Wednesday, September 11, 2002

Scripture Alone

As described here, this post is part of my notes for my Sunday School.

Why was there a Reformation?

It was not because of the selling of indulgences. Certainly that sorry practice contributed, but the Catholic Church no longer sells indulgences.1 If commercialization of indulgences was the primary cause of the reformation, then it would be high time for Protestants to reunite with the Catholic Church.

There were many secondary causes of the Reformation. The selling of indulgences, in the final analysis, may not have even been one of the more important. The scandal involving indulgences pointed to corruption, which can be (and was) dealt with internally. The real issue was one of serious doctrinal error, which is the only justification for a schism.

The primary, or formal cause of the Protestant Reformation, was Sola Scriptura-- Scripture Alone. The reformers proclaimed it; the Catholic Church refuted it. Not much has changed in this regard in the past 500 years.

What Is Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone)?

When the Church called for Luther to recant at Worms (1521), he famously dug in his heels and said he would not unless he "was convinced by sacred scripture."

Sola Scriptura means that everything necessary for our salvation is contained in the Scriptures. There is nothing that we have to know, in terms of spiritual matters, that is not contained in the Bible. Scripture and only scripture is our authority.

The Westminster Confession puts it this way:
"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."

Scriptural Support

There is, of course, scriptural support for Sola Scriptura, including this well-known passage from 2 Timothy:

15 and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Tim. 3:15-17, NIV)
Verse 15 tells us that scripture is what we need to be “wise for salvation”. Verse 16 tells us that Scripture is inspired (which implies inerrant). Verse 17 tells us that it renders us thoroughly (not partially) equipped.

In Jude it is written:
Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. (Jude 3, NIV)
The saints do not have to wait for further revelation. All that we need has been entrusted once and for all.

In Revelation we read:
I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book. (Rev. 22:18, NIV)
Scripture is sufficient. Woe to him that adds prophesy to it.2

Finally, one of the clearest admonitions against adding to the Word (which then necessarily supports Sola Scriptura) comes from the letter to the Galatians:
But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! (Gal. 1:8, NIV)
The same warning is repeated two verses later. Ironically, the fate Paul warns of (eternal condemnation, or anathema) is the same curse the Catholic Church placed on the Reformers (and by extension, us) at The Council of Trent (1545-1563).

Not everything is in the Bible

Sola Scriptura does not mean that everything is in the Bible. The solution to your calculus homework is not in the Bible. Less trivially, not everything about God is in the Bible:

Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written. (John 21:25, NIV)
This verse is sometimes used to argue against Sola Scriptura. It is useless in that regard. I would love to know what Jesus did that was not recorded, but I don’t need to know it. And if I did need to know it, all would be lost; for no council, synod, or pope will ever be able to tell me what these unrevealed acts were.

Sola Scriptura in the Early Church.

Who was the first New Testament era proponent of Sola Scriptura? It was Jesus Himself. Nice to have Him on our side. Let’s read Christ’s dialogue with Satan during His temptation:

3The tempter came to him and said, "If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread." 4 Jesus answered, "It is written: 'Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'" 5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6"If you are the Son of God," he said, "throw yourself down. For it is written:
" 'He will command his angels concerning you,
and they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.'"
7Jesus answered him, "It is also written: 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'" 8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9"All this I will give you," he said, "if you will bow down and worship me." 10Jesus said to him, "Away from me, Satan! For it is written: 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.'" (Matt. 4:3-10, NIV)
When refuting Satan, Jesus didn’t appeal to tradition, or to the Pharisees, or even His own deity and infallible reason. Each and every time He quoted scripture. 3 Even when Satan also used scripture (verse 6), Christ trumped him with more relevant scripture.

Was Sola Scriptura was Invented by the Reformers?

Catholic apologists like to claim that Sola Scriptura was unheard of prior to the Reformation. It is a weak criticism on several fronts, not the least of which being that it is simply not true. However, even if it were true it would at most cast suspicion on the doctrine in the form of a “newness stigma”. In other words, it would simply be the argument that any doctrine that took 15 centuries to be discovered should be viewed critically. Fair enough, although that in and of itself would by no means disprove Sola Scriptura.

Anyway, it’s moot. For there is ample evidence that the doctrine existed in the early church.

Augustine (On Christian Doctrine) wrote:
In those teachings which are clearly based on scripture are found all that concerns faith and the conduct of life.
For another example, we turn to Cyril of Jerusalem, a teacher in the early church, who wrote in the 4th century: (lecture 4-17)
"Have thou ever in thy mind this seal, which for the present has been lightly touched in my discourse, by way of summary, but shall be stated, should the Lord permit, to the best of my power with the proof from the Scriptures. For concerning the divine and holy mysteries of the Faith, not even a casual statement must be delivered without the Holy Scriptures; nor must we be drawn aside by mere plausibility and artifices of speech. Even to me, who tell thee these things, give not absolute credence, unless thou receive the proof of the things which I announce from the Divine Scriptures. For this salvation which we believe depends not on ingenious reasoning, but on demonstration of the Holy Scriptures."
A rather nice ecapsulation of Sola Scriptura.

Catholic apologists tell us that we cannot use Cyril’s writing as early evidence of Sola Scriptura because Cyril also wrote extensively on sacred tradition and other "high Catholic" doctrines. In other words, because he is not totally consistent with the reformers, his clear exposition of Sola Scriptura is irrelevant. This is disingenuous—because I can just as easily turn it around and state that his writing on Sola Scriptura nullifies his alleged support of sacred tradition.

Besides, what does it matter what he wrote elsewhere? If Luther had written tomes on sacred tradition prior to his "conversion", we would still say Luther supported Sola Scriptura.

The point is not whether Cyril was an early Lutheran but whether the doctrine of Sola Scriptura existed in the early church, regardless of the degree of self-consistency in Cyil’s theology. His writing clearly demonstrates that it did. It is but one piece of evidence contradicting the absurd claim that Sola Scriptura wasn't even "invented" until the 16th century.

I would like to think that if I were still a Catholic (I once was, but didn't consider these things at that time) and rejected Sola Scriptura, I would nevertheless have the instincts to doubt the claim that it was unheard of prior to the Reformation. After all, right or wrong, it is a singularly simple doctrine. The possibility that for fifteen centuries nobody came up with the simple and straightforward notion that Scripture is sufficient taxes credulity. It would be much easier to believe that a complex doctrine such as the Trinity took a long time to develop.


Catholics, like (conservative) Protestants, believe the Bible is the authoritative, inerrant word of God. However, Catholics, unlike Protestants, acknowledge an additional source of divine knowledge: sacred tradition, which the teaching authority of the Church, the Magisterium may interpret and then bind the consciences of Catholic believers with its understanding.

Since the Catholic Church acknowledges this additional "delivery system" for revelation, Sola Scriptura has got to go.

At the Council of Trent (1545-1563, where the Reformed doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone, Sola Fide, which we will talk about later in the semester, was condemned) the Roman Catholic Church also confirmed for herself the sole right to interpret Scripture and tradition authoritatively.

The Council of Trent was not for the feint-hearted, for it anathematized anyone who rejected sacred tradition. To be anathematized is to be accursed and cast out of the Church.4

What is Catholic Tradition?

This is a very difficult question. It is clear that sacred tradition is not always what it claims to be. If tradition meant, as the Catholic Church officially teaches, the oral tradition handed down in an unbroken succession from the apostles, then our division would not be as great as it is. We would still argue against such tradition binding the conscience because of the problems associated with proving a claim of a unbroken succession. Nevertheless, I believe our differences would be manageable.

In practice, however, sacred tradition is much more. It is whatever the Church says it is. How can one even claim that extra-scriptural Catholic doctrine such as purgatory, The Immaculate Conception, The Assumption, or papal infallibility (just to name a few) arrived as an oral tradition that can be traced back to the apostles?

And if not, how can there be binding revelation that was unknown to the apostles? Did they not need it for their own salvation?

Another problem is that sacred tradition is not always, well, traditional. For example, In 1559 Pius IV declared that widespread dissemination of the Scriptures is to be avoided in that it causes more harm than good. Vatican II changed this tradition, and now the Church (rightly) calls for free-access to the Scriptures for all.

We should understand that the Church’s position on infallibility is not as trivial as we Protestants like to poke fun at, and that they have explanations as to how sacred tradition can appear to change. Nevertheless it is undeniable that this is but one example where the Church sometimes teaches A, while at other times, not-A.

So do we. We call it a mistake.

In reality Catholic tradition actually means that the Church, after due consideration, can offer new binding revelation (not traceable to the apostles). This is stated nowhere as clearly as in the time of Vatican I (The “infallibility” council, 1870), where Pius IX boldly declared: "I am tradition".

Private Interpretation

Private Interpretation is a concept that is closely connected with Sola Scriptura. Private Interpretation means that as we all are priests (1 Pet. 2:9, Rev. 5:9-10), so we all have the privilege of reading and discerning the Scriptures. In addition to this unfettered access being a privilege, it is a grave responsibility.

Catholics are not too keen on Private Interpretation. A common charge leveled against Protestants is that strict adherence to Sola Scriptura and affirmation of Private Interpretation results in a cacophony of opinions because some aspects of the scripture are simply not clear.

Indeed, at first glance this criticism has merit. We have Calvinists and Arminians. Infant Baptism and Adult (Believer’s) Baptism. Baptism by sprinkling, baptism by immersion. Some churches come to the Lord's Supper weekly, some monthly, some at other intervals. Not to mention at least four millennial views with sizable numbers of adherents.

This diversity, some would say, is the inevitable result of Sola Scriptura. On those issues in which scripture is not clear, people will interpret scripture differently.

Our Catholic critics are, of course, absolutely correct. When scripture is not completely clear, then a concept, no matter how important it may be to its champions, is downgraded from an essential to a liberty issue, or at least there is a implicit recognition that: I believe this but I might be wrong; I can have Christian fellowship with those of an opposing view.

The problem with this criticism is that it doesn’t criticize an actual fault. It is one group saying to another that "your house is not as tidy as my house, so you must be doing something wrong."

Protestants, of course, deny that either sacred tradition or church councils (or any church official) has any authority to bind the conscience. We would say that the uniformity enjoyed by the Roman Catholic Church is unlawfully imposed and, while it achieves uniformity, there is no guarantee that, on any given issue, it is not uniformly wrong.

We agree on the essentials, the essentials that we can discerned unambiguously from scripture. The essentials include things like the divinity of Christ, the Incarnation, the Atonement, the Resurrection, and the Trinity. Disagree with an essential, and you have slid into apostasy.

The rest, we say, will be sorted out later.

The fact that we can agree to disagree (by no means always peacefully, but in theory anyway) on important concepts is utterly un-Catholic.

Protestant Tradition: Important but not Sacred

Some Catholics will also say "Protestants believe in Sacred Tradition, but don't know they do" and assert (incorrectly) that tradition is required to fully support complex "essentials" such as the Trinity.

This criticism is valid in some isolated cases. Some churches mistakenly elevate a non-essential doctrine into an essential one by teaching that its view is the one "true" understanding and any opposing view represents apostasy. There are churches, for example, that teach that you cannot be saved unless you affirm a particular end-times view, or that you are lost if you use something other than the King James Bible (since it was good enough for Jesus).

It is not that Protestants do not have church tradition—we surely do. The difference is that we hold that it cannot bind the conscience. Sola Scriptura and Private Interpretation do not mean that every Protestant must start with a clean page and write in his own theology by reading nothing but the Bible. That would be foolish. In addition to scripture, one’s theology is developed by parents, children, Sunday School, Sermons, peers, mentors, elders, other books, the world, nature, everything.

Tradition, meaning which of those "non-essential" doctrines a church will teach or profess (but not affirm as essential) is perfectly legitimate. In our church, we practice believer’s baptism by immersion. The church’s position is that there is a strong case for believer’s baptism in scripture and also for baptism by immersion. While I tend to agree with that position, I do not think Scripture teaches it irrefutably. Nevertheless, I think it is perfectly legitimate for a church to, as a tradition, require baptism by immersion.

If Faith Baptist taught that those rascally Presbyterians who practice infant baptism are all absolutely hell-bound, I would not have joined. Tradition is fine, but it is not sacred, and it is not binding.

The historic creeds are a perfectly acceptable example of tradition. They don't come from the Bible, but every attempt is made to demonstrate that they can be derived from Scripture. Some might disagree with their conclusions, as in the Apostle's Creed where the phrase "He descended into hell" is not without its critics. Yet even critics agree that adherents to the Apostle's creed can make a faithful and credible case for scriptural support.

A similar situation exists with the historic confessions, such as the Westminster confession. Baptist's will not agree with the conclusions in the Westminster Confession regarding infant baptism, but they will (most of them, anyway) agree that an honest attempt was made to garner scriptural support. They would also agree that the Westminster Confession has some "very good parts". It is church tradition at its finest, but it is not binding. We can believe the parts for which we see solid scriptural support while discarding those points where we do not find the proof to be convincing.

As we do, Catholics look to early church leaders to find support for their position. And they can unleash an impressive deluge of writings from early church fathers that seem to support tradition. Look at these carefully; many times the writer will be supporting the same type of tradition that we do-- things like the creeds and confessions. Although early church fathers might write "we believe in church tradition", they do not mean that the church can offer new, binding revelation under the rubric of tradition.

Sola Scriptura means that you put everything you can to the simple test: Is this based on scripture alone? In carrying out the test you might still use other resources, but only as they are helpful in addressing the question of scriptural support.

No matter how much I admire a pastor or writer, I test what they are telling me against scripture. That is Private Interpretation. It does not mean I develop all doctrine by myself, locked in a room with only the Bible. I do my homework. I try to start with an open mind. I read what others have written on the same subject—both those that agree with where I am heading and those that don’t. I talk to people. I pray. But when all is said and done, I accept not what I want to believe and not what others want me or tell me to believe, but what I honestly believe I have discerned from scripture.

What is unfathomable to Catholics is the nonchalant way in which we accept the inevitable: intelligent, well intentioned believers will reach different conclusions. Right from the start Luther and Calvin had disagreements. Across the spectrum of evangelical churches there are different views on baptism, the Lord ’s Supper, predestination, etc. It’s the old: In Essentials, Unity; in Non-essentials, Liberty; in All Things, Charity approach.

Now the things I mentioned are not non-essentials in all aspects. The Lord ’s Supper is mandated by Christ. A church that doesn’t celebrate the Lord’s Supper is an apostate church. However, God has chosen not to make it absolutely clear to us precisely what happens during the sacrament/ordinance. So most Protestants (not all, one can never say all) are not overly ruffled by the fact that there are different views.

To be sure, even non-essential doctrine should be based on the concept of Sola Scriptura. If you are a Calvinist, you should be so only because you believe reformed doctrine is supported by scripture. If you are Arminian, you should be so because you believe that Arminianism represents the Biblical view

1 The Church does not sell indulgences, but they still exist. The Catholic Encyclopedia offers this definition: "An indulgence is the extra-sacramental remission of the temporal punishment due, in God's justice, to sin that has been forgiven, which remission is granted by the Church in the exercise of the power of the keys, through the application of the superabundant merits of Christ and of the saints, and for some just and reasonable motive." In other words, the excess merit accrued by Christ and the saints, and held in the Church's treasury of supererogatory merit, can be allotted, by the pope, in obtaining remission of temporal punishment. It is not official Catholic doctrine that one can obtain a departed soul's release from purgatory via indulgences, although exploitation of this belief was precisely the abuse that was occurring in Luther's time.

2 Some say this only applies to the book of Revelation, but that does not withstand logic. A warning that applies only to a particular book is pointless. Does is make sense that I am free, as that interpretation suggests, to add prophecy to any book other than Revelation?

3 In the parallel passage in Luke, when responding to Satan’s challenge to leap from the temple, it reads: Jesus answered, "It says: 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'" (Luke 4:12, NIV). It is not significant that the word “says” is used instead of written, because indeed, it is written: Do not test the Lord your God as you did at Massah. (Deut 6:16, NIV).

4 Modern liberal Catholics and Protestant colleagues tend to deemphasize the harsh pronouncements of Trent (where many things were anathematized, including having assurance of one’s salvation). It must be remembered that the Church itself has never revoked the anathemas of Trent. One approach to defuse Trent is to appeal to legalistic arguments such as the fact that the Church can only anathematize Catholics, so Trent’s condemnation does not apply to modern Protestants. I grant that we must first join the Church before being excommunicated. Legalistic arguments avoid the real issue: At Trent, Rome declared Sola Scriptura and Sola Fide to be heresies. You and I still stand condemned by The Catholic Church. Having said that, I must add how much I admire The Church: they dug in their heals on an important matter and said: there can be no compromise, the Reformers are preaching a different gospel. They, unlike liberal Protestants, affirm Absolute Truth.

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