Protestant Theologian Karl Barth on Sola Scriptura

The implications of Barth’s position may surprise you.

As a parallel and Judaic context, I would like to add that within the Jewish religion, there is likewise a split between sola Scriptura (only the Hebrew Bible, of course) and Bible plus tradition in the form of the Oral Law. Most Orthodox Jews believe in the latter; however, the Karaite viewpoint is based on rejection of the sanctity of the Oral Law from ancient times, and is true only to what is written in the Torah despite the apparent gaps in the (Hebrew) Bible.

So, the Catholic Church continues to follow the pattern established by God with his Chosen People, the Orthodox Jews: Sacred Scripture and Oral Tradition.


Hi Randy,

I would agree. In fact the level of intellectual honesty displayed by Barth has caused my respect for him to increase.

I would certainly agree with Joe Heshmeyer, the author of the article that you linked, that Mathison is a defender of Sola Scriptura. I happen to have his book and it is definitely written from that perspective. However, Mathison too is very aware of the role of ‘tradition’ in the early Church:

“Among the apostolic fathers, one will search on vain to discover a formally outlined doctrine of Scripture such as may be found in modern theology textbooks. The doctrine of Scripture did not become an independent locus of theology until the sixteenth century. What we do find throughout the writing of the apostolic fathers is a continual and consistent appeal to the Old Testament and to the Apostles teaching. During these first decades following Christ, however, we have no evidence demonstrating that the Church considered the Apostles teaching to be entirely confined to written documents………As already noted, we have broad scholarly agreement that Scripture and tradition were not mutually exclusive concepts in the mind of the early fathers. The concept of ‘tradition,’ when used by these fathers, is simply used to designate the body of doctrine which was committed to the Church by the Lord and his Apostles, whether through verbal or written communication.” Mathison, “The Shape of Sola Scriptura”, pg. 20-21

As we all know, there are a LOT of competing and conflicting definitions of what “Sola Scriptura” really means, how Scripture is to be ‘used’ etc, but it is clear that Sola Scriptura, at least in its most restrictive sense, was not a belief of the early Church. As indicated in the above quote, even Mathison understands that the 16th century theology of Scripture was not on keeping with that of the early Church. Of course anyone familiar with the Fathers would have to agree.

God Bless You Randy, Topper

Thanks! A good read! I appreciated the authors being forthright.

Barth’s views are very Lutheran - we have no objection to tradition as long as it doesn’t contradict scripture - used as the norma normans

That’s the crux of the reformation - claims of paid-for-indulgences, papal infallibility, and other doctrines were counted by the Rome as being bolstered by tradition. The only counter to this rational and legalistic extension of tradition that would be the very word of God.

I do appreciate Barth’s hermeneutics* - he uses historical thinking to improve our understanding, and not to destroy understanding as most liberal users seem want to do.

  • Yes, I know he’s dead. But he seems to live on in his writings.

Thanks for the info. I am not that knowledgeable about the Jewish faith but I have learned so much by reading your posts.


I’m not sure that follows from his position exactly though. He seems to be saying that the early Church didn’t draw as thick of a line between Scripture and Tradition, and that they saw Scripture as an aspect of Tradition, rather than an entirely separate thing (as many traditional Orthodox do today, actually).

Because the early Christians didn’t think in such a paradigm, it seems weird to argue that tradition should be judged on Scripture.

On a related note, what would Protestants think about certain recordings by early Fathers of words they claim Jesus actually said, but are not recorded in the Scriptures?

Christi pax,


If I can backup a little bit…

When we Lutherans grumble about “traditions” is usually the more recent extensions that we take issue with - for example, while we acknowledge the primacy of Peter, we don’t hold that the Bishop of Rome has universal jurisdiction or the ability to speak Ex Cathedra. We’re a bit grumbly about the recent pious Marion beliefs being turned into dogma.

In that context, I would say Barth’s observations are fit us well.

I’m not sure if I can answer your question well - but while Lutheran’s don’t have a fixed cannon, I don’t think we would every say other writings are “God Breathed” - we may enjoy them as scholars, but we would probably say that the church’s recognized list of scripture is closed - though we don’t have objection to more complete Lutheran bibles (74 books if I remember correctly) or Orthodox Bibles.

The Jewish pattern of granting authoritative importance to official teachings beyond the sacred text is not at all the same thing as the Catholic version of a Sacred Deposit. For goodness’ sake, Mishnah literally means “secondary,” specifically secondary in authority to that of Sacred Scripture, and the whole point of describing the Sacred Deposit is to strictly eliminate the possibility of separation into levels of authority. In some sense though, I can’t help but agree that the Catholic Church ought to aspire to the pattern that God established with His Chosen People, specifically by naming and defining its own tradition in such a way that it’s clearly secondary in authority to that of Sacred Scripture.

But it didn’t do that, it’s not what you actually have, and the Catholic arrangement is nowhere close to being the closest cognate to what Judaism is doing. Granted, it’s a closer cognate to orthodox Judaism than the complete and total rejection of any form of tradition, but that puts you second from the bottom of the list, not anywhere close to the top. Any type of Christian who does literally anything with tradition is bound to have an arrangement that is, objectively, at least marginally ahead of you on this hypothetical list, and there are at least a half dozen different types of Christians that can make some type of credible argument putting their specific thing at the top. The Catholic understanding of a Sacred Deposit is most certainly not one of those in the running.

Tell me this. In the course of those 4,000 years between Abraham and Jesus or up to the present day for that matter- assuming the Jews ever had something very close to a Catholic arrangement with Scripture and teaching authority, of course- who exactly got to occupy the Jewish office that guaranteed infallible teaching on authoritative traditions? What person, or group of people, enjoyed special protection from error specifically when it came to Oral Tradition? Of course we all know and agree on the special protection they enjoyed when transmitting Sacred Scripture, but what of the Oral Tradition? There seems to be a long-standing, extremely well-established distinction that is not at all mirrored in the Catholic Church. You can see that, right?

That’s very well put BNB (I speak now as a plain Catholic and not just “nominal”, which is merely a sketch of my levels of activity). It is so sad that at a formative age the young are not told this distinction which you and the other posters have pointed out, when they could well understand it. It’s no wonder the young think Catholicism is fundamentally insincere, or that so many prelates are so addled.

However much ignored, this is a real distinction and would be an obvious asset to the faith, if it didn’t “have” to keep being airbrushed out. The “Catholic Church” is tragically very much one for missing tricks when they stare it in the face.

It means that the more thoughtful kind of protestants are in a lot of important ways more Catholic than “we” are. (It doesn’t split out at denominational, organisational or “labelling” level though. And I’m not referring at all to the empty-headed knee-jerk types whose hangups are worse still.)

Yes and no regarding your discussion of the secondary importance of the Mishnah portion of the Talmud (Oral Tradition) compared to the Written Law (Torah). Yes in the sense that the Talmud is used to interpret the Torah and Judaism essentially revolves around the latter. But no in the sense that Orthodox Judaism believes that the Mishnah is the Oral Law which was simultaneously given to Moses together with the Written Law/Torah part of the Hebrew Bible. IOW, the Oral Law is sanctified by G-d as providing a means of interpretation of the Written Law. In this sense, they are of equal standing.

The only major difference between the philosophy of the orthodox Jews and Catholics is that Catholics also believe in infallible Bishops.

Tell me this. In the course of those 4,000 years between Abraham and Jesus or up to the present day for that matter- assuming the Jews ever had something very close to a Catholic arrangement with Scripture and teaching authority, of course- who exactly got to occupy the Jewish office that guaranteed infallible teaching on authoritative traditions? What person, or group of people, enjoyed special protection from error specifically when it came to Oral Tradition? Of course we all know and agree on the special protection they enjoyed when transmitting Sacred Scripture, but what of the Oral Tradition? There seems to be a long-standing, extremely well-established distinction that is not at all mirrored in the Catholic Church. You can see that, right?

Jesus Himself said it was the Scribes and the Pharisees:

After this, Jesus addressed himself to the multitudes, and to his disciples; The scribes and Pharisees, he said, have established themselves in the place from which Moses used to teach; do what they tell you, then, continue to observe what they tell you, but do not imitate their actions, for they tell you one thing and do another (Matthew 23:1-3)

Later he implies that the Pharisees had the Keys of Heaven:

Woe upon you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites that shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces; you will neither enter yourselves, nor let others enter when they would (Matthew 23:13)

Christi pax,


I’m going to suggest that an orthodox Jew would look at a prophet, such as Moses, and regard his words as supremely authoritative whether he writes them down or comes down from a mountain, having just spoken to God, and addresses everyone orally. Because in either example he is transmitting something that God spoke directly to him. Is that a fairly accurate description?

And would it also be fair to describe a distinction between Moses’ oral teaching just after talking to God on a mountain, set against the interpretive consensus of devout men to whom God never spoke to personally? (Although these devout men may, nevertheless, wind up being key decision makers when it comes to the specifics of the Talmud).

I would agree with this, though the confessions seem to place the three ancient creeds just about a nose behind scripture. The [Epitome](“ Summary, Rule and Norm”) says “we pledge ourselves to them”.
If they aren’t God Breathed, they’re pretty darn close.


While I generally agree, I would rephrase and say it was not generally a practicein the early Church. In and of itself, Sola Scriptura is not a belief, but a practice. Further, if what you mean by “restrictive” is the belief that no other writings should be considered, no oral tradition at all should be considered, then it is obvious that this wasn’t a practice of the early Church.


Thanks! I do often forget the creeds and the ecumenical councils.

This is a flat out wrong statement. Mishnah does not mean secondary in authority, and was never considered secondary to sacred scripture. In fact Mishnah is half of the Torah, the oral half that Moses received on Sinai, and without that oral half, the written is incomplete. You might find this interesting, Jewish 101’s website:

Prior to the time of Rabbi, all Jewish Law was transmitted orally; It was expressly forbidden to write and publish the Oral Law, as any writing would be incomplete and subject to misinterpretation and abuse.

I see the bold in practice every day with people who cry that Sacred Tradition should be secondary to Sacred Scripture.

Information in the written form is, by definition, secondary and limited in scope. That’s why the Oral Torah is 50 times the size of the Written Torah! (In actuality, the Oral Torah is infinite. It contains the totality of Torah, which – as the word of the infinite God – is by its very definition infinite.) It is used to clarify and explain how to perform the various commandments in the Torah.

Sure doesn’t sound like it’s secondary, nor should it be.

That would be dumb, and clearly not how Jesus planned it. First of all, we have already demonstrated that the Jews considered the Oral Torah just as important as the written Torah, and felt without the Mishnah, the written Torah was incomplete. Second, scripture did not just fall out of the sky. The New Testament was born out of Tradition. Third Jesus clearly says that the final authority is the Church, not the Bible.

In reality, if the Bible had never been written, you would still have the Catholic Church. It is their to aid the Church in her mission, but She preceded it, and still would have survived and flourished if it had never been written. But without the Catholic Church, there would be no Bible.

Well if God is going to give special protection to the transmitting of Sacred Scripture, He sure is going to do the same with Sacred Tradition. If not, then we better not do what St. Paul told us to do, when he told us to hold fast to what he handed down.

Lucretius answered the rest of your questions quite adequately.

And yet, universal jurisdiction is not a recent tradition. Even if we were to agree that the Orthodox never felt that the pope had universal jurisdiction (which I don’t), there is no doubt that the Bishops of Rome felt they had universal jurisdiction, from at least the second century. And those pious Marian beliefs also date back to the early Church, so they are not recent.

It’s not the best example of a primary source, but this is from Wikipedia on the Mishnah.

[SIGN]"The Mishnah teaches the oral traditions by example, presenting actual cases being brought to judgment, usually along with the debate on the matter and the judgment that was given by a notable rabbi based on the halacha, mitzvot, and spirit of the teaching (“Torah”) that guided his decision. In this way, it brings to everyday reality the practice of the mitzvot as presented in the Bible, and aims to cover all aspects of human living, serve as an example for future judgments, and, most important, demonstrate pragmatic exercise of the Biblical laws, which was much needed since the time when the Second Temple was destroyed (70 CE). The Mishnah does not claim to be the development of new laws, but rather the collection of existing traditions.

The term “Mishnah” is related to the verb “shanah”, to teach or repeat, and to the adjectives “sheni” and “mishneh”, meaning “second”. It is thus named for being both the one written authority (codex) secondary (only) to the Tanakh as a basis for the passing of judgment, a source and a tool for creating laws, and the first of many books to complement the Bible in certain aspects."[/SIGN]

I’m not sure where you’re getting the idea that Jews view their Scripture and their Tradition exactly as it is in the Catholic description of a Sacred Deposit; I have a feeling that you’re getting it entirely from Catholicism and assuming that Judaism does it exactly the same way just because you see a few main concepts that are the same.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you’re on to something though. Suppose Orthodox Judaism does view the totality of Scripture and its Tradition as if it were a united thing at the same indistinguishable level of authority…as if it were a single Sacred Deposit, but by a different name…

What name would that be, exactly, and where is it described and defined by Orthodox Jews?

I hope that clarified where the word “secondary” comes in. Mishnah is a noun, meaning study by repetition, but it’s related to a couple of other Hebrew words including an adjective, Mishneh, which means secondary. Every time I’ve seen this word introduced to the description of is etymology, some reference to secondary authority (specifically to the Tanakh) is mentioned with it.

In closing, I’ll direct you to page 205 of this Google Books preview.

Some key words that jumped out at me were “secondary,” “derivative,” “contingent.” And yet for all that, it carries more weight than anything else in Judaism- except Scripture itself.

If you move on toward page 206 and see what I am seeing, you’ll see the really good part-

[SIGN]“The philosophers of the Mishnah conceded to Scripture the highest authority.”[/SIGN]
Then it goes on to describe how these same men selected certain parts to focus their attention on, based on what they were dealing with at the time, which in itself constitutes a statement on the meaning of Scripture by deciding which parts are most relevant.

This is from The Mishnah, An Introduction. By Jacob Neusner.

Ah, one more thing. If you go back to page 204 of this source, you’ll see an unfavorable description of “some” who claim that the Mishnah does, indeed, rest at the highest level of authority, practically equating it with the Torah itself. The author of this particular book describes it as a radical view, and “the Mishnah’s Torah-myth.” He could be wrong of course, maybe he’s the radical. But for one thing, there is no definitive-teaching-making Magisterial-type authority within Judaism to make such a statement, and the very lack of such a thing strongly implies that no single group of Jewish people is well positioned to make such claims of their interpretive prowess to begin with. And secondly- here’s the Wikipedia page for Jacob Neusner, which should help you understand his role in American Jewish scholarship.

He’s quite prolific, having written or edited over 950 books. One in particular received high praise from Pope Benedict XVI, earning him the nickname “the pope’s favorite rabbi.”

It’s really not that hard to find reliable Jewish sources that afford Scripture the highest authority, especially in the specific context of where that places the wider body of Jewish interpretation and scholarship. You’ve chosen to give yourself a fairly impossible task, and you may want to just concede. Jacob Neusner handles this exact issue with great specificity, and he’s certainly not agreeing with you.

Come now let us reason together says the Lord…
I highly doubt Topper a Catholic meant “no oral tradition at all should be considered”
Tradition! …is part of our Catholic Faith of course. I might imagine you’ve heard that through the grapevine!~ :smiley:


DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit