I would first like to credit the online article of Dave Armstrong (Armstrong, David. The Catholic Verses. Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2004.), who’s article setup was inspiration to my own. Thanks Mr. Armstrong! Now let’s dive into this…
Sola Scriptura (Latin for “Scripture Alone”) is the Protestant doctrine that the Bible is the sole and supreme authority on Christian doctrine. It is one of five “Solas” that first were mentioned as “battle cries” during the Protestant Reformation. The five “Solas” are key Protestant beliefs that were used by Protestants when rebelling against the authority of the Roman Catholic Church beginning in the 1500s. The Five Solas are as follows:
Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone )
Sola Fide (Faith Alone)
Sola Gratia (Grace Alone)
Solo Christo (Christ Alone, added to the previous Solae by mid-20th century Protestants)
Soli Deo Gloria (Glory to God Alone, added to the previous Solae by mid-20th century Protestants)
Out of these Five Solae, Sola Scriptura and Sola Fide are referred to the most by modern-day Protestants when arguing against Roman Catholic doctrine. The common Protestant argument is that first, the Bible alone is the supreme religious authority for Christianity; second, tradition is unnecessary and is condemned by the Bible; and third, an authoritative, teaching Church is not needed. Lets take a closer look at these claims.
The Bible Never Claims to be the Sole Teacher
Catholics agree with Protestants that Scripture is a “standard of truth” but not in a sense that rules out the binding authority of authentic apostolic Tradition and the Church. The Bible doesn’t teach that. But no biblical passage teaches that Scripture is the formal authority or rule of faith in isolation from the Church and Tradition. Sola Scriptura can’t even be deduced from implicit passages.
Not so! cry the Protestants. The Bible teaches Sola Scriptura!
Lets look at the commonly cited “proof” texts.
“All scripture, inspired of God, is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice, that the man of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
Let’s look at this passage a little closer. Does it really help the Protestant argument? “All scripture, inspired of God, is profitable to teach…” Profitable. Hmm. There is a difference between being profitable and sufficient. All scripture is profitable to teach, reprove, correct, and instruct; but that by no means says it is the sole rule of Faith!
Also, read in context with the preceding verses, St. Paul is talking to Timothy about the scriptures that he has known from his infancy (2 Timothy 3:15). The only scriptures at that time was the Old Testament! So if this is proof of Sola Scriptura, then in reality it is Sola Old Testament! The real message of this passage is that all scripture is profitable, but not sufficient.
“But these are written, that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God: and that believing, you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31)
Here a verse is taken out of context. This is the ending of the Gospel of John. He says that the things he has written of the Lord are there so we may believe that Jesus is the Christ, and have life in His name. “…that you may believe…” These things are written in his Gospel that we may believe that Jesus is the Christ, not that the Bible is the supreme authority!
“Now these were more noble than those in Thessalonica, who received the word with all eagerness, daily searching the scriptures, whether these things were so.” (Acts 17:11)
Protestants cite this verse because it appears these noble people of New Testament times relied solely on the scriptures. Not so. Yet again, another verse taken out of context. These “noble” people are converts to Christianity; Jews and Gentiles. They searched the scriptures daily to see if Jesus Christ was the promised Messiah spoken of by the prophets. Nowhere is Sola Scriptura taught in this passage.
The Bible Teaches Tradition is Also Authoritative
Protestants often quote the verses in the Bible where corrupt traditions of men are condemned (Matt. 15:2-6; Mark 7:8-13; Col. 2:8). They seem to think that since Jesus condemned man-made traditions that nullify the Word of God, then all tradition is bad and useless.
Catholics disagree with this. True, apostolic Tradition is to be endorsed positively. This Tradition is in total harmony with and consistent with Scripture.
Let us remember that Jesus Christ commissioned the Apostles to “preach the Gospel to every creature”(Mark 16:15), not to “write down everything that I have taught you in one big book.” The Apostles oral teaching was to be believed, as it was binding (Luke 10:16). The prophet Isaiah prophesied of how the Word of the Lord would not depart from his people’s mouths; and would remain with them forever (Is. 59:21) This shows how important Tradition really is; not only the Bible holds the authoritative Christian teaching. This oral teaching will last forever, says Simon Peter.
“But the word of the Lord endureth for ever. And this is the word which by the gospel hath been preached unto you.” (1 Peter 1:25)
Be aware of the word preached–it was oral. This was guaranteed to last.
Let’s look at a few examples of tradition being taught by the Bible.
“And they were persevering in the doctrine of the apostles, and in the communication of the breaking of bread, and in prayers.” (Acts 2:42, emphasis added)
The first Christians persevered in the doctrine of the apostles, not solely on the Bible. The New Testament was not written at this particular time, so this does not help the Protestant argument.
“Now I praise you, brethren, that in all things you are mindful of me: and keep my ordinances as I have delivered them to you.” (1 Cor. 11:2, emphasis added)
These “ordinances” that Paul has delivered to the Corinthians are his traditions-something that is to be upheld, according to the Apostle.
“Therefore, brethren, stand fast; and hold the traditions which you have learned, whether by word, or by our epistle.” (2 Thes. 2:14, emphasis added)
St. Paul commands the holding of oral and written Tradition–not Scripture alone.
“What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.” (2 Tim.1:13-14)
Paul tells Timothy to keep the sound teaching he has heard from him–oral Tradition.
“And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.”(2 Timothy 2:2, emphasis added)
Paul tells Timothy to entrust to “reliable people” the teaching he has heard him say. This teaching that Timothy has heard is oral teaching–Tradition. Tradition is taught to be held as binding by the Church’s believer’s; not only Scripture. St. Paul approves of Apostolic Tradition, apart from the harmful traditions of men.
The Apostles’ oral Tradition is of the same authority as the Bible! Christ told them this by saying:
“He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me.” (Matthew 10:40)
“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)
Tradition and Sacred Scripture are of the same authority, not “Scripture Alone”. Neither of them contradict each other.
St. Paul Knew That His Passed-Down Tradition Was Infallible and Binding
If St. Paul knew that what he was teaching was infallible, or else he would have been commanding his followers to adhere to a mistaken doctrine. He writes:
“If any one refuses to obey what we say in this letter, note that man, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed.” (2 Thes. 3:14)
“Take note of those who create dissensions and difficulties, in opposition to the doctrine which you have been taught; avoid them.” (Rom. 16:17)
He didn’t write about holding fast to “the pretty-much, mostly, largely true; possibly imperfect and maybe fallible doctrine which you have been taught.”
Jesus and St. Paul Accepted Non-Biblical Oral and Written Traditions
Protestants defending Sola Scriptura will claim that Jesus and Paul accepted the authority of the Old Testament. This is true, but they also appealed to other authority outside of written revelation. For example:
In Matthew 23:2-3, Jesus teaches that the scribes and Pharisees have a legitimate, binding authority based “on Moses’ seat,” but this phrase or idea cannot be found anywhere in the Old Testament.
In 1 Corinthians 10:4, Paul refers to a rock that “followed” the Jews through the Sinai wilderness. The Old Testament says nothing about such miraculous movement.
“As Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses” (2 Tim. 3:8). These two men cannot be found in the related Old Testament passage (Ex. 7:8) or anywhere else in the Old Testament.
The reference to “He shall be called a Nazarene” cannot be found in the Old Testament, yet it was “spoken by the prophets” (Matt. 2:23). Therefore, this prophecy, which is considered to be “God’s word,” was passed down orally rather than through Scripture.
The “Word of God” Refers Also to Oral, Not Always Written Teaching
“Word” in Holy Scripture often refers to a proclaimed, oral teaching of prophets or apostles. What the prophets spoke was the word of God regardless of whether or not their utterances were recorded later as written Scripture. So for example, we read in Jeremiah:
“For twenty-three years…the word of the Lord has come to me and I have spoken to you again and again…’But you did not listen to me,’ declares the Lord…Therefore the Lord Almighty says this: ‘Because you have not listened to my words…’ ” (Jer. 25:3, 7-8).
This was the Word of God even though some of it was not recorded in writing. It had equal authority as writing or proclamation-never-reduced-to-writing. This was true also of apostolic preaching. When the phrases “word of God” or “word of the Lord” appear in Acts and the epistles, they almost always refer to oral preaching, not to Scripture. For example:
“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, emphasis added)
St. Paul appears to teach that the Word of God and Tradition are synonymous.
“Keep away from any brother who is living in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.” (2 Thess. 3:6, emphasis added)
The Early Christians on Tradition’s Authority
St. Irenaeus (lived 130-202 AD)
“As I said before, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although she is disseminated throughout the whole world, yet guarded it, as if she occupied but one house. She likewise believes these things just as if she had but one soul and one and the same heart; and harmoniously she proclaims them and teaches them and hands them down, as if she possessed but one mouth. For, while the languages of the world are diverse, nevertheless, the authority of the tradition is one and the same.” (Against Heresies 1:10:2 [A.D. 189])
Origen of Alexandria (lived 184-253)
“Although there are many who believe that they themselves hold to the teachings of Christ, there are yet some among them who think differently from their predecessors. The teaching of the Church has indeed been handed down through an order of succession from the apostles and remains in the churches even to the present time. That alone is to be believed as the truth which is in no way at variance with ecclesiastical and apostolic tradition.” (The Fundamental Doctrines 1:2 [A.D. 225])
And Epiphanius summarizes the Catholic Church’s teaching on Tradition quite well.
Epiphanius of Salamis (lived 310-403)
“It is needful also to make use of tradition, for not everything can be gotten from sacred Scripture. The holy apostles handed down some things in the scriptures, other things in tradition.” (Medicine Chest Against All Heresies 61:6 [A.D. 375])
These Church Fathers held Sacred Tradition on the same level of authority as they did the Sacred Scriptures; not raising one above the other.
A Teaching, Authoritative Church
The Bible, like any book, cannot interpret itself. There must be a truthful, teaching authority. There are people who do not understand the Scriptures and twist them to their own destruction. St. Peter mentions this in his second epistle, when speaking of St. Paul’s writings.
“As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are certain things hard to be understood, which the unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, to their own destruction.” (2 Peter 3:16, emphasis added)
Someone with reasonable biblical knowledge must teach the meaning of the scriptures to others. Someone must show others the meaning of the sacred writings, so they may understand.
“And he was returning, sitting in his chariot, and reading Isaiah the prophet. And the Spirit said to Philip: Go near, and join thyself to this chariot. And Philip running thither, heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. And he said: Thinkest thou that thou understandest what thou readest? Who said: And how can I, unless some man shew me? And he desired Philip that he would come up and sit with him.” (Acts 8:28-31, emphasis added)
People must be shown the meaning of the Scriptures that they may know their meaning, and that they may not twist them to their own destruction.
Even the Twelve Apostles did not understand some of Christ’s parables, and needed them explained (Mark 4:33-34). The prophesies in Scripture are not to be privately interpreted (2 Pet. 1:20), lest people twist their meanings (2 Peter 3:16).
Who can correctly teach the Bible’s meaning?
The Bible itself refers to the Church as “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). The truth of the faith has been revealed primarily to the leaders of the Church (Eph. 3:5), who with Jesus Christ, are the foundation of the Church (Eph. 2:20). The Church is guided by the Holy Spirit, which keeps it’s teaching from corruption forever (John 14:16).
Beginning with Peter, the Apostles received authority from Jesus Christ Himself.
“Amen I say to you, whatsoever you shall bind upon earth, shall be bound also in heaven; and whatsoever you shall loose upon earth, shall be loosed also in heaven.” (Matthew 18:18, emphasis added)
“If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:17, emphasis added)
The Apostles, who were the first leaders of the Church, were all given authority by God Himself! One instance is when they exercised their authority is at the Council of Jerusalem.
The Apostles Exercised Authority at the Council of Jerusalem
In the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:6-30), we see Peter and James speaking with authority. This Council makes an authoritative pronouncement (citing the Holy Spirit) that was binding on all Christians:
“For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity” (Acts 15:28-29, emphasis added).
In the next chapter, we read that Paul, Timothy, and Silas were traveling around “through the cities,” and Scripture says that “they delivered to them for observance the decisions which had been reached by the apostles and elders who were at Jerusalem” (Acts 16:4).
The first Christians needed authoritative teachers! These teachers were and are the leaders of the Church!
Ancient Jews Did Not Teach Sola Scriptura
To give two examples from the Old Testament itself:
In Nehemiah 8:3, Ezra reads the law of Moses to the people in Jerusalem. In verse 7 we find thirteen Levites who assisted Ezra and helped the people to understand the law. Much earlier, we find Levites exercising the same function (2 Chr. 17:8-9).
Ezra, a priest and scribe, studied the Jewish law and taught it to Israel, and his authority was binding under pain of imprisonment, banishment, loss of goods, and even death (Ezra 7:26).
So the people did indeed understand the law (Neh. 8:8, 12), but not without teaching assistance. The Old Testament teaches the need for authoritative interpreters, just like the New Testament.
Ephesians 4:11-15 and Others Refute the Protestant “Proof Text”
“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” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
This passage doesn’t teach formal sufficiency, which excludes a binding, authoritative role for Tradition and the Church. If we look at the overall context of this passage, we can see that Paul makes reference to oral Tradition three times (2 Tim. 1:13-14, 2:2, 3:14). And to use an analogy, let’s examine a similar passage:
“And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph. 4:11-15, emphasis added).
If 2 Timothy 3 proves the sole sufficiency of Scripture, then Ephesians 4 would also prove the sufficiency of pastors and teachers for the attainment of Christian perfection. The pastors, teachers, etc. are able to equip the saints for the work of the ministry, building Christ’s Church, and unity in knowledge of the Faith. Using the Protestant mindset for 2 Timothy 3:16, it appears that the leaders of the Church are sufficient, since this passage doesn’t even mention Scripture. So if all non-scriptural elements are excluded in 2 Timothy, then, by analogy, Scripture would logically have to be excluded in Ephesians.
This is not the case if one views the situation logically. The Church, Tradition, and Scripture are both equally necessary and important for teaching.
Another passage that could be mentioned such as James 1:4.
“And patience hath a perfect work; that you may be perfect and entire, failing in nothing.” (James 1:4, emphasis added)
It appears that, using the Protestant mentality applied to 2 Timothy 3:16, patience is enough to perfect a man, and only patience. James makes no mention of Scripture being sufficient. Maybe this is one of the reasons why Martin Luther called the Epistle of James “an epistle of straw” and wanted to “throw Jimmy into the fire”. Just imagine if the Pope said something like that. No Protestant would let him live it down.
Or perhaps 2 Corinthians 12:9 which states:
“And He has said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness‘ Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9, emphasis added)
Maybe even Matthew 19:21.
Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” (Matthew 19:21, emphasis added)
There are many things that contribute to a Christians perfection, not the Bible alone. There are many components to Christian perfection; Sacred Tradition and the teaching authority of the Church in addition to the Holy Bible.
Sola Scriptura Is a House Divided Against Itself
If all Protestants refer to the Bible alone, then why are there so many different denominations? If the Bible alone cannot steer you wrong, then why are there so many differences between these Sola Scriptura Protestants?
Obviously, given the divisions in Protestantism, simply “going to the Bible” hasn’t worked. In the end, a person has no assurance or certainty in the Protestant system. They can only “go to the Bible” themselves and perhaps come up with another doctrinal version of some disputed doctrine to add to the list.
Without the use of Tradition and the teaching Magisterium of the Church, there are several questions that come to light. For example:
Where in the Bible do we find an inspired and infallible list of books that should belong in the Bible? How do we know, from the Bible alone, that the individual books of the New Testament are inspired?
Who may authoritatively arbitrate between Christians who claim to be led by the Holy Spirit into mutually contradictory interpretations of the Bible?
Protestants usually claim that they all agree “on the important things.” Who is able to decide authoritatively what is important in the Christian faith and what is not?
How did the early Church evangelize and overthrow the Roman Empire, survive and prosper almost 350 years, without knowing for sure which books belong in the canon of Scripture?
If Jesus intended for Christianity to strictly be a “religion of the book,” why did He wait 1400 years before showing somebody how to build a printing press?
I really enjoy asking that last question. Anyway…without a teaching Church, and an equally authoritative Tradition, the Sola Scriptura Protestants are violating the Word of God Himself. Not something a “Bible Christian” should want to do. So, I do suggest that the Protestants rethink their Sola Scriptura position. After all, as Martin Luther said, the Roman Papists have the Word of God, which all Protestants received from them.
“We are obliged to yield many things to the Papists–that with them is the Word of God, which we received from them; otherwise we should have known nothing at all about it.” – Martin Luther, Commentary on John
Protestants might want to start paying Papist Rome’s authority a little more respect. After all, the Catholic Church was started by Jesus Christ, God Himself, opposed to all the man-made Protestant denominations who practice their man-made traditions that are in the world today.
In conclusion, let us echo the Divine Master’s prayer for Christian unity throughout the world.
“I in them and you in me–so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:23)
Yours in Christ,