Wednesday, January 10, 2018

How To Argue For Sola Scriptura

Something I recently wrote in response to a Facebook message:

In disputes over sola scriptura like the one you're referring to, it's helpful to start by considering the larger context. That way, we have a better idea of what's at stake, what our priorities should be, and so forth.

The two biggest critics of sola scriptura within professing Christianity are Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Given the lack of evidence for those groups and the evidence we have against their claims (, their authority structures aren't the most reasonable alternatives to sola scriptura. If we were to reject sola scriptura, it wouldn't make sense to become Catholic or Orthodox. Rather, the most reasonable alternative to sola scriptura would be to add material to scripture that's of a significantly different nature than what Catholicism and Orthodoxy add to scripture. If we were to conclude that some of the extrabiblical traditions of Papias and Irenaeus should be added to scripture, for example, that wouldn't be equivalent to Catholicism or Orthodoxy. If sola scriptura is false, the alternative would be far closer to Protestantism than to Catholicism or Orthodoxy. Debates over sola scriptura are often framed in terms of choosing between Protestantism, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, either Catholicism or Orthodoxy. But those aren't the only choices. And the most plausible alternatives to sola scriptura are much closer to Protestantism than they are to the two alternatives to Protestantism that are most often discussed. While there's a lot at stake in choosing between Protestantism and Catholicism, there wouldn't be so much at stake in choosing between Protestantism and a belief system in which all that's added to scripture is something like an extrabiblical tradition of Papias concerning premillennialism. We should keep in mind that accepting a Christian rule of faith that adds material to scripture isn't equivalent to accepting Catholicism or Orthodoxy.

Having said that, the primary question here isn't what our rule of faith should have been in early church history, if we had been alive then. Rather, the central question is what our rule of faith should be today. The passage you cited from Robert Sungenis refers to how the meaning of scripture doesn't change over time. But the application does change. The fact that the Corinthians possessed the letter Paul refers to in 1 Corinthians 5:9 doesn't prove that we possess it today. The fact that the Thessalonians heard Paul teach orally doesn't prove that we've heard Paul teach orally today.

People who were alive in Tertullian's day and shortly afterward would have had not only a canon of Tertullian's writings, but also would have heard Tertullian speak in some cases, would have had access to some reliable oral traditions about what Tertullian said, etc. But those of us who are alive today don't have access to all that people had access to in those earlier contexts. Few, if any, people today would go beyond the writings of Tertullian that are extant. The fact that people who lived around Tertullian's time had heard him speak and had reliable oral traditions about what he'd said doesn't prove that we today have those resources. We don't. What I'm saying about Tertullian is applicable to other historical figures as well. That includes Biblical figures, like Jesus and the apostles.

I don't think the Bible directly, explicitly teaches sola scriptura. Rather, I think sola scriptura is an implication of Biblical teaching. We limit ourselves to scripture for reasons similar to why we limit ourselves to the extant writings of Tertullian and other historical figures. I've discussed some of the evidence leading to the conclusion of sola scriptura at Triablogue. For example:

I don't think 2 Timothy 3:15-17 is saying that Timothy or anybody else at that time should have abided by sola scriptura. Rather, when we combine 2 Timothy 3 with what other sources tell us about scripture and what we know about other factors involved (e.g., ecclesiology), we arrive at the conclusion of sola scriptura. The fact that oral apostolic teaching, reliable oral traditions of what Jesus taught, and such existed at the time of 2 Timothy 3 doesn't tell us whether we have access to that material today. Similarly, Adam and Eve didn't have scripture, Abraham didn't have the Catholic magisterium, we today don't possess the letter Paul refers to in 1 Corinthians 5:9, etc. There's no reason to think the rule of faith must be or has been the same throughout history or throughout church history in particular.

Since people often confuse categories when discussing these issues, keep in mind that sola scriptura is about how we should view scripture in a particular context. The sola applies in that context, not others. The fact that scripture should be alone in one context doesn't mean that it should be alone elsewhere. Sola scriptura is about the content of our rule of faith. It doesn't follow that if we use means outside of scripture to identify our rule of faith, interpret it, apply it, argue for it, etc., then we've violated sola scriptura. What the content of our rule of faith should be is a distinct issue from how we identify that rule, interpret it, and so on.


  1. Sungenis used to be a popular Catholic apologist. Graduate of WTS. Went to the effort of getting the Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur for Not By Scripture Alone. But as a RadTrad, he's become alienated from the sect he defends as the One True Church®. He's too Catholic for the pope. Classic dilemma for a conservative Catholic apologist these days.

  2. I mentioned on your Facebook page, but the implications of Mark 7 are very much that Sola Scriptura should be operative but it takes a little bit of work and background information to bring the implications out.