Sola Scriptura is the belief that the Bible alone is the Word of God written and the ultimate authority in matters of faith and practice. But Roman Catholicism and cults such as Mormonism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses deny that the Bible alone is our ultimate authority. Catholicism believes that the sacred tradition of the church is equal in authority to Scripture. Mormonism proclaims that God has spoken through its prophets and Jehovah’s Witnesses claim that the teaching authority of their organization is to be followed without question. This article will examine some of the most common arguments used against the sufficiency of Scripture and demonstrate that they do not disprove the Protestant belief that the Bible alone is our ultimate authority now that the canon is closed.
The most commonly cited verse used to argue against sola Scriptura is 2 Thessalonians 2:15: “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.” The argument then goes, “The traditions of the apostles were taught to the church in both a written form and through the oral tradition of the church. The church’s oral tradition is passed down through the centuries as 2 Timothy 2:2 states: ‘And what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.’ Only the Catholic Church has this oral tradition which proves that it is the true church.” But the false assumption that is being made in this argument is that “our spoken word” in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 is equivalent to the Catholic concept of oral tradition. And even if this verse does disprove sola Scriptura, it would not prove the truthfulness of the Catholic Church’s oral tradition or its claims about the papacy. In the context of 2 Thessalonians 2:15, the traditions Paul is talking about are not teachings found outside of the pages of the Bible, but the truths of the entire chapter of 2 Thessalonians 2 about the man of sin and the truths of the gospel in verses 13-14. Paul communicated this one body of traditions in two different ways: his preaching in person while in Thessalonica and in his letters which include 1 and 2 Thessalonians. This tradition includes admonitions against idleness which he makes reference to later in the letter: “Keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us” (2 Thess 3:6). The message Paul preached among them and what he wrote in his letters is one and the same. The traditions of the apostles are not teachings found outside the pages of the Bible, but are the very words of the apostles as found in their letters.
Paul’s preaching or oral tradition was binding on the Thessalonians because he was an apostle commissioned by Christ himself. But because there are no more apostles alive today, no one has the authority of an apostle to speak on behalf of God and write Scripture. And we have an obligation to test those who call themselves apostles (Rev 2:2). And how do we test them? – by comparing their teachings to the traditions of the apostles. And how do we know what the traditions of the apostles are? – by reading the writings of the apostles found in Scripture. When the early church fathers make reference to “the traditions of the apostles,” they are talking about the writings of the apostles in Scripture. We are called to compare what those who claim to be followers of Christ teach with what the apostles taught. This includes both their teaching and their way of life (Matt 7:15-18). If what they teach is contrary to doctrines already established in Scripture, then we must follow Scripture instead of them (Matt 15:9; Acts 17:11). To give one example of how this principle is applied, the Roman Catholic Church teaches that Christians and Muslims worship the same God (Catechism 841). But 1 John 2:23 says, “No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.” But Muslims reject the crucifixion of Christ, his resurrection, that he is God, and the Trinity. Because Muslims deny the Son, they do not have God as their Father (John 1:12). Confessing Christ as Lord and believing in his resurrection are essential for salvation (Rom 10:9-13). The Catholic Church has completely redefined what “Outside the Church There Is No Salvation” means.
Another argument used against sola Scriptura is based on Matthew 23:2-3: “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.” It is argued that Moses’ seat is where authoritative oral tradition was given and the papacy is the New Testament equivalent of the seat of Moses. But the reason why Jesus instructs them to listen to those who sit in Moses’ seat is because that is where the law of Moses was read. They must listen to it and obey it because the words of Moses in the Torah are the words of God (2 Tim 3:16). But Jesus did not have a high view of the oral traditions of the Pharisees (Matt 15:1-14). Why would Jesus want those who were listening to him to follow the oral traditions of the Pharisees when he had just rebuked them for their unbiblical traditions?
A common argument used against sola Scriptura is the myth of 30,000 Protestant denominations. Catholics regularly argue that sola Scriptura results in chaos and that is the reason why there are thousands of Protestant denominations. But the argument that there are thousands of Protestant denominations is based on a misunderstanding of Oxford’s World Christian Encyclopedia. When it speaks of “denominations,” it is defining the term as any independent jurisdiction, not how we normally define the term denomination. That is why the same book lists over 200 Catholic “denominations.” Instead, the book uses the phrase “faith tradition” to describe what we normally think of as a denomination. When it comes to real denominations, it lists 21 Protestant faith traditions and 16 Catholic traditions. The real reason why there are so many Protestant denominations is because many people interpret the Bible through the lens of human tradition rather than allowing the Bible to speak for itself. If every Protestant truly followed sola Scriptura, all Protestants would be united because the Bible does not contradict itself.
The burden of proof in the debate over the sufficiency of Scripture is on those who deny sola Scriptura. Just as the burden of proof is on a Mormon to prove that the Book of Mormon is inspired Scripture, the burden of proof is on the side of the Catholic Church to prove that their tradition is equal in authority to Scripture. Because they cannot prove that the traditions of the Catholic Church are equal in authority to the Bible, they must shift the burden of proof from themselves to Protestants. For more information on sola Scriptura, see William Webster and David T. King’s three volume work Holy Scripture: The Ground and Pillar of Our Faith.