Dismantling Whitaker’s Sola Scriptura Arguments

Dismantling Whitaker’s Sola Scriptura Arguments February 21, 2021

William Whitaker (1548-1595) was a Calvinist Anglican apologist and professor at Cambridge University. His masterwork was Disputation on Holy Scripture: Against the Papists, Especially Bellarmine and Stapleton, published in 1588. I have utilized an online copy published in 1849 by the University Press of Cambridge.

James R. White, the well-known Reformed Baptist apologist, has sold the book on his website, and wrote about it in an ad in 2007 that “his work should be carefully studied by all concerned shepherds of Christ’s flock.”

I shall reply to a portion of his book, from a chapter entitled, “Question the Sixth: Of the Perfection of Scripture, against Unwritten Traditions.” It’s a fair representation of the whole. His words will be indented below.

. . . Matth. xv. 6, “Ye have made the commandment of God of none effect by your traditions;” and the words of Isaiah, c. 29, alleged by Christ in that same chapter, “In vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men:” and Galat. i. 14, where Paul says that, before his conversion, he was “zealous for the traditions of his elders.” From these and the like places, we reason thus: Christ and the apostles condemn traditions: therefore, they are not to be received; and consequently scripture is sufficient. (pp. 637-638)

The Bible teaches a legitimate apostolic, divine tradition, that is good, and a false ‘tradition of men” over against God. St. Paul contrasts the two in the following passage:

Colossians 2:8 (RSV, as throughout) See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. (cf. 1 Cor 11:2; 2 Thess 2:15; 3:6; Phil 4:9; 2 Tim 1:13-14; 2:2)

In two of Whitaker’s examples above, we see the qualifiers: “your traditions” (i.e., over against God’s); “commandments of men” (i.e., ones that contradict the commandments of God). Galatians 1:14, on the other hand, is a more neutral expression. It’s clear that Paul did not reject all traditions in Judaism. After all, he referred to himself as a “Pharisee” twice, after his conversion to Christianity  (Acts 23:6; 26:5).

[I]t is false that the Jews received any traditions from Moses and the prophets. He himself does not prove they did, . . . (p. 638)

It is well-known that the Pharisees accepted the received Jewish oral tradition, and that early Christianity inherited several beliefs (angelology, the resurrection, notions of purgatory and prayer for the dead), including belief in this oral tradition, from that school.

[W]hen Christ objects the commandment of God, and opposes the scriptures to tradition, it is plain that he condemns all unwritten traditions. (p. 639)

Jesus qualifies it by noting that mere men‘s traditions, held in opposition to God, are what should be condemned. If it were a blanket condemnation, He would have simply referred to “tradition.” And why in the world would He also say?:

Matthew 23:2-3a “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; [3] so practice and observe whatever they tell you, . . .

“Moses’ Seat” is not a phrase found in the Old Testament. It is found in the (originally oral) Mishna, where a sort of “teaching succession” from Moses on down is taught. Jesus upholds the Pharisees’ teaching authority even though He goes on to say that they are hypocrites, and to not follow what they “do.”

Christ and the apostles always remand us to the scriptures . . . (p. 639)

That’s not true at all. Here are five references in the New Testament that are absent from the Old Testament:

1 Corinthians 10:4 and all drank the same supernatural drink. For they drank from the supernatural Rock which followed them, and the Rock was Christ. 

2 Timothy 3:8 As Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men also oppose the truth, men of corrupt mind and counterfeit faith; 

1 Peter 3:19 in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, (drawn from the Jewish apocalyptic book 1 Enoch (12-16).

Jude 9 But when the archangel Michael, contending with the devil, disputed about the body of Moses, he did not presume to pronounce a reviling judgment upon him, but said, “The Lord rebuke you.” 

Jude 14-15 It was of these also that Enoch in the seventh generation from Adam prophesied, saying, “Behold, the Lord came with his holy myriads, to execute judgment on all, and to convict all the ungodly of all their deeds of ungodliness which they have committed in such an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things which ungodly sinners have spoken against him.” (direct quotation of the apocalyptic book 1 Enoch 1:9).

The latter citation is not from any Scripture; yet it is said that Enoch “prophesied.” Thus, authentic, genuine prophecy is not confined to the Old Testament written record. If this is true prophecy (as we know it must be, because it is described as such in inspired revelation), who knows how much more of 1 Enoch or other non-canonical ancient Jewish books also contain true prophecy? That is tradition.

Moreover, the New Testament massively cites passages or thought-patterns or concepts found in the Deuterocanon: books that Protestants and Whitaker reject as canonical (and call the “Apocrypha”). Therefore, these are numerous additional examples of “Christ and the apostles” doing what Whitaker tells us they never supposedly do: citations of something other than what he thinks is Scripture.

The fourth place is taken from Luke xxiv. 25 and 27. Christ, in verse 25, blames the disciples for being slow “to believe all that the prophets have spoken.” But where can those things be found? This appears from verse 27. There it follows: “Beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.” Hence we frame the following argument: If all the things that the prophets spoke may be found in the scriptures, then may those also which the apostles spoke be found in the scriptures also. The first is true: therefore also the second. . . . (pp. 643-644)

No passage in the Bible says that the entirety of the prophetic message (let alone the apostolic message) was committed to writing, in the Bible alone. That is simply a tradition of men, invented out of whole cloth. It’s refuted also in the inspired New Testament, in examples we have already seen. How can this be, under Whitaker’s (false) premises? It cannot. His view is overthrown by Holy Scripture itself.

Likewise with Jude 9, which appears as a factual account, having to do with Moses, the devil, and the archangel Michael: nowhere to be seen in the Old Testament. The New Testament was not dictated from above by God. The Bible writers utilized their own knowledge, which was preserved from error and inspired by God.

The seventh place is taken from Acts xvii. 2, 3, where Luke writes that Paul reasoned for three sabbath-days out of the scriptures, . . . that Christ had suffered; so that this was the Christ whom he preached unto them. Paul then discoursed from the scriptures, and confirmed his whole doctrine by the scriptures. Hence we gather the following argument: If Paul used no other evidence than that of scripture in teaching and delivering the gospel, and refuting the Jews; then all testimonies which are requisite either to confirm the true doctrine of the gospel or to refute heresies may be taken out of scripture. The former is true, and therefore the latter. The consequence is manifest. For if any other testimony had been necessary, the apostle would have used it. But he confirmed his doctrine only by the scriptures; . . . Therefore we ought to do likewise. (pp. 645-646)

This is altogether silly, because it’s amply refuted by Paul himself. When preaching to the Athenians (no intellectual slouches themselves, as the founders of philosophy), and doing his best to persuade them of the truth of the gospel, the great apostle didn’t stick to Scripture alone; he cited their own poets and philosophers:

Acts 17:22-28 So Paul, standing in the middle of the Are-op’agus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. [23] For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, `To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. [24] The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by man, [25] nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all men life and breath and everything. [26] And he made from one every nation of men to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their habitation, [27] that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel after him and find him. Yet he is not far from each one of us, [28] for `In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your poets have said, `For we are indeed his offspring.’

Here he was citing the Greek poet Aratus: (c. 315-240 B. C.) and philosopher-poet Epimenides (6th c. B. C.) – both referring to Zeus. So St. Paul used two Greek pagan poet-philosophers, talking about a false god (Zeus) and “Christianized” their thoughts: applying them to the true God. That’s Pauline apologetic method. He expressly cites these pagan Greek poets and philosophers precisely because that is what his sophisticated Athens audience (including “Epicurean and Stoic philosophers” — 17:18) could understand and relate to. He was using wise apologetic method and strategy.

Paul also cited the Greek dramatist  Menander (c.342-291 B.C.) at 1 Corinthians 15:33: “bad company ruins good morals”. Thus, Whitaker’s claim that Paul used no unbiblical testimony  is shown from Holy Scripture (three times) to be a falsehood.

The eighth place is taken from Acts xviii. 24 and 28. Apollos was mighty in the scriptures, and refuted the Jews forcibly, . . . out of the scriptures. We may argue here as in the former case: If Apollos made use only of the scriptures in refuting the Jews and confirming the doctrine of the gospel, then the gospel may be confirmed and heresies refuted by the scriptures alone. The former is true, and consequently the latter also. (p. 646)

But the text doesn’t say that Apollos “made use only of the scriptures” (my italics). Acts 18:28 describes him as “showing by the scriptures that the Christ was Jesus.” But it doesn’t say that he made no arguments besides ones drawn from Scripture. To show that the Messiah (often mentioned in the Old Testament) was Jesus was something specifically related to the Bible and to the Jews (over against the Gentiles). So that is to be expected.

But in Acts 18:25 it states: “he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus.” Unless he was prooftexting the Old Testament messianic texts, and only doing that (as in 18:28), virtually anything else about what Jesus was doing or teaching was based on present eyewitness accounts, and was not “arguing from the Bible” (the Gospels not having yet been written) but rather, from experience (i.e., oral tradition at that point). Thus, it is quite likely and plausible (though not certain) that he also talked about things other than biblical texts.

It may be a fine point but it is a crucial technical distinction. Whitaker merely reads into the text what he already assumes. It’s not present in the text. The text is consistent with a hypothetical scenario whereby only Scripture was used, but it doesn’t prove that or disallow another scenario. It’s not conclusive in and of itself.

But God hath nowhere promised that he will save and protect unwritten traditions from being lost: consequently, the church and tradition are not parallel cases. I can produce innumerable testimonies and promises wherewith God hath bound himself to the church to preserve it: let them produce any such promises of God respecting the preservation of traditions. Now this they cannot do. Secondly, I confess that God preserved his doctrine from Adam to Moses orally transmitted, that is, in the form of unwritten tradition. It cannot be denied. But then it was amongst exceeding few persons: for the great majority had corrupted this doctrine. (p. 652)

This is a fascinating study in illogic and cognitive dissonance. Whitaker denies that apostolic tradition could be preserved. Then he turns around and concedes that there was indeed an oral tradition and doctrine from Adam to Moses: an extraordinary concession indeed! He says that is possible and factual, but apostolic tradition, with the fuller revelation of the new covenant, and an indwelling and guiding Holy Spirit is not.

Whether it was preserved by a few or ten million is irrelevant. It was preserved by God. New Testament tradition is indicated in many passages that I have already alluded to in the course of this series of refutations. It is always casually assumed to exist and to be authoritative.

Besides, God frequently and familiarly shewed himself to the holy fathers who then lived; conversed with them, and often renewed and restored the doctrine orally delivered, and brought it back to its integrity and purity, when not preserved from all corruption even by those godly men themselves. . . .  But there is the greatest difference between those things and ours; . . . (p. 652)

The Bible says that we have far more privileges and access to God than the patriarchs of old. They were only selectively filled with the Holy Spirit, but every Christian is now. We have a much fuller, developed revelation. We have the appearance of Jesus, and all His teaching. We have a Church that even Whitaker grants is protected by God and indefectible.

Thirdly, the fact of Moses having written his heavenly doctrine is a point of great importance against tradition, and strongly confirmatory of our opinion. For if God had seen that religion could have been preserved entire and uncorrupted without the scriptures, he would not have enjoined Moses to consign it in the lasting monuments of written records . . . (pp. 652-653)

More self-serving straw men . . . The argument is not over whether Scripture is necessary. No Catholic has ever denied it. The argument is whether there is such a thing as an authoritative Christian tradition. Apparently, Whitaker, not able to grasp this, thinks that in defending tradition, we must somehow denigrate Scripture, as if it were a zero sum game.

Therefore, tradition could be defended to such an extent that Scripture is conceivably ditched altogether. But we haven’t ever thought or done so! It is Protestantism that has (quite contrary to Sacred Scripture) ditched binding tradition and an authoritative infallible Church.

[this article was published in Catholic Answers Magazine (July-Aug 2020), with the title, “Dismantling a Classic Sola Scriptura Argument”]


Photo credit: scan of 1849 (Cambridge) cover of William Whitaker’s book, Disputation on Holy Scripture, at Internet Archive.


Summary: William Whitaker (1548-1595) was a Calvinist Anglican apologist and author of the much-ballyhooed “Disputation on Holy Scripture”. I refute several of its arguments for sola Scriptura.

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