Sola Scriptura: A Blueprint for Anarchy
Let's say I'm an Evangelical. When I find out you're Catholic, I'm going to hammer you with Bible verses that I believe demonstrate that the Catholic Church's teachings on issues such as purgatory, Mary, the papacy, and the Eucharist are unbiblical. "The Bible alone provides the totality of God's revealed truth that's necessary for the Church to have. Forget about all those man-made Catholic traditions (traditions which, by the way, are condemned by Christ in Matthew 15:3-9 end Mark 7:6-8). Just go by the Bible alone," I'll argue.
Let's say you're hip to this argument. You know that the Protestant principle of the Bible alone-sola scriptura, as the Reformers called it-is untrue. But you don't know how to demonstrate that sola scriptura is not what Christ taught, it's not what the apostles and Church Fathers taught and, most ironically, it's not what the Bible itself teaches.
Catholics need to realize just how untenable sola scriptura is and simply ask that it be proven from the Bible. Instead of allowing himself to be put on the defensive when purgatory, the Real Presence, or some other Catholic doctrine1 is challenged by a demand that it be proven from Scripture, the Catholic should ask, "Where does the Bible teach sola scriptura?"
The Catholic case against sola scriptura may be summarized by saying that sola scriptura is unhistorical, unbiblical and unworkable. This article will examine each of these points, without claiming to offer an exhaustive historical and biblical critique of the doctrine (there are a number of books and tape sets which do that). Nevertheless, I hope the essential elements of the Catholic case will be clear.
SOLA SCPIPTURA IS UNHISTORICAL
First, let's consider sola scriptura from the vantage point of history. If the notion of the absolute sufficiency of Scripture2 were indeed part of "the faith that was once for all handed on to the saints" (Jude 3), we would expect to find it everywhere taught and practiced in the early Church. We would expect to see the ancient Christian liturgical life dominated and shaped by the rule of sola scriptura. But we don't see anything of the sort. The fact is, the writings of the Church Fathers and the councils, both regional and ecumenical, reveal that sola scriptura was completely alien to the thought and life of the early Church. Mind you, the early Church placed an exceedingly great emphasis on the importance and authority of Scripture to guide and govern the life of the Church, and Scripture was employed constantly by the Fathers in their doctrinal treatises and pastoral directives. But Scripture was never regarded (or used) by the Church Fathers as something that stands alone, self-sufficient and entirely independent of Sacred Tradition and the Magisterium.
Sometimes Protestant apologists try to bolster their case for sola scriptura3 by using highly selective quotes from Church Fathers such as Athanasius, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Jerusalem, Augustine, and Basil of Caesarea. These quotes, isolated from the rest of what the Father in question wrote about church authority, Tradition and Scripture, can give the appearance that these Fathers were hard-core Evangelicals who promoted an unvarnished sola scriptura principle that would have done John Calvin proud. But this is merely a chimera. In order for the selective "pro- sola scriptura" quotes from the Fathers to be of value to a Protestant apologist, his audience must have little or no firsthand knowledge of what these Fathers wrote. By considering the patristic evidence on the subject of scriptural authority in context, a very different picture emerges. A few examples will suffice to demonstrate what I mean.
Basil of Caesarea provides Evangelical polemicists with what they think is a "smoking gun" quote upholding sola scriptura: "Therefore, let God inspired Scripture decide between us; and on whichever side be found doctrines in harmony with the Word of God, in favor of that side will be cast the vote of truth" (Epistle ad Eustathius). This, they think, means that Basil would have been comfortable with the Calvinist notion that "All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them" (The Westminister Confession 7).
Yet if Basil's quote is to be of any use to the Protestant apologist, the rest of Basil's writings must be shown to be consistent and compatible with sola scriptura. But watch what happens to Basil's alleged sola scriptura position when we look at other statements of his:
"Of the beliefs and practices whether generally accepted or enjoined which are preserved in the Church, some we possess derived from written teaching; others we have delivered to us in a mystery by the apostles by the tradition of the apostles; and both of these in relation to true religion have the same force" (On the Holy Spirit, 27).
"In answer to the objection that the doxology in the form with the Spirit' has no written authority, we maintain that if there is not another instance of that which is unwritten, then this must not be received [as authoritative]. But if the great number of our mysteries are admitted into our constitution without [the] written authority [of Scripture], then, in company with many others, let us receive this one. For I hold it apostolic to abide by the unwritten traditions. 'I praise you,' it is said [by Paul in l Cor. 11:1] that you remember me in all things and keep the traditions just as I handed them on to you,' and Hold fast to the traditions that you were taught whether by an oral statement or by a letter of ours' [2 Thess. 2:15]. One of these traditions is the practice which is now before us [under consideration], which they who ordained from the beginning, rooted firmly in the churches, delivering it to their successors, and its use through long custom advances pace by pace with time" (On the Holy Spirit, 71).
Such talk hardly fits with the principle that Scripture is formally sufficient for all matters of Christian doctrine. This type of appeal to a body of unwritten apostolic Tradition within the Church as being authoritative is frequent in Basil's writings.
Protestant apologists are also fond of quoting two particular passages from Athanasius: "The holy and inspired Scriptures are sufficient of themselves for the preaching of the truth" (Contra Gentiles 1:1). And: "These books [of canonical Scripture] are the fountains of salvation, so that he who thirsts may be satisfied with the oracles contained in them. In these alone the school of piety preaches the Gospel. Let no man add to these or take away from them" (39th Festal Letter). But in neither place is Athanasius teaching sola scriptura.
First, in the case of the Festal Letter, he was instructing his churches as to what could and could not be read at Church as "Scripture." The context of the epistle makes it clear that he was laying down a liturgical directive for his flock.
Second, as in the case of Basil and the other Fathers Protestants attempt to press into service, Athanasius' writings show no signs of sola scriptura, but rather of his staunchly orthodox Catholicism. Athanasius, for example, wrote: "The confession arrived at Nicea was, we say more, sufficient and enough by itself for the subversion of all irreligious heresy and for the security and furtherance of the doctrine of the Church" (Ad Afros 1). And: "[T]he very tradition, teaching, and faith of the Catholic Church from the beginning was preached by the apostles and preserved by the Fathers. On this the Church was founded; and if anyone departs from this, he neither is nor any longer ought to be celled a Christian" (Ad Serapion 1:28).
And consider this quote from Cyril of Jerusalem's Catechetical Lectures, a favorite of the nouveau Protestant apologists: "In regard to the divine and holy mysteries of the Faith, not the least part may be handed on without the Holy Scriptures. Do not be led astray by winning words and clever arguments. Even to me, who tell you these things, do not give ready belief, unless you receive from the Holy Scriptures the proof of the things which I announce. The salvation which we believe is not proved from clever reasoning, but from the Holy Scriptures" (4:17).
How should we understand this? Catholic patristic scholars would point out that such language as Cyril uses here is consistent with his and the other Fathers' high view of Scripture's authority and with what is sometimes called its material sufficiency (more on that shortly). This language, while perhaps more rigorously biblical than some modern Catholics are used to, nonetheless conveys an accurate sense of Catholic teaching on the importance of Scripture. Even taken at face value, Cyril's admonition poses no problem for the Catholic. But it does, ironically, for the Protestant.
The proponent of sola scriptura is faced with a dilemma when he attempts to use Cyril's quote. Option One: If Cyril was in fact teaching sola scriptura, Protestants have a big problem. Cyril's Catechetical Lectures are filled with his forceful teachings on the infallible teaching office of the Catholic Church (18:23), the Mass as a sacrifice (23:6-8), the concept of purgatory and the efficacy of expiatory prayers for the dead (23:10), the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist (19:7; 21:3; 22:1-9), the theology of sacraments (1:3), the intercession of the saints (23:9), holy orders (23:2), the importance of frequent Communion (23:23), baptismal regeneration (1:1-3; 3:10-12; 21:3-4), indeed a staggering array of specifically "Catholic" doctrines.
These are the same Catholic doctrines that Protestants claim are not found in Scripture. So, if Cyril really held to the notion of sola scriptura, he certainly believed he had found those Catholic doctrines in Scripture. One would then have to posit that Cyril was badly mistaken in his exegesis of Scripture, but this tack, of course, leads nowhere for Protestants, for it would of necessity impugn Cyril's exegetical credibility as well as his claim to find sola scriptura in Scripture.
Option Two: Cyril did not teach sola scriptura; the Protestant understanding of this passage is incorrect. That means an attempt to hijack this quote to support sola scriptura is futile (if not dishonest), since it would require a hopelessly incorrect understanding of Cyril's method of systematic theology, the doctrinal schema he sets forth in Catechetical Lectures, and his view of the authority of Scripture. Obviously, neither of these options is palatable to the Protestant apologist.
Were there time and space to cycle through each of the patristic quotes proffered by Protestants arguing for sola scriptura, we could demonstrate in each case that the Fathers are being quoted out of context and without regard to the rest of their statements on the authority of Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium. It will suffice for now, though, to remind Catholics that the Fathers did not teach sola scriptura, and no amount of clever "cut-and- paste" work by defenders of sola scriptura can demonstrate otherwise.
SOLA SCRIPTURA IS UNBIBLICAL
Consider the Old Testament. The principle of sola scriptura is utterly alien to the way in which God dealt with his people before Christ. Besides the fact that no Scripture of any sort was available before Moses' time [apart from occasional, terrifying incidents of direct revelation en masse, commands were mediated to his people through prophets and patriarchs). No Israelite was free to practice private interpretation of the Law, deciding for himself how he believed the text should be interpreted. Imagine someone telling Moses, "Look, I read Genesis 17 differently. I think God was speaking about circumcision here figuratively. He wasn't literally telling Abraham to take a knife and start cutting things." The Old Testament contains no hint of sola scriptura.
The New Testament is the same. Not only does Christ institute a teaching Church (Matt. 28:19-20), endowed with his own authority (Luke 10:16; Matt. 16:18, 18:18), but we nowhere see the notion of "Scripture alone" in the teachings of any of the apostles or any of their successors. In fact, we even see examples of a preference for imparting teachings orally and not in writing: "Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink, but I hope to come to see you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete" (2 John 12; c.f., 3 John 13).
The fatal flaw of sola scriptura then is that it is itself not taught in Scripture. The Westminster Catechism says: "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" (6). If this statement is true, then the doctrine of sola scriptura must itself be "expressly set down in Scripture, or ... deduced from Scripture."
And that's the rub. By asserting sola scriptura, Protestants are making the concomitant assertion that all divine revelation necessary for the Church to possess comes down to us in Scripture alone. The Anglican Reformers put it this way: "The Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation" (The Thirty Nine Articles of Religion, 6).
More specifically, as the Westminister Confession explains, to be divinely revealed, a doctrine must be explicitly expressed or logically implied in Scripture. And that leads us to the question of formal and material sufficiency.
Many eminent Catholic theologians and doctors down through the centuries, including most of the Church Fathers, have taught that Scripture is materially sufficient4 (i.e., it contains all the material or "stuff" of divine revelation, either in explicit or implicit form).5 The problem is that Evangelical Protestants who venture into patristic literature in pursuit of ammunition for their position, come away with a faulty understanding of what the Fathers meant. Newman observed this problem in a letter to an Anglican friend: "You have made a collection of passages from the Fathers, as witnesses in behalf of your doctrines that the whole Christian Faith is contained in Scripture, as if, in your sense of my words, Catholics contradicted you here."6
We must make a distinction here in order to understand the critical difference between the material sufficiency of Scripture taught by the Fathers and the Reformers' much narrower notion of formal sufficiency. At certain levels, the Catholic position intersects with the Protestant formula of sola scriptura. But the fundamental difference is this: The Catholic Church holds that in order for the meaning of Sacred Scripture to be properly understood, the Church must have recourse to its living Tradition- i.e., the infallible interpretation of the apostolic depositum fidei (c.f., Dei verbum, no. 10). And this interpretation is guaranteed by an infallible Magisterium.
The Reformation creeds, while paying an ostensible limited respect to Tradition, Church councils and the Fathers, nonetheless refuse to accord them infallibility. Protestants claim that Scripture is sufficient in se and, ultimately, does not require an infallible Tradition or Magisterium in order to be authentically interpreted. In contrast, the Catholic model for authority is tripartite- Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium are distinct yet mutually interdependent (Dei Verbum, nos. 9-10). Scriptura, Traditio and Magisterium may be summarized in this way: Scriptura is the object of the Church's interpretation; Traditio is the Church's lived interpretation of Scripture; and Magisterium is the organ of the Church that does the interpreting.
But the Protestant understanding of scriptural sufficiency pushes beyond mere material sufficiency into the province of formal sufficiency. Formal sufficiency means that all revelation necessary for the Church to possess is presented formally in the pages of Scripture, with nothing else needed-no Tradition or Magisterium. This nuance-and make no mistake- it's a very important nuance, is where the failure of sola scriptura occurs.
Another problem for sola scriptura is the canon of the New Testament. There's no "inspired table of contents" in Scripture that tells us which books belong and which ones don't. That information comes to us from outside Scripture. Our knowledge of which books comprise the canon of the New Testament must be infallible; if not, there's no way to know for sure if the books we regard as inspired really are inspired. It must be binding; otherwise folks would be free to have their own customized canon containing those books they take a fancy to and lacking the ones they don't. And it must be part of divine revelation; if it's not it's merely a tradition of men, and if that were so, Protestants would be forced into the intolerable position of championing a canon of purely human origin.
These facts don't square with the classic Protestant creeds, for example the Westminster Confession, which asserts that, "The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the author thereof; and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God. We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to an high and reverent esteem for the Holy Scripture ... yet, notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts." This is pure Mormonism-the old "I know it's inspired because I feel in my heart that it's inspired" line that Mormon missionaries use. As a proof for the inspiration of Scripture, this bromide is useless.
Sola scriptura becomes "canon" fodder as soon as the Catholic asks the Protestant to explain how the books of the Bible got into the Bible. Under the sola scriptura rubric, Scripture exists in an absolute epistemological vacuum, since it and the veracity of its contents "dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church." If that's true, how then can anyone know with certitude what belongs in Scripture in the first place? The answer is, you can't. Without recognizing the trustworthiness of the Magisterium, endowed with Christ's own teaching authority (c.f., Matt. 16:18- 19, 18:18; Luke 10:16 guided by the Holy Spirit (John 14:25-26; 16:13), and the living apostolic Tradition of the Church (1 Cor. 11:1; 2 Thess. 2:15; 2 Timothy 2:2), there is no way to know for certain which books belong in Scripture and which do not. As soon as Protestants begin to appeal to the canons drawn up by this or that Father, or this or that council, they immediately concede defeat, since they are forced to appeal to the very "testimony of man and Church" that they claim to not need.
It's important here to say a few words about some of the scriptural arguments raised by Protestants in defense of sola scriptura. The verse most often raised is 2 Timothy 3:1 6- 17, yet this passage is a minefield of difficulties for sola scriptura. Here Paul tells his young episcopal protege, Timothy, that "All scripture is inspired by God (Greek: theopneustos = "God breathed") and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work." The conclusion drawn is that 2 Timothy 3:16-17 teaches that the Bible is sufficient in all matters of Christian doctrine and practice because it will make the man of God equipped for "every good work."
But notice the Greek, pasa graphe theopneustos. This means "each" or "every" Scripture is inspired. This complicates matters further for Protestants. For if Paul is pointing to sufficiency in this passage, he's designated each book of Scripture as sufficient in itself for the tasks he goes on to outline. But that of course is not what Paul is saying.
In one of my public debates on sola scriptura,7 a Protestant apologist attempted to make his case for the formal sufficiency of Scripture by using an analogy of a bike shop. He argued that just as the bike shop contains all the necessary accouterments for bike riding and can fully equip a bike rider, so too Scripture is sufficient to "fully equip" the man of God. Unfortunately for his case, this analogy, although superficially plausible, is faulty. The bike shop may provide all the necessary equipment, but the customer must first know how to ride a bike to make use of that equipment. This is analogous to the Christian knowing how to correctly use Scripture. Bike shops can certainly equip their customer with all the necessary paraphernalia, but don't teach him how to ride.
My debate opponent tried to get around this by countering that 2 Timothy 3:17 says that the "man of God" is made fully equipped by Scripture, so there is no question that he'll know how to use Scripture correctly. But the problem with this argument is that it provides no sure way to determine who is a "man of God" and who isn't. Protestantism is so divided over central doctrinal issues (e.g. infant baptism, baptismal regeneration, the nature of justification, salvation, divorce and remarriage, etc.), that this "man of God" argument only begs the question. All Protestants believe that they've embraced the "correct" interpretation of Scripture, but doing so includes the implicit assertion that all the other denominations don't have the correct interpretation on all things. If they did, why the need for denominations? The answer to the Protestant claims of formal sufficiency in this passage is that Paul is not trying to establish Scripture as the sole, sufficient thing that renders the man of God fit for these tasks. Rather, he is reminding Timothy of several things that, combined with God's grace and Timothy's faithful diligence, will make him so equipped.
There's also the lexical argument based on the Greek of 2 Timothy which argues that because Scripture will make the man of God "artios" (suitable) and "exartizo" (thoroughly furnished), it therefore is sufficient. But this argument fails for several reasons.
First, with regard to what Scripture says about itself, 2 Timothy 3:16-17 merely says that Scripture is ophelimos, which means "useful" or "profitable." Paul's use of the Greek terms artios ("suitable" or "correct") and exartismenos ("having been furnished") does not imply the sufficiency of Scripture, on purely lexical grounds. Although some Greek scholars note that artios and exartizo could mean sufficient, we must do our best to understand their actual meaning based on the context of the passage. A telling fact is that no major Bible translation, not even those produced by the most ardent supporters of sola scriptura, renders either artios or exartismenos "sufficient." Furthermore, the "sufficiency" hermeneutic Protestants use in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 fails when applied to similar passages.
For example, in 2 Timothy 2:19-21, Paul exhorts Timothy to cleanse himself from all that is not holy and virtuous, saying that doing so will make him "ready for every good work" (v.21). The exact same Greek phrase is used here as in 2 Timothy 3:16: pan ergon agathon ("for every good work"). Under the "sufficiency" hermeneutic used by Protestants to defend sola scriptura in 2 Timothy 3:16, Paul would here be made to say that one's personal efforts to become purified from sin are "sufficient." But this is an absurd conclusion.
We can see the same absurdity in the Protestant argument arise when it's applied to James 1:4: "And let [your] perseverance be perfect (teleion), so that you may be perfect (teleioi) and complete (holoklepoi), lacking in nothing (en medeni leipomenoi)." This passage uses far stronger language than that found in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, and goes far beyond the mere implication of sufficiency Protestants want to see in this verse, by the explicit statement that perseverance will make you "perfect and complete, lacking in nothing." If any verse in the Bible could be used to argue for "sufficiency" James 1:4 would be it. Under the hermeneutic employed by the proponents of sola scriptura, in this passage James would be saying that all one needs is perseverance (the context is perseverance in suffering and good works!). This would mean that mere perseverance is sufficient, and such things as faith, grace, prayer, repentance, even Scripture, are unnecessary. Again, an absurd proposition, but that's what this form of Protestant argumentation leads to, not only here in James 1:4, but also in 2 Timothy 3:16-17.
Some Protestants wind up committing a lexical fallacy in their attempt to ward off the obvious implication of James 1:4 and 2 Timothy 2:19-21. They claim that because the word teleios is used in James 1, not artios, the two passages cannot not be compared. But the fact is, the primary meaning of teleios is "complete" or "perfect." It's a much more forceful word for indicating perfection or completion than is artios, which primarily means merely "suitable" or "fit."8 And if the artios/exartizo argument proves anything, it proves too much. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 shows that artios and exartizo modify "the man of God" (ho tou theou anthropos), not "Scripture" (graphe). Scripture does not claim sufficiency for itself here. It says it completes and makes fit the man of God. So, at best, this argument proves only that Scripture makes the man of God sufficient.
The context of this epistle is Paul's general instructions to Timothy on how to be a holy and pastorally effective bishop. Besides Scripture, Paul appeals to oral tradition (as he does in other epistles) as a source for apostolic doctrine "what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also" (2:2; cf. 1 Cor. 11:2; 2 Thess. 2:15). He alludes to this oral teaching two verses earlier: "But you, remain faithful to what you have learned and believed, because you know from whom you learned it" (3:14). In 2 Timothy 2:15 Paul advises Timothy to "rightly divide the word of truth." Contrary to the common Protestant assumption, the phrase "word of truth" is not restricted to Scripture alone, but includes oral tradition as well. For example, in Ephesians 1:13 end Colossians 1:5 "the word of truth" refers specifically to Apostolic Tradition, not Scripture.
There are many other scriptural arguments Protestants use, but in the interest of space, we'll simply discuss a few briefly.
Matthew 4:1-11 : The passage where Jesus rebukes the devil with the phrase "It is written," referring to Scripture. Protestants see in this and other "It is written" passages a vindication of sola scriptura. "See!" they say, "Jesus did not appeal to Tradition or the Church or anything else, but to Scripture. That means that Scripture is sufficient to settle all issues." But that's not at all what this verse means. Notice first of all that in this same Passage Jesus reminds the devil of the passage, "man shall live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God." Not all of God's words are contained in Scripture. Besides Christ who is the Word of God (John 1:1,14), some of God's words come down to us in oral fashion (c.f., Acts 20:27; Gal. 1:11-12, 15-16; 1 Thess. 2:13; 2 Tim. 2:2). Christ does not say nor does he imply a "scripture alone" approach to truth in this passage. Rather, he reminds us that we are to cling to and live by every word that he speaks, not just the written words contained in Scripture. Notice too the implicit warning here. The mere quoting of Scripture is not enough to establish one's truth claims, since here we see the devil himself (mis)quoting Scripture! That's why Peter warned that, "In [Paul's epistles] there are some things hard to understand that the ignorant and unstable distort to their own destruction, just as they do the other Scriptures" (2 Peter 3:16).
In the year 434, Vincent of Lerins reflected on this problem: "If one should ask one of the heretics who gives you this advice, 'How do you prove [your assertion]? What ground have you for saying that I ought to cast away the universal and ancient faith of the Catholic Church? He has the answer ready: 'For it is written.' And forthwith he produces a thousand examples, a thousand authorities from the Law, from the Psalms, from the apostles, from the prophets, by means of which, interpreted on a new and wrong principle, the unhappy soul may be precipitated from the height of Catholic truth to the lowest abyss of heresy.... Do heretics appeal to Scripture? They do indeed, and with a vengeance. For you may see them scamper through every single book of Holy Scripture .... Whether among their own people or among strangers, in private or in public, in speaking or in writing, at convivial meetings or in the streets, hardly ever do they bring forward anything of their own which they do not endeavor to shelter under the words of Scripture.... You will see an infinite heap of instances, hardly a single page, which does not bristle with plausible quotations from the New Testament or the Old" (Commonitoria 25,26,25).
Acts 17:10-11: "Upon arrival they went to the synagogue of the Jews. These Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with all willingness and examined the Scriptures daily to determine whether these things were so."
This passage is appealed to as evidence that it is more "noble" to go by whet Scripture says, than by whet even apostles themselves preach orally. But this is not so.
First, remember that these Jews were called noble mainly because they did not riot upon hearing Paul's claims for Christ's divinity, as did the Jews of Thessalonica (cf., Acts 17:1 -8). The Berean Jews were docile and willing to check to see if Paul's claims squared with Scripture. After all, he was preaching the Gospel to the Jews, and urging them to check these things out for themselves in what had by then become the "Old" Testament (cf. 17:2-3). Using Scripture was certainly appropriate when dealing with Jews, who revered and believed in Scripture, though it was futile to use when preaching to Gentiles, who had no appreciation for Scripture. That's why we don't see Paul or the other apostles typically using Scripture in their apostolic work among the Gentiles, and sometimes we see an appeal to pagan writings to make his point, when necessary! (cf. Acts 17:22-32).
Besides, the apostles were charged with teaching the Gospel to all creatures (Matt. 28:19-20), and this magisterial office included the task of interpreting Scripture. When the apostles taught, whether in writing or orally, God was teaching through them (Luke 10:16; 1 Thess. 2:13).
Revelation 22:18-19: "I warn everyone who hears the prophetic words in this book; if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words in this book, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy City described in this book." Protestants argue that Catholic Tradition is "adding" to Scripture. But this passage refers to Revelation itself, not Scripture in general. After all, Scripture, compiled definitively as a single "book," would not be known by the Church until the councils of Hippo (393) and Carthage (397, 419).
There's also a problem for this argument in light of Deuteronomy 4:2, 12:32, where the Israelites are warned to neither add nor subtract anything from the teachings contained therein. The same sort of warning in Revelation 22 is found in Deuteronomy, yet any Protestant will admit that it doesn't prohibit the adding of all the books of the Old Testament that follow Deuteronomy and all of the New Testament to the canon of Scripture.
SOLA SCRIPTURA IS UNWORKABLE
We've reached that point where the "rubber" of sola scriptura meets the "road" of everyday life. The final question that should be asked the Protestant is, "Can you show where in history sola scriptura has worked?" In other words, where, throughout Protestantism's relatively brief life-span, can we find examples (just one will do) of sola scriptura actually working- functioning in such a way that it brings about doctrinal certitude and unity of doctrine among Christians? The answer is "nowhere."
As a rule of faith that, without recourse to Sacred Tradition and an infallible Magisterium, promises doctrinal certitude and a unity of faith, sola scriptura fails miserably. The best evidence of this is Protestantism itself. There are today, according to one recent study, over 22,000 distinct Protestant denominations in the world, each of which claims to go by the "Bible alone," yet no two of them agree on what exactly the Bible teaches.
The blueprint for the doctrinal chaos that is Protestantism is laid out in the Westminster Confession of Faith: "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... (6)
"All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them ... (7)
"The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture, is the Scripture itself; and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it may be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly. The Supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can tee no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture" (Westminster Confession of Faith 9).
All of that sounds fine at first glance, but upon inspection, this framework collapses. First, if "the whole counsel of God . . . is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture," then sola scriptura must itself appear somewhere in Scripture, but it does not. And thus, under the terms set forth in all the classical Protestant creeds, it is a self-refuting proposition.
Second, if "those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them," then we have another problem. What are we to do with such things "necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation" as the doctrine that the Persons of the Trinity are homoousios, that in Christ there are two wills, the Hypostatic Union, the cessation of divine revelation upon the death of the last Apostle, the canon of Scripture, whether or not infants should be baptized, and a whole host of key issues that bear directly upon the core of the Christian faith.
Scripture alone-Scripture forced to stand apart from the infallible teaching magisterium that has been given Christ's own authority to accurately interpret Scripture, and Sacred Tradition, which is the Church's living interpretation of those written words -is unstable and leads to the myriad of conflicting, erroneous, and sometimes spiritually fatal "human traditions" (c.f. Matt. 15:3-9; Mark 7:6-7) that lead people away from Christ.
Scripture alone, as the tragic history of Protestantism has shown, becomes the private play toy of any self-styled "exegete" who wishes to interpret God's Word to suit his own views. The history of Protestantism, laboring under sola scriptura, is an unending kaleidoscope of fragmentation and splintering. It cannot provide any sort of doctrinal certitude for the Christian, because it is built on the shifting sand of mere human opinion - what the individual pastor thinks Scripture means.
Even Martin Luther saw the inescapable principle of fragmentation and disunity that lies at the heart of sola scriptura. In a letter to Urlich Zwingli, he complained bitterly about the doctrinal anarchy that was even then rampant among Protestants: "If the world lasts, it will be necessary, on account of the differing interpretations of Scripture which now exist, that to preserve the unity of faith, we should receive the [Catholic] councils and decrees and fly to them for refuge."
Catholics should not flinch when confronted with alleged "biblical" and "historical" arguments for sola scriptura. They fall apart. Scripture and history are the two best apologetics tools for effective evangelization in discussions with Protestants about sola scriptura. I know firsthand the importance of discussing sola scriptura with Protestants. Having engaged in a number of live public debates with Protestant ministers on this subject, I've seen Protestants completely flummoxed (some even converted to Catholicism) when they see that sola scriptura is utterly indefensible.
So go ahead and jerk their chain. sola scriptura is by far and away the weakest link.
1 Scriptural evidence, whether explicit or implicit, can indeed be adduced for these Catholic teachings, but those apologetics discussions are not our focus here and must be left for other articles.
2 In the distinct, formal sense that Protestants advocate, overagainst the Catholic position of the "material sufficiency" of Scripture, which will be discussed later in this article.
3 This is due, I believe, to the recent dramatic rise in apologetics works against sola scriptura by Catholics.
4 For a discussion of the history of the material sufficiency position among Catholic theologians, see George H. Tavard, Holy Writ or Holy Church: The Crisis of the Protestant Reformation (London: Burnes & Oates, 1959). A thorough discussion of the meaning of formal and material sufficiency with regard to the claims of the classical Protestant definitions of sola scripture is found in Yves M. J. Congar, Tradition and Traditions (New York: MacMillan, 1967), pp. 23-85, 156-168, and especially 376- 426. Protestants who object to the categories formal and material with regard to Scriptural sufficiency would do well to read Congar's treatment before they reject them as "improperly imposed" by Catholic apologists.
5 So Thomas Aquinas: "Sacra Scriptura ad hoc divinitus est ordinate ut per eam nobis veritas manifestetur necessaria ad salutem" (Quodl. 7, 14).
6 John Henry Newman, Certain Difficulties Felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching, Considered in a Letter Addressed to the Rev. E.B. Pusey, D.D., on the Occasion of His Eirenicon of 1864, Vol. 2, section 2, 2.
7 This two tape set, "Does the Bible Teach sola scriptura?" is available for $15 post-paid from Basilica Press, P.O. Box 85152, San Diego, CA 92186.
8 See Gerhard Delling's article on teleios in Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Gerhard Friedrich, ed. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1972), vol. 8, 67-78, where he translates teleios as: "totality," "undivided," "complete," and "perfect." Delling gives the meanings of artios as: "right," "faultless," "normal," "meeting demands," and "proper" [ibid., vol. l, 475-476). Of exartizo he says, "At 2 Tim. 3:17 [it] means to bring to a suitable state for Christian moral action."
This article was taken from the Mar-Apr. 1996 issue of "Catholic Dossier". Catholic Dossier is published bi-monthly for $24.95 a year by Ignatius Press. For subscriptions: P.O. Box 1639, Snohomish, WA 98291-1639, 1-800-651-1531.
Patrick Madrid is the editor of the book, Surprised by Truth (Basilica Press, 1994), and the author of the forthcoming book Any Friend of God's Is a Friend of Mine, due out this spring. He lives in San Diego with his wife Nancy and their eight children.
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