What Think Ye of Rome?
The Catholic-Protestant Debate on Biblical Authority
by Norman L. Geisler and Ralph E. MacKenzie
Traditional Roman Catholicism has always, in its official pronouncements, held
sacred Scripture in high esteem. Indeed, doctors of the church such as Jerome,
Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas -- when dealing with Holy Writ -- at times sound
positively Protestant. Unfortunately, Roman Catholicism has not followed their lead
and has elevated extrabiblical tradition to the same level as the Bible. The authors
maintain this is a serious error, having dire consequences on the practical formation
of the layperson's Christian faith. Scripture itself should be the final authoritative
guide for the Christian. As the apostle Paul reminds Timothy, "From infancy you
have known [the] sacred scriptures, which are capable of giving you wisdom for
salvation through faith in Christ Jesus" (2 Tim. 3:15 [The New American Bible]).
How should evangelical Protestants view contemporary Roman Catholicism? In the
first two installments of this series Kenneth R. Samples showed that classic
Catholicism and Protestantism are in agreement on the most crucial doctrines of
the Christian faith, as stated in the ancient ecumenical creeds. Nonetheless, he also
outlined five doctrinal areas that separate Roman Catholics from evangelical
Protestants: authority, justification, Mariology, sacramentalism and the mass, and
Samples observed that Roman Catholicism is foundationally orthodox, but it has
built much on this foundation that tends to compromise and undermine it. He
concluded that Catholicism should therefore be viewed as "neither a cult (non-Christian religious system) nor a biblically sound church, but a historically Christian
church which is in desperate need of biblical reform."
With the first two installments of this series being largely devoted to establishing
that Catholicism is a historic Christian church, it is appropriate that in the remaining
installments we turn our attention to the most critical doctrinal differences between
Catholics and Protestants. This is especially important at a time when many
ecumenically minded Protestants are ready to portray the differences between
Catholics and Protestants as little more important than the differences that
separate the many Protestant denominations. For although the doctrinal
differences between Catholics and Protestants do not justify one side labeling the
other a cult, they do justify the formal separation between the two camps that
began with the 16th-century Protestant Reformation and that continues today.
Among the many doctrinal differences between Catholics and Protestants, none
are more fundamental than those of authority and justification. In relation to
these the Protestant Reformation stressed two principles: a formal principle (sola
Scriptura) and a material principle (sola fide): The Bible alone and faith alone.
In this installment and in Part Four we will focus on the formal cause of the
Reformation, authority. In the concluding installment, Part Five, we will examine its
material cause, justification.
PROTESTANT UNDERSTANDING OF SOLA SCRIPTURA
By sola Scriptura Protestants mean that Scripture alone is the primary and
absolute source for all doctrine and practice (faith and morals). Sola Scriptura
implies several things. First, the Bible is a direct revelation from God. As such, it
has divine authority. For what the Bible says, God says.
Second, the Bible is sufficient: it is all that is necessary for faith and practice. For
Protestants "the Bible alone" means "the Bible only" is the final authority for our
Third, the Scriptures not only have sufficiency but they also possess final
authority. They are the final court of appeal on all doctrinal and moral matters.
However good they may be in giving guidance, all the fathers, Popes, and Councils
are fallible. Only the Bible is infallible.
Fourth, the Bible is perspicuous (clear). The perspicuity of Scripture does not
mean that everything in the Bible is perfectly clear, but rather the essential
teachings are. Popularly put, in the Bible the main things are the plain things, and
the plain things are the main things. This does not mean -- as Catholics often
assume -- that Protestants obtain no help from the fathers and early Councils.
Indeed, Protestants accept the great theological and Christological
pronouncements of the first four ecumenical Councils. What is more, most
Protestants have high regard for the teachings of the early fathers, though
obviously they do not believe they are infallible. So this is not to say there is no
usefulness to Christian tradition, but only that it is of secondary importance.
Fifth, Scripture interprets Scripture. This is known as the analogy of faith
principle. When we have difficulty in understanding an unclear text of Scripture, we
turn to other biblical texts. For the Bible is the best interpreter of the Bible. In the
Scriptures, clear texts should be used to interpret the unclear ones.
CATHOLIC ARGUMENTS FOR THE BIBLE PLUS TRADITION
One of the basic differences between Catholics and Protestants is over whether the
Bible alone is the sufficient and final authority for faith and practice, or the Bible plus
extrabiblical apostolic tradition. Catholics further insist that there is a need for a
teaching magisterium (i.e., the Pope and their bishops) to rule on just what is and
is not authentic apostolic tradition.
Catholics are not all agreed on their understanding of the relation of tradition to
Scripture. Some understand it as two sources of revelation. Others understand
apostolic tradition as a lesser form of revelation. Still others view this tradition in an
almost Protestant way, namely, as merely an interpretation of revelation (albeit,
an infallible one) which is found only in the Bible. Traditional Catholics, such as
Ludwig Ott and Henry Denzinger, tend to be in the first category and more modern
Catholics, such as John Henry Newman and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in the latter.
The language of the Council of Trent seems to favor the traditional
Whether or not extrabiblical apostolic tradition is considered a second source of
revelation, there is no question that the Roman Catholic church holds that apostolic
tradition is both authoritative and infallible. It is to this point that we speak now.
The Catholic Argument for Holding the Infallibility of Apostolic Tradition
The Council of Trent emphatically proclaimed that the Bible alone is not sufficient
for faith and morals. God has ordained tradition in addition to the Bible to faithfully
guide the church.
Infallible guidance in interpreting the Bible comes from the church. One of the
criteria used to determine this is the "unanimous consent of the Fathers." In
accordance with "The Profession of Faith of the Council of Trent" (Nov. 13, 1565),
all faithful Catholics must agree: "I shall never accept nor interpret it ['Holy
Scripture'] otherwise than in accordance with the unanimous consent of the
Catholic scholars advance several arguments in favor of the Bible and tradition, as
opposed to the Bible only, as the final authority. One of their favorite arguments is
that the Bible itself does not teach that the Bible only is our final authority for faith
and morals. Thus they conclude that even on Protestant grounds there is no
reason to accept sola Scriptura. Indeed, they believe it is inconsistent or self-refuting, since the Bible alone does not teach that the Bible alone is the basis of
faith and morals.
In point of fact, argue Catholic theologians, the Bible teaches that apostolic
"traditions" as well as the written words of the apostles should be followed. St.
Paul exhorted the Thessalonian Christians to "stand fast and hold the traditions
which you were taught, whether by word or epistle" (2 Thess. 2:15; cf. 3:6).
One Catholic apologist even went so far as to argue that the apostle John stated
his preference for oral tradition. John wrote: "I have much to write to you, but I
do not wish to write with pen and ink. Instead, I hope to see you soon when we
can talk face to face" (3 John 13). This Catholic writer adds, "Why would the
apostle emphasize his preference for oral Tradition over written Tradition...if, as
proponents of sola Scriptura assert, Scripture is superior to oral Tradition?"
Roman Catholic apologist Peter Kreeft lists several arguments against sola
Scriptura which in turn are arguments for tradition: "First, it separates Church and
Scripture. But they are one. They are not two rival horses in the authority race, but
one rider (the Church) on one horse (Scripture)." He adds, "We are not taught by
a teacher without a book or by a book without a teacher, but by one teacher, the
Church, with one book, Scripture."
Kreeft further argues that "sola Scriptura violates the principle of causality; that
an effect cannot be greater than its cause." For "the successors of the apostles,
the bishops of the Church, decided on the canon, the list of books to be declared
scriptural and infallible." And "if the Scripture is infallible, then its cause, the Church,
must also be infallible."
According to Kreeft, "denominationalism is an intolerable scandal by scriptural
standards -- see John 17:20-23 and I Corinthians 1:10-17." But "let five hundred
people interpret the Bible without Church authority and there will soon be five
hundred denominations." So rejection of authoritative apostolic tradition leads
to the unbiblical scandal of denominationalism.
Finally, Kreeft argues that "the first generation of Christians did not have the New
Testament, only the Church to teach them." This being the case, using the
Bible alone without apostolic tradition was not possible.
A PROTESTANT DEFENSE OF SOLA SCRIPTURA
As convincing as these arguments may seem to a devout Catholic, they are devoid
of substance. As we will see, each of the Roman Catholic arguments against the
Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura fails, and they are unable to provide any
substantial basis for the Catholic dogma of an infallible oral tradition.
Does the Bible Teach Sola Scriptura?
Two points must be made concerning whether the Bible teaches sola Scriptura.
First, as Catholic scholars themselves recognize, it is not necessary that the Bible
explicitly and formally teach sola Scriptura in order for this doctrine to be true.
Many Christian teachings are a necessary logical deduction of what is clearly taught
in the Bible (e.g., the Trinity). Likewise, it is possible that sola Scriptura could be a
necessary logical deduction from what is taught in Scripture.
Second, the Bible does teach implicitly and logically, if not formally and explicitly,
that the Bible alone is the only infallible basis for faith and practice. This it does in a
number of ways. One, the fact that Scripture, without tradition, is said to be "God-breathed" (theopnuestos) and thus by it believers are "competent, equipped for
every good work" (2 Tim. 3:16-17, emphasis added) supports the doctrine of
sola Scriptura. This flies in the face of the Catholic claim that the Bible is formally
insufficient without the aid of tradition. St. Paul declares that the God-breathed
writings are sufficient. And contrary to some Catholic apologists, limiting this to
only the Old Testament will not help the Catholic cause for two reasons: first, the
New Testament is also called "Scripture" (2 Pet. 3:15-16; 1 Tim. 5:18; cf. Luke
10:7); second, it is inconsistent to argue that God-breathed writings in the Old
Testament are sufficient, but the inspired writings of the New Testament are not.
Further, Jesus and the apostles constantly appealed to the Bible as the final court
of appeal. This they often did by the introductory phrase, "It is written," which is
repeated some 90 times in the New Testament. Jesus used this phrase three times
when appealing to Scripture as the final authority in His dispute with Satan (Matt.
4:4, 7, 10).
Of course, Jesus (Matt. 5:22, 28, 31; 28:18) and the apostles (1 Cor. 5:3; 7:12)
sometimes referred to their own God-given authority. It begs the question,
however, for Roman Catholics to claim that this supports their belief that the
church of Rome still has infallible authority outside the Bible today. For even they
admit that no new revelation is being given today, as it was in apostolic times. In
other words, the only reason Jesus and the apostles could appeal to an authority
outside the Bible was that God was still giving normative (i.e., standard-setting)
revelation for the faith and morals of believers. This revelation was often first
communicated orally before it was finally committed to writing (e.g., 2 Thess. 2:5).
Therefore, it is not legitimate to appeal to any oral revelation in New Testament
times as proof that nonbiblical infallible authority is in existence today.
What is more, Jesus made it clear that the Bible was in a class of its own, exalted
above all tradition. He rebuked the Pharisees for not accepting sola Scriptura and
negating the final authority of the Word of God by their religious traditions, saying,
"And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your
tradition?...You have nullified the word of God, for the sake of your tradition"
(Matt. 15:3, 6).
It is important to note that Jesus did not limit His statement to mere human
traditions but applied it specifically to the traditions of the religious authorities who
used their tradition to misinterpret the Scriptures. There is a direct parallel with the
religious traditions of Judaism that grew up around (and obscured, even negated)
the Scriptures and the Christian traditions that have grown up around (and
obscured, even negated) the Scriptures since the first century. Indeed, since
Catholic scholars make a comparison between the Old Testament high priesthood
and the Roman Catholic papacy, this would seem to be a very good analogy.
Finally, to borrow a phrase from St. Paul, the Bible constantly warns us "not to go
beyond what is written" (1 Cor. 4:6). This kind of exhortation is found
throughout Scripture. Moses was told, "You shall not add to what I command you
nor subtract from it" (Deut. 4:2). Solomon reaffirmed this in Proverbs, saying,
"Every word of God is tested....Add nothing to his words, lest he reprove you, and
you be exposed as a deceiver" (Prov. 30:5-6). Indeed, John closed the last words
of the Bible with the same exhortation, declaring: "I warn everyone who hears the
prophetic words in this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the
plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words in this
prophetic book, God will take away his share in the tree of life..." (Rev. 22:18-19).
Sola Scriptura could hardly be stated more emphatically.
Of course, none of these are a prohibition on future revelations. But they do apply
to the point of difference between Protestants and Catholics, namely, whether
there are any authoritative normative revelations outside those revealed to
apostles and prophets and inscripturated in the Bible. And this is precisely what
these texts say. Indeed, even the prophet himself was not to add to the revelation
God gave him. For prophets were not infallible in everything they said, but only
when giving God's revelation to which they were not to add or from which they
were not to subtract a word.
Since both Catholics and Protestants agree that there is no new revelation beyond
the first century, it would follow that these texts do support the Protestant principle
of sola Scriptura. For if there is no normative revelation after the time of the
apostles and even the prophets themselves were not to add to the revelations
God gave them in the Scriptures, then the Scriptures alone are the only infallible
source of divine revelation.
Roman Catholics admit that the New Testament is the only infallible record of
apostolic teaching we have from the first century. However, they do not seem to
appreciate the significance of this fact as it bears on the Protestant argument for
sola Scriptura. For even many early fathers testified to the fact that all apostolic
teaching was put in the New Testament. While acknowledging the existence of
apostolic tradition, J. D. N. Kelly concluded that "admittedly there is no evidence for
beliefs or practices current in the period which were not vouched for in the books
later known as the New Testament." Indeed, many early fathers, including
Athanasius, Cyril of Jerusalem, Chrysostom, and Augustine, believed that the Bible
was the only infallible basis for all Christian doctrine.
Further, if the New Testament is the only infallible record of apostolic teaching, then
every other record from the first century is fallible. It matters not that Catholics
believe that the teaching Magisterium later claims to pronounce some extrabiblical
tradition as infallibly true. The fact is that they do not have an infallible record from
the first century on which to base such a decision.
All Apostolic "Traditions" Are in the Bible
It is true that the New Testament speaks of following the "traditions" (=teachings)
of the apostles, whether oral or written. This is because they were living authorities
set up by Christ (Matt. 18:18; Acts 2:42; Eph. 2:20). When they died, however,
there was no longer a living apostolic authority since only those who were
eyewitnesses of the resurrected Christ could have apostolic authority (Acts 1:22;
1 Cor. 9:1). Because the New Testament is the only inspired (infallible) record of
what the apostles taught, it follows that since the death of the apostles the only
apostolic authority we have is the inspired record of their teaching in the New
Testament. That is, all apostolic tradition (teaching) on faith and practice is in the
This does not necessarily mean that everything the apostles ever taught is in the
New Testament, any more than everything Jesus said is there (cf. John 20:30;
21:25). What it does mean is that all apostolic teaching that God deemed
necessary for the faith and practice (morals) of the church was preserved (2 Tim.
3:15-17). It is only reasonable to infer that God would preserve what He inspired.
The fact that apostles sometimes referred to "traditions" they gave orally as
authoritative in no way diminishes the Protestant argument for sola Scriptura.
First, it is not necessary to claim that these oral teachings were inspired or
infallible, only that they were authoritative. The believers were asked to
"maintain" them (1 Cor. 11:2) and "stand fast in them" (2 Thess. 2:15). But oral
teachings of the apostles were not called "inspired" or "unbreakable" or the
equivalent, unless they were recorded as Scripture.
The apostles were living authorities, but not everything they said was infallible.
Catholics understand the difference between authoritative and infallible, since
they make the same distinction with regard to noninfallible statements made by
the Pope and infallible ex cathedra ("from the seat" of Peter) ones.
Second, the traditions (teachings) of the apostles that were revelations were
written down and are inspired and infallible. They comprise the New Testament.
What the Catholic must prove, and cannot, is that the God who deemed it so
important for the faith and morals of the faithful to inspire the inscripturation of 27
books of apostolic teaching would have left out some important revelation in these
books. Indeed, it is not plausible that He would have allowed succeeding
generations to struggle and even fight over precisely where this alleged extrabiblical
revelation is to be found. So, however authoritative the apostles were by their
office, only their inscripturated words are inspired and infallible (2 Tim. 3:16-17; cf.
There is not a shred of evidence that any of the revelation God gave them to
express was not inscripturated by them in the only books -- the inspired books of
the New Testament -- that they left for the church. This leads to another important
The Bible makes it clear that God, from the very beginning, desired that His
normative revelations be written down and preserved for succeeding generations.
"Moses then wrote down all the words of the Lord" (Exod. 24:4), and his book
was preserved in the Ark (Deut. 31:26). Furthermore, "Joshua made a covenant
with the people that day and made statutes and ordinances for them... which he
recorded in the book of the law of God" (Josh. 24:25-26) along with Moses' (cf.
Josh. 1:7). Likewise, "Samuel next explained to the people the law of royalty and
wrote it in a book, which he placed in the presence of the Lord" (1 Sam. 10:25).
Isaiah was commanded by the Lord to "take a large cylinder-seal, and inscribe on it
in ordinary letters" (Isa. 8:1) and to "inscribe it in a record; that it may be in future
days an eternal witness" (30:8). Daniel had a collection of "the books" of Moses
and the prophets right down to his contemporary Jeremiah (Dan. 9:2).
Jesus and New Testament writers used the phrase "It is written" (cf. Matt. 4:4, 7,
10) over 90 times, stressing the importance of the written word of God. When
Jesus rebuked the Jewish leaders it was not because they did not follow the
traditions but because they did not "understand the Scriptures" (Matt. 22:29). All
of this makes it clear that God intended from the very beginning that His revelation
be preserved in Scripture, not in extrabiblical tradition. To claim that the apostles
did not write down all God's revelation to them is to claim that they were not
obedient to their prophetic commission not to subtract a word from what God
revealed to them.
The Bible Does Not State a Preference for Oral Tradition
The Catholic use of 3 John to prove the superiority of oral tradition is a classic
example of taking a text out of context. John is not comparing oral and written
tradition about the past but a written, as opposed to a personal, communication in
the present. Notice carefully what he said: "I have much to write to you, but I do
not wish to write with pen and ink. Instead, I hope to see you soon when we can
talk face to face" (3 John 13). Who would not prefer a face-to-face talk with a
living apostle over a letter from him? But that is not what oral tradition gives.
Rather, it provides an unreliable oral tradition as opposed to an infallible written
one. Sola Scriptura contends the latter is preferable.
The Bible Is Clear Apart from Tradition
The Bible has perspicuity apart from any traditions to help us understand it. As
stated above, and contrary to a rather wide misunderstanding by Catholics,
perspicuity does not mean that everything in the Bible is absolutely clear but that
the main message is clear. That is, all doctrines essential for salvation and living
according to the will of God are sufficiently clear.
Indeed, to assume that oral traditions of the apostles, not written in the Bible, are
necessary to interpret what is written in the Bible under inspiration is to argue that
the uninspired is more clear than the inspired. But it is utterly presumptuous to
assert that what fallible human beings pronounce is clearer than what the infallible
Word of God declares. Further, it is unreasonable to insist that words of the
apostles that were not written down are more clear than the ones they did write.
We all know from experience that this is not so.
Tradition and Scripture Are Not Inseparable
Kreeft's claim that Scripture and apostolic tradition are inseparable is unconvincing.
Even his illustration of the horse (Scripture) and the rider (tradition) would suggest
that Scripture and apostolic tradition are separable. Further, even if it is granted
that tradition is necessary, the Catholic inference that it has to be infallible tradition
-- indeed, the infallible tradition of the church of Rome -- is unfounded. Protestants,
who believe in sola Scriptura, accept genuine tradition; they simply do not believe
it is infallible. Finally, Kreeft's argument wrongly assumes that the Bible was
produced by the Roman Catholic church. As we will see in the next point, this is not
The Principle of Causality Is Not Violated
Kreeft's argument that sola Scriptura violates the principle of causality is invalid
for one fundamental reason: it is based on a false assumption. He wrongly
assumes, unwittingly in contrast to what Vatican II and even Vatican I say about
the canon, that the church determined the canon. In fact, God determined
the canon by inspiring these books and no others. The church merely discovered
which books God had determined (inspired) to be in the canon. This being the case,
Kreeft's argument that the cause must be equal to its effect (or greater) fails.
Rejection of Tradition Does Not Necessitate Scandal
Kreeft's claim that the rejection of the Roman Catholic view on infallible tradition
leads to the scandal of denominationalism does not follow for many reasons. First,
this wrongly implies that all denominationalism is scandalous. Not necessarily so, as
long as the denominations do not deny the essential doctrines of the Christian
church and true spiritual unity with other believers in contrast to mere external
organizational uniformity. Nor can one argue successfully that unbelievers are
unable to see spiritual unity. For Jesus declared: "This is how all [men] will know
that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35).
Second, as orthodox Catholics know well, the scandal of liberalism is as great
inside the Catholic church as it is outside of it. When Catholic apologists claim there
is significantly more doctrinal agreement among Catholics than Protestants, they
must mean between orthodox Catholics and all Protestants (orthodox and
unorthodox) -- which, of course, is not a fair comparison.
Only when one chooses to compare things like the mode and candidate for
baptism, church government, views on the Eucharist, and other less essential
doctrines are there greater differences among orthodox Protestants. When,
however, we compare the differences with orthodox Catholics and orthodox
Protestants or with all Catholics and all Protestants on the more essential
doctrines, there is no significant edge for Catholicism. This fact negates the value of
the alleged infallible teaching Magisterium of the Roman Catholic church. In point of
fact, Protestants seem to do about as well as Catholics on unanimity of essential
doctrines with only an infallible Bible and no infallible interpreters of it!
Third, orthodox Protestant "denominations," though there be many, have not
historically differed much more significantly than have the various "orders" of the
Roman Catholic church. Orthodox Protestants' differences are largely over
secondary issues, not primary (fundamental) doctrines. So this Catholic argument
against Protestantism is self-condemning.
Fourth, as J. I. Packer noted, "the real deep divisions have been caused not by
those who maintained sola Scriptura, but by those, Roman Catholic and
Protestant alike, who reject it." Further, "when adherents of sola Scriptura have
split from each other the cause has been sin rather than Protestant
biblicism...." Certainly this is often the case. A bad hermeneutic (method of
interpreting Scripture) is more crucial to deviation from orthodoxy than is the
rejection of an infallible tradition in the Roman Catholic church.
First Century Christians Had Scripture and Living Apostles
Kreeft's argument that the first generation of Christians did not have the New
Testament, only the church to teach them, overlooks several basic facts. First, the
essential Bible of the early first century Christians was the Old Testament, as the
New Testament itself declares (cf. 2 Tim. 3:15-17; Rom. 15:4; 1 Cor. 10:6).
Second, early New Testament believers did not need further revelation through the
apostles in written form for one very simple reason: they still had the living
apostles to teach them. As soon as the apostles died, however, it became
imperative for the written record of their infallible teaching to be available. And it
was -- in the apostolic writings known as the New Testament. Third, Kreeft's
argument wrongly assumes that there was apostolic succession (see Part Four,
next issue). The only infallible authority that succeeded the apostles was their
infallible apostolic writings, that is, the New Testament.
PROTESTANT ARGUMENTS AGAINST INFALLIBLE TRADITION
There are many reasons Protestants reject the Roman Catholic claim that there is
an extrabiblical apostolic tradition of equal reliability and authenticity to Scripture.
The following are some of the more significant ones.
Oral Traditions Are Unreliable
In point of fact, oral traditions are notoriously unreliable. They are the stuff of which
legends and myths are made. What is written is more easily preserved in its original
form. Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper notes four advantages of a written
revelation: (1) It has durability whereby errors of memory or accidental
corruptions, deliberate or not, are minimized; (2) It can be universally disseminated
through translation and reproduction; (3) It has the attribute of fixedness and
purity; (4) It is given a finality and normativeness which other forms of
communication cannot attain.
By contrast, what is not written is more easily polluted. We find an example of this
in the New Testament. There was an unwritten "apostolic tradition" (i.e., one
coming from the apostles) based on a misunderstanding of what Jesus said. They
wrongly assumed that Jesus affirmed that the apostle John would not die. John,
however, debunked this false tradition in his authoritative written record (John
Common sense and historical experience inform us that the generation alive when
an alleged revelation was given is in a much better position to know if it is a true
revelation than are succeeding generations, especially those hundreds of years
later. Many traditions proclaimed to be divine revelation by the Roman Catholic
Magisterium were done so centuries, even a millennia or so, after they were
allegedly given by God. And in the case of some of these, there is no solid evidence
that the tradition was believed by any significant number of orthodox Christians
until centuries after they occurred. But those living at such a late date are in a
much inferior position than contemporaries, such as those who wrote the New
Testament, to know what was truly a revelation from God.
There Are Contradictory Traditions
It is acknowledged by all, even by Catholic scholars, that there are contradictory
Christian traditions. In fact, the great medieval theologian Peter Abelard noted
hundreds of differences. For example, some fathers (e.g., Augustine) supported
the Old Testament Apocrypha while others (e.g., Jerome) opposed it. Some great
teachers (e.g., Aquinas) opposed the Immaculate Conception of Mary while others
(e.g., Scotus) favored it. Indeed, some fathers opposed sola Scriptura, but others
Now this very fact makes it impossible to trust tradition in any authoritative sense.
For the question always arises: which of the contradictory traditions
(teachings) should be accepted? To say, "The one pronounced authoritative by
the church" begs the question, since the infallibility of tradition is a necessary link in
the argument for the very doctrine of the infallible authority of the church. Thus this
infallibility should be provable without appealing to the Magisterium. The fact is that
there are so many contradictory traditions that tradition, as such, is rendered
unreliable as an authoritative source of dogma.
Nor does it suffice to argue that while particular fathers cannot be trusted,
nonetheless, the "unanimous consent" of the fathers can be. For there is no
unanimous consent of the fathers on many doctrines "infallibly" proclaimed by the
Catholic church (see below). In some cases there is not even a majority consent.
Thus to appeal to the teaching Magisterium of the Catholic church to settle the
issue begs the question.
The Catholic response to this is that just as the bride recognizes the voice of her
husband in a crowd, even so the church recognizes the voice of her Husband in
deciding which tradition is authentic. The analogy, however, is faulty. First, it
assumes (without proof) that there is some divinely appointed postapostolic way
to decide -- extrabiblically -- which traditions were from God.
Second, historical evidence such as that which supports the reliability of the New
Testament is not to be found for the religious tradition used by Roman Catholics.
There is, for example, no good evidence to support the existence of first century
eyewitnesses (confirmed by miracles) who affirm the traditions pronounced
infallible by the Roman Catholic church. Indeed, many Catholic doctrines are based
on traditions that only emerge several centuries later and are disputed by both
other traditions and the Bible (e.g., the Bodily Assumption of Mary).
Finally, the whole argument reduces to a subjective mystical experience that is
given plausibility only because the analogy is false. Neither the Catholic church as
such, nor any of its leaders, has experienced down through the centuries anything
like a continual hearing of God's actual voice, so that it can recognize it again
whenever He speaks. The truth is that the alleged recognition of her Husband's
voice is nothing more than subjective faith in the teaching Magisterium of the
Roman Catholic church.
Catholic Use of Tradition Is Not Consistent
Not only are there contradictory traditions, but the Roman Catholic church is
arbitrary and inconsistent in its choice of which tradition to pronounce infallible. This
is evident in a number of areas. First, the Council of Trent chose to follow the
weaker tradition in pronouncing the apocryphal books inspired. The earliest and
best authorities, including the translator of the Roman Catholic Latin Vulgate Bible,
St. Jerome, opposed the Apocrypha.
Second, support from tradition for the dogma of the Bodily Assumption of Mary is
late and weak. Yet despite the lack of any real evidence from Scripture or any
substantial evidence from the teachings of early church fathers, Rome chose to
pronounce this an infallible truth of the Catholic faith. In short, Roman Catholic
dogmas at times do not grow out of rationally weighing the evidence of tradition
but rather out of arbitrarily choosing which of the many conflicting traditions they
wish to pronounce infallible. Thus, the "unanimous consent of the fathers" to which
Trent commanded allegiance is a fiction.
Third, apostolic tradition is nebulous. As has often been pointed out, "Never has the
Roman Catholic Church given a complete and exhaustive list of the contents of
extrabiblical apostolic tradition. It has not dared to do so because this oral tradition
is such a nebulous entity." That is to say, even if all extrabiblical revelation
definitely exists somewhere in some tradition (as Catholics claim), which ones
these are has nowhere been declared.
Finally, if the method by which they choose which traditions to canonize were
followed in the practice of textual criticism of the Bible, one could never arrive at a
sound reconstruction of the original manuscripts. For textual criticism involves
weighing the evidence as to what the original actually said, not reading back into it
what subsequent generations would like it to have said. Indeed, even most
contemporary Catholic biblical scholars do not follow such an arbitrary procedure
when determining the translation of the original text of Scripture (as in The New
In conclusion, the question of authority is crucial to the differences between
Catholics and Protestants. One of these is whether the Bible alone has infallible
authority. We have examined carefully the best Catholic arguments in favor of an
additional authority to Scripture, infallible tradition, and found them all wanting.
Further, we have advanced many reasons for accepting the Bible alone as the
sufficient authority for all matters of faith and morals. This is supported by Scripture
and sound reason. In Part Four we will go further in our examination of Catholic
authority by evaluating the Catholic dogma of the infallibility of the Pope.
About the Authors
Dr. Norman L. Geisler is Dean of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, NC.
He is author or co-author of over 40 books and has his Ph.D. in philosophy from
Loyola University, a Roman Catholic school in Chicago.
Ralph E. MacKenzie has dialogued with Roman Catholics for 40 years. He
graduated from Bethel Theological Seminary West, earning a Master of Arts in
Theological Studies (M.A.T.S.), with a concentration in church history.
[The material for this article is excerpted from a forthcoming book by the authors
titled, Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences (Baker
1 See Kenneth R. Samples, "What Think Ye of Rome?" (Parts One and Two),
Christian Research Journal, Winter (pp. 32-42) and Spring (pp. 32-42) 1993.
2 Some Reformed theologians wish to point out that the material principle is really
"in Christ alone" and faith alone is the means of access.
3 Henry Denzinger, The Sources of Catholic Dogma (London: B. Herder Book
Co., 1957) [section] 783, 244. From the Council of Trent, Session 4 (April 8,
4 Denzinger, "Systematic Index," 11.
5 Ibid. [sections] 995, 303.
6 See Patrick Madrid, "Going Beyond," This Rock, August 1992, 22-23.
7 Peter Kreeft, Fundamentals of the Faith (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988),
11 There is some debate even among Protestant scholars as to whether Paul is
referring here to his own previous statements or to Scripture as a whole. Since the
phrase used here is reserved only for Sacred Scripture (cf. 2 Tim. 3:15-16) the
latter seems to be the case.
12 J. D. N. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrine (New York: Harper & Row, 1960), 42-43.
13 See Austin Flannery, gen. ed., Vatican Council II, vol. 1, rev. ed. (Boston: St.
Paul Books & Media, 1992), Dei Verbum, 750-65 and Denzinger, [section] 1787,
14 J. I. Packer, "Sola Scriptura: Crucial to Evangelicalism," in The Foundations of
Biblical Authority, ed. James Boice (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), 103.
15 See Bruce Milne, Know the Truth (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press,
16 Bernard Ramm, The Pattern of Authority (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans,
Taken from the Christian Research Journal, Spring /Summer 1994, page 24. Copyright © 1994 by
the Christian Research Institute, P.O. Box 7000, Rancho Santa Margarita, CA 92688-7000. The
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End of document, CRJ0172A.TXT (original CRI file name), "What Think Ye of Rome? Part Three: The
Catholic-Protestant Debate on Biblical Authority" release A, September 30, 1994 R. Poll, CRI. A
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