A Defense of Sola Scriptura Against the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Views of Authority

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1 A Defense of Sola Scriptura Against the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Views of Authority By Rand Wagner And that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. (2 Tim 3:15-17) Introduction Christianity since its inception has maintained that the sacred writings of both the Old and New Testaments are indeed words of the Living God. The three major sections of Christendom, that is, the Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, and the Protestants, all agree that Scripture is inspired by God. However, there is disunity among them centering primarily on the extent or role of its authority. The Roman Catholic Church maintains that Scripture and its Tradition are equal in authority. The Eastern Orthodox Church argues that Scripture is just one of five sources that make up its infallible Tradition. In contrast to the Roman and Eastern views of authority, which elevate Tradition above the written Word, Protestants consider Scripture alone to be the sufficient and final authority of faith and practice. If unity between these three denominations is to ever be achieved, then the Word of God as revealed in Scripture alone, must be the ultimate authority for each. The Roman Catholic Authority The Roman Catholic Church s authority consists of an equal relationship between Scripture and Roman Catholic Church Tradition. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that the Roman church does not derive her certainty about 1

2 revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone, [but that] both the Scriptures and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence (CCC 82). To Roman Catholics, the revealed Word of God is found in both the Holy Scripture as well as Tradition. These two forms of revelation have grown up together throughout history since the beginning of Christianity. The Tradition consists of oral teachings that begin with the apostles and are handed down generation after generation to the present day. Often it is added to by successive generations. The Scriptures are the written words of the apostles. The Romans claim that, sacred Tradition and sacred Scripture, then, are bound closely together and communicate one with the other. For both of them, flowing out of the same divine well-spring, come together in some fashion to form one thing and move towards the same goal (CCC 80). This combination of sources can only be interpreted by the Pope/Magesterium: The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living, teaching office of the church alone (CCC 85), that is, to the Magesterium of the Church...to the Pope and to the bishops in communion with him (CCC 100). The Roman church argues that Scripture is equal with Tradition in authority. However, in actuality the Scriptures are subject to the Magesterium and its interpretation of them. Therefore, the final authority for the Roman Catholic Church is its Tradition. The Eastern Orthodox Authority Similar to the Roman church, The Eastern Orthodox church elevates its own Tradition, as the final authority. According to the EO, this Tradition is the faith and practice imparted to the Apostles and passed on generation after generation to the present day. More specifically this Tradition consists of a combination of sources: the 2

3 Scriptures, the councils, the liturgy, the fathers, and the veneration of icons. Timothy Ware a prominent writer and bishop in the EO Church notes that Orthodox Christians of today see themselves as heirs and guardians to a rich inheritance received from the past, and they believe that it is their duty to transmit this inheritance unimpaired into the future (195). It is their Tradition, derived from these sources, that has been believed unanimously, by everyone, everywhere, in the true church since the beginning. To the EO, when one undertakes to understand the Word of God from the point of view of faith and dogma, one must necessarily be in accord with the interpretation of the Church handed down by the divinely-inspired Fathers and teachers of the Church and from the apostolic times" (Bulgakov 23). Furthermore, the EO insists that it is only their Church, which makes up the final authority for all true Christians. The ultimate authority and the ability to discern the truth in faith is vested in the [Eastern Orthodox] church, which is indeed a divine institution in the proper and strict sense of the word" (Florovsky Authority of the Ancient Councils 118). In the EO Tradition, the first source of authority is Scripture. Scripture, however, is never to be interpreted outside of the authority of the Church. Florovsky writes, "The church had the authority to interpret the Scripture, since she was the only authentic depository of apostolic kerygma... Scripture, that is, its true understanding, was only in the church, as she was guided by the Spirit" ( Function of Tradition 112). Ultimately it is the EO church whose interpretation is infallible, not the text itself. Ware argues that, it is from the Church that the Bible ultimately derives its authority, for it was the Church which originally decided which books form a part of holy Scripture; and it is the church alone which can interpret Holy Scripture with authority (199). Furthermore, Bulgakov insists that, "Holy Scripture is thus a part of the tradition of the [EO] Church. It is that tradition which affirms the value of the holy books in the Church. The canon of holy books which affirms their inspired character is established by tradition; the inspired 3

4 nature of the scripture can be guaranteed only by the church, that is to say, by tradition" (12). All new EO converts must accept this understanding of authority. When accepted into the church they promise, I will accept and understand Holy Scripture in accordance with the interpretation which was and is held by the Holy Orthodox Catholic Church of the East, our Mother (Ware, 200). The second source of authority for the EO is the councils. It must be understood that some councils have more authority than others. For example, local councils though they possess historical and geographical influence, are limited in their authority. However, The Seven Ecumenical Councils with their doctrinal definitions are infallible. Bishop Ware declares, In the eyes of the Orthodox Church, the statements of faith put out by the seven councils possess, along with the Bible, an abiding and irrevocable authority (202). Furthermore, The authority of the Ecumenical Councils is grounded in the infallibility of the church...which is forever the pillar and the foundation of truth (Florovsky Authority 124). Anyone who does not accept the conciliar statements separates himself from the society of the Church (Bulgakov 27). Another source of Eastern Church authority is the liturgy. There are many beliefs and practices, such as the Eucharist, sacraments, and sign of the cross, which are found in the liturgy. Though these beliefs or practices may not have been formally dogmatized or systematized they are still considered to be an authoritative. According to Bishop Ware, it is not merely the words of the services which are a part of Tradition; the various gestures and actions-immersion in the waters of baptism, the different anointings with oil, the sign of the Cross, and so on - all have a special meaning, and all express in symbolic or dramatic form the truths of the faith (205). The next source of authority for the EO is the Fathers. The writings of the Fathers have significantly contributed and are necessarily linked to a correct understanding of Tradition. Their understanding of the Fathers is similar to the local councils in that each 4

5 Father in the church is judged selectively. The Fathers consist of writers throughout the centuries who have had a significant influence on the faith and life of the church. Some examples include Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, John Chrysostom, and Maximus the Confessor. The last source of the EO Tradition is the veneration of icons. After the iconoclastic controversy surrounding the seventh ecumenical council, the Eastern Church continued to use icons in the church. The Seventh council declared that icons of Christ and of martyred saints are legitimate in the church and in fact are necessary for a correct understanding of the incarnation. The authority of icons is similar to that of the councils. Lossky remarks, Just as much as dogmatic definitions, it has been possible for the icons of Christ to be compared to Holy Scriptures, to receive the same veneration, since iconography sets forth in colors what the Word announces in written letters" ("Tradition and Traditions" 145). The Protestant Authority It is evident that in both the Roman and EO churches, tradition has an ultimate authority that is elevated above the written Word of God. In contrast to these views, the Protestants maintain that Scripture alone is the final authority. They contend that both the Old and New Testaments have been given by inspiration of God and are the only sufficient standard and judge of faith and practice for believers. A.A. Hodge remarks, Whatever God teaches or commands is of sovereign authority...the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the only organs through which...god conveys to us a knowledge of his will about what we are to believe concerning himself, and what duties 5

6 he requires of us (1). This understanding of Scriptural authority is supported by verses such as 2 Tim 3:15-17, 1 Peter 2:2, and Matt 4:4, which indicate clearly that Scripture is sufficient. In the words of Protestant theologian Wayne Grudem, the sufficiency of Scripture means that Scripture contained all the words of God he intended his people to have at each stage of redemptive history, and now contains all the words of God we need for salvation, for trusting him perfectly, and for obeying him perfectly (127). Protestants clearly affirm that the only authority for the church is Scripture. A Defense of Sola Scriptura The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches in order to support their own perspectives, argue against the Scripture only principle. However, despite these arguments, Sola Scriptura shines as the best alternative concerning authority for the Christian church. One argument used by the traditionalists is that Sola Scriptura is not found in Scripture. They argue that verses which mention tradition such as 2 Thess. 2:15 indicate that a separate oral Tradition exists apart from Scripture. Traditionalists say that the Bible nowhere teaches that it is the sole authority in matters of belief... and that Tradition--the oral teachings given by Jesus to the apostles and their successors, the bishops--is a parallel source of authentic belief (qtd. in Mac 5). According to traditionalists, the power to secure unity and universality, a characteristic of the true church can only be found in an authoritative Church. Some verses they use to argue that they have an infallible Tradition and that Scripture does not teach the principle of Sola Scriptura are: 2 Thess 3:6; 1 Cor 11:2; 1 Pet 1:25; 2 Tim 2:2; Act 2:42, and others. 6

7 However, these verses used by the Romans and EO to support their arguments are irrelevant to the notion that Tradition received from the apostles is preserved infallibly by their leaders. Nothing suggests that there would be apostolic succession or that the apostles teaching would be preserved through any means besides Scripture. Also, when looking at the whole context of the Bible it is clearly evident that Scripture must test any teaching. An example of this is shown in Acts 17:11 when the Bereans were commended for their examination of Scripture to test the apostles teaching. Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so. It is interesting that for traditionalists, this concept of looking at Scripture to determine what is true is discouraged. What the apostles taught the churches in their day was nothing like what the traditionalists teach their faithful today. Paul was urging believers to test everything by the Scriptures and their words. Since the only words of apostles that are infallibly preserved for us today are found in Scripture, that means that we, like the Bereans must compare everything with Scripture to see whether it is so (MacArthur 11). Furthermore, it can be said that no man, no church, no religious authority has any warrant from God to augment the inspired Word of Scripture with additional traditions, or to alter the plain sense of it by subjecting it to the rigors of a traditional meaning not found in the word itself. To do so is clearly to invalidate the Word of God (Mac 12). Another argument that the Roman and Eastern churches use to validate their Tradition is the argument that the church produced the Scriptures and therefore must be able to interpret them infallibly. Since the church canonized the Scripture it must be 7

8 authoritative over and above the text. This argument that the church decided the extent of Scripture and therefore has the authority to interpret it is convincing. However, it falls short, in light of several passages of Scripture, which indicate that the OT as well as the NT were recognized as God s Word in apostolic times prior to any official canonization of them. The Apostle Paul clearly considered Luke s gospel to be Scripture when he quoted it alongside an OT passage in one of his letters. Moreover, Peter recognized Paul s letters as Scripture in 2 Pet 3: and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, 16 as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction. The fact that there were recognized inspired works prior to any conciliar collection of them is significant because: If the true Scriptures were accepted early in church history, then the mere recognition of them lends credence to the Protestant understanding of Scriptural authority. Protestants acknowledge the fact that they are a part of a tradition, which has formulated the Sola Scriptura principle. However, they argue that God s people understood and practiced the principle throughout history. This principle does not negate the oral teachings communicated by the prophets and apostles. It recognizes that those teachings have been written down for people to have an objective source of God s revelation. Protestants also realize that they are part of an historical tradition, which includes the church s affirmation of truly Scriptural books. They can agree with the Roman and Eastern churches that this is significant because the true Scriptures were indeed recognized. However, though the church decided which books 8

9 were in and which were not, it did not inspire them. Furthermore, Traditionalists argue that since the church decided the canon of Scripture then its Tradition must be authoritative. This tendency to elevate Tradition to an equal footing with that of the sacred text is found in other religions besides Christianity. Dr. John F. MacArthur, Jr., argues that some religions don t have a sacred text and rely solely upon their traditions, whereas many religions do have a sacred text along with their tradition (I.e. Hinduism and the Vedas). However, in these text-based religions, tradition in effect becomes a lens through which the written word is interpreted. Tradition therefore stands as the biggest of all authorities, because it renders the only authoritative interpretation of the sacred writings (2). This tendency occurs in Judaism with the OT being the sacred text and the Talmud being the tradition (1). In Jesus day the Jews made the Scriptures subject to the tradition because it was interpreted by tradition. In Mark 7:6-13 Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for elevating their traditions above the Word of God. He proclaims: Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, 'This people honors Me with their lips, But their heart is far away from Me. 'But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men. Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men. You nicely set aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition... thus invalidating the word of God by your tradition which you have handed down; and you do many things such as that. This passage and others similar to it reflect that God s word was the final authority in all matters: Duet. 4:2, 12:32; Prov 30:5-6; Ex 34:27, 24:4-7; Josh 1:7-8. Sola Scriptura was therefore established in principle with the giving of the law. No tradition passed down by word of mouth, no rabbinical opinion, and no priestly innovation was to be accorded authority equal to the revealed Word of God as recorded in Scripture (Mac 2). 9

10 This tendency to elevate Tradition above Scripture in the Old Testament times is the same problem the Christian church has had since its beginning. MacArthur observes Christianity has often followed the same path as Judaism in its tendency to elevate tradition to a position of authority equal to or greater than the Scripture (3). The Romans and the EO have their own tradition which functions like the Jewish Talmud. They each have added on precepts of men to the Scripture claiming that those Traditions are equally as inspired as Scripture. MacArthur points out that as the church grew in power and influence, church leaders began to assert an authority...the church as an institution became in many people s eyes the fountain of authority and the arbiter on all matters of truth (3). Though this was the trend throughout history, the objective Scriptures never ascribed ultimate authority to the church above the written word. Admittedly, the Scriptures do recognize oral teachings but not as authoritative. 2 Thess 2:15 and 3:6 indicate instruction for those specific people coming from Paul himself, not an authoritative Tradition handed down. As was shown, Christ rebuked this doctrine of the Pharisees in Matt 15:3,6 and Mark 7:6-13. Another important point to note is not only that Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for their man made Traditions, but that Christ and his apostles continually refer to the written Word as the authority and to no other source (Luke 16:29; 10:26; John 5:39; Rom. 4:3; 2 Tim. 3:15). Clearly, the authority of Scripture does not rest upon Tradition as traditionalists contend. A. A. Hodge agrees, The evidence upon which we receive Scripture as the word of God is not the authority of the church (10). Furthermore, There is no body of men who are either qualified, or authorized, to interpret the Scriptures, or apply their principles to the decision of particular questions, in a sense binding upon the faith of their fellow Christians (6). He succinctly explains that Scripture is the only infallible 10

11 voice in the church, and is to be interpreted in its own light, and with the gracious help of the Holy Ghost, who is promised to every Christian (1 John 2:20-27) (6). In maintaining that the Scriptures are the only rule of faith and practice, we do not pretend that the private judgment of Protestants is infallible, but only that when exercised in a humble, believing spirit, it always leads to a competent knowledge of essential truth (10). Conclusion The Word of God as revealed in Scripture, alone, must be the ultimate authority for all Christian denominations. The Romans, EO, and Protestants all agree that Scripture has authority. However, as has been shown, the Protestant understanding of Scriptural authority is the best option in light of biblical teaching. The Romans and the EO argue that Tradition is the final authority and anathematize those outside of their visible unity. In contrast, the Protestants insist that the one true church is made up of believers all around the world who have sincerely placed their faith in the Jesus Christ revealed in Scripture. In the Protestant view, there is no need for an infallible church to interpret the Scriptures. Wayne Grudem states, "All things necessary for our salvation and for our Christian life and growth are very clearly set forth in Scripture" (108). If the institutional church fails to affirm the clear teaching of Scripture, then the teachings of the church are to be rejected. No Christian denomination can say that it is exempt from every sort of tradition. However, this tradition becomes an evil when it is regarded as equal with Scripture. As John MacArthur, Jr. adds, Scripture is therefore the perfect and only standard of spiritual truth, revealing infallibly all that we [the church] must believe in order to be 11

12 saved, and all that we [the church] must do in order to glorify God (6). It is this position that must be embraced by all true Christians if unity within the church is ever to be achieved. 12

13 Works Cited The Bible. New American Standard Version. Bulgakov, Sergius. The Orthodox Church. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir s Seminary Press, l988. Catechism of the Catholic Church. Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1994 Florovsky, George Authority of the Ancient Councils. Eastern Orthodox Theology: A Contemporary Reader. Ed. Daniel B Clendenin. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, Function of Tradition. Eastern Orthodox Theology: A Contemporary Reader. Ed. Daniel B Clendenin. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, Hodge, A.A. Sola Scriptura. Lossky, Vladimir. Tradition and Traditions. Eastern Orthodox Theology: A Contemporary Reader. Ed. Daniel B Clendenin. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, MacArthur Jr., John F. The Sufficiency of the Written Word. Ware, Timothy. The Orthodox Church. London: Penguin Books,

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