The great experiment of Martin Luther has come to completion. The verdict of history is that Luther's proposition-- that all of the Christian faith can be extracted from Sacred Scripture-- is a failure.
This article explores the fundamental flaws of Luther's proposition, known as sola scriptura (scripture alone) in turn from a logical and an historical perspective. Before that, however, we examine the alternative to sola scriptura: belief in a Divine Tradition alongside a profound reverence for Sacred Scripture.
What Catholics mean by Tradition is not the same that Jesus complains about when he says, ``So, for the sake of your tradition, you have made void the word of God.'' (Mt 15:6) and ``You leave the commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of men.'' (Mk 7:8). Jesus here means human traditions, that is, practices that men devise that may even surround the worship of God, and he condemns especially putting ritual ahead of the needs of one's neighbor.
Catholics mean by Tradition (capitalized), the beliefs and practices that Jesus gave to mankind through the Apostles. It is this Divine Tradition that St. Paul encourages us to follow:
I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you. (1 Cor 11:2)
So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter. (2 Thess 2:15)
Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is living in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. (2 Thess 3:6)
What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:9)
It is important to note that St. Paul says that the traditions were taught not only through writing (letters), but also by word of mouth and by example.
One charge leveled against the Catholic Church is that the Magisterium, or teaching authority, is continuously revealing the teachings of Christ. In actuality, the Church teaches that the period of divine revelation ended with the death of the last Apostle. The Magisterium only re-presents the sacred deposit of Christ's teachings to each new generation, explaining to each age using in terms of its particular language and ideas the same unchanging truths of faith.
The Divine Tradition is part of this sacred deposit of Divine Revelation that Christ entrusted to the Church and which her Magisterium guards from all falsehood. The other part of that sacred deposit is Sacred Scripture.
It should be made very clear from the outset that the position of this essay and of the Church is that Sacred Scripture is due the highest reverence of any writing available to mankind. In all that we will say about Sacred Scripture, we are not belittling it. Scripture is central to our knowledge about Jesus and his life and teachings, and it holds a singular and deservedly honored place among Christian writings.
The following text is excerpted from Dei Verbum, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, chapter III, from the Second Vatican Council, which was an ecumenical council (meeting of all bishops) of the Catholic Church held during the early 1960's and approved by the Pope. The words of the Council represent the definitive teaching of the Church on Sacred Scripture and its position within Church teaching.
11. Those divinely revealed realities which are contained and presented in sacred Scripture have been committed to writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. For holy mother Church, relying on the belief of the Apostles (see John 20:31; 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Peter 1:19-21; 3:15-16), holds that the books of both the Old and New Testaments in their entirety, with all their parts, are sacred and canonical because written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author and have been handed on such to the Church herself . In composing the sacred books, God chose men and while employed by Him  they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them , they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted .
Therefore since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into the sacred writings  for the sake of our salvation. Therefore ``all Scripture is divinely inspired and has its use for teaching the truth and refuting error, for reformation of manners and discipline in right living, so that the man who belongs to God may be efficient and equipped for good work of every kind'' (2 Tim. 3:16-17, Greek text).
12. However, since God speaks in sacred Scripture through men in human fashion , the interpreter of sacred Scripture, in order to see clearly what God wanted to communicate to us, should carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words.
To search out the intention of the sacred writers, attention should be given, among other things, to "literary norms." For truth is set forth and expressed differently in texts which are variously historical, prophetic, poetic, or of other forms of discourse. The interpreter must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express and actually expressed in particular circumstances by using contemporary literary forms in accordance with the situation of his own time and culture . For the correct understanding of what the sacred author wanted to assert, due attention must be paid to the customary and characteristic styles of feeling, speaking and narrating which prevailed at the time of the sacred writer, and to the patterns men normally employed at the period in their everyday dealings with one another .
But, since holy Scripture must be read and interpreted in the same spirit in which it was written , no less serious attention must be given to the content and unity of the whole Scripture if the meaning of the sacred texts is to be correctly worked out. The living tradition of the whole Church must be taken into account along with the harmony which exists between elements of the faith. It is the task of exegetes to work according to these rules toward a better understanding and explanation of the meaning of sacred Scripture, so that through preparatory study the judgement of the Church may mature. For all of what has been said about the way of interpreting Scripture is subject finally to the judgement of the Church, which carries out the divine commission and ministry of guarding and interpreting the Word of God .
13. In sacred Scripture, therefore, while the truth and holiness of God always remains intact, the marvelous ``condescension'' of eternal wisdom is clearly shown, ``that we may learn the gentle kindness of God, which words cannot express, and how far He has gone in adopting His language with thoughtful concern for our weak human nature'' . For the words of God, expressed in human language, have been made like human discourse, just as the word of the eternal Father, when He took Himself the flesh of human weakness, was in every way made like men.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes the interpretation of Scripture in three points:
Encyclicals regarding Scripture study are "Providentissimus Deus" of 1893 and "Divino Afflante Spiritu" of 1943.
112 1. Be especially attentive "to the content and unity of the whole Scripture". Different as the books which compose it may be, Scripture is a unity by reason of the unity of God's plan, of which Christ Jesus is the center and heart, open since his Passover.
The phrase "heart of Christ" can refer to Sacred Scripture, which makes known his heart, closed before the Passion, as the Scripture was obscure. But the Scripture has been opened since the Passion; since those who from then on have understood it, consider and discern in what way the prophecies must be interpreted.
113 2. Read the Scripture within "the living Tradition of the whole Church". According to a saying of the Fathers, Sacred Scripture is written principally in the Church's heart rather than in documents and records, for the Church carries in her Tradition the living memorial of God's Word, and it is the Holy Spirit who gives her the spiritual interpretation of the Scripture (". . . according to the spiritual meaning which the Spirit grants to the Church").
114 3. Be attentive to the analogy of faith. By "analogy of faith" we mean the coherence of the truths of faith among themselves and within the whole plan of Revelation.
The activities of the Holy Spirit occur within a community, the qahal, assembly of the Lord, the Temple Church. God does not reveal himself to private individuals operating at cross-purposes and in mutual contradiction. He is a God who makes sense. This is why we speak in theology of the analogy of faith. Speaking of diverse gifts in the Church, St. Paul tells the Romans that he with the gift of prophecy is to use it ``according to his faith'' or ``in proportion to his faith'' (Rom 12:6). This means that a person proclaiming the message should understand and explain it in harmony with the totality of revelation and the official teaching of the Church. They who test the ``spirits'' use the analogy of faith as one of the touchstones of authenticity. In both Testaments the man or woman who departs from known revelation, from the faith of the community, is immediately know as not coming from God. Outer verification is protection of the community from those who would disrupt its inner coherence. One does not accept Christ piecemeal.
It should be clear from the preceding section, but it bears repeating, that in all that we will now say about Sacred Scripture, we are not belittling it. Scripture is central to our knowledge about Jesus and his life and teachings, and it quite rightly holds a singularly honored place among Christian writings, as being the Word of God, and not just a relfection of that Word. The point to be made is not that Scripture is worthless-- far from it-- but that those who believe in sola scriptura (scripture alone) are implicitly belittling the whole of God's revelation by making it subject to their own personal beliefs.
It is unfortunately true those who claim to believe only in Scripture do, though they are not consciously aware of it, believe in something beside Scripture. The reason is that the belief in sola scriptura (scripture only) is itself extra-scriptural: nowhere does Scripture claim to be the sole rule of faith.
In countering this observation, some cite 2 Timothy 3:16-17:
All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
Interpreting this passage to indicate Scripture in this way has serious deficiencies:
It is quite evident that this passage furnishes no argument whatever that the Sacred Scripture, without Tradition, is the sole rule of faith; for although Sacred Scripture is profitable for these four ends, still it is not said to be sufficient. The Apostle requires the aid of Tradition (2 Thess 2:15). Moreover, the Apostle here refers to the Scriptures which Timothy was taught in his infancy. Now, a good part of the New Testament was not written in his boyhood: some of the Catholic Epistles were not written even when St. Paul wrote this, and none of the Books of the New Testament were then placed on the canon of the Scripture books. He refers, then, to the Scriptures of the Old Testament, and if the argument from the passage proved anything, it would prove too much, viz., that the Scriptures of the New Testament were not necessary for a rule of faith. (Newman, Inspiration, 131n.)
Lacking a scriptural foundation, sola scriptura is self-contradictory in fact. But even deeper, sola scriptura is also a self-contradiction in idea. Everyone who attributes any meaning to Sacred Scripture believes implicitly in something other than Scripture: an interpretation of Scripture. Thus sola scriptura does not really mean believing in scripture only, but in believing only in one's own interpretation of scripture. In this way, the mighty rallying cry of `back to basics' becomes a cover for casting off authority in scriptural interpretation, instead relying on individual interpretation: `me and my Bible.' This movement has a great appeal for our modern age (particularly for Americans) who daily live and move within a culture overrun by individualism and rejection of authority.
The danger of individual interpretation does not confine itself to the individual, but flows out to threaten the whole of Christ's Church since Christians become divided from each other when they lack a unifying doctrinal voice. Scripture itself testifies that obtaining a true interpretation is not an automatic certainty:
Inevitably, differences of interpretation develop. Each group of Christians closes itself off from admitting the possibility that any one else could know better and comes to rely soley on its own interpretation. As time advances, further differences develop, and foment further division, until the only thing left is a multitude of individualistic feudal fiefdoms, the pulverized remains of the compact unity of the one Church founded by Christ, and for which Christ prayed:
There are some things in them [the letters of Paul] hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures. (2 Peter 3:16)
I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they may be one in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me. (Jn 17:20-23)
Furthermore, when the unity of Christ's Church is weakened, the Church herself is weakened. As the unity of believers is lived less, the light of Christ within the world radiates more dimly. The whole of human society suffers a gradual loss of belief. Thus, ``belief in scripture alone'' transforms itself into ``being alone, believing scripture.''
What is the origin of sola scriptura? The tradition of sola scriptura arose late in the history of Christianity. It was Martin Luther who invented the idea in the sixteenth century, claiming that all of Christianity could be deduced from the Bible.
Before the sixteenth century, no Christian claimed that Scripture was the sole rule of faith. Even a cursory glance at history shows such a belief only became possible with the easy availability of Bibles made possible by invention of the printing press and movable type-- just a century before the Reformation. Before the Renaissance, relatively few individuals could read. Fewer of these had access to books, let alone to the Bible. Thus, by viewing the Church throughout history as a whole, it becomes clear that such a belief presents a naive model of a Christian faith that is to be always and everywhere the same. If we look back even further to the first centuries of Christianity, we see that the first Christians didn't even have a Bible as such, because the canon, or accepted list of books, of Scripture did not reach its present form until 367 A.D.
Another important lesson to draw from the relatively late assembling of the Biblical canon is that the Church had to exercise authority when it decided, with the help of the Holy Spirit, which books are inspired and belong to the Bible, and which are not. The role of the Church in the writing and assembling of Scripture demonstrates its authority to give the authentic interpretation of Scripture. This is the same authority that the Church exercised to put down the heresies of the first centuries-- heresies that denied basics of Christian doctrine, such as Christ's divinity and his humanity. These heresies claimed Scriptural bases for their teachings.
We find in the world around us the results of denying the authority of the Church. Four hundred years after the Reformation, we look around at the current state of Christianity and we see the great denominations of the Reformation deconstructing themselves and being chipped away by a profusion of sects, many claiming to have a monopoly on the definitive and true interpretation of Scripture. Some of these sects even deny the basic truths of Christianity that the Church affirmed in the first centuries! These obvious outrages are few, but even for reasonable-sounding interpretations the question remains: what distinguishes any interpretation as correct when there are so many reasonable but conflicting interpretations?
How are we to distinguish the true interpretation from the many erroneous interpretations?
The answer is of course the Holy Spirit. Jesus gave his disciples the Holy Spirit and it is the Spirit who is to guide his disciples in truth (Jn 16:13, 2 Tim 1:14) and to insure unity among them (cf. Eph 4:3-4). Though all claim to have the definitive interpretation of Scripture, it is not possible for all of the conflicting interpretations to be correct. Though all claim to possess the gift of the Holy Spirit to interpret Scripture, not everyone does. There is no simple solution to this conundrum. Let us take the advice of St. Paul and follow the docile example of our Lord:
We-- you and I-- must examine ourselves in our openness to the truth: let us be on guard against mistaking our own personal or collective convictions, no matter how deeply felt, with the promptings of the Spirit (cf. 2 Pt 1:20-21). After all it is not feelings that make a belief right, but conformity with truth.
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any incentive of love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:1-8)
The Catholic Church, as well, claims to have the true interpretation of Scripture. Hers is a singular voice because she can add to her claim, not only consistency with the idea of an extra-biblical authority to provide an interpretation of Scripture, but also continuity in teaching the truths our Lord gave the Apostles. (It is the teachings of Christ that the Apostles passed on that by definition constitute the true interpretation of Scripture.) The claim of the Catholic Church is that she preserves, with the assistance of the Holy Spirit and despite the many individual failings of her members, the true and authentic interpretation of Sacred Writ. Indeed, Scripture itself bears witness to the Church, just as it bore witness to her Lord among the Jews (cf. Jn 5:39). In addition, the writings of the first Christians demonstrate that the teachings of the Church were the same then as they are now, two millennia after the coming of Christ. This preservation of the teachings the Lord gave the Apostles, along with the manifest continuity and unity of belief throughout time and place that are essential characteristics of Christ's Church, point to the Catholic Church as the true Church of Jesus Christ.
We invite the sceptics to examine these apologetics essays and to see for themselves the deep Scriptural roots of Catholic teaching. The teaching on the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is a most telling example.