The sufficiency of Scripture, or sola Scriptura, is often a focal point of attack by Rome’s apologists, which is understandable, since the Bible alone is a big blow to Catholicism. Thus, there’s a need to be enlightened about this fundamental doctrine.
What is Sola Scriptura?
The term “sola Scriptura” is an oblative from Latin meaning “by Scripture alone.” The doctrine states that the Scriptures alone are sufficient to function as the rule of faith for the church. In essence, all that one must believe to be a Christian is found in Scripture and in no other source. Consequently, the Scriptures are not in need of any supplement and its authority is as a result of its nature as God-breathed revelation. The Bible’s authority is not dependent upon man, church or council. Therefore, the Scriptures are self-interpreting, self-consistent and self-authenticating. This is a historic, orthodox principle of Bible Christianity.
Sola Scriptura is different from prima Scriptura, which states that the Scriptures are understood by traditions, reason, or experience. Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox have this habit of misrepresenting sola Scriptura as “taking the Bible as the only authority” or “holding to the Bible alone as our guide.” That is solo Scriptura, not sola Scriptura. Sola Scriptura is taking the Scriptures as the only infallible authority and the only infallible standard of truth and morals. It does not mean that one cannot appeal to history, tradition, councils or reason in arriving at truth, rather, the Scriptures alone carry the highest authority.
What Sola Scriptura is Not:
1. It is not a claim that the Bible contains all knowledge. “Jesus did many other things as well. If everyone of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books…” (Jn. 21:25)
The Bible is not exhaustive in every detail and it doesn’t have to be, in order to function as the sole rule of faith for the church. We don’t need to know details about all the miracles Christ worked, the apostles’ dress codes, or where they were buried. The purpose of the Scripture is to record all that is necessary for us to be saved and which pertains to “life and godliness” (2Pet. 1:3).
2. Sola Scriptura is not a denial of the church’s authority to teach the truth. The church can have its creeds, councils or confession of faith, but these are subordinate to the God-inspired Scriptures, and are subject to correction. Thus, the church is being refined and purged by Christ and since the church hears the voice of her Shepherd from the Scriptures alone, the church does not add revelation or rule over Scripture (Rev. 1:19).
3. Sola Scriptura is not a denial that God’s Word was at a time spoken orally before they were committed into writing. Not everything the prophets spoke were written down however, because, not everything they said were inspired. That which God wanted preserved were carefully recorded.
During the writing of the NT, the apostles could still appeal to an authority outside the Bible because at that time, God was still giving normative (standard-setting) revelation for the faith and morals of Christians. This revelation was first communicated orally to the Believers alive at the time, and finally committed to writing for the believers today. Sola Scriptura applies to the normative stage of the church which we are in.
4. Sola Scriptura is not a denial of the role of the Holy Spirit in guiding and enlightening the church. That one adheres to sola Scriptura doesn’t mean one has rejected revelation from the Holy Spirit. There is a relationship between the Word and the Spirit- a balance that must be maintained as Abraham Friesen notes in his work, Wonders of the Word:
“The Word was not merely a ‘testimony’ or ‘witness’ to the experience of the Spirit. Any experience, even one of the Spirit could not be self-authenticating; it need always to be tested by the revealed Word of God. Not the experience but the Word was the final arbiter of God’s truth.”
Objection I: “Nowhere does the Bible teach sola Scriptura.”
Now, whether one is Catholic, Protestant or Eastern Orthodox, the basic truth we all agree on is the divine inspiration of the Bible. It is on this basis that the Bible authenticates itself. God doesn’t need men’s authority to be Who He is. In other words, the supreme authority of the Bible also rests on its inspiration.
Lutheran theologian, Francis Pieper pointed out that: “The divine authority of Scripture rests solely on its nature, on its theopneusty – that is, its character as ‘God breathed’.” It is a travesty of Christian theology when people attempt to subjugate God’s inspired Word, the Bible, to traditions or a church magisterium.
“From childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” (2Tim. 3:15)
The “sacred writings” being referred to are the written words of Scripture. This indicates that the words of God which we have in Scripture are all the words of God we need in order to be saved; these words are able to make us wise “for salvation.” There is no justification for limiting this statement to the OT as Catholic apologists do. It is inconsistent to claim that the OT is sufficient, while the NT is not.
That passage says that God gave Scripture in order that we may be “complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim. 3:17) The Bible is sufficient without traditions. The Greek adjective translated as “complete” is artios. Vine’s Expository Greek work defines artios as “fitted, complete.” Louw and Nida Greek-English Lexicon defines it as “qualified.” Greek scholar, Richard Trench in Synonyms of the New Testament explains that artios implies that the man of God is “furnished and accompanied with all which is necessary for the carrying out of the work appointed.” In other words, all that a believer needs to be complete, qualified and capable in the faith is in the Scriptures.
Ps. 119:1 says “Blessed are those whose walk is blameless who walk in the law of the LORD!”
This verse shows an equivalence between being blameless and walking in the law of the Lord. All that God requires of us to blameless before Him is recorded in His written word.
As mentioned earlier, sola Scriptura is a norm for the readers of Scripture, not its writers, so it would be anachronistic to expect that a NT writer would make a systematic appeal to the NT to advance a claim. Notwithstanding, the sacred authors appealed to prior revelations, even though they could speak on their own authority. Jesus and His apostles for instance, appealed to the Hebrew Scriptures as the final court of appeal. The phrase “it is written” appears 90 times in the NT (e.g Mt 4:4, 7, 10, 5:22, 28; 31, 28:18 etc). By this, they emphasized the principle of sola Scriptura.
John 20:31 “But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing ye might have life through his name.”
This means that a person could take John’s gospel account, read it, believe it and receive eternal life just like that. The other gospel accounts have a similar purpose. They were written for us to read, believe and have eternal life. Since the Bible admits not to contain everything, it has said enough to us to believe and be saved (Heb 9:5, Col 4:7-9).
Objection 2: “There is no such thing as ‘Scripture only’ in the Bible”
Let this be clear: sola Scriptura is a negative claim. It is saying that there is nothing else like Scripture. To equate a human tradition to the level of Scripture, you will first have to prove that its inspired like Scripture. “God forbid; yea let God be true but every man a liar.” (Rom 3:4). Paul warned the church not to go beyond what is written – what is written? The Scriptures (1Cor. 4:6).
Objection 3: “How can the Bible be self-interpreting? Where does the Bible say this?”
This is based on the nature of Scripture itself. Since God has spoken through the whole of Scripture, one can understand what it says by taking one part in relation to the other. Even the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#102) agrees:
“Through all the words of Sacred Scripture, God speaks only one single Word, that one and same Word of God extends throughout Scripture and one and the same Utterance that resounds in the mouths of all the sacred writers, since he who was in the beginning God with God has no need of separate syllables…”
This is why the Old and New Testaments fit in perfectly well. Jesus and the apostles appealed to the Hebrew Scriptures to interpret what they taught and the New Testament frequently appealed to the Old Testament prophecies being fulfilled in Christ. Rome seeks to present the Bible as complicated or incomprehensible in order to hold people under her spiritual bondage.
Objection 4: “Sola Scriptura is bibliolatry nonetheless.”
Such an argument is self-refuting, because the very concept of idolatry has Biblical precedent. To accuse someone of it presupposes Biblical authority and Scriptural appeal. In the same vein, a person who looks up to an institution for salvation or as final authority is guilty of idolatry.
Objection 5: “Sola Scriptura is a blueprint for anarchy. It has resulted in thousands of quarreling denominations with different interpretations.”
This argument has been addressed in another article refuting the 33,000 denomination harp from the Catholic echo chambers. It must be added however, that every denomination does not represent a different interpretation of Scripture and every difference doesn’t represent a disagreement. Many of the denominational differences arose from nationalism or geographical distribution. As monarchs and state churches arose, Rome’s control over nations waned (a golden age they still dream to achieve).
Liberalism is another reason. It is allowed (and necessary) for believers to split with a dying and liberal preexisting denomination overrun with heretics in order to serve God in truth. In God’s plan, a variety of denomination works for His purposes. And it’s better to have a variety of young, growing leaves than a big, dead old rotten tree. Yes, there are false churches, but in this dispensation, we can’t weed out all the tares. They will continue to grow together with the wheat until the harvest (Matt. 13:24-30). We don’t judge the condition of the field by the presence or even dominance of the tares.
That some cults misuse the Bible doesn’t diminish its authority just as multiplication tables do not become wrong because a cashier uses it to defraud a bank. If I write a book on Genetics, for instance, I won’t expect all my readers to arrive at the same degree of understanding. Some would read a little of my book and stop there. Some will read it and mix it with contents of another book by another author and some will memorise it without understanding. Will these diminish the credibility of my work? No. The same applies to Scripture.
The Catholic assumes his “church” is the standard by which all denominations are to be judged, so he glosses over the internal differences in Rome while he lauds the “scandal” of Protestant sectarianism and points his accusing knife at the Bible. This is hypocrisy.
Objection 6: “Sola Scriptura could not have been possible all through the centuries because most people were illiterate, and even if educated, couldn’t have had access to the Bible.”
This is a vapid line. From well-travelled 1st century Christians like Apollos, Paul, Philip, Aquilla and Priscilla, it;s clear that the early church had a good communicative network and the spread of the Bible couldn’t have been a problem. On the other hand, how did the common people all through the centuries read or have access to the Papal bulls, Church missals or Council decrees? What was the express creed of the average Medieval peasant or village priest?
Folk religion and illiteracy was very common those times, so which core Catholic creed was mouthed by the masses? Or does Athanasius or Aquinas stand for the popular masses? Sola ecclesia entirely left out the laity and the lower clergy all through the centuries until the Reformation when Bible literacy and education were emphasized.
Respected theologian, Wayne Grudem, defines the sufficiency of Scripture as meaning that Scripture contained all the words of God He intended His people to have at each stage of redemptive history, and that it now contains everything we need God to tell us for salvation, for trusting and obeying Him perfectly. This is highlighted in 5 points:
(a) We can find all that God has said on particular topics and issues by searching the Bible alone. We do not need to search through all the writings of Christians throughout history, or through all the teachings of the church or the subjective feelings or impressions that come to us, in order to find what God requires of us. We find God’s requirement by “examining the Scriptures” (Acts 17:11).
(b) At each stage of redemptive history, God’s word has always been sufficient. God has not spoken to mankind any more words He requires us to believe or obey than that we have in the Bible. Man cannot add any more words to what God has already spoken to His people.
(c) There is a strong warning not to add to Scripture and consider no other writings of equal value to Scripture (Is. 8:20, Gal. 1:8). This principle is violated by almost all cults and curious sects. Catholicism adds tradition and the Magisterium to the Bible. Christian Science adds Science and Health to it and Mormonism also adds the Book of Mormon and other false books.
(d) No modern revelations are to be placed on the same level as Scripture. We are to test visions or revelations with Scripture. There is a danger when a spiritual gift is directly or indirectly given a status that challenges the authority of Scripture in the lives of Christians (Is. 8:20).
(e) We are warned not to add more sins or requirements to those named in Scripture. Unless a specific teaching or general principle of Scripture is shown to prohibit an acitivity, if its not forbidden explicitly or by implication by Scripture, its not sinful (Ps. 119:44-45). (Wayne Grudem, Bible Doctrine, Inter-Varsity Press, 1999, 58).