A Defense of “Sola Scriptura”


In the Anglican Communion (the American branch of which is known as the Episcopal Church), it has for several centuries been standard practice to ask a candidate for ordination to the priesthood several questions, of which I reproduce the second:

BISHOP: Are you persuaded that the Holy Scriptures contain all Doctrine required as necessary for eternal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ? And are you determined, out of the said Scriptures to instruct the people committed to your charge; and to teach nothing, as necessary to eternal salvation, but that which you shall be persuaded may be concluded and proved by the Scripture?
ANSWER: I am so persuaded, and have so determined, by God’s grace.

This position (not restricted to Anglican circles) is known as Sola Scriptura. Some objections have been raised against it, as follows:

OBJECTION: The doctrine of Sola Scriptura contradicts itself. For if the doctrine is true, then it ought itself to be stated in Holy Scripture. But in fact it is not.

REPLY: We are offered an argument of the following form:

(1) Sola Scriptura = “All true propositions are stated in Holy Scripture.”
(2) Sola Scriptura is not stated in Holy Scripture.
(3) Therefore, Sola Scriptura is not a true proposition.

But in fact, the argument should be of the form:

(1) Sola Scriptura = “All truths necessary to salvation are stated in Holy Scripture.”
(2) Sola Scriptura is not stated in Holy Scripture.
(3) Therefore, Sola Scriptura is not a truth necessary to salvation.

And to this conclusion I, for one, have no objection. I cheerfully look forward to seeing many of my Roman Catholic friends in Heaven, despite their regrettable error in holding certain propositions to be true, and their still more regrettable error in holding them to be essential parts of the Catholic faith. My comments on Line (2) of the argument appear below.

OBJECTION: The Doctrine of Sola Scriptura contradicts Holy Scripture. For we read in John 20:30 and John 21:25 that Jesus did many things that John has not written. Further, we read in Luke 24:27 that when the risen Christ was walking with two disciples on the road to Emmaus, he expounded to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. This conversation is nowhere recorded, but surely it constitutes revelation.

REPLY: As for John’s saying that Jesus did some things that John does not record, one might reply to this on the literal level by saying, “True, there are both words and deeds of Jesus that are reported in the Synoptic Gospels and not in John. But John’s statement is perfectly compatible with the thesis that every teaching of Jesus is recorded somewhere in the New Testament.”

More to the point, we may look at the words of John 20:30f.: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.” John here appears to be claiming something much stronger than Sola Scriptura: namely, that all doctrines necessary to salvation are taught in the Gospel of John, so that he who has read this Gospel will know all that he needs to know in order to have eternal life in Christ. But if this is so, then the weaker statement that the Holy Scriptures collectively contain all that we need to know for our salvation clearly follows.

Let us consider the statement in Luke 24:27. Two disciples were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus. The risen Christ, Whom they did not recognize, joined them and asked them why they were sad, and they spoke of the Crucifixion and the apparent destruction of all their hopes. Christ answered:

“O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, He interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning Himself.

It is claimed that we have here a clear-cut example of a revelation that is not recorded in Holy Scripture. But no one denies that there have been revelations, instances of God speaking, where the content of the message is not recorded for us in Holy Scripture. We are told, for example (Acts 21:8), that the four daughters of Philip the evangelist prophesied, but no quotations from them are given. In John 8:8 we are told (not all manuscripts record this), that Jesus stooped and wrote something in the sand, but we are not told what it was. In Revelation 10:4, we are told that John heard a message spoken by “the seven thunders,” and was about to write it down, but was forbidden from doing so. This is not in dispute. The relevant question is whether there are any messages that God intends for us that He has not caused to be recorded in Holy Scripture. Remember that the doctrine being contrasted with Sola Scriptura is that some of the messages that God has for us are contained, not in the Scriptures, but in Sacred Tradition. In order for Luke 24:27 to be a relevant example, it will have to be maintained that the Emmaus Discourse of Our Lord contains a message intended for the whole Church, and that that message was not written down in the Scriptures, but rather handed down as part of the Tradition.

Now in fact we do have some idea of what Our Lord said in the Emmaus Discourse. Luke tells us that He reminded the disciples of passages in the Hebrew Scriptures which were applicable to His own life and death. Remember that the disciples did not yet recognize Him. They knew Him only as a stranger they had met by chance on the road. Accordingly, we may be sure that He did not say of any text, “You are to believe on My Authority that this is a prophecy of the Christ.” Rather, He said, “Now that you think of it, you can see for yourselves in the light of what you know about Jesus of Nazareth that this is a prophecy that applies to Him, and shows how His death was not a foiling of God’s plan to redeem Israel, but an essential part of carrying it out.”

Which passages from the Hebrew Scriptures did He apply to Himself? Some passages we find His earliest followers applying to Him, such as Isaiah 53:7-8 (applied by Philip the Evangelist in Acts 8:26-35) or Psalm 2:1-2 (applied by the Jerusalem congregation shortly after Pentecost in Acts 4:25-27) and so on. Other passages, such as Psalm 22:8 (or Psalm 22:16, though here the meaning of the Hebrew is disputed) we may conclude for ourselves are Messianic prophecies, even if they are not (so far as I remember) cited as such in the New Testament. In short, we may make an educated guess as to the gist of the Emmaus Discourse, by means of a diligent study Of the Holy Scriptures. Have we any other source? We have the writings of some of the early Christians, such as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus in the second century, who cite various passages from the Hebrew Scriptures as prophecies of Our Lord. They do not, by and large, give us any hint whether they have noticed the applicability of the passages for themselves or have had it pointed out to them by their predecessors, and they certainly do not tell us that their interpretations are derived from the teachings of Our Lord Himself. It seems to me that the strength of their interpretations rests on their own inherent reasonableness, and not on Divine Authority.

But I digress. The question remains: Does God have any message intended for all Christians, something that we need to know, that is essential for our salvation, or at least of great spiritual benefit to us, that He has revealed to the apostles and prophets of New Testament times, for our information, and that we have access to through the Sacred Tradition, but that has not been recorded for us in the pages of Holy Scripture? I see no evidence for the affirmative.

OBJECTION: The proposition Sola Scriptura contradicts church history, in that it was not possible for the earliest Christians to consult the New Testament, since it had not yet been written.

REPLY: The earliest Christians had the Apostles with them. The Apostles wrote down the revelation, so that it might be available when they were gone.

OBJECTION: The proposition Sola Scriptura contradicts church history, in that no one ever asserted the doctrine before Martin Luther invented it.

REPLY: I propose to provide, in the following lines, evidence to the contrary.

Let us consider the view of St. Thomas Aquinas, the theologian whom most Roman Catholics regard as the greatest systematic expounder of their position. In discussing the Creeds, he writes as follows:

Objection: It would seem that it is unsuitable for the articles of faith to be embodied in a creed. Because Holy Writ is the rule of faith, to which no addition or subtraction can lawfully be made, since it is written (Deut. 4:2): “You shall not add to the word that I speak to you, neither shall you take away from it.” Therefore it was unlawful to make a creed as a rule of faith, after Holy Writ had once been published.
Reply: The truth of faith is contained in Holy Writ, diffusely, under various modes of expression, and sometimes obscurely, so that, in order to gather the truth of faith from Holy Writ, one needs long study and practice, which are unattainable by all those who require to know the truth of faith, many of whom have no time for study, being busy with other affairs. And so it was necessary to gather together a clear summary from the sayings of Holy Writ, to be proposed to the belief of all. This indeed was no addition to Holy Writ, but something gathered from it. (Summa Theologica, Second Part of the Second Part, Question 1, Article 9)

Thomas, you will notice, does not say that in order to learn the truth of faith from Holy Writ, one needs to have an infallible or authoritative interpreter, but only “long study and practice.” His position seems clear enough. We gain our knowledge of the revealed truth from the Scriptures, just as we gain our knowledge of, say, the facts of chemistry by experiment and observation. And someone might argue that, ideally, the best way to teach someone chemistry is to hand him some beakers and test tubes and Bunsen burners and say, “Go to work. Examine things. Observe them. Heat them and chill them and combine them and weigh and measure them and draw your own conclusions.” And the speaker would have a point. However, since life is short, we provide the student with a short-cut in the form of a textbook which contains a summary of the results of centuries of experiment and observation by thousands of chemists. Similarly, it might be argued that the ideal way of teaching someone the truth of faith is to hand him a Bible and say: “Start reading. See what it says, and draw your own conclusions.” However, since life is short, we provide a summary of the Christian faith in the form of the Apostles’s Creed or the Nicene Creed.

But note that if the student asks, after reading the text, “How do we know that an atom of oxygen has a nucleus with eight electrons surrounding it, two in the inner shell and six in the outer?”, the answer must ultimately take the form of an appeal to experiment and observation. Simply saying, “We know because the text says so,” is not good enough. The authority of the text rests on its claim to be a faithful summary of the results of experimentation. Similarly, the validity of the Creed rests upon its being an accurate representation of the truth of faith as taught in Holy Scripture. And this, according to Thomas, because the truth of faith is revealed to us nowhere else. Sola Scriptura!

Again, in another place, Thomas writes as follows:

Some say than even if man had not sinned, the Son of Man would have become incarnate. Others assert the contrary, and seemingly our assent ought rather to be given to this opinion.
For such things as spring from God’s will, and beyond the creature’s due, can be made known to us only through being revealed in the Sacred Scripture, in which the Divine Will is made known to us. Hence, since everywhere in the Sacred Scripture the sin of the first man is assigned as the reason of the Incarnation, it is more in accordance with this to say that the work of the Incarnation was ordained by God as a remedy for sin; so that, had sin not existed, the Incarnation would not have been. And yet the power of God is not limited to this; – even had sin not existed, God could have become incarnate. (Summa Theologica, Third Part, Question 1, Article 3)

Here also, the position of Thomas seems clear. Some truths we can know simply by “figuring them out.” (Thus, although we learn from Numbers 7:86 that 12 times 10 = 120, and from the rest of the chapter some other parts of the 12 times table, we would be able to figure them out without a special revelation!) Other truths we can know only if God reveals them to us. And if a truth is of the second kind, we can know it only if God has revealed it in the Holy Scriptures, since that is where His revelation of His will to us is to be found. Sola Scriptura!

I might rest my case here, since Thomas Aquinas is certainly earlier than Martin Luther. However, there are Roman Catholics who do not find Aquinas to their liking, and some of them might be tempted to say that they have always suspected Thomas of being a Protestant at heart, and that all I have shown is that the Lutheran heresy was already at work a few centuries before Luther himself arrived on the scene. Accordingly, I present a few quotations from Christian writers of an earlier period, to show that the view known as Sola Scriptura is very early and widespread indeed. An asterisk by a name as printed below marks the writer as a Universal Doctor (more or less the theological equivalent of a Nobel Prize winner).

I confess that I have not gathered these quotations myself, but have relied on the work of others.


We have known the method of our salvation by no other means than those by whom the gospel came to us; which gospel they truly preached; but afterward, by the will of God, they delivered to us in the Scriptures, to be for the future the foundation and pillar of our faith. (Adv. H. 3:1)

Read more diligently that gospel which is given to us by the apostles; and read more diligently the prophets, and you will find every action and the whole doctrine of our Lord preached in them. (Adv. H. 4:66)


They that are ready to spend their time in the best things will not give over seeking for truth until they have found the demonstration from the Scriptures themselves. (Stromata 7:16:3)

ORIGEN (185?-252)

In which (the two Testaments) every word that appertains to God may be required and discussed; and all knowledge may be understood out of them. But if anything remain which the Holy Scripture does not determine, no other third Scripture ought to be received for authorizing any knowledge or doctrine; but that which remains we must commit to the fire, that is, we will reserve it for God. For in this present world God would not have us to know all things. (Orig. in Lev., hom. 5, 9:6)

We know Jesus Christ is God, and we seek to expound the words which are spoken, according to the dignity of the person. Wherefore it is necessary for us to call the Scriptures into testimony; for our meanings and enarrations, without these witnesses, have no credibility. (Tractatus 5 in Matt.)

No man ought, for the confirmation of doctrines, to use books which are not canonized Scriptures. (Tract. 26 in Matt.)

As all gold, whatsoever it be, that is without the temple, is not holy; even so every notion which is without the divine Scripture, however admirable it may appear to some, is not holy, because it is foreign to Scripture. (Hom. 25 in Matt.)

Consider how imminent their danger is who neglect to study the Scriptures, in which alone the discernment of this can be ascertained. (in Rom. 10:16)


Whence comes this tradition? Does it descend from the Lord’s authority, or from the commands and epistles of the apostles? For those things are to be done which are there written. ... If it be commanded in the gospels or the epistles and Acts of the Apostles, then let this holy tradition be observed. (Ep. 74 ad Pompeium)


There is one God, whom we do not otherwise acknowledge, brethren, but out of the Holy Scriptures. For as he that would possess the wisdom of this world cannot otherwise obtain it than to read the doctrines of the philosophers; so whosoever of us will exercise piety toward God cannot learn this elsewhere but out of the Holy Scriptures. Whatsoever, therefore, the Holy Scriptures do preach, that let us know, and whatsoever they teach, that let us understand. (Hip. tom. 3, Bibliotheque Patrium, ed. Colonna)


The Holy Scriptures, given by inspiration of God, are of themselves sufficient toward the discovery of truth. (Orat. adv. Gent., ad cap.)

The Catholic Christians will neither speak nor endure to hear any thing in religion that is a stranger to Scripture; it being an evil heart of immodesty to speak those things which are not written. (Exhort. ad Monachas)

ST. AMBROSE OF MILAN* (340?-396)

How can we use those things which we do not find in the Holy Scriptures? (Ambr. Offic., 1:23)

I read that he is the first, I read that he is not the second; they who say he is the second, let them show it by reading. (Ambr. Offic., in Virginis Instit. 11)


O emperor! I admire your faith, which desires only according to those things that were written. ... You seek the faith, O emperor. Hear it then, not from new writings, but from the books of God. Remember that it is not a question of philosophy, but a doctrine of the gospel. (Ad Constant. Augus. 2:8:2)


Let a man be persuaded of the truth of that alone which has the seal of the written testimony. (De Anima et Resurrectione, 1)


Not even the least of the divine and holy mysteries of the faith ought to be handed down without the divine Scriptures. Do not simply give faith to me speaking these things to you except you have the proof of what I say from the divine Scriptures. For the security and preservation of our faith are not supported by ingenuity of speech, but by the proofs of the divine Scriptures. (Cat. 4)


[The Scripture], like a safe door, denies an entrance to heretics, guarding us in safety in all things we desire, and not permitting us to be deceived. ...Whoever uses not the Scriptures, but comes in otherwise, that is, cuts out for himself a different and unlawful way, the same is a thief. (Homily 59, in Joh. 2:8)

Formerly it might have been ascertained by various means which was the true church, but at present there is no other method left for those who are willing to discover the true church of Christ but by the Scriptures alone. And why? Because heresy has all outward observances in common with her. If a man, therefore, be desirous of knowing the true church, how will he be able to do it amid so great resemblance, but by the Scriptures alone? Wherefore our Lord, foreseeing that such a great confusion of things would take place in the latter days, ordered the Christians to have recourse to nothing but the Scriptures.

The man of God could not be perfect without the Scriptures. [Paul says to Timothy:] “You have the Scriptures: if you desire to learn anything, you may learn it from them.” But if he writes these things to Timothy, who was filled with the Holy Spirit, how much more must we think these things spoken to us. (Hom. 9 in 2 Tim. 1:9)

It is absurd, while we will not trust other people in pecuniary affairs, but choose to reckon and calculate for ourselves, that in matters of far higher consequence we should implicitly follow the opinions of others, especially as we possess the most exact and perfect rule and standard by which to regulate our several inquiries: I mean the regulation of the divine laws. I, therefore, could wish that all of you would reject what this or that man says, and that you would investigate all these things in the Scriptures. (Hom. 13, 4:10 ad fin. in 2 Cor.)


It is the part of a devilish spirit to think any thing to be divine that is not in the authority of the Holy Scriptures. (Ep. Pasch. 2)

ST. JEROME* (342?-420)

The church of Christ, possessing churches in all the world, is united by the unity of the Spirit, and has the cities of the law, the prophets, the gospels, and the apostles. She has not gone forth from her boundaries, that is, from the Holy Scriptures. (Comm. in Micha. 1:1)

Those things which they make and find, as it were, by apostolical tradition, without the authority and testimony of Scripture, the word of God smites. (ad Aggai 1)

As we deny not those things that are written, so we refuse those things that are not written. That God was born of a virgin we believe, because we read it; that Mary did marry after she was delivered we believe not, because we do not read it. (Adv. Helvidium)


In those things which are clearly laid down in Scripture, all those things are found which pertain to faith and morals. (De Doct. Chr. 2:9)

Whatever you hear from them [the Scriptures], let that be well received by you. Whatever is without them refuse, lest you wander in a cloud. (De Pastore, 11)

All those things which in times past our ancestors have mentioned to be done toward mankind and have delivered unto us: all those things also which we see and deliver to our posterity, so far as they pertain to the seeking and maintaining true religion, the Holy Scripture has not passed over in silence. (Ep. 42)

Whatever our Saviour would have us read of his actions and sayings he commanded his apostles and disciples, as his hands, to write. (De Consensu Evang. 1:ult.)

Let them [the Donatists] demonstrate their church if they can, not by the talk and rumor of the Africans; not by the councils of their own bishops; not by the books of their disputers; not by deceitful miracles, against which we are cautioned by the word of God, but in the prescript of the law, in the predictions of the prophets, in the verses of the Psalms, in the voice of the Shepherd himself, in the preaching and works of the evangelists; that is, in all canonical authorities of the sacred Scriptures. (De Unit. Eccl. 16)


That which the Holy Scriptures have not said, by what means should we receive and account it among those things that are true? (Glaphyrarum in Gen. 2)


By the Holy Scriptures alone am I persuaded. (Dial. 1, Atrept.)

I am not so bold as to affirm anything which the sacred Scripture passes in silence. (Dial. 2, Asynchyt.)

We ought not to seek those things that are passed in silence, but rest in the things which are written. (in Gen. Q. 45)

ST. JOHN OF DAMASCUS (675?-749?)

We receive and acknowledge and reverence all things which are delivered in the law, the prophets, the apostles and evangelists, and we seek after nothing beyond these. (de Fid. Ortho. 1:1:1)

CONCLUSION: The doctrine of Sola Scriptura, far from being an invention of Martin Luther, is taken for granted by St. Thomas Aquinas, and is a point agreed upon by the writers of the patristic age.

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