Sola Scriptura, or Scripture Alone, is the heresy within Protestantism that begets all other heresies. Undoubtedly, Protestant Christians hold to this doctrine out of sincere piety, rightly insisting that the Scriptures are from God and we must trust them completely. This reverence for the Holy Scriptures is commendable. Though in theory Protestantism does not deny Christian history and tradition, it relies on the Scriptures as the only word of authority in establishing dogma and thereby negates the influence of the two former in practice. Sola Scriptura also falsely posits that the Scriptures are perspicuous, or translucent and easy to understand, to anyone who reads them. In this post, we explore this innovative doctrine in depth and explain how, as an Orthodox Christian, one can lovingly refute Sola Scriptura.
Estimated reading time: 14 minutes
Table of contents
- Where did Sola Scriptura come from?
- False assumptions underlying Sola Scriptura
- Responses you might receive from a Protestant
- The Orthodox Approach
At some point, every Protestant with integrity must ask themselves why Protestantism has resulted in thousands of 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 these thousands of groups 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?
Where did Sola Scriptura come from?
The Great Schism of 1054 ended with the formal separation of the Orthodox East and Roman Catholic West. After this mutual excommunication, the Roman church cut off all connection with its Eastern Orthodox heritage. Without the Eastern archbishops to check the archbishop of Rome, the Roman Catholic church began promoting corrupt, degenerate teachings. The primary grievance (though there were many) most Reformers had at the time was the institution of indulgences, which the faithful could purchase to remove the punishment of purgatory from the souls of departed loved ones. As a response to all the doctrinal errors of the church, Martin Luther wrote The Ninety-Five Theses. In this work, he denounced the practices of Roman 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 Roman 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 the evidence he needed.
False assumptions underlying Sola Scriptura
In order to refute Sola Scriptura, it is important to first understand the false assumptions under which this doctrine operates. Let’s take a look at each of these in detail.
1. Claiming Scripture alone served as the basis for the early Church.
Protestants assert that the Bible contains everything we need to know about the Christian life. However, this begs the question: how can the Bible stand apart from the Church and the vibrant, living Tradition that created it?
The word “tradition” has become a derogatory term among Protestants, one that denigrates anything Protestantism rejects into something fleshly, legalistic, and destructive. However, it is logical to conclude that the first Christians (as former Jews) had some form of liturgical worship and followed traditions of their own set forth by the Apostles (1 Thessalonians 2:15; 1 Corinthians 11:2; 11:23), and that those things may not have been explicitly written down.
How can we distinguish between Holy Tradition and man-made traditions? Christ Himself sets the measurement for this, establishing the source of the tradition as the test of its legitimacy. In other words, when the tradition comes from Christ (and by extension His Apostles), that tradition is legitimate. But when we hold to traditions that did not come from Christ (like Sola Scriptura), we are in error.
The real question is which tradition we should use to interpret the Bible. Should we trust the Apostolic Tradition of the Church that gave us the Scriptures, with roots tracing back to Christ? Or should we trust the muddled, modern traditions of Protestantism, which make every man his own pope?
2. Using the New Testament to determine what is acceptable in worship
Despite only possessing a handful of Apostolic letters and copies of OT manuscripts, early Christian churches followed a liturgical worship structure. Their worship did not depend on the Bible, yet it was somehow miraculously consistent.
Protestants often cite the NT as their doctrinal authority in determining what is and is not allowed in worship. However, careful examination of the books of the NT exposes a flaw in this approach. We can divide the NT into four genres:
- Gospels – tell of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection
- Historical narratives – history of the early Church
- Epistles – addressed specific problems in the early Church
- Apocalyptic prophecy – shows us God’s ultimate triumph
Notice none of these give any details about how to worship in the Church; rather, the OT contains these (e.g. Leviticus, Psalms). Granted, Protestants will cite these as well, albeit out of context. What references to worship we do see show that early Christians worshiped as their fathers did before them, observing prescribed hours of prayer (Acts 3:1) and worshiping in the Temple (Acts 2:46; 18:4). The NT does not provide comprehensive doctrinal instruction, either (e.g. there is no catechism or systematic theology).
The Bible clearly doesn’t contain teachings on every important subject in the Church. The same Church that handed down and preserved the Holy Scriptures, is the same Church from which we receive our patterns of worship. If we mistrust the Church’s faithfulness in preserving Apostolic worship, then we must also mistrust her preservation of the Scriptures.
3. Asserting 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:
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 (emphasis added)
Though these scholars argued the writings of the 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 their interpretation of Scripture superior to the 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 must adhere to the Tradition passed down to us by the Apostles through the Church 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 is the height of hubris.
Responses you might receive from a Protestant
The false assumptions we outlined above result in the inevitable splintering within Protestantism. However, this is often not enough to dissuade someone from supporting Sola Scriptura. Supporters of this heresy may say many things to defend their beliefs. In this section, we’ll explore some of these statements.
“2 Timothy 3:15-17 proves Sola Scriptura.”
Nowhere does the Bible actually say it is the sole authority, or that we should reject Holy Tradition. However, if you ask a Protestant where the Bible says this, they usually point to 2 Timothy 3:15-17. In faulty translations, “sufficient” takes the place of “profitable,” which is where the Scripture Alone argument comes from.
Context: St. Paul wrote this letter to Timothy (a bishop) in the later half of the first century. At this time, several books and letters that would become part of the New Testament had yet to be written. And they would not be canonized into the Bible we know today until the fifth century! When a Protestant uses this passage to justify Sola Scriptura, they unwittingly refute themselves by excluding the entire NT canon, including 2 Timothy itself.
Another common argument here is that St. Paul doesn’t mention tradition explicitly, which means he therefore rejects it. Not only is this illogical, but it also ignores the use of oral tradition just a few verses earlier. In 2 Timothy 3:8, Paul mentions Jannes and Jambres, the magicians of Pharaoh. 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.
Why the Church canonized the Bible
“The Bible says what it means and means what it says.”
The interesting thing about this statement is that the person who says it often contradicts themselves and cannot maintain consistency. If you produce a verse/passage with a literal translation they disagree with, suddenly that verse/passage is not meant to be taken literally.
Perhaps the best example of such a passage is the Last Supper, in 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. Point out this inconsistency with kindness, and ask the person why they feel it is acceptable to only apply literal translations only when they decide to do so.
“Clear passages can interpret the unclear.”
This seems like a nice solution, since one would use Scripture itself to interpret Scripture. However, how does one 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 prideful 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).
“The Holy Spirit will guide me 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, contradictory interpretations? God is not the author of confusion.
Divorced from the Holy Tradition of the Church, one cannot unilaterally assume their individual interpretation comes from the Holy Spirit.
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 Tradition of the Orthodox Church is the right one?
Avoid pride in answering such a question, and instead approach this with understanding and patience. Remember that as a Protestant, the other person probably has limited knowledge about the history of the Church, the Ecumenical Councils, and the Church Fathers. 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.
In the absence of true unity, Protestantism has created a false one through relativism. In other words, the only belief Protestants often condemn is one that makes exclusive claims about the Truth.
Capital T “Tradition” vs. Lowercase t “tradition”
When we refer to Tradition with a capital “T,” we speak of the deposit of faith manifest in the Church (1 Cor. 11:2; 2 Thess. 2:15; 3:6). The word tradition, in Greek paradosis, means literally “to hand down” or “to deliver.” Thus St. Paul prefaces his confession of faith with the words, “For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received” (1 Cor. 15:3). The source and inspiration for Holy Tradition is the teaching of the Apostles and the continual guidance of the Holy Spirit in the Church (John 16:13). Holy Tradition preserves the faith as it was received from the Apostles and their disciples.
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, 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 doctrine of Sola Scriptura operates under a number of false assumptions and incorrect solutions, and thus it can easily be refuted. 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.
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).