Did the Fathers Teach Sola Scriptura?

The following is a contribution from Fr. John Whiteford. The original article may be found here.


Question: “Did the Fathers teach Sola Scriptura?”

Protestant apologists in recent years have felt the sting of the argument that doctrine of Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone) is not taught in Scripture, and so fails to meet its own criteria. So in an attempt to turn the tables on the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Apologists that have rubbed their noses in this fact, many have tried to argue that Sola Scriptura is taught by Tradition.

Before we go any further, we should make it clear what the doctrine of Sola Scriptura actually claims.

The Westminster Confession defines Sola Scriptura thusly:

“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 Scripture” (Westminster Confession 1:10)

The 39 Articles of Anglicanism, which has long been included in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, says: “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation. In the name of the Holy Scripture we do understand those canonical Books of the Old and New Testament, of whose authority was never any doubt in the Church” (39 Articles of Anglicanism: “VI. Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation).

So to prove that the Fathers taught Sola Scriptura, one would have to find them not only teaching that Scripture was of primary importance, authoritative, and binding on the conscience — they would need to also find them teaching that Scripture alone was an authority binding on the conscience.
There are a number of proof-texts that are cited, but for the sake of brevity, let’s look at three examples:
1. St. Irenaeus (130 – 202 a.d.):

“We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith” (Against Heresies 3:1:1)

Interestingly St. Irenaeus, is alluding here to 1 Timothy 3:15: “But if I tarry long, I write so that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.” The Church is the pillar and ground of the Truth. The Scriptures are the texts of the Church.

It should be obvious, however, that nowhere does St. Ireneaus suggest that Scripture alone is the pillar and ground of our Faith. And that he did not believe in Sola Scriptura is made very clear by other things he says in the same work. For example:

“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 believed 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 one mouth.  For, while the languages of the world are diverse, nevertheless, the authority of the Tradition is one and the same. Neither do the Churches among the Germans believe otherwise or have another Tradition, nor do those among the Iberians, nor among the Celts, nor away in the East, or in Egypt, nor in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world.  But just as the sun, that creature of God, is one and the same throughout the whole world, so also the preaching of the Truth shines everywhere and enlightens all men who desire to come to a knowledge of the Truth. Nor will any of the rulers in the Churches, whatever his power of eloquence, teach otherwise, for no on is above  the Teacher; nor will he who is weak in speaking subtract from the Tradition.  For the Faith is one and the same, and cannot be amplified by one who is able to say much about it, nor can it be diminished by one who can say but little” [Against Heresies 1:10:2].”

“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 whosoever wishes draws from her the drink of life.  For she is the entrance to life, while all the rest are thieves and robbers.  That is why it is surely necessary to avoid them, while cherishing with the utmost diligence the things pertaining to the Church, and to lay hold of the Traditions of Truth.  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 whom they entrusted the Churches?” [Against Heresies 3:4:1].

Many of the heretical groups that St. Irenaeus responded to his “Against Heresies” also claimed to follow the Scriptures. And though St. Ireneaus refuted them with Scripture, he also refuted them by appealing to the Tradition of the Church, which is where the correct understanding of Scripture is to be found.

2. St. Basil the Great (330 – 379 a.d.):

“The hearers taught in the Scriptures ought to test what is said by teachers and accept that which agrees with the Scriptures but reject that which is foreign.” (Basil, Moralia, 72:1)

This quote from St. Basil, taken in isolation, sounds like it might support the Protestant position, but there are two problems with this: it assumes that St. Basil would have interpreted the Scriptures apart from Tradition, or that at least, if he did, he would not have considered Tradition to be binding on his conscience while interpreting Scripture — which is not at all stated even in this quote. But we do not have to guess at this. St. Basil left us with more than enough of his writings for us to determine what authority he gave to Tradition. In his treatise on the Holy Spirit, in which he argues that the Holy Spirit is a Person, and cites the doxology “Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.” in support of that argument. He counters the objection that the doxology, though an ancient part of the universal liturgical tradition of the Church, is not found in Scripture by saying:
“Of the beliefs and practices whether generally accepted or publicly enjoined which are preserved in the Church some we possess derived from written teaching; others we have received delivered to us “in a mystery” by the tradition of the apostles; and both of these in relation to true religion have the same force. And these no one will gainsay; — no one, at all events, who is even moderately versed in the institutions of the Church. For were we to attempt to reject such customs as have no written authority, on the ground that the importance they possess is small, we should unintentionally injure the Gospel in its very vitals; or, rather, should make our public definition a mere phrase and nothing more. For instance, to take the first and most general example, who is thence who has taught us in writing to sign with the sign of the cross those who have trusted in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ? What writing has taught us to turn to the East at the prayer? Which of the saints has left us in writing the words of the invocation at the displaying of the bread of the Eucharist and the cup of blessing? For we are not, as is well known, content with what the apostle or the Gospel has recorded, but both in preface and conclusion we add other words as being of great importance to the validity of the ministry, and these we derive from unwritten teaching. Moreover we bless the water of baptism and the oil of the chrism, and besides this the catechumen who is being baptized. On what written authority do we do this? Is not our authority silent and mystical tradition? Nay, by what written word is the anointing of oil itself taught? And whence comes the custom of baptizing thrice [i.e., by triple immersion]? And as to the other customs of baptism from what Scripture do we derive the renunciation of Satan and his angels? Does not this come from that unpublished and secret teaching which our fathers guarded in a silence out of the reach of curious meddling and inquisitive investigation? Well had they learnt the lesson that the awful dignity of the mysteries is best preserved by silence. What the uninitiated are not even allowed: to look at was hardly likely to be publicly paraded about in written documents. What was the meaning of the mighty Moses in not making all the parts of the tabernacle open to every one? The profane he stationed without the sacred barriers; the first courts he conceded to the purer; the Levites alone he judged worthy of being servants of the Deity; sacrifices and burnt offerings and the rest of the priestly functions he allotted to the priests; one chosen out of all he admitted to the shrine, and even this one not always but on only one day in the year, and of this one day a time was fixed for his entry so that he might gaze on the Holy of Holies amazed at the strangeness and novelty of the sight” (Treatise on the Holy Spirit, 66).
St. Basil is not trying to convince anyone that Christians should be baptized by a triple immersion — he is appealing to the fact that everyone accepts this unwritten tradition to argue for authority of another unwritten tradition: the doxology. And one has to ask, how did this universally accepted Christian Tradition come to be universally accepted, if it did not come from the Apostles themselves? However, the bottom line here is the question of the authority of the Church. If you accept that the Orthodox Church is what it claims to be — the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church established by Christ, then questions like this are easily answered.

3. St. John Chrysostom (347 – 407 a.d.):

“Scripture, though, whenever it wants to teach us something like this, gives its own interpretation, and doesn’t let the listener go astray…. So, I beg you, block your ears against all distractions of that kind, and let us follow the norm of Sacred Scripture” (Homily 13:13 on Genesis, The Fathers of the Church: St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis 1-17, trans. Robert C. Hill (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1986), p. 175).

In context, St. John was simply admonishing his hearers to interpret Scripture within the context of the rest of Scripture. No where does he suggest only Scripture is binding on the conscience, and in fact when commenting on 2 Thessalonians 2:15, he says:

“”Therefore brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you have been taught, whether by word or by our letter”  From this it is clear that they did not hand down everything by letter, but there was much also that was not written.  Like that which was written, the unwritten too is worthy of belief.  Let us regard the Tradition of the Church also as worthy of belief.  Is it Tradition?  Seek no further” [Homilies on the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians 4:2].

We could go on and on, but in every case, these attempts to prove the Fathers taught Sola Scriptura fall flat.

For more information, see:

Responses to Protestant Apologists on Sola Scriptura

Sola Scriptura: An Orthodox analysis of the Protestant view of Scripture, and an explanation of the Orthodox perspective

Not By Scripture Alone: A Catholic Critique of the Protestant Doctrine of Sola Scriptura, by Robert Sungenis.

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