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  • Writer's pictureJake

Sola Scriptura: Rebuttal

An article on caught my eye. The title is “A Defense of Sola Scriptura” by Sean Luke. If that article is the defense of Sola Scriptura, I suppose this would count as the rebuttal of the doctrine.

The writer comes from an Anglican tradition and what a relief that is. Not only is Scripture an area of common ground, but Reason and Tradition are, too! I spent a year in the Anglican church and it, more than any other place of worship, helped to propel me all the way to Catholicism. Additionally, one of the top referring sites to my blog is Catholics and Anglicans have so much in common. This article is far from an attack for the sake of tearing down our brothers and sisters in Christ. No, I like Anglicans and we need them fully in the Church. They helped to clear up misunderstandings I had while heading towards Catholicism and I wish to return the favor.

Luke opens his argument by defining “Canon”.

"The word “canon” just means “measuring stick.” Here are two ways in which this might be construed:

Canon[1]: The “canon” just denotes those books of Scripture which serve as the measuring stick or the norming norm of all doctrine.

Canon[2]: More broadly speaking, we may think of the canon as the “list” of authoritative New Testament books."

To say that the books of the Bible are ‘Canonical” means that they “measure up to the rule”. This rule cannot be other books of the Bible as this would be circular. Nor can the rule that these books measured up to be the canon of the Bible, since that is precisely what did not yet exist.

Instead, the canonical books are those that measured up to the Rule of Faith. In other words, the Church was teaching and living out the Christian faith for centuries and compares the potential books of the Bible to the understanding of the Deposit of Faith passed down by the Apostles and their successors. Written tradition, or what we call Scripture, had to measure up to the lived and taught Tradition of the Early Church.

It is only after passing the test, or measuring up to the measuring stick of Tradition, that the Canon is defined as an authoritative set of writings. So far I don’t think that Anglicans, Luke included, would disagree.

Luke is also right to say that the Church did not give these texts their authority by fiat. Instead, as guided by the Spirit, it recognizes their pre-existing authority. What he doesn’t address in detail is why these books have authority. Certainly we do not believe they have authority stemming from their own nature, from all eternity, as Islam believes of the Koran. Other Protestants who take a presuppositional approach to Scripture may wander into this unorthodox conclusion (*cough cough* Baptists).

The Catholic and Anglican answer is that the books of the Bible have their authority derived from the authority of the Apostles. The Apostles have their authority from Jesus and therefore from God Himself. As such, there is no circularity in our explanation for authority, nor an arbitrary brute fact on which we rest. Instead, the truth and authority of Scripture is grounded in Truth and Authority Himself.

For those books that may not have an Apostle for an author, this is no issue at all. If the book measures up to the rule of faith given by the Apostles, then it is in union with the truth that Christ revealed. It receives its authority ultimately from the same source as a book which was written by the Apostles. All that is needed in this case is an infallible authority to pronounce it has indeed measured up to what the Church possesses in the one deposit of faith. It is only at that last statement where Catholics and Anglicans may part ways.

With all of this in mind, written Scripture cannot be called the “ultimate authority”, because it had to measure up to something else prior to its ability to act as an authority. Instead, the ultimate authority is Christ who has delegated His authority to His Church. At times, His Church writes under the power of the Holy Spirit and this we call Scripture. At other times, His Church dogmatically teaches the deposit of Faith and this is Tradition. There are not multiple authorities to pit against each other. There is one, Christ through His Church. This is why 1 Timothy 3:15 references the Church as “the Pillar and Foundation of Truth”.

Luke says that the Church Fathers and the authority of the Church are all oriented towards helping us understand Scripture. This gives Scripture the ultimate place, since it is the source from which truth is unpacked. I think Catholics would agree far more than he would expect.

Catholics believe in the material sufficiency of Scripture, meaning all that is necessary for correct understanding of faith and morals is present in the Scriptures in a raw form. We do not believe in formal sufficiency. Scripture, by itself, does not take the shape of the doctrines which the faithful are bound to believe. Not without the help of Tradition.

The Truth can be compared to matter and form. Like truth, we are not in some kind of tension, body vs soul. We are one thing, a person. As people, we are our soul and we are our body. The Scripture is Truth, and the understanding of this truth taking place in the Church, known as Tradition, is also the Truth. There is no tension or relevant division to be made because we are speaking of one thing: Truth.

To treat the material as ultimate is drifting towards materialism. Alternatively, to denigrate the material in favor of the formal is drifting towards Gnosticism. Instead, we ought to take the middle way and affirm Truth as unified and thus respect both the written word and the abstracted meaning of the text.

Further along in Luke’s article, I get a bit confused by what point he is making. He points out that Church teachings change. If he means doctrines develop, then sure, I agree. After all, Anglicans and Catholics alike share a Triune doctrine of God, which is more developed than even what the Apostle Paul understood. For such developments we ought to be grateful; over time, we have been busy assembling the puzzle pieces left for us and gaining a fuller picture as we go. Alternatively, if he means the Church changes its mind on what has been defined as dogma, no; truth doesn’t contradict truth and the Pillar and foundation of Truth, the Church, doesn’t fail. This, however, splits quickly into another topic that I will eventually answer in a future article.

Next in his article is some exposition of 2 Timothy 3:16-17. In this section Luke writes:

Scripture is the only thing identified in Scripture (which Roman Catholics and Protestants accept as an authority) as that which is able to equip you for every good work–indeed, for completion and full maturity.

Not so fast, my friend. James 1:4 reads:

Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

Using a broadly Protestant interpretative paradigm, as is brought to the passage that Luke cites, we could conclude instead that perseverance is what brings us to maturity and completion so that we lack nothing. Should we become “Sola Perseverance”, or is this the wrong way to read such passages? I suggest the latter. Now for a Catholic exegesis of the passage:

But wicked people and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving others and being deceived. 14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, 15 and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:13-17

Given that we have contradictory interpretations of this passage, one of us is deceived. Ironically, the context of the passage so beloved by Protestant apologists states: But wicked people and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving others and being deceived. So how do we avoid such deception? The Apostle Paul tells us:

continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it,

In other words, to avoid deception we must have continuity with the Faith (continue in what you have learned) and we can be confident that we are not deceived because of the one who taught us this Faith (knowing from whom you learned it). Therefore, Paul grounds our confidence in Tradition (continuity) and the Apostolic office (person from which he learned it). We can be confident in the truth because we know that it came from Christ and the Apostles, as those who had the authority to teach.

As explained earlier, Scripture, Tradition, and the Apostolic Authority to teach definitively are not in conflict but expressed in one breath by Paul. Watch as he finishes his thought:

15 and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.

Here is the third piece, Scripture. Again, Paul already mentioned tradition and apostolic authority as seen above. All three are his answer for how to avoid deception, not one abstracted from the rest.

Luke opposes the common Catholic view that the “Scripture” referred to are only the Old Testament writings. While I understand his argument and think it has some validity, I come down on the other side. In context, Paul is referencing the sacred writings that Timothy knew from childhood when he refers to Scripture. Given the timetable established, this precludes the New Testament from being part of the Scripture that is referenced. Again here is the text:

and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

When the text is in front of us, it seems apparent that he is laying out a necessary, and not a sufficient, condition. Yes, Scripture is necessary to be “proficient, equipped for every good work.” I agree.

Let’s sub in some different words to make this point more clear. Imagine this as an ad at the local outdoor store:

All tents are inspired by Sir Edmund Hillary and are useful for hiking trips, for shelter, for warmth, and for training in outdoor survival, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good hiking trip.

If your friend read that ad and concluded all that was needed to be “proficient, equipped for every good hiking tripwas a tent, would he be correct? No, and depending on where he went, he might die without all of the other necessary things for the trip.

We know in the Christian walk many other things are necessary conditions, therefore Scripture is not sufficient by itself.

1 Corinthians 13:2 says: If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

Hebrews 11:6 says: without Faith it is impossible to please God.

James 2:17 tells us that: Faith without works is dead.

I think Luke would not dispute most of what I just wrote. But therein lies the rub; then what is his argument for Sola Scriptura? If more than Scripture is necessary, then I fail to see how the “Sola” is affirmed. This leaves us with “Scriptura”, which we all already agree on...and which Catholics even claim is materially sufficient.

If, however, he is using this passage to show that only Scripture is ever described as that which can make us mature and complete, I point again to James 1:4: “Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” Furthermore, I offer the historical record where many, if not most, early Christians did not have the canon of Scripture and yet some of these are the greatest of all Christian exemplars. The 2nd century martyrs in particular come to mind.

Luke does a good job showing the Church did not define the canon arbitrarily, but rather in reference to the Apostles. I agree, but instead of pointing to the Scriptures as the ultimate authority, doesn’t that point to the Apostles? Isn’t that the common thread between Tradition, the Magisterium, and Scripture? Finally, this is affirmed in Luke 10:16: “He who hears you hears me”, and in Matthew 16:19, where Peter is given the rabbinical authority the Sanhedrin once had by virtue of sitting in the seat of Moses (Matthew 23:2).

Like other articles on Luke’s site, it is a good read and makes thoughtful points. However, I fail to see how he proves the ultimate authority of Scripture in the way he defines it.

Questions and Objections:

Note: Not all of these are expected objections I think Luke would offer. Rather, these are questions and objections against the Catholic view more broadly. If Sean Luke has additional objections or questions, I am happy to answer them here.


The Catholic position is that the Church is necessary to interpret the Bible. The argument states there is no use in having an infallible book without an infallible interpretation. Yet this would create a regress problem. What if we don’t interpret the interpretation correctly? Do we need an endless series of infallible interpreters of previous interpreters? Of course not. If Catholics can affirm the Church's interpretation can be understood with common methods, we can affirm the same about Scripture itself.

Answer: Let’s say there is a Math class. Previous teachers got together to write a math textbook. Subsequently, all future teachers taught out of this materially sufficient book. The class now has three things. First, the material with which to work from. Second, an explanation tailored to their time, place, and understanding of how to understand the difficult problems in the book. Finally, there is an authoritative living voice, which can speak with authority about what is the right and wrong answer.

Does this mean all the students are given absolute certainty that they will understand everything without error? No. Their understanding will be according to their quality as students. If, however, the teacher is removed, their understanding is now limited both by their quality as students and also by their capability to be teachers and final arbiters of difficult problems, which they themselves have not yet been shown how to solve.

If you are looking for Cartesian style, ultra-rationalistic, apodictic certainty, you are out of luck. If you can recognizing the role of the teacher in the classroom and the undeniable advantage of having one, I have good news with regard to the Faith! This teacher is called the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.

Answer: In our legal system, there exists the Law, Lawyers, and Judges. Lawyers interpret the law and present their interpretation to the judge who has the authority to decide what is and is not lawful. Following your logic, there needs to be lawyers to interpret the lawyers, ad infinitum, or else we ought to abolish both lawyers and judges and instead allow all citizens to interpret the law for themselves. Your dilemma sets up an arbitrarily high standard for certainty and then concludes that anarchy is the best way to proceed.

Answer: Good news: infallibility is also vested in the bishops when they are teaching in union with Rome. Therefore, there is a path for the truth to come from the material of Scripture through an infallible interpreter and enter into a given culture and context.


Fine, I accept the Apostles are the ultimate authority, because Christ gives them His authority to teach. But here is the thing, we only have one sure and certain group of their teachings and it is Scripture. Oral teachings were well and good at the time of the Apostles, but 2,000 years after the game of telephone started? Give me a break. All we should be basing doctrine on is written Scripture, because realistically that is all we have now.

Answer: We are not saying there are two deposits of Faith, one written and one oral, as if they were distinct; one being concrete and secure and the other being wild and woolly. The Tradition we speak of is more broad than simply oral teaching and more certain than a game of telephone.

If you have ever worked on cars, you know there are books called Haynes manuals. These tell you how to repair and replace everything on a given vehicle. If you hand that book to a city dweller in Manhattan and tell them to rebuild their engine, they cannot. If, however, you hand it to a redneck from Alabama, they could probably get it done. Why? Is it because there is a secret oral tradition among the redneck kind, giving them secret knowledge over and above what is contained in the Haynes manual? Not really; the difference is one person comes out of a culture, a lived and embodied way of life, that allows the knowledge of that book to be applied with wisdom at a particular time and place.

The difference between Sola Scriptura and the Catholic position is the difference between getting a cookbook and being trained at an established restaurant on how to prepare a dish. Sure, in both cases a chef is teaching, and sure, reading the recipe might be more clear than the chaos of a kitchen. But this is not the point. Who would cook the dish better? Obviously the person who learned from the restaurant. The cookbook doesn’t interpret itself, nor does it orient itself in reality on your behalf. Only a living, dynamic institution can do that.

Answer: The Scriptures themselves command us to hold fast to the oral tradition. 2 Thess 2:15.

Answer: The Scriptures record the Apostles receiving the binding and loosing power, and the authority to pass this down as was done in the Old Testament. If your point is that we need to only use the material of Scripture from which to derive doctrine, then fine. That is Catholic. We hold to the material sufficiency of Scripture as already explained. If your point is that all we need is the material of Scripture and no authority to definitively decide on disputed interpretations, then no. That is anarchy in the order of Korah’s rebellion.

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