“What is Truth?” - An Examination of Sola Scriptura
By Dwight Longenecker
Pontius Pilate asked the basic question for all humanity when he asked Jesus, “What is Truth?” The irony of the scene is powerful and poignant because the Eternal Truth stood before him incarnate as a human person. In John 14 Jesus had said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” Later in the gospel Peter said, “Where else shall we go Lord, but to you? You alone have the words of eternal life.” So the Christian answer is that Jesus himself is the Truth. If you want the Truth come to him.
That’s something all Christians agree on, but that answer raises more questions. The next question is—how do we come to know Jesus as truth? How do we get in touch with this Jesus who is truth? We need answers to specific questions—what should we believe? How shall we behave? How shall we run the church? Jesus may be the Truth, but how do we get hold of that truth? How do we know that what we believe is his truth?
In my evangelical days I was told the truth was to be found in the Bible and in the Bible alone. In my Bible lessons at Bob Jones I memorized a famous and important verse—2 Timothy 3.16-17: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is useful for doctrine, for instruction, for correction and training in righteousness so the man of God man be fully equipped for every good work.”
In other words—the Bible was where we turned to learn what to believe and how to behave. And we believe the Bible because it is inspired—it is God-breathed. But there are some problems with this view. A simple problem is that since 2 Timothy 3.16-17 is in the New Testament it can’t refer to the New Testament. Paul—in writing to Timothy—is only talking about the Old Testament Scriptures.
But let’s say for the sake of argument that it does refer to the New Testament too. While the verse certainly says the Scripture is inspired and that it should be used to determine doctrine and Christian behavior—it doesn’t say that Scripture is the ONLY authority for God’s truth. And in fact nowhere in the Bible do you find such a thing stated. In addition—if this is the only evidence for Biblical inspiration a problem arises as soon as you start to push things a little.
The problem is this: 2 Timothy 3.16 says, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God…” And this is used to prove that Scripture is inspired. But how do we know that 2 Timothy 3.16 is itself inspired? The reasoning is circular. It goes like this:
We believe the Bible. OK—why is that? Because it is inspired. Why do we believe it is inspired? Because the Bible says it is inspired and we believe the Bible. OK, how do we know the Bible is inspired? Because the Bible says it is inspired and we believe the Bible because it is inspired. Too much of this type of reasoning makes you dizzy. There has to be a better answer.
If that was one problem I also had another difficulty by the time I got to Bible college. I had always been taught that the Bible was simple to understand, and the simple gospel message was straightforward. But this caused a problem. If the gospel message was simple and straightforward why were there so many different Christian denominations all in disagreement with each other?
When I asked a teacher I was told that the different denominations agreed on the basics—which were plain and simply understood from Scripture, but they disagreed on the extras. But when I examined what the different denominations taught they not only disagreed on little things like whether women should wear hats to church or whether you had to be baptized by immersion or sprinkling, but they also disagreed on important things like baptism, communion, how you should be saved, who was in charge of the church, who was going to heaven and many other things. If Scripture was the only source of authority shouldn’t the Church be united around one simple, clear teaching from Scripture?
Another verse I had to memorize was 2 Peter 1.20: “No scripture is of any private interpretation, but holy men of God spake as the Holy Spirit instructed them.” Obviously all the different Christian denominations disagreed because they all had different interpretations of the Bible, and they were all convinced that their interpretation was right. And if they all had different interpretations of the Bible then they must be interpreting them on their own—but 2 Peter 1.20 says that the Bible cannot be interpreted privately. Something was wrong here.
So I wound up with two basic problems:
1. If the Bible gave the only support for its own inspiration then it was proving itself and that didn’t seem to work. There had to be some other authority which could validate the inspiration of the Bible.
2. If the Bible was the only source of authority for Christians, then why were all the different churches so divided? There had to be some other authority which could decide how the Bible was to be understood.
LIVE WITH DISAGREEMENTS?
In the face of these questions a lot of people nowadays give up believing in the inspiration of the Bible. About the disagreements in the Church they say, “Well, you can’t really know the right interpretation—we have to live with these disagreements.”
But can that be true? Is it possible that Jesus called himself the Way, the Truth and the Life and commanded his apostles to go out into all the world to preach the gospel if, at the end of the day, we can’t really know what is true after all? Is it possible that we have a gospel to proclaim, but God hasn’t provided a certain way for us to know what that gospel consists of and how it is applied? We’ve ended up like Pontius Pilate—shrugging our shoulders and saying cynically—“Ahh—What is ‘truth’ anyway?”
In fact there are some excellent rock-solid answers for these questions. The Bible IS inspired, but the evidence for its inspiration rests on something more than 2 Timothy 3.16. There is also a sure-fire way to know the right interpretation of the Bible, but the evidence for that sure interpretation is profound and goes to the very roots of Scripture itself.
The Bible didn’t just drop down out of heaven. Although we believe it was inspired by God, this inspiration happened through real people in real situations in real place and time. The Scriptures were written by the people of God, for the people of God. They were read by the people of God, used to teach the people of God, and used for the worship of the people of God. Maybe the best way to describe the Bible is to say that it is the ‘story of the people of God’—the Church—both the Old Testament Church and the New Testament Church.’ The Bible was never just a list of things about God which His people must believe. Neither was it a set of rules to be obeyed. Instead the Bible was first and foremost the story of God’s loving relationship with humanity.
Furthermore, the same people who wrote the Scriptures—used the Scriptures, prayed the Scriptures and learned from the Scriptures—chose which holy writings should be included as Scripture. By the end of the first century after Christ the Jews made the final decision about which of their writings were to make up the Old Testament. By the year 130 AD the early Christians were unanimous in accepting the four gospels and the thirteen letters of Paul. By 170 the church leaders had put these writings on the same level as the Old Testament, and within another two hundred years—by the year 369 we have the first list of the same New Testament books which we all agree on. Then in 382 at the Council of Rome the whole church agreed on a list of all the Old and New Testament books.
History shows that from the beginning there has been an extraordinary group of people who claimed to be God’s chosen people. The Christian church was founded by a clear and direct act of God’s inspiration at Pentecost. Just as the Old Testament people of God were guided by a pillar of fire—representing the Holy Spirit—so the New Testament Church is a holy people—guided by the Holy Spirit of Pentecost. This community of faith is a fact of history. That it is guided and protected by God is historically evident. Because it speaks with Spirit-filled authority the Church—the people of God who were inspired to write the Scriptures—can also validate the inspiration of the Bible.
So Catholics say the Bible is inspired NOT just because 2 Timothy 3.16 says so, but also because the Bible is the product of the people of God. The Bible is inspired because it is the product of the Spirit-filled Church. The inspired people of God wrote the Scriptures, used the Scriptures, prayed the Scriptures and chose which writings were to be considered Scripture, and that is why we believe the Bible to be inspired.
The Authority of the Church
The truth in the Bible comes to us through the experience of the Church and this matches up exactly with Paul’s view. In 1 Timothy 3.15 he says something very important “…God’s church is the household of the living God, the pillar and foundation of truth.” and in Ephesians 3.10 he says that it is God’s ”…intent that through the church the manifold wisdom of God should be made known.”
In other words it is through the Church that we learn the truth about Jesus—not just the Bible. It is by belonging to the living body of Christ—the Church—that we come to understand and know the mystery of Jesus Christ himself.
Paul says the Church is the pillar and foundation of truth. So the Church is the basis for the truth, the support for the truth, it is on the Church that the whole edifice rests and is supported. Without the Church the whole thing is built on sand. Not only does the Church establish and validate the inspiration of the Bible, and not only was the Bible the product of the Church’s life, but the Church also determined which books went into the Bible. It’s no exaggeration to say that without the Church we wouldn’t have a Bible at all.
As a result Catholics conclude that you cannot have the Scriptures without the Church even today. The two pillars of Scripture and the Church’s teaching stand together. The Scriptures offer the inspired Word of God and the Church’s Teaching offers the God-given interpretation of the Word. Catholics believe the Bible is interpreted by a living, dynamic, spirit-filled Church, and from Pentecost onward this Church has always passed its teaching on from one generation to the next in both written form.
But the church did not only pass the teaching on in written form. From the earliest days the teaching was also passed on through an oral tradition. By ‘Tradition’ Catholics don’t mean dead religious customs, ceremonies, rules and regulations. Instead when Catholics speak of ‘tradition’ we are referring to a body of teaching which is formed by the experience of the Church. A body of teaching which is at once ancient and yet fresh and alive.
Is this what the early Church believed? Did Paul rest his faith only in the Scriptures? He certainly rested them in the Old Testament Scriptures. He told Timothy, “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching.” Elsewhere he told Timothy to “continue in what you have learned… because you know those from whom you learned it and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures.”
Paul believed in the Old Testament. He also believed that his own writings were to be taken as authoritative for determining doctrine and right Christian behavior. But he also believed his other teachings were authoritative. This strand of apostolic teaching isn’t written down. It is the inspired preaching of the apostles, and this oral teaching and preaching comes directly from God as does the written word.
Jesus said to his apostles in Luke 10.16 that “whoever listens to you listens to me.” In 2 Peter 3.2 Peter pointed out that the word of the apostles comes as from the Lord himself and in Galatians 1.11-12 Paul proclaimed, “I want you to know that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.” Peter in 1 Peter 1.24-25 called this divinely inspired preaching the “living and enduring word of God.” and said that it would stand for ever. So along with the written word of God there was to be an enduring oral tradition—a teaching which would be passed on from generation to generation.
Paul stated this most clearly in 2 Thessalonians 2.15. There he said, “So then brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions we passed on to you whether by word of mouth or by letter.” So the teachings which Paul received from Jesus he passed on both in writing and by word of mouth.
Some people say that the word of mouth tradition ceased once the Bible books were written, but Paul acknowledges that both sources of teaching existed when he wrote to the Thessalonians. We also see that Paul not only received this oral tradition from others, but he also passed it on to his hearers. In I Corinthians 15. 2-3 he said, “By this gospel you are saved if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you….For what I received I passed on to you as of the first importance.”
Paul knows the importance of the oral teaching as well as the written teaching because he tells Timothy in 2 Timothy 1.13 to faithfully guard the oral teaching which he had received. So he writes, “What you heard from me keep as the pattern of sound teaching with faith and love in Jesus Christ guard the good deposit which is entrusted to you.” Elsewhere he praises the Corinthians for ‘upholding the traditions which I have passed on to you.’ (I Cor.11.2)
Catholics believe that this ancient teaching of the apostles has been handed on from generation to generation and kept alive by the constant and continual life of the Church—the new people of God. Did Paul think this oral teaching was to be passed on? Paul said to Timothy in 2 Timothy 2.2: “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others.” In other words he commanded Timothy to hand on the oral tradition which he had received from Paul. Its interesting that in this passage Paul is referring to four generations of succession—his own, Timothy’s, the people Timothy would teach and the ones they would teach in turn.
The Deposit of Faith in the Early Church Fathers
The documents of the early Church in the years just after the death of the apostles show that they believed their Church leaders had inherited a precious deposit of faith—both in the writings of the apostles and in the oral traditions of the apostles. In about AD 95 a Church leader in Rome called Clement wrote to the church at Corinth about his church, “the faith of the gospels is established and the tradition of the Apostles is revered.”
Writing about the year 189 Irenaeus—a bishop in the French city of Lyons wrote: “What if the apostles had not left writings to us? Would it not be necessary to follow the order of tradition which was handed down to those to whom they entrusted the churches?” Elsewhere Irenaeus also pointed out how important this apostolic tradition is for people to know the full truth. “It is possible then for everyone in every church who may wish to know the truth to contemplate the Traditions of the Apostles which has been made known throughout the whole world.”
This helps us answer the difficult question—where do we turn for a faithful interpretation of the Bible? Is there a body of teaching which has been faithfully passed down from the apostles that would help us to interpret the Scriptures the right way? If such a body of teaching exists then it provides a rich mine for us to turn to when we try to interpret the Scripture. If an ancient strand of teaching exists which goes back to the apostles themselves then we have not only the Scripture for a source book, but we have a rich tapestry of teaching which helps us to understand the Scripture.
As Catholics we believe that we have just such a source for properly interpreting the Bible. So when we have a difficult question of Biblical interpretation we don’t just read the rest of the Bible to find the answer to the difficult question. We turn to the tradition to see what the people of God believed before us. Did they face the same question? How did they answer it? Did they face a similar circumstance? How did they confront it? Did they face the same doubts, problems, heresies and attacks? How did they stand up for the truth in their day? How can it help us determine the truth today?
The Guidance of the Holy Spirit
From the beginning the gospel of salvation was passed on by both word of mouth and by a living oral tradition of teaching. Eventually the written Word came to be collected together into what we know as the New Testament, but that didn’t mean the dynamic, infilling Holy Spirit ceased to function in the Church. We know that the Spirit of Pentecost is still poured out on the Church—guiding and protecting and teaching. In John 16.13 Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit—who guides the Church—would lead his apostles into all truth, and in John 14.16 Jesus promises that the Holy Spirit would be with the apostles forever.
Second Peter states: “No prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation.” So if we are not to interpret the Scripture on our own, who is to interpret it for us? Jesus said the Holy Spirit will guide us into all truth, so the Holy Spirit plays a part. But Peter himself answers the question in the same epistle. In verse 16-18 of chapter one Peter claimed teaching authority because he was an eyewitness of Jesus’ life and glory and got the truth direct from Jesus. He then said in verse 2 of chapter three that the truth was spoken in the past by the holy prophets and the commands are now given by Jesus Christ through the apostles.
What is important to see here is that Peter compares the role of the New Testament apostles to the Old Testament prophets. The prophets were directly inspired by God. Their preaching was considered to be a direct word from God to the people of God. We have already seen that Peter considered his preaching to be ‘the Word of God which stands forever.’ As such the apostles are the prophets—the God-inspired teachers of the New Testament people of God. When Peter says “No prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation” he also means that only the prophet—that is—the apostle is entitled and empowered by the Holy spirit to give the right interpretation.
Paul agrees with him. In Ephesians 3.5 he says the mystery of God has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. And it is the same Spirit-led group of men who are the foundation of the church—so Paul says in chapter 2 verse 20 that the Ephesians are members of the Church—the household of God which is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus as the chief corner stone. Jesus is the corner stone of this Church, but it is the apostles and the prophets—inspired by God’s Holy Spirit—who provide the foundation for the Church. (Cf. Rev. 21.14)
This verse fits together with Paul’s other teaching that the Church is the ‘pillar and foundation of truth’? (I Tim 3.15) So the Church—based on the teaching of the apostles—is the source for Scripture, and who can rightly interpret the Scripture? The same apostolic Church continues to be the faithful interpreter of the Scripture. The Church which was inspired to write the Scripture and inspired to choose which books went into the Bible is also the chosen, Spirit-filled interpreter of Scripture.
Where does one find this apostolic Church today?
If its true that the apostles were the ones to interpret Scripture, and the apostolic Church was therefore the one to interpret Scripture, does that same apostolic authority exist today? Does the apostolic Church exist today? If so where can we find it? We have seen that Paul explicitly handed on his teaching authority to Timothy and commanded him to hand on that authority to others who would in turn hand it on to their successors.
Timothy wasn’t the only one. Paul also sent Titus to Crete to organize the Church there. He calls Titus his son in the faith and says, “The reason I left you behind in Crete was for you to get everything organized there and to appoint elders in every town the way I told you.” And what kind of a man must this elder be? “He must have a firm grasp of the unchanging tradition so that he can be counted on to expound sound doctrine.” So in the New Testament we see Paul clearly setting up the Church with his sons in the faith as his successors in the various locations.
The writings of the early Church testify that the first generation of Christians after the apostles believed their Church leaders had somehow inherited the same teaching authority that the apostles had.
So Clement—the leader of the Roman Church around 95 AD writes: “The Apostles received the gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ…and they went out full of confidence in the Holy spirit…and appointed their first fruits…to be bishops and deacons. Our apostles knew there would be strife on the question of the bishop’s office, Therefore, they appointed these people already mentioned and later made further provision that if they should fall asleep other tested men should suceed to their ministry.” So Clement of Rome believed the apostles—one of whom may still have been alive—had wished for their teaching office to be continued in the Church.
Ignatius of Antioch was martyred in the year 115. In writing to the Trallian Church he equates the Church elders with apostles: “Submit yourselves also to the priests as to the Apostles of Jesus Christ.”
And Irenaeus who wrote around 180 AD also believed firmly that the Church had inherited the authority of the apostles to teach the truth faithfully. According to him it is because the Church leaders have inherited the apostolic authority that they can interpret Scripture properly. So he writes, “By knowldege of the truth we mean: the teaching of the Apostles; the order of the Church as established from earliest times throughout the world…preserved through the episcopal succession: for to the bishops the apostles committed the care of the church in each place which has come down to our own time safeguarded by …the most complete exposition…the reading of the Scriptures without falsification and careful and consistent exposition of them—avoiding both rashness and blasphemy.”
Remembering that Paul handed on his teaching authority to Timothy and Titus, and seeing how through history that authority has been handed down from generation to generation, Catholics believe that the dynamic and living teaching authority continues to live within the Catholic bishops who have received their ministry in direct line from the apostles, passed down over the last 2,000 years.
Because of this direct link Catholics believe the Church has a living connection with the apostolic authority, and that within the living apostolic tradition of the Catholic Church we can find a rock-solid, sure, historic and unified body of teaching which illuminates and interprets the Bible without fail.