In addition to being an award-winning photographer, Graham Osborne is a Catholic speaker and apologist. In this new column he deals with questions Catholics should, but often don't, know the answers to. He lives in White Rock with his wife and three children.
Today's question: Do we follow the Bible alone when trying to determine all that Jesus and the apostles taught?
At first blush, following the Bible Alone (Sola Scriptura in Latin), to determine all that Jesus taught seems a very reasonable suggestion. One asks the Holy Spirit to witness the truths of Scripture to them as they read; if something's not found in Scripture, it's not necessary to believe it. The authority of the Church is rejected, as is Sacred (oral) Tradition.
However the problems come quickly when we look for a historical or Scriptural background for this teaching.
The idea of Sola Scriptura was unheard of in the first 1,500 years of the Church. The Church of the first century was primarily a church of oral teaching. The writings of the New Testament were not even finished until around 90 A.D., and it was not until the late 300s that we had a Bible at all!
Most could not read, and there was no printing press until the 1400s, so all copies of the Scriptures prior to this were written by hand and were prohibitively expensive. The early Church simply did not operate on the Bible Alone. This is simply an historical fact.
There are still more difficulties....
The irony is that this teaching is unscriptural itself! It is not found anywhere in Scripture, not even once! Being such a foundational issue, we would expect to see it everywhere, but in fact we see it nowhere. By its own definition it has refuted itself! Not good!
Along these same "unscriptural" lines, we cannot even know which books belong in the Bible by following the Bible alone. There is no inspired table of contents that lists which books should be in the Bible. It is the Catholic Church that gave us this list near the end of the 4th century, and even Martin Luther concedes this. This difficulty itself is ultimately insurmountable.
Okay, so what DOES Scripture say about all this?
It teaches that we must listen to both the oral teachings (sacred tradition) and the written teachings (sacred scripture) of Jesus and His apostles.
St. Paul is very clear on this in 2 Thess. 2:15 when he says, "Hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter."
Similarly, in 2 Tim. 1:13-14 we read, "Follow the pattern of the sound words which you have heard from me ... guard the truth that has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit Who dwells within us."
This is just a sampling!
Some have offered 2 Tim. 3:16 as evidence for Sola Scriptura, but even a casual reading reveals that it teaches nothing of the sort. It says that all Scripture is useful for teaching, but not ONLY Scripture! Further, the context of this verse reveals that St. Paul is referring to the Old Testament here, the Scriptures of Timothy's youth, and no Christian would want to argue for sola Old Testament!
Perhaps the most compelling reason to reject Sola Scriptura is that it simply doesn't work! If there is one Holy Spirit, one Bible, and one set of unchanging, universal truths, how is it that we now have well over 30,000 Protestant denominations, each with significantly different and often contradictory interpretations of Sacred Scripture?
This is profoundly saddening; even Martin Luther himself would eventually lament that "there are as many beliefs as there are heads"! The fruit of Sola Scriptura has been utter disunity.
So what is the answer? How can we know all that Jesus and the Apostles taught? Jesus didn't first write a Book; He built a Church! He built it on Peter and the Apostles, revealed His truths to it, both spoken and written, gave it His authority, sent the Holy Spirit to guide and guard it, and made provisions to pass on His teachings and authority.
Even Scripture itself attests that it is the Church that is "the pillar and foundation of truth" (1 Tim. 3:15).
Sola Scriptura remains today, as it has always been, simply a teaching that Jesus and the apostles never taught. I leave you with a final testimony from the early Church, a profound quote from St. Ignatius, the martyred third bishop of Antioch and disciple of St. John. In 110 he wrote:
"Let all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ did the Father, and the priests, as you would the apostles.... Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be, as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church."
"Know this first of all, that there is no prophecy of Scripture that is a matter of personal interpretation" (2 Pet. 1:20).