Sola Scriptura! – A History Lesson

(Second essay in "Sola Scriptura!", edited by Don Kistler; this essay, "Sola Scriptura and the Early Church" is by James White. This essay is NOT on line.)

"In regard to the divine and holy mysteries of the faith, not the least part may be handed on without the Holy Scriptures. Do not be led astray by winning words and clever arguments. Even to me, who tell you these things, do not give ready believe, unless you receive from the Holy Scriptures the proof of the things which I announce. The salvation in which we believe is not proved from clever reasoning, but from the Holy Scripture" (Old English Text is at the bottom of the post)

This essay is "dense" with history and makes the point that where "tradition" is used as the rule of faith, tradition is rarely defined, other than that the Council of Trent tells us that it is unwritten.

So we look to history to see if the early church defined "tradition". Was it unwritten, or is there an infallible source of "tradition"?

In this essay we are shown that the tradition that the early church fathers cited were NOT unwritten beliefs (although some were practices). From the beginning, the church fathers cited Scripture alone as the rule for faith.

Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon (c.130-c.200) writes in his work, "Against Heresies",

"On this account are we bound to avoid them, but to make choice of the things pertaining to the Church with the utmost diligence, and to lay hold of the tradition of the truth...For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us the writings? Would it not be necessary [in that case] to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to whom they did commit the church?"

He also wrote,

"As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it...for, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same."

If Irenaeus had failed to define "tradition", we would be left to believe that "tradition" is extra-biblical teaching. But Irenaeus DID define what he was writing about:

These have all declared to us that there is one God, Creator of heaven and earth, announced by the law and the prophets; and one Christ, the Son of God. If any one does not agree with these truths, he despises the companions of the Lord; nay more, he despises Christ Himself the Lord; yea, he despises the Father also, and stands self-condemned, resisiting and opposing his own salvation, as is the case with all heretics.

Basil of Caesarea also writes of tradition:

"...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 it's very vitals; or, rather, should make our public definition a mere phrase and nothing more."

If we stopped there, we would have a ground for "tradition" as we see it today. But Basil did not stop there; he defined the traditions that he was writing about:

For instance, to take the first and most general example, who is there who has taught us in writing to sign with the sign of the cross...What writing has taught us to turn East at the prayer...Which of the saints has left us in writing the words of the invocation at the displaying of the bread at the Eucharist and the cup of the blessing? ...Moreover, we bless the water of baptism and the oil of the chrismm and besides this the catechuman who is being baptized...Nay, by what written word is the anointing of oil itself taught? And whence comes the custom of baptizing thrice?

It is clear that Basil is not teaching the existence of extra-Biblical teaching for the rule of our faith, but rather for the teaching of practices to carry out the faith that we learn in the Bible.

It is interesting that Basil preached tradition of practices, of of which (regardless of the teaching of the equality of tradition to the Word) have been abandoned. Does Rome teach that we must face to the East at prayer?

What was Basil's writing when he encountered those who considered that their "tradition" should be held as sacred?

Their complaint is that their custom does not accept this, and that Scripture does not agree. What is my reply? I do not consider it fair that the custom which obtains among them should be regarded as a law and rule of orthodoxy. If custom is to be taken in proof of what is right, then it is certainly compentent for me to put forward on my side the custom withch obtains here...Therefore let God-inspired Scripture decide between us; and on whichever side be found doctrines in harmony with the word of God, in favor of that side will be cast the vote of truth.

Basil also wrote:

"Plainly it is a falling away from faith and an offense chargable to pride, either to reject any of those things that are written or to introduce things that are not written."

Clearly, this early church father was not the friend of those who demand that unwritten tradition be given equality with written Scripture.

Yet another saint, Augustine wrote:

"If anyone preaches either concerning Christ or concerning His church or concerning any other matter which pertains to our faith and life; I will not say, if we, but what Paul adds, if an angel from heaven should preach to you anything besides what you have received in the Scriptures of the Law and of the Gospels, let him be anathema."

Yet another church father, Athanasius said,

"on this [tradition] was the church founded; and if anyone departs from this, he neither is nor any longer ought to be called a Christian."

Fortunately, he (along with the others) defines this "tradition":

There is a Trinity, holy and perfect, acknowledged as God, in Father, Son and Holy Spirit, having nothing foreign or external mixed with it, not composed of a fashioner...and thus there is preached in the Church one God, "who is over all and through all, and in all..."

It is vital that we recognize that the traditions that the church fathers cited were all IN Scripture, they were not appealing to extra-Biblical, unwritten revelation.

From the beginning, Sola Scriptura, Scripture alone, was the rule of faith.

"This seal have thou ever on thy mind; which now by way of summary has been touched on in its heads, and if the Lord grant, shall hereafter be set forth according to our power, with Scripture proofs. For concerning the divine and sacred Mysteries of the Faith, we ought not to deliver even the most casual remark without the Holy Scriptures: nor be drawn aside by mere probabilities and the artifices of argument. Do not then believe me because I tell thee 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." - Cyril of Jerusalem

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One thought on “Sola Scriptura! – A History Lesson

  1. MzEllen--

    You wrote:

    "If Irenaeus had failed to define “tradition”, we would be left to believe that “tradition” is extra-biblical teaching. But Irenaeus DID define what he was writing about..."

    Even though the content of what Irenaeus said is all contained in Scripture, surely the precise words he uses in the rule of faith are not. This implies that the rule of faith is an interpretation of Scripture--a reformulation of the content of Scripture in different words. Irenaeus also seems to think this interpretation is authoritative, ie. it is to be believed because of the authoritative people he claims to get it from through Apostolic succession. We are conscience-bound to believe this interpretation of Scripture because it is an authoritative interpretation, received from authoritative interpreters--not just because we can infer it from Scripture accurately.

    So I can agree that Irenaeus sees all the content of tradition contained in Scripture. But this doesn't imply Sola Scriptura. After all, Sola Scripturaists have to say that all interpretations of Scripture are equally lacking in authority. Irenaeus doesn't think this.

    Your quote from Basil about not appealing to custom actually supports the authority of tradition. Notice that Basil thinks that appealing to custom on his (non-heretical) side is sufficient for him to believe in his Orthodox views. Why does he move to an appeal to Scriptural proof then? Because he wants to persuade his opponents, who share Scripture in common with him as an authority and a source of knowledge. He is appealing to common ground, not denying the authority of the Church's interpretations of Scripture (which he affirms). And Basil's attitude toward those that interpret Scripture differently than the Fathers seems to be that they deny the authority of the Fathers:

    "To refuse to follow the Fathers, not holding their declaration of more authority than one's own opinion, is conduct worthy of blame, as being brimful of self-sufficiency." Basil, EpistleTo the Canonicae, 52:1

    I don't see how your quote from Augustine demonstrates what you are trying to prove. Augustine also seemed to think that the Church's interpretation of Scripture is authoritative:

    "To be sure, although on this matter, we cannot quote a clear example taken from the canonical Scriptures, at any rate, on this question, we are following the true thought of Scriptures when we observe what has appeared good to the universal Church which the authority of these same Scriptures recommends to you." Augustine, C. Cresconius I:33

    Your Athanasius quote, like your Irenaeus quotes, only shows that Scripture and Tradition have the same content--not that Tradition is just a human, fallible, non-authoritative interpretation of Scripture. On the contrary, St. Athanasius says

    “But the Word of the Lord which came through the Ecumenical Synod at Nicea, abides forever.” Athanasius, Ad Afros 2 (c. A.D. 369)

    This seems to mean that the Holy Ecumenical Council was infallible, and interpreted Holy Scripture with divine authority.

    St. Cyril of Jerusalem's statement that "For concerning the divine and sacred Mysteries of the Faith, we ought not to deliver even the most casual remark without the Holy Scriptures" also proves, at most, that the content of Tradition is all in Scripture--not that Tradition lacks its own inherent authority as an interpretation given by authoritative teachers. In fact, Cyril also says that if we abandon the Rule of Faith (which is an interpretation of Scripture) we abandon divine doctrine and are accursed. This implies that he thinks the Rule of Faith is an authoritative interpretation of Scripture.

    All of this is to say that, while you have shown the Fathers did not have a Roman Catholic understanding of Tradition, they did not seem to have a Protestant understanding either, as the quotes I supplied seem to say. Rather, they thought Scripture was the sole infallible rule that provided the content of faith and practice, but some interpretations of Scripture are more authoritative than others (and in fact, some are infallible). This is the Orthodox (and also Anglo-Catholic) understanding of tradition called "Prima Scriptura".


    You can see a discussion of these issues here on my blog:

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