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The Case Against Sola Scriptura
(Transcript of a speech given on the issue)

By: Kevin Tierney

            Thank you all, it is good to be with you tonight.  Tonight we are going to discuss one of the primary causes for the break between Protestants and Catholics.  This is the issue of Sola Scriptura, Latin for Scripture Alone.

            Sola Scriptura was one half of the battle cry of the Protestant Reformation, the other half being sola fide (by Faith Alone).  The Catholic Church, which had viewed itself the custodian of not only the Sacred Scriptures, but the living Oral Tradition which they received from the Apostles was used in conjunction with scripture, obviously rejected such a claim that we are to go by the Bible Alone, apart from Church teaching.  Tonight we will look to see if the Protestant idea that yes, we should go by the Bible alone, is in fact true.

            Now before we go any further, I think it would be smart to document exactly what sola scriptura is, so as to avoid any confusion.  We will be sticking with this definition throughout the entire night.  I will quote the Westminster Confession of Faith:


Of the Holy Scripture.

I.                   Although the light of nature and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of His will, which is necessary unto salvation. Therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal Himself, and to declare that His will unto His Church; and afterwards for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing; which makes the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God's revealing His will unto His people being now ceased.

VI. 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. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word: and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.

VII. 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.

IX. 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 must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.

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 Spirit speaking in the Scripture.

            What do all these statements tell us?  First and foremost, the sole infallible rule of faith for the Christian is the God breathed scriptures.  We also see in the first citation I have quoted is that yes, for a time, God’s revelation occurred through both Oral and Written.  Although now that revelation has ceased with the death of the last Apostle, his revelation is solely based in the scriptures, and only the Scriptures have the authority of infallibility.  Granted, Tradition does play a role in many Historic Evangelical Churches, yet it is not on par with Scripture, whereas many fundamentalist Churches take a complete disregard for History and Tradition, and it becomes Me, My Bible and the Holy Spirit. This might come as a surprise to many Catholics, who believe Protestants reject all Tradition.  With many Reformed Baptists I know, the most important document they have is the Scriptures, the Second Being the London Baptist Confession of 1689.  While they place great reverence on the Confession, they do not view it infallible as they do Scripture.

            Next, they acknowledge that the doctrine of sola scriptura does not claim to have all knowledge; rather it only has “that which is necessary for salvation.”  This also states that everything that is necessary for salvation is either explicit, or is a clear logical deduction from the Scriptures(i.e. The Blessed Trinity, while nowhere stated explicitly that God is 3 yet one, it is an extremely logical deduction of the Scriptural Evidence.)  Therefore, we may continue in the matter of our definition that Sola Scriptura is the sole infallible rule of faith for doctrinal issues pertaining to salvation.  I again cannot stress this enough, when they say sole infallible rule of faith, this does not exclude Tradition.  Many Evangelicals have great Respect for the Early Church Theologian Augustine, and the Medieval Catholic Theologian Thomas Aquinas.  While they value their teachings very highly, they do not invest the Church itself with infallibility. 

            They also affirm that there are some passages that are hard to understand, are not perfectly clear, yet these passages do not pertain to matters of salvation, whereas matters pertaining to salvation are quite clear in the Holy Scriptures.  All too often, Catholics overlook this when discussing the issue of Sola Scriptura with Evangelicals.

            Finally, we move onto our final point in defining the definition of the Protestant Doctrine of Sola Scriptura (The Westminster Confession of faith is almost verbatim with the London Baptist Confession of 1689, the 2 main confessions used in Evangelical Protestantism in America today).  The only infallible interpreter of scripture is scripture itself.  What this means is when you come across a tough to understand passage in scripture, the only place that can tell you infallibly what this passage would mean is inside scripture itself.  One passage of scripture sheds light on the other, and no teaching authority outside of Scripture itself is to be trusted to infallibly deliver a doctrinal pronouncement. 

            Weak Arguments against Sola Scriptura

            The modern day Roman Catholic apologist (one who defends and explains the Roman Catholic Faith) is more than likely going to spend most of his time on this issue, the issue of sola scriptura.  There are a lot of good arguments presented, and a lot of bad arguments presented.

            First is a mistake I myself have even made, the charge that Sola Scriptura is the blueprint for anarchy, resulting in countless thousands of denominations.  There are Prominent Catholic Apologists who make this claim in their lectures, and in debates with Evangelical Apologists.  This however is an invalid argument, it works good to stir the emotions, but when closely examined, this argument crumbles under pressure.

            Why does this crumble under pressure?  Let us look at the current crisis in American Churches today.  You have Organizations such as Catholics for a Free Choice, promoting abortion; you have priests and even bishops saying homosexuality is compatible with Orthodox Catholic teaching.  Many reject the Churches teaching on contraception, divorce, premarital sex, doctrinal issues such as the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, would this lead us to think that we should reject the view of Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the teaching authority of the Magesterium? No not at all.  Sola Scriptura does not say everyone will agree on everything.  Even in the days of the Apostles, Peter battled against Simon Magus in the book of Acts, Paul wrote to Timothy warning him of the errors of Gnosticism, John wrote against the Docetics in his epistles, who denied Christ had human flesh.  I could surely multiply this list, does this mean the Apostles were insufficient teachers?  Of Course not

            The second is to reference Oral Tradition in the Bible, thinking this crushes the Evangelical Case for Sola Scriptura.  This is invalid because of the fact I stressed before, that they uphold Tradition, just not on the level of infallibility with Scripture.  They also assert that during times of enscripturation (the time in which the Bible was being put to pen) Oral Tradition had infallibility.  As one prominent Evangelical Apologist said “You cannot have sola scriptura, unless you first have a scriptura.”  To the Protestant, Sola Scriptura speaks to the normative sense of the Church, when it is not receiving revelation.  Yet as we will see later, adding something to this objection does make the claim against Sola Scriptura a little more credible.

Why Catholics (And other Historic Churches such as the Eastern Orthodox) reject Sola Scriptura

            With all the definitions and bad arguments against sola scriptura that have been documented, you in the audience might wonder why we Catholics reject the notion of sola scriptura.  There are plenty of reasons, aside from the arguments that I have listed which do not argue against Sola Scriptura.

            First and foremost is what I like to call anachronistic interpretation.  This is reading into the text something that wasn’t evident to the original people who received the Sacred Texts.  The best example of this method of interpreting scripture comes to the chief verse used to support Sola Scriptura, Second Timothy, chapter 2, verses 16 and 17.  I will read the following verses from the Revised Standard Edition of the Bible:

16: All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,
17: that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

            Here the Evangelical will state that since Scripture is God breathed, theopneustos in the Greek, and nowhere is this Greek word used to describe Oral Tradition, we go by only the written word.  Further supporting their case in their minds is the fact that since all scripture is God breathed, the man of God may be complete, fully equipped for every good work. 

            Now I want us to recall what we have earlier discussed, and the Westminster Confession of Faith laid out:

Those former ways of God's revealing His will unto His people being now ceased.

          This was from Chapter one of the confession.  Evangelicals contend that since no new Revelation is being given, only the Scriptures are to be trusted.  This asserts that Sola Scriptura was not valid during times of Revelation.  The only problem is, Second Timothy was not the last canonical writing composed, and therefore, was being given to Timothy, the Bishop at Ephesus during a time in which sola scriptura was not valid.  Therefore, when the original audience (in this case Timothy) received the epistle, this was not teaching him sola scriptura.  Evangelicals themselves assert sola scriptura did not become active until John, the last Apostle, died.  So this is a clear case of the Evangelical reading into the text a concept that was completely unknown to Timothy, and was not taught to Timothy.  If it were taught, Paul would be contradicting himself, since the Age of Revelation had not closed, and Paul himself was still giving Revelation orally with infallible authority.

            Now that we have established this, we must ask our Evangelical friends this question; “Where does Scripture state that once the Apostles are dead, Revelation has ceased?”  Furthermore, they must document from Scripture that once Revelation has ceased with the death of the Last Apostle, only the written is to have infallible authority, and the Oral teaching of those apostles cannot be passed down infallibly.  Whether or not the Oral and the written taught certain things the other did not have is irrelevant.  Could the teachings of the Apostles be passed on infallibly outside of Scripture is the question, and the Evangelical must assert this in the negative.  Therefore, these 2 questions must be answered before the Protestant can even begin to build his case against Sola Scriptura.  Needless to say, scripture nowhere states that once the Apostles die, Revelation ceases, and only the written is to have the authority once the Apostles die.

            In response to these questions, we will come up against the second piece of anachronistic interpretation, mainly in the book of Revelation, chapter 22, verse 18, and Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians, chapter 4, and verse 6.  Let us start with Revelation; I will again read the verse:

18: I warn every one who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if any one adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book,

            Upon first looking at this, we might again safely assume, John is saying if you add to the Bible, you are in trouble.  Therefore, we cannot add Oral Tradition to the written word, this verse denies it.  The Catholic should surely make some objections to this.

            First and foremost, we must ask what book John is talking about.  He keeps on making references to “this book” and says we are not to add to it.  Is he referring to the entire Scripture, the 27 books of the New Testament?  Again, not at all.  The idea of a set canon of scripture for the writings of the Apostolic Age (which we would call the New Testament) is completely foreign to the idea of the Apostle John.  This development would not occur for many centuries.  The claim is only made now that God has revealed the full extent of his canon of scripture to us through the Church, so now when they see “this book” they automatically assume it is referring to Scripture.

            Further backing the position this verse is not dealing with the entire canon of Scripture is verse 19, the verse immediately after verse 18, which says:

19: and if any one takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.

            Here we see John tell us exactly what he is talking about, this specific prophecy, the book of Revelation.  The Tree of Life and the Holy City, along with the plagues, were described in the previous chapters of Johns writing (the book of Revelation)  Therefore, John is only referring to his prophecy in this outlined book, that being the book of Revelation, that it is not to be tampered with.  We must be extremely careful to allow the writers of the Scriptures to stand on their own, without reading our own ideas into the text.

 The second verse is Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians, chapter 4, verse 6, which goes as follows:

 6: I have applied all this to myself and Apol'los for your benefit, brethren that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another.

             There are two ways to deal with this verse.  First, when the Evangelical tells us we cannot add to Scriptures with Tradition, we again say we cannot.  We do not teach that Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition are 2 separate bodies of Revelation.  All too often Evangelical apologists and polemicists make this error.  It is one body of Revelation, one deposit of faith, that is communicated in 2 ways, by writing (Sacred Scripture), and by Oral Transmission the teachings of the Apostles, which are practiced in the living faith of the Church (Sacred Tradition).  So to say this verse proves the Catholic case against sola scriptura false, is not to understand why Catholics reject Sola Scriptura.

             The second way to object to this verse being cited for Sola Scriptura is again to realize the Protestant, upon using this verse, is employing anachronism into their interpretation of this verse.  First Corinthians was not the last epistle of the Bible.  While no one is sure of the exact dating, they are as sure of this much, it wasn’t the last, and was obviously before Second Corinthians.  Therefore, anything after First Corinthians, if we are to take this verse the way the Evangelical wants us to, would be “going beyond what was written” and would be violating the same principle they are stressing.  Furthermore, the same quote appears in Deuteronomy.  Therefore, if the verse in First Corinthians teaches sola scriptura, the verse in Deuteronomy must also teach Sola Scriptura, and any book after that would be “going beyond what was written.”  Thus again, we see the Evangelical imposing a view that is completely foreign, since they admit sola Scriptura was not valid during the times this was taught.

 The idea of Scripture Interpreting Scripture

            As we remember back from our quotation of the Westminster Confession of Faith, we are told that the only infallible interpreter of Scripture is Scripture itself.  This became necessary for the Reformers to get around the Churches claim to interpret Scripture.  They could not set up a counter-Church and claim infallibility to interpret those scriptures, so they had to say only Scripture can infallibly interpret Scripture.  While there certainly are cases in Scripture where we are pointed to other verses in Scripture to shed light on the issue (James and Paul quote and reference extensively from Genesis for the accounts of Abraham) is this the only way, in that the only thing being used to interpret Scripture was scripture itself?  Does Scripture lend support to this idea?  Again, the answer is no.

            First we shall turn to Acts 15, in which I shall read the account in question, namely the calling of the Council to decide on circumcision of the new Christians.

1: But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brethren, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved."
2: And when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question.
3: So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoeni'cia and Sama'ria, reporting the conversion of the Gentiles, and they gave great joy to all the brethren.
4: When they came to Jerusalem , they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them.
5: But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up, and said, "It is necessary to circumcise them, and to charge them to keep the law of Moses."
6: The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter.
7: And after there had been much debate, Peter rose and said to them, "Brethren, you know that in the early days God made choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe.
8: And God who knows the heart bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us;
9: and he made no distinction between us and them, but cleansed their hearts by faith.
10: Now therefore why do you make trial of God by putting a yoke upon the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?
11: But we believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will."
12: And all the assembly kept silence; and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.
13: After they finished speaking, James replied, "Brethren, listen to me.
14: Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name.
15: And with this the words of the prophets agree, as it is written,
16: `After this I will return, and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will set it up,
17: that the rest of men may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name,
18: says the Lord, who has made these things known from of old.'
19: Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God,
20: but should write to them to abstain from the pollutions of idols and from unchastity and from what is strangled and from blood.
21: For from early generations Moses has had in every city those who preach him, for he is read every sabbath in the synagogues."
22: Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsab'bas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren,
23: with the following letter: "The brethren, both the apostles and the elders, to the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cili'cia, greeting.
24: Since we have heard that some persons from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions,
25: it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul,
26: men who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ.
27: We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth.
28: For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things:
29: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell."

           Here we see a controversy erupting about whether or not Gentiles becoming Christians should be circumcised.   Without referencing Scripture, Peter stands up, and proclaims against this, saying he received a Revelation from God, and even asked those who demanded circumcision, why do they test God.  The Old Testament nowhere indicates that circumcision was ever going to expire.  After Peter makes this proclamation and Paul and Barnabas confirm what Peter is saying, James, the Bishop of Jerusalem arises and quotes Scripture.  Now to the Protestant, they will say “see, he trusted the written!  Sola Scriptura is proven!”  We must then ask our Evangelical friends if by reading that verse it has anything to do with circumcision being expired.  It is not even implied.  Rather, it is defined by the Church as relating to this issue, and hence, Gentiles do not have to be circumcised.  It is the council’s judgment, and it is expected to be followed.  They did not view their decision as something the others might want to believe, or it is a possibility, no, they viewed it as Truth, and without error.  So again, far from proving sola Scriptura, the Catholic position is proven again.  We must also bring up in closing with this passage the issue of anachronism, that they were not practicing Sola Scriptura at this council, since it was during times of Revelation.  This principle alone becomes the death knell to Sola Scriptura.

            In our next meeting we will cover further arguments in favor of Sola Scriptura, and build the Catholic case for what is in place of Sola Scriptura, Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the Magesterium, the teaching authority, Of the Catholic Church.  I’d like to thank you all for attending.

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