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SOLA SCRIPTURA:  The Sufficiency of Scripture

By Dr. Rowland Ward

Part 1

From The Presbyterian Banner: July, 1996.

The following are notes by Dr. Ward for his debate with
Roman Catholic apologist, Mr Patrick Madrid in June, 1996.



Our subject is a large one and we can hardly give adequate coverage in the time allowed, but hopefully the main points can be addressed. For the purpose of this debate the question is not 'Does Scripture contain in one form or another all that is necessary to salvation? [material sufficiency], for on this I understand Mr Madrid and I are agreed, but 'Is Scripture a sufficient and final court of appeal in matters of faith or morals?' [formal sufficiency]. Fundamentally, therefore, we are dealing with the question of authority in regard to the Christian faith.

Roman Catholic position
The Roman Catholic position is that the Church is the custodian of revelation whether in the form of oral teaching or written Scripture and that the Church has an infallible teaching authority or magisterium which is essential in order for us to know both what writings are Scripture and the correct interpretation of their content.

Thus, in the words of Vatican II document Dei Verbum (1965):


Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit. Sacred Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit. It transmits it to the successors of the apostles so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they may faithfully preserve, expound and spread it abroad by their preaching. Thus it comes about that the Church does not draw her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scripture alone. Hence both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honoured with equal feelings of devotion and reverence... Sacred tradition and sacred Scripture make up a single sacred deposit, which is entrusted to the Church... But the task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone...Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it.... It is clear, therefore, that, in the supremely wise arrangement of God, sacred Tradition, sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church are so connected and associated that one of them cannot stand without the others...'[1]

Although this is not an infallible declaration it reflects much of what was said by the Council of Trent in 1546, which is regarded as infallible. Today also, in current exegetical work by Roman Catholics, it is abundantly clear that dogma as defined in Sacred Tradition is what binds and not Scripture in its simplicity.

The Protestant position
The historic Protestant position does not say that right reason and the historical witness of the believing community are irrelevant to identifying what books are Scripture, any more than it teaches that grammatical knowledge and background information from archaeology or history or the believing community are of no value in assisting in interpreting Scripture correctly. But it affirms that:


  1. the Word God spoke through apostles and prophets and intended for the direction of his church is now found only in sacred Scripture,

  2. the teaching of Scripture is sufficiently clear on the main things so as to be able to make ordinary people wise for salvation and to equip for every good work,

  3. ultimate certainty as to the authority of the Word of God written comes from the witness of the Spirit of God in the believer's heart, and

  4. Scripture is a sufficient and final court of appeal in matters of faith and morals.


How do we know which books belong to the canon or rule of Scripture? The Roman Catholic position is that it is only through the magisterium of the Church that we know what books form part of the canon of infallible Scripture. The Bible in its original form does not have a table of contents, being originally separate books, therefore we must admit an outside authority - the church, if we would know the identity of Scripture, it is said. And if we would interpret Scripture (or oral tradition) correctly we must accept the church's interpretation of the evidence, if there is any, or her assertion if there is no accessible evidence, otherwise Christ would have justify the church a rudderless ship. Therefore Scripture alone cannot be the sufficient and final authority for faith.

The orthodox Protestant position does not deny that the church has certain duties in reference to Scripture but offers a two-pronged argument (historical and doctrinal) for the identity of the inspired books.

How do we know which books belong to the canon or rule of Scripture?
First, as to the historical argument:

  1. Writings not belonging to the period when revelation was given cannot be inspired nor of final authority for faith;

  2. The generation which received divine revelation was the best able to know its status;

  3. Inspired writings are by virtue of that inspiration authoritative irrespective of the acts of any group of believers in acknowledging them to be so, and

  4. Evidence for assertions by the church must be offered.

Second, as to the doctrinal argument:

  1. nothing can be a rule for faith which contradicts existing revelation or in other ways lacks the marks of inspiration (eg truthfulness), hence

  2. ultimate assurance concerning the identity of Scripture is through the testimony of the Spirit by and with the word.

When these principles are applied to the writings offered to us as Scripture the result is the Jewish canon of the Old Testament (ie. excluding the Apocrypha) and the 27 books of the New Testament.

The argument may be outlined as follows:

Old Testament
The Jews had a canon of faith which was the same as the Protestant canon of faith.


  1. Philo the Jewish philosopher (20BC-AD40) never once quotes from the Apocrypha

  2. Josephus the Jewish historian (AD30-100) specifically identifies the 22 books which equate to the Protestant canon (Antiquities, Against Apion 1:8).

  3. The Jews acknowledged the cessation of prophecy with Malachi ca.400BC

  4. Christ's division of Scripture (Luke 24:44) into the three classes accepted by the Jews (the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms) endorses the Jewish canon.

  5. To the Jews were committed 'the very words of God' (Romans 3:2) and Christians receive these oracles from them.

OT Apocrypha
During the period c300 BC-AD 100 various Jewish writings in the Greek language were circulated among the Jews, and are called apocrypha. The circumstances of their origin were unclear, but they were regarded as useful works for catechumans and were also read for edification rather much as certain pious books were commonly owned and used by Protestants of an earlier time (eg. Foxe's Book of Martyrs or Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress). Some of these 14 or 15 writings were bound with copies of the Greek translation of the Old Testament made by the Jews c200 BC, and also circulated in the Christian community. In length they are equal to about 20% of the Old Testament.

Patristic and Medieval period
That there was disagreement about the status of these writings from early times is evident in the literature. In the 4th century, Athanasius, Cyril of Jerusalem and Jerome are among those who rejected them as not part of the canon of faith, the latter expressly stating that the Church reads these books 'for example and instruction of manners' but does not 'apply them to establish any doctrine.' Augustine accepted them as did certain local councils (Rome AD 382, Hippo 393, Carthage 397). John of Damascus (675-749), rejected them and is followed by the Larger Catechism of the Eastern Orthodox of 1839. What we can say is that they were canon for edification by all, but not all held them to be canon for faith since not all regarded them as Scripture. But to cut a long story short, what was characteristic of the Middle Ages was, as R. A. Muller says, 'the affirmation of the infallible and sufficient character of Scripture in the context of a rather loosely defined canon'.[2]

Sixteenth Century
Consequently, in the early years of the Reformation Cardinal Cajetan (d. 1534) and Martin Luther (d.1543) are seen to have substantially the same view about the canon. Zwinglian creeds to 1531 (Zwingli's death) do not have a formal article on Scripture, nor does the Lutheran Augsburg Confession (1530).

However, in 1546 the Roman Catholic Council of Trent, which had only about 50 bishops in attendance for the debate, a majority being Franciscans, accepted by majority vote most of the apocryphal books, declaring them to be part of Holy Scripture, equally to be venerated and in all their parts. Trent has been accused, perhaps justly, of being motivated by desire to gain some support for certain practices (eg prayers for the dead, c.f. 2 Macc. 12:45-46), and in general to exalt the authority of the institutional Church. Certain it is that 1546 is the first time a council that purported to be representing the whole church (although the Greeks were not invited and the Protestants were condemned in their absence) defined the canon in an effective way.

The Reformation debate forced the clarification of the books recognised as Scripture.
The decision by Trent was not based on competent evidence but on the fact some Christians used the apocryphal books, and Augustine seems to have regarded them as Scripture (although he did not think others who rejected them, such as Jerome, were heretics). Of course it was easy in the sixteenth century for Rome to say that heretics in the past (such as Marcion) had rejected parts of Scripture, and so also the Protestant heretics.

Trent's decree accepting 11 of the 14 apocryphal writings as inspired Scripture has since been regarded as an infallible pronouncement and anyone 'knowingly and deliberately condemning' it is held to be anathema (excommunicated). This does not give confidence that the historical evidence will get a reasonable hearing by a Tridentine Catholic. Such a one does not need to concern himself about evidence since the church has done the work and spoken infallibly, nor can he knowingly and deliberately adopt a different view without incurring the anathma.

Protestant responses
Trent's decree caused refinement in the Protestant statement of the position. Early post-Tridentine Protestant creeds such as the Belgic Confession (1561) and the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England (1562) still regard the Apocrypha as edifying although not to be used to establish any doctrine, which is pretty much the pre-Reformation position.

Whatever historical arguments may be raised, the crucial issue to the Reformers was the lack of the marks of inspiration: there were fables, errors and false teachings in these books so that faith found no foundation in them. Later, the historical argument was more fully developed. In the Westminster Confession (1646) the Apocrypha is specifically stated to be not inspired and therefore of no more authority than other merely human writings, a statement that is certainly one more in line with the internal and external evidence. It represents a distinct advance and yet is not without its antecedents in the Patristic period (eg. Jerome).

I advance points, additional to those listed in connection with the Old Testament, for the sake of completing the argument.


  1. The apocryphal writings are written in Greek not Hebrew.

  2. One of the most useful of the apocryphal books [1 Maccabees] admits that there was no true prophet at the time (c110 BC) - 1 Macc. 14:41 c.f. 9:27, while 2 Maccabees 15:38 reads in a way no prophet wrote: 'If it [my book] is found well written and aptly composed, that is what I myself hoped for; if cheap and mediocre, I could only do my best' c.f. 2:23-27. The preface to Ecclesiasticus shows the author was simply trying to help people understand the Old Testament. Other aspects of the content are inconsistent with Divine authorship.

  3. The apocryphal writings are never quoted as Scripture in the New Testament.

  4. The Jews did not accept the Apocryphal writings as canonical for faith and it is said that a meeting of rabbis at Jamnia c. A.D. 90 formally rejected them.

  5. Use by the church does not prove acceptance as part of the canon of faith. One may note the inclusion of the Apocrypha in the first edition of the Protestant King James Bible (A.V.) of 1611 even though the Church of England (via her Thirty Nine Articles) did not regard the Apocrypha as part of the canon of faith.

How is it possible for an infallible decision to be made declaring certain books inspired and entitled to equal veneration with the undisputed Old and New Testaments when these books contain clear evidence that they are not from God? Trent's decree was a reactionary decision by a hard-pressed and less than well-informed hierarchy, and is out of step with the previous 1400 years of history. The decision was not in accordance with the evidence, let alone did it have 'the unanimous consent of the fathers' such decrees are supposed to be able to appeal to. It is an example of the fact that more than a claim to infallibility is needed to decide a question of historical evidence. It is also an example of the way in which the undoubted authority of the church has been distorted and misapplied.

Before addressing the question of the church's authority in interpreting and adding to Scripture, perhaps a few words about the New Testament canon would be in order, and may help us later.

New Testament
The books in the NT were progressively circulated from about AD 50 and were recognised as having the same inspired character as the Old Testament. The Protestant position is that the generation which received divine revelation was the best able to know its status. When Peter or Paul were teaching and preaching you didn't need to go to an outside authority; similarly when writings issued from the apostolic circle. These writings were, by virtue of their inspiration authoritative irrespective of the acts of any group of believers in acknowledging them to be so. You don't need to be an historian to recognise this: the internal marks of doctrine testify their inspired character.

Because circulation of some books was less widespread, and because of scruples raised through the misuse of some of them, there was a measure of uncertainty about some of the non-Pauline books in parts of the church for a period. For example, the Muratorian Fragment (c. AD 190) shows that the New Testament as Protestants receive it was accepted at Rome at that date, but there remained dispute over the Revelation of John (the Apocalypse) and over a book ascribed to Peter (probably 2 Peter). The task of the church was simply to bring out the evidence both from the first witnesses and the internal spiritual character, and give a finding accordingly.

The true role of the church
The early Reformers, such as Luther, applied the doctrine test to certain books. In principle Luther was doing what the pre-reformation writers did. He may at times have spoken extravagantly, for example, about the Epistle of James, calling it 'an epistle of straw', but his general stance in a period before the definition of the canon by Roman Catholic or Protestant authorities is not unique.

The church has a role in reference to the canon but it is the role of displaying the evidence and giving an appropriate judgement. I value the clarity attained by Protestants as a result of the 16th and 17th century debates, yet Christendom, both East and West, managed without a uniform understanding of the canonical books for 1,500 years. The collapse of faith was not upon us if a measure of uncertainty had remained, especially given the rather common pre-Reformation position of not appealing to the apocrypha to establish any doctrine. As it is, the church that claims infallibility for its decision on the subject has evidently done so erroneously.

At Trent the relationship between Scripture and the teaching authority of the church was wrong, not just on a simple matter of historical evidence and internal marks of doctrine in ancient writings, but in other matters as well, as we will see.


The Sufficiency of Scripture

By Dr. Rowland Ward

Part 2

From The Presbyterian Banner: August, 1996.

In the previous part we found that the authority of the church is not infallible. Synods and councils may err and the Council of Trent certainly did so when it endorsed the Apocrypha. We now wish to examine the authority of the church more closely.


In the early centuries the church found, as is still the case, that it was not enough to cite Scripture against heretics.

Unfortunately, the Bible proved to be common hunting-ground between the follower of the Gospel and the wildest theosophist or the most perverse misbeliever. Heretics showed that they could be as painstaking in their use of Scripture as the saints; their ingenuity sometimes far exceeded the ingenuity of any orthodox teacher in the surprising interpretations which they set upon it. The fact soon became obvious to any intelligent thinker that the principle of 'the Bible and the Bible only' provides no automatically secure basis for a religion that is to be genuinely Christian. It is both interesting and important to observe how the difficulty was met. First, the original doctrine of tradition by the Apostles to the Church continued to be the ultimate basis of Christian thought. The Bible was reckoned a part, and the principal part, of the apostolic tradition. Secondly, it was firmly insisted that although the tradition was enshrined in the Bible, a process of interpretation was required in order to extract it. Appeal was made, not to the Bible simply, but to the Bible rightly and rationally interpreted.[3]

The orthodox Protestant assessment of this development was not to condemn it out of hand. For example, the use of the term Trinity immediately reminds us we are not using a word found in Scripture. Yet Orthodox Protestants accept the doctrinal conclusions in the Nicene Creed even if they reject some of the speculations held by some of Nicene Fathers. It is an uninformed, sectarian or latitudinarian spirit which mouths the cry, "The Bible, I say, the Bible only is the religion of Protestants."[4] In no case is this a true claim, for every group (Protestant or otherwise) claiming "the Bible only" has its own interpretation. Christians do not wish to quibble over words but they do wish to adhere to the true meaning of Scripture. Hence the necessity and honesty of declaring our understanding of controverted teachings of Scripture in a public Confession of Faith.[5] As Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) put it: "For the Holy Scripture was not given to the church by God to be thoughtlessly repeated but to be understood in all its fulness and richness...."[6]

In short, the genuine and original Protestant position is that the church is bound to be a confessing church - that doesn't mean it has a confessional box but that it subscribes a statement of what it believes Scripture teaches. The original Protestants understood this very well. Hence Lutheran, Presbyterian, Anglican, and early Baptist churches expressed their faith by continuing to accept the so-called Apostles' Creed and by compiling quite lengthy Confessions of Faith. A striking unanimity is found in these confessions, the differences being almost entirely confined to some points on the sacraments, on church government and on the application of Scripture to worship. These Confessions are quite an eloquent rebuttal of the common allegation that the Protestant principle inevitably leads to numerous divergent and competing sects and denominations. Given the recognition that Scripture is the supreme standard the question arises as to how a confessing church can honour the supreme standard if the condition of office is subscription to a Confession of Faith. This is not such a severe tension point in cases where one is not required to accept the whole teaching of the confession as one's own confession, but in these cases one is subject to the dangers adoption of a confession is designed to prevent (idiosyncratic interpretation, doctrinal breadth or heresy under the guise of belief in the Bible), while the church is also seen to be failing to bear witness to all that Christ has commanded.

But taking the case of the strict subscription churches, such as the PCEA, they have every right to remove men who teach against the declared understanding of Scripture. This does not mean that the Confession has become supreme, for the Confession is not co-ordinate with Scripture or above it, nor the primary ground of faith. It is derivative and thus subordinate but yet not opposed to Scripture. It merely seeks to set forth what Scripture teaches on various subjects so as to be a suitable bond of union for those agreed as to the teaching of Scripture. Scripture is the final court of appeal. This is what the Protestant Reformers meant by sola scriptura.

In the Roman church we suppose that the Pope has every right to remove teachers who teach against the Roman faith. However, in the Roman understanding Scripture is not supreme but is held along with oral tradition and the magisterium of the church. The magisterium is not limited to the written Word of God, and in the final analysis to reject the magisterium is the same as rejecting Christ and his Apostles. Seeing that the church, although giving high respect to Scripture, finds the Word of God in oral tradition too, and also claims to be the only sure identifier of it as well as its infallible interpreter, sola scriptura does not apply as a formal principle as it does orthodox Protestant churches.

To resolve the differences between Rome and orthodox Protestants, we have to consider
(a) the relationship of Scripture and the Word of God, and
(b) the way in which authority developed in the Western (Latin) Church.

We should be able to conclude by showing that sola scriptura is the correct formal principle of the church and its proper application will have no more radical consequence than returning the faith and practice of the church to an apostolic simplicity.


(a) The Word of God and Scripture
In the Old Testament period God revealed himself and his will in many different ways - dreams, visions, angelic visitation etc. In the time of Moses (1400 BC) much was given in written form, and subsequent prophets called the people back to faithfulness to God's Word through Moses. In doing so they gave oral teaching and later much of this was reduced to written form. But the existence of the Word of God in oral and written forms does not mean two Words of God. The essence of both is the will of God made known, the teaching of God which for good reasons God now brings to us in written form, the former ways of revealing himself and his will having ceased. Thus, the church may be older than the Scripture (the written Word) but it is not older than the Word of God preached by apostles and prophets who, indeed, are the church's foundation (Eph 2:20). The Word of God is now to be found only in sacred Scripture. We ask the Church of Rome: show us the fragments of oral tradition going back with certainty to the apostles and we will happily observe them. But in fact, this kind of tradition is not what the Roman Catholic church has in practice.

Orthodox Protestants hold that it was God's intention that his Word be reduced to writing, doubtless because of a written form being more effective in preserving the truth. In regard to the Old Testament we see this intention in several ways but we will limit ourselves to the New Testament witness.

1. Writing to the Church at Rome Paul says: 'For everything written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope' (Rom 15:4).

2. To a chiefly Gentile church at Corinth he draws teaching from the Old Testament history affirming: 'These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfilment of the ages has come' (1 Cor 10:11).

So the Old Testament was given by God with us in mind, as the quotations above show; how much more the New Testament! Indeed, the New Testament era is one characterised by further revelation in which the Word of God is being inscripturated. Thus Peter classes Paul's writings with 'the other Scriptures' (2 Pet 3:16). If we accept Augustine's dictum: 'The New is in the Old concealed, the Old is in the New revealed' we can see that the New completes the Old and gives us a completed canon of faith. At the same time we must not under-estimate the New Testament warnings of apostasy, and the signs of this already in the first century (cp. Revelation 2 and 3). This underscores the importance of the Word of God in written form and warns against making even early teaching or practices not warranted by Scripture normative for ourselves.

The Word of God is the highest authority and by its very nature judges all other authorities. Accordingly, God's people are warned about adding to or subtracting from the word of God (Deut 4:2; Rev 22:18-19). The only way we could lawfully add to the Bible was if we had further words from God given for this purpose. As Rome cannot provide evident words from God going back to Christ and his apostles, she resorts to claiming a supposedly infallible authority over Scripture, so as to prevent its proper authority over the church.

(b) The development of tradition
The early post-apostolic church and the church of the Middle Ages constantly assert the doctrinal sufficiency of Scripture. The implication is that Scripture and tradition coincide on this matter. Basil the Great (330-379), writing in AD 375 supposes the sign of the cross, praying to the east, invocation at the Eucharist, anointing with oil, and other baptismal practices are holy mysteries that were guarded from profane curiosity by being passed on by unwritten tradition and which, if they were rejected, would mutilate the Gospel.[7] Writing with somewhat greater soberness in about the year AD 379 Jerome states:

Don't you know that the laying on of hands after baptism and then the invocation of the Holy Spirit is a custom of the Churches? Do you demand Scripture proof? You may find it in the Acts of the Apostles. And even if it did not rest upon the authority of Scripture the consensus of the whole world in this respect would have the force of a command. For many other observances of the Churches, which are due to tradition, have acquired the authority of the written law, as for instance the practice of dipping the head three times in the laver, and then, after leaving the water, of tasting mingled milk and honey in representation of infancy.[8]

This quotation indicates that it was recognised that certain practices had not originated with the Apostles but which had acquired authority over time. Tradition is not necessarily bad. Scripture speaks of holding fast to apostolic traditions, verbal or written (2 Thess 2:15). But here we have non-apostolic traditions - what we might term ecclesiastical traditions. Not all of them are bad either. And of course we should agree with the Westminster Confession (1646):

We also acknowledge that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God and the government of the church, circumstances common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by natural intelligence and Christian prudence, but always in line with the general rules of God's word.[9]

But the Protestant Reformers saw that ecclesiastical traditions can come to be regarded as more important than Scripture or even to misinterpret and misapply Scripture, a tendency evident already in the quotations from the two eminent Doctors of the Church given above. The Protestant Reformers always wanted to call the Church back to the text of Scripture and its proper meaning in order that no wrong tradition obscure the pure Word of God.

Further, those of the Calvinistic or Reformed persuasion, held:

God alone is Lord of the conscience. He has justify it free from all doctrines or human commandments which are contrary to his word, or which, if matters of faith or worship, are additional to that word. One who believes such doctrines or obeys such commands for the sake of conscience betrays true liberty of conscience. Moreover, to require an unquestioning faith in something not established out of the word of God, or to require total and blind obedience, is destructive of liberty of conscience and the proper use of reason as well.[10]

Of recent years we have seen much greater interest in Biblical exegesis by Roman Catholics. In much of this writing the text of Scripture is expounded in a manner acceptable to Protestant scholars but at the same time is harmonised with what the church acknowledges as its authoritative tradition by the assumption that Sacred Tradition is not a strict interpretation of Sacred Scripture.[11] In short, the dogmas as understood in Sacred Tradition according to the interpretation of the church are what bind, rather than the teaching of Sacred Scripture itself. The claim of some Roman Catholics, that all doctrine is in some way in Scripture (material sufficiency) means very little in practice: it's something of a smokescreen to make the case seem better than it is.

(c) A case study with application
In bringing everything to the touchstone of sacred Scripture the orthodox Protestants were only following Biblical example. The Jewish experience is instructive. The Old Testament prophets constantly called the people to faithfulness to the Word of God. The party of the Pharisees seems to have had its origin after the return from exile in Ezra's time in the pious desire to ensure that the Jews would experience no further national judgements because of unfaithfulness to the Lord. They carefully built up interpretations of Scripture that they might follow it strictly. But in the course of time these interpretations obscured the true meaning of God's Word, and they also came to have precedence over it. They made the Word of God of no effect through their traditions (Matt 15:6).

Over against what the scribes and elders taught, Jesus set the true meaning of Scripture in his Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5 to 7). Despite the fact that the Pharisees were not rationalists and sceptics as the Sadducees were, and so upheld orthodox doctrines such as the resurrection of the dead, Jesus utters most severe rebukes against these 'blind leaders of the blind', as he called them (Matt 15:14). It was not the number of correct doctrines they held but the importance of those they rejected, and particularly the fact they sought to establish their own righteousness and did not submit to the righteousness of God (Rom 10:3). If Jesus said to the Sadducees, 'You err, not knowing the Scripture or the power of God', he applied Isaiah 29:13 to the Pharisees: 'In vain do they worship teaching for doctrines the commandments of men' (Matt 15:9), and he said in this context, 'Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up' (Matt 15:13). Instead of accepting Christ's rebukes (note also Matthew 25), by and large the leaders of the Jewish church rejected him, and ultimately put him to death and persecuted his followers.

The application in later times is very obvious. Almost inevitably one sees traditions growing up that ultimately deserve a rebuke like that given to the Jewish religious leaders by our Lord. Today, evangelical Protestants have traditions that need to be rooted out, for we all have the tendency to want to play Pope. In the 16th century the very heart of the Gospel was at stake. In the same way as the Jewish religious leaders, the Church of Rome refused to acknowledge that there was need for radical reform to remove the accretions of centuries, and sought to silence criticism in several quite inadequate ways - including reviving the Roman Inquisition.


The Sufficiency of Scripture

By Dr. Rowland Ward

Part 3

From The Presbyterian Banner: September, 1996.

In the first part we found that the authority of the church is not infallible. Synods and councils may err and the Council of Trent certainly did so when it endorsed the Apocrypha. We now wish to examine the authority of the church more closely.

In the second part we considered the relationship of Scripture and the Word of God, and the way authority developed in the Western (Latin) Church. God intended his originally spoken Word to be reduced to writing, and to be the norm of all teaching. The Church progressively departed from Scripture and made it of no effect through its human traditionms. The position of the Jewish leaders in the time of Christ is a parallel case.

The Church of Rome sought to counter criticism in several inadequate ways.

1. by reactionary findings that threw the correct relationship between the Scripture, tradition and the church's authority quite out of balance.

In a manner which, for its audacity, takes the breath away, the Council of Trent decreed:
a. in doctrine the church stands on Scripture as well as sacred tradition;
b. the Apocrypha is fully inspired Scripture;
c. no version (even in Greek or Hebrew) is authentic other than the Latin Vulgate translation;
d. the church claims the right of final interpretation of Scripture which cannot be interpreted other than in ways she approves.

2. by merely cosmetic changes, such as correction of the worst abuses about indulgences.

3. by employing coercive methods to regain those lost to the Reformation.

I forbear to speak of the Inquisition and the like except to note that the kind of spirit in the Vatican at this time is evident in Pope Gregory III's commendation of the French King for the massacre of upwards of 20,000 Protestants on St Bartholomew's Day 1572, as a display of 'the most splendid virtues which can shine in the exercise of power.'

Essentially, nothing was changed by Vatican I, noted for the Infallibility Decree (1870), or by Vatican II (1962-65), noted for its cosmetic corrections, except that coercive methods of the more physical kind are not able to be implemented. Without the co-ercive factor, and given the greater freedom of inquiry and exchange of ideas, it is becoming difficult to hold Rome together.

I am a supporter of a pro-life position in the abortion debate but I advocate that position because the Bible teaches it, not because the Pope teaches it. Similarly, when we come to the authority of Scripture I have to ask the question, does my Roman Catholic opponent really believe the Scripture to be authoritative in itself as the Word of God? For if the Scripture is the Word of God it must bear clear marks of its divine authorship, and our belief in its divinity cannot be suspended on the church's testimony.

And the same evidences which show the Scripture to be God's Word also prove it to be authoritative over our lives. Ultimately, then, mere rational argument is not enough. We need the gracious visitation of God's Spirit to illumine our minds and renew our wills and to bring us to know the wonderful liberty of being subject to the total Word of God. Flesh and blood does not reveal this to us but our Father in heaven.

The human heart is not naturally anxious to heed God's Word but always wants to make it more palatable and accommodating to human sinfulness. To speak where Scripture is silent or to add to Scripture in matters of faith or worship is to impugn the wisdom of God, and to set ourselves on a perilous path.



[1] The citation is from the English text edited by Austin Flannery.
[2] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids 1993) 56-57.
[3] G. L. Prestige, Fathers and Heretics (London 1940) 14.
[4] William Chillingworth (1602-44), Anglican latitudinarian scholar, was the populariser of the phrase in his The Religion of Protestants a Sure Way to Salvation (London 1638) i., ch. vi., 56.
[5] Cf. J. Calvin, Institutes, I. xiii. 3-5.
[6] H. Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith (Grand Rapids 1956) 157.
[7] See Basil's On the Holy Spirit, 27, and the citation in the Eastern Orthodox Longer Catechism of 1839, Q. 24, in P. Schaff, Creeds of Christendom (Grand Rapids 1983) 2:449-450.
[8] Against the Luciferians, 8; citation from the NPNF edition.
[9] WCF 1:6 cited from my Westminster Confession and Catechisms in Modern English (Melbourne 1996).
[10] WCF 20:2
[11] Note the discussion by S. B. Ferguson in D. Kistler (ed), Sola Scriptura: The Protestant Position on the Bible (Morgan, Pa., 1985) 184-220, particularly with reference to Joseph A. Fitzmeyer, Romans (New York 1994).

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