Sola Scriptura Debate - Concluding Essay
This is my final essay for the debate. It will consist in commenting on Gerry’s answers to my cross examination, addressing issues that I feel were not adequately covered, and a final thought.
Also, I would like to also thank Gerry for taking the time to go through with this debate, and that I appreciate the mutual respect we have had for each other throughout this debate.
Comments on Gerry’s Cross Examination Answers:
For question #1, I asked Gerry: “What do you believe are the top 3 passages that most strongly teach Sola Scriptura?”
The three passages he gave were: 2 Timothy 3:16f, Matthew 15:1-9, and Romans 15:4, as well as some brief comments as to why he chose these passages.
I asked this question because I felt it would help clarify and settle the issue more decisively. If I (and the audience) know what Gerry considers the “strongest evidence,” we can more easily examine if the doctrine really has biblical merit or not. Clearly, if the “strongest evidence” doesn’t come close to supporting the doctrine, the doctrine is manifestly false since it lacks the necessary evidence.
I will now look at his comments, starting with Romans 15:4 (“For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”). Gerry’s argument is that since only Scripture is mentioned, that only Scripture teaches information regarding salvation. The context of this is Paul quoting an Old Testament lesson on humility and hope. This verse, to me, is more of truism than the laying out a doctrine: it says, in short, that the Scriptures were given to teach us. All sides strongly affirm this. This says nothing about the Scriptures being the only source of information and teaching. Further, Paul is speaking in the past tense here, referring to the OT, not the NT. If Gerry thinks this “strongly” supports Sola Scriptura, he seems to have proven too much, since it would place full sufficiency on the Old Testament alone (ruling out even Paul’s Romans Epistle). I don’t think it is a stretch to say his passage comes nowhere near affirming or supporting the definition of Sola Scriptura.
Gerry didn’t comment much upon his second proof text, Matthew 15:1-9 (paralleled in Mark 15:5-13). He only said “Christ rebuked the Pharisees using Scriptures.” I was disappointed with this response since in my opening essay I commented upon this very text, so Gerry should have interacted with my comments. The fallacy of the argument can be shown in this example: if I rebuked someone using the book of Genesis, would that imply we go by “Sola Genesis”? No. Something can be a source of authority (which the Scriptures are) and yet not be the sole authority. Also, in places like Matthew 19, Jesus notes that some parts of Scripture are no longer binding and not even ideal, and Jesus proceeds to overturn some OT Scripture. This explicitly refutes the notion only Scripture had authority!
Gerry also made note that Christ calls the Scripture the “word of God,” to imply that only the Scripture are such, but this idea is manifestly false since a simple search of the phrase “word of God” in the NT shows the overwhelming majority of the time it refers not to the Scriptures but to the oral preaching of the Apostles (see 1 Thess. 2:13 for a good example).
From the perspective of one looking to know the “strongest” proof for the doctrine, I consider this “strike two” against Gerry’s thesis. Surely a doctrine this important for everyday Christian life should have stronger Biblical support than this. This is a foundational doctrine of the Christian church, and yet at most the support is special pleading. I say this because I cannot emphasize enough how troubling and problematic this is - IF such a doctrine were really true. For a Protestant, I’m sure they’d reject any other doctrine that was built on such flimsy evidence, so why does Sola Scriptura get such a pass?
Not surprising to anyone, the first and foremost piece of evidence Gerry gave was 2 Timothy 3:16-17. Given that I’ve spoken upon this passage extensively throughout this debate, and given that Gerry introduces no new information nor interaction with my exegesis on it, I’m not sure what I can really say. Gerry says it’s the leading proof for Sola Scriptura on three grounds: (1) because it’s nature (God-Breathed), (2) it’s “usefulness” for teaching, and (3) it’s effect on the man of God, making him “thoroughly equipped for all good works”.
Point 1, while true in itself, doesn’t mean it’s the only inspired source of teaching, and to suggest such would by definition deny the Apostle’s and Christ’s oral teaching was not Divinely Inspired. It’s a question-begging fallacy, and a serious jump to conclusions, to go from a general statement to a particular one (e.g. going from Scripture is Divinely Inspired to saying *only* Scripture is Divinely Inspired). Point 2, again while true in itself, doesn’t suggest it is the *only* source for teaching, and in fact uses the term “useful” as opposed to something more forceful. So this means Gerry is hanging most of his argument on point 3, the “full” equipping of the man of God. At this point, even if I were to grant Gerry’s claim is a possible (or even probable) interpretation, we must realize that *this* possibility is the “strongest” bit of evidence Gerry has for this leading and essential Christian doctrine! That said, Gerry has not properly parsed the passage as I have done twice in this debate, nor has he addressed other problems I’ve highlighted such as “pasa graphe” and others, showing why Gerry’s understanding of this text simply doesn’t work. Lastly, even if the Scriptures did make the man of God thoroughly equipped, that in no way suggests *only* the Scriptures could do this or that any other source was inferior. For example, 2 Tim 1:13-14 Paul explicitly tells Timothy that Paul’s personal oral instructions for Timothy were a “pattern of sound teaching” and that Timothy was to guard this by the special protection of the Holy Spirit! Would Gerry really suggest only Scripture was capable of passing on such dear information to Timothy, when Paul says the contrary right here and elsewhere? Another example, at Paul’s conversion he spent many years in the desert alone receiving direct and intimate revelation from the Holy Trinity concerning all salvation history (cf Gal 1:13-18), which not only fully equips any man, it is the highest method of equipping!
Most devastating to Gerry’s appeal to 2 Timothy 3:16-17 is highlighted in the next questions I asked in the cross examination.
For question #2, I asked Gerry: “How do you know what books belong in the Bible?”
As most everyone knows, this is one of the greatest - if not the foremost - difficulties for the Protestant to answer. Gerry’s first words of his response highlight this, when he said: “I know where you're going with this: the Bible does not have an inspired table of contents so if I appeal to an outside source I'm violating Sola Scriptura.” The ramifications are plain: without the canon known, from Scripture, then Sola Scriptura cannot function by definition.
Gerry’s next words were even more telling:
“Well in this present time I know the books in the Bible because somebody taught me. But I don't consider the person who taught me as authoritative. You may conclude that it is by tradition that I know what Scriptures are. In a sense this is true, but I don't go about saying the books in the Bible are this and that because this is what has been taught all throughout generations. Tradition here pertains only to the means of learning what is Scripture, but not establishing the books of the Bible. The Christians of the present time don't need to re-invent the wheel. The question rather becomes how those who first compiled the Bible know which books are to be included?”
This is a plain admission that his knowledge of what books are Scripture came from someone else, and that this can even be called “tradition”. What is disturbing is that he says this “tradition” is neither authoritative nor depends on what has been passed down throughout history. This means that Gerry - by his own admission - is following a non-authoritative and historically independent tradition for the very books he looks to for his salvation! If that’s not a house built on a seriously weak and dubious foundation, I don’t know what is.
Gerry’s other comments are worth quoting in full as well:
“The nature of the Scripture determines which books belonged in the Bible. Since Scriptures are God-breathed it bears a characteristic of God which only those who have a relationship with him can recognize. I have explained this in my rebuttal. This is similar to recognizing a friend even when you are blindfolded. Your friend's non-visual characteristics (e.g. sound, manner of speaking) which you have known due to your relationship will help you recognize him/her.”
This response contains two serious flaws and contradictions with Sola Scriptura. First, no such instructions are given in Scripture as to how to identify which books are Scripture. The Bible gives no definitive criteria for deriving the canon. Second, this method of truth finding is leaving the pages of Scripture, so even if valid and true in itself it violates the definition of Sola Scriptura which teaches one doesn’t need to leave the pages of Scripture to determine such information.
For question #3, I ased: “How do you interpret 2 Thessalonians 2:15?” ["So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions we passed (didasko) on to you, whether by word of mouth or (eite) by letter."]
Gerry’s answer is worth quoting in full:
“As I have explained in my rebuttal, Paul is stating how tradition is taught/passed: orally and in writing. The phrase "by mouth or by letter" is pertaining to "didasko" and not the word tradition. Making it more problematic for you is the conjunction "or" which leaves out room to distinguish tradition. So the actual message is tradition is passed either by speech or in writing.If you say that there is oral tradition which is different from written tradition, then I challenge you to present me those apostolic traditions which I cannot find in Scripture.”
I’m not sure if I’m misreading Gerry’s response or if there is an actual contradiction in it. He says first that tradition is passed orally and written, which I agree with. He then says the phrase “by mouth or by letter” (i.e. oral and written) pertains to “passing” and not to “tradition”. And finally he says “the actual message” is that “tradition is passed either by speech or writing”. The first and last comments seem to contradict his second (that oral and written doesn’t pertain to tradition).
What I consider most important about his response is his last comment: “If you say that there is oral tradition which is different from written tradition, then I challenge you to present me those apostolic traditions which I cannot find in Scripture.”
As I have said in all my past essays, this is actually a major problem for Sola Scriptura, since it must explain what happened to these oral teachings! There are only two options: either these oral teachings were lost, or they were eventually written down in Scripture. The first option is unacceptable, while the second option is the very thing Gerry needs to prove, from Scripture, for Sola Scriptura to stand. As I noted in my opening essay, the burden is on Gerry here, not me. Gerry cannot just assume these traditions were lost or written down, yet that’s precisely what he’s doing.
For question #4, I asked: “How could Jesus, the Apostles, and early Christians practice Sola Scriptura before all the books of Scripture were written?”
Gerry’s response will be broken up and commented upon. First he said:
“The situation is similar of how could Jesus, the apostles, and early Christians pray the rosary (assuming this is permitted by God) if the Marian Mysteries has not been written yet or the cross and the beads have not been stringed together yet.”
In other words, just as one cannot pray the Rosary if all of the material to make and pray it doesn’t exist yet, one cannot practice Sola Scriptura unless all of the books have been written. Here Gerry admits that Jesus, the Apostles, nor the Apostolic Christians practiced Sola Scriptura, since such was a functionally impossible task and doctrine. This admission here undermines any appeal to Matthew 15:1-9 or 2 Timothy 3:16f as a Sola Scriptura proof text, since Gerry admits Sola Scriptura didn’t take place and couldn’t take place at this time. Paul couldn’t have been telling Timothy to practice Sola Scriptura if it was impossible to practice it. Worse yet, this means Sola Scriptura was a novelty doctrine, it only came about in the post-Apostolic Church!
Gerry continued: “Sola Scriptura is temporarily inoperative when God is giving new revelations that were previously not written. Needless to say, Sola Scriptura does not function when there is no Scripture. I don't think this is something you should rejoice about because it is moot and academic. But when God is not giving any revelation, like in our current time, what operates? Christ quoted from Scriptures that were available at that time and held everyone accountable to it.”
Gerry has all but conceded my points and - without realizing it - refuted his own thesis by undermining key points of evidence for his thesis. Does the Bible speak of times when Sola Scriptura would be non-operative? Or is this another unBiblical assumption that Gerry has to make to support the doctrine?
That Christ quoted from the Scriptures and considered them an authority is irrelevant, since that’s not the issue. The issue is whether Sola Scriptura was and could be practiced at the time, to which the answer to that is a clear “No!”. So Christ could indeed quote Scripture as an authority - without ever having to teach, imply, or practice Sola Scriptura!
Most of the rest of Gerry’s argument is irrelevant, since it fails to realize that the *fact* that Sola Scriptura wasn’t operative at those times means none of that revelation could have been teaching the doctrine.
Gerry concludes by highlighting my original point:
“So if you're going to argue that how could Christ practice Sola Scriptura if the Bible has not been completed, then you're arguing in the wrong time frame. It is much like me arguing how could a Jew who was born during the Old Testament times believe in the Second Coming of Christ.”
Again, the answer is that Christ (nor the Apostles and Apostolic Christians) practiced Sola Scriptura since such was impossible at the time. This means any time Jesus or the Apostles told Christians to do something then and there, they could not have been telling them to engage in Sola Scriptura, since that is impossible and the fallacy of anachronism.
My #5 (and final) question to Gerry was: “If you believe there was orally inspired teaching at one point in time, particularly at the time of the Apostles, how do you know this oral teaching was at some point confined to Scripture?”
Gerry responded as follows:
“My friend, it is God who controls what man needs to learn from Him. Listen to what Isaiah 55:10-12 says, As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.It is God who decided what to reveal, when to reveal, and how to reveal his words.”
How does this in any way address the issue of written versus oral teaching, or more specifically, how the oral would someday be confined to written? It doesn’t. The passage is speaking of how God’s Will is always accomplished, and when He “plans a mission” that mission is always accomplished.
Gerry concluded with:
“Your question is like asking how do I know that all apostolic teachings have been contained in Scripture. That would make Paul a liar when he the said the Scripture makes a man thoroughly equipped for all good works if there are teachings not contained therein.”
Yes, Gerry, that is precisely my question! But I don’t think that would make Paul a liar, unless I was *presuming* Paul to be teaching Sola Scriptura in spite of all the evidence against that assumption! It’s funny that Paul would be a liar here if he were telling Timothy to engage in Sola Scriptura when not all of the Bible was written yet. It would be like a mother telling her child to write an essay when the child had only learned part of the alphabet.
All five of these answers by Gerry address the very heart of why Sola Scriptura is false and unbiblical - and in fact a “tradition of men”. Notice how many assumptions and presumptions Gerry has to make for his thesis to stand, when all the while proving such a doctrine should have been as simple as pointing to a single text of Scripture that says something more or less to the effect, “the Scripture is the only and final rule for Christian faith and practice” - yet we all know that no such Apostolic instructions exist.
I as a Christian don’t buy for a second - and cannot buy for a second - that God would have His Church embrace a teaching with such a flimsy foundation.
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt:
Gerry’s task was plain and simple: produce clear Scriptural evidence for the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. I believe Gerry fell way short of proving his thesis on four specific grounds: (a) he did not produce a single, unambiguous text of Scripture for the doctrine, (b) he did not interact with my comments on key Sola Scriptura proof texts, (c) he did not interact with my proof texts for tradition, (d) he did not prove various key assumptions and presuppositions (from Scripture) which he based a lot of his thesis upon.
Some people might understand this debate to be about a “winner” and a “loser” - but I think that way of thinking is misguided. The purpose of this debate is not so much to “win” or embarrass, but to come to the truth on major issues dividing Christians. I don’t believe so much that Gerry as a person “lost” this debate as I think Sola Scriptura as a doctrine was found to be unbiblical (and thus false). In other words, Gerry defended Sola Scriptura as well as a Protestant could, but since the doctrine itself is in fact false, there is in fact no way of proving it true, and any attempts to do so are bound to fail.
When it comes to accepting a doctrine this critical, the Christian must ask themself if they are accepting the doctrine because it’s really taught by Scripture or for some other (unbiblical) reason. And to make matters worse, neither Christ nor the Apostles nor early Christians practiced the doctrine, which makes the demand for Biblical proof all the greater. Without a compelling case for this critical doctrine, the Christian - in good conscience - cannot accept Sola Scriptura.