In this series we’re asking one of the most fundamental questions a Christian can ask: how do I know that what I have come to accept as the “teaching of Christianity” is true?
I look about and I see the Roman Catholic Church. But then there’s also the Coptic Church, resulting from a split in the fifth century. There are the Eastern Orthodox churches. There are the Lutherans and Presbyterians and Baptists and Anglicans and Methodists and Congregationalists and so forth. And then, beyond these mainline Protestant denominations there are a whole host of sects and cults and non-denominational denominations.
Finally, there are all the independent churches built around one man or woman who through the enlightenment of the Spirit has come to see that everyone else is and has been, basically, wrong.
But it gets worse. Except for some of the crackpot entities, in each of these ecclesial communions there are theologians and pastors smarter and more holy than I, who have devoted their lives to the intensive study of Sacred Scripture and to prayer for the Holy Spirit’s guidance in that study, and yet who disagree with one another—even on issues as basic as what one must do to inherit eternal life.
How does a simple believer know?
Authority during the apostolic age
When we looked into the New Testament, we saw that the earliest Christians, living during the time of the apostles, had for their authority (1) inspired Scripture; they had what we now call the Old Testament as well as whatever apostolic writings they could gather. But they also had (2) the apostolic teaching as it was preserved in the doctrine and practice of the churches they founded. In 2 Thessalonians 2:15, St. Paul instructs the believers in Thessalonica, “Stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” (emphasis added).
We also see this in Paul’s instruction to Timothy to “guard by the Holy Spirit” everything Timothy had “heard” him teach so that he (Timothy) could entrust that teaching to faithful men who would be able to pass it on to others as well (2 Timothy 1:14, 2:2).
What this means in practice is that a church established by the apostle Paul, and whose leadership Paul had ordained and trained, would undoubtedly know Paul’s “doctrine of baptism” or his “doctrine of the church” or his “doctrine of salvation”—even if that church never laid eyes on a single page of the New Testament.
Finally, when there were important issues that needed to be settled, we see that the earliest Christians also had (3) an authoritative Church whose leadership could meet in council, decide the issue, and send out a decree informing them of what the Holy Spirit had led them to decide. (Acts 15:28: “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us . . .”).
In other words, for believers living during the time of the apostles, “authority” was conceived as a kind of three-legged stool where Scripture, Tradition, and the authority of the Church’s magisterium combined to provide a secure knowledge of what was to be believed.
Authority after the apostolic age
And then the last apostle went to his eternal reward. So how did a Christian living thirty years after this know Paul’s doctrine of baptism or church or salvation? How did believers living during the second, third, fourth, and fifth centuries of the Christian era know that what they had come to accept as the “teaching of Christianity” was true?
Disputes over doctrinal and moral issues would certainly arise. How did they expect that those disputes would be settled? Was the three-legged stool still the pattern? Or did Christians switch from thinking in terms of Scripture, Tradition, and an authoritative Church to thinking “Scripture alone”?
In my last two posts (here and here), I presented two lines of evidence—not proofs, but lines of evidence—that I think make it hard to believe that this is what happened after the apostles had passed from the scene.
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.
Why do we not find the New Testament authors talking about the switch from Scripture, Tradition, and an authoritative Church to Scripture alone? Why do we not find them preparing the churches for such a foundational shift in how they would determine truth?
2. Further evidence that sola scriptura was not in the minds of Christians living in the post-apostolic period is the simple historical fact that the church took so long to formally define the canon of Scripture.
Why would a Church that conceived of Scripture as the sole authoritative foundation of its worldview allow decades and centuries to pass before finally and firmly settling the issue of which books where to be received as inspired and authoritative?
In this post I want to add a third piece of evidence:
3. Still further evidence that sola scriptura was not in the minds of Christians living in the post-apostolic period, and was not the faith of the early Church, is the simple fact that the earliest Christian creeds say nothing at all about Scripture.
Look at the various creeds and confessions that came out of the Reformation, and you will notice something right away: They either begin with a strong statement on the inspiration, authority, and sufficiency of Scripture (sola scriptura) or are sure to come to the subject as quickly as possible.
For instance, both the Westminster Confession of Faith of the Presbyterian Church (1647) and the Baptist Confession of 1689 begin with chapters titled “Of the Holy Scriptures” and waste no time heading directly to Scripture’s sole infallible authority:
The Supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures.
The Belgic Confession of 1561 begins with a brief article stating belief in God and then immediately moves to six articles on Scripture, culminating with Scripture’s sole authority and sufficiency—meaning that nothing else is needed.
And, of course, this makes perfect sense. After all, the Reformation was all about rejecting the authority of the Catholic Church and standing on the principle of sola scriptura. When drawing up a creed to describe in clear and systematic terms what their particular church believed, it would make sense for them to begin with the foundational issue of Scripture’s inspiration, authority, and sufficiency.
Given this, it seems more than interesting that when we compare the Reformation creeds with those of the early Church, we find a marked difference between the two.
Take the earliest of all Christian creeds, the Apostles Creed. While it contains an article on the Church (“I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting”) there is no mention of the Bible. There’s not a word about Scripture’s inspiration, authority, or sufficiency. Certainly nothing about Scripture functioning as the Christian’s sole rule of faith and practice.
When we look at the Nicene Creed, which came out of the Council of Nicea (A.D. 325), the first ecumenical council of the Christian Church, interestingly we find the same phenomenon. While it contains an expanded article on the Church (“I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church”), again there isn’t a word about the inspiration and authority of Sacred Scripture.
Now, assuming the early Church was committed to the Protestant concept of sola scriptura, this just doesn’t fit.
On the other hand, as with everything else we’ve seen so far in this series, what we find in these early creeds fits the Catholic view of authority, where the emphasis is not on Scripture alone but on the deposit of faith being preserved by the Holy Spirit within the Church and passed down within that same Church.
None of these points I’ve made under the heading “Sola Scriptura Isn’t Historical” constitute a proof of the Catholic position.
And I never saw them as proofs. Rather I saw them as providing evidence of a mindset that I had to admit fit the Catholic worldview much better than it did the Protestant.
The fact that (1) the New Testament authors don’t give any hint that Christianity is soon to be moving from a platform of Scripture, Tradition, and magisterium to that of Scripture alone; (2) that we don’t find the bishops of the early Church focused like laser beams on assembling an authoritative New Testament canon; (3) that the earliest creeds talk about the Church and the Holy Spirit but don’t bother to even mention the Bible—all of this fits the Catholic mindset.
Not so much the Protestant mindset.
But the strongest evidence that sola scriptura was not the mindset of the early Church is that we do not see the early Church members teaching sola scriptura, nor do we see them practicing it. Instead, what we see in the writings of the early Church Fathers looks an awful lot like a continuation of the basic pattern we saw in our study of the New Testament.