Why the Protestant Approach to Scripture Cannot be Right

St. Jerome and the Bible

The Protestant Belief in Sola Scripture (Scripture Alone)

One of the “pillars” or founding principles of the Protestant Reformation is the Protestant teaching of Sola Scriptura. Simply defined, Sola Scriptura is the belief that the Bible alone is the sole rule of faith for the believer. In other words, if a teaching is not contained in the Bible, then it is to be rejected as having no authority over the individual Christian. Therefore, according to Sola Scriptura, the Church’s teachings (or a pastor’s – or anyone’s teachings, for that matter) are true only as far as they are found in the bible. Another aspect of Sola Scriptura is that each believer, guided by the Holy Spirit, will be led to the proper interpretation and understanding of what he reads in the Bible.

There are several problems with this teaching:

  • First, Sola Scriptura is not found anywhere in the Bible, therefore, it is by its own definition not true.
  • Second, the Bible teaches a far different doctrine; God’s revelation consists of both Divine Revelation in written form (Sacred Scripture) and Divine Revelation in oral form (Sacred Tradition) and the interpretation of Divine Revelation is entrusted to the Church’s teaching office (Magisterium).
  • Finally, it is clear from both the Bible and history, that Christians who lived prior to the Protestant Reformation had a decidedly different experience and understanding of the place of the Bible in the Church.

Approach to the Question

In examining the question of whether the Protestant teaching of Sola Scriptura is true, this article will take the following approach:

  • First, we will look at what the Bible has to say about the rule of faith and the private interpretation of its contents. This is only reasonable if we expect to reach the hearts and minds of those who hold to Sola Scriptura. After all, that is their approach.
  • Second, we will look at the experience of the first Christians and see how they received and made use God’s Word. This will include, to a limited degree, commenting on the experience of the period from after the death of the last apostle to the Reformation and then to the experience of Protestants over the last, nearly five-hundred years.

What Does the Bible Say about Sola Scriptura?

As already mentioned, the Bible says nothing directly supporting this Protestant teaching, but it has a lot to say in opposition to it. But let’s begin with a passage that is often cited by Protestants in support of it.

One of my closest childhood friends was a devout and zealous Presbyterian. James and I often debated our respective beliefs with one another. I particularly wanted to persuade him that Sola Scriptura was false because it is so critical to Protestantism.  If this one pillar is untrue, then it is open-season on many other Protestant doctrines because they are built upon this foundational belief. Invariably, James would point to two verses above all others to support his case.

“All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

Observe carefully, that these verses say that scripture is “useful” (I believe his translation said “profitable”). The Catholic Church would agree fully, scripture is indeed useful and profitable, but those verses do not even imply that scripture is the only source “useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training.” Quite the contrary, the Bible says that there is another source that is the “pillar and foundation of truth”.

“I am writing you about these matters, although I hope to visit you soon. But if I should be delayed, you should know how to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of truth.” (1 Timothy 3:14-15)

Catholics do not depend upon an isolated text for their proof of a teaching. Instead, the context of the passage within its surrounding chapters, book, testament, and even in relation to the whole of the Bible is important. The Church calls this principle of reading and understanding the meaning of what the bible says the Canonical Approach. That the Protestant reading of 2 Timothy 3:16-17 is taken out of context is demonstrated by also reading 1 Timothy 3:14-15.

What is this “Church” that is the pillar and foundation of truth?

The passage from 1 Timothy refers to the Church, so let’s look at what that Church is. We will look at two, longer passages from St. Matthew’s Gospel:

“When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter said in reply, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ Jesus said to him in reply, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’” (Matthew 16:13-19)

“If your brother sins (against you), go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that ‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven…” (Matthew 18:15-18)

In the first passage from Matthew 16, we witness Jesus establishing His Church and entrusting it with authority. It is outside the scope of this article to dive deeply into the meaning of the images of the keys, binding and loosing, Peter’s name-change or even the great rock and location of this event at Caesarea Philippi. It is sufficient to see that the Church was founded by Christ. And it is also important to understand that this Church is something more than an invisible collection of believers – no it is much more than that.

In the passage from Matthew 18, we see that it is an institution that Jesus instructed to exercise the authority He entrusted to it. If all efforts to resolve a problem are unsuccessful, even after three have gathered to attempt it, then the problem is to be brought to the Church; and the Church will provide a binding resolution. This is contrary to what most of my Protestant friends would acknowledge, even if it is seen in their practice.

What does the bible teach about private interpretation of the Scriptures?

Matthew 18 speaks, at least indirectly to the matter of who has the authority to interpret what the Bible contains. In taking the above, very short overview of verses from the Bible, we have to look at other passages that expressly address private interpretation of the Bible and the consequences of doing so.

“We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven while we were with him on the holy mountain. Moreover, we possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable. You will do well to be attentive to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. Know this first of all, that there is no prophecy of scripture that is a matter of personal interpretation, for no prophecy ever came through human will; but rather human beings moved by the holy Spirit spoke under the influence of God.” (2 Peter 1:18-21 NAB)

St. Peter states that “we possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable”. But how is it reliable given that he also says that “there is no prophecy of scripture that is a matter of personal interpretation”?

How can so many well-meaning Christians – of our day and days past – whose hearts are aflame in their love for Christ; whose lives are devoted to the service of their fellow-man because of that love; how can these good people disagree with such certainty on doctrines that are central to our salvation, if this message is reliable? The answer is that their very belief in and exercise of private interpretation has torn the unity of the Church and resulted in the very uncertainty of their many differing beliefs.

St. Peter speaks to this as well.

“And consider the patience of our Lord as salvation, as our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, also wrote to you, speaking of these things as he does in all his letters. In them there are some things hard to understand that the ignorant and unstable distort to their own destruction, just as they do the other scriptures. Therefore, beloved, since you are forewarned, be on your guard not to be led into the error of the unprincipled and to fall from your own stability.” (2 Peter 3:15-17)

Very clearly, St. Peter warns against private interpretation of the Bible and even cites examples of people who practice it to their own destruction. What stronger warning could we need? Some might say that the oral teaching of the Apostles is of higher standing than that of their successors.  But this is untenable and contrary to the practice recorded in the Pastoral Epistles of the New Testament which instructs bishops, such as Timothy, to teach others what they have received from the Apostles.

What was the experience of Early Christians – and Later Christians Too?

Consider the following points often overlooked by many today.

  • The first book of the New Testament was not written until the late 40’s A.D. at the earliest.
  • St. John’s Gospel was not written until the 90’s A.D. or later.
  • The bible itself records that the official teaching of the Church, exercised in the form of a Church Council, and not the private interpretation of individual Christians, answers questions of faith. (cf. the Jerusalem Council; Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 15)
  • There was not a definitive list (or canon) of books accepted as Sacred Scripture until the late 300’s A.D. and later. (Local Council of Hippo in 393; Local Council of Carthage in 397; Letter of Pope Innocent I in 405)
  • Protestant reformers removed portions of the Old Testament that had been held by the Catholic Church to be a part of the canon of scripture for centuries. Where did they receive that authority? They relied upon the “authority” of Jewish rabbis exercised 60+ years after the Crucifixion and Pentecost; 60+ years after when Jesus had established His Church and authorized it to teach. Martin Luther even wanted to remove the Epistle of James and the Apocalypse (Book of Revelation). He was prevented from doing so by the other reformers.
  • It is estimated that fewer than 10% of those who lived in the Roman Empire could read. Even if the people had been more literate, there was no printing press, and therefore, no easy or affordable access to the written word prior to the invention of the printing press in the 15th Century.

So, the earliest Christians lived before there was a New Testament. And it was 300+ years after the writing of the New Testament before Christians had a definitive witness of the Catholic Church regarding the list of books that were a part of the Bible. Who decided which of the hundreds of writings by the apostles and their successors would form that canon of Scripture? It was the Catholic Church, in the decisions of its councils and the teaching of its Popes that gave witness to what books should be considered a part of the Bible. And it was not until the 15th Century that the printing press made it possible to own a copy of the Bible, even if the owner could not read. How could the Bible be the sole rule of faith during all that time?

It has already been mentioned that the private interpretation of the Bible that came from the Reformation in the 1500’s A.D. has resulted not in unity of faith and belief, but just the opposite; non-Catholic Christianity is comprised of more than 30,000 denominations  by Protestant’s own counts.

Christians today should read the Bible and read it prayerfully, meditating on its contents. One who honestly and humbly seeks and embraces the Truth who is the Word of God cannot help but be transformed by Him.  But this is not how we arrive at an orthodox belief, apart from the Church. It must be acknowledged that the vast majority of Christians who have lived, received and experienced Sacred Scripture the way it was intended: proclaimed and taught within the Liturgy of the Church, which has always claimed the authority to interpret and teach. The apostles established local churches; they formed them and taught them, they appointed bishops to continue their work once they were gone.  For centuries, it was the handing down of the Word of God in oral form – Sacred Tradition – that was the manner in which these Christians received the Word of God.  This is simply a historical fact. It is also supported by St. Paul writing in the bible:

“Therefore, brothers, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours.” (2 Thessalonians 2:15)

St. Paul also writes, “So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ.” (Romans 10:17)

Protestants might object that Jesus warned not to follow tradition.

“You have nullified the word of God for the sake of your tradition. Hypocrites, well did Isaiah prophesy about you when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts.’” (Matthew 15:6-9)

However, the traditions that Jesus condemns are those that “nullify” the Word of God. Sacred Tradition does not nullify the Word of God; it is a part of the Word of God as demonstrated by the Jerusalem Council recorded in Acts 15.

What Does the Catholic Church Teach?

Simply look at the following sequence:

  • In prior times, God spoke to us through prophets in varied ways and through a succession of covenants.
  • In present times God spoke to us through His Son.
  • Divine Revelation was fulfilled, completed and perfected in the person of Jesus Christ, the Word of God. We await no further Divine Revelation.
  • Jesus Christ gave this perfected revelation (the Deposit of the Faith) to the apostles.
  • The deposit (word of God) has been passed on (transmitted) to us in writing (Sacred Scripture) and oral preaching (Sacred Tradition) from the apostles through their successors (the bishops).
  • It is not by scripture alone that we receive God’s word. (cf. 2 Th 2:15)
  • The authority to interpret and teach the Word is entrusted to the Church’s Magisterium. (cf. 1 Tim 3:15; Matthew 16; Matthew 18; 2 Peter)

The above can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and in Dei Verbum, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation that was issued by the Second Vatican Council which has this to say about the Word of God. “The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord, since, especially in the sacred liturgy, she unceasingly receives and offers to the faithful the bread of life from the table both of God’s word and of Christ’s body.” (Dei Verbum #21)

Indeed, the Catholic Church holds the written Word of God in such high esteem, that she has painstakingly seen to it that it was preserved and handed on from generation to generation, all the way down to our own. The Church gives witness to the Word of God, that which has been handed on as Sacred Scripture and that which has been handed on as Sacred Tradition; faithfully teaching with the authority of Christ.

Into the Deep…

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Into the Deep by Deacon Mike Bickerstaff is a regular feature of the The Integrated Catholic Life™ and usually appears each Sunday.

Deacon Mike Bickerstaff is the Editor in chief and co-founder of the The Integrated Catholic Life™. A Catholic Deacon of the Roman Rite for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, Deacon Bickerstaff is assigned to St. Peter Chanel Catholic Church where he is the Director of Adult Education and Evangelization.

He is a co-founder of the successful annual Atlanta Catholic Business Conference; the Chaplain of the Atlanta Chapter of the Woodstock Theological Center’s Business Conference; and Chaplains to the St. Peter Chanel Business Association and co-founder of the Marriages Are Covenants Ministry, both of which serve as models for similar parish-based ministries.

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About the Author

Deacon Mike Bickerstaff Editor-In-Chief, ICL

Deacon Michael Bickerstaff is the Editor in chief and co-founder of the The Integrated Catholic Life.™ A Catholic Deacon of the Roman Rite for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, Deacon Bickerstaff is assigned to St. Peter Chanel Catholic Church where he is the Director of Adult Education and Evangelization.

He is also the Founder and President of Virtue@Work, where he provides Executive and Personal Coaching, Mentoring and Organizational Consulting. Deacon Mike has 30+ years management consulting experience in senior executive leadership positions providing organizational planning and implementation services with a focus on human resource strategy and tax qualified retirement plan design, administration and compliance.

He is a co-founder of the successful annual Atlanta Catholic Business Conference; the Chaplain of the Atlanta Chapter of the Woodstock Theological Center’s Business Conference; and Chaplain of the St. Peter Chanel Faith at Work Business Association and co-founder and Chaplain of the Marriages Are Covenants Ministry, both of which serve as models for similar parish-based ministries.

He and his wife have two married children and three grandchildren.

NB: The views I express on this site are my own. I am not an official spokesman for either my parish or diocese.

Looking for a Catholic Speaker?  Check out Deacon Mike's speaker page and the rest of the ICL Speaker's Bureau.

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  1. Wonderful post on a very important issue that separates and undermines the unity within the body of Christ. Well done, Deacon Mike.

  2. Bravo! Great piece to help explain our teachings and help other Christians to come to unity with us in Christ. Thank you Deacon Mike!

  3. Thank you for writing this article – very concise and in plain english that is easy to read and understand. The scripture references are especially appreciated.

  4. I have no problem with you being proud of your particular division of Christianity but I think it shows a severe lack of understanding to put down another. The only one who gets to judge in the end is God. So I suggest before you judge someone else for their faith you make sure that yours is perfected.

    1. Hi Larry,

      Thank you for your comments… I am glad you chose to participate in the discussion.

      My purpose has nothing whatsoever to do with pride; only with discerning what is true and what is not. All that we have is a grace from God, totally undeserved. But, the Lord calls on us to make judgments all the time… what he forbids is attempting to judge another person’s soul. I make no judgments over the state of any Protestant’s soul, but I do make judgments on what he teaches and believes.

      God Bless you.

      Deacon Mike

  5. Been in the Bible before thinking all Gods Words would all be there, but i encounter

    John 16:12-13

    12 “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. 13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.

    7 But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate/Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.

    After reading this verses, I was awakened that the Bible was not that complete yet, as said by Jesus, that the Advocate/Counselor/Helper would be coming to enlightened us with all the truth. Immediately i prayed to led me where, Include in my prayer that It might be here already and that I really want to know all the truth. Years passed and I was guided into an organization, have many doubts about it, but so many many miracles granted unto me that immediate. I became a member and the next day I was lent their Holy Words book by the founder. The first page i read was “Though shall speak the innermost depth of the Divine Truth. The Spirit of Truth has entered Thee. Though shall speak what Though heareth. The time of Heaven has come.” The exact words left by Jesus. My tears of joy right after reading. I am very well enlightened that this is the correct path. Everything they are doing are in the Bible. We are permitted to raise our hand, and lo, many many miracles bestowed. It is written. Mark 16: 17 And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18 they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”. Even my children and acquaintances would be amazed at the miracles granted. Would be going to sick people to give then Light, and would be well.. I would pray for rain for some times and it would come. I could speak in tongue. I am able to see “aura”, and the most, I can sometimes see the Light coming out from the hands. If you really want to get closer to the Lord pray fervently that you may guided, I very well knew that you will also be guided just like me. I would be very glad to led you that your joy to be complete being closer to te Lord.

    Jesus said this before leaving, saying that the Bible not yet complete. I prayed immediately to the Lord to guide me to

  6. Thank you for this piece. I would like to inquire about your thoughts on salvation, specifically, in the Catholic tradition, how one arrives at salvation. I have many dear friends who are devout Catholics yet are endlessly working on their salvation (tilting the balance in favor of good deeds viv-a-vis sins committed) but never knowing for sure if they are in fact saved.

    1. Dear Tonio,

      Regarding the grace of salvation… it is a free gift and cannot be earned by anything we do. However, our cooperation with that grace (living the sacramental life, advancing in prayer, practicing the virtues and avoiding sin) helps us to avoid losing this grace. And, of course, should we lose the grace of justification (sanctifying grace) through mortal sin, we can be restored to grace in the Sacrament of Confession.

      Deacon Mike

  7. Thank you, Deacon Bickerstaff, for this most helpful article. Presenting a so sensitive topic is all the more difficult in the wake of decades of poor or absent catechesis. So many in the Church have slipped into their own variant of sola scriptura, believing their own (ill-formed or even unformed) consciences to be reliable in rendering decisions contrary to Church doctrine.

    Being in the Archdiocese of Atlanta myself, I have been sorry to see the Catechism underused in adult classes, if used at all. And further, to see all sorts of courses offered which do nothing first to lay a proper foundation of Church teaching. Each man his own liturgist? A new definition of hell.

    1. Dear William,

      You are correct that variants of “sola scriptura” are sometimes employed by even well-meaning Catholics.

      We strive at our parish to provide the proper foundation you speak of.

      Deacon Mike

  8. Deacon Mike,
    thank you so much for this article. It’s a very well written and concise treatment of an essential issue. I just started a blog to write about my own experiences as a “neophyte”. On easter Vigil, I was baptized and confirmed into the Catholic Church. Since this was such a key issue to wrestle with in my own conversion, I wonder if it would be alright if I mentioned this article in a future post?

    My motivation for starting the blog is first to express to the world what a wonderful thing the Lord has done (and continues to do) in my life. And second, to hopefully break down some walls that are now between me and all of my protestant community that I just came out of.

    Thank you so much and God Bless,

    1. Dear Loreen,

      Congratulations on receiving the Sacraments and entering your neophyte year! And thank you for your kind words. Feel free to link to this article on your blog.

      Deacon Mike

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