Sola Scriptura ~ Not Scriptural

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The Problem with Timothy

This is my third time around the block with this particular topic as I examine the doctrine of sola Scriptura from different perspectives. In my previous posts I examined why the doctrine of Sola Scriptura is Anachronistic and why I believe that Sola Scriptura is Logically Flawed. In this one, I would like to examine why, in addition to not being found anywhere in Scripture, sola Scriptura is actually un-Scriptural. Please note that in this blog I’m not in any way arguing against Scripture. Rather, I am arguing against Scripture alone.

Many people are surprised when I say that the doctrine of sola Scriptura is not found in the bible. But in saying this I am actually in agreement with R.C. Sproul Jr. who writes, “Sola Scriptura is a biblical doctrine not because the Bible says so. That would be a tautology- the kind of argument we find in that collection of lies the Book of Mormon. Instead the Bible alone is our final authority, because it alone is the Word of God.”1 While agreeing with R.C. Sproul Jr. that the doctrine is not to be found anywhere in the bible, I would take exception to his claim that it alone is the Word of God. But, we’ll get to that later. To begin with, let’s take a look at the verse that the entire doctrine is typically pinned on, 2 Timothy 3:16-17:

“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”

A couple of quick points on this passage. First let’s start with what we agree on.

  • Scripture is God breathed – i.e. inspired. Because of this, most of us would also say that Scripture is therefore trustworthy and without errors.
  • Scripture is useful for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness.
  • Scripture helps the people of God to be complete and equips them for all good works.

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Now, a couple of caveats – the first from John Henry Newman himself:

“It is quite evident that this passage furnishes no argument whatever that the sacred Scripture, without Tradition, is the sole rule of faith; for, although sacred Scripture is profitable for these four ends, still it is not said to be sufficient. The Apostle requires the aid of Tradition (2 Thess. 2:15). Moreover, the Apostle here refers to the scriptures which Timothy was taught in his infancy. Now, a good part of the New Testament was not written in his boyhood: Some of the Catholic epistles were not written even when Paul wrote this, and none of the books of the New Testament were then placed on the canon of the Scripture books. He refers, then, to the scriptures of the Old Testament, and, if the argument from this passage proved anything, it would prove too much, viz., that the scriptures of the New Testament were not necessary for a rule of faith.”2

As Newman notes, nowhere in this passage does St. Paul try and make a case for the sufficiency of Scripture – i.e. the Scriptures alone. Many people, however, will try and infer this doctrine from his statement, “that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” They will say that here St. Paul is recommending Scripture alone as all that is necessary in the life of the believer in order to make them complete and equipped for every good work. The problem is, this doesn’t fit with the rest of Scripture. We could as easily look at an isolated passage from the epistle of St. James where he says, “…you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”3 and build a doctrine of “perseverance alone” based on the fact that he says it will make us mature and complete not lacking in anything.

Additionally, we have only to look at the larger context of the passage to see clearly that this is not what St. Paul is saying. Let’s look quickly at the 6 verses leading up to this passage: “You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings—what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evildoers and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. 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.”4 Essentially St. Paul starts not with Scripture, but by reminding Timothy of the witness from his own life – his teaching, purpose, faith, etc. Then he says to continue in what you have learned and become convinced of – because you know those from whom you learned it. Yes Timothy has been acquainted with the Old Testament Scriptures since infancy, but ultimately he can trust them because of who he learned them from, presumably his mother and grandmother, and certainly the Apostle Paul. This is the context for verses 16 & 17.

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Sacred Tradition

What St. Paul is advocating in this passage is actually Sacred Tradition working in conjunction with the Sacred Scriptures. Tradition is defined as: “The handing down of statements, beliefs, customs, information, etc., from generation to generation, especially by word of mouth or by practice.” This handing on of teaching, this exhortation to continue on in the truth entrusted to us from reliable witnesses, this practice of the faith, is the very meaning of tradition and is a theme which is often repeated by the Apostles in Scripture.  Here are just a couple of examples:

“…because God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth. For this purpose he called you through our proclamation of the good news, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. 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.”5 Notice that it is the proclamation of the good news which leads to salvation, and that St. Paul considers his oral teaching and his written teaching equally authoritative. According to this passage, Scripture is itself tradition – it is simply the written form of the oral tradition which had been handed on.

“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. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us;”6 Tradition and imitation are closely linked as we will see. The faith is something which is not just handed on in a written manuscript, but rather lived out in front of others so that they will in turn imitate us even as we have imitated those who came before us.

“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you.”7 Here St. Paul connects tradition with the imitation of Christ, as Christ Himself commands in the Great Commission.

“And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’” ((Matthew 28:18-20))

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When Christ commands discipleship we should recognize that discipleship is the very life of imitation and obedience which St. Paul speaks of. Dr. David Anders, himself a former Protestant, often asks the following question, “Did Jesus provide for the continuing transmission of the Christian faith? What a simple and foundational question! And yet, oddly, it is one that Protestant apologists rarely ask.” Ask yourself this very simple question, “Did Jesus ever commit any of His teachings to writing? Did He ever command His disciples to write anything down?” No, instead He commanded them to make disciples (to be imitators of another’s life), He told them to baptize (a Christian practice to be observed), and He told them to teach others to obey Him. There is, perhaps surprisingly, no mention of penning the New Testament Scriptures or of using those writings as the sole guide for all matters of faith and morals. Quite the opposite in fact. They are to engage others in active discipleship. They are to model and teach them the practices of the Christian faith. They are to ensure obedience. They will be assisted by Christ Himself who is with them to the very end of the age. And, it is interesting to note that while Christ commands his Apostles to teach others to obey everything that He has commanded, we are told twice in St. John’s gospel that not everything that Jesus said and did was written down.8

Dr. Anders makes the following contention, “All Christians agree that Jesus Christ is the ultimate authority. During his earthly ministry, He was the Final Authority. His authority superseded the Old Testament, human reason, Jewish Tradition, and the power of the state. But after His ascension, He did not leave us without direction. Before He ascended, He made provisions for a continuing doctrinal authority. Jesus sent his apostles to teach, and promised to remain with them. Many passages of Scripture show that Christ’s authority accompanied their teaching: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”9 “Whoever listens to you listens to me. Whoever rejects you rejects me. And whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.”10 “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”11 These texts answer our question. Christ did give us a rule of faith before His ascension. He gave us the teaching of the apostles. It is important to note that Christ never mentions the writings of the apostles. He gave them no command to write, and never restricted their authority to the written word. His authority attached to their persons and their teaching.”

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Additionally, the bible is actually full of oral traditions which have been handed down outside of written Scripture. St. Paul himself, makes the statement, “In all things I have shown you that by so toiling one must help the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, `It is more blessed to give than to receive.'”12 But nowhere in the gospel accounts is Jesus recorded as saying this, and Paul obviously wasn’t one of the twelve disciples. That means that this quote and Christian practice was passed on to him by oral tradition. In fact, many biblical traditions and practices are passed on in this way. Consider Jesus’ declaration that, “”The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat;”13 but Moses’ seat is never referenced in the Old Testament. Neither are Jannes and Jambres who St. Paul refers to in 2 Timothy 3:8 “As Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men also oppose the truth, men of corrupt mind and counterfeit faith;”. Even prophecy is sometimes handed down via oral tradition rather than through the Scriptures as we see in Matthew 2:23 where it is recorded, “And he went and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He shall be called a Nazarene.'” but, this statement that, “He shall be called a Nazarene” is nowhere in the Old Testament.

The interesting thing is that we don’t see people responding to these traditions with, “Wait a minute! Where is that found in the bible?” Rather, these traditions are accepted as readily as any written teaching. Remember, they didn’t have books then or a literate society. Writing wasn’t the “be all – end all” that it seems to be today. Rather, the early Christians accepted this oral teaching in the same way that they would accept the written teaching which came later. After all, it was Christ Himself who said, “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me”14

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Why “Scripture Alone” Just Isn’t Enough

Ask most Protestants the question, “What is the pillar and foundation of the truth?” and they will likely respond, “The bible of course!” But perhaps the more important question is what does the bible say? When we look, we find that St. Paul says, “if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.”15 When we look to Scripture itself, we find that it is the Church which is to be the pillar and foundation of the truth – not the bible. As we saw above, the method which Christ gave for the transmission of the Christian faith was though the teaching authority and preaching of the Apostles – i.e. through oral transmission. “So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ”16 The Scriptures were never meant to be enough on their own. We see this clearly in Scripture in multiple accounts, but here are two of my favorites.

In Lukes gospel we have the account of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus following the events of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. Jesus Himself joins them on their travels, although they don’t recognize Him, and He listens to their accounts of the past few days. They seem to be quite unsure about the meaning of the empty tomb, and He says to them, “’Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”17

Even though they were Christ’s own disciples and were very familiar with the Scriptures, it was still necessary for Him to properly interpret the Scriptures for them.

{On a side note, it’s fascinating that they don’t recognize Christ in His exposition of the Scriptures, but rather it is in the breaking of the bread that they recognize Him – at which point He disappears. Christ is no longer present with us in bodily form, and yet He is made present when we partake of His body in the Eucharist! What a powerful statement on the reality of Christ’s presence in communion!}

The other account also comes to us from Luke, but this time in the Acts of the Apostles. It is the story of the Ethiopian eunuch who Philip is sent to.

“Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’ So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:

‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.’

The eunuch asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’ He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.”18

This is the Great Commission in action. Philip proclaims the good news of Christ, interprets the Scriptures for the eunuch, and baptizes him! But what really rings in my ears after reading these two passages is the plaintive cry of the eunuch when asked if he understands the Scriptures which he is reading, “How can I unless someone guides me?” This is the secret silent cry of every Protestant no matter the denomination. Don’t just hand me a bible – explain it to me. Teach me. Disciple me.

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These along with many other passages (check out Hebrews 5:1219 ) show the failings of the Protestant doctrine of perspicuity, the assertion that the bible is sufficiently clear and easy to understand – the claim that indeed the bible will interpret itself. But, we should also take note of what St. Peter says in his second epistle. “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain. So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. 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.” 20

Notice the eyewitness nature of their account, the statement that, “We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven,” and Peter’s assertion that their witness confirms more fully the prophetic message – i.e. the Old Testament Scriptures. We also see the inverse of this in St. Luke’s gospel when he acknowledges that the faithful have already received the teachings of Christ, and he is writing his Gospel only,“so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.”21 St. Luke, in other words, writes to verify the oral tradition they already received. Essentially, tradition reinforces Scripture and Scripture reinforces tradition.

Note as well that St. Peter himself says that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation. Scripture is not meant to be privately interpreted by each individual Christian however they see fit.sola-scriptura-alert-bible-alone-error Why not? Thankfully, he answers this very question for us in the conclusion of his letter where he writes, “So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.22

Final Thoughts

It is clear from Scripture that the good news of the gospel – proclaimed orally – will last forever. “’But the word of the Lord abides for ever.’ That word is the good news which was preached to you”23 The Word referred to here is the good news which was preached to you – not the written Scripture. God’s Word has always been communicated both orally and by writing, and as I said earlier, this is where I would take exception with R.C. Sproul Jr. Biblically speaking, God’s Word has never referred to merely His written word. God’s Word is spoken through the apostles and prophets. It is made incarnate in the person of Christ. And yes, it has been written down in the form of the Scriptures but the written Word was never meant to supplant the spoken Word – how could it when we are told the Word proclaimed will abide forever? And although Scripture was never meant to supplant the spoken Word of God, it was meant to supplement it. To carry the same message to us in two different modes of transmission.

In the Second Vatican Council’s document on divine revelation, Dei Verbum (Latin: “The Word of God”), the relationship between Tradition and Scripture is explained: “Hence there exists 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. Thus, by the light of the Spirit of truth, these successors can in their preaching preserve this word of God faithfully, explain it, and make it more widely known. Consequently it is not from sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed. Therefore both sacred Tradition and sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same devotion and reverence.”

I said at the beginning of the post that I am not arguing against Scripture, but rather against Scripture alone – I am instead arguing for Scripture and

In this post we touched on the “and” of tradition, in a future post I plan to look at the “and” of the Church’s authority – established by Christ and witnessed to by the Scriptures themselves.

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  1. R.C. Sproul Jr. Nov. 5, 2009, Tabletalk Magazine. 

  2. John Henry Newman, 1884 essay entitled “Inspiration in its Relation to Revelation. 

  3. James 1:3-4 

  4. 2 Timothy 3:10-15 

  5. 2 Thessalonians 2:13b-15 

  6. 2 Thessalonians 3:6-7a 

  7. 1 Corinthians 11:1-2 

  8. John 20:30, 21:25 

  9. John 20:21 

  10. Luke 10:16 

  11. Matt. 16:18; Matt. 18:18 

  12. Acts 20:35 

  13. Matthew 23:2 

  14. Luke 10:16 

  15. 1 Timothy 3:15 

  16. Romans 10:17 

  17. Luke 24:25b-27 

  18. Acts 8:29-38 

  19. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need some one to teach you again the first principles of God’s word. You need milk, not solid food; 

  20. 2 Peter 1:16-21 

  21. Luke 1:1-4 

  22. 2 Peter 3:15b-16 

  23. 1 Pet. 1:25 

  4 comments for “Sola Scriptura ~ Not Scriptural

  1. June 30, 2014 at 6:29 AM

    I always had problems with Sola Scriptura. Sola Scriptura theology, in many cases, pretty much puts the Bible’s authority above G-d’s.

    • July 10, 2014 at 5:45 AM

      I agree with where you are going here, but would put it a little differently. How about Sola Scriptura ultimately allows you, not God, to be the ultimate authority. This of course is through your private interpretation of God’s Word to mean whatever you want it to mean, which is unlikely to be what God does.

      The Bible’s authority, properly interpreted, is God’s so there is no putting one above the other. They are the same. The issue is proper interpretation. Properly interpreted, it is truth, of which there is only one.

      • Adam N. Crawford
        July 10, 2014 at 10:29 PM

        Good thoughts George. The question isn’t is the bible authoritative – as God’s revelation to us it is. The question is whether it ALONE is authoritative. We often forget that God’s Word was transmitted to us both orally and by writing. Then, as you alluded to, there is the separate question of who is authorized to offer the definitive, authoritative, error free, proper interpretation 🙂

I want to hear your thoughts! Go ahead and keep the conversation going, but please keep it at least PG and respectful.

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