Church Fathers and Sola Scriptura

Church Fathers and Sola Scriptura April 5, 2017

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[see full book and purchase information; the material below is not part of this book]


This is a somewhat modified condensation of general portions of a huge debate that I engaged in with Protestant anti-Catholic polemicist Jason Engwer  in July 2003. Particular Church fathers and their pro-tradition / “anti-sola Scriptura” views will be dealt with individually and separately.


Sola Scriptura simply cannot be found in the Fathers, as the many historians I cite (mostly Protestant) repeatedly affirm. All my research thus far has convinced me all the more that these scholars are absolutely correct. To state otherwise is (in my opinion) historical revisionism and anachronism. I have massively cited Protestant scholars in this regard, and I find very little that is in disagreement with the Catholic position. I have even shown how these historians note the distinction between material and formal sufficiency in various Fathers’ views. I see little or no conflict with Catholic beliefs, and much conflict with classic Protestant, present-day evangelical belief in sola Scriptura.

I’ll take Protestant historians J. N. D. Kelly, Philip Schaff, and Jaroslav Pelikan over pseudo-scholars, historical revisionists, merely self-published William Webster and David T. King any day.

If a Church Father states that the Church is necessary for interpretation and the standard of orthodoxy, and that Tradition is binding, then he does not believe in sola Scriptura. It’s as simple as that. One must take each Father’s thought in the context of his overall thought. If we only quote their thoughts about Scripture, then our only information will be about their view of Scripture. We have to also see what they say about Tradition and the Church as well, because sola Scriptura is a position which takes a particular stand concerning the relevant importance and authority of those two entities.

Whether a Church Father actually holds one or the other position regarding sola Scriptura can only be determined by seeing what he also says about Tradition and the Church. What anti-Catholic Protestant polemicists constantly do is to find a statement that doesn’t immediately contradict what is entailed in sola Scriptura, and they then illogically assume that the person has no viewpoint on the authority of Tradition and the Church, based on the one passage alone. Again, I have shown that in every case of Fathers I have dealt with in great depth, that this assumption was fallacious. It’s a classic case of an isolated “proof text” thought to mean or assert what it does not assert. It’s a logical error, brought on by extreme eagerness to anachronistically read into the Fathers a latter-day Protestant perspective on authority. In my section on Irenaeus, I cited Jaroslav Pelikan criticizing precisely this mindset:

Clearly it is an anachronism to superimpose upon the discussions of the second and third centuries categories derived from the controversies over the relation of Scripture and tradition in the 16th century, for ‘in the ante-Nicene Church . . . there was no notion ofsola Scriptura, but neither was there a doctrine of traditio sola.’

Yet this is constantly done; almost in every case. It is not only bad, inaccurate history, but also rhetorically vacuous and logically atrocious. To illustrate this sort of reasoning, consider the following analogies:

A Church father might say something like, for example, “There is nothing greater than Holy Scripture.” The anti-Catholic then jumps on that and triumphantly exclaims that he believes in sola Scriptura. But this is wooden, hyper-literalistic interpretation. The Church Father can say this in the same sense that I could say all the following, and not be understood as contradicting myself:

1. “There is nothing greater than fresh-baked bread.”
2. “There is nothing greater than a fresh-baked apple pie, right out of the oven.”
3. “There is nothing greater than one’s wedding day.”
4. “There is nothing greater than the birth of your first child.”
5. “There is nothing greater than the feeling of getting right with God.”

He can say it in the same way that the Apostle John wrote: “you have no need that any one should teach you; as his anointing teaches you about everything . . .” (1 John 3:27; RSV). According to the anti-Catholic mode of patristic interpretation, John is obviously excluding Christian teachers, right? After all, that is the logic of the sentence; it is inescapable: “no need” means there is no need for teaching to be provided! The “anointing” teaches the believer “about everything,” therefore (quite obviously) there is nothing left to be taught; hence no need for teachers. Who could doubt it?

My goal is to to see what the Church Fathers (as a whole or in the main and particularly) believed about the Bible and its relationship to Tradition, the Church, and apostolic succession. If they viewed the relationship as classic Protestantism did, and present-day “orthodox” or “conservative” Protestantism (evangelicalism) does, then they advocated sola Scriptura. If they didn’t do that, they did not hold to sola Scriptura. It’s as simple as that.

If the anti-Catholic or even a more ecumenical, serious Protestant researcher demonstrates conclusively that 1, 2, or 10 Fathers believed in sola Scriptura, that still doesn’t affect Catholic doctrine or our historical “case” in the least, as we agree with Protestants that Fathers sometimes contradict each other (and Church dogma). Nor do we consider any one Father’s opinion as infallible or binding (unless it is identical with a proclamation that the Church made in Council or by infallible papal proclamation, but then — strictly speaking — that doesn’t prove that the Father possessed the gift of infallibility, only that he spoke truth in that instance).

Not even St. Augustine is held in that high of a regard, nor a later giant figure such as St. Thomas Aquinas. What we claim is that the broad consensus of the Fathers is strong historical evidence for the truthfulness of particular Catholic doctrines. If someone showed that 50 Fathers accepted sola Scriptura (Webster’s ridiculous position), then that would pose a problem for our claims. But I contend that Webster, King, Engwer and other anti-Catholic polemicists haven’t even shown that one does so.

Entire books are written about the Fathers’ supposed belief in sola Scriptura, when in fact they are merely expressing their belief in material sufficiency of Scripture, and its inspiration and sufficiency to refute heretics and false doctrine generally. It is easy to misleadingly present them as sola Scripturists if their statements elsewhere about apostolic Tradition or succession and the binding authority of the Church (especially in council) are ignored.

We might, for example, cite St. Vincent of Lerins, who seems almost to be answering anti-Catholic polemical questions and giving the same answers I have been offering, even distinguishing (conceptually) between material and formal sufficiency:

. . . someone one perhaps will ask, “Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church’s interpretation?” For this reason,—because, owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters.

My approach in studying the Fathers in this regard is to examine contexts of their statements and see if the Father thinks Scripture is formally sufficient for authority without the necessary aid of Tradition and the Church, or if he does not, as indicated in other statements. A thinker’s statements must be evaluated in context of all of his thought, rather than having pieces taken out and then claiming that they “prove” something that they do not, in fact, prove at all.

This is why Catholics often don’t need to deal with the citations that anti-Catholics offer, because they are only about the person’s view of Scripture (selective and radically incomplete presentation). Catholics completely agree with such statements. But one also has to see what the same person wrote about Tradition and the Church in order to ascertain how they regarded the relationship of the three, which is what this whole discussion is about: each side relates the three to each other in a particular fashion, and this is the debate over proper Christian authority and the Rule of Faith. In most cases, anti-Catholic patristic quotes are simply expressions of the material sufficiency of Scripture, about which there is no dispute between us. Again, more information from the Father is required. Logically, what Church Fathers write about Scripture does not deny a notion of authority as Catholics would conceive of it: incorporating Church and Tradition.

Material sufficiency of Scripture is the view that all Christian doctrines can be found in Scripture, explicitly or implicitly; fully developed or in kernel form. Catholics hold to this. Formal sufficiency of Scripture is the adoption of the principle of sola Scriptura as the Rule of Faith. Catholics deny that, and I say that the Fathers (being Catholics from an earlier, less theologically and ecclesiologically developed period) do as well.

Pressed to name some Church Fathers who were copletely consistent with Protestant claims of sola Scriptura, Jason Engwer replied: “I’m not aware of any contradictions of sola scriptura in Theonas or Dionysius of Alexandria.”

That is a pretty poor showing, seeing that his pal William Webster asserted that virtually all the Fathers accepted sola Scriptura. Besides, of what significance is Theonas in the first place? He is such a minor figure that I couldn’t find his name in the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, the indices of Schaff, Kelly, Latourette (2-volume History of Christianity), and Pelikan; not even in the Encyclopedia Britannica, for heaven’s sake. Calling him a “Church Father” is stretching it, I suspect. And this is all Jason can come up with for Fathers who consistently adopted sola Scriptura? That is certainly a pitiful case indeed. Yet elsewhere, Jason makes the grandiose claim:

If the church fathers rejected Roman Catholicism’s view of church history, its system of authority, its view of salvation, [11 more things mentioned] . . . what are we to think of the claim that the fathers were Roman Catholic?

The “system of authority” is what has to do with sola Scriptura. If “the church fathers” rejected the “Roman” system of authority, then presumably they accepted some alternate form. When pressed, Jason came up with two Fathers who supposedly consistently hold to sola Scriptura; one of whom is exceedingly obscure and scarcely even able to be referred to as a “Father” at all. This is supposed to be an impressive case? Sorry; I don’t think so at all. I think it is laughable.

I already refuted his claims for Dionysius. I’m almost positive that if I can find anything about obscure Theonas, he would believe the same as well. Even if he agreed with John Calvin (who doesn’t cite him in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, either — which cites dozens of Church Fathers), though, so what, if he is that minor of a figure? The obscure Theonas and Dionysius do not constitute a sufficiently overwhelming “consensus”; therefore, I hold to my present position as to the historical facts of the matter, as corroborated by reputable Protestant historians.

The exact nature of some tradition referred to by a Father is a distinct issue from the fact that he places it in a certain position vis-a-vis ScriptureSola Scriptura is one view about the relationship of Scripture, Tradition, and the Church (or, the “rule of faith”). The Catholic view is another one. Sola Scriptura places Tradition in an inferior or subordinate position. Jason Engwer stated:

Opponents of sola scriptura often respond to such quotes by citing the church fathers referring to tradition. The issue, however, isn’t whether they believed in tradition. The issue is what their rule of faith was.

This shows Jason’s (and the typical anti-Catholic’s)  muddleheadedness and confused understanding of the issues at hand, which, in turn, is why they usually think all my citations having to do with tradition, Church, and apostolic succession are off the topic, when they are precisely what are needed to determine what these Fathers believed. Sola Scriptura takes one particular stand on the relative place and value of Tradition and Church authority over against Holy Scripture. Quite obviously, then, we must see how any individual Church Father viewed the authority of Tradition and the Church in order to find out whether he takes a sola Scriptura view or a Catholic “three-legged stool” view of authority.

Thus, every citation I produce about tradition, Church, and apostolic succession is absolutely relevant and necessary to the discussion (the more the merrier, because that provides yet more evidence and data). The rule of faith deals with the nature of Christian authority: the Bible, Tradition, and the Church and how they relate to each other.


Furthermore, differing conceptions of tradition among the Fathers also do not affect my goal of determining whether they believed in sola Scriptura or not. Say that three Fathers held three somewhat differing notions of what Tradition is. This poses no problem for my argument, because it is not about the precise definition of tradition held by each Father, but about how they view tradition (however they define it) in relationship to Scripture. Let me illustrate:

1. Church Father #1 believes that tradition is the oral unwritten record passed down of things that can always be found explicitly in Scripture.2. Church Father #2 believes that tradition is the oral unwritten record passed down of things that can always be found either explicitly or implicitly in Scripture.

3. Church Father #3 believes that tradition is the oral and written record passed down of things that can always be found explicitly in Scripture.

4. Church Father #4 believes that tradition is the oral and written record passed down of things that can always be found either explicitly or implicitly in Scripture.

5. Church Father #5 believes that tradition is the oral and written record passed down of things that can always be found either explicitly or implicitly in Scripture, including what is recorded in Scripture itself, since the Bible is inspired and preeminent part of the larger apostolic tradition, and equates the “word of God” and the “gospel” with “tradition.”

And so forth. There might be a number of differing conceptions, but they all accept authoritative apostolic tradition. The bottom line is that a Father could hold any one of these definitions of “tradition” and still be opposed to sola Scriptura, depending on how he views both relative to each other. So, if one’s goal in argument is to show that a Father did not believe in sola Scriptura, whichever definition of Tradition that he holds will not affect the demonstration, if in fact he places tradition in an authoritative position in a manner contrary to the Protestant Rule of Faith, or sola Scriptura.

Thus, if Church Fathers #1, #2, #3, #4, and #5 each applies his particular definition of “tradition” and believes that Church and Tradition have a practical authority and a necessary role in interpreting Scripture, and that it is meaningless to pit any of the three against another, and that they do not contradict, but are all of a piece, he denies sola Scriptura. Period. It doesn’t matter what definition of “tradition” he utilizes because it is a relational proposition. It doesn’t matter if his view isn’t identical to my view today as a Catholic, in absolutely every particular, or what stage of theological development in the history of Christianity that he lives in. He can’t believe in binding, infallible Church teachings and tradition and still hold to sola Scriptura (by definition).

We would expect there to be differences and discussions and developments of the concept of tradition and authority just as there were with everything else. This is the endeavor of theology and the working-out of the Christian life and teaching.

The Protestant historians I have cited agree with my general assessment:

Philip Schaff:

Augustine . . . in a certain sense, as against heretics, he made the authority of Holy Scripture dependent on the authority of the catholic church . . . The Protestant church makes the authority of the general councils, and of all ecclesiastical tradition, depend on the degree of its conformity to the Holy Scriptures; while the Greek and Roman churches make Scripture and tradition coordinate.Nor is any distinction made here between a visible and an invisible church. All catholic antiquity thought of none but the actual, historical church . . . The fathers of our period all saw in the church, though with different degrees of clearness, . . . the possessor and interpreter of the Holy Scriptures, the mother of all the faithful . . . Equally inseparable from her is the predicate of apostolicity, that is, the historical continuity or unbroken succession . . . In the view of the fathers, every theoretical departure from this empirical, tangible, catholic church is heresy, . . . No heresy can reach the conception of the church . . . the church is divine and indestructible. This is without doubt the view of the ante-Nicene fathers, even of the speculative and spiritualistic Alexandrians . . .

Besides appealing to the Scriptures, the fathers, particularly Irenaeus and Tertullian, refer with equal confidence to the “rule of faith;” that is, the common faith of the church, as orally handed down in the unbroken succession of bishops from Christ and his apostles to their day.

Heiko Oberman:

Augustine . . . reflects the early Church principle of the coinherence of Scripture and Tradition. While repeatedly asserting the ultimate authority of Scripture, Augustine does not oppose this at all to the authority of the Church Catholic . . .

Jaroslav Pelikan:

Clearly it is an anachronism to superimpose upon the discussions of the second and third centuries categories derived from the controversies over the relation of Scripture and tradition in the 16th century . . . So palpable was this apostolic tradition that even if the apostles had not left behind the Scriptures to serve as normative evidence of their doctrine, the church would still be in a position to follow ‘the structure of the tradition which they handed on to those to whom they committed the churches.’ [Haer. 3, 4 ,1]

J. N. D. Kelly:

. . . there is . . . nothing to suggest, and general probability makes it unlikely, that Christian teachers had these books [the NT] specifically in mind on the majority of occasions when they referred to the apostolic testimony. It is much more plausible that they were thinking generally of the common body of facts and doctrines, definite enough in outline though with varying emphases, which found expression in the Church’s day-to-day preaching, liturgical action and catechetical instruction, just as much as in its formal documents . . .. . . while Scriptures (i.e. the Old Testament) and the apostolic testimony were formally independent of each other, these fathers seem to have treated their contents as virtually coincident . . . Secondly, the apostolic testimony had not yet come to be known as ‘tradition’.

(Early Christian Doctrines, HarperSanFrancisco, revised 1978 edition, 33-34; referring to “the primitive period”)

Referring to the period of Irenaeus and Tertullian (2nd century), Kelly continues:

. . . the distinction between Scripture and the Church’s living tradition as co-ordinate channels of this apostolic testimony became more clearly appreciated, and enhanced importance began to be attached to the latter. (Ibid., 35-36)

Concerning the third and fourth centuries, he states:

. . . the basis of tradition became broader and more explicit. The supreme doctrinal authority remained, of course, the original revelation given by Christ and communicated to the Church by His apostles. This was the divine or apostolic ‘tradition’ (paradosistraditio) in the strict sense of the word . . . That this was embodied, however, in the Holy Scripture, and found a parallel outlet in the Church’s general unwritten teaching and liturgical life, was taken for granted, and the use of the term ‘tradition’, with or without such qualifications as ‘ecclesiastical’ or ‘of the fathers’, to describe this latter medium now became increasingly common. (Ibid., 41-42)*

Throughout the whole period Scripture and tradition ranked as complementary authorities, media different in form but coincident in content. To inquire which counted as superior or more ultimate is to pose the question in misleading and anachronistic terms. If Scripture was abundantly sufficient in principle, tradition was recognized as the surest clue to its interpretation, for in tradition the Church retained, as a legacy from the apostles which was embedded in all the organs of her institutional life, an unerring grasp of the real purport and meaning of the revelation to which Scripture and tradition alike bore witness. (Ibid., 47-48)

Amateur, merely self-published, anti-Catholic pseudo-“historian” William Webster takes a stand that practically all the Fathers believed in sola Scriptura, whereas professional and reputable Protestant historians Schaff, Kelly, and Pelikan believe that none do. The historians who are familiar with the Fathers; who specialize in patristics and Church history and history of theology or of doctrinal development of same, completely contradict the anti-Catholic claims.

Anti-Catholics are quick to conclude that Fathers were logical pretzels and massively inconsistent. I am much more likely to conclude that they are the ones with the logical difficulties, not these brilliant men (though they made mistakes like everyone else). I prefer to err on the side of caution and the side of the Fathers.

Many patristic passages are consistent with sola Scriptura prima facie (and logically speaking), but do not prove that the person uttering the statement adopted sola Scriptura: more information is needed to determine that. It is the difference between the following two propositions:

1. Statement A is consistent with a sola Scriptura position and does not contradict it.

2. Statement A proves without doubt that its writer adopts sola Scriptura as a formal principle of authority, over against the Catholic Rule of Faith: Bible, Tradition, the Church, and apostolic succession — which the writer expressly denies in the same passage.

My position in studying this matter is #1 but not #2. I don’t see that any of the patristic quotes anti-Catholics come up with come anywhere near meeting the logical requirements of #2, and, in fact, other statements by the same Fathers demonstrated or indicated strongly that they did not hold to sola Scriptura (which was shown by the position they placed Church, Tradition, and apostolic succession in relationship to Holy Scripture). Examples of statements which would fit the criterion of #1 would be the following:

1. Scripture is a wonderful, inspired body of writings; God’s words, the greatest book in the world, Divine Revelation, infallible, spiritually profitable for all who read it.*

2. All Christian doctrines are found in Scripture.

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

4. . . . the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything . . . (St. Vincent of Lerins, Commonitory 2:5)

5. We accepted whatever was established by the proofs and teachings of the Holy Scriptures. (Dionysius of Alexandria)

6. If a person had a Bible on a deserted island, and knew not the slightest thing about Christianity, the Church or Christian history, then surely they could attain eschatological salvation by means of the Bible alone.

(Dave Armstrong, More Biblical Evidence for Catholicism, Chapter 11: “Insurmountable Practical Problems of Sola Scriptura,” p. 73).

All of these statements are perfectly consistent with both a sola Scriptura position and a Catholic position. But there is not enough information in any of them to positively assert that they are teaching sola Scriptura and not another opinion. This is the distinction between “consistent with” or “not contradictory to” and “positive proof.”

I was even happy to grant the possibility that some Fathers may indeed have held to sola Scriptura (one must keep an open mind with regard to potentially provable fact), but I contend that the anti-Catholic polemicists and amateur pseudo-“historians” have not yet proven it in any individual case.

In the meantime, I continue to accept the general judgment of the historians I have cited: that the Fathers — considered as a group — did not believe in sola Scriptura. Nothing the anti-Catholics have come up with has caused me to move from that point of view.

Most (even perhaps all) of the statements of Fathers that anti-Catholic polemicists come up with are not inconsistent with a sola Scriptura position (that has been my position all along, and is why Protestant polemicists mistakenly think they see so much “patristic proof” of sola Scriptura); they are simply utterly inadequate as proofs, and such inadequacy is systematic (just as with the alleged “proofs” of sola Scriptura in Scripture). I have yet to see a “prooftext” that can hold its own in either case.

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