The following is meant as a simple and brief response to some common objections to sola scriptura that exist, particularly those floating around the internet. It’s not meant to be a complete defense, and is partially meant to likewise address the inconsistencies stemming from some criticism of sola scriptura.
Before we begin, let’s provide an accurate definition of sola scriptura, so that we have some basis of which to draw from, beginning with what sola scriptura is not. The teaching of sola scriptura is not some old man sitting behind a pulpit and banging a Bible against it like an angry monkey with a rock and screaming, “This is all I need! No church no nothin’!” It is not a Joe Shmoe off the street buying a Bible, opening it up, and being instantaneously able to write a multi-volumed systematic theology.
Sola scriptura does not necessarily condemn Christian antiquity, church authority or mere tradition in a sweeping fashion; what it does teach is the idea that creeds, confessions, extra-apostolic writings and individual systematic theologies must be held to one supreme standard: the Word of God.
But the Reformers did not intend by that phrase [sola scriptura] to claim that Scripture was the only religious authority; rather, they uniformly held it to be the supreme authority. It stood alone as the only unquestioned authority. The Reformers had tested the other claimants to religious authority and found them all wanting…But all the Protestant Reformers looked with respect and admiration on Christian antiquity – specifically on the church fathers, the ancient creeds and the doctrinal decrees of of the ecumenical councils – and acknowledged a subordinate religious authority inhering in them. [Payton, James R. Getting the Reformation Wrong: Correcting Some Misunderstandings, pg. 156]
Sola scriptura literally means, “Scripture alone.” Unfortunately, this phrase tends to be taken in the vein of “Scripture in isolation, Scripture outside of the rest of God’s work in the church.” That is not its intended meaning; again, it means “Scripture alone as the sole infallible rule of faith for the church”…A rule of faith is hat which governs and guides what we believe and why. [White, James. Scripture Alone, pg. 27-28; all emphasis in original]
Authority stems solely in the Word of God, and it is by this authority that all other supposed authorities must be tested. To give a brief quote on this subject:
Genuine authority realizes that it can exist only in the service of Him who alone has authority…The Church will place its confidence only in the simple servant of the Word of Jesus Christ because it knows that then it will be guided, not according to human wisdom and human conceit, but by the Word of the Good Shepherd. [Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Living Together, pg. 109]
To summarize: sola scriptura is the belief that scripture and scripture alone is the sole, infallible rule of faith for the Christian to live by, and while there may exist other authorities or documents in the Christian life, all must be held to the standard set by the Holy Text. With this in mind, let’s review some common objections to the doctrine of sola scriptura.
Objection #1: Sola scriptura causes divisions – look at the thousands of Protestant sects!
The main problem with this objection is that it is based on an assumption: the sects existent within Protestantism today are because of sola scriptura. In many ways, it’s an example of the post hoc fallacy: “After sola scriptura was introduced, all these groups came into being, therefore the problem must be sola scriptura.” This argument is often simply made in a bold, cavalier fashion, with no demonstration of the argument’s validity (oftentimes probably because the person making it simply heard it from somewhere else).
One would be challenged, however, to find sects that exist solely because two people disagreed over an exegesis of a passage. Many sects, such as the Methodists breaking away from the Anglicans, happened for reasons that were more political than religious; many more sects, such as the Evangelical Methodists breaking away from the United Methodists, happened because the leadership was falling away and not following scripture (and therefore those breaking away were merely following Romans 16:17). Some sects, such as the Presbyterians, exist not from conflict but historical factors (Presbyterians originating simply in the Reformed Christians of Scotland). Few of these occurred because two people got together and said, “Well you see this verse one way and I see it another, so let’s just split!”
Another problem with this argument is that, on the other spectrum, unity among the “apostolic” faiths is not perfect: among those who claim to source themselves to the apostles are the Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, the Coptics, and various Eastern Christian sects. Were these divisions because of sola scriptura as well? If not, why then do they exist? If they exist for reasons beyond interpretations of scripture (and the Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox certainly do interpret some passages differently) then why does this standard not extend to Protestantism as well? The fact is, there are divisions among the “apostolic” churches as well as Protestant churches. Those Orthodox or Catholics who gleefully quote 1 Timothy 3:15 and declare that the church is the pillar of truth must then be asked, “Which ‘apostolic’ church do you believe that pillar of truth to be?
Likewise, those who belong to “apostolic” faiths and yet would claim that their fellow “apostolic” brethren are still brothers in Christ show yet another inconsistency when it comes to attacking the divisions within Protestantism, where many still call themselves brothers in Christ along denominational lines. Those who carry the mantra “Christ founded one church!” to claim that their individual church is the true “apostolic church” must then backtrack to admit that other “apostolic” churches were founded by Christ as well. This despite the fact that none of these churches are in full communion with one another. To ignore the divisions among non-Protestant churches while attacking the divisions within Protestants churches is but a sign of double standards.
All in all, one would almost imagine that divisions simply exist because of the war that rages in our members (cf. James 4:1), and not sola scriptura.
Objection #2: The phrase sola scriptura is never explicitly stated in the Bible.
Bluntly put, this is a silly argument. The word “Trinity” is not found in scripture either, and yet it is clearly revealed in scripture to be a truth. It is very similar to the Muslim declaration fallacy which demands that Christ state “I am God” in the New Testament to prove His divinity. We do not need a term to be present in order to demonstrate its definition.
Objection #3: The teaching of sola scriptura is never found in the Bible.
The importance and supreme authority of scripture is consistently found throughout the Bible. From the Old Testament, we find the Psalmist writing on the importance of scripture as a guide:
How can a young man keep his way pure? By keeping it according to Your word. [Psalm 119:9]
From the prophet Isaiah we find a command regarding the authority scripture has over spiritual and religious matters:
When they say to you, “Consult the mediums and the spiritists who whisper and mutter,” should not a people consult their God? Should they consult the dead on behalf of the living? To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn. [Isaiah 8:19-20]
And again, regarding the power of scripture and God’s control over it:
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there without watering the earth and making it bear and sprout, and furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater; so will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; it will not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it. [Isaiah 55:10-11]
In the context of the New Testament, Christ often used scripture against those who came with philosophical or tradition-driven questions: He quoted scripture against their protest of the disciples’ picking wheat on the sabbath (Matt 12:3-5; Luke 6:3-4); He used scripture to answer a question about divorce (Matt 19:4-5); He quoted scripture when they did not see the full scope of the parable of the wicked vine-growers (Matt 21:42; Mark 12:10); He accused the Sadducees of not understanding the scriptures (Matt 22:29; Mark 12:24), and quoted further scripture to illustrate this (Matt 22:31-32); He stated that the scriptures testified about who He was (John 5:39); He used scripture against the Pharisaical protest of His use of “Son of God” (John 10:34-35). When often asked questions, Christ asked the person to recite their scripture for an answer: for example, the lawyer regarding eternal life (Luke 10:25-27).
The importance of a scripture was also displayed in Acts: it was often said that all that happened was so that scripture might be fulfilled (Acts 3:18, 13:32-34); Luke accounts that Paul’s custom was to go into a synagogue and reason to the Jews from the scriptures, from which He gave “evidence of Christ” (Acts 17:2-3); when the Bereans were confronted by the preaching of Paul, they searched the scriptures to verify it was true, and from this many came to believe (Acts 17:11-12); at the Council of Jerusalem, James not only agreed with what Peter and the brothers had said, but verified it with scripture to show its prophetic nature (Acts 15:13-18).
The most famous and oft-quoted passage of scripture in this regard is found in Paul’s epistles:
All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. [2 Timothy 3:16-17]
Just before this passage, Paul had told Timothy that “from childhood you have known the sacred writings” (referring to the education by his mother and grandmother; 2 Tim 1:5), and states that the scripture is “able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 3:15). As Paul explains to his spiritual son, the education and teaching of salvation is inherently found in the scriptures and in the scriptures alone.
In addition, it is worth noting that the phrase translated as “inspired by God” is actually a single Greek word: θεόπνευστος, or “God-breathed.” In other words, the scripture is literally breathed out by God, and is the word of the Lord speaking to the churches even today. This special title is given to no other authority in all of holy writ except scripture itself.
Many will interject here with, “But didn’t tradition and customs have some role in the apostolic church?” Yes, but it is never placed on so high a level as scripture, nor could it. For example, many quote Paul’s reference to a Jewish tradition regarding the names of Pharaoh’s magicians (2 Tim 3:8), but this is no different than a Christian referring to the belief that Paul was beheaded. A person can live and die and not lose salvation if they do not know the names of Pharaoh’s magicians or what became of Paul after Acts 28, and therefore the knowledge itself is not paramount. Also note that one does lose the meaning of the stories in Exodus or Acts if a person does not know either fact. This information is therefore not complimentary with scripture, but secondary.
Likewise, we see again contradictions between “unwritten traditions” of the various “apostolic” churches. Roman Catholics will claim Purgatory, papal infallibility/supremacy, and various other dogmas as unwritten tradition, whereas most non-Roman Catholic churches deny all of them. Some (though not all) Eastern Orthodox will support Aerial Toll Houses as unwritten tradition while this belief cannot be found in other “apostolic” churches. Yet the majority of apostolic churches believe a good portion of their traditions, dogma or not, to have come from the apostolic period, even if nothing is recorded of them until hundreds of years after the time of Acts (example: the bodily assumption of Mary). Whereas we have an infallible source of written authority within sacred scripture, there is no infallible source of unwritten authority in any church. It is always simply circularly assumed that the individual church’s unwritten traditions are infallibly true.
Objection #4: You need a teaching authority to understand scripture.
This is partially true: there is a need, within the religious community, for a guide to scripture and what scripture teaches. That is why the church is here: as a tool of God for the give sound guidance and teaching and instruction for the people of God. That the church is a presence within the Christian community is not at all something that sola scriptura dismisses.
The question is how much infallible authority is then placed on the church, especially when we make demands for a “teaching authority.” As we saw in Objection #3, the only infallible teaching authority given in scripture is scripture itself, being the God-breathed commands and records of the Lord. Nowhere is this authority given to an entity or a body of leaders, save perhaps for the original apostles themselves. Yet if we claim that the leaders of today’s “apostolic” churches are inerrant and granted knowledge by the Holy Spirit, then we must ignore the errors from those in the past (such as Nestorius or various Roman popes) who held “apostolic” positions yet taught great error. It is also inconsistent with the title of “apostle” within scripture: only Christ made apostles, not men.
What sola scriptura does uphold is that our teaching authority is the holy scriptures itself, and it is by this that churches are bound. As I said in another post, a church which exercises authority should take care to discern if it is exercising authority for the sake of who they are, or for the sake of the dignity of God’s word.
Many using this argument will attempt to say that the only reason we know that the scriptures are what they are is by the authority of an “apostolic” church. However, this is an argument that has only come about in recent times, as seen at a Roman Catholic council from nearly a century-and-a-half ago:
These books the Church holds to be sacred and canonical not because she subsequently approved them by her authority after they had been composed by unaided human skill, nor simply because they contain revelation without error, but because, being written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author, and were as such committed to the Church. [First Vatican Council, Session 3, Ch. 2, 7; emphasis mine]
The Holy Scripture is not dependent upon a fallible institution to declare itself to be holy – just as God is holy by His mere existence, so is His word holy because of its primary source.
On this subject, I think one question that rarely gets discussed is under what focus do we regard the development of scripture: theological, spiritual, or ecclesiastical? I would move that it is primarily both theological and spiritual, and secondarily ecclesiastical. What do I mean by this?
We’ve already established that scripture is identified as θεόπνευστος, or that which is literally breathed from God. In this manner, scripture is direct revelation from God, and is given by God to His people for their guidance and instruction; the issue of scripture is a spiritual one. Furthermore, flowing from the same thinking regarding scripture’s inspiration, if we we are to say that God knew what He was going to tell His people throughout the 1500 years of the Bible’s development, then it only follows that He would make sure that His people would receive that scripture. Unless we are going to go the route of Muslims, who believe the scripture was tarnished sometime afterward, and say that it’s possible for God to lose His revelation in written format, we have to confess that the preservation and identification of scripture is upheld by God Himself. The issue, then, is also a theological one as well.
In regards to ecclesiastical, it cannot be denied that the activity of individual churches to preserve and care of the manuscripts and traditions of scripture, but this was as a tool used by God and not the sole source of scripture’s preservation and identification. Those who would jump to councils that discussed scripture forget that the first ecumenical council to discuss the canon of scripture was the Council of Trent in the 16th century. For Roman Catholics, it took 1500 years for “the church” to recognize what was canon, and for the Eastern Orthodox, Coptics, and other “apostolic” churches, no ecumenical council has infallibly identified canon, save for some local councils which, by practice, do not hold sway over the church entire (otherwise we would have to accept the pro-Arian councils held during the Arian resurgence).
The fact is, God was in control of His Word: how it was given, transmitted, and preserved. Therefore, the matter is primarily theological and spiritual and only secondarily ecclesiastical.
Objection #5: The greatest heretics in history believed in “scripture alone.”
The immediate problem with this argument is that it leads to an unavoidable assumption: does scripture, then, teach the existing heresies? There are many who say that Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses believe in sola scriptura – yet are we then arguing that scripture does teach Mormonism and the teachings of the Watchtower Society? If we say yes, we make scripture unclear and therefore God is an imperfect source of revelation. If we say no, then we confess that the heresies are not following sola scriptura, because they are not following what scripture says. In fact, Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, and many other organizations are hardly sola scriptura as they believe in an infallible governing authority which dictates what they are to believe. They are therefore, in terms of church authority versus scriptural authority, much closer to Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox than they are Protestants.
Many heretics, in fact, had great favor within the church itself, and therefore had ecclesiastical support behind them that did not rely on scripture. Arius is a famous example, as at one point he and his teachings held great standing within the church and much of the Roman Empire. Indeed, there would have been no Athanasius contra mundum unless there was a mundum to be contra. The world (including most of the church) was against Athanasius, but he persevered in what he knew were scriptural truths.
Objection #6: You need patristics to be put alongside scripture for greater understanding.
The study of Christian history and the teachings of the Church Fathers are indeed important – the question, again, is how much authority is placed on them. Many argue that patristics are to be given the same authority of scripture, as both come from the same source (that is, the church as an entity). The problem with this argument is that it is flawed in regards to the source: the holy scriptures were written by the God-breathed apostles, whereas patristics are sourced to men who were religious but likewise fallible (and I believe they would all agree with me in calling them that).
On that same note, it must be remembered that there exist differences among the teachings of the Fathers, as well as different emphasis. Many times these differences became apparent even in their own writings, such as Photios’ writing against the filioque which many Latin Fathers taught, or Thomas Aquinas correcting the views of men like John Chrysostom 1. This is why it is often emphasized that patristics have to be studied and it then must be discerned where they all agreed. The amazing thing is one could easily do the same with the writings of Luther, Calvin, Owen, Edwards or Hodge, and therefore such methodology is not isolated to patristics.
In any case, it is emphasized here that patristics must come after a sorting of what should be believed and what should not 2. My immediate question from this fact: is this ever done with scripture? While you might hear a priest say, “Listen to these teachings of John Chrysostom over the teachings of Gregory of Nyssa in the same area,” do we ever hear someone loyal to scripture say, “Listen to these teachings of Paul over the teachings of Jude in the same area.” Unless you’re in a liberal, heretical church, that simply isn’t heard. Yet we are expected to place fallible teachings that may contain error on the same level as the God-breathed, infallible scripture.
Many will interject here that patristics serves as a guide to scripture, otherwise it will not be fully understood. Yet even here we fall into a trap: are we saying that scripture is unclear? If we say so, then we again inadvertently claim that God’s word is unclear, and God is incapable of explaining Himself. Charles Spurgeon once said that scripture was like a lion: you have no need to defend it, you simply open the cage and let it defend itself. Yet many would propose that the lion is sick and weakly and in need of defense.
1 A quotation: Further, Chrysostom (Hom. xlv in Matth.) expounding the text: “Behold thy mother and thy brethren stand without, seeking thee,” says: “It is clear that they did this from mere vain glory.” Again, on Jn. 2:3: “They have no wine,” the same Chrysostom says that “she wished to do them a favor, and raise herself in their esteem, by means of her Son: and perchance she succumbed to human frailty, just as did His brethren when they said: ‘Manifest Thyself to the world.'”…In those words Chrysostom goes too far. [Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, TP, Q27, A4; source; emphasis mine]
2 “But as with local councils, so with the Fathers, the judgment of the Church is selective: individual writers have at times fallen into error and at times contradict one another. Patristic wheat needs to be distinguished from Patristic chaff.” [page 204; Ware, Timothy. The Orthodox Church. Second Edition]