Why Sola Scriptura Still Matters, Part Two


In part one we discussed the importance that the Protestant principle of sola scriptura still has as we near the 500th anniversary of the “Reformation.” Now it is time to get into the meat of the argument by examining the classic Protestant interpretation of two key verses of Scripture.

“All Scripture Is Inspired”

The Bible verses that demand the most attention and have the longest history of being used in the Protestant defense of sola scriptura are 2 Timothy 3:16 and 17. Let’s take a look at them in context beginning at verse 10:

10 Now you have observed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness,
11 my persecutions, my sufferings, what befell me at Antioch, at Ico’nium, and at Lystra, what persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me.
12 Indeed all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,
13 while evil men and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceivers and deceived.
14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it
15 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.
16 All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,
17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. — (RSV, Catholic Ed., Scepter)

Although the argument has gone on longer, we can exhaust the various lines by taking it up at the point where John Henry Cardinal Newman entered the discussion. Protestants look at the words of verses 16 and 17 and reason that since Scripture can make a man of God “complete, equipped for every good work,” Scripture alone is the sole rule for faith. Cardinal Newman pointed out that Protestants prove too much by this argument since the New Testament (NT) writings were not what St. Paul was referring to — he meant the Old Testament (OT). So if these verses were an expression of the principle of sola scriptura, they would have ruled out reception of the NT.

Newman was laying out the historical Catholic understanding. For instance, Chrysostom (c.347- c.407) commented on this question in Homily IX: “All what Scripture? All that sacred writing, he means, of which I was speaking. This is said of what he was discoursing of; about which he said, ‘From a child thou hast known the holy Scriptures.'” Chrysostom is here pointing out that since the only Scripture Timothy had access to as a child was the Old Testament, St. Paul could hardly have been including in “all Scripture” the still-unfinished and not-yet-collected writings of the NT.

Protestants counter that the NT is certainly included in Paul’s “all Scripture” or at least that portion of it that was already written at the time he wrote to Timothy. That would be the letters of St. Paul and possibly one of the Gospels. We do know from St. Paul’s words at 2 Timothy 4: 6 that this letter was written very near the end of his life.

Although the Catholic understanding is more coherent with the text, we Catholics certainly are not denying that, in principle, what St. Paul says about the usefulness of “all Scripture” does apply to both the OT and the NT. So it is to what he said on that score that we ought to direct our attention and that of our Protestant friends, because it is here that the real burden of the Protestant argument lies. To reiterate: they reason that since Scripture can make a man of God “complete, equipped for every good work,” Scripture is the sole rule for faith.

It’s All Greek to Me, Too!

Now, one line of Catholic argument against this has been to look at the word “complete” and notice that other things are also said in the Bible to make one complete, such as endurance, mentioned in James 1:4.

Protestants in turn have pointed out that other instances of the English word “complete” or “perfect” are not truly parallel with 2 Timothy 3: 17, because the Greek word used there is different from the Greek word used in the other passages. Since most of us, and the Protestants with whom we dialogue, are unlikely to be conversant in Greek, it is most helpful to focus on a point that will make these ancient language vocabulary discussions irrelevant.

Regardless of the Greek word used in 2 Timothy 3: 17, Catholics and Protestants agree: the Christian could never be more adequate, more complete, more equipped for every good work than Jesus. Jesus is precisely what Pilate called Him when he said, “Behold the Man!” He is “the Man,” the human person par excellence. To be conformed unto Him is the goal of all true spirituality, of all Bible study, too, for that matter.

Formulating Our Scriptural Response

Ask your Protestant friend to hold onto that thought while you read together Ephesians 4:11-16:

11 And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers,
12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,
13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ;
14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles.
15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,
16 from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love.

Now all that is needed to defeat the argument of sola scriptura is to demonstrate from Scripture that something else accomplishes in Christians what Protestants claim Scripture accomplishes — and these verses in Ephesians do that.

But we can draw out the logic here a little further. Let’s ask this question: Could I use this passage in Ephesians to make a case for sola ecclesia — to say that all we need are the various ministries of the Church; we don’t need the Bible? Of course not! Indeed that would be an absurd claim to make, wouldn’t it? Here I am using a scripture from the Bible! Obviously I can’t use this scripture to claim that we don’t need the Bible. To attempt to do so would be self-refuting.

Well, the Catholic case here is that the Protestant use of 2 Timothy 3:16, 17 is equally self-refuting, although not quite as obvious on the surface. Let’s use an illustration to demonstrate it: Imagine that a group of Christians have gone to hear St. Paul preach while he is under house arrest. After hearing him speak, one of them pipes up and says, “Look here, Brother Paul, we do not really need to listen to you. I’ve been to visit Timothy and he has a letter from you that says that the Scriptures are the sole rule of faith.”

Why would this be absurd? Obviously, because the authority one finds in the letter to Timothy is the authority of St. Paul himself. The words he wrote to Timothy had authority for Timothy because they are the words of an Apostle. The Protestant mistake is to divorce the authority of Scripture from the apostolic authority that produced, collected and canonized the Scriptures.

In the next article we will explore what that apostolic authority was saying to Timothy — and to us — about the Scriptures.

(© 2011  Mary Kochan)


About Author

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

  • Tarheel


    THANK YOU!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Kathleen Woodman

    Mary, thank you!

    We are studying Martin Luther and “sola scriptura” right now with my daughters. The main thing we keep coming back to is this-who has the authority?

    How do we know the Bible is genuine? On whose authority? How do we know the number of books in the Bible we Catholics use is correct? On whose authority? Just trace it all back to those who made the original decisions. Jesus, the apostles or the people they themselves appointed to carry on the faith. When the line of apostolic succession is ruptured, you lose that guarantee that the Holy Spirit will guard you from errors in faith and morals.

  • kmtierney

    *warning, wallotext coming*


    After reading your article on 2 Timothy 3:10-17, I found it interesting, but I think it falls short in on area. Unfortunately, a lot of Catholic apologists do this.

    When we say that St. Paul principally has in mind only the Old Testament, that really can’t be conclusively proven by the text. We have to remember, there was no unified Old Testament Canon in the Early Church, or in Judaism at this time for that matter. Differing schools favored different Scriptures. The Saducees were different than the Pharisees, the Hellenists viewed some things as Scripture while others didn’t, and still the Ethopian Jews had a different one than they did.

    I also think that if this is the standard, it is the Catholic who “proves too much.” If the standard is “when Paul mentions a source of revelation, he has in mind strictly the extent of that source of revelation”, then they can blast us on 2 Thessalonians 2:15 “stand fast to the traditions.” They will certainly ask us “where is your list of tradition?”

    The answer of course is St. Paul wasn’t concerned with the list of tradition. Yet neither was he concerned with a precise listing of Scripture. He was simply saying that Scripture (whatever it is) is inspired by God. This same line of thought exists in both 1 Thessalonians 2:14 and 2 Thess 2:15. The oral Word of God (that which comes through Oral Tradition) was accepted as the Word of God. St. Paul was not talking about the extent of what He was teaching, but the nature of what he was teaching.

    Once it is established that St. Paul is talking about the nature of tradition in these passages (in the written and oral form) the Catholic can now state:

    “I certainly submit myself to both forms of tradition as the Word of God. Can you show me how you do?”

    Yet in the end, we are getting ahead of ourselves. In order for this passage to teach Sola Scriptura, it had to teach it when St. Paul wrote it. Yet even the Protestant admits it doesn’t. Why? Because revelation was still ongoing. Yet nowhere in the text does St. Paul make this conditional. Will there come a time in the Protestants’ eyes that Scripture will lose the ability to make the man of God “complete” in rebuking and teaching? They rightly understand that St. Paul in 2 Timothy 3 is laying down something of permanence here. Yet at that very moment, they were not following sola scriptura!

    The only way to get out of this would be to show that Scripture communicates once the Apostles are dead and revelation ceases, Sola Scriptura becomes operative. They can’t. They can’t appeal to history. Its obvious the early Church didn’t believe this way, and even if they did, their results were pretty Catholic, not to mention they are using a source outside of Scripture to give binding proof about revelation!

    This is ultimately the fatal flaw of Sola Scriptura. Sorry for the length, but wanted to outline it a bit.

  • noelfitz

    this is a sound, solid article. Many thanks. It confirms for me why I think CL is so excellent. I am impressed with your grasp of the Fathers, Newman and theology.

    I appreciate your reference to our Protestant friends. In good faith they believe, and in Protestantism there are many truths, even if they do not have the fullness of truth.

    Catholicism is very much a ‘both and’ as opposed to an ‘either or’ religion.

    Christ can be found in the Eucharist/Church but also in the Bible – the word of God. Catholics need to be reminded of the importance of Scripture. Many Protestants can teach us reverence for Scripture.

    So Mary you are a blessing, thank you and keep up the good work.

    I have looked up the work used for complete.

    1822 ???????? [exartizo /ex•ar•tid•zo/] Two occurrences; AV translates as “accomplish” once, and “thoroughly furnish” once. 1 to complete, finish. 1A to furnish perfectly. 1B to finish, accomplish, (as it were, to render the days complete) (Strong).

    Louw-Nida gives:

    ???????? exartiz? finish, complete, equip*
    Acts 21:5: ????????? ??? ??????, “the days ended.” 2 Tim 3:17, “equipped for every good work.” Spicq, Notes I, 253–55.

    The Spicq definition, as expected from a Dominican scholar, is more acceptable for Catholics.

    I do not think these definitions add to your argument, Mary, but some may find them of use.

  • Mary Kochan

    Kevin, thank you for your thoughts; the point about ongoing revelation is well taken. However, I touched on that point from Newman, not really to use it, but to kind of get it out of the way because my line of reasoning on this is different.

    The third part will be tomorrow. I look forward to hearing from you again.

  • noelfitz


    thank you for this series of articles.

    Congratulations on your clear and sound presentations.

    But do Protestants really believe in Sola Scriptura? Anglicanism/Episcopalianism is based on the 39 Articles, Lutheranism on the 95 Theses and Calvinism on the Institutes of Christian Religion.

    However I am interested in the Catholic position. Recently it has changed, perhaps only a change in nuance or emphasis.

    Catholics used to hold two sources, (Sacred) Scripture and (Apostolic) Tradition. Now only one is considered, as the CCC claims, quoting Dei Verbum:

    80 “Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, then, are bound closely together, and communicate one with the other. For both of them, flowing out from the same divine wellspring, come together in some fashion to form one thing, and move towards the same goal.”

    The exact quote from Dei Verbum is:

    “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.”

    Thus the content of divine revelation, “The Deposit of Faith”, consists of sacred scripture and tradition, but not as separate entities.

    What Catholics believe, “The Rule of Faith”, is not really based on Scripture and Tradition, but on the Magisterium.

    The Magisterium, the teaching authority of the Church, is embodied in the episcopy, and is able to interpret the truths of faith. There may be a difficulty for individuals in interpreting what the Magisterium claims, which may be non-infallible or infallible.

    The CCC has:
    85 “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.

    86 “Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it.

    So the resolution of the problem is not too clear to me. However in summary:

    1 Both scripture and tradition form one thing.
    2 The Magfisterium interprets scripture and tradition.

    For Catholics the importance of Scripture is a vital issue, since in the west with the rapid decline in the number of priests Catholics will receive more often Christ in his word, rather than in his flesh, since the liturgy of the Eucharist will be denied to more and more Catholics, but they will receive Christ in the liturgy of the word.

    I am somewhat lost and confused about this topic and would welcome clarifications within Catholic teaching.

    • Mary Kochan

      In a way, Noel, you could say that the Church is “sola tradition” and that the use of scripture AND looking to the apostolic teaching office for interpretation are our traditions. Our “word of God” in reality is the “Word of God” incarnate, who is present to us in Scripture, in the Church which is His body, in the priests, and in the Eucharist.

      The Church is telling us that 1. there is no conflict between the Magesterium and the scriptures and 2. that the original content of the apostolic revelation sets a limit on the Magesterium — i.e. they can’t come up with a new revelation, but are in service to the original faith. This was what Pope John Paul II pointed out when he said on the question of women’s ordination that the Magesterium did not have the authority to contradict the practice of the Lord and the Apostles in limiting the priesthood to men.

      They say this in different ways and with different emphases but I don’t see it as changing or contradictory.

  • noelfitz

    as usual I agree with you. As both of us try to be within the Catholic teaching, there cannot be major differences.

    But usually Catholics are “both and”, rather than “either or” believers. Do you seem to imply that Scripture is tradition?

    When I hear of Scripture being the word of God, I think of the Trinity. The Holy Spirit is in a sense the author of Scripture, thus to limit Scripture to the Word of God Incarnate (Jesus) may not be preferable.

    Finally you end with:
    “They say this in different ways and with different emphases but I don’t see it as changing or contradictory.” I agree fully.

    I look forward to your third article.

    I am very grateful to you for giving us the opportunity to think about our faith and discuss it in a friendly, supportive and Catholic ambiance.

    • Mary Kochan

      Noel, all I was referring to was the four ways that we understand Christ to be present in the Church. I was not denying that the holy Spirit has spoken through the prophets.

      Consider this, why do we use the OT readings at Mass? Why do we consider the OT to be canonical scripture? It is because that was the practice of apostles, the tradition they received from the Lord. So I am just saying that even the scriptures themselves and the use to which we put them and the reverence which we give them, and the interpretation, is all part of our tradition.