Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology
Is Sola Scriptura Biblical?
by J. Staples
The charge often levelled by the Roman Catholic apologist, when discussing the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, that the concept of Scripture alone being the sole infallible rule of faith for the church is, itself, absent from Scripture. Is there any Biblical basis for Sola Scriptura? There is indeed, but before I get to that one has to note that the principle of Sola Scriptura is based on several principles:
1. That the Scriptures are inspired by God, as 2 Tim. 3:16 says, theopneustos or "God-breathed". (More on this in a bit)
2. That its sufficiency is found in its inspiration. That is to say, that no other norm possesses this level of special revelation, and while Scripture is not God's only revelation, it is the sole infallible form of special revelation, the primary rule of faith for the church.
3. That Sola Scriptura states that Scripture is the highest authority, but not that it is the only authority. Indeed, God has given His church teachers and shepherds to guide and instruct us, for us to submit to and be accountable to. But, we affirm that these teachers are accountable to Scripture and do not supersede it. They are not above it.
4. That Sola Scriptura states Scripture stands alone as the sole infallible rule of faith, but not that it denies tradition. Indeed every church possesses some forms of tradition, but these traditions are not to be held as binding to the believer's conscience. Furthermore tradition is not another rule of faith. Rather, tradition is found in those areas where we have liberty, in non-essentials. Likewise, tradition is also accountable to Scripture, it cannot supersede it, it cannot contradict it, it is not equal to it.
5. That Sola Scriptura states that all things which are binding upon a believer's conscience are found in Scripture, and no where else. That is to say that all the things required to know for salvation is in Scripture, and thus is it sufficient. But, never does Sola Scriptura state that Scripture is an exhaustive book of all religious and/or secular knowledge. You won't find the chemical formula for complex atomic reactions or what color Peter's eyes were in Scripture. There are some things that God, in His sovereign will, has determined we don't need to know right now, religiously speaking (like intricacies about the fall of Satan, etc). But all that is required to know for salvation is in Scripture. (Joh 20:30 Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.)
All that is just to lay a foundation for as I discuss this issue, as these points are often confused or ignored by Roman Catholic apologists. All of that being said, where is the Biblical evidence for Sola Scriptura?
1. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 - "2Ti 3:16 All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; 17 so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work."
The exegesis for this verse goes as follows: Paul is writing what he knows will be his final letter to Timothy. So close to martyrdom, (2 Tim. 4:6-8) Paul is giving Timothy some final words of wisdom and admonition. In Chapter 3, Paul warns Timothy about the coming troubles the church will face (2 Tim. 3:1-13), the persecution, problems from within and from outside, etc. In equipping his student, he reminds him of what he needs to lay ahold of, as one called to ministry and called to protect and preach the truth of the Lord "in and out of season" (2 Tim. 4:1-2). Beginning in v. 14 of chapter 3, and going into v. 15: "2Ti 3:14 You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them, 15 and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus." Paul is admonishing Timothy to continue in the things he has learned, knowing from whom he learned it (Paul, and Timothy's mother, etc. - the godly teachers given to Timothy), and calling to mind that Timothy has known and studied the "sacred writings" (Scriptures) which Paul states are "able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus." From here, now, Paul builds onto v. 16 and 17.
The first thing Paul points out is that Scripture is "inspired by God". This is the Greek word I referenced above: theopneustos, which is translated "God-breathed". This inspiration then lays the foundation of the next few points:
- Scripture is profitable.
- What is it profitable for? "teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness" These are the functions that a rule of faith must be able to perform if it is to be a sufficient rule of faith. It must teach, it must reprove, it must correct, it must train in righteousness. And these all, again, stemming from the fact that Scripture is inspired.
- Because it is profitable for all of these things, the man of God is adequate. Now this word is "artios" in the Greek, which the BDAG (Bauer, Danker, Arndt, and Gingrich) Greek Lexicon defines as "to being well fitted for some function, complete, capable, proficient". So, in adequacy, the meaning is not something which can barely skate us by, but something which is able to make us proficient or complete. Adequate.
- Because it is profitable for those previously mentioned functions, and because it can make the man of God "adequate" or "complete", the man of God is equipped for every good work.
- Hence, Scripture is able to fully furnish the man of God. Scripture is fully sufficient.
Some very important things to note is that Paul does not point Timothy to another rule of faith for which he is to go to be adequate and equipped for every good work. Paul does not point to another rule of faith which is God-breathed. Paul does not tell Timothy that this Scripture is only sufficient in the hands of an "infallible Magisterium". Paul makes no mention of any other body of knowledge to perform those works which are profitable. Paul, rather, starts in v. 15 by directing Timothy to Scripture and giving Timothy confidence in its ability to "give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus" and then moves on to demonstrate the sufficiency of Scripture as a basis for which we can form this confidence.
I spent a lot of time on this verse in particular because it is one of the verses most often the subject of debate between the Roman Catholic and Protestant. I'll try not to be so verbose in subsequent verses.
2. John 20:31 - "Joh 20:31 but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name."
I previously cited this verse, but want to go back and demonstrate several things about this verse that can be noted:
- John was noting in v. 30 that there were many other miracles and things said (Jn. 21:25) which he does not record in his Gospel. Right here, the Roman Catholic apologist often tries to pick apart the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, stating that Scripture is insufficient because it is not exhaustive. Here is where the point that I demonstrated comes into play. The sufficiency of Scripture is not that it is an exhaustive textbook of all matters of religious and secular knowledge. But rather its sufficiency is in its inspiration, and its inspiration as God's special revelation to His people makes it profitable to function in all of the methods that a rule of faith must function in (as I described above in 2 Tim. 3:16-17). And here in v. 31, John describes perfectly what I mean when I say that rather than being the exhaustive textbook on all things, Scripture contains all the things which God has deemed be binding on the conscience of the believer... It contains all that needs to be known for salvation.
- Furthermore, while the Roman Catholic apologist states that Scripture is unclear, and in need of an infallible human interpreting body to be understood (the Magisterium), here John says these things have been written so that "you" may believe... And have life in His name. The problem is not that Scripture is hard to understand. It is that men's hearts are depraved apart from the regenerating grace of God. They suppress the truth, shun and hide from the light (Rom. 1:18-21; John 1:4-5; John 3:19-21). Peter says that they are "untaught and unstable" and distort those things hard to understand, and to their own destruction. (2 Peter 3:16)
And after conversion, we still struggle with the remnants of that sin nature. But God has promised us that the Spirit will guide God's redeemed into all truth (John 16:13). The Roman Catholic apologist would argue, yes, that's why we have a Magisterium! But nowhere does this verse or any other verse discussing the Lord's guidance speak of an infallible human interpreter. But time and time again we see the promise of the leading of the Spirit to God's chosen ones, His redeemed. He promises us human teachers to teach and guide us, but ultimately the believer has the Spirit, the same Spirit at work inside of them sanctifying them, and the promise that God causes "all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose" (Rom.8:28). The believer has the inspired Word of God which is said to be a "lamp to my feet And a light to my path" (Ps. 119:105).
3. This point is couple of verses. This set highlights a couple of times when Jesus holds men accountable for knowing the Scriptures.
- Mat 21:42 Jesus *said to them, "Did you never read in the Scriptures, 'THE STONE WHICH THE BUILDERS REJECTED, THIS BECAME THE CHIEF CORNER stone; THIS CAME ABOUT FROM THE LORD, AND IT IS MARVELOUS IN OUR EYES'?
- Mat 22:29 But Jesus answered and said to them, "You are mistaken, not understanding the Scriptures nor the power of God.
In both of these verses, our Lord holds the men he speaks to responsible for knowing the Scriptures, and rebukes them for their ignorance or lack of discernment. If the Scriptures are so hard to understand, why were those who had no Magisterium held accountable to what the Scriptures had said?
On a related note, Christ Jesus is found often appealing to the Scriptures or making an example from the Scriptures... Explaining a piece of the Law, or teaching and expounding upon concepts found in the Old Testament. But what of tradition? Is something which is supposed to be such an intricate part of the Word of God addressed by the Lord? Never once do we see the Lord making an appeal from an "inspired body of Tradition". And while the Lord does indeed recognize some traditions which were in place at the time, never does He hold men accountable to an unwritten tradition as binding upon the conscience of anyone He is addressing. Actually, quite the converse is true. The Lord is found rebuking those who have made their traditions binding upon the conscience of their people, who have elevated their unwritten traditions to a level that belonged only to Scripture.
- Mat 15:3 And He answered and said to them, "Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?
- Mar 7:8 "Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men." 9 He was also saying to them, "You are experts at setting aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition.
Tradition is not only never appealed to by our Lord as a form of doctrinal authority, but its elevation to a status of doctrinal authority was rebuked by Jesus.
4. This point is another set of verses, this time calling out some of the verses where Jesus or one of the writers of Scripture appeals to Scripture to make a case.
- Mat 21:13 And He *said to them, "It is written, 'MY HOUSE SHALL BE CALLED A HOUSE OF PRAYER'; but you are making it a ROBBERS' DEN."
- Mar 1:2 As it is written in Isaiah the prophet: "BEHOLD, I SEND MY MESSENGER AHEAD OF YOU, WHO WILL PREPARE YOUR WAY; 3 THE VOICE OF ONE CRYING IN THE WILDERNESS, 'MAKE READY THE WAY OF THE LORD, MAKE HIS PATHS STRAIGHT.'"
- Mar 14:49 "Every day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not seize Me; but this has taken place to fulfill the Scriptures."
- Mar 15:28 [And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, "And He was numbered with transgressors."]
- Luk 4:21 And He began to say to them, "Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."
- Luk 24:27 Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.
- Joh 7:42 "Has not the Scripture said that the Christ comes from the descendants of David, and from Bethlehem, the village where David was?"
This list is not an exhaustive list either of the number of times Scripture is appealed to by the Lord or one of the Gospel writers. 'So what?' the RC apologist may quip, 'We believe the Bible is an authority and appeal to it as well.' The significance of this set of verses and the other verses where "it is written" or "the Scriptures say", etc. is that it demonstrates the high esteem which the written word was held, and the need the Gospel writers and the Lord felt they had to demonstrate from Scripture how these things which came to pass were in fulfillment of the Scriptures. Constantly do we see Scripture appealed to to make the case for Christ as Messiah, Redeemer, and Lord. But not once is tradition held to this esteem. Not once does the Lord or the Scripture writers feel the need to prove their case from an unwritten form of "Tradition". And likewise, the writers of the epistles, Paul, James, and Peter, cite many times from Scriptures also to prove their case, offer backing for an assertion, and expand upon a concept found in the Old Testament. Some of the verses where the Scriptures are cited in this manner are in the following list: Acts 1:20, 7:42, 13:33, 15:15-18, 23:5; Rom. 1:17, 2:24, 3:4, 3:10-18, 4:9, 4:17-18, 8:36, 9:12-13, 9:15, 9:33, 10:13, 10:15-16, 11:8, 11:26, 12:19, 14:11, 15:3, 15:9, 15:21; 1Cor 1:19, 1:31, 2:9, 3:19, 9:9, 10:7, 14:21, 15:45; 2 Cor 8:15, 9:9; Gal 3:10, 3:13, 4:22, 4:27; James 2:8, 2:11, 2:23; 1 Pet 1:16, 1:24-25, 2:6-10, 2:22, 3:10-12. This is not even an exhaustive list.
Oral tradition is referenced by Paul in 1 Cor 11:2, 2 Thes 2:15, 2 Thes 3:6, and 2 Tim 2:2, but here the Roman Catholic apologist fails to establish a claim to his position Scripturally. He can provide no evidence that the oral message or "tradition" varied from the written message or even that the oral message exists today. Whereas we have Scripture set out for us today, Tradition and all it contains has never formally been outlined by Roman Catholicism.
The example set before us by Scripture is that of Scriptural supremacy. The arguments and assertions presented by the apostles, the writers of the New Testament, and by Christ are accompanied by supporting Scriptures, which is plainly discernible by anyone who takes an honest look at Scripture and at their statements.
5. Acts 17:10-12 - "Act 17:10 The brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews. 11 Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so. 12 Therefore many of them believed, along with a number of prominent Greek women and men."
Two ideas prominent in the Sola Scriptura epistemology can be found in this passage:
- Encouragement to examine the written word. The Bereans are called "more noble-minded" for searching the Scriptures to validate the message given to them by Paul and Silas. This first of all implies that the message Paul and Silas gave was compatible with the written Word and/or contained therein. But secondly it also implies my next point:
- The perspicuity of the written word. This text then implies that they could understand what the Scriptures were saying in the first place. Scripture was not so vague that the Bereans could not discern the message of the Gospel in the writings of the Old Testament. They did not need an infallible human interpreter. Indeed this idea can even be expanded to the fact that Scripture is so often cited by the apostles and writers of Scripture. The apostle and writer reasons with their audience using Scripture, indicating that the message of Scripture can be understood by their audience.
- The sufficiency of the written word to present the way of salvation. Not only could the message of Scripture be understood by the Bereans, but the Holy Spirit, working through the God-breathed Scriptures, brought them and some Greeks to salvation.
I must state at this point that Sola Scriptura is a concept we derive from Scripture, as I have demonstrated above. However, by no means do we say that the church of the Old Testament or New Testament practiced Scripture alone as we do today. They had the prophets, and they had the apostles. But, this does not mean that Sola Scriptura is not Biblical. Indeed, the elements of it were in place, and the burden of proof weighs in on the side of Sola Scriptura given the importance of Scripture in the Bible, the use of Scripture by our Lord and the apostles, and their views on the clearness and sufficiency of Scripture. After the death of the apostles and the closure of canon which accompanied their passing, the work of inscripturation was complete and the Lord had given us His inspired (God-breathed) Word, His special revelation. Paul told Timothy he could be complete and fully equipped for every good work, and told Timothy that Scripture was profitable for all the functions that a rule of faith must perform to be sufficient. The Lord appealed to those He spoke with using Scripture, the apostles presented the Gospel through and in Scripture, the Lord held others accountable to Scripture, the Gospel writers and epistle writers present their cases using Scripture, and no where are we pointed to another rule of faith that the post-apostolic church would need to be sufficient. No where else are we pointed for the Gospel, for anything that is to be held as binding upon the believer's conscience.
Sola Scriptura is a fully Biblical concept. It is rooted in the example of Scripture and in Scripture's inspiration. No other rule of faith was left to us which can perform the tasks Scripture can, no other rule of faith has been said to carry the same weight of inspiration, no other rule of faith is needed to make the man of God complete. Scripture is clearly discernible, and through the Holy Spirit and godly teachers we can approach the Holy written Word of God and know all that is required for us to know to be saved.