What Do We Mean by
by Dr. W. Robert Godfrey
There are two main issues that divide Protestant Catholics from Roman Catholics. Both groups claim to be catholic, that is, part of the apostolic, universal church of Jesus Christ. Roman Catholics believe we Protestants departed from that church in the sixteenth century. Protestant Catholics believe they departed earlier.
The theme of this opening chapter is one of the issues that still divides us: the source of religious truth for the people of God. (The other main issue, that of how a man is made right with God, has been dealt with in the book Justification by Faith ALONE!, published by Soli Deo Gloria in 1995.) As Protestants we maintain that the Scripture alone is our authority. Our Roman opponents maintain that the Scripture by itself is insufficient as the authority of the people of God, and that tradition and the teaching authority of the church must be added to the Scripture.
This is a solemn topic. This is no time for games. We must be searching for the truth. God has declared that whoever adds to or takes away from His Word is subject to His curse. The Roman church has declared that we Protestants are accursed (“anathematized”) for taking away the Word of God as found in tradition. We Protestants have declared that the Roman church is a false church for adding human traditions to the Word of God. Despite sincere debates by fine apologists over the course of nearly 500 years, the differences remain basically as they were in the sixteenth century. I will not say much new here, but we must continue to pursue the truth.
In spite of the difficulty of this undertaking, I am eager to join that historic train of Protestant apologists to defend the doctrine that the Scripture alone is our ultimate religious authority. I believe that it can be shown that this position is the clear position of Scripture itself. And I hope that, by the grace of God, those committed to the Roman doctrine of tradition will come to see the tragic error of denigrating the sufficiency and perspicuity of God’s own inspired Word.
Let me begin with certain clarifications so as not to be misunderstood. I am not arguing that all truth is to be found in the Bible, or that the Bible is the only form in which the truth of God has come to His people. I am not arguing that every verse in the Bible is equally clear to every reader. Nor am I arguing that the church — both the people of God and the ministerial office — is not of great value and help in understanding the Scripture. As William Whitaker stated in his noble work: “For we also say that the church is the interpreter of Scripture, and that the gift of interpretation resides only in the church: but we deny that it pertains to particular persons, or is tied to any particular see or succession of men.”1
The Protestant position, and my position, is that all things necessary for salvation and concerning faith and life are taught in the Bible clearly enough for the ordinary believer to find it there and understand.
The position I am defending certainly is what is taught in the Bible itself. For example, Deuteronomy 31:9 states: “Moses wrote down this law. . . .” Moses instructed the people by writing down the law and then ordering that it be read to them “so they can listen and learn to fear the Lord your God and follow carefully all the words of this law,” Deuteronomy 31:9, 12.
Moses declared to all Israel: “Take to heart all the words I have solemnly declared to you this day, so that you may command your children to obey carefully all the words of this law. They are not just idle words for you, they are your life,” Deuteronomy 32:46, 47.
Notice the clear elements in these passages:
The people do not need any additional institution to interpret the Word. The priests, prophets, and scribes of Israel certainly function to help the people ministerially. But the Word alone was sufficient for salvation. The prophets, who were indeed inspired, came very much in the spirit of Micah who said, “He has shown you, O man, what is good,” Micah 6:8. The function of the prophets and priests was not to add to or even clarify the law; rather, they applied it to the people who were sinfully indifferent.
If this principle of the sufficiency and clarity of the Word is true in the Old Testament, we can assume that it is all the more true in the New. The New Testament gloriously fulfills what the Old Testament promises. But we do not have to assume it; rather, the New Testament makes clear that the character of Scripture is to be sufficient and clear. One example of that is found in 2 Timothy 3, 4. Here Paul writes to his younger brother in the faith, Timothy. He writes that Timothy — who was instructed in the faith by his mother and grandmother — has also learned all about Paul’s teaching (3:10). Timothy has been mightily helped by all sorts of oral teaching, some of it apostolic. Yet Paul writes these words to Timothy:
You see, Paul reminds Timothy that the Scriptures are able to make him wise unto salvation in Christ Jesus (3:15). He teaches that the Scriptures are useful for teaching, reproof (rebuking), correcting, and training in righteousness (3:16). Because the Scriptures have this character, they thoroughly equip the man of God for every good work (3:17). So Paul tells Timothy that he must preach this Word, even though the time is coming when people will not want to hear it, but rather will want teachers to suit their fancy, who will instruct them in myths rather than the truth of the Word (4:1-4).
The force and clarity of the Apostle’s teaching here are striking. In spite of the rich oral teaching Timothy had, he is to preach the Scriptures because those Scriptures give him clearly all that he needs for wisdom and preparation to instruct the people of God in faith and all good works. The Scripture makes him wise for salvation, and equips him with everything he needs for doing every good work required of the preacher of God. The sufficiency and clarity of the Word are taught in this one section of Scripture over and over again. John Chrysostom paraphrased the meaning of Paul’s words to Timothy this way: “You have Scripture for a master instead of me; from there you can learn whatever you would know.”2
I have listened to several taped debates on this topic. Often Protestant apologists have cited 2 Timothy 3 against Roman opponents. The usual response of Catholic apologists is to repeatedly assert that 2 Timothy 3 does not teach sufficiency. Sometimes they will refer to James 1:4, Matthew 19:21, or Colossians 1:28 and 4:12 as parallel texts, claiming that the word “complete” in 2 Timothy 3:17 does not mean sufficient. But such passages are not parallel; a completely different Greek word is used. Where 2 Timothy 3:17 uses exartizo, which has to do with being fitted for a task, these other passages use the Greek word teleios, which has reference to maturity or having reached a desired end.
Repeated assertions do not prove a point; that is only a propaganda technique. Our opponents need to answer in a responsible, thorough way.
The confidence that Paul had in the Scriptures, and which he taught Timothy, was clearly understood by the great church father, Augustine. In his treatise to prepare leaders of the church in an understanding of the Bible (0n Christian Doctrine), Augustine wrote: “Among those things which are said openly in Scripture are to be found all those teachings which involve faith, the mores of living, and that hope and charity which we have discussed.”3
We should not be surprised that the Apostle Paul, the Old Testament, and the greatest teacher of the ancient church held to the sufficiency and perspicuity of Scripture. It is the position that Jesus took in one of the most important moments of his life. At the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus faced the focused temptation of the devil in the wilderness. He faced the temptation as the Son of God, but also as the second Adam and the true Israel. And how did He face that temptation? He did not appeal to the oral tradition of Israel; He did not appeal to the authority of the rabbis or Sanhedrin; He did not even appeal to His own divinity or the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Our Savior, in the face of temptation, turned again and again and again to the Scriptures. “It is written,” He said.
The Scriptures made Him wise; they equipped Him for every good work. They were clear, as He implied that even the evil one knew. When the devil quoted the Scripture, Jesus did not turn to some other authority. Rather Jesus said, “It is also written.”
When the evil one or his representatives misuse the Bible, or imply that it is unclear, Jesus teaches us that we must look more deeply into the written Word, not away from it.
Roman apologists will attempt to convince us that these texts of Scripture do not mean what they clearly say. Let me anticipate some of their arguments and prepare you for some of the ways they tend to respond.
1. The Word of God. First, they will try to say that the phrase “the Word of God” can mean more than just the Bible. I have already granted that. The question before us is whether today anything other than the Scriptures is necessary to know the truth of God for salvation. The Scripture texts I have cited show that nothing else is needed. Our opponents need to show not that Paul referred to his preaching as well as his writing as the Word of God — I grant that; they need to show that Paul taught that the oral teaching of the apostles would be needed to supplement the Scriptures for the Church through the ages. They cannot show that because Paul did not teach that, and the Scriptures as a whole do not teach that!
2. Tradition. Our Roman opponents, while making much of tradition, will never really define tradition or tell you what its content is. Tradition is a word that can be used in a variety of ways. It can refer to a certain school of understanding the Scriptures, such as the Lutheran tradition. It can refer to traditions — supposedly from the apostles — that are not in the Bible. It can refer to developing traditions in the history of the church that are clearly not ancient in origin. Usually, in the ancient fathers of the church, the word “tradition” refers to the standard interpretation of the Bible among them. And we Protestants value such traditions.
But what do Roman apologists mean when they assert the authority of tradition? Historically, they have not agreed among themselves about the nature and content of tradition. For example, one has said that tradition does not add anything to Scripture. But almost all Roman apologists, for over three hundred years after the Council of Trent, argued that tradition does add to the Scriptures. Some Roman apologists believe that all binding tradition was taught by the apostles, while others believe that tradition evolves and develops through the centuries of the church so that there are traditions necessary for salvation that were never known to the apostles. It is impossible to know what the real Roman position is on this matter.
The Second Vatican Council expressed itself with deliberate ambiguity: “This tradition which comes from the apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. . . . For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fulness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her.”4 What does that mean? It certainly does not give us any clear understanding of the character or content of tradition.
Rome usually tries to clarify its position by saying that its authority is Scripture, tradition, and church together. Vatican II declared: “It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, sacred Scriptures and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God’s most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.”5
In fact, however, if you listen carefully, you will notice that the real authority for Rome is neither Scripture nor tradition, but the church. What is the Scripture, and what does it teach? Only the church can tell you. What is tradition, and what does it teach? Only the church can tell you. As the Roman theologian John Eck said, “The Scriptures are not authentic, except by the authority of the church.”6 As Pope Pius IX said at the time of the First Vatican Council in 1870, “I am tradition.”7 The overwhelming arrogance of such a statement is staggering. But it confirms our claim that, for Rome, the only real authority is the church: sola ecclesia.
Now Protestantism arose in the sixteenth century in reaction to such claims and teachings of the Roman church. In the Middle Ages, most within the church had believed that the Bible and the tradition of the church taught the same, or at least complementary, doctrines. But as Luther and others studied the Bible with a greater care and depth than the church had done in centuries, they began to discover that tradition actually contradicted the Bible. They discovered that, for example:
(1) The Bible teaches that the office of bishop and presbyter are the same office (Titus 1:5-7), but tradition says they are different offices.
(2) The Bible teaches that all have sinned except Jesus (Romans 3:10-12, Hebrews 4:15), but tradition says that Mary was sinless.
(3) The Bible teaches that Christ offered His sacrifice once for all (Hebrews 7:27, 9:28, 10:10), but tradition says that the priest sacrifices Christ on the altar at mass.
(4) The Bible says that we are not to bow down to statues (Exodus 20:4, 5), but tradition says that we should bow down to statues.
(5) The Bible says that all Christians are saints and priests (Ephesians 1:1; 1 Peter 2:9), but tradition says that saints and priests are special castes within the Christian community.
(6) The Bible says that Jesus is the only Mediator between God and man (1 Timothy 2:5), but tradition says Mary is co-mediator with Christ.
(7) The Bible says that all Christians should know that they have eternal life (1 John 5:13), but tradition says that all Christians cannot and should not know that they have eternal life.
The Reformers saw that the words of Jesus to the Pharisees applied equally to their day: “You nullify the Word of God for the sake of your tradition” (Matthew 15:6).
The Reformers also discovered that tradition contradicted tradition. For example, the tradition of the Roman church teaches that the pope is the head of the church, a bishop over all bishops. But Gregory the Great, pope and saint at the end of the ancient church period, said that such a teaching came from the spirit of Antichrist (“I confidently affirm that whosoever calls himself sacerdos universalis, or desires to be so called by others is in his pride a forerunner of Antichrist”)8
More directly related to our discussion is the evident tension in tradition about the value of reading the Bible. The Index of Forbidden Books of Pope Pius IV in 1559 said:
In marked contrast, Vatican II stated: “Easy access to sacred Scripture should be provided for all the Christian faithful. . . Since the word of God should be available at all times, the Church with maternal concern sees to it that suitable and correct translations are made into different languages, especially from the original texts of the sacred books.”10 Does tradition believe that the Bible is dangerous or helpful? The Bible did prove dangerous in the sixteenth century; most who read it carefully became Protestants!
Such discoveries about tradition led the Reformers back to the Bible. There they learned that the Scriptures must stand as judge of all teaching. The Scripture teaches that it is the revelation of God, and is therefore true in all that it teaches. But nowhere does the Scripture say that the church is true in all it says. Rather, although the church as a whole will be preserved in the faith, wolves will arise in the church (Acts 20:29, 30), and even the man of lawlessness will sit at the heart of the church teaching lies (2 Thessalonians 2:4).
3. This brings us to our third concern, the church and the canon. Our Roman opponents will use the word “ church” repeatedly. Those of us who are Protestants will normally be inclined to interpret their use of the word “church” as referring to the body of the faithful. But that is not the way they characteristically use the word. When they refer to the authority of the church, they mean the infallible teaching authority of councils and popes. That view of the church they take from the Middle Ages and in a romantic way read back into the ancient church period. So notice very carefully how they use the word “church.” And remember that neither the Scriptures, nor the great majority of the fathers of the ancient church period, understand the authority of the church in the way they do.
Let me offer as an illustration two examples from the work of Augustine, often quoted against the Protestant position on the question of the authority of the church. At one point in his debate with the Pelagians, a bishop of Rome sided with Augustine, and Augustine declared, “Rome has spoken, the matter is settled.” Later, however, another pope opposed Augustine on this subject, and Augustine responded by saying, “Christ has spoken, the matter is settled.” Augustine did not bow to the authority of the bishop of Rome, but turned to the word of Christ to evaluate the teaching of Rome.
Another statement of Augustine’s, often cited by Roman apologists, reads: “I would not have believed had not the authority of the catholic church moved me.” That seems very strong and clear. But in another place Augustine wrote: “I would never have understood Plotinus had not the authority of my neo-Platonic teachers moved me.” This parallel shows that Augustine is not talking about some absolute, infallible authority in the church, but rather about the ministerial work of the church and about teachers who help students understand.
Let us look at the church further by raising a related issue: the canon of Scripture. Romanists will try to make much of the issue of the canon. They will tell you that the Bible alone cannot be our authority because the Bible does not tell us what books are in the Bible. They will argue that the church must tell us what books are in the Bible. When they say the church tells us, they mean popes and councils must tell us. This implies that we did not have a Bible until Pope Damasus offered a list of the canon in 382, or, perhaps, until 1546 when the Council of Trent became the first “ecumenical”council to define the canon. But of course the people of God had the Bible before 1546 and before 382.
In the first place, the church always had Scripture. The apostolic preaching and writing of the first century repeatedly verified its teaching by quoting from the Old Testament. The quotations from, and allusions to, the Old Testament abound in the New Testament. The New Testament does not reject the Old, but fulfills it (Romans 1:2; Luke 16:29; Ephesians 2:19, 20). The church always had a canonical foundation in the Old Testament.
In the second place, we can see that the apostles sensed that the new covenant inaugurated by our Lord Jesus would have a new or augmented canon. Canon and covenant are interrelated and interdependent in the Bible (see Meredith G. Kline, The Structure of Biblical Authority). Peter testifies to this emerging canon when he includes the letters of Paul as part of the Scriptures (2 Peter 3:16).
In the third place, we must see that the canon of Scripture is, in a real sense, established by the Scripture itself, because the canonical books are self-authenticating. As God’s revelation, they are recognized by the people of God as God’s own Word. As Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd; I know My sheep and My sheep know Me. They . . . will listen to My voice” (John 10:14-16). In the deepest sense we cannot judge the Word, but the Word judges us. “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing of soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). The self-authenticating character of the canon is demonstrated by the remarkable unanimity reached by the people of God on the canon.
In the fourth place, we must see that historically the canon was formed not by popes and councils; these actions simply recognized the emerging consensus of the people of God as they recognized the authentic Scriptures. Indeed, whatever criteria were used by popes and councils to recognize the canon (authorship, style, content, witness of the Spirit, etc.), these same criteria were available to the people of God as a whole.
We can see this basic understanding of the formation of the canon stated in The New Catholic Encyclopedia which states: “The canon, already implicitly present in the apostolic age, gradually became explicit through a number of providential factors forming and fixing it.”11
We can also see this basic approach to the canon reflected in the words of Augustine, writing in his important treatise entitled On Christian Doctrine. This treatise was written between 396 and 427 — after the supposedly authoritative decision of Pope Damasus on the canon, and after a council held in Hippo had discussed the canon. Augustine wrote:
This statement shows that Augustine did not look to popes or councils for the solution of the question of the canon. He recognized the variety among churches, and the appropriateness of a plurality of churches. He urged all students of Scripture to examine the question and to look for the emerging consensus among the people of God. Like Augustine, we do not disparage the value of the witness of the people of God to the canon. We value the ministry of the church in this as in all things. But we deny that the church in its offices or councils authoritatively establishes the Scripture on the basis of some knowledge or power not available to Christians generally. The character of the canonical books draws the people of God to them.
4. Unity. Notice how Catholics use the word “unity.” They will suggest that we Protestants disprove our claim of the clarity of the Scripture by our failure to agree about the meaning of the Scripture. We recognize that Protestants are divided into various denominations. But all Protestants who are heirs of the Reformation are united in understanding the gospel and in respecting one another as brothers in Christ. We have all found the same gospel clearly in the Bible.
When we discuss unity and authority, let us be certain that we are making fair and accurate comparisons. Our Roman opponents will want to compare Roman theory with Protestant practices. That is not fair. We must compare theory with theory or practice with practice. In practice, neither group has the agreement we should have. Remember that while Rome is united organizationally, it is just as divided theologically as is Protestantism broadly understood. The institution of an infallible pope has not created theological unity in the Roman church. Rather, Roman theologians are constantly disagreeing with each other as to what the popes have taught, and as to whether those teachings are in fact proclaimed ex cathedra, and are therefore infallible. The modern state of the Roman church really has shown that the institution of the papacy has not made clear the necessary content of Christian truth. I suspect that every honest member of the Roman church will have to acknowledge that.
As early as the seventeenth century the Reformed theologian Francis Turretin noted the serious theological divisions in the Roman church and asked why the pope did not settle these disputes if his office was so effective.13 Such theological problems are certainly much greater today than in Turretin’s day and the question remains unanswered as to why the pope is so ineffective.13
We should not be surprised that there are divisions in the church. Christ and His apostles predicted that there would be. The Apostle Paul told us that such divisions are useful. He wrote: “No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval” (1 Corinthians 11:19). Differences should humble us and drive us back to the Scriptures to test all claims to truth. If we do not accept the Scriptures as our standard and judge, there is indeed no hope for unity.
The church must have a standard by which to judge all claims to truth. The church must have a standard of truth by which to reform and purify itself when divisions arise. The church cannot claim that it is that standard and defend that claim by appealing to itself. Such circular reasoning is not only unconvincing; it is self-defeating. Rome’s argument boils down to this: we must believe Rome because Rome says so.
The Bible tells us that the Word of God is the light that enables us to walk in the ways of God. Listen to Psalm 119:99, 100, 105, 130: “I have more insight than all my teachers, for I meditate on Thy statutes. I have more understanding than the elders, for I obey Thy precepts. Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light for my path. The unfolding of Thy words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple.”
Roman opponents usually object to an appeal to Psalm 119 on the grounds that it speaks of the Word of God, not of the Bible, and therefore could include in its praise tradition as well as Scripture. But their argument is irrelevant to our use of Psalm 119, because we are using it to prove the clarity, not the sufficiency of Scripture! The Psalmist is saying here that the light of the Word shines so brightly and clearly that if I meditate on it and obey it, I am wiser than any teacher or elder. The simple can understand it. The Word is like a strong flashlight in a dark forest. It enables me to walk on the path without tripping.
We must listen to the Scriptures so that we will act as God’s Word teaches us to act. Consider the story of Paul in Berea, Acts 17:10-12. Paul preached there in the synagogue and many Jews responded to his preaching with eagerness. We are told that after they listened to Paul each day they examined the Scriptures to see if what Paul said was true. How did Paul react? Did he say that the Scriptures were not clear, and that only he as an apostle or the rabbis or the Sanhedrin could tell them what the Scriptures really meant? Or did he say that they should not expect to find the truth in the Scriptures because they were incomplete and needed to be supplemented by tradition? Or did he say that they were insulting his apostolic authority, and that they should simply submit to him as the infallible interpreter of the Bible? Or did Paul say that they should defer to Peter as the only one who could interpret the Bible? No! He did not say any of these things. The practice of the Bereans is praised in the Bible. They are called noble because they evaluated everything on the basis of the written Word of God.
If we would be faithful children of God, if we would be noble, we must proceed as the Bereans did. We must follow the example of Moses and Paul and our Lord Jesus. Do not rest your confidence on the wisdom of men who claim infallibility. Stand rather with the Apostle Paul who wrote in 1 Corinthians 4:6, "Do not go beyond what is written."