The authority of Scripture holds supreme importance in a Christian worldview, especially for Protestant evangelicals who believe that their faith and the way they live depend upon Scripture. Other branches of Christendom and skeptics, such as the convert to Roman Catholicism Peter Kreeft, sometimes raise objections to this crucial distinction. (1) They suggest that this principle is incoherent or unworkable. Responses to seven common objections explain how sola scriptura impacts Christian theology.
Objection #1: Scripture itself does not teach the principle of sola scriptura; therefore, this principle is self-defeating.
Response: The doctrine of sola scriptura need not be taught formally and explicitly. It may be implicit in Scripture and inferred logically. Scripture explicitly states its inspiration in 2 Timothy 3:15-17, and its sufficiency is implied there as well. This passage contains the essence of sola scriptura, revealing that Scripture is able to make a person wise unto salvation. And it includes the inherent ability to make a person complete in belief and practice.
Scripture has no authoritative peer. While the apostle Paul’s reference in verse 16—to Scripture being “God-breathed”—specifically applies to the Old Testament, the apostles viewed the New Testament as having the same inspiration and authority (1 Tim. 5:18; Deut. 25:4 and Luke 10:7; 2 Pet. 3:16). The New Testament writers continue, mentioning no other apostolic authority on par with Scripture. Robert Bowman notes: “The New Testament writings produced at the end of the New Testament period direct Christians to test teachings by remembering the words of the prophets (OT) and apostles (NT), not by accessing the words of living prophets, apostles, or other supposedly inspired teachers (Heb. 2:2-4; 2 Pet. 2:1; 3:2; Jude 3-4, 17).” (2)
Scriptural warnings such as “do not go beyond what is written” (1 Cor. 4:6) and prohibitions against adding or subtracting text (Rev. 22:18-19) buttress the principle that Scripture stands unique and sufficient in its authority.
Christ held Scripture in highest esteem. The strongest scriptural argument for sola scriptura, however, is found in how the Lord Jesus Christ himself viewed and used Scripture. A careful study of the Gospels reveals that he held Scripture in the highest regard. Jesus said: “The Scriptures cannot be broken” (John 10:35); “Your word is truth” (John 17:17); “Not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law” (Matt. 5:18); and “It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law” (Luke 16:17).
Christ appealed to Scripture as a final authority. Jesus even asserted that greatness in heaven will be measured by obedience to Scripture (Matt. 5:19) while judgment will be measured out by the same standard (Luke 16:29-31; John 5:45-47). He used Scripture as the final court of appeal in every theological and moral matter under dispute. When disputing with the Pharisees on their high view of tradition, he proclaimed: “Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition” (Mark 7:13).
Because Scripture came from God, Jesus considered it binding and supreme, while tradition was clearly discretionary and subordinate. Whether tradition was acceptable or not depended on God’s written Word. This recognition by Christ of God’s Word as the supreme authority supplies powerful evidence for the principle of sola scriptura.
When Jesus was tested by the Sadducees concerning the resurrection, he retorted, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures” (Matt. 22:29). When confronted with the devil’s temptations, he responded three times with the phrase, “It is written,” followed by specific citations (Matt. 4:4-10). In this context, Jesus corrects Satan’s misuse of Scripture. Theologian J. I. Packer says of Jesus: “He treats arguments from Scripture as having clinching force.” (3)
Christ deferred to Scripture. Jesus based his ethical teaching upon the sacred text and deferred to its authority in his Messianic ministry (Matt. 19:18-19; Mark 10:19; Luke 18:20). His very destiny was tied to biblical text: “The Son of Man will go just as it is written” (Matt. 26:24). “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day” (Luke 24:46). Even while dying on the cross, Jesus quoted Scripture (see Matt. 27:45, cf. Ps. 22:1). His entire life, death, and resurrection seemed to be arranged according to the phrase, “The Scriptures must be fulfilled” (Matt. 26:56; Luke 4:21; 22:37).
Clearly, Christ accepted Scripture as the supreme authority and subjected himself to it (Matt. 26:54; Luke 24:44; John 19:28). Jesus did not place himself above Scripture and judge it; instead he obeyed God’s Word completely. A follower of Christ can do no less. A genuinely biblical worldview requires Scripture to be the supreme authority.
Objection #2: The earliest Christians didn’t have the complete New Testament. Therefore, references to Scripture by Jesus and his apostles apply only to the Old Testament.
Response: This objection fails for four reasons.
First, the early church had the living apostles to teach them. Though the inscripturation process took some time, immediacy wasn’t an issue because the apostles were still living. And the written New Testament circulated among the churches early in the first century.
Second, Christ promised to send the Holy Spirit who would guide his apostles “into all truth” (John 16:13), as well as bring to their “remembrance” everything Christ said (John 14:26). In this way, Jesus put his stamp of approval on the New Testament yet to come (prospectively), as he had done for the previously written Old Testament (retrospectively). (4)
Third, considering his identity, the words of Jesus (Gospels) would carry at least the same authority as the words of the Old Testament prophets.
Fourth, Christ’s apostles, who were promised Spirit-guided illumination and recall, placed their writings on par with the Old Testament. The apostolic witness to Scripture claims it is inspired, infallible, and authoritative (Acts 4:25, 28:25; Rom. 3:2, 9:27, 29; 2 Tim. 3:15-16; 2 Pet. 1:20-21).
Objection #3: The Roman Catholic Church wrote, canonized, and interpreted Scripture. The Bible cannot be greater than its cause—the Church.
Response: First, the claim that the church produced the Bible is wrong. (Note: Protestant scholars typically view the early church as catholic but not Roman). The church did not exist officially when the prophets and patriarchs wrote the Old Testament books. And the church accepted the Old Testament canon on the authority of Jesus Christ’s personal testimony. As an institution, the church did not produce the New Testament writings either. The apostles and their close associates (initial leaders of the church at large) wrote those books under the Holy Spirit’s direct inspiration.
Though the early church preceded the apostolic writings, it was the gospel message preached–later recorded and expounded in those writings—that by divine grace produced the church. This progression can be described as:
Gospel –> Church –> New Testament
The New Testament books became a permanent, infallible record of an oral message. Because Scripture is identified with the preached gospel, it is authoritative. The church (made up of gospel-believing communities) submits to the Word (gospel) that created it. Scripture derives no authority from the church; the authority of Scripture is inherent because the very words of God are the text (2 Tim. 3:16).
The early church did not create Scripture. The church merely received Scripture and recognized its inherent authority. God determined the canon by inspiring certain books and then guided the church to recognize and receive them.
The true church derives authority from rightly understanding and applying Scripture. The purpose of Scripture is to bear witness to Christ, who himself bears witness to the integrity and authority of Scripture: “You diligently study the Scriptures….These are the Scriptures that testify about me” (John 5:39).
Objection #4: Oral apostolic tradition is mentioned in Scripture (see 1 Cor. 11:2; 2 Thess. 2:15; 3:6; 2 Tim. 2:2) and granted divine authority alongside the apostolic writings.
Response: While living, the apostles could express their authoritative statements either orally or in writing, for they were hand-selected authoritative spokespersons for the Lord Jesus Christ. This apostolic authority in both forms must have been tremendously helpful as the early church emerged in the first century. It’s reasonable to conclude that the oral communication of the apostles was no different in content from their writings.
After the apostles’ deaths, however, the only way to confirm whether a particular so-called extrabiblical (apostolic) tradition is in accord with what the apostles taught and believed is to rely upon the permanent written Word (Scripture). Not all such claims were historically authentic and factually true even in apostolic times (John 21:22-23). Bowman makes this point: “Nowhere in the New Testament is it stated or implied that the church was commissioned to transmit to future generations oral traditions teaching doctrines or practices not found anywhere in the Bible—much less any guarantee that they would do so infallibly.” (5)
Ancient church traditions may serve as a type of noninspired subordinate norm in theology, but they possess a derivative and ministerial function only. However, such church traditions often suffer from being contradictory, biblically inconsistent, and even nebulous in nature.
Objection #5: Sola scriptura is an unhistorical position. Nobody believed in it before the sixteenth century. Sola scriptura was therefore a theological innovation of the Protestant Reformers.
Response: Because the doctrine of sola scriptura is derived from Scripture (see response to objection #1 above), it is not a sixteenth-century innovation. Sola scriptura did not appear as a fully developed and consistent theological position until the time of the Protestant Reformation, but the foundations for the position appeared much earlier in church history. Historical theologian Richard A. Muller explains:
The views of the Reformers developed out of a debate in the late medieval theology over the relation of Scripture and tradition, one party viewing the two as coequal norms, the other party viewing Scripture as the absolute and therefore prior norm, but allowing tradition a derivative but important secondary role in doctrinal statement. The Reformers and the Protestant orthodox held the latter view, on the assumption that tradition was a useful guide, that the trinitarian and christological statements of Nicaea, Constantinople, and Chalcedon were expressions of biblical truth, and that the great teachers of the church provided valuable instruction in theology that always needed to be evaluated in the light of Scripture. (6)
Other historical theologians, such as Reinhold Seeberg and J. N. D. Kelly, cite a number of early church fathers as believing Scripture to be the absolute authority as a doctrinal norm. (7) Debates over the exact relationship between Scripture and church tradition took place long before the Protestant Reformers came along. In fact, some of the most powerful quotations concerning biblical authority can be drawn from two of the greatest Catholic thinkers in history, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.
Augustine of Hippo (354-430) wrote:
It is to the canonical Scriptures alone that I am bound to yield such implicit subjection as to follow their teaching, without admitting the slightest suspicion that in them any mistake or any statement intended to mislead could find a place. (8)
He [God] also inspired the Scripture, which is regarded as canonical and of supreme authority and to which we give credence concerning all the truths we ought to know and yet, of ourselves, are unable to learn. (9)
There is a distinct boundary line separating all productions subsequent to apostolic times from the authoritative canonical books of the Old and New Testaments…in the innumerable books that have been written latterly we may sometimes find the same truth as Scripture, but there is not the same authority. Scripture has a sacredness peculiar to itself. (10)
Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) stated:
We believe the prophets and apostles because the Lord has been their witness by performing miracles…and we believe the successors of the apostles and prophets only in so far as they tell us those things which the apostles and prophets have left in their writings. (11)
Only to those books or writings which are called canonical have I learnt to pay such honour that I firmly believe that none of their authors have erred in composing them. (12)
Objection #6: Private interpretation leads to denominationalism. Sola scriptura is therefore unworkable as an authoritative principle.
Response: Roman Catholic apologists in particular bring this major objection against sola scriptura. Simply stated, if the Bible is so clear, why are there so many denominations within Protestantism?
The first point is that not all denominational splits are scandalous. Wholesale departures from historic Christianity by theological liberalism must be opposed. When historic churches deny the very essence of the faith (the creeds), then division is obligatory. Packer gives a concise and forceful answer to this objection:
To the traditional Roman Catholic complaint that Protestant biblicism produces endless divisions in the church, the appropriate reply is twofold: firstly, the really deep divisions have been caused not by those who maintained sola scriptura, but by those, Roman Catholic and Protestant alike, who reject it; second, when adherents of sola scriptura have split from each other the cause has been sin rather than Protestant biblicism, for in conventional terms the issues in debate have not been of the first magnitude. (13)
Packer goes on to identify six concerns that divide Protestants: (1) God’s sovereignty and man’s freedom, (2) the Lord’s Supper, (3) ecclesiology (church order), (4) church/state issues, (5) baptism, and (6) eschatology (last things). (14)
One explanation for the differences on secondary issues is that diverse groups use a variety of hermeneutical approaches. Another factor is that no one has all of the spiritual and scholarly gifts and abilities to rightly interpret every detail of Scripture. It should also be noted that Catholicism, regardless of its Teaching Magisterium (15) (teaching office) and its claim to infallibility, has as much diversity as Protestantism. (16) And it must be remembered that the East/West (Orthodoxy/Catholicism) church schism of 1054 severely divided the church five centuries before the Reformation.
Objection #7: The original biblical manuscripts did not contain a table of contents to designate exactly which books were canonical and which were not. Therefore Protestants relied upon Roman Catholic tradition in order to even produce the canon of Scripture. This dilemma is self-defeating for the principle of sola scriptura.
Response: The process that the Christian community went through in deciding which books should be included in the canon is open to historical investigation. It seems unreasonable that a Protestant must rely upon Catholic tradition (as some type of revelation) to objectively investigate this historical process. The canonical debate is not part of what Catholics consider “apostolic tradition.”
Protestant Christians can warrant knowledge of the canon on the objective internal evidences of the biblical texts. Those books belong in the canon that: (1) profess to be Scripture or are acknowledged so by other such books; (2) are authentic (written by the persons to whom they are attributed); and (3) have some objective evidence supporting the claim that they are part of the inspired canon.
In practical terms, Protestants accept the Old Testament as canon because Jesus, whose inspiration is evident, did so. And Protestants accept the New Testament books as canon because it can be verified that Jesus’ apostles and their associates produced them with his authorization.
Catholic apologists admit that the ecclesiastical process that resulted in the biblical canon was long and drawn out. But this assertion seems inconsistent with their claim that the pope possesses the gift of infallibility. Why were there so many different lists and such strong disagreement about certain books? For example, even the great patristic scholars Augustine and Jerome differed over the canon. Why didn’t the pope at the time, as the Vicar of Christ on Earth, simply intervene with the definitive list and settle the issue quickly and permanently? Could it be that in the early church the Bishop of Rome wasn’t recognized as having that power?
It is a mistake to assert that the early church determined or created the canon of Scripture. Rather, the early church recognized the inherent inspiration in the apostolic writings. In other words, an ecclesiastical pronouncement did not inspire scriptural writings; instead the pronouncement followed what had always been considered inspired revelation. When were the canonical books inspired? Not at the Councils of Hippo (A.D. 393) or Carthage (A.D. 397). Each book was inspired the day it was written. Clearly the inspiration of Scripture preceded the pronouncements of councils some three hundred years later.
The divine inspiration and authority of Scripture is self-authenticating (“God breathed,” 2 Tim 3:15-16). The church cannot function as the one who confirms Scripture’s authority (determining the canon), for only God can attest to the truth of his Holy Word. Therefore, an unofficial (but decisive) list of canonical books, namely, the self-authenticating books written by the apostles or their associates, emerges. Their inspiration identifies the books as canonical. The Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture provides the final confirmation that a book is canonical, not the church’s later recognition of that fact.
Kenneth Richard Samples is senior scholar at Reasons to Believe (a science-faith think tank) and an adjunct instructor of apologetics at Biola University. This article is an excerpt from Kenneth Richard Samples, A World of Difference: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), 120-27.
1 [ Back ] For a summary of Roman Catholic criticisms of sola scriptura, see Peter Kreeft, Fundamentals of the Faith: Essays in Christian Apologetics (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1988), 274-75.
2 [ Back ] This quote is taken from Robert M. Bowman, Jr.’s unpublished study outline entitled: “Sola Scriptura: The Protestant Doctrine of the Authority of Scripture,” n.d. (available by request from http://biblicalapologetics.net).
3 [ Back ] J. I. Packer, “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God: Some Evangelical Principles (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1958), 55.
4 [ Back ] See F. F. Bruce, The Books and the Parchments (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 96.
5 [ Back ] Bowman, “Sola Scriptura.”
6 [ Back ] Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, s.v. “Sola Scriptura” (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006).
7 [ Back ] Reinhold Seeberg, Text-book of the History of Doctrines, vol. 1, History of Doctrines in the Ancient Church (Grand Rapids: Baker,1964), 358; J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrine (San Francisco: Harper, 1978), 42-43.
8 [ Back ] Augustine, Letters 82.3, in Philip Schaff, ed., A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, 9th ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956 reprint).
9 [ Back ] Augustine, City of God 11.3.
10 [ Back ] Augustine, Reply to Faustus 11.5.
11 [ Back ] Thomas Aquinas, De veritate 14.10, ad 11.
12 [ Back ] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 1a.1.8.
13 [ Back ] J. I. Packer, “‘Sola Scriptura‘ in History and Today,” in God’s Inerrant Word, ed. John Warwick Montgomery (Canadian Institute for Law, Theology & Public Policy, 1974), 55.
14 [ Back ] Packer, 55-56.
15 [ Back ] For a defense of the Roman Catholic view of the papacy, see Scott Butler et al., Jesus, Peter and the Keys: A Scriptural Handbook on the Papacy (Santa Barbara, CA: Queenship, 1997). For a Protestant critique of the papacy, see Norman Geisler and Ralph Mackenzie, Roman Catholics & Evangelicals (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), and James R. White, Scripture Alone: Exploring the Bible’s Accuracy, Authority, and Authenticity (Minneapolis: Bethany, 2004). For audiotapes of a Protestant-Catholic dialogue between Kenneth Samples and Father Mitchell Pacwa (S.J.) on the question of religious authority, contact: St. Joseph Communications, Inc., P.O. Box 720, W. Covina, CA 91793 (1-818-331-3549).
16 [ Back ] For a discussion of the broad diversity that exists within the Roman Catholic Church, see Kenneth Richard Samples, “What Think Ye of Rome? An Evangelical Appraisal of Contemporary Catholicism,” Part I, Christian Research Journal (Winter 1993), 32-42.