Geisler and Mackenzie: Refutation of Sola Scriptura (part 1)

By Wesley Hunt. Protestant apologists Ralph Mackenzie and Norman Geisler have put out an apologetic dissertation in defense of one of the hallmark doctrines of the Reformation, namely, sola scriptura. The article is titled, “A Defense of Sola Scriptura,” and seeks, among other things, to provide a thorough yet succinct justification for sola scriptura. Throughout the article, the apologists approach the issue from a number of angles, and it is the goal of this essay to address simply those claims Geisler and Mackenzie make from scripture. The other two posts, which will hopefully be soon to follow, will cover their arguments from both tradition, as well as other miscellaneous arguments presented in their paper. With that in mind, pull up a chair and enjoy the show.

The rebuttal will be presented in the form of a back and forth dialogue using citations from the Geisler-Mackenzie article. Citations from Geisler and Mackenzie's article will be indicated by the letters GM. Unam Sanctam Catholciam rebuttals by author Wes Hunt will be indicated by W. Hunt. This is Part 1 in a three part series on rebutting Protestant arguments relating to sola Scriptura.

Geisler and Mackenzie begin by summarizing the Catholic view that the Bible is in need of ecclesiastical tradition, which is also an authoritative source of dogma. We will pick up here with the question of whether the Bible teaches sola scriptura. 

Does the Bible Teach Sola Scriptura?

GM: As convincing as these arguments may seem to a devout Catholic, they are devoid of substance. As we will see, each of the Roman Catholic arguments against the Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura fails, and they are unable to provide any substantial basis for the Catholic dogma of an infallible oral tradition.

W. Hunt: Throughout this article, I think it will be made unquestionably clear whose arguments are “devoid of substance,” and whose aren’t. So stay tuned.

GM: Two points must be made concerning whether the Bible teaches sola Scriptura. First, as Catholic scholars themselves recognize, it is not necessary that the Bible explicitly and formally teach sola Scriptura in order for this doctrine to be true. Many Christian teachings are a necessary logical deduction of what is clearly taught in the Bible (e.g., the Trinity). Likewise, it is possible that sola Scriptura could be a necessary logical deduction from what is taught in Scripture.

W. Hunt: First, no Catholic scholar would agree that it is not “necessary that the Bible explicitly and formally teach sola Scriptura.” Obviously, such a supposed foundational teaching of the Protestant faith would need be explicit, else, unwittingly, the apologist’s argument will only serve to shoot himself in the foot. How? Because he believes all of the “essentials” are perspicuously taught in the Bible.

In other words, either Sola Scriptura is “essential” and therefor taught perspicuously in scripture, or it is only implicitly taught in scripture and therefore "non-essential." Either way, the attempted comparison to the Trinity doesn’t work as an argument for Sola Scriptura being implicitly taught in the bible for many reasons. First, however “implicit” the doctrine of the Trinity was in Scripture, no Ecumenical Council ever saw fit to deduce the doctrine of Sola Scriptura from Scripture, like they did the Trinity, for example. Moreover, the Councils did not define the Trinity because it was the only possible solution based on Scripture but because it was the only orthodox solution based on Tradition. Indeed, there were many possible solutions (e.g., Modalism, Sabellianism, Arianism, etc.), but only one correct one. But Sola Scriptura doesn’t even fall under a possible solution, since one needs an outside authority, like Tradition and the Church Magisterium, to discern what constitutes scripture in the first place.

In addition, these very same Councils that dogmatized the Trinity based their decisions on more than Scripture alone; they also appealed to the apostolic Tradition handed down to them. Conversely, it was the Arian heretics who, while themselves appealing to Scripture alone, denied the Trinity and Incarnation of Christ; they claimed the doctrines were nowhere found in scripture. Further, no Father ever advocated the formal sufficiency of Scripture, or cited Tradition in defense of such a doctrine.[1]

GM: Second, the Bible does teach implicitly and logically, if not formally and explicitly, that the Bible alone is the only infallible basis for faith and practice. This it does in a number of ways. One, the fact that Scripture, without tradition, is said to be “God-breathed” (theopnuestos) and thus by it believers are “competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17 emphasis added) supports the doctrine of sola Scriptura.

W. Hunt: Nowhere does 2 Tm 3:16-17 exclude tradition from being “God-breathed.” 2 Tm 3:16-17 merely says that scripture is profitable for “teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,” not that only scripture is profitable. Hence, the apologists argument is one from silence.

GM: This flies in the face of the Catholic claim that the Bible is formally insufficient without the aid of tradition. St. Paul declares that the God-breathed writings are sufficient.

W. Hunt: No, St. Paul says that scripture is profitable, not sufficient. In fact, it is actually this “teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” that, according to St. Paul, aids us in being “fully equipped for every good work.” Thus, scripture merely serves as one instrument out of many to carry these things out. To say anything more is to read into the passage what is clearly not there.

GM: And contrary to some Catholic apologists, limiting this to only the Old Testament will not help the Catholic cause for two reasons: first, the New Testament is also called “Scripture” (2 Pet. 3:15-16; 1 Tim. 5:18; cf. Luke 10:7).

W. Hunt: But the New Testament as such is never called scripture by the Old Testament, and thus the apologists merely assume their position that the New Testament is inspired to be true based on the fact that some of the New Testament letters themselves refer to other New Testament writings (but not all of them) as scripture. But how do the apologists know, at least infallibly, that 1 Pt 3:15-16, 1 Tm 5:18, and the Gospel of Luke are all inspired by God in the first place, apart from Catholic tradition? Curious minds want to know. Moreover, the scriptures Paul has in mind are referring to the Old Testament exclusively, since the scriptures in scope are those Timothy would have known of from his infancy (2 Tm 3:15).

GM: second, it is inconsistent to argue that God-breathed writings in the Old Testament are sufficient, but the inspired writings of the New Testament are not.

W. Hunt: Again, nowhere in 2 Timothy or anywhere else in scripture for that matter, is scripture, whether in the Old or New Testaments, ever coined as being “sufficient.” This is simply non-biblical language that the apologists insist on using, despite scripture's omission of such nomenclature. Obviously, if the Holy Spirit did not see it necessary to use the term, “sufficient,” in describing scripture, then neither should we. In any case, even if the term “sufficient” were used in 2 Tm 3: 16-17, the scripture in reference would have been the Old Testament, and thus there would be no need for a New Testament, because the Old Testament would have been “sufficient.” So, at the end of the day, the argument presented by Geisler and Mackenzie ends up proving too much.

GM: Further, Jesus and the apostles constantly appealed to the Bible as the final court of appeal. This they often did by the introductory phrase, “It is written,” which is repeated some 90 times in the New Testament. Jesus used this phrase three times when appealing to Scripture as the final authority in His dispute with Satan (Matt. 4:4, 7, 10). Of course, Jesus (Matt. 5:22, 28, 31; 28:18) and the apostles (1 Cor. 5:3; 7:12) sometimes referred to their own God-given authority.

W. Hunt: Wrong again. Notice how the apologists attempt to puff up their side of the story by hyperbolic language by stating things like Jesus and the apostles “constantly” appealed to the Bible, as opposed, in their minds, to tradition, as the “final court of appeal.” Yet, still, out of all the times Jesus appeals to scripture, He never once assigns it the title, “final court of appeal.” Simply pointing to the phrase, “It is written,” won’t cut the bill. In reality, all the phrase, “It is written,” serves to show is that scripture is considered to be, at least by Jesus and the apostles, a rock-hard authority to which one must obey. Needless to say, extracting the idea that scripture is the “final court of appeal” from the mere introductory phrase, “It is written,” is nothing short of reading into a text what is clearly not there. As it stands, nowhere in scripture is scripture ever referred to as the “final court of appeal,” or the “sole authority for Christian faith and practice.” Rather, all Jesus’ appealing to scripture in His dispute with Satan serves to show is that Jesus considered scripture an authority, not that He considered scripture as the sole or final authority.

GM:  It begs the question, however, for Roman Catholics to claim that this supports their belief that the church of Rome still has infallible authority outside the Bible today. For even they admit that no new revelation is being given today, as it was in apostolic times. In other words, the only reason Jesus and the apostles could appeal to an authority outside the Bible was that God was still giving normative (i.e., standard-setting) revelation for the faith and morals of believers. This revelation was often first communicated orally before it was finally committed to writing (e.g., 2 Thess. 2:5). Therefore, it is not legitimate to appeal to any oral revelation in New Testament times as proof that nonbiblical infallible authority is in existence today.

W. Hunt: Of course, no “new revelation” is given to us today, whether by letter or by word of mouth, and the Catholic Church has never made such a claim. Ironically, however, Geisler and Mackenzie’s argument only serves to disprove Sola Scriptura. For instance, if they admit that, during the apostolic times, other means apart from writing were used to convey inspired revelation being given at that time, such as oral revelation, then, logically, they must abandon any hope that scripture would have taught sola scriptura, since scripture was penned during the apostolic times! In other words, if scripture, which was written by the apostles, did teach sola scriptura, then sola scriptura was a practice in apostolic times, contra Geisler and Mackenzie’s admission. Yet, if, as Geisler and Mackenzie readily admit, sola scriptura was not practiced during the apostolic era (due to, so they say, the fact that revelation had not ceased yet), then it would be absurd to try and find sola scriptura expounded in scripture, since scripture was penned during the apostolic era and thus the idea of sola scriptura would have, according to Geisler and Mackenzie’s timeline, not existed yet. But this is precisely the cognitive dissonance these apologists are running with. On one hand, they appeal to scripture for support for sola scriptura, yet, on the other hand, they admit that the apostles could appeal to an authority “outside of the Bible” during apostolic times. But if the latter were true, then, as said above, we shouldn’t expect sola scriptura to have been mentioned in the NT, since the NT was written during the apostolic times. So, which is it?

Moreover, the apologists beg the question in assuming all oral revelation to have been eventually written down within the pages of scripture. But nowhere does scripture even hint at containing all such oral teachings. All the 2 Thess. 2:5 tells us is that all of the information directly preceding 2 Thess. 2:5 had been taught to the Thessalonians orally, not that everything that had been orally taught to every Church had been penned as scripture. How do we know what the content of the oral revelation was if by definition it was not written down? How, therefore, do we know it was all subsequently written down? Thus, as is usually the case, Geisler and Mackenzie’s argument is one from silence.

GM: He rebuked the Pharisees for not accepting sola Scriptura and negating the final authority of the Word of God by their religious traditions, saying, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? You have nullified the word of God, for the sake of your tradition” (Matt. 15:3, 6). It is important to note that Jesus did not limit His statement to mere human traditions but applied it specifically to the traditions of the religious authorities who used their tradition to misinterpret the Scriptures.

W. Hunt: First, while it is true that the “Word of God” should be designated the “final authority,” G&M word things in such a way as to limit the “Word of God” down to what is written only (i.e., to scripture), a distinction neither scripture itself nor tradition affirm. Second, Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for clinging onto mere “traditions of men,” as opposed to the traditions of God, which even scripture itself happens to be a product of. As for the claim that Jesus did not “limit His statement to mere human traditions,” it won’t fly, since not only does Jesus specifically refer to the traditions in scope as “traditions of men,” but apart from these two categories (i.e., traditions of men, and traditions of God) there are simply no other traditions left to refer to. Merely bringing up the fact that these “traditions of men” were exercised by religious authorities doesn’t get the apologists anywhere in this discussion, since the traditions exercised by these “religious authorities” were still mere “traditions of men.” But not all religious authorities push their man-made traditions onto others. For instance, take St. Paul, who, being a prominent NT “religious authority,” had no issue passing on his God-given tradition (as opposed to a man-made tradition) to the Thessalonians, whether by way of writing or speech (2 Th 2:15). 

GM: There is a direct parallel with the religious traditions of Judaism that grew up around (and obscured, even negated) the Scriptures and the Christian traditions that have grown up around (and obscured, even negated) the Scriptures since the first century. Indeed, since Catholic scholars make a comparison between the Old Testament high priesthood and the Roman Catholic papacy, this would seem to be a very good analogy.

W. Hunt: First, just as not all of the traditions of Judaism “obscured” or “negated” scripture, so then not all “traditions” sprouting amongst Christians of the early first century did so either. But making parallels between the man-made traditions in Judaism and man-made traditions sprouting up among the early centuries of Christian history won’t get us very far in these discussions, since Catholicism has never claimed any God-given tradition which “obscures” or “negates” scripture in the first place. And, of course, by “negating scripture,” G&M mean negating their own idiosyncratic interpretation of scripture. The argument assumes, for example, the Roman Catholic view of the priesthood as related to the Old Testament priesthood is deficient and then argues from this assumption.

GM: Finally, to borrow a phrase from St. Paul, the Bible constantly warns us “not to go beyond what is written” (1 Cor. 4:6). This kind of exhortation is found throughout Scripture. Moses was told, “You shall not add to what I command you nor subtract from it” (Deut. 4:2). Solomon reaffirmed this in Proverbs, saying, “Every word of God is tested….Add nothing to his words, lest he reprove you, and you be exposed as a deceiver” (Prov. 30:5-6). Indeed, John closed the last words of the Bible with the same exhortation, declaring: “I warn everyone who hears the prophetic words in this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words in this prophetic book, God will take away his share in the tree of life…” (Rev. 22:18-19). Sola Scriptura could hardly be stated more emphatically.

W. Hunt: Appealing to such passages as Dt 4:2, Pr 30:5-6, and Ap 22:18-19 as support for sola scriptura won’t get Geisler and Mackenzie very far. Obviously, any addition to God’s word, whether oral or written, that God Himself does not authorize is, we will assume by extension, a violation of the principle laid out in Ap 22:18-19. However, to accuse believers in authoritative Tradition in not following the principle behind Ap 22:18-19 is vain, since scripture itself commands we both obey and preserve oral tradition (cf. 2 Th 2:15; 2 Tm 1:13; 2:2). Hence, in an ironic sort of way, it is actually the sola scriptura advocates who “take away” from God’s word by disregarding, and even preaching against, Paul’s command to obey and preserve oral tradition. Suffice it to say, all passages such as Dt 4:2 and Ap 22:18-19 simply prohibit is any unauthorized addition (or subtraction) of God’s word by man. Authoritative tradition does not do this, since it was, indeed, God’s word, long before the book of Revelation had ever been penned. Merely saying, "Do not add to or take away from revelation" is of no use to us in determining what is authentic revelation.

GM: Of course, none of these are a prohibition on future revelations. But they do apply to the point of difference between Protestants and Catholics, namely, whether there are any authoritative normative revelations outside those revealed to apostles and prophets and inscripturated in the Bible. And this is precisely what these texts say. Indeed, even the prophet himself was not to add to the revelation God gave him. For prophets were not infallible in everything they said, but only when giving God’s revelation to which they were not to add or from which they were not to subtract a word. Since both Catholics and Protestants agree that there is no new revelation beyond the first century, it would follow that these texts do support the Protestant principle of sola Scriptura. For if there is no normative revelation after the time of the apostles and even the prophets themselves were not to add to the revelations God gave them in the Scriptures, then the Scriptures alone are the only infallible source of divine revelation.

W. Hunt: Here Geisler and Mackenzie engage in a non sequitur, which means the conclusion does not follow from the premise. The premise being that, because both Catholics and Protestants agree there is no “new revelation beyond the first century,” we must therefore accept scripture as the only infallible source of divine revelation. But whether inspired revelation has ceased has no bearing on whether God can, on an ongoing basis, infallibly guide His Church. In other words, just because inspired revelation has ceased does not mean that the gift of infallibility has ceased in the Church. In fact, if it weren’t for the charism of infallibility, the Church wouldn’t have an infallible 27-book New Testament. Protestants cannot lay hold of this claim, since they reject the charism of infallibility given by God to His Church. Not only that, Protestants have no basis in scripture for saying that inspired revelation has ceased; they merely assume such, and that the canon of scripture is closed. Conversely, Catholics find that inspired revelation has ceased based on authoritative tradition--- something which Protestants reject as authoritative. Be that as it may, the fact remains that, although God had not given any “new revelation” in the fourth century, by the gift of infallibility the Church was protected from egregious error in formulating the canon of scripture. 

GM: Roman Catholics admit that the New Testament is the only infallible record of apostolic teaching we have from the first century. However, they do not seem to appreciate the significance of this fact as it bears on the Protestant argument for sola Scriptura. For even many early fathers testified to the fact that all apostolic teaching was put in the New Testament. While acknowledging the existence of apostolic tradition, J. D. N. Kelly concluded that “admittedly there is no evidence for beliefs or practices current in the period which were not vouched for in the books later known as the New Testament.” Indeed, many early fathers, including Athanasius, Cyril of Jerusalem, Chrysostom, and Augustine, believed that the Bible was the only infallible basis for all Christian doctrine. Further, if the New Testament is the only infallible record of apostolic teaching, then every other record from the first century is fallible. It matters not that Catholics believe that the teaching Magisterium later claims to pronounce some extrabiblical tradition as infallibly true. The fact is that they do not have an infallible record from the first century on which to base such a decision.

W. Hunt: Perhaps the reason Catholics don’t seem to “appreciate the significance” Geisler and Mackenzie’s argument is because it’s another non-sequitur. But apparently that option hadn’t crossed their minds. At any rate, just because the New Testament is the only first century record of apostolic teaching doesn’t mean that God could not have preserved His oral traditions throughout the corridors of time, which, not long after the first century, would have been expressed mostly in ancient Christian Liturgy (Protestantism’s rejection of inspired oral tradition is one reason they are theologically unable to worship God).

As for the Fathers, Geisler and Mackenzie’s attempt at enlisting them into service for sola scriptura is offensive. First, no Father mentioned ever taught that scripture was the only instrument of inspired revelation, or that it was the sole authority for Christian faith and practice. Geisler and Mackenzie are simply conflating the Fathers’ view of material sufficiency with the Protestant view of formal sufficiency.[2]  Just because the Fathers thought that every Christian doctrine could be found in scripture, as many Catholics believe today, does not mean that scripture alone is sufficient in interpreting all that it testifies to, which is where the Church Magisterium and authoritative oral tradition come into play.

Moreover, the incredible irony in appealing to Fathers such as Athanasius, Cyril of Jerusalem, Chrysostom, and Augustine as supporters of sola scriptura becomes apparent when one realizes that all of these Fathers espoused exclusively Catholic doctrines. Take Cyril of Jerusalem as just one case in point: specifically Catholic teachings are loaded throughout his Catechetical Lectures, such as the Mass being a sacrifice, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the efficaciousness of expiatory prayers for the dead, intercession of saints, baptismal regeneration, holy orders and a host of other exclusively Catholic teachings--- all teachings in which Geisler and Mackenzie reject as being “unbiblical.” So, if, as Geisler and Mackenzie assert, Cyril of Jerusalem espoused sola scriptura, it must mean that Cyril must have found all of these specifically Catholic doctrines in scripture! But since Geisler and Mackenzie don’t believe that any of these expressly Catholic doctrines are found in scripture, then why would Cyril have any exegetical credibility in their eyes? In other words, how would Cyril’s exegetical blunders not impugn his exegetical credibility, including his claim to find sola scriptura in scripture? Of course, the other option is that Cyril was not teaching sola scriptura, but rather, like the rest of the Fathers, had a high view of scriptures authority and its material sufficiency.

We will return for more in Part 2. 

Article by Wesley Hunt. 


[1] I am indebted to Dr. Robert Sungenis for bringing up these and other great points throughout this article in his wonderful work, Not by Scripture Alone.

[2] For an in depth look into the differences between material and formal sufficiency, see: