Non-Catholic Christians consider “Sola Scriptura” (which is also called “Bible Alone” or “Scripture Alone”), to be a fundamental or crucial theological doctrine of the true Christian faith. Most non-Catholic Christian theologians will admit that sola scriptura was at the heart of the controversy of the Protestant Revolution. Some Christian theologians go so far as to consider it to be the very essence of Christianity (B. B. Warfield and J. I. Packer to name two). Therefore, understanding sola scriptura is a very important part of evangelizing non-Catholic Christians and defending the Catholic Church from erroneous claims by non-Catholic Christians.
If you talk with people about sola scriptura, you will find that there are as many definitions of sola scriptura as there are Christians. Since 90-99.9% of Non-Catholic Christians reject all authority, they make themselves (each individual Christian) the authority over the Bible. Since each individual Christian is his own authority over the Bible (mind you that few will ever admit to this), each individual is also his own authority over the teachings he sees as flowing from the Bible. This is why traditions such as sola scriptura (Yes, sola scriptura is a tradition. More on that in a bit.) can vary so greatly from denomination to denomination and even between members of the same denomination.
Note to reader: For sake of brevity, I’ll commonly refer to Sola Scriptura as “SS” and I’ll refer to non-Catholic Christians and pseudo-Christians (such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons) as “non-Catholics”.
A little primer on why talking about sola scriptura is like herding cats
In his article titled Why Sola Scriptura is Crucial To Evangelicalism, R. C. Sproul summarizes Martin Luther’s version of sola scriptura: “Scripture alone is the ultimate, divine authority in all matters pertaining to religion“. Yet according to the Westminster Confession of Faith: “The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men”. The Thirty Nine Articles of Religion of the Church of England says that Holy Scripture contains all things necessary to salvation and anything not contained in Scripture or proved by Scripture is to be rejected. For more definitions and opinions from non-Catholics, you can look at: Christian Research Institute, Ligonier Ministries, Matt Slick, Wikipedia, Mike Muzzerall, The Christian Answer Man, or you can take James White’s definition. In a 1996 debate with Catholic Answers apologist Tim Staples in Phoenix, White said SS means that Scripture is the sole and infallible rule of faith for the Church.
The Christian Research Institute lays out 5 points that are implied by SS:
- The Bible is a direct revelation from God. As such, it has divine authority. For what the Bible says, God says. (Note to reader: The Catholic Church actually said this first. That happened about 1,600 years ago.)
- The Bible is sufficient: it is all that is necessary for faith and practice. For Protestants ʺthe Bible aloneʺ means ʺthe Bible onlyʺ is the final authority for our faith. (Note to reader: This does not appear in the Bible. Nowhere does the Bible say that the Bible or scripture is sufficient or that the Bible is the final authority.)
- The Scriptures not only have sufficiency but they also possess final authority. They are the final court of appeal on all doctrinal and moral matters. (Note to reader: You guessed it. This isn’t in the Bible.)
- The most important teachings are set out clearly and understandably in the Bible. While some things are not perfectly clear, they are the things that are secondary to the main teachings which are clear. (Note to reader: The exact opposite is true. See also 2 Peter 3:16)
- Scripture interprets Scripture. When you have difficulty in understanding an unclear text of Scripture, you are to turn to other biblical texts. In the Scriptures, clear texts are used to interpret the unclear ones. (Good luck with that one.)
If any of these definitions or implications are true, we would see this not only in the Bible, but as a belief in the early Church as well. After all, the early Christians had the advantage of receiving Christ’s words from Christ himself or the apostles or the people ordained by the apostles such as Barnabus, Timothy, Stephen, etc… But none of this is in the Bible, nor is it evident in the first 14 centuries of Christianity.
A short primer on how we know when something is scripture.
You may believe it is silly to ask whether something is scripture. You probably assume that everything in your Bible is scripture. Well, you happen to be right, but at one point in time, it wasn’t so easy. In the first few centuries of Christianity, there was no Bible, so a lot of people were asking which writings were scripture and which were not. It was the Catholic Church who determined which writings were scripture and which were not. If the Church had not done so, you would still be asking the same questions as the first 10-14 generations of Christians. So here is a nutshell version of how that question was answered, then we’ll get back to disussing cancer.
For the first 70 years of Christianity, there was no New Testament because that is when the books of the New Testament were being written and a lot of uninspired and sometimes heretical writings were also being written and circulated. But even after the last book of the Bible was finished (Revelation), there still was no recognizable New Testament because nobody had sorted through all the writings to arrive at only the inspired and inerrant writings. It was not until 250 A.D. when Origen set out the list of the 27 books we now recognize as the New Testament canon. But even then, there was uncertainty about the Old Testament and how those Jewish books related to Christianity. It wasn’t until 362 A.D. that St. Athanasius identified the vast majority of the books we now recognize as the Old Testament canon. Even then, there was no single book called the Bible. That didn’t happen until about 400 A.D. when St. Jerome completed a translation of the entire 73 book Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin. Latin was chosen because in 400 A.D., most people were illiterate but those who could read, read Latin.
So what scripture did Christians use in the first 4 centuries of Christianity? Most historians say that it consisted of oral recitation, traditions demonstrated by the apostles and their successors, Old Testament writings and individual writings that were created after Christ’s resurrection, some of which didn’t make it into the Bible because they were determined to be uninspired, erroneous or simply heretical.
You may know that there are no inspired writings that tell us which books belong in the Bible. But have you considered what this means for SS? We only know what scripture is today, because the Catholic Church determined which books were inspired, inerrant and worthy of inclusion in the Bible. That’s right, the Bible is available to you today only because of Tradition. We only know that scripture is God’s Word because the Catholic Church declared it so.
Where are those ancient roots of sola scriptura?
Now that you know the work the Catholic Church did in the first centuries of Christianity to compile the Bible, we can look at the use of SS in the early Church. Are you one of those people who assumed sola scriptura has always been part of Christianity? Or maybe you assumed it found its beginning in Judaism long before Christ’s incarnation?
Well, you will be surprised to learn that sola scriptura is not only absent from the Bible, it is absent from the pre-Christian world and it is absent in apostolic times as well as the early Church. In fact, you have to fast forward over 1,400 years to find the first mention of anything that developed into one of these modern teachings of SS.
That’s right, SS is a modern teaching that is far removed from Jesus Christ, far removed from the apostles far removed from the early Christians who did not have a Bible to hold and far removed from scripture itself. The unbiblical manmade tradition of SS actually coincides with Luther’s decision to remove 7 books from the Bible.
A new manmade tradition vs. Apostolic Tradition.
When non-Catholics challenge teachings of the Catholic Church by claiming the teaching is “unbiblical” and therefore, a “tradition of men”, it exposes the fact that they have not truly grasped what SS really is. I usually point out that they are trying to use a very new “tradition of men” to try and claim that a longstanding teaching is somehow to be rejected because it is a “tradition of men”. This creates an interesting reaction from non-Catholics. My discussions with non-Catholics usually start with general topics and then it slowly boils down to individual beliefs and teachings within the Catholic Church. For an example, we can use the Catholic teaching on the Eucharist as the actual body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ (transubstantiation). The conversation usually goes like this:
Me: “You can see the Eucharistic teachings in the Bible in many verses including Matt 26:26-29, Mk 14:22-25, Lk 22:17-20, Jn 6:32-60, 1 Cor 10:16-22 and 1 Cor 11:23-25.”
Non-Catholic: “If Jesus wanted us to believe that he was actually present in the bread and the wine, he would have been clear about it. The important teachings are clearly set out in the Bible. You are just repeating what the pope tells you those Bible verse mean.“
Me: “That’s right, the major teachings have to be clear if you subscribe to SS. So since SS is a crucial teaching of your faith, (quoting R. C. Sproul.) you should be able to tell me where to find the teaching of SS in the Bible because it will be clearly set out, right?”
Non-Catholic: “Where else would the Word of God come from if not from God Himself through the inspiration of the Holy Scriptures? What you are trusting in is the word of men and human tradition. I will take the Word of God over that any day.”
Me: I’m not speaking about the Word of God (and neither are you by the way). I’m asking you to point to a verse in the Bible which says the Bible is the ultimate, divine authority in all matters pertaining to religion (or whatever definition the non-Catholic has already provided). Can you do that for me?
Non-Catholic: “Oh, so you don’t believe God?”
Me: “I do believe God. What I don’t believe is a manmade teaching that has no scriptural basis, especially when the rule says every Christian teaching has to have a scriptural basis.”
Non-Catholic: “All you have are manmade traditions. Why don’t you try to cite a verse that says there are other words of God outside of Scripture and then name them instead of denying God’s Word? Or do you just take the pope and magisterium’s word for it?”.
Note to reader: I’m serious. This is how these discussions actually play out. Every single time. This example is paraphrased from some discussions I’ve had on the issue.
What sola scriptura is not.
Here you see that our non-Catholic friend has simply confused the teaching with the actual Word of God. It is kind of like getting wrapped up in the creation and forgetting about the Creator. Maybe it would help if we establish that SS is not the Word of God before we begin our discussions with non-Catholics? SS is a “principle” of faith. It is a manmade tradition that misleads Christians into believing that the Bible is all a Christian needs to be “saved”. This is false and as exhibit “A”, we find that the Bible cannot even support SS. It certainly refutes it, but non-Catholics have little patience for a walk through scripture when the walk points out all the passages that expose SS as an unbiblical manmade tradition.
The greased pig
Instead of simply admitting that SS is nothing more than a principle and that it is certainly not the Word of God, the non-Catholic prefers to turn SS lose, like a greased pig. No matter how we approach the discussion, the non-Catholic simply wipes more grease on the pig. You have seen how the conversation usually begins, but let’s see how it usually continues:
Me: “I’m not denying God’s Word, I’m denying the reliability of a manmade, unbiblical tradition called sola scriptura. What you are doing is confusing the tradition with the Creator.”
Non-Catholic: “Sola Scriptura is true because of what Scripture is, not because of what scripture says.”
Me: “That is a circular argument”.
Non-Catholic: “Are you saying God makes circular arguments?”
In these discusssions, it is evident that the non-Catholic builds upon the principle that everything we need to know is set forth in scripture, disregarding the inconvenient fact that this principle is not set forth in Scripture. They then dispute the Catholic teachings that seem most difficult to them, claiming that the most important Catholic teachings must be set forth explicitly in scripture, while refusing to hold their own beliefs to the same standard.
The absence of scriptural support for sola scriptura does not stop some people from trying to defend it with scripture.
This is where it gets fun. Sometimes a particularly confident defender will come along and answer my challenge to provide scriptural support for their adherence to SS. The most common verses are (using the King James Version):
- 2 Timothy 3:15-17 “And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.”
- First, the scriptures Timothy hast known from his childhood would be only the Old Testament scriptures.
- Second, the word profitable means only that scripture is helpful or beneficial, not “all sufficient” or “absolute”.
- Finally, the verses end with “good works”, not “salvation”. This means that scripture is very helpful in the process of sanctification, but not “supreme” or “exclusive”.
- Acts 17:11 “These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.”
- The Bereans were comparing Paul’s spoken words (because no New Testament books had been written by the time Paul visited the Bereans.) to Old Testament writings. Paul was using oral tradition to reveal Jesus Christ to the Bereans and they were simply finding the types and prefigures of the New Covenant that had been concealed in the Old Testament.
- To claim this as evidence of sola scriptura is to miss the beauty of St. Augustine’s saying: “The New Testament is concealed in the Old, and the Old Testament is revealed in the New.” Paul was not being tested by the Bereans, he was opening their eyes.
- 1 Cor 4:6 “And these things, brethren, I have in a figure transferred to myself and to Apollos for your sakes; that ye might learn in us not to think of men above that which is written, that no one of you be puffed up for one against another.“
- If you want to see why this does not support sola scriptura, click here.
- 2 Cor 11:4 “For if he that cometh preacheth another Jesus, whom we have not preached, or if ye receive another spirit, which ye have not received, or another gospel, which ye have not accepted, ye might well bear with him.“
- The context tells us this is not about sola scriptura, it is warning the faithful about false prophets. He told the faithful to hold to the teachings of the apostles, which at that time was still primarily oral.
- Deut 4:2 “Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the Lordyour God which I command you.“
- Martin Luther should have paid heed to this passage. I couldn’t resist. The key here is that this is an Old Testament verse, which if taken to prove sola scriptura, eliminates most of the Old Testament and all of the New Testament. Is that sound theology?
- Prov 30:5-6 “Every word of God is pure: he is a shield unto them that put their trust in him. Add thou not unto his words, lest he reprove thee, and thou be found a liar.”
- Not only is this perfectly consistent with Catholic theology, there is no mention of scripture as the ultimate, divine authority in all matters pertaining to religion.
- Are all the books written after Proverbs to be rejected as manmade tradition?
- Rev. 22:18-19 “For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.”
- Does “book” refer to the Bible or just to the book of Revelation? Since the Bible didn’t exist yet, you would be correct to see that it relates only to the book of Revelation.
- Luther really wanted to reject Revelation from the canon along with the other 7 books he did reject. But he left Revelation in.
- How would you add or take away from the book of Revelation, or even the Bible? Would it be by using the word Trinity which isn’t in scripture? Or would it be by adopting the principle of sola scriptura which isn’t in scripture?
- Gal 1:8 “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.“
- The Galations were converted to Christianity, but after conversion, a group called the Judaizers persuaded them to return to Jewish customs and Mosaic law, including circumcision. Paul is simply correcting the false teachings of the Judaizers.
- Note that Paul says that he “preached” the Gospel to the Galatians? That is much different than telling the Galatians to go back and read the scriptures.
I could go on about each of these verses as well as others that some non-Catholics use to try and defend their allegiance to sola scriptura, but I think you get the idea. The Bible does not support sola scriptura explicitly or implicitly. Every attempt to use scripture as a defense of sola scriptura requires misinterpretation and manipulation to do so. Maybe this is why most non-Catholics don’t even try to use scripture to defend sola scriptura. They don’t want to run the risk of violating Rev. 22:18-19.
So here is where the non-Catholic gets it wrong on sola Scriptura.
- They assume SS is found in the Bible.
- They assume SS has been a Christian teaching that dates back to the time of the apostles.
- They assume SS is logical.
- Once all these are proven false, they blur the difference between the teaching and Word of God.
SOLA SCRIPTURA IS NOT THE WORD OF GOD.
It just isn’t. If it were the Word of God it would be in the Bible. If it were the Word of God it would not have so many different definitions. If it were the Word of God it would be evident in the early Church. If it were the Word of God it would not have waited until the 1500’s to be “discovered”.
Scripture is totally different than sola scriptura. Scripture is the inspired and inerrant Word of God, set forth in a book we now call the Bible. Sola scriptura is a T-R-A-D-I-T-I-O-N. Not only that, but it is the most despised and maligned tradition that any Christian could ever consider because it is unbiblical and therefore totally, 100%, purely, manmade.
Why do I call sola scriptura a cancer to Christianity?
Because since it was created, it has done nothing but divide and separate Christians from one another. Sola scriptura was the excuse Luther needed to separate from Catholic Church. He hated the Church’s authority and needed a way to argue that the Church had no authority. By inventing the belief that “Scripture alone is the ultimate, divine authority in all matters pertaining to religion“, Luther had his very own authority. Of course, so did every other individual who had revolution on their mind.
Within 50 years, there were dozens of separate non-Catholic denominations that had trickled out of Luther’s Christianity. There are now thousands of non-Catholic denominations. If the implications of sola scriptura were true, such as:
- The claim that the Bible is clear and easy to understand on the most important teachings;
- The claim that the Bible is “sufficient” as the final authority on matters of faith;
- The claim that the Bible is the sole source of Christian doctrine;
- The claim that the scripture interprets scriptue;
There would not be so many different denominations and competing doctrines today. Luther’s split from Catholicism has continued to erode over the centuries and the erosion continues today. The United Methodist Church is just one recent example of how this happens.
But it gets worse. Westerners are currently fleeing the mainstream religions at breakneck speed. SS has contributed to the belief that people do not need a church of any kind because they can interpret the Bible on their own. These people are not merely leaving a church to start a new church that fits more with their interpretation of scripture, they are leaving to “go it alone”. That sounds like a plan devised by Satan, doesn’t it?
Separate, isolate and immolate.
Sola scriptura and the culture: A deadly cocktail.
In a time when some mainstream churches are trying to attract people by changing their doctrine to resemble the culture, even more people are going to see mainstream religions as unattractive. Why would they bother with a church who does not challenge them? Some embrace or tolerate abortion, others celebrate the LGBT lifestyle and others are nothing more than motivational speakers who talk about a God who will shower them with health and wealth if they only pray hard enough. You can get all these things in the general public, on television or in a secular organization, for free. On top of that, you don’t have to take time out of your weekend to go to a church. With sola scriptura, you can always claim that you are the one who has the correct interpretation of God’s Word. After all, God is everywhere, why can’t he be in your living room with you on Sunday, while you are napping? On top of this, our culture tells us that there is no such thing as objective truth. So each individual’s interpretation of God’s Word is perfectly acceptable since the individual’s inerpretation is relative. “Hey, if it works for you”, is the mantra.
I’ll tell you who it works for: Satan.
Separate, isolate and immolate.
The Catholic concern.
The American Catholic Church is not losing members as quickly as the rest of the Christian churches in the U.S. So why should this concern a Catholic? Because the Christian churches (the truly Christian ones) actually still contain (to varying degrees) some amount of truth in their message. The members of those religions are closer to the fullness of the truth (Catholicism) than the average American who does not belong to a church. The further one moves from truth, the further they move from the Church established by Jesus Christ, the Catholic Church. That isn’t good for anyone.
I run into Christians of all kinds of different faiths because I actually go out and actively evangelize in public. When I run into a Christian who really knows their faith, has a prayer life and has a good or deep relationship with Christ, I’m sure to ask them where they go to church. I’m never told, “nowhere”. They always have a church. They are active in the Catholic Church, one of the Lutheran denominations, Presbyterian, Methodist, etc… But I also run into a lot of people who say they are Christian yet they do not know Jesus. They aren’t praying on their own and they are not reading the Bible on their own. They are adrift, separated from the Body of Christ. Sometimes they will volunteer that they feel lonely and isolated. They may have been Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist or some other faith at one time, but they have become separated from their church for one reason or another and eventually, they become separated from God. I think this is solid evidence that sola scriptura simply isn’t enough. You can’t have a meaningful and fruitful relationship with the written word, no matter how inspired, inerrant and fascinating the words are. We need each other.
Jesus established the Church with Peter at the helm and the apostles at his side. Jesus did not simply leave written instructions. God not only knows our need for communion, He created us for communion (Gen 1:26-31). The Church provides communion and it is the Catholic Church that carries the authority of Jesus Christ on earth, guided and protected by the Holy Spirit (Mt 28:20 & Jn 14:16). As He said in John 6:62-63 “What and if ye shall see the Son of man ascend up where he was before? It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.” So it is the Holy Spirit which gives life to God’s Word and Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to the Blessed Mother, Peter and the apostles, not to written words (Acts 2). The Bible is certainly inspired by the Holy Spirit, but it is the Church which continues with the Holy Spirit (Jn 15:26 & 16:13).
It has taken almost 500 years for Luther’s “Sola Scriptura” to spread so deeply into Christianity, but we can now look around and see its effects. It is not good that the man should be alone (Gen 2:18). Are Christians going to simply allow sola scripura to draw them away from the Body of Christ so Satan can easily destroy them or are they going to see the folly and return to the fullness of the truth, which is only found in the Catholic Church with the sacraments, traditions, doctrines and authority?
Hopefully you can see sola scriptura for what it is, a cancer to Christianity. Sometime soon I’ll try to write a little on Apostolic Tradition.
I used the King James Bible for my passages in this blog. Not because the KJV is the best translation, but because I know it is popular among non-Catholics.