Two Types of Sola Scriptura

Back on April 3rd, Roderick_E said in response to a post about the two types of tradition (traditions of men and Sacred Tradition):

The “anti-traditionalists” who shout “Sola Scriptura” but actually mean their private interpretation alone seem to fail to realize that Martin Luther even understood there is such a thing as the “ancient faith” which has been passed down (2 Thes 2:15).
My issue as a “Protestant” is determining where that ancient faith begins and ends and where unChristian additions have been added, either by Roman Catholics or Evangelicals.
To me, there is a clear difference between Roman Catholicism and Papalism. And it seems the Reformers were more against Papalism than the RCC.

I began to respond to him shortly afterwards, but my response was rambling and unhelpful, and I never finished it. So let me try again (and Roderick, my apologies for the long turnaround):

  • Sola Scriptura means different things to different people. A modern Calvinist or Lutheran may intend the term in its historic sense, but it’s taken on a whole separate meaning amongst those (particularly non-denominationalists and Evangelicals) who take the implications of the doctrine to what they understand to be its logical conclusions.
  • Roderick has captured it by the terms pro-traditionalists and anti-traditionalists; Keith Keith Mathison and others sometimes the possibly derogatory term solo Scriptura to refer to the later category; others (like Heiko Oberman) distinguish between the Reformer’s original methodology as “Tradition 1” and the modern Evangelicals’ as “Tradition 0.” So lots of proposed ways to clear up the confusion, but none have particularly caught on, and sola Scriptura remains the preferred self-descriptor for most. I’ll follow Oberman for this post, but I’m always interested in hearing from actual believers in these two views as to what they feel the most helpful (descriptive and respectful) way to distinguish the two are.
  • With Tradition 0, sola Scriptura means something near: “if I were on a desert island and read a Bible, what would I understand that Bible to be saying about God (or whatever the relevant issue is).” The Bible contains all of the necessary tools for living a godly life, “able to make thee wise unto salvation” and so that “the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Timothy 3:14-17). Given this, there’s no need (or room) for the Church, or for Tradition. We’ve got the saving medicine from the Doctor of Life (God), so there’s no reason to hear a second opinion from, say, the Church Fathers.
  • In stark contrast, Tradition 1 views sola Scriptura in this way: Scripture contains all of the information and tools which we need to be saved, but there’s still a need for Tradition or the Church (the understanding of “Church” here is usually body of believers, or the early Church). Scripture contains all of the ingredients, but Tradition (and particularly, the Creeds) comprise a sort of recipe showing how those ingredients ought to be assembled.

Tradition 1 is a pretty attractive theory, and there’s a lot about it which I appreciate. But there’s a few fundamental problems with the theory:

  1. First, it assumes the Protestant Bible as a starting place. None of the Early Church Fathers (not a single one) used the 66 book Protestant canon. So the early Church’s recipe has different ingredients.
  2. Beyond this, the ECFs allowed for Apostolic Tradition whether by letter or word of mouth, so even if something wasn’t explicitly in Scripture, it was still a binding part of the Faith if it was taught by the Apostles. This is an area which is often misunderstood, so let me be clear. The relationship between Scripture and Tradition to the early Church (and to the Catholic Church today) is like the relationship between the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of Mark. They tell the exact same story, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t find details in one and not the other. In fact, you may even find times when they appear to contradict each other. But any Christian who believes both are completely inspired texts will try and understand them in a way that they don’t contradict one another (since they can’t both be right and contradictory). Likewise, we understand Tradition in a manner in which it doesn’t violate Scripture, and vice versa.
  3. Finally, the Early Church Fathers are incredibly Catholic. This results in a series of absurdities, like when Keith Mathison (a Tradition 1 Protestant) cites to St. Irenaus (c. 130-200 A.D.), even calling him “Bishop of Lyons,” to try and prove that Irenaus believed in sola Scriptura. He didn’t, but even if Mathison were right, to get to this point, he had to concede that there is an office of “Bishop of Lyons” in the 2nd century Church… an office which Mathison, as a Reformed Protestant, rejects.

There are three ways of reconciling the conflict inherent in #3: either (a) becoming more Catholic (frequently, Catholic converts point to exactly this testimony of the Early Church), (b) rejecting the Church Fathers on an increasing number of issues, or (c) misunderstanding what they believed and taught. Of course, (a) leads to Catholicism, (b) leads to Tradition 0, and (c) is an unstable foundation.

I would argue that even Roderick’s own allocation of power to himself: of being the authority in charge of determining “where that ancient faith begins and ends,” and deciding which of the Church’s Traditions She can keep as authentic Tradition, is an authority never given to the layman anywhere in Scripture. You don’t judge the Church: She judges you. The idea is as clear from Scripture as it is repugnant to a self-obsessed democratic people.

That said, I’m not sure I understand what “Papalism” is, or who actually believes it. My hunch is that this is the sort of thing that people accuse their opponents of believing, while no one believes it themselves — a straw man, in other words. If that it is the case, I agree that “there is a clear difference between Roman Catholicism and Papalism. And it seems the Reformers were more against Papalism than the RCC.”


Here’s what we Catholic actually believe:

  • Tradition (paradosis), strictly speaking, is anything “passed on.” Anything you teach your kids is a tradition, in some sense, whether it’s “Love the Lord your God” or “remember to excuse yourself before leaving the table.” The difference between “Tradition” and “traditions of men” is that Tradition is those things passed on from God. It’s called Apostolic Tradition because of 2 Thes 2:15 and 1 Cor. 11:2, but St. Paul makes it clear that the ultimate origin of this Tradition is Jesus Christ Himself. Paul notes this expressly in regards to the Eucharist in 1 Cor. 11:23-26 and in regards to the Death and Resurrection of Christ in 1 Cor. 15:3-5.
  • Catholics reject the notion of a secret Tradition. The Gnostics claimed that Jesus taught one thing publicly and a totally different thing to His Disciples. We’ve always rejected this as bogus. It’s true that Jesus was more expicit and more in-depth with the Twelve, but it was the same message, public and private.
  • Scripture summarizes the teachings of Christ, and the Apostolic Faith. This is true both of the New Testament as a whole, and of each individual book.
  • That said, important details are sometimes omitted. This isn’t, as some claim, because the Apostles didn’t know or believe in these things, or because they forgot. The Holy Spirit simply guided them to include certain details in each particular account. So, for example, only two of the four Gospels mention the Virgin Birth (a fundamental tenet of Christianity), while all four would have obviously known about it. Same goes for the Beatitudes. Very important part of the Faith, yet it’s only in two accounts.
  • Usually, the differences in details are due to their particular focus: Matthew and Luke focus on the miracle of the Virgin Birth, while John (in his famous first chapter) takes a theological view on the perhaps more incredible miracle that God became Man at all, and that the Man Jesus Christ is the eternal God from before the dawn of time. Neither rejects the others’ starting point, they just chose to focus on different aspects. Similarly, John chooses to mention only seven of Jesus’ miracles, in order to focus on them more closely. John admits in John 21:25, “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.
  • For each book of the Bible, we can say without contradiction, “the Book is perfect,” written exactly as the Holy Spirit intended, and “the Book is incomplete on its own.” Catholics say the same thing of the entire written Bible, and rely heavily upon Biblical support for this proposition. Protestants who claim that the Bible is complete on its own have to argue this (ironically) with recourse to non-Biblical propositions. To use another analogy: some early heretics tried to argue that the Old Testament was evil while the New Testament was good. Yet Christ quotes the Old Testament favorably in the New Testament. So if the New is true, the Old is true as well – there’s no way to sever the New from the Old without mangling its meaning. Likewise, non-written Apostolic Tradition and the authority of the Church are both written of in the Bible, so if you take the Bible for what it says, you have to rely upon more than just the Bible.


  1. I agree with your reasoning overall and I especially liked the paragraph starting with “three ways of reconciling the conflict inherent in #3.”

    The truth is, Tradition-1 is more or less an invented attempt to salvage Sola Scriptura. Sola Scriptura, according to the historic Protestant Confessions, means (in a nutshell) only teachings derived from Scripture are binding. Period. It doesn’t matter how many people in history or the Church say X, if the Bible doesn’t teach X, the Believer is not bound to it.

    This is where Tradition-1 comes apart, because “tradition” here is infinitely inferior to the authority of the Scriptures and thus can be rejected by any Protestant who considers any given “tradition” to not be biblical.

    I just wrote an apologetics article on how even Scripture doesn’t teach Sola Scriptura, which is where the biggest Protestant dilemma is:

  2. Roderick,

    The most famous and clearest proof that the Tradition-1 versus Tradition-0 distinction is without merit is the case of infant baptism.

    Protestants who baptize infants appeal to Scripture and ‘tradition’, while Baptists point out that while tradition has some value only the Scriptures can ultimately bind the conscience. The Baptists might even point out examples of long standing ‘tradition’ that are ‘clearly false’ such as baptismal regeneration, proving the Scripture is the safest and final authority. With this, the Baptist doesn’t care how long or widespread infant baptism was, it doesn’t have Biblical warrant and thus to be rejected. The other Protestants have no basis to overturn this Baptist reasoning.

    (And with this, any Protestant body can make the same argument to not heed any given tradition on any other given doctrine.)

    Thus, the tradition-1 versus tradition-0 distinction is clearly exposed as a distinction without a difference (and some would say simply a modern failed attempt to salvage sola scriptura).

  3. Agreed, that most baptists are more Tradition 0. As a matter of fact, both the Reformers and the Roman Catholics rejected the radical, “enthusiasts” Anabaptists who have as their ideological fathers, men like Andrea Karlstadt and Thomas Munzter.

    While without any connection to the historic Christian practice of baptism, a person may make a case for confessed adult/older child immersion baptism, the Bible AND tradition shows that paedo-baptism is more inline with circumcision as applied to the eight day old infant as a sign and seal of covenant. It speaks nothing of actual salvation, but only that the child will be reared under the auspices of the Christian community, ala 1 Cor 7:13-14.

    So, yes there is major distinction between Tradition 0 and Tradition 1 AND Papal Tradition 2.

  4. Hello Joe and Roderick,

    Though Oberman has done a fine job in delineating some of the historical nuances concerning the nature of tradition, IMHO, A.N.S. Lane’s contribution, SCRIPTURE, TRADITION and CHURCH, identifies further distinctions that are even more helpful.

    I have built upon Dr. Lane’s essay in a number of threads that may be of some interest:

    Which and/or Whoose Sola Scriptura

    Scripture and Tradition

    Scripture and Tradition In The Early Church

    Catholics and Material Sufficiency

    Dividing Line

    Grace and peace,


  5. Mr. Heschmeyer, When you say “different ingredients”, I’m assuming you mean the Deuterocanonical books, correct? I mean, some Fathers wrote after the canon was decided and therefore had all 66 books in the Protestant canon, but of course the canon then had the Deuterocanonicals so it wasn’t ONLY the 66 books of the Protestant canon? Is that what you meant?

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