On January 1 1519, Ulrich Zwingli became the pastor of the principal church of Zurich, Switzerland. When he preached through the New Testament from the Greek, the Reformation began in that city. Zwingli taught salvation by grace and justification by faith; he also compared what he saw in his church to what he read in Scripture. Four years later, church folk heard Zwingli say fasting during Lent had no biblical basis, and decided to force the issue by publicly eating sausage at the start of Lent. They were arrested and Zwingli defended them on the basis of Scripture in a public disputation before hundreds of Zurichers. Both sides had references books at hand. The Catholics had canon law, the law of the church, while Zwingli had the Greek, the Hebrew, a Latin translation, and nothing more.
Luther was in a similar scene in a debate with Catholic theologian John Eck Leipzig in 1519. When Luther advanced his proposed reforms and his gospel, Eck replied that Luther took the position of Hus, whom the church had condemned as a heretic. That is, Catholic tradition and authority said Luther was wrong. Luther didn’t dispute Eck’s point. Rather, he replied in essence, “Show my error from Scripture, not from tradition.” He stood on Scripture alone, hence “Sola Scriptura.”
The difference between Catholic and Protestant teaching is more subtle than people realize, for Catholics confess that Scripture is inspired, infallible, and authoritative. It is wise to remember, too, that the first Reformers were encouraged to study Scripture by scholarly Catholics: Staupitz told Luther to get his doctorate in biblical studies, Erasmus encouraged Zwingli’s studies, and Faber Staupulensis and Lorenzo Valla inspired others. The difference lies in our views of the sufficiency of Scripture.
The Catholic position is that Scripture is part of God’s revelation. Francis de Sales (1567-1622) said Scripture “is the true rule and a foundation of faith for Christians.” Notice “a foundation,” not the foundation. Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621) explained: “The controversy between the heretics [Protestants] and ourselves focuses here on two points: first, when we affirm that the Scripture do not contain the totality of necessary doctrine, for faith as for morals… Apart from the Word of God written, it is necessary to have his non-written Word, that is to say, divine and apostolic traditions.”
So the RCC affirms prima scripture, the primacy of Scripture. Scripture is the primary source for theology, but not the final source. Tradition and church teaching effectively limit Scripture’s authority. If a matter is uncertain in Scripture, and tradition has an authoritative interpretation, then it has the final word.
By contrast, the Westminster Confession (1:6) says “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for… salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1994, reaffirms the Catholic position from centuries past. It says: “Sacred Scripture is the speech of God… put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit. Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord.” The apostles transmitted the tradition “to the successors of the apostles so that… they may faithfully preserve, expound and spread it by their preaching” (par. 81). Further, it says God’s word comes in two forms: Sacred Scripture and Holy Tradition. Thus the Church “does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence” (par. 82).
So Catholics advocate three authorities: Scripture, the teaching office of the church, and tradition. The Catholic Catechism says, “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” (emphasis mine). The faithful should receive all their teaching “with docility” (par. 85, 95). Tradition, Scripture “and the Magisterium of the Church” work together for “the salvation of souls.”
For the English Reformers, the authority of Scripture was so foundational that they mentioned it first in the Westminster Confession, then returned to it later. The Confession begins (1:1): “It pleased the Lord” to reveal his will to the church in Scripture. God did this “better to preserve and propagate his truth.” It then names the 66 books and explains that even the church’s reception of those authoritative books depends “wholly on God” (1:4-5).
Later, the Westminster Confession explicitly subordinates itself to Scripture. Councils err and Scripture does not, therefore, if there is any tension between church documents and Scripture, the church is wrong (31:4):
All synods or councils since the apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err, and many have erred; therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith or practice, but to be used as a help in both.
Naturally, when Protestants say “Scripture alone” we don’t mean we need nothing whatsoever, beyond Scripture, to gain salvation. We need to know how to read – or at least listen. Translators must learn Greek and Hebrew through grammars and lexicons and ordinary people need some knowledge of the world, including concepts like “sin,” “father,” and “love.” Further, we normally entrust the interpretation of Scripture to people with training, people whom the church tests and approves – as Scripture itself says (1 Tim. 3:10, 2 Tim. 2:15). We don’t think the first thought that pops into the mind of a secular person, as he reads the Bible, has the same weight as the views of a seasoned leader. But we do believe Scripture can and does correct seasoned leaders.
Let’s admit that we don’t always follow our own principles. We hear Protestants say, “Scripture isn’t clear on this, but our Confession says…” as if that settles matters. Catholics and Protestants agree that it is wise to consult the history of Christian thought and its great leaders, but while Catholics believe the tradition settles disputes, Protestants hold that history is helpful, but not final, for traditions can err. If we refuse to question the tradition, we functionally adopt the Catholic approach.
Protestants have work to do here. We quote Augustine, Luther, and Calvin as if that resolves arguments. At worst, we deny that we have human authorities, then quote C. S. Lewis or even Rob Bell. Protestants can treat our creeds and beloved authors as something like a magisterium. So let us live out what we profess. Let us respect our traditions and theologians but test them with Scripture. Let us read and study and meditate on Scripture so that we are ready to “test all things and hold fast to what is good” (1 Thess. 5:22).
Dan Doriani teaches Theology and Ethics at Covenant Seminary. He earned his M.Div. from Westminster and talked everyone into a joint Yale/Westminster Ph.D. He also pastored a very small church for five years and a very large one for eleven. He plays tennis, hikes mountains, wrangles grandchildren, speaks at conferences, and writes books, including The New Man.