Reply to Gavin Ortlund’s “Sola Scriptura Defended”

Reply to Gavin Ortlund’s “Sola Scriptura Defended” April 27, 2022

Gavin Ortlund is an author, speaker, and apologist for the Christian faith, who serves as the senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Ojai in Ojai, California. Gavin has a Ph.D. from Fuller Theological Seminary in historical theology, and an M.Div from Covenant Theological Seminary. He is the author of seven books as well as numerous academic and popular articles. For a list of publications, see his CV. He runs the YouTube channel Truth Unites, which seeks to provide an irenic voice on theology, apologetics, and the Christian life.

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I will be interacting with Gavin’s video, “Sola Scriptura DEFENDED” (12-15-20). His words will be in blue, and I will include times from the video, for reference purposes.

First of all, I’d like to express rapt admiration and appreciation for the words Gavin spoke in the first part of this video, in which he describes his “irenic” (or what I often describe as “ecumenical”) approach, methodology, and viewpoint. It’s extremely refreshing to hear in this age which is so hyper-polarized. The theological world (to our shame) has, of course, been divided and polarized for many centuries.

There is an increasing need for Christians to talk to each other — really talk and communicate — and to exercise charity and do our best to understand our Christian brothers and sisters and not to misrepresent what they believe. If we can’t do that, we have no hope of getting our message out to the unbelieving, suffering, dying, despairing world.

I find Gavin to be an exemplary role model of this approach, and it is worlds apart from the anti-Catholic-type Protestants I have mostly dealt with these past 26 years I have been very active online. Personally, as an apologist since 1981, Gavin’s words were a great exhortation to humility and to offset the pride that — sadly — too often cripples apologetics efforts. I am humbled and challenged by them, to do better in this regard.

Apologetics can very quickly become “oppositional” and shot-through with hostility or passive aggression.  It need not be so. So, again, I am deeply grateful for these words from Gavin and he has already gained my respect as a Christian role model in terms of how we must conduct ourselves during discussions, where we disagree with each other.

That said, I will respectfully disagree with him on the present topic, and no doubt many in the future, if we continue to interact. But it is from the perspective of “brother to brother” within the Body of Christ, in order to better understand and to learn from each other, as well as providing challenges when we think a brother or sister in the faith is wrong on a particular issue (along with a willingness to be challenged).

We all learn and we all “win” when good, constructive dialogue takes place. That has always been my view, and it’s why I love dialogue so much and have engaged in many hundreds of them through the years. I’m not perfect, and have often fallen short of these high ideals, but they are my ideals and goals and what I strive to attain, by God’s grace.

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In order to offset the danger of non-Protestant caricaturing of the Protestant position, Gavin offers a “nuanced” definition of the perspicuity (“clearness”) of Scripture from the Westminster Confession (1.7). He importantly notes the “key point” that “the perspicuity of Scripture has to do with getting saved; it’s about understanding the message of salvation from the Scripture. It has never been understood to say that the Bible is perspicuous in general, in some unqualified sense.” [6:o5-7:11]

I totally concur with this, and am happy to pass it on to my Catholic readers, so that they don’t caricature the Protestant view. I confess, on my part, that I have myself not always noted in my apologetics the subtlety and nuanced nature of the Protestant understanding of perspicuity. As Gavin noted earlier in the video, both sides too often caricature the other (I’ve seen it many times in my apologetics discussions, so I am personally quite aware of this, and sometimes I fall into it as well), and that does no one any good. It’s unethical, it bears false witness, and it doesn’t advance constructive, helpful dialogue.

Sola Scriptura has always been maintained as the view that the Bible is the only infallible rule for theology. . . . There’s a big difference in saying that the Bible is the only source for theology, and  saying the Bible is the only infallible source for theology. But I hear this over and over again . . . If you [Catholics and Orthodox] hear nothing else in this entire video, hear this: don’t say that Protestants believe that the Bible is all you have or all you need; it’s just you and your Bible and that’s it. Thoughtful Protestants have always understood that tradition has an important place . . . all we’re saying is the Bible is the final court of appeal. . . . Calvin and Luther affirmed the early ecumenical creeds and councils. Thoughtful Protestants recognize that there is oral tradition mentioned in the Bible.  . . . The Scripture is is the final court of appeal: the norming norm that norms all other norms but is not normed itself[7:11-9:35, my own bolding, to highlight his central point]

This is my understanding of what sola Scriptura means as well, and has been my working definition in my Catholic critiques of it these past 31 years. The words “only infallible rule” are key, because it qualifies an overly broad understanding, or one that has been the caricature used by too many critics of sola Scriptura. I have even gotten into some discussions with fellow Catholic apologists about the supreme importance of getting the definition right, and not caricaturing it.

Here’s a second objection, and that’s that sola Scriptura was not known to Church history, and it was invented by the Reformers. [he provides a video example of a Catholic arguing this point]. . . . I want to suggest that things are much more complicated than that. Actually, what you have is a development in the Church’s understanding of Scripture and tradition, . . . It took a long time to get to a fully articulated two-source view of divine revelation, where you’ve got Scripture and sacred tradition as this sort of two-pronged view of revelation. [9:33-11:13]

It should be noted that the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) disputes this “two-pronged” revelation in stating:

Hence there exists a close connection and communication between sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture. For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end. For Sacred Scripture is the word of God inasmuch as it is consigned to writing under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, while sacred tradition takes the word of God entrusted by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, and hands it on to their successors in its full purity, so that led by the light of the Spirit of truth, they may in proclaiming it preserve this word of God faithfully, explain it, and make it more widely known. Consequently it is not from Sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed. Therefore both sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence. (Dei Verbum, 9; my bolding)

Note that tradition is not referred to as inspired. Only Scripture is.

When you go back to the Church fathers, what you see is a mixed record. But if you want to check out some pretty fascinating quotes, pick up this book, The Church of Rome at the Bar of History, by William Webster, and just read the first Appendix . . . a series of quotes from the Church fathers . . . There is, among the Church fathers, even while they are appealing to oral tradition as well, an awareness and a conviction . . . that there is a deposit of authoritative revelation in the Holy Scripture that possesses a kind of unparalleled authority. [11:13-12:18]

Respectfully, I have not observed, myself, after much related study, a “mixed record” in the Church fathers on the matter of the rule of faith (or with regard to whether any of them held to sola Scriptura). In my experience, they do not express the principle of sola Scriptura, as defined by Gavin above. We must also note that in saying that Scripture is the only infallible authority, one is at the same time necessarily denying that tradition or the Church can be infallible (even under carefully laid-out conditions).

So when I went and studied what many Church fathers thought on this issue, I looked up what they said about the authority of the Church, sacred tradition, ecumenical councils, and apostolic succession. And lo and behold, in every case I have thus far studied, infallible or sublime authority was granted to one of these four things. That being the case, it proved that the Church father in question did not (by definition) subscribe to sola Scriptura as the rule of faith. To see my evidence for this in each case, go to my Fathers of the Church web page, to the section: “BIBLE / TRADITION / APOSTOLIC SUCCESSION / SOLA SCRIPTURA / PERSPICUITY / RULE OF FAITH.”

As for William Webster, I have interacted more than once with his contra-Catholic assertions, and with the three-volume series of the Church fathers and sola Scriptura, co-written with David T. King. Again, I was very unimpressed with his research and points of view. See my articles:

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I informed Mr. Webster after my first critique of his work in 2000, and he said he would interact with it, but alas, he never has, these past 22 years.
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Gavin cites passages from St. Basil the Great and St. Augustine. Both can be interpreted simply as recognitions of the supreme authority of Scripture as inspired revelation, and the need for all theology to be harmonious with Scripture. It doesn’t follow, however, that either Church father held to sola Scriptura. They did not, because they recognized non-Scriptural entities as also infallible authorities within the Christian rule of faith.  I documented this — way back in 2003 — in Basil‘s and Augustine‘s cases, and showed how Webster and King were selectively citing Basil and citing him out of context, while (improperly and unhelpfully) ignoring what he said on these other issues.
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Gavin continued to talk about the fathers’ view of Scripture without directly addressing the necessary corollary aspects of what they believed about the authority of the Church, sacred tradition, ecumenical councils, and apostolic succession. This is a common failing of Protestant “patristic apologetics” that I have observed again and again. If Gavin is drawing from William Webster (and he says he has only read one Appendix), assuredly, he is getting only one side of the story, because this is the consistent methodology of Webster and King: observed by myself and several other Catholic critics through the years. I think Gavin has shown that he is open to critiques, and hopefully, he will address this particular aspect — as a valid Catholic objection — in some sort of reply to this present article (especially since he has interacted with many other Catholic apologists; I simply concentrate on writing rather than videos).
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I had a big written debate with Protestant apologist Jason Engwer at the large CARM forum in 2003 on the topic of the Church fathers and sola Scriptura (we’ve had many more interactions as well through the years), and he did precisely the same thing. I pointed this out over and over to no avail, and he departed before we even finished the debate.
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That leads into the third objection, which is “Sola Scriptura is not in the Bible”. I hear this one all the time [provides a video example] . . . [It’s] a very common claim, and it’s certainly true that we don’t find any verses in the Bible that say, “Thus follows the relation of Scripture and tradition . . .” But then again there’s a lot of things that we would say are entailed by the Bible but aren’t spelled out in that sort of explicit, self-conscious way. I’d also admit that verses like 2 Timothy 3:16, 2 Peter 1:20-21, and John 10:35 don’t in themselves get you to sola Scriptura, . . . but they don’t say that they’re the only thing that has that kind of authority . . . [directed to those who say sola Scriptura isn’t in the Bible]: would you interact with Matthew 15:1-9 more? [13:55-16:05]
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I debated this passage and related ones having to do with the Pharisees and tradition at extreme length in 2003 and 2005, with Reformed Baptist apologist James White. Unfortunately, they are tainted with his virulent anti-Catholicism and personal attacks (and must be very tedious to read), but I did my best to plug away and offer my viewpoint, in-between all of that diversion:
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He comments on Matthew 15 and noted that Scripture is set against the traditions of men. But the reply is that not all traditions are “of men” (i.e., opposed to God or sacred, divine tradition). Matthew 15 is setting Scripture up against these false traditions of men, not all tradition. I get into this aspect in my articles:

“Tradition” Isn’t a Dirty Word [late 90s; rev. 8-16-16]

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Tradition is Not a Dirty Word — It’s a Great Gift [National Catholic Register, 4-24-17]
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Paul expressly points out that there are good and bad traditions:
Colossians 2:8 (RSV) 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.
I would say that “tradition” is the unspoken meaning  in the latter part of the passage. Paul refers to this positive tradition from Christ elsewhere:
1 Corinthians 11:2 I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you.
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2 Thessalonians 2:15 So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.
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2 Timothy 1:13-14 Follow the pattern of the sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus; [14] guard the truth that has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us.
When all is said and done, I don’t see that sola Scriptura is taught in the Bible, and I think this is a huge internal logical conundrum for Protestants: especially in terms of formulating their rule of faith.
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What Protestants have always said is that the Church didn’t give us the Bible; it recognized the Bible: and that is a meaningful distinction. [22:16-22:23]
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I totally agree; so do (Gavin might be surprised to learn) Vatican I and Vatican II:

First Vatican Council (1870)

These the Church holds to be sacred and canonical; not because, having been carefully composed by mere human industry, they were afterward approved by her authority; not because they contain revelation, with no admixture of error; but because, having been written by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, they have God for their author, and have been delivered as such to the Church herself. (Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith, chapter II; emphasis added)

Second Vatican Council (1962-1965)

The divinely-revealed realities which are contained and presented in the text of sacred Scripture, have been written down under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. For Holy Mother Church relying on the faith of the apostolic age, accepts as sacred and canonical the books of the Old and New Testaments, whole and entire, with all their parts, on the grounds that they were written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (cf. Jn. 20:31; 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:19-21; 3:15-16), they have God as their author, and have been handed on as such to the Church herself. (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation [Dei Verbum], Chapter III, 11; emphasis added)

I acknowledge that most Protestants don’t function with a very robust definition of sola Scriptura. Many function with what some people call solo Scriptura or nuda Scriptura: Scripture alone. . . . Protestants do value Church history insufficiently, and so if there is any blame for caricatures of sola Scriptura, a lot of it comes on us Protestants, because we don’t even understand what that doctrine means in many cases. [23:35-24:18]

This is true, and I appreciate Gavin humbly acknowledging it. It’s really a universal shortcoming: ignorance and theological undereducation abounds; insufficient learning or catechesis in all Christian traditions and communions. This is why good teaching and apologetics are so crucial. All Christians need to know not only what they believe, but why they believe it. Catholics, for our part — on the whole — , are woefully ignorant of the contents of Scripture, before we even get to doctrinal beliefs and the reasons why we believe what we do.
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They are insufficiently catechized and abysmally ignorant of Scripture, and can therefore, learn quite a bit from Protestants on that score: who do value Scripture, as a rule, far more highly than Catholics do. I wrote about this in This Rock (the magazine of Catholic Answers) in 2004: ““Catholics Need to Read Their Bibles,” February 2004, 20-22. I wrote about it again for the National Catholic Register: “Why Are Catholics So Deficient in Bible-Reading?” [11-22-17]. So there are plenty of faults to go around.
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The massive ignorance of the populace in all Christian communions is the reason why we can — in doing apologetics and debates — only compare the “books” of one view with the books (confessions, creeds, catechisms) of another. We can always find bad examples on all sides, but we can’t base any sort of argument on that. We have to know and consult the “official teachings” of any given group.
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“A second acknowledgment I would make [is that] . . . the second century church didn’t look exactly like a Protestant church.” He goes on to note that in the early letters of Ignatius, episcopal government and a high view of the Eucharist are present. He admits: “that’s tough. That’s a fair challenge to me. . . . They do challenge me as a Baptist, and I’ll just admit it. . . . that’s a challenge to my perspective.” [24:18-25:50]
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Again, kudos to Gavin for humbly making such a concession. In conclusion: for much more of why I think the lack of the teaching of sola Scriptura in the Bible is a big challenge for Protestants and very difficult to explain from their perspective, see my recent article, Is Sola Scriptura Biblical? (vs. Jordan B. Cooper) [4-25-22]. For further related reading, see my two books on the topic:

100 Biblical Arguments Against Sola Scriptura (Catholic Answers: 10 May 2012, 135p)

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I thank Gavin very much for a very stimulating, enjoyable, ecumenical, and educational dialogue. I hope he responds back, so that we can continue the dialogue. If he does it in a video, that’s fine. I operate in the “written mode” only, but am happy to view videos and respond, just as I have done here.
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Summary: Baptist pastor Gavin Ortlund ably presents a Protestant perspective on sola Scriptura. I agreed in several ways but then explained why Catholics disagree in others.

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