What I’ve done in this post (which wasn’t ready by yesterday afternoon, sorry) is outline the Scriptural support for the Catholic position on Scripture and Tradition, and then explained the two best arguments against sola Scriptura, the “Self-Refuting” Argument, and the Canon Argument. The post is long (about 4,000 words), but I think it’s worth reading, and I’ve tried to cut extra verbage.
Now, there are basically two camps of believers in sola Scriptura. Both camps agree, in the words of the Reformed blogger E. Michael Patton, that “The doctrine of sola Scriptura is the belief that the Scripture is the final and only infallible authority for the Christian. In other words, it is the ultimate authority.” One camp (“Tradition 1”) believes that there are other fallible-but-binding authorities, capable of telling us how we ought to interpret Scripture, while the other camp (“Tradition 0,” or more pejoratively, solo Scriptura) denies all binding authority besides Scripture. This is an important difference to understand:
- The believer in Tradition 1 would likely say that all Christians are bound by the doctrine of the Trinity. Although it’s not explicit in Scripture, there’s solid Church Tradition, enforced by the Creeds, which show that the Trinity is implicit in Scripture. If your reading of Scripture doesn’t lead you to the Trinity, your reading is wrong. So the Church, Creeds, and/or Tradition still has a role to play in telling us how to understand the Bible; but all doctrines must ultimately be derived from Scripture.
- An adherent to Tradition 0 would be powerless to stop someone from interpreting the Bible in a non-Trinitarian way. After all, the Church is just a group of believers, and Tradition is just dead believers, so who’s to say that the majority is always right?
But while these two camps differ in some important aspects (as the example shows), it’s what they agree on that I’ve got in my sights today: the notion that all doctrine must be ultimately derived from Scripture. Here’s a brief synopsis of the Catholic positions, followed by relative short explanations of the two arguments refuting this notion.
I. The Catholic Position
Patton does a good job of keeping the Catholic position simple in this graph:
But we ought to give thanks to God for you always, brothers loved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in truth. To this end he has (also) called you through our gospel to possess the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, brothers, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours.
This passage teaches a lot:
- Scripture itself is a Tradition. Tradition means something passed on, and the Scriptures are passed on from generation to generation from the Apostles to the present age. Many Protestants claim to reject “Tradition.” If they really did that, they’d have to reject Scripture, and everything else they’d ever had taught to them, including the entire Gospel, since Paul is clear to describe his own epistles (and those of the other Apostles) as Tradition. It’s from verses like this that we get the term “unwritten Tradition” to refer to any Tradition not found in the Bible, but nota bene: these teachings were written down by the Early Church Fathers. It isn’t as though Catholics are playing a global game of telephone.
- Oral and written Tradition are Distinct. Paul clearly considers Scripture and unwritten Apostolic Tradition as being complementary, but not identical. They’re complementary, because they proclaim the same Gospel message: salvation through Jesus Christ. But they clearly contain some distinct information: otherwise, he wouldn’t have been careful to instruct us to follow both. If oral Tradition was just the Bible aloud, there’d be no reason for us to follow anything other than Tradition by epistle.
- “The Gospel” includes Scripture plus unwritten Tradition. In order that we might be saved, God “called you through our [that is, the Apostles’] gospel to possess the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This is the saving Gospel, and Paul describes its components as oral and written Tradition.
- Apostolic Tradition isn’t a “tradition of men.” In Mark 7:7-13, Christ condemns the Pharisees for turning the “traditions of men” into doctrine, and replacing and contradicting true doctrine in the process. But Paul is clear: the oral traditions the Apostles are passing on aren’t of men, but are of God. Paul says it’s God Himself who called the Thessalonians through “our Gospel.“
The second passage to consider is 2 Timothy 1:8-14,
So do not be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord, nor of me, a prisoner for his sake; but bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God. He saved us and called us to a holy life, not according to our works but according to his own design and the grace bestowed on us in Christ Jesus before time began, but now made manifest through the appearance of our savior Christ Jesus, who destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, for which I was appointed preacher and apostle and teacher. On this account I am suffering these things; but I am not ashamed, for I know him in whom I have believed and am confident that he is able to guard what has been entrusted to me until that day. Take as your norm the sound words that you heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard this rich trust with the help of the holy Spirit that dwells within us.
This passage reaffirms the same points made before, that the Gospel was something Timothy heard, and not just read (although it clearly consisted of a read portion as well, since he’d already received 1 Timothy from Paul at this point). But more importantly, Paul is showing how this extra-Biblical Tradition will be kept safe. It’s to be guarded by the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. It’s frequently argued that unwritten Tradition becomes unreliable over time. Paul gives us two reasons why that won’t happen:
- First, Christians like Timothy took care to protect the then-unwritten parts of the deposit of faith. That’s why we can look to the writings of the Fathers: everything they did, from their apologetical writings, to the early liturgies, to even their art, tells us about what they were taught and what they believed.
- Second, and more important, the Holy Spirit is in control! We ultimately don’t have to worry about “lost Traditions” or false traditions becoming indistinguishable from true Tradition because God the Spirit is on the job.
This is no different than Sacred Scripture. Just as we don’t have the original homilies preached by the Apostles, we don’t have the original New Testament manuscripts. But we trust that what we do have now is substantially the same, even if there are insignificant translation errors here or there. Now, the above two reasons are the same reasons both Catholics and Protestants believe we haven’t lost or distorted any books of the Bible: Christians took deliberate care to protect the Scriptures, and the Holy Spirit is sovereign. Those exact same arguments apply to extra-scriptural Tradition, as Paul makes clear here.
So that’s the Catholic position in a nutshell: the Deposit of Faith consists of both those things the Apostles wrote, and those things they taught but never wrote down themselves. Both are protected by the Holy Spirit, and preserved by and through the Church. They tell the same story (salvation through Jesus Christ) but include different details, including some important details. The way I personally think of Tradition is as a “fifth Gospel.” Just as Matthew and Mark tell the same story, but include and omit different details (including biggies like the Virgin Birth), Tradition and Scripture tell the same story as well, but with different details. With that laid out, let’s look to two reasons why the contrary view, sola Scriptura, is plainly false.
II. The Self-Refuting Argument
Scripture doesn’t teach (and the early Church didn’t understand Scripture to teach) that Scripture is the sole infallible source of doctrine and practice. Since the doctrine of sola Scriptura isn’t derived from Scripture, it fails by its own terms. There are a few concessions which I think Catholics should pay close attention to. I’ve labeled them (A), (B), and (C).
(A) The first of these I’ve mentioned before on the blog, and many thanks to Nick for highlighting it on his own blog. The quote is from Reformed apologist James White, who argues here:
You will never find anyone saying, “During times of enscripturation—that is, when new revelation was being given—sola scriptura was operational.” Protestants do not assert that sola scriptura is a valid concept during times of revelation. How could it be, since the rule of faith to which it points was at that very time coming into being? One must have an existing rule of faith to say it is “sufficient.” It is a canard to point to times of revelation and say, “See, sola scriptura doesn’t work there!” Of course it doesn’t. Who said it did?
Here’s the reason that’s important: the instructions of the New Testament were originally written for believers in the Apostolic Age, and by definition, prior to enscripturation. Since:
- Everything in the New Testament was written during an age when, as James White notes, sola Scriptura wasn’t in effect (and couldn’t have been, by definition).
- All of the verses addressing the status of Scripture are present-tense, and originally intended for believers of the Apostolic age (That is, the Bible contains no prophesies about how in the future, we will no longer need anything besides the Bible).
- Therefore, nothing in the New Testament prescribes the Bible alone as the sole (And, in fact, the Bible frequently exhorts believers to follow Apostolic Tradition in non-written form as well).
The next time someone tries to proof-text 2 Timothy 3:14-17 to argue for “sufficiency of Scripture” remember that Scripture wasn’t “sufficient” when Paul wrote those words. The same Paul, in fact, says as much in 2 Thessalonians 2:15, when he instructs believers to hold fast to Apostolic Tradition-by-epistle (Scripture) and orally transmitted Apostolic Tradition.
(B) The second admission I think is important is from Keith Mathison. This is from pages 20-21 of The Shape of Sola Scriptura:
Among the apostolic fathers, one will search in vain to discover a formally outlined doctrine of Scripture such as may be found in modern systematic theology textbooks. The doctrine of Scripture did not become an independent locus of theology until the sixteenth century. What we do find throughout the writing of the apostolic fathers is a continual and consistent appeal to the Old Testament and to the Apostles’ teaching. During these first decades following Christ, however, we have no evidence demonstrating that the Church considered the Apostles’ teaching to be entirely confined to written documents. This first generation of the Church saw many laymen and elders (e.g., Polycarp) who had been personally acquainted with one or more of the Apostles and who had sat under their preaching. We have no reason to assume that the apostolic doctrine could not have been faithfully taught in those churches which had no access to all of the apostolic writings.
So not only does the Bible not teach sola Scriptura, but the early Church didn’t believe in sola Scriptura either. [Additionally, the Apostolic Faith can be assumed to have been faithfully transmitted to the students of the Apostles. Because after all, if the Apostles were such poor teachers that even their students who spent years at their feet learning couldn’t understand their teachings, why in the world would we expect that we — who have only read a letter or two from any given Apostles — have a better grasp of what they taught? So the teaching can reasonably be said to either have been understood by the Apostles’ disciples, or to be lost to time forever (a proposition all orthodox Christians reject). Now, if this is true, of a whole litany of controverted Catholic doctrines can be settled in the Church’s favor — things like Eucharist, which was attested to quite clearly by St. Ignatius of Antioch, another of the Apostle John’s disciples (along with St. Polycarp). I point this out, not to steer the conversation away from sola Scriptura, but to recognize that even those claiming to follow “Tradition 1” frequently reject the actual teachings of the Fathers on a whole litany of issues.]
(C) The final admission is the culmination of the first two, in that it’s pretty charts showing the early Church was taught Scripture plus Tradition. E. Michael Patton has a pretty fascinating primer on why he believes in sola Scriptura (worthwhile for any Catholic looking to understand why some smart Protestants take that approach to Scripture). In it, he provides two charts which I found pretty helpful, trying to outline the sola Scriptura version of history (from a “Tradition 1” perspective). Both of these graphs tell a story, and both have a hidden — and false — premise. Here’s the first:
The solid and dotted lines are really important on this chart. Michael’s argument is that Tradition existed as a separate binding source of revelation only until the New Testament was complete. Two major flaws with this line of thinking:
- For this to be true, it must be the case that 100% of the Gospel is found in Sacred Scripture. Paul clearly says that “our Gospel,” that is, the Apostolic Gospel, consists of both written and oral teachings. No verse anywhere refutes or reverses this, and says, “Okay, now everything’s written down.” So to believe this argument, you must believe that some post-Biblical development nullified and reversed clear Biblical teaching.
- This notion that “Scripture + Tradition” gets replaced with just “Scripture” is clouded in real murkiness. There’s not a single point on the chart in which some post-Apostolic revelation tells us we don’t need to listen to 2 Thessalonians 2:13-15 anymore… it’s just assumed that the passage faded out as the line goes from solid to dashed. If we’re going to believe that the Scripture is no longer in effect, it’d be nice to know when it was nullified, and who nullified it.
Finally, where in Scripture is Patton getting any of this? Answer: nowhere. Scripture doesn’t have anything to say about Tradition eventually being replaced by the rest of Scripture. All of this is Protestant re-writing of history, and isn’t supported by the Church Fathers, much less Sacred Scripture. The second chart is similar to the first:
This suffers the same flaws as the first one. It assumes, absent any Biblical evidence, that all of the Apostles’ teachings were eventually condensed into the New Testament. But it also adds a new flaw, by arguing that at a certain point, “Unwritten Tradition Becomes Unreliable.” This is two flaws in one:
- It’s contradicted expressly by 2 Timothy 1:8-14, which provides that the Holy Spirit protects the Deposit of Faith, including (expressly) those things which Timothy “heard.” The belief that “Unwritten Tradition Becomes Unreliable” isn’t just not found in the Bible, it’s opposed from the Bible.
- It assumes that unwritten Tradition stays unwritten.
But beyond that, this is some shaky history. 2 Thessalonians 2:15 is Sacred Scripture. Patton and other believers in sola Scriptura want us to believe that this part of Scripture ceased to be true when the rest of Scripture was completed… or perhaps when all the books were widely available… or perhaps when the New Testament was formally canonized. This part is never very clear. But how do we know that this is true? This part isn’t clear either. Read the writings of the Fathers at the points Patton points to, and you’ll see they don’t believe in sola Scriptura. If there really was a change in the Church, going from two sources of revelation to only one, we should have some Biblical and Patristic support for that change. There is literally none. Reading the writings of the Church Fathers alive when this supposedly occurs, you’ll find not one of them mentioning any transition of the sort. Not a single one refers to anything like this.
In fact, sola Scriptura itself is a “tradition of men.” It’s not just unbiblical, it’s contrary to the plain Scriptures, assumed into existence through Medieval logic, and it plainly wasn’t the teaching of the Apostles or their earliest followers. (Mathison, in Shape of Sola Scriptura, claims later Early Church Fathers believed the doctrine, which is untrue but irrelevant. At most, this would only show that a heresy entered the Church in the second or third century.) So by the very standards of any form of sola Scriptura, the doctrine of sola Scriptura cannot be sustained by appeal to the Scriptures — and extra-Scriptural, manmade traditions are obviously invalid as a source of doctrine.
III. The Canon Argument
This argument is quite simple. Belief in sola Scriptura requires a knowledge of which writings are Scripture and which aren’t. Yet nothing in any one Scripture says which other books are inspired. That is, there’s no inspired table of contents. The overwhelming majority of the books of the Bible don’t even attest to their own inspiration, either explicitly or implicitly. This is particularly true for the New Testament. The doctrine, “these 73 (or 66) books are inspired Scripture” isn’t found, implied, or even hinted at in any of the Scriptures.“ Frank Beckwith addressed the argument well in the comments here (look for the text “But while this consensus was forming”). Interestingly, when intelligent Protestants like Greg Koukl (who Beckwith is responding to) attempt to defend the canon as inspired, they wind up making an argument for the Catholic canon. The Church councils Koukl refers to in the above link affirmed the 72-book Catholic canon, as the top commenter quickly noted.
Now, R.C. Sproul has admitted that he believes, along with “Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and so on,” that “the canon of Scripture is a fallible collection of infallible books.” That’s a startling admission. Sola Scriptura says all doctrines must come from the Bible, and yet it can’t even tell us which books make up the “Scriptura“? Patton admits more: since Protestants reject any notion of infallible interpretation of Scripture, he notes that “Protestants have a fallible interpretation of an fallible canon of infallible books.” That’s in stark contrast to the strong foundation a Catholic can have, particularly in those areas where the Church has infallibly declared the teaching derived from the Bible on a certain point.
This isn’t an idle query. The Reformers ripped seven books out of the Bible (the Deuterocanon), books which are affirmed by every other Christian Church. By what authority did they act? And if they’re (by their own admission) not inspired by the Holy Spirit in taking this step, who’s to say the Reformers were right? Yet the overwhelming majority of Protestants haven’t even read the Deuterocanon, and reject it prejudicially (in the literal sense of that term).
Patton gives two answers to why Protestants and Catholics are on the same boat. First, he says that Protestants can be substantially certain, even if they don’t have infallibility. But since Protestants are taking the minority view (representing about 25% of Christians globally) and taking the novel view (using a canon not found until the 16th century), where is the substantial certainty? Even if they personally have a strong feeling that the Reformers got the canon right, where’s an objective basis supporting this view? The second argument is built upon the first, and clarifies it. This is how Patton understands the question:
This understanding is wrong. Patton’s description of Catholics is correct: our own faith is quite fallible, and must always be checked by infallible Scripture, Tradition, and the Church. That’s solidly Biblical (2 Timothy 3:14-15; 2 Thessalonians 2:15; 1 Timothy 3:15). Tradition and the Church, in turn, present the infallible 72-book Catholic canon of infallible Scripture, and the believer accepts or rejects it in toto. Trying to pick and choose is a rejection of the canon, just as surely as someone who believes only the half of the Trinity about Three Persons, and not the half about One God doesn’t believe in the Trinity.
But the Protestant doesn’t just have a fallible belief in infallible Scripture. He has a fallible belief about each infallible book, and a fallible belief that a fallible Protestant group decided correctly in removing books from the Bible. Since the Protestant’s belief isn’t in the Church canon, but the individual canonicity of each book, so Patton’s graph should have had hundreds (or even thousands) of arrows signaling fallible beliefs about Scripture. Here’s a list of books which were, historically speaking, contenders for the canon. It includes some 99 books. Protestants, lacking both an infallible canon and any historical reason to believe in the 66-book Protestant canon, often rely instead on Calvin’s weak argument that true Christians know which books are in the Bible by the inner working of the Holy Spirit: an argument which would render the entire pre-Reformation Church as non-Christians, as well as Reformers like Luther who rejected some of the books of the Bible. Taken seriously, this would mean that the Protestant possesses a moral responsibility to attest to why they reject 33 of these 99 books. Why those 33? Why those 66? And beyond this, a number of them are much longer in Greek than Hebrew. Esther, for example, doesn’t mention God in the Hebrew version (the one accepted by Jews and Protestants). The Greek version (accepted by Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and the Early Church) is much more obviously religious, as opposed to simply historical — it actually mentions God, for example! On what basis does the Protestant take the not-particularly-religious version of Esther? Again, for Catholics, the answer to all of those questions is simple: the Church says this is the canon, and any deviation is therefore wrong. Reject the inspired canon in favor of individual determination, and you’re in a real pickle. It’s simply impossible to have even a reason certainty that you’ve got the canon question right.
But all of this ignores the more pressing issue. The canon of Scripture is a doctrine, and an important one: the most important one, in fact, to the Protestant, since all other doctrines proceed from the canonical books. And yet this vital doctrine is not found in the Bible. So sola Scriptura is false. Period. It doesn’t matter if you’re going by the internal surety you feel the Holy Spirit providing you when you read certain books, or going by the consensus of the Reformers, or any other reason. You’re deriving the most important doctrine — the doctrine which determines the validity of all other doctrines — on the basis of something other than Scripture.
Those are the arguments in a nutshell. The Bible, by its own terms, does not set the canon, and does not declare itself the only source of doctrine, but does declare that the Gospel includes orally-transmitted Apostolic Tradition, and does provide a Divinely-protected way for that Apostolic Tradition to be protected and transmitted to future generations.
This issue is a home run for Catholics, because the Scriptures are clearly on our side. In response, Protestants (ironically) violate sola Scriptura, and try and defend the doctrine on the basis of logic, the writings of the Reformers, misinformed early Church history, and appeals to an interior light of the Holy Spirit. Not only are these appeals wrong (or irrelevant, like what the Reformers wrote on the issue), but they are obviously contrary to the idea that doctrines may only be derived from Scripture — the defenses themselves serve as powerful arguments against the doctrine.