Thursday, December 9, 2010


Sola Scriptura (Latin for “Bible Alone”) is the teaching that the Bible is the only infallible rule of faith for the church today (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Catholics reject this teaching for several reasons, but this particular article will address only one of those Catholic objections. That tired, overused, but ever-so-popular Catholic argument is this: Sola Scriptura is “unworkable” as a rule of faith because it uses “private interpretation,” and this causes divisions / arguments / disagreements in Protestantism. But is this sound reasoning? Is this a fair argument?

Well, it is no secret that there are many divisions within Protestantism. Some estimate that there are 25,000 different denominations, some 30,000, others 33,000, etc., etc. One popular Catholic apologist claims that there may even be MILLIONS of Protestant denominations. While we believe that all of these numbers are wildly exaggerated, the focus of this article will not be on how many denominations there really are, nor on who has “more unity.” The focus is on the hypocrisy of Catholics who make the claim that Sola Scriptura is false because of divisions within Protestantism, while knowing that they, too, have divisions.

The Catholic Church claims to be “one” (i.e., unified), yet there are also many divisions / arguments / disagreements within its own ranks. This fact is undeniable. A little time spent searching on the internet will demonstrate that point. And some of these disagreements are on major, essential issues… even between higher officials in the Church. Even some of the early church fathers had disagreements with each other. There have been disagreements on all levels in the Catholic Church, from amateur lay apologists, to priests, bishops, cardinals and popes. Some modern points of disagreement between Catholics include the issue of contraception, the significance and effects of Vatican II, the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), Traditionalists, Novus Ordo (New Mass), evolution, Charismatic Catholics, and the concept of “extra ecclesiam nulla salus” (Latin for “no salvation outside the [Catholic] Church”) … to name just a few.

So, if Sola Scriptura is disqualified as a rule of faith because Protestants have divisions, then the Catholic Magisterium must also be disqualified. If “Bible Alone” is negated due to the existence of disagreements, then so is Catholic Tradition. If divisions cancel out one rule of faith, they cancel out all of them, making this Catholic argument self-refuting. This is certainly a double standard.

Just because you may not have “physical” divisions (denominations with separate names) doesn’t mean you don’t have divisions. And if Sola Scriptura is the cause of disagreements, then how is it that YOU have them, also? Apparently, the Catholic rule of faith is not as “clear” as many Catholics claim it to be.

Someone may respond that Catholic divisions simply stem from those who disagree with the Church’s clear and official teaching and are thus actually heretics, and not true Catholics; therefore they “don’t count” when comparing disagreements.

But, first of all, Protestants could use this same argument and say that Protestant divisions also occur because of disobedience to the Bible’s clear teaching, and that those who disagree with us are not true Sola Scriptura believers, either.

Secondly, if these Catholic “heretics” are never excommunicated, and they continue to attend and participate in Catholic services, give financially to the Catholic Church, partake of the sacraments, and continue to identify with the Church, then it certainly does not appear that the Church, herself, considers them “heretics,” does it?

So, the “heretic” argument doesn’t prove anything, nor does it erase the fact that Catholicism has its divisions.

Catholics may say, “But we have a leader (the pope) who can decide infallibly for us when disagreements arise.”

And how many times have popes “infallibly” decided anything? It is an extremely rare event. But this just causes more confusion, because Catholics can’t even know exactly how many times this has happened in history. There is no “official” list of infallible statements, so an appeal to this supposed infallibility does little or nothing to help this Catholic argument.


Unfortunately, disagreements in interpretation are inevitable in this life; it’s something we just have to learn to live with. Remember, there were many who saw Jesus Christ, Himself, face to face, and they still disagreed among themselves on what He taught. Does this mean that Jesus’ teachings were also “unworkable”? Of course not. The ABUSE of a sufficient rule of faith does not void that rule of faith.

Dear Catholic friends, I am not trying to justify Protestant divisions, but I’m simply challenging the idea that disagreements cause a problem for the Protestant rule of faith, but not for the Catholic rule of faith. This idea is inconsistent on the part of Catholics.

Yes, of course Jesus wants Christians to have unity in the truth (John 17:11, 21-23), and we should always strive for it, yet we ALL fall short… some of us more than others. But, please don’t pretend you have no divisions in Catholicism, or that your rule of faith is somehow exempt when you use the “disagreements nullify Sola Scriptura” argument.

Catholics lose credibility each time this argument is used. So, let’s put this faulty and deceptive argument to rest, once and for all.


  1. Hi Russell,

    Long time no talk or post (I've been busy myself, not posting anything in November and only posting something new today). Anyway, I'm sure you're aware of why I'm posting, because I don't agree with at least some aspect of your post as it relates to Catholicism.

    To begin, I think the first sentence of your article is founded on a blatant anachronism, when you said:
    "Sola Scriptura is the teaching that the Bible is the only infallible rule of faith for the church today (2 Timothy 3:16-17)."

    You apply this definition - especially the notion that SS only applies to the Church "today" - to 2 Timothy 3:16f, yet that's squeezing a lot out of the passage. Further, if Sola Scriptura were true, I'd bet 2 Tim 3:16 wouldn't be the "strongest" or only passage you'd immediately cite.

    The most important problem is that the post-Apostolic "today" didn't apply to the "today" Timothy was living in when he opened Paul's personal, private letter to him. What you're saying, in essence, is that Paul wrote some sort of prophetic/futurist doctrine to Timothy that didn't actually apply to Timothy and was functionally impossible at the time.

    As for the main argument of the article, whether Sola Scriptura causes divisions, you'd not be surprised that I'm answering that query with an unqualified "Yes!".

    First, the claim that there are tons, even thousands of denominations is derived from various means, not all of which are unreasonable. For example, lets say there are 50 million Protestants in the world. If we assume only 1% of those Protestants have set up their own church, whether it be a house church, a small 'independent' church on the corner, or a mega church, simply doing the math comes out to (0.01*50x10^6): 500,000 denominations. If we assume more Protestants in the world, say 200 million, that number quadruples. So it's not unreasonable at all to claim thousands of denominations - be they divided on doctrinal or ecclesial lines is irrelevant since they're out of communion in a real way with the others.

    Second, there is no "hypocrisy" involved by the Catholic side precisely because there is only one set of doctrines and one ecclesial structure which all *faithful* Catholics fall under. Anyone claiming to be Catholic that doesn't follow the rules is outside of communion by definition.

    The fallacy behind your article's thesis comes down to confusing and conflating 'establishing doctrine' versus 'disobeying established doctrine'. There is a difference between someone violating a rule and two people who cannot agree on a rule. Take the example of Jesus' words "This is My Body". The Catholic position has one official view because it has the authority to *authoritatively* interpret Scripture: Jesus was speaking literally. Any Catholic (deliberately) denying this dogma is not a faithful Catholic by definition and out of communion *automatically* (Google: "latae sententiae"), regardless of how "friendly" he's treated by any given priest or bishop.
    This is *very different*, *logically* speaking, from two Protestants who cannot agree on what "This is My Body" means, be it literal, symbolic, or somewhere between, yet neither having the authority to officially interpret those words. In the Catholic case, the conscience is bound to the Magisterium, on the other case the individual is bound only to their own personal interpretation.

    There is no such thing as "heresy" in Protestantism since there is no visible Church with an official hierarchy of authority to lay out universal teachings - each denomination is autonomous in the fullest sense. This is a picture Protestants have a hard time seeing, but it's perfectly logical.

  2. I have been enjoying your blog very much. I do hope that Catholic people who truly love our Lord will be benefited from it. I hope that they will turn to that living water. John 4:14 "But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life."


  3. Hello J.R.,

    Thank you so much for stopping by and for the encouragement. May God bless you in your own ministry, as well.

    Feel free to visit anytime.

    In His Name,

  4. I think my comments got caught in the spam filter.

  5. Hello again Nick,

    Thanks for the response.

    Hey, sorry about the spam filter thing. I’m still learning…

    You stated that my definition of Sola Scriptura was anachronistic (i.e., chronologically out of place), especially because of the word “today” in it.

    But, as I pointed out to you elsewhere, the context of 2 Timothy chapters 3 and 4 strongly suggests a transition, or shift, from one phase (Scripture plus new “oral” revelation from apostles) into another (Scripture only), just as there was a transition from the Old Testament to the New. In those two chapters, Paul, nearing martyrdom, was urgent with Timothy in his appeal to the God-breathed Scriptures as the rule of faith (mentioning no other source), and as THE answer to the deception, false doctrine and the difficult times coming upon the church. For more details, anyone interested can check out the “Final Authority” article on the “Welcome” page on August 20, 2009, elsewhere on this blog (including the “comments” section).

    Concerning divisions in Catholicism, you said:

    “Anyone claiming to be Catholic that doesn’t follow the rules is outside of communion by definition,” and this happens “automatically.”

    Well, that’s awfully convenient, Nick. It’s a great way to maintain the image of a “unified” Church while eliminating any and all disagreements with a wave of the hand. But ANY church could claim “unity” by using this type of argument.

    It almost sounds like you’re wanting to say that the ONLY arguments in the Catholic Church are by those who are only looking for a reason to leave that church. But that’s certainly not true.

    So, you can’t deny that you have divisions / disagreements on the basis of this “automatic exclusion” argument. You STILL HAVE DIVISIONS within your own walls.

    By the way, that’s one of the problems with the “Catholic unity versus Protestant disunity” argument: it’s comparing apples to oranges. OF COURSE one can claim more unity in such a comparison. Catholicism is a group that maintains one label (“Catholic”) while comparing itself to the unity of a very diverse group (“Protestantism”), which contains many different labels (Baptist, Methodist, Assembly of God, Presbyterian, etc.). But this is a category error. So, this is an invalid and unfair comparison. Anyway, “who has more unity” wasn’t the point of the article. We only point this out now to highlight the unfairness of the claim to begin with.

    Admit it, Nick. You guys do have divisions and disagreements just like everyone else. So, you'll need to depend on something else to try and disprove Sola Scriptura.

  6. Hi Russell,

    1) Regarding the "transition" in 2 Tim 3-4. First, Paul was speaking to Timothy right there and then, not some primarily or exclusively post-Apostolic timeframe. And if Revelation was the last book of the Bible written, which most scholars say it was, then that makes your interpretation even more dubious.
    Second, to say the text "strongly suggests" is simply reading into the text, and basing key concepts on assumptions and implicit evidence, which is dangerous.

    2) To suggest Paul wanted Timothy to forget everything he was taught orally and stick to Scripture alone betrays the immediate context (3:14) and negates Paul's instructions in Ch1:
    "13 What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. 14 Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us."

    3) Regarding excommunication, you said "that's awfully convenient," but I see this as a non-sequitor. The point is, if someone deliberately denies a dogma, they're de facto cut off from the Body. This doesn't happen in Protestantism because there is no visible hierarchy to declare what is and isn't dogma. Instead, if two Protestant pastors disagree over dogma, they each start their own church.

    In Catholicism, when the Church says you must believe X,Y,Z in order to be an orthodox Catholic, then whoever rejects X or Y or Z is by *definition* not orthodox and thus heretic. There can be no division in this regard because either the Catholic accepts the teachings and is orthodox or denies them and is cut-off.

    4) I somewhat agree with your apples vs oranges comparison, but there are major flaws within it. For example, none of those groups you named, Baptist, Methodist, etc, would claim to be the one true church, and in fact these same labels are sub divided into their own contradictory denominations (e.g. Baptists can range from Reformed all the way to Arminian).

    You said: "Admit it, Nick. You guys do have divisions and disagreements just like everyone else."

    No, because you're confusing issues. Lets take the doctrine of Eternal Security as an example. Some Protestants say the doctrine is Biblical, others say the doctrine is unBiblical, and others say it is "non essential". That's disunity, with no way of settling the matter. In Catholicism, the Church says Eternal Security is false, and thus to be an orthodox Catholic you must reject it. In Protestantism, no standard of "orthodoxy" exists.

  7. Nick,

    Having a “referee” on hand to handle disputes does not equal “we don’t have disputes.” Just because someone is there who can “settle the matter dogmatically” does not negate the fact that divisions exist in the Catholic Church. But the fact is, the pope has settled VERY FEW issues with dogmatic statements. Therefore, Catholics have the freedom to interpret many issues because of this (“Divino Afflante Spiritus”, papal encyclical by Pope Pius XII).

    Our argument has never been, “You Catholics don’t have a leader who can settle arguments.” From the beginning, it has been, “You Catholics have arguments, disputes and divisions, just as all church groups do. So, if Sola Scriptura ‘doesn’t work' because of disagreements, then neither does Tradition or the Magisterium.”

  8. I came here from your link on a Catholic site. What you have shared makes sense. Thank you for taking the time to explain and illustrate some of these issues. They are important.

  9. Hello Anonymous,

    I appreciate your comment and I am honored that we could help. My hope is that at least some of this information will benefit others in sharing with Catholics (and Protestants as well). Thanks again for the encouragement and God bless.

  10. Hi Russell,

    I have to admit to the fact that you refuted our "30,000 denominations argument". HOWEVER, we still have MANY better arguments against the unbiblical heresy of Sola Scriptura! For example, there is a passage somewhere in Peter's epistle that tells us that we cannot read the bible by ourselves. Also, apostolic succession is proven by verses such as Matthew 28:18-20 and 2 Timothy 2:2. How do you account for the fact that several church fathers (even ones from the second century) believed that Peter was the first pope? I really wonder what this leaves for Protestants and their myths such as Sola Fide and Eternal Security.

    So, do not feel "better" because of my admission to the truth of this article.

    You and your multiple personalities and your wild interpretations of the Holy Writ can weep and refer me to Scripture passages such as Luke 1:1-4, 1 Corinthians 4:6, and 2 Timothy 3:16-17, BUT YOU GUYS PROVE ABSOLUTELY NOTHING about Sola Scriptura!!!

    Sly Anonymous Catholic Panther

  11. Hello Sly Anonymous Catholic Panther,

    (I’m pretty sure that this is the most colorful name of any of my commenters so far!)

    But thanks for the comment.

    First, I want to thank you, Sly, for the admission concerning the 30,000 different denominations. I have to respect you for that.

    Secondly, this particular article was mostly addressing this specific argument, so it didn’t go very far into actually defending Sola Scriptura. You may or may not be aware that we deal with Sola Scriptura in great detail elsewhere in this blog. For example, in these articles:

    And we also have an eight part series on very specific arguments against Sola Scriptura, beginning with the link directly below. For each consecutive article, just go to the sidebar on the left of the page and find the next month’s article for each one. The first of the series begins here:

    You also mention that “we cannot read the Bible by ourselves.” But how do you know this? Didn’t you have to read that from the Bible itself to even know that the Bible tells us that? But that whole concept of using this verse (2 Peter 3:15-17) to say that the Bible can only be understood by “infallible” leaders is misleading. We deal specifically with that argument here, for example:

    Concerning Apostolic Succession, see here:

    You also mentioned the church fathers. But they were not infallible, and they sometimes disagreed on important issues. See here:

    So, after you familiarize yourself with some of our arguments, hopefully you can appreciate them. If not, feel free to let us know and we can discuss them.

    Thanks again for your comments.

  12. Hello

    May i kindly ask where did you get the definition for Sola Scriptura and is that definition found in the Bible, if so may you back it up by scripture references.



  13. Hello Jimmy,

    Thanks for your interest on the topic of Sola Scriptura. It is indeed a very important one. That’s why I have about a dozen other articles (besides this one) on this topic within my blog. I think that your questions here are more than answered in these articles, linked below.

    But for a quick answer, I’ll just say that yes, I do believe that Sola Scriptura is a biblical concept. Even if the precise words like “Scripture Alone,” or “just the Bible,” or “only Scripture” are not used, that doesn’t mean the the concept is not in the Bible. Again, please read these other articles, and if your questions are not answered, then I will try to accommodate you.

  14. Hello Russell,

    You said there weren't 33,000 Protestant denominations. Well, how do account for this information;

  15. Tim,

    Do you believe the “33,000 Protestant denominations” argument? In the link you gave, there are only about 20 Protestant denominations listed. That certainly doesn’t prove your point.

    This argument is popular with many prominent Catholic apologists, but it is well addressed, I believe, here:

  16. However, the article I linked to states:

    "According to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, there exist roughly 43,000 Christian denominations worldwide in 2012. That is up from 500 in 1800 and 39,000 in 2008 and this number is expected to grow to 55,000 by 2025.

    Currently, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary estimates that a new Christian denomination is formed every 10.5 hours, or 2.3 denominations a day."

    Any thoughts?

  17. Tim,

    Again, I believe that this is greatly exaggerated. If you read the article that I linked to, you can see how some of these estimations are wrongly derived, and are the cause of great confusion (and even outright deception).

    Personally, I’d like to know how Gordon-Conwell came to this figure. But I clicked on the “Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary” link that is provided on the “ChurchRelevance” website that you linked to, and I find nothing at all specifically for the year 2012. And I find nothing at all that shows 43,000 denominations. You can check it for yourself.

    But Tim, what is your point? What is your bottom line? Is it that there are divisions within Protestantism? And if that IS your point, then so what? What does that prove?

  18. Hey Russ,

    It's been a year since we have talked! How have you been doing? Hope all is well.

    Anyway, here's my treatment of the 33,000 Protestant denominations argument:

  19. Hey Jesse!

    Wow! Has it really been that long? Yes, all is well with me, and I hope that all is well with you, too. Hope you have a great and prosperous new year with new opportunities to share the gospel.

    Thanks for the link. I will take a look at it soon.

    God bless!

    1. Hi Russell,

      You are taking me too literally. I was making a side joke--it has indeed been a "year" since the recent transition from 2018-2019. I hope that my sense of humor is not all that dry!

  20. Sorry about that, Jesse! I was too goofy to catch that!