In my post from last year, I claimed that the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura, which forms the epistemological basis for all of Protestant thought, does not have a scriptural basis. I concluded that it is contradictory to its own standard, and therefore must be false. The claim that the Bible does not support sola scriptura will seem a foreign, if not hostile, thought to many who like me were raised in Evangelical Christianity, and so I would like to elaborate and substantiate my claim here.
If we look for the doctrine of sola scriptura in the Bible, it is quickly apparent that nothing close to an explicit declaration of such an idea exists anywhere within it. Rather most attempts to establish biblical precedent for the doctrine do so by equating it with the word of God; indeed, in my own Protestant mind the Bible and the word of God were pure synonyms. This works to justify sola scriptura because the Bible establishes the word of God in various places and in various ways as the authoritative impetus that brought the Church into being, which also continually defines and sustains it; thus, a strong case can be made that it is appropriate to attribute to the word of God alone the position of prime authority in matters of doctrine. Therefore, if the word of God could be understood to refer specifically and exclusively to the Bible, then sola scriptura could be established. However, despite the widespread assumption among Protestants that the scriptural references to “the word of God” refer precisely to the Bible, it is impossible to draw the equivalency.
1) The Bible never calls any book of the New Testament “the word of God.”
It is true that there are many places in the Old Testament where the phrase “the word of God” refers to the Old Testament scriptures, and two places in the New Testament as well: Jesus refers to the Ten Commandments as “the word of God” in Matthew 15:6 (with its parallel in Mark) and uses the phrase again in John 10:35 in reference to a Psalm. However, it is not enough to establish the Old Testament as the word of God: the Christian claims the New Testament as well, and it cannot be argued that the New Testament asserts itself to be the word of God simply because it accepts the Old Testament as the word of God. So, does the Bible establish the books of the New Testament as the word of God? According to my research of the Bible, there is no place therein where the phrase “the word of God” is used to refer to any written document that would later become canonized in the New Testament.
2) The Bible never even implies that most of the New Testament, including the Gospels, are “the word of God.”
Despite the fact above, we can call the New Testament scriptures “the word of God” if we can only establish them as scripture, because 2 Timothy 3:16 says that all scripture is breathed out by God. Very well, but in only one case does the New Testament confer scriptural status to any part of itself (2 Peter 3:16), and then only the writings of Paul are affirmed, leaving the Four Gospels (the core of the Bible!), Acts, Hebrews, James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, Jude, and Revelation without any Biblical affirmation of their status as scripture, and therefore, without even being able to be inferred as the “word of God.” It cannot be argued that, simply because Peter acknowledged Paul’s writings as scripture, he must have also meant those of James, Jude, and the rest.
3) New Testament references to the “word of God” are almost always to things apart from its own contents.
Instead, what we find throughout the New Testament is that the phrase “the word of God” almost exclusively refers to the Gospel, without any indication of its medium, and that where clues are given as to whether the phrase refers to something spoken or written, they point exclusively to something spoken. The phrase is used to refer to the prophecies of John the Baptist, to the oral teachings of Christ (at Gennesaret, for example), to the message of the apostles at Pentecost, to the message carried by Paul’s evangelistic journeys and delivered to Timothy, etc. In all of these passages, the words that constituted “the word” are not recorded. (For example, we don’t know exactly what words Timothy learned as a child.) It is important to realize that when the authors of the New Testament writings refer to “the word of God” in these passages, they are not referring to their own writings, nor the writings of any contemporary New Testament authors, nor explicitly including in their writings the word of God to which they refer. Rather, they are referring to something outside the texts, something that they expected their audience to know.
Thus, even having accepted that the word of God is the supreme authority in the life of the church, we see that the Bible does not include all of itself in the phrase, and includes other things apart from itself. Therefore, we cannot draw the equivalence from the supreme authority of the word of God to the supreme authority of the Bible. The only legitimate hermeneutical path to biblically justify the concept of sola scriptura fails. It is ironic that the Protestant, in embracing sola scriptura, must doubt whether the Bible is the word of God, while the Catholic, embracing the Bible as the word of God on the testimony of the Magisterium and Tradition of the Church, can justify the belief, and rightly say when the Scriptures are read, “The Word of the Lord, thanks be to God.”