Is the Bible Alone Sufficient for Spiritual Truth?
According to Roman Catholicism, Sacred Tradition and the Bible together provide the foundation of spiritual truth. From this combination the Catholic church has produced many doctrines which it says are true and biblical but which Protestants reject: veneration of Mary, penance, indulgence, purgatory, prayer to saints, et. al. Protestantism, however, rejects these doctrines and Roman Catholic Sacred Tradition and holds fast to the call "Sola Scriptura" or, "Scripture Alone." Catholics then challenge, "Is Sola Scriptura biblical?"
The Bible does not say "Do not use tradition" or "Scripture alone is sufficient." But the Bible does not say "The Trinity is three persons in one God" either, yet it is a fundamental doctrine of Christianity. 2 Tim. 3:16 says that scripture is inspired and profitable for correction and teaching. Scripture states that Scripture is what is good for correction and teaching--not tradition. However, in its comments on tradition, the Bible says to listen to tradition but also warns about tradition nullifying the gospel--which we will look at below.
In discussing the issue of the Bible alone being sufficient, several points should be made:
1) The method of the New Testament authors (and Jesus as well) when dealing with spiritual truth was to appeal to the Scriptures as the final rule of authority. Take the temptation of Christ in Matthew 4 as an example. The Devil tempted Jesus, yet Jesus used the authority of scripture--not tradition and not even His own divine power as the source of authority and refutation. To Jesus, the Scriptures were enough and sufficient. If there is any place in the New Testament where the idea of extra-biblical revelation or tradition could have been used, Jesus' temptation would have been a great place to present it. But Jesus does no such thing. His practice was to appeal to scripture. Should we do any less having seen his inspired and perfect example?
The New Testament writers constantly appealed to the scriptures as their base of authority in declaring what was and was not true biblical teaching: Matt. 21:42; John 2:22; 1 Cor. 15:3-4; 1 Peter 1:10-12; 2:2; 2 Peter 1:17-19, etc. Of course, Acts 17:11 says, "Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily, to see whether these things were so." Paul commends those who examined God's Word for the test of truth. He did not commend them for appealing to tradition. Therefore, we can see that the method used by Jesus and the apostles for determining spiritual truth was to appeal to scripture--not tradition. In fact, it is the scriptures that refute the traditions of men in many instances.
2) It is not required of Scripture to have a statement to the effect, "The Bible alone is to be used for all spiritual truth," in order for sola scriptura to be true. Many doctrines in the Bible are not clearly stated, yet they are believed and taught by the church. For example, there is no statement in the Bible that says there is a Trinity or that Jesus has two natures (God and man) or that the Holy Spirit is the third person in the Godhead. Yet, each of the statements is considered true doctrine within Christianity--being derived from biblical references. So, for the Catholic to require the Protestant to supply chapter and verse to prove Sola Scriptura is valid is not necessarily consistent with biblical exegetical principles of which they themselves approve when examining such doctrines as the Trinity, the hypostatic union, etc.
3) In appealing to the Bible for authentication of Sacred Tradition, the Catholics have shown that the Bible is superior to Sacred Tradition--for the lesser is blessed by the greater (Heb. 7:7). You see, if the Bible said do not trust Sacred Tradition, then Roman Catholic Sacred Tradition would be instantly and obviously invalidated. If the Bible said to trust Sacred Tradition, then the Bible is authenticating it; and the Roman Catholic Church would cite the Scriptures to that effect. In either case, the Scriptures hold the place of final authority and by that position are shown to be superior to Sacred Tradition. This means that Sacred Tradition is not equal in authority to the Word of God.
If Sacred Tradition were really inerrant as it is said to be, then it would be equal with the Bible. But, God's word does not say that Sacred Tradition is inerrant or inspired as it does say about itself (2 Tim. 3:16). Merely to claim that Sacred Tradition is equal and in agreement with the Bible does not make it so. Furthermore, to assert that Sacred Tradition is equal to Scripture effectively leaves the canon wide open to doctrinal addition. Since the traditions of men change, then to use tradition as a determiner of spiritual truth would mean that over time new doctrines that are not in the Bible would be added, and that is exactly what has happened in Catholicism with doctrines such as purgatory, praying to Mary, indulgences, etc. Furthermore, if they can use Sacred Tradition as a source for doctrines not explicit in the Bible, then why would the Mormons then be wrong for having additional revelation as well?
4) If the Bible is not used to verify and test Sacred Tradition, then Sacred Tradition is functionally independent of the Word of God. If it is independent of Scripture, then by what right does it have to exist as an authoritative spiritual source equivalent to the Bible? How do we know what is and is not true in Sacred Tradition if there is no inspired guide by which to judge it? If the Roman Catholic says that the inspired guide is the Roman Catholic Church, then it is committing the fallacy of circular reasoning. In other words, it is saying that the Roman Catholic Church is inspired because the Roman Catholic Church is inspired.
5) Sacred Tradition is invalidated automatically if it contradicts the Bible, and it does. Of course, the Catholic will say that it does not. But, Catholic teachings such as purgatory, penance, indulgences, praying to Mary, etc., are not in the Bible. A natural reading of God's Word does not lend itself to such beliefs and practices. Instead, the Catholic Church has used Sacred Tradition to add to God's revealed word and then extracted out of the Bible whatever verses that might be construed to support their doctrines of Sacred Tradition.
Nevertheless, the Catholic apologist will state that both the Bible and Sacred tradition are equal in authority and inspiration and to put one above another is a false comparison. But, by what authority does the Catholic church say this? Is it because it claims to be the true church--descended from the original apostles? So? Making such claims doesn't mean they are true. Besides, even if it were true, and CARM does not grant that it is, there is no guarantee that the succession of church leaders is immune to error. We saw it creep in with Peter, and Paul rebuked him for it in Gal. 2. Are the Catholic church leaders better than Peter?
To continue, is it from tradition that the Catholic Church authenticates its Sacred Tradition? If so, then there is no check upon it. Is it from quotes of some of the church Fathers who say to follow Tradition? If so, then the church fathers are given the place of authority comparable to scripture. Is it from the Bible? If so, then Sacred Tradition holds a lesser position than the Bible because the Bible is used as the authority in validating Tradition. Is it because the Catholic Church claims to be the means by which God communicates His truth? Then, the Catholic Church has placed itself above the Scriptures.
6) One of the mistakes made by the Catholics is to assume that the Bible is derived from Sacred Tradition. This is false. The Church simply recognized the inspired writings of the Bible. They were in and of themselves authoritative. Various "traditions" in the Church served only to recognize what was from God. Also, to say the Bible is derived from Sacred Tradition is to make the Bible lesser than the Tradition as is stated in Heb. 7:7 that the lesser is blessed by the greater; but this cannot be since Catholicism appeals to the Bible to authenticate its tradition.
Since the Bible is the final authority, we should look to it as the final authenticating and inerrant source of all spiritual truth. If it says Sacred Tradition is valid--fine. But if it doesn't, then I will trust the Bible alone. Since the Bible does not approve of the Catholic Church's Sacred Tradition, along with its inventions of prayer to Mary, prayer to the saints, indulgences, penance, purgatory, etc., then neither should Christians.
- The Bible comes from Roman Catholic Sacred Tradition.
- The problem is twofold. First, tradition is generally anything the Christian church passed down and doesn't require inspiration of any sort. But Roman Catholicism claims such generic tradition under its umbrella of Sacred Tradition. This is the fallacy of equivocation. In other words, the meaning of the word "tradition" is changed between the first and second reference. There is no proof that the RCC sacred tradition is inspired. But there is evidence that it is flawed--particularly when we compare what it has revealed (purgatory, Mary-worship, penance, indulgences, etc.,) with Scripture and such doctrines are not only absent from Scripture but contradict Scripture.
- Second, it assumes that the Roman Catholic church produced the Bible. The RCC did not produce the Bible. God produced the Bible, and the Christian Church recognized the word of God (John 10:27) and endorsed what God had already authored. To say that the RCC gave us the Bible is to imply that the RCC has the right to tell you what it means. This is problematic because how then do we check what the RCC says?
- Sacred Tradition is divine revelation and equal to scripture.
- At best, this is only a claim that cannot be proven to be false by comparing the revelations supposedly given through Sacred Tradition with the Word of God. As mentioned above, there are many such doctrines devised by people that are not found in the Word of God and even contradict it.
- The Bible clearly tells us that God's Scripture is divinely breathed forth, and that it is inspired. There is no such claim for tradition. In fact, though the Bible tells us to follow tradition, it also tells us to be wary of it. Therefore, tradition cannot be inspired if God's Word warns us against following it.
- The Bible is for tradition where it supports the teachings of the apostles (2 Thess. 2:15) and is consistent with biblical revelation. Yet, it is against tradition when it "transgresses the commands of God" (Matt. 15:3). By Jesus' own words, tradition is not to transgress or contradict the commands of God. In other words, it should be in harmony with biblical teaching and not oppose it in any way. See "Roman Catholicism, the Bible, and Tradition." The Bible clearly tells us that it is the standard of truth. We are not to exceed what the Scriptures say. "Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively applied to myself and Apollos for your sakes, that in us you might learn not to exceed what is written, in order that no one of you might become arrogant in behalf of one against the other." (1 Cor. 4:6).
- Heb. 7:7 is not about scripture but about people and cannot be used to subject Sacred Tradition to the Bible
- It is true that Heb. 7:7 is about people and not about scripture. But there is more in the text than just people. Heb. 7:4-10,
"Now observe how great this man was to whom Abraham, the patriarch, gave a tenth of the choicest spoils. 5 And those indeed of the sons of Levi who receive the priests office have commandment in the Law to collect a tenth from the people, that is, from their brethren, although these are descended from Abraham. 6 But the one whose genealogy is not traced from them collected a tenth from Abraham, and blessed the one who had the promises. 7 But without any dispute the lesser is blessed by the greater. 8 And in this case mortal men receive tithes, but in that case one receives them, of whom it is witnessed that he lives on. 9 And, so to speak, through Abraham even Levi, who received tithes, paid tithes, 10 for he was still in the loins of his father when Melchizedek met him."
- It is true that Heb. 7:7 is about people and not about scripture. But there is more in the text than just people. Heb. 7:4-10,
The writer of Hebrews is mentioning different concepts as well as historical facts. He mentions tithing, descendants of Abraham, the lesser is blessed by the greater, authority, and Federal Headship.1 It is the concept of the greater in authority blessing the lesser in authority that is being examined here in this article. We know that there is a principle of the greater in authority blessing the lesser. Can we not also apply this same principle of authority to the issue of the Roman Catholic Church's claim on Sacred Tradition as being authoritative as compared to the authority of Scripture? I do not see why not. After all, the Roman Catholic Church appeals to Scripture to support its Sacred Tradition. In so doing, it is submitting itself to the authority of Scripture for validation of its principle.
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