In this part of our series on sola scriptura, I want to look at what the earliest Christians living in the decades and centuries immediately following the apostles can teach us about the practice of the Church at that time.
After coming to the conclusion that the New Testament did not teach sola scriptura, the next question for me was: what about the early Church?
How did those closest to the apostolic age think about the relationship between Scripture, Tradition, and the authority of the Church? How did they imagine important disputes would be settled?
Did the early Christians practice sola scriptura? Did each believer study the Bible, evaluate the arguments of pastors, bishops, and theologians and decide what he would receive as apostolic doctrine and reject as heresy?
Over time, four basic arguments, or lines of thought, converged to demonstrate to me that sola scriptura was not the faith of the early Church.
1. For me, powerful evidence that sola scriptura was not in the minds of Christians living in the post-apostolic period is that there isn’t a hint in the writings of the apostles that it would be.
Think with me. The apostles established the early churches and were their first teachers. And while they were alive, while Scripture was viewed as inspired and authoritative (no question about that) so also was the oral teaching of the apostles taken as authoritative. And so also were the decisions made when the leadership of the Church, with the apostles, met in council as it did in Acts 15 to decide matters of faith and practice.
During the time of the apostles, Christians were not “Bible only” Christians, and the churches were not “Bible only” churches.
Now, if these apostles believed that once they had passed from the scene all this would change and Scripture would become for Christians everywhere the “sole infallible rule of faith and practice,” surely they would have prepared their disciples for such a foundational, fundamental, tectonic change.
Instead, we read through their writings and find there’s not a peep about sola scriptura. In fact, it seems the apostles believed the substance of their teaching would be preserved by the Holy Spirit through something very much like what we Catholics speak of as apostolic succession.
2. Evidence that sola scriptura was not the faith of the early Church is given in the simple historical fact that the Church took so long to formally define the canon of Scripture.
During the time in which the apostles were still living, in terms of an authoritative foundation for their beliefs, Christians had the Old Testament and everything the apostles had written (Scripture). They had a basic knowledge of the apostolic doctrine preserved in the churches the apostles founded and instructed (Tradition). And then, when needed, the Church’s leadership could meet in council to authoritatively settle disputes and issue decrees on matters of Christian teaching (magisterium).
“It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us . . .” (Acts 15:28).
And then—at least according to the Protestant view of history—the day comes when the apostles have breathed their last, and it begins to dawn on the early Christians that everything has changed.
Tradition can no longer be trusted. Whatever the apostles taught the churches orally is losing its authority by the hour. Whatever Timothy “heard” from Paul and guarded by the Holy Spirit and passed on to other faithful men who would be able to teach others (see 2 Timothy 1:13,14; 2:1,2)—with each passing day this becomes more and more worthless.
Sure, Church leaders can continue to meet in council to debate issues of doctrine, but their decisions are no longer binding. After all, they’re not infallible. Only Scripture is infallible, and therefore only Scripture is binding.
From now on, authority resides in Scripture and Scripture alone.
Question: what would you do if you were a bishop in this post-apostolic Church? What would you do in service to the truth and to your flock?
I’ll tell you exactly what you would do: You would move immediately to assemble the leadership of the Church in every city, to gather the apostolic documents and formally define the canon of New Testament. As a bishop, your first priority would become the identification of the inspired New Testament writings.
Well, obviously! So surely this is what the early Church did. Right?
Nope. Instead, the Church went for years; and decades; and even centuries without working to formally define the canon of Scripture (canon from a Greek word meaning “rule” or “measuring stick”).
In fact, it wasn’t until the latter part of the fourth century that councils were convened (A.D. 382, 393, 397, 419) to formalize the list of books the Church would accept as apostolic and authoritative.
And even then it was in response to heresies that had arisen in the Church!
For instance, there was Marcion, who attacked the integrity of the New Testament, trimming away books and sections of books he determined were “too Jewish.”
There were the Gnostics, who attacked the meaning of the New Testament with their New Age interpretations (New Age “Christians” are essentially modern-day Gnostics.)
And then there were the Montanists, who attacked the extent of the New Testament, claiming to receive new revelation from God that could, at least theoretically, be written down and added to the writings of Paul, Peter, John, Matthew, James, and so forth.
In response to this, the Church moved to settle the issue of which books exactly were to be regarded by Christians as inspired and canonical and to provide a formal list.
In other words, if it had not been for this situation, the Church might have waited even longer. It might have gone on forever without feeling an intense need to settle the question definitively.
Now, this is at least understandable on the Catholic premise that the early Church didn’t view Scripture as the end-all and be-all for its ability to know and preserve the apostolic teaching.
But this make no sense whatsoever on the Protestant premise that the Church viewed Scripture as the “sole and sufficient infallible rule of faith and practice.”
An unwitting endorsement
In his book Answers to Catholic Claims, Protestant apologist James White essentially affirms what I’ve said here about the Church’s motivation for defining the canon without realizing the negative implications it has for his belief that the early Church was committed to sola scriptura:
In the early history of the church there were events and people that gave impetus and rise to the formalization of the canon list. These things could be viewed as being used of God to prompt his people, the Church, to give serious consideration to providing to all concerned a listing of the books which the Church, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, received as authoritative.
Now, if you don’t stop to think about what James White is saying here, sounds reasonable enough. But if and when you do stop to think about it, what he’s saying is almost hilarious.
Think about it: So the early Church held Scripture to be its “sole infallible rule for faith and practice.” And yet it waited four hundred years to formally define the canon of Scripture? And even then it needed to be “prompted” by God to give “serious consideration” to providing “to all concerned” this list of the inspired books?
What? Do you mean that only some Christians were concerned to have such a list? Christians were committed to sola scriptura and yet only some of them were concerned to know for sure what to include in their Scripture? And the Holy Spirit used the crisis created by these heresies—almost four hundred years after the apostolic age—to prompt the Church to give “serious consideration” to provide those who happened to be “concerned” with a formally defined canon of Scripture?
All I can tell you is that if I were a bishop in the time of Peter and Paul, and I believed that after their death what the apostles had written would become the sole rule of faith and practice for the Church, I would have been “concerned” from the day the first apostle showed up with a runny nose and cough.
By the time I attended my first apostolic funeral, the single burning concern of my life would have been the work of identifying and collecting the inspired writings of every apostle!
When you really think of it, it verges on the incredible to conceive of a Church, committed to sola scriptura, waiting so long to formally define its list of inspired and infallible writings. And only doing it then because it was prompted to do so by circumstances.
It would be a bit like someone building a skyscraper and then sixty years later thinking, “I wonder if we shouldn’t give serious consideration to putting a foundation under this thing. You know, at least for those who may be concerned!”
The early Church’s actions with regard to the canon seemed to me—and still seem to me—to constitute a strong argument against the idea that this was a Church committed to sola scriptura.
But there was something else the early Church did, or rather didn’t do, that seemed inexplicable to me on the premise that it looked to Scripture as its sole infallible rule of faith and practice.
Stay tuned for the third and fourth arguments.