Click to Change

Return to Top

Return to Top

Printer Icon


Prior Section Next Section Back to Commentaries Author Bio & Contents
The Blue Letter Bible
Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Is the Bible the Ultimate Authority?

Don Stewart :: Where Do Protestants and Roman Catholics Differ on the Question of the Authority of the Scripture?

Choose a new font size and typeface

Where Do Protestants and Roman Catholics Differ on the Question of the Authority of the Scripture?

Is the Bible the Ultimate Source of Authority — Question 3

Roman Catholics and Protestants both claim to believe the Bible is the divinely inspired Word of God. While there are a number of things in which they are in agreement about, there are also things in which they disagree. It is important that we understand exactly of what the agreements and disagreements consist.

In fact, the main thing which separates Protestants and Roman Catholics is this issue of where ultimate authority comes from. Protestants believe that the Bible and it alone is the final authority on all matters of belief and practice. Roman Catholics have a different perspective on this issue. They do not believe that Scripture alone is the final authority. They believe the Bible is only one channel of divine revelation which God has revealed to humanity.

To understand the differences between Protestants and Roman Catholics on this issue, we can make the following comparisons and observations about their beliefs on the matter of ultimate authority.

1. Protestants and Roman Catholics Hold to the Same Books in the New Testament, but Disagree about the Old Testament

The Protestant Church and Roman Catholic Church both agree that the Scriptures are the divinely inspired Word of God. Protestants and Roman Catholics hold to the exact same books as New Testament Scripture, while Roman Catholics add a number of books to the Old Testament which Protestants reject. Therefore, there is no agreement as to which writings make up the written Word of God to the human race.

2. There Have Been No Divinely Inspired Writings after the New Testament Period

Both Protestants and Roman Catholics agree that after the New Testament era there was no more divine revelation from God that took the form of written documents. Authoritative Scripture ended with the death of the apostles.

3. Protestants Accept Scripture Alone as Authoritative, While Rome Adds Holy Tradition

Protestants believe that the Scripture alone is enough for believers; nothing else is needed. Roman Catholicism says that not all of the revelation which was given to the apostles was committed to writing. Some of it was transmitted orally. Sacred oral tradition consists of the spoken words of inspired people. Roman Catholicism believes that the church has preserved this oral tradition. Therefore, sacred tradition is a second form of authoritative, divine revelation that is necessary to understand who God is, who we are, and how we are to behave. Thus, the Bible is not a sufficient source of divine truth because it is incomplete. The mind of God has been revealed partly through Scripture and partly through tradition.

The Roman Catholic Church goes even further and says that the Scripture and holy tradition cannot be rightly understood apart from the authoritative interpretation given by the church. In fact, they claim that part of this sacred tradition which was handed down by the apostles is that the Roman Church is the infallible interpreter of Scripture. It alone has the authority to properly interpret God’s truth.

To sum up, the Roman Catholic Church believes the Bible and holy tradition are the two forms of divine revelation which God has given to humanity, and these two forms can only be properly understood through the authoritative teaching of the Roman Church.

Since these two channels of divine truth can only be infallibly interpreted by the Roman church, this means that whatever Rome says about any spiritual issue is the truth. End of discussion. Since there is no higher authority than Rome, there are no checks and balances; no way to test the claims which the church makes. Thus, since the Roman Church alone speaks for God, we cannot challenge what it says; we must simply believe it.

They also claim a biblical basis for this belief in the authority of the church. Paul wrote to Timothy and explained the nature of the church in this manner:

If I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth. (1 Timothy 3:15 NIV)

Since the church is the pillar and foundation of all truth, it must have the final say in all things spiritual. Therefore, Rome believes it is justified in the claims which it makes.

4. Rome Supports Its Claims by the Use of Tradition in the New Testament

According to Roman Catholicism, the idea that holy tradition possesses an authority equal to Holy Scripture is supported by the New Testament. They usually point to a number of passages.

For example, Paul wrote the following to the Thessalonians:

But we command you, brothers and sisters, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from any brother who lives an undisciplined life and not according to the tradition you received from us. (2 Thessalonians 3:6 NET)

The Thessalonians were to live according to the tradition which they received; not merely according to the written Scripture. The oral traditions were just as binding as that which was committed to writing.

Paul wrote the following to the Corinthians about the need of maintaining the traditions passed down to them. He put it this way:

Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you. (1 Corinthians 11:1-2 ESV)

The traditions which Paul delivered over to the church of Corinth were oral traditions, not written traditions. Again, we find oral tradition given the highest level of authority.

Later in his first letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul explained the gospel message as something that was passed on to him:

I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me-- that Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. (1 Corinthians 15:3 NLT)

The gospel which Paul passed on to the Corinthians was first passed on to him. Again, this speaks of oral tradition.

In still another letter, the apostle Paul told Timothy to pass on the things which he had heard Paul teach. He wrote:

You have heard me teach many things that have been confirmed by many reliable witnesses. Teach these great truths to trustworthy people who are able to pass them on to others. (2 Timothy 2:2 NLT)

This refers to oral teaching, not written Scripture. The oral truth was to be passed on with the same authority as anything written by the apostles.

In another place, Paul wrote to the Thessalonians about the necessity of holding on to the traditions delivered to them:

So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter. (2 Thessalonians 2:15 NRSV)

Paul commanded the believers to stand firm on the traditions they were taught. He specifically stated that these traditions could be either oral or written; each had the same authority behind it. This clearly shows that there were oral traditions which were just as authoritative as the written Scripture.

Therefore, to reject these traditions as a separate, but equally authoritative channel of divine truth is actually rejecting what the New Testament says about the issue. Consequently, the idea of a second form of divine revelation, apart from the written Scripture, is something that the New Testament commands believers to accept.

5. Roman Catholic Tradition Has Added Beliefs and Practices Which Are Not Found in Scripture

Finally, the importance of this issue needs to be appreciated. The Roman Catholic Church, in its appeal to holy tradition, has added many beliefs and practices which are not taught in the New Testament. In other words, a person would not embrace Roman Catholicism by reading the New Testament alone. Oral tradition, as well as written Scripture, must be infallibly interpreted by the Roman Church to come to accept these beliefs.

These doctrines include such things as the adoration of Mary, the doctrine of purgatory, the sacrifice of the Mass, and the office of the papacy. Since one could never become a Roman Catholic by following the Bible alone, this issue is of the highest importance. If sacred tradition is another channel of God’s divine revelation to humanity, and if the Roman Church has this sacred tradition and it alone can infallibly interpret the Scripture and this tradition, then we need to know exactly what the Roman Church teaches so that we can know what we should believe. Thus, the way we view these matters of the Scripture, tradition, and the authority of the Roman Church, has eternal consequences.

What Does the Bible Say about Scripture and Tradition?

Though the Roman Catholic Church places oral tradition on the same level as written Scripture, we never find the Bible doing this in the same way as Romanism.

The Bible teaches that only the written Scripture is divinely inspired. Nowhere does it say that this type of tradition is inspired the way in which Rome claims it is inspired. We can make the following points in our response to the Roman position.

1. Jesus Answered Questions by Quoting Scripture, He Never Cited Tradition

When Jesus was asked a question which needed an authoritative answer, He answered it with Scripture, or His own authoritative words; He never answered a question by citing some unwritten tradition. For example, we read the following encounter in Luke’s Gospel:

Just then an expert in the law stood up to test Him, saying, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is written in the law?” He asked him. “How do you read it?” (Luke 10:25-26 HCSB)

When the question of eternal life was asked of Jesus, He answered the question with a question, “What is written in the Law?” The answer was found in God’s written Word. According to Jesus, the authoritative answers were in the Scriptures, not in any tradition which had been handed down.

In another place, Jesus illustrated how a person could know the truth of God. He said:

They have Moses and the prophets; they must respond to them. (Luke 16:29 NET)

The answer to the question was found in Moses and the prophets; the written Scripture. There was no appeal to tradition.

The answer of Jesus to questions such as these is all the more striking because there were many oral traditions at that time which He could have cited. Yet, He never cited any of these oral teachings as having any type of binding authority. For authoritative answers, one must go the Scriptures.

2. Jesus Came to Fulfill Scripture, Not Tradition

In another place, Jesus said that He came to fulfill Scripture, not tradition. On the day of His resurrection, Jesus explained that His coming was to fulfill that which was written. The Bible says:

Jesus then explained everything written about himself in the Scriptures, beginning with the Law of Moses and the Books of the Prophets. (Luke 24:27 CEV)

Later, in the same chapter, we read the following:

Jesus said to them, “While I was still with you, I told you that everything written about me in the Law of Moses, the Books of the Prophets, and in the Psalms had to happen.” Then he helped them understand the Scriptures. (Luke 24:44-45 CEV)

Jesus said the Scriptures spoke of His coming. Again, there was no appeal to unwritten tradition. While there were many oral traditions about the identity and ministry of the promised Messiah which were popular in Jesus’ day, Jesus cited none of them. His claims were always based upon that which was written in the Holy Scripture.

3. Jesus Warned Believers Against Traditions Which Contradict God’s Word

There is more. Jesus not only refused to cite tradition when He made claims about Himself, He also specifically warned the people about human-made traditions which contradicted what God has previously revealed in His Word. In fact, Jesus did not have one good thing to say about tradition. To the contrary, He rebuked the people in His day that placed unwritten tradition over the written Word. Matthew wrote:

Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Matthew 15:1-3 ESV)

Jesus contrasted the commandment of God with their human-made traditions. This again tells us of the existence of human-made traditions which were circulating among the people of God. In doing so, Jesus made it clear that we should beware of these traditions which are not God-given. Thus, Jesus, God the Son, taught that all tradition was to be subordinate to the things written in Scripture.

4. Paul’s Teaching about Tradition Is Consistent with That of Jesus

The Roman Church appeals to the writings of Paul to place tradition on an equal level with the written Scripture. However, a close examination of what Paul wrote will reveal that he was not using the term tradition in the same sense that it is used by Rome.

For example, he warned the Colossians about human traditions which were not according to the teaching of Christ. He said:

See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. (Colossians 2:8 NRSV)

When Paul told the believers to hold on to the traditions they received, this referred to divinely authoritative apostolic traditions which were handed down by Jesus’ specially chosen apostles. These were the truths in which they were to stand firm. He had the following to say about other teachings which did not conform to God’s truth:

For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. (Galatians 1:11-12 ESV)

Obviously, neither Paul, nor any of the other apostles of Jesus, ever encouraged believers to accept any kind of teaching, either written or oral, which would contradict the Word of God. Elsewhere Paul wrote:

For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for necessity is laid upon me; yes, woe is me if I do not preach the gospel! (1 Corinthians 9:16 NKJV)

Paul stressed the importance of preaching the exact truth of God; nothing more and nothing less. Therefore, any tradition that the people were to accept had to conform to the previously revealed Word of God.

5. The Traditions Had Already Been Handed over to All Believers

There are a couple of other points concerning Paul’s use of tradition of which we should take note. In all of his references to tradition Paul referred to traditions or teachings which the believers had already received. Nowhere did he write about future traditions that they were yet to receive. In other words, the traditions had already been delivered over. This is in keeping with what Jude would later write:

Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. (Jude 3 NIV)

The faith had already been delivered. Nothing else was necessary. Nothing.

There is something else. The content of these traditions, or teachings, was in the possession of every believer in Jesus Christ. It was not merely in the hands of the leadership. Every Christian possessed these teachings. They were not limited to a certain select group of believers. The apostles taught the believers everything which Jesus taught them. They did not hide anything from the people of God.

6. Scripture Describes Itself as Sufficient

We also find that the Scripture is described as being a sufficient source of truth for believers. Paul wrote to Timothy the following words:

All Scripture is Godbreathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17 NIV)

Note that Paul said that the Scripture thoroughly equips Christians for every good work. Nothing else is necessary. The reason for this is that all Scripture finds its origin in God. He has given His God-breathed, or divinely inspired Scripture, to the human race. He has provided everything necessary for us in His written Word. He has made certain that our spiritual needs will be met.

7. To Appeal to Oral Tradition as a Separate Source of Divine Authority Has Its Problems

There is something else which needs to be recognized. There are a number of problems when one appeals to oral tradition as a second source or channel of divine truth. These problems can be illustrated as follows:

A. This Sacred Oral Tradition Is Never Defined or Located

Rome appeals to oral tradition as a separate authoritative source of doctrine which is distinct from Holy Scripture. Consequently, they should be able to tell us the content of this tradition as well as where we can find it. However, Rome does neither of these things.

In fact, there is no separate existence of this alleged tradition apart from the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Therefore, sacred tradition, as Rome defines it, ends up being the same as the teaching of the church. Since this is the case, then how do we know it is really genuine sacred tradition which they are teaching? Basically, we have to take their word for it. Yet, we find that many of the teachings of the Roman Church actually contradict God’s written Word. Therefore, of necessity, we must reject these teachings as originating from God.

B. The Word “Tradition” Is Not Used by Rome in the Same Sense as Paul

There is something else that needs to be mentioned. When Rome appeals to holy tradition, it is not the same thing as what the Apostle Paul meant when he referred to tradition. The concept of tradition, as used in the New Testament by the apostle Paul, does not refer to that which was additional to Scripture. Rather it refers to that which was ultimately contained in the Scripture. It is the authoritative “teaching” of the apostles. Before the New Testament was completed, the oral teaching of the apostles carried the same authority as their written works. They would communicate with the believers either orally or in writing. Once the New Testament was completed and the last of the apostles had died, there was no more oral communication. The only teaching which was binding on the believer was that which was written.

Thus, the word “tradition” as it is found in the teachings of Paul, is neither the same concept nor the same content that the Roman Church now claims for itself. It has nothing to do with traditions about the papacy, Mary, or any other unique doctrines of the Roman Church.

C. We Have No Way of Confirming the Authenticity of This Sacred Tradition

The oral proclamation of Jesus’ teachings by His hand-picked apostles was divinely inspired. Their spoken words carried the same authority as their written words. However, today, all we have is their written words. We have no way of knowing the content of their oral teaching except from that which is revealed in the Holy Scripture.

Thus, the only access which we have as to what they believed and taught is found in the Scripture and in it alone. Therefore, even if some oral tradition from the apostles was passed down, we have no way of knowing what it is. Furthermore, it is unnecessary. Since the Scriptures are materially sufficient, telling us everything that we need to know about God, oral tradition is unnecessary as a second source of divine revelation.

D. There Is No Agreement among Roman Catholics as to Whether Its Teachings Are Found in the New Testament or Were Developed Later

It must also be appreciated that there is no agreement among Roman Catholics as to whether this tradition is implicitly found in Scripture, or if it was handed down separately as a second source of divine truth. Among Roman Catholics there are two views. They can be simply summed up as follows:

Option A: The Additions May Not Have a Basis in Scripture

The perspective, which most Roman Catholics hold, supposes that Rome has the right to add to God’s truth found in the written Scripture with holy traditions which have been infallibly handed down to the church. They believe that part of God’s truth can be found in Scripture while another part of it can be found in these sacred traditions. These sacred traditions have supposedly been passed down to the church apart from anything written in the New Testament. Together they make up the sacred deposit of God’s truth.

Roman Catholics claim that this tradition does not contradict anything which is contained in Scripture, it merely gives us fuller insight into the truth of God.

Furthermore, the Roman Church would not feel the need to find these distinct teachings anywhere in Scripture. It was only later in history that these truths were made known to the believers through the church. Whether or not any of these teachings have any basis in Scripture is not what is important. Rome has the divine right as well as the responsibility to make the faithful aware of these teachings since the Roman Church alone is the guardian and authoritative teacher of God’s truth.

Option B: Every Doctrine of Rome Is Already Found in Scripture

There is also what is known as the doctrine of development. Some Roman Catholics believe that every doctrine which the church has advocated throughout its history can actually be found somewhere in the Scripture; at least in some type of seed form. In other words, everything which the Roman Catholic Church has taught about Mary, the papacy, purgatory, the mass, or any other doctrine, is based upon truth already revealed in Scripture. While the truth may be there, it was necessary for the Roman Church to further enlighten people on what the Scriptures were actually saying about these doctrines. Thus, one needs both the Scripture and the authoritative teaching of the Roman Church to understand these doctrines.

While this view may seem to accept the doctrine of sufficiency of Scripture, it does not. The Scriptures alone are not sufficient. What is necessary is the authoritative interpretation of the Roman Church to properly understand these doctrines which are contained in the Bible.

Therefore, whether a Roman Catholic says that Rome has the right to add teachings which are not found in Scripture and then infallibly interpret them, or another Roman Catholic says that Rome alone has the infallible authority to interpret Scripture which contains all the doctrines taught by the church, the end result is the same. The Scriptures are not sufficient in and of themselves; something else is needed to properly understand the mind of God. According to Roman Catholics, what is needed is the authoritative teaching of the Roman Church.

Protestantism rejects this conclusion. We do not need to add Holy tradition as a second channel of divine truth, neither do we have to rely upon the Roman Catholic Church for their authoritative interpretation of what the Bible really teaches. The One who teaches us is the Holy Spirit. He takes the things contained in God’s Word and makes them plain to us.

Conclusion: Scripture Alone Is the Only Authority

If the sacred tradition of the Roman Catholic Church was actually supernaturally revealed by God then it would not contradict the written Scripture.

However, it does. If a person reads and studies the Bible as the only authoritative source of truth about God, it will not bring about the same result or conclusions as reading the Bible and accepting the official teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. One of these viewpoints has to be in error. If, as the Bible teaches, the Scriptures alone are sufficient for all matters of belief and practice, then it should be the final authority. Nothing else is needed.

Summary – Question 3
Where Do Protestants and Roman Catholics Differ on the Question of the Authority of the Scripture?

Roman Catholics and Protestants do not agree about the place of Scripture in deciding the issue of ultimate authority. While Roman Catholics teach that the written Scriptures are the Word of God, they do not believe that everything which God wants to say to humanity is found in the Scripture. It is Scripture plus holy tradition where the truth of God can be found.

Basically, this makes Scripture under the authority of sacred tradition. The Roman Church also says that this holy tradition has been handed down exclusively to them and them alone. Furthermore, it is also claimed that the Scripture, plus this sacred tradition, can only be properly interpreted by the Roman Catholic Church. This makes the Roman Catholic Church the place where God’s final authority rests.

Roman Catholics attempt to demonstrate their claim from Scripture. They point to a number of places where the New Testament commands believers to follow the traditions they had received.

The facts do not support the Roman position. There is nothing in the teachings of Jesus which gives any support to tradition being some type of divine authority. Furthermore, the traditions Paul spoke about obeying were the oral teachings of the apostles about Christ. While the New Testament was being written, the oral teaching, as well as the written teaching, were sources of authority for believers.

However, once the New Testament was completed, and God said all that He needed to say, there was no need for any oral tradition to be passed on. Any oral tradition which would have been handed down would certainly have agreed with what was written in the New Testament. However, we find a number of doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church which are not only absent from the New Testament, they actually contradict what the New Testament says.

Thus, the various differences that we find between Protestants and Roman Catholics, with respect to where final authority rests, is an issue that will not go away. Someone has to be wrong. As we have seen, the biblical evidence shows that it is the Roman Church and their practices which are contradictory to the teachings of Scripture. Consequently, their position on sacred tradition, as an equal source of authority to the written Scripture, should be rejected.

What Are Some Non-Biblical Views as to Where Ultimate Authority Comes From? ← Prior Section
What Is the Roman Catholic Claim as to Where Ultimate Authority Resides? Next Section →
BLB Searches
Search the Bible

Advanced Options

Other Searches

Multi-Verse Retrieval

Daily Devotionals

Blue Letter Bible offers several daily devotional readings in order to help you refocus on Christ and the Gospel of His peace and righteousness.

Daily Bible Reading Plans

Recognizing the value of consistent reflection upon the Word of God in order to refocus one's mind and heart upon Christ and His Gospel of peace, we provide several reading plans designed to cover the entire Bible in a year.

One-Year Plans

Two-Year Plan


The Blue Letter Bible ministry and the BLB Institute hold to the historical, conservative Christian faith, which includes a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Since the text and audio content provided by BLB represent a range of evangelical traditions, all of the ideas and principles conveyed in the resource materials are not necessarily affirmed, in total, by this ministry.