Although tradition does not rule our interpretation, it does guide it. If upon reading a particular passage you have come up with an interpretation that has escaped the notice of every other Christian for two thousand years, or has been championed by universally recognized heretics, chances are pretty good that you had better abandon your interpretation (R.C. Sproul, The Agony of Deceit, 34-35).
What is the difference?
Scripture alone, sola Scriptura, is not the same as Scripture only, solo Scriptura.1 To put it in other terms, to say that Scripture alone is the only rule of faith and practice – or as the Westminster Catechism says, “is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him” – is quite different than to say that only Scripture is the guide to all truth.
Truth may be derived outside the Bible. Romans 1 expressly affirms this truth. Not only does natural revelation of truth exist, it is the only thing that exists. All creation declares the glory of God. The problem is not with extra-biblical truth. The problem is within man’s own heart and mind. Due to our radical moral corruption, we will always distort this truth to our own selfish ends. This is why special revelation is needed. That special revelation begins and ends with the written Word of God alone – sola Scriptura.
In contrast, solo Scriptura begins in a place that seems synonymous with sola Scriptura, but ends up the rule of Scripture by an individual’s interpretation, which is the opposite conclusion.
Solo Scriptura advocates a radical individualism that rejects the church, creeds, confessions, and tradition as having any authority while embracing private judgment above all else. This view radicalizes the Protestant ethic and undermines it. Such an approach finds no credence in the teaching of the Reformers or the early church. Conversely, the Reformers taught the Apostles’ Creed and stood upon the truths articulated at Chalcedon and Nicaea. Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, Henry Bullinger, and Martin Bucer all wrote catechisms and confessions for their people. They viewed an anti-creedal and anti-confessional theology as anti-Christian. None of the prominent Protestant Reformers advocated solo Scriptura (Jason Helopoulos, “Is Scripture Alone the Same Thing as Scripture Only?” tabletalkmagazine.com).
The Reformers held to sola Scriptura, not solo Scriptura. When we say that Scripture alone is the rule of all faith and practice in matters of salvation, then special attention has to be paid to the word, “rule,” which is distinct from “guide.” This does not say that Church Fathers, Apologists, Church Councils and theologians throughout history have not guided biblical interpretation. It also does not claim that they erred on the essential doctrines of the faith. Instead, the following points ought to be affirmed.
1. Scripture alone is the source of the rule of faith; the rule of faith did not determine the canon of the Bible or truths derived from the Bible.
2. Truth existed independently, even prior to the special revelation of the Word of God being given. But because of man’s depravity, special revelation is needed and can be the only standard of truth.
3. Since Scripture determined the rule of faith, Scripture sits in judgment over our doctrines and traditions — never the other way around.
4. The Bible alone is inerrant and infallible.
5. The Bible alone is the Word of God.
Do Catholics deny sola Scriptura?
The Roman Catholic Church actually affirms (or at least comes close to affirming) the above definition of sola Scriptura in a document issued in 1965 called Dei Verbum (“The Word of God”)
Through divine revelation, God chose to show forth and communicate Himself and the eternal decisions of His will regarding the salvation of men. That is to say, He chose to share with them those divine treasures which totally transcend the understanding of the human mind.
As a sacred synod has affirmed, God, the beginning and end of all things, can be known with certainty from created reality by the light of human reason (see Romans 1:20); but teaches that it is through His revelation that those religious truths which are by their nature accessible to human reason can be known by all men with ease, with solid certitude and with no trace of error, even in this present state of the human race….
Therefore, since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation.
Therefore “all Scripture is divinely inspired and has its use for teaching the truth and refuting error, for reformation of manners and discipline in right living, so that the man who belongs to God may be efficient and equipped for good work of every kind” (2 Timothy 3:16,17) [emphasis mine].
The Bible alone is the standard of truth and for refuting error. Scripture is the supreme authority over the Church. However, Scripture is not the only authority. Luther, Calvin, and the other Reformers used other authorities and Church tradition in addition to their own reasoning. They recognized that man’s rational counsel can at best correctly affirm the Word of God, but can never be above it. Rationalism can never be the standard by which we judge or interpret the Word of God. The train of authority is first the Word of God, then correct doctrine and practice.
The idea of sola Scriptura is closely bound up in the idea of biblical inerrancy.
I recently heard that an official of a certain Protestant denomination feared that his church was becoming more liberal because they no longer believed in inerrancy. He related that they changed their confession to say that the Bible was not “inerrant,” but merely “infallible.” The irony here is that “infallible” is actually a stronger word. Some of what I say is inerrant, but nothing I can say is infallible. That is, I can make a statement without a mistake, but in no way am I free from the ability to make a mistake. The same holds true for the men who wrote Scripture. They were flawed men who were limited in their understanding, but under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit they were kept free from error. Scripture was in part the initiative of the authors’ will and personality, but the words are inerrant simply because the Holy Spirit kept them from error in communicating sacred truth.
Infallibility can never be achieved with a man’s interpretation of Scripture. The interpretation might be without error, but no one is infallible or incapable of error. Scripture alone is inerrant, not the men who wrote it and not the men who interpret it. This raises an obvious paradox. Since we have the Word of God in written form, it must still be read and understood by fallible men. The traditions of those men then become an authority that we appeal to.
As John Calvin put it, “We hold that the Word of God alone lies beyond the sphere of our judgment… Fathers and Councils are of authority only in so far as they accord with the rule of the Word.”
And who decides whether something the Fathers or the Councils have determined “accords with the rule of the Word”?
Who determines this?
What is it that keeps our understanding from error?
Is it the pope sitting in the chair of Peter issuing ex cathedra statements?
Is it a council of bishops issuing a canon of enumerated truths?
Is it the consensus view of a majority of Church Fathers throughout history?
The Catholic and Eastern Orthodox view holds it must be one of these things. In essence, if you have an infallible book, you must also have an infallible interpreter to be sure truth is communicated.
If it is not a pope or a church council, then why you?
The answer is simple. Protestants don’t say that our understanding is without error. In some ways, we will always be in error. Rather, inerrancy rests with the authority of the Holy Spirit that established Scripture itself, not mixing it with other things. At best, Church tradition is an interpretive tool that at times can affirm a Scriptural point of doctrine without error. Tradition is a necessary source of truth.
Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle (2 Thessalonians 2:15).
Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us (2 Thessalonians 3:6).
Hold fast the form of sound words, which thou hast heard of me, in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus. That good thing which was committed unto thee keep by the Holy Ghost which dwelleth in us (2 Timothy 1:13-14).
Forasmuch as ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers (1 Peter 1:18).
Critics of the Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura will often rightly point out that the “tradition” spoken of here went beyond the written words of Scripture. However, Scripture alone is always inerrant. The tradition of religious people sometimes is in error.
And honour not his father or his mother, he shall be free. Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition (Matthew 15:6)
Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things do ye (Mark 7:13).
And profited in the Jews’ religion above many my equals in mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers (Galatians 1:14).
Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ ( Colossians 2:8, all emphasis above mine).
Tradition does not stand as an equal to Scripture in its comprehensive authority. All the Truth necessary for salvation is not contained partly in Scripture and partly in tradition. To claim that would violate uniqueness and sufficiency of Scripture. There is such a thing as the necessity of human reason in understanding truth, but there is no such thing as the sufficiency of human reason.
Sola Scriptura, Inspiration and Inerrancy
Sola Scriptura means that the writers of Scripture were inspired by the Holy Spirit to communicate truth without error, such that the words of Scripture are both inspired and inerrant. To understand the Protestant view on this, it is useful to look at the idea of inspiration. Both the authors and words of Scripture are inspired. The authors of Scripture were inspired by the Holy Spirit as they wrote. The actual words of Scripture continue to carry the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and this is the way that truth is communicated as we read it. While the authors of Scripture might have made errors in doctrine throughout their lives, they were kept from error by the Holy Spirit as they wrote Scripture. Therefore, all the ideas of Scripture, as well as the individual words, are there because the Holy Spirit intended them to be recorded.
Truth is wholly derived from Scripture. Scripture alone is sufficient to know the way in which we must be saved.
On the other had, the Roman Catholic Church at the Council of Trent wanted to include the words “partly” in Scripture and “partly” in tradition. This indicates two separate distinct sources, the Bible and tradition. Due to the protests of two Italian priests saying it undermined the sufficiency of Scripture. The final draft of Trent includes the phrase “Scripture and tradition,” which may or may not mean “partly.”
If we find the truth in Scripture and tradition, it might mean that we find truth in Scripture and in Church tradition. If Church tradition is simply repeating the doctrine of the Bible, then that is affirming sola Scriptura. But if Scripture alone is not sufficient and it is necessary to mix with another source of truth in addition to Scripture, then this is a violation of sola Scriptura.
Scripture alone is both necessary and sufficient to know the truth.
Human reason applied to Scripture is necessary, but not sufficient.
This is not a Protestant doctrine, but a patristic Catholic doctrine.
St. Augustine wrote in AD 405 in his letter to Jerome, that he had learned to hold only the Holy Scripture inerrant.
I have learned to yield this respect and honor only to the canonical books of Scripture: of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error (Letters of St. Augustine 82.1.3)
An astute observer here is going to note the fact that I have quoted the authority of a Church Father to affirm sola Scriptura. Is that not a violation of this principle? Not at all! What Augustine says here is true. He affirms that all men err on other points. We affirm only that the entirety of Scripture is without error.
Again this brings us back around a vicious circle.
How do we know our understanding of Scripture is without error?
Simply, we don’t.
Ask any Protestant if he believes in Semper Reformanda, that the Church is “always reforming,” and must always examine our doctrine for mistakes.
Might your pastor and denominational church leaders be in error on doctrine and always need reformation?
Almost universally, this will be answered as, “yes.”
Some might qualify, “On the big questions, my church is correct. There is one God who exists on a Holy Trinity. Jesus was born a man and died for our sins. He was resurrected, ascended and will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. On that I can be certain, but on the details, I am uncertain.”
The irony here is that this is essentially the position of the Roman Catholic Church too. There are only a few ecumenical Church Councils and exactly two ex cathedra doctrines of the pope that are thought to be infallible. The Roman Catholic Church has changed its position on doctrines that were previously taught.
However, there are many broad doctrinal positions that have never changed. A few years ago, the Doctrinal Commentary on concluding formula of Professio fidei was issued to more clearly define what is an infallible teaching.
It explains the tradition of the profession of the faith and the varying kinds of doctrine, including the degrees of assent that each doctrine requires. Protestants would agree with the substance of what is stipulated in this document, but not the rationale behind the idea that the Roman Catholic Church has the authority to make these statements based on “the primacy of the Successor of Peter [in] terms of jurisdiction and infallibility.”
Every Christian admits that there are points in which their church might be in error on the Bible. I am always reminded of the answer to a question that I asked R.J. Rushdoony as to how far Reformed Protestants can go in cooperating with Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Arminians in efforts toward social reform.
What about these other churches who don’t preach the Gospel or preach another Gospel?
The answer he gave was far more all-embracing and “catholic” than I expected.
When we are Christians, to the extent to any degree we are faithful to the Gospel, we are bigger than ourselves. And that is why whether they are Arminian, Roman Catholic, or Calvinist, people who are truly serving the Lord are bigger than their own thinking, bigger than their own faith. We transcend ourselves. And that is the glory of the Gospel. It enables us to do more than we can do. It is the grace of God working through us. It is not that we teach different Gospels; we are trying to teach the same Gospel even though at times our emphasis will be a warped one, a limited one, a partial one. All the same, God can use it.
In other words, we can preach the Gospel according to our limited understanding and interpretation, and even so, the Holy Spirit operates though preaching because the message of salvation is spiritually discerned. The Gospel can be comprehended rationally, but this is not what makes it effective. The power of the Holy Spirit moving through the preaching is what changes hearts and minds, not our correct exposition of doctrine.
So the writers of Scripture were not led according to any man’s private interpretation, but every individual, every Church, uses a private interpretation when we reduce the Bible to points of doctrine.
In the final analysis, the Roman Catholic Church has said that truth proceeds in part in Scripture and in part from Church tradition. Protestants have held that the Bible alone is the source of all truth, but Church tradition may assist us in understanding. Both Protestants and Roman Catholics believe that Scripture alone is inerrant, but the Church may err.
Recent Catholic Apologists’ Distortion of the Sola Scriptura Doctrine
Scott Hahn is a former evangelical Protestant convert to Roman Catholicism and author of over two dozen books on theology and apologetics. He was never an ordained minister in any of the recognized Reformed denominations – not the OPC, not the PCA, not the RPCNA, not the ARP, etc. His first church was a member of the American Baptist Churches – a sometimes conservative, but more often “woke” liberal church denomination. At the blog of one of his former churches, I found an article by the current pastor attacking “Christian Nationalists” as a “cancer in the Church” You get the idea. Hahn’s claim of street cred earned from many years as a conservative Reformed minister is doubtful.
On the other hand, Hahn is an incredibly prolific author and I am sure that his apologetic on many topics is quite sound. However, he has no grasp on what the doctrine of sola Scriptura actually states. His most popular works include Rome Sweet Home, a memoir which recounts his long journey and conversion to Catholicism (written at age 35). The book is a critique of evangelicalism in general.
Gary DeMar of American Vision summarized Hahn’s book in a recent article at the American Vision website.
Former Protestants Scott and Kimberly Hahn have written a book that is getting a great deal of praise from Catholics and Protestants. The Hahns have become effective apologists for the Catholic position. Scott, a former Presbyterian minister, and his wife consider their embrace of Catholicism as a homecoming. In fact, the title of their book is Rome Sweet Home: Our Journey to Catholicism. While there are many issues in this book that I would like to address, my goal is to concentrate on the central issue – sola scriptura. …
There is no doubt in my mind that Rome Sweet Home is a cleverly devised piece of propaganda published mainly for Catholics. Very few Protestants would ever be convinced by the arguments put forth by the Hahns. The book is designed to keep Catholics in check, most of whom do not know their Bibles. The reasoning goes something like this:
Consider the Hahns. Scott and Kimberly were forceful Catholic antagonists while they studied in one of America’s leading Protestant seminaries. Scott had a promising career as a pastor and seminary professor. But as the Hahns studied the Bible more closely they found that they could not answer the most basic objection to Roman Catholic doctrines. In time they began to see what you already know: The Roman Catholic Church is the true church.
After reading Rome Sweet Home I came away bewildered. I could not believe how poorly the Hahns argued Catholic dogma.
Gary DeMar goes on to show how absurdly Hahn understood the doctrine of sola Scriptura.
The issue that sent Scott Hahn over the edge into considering Roman Catholic doctrine was a question a student asked him about sola Scriptura. Here is how Scott recounts the confrontation:
“Professor Hahn, you’ve shown us that sola fide isn’t scriptural [sic] – how the battle cry of the Reformation is off-base when it comes to interpreting Paul [sic]. As you know, the other battle cry of the Reformation was sola scriptura; the Bible alone is our authority, rather than the pope, church councils or Tradition. Professor, where does the Bible teach that ‘Scripture alone’ is our sole authority?"
What was Scott’s response? “I looked at him and broke into a cold sweat.” Scott writes that he “never heard that question before.” This encounter shook Scott. He writes that he “studied all week long” and “got nowhere.” Then he “called two of the best theologians in America as well as some of [his] former professors.” I must admit that if I were to accept the answers that Scott received from these “two best theologians in the country,” I too would have to give up the doctrine of sola Scriptura.
I encourage you to read all of DeMar’s article, but the one straw man that stands out to me is the false definition of sola Scriptura. First, he says it is “the Bible alone is our authority, rather than the pope, church councils or Tradition.” Yes, that is correct. Scripture alone is our only authority.
However, in the next sentence he equates this with “Scripture alone” is our sole authority. Note the two words, “alone” and “sole.”
Sola versus solo.
“Alone” versus “only.”
When I’ve pointed out the difference, I’ve had people ask me, “That makes no sense! Doesn’t that mean the same thing?”
Well no, although the words are sometimes used as synonyms, there is a distinction in theology. By way of analogy, let’s say I bought an electric car. I say, “My new car is great! It runs on electric battery power alone.” A friend wants to know it is a hybrid, but I tell him I don’t know the meaning of the word “hybrid.” He could ask, “Does it run on electricity alone and also gas when you need it, or does it run on electricity only?”
There is a distinct difference. Protestants can look to both Scripture and tradition as a source of authority. Scripture alone is our source of inerrant doctrine on matters of faith, while tradition may err.
Sola Scriptura and Sola Fide
A similar argument can be made about sola fide. To say that we are saved by faith alone is not the same thing as saying no works are involved in our salvation. Faith alone in Christ alone is sufficient for our justification before God.
For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast (Ephesians 2:8-9).
However, the Epistle of James frames it differently.
Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone (James 2:17).
Is this a contradiction in Scripture?
It is not, if we read everything in context. First, James uses a Greek phrase that means “faith … by itself.” Then James goes on to explain that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:20,26). This is framed by a passage that shows that true faith is the only thing that is productive of good works. Then he defines “by itself” as meaning “only.”
Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only (James 2:24).
The best translations have the words “only” or “merely.” So this is perfectly consistent with Paul’s statement that you cannot be saved “of works” done “of yourselves.” We are created by God to do good works, so we cannot be saved without good works.
For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:10).
In conclusion, we can know by Scripture alone how we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, for the glory of God alone.
Sola Scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide, solus Christu, soli Deo gloria.
Another well-known Catholic apologist known for critiquing evangelicals is Ken Hensley who also claims he was an ordained Protestant minister for eleven years before converting to the Catholic faith in 1997.
And what I was coming to see was that sola Scriptura isn’t something Luther and Calvin embraced because they had done an inductive study of the New Testament and found that it teaches sola Scriptura. They embraced it because they came, at the time of the Reformation, to no longer believe in the existence of this authoritative Church. Is Sola Scriptura Scriptural? Part IV: Why do Protestants Embrace it?
The problem with the above statement (beyond that fact that it presents no objective evidence for his extraordinary claim) is that regardless of whether or not Protestants have a wrong motivation for embracing sola Scriptura, the obvious fact remains that the Roman Catholic Church can and does err. This is an unavoidable conundrum. Once you admit that the Church can and does err, then Scripture alone by default becomes the supreme authority.
The Church Fathers on Sola Scriptura
Furthermore, sola Scriptura is not a peculiarly Protestant doctrine, but a patristic doctrine. Therefore, it was first a Catholic doctrine. Many of the Church Fathers directly use the phrase “Scripture alone” in their arguments against heresy.
Take away, indeed, from the heretics the wisdom, which they share with the heathen, and let them support their inquiries from the Scripture alone: they will then be unable to keep their ground. For that which commends men’s common sense is its very simplicity, and its participation in the same feelings, and its community of opinions; and it is deemed to be all the more trustworthy, inasmuch as its definitive statements are naked and open, and known to all."
We, however, in conformity with our belief in that doctrine, which we assuredly hold to be divinely inspired, believe that it is possible in no other way to explain and bring within the reach of human knowledge this higher and diviner reason as the Son of God, than by means of those Scripture alone which were inspired by the Holy Spirit, i.e., the Gospels and Epistles, and the law and the prophets, according to the declaration of Christ Himself.
Now one might write at great length concerning these things, if one desired to go rate details respecting them; for the impiety and perverseness of heresies will appear to be manifold and various, and the craft of the deceivers to be very terrible. But since holy Scripture is of all things most sufficient for us, therefore recommending to those who desire to know more of these matters, to read the Divine word, I now hasten to set before you that which most claims attention, and for the sake of which principally I have written these things." (Athanasius, To the Bishops of Egypt 1.4).
… the sacred and inspired Scriptures are sufficient to declare the truth (Athanasius, Against the Heathen 1.1.3).
Note that Athanasius states Scripture as being “sufficient” to teach the truth. This is the Reformed Protestant view of sola Scriptura. The Church Fathers did in fact make arguments from other sources of truth. For example, in the quote below, an appeal is made to the tradition of the Nicene Creed, but Athanasius insists that the Creed only affirmed, for people reading the words “honestly,” the doctrine announced in Scripture.
Vainly then do they run about with the pretext that they have demanded Councils for the faith’s sake; for divine Scripture is sufficient above all things; but if a Council be needed on the point, there are the proceedings of the Fathers, for the Nicene Bishops did not neglect this matter, but stated the doctrine so exactly, that persons reading their words honestly, cannot but be reminded by them of the religion towards Christ, announced in divine Scripture (Athanasius, de Synodis 1.6).
At the same time, as I have said already, it is to the canonical Scripture alone that I am bound to yield such implicit subjection as to follow their teaching, without admitting the slightest suspicion that in them any mistake or any statement intended to mislead could find a place.
Do not, I beg you, bring in human reason. I shall yield to Scripture alone.
The Reformed Confessions
How then do Reformed Protestants interpret Scripture if men are fallible? What or who then is the standard for interpretation?
Several of the Reformed Confessions deal with this very question.
Westminster Confession of Faith
Section 6. The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the word; and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the word, which are always to be observed.
Section 9. The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.
Section 10. The supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.
Did the Reformation liberate the people of God from only one interpretation of the Bible?
I am surprised to hear Roman Catholic apologists using the argument that the doctrine of sola Scriptura claims that tradition cannot be appealed to, when the Protestants’ own Confessions and Catechisms constantly appeal to tradition and are a tradition unto themselves.
I am also surprised to hear the argument, “You cannot find the doctrine of sola Scriptura anywhere in Scripture.”
On one level, that is true. We do not find this exact phrase in Scripture. However, on another level, it is absurd. As a doctrine, sola Scriptura is derived from many places in Scripture. One could make a similar argument about the Trinity. We don’t find the word, “Trinity,” anywhere in the Bible. The doctrine of the Trinity is not clearly spelled out in Scripture as it is in the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds. However, there are lots of scriptural proofs for the Trinity.
In the same way, the doctrine of sola Scriptura is supported in many places in Scripture.
Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost (2 Peter 1:20-21).
Does Scripture allow us to have our own interpretation of His Word?
It is important that the words “private interpretation” be understood in the whole context of the passage which is a polemic against false teachers. However, Peter is stating categorically that Scripture both originates from God and is properly interpreted by God. Scripture cannot be contradicted by man’s fallible will. God’s perfect will reigns supreme, while the will of man is compromised by his corrupt nature. However, this passage does not teach against interpreting the Bible either by our own self or by relying to some degree on tradition, but it is setting out a clear line between the perfect will of God and the imperfect will of man.
Reformed Protestants do respect the development of doctrine by tradition. This is why the Creeds are of importance in defending doctrines such as the Trinity. Properly defined, sola Scriptura is one of these doctrines as well.
To illustrate this, it is necessary to show that the doctrine of sola Scriptura originates with the doctrine of soli Christus – Christ alone – or the doctrine that Christ is the only mediator between God and man, and that there is salvation through no other. Christ is identified in the Word of God as the incarnation of the Word. Just as Christ alone is our mediator, so the Word of God alone is our authority.
The Reformed Protestant view is that Scripture is both necessary and sufficient alone to know the truth. Church tradition is a necessary interpreter, but is not sufficient alone in order to know the truth.
The Roman Catholic view defaults to the position that Scripture alone is insufficient without Church tradition. This does not put Church tradition subordinate to Scripture, but either equal to or above it.
When Church tradition seems to contradict the plain meaning of a text, Roman Catholics will maintain that Church tradition must be accommodated. In extreme cases, Catholic theologians will propose that Scripture can mean two things – or one by interpretation and another by accommodation to Church tradition.
The Woman of Revelation 12 is widely identified by Catholics as the Virgin Mary. This interpretation has been held by many commentators of the medieval and modern Catholic Church. This view does not negate the alternative interpretation of the Woman representing the Church, since Mary is herself considered both the Mother of God and the Mother of the Church in Roman Catholic dogma. However, some Catholic commentaries allow that Israel of old gave birth to the Messiah (Revelation 12:5) and then became the new Israel, the Church, which suffers persecution by the dragon (Revelation 12:6,13-17; cf. Isaiah 50:1; 66:7; Jeremiah 50:12). However, such commentaries are also quick to note that “by accommodation the Church applies this verse to the Blessed Virgin” (Note on Revelation 12:6, Douay Version 1957, emphasis mine).
Another famous example concerns Martin Luther’s revelation on the sacrament of penance. Luther wrote that he was shocked in reading Erasmus’ newly published Greek New Testament, that the frequent command was to repent – not do penance – as had been translated in Latin by the Roman Catholic Church. “Do penance; the times are completed; believe the gospel (Mark 1:15). The difference here is that to repent implies a change of heart as a result of hearing the Gospel and to do penance implies that the sinner can do works in order to prepare himself to receive salvation.
These are just two of many examples of misinterpreting the plain meaning of Scripture in order to support a later tradition.
The Roman Catholic argument that sola Scriptura is unreasonable comes either from
- A false definition of the doctrine – that is, a strawman argument that conflates it with solo Scriptura
- Not realizing that sola Scriptura still allows tradition to guide us.
- Or else an argument that esteems Church tradition as equal to Scripture and therefore negates the sufficiency of Scripture.
Where Scripture and Church tradition disagree, Protestants say that the Word of God is supreme. Church councils, confessions and creeds are useful, but they may err. Only Scripture is inerrant. Where a passage of Scripture is difficult to understand, the interpretation must be made by appealing to other similar passages of Scripture that are more plain. While we may be guided by other sources, ultimately Scripture is the supreme rule of the Christian faith.
1 Solo Scriptura, historically called nuda Scriptura, meaning “bare scripture” is a term used by some Protestants to describe the view that scripture is the only rule of faith to the exclusion of all other sources, while in contrast, sola Scriptura teaches that the Scripture alone is infallible, without excluding Church tradition and other sources entirely, but viewing them as subordinate and ministerial. A view similar to nuda Scriptura was advocated by Sebastian Franck, even arguing that the early Church theologians were servants of the Antichrist. Nuda Scriptura was taught by a few Anabaptists such as Conrad Grebel and some radical reformers, insisting that Christians should not look to tradition but to the Scripture alone. However, many radical reformers did not argue for nuda Scriptura, including Balthasar Hubmaier, who often quoted the Church fathers in his writings. Some Evangelicals and many Plymouth Bretheren also teach views comparable to nuda Scriptura. The view is especially common within modern fundamentalism.