The Unbiblical Doctrine of Sola Scriptura

by David Wooten

And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works (2 Timothy 3:15-17).

The preceding verse is well-known to many a Protestant Evangelical, for it is commonly used as a starting point for setting forth the doctrine of sola scriptura—that is, the idea that one only needs to look within the pages of the canonical Christian Scriptures to find all that is necessary for the salvation in Christ of an unredeemed human soul. Indeed—so the argument goes—if “all scripture is given by inspiration of God…that the man of God may be perfect,” and if Scripture is the only source mentioned in the passage for the effecting of that purpose, certainly it would follow that Holy Scripture is the supreme and sole authority and source of power for the changing of a human heart. This fidelity to Scripture alone (which is the meaning of the phrase sola scriptura) is often contrasted against the practice of the Orthodox and Roman Catholics, who not only follow the written scriptures left by the Apostles, but also the oral traditions handed down to the successors of the Apostles. Such believers insist that extra-biblical traditions are not only useful, but also essential and given by Christ and His Apostles for the purpose of interpreting and living out the life in Christ that is referenced—but, we would say, not exhaustively enumerated—within the pages of the Bible. The Evangelicals react to this teaching saying that, just as Jesus Christ rebuked the religious establishment of His day for holding to practices that were not found in the pages of the Old Testament, so we Catholics and Orthodox are to be censured for straying from God’s only intended rule of faith, the Holy Scriptures, written down and preserved for our faith’s guidance. Yet the undivided, catholic Church—which, in this article will be referenced solely as the Orthodox Church and not the Catholic and Orthodox—has always known that, since its inception in the days of Martin Luther, this doctrine of sola scriptura is not only false, but also—ironically—contradicts the plain teachings of the Apostles as written down in the very scriptures the Evangelical claims to follow. It will be the purpose of this article to show how the doctrine of sola scriptura (as described in the first sentence of this paragraph) is not found within and even denied by the canonical Christian scriptures.

The first issue that must be dealt with is the claim that Scripture itself attests to its own sufficiency in leading a soul to salvation, independent of any Church or other tradition. A few select verses are often brought to bear by the Evangelical in an attempt to do this, such as the passage, quoted above, from St. Paul’s Second Letter to St. Timothy, as well as the passage in the Gospel According to St. Mark where Our Lord denounces the Pharisees and scribes: “For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men…Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered” (7:8, 13). It is clear, says the Evangelical, that since St. Paul notes that it is the Scripture that makes man “wise unto salvation,” and since Christ sets the Scripture apart from the traditions of the Pharisees as a higher authority, we are to follow these precedents and only heed the written Scriptures with regard to our faith. It would certainly seem, at first glance, that this is a compelling case. Yet we owe it to ourselves to look more closely at these passages—as well as the verses surrounding the passage that give it its context—to discover what they actually are (and are not) saying to us.

Regarding 2 Timothy 3:15-17, St. Paul does indeed say that the Scriptures can make one wise unto salvation, are inspired by God, and will perfect, or complete, the believer. The Orthodox Church disputes none of this. However, nowhere in this passage is it stated that the Scriptures are meant to be the only thing inspired by the Holy Spirit, or the only thing that will bring one to Christian perfection. The Evangelical will, at this point, object: Would this not be, then, the perfect time for St. Paul to include other sources that would do such a thing? Does not his silence regarding other sources of inspiration speak volumes about his prizing of Scripture far above any other oral traditions within the Church? Rather than deal with the problems presented by making an argument from silence (for they are many), I will rather present a similar passage from Scripture that points out the error in this way of thinking—namely, that St. Paul’s omission of other inspired sources speaks to the necessity of their exclusion. St. Paul’s Epistle to the Church in Ephesus lists many teaching offices of the Church for the perfection of the faithful—apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers (4:11)—and nowhere in that list is Scripture mentioned as a means:

For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ: That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ (4:12-5).

If the omission of any sources other than Scripture means that St. Paul is telling St. Timothy that Scripture alone will save a man, is he therefore telling the Ephesians that “the perfecting of the saints…for the work of the ministry…the edifying of the body of Christ…the unity of the faith…the knowledge of the Son of God…a perfect man…the measure of the stature of the fulness [sic] of Christ [and growth] into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ” can be accomplished without Scripture? Obviously, both the Orthodox and the Evangelical would say that this is not the case. Likewise, then, while Scripture is profitable for all the things that St. Paul enumerated to St. Timothy—things that are very similar, if not identical, to those mentioned in Ephesians 4—it is not necessarily the only means by which these things may be attained, and it is certainly not a call to reject all other, unmentioned sources of help within the Church. The man of God may be thoroughly equipped with Scripture, but perhaps it is not only the Scriptures themselves that are meant to do the equipping. Again, with the Scriptures, the man of God may go from being merely “equipped” to being “thoroughly equipped,” but nowhere does it say that the Scriptures “thoroughly equip” the believer all by themselves. The first realization the adherent to sola scriptura needs to have is that nowhere in this oft-quoted verse is the Church commanded to adhere only to that which is found in the pages of Scripture, as this would pit the church in Crete (St. Timothy’s church) against the church in Ephesus—and the body of Christ cannot be thus, nor in any other way, divided.

Secondly, the passage in Mark 7—where Our Lord rebukes the Pharisees’ traditions which nullify the word of God—needs to be seen, again, in the light of what it does—as well as what it does not—say.

It needs to be established at the outset of this point that a distinction must be made between the two distinct types of traditions that exist: extrabiblical traditions—that is, those found nowhere or not explicitly within Scripture—and anti-biblical ones—that is, traditions that directly contradict what is explicitly written within Scripture. The former has been a legitimate part of the people of God since before Christ’s Incarnation, and the latter is ideally to be rejected outright by the Church. An example often cited by Evangelicals in an attempt to prove sola scriptura’s legitimacy is the rejection by Christ of the Corban rule of the Pharisees, as it did not allow for the Israelites to honor mothers and fathers, “thus making the word of God of no effect through [their] tradition” (Mark 7:13). With what, the Evangelical asks, did Christ refute the errant traditions of the Pharisees? With the Word of God, the Scriptures, thus setting Scripture (so they would then say) over and above all traditions. In a sense, the Orthodox have very little problem with this. We would very much agree that all traditions practiced within the Church must not disagree with what is written in Scripture; in other words, they must not be anti-biblical. For us to jump, then, to the conclusion that all traditions must therefore be found explicitly within Scripture in order to be legitimate is to go further than even Christ Himself was willing to go. Christ, the Orthodox would point out, did Himself validate and bless the continuation of traditional establishments within Judaism and, in so doing, endorses establishments whose continuations are sanctioned not at all by the Jewish canonical Scriptures set down at Jamnia (90 AD, the canon used by Protestants at large for their Old Testament text).

Proof of this is seen in St. Matthew’s retelling of Our Lord’s diatribe against the Pharisees. Christ tells the Israelites to fulfill the requirements given to them by the Pharisees, but not to imitate them in their hypocrisy. Yet, listen to the reason given by Our Lord for why the Israelites were nonetheless bound to obey the Pharisees: “…The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not” (Matthew 23:2-3). Notice that the reason Christ gave for the Pharisees’ authority was that they sat “in Moses’ seat.” The start of “Moses’ seat,”—the seat of judgment from which Moses ruled on the Law before Israel in the Old Testament—is recorded in Exodus 18:13. However, the position of authority held by the Pharisees—whose supposed connection to that of Moses in Exodus was certainly extrabiblical—was nonetheless accepted and promoted by no less than the Lord Himself. While these two passages are often used together by Evangelicals to address the Roman Catholic Church’s claims to the papacy, such an issue is, firstly, a non-issue for the Orthodox, and, secondly, an ironic one for us, as the Protestants frequently use two passages that, if examined closely, present a very real problem for those very people who would seek to establish a Scripture-only view of what can be seen as authoritative for the believer. While the establishment of Moses’ seat is found within Scripture, the directive to continue it—not to mention who would then hold its authority within the community of Israel—are found absolutely nowhere within the Old Testament, yet the words of Our Lord make clear that this extrabiblical tradition is not only not anti-biblical, but also a good, worthy tradition in spite of its not being written down. The sola scriptura adherent, then, has to provide and answer for why Our Lord here seems to be going against the idea that only that which is written in Scripture is to be accepted as authoritative for the people of God.

If, as the Orthodox Church claims, it is an apostolic teaching to follow both the written epistles of the Holy Apostles as well as their unwritten tradition, are they able to provide proof of this initial doctrine from the Scriptures? While we would say that, strictly speaking, we are not obligated to restrict ourselves to the one source of written inspiration (for, after all, we see that Christ Himself did not), let us look at some passages from Scripture that we Orthodox believe are for extrabiblical tradition.

Firstly (and more often quoted) is 2 Thessalonians 2:15: “Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.” Truly, little else needs to be said in addition to this verse. If St. Paul were adamant about the notion of providing an exhaustive written source of authority that would be clear enough to guide the Thessalonian church (as well as all the others) into the truth of salvation, he certainly would not have instructed them to follow unwritten traditions—those passed on “by word.” A minor note, however, pointing out the significance of the word “tradition” (παράδοσις in the Greek, meaning “that which has been handed down”) in the verse. Παράδοσις is also the word that Christ used in his rebuke of the Pharisees, and so the Protestant who would do away with παράδοσις in the Church is met with a problem: if Christ were so insistent upon doing away with all tradition not found in the Bible (as the Evangelical claims), why is St. Paul here insisting that the Thessalonian believers follow unwritten, extrabiblical παράδοσις?

The Evangelical will counter, most likely, that the reason St. Paul at this point would make such a command would be that, at this point in the Church’s history, the written Scriptures had not yet been compiled, and thus the oral tradition mentioned to the Thessalonians was no more than the rest of the written testimony in the Scriptures which we have now. This would turn St. Paul’s command to follow unwritten tradition into a local, temporary instruction instead of a command to the Church Universal. Two things come to mind in response to this. Firstly—and here I repeat myself—if St. Paul were mindful of the supposedly apostolic doctrine of sola scriptura, believing not only in the sufficiency of the Old Testament Scriptures but of his own writings and those of the other apostles (St. Peter equates St. Paul’s own writings as being together with “the rest of the Scriptures” in 2 Pet. 3:16), why then would the overwhelming necessity of such a source of authority not pan out in their providing said source to the Thessalonians instead of simply giving them (supposedly) unreliable source of unwritten, oral tradition? Why stoop to interpreting or explaining the Scriptures according to their traditional understanding when all that would be seemingly necessary would be to hand out copies of the Old Testament plus their inspired writings? It is telling that, instead of staying together after Pentecost to compile an exhaustive, written record of their teachings to give to the Church, the Apostles were content to go and preach, using the New Testament epistles primarily as a corrective to errant practices within the Church, rather than a tutor to provide an exhaustive account of “all things needful” for life in Christ.

Secondly, however, is the following question: How can the Evangelical assert that the oral traditions are the same as the written ones in the rest of Scripture? Such an idea is 1) blatantly read into Scripture instead of being found in Scripture, for said elaboration is found nowhere in the text itself—rather, we have a command to follow traditions, whether they came to us orally or in written form; the medium makes no difference—and 2) the idea is made out of necessity, for the adherent of sola scriptura is dependent upon this being the case. The Protestant has first to prove that we must see Scripture as the only source of authority that Christ and the Apostles approved; apart from this, the meaning of “whether by word or by epistle” is not only plainly understood as being an either/or contrast used to supplement a whole body of teaching, but also has been seen from the earliest Christian communities on as being an obvious reference to the unwritten traditions of worship, theology, devotional life, the mysteries of the Church, and other topics that never needed to be referenced in Scripture but with which the bishops whom the Apostles appointed were nonetheless intimately familiar. The fact that they were not only in unanimous agreement on but also adamant about maintaining traditions that were never mentioned in what eventually became the New Testament epistles is a sobering witness to the fact that Christians were not limited to the Scriptures only, for they were living the life of Christ through the presence of the Holy Spirit in the worship of the Church.

We see from the explanation of commonly-cited verses that in no way are we obligated to think from the Scriptures that they alone are to be used as an authoritative source for the believer; rather, both Christ and St. Paul not only affirm the presence of extrabiblical tradition within the community of the Israel of God, but also the potential goodness of said traditions and their authority for the believer. While this does not resolve the problem of which confession’s tradition to use as an inevitable guide for the interpretation of Scripture (this topic will be addressed, Lord willing, in a subsequent article), the fact that we can have authoritative tradition alongside Scripture is attested to by no less than the Lord Himself, as well as one of the chiefs of His Apostles. It is my hope and prayer that all those who would seek to give the Scriptures a role they were never intended to play would reconsider the role of tradition both in the history of the people of God and in their own, personal experience with the written Word of God.