Friday, May 4, 2018

The Church Fathers Taught Sola Scriptura

By Keith Thompson

Did the early church fathers, those early Christians writing after the Apostles, believe in Sola Scriptura? Or did the early church hold to the Roman Catholic view of Scripture, tradition, and the Magisterium as equal authorities?

Preliminary Remarks: What we will and will not be Arguing

In our material we have gone to great lengths to provide some clarity in regards to what Sola Scriptura is and is not. Therefore, it should be noted we will not be arguing the early church writers believed Scripture was the only authority. We will be arguing that there was a very broad strand of patristic thought affirming fundamental components which make up the classical reformation view of Sola Scriptura (material sufficiency, ultimate authority, and perspicuity). We will also be arguing that modern Roman writers are incorrect for teaching  the church writers held to their popular understanding of Roman tradition (i.e., the Council of Trent's partim-partim theory).

Ambrose (A.D. 330 – 397) affirmed the necessary components of Sola Scriptura. That he affirmed material sufficiency (i.e., that everything we need to know the Son and not fall into error is found in Scripture), he stated, “Further, that none may fall into error, let a man attend to those signs vouchsafed us by the holy Scripture, whereby we may know the Son” (Ambrose, Of the Christian Faith, Book I, Ch. 2, s16).

With respect to ultimate authority of Scripture (i.e., no teaching from any source may be accepted unless found in the Scriptures), he affirmed, “For how can we adopt those things which we do not find in the holy Scriptures?” (Ambrose, On the Duties of the Clergy, Book I, Ch. 23, 102). Also, Ambrose noted  the council of Nicaea was subordinate to ultimate authority of Scripture: “So indeed, following the guidance of the Scriptures, our fathers 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” (Ambrose, On the Duties of the Clergy, Book I, Ch. 18. 119). Ambrose was against the idea of people following traditions of ancient writers including bishops such as himself unless their teaching was confirmed by the Scriptures. Hence traditions of ancient writers were subordinate to the ultimate authority of Scripture according to him: “I do not wish that credence be given to us; let the Scriptures be quoted” (Saint Ambrose: Theological and Dogmatic Works, The Sacraments of the Incarnation of Our Lord, Chapter 3, p. 224).

That Ambrose not only affirmed everything necessary for salvation was in Scripture, but also clear in Scripture, i.e., the perspicuity of Scripture, he stated: “Wherefore the Scripture plainly has called that life which is blessed, eternal life. It has not been left to be appraised according to man's ideas on the subject, but has been entrusted to the divine judgment” (Ambrose, On the Duties of the Clergy, Book II, Ch. 1, 3). Also: “let us now note how clearly the divine Scriptures explain a thing about which we see philosophers held so many involved and perplexing ideas” (Ambrose, On the Duties of the Clergy, Book II, Ch 3, 8). What is more, Roman Catholics often tell Christians that the Roman church's tradition and authority is needed to affirm the Trinity, and that scripture itself is insufficient on the matter. As Roman writer Karl Keating asserts:
“Consider the doctrine of the Trinity. It is not present on the face of Scripture, not just in the sense that the word Trinity is never used . . . but also in the sense that it is by no means obvious, from the surface meaning of the text. . . . If we think of ourselves as having no recourse to divine Tradition and to the Magisterium of the Church, we can appreciate how easy it must have been for the early pneumatological heresies to arise” (Karl Keating, Catholicism and Fundamentalism: The Attack on “Romanism” by “Bible Christians”, [Ignatius Press, 1988], pp. 144-145).
However, in contrast Ambrose stated:
“God, then, is One, without violation of the majesty of the eternal Trinity, as is declared in the instance set before us. And not in that place alone do we see the Trinity expressed in the Name of the Godhead; but both in many places, as we have said also above, and especially in the epistles which the Apostle wrote to the Thessalonians, he most clearly set forth the Godhead and sovereignty of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (Ambrose, On the Holy Spirit, Book III, Ch. 14. 94).
Now despite Ambrose’s high view of Scripture, Roman writers have attempted to prove he denied the components of Sola Scriptura. On page 458 of the book Not by Scripture Alone, Joseph Gallegos quotes Ambrose affirming the church possesses and teaches the truth. But this  does nothing to actually refute Sola Scriptura as we have already proven. Again, in Sola Scriptura the church has authority to teach. Gallegos also quotes him on page 488 affirming the authority of the Council of Nicaea but forgets Ambrose subordinated Nicaea to Scripture as we showed earlier. Thus, this does nothing to refute Sola Scriptura. In the same work Ambrose is also quoted saying: “The traditions of the Scriptures are his body; the Church is his body” (Ambrose, To the Church of Vercelli, Epistle 63 quoted in Joseph Gallegos, Appendix 1, ed. Robert Sungenis, Not By Scripture Alone, Queenship Publishing, 1997], p. 489). And elsewhere Ambrose mentions the tradition of the fathers. But again, Sola Scriptura does not deny traditions or tradition of the fathers. We just subordinate them to the ultimate authority of Scripture as Ambrose himself did above.

Hippolytus of Rome
(A.D. 170 – 235) was an important church writer. His writings demonstrate he affirmed necessary components of Sola Scriptura. For example, he taught Scripture is materially sufficient (i.e., Scripture contains everything we need for attaining a saving knowledge of God and for morals):
“There is, brethren, one God, the knowledge of whom we gain from the Holy Scriptures, and from no other source. . . . all of us who practice piety will be unable to learn its practice from any other quarter than the oracles of God” (Hippolytus, Against Noetus, Ch. 9).
This refutes the Catholics who hold to the Tridentine partim-partim theory which says tradition contains things not found in Scripture which must be believed for salvation.  Moreover, it follows from Hippolytus’s comment that he also held to the ultimate authority of Scripture. For, if one ought to not derive knowledge of God or piety from any other source except Scripture, that clearly means other authorities must be subject to the Scriptures which furnish us with everything we need on those issues.

Hence, when Roman apologists show from his work The Treatise on the Apostolic Tradition of St. Hippolytus of Rome that he understood his tradition to be a few ecclesiastical customs and practices of the church, those important points must be kept in mind.  In that work Hippolytus notes the following about tradition:

“Now, driven by love toward all the saints, we turn to the essence of the tradition which is proper for the churches. This is so that those who are well instructed may hold fast to the tradition that has continued until now, and fully understanding it they may stand the more firmly. . . . ” (Gregory Dix, The Treatise on the Apostolic Tradition of St. Hippolytus of Rome, Bishop and Martyr, [SPCK, 1937], p. 7).

In that work he then proceeds to give instruction on church practice demonstrating that is what he believed tradition was. As Roman scholar Joseph Gallegos concedes: “Hippolytus of Rome [d. A.D. 235] considered the overall content of his work on Church worship, order and sacraments as the expression of the Church’s tradition” (Joseph Gallegos, What Did the Church Father’s Teach?, ed. Robert Sungenis, Not by Scripture Alone: A Catholics Critique of the Protestant Doctrine of Sola Scriptura, [Queenship Publishing Company, 1997], p. 405). Hence, Hippolytus’s traditions are to be found in that particular work and they are church customs and practices. Patristic scholar D. H. Williams speaks to Hippolytus’s view of tradition by explaining the content of that relevant work:

“The Apostolic Tradition is attributed to the Roman presbyter Hippolytus, though the authorship is not certain. Numerous subjects are briefly touched upon that have to do with the life of the church body (procedures for ordaining clergy and the appropriate prayers, the process of teaching catechumens, the steps of baptism, etc.), which makes this text appear to be a manual to regulate church practice” (D. H. Williams, Tradition, Scripture, and Interpretation: A Sourcebook of the Ancient Church, [Baker Academic, 2006], p. 52).

That is Hippolytus’s church tradition. Hence, even though this work in view concerning tradition may not have even been written by Hippolytus, it’s clear that (if it was) for him Scripture was the unparalleled authority. He did not believe his tradition was a separate body of doctrine necessary for salvation, such as the assumption of Mary, her immaculate conception, papal infallibility, etc., which would disprove Sola Scriptura and support the council of Trent’s partim-partim view, but that, again, tradition was merely comprised of some ecclesiastical customs and practices which is not doctrine or morals. Rome says tradition is either doctrine or teaching necessary for salvation or the historic interpretation of Scripture. But as patristic scholar J. N. D. Kelly writes:

"Indeed, all the instances of unwritten tradition lacking Scriptural support which the early theologians mention will be found, on examination to refer to matters of observance and practice (e.g. triple immersion in baptism; turning East for prayer) rather than of doctrine as such, although sometimes they are matters (e.g. infant baptism; prayers for the dead) in which doctrine is involved” (J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, [Harper One, 1978], p. 47).

Now, in Refutation of all Heresies Hippolytus notes that a man named Justinus contemporary with the apostles did not derive his teaching from Scripture or the oral teaching of an evangelist or apostle (see Book 5, Ch. 18). However, Hippolytus never claimed he derived doctrine from apostolic teachings not found in Scripture. He simply stated a heretic living in the time of the apostles didn’t listen to their oral teaching. There is a difference. So that doesn’t refute our case. We have already quoted him saying doctrine on God and piety needs to be found in Scripture, and that his concept of tradition is comprised of ecclesiastical customs and practices, not doctrine necessary for salvation. This, again, doesn’t disprove Sola Scriptura at all once one understands Sola Scriptura pertains to doctrine and morality.

What is more, Hippolytus also affirmed the perspicuity or clarity of Scripture for those who consult the context. This is a component of Sola Scriptura and it opposes Papalism which says Scripture is unclear and thus needs tradition and the Magisterium to clarify it. He stated: “But let him quote the passage as a whole, and he will discover the reason kept in view in writing it” (Hippolytus, Against Noetus, Ch. 4).

Cyril of Jerusalem [A.D. 313 – 386] is another church father who held to Sola Scriptura. The following powerful statement affirms many components of this doctrine:
"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” (Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, 4.17).
This text shows Cyril believed material sufficiency of Scripture since he said salvation depends on Scripture: hence everything necessary for salvation is found in Scripture. This again is contrary to the Catholic teaching which says not everything necessary for salvation is found in Scripture but the rest we need to know is found in tradition. Second, when he says a statement on faith must not be made without the Scriptures, that shows Scripture’s ultimate authority.

Moreover, affirming material sufficiency again, Cyril stated, "the faith . . . has been built up strongly out of all the Scriptures” (Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, 5.12). That refutes the Roman idea that the faith was built up out of Scripture and tradition which allegedly complement each other since they’re incomplete on their own. He also remarked: “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…” (Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, 12.5). Clearly for Cyril if one were to look to other sources of authority such as traditions of writers like himself, those sources would need to be backed up by Scripture. This is the doctrine of the ultimate authority of Scripture. This is, again, in contrast to Romanism which denies Scripture is the ultimate authority. Rome claims Scripture and oral tradition are equal. As the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church claims: “Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honoured with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence” (The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed., p. 31, paragraph 82).

Lastly, Cyril affirmed the clarity of Scripture and the believers ability to interpret it correctly as long as they have the Spirit of God. This refutes the false teaching that the Roman magisterium is the only true interpreter of Scripture due to Scripture’s alleged unclarity, and that tradition is required for interpreting it:
“for the indwelling Spirit henceforth makes your mind a house of God. When you shall have heard what is written concerning the mysteries, then will you understand things which thou knew not” (Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, Prologue, 6).

This is a component of Sola Scriptura and echoes what Protestant confessions have said (e.g. the 1647 Westminster Confession of Faith, 1 says, "
we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word").

Now, in attempting to convince Catholics that Cyril did not affirm Sola Scriptura, Catholic writer Joseph Gallegos claims, “Cyril . . . affirms the coordinate authority of the church” (Joseph Gallegos, What did the Church Fathers Teach?, ed. Robert Sungenis, Not by Scripture Alone, [Queenship Publishing Company, 1997], p. 458). However, when I checked the quote he provides, it merely shows Cyril believed the church was a valid authority, not that it was equal to Scripture. However, classical Protestant Sola Scriptura does not deny the authority of the church to teach. We affirm the church is an authority, but that it cannot teach that which Scripture doesn’t teach. Nor can it contradict Scripture. Cyril supported that position very clearly as we documented. As Reformed scholar Keith Mathison notes: “Adherents of Tradition I [sola scriptura] do not deny the authority of the Church to make doctrinal definitions in accordance with submission to divine revelation as found in the inspired Scripture” (Keith Mathison, The Shape of Sola Scriptura, [Canon Press & Book Service, 2001], p. 288 parenthesis mine). So, showing Cyril believed the church was an authority isn’t a valid refutation of the Protestant position.

In sum, Roman Catholic scholar Edward Yarnold conceded:
“Cyril subscribed to a form of sola scriptura doctrine, stating categorically that every doctrinal statement must be based on the Scriptures” (Edward Yarnold, Cyril of Jerusalem, [Psychology Press, 2000], p. 56).
Irenaeus [A.D. ? – 202] was an important early church father. He knew Polycarp, a student of the apostle John. He taught that Scripture is materially sufficient containing all we need for salvation and that the oral tradition of the apostles was eventually crystallized into Scripture, our final authority:
“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” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3. 1. 1).

This refutes the Roman partim-partim view which says the apostles’ oral teachings were not inscripturated, but are instead comprised of extra-biblical doctrine which one must also follow for salvation.

Irenaeus affirmed Scripture is the ultimate authority which judges lesser authorities. His view was that unless something can be proved in Scripture, it is to be considered invented and not from God. Thus, according him, if one wants to hold to other sources as authorities, they must prove their content from the Scriptures:
“Such, then, is their [Gnostics] 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” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1. 8. 1).
Irenaeus affirmed the perspicuity or clarity of Scripture (i.e., the formal sufficiency of Scripture) enunciating a "Scripture interprets Scripture" principle just as the Reformers did (e.g. the 1647 Westminster Confession of Faith, 1 says, "The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself"). And notice he does not say that in order to have the proper interpretation, one must receive it formally from the bishop of Rome and those in communion with him. Irenaeus taught Scripture is plain in-and-of-itself, and can be easily interpreted by the Christian:
all Scripture, which has been given to us by God, shall be found by us perfectly consistent; and the parables shall harmonize with those passages which are perfectly plain; and those statements the meaning of which is clear, shall serve to explain the parables; and through the many diversified utterances [of Scripture] there shall be heard one harmonious melody in us, praising in hymns that God who created all things” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 2. 28. 3).
Church historian Williston Walker noted Irenaeus appealed, “to the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures, which,  he was convinced, would themselves confute heretical teaching directly if attention were paid to their plain sense and if their obscure passages were understood in the light of those whose meaning is obvious” (Williston Walker, Richard A. Norris, David W. Lotz, Robert T. Handy, A History of the Christian Church, 4th ed, [Scribner, 1985], p. 78). That’s exactly what reformation Sola Sciptura affirms.

On this same point, Irenaeus also states, “the entire Scriptures, the prophets, and the Gospels, can be clearly, unambiguously, and harmoniously, understood by all” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 2.27.2). This Reformation doctrine is utterly opposed by Roman Catholicism, since again, they teach Scripture is not clear enough and needs to be interpreted by the pope and those in communion with him, etc. Contradicting Irenaeus, Roman author Patrick Madrid takes issue with and rejects the view “that the Bible is clear on essential issues” (Patrick Madrid, Sola Scriptura: A Blueprint for Anarchy, ed. Robert Sungenis, Not by Scripture Alone, [Queenship Publishing, 1997], p. 18).

Now, Catholic writers have sought to show Irenaeus believed in their concepts of tradition. Irenaeus did mention tradition, but not in the way Rome tries to force him to mean it. Roman writer Robert Sungenis, for example, argues,
“…Chapter 2, Article 2 of Irenaeus’ work: ‘But again, when we refer them to that tradition which originates from the apostles, and which is preserved by means of the successions of the presbyters in the Churches, they object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even the apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth’ … Irenaeus believes not only in Scripture, but in the tradition that originates from the apostles” (Robert Sungenis, Not by Scripture Alone, [QueenshipPublishing 1997], p. 296).
However, Irenaeus’s view of the church’s tradition which comes from the apostles was not a separate body of doctrine one cannot find in Scripture. No, as William Webster notes:
“So, tradition as defined by Irenaeus,  is equivalent to the faith handed down from the apostles, which he often refers to as ‘the rule of faith’ This rule has a very specific content, all of which is contained in Scripture. He makes no mention of other purely oral doctrines that are essential for the faith” (William Webster, Holy Scripture: The Ground and Pillar of Our Faith, Volume 2, [Christian Resources, 2001], p. 29).
Sungenis quotes Irenaeus’s Against Heresies Book III, Chapter 2, Article 2 concerning tradition of the apostles, but he didn’t inform the people that in the same book, Book III, Chapter 4, Article 2, just two chapters later, Irenaeus defines his tradition of the apostles he mentions, as being the basic teachings of the faith which are in Scripture:
“…carefully preserving the ancient tradition, believing in one God, the Creator of heaven and earth, and all things therein, by means of Christ Jesus, the Son of God; who, because of His surpassing love towards His creation, condescended to be born of the virgin, He Himself uniting man through Himself to God, and having suffered under Pontius Pilate, and rising again, and having been received up in splendour, shall come in glory, the Saviour of those who are saved, and the Judge of those who are judged, and sending into eternal fire those who transform the truth, and despise His Father and His advent. Those who, in the absence of written documents, have believed this faith, are barbarians, so far as regards our language; but as regards doctrine, manner, and tenor of life, they are, because of faith, very wise indeed” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.4.2).
So, Irenaeus did not hold to the Roman partim-partim view of tradition being doctrine not found in Scripture. This is why patristic scholar J. N. D. Kelly observes,
“The whole point of his teaching was, in fact, that Scripture and the Church’s unwritten tradition are identical in content” (J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, [Harper One, 1978], p. 39).
This is consistent with the Protestant view, since, although it doesn’t reject the concept of tradition as a whole, but says tradition must be found in Scripture (i.e., subordinate to Scripture), if it is to be valid and accepted. Here is another example where Irenaeus explains this tradition of the apostles is not an oral teaching not found in Scripture or any other Roman idea, but that it is the  beliefs of the church handed on from of old which one can find in Scripture:
"The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father to gather all things in one, Ephesians 1:10 and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, every knee should bow. . . . For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same(Irenaeus, Against Heresies, I. 10. 1, 2)
Now, one could also mention Justin Martyr who said: “Pay attention, therefore, to what I shall record out of the holy Scriptures, which do not need to be expounded, but only listened to” (Justin Marty, Dialogue of Justin, Ch. 55), thus affirming the clarity of Scripture demonstrating he didn’t believe a tradition or pope was needed to understand it. One could also point out, contra Rome, John Chrysostom (A.D. 347-407) affirmed the ultimate authority of Scripture when he said, “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” (John Chrysostom, Homilies on Second Corinthians, Homily 13). Likewise, in regards to the “sacred writings,” Lactantius (A.D. 240-320) affirmed the material sufficiency of them when he said, “we have divine testimony for everything” (Lactantius, The Divine Institutes, Book III, Chapter I). This refutes Rome’s partim-partmin theory which rejects Scripture contains all things necessary for salvation. One could quote Athanasius (A.D. 296-373) who said, “the sacred and inspired Scriptures are sufficient to declare the truth” (Athanasius, Against the Heathen, Part 1.1), thus affirming Scripture’s material sufficiency and refuting the Roma partim-partim idea that tradition is needed to declare truth since Scripture allegedly does not contain all that is necessary or salvation. Athanasius also affirmed ultimate authority of Scripture over other authorities such as councils: “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” (Athanasius, Councils of Ariminum and Selucia, Part I History of the Councils, 6). On the clarity of Scripture contra Rome, one could quote Theophilus of Antioch (d. A.D. 181) stating “For those who desire it, can, by reading what they uttered, accurately understand the truth” (Theophilus of Antioch, Theophilus to Autolycus, Book 2, Chapter 35), or Hilary of Poitiers (A.D. 300-368) who said, “My prime object is by the clear assertions of prophets and evangelists to refute the insanity and ignorance of men. . . “ (Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity, Book.I.17). We are greatly indebted to David King and William Webster’s works Holy Scripture, The Ground and Pillar of our Faith, Vols. 2, 3 (though I have made fresh points in this essay as well). Consult them for further material on the church fathers and Sola Scriptura.

As the evidence shows, the components of Sola Scriptura, once properly understood, are not novel concepts invented by the Reformers, but instead ancient beliefs one can find in patristic writings. In sum, the Roman Catholic scholar Yves Congar admits the Protestant view of Sola Scriptura is historical and the church fathers did not hold to the council of Trent’s notion that tradition was a body of teaching containing doctrine not found in Scripture:

“. . . the Fathers of the Church, though aware of the transmission of things not contained in Scripture, favored the first explanation of tradition, as an original way of passing on the same objective material that is found in Scripture” (Yves Congar, The Meaning of Tradition, [Ignatius Press, 2004], p. 15).

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