What Is Sola Scriptura?
There are at least three serious errors—advocated by the prevailing authorities of the Roman Catholic Church—that pertain to the nature of the Scriptures. First, it is contended that the sixty-six books of our common Bibles do not contain the whole of the collection of divine writings. Hence, Catholic Bibles are appended with several extra books known as the Apocrypha.
However, these supplementary books were not a part of the original Hebrew Bible. Moreover, they were never sanctioned by Christ, nor by the inspired New Testament writers. Finally, they do not bear the marks of inspiration that would be expected of a divine document; they thus are to be rejected (see The Apocrypha: Inspired of God?
Second, Catholic authorities allege that the common person cannot understand the Word of God. There needs to be, therefore, a “clergy” to instruct the “layperson” in terms of what he is to believe and practice.
This concept likewise is void of justification. Paul instructed the Christians in Ephesus to “be not foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is” (Ephesians 5:17). The apostle told those saints that by reading his words they could understand those matters pertaining to Christ (Ephesians 3:3-4).
Additionally, the fact that the New Testament epistles were written to ordinary Christians—not to an upper-strata clergy—is, on the face of it, evidence against the papal theory.
Third, Catholicism contends that the canonical Scriptures were never intended to be the final body of authority in determining God’s truth for humanity. Rather, it is argued, “the Bible is not the only source of faith; it is but a dead letter.”
Supposedly, this means that the “tradition of the Church,” as such has been made known across the centuries through the councils and papal voices of the Roman institution, has been divinely intended to supplement the Scriptures (see Conway 1929, 76-80). Allegedly, then, religious dogma evolves over the years by means of an expanding body of revealed truth. It is to this third proposition that we direct a sharper focus in this brief discussion.
The allegation that the sixty-six books of Scripture are an incomplete source of divine instruction stands in stark contradiction to the testimony of an inspired apostle. In a letter to Timothy, Paul wrote.
Every scripture is inspired of God, and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction which is in righteousness. That the man of God may be complete, furnished completely unto every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
Several terms in this passage warrant amplification.
What Is “Scripture”?
“Scripture” renders the original word
graphe, found about fifty-one times in the Greek New Testament. The term always refers to a sacred writing. Most commonly it denotes the holy writings of the Old Testament, but the absence of a Greek article in conjunction with
graphe in this passage “leaves room for other writings that have a right to be called divinely inspired Scriptures” (Hiebert 1958, 100). Without question, the term “Scripture” embraces both Old and New Testaments. See 1 Timothy 5:18 and in 2 Peter 3:16 where the term is used comprehensively of both Testaments.
The Purpose of Scripture
The Scriptures are described as having been intended to make the “man [person] of God complete,” and “furnished completely” for the accomplishment of “every good work.” The two terms “complete” (
artios) and “furnished completely” (
exartizo—an intensified verbal form of the previous word) suggest the idea of that which is “well fitted for some function, complete, capable, proficient,” the equivalent of “able to meet all demands” (Danker et al. 2000, 136; Balz and Schneider 1978, 159). The compound form,
exartizo, carries two ideas: “to finish” or “complete” (cf. Acts 21:5), and to “connect perfectly, fit to perfection” (Spicq 1994, 18).
The point we are making relative to the matter at hand is this: if the Scriptures are capable of making a person complete, and furnishing him completely for every righteous activity, then it cannot be argued that the Bible is but a “dead letter,” inadequate for one’s religious instruction. It must not be contended that the “voice of the church” is imperative—both traditionally and currently—to complete the Christian’s source of knowledge.
That brings us to this matter. A Roman Catholic writer, James Akin, argues there are “practical problems” with the concept of sola scriptura. The gentleman disputes the proposition that all matters pertaining to the “faith and practice” of the Christian system must be derived from the Scriptures alone. Similarly, he denies that the individual Christian has the right of “private judgment in the interpretation of the Scriptures.”
In his ambitious effort to disprove the principle of sola scriptura, the Roman apologist offers a seven-point presentation that he believes establish the validity of “tradition” authority—also called “magisterium” (teaching authority)—as opposed to the exclusive authority of the Scriptures. Incredibly, in the gentleman’s essay there is not a solitary appeal to the Bible. Rather, the argument is based altogether upon factors which allegedly, from the very nature of the case, negate the concept of sola scriptura. In summary fashion, here are his seven points, along with our response.
Most Christians had no access to the Scriptures before the invention of the printing press; hence, the idea of sola scriptura cannot obtain where there is no widespread availability of the New Testament documents.
That gospel teaching was not originally circulated in the compact format in which the Scriptures now exist, constitutes no argument at all to negate the undisputed fact that in those early centuries multiplied thousands of people became Christians, grew in the faith, and died with the hope of heaven upon the basis of the simple gospel message. And all of this was achieved without the alleged interpretative skills or authority of popes, cardinals, arch-bishops, synods, or human credos—which cconglomeration did not exist for centuries following the establishment of primitive Christianity.
One must also remember that in earlier times, when printed materials were not so readily available, people relied upon the memory faculty of the human mind much more than is the case today. Sufficient gospel truth for redemption, therefore, was spread abroad—even before the New Testament records were completed.
As the New Testament documents were produced, and began to be circulated, numerous copies were made, and vast quantities of those were committed to memory. To suggest, then, that the pattern for New Testament belief and practice was unknown in those early ages is to contradict known historical facts.
But reflect upon on the following data which suggest a widespread distribution of the Scriptures:
- Polycarp (ca.
A.D.70-155/60), who lived in Smyrna (Asia Minor) around, in his small epistle to the Philippians, quoted from—or alluded to—no fewer than thirteen of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament.
- Origen (ca.
A.D.185-254), whose work was done principally in Alexandria and Caesarea, produced hundreds of writings pertaining to the Bible. In his various works there are more than 5,700 quotations from the New Testament.
- Tertullian (ca.
A.D.160-220), who lived in Africa, quoted the New Testament more than three thousand times in his various writings.
This sort of evidence could be multiplied many times over. Bruce Metzger, one of the foremost textual critics of our time, has observed that the New Testament quotations from the “church fathers” are so extensive that if the New Testament were destroyed entirely, it could be reconstructed from these sources alone (1968, 86).
Even more dramatic than the above is the fact that even infidel writers—e.g., Celsus (mid-second century) and Porphyry (early fourth century)—quoted profusely from the Scriptures in their vain attempts to discredit Christianity. How did they come to have access to the sacred writings if these documents were so scarce and so expensive in those days, as to be beyond the grasp of almost everyone?
The truth is, the early Christians copied the Scriptures extensively, and translated them into many different languages (in an age when literary translation was extremely rare). This constitutes powerful evidence for the reality that the biblical documents were perceived by the early saints as divine entitlements for the masses, and not merely a deposit to be hoarded by a select clerical elite who then would convey “official dogma” to the people.
Even when the Bible became available, copies were so expensive that few could afford them.
This assertion is answered by the data chronicled above.
In those early days, few could read; and so the Scriptures alone would do them little good. The voice of the Church thus was needed additionally.
This argument is seriously flawed—both logically and historically. The fact that one may not be able to read does not mean he cannot be taught the gospel by trustworthy people. Many who are not technically literate have obeyed gospel truth and enjoyed the benefits of salvation.
The objection which our “senior apologist” friend makes in this regard could be lodged against his own position. How would an illiterate Catholic learn of the official dogma of the Roman clergy if he is unable to read his catechism? And how would the “voice” of the papacy be “heard” by the masses in those times when there were no media outlets of rapid and universal communication?
It is quite incorrect to imply that the masses of people generally have been unable to read. An archaeological artifact, the Gezer Calendar, which dates from the tenth century before Christ, is a schoolboy’s exercise. It demonstrates that reading and writing were a part of ancient Israel’s culture, even among the youth (Archer 1964, 52). The fact is, archaeology has demonstrated the existence of schools going back at least 2,500 years before the birth of Christ (Kramer 1959, 1ff). Archaeological and literary evidence have shown that in first-century Palestine most folks were conversant with three languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek (Gundry 1970, 21).
Even Jesus could read and write (Luke 4:16ff; John 7:15; 8:6,8), though he was raised in a very impoverished family environment (cf. Luke 2:24, with reference to the “poor” offering; see also 2 Corinthians 8:9) and, early-on followed the trade of a carpenter (Mark 6:3). Peter and John, who were only humble fishermen—not scholastics (see Acts 4:13)—could read and write, as demonstrated by their respective contributions to the New Testament collection. The illiterate argument is much ado about nothing.
Unlearned people do not have access to “scholarly” sources, thus whatever knowledge they have is most likely flawed.
By the same token, a Catholic “layperson” could hardly know of the reliability of the dogma received from their clergy. They have no access to the countless volumes of decisions that have been handed down from the various Councils. How could they possibly assess the numerous controversies that have raged across the centuries in the very bosom of the Roman Church itself?
The truth is, one does not need to have “scholarly” sources to ascertain God’s plan of redemption and submit thereto. An honest consultation of the New Testament provides adequate information for instruction regarding how to obtain salvation, the fundamentals of church government, worship procedure, godly living, and such like. While grammatical and historical minutia may be of value in honing the finer points of doctrine, it is not essential to attaining heaven.
Hardworking folks have little time for study, and so they need someone to tell them what to believe.
It requires no more time to study the New Testament than it does to peruse a catechism or listen to a priest recite dogma from some pope or council. Such a line of argumentation is embarrassingly impotent.
Through much of Christian history, people have had improper diets. This lack of nutrition resulted in their brains being unable to function critically. Hence, they could not draw rational deductions from studying the Bible alone.
This argument, quite frankly, is pathetic. If it applies to those who desire to study the Scriptures, but cannot think clearly because of unnourished brains, it applies equally to the instruction received from the Catholic clergy. Why, pray tell, would it be more difficult to comprehend the teaching of the inspired New Testament writers, than it would be to ingest the teachings of uninspired Roman Catholic instructors?
Since a high level of critical skill is necessary for interpreting the Scriptures, and, as most folks do not possess such skill, common sense would dictate that Church officials do their thinking for them.
This final quibble is in the same vein as the previous three, and responses to those matters need not be reiterated here.
We would conclude this discussion with a reference to George Salmon’s masterful volume, The Infallibility of the Church—a book so powerful in its exposure of Catholic claims, that it has never been answered by papal apologists. In fact, noted Catholic scholar P.J. Toner, who authored the article on “Infallibility” in the Catholic Encyclopedia, described Salmon’s work as “the cleverest modern attack on the Catholic position” of this issue (Toner 1910, 800).
“Cleverest” is an understatement; it is a devastating exposure of Catholic propaganda relative to the “authority” of the Roman Church.
Salmon points out that it is an undeniable historical fact that as the Roman ecclesiastical system evolved, the time came when Catholic clerics surrendered the idea that the doctrine and practice of the Roman Church could be defended by the Scriptures. Hence, by default, the notion arose that “the Bible does not contain the whole of God’s revelation, and that a body of traditional doctrine existed in the Church equally deserving of veneration” (Salmon 1959, 28). This is precisely the point that we made earlier in noting the gentleman’s total absence of scriptural argumentation.
Ambitiously-driven lusts for release from the authority of the Holy Scriptures has given birth to numerous heretical claims of special revelation from God. Sola scriptura remains as the valid procedure for pursuing the Mind of the Lord.
- Archer, Gleason, Jr. 1964. A Survey of Old Testament Introduction. Chicago, IL: Moody.
- Balz, Horst and Schneider, Gerhard. 1978. Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
- Conway, Bertrand. 1929. The Question Box. San Francisco, CA: Catholic Truth Society.
- Danker, F.W. et al. 2000. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.
- Gundry, Robert H. 1970. Survey of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
- Hiebert, D.E. 1958. 2 Timothy. Chicago, IL: Moody.
- Kramer, Samuel Noah. 1959. History Begins at Sumer. New York, NY: Doubleday.
- Metzger, Bruce. 1968. The Text of the New Testament. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
- Salmon, George. 1959 Reprint. The Infallibility of the Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
- Spicq, Ceslas. 1994. Theological Lexicon of the New Testament. Vol. 2. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.
- Toner, P.J. 1910. The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. New York, NY: Robert Appleton Co.
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.