Biblical Arguments Against Sola Scriptura

What?! There are biblical arguments against sola Scriptura? It’s true. And Dave Armstrong came up with one hundred of them in his new book, 100 Biblical Arguments Against Sola Scriptura.

I received a review copy and am happy to give it full endorsement.

The book is concise, coming in at around 130 pages, and can be read in a several hours’ time. So this is a fun and fast read.

Dave lays out what sola Scriptura is by quoting from several Protestant apologists and scholars–no straw-men here–and then dives right in to the arguments against the doctrine. Most are short, from one paragraph to a page; he gets right to the point and doesn’t waste words.

I found many of the arguments interesting, and lots I had never thought of before (great job, Dave!). Argument 9, for example, quotes from Nehemiah 8:7-8 when the Jewish leaders interpreted the “the law” in “the book” for the people. Another one is in argument 13, where Matthew 2:23 is quoted “He shall be called a Nazarene,” yet Dave points out that this prophecy is found nowhere in the Old Testament.

In argument 41, he hits the nail on the head:

“Protestants grant to individuals the authority to decided…what is true and what isn’t, while denying it to the Church. This makes no sense. If Protestantism discounts the Church’s binding authority because the Church is made of fallible, sinful men, then they have to discount every individual’s interpretation, since each person is a fallible sinner, too!”

I and others have made a similar argument regarding the canon of Scripture. Why should I believe that God would guide me personally to know which books are inspired and not guide His Church on the matter?

In many arguments, he shows how Tradition 1) doesn’t nullify the Scriptures, and 2) is found everywhere in the Bible itself, while the doctrine of sola Scriptura is strangely not found explicitly in the Bible.

Argument 71 is particularly valuable: “The Catholic ‘epistemology of authority’ is a combination of faith, history, and reason.” In this one, Dave lays out how discovering the Church is a process that employs reason and a study of history, which support then the assent of faith to Christ and His Church.

The historical reality, questioned by no one, is that *something* happened with this guy Jesus back in the first century, and the *result* was that an organization was established, led by the Apostles in the beginning, that continued to grow and function throughout the next centuries. The only question is, do you believe that this Church became corrupted in her teachings, or did God protect her from corruption. Protestants and Mormons believe it became corrupted. Catholics believe God protected the Church from error. Dave also briefly rebuts the Protestant argument that Catholics have to have “infallible certainty.”

Chapter 9 covers the council of Jerusalem, a topic I bring up in my book as well, because it is a fertile ground for arguments for the Catholic Church against sola Scriptura. Trying to conclude the Bible alone doctrine from the events of this council is an impossible stretch, though I’ve seen Protestant apologists go to the mat trying to demonstrate this. Dave shows from the council how Peter’s authority is greater than that of Paul’s, among other insights.

The final argument chapter includes rebuttals of popularly used Protestant prooftexts for sola Scriptura. These are ones I rarely take the time to rebut, because they seem so far-fetched. But Dave does a great service is showing how they do not work. He hits the exact arguments that some Protestant friends of mine use to support their beliefs, like “Thy word is true,” and “God’s word ‘will stand forever’ ,” and of course 2 Tim. 3:15-17, the favorite of all Protestant apologists.

Dave’s book is a great source for arguments and launching point for delving more deeply into the sola Scriptura debate. I gleaned many new ideas from it that I want to think about more. I love how Dave makes so much use of the Scriptures in his arguments, showing that the Bible is fully compatible with Catholicism, even more plausibly so than it is with Protestantism.

So do check it out and add it to your collection! Catholic Answers, who will be publishing the new book based off If Protestantism is True, also published this book.

25 thoughts on “Biblical Arguments Against Sola Scriptura”

  1. Devin, as you know by now I’m no fan of Catholic/Protestant apologetic ping pong. I agree with your tack on this one for the first few steps, but part company half way through. It is quite right that Sola Scriptura is biblically untenable. I offer a loud ‘Amen’ to the role of the Church. Even a mainstream Conservative Evangelical scholar such as F.F. Bruce makes a cogent case for the importance of Tradition in ‘Scripture in Relation to Tradition and Reason’ (ed Dewery and Baukham, Scripture Tradition and Reason’.

    I do think you make a leap though, in assuming that ‘the Church’ is co-terminous with the views of the hierarchy. I’m coming at hermeneutics from below. I believe in a hermeneutic of peoplehood and (with Moltmann) that there is nothing higher than the congregation. The best example I can find of that perspective is found in John Howard Yoder ‘The Priestly Kingdom’. I have also developed his theme of the ‘shape of conversation’:

  2. I believe in a hermeneutic of peoplehood and (with Moltmann) that there is nothing higher than the congregation.

    Hi Phil,

    I’m curious how this is squared with the Jerusalem Council in Scripture (Acts 15)? Are you saying that this council was strictly a temporary (and henceforth merely optional) expedient, and that St. Paul preached its results as binding (Acts 16:4), but then as history goes on all that is kaput and we go to a strictly congregational model?

    That makes no sense to me. There is also all the scriptural data about Petrine primacy that seems to presuppose an overarching authority of one “super-bishop” and leader of the Church, so to speak. I lay that evidence out most succinctly in my “50 NT Proofs for the Primacy of Peter”:

  3. Hi David,

    I am somewhat surprised that you should use the example of the Council of Jerusalem. Of Peter, Paul and James it is the latter who takes the lead role. Acts 15:22 makes explicitly shows ‘the whole church’ engaged in the decision-making.

    I followed your link. My overall sense is that you are seeking biblical precedent to bolster the authority claims of a contemporary institution (i.e. it’s anachronistic). Petrine primacy is a phrase from a later period. As far as we know it was Clement of Rome who first used the term ‘lay’ to mean a non-minister in A.D.96. The idea of priestly ordination wasn’t fully complete until the 5th Century (as Herbert Haag points out).

    Congregationalism makes far more modest claims. One of the few passages in the Gospels which mentions ‘church’ (Matt 18.15-20) follows the rabbinic precedent of binding and loosing, focusing on ethical reasoning, pastoral care and conciliation. Where two or three gather together in the name of Christ, there Christ is present (Matt 18.20). I see no mention of clergy or super-bishops.

  4. You didn’t reply to my direct questions; instead heading off onto various rabbit trails, of varying degrees of irrelevance; therefore I won’t answer yours (too busy anyway to get into this in depth today). It so happens that I just cited one of my arguments in the book in another discussion that had to do with the Jerusalem Council. I’ll quote it here again (slightly different from the book, as it is my final manuscript):

    74. Paul’s Apostolic Calling Was Subordinated to the Larger Church and Was in Harmony with Peter

    Paul’s ministry was not “self-validating.” He was initially commissioned by Peter, James, and John (Gal 2:9) to preach to the Gentiles. After his conversion, he went to Jerusalem specifically to see Peter (Gal 1:18). In Acts 15:2-3 we are told that “Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. So, being sent their way by the church,” they went off on their assignment.

    That is hardly consistent with the idea of Paul being the “pope” or leading figure in the hierarchy of authority; he was directed by others, as one under orders. When we see Paul and Peter together in the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:6-29), we observe that Peter wields an authority that Paul doesn’t possess.

    We learn that “after there was much debate, Peter rose” to address the assembly (15:7). The Bible records his speech, which goes on for five verses. Then it reports that “all the assembly kept silence” (15:12). Paul and Barnabas speak next, not making authoritative pronouncements, but confirming Peter’s exposition, speaking about “signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles” (15:12). Then when James speaks, he refers right back to what “Simeon [Peter] has related” (15:14). Why did James skip right over Paul’s comments and go back to what Peter said? Paul and his associates are subsequently “sent off” by the Council, and they “delivered the letter” (15:30; cf. 16:4).

    None of this seems consistent with the notion that Paul was above or even equal to Peter in authority. But it’s perfectly consistent with Peter’s having a preeminent authority. Paul was under the authority of the council, and Peter (along with James, as the Bishop of Jerusalem) presided over it. Paul and Barnabas were sent by “the church” (of Antioch: see 14:26). Then they were sent by the Jerusalem Council (15:25, 30) which was guided by the Holy Spirit (15:28), back to Antioch (15:30).


    Just one more thing:

    Acts 15:22 makes explicitly shows ‘the whole church’ engaged in the decision-making.

    Yes, of course. But so what? This is the Catholic model: ecumenical councils make decisions (led and guided by the Holy Spirit), in tandem with the popes who preside and have “veto power.” It’s both/and.

    The Council spoke for and to the entire Church. This is the whole point. Paul then proclaimed its edicts (in other regions; in this case, Asia Minor or modern-day Turkey, which was quite a ways away) as binding and obligatory upon all (Acts 16:4: “for observance”). If you want to say James was top dog at the council, fine. Even on that view, he is being a bishop (of Jerusalem), and presiding over a council that makes binding legal decisions, obligatory on all Christians everywhere. That ain’t congregationalism, sorry; it’s not even Presbyterianism. It is clearly episcopal / Catholic ecclesiology.

    This precisely contradicts some notion of local congregationalism only. The problem is with your view of ecclesiology, not ours. Hence, you sidestepped the relevant issue and went into diverting side-issues.

    Perhaps you didn’t intend to (people often wander off-topic to the detriment of constructive discourse and dialogue), but that was the result.

  5. So, Acts 15 is fertile for an argument against sola scriptura? What was the topic of Acts 15? Circumcision – where were the requirements and regulations pertaining to circumcision recorded and referrred from? Where was the ‘tradition’ of the NT Church to support any decision against circumcision?

    Dosn’t seem very likely that the whole argument was very much based on Scripture – especially as it’s true meaning had been being revealed by Christ against the ‘traditional’ understanding and application applied by centuries of Jewish ‘religion’ being applied over it?

      1. Brian,

        The circumcision question might have led to the council, but I think it’s obvious from the text that the council was tackling the larger question of what allegiance, if any, Christian Gentiles owed to the Law. It’s also unlikely that the people who were telling Gentiles to be circumcised would not have also told them to obey the rest of the Law.

        1. Yes, but the point being, Acts 15 does nothing for disproving sola scriptura (unless one likes arguing from silence – and by that argument Acts 15 disproves Peter as Bishop of Rome and Pope). If anything, it punches a big hole into the notion of value of tradition. Upon what was the Jewish Law based? Scripture, therefore, it would seem more than plausible that scripture would have been very central to the discussions that took place.

          sola scriptura does not exclude the Church nor Tradition, but neither Church nor Tradition can override Scripture – Church and Tradition may be called into account when an interpretation or understanding of Scripture is unclear.

          So what you really have in Acts 15 would be Scripture at it’s core, apart from any written scripture that may or may not have been utilised (referred to) in the discussions, the Apostles spoke with first hand understanding from Christ – the Word, you don’t get much more Scriptural than that.

          1. But was Scripture central to these discussions? It played a very important role, to be sure, but certainly not the only role. Peter, Paul, and Barnabas all speak from their experiences in preaching to Gentile Christians, and both they and the council treat those experiences as if they have authority. I don’t think we see an actual appeal to Scripture until James speaks, and the passage he uses (Amos) makes absolutely no mention of people no longer needing to follow the Law. It speaks of humanity seeking after the Lord, but it makes no mention of whether they’d still be required to be circumcised and follow the Law to do so. So it seems that the early church read this verse through the lens of what was happening through people like Peter and Paul. This was not a “Scripture alone” moment.

            1. We’re not told of what part scripture played – explicitly. But implicitly it would seem that it played a major part – as I said, the entire Jewish Law was rooted in Scripture (with some rather nasty embelishments added on top). We know that circumcision was a key part of Jewish life, recorded in Scripture (and the benefits / consequences of obedience or not to the commandment). So, in light of what Christ had revealed to the Apostles and the ‘proof’ that was witnessed to by Paul and Barnabas in relation to the Gentiles, that one could understand to support that revelation, and then Peters very own words on being given the honor of revealing the Gospel to the Gentiles (you know, Christ being the Word – therefore Scripture) – that Scripture was the final Authority.

              And one needs to ask, why did they record the decision in a letter to sent back – why not just tell Paul and Barnabas etc. to go and tell the decision? Because there is an authority / security to the written word of man that is not (as) present in the orally transmitted.

              But, overall, I don’t need there to be a specific passage in the Bible that supports the doctrine to believe it’s right. We no longer have prophets and apostles to give us guidance on earth (and the Pope doesn’t count), God left us His message in what is compiled as the Bible, if we honestly accept that as the true, inspired and inerrent Word of the One and Only True God, then we must take that as our final position. Yes, you have questions and issues about interpretation, but that issue extends back well into the early NT Church. John 14 – the Holy Spirit will come and remind you and Peter – I write these things so that you will Remember. And Hebrews, earthly high priests are useless because they keep dieing and therefore cannot maintain a consistent ministry.

              1. Maybe they wrote a letter just so they’d have a letter that could be copied and redistributed to whichever Christian community needed to see it. Paul and Barnabas couldn’t be everywhere all the time, and having a letter and copies of that letter that could be delivered by other people would be a more efficient way of getting the word out about the council’s decision. That the council wrote a letter doesn’t prove that the written word trumps the authority of the spoken word.

                Also, this statement …

                “But, overall, I don’t need there to be a specific passage in the Bible that supports the doctrine to believe it’s right.”

                … seems out of sync with what you’re saying about Scripture being the final authority.

  6. Dave,as I began by original contribution to this thread by expression disdain for ping pong I’m not going to go down the route of you say black and I say white. I think you’re beating the text into shape to make it serve the truth claims of a clerical elite. I’m a Mennonite writing from a UK and not a US context. Frankly, after thousands of years of Christendom truimphalism we have had enough of hierarchical church structures and forms of argumentation that resort to ‘our bishop is more purple than yours’.

  7. Why comment at all, then, Phil, if you’re not willing to subject your positions to scrutiny and defend them? I don’t write this in any anger whatsoever, but in perfect calmness, and with true befuddlement. I always marvel at people who want to take their potshots at other views; then when challenged back, appeal to a calm, “above the fray” non-involvement ethos, as if their initial comments were not getting involved in the discussion. 🙂

    So you were involved in this thread, but really not. You entered the discussion but in fact never did . . . I can’t be faulted for simply responding to your critique, in any event.

  8. Hi Dave, I apologize if I was unclear. I’m looking over what I said in my previous comment and I agree with you; it’s inconsistent. I suspect the business of arguing back and forth, point by point would take up more time than either of us have. I’m in something of a cleft stick where this blog is concerned, as Devin knows from my previous comments. Fundamentally I don’t believe apologetics is an appropriate form of Christian communication. I am very much an unreconstructed liberal wishing for the good old days of enthusiastic ecumenism. At the same time, I think it’s important for Christians of different traditions not to retreat into our comfort zones.

    There are clearly disagreements between us. Broadly, I believe we have stumbled over centuries of scaffolding and encrustation where the ‘Council of Jerusalem’ is concerned. The phrase ‘Council of Jerusalem’, is after all a later interpretation of what went on. I am wary of attempts to impose a model (e..g. the Calvinist fourfold ministry) on a 1st Century picture than was almost certainly far more fluid and eclectic than attempts at systematization allow.

    My sense of ‘befuddlement’ lies mainly in why it should matter so much to ‘prove’ Petrine Primacy. Is this a way of arguing us back to Rome? What is your objective?

    1. Phil said:

      “I am wary of attempts to impose a model (e..g. the Calvinist fourfold ministry) on a 1st Century picture than was almost certainly far more fluid and eclectic than attempts at systematization allow.”

      Wary of all models… except your model. And wary of hierarchical church structures… except yours. And tired of triumphalism… except yours.

      1. David, I have rather more detail on Dave Armstrong’s site. You are being most unfair. Mennonites have a variety of contemporary practice. With respect, you know nothing about my church, which has no ordained leadership or hierarchy. We are one of only three known Mennonite congregations in the UK. As ‘triumphalism’ goes, that’s not very triumphant. It is true that I tend to approach the text from a congregational perspective, but I am well aware that models of church polity tend to adapt to circumstance, including within the New Testmament. Is it, I wonder, easier to be congregational, presbyterian or episcopal in a democracy or a dictatorship?

  9. Fair enough. I appreciate the clarification.

    I’m as ecumenical as you are, which is why I just completed the book, The Quotable Wesley: presently under serious consideration by a Protestant publisher. There is no fundamental conflict between ecumenism and apologetics, though for some odd reason lots of folks seem to think there is.

    Last Friday we had a very friendly discussion at my house with three atheists (one the main presenter) and about a dozen Catholics. That’s about as ecumenical as it gets, I think.

    I agree that there was fluidity in early ecclesiology, and stated that in my first book, written in 1996. We would fully expect this, because ecclesiology developed, just as all theology did. That said, the outlines of the later episcopal structure of Christian government is remarkably evident in the NT. See my Appendix Two from A Biblical Defense of Catholicism:

    The Visible, Hierarchical, Apostolic Church

    Apologetics is thoroughly biblical, as I have, I think, demonstrated many times. “Contend earnestly for the faith” (Jude 3). “Stand ready to make a defense [apologia] for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). Paul argued and disputed endlessly with Jews and Greeks; he didn’t simply preach. Jesus argued with Pharisees, and engaged and challenged them. Paul defended his Christian views at great length at his trial. It’s all very biblical. In fact, the word apologia is the same one that was the title of Plato’s famous book, detailing Socrates’ defense of himself at his own trial.

    My “objective” (since you asked) is to seek truth and follow it wherever it leads. Period. End of story. I defend what I believe to be the fullness of Christian truth (Catholicism) because I think it is better to reside in the fullness than not to: that truth (along with love) is a wonderful, godly end that all should seek with all their might. We all [should] proclaim and defend what we believe in good faith to be true. If I am convinced that the fullness of truth lies elsewhere, then I surely will move to that position, just as I moved from religious nominalism / paganism to evangelicalism, and from that to Catholicism.

    It’s all by God’s grace. I proclaim and defend, as an apologist / evangelist. God moves hearts as He wills, and as human free will allows, in cooperation with God’s grace. But (like Paul) “woe to me if I preach not the gospel” because this is my calling.

  10. Phil,

    Is it okay with you if I put our dialogue on my blog (it’s already public here, anyway)? I can include your name or not, as you wish. I think it is an exchange that might be of some value to others. I am a great advocate of putting up dialogues and letting people decide where truth lies.

  11. Dave, you are welcome to include the dialogue on your blog. It may also give me an opportunity to contribute in some more detail on some of the knotty ecclesiology we have touched on. I’ll place your blog on my blogroll. It’s an interesting discussion, partly because I’m not coming at this from a mainstream Protestant perspective.

    As for Apologetics, I entirely agree with your helpful biblical summary. Where I have concerns lies in interface between Apologetics and ecumenism. I have a strong sense, in talking to some Traditionalist Catholic interlocutors, that Apologetics have supplanted ecumenism. As you will gather from my own blog (and blogroll) I have an extensive range of Catholic contacts. My wife Anna is Roman Catholic. I wish you well with the writing. I also have a book in process at present – ‘The Gospel of Slow’.

    I sometimes wonder why I have stuck with this blog for so long. In large part it’s because I have always found Devin gracious and fair. To be honest, some of the discussion has been bruising, because I’m frequently expressing a minority viewpoint. God forbid, five hundred years after the Reformation, that disunity should ever be seen as ‘normal’. Speaking as an Anabaptist can be a painful in-between place – as Walter Klaasen said, ‘neither Catholic nor Protestant’. I believe there is something in that experience of value across the ecumenical spectrum, as all of us encounter a sense of loss and marginality after Christendom.

  12. “Maybe they wrote a letter just so they’d have a letter that could be copied and redistributed to whichever Christian community needed to see it. Paul and Barnabas couldn’t be everywhere all the time, and having a letter and copies of that letter that could be delivered by other people would be a more efficient way of getting the word out about the council’s decision. That the council wrote a letter doesn’t prove that the written word trumps the authority of the spoken word.”

    Maybe they did, but then they only wrote one copy to go back with those who had been sent – seems strange to me. A room full of witnesses to the decision and a group of people sent specifically by the church in Antioch to seek an answer on a question – if they trusted them to go and represent them in Jerusalem, why not to return with a verbal result? Could it be that they knew there were those who were speaking falsehoods from within the Church and wanted to be sure that ‘hearsay’ wasn’t guiding doctrine and teaching?

    “Also, this statement …

    “But, overall, I don’t need there to be a specific passage in the Bible that supports the doctrine to believe it’s right.”

    … seems out of sync with what you’re saying about Scripture being the final authority.”

    Yes, you’re right – poor wording on my part. I don’t need a specific verse / passage that says “sola scriptura” to know it’s correct. Just like I don’t need a specific entry in a book that says “you must be able to read” to know that to enjoy and understand the content of that book requires being able to read (or have access to someone who will read it to me).

    1. We’re only told about the one copy, but seeing as how the council’s decision impacted Gentile Christians everywhere, it’s only logical that they would’ve made more than one copy.

      You wrote: “Could it be that they knew there were those who were speaking falsehoods from within the Church and wanted to be sure that ‘hearsay’ wasn’t guiding doctrine and teaching?”

      Hearsay can just as easily be spread through a written letter. Who’s to say that the people who were supposed to deliver the council’s letter didn’t burn it and instead replace it with one of their own? Also, I think it’s in 2 Thessalonians that Paul writes to comfort a church that had been disturbed by false teachings they’d received in a letter (2 Thes. 2:2).

      You wrote: “Yes, you’re right – poor wording on my part. I don’t need a specific verse / passage that says “sola scriptura” to know it’s correct.”

      According to sola Scriptura, the Bible itself is the final authority for the believer. If you don’t need a verse(s) or passage(s) to tell you that this doctrine is correct, then you have to be using some other authority to establish the validity of sola Scriptura. It seems to me that this directly contradicts the doctrine you’re defending. (I’m assuming you do believe that there are passages that teach this, but you just saying you don’t need them to exist to believe sola Scriptura, right?)

      1. Yes, I do believe they exist – and as I’ve said, I don’t need one that explicitly says ‘sola scriptura’ – just as Catholics don’t need one that explicity says Mary was Assumed, or conceived immaculately to use scripture to try and prove it.

        Yes, those returning could have substitued another letter and perhaps Paul was dealing with issues delivered in a false letter – but at least there is some chance of verifying the origin of the letter and one can directly deal with what is written, not just someones interpretation of what was heard. Just as here, other readers can see and decide on exactly what is presented, not just based on what you or I may say about the discussion elsewhere.

  13. Phil,

    I have put up our dialogue on my blog; also cross-posted to my Facebook and Twitter pages:

    If you’d like to continue the discussion, that would be great, and I’ll add further material to the blog. From where I sit, the “hard questions” I asked about the Jerusalem Council still remain to be dealt with. I’m curious how an advocate of congregational government would answer those. You can always concede that you don’t have any answers to my questions; that’s fine, too. 🙂

  14. As of 6:15 PM ET, Wednesday, I more than doubled the size of the originally posted dialogue (on my blog: link above), by putting up further comments of Phil’s, with my replies.

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