The title of this blog post is a question that we run into from time to time. When we hear it we know immediately that the interlocutor has been exposed to a concept called Sola Scriptura. What is Sola Scriptura? It is a teaching found among a number of sects and cults that the “Bible alone” is sufficient for doctrine, and that the Bible alone is authoritative.
Now, one need think about this idea for only a minute to see the fatal flaw in this notion: it is not found in Scripture. If the Bible alone was sufficient, the Bible would have taught that idea; and it doesn’t. Nowhere in the Bible. Simple logic proves that Sola Scriptura is a false doctrine, and if false then not part of Christianity at all.
So where did this idea come from? It was never part of the teachings of the Apostles, or indeed anywhere for at least eleven centuries! It first appeared in the high Middle Ages as part of the Albigensian heresy. Later we see it in the Waldensian heresy, and in some of the protestant heresies of the 16th century.
Let’s step back and look a little more closely at the Bible. We know that the Christian Church was born on the Day of Pentecost, AD 29. Twenty-two years later, in AD 51, Saint Paul wrote the oldest book of the New Testament (First Thessalonians). The Gospels themselves weren’t written until after that. The newest book of the NT wasn’t written until after AD 100! For well over two generations the Church had only oral traditions and the books of the Old Testament. In fact, when the writers of the New Testament wrote about “Scripture” they were referring to the Old Testament, because the New was still being written from oral tradition. This tradition was passed on–the word “tradition” actually means “that which is passed on”–by the Church, that is, the Apostles and their successors, the Bishops, under the protection of the Holy Spirit. The Church wrote and authorized the New Testament, not the other way round. Christian teaching, then and from then on, is contained in a dual source: tradition and Scripture.
Now it’s true that many of the sects and cults use “tradition” almost as a swear word, pointing out that Jesus condemned the traditions of man taught by the Pharisees. What they fail to appreciate, though, is that in the New Testament, the same word is used in both a negative and a positive way. For example, in 2 Th 2.14, Saint Paul says to his converts that God has called them through the gospel. In the next verse he explains what he means by gospel: “the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by an epistle of ours.”
Asking “where do you find that in the bible” is following the paths of sectarians and cultists, for Christians do not do theology like that.
Yes, scripture is “inspired by God and useful for teaching, refutation, correction, and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3.16), but if scripture is taken out of context it is useless. Scripture is only interpreted by the Church, as Saint Peter wrote “First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation” (2 Pt 1.20).