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Sola Scriptura I: A Faulty Foundation

And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles. – Ephesians 4:11-14

The fundamental difference between Catholicism and Protestantism is their foundations; where they stand and what they stand upon. The difference in foundations is determined by the authority to which we appeal and adhere to here on earth. For most Protestants, this sole authority would be Holy Scripture that was inspired by the Holy Spirit by following the doctrine of Sola Scriptura; whereas for Catholics it would be the unified Holy Church which led by the Holy Spirit interprets Holy Scripture in service of the Faithful. If the foundation begins to falter, then the teachings it supports will crumble.

Sola Scriptura can be described under these three connecting points:

  1. Scripture is the Christian’s sole infallible rule for determining what we are to believe and how we are to live.

  2. Scripture is materially sufficient, meaning that everything God wants us to know is there in the pages of the Bible.

  3. Scripture is formally sufficient, meaning that what the Bible teaches is sufficiently clear that no infallible teaching magisterium of the Church is necessary to interpret it or to formally define Christian doctrine.

Reformed theologian Robert Godfrey put it this way:

“The Protestant position, and my position, is that all things necessary for salvation and concerning faith and life are taught in the Bible clearly enough for the ordinary believer to find it there and understand it.”

Most Protestants will hold to the belief that there is no need for an earthly authority to direct the faithful, and that it is not possible for there to be an earthly unifying authoritative interpreter. However, if Scripture itself does not attest to be the ultimate authority, nor to be the only means by which a Christian should believe, then why should we accept such a teaching that it is?

Martin Luther, the founder of this doctrine of Sola Scripture (along with Sola Fide), said in 1521 at the Diet of Worms in Germany:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture or by clear reason, for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves, I am bound by the Scriptures that I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot to do otherwise. Here I stand, God help me.


One of the first reactions by Sola Scriptura defendants is to point to 2 Timothy 3:16-17:

All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

This is one of the verses which forms the line of defense for Martin Luther’s doctrine on Sola Scriptura, but there is something missing here that we should want to see. The word “sufficient” isn’t present in this verse, but rather the word “profitable” takes its place. If we’re going to take Scripture at face value, as Sola Scriptura dictates, then this verse is saying that Scripture is beneficial, advantageous, and useful and not that it is fully adequate for rules of faith and doctrine.

In verse 14 of this epistle, Timothy is initially directed to keep to the oral teachings—the traditions—that he received directly from St Paul. This coincides with Paul’s reminder of the value of oral tradition in 1:13–14, “Follow the pattern of the sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus; guard the truth that has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us” (RSV), and “what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2:2). Paul is referring solely to oral teaching and reminds Timothy to adhere to that as the “pattern” for his own teaching (1:13). Only after this is Scripture mentioned as “profitable” for Timothy’s evangelism. Yes, Scripture is God-Breathed, but that does not mean that it cannot be twisted, even by those who are good intentioned.

St. John Henry Newman (1801-1890), a convert from Protestantism to Catholicism, in his 1884 essay entitled Inspiration in its Relation to Revelation while addressing this passage of Scripture writes:

“It is quite evident that this passage furnishes no argument whatever that the sacred Scripture, without Tradition, is the sole rule of faith; for, although sacred Scripture is profitable for these four ends, still it is not said to be sufficient. The Apostle [Paul] requires the aid of Tradition (2 Thess. 2:15). Moreover, the Apostle here refers to the scriptures which Timothy was taught in his infancy. Now, a good part of the New Testament was not written in his boyhood: Some of the Catholic Epistles were not written even when Paul wrote this, and none of the books of the New Testament were then placed on the canon of the Scripture books. He refers, then, to the scriptures of the Old Testament, and, if the argument from this passage proved anything, it would prove too much, viz., that the scriptures of the New Testament were not necessary for a rule of faith.”

So we see here, as St. John Newman points out, that the only Scripture with which Timothy would have been familiar was the Old Testament. If we are to hold to Sola Scriptura by direction of this verse, does this mean that only the Old Testament is sufficient? Is the Old Testament all that we need? By chronological context of Paul’s writing, 2 Timothy was not a part of a ratified scriptural canon. The epistle only carried any weight and only had any merit because it was exhorted by a living and authoritative Apostle who was a member of and leader in the church and was led by the Holy Spirit. That Apostle spoke of Scripture AND Tradition

“[S]tand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” - 2 Thessalonians 2:15

Both the Scriptures of the New Testament and Sacred Tradition flow from the ministry of the Apostles, so why throw out Tradition?

The second verse that Sola Scriptura adherents will often refer to is John 20:31 which states:

“[…] but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name”

First, this verse from John refers only to that which was written in the Gospel according to St. John. If you read this verse within context of the previous verse, which proves to be important when it comes to viewing the argument being made, you will see the flaw:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.

So second, if the 30th verse proved anything, it would not be proving Luther's doctrine of Sola Scriptura in relation to all of Scripture, it would only be "proving" that the Gospel of John itself is sufficient (if you're following the Sola Scriptura argument and taking it at face value).

Third, this passage from St. John’s Gospel only tells us that this particular Gospel account was written so that the intended audience can be aided in believing that Jesus is the Messiah. It does not state that Scripture is all that is necessary for salvation, much less that it is all we need for discerning and coming to know and understand theology and doctrine. In fact, nor does it say the Bible is even necessary to believe in Christ. After all, the earliest Christians, up until the canon of Scripture was defined a couple of centuries later, had no ratified New Testament canon to which they could appeal to; rather they learned from oral, rather than written, instruction.

The few differing verses that may be used as ammunition in order to “prove” the sole sufficiency of Scripture can be handled similarly. Not a single one of any of the passages of Scripture uses the word “sufficient” in reference to Scripture itself—each one infers or states profitability or usefulness, and these statements arise at the same time as an exhortation to hold fast to the oral teaching of our Lord and the apostles. Proper food for thought is to keep in mind that nowhere does the Holy Bible state, “Scripture alone is sufficient,” and nowhere does the Bible imply it. We should definitely want to see Scripture say that Scripture itself is the foundation for Christianity while following Sola Scriptura, but we do not see this. What we do see, however, in 1 Timothy 3:14-15 is that the actual pillar of truth is the church.

I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these instructions to you so that, if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth

Continuation can be found in Sola Scriptura II: The Authority Problem, apart of a four part series on Sola Scriptura


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