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Did the Early Church Fathers Believe in Sola Scriptura?

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Definition of Sola Scriptura

Sola Scriptura: the reformed Protestant belief that the Scriptures alone are the final and only infallible authority for the Christian. This does not mean that Scriptures are the only authority (nuda or solo Scriptura), as Protestants believe in the authority of tradition, reason, experience, and emotions to varying degrees (after all, “sola scriptura” itself is an authoritative tradition in Protestantism). It does mean that Scripture trumps all other authorities (it is the norma normans sed non normata Lat. “norm that norms which is not normed”).

Controversy of Sola Scriptura

Sometimes people get the idea that sola Scriptura was a 16th-century invention. While it was definitely articulated a great deal through the controversies during the Reformation, its basic principles can be found deep in church history. Take a look at some of these early church fathers who seemed to believe in the primacy of Scripture:

Related Resource: Six Myths About Sola Scriptura by C. Michael Patton

Hippolytus (170-235)

“There is, brethren, one God, the knowledge of whom we gain from the Holy Scriptures, and from no other source. For just as a man, if he wishes to be skilled in the wisdom of this world, will find himself unable to get at it in any other way than by mastering the dogmas of philosophers, so all of us who wish to practise piety will be unable to learn its practice from any other quarter than the oracles of God. Whatever things, then, the Holy Scriptures declare, at these let us took; and whatsoever things they teach, these let us learn; and as the Father wills our belief to be, let us believe; and as He wills the Son to be glorified, let us glorify Him; and as He wills the Holy Spirit to be bestowed, let us receive Him. Not according to our own will, nor according to our own mind, nor yet as using violently those things which are given by God, but even as He has chosen to teach them by the Holy Scriptures, so let us discern them.” (Against the Heresy of One Noetus, 1-4, 7-9)

Irenaeus (175)

“They [heretics] gather their views from other sources than the Scriptures. We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith.

For they [the Apostles] were desirous that these men should be very perfect and blameless in all things, whom also they were leaving behind as their successors, delivering up their own place of government to these men; which men, if they discharged their functions honestly, would be a great boon to the Church, but if they should fall away, the direst calamity. Proofs of the things which are contained in the Scriptures cannot be shown except from the Scriptures themselves.”  (Against Heresies, 1:8:1, 3:1:1, 3:3:1, 3:12:9)

Recommended Book: The Shape of Sola Scripura by Keith Mathison

Ambrose (330-397)

“For how can we adopt those things which we do not find in the holy Scriptures?” (On the Duties of the Clergy, 1:23:102)

“The Arians, then, say that Christ is unlike the Father; we deny it. Nay, indeed, we shrink in dread from the word. Nevertheless I would not that your sacred Majesty should trust to argument and our disputation. Let us enquire of the Scriptures, of apostles, of prophets, of Christ. In a word, let us enquire of the Father. So, indeed, following the guidance of the Scriptures, our fathers [at the Council of Nicaea] declared, holding, moreover, that impious doctrines should be included in the record of their decrees, in order that the unbelief of Arius should discover itself, and not, as it were, mask itself with dye or face-paint.” (Exposition of the Christian Faith, 1:6:43, 1:18:119)

Clement of Alexandria (150-215)

“But those who are ready to toil in the most excellent pursuits will not desist from the search after truth until they get the demonstration from the Scriptures themselves.” – Clement of Alexandria (The Stromata, 7:16)

Augustine (354–430)

“In order to leave room for such profitable discussions of difficult questions, there is a distinct boundary line separating all productions subsequent to apostolic times from the authoritative canonical books of the Old and New Testaments. The authority of these books has come down to us from the apostles through the successions of bishops and the extension of the Church, and, from a position of lofty supremacy, claims the submission of every faithful and pious mind. In the innumerable books that have been written latterly we may sometimes find the same truth as in Scripture, but there is not the same authority. Scripture has a sacredness peculiar to itself.” – Augustine (Reply to Faustus the Manichaean, 11:5)

“Every sickness of the soul hath in Scripture its proper remedy.”  (Expositions on the Psalms, 37:2; notice the sufficiency of Scripture being iterated here)

Cyprian (248)

“Let nothing be innovated, says he, nothing maintained, except what has been handed down. Whence is that tradition? Whether does it descend from the authority of the Lord and of the Gospel, or does it come from the commands and the epistles of the apostles? For that those things which are written must be done, God witnesses and admonishes, saying to Joshua the son of Nun: ‘The book of this law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate in it day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein.’ Also the Lord, sending His apostles, commands that the nations should be baptized, and taught to observe all things which He commanded. If, therefore, it is either prescribed in the Gospel, or contained in the epistles or Acts of the Apostles, that those who come from any heresy should not be baptized, but only hands laid upon them to repentance, let this divine and holy tradition be observed.” (Letter 73:2)

Cyril of Jerusalem (313-386)

“For concerning the divine and holy mysteries of the Faith, not even a casual statement must be delivered without the Holy Scriptures; nor must we be drawn aside by mere plausibility and artifices of speech. Even to me, who tell thee these things, give not absolute credence, unless thou receive the proof of the things which I announce from the Divine Scriptures. For this salvation which we believe depends not on ingenious reasoning, but on demonstration of the Holy Scriptures.” (Catechetical Lectures, 4:17)

“This seal have thou ever on thy mind; which now by way of summary has been touched on in its heads, and if the Lord grant, shall hereafter be set forth according to our power, with Scripture-proofs. For 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 these things, unless thou receive from the Holy Scriptures the proof of what is set forth: for this salvation, which is of our faith, is not by ingenious reasonings, but by proof from the Holy Scriptures.” (A Library of the Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church, Oxford: Parker, 1845, The Catechetical Lectures of S. Cyril 4.17).

Dionysius of Alexandria (265)

“Nor did we evade objections, but we endeavored as far as possible to hold to and confirm the things which lay before us, and if the reason given satisfied us, we were not ashamed to change our opinions and agree with others; but on the contrary, conscientiously and sincerely, and with hearts laid open before God, we accepted whatever was established by the proofs and teachings of the Holy Scriptures.”  (Cited in Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius, 7:24)

Gregory of Nyssa (335-394)

“We make the Holy Scriptures the rule and the measure of every tenet; we necessarily fix our eyes upon that, and approve that alone which may be made to harmonize with the intention of those writings.

And to those who are expert only in the technical methods of proof a mere demonstration suffices to convince; but as for ourselves, we were agreed that there is something more trustworthy than any of these artificial conclusions, namely, that which the teachings of Holy Scripture point to: and so I deem that it is necessary to inquire, in addition to what has been said, whether this inspired teaching harmonizes with it all. And who, she replied, could deny that truth is to be found only in that upon which the seal of Scriptural testimony is set?” –  (“On the Soul and the Resurrection” A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, 442)

Basil the Great (379)

Enjoying as you do the consolation of the Holy Scriptures, you stand in need neither of my assistance nor of that of anybody else to help you comprehend your duty. You have the all-sufficient counsel and guidance of the Holy Spirit to lead you to what is right (Letter CCLXXXIII, ANCF, p. 312).

Hilary of Poitiers (300-368)

“Their treason involves us in the difficult and dangerous position of having to make a definite pronouncement, beyond the statements of Scripture, upon this grave and abstruse matter….We must proclaim, exactly as we shall find them in the words of Scripture, the majesty and functions of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and so debar the heretics from robbing these Names of their connotation of Divine character, and compel them by means of these very Names to confine their use of terms to their proper meaning….I would not have you flatter the Son with praises of your own invention; it is well with you if you be satisfied with the written word.”  (On the Trinity, 2:5, 3:23)

Recommended Reading: Now that I’m a Christian by C. Michael Patton (has a lengthy discussion in chapter one on the different types of authority and how they interact with Scripture)

Jerome (347-420)

“When, then, anything in my little work seems to you harsh, have regard not to my words, but to the Scripture, whence they are taken.”  (Letter, 48:20)

“I beg of you, my dear brother, to live among these books [Scriptures], to meditate upon them, to know nothing else, to seek nothing else.” (Letter, 53:10)

Theodoret (393-457)

“I shall yield to scripture alone.” (Dialogues, 1)

Conclusion

Here is a good quote from J. N. D. Kelly to sum it all up:

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 (Early Christian Doctrines, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1978, pp. 42, 46).

14 Responses to “Did the Early Church Fathers Believe in Sola Scriptura?”

  1. This is great stuff. Looking forward to visiting the Credo House when I’m in OKC the first week of May. Gotta check out those lattes.

  2. good stuff, but we must remember that hermeneutics, interpretation, theology, etc. has a strong sense of evolution – growing and expanding over time to incorporate, evaluate and integrate earlier thinkers… so we should not expect the early Church fathers to hold the same Sola language or thought from the Reformation through today… it’s just not that neat or convenient…

  3. I stake my life on sola scriptura, yet I find it strange to suggest (as this post implies) that the believers in Corinth, Thessalonica, Colossae, and so on refused to ascribe as much authority to what Paul had told them orally as to what he had written them.

    It is clear that oral tradition has a limited shelf life. That is, it becomes less and less realiable as it passes from one generation to another, one human memory to another. By contrast, what is written never changes. Thus, as applied to the New Testament, sola scriptura meant less in the second century than it did in the fourth. Certainly, it prevails for us today because oral tradition uncorroborated by a New Testament writing is effectively nil in our day -or in the 16th century, for that matter.

    The quotes above, amassed as they are, would seem to suggest that every person quoted is referring as much to the NT as to the OT in references to Scripture – and yet the quotes themselves do not give evidence for that. Certainly that is true for writers as late as Augustine and Jerome, but it is less certain for the earliest writers for whom apostolic writings were authoritative but not necessarily regarded as “Holy Scripture.” Moreover the earliest writers woud have had the greatest access to oral tradition.

  4. First point Michael, you know very well that these are cherry picked, and that Basil to take one example, wrote some of the most strident anti-sola scriptura statements in history. So how honest is this article? Really?

    Secondly, you keep saying tradition is a secondary authority. OK, so if there are 2 possible interpretations of scripture, but tradition agrees unanimously with one, is it settled? If not why not? And if not, in what sense is tradition an authority when it… like has no authority?

  5. I hold to sola scriptura, but I am not sure if proof-texting is the best way to support it. I just finished reading Basil’s On the Holy Spirit and he makes statements that seem very supportive of tradition as an authority, and a little research shows that Catholics emphasize his points. It seems to run into anachronism by deploying these guys to fight battles they may not have been fighting yet. It would be more valuable to offer a balanced view, pointing out where they say things we agree with but also make troubling statements.

  6. Went through Irenaeus as quoted by the blog. I found that the blogger concatenated four verses (Against Heresies, 1:8:1, 3:1:1, 3:3:1, 3:12:9) into 2 continuous paragraphs – without showing in-between chapters and verses. In effect he made it look like Irenaeus was teaching sola scriptura when in actuality he wasn’t.

    1:8:1 for example was not about using scriptures alone – it was about ‘How the Valentinians Pervert the Scriptures to Support Their Own Pious Opinions’.

    3:1:1 wa not about using scriptures alone – it was about how ‘The Apostles Did Not Commence to Preach the Gospel, or to Place Anything on Record, Until They Were Endowed with the Gifts and Power of the Holy Spirit. They Preached One God Alone, Maker of Heaven and Earth’.

    In fact the next chapter was about how ‘The Heretics Follow Neither Scripture Nor Tradition’.

    3:3:1 actually spoke about tradition: “It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times”

    3:12:9 Actually did not start with
    “Proofs of the things which are contained in the Scriptures…”
    but rather
    “But while I bring out by these proofs the truths of Scripture, and set forth briefly and compendiously things which are stated in various ways, do thou also attend to them with patience, and not deem them prolix; taking this into account, that proofs [of the things which are] contained in the Scriptures cannot be shown except from the Scriptures themselves.”
    It pertains to those contained only in scripture – it did not pertain to everything (inculding traditions that Irenaeus spoke of repreatedly).

    I encourage everyone to scrutinize what is written in the blog by going through the actual writings of the early Christians. You will find that the blog is actually contrary to what the early Christians wrote.
    http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/irenaeus.html

  7. Good work Basilio. I would have done the same thing but I’ve done it before with Basil, but Michael doesn’t want to be honest about this. Taking into account the full range of what the fathers said one would struggle to find even one who would plausibly be considered anywhere near sola scriptura. Most definitely Basil was not one. Anyone who quotes Basil as a supporter I have to write off immediately as either ignorant or dishonest, and since I’ve interacted with Michael about this before I know he should no longer be ignorant.

    Mike Gantt regarding your theory that the tradition has a limited shelf life, how come the Didache, a document that purports to pass on the apostles’ teaching, which is usually dated to the first century, but which was lost to the church for most of history teaches chrismation? The Orthodox church chrismates throughout history in the same way this document says. So it’s passed on this tradition as a documented fact since the first century. It’s all very well to have fancy theories about limited shelf life, but what if you’re wrong? As Paul commanded, hold to the traditions whether written or by word of mouth.

    BTW you claim the writings do not change. That assumes the collection of books you have is the ones the apostles actually wrote. A contention that you only know via the tradition ( and which modernist scholars would dispute ). If you want to go down a modernist route of doubting the tradition, scripture is not safe.

  8. Great blog post. Pretty much nails flat that Rome departed from a good beginning.

  9. “For they [the Apostles] were desirous that these men should be very perfect and blameless in all things, whom also they were leaving behind as their successors, delivering up their own place of government to these men; which men, if they discharged their functions honestly, would be a great boon to the Church, but if they should fall away, the direst calamity.”

    If this isn’t an acknowledgment of Apostolic Authority and Apostolic Succession, then I don’t know what it is. It’s not an argument for Sola Scriptura, that’s for sure.

  10. Interesting stuff. Recently I have begun reading through the early church fathers and it is certainly obvious from even the most casual read through that they where steeped in the scriptures and took them to be authoritative. Even that they took the scriptures (both old and new) as the starting point from which to deduce conclusions from.

    John, interesting points… you argue that the early church fathers did not believe in sola scriptura (as defined here). I am curious, if you do not take scripture as being the highest authority (and do not believe the early church fathers testify to that) with tradition etc. taken as authoritative but to a lesser extent, what do you take to be the highest authority? Or to put it another way, what do you believe to be the relationship between scripture and tradition? Or I guess I could ask what tradition you are coming from?

    I also have a question about your post about 2 possible interpretations of scripture. You ask “if tradition agrees unanimously is an issue settled?” arguing that if that does not settle the issue tradition would have no authority. But this makes me want to ask, what issues you would say tradition has been unanimous on? …it seems to me that for many issues there are a variety of traditions and ways of looking at an issue…

  11. Sardis, I think the church fathers considered the tradition of the apostles to be the highest authority, and scripture was one important testimony to that tradition. Sometimes the terminology “tradition” embraces both scripture and extra-scriptural, sometimes tradition implies the extra-scriptural, but either way I think the fathers almost universally thought that. “”Of the dogmas and messages preserved in the Church, some we possess from written teaching and others we receive from the tradition of the apostles” – Basil the Great. “From this it is clear that they did not hand down everything by letter, but there is much also that was not written. Like that which was written, the unwritten too is worthy of belief. So let us regard the tradition of the Church also as worthy of belief. Is it a tradition? Seek no further” – Chrysostom.

    Sardis, the whole idea of higher and lower authorities is a nonsense. Either its an authority, and you are bound by it, or its not an authority and it is not binding at all. There is no middle ground here. You can’t be a little bit pregnant.

    You ask what tradition is unanimous on. It’s reasonably unanimous on many things. If you want to dispute about the unanimity of a lot of these things, it doesn’t really help the sola scriptura proponent because these things are much more unanimous than the witness of the canon of scripture itself. If unanimity was your rule, then you’d be a lot more inclined to accept these things than you would to accept… oh say the canonicity of Revelation or 2 Peter or Jude etc.

    What things? Well, the real presence in the bread and wine, the necessity of Christmation as a church rite, the bishop-elder hierarchy, and many other things, but those 3 alone I think wipes out all protestants. The ancient church was unanimous on these things. Oh, and I’d add to that list belief in the authority of tradition. And as soon as you accept that, you must of necessity believe in something else the early church was unanimous on – that there is one church. It must be so, or whose traditions (or canon of writings) to accept?

    What am I? Eastern Orthodox, because it holds to the ancient understanding of these disputable matters, and Protestants do not. If I was to abandon Orthodoxy, what Protestant denomination would I choose? It would be impossible because Protestants have no way of deciding definitively on these issues, they just argue round and round on this verse verses that one.

  12. The NT canon is a product of Apostolic Tradition – not a product of scripture. No NT scripture ever listed the books that are supposed to be included in the NT by the Church. The list was finalized with the help of Apostolic Tradition in 393 and 397 AD councils of Hippo and Carthage.
    If your bible have 27 books of the NT, no more no less, then you are following Apostolic Tradition. Teaching that one should not follow Apostolic Tradition is self-defeating.

  13. John,

    You seem unaware of the fact that your argument against a limited shelf for oral tradition relies on the existence of a document. My argument about shelf life is not that a tradition cannot be right after a certain period of time, but that we cannot know if it is right after a certain period of time. This is why the Lord saw to it that we would have the New Testament.

    Jesus was able to discern true Mosaic tradition from false Mosaic tradition in His day because He had the Old Testament. Likewise, we can discern true Christian tradition from false Christian tradition because we have the New Testament.

    If oral tradition had an unlimited shelf life, we would not need the Bible. Clearly, however, we do need the Bible. In fact, if Eve had had God’s instruction in writing instead of being completely dependent on oral tradition, she might have fared better in her time of temptation. Certainly Jesus relied on the written word rather than oral tradition when He successfully resisted temptation during His 40-day wilderness experience.

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