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Is Sola Scriptura Scriptural? Part II: What Do The Apostles Say?
We’ve seen that the rule of faith and practice for Christians living during the time of the Apostles was not sola Scriptura.
For them, authority resided in (a) the inspired Scriptures, (b) the oral teaching of the Apostles, and (c) the decisions of the Church’s leadership as it met in council to settle disputed matters (Acts 15). If you will: Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium.
In other words, a believer living in Jerusalem, Antioch, Corinth, or Rome during the time of the Apostles would never have said what Protestant scholars Geisler and MacKenzie say in Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: “The Bible — nothing more, nothing less, and nothing else — is all that is necessary for faith and practice” (p. 178).
Objection, Your Honor
Now, to this the thoughtful non-Catholic should respond:
“Hold your horses! Of course Christians weren’t ‘Bible only’ Christians during the time of the Apostles!
As Christ’s authoritative spokesmen, of course the Apostle’s oral teaching was authoritative as well as their writing. And, of course, decisions made in councils like in Acts 15 — which, by the way, you cleverly neglected to mention was led by Apostles — would be authoritative! We agree that the teaching and decisions of Apostles were authoritative.
The question that needs to be asked, then, in order to decide what the rule of faith and practice ought to be for Christians, is not ‘What was the practice of believers living during the time of the Apostles?’ but rather, ‘What should the practice of believers be now that there are no longer Apostles walking the earth?’ What should the Church’s rule of faith and practice be now that there are no longer inspired Apostles who can write and teach and meet in council to issue authoritative decrees?
This is the question that needs to be asked!”
I think thoughtful Catholics would have to agree that the objection should be sustained. Yes, sola Scriptura isn’t a rule that would apply while the Apostles were still alive, but only after.
The New Testament Teaching
The questions that came immediately to mind were these:
Do the Apostles say anything about this?
Are there any direct statements to the effect that once they have departed this world, authority for individual Christians and for the Church, will reside in Scripture alone?
Are there hints in the New Testament books that the Apostles understood this?
Do we see them preparing their churches for such a fundamental change in how Christian doctrine would be determined and disputes settled?
Because I had always assumed the truth of sola Scriptura (after all, what is left but to look to Scripture alone once the Apostles are gone and public revelation is no longer being given?) reading the New Testament through with these kinds of questions in mind was a new experience for me. I saw things I had not seen before, or maybe better, things I had seen but not thought about.
In short, what I saw were evidences of a mindset that did not fit the notion that the Apostles had it in their apostolic heads that when they had passed from this life, Scripture would become for Christ’s followers the “sole and sufficient infallible rule of faith and practice.”
- For instance, it occurred to me that most of the Apostles didn’t act like men who were preparing their disciples for sola Scriptura — by the very fact that most of them didn’t bother to write at all.
Imagine you’re an Apostle traveling through modern-day Turkey evangelizing, teaching, establishing communities of believers, and ordaining leadership in those communities. And imagine you believe that when you die what you have written will become the sole doctrinal and moral authority for the churches you’ve founded and the Christians you’ve instructed.
Don’t you think you’d want to write down everything you wanted your spiritual children to know and believe, as opposed to relying on them to simply remember what you’d said?
Now, I didn’t — and don’t — put much weight on this observation. Even though we only have the writings of three of the original twelve Apostles, Peter, Matthew, and John, I suppose it’s possible that the others wrote and their writings haven’t been preserved. But it’s hard to imagine the churches not treasuring and make sure to preserve the writings of inspired Apostles.
No, most of the Apostles seem to have been perfectly content to live out their days preaching the Gospel, establishing churches, and teaching them the doctrines of their most holy faith — without ever feeling the need to write down what they were teaching.
At the very least, this is strange, and it raises the question: what were they thinking in terms of the future preservation of their teaching?
Which leads to a second observation.
- It seemed to me that even those Apostles who did write, didn’t write in a mannerthat would make me think they had the eventual onset of sola Scriptura in their minds.
For instance, in 1 Corinthians 15:29, Paul refers to baptisms being performed for the dead without explaining what he means. Apparently his readers understood what he was talking about and so he didn’t feel the need to explain himself.
It doesn’t seem to have crossed Paul’s mind that Christians in the future might also want to know what he was talking about!
Another example: in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12, Paul refers to the “man of sin” who is to be revealed and “who will take his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God.” Important stuff! Multiple millions of dollars have been made by Christian authors speculating on the identity of this “man of sin” and the circumstances of his being revealed. What’s Paul talking about?
Well, he begins to speak of this man of sin, but then, instead of explaining exactly who and what he’s referring to, he says, “Do you not remember that when I was with you I told you this? And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time?”
I remember thinking, “Well, gee, thanks a lot, Paul! It’s great to know that the Christians in Thessalonica don’t need an explanation because, after all, you told them when you were with them. But what about those of us born a hundred years later, or five hundred later, or in the middle of the 20th century in Southern California? How am I supposed to know what you told the Thessalonian believers?”
But, of course, what Paul is doing here is quite natural. When he wrote letters to the various churches he had founded or visited, for the most part he was writing to people he had already spent a good deal of time with (e.g. three years in Ephesus, a couple of years in Corinth). In other words, he knows his readers are familiar with his teaching and therefore, quite naturally, doesn’t feel the need to spell everything out in this letters to them — or even to necessarily complete every thought he begins to express.
He can presuppose that his readers know what he’s talking about and will be able to fill in the blanks on their own.
Now, this applies to nearly all of the New Testament epistles. They’re what we call “occasional documents” — letters written to specific churches to address specific issues and problems. They weren’t written to summarize Christian doctrine and, except here and there, they don’t summarize Christian doctrine.
And yet, if the Apostles were thinking that sola Scriptura would very soon become the rule of faith and practice for the Christian communities, you’d think they would have been eager to do just that: write down clear summaries of Christian doctrine.
There’s no hint that they sensed the need.
In fact, with the Apostle John, we find the reverse! In the three very short letters we have from John (one five pages in length and two more one page each in length) we find him twice expressing an actual preference for speaking in person over writing!
Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink, but I hope to come to see you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete (2 John 1:12).
I had much to write to you, but I would rather not write with pen and ink. I hope to see you soon, and we will talk together face to face (3 John 1:13, emphases added).
In short, reading through the New Testament letters I did not see evidence of an apostolic mindset that said,
“Brothers, we need to be preparing our churches. So long as we are alive, they have us to teach them and answer their questions and authoritatively settle disputes. But as soon as we’re out of the picture, everything’s going to change. There’s no longer going to be an authoritative living voice for the Church. When Christians disagree, they’re going to have to fight it out among themselves, looking to the Bible alone. With this in mind, we need to make sure to spell out everything as clearly as possible and in writing!”
I didn’t see a hint that the Apostles possessed any such mindset.
- In fact, in the one case in which an Apostle actually talks about the preservation of his teaching beyond death, he talks about it in a way that led me to conclude that he was not at all thinking like someone who believed sola Scriptura would become the rule of faith and practice for the future Church.
The truth is, he seemed to be thinking more like a Catholic.
I’m speaking here of St. Paul. Second Timothy appears to have been Paul’s farewell address to his spiritual son and successor in the ministry. In chapter 4, the Apostle speaks of his soon-to-come departure from this world: “For I am already on the point of being sacrificed, the time of my departure has come.”
With this in mind, he gives Timothy these instructions:
Follow the pattern of sound words, which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus; guard the truth that has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit who dwells in you (2 Tim 1:13-14).
I noticed a couple of things right away.
First, what Paul is talking about here is precisely the preservation of his teaching after his death. It becomes even clearer a few verses later that this is what the great Apostle has on his mind.
The second thing I noticed was that Paul doesn’t say a word here about his “writings.”
Interesting. Paul’s thinking about how his teaching is to be preserved once he has left this world and instead of talking about his inspired writings, he talks about a “pattern of sound words” Timothy has “heard” from Paul, that has been “entrusted” to him, and that he is to “guard” “by the Holy Spirit” who dwells in him.
And then, a few words later.
You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also (2 Tim 2:1-2, emphasis added).
Again, notice the focus on what Timothy has “heard.”
He is to guard by the Holy Spirit the body of teaching he has received from Paul — everything he has heard Paul teach — and then “entrust” this body of teaching to faithful men who presumably will do the same thing Paul is instructing Timothy to do; that is, they will guard by the Holy Spirit who dwells in them the truth entrusted to them by Timothy and entrust that truth to other faithful men who in turn will entrust the truth to still others, and so forth.
Why, I wondered, isn’t Paul acting like someone who believes that after his departure from this world Timothy and everyone else will be practicing sola Scriptura? Why isn’t his focus on what he has written? Why isn’t he instructing Timothy to collect his writings and begin the work of making copies of them? Why all this talk about what Timothy has heard, about a “pattern” of sound words and guarding things by the Holy Spirit? The process sounds so uncertain.
Paul didn’t sound at all like a good Protestant apostle would sound in similar circumstances. He didn’t seem to be thinking in the sorts of terms that I as a Protestant would have been thinking in.
Rather, in sharp contrast, Paul seems to have believed that the substance of his teaching would be preserved by the Holy Spirit through a process akin to apostolic succession, and this is what he’s thinking about as the time of his death approaches.
Like Father, Like Son
Of course, Paul’s way of thinking here is not without context. I could see, in fact, that it fits a pattern of thinking that is really at the heart of the New Covenant promise of the Spirit.
No doubt, Paul had noticed that when God the Father wanted to speak His most authoritative and eloquent Word, He spoke that Word by sending His Son, endowed with the Spirit, to teach by word and example. The Book of Hebrews begins,
In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son … who is the radiance of his glory and the exact representation of his being (Hebrews 1:1-3).
Paul certainly had noticed as well that when the Son of God wanted to ensure that His teaching would continue in the world after He had ascended to the Father, He didn’t sit down and write a book.
Instead, He did precisely what His Father had done. He chose men (this time twelve), taught them, endowed them with His Spirit and authority, and sent them out to do as He had done.
And this is exactly what they did. Yes, when there were particular needs to be addressed in particular churches, the Apostles wrote letters to address those needs. But in reading what they wrote, I didn’t get the sense that they conceived of writing as their primary work. Rather, it was preaching, teaching, establishing churches, and training and ordaining leadership for those churches.
Finally, I could see that within this context, the things Paul said to Timothy all make sense. As the Father had sent the Son, endowed with the Spirit to teach and establish a Church; as the Son had sent His apostolic messengers into the world, endowed with the Spirit to teach and to establish the Church in Judea and Samaria and to the uttermost parts of the world; so as Paul prepares to leave this world and wants to ensure that his teaching will be preserved and faithfully passed on, he doesn’t think first about writing. He doesn’t think as one would naturally think who had sola Scriptura in mind.
Instead, what he thinks about is teaching Timothy everything he wants him to know and sending him forth, endowed with the Spirit to pass the truth on to others.
In short, as shocking as it was to what remained of my Protestant sensibilities, Paul seemed to believe that the Christian faith would be preserved in the Church.