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  • Writer's pictureJohn Pacheco

Sola Scriptura Dance

Catholic apologists are quite familiar with "the dance".  An Evangelical Protestant "Bible-alone" believer will accuse the Catholic Church of contradicting what the Bible "clearly" teaches, and of following the "traditions of men" rather than the the bible only.  Catholic Apologist Mark Bonocore takes a look at the Protestant psychological raison d'etre; the nature of what a Catholic apologist is really dealing with.


<< Has anyone else noticed that, after Mr Madrid in 1993 so effectively dealt with his "Biblical" arguments for "sola scriptura" that the man has decided to change tactics? >>


Not to defend White, but I think he has been pretty consistent on his defense of sola scriptura (consistently wrong). He's used the same old quotes from St. Athanasius since about 1992 (I don't have his 1990 first debate with Matatics, apparently the tapes are lost). And his 1996 book RC Controversy does lay out "what is" and "what is not" SS I think fairly well.


I see the major changes in this "debate" as these:

Since 1993 or so Catholic Answers and Catholic apologists following them have made the distinction between "material" and "formal" sufficiency. This appeared first in Keating/Madrid's Aug 1993 "World Youth Day" debate with Jackson/Nemec, then in Madrid's Sept 1993 debate with White, then in the pages of This Rock Oct 1993 in that "White Man's Burden" article, in a side bar by James (Jimmy) Akin. Before this time there was no "material" or "formal" sufficiency distinction ever brought up in popular Catholic apologetics, although it was explained by Yves Congar's Tradition and Traditions in the 1960s. Professional Catholic theologians have known this distinction, and I think it is a fair one if you read Congar and his sections on the Fathers.


However, the "material/formal" distinction is not found in Keating's 1988 classic Catholicism and Fundamentalism (for example). So since 1993 or so, Catholic apologists have placed an extra burden on Protestants to defend not just "material" but "formal" sufficiency. We can agree all Catholic doctrines are found in Scripture at least implicitly.

Then in 1997 White began admitting the Scriptures indeed do not teach sola scriptura since the doctrine is not applicable to the apostolic age. He did this first in his article on the "Bereans and Sola Scriptura" in reply to Steve Ray :

"...the doctrine [of sola scriptura] speaks of a rule of faith that exists. What do I mean by this? ...You will never find anyone saying, 'During times of enscripturation -- that is, when new revelation was being given -- sola scriptura was operational.' Protestants do not assert that sola scriptura is a valid concept during times of revelation. How could it be, since the rule of faith to which it points was at that very time coming into being? One must have an existing rule of faith to say it is 'sufficient.' It is a canard to point to times of revelation and say, 'See, sola scriptura doesn't work there!' Of course it doesn't. Who said it did?"

Then in White's (W) debate with Matatics (M) the same year (the Great Debate II):


M: Did the people in Jesus' day practice sola scriptura? The hearers of our Lord, Yes or No, Mr. White. W: I have said over, and over, and over again, that sola scriptura -- M: It's a Yes or No. W: -- is a doctrine that speaks to the normative condition of the church, not to times of enscripturation. M: So your answer is No? W: That is exactly what my answer is. M: Thank you. W: It is no. M: Did the apostles practice sola scriptura, Mr. White? Yes or No? W: No. M: Thank you.


But we can forget White and go to the source: George Salmon's Infallibility of the Church if you want a strong anti-Catholic argument from a Protestant (Anglican). All of White's arguments on the Papacy (the Peter quotes from "Maldonatus" and "Launoy", statements about Pius IX and Vatican I, history of the early papacy, Clement, Irenaeus, Cyprian, etc), and many of his arguments against "tradition" come from this old book (orig 1888). I haven't owned it but have checked it out a couple times, and just recently ordered it (I think 1953 edition) through an online used bookseller (Abebooks). Also getting B.C. Butler's reply The Church and Infallibility since I only have that in photocopy form. Virtually all of White's stuff on sola scriptura and the Papacy are dealt with by these two authors in detailed scholarly fashion.


Protestant Apologist

BTW, if you want White's most recent defense of sola scriptura, you'll want to get his book

Scripture Alone (2004). At this point, White had debated the issue formally at least 6 times if I'm counting right (Matatics 1990, Matatics 1992, Madrid 1993, Staples 1996, Matatics 1997, Pacwa 2000). So we can assume this is his best current shot.

Or maybe you can find the book at a garage sale for $.02 as Dave Armstrong likes to say, but I doubt it.

James White's "God Breathed" Argument


<< One of James White's arguments for sola scriptura is that in 2 Timothy 3:16 it refers to scripture as "God Breathed." and according to him, since the church, and sacred tradition, are not called God Breathed in scripture, therefore he concludes that only scripture is God Breathed. But the problem with this is that the church IS called God Breathed: "(Jesus) said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the holy Spirit." (John 20:21-22). Here we see Jesus (who is God) breathing on the disciples and commissioning them. It is at this point that we believe that the church officially began and christ is breathing into the apostles his own authority. >>


"God Breathed" Tradition

I've already quoted these:

"Contrary to persistent charges by Roman apologists, Protestant Evangelicals do affirm the binding authority of apostolic tradition as delivered by the apostles. What they preached and taught in the first century Church was authoritatively binding on the consciences of all Christians....To be sure, all special revelation given by God is authoritative and binding. There can be no doubt that the oral teaching of the apostles and their approved representatives was both (1 Thess 2:13)." (David King, Holy Scripture [2001] volume 1, page 55,145) "Let it be stated as clearly as possible: Protestants do not deny that the oral teaching of the apostles was authoritative, inerrant truth, binding as a rule of faith on those who heard it....the apostolic message...was as inspired and infallible and true as Scripture itself....So the written words of Scripture are binding. Apostolic preaching was equally binding for those who heard it from the apostles' own mouths." (John MacArthur in Don Kistler Sola Scriptura!, page 171,178,182)

And more:

"The Old Testament believer was under the authority of the revealed word carried to the prophet by the Holy Spirit -- whether oral or written....the divinely revealed and therefore authoritative word is presented to the world through the spoken or written word of the Spirit-inspired prophet" (The Pattern of Religious Authority by Bernard Ramm [Eerdmans, 1965], page 27,28). "Some New Testament documents were evidently designed from the outset to be written compositions, not substitutes for the spoken word. But in the lifetime of the apostles and their colleagues their spoken words and their written words were equally authoritative....The teaching and example of the Lord and his apostles, whether conveyed by word of mouth or in writing, had axiomatic authority for [the earliest Christians]...." (The Canon of Scripture by F.F. Bruce [InterVarsity, 1988], page 118, 255).

So the oral preaching, oral teaching, oral tradition of the apostles was just as inspired, just as authoritative, just as much the Word of God as Scripture (cf. 1 Cor 2:4,7,13; 1 Thess 2:13; 1 Peter 1:25; 2 Peter 1:19ff; 3:15f; 2 Tim 3:15ff; 2 Thess 2:15; etc). The argument from "sola scriptura" Evangelicals is not that this "oral teaching" is not God-breathed, but that we have:

  • somehow "lost" that oral apostolic tradition and/or cannot have access to it now

  • or it was completely subsumed into the written.

Material sufficiency partially agrees with this saying all doctrines are contained in Scripture (at least implicitly), but also all doctrines are contained in tradition.

material / formal distinction


BTW, let me reply to David King a little bit from the NTRMin.org, yeah I check that pretty much dead board occasionally. What I meant about "material sufficiency" being new to popular Catholic apologetics is true. Before 1993 I am not aware of popular apologists using this material/formal distinction. Folks like Fulton J. Sheen (apologist of the 1950s, 60s), Frank Sheed (Catholic Evidence Guild of the 1930s, 40s, 50s), the "Radio Replies" priests (of the 1930s, 40s), and even later Keating's Catholicism and Fundamentalism (1988) didn't use this "material" and "formal" sufficiency distinction in arguing with Protestants. The material/formal distinction was revived in popular apologetics first with that Oct 1993 issue of This Rock, and the Aug and Sept 1993 debates of Keating/Madrid, and Madrid vs. White.

I mentioned professional theologians (such as Congar in the 1960s) have made such distinctions (King brings up some theologian from an earlier period who said similar things). Cardinal Newman (who I call a professional theologian and historian) of the 19th century was also aware of such distinctions and affirmed a material sufficiency. But popular apologists (Sheed, Sheen, Keating, et al) of the 20th century as far as I'm aware did not use such language (until 1993).

Yves Congar on specific traditions in the Fathers


Since this is a "James White" thread:

White to me, claim: << So, don't you think it is rather odd that in all that verbiage, we can never find anyplace where Congar gives us the actual content of this wonderfully nebulous thing called "tradition"? >>


RESPONSE: From Tradition and Traditions: An Historical and a Theological Essay (1967) by Yves M.-J. Congar, O.P. The content of the traditions mentioned by the Fathers are given in Chapter 2: "The Fathers and the Early Church" in Part (C) "Examples of Unwritten Apostolic Traditions cited by Catholic Writers", pages 50ff.

  • St. Irenaeus -- the paschal fast (Frag 3, Eusebius HE V:24;12-17, PG 7:1229ff), also in a footnote the custom of praying standing on Sundays and from Easter to Pentecost (PG 6:1364).

  • Tertullian -- rule against soldiers wearing the military wreath, by an ancient tradition (De Corona 3-4, PL 3:78); then he widens the question and gives further examples of unwritten traditions: the customs involved with baptism, eucharist, prayers/sacrifice for the dead, practices of fasting/kneeling, and the Sign: "Whatever we do, whether on a journey or just making a visit, coming in or going out, putting on our shoes, washing, sitting down to a meal, attending to the lights, lying down, sitting down, or anything we do: we mark our foreheads with the Sign of the Cross." (ibid)

  • Origen -- infant baptism (In Levit Hom VIII:3, PG 12:496 and In Epis ad Rom V:8-9, PG 14:1038,1047B); praying on the knees and facing towards the east, and eucharistic and baptismal rites (In Num Hom V:1, PG 12:603C)

  • St. Clement of Alexandria -- he "assumes doctrines can constitute the object of a completely oral tradition," etc.

  • St. Dionysius of Alexandria -- the keeping of Sunday (Ad Basilidem).

  • Pope Stephen -- the validity of baptism conferred by heretics (in St. Cyprian, Ep 75:6, 85:5).

  • St. Cyprian of Carthage -- connects usage followed by our Lord of the offering of a chalice of wine mixed with water (Ep 63:9-13, PL 4:380-3), and backs it up with scriptural allusions; he considers a rule according to which a bishop must be elected in the presence of people in the assembly of the bishops of the province as "de traditione divina et apostolica observatione" (Ep 67:5, PL 3:1027).

  • St. Basil the Great -- dealing with the theology of the Holy Spirit, says he is collecting the ideas of Scripture and of the unwritten tradition of the Fathers (De Spiritu Sancto 9:22; PG 32:105A); in the phrase "WITH the Holy Spirit" he appeals to an unwritten part of the apostolic witness and justifies this appeal as legitimate by invoking the existence of unwritten customs of unquestioned authority (ibid 27:66, PG 32:188).

  • St. Epiphanius of Salamis -- prohibition of marriage after a vow of virginity; fasting on Wed and Fri (Panarion Haer 66:6, PG 41:1047; and ibid 75:7, PG 42:542-3).

  • St. John Chrysostom -- prayer for the dead (In Epis ad Phil Hom 3:4, PG 62:203-4)

  • St. Jerome -- invokes an apostolic origin not only for the imposition of hands, together with the invocation of the Holy Spirit, after baptism (one could appeal to Acts), but also for the triple baptismal immersion, the giving of milk and honey to the newly baptized, and the practice of kneeling or fasting during Paschaltide (Dial adv Luc 8, PL 23:172).

  • Pope Innocent I -- in his letter to Decentius, bishop of Gubbio, invites Churches of the West, supposed to have been founded by the apostle Peter or his successors, to align themselves with the usages transmitted (tradition) to the Roman Church by the prince of the apostles (Ep 25, PL 20:551).

  • St. Augustine -- at a very early date, infant baptism as an apostolic tradition, but also with a biblical argument using the examples of the Holy Innocents or circumcision (De Genesi ad Litt 10:23:39, PL 34:426; De Bapt c. Don 4:24:31, PL 43:174; ibid 5:23:31); an apostolic tradition of not rebaptizing heretics on their reconciliation with the Church (De Bapt c. Don 2:7:12, PL 43:133); and a number of liturgical customs which he believed to be universal: rites at baptism (aspersion, exorcisms, insufflation), etc. "His criterion for determining an apostolic tradition is, at least after the Donatist controversy, the evidence of the spread and universal acceptance of matters not found or expressed in Scripture or determined by plenary councils." (Congar, see Augustine, De Bapt, and Ep 54)

Summary of the teaching of the Church Fathers on Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium from Yves Congar, Tradition and Traditions:

  1. The true Catholic Faith and true interpretation of the Scriptures is found only in the Church which is bound up with the succession of its ministers -- its bishops succeeding the authority of the apostles;

  2. The "rule of faith" or "rule of truth" was not the whole of Tradition; it may be the principal part, but there are other things transmitted from the apostles by tradition: rules of conduct, custom, ways of doing things, on behavior, practice, on worship and liturgy, see the 'teachings' listed above by Congar, etc.

  3. The content of tradition consisted "materially" of the Scriptures, but "formally" of the Faith of the Catholic Church, its reading of the Scriptures in the Creed, etc; the mere text of Scripture alone was insufficient; heretics also quoted Scripture but they did not read that Scripture in the context of the Tradition or the orthodox Faith of the Catholic Church;

  4. The Catholic Church alone has received the apostolic deposit of truth, for in her the Holy Spirit of truth lives (John 14:16f; 16:13f); the Church alone is the sole inheritor of the true Christian teaching from God through Christ to the Apostles;

  5. This Tradition -- the Church's Tradition -- is itself oral; and if there were no NT Scriptures it would have been sufficient for the Church to follow "the order of tradition" received from the apostles; in the minds of the early Christians it made no difference if the transmission was purely oral since there was an assured connection to the apostles through the Churches founded by the apostles to guarantee authenticity;

  6. Scripture was everything for the Fathers, and Tradition was everything also;

  7. What was the nature of the Church of the Fathers? It was one universal visible Church ruled by a hierarchy of bishops, presbyters/priests, deacons, etc in succession from the apostles;

  8. The entire activity of the Fathers demonstrates that they united three terms that were separated and set in opposition by the controversies of the 16th century -- these three terms were Scripture, Tradition, and Church; it was always affirmed that Scripture is the rule and norm of faith only when conjoined to the Church and her Tradition;

  9. Hence, the Scriptures were never considered by the Fathers as formally "sufficient" or exclusive.

Early church fathers believed in sola scriptura? Summary from Protestant historians/scholars, Philip Schaff (Presbyterian/Reformed), JND Kelly (Anglican), and Jaroslav Pelikan (Lutheran/Orthodox):

Philip Schaff, Presbyterian/Reformed, History of the Christian Church --

"The church view respecting the sources of Christian theology and the rule of faith and practice remains as it was in the previous period, except that it is further developed in particulars. The divine Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as opposed to human writings; AND the ORAL TRADITION or LIVING FAITH of the catholic church from the apostles down, as opposed to the varying opinions of heretical sects -- TOGETHER FORM THE ONE INFALLIBLE SOURCE AND RULE OF FAITH. BOTH are vehicles of the same substance: the saving revelation of God in Christ; with this difference in form and office, that the church tradition determines the canon, furnishes the KEY TO THE TRUE INTERPRETATION of the Scriptures, and guards them against heretical abuse." (volume 3, page 606)

JND Kelly, Anglican, Early Christian Doctrines --

"It should be unnecessary to accumulate further evidence. Throughout the whole period Scripture AND tradition ranked as complementary authorities, media different in form but coincident in content. To inquire which counted as superior or more ultimate is to pose the question in misleading and anachronistic terms. If Scripture was abundantly sufficient in principle, tradition was recognized as the SUREST CLUE TO ITS INTERPRETATION, for in TRADITION the Church retained, as a legacy from the apostles which was embedded in all the organs of her institutional life, an UNERRING GRASP of the real purport and MEANING of the revelation to which Scripture AND tradition alike bore witness." (page 47-48) "Thus in the end the Christian must, like Timothy [cf. 1 Tim 6:20] 'guard the deposit', i.e. the revelation enshrined in its completeness in Holy Scripture and CORRECTLY interpreted in the Church's UNERRING tradition." (page 51)

Jaroslav Pelikan, Lutheran (now Orthodox), The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine --

"The catholic response to this claim [of the Gnostics], formulated more fully by Irenaeus than by any other Christian writer, was to appeal to 'that tradition which is derived from the apostles.' Unlike the Gnostic tradition, however, this apostolic tradition had been preserved publicly in the churches that stood in succession with the apostles....Together with the proper interpretation of the Old Testament and the proper canon of the New, this tradition of the church was a decisive criterion of apostolic continuity for the determination of doctrine in the church catholic. Clearly it is an anachronism to superimpose upon the discussions of the second and third centuries categories derived from the controversies over the relation of Scripture and tradition in the sixteenth century, for 'in the ante-Nicene Church...THERE WAS NO NOTION OF SOLA SCRIPTURA, but neither was there a doctrine of traditio sola.'...So palpable was this apostolic tradition that even if the apostles had not left behind the Scriptures to serve as normative evidence of their doctrine, the church would still be in a position to follow 'the structure of the tradition which they handed on to those to whom they committed the church.' This was, in fact, what the church was doing in those barbarian territories where believers did not have access to the written deposit, but still carefully guarded the ancient tradition of the apostles, summarized in the creed -- or, at least, in a very creedlike statement of the content of apostolic tradition....The term 'rule of faith' or 'rule of truth' did not always refer to such creeds and confessions, and seems sometimes to have meant the 'tradition,' sometimes the Scriptures, sometimes the message of the gospel." (volume 1, page 115-117) "Fundamental to the orthodox consensus was an affirmation of the authority of tradition as that which had been believed 'everywhere, always, by all [ubique, semper, ab omnibus].' The criteria for what constituted the orthodox tradition were 'universality, antiquity, and consensus.' This definition of orthodox Catholic tradition was the work of Vincent of Lerins... To identify orthodox doctrine, one had to identify its locus, which was the catholic church, neither Eastern nor Western, neither Greek nor Latin, but universal throughout the civilized world (oikoumene). This church was the repository of truth, the dispenser of grace, the guarantee of salvation, the matrix of acceptable worship. Only here did God accept sacrifices, only here was there confident intercession for those who were in error, only here were good works fruitful, only here did the powerful bond of love hold men together and 'only from the catholic church does truth shine forth.'...[It was] the tendency of heretics to teach doctrines that were not contained either in Scripture or in tradition. But the church of the four Gospels and the four councils [Nicea, Constantinople, Ephesus, Chalcedon] was faithful to Scripture and to tradition and was universal both in its outreach and in its authority." (volume 1, page 334-335)

Case closed (whether I read these quotes aloud on the "Dividing Line" or not). :-)


Mark Bonocore

June 1, 2004

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