(This is based, in part, on John Gerstner’s Primer on Roman Catholicism from a compilation of his primers in the book Primitive Theology. I am using Primitive Theology for my Sunday School class. For this lesson, I will also draw from James R. White’s The Roman Catholic Controversy, (Bethany House, 1996).There is a growing list of links on the left for the posts for this class.
Essential: Sola ScripturaWe will once again take up this most important doctrine. I do so at this time because I rather enjoy the approach taken by James White. And also because it reminds us of what the doctrine is as we take a look at how the Catholic Church refutes it. Recall that Sola Scriptura, or scripture alone, is considered the “formal” cause of the Reformation. The doctrine states, quite simply, that sacred scripture is sufficient to act as the infallible rule of faith for the church. But sometimes it helps to define what something is not. White lists six items that are not features of Sola Scriptura (TRCC pp. 56-59).
- Sola Scriptura is not a claim that the bible contains all knowledge. The Bible says little about science. It did correctly rule against Einstein and Hoyle in terms of steady-state cosmology—but it says nothing about the energy levels of the hydrogen atom. Apparently the microscopic details of the hydrogen atom are not important for our salvation.
- Sola Scriptura is not a claim that the bible is exhaustive in its religious knowledge. In fact, from Sola Scriptura we know this to be the case:
Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. (John 21:25)Protestants readily accept that this passage attests to the fact that there are some mighty interesting things that Jesus did that we can look forward to learning on the other side of eternity. However, they are not necessary for our salvation. The Catholic Church stretches the meaning of this passage far beyond what it says:
The Bible actually denies that it is the complete rule of faith. John tells us that not everything concerning Christ's work is in Scripture John 21:25), and Paul says that much Christian teaching is to be found in the tradition that is handed down by word of mouth (2 Timothy 2:2).(Karl Keating, Catholicism and Fundamentalism, The Attack on “Romanism”, p. 136)
Notice Keating’s claim for John 21:15: The Bible denies it is the complete rule of faith. There is no way to support that claim from the passage in question. All it tells us is that many of Jesus’ deed went unrecorded. It gives no indication whatsoever that (a) knowledge of these deeds is critical and (b) fear not, for their details will be preserved by an infallible apostolic chain of sacred oral tradition.
- Sola Scriptura is not a denial of the authority of the Church to teach God’s word. Here White correctly points out a symptom of a chronic ailment. The illness is that certain Protestant denominations, so intent on distancing themselves from Rome—run as far away as they can, often ending up in an extreme and unwarranted position. In this case, in denying that the Church has the exclusive right to interpret scripture, there is a tendency to deny that the Church has any right. But there are passages that speak to the authority of the Church, such as:
if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of truth. (1 Tim 3:15)If we didn’t know our scripture, we might conclude that “the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of truth” was a Romanish self-description. But there it is, penned by the apostle Paul. We do note, however, that the church is “a pillar” rather than the sole authority. Nevertheless, Sola Scriptura does not deny that the Church has a critical role in educating the flock. There is no false dichotomy—it is not Sola Scriptura or the church—it is both.
- Sola Scriptura is not a denial that the word of God has, at times, been spoken. It is without question true that at many times the prophets and apostles taught with words. This is again a question of sufficiency as opposed to comprehensiveness. It is no doubt the case that some of Paul’s teachings were not recorded. However, the Protestant position is that the Bible comprises all necessary and the only authoritative account of the special revelation of God. Anything that God intended to bind our conscious—that is to require us to believe, is in scripture. Unrecorded teachings are often, most likely, reiterations of teachings that were recorded. Regardless, we do not need to know their content—and any claim that these teachings have been orally preserved through tradition is not binding—you can choose to believe such claims or not—but you definitely do not have to believe them.
- Sola Scriptura does not reject tradition. It embraces any God-honoring tradition. It does, however, deny that any tradition is on equal footing with scripture. The Catholic Church, quite to the contrary, affirms that her sacred traditions are as binding as scripture.
The holy ecumenical and general Council of Trent... clearly perceives that this truth and rule are contained in the written books and unwritten traditions which have come down to us.... Following, then, the example of the orthodox Fathers, it receives and venerates with the same sense of loyalty and reverence all the books of the Old and New Testaments -- for God alone is the author of both -- together with all the traditions concerning faith and morals, as coming from the mouth of Christ or being inspired by the Holy Spirit and preserved in continuous succession in the Catholic Church. (Council of Trent, Fourth Session, 1546)The Catholic Encyclopedia states:
Now in this respect there are several points of controversy between Catholics and every body of Protestants. Is all revealed truth consigned to Holy Scripture? or can it, must it, be admitted that Christ gave to His Apostles to be transmitted to His Church, that the Apostles received either from the very lips of Jesus or from inspiration or Revelation, Divine instructions which they transmitted to the Church and which were not committed to the inspired writings? Must it be admitted that Christ instituted His Church as the official and authentic organ to transmit and explain in virtue of Divine authority the Revelation made to men? The Protestant principle is: The Bible and nothing but the Bible; the Bible, according to them, is the sole theological source; there are no revealed truths save the truths contained in the Bible; according to them the Bible is the sole rule of faith: by it and by it alone should all dogmatic questions be solved; it is the only binding authority. Catholics, on the other hand, hold that there may be, that there is in fact, and that there must of necessity be certain revealed truths apart from those contained in the Bible; they hold furthermore that Jesus Christ has established in fact, and that to adapt the means to the end He should have established, a living organ as much to transmit Scripture and written Revelation as to place revealed truth within reach of everyone always and everywhere. Such are in this respect the two main points of controversy between Catholics and so-called orthodox Protestants (as distinguished from liberal Protestants, who admit neither supernatural Revelation nor the authority of the Bible). The other differences are connected with these or follow from them, as also the differences between different Protestant sects--according as they are more or less faithful to the Protestant principle, they recede from or approach the Catholic position.Exactly 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 claims, 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 Protestants. 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".
- Sola Scriptura is not a denial of the role of the Holy Spirit in guiding and enlightening the Church. Indeed, from the very basis of Sola Scriptura we read:
Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything. (2 Tim. 2:7)That is, our very understanding of scripture comes from, we readily acknowledge, the work of our helper, the Holy Spirit. In other words, Sola Scriptura does not promise that we will understand the Bible, it promises that for believers the Bible contains everything that we must know. It is still necessary that we benefit from the teaching of the Holy Spirit, without whom the words will be foolishness.