The Protestant Reformation had, as its ultimate authority, scripture alone. Their claim was not that no other authority can provide true or useful information, but that the sole infallible rule of faith must be the word of God. This viewpoint flows from Scripture itself. Paul tells us in 2 Timothy 3 that:
“evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:13-17 ESV).
To summarize, Paul warns Timothy about those who will claim to be Christians (even Christian teachers) but will in fact be deceived and deceive others. They will claim that their doctrine is true and perhaps claim some kind of authority or tradition to back it up.
At this point, Paul could have told Timothy (the recipient of his letter) to hold fast to the doctrine of the magisterium, to Peter, or to Peter’s successors. He does not. Instead, he calls him to hold fast to the scriptures, which contain all information that one might need to receive salvation from God (implying that anyone who claims that there are doctrines that must be believed to be saved which have no place in the word of God must be rejected as false or even, to use Paul’s word, “evil”). Scripture is sufficient to serve its purpose because scripture is “God-breathed.” Neither Paul nor any other writer claim that any other source is God-breathed but scripture alone.
Tradition and the opinions of men can be helpful and good. However, scripture warns us that it can also be destructive and against God, even when delivered by those who are in religious authority over God’s people. Jesus chastises the teachers of the Jews for this very thing when he tells them, “you leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men” (Mark 7:8). Similarly, Peter rejects the authority of the religious leaders of Israel when he tells them, “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29 ESV). Paul goes even further when he declares that, “even if we [apostles of Jesus Christ] or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8). Paul admits that even those in the highest religious authority can be wrong, and that if they are their teaching must be vehemently rejected.
It is Paul’s claim that all tradition, all teaching, all authority must be tested by that which is God-breathed– which is the scripture of God. Any system which does not allow its teaching to be tested, altered, or even completely abandoned in light of scripture is a system of deception which is headed by impostors. If anyone wishes to argue that any other source may be just as authoritative as scripture must demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt that this source is God-breathed. The Roman Catholic Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society all fail to live up to this standard, so they must be rejected.
The Magisterium’s Role in Defining Scripture
A Roman Catholic, however, might argue that without the magisterium, there can be no scripture, thus the magisterium must be as authoritative as scripture. This claim is based on the faulty premise that the Roman Catholic Church gave the world the Bible and defined infallibly what it is. There is at least one major problem with this claim however– the Roman Catholic Church did not define the canon of scripture (which books are in the Bible) until the 16th century at the Council of Trent– and they included Old Testament books that neither the Jews nor many Roman Catholics had accepted as scripture beforehand. Are we to believe that there was no scripture until this definition? Or did the church have the Bible before the Council of Trent? If it did, then the claim that one needs the magisterium to infallibly define the canon of scripture is bogus and a smokescreen.
In fact, since it is God who inspired scripture, scripture exists without men making any declaration on the matter. Since it is God who uses His scripture to bring his elect into relationship with Him and sustain their faith, it also seems likely that He would make it evident what books He inspired, which is in fact what happened.Through a process of a few hundred years– and without any declaration from a catholic council– the church did in fact come to a clear consensus in regard to what New Testament books were inspired. Their litmus test for deciding these books demanded that the books be ancient, apostolic in nature (written by an apostle or a companion of an apostle), and that they be universally used throughout the church. This criteria for recognizing what God had inspired makes sense since the gospel and teachings of Jesus were given to the apostles, and the same Holy Spirit who inspired the Bible could bring His church to see what it was.
As for the Old Testament, according to Romans 3:2 those books were entrusted to the Jews. The Jews accept (and accepted in Jesus’ day) a canon that does not include the so-called deutero-canonical books in the Roman Catholic Old Testament, which suggests that in what can loosely be called Christianity, it is the protestant variety which holds to the correct Old Testament canon, and that the Roman Catholic Church’s claim to have an infallible definition of the canon does not hold up.
The Final Authority for the Early Church
The concept of papal and magisterial authority developed over time, and it is not difficult to find seeds of this concept in the relatively early church. Tradition also was given some weight, though occasionally wrongly (see for example Irenaeus’ bogus claim that Jesus lived to be in his 50s– a tradition he claimed to have received from those who knew John [Against Heresies, 2:22:5]). However, one still sees a strong witness for the doctrine that scripture alone must be the final authority for the Christian.
Often, when tradition is brought up by the church fathers, the context tells us exactly what they meant by that word– the tradition which is contained in scripture. For instance, Athanasius in his letter to Adelphius defines apostolic tradition as such:
“While the Apostolic tradition teaches in the words of blessed Peter, ‘Forasmuch then as Christ suffered for us in the Flesh,’ and in what Paul writes, ‘Looking for the blessed hope and appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ…” (Letter 60, To Adelphius, 6).
Irenaeus also speaks of what was handed down as being contained in the Scriptures:
“We have learned from none others [the apostles] the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith…” (Against Heresies, III:1:1).
Early church fathers stated in varying ways that doctrine must be taken from scripture, and that all doctrine must be held to the light of scripture and either accepted or rejected on the basis of that light.
Hippolytus wrote that:
“There is, brethren, one God, the knowledge of whom we gain from the Holy Scriptures, and from no other source…. Whatever things, then, the Holy Scriptures declare, at these let us look; and whatsoever things they teach, these let us learn” (Against the Heresy of One Noetus, 9).
Note that Hippolytus claims that it is from scripture alone and no other source that knowledge of who God is can be gained.
Similarly, Athanasius sounds downright Lutheran in his claims that, “vainly then do they run about with the pretext that they have demanded Councils for the faith’s sake; for divine Scripture is sufficient above all things,” (History of Councils, 6) and, “the sacred and inspired Scriptures are sufficient to declare the truth” (Against the Heathen, 1:1).
We would be wise to follow the counsel of Basil of Caesarea when he stated that, “hearers who are instructed in the Scriptures should examine what is said by the teachers, receiving what is in conformity with the Scriptures and rejecting what is opposed to them; and that those who persist in teaching such doctrines should be strictly avoided” (The Morals, Rule 72).
In response to this emphasis of scripture as final authority from the early church, many Roman Catholics might argue that all Catholic dogmas come from the apostles and must be witnessed to at least partially in scripture. However, claiming that something must be in scripture is quite different from claiming that it is. Someone who claims that, for instance, the Roman Catholic dogmas of Mary’s immaculate conception and assumption are attested to in scripture, let alone early church tradition, is no longer reasoning objectively and is simply accepting the authority of the magisterium and its bogus claims that its doctrine is apostolic. For the Roman Catholic, there is not in practice the three-fold authority of scripture, tradition, and magisterium which they claim. The debate between protestants and Roman Catholics is one between scripture alone and magisterium alone– in Roman Catholicism the magisterium has the final authority to define what scripture and tradition are/mean, and no one may challenge what Rome declares, regardless of what scripture plainly teaches.
For instance, could the Roman Catholic say with Augustine, without pause, that we ought not, “[dare to] agree with catholic bishops if by chance they err in anything, with the result that their opinion is against the canonical Scriptures of God” (On the Unity of the Church, 10)?
For the Christian trying to determine what source is authoritative for his doctrine and practice, tradition and church authority must always be subservient to scripture.