A Compelling Argument AGAINST Sola Scriptura? (Scripture Alone) Part 1

I just couldn’t resist reposting this article by Father John Whiteford, who happens to be an Eastern Orthodox priest.  If you are a Protestant like me, then you may have never even heard of the Orthodox church, I know I had not.  I am very grateful that I have discovered them.  The following is a very well thought out rejection of one of the cornerstones of the Protestant Reformation:  Scripture Alone.   Read it with an open mind and then share your thoughts with the rest of us.   I think he makes some good points.  It is a very long article, so I will break it up into 4 parts.  Here’s Part 1:

If we are to understand what Protestants think, we will have to first know why they believe what they believe. In fact if we try to put ourselves in the place of those early reformers, such as Martin Luther, we must certainly have some appreciation for their reasons for championing the Doctrine of Sola Scriptura (or “Scripture alone”). When one considers the corruption in the Roman Church at that time, the degenerate teachings that it promoted, and the distorted understanding of tradition that it used to defend itself -along with the fact that the West was several centuries removed from any significant contact with their former Orthodox heritage — it is difficult to imagine within those limitations how one such as Luther might have responded with significantly better results. How could Luther have appealed to tradition to fight these abuses, when tradition (as all in the Roman West were lead to believe) was personified by the very papacy that was responsible for those abuses. To Luther, it was tradition that had erred, and if he were to reform the Church he would have to do so with the sure undergirding of the Scriptures. However, Luther never really sought to eliminate tradition altogether, and he never used the Scriptures truly “alone,” what he really attempted to do was to use Scripture to get rid of those parts of the Roman tradition that were corrupt. Unfortunately his rhetoric far outstripped his own practice, and more radical reformers took the idea of Sola Scriptura to its logical conclusions.

PROBLEMS WITH THE DOCTRINE OF SOLA SCRIPTURA

A. IT IS A DOCTRINE BASED UPON A NUMBER OF FAULTY ASSUMPTIONS

An assumption is something that we take for granted from the outset, usually quite unconsciously. As long as an assumption is a valid one, all is fine and well; but a false assumption inevitably leads to false conclusions. One would hope that even when one has made an unconscious assumption that when his conclusions are proven faulty he would then ask himself where his underlying error lay. Protestants who are willing to honestly assess the current state of the Protestant world, must ask themselves why, if Protestantism and its foundational teaching of Sola Scriptura are of God, has it resulted in over twenty-thousand differing groups that cant agree on basic aspects of what the Bible says, or what it even means to be a Christian? Why (if the Bible is sufficient apart from Holy Tradition) can a Baptist, a Jehovahs Witness, a Charismatic, and a Methodist all claim to believe what the Bible says and yet no two of them agree what it is that the Bible says? Obviously, here is a situation in which Protestants have found themselves that is wrong by any stretch or measure. Unfortunately, most Protestants are willing to blame this sad state of affairs on almost anything — anything except the root problem. The idea of Sola Scriptura is so foundational to Protestantism that to them it is tantamount to denying God to question it, but as our Lord said, “every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a bad tree bringeth forth evil fruit” (Matthew 7:17). If we judge Sola Scriptura by its fruit then we are left with no other conclusion than that this tree needs to be “hewn down, and cast into the fire” (Matthew 7:19).

FALSE ASSUMPTION # 1: The Bible was intended to be the last word on faith, piety, and worship.

a). Does the Scripture teach that it is “all sufficient?”

The most obvious assumption that underlies the doctrine of “Scripture alone” is that the Bible has within it all that is needed for everything that concerns the Christians life — all that would be needed for true faith, practice, piety, and worship. The Scripture that is most usually cited to support this notion is:

…from a child thou hast known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works (II Timothy 3:15-17).

Those who would use this passage to advocate Sola Scriptura argue that this passage teaches the “all sufficiency” of Scripture — because, “If, indeed, the Holy Scriptures are able to make the pious man perfect… then, indeed to attain completeness and perfection, there is no need of tradition.”1 But what can really be said based on this passage?

For starters, we should ask what Paul is talking about when he speaks of the Scriptures that Timothy has known since he was a child. We can be sure that Paul is not referring to the New Testament, because the New Testament had not yet been written when Timothy was a child — in fact it was not nearly finished when Paul wrote this epistle to Timothy, much less collected together into the canon of the New Testament as we now know it. Obviously here, and in most references to “the Scriptures” that we find in the New Testament, Paul is speaking of the Old Testament; so if this passage is going to be used to set the limits on inspired authority, not only will Tradition be excluded but this passage itself and the entire New Testament.

In the second place, if Paul meant to exclude tradition as not also being profitable, then we should wonder why Paul uses non-biblical oral tradition in this very same chapter. The names Jannes and Jambres are not found in the Old Testament, yet in II Timothy 3:8 Paul refers to them as opposing Moses. Paul is drawing upon the oral tradition that the names of the two most prominent Egyptian Magicians in the Exodus account (Ch. 7-8) were “Jannes” and “Jambres.”2 And this is by no means the only time that a non-biblical source is used in the New Testament — the best known instance is in the Epistle of St. Jude, which quotes from the Book of Enoch (Jude 14,15 cf. Enoch 1:9).

When the Church officially canonized the books of Scripture, the primary purpose in establishing an authoritative list of books which were to be received as Sacred Scripture was to protect the Church from spurious books which claimed apostolic authorship but were in fact the work of heretics (e.g. the gospel of Thomas). Heretical groups could not base their teachings on Holy Tradition because their teachings originated from outside the Church, so the only way that they could claim any authoritative basis for their heresies was to twist the meaning of the Scriptures and to forge new books in the names of apostles or Old Testament saints. The Church defended itself against heretical teachings by appealing to the apostolic origins of Holy Tradition (proven by Apostolic Succession, i.e. the fact that the bishops and teachers of the Church can historically demonstrate their direct descendence from the Apostles), and by appealing to the universality of the Orthodox Faith (i.e. that the Orthodox faith is that same faith that Orthodox Christians have always accepted throughout its history and throughout the world). The Church defended itself against spurious and heretical books by establishing an authoritative list of sacred books that were received throughout the Church as being divinely inspired and of genuine Old Testament or apostolic origin.

By establishing the canonical list of Sacred Scripture the Church did not intend to imply that all of the Christian Faith and all information necessary for worship and good order in the Church was contained in them.3 One thing that is beyond serious dispute is that by the time the Church settled the Canon of Scripture it was in its faith and worship essentially indistinguishable from the Church of later periods — this is an historical certainty. As far as the structure of Church authority, it was Orthodox bishops together in various councils who settled the question of the Canon — and so it is to this day in the Orthodox Church when any question of doctrine or discipline has to be settled.

b). What was the purpose of the New Testament Writings?

In Protestant biblical studies it is taught (and I think correctly taught in this instance) that when you study the Bible, among many other considerations, you must consider the genre (or literary type) of literature that you are reading in a particular passage, because different genres have different uses. Another consideration is of course the subject and purpose of the book or passage you are dealing with. In the New Testament we have four broad categories of literary genres: gospel, historical narrative (Acts), epistle, and the apocalyptic/prophetic book, Revelation. Gospels were written to testify of Christs life, death, and resurrection. Biblical historical narratives recount the history of God’s people and also the lives of significant figures in that history, and show God’s providence in the midst of it all. Epistles were written primarily to answer specific problems that arose in various Churches; thus, things that were assumed and understood by all, and not considered problems were not generally touched upon in any detail. Doctrinal issues that were addressed were generally disputed or misunderstood doctrines,4 matters of worship were only dealt with when there were related problems (e.g. I Corinthians 11-14). Apocalyptic writings (such as Revelation) were written to show God’s ultimate triumph in history.

Let us first note that none of these literary types present in the New Testament have worship as a primary subject, or were meant to give details about how to worship in Church. In the Old Testament there are detailed (though by no means exhaustive) treatments of the worship of the people of Israel (e.g. Leviticus, Psalms) — in the New Testament there are only meager hints of the worship of the Early Christians. Why is this? Certainly not because they had no order in their services — liturgical historians have established the fact that the early Christians continued to worship in a manner firmly based upon the patterns of Jewish worship which it inherited from the Apostles. 5 However, even the few references in the New Testament that touch upon the worship of the early Church show that, far from being a wild group of free-spirited “Charismatics,” the Christians in the New Testament worshiped liturgically as did their fathers before them: they observed hours of prayer (Acts 3:1); they worshiped in the Temple (Acts 2:46, 3:1, 21:26); and they worshiped in Synagogues (Acts 18:4).

We need also to note that none of the types of literature present in the New Testament have as their purpose comprehensive doctrinal instruction — it does not contain a catechism or a systematic theology. If all that we need as Christians is the Bible by itself, why is there not some sort of a comprehensive doctrinal statement? Imagine how easily all the many controversies could have been settled if the Bible clearly answered every doctrinal question. But as convenient as it might otherwise have been, such things are not found among the books of the Bible.

Let no one misunderstand the point that is being made. None of this is meant to belittle the importance of the Holy Scriptures — God forbid! In the Orthodox Church the Scriptures are believed to be fully inspired, inerrant, and authoritative; but the fact is that the Bible does not contain within it teaching on every subject of importance to the Church. As already stated, the New Testament gives little detail about how to worship — but this is certainly no small matter. Furthermore, the same Church that handed down to us the Holy Scriptures, and preserved them, was the very same Church from which we have received our patterns of worship. If we mistrust this Churchs faithfulness in preserving Apostolic worship, then we must also mistrust her fidelity in preserving the Scriptures. 6

c). Is the Bible, in practice, really “all sufficient” for Protestants?

Protestants frequently claim they “just believe the Bible,” but a number of questions arise when one examines their actual use of the Bible. For instance, why do Protestants write so many books on doctrine and the Christian life in general, if indeed all that is necessary is the Bible? If the Bible by itself were sufficient for one to understand it, then why dont Protestants simply hand out Bibles? And if it is “all sufficient,” why does it not produce consistent results, i.e. why do Protestants not all believe the same? What is the purpose of the many Protestant study Bibles, if all that is needed is the Bible itself? Why do they hand out tracts and other material? Why do they even teach or preach at all —why not just read the Bible to people? The answer is though they usually will not admit it, Protestants instinctively know that the Bible cannot be understood alone. And in fact every Protestant sect has its own body of traditions, though again they generally will not call them what they are. It is not an accident that Jehovahs Witnesses all believe the same things, and Southern Baptists generally believe the same things, but Jehovahs Witnesses and Southern Baptists emphatically do not believe the same things. Jehovahs Witnesses and Southern Baptists do not each individually come up with their own ideas from an independent study of the Bible; rather, those in each group are all taught to believe in a certain way — from a common tradition. So then the question is not really whether we will just believe the Bible or whether we will also use tradition — the real question is which tradition will we use to interpret the Bible? Which tradition can be trusted, the Apostolic Tradition of the Orthodox Church, or the muddled, and modern, traditions of Protestantism that have no roots beyond the advent of the Protestant Reformation?”  Read  Part 2 of this post.

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About Jim

Not For Itching Ears is a blog dedicated to discussing the American Evangelical church. It is a place for people to share their thoughts on a host of issues relating to this subject. Jim is available to speak at weekend services, and retreats at no cost to churches in Florida. Contact us for more information.

Posted on November 18, 2011, in Christianity, Early Church History, Theology, Worship and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.

  1. I found this challenge in the article to be quite true”

    “So then the question is not really whether we will just believe the Bible or whether we will also use tradition — the real question is which tradition will we use to interpret the Bible? Which tradition can be trusted, the Apostolic Tradition of the Orthodox Church, or the muddled, and modern, traditions of Protestantism that have no roots beyond the advent of the Protestant Reformation?”

    For years, I believed that we in the protestant wing of the church had rejected the traditions of men and clung only to God’s word. As I get older, I realize how true Father Whitefords words are. We absolutely follow our own traditions: the reformed tradition, the Calvinist tradition, the Arminian tradition, the Pentecostal tradition, the Lutheran tradition, the non-traditional tradition, the Baptist tradition to name but a few.

    We do not truly operate under a sola scriptura mindset and never have. Yet many traditions in the Protestant church rightly hold the scriptures as God’s authoritative word to humanity, we just use our own traditions as a filter to interpret those scriptures. It seems to me that we are just as guilty of following the traditions of men as those in the Cathloic or Eastern Orthodox churches. This should cause us to re-think some of our own “traditions” and perhaps view “tradition” with less scorn.

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  2. You’ve introduced something here I haven’t considered. I guess, as you state, we are so consumed with the traditions of our own denominations, we fail to recognize we’re doing exactly what we applaud the reformation for undoing. I look forward to the continuation of this article. Thanks, Jim.

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  3. “Yet many traditions in the Protestant church rightly hold the scriptures as God’s authoritative word to humanity, we just use our own traditions as a filter to interpret those scriptures”

    Exactly. To read Scripture is to interpret Scripture. The question is, who’s interpretation do you follow? Does my own interpretation fit with that of historic Christianity or is it theological innovation? Did Jesus setup a way to for this deadlock to be resolved or are we really meant to be left with theological chaos?

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  4. This is a wonderful article. I find it quite interesting because it brings out much truth through a source that I wouldn’t necessarily consider to be steeped in truth. Sometimes it is good to take a second to see how the “others” see us, meaning we Protestants.

    Jesus said, “…full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition.” Mark 7:9

    This article highlights a growing burden within my heart. What do you do if you’re a Baptist and suddenly you realize the deadly error of Unconditonal Eternal Security? Or a Pentecostal who realizes that nowhere does Scripture teach that speaking in tongues is THE intial evidence of the Baptism in the Holy Spirit? What about a Presbyterian whose eyes open to the ridicules teachings of Calvinism?

    Faced with that dilemma a person is forced to make a choice; hold with the truth of Scripture or follow the tradition of their particular denomination. I have personally endured just such a struggle as an Ordained Bishop within the Church of God. All too often the tradition wins and the Bible loses.

    I strive and pray every day that my understanding of Scripture is devoid of denominational traditions, personal sensibilities, biases, prior teachings, or prejudices. Based soley on what the Bible actually says.

    Thanks for the article and I look forward to reading the rest!!

    Jim
    livingelect.com

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    • “Faced with that dilemma a person is forced to make a choice; hold with the truth of Scripture or follow the tradition of their particular denomination”

      I think you’re blurring two things together here – denominational tradition and apostolic tradition. One is part of the Deposit of Faith and was received by the Apostles from Jesus. The other is not and can only really be traced back to the beginning of a particular denomination’s genesis.

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      • Please forgive me for my misstep. You are absolutely correct, there is a huge difference between Apostolic Tradition and denominational tradition. And actually that was exactly the point I was trying to make.

        As I stated, I have been burdened for quite awhile about how the early church operated, what they believed, and what they practiced. How can we confidently endorse beliefs or practices that are completely contrary to those of the face to face students of the Apostles (or even the students, once removed).

        To borrow from a previous example; what does an Assembly of God pastor do when he realizes that the belief that speaking in tongues as the initial evidence of the baptism in the Holy Spirit, lacks any Biblical support whatsoever. But not only that, the concept was completely foreign to the early church.

        At that point he is forced to make a choice to follow truth or the Tradition of the Assembly of God. To me there is no real decision; he needs to embrace truth. But in reality he will often align with the denomination out of economic concerns or fear of ostracization.

        I, for one, want to learn at the feet of the forefathers. They walked, talked, and learned at the feet of Christ. As such I find them far more reliable as teachers than some denomination two millenia removed from the Lord.

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      • “To borrow from a previous example; what does an Assembly of God pastor do when he realizes that the belief that speaking in tongues as the initial evidence of the baptism in the Holy Spirit, lacks any Biblical support whatsoever. But not only that, the concept was completely foreign to the early church.”

        Exactly. This question must also be answered on a host of other issues. To pick just two, someone who holds that Baptism is simply symbolic and denies Jesus’ real presence in the Eucharist has to explain why there’s nobody in the early centuries of Christianity who thought the same.

        If a particular denomination’s beliefs don’t make an appearance in the Christian world until one and a half thousand years after the founding of the Church, I think it’s doubtful that the belief is of Apostolic origin…

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        • “If a particular denomination’s beliefs don’t make an appearance in the Christian world until one and a half thousand years after the founding of the Church, I think it’s doubtful that the belief is of Apostolic origin”

          Agreed

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  5. Wow! That really gave me alot to think about!
    Especially, considering that our pastor just started us on a
    Wed. night study on the Protestant Reformation done by R.C Sprouls. I teach the Sunday morning adult bible study in our Southern Baptist church. I must say that I do have some serious issues against the widely taught doctrines of unconditional eternal security, and pre-tribulation rapture. My point in saying this, is that this first part article has brought me to realize that tradition is always an overwhelming influence in every denomination’s doctrinal teachings. Because of the inevitable presence of human pride, each denomination believes that it alone has the true, and infallable doctrine, and therefore becomes very dogmatic, and thereby unteachable. Even unto a point that, when the evidence of the need for a correction in the flawed doctine is presented, tradition will be clinged to in the face of irrefutable Biblical evidence that clearly points out the flaw. Because, regardless of what the Bible has to say on a given subject, tradition inevitably installs concrete shoes on the church, preventing it from admitting the error, thereby preventing it from being corrected, thereby perpetuating the flawed doctrine for generations upon generations. So, is the Bible the only source of truth for the Christian? Certainly not! But, as far as I can see, it is the most accurate measuring stick that we have by which to know the character and will of God, and adjust our doctrine (teachings) accordingly.

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    • “So, is the Bible the only source of truth for the Christian? Certainly not! But, as far as I can see, it is the most accurate measuring stick that we have by which to know the character and will of God, and adjust our doctrine (teachings) accordingly.”

      The trouble with this is that it doesn’t solve the problem. Where did all the various denominations get their doctrines from in the first place? From the founder’s personal, fallible interpretation of Scripture. Therefore, returning to the Bible only offers new opportunities to interpret the Bible in new and interesting ways! To read Scripture is to interpret Scripture.

      This is why Tradition is so important. I’m sure that those who believe in “Once Saved Always Saved” believe that the doctrine can be found in the Bible. The problem is that it isn’t possible to point to anyone in the early centuries of Christianity who held that belief. This is why it is so important to interpret Scripture from within the living Tradition of the Church.

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  6. I am glad to see this piece also as I have been questioning all these things this year. I dont think we can rule out the role tradition has had on getting us this far however my concern with ALL denominations as has been mentioned by other commenters, is that so many of the traditions that have come through the years and we have today – go against the Words in the Bible we currently hold to as God breathed Word!
    In these instances I have to trust something… and I choose to trust the Bible even if that proves to be somehow wrong.
    I know men wrote the books/letters and then other men put the collections of books/letters together it but I hope and pray that God has His hand in it somewhere! I know people are fallen flesh and will never ‘get it right’ we have the pitfalls of pride in front of us all the time and we have elevated ourselves in many ways!
    I do think though that protestants have had heads in the sand with regard to thinking ‘we’re so right’ we have so many false doctrines and we uphold our manmade traditions more than we would like to admit!

    What do you think Jim? if a tradition contradicts the Word what do you choose and is the Word ‘good enough’ to be trusted then?

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    • Hi Lisa,

      If a tradition clearly contradicts the Word, in my book the Word wins. One of the challenges is that often our tradition interprets the Word in such a way that it makes the Word teach our tradtion. Sometimes, we are locked into our own view of something simply because that is what we have been taught. Of course, the Word can be trusted. It is our opinions about what it says over disputed matters that we should hold more loosely.

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      • “Of course, the Word can be trusted. It is our opinions about what it says over disputed matters that we should hold more loosely.”

        This is *the* issue. The trouble is that *everything* is disputed by *someone*. It’s not over trivial matters either – it’s very often over issues of salvation. Even the Trinity, a doctrine so central to Christianity, is now denied by Oneness Pentecostals.

        This question really ultimately becomes “Who has the authority to interpret Scripture and make binding decisions on doctrine?” I would begin by pointing to Acts 15 and the Council of Jerusalem. When the question of circumcision was raised in the first generation of the Church a council was convened to answer the question. The Church leaders gathered together and made a pronouncement for the entire Church to follow. In subsequent generations Ecumenical Councils gathered bishops again and again to definitively answer questions of faith and doctrine as they arose.

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  7. I just finished reading all of the posts and what im seeing is nothing more than a revolving door type conversation.
    There are only two ways out so to speek.
    One is to rely on your interpretation of scripture as the final authority in all matters taking liberty where they are silent.
    Two is to rely on your interpertation of an interpretation as a suppliment to the above.
    Whats the point when God has made us kings and priests with His Spirit residing in us.
    The fact is men and denominations will always get some things wrong.
    Scripture is alone the final authority. Other men have insight but take it with a grain of salt because we are all human.

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    • Hi Carpenter,

      Thanks for reading the posts and for commenting!

      Most of us don’t really think about the logical implications of these things. The truth is that we DO rely on what other people tell us the Scriptures mean. You elude to that in your comment. You either rely on your own interpretation or the interpretation of others. In either choice, man’s interpretation of it is the determining factor…in practice. The idea that Scripture alone is the final authority is a concept that originated with man. The Scriptures themselves, do not make that claim. Don’t get me wrong, I think it is a good and compelling claim, but man asserted nevertheless.

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  1. Pingback: Sufficient… or Not? | Resting in His Grace

  2. Pingback: Questioning Our Protestant Tradition of Sola Scriptura | Not For Itching Ears

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