Editor’s Note: These are some lightly edited notes I put together in preparation for a debate I did with John Benko of the Deeper Truth Blog on Sola Scriptura. (The audio recording of the debate can be found here.) I only used about half of my notes, but I gathered and linked a fair amount of primary sources, and so I thought this might be a valuable resource for fellow Protestants in their dialogues with Catholics. Please feel free to use any material here.
Sola Scriptura is the most fundamental dividing line between Rome and Protestantism because it is a question of ultimate authority. We both agree that God is ultimate, not only in His being but as the ultimate source of truth, Jesus Christ being the personification of Truth itself (John 14:6). But how has God revealed Himself? How has He spoken? And what is the authority of that word? Since this is such a foundational disagreement, all other disagreements between Rome and Protestantism flow from it. Hence, we need the clarity that precise definitions provide.
For those not aware, Sola Scriptura is a Latin phrase meaning “Scripture alone.” But that doesn’t tell us everything: “Scripture alone is what?” My own confession, the 1689 London Baptist Confession, opens with these words:
The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience…
And Protestants classically define Sola Scriptura as, the belief that Scripture alone is the sole infallible rule for faith and practice.
Now, there are areas where Rome agrees with us. For example, we both believe that the Scriptures are inspired by God. As Paul put it, Scripture is God-breathed, the Greek word being theopneustos. And so we believe the Bible is inerrant. Not only is the Bible correct in its every detail, there is no possibility that it could contain error. Why? Because it is theopneustos, breathed out by God. Something cannot be inspired by God and contain error. When God breathes something out, it is always perfect. God doesn’t have bad breath. And this is why we both regard the Scriptures as inerrant.
We do agree on some things, but why do Protestants insist that Scripture alone is the infallible rule for faith and life? Let me put it in a simple syllogism:
Only that which is theopneustos can be an infallible rule for faith and life.
The Scriptures are the only theopneustos revelation which the church now possesses.
Therefore, the Scriptures are the sole infallible rule for faith and life.
So we reject tradition and the magisterium as infallible authorities because they are not God-breathed; they are not theopneustos. We honor our tradition; we learn from our tradition; we honor the church; we learn from the church. But they are subject to the authority of God’s word. This is why the confession goes on to state (I.X),
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 be no other but the Holy Scripture delivered by the Spirit, into which Scripture so delivered, our faith is finally resolved.
Sola Scriptura does not mean this modern notion that, left alone, me and my Bible under a tree, I can figure it all out. Rather, as God commends to us the wisdom of our elders, we receive the wisdom of our elders. But we receive is as wisdom, not revelation. And this is not something that Martin Luther and John Calvin just came up with one day. On the contrary, this position on Scripture goes back thousands of years, and I will argue that it is actually the Roman viewpoint which is the innovation.
II. The Witness of the Early Church
We know that Sola Scriptura was held by the Protestants during the Reformation, but can we trace it back farther? As it turns out, indeed we can. Let’s start with Augustine. He said in “On Christian Doctrine” (II.9),
From among the things that are plainly laid down in Scripture are to be found all matters concerning faith and the manner of life.
In other words, everything we need to know for life and practice is found in the Scriptures. And in “The City of God” (XIX.18),
[The City of God] believes also the Holy Scriptures, old and new which we call canonical, and which are the source of the faith by which the just lives and by which we walk without doubt whilst we are absent from the Lord.
Note Augustine’s language here; “the Scriptures… are the source of the faith,” and because of that we can “walk without doubt.” Scripture does not rely on some external grant of authority from some other source; rather, it is the source. Rome has the polar opposite view of Scripture. In his work, “On the Good of Widowhood,” he said,
What more shall I teach you than what we read in the apostle? For Holy Scripture fixes the rule for our doctrine, lest we dare be wiser than we ought. Therefore I should not teach you anything else except to expound to you the words of the Teacher.
Notice Augustine’s judgement of those who make doctrine beyond what Scripture teaches. Rome falls under this condemnation of Augustine: “[they] dare be wiser than [they] ought.” Once more, from his work, “On the Unity of the Church,” Augustine says,
Let those things be removed from our midst which we quote against each other not from the divine canonical books but from elsewhere. Someone may perhaps ask, “Why do you want to remove these things from our midst?” Because I do not want the holy church to be proved by human documents but by divine oracles.
Is this how a faithful Roman Catholic would argue? Of course not. Clearly Augustine was not in full agreement with Rome’s view of Scripture.
Nor was he alone; we can trace this belief back even earlier. Cyril of Jerusalem, living and working 50 years before Augustine, in one of his catechetical lectures (4.17), said this:
For concerning the divine and sacred mysteries of the Faith, we ought not to deliver even the most casual remark without the Holy Scriptures: nor be drawn aside by mere probabilities and the artifices of argument. Do not then believe me because I say these things, unless thou receive from the Holy Scriptures the proof of what is set forth: for this salvation, which is of our faith, is not by ingenious reasonings, but by proof from the Holy Scriptures.
This is a beautiful summary and application of Sola Scriptura: “Don’t believe these doctrines based on the word of man but on the word of God.”
But we can go still earlier than that. I’d like to quote three men who all lived and worked in the late 2nd and early 3rd centuries. The first is the theologian Hippolytus, who wrote “Against the Heresy of Noetus,” said this:
There is, brethren, one God, the knowledge of whom we gain from the Holy Scriptures, and from no other source. For just as a man if he wishes to be skilled in the wisdom of this world, will find himself unable to get at it in any other way than by mastering the dogmas of philosophers, so all of us who wish to practice piety will be unable to learn its practice from any other quarter than the oracles of God. Whatever things then the Holy Scriptures declare, at these let us look; and whatsoever things they teach us learn.
Tertullian, the north African apologist, wrote a work called, “On the Flesh of Christ” where he argued against various forms of Docetism. In it (Ch. 6) he said,
Let them, then prove to us that those angels derived their flesh from the stars. If they do not prove it because it is not written, neither will the flesh of Christ get its origin therefrom, for which they borrow the precedent of the angels… But there is no evidence of this, because Scripture says nothing.
That last line is significant. Tertullian took the absence of a doctrine in Scripture as proof that it is not true. So Tertullian certainly did not have this concept of a tradition and magisterium containing revelation not found in Scripture. I’ll end with Clement of Alexandria, who put it so succinctly when discussing how Christians are to distinguish truth from heresy (The Stromata, VII.16) . Did he tell his congregants to turn to Rome, the Pope, the magisterium, or tradition?
But those who are ready to toil in the most excellent pursuits, will not desist from the search after truth, till they get the demonstration from the Scriptures themselves.
III. The Testimony of Scripture
But, as I stated earlier, the opinions of ancient writers must be tested by Scripture. And the apostles likewise come down on the side of Sola Scriptura. There are a number of examples of this I want to look at. The first is Acts 17:10-11:
The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.
So here, the Bereans are commended by Luke for examining the Scriptures to see if what Paul and Silas preached was true. This has two important implications. First, Paul and Silas were not teaching something completely outside of or independent of Scripture. This is why they were able to examine the Scriptures to decide if Paul was correct or not. Second, they are commended for subjecting apostolic preaching to the scrutiny of Scripture. This clearly demonstrates that the teaching authority of the church, even of the apostles, is always subject to Scripture.
I already referenced 2 Timothy 3:16 earlier, and I’d like to take a closer look at it now.
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
As I’ve stated previously, Scripture is the only item in the church’s possession which is God-breathed, giving Scripture a unique, and indeed the highest level of authority. And if something else were equally authoritative, why didn’t Paul remind Timothy of that also? Now that’s an argument from silence, but it’s a deafening silence. Why is the “infallible magisterium” absent from Paul’s final exhortations to Timothy?
But let’s deal with the issue directly: Does this passage teach Sola Scriptura? Catholics are quick to point out that Paul says the Scriptures are profitable, but something can be profitable without being sufficient. Now that’s technically true, but we need to examine Paul’s words closely. “All Scripture is… profitable….” Profitable to what end? “For teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” And what is the result of this profit which Scripture brings? “That the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” Is that something Rome can honestly say about the Scriptures? Do they believe that the Scriptures can equip me for every good work? Would the Scriptures alone equip me to pray to Mary and the saints? Would it equip me to obey the bishop of Rome and obey the decrees of the councils? I don’t think anyone honestly believes that. And to be consistent, Rome shouldn’t believe that. But that’s what Paul teaches. So I think the logical deduction from this passage is that Scripture is the sole infallible, God-breathed rule for faith and life, and that it is indeed sufficient.
1Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, 2they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. 3(For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, 4and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) 5And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,
“‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; 7in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’
8You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”
9And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! 10For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ 11But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”’ (that is, given to God)— 12then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, 13thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.”
So basically, in this instance, the scribes and Pharisees are asking why the disciples were eating with unwashed hands. This was not just them being germophobes; they asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders?” Now what is the “tradition of the elders”? Well, the Jews believed that a set of traditions were given by God to Moses, and that these were passed down through the prophets, priests, and rabbis. Notice how closely this parallels Rome’s claim to a divinely inspired tradition given to the apostles and passed down outside of Scripture through the bishops. They’re almost identical claims.
Jesus then demonstrates how another element of this tradition, specifically the Corban rule, was in violation of Scripture and on this basis rejects their tradition. Now, Catholics will say, “But Jesus specifically condemns traditions of men, not traditions of God.” But this misses the historical background. The Jews believed the tradition of the elders was divine. So Jesus held up even supposedly divine traditions to the standard of Scripture. Upon finding them wanting, Jesus calls them “traditions of men.”
IV. Rome’s System of Authority
I’ve laid out my case for Sola Scriptura, but it’s necessary to look at the other side of the coin and have a look at what Rome claims in opposition to Sola Scriptura. Rome views tradition as an additional repository of revelation. Section 76 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, quoting from Vatican II, says,
In keeping with the Lord’s command, the Gospel was handed on in two ways: – orally “by the apostles who handed on, by the spoken word of their preaching, by the example they gave, by the institutions they established, what they themselves had received – whether from the lips of Christ, from his way of life and his works, or whether they had learned it at the prompting of the Holy Spirit”; – in writing “by those apostles and other men associated with the apostles who, under the inspiration of the same Spirit, committed the message of salvation to writing.”
Expanding on this, the Council of Trent (Session 4, Decree Concerning the Canonical Scriptures) described its view of tradition thus:
[The council clearly sees] that this truth and discipline are contained in the written books, and the unwritten traditions which, received by the Apostles from the mouth of Christ himself, or from the Apostles themselves, the Holy Ghost dictating, have come down even unto us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand. Following the examples of the orthodox Fathers, [it] receives and venerates with an equal affection of piety, and reverence, all the books both of the Old and of the New Testament – seeing that one God is the author of both – as also the said traditions, as having been dictated, either by Christ’s own word of mouth, or by the Holy Ghost, and preserved in the Catholic Church by a continuous succession.
So what does Rome mean by “Tradition?” According to Trent, it is separate from Scripture, though of equal authority and inspiration, and according to Vatican II, it takes the form of oral transmission, practices, and even institutions. Now, there are two views contemporary Roman theologians hold about the relationship between revelation, Scripture, and tradition. The first view is the partim partim view. “Partim” is the Latin word for “partly,” and this denotes revelation partly in Scripture and partly in tradition. In this case, tradition contains elements of revelation found nowhere in Scripture, which is materially insufficient. The other view is the material sufficiency view, which holds that all doctrinal and moral truth can be found in Scripture – at least implicitly – and thus Scripture is materially sufficient, though it still lacks formal sufficiency and though Tradition is still of equal authority.
There’s another component of Rome’s system as well: the magisterium, that is, the teaching office of the church. Again, Trent said,
Furthermore, to check unbridled spirits, [the council] decrees that no one relying on his own judgement shall, in matters of faith and morals pertaining to the edification of Christian doctrine, distorting the Holy Scriptures in accordance with his own conceptions, presume to interpret them contrary to that sense which holy mother church, to whom it belongs to judge of their true sense and interpretation, has held and holds, or even contrary to the unanimous consent of the Fathers, even though such interpretations should never at any time be published.
So the magisterium is the final arbiter of what Scripture and tradition mean, and has the authority to define new dogmas on the basis of its interpretation of Scripture and tradition. That’s what Rome teaches in opposition to Sola Scriptura, and as such, there are some problems with it. I’ll go through four big ones.
V. Problems with Rome’s System
Problem 1: “Tradition” is never clearly defined. Now, Protestants and Catholics disagree on the canon of Scripture, but we both have a very clear delineation of what Scripture is and is not. Yet as far as I can tell, there is no intrinsic property which “Tradition” possesses which allows it to be clearly distinguished from non-Tradition. Now remember when I gave that list of quotations from early church fathers? That’s clear proof that my position, or at least something closely approximating it, is a small-t tradition in the church. But when the Catechism or councils quote the fathers, that’s tradition. So there’s no actual standard being used here, which is obviously a problem with Rome’s conception of tradition. This brings us to problem 2.
Problem 2: Rome functions on the principle of sola ecclesia. How does Rome determine what Tradition is and means? The magisterium. This is why Protestants often characterize the Roman position as sola ecclesia. Listen to this from Section 85 of the Catechism:
The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written from or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone.
Who determines what is and is not Scripture? The church. Who determines what Scripture does and does not mean? The church. Who determines what is and is not tradition? The church. Who determines what tradition does and does not mean? The church. You might be noticing a common theme here. For every practical purpose, the church is the final authority on matters of faith and life. This is what I mean by sola ecclesia and it is obviously how Rome functions.
Now, Rome tries to avoid this charge. Section 86 of the Catechism goes on to say, “Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God but its servant.” But what is the key feature of a servant? Being under some higher authority. It goes on to say, “[The Magisterium] teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication and expounds it faithfully.” Yet how is the magisterium held accountable? It’s not, and that’s why Protestants charge Rome with practicing sola ecclesia.
Problem 3: The magisterium and tradition have been inconsistent throughout history and are thus unreliable authorities. I’ll give two examples of this. The first issue is the translation of the Bible into common languages. In “The Index of Forbidden Books,” Pope Pius IV said,
Since experience teaches that, if the reading of the Holy Bible in the vernacular is permitted generally without discrimination, more damage will result…
The Index was first published in 1559 and remained in force until 1966, so it wasn’t just a passing fad or one pope’s opinion. Now, contra Pius, Vatican II said,
Easy access to sacred Scripture should be provided for all the Christian faithful…. Since the word of God should be available at all times, the Church with maternal concern sees to it that suitable and correct translations are made into different languages, especially from the original texts of the sacred books.
Next is the issue of capital punishment. Very clearly, Scripture not only allows but commands capital punishment1 and Rome herself has in the past collaborated with civil officials in executing heretics. Now, until recently, the Catechism allowed for capital punishment, though it discouraged it. However, in 2018, Pope Francis approved an alteration to Section 2,267 which now reads in part,
Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes…. Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person” (Francis, Discourse, Oct. 11, 2017), and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.
The Catechism of the Council of Trent took, shall we say, a slightly different tone. The exposition of the Fifth Commandment (by Rome’s count, obviously) reads as follows.
Another kind of lawful slaying belongs to the civil authorities, to whom is entrusted power of life and death, by the legal and judicious exercise of which they punish the guilty and protect the innocent. The just use of this power, far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this Commandment which prohibits murder.
Now, demonstrating contradictions is all well and good, but I want to bring this back around to the quotations of the fathers earlier and thus to the fourth problem.
Problem 4: The idea promulgated that Rome’s Tradition rests on “the unanimous consent of the fathers” is simply ridiculous. By the way, I’m quoting that phrase directly from the canons of Trent. Now, when you have an absolute claim like that, you’re just asking to be refuted. Given the quotations I presented earlier, we have two options. Either Rome is in violation of the “unanimous consent of the fathers” – which is not the case since there are plenty of fathers who made statements opposing Sola Scriptura as well – or there is no “unanimous consent of the fathers,” which is the only remaining option. Given that Rome claims there is “unanimous consent of the fathers” and given the quotations I provided earlier, we have some potential conclusions. Either Rome was just factually incorrect in her claims (which would destroy her claim to infallible authority) or Rome is guilty of intentionally making a false claim to gain power (which would make Rome guilty of bearing false witness, thus also destroying her claim to infallibility). And so using some basic information and simple syllogisms, we can disprove Rome’s claim of an infallible magisterium.
VI: Answering Rome’s Arguments
Even with the historical evidence, biblical evidence, and the obvious difficulties with the Roman position, I still want to consider their arguments. Let’s look at six common ones.
Argument #1) Sola Scriptura claims that the only infallible rule for faith and practice is Scripture. Yet Sola Scriptura is a rule of faith outside of Scripture. Therefore, Sola Scriptura is inconsistent by its own standards.
While I can appreciate the cleverness of this argument, it’s frankly amateur. Let’s look at an issue we both agree on: the Trinity. Is our formulation of the Trinity infallible? A faithful Catholic would say, “Yes, because the magisterium’s assent makes it so,” whereas I believe my formulation to be infallible only insofar as it is a correct logical deduction from Scripture. If it is a correct logical deduction from Scripture, or to use the phrase from my confession, if it follows by good and necessary consequence from Scripture, then it carries with it Scripture’s infallibility and authority. Likewise with Sola Scriptura: Sola Scriptura is not intrinsically infallible as the Bible is, but, as my Scriptural arguments have shown, it’s a correct logical formulation of truths which the Bible plainly teaches and is thus simply a vessel for Scripture’s authority. So this argument fails.
Argument #2) 2 Thessalonians 2:15 reads, “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.” Paul commanded the Thessalonians to hold to both written and oral traditions, thus vindicating the Roman teaching.
However, there are two problems with this argument. First, Paul actually taught them these traditions. And presumably, the Thessalonians received, believed, and practiced these traditions. So if these traditions which Paul taught them contained items that Rome defines as dogma, say, the Bodily Assumption, transubstantiation, the papacy, etc., if Paul actually taught these things to the Thessalonians, there should be strong historical evidence as there is for other doctrines, and yet we don’t see any evidence of these things being believed for hundreds of years.
The second problem is that the Roman argument relies on an anachronistic equivocation. When you hear “traditions” in 2 Thessalonians 2:15, they would have you believe Paul meant the exact same thing as they do by tradition: an inerrant, stream of revelation independent of Scripture which also contains doctrines not found in Scripture. But is that what Paul meant? Is that what the early church understood when Paul told them to “hold to the traditions [he] taught [them]”? The answer is no. In his magnum opus “Against Heresies,” (3.1.1) Irenaeus had this to say about Scripture and tradition:
We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith…
In other words, Irenaeus teaches that the content of the Apostles’ oral preaching and teaching was the same as the content of the Scriptures. Irenaeus would have rejected Rome’s interpretation of 2 Thessalonians 2:15. So what were the traditions which Paul taught the Thessalonians? Exactly what we have in the Scriptures.
Furthermore, this is the exact conclusion a careful reading of the text would lead to. Look at verse 5 of the same chapter: “Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things?” In other words, the content of the teaching Paul gave the Thessalonians and the content of these things which he is writing are one and the same. So to assert, as Rome does, that Paul taught the Thessalonians some separate oral traditions not found in Scripture simply does not comport with church history, nor with the testimony of the early church, nor with the passage itself.
The third argument is a common one but very easily refuted.
Argument #3) Protestants are so divided because when you have Sola Scriptura, every man does what is right in his own eyes. Every man becomes a pope unto himself. Sola Scriptura is the blueprint for anarchy.
In fact, some Catholics will attempt to puff up this argument by saying that there are 33,000 Protestant denominations or some other ridiculous number. This is a complete myth and frankly dishonest on their part. But we need to make some careful distinctions here. Not all non-Catholics are Protestants, and Sola Scriptura is definitional of Protestantism. So what about when we look at only Protestant groups, only groups that hold to Sola Scriptura as classically defined during the Reformation? Who are they? Reformed Baptists, conservative Presbyterian types, and the conservative Anglicans. That’s basically it. And what do we disagree on? Church polity and the proper administration of baptism. We agree on virtually everything else.
So where does this multiplicity of denominations come from then? It actually comes from them abandoning Sola Scriptura. They have their own word from God or they want to just ignore some parts of Scripture. In other words, they’ve abandoned Sola Scriptura in favor of their traditions and private revelations. Incidentally, we see similar disunity within Rome due to her abandonment of Sola Scriptura. While she remains formally one body, there is massive division between conservative and liberal Catholics, and there are a myriad of disputes on how to interpret this decree and the level of authority of that council, etc. etc. Sola Scriptura results in unity in truth, whereas practicing any form of Scripture plus some other authority always leads to disunity and error.
Argument #4) In 1 Thessalonians 2:13, Paul says, “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.” This clearly indicates that the Word of God existed in oral form and not just in written form. The oral word of God is inspired and inerrant just as the written word. Thus, there is an inspired, unwritten Tradition.
This argument is in some ways just a variation on Argument #2, just with a different Bible verse. But while that one referred to “traditions” making it necessary to investigate the content of said traditions, this verse plainly demonstrates that “the word of God” was delivered to the Thessalonians in oral form. And the response that the Catholics must still empirically demonstrate this oral word as having content other than the written word is still valid.
However, this verse is in no way at odds with Sola Scriptura. The reason Protestants believe in Sola Scriptura is because Scripture is the only item in the church’s possession which is God-breathed. However, during times of enscripturation, God’s word did exist in other forms. Hebrews 1:1 says, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets,” these “many ways” including dreams, visions, theophanies, angelic messages, verbal dictation, and of course, verbal plenary inspiration. When God spoke in these manners, it was entirely inerrant. However, the church does not possess these instances of revelation; the only item in the church’s possession which is God-breathed is Scripture. So even if Paul’s preaching was inspired in the same way Scripture is, that doesn’t prove the Catholic position nor disprove the Protestant one.
But was Paul’s oral preaching and teaching inspired? Or, to be more exact, does it teach that all of Paul’s preaching and teaching exhaustively were inspired? Certainly not. Obviously, Paul could verbally proclaim the Scriptures and then commend the Thessalonians for hearing the word of God from him. But a Catholic could say, “It’s ridiculous to assume that Paul only quoted Scripture to them. Paul certainly said other things to them.” This is true, but does that imply that those other things are also the word of God? Protestants regularly use language like this: “Our pastor preached the word of God to us today.” Is this Protestant implying that all his pastor’s words are inspired? Of course not. Rather, he means that his pastor preached to them, probably quoting and explaining some section of or idea in Scripture. But since Scripture was the highlight and the chief matter at hand, the Protestant would be entirely right to speak in such a way. It’s eminently reasonable that Paul was speaking in a similar manner.
Argument #5) But Augustine said very clearly (in “Against the Fundamental Epistle of Manichaeus,” Chapter 5), “For my part, I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church.” Crystal clear, unequivocal statements like this demonstrate that the fathers did not believe in Sola Scriptura.
First of all, we should note that this quotation does not erase the many others from Augustine supporting Sola Scriptura. The fathers were often inconsistent and certainly not infallible. But thankfully, not even this quotation can be used against us. Now while I truly believe he would be a Protestant today (as even I might be a “catholic” at his point in time since the worst abuses and heresies had not crept in yet), we should not hesitate to acknowledge that he would certainly disagree with us on numerous issues. But is Augustine disagreeing with us on the foundational issues? Almost 500 years ago, Calvin thoroughly dealt with this argument from Rome and concluded that Augustine was not on their side. He said in his Institutes, Book I, Chapter VII, Section 3:
Indeed, I know that statement of Augustine is commonly referred to, that he would not believe the gospel if the authority of the church did not move him to do so. But it is easy to grasp from the context how wrongly and deceptively they interpret this passage. Augustine was there concerned with the Manichees, who wished to be believed without controversy when they claimed, but did not demonstrate, that they themselves possessed the truth. Because in fact they used the gospel as a cloak to promote faith in their Mani, Augustine asks: “What would they do if they were to light upon a man who does not even believe in the gospel? By what kind of persuasion would they bring him around to their opinion?” Then he adds, “Indeed, I would not believe the gospel,” etc., meaning that if he were alien to the faith, he could not be led to embrace the gospel as he certain truth of God unless constrained by the authority of the church. And what wonder if someone, not yet having known Christ, should have respect for men! Augustine is not, therefore, teaching that the faith of the godly men is founded on the authority of the church; nor does he hold the view that the certainty of the gospel depends upon it. He is simply teaching that there would be no certainty of the gospel for unbelievers to win them to Christ if the consensus of the church did not impel them. And this he confirms a little layer, saying:
When I praise what I believe, and laugh at what are we to do? Should we not forsake those who invite us to a knowledge of things certain and then bud us believe things uncertain? Must we follow those who invite us first to believe what we are not yet strong enough to see, that strengthened by this very faith, we may become worthy to comprehend what we believe – with God himself, not men, now inwardly strengthening and illumining our mind?
These are Augustine’s very words. From them it is easy for anyone to infer that the holy man’s intention was not to make the faith that we hold in the Scriptures depend upon the assent for judgment of the church. H e only meant to indicate what we also confess as true: Those who have not yet been illumined by the Spirit of God are rendered teachable by reverence for the church, so that they may persevere in leaning faith in Christ from the gospel. Thus, he avers, the authority of the church is an introduction through which we are prepared for faith the gospel.
Finally, an argument thrown out by Catholics all the time:
Argument #6) In 1 Timothy 3:15, Paul says of the church, it is “the pillar and bulwark2 of the truth.” Paul’s words here indicate that the Scripture is dependent on the church for its authority and its very presence.
Common though this citation may be, it proves nothing. In the argument as stated, which is a realistic portrayal, Catholics frequently equate “truth” in this verse with “Scripture.” Since there is obviously truth outside of Scripture, this is an equivocation which renders the argument absurd. Given that true things obviously existed before the formation of the Catholic church, the Catholic would not argue that truth itself is dependent on the church. It is also worth noting that pillars exist to hold up something else, in this case, the truth. And it is evident that truth depends on the church not for its inherent truthfulness but to publish, proclaim, and defend it among men.
I’ve argued both from Scripture and history that Scripture alone is the sole infallible rule for faith and doctrine. I’ve argued from both Scripture and history that Rome’s system of authority, tradition and magisterium along with Scripture, is flawed. But I realize that most of the time, we aren’t persuaded or dissuaded through abstract reasoning alone. Often, we make decisions based more on what we like or don’t like, what we feel attached to or feel opposed to, than on evidence. And I realize that many people are attracted to Rome for what we Protestants call “the smells and bells,” that is, the aesthetic aspect of their churches and worship. If that’s you, I would appeal to you to consciously prioritize truth over aesthetics. Remember that for centuries, Christians met in simple houses and underground catacombs whereas the pagans worshipped in beautiful, luxurious temples.
Other people are drawn to Rome for its claim to tradition and history, that its practices are rooted in the practices of saints who went before. And I completely understand that appeal, and I think it’s a legitimate, God-given desire. And it’s precisely because I agree with this sentiment that I am a Protestant. How is that? Well, ultimately, Scripture is the oldest artifact which has been with the church wherever and whenever it has existed. So believing and worshipping according to Scripture’s standards is most historical manner of worship.
But in a tangible sense, we Protestants are also within the stream of church history. If you’re a Catholic, you’re probably familiar with some Reformation-era slogans of Protestants, particularly the Solas. But another one you may not be familiar with is the slogan, “Ad fontes,” which is another Latin phrase meaning, “to the sources,” or, “back to the sources.” It captured the Reformers’ efforts to study the Scriptures in the original Greek and Hebrew, not just the Latin, to get a better understanding of the them.
But it also signified the Reformers’ desire to renew the study of the early church and the fathers. For example, Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk and was well-versed in his writings. Many of our confessions quote the fathers, and many of our catechisms contain expositions of the Apostles’ Creed, which many of us recite regularly in our liturgies. Read Calvin’s Institutes, the highest-quality theological book from the Reformation, or just find a copy and flip to the bibliography, and scan the number of times he references the early church fathers. He quotes them hundreds – probably thousands – of times, on literally every subject he covers. He cites Augustine alone several hundred times.
So realize this: Rome does not have a monopoly on church history. Rome does not have a monopoly on the church fathers. You may have been told your whole life that everything they do is “part of the 2,000-year apostolic tradition.” This is simply not true, and so I’d invite you to join me in standing with Augustine, Cyril, and other fathers. I already quoted many of them, but I wanted to leave you with two final quotations from the fathers, not because I need to demonstrate my point further, but rather to encourage you do adopt their mindset.
In “Against the Heathen,” Athanasius began by saying, “The holy and God-breathed Scriptures are sufficient for the preaching of the truth.” This is right in line with what Paul told Timothy: The Scriptures are inspired, thus they are sufficient, thus they are what your ministry is to be dedicated to. Gregory of Nyssa (in “On the Soul and Resurrection”) said, “We make the Holy Scriptures the rule and the measure of every dogma; we necessarily fix our eyes upon that, and approve that alone which may be made to harmonize with the intention of those writings.” And I would contend that Rome’s system of authority cannot be made to harmonize with Scripture, which is why I pointed out numerous problems with it. But Gregory is also in agreement with Jesus in using Scripture as the standard by which every other authority must be judged. And so I would ask you to consider Sola Scriptura and Rome’s system both in light of Scripture.
I’ll end where I began: Scripture is the only item in the church’s possession which is God-breathed. Thus, it is the sole infallible rule for faith and life. Thank you.
VIII: Some Questions for Rome:
It can be useful to have some well-crafted questions which can be used to pry open the weaknesses in the Roman position. Here are some of my own. Feel free to take them, use them, modify them, etc.
1. Is tradition God-breathed in the same way Scripture is? If so, what Scriptural evidence do you have for that? If not, how can you say its authority is equal to Scripture’s?
2. Given the numerous citations of early church fathers basically agreeing with Sola Scriptura, would it be accurate to call Sola Scriptura a part of the church’s tradition?
3. If laypeople need the magisterium to accurately interpret Scripture for them, who ensures they accurately interpret the magisterium’s words? Or do you allow for private interpretation after all?
4. What traditions of the church do and do not constitute “sacred tradition?” Does Rome have a definite standard or a discrete canon of traditions? If so, what is the biblical basis for that? If it is determined on an ad hoc basis, theoretically, could anything become “sacred tradition” if Rome declared it so?
5. If the teaching authority of Rome, the magisterium, exercises de facto authority over tradition and de facto authority over Scripture, defining and interpreting each, how do you avoid the charge of sola ecclesia, that your final and highest authority is the church alone?
6. If we only know what Scripture is (i.e., the canon) thanks to the magisterium, and we only know what Scripture means (i.e., Rome’s interpretation) thanks to the magisterium, how would a believing Jew in 250 B.C. know what books were Scripture and what their proper interpretation was?3
7. Can you define exactly what constitutes or qualifies as “Tradition” and why?
8. Since the magisterium can provide infallible judgements regarding tradition and infallible interpretations of Scripture, why has the magisterium only delivered a handful of infallible interpretations and failed to codify all of Tradition, given the clarity this would offer the church?
Genesis 9:5-6: “And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” God proceeds to prescribe the death penalty for around two dozen offenses. Nor is this abrogated in the New Testament; rather, in Romans 13, Paul says “[the magistrate] does not bear the sword in vain.”
The Greek word being translated “bulwark” here, ἑδραίωμα, is also commonly rendered “foundation,” “ground,” or “buttress.” All are acceptable translations.
Some Catholic apologists have called this “The White Question” because the first time it was asked by Dr. James White of his Catholic opponent in live debate, it stumped him and has subsequently proved difficult for Rome to answer. Question 6 here is simply a paraphrase of Dr. White’s question.
Article by Alex Carrow