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:
- What role, if any, should extra-Scriptural Tradition play in guiding or controlling our interpretations of Scripture?
- Can doctrines come from extra-Scriptural Tradition, if those doctrines are not taught in Scripture?
- Can doctrines coming from extra-Scriptural Tradition be “essential”?
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.