Why Sola Scriptura Still Matters, Part Three

In part two, we left this discussion asking exactly what the point was of 2 Timothy 3:16-17, if it is not the sola scriptura conclusion that Protestants often draw. What exactly was this apostolic authority, St. Paul, saying to Timothy about the Scriptures?

Was St. Paul saying that “the Bible” would make the man of God “complete, equipped for every good work”?

Scriptures Can Be Misused

No. Let’s look at the text again, just verses 16 and 17, “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.”

Is it the Scripture that accomplishes this? No, it is teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness that makes the man of God complete, equipped for every good work. Those who do the teaching, reproving, correcting and training will find that the Scriptures are “profitable” for this endeavor. But note: profitable does not mean sufficient. This work depends upon the ministries of the Church mentioned in Ephesians 4:11-16, as we observed in the previous article. But why?

Because the scriptures can be misused, used in unprofitable ways. Even during the Apostles’ day scriptures were misused and misinterpreted — as St. Paul has just mentioned to Timothy (2 Tm 3: 13) “evil men and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceivers and deceived.” People could be “tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine” (Eph 4:14), even by persons who were quoting Scripture, as St. Peter said of those who twisted the meaning of St. Paul’s letters (2 Pt 3:15,16). What was the protection against this? Not Scripture, but the apostolic Church. United to the Church which has Jesus as its head, one is protected from cunning and deceitful use of Scripture. In addition, one is protected from being deceived as to what Scripture is because the apostolic Church both witnesses to us that Scripture exists and tells us what constitutes Scripture.

Authority Is Still the Issue

Let’s look again at what St. Paul said to Timothy in verses 14 and 15 of the passage we have been discussing: “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.” From whom had Timothy learned? Well, certainly from St. Paul, who tells Timothy in verses 10 and 11 that Timothy had been a long observer of the Apostle’s life and the conduct of his ministry.

In fact in this same letter (2 Tm 1: 13), St. Paul admonishes: “Follow the pattern of the sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus”; and then in chapter 2 verses 1, 2 he tells Timothy to entrust what he had heard to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.

But it wasn’t from St. Paul that Timothy had come to know from childhood the sacred writings to which St. Paul referred. It was from his mother and grandmother (2 Tm 1:5). And from where did they get these sacred writings?

From Jewish tradition. It was Jewish tradition that told them what their sacred writings were. It was because Timothy could trust his mother and grandmother and the Jewish tradition in which they were steeped that he had become acquainted with Scripture to begin with.

Begin at the Beginning

Let’s begin at square one: What did the Protestant have before he became a Christian? He had what we all had — natural revelation. And what can we learn from natural revelation? We can learn that “Someone” is there. That is about as far as natural revelation takes us. This is the point of the first chapter of Romans. Now the heart of the epistemological problem — the problem of how we know — is this: How do you get from “Someone is there” to the very interesting idea that this “Someone” has inspired the writing of a book? Is the existence of a book which can be called the “Word of God” a conclusion of natural revelation? No, it is not. So, then how do we get from the natural revelation to the book? We get there because somebody tells us about the book.

Before the Scripture can witness to us, there must be a witness to us about the Scripture and that witness to the Scripture is always living human beings who deliver, not only the Scripture itself, but the testimony to the existence of the Scripture and the Scripture’s God. That is why we must insist that when Protestants quote 2 Timothy 3:16-17, they read also verse 14: “But as for you continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it.” The “whom” came for Timothy before the sacred writings and so it is with all of us. So it is with Protestants too, and the “whom” for them is the Roman Catholic Church.

Not only does sola scriptura fail to answer the question about what constitutes Scripture, the very concept “Scripture” (i.e. the idea that God has a book for us) cannot find its epistemological basis in sola scriptura. This means the existence of the Bible is not known from the Bible; it is a presupposition (something that has to be known beforehand). That would be a bad enough blow to sola scriptura, but there is more: The Bible itself actually witnesses to the fact that a Sacred Tradition belonging to a people has to exist prior to Scripture and is the thing that produces Scripture and then transmits that Scripture.

Does this seem a bit complex? Maybe it is. But as a convert, I can tell you that it is the central issue most converts from Protestantism must grapple with. If we converts have had to wrap our heads around this argument in order to become Catholic, is it too much to ask cradle Catholics to give it a shot for the sake of our dear friends still living apart from the sacraments?

[Note: This presentation of the sola scriptura argument has been crafted with the average educated Catholic and Protestant in mind. More scholarly and philosophical approaches, and those that get into the Greek text, have their place as well. For those who want to examine a Catholic apologetic on this issue by a philosopher, I recommend this treatment by  Michael Liccione.]

(© 2011  Mary Kochan)

Mary Kochan, former Senior Editor of CatholicExchange, is Editor-at-Large  of CatholicLane.com.

Raised as a  third-generation Jehovah's Witness, Mary worked her way backwards through the Protestant Reformation to enter the Catholic Church on Trinity Sunday, 1996.  Mary has spoken in many settings, to groups large and small, on the topic of destructive cultism and has been a guest on both local and national radio programs. To arrange for Mary to speak at your event, you may contact her at kochanmar@gmail.com.