In three posts (here, here, and here) I’ve presented three lines of argument, three pieces of evidence, that I think make it hard to believe that Christians living in the decades and centuries following the death of the apostles thought in terms of sola scriptura. I don’t present these as logical “proofs” but as evidences of a mindset that simply doesn’t fit the mindset of the Bible Christian.
In this installment, I want to add one final argument that sola scriptura is not historical: it’s simply that we do not find the early Church Fathers practicing it.
Of course, Protestant apologists will insist that the Fathers of the Church did in fact believe in sola scriptura, and to demonstrate this they will quote passages that speak of the authority of Scripture and how all true teaching must conform to Scripture and be supported by Scripture.
For instance, from the Catechetical Lectures of Cyril of Jerusalem:
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 you 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.
Here’s the problem: as much as Catholics and Protestants agree that the inspired Scripture holds a place of primacy in the Church’s structure of authority, inspired Scripture still has to be interpreted.
Does the New Testament teach that in baptism the Holy Spirit is given? What does Paul mean when he says we are not justified by the “works of the law”? The Bible doesn’t leap up and tell us: “Here’s the true interpretation!” Someone has to draw the correct teaching from what Scripture says.
Because of this, while we find the Church Fathers speaking eloquently of the inspiration and authority and, as in the quotation from Cyril, even the primacy of Scripture, we also find them speaking of the authority of Tradition as the lens through which Scripture must be read and interpreted.
When I first read the Fathers of the Church and began to encounter passages like the following, I recognized immediately that I was being exposed to a mindset that was very different from what I knew as an evangelical.
This is from St. Irenaeus, the greatest biblical theologian of the second century.
When, therefore, we have such proofs, it is not necessary to seek among others the truth which is easily obtained from the Church. For the apostles, like a rich man in a bank, deposited with her most copiously everything which pertains to the truth; and everyone whoever wishes draws from her the drink of life. . . . What, then? If there should be a dispute over some kind of question, ought we not have recourse to the most ancient churches in which the Apostles were familiar, and draw from them what is clear and certain in regard to that question? What if the apostles had not in fact left writings to us? Would it not be necessary to follow the order of tradition, which was handed down to those to whom they entrusted the churches? (Against Heresies)
When I was a evangelical Protestant minister, I can assure you that if I had preached a million sermons over the course of a million Sundays, I would never have thought to describe the truth as something the apostles deposited in the Church like a rich man deposits his money in a bank. I would have said they deposited the truth in the writings of the New Testament. Period.
I would never have said that "everything which pertains to the truth" can be found in the Church and drawn from the Church.
I would never ever have implied that even if the apostles had left us no writings, Christians could know the truth in "the order of tradition, which was handed down to those to whom [the apostles] entrusted the churches." No way!
Least of all would my congregation have ever heard me utter words such as these: "If there should be a dispute over some kind of question, ought we not have recourse to the most ancient churches in which the apostles were familiar, and draw from them what is clear and certain in regard to that question?"
And yet, this is what Irenaeus says.
In fact, this is the sort of thing all the Church Fathers say. And the things they say reveal a mindset very different from the mindset of Protestantism.
On the other hand, the things the Fathers say fit beautifully with the mindset expressed in the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation from Vatican II:
Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit. And [Holy] Tradition transmits in its entirety the word of God, which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit. It transmits it to the successors of the apostles so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they may faithfully preserve, expound, and spread it abroad by their preaching.
Why Scripture and Tradition?
Since Scripture is the only "inspired" record we have of what the apostles taught, why not look to Scripture alone and argue from Scripture alone?
Fine, if what you want is fifty-seven varieties of Christianity, each contradicting the other on what exactly the true teachings of Christianity are supposed to be. Isn’t it perfectly obvious that even the brightest and holiest and most well-meaning students of Scripture cannot agree on what exactly Scripture is teaching? Even questions as fundamental as what one must do to be saved, and whether salvation once had can be lost are in dispute.
Add to this the fact that in the early Church there were heretical teachers, appealing to the Bible to “prove” the truth of their positions. Orthodox Christians could argue passages of Scripture, but the heretics could argue passages of Scripture as well. And unless the Church wanted to simply divide and fragment such that there could be a church for every sincerely held viewpoint, there had to be some method of testing whose interpretation was right and whose was wrong.
In his Commonitoria, written in the fifth century, St. Vincent of Lerins highlights this exact dilemma. Imagine, he says, you ask a heretic,
What ground have you for saying that I ought to cast away the universal and ancient faith of the Catholic Church? [The heretic] has the ready answer: “For it is written.” And forthwith he produces a thousand examples, a thousand authorities from the Law, from the Psalms, from the apostles, from the prophets, by means of which, interpreted on a new and wrong principle, the unhappy soul may be precipitated from the height of Catholic truth to the lowest abyss of heresy. . . . Do heretics appeal to Scripture? They do indeed, and with a vengeance. For you may see them scamper through every single book of Holy Scripture. . . . Whether among their own people or among strangers, in private or in public, in speaking or in writing, at convivial meetings or in the streets, hardly ever do they bring forward anything of their own which they do not endeavor to shelter under the words of Scripture. . . . You will see an infinite heap of instances, hardly a single page, which does not bristle with plausible quotations from the New Testament or the Old.
When I read this, I had to admit that it reminded me of my experience as a Protestant. The Protestant world comprises Christians and Christian communities, churches and denominations, who have cast overboard what St. Vincent refers to as "the universal and ancient faith of the Catholic Church.” And on what grounds? Because—each of them would say—“It is written!”
There are churches led by 28-year-old men who will admit (even make it their supreme boast!) that they aren't “theologians,” have never read the early Fathers and haven’t the merest clue what Irenaeus or Vincent or Augustine or Aquinas might have believed and taught. And yet there they are in the pulpit, week after week, casting away the universal and ancient Faith of the Catholic Church and leading others to do the same, on the basis of their "opinion" of what this or that passage of Scripture is teaching.
And of course it's easy to bring forth "plausible" quotations from the New Testament to support any number of contradictory positions. This is precisely why there are within Protestantism so many denominations and sects and independent churches, each claiming to stand on Scripture alone.
In sharp contrast to all of this, when we read the writings of the early Church, we encounter a mindset, a way of thinking and speaking, that is simply not how Protestants think and speak. We find the early Church Fathers regularly saying things you would never hear someone say who was committed to sola scriptura.
Here's Origen, writing around A.D. 220.
The teaching of the Church has indeed been handed down through an order of succession from the Apostles, and remains in the churches even to the present time. That alone is to be believed as the truth which is in no way at variance with ecclesiastical and apostolic tradition.
Here's Tertullian, writing around the same time.
Moreover, if there be any (heresies) bold enough to plant themselves in the midst of the apostolic age, so that they might seem to have been handed down by the apostles because they were from the time of the apostles, we can say to them: let them show the origins of their churches, let them unroll the order of their bishops, running down in succession from the beginning, so that their first bishop shall have for author and predecessor some one of the apostles or of the apostolic men who continued steadfast with the apostles. . . . Then let all the heresies . . . offer their proof of how they deem themselves to be apostolic.
Finally, here’s St. Irenaeus, writing around A.D. 180.
As I said before, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although she is disseminated throughout the whole world, yet guarded it, as if she occupied but one house. She likewise believes these things just as if she had but one soul and one and the same heart; and harmoniously she proclaims them and teaches them and hands them down, as if she possessed but one mouth. For, while the languages of the world are diverse, nevertheless, the authority of the Tradition is one and the same.
An authoritative Church
As I read the Fathers, it was just apparent that they did not think as I thought. As an evangelical Protestant, I talked about Scripture. The fathers talked about Scripture as well. But they also talked about Tradition and how one should look to Tradition when there was a dispute about the meaning of Scripture.
Finally, I found them talking about the authority of the Church.
This is an issue we will come back to later. For now, I leave you with one last quotation from St. Irenaeus—another series of words and sentences no one on Earth committed to sola scriptura would think to utter:
But since it would be too long to enumerate in such a volume as this the succession of all the churches, we shall confound all those who, in whatever manner, whether through self-satisfaction or vainglory, or through blindness and wicked opinion, assemble other than where it is proper, by pointing out here the succession of the bishops of the greatest and most ancient church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul, that church that has the tradition and the faith that comes down to us after having been announced to men by the apostles. With that church, because of its superior origin, all the churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world, and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the apostolic Tradition.