I was reading this entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia about the theological concept of Tradition (as a source of revealed truth different from the Scripture). The author states that the Protestant rejection of tradition lead to logical inconsistencies in their doctrine/practice (if I understood it correctly). I would like to know which are some replies from Protestant theology to these comments. I show below some key paragraphs:

Now in this respect there are several points of controversy between Catholics and every body of Protestants. Is all revealed truth consigned to Holy Scripture? or can it, must it, be admitted that Christ gave to His Apostles to be transmitted to His Church, that the Apostles received either from the very lips of Jesus or from inspiration or Revelation, Divine instructions which they transmitted to the Church and which were not committed to the inspired writings? ... The Protestant principle is: The Bible and nothing but the Bible; the Bible, according to them, is the sole theological source; there are no revealed truths save the truths contained in the Bible; according to them the Bible is the sole rule of faith: by it and by it alone should all dogmatic questions be solved; it is the only binding authority. Catholics, on the other hand, hold that there may be, that there is in fact, and that there must of necessity be certain revealed truths apart from those contained in the Bible; they hold furthermore that Jesus Christ has established in fact, and that to adapt the means to the end He should have established, a living organ as much to transmit Scripture and written Revelation as to place revealed truth within reach of everyone always and everywhere.

... it is impossible to be satisfied with the Bible alone for the solution of all dogmatic questions. ... Catholic controversialists soon proved to the Protestants that to be logical and consistent they must admit unwritten traditions as revealed. Otherwise by what right did they rest on Sunday and not on Saturday? How could they regard infant baptism as valid, or baptism by infusion? How could they permit the taking of an oath, since Christ had commanded that we swear not at all? ... Where is it indicated in the Bible that the Bible is the sole source of faith?

In a similar way [controversies] show that [Protestants] cannot dispense with a teaching authority, a Divinely authorized living magistracy for the solution of controversies arising among themselves and of which the Bible itself was often the occasion. Indeed experience proved that each man found in the Bible his own ideas ... One man found the Real Presence, another a purely symbolic presence, another some sort of efficacious presence. The exercise of free inquiry with regard to Biblical texts led to endless disputes, to doctrinal anarchy, and eventually to the denial of all dogma. These disputes, anarchy, and denial could not be according to the Divine intention. Hence the necessity of a competent authority to solve controversies and interpret the Bible. To say that the Bible was perfectly clear and sufficient to all was obviously a retort born of desperation, a defiance of experience and common sense. Catholics refuted it without difficulty, and their position was amply justified when the Protestants began compromising themselves with the civil power, rejecting the doctrinal authority of the ecclesiastical magisterium only to fall under that of princes.

I am sorry for the long quotes, but I think they provide the line of argument to be counterattacked.

It seems, according to this question, that Luther, Calvin, and Wesley were against the Magisterium (and thus against the Tradition?), by stating that the Scripture is the sole source of revealed truth.

So the question is, how do Protestant theologies defend the aforementioned attacks of logical inconsistency, namely that there is necessarily a dogmatic choice involved in their theology which cannot be supported by the Holy Scripture?

Notice that I am not particularly interested in defences of specific instances given in the text (e.g. rest on Sundays), but rather on the more general principle of how unwritten traditions adopted by Protestantism are not logically inconsistent with their Sola Scripture belief.


Sola Scriptura means that the Bible is the sole infallible rule of faith and practice. It does not preclude the existence of lesser, fallible rules of faith and practice, existing under its authority.

For example, the Westminster Confession of Faith, 1.6, reads:

The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word: and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.

Note several qualifications that address your question:

  • The only things necessarily included in Scripture are those things necessary for God's glory and man's salvation, faith, and life
  • Some things in scripture are "expressly set down," while others may be deduced "by good and necessary consequence."
  • Some things are not mentioned in the Bible, but "are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word."

Thus many Protestant denominations hold to a creed of some kind – perhaps a short "what we believe" page on their website, or extensive doctrinal and ecclesiastical documents (such as the Westminster Confession of Faith itself). Such documents are typically summaries or interpretations of Scripture, not verbatim quotes, making them "fallible" rules of faith and practice. And because they still recognize the Bible as the only infallible rule, they are not violating Sola Scriptura.

In the case of many denominations that hold to the Westminster Confession, they hold to a number of doctrines and practices that they recognize may not be "expressly" set down in scripture, but at least can be deduced from it either by good and necessary consequence, or by Christian prudence and the light of nature. For example,

How each of these things is justified may vary from denomination to denomination. Some say meeting on Sundays is a matter of good and necessary consequence from Scripture; others say it is more of a light of nature thing. But in neither case does a "tradition" of meeting on Sunday violate the principle of Sola Scriptura, since none of them believe that the Bible forbids meeting on Sundays, and if they found that it did forbid such meetings, they would discard them.

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  • Thanks! The quote you give ends with "which are always to be observed." How are these non Biblibal based but binding truths different from unwritten revelation, i.e. Tradition in the Catholic Church? In practice, I see no crucial difference. Also, what about the Biblical (Protestant) canon? That is clearly an obligatory choice not found in the Bible, and hence an unwritten revealed truth. – luchonacho Feb 15 '18 at 10:35
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    @luchonacho That phrase modifies the "light of nature and Christian prudence" clause, and doctrines/practices in that category will not be as dogmatically held as doctrines expressly or deductively found in Scripture. So one church's "tradition" of meeting on Sunday morning at 10 AM or using Robert's Rules of Order for its congregational meeting would not be considered binding on any other church. Even though such "traditions" seem prudent and not in violation of the "general rules of the Word." – Nathaniel is protesting Feb 15 '18 at 11:17
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    @luchonacho As for the canon, at least some Protestants wouldn't consider it to be an infallible selection – many doubt John 7:53ff, for example, and some have some hesitancy toward 2 Peter. But I think properly answering that question would need to be done elsewhere; perhaps here: Do Anglicans believe the decision on the 66 book canon was infallible? – Nathaniel is protesting Feb 15 '18 at 11:22
  • "as dogmatically held as": to me, a belief/practice is or is not a dogma. There is no middle ground. To put it differently, is the way out of the inconsistency given by the recognition that everything in the Protestant doctrine/practice that is not "expressly or deductively" found in Scripture is assumed to be fallible? This is, that Protestantism holds some beliefs/practices that are expected to be "truth" but that ultimately, within its own theological epistemology/ontology, have no Divine assurance to be true, and thus are potentially false? – luchonacho Feb 15 '18 at 14:48
  • @luchonacho I'd say that's a fair summary. Of course, there will still be strong opinions over things that are "fallible," but they wouldn't be seen as obstacles to salvation. – Nathaniel is protesting Feb 15 '18 at 16:17

The Catholic Encyclopedia's article on tradition mentioned in the OP confuses itself and thus the Protestant practice and belief.

The article begins with a definition. Emphasis is mine.

The word tradition (Greek paradosis) in the ecclesiastical sense, which is the only one in which it is used here, refers sometimes to the thing (doctrine, account, or custom) transmitted from one generation to another; sometimes to the organ or mode of the transmission (kerigma ekklisiastikon, predicatio ecclesiastica).

But in its application thereof to the Protestant position (sola scriptura), it fails to identify in which sense it is using said word (tradition). The article agrees with the Protestant that there is such a thing as tradition, like Christ was born on December 25, but where it loses the argument is when it continues with that definition of tradition (custom) and applies it to Tradition or in the language of the article, revealed truth.

That "revealed truth" or Tradition with a cap T is where the Catholic and Protestant part company. For the Catholic, she believes Jesus left an unwritten, oral truth passed perfectly from one generation to the next and by which she defines her "de fide" statements. An example would be the old Bull that said outside the Catholic Church there is no salvation. Or one must believe Mary remained a virgin during and after the act of Christ's normal human birth. Or various other statements spoken as Tradition, not tradition.

These definitions of Tradition (revealed truth) are the things against which the Protestant disagreed.

So, if one keeps one's definitions consistent as one reads and understands, then one will find there is no "logical inconsistency". Essentially the "problem" was invented because the author confused between tradition and Tradition and falsely applied the latter to the former. It is called the fallacy of Equivocation.

As far as the Magisterium is concerned, a teaching authority of some type is Biblical. Paul asks are all teachers. Peter warns of false teachers. John mentions false apostles. The question is from where will the true teacher pull true information to teach? Will it be from Divine Inspiration (bible) or unwritten, oral Tradition? What will be the plumb line against which what is taught is determined true?

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  • Calvin also believed outside the Church there is no salvation... All he did was change what he meant by Church. The early major reformers believed in the perpetual virginity of Mary aswell. – aska123 Feb 15 '18 at 8:51
  • I am not really following the argument. You say that Protestants hold the tradition that Chirst was born on December 25, but this is not in the Bible. You seem to imply that such tradition is not a revealed truth, but simply a custom. Are you saying that every tradition in the sense of custom that is not in the Bible is not taken to be a revealed truth, and thus it is fallible, and subject to potential change? As I commented to Nathaniel, this seems to be at odds with the "[rules of faith and practices] which are always to be observed." phrase written in the Westimnster Confessions of Faith. – luchonacho Feb 15 '18 at 10:51
  • Custom/tradition (not in the Bible) is not salvific for any group. Revealed truth or divine/Tradition (also not in the Bible) is salvific to the Catholic. Those are two different things to each group. The Protestant would say Tradition (divine) and tradition (custom) is not in the Bible (the sole guide to faith/practice), so neither are salvific; they are not binding. Custom may be observed, but you aren't going to hell if you don't observe 12/25 (not in the Bible). If you deny Christ came in the flesh (in the Bible), then you have a problem. – SLM Feb 15 '18 at 14:20

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