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“The Bible Alone!” cried the Protestant Reformers, rejecting the authority of the Church to decide matters of doctrine: “The Bible is the only rule of faith,” they claimed. Their cry still echoes today, preached from Protestant pulpits, vehemently asserted in Protestant tracts, proposed by Protestants in debates, and taken for granted in Protestant conversation.
Dr. Thomas Howard notes how Protestants throw down the gauntlet here: “The Bible alone. At this point stirrups are checked, lances leveled, banners hoisted, bugles blown. Charge!”1
“The Bible Alone!” has already been reverberating across the Internet for quite some time. Usenet articles and e-mail messages from Protestants disputing Catholic doctrine and practices typically contain questions that begin, “Where in the Bible does it say...?” And pages on Protestant websites devoted to examining things Catholic usually include statements that begin, “The Bible doesn’t say....”
But Catholics have a rejoinder: “Where in the Bible does it say that the Bible is the only rule of faith?”
This essay will examine some of the Biblical passages that are quoted by Protestants in answer to that challenge. They are the sixteen passages the author has seen Protestants offer as biblical mandates of The Bible Alone or Sola Scriptura (Latin for “Scripture Only”). Five are from the Old Testament, eleven from the New. Nine consist of only one verse, four others of two verses, and another of three verses; the remaining two, both from the New Testament, are narrative passages a few verses long.
First, we must establish what exactly is meant by Sola Scriptura so we may determine what would constitute a biblical injunction of the Bible Alone. Various Protestant statements of belief provide the answer in various ways.
The Anglicans’ Twenty-Nine Articles of Religion, 1563, state the Bible Alone this way:
Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.... (Article VI. “Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation.” According to the American [Episcopalian] Revision, 1801)2
Article V of the Methodists’ Twenty-Five Articles of Religion, adopted in America, 1784, is substantially the same as Anglican Article VI.3
The Westminster Confession of Faith, 1646, expressing the Reformed (Presbyterian) faith, also treats of Sola Scriptura:
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 Sprit, or traditions of men.... (Chapter I, “Of the Holy Scripture,” Article VI)4
The Abstract of Principles, a American Baptist statement of faith, 1858-9, affirms Scripture Only in this fashion:
The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments were given by inspiration of God, and are the only sufficient, certain and authoritative rule of all saving knowledge, faith and obedience. (I. “The Scriptures.”)5
Thus, stated succinctly, Sola Scriptura is the principle that only those beliefs and practices set down in the Sacred Scriptures are binding upon the Christian faithful. It does not mean that neither church tradition nor human reason has any role to play whatever, but that they do not have certainty and, therefore, cannot have binding authority on the Christian’s conscience.
Now we must dig a little deeper, for we do not yet have a sufficient foundation on which to proceed: we must ask, not merely what “The Bible Alone” means, but why the Bible at all? Why is the Holy Bible a “certain and authoritative” rule of faith? Why are its precepts “requisite or necessary to salvation”? To which “nothing at any time is to be added”? Again, various Protestant statements of belief provide the answer in various ways.
The Second Helvetic Confession, 1566, is another statement of Reformed belief; it answers our question thus:
We believe and confess the Canonical Scriptures of the holy prophets and apostles of both Testaments to be the true Word of God, and to have sufficient authority of themselves, not of men. For God himself spake to the fathers, prophets, apostles, and still speaks to us through the Holy Scriptures.... (Chapter I. “Of the Holy Scripture Being the True Word of God.”)6
The Westminster Confession puts it this way:
The authority of the holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the Author thereof; and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God. (Chapter I, “Of the Holy Scripture,” Article IV)7
The New Hampshire Confession, a Baptist “Declaration of Faith”, 1833, also addresses this question:
We believe the Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired, and is a perfect treasure of heavenly instruction; that it has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter.... (I. Of the Scriptures.)8
Now we have the answer to our question, Why the Bible? Because the Holy Bible is the Word of God and is, thus, inerrant, certain, and authoritative.
Of course, Catholics too believe that the Holy Bible is the Word of God inerrant, certain, and authoritative but not that only the Bible is the Word of God.9 The Second Vatican Council explained it this way in the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation:
Hence there exist 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. For sacred Scripture is the word of God inasmuch as it is consigned to writing under the inspiration of the divine Spirit. To the successors of the apostles, sacred tradition hands on in its full purity God’s word, which was entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit.... Sacred tradition and sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, which is committed to the Church.... (Dei Verbum, Articles 9 and 10; emphasis added)10
Christians of the Eastern Orthodox Churches agree, as expressed by the Synod of Jerusalem, 1672, through the Confession of Dositheus, Patriarch of Jerusalem:
Wherefore, the witness also of the Catholic Church is, we believe, not of inferior authority to that of the Divine Scriptures. For one and the same Holy Spirit being the author of both, it is quite the same to be taught by the Scriptures and by the Catholic Church.... (Decree II; emphasis added)11
So, the principle of Sola Scriptura rests on the belief that the Bible and only the Bible is the Word of God. It is the denial of the Catholic and Orthodox belief that the Word of God is conveyed by both Sacred (or Apostolic) Tradition and the Sacred Scriptures.
Many appeals to biblical passages12 as mandates of Sola Scriptura either beg the question or argue to an irrelevant conclusion.
No Begging the Question, Please. Like all arguments, the citation of a biblical passage as a teaching of Sola Scriptura must not beg the question: that is, it must not assume from the start, in one way or another, what it is supposed to demonstrate in the end. In the case at hand, to assume that the Word of God is the Bible, and only the Bible, would be begging the question. For the principle of “The Bible Alone” rests upon the axiom that the Bible alone is the Word of God.
In other words, to be a teaching of Sola Scriptura, a biblical passage must not merely teach that the Word of God alone is the rule of faith: it must teach that the Bible alone is the Word of God.
No Arguing to an Irrelevant Conclusion, Either. Nor would it be enough for the biblical passage to teach that the Bible is a rule of faith: Catholics and Orthodox, too, believe that the Holy Bible is a rule of faith, so it would be an irrelevant conclusion.
That is, if the biblical passage does not teach that the Bible is the only rule of faith, to the exclusion of everything else, then it is being used to argue to the wrong point.
Some passages are cited more frequently than others as purported biblical teachings of Sola Scriptura. We will examine them first, in order of their appearance in contemporary Bibles.13
Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the Lord your God that I give you.
That biblical passage, and the passage from Revelation quoted below, have been taken as teaching Sola Scriptura since the earliest Reformation days. The Second Helvetic Confession explicitly appeals to those two passages:
And in this Holy Scripture, the universal Church of Christ has all things fully expounded which belong to a saving faith, and also to the framing of a life acceptable to God; and in this respect it is expressly commanded of God that nothing be either put to or taken from the same (Deut. iv. 2; Rev. xxii. 18, 19). (Chapter I. “Of the Holy Scripture Being the True Word of God”; emphasis added)14
(The original edition of the King James Version, published in A.D. 1611, has a marginal note at Deuteronomy 4:2 cross-referencing Revelation 22:18, and vice-versa.)
Despite such an august history, the citation of Deuteronomy 4:2 as a teaching of “The Bible Alone” begs the question: it assumes that “the commands of the Lord” come only through the Bible: that, however, is what must be demonstrated.
To the law and the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn.
The necessary context, provided by the preceding verse, reveals that this passage is referring to a very specific practice: “When men tell you to consult mediums and spiritists, who whisper and mutter, should not a people inquire of their God? Why consult the dead on behalf of the living?” (Isaiah 8:19) As we can now see, this passage condemns occult practices and that is all it does.16
Moreover, assuming that “the law” and “the testimony” refers to writings is begging the question. Most probably, “the law” does indeed refer to the Torah, the Books of Moses, the first five books of the Old Testament. But, “the testimony” refers to the teachings of the prophets, and there is nothing in this passage that suggests that “the testimony” is only what has been written; and, many long years would pass before the writings of the prophets were regarded as Sacred Scripture.
Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”17
Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “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.’”18 Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”19
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”20 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.
This passage is not appealed to as a teaching of Scripture Only because it contains any such precept it obviously does not but because of the Lord’s example. “Jesus responded to the temptations with three quotations from Scripture, and nothing else,” it is said; “therefore,” it is concluded, “only Scripture has authority.”
All three quotations, however, are from the Old Testament: when the Lord Jesus endured His temptation in the desert, the books of the New Testament would not even have been written yet for many years, let alone recognized as new parts of Sacred Scripture.
At best, then, this passage may be taken as vindication of the divine authority of the Old Testament scriptures, but not to the exclusion of other authorities: it shows that Scripture is, indeed, a rule of faith, but not the only rule of faith. At worst, though, this passage establishes the Old Testament alone as the rule of faith the logical conclusion that somehow escapes the notice of Protestants who appeal to the Lord’s example.21
You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life....
Study diligently the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life....
The Greek of this verse is ambiguous: it may be taken either as declarative (that is, as a statement of fact: “You do study the Scriptures”) or as imperative (that is, as a command: “Study the Scriptures”).22
Those who cite this verse as a teaching of Sola Scriptura take it in the imperative. No matter. For the Lord Jesus is referring to the Old Testament scriptures: if He was truly commanding his Jewish hearers and us to search the Scriptures, then it is the Sacred Scriptures of the Jews, the Christians’ Old Testament, that we must search. Again, Protestants fail to notice that this is the logical conclusion a conclusion they would reject as much as any Catholic would.
Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
Clearly, these verses do not teach that “this book” is the only source of what me must believe; they mean, rather, that we can believe because of what is written there. They do not prohibit other means of acquiring such knowledge. Moreover, these verses are restricted in two ways that preclude them from consideration as a mandate of the Bible Alone.
First, verse 30 specifically refers to “this book.” Centuries would go by before the New Testament scriptures were all assembled in a single compilation, so “this book” refers only to the Gospel of John. Therefore, those who appeal to John 20:30-31 as a definition of the rule of faith must take the Gospel of John alone as their rule of faith lest they be violating the very scripture they are quoting.
Second, verse 31 specifically mentions the purpose of what is written: that we may believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, the Son of God. Therefore, those who appeal to this passage as a mandate of Sola Scriptura must restrict their beliefs to nothing more than “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” lest, again, they be violating this scripture to which they appeal.
As soon as it was night, the brothers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea. On arriving there, they went to the Jewish synagogue. Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.
This passage seems to have recently become one of the more popular to be cited in support of Sola Scriptura: Protestant “ministries” and publications have even appeared with “Berean” in their name or title.
But the behavior of the Bereans is being contrasted with the behavior of the Thessalonians, so we must resort to the account of Paul’s stay in Thessalonica to provide the necessary context: “As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. ‘This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ,’ he said” (Acts 17:2-3).
We can see, now, that Paul’s use of Scripture in his preaching at Thessalonica and Berea was very specific: he was explaining to the Jews how the Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah were fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth. Where else would one look but in the Sacred Scriptures to see if Scriptural prophecies have been fulfilled? Indeed, there is no reason to think that the Berean Jews were doing anything more than merely verifying that St. Paul’s quotations from their Sacred Scriptures were genuine and accurate.
Sometimes it will be pointed out that the Bible says the Bereans were “more noble” than the Thessalonians and that they were so because they “examined the Scriptures every day....”24 But this is reading into the text what isn’t there; for St. Paul had reasoned with the Thessalonians, too, from their Sacred Scriptures, and hadn’t convinced them: the Bereans, therefore, are “more noble” because they “received the message with great eagerness”, not because they were early practitioners of Sola Scriptura.
Moreover and once again the Scriptures referred to here are the Sacred Scriptures of the Jews, the Christians’ Old Testament. Protestants fall short of the logical conclusion: if this passage teaches Scripture Only, then it teaches Old Testament Scripture Only.
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.
Those who propose this passage as a biblical injunction of Scripture Only read it as if it says, not “All Scripture is God-breathed...” but “Only Scripture is God-breathed....” But the passage neither says that nor means that: it says Scripture is “useful” for these purposes, not that Scripture is sufficient for them; nor does it say or imply that something else might not also be useful.
Sometimes, one who proposes these verses as a biblical teaching of Sola Scriptura will try to shift the focus from the beginning to the end: “St. Pauls says thoroughly equipped for every good work,” they note, “so nothing else is needed,” they say. But this, too, makes the passage say what it doesn’t, for it is “teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” that makes “the man of God” thoroughly equipped for every good work not the Bible.
What’s more, and once again, the context makes clear that the Scripture St. Paul means is the Jewish Bible, the Christians’ Old Testament. Addressing St. Timothy in the immediately preceding verse, the Apostle reminds him, “from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15). The only Scriptures that St. Timothy could have known from childhood were the Sacred Scriptures of the Jews a clear deduction that the Protestants who appeal to this passage simply do not make.
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. And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.
As mentioned above, Deuteronomy 4:2, this passage has been cited for centuries as teaching Scripture Only. In these verses, however, “this book” means the Book of Revelation, not the Holy Bible in its entirety: when Revelation was written, many centuries would pass before all twenty-seven books of the New Testament scriptures were gathered as one collection of divinely-inspired writings together with the books of the Jewish Scriptures.25
Moreover, the warning is that we must not add anything to “the words” of this book, nor take “words away” from this book. This injunction, then, is not a warning against adding to, or detracting from, the teachings presented in Revelation: they are a warning against tampering with the text of Revelation sort of a “copyright notice,” worded in the strongest possible terms because of the nature of the work.
Even if someone would like to interpret “words” as a figurative way of referring to doctrine, still “this book” refers only to Revelation, not to the whole Bible.
Others biblical verses are sometimes quoted, too, as teachings of Sola Scriptura. Our pattern of analysis has already been established, so these passages will be addressed only very briefly.
See that you do all I command you; do not add to it or take away from it.
Appealing to this verse begs the question (by assuming that God’s commands come only through the Holy Bible).
Every word of God is flawless; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Do not add to his words, or he will rebuke you and prove you a liar.
Appealing to these verses begs the question (by assuming that “every word of God” is contained in the Bible).
The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails given by one Shepherd. Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them.
Appealing to these verses begs the question. Also, the reference is, at best, to the Jewish Scriptures and even that is assuming that “collected sayings” means “written collected sayings,” which is by no means required by the context.
He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
This verse refers, at best, to the Jewish Scriptures only. But there is nothing here, really, that excludes actually listening to Jewish oral tradition as well, so appealing to this verse begs the question, too.
Now, brothers, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, “Do not go beyond what is written.”
If this verse refers Sacred Scripture, it refers to Old Testament Scripture only and would deny divinely-established authority even to those of St. Paul’s writings that came after First Corinthians. But the meaning of this verse has been disputed for many centuries, even among Protestants.
Test everything. Hold on to the good.
Appealing to this verse as a teaching of the Bible Alone is not merely begging the question: it is grasping at straws. But some Protestants do cite this verse as a Scripture-Only mandate.
He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.
Appealing to this verse begs the question (by assuming that the “gospel of our Lord Jesus” is confined to the Holy Bible).
But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them bringing swift destruction on themselves. Many will follow their shameful ways and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. In their greed these teachers will exploit you with stories they have made up. Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping.
Appealing to this verse, like 2 Thessalonians 1:8, as a teaching of the Bible Alone is the sheerest grasping at straws.
1 Howard, Thomas, On Being Catholic (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997), page 57. <return>
2 Leith, John H., ed., Creeds of the Churches (Louisville: John Knox Press, third edition, 1982), page 267; the complete text of the Episcopalian Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion is on line at Christ Church Cathedral (Hartford, Connecticut, USA) Home Page; the complete text of the original Thirty-Nine Articles is on line at Church of Ireland Website. <return>
3 Leith, page 355; the complete text of the Methodist Twenty-Five Articles of Religion is on line at God on the Net. <return>
4 Leith, page 195; the complete text of The Westminster Confession of Faith is in the Christian Classics Ethereal Library. <return>
5 Leith, page 340; the complete text of The Abstract of Principles is at The Reformed Reader. <return>
6 Leith, page 132; the complete text of The Second Helvetic Confession is in the Christian Classics Ethereal Library. <return>
7 Leith, page 195; the complete text of The Westminster Confession is in the Christian Classics Ethereal Library. <return>
8 Leith, pages 334-335; the complete text of The New Hampshire Confession is at The Reformed Reader. <return>
9 When they first learn that the Catholic Church teaches that the Word of God is also conveyed through means other than the Sacred Scriptures, some Protestants receive the Catholic (and Orthodox) notion with something akin to horror. <return>
10 Leith, page 729; the complete text of Dei Verbum is in the EWTN Documents Library. <return>
11 Leith, page 487; the complete text of the Confession of Dositheus is on line here at Lane’s World CatholicPage. <return>
12 Or “scriptures”; Protestants often refer to a biblical verse as a “scripture”, but the usage does not seem common among Catholics. <return>
13 The biblical quotations are from the New International Version. <return>
14 Leith, p. 132. <return>
15 The Hebrew text of this passage of Isaiah is very uncertain, and the meaning of some words and phrases is highly disputed. Some scholars even conclude that the order of the text as it has come down to us is not the original; the New American Bible, for example, has transposed Isaiah 8:21,22 into Isaiah 14:25. <return>
16 Protestants will sometimes give way on their original assertion that this passage teaches Sola Scriptura only to fall back to the assertion that it condemns petitioning the heavenly saints for prayers; but, seeking special (and specious) knowledge through mediums and other occult practices bears but a superficial resemblance to the intercession of the saints. <return>
17 Deuteronomy 8:3 <return>
18 Psalm 91:11-12 <return>
19 Deuteronomy 6:16 <return>
20 Deuteronomy 6:13 <return>
21 Indeed, Catholics could make as much of the Lord having quoted only from Deuteronomy as Protestants do His having appealed only to Scripture: doesn’t that establish Deuteronomy alone, or the Pentateuch alone, as the rule of faith? And, doesn’t it seem here that Satan is a sola-scriptura advocate? ;-) <return>
22 The King James Version’s rendering of this passage has become a byword among Protestants: “Search the Scriptures....” <return>
23 Sometimes, a longer passage, such as Acts 17:1-15, is cited instead of just verses 10 and 11; but, those two verses are the key. <return>
24The implication often, but not always, subtle is that the Protestant’s rule of faith is “more noble” than the Catholics’ if not that Protestants are “more noble” than Catholics are. Never mind that the implication (subtle or not) isn’t very noble. <return>
25 The story of the canonization of the New Testament Scriptures is told by Henry G. Graham in Where We Got the New Testament. <return>
26 Most Protestant versions enumerate this verse as 12:32; the Hebrew, however, has it at the beginning of chapter 13, and most Catholic versions (the Douay being an exception) enumerate the verse as 13:1. Some Protestant versions indicate in a note that the verse stands at the head of chapter 13 in the Hebrew. <return>
27 Sometimes, a longer passage, such as 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9, is cited, instead of just verse 8; but, that one verse is the key. <return>
© ELC 2001
|ELCore.Net > Catholicity|
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Lane Core Jr. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Created January 14, 2001; revised January 21, 2001.