Refutation of Sola Scriptura

Theological Foundations Fall 07 Term Paper by Carlo Juanola

 

What is the sole foundation of the Christian faith?  Do the tenets of the Christian faith rely solely on Sacred Scripture alone, also known as sola scriptura, or is it a combination of both Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition?  These are significant questions that have been the source of division and misunderstandings amongst both Catholics and Protestants. Although most Protestants espouse the doctrine of sola scriptura, I will refer to the Lutheran Church specifically since it was Martin Luther who first proposed this teaching.  In this paper, I will discuss and examine the Catholic position that both Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition are inseparable in forming the foundation of the Christian faith, and the contrasting Lutheran doctrine of sola scriptura, which conveys that the Bible is sufficient and authoritative in being the sole basis of the Christian faith.  The point at the heart of both of these doctrines is which one is valid and ultimately true? In examining these doctrines, both Catholics and Lutherans must ask, “What is the historical context and scriptural basis in the development of these doctrines, and who has the authority to interpret Sacred Scripture?” Lastly, I will discuss how the differences between these two contrasting doctrines affect the shape of the Christian faith today.  


The Catholic Church’s teaching on the relationship between Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition is one that must be examined historically, authoritatively, and scripturally.  In general, the Catholic Church teaches that the Christian faith is made known by both the written word, or Sacred Scripture, and the oral or unwritten Word, known as Sacred Tradition (Catechism 76).  Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit (CCC 81).  Sacred Tradition is the Church’s lived understanding of the deposit of faith handed on faithfully and completely from one generation of Christians to the next (Madrid 2002, 12).   We now have a general perspective of the Catholic Church’s teaching on Scripture and Sacred Tradition, but we will further examine its development from a historical standpoint.

How did the Catholic Church’s understanding of the relationship between Scripture and Sacred Tradition develop historically?  One document the Roman Catholic Church cites in the development of understanding Sacred Tradition is from the Profession of Faith from the Second General Council of Constantinople in 553.  In essence, it states that the ultimate foundation for the Christian faith is not drawn from Holy Scripture alone, but instead draws from the living Tradition handed down from the apostles (Dupuis 98).  The General Council of Trent’s Fourth Session in April of 1546 also accepted that the Sacred Traditions that were handed down from the Apostles as binding, and linked them with Scripture as essential mediators to Christ and salvation (Dupuis 101).  Although the Council of Trent is a response to the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, it must be noted that it builds upon the early Church’s understanding of the importance of Sacred Tradition.  In 1965 the Second Vatican General Council’s document on divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, explained the relationship between Tradition and Scripture: 

“Hence there exists a close connection and communication between sacred Tradition and sacred Scripture.  For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end.  . . . Consequently, it is not from sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed.  Therefore both sacred Tradition and sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same devotion and reverence.” (Dupuis 119).     

The importance of this relationship can be seen in different examples of how sacred Tradition had revealed teachings which were not explicit in sacred Scripture itself.  For example, the understanding of particular doctrines such as those on the Trinity, Mary, and purgatory had developed over the years in history (Madrid 2002, 11).  A good example of the relationship between Scripture and sacred Tradition is also seen in how the New Testament Canon itself was put together during the early Church.  The canon of the New Testament is part of God’s revelation to the Church, but it was not revealed in Scripture which books did or did not belong to the New Testament canon (Madrid 2002, 10).  Rather, this important information was gradually revealed by God to the Church completely outside of Scripture itself (Madrid 2002, 10).   The fact that the canon of the New Testament arose from the life of the sacred Tradition within the Church is a prime example of the authoritative role the Church has in preserving the faith passed on since apostolic times.  This leads us to the discussion of how the Catholic Church’s teaching authority is inherently integrated with Scripture and sacred Tradition. 

The authority to interpret Sacred Scripture is a point of contention that has divided Catholics and Protestants in general since the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.  The Catholic Church does not see Scripture and Sacred Tradition of the faith as different sources of authority.  According to the Dogmatic Constitution, Dei Verbum, of the Second Vatican General Council in 1965, Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Church’s teaching authority, the Magisterium, are linked in a way that one cannot stand without the others (Dupuis 120).   Even before the Second Vatican Council, it was clarified and decreed in the General Council of Trent in 1546 that the Church is the interpreter of Holy Scripture (Dupuis 103).  It decreed that no one, relying on their own discretion, can interpret Scripture in a way that is contrary to the faith and sacred Tradition that had been preserved since apostolic times (Dupuis 103).   This is important to note because since the early Church there was no separation of the Scripture’s authority existing apart from the authority of the Church’s role to teach, interpret, and preserve the faith.  Beyond being able to know “which was the true Gospel” as distinct from “pseudo-Gospel” that did not belong in the New Testament, the Church also has from God the power of distinguishing the true meaning of Scripture from false (Pelikan 264).  This now leads us to examine what the scriptural basis is for the Catholic doctrine of Scripture and sacred Tradition.

The scriptural basis of the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching on the relationship between Scripture and Sacred Tradition is numerous, but the essence can be understood by examining the scripture verses of 2 Thessalonians 2: 15 and  2 Timothy 2:2.  
2 Thessalonians 2:15 says:  “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.”   

“Traditions” refers to the Christian teaching St. Paul himself received and which he preached to the Thessalonians (Navarre 52).  St. Paul makes the point that he was not preaching his own personal opinions but rather passing on truths given to him as revealed doctrine (Navarre 52).  That is why he cannot allow his message to be tampered with.  It reiterates the point that the truth revealed by God is passed on not just through Scripture but by Sacred Tradition as well.   2 Timothy 2:2 says, “…and what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”  In this verse St. Paul is also telling Timothy to guard and preserve the deposit of faith, or the living Sacred Traditions that he has heard (Navarre 111).  Both of these verses, 2 Thessalonians 2:15 and 2 Timothy 2:2, are the premise behind the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum, which expresses that it is not from Scripture alone that the Church transmits the whole content of revelation to its faithful.  Now, I will examine the heterodox Lutheran doctrine of Martin Luther, which is sola scriptura.

The Lutheran Church believes that the Bible is the source of all revealed divine knowledge (Concord 464). For Lutherans, sola scriptura, which is latin for scripture alone, is the final authority for all matters of faith and doctrine (Concord 464).  To understand Lutheranism and the doctrine of sola scriptura, we must know who Martin Luther is and what had occurred during his time.  The doctrine of sola scriptura originated with Martin Luther, a sixteenth century German monk who broke away from the Roman Catholic Church and started the Protestant Reformation (Peters 2).   Martin Luther responded to some abuses within the Catholic Church during his time, such as the selling of indulgences, a lavish Pope, and monasteries growing lax and wealthy (Mathison 90; Peters 2; Whalen 31).  For Martin Luther, the traditional authority of clerical institutions had led to the degradation and distortion of the Christian faith (McGrath 3).  Martin Luther felt that renewal and reformation of the Christian faith was urgently needed, and reform would have to come from its grass roots – from the laity (McGrath 3).  This led Martin Luther to believe in the Bible alone, or sola scriptura, to make the case against the Catholic Church’s clam as the sole authority in interpreting Scripture and the Christian faith.  

Lutherans today still hold to the teaching of Martin Luther’s doctrine of sola scriptura, which teaches that Christians are to base their theology on the Scriptures of God and nothing else, and that Scripture itself is divinely authoritative (Concord 464).   According to this doctrine, everything that a Christian needs to believe and do is told in the Scriptures.  The Lutheran Book of Confessions states, “No human being’s writings dare be put on a par with it [Scripture], but everything must be subjected to it” (Concord 465).  Lutherans believe in the absolute authority of Scriptures because they believe Christ accepted the absolute authority of Old Testament.  They believe Jesus Christ guaranteed the absolute authority of the New Testament by His promise of the Holy Spirit to His apostles (Concord 132).  To Martin Luther and Lutherans, Scripture is authoritative in itself simply because it is the Word of God. 

According to the Lutheran Book of Concord, the two verses that are used to justify sola scriptura are Psalm 119:105 and Galatians 1:8 (Concord 464).    Psalm 119:105 states, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and light to my path” (Concord 464).
According to Lutherans, this implies that Scripture is the only rule and nom to which all doctrines and teachers alike must be appraised and judged (Concord 464).   The other verse that Lutheran sola scriptura quotes is Galatians 1:8 which states, “Even if an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed.”  From the perspective of Lutherans, this verse implies that all other writings or teachings apart from Scripture are never above it and is always subject to it (Concord 464).  Lutherans believe that in contrast to all other writings and human authorities, God’s word alone in sacred Scripture carries with it God’s ultimate authority. 

There are many differences between the Catholic doctrine of Scripture and Sacred Tradition and the Lutheran doctrine of sola scriptura.  The main differences in these doctrines deal with divine authority in interpretation of Scripture, and authority in interpretation of faith that is not explicit or literal within Scripture.  Another question that must be addressed is, “Does the Bible truly support the doctrine of sola scriptura?”   Martin Luther and Lutherans took its stand on the right of the individuals to interpret the Bible for themselves rather than be forced to submit to “official” interpretations handed down by popes or to other centralized religious authorities (McGrath 3).   However, one can see the drawbacks of private interpretation of the laity by simply noting the varying and numerous Protestant denominations that have materialized since the Protestant Reformation.  According to wikipedia, there are over thirty-three thousand Protestant denominations to date (Protestantism).  However, Martin Luther’s radical doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers” empowered individual believers (McGrath 3).
            If you look at the writings of the early Church, you can see references to Apostolic Succession, to the bishops as guardians of the Deposit of Faith, and to the Primacy  and the authority of Rome (Peters 29).  The collective weight of these references makes clear the fact that the early Church understood itself as having a hierarchy which was central to maintaining the integrity of the Faith.  There is no indication that the early followers of Christ disregarded those positions of authority and considered them invalid.  On the contrary, we see from the profession of faith from the Second General Council of Constantinople in 553 that the Church saw its power grounded in  an inseparable combination of Scripture and Sacred Apostolic Tradition.  The author Joel Peters stated if the early Church believed in the notion of the Bible alone, then it would be analogous to saying that men and women today could entertain the thought that our civil laws could function without Congress to legislate them (Peters 29).  One can imagine if there was no Supreme Court to interpret the Federal laws which bind all the laws of our fifty states of this country.  If there were no central authority to interpret the laws of this country then there would be legal chaos, and we would probably have fifty countries with their own separate laws instead of fifty united states of America. 
            It is impractical to contend that the Bible could function on its own and apart from the Church that helped put it together. This is a striking difference with the Catholic doctrine of Scripture and Sacred Tradition, which says that the Church alone has the divine authority to interpret correctly, as well as interpret matters of faith that deal with the conduct of its members.  Without a central authority like that within the Catholic Church, almost any Christian can formulate a theological system simply upon his own private interpretation of Scripture (Peters).  From its onset, the development of sola scriptura was seen by its opponents as a menace, opening the way to religious mayhem, social disintegration, and political chaos (McGrath 3). History has actually seen this result since the sixteenth century. 
            Since Lutherans follow the Reformation principle of sola scriptura, they are opposed the Catholic teaching on the necessity and authority of Sacred Tradition.  They believe that Catholics have added things to their belief system that the Bible doesn’t teach (Madrid 2003, 37). Lutherans see Catholic Traditions, such as the Papacy and purgatory as examples of man-made doctrines that conflict with biblical teachings (Madrid 2003, 38).  Not only do they believe that some Catholic traditions are additions to the Bible, but they are in direct conflict with it (Madrid 2002, 25).   If one reads scripture carefully and compares what it says with how the early Christians understood it, one will discover that if anything qualifies as a tradition of men that “voids the Word of God,” it is the Protestant notion of sola scriptura that does just that (Madrid 2003, 38). In Mathew 18:15-18 we see Jesus instructing His disciples on how to correct a fellow believer.  Therefore, we can see from Scripture itself that Jesus identifies the Church rather than Scripture as the final authority to be appealed to (Peters 18).
            The belief that Scripture is self-authenticating does not hold up to close scrutiny. According to the author Keith A. Mathison, the doctrine of sola scriptura is often reduced and virtually identified by opponents as the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture (Mathison 258).  He also goes on to state that “the sufficiency of Scripture is not the totality of the doctrine of sola scriptura, and to define sola scriptura in this way seriously undermines the entire doctrine (Mathison 258).  The verses that the Lutheran Book of Concord uses to justify the doctrine of sola scripture still does not say explicitly or implicitly that the Bible alone is sufficient in itself as the sole rule of authority.

The Lutheran claim that scripture is its own authority under Sola scriptura still does not give a satisfactory answer to the question of how the canon of the Bible was determined.  In order for us to know with certainty whether or not a writing is genuinely inspired, we need more than a claim by that writing that it is inspired. The guarantee of inspiration must come from outside that writing (Peters 40). In the case of the Bible, the guarantee must come from a non-Biblical source.  The theological principle of going by the Bible alone is itself very contradictory to what the Bible actually teaches.  According to the author Patrick Madrid, this is the fatal flaw of Martin Luther’s theory (Madrid 2003, 38).  For in order for the idea of Scripture being the sole, sufficient rule of faith to be a coherent and workable doctrine it must be somewhere expressed in Scripture or it is nothing more than a self-refuting proposition (Madrid 2003,  38).  The fact is, the notion of the Bible being the sole, sufficient rule of faith is nowhere present in the Bible either implicitly or explicitly, in a single passage or in an amalgamation of passages (Madrid 2003, 38). 

What is in the Bible is the teaching that we are to embrace Tradition that come from Jesus and His apostles which is noted in 2 Thessalonians 2:15.  Therefore not all Tradition is bad.  The only bad tradition that comes from man is the one that nullifies the word of God such as that noted in Mathew 15:1-9.  The difference is that in the former verses, “tradition” is good and necessary and, by the way, unwritten, while the latter verses shows an example of a tradition of human origin that conflicts with God’s revelation and, therefore, must be abandoned. (Madrid 2003, 39). 
            In this paper, I compared the doctrines of Scripture and Tradition within the Roman Catholic Church and the doctrine of sola scriptura within the Lutheran Church.  I chose this topic because I have seen how it has been such a divisive point of contention between different Christian denominations, yet I am very glad I now have better clarity on this issue.  It is more compelling to see from a historical perspective that Sacred Tradition had been decreed and practiced as a whole since the early Church.  It is also enlightening to know that the doctrine of sola scriptura does not hold weight when principles are scrutinized scripturally and through reason.

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church trans. Theodore Gerhardt Tappert (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1959) pp. 464. .

Catechism of the Catholic Church (New York: Doubleday, 1994) 30.

Dupuis, J. and J. Neuner, The Christian Faith in the Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church. New York: Alba House, 2001.  Pp. 98-99, 118-120

Madrid, Patrick.  Answer Me This! Huntington: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, 2003.

Madrid, Patrick. Why Is That In Tradition? Huntington: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, 2002.

Mathison, Keith A. The Shape of Sola Scriptura Moscow: Canon Press, 2001.

McGrath, Alister. Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution – A history from the sixteenth century to the twenty-first. New York: Harper One, 2007.

The Navarre Bible: Thessalonians and Pastoral Letters (New York: Four Courts Press 2005) pp. 52-53.

Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Christian Tradition: Reformation of Church and Dogma (1300-1700). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984. pg. 264.

Peters, Joel. Scripture Alone?- 21 Reasons To Reject Sola Scriptura. Rockford: Tan Books & Publishers, 1999. Pp 1-2.

Whalen, William J., Separated Brethren: A Review of Protestant, Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, & Other Religions in the United States. Huntington: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, 2002

Protestantism (2007, December 4). In Wikipedia, The free encyclopedia. Retrieved December 5, 2007, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protestant#Denominations

 

Keating, Karl. Catholicism and Fundamentalism: The attack on “Romanism” by “Bible Christians”. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988.