Sola Scriptura has been a point of contention between Roman Catholics and Protestants for centuries. In recent years, a large number of books critical of the doctrine have been published. Many of these have been written by former Protestants who have converted either to Roman Catholicism or to Eastern Orthodoxy. The one common claim all of these authors make is that, after long years of study, they have discovered that the doctrine of sola Scriptura is Biblically, historically, and theologically implausible. Too many Protestants have found these arguments persuasive and have followed these authors into the Catholic or Orthodox communions.
A great deal of the difficulty surrounding this issue stems from the failure of all sides in the debate to adequately and honestly deal with the historical context of the Reformation doctrine of Scripture. The doctrine of sola Scriptura did not suddenly appear in the sixteenth century in the middle of a theological vacuum, and in order to understand this doctrine, some knowledge of its historical and theological context is necessary.
The first myth that must be discarded is the idea that the debate can be accurately framed in terms of Scripture vs. tradition. What we find throughout church history, including the Reformation, are competing concepts of the relationship between Scripture and tradition.
For the first three centuries of the church, there was a general consensus regarding the source of authority. The New Testament, which came about as the apostolic proclamation was put down in writing, together with the Old Testament was considered to be the sole source of revelation and the authoritative doctrinal norm. Scripture, however, was to be interpreted in and by the church within the theological context of the “rule of faith.”
The “rule of faith,” or regula fidei, as explained by Irenaeus and Tertullian, was essentially the doctrinal content of the profession of faith that every new Christian was asked to recite from memory before his or her baptism. It was the summary of the Christian faith. Its content (in a more developed form) is now found in writing in the Nicene Creed. Neither the church nor the regula fidei, however, were considered second sources of revelation. The church was considered to be the interpreter and guardian of the Word of God, and the regula fidei was the hermeneutical context of the Word of God. But according to this one-source position, Scripture alone was the very Word of God Himself. The first hints of a two-source view of revelation are not found until the fourth century in the writings of Basil and Augustine. It is difficult to prove conclusively that either man actually embraced such a view, but their ambiguity on this point laid the foundation for its future acceptance.