Does Anything Follow from Sola Scriptura?
In what follows I will show that it would not matter if a Catholic were to affirm the foundational Protestant principle of Sola Scriptura (“Scripture Alone”). In fact I will argue that nothing relevant to the Catholic/Protestant debate actually follows from Sola Scriptura at all.
What Is Sola Scriptura?
Although strict definitions of Sola Scriptura do not always agree, Protestant sources from Evangelicals to Reformed Baptists and from scholarly to popular sources paint the following basic picture: When it comes to the Christian faith, the Bible (Scripture) is the highest / final authority.
Here are some examples of this affirmation:
- The Westminster Confession of Faith: “The Supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture”
- Michael Kruger: “the Scriptures alone are the Word of God and, therefore, the only infallible rule for life and doctrine”
- R. C. Sproul: “the Bible alone has the authority of God Himself to bind our consciences absolutely”.
- James White: “Scripture is utterly unique in its nature as God-breathed revelation (nothing else is God-breathed); it is unparalleled and absolute in its authority; and it is the sole infallible rule of faith for the church.” (Scripture Alone, 14)
- Norman Geisler: “Scripture alone is the primary and absolute source of authority, the final court of appeal, for all doctrine and practice (faith and morals).”
- John MacArthur: “Scripture is the highest and supreme authority on any matter on which it speaks.”
- Got Questions: “Scripture alone is authoritative for the faith and practice of the Christian.”
- C.A.R.M.: “the Scriptures alone are the final and the highest authority.”
- The Gospel Coalition: “All other authorities in the Christian life serve underneath Scripture, while Scripture alone rules over other authorities, for it alone is God’s inspired, inerrant, and sufficient word.”
Catholics wouldn’t have a problem affirming this basic principle if it wasn’t abused by Protestants.
Can Catholics Affirm Sola Scriptura?
Here’s the weird thing about Sola Scriptura: it is said to be the formal principle of the Protestant Reformation, the foundational theory upon which Protestant theology is built. It is (allegedly) because of the Protestantism’s high view of – and sole reliance upon – the Bible that they reject many aspects of Catholic theology.
But the Catholic Church itself teaches that only Sacred Scripture is inspired (“God-breathed”), and a Catholic should have little problem affirming that Sacred Scripture is the highest / final authority for the Christian. (Since the Bible alone contains God’s inspired words, how could it not be?) The Church itself teaches that the Church is not above Scripture – so it cannot authoritatively and truthfully contradict Scripture any more than a cultist or an atheist can.
So what (allegedly) makes Sola Scriptura especially Protestant?
Catholic Tradition vs. Sacred Scripture
It is popular among Protestant apologists to make the claim that what separates Catholics from Protestants is the value of Church tradition as equal to that of the Bible. Ron Rhodes says Protestants believe “the Bible alone is the final authority and source of divine revelation (not tradition…)” (Reasoning from the Scriptures with Catholics, 12 – emphasis in original). Rhodes describes cults in much the same way:
“When dealing with cults, one must keep in mind that they are always built not upon what the Bible teaches but upon what the founders or leaders of the respective cults say the Bible teaches”
(Norman L. Geisler and Ron Rhodes, When Cultists Ask: A Popular Handbook on Cultic Misinterpretations, Introduction).
Now, only groups on the fringe of the Reformation saw Sola Scriptura as a complete denial of the importance of Christian tradition altogether (the so-called “Radical Reformation” which gave rise to the Anabaptists). The more theologically sophisticated mainstream Protestants will give a qualified authoritative status to Tradition, so long as Scripture is always the “only unquestioned authority for faith and practice” and in their view the problem with Catholics is that they have a “dual source of tradition (Scripture and tradition are of equal value).” (Kenneth Collins and Jerry Walls, Roman but Not Catholic, 27). Any variance between Catholic and Protestant teachings is then blamed on Catholic Tradition usurping Scripture’s authority (either by adding to it or contradicting it).
It’s is a neat theory, but is it defensible (or even consistent)?
The first problem for the Protestant here is that all Christians believe more than what Scripture teaches. (E.g., which books belong in the Bible in the first place(!), which doctrines counts as “essential” teachings of the faith, the validity of a “Youth Pastor,” etc.) If accused of being “unbiblical” for doing so, the Protestant will likely respond that it’s ok because none of these things contradict what Scripture teaches. That seems completely legitimate – and because of that, Catholics can do it too!
The second problem for the Protestant is showing that Catholic doctrine contradicts Scripture and is reduced to a “human tradition.” For example, in a textbook circular argument, Collins and Walls conclude that Catholic “merely human teachings” are identifiable because they are “at variance with the clear teaching of sacred Scripture.” (Kenneth Collins and Jerry Walls, Roman but Not Catholic, 29). Not only has this attack on Catholicism not been proven – it is easy to show that Protestants are guilty of doing it themselves.
Protestant Tradition vs. Sacred Scripture
In reality, it’s just as easy for Catholics to accuse Protestants of following the “traditions of men” because their beliefs are at “variance with the clear teaching of sacred Scripture.” Here are a few “clear teaching of sacred Scripture” that many, most, or all Protestants deny due to their theological traditions:
- FAITH AND WORKS: “A man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24).
- BAPTISM: “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you” (1 Peter 3:21).
- COMMUNION: “Any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment
upon himself” (1 Corinthians 11:29 cf. John 6:54; Matt. 26:26).
- THE CHURCH: “The church of the living God [is] the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15)
- ORAL TRADITIONS: “Stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by
word of mouth or by letter.” (2 Thessalonians 2:15)
How is it that Protestants can deny these clear teachings of sacred Scripture if they truly believe in Sola Scriptura? Doesn’t doing so reduce these Protestant distinctives to merely human teachings? The Protestant response to this charge is inevitably that they don’t deny those verses, they just don’t think they mean what the Catholic Church thinks they mean.
Fair enough – but this proves the Catholic Church’s point, not the Protestant’s!
Why Sola Scriptura Doesn’t Really Matter
What Catholics affirm and Protestants deny (in practice if not theory) is that while Sacred Scripture is the only inspired writings, they must still be interpreted. The thing is, all Christians rely on their particular group’s (or their own private) interpretive “traditions” to understand the Bible. This is why Baptists can “deny” 1 Peter 3:21 on salvation, Calvinists can “deny” Hebrews 6:4-6 on the perseverance of the saints, Armenians can “deny” James 5:19-20 on the perseverance of the saints, and all Protestants can “deny” James 2:24 on the relation of faith and works: because they aren’t denying these verses, they are (mis)interpreting them according to their own interpretive tradition. (At least someone is!)
The Catholic Church acknowledges this fact. Because the authority of Sacred Scripture is – in a sense – mediated through interpretation, “The Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence” (CCC 80-82).
What the Church teaches about the authority of Scripture and Tradition is just what is true in reality: while the Bible alone is the highest authority per se, the practical authority for faith and practice is really one’s understanding of Scripture (i.e., interpretive tradition). So what really distinguishes Protestants from Catholics is not that Protestants follow the Bible alone and Catholics replace Scripture’s authority with that of Church tradition – it is that Protestants and Catholics simply follow different traditions.
Now, Protestants may complain that the Church goes well beyond a tradition of biblical interpretation to believing things the Bible doesn’t even seem to talk about. But in that case, the Bible isn’t being contradicted is it? If the subject in question isn’t in the Bible at all, then the Bible’s final/highest authority isn’t being violated.
So Catholics could claim Sola Scriptura while continuing to affirm the same doctrines they do now!
The Bible Verse That Destroys Sola Scriptura
It might seem that Protestants have the upper hand in this battle of interpretive traditions, because they have fewer beliefs that rely as strongly on the Church’s Unwritten Tradition (e.g., Mary’s immaculate conception or Papal infallibility). However, even if these dogmas appear more remote to those who deny them, the Church roots these teachings in Scripture as well – much like it does the Trinity or Christ’s Incarnation. (And of course the canon of Scripture itself could not be derived from Scripture alone and that gives Church Tradition a massively important role in doctrinal formation!)
Since the Bible doesn’t say clear scriptural support is necessary for doctrines of faith, the Sola Scriptura Protestant cannot say the Church is being unbiblical for its position on Scripture. Really the only way to prove the Catholic Church is unbiblical is to show that what it teaches is a contradiction of the words of Scripture (not just a teaching that doesn’t have clear scriptural support or one that contradicts Protestant teaching).
And it is here that Protestantism utterly fails in its attack on the Catholic Church.
There is no verse in Scripture that the teachings of the Catholic Church contradicts. But even if there was, it would not resolve the Catholic-Protestant debate because Protestantism was founded on a clear contradiction of Scripture! The teaching (which allegedly followed from Sola Scriptura) that launched the Reformation is another “sola” namely, Sola Fide. This is generally understood as meaning that people are justified (“saved”) by faith alone (apart from works). The problem is that the only verse in Scripture that uses that terminology is James 2:24 which says people are “justified by works and not by faith alone.”
As seen in the comments on this video, the only way out of the contradiction for the Protestant is to assert their “interpretive tradition” over against the verse’s “clear teachings.” Which, again, is fine – everyone does it. But it undermines the claim that Protestants follow Sola Scriptura while Catholics add unbiblical “traditions of men.”
Anyone can claim Sola Scriptura if Scripture can be claimed to mean anything!
Protestantism itself bears testimony to the fact that Sola Scriptura is (practically speaking) a theological smokescreen. The fact that hundreds of disagreeing denominational groups all point to Sacred Scripture as their highest source of faith and practice demonstrates that interpretive traditions are really what drive their theology. When one surveys the vast landscape of incompatible beliefs that followed the Reformation, it is incredible that Catholics (alone) are attacked on the basis that they acknowledge the necessary role of tradition in biblical interpretation.
An uninterpreted Bible cannot function as a religious authority, and the Bible is always interpreted according to some interpretive tradition. The real issue, then, is which interpretive tradition to follow. In this debate, it is between one that has existed since the time of Christ and is historically identifiable with the Church He founded, or one of hundreds that arose over 1,500 years later in opposition to that Church.