This is an apologetics article intended to refute the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura . I will use the Bible as my principal source to refute sola scriptura. In addition, I will also cite some of the writings of the early Christians to show that they believed Catholic Doctrine on the Bible as a rule of Faith, not Protestant doctrine.
Definitions and Clarifications
Sola scriptura (“only Scripture”) is the Protestant doctrine which claims that the Bible is the sole rule of Faith for the believer. For the Protestant, the Bible is, in and of itself, sufficient without the complementary force of Apostolic Tradition or the teaching authority of the Church. The Catholic position is that Divine Revelation is passed down to us by Tradition – either written (the Bible) or taught orally (also called “Tradition,” but in the more specific sense of oral Tradition1 ) – and confirmed and taught to us by the Catholic Church. To get a Protestant’s statement of his own belief, I quote the words of Dr. W. Robert Godfrey: “The Protestant position, and my position, is that all things necessary for salvation and concerning faith and life are taught in the Bible clearly enough for the ordinary believer to find it there and understand.”2
The Protestant, as can be seen, denies both the Divine character of any extra-Biblical Tradition and the authority of the Church to interpret Scripture. Thus, sola scriptura provides a quick path from Catholicism into schism and heresy.
One common Protestant objection to Catholicism is that Catholic doctrines concerning Purgatory, the Mass, the Priesthood, the Blessed Virgin, the Papacy, etc. are the “doctrines and commandments of men” of the type condemned by our Lord in Matthew 15:9, since they are not found explicitly in the Bible. In opposition to Catholic doctrine, which contains all of these “human inventions,” they hold up a “pure” Christianity, one true to the Bible. If this objection can be removed, then the Protestant’s stated reason for not being a Catholic can be removed also.
Of course, most Protestants do not believe sola scriptura . Few of them “believe” anything in the religious sense that they think of doctrine as being divinely revealed and true for all men. For the most part, the “belief” of Protestants in sola scriptura is a prejudice based upon anti-Catholic upbringing. That said, what is the value of proving sola scriptura false, since the people to whom I am trying to prove it don’t, for the most part, believe anything? There are three reasons: (1) To show that the Protestant system is self-contradictory, therefore bad, therefore something to avoid; (2) To witness to the truth for any non-Catholics of good will who perhaps do have a value for religious truth; and (3) To educate Catholics who may be presented with “Bible Only” attacks of Protestants.
I said at the beginning that I would use the Bible as my principal source. Some may find this hypocritical, since what I am trying to prove is that the Bible, in and of itself, is not sufficient as a rule of Faith. There are two reasons why my use of the Bible is not hypocritical: (1) As a Catholic, I do (I have to) believe in the inspiration of Holy Scripture; (2) Even if I did not believe in the Bible, there is authentic polemical value in proving the Protestant position wrong from the very book they uphold as having “all things necessary for salvation….” In fact, I will capitalize on this internal contradiction in the Protestant system, which proves the system to be not from God, since God cannot contradict Himself.
Open Your Bibles
The reader is invited to open his Bible to the table of contents. From there, I will draw my first argument against sola scriptura . I’m not referring the reader to any specific book of the Bible: It’s the table of contents itself to which I refer you.
The Bible has, according to the Protestant, sixty-six books.3 These books collectively form the inspired Word of God, which contains no error. It is written “by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).4 All of these books are listed on the table of contents of the King James Version which I have opened before me now (a “Gideon Bible,” one of the ones found in hotels). On the very next page is Genesis, chapter one. It is assumed, in the Protestant system, that these particular books form the authentic canon (list) of Scripture. In fact, they take great pains to argue the point that Catholics “added” books by including the so-called “apocryphal” books, which boost the sixty-six up to the seventy-two that we have in our Bible. So it is a doctrine of Protestantism that the sixty-six (and no more ) are the inspired books.
One thing absent from the table of contents is the table of contents itself. Let me reiterate: The table of contents is not one of the inspired books of the Bible. This means that it was put together by men.5 Yet, it is a doctrine of Protestantism, one that all Fundamentalists and Evangelicals will attest to, that the sixty-six books (and no more ) are the inspired Word of God. I hope the reader caught the point. If not, please read this paragraph again, before moving on to the next one.
The point should be obvious: Since there is no inspired table of contents in the Bible – and no book in the Bible lists itself and the other sixty five as inspired – then the Protestant depends on something other than the Bible for his doctrine. So, using Dr. Godfrey’s definition of sola scriptura above, there is something “concerning faith” which is not “taught in the Bible clearly enough for the ordinary believer to find it there and understand.”
To recapitulate the argument, we have here a contradiction: The Bible is the sole source of Christian doctrine, but the list of Bible books is not in the Bible. The Protestant is forced to go to something outside of the Bible for Christian doctrine.
For me, a Catholic, the authority of the men who codified my Bible is no problem: My Church is Infallible.
A Big Hole
The next argument is this: Nowhere in the Bible is the sola scriptura doctrine taught. Nowhere!
The classical Protestant reference used as a proof of sola scriptura is this one: “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 perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.” (2 Tim. 3:16-17)
Note that the passage does not say that the Bible is all that is needed for Christian doctrine. So the passage does not spell out sola scriptura clearly. But it seems to say that the man of God may be “perfect” and “thoroughly furnished unto all good works” just by following the teaching of Scripture… or does it? No, in fact, it does not say that at all. It says that Scripture is profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness. It’s the doctrine, reproof, correction and instruction by which the man of God may be “thoroughly furnished unto all good works.” For Timothy, that doctrine, correction, and instruction came from St. Paul, the author of the Epistle and Timothy’s teacher.
Even if it did say that the Scripture is “sufficient” and not just “profitable,” it still would not say that the Bible is a complete rule of Faith, in no need of unwritten apostolic tradition or the authority of the Church to complement it.
Further, if the argument is that the Bible is sufficient for the man of God that he “may be thoroughly furnished unto all good works,” then I advance that one doesn’t even need Scripture for that, since some men of God were promised their perfection (salvation) without the Bible: “Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures.” (1 Cor. 15: 1-3) The Corinthians are promised salvation if they remain true to St. Paul’s preaching . The Scriptures (Old Testament) are invoked only to substantiate that preaching.
Certainly St. Stephen, whose martyrdom was recorded in the Acts of the Apostles didn’t need the book of Acts, or the epistles of the yet unconverted Paul, to achieve his salvation.
Since there is no place in the Bible where it states that the Bible alone is the sole source of Christian doctrine, then the doctrine of sola scriptura is not biblical. It is, in fact, even by the Protestant standard of sola scriptura , not Christian doctrine. Ironic, isn’t it?
There are many places in the Bible, where an inspired author commands the readers to obey his preaching. The author states that his teachings are from God. The teachings are not specifically disclosed in the Bible, but only referred to; however, the readers are still commanded to believe and teach them. Here is one such passage, again from St. Paul to Timothy: “And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.” (2 Tim. 2:2) St. Paul here commands Timothy to teach “the things that thou hast heard.” That is oral teaching. It is passed on to other men (tradere , in Latin, from which we get the word “tradition” means “to pass on”). These other men will, in turn, teach others. This is oral Tradition, the very thing Protestants protest.
The typical Protestant answer to this is that all of these teachings of the Apostles made their way into the Bible. The problem with this argument is that the Bible does not say that all of the teachings of St. Paul are found in the Bible. If the Bible does not say it, then the teaching authority of man is relied upon in matters of Christian doctrine. That, of course, is a contradiction of sola scriptura .
A similar passage is 2 Thessalonians 2:15: “Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.” As their Apostle, St. Paul commands the Thessalonians to believe what he has taught them, not only by his epistles to them, but by his words, which he preached to them. Again, the same argument as above applies: There is no evidence that these teachings are found explicitly in the Bible.
Aside from the rejection of oral Tradition, sola scriptura also carries with it the idea of the sufficiency of Scripture to be understood, without a teaching authority to properly interpret it. As Dr. Godfrey said above, all things necessary are “taught in the Bible clearly enough for the ordinary believer to find it there and understand.” Therefore, the need of divinely appointed teachers, of a doctrinally authoritative Church, is absent in the Protestant system.
A necessary note of explanation has to be included here. What do I mean by “doctrinally authoritative”? This is important, since it is a major point in this article, and a major hole in the belief system of Protestantism. What I mean is this: A doctrinally authoritative Church has a divinely given power to (1) demand belief of its members in certain doctrines and (2) forbid its members to believe certain other doctrines. (These latter doctrines are called heresies .) The ones doing the forbidding and demanding – the ones who exercise authority – are men.
Protestantism rejects such an authoritative Church, but the doctrinal system disclosed in the Bible is the Catholic one and not the Protestant one.
Before I prove the existence of the Church’s power to demand / forbid belief, I will establish the general inequality of believers: St. Paul clearly marks out that not every believer has the same authority: “And God hath set some in the church , first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Are all workers of miracles?” (1 Corinthians 12: 28-29) And again: “And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ .” (Ephesians 4: 11-12)
In the above passages, I italicized two phrases: in the church and for the edifying of the body of Christ . These phrases show over whom the authority is exercised: men in the Church, which is the body of Christ. For the present purposes, it does not matter if we use the vague Protestant definition of “church” or the Catholic definition. In fact, for the purposes of argument, we will use the generic Protestant definition of church: “the body of believers.” This definition leads us to this statement: There are bishops and teachers who have authority in the body of believers.6
The three-chapter Epistle of St. Paul to St. Titus contains St. Paul’s directives to Titus on how to be a good bishop (the KJV even uses the word “bishop” in 1:7). St. Paul tells Titus, “These things speak, and exhort, and rebuke with all authority . Let no man despise thee.” In the first chapter of the same book, St. Paul tells Bishop Titus to “set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city.”
Paul orders Timothy to teach, and he, in turn, appoints other men. Among their duties is that of teaching. These ordained men (called elders, presbyters, or priests) answer to Titus who answers to Paul.
Another verse showing the authority of the Church to teach is this: “But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.” (1 Tim. 3:15) It is the Church that is the pillar and ground of the truth, even according to the King James Bible. If the Church is this pillar, then those who have authority to teach in the Church are the custodians of truth.
I have asked Fundamentalists and Evangelicals this question, “What is the pillar and ground of the truth?” Invariably, they answer, “The Bible.” Then I ask them, “What does the Bible say is the pillar and ground of the truth?” In the several times I have asked the question (and I only ask it of Protestants who are trying to use biblical arguments against Catholicism), not once have I gotten the Biblical answer. Some have denied that it says that in their Bible. This shows the Protestant’s ignorance of the fact that the Bible portrays a Church that has authority to teach.
Aside from the power to teach doctrines, I mentioned that the Church has authority to forbid belief. Once again, the Apostle to the Gentiles comes to our support: In his exhortation to Titus, St. Paul tells him to “rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith; Not giving heed to Jewish fables, and commandments of men, that turn from the truth.” (Titus 1:13-14) Just what these Jewish fables were does not matter. The point is that Bishop Titus has authority to condemn error and he is ordered to do so by his ecclesiastical superior, St. Paul.
To his other subordinate, the Bishop Timothy, St. Paul writes, “But shun profane and vain babblings: for they will increase unto more ungodliness. And their word will eat as doth a canker: of whom is Hymenaeus and Philetus; who concerning the truth have erred, saying that the resurrection is past already; and overthrow the faith of some.” (2 Tim. 2: 16-18)
Here St. Paul condemns a heresy spread by men whom he names. Their words are compared to a “canker” and their “babblings” Timothy is to “shun.” Later in the same discourse, Paul warns Timothy about what perverse men will arise, men who are “ever learning, and never able to come to the truth.” At the climax of this charge to his disciple, the Apostle says, “Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine .” The word “rebuke” means, according to Webster’s Dictionary, “To check, silence, or put down, with reproof; to restrain by expression of disapprobation; to reprehend sharply and summarily; to chide; to reprove; to admonish.” In plain language, St. Paul is telling Timothy that he has authority to say, “Shut up!” in matters of doctrine.
Naturally, Timothy’s authority is to be respected by those in his charge, for St. Paul said, “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.” (Hebrews 13:17)
The sola scriptura advocate may claim that the Apostles had a unique authority to teach truth and condemn error, and so did men like Timothy and Titus, BUT that all changed when the Bible was written and gathered together into one book. (You know: when men gave us the table of contents!) After that point, Gospel truth was in the Bible “clearly enough for the ordinary believer to find it there and understand” without a doctrinal authority over him. If the Protestant says that, he has another contradiction: The Bible doesn’t say that! There is no passage in the Bible which says that after the Bible is codified, there will be no men with doctrinal authority in the Church. So again, by his own standards, the Protestant is unbiblical.
What Early Christians Believed
“The Catholic Church’s rule of faith consists of the Bible, Tradition and a teaching Church. The Church Fathers unanimously affirm this three-fold rule of faith.”7 What follows are passages from the writings of Early Christians, passages which illustrate their belief in this three-fold rule, contrary to the sola scriptura doctrine of the Protestants. The reader is asked to note how the Fathers used some of the passages in St. Paul just as I used them earlier. This listing is not by any means complete. The passages cited here are from Cor Unum Apologetics Web Site , Joseph Gallegos, webmaster (http://www.cin.org/users/jgallegos/ ). Mr. Gallegos has graciously allowed me to use his research for this article. Should the reader like to read further on this subject, I recommend Mr. Gallegos’ site, as well as the book Not By Scripture Alone , to which he is a contributor. In that book, he provided over four hundred patristic passages like these, with which I will finish out this article:
St. Hilary of Poitiers (+368 ) – “It behooves us not to withdraw from the CREED which we have received… nor to back off from the faith which we have received through the prophets … or to back-slide from the Gospels. Once laid down, it continues even to this day through the TRADITION of the FATHERS” (Ex. Oper. Hist. Fragment 7, 3 )
St. Athanasius (+373 , who defended the divinity of Christ against the Arian heretics) – “We are PROVING that THIS view has been TRANSMITTED from FATHER to FATHER, but ye, O modern Jews and disciples of Caiphas, how many FATHERS CAN YE ASSIGN to your phrases? Not one of the understanding and wise; for all abhor you, but the devil alone; none but he is your father in this apostasy, who both in the beginning sowed you with the seed of this IRRELIGION, and now persuades you to slander the ECUMENICAL Council, for committing to writing, not YOUR doctrines, but that which from the BEGINNING those who were eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word have handed down to us. For the faith which the COUNCIL has confessed in writing, that is the faith of the Catholic Church; to assert this, the BLESSED FATHERS so expressed themselves while condemning the Arian heresy…” (De Decretis 27 )
“We are content with the fact that this is not the teaching of the Catholic Church, nor did the Fathers hold this.” (Epis. 59 )
“But after him (the devil) and with him are all inventors of unlawful heresies, who indeed refer to the Scriptures, BUT DO NOT hold such opinions as the saints have handed down, and receiving them as the traditions of men, err, because they DO NOT rightly KNOW THEM nor their power.” (Festal Letter 2 )
“But what is also to the point, let us note that the 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 called, a Christian.” (Ad Serapion 1, 28 )
St. Basil (+379 , who defended the divinity of the Holy Ghost against the Pneumatomachians) – “Let us now investigate what are our common conceptions concerning the Spirit, as well those which have been gathered by us from Holy Scripture, AS WELL those which have been gathered concerning it, as those which we have RECEIVED from the UNWRITTEN tradition of the Fathers” (Holy Spirit 22 )
“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.” (Holy Spirit 27 )
“For I HOLD IT APOSTOLIC TO ABIDE BY THE UNWRITTEN TRADITIONS. ‘I praise you,’ it is said, ‘that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances as I have delivered them to you;’ and ‘Hold fast the traditions which ye have been taught whether by word, or our Epistle.’ One of these traditions is the practice which is now before us, 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. (Holy Spirit 71 )
St. Cyril of Jerusalem (+386 ) – “But in learning the Faith and in professing it, acquire and keep that only, which is now DELIVERED TO THEE by THE CHURCH, AND which has been built up strongly out of all the SCRIPTURES.” (Catechetical Lectures 5,12 )
Epiphanius of Salamis (+403 ) – “But for all the divine words, there is no need of allegory to grasp the meaning; what is necessary is study and understanding to know the MEANING of each statement. We must have recourse to TRADITION, for all cannot be received from the divine Scriptures. That is why the holy Apostles handed down certain things in writings but others by TRADITIONS. As Paul said: ‘Just as I handed them on to you.'” (Panarion 61,6 )
St. John Chrysostom (+407 ) – “‘So then, brethren, stand fast, and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word, or by epistle of ours.’ [2 Thess 2:15] Hence it is manifest, that they did not deliver all things by Epistle, but many things unwritten, and in like manner both the one and the other are worthy of credit. Therefore let us think the tradition of the Church also worthy of credit. It is a tradition, seek no farther.” (Homily 4 on 2 Thess. )
St. Augustine (+430 ) – “For MY PART, I should NOT BELIEVE the gospel except moved by the authority of the Catholic Church. So when those on whose authority I have consented to believe in the gospel tell me not to believe in Manicheus, how can I BUT CONSENT?” (C. Epis. Mani. 5, 6 )
“Wherever this tradition comes from, we must believe that the Church has not believed in vain, even though the express authority of the canonical scriptures is not brought forward for it.” (Letter 164 to Evodius of Uzalis )
“Learn also diligently, and FROM THE CHURCH, WHAT ARE THE BOOKS of the Old Testaments, and WHAT are the books of the NEW.” (Catechetical Lectures 5,33 )
St. Vincent of Lerins (+445 ) – “When anyone asks one of these heretics who presents arguments: Where are the proofs of your teaching that I should leave behind the world-wide and ancient faith of the Catholic Church? He will jump in before you have finished with the question: ‘It is written.’ He follows up immediately with thousands of texts and examples…” (Commonit 1, 26 )
“Here perhaps, someone may ask: Since the canon of the Scripture is complete and more than sufficient in itself, why is it necessary to add to it the authority of ecclesiastical interpretation? As a matter of fact, [we must answer] Holy Scripture, because of its depth, is not universally accepted in one and the same sense. The same text is interpreted differently by different people, so that one may almost gain the impression that it can yield as many different meanings as there are men. Novatian, for example, expounds a passage in one way; Sabellius, in another; Donatus, in another. Arius, and Eunomius, and Macedonius read it differently; so do Photinus, Apollinaris, and Priscillian; in another way, Jovian, Pelagius, and Caelestius; finally still another way, Nestorius. Thus, because of the great distortions caused by various errors, it is, indeed, necessary that the trend of the interpretation of the prophetic and apostolic writings be directed in accordance with the rule of the ecclesiastical and Catholic meaning.” (Commonit 2 )
St. John Damascene (+749 ) – “So, then in expectation of His coming we worship toward the East. But this tradition of the apostles is unwritten. For much that has been handed down to us by tradition is unwritten.” (Orthodox Faith 4,12,16 )
“Moreover that the Apostles handed down much that was unwritten, Paul, the Apostle of the Gentiles, tells us in these words: ‘Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which ye have been taught of us, whether by word or epistle’ And to the Corinthians he writes, ‘Now I praise you brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the traditions as I have delivered them to you.'” (Orthodox Faith 4,16 )
“He who does not believe according to the tradition of the Catholic Church is an unbeliever.” (C. Nestorians )
1. This is not to say that such Tradition cannot be written down at some point. Doctrines taught by Jesus were later taught by the Apostles in their preaching. The writing down of these inspired oral traditions no more makes them cease being oral traditions than reading the Bible aloud would make it cease being written.
These Apostolic doctrines were codified in the New Testament, which, together with the Old Testament, contains all the articles of the Catholic Faith, at least implicitly. Some of the articles of Faith are found explicitly in the teaching of the Fathers, but not explicitly in the Bible. Ultimately, in the case of the Bible and the oral Tradition, it is the living authority of the Church that interprets and teaches them infallibly.
2. “What Do We mean by Sola Scriptura” in Sola Scriptura! , Don Kistler ed., (Morgan, Soli Deo Gloria:1996), pg. 3 quoted in “Material Sufficiency and Sola Scriptura” an on-line essay by Mr. Joseph Gallegos (http://www.cin.org/ users/jgallegos/web.htm).
3. For the purposes of the present argument, we may forget that the Bible actually contains 72 books and that the Reformers followed the anti-Christ Jews of the first century AD in throwing out the ones they did.
4. The Bible being used in this article is the King James Version (KJV), the most popular English Protestant Bible. I do not like this or any Protestant Bible. Its use is purely for purposes of polemics.
5. The men who compiled the canon of the Bible happened to be Catholic bishops; and, while the Protestant Reformers rejected seven books of the Catholic canon, they did not accept any of the books rejected by the Catholic Church. But this brings us into an entirely different argument.
6. Since that authority comes from God for the edifying of the body and since the gates of hell will not prevail against that same body (Matthew 16:19), then the teaching authority (Latin: Magisterium ) of the Church must be protected by God from error, just as Scripture itself is. This introduces the idea of infallibility, which would present a tangent in this article.
As a humorous aside in the present footnote, let me include the words of Archie Bunker on this matter: Against Catholicism, he said, “I don’t believe in no religion where ‘da head guy is inflammable !”
7 Joseph Gallegos, “Rule of Faith” on the Cor Unum Apologetic Web Site , url: http://www.cin.org/users/jgallegos/rule .