Hippolytus (d. c. 236) vs. Sola Scriptura as the Rule of Faith

Hippolytus (d. c. 236) vs. Sola Scriptura as the Rule of Faith May 1, 2017


Church Fathers: 11th century mosaic; lower portions: oil painting of the 18th c.  St. Sophia of Kyiv [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]




For preliminaries concerning my methodology and the burden of proof for showing if a Church Father believed in sola Scriptura, see my paper, Church Fathers & Sola Scriptura. Hippolytus’ words will be in blue. Jason Engwer’s words will be in green.


Anti-Catholics cite the following passage in supposed proof of Hippolytus’ advocacy of sola Scriptura:

Some others are secretly introducing another doctrine, who have become disciples of one Noetus, who was a native of Smyrna, and lived not very long ago. This person was greatly puffed up and inflated with pride, being inspired by the conceit of a strange spirit. He alleged that Christ was the Father Himself, and that the Father Himself was born, and suffered, and died….But the case stands not thus; for the Scriptures do not set forth the matter in this manner….the Scriptures themselves confute their senselessness, and attest the truth…The Scriptures speak what is right; but Noetus is of a different mind from them. Yet, though Noetus does not understand the truth, the Scriptures are not at once to be repudiated….The proper way, therefore, to deal with the question is first of all to refute the interpretation put upon these passages [of scripture] by these men, and then to explain their real meaning….For whenever they wish to attempt anything underhand, they mutilate the Scriptures. But let him quote the passage as a whole, and he will discover the reason kept in view in writing it….if they choose to maintain that their dogma is ratified by this passage [of scripture], as if He owned Himself to be the Father, let them know that it is decidedly against them, and that they are confuted by this very word….Many other passages [of scripture], or rather all of them, attest the truth. A man, therefore, even though he will it not, is compelled to acknowledge God the Father Almighty, and Christ Jesus the Son of God, who, being God, became man, to whom also the Father made all things subject, Himself excepted, and the Holy Spirit; and that these, therefore, are three. But if he desires to learn how it is shown still that there is one God, let him know that His power is one….What, then, will this Noetus, who knows nothing of the truth, dare to say to these things? And now, as Noetus has been confuted, let us turn to the exhibition of the truth itself, that we may establish the truth, against which all these mighty heresies have arisen without being able to state anything to the purpose. There is, brethren, one God, the knowledge of whom we gain from the Holy Scriptures, and from no other source. For just as a man, if he wishes to be skilled in the wisdom of this world, will find himself unable to get at it in any other way than by mastering the dogmas of philosophers, so all of us who wish to practise piety will be unable to learn its practice from any other quarter than the oracles of God. Whatever things, then, the Holy Scriptures declare, at these let us took; and whatsoever things they teach, these let us learn; and as the Father wills our belief to be, let us believe; and as He wills the Son to be glorified, let us glorify Him; and as He wills the Holy Spirit to be bestowed, let us receive Him. Not according to our own will, nor according to our own mind, nor yet as using violently those things which are given by God, but even as He has chosen to teach them by the Holy Scriptures, so let us discern them. (Against the Heresy of One Noetus, 1-4, 7-9)

Here Hippolytus is asserting the material sufficiency of the Scriptures, with which Catholics wholeheartedly agree. I utilize this method myself in almost all of my exegetical discussions with Protestants, and in papers such as my lengthy treatments of the Trinity and the Deity of Jesus. I argue that issues can be resolved by recourse to Scripture Alone (material sufficiency), while at the same time I deny that Scripture Alone is sufficient for maintaining Christian truth and unity in its fullness (the denial of formal sufficiency). When I refute heresies such as Mormonism or the Jehovah’s Witnesses, I argue from Scripture. I don’t cite Catholic magisterial sources, as those would be meaningless to them.

Scripture is formally insufficient, as a rule of faith over against (and unbiblically pitted against) Church and Tradition, not materially insufficient for the ascertaining of theological and spiritual truth. Scripture can refute heretics on its own, of course. I was refuting Jehovah’s Witnesses from Scripture 20 years ago, but they kept right on believing as they do. Why? Because they have abominable hermeneutics and accept a false tradition of men (Arianism).

Anti-Catholics and other critics of the Catholic Church often assume that an assertion of the material sufficiency of Scripture implies an espousal of the formal system of sola Scriptura. This does not follow logically, and it doesn’t occur historically, with regard to the Fathers. With Hippolytus, as with any of the Fathers, it is easy to find proofs that (far from accepting it) , he rejected the Protestant novel innovation of sola Scriptura. He refers to an authoritative, binding apostolic Tradition:

We have set forth as was necessary that part of the discourse which relates to the spiritual gifts, all that God, right from the beginning, granted to people according to his will, bringing back to himself this image which had gone astray. Now, driven by love towards all the saints, we have arrived at the essence of the tradition which is proper for the Churches. This is so that those who are well informed may keep the tradition which has lasted until now, according to the explanation we give of it, and so that others by taking note of it may be strengthened (against the fall or error which has recently occurred because of ignorance and ignorant people), with the Holy Spirit conferring perfect grace on those who have a correct faith, and so that they will know that those who are at the head of the Church must teach and guard all these things. (The Apostolic Tradition, 1, – c. 215 – translation of Kevin P. Edgecomb, based on the work of Bernard Botte and Gregory Dix)

In the same work, he expressly accepts the notion of apostolic succession, which runs counter to sola Scriptura:

Thus, if these things are heard with grace and correct faith, they bestow edification on the Church and eternal life on the believers. I counsel that these things be observed by all with good understanding. For if all who hear the apostolic tradition follow and keep it, no heretic will be able to introduce error, nor will any other person at all. It is in this manner that the many heresies have grown, for those who were leaders did not wish to inform themselves of the opinion of the apostles, but did what they wanted according to their own pleasure, and not what was appropriate. If we have omitted anything, beloved ones, God will reveal it to those who are worthy, steering Holy Church to her mooring in the quiet haven. (Ibid., 43)

Elsewhere, he chides the heretics for being insufficiently Scriptural (as all the Fathers did, and as Catholics do), and also for ignoring apostolic succession:

Since, however, reason compels us to plunge into the very depth of narrative, we conceive we should not be silent, but, expounding the tenets of the several schools with minuteness, we shall evince reserve in nothing. Now it seems expedient, even at the expense of a more protracted investigation, not to shrink from labour; for we shall leave behind us no trifling auxiliary to human life against the recurrence of error, when all are made to behold, in an obvious light, the clandestine rites of these men, and the secret orgies which, retaining under their management, they deliver to the initiated only. But none will refute these, save the Holy Spirit bequeathed unto the Church, which the Apostles, having in the first instance received, have transmitted to those who have rightly believed. But we, as being their successors, and as participators in this grace, high-priesthood, and office of teaching, as well as being reputed guardians of the Church, must not be found deficient in vigilance, or disposed to suppress correct doctrine . . .In order, then, as we have already stated, that we may prove them atheists, both in opinion and their mode (of treating a question) and in fact, and (in order to show) whence it is that their attempted theories have accrued unto them, and that they have endeavoured to establish their tenets, taking nothing from the holy Scriptures-nor is it from preserving the succession of any saint that they have hurried headlong into these opinions;-but that their doctrines have derived their origin from the wisdom of the Greeks, from the conclusions of those who have formed systems of philosophy, and from would-be mysteries, and the vagaries of astrologers,-it seems, then, advisable, in the first instance, by explaining the opinions advanced by the philosophers of the Greeks, to satisfy our readers that such are of greater antiquity than these (heresies), and more deserving of reverence in reference to their views respecting the divinity; in the next place, to compare each heresy with the system of each speculator, so as to show that the earliest champion of the heresy availing himself of these attempted theories, has turned them to advantage by appropriating their principles, and, impelled from these into worse, has constructed his own doctrine. (Refutation of All Heresies, Book I, Preface)

In his Book V of the same work, Hippolytus severely criticizes heretics for not appealing to the Scriptures. This is what all Christians do. The Fathers do it, Catholics do it (it is the overwhelming emphasis of my own apologetics and evangelistic apostolate), Protestants and Orthodox do. What else would we expect? So, for example, he writes:

And what are the tenets of the Peratae, and that their system is not framed by them out of the holy Scriptures, but from astrological art.What are the tenets of Justinus, and that his system is framed by him, not out of the holy Scriptures, but from the detail of marvels furnished by Herodotus the historian.

They do not, however, (on this point) institute an inquiry from the Scriptures, but ask this (question) also from the mystic (rites).

Adopting these and such like (opinions), these most marvellous Gnostics, inventors of a novel grammatical art, magnify Homer as their prophet-as one, (according to them,) who, after the mode adopted in the mysteries, announces these truths; and they mock those who are not indoctrinated into the holy Scriptures, by betraying them into such notions.

Note, however, that Hippolytus then adds a very interesting twist in his next mention of Holy Scripture in this work:

Justinus was entirely opposed to the teaching of the holy Scriptures, and moreover to the written or oral teaching of the blessed evangelists, according as the Logos was accustomed to instruct His disciples, saying, “Go not into the way of the Gentiles; ” and this signifies that they should not attend to the futile doctrine of the Gentiles. This (heretic) endeavours to lead on his hearers into an acknowledgment of prodigies detailed by the Gentiles, and of doctrines inculcated by them. And he narrates, word for word, legendary accounts prevalent among the Greeks, and does not previously teach or deliver his perfect mystery, unless he has bound his dupe by an oath. Then he brings forward (these) fables for the purpose of persuasion, in order that they who are conversant with the incalculable trifling of these books may have some consolation in the details of these legends. (Refutation of All Heresies, Book V)

Hippolytus (like St. Paul and other apostles and biblical writers) casually assumes that the oral teaching of the apostles was as binding and authoritative as the written teaching (cf. Mk 6:34, Jn 20:30, 21:25, Acts 1:2-3, 1 Cor 11:2, 2 Thess 2:15, 3:6, 2 Tim 1:13-14, 2:2). It is true that he cites a teaching which was recorded in the Bible (Matthew 10:5), but it was originally delivered orally by Jesus and recorded in writing.

What Hippolytus does not conclude, however (and which Protestants generally do falsely conclude), is that an apostolic teaching is less authoritative simply because it was not written down or because it didn’t make it into the Bible. Also, there is no indication that he considered such oral apostolic teaching as “legendary” (as many Protestants do) — while at the same time he decries the “fables” and “legends” of the pagan Greeks. If he had believed in this distinction between oral and written teaching, this was the place where he could have easily pointed it out. But he did not. And that is very telling indeed.

Anti-Catholic polemicist Jason Engwer contended that Hippolytus, in his noble battles against anti-trinitarians, “advocated sola scriptura and explained that scripture itself (not scripture and an infallible interpreter) is sufficient to refute these heresies.” The above excerpts prove this to be untrue. He appealed also to authoritative apostolic tradition; even oral tradition, and apostolic succession. Patristics scholar Johannes Quasten concurs with this judgment:

Throughout his refutation of heresy, he purposes to prove the Church the bearer of truth and the apostolic succession of the bishops the guarantee of her teaching. (Patrology, four volumes, Vol. II: The Ante-Nicene Literature after Irenaeus, Allen, Texas: Christian Classics; division of Thomas More Publishing, no date, p. 202)

That is not sola Scriptura, but it is entirely consistent with Catholicism as traditionally and presently-understood, or one could argue that it is also consistent with traditional Anglicanism and Orthodoxy. But it is not consistent with the anti-Catholic Reformed or otherwise evangelical viewpoint on these matters. So assertions about Hippolytus vis-a-vis his supposed espousal of sola Scriptura utterly collapse.


Jason Engwer argued:

Dave can’t justify material sufficiency with the text or immediate context of the passage I cited from Hippolytus, so he appeals to other documents. He cites The Apostolic Tradition. But Dave doesn’t tell us what traditions Hippolytus is referring to in that document. Hippolytus is referring to practices such as the procedures in ordaining church leaders (2, 7-9), what should be said when blessing oil that’s offered (5), what should be said when people offer cheese and olives (6), how to appoint widows in the church (10), how to appoint readers (11), how to appoint virgins (12), keeping the demon-possessed from being taught the word of God (15), the procedures for giving the kiss of peace and women wearing veils (18), how to sing (25), etc. Dave, how often do you offer cheese and olives in your local Roman Catholic church? What are the procedures in your local Roman Catholic church for giving the kiss of peace and veiling women? Hippolytus gives us this command about how the bishop of the church is to bless food:

“These are the fruits which he shall bless: the grape, fig, pomegranate, olive, pear, apple, blackberry, peach, cherry, almond, and plum. But not the pumpkin, melon, cucumber, onion, garlic, or any other vegetable.” 

Dave, is your local Roman Catholic bishop careful to bless figs, but not cucumbers?

He would be in a pickle if he did that, huh Jason? That this is relevant is a figment of your imagination. Nice try. This is great sophistry but terrible argumentation, because you have butchered immediate context again. I cited chapters 1 and 43, neither of which made it onto your laundry list. Chapter 1 is a very general statement, having nothing to do with figs or women wearing veils (you would have a field day with St. Paul’s injunction to women, to be silent in Church). Or is it your view that Hippolytus in that section is talking about almonds and garlic, when he writes:

those who are well informed may keep the tradition which has lasted until now, according to the explanation we give of it, and so that others by taking note of it may be strengthened (against the fall or error which has recently occurred because of ignorance and ignorant people), with the Holy Spirit conferring perfect grace on those who have a correct faith, . . .

Do you really wish to argue that Hippolytus was thinking of melons and pumpkins in the context of writing about heresies and “correct faith”? You may be capable of that (from what I’ve seen of your literary interpretation, nothing much would surprise me anymore), but I don’t think so.
Likewise, chapter 43 is a general statement:

For if all who hear the apostolic tradition follow and keep it, no heretic will be able to introduce error, nor will any other person at all. It is in this manner that the many heresies have grown, for those who were leaders did not wish to inform themselves of the opinion of the apostles, but did what they wanted according to their own pleasure, . . .

Heresies grew because the bishops blessed the wrong fruit? Naw; I doubt it, Jason. So sure, have fun with this if you have nothing better to do, or better to offer.  The point is that bringing up silly things like this (though good for a momentary chuckle) does not advance the discussion, and besides, Hippolytus could easily be wrong on particulars without being wrong about the important, serious theological aspects of the tradition. In any event, he accepts tradition (however he defines it) as authoritative in a way that no Protestant does. And that is our present issue, not whether he was correct about every jot and tittle of what he thought tradition was. I have already dealt with the reasons why differences in conceptions of tradition do not affect my particular argument in the least.

Hippolytus continues:

The faithful shall be careful to partake of the eucharist before eating anything else. For if they eat with faith, even though some deadly poison is given to them, after this it will not be able to harm them.” (36)

Does Dave agree? Can Roman Catholics safely ingest poison after participating in the eucharist?

I don’t, but at least this is (in all likelihood) based on something in Scripture (Mk 16:17-18 — though it is now textually questionable as authentic Scripture; cf. Acts 28:3-6). Your other examples are of the same nature, and do not decide this issue in your favor. All they show is that Hippolytus held some erroneous views, which is what Catholics have believed all along: Church Fathers are not individually infallible.

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