Sola Scriptura and why I am no longer a Protestant

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One of the problems I have always had is that I tend to believe what I believe. I take what I believe seriously. This is one of the reasons why I left the Reformed Tradition.

(This is in no way an attempt to bad-mouth the Reformed Tradition, only to explain a point of view that was never answered or taken seriously when I was in it.)

Before I went off to seminary I identified as Presbyterian. I grew up in a Presbyterian church. I was active in that church from the time I was in second grade all the way through college. Not long after college, I answered a call to ministry and went to a Presbyterian seminary. In all that time while growing up in this church, I never learned about Sola Scriptura – Scripture Alone. I read the Bible and was part of Bible Studies and Bible Classes, but it never seemed to come up and I never thought to ask about it. In seminary, we were taught Sola Scriptura and at first, I just took it for granted because that is what I was taught.

By the end of my tenure in Seminary, and after some intense study of mostly the New Testament, I began to realize that Sola Scriptura is nowhere in Scripture. For Sola Scriptura to be valid, the Bible would somewhere have to say that only Scripture can be used for doctrine or for the deduction of truth. But it does not anywhere say that. So my first issue with Sola Scriptura was that the Doctrine of Sola Scriptura violated the principle of Sola Scriptura. When I began to ask about this, or to suggest my concern about this, I was routinely shut down.

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The second issue I had with Sola Scriptura, which came years after I realized the first issue, was that not only does the Bible nowhere support Sola Scriptura, there are places that actually suggest the opposite of Sola Scriptura. For instance, Saint Paul (a.k.a. the Apostle Paul) says 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. (2 Thessalonians 2:15)

When Saint Paul wrote this, he had no idea he was writing the Bible. He had no idea this letter would one day be considered Scripture. And even if he did, it was not Scripture when he wrote it. But Saint Paul is clearly saying that Apostolic Tradition, or oral tradition coming from Paul or other Apostles, is to be used for “salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in truth” (2 Thessalonians 2:13). So Saint Paul says in the Bible that oral tradition is foundational for salvation, sanctification, and truth.

Some Protestants will counter (and occasionally one of the ways I was shut down) with 2 Timothy 3:16:

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness.

I knew, even in seminary, that this was not an argument for Sola Scriptura because 2 Timothy was not Scripture when Paul was writing it. Therefore, it was not understood by Paul or Timothy to be suggestion Sola Scriptura, and even if it were, there was no New Testament when Paul was writing to Timothy, so at best, if this is an argument for Sola Scriptura, it is saying that the Scriptures available at the time – the Old Testament – were to be used and nothing else. This means, if this is really teaching Sola Scriptura, that the ENTIRE New Testament is unnecessary for salvation, or doctrine, or truth, or anything else. If 2 Timothy really is teaching the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, then it is teaching that only the Old Testament is inspired and useful because those were the only Scriptures available when Saint Paul was teaching this. It also means that since the Septuagint – Greek translation of the Old Testament – was generally used as the Bible by the early Church, all those extra books that Protestants removed from their Bibles are also inspired and useful for doctrine and truth and teaching and refutation and correction and righteousness.

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Now, I am grateful to the Reformed Tradition for this: it was drilled into me in seminary to read the verses of Scripture in context. The Reformed Tradition is proud of scholarship and declare that it is not acceptable to rip verses out of context and use them for doctrine. As a result, I believe in both scholarship and context. And because I tend to believe what I believe, I have realized that 2 Timothy 3:15 can ONLY work as a justification for Sola Scriptura if it is taken out of context. Only two verses before the verse in question, Saint Paul once more appeals to Apostolic Tradition. The verses in context are as follows:

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, which are capable of giving you wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 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. (v. 14 – 17)

“Remain faithful to what you have learned and believed, because you know from whom you learned it” (Saint Paul – an Apostle who taught Timothy by speaking, otherwise known as “oral tradition” or “Apostolic Tradition”) and the Scriptures that Timothy had learned since he was an infant (again, the Old Testament). So the verse in context has Paul referring to the tradition of himself, and appeals to his own Apostolic Authority to be a valid source for teaching, refutation, correction, and training in righteousness.

Also, Saint Luke says in the very first verse of his Gospel that there were all kinds of accounts and traditions, even written down, and he sifted through them to create the Gospel that would bear his name. He used oral as well as written accounts to write his Gospel. And frankly, the stories about Jesus circulated before ANYONE wrote any of it down. Therefore, Scripture itself is part of the oral and Apostolic Tradition of the Church.

And even if everything I have written up to this point were not true, there is still the simple point that this verse does not say that Scripture is the only thing to be used; it nowhere says that Scripture alone is sufficient; it says that All Scripture is “useful” or “profitable” for teaching, refutation, correction, and training in righteousness. It does not even say it is useful for salvation or sanctification. But elsewhere Saint Paul does say that oral tradition is the foundation for salvation, sanctification, and truth – that is why the church in Thessalonica can “stand on” the tradition.

The earliest account of the institution of the Lord’s Supper was written by Saint Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians and he claims that he received and handed to them what he received “from the Lord.” The word in the Greek for what he received when referring to religious or spiritual matters means: “of a spiritual legacy of doctrines and traditions receive, learn by tradition,” meaning that Paul received this tradition “from the Lord” because the tradition he received was from the Apostles who received it directly from Jesus at the Last Supper; and what Paul had passed down to the Corinthians as their Apostle was the oral tradition that he received.

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And that is what Tradition means. It does not mean customs, or styles of worship, or various theories or theologies within a denomination. It means the teachings that the Apostles passed on orally through their preaching and teaching. Many of these traditions were written down (i.e. the Institution of the Last Supper in 1 Corinthians or Luke’s Gospel) and became Scripture over time. But even Scripture is authoritative because it is tied to the oral teaching and preaching of the Apostles. The four Gospels were chosen in addition to being useful for teaching, correction, refutation, and training in righteousness because they were linked to an Apostles, either as the Apostle (Matthew and John) or as someone who was well-acquainted with an Apostle (Mark and Luke). The Gospels themselves have authority because the Tradition links them to the Apostles.

I have been to many Protestant churches that take up a collection, and before the collection, they mention that Paul said: “keep in mind the words of the Lord Jesus who himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’” (Acts 20:35) But if you read the four Gospels over and over, you will nowhere find Jesus ever saying that. Paul received it as a tradition from the Apostles and passed it down to churches he visited and founded.

Speaking of Jesus, did not Jesus condemn tradition. In Matthew 15:3 Jesus says: “why do you break the commandment of God* for the sake of your tradition?” This is clearly a condemnation of tradition, is it not? No, it is not. Tradition does not refer to customs, or practices, or styles of doing or worshiping. Tradition in English can be confused with “Customs” because we often use the words as synonyms. The word in the Greek that Jesus uses in this condemnation is paradosis, which means “teachings about ways of doing things that are handed down from generation to generation.” So Jesus is condemning the practice of replacing commandments with human customs, but he is not condemning Holy Tradition passed down by the Apostles. And Jesus is also not condemning all Customs in this verse, but Jesus condemns those customs that negate or undermine the Word of God (v. 6, c.f. Mark 7:8, 13). So Jesus’ complaint with tradition is not what is meant when we refer to Tradition. Jesus’ complaint is with customs, and even then, Jesus does not condemn all customs, but only those that undermine Scripture (And when Jesus is saying that, he is referring to the Old Testament because there was no New Testament, or even anyone writing down what he was saying yet).

I had these questions and thought about them for a long time. I was working for the Headquarters of the PC (USA) and was at a General Assembly and I expressed the questions I had, and some of the conclusions that I saw in Scripture, as well as others regarding the Sacraments, to my boss at the time and his response was a dismissive: “Why don’t you go become Catholic?” So I did. And I am glad I did.

I do not mean that as a slight against the PC (USA) or even this one-time boss. I mean that for this reason: As a Catholic (even as an Old Catholic) I have the logical and doctrinal answer to another question that arose once I began to question Sola Scriptura and see that (in my view) this doctrine is contradicted by Scripture, then there is the problem of how does one decide which teachings are from the Apostles and which are not. At least if you stick with Scripture, there is the assurance of the fact that Scripture is the authority. John Calvin even said that it is not everything there is to know, but it is the least we need to know about our relationship with God and our salvation.

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The Catholic answer to this issue is Apostolic Succession. This is especially true for Old Catholics since we hold to the idea that ALL bishops have equal Apostolic Authority. Saint Ignatius of Antioch wrote in his letter to the Ephesians: “Plainly therefore we ought to regard the bishop as the Lord Himself” (6:1) and to the Smyrnaeans: “Let no man do aught of things pertaining to the Church apart from the bishop” (8:1) and says somewhere that there is no church apart from the bishop. The bishops of the church are the heirs of the Apostles. Christ chose Apostles, and as the Apostles went out into the world, they chose bishops, who chose elders and deacons, and thus is the hierarchy of the Church. Therefore, the Holy Tradition passed down by the Church is the Tradition of the Apostles. This with Ecumenical Councils (made up of bishops of the whole Church) and Holy Scripture become the foundation of what the Church has to say about salvation, sanctification and truth.

If it were only Sola Scriptura, then maybe I would have just shut my mouth and my mind and found a way to accept it even if I could not believe it. But for me there were also questions about Sacraments and other things, personal as well as theological that led to my parting from the Reformed Tradition. It was not an easy split. It took years, and the help of people who pushing me out of one tradition as well as those who received me into another, to make the decision. And it is a decision that has been right for me.

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