COC #38: “Proof” for Sola Scriptura: 1 Corinthians 4:6

(1) The Protestant Church of Christ argues that St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians supports sola Scriptura or “Bible-only” Christianity. The utilized passage reads:

I have applied all this to myself and Apol’los for your benefit, brethren, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another (1 Corinthians 4:6).

It is not this verse that the Protestant Church of Christ actually refers to as a proof, but only a few words within this verse: . . . not to go beyond what is written . . . , and then it re-presents the proof-fragment as a full teaching: “Do not go beyond what is written in the Bible.” There are several problems with your proof. First, nearly all New Testament references to what is written refer to the Old Testament Scriptures (just as it is in this particular case). If St. Paul meant that no Christian is to go beyond what is written in a true “Bible-only” fashion, then this very letter that St. Paul was writing should not be considered as Scripture, yet you quote it as such.    

Would the Corinthians, then, be going beyond what is written if they ever recognized other writings that would later become New Testament Scripture? Would the Corinthians be going beyond what is written if they heeded St. Paul’s teaching to the Thessalonians to stand firm to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word or mouth or by letter (2 Thessalonians 2:15)? Is not St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Thessalonians Scripture? Is it less authoritative than his First Letter to the Corinthians? Can you not understand that, together, not isolated as proof-texters must demand, the Holy Texts reveal the existence of a “both/and”  (not “either/or”) understanding of Christian authority and revelation: Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition?

Some within your group have come to realize the problem they have arranged for themselves, and have realized St. Paul’s fragment from 1 Corinthians 4:6, when read within its historical context, cannot support sola Scriptura; and so they re-shape the passage as presenting more of a thematic allusion than a doctrinal proof-text. But since the Bible cannot provide any articulation of your theme, you have scoured over thirty thousand verses for any support for your model, and within this fragment you have discovered a primary “biblical” proof for sola Scriptura—it is not even a small verse, but a portion of a verse, not even a sentence; yet from it a binding theme is born. As a doctrinal or thematic proof, your group expects Christians to understand St. Paul’s fragment as something he clearly did not mean, that “Scripture” and what is written refers not only to what is written, but to what will someday be written (the Protestant Old Testament plus the full New Testament). But an absent teaching is not reinforced when allusions are nominated; moving further from the Biblical text does not result in a more “Bible-only” teaching. What is actually biblical, of course, is what is found within the Bible, and what the Bible teaches is that what is written was the Old Testament, and Christians ought not go beyond the Old Testament, at least within this passage, in some way. 

The context reveals in what way the Corinthians were not to go beyond what was written, because St. Paul had already told them! Recall the beginning of the verse from which your proof-fragment comes: I have applied all this to myself and Apol’los for your benefit . . . . In order to understand what your proof-fragment actually means, it is helpful to discard a forced theme of sola Scriptura and read the actual Scriptura—the full sentence, which suggests that all thisrefers to a specific teaching. St. Paul was teaching about the perils of boasting, and he provided several Old Testament passages that teach against it. His elaboration, today, is considered “Scripture” (his Letter).

If sola Scriptura were true during the early years of the Church, would not St. Paul have added to the Scriptures? Should not a proponent of sola Scriptura, at some point, have rebuked St. Paul for going beyond what is written because he added to the Old Testament Scriptures either by word or by mouth or by letterSola Scriptura cannot provide a cohesive understanding of the Bible’s gradual unfolding revelatory nature, but a proper understanding of what constitutes the “word of God” does. So when St. Paul referred to the Old Testament, he was proving that the Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scriptures do not contradict each other, that they are always in perfect harmony, and that his lesson about boasting is supported by existing Scripture; but that existence does not discredit the Church’s teachings, or else St. Paul’s very lesson would be self-discrediting.

Just prior to your proof-fragment, in chapter 1 and verse 19, St. Paul quoted Isaiah 29:14: I will destroy the wisdom of the wise. In chapter 3 and verses 19-20, he quoted Job 5:13 and Psalm 94:11: He catches the wise in their craftiness, and, The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile. In chapter 1 and verse 31, he paraphrased the Greek Old Testament’s book of Jeremiah: Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord (9:24). Was he sinning by going beyond what is written and choosing to re-word (change) what was written by writing it differently within his not-yet recognized piece of Scripture? Nothing in these texts suggest any overarching theme of sola Scriptura or “Bible-only” Christianity; St. Paul was exhorting his audience to remain within the boundaries of the Scriptures he had just referenced.

And since this topic is about your understanding of not going beyond what is written, please consider the fact that St. Paul referred to the Greek Old Testament, which is called the Septuagint (the LXX). The Septuagint’s Sacred Books (the Old Testament) is the “Scripture” Jesus and the Apostles most often referred to, and it includes more than what the Protestant Church of Christ accepts—your group adopted the Protestant canon, which does not include seven Old Testament books. Because if what is written was the Old Testament (or as your model might demand is simply “part” of the not-yet fully-formed Christian Bible), then should you not go beyond the Old Testament that St. Paul referred to—not go beyond the Old Testament that the Catholic Church, not Protestantism, recognizes? Or, perhaps, your likely-unrealized abridgment of the Old Testament is not going beyond, but rather, some benign form of violating Deuteronomy 4:2: You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it; that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you (emphasis mine).

In sum, your proof-fragment would not exist if sola Scriptura were true, it does not teach sola Scriptura, it internally teaches against sola Scriptura because it is the product of an extra-scriptural authority (the Apostle Paul), its inclusion into the canon of Scripture would constitute a violation of any established notion of sola-Scriptura, St. Paul’s audience did not rebuke his addition to what is written, and the full passage refers to a grouping of Scripture that proponents of sola Scriptura in fact deny. In other words, what the passage reveals is a Catholic model that accepts the full word of God (Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition), and provides an example of how the Old Testament Scriptures are indeed profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16).