Sola Scriptura states that “Scripture alone” is the supreme authority in all matters of doctrine and practice. History and Tradition are the flawed constructs of sinful humankind. Why would you look to them when you can see Christ through the Scriptures?
Because the Bible tells us to look to Tradition! The Catholic position is that Sacred Scripture (or the Bible) and Tradition (capital ‘T’, denoting the teachings of Jesus given to the Apostles and passed down) convey to us the fullness of Jesus Christ and His Gospel (which is the basis for all doctrine and practice.) The Reformers’ objection to this, Sola Scriptura or ‘Scripture alone conveys the Gospel’ is answered by three facts. One, Sola Scriptura is not possible. Two, ‘Scripture alone’ is emphatically not what scripture teaches. Three, the Bible teaches obedience to divine tradition, or ‘Tradition’.
Fact One. Believing Sola Scriptura requires belief in at least one piece of tradition: the canon of scripture. The Bible is a collection of books, and the table of contents or list of books that ought to be in it (called the canon) is furnished by tradition. Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Christians all have similar but different canons. That means that the contents of your Bible (no matter who you are) come from your Christian ‘tradition.’ (Often your choice(s) of translation come from the same source, unless you know Greek.)
Fact Two. The Bible never teaches the doctrine sola scriptura or ‘scripture alone’ is the highest authority. This makes sola scriptura a self-defeating premise – it is tradition, and is not from Scripture. Most of the time, II Peter 1:21 and II Timothy 3:16 are used as Biblical support for this Reformation era tradition. Yet these verses do not support this idea.
II Peter 1:21 is not trying to support the teaching authority of Scripture, let alone the idea that Scripture alone is an authority. Read the verses around it; they warn against making individuals the interpreters of Scripture (v. 20) because the apostles are the best teachers due to the fact that they witnessed Jesus (v. 16-19) and false teachers abound. (Ch. 2:1-3) This is why the Catholic Church cautions against private interpretation, and teaches that Sacred Scripture is properly interpreted by the apostolic Church rather than individuals.
II Timothy 3:16 teaches that Scripture is inspired by God (and therefore carries His authority.) It does not, however, append the word ‘alone’ to this statement. In fact, just a couple verses earlier, Paul tells Timothy to ‘remember from whom you learned it [the faith], and that from infancy you have known the sacred scriptures…’ which presents the oral preaching of the apostles and the Old Testament as pieces of the same package. (Since the New Testament wasn’t written when Timothy was a boy, Paul can only mean the Old Testament when he says ‘from infancy.’)
Fact Three. Even though the Bible does not teach sola scriptura, it does teach that we ought to obey the Bible and Tradition, just as the Catholic Church does. Paul tells the Thessalonians:
Therefore, brothers, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours
(II Thessalonians 2:15, NABRE)
Many times, the Bible condemns human traditions. (cf. Mark 7:8, Colossians 2:8) This we hear often in evangelical circles. What we don’t hear is that the Bible also commands us to follow tradition. (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:2, II Thessalonians 3:6) In some places, the New Testament even uses Jewish Tradition as a positive authority, such as the story from Jewish tradition of Michael and the Devil arguing over Moses’ body. (cf. Jude 9)
What do Catholics believe? This is Dei Verbum, official teaching of the Catholic Church on the Bible or Sacred Scripture:
Christ the Lord in whom the full revelation of the supreme God is brought to completion (see Cor. 1:20; 3:13; 4:6), commissioned the Apostles to preach to all men that Gospel which is the source of all saving truth and moral teaching… [the Apostles] by their oral preaching, by example, and by observances handed on what they had received from the lips of Christ, from living with Him, and from what He did, or what they had learned through the prompting of the Holy Spirit. The commission was fulfilled, too, by those Apostles and apostolic men who under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit committed the message of salvation to writing.
But in order to keep the Gospel forever whole and alive within the Church, the Apostles left bishops as their successors, “handing over” to them “the authority to teach in their own place.” This sacred tradition, therefore, and Sacred Scripture of both the Old and New Testaments are like a mirror in which the pilgrim Church on earth looks at God, from whom she has received everything, until she is brought finally to see Him as He is, face to face (see 1 John 3:2).
Dei Verbum, §7, Abridged
Further reading: Catholic Answers
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N.B. I am only a new Catholic. Though I have an undergrad in theology and am working on a Masters, I will not be a flawless source of information. But friends and family have many questions since my wife and I began becoming Catholics, and this is an attempt to answer those questions.