Sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”) is the Protestant belief that all binding Christian doctrines must come from Scripture alone. (We Catholics believe that Christian doctrines can come from either Scripture or Apostolic Tradition – that is, we’re more concerned with whether a teaching goes back to the Apostles than whether that teaching was initially transmitted orally or in writing.) An important question for those who believe in sola Scriptura: Was sola Scriptura true during the time of the Apostles?
That is: were the Apostles and the first-century Christians bound to follow Scripture alone? Some Protestants say yes, some say not.
I. If You say “No”
If you say that sola Scriptura wasn’t true during the Apostolic age, a few things follow:
- You can’t use sola Scriptura proof-texts. To try to defend the doctrine of sola Scriptura, there are a handful of out-of-context proof-texts that get frequently used (for example, 2 Timothy 3:16-17 says that all Scripture is inspired… and therefore, somehow, only Scripture is inspired, and it’s all we need). But you can’t say that the Bible is teaching sola Scriptura while claiming that sola Scriptura wasn’t true while the Bible was written.
- You can’t deny that the Bible teaches contrary to sola Scriptura. 2 Thessalonians 2:15 says to hold to Scripture and Tradition: “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.” A common Protestant response is that Paul doesn’t actually mean that you need to follow both, because the two (Gospel-by-epistle and Gospel-by-word-of-mouth) are coextensive. But that explanation of the passage doesn’t work if you acknowledge that that the Christian Gospel was broader than Scripture at the time Paul wrote those words.
- You have to concede that sola Scriptura is unscriptural. If you take this first option, you’re conceding that sola Scriptura is a post-Apostolic tradition, and one that contradicts the explicit witness of Scripture. But the whole point of sola Scriptura is that it seeks to reject any sort of post-Apostolic tradition, particularly those traditions contrary to Scripture.
So there’s a strong temptation to take the other option, to say that sola Scriptura was true during Apostolic times. But that leads to problems of its own…
II. If You say “Yes”
Consider the alternative, to believe that the Apostles and early Christians held to Scripture alone. If that’s the case, then you have to reduce the entire Christian message to mere exposition of the Old Testament. Christ and the Apostles can’t say or do anything new and never-before-heard-of… or if they do, they must teach it in writing before they proclaim it orally. That’s a big problem, given that the New Testament texts weren’t written until at least a couple of decades after the Resurrection. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this view literally renders the New Testament redundant.
There’s also the glaring problem that Scripture teaches that the Apostles weren’t believers in sola Scriptura. Just listen to St. John’s account of Easter morning (John 20:1-9):
Now on the first day of the week Mary Mag′dalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. So she ran, and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Peter then came out with the other disciple, and they went toward the tomb. They both ran, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first; and stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb; he saw the linen cloths lying, and the napkin, which had been on his head, not lying with the linen cloths but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not know the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.
On Easter, St. John still thinks that the Old Testament Scriptures have nothing to say on the Resurrection. As the text makes clear, this was an ignorant mistake (see also Luke 24:25-27). But it didn’t matter. Thinking that Scripture didn’t teach the Resurrection, John still freely comes to believe in the Resurrection because of what he’s seen: namely, his encounters with Christ and the Empty Tomb, and the subtle evidence-from-order found in a neatly-wrapped face cloth.
So for the sola Scriptura Protestant who takes this second option, what do you do with this? Should John have resisted believing in the Resurrection until someone could come by and open up the Scriptures for him?
These are the two options. You can claim, despite the clear evidence to the contrary, that the Apostles and early Christians believed in Scripture alone. But doing so both undermines John’s faith in the Resurrection and renders the New Testament irrelevant. Or you can concede that the Apostles and early Christians didn’t believe in Scripture alone. But then you have to throw out all of the alleged “Scriptural proofs” for sola Scriptura, and concede that it’s a post-Apostolic man-made tradition that contradicts the written word of God.