The debate over the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura is often framed as a question of whether the “fullness of revelation” is Scripture or Scripture plus Apostolic Tradition. But, in fact, both sides of this debate are wrong in fundamental ways.
To see why, consider the position of Dr. Michael Kruger, a New Testament professor at Reformed Theological Seminary. Kruger argues that the New Testament writings
should be seen as the final installment of God’s revelation to his people. These writings, together with the Old Testament, are the only ones that are rightly considered the word of God. This conviction of sola scriptura— the Scriptures alone are the word of God and, therefore, the only infallible rule for life and doctrine—provided the fuel needed to ignite the Reformation (“Scripture Alone,” Tabletalk Magazine, November 2012).
What’s wrong this description? It would be tempting to engage Kruger’s arguments on its own terms: to say that, no, Scripture and Tradition comprise revelation and that the “word of God” includes both sources. But, in reality, that answer is scarcely better.
The real problem is that Kruger’s claims fundamentally misunderstand what’s meant by “revelation” as well as what’s meant by the “word of God.” And Kruger is by no means alone here—the basic errors that he’s making here are the same errors made by a surprising number of Protestant theologians and exegetes and not a few Catholics. There are three particular points worth highlighting here.
First, revelation is an action, not a collection.
A critical insight in this debate was contributed by a young Fr. Joseph Ratzinger. While researching the theology of St. Bonaventure (1221-1274), he discovered that “there was nothing corresponding to our conception of ‘revelation’” in either Bonaventure or any of the other theologians (such as St. Thomas Aquinas) in the thirteenth century. Make no mistake: the scholastics had a clear understanding of revelation. It just wasn’t the way we so often use the term today to mean “Sacred Scripture” or “all the revealed contents of the faith.”
Instead, during the Middle Ages, “‘revelation’ is always a concept denoting an act.” The word refers to the act in which God shows himself, not to the objectified result of this act. And because this is so, the receiving subject is always a part of the concept of “revelation.”
This, of course, is the proper sense of “revelation.” If you learn that a friend has revealed a secret you’d confided in him, your first question would naturally be, “To whom did you reveal it?” And you would be rightly confused if the other person responded, “To no one, I just revealed it.” That’s because, despite our misuse of the term revelation as a synonym for Scripture, we still have some sense of revelation as requiring two parties. Without the receiving party, there’s no revelation.
The English word revelation comes from the Latin revalare, meaning “to unveil.” And so, Ratzinger argued, “Where there is no one to perceive ‘revelation,’ no re-vel-ation has occurred, because no veil has been removed. By definition, revelation requires a someone who apprehends it.” In other words, when speaking about “revelation,” it’s not just a matter of what is being revealed but also to whom.
But if this true, then “revelation precedes Scripture and becomes deposited in Scripture but is not simply identical with it” since revelation is always (by definition) “something greater than what is merely written down.” Ratzinger concludes his observations by noting that this means that “there can be no such thing as pure sola scriptura (‘by Scripture alone’), because an essential element of Scripture is the Church as understanding subject, and with this the fundamental sense of tradition is already given.”
Second, God’s revelation includes the meaning and not just the text of the Bible.
Just what is it that God has revealed? An obvious answer is “the Bible,” but that’s facile. To understand why, consider the following: when was the Old Testament revealed? The easy answer is that it was when God spoke to or through the various Old Testament prophets. But that’s not what the Church Fathers or the Bible itself says.
Both Scripture and the Fathers speak of the Old Testament not being revealed until Christ. For instance, St. Augustine says in one of his biblical commentaries, “In Vetere Novum lateat, et in Novo Vetus pateat,” which means “The New [Testament] lies hidden in the Old and the Old [Testament] is unveiled in the New” (Quaest. in Exodum, Q. 73). The claim here isn’t just that Jesus or the New Testament fulfill the Old Testament but that the Old Testament is revealed only in the light of Christ.
St. Paul says the same thing, even using the imagery of a veil, specifically the one Moses used to cover his face after standing in the presence of God (cf. Exod. 34:33-35). In speaking of those Jews whose “minds were hardened,” Paul says that “when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their minds; but when a man turns to the Lord the veil is removed” (2 Cor. 3:12-16).
What does this unveiling in Christ look like? It looks like the road to Emmaus where, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, [Jesus] interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). Prior to this point, his disciples had the Scripture that we would later call the Old Testament. But they didn’t see their deepest Christological meaning. They had the words of Psalm 22, for example, but apart from the cross couldn’t know the true meaning of Psalm 22. And so, Scripture speaks of there still being a “veil” until Christ rends it in two, revealing everything.
This has an important implication for the Reformation because the Reformers speak and act as if Christ never removed that veil. Early on in the Reformation, Luther struggles with his own position, wondering, “Behold how great is the authority of the church and of the pope. Are you alone wise? You also may err” (Conversations with Luther, 9).
This is the right question. If God has revealed his truths to his people (and more precisely, to his Church), how can we hold that the people don’t have the truth?
Over time, Luther became more strident and seemed to succeed in quieting that inner voice. By 1525, he claims that everything in Scripture is perfectly clear. This doctrine, sometimes called “the perspicuity of Scripture,” is another of his own creations. His claim is that “Christ has opened our understanding, that we should understand the Scriptures,” and that therefore “nothing at all has been left obscure or ambiguous; rather, everything that is contained in the Scriptures has been drawn out into the most assured light, and declared . . . to the whole world by the ministry of the word” (Bondage of the Will, 14-15).
It’s a none-too-subtle attempt to eliminate the need for any sort of interpretative authority such as the Church or Tradition by saying Scripture is so clear that everyone of good faith already understands everything. Luther even challenges Erasmus of Rotterdam to “come and produce a single mystery in the Scriptures which still remains shut up.”
But there are a few obvious difficulties with Luther’s view. If Scripture is so clear that we don’t need a guide, why don’t Protestants agree with one another? Both the Lutherans and the Reformed, for instance, end up affirming some version of the perspicuity of Scripture, meaning that both sides think that the Bible’s teachings are clear and self-evident. But when pressed as to just what the Bible is teaching so clearly, they disagree in some profound ways (significant enough to form distinct denominations).
Moreover, what about the fact that each of these Protestant sects was forming new theological systems never seen before in history and proclaiming doctrines never previously held? It’s not as if the Reformers were taking one of two sides in an ages-old fight. On many doctrines, including central ones like justification, they formulated positions that no one had held.
For instance, in attempting to rebut Catholic charges that the Reformers’ views were novelties, the Protestant historian and theologian Alister McGrath attempted to find support for the Reformation in the Church Fathers. Ultimately, he concluded that forensic justification and imputed righteousness “are not merely absent from the writings of the patristic era but actually . . . excluded by those writings (especially those of Augustine)” (“Forerunners of the Reformation?”, Harvard Theological Review [April 1982], 235), and that the introduction of such a theological novum created “a fundamental discontinuity . . . into the western theological tradition where none had ever existed, or ever been contemplated, before” (Iustitia Dei, 186). It would be equally difficult to trace a clear line of theological development from the Church Fathers to Zwingli on the Eucharist, or to the Anabaptists on what baptism does (or doesn’t do), etc.
To say that the Protestant Reformers were right on these issues is to say that everybody up to that point was wrong. But how can anyone hold such a position and claim that Scripture is so clear that it doesn’t need an interpreter? Luther anticipated the objection:
The fact that so many truths are still shut up to many, does not arise from any obscurity in the Scriptures, but from their own blindness or carelessness, which is such that they take no pains to discern the truth, though it is most evident. As Paul says of the Jews, “The veil remains upon their heart” (2 Cor. 3:15) (Bondage of the Will, 20).
This comes remarkably close to Luther speaking of his own teachings as new divine revelation. After all, recall the context of 2 Corinthians 3:15: it was St. Paul speaking of the Jews having a veil over their hearts in reading the Old Testament Scripture because those texts were unveiled only in the light of Jesus Christ. For this reason, St. Paul became a minister of the Church “to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now made manifest to his saints” (Col. 1:25-26).
But Luther’s argument is that this unveiling didn’t happen until he came along. By this view, the Old and New Testament remain veiled until they are unveiled in the light of Martin Luther.
In response to charismatic preachers such as Oral Roberts and Kenneth Hagin, who claimed to be receiving new revelations from God, the popular Calvinist preacher John MacArthur replied, “If God is still granting new revelation, then the truth of God is still being progressively revealed, and if this were the case, our duty would be to faithfully listen to today’s prophets as they unravel God’s truth in new and clearer representations than we find in Scripture” (Charismatic Chaos, 59).
MacArthur is right to reject the preachers on those grounds, but he fails to see that these are equally good grounds for rejecting John Calvin and Martin Luther.
It’s worth noting how uncomfortably Luther’s view of revelation fits alongside his view of the perspicuity of Scripture—and that neither of these views is remotely biblical. When St. Philip found the Ethiopian eunuch reading the book of Isaiah, he asked him, “Do you understand what you are reading?” to which the man humbly replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” (Acts 8:30-31). So within the New Testament, we don’t find Scripture treated as so clear that it can be well understood apart from a guide; but neither do we find it veiled, awaiting the coming of Luther into the world.
Instead, we find a more nuanced position: it’s good to read and study and pray on Scripture, but there are going to be confusing passages that contain “some things in them hard to understand” (1 Pet. 3:16) for which the Church serves an important role in the process of revelation.
St. Jerome described this role by saying that the streams of theological argument can be dried up “with the single Sun of the Church,” and that “we ought to remain in that Church which was founded by the apostles and continues to this day.” He warns that “if ever you hear of any that are called Christians taking their name not from the Lord Jesus Christ, but from some other” (at the time, he’s thinking of Marcionites and Valentianians, but it’s just as true of Lutherans and Calvinists),
you may be sure that you have there not the Church of Christ, but the synagogue of Antichrist. For the fact that they took their rise after the foundation of the Church is proof that they are those whose coming the Apostle foretold. And let them not flatter themselves if they think they have Scripture authority for their assertions, since the devil himself quoted Scripture, and the essence of the Scriptures is not the letter but the meaning. Otherwise, if we follow the letter, we too can concoct a new dogma and assert that such persons as wear shoes and have two coats must not be received into the Church (Dialogue Against the Luciferians 28).
In other words, we’re left with two options. One view is that God revealed the letter but not the meaning of Scripture. It’s a strangely legalistic idea. After all, what use is Scripture if we can’t understand it? As Jerome presciently recognizes, in such a view, we’re endlessly subjected to new heresies based upon silly misunderstandings of Scripture. Even the devil can play along, as we saw in the temptations of Christ (Matthew 4:1-11).
On the other hand, if “the essence of the Scriptures is not the letter but the meaning,” and this is what God unveils to the Church, then we needn’t worry. The unveiling of the meaning of Scripture by definition means that revelation of orthodox theology belongs to the Church.
But the alternative, the view articulated by Paul, Jerome, and Augustine, is that “divine revelation” includes God revealing the meaning of Scripture (which necessarily includes orthodox theology) to the Church. If this is true, then Jerome is right that the Church serves as a sort of “sun” drying up the streams of theological argumentation we would otherwise fall into. And this is exactly what we find from Scripture.
Third, the full revelation of God isn’t Scripture but Jesus.
Defenses of the doctrine of sola scriptura tend to proof-text biblical passages by treating “revelation,” “the Law,” “prophecy,” and “the Word of God” all as synonyms of “the Bible” (and particularly the sixty-six books of the modern Protestant Bible). In fact, each of these terms refers to something distinct. The most egregious case is “the word of God.” Michael Kruger defines sola scriptura as the conviction that “the Scriptures alone are the word of God.” That would have been news to St. John, who says that the Logos, the Word of God, is Jesus Christ (John 1:1-4, 14).
This isn’t a semantical point: it speaks to a chasm between the way Protestants and Scripture speak and think of revelation. The faulty lens of sola scriptura causes Protestants to read passages about God’s self-revelation in Christ as passages about the Bible. Heb. 4:12 speaks of the Logos as a “discerner of hearts.” In the early Church, this was viewed as a commentary about Jesus. Origen cites it as an example of “things said by himself about himself.”
John MacArthur, in contrast, calls it “one of the many statements that the Bible makes concerning itself” (Why Believe the Bible?, 113). Aquinas describes how Scripture is called the “word of God” analogously from Jesus, the true “Word of God” (Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, 100). The Protestant theologian Telford Work claims that Jesus is the Logos only metaphorically, while the true word of God is Scripture (Living and Active, xiv).
This conflation is genuinely tragic because Protestants are missing the heart of God’s self-revelation. The Epistle to the Hebrews opens by saying, “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world” (Heb. 1:1-2).
God was never confined to Scripture. Throughout history, he has revealed himself in “many and various ways.” When St. Paul says of the pagans that “what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them” (Rom. 1:19), he’s speaking in the language of revelation.
God has revealed himself partially even to unbelievers. He does this through creation, which bears witness to the Creator (cf. Ps. 19:1-4; Rom. 10:18) and through the voice of conscience (cf. Rom. 2:14-16). The veil isn’t totally removed, but something is being revealed.
And when the fullness of revelation comes, it’s not a book—it’s a person, Jesus Christ, “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). Jesus doesn’t come to bring us the New Testament; the New Testament exists to bring us to Jesus. And while it’s true that much of what we know of Jesus’ life and teaching we know through Scripture, this is by no means exhaustive. Indeed, “there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25).
And so instead of debating whether “revelation” (as some vaguely defined list of propositions) is Scripture and Tradition or Scripture alone, we should come to a deeper understanding of what Scripture, Tradition, and the Church have to say, namely, that God reveals himself in many and various ways, ultimately revealing himself fully in Jesus Christ.
This revelation is to the Church so that “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18).