Many Catholics—and a fair number of Protestants—are confused as to the exact meaning of sola scriptura (Latin, “Scripture only”), the authority principle or rule of faith for our Protestant brethren.
It doesn’t mean that authority is held only the Bible and nothing else (e.g., creeds, confessions, churches, denominational catechisms, et cetera). Nor does it necessarily mean that Church history and tradition are irrelevant. Most Protestants who understand their theological heritage would consider such views caricatures.
The actual position, as developed by Luther, Calvin, and other Protestants over the past 500 years, is the belief that only Scripture is the final and infallible authority in Christianity. Or, to put it another, “oppositional” way: The Church and apostolic tradition and ecumenical councils and popes do not possess infallibility.
Traditional Christians agree that Scripture is the inspired, inerrant revelation of God. Catholics disagree only with pitting the Bible against the Church and apostolic tradition. For Catholics, all three are intertwined and possess infallible authority.
In the limited space of this article, I will present ten (out of many) aspects of sola scriptura that reveal its profound internal weakness and incoherence, and all on the basis of the same Bible that is appealed to. If the Bible itself contradicts sola scriptura, then obviously the principle is untrue.
1. Good (apostolic) tradition is superior to bad traditions of men, according to the Bible.
The bottom (biblical) line is not “tradition versus no tradition,” but rather, “true, apostolic tradition vs. false, man-made tradition.” The Bible often distinguishes between the two (false tradition is italicized in the following passages and true tradition bracketed):
Matthew 15:3 He answered them, “And why do you transgress [the commandment of God] for the sake of your tradition?”
Matthew 15:6 So, for the sake of your tradition, you have made void [the word of God].
Mark 7:8-9, 13 You leave the [commandment of God], and hold fast the tradition of men.” And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the [commandment of God], in order to keep your tradition! . . . thus making void [the word of God] through your tradition which you hand on. And many such things you do.”
Galatians 1:9-12 As we have said before, so now I say again, If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to [that which you received], let him be accursed. Am I now seeking the favor of men, or [of God]? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still pleasing men, I should not be a [servant of Christ]. For I would have you know, brethren, that [the gospel which was preached by me] is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but [it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ.]
Colossians 2:8 See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not [according to Christ.]
1 Thessalonians 2:13 And we also thank God constantly for this, 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], which is at work in you believers.
1 Timothy 4:1, 6-7 Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by giving heed to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons . . . If you put [these instructions] before the brethren, you will be a [good minister] of Christ Jesus, nourished on [the words of the faith and of the good doctrine] which you have followed. Have nothing to do with godless and silly myths. Train yourself in [godliness].
2. Biblical oral tradition is wider in scope than written Scripture.
Neither the Bible nor logic require Paul’s oral teaching (e.g., 1 Cor. 11:2, 23, 15:1-3, Gal. 1:9, 12, 1 Thess. 2:13, 2 Thess. 3:6, 2 Tim. 1:13-14, 2:2) to be the same as his written teaching or “forbid” it from containing information not found in his letters.
We can reasonably deduce that Paul’s oral teaching was harmonious with his teachings preserved in the written text of the Bible; but it also would almost certainly have contained some things not found in Scripture.
We know, for one thing, that he argued and reasoned in the synagogues and other public places. The sheer number of his spoken words must have included subject matter either not covered or only touched upon in his New Testament epistles.
He taught in one synagogue for “three months” (Acts 19:8), and in one location “daily” for two years (Acts 19:10). This was all oral teaching—probably including a lot of oral apostolic tradition, and a great deal of it was not, assuredly (from common sense), recorded in Scripture.
If a Protestant claims we are not bound to anything not found in Scripture, we might ask him where in Scripture he finds such a notion, and why we should think ourselves as bound differently than the earliest Christians, who lived before the New Testament was compiled.
3. Jesus sanctions the extra-biblical tradition of “Moses’ Seat.”
Jewish tradition, including the extra-biblical Mishna (Exodus Rabbah 43:4 and the Pesikta siRav Kahana 1:7), describes “teaching succession” from Moses on down. Jesus acknowledges this tradition:
Matthew 23:1-3 Then said Jesus to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice.”
Here Jesus is sanctioning a tradition of pharisaical authority, and in so doing he is giving legitimacy to the concept of extra-biblical oral tradition. Some pharisaical traditions were corrupt (therefore Jesus condemned them, just as here he condemns their personal hypocrisy), but some were authoritative, so that even Jesus commands obedience to them.
4. Paul uses tradition and Church motifs more often than “Scripture” and “word of God.”
The words Scripture and scriptures appear 51 times in the New Testament. Yet in eight of his 13 epistles (2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Titus, and Philemon) Paul does not use either of these words. In fact, Paul uses them only 14 times: in Romans (six times), 1 Corinthians (two), Galatians (three), 1 Timothy (two), and 2 Timothy (one).
In contrast, if we survey “Body” (of Christ) in Paul, we find 19 appearances (Rom. 7:4, 12:4-5; 1 Cor. 10:17; 12:12-13, 25, 27; Eph. 1:23, 3:6; 4:4, 12, 16; 5:23, 30; Col. 1:18, 24; 2:19; 3:15).
Paul uses Church (ekklesia), in other than a local sense of congregation or building, 20 times (1 Cor. 5:12, 6:4, 10:32, 11:22, 12:28, 15:9; Gal. 1:13; Eph. 1:22; 3:10, 21; 5:23-25, 27, 29, 32; Phil. 3:6; Col. 1:18, 24; 1 Tim. 3:15).
Likewise, here is Paul’s use (four times) of (apostolic) “tradition(s)” (paradosis): 1 Corinthians 11:2; Colossians 2:8; 2 Thessalonians 2:15, 3:6.
But the word tradition is not the only word Paul uses for this notion— not by a long shot. There is also the concept of “receiving” (tradition) and “delivering,” or passing it on. Three of the above passages on “tradition” contain this motif. This mention of some sort of tradition passed down (primarily orally through preaching) can be seen in passages such as 1 Corinthians 11:23, 15:1-2, 15:3; Galatians 1:9, 12; 1 Thessalonians 2:13; and 2 Timothy 1:13, 2:2, for eight more instances.
Moreover, there are at least 15 other Scripture passages that exhibit the notion of apostolic (and oral) tradition, expressed in various ways (including “word of God,” “preaching,” et cetera): Romans 6:17, 10:8, 16:25; 1 Corinthians 1:18; 2 Corinthians 3:6; Ephesians 1:13; Philippians 2:16, 4:9; Colossians 1:5, 1:6; 1 Thessalonians 1:6; 2 Thessalonians 3:14; 2 Timothy 4:2, 15, 17.
Protestants may want sola scriptura to be the Pauline rule of faith, but the numbers just don’t add up.
5. The Bible asserts that at least some of its teachings have to be “opened.”
In Luke 24:32, two disciples on the road to Emmaus marveled how Jesus “opened to us the scriptures.” The Greek word for opened is dianoigo. According to Joseph Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, it means “to open by dividing or drawing asunder, to open thoroughly (what had been closed).” This meaning can be seen in other passages where dianoigo appears (Mark 7:34-35, Luke 2:23; 24:31, 45; Acts 16:14, 17:3).
Here, then, Scripture itself appears to be informing us that some parts of it were not plain—i.e., were “closed” —until the infallible teaching authority and interpretation of our Lord Jesus opened it up and made it plain. This runs contrary to the Protestant notion of the perspicuity of Scripture and its self-interpreting nature.
6. The very nature of sola scriptura requires the concept to be found in the Bible, and it isn’t.
Given his principle’s premise, the Protestant has no choice but to prove that the Bible clearly and explicitly teaches sola scriptura. But the Bible does not teach this. It asserts the infallible, binding authority of Tradition (2 Thess. 2:15, 3:6; Phil. 4:9; 2 Tim. 1:13-14, 2:2; many more) and of the Church (Acts 15:1-32, 16:4, 20:28; 1 Tim. 3:15).
Moreover, the Bible flat-out contradicts sola scriptura (in its indications of binding tradition, authoritative oral tradition, apostolic succession, strong Church authority, the papacy, Holy Spirit-led councils, et cetera).
7. Both Scripture and Church history have problematic areas to work through.
Protestants like to point to scandalous moments in Church history as disproving its authority. It’s true, there are “problems” in Catholic history to mull over and attempt to resolve (for example, popes and antipopes simultaneously claiming the Chair of Peter)—just as there are exegetical “problems” in Scripture, which Protestants devote much energy to resolving (I have Gleason Archer’s Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties in my library.)
As the latter are not regarded as antithetical to belief in an inspired, inerrant, and infallible Bible, difficulties in Church history are not fatal to belief in an infallible Church.
8. Participants at the Council of Jerusalem felt guided by the Holy Spirit, and thus asserted a binding authority.
If the Holy Spirit could speak to a council in apostolic times, he can do so now. (This doesn’t require belief in ongoing revelation, which is another issue.) The disciples were clearly told by our Lord Jesus at the Last Supper that the Holy Spirit would “teach you all things” (John 14:26) and “guide you into all truth” (John 16:13).
This can be understood as referring to individuals either alone or in a corporate sense, or both. If it is corporate, then it could apply to a Church council. And, in fact, we see exactly that in the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15:1-29.
Its authority was binding because it was a council of the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:6, 22, 28). It would have been binding on Christians if there had never been a New Testament (and at that time there wasn’t one), or if it had never been recorded in Scripture.
The Council of Jerusalem exercised its authority to compel. It issued commands, not scholarly opinions from an ivory tower. Paul and his assistants Silas and Timothy proclaimed these decisions in their missionary travels:
Acts 16:4-5 As they went on their way through the cities, they delivered to them for observance the decisions which had been reached by the apostles and elders who were at Jerusalem. So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily.
The Jerusalem Council is a crystal-clear scriptural example of infallible Church authority. It makes sense to say that the nature of Church government endured, and that subsequent Church councils throughout history also arrived at infallible decisions.
9. “All Scripture is inspired by God.”
2 Timothy 3:15-17 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. 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.
This is the classic Protestant proof text for sola scriptura. The hidden premise is that, since Scripture is good for all these things, it is good for all things, including being the sole infallible rule of faith.
But the second doesn’t follow from the first. Catholics who understand their faith abide by this passage as much as Protestants do. But a plain reading shows that “equipping for every good work” does not exclude other sources of training, as sola scriptura would demand.
The important notions of Church and tradition are present implicitly in 2 Timothy 3:15-16, based on topically cross-referencing to other Pauline passages on authority, apostolic tradition, and the Church. Moreover, if we look at the overall context of this passage, in 2 Timothy alone, Paul makes reference to oral tradition three times (1:13-14, 2:2, 3:14), and it was just as binding in Paul’s opinion as his written letters.
We agree with Protestants that Scripture can train us in righteousness and equip us for good works, just as we believe in the material sufficiency of the Bible (the notion that all Christian doctrines are found in Scripture in some form or other). The Protestant mistake lies in equating that sufficiency with formal sufficiency: the Bible as the sole, ultimate, binding norm and authoritative rule of faith, to the exclusion of Church and Tradition.
This doesn’t follow logically, nor exegetically, from the passage. It is a circular argument. At best, this passage might be regarded as harmonious with a view of sola scriptura, assuming it were clearly established on other biblical grounds. But in no way does it establish the principle of sola scriptura on its own.
10. God uses fallible men to sustain an infallible Church, just as he did with the Bible.
Protestants believe that God could produce an infallible Bible by means of fallible, sinful men—Moses, David, Matthew, Peter, and Paul to name a few; that it could be confirmed in its parameters by fallible, sinful men; translated by fallible, sinful men; and preserved by fallible, sinful men for 1,500 years before Protestantism was born (of fallible, sinful men, it might be added).
We agree, and contend that God can and does likewise create and sustain the infallible Church and Tradition to which this same Bible repeatedly refers. This is not any less plausible, and indeed is biblically required.