Why sola scriptura doesn't work (CCC 80-90, 100) Church Fathers

What is sola scriptura?

Sola scriptura is Latin for “scripture alone” and is a “doctrine” of many Protestant faith communities. The word “doctrine” is placed in inverted commas because it is not a formal doctrine as the Catholic Church understands or defines it; it has a number of differing interpretations and applications among the myriad Protestant denominations. Very few Protestant communities agree on precisely what the doctrine means, but there is a broad consensus of its meaning.

Sola scriptura refers to the notion that the Bible alone is the sole source of authority for Christians and the sole source of Christian doctrine. It also includes, inevitably, the notion that the Bible is self-authenticating as inspired and that the doctrines obtained by the sola scriptura approach are repeatable and obvious. It is these two inevitable features, and some others, which we will concentrate on when refuting sola scriptura.

The Bible doesn't say it

One of the major arguments against sola scriptura is that the Bible itself does not say anywhere in its 73 books that it is totally sufficient for Christians. If the Bible were totally sufficient then all the information regarding Christianity (including what information should be used to determine what is Christianity) should be in the Bible. But we do not find this information anywhere in the Bible – there are only one logical conclusion – the Bible is not the sole source of Christian teaching.

Ah, but it does!”

Many Protestants will eagerly quote a number of Scripture passages which seem to give the impression that the Bible is the sole rule of faith – but these passages do not actually say that. The most commonly quoted is II Timothy 3:16-17; “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be equipped, prepared for every good work”. On the face of it this verse can seem to suggest that sola scriptura is a valid argument – but it is not.

The word used is “profitable”, not “sufficient”. It is certainly true that reading the Scriptures can lead to a man being “prepared for every good work” - but this does not mean that just the Scriptures are needed. The most that this verse says is that the Scriptures are useful and that they are possibly essential – but that is not the same thing as sufficient. This is another example of Protestant “Either / Or” theology.

In addition, few Protestants read these verses in context – when the passage II Timothy 3:14-17 is read it is clear that Saint Paul is reminding Timothy to remember what he learned and from who he learned it, and also to stick to the Scriptures which he “knew from childhood”.

This passage shows two things – firstly, Paul is advocating the following of Tradition. And, secondly, Paul is revealing what he means by “Scriptures” - he means the Old Testament, the Seputagint as it was known. Timothy is urged to read the Scriptures which he has known all his life – the New Testament did not exist when Timothy was a child, the only Scriptures were the Jewish Scriptures. So, if this verse shows sola scriptura it in fact shows sola Old Testament – the New Testament should be abandoned. But, if we abandoned the New Testament, we wouldn't have this verse – so we wouldn't need to abandon the New Testament!

Another verse often cited is John 20:31 which says why that book was written – but saying why something was written is not the same as saying it is sufficient and nothing else is needed. For example, a hammer exists to help with carpentry – but a hammer is not sufficient for carpentry. The Scriptures were written “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (II Timothy 3:16) and this is why we read them. But they are not sufficient, nor should they ever be thought of in that way.

Protestants may quote a number of other verses from the Bible – pretty much any one which mentions Scripture and writing – and attempt to say that this verse defends sola scriptura. In every case the verses do not – there are literally no verses which defend sola scriptura. The Catholic apologist should look at verses very carefully, always reading the Bible as it is supposed to be read, and will then be able to determine what the verse actually means.

Historical arguments against sola scriptura

The history of the Bible shows, very clearly, that the Church was the organization who made the Bible and that the Church is older than the Bible. The Bible itself shows that there were Christians before a word of the New Testament was written – the whole of the book of Acts, for example, describes the early life of the Church from the Ascension of Jesus onwards. There is no doubt whatsoever that these people were Christians.

However, these people cannot have had a copy of the New Testament – the last book of the New Testament was written around 100 AD. Before that date no Christian could have had a complete “Bible” as we understand it today. If the Bible is the “sole source of Christian teaching and knowledge” as sola scriptura claims, how can these people have been Christians? Peter, Paul, James, John and Andrew never saw a complete modern Bible – what they had was the Old Testament Scriptures and the preaching and Tradition of the Church.

Arguments against sola scriptura stemming from Bible ownership

It is a simple truth that not all Christians have a Bible – in many places in the world not everyone can read, and certainly not everyone can afford a Bible. Historically, this was certainly the case – before the advent of cheap printing Bibles were very expensive (the equivalent of $100,000 in today's money!) and few people had them. Is it the case that these people were not Christians?

The claim that Christianity is “the Bible and nothing but the Bible” is a very modern, privileged Western notion – based on the ease of access to the Bible, affluence and literacy. Many Protestants simply have no idea about the historical facts of Christianity and how – for centuries – the Bible simply was not read by the common man because he could not afford to buy one or because he could not read.

Arguments against sola scriptura stemming from the Biblical canon

As mentioned in the articles concerning the history of the Bible and the deuterocanonical books, the Catholic Church determined which books belonged in Sacred Scripture. Even if the Protestant does not accept this, if sola scriptura is true then the list of which books belong in the Bible is of vital importance. Without this list, the Christian could never be sure if he has all the books that contain the truth of Christianity, of indeed if he has any books which he should not have. But this list – however it was arrived at – is not part of the Bible. There is no list of inspired books in the Bible, and even if there were such a list, how could it be proven this list itself is correct? In all cases an external authority is needed to verify the Bible as accurate and inspired – that authority is the Church.

Arguments against sola scriptura stemming from Protestant disagreements

Not all Protesants agree with the doctrine of sola scriptura, although many do. But virtually no Protestants agree with each other on what the Bible means – this is why there are over 35,000 different denominations of Protestants, each with their own interpretation of the Bible.

If sola scriptura is true then it must be possible to read the same passage of the Bible and always get the same conclusion concerning what the appropriate teaching is. There are some teachings in the Bible which are explicit and reasonably clear – for example “Thou shalt not kill” in Deuteronomy 5:17 – but there are many verses which are much less clear. The inclusion of “water” in John 3:5 is interpreted by some Christians as a teaching on baptism, and by others as a reference to the amniotic fluid of birth.

If sola scriptura were true, would not the whole Bible be very clear and easy to understand? Would not the Scriptures be written in plain and simple language, and in fact all be written as a form of Catechism containing many “Thou shalts” and “Thou shalt nots”.

But this is not what we see – Saint Peter himself says that the Bible can be hard to understand in II Peter 3:16. Because different Christians have different interpretations of the Bible it cannot be self authenticating. This means that it must have an external source of authority in order to be correctly interpreted. That source of authority is the authority which wrote and assembled the Bible; she is the authoritative Catholic Church.

Arguments against sola scriptura from simple logic and reason

The Bible is a book – it is an inspired and holy book, but it is still a book. Books are made up of words, not meanings. A meaning only exists when an intelligent, thinking being reads the words and interprets what they might mean. For example, the words “The cat is blue” have no meaning until someone reads them and interprets them to mean that there is an animal of a particular sort which has fur which is a particular color. But those words could be interpreted in a number of ways – the word “cat” might mean a little housecat, or possibly a much larger cat like a panther or cougar. The word “cat” could even be slang – some people call their friends and associates “cats”, for example. The word “blue” could refer to a color of fur, but could also mean something else – it might mean the cat is unhappy, for example.

When we ask someone “What does the book say?” we do not always want them to simply quote the words to us – we want them to tell us what the words mean. That is a person's interpretation. If we are not given a person's interpretation, we have to provide our own – or choose someone else's. We have no way of reading a book without an interpretation – it is just impossible.

That interpretation is external to the book – and is external to the Bible. As Christians we can either choose to go with out own interpretation (which is wrong as is made clear in II Peter 1:20) or we can choose someone else's. The only person who has the authority to determine what is the correct interpretation of Scripture is the Catholic Church.

Arguments against sola scriptura from the Bible itself

Of course, those who believe in sola scriptura may not be impressed by any argument which uses anything other than the Bible as a source – fortunately, in addition to not supporting sola scriptura, the Bible is also dismissive of it.

I Corinthians 11:2, II Thessalonians 2:15 and 3:16 all give explicit instructions to follow Traditions which were passed on. These are clearly oral Traditions as well as those in letters or other Scriptures. A number of non-Catholics cite verses such as Matthew 15:3, Mark 7:9 and Colossians 2:8 which condemn tradition – but this refers to the man-made traditions which are detrimental to the truth of Christianity. The Bible tells us to follow the apostolic Traditions which are handed on from Jesus Christ. These Traditions are part of revelation – and some of them made their way into Sacred Scripture (as is said in Luke 1:1-4).

It is clear from John 21:25 that the Bible does not record everything that Jesus said and did. In Acts 20:35 Paul records a saying of Christ's not found anywhere in the Gospels – where did he get this from if he did not get it from a source outside the Bible (such as being told it by one of the apostles)? Why would he refer to this saying if he did not expect his readers to accept the fact that sayings of Christ not recorded in the Gospels can be used (the very opposite of sola scriptura)? In Matthew 28:20 Christ commands us to obey all His commands – how can we obey all His commands without going outside the Bible if not everything He taught is in the Bible?

The Bible is full of examples of preaching being the foundation of the Christian faith – II Timothy 1:13, 2:2, I Peter 1:25, Romans 10:17, I Corinthians 15:1-2 and Mark 16:15. All of these are clear verses which show that the first proclamation of Christ was oral – it was preaching, preached by the Church and handed on as Traditions. Eventually, some of that preaching was written down and formed the Bible – but the core of the Christian faith has never been a book. It has been the word which will never pass away (Mark 13:31) – it is made very clear that that word is the word preached (I Peter 1:25).

A Distinction Without A Difference – Solo or Sola?

A modern phenomena is the claim among certain Protestants that sola scriptura does not mean “scripture alone”, but rather it means the Bible is the only infallible authority, but there are other authorities (such as the body of believers) which are authoritative, but not infallibly so. These individuals claim sola scriptura recognizes these other authorities, but solo scriptura does not. This is a spurious and, frankly, ridiculous argument for several reasons.

Firstly, solo scriptura is simply bad Latin, and was never used by the Reformers. It is cod-Latin at best; the correct word is sola. There is nothing in the word “sola” which implies only the Bible has a particular charism or quality; the word means the Bible stands alone, without anything else.

Secondly, none of the Reformers taught anything like the modern interpretation of sola scriptura – what they taught was what the modern individuals call solo scriptura, and which they called sola scriptura. It is a lie to claim Luther et al taught the modern notion of sola scriptura, and not the modern solo scriptura.

Thirdly, sola and solo scriptura are completely identical. If an authority is not authoritative, then what is the point of it? If it can be disregarded, then what weight does it carry? The answer is it carries none – which is precisely the claim of sola scriptura!

As mentioned above, the Bible is a book and must be interpreted – and that interpretation is outside of the Bible. The modern definition of sola scriptura claims these interpretations are not infallible – which means anyone can make one, and no-one else's has to treated with respect unless the person wishes to agree with it. That is, ultimately, precisely the same as the traditional, and correct, definition of sola scriptura.