The Bad Evangelist Club: How NOT to Refute Sola Scriptura

bibleWhen discussing the arguments against Sola Scriptura, we Catholics have a lot of strong arguments.  Here at The Bad Evangelist Club, we help you to avoid bad arguments like the one below so the good ones have more credibility.

The Argument

Any debate around Sola Scriptura will focus on 2 Timothy 3:14-17, which goes as follows:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.  All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

When a Protestant reads this passage, he will argue something along the following:  We see here clearly that the Scriptures are inspired by God.  Not just ‘inspired’, but God-breathed.  The very words of Scripture are God speaking to man.  Since we nowhere see oral tradition classified as ‘God speaking to man’ in a manner that is substantively different from what is in the Scriptures, Protestants are justified in believing Sola Scriptura.

The bad argument comes from the Catholic who attempts to be too clever by half.  They will answer roughly:  While we Catholics can grant all of the things you just mentioned, we need to read the words of Scripture carefully.  St. Paul tells St. Timothy that he has been acquainted with the sacred writings from his childhoodBy this time, that only means the Old Testament.  The New Testament was either not yet written, or not accepted as Scripture yet.  In order to accept this passage as Scripture, you have to appeal to an authority outside the Scriptures, the Catholic Church who provides the canon of Scripture.

Why This Argument is Effective

The argument cuts right to the core of the Protestants understanding of Scripture.  How can he profess to accept the Scriptures as his sole rule of faith, if he has no way to determine with infallible certainty what makes up the Scriptures?  Why waste time with other arguments when you can go right for the jugular and cripple the Protestant position right from the beginning?

Why This Argument is Wrong

The argument makes an assumption that Paul did not understand his writings, or any writings of the New Testament before that as Scripture.  St. Paul clearly did not hold this standard.  Paul’s words as he wrote them are understood by him to be the Word of God not because they came from his quill or his intellectual articulation, but because Paul was writing that which was given to him by Christ.  He believed that what he was writing to the Church of Corinth was explicitly the word of God, and that if anyone disagreed; they could not be counted as a Christian.  (1 Cor 14:37)  St. Peter likewise tells the Jewish Diaspora that the letters “our beloved Brother Paul wrote to you” can be misinterpreted just like “the other Scriptures.”  (2 Peter 3:16)

The only way to salvage this argument is to wade into a very messy historical debate about what work of Scripture was written when, how universally it was accepted, etc.  Even then, the odds are heavily stacked against this argument holding up.

What Should We Say?

At this point, it is far better to acknowledge the obvious:  When Paul wrote these words, he was stating that Scripture, by its nature as Scripture, was inspired by God and a valuable tool for all the things he mentioned above. This is more in line with the text itself.  Paul doesn’t outline a specific canon of the things Timothy’s parents taught him, or point out an age when those things will cease being valid to him. His point was simply that Timothy’s parents raised him in the Lord, and he should use those lessons in carrying out his ministry as a bishop. In a similar manner Paul lists “my teaching and my conduct” as safe guides for Timothy to follow. He isn’t really interested in providing the specific examples, but rather a general rule.

How Should We Refute Sola Scriptura

While the ways to do so are numerous, it is best to stick to something simple.  We’ve already established the Scriptures are inspired by God and carry a special authority.  All we need to do is point to another authority which is treated the same way.  We can easily do this:  The Apostle Paul’s oral teaching.  In addition to his written word being God’s word (1 Cor 14:37), he also explicitly states that his oral teaching the Thessalonians received was also the word of God.  (1 Thess 2:13)  In his second letter to the Thessalonians, St. Paul places his written word and his oral teaching on an equal level and demands that all Christians follow both.  (2 Thess 2:15)

At this point, the Protestant’s eyes will likely light up and say “in order to say this, you have to prove that the oral tradition of Paul and the written tradition are different.  If they are the same, then we just have to accept the Scriptures!”  The counter to this is simple:  just as Paul was not providing a detailed canon of Scripture in 2 Timothy, he is not looking to provide a detailed canon of either the written or oral tradition in 2 Thess 2:15.  He was pointing out that truth, by its very nature, is still truth, no matter what form it is communicated in.  This is what the Second Vatican Council meant by the concept of Scripture and Tradition both being equally the word of God and that both were passed on throughout the ages, guaranteed by the Holy Spirit. (Dei Verbum 9)

You don’t need to go down any other rabbit holes at this point.  At this stage of the discussion, the important thing is whose rule of faith matches the rule of faith of the Scriptures by its nature.  The extent of said rule comes later.

Kevin Tierney is an Associate Editor of the Learn and Live the Faith Section at Catholic Lane.  He also blogs at http://commmonsensecatholicism.blogspot.com.  You may contact him on Facebook, Google+  or follow him on Twitter @CatholicSmark.