Sola-Scriptura and the Authority of Christ

A view often expressed in order to bolster the claim of sola-Scriptura is that Christ himself looked to the authority of Scripture alone, and taught his apostles to do the same.  One example given is when Christ is tempted by Satan in the desert, and he responds to Satan’s temptations by quoting Scripture.  An example of this thinking:

“Matthew Chapter 4 — Three times Jesus was tempted by the Devil and each time Jesus replied exactly the same three dangerous words that defeated the Devil: ‘IT IS WRITTEN’ Read it for yourself!  If any one could have used oral tradition, it was Jesus, yet he chose the only safe and sure way to defeat Satan: Scripture.  We just wish that the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches held scripture alone in the same high regard!

Jesus defeated the three temptations of the Devil with, ‘it is written’, not ‘I say’.”

One thing that needs to be addressed here is the opinion that Catholics (and Orthodox) do not hold Sacred Scripture in high regard.  Sacred Scripture is woven into our liturgical worship in a way not found in most Protestant churches.  Aside from the many prayers of the Mass that are taken directly from Scripture, the first half of the Mass is devoted to the Liturgy of the Word.  Listening to the written word proclaimed and reverenced is an integral part of every Mass, and the way the cycle of readings has been developed the majority of the Bible is proclaimed in this way over the three year cycle.  In addition, we are all reading and learning from the same text each day, world wide.  If you attend Mass and are attentive, throughout your life Sacred Scripture will become an intricate part of the fabric of who you are simply by osmosis. 

A more important issue that I would have with the above viewpoint is it seems to imply that Christ had a dependency on Scripture – that “he chose the only safe and sure way to defeat Satan – Scripture.”  As written, that viewpoint can be most problematic.  While Sacred Scripture is indeed inspired by God, Jesus Christ IS God.  With a single thought he could silence Satan for all eternity and is not dependent upon the authority of Scripture to do so.  The idea that Christ somehow needed Scripture in order to have the only “safe and sure” way to defeat Satan is very concerning for it places the “God-breathed” (Scripture) above God Himself.  And dozens of times within the Gospels Christ prefaces his teaching with the words “I say,” and since these are words directly from the mouth of God they are not somehow less authoritative than his saying “it is written” as the passage implies.

Aside from that, if you read that exchange in Matthew 4:1-11 you will discover that Satan too responds to Christ with quoting Scripture.  Satan too says “it is written.”  If anything this passage shows that turning to Scripture alone is not enough at all.  You also need an authoritative interpretation, or else Scripture can easily be misused and skewed.  Christ, as God, provides the final authority in that discussion. 

Jesus also does not limit himself to teaching only what’s in Scripture (sola-Scriptura).  He expands and stretches Scripture in new ways, and on the surface can even seem to contradict it.  For example, in Exodus 21:23-25 we read “If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”  But in Matthew 5:38-39, Jesus uses his authority to turn us in a new direction – “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil.  But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”  His authority as God through his spoken word has no dependency on the written word God breathed into existence.

We also see this authority at work in the story of the woman caught in adultery.  Jewish law, per Scripture, required those caught in adultery to be put to death (Leviticus 20:10, Deuteronomy 22:22).  The scribes and the Pharisees had Scripture firmly in their court on the matter, and an adherence to sola-Scriptura would demand her death.  The woman however had God on her side, who set aside the law and simply told them “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.”  (John 8:7) To profess that Christ placed himself under the authority of Scripture and adhered to sola-Scriptura simply isn’t accurate.

And the people recognized Christ taught as one who had authority, not as their scribes (Matthew 7:29).  In Mark 1:23-28, Jesus encounters a demon, and expels him by his own authority (and does not rely on Sacred Scripture to do so).  And Scripture tells us that “And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, ‘What is this?  A new teaching!  With authority he commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’” (Mark 1:27)

Yet, the common viewpoint among Protestants that Christ was somehow dependent on Scripture can persist.  In his book “Reasoning from the Scriptures with Catholics” by Ron Rhodes (an anti-Catholic work), he says that “Jesus uses Scripture as the final court of appeal in every matter under dispute.” 

It’s hard to express how far from true that is, or to think that Jesus needed to appeal to Scripture.  But here are some examples of conflict in which Christ does not appeal to Scripture at all:

So no, Christ does not rely on Scripture to resolve every dispute.  In fact, he gives his apostles very different advice on how to resolve disputes. 

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.  If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.  But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.  If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”  Matthew 18:15-17

One very important thing this passage clearly teaches is that in Christ’s view, “the church” is a known, visible reality apart from two or three gathered in his name.  You can’t “tell it to the church” if you don’t recognize “the church” as a known, visible reality in the life of believers.  And Jesus refers a conflict that can’t be resolved between a few members to the church for resolution.  Not Scripture. 

There is a very solid reason for this, and it is exemplified early in Protestantism.  In 1529, Martin Luther and another of the prominent early Protestant leaders, Ulrich Zwingli met at what is known as the Marburg Colloquy to try to reach agreement on doctrinal issues that had arisen from their different interpretations of Scripture.  While they reached agreement on most points, one major difference could not be resolved and that is the way they viewed the Eucharist – what exactly did Jesus mean when he said “this is my body” (Matthew 26:26, Mark 14:22, Luke 22:19).  Both sides presented their argument based on Sacred Scripture but neither could convince the other their view was the correct one.  They did both agree on sola-Scriptura, and saw Scripture as their final authority.  But they were left without resolution when agreement could not be reached on a major doctrinal issue. 

 Given the view of both of these men that Scripture was the final authority, it is somewhat ironic they refused to recognize the instruction of Christ in Scripture to “tell it to the church” and to listen to what the Church had to say when disagreements occurred between members that could not be resolved.  This is after all the path the apostles took when they needed to resolve the most pressing issue in the early church, which is whether Gentile converts to the faith were required to be circumcised and keep the Jewish law.  They told it “to the church,” and the Church rendered a decision (Acts 15).  But Luther and Zwingli opted to part ways, and along with John Calvin began the threads of division that would rapidly sow through Protestantism.  Each professed their viewpoint was the correct interpretation of Scripture, all the while ignoring Christ’s solution for preventing this division was to “tell it to the Church” when agreement could not be reached.  The Church is no longer seen by these groups as a known, visible reality that can rule when a disagreement occurs, so subsequent splits and divisions over the years have lead to hundreds of different Protestant denominations with widespread divergence in teaching – the fruit of sola-Scriptura. 

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