Sola Scriptura in the Early Church

Given that I am Reformed, I hold to Sola Scriptura. The Westminster Confession defines it well:

“The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.”

I believe this, as do all who are Reformed. However, occasionally, people who lean more towards the Roman Catholic Church will tell me that Sola Scripture is an innovation in the 16th century and cannot be found in the early Church, in the writings of the Church Fathers. Here are some Church Fathers, and some things that they have said that are relevant to this discussion. For the moment I will limit myself to the thesis: Sola Scriptura is defensible from the Church Fathers. For the moment, I do not intend to argue that it is the only defensible position from them.

When available online, I have produced links to the sources. Sadly not all the writings of the church fathers are available online, or at least not that I could find. If you can find a reference I’ve missed, please let me know.

Irenaeus (130 – 202)

“Such, then, is their system, which neither the prophets announced, nor the Lord taught, nor the apostles delivered, but of which they boast that beyond all others they have a perfect knowledge. They gather their views from other sources than the Scriptures” – Against Heresies 1.8.1

“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 it is unlawful to assert that they preached before they possessed ‘perfect knowledge,’ as some do even venture to say, boasting themselves as improvers of the apostles” – Against Heresies 3.1.1

“When, however, they are confuted from the Scriptures, they turn round and accuse these same Scriptures, as if they were not correct, nor of authority, and [assert] that they are ambiguous, and that the truth cannot be extracted from them by those who are ignorant of tradition. For [they allege] that the truth was not delivered by means of written documents, but vivâ voce” – Against Heresies 3.2.1

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, till they get the demonstration from the Scriptures themselves” – Stromata 7.16

Hippolytus (170 – 235)

“There is, brethren, one God, the knowledge of whom we gain from the Holy Scriptures, and from no other source. . . . So all of us who wish to practice 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 look; and whatever things they teach, these let us learn” – Against Noetus 9

Cyprian of Carthage (210 – 258)

“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 your mouth; but you shall meditate in it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written therein”” – Epistle 73

“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” – Epistle 73

Athanasius (296–298)

“Vainly then do they run about with the pretext that they have demanded Councils for the faith’s sake; for divine Scripture is sufficient above all things; but if a Council be needed on the point, there are the proceedings of the Fathers, for the Nicene Bishops did not neglect this matter, but stated the doctrine so exactly, that persons reading their words honestly, cannot but be reminded by them of the religion towards Christ announced in divine Scripture” – Letter, De Synodis

“These are fountains of salvation, that they who thirst may be satisfied with the living words they contain. In these alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness. Let no man add to these, neither let him take ought from these. For concerning these the Lord put to shame the Sadducees, and said, ‘Ye do err, not knowing the Scriptures.’ And He reproved the Jews, saying, ‘Search the Scriptures, for these are they that testify of Me’” – 39th Festal Letter.

St. Cyril of Jerusalem (313 – 386)

“Have thou ever in your mind this seal, which for the present has been lightly touched in my discourse, by way of summary, but shall be stated, should the Lord permit, to the best of my power with the proof from the Scriptures. 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 you 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 Lecture 4.17

“Now mind not my argumentations, for perhaps you may be misled but unless thou receive testimony of the Prophets on each matter, believe not what I say: unless thou learn from the Holy Scriptures concerning the Virgin, and the place, the time, and the manner, receive not testimony from man. For one who at present thus teaches may possibly be suspected: but what man of sense will suspect one that prophesied a thousand and more years beforehand? If then you seek the cause of Christ’s coming, go back to the first book of the Scriptures” – Catechetical Lecture 12.5

Basil the Great (330 – 379)

“What is the mark of a faithful soul? To be in these dispositions of full acceptance on the authority of the words of Scripture, not venturing to reject anything nor making additions. For, if ‘all that is not of faith is sin’ as the Apostle says, and ‘faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the Word of God,’ everything outside Holy Scripture, not being of faith, is sin.” – Moralia

“The hear­ers taught in the Scrip­tures ought to test what is said by teach­ers and accept that which agrees with the Scrip­tures but reject that which is for­eign” – Moralia

“Therefore let God-inspired Scripture decide between us; and on whichever side be found doctrines in harmony with the word of God, in favour of that side will be cast the vote of truth” – Letter 189

“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 to comprehend your duty. You have the all-sufficient counsel and guidance of the Holy Spirit to lead you to what is right” – Letter 283

Gregory of Nyssa (335 – 394)

“Let the inspired Scriptures then be our umpire, and the vote of truth will be given to those whose dogmas are found to agree with the Divine words.” – On the Holy Trinity

“We are not entitled to such license, I mean that of affirming what we please; 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 vvith the intention  of those writings.”- On the Soul and the Resurrection

Ambrose (340 – 397)

“For how can we adopt those things which we do not find in the holy Scriptures?” – On the Duties of the Clergy

Theophilus of Alexandria (? – 412)

“It would be the instigation of a demonical spirit to follow the conceits of the human mind, and to think anything divine, beyond what has the authority of the Scriptures” – Epistola 96

Jerome (347 – 420)

“But as we do not deny what is written, so we do reject what is not written” – Against Helvidius 21

“Those things which they make and find, as it were, by apostolical tradition, without the authority and testimony of Scripture, the word of God smites” – on Aggai 1

John Chrysostom (349 – 407)

“Regarding the things I say, I should supply even the proofs, so I will not seem to rely on my own opinions, but rather, prove them with Scripture, so that the matter will remain certain and steadfast.” – Homily 8 On Repentance and the Church

“There comes a heathen and says, “I wish to become a Christian, but I know not whom to join: there is much fighting and faction  among you, much confusion: which doctrine am I to choose?” How shall we answer  him? “Each of you” (says he) “asserts, ‘I speak the truth.”‘  No doubt:  this is in our favor. For if we told you to be persuaded by arguments, you might well be perplexed: but if we bid you believe the Scriptures, and these are simple and true, the decision is easy for you. If any agree with the Scriptures, he is the Christian; if any fight against them, he is far from this rule.”  – Homily 33 in Acts of the Apostles

“Wherefore I exhort and entreat you all, disregard what this man and that man thinks about these things, and inquire from the Scriptures all these things; and having learned what are the true riches, let us pursue after them that we may obtain also the eternal good things” – Homily 13 On Second Corinthians

Augustine (354 – 430)

“What more shall I teach you than what we read in the apostles? For Holy Scripture fixes the rule for our doctrine, lest we dare be wiser than we ought. Therefore I should not teach you anything else except to expound to you the words of the Teacher” – Of the Good of Widowhood 2.

“It is to the canonical Scriptures alone that I am bound to yield such implicit subjection as to follow their teaching, without admitting the slightest suspicion that in them any mistake or any statement intended to mislead could find a place” – Letter 82

“For the reasonings of any men whatsoever, even though they be Catholics, and of high reputation, are not to be treated by us in the same way as the canonical Scriptures are treated. We are at liberty, without doing any violence to the respect which these men deserve, to condemn and reject anything in their writings, if perchance we shall find that they have entertained opinions differing from that which others or we ourselves have, by the divine help, discovered to be the truth. I deal thus with the writings of others, and I wish my intelligent readers to deal thus with mine” – Letter 148

“You are wont, indeed, to bring up against us the letters of Cyprian, his opinion, his Council; why do ye claim the authority of Cyprian for your schism, and reject his example when it makes for the peace of the Church? But who can fail to be aware that the sacred canon of Scripture, both of the Old and New Testament, is confined within its own limits, and that it stands so absolutely in a superior position to all later letters of the bishops, that about it we can hold no manner of doubt or disputation whether what is confessedly contained in it is right and true; but that all the letters of bishops which have been written, or are being written, since the closing of the canon, are liable to be refuted if there be anything contained in them which strays from the the truth, either by the discourse of some one who happens to be wiser in the matter than themselves, or by the weightier authority and more learned experience of other bishops, by the authority of Councils; and further, that the Councils themselves, which are held in the several districts and provinces, must yield, beyond all possibility of doubt, to the authority of plenary Councils which are formed for the whole Christian world; and that even of the plenary Councils, the earlier are often corrected by those which follow them, when, by some actual experiment, things are brought to light which were before concealed, and that is known which previously lay hid, and this without any whirlwind of sacrilegious pride, without any puffing of the neck through arrogance, without any strife of envious hatred, simply with holy humility, catholic peace, and Christian charity?” – On Baptism, Against the Donatists

“Especially as in writings of such authors I feel myself free to use my own judgment (owing unhesitating assent to nothing but the canonical Scriptures), whilst in fact there is not a passage which he has quoted from the works of this anonymous author that disturbs me” –On Nature and Grace

“This shows that the established authority of Scripture must outweigh every other; for it derives new confirmation from the progress of events which happen, as Scripture proves, in fulfillment of the predictions made so long before their occurrence” – Reply to Faustus the Manichaean

“In the matters of which we are now treating, only the canonical writings have any weight with us” – Reply to Faustus the Manichaean

Theodoret of Cyrus (393 – 458)

“Do not, I beg you, bring in human reason. I shall yield to scripture alone” – Dialogue 1

St John of Damascus (675 – 749)

It is impossible either to say or fully to understand anything about God beyond what has been divinely proclaimed to us, whether told or revealed, by the sacred declarations of the Old and New Testaments.” – The Fountain of Knowledge

SAINT THOMAS “THE MAN” AQUINAS (1225 – 1274)

“Nevertheless, sacred  doctrine makes use of these authorities as extrinsic and probable arguments; but properly  uses the authority of the canonical  Scriptures as an incontrovertible proof, and the authority of the doctors of the Church as one that  may properly be used, yet merely as probable. For our faith  rests upon the revelation  made to the apostles and prophets who wrote the canonical books, and not on the revelations (if any such there are) made to other doctors.  Hence Augustine says (Epis. ad Hieron. xix, 1): “Only those books of Scripture which are called canonical have I learned to hold in such honor  as to believe their authors have not erred in any way in writing them.  But other  authors I so read as not to deem everything in their  works to be true,  merely on account of their having so thought and written, whatever  may have been their  holiness and learning.” – Summa Theologia, Part 1, Question 1, Article 8

“The canonical scriptures alone are the rule of faith” – Commentary on John XXI. 24-25, paragraph 2656.

More arguments need to be made here, including dealing with the distinction between formal and material sufficiency of scripture. These will come one day. But for today, I don’t think we can say that treating scripture as the highest and only infallible standard is a Reformation idea.

Now my Catholic friends might say something along the lines of “You’ve just found a bunch of people who said something nice about scripture, that doesn’t entail Sola Scriptura”. In this case, I’d suggest we compare my support for Sola Scriptura with their support for the doctrine of the Papacy. See if they have anything more than someone saying something nice about Peter. There won’t be anything even close to what we have here. And in fact, many of our quotes here not only affirm the inerrancy of scripture but explicitly say that it is the highest authority, or the only source of doctrine.

Did I miss any important references? Did I take someone out of context? Let me know in the comments.

Sola Scriptura: Can Rome Save Us?

Yesterday we had a discussion about Sola Scriptura, and the challenge of coming to a canon under this doctrine. And some of what we said might make people uncomfortable: that we have to rely on recognising it, something that might seem subjective and vague.

Given this, one might be tempted to say that Rome offers us a solution. We have no quick and easy way of coming up with a canon, but Rome might. Perhaps an appeal to the Tradition or Magisterium can give us not only an infallible scripture, but an infallible contents page.

This is however not the case. Putting aside all of the good reasons we have to stay on this side of the Tiber, reasons about salvation by grace alone, Rome still has no good solution.

Yes, it is true that Rome has infallibly defined a canon.  But they didn’t do this in the first century, or the second, or the third. They did it int he fifteenth. For fourteen hundred years, Christians had no infallible declaration of the canon. For fourteen hundred years, Roman Catholics (though if we are precise, I would argue that Roman Catholics haven’t existed for that long) haven’t had an infallible declaration of the canon.

Yesterday we had an important question: how can the faithful first century BC Jew know what the scriptures are? With Rome, this is exacerbated: if an infallible canon list is necessary, then how did a believing 10th century Christian know what it is? Rome doesn’t help the situation here.

But I think there is an even deeper problem here, a problem that is endemic to authority in general. No matter what our authority is (Scripture, Tradition, Magisterium), then the man of God has to be able to recognise that it is an authority. And it’s no good for that authority to tell us that they are an authority. Yesterday we avoided the accusation of circularity, but that would be circular.

Suppose that soon, the current Pope speaks ex-cathedra and says something which is heretical. Many Roman Catholics would claim that this immediately causes him to become an antipope, and he immediately anathematizes himself. Suppose that the Cardinals agree, but the Pope does not. Suppose that the Cardinals elect a new Pope. Now there are two claims.

Who are we to believe holds the authority of the Magisterium? (Permit me to simplify a bit here). Each claims to. It comes down to the individual to investigate (under the advice of wise friends and clergy) and decide who is the true Pontiff and who is not. The recognition of authority eventually always comes down to the individual, and in principle, no authority can ever get around that.

So while we may have some work to do, and perhaps some uncomfortable conclusions to accept, when it comes to the formation of the canon, we cannot appeal to Rome. Rome doesn’t make our problem any easier, or our situation any more comfortable.

Sola Scriptura: The Bible Doesn’t Define Canon

I am a Reformed Baptist, so I regularly find myself in debates with Roman Catholics. When discussing the pillar of the Protestant Reformation Sola Scriptura, Roman Catholics often make this claim: Sola Scriptura must be false, since scripture doesn’t tell us what scripture is. But Sola Scriptura requires that all necessary Christian doctrines be found in scripture. The canon is a necessary Christian doctrine, not found in scripture, therefore Sola Scriptura is false.

Perhaps more formally:

  • If Sola Scriptura is true, then all important doctrines are found in scripture
  • Canon is not found in scripture
  • Canon is an important doctrine
  • Therefore Sola Scriptura is false

 

This is indeed a valid argument. So to object, we must object to a premise. I think there are several avenues of attack here.

First, we can reject premise 1. Instead of claiming that all important doctrines are found in scripture, we can claim merely (as if this were a small thing) that scripture is the sole infallible rule of faith for the Christian. Other authorities may be good and useful, but scripture is the only infallible authority.

The problem with this is that it undermines a common argument for Sola Scriptura. That argument being from 2 Timothy 3:16-17. Scripture says (under this interpretation) that scripture is sufficient to fully equip the man of faith. And if we take a weaker view of Sola Scriptura, then we are open to the objection that scripture is not sufficient to equip us by telling us what is scripture. This indicates our interpretation is wrong. So we don’t want to deploy that argument. We want to affirm that scripture is the sole infallible authority, but we also want to affirm that scripture is sufficient to equip us.

We certainly don’t want to claim that canon is not an important doctrine. Although good work and theology can be done with an incomplete canon (as some of the church fathers had an incomplete canon), we would be foolish to say that it’s not important to know precisely what God has said.

So we find ourselves with rejecting this premise: “Canon is not found in scripture”. At first glance, this seems to be true. The bible contains no inspired table of contents, we can’t merely read it and get a list of all the books that are inspired.

We have some hope, however. First, consider the Old Testament only. We can derive an Old Testament canon from scripture, by considering the New Testament. Jesus and the Apostles treated the Old Testament they had, the full Hebrew canon, as being scripture and inerrant. They quoted sections of most books, but the unquoted books (like Song of Songs) remain part of the canon accepted by all Jews, and Jesus and the Apostles affirm this.

(Sidenote: if we use this process, we come up with the Protestant canon rather than the Roman Catholic canon)

But that doesn’t establish for us a whole canon, because it leaves out the New Testament. What the New Testament does do is affirm that we should hold to all the teachings of Jesus, and all the teachings of the Apostles. We do attribute Apostolic authorship to almost all of the New Testament works, so we have made some more progress. But we have a pretty big problem: Hebrews. Hebrews is of course anonymous, and there is no consensus on the author. What we do know is that the early church thought it was Pauline, but modern scholars (even conservative scholars) are now confident that it is not Pauline. There are some who think that it was a sermon from Paul transcribed by Luke, but that’s a very small minority. It certainly isn’t a Pauline epistle written by Paul like Galatians or Ephesians.

This is not the only problem with our approach here, however. We still are open to the objection: how can the faithful first century BC Jew know what God’s word is? They have no NT, which we have used. They must have some other methodology. So I do not think this approach is significant (though I think Apostolic authorship is important and sufficient to establish canonicity).

Does scripture offer us an alternative? I think it does, but I am not sure it is one that many will like. I think it is John 10:27

“My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me;

I think that this is true of the Christian: we hear God’s words, we recognize them, and because He has known (and regenerated) us, our ears are open to hear and follow. And we do that, and we keep Hebrews (and Jude, which we didn’t mention earlier). And the Jew in the 1st century BC can keep the Law and the Prophets. Why? Because (John 7:46b)

“Never has a man spoken the way this man speaks.”

And no-one has ever spoken like God has spoken. And in fact Jesus expects this of us (John 14:10-11):

 Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on My own initiative, but the Father abiding in Me does His works. Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father is in Me; otherwise believe because of the works themselves.

Jesus expects us to believe Him, not primarily because of His works, but because of what He says. His words. I think we can safely apply these to all of God’s words. The regenerate believer, having had their ears opened, recognizes God’s voice and follows Him.

(Note that we may be accused of circularity here. Since it might seem like we are saying that scripture is true because scripture is true, or that we are using scripture to prove scripture. That would be a misunderstanding of the topic in question. I and Roman Catholics already agree that all of scripture is God-breathed and inerrant. But my contention is: we need nothing outside scripture (more or less, as I’ve said above), and scripture agrees. The Roman Catholic here is questioning whether scripture does agree. We are not trying to show that scripture is true by assuming scripture is true)

There is much more to say on the topic of the formation of the canon, authority, tradition and revelation. I will not get into all of this now, but I would encourage anyone interested to continue studying.

Further Reading: