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.


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  • Shawn McElhinney

    Nicely done Kevin. Bad arguments are bad arguments period irrespective of the persons who made them. Thanks to this column in the words of that great western philosopher Freddy Mercury “another one bites the dust!”

  • ELC

    “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.”

    With all due respect, the argument does not make that assumption. The argument takes the reference to Scripture in verse 16 to be a reference to the same Sacred Writings as in verse 15; that is, to the Jewish Scriptures that St. Timothy had known since childhood. One may consider that an assumption, I suppose, but I see nothing in the context to indicate the references are different.

    • A very generous assumption not proven by the text, or by how we use it elsewhere. When Leo XIII cites 2 Timothy 3:15-17 to cite the nature of Scripture, he is referring to All Scripture, not just the Old Testament. (Providentissimus Deus, 6) When the Second Vatican Council speaks about the Bible in Dei Verbum, once again, the same mechanic is at work, and in terms actually more explicit:

      “For holy mother Church, relying on the belief of the Apostles (see John 20:31; 2
      Tim. 3:16; 2 Peter 1:19-20, 3:15-16), holds that the books of both the Old and
      New Testaments in their entirety, with all their parts, are sacred and canonical
      because written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their
      author and have been handed on as such to the Church herself”

      In other words, St. Paul isn’t refering to just the Old Testament in that statement, but rather the nature of Scripture in and of itself. This is the consistent reading of the Chuch Fathers as well. (Especially Augustine, whom Vatican II cites)

      The Catechism does the same thing. (CCC 105-106) So we have a conundrum. We can say to the Protestant “St. Paul only has in mind the Old Testament” and then in our catechism classes, teach young kids and new Catholics that St. Paul is then talking about ALL SCRIPTURE as we know it today. Anyone think that is gonna end well to a Protestant who actually does his homework?
      Just as Paul isn’t listing an exhaustive canon of everything his parents taught Timothy, only that it is to be used in his ministry, so Timothy is told that ALL Scripture is profitable, and he should know this, given that he’s read the scriptures from infancy. Given his youth, that “infancy” could very well have included St. Paul’s letter to the Church of Corinth, which Paul stated was Scripture the moment he wrote it.

      The biggest problem is the argument is completely unneccessary. We don’t need to put on your historical hats to judge when Timothy was and wasn’t an “infant” according to culture, or what book was and wasn’t viewed as Scripture during that time, etc.

      We can just focus on the hard reality of the issue: Did the early church practice Sola Scriptura? The answer is no. Is there any evidence in the Bible that once the last apostle dies, things will change and will become Sola Scriptura? The answer again is no.

      Now Catholics can point to the nature of their rule of faith in Scripture, and Protestants can’t. So we focus on that, without introducing a lot of things which are based on assumptions that really don’t hold water when we examine them. It’s far easier to just go with what the Magesterium says, instead of the clever arguments of individual Catholics, no matter how wise and holy those sinful individuals might be.

      • ELC

        Interesting. Thank you.

      • T.B.

        I wonder though if Catholics don’t have the luxury of including the New Testament in our reading of those passages that Protestants don’t have. Because we have the Church to say it’s included. Protestants need to hold that the New Testaments books are included in the ‘plain meaning’ of St. Paul’s words, a feat I still think is difficult.

  • Rick Gutleber

    My approach to “Sola Scriptura” is simple. No two people who believe it agree on Christian doctrine 100%, therefore “Sola Scriptura” is insufficient for understanding God’s revelation. QED.

    • Marie

      Good point. And much simpler than the above. I am in favor of simple.

      • BillyT92679

        Yeah I agree but the whole point of Apologetics is it’s exegetic and scientific. We might ridicule the Protestants for holding to such a seemingly reductive belief system but they sure do KNOW it, even if they disagree. I think saying a stinger line like that comes later on as the knockout punch. Otherwise we’re just being a bit condescending

    • Jenny Cook

      I tried to use this line of reasoning with someone who merely said that when people disagree about a salvific doctrine, one of them is probably being motivated by sin. And disagreement about other doctrines is merely an example of Christian liberty. How would you answer this?

  • Very nice coverage Kevin!!!

  • Shaun McAfee

    great job, Kev

  • Jacob S

    I’m not so sure the “bad argument” is irrecoverable, if you modify it a bit from how you presented it. That is, don’t say that St. Paul was only referring to the Old Testament (as you said, that’s probably not gonna work out), but that wasn’t really the crux of that argument anyway.

    The crux is that you have to know what is scripture before you can treat it as such, and that knowledge can’t come solely from scripture itself, the “In order to accept this passage as Scripture, you have to appeal to an authority outside the Scriptures,” part. Not because scripture doesn’t say that it is scripture, but because any book can call itself scripture (Book of Mormon, Quran), but that doesn’t make it so, and so there has to be a way to tell. And any answer that says “well you can tell if it is scripture by doing X” (read it and pray about it, burning in the bosom, historical analysis, common sense, whatever) puts both X and our ability to do X up as new sources of authority.

    Of course, pointing out that Scripture flatly refutes sola scriptura is definitely a good way to approach things, but I don’t think we should give up on showing that sola scriptura is self defeating either.

    • I think the “canon” argument is good, but not for Sola Scriptura. It is a real live issue when it comes to how differences are settled in Christianity. Catholics believe we have the Holy Spirit, who, through human operation, gradually revealed the canon of Scripture to the world. When that canon was still in its development, the Word of God was still safeguarded by the Church, again through the operation of the Spirit. (I hate hate HATE the way some Catholics frame it as saying the Church “Created” the canon) Protestants believe…… oh look Catholics worhsip Mary!

      With Sola Scriptura, the question is simply this: what is our rule of faith? What do the Scriptures teach the rule of faith is? If a Protestant can prove the nature of Sola Scriptura in the Bible, then their divisions have merit, as one of them is going to inevitably get it right, simple law of averages!

      I think the way I frame it limits their options, and forces the battle to take place where the Catholic is actually on the strongest ground.

      • Abel Czifrra

        Hi Kevin,

        Couldn’t help noticing this reply after I posted my comments.

        I think that you’re taking an unnecessary burden of proof upon yourself. The verses that Protestants like to cite as proof for Sola Scriptura (SS) do not show SS *unless* one approaches them with an either-or mindset – if Paul says that Scripture is useful, then all other teaching is not; if Paul commends the Bereans for searching the Scriptures, then all teaching that is not found immediately in the Scriptures is bad; if Hezekiah (did I get the person right?) rejoices when the law of God is recovered, then God’s commands can only be found in Scripture. None of the conclusions follow from their premises without taking an ‘either-or’ mentality. The SS advocate must show that the ‘either-or’ mentality is the appropriate one for approaching these verses.

        • Agreed for the most part on the anachronism Protestants take with “Scripture is good” and translating it into Sola Scriptura. That’s always been one of the lines of attack I’ve favored myself, in addition to pointing out everyone admits Timothy would never have interpreted St. Paul’s words as Sola Scriptura, then letting that sink in.

  • Abel Czifrra

    Hi Kevin,

    I don’t think the argument is ‘bad’, but I do think that it is only an opening to a more substantive issue – the limits of the canon.

    It is true that by the time of Augustine and councils thereafter the NT canon had largely settled and Paul’s letters could be considered as part of ‘all Scripture’. However, the question revolves around which writings Paul understood as ‘all Scripture’ when he wrote 2 Timothy, and I think the preceding verse makes it clear that in this particular letter, Paul understood the written content of Scripture to refer to the OT. While Paul sets down a valid principle that can eventually be extended to other books as they become known as Scripture, a Sola Scripturalist would have difficulty applying Paul’s verse to the NT without admitting the extra-biblical testimony of a group of people who received the writings of the NT as Scripture and who took subsequent action to make that set of writings and its limits publicly known.

    Though you note that Paul, in some of his letters, indicates that he thinks that he’s passing on the Word of God, this does not hold across all of his letters. More importantly, believing that one is passing on the Word of God in written form does not immediately qualify a piece of writing as Scripture – otherwise, the Shepherd of Hermas, Clement’s epistles, and the Didache would all make the cut, as their writers do think they are transmitting God’s Word.

    The appeal to 2 Peter doesn’t help either – what in 2 Peter indicates that it is Scripture? What’s more, 2 Peter was one of the most disputed books in the NT – how does its status as Scripture become confirmed without taking into account the decision of the Church?

    As I understand it, the “bad” Catholic response that you’ve outlined is generally meant to point to the issue of the contents of the canon, an issue which cannot be resolved by consulting Scripture alone. You seem to have alluded to this in your final paragraph and also in your comment about how ‘the only way to salvage this argument is to get into a very messy historical debate’. I think, however, the ‘messy historical debate’ is heavily in the Catholic’s favour.

    Nevertheless, I think the approach you outline (showing that Scripture also positively testifies to oral tradition) is more productive that simply trying to show that Paul’s words in 2 Timothy, on a strict reading, can only apply to the OT. Perhaps a good strategy would be to combine the two: use 2 Timothy to show that the Protestant must admit the action of an extra-biblical body in recognising what the NT is, and also point out that the action of this body is sanctioned by the positive testimony of Scripture itself to the unwritten traditions.

    • As I said before, I think in the end, the text demands a reading of just the nature of Scripture, not its extent.” Its why Paul didn’t list everything Timothy’s parents taught him, nor did he feel the need to rehash everything he taught Timothy before. Whether or not 2 Peter is Scriptural is also besides the point: the point was mainly that there was a pretty established understanding in the Early Church that what Paul was contributing, at least some of them were Scripture. Considering 2 Timothy is one of the later epistles, the Christian community already by then would have had a larger understanding of “all Scripture” than just the OT alone.

      I just think its better to bypass trading historical sources when we can just stick right to the Scriptures, concede what is in the interest of the text, and still show how with even that concession, it just doesn’t work. I think apologists make it way harder than they need to at times. 🙂

      • Abel Czifrra

        But Kevin, the point of the ‘bad argument’ is to show that the immediate context does indicate that the ‘all Scripture’ in 2 Tim 3:16 that Paul is referring to is qualified by 2 Tim 3:15. To make the point that 2 Tim was one of the later epistles and to state that by then the church probably had a larger understanding of what Scripture was is to help yourself to the very historical sources which you seem to want to bypass. That’s also what you did in your reply to ELC – you helped yourself to Augustine and other conciliar documents to show that the Church interpreted 2 Tim 3:16 in a looser way than is demanded by the immediate context of 2 Tim 3:15 (your ‘nature’ vs. ‘extent’ distinction). So I’m quite confused as to your desire to bypass historical sources, and then using them to show that the nature/extent distinction is warranted.

        The argument is designed to trap the SS advocate who tries to prove SS from Scripture alone without referring to how the early church read the passage.This type of SS advocate tends to be very big on emphasising that passages must be read in context, and usually get trapped when it is indicated that 2 Tim 3:15 can qualify 2 Tim 3:16 in such a way as to negate that ‘all Scripture’ refers to the NT, and even to Paul’s own letter! To get to the point where we can extract the general principle of 3:16 from the actual writings which it is referring to would required admitting the action of the church in testifying that the Scriptures were extended beyond just the OT.

        I understand your desire to keep things simple and would commend your approach for thoes 1-minute apologist moments. But I think that you also make things harder for yourself if you don’t use the ‘bad argument’ as a springboard into pointing out the action of the church in making the extent of the canon known, which is an implicit refutation of SS. Also, the ‘bad argument’ is a way to get the SS advocate to start using extra-biblical sources (like you did with Augustine and the conciliar documents) to justify that ‘all Scripture’ must means something more than the old testament, a move that is illegal by strict SS standards.

        Against more sophisticated SS advocates, like those who talk about the Solo/Sola distinction, this will naturally lead to a more complicated debate about the roles of the Church and Scripture. But then, against such opponents, I don’t think you can avoid bringing in the historical sources.

        • Hello Abel,

          I guess I would say a few things:
          1.) The “Scriptures from Infancy” does not mean the Old Testament only, because in none of the other instances did Paul list the exact extent of the things he mentions. Notice how the clause is “from thy infancy thou hast known the Holy Scriptures” NOT “thou hast known the Holy Scriptures from thy infancy” You are assuming without proof that Paul is talking about the extent of revelation, when context says he isn’t. Did Paul have to outline every bit of his sufferings in antioch? No, he assumes Timothy is quite familiar with his sufferings in Antioch. Likewise, he assumes that Timothy is a faithful student of the Scriptures (and again, certain writings of the New testament were already viewed as Scripture by the time of this passage), and he emphasizes why this is important: Scripture is God’s word, and one of the best (if not the best) weapon a man of God can employ.

          2.) It is not our job as apologists to “trap” Protestants in clever plots and schemes. St. Paul tried that, and viewed it an abysmal failure. Is our job to convert people, or to trick them, watch them fall flat on their faces rhetorically, and then rub their noses in it?

          3.) The citations from history and other Church documents were meant to prove a point to Catholics….. they are using something in a way the Church in her highest levels not only declines to do so, but she does the absolute opposite. Apologists should not be hypocrites, telling Protestants the passage means one thing for their little trap, all the while teaching in catechism to others that it means something else. If you follow the Popes, the councils, and the Catechism, this is what you inevitably must do.

          Far better to just stick with what the Church actually says, and show straight up why the Protestant notion fails the test. Not everything is Mortal Apologetics Kombat.

          Any Protestant who does his homework is going to know that, and the double standard won’t be received nicely. Sure, it will make for an interesting debate and clash, but that isn’t our job as apologists and evangelists.

          • Abel Czifrra

            Hi Kevin,

            I see where you’re coming from.

            Re. point 1 – while Paul’s immediate intent is not to delineate the extent of Scripture, it is not immediately obvious what ‘all Scripture’ is referring to in that passage. The church may have accepted some books of the NT Scripture by the time 2 Tim was written – in that case, then perhaps 2 Tim should be read as referring to only those NT books and not the rest, including the letter of 2 Tim itself. As I said, the ‘bad argument’ is not meant to stand on its own but only as a lead in to the canon issue. Perhaps you wanted to address only strict SS issues, but the canon issue is one of the best refutations of SS that one can use.

            As for 2 and 3 – I don’t mean pretending to accept one position for apologetics but actually holding another. The goal here is to assume the SS advocate’s frame of reference for a moment and to show how it doesn’t lead him to the conclusion that he desires, or that it leads him to a conclusion which he knows cannot be true. Proof by contradiction isn’t hypocritical, nor does it have to accompanied by nose-rubbing and gloating. Perhaps my use of the word ‘trap’ set you off, but I intended to use it in a more neutral manner, that is, to show an inconsistency in reasoning. The Catholic should make it clear that he himself does that position, but is only assuming it to show the SS advocate that it doesn’t work. If the SS advocate begins to appeal to Augustine and the Catholic councils, one should note that he is beginning to move away from a strict SS position, but by all means encourage him to do so, since he is moving closer to a Catholic understanding of the relationship of Scripture to the Church.

          • Abel Czifrra

            Hi Kevin,

            Just thought about it a bit more. When I defended the bad argument, I had proponents of what I would call a crystallised SS position in mind, that is, SS advocates who hold that only Paul’s original meaning and intent count, and any development of doctrine is regarded as a non-contextual use of the Scriptures. So, for example, the use of 3:16 in an expanded sense to refer to all Scripture, including those chronologically written after 2 Timothy, is by such standards illegal. I think that the bad argument is a good way to show such people that their position is untenable. If I remember correctly, this was the impression that I got when I first came across the argument in Karl Keating’s (I think) book.

            I think what you have in mind is a more general use of the bad argument against all sorts of SS advocates, especially the more sophisticated ones who admit development of doctrine (in this case, development of the canon). I agree with you that using the bad argument in with such people is pointless.

            Anyway, keep up the good work, and God bless 🙂

  • Excellent rundown. Molte grazie.

  • MLC

    I would change the argument entirely. What St. Paul is saying is that the scriptures are really important: “they are profitable for teaching, for correction,…for training in righteousness, that man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” This passage says that the scriptures are authoritative, which Catholics believe wholeheartedly, but it does not say that the scriptures alone are authoritative. The doctrine of Sola Scriptura, as I understand it, is that the scriptures are the only authority on faith and morals. I would argue that it is merely eisegesis to read sola scriptura from this isolated passage.

    • That is certainly part of it, and a very big part. I wasn’t really outlining an in-depth refutation of Sola Scriptura, but most just one particularly bad argument.

      The Catholic needs to do two things when dealing with this verse: Show how important Scripture is to the Catholic Church, and how Scripture is placed equally alongside Paul’s oral teaching here and elsewhere (1 and 2 Thess), and then we need to have the Protestant demonstrate that the original audience would have understood Sola Scriptura as the point Paul was making.

  • Marie

    The “bad” argument certainly isn’t great, but I’m not fond of its replacement, either. Too wordy and complicated. The heart of the issue, as another commenter has stated is that Sola Scriptura is self refuting.

    Simply ask the Protestant how they know what writings the Scriptures are. They’ll either immediately fall back on some source of authority outside the writing itself (at which point, Done. Sola Scriptura refuted.), or they will quote some verse they think contains a claim of divine inspiration.

    If they do the latter, don’t beat around the bush with disputations about whether the verse means that or not, just accept it as a valid claim of divine inspiration. Then inquire why they don’t accept as Scriptural all of the other writings out there that also claim to be divinely inspired (Koran, Book of Mormon, Scientology, something I wrote up five minutes ago after I concluded my prayer time, etc etc). If they’re honest, at that point they’ll have to admit that Scriptural authority has to rest on *some* authority outside itself. Done. Sola Scriptura refuted.

    • Morrie Chamberlain

      They will often say the Holy Spirit made it clear over time which books were canonical.

      • Hegesippus

        But clear to whom? There must still be a “middle man”, who must be trusted to receive the teachings of the Holy Spirit. That agent was, as we know, the Catholic Church.

        That the Holy Spirit inspired the Church to state certain books as canonical confirms both Scripture and the Church as authorities, with Scripture being dependent on the Church.

        The “good works” of the Church, acting upon the faith it had, gave us Scripture as inspired. Faith alone would have given us nothing!

      • Marie

        Well, that’s simple question begging. At that point you rephrase to show them what a non-answer that is and force them to actually answer the question. “Made it clear through what means?” Whatever means they claim He used is what they are in point of fact relying on as their “Magisterium,” all the while claiming they don’t need a Magisterium because they can rely on “Scripture alone.”

    • Except that really doesn’t refute Sola Scriptura. All it says is that the Spirit revealed the canon through the ages, and that canon was received by the Church, not created. This is also what the Catholic Church actually believes as well.

      When dealing with the rule of faith, that isn’t a problem. Now when dealing with the matters of binding and loosing, yes, it is a problem. People will say “they are one and the same”, but they really aren’t. You need to prove the rule of faith before you get to the matter of binding and loosing.

      The rule of faith of the Catholic Church matches the Scriptures. That of the Protestant doesn’t.

      Most Protestants have no problem admitting that in the end, there’s a lot of faith and human element involved in accepting the canon. The only problem is most people just read a Catholic Answers tract which treats the issue only in the basic, and can’t possibly take into account the complexities and idiosyncrasies of most Protestants.

      Yes, it is self-refuting, but the question is how is it self-refuting. It isn’t self-refuting because it doesn’t have an “inspired table of contents”, but it is self-refuting simply by the fact that nobody during the Apostolic Age actually believed Sola Scriptura, and there’s absolutely no evidence of a sea shift once the last apostle dies.

      • Marie

        Maybe you are working from a different definition of Sola Scriptura than I am. The definition as I’ve always understood it was simply to mean there is no spiritual authority outside of the Scriptures themselves. If that’s the definition, then as soon as you can demonstrate that there is must be some spiritual authority outside the Scriptures, Sola Scriptura has been refuted.

        As to your last paragraph, I would once have said something similar, but realized that’s really not the best route to take. Aside from the truism that ‘absence of contrary evidence is not the same as evidence to the contrary’, resting one’s proof upon a sweeping negative like “nobody actually believed that” opens you up to having to refute case after strained case that someone may try to dream up for “yes someone did actually believe that.” You can cut to the chase by showing instead “it is impossible for anyone to believe that with logical consistency.”

        • Hello Marie,
          I’m going off the definition of Sola Scriptura provided in the Westminster Confession of Faith, which amongst the formal Protestant documents (the LBC 1689 and others) mainly are word for word repeats:

          Most (though certainly not all) Protestants will agree with this analysis. They don’t say there is no spiritual authority outside of the Scriptures. Quite the contrary for many. They just don’t ascribe infallability to Church pronouncments, and question the reliability of oral tradition being transferred down through the ages, and prefer to stick with what is quantifiable in the written word instead.

          Lots of other things are authoritative, but nothing is infallible. It’s a flawed position, it is a position the Scriptures themselves do not teach, but it is best to act as if the Protestant is operating off of this, even when they say they aren’t, they likely are.

          When you prepare according to that definition, even for those who claim not to follow it, you can still refute it the same way. On the other hand, if you go in with the kind of definition you do against an intelligent Calvinist or anyone else in the Reformed/Evangelical persuasion, they are likely to simply ignore you at best, and turn hostile at worst.

          • Marie

            Thanks for such a quick reply! I am intrigued and will have to read that document. I am still concerned about resting anything on a sweeping negative such as “it is a position that the Scriptures themselves do not teach.” Positive proofs (“the Scriptures DO teach”) are much stronger. Or at least proofs that show an irreconcilable inconsistency of the required logic.

          • Hello Marie,
            I don’t think we are too far apart. I absolutely agree we can’t just leave it in the negative, otherwise we are only telling half the story. We need to emphasize the Protestant rule of faith isn’t there, but right after we need to emphasize that the Catholic Rule of Faith is what is taught in Scriptures, especially Acts. If they say “well things are different now”, then they need to show, with their work, why it is different.
            I would say the fatal inconsistency is:
            1.) Sola Scriptura is a timeless truth of Scripture.
            2.) Sola Scriptura could not possibly be active during the time of the Apostles, as revelation was ongoing.
            3.) The original audience of the books of the Bible were during Apostolic Times.
            4.) The First Christians didn’t practice Sola Scriptura.
            5.) Any appeal to the bible teaching Sola Scriptura therefore fails because the first audience would not have understood it that way.
            6.) Given 5, and since there is no biblical evidence that after the death of the last apostle, we shift to Sola Scriptura (and why after the death of the Apostle?), we have to reject Sola Scritpura as false.

          • Marie

            Hm… #4 and #6 still sound uncomfortably close to relying on negatives to me. (Unless you are meaning #4 to rest on #2, but that still leaves #6)

            I’m going to read linked article over the weekend and get back to you. Thanks for the intriguing discussion!

  • I think there is a fatal flaw in the assertion in this post that St. Paul somehow understood his own letters and other NT writings with which he would have been familiar to be, themselves, “scripture.” Two important reasons come to mind:
    First, we in the Catholic Church know–just as St. Paul would have known–that it is the universal magisterium of the *Church* alone that possesses the authority necessary to identify what is Scripture and what is not. Paul would know that he personally did not possess such authority. Furthermore, Paul wrote *other* letters mentioned in his NT letters–yet these other letters are not counted as Scripture. But if the assertion above is to be believed, *Paul* would have concluded somehow that these other letters must have been “scriptural” too. Quite a dilemma, I think.
    Second, in the 1 Timothy 3 passage quoted above, Paul clearly distinguishes between that which is “sacred writing” and that which Timothy learned from Paul (and possibly others).
    There’s simply no compelling evidence that leads to the conclusion that Paul thought he, too, was writing “scripture” when he composed his numerous epistles. Rather, his appeal to the authority of his writings comes from his identity as an *apostle* and from the fact that he is at times repeating the very commands of Jesus Christ.

    • Three more points:
      1. The word used in 1 Cor 14:37 is not “word” but *commandment*–thus not the “word of God” but the “command(ment) of the Lord”–it makes a big difference in the context of this post.
      2. The 2 Peter 3:16 passage uses the word “graphe”, which can mean either simply “writings” and/or “sacred writings”–in context, there is no reason to conclude that Peter’s reference to “other scriptures” can possibly mean anything *more* than the generic idea of “sacred writings”. In the early Church “sacred writings” did not translate in perfect parallel to what we know today to be the *Canon* of Scripture. Thus Peter was clearly not speaking in that way.
      3. Finally, the utility of 2 Tim 3:16 in the “sola scriptura” argument seems squarely founded upon the *sola* element. The whole battle is over Scripture *alone* or Scripture-plus-Tradition. Thus the best Catholic apologetic seems to be merely to point out that 2 Tim 3:16 never points to using Scripture *alone* but in fact 2 Tim 3 itself points us *both* to “all scripture” *and* to all the stuff Timothy learned along *with* scripture from reputable and authoritative *teachers*. That is, like the Catholic view–and the *Jewish* view–Paul attests to the need for both a “book” and an authoritative *teacher* to teach from the book…

    • Other than the fact the Church has consistently applied 2 Timothy 3:15-17 to the entirety of Scriptures, yeah, there’s no evidence whatsoever.

      Your below exegesis is mostly an argument from silence, that it “could” be this. We know from official papal documents, catechisms, and ecumenical councils that the Church most decidedly does not interpret 2 Timothy 3:15-17 as applying to the Old Testament only. Any idea that Paul did is not supported by the text, and is clearly anachronistic thinking. Just as the text does not say he learned “the scriptures of his infancy” but rather from infancy he learned the Scriptures.

      Can you show which Church Fathers interpreted “sacred writings” in 2 Peter to not mean Scripture, or authoritative Church documents which also say that during that time there was a difference between the “Sacred writings” and the Scriptures? I’ve shown precisely the opposite elsewhere. You are inventing a concept which is absent.

      Nobody denies the authority of his writings comes from him being an apostle. That’s why he didn’t need to appeal to the “universal magesterium” before issuing doctrinal rulings and judgments in his writings.

      Just as everyone agrees the best way is to point out that one needs more than just the Scriptures to function as a Church. As the argument that 2 Timothy 3:15-17 applies only to the Old Testament is an anachronism not supported by the text, best to jettison it so we can focus on where the Catholic position really is, as you mentioned.

      • ***Other than the fact the Church has consistently applied 2
        Timothy 3:15-17 to the entirety of Scriptures, yeah, there’s no evidence whatsoever. ***

        No, you’re doing the “apples/oranges” thing. Of course the passage in our place and time applies to *all* scripture because that’s what the passage says it applies to. That wasn’t my assertion, though, was it? I said: “There’s simply no compelling evidence that leads to the conclusion that Paul thought he, too, was writing ‘scripture’ when he composed his numerous epistles.”

        ***Your below exegesis is mostly an argument from
        silence, that it “could” be this. We know from official papal
        documents, catechisms, and ecumenical councils that the Church most decidedly does not interpret 2 Timothy 3:15-17 as applying to the Old Testament only. Any idea that Paul did is not supported by the text, and is clearly anachronistic thinking. Just as the text does not say he learned “the scriptures of his
        infancy” but rather from infancy he learned the Scriptures.***

        You seem to be missing the important point. The point is *not* that Paul and other contemporaries would have *restricted* “Scripture” to OT only—rather, the point is to consider realistically what Paul and others would have *included* as “Scripture” in their time. You say Paul would have included his *own* letters as “Scripture.” I say you’re wrong. I also say that
        if you were *right*, then you face the dilemma of what to do with the many *other* letters Paul wrote to Christian communities during his apostolic ministry that are now lost to us. Did Paul think they were Scripture? Were they? Did the Apostles and others really have a notion of a *canon* of
        Scripture during the Apostolic age?

        ***Can you show which Church Fathers interpreted”sacred writings” in 2 Peter to not mean Scripture, or authoritative
        Church documents which also say that during that time there was a difference between the “Sacred writings” and the Scriptures? I’ve shown precisely the opposite elsewhere. You are inventing a concept which is absent.***

        Of *course* during the Patristic period there is evidence
        of great fluidity as to what counts as “sacred writing” and what does not. The various codices that include what is now in the canon of the New Testament along with other sacred writings *not* in the canon is a clear indicator of this. There were lots of sacred Christian writings floating about in the early Church; the canon of Scripture emerged *from* that fluidity via the Church’s
        Magisterium, not via Paul self-canonizing his own epistles…

        ***Nobody denies the authority of his writings comes from
        him being an apostle. That’s why he didn’t need to appeal to the “universal magesterium” before issuing doctrinal rulings and judgments in his writings.***

        Someone wielding apostolic authority and issuing “doctrinal
        rulings” doesn’t automatically write *Scripture*….

        ***Just as everyone agrees the best way is to point out that
        one needs more than just the Scriptures to function as a Church. As the argument that 2 Timothy 3:15-17 applies only to the Old Testament is an anachronism not supported by the text, best to jettison it so we can focus on where the Catholic position really is, as you mentioned.***

        I disagree—I think you go too far to assert that Paul “canonized” his own writings. I think it’s very reasonable, relative to 2 Tim 3:15, to point out that Paul obviously couldn’t have been referring specifically to any NT text not yet written when 2 Tim was written *and* that it’s not even clear just how much of the Old Testament (the Torah? The “Law & the Prophets”? The Septuagint?) he really had in mind. If by “only to the Old Testament” people are really arguing that the passage cannot concretely refer to the “whole Bible” during Paul’s own time and place, that’s a point well-considered, because “sola scriptura” is about the *Bible* alone–and the *Bible* didn’t exist when Paul wrote 2 Timothy…

        • I don’t have to outline an exact canon of Scripture at one point or another for my position to work. All I have to show is that by that time, there was more to Scripture than just the OT, “the scriptures of the infancy” of Timothy. That’s pretty easily done. As you pointed out, yes, the same Greek word is used in both 2 Tim and 2 Peter. That is a point to similarity, a similarity I say is Scripture. Whenever graphae is used, it applies explicitly to the Scriptures in the New Testament, as opposed to gramma, which can mean Scripture (2 Timothy 3:15) but just as often doesn’t and can refer to anything written down.

          You say there is a difference between “sacred writings” and the Scriptures. Yes, the canon did indeed develop over time, but can you show me where someone used the phrase “sacred writings” and meant something other than what they perceived to be Scripture?

          What Paul did or didn’t believe to be Scripture in 2 Timothy 3:15-17 is irrelevant, because once again, the context clearly indicates he is talking about the nature of Scripture, not the extent. They are related, but different. In everything else he lists, he is clearly talking about the nature of the thing used, and how it is helpful for his ministry.

          That’s why the Church has always said that 2 Timothy 3:15-17 was applied to all Scripture, not due to its extent (which was revealed throughout history), but by its nature as being theopneustos, God-breathed.

          • It’s really so much simpler than you’re making it. The Protestant position of “sola scriptura” is the *Bible* alone–not just “scripture” alone. All one needs to do to respond to the 2 Tim argument is point out that 1) it can’t possibly refer concretely to the precise content we know today as *the* “Bible” and 2) it never says scripture *alone* is authoritative.
            Further, what was considered “God-breathed” in Paul’s time by *Jews* was utterly under debate–so even what counted as an “old” Testament canon was indeterminate from a Jewish perspective.
            And if what “Paul did or didn’t believe” is irrelevant, why do you seem to *make* it relevant by claiming in the post that he believed he was writing “scripture”?

  • The nature of scripture and the extent are related. If we get our view of scripture from the church then we can get the extent of scripture from the church and be consistent. If we get our view of scripture from St Paul then the extent is going to be limited to what St Paul could reasonably have meant. Especially with the Sola part. If St Paul was talking about the Septuagint and he meant to assert ONLY that is required for the man of God to be complete then you have proved too much. You have made the New Testament one of the things you are throwing out rather than one of the things you are keeping. It is not a bad argument to point it out.

  • Josh

    Kevin, doesn’t your “simple” refutation end up begging the question of a hidden premise, apostolic succession?

    • You gotta take care of one thing at a time. Yes, Apostolic Succession is there. But for the moment, you deal with the rule of faith as the Scriptures state. The Catholic can point to the Word of God being communicated through both Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, by its very nature.

      Once that is done, yes, you better be ready to talk about apostolic succession, how the Scriptures which state the Holy Spirit guides the Church into all truth, and that this happens through the bishops in their authoritative judgments in things like councils, that these things don’t have an expiration date.

      You do that by going through the Pauline texts outlining Apostolic Succession, and you ask why the Holy Spirit has preserved the Scriptures throughout the ages, but decided not to do so for tradition or the model of the Church outlined in Acts?

      All of this stuff matters. But you first have to establish a couple things about what the Scriptures teach as the rule of faith: The Catholics have it, and our friends across the Tiber don’t. So that’s why I only focused on the one thing, because it’s what you have to do before everything else.

      • Josh

        Ah, didn’t see this post before I replied. I see what you’re saying… in principle, God has communicated his word orally and in written form, but that only gets you so far as sola scripture being a practical belief for the post-apostolic christian era.

    • Josh

      I think I might have jumped the gun a little, because you would only depend on apostolic succession to prove that the church continues to teach with the authority of the apostles. However, If you are just saying that the apostles communicated the word of god orally and in writing, then aren’t you still assuming that we have a way to know what teachings were orally communicated by the apostles as the word of god, but never written in scripture? How can you show that since the death of the apostles, that we have apostolic teaching passed down that is on equal footing with the scriptures, without assuming apostolic succession?

      • Catholics don’t need to believe that the oral and written teachings are necessarily different from each other. The Second Vatican Council Teaches in Dei Verbum:

        “Hence there exists a close connection and communication between sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture. For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end. For Sacred Scripture is the word of God inasmuch as it is consigned to writing under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, while sacred tradition takes the word of God entrusted by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, and hands it on to their successors in its full purity, so that led by the light of the Spirit of truth, they may in proclaiming it preserve this word of God faithfully, explain it, and make it more widely known. Consequently it is not from Sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed. Therefore both sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence”

        Likewise the First Vatican Council states:

        “Now this supernatural revelation, according to the belief of the universal Church, as declared by the sacred Council of Trent, is contained in written books and unwritten traditions, which were received by the apostles from the lips of Christ himself, or came to the apostles by the dictation of the Holy Spirit, and were passed on as it were from hand to hand until they reached us ” (Session 3, Chapter 2)
        Nowhere did they say that there is a difference between the two, just that the word of God is communicated throughout the ages in two ways: The Oral Teaching preserved by the Holy Spirit through Apostolic Succession and the Magesterium, and the Written teaching, preserved by the Holy Spirit through Apostolic Sucession and the Magesterium, which was the divinely chosen vessel to reveal the Canon of Scripture to the World.
        As mentioned before it’s step one of the defense of the Church’s understanding of her character as the pillar and bulwark of the truth.

  • Bobby Hesley

    Great article Kevin! The timing of your article is almost eerie because I just had this discussion yesterday with a protestant associate. Here’s the angle I like to take when refuting the much abused 2 Tim 3:14-17. The question I always ask the protestant to get to the heart of the matter is this:

    Was St. Paul arguing that Scripture alone is sufficient, or merely useful?

    Obviously the protestant will emphatically argue that Paul was arguing that scripture alone is sufficient. But did Paul himself say that scripture alone is sufficient? or are you possibly reading that into the text?

    I know it can sound complicated, but it really isn’t if you look at the greek word he used in verse 16 when he said that all scripture is “profitable.” The word used is ophelimos. To give an example, I could say that food is profitable for health and survival, but food ALONE is not SUFFICIENT. I could eat all the food I want, but if I don’t drink water I will die of thirst. In other words, I cannot inordinately include one useful element of survival to the exclusion of all the other necessary elements. I also must take vitamins, exercise, etc.

    So food, though useful and even necessary, is not sufficient by itself when cut off from the other necessary means of sustenance – adequate intake of water, vitamins, exercise etc.

    Getting back to my original point, there are actually stronger greek words Paul would have definitely used if he was arguing that scripture ALONE is SUFFICIENT, as our Protestant brethren insist he is by misquoting this verse. For example, in 2 Cor 12:9, he mentioned that Our Lord required that he suffer bodily infirmities in order to manifest His power by telling St. Paul: “My grace is sufficient (arkeo) for thee, for My power is made perfect in weakness.

    Since Paul knew that there was a word for “sufficient” in Greek (arkeo), that he could have easily used to demonstrate the sufficiency of scripture alone, why did he use such a weaker word (ophelimos), as opposed to a word that could have made his point much clearer and left no room for argument (arkeo)? BECAUSE SCRIPTURE ALONE IS NOT SUFFICIENT, BUT ONLY USEFUL!!!

    I’d like to coin this as the “ophelimos instead of arkeo” argument; or simply stated: scripture is profitable and useful (as the text clearly says, even more if you read it in Greek), but not sufficient, hence Paul’s choice of the much weaker word of “profitable/ophelimos. By using 2 Tim 3:16 as a proof text for sola scriptura, you are fundamentally altering the intent of the author as written in the original greek text, since he said scripture is only profitable for doctrine, (ophelimos), not sufficient (arkeo)

    Also, in Eph 6:10-17 St. Paul stated that we must put on “the Whole armor of God”, which includes:

    1. girding our loins with truth

    2. putting on the breastplate of righteousness

    3. equipping our feet with the Gospel of Peace

    4. taking the shield of Faith to quench all the fiery darts of of the devil

    5. taking the helmet of Salvation

    6. and finally – wielding the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.

    I simply ask the Protestant: If St. Paul commands that we put on the WHOLE ARMOR of God, which essentially consists of the 6 pieces enumerated above, then why do you insist on putting on only one piece of armor (sword of Spirit/word of God)?

    If you insist on using only the sword of the Spirit, then according to scripture you have NOT put on the WHOLE armor of God.

  • Justas399 .

    The problem with your argument is that we don’t have the “oral teachings” of Paul or any of the other apostles. All we have are the writings of the apostles that are contained in the NT,

    Sola Scriptura is not refuted since it alone is the inspired-inerrant Word of God. No church, man etc is said to be inerrant or inspired.

    • Thank you for not reading the article where I explicitly point out where it says those things, and where Catholics never say they require such!

      I’m nice to commenters….. when they actually read.

      • Justas399 .

        I did read it. Where is the proof of Paul’s oral teachings outside of Scripture? Which one of the RCC Traditions tells you what specifically Paul taught that is not in the NT?

        • Kevin M. Tierney

          You didn’t read it because I already pointed out that isn’t what Catholics believe. Catholics don’t believe that the nature of tradition has to be different between the two modes of transmission, and because the verse itself isn’t focused on the nature but rather the extent. I outlined it in the article, and then I really went in-depth in the comboxes here. Feel free to pursue them.

          So again, if you want to have that discussion, you need to actually read what people are writing and actually look at what Catholics believe, not what you wish they would believe so they can be made to look bad.

  • Mike

    I like what you’re doing on this site, Kevin, and agree with much of what you write. But I think there’s a bit more context when this argument has been used properly.

    The main point is that it is a counter-argument to a particular Protestant argument. If they argue as you have put it above, yep this line of response is not helpful.

    But some Protestants have argued it this way: Paul says that scripture is “inspired etc” and “profitable . . . that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work”. So Scripture is therefore all you need. It contains everything you need and and makes you “complete”. Cue deep explanations of technical Greek terms!

    This is a claim not just about the quality of Scripture, but about its sufficiency and therefore the extent of its content. To that point, the question of which writings are explicitly intended here by Paul is essential. If it means sufficiency of Scripture in terms of content, then you therefore do not need any more writings than already exist, and by implication (it is counter-argued by the Catholic) he would seem to be saying that the books Timothy has known from childhood (OT) would be all he needs (whether or not other inspired works come later).

    The obvious response to the above is that Paul is not saying that Scripture is sufficient, but useful, and that the goal is for the person to become “complete”. The Protestant reply is that this is the implication of the sentence. You can argue out how that sentence should be parsed, and then you go down a path of chasing Greek verbs. Usually you don’t want to do that.
    Anyway, the counter-argument needs to depend greatly on what exactly is being argued by your friend. In the Sola Scriptura debate there are intersecting, but distinct, questions of sufficiency, inerrancy, inspiration, canon, authority and probably a few others. I think this argument of Newman’s has merit if used as a counterargument to the statement that this passage teaches sufficiency of scripture.