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A Catholic investigation into the Protestant doctrine of formal sufficiency of Scripture.

Lino Serrano



Before we get too far into this study lets answer a single question, what is Sola Scriptura? Simply stated, Sola Scriptura is the Protestant Reformation doctrine that scripture alone (sola scriptura) is the only necessary and authoritative means of divine revelation, for Christians to live by and from which to develop doctrine. In other words, "if it isn't in the Bible, then I don't believe it". Therefore the Bible alone is the sole authority for faith and morals, and is completely (exclusively) sufficient within itself to lead a person to salvation. This belief in the absolute sufficiency of Scripture is known as formal sufficiency.

Catholic Christians however believe that Scripture and oral Apostolic Tradition are the core sources of divine revelation (the deposit of faith), as well as an infallible (without error) teaching office (Magesterium) that provides Christians the infallible interpretation of the Scriptures. Catholics believe that Scripture contains the inspired Word of God and therefore contains within itself all of the elements for Christian doctrine, whether revealed explicitly or implicitly. This belief is known as material sufficiency.

In this study we will delve into the history of Sola Scriptura or formal sufficiency of Scripture, and determine it's major problems, namely that the doctrine itself is unbiblical, unhistorical, impractical, and breeds schism (division). We will then look into the Catholic doctrine on Scripture and Authority.

Historical background

John Wyclif - (1320-84)

When we think of the Protestant Reformation, the name Martin Luther usually comes to mind. We assume since this is when the split between Protestants and Catholics formally happened, that he is the originator of the doctrines that we often associate with Protestantism. Actually to be more accurate, the person from whom many of the Protestant doctrines originate was John Wyclif. John Wyclif was a Catholic priest in England and taught theology. He began to teach false doctrines that were later to be championed by the German reformers John Huss in the 15th century and then later Martin Luther in the 16th century. One such doctrine was sola scriptura.

Historian William Durant writes, "Nevertheless he [John Wyclif] continued his pamphleteering against the Church, and organized a body of 'Poor Preaching Priests' to spread his Reformation among the people...Theirs was already the Protestant emphasis on an infallible Bible against the fallible traditions of the Church...And since he urged a return to the Christianity of the New Testament, he set himself and his aides to translate the Bible as the sole and unerring guide to true religion." John Wyclif's "pamphlets" not only spread among the people in England, but they also spread on the mainland, especially in Germany.

John Huss - (1369-1415)

John Huss was a Catholic Priest in Germany, who under the influence of John Wyclif's writings (that were smuggled into Germany by German students who traveled to England to be educated) began to teach these errors to his students. His teaching became known to the Church which had convened a council in 1414 at Constance to, among other things, condemn the errors of Wyclif which were being perpetuated by Huss.

At his defense at the Council of Constance, Huss was asked to recant his heretical teachings, but refused. "When confronted with extracts from his book, On the Church, he expressed his willingness to recant such as could be refuted from Scripture (precisely the position taken by Luther at Worms)". In the end he refused to recant all of his teachings and was condemned by the council to burn at the stake for heresy. By decree of the same council, the bones of John Wyclif (who died in 1384) were dug up and cast into a nearby stream.

Martin Luther - (1483 - 1546)

To give a comprehensive account of the life and teachings of Martin Luther is beyond the scope of this study. Suffice it to say, Martin Luther not only accepted most of the teachings of both Wyclif and Huss, but Sola Scriptura was one teaching he championed for his revolution against the Catholic Church.

In 1517 Luther posted 95 theses against Indulgences on the church door in Wittenberg. These 95 theses were written against Indulgences that were illicitly being sold by Johann Tetzel. Luther issued a challenge to debate these theses with anyone interested. After being summoned to Rome by Pope Leo X on account of his writings, especially in his tract Resolutiones where he equated Rome with Babylon (i.e. Rev. 17), he refused and was protected by the German prince Max. It wasn't until the Diet of Worms was convened in 1521 that Luther showed his true colors. The Emperor Charles V himself presided over the deliberations. When asked by his prosecutor, Johann Eck, to refute his heretical teachings, including Sola Scriptura, Luther refused and agreed to retract only those that should be proved contrary to Scripture.

To this Eck answered,

"Martin, your plea to be heard from Scripture is the one always made by heretics. You do nothing but renew the errors of Wyclif and Huss...How can you assume that you are the only one to understand the sense of Scripture? Would you put your judgment above that of so many famous men and claim that you know more than all of them? You have no right to call into question the most holy orthodox faith, instituted by Christ the perfect Lawgiver, proclaimed throughout the world by the Apostles, sealed by the red blood of martyrs, confirmed by the sacred councils, and defined by the Church...and which we are forbidden by the Pope and the Emperor to discuss, lest there be no end to debate. I ask you, Martin- answer candidly and without distinctions- do you or do you not repudiate your books and the errors which they contain?"

Luther replied to Eck,

"Since your Majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without distinctions...Unless I am convicted by the testimony of Sacred Scripture or by evident reason (I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other), my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against my conscience is neither right or safe. God help me. Amen."

At this the Emperor halted the proceedings by saying, "It is enough; since he has denied councils, we wish to hear no more." The emperor believed that if everyone were allowed to interpret Scripture and to accept or reject both civil and ecclesiastical decrees according to private judgment and conscience, it would soon erode the very foundation of social order. On April 19, 1521 he convened his leading princes and presented them with his declaration of faith,

"I am descended from a long line of Christian emperors of this noble German nation, of the Catholic kings of Spain, and the archdukes of Austria, and the dukes of Burgundy. They were all faithful to the death to the Church of Rome, and they defended the Catholic faith and the honor of God. I have resolved to follow in their steps. A single friar who goes counter to Christianity for a thousand years must be wrong. Therefore I am resolved to stake my lands, my friends, my body, my blood, my life, and my soul...After having heard yesterday the obstinate defense of Luther, I regret that I have so long delayed in proceeding against him. He may return under his safe-conduct, but without preaching or making any tumult. I will proceed against him as a notorious heretic, and I ask you to declare yourselves as you promised me."

The rest is history. Martin Luther did indeed continue with his preaching against the Catholic Church and the great western schism was born and lasts to this very day. Martin Luther went on to translate the Bible into German. This translation was filled with mistranslations that fit with his theology of Justification by Faith Alone (sola fide).

This translation also had the deuterocanonical books placed in an index at the end of the Old Testament without page numbers since some of the books had references to prayer to the dead, which went against Luther's theology. Some of the New Testament books were relegated to a lower canonical standing than the rest. This included the book of James that Luther considered the "epistle of straw" since it taught that faith without good works was dead. With the power to make the Scriptures mean what he wanted, he was able to consolidate his heresy among his supporters by insisting that his version of the Bible was authoritative for theological use for determining doctrine based on private judgment rather than ecclesiastical authority. Thus began the practical declaration of Sola Scriptura as part of the Reformation.

Sola Scriptura is un-biblical

In order for scripture to be formally sufficient for all matters of faith and morals, the doctrine itself needs to be taught somewhere in the Bible. And done so in a way that makes it perfectly clear that the written Word of God is the sole and exclusive arbitrator for questions concerning the faith and practice of Christian life. If it isn't, then it is merely a human theory (rather than a binding principle) that would consequently have had an effect on Christianity throughout the centuries. Therefore the burden of proof is on the Protestant apologist to prove, solely from scripture, the principle of formal sufficiency of scripture. These are the scriptures that are used most often by Protestants apologists to justify their belief in Sola Scriptura: 2 Tim. 3:16-17, Acts 17:11, 1 Cor. 4:6, Mark 7:5-13. For the sake of brevity let's investigate two of these scripture texts.

2 Tim. 3:16-17 - "All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work." Protestants claim that since scripture is "inspired" (literally meaning God breathed) it must therefore be formally sufficient since it is the inspired Word of God and not traditions of men. First off all lets recall that at the time that St. Paul was writing his letter to St. Timothy that the only recognized scripture was the Old Testament. This reasoning begs the question, if the Old Testament books are formally sufficient for faith and morals then why do Protestants have the New Testament books in their Bibles? St. Paul even states in verses 14 and 15, "But you remain faithful to what you have learned and believed, because you know from whom you learned it, and that from infancy you have known [the] sacred scriptures (the Old Testament), which are capable of giving you wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus." If this verse is to be used to demonstrate that sacred scripture is formally sufficient for "wisdom for salvation" then why did Christ commission his disciples to "make disciples of all nations" and "teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you."? (St. Matt 28:19-20) This great commission would be unnecessary since the Old Testament would have been formally sufficient to provide this "wisdom for salvation." Therefore nullifying the need for the teaching authority of the Apostles. But it appears that this verse actually teaches the Catholic doctrine of material sufficiency, meaning that St. Paul is merely instructing St. Timothy to recognize the fact that the Old Testament contains the material or substantial proof of the revelation of Jesus Christ as the Son of God. This has been corroborated by the teaching authority (Magesterium) of the Apostles themselves. That is exactly what he means when he says in verse 14 "But you, remain faithful to what you have learned and believed, because you know from whom you learned it,". In other words Timothy learned and believed, not because he read the Old Testament scriptures, but because he believed the teaching of the Apostles and these teachings (oral) he recognized as the fulfillment in the Old Testament scriptures. The Apostolic teaching was still necessary because the Old Testament wasn't formally sufficient to reveal Christ by itself (or else all of the Jews would have recognized Him as the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 instead of the warrior king that they expected). The Christian believes in Jesus Christ because of whom they learned from: the Apostles and their successors. There are two other very good examples of this. In Acts 17:10-12, the Berean Jews were considered "fair minded" because they were receptive to the teaching authority of Sts. Paul and Silas (unlike the Jews of Thessalonica Acts 17:1-9). And they verified and ultimately believed this teaching about Jesus by examining the scriptures and accepting the Apostolic teaching. Also in Acts 8: 26-39, St. Philip taught the Ethiopian eunuch about Jesus Christ's fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah. Both the Berean Jews and the Ethiopian eunuch became believers, not by Sola Scriptura, but by the infallible teaching authority (Magesterium) of the early church. The Apostles were their infallible interpreters of the Old Testament scriptures. They simply accepted the Apostle's teaching and believed. Now lets consider another Sola Scriptura proof text.

1 Corinthians 4:6, "I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers, so that you may learn from us not to go beyond what is written, so that none of you will be inflated with pride in favor of one person over against another." Protestant apologists claim that this is definitive proof that St. Paul affirms the formal sufficiency of scripture by stating "not to go beyond what is written". Implying that the Apostles themselves do not go beyond what is written in scripture. But what does this saying "not to go beyond what is written" mean in the context of this verse? In this passage Paul states that he has "applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit". This begs the question, what things has he "applied" to himself and Apollos? In chapter 3: 7-8 he applied a couple of analogies that portrayed himself and Apollos as "planters" and "waterers". He also uses the analogy of builders, he "laid the foundation" and another "built upon it" in verse 10. Here he is demonstrating (in these analogies) that either he or Apollos are merely ministers of the Gospel, and that the allegiances of the Corinthians should not be with the individual ministers, but to Christ himself. So in light of this how are we to understand "not to go beyond what is written"? In chapter 3 verses 18 through 23 he states, "Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you considers himself wise in this age, let him become a fool, so as to become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in the eyes of God, for it is written: 'He catches the wise in their own ruses,' and again: 'The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are vain.' So let no one boast about human beings, for everything belongs to you, Paul or Apollos or Cephas, or the world or life or death, or the present or the future: all belong to you, and you to Christ, and Christ to God." Paul here is exhorting his brethren in Corinth to remain faithful to the Gospel and its ministry by avoiding the "wisdom of this world" by forming rival allegiances. Pauls and Apollos' purpose is to preach the Gospel, of which they are both ministers, and neither one is higher or lower in God's eyes. For they belong to Christ and Christ to God. In this way he states, "not to go beyond what is written.", which is a reference to the Old Testament verses quoted above in chapter 3 verses 19 and 20. As way of showing them that they are using worldly wisdom through their divisions. Not at all in the general sense of formal sufficiency of all scripture (Sola Scriptura), but in the specific sense that human wisdom is foolishness to God, and often leads to being "inflated with pride in favor of one person over against another." (Chapter 4:6) Therefore St. Paul is using specific Old Testament scriptures to highlight the worldly thinking of the Corinthian Christians, and exhorting them not to act in a way that causes an infraction against this principle. One can see, in light of the context of this text, that this scripture definitely doesn't teach the formal sufficiency of scripture, but does show the lengths that Protestant apologists will go to pull verses out of context to prove their man made doctrine of Sola Scriptura.

One final note on this question of whether Sola Scriptura is taught in scripture is this fact that no where in the Bible can there be found an inspired list of books that are considered scripture (similar to the lists found naming the twelve Apostles). This would positively identify which books are to be infallibly considered canonical Scripture. Without this infallible list Sola Scriptura advocates cannot even determine which books constitute the canon of scripture. In other words, the canon of scripture is an extra biblical tradition of the Catholic Church that was determined through decrees of popes and councils, something that Martin Luther rejected at the Diet of Worms. This therefore proves the impracticality of formal sufficiency of Sola Scriptura.

Sola Scriptura is unhistorical

If the principle of Sola Scriptura, or formal sufficiency of scripture, is the true teaching on authority, then there must be some sort of evidence that it was practiced early on in Church history. Since the Apostles would have been aware of it, practiced it, and would have taught it to their earliest converts. These early Christians would have written down these ideas for others to be aware of and practice. Protestant apologists are aware of this fact and have found some surprising quotations of the early fathers that at first impression appear to support Sola Scriptura. But when the complete teaching of these fathers are investigated, the Catholic teaching on authority is vindicated. Lets look at a few examples.

Basil of Caesarea - "Therefore, let God inspired Scripture decide between us; and on whichever side be found doctrines in harmony with the Word of God, in favor of that side will be cast the vote of truth" (<Epistle ad Eustathius>). Yet if Basil's quote is to be of any use to the Protestant apologist, the rest of Basil's writings must be shown to be consistent and compatible with <sola scriptura>. But watch what happens to Basil's alleged <sola scriptura> position when we look at other statements of his: "Of the beliefs and practices whether generally accepted or enjoined which are preserved in the Church, some we possess derived from written teaching; others we have delivered to us in a mystery by the apostles by the tradition of the apostles; and both of these in relation to true religion have the same force" (<On the Holy Spirit>, 27). Again, "In answer to the objection that the doxology in the form with the Spirit' has no written authority, we maintain that if there is not another instance of that which is unwritten, then this must not be received [as authoritative]. But if the great number of our mysteries are admitted into our constitution without [the] written authority [of Scripture], then, in company with many others, let us receive this one. For I hold it apostolic to abide by the unwritten traditions. 'I praise you,' it is said [by Paul in l Cor. 11:1] that you remember me in all things and keep the traditions just as I handed them on to you,' and Hold fast to the traditions that you were taught whether by an oral statement or by a letter of ours' [2 Thess. 2:15]. One of these traditions is the practice which is now before us [under consideration], which they who ordained from the beginning, rooted firmly in the churches, delivering it to their successors, and its use through long custom advances pace by pace with time" (<On the Holy Spirit>, 71).

Athanasius - Protestant apologists are also fond of quoting two particular passages from Athanasius. "The holy and inspired Scriptures are sufficient of themselves for the preaching of the truth" (<Contra Gentiles> 1:1). And: "These books [of canonical Scripture] are the fountains of salvation, so that he who thirsts may be satisfied with the oracles contained in them. In these alone the school of piety preaches the Gospel. Let no man add to these or take away from them" (39th <Festal Letter>). But in neither place is Athanasius teaching <sola scriptura>. First, in the case of the <Festal Letter>, he was instructing his churches as to what could and could not be read at Church as "Scripture." The context of the epistle makes it clear that he was laying down a liturgical directive for his flock. Second, as in the case of Basil and the other Fathers Protestants

attempt to press into service, Athanasius' writings show no signs of <sola scriptura>, but rather of his staunchly orthodox Catholicism. Athanasius, for example, wrote: "The confession arrived at Nicaea was, we say more, sufficient and enough by itself for the subversion of all irreligious heresy and for the security and furtherance of the doctrine of the Church" (<Ad Afros> 1). [Recall Martin Luther rejected the Church councils during his statement at the Diet of Worms bases on Sola Scriptura] And: "[T]he very tradition, teaching, and faith of the Catholic Church from the beginning was preached by the apostles and preserved by the Fathers. On this the Church was founded; and if anyone departs from this, he neither is nor any longer ought to be called a Christian" (<Ad Serapion> 1:28).

Cyril of Jerusalem - And consider this quote from Cyril of Jerusalem's <Catechetical Lectures>, a favorite of the <nouveau> Protestant apologists: "In regard to the divine and holy mysteries of the Faith, not the least part may be handed on without the Holy Scriptures. Do not be led astray by winning words and clever arguments. Even to me, who tell you these things, do not give ready belief, unless you receive from the Holy Scriptures the proof of the things which I announce. The salvation which we believe is not proved from clever reasoning, but from the Holy Scriptures" (4:17). How should we understand this? Catholic patristic scholars would point out that such language as Cyril uses here is consistent with his and the other Fathers' high view of Scripture's authority and with what is sometimes called its material sufficiency. This language, while perhaps more rigorously biblical than some modern Catholics are used to, nonetheless conveys an accurate sense of Catholic teaching on the importance of Scripture. Even taken at face value, Cyril's admonition poses no problem for the Catholic. But it does, ironically, for the Protestant. The proponent of <sola scriptura> is faced with a dilemma when he attempts to use Cyril's quote. If Cyril was in fact teaching <sola scriptura>, Protestants have a big problem. Cyril's <Catechetical Lectures> are filled with his forceful teachings on the infallible teaching office of the Catholic Church (18:23), the Mass as a sacrifice (23:6-8), the concept of purgatory and the efficacy of expiatory prayers for the dead (23:10), the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist (19:7; 21:3; 22:1-9), the theology of sacraments (1:3), the intercession of the saints (23:9), holy orders (23:2), the importance of frequent Communion (23:23), baptismal regeneration (1:1-3; 3:10-12; 21:3-4), indeed a staggering array of specifically "Catholic" doctrines. These are the same Catholic doctrines that Protestants claim are not found in Scripture. So, if Cyril really held to the notion of <sola scriptura>, he certainly believed he had found those Catholic doctrines in Scripture. One would then have to posit that Cyril was badly mistaken in his exegesis of Scripture, but this tack, of course, leads nowhere for Protestants, for it would of necessity impugn Cyril's exegetical credibility as well as his claim to find <sola scriptura> in Scripture.

One last note on the unhistoricity of Sola Scriptura. It is worthwhile to note that the canon of the Bible itself wasn't formally established until the early fifth century, at the councils of Hippo (393 AD), Carthage (397 AD), and later by of Pope Innocent I (405 AD). This shows that for the first 400 years of the church there wasn't a scriptura as we know it today (and at the time of Martin Luther). This makes Sola Scripture impossible to be the sole authority for faith and morals for the first 400 years of the church.

Sola Scriptura breeds division -

As we have learned before, formal sufficiency of Scripture teaches that any person, alone with a Bible can come to believe all that is necessary for faith and morals. This belief suggests that through personal interpretation and private judgment of its meaning, a person doesn't need any other authority for Christian truth other than the Bible itself. But what happens when this is put into practice? What is the natural consequence to this theory? Since the beginning of the Protestant Reformation this combination of Sola Scriptura, self interpretation, and private judgment, has had as its natural consequence, caused the irreparable fragmentation and division of Protestantism. The World Christian Encyclopedia (Oxford University Press, 1983) estimates that there are over 20,000 denominations in existence at present, and the overwhelming majority of them--all but a handful--have been created in the last 500 years and are Protestant denominations. That is the fruit of the doctrine of private judgment.

Even Martin Luther saw the inescapable principle of fragmentation and disunity that lies at the heart of <sola scriptura>. In a letter to Ulrich Zwingli, he complained bitterly about the doctrinal anarchy that was even then rampant among Protestants: "If the world lasts, it will be necessary, on account of the differing interpretations of Scripture which now exist, that to preserve the unity of faith, we should receive the [Catholic] councils and decrees and fly to them for refuge." To understand the extent of the problem we simply need to look at another Luther quote, "All men now presume to criticize the Gospel, almost every old doting fool or prating sophist must, forsooth, be a doctor of divinity."

Scripture alone, as the tragic history of Protestantism has shown, becomes the private play toy of any self-styled "exegete" who wishes to interpret God's Word to suit his own views. The history of Protestantism, laboring under <sola scriptura>, is an unending kaleidoscope of fragmentation and splintering. It cannot provide any sort of doctrinal certitude for the Christian, because it is built on the shifting sand of mere human opinion - what the individual pastor <thinks> Scripture means.

As a final reflection on this problem within Protestantism, lets look at two Bible verses where St. Peter himself warns us about the hazards of self interpretation and the consequences that they hold for those who practice it. "Know this first of all, that there is no prophecy of scripture that is a matter of personal interpretation, for no prophecy ever came through human will; but rather human beings moved by the Holy Spirit spoke under the influence of God." And, "And consider the patience of our Lord as salvation, as our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, also wrote to you, speaking of these things hard to understand that the ignorant and unstable distort to their own destruction, just as they do the other scriptures."

Catholic Doctrine of Divine Revelation and Authority

Let's look at what the Catholic Church teaches about Divine Revelation and the proper way it is to be interpreted. As we have seen earlier the Fathers of the Church, especially those that Protestant apologists use in their attempt to prove Sola Scriptura, are unanimous in their belief that the oral Tradition of the Apostles is also authoritative and should be held as true Divine Revelation along with Scripture. Even St. Paul touches on this in his letter to the Thessalonians, "Therefore, brothers, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours." Also, "And for this reason we too give you thanks to God unceasingly, that, in receiving the word of God from hearing us, you received not a human word but, as it truly is, the word of God, which is now at work in you who believe."

The Catechism states "In keeping with the Lord's command, the Gospel was handed on in two ways: -Orally "by the apostles who handed on, by the spoken word of their preaching, by the example they gave, by the institutions they established, what they themselves had received - whether from the lips of Christ, from his way of life and his works, or whether they had learned it at a prompting of the Holy Spirit." - In writing "by those apostles and other men associated with them the apostles who, under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit, committed the message of salvation to writing." " The Task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written from or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living, teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ." This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome. "Yet this Magesterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication, and expounds it faithfully. All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith."

Sola Scriptura, method of heretics

Sola scriptura has always been the main vehicle used by heretics. Lets look at some selections of a document written by St. Vincent of Lerins in year 434. This document named the Commonitory is an excellent resource for understanding this issue of Sola Scriptura as it relates to the constant appeal to it by the heretics. You be the judge whether his words are prophetic to this issue of Sola Scriptura.

[5.] But here some one perhaps will ask, Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church's interpretation? For this reason,--because, owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters. For Novatian expounds it one way, Sabellius another, Donatus another, Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, another, Photinus, Apollinaris, Priscillian, another, Iovinian, Pelagius, Celestius, another, lastly, Nestorius another. Therefore, it is very necessary, on account of so great intricacies of such various error, that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of Ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation.

[64.] HERE, possibly, some one may ask, Do heretics also appeal to Scripture? They do indeed, and with a vengeance; for you may see them scamper through every single book of Holy Scripture,--through the books of Moses, the books of Kings, the Psalms, the Epistles, the Gospels, the Prophets. Whether among their own people, or among strangers, in private or in public, in speaking or in writing, at convivial meetings, or in the streets, hardly ever do they bring forward anything of their own which they do not endeavour to shelter under words of Scripture. Read the works of Paul of Samosata, of Priscillian, of Eunomius, of Jovinian, and the rest of those pests, and you will see an infinite heap of instances, hardly a single page, which does not bristle with plausible quotations from the New Testament or the Old.

[66.] It was for this reason that the Saviour cried, "Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves."[85] What is meant by "sheep's clothing"? What but the words which prophets and apostles with the guilelessness of sheep wove beforehand as fleeces, for that immaculate Lamb which taketh away the sin of the world? What are the ravening wolves? What but the savage and rabid glosses of heretics, who continually infest the Church's folds, and tear in pieces the flock of Christ wherever they are able? But that they may with more successful guile steal upon the unsuspecting sheep, retaining the ferocity of the wolf, they put off his appearance, and wrap themselves, so to say, in the language of the Divine Law, as in a fleece, so that one, having felt the softness of wool, may have no dread of the wolf's fangs. But what saith the Saviour? "By their fruits ye shall know them;" that is, when they have begun not only to quote those divine words, but also to expound them, not as yet only to make a boast of them as on their side, but also to interpret them, then will that bitterness, that acerbity, that rage, be understood; then will the ill-savour of that novel poison be perceived, then will those profane novelties be disclosed, then may you see first the hedge broken through, then the landmarks of the Fathers removed, then the Catholic faith assailed, then the doctrine of the Church torn in pieces.

[70.] BUT it will be said, If the words, the sentiments, the promises of Scripture, are appealed to by the Devil and his disciples, of whom some are false apostles, some false prophets and false teachers, and all without exception heretics, what are Catholics and the sons of Mother Church to do? How are they to distinguish truth from falsehood in the sacred Scriptures? They must be very careful to pursue that course which, in the beginning of this Commonitory, we said that holy and learned men had commended to us, that is to say, they must interpret the sacred Canon according to the traditions of the Universal Church and in keeping with the rules of Catholic doctrine, in which Catholic and Universal Church, moreover, they must follow universality, antiquity, consent. And if at any time a part opposes itself to the whole, novelty to antiquity, the dissent of one or a few who are in error to the consent of all or at all events of the great majority of Catholics, then they must prefer the soundness of the whole to the corruption of a part; in which same whole they must prefer the religion of antiquity to the profaneness of novelty; and in antiquity itself in like manner, to the temerity of one or of a very few they must prefer, first of all, the general decrees, if such there be, of a Universal Council, or if there be no such, then, what is next best, they must follow the consentient belief of many and great masters. Which rule having been faithfully, soberly, and scrupulously observed, we shall with little difficulty detect the noxious errors of heretics as they arise.

In light of these paragraphs quoted from the Commonitory, lets now recall the words that were spoken at the Diet of Worms:

Johann Eck to Martin Luther, "Martin, your plea to be heard from Scripture is the one always made by heretics. You do nothing but renew the errors of Wyclif and Huss...How can you assume that you are the only one to understand the sense of Scripture? Would you put your judgment above that of so many famous men and claim that you know more than all of them?"

Martin Luther response to Johann Eck, "Since your Majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without distinctions...Unless I am convicted by the testimony of Sacred Scripture or by evident reason (I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other), my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against my conscience is neither right or safe. God help me. Amen."

The Emperor Charles V, "It is enough; since he has denied councils, we wish to hear no more" and later, "I am descended from a long line of Christian emperors of this noble German nation, of the Catholic kings of Spain, and the archdukes of Austria, and the dukes of Burgundy. They were all faithful to the death to the Church of Rome, and they defended the Catholic faith and the honor of God. I have resolved to follow in their steps. A single friar who goes counter to Christianity for a thousand years must be wrong. Therefore I am resolved to stake my lands, my friends, my body, my blood, my life, and my soul...After having heard yesterday the obstinate defense of Luther, I regret that I have so long delayed in proceeding against him. He may return under his safe-conduct, but without preaching or making any tumult. I will proceed against him as a notorious heretic, and I ask you to declare yourselves as you promised me."


Internet files:

Sola Scriptura: A Blueprint for Anarchy. Patrick Madrid.


Sola Scriptura and Private Judgment. James Akin.


The Practical Problems of Sola Scriptura. James Akin.


The Commonitory, Vincent of Lerins


Not by Scripture Alone, A Catholic Critique of the Protestant Doctrine of Sola Scriptura - Robert Sungenis, Editor, Queenship Publishing. Copyright 1997.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, United States Catholic Conference, Inc. - Libreria Editrice Vaticana. Copyright 1994.