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:
Christians confronted with such arguments should keep the following points in mind:
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 Spirits 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.
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 writers recollections, and a partial explanation of Christs teaching. This, of course, elevates Tradition to the same level of authority as Scriptureor, 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,
Here we see that Scripture is not "the prophets 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:
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.
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:
Johns 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:
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 Churchall 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 Gods 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:
There are hundreds of verses in the Bible establishing the truth that the Word of God is the churchs sufficient and supreme rule of faith. Psalm 119 alone dedicates 176 verses to the unparalleled value of Gods Word. The Lord Jesus taught:
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 Gods 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 churchs 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 churchs 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).
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