Defending Sola Scriptura
Where in the Bible is the principle or concept of Sola Scriptura (By Scripture alone) espoused?
To answer this question, I believe the doctrine of Sola Scriptura must be defined first. I would define it to mean the Scriptures, the sixty-six canonical books of the Bible, are the only authoritative and infallible rule for the Christian faith. The Scriptures reveal all that is necessary for salvation. No other revelation outside the Scriptures is necessary for the Church. The Scriptures are the sole and supreme written norm by which God binds the conscience, and the authority of the Church, which includes its traditions, confessions and creeds, is subordinate to the Word of God.
What the doctrine of Sola Scriptura is not: it is not a claim that the Scriptures contain all knowledge of human wisdom. It does not reject traditions, confessions and creeds; it means that any tradition, creed or confession must be tested through the Word of God. It is not a claim that the Scriptures record every single exhaustive detail of religious knowledge, for instance, an account of every thing that Jesus Christ has ever done on earth. It does not deny the authority of the Church to teach divine truths; that the Church has the duty to uphold divine truths found within the Word of God, while remaining subservient to the Scriptures.
Sola Scriptura was one of the five important doctrines in the 16th century Protestant Reformation, along with Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Solus Christus and Soli deo Gloria. Even today, the divide between Protestants and Roman Catholics still exist, with the Vatican maintaining the infallible authority of its traditions, councils and the Pope.
In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we read:
As a result the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, "does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honoured with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.While Roman Catholicism contains many extra-biblical doctrines such as purgatory, the sacramental system, the immaculate conception and bodily assumption of Mary, the veneration of graven images, papal primacy and infallibility, and transubstantiation etc, many proponents of the Charismatic Movement hold in high regard extra-biblical revelations such as dreams, visions, and spectacular prophecies.
Here are two examples of outrageous extra-biblical revelations from two prominent personalities in the Charismatic Movement, Benny Hinn and Kenneth Copeland:
- Adam allegedly flew into space
“Adam was a super-being when God created him. I don't know whether people know this, but he was the first superman that really ever lived. First of all, the Scriptures declare clearly that he had dominion over the fowls of the air, the fish of the sea--which means he used to fly. Of course, how can he have dominion over the birds and not be able to do what they do? The word 'dominion' in the Hebrew clearly declares that if you have dominion over a subject, that you do everything that subject does. In other words, that subject, if it does something you cannot do, you don't have dominion over it. 1'll prove it further. Adam not only flew, he flew to space. He was--with one thought he would be on the moon.” – Benny Hinn (“Praise the Lord” program on TBN, 26 December 1991)
- Jesus was allegedly raped by Roman soldiers
“Let me tell you something folks. Anybody in here that's ever been sexually abused, listen to me right now. Listen to me very carefully. The bible's very careful about the way it says these things. But down there in that dungeon, Romans, ungodly men, ungodly men, put him (Jesus) to every kind of abuse that you can think of. There is no sin that Jesus didn't bare. There is no thing, there is no such thing as a sexual abuse on somebody that Jesus doesn't know firsthand what it's all about. He's been where you are, I don't care what you've been through, Jesus has been through it. And everything's done to him that we couldn't even speak of.” – Kenneth Copeland (The Resurrection Truth)
However, I believe the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, which was once and still used to defend the essentials of the Christian faith against Roman Catholicism, has to be firmly defended against extreme proponents of the Charismatic movement, especially those of the word-faith movement, who advocates special extra-biblical revelations apart from the Scriptures.
For if the doctrine of Sola Scriptura is compromised, it will lead to a denial of the rest of the Solas, which would eventually destroy the gospel of Jesus Christ. We can observe throughout the history of the Christian Church, there are many false prophets who claim that the teachings of the Bible are abrogated by introducing some “holy” books or teachings. These false teachings pervert the gospel, most often denying the Trinity and the deity, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
DEFENDING SOLA SCRIPTURA FROM THE SCRIPTURES
I have highlighted only three passages of Scripture that can be used. Obviously, these are not the only passages available to defend Sola Scriptura.
2 Timothy 3:14-17
This is one of the classic passages often cited in most Protestant apologetics:
“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 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.” – 2 Timothy 3:14-17 NIVHere are some points to be noted:
- “…from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation…” The apostle Paul wrote to Timothy, asserting that the Scriptures are able to make Timothy “wise for salvation.” There is no mention of traditions or extra-biblical revelations that is required for one to be saved.
- Even though the holy Scriptures mentioned in this epistle speaks only of the Old Testament, the key point of this passage is about the nature and ability of the Scriptures, not the extent of the Scriptural canon. This is an important point to note as Roman Catholic apologists would argue that any reference to the Scriptures would only apply to the Old Testament, not to the New Testament.
Both sides of the debate, Protestants and Roman Catholics, do agree that the New Testament without question is “God-breathed.” Therefore, if this is the case, it is absolutely irrelevant whether or not the apostle was referring to the Old Testament or the New Testament, since the New Testament, by virtue of it being “God-breathed,” is sufficient for salvation.
As the saying goes, “The Old Testament is the New Testament concealed, and the New Testament is the Old Testament revealed.” The gospel of Jesus Christ in the Old Testament is in the form of shadows and types that prefigures Christ, which eventually finds its fulfillment in the New Testament. The Roman Catholic argument, therefore, demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of the relationship between the testaments.
- The apostle referred to the origin of the Scriptures, hence the word “God-breathed.” It is the Scriptures, not the writers themselves that are “God-breathed.” Because the Scriptures originate from God Himself, the authority of the Scriptures is God’s authority. The authority of the Church is derived from the divine Scriptures themselves, and not the other way round.
Some Roman Catholic apologists may argue that the Protestants must rely on Roman Catholic traditions to know which books ought to be included in the canon of Scripture. This presumptuous argument denies the special guidance and providence of God, who worked with His covenant people over time to recognize and collect His inspired written Word, both Old and New Testaments.
The inspiration of the Scriptures is divine, not ecclesiastical. The Church did not give authority to the canon, but rather it recognized its authority. Hence, the canon of Scripture stands or falls because of its relationship to God, not to the Church.
- “…the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” The King James translation renders this sentence as “that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.” The Greek word for “perfect” is artios, which may be also translated to mean “complete” while the Greek word for “thoroughly furnished” is exartizo, which means to “furnish perfectly.”
So what is the implication of this? It means that no one serving God has to search about for other divine sources. The Christian is furnished perfectly by the Scriptures alone. It is the Scriptures alone that are sufficient for every need in ministry. If there is a doctrine that is required for the Church, we should be able to find it in the Scriptures.
“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." Then you will not take pride in one man over against another.” – 1 Corinthians 4:6 NIVThe New American Standard translation renders the sentence “Do not go beyond what is written” as “learn not to exceed what is written.” The Greek word for “exceed” is huper, which may be translated as “over, beyond, more than,” while the Greek word for “written” is grapho, which means “to write, with reference to the contents of the writing.”
The apostle Paul was, of course, referring to the Old Testament writings. However, as we have noted from the above explanation of 2 Timothy 3:14-17, the issue is not about the extent of the Scriptural canon, but rather about the nature and ability of the Scriptures.
The background behind this verse is found in 1 Corinthians 3. Divisions were formed in the Corinthian church. Some were following Paul; some were following Apollos; some were following Peter. The point the apostle Paul was making is that the Scriptures did not teach us to be a follower of Paul, Apollos or Peter, but rather to be a follower of Jesus Christ.
The apostle Paul made it quite clear that the Scriptures alone are the limiting factor by which we must bind our conscience. We are not to appeal to any extra-biblical teachings or traditions that go beyond the Scriptures and exalt any one else other than Christ. Thus, 1 Corinthians 4:6 clearly supports the doctrine of Sola Scriptura in verity.
“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. Many of the Jews believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men.” – Acts 17:11-12 NIVOnce again, Roman Catholic apologists may argue that the Scriptures in question were the Old Testament, not the New Testament. However, as I have demonstrated earlier, this is quite beside the point.
The doctrine of Sola Scriptura is clearly established in this text. The apostle Paul preached the gospel to the Bereans. And how, may we ask, did the apostle preach the gospel? We would find our answer in Acts 17:2-3 where he preached to the Thessalonians,
“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 NIVOver here, we can see that it was the custom of the apostle Paul to preach the gospel to the Jews by reasoning from the written word of God. If the apostle had to rely on extra-biblical teachings not found in the Scriptures, it would be hard to imagine that the apostle would have gain any Jewish converts at all, like what we see in Acts 17:4. After all, for the 1st century practicing Jews, the Scriptures, the Old Testament, were regarded as the only authoritative rule of faith.
It is therefore reasonable to deduce the manner in which the apostle Paul preached the gospel to the Bereans is similar to the way he did it to the Thessalonians. The apostle preached the gospel to the Bereans by reasoning from the Scriptures according to his custom. The Bereans then went back to the same Scriptures the apostle preached from, and examined them “every day to see if what Paul said was true.”
I must warn that Roman Catholic apologists may try to use a common misleading argument, countering that the apostle Paul was using “oral traditions” to preach the gospel to the Bereans. However, upon closer examination of Acts 17 as shown above, it is unmistakable that the gospel was preached by reasoning from the Scriptures alone.
REFUTING COMMON ROMAN CATHOLIC SCRIPTURAL ARGUMENTS
Here are three passages of Scripture commonly used against the doctrine of Sola Scriptura.
2 Thessalonians 2:15
This is a favorite verse of Roman Catholic apologists.
“So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.” – 2 Thessalonians 2:15 NIVThe Greek word for “teachings” is paradosis and may be translated as “traditions.” Roman Catholic apologists would interpret this passage as referring to oral traditions.
At first glance, it appears oral traditions, that are teachings by word of mouth, are indeed found in the early church. However, we must ask, is the traditions the apostle Paul was writing about the same as the oral traditions of the Roman Catholic Church? Was the apostle writing about the immaculate conception of Mary and papal infallibility? This cannot be conclusively proven.
Secondly, when appealing to 2 Thessalonians 2:15, Roman Catholic apologists make an assumption that both written traditions and oral traditions are somehow different. This also cannot be proven, which leads to my third point.
Thirdly, and more importantly, is there any indication in the passage that part of the tradition comes orally and part of the tradition comes in writing? That in order to receive the entire teachings of the gospel, both oral and written traditions must be together? Roman Catholic apologists would maintain that unless you possess the oral tradition, you do not possess the entire Word of God.
Upon closer examination of the passage, this is a logical fallacy as the apostle did not write “hold on to the written tradition and to the oral tradition.” What he wrote is “hold on to the tradition whether you heard them orally or in writing.” When you compare these two statements, you would notice they are distinctly different in meaning. In the early days of the church and even today, the gospel message is communicated either through pulpit preaching or through the Scriptures. So logically speaking, there is no suggestion from the apostle that both oral and written traditions must be kept together in order to possess the entire gospel.
2 Thessalonians 3:6
“In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers, to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching you received from us.” – 2 Thessalonians 3:6 NIVAgain, the apostle Paul used the same Greek word paradosis for the word “teaching,” which may be translated as “traditions.” The points that I covered in my explanation of 2 Thessalonians 2:15 may also be used for this passage.
I would also direct the Roman Catholic apologist to understand the entire context of 2 Thessalonians, pointing him back to 2 Thessalonians 2:15 to understand what the apostle meant by tradition. In this passage, it is rather interesting that the apostle did not subdivide apostolic traditions into written traditions and oral traditions. This suggest there is only one body of traditions, which is either communicated orally or in written form.
2 Peter 1:20-21
“Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” – 2 Peter 1:20-21 NIVA casual reading of the first part of the passage sounds as though we are commanded not to privately interpret the Word of God. Roman Catholic apologists would use this verse to claim that only the Roman Catholic Church has the right to “public” interpretation. However, a closer examination of this passage indicates this is not so. Therefore, it is important that we read this passage in context.
Earlier in the epistle, the apostle Peter defended himself and the rest of the apostles in verse 16, stressing that they “did not follow cleverly invented stories,” but “were eyewitnesses” of Jesus Christ. He goes on to write in verse 19, “we have the word of the prophets made more certain.” Basically, the apostle was demonstrating that Jesus Christ fulfilled the prophecies of the Old Testament scriptures.
Once we understand the context of the passage, we would realize that the apostle was writing about how the Scriptures came into existence, not how they are to be interpreted. The Scriptures has its origin through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, not through the private will of men.