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A Treatise on Sola Scriptura:

Introduction
by Gary Hoge

• Areas of Agreement
• The Nature of the Dispute
• The Catholic Position
• The Protestant Position

The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter I, paragraph VI, states,


“The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own
glory, man's salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in
Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from
Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new
revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.”
This doctrine, that the Bible alone is the source of all Christian doctrine
and practice, is popularly known as sola Scriptura (Latin: "Bible alone").
Protestant Christians believe that all doctrines must be derived from the
plain teaching of Scripture alone, as interpreted by the individual. Because
they believe that the important teachings of the Bible are clearly
presented and easily understood, there is no need for either apostolic
Tradition or the Church to interpret the Bible.
I hope to demonstrate that sola Scriptura is an invention of man, not a
revelation of God. To do that I will try to show the following:
• That the Bible verses used to prove sola Scriptura do not actually
teach the doctrine, and some of them actually refute it.
• That Jesus and the apostles relied on preexisting oral Tradition as
well as Scripture, thus refuting sola Scriptura by their example.
• That the Bible teaches that the Scriptures are not the only source of
Christian authority.
• That the Bible teaches that the rule of faith for Christians is
"Scripture and Tradition," not "Scripture alone."
• That the three foundational premises upon which sola Scriptura
depends are false, namely:
o There is no evidence that all essential apostolic teaching was
reduced to writing, and considerable evidence, both biblical
and historical, that it was not.
o The testimony of the early Christians is that they did not rely
on Scripture alone, and in fact it would have been impossible
for them to do so.
o Both Scripture and history show that the Bible is not clear
enough, even in its essential teachings, to be self-interpreting.

Areas of Agreement
Sola Scriptura is a major point of division between Catholic and
Protestant Christians, but although the divide is deep, it is not nearly as
wide as many people think. So I'd like to start by looking at where the two
sides agree.
The Bible is the Word of God
Both sides agree completely that the Bible is the infallible, inerrant,
inspired Word of God. The Catholic Church's position is stated in the
Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC):
God is the author of Sacred Scripture. The divinely revealed realities,
which are contained and presented in the text of Sacred Scripture, have
been written down under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. . . . [The
Church] accepts as sacred and canonical the books of the Old and New
Testaments, whole and entire, with all their parts, on the grounds that,
written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their
author and have been handed on as such to the Church herself.[1]
There is no difference whatsoever between the two sides on this point.
Catholic and Protestant Christians share an unshakable confidence that
the Scriptures are the Word of God. From this fact, several things follow:
We Need to Study the Scriptures
Bible study is essential to living the Christian life. Unfortunately,
Protestants sometimes have the idea that Catholics aren't allowed to read
the Bible, or at least are not encouraged to do so. That is not true. The
Church specifically encourages Catholics to read the Bible:
And such is the force and power of the Word of God that it can serve
the Church as her support and vigor and the children of the Church as
strength for their faith, food for the soul, and a pure and lasting font of
spiritual life. Hence, access to Sacred Scripture ought to be open wide to
the Christian faithful.
The Church forcefully and specifically exhorts all the Christian faithful . .
. to learn the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ by frequent reading of
the divine Scriptures. Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.[2]
Because the Bible is God's word, we need to know it thoroughly. We
need to let it permeate our souls with its truth, and guide our steps with its
light. All Christians everywhere ought to be deeply involved in the study of
the Bible.
The Bible is Authoritative
Because the Bible is God's word, whatever it says is true. The
Catechism states:
The inspired books teach the truth. Since therefore all that the inspired
authors or sacred writers affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the
Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly,
faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our
salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures.[3]
Anything that contradicts the Bible is automatically false. Again, there
is no difference whatsoever between the two sides on this point. The
Catholic Church is happy to test its doctrines against Scripture, because it
knows that Scripture is a sure and certain standard with which every
doctrine must be in harmony. Catholics and Protestants both rely on the
Bible to reveal God's truth to man, so the dispute is not over whether to
rely on the Bible, it's a question of whether the Bible, in and of itself, is
sufficiently complete and clear that we may correctly understand God's
revelation without an outside interpreter.
The Nature of the Dispute
The sufficiency of the Bible alone, sola Scriptura, is the heart of the
matter, but even here there is some agreement. Catholics distinguish
between material sufficiency and formal sufficiency. To say that the Bible
is materially sufficient means that it contains, at least implicitly, every
doctrine necessary for salvation. To say that the Bible is formally sufficient
means that it not only contains every doctrine necessary for salvation, but
that those doctrines are also presented so clearly and plainly that anyone
can understand them easily, without the help of an outside interpreter. In
other words the Bible is self-interpreting.

The Catholic Position


Here is where the two sides part company. Catholics do not believe that
the Bible is formally sufficient (though many do believe it is materially
sufficient). They believe that the apostles taught the gospel both orally
and in writing, and that Jesus established His Church to safeguard the
gospel message, whether oral or written. Some of the apostles' teachings
are explained quite clearly in their writings (the bodily resurrection of
Christ, for example), but other teachings are barely mentioned, and
sometimes they are difficult to understand and subject to multiple
interpretations (the "unforgivable" sin, for example). Therefore, if we are
to have a clear and correct understanding of the gospel, we must not
exclude the oral teachings that have been handed down from the apostles.
In many cases the oral teachings can shed light on the written teachings,
and help us know how to interpret them. Looking at how the first
Christians understood the gospel can also help us know how to interpret
the Bible. We all know what Jesus said, but in order to be sure we correctly
understand what He meant, He invested His church with the task of
interpreting His Word, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
The Catholic Church uses the word "Tradition" to describe the part of
apostolic teaching that was handed down orally. This is perhaps
unfortunate, because to modern ears the word "tradition" means
"traditions of men" or "legends." It's very important to remember that
when the Catholic Church speaks of Tradition (with a capital "T") it is
referring only to the unwritten teachings of the apostles.

The Protestant Position


It's difficult to speak of a "Protestant position," per se, because there is
so much disagreement among them on any given issue, but as a general
rule, Protestants believe that the Bible is formally sufficient. Therefore,
neither apostolic Tradition nor the Church is necessary to interpret the
Scripture correctly. Any Christian with a Bible and an open mind (and the
assistance of the Holy Spirit, of course) should be able to understand
correctly all doctrines that are essential for salvation and living according
to the will of God. The Scripture is all we need; hence the name, sola
Scriptura.
There are three assumptions upon which sola Scriptura absolutely
depends:
1. That all essential apostolic teaching was reduced to writing.
According to respected Protestant authors Norman Geisler and Ralph
MacKenzie, "All apostolic teaching on faith and practice is in the New
Testament."[4]
2. That when the apostles died, and their living authority was no longer
available, all Christians were expected to rely only on the infallible
writings they left behind. "The only infallible authority that
succeeded the apostles was their infallible apostolic writings, that is,
the New Testament."[5]
3. That the Bible is "perspicuous," which simply means "clear and
easily understood." "The Bible has perspicuity apart from any
traditions to help us understand it. . . . all doctrines essential for
salvation and living according to the will of God are sufficiently
clear."[6]
These three assumptions are obviously critical to the validity of sola
Scriptura. If any of them can be shown to be false, the doctrine collapses.
Let's examine the Protestant case for sola Scriptura and the Catholic
response.

End Notes
1. Catechism of the Catholic Church, (Rome: Urbi et Orbi, 1994), 104, 105.
2. CCC, 131, 133.
3. CCC, 107.
4. Norman Geisler and Ralph E. MacKenzie, "What Think Ye of Rome," Christian
Research Journal, Spring/Summer 1994, 36.
5. Geisler and MacKenzie, "Rome," 36.
6. Geisler and MacKenzie, "Rome," 37.

Part I: The Evidence for Sola Scriptura


• The Biblical Evidence
o The Word of God is True and Authoritative
o Man May Not Tamper with God's Word
o Other Verses
 Isaiah 8:16-20
 John 5:39
 Acts 17:11
 Acts 24:14
 1 Corinthians 4:6
 2 Timothy 2:15
 2 Timothy 3:16-17
• Did Jesus Condemn Tradition?
• Conclusion: The Bible Does Not Teach Sola Scriptura

Not surprisingly, advocates of sola Scriptura base their case almost


exclusively on the Bible, so we’ll be examining in detail what the Bible
teaches about this subject. However, when we look at the biblical evidence
we must be careful not to assume the truth of what we’re trying to prove.
It’s easy to find verses that would be consistent with sola Scriptura if that
doctrine were true, but that proves nothing. We must look for verses that
actually teach the doctrine, not ones that merely don’t refute it. According
to sola Scriptura itself, all essential doctrines must be positively taught in
the Bible. Therefore, if the best that advocates of sola Scriptura can do is
present verses that would be consistent with the doctrine if it were true,
but that don’t actually teach that it is true, then they have not made their
case.

The Biblical Evidence


Sola Scriptura is certainly an "essential" doctrine. In fact, it is probably
the foundational doctrine of Protestantism, from which everything else
flows. Therefore, since the Bible is supposedly "perspicuous" in essential
matters, we should expect it to perspicuously teach sola Scriptura. If it
does not, then the doctrine is obviously false, for if all doctrines must be
derived from Scripture alone, this one must be too. However, Protestants
are not comfortable with having to rely only on the explicit teachings of
the Bible to support sola Scriptura (for reasons that will soon be apparent).
Instead, according to Geisler and MacKenzie:
It is not necessary that the Bible explicitly and formally teach sola
Scriptura in order for this doctrine to be true. . . . It is possible that sola
Scriptura could be a necessary logical deduction from what is taught in
Scripture.[1]
That doesn’t seem very consistent with the premise that all essential
doctrines are explicitly and clearly taught in the Bible, but no matter. Let’s
see what biblical evidence is presented to prove that sola Scriptura is a
"necessary logical deduction" from the clear teachings of Scripture.
It turns out that most of the verses cited to support sola Scriptura
merely teach that the Word of God is true and authoritative, and that man
may not tamper with it:

The Word of God Is True and Authoritative


As for God, his way is perfect; the word of the Lord is flawless. (Psalm
18:30).
For the word of the Lord is right and true; he is faithful in all he does.
(Psalm 33:4).
How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your
word. (Psalm 119:9).
Your word, O Lord, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens. (Psalm
119:89).
Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path. (Psalm
119:105).
The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands
forever. (Isaiah 40:8).
Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
(Matthew 24:35).
These verses clearly teach that the written Word of God is true and that
it is authoritative. But as I said before, this is something both sides agree
upon. The Bible is absolutely indispensable for living the Christian life. But
that is not the same as saying that it is, in and of itself, formally sufficient,
and these verses don’t teach that it is. Neither do they teach that all of
God’s words have been reduced to writing. To put it in the language of the
Westminster Confession, they do not teach that "the whole counsel of
God . . . is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and
necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture." Therefore,
although these verses would be consistent with sola Scriptura if it were
true, they do not actually teach that it is true.

Man May Not Tamper with God’s Word


Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but
keep the commands of the Lord your God that I give you. (Deuteronomy
4:2).
Every word of God is flawless; he is a shield to those who take refuge in
him. Do not add to his words, or he will rebuke you and prove you a liar.
(Proverbs 30:5).
I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If
anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described
in this book. And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy,
God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy
city, which are described in this book. (Revelation 22:18-19).
Regarding these verses, Geisler and MacKenzie wrote, "sola Scriptura
could hardly be stated more emphatically."[2] But it seems to me that
these verses (and the previous ones) only "prove" sola Scriptura if one
assumes a priori that sola Scriptura is true. They tell us not to add to or
subtract from God’s Word, but where does the Bible say that God’s Word is
only found in written form? And where does the Bible say that God’s
written word is so clearly presented that no outside interpreter is
necessary? Man may not add to God’s words, but God Himself is free to do
so, and He is free to do so orally or in writing. If, in fact, it is true that
legitimate apostolic oral Tradition is God’s Word,[3] then advocates of sola
Scriptura have unwittingly done exactly what these verses warn against by
subtracting some of God’s words.
In fact, we can show, from Scripture alone, that when Deuteronomy and
Proverbs were written, not all of God’s words were in written form.
Remember the prophecy of Enoch recorded by Jude?
Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied about these men: "See, the
Lord is coming with thousands upon thousands of his holy ones to judge
everyone, and to convict all the ungodly of all the ungodly acts they have
done in the ungodly way, and of all the harsh words ungodly sinners have
spoken against him." (Jude 14-15).
This prophecy was not recorded in the Old Testament, but it was
recorded in the extra-biblical book 1 Enoch (verse 1:9), written about 200
B.C. Because this prophecy is now Scripture, we know that it is true, and
because it is a "prophecy," it is by definition the Word of God. So this part
of the Word of God was transmitted orally for several thousand years, from
the time of Enoch to about 200 B.C. when the author of 1 Enoch wrote it
down. That means that when Deuteronomy and Proverbs were written,
this prophecy, a part of God’s Word, was still part of the oral Tradition.
Thus, not all of "God’s words" were in written form at that time, and
therefore, these verses do not teach sola Scriptura.[4]

Other Verses
Isaiah 8:16-20
Bind up the testimony and seal up the law among my disciples. . . . To
the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word,
they have no light of dawn.
This passage is sometimes cited to support sola Scriptura, but it may
actually refute it. According to Protestant scholar E.J. Young, verse 16
means that "Isaiah is to bind up God’s revelation in the sense that he is to
close it spiritually in the hearts of his disciples and leave it there."[5] It
sounds very much like Isaiah is entrusting his oral teachings, his
"testimony," to his disciples. The word "testimony," (te?uwday), is not
used in the Old Testament to refer to written Scripture. Therefore, it may
very well refer to Isaiah’s own oral teachings. If so, then Isaiah is saying,
"To the law (written Scripture) and to the testimony (oral Tradition)!" If this
interpretation is correct, then this passage actually refutes sola Scriptura.
On the other hand, the "law" and the "testimony" may both refer to
written Scripture alone. But if that is interpreted to mean that all doctrines
must be derived from written Scripture alone, then we run into some
serious problems. First, it would mean that the canon of Scripture should
end with Isaiah. Any doctrines not derived from what had been written up
until the time of Isaiah would have no "light of dawn," no truth. What
would that do to the Christian message, most of which cannot be derived
from the writings up until that time? Jesus affirmed the validity of the Old
Testament, but He sometimes contrasted His message with that of the Old
Testament ("You have heard that it was said . . . but I say to you . . . ").
Should advocates of sola Scriptura disregard Jesus’s message because it is
not according to the word of the "law" and the "testimony" up to the time
of Isaiah? Of course not. So you see, if this passage is interpreted to
support sola Scriptura, it leads to impossible conclusions. Therefore, that
interpretation is not correct.
If the "law" and the "testimony" both refer to written Scripture alone,
then the phrase "If they do not speak according to this word . . ." probably
means simply that what they speak must not contradict the Scripture.
Whatever doctrines we have must be in harmony with Scripture, but as I
said before, that is something upon which we all agree.

John 5:39
You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you
possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet
you refuse to come to me to have life.
Some see in this verse a command to rely on the Scriptures alone, but
it seems to me that Jesus is actually saying just the opposite. The people
were already diligently studying the Scriptures because they thought
(mistakenly) that by them they possessed eternal life. But the Scriptures
point to Jesus, by whom they really could possess eternal life. These
people were so wrapped up in the minutiae of the Scriptures that they
didn’t even recognize the Messiah standing right in front of them. Jesus
seems to be telling them to get their noses out of the Bible and look to
Him. In fact, some people’s misunderstanding of how the Scriptures
applied to Jesus actually prevented them from accepting that He was the
Christ. They said, "How can the Christ come from Galilee? Does not the
Scripture say that the Christ will come from Bethlehem, the town where
David lived?" (John 7:41-42). At any rate, it’s clear that John 5:39 does not
teach sola Scriptura, and it appears to actually weigh against it.

Acts 17:11
Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians,
for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the
Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.
Proponents of sola Scriptura frequently cite this verse as a clear biblical
basis for their doctrine. In fact, many Protestant ministries, churches, and
schools are named after the Bereans, in honor of their alleged fidelity to
sola Scriptura.[6] Supposedly, this verse demonstrates that every
proposed Christian doctrine must be compared to Scripture to establish its
veracity. A good Christian today, like a good Berean back then, must
compare everything he’s taught with the Scriptures. Any teaching not
clearly verified by the Scriptures is to be dismissed as an invention of man.
But what this interpretation really demonstrates is that if we already
believe that something is true (like sola Scriptura), it’s easy to
inadvertently read that belief back into the Bible. In a different context,
this verse might indeed be a good basis for sola Scriptura, but if we
consider it in context, it really does not support that doctrine at all.
To understand why the Bereans were said to be of more noble
character than the Thessalonians, we need to see what happened in
Thessalonica:
As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three
Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and
proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. "This Jesus I
am proclaiming to you is the Christ," he said. Some of the Jews were
persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing
Greeks and not a few prominent women. But the Jews were jealous; so
they rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace, formed a
mob and started a riot in the city. (Acts 17:2-5).
So what was the difference between the Bereans and the
Thessalonians? Was it that the Bereans examined the Scriptures and the
Thessalonians didn’t? I don’t think so. Paul spent three weeks debating the
Scriptures with the Jews in Thessalonica. Obviously, they were examining
the Scriptures too, but they were closed-minded, and hostile to Paul's
message. The Bereans, on the other hand, "received the message with
great eagerness"; they were so excited that they examined the Scriptures
"every day," not just on the Sabbath. They were eager to believe Paul’s
message, and ready to accept it if it were true. That is why they were said
to be of more noble character than the Thessalonians.
Advocates of sola Scriptura would point out that whatever the
differences between the Bereans and the Thessalonians were, the fact
remains that the Bereans determined the truth of Paul’s message by
comparing it with the Scriptures, implying that they were commended for
practicing sola Scriptura. This is a strange argument because Protestants
generally agree that sola Scriptura is not operational during times of
revelation. Only when the revelation is complete and has been reduced to
writing is sola Scriptura possible. That’s why Protestants usually say that
sola Scriptura only became operational after the death of the last apostle.
So how could the Bereans, decades before the death of the last apostle,
be commended for relying on Scripture alone?
The Bereans examined the Scriptures because Paul was attempting to
prove that Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament messianic prophecies. He was
trying to prove that the Scriptures foretold that "the Christ had to suffer
and rise from the dead"; that was his whole message. So naturally the
Bereans checked the Old Testament Scriptures to see for themselves
whether they really said those things about the Christ. But does that
somehow establish a rule of sola Scriptura for Christians? Not at all. It’s
important to remember that neither the Bereans nor the Thessalonians
were Christians, they were Hellenistic Jews. This whole passage is about
how Paul dealt with potential converts from Judaism by appealing to the
Old Testament messianic prophecies. It has nothing to do with whether
Christians must rely on the Bible alone.
Once the Bereans were convinced that Jesus was the Messiah, and that
Paul was his apostle, they would not have continued to examine the
Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. They would have
accepted his apostolic authority, and they would have received his oral
teaching as the word of God, no questions asked. This is exactly what Paul
commended the Thessalonian converts for doing. He praised them
because they accepted his new teaching "not as the word of men, but as it
actually is, the word of God" (1 Thess. 2:13). The "more noble" Bereans
would certainly have done the same. In fact, if they had continued to test
Paul's teaching against Scripture, they would have had to reject most of it,
because his teaching did not derive from Scripture--it was brand-new, God-
given revelation.
Suppose, for example, that Paul preached to them about the Eucharist,
as he did to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 11:17-34), or about original sin, as he
did to the Romans (Rom. 5:12-21). If the Bereans continued to "examine
the Scriptures . . . to see if what Paul said was true" they would have found
nothing. If their standard was sola Scriptura, they would have had to reject
these teachings as having no Scriptural support. Even worse, Paul
vehemently preached against circumcision. He told the Galatians, "If you
let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all" (Gal.
5:2). If he preached that message to the Bereans too, and they examined
the Scriptures to see if it was true, they would have found Genesis 17:10-
14:
This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the
covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. . .
For the generations to come every male among you . . . must be
circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant.
Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will
be cut of from his people; he has broken my covenant.
Paul’s teaching about circumcision was clearly "unscriptural" because it
blatantly contradicted the Old Testament Scriptures. By what authority
could he teach such a thing? Only by the authority of Jesus Christ, the Son
of God, Who was the mediator of a New Covenant in which the Mosaic
ceremonial Law, including the requirement of circumcision, was no longer
operative. The Bereans accepted this authority because they had seen for
themselves that Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament messianic prophecies;
He was the Messiah. They accepted Paul’s teachings because, as Christ’s
apostle, he exercised Christ’s authority. Obviously their standard was not
sola Scriptura, because they were quite willing to accept Paul’s extra-
Biblical teachings once he had substantiated his apostolic authority. Like
all the other ancient Christians, the Bereans? standard was sola Verbum
Dei (the Word of God alone), and they did not care whether God?s word
came to them orally or in writing. They "examined the Scriptures" only to
substantiate Jesus’s claim to be the Messiah, and to thereby verify Paul’s
authority as an apostle.
It is manifestly obvious that the early Christians did not practice sola
Scriptura because they received the gospel message almost exclusively by
word of mouth, not in writing, as the Bible clearly states (Acts 2:42, 1
Thessalonians 2:13, Colossians 1:5-9, 2 Timothy 1:13, etc.). Geisler and
MacKenzie acknowledge that God?s "revelation was often first
communicated orally before it was finally committed to writing."[7] So
both sides agree that Christians living in the apostolic era (and that would
include the Bereans) did not practice sola Scriptura, whether later
Christians did or not. Yet Acts 17:11 looks so good out of context that
advocates of sola Scriptura just can’t pass it up. They are so eager to find
some biblical support for their doctrine, that even though they agree that
the earliest Christians didn’t practice sola Scriptura, they maintain that the
Bereans were commended for doing so. Even though they didn’t. And
therefore we should too.
This strange logic shows quite plainly that advocates of sola Scriptura
do not derive their doctrine from Scripture. They believe it first, then they
search through the Bible to try to substantiate it. Like most of the other
verses that supposedly support sola Scriptura, Acts 17:11 looks good out
of context, but it evaporates under scrutiny.

Acts 24:14
However, I admit that I worship the God of our fathers as a follower of
the Way, which they call a sect. I believe everything that agrees with the
Law and that is written in the Prophets.
This is certainly something that every believing Catholic and every
believing Protestant can affirm. We believe everything that agrees with
the Law and that is written in the Prophets. But most of what Paul believed
and taught is not found in the Law or the Prophets; it was revealed to him
by Jesus Himself. Therefore, Paul was not saying that he limited himself to
the Law and the Prophets. He was merely saying that the teachings of
Christianity agree with the Law and the Prophets. This verse does not even
address the issue of sola Scriptura, much less teach it.

1 Corinthians 4:6
Now, brothers, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for
your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying,
"Do not go beyond what is written." Then you will not take pride in one
man over against another.
At first glance, this verse really seems to nail it. "Do not go beyond
what is written." What could be clearer? Here, at last, is the perspicuous
biblical teaching that all doctrines must be derived from the Scripture
alone. Or so it seems. Unfortunately, what looks at first to be a clear
teaching of sola Scriptura evaporates under scrutiny. Whatever this verse
does teach, we know for certain that it does not teach that the Scriptures
are the only source of truth, and we must never go beyond them. We know
that because just seven chapters later, Paul wrote, "Now I praise you
because you . . . hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to
you" (1 Cor. 11:2). The Corinthians were commended for holding firmly to
the oral teachings of Paul, and not to the Scriptures alone. So unless Paul,
under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, contradicted himself, this verse
does not teach sola Scriptura.
So what does it teach? That depends in part on how it is translated. The
phrase "the meaning of the saying," in the New International Version (NIV)
translation cited above is not found in the Greek text of 1 Corinthians; it is
an interpretation. What the Greek literally says is,
Now these things, brothers, I adapted to myself and Apollos because of
you, in order that among us ye may learn not [to think] above what things
have been written, lest ye are puffed up against one on behalf of the
other.[8]
The King James Version (KJV) is actually much closer to the literal
meaning than the NIV:
And these things, brethren, I have in a figure transferred to myself and
to Apollos for your sakes; that ye might learn in us not to think of men
above that which is written, that no one of you be puffed up for one
against another.
That certainly fits the context of Chapter 4, which is a warning to the
Corinthians not to exalt Paul or Apollos above what is appropriate, and not
to divide into factions. In other words, it is possible that Paul is saying,
"that ye might learn in us not to think of men above that which is written
about the subject at hand." The Old Testament Scriptures (to which Paul is
referring) teach enough about the nature of man that the Corinthians
should know better than to exalt one over the other, and to divide into
factions. This verse really has nothing to do with the Scriptures and their
role in the formulation of doctrine and practice; it has to do with the
proper attitude of the Corinthians toward Paul and Apollos.
Another problem with this verse is that it is not clear what Paul meant
by "that which is written." In a footnote to this verse, Geisler and
MacKenzie note, "There is some debate even among Protestant scholars
as to whether Paul is referring here to his own previous statements or to
Scripture as a whole." The great Protestant Scripture commentator
Matthew Henry was of the opinion that Paul was referring to his own
previous statements. There is actually some question whether he’s
referring to the Scriptures at all. Look at the verse in context:
And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto
carnal, even as unto babes in Christ . . . For while one saith, I am of Paul;
and another, I am of Apollos; are ye not carnal? Who then is Paul, and who
is Apollos, but ministers by whom ye believed, even as the Lord gave to
every man? . . . For I know nothing by myself; yet am I not hereby
justified: bet he that judgeth me is the Lord. Therefore judge nothing
before the time, until the Lord come, and will make manifest the counsels
of the hearts: and then shall every man have praise of God. And these
things, brethren, I have in a figure transferred to myself and to Apollos for
your sakes; that ye might learn in us not to think of men above that which
is written, that no one of you be puffed up for one against another. (1
Corinthians 3:1, 4-5, 21; 4:1, 4-6).
It is possible that the key to understanding verse 6 is found in the
phrase "And these things, brethren, I have in a figure transferred . . ."
What things? The things in the immediately preceding verses, of course.
Those verses deal with the final judgement:
Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, and will
make manifest the counsels of the hearts: and then shall every man have
praise of God. (1 Corinthians 4:5).
This judgement is described in Revelation:
And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and
books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life.
The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the
books. (Revelation 20:12).
From the context, this may well be what Paul had in mind. When he
says, "that ye might learn in us not to think of men above that which is
written, that no one of you be puffed up for one against another," he may
be talking about not exceeding what is written in God?s books of
judgement. In other words, "Look at men as they really are. Do not think of
men above that which is written in heaven about them, then you will not
take pride in one man over against another." Perhaps Paul was simply
reminding the Corinthians that he and Apollos and Cephas were mere
men, who, like them, must one day face judgement. Therefore, the
Corinthians should not think more highly of them than is appropriate, and
they certainly shouldn?t divide into factions because of them.
I have offered two possible explanations of what verse 6 means,
perhaps you can think of others. But as I said before, we know for sure
that it does not support sola Scriptura because it was clearly not
addressing that subject in the first place, and because of Paul?s statement
in chapter 11 that the Corinthians are to be commended for holding to the
oral Tradition Paul handed down to them.

2 Timothy 2:15
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman
who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of
truth.
I’m not sure why this verse is sometimes cited to support sola
Scriptura. Even if the "word of truth" refers to the written Scriptures, this
verse is irrelevant to the question of whether those Scriptures are to be
the only source of Christian truth. Paul is just reminding Timothy to handle
them correctly. As a matter of fact I don’t even think the phrase "word of
truth" does refer to the written Scriptures. If we let Scripture interpret
Scripture, it appears that it does not. Consider Colossians 1:5-9:
. . . the faith and love that spring from the hope that is stored up for
you in heaven and that you have already heard about in the word of truth,
the gospel that has come to you. All over the world this gospel is bearing
fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you
heard it and understood God’s grace in all its truth. You learned it from
Epaphras, our dear fellow servant.
In Paul’s writings the "word of truth" does not refer to the written
Scriptures, it refers to the gospel itself, the gospel that the Colossians
"heard" from Epaphras. Thus, Paul’s instruction to Timothy has nothing to
do with the written Scriptures. Instead, he is telling Timothy that he must
correctly understand and apply the gospel message. How can he do that?
"What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with
faith and love in Christ Jesus" (2 Tim. 1:13). Paul’s admonitions in 2
Timothy are all about holding to the oral Tradition, not to the written
Scriptures alone.

2 Timothy 3:16-17
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking,
correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be
thoroughly equipped for every good work.
Geisler and MacKenzie believe that this passage teaches the formal
sufficiency of Scripture:
The fact that Scripture, without tradition, is said to be "God-breathed"
(theopneustos) and thus by it believers are "competent, equipped for
every good work" (2 Tim. 3:16-17, emphasis added) supports the doctrine
of sola Scriptura. This flies in the face of the Catholic claim that the Bible is
formally insufficient without the aid of tradition. St. Paul declares that the
God-breathed writings are sufficient.[9]
First of all, Paul does not declare that the God-breathed writings are
"sufficient." He says they are "useful." There’s a huge difference between
those two words. Something can be useful for moving one toward a goal,
without being sufficient by itself to get one there. The Bible is certainly
useful, even essential, but not necessarily sufficient by itself. Actually, if
the Holy Spirit did want to teach sola Scriptura, He missed a golden
opportunity. If He had guided Paul to use the word "sufficient" instead of
"useful," it would have established the doctrine once and for all, but He did
not. He merely said Scripture was "useful" (NIV) or "profitable" (KJV,
NASB), which it certainly is.
Also, the fact that the "Scriptures, without tradition, are God-breathed"
proves nothing one way or the other about the formal sufficiency of those
Scriptures. It only proves that the Bible is inspired, which, as I said, is
something upon which we all agree.
Further, if we look at these verses in context, they actually refute the
doctrine of sola Scriptura:
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become
convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how
from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make
you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-
breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in
righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for
every good work. (2 Tim. 3:14-17).
The Scriptures Paul is referring to are those Timothy has known "from
infancy." Most of the New Testament was not written in Timothy’s infancy,
nor would it be available as such for three hundred years after Timothy’s
death. Paul is obviously referring to the Old Testament. The Protestant
International Bible Commentary confirms this:
[For the apostles,] their Bible . . . consisted of the Old Testament; this
was the Canon of Holy Writ accepted by Jesus Himself, and referred to
simply as "the Scriptures" throughout the New Testament writings. It was
not until the year A.D. 393 that a church council first listed the 27 New
Testament books now universally recognized. There was thus a period of
about 350 years during which the New Testament Canon was in process of
being formed.[10]
Thus, if this passage proved anything, it would prove too much. If it
really did prove that the Scriptures are "sufficient" by themselves, it would
prove that the Old Testament Scriptures are sufficient by themselves. The
New Testament would thus be superfluous, mere commentary. Obviously,
this isn’t what Paul is saying. He is merely saying that the Old Testament
is "useful" for training a believer so that he may be "thoroughly equipped
for every good work." But that is a far cry from saying that the Scriptures
by themselves are sufficient as the sole source of all Christian truth.
Finally, the whole point of this passage is that Paul is telling Timothy to
"continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of." That
is, he is telling Timothy to continue in the oral Tradition that he learned
from Paul, for two reasons: (1) "you know those from whom you learned
it." Timothy learned it from Paul and his associates, and they are
trustworthy. And (2) "from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures."
The Old Testament Scriptures point to Christ (John 5:39). They are able to
"make you wise for salvation" by preparing you to accept the gospel when
you hear it.
So rather than establishing sola Scriptura, this passage actually refutes
it. Paul is not telling Timothy to derive his doctrines from Scripture alone.
On the contrary, he’s telling him to continue in the oral teachings he has
learned and become convinced of. Paul is merely repeating what he told
Timothy earlier in the same letter: "What you heard from me, keep as the
pattern of sound teaching" (2 Tim. 1:13).

Did Jesus Condemn Tradition?


It is sometimes argued that Scripture must be our only source of truth
because Jesus condemned tradition:
Jesus made it clear that the Bible was in a class of its own, exalted
above all tradition. he rebuked the Pharisees for not accepting sola
Scriptura and negating the final authority of the Word of God by their
religious traditions, saying "And why do you break the commandment of
God for the sake of your tradition? . . . You have nullified the word of God
for the sake of your tradition." (Matt. 15:3, 6)[11]
Did Jesus condemn all tradition, or merely those "traditions of men"
that nullified God’s word? Surely it is the latter. The Pharisees created the
"Corban" tradition, for example, wherein they would make a pretended
donation to the temple to avoid having to support their parents in their old
age. Thus, by their tradition they nullified the Word of God, which said,
"Honor your father and mother" (Exod. 20:12). If Jesus condemned all
traditions, how can we explain Paul’s comments to the Corinthians and
Thessalonians?
Now I praise you because you remember me in everything, and hold
firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you. (1 Corinthians
11:2).
So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were
taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us. (2 Thessalonians
2:15).
Was Paul commanding the Corinthians and Thessalonians to do that
which Jesus condemned? Surely not. Only man-made traditions that nullify
the Word of God are wrong. However, Geisler and MacKenzie attempt to
draw a distinction between "mere human traditions" and "traditions of the
religious authorities":
It is important to note that Jesus did not limit His statement to mere
human traditions but applied it specifically to the traditions of the religious
authorities who used their tradition to misinterpret the Scriptures.[12]
Of course Jesus limited his statement to "mere human traditions." What
other kind are there? Only divine traditions, and Jesus certainly wouldn’t
condemn those. Also, it’s important to understand that He did not
condemn the traditions of the Pharisees merely because they were human
in origin; He condemned them because they nullified the Word of God.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with human traditions. Many families
have distinctive traditions with which they celebrate the holidays, for
example. And Jesus certainly wasn’t condemning the oral Tradition of the
apostles, which came from God, and which Paul, under the inspiration of
the Holy Spirit, commanded people to retain (2 Thessalonians 2:15) and
propagate (2 timothy 2:2).

Conclusion: The Bible Does Not Teach Sola Scriptura


Some of the verses put forward by the advocates of sola Scriptura
would be consistent with the doctrine if it were true, but none of them
actually teaches that the doctrine is true. Taken in context, most of the
verses are actually irrelevant to sola Scriptura, and some even contradict
it. Further, it does not seem to me that sola Scriptura is a "necessary
logical deduction" from what the Bible does teach. None of the verses I?ve
seen require us to logically deduce that we must rely on Scripture alone as
the source of all Christian doctrine and practice, and many of them weigh
against this conclusion. The Bible does refer to itself as true, of course, but
it never refers to itself as the only source of truth, or as the final authority
for the formulation of doctrine and practice. In fact it refers to the Church,
not itself, as the "pillar and foundation of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15). If it is
true that the Bible does not teach or imply sola Scriptura, then the
doctrine is false, for it fails to meet its own requirements.
Now let's examine the evidence against the doctrine of sola Scriptura.

End Notes
1. Geisler and MacKenzie, "Rome," 27.
2. Geisler and MacKenzie, "Rome," 35.
3. See 1 Thess. 2:13--"And 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, which also performs its work in
you who believe." (NAS)
4. Someone may object that there is no evidence that this prophecy was transmitted
orally for all those years. It could have been lost, and God could have revealed it
to the author of 1 Enoch through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. But if God
inspired the author of 1 Enoch, then 1 Enoch is Scripture and it should be in the
Bible. However, we believe that 1 Enoch is not inspired, it just happens to
accurately quote Enoch?s prophecy. The author cannot have pulled this prophecy
out of thin air. Therefore, if he didn?t get it from divine inspiration, he must have
gotten it from oral Tradition.
5. E.J. Young, Isaiah, vol 1., 313.
6. e.g., Berean Bible Ministries, Berean Beacon, The Berean Call, The Berean Mission,
Berean College, Berean University of the Assemblies of God, Berean Baptist
Church, etc.
7. Geisler and MacKenzie, "Rome," 35.
8. Alfred Marshall, The Interlinear Greek-English New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI:
Zondervan Bible Publishers, 1975), 491.
9. Geisler and MacKenzie, "Rome," 35.
10. David F. Payne, "The Text and Canon of the New Testament," International Bible
Commentary, ed. F.F. Bruce, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House,
1986), 1005.
11. Geisler and MacKenzie, "Rome," 35.
12. Geisler and MacKenzie, "Rome," 35.

Part II: The Evidence Against Sola Scriptura

• Jesus and the Apostles Did Not Practice Sola Scriptura


o Matthew 2:22-23
o Matthew 23:2-3
o Matthew 23:35
o Acts 20:35
o 2 Timothy 3:8
o Jude 8-9
o Jude 14-15
o Conclusion: Jesus and the Apostles Refuted Sola Scriptura by
Their Example
• The Scriptures Are Not the Only Source of Christian Authority
o Acts 15: The Jerusalem Council
• The Biblical Evidence: Scripture and Tradition, Not Sola Scriptura
o 1 Corinthians 11:2
o 1 Corinthians 11:16
o Philippians 4:9
o Colossians 1:5-9
o 1 Thessalonians 2:13
o 2 Timothy 1:13
o 2 Thessalonians 2:15

So far, we’ve examined the biblical evidence for sola Scriptura and
found it wanting. Now we’ll look at the biblical evidence against sola
Scriptura, and we’ll see three things: (1) that Jesus and the apostles did
not practice sola Scriptura, (2) that Jesus established a visible authority
structure apart from the authority of the Scriptures alone, and (3) that in
the New Testament, the rule of faith was "Scripture and Tradition."

Jesus and the Apostles Did Not Practice Sola Scriptura


If Jesus and the apostles did not teach sola Scriptura explicitly, perhaps
it can be shown that they taught it by example. Geisler and MacKenzie
seem to think so:
Jesus and the apostles constantly appealed to the Bible as the final
court of appeal. This they often did by the introductory phrase, "It is
written," which is repeated some 90 times in the New Testament. Jesus
used this phrase three times when appealing to Scripture as the final
authority in His dispute with Satan (Matt. 4:4, 7, 10).[1]
Jesus and the apostles certainly did appeal to Scripture, as well they
should have. Scripture is the infallible word of God, after all. But making an
appeal to Scripture does not prove that Scripture is the only authority, or
even the "final authority." Appealing to Scripture only proves that it is an
authority. Still, the observation is a fair one. If Jesus and the apostles
appealed only to Scripture, then it could be argued that they taught sola
Scriptura, at least by example. However, as we shall see, Jesus and the
apostles appealed to both Scripture and Tradition:

Matthew 2:22-23
But when he [Joseph] heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in
place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned
in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in
a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the
prophets: "He will be called a Nazarene."
This prophecy is not found anywhere in the Old Testament. Matthew is
evidently citing a prophecy that was passed down orally as part of the
Jewish oral Tradition. It was "said," not "written." The people must have
been familiar with this oral Tradition because Matthew cited it to prove
that Jesus was the Messiah. It would hardly have been convincing if he had
referred to a prophecy the people had never heard of. By relying on this
oral prophecy to uphold the legitimacy of Jesus’s claim to be the Messiah,
Matthew placed it on an equal plane with the other prophecies he cited
that are found in the written Scripture.

Matthew 23:2-3
The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you
must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they
do, for they do not practice what they preach.
The Old Testament never mentions Moses’ seat, but it was common
knowledge in Israel that the authoritative teaching office of Moses was
passed on to his successors. Thus, the Pharisees held a legitimate
teaching office, and they must be obeyed, but not imitated.
As the first verse of the Mishna tractate Abote indicates, the Jews
understood that God’s revelation, received by Moses, had been handed
down from him in uninterrupted succession, through Joshua, the elders,
the prophets and those of the great Sanhedrin (cf. Acts 15:21). The Scribes
and Pharisees participated in this authoritative tradition and as such their
teaching deserved to be respected. [2]
Jesus upheld the legitimacy of the Pharisees’ teaching office based on
Tradition, not Scripture.

Matthew 23:35
Upon you may fall the guilt of all the righteous blood shed on earth,
from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of
Berachiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.
In 2 Chronicles 24:20-22, the Bible tells us that Zechariah was stoned to
death in the courtyard of the temple. The problem is, the Zechariah
described in 2 Chronicles was the son of Jehoiada, not Berachiah.
Zechariah son of Berachiah was the author of the biblical book of the same
name, and the Bible doesn't say anything about how he died. According to
Protestant author Gleason L. Archer,
[Jesus] knew what He was talking about. If so, then we discover that the
Zechariah He was referring to was indeed the son of Berachiah (not
Jehoiada), and that he was indeed the last of the Old Testament martyrs
mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures. In other words, Christ is recalling to
His audience the circumstances of the death of the prophet Zechariah, son
of Berachiah (Zech. 1:1) . . . [I]t may very well have been that sometime
between 580 and 570 Zechariah the prophet was martyred by a mob in
much the same way Zechariah the son of Jehoiada was some three
centuries earlier. . . . In the absense of any other information as to how the
prophet Zechariah died, we may as well conclude that Jesus has given us a
true account of it.[3]
In other words, Jesus was referring to an oral tradition regarding the
death of Zechariah. We can safely assume that this was common
knowledge because He made this statement in the middle of a withering
condemnation of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. After Jesus
rebuked them, they "began to oppose him fiercely and to besiege him with
questions, waiting to catch him in something he might say." If Jesus were
presenting new information, these men would have pounced on that in
order to undermine His credibility. The fact that they did not do so shows
that this was not new information to them. Obviously, Jesus was relying on
an oral Tradition that was well known to the Pharisees and the teachers of
the law.

Acts 20:35
In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must
help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: "It is
more blessed to give than to receive."
You will search in vain if you try to find this saying of Jesus in the
gospels. It was passed down orally for decades before Paul wrote it down,
and he was obviously reminding people of something they already knew:
"Hey guys, remember what Jesus said . . ." Of course, once Paul wrote
these words down they ceased to be part of Tradition and became part of
Scripture. But that does not change their truth. They were just as true
before they were written down as they were after.

2 Timothy 3:8
Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so also these men oppose
the truth--men of depraved minds, who, as far as the faith is concerned,
are rejected.
According to rabbinic tradition, Jannes and Jambres were the magicians
who opposed Moses in Pharaoh’s court. Again, this information is not
found in the Old Testament. Paul is relying on oral Tradition, and because
that Tradition is now Scripture (it is now part of the New Testament), we
know the Tradition is true.

Jude 8-9
In the same way, these dreamers pollute their own bodies, reject
authority and slander celestial beings. But even the archangel Michael,
when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses, did not
dare to bring a slanderous accusation against him, but said, "The Lord
rebuke you!"
According to Dr. Archer, "This account is not found in the Old
Testament but is thought to have been included in a Christian treatise
(now lost) entitled 'the Assumption of Moses.'"[4] Jude used this account
as an authoritative source for teaching his readers that it is improper to
slander celestial beings.

Jude 14-15
Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied about these men: "See, the
Lord is coming with thousands upon thousands of his holy ones to judge
everyone, and to convict all the ungodly of all the ungodly acts they have
done in the ungodly way, and of all the harsh words ungodly sinners have
spoken against him."
This prophecy of Enoch is not recorded in the Old Testament, but it is
recorded in the extra-biblical book 1 Enoch (verse 1:9). We don’t know
whether Jude copied from 1 Enoch, or whether he relied on the same oral
Tradition as the author of 1 Enoch did, but in either case we see once
again a New Testament author relying on an extra-biblical prophecy as
authoritative. Notice also that Jude says Enoch "prophesied," that is, he
spoke the Word of God. Here we have a specific example of God’s own
word being faithfully transmitted orally for several thousand years before
Jude and the author of 1 Enoch wrote it down.

Conclusion: Jesus and the Apostles Refuted Sola


Scriptura by Their Example
Obviously, neither Jesus nor the apostles limited themselves to
scripture alone. According to Dr. Archer, "Apparently there was a valid and
accurate body of oral tradition available to believers in the New Testament
period."[5] Therefore, it cannot be said that they taught sola Scriptura by
example. Rather, they refuted sola Scriptura by their example. Geisler and
MacKenzie are apparently aware of this difficulty, and they offer the
following explanation:
No new revelation is being given today, as it was in apostolic times. In
other words, the only reason Jesus and the apostles could appeal to an
authority outside the Bible was that God was still giving normative (i.e.,
standard-setting) revelation for the faith and morals of believers. This
revelation was often first communicated orally before it was finally
committed to writing (e.g., 2 Thess. 2:5). Therefore, it is not legitimate to
appeal to any oral revelation in New Testament times.[6]
But the "oral revelation in New Testament times" to which Geisler and
MacKenzie are referring is the revelation that was given directly to the
apostles by Jesus and the Holy Spirit, not pre-existing oral tradition. No
one is saying that the apostles’ reliance on the extra-biblical revelation
that they received from Jesus and the Holy Spirit undermines sola
Scriptura. It is their reliance on preexisting oral Tradition that they did not
receive from Jesus and the Holy Spirit that undermines sola Scriptura.
If sola Scriptura were true, the only "authority outside the Bible" the
apostles would have appealed to was their new, God-given revelation.
Other than that they would have relied exclusively on the Old Testament
Scriptures; the Jewish oral Tradition would have been off-limits. But as
we’ve seen, they did rely on preexisting oral traditions that had been part
of the Jewish oral Tradition for centuries, even millennia. By relying on
certain of the Jewish oral traditions, the apostles proved that those
traditions were true, and that they had been handed down faithfully all
those years (presumably having been protected by God). They also proved
that in addition to their own God-given revelation, they relied on oral
Tradition, as well as written Scripture. Thus, they refuted sola Scriptura by
their example.

The Scriptures Are Not the Only Source of Christian


Authority
Jesus said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me"
(Matt. 28:18). He exercised that authority in many ways, for example by
teaching with authority, and forgiving sins. But Jesus knew that He would
not remain on earth for long. He also knew that the Church He would
establish would grow old before His return. So, according to the Bible,
Jesus delegated His authority to His apostles, and He made it clear that
obedience to them was the same as obedience to Him:
He who listens to you listens to me; he who rejects you rejects me; but
he who rejects me rejects him who sent me. (Luke 10:16).
If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. (John 15:20).
In doing this, Jesus established a visible authority structure other than
Scripture alone. That structure, the Church, had precedence over the
authority of the individual:
If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just
between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother
over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along so that "every
matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses." If
he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen
even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
(Matthew 18:15-17).
The Bible tells us that the apostles exercised the authority the Lord
gave them as they evangelized their world and built the Church:
For even if I boast somewhat freely about the authority the Lord gave
us for building you up rather than pulling you down, I will not be ashamed
of it. (2 Corinthians 10:8).
For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the
Lord Jesus. (1 Thessalonians 4:2).
If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note
of him. Do not associate with him, in order that he may feel ashamed. (2
Thessalonians 3:14).
That is why I write these things when I am absent, that when I come I
may not have to be harsh in my use of authority--the authority the Lord
gave me for building you up, not for tearing you down. (2 Corinthians
13:10).
Jesus was quite specific: you cannot follow Him and reject his apostles
at the same time. If you reject them, you reject Him. If you obey His
teaching, you will obey theirs. It’s that simple. The Bible teaches that this
authority was passed down to the apostles’ successors, the bishops. Paul
passed his apostolic authority on to Timothy and Titus, for example, and
he encouraged them to exercise that authority:
As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so
that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any
longer. (1 Timothy 1:3).
Command and teach these things. Don?t let anyone look down on you
because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in
life, in love, in faith and in purity. (1 Timothy 4:11-12).
Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant
nor to put their hope in wealth . . . Command them to do good. (1 Timothy
6:17-18).
The reason I left you in Crete was that you might straighten out what
was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you.
(Titus 1:5).
These things speak and exhort and reprove with all authority. Let no
one disregard you. (Titus 2:15).
Paul commended the Corinthians for their obedience to Titus:
But just as everything we said to you was true, so our boasting about
you to Titus has proved to be true as well. And his affection for you is all
the greater when he remembers that you were all obedient, receiving him
with fear and trembling. (2 Corinthians 7:14-15).
The believers were expected to obey the apostles and their successors
as they would obey the Lord:
But we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who
diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give
you instruction, and that you esteem them very highly in love because of
their work. (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13).
Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over
you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will
be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Hebrews
13:17).
It was the duty of believers to respect and obey their leaders, and it
was the duty of their leaders to watch over the believers who were in their
charge:
Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit
has made you overseers [i.e., bishops[7]]. Be shepherds of the church of
God, which he bought with his own blood. (Acts 20:28).
The "shepherd" metaphor is the same metaphor Jesus used to describe
His own relationship to the Church. (See John 10:11-16). He himself is the
chief shepherd in heaven, and on earth the bishops are to act as
shepherds in His place, leading the sheep in His name. The early
Christians understood that the bishops had been invested with the same
authority the Lord had delegated to the apostles:
Indeed, when you submit to the bishop as you would to Jesus Christ, it
is clear to me that you are living not in the manner of men but as Jesus
Christ, who died for us, that through faith in his death you might escape
dying. It is necessary, therefore--and such is your practice--that you do
nothing without the bishop, and that you be subject also to the priests, as
to the apostles of Jesus Christ our hope, in whom we shall be found, if we
live in him. (Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Trallians 2:1-3 [A.D. 110]).
In like manner let everyone respect the deacons as they would respect
Jesus Christ, and just as they respect the bishop as a type of the Father,
and the priests as the council of God and college of the apostles. Without
these, it cannot be called a Church. (Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the
Trallians 3:1-2 [A.D. 110]).
So the testimony of the Scriptures and of early Christian history is that
the authority of Jesus was passed down from Himself to His apostles, and
from them to their successors, and so on, down through the ages. This is
known as "apostolic succession," and it is a doctrine that was specifically
taught by the apostles themselves. We know this from the testimony of
the apostles? own disciples:
Through countryside and city [the apostles] preached, and they
appointed their earliest converts, testing them by the Spirit, to be the
bishops and deacons of future believers . . . They appointed those who
have already been mentioned and afterwards added the further provision
that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their
ministry. (Clement, Letter to the Corinthians 42:4-5, 44:1-3 [A.D. 80]).
Clement was a personal disciple of Paul.[8] He was ordained by Peter
himself,[9] and later became the fourth bishop of Rome. So when he wrote
that the apostles "added the further provision that, if they should die,
other approved men should succeed to their ministry," he wrote from first-
hand knowledge of the apostles? teaching.
It seems clear that Jesus did not intend the rule of faith in His church to
be "the Christian alone with the Bible alone." Rather, He established a
visible, authoritative Church in which the teaching of the apostles, both
written and oral, would be perpetuated and preached.
Acts 15 – The Jerusalem Council
This visible church, not the Bible, was the final authority for deciding
doctrinal issues, as is clearly taught in the Bible itself:
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. (Acts 15:1-2).
If a dispute like that broke out among Protestants today, how would it
be resolved? Unfortunately, it could not be. Protestants have no
mechanism for resolving doctrinal disputes. Each side would probably end
up forming yet another denomination, and the doctrinal differences would
be institutionalized and perpetuated. But the Bible did establish a pattern
for resolving such doctrinal disputes:
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 15:3).
The apostles and elders held a council at Jerusalem to discuss this
issue, and their deliberations are described in detail in Acts 15:4-29. What
is significant for our discussion is that the council did not instruct the
believers to individually rely on the Holy Spirit to illuminate the Scriptures
for them and to thereby formulate the correct doctrine on their own.
Instead, they issued a command: "You are to abstain . . ." (Acts 15:29).
The council reached its decision through the guidance of the Holy Spirit:
It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us . . . (Acts 15:28).
Once the council reached its decision, the debate was over. From that
point on, it was outside the bounds of Christian orthodoxy to require
Gentile converts to be circumcised, and that decision was binding on all
Christians everywhere:
As they traveled from town to town, they delivered the decisions
reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the people to obey.
(Acts 16:4).
There was no room for individual judgment here. The council had ruled,
and the people were expected to obey. To paraphrase Augustine,
Jerusalem had spoken; the issue was settled. That is how doctrinal
disputes were resolved in the Christian Church for the next fifteen-hundred
years. Since Protestants claim to base everything they do on Scripture
alone, the burden is on them to explain why they reject the authority of
the Church in favor of individual judgment, a clearly unscriptural position.

The Biblical Evidence: Scripture and Tradition, Not Sola


Scriptura
As we’ve seen, the Bible does not teach sola Scriptura. Now we?ll look
at what the Bible does teach regarding the role of the written word of God,
and oral Tradition, in the formulation of doctrine. There aren?t many
verses that bear on this subject directly, but those that do clearly teach
the validity of both Scripture and Tradition:

1 Corinthians 11:2
Now I praise you because you remember me in everything, and hold
firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you.
It was a good and praiseworthy thing for a believer in Christ to hold
firmly to the oral Traditions that Paul delivered. Where in the Bible does it
say that this would one day be replaced by sola Scriptura?

1 Corinthians 11:16
If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other
practice--nor do the churches of God.
It’s interesting that Paul refers to the practices of the churches of God
as a standard of orthodoxy. This is the same standard that believers used
for centuries to distinguish apostolic teaching from heresy:
It is . . . manifest that all doctrine which agrees with the apostolic
churches--those molds and original sources of the faith--must be reckoned
for truth, as undoubtedly containing that which the churches received
from the apostles, the apostles from Christ, [and] Christ from God.
Whereas all doctrine must be prejudged as false which savors of
contrariety to the truth of the churches and apostles of Christ and God. It
remains, then, that we demonstrate whether this doctrine of ours, of which
we have now given the rule, has its origin in the Tradition of the Apostles,
and whether all other doctrines do not ipso facto proceed from falsehood.
(Tertullian, Demurrer Against the Heretics 21 [A.D. 200]).

Philippians 4:9
Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in
me--put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.
The Spirit-inspired commandment is to put into practice the oral
teachings of Paul, not to rely on Scripture alone.

Colossians 1:5-9
. . . the faith and love that spring from the hope that is stored up for
you in heaven and that you have already heard about in the word of truth,
the gospel that has come to you. All over the world this gospel is bearing
fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you
heard it and understood God’s grace in all its truth. You learned it from
Epaphras, our dear fellow servant.
The Colossians didn’t learn the gospel from Scripture alone, they
learned it from Epaphras alone. The gospel he preached to them was
called "the word of truth," and even without the New Testament, the
Colossians were able to understand "God?s grace in all its truth." Nowhere
does the Bible state that all of this gospel message, this "word of truth,"
was later reduced to writing.

1 Thessalonians 2:13
And we also thank God continually because, when you received the
word of God, which you heard [orally] from us, you accepted it not as the
word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you
who believe.
Clearly, the oral Traditions of the apostles were to be followed, just as
the Scriptures were. Paul said that the Thessalonians received the Word of
God from him. Did they receive the Scriptures from him? Of course not.
Remember that when Paul went to Thessalonica in Acts 17, he reasoned
with them for three weeks from the (Old Testament) Scriptures. Obviously,
they already had the Scriptures. So when Paul speaks of them receiving
the Word of God from him, he is obviously talking about his oral teachings.
In saying this, he proves that his oral teachings were just as much the
inspired word of God as his writings were.

2 Timothy 1:13
What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with
faith and love in Christ Jesus.
Paul told Timothy to "do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the
duties of your ministry" (2 Tim. 4:5). Was the Scripture alone to be the
source of Timothy’s evangelism? No, he was to keep the oral teachings of
Paul as the "pattern of sound teaching." But aren’t all of Paul’s oral
teachings found in his writings? Apparently not, because at the end of his
life he told Timothy, "the things you have heard me say in the presence of
many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach
others" (2 Tim. 2:2).

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.
This verse is the death-knell for sola Scriptura. The explicit teaching of
the Bible is that we are to hold to the Traditions of the apostles, whether
we receive them by word of mouth (oral Tradition) or by letter (written
Scripture).
Geisler and MacKenzie are ready for this. They allege that the biblical
command that we must follow both Scripture and Tradition only applied
while the apostles where alive:
It is true that the New Testament speaks of following the "traditions"
(=teachings) of the apostles, whether oral or written. This is because they
were living authorities set up by Christ (Matt. 18:18; Acts 2:42; Eph. 2:20).
When they died, however, there was no longer a living apostolic authority
since only those who were eyewitnesses of the resurrected Christ could
have apostolic authority (Acts 1:22; 1 Cor. 9:1). Because the New
Testament is the only inspired (infallible) record of what the apostles
taught, it follows that since the death of the apostles the only apostolic
authority we have is the inspired record of their teaching in the New
Testament. That is, all apostolic tradition (teaching) on faith and practice
is in the New Testament.[10]
This is where the doctrine of sola Scriptura really flies apart. It is
acknowledged that in the New Testament the rule was "Scripture and
Tradition," but it is asserted, with no evidence whatsoever, that all
apostolic Tradition was reduced to writing, and therefore as soon as the
apostles died, Christians could disregard everything the apostles had
taught them that was not reduced to writing. What is the biblical basis for
this assertion? Where in the Bible does it say that all apostolic Tradition
was reduced to writing? And where does it say that the Church was
supposed to switch over to sola Scriptura when the apostles died?
The only evidence that Geisler and MacKenzie offer that "all apostolic
tradition on faith and practice is in the New Testament" is the allegation
that "the New Testament is the only inspired (infallible) record of what the
apostles taught." But that is no evidence at all, it is an unsubstantiated
allegation, based on the prior assumption that sola Scriptura is true. Thus,
their argument is totally circular because it takes as a given that which it
seeks to prove. The conclusion only "follows" if we grant the premise that
"the New Testament is the only inspired (infallible) record of what the
apostles taught." But the New Testament itself indicates that it is not the
only "inspired (infallible) record of what the apostles taught." As we saw
before, in 1 Thessalonians 2:13, Paul wrote,
And we also thank God continually because, when you received the
word of God, which you heard [orally] from us, you accepted it not as the
word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you
who believe.
Paul said that his oral teaching was actually the "Word of God,"
meaning that it was inspired. He commanded Timothy to perpetuate this
teaching through the ages (2 Tim. 2:2). How can this be reconciled with
Geisler and MacKenzie?s allegation that the "oral teachings of the apostles
were not called ?inspired? or ?unbreakable? or the equivalent"?[11]

So we see that there is a good deal of biblical evidence against the


doctrine of sola Scriptura. First, Jesus and the apostles did not practice it.
Second, Jesus established an authoritative Church to whose judgment the
private judgments of His followers was to submit. And third, the Bible itself
teaches that Christians were to rely upon both Scripture and apostolic
Tradition.
Now in light of these things, let's examine the three premises upon
which the doctrine of sola Scriptura depends.

End Notes
1. Geisler and MacKenzie, "Rome," 35.
2. L. Sabourin, The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Bombay: St. Paul Publications,
1982), vol. 2, 793.
3. Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan
Corporation, 1982), 338.
4. Archer, Difficulties, 430.
5. Archer, Difficulties, 430.
6. Geisler and MacKenzie, "Rome," 35.
7. The word "bishop" comes from the Old English word bisceop, which itself derives,
by way of Latin, from the Greek word episcopos, which means "overseer."
8. He is mentioned in Philippians 4:3.
9. According to Tertullian, Demurrer Against the Heretics, 32, A.D.200.
10. Geisler and MacKenzie, "Rome," 36.
11. Geisler and MacKenzie, "Rome," 36.

Part III: The Three Premises of Sola Scriptura


• The First Premise: All of the Apostles Teaching was Reduced to
Writing
• The Second Premise: The Church Was Supposed to Practice Sola
Scriptura After the Apostles Died
o The Early Church Did Not Practice Sola Scriptura
o The Early Church Could Not Have Practiced Sola Scriptura
• The Third Premise: The Scripture is Perspicuous
o The Bible Says it Is Not Perspicuous
o History Shows That the Bible Is Not Perspicuous
 Baptism
 The Eucharist
 Charismatic Signs
 Mortal Sin
o Denominationalism Undermines Perspicuity
 Division Is Allegedly Caused by Sin, Not Lack of
Perspicuity
• An Infallible Bible Still Needs an Infallible Interpreter
• Conclusion: Sola Scriptura Is Refuted

So far, weve examined the biblical evidence for sola Scriptura and the
evidence against it. Now we’ll consider the premises upon which sola
Scriptura depends. I said before that sola Scriptura depends upon three
premises: (1) that all of the apostles? essential teachings were reduced to
writing, (2) that the Church was supposed to switch over from "Scripture
and Tradition" to sola Scriptura when the apostles died, and (3) that the
essential teachings of Scripture are clear. Let?s look at each of these
premises and see whether they have any scriptural or historical basis, or
whether advocates of sola Scriptura simply assume that these things must
be true based on the fact that they already believe sola Scriptura is true.

The First Premise: All of the Apostles’ Essential


Teachings Were Reduced to Writing
Earlier we discussed the difference between the formal and material
sufficiency of Scripture. The Scriptures are materially sufficient if all
essential doctrines have at least some basis in Scripture, even if it is
necessary to make use of apostolic Tradition to fully understand them.
However, in order for sola Scriptura to be true, it is necessary that the
Bible be self-interpreting. Therefore, when advocates of sola Scriptura say
that all of the apostles? essential teachings are found in the New
Testament, they mean that those teachings are set forth fully, completely,
and clearly, so that they can be understood correctly without an outside
interpreter.
With that distinction in mind I must ask again, where in the New
Testament does it say that all of the apostle’s essential teachings were
reduced to writing? As far as I know, it doesn’t say that anywhere, and we
can’t just assume that they were. Thus, the first premise on which sola
Scriptura depends is not itself found in the Bible. How then can it be valid,
if by sola Scriptura’s own requirements, everything must be
"perspicuously" taught in the Bible? Actually, the New Testament itself
seems to indicate that all essential apostolic teaching is not contained
within its pages. I’ll give just a few examples:
1 Corinthians 11:29, 30, 34
For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the
Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many among you
are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep [died]. . . . If
anyone is hungry, he should eat at home, so that when you meet together
it may not result in judgment. And when I come I will give further
directions.
Where in the New Testament are these further directions? They cannot
be found. Clearly they are essential. Whatever the Corinthians were doing,
it was bringing judgment upon themselves to the point that some of them
had even died! It doesn’t get much more essential than that.
Colossians 4:16
After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the
church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from
Laodicea.
Where is Paul’s letter to the Laodiceans? Sadly, it has been lost. Paul
must have thought it contained important teachings, because he
commanded the Church at Colosse to read it.
2 Thessalonians 2:6
And now you know what is holding him [the man of lawlessness] back,
so that he may be revealed at the proper time.
What is holding the man of lawlessness back? From Scripture alone, we
have no idea, but according to Paul the Thessalonians knew. How? Look at
verse 5: "Don’t you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you
these things?" Paul’s whole discussion is predicated on the Thessalonians
remembering his oral teachings about the man of lawlessness, some of
which were obviously not reduced to writing.
2 Timothy 2:2
And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many
witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach
others.
If Paul thought that he had clearly and explicitly reduced all of his
essential teachings to writing, why did he, under the inspiration of the Holy
Spirit, command that his oral teachings be perpetuated?
In spite of this evidence, and more, Geisler and MacKenzie insist that
"there is not a shred of evidence that any of the revelation God gave [the
apostles] to express was not inscripturated by them in the only books--the
inspired books of the New Testament--that they left for the church."[1] If
Geisler and MacKenzie are referring to a supposed lack of historical
evidence, they are mistaken. As we shall soon see, there is abundant
testimony from the earliest days of the Church that not all of the
revelation God gave the apostles was reduced to writing; some of it was
passed on orally.
On the other hand, if they are referring to a supposed lack of Scriptural
evidence, I just cited several pieces of Scriptural evidence. That evidence
may not be conclusive, but it is certainly suggestive. Further, the Bible
never says that all of the revelation God gave the apostles to express was
inscripturated in the books of the New Testament. This is very important
to bear in mind. We can’t just assume that all of the apostles’ essential
teachings were reduced to writing just because the Bible doesn’t explicitly
say that they were not. The Bible cannot possibly anticipate and refute
every false teaching that man might come up with (especially given that
man has shown himself to be especially creative in this area). Therefore, it
is logically fallacious to make a supposition, then conclude that the
supposition is true if the Bible does not clearly and explicitly refute it.
However, that is exactly what the advocates of sola Scriptura have done.
Because they already believe that Scripture is the only source of doctrine
and practice, they just assume that if a teaching is important it must have
been fully set forth in the New Testament, and as evidence they point out
that the Bible doesn’t say otherwise. But if they want to make the case for
sola Scriptura, they must prove that all essential teachings are clearly
presented in the New Testament, and they can’t.

The Second Premise: The Church Was Supposed to


Practice Sola Scriptura After the Apostles Died
If it is true, as Geisler and MacKenzie acknowledge, that "the New
Testament speaks of following the ‚traditions’ of the apostles, whether oral
or written,"[2] when did that change? When did the Church switch over to
sola Scriptura? According to Geisler and MacKenzie:
Early New Testament believers did not need further revelation through
the apostles in written form for one very simple reason: they still had the
living apostles to teach them. As soon as the apostles died, however, it
became imperative for the written record of their infallible teaching to be
available. And it was--in the apostolic writings known as the New
Testament.[3]
In other words, as long as the apostles were alive the rule of faith was
"Scripture and Tradition," but as soon as they died, everyone was
supposed to switch over to sola Scriptura. But again, where in the New
Testament does it say that? If it is acknowledged that the early Church
relied on both Scripture and Tradition, where in the Scripture alone does it
say that at some future point their reliance on oral Tradition would be
replaced by a reliance on Scripture alone? As far as I know, it doesn’t.
Thus, the second premise on which sola Scriptura depends is not itself
found in the Bible. Therefore, it cannot be valid, because by sola
Scriptura’s own requirements, everything must be "perspicuously" taught
in the Bible. However, the Bible itself indicates that the oral teaching was
not supposed to expire when the apostles did:
2 Timothy 1:13, 14, 2:2
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 . . . And the
things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust
to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others.
Paul wrote these instructions to Timothy at the end of his life:
For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time
has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished
the race, I have kept the faith. (2 Timothy 4:6-7).
If the Protestant supposition were correct, upon Paul’s death, only his
writings would remain in force. Yet he doesn’t even mention his writings.
Instead he tells Timothy to preserve and propagate his oral teachings. Paul
described five generations of oral Tradition: it originated with (1) Jesus,
who passed it on to (2) Paul, who passed it on to (3) Timothy, who would
pass it on to (4) "reliable men," who would pass it on to (5) "others." It
certainly doesn’t seem as if Paul believed that all of his essential teachings
had been reduced to writing, and it certainly doesn?t seem as if he
intended his oral teachings to die with him.

The Early Church Did Not Practice Sola Scriptura


Nevertheless, if Protestants are correct and the early church did in fact
rely on Scripture alone after the deaths of the apostles, this should be
easy to verify simply by looking at the writings of those who were in the
early church. What did they say their practice was? Did they rely on
Scripture and Tradition, or on Scripture alone. Protestants claim that they
relied on Scripture alone:
Indeed, many early fathers, including Athanasius, Cyril of Jerusalem,
Chrysostom, and Augustine, believed that the Bible was the only infallible
basis for all Christian doctrine.[4]
Below are the words of Athanasius, Chrysostom, and Augustine, among
others. I will let them speak for themselves, and you can judge for yourself
whether they believed that the Bible was "the only infallible basis for all
Christian doctrine."
Second century:
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, the authority of the Tradition is one and the same.
(Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies 1:10:2 [A.D. 189]
That is why it is surely necessary to avoid them [heretics], while
cherishing with the utmost diligence the things pertaining to the Church,
and to lay hold of the Tradition of truth. . . . What if the Apostles had not in
fact left writings to us? Would it not be necessary to follow the order of
Tradition, which was handed down to those to whom they entrusted the
Churches? (Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies 3:4:1 [A.D. 189]).
Third century:
Well, they preserving the Tradition of the blessed doctrine derived
directly from the holy Apostles, Peter, James, John, and Paul, the sons
receiving it from the father (but few were like the fathers), came by God's
will to us also to deposit those ancestral and apostolic seeds. And well I
know that they will exult; I do not mean delighted with this tribute, but
solely on account of the preservation of the truth, according as they
delivered it. For such a sketch as this, will, I think, be agreeable to a soul
desirous of preserving from loss the blessed Tradition. (Clement of
Alexandria, Miscellanies 1:1 [A.D. 208]).
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. (Origen, The Fundamental Doctrines 1:2 [A.D. 225]).
Fourth century :
But you are blessed, who by faith are in the Church, dwell upon the
foundations of faith, and have full satisfaction, even the highest degree of
faith which remains among you unshaken. For it has come down to you
from Apostolic Tradition, and frequently accursed envy has wished to
unsettle it, but has not been able. (Athanasius, Festal Letters 2:29 [A.D.
330]).
Of the dogmas and messages preserved in the Church, some we
possess from written teaching and others we receive from the Tradition of
the Apostles, handed on to us in mystery. In respect to piety both are of
the same force. No one will contradict any of these, no one, at any rate,
who is even moderately versed in matters ecclesiastical. Indeed, were we
to try to reject unwritten customs as having no great authority, we would
unwittingly injure the gospel in its vitals; or rather, we would reduce
[Christian] message to a mere term. (Basil the Great, The Holy Spirit 27:66
[A.D. 375]).
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. (Epiphanius of Salamis,
Medicine Chest Against All Heresies 61:6 [A.D. 375]).
Fifth century:
[T]he custom [of not rebaptizing converts] . . . may be supposed to
have had its origin in Apostolic Tradition, just as there are many things
which are observed by the whole Church, and therefore are fairly held to
have been enjoined by the Apostles, which yet are not mentioned in their
writings. (Augustine, On Baptism, Against the Donatists 5:23[31] [A.D.
400].
[Paul commands:] "Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the
Traditions which you have been taught, whether by word or by our letter"
[2 Thess. 2:15]. From this it is clear that they did not hand down
everything by letter, but there is much also that was not written. Like that
which was written, the unwritten too is worthy of belief. So let us regard
the Tradition of the Church also as worthy of belief. Is it a Tradition? Seek
no further. (John Chrysostom, Homilies on 2 Thessalonians [A.D. 402]).
With great zeal and closest attention, therefore, I frequently inquired of
many men, eminent for their holiness and doctrine, how I might, in a
concise and, so to speak, general and ordinary way, distinguish the truth
of the Catholic faith from the falsehood of heretical depravity. I received
almost always the same answer from all of them--that if I or anyone else
wanted to expose the frauds and escape the snares of the heretics who
rise up, and to remain intact and in sound faith, it would be necessary,
with the help of the Lord, to fortify that faith in a twofold manner: first, of
course, by the authority of divine law [Scripture] and then by the Tradition
of the Catholic Church. Here, perhaps, someone may ask: ?If the canon of
the Scriptures be perfect and in itself more than suffices for everything,
why is it necessary that the authority of ecclesiastical interpretation be
joined to it?? Because, quite plainly, Sacred Scripture, by reason of its own
depth, is not accepted by everyone as having one and the same meaning .
. . Thus, because of so many distortions of such various errors, it is highly
necessary that the line of prophetic and apostolic interpretation be
directed in accord with the norm of the ecclesiastical and Catholic
meaning. (Vincent of Lerins, The Notebooks [A.D. 434]).
The testimony of the Church fathers is remarkably consistent over the
centuries, both before and after the New Testament was compiled at the
end of the fourth century. They believed that the Tradition of the apostles
was the Word of God (1 Thess. 2:13), whether it was committed to writing,
or to "reliable men." The Church never has practiced sola Scriptura, not
then, not now, and not at any time in between. It is a doctrine that was
adopted by the Reformers in the sixteenth century, and it is practiced only
by their descendants, the Protestants.
From their own testimony it is clear that the early Christians did not
believe that all of the apostles’ essential teachings had been reduced to
writing. They believed that "not everything can be gotten from Sacred
Scripture [because] the holy Apostles handed down some things in the
Scriptures, other things in Tradition."[5] They specifically rejected the
doctrine of sola Scriptura, even after the content of the New Testament
was finalized at the end of the fourth century. The words of Vincent of
Lerins were especially prophetic:
Here, perhaps, someone may ask: ‘If the canon of the Scriptures be
perfect and in itself more than suffices for everything, why is it necessary
that the authority of ecclesiastical interpretation be joined to it’ Because,
quite plainly, Sacred Scripture, by reason of its own depth, is not accepted
by everyone as having one and the same meaning.[6]
If the Protestant experience has proved nothing else, it has certainly
proved that!

The Early Church Could Not Have Practiced Sola Scriptura


The early Church’s own testimony is that it did not practice sola
Scriptura, and now we will see that it could not have done so even if it had
wanted to. In fact, if it was "imperative for the written record of [the
apostles’] infallible teaching to be available,"[7] as Geisler and MacKenzie
claim, then the early church was in trouble, because it was many years
before that record was universally available. According to the Catholic
Encyclopedia:
There are no indications in the New Testament of a systematic plan for
the distribution of the Apostolic compositions . . . Nearly all of the New
Testament writings were evoked by particular occasions, or addressed to
particular destinations. But we may well presume that each of the leading
Churches--Antioch, Thessalonica, Alexandria, Corinth, Rome--sought by
exchanging with other Christian communities to add to its special
treasure, and have publicly read in its religious assemblies all Apostolic
writings which came under its knowledge. It was doubtless in this way that
the collections grew, and reached completeness within certain limits, but a
considerable number of years must have elapsed (and that counting from
the completion of the latest book) before all the widely separated
Churches of early Christendom possessed the new sacred literature in full.
[8]
The Protestant International Bible Commentary concurs:
The apostles themselves had no such written rule of faith and conduct
[as the New Testament]. Their Bible, and that of the Jews to this day,
consisted of the Old Testament; this was the Canon of Holy Writ accepted
by Jesus Himself, and referred to simply as "the Scriptures" throughout the
New Testament writings. It was not until the year A.D. 393 that a church
council first listed the 27 New Testament books now universally
recognized. There was thus a period of about 350 years during which the
New Testament Canon was in process of being formed.[9]
In addition to the problem of dissemination was the problem of
identifying which writings really were Scripture. This question was not
finally settled until the end of the fourth century. Thus, it would have been
impossible for the early Church to practice sola Scriptura because at first
they didn’t have all of the Scriptures available, and until the end of the
fourth century they didn?t even know for sure which books were Scripture.
To understand this problem more fully, let me briefly explain how the New
Testament canon developed over the first three hundred years of
Christianity:
As we saw above, the process of copying and disseminating the various
documents the individual churches possessed took many years. By the
end of the second century, the four gospels and the thirteen epistles of
Paul were universally accepted as inspired. These books formed the
irreducible nucleus of the New Testament, but the canonicity of the other
New Testament books and a number of apocryphal books was debated for
another two-hundred years. In the interim, the individual churches
developed different ideas about which books were Scripture and which
were not.
In the early decades of the third century, Origen traveled widely and
took note of the various opinions of the scattered churches. He grouped
the supposedly scriptural books into three categories:
(1) Those that were universally accepted. By then the list included the
four gospels, the thirteen Pauline epistles, Acts, 1 Peter, 1 John, and
Revelation.[10]
(2) Those that were contested. These included Hebrews, James, 2 John,
3 John, 2 Peter, Jude, Barnabas, The Shepherd of Hermas, and the
Didache, among others. (Origen himself accepted all of these books as
Scripture).
(3) Those that were clearly apocryphal.
By the fourth century, people like John Chrysostom and his followers
were using a New Testament that lacked 2 John, 3 John, 2 Peter, Jude, and
Revelation. The debate continued throughout the fourth century:
St. Cyprian . . . received all of the books of the New Testament except
Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, and Jude; however, there was already a strong
inclination in his environment to admit 2 Peter as authentic. Jude had been
recognized by Tertullian, but, strangely, it had lost its position in the
African Church, probably owing to its citation of the apocryphal Henoch [1
Enoch]. Cyprian’s testimony to the non-canonicity of Hebrews and James is
confirmed by Commodian, another African writer of the period. A very
important witness is the document known as Mommsen’s Canon, a
manuscript of the tenth century, but whose original has been ascertained
to date from West Africa about the year 360. It is a formal catalogue of the
sacred books . . . and proves that at its time the books universally
acknowledged in the influential Church of Carthage were almost identical
with those received by Cyprian a century before. Hebrews, James, and
Jude are entirely wanting. The three Epistles of St. John and II Peter
appear, but after each stands the note una sola . . . evidently in protest
against the reception of these [books], which, presumably, had found a
place in the official list recently, but whose right to be there was seriously
questioned.[11]
Finally, near the end of the fourth century, the Church decided to
address the issue of the canon:
St. Jerome, a rising light in the Church, though but a simple priest, was
summoned by Pope Damasus from the East . . . to assist at an eclectic, but
not ecumenical, synod at Rome in the year 382. Neither the general
council at Constantinople of the preceding year nor that of Nice (365) had
considered the question of the Canon. This Roman synod must have
devoted itself specially to the matter. The result of its deliberations,
presided over, no doubt, by the energetic Damasus himself, . . . presents
the complete and perfect Canon which has been that of the Church
Universal ever since . . . The Shepherd and the false Apocalypse of Peter
now received their final blow. Rome had spoken, and the nations of the
West had heard . . . It was some little time before the African Church
perfectly adjusted its New Testament to the Damasan Canon . . . it is
evident that [the book of Hebrews] found many opponents in Africa, since
three councils there at brief intervals--Hippo, Carthage, in 393; Third of
Carthage in 397; Carthage in 419--found it necessary to formulate
catalogues . . . So at the close of the first decade of the fifth century . . .
the content of the New Testament was definitely fixed, and the discussion
was closed.[12]
So you see, it would not have been possible for Christians prior to the
fifth century to practice sola Scriptura, even if they had wanted to. At first
they did not have all of the canonical books available, and later they did
not know for sure which books were canonical.

The Third Premise: The Scripture is Perspicuous


We’ve seen that the first and second premises upon which sola
Scriptura depends have no support in either Scripture or history. The
testimony of the Bible and Christian history is that not all of the apostle’s
essential teachings were reduced to writing, and that the rule of faith was
"Scripture and Tradition," both while the apostles were alive, and for
centuries after their deaths.
Now let’s take a look at the third assumption upon which sola Scriptura
depends: the "perspicuity," or clarity, of Scripture. If the Bible were our
only authority, with no Church and no Tradition to help us interpret it, then
it would have to be clear, otherwise the doctrine wouldn’t work. Indeed, in
order for sola Scriptura to work, the Scripture must be both complete and
perspicuous. Any "plowboy," to quote Luther’s famous phrase, should be
able to understand it correctly.
Catholics deny the perspicuity of Scripture, but that does not mean that
they regard every verse and every teaching as an unfathomable mystery.
It simply means that they recognize that the Bible can often be interpreted
in more than one way. Once you know which way is the right way on any
given issue, the Bible usually is quite clear. Hindsight is like that. But
without an authoritative interpreter in the first place, it is not always
possible to know which interpretation is correct.[13]
Protestants, on the other hand, believe the Bible is quite clear all by
itself (at least on the so-called "essentials"):
The Bible is perspicuous (clear). The perspicuity of Scripture does not
mean that everything in the Bible is perfectly clear, but rather the
essential teachings are. Popularly put, in the Bible the main things are the
plain things, and the plain things are the main things. [14]
With all due respect, this position ignores both Scripture and history:

The Bible Says it Is Not Perspicuous


Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear
brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes
the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His
letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant
and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own
destruction. (2 Peter 3:15-16).
Peter declares that Paul’s letters are Scripture, and he states that those
Scriptures "contain some things that are hard to understand." Through
ignorance and instability (though not necessarily insincerity), it is possible
accidentally to distort these Scriptures. If this is so, then the Scriptures are
self-evidently not perspicuous. You might say that Peter perspicuously
refuted the idea of the perspicuity of Scripture!
Still, someone might say, "Well, if any of Paul’s teachings are unclear,
they must not be ‚essential’ teachings." But Peter is talking about
"salvation" (vs. 15), and he says the ignorant and unstable distort these
things (and the other Scriptures) "to their own destruction." Sounds
essential to me.

History Shows That the Bible Is Not Perspicuous


There is also the problem of Protestant history. If the Bible is so
perspicuous, there should be widespread agreement among Protestants,
at least on the "essentials," however one defines them. And, in fact,
Protestants do claim to agree on the "essentials":
Only when one chooses to compare things like the mode and candidate
for baptism, church government, views on the Eucharist, and other less
essential doctrines are there greater differences among orthodox
Protestants.[15]
First of all, how does one define an "orthodox" Protestant? Since
everyone is free to interpret the Bible as he sees fit, by what authority
would one Protestant presume to judge another to be "unorthodox"? I
suppose he would say that whoever agrees with him on the "clear
teachings" of the Bible on "essential" matters is orthodox, and everyone
else is unorthodox. Let’s look at a few areas of disagreement among
Protestants and see if they are limited to "unessential" teachings.

Baptism
Is this an essential issue? It depends on whom you ask. Martin Luther
thought it was:
Baptism is divine, not devised nor invented by men. For as truly as I
can say, No man has spun the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the
Lord's Prayer out of his head, but they are revealed and given by God
Himself, so also I can boast that Baptism is no human trifle, but instituted
by God Himself, moreover, that it is most solemnly and strictly
commanded that we must be baptized or we cannot be saved, lest any
one regard it as a trifling matter, like putting on a new red coat. For it is of
the greatest importance that we esteem Baptism excellent, glorious, and
exalted, for which we contend and fight chiefly, because the world is now
so full of sects clamoring that Baptism is an external thing, and that
external things are of no benefit.[16]
Even as early as 1530, when Luther wrote those words, Protestantism
had already divided into "clamoring sects" that could not agree on the
"clear biblical teaching" about baptism. Modern Lutherans, Anglicans,
Churches of Christ, and Disciples of Christ believe, like Luther, that we are
regenerated in baptism. It is where salvation occurs. Simply put, if you’re
not baptized, you’re probably not saved. For these Protestants, baptism
goes to the very heart of salvation, and it is clearly an essential doctrine.
On the other hand, Baptists, Reformed, Presbyterians, and many non-
denominational churches believe that baptism is purely symbolic.
Salvation has already occurred, baptism is merely a public testimony to
that fact. To these Protestants baptism is not an essential doctrine. In fact,
Quakers and the Salvation Army don’t even baptize at all.
And while we’re on the subject, what about infant baptism? Lutherans,
Anglicans, Methodists, and Presbyterians baptize infants. The Lutherans,
Anglicans, and some Methodists believe the infants are regenerated.
Luther wrote,
Little children . . . are free in every way, secure and saved solely
through the glory of their baptism.[17]
Presbyterians, although they do baptize infants, consider their baptism
purely symbolic. Baptists and many others refuse to baptize infants at all.
Regeneration is the very heart of salvation, yet Protestants can’t agree
among themselves when and how and to whom it occurs. So much for
perspicuity.

The Eucharist
Many Protestants would say the Eucharist, or "Lord’s Supper," is not an
essential doctrine. But Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, unless you eat the
flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you" (John
6:53). Paul wrote to the Corinthians that "whoever eats the bread or drinks
the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against
the body and blood of the Lord . . . That is why many among you are weak
and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep [died]" (1 Cor. 11:27,
30). That sure sounds essential to me, perhaps even related to salvation
and/or perseverance.
So what is the "clear" biblical teaching about the Eucharist? Once
again, it depends on who you ask. Martin Luther believed that the
Eucharist contains the true body and blood of Jesus, and that through it
Jesus forgives sins:
It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, in and under the
bread and wine which we Christians are commanded by the Word of Christ
to eat and to drink. . . . For this reason we go to the Sacrament because
there we receive such a treasure by and in which we obtain forgiveness of
sins. . . . But here our wise spirits contort themselves with their great art
and wisdom, crying out and bawling: How can bread and wine forgive sins
or strengthen faith? . . . such bread and wine as is the body and blood of
Christ . . . is verily the treasure, and nothing else, through which such
forgiveness is obtained. [18]
Such is the power of the Eucharist, according to Luther and modern
Lutherans and Anglicans, that through it Christ forgives sins. The Lutheran
Church wrote that the Zwinglians, who denied the Real Presence of Christ
in the Eucharist, were "a set of people, whom we see agitated by the spirit
of lying, and uttering blasphemies against the Son of Man."[19]
Zwingli, of course, saw it differently. He believed that the Eucharist was
purely symbolic, which is probably the majority opinion of Protestants
today. Luther wrote that it "would be better to announce eternal
damnation than salvation after the style of Zwingli."[20]
John Calvin, founder of Calvinism, didn’t consider the Eucharist to be
completely symbolic, as Zwingli did. He considered it to be a means of
grace, through which Christ communicates grace to his followers.
However, he denied that the bread and wine actually become the "true
body and blood of our Lord":
"For what absurdities [Luther] pawned upon us . . . when he said the
bread is the very body! . . . a very foul error."[21]
Protestants have clashed from the very beginning over their
understanding of the clear, perspicuous biblical teaching about the
Eucharist. In 1577, only 60 years after Luther nailed his "95 Theses" to the
door at Wittenberg, a book called 200 Interpretations of the Words, "This
is My Body" was published in Ingolstadt, Germany. That title speaks
volumes on the perspicuity of Scripture.

Charismatic Signs
And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they
will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up
snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not
hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will
get well. (Mark 16:17-18).
What is the "clear" teaching of this passage? Pentecostal Holiness
churches interpret it to mean that those who believe will exhibit these
signs. In other words, if you don’t speak in tongues, you aren’t saved. For
them this is certainly an essential doctrine. Many other Protestant
churches accept the validity of charismatic signs (as does the Catholic
Church), but they don’t regard their absence in any given Christian as a
sign that the person is not saved. At the other end of the spectrum, many
Baptist churches, and others, deny that charismatic signs are legitimate.
Perhaps they are even manifestations of Satan, "great signs and miracles
to deceive even the elect" (Matt. 24:24).

Mortal Sin
Can a Christian forfeit his salvation by committing a "mortal" sin? This
is a vital question, one that explores the very nature of salvation itself. Is
salvation irrevocable, or can it be lost? The answer to that question has a
crucial bearing on how you live the Christian life. If it is impossible to
forfeit your salvation, then you need not be overly concerned with how
you live your life. Sure, you want to please the Lord and avoid his
discipline, but at least you know that heaven is yours, no matter what you
do. On the other hand, if it is possible to forfeit your salvation, then it?s
critical to know how this can happen, so that you can avoid it. How horrible
it would be to live as a devoted follower of Christ for years, only to turn
your back on Him later in life and throw it all away. So it’s clearly essential
to know whether any sins are "mortal." If this is not an essential doctrine,
then there are no essential doctrines.
So what is the clear, perspicuous biblical teaching about mortal sin? Not
surprisingly, it depends on whom you ask:
At one end of the spectrum are the Baptist, Presbyterian, and many
non-denominational churches. Following the teachings of John Calvin, they
do not believe that it is possible to forfeit salvation. If you are saved, you
are always saved, and nothing can change that. Excessive sin does not
jeopardize your salvation, but it may indicate that you were never really
saved in the first place.
Somewhere in the middle are Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists,
Episcopal, and some others. Following the teachings of Jacob Arminius,
they believe that it is possible to sin so grievously that you forfeit your
salvation. Salvation can be regained through genuine repentance.
At the other end of the spectrum are the "Holiness" churches:
The Holiness people believe they do not sin in any sense of the word
[based on 1 John 5:18]. If a Christian does sin, he loses his salvation and
must repent and be saved again. This can result (in the extreme) in a
saved-lost-saved-lost cycle.[22]
So, once again, the Protestant interpretation of the "clear teachings" of
the Bible spans the entire spectrum, from those who believe it is
impossible to forfeit salvation no matter how badly you sin, to those who
believe you forfeit salvation if you sin at all.
These are only a few of the many examples that could be cited to
demonstrate the obvious inability of Protestants to agree on the "clear"
teachings of Scripture, even on essential issues. They can’t even agree on
which issues are essential. Such is the fruit of sola Scriptura.

Denominationalism Undermines Perspicuity


Protestantism has been divisive from its inception. Even as early as
1525 Martin Luther wrote,
There are almost as many sects and beliefs as there are heads; this one
will not admit baptism; that one rejects the Sacrament of the altar;
another places another world between the present one and the day of
judgment; some teach that Jesus Christ is not God. There is not an
individual, however clownish he may be, who does not claim to be inspired
by the Holy Ghost, and who does not put forth as prophecies his ravings
and dreams.[23]
If the world lasts a long time, it will again be necessary, on account of
the many interpretations which are now given to the Scriptures, to receive
the decrees of the councils, and take refuge in them, in order to preserve
the unity of the faith.[24]
In fact, the pace of Protestant division has increased over time. I can’t
imagine anything more fatal to the idea of the "perspicuity" of Scripture.
Indeed, from the beginning the Reformers understood that their
divisiveness seriously undermined their credibility. In a letter to Luther’s
colleague Philip Melanchthon, John Calvin wrote,
"It is indeed important that posterity should not know of our
differences; for it is indescribably ridiculous that we, who are in opposition
to the whole world, should be, at the very beginning of the Reformation, at
issue among ourselves."[26]

Division Is Allegedly Caused by Sin, Not Lack of Perspicuity


How can we account for all this doctrinal confusion if the Bible is
supposedly so clear? The Protestant explanation has been the same from
the very beginning: If anyone can’t see the plain meaning of Scripture (as
defined in the contradictory teachings of Luther, or Calvin, or Zwingli, or
whoever) it is because of his own sinfulness. Luther wrote,
Therefore come forward, you and all the Sophists together, and
produce any one mystery which is still abstruse in the Scriptures. But, if
many things still remain abstruse to many, this does not arise from
obscurity in the Scriptures, but from their own blindness or want of
understanding, who do not go the way to see the all-perfect clearness of
the truth . . . Let, therefore, wretched men cease to impute, with
blasphemous perverseness, the darkness and obscurity of their own heart
to the all-clear scriptures of God.[27]
Therefore, if anyone disagrees with your own personal interpretation of
the "all-clear scriptures of God," it is because he is blasphemous, wretched
and blind. Only you (and your denomination, whatever it may be) are the
pure in heart who honestly follow the "clear" teachings of God. If that
sounds harsh, believe me, it’s nothing compared to what the Reformers
had to say about each other:
"The devil has made himself master of Luther, to such a degree, as to
make one believe he wishes to gain entire possession of him." (Ulrich
Zwingli).[28]
"Zwingli was an offspring of hell, an associate of Arius, a man who did
not deserve to be prayed for . . . He is dead and damned, having desired
like a thief and a rebel, to compel others to follow his error." (Martin
Luther).[29]
"[Luther] will not and can not associate himself with those who confess
Christ . . . He wrote all his works by the impulse and the dictation of the
devil." (Zwingli’s Church of Zurich).[30]
"[Luther] is puffed up with pride and arrogance, and seduced by Satan."
(Oecolampadius).[31]
"Oecolampadius, Calvin . . . and the other heretics have in-deviled,
through-deviled, over-deviled, corrupt hearts and lying mouths, and no
one should pray for them." (Martin Luther).[32]
"Luther had done nothing to any purpose . . . people ought not to let
themselves be duped by following his steps and being half-papist; it is
much better to build a church entirely afresh." (John Calvin).[33]
"[Philip Melanchthon] openly opposes sound doctrine; or . . . cunningly,
or at least, with but little manliness, disguises his own opinion . . . The
inconstancy of Philip moves both my anger and detestation." (John Calvin).
[34]
"Zwingli says almost nothing about Christian sanctity. He simply follows
the Pelagians, the Papists and the philosophers." (Philip Melanchthon).[35]
"Calvin is a true mad dog. The man is wicked, and he judges of people
according as he loves or hates them." (Martin Bucer).[36]
"[Martin Bucer is] a gossip . . . a miscreant through and through . . . I
trust him not at all, for Paul says ‚A man that is a heretic, after the first
and second admonition, avoid.?’ (Martin Luther).[37]
Obviously the Reformers attributed the diversity of opinion among
themselves to wickedness on the part of whoever disagreed with them.
Although the invective has died down considerably since then, this
explanation is still held by some Protestants. According to J.I. Packer,
When adherents of sola Scriptura have split from each other the cause
has been sin rather than Protestant biblicism. [38]
Is all this really reasonable? Must each Protestant, or each
denomination, assume that everyone else is blind and wicked and acting
in bad faith because they draw conflicting doctrines from the same
Scriptures? Fortunately, modern Protestants don’t usually attack each
other with the same vitriol as the Reformers did. They take a much more
irenic approach, and tend to attribute the differences more to blindness
than to wickedness. But isn’t it more likely that most people are
interpreting the Bible in good faith, and that they are just as open to the
leading of the Holy Spirit as the next man? It seems much more
reasonable to acknowledge that even some of the Bible’s "essential"
teachings just aren’t clear enough to admit of but one "clear"
interpretation.

An Infallible Bible Still Needs an Infallible Interpreter


Of what practical use is it to know that the Bible is infallible, if we can’t
interpret it infallibly? Error is error, whether it originates from the
Scriptures themselves or from their interpreter. We know that the
Scriptures are infallible, but it’s obvious that our private interpretation of
them is not. If the Protestant experience has proved anything, it has
proved that the Bible can be interpreted in more than one way, to put it
mildly. Wherever there is disagreement, there is necessarily error, on one
side or the other, so how can we know which interpretation is correct? The
words of the Ethiopian eunuch are still valid today:
Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the
prophet. "Do you understand what you are reading?" Philip asked. "How
can I," he said, "unless someone explains it to me?" So he invited Philip to
come up and sit with him. (Acts 8:30-31).
Catholics believe that Jesus promised the apostles and their successors
that the Holy Spirit would teach them all things, remind them of
everything Jesus said, and guide them into all truth (John 14:26, 16:13).
Thus, the Holy Spirit guides the Church, that "pillar and foundation of the
truth" (1 Tim. 3:15) to infallibly interpret the infallible Bible. Those who
trust that guidance can spend their time living their faith, rather than
trying to figure it out in the first place. Those who do not trust that
guidance have to rely on their own private interpretation (usually that of
their pastor or denomination), and they simply have no way of knowing for
sure that their interpretation is correct. The results of these two systems
are plain: in two thousand years there is still only one Catholic Church, but
in only five hundred years there are tens of thousands of Protestant
denominations that disagree on even "essential" doctrines. Sola Scriptura
simply doesn’t work in practice.

Conclusion: Sola Scriptura Is Refuted


All three of the assumptions upon which sola Scriptura depends for its
validity are demonstrably false. First, there is considerable evidence that
not all of the "essential" teachings of the apostles were reduced to writing.
Second, according to their own testimony, the early Christians did not
practice sola Scriptura. And third, history has shown decisively that the
Scriptures are not perspicuous enough to be their own infallible
interpreter, even for "essential" doctrines. Sola Scriptura has no support in
the Bible, or in history, or in logic. Therefore, I must conclude that it is a
false teaching adopted by the Reformers to justify their rebellion against
the authority of the Church.
Now let's consider a few other factors that relate to the doctrine of sola
Scriptura.

End Notes
1. Geisler and MacKenzie, "Rome," 37.
2. Geisler and MacKenzie, "Rome," 26.
3. Geisler and MacKenzie, "Rome," 38.
4. J.D.N. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrine, (New York: Harper & Row, 1960), 42-43.
5. Epiphanius of Salamis, Medicine Chest Against All Heresies 61:6, A.D. 375.
6. The Notebooks, A.D. 434.
7. Geisler and MacKenzie, "Rome," 38.
8. George J. Reid, "Canon of the New Testament," The Catholic Encyclopedia,
(Encyclopedia Press, Inc., 1913).
9. David F. Payne, "The Text and Canon of the New Testament," International Bible
Commentary, ed. F.F. Bruce, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House,
1986), 1005.
10. Revelation later joined the ranks of the disputed books.
11. Payne, "Canon," 1005.
12. Payne, "Canon," 1005.
13. I believe that the clarity of hindsight explains why the various denominations
advocate their own distinctive doctrines so forcefully. They approach the Bible
with already held beliefs (their own "tradition" you might say) and they find verses
that, in hindsight, appear to support those beliefs. The teachings seem so clear, in
hindsight, that they can?t understand why everyone doesn?t believe what they do.
14. Geisler and MacKenzie, "Rome," 26.
15. Geisler and MacKenzie, "Rome," 37.
16. Martin Luther, The Large Catechism [1530], Translated by F. Bente and W.H.T.
Dau, Published in: Triglot Concordia: The Symbolical Books of the Ev. Lutheran
Church, (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1921), 565.
17. Martin Luther, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, 1520, tr. A.T.W.
Steinhauser, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, rev. ed., 1970), 197.
18. Luther, The Large Catechism, 565-773.
19. Quoted in Martin J. Spalding, The History of the Protestant Reformation,
(Baltimore: John Murphy, 1876), vol. 1, 466.
20. Quoted in Belfort Bax, The Peasant?s War in Germany, (London: 1899), 352.
21. Quoted in John Dillenberger, John Calvin: Selections from His Writings, (Garden
City, NY: Doubleday Anchor, 1971), 46-48.
22. Perry Lassiter, Once Saved . . . Always Saved, (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press,
1975), 65.
23. Quoted in Leslie Rumble, Bible Quizzes to a Street Preacher, (Rockford, IL: TAN
books, 1976), 22.
24. Luther, Epistle Against Zwingli.
25. Quoted in Patrick F. O?Hare, The Facts About Luther, (Rockford, IL: TAN Books, rev.
ed., 1987), 293.
26. Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, translation by Henry Cole (Grand Rapids,
MI: Baker Book House, 1976) 29.
27. Quoted in Spalding, Reformation, vol. 1, 463.
28. Quoted in Spalding, Reformation, vol. 1, 466.
29. Quoted in Spalding, Reformation, vol. 1, 464.
30. Quoted in Spalding, Reformation, vol. 1, 466.
31. Quoted in Will Durant, "The Reformation," vol. 6 of 10-vol. The Story of Civilization,
(NY: Simon & Schuster, 1957), 448.
32. Quoted in Spalding, Reformation, 465.
33. Quoted in Dillenberger, Selections, 52, 65.
34. Quoted in Henri Daniel-Rops, The Protestant Reformation, tr. Audrey Butler,
(Garden City, NY: Doubleday Image, 1961) vol. 2, 261.
35. Quoted in Spalding, Reformation, 467.
36. Quoted in Hartmann Grisar, Luther, tr. E.M. Lamond, ed. Luigi Cappadelta,
(London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1917), vol. 6, 289.
37. J. I. Packer, "Sola Scriptura: Crucial to Evangelicalism," in The Foundations of
Biblical Authority, ed. James Boice (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), 103.

Part IV: Other Considerations


• Can We Trust Apostolic Tradition?
• How Do You Know What Constitutes Scriptura in the First Place?
o Is Scripture Self-Authenticating
• The Historical Development of Sola Scriptura
o John Calvin
o Martin Luther
o Ulrich Zwingli
o The Reformers in General
Can We Trust Apostolic Tradition?
According to Geisler and MacKenzie, Tradition cannot be trusted
because there are conflicting Traditions.
It is acknowledged by all, even by Catholic scholars, that there are
contradictory Christian traditions . . . Now this very fact makes it
impossible to trust tradition in any authoritative sense. For the question
always arises: which of the contradictory traditions (teachings) should be
accepted? To say, "The one pronounced authoritative by the church" begs
the question . . . The fact is that there are so many contradictory traditions
that tradition, as such, is rendered unreliable as an authoritative source of
dogma (emphasis in original).[1]
The allegation is that it is impossible to determine which Traditions are
apostolic and which are not. But they don't seem to realize that the same
thing can be said of Scripture. There were dozens of conflicting writings
floating around the Church in the first three centuries that claimed to be
apostolic. Many of the early Christians believed that such writings as The
Epistle of Clement, The Shepherd, The Didache, and The Acts of Paul were
Scripture, and some of the writings (e.g., The Gospel of Peter, The Gospel
of Thomas, etc.) even claimed to be written by an apostle. Thus, if the
existence of conflicting Traditions renders all Traditions unreliable, then it
follows that the existence of conflicting writings renders all Scripture
unreliable. If Christians can't sort out conflicting Traditions, how can they
sort out conflicting writings? So, if Geisler and MacKenzie's argument
invalidates Tradition, it also invalidates Scripture, as can be easily seen by
substituting the words "writings" and "Scripture" for the word "tradition" in
the previous paragraph:
It is acknowledged by all, even by Catholic scholars, that there are
contradictory Christian writings . . . Now this very fact makes it impossible
to trust Scripture in any authoritative sense. For the question always
arises: which of the contradictory Scriptures (writings) should be
accepted? To say, "The one pronounced authoritative by the church" begs
the question . . . The fact is that there are so many contradictory writings
that Scripture, as such, is rendered unreliable as an authoritative source of
dogma.

How Do You Know What Constitutes Scriptura in the


First Place?
Geisler and MacKenzie's argument is actually quite sound, they just
didn't carry it far enough, or draw it to its logical conclusion. They are
correct that it is impossible (humanly speaking) to determine which
Traditions are apostolic, but it is just as impossible (humanly speaking) to
determine which writings are apostolic. The Bible alone does not tell us
what books belong between its covers; it knows nothing of a "canon of
Scripture". Therefore, it is impossible to determine from "Scripture alone"
which books are Scripture. We must rely on something outside of Scripture
to determine what constitutes Scripture in the first place, and that in itself
is fatal to the doctrine of sola Scriptura.
The fact is, the only way we know for sure that the New Testament
contains only those books inspired by the Holy Spirit, and no others, is
because the Catholic Church says it does. Protestant Christians, who are
emphatic in their belief that these books are the Word of God, generally
don't realize that they are taking the Catholic Church's word for this, but
their founder, Martin Luther, did:
We are compelled to concede to the Papists that they have the Word of
God, that we received it from them, and that without them we should have
no knowledge of it at all.[2]
Luther was quite right. Without the Catholic Church, we would have no
idea which books are Scripture, and which are not. After all, the New
Testament didn't just drop out of heaven, leather-bound and gold-edged,
with words of Christ in red. It was the Catholic Church, at the end of the
fourth century, that sorted through the dozens of supposedly apostolic
books and identified twenty-seven of them as inspired.[3]
The fact that the New Testament "table of contents" was compiled by
men, centuries after the death of the last apostle, leads to only two
possible conclusions: (1) the list is an extra-biblical revelation from God, or
(2) the list is merely the opinion of the men who drew it up. Neither
conclusion is very attractive from a Protestant perspective. If a Protestant
selects the first conclusion, then the existence of such an extra-biblical
revelation would prove that the sola Scriptura doctrine is false, because
the revelation came through the Church and not through Scripture alone.
On the other hand, if he selects the second option, then the list is merely a
"tradition of men" and not a doctrine of God. Thus, even if sola Scriptura
were true, it would be impossible to practice it because it would be
impossible to know for sure which books are Scripture.
Protestants appear to tacitly accept the first option, because they
accept the same twenty-seven books that the Catholic Church decided
were Scripture, and no others. Obviously, they must presume that the Holy
Spirit guided the Church to select only the right books, and to reject all
others. If so, then they acknowledge, at least implicitly, that the Holy Spirit
infallibly guided the Catholic Church to select the books of the New
Testament three hundred years into the Christian era. And if the Catholic
Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, could infallibly identify
apostolic Scripture (which it obviously could), it should also, under the
guidance of the Holy Spirit, be able to identify apostolic Tradition. If it can
do one, it can do both; and if it can't do one, it can't do either.
This is a sticky issue for Protestants, if they give it much thought. If
they accept that the Church infallibly selected the correct books when it
compiled the New Testament, then they must explain why they don't trust
its ability to do anything else infallibly. But if they rejected the Church's
decision regarding the books of Scripture, they would have to decide for
themselves which books are Scripture, and which are not. The canon of
Scripture would thus be reduced to a matter of opinion, and each
denomination would probably have its own distinctive "Bible" as well as its
own distinctive doctrines.
Even if sola Scriptura were valid, it would be useless if we can't be
absolutely, infallibly sure that the twenty-seven books of the New
Testament are inspired by God, and all the other supposedly apostolic
books are not. So Protestants (inconsistently) reject the Catholic Church's
authority in general, but trust it completely in this one instance. They
simply have no choice. In doing this, though, they contradict the doctrine
of sola Scriptura because they rely on something outside of Scripture to
define what constitutes Scripture in the first place.

Is Scripture Self-Authenticating?
To get around having to rely on the Catholic Church's say-so, some
Protestants have advanced the idea that Scripture is "self-authenticating."
John Calvin thought it was. He believed that anyone with an open mind
could determine for himself what books belong in the Bible:
Scripture is indeed self-authenticated; hence it is not right to subject it
to proof and reasoning . . . Illumined by his power, we believe neither by
our own nor by anyone else's judgment that Scripture is from God . . . We
seek no proof, . . . such, then, is a conviction that requires no reasons . . . I
speak of nothing other than what each believer experiences within
himself.[4]
But clearly this is not true. No individual has the capacity, God-given or
otherwise, to determine for himself which writings are Scripture and which
are not. Indeed, how could he? To what would he compare each of the
allegedly apostolic books to determine whether they are inspired?
Everything he knows about the Christian faith comes from the twenty-
seven books the Catholic Church selected in the fourth century, so he has
no objective external standard for comparison. And even if, somehow, he
could separate those books that did not contain errors from those that did,
he would still not be able to say whether they were inspired. Human
beings are capable of writing letters that contain no errors, even without
the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. In other words, "truth" does not equal
"inspiration." Only the Holy Spirit knows for sure which books He inspired,
and that is something He does not reveal on an individual basis.
Christians understand this intuitively, Calvin notwithstanding, as
evidenced by the fact that no Christian attempts to define Scripture on his
own. When someone becomes a Christian and is given a Bible, he accepts
it as the Word of God, no questions asked. He does not lock himself in a
room with all of the ancient writings and try to come up with his own
canon of "Scripture."
Even Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism, could not correctly
identify Scripture. Consider his comments about the book of James:
But this James does nothing more than drive to the Law and to its works
. . . in direct opposition to St. Paul and all the rest of the Bible, it ascribes
justification to works . . . This defect proves that the epistle is not of
Apostolic provenance . . . In sum he [James] wished to guard against those
who depended on faith without going to works, but he had neither the
spirit nor the thought nor the eloquence equal to the task. He does
violence to scripture and so contradicts Paul and all of scripture. He tries
to accomplish by emphasizing law what the Apostles bring about by
attracting men to love. I therefore refuse him a place among the writers of
the true canon of my Bible.[5]
Luther removed James, along with Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation, from
the New Testament canon and placed them at the end of his translation,
as a New Testament "apocrypha." He regarded all four as non-apostolic.
He called James an "epistle of straw," and he considered Job and Jonah
mere fables. He called Ecclesiastes "incoherent" and "incomplete." He
wished that Esther (along with 2 Maccabees) "did not exist," and he
wanted to "toss it into the Elbe" river. Of the book of Revelation he said,
"Christ is not taught or known in it."[6]
Obviously Martin Luther, the founder of sola Scriptura, could not figure
out on his own which books were Scripture and which weren't. The early
Christians couldn't either. Justin Martyr, Polycarp, Clement of Alexandria,
Irenaeus, Origen, and Tertullian all rejected one or more of the canonical
New Testament books, and these same fathers also accepted books we
now reject. For example, Irenaeus, Origen, Tertullian, and Clement of
Alexandria accepted The Shepherd as Scripture. Clement of Alexandria
accepted The Didache, and Origen accepted The Acts of Paul. Clearly, one
can only believe that the Scripture is "self-authenticating" if one
completely ignores reality.

The Historical Devolopment of Sola Scriptura


Sola Scriptura did not originate in the teaching of the apostles, but
neither did it originate with the Reformers. It was first practiced in the late
Middle Ages by the Albigensians, a Catharist sect that flourished in
southern France in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The Albigensians
believed that the body was created by an evil god and was therefore evil,
but the spirit was created by God, and was therefore good. They allowed
fornication (because it affected only the body), but forbid marriage on the
grounds that procreation (i.e., causing a good spirit to become trapped
within an evil body) was a great sin. They practiced extreme asceticism,
and even encouraged ritualistic suicide as a way of freeing their spirits
from the confines of their evil flesh. They relied on the Bible alone, and
derived their strange doctrines from their own distorted interpretation of
it. Sola Scriptura did not come into widespread prominence in the Christian
world, though, until the sixteenth century when the Reformers adopted it
as the intellectual basis for their rebellion against the Church.
To understand the development of sola Scriptura, it is important to
understand the conditions that led up to the sixteenth-century
Reformation. Most Protestants are well aware of the deplorable conduct of
some Catholics during that era, and of the moral corruption that existed in
the Church, even at the highest levels. There can be no doubt that there
was a genuine need for reform. Thus, according to the Catholic
Encyclopedia:
All . . . lovers of peace, and friends of religion, [were] in full and
accordant sympathy with Luther when he first sounded the note of reform.
[7]
Because the Reformers spoke out against corruption in the Church,
most Protestants have a romanticized impression of them as sixteenth-
century versions of George Washington, only more godly and moral. The
popular conception of the Reformation is that it was the triumph of
individual freedom over Roman tyranny, and of the godly and moral
Protestants over the wicked and oppressive Catholics. Sola Scriptura is
seen as the key to this freedom, in which the right to interpret the
Scriptures was wrested from the corrupt Church and given into the hands
of the individual. But the popular conception is wrong, and it leads to an
equally flawed understanding of sola Scriptura. As Johann von Dollinger
wrote,
Historically nothing is more incorrect than the assertion that the
Reformation was a movement in favour of intellectual freedom. The exact
contrary is the truth. For themselves, it is true, the Lutherans and
Calvinists claimed liberty of conscience . . . but to grant it to others never
occurred to them so long as they were the stronger side. The complete
extirpation of the Catholic Church, and in fact of everything that stood in
their way, was regarded by the reformers as something entirely natural.[8]
The unhappy truth is that the Reformers turned out to be just as
oppressive as the worst elements of the Church they rebelled against.
According to Rousseau "the Reformation was intolerant from its cradle,
and its authors were universal persecutors."[9] They adopted sola
Scriptura, not to give interpretive freedom to the people, but to claim it
exclusively for themselves. They even claimed that they were infallibly
guided by God to interpret the Scriptures correctly, as Martin Luther stated
in 1522:
Inasmuch as I know for certain that I am right, I will be judge above you
and above all the angels, as St. Paul says, that whoever does not accept
my doctrine cannot be saved. For it is the doctrine of God, and not my
doctrine; therefore my judgment also is God's and not mine.[10]
Convinced of their own infallibility, the Reformers demanded freedom
of conscience for themselves, but they denied that right to their followers.
They had their new doctrines enacted into law, and they tolerated no
dissention whatsoever. They wielded more power over their followers than
any pope ever dreamed of, and as they witnessed their Reformation
crumbling into dozens of squabbling sects, they were quick to enforce
order through all manner of persecutions. Protestant author Henry Hallam
wrote that "persecution is the deadly original sin of the Reformed
churches, that which cools every honest man's zeal for their cause in
proportion as his reading becomes extensive."[11]
Sola Scriptura, as it is practiced within Protestantism today, must be
understood within the context of the Reformation that spawned it. The
Reformers adopted the doctrine in order to justify their rebellion against
the Church, and to assert their own authority in its place; they did not
intend to give freedom of interpretation to each individual Protestant. The
autocratic behavior of the Reformers and their persecution of any
Protestants who disagreed with them are not generally known to the
average Christian today, but these things are well known to scholars,
Catholic and Protestant alike:

John Calvin
There was little political liberty in Geneva under Calvin's regime, and
still less of religious liberty. His practical influence was on the side of an
autocratic state and complete conformity of the individual to the
established powers.[12]
Calvin was as thorough as any pope in rejecting individualism of belief;
this greatest legislator of Protestantism completely repudiated that
principle of private judgment with which the new religion had begun. He
had seen the fragmentation of the Reformation into a hundred sects, and
foresaw more; in Geneva he would have none of them.[13]

Martin Luther
"Some . . . will not treat our gospel rightly; but have we not gibbets[14],
wheels[15], swords, and knives? Those who are obdurate can be brought
to reason."[16]
"That seditious articles of doctrine should be punished by the sword
needed no further proof. For the rest, the Anabaptists hold tenets relating
to infant baptism, original sin, and inspiration, which have no connection
with the Word of God, and are indeed opposed to it . . . Secular authorities
are also bound to restrain and punish avowedly false doctrine . . . [In the
case of the Anabaptists] we conclude that . . . the stubborn sectaries must
be put to death."[17]
In Luther's case it is impossible to speak of liberty of conscience or
religious freedom . . . The death-penalty for heresy rested on the highest
Lutheran authority . . . The views of the other reformers on the
persecution and bringing to justice of [Protestant] heretics were merely
the outgrowth of Luther's plan; they contributed nothing fresh.[18]
Even contempt of the outward Word, carelessness about going to
church and contempt of Scripture - in this instance . . . as interpreted by
Luther - was now regarded as "rank blasphemy," which it was the duty of
the authorities to punish as such. To such lengths had the vaunted
freedom of the Gospel now gone.[19]

Ulrich Zwingli
Young Bible students he once mentored were now advocating more
radical reform . . . refusing to have their babies baptized, citing his own
earlier ideas . . . In January, 1525, Zwingli agreed that they deserved
capital punishment . . . for tearing the fabric of a seamless Christian
society.[20]
The presence at sermons . . . was enjoined under pain of punishment;
all teaching and church worship that deviated from the prescribed
regulations was punishable. Even outside the district of Zurich the clergy
were not allowed to read Mass or the laity to attend. And it was actually
forbidden, "under pain of severe punishment, to keep pictures and images
even in private houses" . . . The example of Zurich was followed by other
Swiss Cantons.[21]
The persecution of the Anabaptists began in Zurich . . . The penalties
enjoined by the Town Council of Zurich were "drowning, burning, or
beheading," according as it seemed advisable . . . "It is our will," the
Council proclaimed, "that wherever they be found, whether singly or in
companies, they shall be drowned to death, and that none of them shall
be spared."[22]

The Reformers in General


A volume might be filled with indubitable facts to prove the intolerant
spirit of Luther and of the various sects which his rebellion originated. The
quarrels, hostilities and jealousies that constantly arose among one and all
made them a prey to the fiercest dissensions. They anathematized and
persecuted each other . . . and indulged in the coarsest and vilest
invective . . . The Lutherans . . . denounced and excluded the reformed
Calvinists from salvation. The Calvinists roused up the people against the
Lutherans . . . Zwingli complained of Luther's intolerance when he was the
victim . . . but he and his followers threw the poor Anabaptists into the
Lake of Zurich, enclosed in sacks.[23]
Protestant author Thomas Babington Macaulay concluded:
Protestant intolerance, despotism in an upstart sect, infallibility claimed
by guides who acknowledge that they had passed the greater part of their
lives in error . . . these things could not long be borne . . . It required no
great sagacity to perceive the inconsistency and dishonesty of men who,
dissenting from almost all Christendom, would suffer none to dissent from
themselves, who demanded freedom of conscience, yet refused to grant
it . . . who urged reason against the authority of one opponent, and
authority against the reason of another.[24]
For a more complete treatment of this subject, see Dave Armstrong's
essay, "The Protestant Inquisition" (from which most of these quotations
were taken).
The point of all this is not to sling mud at the Reformers, but to better
understand the environment in which sola Scriptura came about, and to
"level the field" a bit. Most Protestants know only too well the failings (real
and imagined) of Catholics in the sixteenth century, but they generally
don't realize that the Reformers were just as bad, if not worse.
Unfortunately, brutality and repression were characteristics of that era,
and neither the Reformers nor their Catholic counterparts demonstrated a
very Christ-like attitude in that respect. This is the context in which we
must understand sola Scriptura. The doctrine was a tool the Reformers
used to justify their usurpation of ecclesiastical authority from the Church,
it was not an instrument of freedom for the masses. On the contrary,
people living in the sixteenth-century Protestant countries often had
considerably less religious freedom after the Reformation than they did
before.
The Reformers, and their Medieval predecessors, did not "discover"
sola Scriptura in the pages of Scripture, they invented it outright. Although
modern Protestants try to justify their belief in this doctrine by citing
Scripture, in actual practice the doctrine is not derived from Scripture. It is
believed first, then the Scriptures are used to try to substantiate it.

End Notes
1. Geisler and MacKenzie, "Rome," 38.
2. Martin Luther, Commentary on St. John.
3. The books are not inspired merely because the Church declared them to be so, of
course. They always were inspired, but God enabled the Church to identify them
and to separate them from the non-inspired books.
4. John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Book I, chapter 7, section 5
(Battles/McNeill ed.), vol. 1, 80-81.
5. Martin Luther, quoted in Dillenberger, Selections, 36.
6. These opinions are found in Luther's prefaces to biblical books, in his German
translation of 1522.
7. H.G. Ganss, "Martin Luther," The Catholic Encyclopedia, (Encyclopedia Press, Inc.,
1913).
8. Johann von Dollinger, Kirche und Kirchen, 1861, 68.
9. Quoted in John L. Stoddard, Rebuilding a Lost Faith, (NY: P.J. Kenedy & Sons,
1922), 205.
10. Martin Luther, Against the Falsely So-Called Spiritual Estate of the Pope and
Bishops, July 1522.
11. Henry Hallam, Constitutional History of England, vol 1, 63.
12. Georgia Harkness [Protestant], John Calvin: The Man and His Ethics, (NY: Abingdon
Press, 1931), 222.
13. Durant [secular], "Reformation," vol. 6, 473.
14. Gibbet: a T-shaped structure from which executed criminals were hung for public
viewing.
15. Wheel: a Medieval device to which a victim was bound for torture.
16. Quoted in Johannes Janssen, History of the German People From the Close of the
Middle Ages, tr. A. M. Christie, (St. Louis: B. Herder, 1910), vol. 3, 266.
17. Quoted in Janssen, History, vol. 10, 222-223.
18. Walther Kohler [Protestant], Reformation und Ketzerprozess, 1901, 29.
19. Karl Wappler [Protestant], Die Inquisition, 1908, 69.
20. John L. Ruth, "America's Anabaptists: Who They Are," Christianity Today, October
22, 1990, 26.
21. Janssen, History, vol. 5, 134-5.
22. Janssen, History, vol. 5, 153-7.
23. O'Hare, Luther, 293.
24. Quoted in O'Hare, Luther, 297-297.

Conclusion
We’ve covered a lot of ground in these pages, because the doctrine of
sola Scriptura impacts on so many areas of ecclesiology, theology, and
history. I hope I have demonstrated that sola Scriptura has no basis in
either Scripture or history. The Bible itself doesn?t teach it, either directly
or indirectly, and in fact it refutes it. Jesus and the apostles also refuted it
by their example.
Finally, all three of its foundational premises are false. First, there is no
evidence that all of the essential teachings of the apostles were reduced
to writing. Advocates of sola Scriptura simply take it as a given, which is
contrary to their own doctrine. They assume the truth of sola Scriptura and
then conclude that if we must rely on the Bible alone, then everything
important must be in there. But the evidence in the Bible itself, and the
explicit testimony of the early Church, is that some of the apostles?
teaching was handed down orally, and some in writing. Both are necessary
for a correct formulation of doctrine. Second, there is also no biblical
evidence that the Church was supposed to rely on Scripture alone after
the death of the apostles. Again, this is something advocates of sola
Scriptura simply take as a given. Because they believe that we must rely
on Scripture alone today, they assume that it must have always been that
way. But the testimony of the early Christians themselves is that they did
not practice sola Scriptura, and as we have seen, they could not have
done so even if they had wanted to. Third, Protestant history has
demonstrated conclusively that the Bible is not clear enough to be its own
interpreter, even on so-called "essential" doctrines. Protestants have been
unable, since the very beginning of their Reformation, to agree among
themselves which doctrines are "essential" and which are "unessential,"
and on issue after issue they have developed doctrines that are
diametrically opposed to each other, all derived from the same supposedly
"perspicuous" Bible.
The Scriptures are infallible, authoritative, and necessary, but they are
obviously not sufficient by themselves, and they were clearly not intended
to be the sole source of authority in the Christian life. The Bible teaches
that the oral Tradition of the apostles was also to be trusted and
perpetuated. It further teaches that Jesus established an authoritative,
visible church, which the Bible itself calls "the pillar and foundation of the
truth" (1 Tim. 3:15). This Church also enjoys the promised guidance of the
Holy Spirit to correctly interpret the Scriptures and to correctly identify the
genuine apostolic oral teaching.
I wish I could have addressed this topic without delving into the
ugliness of the Reformation itself, but it is simply impossible to have a
proper understanding of sola Scriptura without understanding the
environment in which it came about. I would like to emphasize, however,
that both sides were guilty of autocratic behavior, not just the Reformers,
and that much has changed since then, on both sides. The modern
Catholic Church, and the modern Protestant churches bear little
resemblance to their sixteenth-century predecessors, except in matters of
doctrine. Today most Protestants recognize Catholics as true Christians,
and for its part, the Catholic Church believes that Protestants "have a right
to be called Christians" and it accepts them "with respect and affection as
brothers."[1] Protestants no longer try to force their beliefs on one
another, nor do Catholics. The Catholic Church teaches that "man?s
response to God by faith must be free, and . . . therefore nobody is to be
forced to embrace the faith against his will. The act of faith is of its very
nature a free act."[2] Both sides have matured considerably in this
respect, and they both acknowledge that it is not only futile, but wrong to
try to compel people to accept their doctrines.
The embarrassing behavior of Catholics and Protestants in the
sixteenth century, being so much a characteristic of that era, is not
relevant to the validity of either group today, but it is very relevant to the
doctrine of sola Scriptura. The Reformers used this doctrine in order to
justify their rebellion against the authority of the Church. They claimed to
rely on the Scriptures alone as their ultimate authority, but in actual
practice their ultimate authority was themselves and their own theology. If
they thought a biblical book contradicted their theology, they simply
removed that book from the Bible. Thus, they placed themselves above
even the Bible, and they believed that they (but not their followers) could
interpret their abridged version of the Bible just fine without the help of
the Church, or apostolic Tradition. But the result of their sola Scriptura
theory has been centuries of confusion, chaos, and ever-increasing
division. Today, the Protestant world is a jumble of dissonant voices, all
shouting something different. Yet the Bible says,
I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all
of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among
you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought. (1
Corinthians 1:10).
I submit to you that this will never happen as long as Christians
continue to practice sola Scriptura. If anything the pace of division will only
accelerate.
If I?ve convinced you that sola Scriptura is an invention of man, not a
revelation of God, don?t worry. Leaving sola Scriptura behind doesn?t
mean you have to leave the Scriptures behind. Far from it! It?s mainly just
a question of knowing which way to them. Studying the Scriptures in light
of apostolic Tradition adds an element of certainty that I find quite
comforting. Now I can know when I am interpreting the Bible correctly, and
when I am not. And as I first began to grasp the harmony with which
apostolic Scripture and apostolic Tradition reinforce and illuminate each
other, I was filled anew with awe for the almighty God who preserves and
proclaims His Word.
Still, I know it?s hard to shift theological gears. Even if you?re
convinced intellectually that apostolic Tradition is valid, emotionally it?s
not so easy. The idea of relying on anything other than Scripture can be
hard to accept. I understand. Perhaps it would help you to know that there
is at least one infallible oral Tradition that you already accept as being the
Word of God, probably without even knowing it. It is the story of the
woman caught in adultery, where Jesus says, "If any one of you is without
sin, let him begin stoning her." This famous biblical story is actually an oral
Tradition that was added to John?s Gospel centuries after it was written, as
explained by Protestant author Phil Comfort:
The story of the adulterous woman in John 7:53-8:11 is one of the best
examples of an addition coming into the text from an oral tradition. This
story is not included in the best and earliest MSS [manuscripts]. In fact, it
is absent from all witnesses earlier than the ninth century . . . When this
story is inserted in later MSS, it appears in different places: after Jn 7:52,
after Lk 21:38, at the end of John, etc. . . . The story is known to have been
a piece of oral tradition first recorded in a Syriac version (syrp), circulated
in the Western church, eventually finding its way into the Latin Vulgate
and from there into later Greek texts from which the Textus Receptus was
derived . . . There is enough external evidence to demonstrate that the
pericope adulteress was not an original part of John?s Gospel.[3]
Because this oral tradition found its way into the Textus Receptus, it
became part of the King James Version of the Bible, and you probably
accept it unquestioningly as the Word of God. Catholics can rest assured
that this story is in fact the Word of God because the Church declared it to
be so at the Council of Trent. But unless you take the Catholic Church?s
word for it, you really have no good reason for accepting it. If you still
believe that Scripture alone is trustworthy I guess you?ll have to remove it
from your Bible.[4]
So then, let us embrace the Scriptures, but let us leave sola Scriptura
behind, because, as we have seen, it is not part of the original deposit of
faith. It is an invention of man that originated in the Middle Ages and the
sixteenth century Protestant Reformation; it is not part of the true gospel
once for all entrusted to the saints.

End Notes
1. Vatican II, Unitatis Redintegratio, 3?1.
2. Dignitatis Humanae, 10.
3. Philip W. Comfort, Guide to the Ancient Manuscripts, (Wheaton, Ill: Tyndale House
Publishers, Inc., 1985).
4. Actually, there are many passages in the King James Version that are not found in
the early manuscripts and are believed to be later additions to the text (e.g.,
Matthew 17:21; John 5:3b, 4; Acts 8:37; 1 John 5:7, 8; etc.).