Scripture, Tradition and the Church: Why Sola Scriptura Does Not Work
Scripture, Tradition and Church Cannot be Separated
Sacred Scripture, Apostolic Tradition and the Magisterium are part of the patrimony of Christ to His Church. They cannot be separated. However, this is exactly what happened during the Protestant Reformation when the "reformers" rejected both Sacred Tradition and the role of the Magisterium or teaching office of the Church centered on the papacy, which for fifteen centuries had functioned in interpreting the Scriptures for the people of the Church when disputes arose. Key to the Reformation was the doctrine of sola scriptura or "Scripture alone" first proposed by Martin Luther, but embraced by the other diverse leaders of the “reform” such as Calvin and Zwingli. Before we examine this Protestant concept, let's examine the early Church.
The Early Church
After Jesus established the Catholic (meaning “universal”) Church (see Matthew 16: 16-19), the Church operated by preaching the Gospel and giving the sacraments of initiation (Baptism, Eucharist and Confirmation) to believers. The preaching focused initially on the kerygma or the preaching of the heart of the Gospel message, but the first New Testament Scripture was not produced until about ten to twenty years later and the entire New Testament was not completed until near the end of the first century. The Bible does not tell us which books are inspired. This required spiritual discernment. Churches founded later around the Mediterranean, displayed a "kinship in teaching" because they taught the same apostolic doctrines they received from churches founded earlier. They shared the same Apostolic Tradition. The assembling of all the canonical books of the New Testament was a lengthy process, not completed until the end of the fourth century, with the Council of Rome under Pope Damasus I in 382 A.D.
Jesus Gave His Word
In the great commission at the end of Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 28: 16-20), Jesus sent the Apostles out to baptize and teach, not to write down all His teachings in a systematic presentation of the faith. Jesus promised to be with them “always to the close of the age” (Matthew 28: 20). The New Testament flows from the larger body of Sacred Apostolic (Oral) Tradition through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It should be understood that this Sacred Tradition was not a word-for-word transcription of Apostolic teaching, but rather “as the substance of what the Apostles taught as it was preserved in the belief, practice and worship of the early Church.”
The Role of the Holy Spirit
In fulfilling His Word, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to "lead us into all truth" (John 16:13) and gave us a promise of infallibility for His Church as a body (ekklesia), whose head is Christ and whose vicar is Peter. Saint Peter shares the gift of infallibility, which is a negative gift in the sense it keeps him from teaching error on matters of faith and morals, with the other apostles (Matthew 18:18) and their successors, the bishops, who also received the gift. The bark of Peter was not left by our Lord without a rudder to steer it or a lifesaver to preserve its truths.
It is clear in Scripture that Christ promised the protection of the Holy Spirit, saying, "I will ask the Father and he will give you another Paraclete—to be with you always; the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept, since it neither sees him nor recognizes him because he remains with you and will be within you . . . . the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send will remind you of all that I have told you" (John 14: 16-17, 26). And again, "When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you to all truth . . ." (John 16:14). Our Lord did not leave the Church vulnerable to every wolf in sheep’s clothing preaching heresy with Bible verses quoted out of context to sweeten the taste or make them fit a meaning foreign to Sacred Scripture.
Completing the Canon of Scripture
The New Testament was completed sometime near the end of the first century, but the churches had differing opinions as to what books should be included. They had the teaching office of the Church (in Latin, the Magisterium) and the Oral Apostolic Tradition to guide them in this process with the assistance of the Holy Spirit. It is also important to understand that an estimated 90% of the people could not read until the invention of the printing press in the fifteen-century made reading more accessible. The Council of Rome did not identify all 73 Books of the Old and New Testament, which were in common use by the Church, until 382 A.D.. The fact that it took so long to get a canon of Scripture and that most Christians could not read, are strong arguments against sola scriptura. Another is the fact that the earliest Christian creeds say nothing about the concept of Scripture alone. The Nicene Creed of 325 A.D., for example, mentions the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church,” but nothing about the formal sufficiency of Scripture. Nor do the bishops of the early Church have a laser-like focus on establishing an authoritative Old and New Testament canon until the end of the fourth century.
Challenging the Canon of Scripture
It was not until the sixteenth century that the so-called Protestant Reformation challenged the canon of Scripture in any significant way. It was in the sixteenth century that Martin Luther, a Catholic monk with a doctorate in theology, became upset with the abuse of indulgences and in the process of protesting against it, went well beyond that legitimate issue and, to give one example, removed seven of the Wisdom Books and small parts of Daniel and Esther from the Old Testament. In effect, in his translation of Bible, he opted for the Palestinian canon (Old Testament) of the Jews, who had rejected Christ as their Messiah. He also considered the New Testament Books of Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation to be “disputed books,” but included them in his Bible translation along with the seven Old Testament Wisdom books as “apocrypha” in his 1534 edition. But who made Luther an authority to be followed above the Church? Even Lutherans did not accept everything in his version of the canon. Didn’t Jesus promise that “the gates of Hades shall not prevail against” the Church (Matthew 16: 18)?
Sola Scriptura the Sole Authority?
Luther also offered an entirely new concept of Scripture alone (or in the Latin, Sola Scriptura) as the sole rule of faith and practice. There is evidence that Luther, a priest and a theology professor at the time, came to this conclusion because he had been pushed into a corner in his disputation with Dr. Johannes Eck in Leipzig, Germany. Eck, a professor of theology and chancellor at Bavarian university, a former friend and a brilliant prodigy who got his doctorate at age twenty-four, tried to get Luther to identify his theological position with John Wyclif and John Hus, priests who had held heretical positions before him. The climax came when Eck heard Luther’s denial of papal primacy and pointed out it was virtually the same position condemned by the Council of Constance after being held by Fr. Hus (on Mt. 16: 18-19). At that point following his own logic that there was neither an infallible pope nor ecumenical Church council he could rely upon, Luther espoused the sole authority of Scripture (sola scriptura). He writes in 1520 that “we are all Hussites without knowing it” including in that category St. Paul and St. Augustine. Thus, Luther’s new position came more as a matter of expediency to defend his evolving views of the Church and her doctrines, rather than as something that the Holy Spirit led him to.
Biblical Evidence to the Contrary
Luther and other Protestant reformers seldom agreed with one another on important doctrines from Baptism to the Eucharist, thus relying, in effect, upon one leg of the three-legged stool that the Church had relied upon from its inception by our Blessed Lord, namely, Sacred Apostolic Tradition, Sacred Scripture, and the Magisterium or teaching office of the Church. We remember Christ’s injunction to the Apostles, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven” (Matthew 16: 19). As philosophy professor Philip Blosser noted, “Jesus and his apostles are seen demanding obedience not only to the written Word of God, but to the living decisions of the Church (Matthew 18:18-20).” Thus, Peter at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 made the decision to set aside circumcision as a condition for salvation in favor of the grace of Jesus Christ and to boldly claim in their letter, that “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things…”. This ended the argument. Likewise, St. Paul demands, “stand firm. Hold to the traditions you received from us, either by our word or by letter” (2 Thessalonians 2:15). And again, Paul tells Timothy, “The things you have heard from me through many witnesses, you must hand on to trustworthy men” (2 Timothy 2: 2).
Indeed, nowhere does Scripture say that it alone is or would be the sole authority! How can it be the sole rule of faith if there is no authority to proclaim it as such in Scripture? On the contrary, we see the passing on of apostolic authority with the election of Matthias to fill the office vacated by Judas Iscariot (Acts 1: 15-26) and St. Paul passing on his apostolic authority to Timothy and Titus, whom he had “laid hands on,” thus ordaining them as bishops (2 Timothy 1: 6 and Titus 1: 5). Only thus, with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, could the Gospel be preached authoritatively and infallibly even if the New Testament had not been written.
Since the Catholic Church alone produced the New Testament, as even Luther was wont to admit, it is clearly reasonable and logical to conclude that the same Holy Spirit who inspired human authors to write down the Sacred Scriptures, gave the human leaders of Christ’s Church the authority to interpret and preserve them infallibly. The New Testament gives testimony to the primacy of the teaching authority of the Church, beginning with the great commission given to the Apostles by Christ to baptize and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28: 20; Mark 16:15). In Luke 10:16 Scripture attests to the fact that whomever hears the seventy-two sent out by Christ, hears our Lord himself.
The Bible cannot then, be the sole rule of faith, for the written form of the Word of God does not eliminate the need for an infallible source for interpreting its meaning. Scripture contains several examples of this authority in use. For example, the Ethiopian official who could not understand the passage from Isaiah 42 concerning Christ until it was explained by the Deacon Philip, who had been chosen and ordained by the Apostles to preach the Gospel with authority (Acts 6:6; Acts 8:4-8). Peter also states in 2 Peter 1: 20, that “you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” Thus, the Church’s role is a safeguard to protect the meaning of Scripture. It should be noted that this verse is preceded by a section on Apostolic witnesses (i.e., verses 12-18) and followed by a section on false teachers (verses 1-10). Pivoting between the two, St. Peter seems to be contrasting private interpretation, which is unreliable, with the authentic teaching of the Church.
Sacred Tradition in Practice
Without this authority in the Church, we have a never-ending multiplication of churches claiming to have the whole truth and each differing with others in its interpretation, emphasis and understanding. Thus, Scripture and history stand in testimony to the fact that Sola Scriptura does not work in practice. It was by this oral Apostolic Tradition that the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, discerned which books should be included in the New Testament. Many were already in use in the house churches (Christianity was "underground" for three centuries and much persecuted). St. Augustine, himself a fourth century convert, endorses the same position when he says: "I should not believe the Gospel except on the authority of the Catholic Church" (Con. epist. Manichaei, fundam., n. 6).
Anything that is a part of Sacred Tradition comes from our Blessed Lord and “hence is unchangeable, while small "t" Church traditions [for example, the Church’s calendar of feast days of Saints] can be changed by the Church. Sacred Tradition, on the other hand, serves as a rule of faith by showing what the Church has believed consistently through the centuries and how it has always understood any given portion of the Bible.” One of the primary ways this Tradition has been handed on is through ancient texts of the liturgy, especially the sacrifice of the Mass. The New Testament only alludes to this liturgy of the Eucharist, from the mention of Christ's priesthood as being "according to the order of Melchizedek (Hebrews 5:6), who brought out an offering of bread and wine (Genesis 14: 18), to the Last Supper when Jesus offers the transubstantiated bread and wine as His Body and Blood (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:23-25; Luke 22:14-20; Mark 14:22-25; Matthew 26:26-29), to the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, which speaks of this sacrifice in veiled terms through "the breading of the bread" (Luke 24: 30, 35; Acts 2: 42). The disciples on the road to Emmaus recognized the resurrected Lord Jesus only in the breaking of the bread (Luke 24:35). Obviously, much more could be said, but this illustrates the importance of Sacred Tradition in the interpretation of Sacred Scripture.
Catholic View of Sacred Scripture
What then is “the pillar and bulwark of the truth”? St. Paul has the answer, testifying in his epistle to Timothy that it is “the Church of the living God” (1 Timothy 3:15). Thus, as E. H. Van Olst, in his book, The Bible and the Liturgy, notes, “the idea of ‘Scripture alone’ is an abstraction. It is unbiblical and as philosopher Peter Kreeft noted: “We are not taught by a teacher without a book or by a book without a teacher, but by one teacher, the Church, with one book, Scripture.” The Church’s reverence for Sacred Scripture as the inerrant Word of God is testified to throughout the centuries. For example, Pope Leo XIII wrote that, “it is absolutely wrong and forbidden to narrow inspiration to certain parts of Holy Scripture or to admit that the sacred writer has erred.” The Second Vatican Council in their Constitution on Divine revelation, Dei Verbum, put it this way:
The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord, since, especially in the sacred liturgy, she unceasingly receives and offers to the faithful the bread of life from the table both of God's word and of Christ's body. She has always maintained them, and continues to do so, together with sacred tradition, as the supreme rule of faith, since, as inspired by God and committed once and for all to writing, they impart the word of God Himself without change, and make the voice of the Holy Spirit resound in the words of the prophets and Apostles.
The Church’s Living Memory
Protestants sometimes accuse the Church of promoting unbiblical or “novel” doctrines, but this assertion is untrue. Rather, the Scripture and Tradition are in harmony because both flow from “the same divine wellspring” and doctrines found in Apostolic Tradition are at least implicit in Scripture. Another example, infant Baptism, is found implicitly in Scripture, in that in the Acts of the Apostles, there are three instances of the specific mention of whole households being Baptized (Acts 16: 15; 16:33; 18:8). Sacred Tradition is then, the Church’s living memory, giving shape to the Church’s liturgy and worship and complementing Sacred Scripture by providing a context “of what the faithful have constantly and consistently believed and how to properly understand and interpret the meaning of Biblical passages.”
Misinterpreting 2 Timothy 3: 16-17
Protestants and Evangelicals sometimes cite 2 Timothy 3: 16-17, which states, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” This verse does not state Scripture alone is our authority, for the Greek word for profitable, ophelimos, means “useful” rather than “sufficient.” Just as water if “useful” to keep us alive, but is not sufficient, so Scripture is “useful” in guiding us in Christian life, but that is not saying it is the only source of Christian teaching. St. Paul is referring to the Old Testament, at the time the Bible of the Church, known to Timothy from his “infancy” (verse 15). Since Timothy already was trained by St. Paul and ordained as a bishop, the Scriptures (the New Testament was not written or certainly complete at this point) are only a part of the process of being made “perfect.” Although Paul is discussing the nature of Scripture here, knowing with certainty what is inspired or the canon of Scripture is relevant. Scripture, however, does not have an inspired table of contents.
The Relevance of Knowing the Canon of Scripture
Well-known Evangelical James White concedes: “The single best argument presented by Roman Catholicism against the concept of sola scriptura is based on the assertion that without some kind of extra-biblical revelation it is not possible for us to know the canon of Scripture.” Some have suggested that Scripture is “self-evidencing” but this is not reasonable. St. Peter points out the difficulty of understanding some of Paul’s epistles, noting: “There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16). Thus, the Church’s teaching office relies on the 2000-year-old Apostolic Tradition to help Christians understand the Sacred Scriptures, but does not add to or subtract from Scripture, for she has no authority to do so. Without the Church and Sacred Tradition Protestants are left with fallible canon (list) of infallible books, which makes no sense. Without the Sacred Tradition, Protestants are unable to agree on the meaning of even the most basic doctrines of Christian belief.
The Same Divine Wellspring
We conclude by quoting from Dei Verbum, the Second Vatican Council Constitution on Divine Revelation, in describing this harmonious relationship:
Hence there exists a close connection and communication between sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture. For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end. For Sacred Scripture is the word of God inasmuch as it is consigned to writing under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, while sacred Tradition takes the word of God entrusted by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, and hands it on to their successors in its full purity, so that led by the light of the Spirit of truth, they may in proclaiming it preserve this word of God faithfully, explain it, and make it more widely known. Consequently, it is not from Sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed. Therefore, both Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence.
 According to Early Church Fathers like Tertullian and St. Irenaeus, that made these churches Catholic, in addition to Apostolic Succession, was the fact that they shared the same rule of faith. See Robert B. Eno, SS, Teaching Authority of the Early Church (Wilmington, De., Michael Glazier Inc., 1987), p. 24. It was Pope Damasus I who persuaded St. Jerome to produce the Latin version of the Scriptures known as the Vulgate. Jerome had proclaimed the canon of the New Testament at a Roman synod in 374.
 Kenneth Hensley, “Why I’m Catholic: Sola Scriptura Isn’t Scriptural, Part I, online at: https://www.kennethhensley.com/blog/why-im-catholic-sola-scriptura-isnt-historical-part-i. Hereafter cited as Hensley.
 Some churches did not accept certain books before the canon was finalized and/or included others that did not make it into the final canon, for example, “The Shepherd of Hermas” or Clement’s letter to the Corinthians.
 The Church recognizes the material sufficiency of Scripture (all truths necessary for salvation can be found there, though some only by implication), but not formal sufficiency by which the Reformers meant all revelation necessary for the Church is found formally in the Scriptures alone.
 Hensley, Part III, online. Hensley, a former Baptist minister, argues that the “strongest evidence that sola scriptura was not the mindset of the early Church is that we do not see the early Church members teaching sola scriptura, nor do we see them practicing it. Instead, what we see in the writings of the early Church Fathers looks an awful lot like a continuation of the basic pattern we saw in our study of the New Testament.” Ibid.
 Marcion’s abridged view of Scripture in the second century, which rejected the entire Old Testament and most of the new with the exception of Paul’s letters, not-withstanding. Called before the presbytery in 144 A.D. he was quickly excommunicated as the Church protected the Sacred Scriptures as an innate function of the Magisterium.
 The Jews developed another Greek translation because Christians were converting the Jews with the Septuagint version of the Old Testament. The Septuagint was the Bible of the early Church and was used by Jesus. Almost all the quotations of the Old Testament in Scripture are from the Septuagint.
 Ironically, when defending his version of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, Luther wrote in favor of tradition: “For it is dangerous and dreadful to hear or believe anything against the unanimous testimony, faith, and doctrine of the entire holy Christian Church, as it has been held unanimously in all the world up to this year 1500. Whoever now doubts of this, he does just as much as if he believed in no Christian Church, and condemns not only the entire holy Christian Church as a damnable heresy, but Christ Himself, and all the Apostles and Prophets…” Preserved Smith, The Life and Letters of Martin Luther [Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1911], pp. 290-292 and Johann Adam Mohler, Symbolism, 1844, p.400.
 Luther’s Bible was actually a collaborative effort along with six other German scholars and was the 18th German translation of the Bible produced in Germany, not the first as many incorrectly thought.
 Joel Peters, “Scripture Alone? (Rockford, Ill., Tan Books and Publishers, 1999), p. 13
 Quoted in Robert Sungenis, ed., Not by Scripture Alone (Santa Barbara, Ca.: Queenship Publishing, 1997), p. 45.
 Leo XIII, Providentissimus deus, (1892), (Boston, St. Paul Editions, N.d.), Part II, D3.
 Vatican II, Dei Verbum (1965) online at: http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19651118_dei-verbum_en.html;, chapter VI, article 21. Hereafter cited as Dei Verbum.
 Peters, p. 14.
 Ibid., pp. 4-6.
 Quoted in Sungenis, p. 51.
 Dei Verbum, chapter 2, article 9.