By Fr. Gabriel Wissa – Parish Priest from St. George & St. Joseph Coptic Orthodox Church, Montreal, Canada.
What is scriptures alone or what is sola scriptura? It is a doctrine believed in by our fellow brothers from the Protestant Denominations that means that the Bible is the Christian’s only source of faith. It is often combined, if not always, with a belief that the scriptures will declare personally to the reader everything regarding the truth of the Gospel. Often, it leads our Protestant brothers and sisters to ask the question “where is this written in the Bible?” implying that everything should be included in the Bible.
We have already dealt with this misconception in a previous video, called “Does the Bible state everything related to Christian Life?” Unfortunately, the main consequence of sola scriptura is division in the Church. This doctrine is the reason for the thousands of denominations that we see today within Protestant Christianity. This stems from the fact that each of our Protestant brothers and sisters is permitted to say, “God told me so and so from the Bible.” Therefore, in the hopes to work toward the unity of the Church, it is a must that we look at this doctrine that is so foundational to the faith of so many Christians today.
So, “who wrote the New Testament?” Well, the Apostles: St. John, St. Matthew, St. Paul, etc. So, as a few decades passed by, there was a need for the Apostles to write down the Life that they had been living since Pentecost (~33 AD). But who were these Apostles? They were the leaders of the Church. Simply put, the Church is the One that wrote the New Testament. Therefore, she had the authority to choose the canon, or the rule, of the New Testament.
What does that mean? Since there were many more books available like the gospel of Thomas, the gospel of Mary, and others, the Church chose which ones belonged to the Life and Faith She was living (the New Testament) and which books were not applicable. She had this authority to choose because the Church is the one that wrote the scriptures, through the Holy Spirit, as God told the Apostles in John 16:13 that the Holy Spirit will guide them into all truth.
For someone to take the scriptures and to assume that he can decide on his own the meaning of the words is the equivalent of taking a book that HH Pope Tawadros II, or any of our fathers the bishops, wrote and decide on his own what is the meaning of the content and sticking to his opinion despite receiving clarifications from the author Himself. That wouldn’t make much sense. Only the author of the book has the authority to explain the meaning behind his own writings.
Similarly, the ancient Church should be the One to go to for the proper explanation of the Bible. As St. Paul told St. Timothy in 1 Tim 3:15, the church is the pillar and ground of the truth. It is for this reason that St. Hilary of Poitiers says: “The Church is the Ship outside of which it is impossible to understand the Divine Word, for Jesus spoke from the boat to the people gathered on the shores.” The Truth is found in the Ancient Church. In the Orthodox Church. She has been living this Truth since the 1st century and for the sake of unity, we should be looking at how this Church lived in the first centuries of Christendom and converge to this faith.
Surprisingly, the scriptures do not support a sola scriptura model. The verse used to support this belief is found in the 2nd epistle to St. Timothy, as St. Paul says: “From childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2Tim 3:15-17)
The conclusion that is made is since the scriptures are profitable and can make the man of God complete, then this man doesn’t need anything else. But that is not what the verse is saying.
Yes, we need the scriptures to be complete. But it doesn’t say only the scriptures. What this verse is saying is that we cannot be complete without the scriptures. It is very different. But which scriptures is St. Paul referring to here? We have a hint in the beginning of verse 15 where St. Timothy is told that from childhood he has known the Holy Scriptures. It is known that St. Timothy was born in 17 AD. Since St. Timothy is referred to as a child in the verse, I will assume that he was maximum 20 years old. 17 AD plus 20 years is 37 AD.
All scholars agree that there was nothing written from the New Testament this early. Therefore, the scriptures St. Paul is referring to, here, are the Old Testament books. How can we take this verse and apply it to the New Testament? It is not a matter of interpretation anymore but of simple math. In contrast, we have examples in the New Testament that show that we cannot understand the scriptures on our own.
For example, when Christ was speaking to the disciples of Emmaus after the resurrection in Luke 24, the gospel says that Christ explained to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself. Also, in Acts 8, we find the Ethiopian Eunuch reading Isaiah and requesting from St. Philip some guidance. And most importantly, St. Peter, in his 2nd epistle addressing the believers, he says: “knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.”
As the letter unfolds, we find that there were heretics at the time teaching something apart from the Truth—a different so-called gospel. St. Peter made it a point to clarify that the prophecies are not for private interpretation since it is probably what these heretics were attacking. That same verse spelled out by St. Peter regarding the Old Testament prophecies, applies as well to the New Testament scriptures in general. The gospel is not meant for private interpretation. It is meant to bring the One Truth of the Good News. I must reemphasize, however, that the principal evidence against sola scriptura is the current divisions within the Church. We need to become One Body.
Ok, but wait a second, doesn’t the Bible say not to follow the traditions of men? For sure, there are references to the bad traditions of men in the scriptures. Indeed, at this time, the Jews had many flawed traditions, but does that mean that the entire Tradition, the Life of the Church, is to be abolished? No, it does not. The evidence for this is plenty, but in the meantime, let us look at one verse only, St. Paul speaks to St. Timothy and says: “You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things that you have heard from me [Holy Oral Tradition] among many witnesses [in public; not private], commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also [pass on the Tradition, the Life].”
So, this Tradition or this Life of the Church should be passed on from generation to generation as the Orthodox Church still does till today.
The final point we ought to understand in this summary of such a complex topic is that traditions cannot be avoided. Everyone has traditions; even our Protestant brothers. Let us imagine the Christian Protestant world constituted of many denominations. Let us put them on a horizontal line. Let us say our brothers the Evangelicals are here, the Baptists here, the 7th Day Adventists here, and the Pentecostals here. They are 4 different denominations that believe in sola scriptura. But each denomination holds a different faith from the others. However, within each denomination, so vertically, the people hold the same faith. This is not because all those people read the Bible the same way, since most people that join the churches for the first time do not know their Bible.
The Christians within each denomination hold the same faith because they are taught the faith; each as per their respective traditions. In other words, the pastor when he is at the pulpit, he is teaching his Protestant tradition whether Evangelical or Pentecostal. The question therefore becomes which tradition should I choose? The one that started within the last few centuries or the one to which St. Paul refers to in 2nd Thessalonians when he says: “Therefore, brethren, stand fast [be immovable] and hold the traditions [do not change them] which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.”