Question Box: What is ‘Sola Scriptura?’


By Fr. Thom Hennen
Question Box

Q: Can you explain the Protestant understanding of Sola Scriptura?

A: I always want to be cautious when trying to explain a concept that belongs to a tradition other than my own. It is easy to misrepresent, make strawman arguments or to become overly defensive. That said, I will try to give this a fair shake and then explain why the idea is problematic.

Fr. Hennen

Sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”) is one of the hallmark ideas of the Protestant Reformation, positing that Sacred Scripture stands alone as the infallible and authoritative source for Christian teaching and living. This was in opposition to the Catholic understanding of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition forming a single “deposit of faith.” Reformers, in opposition to what they felt was too much emphasis on magisterial teaching and too little emphasis on the inspired word of God, sought to go back to the Scriptures and make them more accessible for Christian believers. This all sounds good. Who doesn’t want to try to simplify things and help everyone to bone up on their Bible? But there are a few problems.


First, Scripture itself never says that it is enough. Perhaps the closest we come to this is in Second Timothy, in which we read: “All scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). Agreed! All Scripture is inspired (Catholics believe this as well as Protestants) and is useful, but that is not exactly Sola Scriptura.

In another place, St. Paul writes, “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.” This indicates to us that the Apostles passed down something in addition to the written word. It also reminds us that an oral tradition existed before there was ever a book. The Bible did not fall out of the sky.

This brings me to my next point: Scripture flows from Tradition and the two can never be completely separated. The Bible is a “book of books” — yes, inspired by God and yet written over thousands of years by different (human) authors in different places and historical contexts, presented in many genres and ultimately compiled in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and the Christian Scriptures (New Testament). Even deciding what books would be included in the Christian Bible, as we know it, was the work of an interpretive body, namely, early Catholic bishops, who accepted the whole of the Jewish canon and the 27 books of the New Testament. Even to say Sola Scriptura is, in fact, a kind of tradition, and one that does not really emerge until the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.

Finally, let’s face it, the Bible is a hard book. I don’t mean to discourage people from reading it. After all, St. Jerome (c. 342-420) famously said, “Ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ.” Still, it is not always immediately accessible. It demands an interpreter, a “magister” (teacher, from which we get the word “magisterium”) beyond just the individual. Otherwise, you can see how this can quickly devolve into sheer personal interpretation. I remember a favorite college professor of mine who said, “The Bible is like a loaded gun in the hand of an untrained user.” If we have a mind to, we can make it say almost whatever we want it say. This is where we need not only serious scholarship but also Tradition to help guide us.

By all means, pick up your Bibles! Read, study and pray, but don’t go it alone.

(Father Thom Hennen serves as the pastor of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport. Send questions to

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