Why “Scripture Alone” is Wrong In All Its Formulations

I know I’ve written on the sola Scriptura debate many times before, but I think there might be a simpler way of explaining the Catholic view than I’ve done in the past.  The difference between the Evangelical formulation of sola Scriptura, the classic Reformed formulation of sola Scriptura, and the Wesleyan notion of prima Scriptura can be confusing for Catholics (and not just Catholics – many Evangelical Protestants think they hold to the sola Scriptura of Luther, when they really hold something closer to the sola Scriptura of Finney).

Anyways, to reduce the question of the role of Scripture and Tradition to its bare bones, here are the three things being asked:

  1. What role, if any, should extra-Scriptural Tradition play in guiding or controlling our interpretations of Scripture?
  2. Can doctrines come from extra-Scriptural Tradition, if those doctrines are not taught in Scripture?
  3. Can doctrines coming from extra-Scriptural Tradition be “essential”?
The major splits between different Protestant camps come on their answer to #1.  Some say Tradition is binding on our interpretation of Scripture, some say it’s a lens through which to view Scripture, and some say it plays little to no role at all.  That’s an interesting debate, but let’s leave it aside, because it’s irrelevant to my point.  I’m more concerned about the other two questions, because on questions #2 and 3, there’s near-unanimity within Protestantism that all doctrines must be derived from Scripture. It may be “Scripture as I read it,” or “Scripture as read by the Church Fathers,” but the outcome is the same. “No” on 2, and “no” on 3.
Of course, this is where the obvious problem comes in.  Scripture doesn’t have an inspired table of contents. No Book in the Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant Bible teaches which other Books are inspired by God. Most of the Books don’t even mention that they are themselves inspired, so you can’t even rely on the circular “2 Peter is inspired because 2 Peter says it is, and it’s inspired” argument — because 2 Peter doesn’t tell us if it’s inspired or not.  Nor is there anything implicit within the Scriptures. 
To be clear, if God wanted us to believe in sola Scriptura, He clearly could have inspired one of the New Testament authors (St. John, for example, the last to die) to write an inspired “Table of Contents” to the canon, listing the other canonical Books, and declaring the “Table of Contents” itself canonical.  But that didn’t happen, as everyone knows.  So no, the doctrine of the canon — that is, the Church doctrine that says “these Books are in the Bible, and these other books aren’t” — is one derived from totally outside of Scripture itself.  So the answer to Question # 2 has to be yes.  If no doctrine can come from outside Scripture, you can’t determine the canon. If you can’t determine the canon, you can’t derive any doctrines from Scripture, since you don’t know which Books are Scripture.

This also answers Question # 3, for an obvious reason.  If you derive all doctrines from Scripture, as Protestants claim to, the single most important question is the question of “which sources are Scripture?”  All other questions, from “Was Christ God?” on down to “do works have a role in justification?” are answered in Protestantism from the canon.  An incomplete canon risks incomplete doctrine; an inaccurate canon risks inaccurate doctrine.  An obvious example: Mormons accept the Book of Mormon, which Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox recognize as non-canonical and inaccurate.  As a result of this faulty canon, the many faulty doctrines the Book of Mormon teaches mislead people into error.  So at least one essential doctrine, essential to the faith of all Christians, is taught on the basis of Tradition alone: the canon of Scripture.  So the answer to # 3 has to be yes.

Protestantism teaches “No” on Question 2, and “No” on Question 3, and is plainly wrong in doing so. Yes, doctrines can come from extra-Scriptural Tradition, even if those doctrines are not taught in Scripture; and yes, these doctrines include essential, binding ones.  If that’s true for the doctrine most important to Protestants (the canon of Scripture), on what basis can we possibly claim it’s not true of other doctrines?  Does Scripture give any indication that it will answer every essential doctrinal issue except the canon?  I know of no one willing to advance this argument.

So clearly, Catholics are right that it’s possible for doctrines to come from extra-Scriptural Tradition alone, and that at least one doctrine (the canon) does, and that more might.  If this is true, there’s no excuse for ignoring the Church Fathers. It’s time for Protestantism to begin to take seriously the Catholic claim that the Church Fathers teach other essential doctrines not expressly found in Scripture.  


  1. Reading through your Sola Scriptura tagged posts, the thing that has most struck me is that the official doctrine of Sola Scriptura (i.e. a denial of (2)) is so obviously problematic that the most thoughtful of Protestants–people like C.S. Lewis, Alvin Plantinga, and Timothy Keller–would never explicitly defend it. Instead, as you have said “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.” And they do this, it seems to me, because to do otherwise would be manifestly absurd.

    My question, then, is do you know how this manifestly absurd doctrine arose historically?

    My “barstool history” guess is that the reformers originally set out to reform the Catholic Church and did not object to the her authority in all its forms. One form they accepted was its ratification of the canon. That is, the reformers didn’t believe in sola scriptura per se.

    Years later it became clear that the reformed churches were no longer involved in reformation as such, but that they had started churches at odds with Catholic authority. But the reformed churches depended on Catholic authority for the legitimacy they possessed. This situation gave rise to a terrible corollary for the reformers: either the Catholics were right or they were both wrong. But the reformers shrunk from this corollary by inventing the doctrine of sola scriptura.

    This is all just a guess. But if it is true, showing that Protestant theology hinges on an ad hoc intellectual manuever would be a powerful Catholic apologetic. For, as Ronald Knox has said: “It is a mark of intellectual cowardice, to shrink from corollaries. God wouldn’t have given us an intellect, if he didn’t want us to think straight.”

    So, given all the research that your posts show you to have done, I’ll turn to you to ask: Have you seen the real history of the doctrine?

  2. Joe,

    This is good work. But there’s a problem: Saying that Sola Scriptura has its problems just doesn’t resonate with Protestants. I know that this is their “official” position, but if you read things like Return to Rome, you’ll see that many Protestants define the term merely as “nothing that contradicts the Bible can be true.” That is to say, Beckwith-as-a-Protestant and others like him do not say that “nothing outside the Bible is part of the faith.”

    But, as Beckwith now notes, they don’t draw the obvious inference: That if things, like the canon and dogmas like the Trinity are to be considered constiutive of the faith, then you must recognize the authority of the Church to declare such things as constiutive of the faith.

    Beckwith style Protestants (and, I think there are lots of them) don’t think refutations of Sola Scriptura mean that they should give up Protestantism. So, if I may be so bold, I would recommend a different point of attack. Forget sola scriptura per se: Instead argue directly that denying that the Church is Protestants can’t maintain their faith while denying that the Church is (or at least was) Spirit-led.

    Why? For reasons you’ve already covered:

    1. An authoritative canon can only be defined by an authoritative source.

    This is plainly true from things you’ve said on this blog. I’ll add that even Tim Keller (who I use as an example because he is perhaps the leading Protestant intellectual pastor alive–one that Catholics can learn a lot from–and is certainly not one to unfairly attack the Catholic Church) is forced to go to utterly ridiculous lengths to explain the canon without noting that the Church was Spirit led in defining it. See http://sermons.redeemer.com/store/index.cfm?fuseaction=product.display&product_ID=17707&ParentCat=6 at 33:57 et. seq.

    He claims that the NT is a collection of only the clearly “apostolic” documents and then uses the “citation argument” to generate the OT canon. His NT method strikes me as totally begging the critical question (i.e. just using the word “apostolic” instead of “inspired”) and, you’ve shown the OT method to be faulty. (In Keller’s defense this is an off the cuff response to an audience member’s question, but it still shows that even the best of Protestants don’t have a ready made answer to this issue).

    Rather, it is pretty plain that we can only trust the canon if we believe that the Holy Spirit led the Church to the truth.

    2. The creedal argument

    I also found this argument on your blog (on your posts about the where in the Bible is the Trinity, etc.). It is that some things that Protestants hold as creedal (e.g. the doctrines of the Trinity, Christ’s nature, and of Sola Fide) are not easy to derive from the Bible unambiguously. The Bible admits of many interpretations on such issues, none of which is self-authenticating. But most Protestants insist that some interpretations are inspired, while others are not. But who is to say that the contrary interpretation of such doctrines is heretical? The Bible cannot resolve such debates because the Bible’s ambiguity is the source of the controversy. To say that all contrary interpretations are “unreasonable” is only to beg the question. But what else could you do to exclude the interpretation?

    The only reasonable answer seems to be the Catholic answer: That the Church, led to truth by the Holy Spirit, pronounced on these issues.

    3. The Biblical argument

    Verses like John 16:13 and 1 Timothy 3:15 (and others you have developed) support the contention that the Spirit leads the Church to truth. As do the Church Fathers. This is, probably, more open to interpretation than the other two arguments. But as a capstone, I think it adds something.

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