The doctrine (or discipline) of Sola Scriptura is Latin for “Scripture Only” or what many people refer to as the “Bible Alone” doctrine. What it typically means today is a little different than what it was intended to mean 500 years ago when the German Protestant Revolutionary Martin Luther first uttered the phrase. Nevertheless, it is this more modern understanding that I will be dealing with here.
Sola Scriptura (Bible Alone) is commonly understood today as the notion that everything a Christian needs for salvation and holy living is contained solely in the Bible. It is even said that literally everything a Christian needs to please God is contained in the Bible. It goes further than that. It even suggests that if a particular doctrine cannot be found in the Bible, either explicitly or implicitly, it should be rejected as non-Biblical and possibly heretical. Originally, Sola Scriptura only subjugated extra-Biblical doctrines to Scripture, but under this modern interpretation of Sola Scriptura, extra-Biblical doctrines are simply rejected entirely.
Taken to its absolute extreme, Sola Scriptura (Bible Alone) implies that everything that is needed to interpret the Bible is found solely within the Bible, and there is no need to use any other book, study material, historical reference, etc. The reader can know everything he needs to know from the “Bible Alone.” It is from this foundational teaching that all of modern Protestantism (Baptist, Evangelical, Pentecostal, etc.) finds its footing. Granted, not all Protestants are the same, and different Protestants will go about Sola Scriptura a little differently. For example, some may be more extreme in their understanding, while others may be more moderated, but I think it’s safe to say that Sola Scriptura plays a big role in the faith of all Protestants in one way or another. It is also from this same teaching, that some of these Protestants are able to condemn Catholic Christianity as “heretical” and “non-Christian.” This is because about 10% of Catholic doctrine is derived more from Apostolic Tradition than Sacred Scripture.
When a Catholic is called out on a particular Catholic teaching, such as prayer to the Saints, or the doctrine of Purgatory, the common Protestant accusation is: “That’s not in the Bible!” Now, this is what is really happening here. The Protestant is referencing Sola Scriptura. He is effectively saying: “It’s not in the Bible, so it’s not true.” Now, again, that is not what Martin Luther meant by Sola Scriptura when he invented the doctrine. In the classic Lutheran understanding of Sola Scriptura, the Protestant would simply say: “That’s not in the Bible, so I am not required to believe it.” He appealed to Scripture as the “final authority” over extra-Biblical doctrine and that’s it. He used it as a means to nullify those doctrines that he didn’t agree with, so long as he was convinced by the Bible that he didn’t have to believe in them. That understanding has been modified in today’s world. In today’s world, the modern Protestant says: “That’s not in the Bible, so I’m not required to believe it, AND I shouldn’t believe it because it’s extra-Biblical, therefore you shouldn’t believe it either!” See the difference? The classic understanding of Sola Scriptura simply allowed Protestants to reject some Catholic doctrines on a personal level. The modern understanding of Sola Scriptura allows Protestants to condemn them as false and heretical, even going so far as to declare the Church that promotes such doctrines a false Church.
In using this modern understanding of Sola Scriptura, the modern Protestant takes it from a private discipline to a universal doctrine. He is attempting to impose this Protestant Reformation (Revolution) doctrine upon other Christians, indeed ALL Christians, most especially Catholics. The question is, does he have the right to do this?
The classic understanding of Sola Scriptura was a personal one, which allowed Protestants to deflect some of the teachings of Rome while embracing others. For example; a classic Lutheran could embrace the Catholic teaching on Heaven and Hell, but deflect the Catholic teaching on Purgatory and Indulgences. In the old days, a Catholic would say to the Protestant: “You should believe in Purgatory as well as Heaven and Hell.” The Protestant would respond: “I believe in Heaven and Hell because I can find that in the Bible, but I don’t have to believe in Purgatory if I don’t want to, because I can’t find that in the Bible.” Now let’s fast-forward to modern times. The modern understanding of Sola Scriptura is a universal one, which allows Protestants to impose this view on everyone else, especially Catholics, and use it to condemn the Catholic Church. For example; today a Catholic might say to a Protestant: “You should believe in Purgatory as well as Heaven and Hell.” The Protestant might then say in response: “I believe in Heaven and Hell because I can find that in the Bible, but I can’t find Purgatory in the Bible, therefore it is false, and your Church is teaching false doctrine!” Do you see the difference? It’s a pretty big difference. Under the classic understanding of Sola Scriptura, rejection of Purgatory was a personal matter. The Protestant wasn’t required to reject it, but he was able to because Sola Scriptura gave him that personal liberty. Under the modern understanding of Sola Scriptura, rejection of Purgatory becomes a universal matter and mandatory. Not only are all Protestants expected to reject it, but Catholics are called upon to reject it too, and the Catholic Church is condemned for teaching it. So what we see here is a progression on Sola Scriptura from a private discipline to a universal dogma. It is a dogma which its proponents believe ALL CHRISTIANS must submit to is. The question is, does Sola Scriptura deserve that kind of status? Is it really a doctrine that is worthy to be imposed on everyone? That is what many modern Protestants are attempting to do when they challenge Catholics on doctrines that are “not in the Bible.” Truth is, a lot of doctrines Protestants believe to be unbiblical actually can be found in the Bible, but there are about 10% that are based more on Apostolic Tradition than Sacred Scripture. So what should the Catholic think about all of this? Is Sola Scriptura (the “Bible Alone” doctrine) really worthy of belief? Is it worthy to be imposed on all Christians as a universal dogma? Should Catholics subscribe to it? Should Protestants subscribe to it? Should anybody subscribe to it? Is this really something that can honestly be used to condemn the Catholic Church or any church for that matter? Or have modern Protestants overstepped their boundaries by attempting to impose a private discipline on all Christians as a universal doctrine?
Most Protestants tend to believe Sola Scriptura (Bible Alone) is binding upon all Christians. Everything about the logic of Sola Scriptura is sound, except for one thing, the history it’s based on. Let’s start with the history of the Bible itself. Nowhere in the Bible does it actually say to believe in the “Bible Alone.” What I mean by that is the Bible itself never says to only believe things that are found in the Bible. In fact, quite the opposite is true. For example; Saint John tells us in his gospel that Jesus said and did far more things then were actually written down in the Bible (John 21:25). St. Paul the Apostle congratulated the Corinthians for following the “traditions” he had given them (1st Corinthians 11:2) and he told the Thessalonians these “traditions” came by both written letter and word of mouth (2nd Thessalonians 2:15). In fact, there is absolutely nothing in the Bible that says everything we need to know is in the Bible. That idea itself is a man-made tradition. The notion that everything the apostles taught, that is necessary for our salvation, was neatly packaged in a single volume of books, from Genesis to Revelation, is an ideal notion, a tidy concept, but very unbiblical. The Bible itself doesn’t even tell us what books belong in the Bible. That too is a man-made tradition.
That’s right, pull out a Bible and look in the first few pages. There you will find a table of contents. That table is called the Biblical “canon.” There is an Old Testament canon and a New Testament canon. Now, pay particular attention to the New Testament canon of 27 books. Out of the hundreds of Christian books that could be found written in the first century, it was these 27 books that were decided to be worthy of the New Testament of the Christian Bible. Who decided that? Why the Catholic Church of course! way back in AD 367 – 401. It was St. Athanasius of Alexandria, in Egypt, who first came up with the 27-book New Testament canon (Matthew through Revelation) in 367 AD. Later this list was debated by the Catholic synods at Rome, Hippo and Carthage. So that by 401 AD, Pope Innocent declared this to be the official New Testament for all Christians, and all Christians have used this New Testament ever since, even the Protestants.
So from the beginning, the historical facts don’t match the common perceptions. This puts a chink in the armour of “Bible Alone” Christianity. The typical Sola Scriptura (Bible Alone) logic is sound, but history doesn’t match the preconceived notions that logic is based on. So once you know that, Sola Scriptura presents a logical loop that disproves itself. For if you can only believe what is taught in the Bible (Sola Scriptura), and the doctrine of Sola Scriptura is nowhere taught in the Bible, then based on what Sola Scriptura asserts, you can’t believe Sola Scriptura. Why? Because it’s not in the Bible! This is a classic logical loop, but you would never see it unless you knew the history of the Bible and how we got it.
When put to the Biblical test, Sola Scriptura falls flat on its face. The doctrine (or discipline) is itself non-Biblical. I suppose any Christian could use it if he wants to, as a private discipline, but in doing so, he would have to simultaneously admit that other Christians cannot be obliged to do the same. Since Sola Scriptura is itself an extra-Biblical tradition (one that directly seems to contradict Scripture at that), there is no way a practitioner of Sola Scriptura could criticise another Christian for keeping extra-Biblical traditions, even if that practitioner (correctly or incorrectly) assumes such traditions contradict the Bible. To do so would be hypocritical. If a Protestant is keeping the private extra-Biblical discipline of Sola Scriptura (Bible Alone), he cannot honestly criticise Catholics for keeping various other extra-Biblical customs and traditions without himself being a hypocrite. Worse yet, if the Protestant judges that a certain Catholic extra-Biblical tradition contradicts the Bible, he would be a hypocrite expecting Catholics to reject it too. Because after all, you see, the Protestant himself follows a tradition that directly contradicts the Bible — Sola Scriptura. For both the Catholic and the Protestant are keeping extra-Biblical traditions. They just happen to be different extra-Biblical traditions. I would argue, however, that the Catholic traditions are far more in line with what the Bible actually teaches.
Even though the Bible speaks so plainly about some Christian teachings coming from oral traditions, and congratulates Christians for keeping those oral traditions, there are some who would object in a valiant but vain attempt to rescue the Sola Scriptura (Bible Alone) discipline. For example, this Biblical passage from St. Paul’s second letter to Timothy is often cited…
All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness (2nd Timothy 3:16).
Now, this is a wonderful passage, and a good reminder to all of us just how important Scripture is in the life of every Christian — whether Catholic or Protestant. However, I should point out here that the passage specifically says “All scripture…” not “Only scripture…” Had it said the latter, there would seem to be a proof text for Sola Scriptura (Bible Alone) as a doctrine all must follow. Yet it doesn’t say that, does it? It says “All scripture…” and that changes the meaning entirely. The passage is simply an admonition to read the Bible. It is not a proof text for the “Bible Alone” doctrine.
There is, however, one passage I’ve seen used that nearly almost seems to serve as a proof text for Sola Scriptura (Bible Alone) as a doctrine. It comes from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians…
Now, brothers, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, “Do not go beyond what is written.” Then you will not take pride in one man over against another.1 Corinthians 4:6
Now in this English translation of the original Greek manuscript called the “New International Version” (NIV) it would appear on the surface that we have found our elusive proof text for Sola Scriptura. Notice carefully, however, the NIV puts the phrase “Do not go beyond what is written” in quotation marks, and specifically says this is a “saying.” What does that mean? It means it’s an idiom used from the time period, and the NIV translators were unsure of how to translate it, so they just left it, transliterated into quotation marks. The word-for-word translation from Greek into hard English could also read as follows: “do not think beyond the written line,” but that still doesn’t tell us what it means. It is, after all, an idiom, a figure of speech that was apparently common at the time, which had a certain meaning. Thankfully, the NIV is not the only translation out there and other English translations do a far better job picking up the original meaning of this idiom in the context of the subject St. Paul is discussing…
And these things, brethren, I have in a figure transferred to myself and to Apollos for your sakes; that ye might learn in us not to think of men above that which is written, that no one of you be puffed up for one against another (1 Corinthians 4:6 KJV).
But these things, brethren, I have in a figure transferred to myself and to Apollo, for your sakes; that in us you may learn, that one be not puffed up against the other for another, above that which is written (1 Corinthians 4:6 DRB).
And these things, brethren, I have in a figure transferred to myself, and to Apollos, for your sakes; that ye may learn in us not to think of men above that which is written, that no one of you on account of one, may be puffed up against another (1 Corinthians 4:6 WBT).
Dear brothers and sisters, I have used Apollos and myself to illustrate what I’ve been saying. If you pay attention to what I have quoted from the Scriptures, you won’t be proud of one of your leaders at the expense of another (1 Corinthians 4:6 NLT).
I think these particular English translations do a much better job capturing the meaning of what St. Paul was trying to say with that common Greek idiom. The meaning of this passage has nothing to do with limiting one’s religious faith to the Bible Alone. Rather, St. Paul is admonishing the Corinthians not to think proudly of one Church leader over another, which of course fits in nicely with the whole context of the chapter and surrounding passages.
As if not to give up, sometimes the dogmatic proponents of Sola Scriptura (Bible Alone), seeking to make it a binding on all Christians, will grasp for the condemnations, against those who would alter Scripture, which can be found in St. John’s Apocalypse (Revelation 22:18-19). However, this passage pronounces condemnation only on those who try to change the written text of Scripture itself, by adding or deleting various portions and has nothing to do with extra-Biblical traditions outside the Scriptures. Indeed, we have here a clear curse against messing with the Scriptures, which the Catholic Church would never do, but it says nothing about Apostolic Traditions outside the Scriptures.
Finally, we get to the topic of tradition itself. Doesn’t Jesus condemn tradition? Isn’t that something the Jewish leaders of his time were doing? Didn’t Jesus tell his disciples to ignore them? Well, if that’s what you got out of the gospels, I’m afraid you didn’t read them very carefully. You see, if you read the gospels carefully, you’ll see that Jesus did not condemn tradition itself, but rather hypocrisy. In other words, Jesus condemned the scribes and Pharisees for twisting their traditions in such a way that it allowed them to sin, or else failing to keep the very traditions themselves that they required the rest of the people to keep. It was a classic “do as I say and not as I do” thing. You see the scribes and Pharisees were constantly looking for ways to keep the letter of the law while simultaneously breaking its spirit.
Let’s start by looking into what Jesus Christ had to say about the law, traditions and the authority of the religious leaders during his time…
The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice.Matthew 23:2-3
We see here that Jesus fully respects the authority of the scribes and Pharisees, and he commands his disciples to obey the scribes and Pharisees because of their authority. That means Jesus is commanding them to follow their traditions!!! What he is condemning is their hypocrisy. Remember, Jesus was a Jew, and so were all of his disciples at that time. So the scribes and Pharisees have authority over Jews because as Jesus said they “sit in Moses’ seat.” This is an acknowledgement of the concept of succession. The scribes and Pharisees occupied the same position of authority as Moses, because they occupied his seat of authority, meaning they were ordained by a line of secession going back to the times of Moses. Eight chapters prior to this (Matthew 16:18-19) Jesus set up a new line of authority that would have the same power of succession, if not more so since Jesus is greater than Moses. It is in this context that we must look at Jesus’ other sayings about the traditions of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 15:3-14 and Mark 7:9-15). These condemn the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees themselves. He is not condemning their tradition per se’, but the hypocritical men who were abusing it. For if Jesus were condemning tradition as a whole, he sure had a funny way of showing it, what with keeping all of the Jewish traditions himself and then making apostles who commanded Christians to follow their own traditions (1 Corinthians 11:2, 2 Thessalonians 2:15).
I think I’ve laid out here a pretty good case for why the Bible does not stand alone, as in a vacuum, without some kind of outside interpreting context. The doctrine of Sola Scriptura (Bible Alone) was invented in AD 1520 by Martin Luther in response to his own excommunication bull from the pope. It has later been reinterpreted to mean that Christians can condemn as “false” anything that is not specifically taught in the Bible Alone. It has even been used to attack Catholic Christianity as a “false religion” because Catholicism relies on some Traditions that don’t necessarily come from the Bible Alone. Yet the Bible Alone doctrine itself has no basis in Scripture. Furthermore, the Bible is an inanimate book. It can no more interpret itself than read itself. Context can come from Scripture, but it is certainly not limited to it, and it is the reader who interprets, not the book. Therefore, based on its own premise, Sola Scriptura (the “Bible Alone” doctrine or discipline) cannot be binding on any Christian. At best, it is just a private discipline, used by individual Protestants who want to personally reject doctrines they can’t find in the Bible. We can debate whether it is right to do that or not, since the Scriptures seem to tell us authority not only comes from Tradition (1 Corinthians 11:2, 2nd Thessalonians 2:15) but also the Church, which it calls the “pillar and foundation of truth” (1st Timothy 3:15). Yet so long as the Protestant leaves it as a personal matter, without imposing it on others, the only one he potentially brings harm upon is himself. However, once a Protestant attempts to impose this very extra-Biblical, and unbiblical, teaching upon other Christians, he has overstepped his boundaries. He has become far worse than any corrupt pope in the pages of medieval history. For he has attempted to impose an absolute dogma upon ALL Christians, one that has no Biblical merit, contradicts the Scriptures in so many places, and is in actuality a perversion of what the Sola Scriptura discipline originally meant.
Shane Schaetzel is an Evangelical convert to the Catholic Church through Anglicanism and was trained as a catechist through the University of Dayton – a Catholic Marianist Institution. Shane’s articles have been featured on LifeSiteNews, ChurchMilitant, The Remnant Newspaper, Forward in Christ, and Catholic Online. Shane is an author of Catholic books, which can be read here.