Debate Resolution: Does the Bible Teach Sola Scriptura?
Affirming: Gerry (Protestant)
Denying: Nick (Catholic)
I want to begin by thanking my opponent, Gerry, for being open to having this debate. We both know just how much hangs in the balance with the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura, so it’s obvious that this doctrine should be a major focus for those trying to see if the Catholic or Protestant side is the correct one.
Before my arguments are made against this foundational doctrine of Protestantism, it is extremely important to accurately represent the doctrine and properly define the parameters of the debate resolution.
(1) The following is a definition of Sola Scriptura that I believe succinctly and accurately reflects how the doctrine is defined according to classical Protestant Creeds and Confessions (for example the Westminster Confession). The doctrine of Sola Scriptura teaches that: the Bible (consisting of 66 books) is the only inspired rule of faith and practice for the Christian today.
Since there is no authority above God, what is divinely inspired by Him is inherently of the highest authority, and this means that all non-inspired authority is subordinate to and must conform to what is above it. Next, for something to be a sole “rule of faith and practice” means it must contain all sufficient information one needs to live by (similar to how the 26 letters of the alphabet are sufficient to write any English word).
(2) Now to define some parameters, to help keep the resolution of this debate in focus and properly determine which side is correct. The following are important factors to keep in mind during this debate:
(a) All evidence for this doctrine must come only from the Bible. It doesn’t matter what any Early Church Father, Theologian, Council, or any other source says about the doctrine; it’s not proven true unless the Bible says so. The resolution seeks to determine if the Bible teaches Sola Scriptura, not whether something else teaches Sola Scriptura. Any argument that is built from the premise “Sola Scriptura doesn’t have to be taught in Scripture to be true” is a self-refuting thesis and is invalid.
(b) The burden of proof is upon my opponent. Since he has chosen to take the affirmative side to this resolution, any argument assuming Sola Scriptura is true until proven false is begging the question and invalid. Further, this also means that Sola Scriptura doesn’t automatically become true just because a given Catholic doctrine is unproven or even false.
(c) A draw is insufficient, and is effectively a loss. Arguing that Sola Scriptura might be true based on some passage, or is a valid option among others, is insufficient. It must be shown that Sola Scriptura is clearly true and the only option.
(d) Both sides agree Scripture is inspired, authoritative, profitable, and to be held in high esteem. These qualities are not unique to the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. For example, arguing that Scripture is “an” authority is agreed upon, but is not the same as arguing Scripture is the “only” authority. This means quoting a passage of Scripture or making a comment that merely echos these sentiments is not proof nor does the resolution depend on it.
(3) Major Proof-texts often cited for Sola Scriptura:
I will now consider the leading proof texts Protestants appeal to:
(a) 2 Timothy 3:16-17. This text, in my opinion, is the leading proof-text by a long shot. The typical Protestant interpretation of this passage is something along the lines of: Since Scripture is God-Breathed (literal Greek of “inspired by God”), and as such holds the highest authority, it is thus fully sufficient for all Christian teaching (“fully equipping the man of God”).
The Protestant interpretation of this passage is implausible for a few major reasons:
(i) The first two words of verse 16, “All Scripture”, are pasa graphe in the Greek language (the language the New Testament was written in). Respected Protestant scholar A. T. Robertson in his famous commentary Word Pictures of the New Testament says this in his entry on this verse:
Every scripture inspired of God is also profitable ([Greek] pasa graph qeopneusto kai wpelimo). There are two matters of doubt in this clause. One is the absence of the article h before graph, whether that makes it mean "every scripture" or "all scripture" as of necessity if present. Unfortunately, there are examples both ways with both pa and graph. Twice we find graph in the singular without the article and yet definite (1 Peter 2:6 ; 2 Peter 1:20). We have pa Israhl (Romans 11:26) for all Israel (Robertson, Grammar, p. 772). So far as the grammatical usage goes, one can render here either "all scripture" or "every scripture."
Based on the Greek grammar of the text, with the word “pasa” generally meaning “every” and “graphe” in the singular meaning “[individual book or verse of] Scripture,” the text most accurately reads “every individual book or verse of Scripture.” It could possibly mean “all Scripture [as a whole],” but that is only a maybe, based on an exception to the general rule. If one doesn’t see the implications of this grammar, the following substitution and analogy should better highlight the problem:
- “Every individual book or verse of Scripture is sufficient” is akin to saying “Every individual letter of the alphabet is sufficient for writing any word.”
- “All Scripture as a whole is sufficient” is akin to saying “All letters of the alphabet, taken together, are sufficient for writing any word.”
Clearly, the first and primary rendering does not fit the Protestant notion of what 2 Timothy 3:16-17 should be saying. If every individual book or passage were sufficient on their own, that would not only be an extremely dubious claim (e.g. thinking the OT book of Obadiah is sufficient), it would be incompatible with the notion that God gave a collection of books to act as a sufficient rule. This means Sola Scriptura is impossible with the primary grammatical reading of 2 Timothy 3:16-17. One might object that the second rendering (“all Scripture [as a whole]”) is a possible Greek rendering, thus the “problem” with the first rendering is irrelevant - but this objection (fallaciously) begs the question, since it is arguing on the basis of “maybe,” and no church dividing issue can be legitimized on the basis of what a passage might mean. (See section 2.c of this essay titled “A draw is insufficient”)
(ii) If for the sake of argument we were to accept “all Scripture as a whole” for this passage, the Protestant reading of this passage only works if it can be reasonably shown that the the term “Scripture” here includes all of the New Testament books and that the New Testament was finished (else Paul would be giving Timothy an impossible command in this verse).
The term “Scripture” (graphe in Greek) is used about 50 times in the New Testament, virtually always referring to the Old Testament as a whole or individual verses or passages of the Old Testament. The only clear exception for any New Testament writing being called “Scripture” is 2 Peter 3:16, speaking of Paul’s Epistles in general as Scripture, but even then that doesn’t tell us which of his writings in specific are included or even if this is what Paul was speaking of to Timothy. (For example: Does 2 Peter 3:16 include Paul's private correspondence to Titus and Timothy? Or what about the 'lost letters' of Paul (e.g. 1 Cor 5:9; Col 4:16) which either were uninspired or are speaking of some other NT work?) Given this, Paul could very well have simply been speaking of only the Old Testament at this point, which doesn’t help the Sola Scriptura case for similar reasons as given in (i) above.
There is no evidence that Christ or the Apostles practiced Sola Scriptura themselves, but this is only natural if all the Bible was not finished yet. Protestant apologist James White agrees with this and explains the situation (in his article “A Review and Rebuttal of Steve Ray’s Article, Why the Bereans Rejected Sola Scriptura.”):
The main element of [Catholic apologist] Mr. Ray's misrepresentation of sola scriptura can be seen in just this: the doctrine speaks of a rule of faith that exists. What do I mean by this? One will search high and low for any reference in any standard Protestant confession of faith that says, "There has never been a time when God's Word was proclaimed and transmitted orally." You will never find anyone saying, "During times of enscripturation—that is, when new revelation was being given—sola scriptura was operational." Protestants do not assert that sola scriptura is a valid concept during times of revelation. How could it be, since the rule of faith to which it points was at that very time coming into being? One must have an existing rule of faith to say it is "sufficient." It is a canard to point to times of revelation and say, "See, sola scriptura doesn't work there!" Of course it doesn't. Who said it did?
What is important to point out, as many have done, is that James White has effectively conceded Sola Scriptura (especially via 2 Timothy 3:16f) is functionally impossible and thus false. Since 2 Timothy 3:16-17 applied during a "time of enscripturation," it couldn't have been teaching Sola Scriptura without falling into the fallacy of anachronism (that is, reading back into a text a historically impossible detail). The truth is, the Protestant can only speculate as to when the last NT book was written and when. Many NT Scholars actually say Revelation was the last book to be written.
(iii) The term “sufficient” doesn’t actually appear in 2 Timothy 3:16, and rather the term is actually "profitable" (which is a much ‘weaker’ term). A Protestant might read the text as 'Scripture is [or must be] sufficient to fully equip the Man of God', but that’s a jumping to conclusions and improperly parsing (i.e. splitting up) the text. The passage should be taken in two couplets:
- Verse 16: Scripture is profitable towards Four Ends (i.e. teaching, correcting, rebuking, righteousness)
- Verse 17: these Four Ends (fully) equip the Man of God
In the end, the burden of proving Sola Scriptura from 2 Timothy 3:16-17 is too grand for a foundational doctrine which Christ and the Apostles allegedly wanted to covey to Believers.
(b) Acts 17:11. It is often claimed that the Bereans of Acts 17 exemplified the teaching of Sola Scriptura since they “examined the Scriptures daily” to see if Paul’s teaching was indeed “biblical”.
This proof-text suffers from similar problems to that of 2 Timothy 3:16-17, discussed above; it makes fallacious appeals to emphasis and content of the use and function of “Scripture” here. First of all, the context is essential here (verses 1-5, 10-12):
Now when they [Paul and Silas] had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, "This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ." And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. But the Jews were jealous, and taking some wicked men of the rabble, they formed a mob, set the city in an uproar [ ... ... ] The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men.
The context indicates Paul had a custom for his evangelizing: he would go into a new town, enter the local synagogue, and point to Old Testament prophecy and link the Messiah’s life, death, and resurrection as well as the identity to the man named “Jesus”. Here the Scriptures were the Old Testament only, and were used in conjunction with Paul’s inspired Apostolic oral teaching (i.e. the OT didn’t provide key details nor did it identify the Messiah as “Jesus”). The key in verse 11 is that the Bereans were “more noble” than the Thessalonians because they didn’t cause a riot and were open to Paul’s message, this includes being open to patiently looking at the Scriptural prophecies. They were not “more noble” because they looked to “scripture alone” (while the others looked to “more than Scripture”). The context is not about turning to Scripture to prove or find the answer to all essential doctrines of Christian faith and practice; that’s beyond the scope and intent of the narrative. This proof text needs to take into account section 2.d of this essay.
(c) 1 Corinthians 4:6. The phrase “do not go beyond what is written” is taken by some to mean ‘do not go outside the pages of Scripture for your doctrines’.
A surface level reading of this text could give off that impression if one is predisposed to finding proof for Sola Scriptura, but context won’t allow the passage to be twisted towards those ends. The context, starting as early as chapter 1, is about Paul chastising the Corinthian Christians for their prideful boasting and culminates with the passage in question:
I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another.
Historically, major Reformers didn’t appeal to this text for establishing Sola Scriptura, and here is an example from John Calvin's Corinthians Commentary on this verse:
"The clause above what is written may be explained in two ways — either as referring to Paul’s writings, or to the proofs from Scripture which he has brought forward. As this, however, is a matter of small moment, my readers may be left at liberty to take whichever they may prefer."
Clearly, Calvin saw nothing of any pressing concern about this passage, and gives two possible meanings: Paul was speaking of heeding his warnings in his own writing or Paul simply was telling them to heed the warnings of the OT citations in the previous 3 chapters. While both options are plausible, neither option comes anywhere close to suggesting Sola Scriptura.
The context has nothing to do with turning to “scripture alone” or of adding on other rules of faith. Further, later on in places like 1 Corinthians 11:2, Paul tells them to hold onto the traditions he gave them, which wouldn’t make sense if he was teaching Sola Scriptura earlier on. And as with the previous proof-texts, the reference here to “what is written” certainly didn’t include the full canon, making Sola Scriptura functionally impossible at this point in time (cf. section 3.a.ii).
Simply examining the context, the point of the verse is Paul is saying he inserted his name and Appolos' into the lesson on humility he gave in chapters 1-3 so as not to point any fingers at the true culprits and to curb the Corinthian pride (4:6a). For the Corinthians to exalt themselves beyond what Paul wrote in chapters 1-3, especially the OT texts against pride and worldly wisdom (4:6b), is to act outside of the acceptable boundaries of Christian humility (4:6c).
(d) John 20:30-31. This verse is taken to mean that even though Jesus did and said many things, only what was sufficient for salvation was written down, and thus Scripture Alone is all that the Christian needs.
Turning this into a Sola Scriptura proof-text ends up proving too much, for it would be saying the Gospel of John was sufficient for Christian faith and morals. Further, since it is only speaking of believing in Jesus, it would be reducing the function of Scripture from a rule of faith to a single instruction: believe in Jesus. While all agree that the one thing absolutely essential for salvation is believing in Jesus, which is the point of this passage, that is a far, far cry from saying the Scriptures are the sole and sufficient rule for Christian faith and morals.
(e) Matthew 4:1-11. The argument is that since Jesus turned only to Scripture and quoted it as the highest authority, that Sola Scriptura must be true.
This argument fundamentally fails for the reason explained in section 2.d, that simply extolling Scripture or quoting it as an authority is insufficient grounds to jump to Scripture being the only inspired authority. Further, Jesus Himself never engaged in or was bound to Scripture alone, for to suggest such is both anachronistic and heretical (since Jesus instituted new teachings even overturning old ones, see Matthew 5 for many examples).
(f) Mark 7:5-13. It is often claimed that here Christ definitively rejected tradition in favor of Scripture alone.
This reading is very problematic for a variety of reasons. First of all, the “tradition” Jesus condemned was a human tradition, not inspired tradition which the Apostles passed on before any NT writings came into being. These “traditions of men” were condemned precisely because they overturned other commandments of God, not even simply because they were “traditions”. These “traditions of men” were more akin to something resembling Sola Scriptura than anything else, for the “tradition” condemned here was having one Scripture trump another, namely the command to stay true to your donation vow (Numbers 30:2) with the command to honor and support your parents. Jesus only condemned two traditions, the “Corban Rule” and the “Unwashed Hands”, which is hardly a warrant for saying Jesus condemned tradition in general.
In short, this passage was not a blanket condemnation of any and all tradition by any means, yet that is precisely the oversimplified definition one must project onto the chapter for it to support Sola Scriptura.
(3) Scriptural evidence against Sola Scriptura:
I will now give some evidence, including from Scripture, that actually contradicts Sola Scriptura. While it is enough to simply refute any alleged proof-texts in favor of the resolution, a positive case against Sola Scriptura will help to further refute the resolution:
(a) Christ nor the Apostles engaged in Sola Scriptura. In section 3.a.ii it was shown why Christ and the Apostolic Church couldn’t go by Sola Scriptura, the Bible wasn’t complete yet. All throughout the Gospels, Christ is introducing new doctrines and information that wasn’t written down (until later) and the same can be said of the Apostolic preaching throughout most of Acts. Also, Christ never told the Apostles to write anything down nor that He would leave a book behind for future generations.
(b) The canon. The Protestant position presupposes what books belong in Scripture, without sufficient Biblical evidence. Without the (proper) canon of Scripture, Sola Scriptura cannot function. To argue something along the lines of ‘Matthew is inspired because it was written by the Apostle Matthew’ is already leaving the pages of Scripture. This kind of information can only ultimately come from inspired Oral Teaching.
(c) The Word of God. While many mistakenly think the phrase “word of God” refers to the Bible, the fact is the phrase “word of God,” as used in Scripture, most often refers to the oral teachings of the Apostles, especially in reference to the Gospel. Texts such as 1 Thessalonians 2:13 say this “word of God” is explicitly the oral teaching of the Apostles. For Sola Scriptura to work, it would have to be shown that this oral teaching was eventually (sufficiently) written down, but the Bible never says this.
(d) The Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15). The Council of Jerusalem didn’t appeal to Scripture in any way akin to how Sola Scriptura operates. There was a major doctrinal controversy, but rather than turn to Scripture, the Apostles made an authoritative ruling. The only quote from Scripture the Council turned to was a generalized Old Testament prophecy that didn’t touch directly upon the issue of circumcision. The Church acted infallibly when it issued the decree “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (15:28), and made these teachings binding on all(16:4), which rules out Sola Scriptura by definition.
(e) 2 Thessalonians 2:15. This texts tells us to hold onto the traditions the Apostles passed on whether they came in oral or written format. This indicates the presence of oral as well as written teaching from the Apostles, explicitly refuting Sola Scriptura. The context of this verse is very much is that of a “rule of faith” scenario, explaining this all pertains to the Gospel and salvation.
(f) Jude 1:14-15. In St Jude’s Epistle, he quotes a prophecy of the Old Testament Patriarch Enoch. While some would say Jude was quoting an apocryphal source, this doesn’t do justice to the fact this is an inspired prophecy kept for centuries. What is more accurate is that this was a truly inspired prophecy uttered by Enoch, but it was never written down and was rather passed on orally. The same thing can be said in regards to Jude 1:9 and St Michael the Archangel. This obviously disproves the notion of Sola Scriptura.