Is Sola Scriptura Reasonable?
by Mark J. Bonocore
PROPOSITION: Is Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) a reasonable method for understanding Christian orthodoxy? Let’s examine the facts:
FACT: There is nothing in Scripture teaching that "Scripture alone" is all-sufficient for the Christian Faith.
FACT: There is something in Scripture advocating reliance on both Scripture as well as oral Tradition (2 Thess 2:15, Phil 4:9, 1
FACT: There is nothing in Scripture suggesting that a time will come when this dual expression of Christian truth (Scripture and oral Tradition) will come to an end.
FACT: There is also nothing in Scripture determining a Divinely-selected list of inspired books (i.e., the present New Testament canon).
FACT: There is also no statement within any of these New Testament books claiming that these books are Divinely-inspired. This becomes especially significant when one cites references to Divine revelation in the present New Testament books (e.g. Ephesians 3:3), since many of the Christian writings excluded from the New Testament canon also contain such references to Divine inspiration (e.g., The Apocalypse of Peter, the Protoevangelium of James, etc).
FACT: The present canon of the New Testament was not determined until the year 397 A.D. at the Council of Carthage. ...And by a Church which clearly accepted both Scripture and oral Tradition as the rule of Faith.
FACT: Examples of this oral Tradition can be documented as early as A.D. 90 --a time when many of those who knew Christ (including the Apostle John) were still alive.
This documentation is to be found in 1 Clement to the Corinthians --a non-canonical epistle, which was considered to be Divinely-inspired by numerous Church fathers and many city-churches (esp.
FACT: Three of these oral Traditions documented in 1 Clement are: 1. Peter and Paul’s ministries in
1. On Peter and Paul in
"Consider the noble examples of our own generation. Through jealousy and envy, the greatest and most righteous pillars (Peter and Paul) were persecuted, and they persevered even to death. Let us set before our eyes the good Apostles: Peter, through unrighteous envy, endured not one or two, but numerous labors and when he had at length suffered martyrdom, departed to the place of glory due to him. Owing to envy, Paul also obtained the reward of patient endurance, after being seven times thrown into captivity, compelled to flee, and stoned. After preaching both in the east and west, he gained the illustrious reputation due to his faith, having taught righteousness to the whole world, and come to the extreme limit of the west, and suffered martyrdom under the prefects."
2. On Apostolic succession, 1 Clement 42:1-4 reads:
"The Apostles received the Gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ; and Jesus Christ was sent by God. Christ, therefore, is from God, and the Apostles are from Christ. Both of these orderly arrangements, then, are by God’s will. Through countryside and city they preached; and they appointed their earliest converts, testing them by the Spirit, to be the bishops and deacons of future believers."
1 Clement then continues this thought in 44:1-2, where it reads:
"Our Apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned, and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry."
3. On the Eucharist as Sacrifice, 1 Clement 44:4 reads:
"Since then these things are manifest to us, and we have looked into the depths of the Divine knowledge, we ought to do in order all things which the Master commanded us to perform at appointed times. He commanded us to celebrate Sacrifices and services (the Eucharist), and that it should not be thoughtlessly or disorderly (i.e., 1
FACT: The demonstration of "Eucharist as Sacrifice" this early (A.D. 90) not only puts Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinth 10:16-22 into perspective (as well as the other verses from 1 Corinth cited above), but also testifies to Paul’s use of the word "Tradition" in 1 Corinth 11:2 and 2 Thess 2:15. Using the Eucharist as an example, one cannot therefore say that "Tradition" in 2 Thess 2:15 merely refers to a "one-time deliverance of teaching" from Paul to the Corinthians, but is rather an on-going institution, exercised weekly in the Eucharistic celebration itself. This becomes especially striking when we realize that both St. Paul in 1 Corinthians and St. Clement here in 1 Clement are writing to the same city-church (within 35-40 years of each other); and that both these scriptures were read side-by-side by this church -- both being considered Divinely-inspired by the Corinthians for 300 years!
The continuation of such oral Tradition becomes even more striking once we realize that the author of 1 Clement, St. Clement of
However, if there is still any doubt that these 3 oral Traditions found in 1 Clement (Peter & Paul in Rome; Apostolic Succession; and Eucharist as Sacrifice) were known to the entire Church, ... Let us consider the testimony of St. Ignatius of Antioch (a disciple of the Apostle St. John), writing about ten years after Clement of Rome, and from the other side of the known world!
1. On Peter and Paul in
"Not as Peter and Paul did, do I command you. They were Apostles, and I am a mere convict."
2. On Apostolic succession, Ignatius’ Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 8:1-2 reads:
"You must all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ follows the Father, and the presbytery (priests) as you would the Apostles. Reverence the deacons as you would the command of God. Let no one do anything of concern to the Church without the bishop. Let that be considered a valid Eucharist which is celebrated by the bishop, or by one whom he appoints. Wherever the bishop appears, let the people be there; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church."
3. On the Eucharist as Sacrifice, we have Ignatius’ Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 6:2, 7:1 :
"Consider how contrary to the mind of God are the heterodox in regard to the grace of God which has come to us. They have no regard for charity, none for the widow, the orphan, the oppressed, none for the man in prison, the hungry or the thirsty. ....They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not admit that the Eucharist is the Flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, the same Flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in His graciousness, raised from the dead."
Also, in his Epistle to the Philadelphians 3:2-4:1, which says:
"Take care, then who belong to God and to Jesus Christ - they are with the bishop. Take care, then, to use one Eucharist, so that whatever you do, you do according to God: for there is one Flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one Cup in the union of His Blood; one altar, as there is one bishop with the presbytery and my fellow servants, the deacons."
Therefore, FACT: These two men (Clement and Ignatius) -- who knew the Apostles -- taught from both Scripture and from a common oral Tradition: the Tradition referred to by Paul in 2 Thessalonians 2:15.
FACT: It was also these men and the Church they shepherded -- which lived by both Scripture and Tradition -- who preserved the books of the New Testament we have today; preserving correct doctrine against the schismatics and heretics, who dreamed up all sorts of false doctrines about Jesus and His Church.
FACT: The bishops who selected the final and universal canon of the New Testament were the successors of these men; and held fast to the same body of Tradition which Clement and Ignatius protected in the late 1st and early 2nd centuries.
It therefore follows that we have a continuation of Christian Tradition: a Tradition which never included a doctrine of Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone).
PROPOSITION: Was Scripture and Tradition the rule of faith for the ancient Jews?
FACT: Yes it was. Aside from the Old Testament Scriptures, the Jews also lived by a number of ancient oral traditions (many of which will eventually be recorded in the Jewish Talmud).
FACT: Jesus Himself lived by these oral traditions.
FACT: Not only did the Lord live by them, but He is also recorded defending one in Matthew 23.
Matthew 23: 1-3: "Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples, saying, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Therefore, do and observe all the things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example.’ "
FACT: The "chair of Moses" was Moses' teaching authority, according to ancient Jewish oral tradition.
For example, it is recorded in the Midrash Rabbah: "They made for him (Moses) a chair like that of the advocates, in which one sits and yet seems to be standing." (Exodus Rabbah 43:4)
Also, the Pesikta siRav Kahana 1:7 mentions the "chair of Moses," and the editors of the English edition comment:
"The particular place in the synagogue where the leaders used to sit was known metaphorically as the ‘chair of Moses’ or as the ‘Throne of the Torah,’ symbolizing the succession of teachers of Torah (from Moses) down through the ages."
FACT: While the "chair of Moses" is an element of ancient Jewish tradition -- apparently dating from the time of Moses himself -- it is recorded nowhere in the Old Testament Scriptures. Rather, it is strictly an oral Tradition.
FACT: Yet, while not being recorded in the Old Testament, Jesus Himself -- Who is (let us not forget) the Word of God -- bears testimony to its legitimacy.
Therefore, it must be admitted that the Word of God as we have it in the Old Testament is not merely a Scriptural record, but rather comes to us (at least in this one case) through both Scripture as well as a living oral Tradition. The idea that the Scribes and Pharisees (i.e., "the fathers of Israel") were the direct successors of Moses’ authority is stated nowhere in Old Testament Scripture; yet He Who is the Word of God tells us this based on oral Tradition.
QUESTION: Are there other cases of extra-OT Scriptural Traditions recorded in the NT?
FACT: Yes, there are. Among these are 1 Corinth 10:4 (in which the rock in the desert is said to "follow" the Children of Israel under Moses...something not recorded in Scripture, but found only in Jewish oral Tradition, even to this day) and Jude 9 and Jude 14 (in which the Apostle cites extra-Scriptural Traditions about Michael and Satan fighting over Moses' body, and conveys a prophecy from Enoch ...neither of which are found in the OT Scriptures). Also, in 2 Timothy 3:8, Paul directly names the two Egyptian magicians who opposed Moses before Pharaoh in Exodus 7:11-13. Yet, the Book of Exodus itself never names these two magicians, nor does any other book of OT Scripture. Rather, Paul is citing Jewish oral Tradition.
Therefore, if such examples exist, and if even Jesus Himself preached the Gospel in reference to both Scripture and Tradition, why should His Church be limited to Scripture alone? Is His Church guided less by the living Spirit of God than the Jewish people who preceded it?
PROPOSITION: Did the bishops of the early Church consider their teaching authority to be guided and protected by the Holy Spirit for the good of the Church?
FACT: Yes they did; and they had good reason to believe this, as evidenced by John 14:16-18 & 26 and 16:12-13:
[14:16] "And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Advocate to be with you always,  the Spirit of Truth, Whom the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows Him. But, you know Him because He remains with you and will be in you.  I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you. ....  The Advocate, the Holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name -- He will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you ....[16:12] "I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now.  But, when He comes, the Spirit of Truth, He will guide you to all truth. He will not speak on His own, but He will speak what He hears, and I will declare to you things that are to come. "
Q: To whom is Jesus speaking here?
A: The Apostles.
Q: Just the Apostles, or to the entire Church as well?
A: To the entire Church as well, as evidenced in 14:16 (...to be with you always), 17 (He remains with you and will be in you), and John 17:20-21, which continues this Last Supper discourse:
"I pray not only for them (i.e., the Apostles), but also for those who will believe in me through their word (i.e., the whole Church), so that they may be one, as You, Father, are in me and I in You, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that You sent me."
FACT: Therefore, Christ is promising that the Holy Spirit -- "the Spirit of Truth" -- will remain not only with the Apostles, but with the entire Church, a Church which will still need to be guided and comforted after the Apostles are gone.
FACT: Christ does not maintain that a written record is necessary to remind us of His teachings; but rather that the Holy Spirit (Who will "be with you always") will remind the Church of all that He taught (John 14:26).
FACT: Christ calls the Holy Spirit "the Spirit of Truth" (John 14:17, 16:13)
FACT: Christ goes on to say how this Spirit of Truth will "remain" with the Church and will "be in" the Church always, guiding it toward all truth.
FACT: 1 Timothy 3:15 calls the Church the "pillar and foundation of Truth." Yet, Scripture alone is never called this; nor is Scripture ever considered authoritative when apart from the Church, which is guided by this same Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:20-21 & 2:1-3).
So, now we’ve come full circle. In Matthew 23, Jesus proclaims that the scribes and Pharisees have the authority to teach and guide because they are the successors of Moses for the Jewish people; and that the Jews should "do and observe all the things whatsoever they tell you."
One therefore must assume that this same authority was also possessed by those who held the "chair of Moses" before them -- the ones who decided which Old Testament books were Divinely-inspired, etc.
So, it therefore follows that if the Jewish leaders who "held the chair of Moses" -- leaders who didn’t even possess the Holy Spirit (as our bishops did and do) ...If these Jewish leaders were Divinely-guided to define a canon of the Old Testament in c. 200 B.C. (the Septuagint), how much more so could the Catholic Christian bishops at Carthage in 397 A.D. count on the Spirit of Truth!
So, the Christian Bible is a product of the Church, not the other way round! And Scripture itself testifies to this, the same Scripture which testifies that Christian truth comes to us in two ways: through Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition (2 Thess 2:15).
Now, obviously, this Christian truth (aka, the Gospel) cannot be added to or subtracted from ...but is confined to the Revelation we have from the Apostles. However, it is maintained, preserved, and continually defined and proclaimed correctly under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, Who will be with us always; and Who will prevent our appointed shepherds from leading the entire Church astray.
But, it is a mistake to view the Christian message as a simple written record preserved by human means and dependent on human intelligence. Rather, this Truth is something alive and dynamic, supported consistently and infallibly down through the ages upon its "pillar and foundation," the Church.
Mark J. Bonocore