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?