Sola Scriptura! The Sufficiency of the Written Word

This essay was written by John MacArthur.

In this essay, MacArthur unapologetically answers Roman Catholic apologists.

The very first point is that we (as humans) have the tendancy to venerate tradition and there are many world religions that rely totally on tradition and oral transmission (Native American religions and Druidism, to name two.) Even among the religionsh, such as Hinduism, that use sacred writings, tradition is blended.

What happens is that it ends up that Scripture is read through the "translator" of tradition, thus rendering tradition the highest authority, because only through tradition can the Scripture be accurate.

Traditional Judaism follows this Scripture-plus-tradition pattern; the familiar books of the Old Testament alone are considered "Scripture", but the Jews have added the Talmud - this is the "lens" through which they read Scripture, rendering the Scripture in submission to the Talmud.

Christ told them:

"This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.

You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men."

This was inexcusable; the Jews were in direct disobedience to God's Word: "You shall not add to the word which I am commanding you, nor take away from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you" (Deuteronomy 4:2).

MacArthur writes:

So the revealed Word of God, and nothing else, was the supreme and sole authority in Judaism. This alone was the standard of truth delivered to them by God Himself. Moses was instructed to write down the very words God gave him (Exodus 34:27), and that written record of God's Word became the basis for God's covenant with the nation (Exodus 24:4, 7). The written Word was placed in the Ark of the Covenant (Deuteronomy 31:9), symbolizing its supreme authority in the lives and the worship of the Jews forever. God even told Moses' successor, Joshua: "Be strong and very courageous; be careful to do according to all the law which Moses My servant commanded you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, so that you may have success wherever you go. This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night., so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it" Joshua 1:7 -- 8).

Thus, the principle of Sola Scriptura is given to us in the Word of God.

MacArthur clearly states that the Roman Catholic Church has followed the folly of the Jews. She has a body of tradition that functions much as the Talmud does for the Jews. Tradition (being the lens through which Scripture is read) supplants Scripture itself.

And the church does not hide the blend of Scripture and tradition.

(...) [The Roman Catholic Church] Roman Catholic Church "does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence" (CCC 82).

MacArthur writes:

In other words, the official Catholic position on Scripture is that Scripture does not and cannot speak for itself. It must be interpreted by the Church's teaching authority and in light of "living tradition." De facto this says that Scripture has no inherent authority, but like all spiritual truth, it derives its authority from the Church. Only what the Church says is deemed the true Word of God, the "Sacred Scripture... written principally in the Church's heart rather than in documents and records."

This position obviously emasculates Scripture.

This is why "Sola Scriptura" is a doctrine that is so hated by Roman Catholic apologists; to give Scripture final authority emasculates the church.

Put another way, the "Sufficiency of the Written Word" takes away from the sufficiency of the church.

Again, we have to define "Sola Scriptura". The Reformation principle of sola Scriptura has to do with the sufficiency of Scripture as our supreme authority in all spiritual matters. Sola Scriptura simply means that all truth necessary for our salvation and spiritual life is taught either explicitly or implicitly in Scripture.

We have seen in other places that Scripture claims that the "Sacred writings" are sufficient to make us "wise unto salvation."

But what about the arguments against it?

- 2 Timothy 2:2: "The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, these entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also." This passage has to do with Timothy teaching others to be pastors; there is not a hint of apostolic succession. It is about discipleship, not about infallibility.

What were these things that Timothy heard from Paul?

MacArthur says:

It was not some undisclosed tradition, such as the Assumption of Mary, which would be either unheard of or disputed for centuries until a pope declared ex cathedra that it was truth. What Timothy was to hand on to other men was the same doctrine Paul had preached before "many witnesses." Paul was speaking of the gospel itself. It was the same message Paul commanded Timothy to preach, and it is the same message that is preserved in Scripture and sufficient to equip every man of God (2 Timothy 3:16 -- 4:2).

- Acts 2:42: "They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer." Again, there is no hint of "extra tradition", these people were simply following the apostle's example.

- The most common verse used to put tradition on a par with Scripture is 1 Corinthians 11:2: "Now I praise you because you remember me in everything, and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you."

Yes. Tradition is mentioned. What is this "tradition"?

Again quoting MacArthur:

First of all, the apostle is speaking not of traditions passed down to the Corinthians by someone else through word of mouth. This "tradition" is nothing other than doctrine the Corinthians had heard directly from Paul's own lips during his ministry in their church. The Greek word translated "traditions" is paradosis, translated "ordinances" in the King James Version. The Greek root contains the idea of transmission, and the idea is no doubt doctrine that was transmitted by oral means. In this case, however, it refers only to Paul's own preaching -- not to someone else's report of what Paul taught.

In order to understand this passage it is VITAL to understand that Paul was the pastor of the church at Corinth. He was physically there and the people sat under his direct teaching.

Remembering this important information helps us understand that 1 Corinthians 11:2 is no call to tradition. It is a call for the people of Corinth to remember what Paul had taught them while he was with them.

- Another favorite is 2 Thessalonians 2:15: "So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us."

Again, tradition is mentioned. And there is a clear difference between oral and written messages from Paul. Does this not support the position of Rome?

Again, not if the context is understood. The church at Thessalonica had been misled by a forged letter (chapter 2) and the people of the church were understandably upset. Paul was not telling the Thessalonians that they should hold tradition in as high a regard as they did Scripture; rather he was telling them that they should hold fast to what was taught to them by Paul directly.

Nobody is denying that Paul taught directly, by mouth. The debate is whether or not the oral teaching was different than Scripture and that it was infallibly passed on via apostolic succession.

The Bereans had it right; everything that was taught to them by Paul was examined against Scripture; this put Scripture in the highest authority - higher than the apostle and he praised them for that!

Quoting MacArthur:

It is highly significant that the Bereans are explicitly commended for examining the apostolic message in light of Scripture. They had the priority right: Scripture is the supreme rule of faith, by which everything else is to be tested. Unsure of whether they could trust the apostolic message -- which, by the way, was as inspired and infallible and true as Scripture itself -- the Bereans erased all their doubt by double-checking the message against Scripture. Yet Roman Catholics are forbidden by their Church to take such an approach! They are told that the Church through her bishops dispenses the only true and infallible understanding of Scripture.

Therefore it is pointless to test the Catholic Church's message by Scripture; for if there appears to be a conflict -- and make no mistake, there are many -- Rome says her traditions carry more weight than her critics' interpretation of Scripture.

What the apostole praised the Bereans for is nothing like what the Roman Catholic church teaches faithful Roman Catholics, who measure teachings against the church, catechisms and councils.

MacArthur closes with these good words:

No man, no church, no religious authority has any warrant from God to augment the inspired Word of Scripture with additional traditions, or to alter the plain sense of it by subjecting it to the rigors of a "traditional" meaning not found in the Word itself. To do so is clearly to invalidate the Word of God -- and we know what our Lord thinks of that (Matthew 15:6 -- 9).

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One thought on “Sola Scriptura! The Sufficiency of the Written Word

  1. Some good points here. If you have to rely on the church to interpret the Word for you then you are placing the church as a higher authority in the life of the believer than the Word.

    That would be another big shift in practice going from the old to the new covenant and of course makes no sense from the biblical perspective.

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