Responding to Sola Scriptura

News: Commentary
by Lincoln Brown  •  •  December 2, 2022   

Unpacking a passage in Scripture

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Protestants often cite 2 Timothy 3:16–17 as teaching "the sufficiency of Scripture" or Sola Scriptura ("by Scripture alone"). However, closer inspection of this passage reveals that it does not support Sola Scriptura but, in fact, contradicts it.

Dr. John MacArthur

Regarding the sufficiency of Scripture, the Protestant theology and apologetics website "Got Questions" writes

To say the Scriptures are sufficient means that the Bible is all we need to equip us for a life of faith and service. ... No other writings are necessary for this good news to be understood, nor any other writings required to equip us for a life of faith.

One hears Protestants speak of both the sufficiency of Scripture and Sola Scriptura, but they are essentially the same concept. Protestant pastor and author Dr. John MacArthur provides the following definition of Sola Scriptura:

Sola Scriptura simply means that all truth necessary for our salvation and spiritual life is taught either explicitly or implicitly in Scripture. ... Scripture is therefore the perfect and only standard of spiritual truth, revealing infallibly all that we must believe in order to be saved and all that we must do to glorify God.

This is another way of saying what Got Questions said: "No other writings are necessary [for salvation] ... nor any other writings required to equip us for a life of faith."

If Sola Scriptura is true, then Catholicism must be false because the Catholic Church teaches that it "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." Catholics hold the Scriptures in high regard but do not consider them the "only standard of spiritual truth."

For Sola Scriptura to be true, then it must be taught in Scripture, as this must be the case if the Bible is "the perfect and only standard of spiritual truth." Otherwise, Protestants have no Biblical recourse to counter the claims of the Catholic Church, thereby rendering Sola Scriptura useless.

Catholics hold the Scriptures in high regard but do not consider them the 'only standard of spiritual truth.'

To justify Sola Scriptura from Scripture, Protestants often rely on 2 Timothy 3:16–17, which is the best hope they have of being able to do so. The passage reads:

"All Scripture is breathed out by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work." (ESV)

St. Paul

Protestants argue that because Scripture completes the man of God (a process St. Paul defines as making him "equipped for every good work"), this means that Scripture is sufficient for the task, thereby ruling out the need for authoritative sources of teaching such as the Church's Magisterium. The logic is that if X can complete or equip one for a particular task, then X is sufficient for doing so.

This is not what St. Paul teaches in 2 Timothy. He writes that Scripture is "God-breathed" (divinely inspired) and is "profitable" (other translations say "useful") for four things: teaching, reproof, correction and training in righteousness. It is these four things that complete the man of God, not necessarily Scripture itself. In other words, for the man of God to be equipped for every good work, he must receive teaching, reproof, correction and training in righteousness, for which Scripture is useful. This is a very different claim than Sola Scriptura and certainly doesn't exclude the idea of Magisterial teaching and Tradition.

Notice that St. Paul doesn't say that Scripture is essential for these four actions, but "profitable" or "useful." The Greek word is ōphelimos, which may be translated as profitable, beneficial or useful. If one wishes to teach, reproof, correct and train in righteousness, then he will find the Scriptures good and useful, but one is not forced to rely exclusively on Scripture. There are other means of teaching, reproofing, correcting and training in righteousness besides Scripture. In our modern context, using a catechism would be an example.

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Furthermore, in the Protestant approach, the logic of "completeness" is flawed. Simply put, just because X can complete or equip one for a particular task does not mean that X is all that is required. If one calls a thing complete, that means it has all its necessary parts. A tent can "complete" the man who is going camping, but that doesn't mean he won't need cooking utensils. A jacket can "complete" the man who is attending a dinner party, but that doesn't mean he won't need a pair of pants.

Consider this sentence: Textbooks are profitable for studying and learning, so that the student may be complete and equipped for the exam. This doesn't mean that using a textbook is the only way to prepare for the exam (for example, the student might listen to a lecture online), yet that is how Protestants read 2 Timothy. Protestants extrapolate Paul's words to mean that if Scripture can equip the Christian for every good work, then it must be all one needs to be equipped, which is not the case.

 Jimmy Akin

As Jimmy Akin has observed, the logic of the Protestant interpretation results in absurdities. James 1:4 reads, "And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing," yet there is no Protestant doctrine of "the sufficiency of steadfastness" claiming that sufficiency is all one needs for the Christian life. Nor is enduring trials sufficient, which is the context the verse is speaking about. Protestants would likely accept that one needs both the Scriptures and perseverance in the Christian life and that perseverance is not the only attribute necessary to endure trials. It would be absurd to conclude from James 1:4 that Christians don't need charity or faith in times of trial because perseverance only can complete them, yet that is the logic Protestants use to argue that St. Paul teaches Sola Scriptura. In this way, Protestants are not being hermeneutically consistent.

This misinterpretation of 2 Timothy 3:16–17 is hardly the greatest problem with Sola Scriptura. There are many others, but it is worthwhile understanding how to respond when it arises. St. Paul says that Scripture is useful for certain things that can make one equipped for every good work, which is different than saying that Scripture is the only standard of spiritual truth, and Christians have no need for the Church's Magisterial teaching.

Protestants are not being hermeneutically consistent.

If Sola Scriptura cannot be found in the Bible itself then, by definition, Sola Scriptura cannot be true, as it posits that Scripture is the only standard of spiritual truth. The passage in 2 Timothy is the one that Protestants rely on most to defend Sola Scriptura, but it doesn't actually teach it.

As far as this verse is concerned, Protestants are not off the hook with submitting to and embracing the Catholic Church's teaching.

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