Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Apologetics toolbox: The sola scriptura problems (Part VI)

Scripture and Tradition

In the last part, we talked about the reason that Scripture is insufficient to act as the sole infallible rule of faith: the apostles never expected to teach Christianity out of a book, or even a series of books. There are lacunae in Scripture because the writers took for granted things they expected their audiences to know without being reminded. Moreover, the vast majority of people in the Roman Empire were functionally illiterate or semi-literate; Christianity was not the religion of the elite.

Instead, for most people, learning the faith was a matter of learning symbols, experiencing the liturgy of worship—and oral tradition.

Doctor Timothy Paul Jones, a Protestant minister and educator, cites 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 to illustrate the oral tradition as Paul used it: "For I delivered to you as of first importance that which I also received …." "Delivered" translates the Greek paradidōmi, and "received" paralambanō, which were used in the context of oral tradition. The pattern of and … and … signals the repetition of things to be memorized: that the Messiah died in accordance with Old Testament prophecy, and that he was buried, and that he rose on the third day, and so forth and so on. The same pattern is also visible in the same letter at chapter 11, verses 23-26, where Paul relates the events of the Last Supper in words that are echoed at every Catholic celebration of the Eucharist.[1]

The inevitable charge at this point, though, is: "But Jesus condemned tradition!" That, however, misstates the case. Let's look at the relevant passage, Matthew 15:1-9:

Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, "Why do your disciples break the tradition [paradosin] of the elders? They don't wash their hands before they eat!"  Jesus replied, "And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, 'Honor your father and mother' [Ex 20:12; Dt 5:16] and 'Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.' [Ex 21:17; Lev 20:9] But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is 'devoted to God' [Aram. qorban; see Mk 7:11] they are not to 'honor their father or mother' with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: "'These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules'" [Is 29:13].[2]

Both in this passage and the parallel in Mark 7:5-13, Jesus is specifically condemning the Pharisees for using ritual to avoid compliance with the Law. The old Latin dictum tells us, ab abusu ad usum non valet consequentia (loosely translated, "Inferences regarding something's use from its misuse are invalid"). So we can't rightfully infer from the Pharisees' abuse of tradition, or Jesus' condemnation, the principle that traditions are without authority.

In fact, we have contradicting evidence. In Matthew 23:2-3, Jesus tells his disciples, "The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you.[3] But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach." This is a ground-consequent statement in the declarative mood, not a conditional in the subjunctive mood; there's no implicit restriction of time or place in Jesus' admonition. The disciples are to do everything the scribes and Pharisees tell them to because (not when or if) they "sit in Moses' seat"; i.e., they have the authority of Moses. This includes all the rituals and rites of oral tradition.

For another piece of evidence, we have the Eucharist, a ritual instituted by Christ himself:

For I received [parelabon, from paralambanō] from the Lord what I also passed on [paredōka, from paradidōmi] to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me." In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me." For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes (1 Cor 11:23-26 NIV).

Not only is St. Paul saying he taught the Corinthians the Institution through oral tradition, he says he received it in the same manner from Christ himself, in only slightly different words than are recorded in the synoptic Gospels.

Which brings us to the last Protestant proof text: "See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ" (Col 2:8 NIV).

Saint Paul's invocation of the "elemental spiritual forces" is a reference to Gnosticism, a syncretic religion already present in the Greco-Roman world with which further generations of Christians would tangle. But more important is the adjective "human" in front of the word "tradition". Adjectives limit by being specific; we could no more infer from this passage that all traditions are human than we could conclude from the words "blue blazer" that all blazers are blue.

Tertullian put the case thus:

Our appeal, therefore, must not be made to the Scriptures; nor must controversy be admitted on points in which victory will either be impossible, or uncertain, or not certain enough. But even if a discussion from the Scriptures should not turn out in such a way as to place both sides on a par, (yet) the natural order of things would require that this point should be first proposed, which is now the only one which we must discuss: With whom lies that very faith to which the Scriptures belong. From what and through whom, and when, and to whom, has been handed down that rule, by which men become Christians? For wherever it shall be manifest that the true Christian rule and faith shall be, there will likewise be the true Scriptures and expositions thereof, and all the Christian traditions (The Prescription Against Heretics, 19).

In sum:

  • Jesus, the apostles and Church Fathers all understood tradition to be as authoritative as Scripture; the common proof texts cited against an authoritative tradition don't reach because too limited in scope.

*          *          *

Summing up, then, the problems with sola scriptura:

  • You can't presume the Church's lack of infallibility without implicitly contradicting the Holy Spirit's guidance or reliability.
  • Sola scriptura strips authority from the Catholic bishop without granting it to the Protestant minister or theologian: both are equally open to the heckler.
  • Determining the composition of Scripture presumes God-given authority over Scripture, an authority Martin Luther and the Westminster Confession assumed as much as did the Council of Trent.
  • Scripture itself doesn't support the material sufficiency of Scripture to act as the sole infallible rule of faith.
  • Scripture itself assumes information passed to the faithful through oral tradition; because of its occasional nature, Scripture is formally insufficient to act as sole regula fidei.
  • Jesus, the apostles and Church Fathers all understood tradition to be as authoritative as Scripture; the common proof texts cited against an authoritative tradition don't reach because too limited in scope.

Remember that the key to the "Scripture versus Tradition" debate is that it's an argument over authority. If the Holy Spirit doesn't give infallible authority to the Church by its guidance and reliability, then neither does it give such reliable authority to anyone else.

But if the Spirit does give infallibility and authority at all, then it was specifically given to the leaders of the Church in perpetuity, as part of the commission to "make disciples of all nations" (Mt: 28:18-20), and not to everyone who has a copy of the Bible. Nor does any passage of Scripture give anyone the right to abrogate the promises of Christ to the leaders of his Church.

[1] Jones, Misquoting Truth (2007), pp. 91-2.
[2] As in NIV.
[3] NIV; NAB has, "Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you."


  1. Tony, this is excellent. It's a great resource. I'm putting a toolbox button on my blog, linking to this series. Will you come look at it and tell me if it is OK with you if I do this? I don't know how else to ask. Maybe you want the button too? Great work and thank you. I will use this as a reference in the future.

  2. Thank you so much for this series! I am in the process of converting, and I found this to be very helpful in reaffirming what I have begun to embrace. This is the best explanation I have read of why sola scriptura is wrong. I'm going to bookmark your blog and will refer people to this series if they have questions.


Anyone can leave a comment. Keep it clean; keep it polite! (As a rule, I automatically delete comments that use non-Roman alphabets,i.e. Greek, Chinese, Cyrillic, etc.) WARNING: If you include more than one link in your comment, it's likely the comment will end up in my spam folder!