"Sola Scriptura"?
James McCarthy

Today, even as in the time of the Reformation, thousands of Catholics worldwide are leaving Roman Catholicism for biblical Christianity. And once again, the rallying cry of the sixteenth century, Sola Scriptura, Scripture Alone, is being heard.

Roman Catholic defenders have responded to this challenge by going on the offensive. A typical argument sounds something like this:

The Bible cannot be the sole rule of faith, because the first Christians didn’t have the New Testament. Initially, Tradition, the oral teachings of the apostles, was the Church’s rule of faith. The New Testament came later when a portion of Tradition was put to writing. It was the Roman Catholic Church that produced the New Testament, and it was the Church that infallibly told us what books belong in the Bible. It is the Church, therefore, that is the authoritative teacher of Scripture. Sola Scriptura is not even taught in the Bible. The rule of faith of the Roman Catholic Church, therefore, is rightly Scripture and Tradition together.

Christians confronted with such arguments should keep the following points in mind:

  • Christians have never been without the Scriptures as their rule of faith.

The unforgettable experience of two early disciples shows the fallacy of thinking that the first Christians were ever without Scripture as their rule of faith. Three days after the crucifixion, two of Jesus’ disciples were walking home. A fellow traveler, whom they took for a stranger, joined them along the way. The conversation quickly turned to the events that had just taken place in Jerusalem. With deep sorrow, the disciples told the story of how the chief priests and rulers of the nation had sentenced Jesus to death and had Him crucified by the civil authorities.

To the disciples’ shock, the stranger rebuked them, "How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!" (Luke 24:25, NIV). Then beginning with Moses and proceeding through the prophets, the stranger explained to them the truths concerning Jesus in the Old Testament Scriptures.

Eventually the two disciples realized that their fellow traveler was no stranger at all but the Lord Jesus Himself! Later they recalled, "Were not our hearts burning within us while He was speaking to us on the road, while He was explaining the Scriptures to us?" (Luke 24:32).

The experience of those two early disciples was not unique. With the Holy Spirit’s coming at Pentecost, and with the aid of the apostles’ teaching, Jewish Christians rediscovered their own Scriptures. Their common conviction was that the Old Testament, properly understood, was a revelation of Christ. There they found a prophetic record of Jesus’ life, teaching, death, and resurrection.

The Old Testament Scriptures served as the standard of truth for the infant church, Jew and Gentile alike. Within a short time, the New Testament Scriptures took their place alongside those of the Old Testament. Consequently, the early church was never without the written Word of God.

  • Scripture is not simply written Tradition.

Roman Catholic descriptions of the origin of the New Testament stress that the oral teachings of the apostles, Tradition, preceded the written record of those teachings, Scripture. Often the New Testament is presented as little more than a written record of Tradition, the writer’s recollections, and a partial explanation of Christ’s teaching. This, of course, elevates Tradition to the same level of authority as Scripture—or, more precisely, drops Scripture to the level of Tradition.

But the New Testament Scriptures are much more than a written record of the oral teaching of the apostles; they are an inspired record. A biblical understanding of inspiration makes clear the significance of this distinction. Peter writes,

Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. 2 Peter 1:20-21 (NIV)

Here we see that Scripture is not "the prophet’s own interpretation" (2 Peter 1:20, NIV). The word translated "interpretation" means to solve or to explain. Peter is saying that no writer of the New Testament simply recorded his own explanation of what he had heard Jesus teach and had seen Him do. Scripture does not have "its origin in the will of man" (2 Peter 1:21, NIV). The writers of the Bible did not decide that they would write a prophetic record or what would be included in Scripture. Rather, they were "carried along by the Holy Spirit" (2 Peter 1:21, NIV).

The word translated here "carried along" is found in the New Testament in Mark 2:3. There it is used with reference to the paralytic whose friends carried him to Jesus for healing. Just as the paralytic did not walk by his own power, a true prophet does not write by his own impulse. He is "carried along by the Holy Spirit" (2 Peter 1:21, NIV). Men wrote the New Testament; "men spoke" (2 Peter 1:21, NIV). Their writings reflect their individual personalities and experiences. But these "men spoke from God" (2 Peter 1:21). Men wrote but God was the author.

For these reasons, Scripture is revelation perfectly communicated in God-given words:

All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NKJV)

The phrase "inspired by God" is the translation of a compound term made up of the words God and to breathe. The verse can be translated: "All Scripture is God-breathed. . . " (2 Timothy 3:16, NIV). Scripture is therefore rightly called the Word of God.

In reducing Scripture to simply written Tradition, Catholic proponents are able to boost the importance of Tradition. But in doing so, they distort the meaning of inspiration and minimize the primary difference between Scripture and Tradition.

  • The Bible contains all essential revelation.

It is true that the New Testament does not contain a record of everything that Jesus did. John makes this clear in the conclusion of his gospel:

And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books which were written. John 21:25

John’s point in concluding his gospel with this comment was to acknowledge that the life of the Lord Jesus was far too wonderful to be fully contained in any book. He was not commenting on the general purpose of Scripture or the need for Tradition. Neither was he implying that he had left out of his book essential revelation received from Christ. Indeed, earlier in his gospel, John implies the opposite:

Many other signs therefore Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name. John 20:30-31

We can infer from this statement that John included in his gospel all the essential teachings of Christ necessary for salvation. Significantly, he makes no reference to seven sacraments, the Sacrifice of the Mass, sanctifying grace, penance, purgatory, or an institution such as the Roman Catholic Church—all necessary for salvation according to Roman Catholicism.

The Scriptures achieve their stated purpose: "that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:17 NIV). They are the perfect guide to the Christian faith. Unlike Tradition, the Scriptures are accessible and open to all. Translations of the entire Bible have been made into the primary languages of the world, 276 in total. It is the most widely distributed and read book in all of history.

To define Roman Catholic Tradition as a font of extra-biblical revelation is to add to God’s Word. Scripture warns us "not to exceed what is written" (1 Corinthians 4:6). "Do not add to His words lest He reprove you, and you be proved a liar" (Proverbs 30:6). The last book of the New Testament ends with this solemn warning:

I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God shall add to him the plagues which are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city, which are written in this book. Revelation 22:18-19

  • At question is the authority of Tradition, not Scripture.

There are hundreds of verses in the Bible establishing the truth that the Word of God is the church’s sufficient and supreme rule of faith. Psalm 119 alone dedicates 176 verses to the unparalleled value of God’s Word. The Lord Jesus taught:

Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God. Matthew 4:4

Though Scriptures can be multiplied on this theme, it is not necessary to do so. The Roman Catholic Church agrees that the Bible teaches that the Word of God is the supreme rule of faith and that all theology must rest upon it. There is no question as to the sufficiency or authority of the Word of God.

The controversy revolves around the identity of God’s Word. Namely, is the Word of God Scripture and Tradition? Or, is the Word of God Scripture alone?

In the ongoing debate, Roman Catholic proponents enjoy taking the offensive by challenging non-Catholics to prove that God intended that the Scriptures alone were to serve as the church’s rule of faith. "Where does the Bible teach Sola Scriptura?" they demand.

Though this tactic is effective in putting their opponents on the defensive, it is in fact misleading. Both sides agree that the Scriptures are the Word of God and that as such they speak with divine authority. The Lord Jesus Himself, in John 10:35, clearly identifies the Word of God as Scripture.

The point of controversy is Tradition. The Roman Catholic Church asserts that Tradition is also the Word of God.

The question which the Roman Catholic Church must answer, therefore, is: Where does Jesus, the prophets, or the apostles teach that Tradition is the Word of God? Or, more precisely: Where in the Bible can it be found that Scripture and Tradition together, as interpreted by the pope and bishops of the Roman Catholic Church, are to be the church’s rule of faith? This is what Roman Catholicism is really asserting and should be the topic of debate. And since the Roman Catholic Church is the one asserting the authority of Tradition and the Magesterium, the burden of proof lies with Rome.

Adapted from The Gospel According to Rome (Harvest House Publishers: Eugene, 1995).

i. Compare: Second Vatican Council, "Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation," no. 19
ii. Patrick Johnstone, Operation World (Grand Rapids, MIchigan: Zondervan, 1993), p. 22
iii. Second Vatican Council, "Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation," no. 21 and no. 24.

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