Is Sola Scriptura in the Bible? A Reply to R.C. Sproul Jr.

Bryan Cross

R.C. Sproul Jr. recently wrote a short article titled “Is Sola Scriptura in the Bible?” In light of our recent article treating the subject of sola scriptura, it might be helpful to examine Sproul’s comments from a Catholic point of view.

Sproul begins his essay with the following paragraph:

No, and yes. The Bible does not have specific text that suggests that the Bible alone is our final authority in all matters of faith and practice. Those who delight to point this out, however, typically Roman Catholics and the eastern Orthodox, typically miss the point. First, their energies more often than not are aimed at the Anabaptist error that we call solo Scriptura. Here the person affirms that all he needs is himself and his Bible. The wisdom of the church in history, the community of believers, are all deemed irrelevant to understanding the things of God. Solo scriptura is reprehensible and ignorant and a-historical.

Here Sproul first acknowledges that the Bible does not have a text that suggests that it alone is our final authority. Then he claims that Catholics and Orthodox who point this out are missing the point, because they are aiming their energies at solo scriptura. However, if the point of the Catholics and Orthodox who state this is straightforwardly to point out that the Bible does not have a text that suggests that it alone is our final authority, then these Catholics and Orthodox are not “missing the point,” but in fact making a true claim, one that Sproul himself acknowledges. We agree with Sproul that solo scriptura is “reprehensible.” But if, as Neal Judisch and I have recently argued here, there is no principled difference between solo scriptura and sola scriptura, then the fact that the Bible does not have a passage that suggests that the Bible alone is our final authority, is deeply problematic for those who claim that the Bible alone is our final authority.

Sproul continues:

Sola Scriptura, like the Scriptures themselves, recognizes that God has gifted the church with teachers and pastors. It recognizes that the church has progressed and reached consensus on critical issues in and through the ancient ecumenical creeds. It affirms with vigor that we are all standing on the shoulders of giants. But it also affirms that even these giants have feet of clay. And there is where the Bible does in the end teach sola Scriptura.

If by “feet of clay” Sproul means that every mere human, during this present life, is capable of sin and error, then the Catholic Church agrees, in which case the fact that men have “feet of clay” does not entail sola scriptura. But if by “feet of clay” Sproul means that there was no oral Apostolic Tradition, and/or that the Holy Spirit failed to preserve this oral Apostolic Tradition, and/or that the Holy Spirit fails to protect the Church’s Magisterium from error when it definitively determines doctrine on matters of faith and morals, then Sproul needs to demonstrate that these results are entailed by the fact that men have “feet of clay.” Merely pointing out that men have “feet of clay” does not by itself set limitations on what the Holy Spirit is able to do through men.

Sproul then writes:

Sola Scriptura is a biblical doctrine not because the Bible says so. That would be a tautology- the kind of argument we find in that collection of lies the Book of Mormon. Instead the Bible is our alone final authority because it alone is the Word of God. It has been attested, authenticated, by God Himself. Miracles serve as the divine imprimatur, the proof that this is a message of God. This is how Nicodemus reasoned when he said, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him” (John 3:2). This is also how Jesus Himself reasoned when He first forgave the sins of the paralytic lowered through the roof. In response to the unspoken charge that He had blasphemed, Jesus told the man, “Arise, take up your bed, and go to your house” (Matthew 9:1-8).

Sproul claims that “the Bible is our alone final authority because it alone is the Word of God.” Nothing he says here actually demonstrates that only the Bible is the Word of God. In other words, nothing Sproul says here shows that the oral teaching of the Apostles was not the Word of God, or that this oral Apostolic Tradition, as it was passed down orally in the Church, was not the Word of God. The Catholic Church agrees that the Bible is the Word of God written. That’s not the point of disagreement. The point of disagreement (between Protestants and the Catholic Church) regarding sola scriptura is twofold: First, whether the Word of God written is the entirety of the Word of God given to the Church from the Apostles, or whether the Word of God spoken, and orally transmitted and handed down by the succession of bishops, is also the Word of God given to the Church from the Apostles. Second, whether or not Christ established a unique interpretive authority by way of apostolic succession from one Apostle to whom Christ gave the keys of the Kingdom. Sproul’s prooftexts do not substantiate the Protestant position regarding either of those two points of disagreement.

Sproul continues:

I would be quite content to add as a second infallible and inerrant authority the ancient creeds of the church under the following conditions. First, those who gathered to formulate these creeds would need to have their message authenticated by miraculous works. Let them raise men from the dead. Second, we must add those creeds to our Bibles. If both sources are equally authoritative, why do we separate them? In like manner, I’d be content to add as a second infallible and inerrant authority the statements of the Pope when He speaks ex cathedra. First, however, let him raise men from the dead. Second, let us add his words, assuming he would even tell us what they were, to our canon.

Here Sproul says that he would be content to add the ancient creeds as a second infallible and inerrant authority [along with the Bible] if those who formulated the creeds performed miracles, and those creeds were added to the Bible. In reply, Sproul’s being content to recognize the ancient creeds as inerrant and “infallible” on the basis of miracles performed by those who wrote them does not show whether or not the Holy Spirit protected the Church from error when formulating them. Sproul’s statement is a statement about himself. No statement about Sproul himself (or what would make him content) should determine what all Christians should believe about sola scriptura or about the authority of the Church’s creeds. Sproul’s claim presumes (without any substantiation) that only if the bishops in an ecumenical council performed miracles, and raised men from the dead, could we know that the Holy Spirit protected that council from error in its definitive determination of doctrine regarding faith and morals. Does Sproul know that every author of Scripture performed miracles and raised men from the dead? Did the author of Hebrews perform miracles? Did the author of Jude? Did Luke perform miracles? Sproul has just mutilated his own Bible in Marcion-style, being required by his own criterion to excise from it every book whose author was not recorded as performing some miracle. If he wishes then to appeal to the decisions of the Church regarding which books were canonical to avoid this problem, he will need to know which men in the Church made these decisions and that each of them performed miracles. But that is something he does not know, and cannot know. So his position commits the fallacy of special pleading — requiring that his interlocutor’s position be subject to a criterion he does not apply to his own position. Moreover, he does not show that the way the Catholic and Orthodox know ecumenical councils’ definitive statements on faith and morals to be divinely protected from error is insufficient.

Sproul likewise presumes (without substantiation) that there is no possible distinction between inspiration and infallibility. In other words, he [falsely] assumes that whatever is uttered infallibly is divinely inspired. A council’s being divinely protected from error in its decisions regarding faith and morals does not entail that its rulings are divinely inspired. Hence they need not be included in the Bible.

He adds:

But wait, there’s more. I want an authoritative list, in both instances of what these messages are. Ask someone Orthodox to show you exactly where you can read their infallible tradition and you will receive slippery ooze. Ask someone Roman Catholic for a list of infallible papal or consiliar [sic] statements, and you will receive the same.

Apparently Sproul is unaware of Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. But even if Ott hadn’t published this book, whether or not such a list is published does not show that there is no principled way for the Catholic Church to draw up such a list. The non-existence of a published list of infallible Church dogmas would not demonstrate that no Church teaching is infallible. Nor would it demonstrate that we cannot know whether there are any infallible dogmas, or that the Church does not know which of her teachings are infallible. So Sproul’s insistence on an “authoritative list” is a red herring.

Sproul then writes:

Finally, there is this problem. In both instances, Rome and Orthodoxy, you run headlong into the problem of the infinite regress. That is, those who are less strident in their views on tradition, who deny that tradition carries additional content to the Scripture, instead argue that tradition gives an infallible and inerrant interpretation of Scripture. Okay. Where then can we find an infallible and inerrant interpretation of the interpretation? Assuming we could succeed there, of course, we would need an inerrant interpretation of the interpretation of the interpretation. Ad nauseum.

Neal Judisch and I respond to that objection in section V of our article, “Solo Scriptura, Sola Scriptura, and the Question of Interpretive Authority.”

Sproul continues:

No, the Bible is God’s Word. It is perspicuous, understandable. It says what it means and means what it says. It is attested by the miraculous power of God. And it is all these things, alone. It alone, all by itself, equips us for every good work. Flee anyone who tells you that more is required to understand, or more is required to obey.

Catholics agree, of course, that the Bible is God’s Word written. But Sproul has not demonstrated that the unwritten Apostolic Tradition is not God’s Word. The [oral] preaching of the Apostles was in fact attested by miracles. So was the authority of the Apostles themselves, the authority that Christ had given to them to preach and teach in His Name (i.e. as His authorized representatives), and the authority that they gave to their successors. The miracles done by the Apostles attest to the enduring authority and binding requirement on the Church of their practice of authorizing episcopal successors no less than it does to the authority of their written words. Sproul arbitrarily picks from the Apostles’ actions only one subset (i.e. their act of writing) as authoritative for the Church, and in that respect his position is ad hoc.

Lastly, Sproul concludes:

If you’d like to learn more, I’d encourage you to get and read my friend Keith Mathison’s outstanding book The Shape of Sola Scriptura.

For a Catholic response to Mathison’s book, see the article mentioned above, by Neal Judisch and myself, titled, “Solo scriptura, Sola Scriptura, and the Question of Interpretive Authority.”