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Sola Scriptura and 2 Timothy 3:16,17

Posted by Kevin on April 15, 2017

When it’s asked where in the Bible does it teach that the Bible alone is the sole authoritative rule of faith and practice, the verse most commonly cited is 2 Timothy 3:16,17:

All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.

But do these verses teach that the Bible alone is sufficient? Sometimes we see or hear in a statement something that isn’t actually being said, because we are expecting to see or hear it. These verses say that the Bible was given so that we may be “equipped for every good work.” But they do not actually say that with the Bible alone we are equipped (thoroughly equipped in the NKJV). “Alone” is not in these verses in word or concept; we mentally insert it because we have been told the idea is there.

Consider as an analogy an auto mechanic. He has all the tools of that trade except for a set of wrenches. So you give him a set of wrenches. Now you can say that he is thoroughly equipped for every job. But you would not say that with a set of wrenches alone he is thoroughly equipped; far from it.

Also, citing this passage to prove “the Bible alone” assumes that the phrase “the man of God” refers to each and every Christian, and is not a more technical term denoting those in leadership positions in the Church. It’s far from evident from the context that it does. If it’s not evident in the context, then we are interpreting the phrase in light of our tradition, which is incompatible with “Bible alone.”

Well then; it’s one thing to point out that the word “alone” does not appear in the above verses. It’s another thing to show that the Bible teaches that other things are necessary and authoritative. But that’s easy to do.

First let’s look a this one:

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers,  to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,  until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.  Ephesians 4:11–13 (NRSVCE)

Perhaps the most relevant point here is that it states the purpose of these gifts of leadership as equipping God’s people: that’s the same word used in 2 Tim. 3:17. So if the Bible being given to equip us means that the Bible alone is sufficient to equip us, then St. Paul is contradicting himself, because here he says other things –these gifts, these leadership positions– are also given to equip us. Either it’s a contradiction or else St. Paul never meant in 2 Tim. 3:17 what Protestants have taken him to mean.

While I was a Protestant I wrestled with the problem of competing doctrines ostensibly based on the “Bible alone.” All sides assumed that they were the ones whose understanding of the Bible’s real meaning was illumined by the Holy Spirit. But how could you tell? So I asked how the Holy Spirit operates among Christians. The Bible has the answer and says it in a number of places like Eph. 4:11-13. It also answers the question in places like Romans 12:6-8.

The whole of 1 Corinthians 12 makes the case that all Christians are members together of the one Body of Christ, the Church. It is within this context that we are equipped to live the life we are called to. That’s how the Holy Spirit illumines our minds “until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” Not each of us individually, having varying levels of affinity to one another based on how closely our doctrines or focuses agree, but all of us doing our part together because each of us has need of the others (1 Cor. 12:19-21) in order to reach unity in the faith and fulfill the roles God has given us. Once I had truly come to grips with what 1 Corinthians 12 was saying, that more than any other passage led me to the Catholic Church, because that is what catholic means: universal, as in all of us together.

Here are a couple of verses that I never saw pointed out as a Protestant:

So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.  2 Thessalonians 2:15 (NRSVCE)


if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.  1 Timothy 3:15 (NRSVCE)

The Bible is authoritative not because it is written but because it is apostolic teaching in written form. This verse specifically rules out the idea that only apostolic teaching that is written is authoritative. Justin Martyr, writing around AD 150, repeatedly refers to the New Testament as “the memoirs of the apostles” (e.g. 1 Apology 67).

The Bible doesn’t teach “Bible alone.” It teaches the Bible as illumined through the Holy Spirit and the Church (led by the successors of the apostles, the bishops) as the normative means through which the Holy Spirit does so. That has been the Catholic position for 2000 years.





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Beyond What is Written

Posted by Kevin on December 3, 2015

You hear it said that 1 Corinthians 4:6 teaches that Christian doctrine must be restricted to what it written in the Bible.

I have applied all this to Apollos and myself for your benefit, brothers and sisters, so that you may learn through us the meaning of the saying, “Nothing beyond what is written,” so that none of you will be puffed up in favor of one against another.

I think these Catholic commentaries are right when they argue that the context suggests a narrower application than the question of how Christian doctrine is determined (which actually has nothing to do with the context):

you might learn that one be not puffed up against the other, and above that which is written, against the admonitions given in the holy Scriptures of being humble: or against what I have now written to you, that we must strive for nothing, but to be the faithful ministers of God, and not seek the esteem of men.

Haydock, G. L. (1859). Haydock’s Catholic Bible Commentary (1 Co 4:6). New York: Edward Dunigan and Brother.


not to go beyond what is written: Paul cautions believers to stay within the limits of personal humility defined by the Scriptures. He is referring specifically to the string of OT warnings about boasting quoted earlier in the letter (1:19, 31; 3:19–20). Paul’s purpose here is to halt the damaging effects of arrogance in Corinth, as indicated by the clarification that follows. Interpretations of this verse that suggest Paul is restricting the basis for Christian doctrine and morals to what is explicitly set forth in the books of the Bible (sola Scriptura) are misleading and untenable. Nothing in the context points to such a broad concern, and in any case Paul insists elsewhere that even the inspired preaching of the apostles is on a par with the written word of God (1 Thess 2:13; 2 Thess 2:15; 3:6).

The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: The New Testament. (2010). (p. 289). San Francisco: Ignatius Press.


That last reference, 2 Thess. 3:6 provides an important contrast. If we apply the same hermeneutic approach to this verse as the one applied to 1 Cor. 4:6 to legitimize “the Bible alone,” then 2 Thess. 3:6 similarly legitimizes “tradition alone” and we have a contradiction. But if we don’t bring to our reading of either verse considerations about formal principles and allow the respective contexts to point us to a narrower scope of intended meaning, then the contradiction disappears. St. Paul wasn’t saying “Bible alone” in the one verse or “tradition alone” in the other.

Also, 2 Thess. 2:15 deserves notice here.

So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.

The immediate context of this passage, in which St. Paul discusses the gospel, salvation and “belief in the truth,” suggests a wider, more general applicability than the aforementioned verses, and is more directly tied to what in later times would be called a formal principle. And here we have direct instruction from an apostle to “hold fast to the traditions” he taught them regardless of whether he did so in written or oral form. This, then, was the formal principle of the early Church: apostolic authority. As witnesses by St. Irenaeus a century afterward, this principle was still operative in the bishops who held this authority by succession. And this was the understanding of all orthodox Christians until 1517.

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The essentials

Posted by Kevin on June 3, 2014

One of the things that surprised me since becoming Catholic is how often I come across a passage in the Bible that I thought I was familiar with, only to have something leap out at me from the text that I never noticed before.  I am not talking about merely interpreting a passage differently than I did as a Protestant; I am talking about a forehead-slapping “Why didn’t I notice this before?” moment.  It happens quite a bit.  Today’s readings had one of these. St. Paul is speaking to the Ephesian elders/priests prior to his departure and said this:

And so I solemnly declare to you this day that I am not responsible for the blood of any of you, for I did not shrink from proclaiming to you the entire plan of God.

As a Protestant in the evangelical milieu (though by culture and temperament I have never fit in with American-style evangelicalism) I saw that the most common way that disagreements between individuals and churches over doctrine was handled was by saying that we all agree on the “essential” doctrines, including the Protestant solas, and that other doctrines were of secondary importance.  As long as we loved Jesus and agreed on the basics, we shouldn’t make a big deal of disagreements on other matters.  (As an aside, I can’t help rolling my eyes whenever some secular fundamentalist zealot in the press depicts evangelicals as some sort of monolithic entity  marching in lockstep.  The truth is that on any question, if you ask three evangelicals you will probably get four different opinions!)

Yet St. Paul doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo that some parts of the Christian revelation are of “secondary” importance in contrast to the “basics.” His “solemn declaration” above seems to say the exact opposite.  I don’t see how this statement can be taken other than that he regards it all as essential, and not just five to ten (!) bullet statements that can fit on the single page of a church bulletin.  It never did make sense to me that God would give us a book the size of the Bible if so much of its content was not essential.  And then there is the question of who has the authority to determine which bits are essential and which bits are not.  These questions are of vital importance in St. Paul’s view.

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Transience and permanence

Posted by Kevin on February 28, 2013

I was just watching the EWTN coverage of Pope Benedict leaving the Vatican for Castel Gandolfo.  As his helicopter flew over Rome you could see the Coliseum passing below.  The successor of Peter flying above the ruins of the place where Christians were fed to lions.  Rather symbolic, that.

I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.  Matt. 16:18


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Either/Or vs. Both/And

Posted by Kevin on January 20, 2013

The biggest objection that Protestants have toward the Catholic Church is that Catholicism teaches things contrary to what the Bible says.  I would argue that it is more accurate to say that Catholicism teaches things contrary to Protestant interpretations of the Bible.  Part of the misunderstanding is due to the fact that there are some differences in approach to interpretation.

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More on interpretation and authority

Posted by Kevin on January 20, 2013

Jennifer writes,

“We reject the Church’s authority only to replace it with another authority: what the scholars we trust say are the rules for interpreting the Bible, and who we decide has correctly applied these rules to arrive at the correct interpretation.”

I guess I take exception to trusting any said ‘church’ or ‘scholar’ for any interpretation. To say one source is better or worse than the other is false. It is also naive to think we are not influenced by any person. Our beliefs have to be based on God’s word alone, but we will always be influenced as to how we interpret them.

Choosing an established church, whether you believe it’s the “one true church” or not, to guide you in your conclusions and interpretations to scripture is in my opinion just as equal to trusting a scholar.

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More on the Magisterium and Infallibility

Posted by Kevin on December 10, 2012

I just came across this explanation of when the Magisterium of the Church does and does speak infallibly.

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Apostolic authority

Posted by Kevin on December 6, 2012

Lisa asks:

Could you explain a little more about why Catholics consider the magisterium infallible? Seems to me that putting one’s trust in one man’s (the pope’s) interpretation of the Bible is no different from the Protestant way of interpreting the Bible.

Good question, Lisa.  I asked that one myself.

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That’s your interpretation

Posted by Kevin on December 2, 2012

I think for me the single biggest problem in my faith before entering the Catholic Church was that I didn’t know when to stop asking questions.  (Now, as a Catholic, I can still ask all the questions I can think of, but they tend to result in answers more than confusion.)

Let me back up a little.  After no religious upbringing in my first decade, our family became involved with a fundamentalist Baptist church.  They were the ones who cared enough about our immortal souls to knock on our door and invite us to church.  The local Catholic priest, shamefully, exerted more energy warning people against sending their kids to this Baptist church than he did inviting people to his Catholic parish.  The message of Christ resonated with me and I jumped aboard with both feet and learned all I could.  The thing with fundamentalism is that they are all for learning, but up to a point.  The essence of fundamentalism, I think, is the maintaining of feelings of certitude by rejecting any information or question that brings their beliefs into doubt.  I had this rather unfortunate habit of thinking and asking questions beyond the level that permits Baptist fundamentalist certitude, and so by my late teens it became apparent that I didn’t fit in.  By my early twenties and for the next twenty years or so I would identify myself only as a Christian, in the “mere Christianity” sense as C.S. Lewis put it.  I held to the eight or ten points of non-negotiable doctrine that most evangelical or “Bible Christians” would hold as the essence of authentic, Biblical Christianity.  I held a lot of the so-called secondary issues rather tentatively.

Even then, there were problems.  Read the rest of this entry »

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Continuity and visible unity

Posted by Kevin on December 2, 2012

Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.   Jude 3

[T]hat they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.   John 17:21

Martin Luther started something he never intended to with consequences he likely never imagined.  In taking on the Pope and the Bishops he intended to reform the Church, but the result was a progressive, exponential splintering of the church.  Luther held that Christian truth is determined by the Bible alone: sola scriptura. But very quickly disagreement arose as to what the Bible truly taught on this or that topic, and just as Luther had separated himself and his followers from the Catholic Church, the new Protestants began separating from each other both theologically and ecclesiastically.  Today it is impossible to even count all the different Protestant denominations and teachings, because old ones are dying and new ones are arising, and countless congregations are non-denominational and autonomous.

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