During the course of my discussions with Protestants over Catholic doctrine, it has become clear that until the concept of sola scriptura (Bible alone) is refuted, we will be in a state of perpetually frivolous debate. In this blog post, I will pose my top five reasons why the Bible cannot be the only authority for Christians. The following arguments are based solely on the writings of early church fathers (only one of whom wrote post-biblical canonization), interpretations of scriptural text that has spanned the centuries, and of God-given common sense. Enjoy!
1. The Bible Never Claims to be the Sole Authority
If Jesus intended written scripture to be the sole source of authority for His followers after His ascension, it stands to reason that He or the apostles would have made that claim. More, the early church fathers would have mentioned this substantial claim in their writings. Rather, what we find is that Jesus, the apostles, and the early church fathers display a perfect blend of tradition and scriptural authority. I know what you’re thinking, “But the Bible does say it is authoritative!” Well, let’s take a look at the top verses utilized to support this claim.
2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NRSVCE)
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
In this passage, Paul wrote about the importance of scripture, but he did not state or imply that scripture alone is our authority. He stated that scripture is “…useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” This is true, but in no way inflated scriptural authority or minimized the authority of tradition.
Acts 17:11 (NRSVCE)
These Jews were more receptive than those in Thessalonica, for they welcomed the message very eagerly and examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so.
Again, Paul showed that scripture is an excellent tool for growth and learning about God, yet he never wrote that scripture is our only authority.
I hate to insult your intelligence, but I have heard of people utilizing the book of Revelation to defend sola scriptura. The verses are:
Revelation 22:18-19 (NRSVCE)
I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.
The Bible is not a single book, it is a compilation of 73 individual books and letters. Therefore, when John wrote that “… if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy…”, he specifically referred to his book of Revelation, not the entire Bible. The aforementioned passages do uphold that scripture is inspired and authoritative; however, they do not explicitly or implicitly advocate for sola scriptura.
2. The Bible Endorses Holy Tradition
Unlike sola scriptura, the authority of holy tradition is thoroughly stated throughout the New Testament. Some examples are:
1 Corinthians 11:2 (NRSVCE)
I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you.
2 Thessalonians 2:15 (NRSVCE)
So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.
2 Thessalonians 3:6 (NRSVCE)
Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us.
Romans 10:17 (NRSVCE)
So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.
1 Thessalonians 2:13 (NRSVCE)
We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers.
From these passages, it is clear that the writers of the New Testament held holy tradition (oral teachings) at the same level as holy scripture. This makes sense, because scripture is simply recorded portions of what was taught by the Jesus and the apostles. In fact, the highest endorsement of holy tradition comes from Jesus Himself:
Mark 16:15 (NRSVCE)
And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation…
The Greek word used here for ‘proclaim’ is ‘kérussó‘, which means to preach, herald, or proclaim in a public manner. Jesus did not tell his apostles to immediately record the good news; He told them to proclaim the good news verbally in public settings. The recording of the good news came afterwards, but was not necessary to follow Jesus because they had holy tradition.
Remember, holy tradition is everything taught by the apostles that had been passed down through apostolic succession. The holy scriptures are the written accounts of these apostolic teachings; however, there are many oral teachings that have been safeguarded through a continuous succession of the apostles.
I know someone is thinking, “What about Mark chapter seven?” Let’s take a look:
Mark 7:8-13 (NRSVCE)
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God— then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.”
In this passage, Mark explicitly states that he is referring to human tradition. Whenever any tradition explicitly goes against the God’s will, then it is human tradition and utterly sinful. Holy tradition is not the same as human tradition. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains holy tradition as:
This living transmission, accomplished in the Holy Spirit, is called Tradition, since it is distinct from Sacred Scripture, though closely connected to it. Through Tradition, “the Church, in her doctrine, life and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes.” (DV 8 § 1) “The sayings of the holy Fathers are a witness to the life-giving presence of this Tradition, showing how its riches are poured out in the practice and life of the Church, in her belief and her prayer.” (DV 8 § 3.)”
Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 78
Holy tradition does not trump scripture, they compliment each other in equal unity because they stem from the same source.
3. The Early Church Fathers Never Advocated for Sola Scriptura
In my research, I have found many articles quoting church fathers in an attempt to prove sola scriptura. One example I read quoted the following passage from Irenaeus of Lyons:
We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith. (Against Heresies, 3.3.1)
If you cherry-pick a paragraph from an entire book you can give the impression that Irenaeus of Lyons was certainly advocating for sola scriptura. Just for fun, let’s take a step back and read this passage’s chapter title.
Chapter I. – The Apostles Did Not Commence to Preach the Gospel, or to Place Anything on Record, Until They Were Endowed with the Gifts and Power of the Holy Spirit. They Preached One God Alone, Maker of Heaven and Earth. (Against Heresies, 3.3.1)
The purpose of this chapter was not to advocate for sola scriptura, rather to debunk a common heresy at the time that the apostles wrote scripture prior to obtaining the power of the Holy Spirit. Obviously, claiming that the apostles did not have the Holy Spirit within them prior to recording the scriptures was and is heresy; so Irenaeus wanted to quickly and effectively debunk this misunderstanding by emphasizing that everything the apostles wrote is true and can be trusted as a “pillar of our faith.” (Against Heresies, 3.3.1)
This is interesting, I wonder what we will find if we take another step back and read the titles of the next three chapters.
Chapter II.-The Heretics Follow Neither Scripture Nor Tradition. (Against Heresies, 3.3.2)
Chapter III.-A Refutation of the Heretics, from the Fact That, in the Various Churches, a Perpetual Succession of Bishops Was Kept Up. (Against Heresies, 3.3.3)
Chapter IV.-The Truth is to Be Found Nowhere Else But in the Catholic Church, the Sole Depository of Apostolical Doctrine. Heresies are of Recent Formation, and Cannot Trace Their Origin Up to the Apostles. (Against Heresies, 3.3.4)
Irenaeus of Lyons labeled people who did not follow tradition or believed in apostolic succession as heretics, plain and simple. The title of chapter two clearly states that heretics “Follow Neither Scripture Nor Tradition.” (Against Heresies, 3.3.2) Irenaeus placed scripture and tradition on the same level and clearly advocated that some churches had legitimate claims to apostolic succession.
A couple of articles I read argue that Irenaeus condemned the belief that authority solely originated from spoken word. It is precisely true that Irenaeus condemned the belief that authority solely derived through spoken word (referred to as ‘vivâ voce’, translated to ‘with living voice’), because it is a heresy. Let’s look at the first two passages of chapter two that contains Irenaeus‘ condemnation of ‘vivâ voce:
1. When, however, they are confuted from the Scriptures, they turn round and accuse these same Scriptures, as if they were not correct, nor of authority, and [assert] that they are ambiguous, and that the truth cannot be extracted from them by those who are ignorant of tradition. For [they allege] that the truth was not delivered by means of written documents, but vivâ voce: wherefore also Paul declared, “But we speak wisdom among those that are perfect, but not the wisdom of this world.” And this wisdom each one of them alleges to be the fiction of his own inventing, forsooth; so that, according to their idea, the truth properly resides at one time in Valentinus, at another in Marcion, at another in Cerinthus, then afterwards in Basilides, or has even been indifferently in any other opponent, who could speak nothing pertaining to salvation. For every one of these men, being altogether of a perverse disposition, depraving the system of truth, is not ashamed to preach himself.
2. But, again, when we refer them to that tradition which originates from the apostles, [and] which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches, they object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth. For [they maintain] that the apostles intermingled the things of the law with the words of the Saviour; and that not the apostles alone, but even the Lord Himself, spoke as at one time from the Demiurge, at another from the intermediate place, and yet again from the Pleroma, but that they themselves, indubitably, unsulliedly, and purely, have knowledge of the hidden mystery: this is, indeed, to blaspheme their Creator after a most impudent manner! It comes to this, therefore, that these men do now consent neither to Scripture nor to tradition. (Against Heresies, 3.3.2)
The Catholic Church has never taught that authority is based on tradition alone. Our authority derives from an equal unity of holy scripture and holy tradition. More, the fact that Irenaeus utilized holy tradition as an authority immediately debunks the concept of sola scriptura and the aforestated argument. I digress, here are some other quotes from early church fathers regarding the importance of holy tradition:
Clement of Alexandria
Well, they preserving the tradition of the blessed doctrine derived directly from the holy apostles, Peter, James, John, and Paul, the sons receiving it from the father (but few were like the fathers), came by God’s will to us also to deposit those ancestral and apostolic seeds. And well I know that they will exult; I do not mean delighted with this tribute, but solely on account of the preservation of the truth, according as they delivered it. For such a sketch as this, will, I think, be agreeable to a soul desirous of preserving from escape the blessed tradition. (The Stromata, 1:1)
St. Epiphanius of Salamis
“It is needful also to make use of tradition, for not everything can be gotten from sacred Scripture. The holy apostles handed down some things in the scriptures, other things in tradition” (Medicine Chest Against All Heresies 61:6 )
St. John of Chrysostom
Verse 15.So then, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word, or by Epistle of ours.
Hence it is manifest, that they did not deliver all things by Epistle, but many things also unwritten, and in like manner both the one and the other are worthy of credit. Therefore let us think the tradition of the Church also worthy of credit. It is a tradition, seek no farther. Here he shows that there were many who were shaken. (Commentary (Homily) of 2 Thessalonians 2:15)
St. Basil the Great
Of the beliefs and practices whether generally accepted or publicly enjoined which are preserved in the Church some we possess derived from written teaching; others we have received delivered to usin a mysteryby the tradition of the apostles; and both of these in relation to true religion have the same force. And these no one will gainsay—no one, at all events, who is even moderately versed in the institutions of the Church. For were we to attempt to reject such customs as have no written authority, on the ground that the importance they possess is small, we should unintentionally injure the Gospel in its very vitals; or, rather, should make our public definition a mere phrase and nothing more. (On the Holy Spirit, 27)
The amount of evidence for holy tradition from the early church fathers is astounding; anyone who believed otherwise was labeled a heretic (one who dissents from an accepted belief or doctrine). They understood that the apostles simply could not write everything down (ref. John 21:24-25).
4. Sola Scriptura Produces Bad Fruit
From a purely logical standpoint, anything that consistently yields negative results is bad. This concept is not just logical, but an explicit teaching of Jesus, “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.” (Matthew 7:18 NRSVCE) Therefore, if the concept of sola scriptura is ‘good’ then it should yield ‘good’ results; however, this is not the situation. Sola scriptura has led to tens of thousands of divisions within the church which is emphatically against scripture. Paul writes:
1 Corinthians 1:10-13 (ESV)
I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?
Does this sound familiar? I follow Paul, I follow Cephas (Peter), what about I follow Luther, I follow Calvin, I follow Arminius, I follow Wesley. We are flawed and thus make the same mistakes over and over. We must heed the words of Paul by removing divisions in Christ’s church and “…be united in the same mind and the same judgement.” (1 Corinthians 1:10 ESV) I cannot fathom how the concept of sola scriptura, whose fruits has consistently defied scripture, could be the intention of God.
5. Sola Scriptura is Simply Not a Feasible Concept
When you get right down to it, the concept of sola scriptura is not feasible. I have three reasons for this assertion.
1. The Bible was not canonized until the late 300’s. How did people know how to live prior to the canonization of the Bible? Did they run rampant and completely fail to adhere to God’s commands? The answer is no; at least no more than they do today. Christians had holy tradition to guide their actions and beliefs.
2. Even though the Bible is available immediately to anyone who wishes to read it, we still end up with incorrect interpretations and assumptions. This results in thousands of denominations (as discussed earlier) and is explicitly against scripture. Peter knew that improper interpretation of scripture could happen and so stated, “First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God. (2 Peter 1:20-21 NRSVCE) I must emphasize that ‘prophecy’ does not mean ‘to predict the future’ in this context, it means to ‘communicate and enforce revealed truth’. So to communicate and enforce revealed truth within the scripture requires men and women filled with the Holy Spirit, not by one’s own reading. This implies the importance of one unified church that interprets scripture.
3. At the end of the book of Saint John, he clearly indicates that written scripture is true; however, not exclusive of all teachings. He writes:
John 21:24-25 (NRSVCE)
This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.
Utilizing all facets available, I find it undeniable that Jesus, the apostles, and the early church fathers taught and understood that our authority derives from both holy tradition and holy scripture. There is simply no evidence for the claim that the Bible alone is sufficient for our authority. If we truly believe that God is living and active in our lives today, then limiting His divine revelation to a group of seventy-three written works outside of His explicit mandate is heresy. God’s word is not stagnant and neither is his authority; they are living and active, revealed through holy tradition and holy scripture.