A friend of mine recently asked me what the difference is between our church and The Roman Catholic Church. I thought it a good enough question to put the answer in writing. Doctrinally and practically there are myriads of differences, but each is a result of a different source of authority. The Roman Catholic Church places itself under the authority of both oral tradition and Scripture. We on the contrary place ourselves under the authority of Scripture alone, or as it in Latin, Sola Scriptura.
The Roman Catholic Teaching on Scripture
The Catholic Church claims to have both oral tradition and Scripture as the authoritative Word of God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church maintains that the Church received the gospel both “orally” and “in writing” from the apostles (CCC 76). While the written record of the apostles’ teaching is the Scriptures or the Bible, the oral record of the apostles is a “living transmission…called Tradition,” and, “it is distinct from Sacred Scripture” (CCC 78). Dei verbum, an authoritative Catholic document, reads, “…it is not from Sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed” (DV 9). As such “both sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence” (DV 9). The Catholic Catechism teaches tradition and Scripture flow “from the same divine well-spring,” but each is a different stream. While the first stream, Scripture, has been passed down in writing, the second stream, tradition, has been passed down orally through word of mouth by the bishops of the Church. In essence, Roman Catholicism does not rely on Scripture alone as the authoritative Word of God, but upon both oral tradition and Scripture together.
The Protestant Teaching on Scripture
Our own church holds to the historic Protestant belief that the Old and New Testaments are the authoritative Word of God. Outside of the Bible we have no other books, traditions, or person to which we ultimately submit. While we may observe various traditions and have authoritative doctrinal statements, all traditions and doctrines must yield to and be tested by Scripture so that Scripture itself is our ultimate authority. The Westminster Confession explains this well: “The Supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture” (WC 1.X).
While the 16th and 17th century Protestant Reformation recovered and mainstreamed Sola Scriptura, the concept did not originate in that period. The New Testament and the church fathers all taught Sola Scriptura. In the late Middle Ages, theologians began to confuse Scripture and oral tradition so that both were considered equally authoritative. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the time of the Reformation, the reformers called the Church back to the Bible, or as they said in Latin, ad Fontes, “Back to the sources!”
The New Testament Teaching on Scripture
We believe that our reliance upon Scripture alone, not Scripture and oral tradition, is rooted in the actual teachings of Scripture. The Old Testament anticipated the coming of Christ, and then Christ Himself anticipated that the apostles would set a doctrinal foundation upon which the Church would be built. When Jesus told Peter He would build his Church “on this rock” (Matthew 16:18), He meant that Peter himself contained the doctrine of Jesus Christ upon which He would build the Church. Peter’s confession in the preceding verses, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16), serves as the foundational confession of the Church. Peter, along with the other apostles, went on to lay a foundation for the Church in the pages of the New Testament. The Apostle Paul recognized apostolic doctrine to be foundational inEphesians 2:20 when he said the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.” They laid that foundation on the pages of the New Testament so that any true church would be built on the Scriptural understanding of Christ, not some conjured up and convoluted man-made understanding of Christ.
The apostles insisted that all theological claims must be tested against the actual teachings of the 1st century apostles. The Apostle Paul even said, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8). By that standard the apostles themselves, along with heavenly angels, must be tested by the New Testament teachings. If the apostles taught a doctrine not found in the New Testament, it was not legitimate. The apostolic faith of the New Testament is, therefore, the standard to which all other true doctrine must align. The Apostle Paul warned, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition” (Colossians 2:8). The world and the Church are full of idea after idea, but in order for those ideas to be legitimized as truly Christian they must be tested against the sayings of the apostles in Scripture. The Scriptures themselves are the objective standard of truth, nothing and nobody else.
This authority of Scripture is illustrated in the Old Testament King Josiah who brought reformation to the Kingdom of Judah. The Kingdom had become corrupted by idol worship, and it had fallen into the vain traditions of men. Josiah “heard the words of the Book of the Law” (2 Kings 22:11). At that point, he called the nation to repentance when “he read in their hearing all the words of the Book of the Covenant that had been found in the house of the Lord” (2 Kings 23:2). In response to the reading, he instituted an aggressive reformation policy to rid Israel of its idols and return them to the worship of the one true God. The nation repented to God, not as a response to an oral tradition, but in response to the hearing of the Word of God in a book, the Bible.
The Teaching of the Early and Medieval Church on Scripture
The apostolic teaching of the supremacy of Scripture as our divine rule continued through the patristic era into the Middle Ages. Consider the following quotes.
Carthaginian theologian Tertullian (2nd -3rd c) wrote, “I revere the fullness of His Scriptures.”
Clement of Alexandria (2nd – 3rd c) titled a chapter in his book Stromata “On the Scripture as the the Criterion by Which Truth and Heresy Are Distinguished.”
In the same time period, Italian theologian Hippolytus wrote, “There is one God, the knowledge of whom we gain from the Holy Scriptures, and from no other source.”
John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople (4th-5th c), said, “Just as people who are deprived of daylight stumble about, so also those who do not look at the brilliant light of the Holy Scriptures must frequently and constantly sin because they walk in the worst darkness.”
Saint Athanasius (4th c) said, “The sacred and inspired Scriptures are sufficient to declare the truth.”
Cyril of Jerusalem (4th c) wrote, “For concerning the divine and holy mysteries of the faith, not even a casual statement must be delivered without the Holy Scriptures…For this salvation which we believe depends…on the demonstration of the Holy Scriptures.”
Saint Jerome (4th-5th c) remarked, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.”
Vincent of Lerins (5th c) wrote, “The canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient.”
The Benedictine theologian, Rupert of Deutz (11th-12th c), held “Whatever may be arrived at outside of the rule of the Holy Scriptures, nobody can lawfully demand from a Catholic.”
Scottish philosopher-theologian Duns Scotus (13th-14th c) believed “Scripture contains the doctrine necessary for Christian pilgrims.”
Gabriel Biel (15th c), a German churchman, wrote, “Only Holy Scripture teaches all that is to be believed and hoped and all other things necessary for salvation.”
In every century, God preserved His people who held Scripture to be the ultimate standard of truth.
The Protestant Reformation and Scripture
Sola Scriptura became clouded in the late Middle Ages when theologians started confusing tradition and Scripture as equal authorities. Somewhere along the line, church authorities started to claim they possessed an oral tradition that justified beliefs and practices that were not found in Scripture or were even directly opposed to Scripture.
Holding Scripture and tradition as equal authorities led to various abuses of power within the Church. The clergy, with their access to a secret oral tradition, had a doctrinal edge that was hidden from the general population.
Noting these abuses prompted Martin Luther, a German monk, to call the Church back to the Scriptures as the ultimate authority. “A simple layman armed with Scripture is to be believed above a pope or a council without it,” maintained Luther. His call to reform prompted a huge defection from the Church of Rome. With the innovation of the printing press, Luther democratized apostolic teaching by publishing Bibles, which only demonstrated that church leaders were contradicting the Bible with their traditions.
The Protestant Reformers did not believe they were bringing a new teaching to Europe, but rather they thought themselves to be bringing the very old teachings of Scripture to Europe – teachings that had become clouded by the traditions of the Church. The Protestant Reformation was a return to first principles.
The Roman Catholic Assertion on Scripture and Tradition
In response to Luther and the Reformation the Roman Catholic Church doubled down and held the Council of Trent from 1545 to 1563, officially renouncing the doctrines of the Protestant Reformation as heretical. In 1546 during the 4th session the council maintained that both Scripture and tradition, not Scripture alone, teach the truth about God. The council proclaimed that Jesus Christ “first promulgated with His own mouth, and then commanded to be preached by His Apostles to every creature…in the written books, and the unwritten traditions which…have come down even unto us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand.” The council then pronounced anathama, or damnation, on anyone who rejected their claims: “But if any one… knowingly and deliberately contemn the traditions aforesaid; let him be anathema.” There was no going back. The Catholic Church officially condemned anyone who rejected the supremacy of the oral traditions. Within the Roman Catholic Church the Council of Trent still stands, and those who appeal to Scripture as their final authority over and above tradition are still anathema.
So what is the difference between what we believe and what Catholics believe? The variances are many, but each variance derives from a variance in authority. Long ago, the Roman Catholic Church decided to submit to an authority outside of Scripture, the authority of oral tradition. That decision had consequences, and those consequences manifest in the many Catholic teachings, some minor and others major, not found in the Bible. Instead of appealing to the Bible to validate many of its teachings, the Catholic Church continues to appeal to an oral tradition passed down by the bishops.
We on the other hand have consciously placed ourselves under the authority of Scripture alone. With that, we constantly evaluate our doctrine and practice against the authority of Scripture, always trying to submit to the supremacy of God as He has revealed Himself in Scripture. Our conviction stems from the teachings and example of the Old and New Testaments. The early Church fathers upheld the authority of Scripture, but various church leaders clouded this teaching in the Middle Ages. During the 16th century, God sparked a great Christian revival in Europe, and the Protestant Reformation called Christians back to the Bible. We still do the same.
List of sources:
Allison, Gregg R. Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2014.
Allison, Gregg R., and Wayne A. Grudem. Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine : A Companion to Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2011.
Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2014 ed. London: Bloomsbury, 2014.
Cross, F. L. “Counter-Reformation, Page 426.” In The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. 3rd ed. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Cross, F. L. “Trent, Council of (1546-1563), Page 1650.” In The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. 3rd ed. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Frame, John M. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2013.
Grudem, Wayne A. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994.