Answering a Smart Defense of Sola Scriptura

This is from a comment which I left at Nick’s Catholic Blog. I think my response makes it pretty clear what the original argument had been. If not, check out JoeyHenry’s comment here.

Joey,

Very well-written and thoughtful reply. As I understand it, there are three possible ways of defending sola Scriptura:

(A)The Bible says that Scripture is sufficient, so it’s sufficient.
(B)The Bible says that Scripture is inspired. While 2 Thes 2:15 says that Tradition transmitted both by writing (Scripture) and word of mouth (extra-Scriptural Tradition) are binding, that was true only during the age of revelation. By the close of the Apostolic age, all binding traditions had be inscripturated.
(C)All Scripture is inspired, only some traditions are. Therefore, when there’s a tension, Scripture wins.

Nick originally makes four arguments against (A):

  1. That the passage can mean “all Scripture” (collectively) or “each Scripture.”
  2. That St. Paul is referring to the Old Testament in the passage.
  3. That at the time Paul wrote this passage, Scripture wasn’t the sole rule of faith or the sole infallible source of the binding Apostolic Faith.
  4. That grammatically, Scripture is “helpful,” not sufficient. It is helpful for the Four Ends, which are, in turn sufficient (but brought about by more than Scripture alone).

In your response, you say Nick “misapplied” the passage. I think you agree that 2 Timothy 3:14-17 doesn’t prove (A), but that you think it can be used to establish (B). Your argument seems essentially to be that in the Apostolic age, there were God-breathed Scriptures and God-breathing Apostles. Now we only have the former, so that’s what we base everything off of. But the entire notion of Sacred Tradition is that the God-breathed things which the Apostles said (but didn’t write down) were remembered and discussed by their followers, and that while we don’t have transcripts of their sermons, we know what was discussed by their followers’ writing about it later. It’s less direct than Tertius quoting Paul verbatim (Romans 16:22), but functionally identical.

To arrive at your conclusions, you seem to be arguing:

  1. Scripture is God-breathed (inspired), and helps us to arrive at the Four Ends.
  2. Only Scripture is God-breathed. You argue that the “application of 2 Timothy 3:16 on sola scriptura hinges on the assertion about the unique nature of Scripture,” and contrast Scripture with any “other competing source.”
  3. Therefore, since only Scripture is inspired (while everything else is edifying at best, an opponent of Scripture at worst), we should rely upon Scripture alone.

Your #1 is granted by all parties to this discussion. Catholics think that all Apostolic Tradition is inspired whether Scriptural or extra-Scriptural. So Scripture is clearly God-breathed.

Your #2 seems to assume what you’re trying to prove – that Scripture alone is inspired. Proving Scripture is God-breathed doesn’t prove that only Scripture is God-breathed. It’s true Scripture is the only source of Tradition referred to in that manner biblically, but plenty of other passages describe the Holy Spirit speaking through people in oral form: Luke 1:41-42, Luke 12:11-12, Luke 21:14-15, Acts 2:4, Acts 4:8, Acts 4:31, Acts 13:8-10, etc., etc. So Scripture isn’t “unique” in being God-breathed, nor are these oral forms of God-breathed Truth “competing.” 2 Thes. 2:15 shows that both written and unwritten forms of Tradition are binding.

You might argue that this is no longer true after the Apostolic age, because of inscripturization. But inscripturization is an extra-Biblical tradition. Scripture says there are two sources of Tradition, and Scripture never says that everything important will be written down. A tradition of man (inscripturization) can’t then contradict Scripture and says, “now there is only one source of Tradition: Scripture.” Both Catholics and Protestants agree that there are no new publicly-binding revelations after the Apostolic age. But that doesn’t mean 2 Thes. 2:15 ceases to be true. Tradition (whether big or little t) refers to something “passed on,” and that passing on of the faith delivered once for all to the Apostles doesn’t cease after the last Apostle dies.

This leaves (C). The argument is basically that while there may be authentic Traditions, there are also traditions of men mixed in. How do we know that what was delivered once remains pure? There are two ways. First, the Holy Spirit. Second, the Church. And third, history (that is, comparing the primary sources with what we know believe). This is the same, incidentally, as for Scripture. Scripture literally means “writings,” so there are Sacred Scriptures and scriptures of men. The early Church struggled with the question of which scriptures were Scriptures, just as they struggled with the question of which traditions were Traditions. Ultimately, the Church settled both questions. But beyond this, we don’t have a first-edition of a single book of Scripture. So both you and I have to trust that the Church, through the protection of the Holy Spirit, prevented any significant errors in translating and re-translating Scripture. In explaining and re-explaining the Apostolic Tradition, we can see the Church Fathers agreeing on a vast number of issues (similar to multiple Biblical periscopes agreeing on specific wording or context). For identical reasons you trust that a translation of a translation of Tertius quoting Paul constitutes the God-breathed Book of Romans in your Bible, we Catholics trust that Sacred Tradition remains uncorrupted.

Also, a significant problem with (C) is that it assumes we all agree on which books are Scriptures. The early Church’s answer differs from the Protestant answer. Find, if you can, a single 66-book proto-Protestant canon in the early Church. I tried to here, but wasn’t able to. For example, the notion that Christians determined the canon of the New Testament, while non-Christian Jews determined the canon of the Old would be an idea utterly alien to the early Christians (many of whom were born Jewish). Besides, if you concede that even some extra-scriptural traditions are in fact Tradition (even if you find it hard to determine which ones), you’re already conceding that sola Scriptura is false. So (C) isn’t really a defense of sola Scriptura at all.

So the short answer is, God has entrusted us with Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, and the Church is a helpful guide in distinguishing the true from the false. God bless!

Joe.

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