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?
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).
|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.
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)|
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
|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.