Theodoret (d. c. 458) vs. Sola Scriptura as the Rule of Faith

Theodoret (d. c. 458) vs. Sola Scriptura as the Rule of Faith August 1, 2017


Russian icon of the Church fathers (11th century) [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. Theodoret’s words will be in blue. Evangelical Protestant / Anti-Catholic apologist Jason Engwer’s words will be in green.


Theodoret of Cyrrhus was an influential theologian of the School of Antioch, biblical commentator, and bishop of Cyrrhus (423–457).

Jason Engwer came up with one passage, to “prove” that Theodoret supposedly accepted sola Scriptura.

“I shall yield to scripture alone.” (Dialogues, 1)

Theodoret shows that he accepts the authority of Tradition and apostolic succession in many places in the same work. He does not believe in sola Scriptura. One might falsely assume that he does, if they have only the six words above to go by, but this is the whole point: unless one considers what he also wrote about Tradition and the Church and apostolic succession, one cannot “prove” that he held to sola Scriptura as Protestants conceptualize it. For he also writes:

I ask you in the next place not to suffer the investigation of the truth to depend on the reasonings of men, but to track the footprints of the apostles and prophets, and saints who followed them.. . . following the definitions of the Holy Fathers, we say that hypostasis and individuality mean the same thing.

. . . do we acknowledge one substance of God, alike of Father and of the only begotten Son and of the Holy Ghost, as we have been taught by Holy Scripture, both Old and New, and by the Fathers in Council in Nicaea, or do we follow the blasphemy of Arius?

Theodoret (represented by Orthodoxos) dialogues with the heretic Eranistes:

Orth.-Better were it for us to agree and abide by the apostolic doctrine in its parity. But since, I know not how, you have broken the harmony, and are now offering us new doctrines, let us, if you please, with no kind of quarrel, investigate the truth.Eran.-We need no investigation, for we exactly hold the truth.

Orth.-This is what every heretic supposes. Aye, even Jews and Pagans reckon that they are defending the doctrines of the truth; and so also do not only the followers of Plato and Pythagoras, but Epicureans too, and they that are wholly without God or belief. It becomes us, however, not to be the slaves of a priori assumption, but to search for the knowledge of the truth.

Eran.-I admit the force of what you say and am ready to act on your suggestion.

Orth.-Since then you have made no difficulty in yielding to this my preliminary exhortation, I ask you in the next place not to suffer the investigation of the truth to depend on the reasonings of men, but to track the footprints of the apostles and prophets, and saints who followed them . . .

(all the above excerpts from: Dialogue I.-The Immutable)

In other writings, he makes his position all the more clear:

[B]ut up to now I have ever kept the faith of the apostles undefiled . . . So have I learnt not only from the apostles and prophets but also from the interpreters of their writings, Ignatius, Eustathius, Athanasius, Basil, Gregory, John, and the rest of the lights of the world; and before these from the holy Fathers in council at Nicaea, whose confession of the faith I preserve in its integrity, like an ancestral inheritance, styling corrupt and enemies of the truth all who dare to transgress its decrees. I invoke your greatness, now that you have heard from me in these terms, to shut the mouths of my calumniators. (To Florentius, Epistle 89 [ante A.D. 466], NPNF 2, III: 283)*

This is the confession of the faith of the Church; this is the doctrine taught by evangelists and apostles. For this faith, by God’s grace I will not refuse to undergo many deaths. This faith we have striven to convey to them that now err and stray, again and again challenging them to discussion, and eager to show them the truth, but without success.

The slander of the libellers that represent me as worshipping two sons is refuted by the plain facts of the case. I teach all persons who come to holy Baptism the faith put forth at Nicaea . . .

This is the doctrine delivered to us by the divine prophets; this is the doctrine of the company of the holy apostles; this is the doctrine of the great saints of the East and of the West . . .

In a word I assert that I follow the divine oracles and at the same time all these saints. By the grace of the spirit they dived into the depths of God-inspired scripture and both themselves perceived its mind, and made it plain to all that are willing to learn. Difference in tongue has wrought no difference in doctrine, for they were channels of the grace of the divine spirit, using the stream from one and the same fount. (To the Monks of the Euphratensian, the Osrhoene, Syria, Phoenicia, and Cilicia; Epistle 151 [A.D. 431] NPNF 2, III: 332)

“Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which you have learned, &c.;” (2 Thess 2:15). Have as a rule of doctrine the words which we have delivered unto you, which both when present we have preached, and when absent we have written to you. (Interpretation of the 14 Epistles of Paul, On 2 Thessalonians [ante 466] )[From: Joseph Berington and John Kirk, The Faith of Catholics, three volumes, London: Dolman, 1846; from Vol. I: 448]

But the colophon of our union is our harmony in faith; our refusal to accept any spurious doctrines; our preservation of the ancient and apostolic teaching . . . (To the Clergy of Beroea, Epistle 75 NPNF 2, III: 272)

. . . apostolic doctrines . . . follow the footsteps of the holy Fathers and preserve undefiled the faith laid down at Nicaea in Bithynia by the holy and blessed Fathers, as summing up the teaching of Evangelists and Apostles. (To the Bishops of Cilicia, Epistle 84 NPNF 2, III: 280-281)

I follow the laws and rules of the apostles. I test my teaching by applying to it, like a rule and a measure, the faith laid down by the holy and blessed Fathers at Nicaea. (To Lupicinus, Epistle 90 NPNF 2, III: 283)

[NPNF = A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 28 volumes in two series. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, editors; Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1952-1956 — available online, as indicated]

Regarding Theodoret, I cited the following:

I shall yield to scripture alone. (Dialogues, 1)

Note that Theodoret refers to “scripture alone”, the same words used by Evangelicals, not “the scripture interpretations of the church”. The most natural interpretation of Theodoret’s words is that he’s referring to sola scriptura, which means, after all, “scripture alone”. The text of Theodoret favors my view.

If he didn’t talk like a Catholic and not like a Protestant elsewhere, you might have a halfway decent case, but since he does, he shows that he accepts the Catholic Rule of Faith.

So does the immediate context. If you read what Theodoret was discussing with his opponent just before and just after the comment quoted above, you see that they’re discussing scripture itself, not an infallible hierarchy’s interpretation of scripture.

I do that all the time, and I am a good Catholic. I could refer you to dozens of my papers and dialogues where I argue by using “Scripture Alone” and never mention popes or councils. Imagine what you would conclude from my first (and now-published) book, A Biblical Defense of Catholicism (Sophia Institute Press, 2003), if you found fragments of it a thousand years from now and knew little or nothing about me. If I didn’t say I was a Catholic in the book, you would have me pegged as a good evangelical because all I do is mention and cite Scripture over and over in the book. In fact, a comment I made in the Introduction is appropriate here:

The widespread existence of evangelical Protestant Commentaries and various Lexicons, Bible Dictionaries, Concordances and so forth, for the use of laypeople, is based on a presupposition that individuals without formal theological education can arrive at conclusions on their own. This is largely what I am attempting presently. The only difference is that I am willing to modify or relinquish any conclusions of mine which turn out to be contrary to the clear teachings and dogmas of the Catholic Church, whereas the quintessential Protestant ultimately can stand on his own (like Luther), “on the Bible,” against, if need be, the whole Tradition of the Christian Church. I formulate my conclusions based on the work of Church Councils, great Catholic scholars, Fathers, Doctors, and saints, just as the conscientious Protestant would consult the scholars and great pastors and theologians of his own persuasion.

Theodoret’s opponent, without objection from Theodoret, summarizes what Theodoret said as follows:

You shall receive no argument unconfirmed by Holy Scripture, and if you bring me any solution of the question deduced from Holy Scripture I will receive it, and will in no wise gainsay it. (Dialogues, 1)

Of course. The Fathers constantly used Scripture for proof texts. But they also appealed to tradition if a heretic would not accept biblical arguments. This doesn’t prove what you think it proves.

Note that we see, repeatedly, from Theodoret and from his opponent, references to scripture itself without any mention of an infallible interpreter. In the immediate context of what I’ve quoted, Theodoret quotes scripture itself to make his argument. In the immediate context, Theodoret and his opponent refer to “the words of the Holy Ghost”, “the word of the evangelist”, “the words both of apostles and of prophets”, etc. Just after Theodoret refers to “scripture alone”, he makes the following comment:

You know how a moment ago we made the word of the evangelist clear by means of the testimony of the apostle; and that the divine apostle showed us how the Word became Flesh, saying plainly ‘for verily He took not on Him the nature of angels but He took on Him the seed of Abraham.’ The same teacher will teach us how the divine Word was seen upon the earth and dwelt among men.

Theodoret tells us that the word of one Biblical author is made clear by the word of another Biblical author.

Well, of course. Do you think Catholics disagree with this? Believing that doesn’t necessarily entail a sola Scriptura position.

There’s no suggestion in the text or immediate context that Theodoret is referring to a Roman Catholic concept of material sufficiency. Both the text and the immediate context support my view, not Dave’s.

Not at all, because you don’t have enough information. But with the further quotes I provided, there is plenty of proof of how Theodoret regarded tradition as authoritative, especially in the following words:

I follow the laws and rules of the apostles. I test my teaching by applying to it, like a rule and a measure, the faith laid down by the holy and blessed Fathers at Nicaea.

Protestants are not required to do this. If they don’t like something in Nicaea, they casually charge that it is “unbiblical” and reject it. Therefore, the council is not their “rule,” but sola Scriptura and individualistic private judgment is. The individual is the final arbiter. But Theodoret doesn’t speak in those terms because he does not espouse sola Scriptura, as far as I can see.

In the same document, we find many other similar comments from Theodoret:

You ought to have been persuaded by the apostolic and prophetic proofs; but since you require further the interpretations of the holy Fathers I will also furnish you, God helping me, this medicine.

This supports my position rather than yours, because he is saying that some people require further authoritative interpretations from Church officials. So Theodoret provided it. The guy didn’t accept what he “ought” to have accepted. This is precisely the Catholic point: the Scripture is usually clear, but some will not accept it. This causes divisions; therefore, an authoritative standard of orthodoxy must exist to prevent doctrinal relativism and institutional division.

Why does Theodoret say that his opponent should have been satisfied with scripture if, in fact, he should have been unsatisfied with scripture, knowing that scripture must be read along with the interpretations of an infallible church hierarchy?

Because you don’t understand how Catholic authority works, which is why you keep caricaturing it. The correct interpretation of how the authority works was just explained.

Similarly, Theodoret comments:

You stand in need of no interpretation from without. The evangelist himself interprets himself.

Oftentimes this is true. But not always. You said yourself that many parts of Scripture are not clear and that you (like Dionysius) do not understand the book of Revelation.

Theodoret, this time in Dialogue 2, continues:

I am not so rash as to say anything concerning which divine Scripture is silent.

After making this comment, Theodoret goes on to quote scripture itself . . .

Wonderful. A man after my own heart! I love Scripture. I quote it quite a bit too!

We find comments like the ones quoted above from Theodoret over and over again in his writings, not only in the Dialogues, but also in his letters and elsewhere.

And if you wander around my website you’ll see me cite Scripture constantly as well. I have cited it far more than you do in this very discussion, as a matter of fact. According to your stunted logic in this regard, I must adhere to sola Scriptura and you would adhere to some semblance of solo traditio, since you have cited hardly any Scripture.

Dave has quoted some other passages from the broader context of Theodoret to argue that he wouldn’t have been referring to sola scriptura in the passage I originally cited. Yet, most of the passages Dave cites aren’t even relevant.

Of course; a convenient way to ignore them, so you don’t have to do any work.

(I’ll be discussing one exception below.) Dave mentions that Theodoret believed in things like tradition and apostolic succession. I never argued otherwise. To the contrary, if Dave had consulted my other segments on Theodoret, he would have seen that not only do I not argue that Theodoret rejected such concepts, but I even document how his views on such subjects were different from or contrary to the Roman Catholic perspective. I cited some of the same passages Dave cited . ..

Do such comments prove that Theodoret was a Roman Catholic who rejected sola scriptura? No, and Roman Catholic apologists would realize the irrelevance of this passage from Theodoret if they paid more attention to details.

Do such comments as he makes about Scripture prove that he accepted sola Scriptura? No, and anti-Catholic apologists such as yourself would realize the irrelevance of your arguments from such passages from Theodoret if they paid more attention to context (historical and literary) and logic.

Theodoret refers to the scripture interpretations of people like Ignatius, Athanasius, and Basil. But, as I’ve documented in earlier segments of this series, those church fathers disagreed with some of the doctrines of Roman Catholicism.

So what? That doesn’t prove that Theodoret is not accepting them as authorities as to the Christian tradition.

[ . . . ]

When Theodoret refers to the scripture interpretations of his predecessors and the teachings of Nicaea, he’s referring to subordinate authorities, not the Roman Catholic concept of an unbiblical tradition that’s just as authoritative as scripture.

You haven’t proven that. But I cited a passage where he said that he made the Council of Nicaea his “rule.” Luther didn’t do that. He made his own judgment his rule. So did Calvin. He simply assumes he is right where he differs from the Catholic Church and proceeds blithely on.

Dave, if an Evangelical tells you that he follows the Apostles’ Creed, and he tells you that he’s keeping the faith of men such as Jonathan Edwards and Charles Spurgeon, do you conclude that he rejects sola scriptura, since the Apostles’ Creed and men such as Edwards and Spurgeon are not scripture?

No, since my own discussion list used to use acceptance of the Nicene Creed as the criteria of who was a Christian. That’s beside the point. Keep assuming I am ignorant about how Protestants think. That will work in my favor.

Dave did cite a passage that can reasonably be interpreted as a contradiction ofsola scriptura:

I follow the laws and rules of the apostles. I test my teaching by applying to it, like a rule and measure, the faith laid down by the holy and blessed Fathers at Nicaea. (Letter 90)

Dave might be correct. Theodoret may be contradicting sola scriptura in this passage. Or he could be saying that he follows Nicaea as an accurate reflection of Biblical teaching, much as the Reformed often evaluate each other’s orthodoxy and their own orthodoxy by means of the Westminster Confession.

Excellent. I’m answering as I read, so the passage I picked out as my best is the one you think is the best. We actually agree on something . . . Following your logic, however, since he doesn’t mention Scripture as his Rule of Faith here, we can assume that he doesn’t incorporate Scripture in his faith at all. He only mentions the apostles and a council, so that proves he is “apostles-only” and “councils-only.”

If Theodoret did contradict sola scriptura in some passages, though the passages Dave cited don’t show it, I don’t know how that would prove that Theodoret wasn’t referring to sola scriptura in the passage I cited.

This is what I find somewhat humorous. Rather than giving a great Christian mind the benefit of the doubt, that he was self-consistent, you immediately judge him as inconsistent, so that you can continue to maintain that he accepted sola Scriptura in one place, while rejecting it in another. This belittles the Fathers and I find it condescending. It makes much more sense to try to incorporate both utterances into a harmonious whole if it is at all plausible to do so. My viewpoint does that.

Appealing to material sufficiency doesn’t explain the passage I cited, and none of the passages Dave has cited prove that Theodoret held such a view. And if he was to prove that Theodoret believed in material sufficiency, I don’t know how he would prove that it was Roman Catholic material sufficiency.

Back to that again. That is not my task. My goals in this dispute are not yours, which is precisely why I chose to narrow down the subject matter to sola Scriptura. All I’m trying to prove is that these Fathers did not accept sola Scriptura, and that your “proofs” claiming that they did are inadequate and inconclusive.


Theodoret and his opponent refer to scripture itself just before and just after Theodoret says that he’ll yield to scripture alone. If “scripture alone” means “scripture and the interpretations of the church”, why do Theodoret and his opponent repeatedly refer to the text of scripture itself and say that the text itself is sufficient? That’s not material sufficiency. That’s formal sufficiency.

He refers to it in the sense that Vincent of Lerins referred to it:

. . . 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. For Novatian expounds it one way, Sabellius another, Donatus another, Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, another, Photinus, Apollinaris, Priscillian, another, Iovinian, Pelagius, Celestius, another, lastly, Nestorius another. Therefore, it is very necessary, on account of so great intricacies of such various error, that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of Ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation.(Commonitory 2:5).

Theodoret doesn’t refer to Nicaea itself as the rule. He refers to the faith laid down at Nicaea as the rule. That could be a reference to the authority of Nicaea itself, or it could be a reference to the authority of the faith, regardless of whether that faith is expressed at Nicaea, in an individual church father, or in some other source.

Secondly, Theodoret doesn’t say that he has to follow this rule. That could be what he means, but that isn’t what he says. He could mean no more than what the Reformed mean when they examine themselves and examine other people by the standard of the Westminster Confession.

He “could,” but does he? That is your task. If all you can do is play with words and speculate, rather than assert from definite statements, then this shows (again) how very weak your case is. The fact remains that you can’t produce definite proofs. No Father talks like, e.g., the well-known 19th-century Presbyterian theologian Charles Hodge:

5. Perspicuity of the Scriptures. The Right of Private JudgmentThe Bible is a plain book. It is intelligible by the people. And they have the right and are bound to read and interpret it for themselves, so that their faith may rest on the testimony of the Scriptures and not on that of the Church. Such is the doctrine of Protestants on this subject.

It is not denied that the Scriptures contain many things hard to understand, that they require diligent study, that all men need the guidance of the Holy Spirit in order to come to right knowledge and true faith. But it is maintained that in all things necessary to salvation they are sufficiently plain to be understood even by the unlearned . . .

If the Scriptures be a plain book, and the Spirit performs the function of a teacher to all the children of God, it follows inevitably that they must agree in all essential matters in their interpretation of the Bible. And from that fact it follows that for an individual Christian to dissent from the faith of the universal Church (i.e., the body of true believers) is tantamount to dissenting from the Scriptures themselves.

What Protestants deny on this subject is that Christ has appointed any officer, or class of officers, in His Church to whose interpretations of the Scriptures the people are bound to submit as of final authority. What they affirm is that He has made it obligatory upon every man to search the Scriptures for himself and determine on his own discretion what they require him to believe and to do . . .

The most obvious reasons in support of the right of private judgment are:

(1) The obligations to faith and obedience are personal. Every man is responsible for his religious faith and moral conduct. He cannot transfer that responsibility to others, nor can others assume it in his stead. He must answer for himself; and if he must answer for himself, he must judge for himself . . .

(2) The Scriptures are everywhere addressed to the people and not to the officers of the Church either exclusively or specially . . . To forbid the people to read and interpret the Scriptures for themselves is, therefore, not only to deprive the people of a divine right, but to interpose between them and God, and to prevent their hearing His voice, that they may listen to the words of men.

(3) [cites John 5:39, 2 Tim 3:15, Gal 1:8-9, and Deut 13:1-3] . . . This again assumes that the people had the ability and the right to judge, and that they had an infallible rule of judgment. It implies, moreover, that their salvation depended on their judging rightly . . .

(4) It need hardly be remarked that this right of private judgment is the great safeguard of civil and religious liberty . . . [break in original]

6. Rules of Interpretation

If every man has the right and is bound to read the Scriptures and to judge for himself what they teach, he must have certain rules to guide him in the exercise of this privilege and duty. These rules are not arbitrary. They are not imposed by human authority. They have no binding force which does not flow from their own intrinsic truth and propriety. They are few and simple . . . .

[his rules are: a) plain historical sense; b) self-consistency and Scripture interprets Scripture; c) guidance by the Holy Spirit and necessity of being “spiritually minded” to properly interpret]

The fact that all the true people of God in every age and in every part of the Church, in the exercise of their private judgment, in accordance with the simple rules stated above, agree as to the meaning of Scripture in all things necessary either in faith or in practice, is a decisive proof of the perspicuity of the Bible and of the safety of allowing the people the enjoyment of the divine right of private judgment.

. . . the right of private judgment. This, as understood by the Reformers, is the right of every man to decide what a revelation made by God to him requires him to believe. It was a protest against the authority assumed by the Church (i.e., the bishops) of deciding for the people what they were to believe. It was very natural that the fanatical, in rejecting the authority of the Church, should reject all external authority in matters of religion. They understood by the right of private judgment the right of every man to determine what he should believe from the operations of his own mind and from his own inward experience, independently of the Scriptures .(Systematic Theology, abridged edition; edited by Edward N. Gross, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1988 — originally 1872 –, 92-95, 66; my bolding)

No Father thinks or talks like this. This is the Protestant position. If you think otherwise, then prove it. You have not yet. Not by a mile . . .

Therefore, the council is not their ‘rule,’ but sola Scriptura and individualistic private judgment is. The individual is the final arbiter.

This is another example of how you don’t understand even some of the most basic issues under discussion. If Protestants make themselves “the final arbiter” by interpreting scripture for themselves, then it logically follows that you make yourself “the final arbiter” by interpreting Nicaea and other church documents for yourself. What you’re doing is comparing the Roman Catholic rule of faith (Nicaea, etc.) to the Protestant method of interpreting their rule of faith (personal judgment). That’s a false comparison. It’s a fundamental logical error.

Then Hodge is guilty of it as well, since he speaks of the layman’s “infallible rule of judgment” and writes:

. . . the right of private judgment. This, as understood by the Reformers, is the right of every man to decide what a revelation made by God to him requires him to believe. It was a protest against the authority assumed by the Church (i.e., the bishops) of deciding for the people what they were to believe.

So you are again out of touch with the best exponents of your own system. First you dissent from the best Protestant historians; now you want to differ on basic definitions of sola Scriptura and their implications, with well-respected theologians. Yet you keep charging that I don’t understand the basic issues.

No Roman Catholic can say that, since you must consult church teaching as well. You can’t accept anything from the Biblical text, no matter how clear it seems to you, unless you know it’s acceptable to the church.

This is a caricature of Catholic teaching, as I have stated three or four times already. Rather than deal with yet another of your falsehoods, I’ll simply refer readers to a relevant paper: The Freedom of the Catholic Biblical Exegete / Bible Passages that the Church has Definitively Interpreted.

See my earlier citations from the First and Second Vatican Councils regarding the necessity of following the church’s interpretation of scripture. Scripture alone is never sufficient in Roman Catholicism.

Nor is it in any Christian tradition, as I noted in my above-cited paper. So, for example, if I read Scripture and conclude that a believer can fall away, and am a member of a Reformed church, and I inform them of this, I will be deemed a heretic and booted out, and I’ll be told that I don’t know how to interpret Scripture. If I do the same in a Baptist church and conclude from scripture that infants ought to be baptized, they won’t take kindly to that and will claim that I don’t know how to read the Bible.

If I am a LCMS Lutheran and decide (based on the Bible) that baptismal regeneration is false or that the Eucharist is merely symbolic, I’ll soon be an outcast in that community and it’ll be said that I don’t know how to read the Bible, etc. Yet if the Catholic Church dares to say that certain doctrines are true and others false, and to then (quite reasonably) disallow certain biblical interpretations as heterodox, this is a monstrous and terrible thing.

I used to be told in the Assemblies of God church that I attended, that we should correct our pastors from the Bible if we felt they were wrong. Our pastor was fond of passionately crying out during sermons, “keep your pastors honest.” So I followed his advice. Result? I was virtually excommunicated and denounced from the pulpit in paranoid, hysterical, thinly veiled sermons.

I didn’t say that Theodoret was inconsistent. You haven’t given any examples of him contradicting sola scriptura. What I said is that if he contradicted sola scriptura in one place, that wouldn’t necessarily prove that he didn’t ever advocate it.

Is he #3 on your illustrious list of quasi-Protestant Fathers? Is this the official pronouncement? Don’t keep us in suspense!

You’ve argued that when Theodoret refers to “scripture alone”, he means “scripture and the interpretations of the church”. But the text doesn’t support your argument. “Scripture alone” doesn’t mean “scripture and church teaching”. The context doesn’t support your argument either. Theodoret repeatedly appeals to the text of scripture itself, and he repeatedly says that the text itself is sufficient. That’s formal sufficiency, not material sufficiency.

I appeal back to my earlier arguments.



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