Was Sola Scriptura True During the Apostolic Age?

Sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”) is the Protestant belief that all Christian doctrines should be taken from Scripture alone.  Given this, it seems fair to ask Protestants, “Was sola Scriptura true during the Apostolic age?”  That is, during the time of the New Testament, did those Christians believers rely on the Bible alone for their doctrines?

The Reformed apologist James White says no, and claims that no Protestant would ever claim otherwise (my emphasis added):

Lorenzo Veneziano, The Apostle Peter Preaching (14th c.)

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?

White’s claim is pretty flagrantly  false.  Plenty of Protestants do just that, including other Reformed apologists.  For example, this post by Hiram, on Matthew 4:4:

In this one verse, Christ affirms the doctrine of Sola Scriptura as not merely holding in His own day, but also holding since the beginning, for He quotes from Deuteronomy and, expositing its meaning in His current situation, applies it in a manner consistent with its original intended audience. Therefore, Jesus Christ our Lord taught and firmly held to the doctrine of Sola Scriptura.

Hiram’s explicitly asserting what White claims no Protestant asserts: that sola Scriptura was true during the time of Christ.  In fact, Hiram goes much further, and claims it was true from the time of Moses.  (What makes this even weirder is the fact that Hiram promotes Alpha and Omega Ministries, James White’s ministry).

Why This Matters

1. The Trouble With Hiram’s View: It Undermines Christ

Raphael, St. Paul Preaching in Athens (1515)

Both Hiram’s and James White’s view are very problematic for Protestants. Hiram’s view is that sola Scriptura was true even during the Old Testament, where there were living prophets still prophesying.  That’s directly against what the Old Testament says. Look at passages like Exodus 8:1, Ex. 9:13, Ex. 19:6, Ex. 30:31, Leviticus 1:1-2, Lev. 4:2, Lev. 6:25, Lev. 9:3, 2 Chronicles 11:2-4, Ezekiel 20:3, Ezek. 38:14, and Ezek. 44:6.

In each of these examples, God reveals something new through a prophet by ordering the prophet to say something to a particular person or group. That is, new revelation is transmitted orally. Certainly, these revelations were eventually written down, but often not until much later. Under Hiram’s view, you’d have to reject the new revelation until the prophet wrote it down. And in many cases, waiting until the prophesy was written down would be much too late. Look specifically at the example in 2 Chronicles 11:2-4, for example. If Rehoboam had ignored the prophet, since 2 Chronicles hadn’t been written yet, he’d have gone into battle in direct disobedience against God.

Carl Bloch, The Sermon on the Mount (1877)

This problem is aggravated when you consider Christ’s own ministry.  After all, Jesus left us exactly zero written words. Hiram tries to skirt this by claiming that since the Old Testament prophesied Christ, “Christ’s entire ministry is contained in the Law, i.e. the Old Testament.”  This is pretty explicitly denied by the first chapter of John’s Gospel (John 1:17).

But perhaps an even better place to look would be the first chapter of Mark’s.  “The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, ‘What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to evil spirits and they obey Him’” (Mark 1:27).  So Christ, the Revelation of God, brings with Him new teachings.  If that weren’t the case, the New Testament would be unnecessary.  And this new revelation was revealed by Christ Himself, not by any writing.  As St. Paul says in 2 Thessalonians 2:15, we’re bound as Christians to obey both Tradition-by-Epistle, and Tradition-by-word-of-mouth (more on that below).  We see this throughout the entire Bible, up to the very last Book: as Rev. 1:1 makes clear, the entire Book of Revelation was originally a vision.

2. The Trouble with James White’s View: It Undermines Sola Scriptura

James White quite reasonably notes that sola Scriptura cannot be true while new revelation is still being transmitted.  After all, even if every prophet shared their revelations via text, they didn’t receive them from God that way.  He’s absolutely right on this.  But it leaves him in an awkward position.

White’s really conceding something rather jaw-dropping: sola Scriptura wasn’t true when the Bible was being written. So the Bible obviously doesn’t teach sola Scriptura (since it wasn’t true then).  This means three things:

Jacob Jordaens, the Four Evangelists (c. 1620s)
  1. All of the Protestant proof-texts that supposedly “prove” sola Scriptura from the Bible are false.  If sola Scriptura wasn’t true when Paul wrote his second letter to Timothy, then clearly, 2 Timothy 3:15-17 doesn’t teach sola Scriptura.
  2. It shows sola Scriptura to be un-Scriptural and self-refuting. White’s admitting that sola Scriptura (which holds that all doctrines must come from Scripture) is a doctrine that doesn’t come from Scripture.
  3. It shows sola Scriptura to be contrary to Scripture.  In 2 Thessalonians 2:15, St. Paul writes to the Thessalonians, saying, “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the Traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.”  This pretty clearly shows that there were Apostolic Traditions passed on by letter (what we would today call the New Testament), and other Apostolic Traditions passed on only by word of mouth.  At the time Paul was writing, there were teachings which were only contained in the oral teachings of the Apostles, and were not at that time written down (otherwise, Paul’s instructions are redundant).  White’s admission solidifies this: the Bible at that time did not contain the full revelation.

So this leaves Protestants in a truly bizarre position.  In order to affirm the un-Scriptural doctrine that all doctrines have to come from Scripture, Protestants have to nullify the word of God found in 2 Thessalonians 2:15.   So I wholeheartedly agree with James White that sola Scriptura wasn’t true during the Apostolic age.  But given that, it can’t suddenly become true on its own later.  In defending the truth of the Gospel, White is showing the hollowness of the doctrine of sola Scriptura.

Protestant Babel

So whether you’re inclined to take Hiram’s view or James White’s view of whether the Aposotlic Church believed in sola Scriptura, the end point is the same: sola Scriptura is false.  But what should we make of the simple fact that two Reformed apologists take such radically different interpretations?  After all, Hiram’s a fan of James White, yet advances an argument that James White claims no Protestant makes.  I think that there are three lessons here.

Gustave Doré, The Confusion of Tongues (1855)

First, Catholics should be aware that Protestants don’t agree with one another on much.  Just because two Protestants say they believe in sola fide (justification by faith alone) and sola Scriptura, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they actually agree on what those terms mean.  Keith Mathison spends a lot of time in The Shape of Sola Scriptura showing that while Evangelicals and Reformed Christians both pledge allegiance to “sola Scriptura,” they mean totally different things by the term.  We see something similar playing out right now with “sola fide,” with regard to the Lordship Salvation controversy.  Based on differing understanding of sola fide, Protestants can’t agree on whether you need to actually obey Jesus to be saved.

“Protestantism” is a broad umbrella term that includes everything from, say, the radically pro-gay Metropolitan Community Church to the radically anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church.  We’re not used to this as Catholics.  “Catholicism” has a specific meaning, and consists of some easily-identifiable beliefs. Those who disagree are objectively dissenters, and are derided as “cafeteria Catholics” for picking and choosing which parts of the Faith to believe.  But there’s no such thing as “cafeteria Protestants,” precisely because there’s no organized, visible Protestant Church to accept or reject.  So if you’re trying to actually understand and answer your Protestant friend’s belief in sola Scriptura, find out what that term means to him first.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Tower of Babel (1563)

Second, Protestants should also be aware that Protestants don’t agree with one another on much.  In the post I linked to above, James White attacks Catholic Answers generally, and Steve Ray specifically, for “using a straw-man view of sola scriptura.”  Likewise, Mathison accuses Catholics of refuting an “easily demolished straw-man” in place of the real doctrine of sola Scriptura.

That’s remarkably unfair.  Steve Ray (the particular target of White’s attacks) is a former Evangelical. As such, he’s addressing what Mathison derides as “this aberrant Evangelical version of sola Scriptura,” which even Mathison admits has become the dominant form of sola Scriptura in the last 150 years.  Accusing someone of dishonesty or ignorance, simply because they’re answering a slightly different Protestant viewpoint than your own is unreasonable.  So just as Catholics shouldn’t assume that all Protestants hold to the same understanding of sola Scriptura and sola fide, Protestants shouldn’t assume this, either.

Finally, the modern Protestant Babel should raise some serious red flags. At one point in his second letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul write, “But as surely as God is faithful, our message to you is not ‘Yes’ and ‘No” (2 Cor.1:18).  In other words, the Gospel message isn’t supposed to be incoherent and contradictory.  To the extent that the Gospel is just that within Protestantism today, it’s the sign that something is seriously amiss.


  1. This is a very important topic to bring up, but the fact is White’s view is the most “logically consistent” and in fact the prevailing view I’ve found. It is precisely such problems coming to light and being spread through the blogosphere that is leading to so many Protestants to abandon Protestantism.

    I’ve Documented HERE about nine ‘big name’ Reformed apologists that say Sola Scriptura was not “operative” until after the Apostolic Age.

  2. “Sola scriptura says the Scriptures are the sole infallible rule of faith for the Church.”

    The Bible itself never makes this claim. So where does this doctrine come from? Man himself. Why? To make one feel good from being separated from Rome.

    If Rome failed, Christ failed. There is no middle ground.

    1. “Many Christian teachings are a necessary logical deduction of what is clearly taught in the Bible (e.g., the Trinity). Likewise, it is possible that sola Scriptura could be a necessary logical deduction from what is taught in Scripture.”

      God bless

      1. Does that mean you accept the Real Prescence, the necessity of Apostolic Succession, Purgatory, and the sacrament of reconciliation/confession? Because each and every one of those has a logical deduction from Scripture.

  3. I know I’ve often frustrated non-Catholics in the past by incessantly asking copious amounts of questions when all they want to get on and debate Mary, Purgatory etc.

    I recently wrote: “I’m afraid I really do have to ask these questions. If you want to know what *I* believe you can just crack open the Catechism. This will concretely tell you *what* I believe and give you a rough idea as to *why*…

    “I can’t do the same for you. Your particular matrix of beliefs is particularly your own.

    “This wouldn’t be much different even if you belonged to a major Protestant denomination. Membership of a particular Protestant denomination would not guarantee that you ascribed 100% to all of the official teachings of that group.”

  4. Thanks for this post and thank you also for making reference to the book “The Shape of Sola Scriptura.” Talk about a world-class exercise in begging the question. He concludes that only the visible Church has the authority to interpret Scripture because their authority was granted to Her by Jesus Christ. But, aside from emphatically stating that Roman Catholicism definitely can’t be that Church (while grossly misrepresenting Catholic teaching and the Catholic position in general), he never actually says who the Church is or where a person can find Her. Although, I assume he means “his church.” At least this book is not an out right exercise in anti-catholicism, in that he recognizes that the Catholic Church is “a part” of the visible Church, except for the portions that are anti-Christian and apostate. 🙂

    I very much enjoyed his explanation of the difference between Sola Scriptura and Solo Scriptura which, turned out to be nothing more than a distinction without a difference. And while he highlights the ultimate reality that the doctrine of Solo Scriptura has obviously led to theological relativism, we’re left with the final conclusion that only the subjective opinion of his ecclesial body of like-minded “True believers” has the authoritative and authentic right to interpret Scripture, being adherents of Sola Scriptura although, he does not point out where and how this authority was granted to them. Only that an individual believer can know that they belong to the True Church, if their biblical interpretation is in agreement with his.

  5. Awesome as usual Joe. Totally going after the biggest problem when challenging Protestant doctrine. It’s a lot easier for Catholics to explain what we believe and why, but it’s so difficult to challenge Protestants (in a good way of course).

    I had a friend who sort of explained Protestant vs. Catholic this way. If you’re a Protestant and you don’t believe what a preacher/congregation/church believes, then you simply go out and find one that does agree with you. If you’re Catholic and disagree, you’re still Catholic (but as you point out depending on what it is you disagree with can render you a dissenter. Some things even Catholics can disagree with like the death penalty.)

    There seems to be something totally twisted with having the ability to just go and find someone who agrees with you. This is not what Jesus intended for his church.

  6. Where does Yeshua’s teachings contradict the Old Testament, revealed? Where does oral tradition that Paul speaks of contradict the OT, revealed? Before the closing of the OT, where do the prophets contradict the mind of God, revealed? [When hasn’t peace between man and God been through loving God and loving man as God loves you?] Now that the NT has been revealed, who contradicts what’s been given? The RCC and her daughters, severely. (The blessing of accepting Christ Crucified is our Master remembering our sins no more. So, like OT sacrifices, what is the confessional? A reminder. Period.) Don’t be manipulated by men engulfed by the fiery darts of Satan. It isn’t even up for debate. Scripture and Scripture alone.

  7. Joe,

    really? I will give you the benefit of a doubt, but I think it’s fairly obvious to anyone reading my post, and reading Dr. White’s words In Context, that we are not at all contradicting one another.

    Did you really misunderstand both of us that badly?

    I urge your readers to read my post and Dr. White in context and then see if we’re really contradicting each other at any point.


  8. Hiram,

    If you think I’m misrepresenting you and/or White, can you at least point out where and how?

    In any case I’m not intending to– there’s at a bare minimum an apparent contradiction. Michael Morris pointed this out to you before, noting in the comments of that post, ” Even [P]rotestant scholars admit SS was unworkable during the Apostolic age. ” At the time, you seem to have admitted a disagreement,, responding:

    I understand that there are Reformed apologists who say this, but I’m not sure how in agreement with them I am precisely for the reason Moses gives when he says:

    “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and our children forever…” (Deut 29:29)

    There was definite Scriptura from the beginning. Genesis 5:1: “This is the book of the generations of Adam….” Moses utilizes a written text (perchance written by Adam himself) in much the same way that Luke does (cf. Luke 1:1-4).

    So you appeared (at least to me) quite willing to acknowledge that your post contradicted the claims of White and others. And that was just last month. How do you now harmonize these two views?



    P.S. Hiram? HR Diaz? h? What do you want me to call you, exactly?

  9. Once, just once, I would love to have a solid, clear and concise definition of Sola Scriptura and the Scripture to back it up…

    James White is notorious for not giving a definite definition of Sola Scriptura. By doing that he can counter that the opposition is using just a straw-man. This prevents him from ever being wrong, and his opponents from ever being right.

    For me to believe in Sola Scriptura I would need to find in the Bible: Jesus telling everyone around him in a sermon that the following disciples will write his Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, who will also be our Church’s first historian, and John. Then have Jesus telling everyone that a young man by the name of Saul who is most likely studying in the Temple right now will become first the Church’s greatest persecutor, being there when Stephen is stoned to death (Heads up, Stephen!) but will change his name to Paul and become the greatest missionary for the Church writing numerous letters. Jesus would also need to say that Jude, Peter, and James will also write some letters as well as John, who will also receive a very strange vision many decades from now.

    On top of all that, I would need Jesus to list, in order, all the books of the Old Testament for his Church as well.

    If we’re going to go “by Scriptures Alone” then we darn-well better get those Scriptures right the first time!

    If that can be shown, where Jesus clearly states who will be writing what his Church will need I’ll crack an egg on my face.

    Or we could just trust that the Church Jesus founded got it right, the matter has been settled for the last 1,500 years, and let the whole matter rest…

  10. One more issue with Sola Scriptura that has always bugged me…

    What of all those millions upon millions of people throughout history up to our present day who are illiterate?

    Are those poor souls just S.O.L., condemned to Limbo illiteratorum where unused Scrabble games collect dust for all eternity?


    Holding up a sign that says “John 3:16” at a baseball game doesn’t exactly mean anything to someone who can’t read.

  11. Joe:

    I’ve heard some Catholics maintain that the whole of the Deposit of Faith is, at least in seed form, in the Scriptures. And that Tradition, at least now, is the way in which the Spirit led Church has read the Scriptures throughout history. If I remember correctly, Aquinas held to such a view (related, I think, to his “norm of norms” argument). My question is, is this the view of the Church? Or does the Church believe there are doctrines of the Deposit of Faith not in Scripture at all?

  12. HocCogitat,

    The Church is clear that “Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church” (Dei Verbum 10). Now, a Catholic is free to believe in the so-called “material sufficiency” of Scripture, which is essentially what you’ve described, as long as they don’t deny any part of the Deposit of Faith. So you can’t, for example, decide that since you don’t see the Assumption of Mary in Scripture, it didn’t occur. You can hold that the Assumption is interwoven in Scripture, along with all other Catholic truths.

    But this latter point strikes me as of secondary importance. It’s like the debate over whether St. Paul implied the Virgin Birth in Galatians 4:4. Maybe he did, and maybe all of the major events of the Gospels are implicit or explicit in Paul’s writings. But even if they aren’t, so what? We have four Gospel accounts to fill in anything he didn’t mention. So it is here. Maybe every Catholic dogma is implicit or explicit in the Bible. But even if they aren’t, so what? Just as each New Testament Book fills in details omitted or left implicit in the others, unwritten Apostolic Tradition serves as a “twenty-eighth Book,” if you will.



  13. I agree completely with you Rob. Are you a convert as well? I converted to Catholicism once I saw the fallacy of sola scriptura and justification by faith alone. The Reformation was about power. The Reformers wanted it for themselves when they didn’t get their way. You have to ignore Christian history to believe in Protestanism because for 1,500 years christian history was Roman Catholic. If Roman Catholicism failed, then Christ failed. At least the Mormons say right out of the gate that there was failure for 1,800 years. Protestants can’t and won’t make that claim (they were trying to reform Rome) or else they know Christ failed. Of cousre, many change the definition of the word Church to suit their needs and avoid the failure aspect of Christ’s commands.

    1. Hi CWDLAW223…

      This is really funny. The truth is the Reformation wasn’t about power, it all about truth from scripture against power from the Roman Catholic on something that is not teach in scripture. One good example concerns with salvation. For instance, do you believe salvation can be obtained with money? I don’t think so, but that is what happened during the reformation. Also I’m not sure if such a practice still live.

      So be careful of what you said otherwise you will become the greatest liar of all time.

      God bless you

  14. Right. I’m just trying to understand the teaching. And it would affect how you approached things if the Church had committed herself to material sufficiency. Since she hasn’t, but only since she hasn’t, it isn’t all that important as you say.

  15. HocCogitat,

    Fair point. I’m disinclined towards the material sufficiency argument myself, since it raises the same “canon question” that Protestant sola Scriptura suffers from. It also hard to rectify with something like the Assumption of Mary, which is consistent with Scripture, but can’t be easily proof-texted. David Mills makes that point (albeit in passing) here.



  16. The material sufficiency issue is somewhat tricky when the context is a Sola Scriptura discussion because it’s easy to go to extremes. On one hand the tendency is to say a given teaching can have no support in Scripture while on the other hand there is a tendency to say everything has a comfortable amount of proof in Scripture.

    Take the canon argument for example: sure there is no table of contents type proof texts, but there are a lot of ‘nuggets’ that help suggest this or that writing is by an Apostle. Categorizing that as not materially sufficient gives the wrong impression, but obviously we’d have to admit pushing the envelope if someone suggested the canon was easily discernible.

    Ultimately, there has to be a ‘Tradition’ which acts as the ‘glasses’ by which you read Scripture, so any approach to Scripture is less than Formal to some degree.

    To me, the ‘material sufficiency’ approach is both a help to Protestants making the transition and a humble concession of awe every time I see the depth of what Scripture does teach.

  17. But that light/lens analogy breaks down on the canon question, doesn’t it? I mean you have to determine what light you’re going to focus with the lens before the lens is of any use. So Tradition has to have uses other than as a lens, even if its only non-lens use is to determine what the light is.

  18. Joe,
    I am surprised you picked up on this one. I have to admit as I was reading it I could just about remember the entire comment chain between Hiram and myself….

    I eagerly await Hiram’s response myself as I feel he never cleared up that seeming contradiction.

    Another great post.


  19. Can anyone from the Roman Catholic Church show me oral traditions that were mentioned in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 and are independent from scripture including proofs that such oral teachings are from the Apostles? If no proof of such traditions to be really are the teachings of the Apostles from the first place, should we not be accursed according to what Paul says in Galatians 1:8?

  20. I read your article and so much interesting things inside. Anyway, I just want to quotes a few to get some clarification on from your side. You said:

    But perhaps an even better place to look would be the first chapter of Mark’s. “The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, ‘What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to evil spirits and they obey Him’” (Mark 1:27). So Christ, the Revelation of God, brings with Him new teachings. If that weren’t the case, the New Testament would be unnecessary. And this new revelation was revealed by Christ Himself, not by any writing.

    From your statement above, I would like then to ask you a question, where did you get your story that the people “…were all amazed, insomuch that they questioned among themselves, saying, What thing is this? what new doctrine [is] this? for with authority commandeth he even the unclean spirits, and they do obey him”? Is that from the oral tradition independent from scripture?

    You also said: As St. Paul says in 2 Thessalonians 2:15, we’re bound as Christians to obey both Tradition-by-Epistle, and Tradition-by-word-of-mouth (more on that below).

    Really? Did Paul say, “Make sure you hold on to both the oral traditions and the written traditions,” does he? Did Paul actually used the common theory of Romanism the so called “Both/and” instead of whether/or which I believe is the same as either/or? Do you have one thing that comes to the Church in two ways? Or do you have two things that come to the Church?

    God bless

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