From Why Scripture and the Facts of History Compel Me, a Former Roman Catholic, to Remain a Committed Evangelical Protestant
A Response to Frank Beckwith’s, Return to Rome William Webster.


Catholicism claims that it learns God's truth and his will and revelation from scripture and tradition not scripture alone.  Webster says this is heresy.  He says the reformation doctrine of scripture alone or sola scripture is not a new doctrine.  He also exposes how Catholicism added books from the Apocrypha to the Bible illegitimately.

Let Webster continue.

Scripture and Tradition

Roman Catholic teaching claims that sola scriptura is unhistorical; that is, it contradicts the universal teaching of the early church. But the facts will not support this claim. Sola scriptura was the universal teaching of the church fathers and for the church as a whole through the later Middle Ages. Let me cite Cyril of Jerusalem (A.D. 315-386) again because he is reflective of the overall view of the fathers:

Concerning the divine and sacred Mysteries of the Faith, we ought not to deliver even the most casual remark without the Holy Scriptures; nor be drawn aside by mere probabilities and the artifices of argument. Do not then believe me because I tell thee of these things, unless thou receive from the Holy Scriptures the proof of what is set forth: for this salvation, which is our faith, is not by ingenious reasonings, but by proof from the Holy Scriptures....In these articles we comprehend the whole doctrine of faith….For the articles of the Faith were not composed at the good pleasure of men, but the most important points chosen from all Scriptures, make up the one teaching of the Faith….This Faith, in a few words, hath enfolded in its bosom the whole knowledge of godliness contained both in the Old and New Testaments. Behold, therefore, brethren and hold the traditions (2 Thes. 2:15) which ye now receive, and write them on the table of your hearts....Now heed not any ingenious views of mine; else thou mayest be misled; but unless thou receive the witness of the prophets concerning each matter, believe not what is spoken; unless thou learn from Holy Scripture....receive not the witness of man.

No clearer concept of sola scriptura could be given than that seen in these statements of Cyril. He equates the teaching he is handing on to these catechumens with tradition, in which he specifically references 2 Thessalonians 2:15, that he says must be proven by Scripture. Tradition is simply the teaching of the church that he is passing on orally, but that tradition must be validated by the written Scriptures. He states further that the extent of authority vested in any teacher, be he bishop or layman, is limited to Scripture. No teaching is to be received that cannot be proven from Scripture. The church does have authority, as Cyril himself acknowledges, but it is an authority grounded in fidelity to Scripture and not principally in succession. According to Cyril, the church is subject to the final authority of Scripture, and even the church is to be disregarded if it moves outside that authority in its teaching.

Cyril is a vigorous proponent of the concept of sola scriptura. It is a teaching he handed down to the catechumens as an implicit article of the faith. As one reads the writings of the fathers it becomes clear that Cyril's statements are representative of the church as a whole. J.N.D. Kelly affirms this observation:

The clearest token of the prestige enjoyed by [Scripture] is the fact that almost the entire theological effort of the Fathers, whether their aims were polemical or constructive, was expended upon what amounted to the exposition of the Bible. Further, it was everywhere taken for granted that, for any doctrine to win acceptance, it had first to establish its Scriptural basis.37

Therefore, the Protestant teaching of sola scriptura is not a heresy or a novel doctrine, but in reality it is a reaffirmation of the faith of the early church. ....

For Irenaeus, the church doctrine is never purely traditional; on the contrary, the thought that there could be some truth transmitted exclusively viva voce (orally) is a Gnostic line of thought.

In fact, the apostle Paul himself states that the gospel he initially preached orally could be verified by the written Scriptures.  The church as a whole, up to the thirteenth century, never viewed tradition to be a source of revelation.

Brian Tierney affirms this:

Before the thirteenth century, there is little trace in the works of the medieval theologians of the view that Tradition constituted a source of divine revelation separate from Scripture and little inclination to set up a distinction-still less an opposition-between scriptural revelation and church doctrine....For twelfth century theologians (as for the Fathers themselves), church and Scripture 'coinhered.' This seems true in the sense that the teaching of the church and the teaching of Scripture were conceived of as essentially one. 'The men of the middle ages lived in the Bible and by the Bible.' When twelfth century theologians observed-as they sometimes did-that many things were held by the church that were not found in Scripture they seem to have had in mind only liturgical customs or pious practices. An extra-Scriptural source of faith like the Apostles' Creed (which was commonly regarded as a work of the apostles themselves) was held to define various tenets of Christian doctrine with absolute fidelity; but it was not considered to be a body of revealed truth supplementary to sacred Scripture. Rather, the Creed could be called in the twelfth century a 'summary' of the contents of Scripture. In this view Scripture recorded divine truth once and for all, and the living voice of the church, guided by the Holy Spirit, interpreted that truth and proclaimed it anew to each succeeding generation.

The Scriptures do refer to Paul delivering oral tradition to the believers of Thessalonica, which they were to obey (2 Thessalonians 2:15). But the word tradition used here does not refer to the same thing as the tradition of Roman Catholicism. The word as used in this text simply means 'teaching'. Paul has given them oral instruction, and that does not necessarily concern the major doctrines of the faith. That is clear from the same epistle, where he exhorts these believers to stand firm in the tradition they had received from him: 'to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching [tradition KJV] you received from us' (3:6). Paul's use of the term tradition here does not have the meaning assigned to it by the Roman Catholic Church in two important respects: in its concept and in its content. The very concept of Roman Catholic tradition as a separate source of revelation independent of Scripture contradicts both Scripture and the teaching of the historic catholic church. The Roman Catholic Church has departed from the teaching and practice of both the early church and the Word of God itself. The early church believed in sola scriptura, but the Roman Catholic Church has repudiated this principle in order to elevate its tradition to a position of authority equal to the Scriptures. The heresy of Gnosticism condemned by Irenaeus and Tertullian is embraced in this error.

In addition to the concept itself, there is also the issue of the actual doctrinal content of Roman Catholic tradition, for its specific teachings not only contradict the teaching of Scripture but that of the church of the first centuries. Over several centuries the Roman Catholic Church has added doctrines to the apostolic tradition that it says are dogmas of the faith, necessary to be believed for salvation. These dogmas were either never taught in the early church or were plainly repudiated by it.

The Canon

Roman Catholicism claims that the church established the canon of Scripture in the late fourth century with the North African councils of Hippo and Carthage and that the church is therefore the ultimate authority, not Scripture. .... The New Testament books were already recognized in the church prior to the Western councils of Hippo and Carthage in North Africa in the fourth century. These were provincial councils that had no authority for the church universally, and their decrees on the Apocrypha were never accepted in the church as a whole. The church adopted the views of many of the Eastern Fathers such as Origen and Athanasius and Western Fathers such as Jerome. It expressed the view that these writings were useful for reading in the churches for the purpose of edification, but they were not to be counted as part of the canon of inspired Scripture since they were not part of the Hebrew canon. Consequently, they were not to be used for the establishment of doctrine.

In commenting on the apocryphal books, Wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiasticus, Jerome states:

As, then, the Church reads Judith, Tobit and the books of Maccabees, but does not admit them among the canonical Scriptures, so let it also read these two volumes for the edification of the people, not to give authority to doctrines of the Church.... I say this to show how hard it is to master the book of Daniel, which in Hebrew contains neither the history of Susanna, nor the hymn of the three youths, nor the fables of Bel and the Dragon.  That the Jewish canon did not include the Apocrypha and that the Protestant Reformers followed the practice of the Jews is affirmed by the New Catholic Encyclopedia:

For the Old Testament, however, Protestants follow the Jewish canon; they have only the Old Testament books that are in the Hebrew Bible.

That the church as a whole never accepted the apocryphal books as part of the canon of Scripture after the councils of Carthage and Hippo is seen from these comments by Pope Gregory the Great (A.D. 590-604) on the book of 1 Maccabees:

With reference to which particular we are not acting irregularly, if from the books, though not Canonical, yet brought out for the edification of the Church, we bring forward testimony. Thus Eleazar in the battle smote and brought down an elephant, but fell under the very beast that he killed (1 Macc. 6.46).45

This was the view that was held throughout the ensuing centuries of the history of the church.

The Glossa Ordinaria

The Ordinary Gloss, known as the Glossa ordinaria, is an important witness to the position of the Western Church on the status of the Apocrypha because it was the standard authoritative biblical commentary for the whole Western Church. It carried immense authority and was used in all the schools for the training of theologians.

The New Catholic Encyclopedia describes its importance:

A designation given during the Middle Ages to certain compilations of 'glosses' on the text of a given MS. The earliest Glossa ordinaria is that made of the Bible, probably made in the 12th century...Although glosses originally consisted of a few words only, they grew in length as glossators enlarged them with their own comments and quotations from the Fathers. Thus the tiny gloss evolved into a running commentary of an entire book. The best-known commentary of this type is the vast Glossa ordinaria of the 12th and 13th centuries...So great was the influence of the Glossa ordinaria on Biblical and philosophical studies in the Middle Ages that it was called 'the tongue of Scripture' and 'the bible of scholasticism'.46


The importance of the Glossa ordinaria relative to the issue of the Apocrypha is seen from the statements in the Preface to the overall work. It repeats the judgment of Jerome that the Church permits the reading of the Apocryphal books only for devotion and instruction in manners, but that they have no authority for concluding controversies in matters of faith. It states that there are twenty-two books of the Old Testament, citing the testimonies of Origen, Jerome and Rufinus as support. When commenting on the Apocryphal books, it prefixes an introduction to them saying: 'Here begins the book of Tobit which is not in the canon; here begins the book of Judith which is not in the canon' and so forth for Ecclesiasticus, Wisdom, and Maccabees etc. These prologues to the Old Testament and Apocryphal books repeated the words of Jerome. For example, the following is an excerpt from the Prologue to the Glossa ordinaria written in AD 1498, also found in a work attributed to Walafrid Strabo in the tenth century, under the title of canonical and non-canonical books. It begins by explaining the distinctions that should be maintained between the canonical and non-canonical or Apocryphal books:...

The Prologue then catalogues the precise books which make up the Old Testament canon, and those of the non-canonical Apocrypha, all in accordance with the teaching of Jerome. Again, the significance of this is that the Glossa ordinaria was the official Biblical commentary used during the Middle Ages in all the theological centers for the training of theologians. Therefore, it represents the overall view of the Church as a whole, demonstrating the emptiness of the claims of Roman apologists that the decrees of Hippo and Carthage officially settled the canon for the universal Church. We come back again to the New Catholic Encyclopedia which states that the canon was not officially settled for the Roman Catholic Church until the sixteenth century with the Council of Trent.

The vast majority of the major ecclesiastical writers and theologians from the eighth to the sixteenth centuries held to the view of Jerome and in line with the teaching of the Glossa ordinaria. That this was the general view of the church up to as late as the sixteenth century is evidenced by these comments from Cardinal Cajetan, the great opponent of Luther in the Reformation, taken from his commentary on the Old Testament:


The New Catholic Encyclopedia affirms that Jerome rejected the Apocrypha as being canonical and that the councils of Carthage and Hippo did not establish the Old Testament canon. It states explicitly that this was not authoritatively done until the Council of Trent:

St. Jerome distinguished between canonical books and ecclesiastical books (the apocrypha). The latter he judged were circulated by the Church as good spiritual reading but were not recognized as authoritative Scripture....The situation remained unclear in the ensuing centuries....

According to Catholic doctrine, the proximate criterion of the biblical canon is the infallible decision of the Church. This decision was not given until rather late in the history of the Church at the Council of Trent....The Council of Trent definitively settled the matter of the Old Testament Canon. That this had not been done previously is apparent from the uncertainty that persisted up to the time of Trent.

The first general council of the Western church to dogmatically decree the Apocrypha to be part of the canon and therefore to be accorded the status of Scripture was the Council of Trent in the mid-sixteenth century. This was done contrary to the universal practice of the Jews and the church up to that time. And Trent places under anathema all who reject this teaching.  It was the Roman Catholic Church, not the Protestant, which was responsible for the introduction of novel teachings very late in the history of the church. When one examines the related issues of Scripture, tradition, and the canon, the facts reveal that it is the Protestant teaching that is closest to both Scripture and the teaching of the truly historic catholic church.


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