Is the Bible alone sufficient for communicating all that we need to be saved? Sola scriptura (“by Scripture alone”) is among the most enduring teachings of the now 500-year-old Protestant Reformation. Since half of Americans identify themselves as members of Protestant Christianity, the sola approach to Scripture remains particularly influential.
This understanding of Scripture and how to interpret it stems from Martin Luther and the reformers who taught that the Bible is the supreme authority in spiritual matters and that all truths necessary for salvation are taught there, either explicitly or implicitly. The truths contained in the Bible, according to their belief, can be ascertained by ordinary believers without the need for others, including priests or ministers, to interpret.
What Catholics and Protestants who embrace sola scriptura share is their valuing of God’s Word. Both trust it as sacred and inspired. It is a communicator of moral teachings and the Good News of salvation. Reading the Scriptures or hearing the Word proclaimed for Catholics and Protestants is a special point of contact with the divine. The distinction between Catholic and Protestant approaches to the Bible lies not in respect for the Word or even use of the Bible in private prayer, liturgy, and study, but in interpretation.
The principle of sola scriptura relies on the “clear meaning” of Scripture, presuming accessibility and unanimity of interpretation in key areas such as grace and salvation. For Catholics, however, varying interpretations among Christian groups and within them, indicate the need for an authority to interpret. Since Scriptural passages can be cited to uphold various beliefs, even contradictory ones, certain passages, especially those from which doctrine can be deduced, must be interpreted by the Church. Catholics, for instance, see in the Bible the basis for the practice and efficacy of the sacraments, yet other Christian believers do not.
Amidst differing understandings, Catholics view revelation as a unity that is communicated in two ways: the Bible and the living tradition of the Church. Catholics point to the role of tradition as biblical. For instance, the apostles exercised authority (beyond the letter of the Scriptures as they knew them) when they convened the Council of Jerusalem (see Acts 15:6–30) and determined that the full Jewish dietary laws were no longer binding on Christians. This exercise of tradition within Scripture shows how the Church’s teaching office (known as the magisterium) would develop over time through the role of its bishops.
The first teachers and evangelists of the faith recognized that the written Scriptures themselves were not meant to be the totality of God’s revelation. St. John writes, for instance, “Although I have much to write to you, I do not intend to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and to speak face to face so that our joy may be complete” (2 John 1:12). For the early Church, God communicated through the written word and oral tradition.
The Christian faith existed before the Bible as we have it today. The first generations of believers did not have access to any Scriptures aside from the Old Testament. And for some decades, these first believers did not have access to the full canon of inspired works (later called the New Testament) since they were not compiled and recognized as Scripture until at least the early second century.
Catholic theologians grappled with the principle of sola scriptura even before the Reformation.
In the fifth century, St. Vincent of Lérins seemed to anticipate the reformers’ questions when he wrote, “Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church’s interpretation?” Yet even if Scripture seemed “complete” — at least in its basic table of contents — he contended that “owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters.”
The only remedy for potential scriptural anarchy of so many interpreters, according to St. Vincent of Lérins, is the authority of the Church to interpret the Scriptures. The Church posits the importance of an integral reading of the Bible that defies a simple, narrow approach isolating certain verses as “proofs.” Instead, its interpretation relies on the wisdom of the Church’s leaders and its teaching office.
Catholics, while affirming the importance of the Scriptures, do not view the Bible alone as sufficient for an understanding of revelation. The Bible and tradition together are the font of God’s self-communication to humanity. Understanding the approach of non-Catholic Christians to the Bible can aid Catholics in our own appreciation for the Bible and the importance of understanding the Word of God in concert with tradition and the teachings of the Church.