Another reason to debate the issue of Sola Scriptura is that some converts from Evangelicalism to Roman Catholicism have claimed that a primary reason for their shift in theology was the absence of a Biblical case for Sola Scriptura. Such an astounding claim ought to lead the Protestant to query -- How can such a vast case be missed? I should rather think that the Biblical case for Sola Scriptura is similar to Warfield's claim concerning the basis for the infallibility of Scripture; the case overwhelms one like a waterfall.
Though the debate over Sola Scriptura is often discussed in terms of "sources" of revelation or authority, I think the issue will be clearer if we focus on whether Scripture is the sole or supreme norm for all questions of Christian thought and practice. Hence, the thesis for which I will argue is the same as that found in the Westminster Confession of Faith, I:10: "The Supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined... can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the scripture."
In direct contrast to the Westminster Confession, both the Council of Trent and Vatican II declare that there are two supreme norms for matters of faith and practice. The Council of Trent states: "[The Roman Catholic church] receives and venerates with a feeling of piety and reverence all the books of both of the Old and New Testaments, since one God is the author of both; also the traditions, whether they relate to faith or to morals, as having been dictated orally by Christ or by the Holy Ghost, and preserved in the Catholic Church in unbroken succession." Vatican II continues the same line of thought: "...both sacred Tradition and sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same devotion and reverence."
Though one can quite easily demonstrate Sola Scriptura from the Bible, the following brief arguments are not in any sense an exhaustive case for this doctrine. Nevertheless, they ought to be a sufficient start.
Roman Catholic apologists often appeal to New Testament oral "traditions" (e.g. II Tim. 2:2; II Thess. 2:15) as immediate refutations of Sola Scriptura. Given the distinctions above, this is a naive move on their part. As stated for any point in redemptive history, then, the doctrine of Sola Scriptura is the contention that the Word of God (oral or written) is the sole and supreme norm for Biblical faith. The central issue, then, which Protestants affirm and Roman Catholics deny, is the claim that the history of redemption demonstrates that God, at some points, revealed His Word temporarily in prophetic/oral form and then inscripturated this norm permanently in written form, with no subsequent authoritative appeals to oral revelation. Protestants maintain that, following inscripturation, the oral "speaking as a child" is done away with, and our only norm is the "mature," written Word of God; the latter is our current situation and, most notably, was that of the Reformers. In contrast, Roman Catholics maintain that some oral teaching authority continues as a norm on par with Scripture (though they do not claim that this Sacred Tradition is new revelation; it is only explicative).
Protestants reject such a "co-supreme" norm and contend that Scripture itself teaches that the Word of God (now written) is our sole and supreme norm. We wholeheartedly reject the supreme authority of any secondary interpretations, explications, or extra-Biblical pronouncements, whether these are alleged charismatic revelations, Mary Baker Eddy's insights, or Mormon or Roman Catholic "apostolic" authorities.
Similarly, Noah was called upon to heed God's revelation without excuse. God's covenant was established directly with Noah as representative of creation (Gen. 9: 8,9). Subsequently, Ham's rebellion against God's revelation met with condemnation (Gen. 9: 22ff). Throughout, the sole standard was God's unmediated Word.
A most striking example of Sola Scriptura is made plain in the Abrahamic covenant. God again reveals Himself, apart from a divine expositor, and binds Himself to fulfill His covenant (Gen. 15). When Abram seeks confirmation of God's glorious promises, the Lord confirms His divine Word by His divine Word! As Hebrews 6:13 states, "since He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself." No Pontiff or magisterium or Sacred Tradition is invoked to verify God's Word; the supreme authority is the Lord's own testimony to His Word. No further appeal is possible. Sola Scriptura reigns.
Later in Abraham's life, God further explicates His own covenant (Gen. 17) directly with Abraham (v. 9ff) and holds up Abraham as an example to his posterity for keeping "My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws" (Gen. 26:5).
As God's revelation is inscripturated in the Mosaic era, Sola Scriptura continues as the practice. The Lord keeps His covenant promises and further reveals Himself to His people. Moses recounts all of God's revelation to the people, and the people respond, "All the words which the Lord has spoken we will do! And Moses wrote down all the words of the Lord" (Ex. 24:3,4; cf. 34:27). In these passages, we not only see the general transformation of God's Word from the temporary oral to the written, but we also see a direct "recounting" of God's Word to the people.
To the Levitical priests, the Lord revealed the sole supremacy of His Word over against non-Christian standards: "You shall not do what is done in the land of Egypt...nor are you to do what is done in the land of Canaan where I am bringing you; you shall not walk in their statutes. You are to perform My judgments and keep My statutes;...I am the Lord your God" (Lev. 18:4). Hence, the priests themselves were directed to heed the (now written) Word of God alone. God's law never directs the priests or the people to give equal reverence to some ecclesiastical or priestly tradition; instead, they are repeatedly pointed back to the clear revelation of God's covenant.
In fact, the law itself explicitly prohibits Levitical priests or the people from adding another standard to God's revelation: "You shall not add to the word which I am commanding you, nor take away from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you" (Deut. 4:2; cf. Deut. 12:32; 13:1-4). Such an unequivocal prohibition clearly precluded minor priestly additions, let alone an entire ecclesiastical body of "living" tradition which would stand on par with God's Word. Moreover, this commandment was given to all of Israel (Deut. 4:1). They were expected to understand and apply God's Word so as not to adulterate it, even if their priests did. God alone has the authority to add to His Word, and, at this point in redemptive history, He directs them to His written Word as their supreme standard alone and not to another Biblical institution or tradition. The law, then, serves as exemplary support for the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, and since the law serves as the standard in the historical revelation that follows Moses, we should expect to see the written Word as the standard of faith and practice there as well, and we do (cf. Josh. 1:7 - "do not turn from it to the right or to the left;" II Chron. 17:7ff.; 29:15ff; II Kings 22 -- Josiah: "Go, inquire of the LORD for me and the people and all Judah concerning the words of this book that has been found, for great is the wrath of the LORD that burns against us, because our fathers have not listened to the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us" (v. 13).
The Book of Proverbs repeats the solemn declaration that "every word of God is tested; He is a shield to those who take refuge in Him; Do not add to His words. Lest He reprove you, and you be proved a liar" (30: 5,6). This command becomes an enduring restriction on God's revelation. As God's people we are to have no other supreme authorities; no other institution or object is so circumscribed. Finally, after reflecting on the vanity of life, the Preacher of Ecclesiastes summarizes our basic duty as, "fear God and keep His commandments" (Eccl. 12:13).
More particularly, Isaiah rebukes the false diviners in accord with the earlier prohibition from Deuteronomy 13: 1-4 ("you shall not listen to the words of that prophet....You shall follow the Lord...and...keep His commandments"), when he declares "to the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them" (Is. 8:20).
Jeremiah declares that the coming New Covenant will be one, not in which Sacred Tradition reigns, but in which the Lord will place His "law within them" (Jer. 31:31).
Ezekiel gloriously testifies to the coming Christ who will reign over a future people who walk in accord with God's written Word (Ez. 37:24) in an everlasting covenant.
In Daniel 3, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego appeal supremely to the first commandment in their defiance of Nebuchadnezzar's wicked directive.
Repeatedly, we see that the Old Testament practice is to revere God's Word, most often in its written form, as the sole and supreme norm for thought and practice. The law, wisdom literature, and prophets direct us only to the Word of God in this manner. The Lord repeatedly speaks His Word directly to His people, who are expected to understand and apply it faithfully. The Old Testament simply has no place for secondary infallible explications or institutions, instead, it is saturated with the doctrine of Sola Scriptura.
Similarly, the apostles direct us to heed the Old Testament standards. Peter instructs us to heed the teachings of the prophets as "a lamp shining in a dark place" (II Pet. 2:19). Paul teaches that Old Testament practices were "written for our instruction" (I Cor. 10:11; cf. Rom. 15:4), and that all Scripture is "profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction" (II Tim. 3:16 -- even Roman Catholics will concede this verse at least applies to the Old Testament Scriptures).
Thus, if the New Testament assumes the continuation of Old Testament teachings, and the Old Testament teaches Sola Scriptura (as above), then the New Testament teaches Sola Scriptura as well.
For example, if the Old Testament law, wisdom literature, and prophets direct us only to the Word of God as the supreme norm and not to ecclesiastical or priestly explications, then the New Testament teaches the same. The burden is on opponents of the doctrine to demonstrate that God has rescinded His previous standards.
Similarly, if Deuteronomy 4:2 prohibits adding anything to God's Word, and the New Testament assumes that this sort of teaching continues, then the prohibition also applies to adding anything to God's Word (oral or written) in the New Testament. We see this argument confirmed in the New Testament writings themselves. Paul most emphatically condemns those who would teach contrary to apostolic doctrine (Gal. 1:8,9), and the Holy Spirit speaking through John applies the same prohibition to the words of Revelation: "If anyone adds to them, God shall add to him the plagues which are written in this book..." (Rev. 22:18,19).
Given this general norm, Protestants do not beg-the-question against Roman Catholicism by arguing that Christ's condemnation of Pharisaical traditions (e.g., to Matt. 15:3) also applies to Roman Catholic traditions. The usual Roman Catholic retort to such appeals is to argue that Christ only rejects human traditions and not allegedly divine traditions as provided by the Roman church. But if the normal Biblical practice is to reject any secondary explications or traditions, then the burden is on the Roman Catholic apologist to prove that Christ now approves of secondary traditions. In short, the Roman Catholic apologist has the burden of demonstrating that God has now changed His normal practice and established an infallible and authoritative explicator of His Word. If he does not meet this burden, then Christ's condemnation of the Pharisees applies directly to Roman Catholic traditions.
Though the apostles were the legal witness-bearers of Christ, thus making their words the Word of God (cf. Lk. 10:16; I Cor. 2:13; 7:12; 14:37; II Cor. 13:3; I Thess. 2:13; II Thess. 2:15; II Pet. 3:2), they still in practice regularly appealed to written revelation as supreme norm to confute, persuade, and settle differences (Acts 1:20; 2:17ff.; 7; 13:47; 15:16ff.; Rom. 9,10,11; Gal. 3; Hebrews). Like Christ, they do not direct believers to secondary explications or extra-Scriptural Hebrew traditions (though plentiful) as authoritative norms but to examine the Word of God itself (Rom. 15:4; Eph. 6:17; II Tim. 3:16; II Pet. 1:19; Rev. 1:3). Scripture exalts those who examine the written revelation of God ("noble-minded" Acts 17:11) and assumes that God's people have the ability to rightly judge and interpret it apart from an infallible interpreter (II Tim. 2:15; Acts 17:11). Hence, even this cursory review of the teachings of Christ and the apostles suggest that, just like the Old, the New Testament is saturated with the teaching of Sola Scriptura.
Though I maintain that such historical claims are false, this is beyond our current question. Nevertheless, this "unhistorical" objection fails for other reasons. First, even if we grant the truth of the historical claim, the objection still assumes a very truncated view of church history. Most of those who present this argument speak of the church as beginning in the first century, and simply ignore church doctrine in the Old Testament. By narrowing the scope of history, the issue, deceptively, appears to be large. As seen above, if we mark church history from the beginning of covenant history as Scripture itself does, and readily find the doctrine of Sola Scriptura from the very beginning of time, then Roman Catholic teaching is aberrant in the history of redemption, and accordingly should be rejected.
Secondly, the "unhistorical" objection suffers from a common malady in church history; the view that the current age is the peak of church history. Again granting the historical claims of the objection for the sake of argument, Sola Scriptura only appears to be unhistorical if we are very near the end of time. If, however, we have another five thousand or so years to go and the Roman Catholic church dissolves and joyously becomes Reformed in the next one hundred years, then its current teaching is clearly unhistorical. Hence, the "unhistorical" objection fails apart from its dubious historical claims due to a very truncated view of history (on both ends).
Both arguments assume that God cannot or does not authenticate His own Word, apart from some human testimony. This is false as per Hebrews 6:13, but it also belies a very deficient view of God in that, though He is supposedly all sovereign, he requires human testimony to confirm His Word. On a view which better acknowledges the sovereign authority of God, the church did not determine what to include in the canon; it merely recognized the canon inherent in God's Word from the start. By analogy, John the Baptist did not make Jesus the Christ by testifying to Him; he merely recognized Christ's glorious status, and the church later recognized the Shepherd speaking to His people in the Scriptures (John 10:4,16). Moreover, those who raise this objection have yet to demonstrate how their claims for the authority of the church withstand the same objection. Therefore, this general objection does not tell against Sola Scriptura at all.
First, this objection assumes, as many Roman Catholic arguments do, that Biblical unity is identical to institutional unity, as opposed to unity in truth. The Roman Catholic assumption about unity implies that we would be in a superior situation even if we had, for example, one corrupt church, and a hundred fruitful denominations agreeing in doctrine. Secondly, it assumes that the mere exercise of "church authority" genuinely resolves doctrinal differences instead of just judiciously obliterating them. Thirdly, and most importantly, it fails simply because it begs-the-question by assuming the falsity of Sola Scriptura. Sola Scriptura simply precludes the type of institution assumed by the objection. If Sola Scriptura is indeed God's design for His people, then this objection attacks God's plan itself. Hence, this objection should be jettisoned.
In all, then, none of these objections succeeds. They each fall prey to simple fallacies. Though I believe I have met my burden by providing arguments which demonstrate that Sola Scriptura is the teaching and practice of the Old and New Testaments, my next step might be to close out my case by going on to refute Catholic arguments for the claim that God has provided an infallible interpreter to explicate His Word to His people. But such arguments are Mr. Matatics' burden, and so I will await his response for that opportunity.
[2 ] This manner of framing the question in terms of norm instead of source is also the way Roman Catholic apologist Karl Keating discusses the issue (Catholicism and Fundamentalism, [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988], p. 134), though his remarks are otherwise quite inaccurate (e.g., "Anything extraneous to the Bible is simply wrong...." or "The whole of Christian truth is found within its pages" Ibid.).
[3 ] Schroeder, Council of Trent, p. 17.
[4 ] Vatican II, Dei Verbum, 9.
[5 ] For example, Roman Catholic apologist Peter Kreeft claims, "the Catholic Church does not claim to be divinely inspired to add any new doctrines, only divinely protected to preserve and interpret the old ones, the deposit of faith." (Fundamentals of the Faith (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), p. 275.
[6 ] e.g. Keating, Catholicism, p. 136; Kreeft, Fundamentals, p. 275; Scott Hahn in "The Authority/Justification Debate, Scott Hahn vs. Robert Knudsen" (Catholic Answers, P.O. Box 17181, San Diego, CA 92117). Interestingly, Hahn claims that even after several years of struggle he could not find an answer to the question, `Where does Scripture teach Sola Scriptura?' "I even called two or three of my seminary professors...but I didn't come up with a satisfying answer."
[7 ] Kreeft, Ibid.
[8 ] Hahn, "Authority Debate."
[9 ] cf. Oberman, H., The Harvest of Medieval Theology, (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1963); Turretin, F., The Doctrine of Scripture; Locus II of Institutio of Theologiae Elencticae, Beardslee, J. (ed. & trans.), (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1981); Chemnitz, M., Examination of the Council of Trent, Pt. I, Kramer, F. (trans.), (Missouri: Concordia Publ. House, 1971).
[10 ] Some of the objectors appear confused on this point. For example, Kreeft claims that Sola Scriptura is self-contradictory but in fact he only argues that the doctrine is unjustified, not internally contradictory (Kreeft, Fundamentals, p.275). Similarly, Hahn claims that the doctrine is "illogical" but doesn't produce a logical problem inherent in it; instead he raises an epistemological question regarding the formation of the canon. Moreover, some of the objections that could be placed in this category are simply too far from the mark to consider seriously. For example, Marshner ("The Development of Doctrine," Reasons for Hope, [Virginia: Christendom College Press] pp. 177-196) offers a logically detailed argument to refute the alleged Protestant claim that Scripture presents a set of dogmas which have no further implications. Since Protestants, especially in the Westminster Confession tradition, explicitly affirm the very opposite, Marshner's logical detail is all built upon a straw man.
[11 ] Hahn, "Authority Debate."
[12 ] Keating (Catholicism, p. 125ff,) interestingly attempts to offer a non-circular argument to this effect by using a Montgomery/Evidentialist line of reasoning, but he begs-the-question by assuming the truth not only of theism but of Roman Catholicism as well by taking the Scriptures as "purely historical material" and "[f]rom that we conclude an infallible church was founded."
[13 ] Kreeft, Fundamentals, Ibid.
[14 ] My thanks to David Hagopian and Doug Wilson for comments on an earlier version of this essay.