by Steven B. Cowan –
When Martin Luther stood before the Diet of Worms in 1521 and was asked by Roman Catholic officials to recant his writings, he replied, “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture or by sound reason. . .my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.” Luther refused to recant his defense of Reformation doctrine because he was convinced that the Bible taught what he was defending, even though church councils and popes had taught differently.
How could Luther so confidently reject the Roman Catholic Church’s tradition? He could do so because he was convinced that the Scriptures alone are our ultimate and final authority in doctrinal matters. Popes, church councils, and church traditions are fallible, but the Bible is not. For that reason, the Bible must stand alone as our supreme authority and must judge even our most cherished traditions. It is this conviction that moved Luther to take the bold stand that he did. He was convinced of the doctrine of sola Scriptura (Scripture alone).
In this article, I will first of all define what is meant by sola Scriptura. Then I will outline the alternative view held by Roman Catholics. Finally, I will answer the major objections that Roman Catholics have to this doctrine.
What Is Meant By “Sola Scriptura”?
In order to defend the principle of “Scripture Alone,” we need first to be clear on what it means. We may start with the statement contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith:
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…(1.6).
This confessional statement concerns primarily the sufficiency of Scripture. Scripture is enough to guide human beings in matters of faith and practice. Wayne Grudem, defining the sufficiency of Scripture, writes that it “means that Scripture contained all the words of God he intended his people to have at each stage of redemptive history, and that it now contains everything we need God to tell us for salvation, for trusting him perfectly, and for obeying him perfectly.”
However, sola Scriptura includes more than the idea of Scripture’s sufficiency. The quote from the Westminster Confession above also mentions that nothing is to be added to the Scriptures whether by “new revelation” or “traditions of men.” Though it doesn’t say it in so many words, this statement implies a prohibition on any other standard having equal authority with Scripture. Thus, sola Scriptura also has to do with the Bible’s authority in the life of the believer. As James White has written, “The Bible claims to be the sole and sufficient infallible rule of faith for the Christian Church. The Scriptures are not in need of any supplement. . . .the Christian Church looks to the Scriptures as the only infallible and sufficient rule of faith, and the Church is always subject to the Word, and is constantly reformed thereby.”
Thus, we may state the doctrine of sola Scriptura formally as follows:
Sola Scriptura means that the Bible alone (1) is permitted to serve as the final, authoritative standard for the doctrine and practice of the Christian Church, and (2) is sufficient to serve as the final, authoritative standard for the doctrine and practice of the Christian Church.
It will further help to clarify this definition if we take a look at some possible misunderstandings that some have regarding sola Scriptura, as well as at some of its implications.
Some Misunderstandings of Sola Scriptura
Both Protestants and Roman Catholics have often misunderstood the doctrine of sola Scriptura. In this section, then, I will explain some things that “Scripture alone” does not mean.
1. “Scripture alone” does not mean that the Bible is the only source of knowledge. There are many things that we may know apart from the Bible. We know, for example, that 2+2=4, but we do not learn this truth from Scripture. We know that water is H2O, but the Bible doesn’t tell us this. We can also know some things apart from Scripture that Scripture also teaches us. For example, the Bible tells us that murder is wrong—the Bible, therefore, is a source of moral knowledge. But, the Bible itself teaches that moral knowledge is available to us even outside the Scriptures (cf. Rom. 2:14-15). We must acknowledge as well that some religious knowledge is available outside of Scripture such as the knowledge of God’s existence (cf. Rom. 1:18-20).
2. “Scripture alone” does not mean that the Bible is sufficient for teaching us everything we might need to know to get along in this fallen world. It might be needful, for example, for me to know how to grow food—but the Bible is clearly insufficient for this task. The Bible is also insufficient for the pursuit of science, philosophy, and other disciplines. The Bible, of course, does provide some general principles that are relevant to these disciplines, but if we want to know, for example, whether or not the Second Law of Thermodynamics is true, we are just going to have to figure it out ourselves.
3. “Scripture alone” does not mean that the church has no authority to teach God’s Word. As James White argues, there is a difference between recognizing that the church has the right to teach and defend the truth and saying that the church is the final arbiter of the truth. The church does indeed have the right and authority to teach and discipline God’s people, but that authority is subordinate to that of Scriptures.
4. “Scripture alone” does not mean that tradition is bad or unimportant. It does not mean, that is, that we should ignore the teachings and biblical interpretations of Christians who have gone before us. For example, we ought respect the views of the church fathers, especially as reflected in the ecumenical creeds, and allow them to guide us in interpreting the Bible. We don’t look to them as infallible authorities, but we do look to them as authorities.
Some Implications of Sola Scriptura
If sola Scriptura is true (and it is), then the following propositions are also true:
All that one MUST believe to be a Christian is found in Scripture. The Bible alone is our only authoritative source for faith and practice. If a person wants to know what is absolutely required of him by God, then that information can be found in the Bible.
That which cannot be found in or deduced from the Bible is not binding on the Christian. A Christian may believe many things that pertain to his Christian faith, but only that which is found in the pages of Holy Writ can bind his conscience. No belief which is not found in or logically deduced from Scripture carries any divine authority for the Christian.
All traditions are to be judged by the higher authority of Scripture. As noted in the previous section, sola Scriptura does not rule out the value and legitimacy of tradition. However, no extra-biblical tradition has an authority equal to or superior to Scripture. Scripture is the final authority for the Christian, and any other belief, no matter what its source, must be judged and approved by the teachings of the Bible.
The Roman Catholic View: Scripture and Tradition
Catholics deny the doctrine of sola Scriptura. In its place, they advocate the equal authority and necessity of both Scripture and Tradition. At the Council of Trent (1545-63), the Roman Catholic Church declared:
Following, then, the example of the orthodox fathers, it [the church] receives and venerates with the same sense of loyalty and reverence all the books of the Old and New Testaments. . .together with all the traditions concerning faith and morals, as coming from the mouth of Christ or being inspired by the Holy Spirit and being preserved in continuous succession in the Catholic Church.
It is the unambiguous position of this allegedly infallible council that Scripture and Tradition are to be treated as equal in value and authority. Another council, Vatican II (1965), is equally clear:
[I]t is not from sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything that has been revealed. Therefore, both Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of devotion and reverence. . . .She [the church] has always regarded the Scriptures together with Sacred Tradition, as the supreme rule of faith and will ever do so. . . .Sacred theology rests on the written word of God, together with Sacred Tradition as its primary and perpetual foundation.
What Rome has done is adopt a “two-source” view of divine revelation. Right alongside Scripture is another source of inspired doctrine and morality handed down orally in the church from the apostles—doctrines and morals which are not explicitly found in the Bible. Of course, by affirming tradition as a second source of revelation, Roman Catholics deny that Scripture is sufficient for our doctrine and practice.
But there is more. Not only does Rome teach that there are two sources of divine revelation, but also that the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church is the infallible interpreter of both Scripture and Tradition. The Council of Trent, for example, declared the infallibility of the Pope and the Magisterium (i.e., the council of bishops). And Vatican II declares that the “task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ.”
What is contained in “Sacred Tradition” according to Roman Catholicism? Some of the doctrines that come from tradition would include papal infallibility, the immaculate conception of Mary, the assumption of Mary, purgatory, the treasury of merit, and many other teachings that Protestants do not believe because they do not find them in Scripture.
We must be clear, however, that Roman Catholics are not completely agreed on the nature of Tradition. There are two different views on the relationship between Scripture and Tradition as held by Rome. First, there is the Partim-partim view (from the Latin for “partly, partly”). According to this view, the more traditional Roman Catholic view, part of God’s revelation is found in Scripture and part is found in Tradition. This is quite straightforwardly a “two-source” view of revelation in which you have to have both sources if you are going to have the whole of God’s revealed truth.
Second, there is the Material Sufficiency View according to which God’s revelation is contained completely in Scripture and completely in Tradition. So, even though there are two sources, the doctrinal content of those sources is identical. And this implies that all the doctrines of the Tradition can be found, at least implicitly, in the Scriptures. So, on this view, Scripture is materially sufficient for all doctrine, and the Tradition merely helps us interpret the Scriptures.
Those who hold this second view will try to defend Catholic doctrines like purgatory, papal infallibility, and the assumption of Mary from the Scriptures. Of course, it is obvious that these doctrines are not explicitly taught in the Bible. But, the Catholic who holds this view will say that these doctrines are implicit in the Bible—they are there in seed form, and the Church Tradition helps us to draw that seed out into full bloom.
For example, RCs will point to Matthew 16:18, where Jesus supposedly calls Peter the Rock on which he will build the church. They will say that the doctrine of the papacy is found in that text. Of course, nothing in that text, either explicit or implicit, says anything about papal infallibility, or that the bishops of Rome will be Peter’s perpetual successors—even if Jesus was talking about Peter as the Rock! So, only if Tradition provides us with infallible, extra-biblical revelation that can be read into that text can that text be said to support the Catholic claims about the papacy. But, this would mean that the content of Tradition and Scripture are not the same—Tradition provides us with more information. And this means that the material sufficiency view reduces to the partim-partim view. In any case, the Roman Catholic must be committed to the existence of two distinct sources of divine revelation.
Catholic Arguments Against Sola Scriptura
Why do Roman Catholics insist on the equal authority of Tradition? Why do they reject sola Scritpura? There are several reasons. I will mention the three that are the most significant, and show that these reasons fail to justify their view.
- They claim that the Bible itself teaches the authority of tradition. Roman Catholic defenders of Tradition cite a few biblical passages that speak of tradition, claiming that these texts support their “two source” view of revelation. Here are the two most often quoted texts:
Now I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you. (1 Cor. 11:2)
So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word [of mouth] or by letter from us. (2 Thes. 2:15)
The word translated “tradition” in both verses (NASB) is the Greek paradosis. It refers to teaching that is passed down from one person to another. These are the doctrinal “traditions” of the Christian faith. So, here we have two texts that clearly tell us to hold firm to tradition—tradition that is communicated either in writing or orally. The Roman Catholic cites these texts, especially the last clause of 2 Thessalonians 2:15, and says, “See, the Bible itself instructs us to treasure tradition right alongside Scripture.”
The first thing to say in reply is that just because the Bible uses the word “tradition,” it does not mean that the Roman Catholic view of tradition is thereby vindicated. Protestants have never denied that there are doctrinal traditions that we must preserve. And we have never denied that the apostolic traditions existed orally for a time before they were written down. Yet, this is a far cry from justifying the Roman Catholic “two source” view.
For one thing, we should note that in both texts Paul speaks of traditions that he and the other apostles passed on to them. This means that the traditions in question were fully known to these churches; they had been (past tense) taught to the entire membership of these churches. As White comments regarding 2 Thessalonians 2:15, “There is nothing future about this passage at all. Does Paul say to stand firm and hold fast to traditions that will be delivered. . .[or] to interpretations and understanding that have not yet developed? No. . .” So, there is simply no way one can argue that doctrines which no one ever heard of until centuries later (like papal infallibility and the assumption of Mary) are part of this tradition that Paul and the apostles delivered to the churches.
What is more, it is clear from the context of these texts that what is in mind is the core apostolic doctrines, the essential truths of the Christian faith connected with the gospel and the person and work of Christ. And these are precisely the doctrines that we find written in the New Testament. If one takes notice of the broader context of 1 Corinthians 11:1, one will see that this is the case with that text. Later in chapter 11, Paul refers to traditions he had received concerning the Lord’s Supper which he explicitly connects with the death of Christ (vv. 23-26). In chapter 15:1-7, he sums up the doctrinal traditions he had passed on:
Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles. . .
Notice that in each case the traditions Paul speaks of are related to the gospel, specifically the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. We see this even more clearly when we look at the immediate context of 2 Thessalonians 2:15:
But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth. It was for this He called you through our gospel, that you may gain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word [of mouth] or by letter from us. (2 Thes. 2:13-15)
Notice that v. 15 begins with the phrase “so then.” This indicates that Paul is drawing a conclusion from the verses before; which in turn indicates that the traditions he has in mind are the very doctrines that he mentions in vv. 13-14: election, sanctification by the Spirit, faith in the truth, the gospel. So, when Paul speaks of “tradition,” he does not mean some extra-biblical revelations that are passed down in purely oral form alongside Scripture. Rather he speaks of the basic doctrines of the faith concerning the person and work of Christ and its application to sinners—and these doctrines are also the very same ones recorded for us in Scripture!
Given the above facts, when Paul says in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 to hold on to the traditions whether they were passed on “by letter” or “word of mouth,” we are not to take that as meaning that some things were taught in letter and other things were taught orally. Instead, it is clear that he refers to a single set of teachings which was passed on both ways. There is nothing in this or any other biblical text that supports the Roman Catholic “two source” view of Scripture and Tradition.
- They claim that the Bible does not teach sola Scriptura. Some Roman Catholics have argued that this doctrine cannot be found in the Bible. Patrick Madrid, for example, writes, “The fatal flaw of sola Scriptura is that it is not taught in Scripture.” If successful, such an argument would be decisive. If Scripture alone is our source for doctrine, then we should believe in sola Scriptura only if the Bible teaches it.
In response, it is important to know that a doctrine does not have to be taught in the Bible in so many words in order for us to have confidence that the Bible teaches it. For example, the Bible nowhere explicitly states the doctrine of the trinity, but the trinity is clearly taught in the Bible indirectly—it is a logical consequence of things the Bible clearly does teach. Likewise, with sola Scriptura. With this in mind, let me outline two biblical evidences for sola Scriptura.
First of all, sola Scriptura is simply the logical corollary of divine inspiration. Since we know that Scripture is God’s infallible Word (2 Tim. 3:16, et passim), it simply must be the case that it stands over and above any other alleged revelation from God and must judge the authenticity of that alleged revelation. Keep in mind that the extra-biblical traditions to which Roman Catholics adhere have developed gradually throughout church history. They have been discussed and debated until finally made official by church decrees. But, the Bible has always been recognized by the church as the authoritative word of God. Hence, the Bible must function as the standard against which any proposed oral tradition must be tested by the simple fact that earlier revelation provides the canonical door through which alleged new revelations must pass (cf. Deut. 13:1-5).
Second, Paul taught the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. Note the apostle’s words in 2 Timothy 3:16-17:
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
Paul says that Scripture has God for its author. And because Scripture is divinely inspired it is useful for doctrine and moral instruction, so useful in fact that it is sufficient to equip the Christian for every good work God would have him do. This text by itself does not rule out other additional sources of revelation, but it does make it clear that the Christian does not need any additional revelations other than those recorded in the Bible. To make the case from this test stronger, however, we may also note that in the passage following this text, Paul commands Timothy to “Preach the word.” The context demands that the word he is to preach is none other than the word of God in Scripture. And the primary reason why Timothy is to preach the Scriptures is because
the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but [wanting] to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths. (2 Tim. 4:3-4)
Could it be that some of the “myths” that Paul warns against include Roman Catholic doctrines like purgatory and the immaculate conception of Mary for which there is no biblical basis? It is clear in any case, that Paul intends the written word of God to be the authoritative norm by which the church discerns the difference between true and false doctrine. So, the Bible does teach sola Scriptura after all.
- They claim that apart from tradition and the authority of the church, we could not know the true extent of the biblical canon. The idea here is that the Bible itself nowhere tells us what books should be included in it (the Table of Contents in your copy of the Bible was not divinely inspired!). Thus, Scripture alone cannot be the only and sufficient rule of faith and practice. We need some authoritative way of determining what the canon should be, and, what’s more, we need an authoritative way of interpreting the Bible once we know we have it. In the fourth century, at the Council of Carthage, the church determined what the canon should be. Therefore, the church establishes the content of the Bible. But, how can this be if we hold to sola Scriptura?
There are several problems with this argument. First, this argument assumes that the church had no canon until the fourth century when the Council of Carthage wrote its list. But, this simply is not true. The early church inherited the Old Testament canon from Judaism and there was never any serious dispute about its contents. The canon of Jesus and his apostles was assumed to be the canon of the church. Regarding the New Testament, all of the books that are in it circulated in the churches from the very beginning and most (20 of 27) were already recognized by everyone as divinely revealed writings long before the Council of Carthage.
Second, this argument confuses the recognition of the authority of the biblical books, with the conferral of authority. True, at the Council of Carthage, the church recognized as authoritative those books which are included in the canon. But, this does not mean that by so recognizing them, the church gave them their authority—any more than my recognizing the President of the United States in a crowd makes him the President of the United States!
Third, this argument assumes that we must have absolute certainty in order to be reasonably sure or justified in our belief about the extent of the canon. How, the Roman Catholic is asking, can you be sure that you have the right canon? Don’t we need some infallible authority, like the church’s magisterium, if we are going to have confidence in the canon? The answer is no. There are many very important things about which we lack absolute certainty, but no one entertains any serious or reasonable doubts about those things. Do I know with absolute certainty that my wife is not a cleverly constructed robot? No. But, I am reasonably sure that she is not, and you would probably think me irrational if I seriously considered that possibility. Knowledge and justified belief do not require absolute certainty. Which means that I may be able to have reasonable assurance about the extent of the biblical canon without needing an infallible magisterium to guarantee it.
As R.C. Sproul puts it, the canon “is a fallible collection of infallible books.” It is conceivable that mistakes were made, though not very likely. By using the criterion of apostolicity—by which a book was recognized as inspired if it was written by an apostle or had some association with an apostle—the early church made the best decisions possible. And why shouldn’t that be good enough? There is no reason why the early church (or us today for that matter) could not apply this criterion and discern which books had a legitimate claim to apostolicity.
One final point. Let us assume for the sake of argument that we do need an infallible authority to establish the canon (or to interpret Scripture). Does the Catholic appeal to the Church’s magisterium solve the problem? No. In fact, it makes the problem worse. It is well-known that the official statements of the popes and church councils are not always clear. They have to be interpreted. If we must have an infallible interpreter of Scripture and Tradition, then it would seem that we must also have an infallible interpreter of the infallible interpreter, and so on ad infinitum—which means that the Catholic will never find the certainty he is looking for.
We have seen that the Bible teaches the doctrine of sola Scriptura and that Roman Catholic arguments against it do not stand up to scrutiny. Martin Luther was right to follow his conscience at the Diet of Worms and to insist that his Catholic opponents prove their position from Scripture. They could not do it then, and they cannot do it now. The Reformation was not a mistake.
Steven B. Cowan is the Associate Director of the Apologetics Resource Center and editor of Areopagus Journal.
 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 127.
 James White, The Roman Catholic Controversy (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1996), 60.
 Most of the following points are borrowed, with modification, from James White, The Roman Catholic Controversy, 56-59.
 Most of the following points were also gleaned, with modification, from Ibid., 59-62.
 Ibid., 96.
 Patrick Madrid, “ Sola Scriptura: A Blueprint for Anarchy,” in Not by Scripture Alone: A Catholic Critique of the Protestant Doctrine of Sola Scriptura, ed. Robert A. Sungenis (Santa Barbara, CA: Queenship, 1997), 19.
 For more on the development of the Canon see, Norman L. Geisler, From God to Us: How We Got Our Bible (Chicago: Moody, 1974), 74-125; and F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1988).
 R.C. Sproul, “The Establishment of Scripture,” in Sola Scriptura: The Protestant Position on the Bible (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1995), 66 (italics mine).