Conservative Colloquium

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Scripture Alone (Sola Scriptura) Itself is Not Biblical

Posted by Tony Listi on September 18, 2007

This begins a series aimed at Protestantism. I don’t mean to attack you, my good Protestant friends. Please don’t take this personally. You are some of the best people I know and better than many Catholics I’ve had experience with over the years. This is a matter of truth and ecumenism, a matter of trying to reunite the one Body of Christ as He intended it to be. Moreover, in a show of good faith (pun intended), I will meet you on your on playground, on your own terms: Scripture.
I take most of these arguments from “A Biblical Defense of Catholicism” by Dave Armstrong, a convert to Catholicism from evangelical Protestantism. Let’s consider this an ecumenical dialogue, so please offer your thoughts/objections in comments. Let’s remember 1 Peter 3:15 “Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence.” Aptly, Armstrong has this verse on a page all to itself before the Table of Contents. Attack the argument, not the arguer.

Tradition, even in the extensive Catholic sense, permeates Scripture. Scripture does not teach sola Scriptura. Scripture alone should lead the impartial seeker to the Tradition of the Catholic Church. Scripture must be viewed within its proper context and accepted on its own terms.

Incompleteness of Scripture
Scripture does not contain the whole of Christ’s teaching:

Mark 4:33 “With many such parables he spoke the word to them….” The implication is that many parables are not recorded in Scripture.

Mark 6:34 “He began to teach them many things.”
None of these “many things” are recorded here.

John 20:30 “Now, Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book.”

John 21:25 “But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”

Other instances in which Scripture says that Jesus teaches his disciples something but never goes on to tell what it was or only does so in minimal detail: John 16:12, Acts 1:2-3, Luke 24:25-27

Tradition in the Bible
The most important Greek word in the New Testament for tradition is “paradosis.” It is used 4 times in reference to Christian tradition:

1 Cor 11:2 “I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you.”

Col 2:8 “See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.”
St. Paul is contrasting the traditions and philosophies of men with that of Christ. He isn’t condemning things in essence, but rather, in corrupt form.

“Paradosis” simply means something handed on or passed down from one person to another. This “tradition” might be bad (Mt 15:2-6, Col 2:8, Mk 7:8-13) or good (see below). Jesus qualifies the word “tradition” in every case by saying “your tradition” or “traditions of men” as does St. Paul in Col 2:8. When St. Paul speaks of apostolic Tradition, he doesn’t qualify it at all.

Rom 6:17 “But thanks be to God that, although you were once slaves of sin, you have become obedient from the heart to the pattern of teaching (tradition) to which you were entrusted.”

2 Thes 2:15 “Stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.”

1 Cor 11:2 “I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold fast to the traditions, just as I handed them on to you.”

2 Thes 3:6 “Keep away from any brother who is living in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.”

Notice this tradition can be either written or oral. This tradition is being delivered, implying it is not merely St. Paul’s own personal viewpoints but from above (see 1 Cor 11:23). The importance of the tradition lies not in its form but in its content!When phrases such as “word of God” and “word of the Lord” appear in Scripture they are almost always referring to oral preaching, not Scripture itself. Scripture is a recording of what was originally oral proclamation. The oral component of Christianity is unavoidable.

A related word “paradidomi” is used in reference to Christian tradition, in the sense of “deliver,” at least 7 times:

Luke 1:1-2 “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses….”
St. Luke says these traditions handed down are dependable eyewitness accounts. Again, he refers to oral as well as written sources, with the former predominant at this point in the development of Christianity.

1 Cor 11:23 “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread….”

1 Cor 15:3 “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.”
It is striking here how Tradition and Scripture are one unified revelation, as in Catholic teaching. There is no artificial and false dichotomy, which Protestantism creates. True Tradition can never contradict Scripture, but rather complements, explains, and expands upon it.

2 Peter 2:21 “For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than, after knowing it, to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them.”

Jude 3 “Contend for the Faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.”

The word “paralambano” meaning “received” also appears at least seven times with regard to Christian or apostolic Tradition.

1 Cor 15:1-2 “I preached to you the gospel, which you received, in which you stand, by which you are saved, if you hold it fast– unless you believe in vain.” (See also 1 Cor 11:23 and 15:3 above). Note the gist is an oral gospel and tradition transmitted by preaching and preserved by memory.

Gal 1:9,12 “If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed…. For I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”
Here St. Paul completely dissociates the gospel he received (which elsewhere he equates with Tradition) from the traditions derived from men. This is the Tradition of which Catholicism claims to have been merely the custodian for nearly 2000 years.

Using the three Greek “tradition” words mentioned above as the common bond, we can conclude that Tradition, Gospel, and Word of God are synonymous and predominantly oral: 1 Cor 11:2, 2 Thes 2:15, 2 Thes 3:6, 1 Cor 15:1, 1 Gal 1:9, 1 Thes 2:9, Acts 8:14, 1 Thes 2:13, 2 Peter 2:21, Jude 3.

Tradition is not a dirty word in the Bible, particularly for St. Paul. The dichotomy between gosepl and Tradition, or Bible and Tradition, is unbiblical itself and must be discarded by the truly biblically-minded person as (quite ironically) a corrupt tradition of men.

The Importance of Oral Tradition for St. Paul
2 Tim 1:13-14 “Follow the pattern of the sounds which you have heard from me…. Guard the truth which has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us.”

2 Tim 2:2 “And what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”
Notice St. Paul exhorts Timothy to not only receive and “follow the pattern” of his oral teaching but also to teach others the same.

The Church, not Scripture, is the “pillar and ground/bulwark of the truth” according to 1 Tim 3:15.

A Closer Look at 2 Sola Scriptura “Proof” Texts
2 Tim 3:16-17 “All Scripture is inspired 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.”
Armstrong cites the commentary of the brilliant convert to Catholicism Cardinal Newman: Though it may be profitable, Scripture is not said to be sufficient. Let’s remember the context: the (Catholic) Epistles were not even written when Paul wrote this, and none of the books of the New Testament were part of the canon of the Scripture books. Therefore, Paul seems to be referring to the Scriptures of the Old Testament, and thus if the argument from this passage proved anything, it would prove too much: the Scriptures of the New Testament were not necessary for a rule of faith. The passage offers no proof of the divine inspiration of the New Testament. It does not say what the books or portions of books of inspired Scripture are.
Additionally, the context of 2 Timothy (1:13-14, 2:2, 3:14) clearly reveals St. Paul is talking about oral Tradition. He refers to himself essentially as a tradition-bearer.

Also, compare the Scripture which makes one “complete” (artios in Greek) in 2 Timothy with the perfection (teleios, an even stronger Greek word from which the word teleology comes) through people mentioned in Eph 4:11-15 :

“And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, for the equipment of saints, for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood(teleios), to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles. Rather, speaking the truth of love, we are able to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.”
Very strong words. Sounds like a bunch of gifted people (clergy perhaps?) are the means by which we are perfected. Protestantism has surely historically resulted in “every wind of doctrine” imaginable. The passage seems to call for a group of people to counter this windy instability, this doctrinal confusion. But I don’t want to get too ahead of myself….

Ultimately, it is best to have an inclusive view of 2 Tim and Eph 4 that acknowledges both Scripture and Tradition, which is the Catholic view.

1 Cor 4:5 “…that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another.”
If one simply reads the context both before and after this passage, it is clear St. Paul is making an ethical exhortation to avoid pride, arrogance, and favoritism and, as such, has nothing to do with the idea that the Bible and the written word as some sort of all-encompassing standard of authority apart from the Catholic Church. Again, the most straightforward interpretation is that he is referring to the Old Testament. St. Paul habitually precedes Old Testament citations with “it is written.” Thus the above passage would prove too much, namely that one should not go beyond the Old Testament, and so precludes the entire New Testament.

Cardinal Newman: “That Scripture is the Rule of Faith is…rather a truism than a truth…. [I]t is by no means self-evident that all religious truth is to be found in a number of works, however sacred, which were written at different times, and did not always form one book; and in fact it is a doctrine hard to prove…. [I]t is…an assumption so deeply sunk in the popular mind, that it is a work of great difficulty to obtain from its maintainers an acknowledgment that it is an assumption.”

For Protestants to exercise the principle of Sola Scriptura, they first have to accept the antecedent premise of what books constitute Scripture– especially the New Testament. Protestants do, of course, accept the traditional (Catholic) Canon of the New Testament. But by doing so, they necessarily, if unintentionally, acknowledge the authority of the Catholic Church, which created the Bible in 397 AD as we all know it today (except for Luther’s unfounded excisions; see post on Apocrypha).

One Response to “Scripture Alone (Sola Scriptura) Itself is Not Biblical”

  1. Ryan said

    This was a great reference for me — thanks!

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