Sola Scriptura (1)

On March 3 and 4 in Pasadena, CA, there was a debate between leading Protestant and Catholic theologians on the topic:

What Still Divides Us; A Protestant and Roman Catholic Debate. In this issue and the next, we present the opening speech of the conference given by our own contributing editor, Dr. W. Robert Godfrey, professor of Church History and President of Westminster Theological Seminary in Escondido, CA.

The title of our meeting is “What Still divides Us?” In the two days that we have together we will look at two of the issues that divide Protestant Catholics from Roman Catholics. Both sides claim to be Catholic, that is, part of the apostolic, universal church of Jesus Christ. Roman Catholics believe we departed from that church in the sixteenth century. We Protestant Catholics believe that they departed earlier.

Tonight the issue that still divides us is the source of religious truth for the people of God. As Protestants we maintain that the Scripture alone is our authority. Our distinguished Roman opponents will maintain that the Scripture is insufficient as the authority of the people of God and that tradition and the teaching authority of the church must be added to the Scripture.

We gather this evening for a very solemn purpose. This is no time for games or for fancy debating tricks. We must be searching for the truth. God has declared that whoever adds to or takes away from His Word is subject to His curse. The Roman church has declared that we Protestants are accursed for taking away the Word of God as found in tradition. We as Protestants have declared that the Roman church is a false church for adding human traditions to the Word of God. Despite sincere debates by fine apologists over the course of almost 500 years, the differences remain basically as they were in the sixteenth century. Not much new will be said here tonight. But we must continue to pursue the truth.

Inspite of the difficulty of the undertaking this evening, I am eager to join that historic train of Protestant apologists to defend the doctrine that the Scripture alone is our ultimate religious authority. I believe that I can show that this position is the clear position of the Scripture itself. And I hope that, by the grace of God, those committed to the Roman doctrine of tradition will come to see the tragic error of denigrating the sufficiency and perspicuity of God’s own inspired Word.




Let me begin with certain clarifications. I am not arguing that all truth is to be found in the Bible or that the Bible is the only form in which the truth of God has come to His people. I am not arguing that every verse in the Bible is clear to every reader. I am not arguing that the church both as the people of God and as ministerial office is not a great value and help in understanding the Scripture. As William Whitaker stated in his notable work: “For we also say that the church is the interpreter of Scripture and that the gift of interpretation resides only in the church: but we deny that it pertains to particular persons, or is tied to any particular see or succession of men.”1

I will argue the Protestant doctrine that all things necessary for salvation concerning faith and life are taught in the Bible clearly enough for the ordinary believer to find it there.

The Teaching of Scripture Old Testament

The position I am defending certainly is what is taught in the Bible itself. For example, at Deuteronomy 31 and 32. Deuteronomy 31:9 states, “Moses wrote down this law….” Then Moses instructed the people by writing down the law and then ordering that it be read to them “so they can listen and learn to fear the Lord your God and follow carefully all the words of this law” (Deut. 31:9,12). Moses declared to all Israel, “Take to heart all the words I have solemnly declared to you this day, so that you may command your children to obey carefully all the words of this law. They are not just idle words for you—they are your life” (Deut. 32:46,47).

Notice the clear elements in these passages: 1) The Word Moses is talking about is written; 2) The people can and must listen to it and learn it; 3) In this Word they can find life. The people do not need any additional traditions to guide them to We. They do not need any infallible institution to interpret the Word. The priests, prophets and scribes of Israel certainly function to help the people ministerially. But the Word alone was sufficient for salvation. The prophets, who were indeed inspired, came very muchin the spirit of Micah who said, “He has showed you, O man, what is good” (6:8). The function of the prophets and priests was not to add to oreven clarify the law; rather they applied it to the people who were sinfully indifferent.

The Teaching of Scripture – New Testament

If this sufficiency and clarity of the Word is true in the Old Testament, we can assume that it is all the more true in the New. The New Testament gloriously fulfills what the Old Testament promises. But we do not have to assume it. Rather the New Testament makes clear that the character of Scripture is to be sufficient and clear. One example of that is found in 2 Timothy 3. There Paul is writing to his younger brother in the faith, Timothy. He writes that Timothy, who was instructed in the faith by his grandmother and mother, has also learned all about Paul’s teaching (3:10). Timothy had been mightily helped by allsorts of oral teaching, some of it apostolic.Yet Paul writes these words to Timothy (read 2 Tim. 3:12–4:5). You see, Paul reminds Timothy that the Scriptures are able to make him wise for salvation in Christ Jesus (3:15). He teaches that the Scriptures are useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness (3:16). Because the Scriptures have this character, they thoroughly equip the man of God for every good work (3:17). So Paul tells Timothy that he must preach this Word even though the time is coming when people will not want to hear it, but rather will want teachers to suit their fancy who will instruct them in myths rather than the truth of the Word (4:1–4). The force and clarity of the apostle’s teaching here is striking. In spite of the rich oral teaching Timothy had, he is to preach the Scriptures because those Scriptures give him clearly all that he needs for wisdom and preparation to instruct the people of God in faith and all good works. The Scripture makes him wise for salvation and equips him with everything he needs for doing every good work required of the preacher of God. The sufficiency and clarity of the Word are taught in this one section of Scripture over and over again. John Chrysostom paraphrased the meaning of Paul’s words to Timothy in this way: “You have Scripture for a master instead of me; from there you can learn whatever you would know.”2

Now I have listened to several tapes of our opponents in debates on this topic. Often Protestant apologists have cited 2 Timothy 3 against them. Their usual response seems to be repeated assertions that 2 Timothy 3 does not teach sufficiency. Sometimes they refer to James 1:4, Matthew 19:21 and Colossians 1:28, 4:12 as parallel texts claiming that these texts show that the word “complete” in 2 Timothy 3:17 does not mean sufficiency. But such passages are not parallel. A completely different Greek word is used in them. I hope that tonight they will not just assert that 2 Timothy 3 does not say what we claim that it does. Repeated assertions do not prove a point. That is only a propaganda technique. We need to hear our texts and explanations answered in a responsible and thorough way.

The confidence that Paul had in the Scriptures and which he taught Timothy was clearly understood by the great church father, Augustine. In his treatise to prepare leaders of the church in an understanding of the Bible (on Christian Doctrine), Augustine wrote, “Among those things which are said openly in Scripture are to be found all those teachings which involve faith, the mores of living, and that hope and charity which we have discussed…”3

We should not be surprised that the Apostle Paul, the Old Testament and the greatest teacher of the ancient church held the sufficiency and paspicuity of Scripture. It is the position that Jesus took in one of the most important moments of His life. At the beginning of His public ministry Jesus faced the focused temptation of the devil in the wilderness. He faced the temptation as the Son of God, but also as the second Adam and the true Israel. And how did he face that temptation? He did not appeal to the oral tradition of Israel. He did not appeal to the authority of the rabbis or divinity or the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Our Savior in the face of temptation turned again and again and again to the Scriptures. “It is written,” He said. The Scriptures made Him wise for salvation. They equipped Him for every good work. They were dear as He implied; even the evil one knew. When the devil quoted the Scripture, Jesus did not turn to some other authority. Rather Jesus said, “It is also written.” When the evil one or his representatives misuse the Bible or imply that it is unclear, Jesus teaches us that we must look more deeply into the Word, not away from it.

FOOTNOTES 1. William Witaker, A Disputation on Holy Scripture, Cambridge (University Press), 1849, p. 411. 2. Cited in Whitaker, p. 637. 3. Augustine, On Chirstian Doctrine, II,9.

(To be continued next month.)

W. Robert Godfrey a contributing editor of this periodical, is Professor of Church History and President of Westminster Theological Seminary in Escondido, CA.