My purpose is to find a defense of sola scriptura against one part of the argument put forth in this article:


The author of the article uses as one of his pieces of evidence in his argument against sola scriptura the ministry of those Apostles that never wrote a gospel or letter that made it into the Bible. If they were apostles and had apostolic authority to teach doctrine, what are we to do with doctrines that they taught that were communicated via tradition and never incorporated into the Bible?

Or, concerning John, what about teachings that he considered important that he intended to share verbally and never were written down in any of his letters?

Here is the relevant quote from the article:

And then there’s that small matter of the unity of doctrine among the apostles. If Paul had been promulgating sola scriptura in 1 Corinthians 4 he would have been in conflict with the practice of the rest of the apostles. Most of the apostles never wrote a single line of Scripture; instead they transmitted the deposit of faith orally. Did their oral teachings carry any less weight of authority than the written teachings of Paul or Peter or John?

None of the other apostles taught sola scriptura. In fact, John said, “I have much to write to you, but I do not wish to write with pen and ink. Instead, I hope to see you soon when we can talk face to face” (3 John 13). Why would the apostle emphasize his preference for oral Tradition over written Tradition (a preference he reiterates in 2 John 12) if, as proponents of sola scriptura assert, Scripture is superior to oral Tradition?

My preference is for a Calvinist argument, but any protestant argument will suffice.

Note: In my research, I have found this article helpful, and it touches on these matters, but the argument could be stronger: https://www.equip.org/article/a-defense-of-sola-scriptura/

  • "Why would the apostle emphasize his preference for oral Tradition over written Tradition" is a non-sequitur. There's no reason to suppose that the things John wished to communicate verbally were doctrine. Commented Aug 26, 2019 at 8:04
  • Paul applied the word "prison" to himself many times in his letters. The word "chain" is also used once (2Tim 1:16). So, it seems that he wrote most of his letters from prison. Letter-writing must be one of the few things prisoners can occupy themselves with. The other apostles probably weren't in jail that often. There were probably two styles of preaching; an offensive style, type Stephen; and a defensive style, type Philip. Paul must have belonged to the former group. He is also admitting having a lot of enemies (2Cor 11:26). Commented Feb 11, 2020 at 12:53
  • The offensive style apparently broke more new ground than the defensive style, which was more nurturing. Commented Feb 11, 2020 at 12:53

2 Answers 2


The problem is no one knows exactly what John ever said apart from his writings. It's the same with Paul. What Traditions were extant in their time? Do we really believe they taught, for example, the Immaculate Conception? How would we know? It's an argument from silence and it's an argument that led to division not just between Protestant and Catholic, but centuries before between Catholic and Orthodox.

To your question, no one who believes in sola scriptura (the bible is the sole source of authority for all that's necessary for doctrine or practice as regards salvation) believes that the apostles left something salvific out of their writings that were assembled and are called the New Testament. It is a rejection of so-called Tradition that again frankly we have no way of identifying. We have no idea what John said to Gaius (3 John).

Irenaeus, as far as I know, was the first to address the question. How did the apostles work who didn't write anything down? He answers they all spoke the same message, but only some were chosen to write it down.

  1. We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith. AH, Book III, I, 1

So, for the early church, there's not a sense of something missing from the salvation message from apostolic writing that some group might discover centuries later from who knows where.

To be sure, Irenaeus believes that trustworthy men will proclaim the same message, but that is the extent of oral Tradition. It's not something out there apart from the bible truth, but is a person speaking the bible truth.

  • I wonder what strange things we would find if we went through the written records of the church encountered in India by the Portuguese. Even if the certain passage of Revelation is interpreted as closing the scripture, it doesn't me the counsel of Nicaea found every last piece.
    – Joshua
    Commented Aug 24, 2019 at 22:17
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    You might want to note that against heresies was written long before the Bible was put together. Irenaeus, in fact, uses tradition as the metric by which one ought to judge scriptures: how harmonious is their relationship with the rest of well-established scripture? Commented Aug 26, 2019 at 21:48
  • @SLM "We have no idea what John said to Gaius (3 John)." Do you understand unwritten tradition to consist of a set of inspired words? Because that's not what anyone in the cosmos believes about sacred tradition. Tradition is the name given to the entirety of what was handed on - the faith once delivered to the saints - of which Scripture is a component, and the heart. We don't need the words to Gaius if what was practised and believed by Christians in the Church throughout all centuries comports with or implies or necessitates the same - even according to your own definition of sola scriptura! Commented Apr 4, 2020 at 15:31
  • @SolaGratia Sure I understand the Catholic POV of a "sacred deposit" consisting of Scripture and Tradition. Don't forget its teaching Magisterium, however, in order to understand what exactly that "sacred deposit" is. (CCC #95, etc.) See the problem? IOW, their authority is neither Scripture or Tradition (ask the Orthodox), but its Magisterium as the interpreter of what IS that "sacred deposit".. So, in fact, the solution for SS remains we still only have known Scripture. We still only believe that the apostles forgot nothing and wrote everything as needs our salvation.
    – SLM
    Commented Apr 5, 2020 at 1:29
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    When Paul praised the Berean church for their nobility in searching the Scriptures in order to determine that what Paul was saying was true he was making it clear that, even though he had apostolic authority from God to proclaim and even write Scripture, he was perfectly comfortable to have what he was declaring Scripturally 'fact checked' by those he taught. Proponents of any Christian doctrine should happily submit to the same, be they individuals or councils. Commented Apr 5, 2020 at 13:33

Just as the political principle of separation of powers isn't needed and wouldn't make sense in an absolute monarchy or a dictatorship, so too does the doctrine of sola scriptura assume and require that there are actually other sources of divine inspiration alongside the scriptures. Sola scriptura is a doctrine that sets controls on how we understand and use other sources of divine inspiration.

So sola scriptura allows for other sources of divine special revelation, what is often called prophesy. Sola scriptura governs how we understand and use the spiritual gifts of prophecy and interpretation. (Note that many protestants are cessationist and would say the gift of prophecy has ceased; this doesn't change this aspect of sola scriptura as it applies equally to the prophecy of the apostolic age.) Sola scriptura says that when God inspires a prophet they will never say something contrary to the scriptures, and so our interpretations of their prophecies must always be in line with the scriptures. Sola scriptura also helps us have a healthy attitude towards prophecy: we do not trust self-proclaimed prophets blindly, but we test their words. Even when they are compatible with the scriptures we do not trust them as much as we trust the scriptures. If God continues to enable the spiritual gift of prophecy today, he does not do so with the intent that modern prophecies in any way supplant the scriptures. Extra-biblical prophecies will never be necessary, and they will always be secondary towards the scriptures he has inspired and preserved for all generations.

Similarly, sola scriptura governs the roles of tradition, reason, and wisdom in the church. We recognise that God's indwelling spirit enables us to reason well and gives us spiritual wisdom. We recognise the collective wisdom of groups of Christians, both now on a local context, and the collective wisdom of 2000 years of church history. All of these are valuable sources of knowledge that God has given us. But sola scriptura means that they all are always secondary to the scriptures. Just as God will never give us a prophecy that contradicts the scriptures, so he will never give us wisdom that contradicts the scriptures, nor preserve traditions for us that go against what he has recorded for us in the scriptures. But while there are a few traditions that protestants would say directly contradict the scriptures (for example, the sinlessness of Mary), most do not. For the rest, sola scriptura still governs our relationship to tradition, reason, and wisdom. Just as God's divine inspiration has guided the Christian church in the past leading us to certain understandings of the scriptures, so he continues to guide us now. Sola scriptura says there is no guarantee that any doctrine of the church is certain; the only mark of divine certainty is on the scriptures. So our relationship to the scriptures is one of an ongoing project of investigation guided by the spirit's insights. As God guides us we may collectively decide that some things which were believed in the past, although they do not directly contradict the scriptures, are weaker exegetically and have unfortunate theological implications compared to alternative interpretations. And just as we have a measure of skepticism towards earlier generations' traditions and interpretations, so future generations will judge that some of our interpretations and theological theories are unjustifiable as God continues to guide them. So for example, the perpetual virginity of Mary, despite going back to the early church, and despite being affirmed even by important protestant theologians including Luther, Cranmer, and John Wesley, is now rejected by the majority of protestants for both exegetical reasons and theological arguments and implications.

The controls of sola scriptura apply just as much to the original Twelve Apostles as they do in our age. God has always inspired more than just the scriptures. What sola scriptura teaches however is that the scriptures are the only inspired revelation that God intends for all Christians in all time to rely upon. The apostolic authority of the Twelve was to speak with inspiration as the church was initiated. Some of what they taught was preserved by God for us in the scriptures, but not all. We conclude that the things they said that were not preserved for us were not preserved because God does not will for us to have them, and that if we could somehow time travel back to hear the Apostles ourselves, what they said would still not be of equal authority to the scriptures, but to that of any other inspired prophecy. It is after all God who gives his authority to his inspired messages, and he is free to vary the authority he gives.

Finally, what John said in 2 John 12 and 3 John 13 does not imply any superiority of spoken inspiration over written inspiration, but reflects the many advantages that in-person ministry has over ministry by written correspondence.

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    I voted up your answer since you explained so well the relationship between scriptures, apostles, and tradition. But I feel there is a missing element since you haven't addressed the frequent issue of the authority which freezed the canon to 27 NT books in the first place. If the authority is not tradition, then what is it? Another question: what if a new letter / gospel / writing is discovered (like the dead sea scroll) and based on various criteria it is very likely to be written by one of the apostles (let's say the style and dating match, so BETTER than 3 Corinthians. Is it included? Commented Aug 24, 2019 at 6:06
  • @GratefulDisciple The canon is really a parallel doctrine to sola scriptura, but yes it's important and a little tricky. The reformed answer is that the scriptures are self authenticating, with we humans only recognising their inherent God-given authority. WCF 1.5 even says that all the traits of inspiration we identify in the scriptures can be arguments for their authority, but that ultimately "our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth, and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts".
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Aug 24, 2019 at 8:19
  • If another letter from the apostles was ever discovered, we would never be able to establish at this time that it was authentic, and even if we could, I would say that wouldn't make it scripture, but just another one of God's ancillary inspirations. The scriptures are what God has preserved for all the churches, so that if it has not been preserved such that it was known in all ages, then even its truly a work that is the output of the spirit it's not "scripture" in the same way the preserved texts are. Just like the Q source that many Christians think was an actual written text.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Aug 24, 2019 at 8:23
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    I commend you for describing sola scriptura with clarity, especially hashing out the consequences to other factors seldom included such as prophecy, reason, and wisdom. As I consider sola scriptura as a whole, it seems to me more and more that is is a set of premises (for philosophy), a kind of hermeneutic (for Bible interpretation) or a prolegomena (for systematic theology) that requires special treatment compared with other doctrines like salvation & eschatology. It looks like the center is "the inward work of the Holy Spirit" to validate the canon "after the fact". Commented Aug 24, 2019 at 16:16
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    I appreciate this answer because the Holy Spirit's role in interpreting to us that which It inspired the writing of is beyond being even of primary importance: It is absolutely crucial. Only the Spirit plumbs and knows both the mind of God and the heart of man. Commented Apr 5, 2020 at 13:42

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