Many Catholics—and a fair number of Protestants—are confused as to the exact meaning of sola scriptura (Latin, “Scripture only”), the authority principle or rule of faith for our Protestant brethren.
Luther, Calvin, and the other reformers used other authorities like reason and tradition. They developed arguments using logic (reason) and learned from the writings of past Christians (tradition) as they explored the Bible. However, the key here is that they used their logic not God’s logic. All human logic is flawed therefore, it could be easily concluded that Luther and Calvin’s logic was flawed as well, correct?
sola scriptura- an idea of the reformation can be clearly seen as a man-made idea brought about by man’s logic. It will conclude that all one needs for salvation are contained in the Bible. This conclusion excluded oral traditions, and Church Councils because they were not on the same level as the Bible. Even though, it was through oral traditions and Church Councils that the Bible was formed. In fact, as stated in previous articles, Martin Luther decided that certain books of the Old Testament did not meet his standards to be included in the Bible. If the Bible was the true word of God, why did Martin Luther take away the true word of God? If Martin Luther had the ability to ascertain the truthfulness of the Bible, under what authority was he doing that?
A Catholic would add that these facts need to be understood in the light of Sacred Tradition and that the Church’s intervention may be necessary to make sure they are understood correctly.
Indeed, Peter warns that “no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation” (2 Pet. 1:21) and says of Paul’s writings that “there are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures” (3:16). But despite these qualifications, the basic facts necessary for salvation can be given a biblical basis.
Yet the Bible was the supreme authority that ruled reason and tradition because Scripture alone was infallible precisely because it is God’s word. All other authorities (including church leadership) were fallible and must submit to Scripture.
Now, for the rest of the story. The Roman Empire was not the first Christian Nation. The first Christian nation was Armenia. in the early fourth century A.D. According to tradition, a young Armenian prince named Gregory became a refugee from his homeland when his father was executed for attempting to assassinate the king of Persia. The young exile was raised and educated by a Christian and ultimately converted to Christianity. Upon returning to Armenia, Gregory “the Illuminator” (or “Enlightener”) (ca. 257-331) started preaching throughout his homeland. He was thrown into a pit and lived for thirteen years. Finally, he was released and brought to the King. Known as a miracle-worker, Gregory was summoned to heal the ailing Armenian king Tiridates III (r. 287-330). Convinced by his miraculous recovery, Tiridates converted to Christianity around 301, a decade before the conversion of Constantine of Rome. Although the population of Armenia was still largely pagan at this time, Tiridates made Christianity the state religion and Armenia became the first officially Christian nation. King Tiridates III became a great supporter of the Church and of St. Gregory. He encouraged his nation to accept the Christian religion
With the blessing of Tiridates, Gregory continued preaching throughout Armenia. He was ultimately made patriarch of Armenia, and he laid the foundations for the cathedral of Etchmiadzin, the mother church of Armenia. Upon his death, he became the patron saint of his homeland. Thereafter, Christianity in Armenia spread slowly but steadily. Armenian bishops participated in early church councils, and, in the early fifth century, the Bible was translated into Armenian by St. Mesrob, who created the Armenian script and laid the foundation for a rich medieval Armenian literature.
This is where the knowledge of history becomes a great help. In 313 with the Edict of Milan, Emperor Constantine did not make Christianity the official religion, all he did was that it would be legal to participate in Christian activities. The difference is that it would allow all religions to be practiced in the Empire without worries of government crackdowns. This was a big step in the right direction but it was not the same as making it the sole and official religion of your country. This was reserved for Armenia.
Now, why is this important and what does this have to do with sola scriptura?
Armenia can prove exactly why you can not only rely on the scriptures. Armenia became a Christian country in 301 AD. At that time they did not have a written alphabet nor a bible in the language of their people. The people spoke Armenian, but there was no written language for the masses. Only the very few people of Armenian that were classically trained could read, Greek, Farsi (Persian), or Latin. However, the masses were trained to read these languages. So, how did the people learn about the Church and the Christian religion?
It was through oral traditions. The Liturgy was chanted, with a great many responses from the congregation. It was a very participatory event. The people heard the Gospel chanted, the words of Institution chanted and the homily chanted. Why? Because you can remember chanting easier than reading something especially if you can not read yourself. Chanting allows you to remember what was said and you can study the meaning of something if you can remember it.
The Armenian alphabet was invented in 405 AD or over 100 years after it became a Christian nation. Then the first Armenian Bible in Armenian did not come out until 435 AD. Considering the fact that it was still uncommon for people to have a Bible or were able to read, the Liturgy based on oral traditions became the reason why Christianity became ingrained into the soul of the Armenian people.
Then for the next almost 1600 years, Armenia was surrounded by countries that were violently against the Armenian people and their Christianity. Then on April 24, 1915, with the rest of the leaders of the Armenian community in Istanbul, the Armenian Genocide began. In the course of the next almost eight years over 1.5 million Armenians were systematically murdered as a result of Ottoman Turk Policy to eradicate their country of the Armenians. This was done because of their faith. How did they develop this faith? It was through oral traditions- traditions that could be heard they were forced to leave their homes, traditions that could be heard when they herded into Churches, and traditions that still speak to us today through the Armenian Catholic and Armenian Orthodox Divine Liturgies.
Sola Scriptura- is that enough? The faith of the Armenians proved it in 301 when they became the first nation to adopt Christianity- the strength of oral traditions as it was oral traditions that converted the nation- not the scriptures. The faith of the Armenians in 1915 to withstand the systematic slaughter of their people- the people who survived did so by oral traditions and they passed down these traditions to the Armenians of today.
Oral traditions are essential and part of a vital Church. Here are some New Testament quotes
Matthew 15:3 He answered them, “And why do you transgress [the commandment of God] for the sake of your tradition?”
Matthew 15:6 So, for the sake of your tradition, you have made void [the word of God].
Mark 7:8-9, 13 You leave the [commandment of God], and hold fast the tradition of men.” And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the [commandment of God], in order to keep your tradition! . . . thus making void [the word of God] through your tradition which you hand on. And many such things you do.”
Galatians 1:9-12 As we have said before, so now I say again, If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to [that which you received], let him be accursed. Am I now seeking the favor of men, or [of God]? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still pleasing men, I should not be a [servant of Christ]. For I would have you know, brethren, that [the gospel which was preached by me] is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but [it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ.]
Colossians 2:8 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.]
1 Thessalonians 2:13 And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received [the word of God which you heard from us], you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, [the word of God], which is at work in you believers.
1 Timothy 4:1, 6-7 Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by giving heed to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons . . . If you put [these instructions] before the brethren, you will be a [good minister] of Christ Jesus, nourished on [the words of the faith and of the good doctrine] which you have followed. Have nothing to do with godless and silly myths. Train yourself in [godliness].
The next time you talk to someone who tells you that the Bible is the sole authority, remember the soul of the Armenian people and how oral traditions saved a nation. Amen