Refutation of Dr. John MacArthur’s Defense of Sola Scriptura

Refutation of Dr. John MacArthur’s Defense of Sola Scriptura July 6, 2015


John F. MacArthur, Jr. (born 1939) in 2013 [Wikimedia Commons /Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication]

(15 September 2003)

Dr. John MacArthur is an influential and well-known radio preacher, Bible expositor, and author, well-worth listening to (until he gets to the subject of Catholicism . . . ). I will quote a great deal of his article, but not all. Dr. MacArthur’s words will be in blue. The subtitles are his own (in brown). 

* * * * * 

Teaching as Doctrines the Precepts of Men 

. . . The Jews of Jesus’ day also placed tradition on an equal footing with Scripture. Rather, in effect, they made tradition superior to Scripture, because Scripture was interpreted by tradition and therefore made subject to it.

It doesn’t follow that because interpretation exists, therefore, Scripture is “subject to it,” in the sense that it is somehow lesser or inferior. That is simply an unbiblical and false Protestant dichotomy (one of many). Interpretation must exist because that is simply the reality with regard to all written documents: even inspired ones. This is presupposed in Scripture itself (RSV):

. . . no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation . . .
(2 Peter 1:20)

. . . Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him . . . in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their destruction.
(2 Peter 3:15-16)

In Nehemiah 8:1-8, we find that Ezra reads the law of Moses to the people in Jerusalem (8:3). In 8:7 we find thirteen Levites who assisted Ezra, and who helped the people to understand the law. Much earlier, in King Jehoshaphat’s reign, we find Levites exercising the same function (2 Chronicles 17:8-9). There is no sola Scriptura, with its associated idea “perspicuity” (evident clearness in the main) here. In Nehemiah 8:8: . . . they read from the book, from the law of God, clearly [footnote, “or with interpretation”], and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. So the people did indeed understand the law (8:12), but not without much assistance – not merely upon hearing.

Whenever tradition is elevated to such a high level of authority, it inevitably becomes detrimental to the authority of Scripture.

This doesn’t follow, either. To say that supremely authoritative Scripture has to be interpreted is not to denigrate it in the slightest. Many Protestant scholars have pointed out that the Catholic Church’s regard for Scripture is in no wise inferior to that of evangelical Protestantism:

Roman Catholicism has a high regard for Scripture as a source of knowledge . . . Indeed, official Roman Catholic statements concerning the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture would satisfy the most rigorous Protestant fundamentalist.

(Robert McAfee Brown, The Spirit of Protestantism, Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1961, 172-173)

There was never a time in the history of the western Church during the ‘Dark’ or ‘Middle’ Ages when the Scriptures were officially demoted. On the contrary, they were considered infallible and inerrant, and were held in the highest honour.

(Peter Toon, Protestants and Catholics, Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Books, 1983, 39)

After quoting 19 eminent Church Fathers to the effect that Scripture is infallible and held in the
highest regard (bolstering his own thesis in this book), and citing all sorts of examples of Protestant denominations lowering their view of biblical infallibility and inerrancy, Harold Lindsell, former editor of Christianity Today and well-known evangelical scholar, has this to say about the Catholic reverence for Scripture:

The view expressed by Augustine was the view the Roman Catholic Church believed, taught, and propagated through the centuries . . . It can be said that the Roman church for more than a thousand years accepted the doctrine of infallibility of all Scripture . . . The church has always (via Fathers, theologians, and popes) taught biblical inerrancy . . . The Roman church held to a view of Scripture that was no different from that held by the Reformers.

(The Battle For the Bible, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1976, 54-56)

Jesus made this very point when he confronted the Jewish leaders. He showed that in many cases their traditions actually nullified Scripture. He therefore rebuked them in the harshest terms:

“Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me. But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.”
“Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.” He was also saying to them, “You nicely set aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition. For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him be put to death’; but you say, ‘If a man says to his father or his mother, anything of mine you might have been helped by is Corban (that is to say, given to God),’ you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or his mother, thus invalidating the word of God by your tradition which you have handed down; and you do many things such as that (Mark 7:6 – 13).

A half-truth is little better than a lie. Protestant defenders are always presenting these passages where unbiblical traditions of men are condemned, and then making out that this is the biblical and apostolic view of all notions of tradition whatsoever. In other words, for them, Tradition is a “dirty word.” This is manifestly false, as I have shown by many many Scriptural proofs in Section III above. To be fair to Dr. MacArthur, he later deals with some of the verses about “tradition” that Catholics present, but he misinterprets them, as I will show.

It was inexcusable that tradition would be elevated to the level of Scripture in Judaism, because when God gave the law to Moses, it was in written form for a reason: to make it permanent and inviolable. The Lord made very plain that the truth He was revealing was not to be tampered with, augmented, or diminished in any way. His Word was the final authority in all matters: “You shall not add to the word which I am commanding you, nor take away from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you” (Deuteronomy 4:2). They were to observe His commandments assiduously, and neither supplement nor abrogate them by any other kind of “authority”: “Whatever I command you, you shall be careful to do; you shall not add to nor take away from it” (Deuteronomy 12:32).

This was dealt with at length in the refutation of Richart Bennett: following the written word does not automatically rule out an oral tradition.

So the revealed Word of God, and nothing else, was the supreme and sole authority in Judaism. This alone was the standard of truth delivered to them by God Himself. Moses was instructed to write down the very words God gave him (Exodus 34:27), and that written record of God’s Word became the basis for God’s covenant with the nation (Exodus 24:4, 7). The written Word was placed in the Ark of the Covenant (Deuteronomy 31:9), symbolizing its supreme authority in the lives and the worship of the Jews forever. God even told Moses’ successor, Joshua: “Be strong and very courageous; be careful to do according to all the law which Moses My servant commanded you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, so that you may have success wherever you go. This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night., so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it” Joshua 1:7 – 8).

This is patently untrue, and was dealt with in my similar refutation of Dr. Richard Bennett.

Of course, other books of inspired Scripture beside those written by Moses were later added to the Jewish canon – but this was a prerogative reserved by God alone. Sola Scriptura was therefore established in principle with the giving of the law. No tradition passed down by word of mouth, no rabbinical opinion, and no priestly innovation was to be accorded authority equal to the revealed Word of God as recorded in Scripture.

Then why did Jesus appeal to authoritative oral and/or non-biblical written Jewish traditions? Either our Lord Jesus was right or Dr. MacArthur is. They can’t both be right. I rather prefer Jesus, if I must make a choice between the two . . .

Agur understood this principle: “Every word of God is tested; He is a shield to those who take refuge in Him. Do not add to His words lest He reprove you, and you be proved a liar” (Proverbs 30:5 – 6).

The Scriptures therefore were to be the one standard by which everyone who claimed to speak for God was tested: “To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” (Isaiah 8:20, KJV).

The Old Testament itself and the conclusions of Old Testament scholars lead to an understanding that the ancient Jews did not believe in sola Scriptura, so it is foolish to appeal to the Old Testament as “proof” that they did, or that this is the biblical position.

In short, tradition had no legitimate place of authority in the worship of Jehovah. Everything was to be tested by the Word of God as recorded in the Scriptures.

Tradition can be in harmony with the written word, which is the possibility that Dr. MacArthur either doesn’t realize, or won’t allow because of preconceived notions which won’t allow this.

That’s why Jesus’ rebuke to the scribes and Pharisees was so harsh. Their very faith in Rabbinical tradition was in and of itself a serious transgression of the covenant and commandments of God (cf. Matthew 15:3).

Insofar as they transgressed true tradition, yes. But that is not the whole “ball of wax.” One who loves Holy Scripture won’t ignore or “sweep under the rug” certain portions of it (ones I have detailed above).

The Rise and Ruin of Catholic Tradition

Unfortunately, Christianity has often followed the same tragic road as paganism and Judaism in its tendency to elevate tradition to a position of authority equal to or greater than Scripture. The Catholic Church in particular has its own body of tradition that functions exactly like the Jewish Talmud: it is the standard by which Scripture is to be interpreted. In effect, tradition supplants the voice of Scripture itself.

No evidence is given for such a wild assertion. It is merely anti-Catholic cynicism and prejudice. Dr. MacArthur can’t even accurately detail what Scripture says in the first place about tradition. He gives us only a small portion of that (not coincidentally the verses where false traditions of men are being condemned). Now he goes on to make false and unsubstantiated claims about the Catholic Church.

How did this happen? As James White has demonstrated in his chapter on “Sola Scriptura and the Early Church,” the earliest church Fathers placed a strong emphasis on the authority of Scripture over verbal tradition. Fierce debates raged in the early church over such crucial matters as the deity of Christ, His two natures, the Trinity, and the doctrine of original sin. Early church councils settled those questions by appealing to Scripture as the highest of all authorities. The councils themselves did not merely issue ex cathedra decrees, but they reasoned things out by Scripture and made their rulings accordingly. The authority was in the appeal to Scripture, not in the councils per se.

Of course the Fathers appealed to Scripture as supreme authority in doctrinal matters (so do Catholics; it is the overwhelming emphasis of my own apologetic and evangelistic ministry). But the Fathers did not believe in sola Scriptura, which is a different thing. Dr. MacArthur is seriously mistaken.

Unfortunately, the question of Scriptural authority itself was not always clearly delineated in the early church, and as the church grew in power and influence, church leaders began to assert an authority that had no basis in Scripture.

That’s an unproven assumption, as are many remarks following, which I will delete for the sake of space. What is “biblical” or not, or consistent with Holy Scripture or not has to be established in lengthy discussions on each particular topic.

Tradition, according to Roman Catholicism, is therefore as much “the Word of God” as Scripture.

That is what the Bible itself clearly teaches, as I’ve conclusively shown many times.

So in effect, tradition is not only made equal to Scripture, but it becomes the true Scripture, written not in documents, but mystically within the Church herself. And when the Church speaks, her voice is heard as if it were the voice of God, giving the only true meaning to the words of the “documents and records.” Thus tradition utterly supplants and supersedes Scripture.

How, then, does Dr. MacArthur deal with the Council of Jerusalem, where the Holy Spirit led the delegates to pronounce an authoritative interpretation, which Paul, Timothy, and Silas then went out and preached in many cities (see Section III above). Was that an instance in which the very apostles themselves “supplanted and superseded Scripture”?

Modern Catholic Apologetics and Sola Scriptura

In other words, the official Catholic position on Scripture is that Scripture does not and cannot speak for itself. It must be interpreted by the Church’s teaching authority and in light of “living tradition.”

The Bible itself teaches that, as shown repeatedly. We are not saying that the Bible is radically unclear (we believe it is more often than not clear, and materially sufficient as well); only that men will, in fact, disagree on its interpretation (for whatever reason); thus making some form of authoritative interpretation necessary. The Bible is not clear or “perspicuous” enough to render unnecessary such authority. Nothing illustrates this point better than the history of Protestantism itself.

De facto this says that Scripture has no inherent authority, but like all spiritual truth, it derives its authority from the Church.

That doesn’t follow at all, logically, and is a gross distortion of our position. It is not a matter of whether or not Holy Scripture possesses authority. It certainly does (and inherently, intrinsically so), as it is inspired, “God-breathed” revelation. The only question is how to best interpret what is not self-evidently clear, simply by virtue of its existence (if it were that clear, then we wouldn’t have all the divergent interpretations of its teachings, even between Protestants, who supposedly all accept sola Scriptura and perspicuity of Scripture).

Furthermore, the Bible itself gives authority to both Church and Tradition, as shown over and over in the refutation of Mr. Bennett. So the authority of those entities is the biblical position. Dr. MacArthur, on the other hand, is neglecting a vast area of relevant biblical passages, and instead misrepresents and caricatures the Catholic position (probably not deliberately, but it is still equally false and slanderous and unfair).

Only what the Church says is deemed the true Word of God, the “Sacred Scripture… written principally in the Church’s heart rather than in documents and records.” This position obviously emasculates Scripture. That is why the Catholic stance against Sola Scriptura has always posed a major problem for Roman Catholic apologists. On one hand faced with the task of defending Catholic doctrine, and on the other hand desiring to affirm what Scripture says about itself, they find themselves on the horns of a dilemma. They cannot affirm the authority of Scripture apart from the caveat that tradition is necessary to explain the Bible’s true meaning. Quite plainly, that makes tradition a superior authority. Moreover, in effect it renders Scripture superfluous, for if Catholic tradition inerrantly encompasses and explains all the truth of Scripture, then the Bible is simply redundant. Understandably, sola Scriptura has therefore always been a highly effective argument for defenders of the Reformation.

I’ve been doing Catholic apologetics for thirteen years now, and have a published book and many published articles (in books and magazines) and one of the three most-visited Catholic apologetics websites on the Internet, according to Alexa Web Search. I’ve discussed this issue with Protestants dozens of times. I’ve probably written more on this than on any other topic. I can testify that I haven’t had the slightest problem refuting sola Scriptura and defending the Catholic position on Bible, Church, and Tradition.

The reader can see plainly in this very paper how much Scripture Protestant polemicists are ignoring. I’ve debated people on this matter who had Master’s degrees specializing in sola Scriptura (Carmen Bryant, James White), or who edited books like the revised Treasury of Scripture Knowledge (Jerome Smith), or who have written whole books on the subject (James White). They simply ignore many of the biblical passages that can be brought to bear. Nor have they ever proven that the Bible itself teaches sola Scriptura. I’ve yet to see it. I contend that it cannot be done; period.

Furthermore, Protestant apologists and defenders of sola Scriptura can’t show that the Fathers believed anything like this. In my recent dialogue with Jason Engwer (cited and linked above), I was critiquing his claim that the Fathers believed in sola Scriptura. I set out to show how ten Fathers (as representative examples) did not in fact believe this – with copious documentation. Mr. Engwer was apparently not very confident in his own thesis, seeing that he departed the discussion (a public one on the large Protestant CARM Discussion forum) after counter-replying to my arguments regarding only four of the ten Fathers I dealt with at length. Dr. MacArthur can wax triumphant if he likes, but the facts show otherwise. I will inform him and Mr. Bennett of this very paper, and the reader can follow my website to see if they ever respond. I can almost guarantee that neither one of them will, if past experience is any guide.

Now, if someone wishes to interpret that as the Protestant position concerning sola Scriptura being superior and the Catholic one inferior and supposedly reduced to special pleading and distorting the biblical facts, so be it. I think the Protestant silence of counter-argument speaks volumes. Perhaps other Catholic apologists have had a different experience, but that is mine. In fact, I would say that refuting sola Scriptura is one of the very easiest of my tasks as an apologist. It’s a piece of cake; easy as pie. Every time I have dialogued on this topic, I come away even more amazed at the virtual nonexistence of the Protestant case, and the strength of the Catholic argument.

In my own opinion, this is the biggest weakness in Protestant thought: the “Achilles’ Heel,” so to speak, because it is of such fundamental importance; so much is built upon it, and because the Bible can offer nothing whatsoever to conclusively establish this view. It is indeed an unbiblical “tradition of men” (which is supremely ironic and tragi-comic). It came out of nowhere in the 16th century and cannot be sustained from the Bible, no matter how futilely and desperately and quixotically someone tries to do so. There is literally nothing in the Bible which would even suggest (let alone “prove“) sola Scriptura.

So it is not hard to understand why in recent years Catholic apologists have attacked sola Scriptura with a vengeance. If they can topple this one doctrine, all the Reformers’ other points fall with it.

Exactly; so much rests upon it, as I just stated (and I am answering as I read, so I didn’t know Dr. MacArthur was about to state this). And this is why (I speculate, but with much firsthand knowledge) Protestant apologists are scared to death to deal with this topic in the depth it deserves, with a Catholic opponent. Too much is at stake. I think they sense this, so they avoid the topic like the plague (in terms of seriously debating it; really getting to the bottom of this issue), for fear of the consequences, should they be shown a more biblical and logical way.

For under the Catholic system, whatever the Church says must be the standard by which to interpret all Scripture. Tradition is the “true” Scripture, written in the heart of the Church.

It should be noted in passing that all Christian groups have some tradition, whether or not they outwardly deny this. Sola Scriptura is one such Protestant tradition (and not even a biblical one). Dr. MacArthur is a Calvinist. If he were to start interpreting certain Scriptures about falling away from grace and from the faith as literally suggesting something other than perseverance of the saints or eternal security, he would be suspect in the eyes of his Calvinist comrades, as a biblical exegete. He would not be allowed to interpret in such a way in his own circle of fellow Calvinist believers, sola Scriptura or no, perspicuity of Scripture or no, supremacy of conscience and private judgment or no. Thus, there is a limit and a barrier as to how far a Calvinist can go in interpreting Scripture.

If a Lutheran (Missouri Synod) pastor started asserting that the Eucharist and baptism were purely symbolic, he would be in big trouble (as classic orthodox Lutheranism holds to the Real Presence – consubstantiation – and baptismal regeneration). If a Baptist pastor or theologian adopted a belief in infant baptism, he would be told that he doesn’t see the clear evidence of Scripture for adult, believer’s baptism, and would probably soon be out of a job. And so on and so forth. So the Catholic Church, too, has parameters and standards of orthodoxy (like everyone else) beyond which a Catholic is not allowed to go. There may be relatively more of these, granted, but the restrictions are not different in kind from any Protestant restrictions on dogma and hermeneutics and exegesis. All Christian groups do this. So it is foolish to chide only the Catholic Church for allowing only so much leeway in biblical hermeneutics.

Besides, it is a little-known fact that the Catholic Church has only required the interpretation of a mere nine Bible verses as absolutely binding. The Church is not (in effect) staring over every Catholic’s shoulder as they read the Bible (that’s much more likely to be true of the local pastor, in many Protestant denominations). To claim that it is doing so is to be exceedingly ignorant of the Catholic ethos and approach to theology and the Bible.

The Church – not Scripture written in “documents and records” – defines the truth about justification by faith, veneration of saints, transubstantiation, and a host of other issues that divided the Reformers from Rome.

Dr. MacArthur simply assumes that “Reformed” doctrines are biblical and Catholic ones are not. But this begs the question. I’ve devoted my life’s work to showing that the Catholic positions are eminently biblical and not anti-biblical at all, with my website, Biblical Evidence for Catholicism, and first book, A Biblical Defense of Catholicism. And why must Church be pitted against Scripture as if the two are unalterably opposed and cannot be synthesized? This is not the way that the Bible presents the relationship between the two, or between Scripture and Tradition. Why is it impermissible to believe (in faith) in a harmony between the three and a protection by the Holy Spirit from error?

Protestants believe this about Scripture. Why cannot Catholics believe that the Holy Spirit can also protect God’s apostolic deposit from error? In fact, the gift of ecclesial infallibility is easier to believe in faith than biblical inspiration, because it is only a negative protection against error, not a positive guarantee that every word in Scripture is “God-breathed.”

To put it another way, if we accept the voice of the Church as infallibly correct, then what Scripture says about these questions is ultimately irrelevant.

That doesn’t follow at all, and is a gross distortion, if in fact (as Catholics believe) Scripture and Church teaching are harmonious, as just argued. Protestants simply assume that Catholic doctrines can’t be harmonized with Scripture; therefore they conclude that there is a fundamental disconnect between the two, with Church authority or Tradition placed higher than the Scripture they supposedly contravene. But the premise remains to be proven. Most Protestants are also unaware of Catholic (and patristic) biblical arguments in favor of their doctrines.

This statement is as fallacious as saying that the human proclamation of the canon of Scripture somehow undercuts the inspiration and inherent status of the books of the Bible. It does not; it is merely authoritatively proclaiming what already is true of its own accord (and this is precisely what the Catholic Church believes about the canon). That is the case with Church and Scripture. Scripture doesn’t somehow become “irrelevant” merely because the Church says something about it. This is a ludicrous assertion . . .

And in practice this is precisely what happens. To cite but one example, Scripture very plainly says, “There is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5). Nonetheless, the Catholic Church insists that Mary is her Son’s “co-mediatrix.”

And in practice, most Protestants don’t have a clue as to what this means, or the reasoning behind it. I have many papers explaining it and defending it from the Bible. Again, Dr. MacArthur assumes what he is ostensibly trying to prove. He pulls out an example that he knows will resonate with all Protestant readers, because they are probably least-familiar with Catholic Mariology, of all the Catholic distinctives. Then in effect he proclaims, “A-ha! See how radically unbiblical Catholicism is??!!” But he hasn’t proven this; he has only asserted it. I understand that one can’t prove every assumption on the spot, but the repeated use of this tactic among Protestant polemicists gets a bit annoying.

And in the eyes of millions of Catholics, what the Church says is seen as the final and authoritative Word of God. First Timothy 2:5 is thus nullified by Church tradition.

Not if the Catholic belief on Mary in this regard is shown to be not at all at odds with many biblical indications . . . it is not explicitly biblical, but it is not at all contrary to biblical thought.

Obviously, if Rome can prove her case against sola Scriptura, she overturns all the arguments for the Reformation in one fell swoop.

I’m delighted to hear Dr. MacArthur state this. In fact, I think he goes too far. I wouldn’t even argue this, but I would say that overturning the Protestant Rule of Faith would be a severe blow, which should cause Protestants to reconsider their system of belief and how it is arrived-at. Thus, the lack of substantive reply that I always receive when arguing this point is all the more alarming, and the consequences very serious for the Protestant position.

If she can establish her tradition as an infallible authority, no mere biblical argument would have any effect against the dictates of the Church.

We never regard our authority as in such a radical dichotomy or adversarial relationship with Holy Scripture, but rather, of a piece with it. This is a caricature of our position, and it does not follow at all from it.

The Sufficiency of Scripture

First, it is necessary to understand what sola Scriptura does and does not assert. The Reformation principle of sola Scriptura has to do with the sufficiency of Scripture as our supreme authority in all spiritual matters. Sola Scriptura simply means that all truth necessary for our salvation and spiritual life is taught either explicitly or implicitly in Scripture.

Catholics agree with the last sentence; that is what is called material sufficiency. We even agree with the sentence before it, as long as such authority is not pitted against Church and Tradition.

It only means that everything necessary, everything binding on our consciences, and everything God requires of us is given to us in Scripture.

Since Scripture teaches us about an authoritative Church and Tradition, then those things, too, must be binding on Christians, as they are biblical, which alone can bind us, according to Protestantism. It’s as if they cut off the limb they are sitting on.

Scripture is therefore the perfect and only standard of spiritual truth, revealing infallibly all that we must believe in order to be saved, and all that we must do in order to glorify God. That – no more, no less – is what sola Scriptura means.

This standard must be interpreted by human beings somewhere along the line (even Protestants have creeds and confessions, which presuppose interpretation).

So sola Scriptura simply means that Scripture is sufficient. The fact that Jesus did and taught many things not recorded in Scripture John 20:30; 21:25) is wholly irrelevant to the principle of sola Scriptura. The fact that most of the apostles’ actual sermons in the early churches were not written down and preserved for us does not diminish the truth of biblical sufficiency one bit. What is certain is that all that is necessary is in Scripture – and we are forbidden “to exceed what is written” (1 Corinthians 4:6).

This has all been dealt with above (as has 2 Timothy 3:15-17, which is brought up next – as it always is). The Bible teaches that oral tradition is also authoritative, so Dr. MacArthur is simply wrong.

How Do We Know the Doctrine of the Apostles?

Now let’s examine the key Scriptures Rome cites to try to justify the existence of extrabiblical tradition. Since many of these passages are similar, it will suffice to reply to the main ones. First we’ll examine the key verses that speak of how apostolic doctrine was transmitted, and then we’ll explore what the apostle Paul meant when he spoke of “tradition.”

2 Timothy 2:2: “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, these entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.” Here the apostle Paul instructs Timothy, a young pastor, to train other faithful men for the task of leadership in the church. There is no hint of apostolic succession in this verse, nor is there any suggestion that in training these men Timothy would be passing on to them an infallible tradition with authority equal to the Word of God. On the contrary, what this verse describes is simply the process of discipleship . . .

Dr. MacArthur misses the point. This passage is (usually) not used as a proof of either apostolic succession or infallibility, but for the presence of authoritative oral tradition per se. Apostolic succession can be proven elsewhere in the Bible.

What was this truth? It was not some undisclosed tradition, such as the Assumption of Mary, which would be either unheard of or disputed for centuries until a pope declared ex cathedra that it was truth. What Timothy was to hand on to other men was the same doctrine Paul had preached before “many witnesses.” Paul was speaking of the gospel itself. It was the same message Paul commanded Timothy to preach, and it is the same message that is preserved in Scripture and sufficient to equip every man of God (2 Timothy 3:16 – 4:2).

Precisely; I agree. And I have shown above (Section III) that TraditionWord of God, and the Gospel are regarded as essentially identical in Scripture, and by Paul. There is no dichotomy. That is merely a Protestant fiction, or invention. Tradition can’t be separated out; that would be like trying to separate hydrogen atoms from a water molecule.

In short, this verse is wholly irrelevant to the Catholic claim that tradition received from the apostles is preserved infallibly by her bishops. Nothing in this verse suggests that the truth Timothy would teach other faithful men would be preserved without error from generation to generation.

No one is arguing that; one has to be clear what is a proof or indication of what. Yet Dr. MacArthur would say that the Gospel was preserved infallibly. If, then, we can show that it is equated with “tradition” in the Bible (as I think I have done), then we have gone 90% of the way towards winning the “battle,” if not all the way.

That is indeed what Scripture says of itself: “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching” (2 Timothy 3:16), but no such assertion is ever made for tradition handed down orally.

Tradition is equated with the Word of God and the Gospel; therefore, this is said of tradition. See, e.g., verses like Jude 3 and Acts 2:42. More than just the Bible is being referred to.

Like Timothy, we are to guard the truth that has been entrusted to us. But the only reliable canon, the only infallible doctrine, the only binding principles, and the only saving message, is the God-breathed truth of Scripture.

This assumes what it is trying to prove, once again . . .

Acts 2:42: “They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” This verse simply states that the early church followed the apostles’ teaching as their rule of faith. Once again this passage says nothing about apostolic succession and contains no hint of a guarantee that “the apostles’ teaching” would be infallibly preserved through any means other than Scripture.

As the New Testament was not yet compiled at that point, this was clearly an oral tradition. As for infallibility, that would be deduced from passages like Matthew 16:18 and John 16:13 and Acts 15:28. One doesn’t have to prove everything from one passage. Dr. MacArthur seems to assume that is the Catholic burden or outlook, and proceeds to tear down such a silly methodology. But it’s a straw man in the first place. The Catholic biblical argument is a cumulative one, based on many strands of evidence from throughout Scripture.

Note also that this verse describes the attitude of the earliest converts to Christianity. The “they” at the beginning of the verse refers back to verse 41 and the three thousand souls who were converted at Pentecost. These were for the most part rank-and-file lay people. And their one source of Christian doctrine (this was before any of the New Testament had been penned) was the oral teaching of the apostles.

Exactly. How that is an indication for sola Scriptura is beyond me.

This verse is even more irrelevant to the question of infallible tradition than 2 Timothy 2:2. The only point it asserts that is remotely germane to the issue is that the source of authority for the early church was apostolic teaching. No one who holds to the doctrine of Sola Scriptura would dispute that point. Let it be stated as clearly as possible: Protestants do not deny that the oral teaching of the apostles was authoritative, inerrant truth, binding as a rule of faith on those who heard it. Moreover, if there were any promise in Scripture that the exact words or full sense of the apostolic message would be infallibly preserved through word of mouth by an unbroken succession of bishops, we would be bound to obey that tradition as a rule of faith.

This is all well and good, as far as it goes, but where the Protestant goes wrong is to assume that nothing besides Scripture could ever have authority after Scripture was completed. That is overthrown by Jesus’ own multiple appeals to non-biblical literature or oral traditions.

Scripture, however, which is God-breathed, never speaks of any other God-breathed authority; it never authorizes us to view tradition on an equal or superior plane of authority; and while it makes the claim of inerrancy for itself, it never acknowledges any other infallible source of authority. Word-of-mouth tradition is never said to be theopneustos, God-breathed, or infallible.

This is untrue, as has been shown in a variety of ways, in the Richard Bennett portion of this paper. I knew that these two men would ba making many of the same arguments, which is why I combined the refutation into one paper, to save a lot of re-writing.

What Tradition Did Paul Command Adherence To?

We’ve already noted, however, that Catholic apologists claim they do see verses in Scripture that accord authority to tradition. Even non-Catholic versions of Scripture, speak of a certain “tradition” that is to be received and obeyed with unquestioning reverence.

What of these verses? Protestants often find them difficult to explain, but in reality they make better arguments against the Catholic position than they do against sola Scriptura. Let’s examine the main ones:

1 Corinthians 11:2: “Now I praise you because you remember me in everything, and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you.” Those words of Paul to the Corinthians speak of tradition, do they not?

Yet as is often true, the meaning is plain when we look at the context. And examining the context, we discover this verse offers no support whatsoever for the Roman Catholic notion of infallible tradition. 

First of all, the apostle is speaking not of traditions passed down to the Corinthians by someone else through word of mouth. This “tradition” is nothing other than doctrine the Corinthians had heard directly from Paul’s own lips during his ministry in their church . . . In this case, however, it refers only to Paul’s own preaching – not to someone else’s report of what Paul taught . . .

Why would Dr. MacArthur think he is disproving that Paul is referring to authoritative tradition merely by stating that Paul delivered it? It makes no sense. Whether Paul or anyone else delivered it has no bearing on what it is. Elsewhere, Paul speaks many times of doctrines which he received and is passing on. So if Dr. MacArthur’s point is that this instance was not passed on (therefore, it isn’t tradition), there are two other instances in Paul’s writing to the Corinthians where he describes a tradition that he received (Greek, paralambano) and in turn passed on, or delivered (Greek, paradidomi) ; thus his argument in this regard collapses (RSV):

1 Corinthians 11:23 For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread,

1 Corinthians 15:3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures,

I Corinthians 11:2 . . . is nothing but Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthians that they remember and obey his apostolic teaching. It reflects Paul’s own personal struggle to protect and preserve the doctrinal tradition he had carefully established in Corinth. But again, there is no implication whatsoever that Paul expected this tradition to be infallibly preserved through any inspired means other than Scripture.

Paul assumes that it is binding and authoritative. Thus, it is reasonable to infer that he regarded it as infallible, lest he be commanding them to follow a mistaken doctrine. He writes, for example:

2 Thessalonians 3:14 If any one refuses to obey what we say in this letter, note that man, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed.

Romans 16:17: . . . take note of those who create dissensions and difficulties, in
opposition to the doctrine which you have been taught; avoid them.

Paul didn’t write:

. . . . in opposition to the pretty-much, mostly, largely true but not infallible doctrine which you have been taught . . .

2 Thessalonians 2:15: “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us.” This is perhaps the favorite verse of Catholic apologists when they want to support the Catholic appeal to tradition, because the verse plainly delineates between the written word and oral “traditions.”

Again the Greek word is paradosis. Clearly, the apostle is speaking of doctrine, and it is not to be disputed that the doctrine he has in mind is authoritative, inspired truth.

So what is this inspired tradition that they received “by word of mouth”? Doesn’t this verse rather clearly support the Catholic position?

No, it does not. Again, the context is essential to a clear understanding of what Paul was saying. The Thessalonians had evidently been misled by a forged letter, supposedly from the apostle Paul, telling them that the day of the Lord had already come (2 Thessalonians 2:2).

The entire church had apparently been upset by this, and the apostle Paul was eager to encourage them. For one thing, he wanted to warn them not to be taken in by phony “inspired truth.” And so he told them clearly how to recognize a genuine epistle from him – it would be signed in his own handwriting: “I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand, and this is a distinguishing mark in every letter; this is the way I write” (3:17). He wanted to ensure that they would not be fooled again by forged epistles.

But even more important, he wanted them to stand fast in the teaching they had already received from him. He had already told them, for example, that the day of the Lord would be preceded by a falling away, and the unveiling of the man of lawlessness. “Do you not remember that while I was still with you, I was telling you these things?” 2:5). There was no excuse for them to be troubled by a phony letter, for they had heard the actual truth from his own mouth already.

Now, no one – even the most impassioned champion of sola Scriptura – would deny that Paul had taught the Thessalonians many things by word of mouth. No one would deny that the teaching of an apostle carried absolute authority. The point of debate between Catholics and Protestants is whether that teaching was infallibly preserved by word of mouth. So the mere reference to truth received firsthand from Paul himself is, again, irrelevant as support for the Catholic position.

What is irrelevant, and – beyond that – absurd, is an argument like the one above, in which it is asserted that Paul could not be talking about tradition even when he uses the very word and refers to oral teaching. What else is needed or required, for heaven’s sake? Even when the proof is this clear, the Protestant polemicist has to weasel out of it by special pleading. This is what Dr. MacArthur attempts to do, and it is effective until exposed, as presently. He tries to argue (using his own words in quotes):

1. “it is not to be disputed that the doctrine he has in mind is authoritative, inspired truth.”
2. “The Thessalonians had evidently been misled by a forged letter, supposedly from the apostle Paul.” “He wanted to ensure that they would not be fooled again by forged epistles.”
3. “he wanted them to stand fast in the teaching they had already received.” “they had heard the actual truth from his own mouth already.”
4. “The point of debate between Catholics and Protestants is whether that teaching was infallibly preserved by word of mouth.”
5. “Certainly nothing here suggests that the tradition Paul delivered to the Thessalonians is infallibly preserved for us anywhere except in Scripture itself.”
6. “he was ordering them to receive as infallible truth only what they had heard directly from his own lips.”

This is very clever, and a vigorous attempt to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, but ultimately it is illogical special pleading, and I will now show why I consider that to be the case, by commenting on each proposition in turn:

1. How is it that a doctrine specifically called a “tradition” by Paul and delivered orally as well as by letter – which even Dr. MacArthur describes as “authoritative, inspired truth” – is somehow seen to not be a tradition and not a disproof of the Protestant notion that binding doctrine can never rest on oral transmission? Dr. MacArthur might just as well argue that black is white or that a square is a circle. He can (quite remarkably) see something plainly before him, yet make it into a different thing, because it creates a difficulty for his Rule of Faith.


2. Paul is concerned about a forged letter; therefore, there exists no such thing as authoritative tradition???? Is this logical? Does it make any sense? Students of logic can see that several steps in the needed logical progression of thought have either been entirely skipped over (suggesting a shortcoming in logical thinking) or assumed to be true without proof (which is circular argument). Either way it is a terribly shoddy “argument.”

3. The Thessalonians had received oral teaching from Paul already, and he wanted them to hold to it, therefore there is no such thing as authoritative oral teaching, and the real truth in matters of authority is Bible Alone. Huh???!!!
4. This is correct. According to Jesus, various traditions before His time were preserved in such a way (as shown in Section II). That would seem to be sufficient for any Christian, but here we are merely trying to show that there is such a thing as authoritative oral tradition. Whether it was infallible or not is a separate issue logically (technically or philosophically speaking), but I would strongly contend that Paul (and all the apostles) casually assumed that the message they were delivering (orally, in most instances) was infallible. There is certainly no indication that they regarded it as fallible. When Paul spoke of receiving such traditions, he showed no indication whatever that it was fallible or that he questioned it because it came from oral transmission rather than written. Thus he appears to easily assume and take for granted that which Dr. MacArthur has the hardest time grasping and accepting, even when it is staring him right in the eye on the pages of the very Scripture that he grants the highest inspired authority (as Catholics do).

5. This skips over several points or steps in the logical progression of the argument Dr. MacArthur wishes to make. It is not at all clear that Paul’s teaching could only have been faithfully preserved in Scripture and nowhere else. That is simply the later conception of sola Scriptura smuggled into the text. At this point there was no compiled New Testament; in fact, the letters to the Thessalonians are some of the earliest portions of the New Testament (possibly as early as 50 A.D., according to scholars). So it is absurd to even apply an analysis of sola Scriptura (regardless of whether that concept is true or not) to this scenario. At this point in history, Paul regards oral tradition as equally authoritative, as clearly shown in this verse, despite Dr. MacArthur’s clever attempts to evade its clear meaning and import for our topic. It is equally ludicrous to assume sola Scriptura, and then contend that the apostles always intended for subsequent Christian teaching after their deaths to be by the written word in the Bible alone, and never by oral or Church tradition, for the simple reason that this is never taught in Scripture, either. It is a bald assumption made by Protestants; assumed with no proof or argument whatever, other than some supposed mythical connection with verses which in fact (closely-scrutinized) don’t support sola Scriptura at all, like 2 Timothy 3:15-17. On the other hand, Scripture plainly teaches that the Church would have authority, as seen in the Jerusalem Council, and the “binding and loosing” passages, among many others.
6. Dr. MacArthur evidently thinks that “if Paul said it, even if it is oral (though this is not a tradition, of course), then it is binding, and will (almost always) be recorded in Scripture later, anyway, so we know exactly what Paul was telling them.” None of this is at all certain. Besides, this epistle was actually from Silvanus and Timothy also (see 2 Thess. 1:1). He (as primary author) often uses the plural “we” or “us” (see, e.g., 1:3-4,11, 2:1,13). Thus, in the passage under consideration, Paul is not only considering his own instruction authoritative, but also that of Silvanus and Timothy (“traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us“). This undercuts much of Dr. MacArthur’s “Paul as the pastor of the Thessalonians” contextual argument. This plurality is reiterated again in 2 Thessalonians 3:6-7 (RSV):

Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from every brother who is living in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you,

So we see that this tradition was larger than simply Paul’s own teaching, to be recorded in the Bible, and there alone, without one whit of it being transmitted in any other fashion. Thus Jude (3) can speak of “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.” What faith? By whom? This was not just Paul and it was not the New Testament. It was already known and was proclaimed by the apostles, in its fullness (Matthew 28:20 – see particularly the word “all”). This is not sola Scriptura, pure and simple. Catholics agree that Scripture contained this deposit, but not all of it explicitly or not absolutely every jot and tittle of apostolic tradition. If the Protestant says we are not bound to anything not found explicitly in Scripture, we ask them where in Scripture do we find such a notion, and why should we think ourselves in a better place than the earliest Christians, before the New Testament was compiled? Paul and the other apostles show no indication whatever that pre-New Testament Christians were somehow in a less-prepared or equipped position vis-a-vis Christianity than us “Bible Christians” today are. Sola Scriptura is unbiblical and unhistorical mythology.

Paul was urging the Thessalonians to test all truth-claims by Scripture, and by the words they had heard personally from his own lips. And since the only words of the apostles that are infallibly preserved for us are found in Scripture, that means that we, like the Bereans, must compare everything with Scripture to see whether it is so.

Where did Paul urge them to “test all truth-claims by Scripture” in 2 Thessalonians? Dr. MacArthur must have a very different Bible than I do (I use the RSV). “Gospel” is mentioned twice (1:8 and 2:14), “tradition” twice (2:15 and 3:6), but neither “Scripture” nor “Scriptures” appears. “Word of the Lord” appears once (3:1), but it appears not to refer to the Bible:

Finally, brethren, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed on and triumph, as it did among you.

This is referring to the proclamation of the gospel (i.e., Jesus’ death on the cross on our behalf, Resurrection, Ascension, Atonement, and Redemption – not a technical theory of soteriology and justification, as many Protestants mistakenly define the biblical “gospel”), which is what St. Paul and his aides were doing, not going around passing out Bibles like the Gideons or something. The New Testament was far from being compiled at all at this early stage, so the above could not possibly have been referring to it. It can’t refer to the Old Testament because that was not the new Good News that they were preaching.

Yet somehow Dr. MacArthur gets out of this book that it offers no support for Catholic notions of tradition whatever and completely supports sola Scriptura because of the Bereans mentioned in the book of Acts? This is very curious exegesis indeed.

A similar state of affairs occurs in 1 Thessalonians also. “Scripture” or “Scriptures” never appear. “Word,” “word of the Lord,” or “word of God” appear five times (1:6,8, 2:13 – twice – , 4:15), but in each instance it is clearly in the sense of oral proclamation, not Scripture. We have no reason from the text to believe that this oral “word of the Lord” was understood to be restricted to what was later recorded in the New Testament. Dr. MacArthur assumes this, but he has no proof. It is simply an inadequate Protestant way of dealing with all this authoritative oral proclamation and tradition going on in the Bible itself.

Roman Catholic apologists protest that only a fraction of Paul’s messages to the Thessalonians are preserved in the two brief epistles Paul wrote to that church. True, but may not we assume that what he taught the Thessalonians was the very truths that are found in generous measure throughout all his epistles – justification by faith alone, the true gospel of grace, the sovereignty of God, the Lordship of Christ, and a host of other truths?

For the most part, yes; this is a reasonable assumption (I note that Paul didn’t teach faith alone, and that phrase never appears in the Bible, either, except to be denied twice, in the book of James), but it doesn’t prove that there was nothing else. That there was indeed more is an equally reasonable assumption to make, and is certainly not ruled out by the text. I would maintain that it is more likely than the contrary option, given the text of 2 Thessalonians.

The New Testament gives us a full-orbed Christian theology. Who can prove that anything essential is omitted?

An indisputable, explicit proof of sola Scriptura is omitted. And as Dr. MacArthur has told us, sola Scriptura is an essential, fundamental principle of Protestantism – the absence of which would cause the system to collapse.

On the contrary, we are assured that Scripture is sufficient for salvation and spiritual life (2 Timothy 3:15 – 17).

And that same Scripture teaches an authoritative tradition and Church.

Where does Scripture ever suggest that there are unwritten truths that are necessary for our spiritual well-being?

In the many passages I have detailed. I have shown that gospel and word of God and tradition are identical concepts in Paul’s mind and that of the other Scripture writers. Dr. MacArthur surely would not deny that the gospel is “necessary for our spiritual well-being.”

One thing is certain – the words in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 imply no such thing.

I’m content to let readers decide between my interpretation and his. That’s the beauty and utility of dialogue (or critique, as the case may be).

2 Thessalonians 3:6: “Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep aloof from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us.” This is the only other verse in all the New Testament where Paul uses the words tradition or traditions to speak of apostolic truth that is to be obeyed.

That is true as far as the Greek word paradosis, yet the concept of tradition is also clearly present in these six passages: 1 Corinthians 11:23, 15:1-3, Galatians 1:9,12, 1 Thessalonians 2:13, 2 Timothy 1:13-14, and 2:2.

By now, Paul’s use of this term should be well established. This cannot be a reference to truth passed down from generation to generation. Again, Paul is speaking of a “tradition” received firsthand from him.

So what? Elsewhere he clearly teaches the concept of a tradition he received, passed on or delivered to others, and which they should also “maintain” (1 Cor 11:2), “stand firm” in and “hold to” (2 Thess 2:15 – a mere eight verses before 3:6, in a New Testament originally without chapter or verse numbers); one that should be “followed” and “guarded” since it was “entrusted . . . by the Holy Spirit” (2 Tim 1:13-14), and “entrusted to faithful men” in order to “teach others also” (2 Tim 2:2). What more does one need? Protestants are the ones always stressing comparison of Scripture with Scripture and the necessity of checking context for proper hermeneutics and exegesis. I have done all that. But Dr. MacArthur seems to not even know that these other relevant passages exist. He is ignoring all this evidence and special pleading.

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