Did the Early Christians Subscribe to Sola Scriptura?

A Protestant Misunderstanding


The issue of authority remains the most fundamental source of division between Catholics and Protestants. Mainline Protestants (Lutherans, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Episcopalians, Methodists, etc.) do not reject tradition or ecclesial authority; indeed, they have a high regard for both and believe that Scripture can only be interpreted correctly within the context of the creeds of the early Church. However, Protestants believe that only Scripture is exempt from the possibility of teaching error. Consequently, when the Protestant senses a conflict between Scripture and the authoritative teachings of a church, he feels a moral obligation to go with (his interpretation of) Scripture. Although sola scriptura is difficult to define rigorously, this obligation is an essential aspect of the doctrine.

Did Reformers Just Get It Wrong?

The most common Catholic argument against sola scriptura is that it has splintered the Church. Thousands of Protestant denominations exist today, each one claiming to interpret Scripture by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In his book The Shape of Sola Scriptura, Protestant Keith Mathison defends the doctrine but admits, "There is no doubt that hermeneutical anarchy reigns in much of Protestantism" (305). Mathison offers several reasons for the apparent failure:

What about its workability during Protestantism’s "relatively brief life-span"? We cannot point to the same kind of practical success of Tradition I [sola scriptura] over the last five centuries for several reasons. First, the Reformation occurred long after the Church had initially split, and this initial split created problems which the Reformation could not possibly solve immediately. Second, the rather rapid substitution of solo scriptura for sola scriptura within Protestant circles led to the rapid fragmentation of Protestantism. Third, the radical individualism of the Enlightenment in Western Europe contributed to the weakening of virtually every branch of Christendom. (290) [Note: Mathison uses the term "solo scriptura" to describe the Protestant tendency to interpret Scripture apart from its historical and theological context.]

After offering these explanations, Mathison goes on to argue that, although sola scriptura has not enjoyed practical success since the Reformation, we can be sure that the problem is not with the doctrine itself, because sola scriptura was the guiding principle of the earliest Christians. (This view is common among mainline Protestant theologians; Mathison’s book was endorsed by R.C. Sproul.) Mathison’s explanation is actually a response to an essay by Patrick Madrid, a Catholic apologist:

If Madrid is asking about Tradition I, which was framed by the classical Reformers in terms of sola scriptura, then the response to his request for "just one" example of when it has worked would be the first three to four hundred years of the Church. This was a time prior to the existence of either of the positions Rome has advocated for the last five hundred years, and Tradition I [sola scriptura] worked fine . . . It worked without a universal bishop, and it worked without any claims to ecclesiastical infallibility. (The Shape of Sola Scriptura, 290)

By "worked fine," I shall assume that Mathison means "preserved orthodoxy." So, as a case study in ecclesial authority, we shall examine how orthodoxy was preserved in the early Church on the issue of what constitutes a valid Christian baptism.

Cyprian’s Concern

Today, mainline Protestants and Catholics agree as to what constitutes a valid Christian baptism. Protestants and Catholics agree that baptism is valid if it involves the application of water and is performed in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit with the intention of doing what Jesus commanded. Therefore, it is against God’s intentions for a person ever to undergo this rite twice. I can attest to this unity: I was baptized in a Baptist church. During my adult life I have been Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Catholic, and no one ever suggested that my baptism was anything other than valid. We may take such unity for granted today, but there was a time in the early Church when it was seriously threatened.

Between A.D. 254 and 257, when St. Stephen was the bishop of Rome, the issue of what constitutes a valid Christian baptism arose in the Church. At the time, there were several heretical sects, among which were the Novatians. When people who had been baptized by clergy of the Novatians and other heretical sects desired admission to the Church, the question arose as to whether they ought to be re-baptized. We know about this debate from letters of St. Cyprian, the bishop of North Africa, and Firmilian, the bishop of Caesarea. St. Cyprian and Firmilian both insisted that these converts should be baptized, because what the heretics called baptism was invalid. St. Cyprian was especially prolific on the subject and addressed it in many of his letters. The following excerpt is typical of his position:

Cyprian to Jubaianus his brother, greeting. You have written to me, dearest brother, wishing that the impression of my mind should be signified to you, as to what I think concerning the baptism of heretics; who, placed without, and established outside the Church, arrogate to themselves a matter neither within their right nor their power. This baptism we cannot consider as valid or legitimate, since it is manifestly unlawful among them . . . we established this same matter once more by our judgment, deciding that there is one baptism which is appointed in the Catholic Church; and that by this those are not re-baptized, but baptized by us, who at any time come from the adulterous and unhallowed water to be washed and sanctified by the truth of the saving water. (Epistle 72:1)

Firmilian, the bishop of Caesarea, was of the same mind as St. Cyprian on the matter:

Moreover, all other heretics, if they have separated themselves from the Church of God, can have nothing of power or of grace, since all power and grace are established in the Church where the elders preside, who possess the power both of baptizing, and of imposition of hands, and of ordaining. For as a heretic may not lawfully ordain nor lay on hands, so neither may he baptize, nor do any thing holily or spiritually, since he is an alien from spiritual and deifying sanctity. (Epistle 74:7)

Peter Has Spoken

Although no letters from St. Stephen have survived, we can surmise his position from communications between St. Cyprian and Firmilian. St. Stephen took the position that any baptism performed in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit was valid, regardless of the heretical status of the minister. A letter from Firmilian to St. Cyprian regarding St. Stephen’s decision reads:

That, moreover, is absurd, that they do not think it is to be inquired who was the person that baptized, for the reason that he who has been baptized may have obtained grace by the invocation of the Trinity, of the names of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost . . . But who in the Church is perfect and wise who can either defend or believe this, that this bare invocation of names is sufficient to the remission of sins and the sanctification of baptism; since these things are only then of advantage, when both he who baptizes has the Holy Spirit, and the baptism itself also is not ordained without the Spirit? But, say they, he who in any manner whatever is baptized without, may obtain the grace of baptism by his disposition and faith, which doubtless is ridiculous in itself, as if either a wicked disposition could attract to itself from heaven the sanctification of the righteous, or a false faith the truth of believers. (Epistle 74:9)

In the very same letter of Firmilian, we learn that St. Stephen asserted his authority as Peter’s successor to make this decision. The language clearly recalls Matthew 16:18, albeit sarcastically:

And in this respect I am justly indignant at this so open and manifest folly of Stephen, that he who so boasts of the place of his episcopate, and contends that he holds the succession from Peter, on whom the foundations of the Church were laid, should introduce many other rocks and establish new buildings of many churches; maintaining that there is baptism in them by his authority . . . Stephen, who announces that he holds by succession the throne of Peter, is stirred with no zeal against heretics, when he concedes to them, not a moderate, but the very greatest power of grace: so far as to say and assert that, by the sacrament of baptism, the filth of the old man is washed away by them, that they pardon the former mortal sins, that they make sons of God by heavenly regeneration, and renew to eternal life by the sanctification of the divine layer. (Epistle 74:17)

Dashed on the Rock

St. Cyprian and Firmilian appeal copiously to Scripture in defense of their position. For example, in the following excerpt St. Cyprian sounds like a modern-day Protestant:

Let nothing be innovated, says [Stephen], 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." (Epistle 73:2)

And indeed, Firmilian seems to have no special reverence for Roman authority: "They who are at Rome do not observe those things in all cases which are handed down from the beginning, and vainly pretend the authority of the apostles" (Epistle 74:6).

Incredibly, in The Shape of Sola Scriptura, Mathison cites the two preceding quotes from St. Cyprian and Firmilian as evidence that sola scriptura was the guiding principle for the early Church Fathers. But these quotes are taken out of context from an argument in which St. Cyprian and Firmilian were wrong, according to the mainline Protestant position.

Moreover, according to Firmilian, St. Stephen stood alone:

Moreover, how great sin have you heaped up for yourself, when you cut yourself off from so many flocks! For it is yourself that you have cut off. Do not deceive yourself, since he is really the schismatic who has made himself an apostate from the communion of ecclesiastical unity. For while you think that all may be excommunicated by you, you have excommunicated yourself alone from all. (Epistle 74:24)

The Africans persisted in the practice of re-baptism, despite St. Stephen’s instruction. About 70 years later, in A.D. 314, a council of western bishops was convoked by Constantine at Arles. The primary purpose of the council was to deal with another heretical sect, the Donatists, but the council took the opportunity to direct the Africans to conform to Rome’s position on baptism (James T. Shotwell, The See of Peter, 482).

Unworkable, Then and Now

So on the issue of what constitutes valid Christian baptism, the facts are these:

1. There is no debate among Catholics and mainline Protestants as to what is orthodox.

2. St. Cyprian, Firmilian and others took the unorthodox position that the baptism of heretics and schismatics was invalid. They defended this position by appealing to (their interpretation of) Scripture over the authority of the Roman episcopate.

3. It was St. Stephen, the bishop of Rome from A.D. 254 to 257, who preserved orthodoxy by teaching the validity of any Trinitarian baptism. He asserted his authority as Peter’s successor to make this decision and enforce it under threat of excommunication.

St. Stephen’s decision must be the most underrated in Christian history, because we place our hope for Christian unity in our common baptism. Where would we be today if St. Cyprian and Firmilian had prevailed? Mainline Protestantism requires one to believe that Stephen indeed made a wise and scripturally sound decision on the issue of heretical baptism, but that he grossly misunderstood his authority as Peter’s successor to make and enforce that same decision. This is a difficult combination to reconcile.

St. Cyprian is a venerated saint for good reason—he loved God and his Word. From our post-Reformation perspective, it is easy to see St. Cyprian as the hard-liner in this debate. But his stance on the issue of baptism was motivated not by moral rigidity but by compassion. People who had been baptized by heretical clergy were truly distraught that they could not receive baptism in the one true Church. St. Cyprian shared their distress, and he wanted to give them an assurance of the forgiveness of their sins. But on this particular issue, he was wrong. That one as devout as St. Cyprian could make such a serious mistake should give pause to all thoughtful Christians.

And so we find that sola scriptura did not work in the early Church any better than it has in the last 500 years, because it is unworkable.

All Christians should pray for the reunification of the Church. Is there any doubt that this is the will of our Father? Our disunity presents a cacophonous witness to the world exactly when they most need to hear the clear voice of our Savior through us. With this attitude of prayer and mutual respect, we must strive to understand one another’s beliefs, trusting that in gaining this understanding, God will not allow us to be persuaded by falsehood. If we do this, we will be ready to greet our Savior as one Holy Church when he returns.

SIDEBAR

Views on Baptismal Unity

The mainline Protestant position is well represented by the words of the Lutheran Confessions (Triglot Concordia): The Large Catechism: Of Baptism, Paragraphs 3, 52-53, 77-78, and Apology of the Augsberg Confession: Articles VII and VIII (Of the Church), paragraph 28.

The Catholic position is articulated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 1271, 1278, and 1280.


Jennifer Hay works as an engineer, foster parent, and freelance writer. She lives in Knoxville, Tennessee with her husband and two children. She is grateful for her time in Baptist, Presbyterian, and Lutheran churches prior to her reception into the Catholic Church in 2007.

This article appeared in Volume 20 Number 4.