Thursday, October 13, 2005

Lesson 30: Trent’s Anathema on Sola Scriptura

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 scripture. 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.

Moses wrote down the law, and then instructed that it be read to the people. In Deuteronomy we read:

9 So Moses wrote down this law and gave it to the priests, the sons of Levi, who carried the ark of the covenant of the LORD, and to all the elders of Israel. 10 Then Moses commanded them: "At the end of every seven years, in the year for canceling debts, during the Feast of Tabernacles, 11 when all Israel comes to appear before the LORD your God at the place he will choose, you shall read this law before them in their hearing. 12 Assemble the people—men, women and children, and the aliens living in your towns—so they can listen and learn to fear the LORD your God and follow carefully all the words of this law. (Deut 31:9-12)

he said to them, "Take to heart all the words I have solemnly declared to you this day, so that you may command your children to obey carefully all the words of this law. 47 They are not just idle words for you—they are your life. By them you will live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to possess." (Deut 32, 46-47)

Here is the lesson from these passages:
  1. The words Moses spoke were written.
  2. The people can and must listen (or read) and learn.
  3. In these words, there is life.

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. 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. Even when Satan also used scripture (v 6), Christ trumped him with more relevant scripture.

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 “it is written”, because indeed, it is written: Do not test the Lord your God as you did at Massah. (Deut 6:16, NIV).

Was Sola Scriptura was Invented by the Reformers?

Catholic apologists like to claim that Sola Scriptura was unheard of prior to the Reformation. Even if this claim 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 encapsulation of Sola Scriptura.


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.

Trent has this to say about Sola Scriptura:
The holy, ecumenical and general Council of Trent, lawfully assembled in the Holy Ghost, the same three legates of the Apostolic See presiding, keeps this constantly in view, namely, that the purity of the Gospel may be preserved in the Church after the errors have been removed. This [Gospel], of old promised through the Prophets in the Holy Scriptures, our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, promulgated first with His own mouth, and then commanded it to be preached by His Apostles to every creature as the source at once of all saving truth and rules of conduct. It also clearly perceives that these truths and rules are contained in the written books and in the unwritten traditions, which, received by the Apostles from the mouth of Christ Himself, or from the Apostles themselves, the Holy Ghost dictating, have come down to us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand.
After listing the canon, including the Apocrypha, Trent continues:
If anyone does not accept as sacred and canonical the aforesaid books in their entirety and with all their parts, as they have been accustomed to be read in the Catholic Church and as they are contained in the old Latin Vulgate Edition, and knowingly and deliberately rejects the aforesaid traditions, let him be anathema.
At the Council of Trent (1545-1563), where the Reformed doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone, Sola Fide was condemned, the Roman Catholic Church also confirmed for herself the sole right to interpret Scripture and tradition authoritatively.

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 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 Rome 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".

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