In last two posts, I have tried to define the Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura. Specifically, I have tried to distinguish it from any theory that allows for or requires two sources of ultimate authority, tradition and Scripture (dual source theory). As well (and just as important), I have attempted to disassociate sola Scriptura from the common misunderstanding that its advocates do not allow for any other authority. This extensive concentration on defining the doctrine is so that it might be properly defended. In other words, I don’t want to defend a doctrine that is mis-defined in the mind of the readers.
Before I move on to a proper defense of sola Scriptura, I want to attempt to defend its primary historical rival, the dual-source theory. I do this so that one might be able to see the full balance of the positions in perspective. In addition, by giving a short defense of why people hold to some form of dual-source theory, one can see the responses that advocates of sola Scriptura would give to such.
Definition: The Apostle’s teaching is absolutely and ultimately authoritative as a rule for Christian doctrine and practice. This teaching was handed down in two forms: written and unwritten. The written teaching was codified in the Scriptures. The unwritten Tradition—the oral or “living” Tradition—was passed on through the succession of apostles (Apostolic succession) and is equal to Scripture as an authority in the Christian life, being that it came through the same source—the Apostle’s teaching. In the case of the Roman Catholic tradition, the Magisterial authority (Pope and the congregation of bishops) serve as an infallible interpreter, protected by the Holy Spirit, of both the unwritten and written tradition (the third leg of the three leg stool of authority).
Defense of the Dual-Source Theory
1. The Scriptures clearly say that there were many other things that Christ did that were not written down.
“And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written.”
The idea is that the body of revelation given by Christ was not exhausted by the writings of the Apostles. This, at least, evidences that there could have been oral teachings that were passed on and just as authoritative.
2. The New Testament writers clearly speak about the importance of Tradition.
2 Thess. 2:15
“So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us.”
Notice the dual sources of the one teaching.
1 Cor. 11:2
“I praise you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I passed them on to you.”
This illustrates that traditions (paradosis) are what is being passed on. At the very least, this should help to take the focus off the way in which a tradition is handed down. In other words, the focus is not on written tradition as sola Scriptura advocates tend to believe.
“Dear friends, although I have been eager to write to you about our common salvation, I now feel compelled instead to write to encourage you to contend earnestly for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.”
Notice, the faith was delivered to the “saints.” The “saints” represent a living entity of preservation, not a book, which we know as the Church.
3. Christ gave authority over the Church to the apostles and their successors (apostolic succession). Roman Catholic Only: Peter and his successors were given the ultimate authority in the Church (papacy or the Seat of Rome).
[Christ, speaking to the apostles] “If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you retain anyone’s sins, they are retained.”
“I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven.”
This represents the ultimate authority of the Church which has the authority to “bind” and “release.”
“And Jesus answered him, ‘You are blessed, Simon son of Jonah, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father in heaven! And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven.”
For the Roman Catholic, this teaches that Peter was given a special and ultimate authority among the Apostles. Therefore, his successors (the Bishop of Rome, the Pope), would naturally carries this same authority.
4. Without the infallible declaration of the Church, there would be no way of knowing what books belong in the canon of Scripture.
In my opinion, this is perhaps the strongest objection to the doctrine of sola Scriptura. The idea here is that if the Scripture is the only infallible authority, then where does it infallibly derive its authority to be Scripture? In other words, there is no list of books that belong in the Scripture (canon) anywhere in inspired Scripture. Therefore, Tradition and/or the Church has to determine or recognize what books are indeed Scripture. If Tradition and/or the Church does not have infallible authority, then it’s pronouncement are fallible—even pronouncements about what books belong in the Bible. Therefore, advocates of sola Scriptura are left with a rather odd confession that they have a fallible canon of infallible books.
5. Without the infallible authority of the Church, the Church would be hopelessly divided on matters of doctrine and morals. This would not be the Church that Christ started.
Of course, as opponents of sola Scriptura would argue, this is indeed the case with the Protestant tradition. The Bible alone is not a sufficient authority to keep unity as is evidenced by the thousands of denominations and disagreements within Protestantism. On the other hand, Christian traditions that advocate some sort of dual-source theory (Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox) are united under the living tradition and its regulating force.
Next I will provide a response to this from the sola Scriptura position to these arguments. Please feel free to give any further defense of the dual-source theory if you feel I have left something out.
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]