Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Patristic Consensus: Sola Scriptura

One of the classes I'm taking this summer is Historical Theology I. It's a church history course covering the events from Pentecost through the pre-Reformation period. One of the things that I've found mightily encouraging is that the historic core evangelical principles of sola Scriptura and sola fide are taught not only in Scripture, but also in the writings of the Church Fathers -- from the first, second, third, and fourth centuries.

See, a popular view of church history among Protestants (and even evangelicals) is that Jesus, Paul, and the Apostles believed like we do, but after the close of the canon the Church was infiltrated by Roman Catholicism and all faithfulness to Scripture was lost. Basically, the contemporary Protestant view of Church History seems to be that, aside from a few faithful followers, the Church basically "went Roman Catholic" until Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin liberated her from her Roman Catholic shackles in the 16th century.

But such a perception is far from accurate. The writings of the Church Fathers overwhelmingly support the central tenets of evangelical conviction. And a careful study of church history shows us that through the entirety of the past 2,000 years God has preserved a faithful remnant even in the most faithless of times.

Often, Roman Catholic apologists talk about there being a "Patristic Consensus," a unanimous agreement among the Church Fathers supporting the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. Well, a balanced reading of the Fathers show that no such unanimity exists. The "early church" was not a homogeneous, cohesive, unified group of Christians, but rather a term that refers collectively to the disciples of the Apostles, the early apologists and polemicists, and second- and third-century theologians. And there is great variety among them. This has led Protestant apologists to call the notion of a Patristic Consensus a myth.

What's interesting, though, is that while the "early church" varied on many fine points of doctrine, if any sort of patristic consensus existed it was on the evangelical doctrines of sola Scriptura and sola fide. The following are some selections from the writings of the Fathers regarding sola Scriptura: that the Christian's authority is Scripture alone, and not the word of any pope, council, magisterium, or even church father -- even themselves!

And remember, while it's interesting and encouraging that these Fathers affirm sola Scriptura, their writings themselves do not establish sola Scriptura. As they will tell you themselves, they are not our authority; only Scripture is.

Irenaeus (c. 140–c. 202): We have received the disposition of our salvation by no others, but those by whom the Gospel came to us; which they then preached, and afterwards by God’s will delivered to us in the Scriptures, to be the pillar and ground of our faith. [And so the Apostolic oral tradition is recorded for us in the Scriptures.]

Tertullian (c. 160–235): The Scriptures . . . indeed furnish us with our Rule of faith. (Against Praxeas, 11)

Hippolytus (c. 170–c. 236): There is one God, whom we do not otherwise acknowledge, brethren, but out of the Sacred Scriptures. For as he, who would profess the wisdom of this world cannot otherwise attain it, unless he read the doctrines of the philosophers; so whosoever will exercise piety towards God, can learn it no where but from the Holy Scriptures.

Origen (c. 185–c. 254): In the two testaments every word that pertaineth unto God may be sought and discussed, and out of them all knowledge of things may be understood. And if anything remains which Holy Scripture does not determine, no other third scripture ought to be received to authorize any knowledge, but we must “commit to the fire” what remains, that is, reserve it unto God.

Origen (c. 185–254): In proof of all words which we advance in matters of doctrine, we ought to set forth the sense of the Scripture as confirming the meaning which we are proposing. . . . Therefore we should not take our own ideas for the confirmation of doctrine, unless someone shows that they are holy because they are contained in the divine Scriptures (Homily 25 on Matthew).

Athanasius (c. 296–373): For the true and pious faith in the Lord has become manifest to all, being both ‘known and read’ from the Divine Scriptures. (Letter, 60.6)

Athanasius (c. 296–373): The holy and divinely inspired writings are sufficient of themselves alone to make known the truth.

Athanasius (c. 296–373): In the Holy Scriptures alone is the instruction of religion announced—to which let no man add, from which let no man detract—which are sufficient in themselves for the enunciation of the truth.

Cyril of Jerusalem (315–386): Do not then believe me because I tell these things, unless thou receive from the Holy Scriptures the proof of what is set forth: for this salvation, which is of our faith, is not by ingenious reasonings, but by proof from the Holy Scriptures. (The Catechetical Lectures of S. Cyril 4.17)

Basil (c. 329–379): It is evidently a falling away from the faith, and a proof of great presumption, to neglect any part of what is written, or to introduce anything that is not written.

Chrysostom (c. 344407): When there is a question of Divine things, would it not be a folly rashly and blindly to receive the opinions of others, when we have a rule by which we can examine everything? I mean the Divine law. It is for this reason that I conjure you all, without resting in the slightest degree on the judgment of others, to consult the Scriptures.

Chrysostom (c. 344–407): `Tis from ignorance of Scripture that all our evils arise; hence the plague of so many heresies, hence our careless lives, our fruitless labors .. . They err who look not to the bright rays of the divine Scriptures, because they walk in darkness.

Chrysostom (344–407): These then are the reasons; but it is necessary to establish them all from the Scriptures, and to show with exactness that all that has been said on this subject is not an invention of human reasoning, but the very sentence of the Scriptures. (Homilies on the Statues 1.14)

Augustine (354–430): In those things, which are plainly laid down in Scripture, all things are found, which embrace faith and morals.

Augustine (354–430): Holy Scripture fixes the rule for our doctrine, lest we dare be wiser than we ought. (De Bono Viduitatis, 2)

Augustine (354–430): Let those things be removed from our midst which we quote against each other not from divine canonical books but from elsewhere. . . . I do not want the holy church proved by human documents but by divine oracles. (The Unity of the Church, 3)

Theodoret of Cyrus (c. 393–c. 466): Bring me not human reasonings and syllogisms, for I rely on the divine Scripture alone.

John of Damascus [c. 676–c. 760]: All things that are delivered to us by the Law, the Prophets, the Apostles, and the Evangelists, we receive, acknowledge, and reverence, seeking for nothing beyond these.

All Scripture is inspired by God
and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness;
so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.
- 2 Timothy 3:16-17 -

His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness,
through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence.

- 2 Peter 1:3 -

So we have the prophetic word made more sure,
to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place,
until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts.

- 2 Peter 1:19 -


Anonymous said...

The patristic consensus also supported apostolic tradition - in other words, the Tradition of the Catholic Church.

Origen: "Although there are many who believe that they themselves hold to the teachings of Christ, there are yet some among them who think differently from their predecessors. 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" (The Fundamental Doctrines 1:2 [A.D. 225]).


"[T]he custom [of not rebaptizing converts] . . . may be supposed to have had its origin in apostolic tradition, just as there are many things which are observed by the whole Church, and therefore are fairly held to have been enjoined by the apostles, which yet are not mentioned in their writings" (On Baptism, Against the Donatists 5:23[31] [A.D. 400]).

"But the admonition that he [Cyprian] gives us, ‘that we should go back to the fountain, that is, to apostolic tradition, and thence turn the channel of truth to our times,’ is most excellent, and should be followed without hesitation" (ibid., 5:26[37]).

"But in regard to those observances which we carefully attend and which the whole world keeps, and which derive not from Scripture but from Tradition, we are given to understand that they are recommended and ordained to be kept, either by the apostles themselves or by plenary [ecumenical] councils, the authority of which is quite vital in the Church" (Letter to Januarius [A.D. 400]).

John Chrysostom: "[Paul commands,] ‘Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you have been taught, whether by word or by our letter’ [2 Thess. 2:15]. From this it is clear that they did not hand down everything by letter, but there is much also that was not written. Like that which was written, the unwritten too is worthy of belief. So let us regard the tradition of the Church also as worthy of belief. Is it a tradition? Seek no further" (Homilies on Second Thessalonians [A.D. 402]).

Source: http://www.catholic.com/library/Apostolic_Tradition.asp

Scripture is not the only piece of the puzzle, according to many of the church fathers. Do you know of other places where the church fathers reject apostolic tradition?

Mike Riccardi said...


I notice you haven't dealt at all with any of the quotes that are actually listed in the original post.

The benefit that the Protestant has, that the Catholic does not enjoy, is that we do not have to figure out a way for the Fathers (a) to be consistent with our positions, or (b) to be consistent even with their own positions. They were men, and they erred. That's why I mentioned in the original post that none of these quotes establish these doctrines, but simply affirm them.

You, as a Catholic, on the other hand, have to explain how contradictory "traditions" have come to exist and are authoritative for the church.

As far as the quotes you give, I should say: I won't comment on these till you comment on the ones given.

But I will say this: if we don't automatically hold that Origen, Augustine, and Chrysostom were all inconsistent with themselves, then I can see an understanding of tradition in these writings that considered it to be influential but not as authoritative as Scripture. In other words, Scripture and tradition are not equally ultimate authorities.

That's the case except with Chrysostom's quote. In this case I simply find him to be mistaken. The tradition (Gk. paradosis) that the Apostles speak of is that oral teaching that eventually came to be codified in Scripture. It's true that there were things that Paul taught the Thessalonian church that were not in the canonical epistles to the Thessalonians, but those things were included in the rest of the NT canon by the superintendence of the Holy Spirit. Biblically speaking, there is no difference between Scripture and the apostolic tradition.

If you'd like to respond again, be sure that your response begins with how I've misinterpreted each of the quotes I posted in the original post.

Anonymous said...

I apologize - I realized after posting it that my comment came off as very snappy. The question at the end is a genuine question.

I have in my possession 10 volumes of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, but that doesn't mean I have the time to read them! And quotes are by their very nature incomplete. So, have you in your class and your other research, run across quotes where the apostolic tradition is rejected, or some other view of apostolic tradition than what is represented in the quotes I referred to?

Anonymous said...

First of all, thank you so much for responding. I appreciate the dialogue and you are definitely challenging me - I'm happy to finally find people arguing against Catholicism who are basing their arguments on actual Catholicism! I'm not Catholic yet, just heading that direction. Maybe I'm wrong.

I interpret the quotes that you posted as being in support of Scripture as the primary/supreme rule of faith - the "top dog" if you will. Regarding the quotes you mentioned which are by the same people as those who you posted quotes from, I agree with you on your interpretation, except regarding Chrystotum.

The Catholic Church will never affirm something as truth which directly contradicts Scripture. All of the issues between Catholic and Protestant stem from the different interpretations of Scripture. In that sense, the Scripture *is* the highest authority of the Catholic Church. If Scripture says something about it, Scripture is the top authority. (Granted, this is my interpretation of the Catholic Church's position - if you believe I am misunderstanding the Church, please tell me what I've gotten wrong. I haven't had a chance to read through the Council of Trent yet, but it's an open tab on my browser!)

The difference comes regarding Tradition. If Scripture is silent on an issue, then Tradition is the top authority. The Catholic Church argues that they are in possession of the oral tradition which was handed down from the apostles.

The Catholic Church doesn't argue that these writings need to be internally consistent either. Just because someone wrote it once, and they are considered in high esteem by the Catholic Church, doesn't mean that everything they wrote is true. This goes for most of the vast body of theological works written by Catholics. The Catholic Church does argue that her official doctrine and dogma have been and are consistent through the ages.

Anonymous said...

Just realized I didn't specifically say how you misinterpreted the quotes. I think you misinterpreted the quotes in arguing that, because they recognize Scripture as a high authority, that there is then no other acceptable authority at all. I would argue that Scripture is the highest authority, but other authority does exist. This post by an evangelical explains it better than I can: http://dougbeaumont.org/2011/07/03/sola-scriptura-death-by-a-thousand-or-ten-qualifications/

Mike Riccardi said...

I think you misinterpreted the quotes in arguing that, because they recognize Scripture as a high authority, that there is then no other acceptable authority at all.

I don't think you're dealing honestly with what they're saying. When they use words like "alone," "no other," "all," and "nothing beyond these," you can't just say it's at the top of the list, but not alone.

The Catholic Church will never affirm something as truth which directly contradicts Scripture.

But this is precisely what they've done by requiring that works of merit be added to Christ's merit, and in the re-sacrificing of Christ in the mass. Hebrews says the sacrifice was sufficient once for all, and that where there's forgiveness, there's no longer any offering to be made. So either (a) Christ's sacrifice actually forgives us, or (b) we have to re-sacrifice Him in the mass/eucharist and by adding our works to His.

But that's taking this past the point of this post. If you want to discuss this post further, offer your specific interpretations of what these Fathers I have quoted have said. Otherwise, the Cripplegate thread seems broad enough that you can ask and answer questions while remaining on topic.