One of the key hallmarks of Protestant theology is a teaching called Sola Scriptura, or Scripture Alone. In this post, we walk you through the origins of this innovative doctrine and explain how to refute Sola Scriptura in conversations with Protestants. Our goal in writing this is two-fold: 1) to educate Orthodox Christians about Sola Scriptura; and 2) to facilitate fruitful dialogue between Orthodox and Protestants.
Estimated reading time: 15 minutes
Origins of Sola Scriptura
In order to know how to refute Sola Scriptura, we first have to understand its origins and false presuppositions. The Great Schism of 1054 ended with the formal separation of the Orthodox East and the Roman Catholic West. After this mutual excommunication, the Roman church cut off all connection with its Eastern Orthodox heritage. Without the archbishops of the Eastern Church to check the archbishop of Rome, the Catholic church began promoting corrupt, degenerate teachings and (indulgences, for example). As a response to these doctrines, Martin Luther wrote The Ninety-Five Theses. In this work, he denounced the practices of the Catholic clergy in selling indulgences and promoting the concept of purgatory to laypeople, among many other things.
Knowing this, we can understand (and even sympathize with) the actions of Martin Luther and other early reformers. After all, their goal in breaking from Catholicism was to cleanse the Church of its corruption. And in their eyes, that corruption stemmed from the papacy itself. Luther could take only one logical path: he couldn’t look to tradition to fight the abuses in the church, because tradition itself (as the West believed it to be) was personified by the papacy. He could appeal only to Holy Scripture, and in it hope to find evidence to rid the church of its corruption.
Table of contents
- Origins of Sola Scriptura
- The false assumptions underlying Sola Scriptura
- Things a Protestant Might Say
- The Orthodox Approach
The false assumptions underlying Sola Scriptura
Refuting Sola Scriptura becomes quite simple once you understand that it operates under several false assumptions. At some point, any Protestant with integrity must ask themselves why Protestantism has resulted in 30,000+ different groups who all claim to possess the correct interpretation of the Bible. If Protestantism and Sola Scriptura truly come from God, why can none of them agree on what the Bible says, or on something as basic as what it means to be Christian? How can they all claim to know what the Bible says, and yet not agree on what that is?
Christ tells us, “every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a bad tree bringeth forth evil fruit” (Matthew 7:17). If we judge Sola Scriptura by its fruit, we are left with one conclusion: this tree must be “hewn down, and cast into the fire” (Matthew 7:19).
1. The Bible is the last word. Period.
Protestants believe the Bible contains all we need to know about the Christian life. Yes, all. They insist that anything used or done in Christian worship must come directly from the Bible. However, this begs several questions. If all we need is the Bible, why are the results of Sola Scriptura anything but consistent? If the Bible is all-sufficient, why do we have so many study Bibles and books on doctrine and the Christian life from Protestant (and even Catholic and Orthodox) writers? Why don’t all Protestants believe the same? And why do they even preach at all, when they could arguably just read the Bible to their parishioners?
Though they usually won’t admit it, Protestants instinctively know the Bible can’t be understood alone. Notice that Methodists all believe the same things, and Southern Baptists generally believe the same things, but Methodists and Southern Baptists do not believe the same things as each other. People who call themselves Methodist or Baptist don’t individually come up with their own ideas; instead, each group believes in a certain way, the way they were taught. In other words, they adhere to a particular tradition, despite saying we should not adhere to the traditions of men.
Tradition is an inherent feature of groups, religious or not. The real question, then, is which tradition we should use to interpret the Bible. Should we trust the Apostolic Tradition of the Orthodox Church, with its roots traced back to Christ Himself? Or should we trust the muddled, modern traditions of Protestantism?
1a. Refuting the “Scriptural evidence”
Since the Bible is the Protestant solution to all doctrinal disputes, you must use the Bible itself to refute Sola Scriptura. Scripture doesn’t actually say it is the sole authority and we should reject tradition. However, if you ask a Protestant where the Bible says this, they may point to this passage:
…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
Most Protestants claim Saint Paul means here that the Scriptures are all we need. However, nowhere does he explicitly say this. (In faulty translations, “sufficient” takes the place of “profitable,” which is where Protestants get this argument from.) When the verse is taken in its proper historical context, correctly translated, and analyzed without ulterior motive, we see the Protestant position fall apart.
1b. The proper context of 2 Timothy 3:15-17
In this passage, Paul says that Timothy has known the Scriptures since he was a child. Paul wrote this letter in the later half of the first century. Thus, when Paul mentions Scripture here, he cannot possibly mean the Bible as we know it. Many books in the New Testament (NT) had not yet even been written when Timothy was a child. And the NT canon would not be fully established until the fifth century. We have no choice but to conclude that Paul speaks of the Old Testament (OT) Scripture. If a Protestant uses this passage to justify Sola Scriptura, they unwittingly exclude the entire NT canon.
Secondly, a Protestant may argue that Paul excludes tradition from this passage deliberately. He doesn’t mention it; therefore, this apparently means we should reject tradition. However, in 2 Timothy 3:8, Paul mentions the names Jannes and Jambres, the magicians of Pharaoh, and says they opposed Moses. Neither of these men are mentioned by name in the OT. Paul draws upon the oral tradition of the Exodus account to provide these names. How can Paul be saying tradition has no place, when he uses it within the same letter (and the same chapter) that he supposedly says Scripture alone is enough?
Why the Church canonized the Bible
2. Scripture alone served as the basis for the early Church.
The word “tradition” has become a derogatory term among Protestants. Calling something a tradition makes it somehow fleshly, legalistic, and destructive. For some reason, Protestants find it difficult to imagine that the first Christians had liturgical worship and followed traditions of their own set forth by the Apostles. Moreover, they seem to view NT Christians exactly the same as themselves, with a canonized Bible to turn to whenever they had questions about doctrine or the Faith.
As we mentioned before, the NT was not fully canonized until the fifth century. And during the first century, most of the books were still being written. Given that, how did these Christians know the Gospel? How did they know how to worship or what to believe about the nature of God?
Early Christians had the traditions passed down to them orally from the Apostles themselves, which they mention in Scripture a number of times (1 Thessalonians 2:15; 1 Corinthians 11:2; 11:23). Christ Himself distinguishes between correct and incorrect traditions, establishing the source as the test of legitimacy. In other words, when the tradition comes from Christ (and by extension His Apostles), that tradition is legitimate. But when we hold the traditions of men (like Sola Scriptura, for instance) over the traditions of Christ, we are in error.
2a. What was the purpose of the New Testament?
To further back up the assertion that the Bible can’t stand alone apart from Holy Tradition, we must look at the purpose of the NT writings. Why? Firstly, because most Protestants end up citing the NT as their doctrinal authority. And secondly, because different genres have different uses.
We can divide the NT into four genres:
- Gospels – tell of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection
- Historical narratives – history of the early Church (e.g. Book of Acts)
- Epistles – addressed specific problems that arose in the early Church
- Apocalyptic prophecy – shows us God’s ultimate triumph (e.g. Book of Revelation)
Did you notice that none of these has worship as the main topic? That none of these give us any details about how to worship in the Church? That’s because the OT contains these (e.g. Leviticus, Psalms). What references to worship we do see show that early Christians worshiped as their fathers did before them, observing hours of prayer (Acts 3:1), and worshiping in the Temple (Acts 2:46; 18:4). The NT writings do not provide comprehensive doctrinal instruction, either – you won’t find a catechism or systematic theology in any of them. If the Bible alone was the basis of the early Church, why does it not contain a doctrinal statement of some kind, so Christians know what it is they profess to believe?
The fact remains: the Bible doesn’t contain within it teaching on every important subject in the Church. The same Church that handed down to us the Holy Scriptures and preserved them, is the same Church from which we receive our patterns of worship. If we mistrust this Church’s faithfulness in preserving Apostolic worship, then we must also mistrust her preservation of the Scriptures.
3. Anyone can interpret the Scriptures on their own.
When Sola Scriptura first came about, Reformers reasoned that anyone could understand Scripture simply by reading it. In other words, you didn’t need the Church to help correctly interpret the Word of God:
Perhaps, someone will say that on the one hand, the Scriptures are absolutely free from error; but on the other hand, they have been concealed by much obscurity, so that without the interpretations of the Spirit-bearing Fathers they could not be clearly understood [….] What has been said in a scarcely perceptible manner in some places in the Scriptures, has been stated in another place in them explicitly and most clearly so that even the most simple person can understand them.Tübingen Lutheran Scholars, letter to Patriarch Jeremias II
Though these scholars argued the writings of the Church Fathers unnecessary, they used these same writings often, so long as their interpretation of Scripture aligned with the Fathers’. Where Scripture and the Fathers diverged, they claimed Scripture (or their interpretation of it) superior to the Church Fathers, who had proven themselves righteous and holy. Patriarch Jeremias II exposed the true character of their teachings
in his response:
Let us accept, then, the traditions of the Church with a sincere heart and not a multitude of rationalizations [….] Let us not allow ourselves to learn a new kind of faith which is condemned by the tradition of the Holy Fathers. For the Divine apostle says, “if anyone is preaching to you a Gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:9).
We cannot interpret the Bible without the aid of the Church. We must adhere to the Tradition passed down to us by the Apostles, and lean on the collective understanding of centuries of unchanging worship, doctrine, and faith. Believing our mind alone is sufficient to understand the complexity of God’s Word? That is the height of hubris.
Things a Protestant Might Say
The splintering within the Protestant “church” proves that the assumptions underlying their faith are inherently incorrect. Protestants have a number of approaches they take in defending themselves here, mainly, “Only our group is interpreting the Bible correctly. Everyone else is doing it wrong.” In vain hopes to solve their problem, they turn to a few trademark “solutions” to the issues Sola Scriptura has caused:
1. Take everything literally
“The Bible says what it means and means what it says.” If you have ever had a conversation with a Protestant, they may have said something to this effect. But have you ever noticed, when they come upon a passage with a literal translation they disagree with, suddenly we aren’t meant to take such a verse literally? A prime example is the Last Supper, during which Christ explicitly states, “this is my body…this is my blood” (Matthew 26:26-28). A couple others are when Christ empowers the Apostles to forgive sins, which establishes the Sacrament of Confession and when Paul tells us women should cover their heads during worship. Protestants will claim such verses are merely symbolic, and not meant to be taken literally, because they don’t agree with the literal interpretation. Which is exactly what they do with 2 Timothy, as you saw earlier.
2. Clear passages can interpret the unclear.
This seems like a nice solution, since you would use Scripture itself to interpret Scripture. However, how do you determine which passages are clear, and which ones are not? In the end, it all boils down to each person’s subjective opinion, and the toxic belief that their approach must be correct, while everyone else must be wrong. Unfortunately, Protestants will never reach consensus here, either. As we read in the Scriptures, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18).
3. The Holy Spirit will guide you to the right interpretation.
Imagine you decide to interpret a Bible verse a certain way, and you are convinced the Holy Spirit guided you to that interpretation. Naturally, anyone who disagrees with you cannot possibly be led by the same Holy Spirit. Otherwise, how could we explain all these different interpretations?
The ultimate result of all this is each Protestant sect effectively ex-communicating all other Protestants from Christianity. Regardless of which sect you talk to, you will receive the same answer: We interpret the Bible correctly, and everyone else? Wrong. Over time, though, as more and more sects popped up, making a claim like this became difficult, if not entirely impossible.
The Orthodox Approach
St. Irenaeus once said of heresy: “It is craftily decked out in an attractive dress, so as, by its outward form, to make it appear to the inexperienced (ridiculous as the expression may seem) more true than truth itself.”
Unlike Protestantism, Orthodoxy does not approach Holy Scriptures in a scientific (and therefore inherently limited) way. The Orthodox Church claims a superior understanding of Holy Scripture on the basis of its relationship to the Author, Christ. The Church is the Body of Christ, and it is through the Church that God wrote and preserved Holy Scripture. Without the Church’s Holy Tradition, we would not have the Bible at all.
How do we know the Orthodox Tradition is the right one?
Any Orthodox Christian might take offense to such an obvious question. Of course, there is! However, we must come from the Protestant’s point of view, and approach with understanding and patience. To understand the correct Tradition, Protestants must study the history of the Church. Tracing back through time, no matter where we start, we will all arrive at the same Church, whose Faith has remained steadfast and unchanged since the beginning. Thankfully, many Protestants are doing this, and becoming Orthodox as a result!
We NEED the Church.
Unfortunately, Protestantism gave up the idea of true Christian unity a long time ago. Its believers find it ridiculous to think there might be only one Christian Faith. In the absence of true unity, they have created a false one through relativism. In other words, the only belief they condemn is one that makes exclusive claims about the Truth.
Contrary to this belief, the Church is united. This unity stretches back through time and extends into the present moment. Though the Apostles departed this life long ago, they never departed from the unity of the Church. We are all alive in Christ, even those of us who have died. So, every time we celebrate the Eucharist in our local parish, we celebrate it not only with all those who departed before us, but with the entire Body of Christ still alive on this earth. We are not isolated, even though it may seem this way in our limited understanding.
Because of this unity, we know we not only learn from those in the flesh God has placed in the Church to guide us, but also from the teachers of the Church no longer among us. Saint John Chrysostom is as much our teacher as our bishop or priest today, as he is alive in Christ and part of the all-encompassing unity of the Church. Therefore, we must interpret Scripture as a Church, as one Body, and not as individuals relying on our own exclusive understanding. This is the reality of the Church, and it demands we exercise self-denial, humility, and love.
How the Orthodox interpret Scripture
In the correct approach to Scripture, we do not worry about originality. Our goal is to understand the Tradition of the Church and comprehend the interpretations of the Bible in this context. We must faithfully pass on the tradition we received, as St. Paul urges us to do. In order to do this, we must enter deeply into the mystical life of the Church. In his work, On Christian Doctrine, St. Augustine explains the type of person one must be in order to correctly understand Scripture. Notice he doesn’t focus on the amount of knowledge you must have, but on the constitution of your character. This person:
- Loves God with his whole heart and is empty of pride;
- Seeks the Knowledge of God’s will with faith and reverence, not pride and greed;
- Possesses a pious heart and purified mind, who doesn’t fear men or seek to please them;
- Seeks nothing but union with Christ;
- Hungers and thirsts after righteousness;
- And diligently engages in works of mercy and love.
What an incredible standard we have to live up to! If we examine ourselves honestly, no one can say he meets all of these criteria (or even half of them). This is why we must lean on the guidance of the Church and the Fathers, who did meet these standards. We can’t delude ourselves into thinking we have more knowledge or understanding of God than they. This makes us horribly arrogant, especially if we believe this without taking the time to learn about Holy Tradition at all and decide we somehow know better.
The Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura operates under a number of false assumptions and incorrect solutions, and its chief fuel is human arrogance. Taken in the proper context, within Holy Tradition, the message of the Scriptures becomes clear. And if we ever question something we read, we must turn to the writings of those who knew the Apostles well – like Saint Ignatius and other early Fathers – and not nurse our own pride by thinking we know better than they.