Chapter 6 -- Sola Scriptura
Most Protestant faiths believe the Bible is the sole repository of the Word of God. Many Protestants profess every Word of God necessary for our salvation is found within the pages of Scripture, and no definitive Word of God comes from anywhere else. It is as if the Bible can be trusted without question, but any other source (including people) is subject to suspicion. The human tradition that declares the Word of God is found in the Scriptures alone (and no other source) is called Sola Scriptura, which is Latin for 'Scriptures alone'.
The Catholic Church teaches the Word of God comes from many sources. Written tradition, including the Bible, is the most common reference used, but oral tradition, which reflects the spoken word from generation to generation, is also honored.
Sola Scriptura is Not Scriptural
If Sola Scriptura is true, we don't find it in the Bible; we hear it from (untrustworthy) people. Nowhere in the Bible can you find the doctrine that the Word of God is found only in the Bible. The Holy Spirit did not inspire any biblical author to state God would use only the written word to spread His messages. But, if we can't trust people, if we can only trust the written Word of God, then should it not be that the Bible states it is the sole source of divine revelation? We already know we cannot trust people to draw that conclusion, yet using intuitive reasoning alone, people declared Sola Scriptura. It is ironic that the Bible specifically disproves this tradition.
And note this is a human tradition. More on that later.
As we saw in the chapter on the Origins of the Bible, people pass on to other people the belief of divine inspiration of the books of the Bible. None of us reads the writings of all the early Christians to discern which writings are inspired and which are not-we believe what others tell us about the current canon, we believe the human tradition. Nowhere in the Bible does it state which books belong in the canon. That knowledge is passed on from generation to generation by some means other than the Bible.
Paul wrote to Timothy:
Paul tells us all Scripture is inspired by God. This is a favorite verse used to prove Sola Scriptura. As is true of all Scripture passages, it is the Word of God, and as such, it speaks the truth. But, if you look at the verse carefully, nowhere does it state only Scripture is inspired by God. It seems only to state Scripture is inspired, and is useful for teaching, etc. This verse does not deny there are other sources of God's Word.
Note also, that to accept this verse as proof of Sola Scriptura is circular reasoning. A source can not use itself to prove itself, it takes an outside authority to make it so. Thus, the Bible is not the Word of God because the Bible says so. Some other authority had to first declare the Bible to be the Word of God. The Q'ran claims it is the Word of God; the Book of Mormon claims it is the Word of God; the Hindu Vedas claim they are Divinely inspired. None of these claims make it so. Jesus founded the Catholic Church and blessed the offices of the apostles with the gift of infallibility on matters of faith and morals. The Catholic Church then declared what books were divinely inspired and included in the Canon. Jesus was the original authority, who established the authority of the Church. The Church was the outside authority that established the divine nature of the Bible. Thus 2 Tim 3:14-17 is true.
But, if someone approached you on a street corner and began a conversation with "Thus says the Lordů", what would you do? We are only human. We make mistakes. Our emotions influence our reasoning. How do we know God is using this person to give us a message? With the best of intentions, we can still mislead ourselves and others. Can we trust what others tell us is the Word of God? Is it not safer to just trust the Bible?
This is precisely the problem God's people had all throughout history in discerning prophets sent by God. They didn't know God sent them until the prophesies came true. By then, of course, the opportunity to receive the message had passed. Many false prophets were not believed either, and rightly so. Without some trustworthy means of discerning God's word outside of Scripture, we are just like the early Israelites-not able to recognize the Word of God until it is too late.
We need that trustworthy means. God can use a prophet or someone else to enlighten me, but how do I discern between a true messenger of God and a spiritually savvy, emotionally-driven, self-serving Christian? Likewise, God can speak to me directly, but again, how can I discern between a true revelation from God and what just feels right to me?
What Does the Bible Say About Oral Tradition?
We know from last chapter the Church is the pillar and foundation of truth. Here it is again:
So, the Bible tells us the truth, the Word of God, can be found within the Church. We know from the chapter on the Origins of the Bible that one of the truths the Church revealed is which writings are considered inspired and thus included in the Bible.
Let's explore what the Bible does say on this issue.
Jesus tells the Apostles to teach others and observe everything He commanded them.
John tells us Christ did many other things not written in the Bible. Jesus says to observe all He commanded them and John states all Christ did was not written down. The only way to know what was not written is by word-of-mouth. This is known as oral tradition.
We live by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God, oral tradition and written tradition.
The chair of Moses was the office of the spiritual ruler of the Jews. Nowhere in Scripture was the chair of Moses established. The Bible is silent on the chair of Moses, yet Jesus honored the tradition. It was a truth passed on by oral tradition. We know it was a truth because Jesus ordered the crowds and His disciples to honor it. Jesus expected them to know it, and submit to it. It doesn't have to be written in the Bible to be of God, as is shown in the Bible itself.
Since it was the chair of Moses, Jesus acknowledged the people must do and observe whatsoever they are told by the holder of that office. No matter who held that office, the people were expected to honor whatever they were told, even if, as in this case, they should not follow the example. The holder of that office was the successor of the authority of Moses, even though it was never written in Scripture.
If we revisit 2 Tim 3:14-17 (shown above), upon closer inspection, we find Paul taught Timothy. Paul taught him by word of mouth. Paul used oral tradition to spread the Word of God.
Furthermore, Paul remarks the Scriptures Timothy knew since his youth are useful for teaching, etc. But note, little, if any of the New Testament was written in Timothy's youth. Indeed, even if anything was written then, it was not declared part of Scriptures for another couple of centuries. This verse from Paul seems to say the Old Testament was inspired by God and useful for teaching, etc.
During Christ's lifetime, and for a number of years thereafter, there was no New Testament. The early Christians learned by oral tradition and epistles, and some of those epistles never made it into the New Testament. And note, just because they never made it into the New Testament does not mean they were not inspired by the Holy Spirit. All too often, it is wrongly presumed if a writing did not make it into Scripture, it was false.
Jesus told his disciples to proclaim the gospel to the whole world. He did not say to write it down and distribute it to the whole world. They proclaim by preaching, by oral tradition.
Theophilus (which means "God lover", and may be a code name for all Christians) is told that eyewitnesses handed down narratives of events to Luke, who in turn, wrote them down to send to Theophilus. Theophilus already received these teachings by oral tradition; Luke wrote it down so that he may realize the certainty of the teachings. Luke received his teaching by oral tradition, and he was a New Testament author.
Paul tells Timothy to take as his norm the sound words heard from Paul. Paul spoke to Timothy. Timothy learned by oral tradition. Not everything Paul taught Timothy was passed on by letter. And note, Paul commands Timothy to guard that oral Word of God. If Timothy put it to writing, it never became Scripture. Yet, Paul taught Timothy thusly.
So, we see much happened by word of mouth in the early church.
Jesus Condemns Human Traditions
Then he said to them, "You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, 'Honor your father and your mother'; and, 'Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.' But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, 'Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban' (that is, an offering to God)-then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this."
(NOTE: Here's an example where Jesus quotes Isaiah 29:13 from the Septuagint version of the Bible. The Septuagint version reads "this people draws near with words only and honors me with their lips alone, though their hearts are far from me, they worship me in vain and their reverence for me has become routine observance of the precepts of men". The Palestinian version reads "These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men". More on that in the chapter on Origins of the Bible.)
I show several verses before and after the verse in question to show Jesus' clear meaning. He condemns holding human traditions above God's commandments. He says the human tradition of eating a meal with clean hands can not outweigh one of God's commandments; the human tradition of dedicating ones savings to God (called Corban) can not outweigh God's commandment to 'honor your father and mother'. (There was a tradition whereby an individual would dedicate the remainder of their wealth to the Temple. They could spend as they needed for themselves, but any of the rest of their wealth belonged to the Temple, and could not be used for other things, such as caring for one's parents. It was a convenient excuse to escape the financial burden of caring for the elderly.) The elders of the Pharisees created a tradition, a human tradition, which the Pharisees were placing above God's commandments.
So, Jesus was condemning some of the traditions of the Pharisees, such as qorban. Was Jesus condemning all tradition? Was he condemning Church tradition?
Paul writes to the Thessalonians stating they must hold fast to the traditions taught by both oral statement and by letter-both spoken and written Word. Paul demands the Thessalonians hold fast to what he told them, not just what he wrote. If he didn't write it, where is it now? If it was the Word of God then, is it still the Word of God? If so, it exists in oral tradition only, as it was never made part of Scripture. If it is spoken by someone handing it down as Paul did, is it untrustworthy? Jesus could not have been condemning these traditions. The Holy Spirit is telling us to hold fast to oral traditions.
Paul handed down traditions to the Corinthians-not just written words, but spoken and acted traditions. And Paul commanded them to imitators of him. Jesus could not have been condemning these traditions. This is Paul's first letter to the Corinthians in the Bible, and he speaks in the past tense. Thus, he handed down the traditions through some form other than what is now Scripture.
Paul admonished the Philippians to do what they learned from him by means other than written word.
Paul admonished the Thessalonians to shun those who do contrary to what he taught by way of oral tradition.
Jesus is explicit here. He expects oral tradition to be passed by his disciples. He wants others to listen to the disciples. And the penalty for rejecting the oral tradition is severe.
The Thessalonians received the Word of God from hearing. It was not a "human word", but "God's word". And note how Paul emphasizes what they heard truly was the word of God.
Oral tradition is inescapable in these verses. "Heard", "hear", "voice" are all words indicative of oral tradition.
The church in Jerusalem sent a letter to the Gentiles in Antioch, but they also sent Judas and Silas to convey the same message by word of mouth. Here is an example in Scripture where both oral and written traditions were used to convey the same message. Why did the church do this? It is because it takes both written and spoken word to make a complete understanding. The church already saw how other teachers (not sent by them) misinterpreted previous teachings, previous writings. They wanted to be sure this letter was understood correctly, so they sent Judas and Silas to explain any misunderstandings that might occur.
There are numerous other verses addressing oral tradition. It is clear the Holy Spirit favors the use of oral tradition.
Oral Tradition Today
Some may say oral tradition was necessary in the time of the Apostles, but it doesn't apply today. There is no Scripture to support this assertion. Indeed, it seems to state otherwise.
Paul was near the end of his life. Paul knew he would not be around much longer and Timothy would have to carry on the fight. Oral tradition was passed on from Paul to Timothy. He did not charge Timothy to proclaim only the words Paul wrote to him; he did not charge Timothy to read the other epistles Paul wrote to the other churches. He charged Timothy to proclaim the word, the word Paul gave him by oral and written traditions. There is no reason to presume that didn't continue.
Paul heard from many witnesses. Timothy heard from Paul. Faithful people will hear from Timothy. Others will hear from faithful people. This is a clear succession of the passing on of oral tradition.
We see that Sola Scriptura is not scriptural. We see that Sola Scriptura is a human tradition. When Jesus condemned human traditions, he included human traditions such as Sola Scriptura. Jesus chose to use both oral and written tradition to preach His gospel to all nations, and there is no basis in Scripture to assume that doesn't apply as much today as it did 2,000 years ago.
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