This is the final installment of my Sola Scriptura series.
The previous posts (post crash) can be found here. Or you can download entire series in rough PDF.

UPDATE: I have already deleted about 10 comments today. Please don’t just spam with quotes from the church fathers. Had the poster who did read the entire series, he would have seen that the quotes used don’t argue against sola Scriptura, properly defined. So please, if you are going to engage, read the rest of the series. I don’t have the time to recreate all the previous posts so that others can get up to speed enough to engage here! Thanks for your attention to the blog rules as well.

I have attempted to present a balanced look at the Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura. This is a doctrine that I hold to very strongly and believe is a sine qua non of Protestantism. What I mean by this is that this doctrine forms an essential bedrock of Reformation orthodoxy.

In the previous posts I have step by step attempted to defend this doctrine against competing models of authority held by both Catholics and (sometimes) Eastern Orthodox. But one of the most substantial claims that those who deny sola Scriptura make is that it does not find representation in the history of the church. In fact, Roman Catholics would argue that church history holds to a dual-source theory where unwritten tradition and Scripture are equal and the Magisterial authority of the Catholic church infallibly interprets both.

I agree that it would be a substantial argument if in the history of the church we cannot find the principles of sola Scriptura being held, but this is simply not the case. I offer two arguments here:

1. To require that one produce an articulated view of sola Scriptura in history is anachronistic. An anachronism is where one enforces a contemporary articulation of an idea or use of a word on an ancient audience. This is not unlike what many Christian cults do with the doctrine of the Trinity. They ask orthodox Christians to produce historical verification for the Trinity prior to 325 A.D. (the date of the Council of Nicea, when the Trinity was articulated in its near current form). They are not looking for seeds of the principle beliefs, but an actual articulation. Expecting to find the doctrine of sola Scriptura commits the same type fallacy. Both suffer from the same presumption that if something is true, we will find it in its current articulated form from the beginning. This assumption is unjustified and finds no parallel in any other discipline.

The doctrine of sola Scriptura as defined in this series was explained and articulated as such precisely because of the controversies of the 16th century. Search all you will and you will not find the phase “sola Scriptura” before the Reformation just as you won’t find the word “Trinity” commonly used before Nicea. But, in both cases, I do believe you will find the doctrine in seed form. In other words, the doctrine of sola Scriptura was undeveloped before the Reformation, but it was present in its undeveloped form.

As I have argued many times, there is a development that doctrine goes through, and controversy is the adrenaline to its development. If there is no controversy, it will remain an assumed part of tradition. It’s assumption does not mean it is right or wrong, it just means that the church had yet to deal with it substantially and holistically. (See my “An Emerging Understanding of Orthodox” for a more thorough breakdown of doctrinal development theory.)

2. Sola Scriptura did exist in seed form. I am going to post some quotes from the early church fathers. Those who are opposed to what I am arguing will say that I have taken these out of context, but the truth is that we all see what we are conditioned to see. If you are dead set on rejecting sola Scriptura and highly respect the witness of history, you will simply form a theological context around these statement so that they say what your theology says they must say. But I have been a student of church history for long enough to say that the more I read the early church fathers, the more I am convinced that they held to an unarticulated form of sola Scriptura. In other words, for most of church history, the Scriptures have been the final and only infallible source for truth.

Irenaeus (ca. 150)
Against Heresies 3.1.1

“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.”

Notice how Irenaeus equates the traditions with the Scriptures. They proclaimed the truth at first (unwritten tradition), and “at a later period” handed it down “in the Scriptures” which is now the “ground and pillar of our faith.” Sounds very Protestant.

Clement of Alexandria (d. 215)
The Stromata, 7:16

“But those who are ready to toil in the most excellent pursuits, will not desist from the search after truth, till they get the demonstration from the Scriptures themselves.”

Notice the final court of appeal is the Scriptures, not the church. The “those” who are encouraged to toil in the most excellent pursuits do not refer to the church ecclesiastical authority, but to all people. All people are encouraged here to search for truth and find it finally in the Scriptures.

Gregory of Nyssa (d. ca. 395)
On the Holy Trinity NPNF, p. 327

“Let the inspired Scriptures then be our umpire, and the vote of truth will be given to those whose dogmas are found to agree with the Divine words.”

Again, the final court of arbitration is the Scriptures, not the church. Respect is always given to the ecclesiastical authority and tradition by the early church, but Scriptures hold a unique place of authority.

Athanasius (c. 296–373)
Against the Heathen, 1:3

“The holy and inspired Scriptures are fully sufficient for the proclamation of the truth.”

This speaks to the vital doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture that we dealt with earlier. The Scriptures being “fully sufficient,” is simply a seed form of sola Scriptura.

Basil the Great (ca. 329–379)
On the Holy Spirit, 7.16

“We are not content simply because this is the tradition of the Fathers.  What is important is that the Fathers followed the meaning of the Scripture.”

This sounds a lot like Martin Luther at Worms. While we respect the tradition of the Fathers, they don’t bring contentment unless they followed the Scriptures.

Ambrose (A.D. 340–397)
On the Duties of the Clergy, 1:23:102

“For how can we adopt those things which we do not find in the holy Scriptures?”

This is even stronger than I would go. Ambrose sounds a little fundamentalistic. In fairness, it was the particular issues – doctrinal issues – which brought this about. The answer to Ambrose’s question could not be more plain. We cannot adopt those things which we do not find in holy Scriptures because Scripture is our final and only infallible authority.

St. Augustine (A.D. 354–430)
De unitate ecclesiae, 10

“Neither dare one agree with catholic bishops if by chance they err in anything, but the result that their opinion is against the canonical Scriptures of God.”

The most important thing to notice here is the belief that the Catholic bishops can err. Agreement with them is not based upon some infallible authority which they possess, but is measured against the canonical Scriptures of God!

Again, to be sure, there is a great respect and authority given to tradition in the early church as there was among the Reformers. Protestants need to understand this when studying history. But I do not believe that the most prominent of the early church fathers would have rejected the Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura properly defined.

While I have great respect for many who do not agree with me on this issue, I believe that I have represented a compelling case both biblically and historically that the Scriptures are the final and only infallible source in matters of faith and practice. To be sure, this does open up the problem of interpretation that we are always going to have, but, in the end, we must follow the truth as God has revealed it. Scriptures are the norma normans sed non normata—“the norm of norms which is not normed.”

This series is now complete! Who says I don’t finish what I start?

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Find him everywhere: Find him everywhere

    154 replies to "In Defense of Sola Scriptura – Part 10 – A Historical Defense"

    • Perry Robinson


      In light of 300 years of Jewish direct and indirect persecution of the church and its continued daily prayer curse in the 13th daily prayer on Christians, Saint John Chrysostom’s comments are entirely understandable, especially in light of the renewed persecution by Jews of Christians during the reign of Julian the Apostate. I am ot excusing it, but to say that John was an anti-semite is anarchonistic.

      How later peoples used those statements, including those from saint Paul in Galatians 4:21ff (“cast out the bondwoman and her son”) is not germane. You don’t stop using kitchen knives since people use them to kill others. The abuse doesn’t negate the proper use.

    • D.Williams

      “To say Christians and Jews were at war, is that completely accurate?”

      When they are working with the emperor to forcibly shut down the church, what would you call it?

      “They certainly had times of scuffles but really who instigated it?”

      Probably the emperor instigated it. I don’t think apportioning blame is the actual point however.

      “And just because Luther came later than Origen or Chrysostom does not really make a difference because he is indeed founder of the Reformation age, therefore he is the father of Protestants in that sense.”

      Since I’m not a protestant, it matters a bit to me. What are you BTW?

      “Ok the question is not Judaizers, but Jews because he specifically says Jews.”

      No doubt, but the actual context of the quotes are judaizers. I’m sure part of the argument is along the lines of saying not to follow the Judaizers, because these things are wrong with the Jews.

      “Chrysostom argued that Jews will be crucified throughout history because they crucified Christ:… Is that really what happened or was that Judaizers who did that?

      Obviously, Chrysostom is drawing a connection between Judaizers and Jews. Errr, and Chrysostom does seem to have been nothing if not accurate here, for better or for worse.

      Peter the Venerable, Abbot of Cluny is not a church father either, or at least I wouldn’t count him as one.

      “How much more should you have to read to understand that the hatred was again these people both ethnically and religiously”

      You haven’t shown anything that shows it was ethnic. I mean, these guys aren’t stupid, they know that Jesus and the apostles were ethnically Jews. Chrysostom was in close contact with the bishop of Jerusalem, and you can be sure that many of those people were ethnically of Jewish origin.

      “I think it is a shame you assume I don’t know who or what a Jew is.”

      Is the issue who you think a Jew is, or who the people you are quoting think a Jew is?

      “Laws were passed forbidding marriage with Jews…”

      Uh, yeah. The apostle Paul started that when he said only to marry a believer.

      “slavery of Jews, death for any Jew who entered certain cities… Forbidding Jews to be outside during Passover, and oh yes, my favorite, the old accusation of eating Christian children’s blood.”

      Let’s see the citations so we know what we are talking about. We are talking about the church fathers still?

      “To say it was war is whitewashing and to say they deserve it because of that is absolutely baseless and to defend Christians who did this is utterly inexcusable.”

      I have no idea what they “deserved” back then, and neither do you. And what exactly is “this” that Chrysostom did? He said that they were involved in debauchery and drunkenness which had brought them to the level of the lusty goat and the pig. They know only … to satisfy their stomachs, to get drunk, to kill and beat each other”. Is that true or not true of the Jews in Antioch in Chrysostom’s time? Do you know or not know? If he’d been talking about pagans, or a satan

    • D.Williams

      …or a satanic cult, or worshippers of Aphrodite visiting the temple prostitutes, would you then be ok with it? Or it is because the debauchers happen to be in a religion that it is politically incorrect to criticise in the 21st century, that you have a problem?

      And out of curiousity, do you also criticise Christians who want to speak out about Islam being a violent religion? Are you consistent in wanting to silence criticism of everyone, or do you only bash your ancestors based on having no understanding of the circumstances of history, resigning the next generation to bash you in the same way?

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