Geisler and Mackenzie: Refutation of Sola Scriptura (part 2)

In Part 1 of this series, we covered mainly Geisler and Mackenzie’s arguments from scripture. While in this rebuttal you will find they appeal to scripture very often, they appeal to it for the purpose of arguing that every oral tradition taught by either Christ or the apostles, was eventually "inscripturated", that is, recorded in the New Testament. We admire Geisler and Mackenzie for their zeal in supporting what they believe, yet, still, even so, we are reminded of the words of St. Paul: “For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge” (Rm 10:2). With that said, pull up a chair and get comfortable, as we embark on a journey to find out whether all oral traditions had eventually been confined to scripture. As last time, Geisler and Mackenzie's statements will be denoted by GM, Unam Sanctam Catholicam's Wes Hunt will be denoted by W. Hunt.

Were all Apostolic Traditions later "Inscripturated" in the New Testament?

GM: It is true that the New Testament speaks of following the “traditions” (=teachings) of the apostles, whether oral or written. This is because they were living authorities set up by Christ (Matt. 18:18; Acts 2:42; Eph. 2:20). When they died, however, there was no longer a living apostolic authority since only those who were eyewitnesses of the resurrected Christ could have apostolic authority (Acts 1:22; 1 Cor. 9:1). Because the New Testament is the only inspired (infallible) record of what the apostles taught, it follows that since the death of the apostles the only apostolic authority we have is the inspired record of their teaching in the New Testament. That is, all apostolic tradition (teaching) on faith and practice is in the New Testament.

W.Hunt: This argument is a fairly common way Protestants attempt to deal with the problem of the traditions mentioned in the New Testament. Here the apologists assume that inspired oral tradition had not survived alongside the inspired written tradition. But this is an assumption the apologists never prove; rather, they just cross their fingers and hope nobody asks them any hard questions, like if whether they can prove their thesis from scripture or history. Moreover, even if no oral teaching had been preserved, it still doesn’t follow that the written would have been “sufficient.” That's an assumption based upon another assumption that all originally inspired teaching “was eventually written down.” But nowhere does scripture hint at such being the case. [1]

GM: This does not necessarily mean that everything the apostles ever taught is in the New Testament, any more than everything Jesus said is there (cf. John 20:30; 21:25). What it does mean is that all apostolic teaching that God deemed necessary for the faith and practice (morals) of the church was preserved (2 Tim. 3:15-17).

W. Hunt: Nowhere does 2 Tim. 3:15-17 imply all things “necessary for faith and practice of the Church” were preserved in scripture. But this is precisely the problem. If, as Geisler and Mackenzie claim, all things “necessary for faith and practice of the Church” can be found in scripture, then we should find in scripture this precise claim. But we don’t. Rather, all 2 Tim. 3:15-17 shows is that scripture is both inspired and profitable, not that it is the only inspired vehicle of divine inspiration, or the only instrument profitable for correcting, rebuking, and teaching.

GM: It is only reasonable to infer that God would preserve what He inspired. The fact that apostles sometimes referred to “traditions” they gave orally as authoritative in no way diminishes the Protestant argument for sola Scriptura. First, it is not necessary to claim that these oral teachings were inspired or infallible, only that they were authoritative. The believers were asked to “maintain” them (1 Cor. 11:2) and “stand fast in them” (2 Thess. 2:15). But oral teachings of the apostles were not called “inspired” or “unbreakable” or the equivalent, unless they were recorded as Scripture. The apostles were living authorities, but not everything they said was infallible. Catholics understand the difference between authoritative and infallible, since they make the same distinction with regard to noninfallible statements made by the Pope and infallible ex cathedra (“from the seat” of Peter) ones.

W.Hunt: This is pure obfuscation. Are Geisler and Mackenzie suggesting these passages teach we are to “maintain” and “hold fast in” mere “traditions of men” which, while being “authoritative,” could still nonetheless be erroneous? If so, why would Paul exhort his readers to “maintain” and “hold fast in” what could be erroneous? Curious minds want to know. Moreover, the apologists have no basis for labeling Paul’s written instruction as “infallible” while designating his oral teaching to the category of being merely “authoritative” other than the circular question-begging argument that only what is incripturated is inspired because what is not inscripturated is not inspired, or an argument from silence based upon the fact that Paul nowhere explicitly renders oral tradition as theopneustos ("God-breathed"). But nowhere, say, in 2 Thess 2:15, does Paul make an authoritative/infallible distinction between his oral and written teachings, so it would be arbitrary and hermeneutically inconsistent for the apologists to assign the title of “infallibility” to only Paul’s written teaching while merely designating his oral teaching to a category of “authority” only. 

Finally, even though the term theopneustos is never applied to oral tradition in scripture, that doesn’t mean oral tradition is not inspired, or that the Word of God is limited to what is written down. Rather, the term “Word of God” can be applied to many things, such as the law, God’s utterances (Lk 3:2-3), apostolic and prophetic preaching (1 Thess 2:13), or even Christ Himself (Jn 1:1). Hence, the “Word of God,” we can safely say, is infallible, as well as inspired, regardless what method of transmission is being used (i.e., whether through writing or speaking), or regardless of whether scripture explicitly assigns oral tradition (i.e., the Word of God passed on by way of oral teaching) as being “theopneustos.”  

GM: Second, the traditions (teachings) of the apostles that were revelations were written down and are inspired and infallible. They comprise the New Testament.

W. Hunt: Except for the fact that nowhere in the New Testament does the New Testament ever teach that all revelation given to the apostles was written down in the New Testament. Geisler and Mackenzie are free to search until they are blue in the face, but alas, it will be to no avail.

GM: What the Catholic must prove, and cannot, is that the God who deemed it so important for the faith and morals of the faithful to inspire the inscripturation of 27 books of apostolic teaching would have left out some important revelation in these books. Indeed, it is not plausible that He would have allowed succeeding generations to struggle and even fight over precisely where this alleged extrabiblical revelation is to be found. So, however authoritative the apostles were by their office, only their inscripturated words are inspired and infallible (2 Tim. 3:16-17; cf. John 10:35). There is not a shred of evidence that any of the revelation God gave them to express was not inscripturated by them in the only books — the inspired books of the New Testament — that they left for the church. (NSA, 237).

W. Hunt: Notice how the apologists attempt to shift the burden of proof onto Catholics when they haven’t even gotten to first-base yet, i.e., they cannot “prove” that this “27-book New Testament,” which they claim contains all God’s revelation, is truly the canon of scripture, since neither of them claim an infallible means in coming to the conclusion that the New Testament contains exactly 27 books. Be that as it may, the apologist’s argument that “There is not a shred of evidence that any of the revelation… was not inscripturated” is merely an argument from silence, by way of a double-negative. The truth is, not only are the apologists claims outright false (cf. Jn 20:30-31; 21:25; 1 Co 11:34; Ep 3:3; 2 Jn 12; 3 Jn 13; 2 Th 2:15), we could throw his argument right back at him by reminding him of Scripture's eerie silence regarding the proposition that all revelation would be confined to the New Testament. But if, for arguments sake, we were to grant that scripture was silent as to whether any revelation had not been inscripturated, this would only serve to prove the utter impossibility of scripture itself as having the capability of settling the issue of whether all revelation had been confined to that found in the New Testament. But if scripture itself cannot settle the issue, because of its silence toward both claims, then scripture, by itself, would be insufficient in settling this major issue. Thus, either way, sola scriptura is undermined.

Lastly, the argument that God could not have “left out some important revelation in His book” would only work if, say, God had claimed to have not left out any important revelation in His book. But since God nowhere claims this, Geisler and Mackenzie’s argument assumes what it has yet to prove. Not only that, Geisler and Mackenzie’s claim is easily contradicted by the fact that God “left out” whether infants should be baptized. If, as Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists, and a host of other Protestant groups claim, that baptism is the initial means of grace and salvation, and that infants  should be baptized, why would God have left this teaching out of the New Testament?

GM: This leads to another important point. The Bible makes it clear that God, from the very beginning, desired that His normative revelations be written down and preserved for succeeding generations. “Moses then wrote down all the words of the Lord” (Exod. 24:4), and his book was preserved in the Ark (Deut. 31:26). Furthermore, “Joshua made a covenant with the people that day and made statutes and ordinances for them… which he recorded in the book of the law of God” (Josh. 24:25-26) along with Moses’ (cf. Josh. 1:7). Likewise, “Samuel next explained to the people the law of royalty and wrote it in a book, which he placed in the presence of the Lord” (1 Sam. 10:25). Isaiah was commanded by the Lord to “take a large cylinder-seal, and inscribe on it in ordinary letters” (Isa. 8:1) and to “inscribe it in a record; that it may be in future days an eternal witness” (30:8). Daniel had a collection of “the books” of Moses and the prophets right down to his contemporary Jeremiah (Dan. 9:2). Jesus and New Testament writers used the phrase “It is written” (cf. Matt. 4:4, 7, 10) over 90 times, stressing the importance of the written word of God. When Jesus rebuked the Jewish leaders it was not because they did not follow the traditions but because they did not “understand the Scriptures” (Matt. 22:29).

W.Hunt: And all this is supposed to prove what? That God commanded chosen individuals to write down what He told them? Bravo. We already know this. That’s why we have a Bible. What those texts do not say, however, is that God’s revelation is limited to what has been written in scripture, or that all oral revelation would have eventually been confined to scripture.  

GM: All of this makes it clear that God intended from the very beginning that His revelation be preserved in Scripture, not in extrabiblical tradition. To claim that the apostles did not write down all God’s revelation to them is to claim that they were not obedient to their prophetic commission not to subtract a word from what God revealed to them.

W. Hunt: Except for the fact that writers of scripture can only write what God inspires them to write. If God chooses not to incripturate all of His revelation, He is free to do so, to no fault of the writer. The only way one could possibly be guilty of “subtracting from Gods word” is if they had not written down what God told them to write. But if God chooses not to inscripturate all revelation, then, again, the writer cannot be thought of as having “subtracted from Gods word” for having not incripturated what God never commanded him to inscripturate.

As for the claim that “God intended from the very beginning that His revelation be preserved in Scripture, not in extrabiblical tradition,” this is an impossible task for the apologists to prove. Why? Because in order to do so, they would have to prove that every last oral revelation alluded to in scripture had, indeed, been inscripturated. In light of the fact that, 1) the apologists have no idea what oral revelations had been given; 2) scripture nowhere claims to confine oral revelation to scripture; and, 3) scripture gives ample evidence that all oral revelations were not confined to scripture. Take, for example, Philip's four unmarried daughters who were said to have “prophesied,” only none of these prophecies were inscripturated (Ac 21:9). Or take the brief description laid out of Agubus’ prophecy in Act 11:28. Scripture not only mentions it in passing, but is silent as to the revelations of the other prophets that were with him. There is no reason to assume that these prophecies were not divinely inspired, since it would be odd for one to be labeled a “prophet” if they had not received divine revelation. Moreover, should any object that these individuals were not apostles, we can appeal to tongues and prophecies in general given to the Church in Corinth (1 Cor 12-14; cf. 1 Th 5: 20; Ep 2: 20; 3:5; 4:11), or, specifically, to the apostle Paul, who claimed to have spoken in tongues more than everyone else (1 Co 14:18). The problem for Geisler and Mackenzie is that scripture nowhere records either the tongues, the interpretations of these tongues, or the prophecies spoken, in scripture. Thus, Geisler and Mackenzie’s claim is based upon pure speculation, and, as the evidence shows, a speculation not based on clear (or even unclear) evidence from scripture. [2]    



[1] I am indebted to Nicholas El-Hajj for this point.

[2] Again, I am indebted to the Dr. Sungenis’ wonderful work, “Not By Scripture Alone,” for these and other great points throughout this rebuttal.