Denying Sola Scriptura: The Attempt to Neutralize the Bible

I was raised Roman Catholic. My religious upbringing included Catholic school through the fifth grade and service as an altar boy through my teen years. My first dose of a foreign language was Latin, a necessary prerequisite if you wanted to be an altar boy. There is much I appreciate about my Catholic training. I was taught the cardinal doctrines of the faith as expressed in the Apostles’ Creed. The ethical precepts I had been taught in Catholic school kept me from straying too far in my rebellious years. Guilt and fear of judgment are strong motivators when it comes to keeping young people in moral check. Of course many children raised in Protestant homes can make similar claims. So my experiences perhaps are not unique to Catholicism.

Many of the basic tenets of Catholicism are biblical. One of the distinguishing characteristics of a cult is the denial of the divinity of Christ. There is no such denial in Catholicism. Roman Catholics teach and adhere to the Apostles’ Creed. This is why men like Luther and Calvin are called Reformers: they wanted to reform the church, not replace it. They recognized that not everything within Catholicism was in error. On another level, the same can be said about Judaism. There is truth within Judaism because Christians and Jews share a portion of the same revelation the Hebrew Scriptures or what Christians call the Old Testament. But as system of theology both Catholicism and Judaism fall short of the whole truth, Judaism because it does not recognize the revelatory status of the New Testament and Catholicism because it puts tradition on an equal footing with both the Old and New Testaments.

Questioning Catholic Doctrine

After becoming a Christian in February of 1973, I began to question a number of Catholic doctrines. The Bible had become the standard of faith for me. It was sola scriptura — Scripture alone — not the Bible plus anything else that led me to reconsider what I had been taught as a child about Catholicism. Those doctrines that lined up with the Bible, I retained. Those doctrines that could not be supported by an appeal to the Bible, I rejected. Again, sola scriptura was the reference point.

The doctrine of sola scriptura has been questioned by a number of former protestants who have embraced the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Once the doctrine of sola scriptura is rejected a Pandora’s Box of doctrinal additions is opened. As one Catholic writer asserts, “Scripture has been, and remains our primary, although not exclusive, source for Catholic doctrines.”[1] This is the nature of the dispute. While the Protestant believes that Scripture is the “exclusive” source for doctrine — what the Westminster Confession of Faith calls “faith and practice” — the Catholic Church asserts that extra-biblical tradition plays an equal role.[product id="1152" align="right" size="small"]

Former Protestants Speak

Former protestants Scott and Kimberly Hahn have written a book that is getting a great deal of praise from Catholics and Protestants. The Hahns have become effective apologists for the Catholic position. Scott, a former Presbyterian minister, and his wife consider their embrace of Catholicism as a homecoming. In fact, the title of their book is Rome Sweet Home: Our Journey to Catholicism.[2] While there are many issues in this book that I would like to address, my goal is to concentrate on the central issue — sola scriptura.

Roman Catholic Propaganda

There is no doubt in my mind that Rome Sweet Home is a cleverly devised piece of propaganda published mainly for Catholics. Very few Protestants would ever be convinced by the arguments put forth by the Hahns.

The book is designed to keep Catholics in check, most of whom do not know their Bibles. The reasoning goes something like this:

Consider the Hahns. Scott and Kimberly were forceful Catholic antagonists while they studied in one of America’s leading Protestant seminaries. Scott had a promising career as a pastor and seminary professor. But as the Hahns studied the Bible more closely they found that they could not answer the most basic objection to Roman Catholic doctrines. In time they began to see what you already know: The Roman Catholic Church is the true church.

After reading Rome Sweet Home I came away bewildered. I could not believe how poorly the Hahns argued Catholic dogma.

Justifying Praying the Rosary

Kimberly Hahn discusses her struggle saying the Rosary, a belabored recitation of the “Hail Mary” and other prayers. She had always thought that the practice was “vain repetition” (Matthew 6:7). After some instruction by a nun, Kimberly saw the error of her ways. The nun told Kimberly that we are like children. Would parents consider it “vain repetition” if they heard their child repeat the same request over and over again, day in and day out, with little or no variation? Speaking as one parent, I would consider such a monotonous and persistent request annoying and childish. While I might tolerate my children speaking this way when he was first learning to talk, I would instruct him as he grew in understanding that such “vain repetition” is not acceptable for a child of his age.

The Bible tells us that we are to “grow in respect to salvation” (1 Peter 2:2; also Ephesians 4:15). Consider these passages that speak about spiritual maturity:

  • “For every one who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil” (Hebrews 5:13-14)
  • “Therefore, leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God” (Hebrews 6:1)
  • “When I was a child I used to speak as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things” (1 Corinthians 13:11)

While we are God’s children, we are not encouraged to act childish. More importantly, the “Hail Mary” must be rejected based on its unbiblical line of “Holy Mary Mother of God pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.”[3] If any prayer is to be repeated over and over again, why not use the one Jesus taught His disciples to pray? Why not the Lord’s Prayer? When Jesus’ disciples asked Him to teach them to pray, He didn’t teach them the “Hail, Mary.”

An Appeal to “Tradition”

No biblical justification can be found for praying the Rosary. But this does not matter to Catholics since they claim the authority of tradition. The real debate is whether sola scriptura is a doctrine that is taught in the Bible. Does the Bible teach that the Bible alone is the Christian’s “only rule of faith and obedience?” Scott Hahn and other Catholics maintain that it does not.

[product id="1232" align="left" size="small"]The issue that sent Scott Hahn over the edge into considering Roman Catholic doctrine was a question a student asked him about sola scriptura. Here is how Scott recounts the confrontation:

“Professor Hahn, you’ve shown us that sola fide isn’t scriptural [sic] — how the battle cry of the Reformation is off-base when it comes to interpreting Paul [sic]. As you know, the other battle cry of the Reformation was sola scriptura; the Bible alone is our authority, rather than the pope, church councils or Tradition. Professor, where does the Bible teach that ‘Scripture alone’ is our sole authority?”[4]

What was Scott’s response? “I looked at him and broke into a cold sweat.” Scott writes that he “never heard that question before.” This encounter shook Scott. He writes that he “studied all week long” and “got nowhere.” Then he “called two of the best theologians in America as well as some of [his] former professors.”[5] I must admit that if I were to accept the answers that Scott received from these “two best theologians in the country” I too would have to give up the doctrine of sola scriptura.

Jesus and Sola Scriptura

What amazes me is that a seminary-trained scholar like Scott Hahn had to make these calls. Demonstrating sola scriptura from the Bible is not very difficult. Jesus used the Bible to counter the arguments of Satan. Scripture was quoted, not tradition (Matthew 4:1-10 and Luke 4:1-12). The same can be said about His debates with the religious leaders. He asks them, “Did you never read in the Scriptures?” (Matthew 21:42). He appeal is not made to any ecclesiastical body, the priesthood, or tradition.

The Sadducees, who denied the doctrine of the resurrection, hoped to trap Jesus with a question that seems to have no rational or biblical answer. Jesus, with all the prerogatives of divinity, could have manufactured a legitimate and satisfactory answer without an appeal to Scripture. He did not. Instead, he tells them, “You are mistaken, not understanding the Scriptures, or the power of God” (Matthew 22:29). Here we find Jesus rejecting ecclesiastical opinion — as represented by the Sadducees — in favor of sola scriptura.

To whom does Abraham appeal in the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus? Does he point to tradition? He does not. Ecclesiastical Authority? No. A saint? (Abraham himself may have qualified.) No. Abraham answers, “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them” (Luke 16:29). The rich man is not satisfied with this response. “No, Father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!” (verse 30). Maybe a miracle is in order, the rich man suggests. Abraham’s appeal, however, is to Scripture: “But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead'” (verse 31).

On the road to Emmaus Jesus presents and argument to explain His death and resurrection: “And beginning with Moses and the with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:27). No mention is made of tradition. If you want eternal life, what are you to search? The Bible says, “You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is these that bear witness of me” (John 5:39). The religious leaders were searching the correct revelation, but they were looking for the wrong savior.

The Pharisees, who were notorious for distorting the Word fo God by means of their “tradition” (Mark 7:8), still could speak the truth as long as they stuck with sola scriptura. When the “scribes and the Pharisees” seat “themselves in the chair of Moses,” that is, when they are faithful in their use of Scripture, “do and observe” what they tell you (Matthew 23:2-3).

Paul and Sola Scriptura

When Paul “reasoned” with the Jews, what revelational standard did he use? “And according to Paul’s custom” he “reasoned with them from the Scriptures” (Acts 17:2). Paul, who claimed apostolic authority (Romans 1:1; 11:13 1 Corinthians 9:1; Galatians 1:1), did not rebuke the Berean Christians when they examined “the Scriptures daily, to see whether these things” he was telling them were so (Acts 17:11). Keep in mind that the Bereans are described as “more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica.” Could a Roman Catholic put the Pope on the spot like this? Could a Catholic challenge a Church doctrine with such an appeal? Notice that the Bereans were equal to Paul when it came to evaluating doctrine by means of Scripture.[product id="1234" align="right" size="small"]

Paul’s argument for the defense of sola fide is an appeal to Scripture: “For what does the Scripture say?” (Romans 4:2). Roman Catholic doctrine would add, “and Church tradition.” Paul “opposed” Peter, supposedly the first Pope, “to his face” on this doctrine (Galatians 2:11), demonstrating that “a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith [fide] in Christ Jesus” (verse 16).

Acts and Sola Scriptura

When church leaders met in Jerusalem to discuss theological matters, again, their appeal was to Scripture. Their deliberations had to “agree” with “the words of the Prophets” (Acts 15:15), The Book of Acts is filled with an appeal to sola scriptura: the appointment of a successor to Judas (1:20); an explanation of the signs at Pentecost (2:14-21); the proof of the resurrection (2:30-36); the explanation for Jesus’ sufferings (3:18); the defense of Stephen (7); Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian and the explanation of the suffering Redeemer (8:32-35): “Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture [Isaiah 53] he preached Jesus to him” (verse 35). In the Book of Acts the appeal is always to Scripture (10:43; 13:27; 18:4-5; 24:14; 26:22-23, 27; 28:23). The word tradition is nowhere to be found.

Scripture and Tradition

But what of those verses that discuss the validity of tradition? These were very troubling to Scott and Kimberly Hahn, especially 2 Thessalonians 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.” Before we look at this verse, consider the Old Testament. Prior to its inscripturation, most people heard God’s Word “in many portions and in many ways” (Hebrews 1:1). Some of this revelation came by way of oral instruction and written communiques. Over time this revelation came together in inscripturated form designated “Scripture” in the New Testament. By the time of Jesus’ birth this body of written revelation was recognized as being authoritative (Matthew 2:5; Luke 2:22-24). No church council was called to place its imprimatur on these Old Testament books. The Old Testament canon — Scripture — was not the product of the Old Testament church. “The church has no authority to control, create, or define the Word of God. Rather, the canon control, creates and defines the church of Christ.”[6]

Once the completed written revelation was in the hands of the people, appeal was always made to this body of material as Scripture. Scripture plus tradition is not a consideration. In fact, Jesus condemns the Pharisees and scribes because they made the claim that their religious traditions were on an equal par with Scripture (Mark 7:1-13). The Roman Catholic answer to this is self-refuting: “Jesus did not condemn all traditions; he condemned only erroneous traditions, whether doctrines or practices, that undercut Christian truths.”[7] Precisely. But how does one determine whether a tradition is an “erroneous tradition”? Sola scriptura! The Catholic Church maintains that the appeal must be made to the Church whose authority is based on Scripture plus tradition. But this is begging the question. How could anyone ever claim that a tradition is erroneous if the Catholic Church begins with the premise that Scripture and tradition, as determined by the Catholic Church, are authoritative?

[product id="1181" align="left" size="small"]How, then, is Paul using tradition in 2 Thessalonians 2:15? New Testament tradition is the oral teaching of Jesus passed down to the apostles. This is why Paul could write:

Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which you also stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:1-4).

In time, these New Testament doctrines — traditions — became inscripturated in the same way Old Testament doctrines became inscripturated. When the Old Testament canon closed, the canon was referred to as Scripture. The same is true of the development of the New Testament canon. After a complete end had been made of the Old Covenant order in A.D. 70, the canon closed. All New Testament books were written prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. All that God wanted His church to know about “faith and life” can be found in Scripture, Old and New Testament revelation. The Westminster Confession of Faith states it this way:

All synods and councils, since the Apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both (Ephesians 2:20; Acts 17:11; 1 Corinthians 2:5; 2 Corinthians 1:14) (WCF 31:4).

Any “tradition” that the church develops after the close of the canon is non-revelational. Its authority is not in any way equal to the Bible. All creeds and confessions are subject to change based on appeal to Scripture alone.

The denial of sola scriptura is Roman Catholicism’s foundational error.

End Notes:

[1] Bob Moran, A Closer Look at Catholicism: A Guide for Protestants (Dallas, TX: Waco, 1986), 60.
[2] San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1983.
[3] This line is not found in the Bible. Most of the “Hail Mary” is a patchwork of Scripture verses that are descriptive of Mary and her special calling (Luke 1:28, 30, 48). The angel Gabriel is not uttering a prayer, nor does he encourage anyone to turn his words into a prayer.
[4] Hahn, Rome Sweet Home, 51.
[5] Ibid, 52.
[6] Greg L. Bahnsen, “The Concept and Importance of Canonicity,” Antithesis 1:5 (September/October 1990), 43.
[7] Karl Keating, Catholicism and Fundamentalism: The Attack on “Romanism” by “Bible Christians” (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1988, 141.

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