost 500 years ago—a Reformation claiming sola scriptura as its formal principle—there are countless Protestant denominations. In John 10:16, Jesus prophesied there would be “one flock, one shepherd.” Reliance on sola scriptura has not been effective in establishing doctrine or authority.