Protestant apologists, in tackling the topic of sola Scriptura and whether the Church fathers believed in it or not, very often argue as follows:
Church Father X believes in sola Scriptura, because, look, see!: he praises Scripture in this place and that, and another over there, and says that Christians ought to read the Bible to learn theology! Obviously, then, he agrees with the formal Protestant principle of sola Scriptura! Who could possibly doubt it?
But this is fallacious and illogical through and through. The proper approach to this topic and what a given Church father believed is as follows:
Sola Scriptura (as classically defined by Protestants) means that Scripture is the only final infallible norm and source and standard (rule of faith) for Christian doctrine and faith. It follows from this, that neither the Church, nor ecumenical councils, nor popes, nor sacred, apostolic tradition, nor apostolic succession are infallible sources of authority. They are usually respected by the thinking Protestant, and regarded as authoritative to a degree, but not infallibly so.
We must, therefore, look to see if Church father X thinks Scripture is formally sufficient for authority (not just materially sufficient, which we agree with) without the necessary aid of tradition and the Church, or if he does not, as indicated in other statements. A thinker’s statements regarding Christian authority must be evaluated in context of all of his thought in this area, rather than having pieces taken out and then claiming that they “prove” something that they do not, in fact, prove at all.
In other words, even if we find a quote where a father seems (at first glance) to be stating something akin to sola Scriptura (since he is writing about the Bible without immediate reference to Church or tradition), we must examine what he believes about the (binding?, infallible?) authority of tradition, Church (including ecumenical councils), and apostolic succession, because the very question at hand (what is the rule of faith?) has to do with the relation of all those things (all but Scripture being non-infallible, according to sola Scriptura).
For that reason, their beliefs concerning all these other elements have to be examined, in order to understand properly how they views their relationship vis-a-vis each other, and whether or not they adhere to sola Scriptura. as the rule of faith. If they hold to the infallible authority of anything besides Scripture, they do not believe in sola Scriptura.
The Protestant always puts the Bible above Church and tradition, and denies that the latter two can be infallible. Catholics and Orthodox believe in a three-legged stool, where, practically-speaking, Church and tradition have equal authority with Scripture, because they are the necessary framework and interpretive grid through which Scripture can be properly interpreted in an orthodox sense.
With this in mind, we proceed to determine whether St. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, believed in sola Scriptura, or the Catholic rule of faith. The material below is from Philip Schaff’s 38-volume collection of the Church fathers. Protestant historian Schaff wrote about the rules of St. Cyprian with regard to the rule of faith:
His views are briefly as follows:
The Catholic church was founded from the first by Christ on St. Peter alone, that, with all the equality of power among the apostles, unity might still be kept prominent as essential to her being. She has ever since remained one, in unbroken episcopal succession; as there is only one sun, though his rays are everywhere diffused. Try once to separate the ray from the sun; the unity of the light allows no division. Break the branch from the tree; it can produce no fruit. Cut off the brook from the fountain; it dries up. Out of this empirical orthodox church, episcopally organized and centralized in Rome, Cyprian can imagine no Christianity at all; not only among the Gnostics and other radical heretics, but even among the Novatians, who varied from the Catholics in no essential point of doctrine, and only elected an opposition bishop in the interest of their rigorous penitential discipline. Whoever separates himself from the catholic church is a foreigner, a profane person, an enemy, condemns himself, and must be shunned. No one can have God for his father, who has not the church for his mother. As well might one out of the ark of Noah have escaped the flood, as one out of the church be saved; because she alone is the bearer of the Holy Spirit and of all grace. (History of the Christian Church, Vol. II: Ante-Nicene Christianity: A.D. 100-325, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1970, from the fifth edition of 1910, section 53, 172-173)
These, doubtless, they imitate and follow, who, despising God’s tradition, seek after strange doctrines, and bring in teachings of human appointment, whom the Lord rebukes and reproves in His Gospel, saying,You reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your own tradition.[Mark 7:9] (Treatise I: On the Unity of the Church, 19)
. . . in conformity with the requirements alike of the sanctity and the truth of the divine tradition and ecclesiastical institution, . . . (Epistle 41: To Cornelius, 1)
. . . God’s tradition . . . (Epistle 51: To Antonianus, 24)
. . . contrary to the ordinance and tradition of the Gospel, . . . (Epistle 54: To Cornelius, 5)
[W]e also ought not therefore to be unmindful of the divine tradition, . . . (Epistle 54: To Cornelius, 17)
Concerning which matters, since you have desired our advice, know that we do not depart from the traditions of the Gospel and of the apostles, but with constancy and firmness take counsel for our brethren and sisters, and maintain the discipline of the Church by all the ways of usefulness and safety, . . . (Epistle 61: To Pomponius, 1)
I know, dearest brother, that very many of the bishops who are set over the churches of the Lord by divine condescension, throughout the whole world, maintain the plan of evangelical truth, and of the tradition of the Lord, and do not by human and novel institution depart from that which Christ our Master both prescribed and did; . . . if any one is still kept in this error, he may behold the light of truth, and return to the root and origin of the tradition of the Lord. (Epistle 62: To Caecilius, 1)
. . . so that the evangelical law and the Lord’s tradition may be everywhere kept, and there be no departure from what Christ both taught and did. (Epistle 62: To Caecilius, 17)
. . . keep the truth of the Lord’s tradition, . . . (Epistle 62: To Caecilius, 19)
. . . laying aside the errors of human dispute, we return with a sincere and religious faith to the evangelical authority and to the apostolic tradition, . . . (Epistle 72: To Jubaianus, 15)
But what is that blindness of soul, what is that degradation of faith, to refuse to recognise the unity which comes from God the Father, and from the tradition of Jesus Christ the Lord and our God! (Epistle 73: To Pompey, 4)
For if we return to the head and source of divine tradition, human error ceases; . . . if in any respect the truth have wavered and vacillated, we should return to our original and Lord, and to the evangelical and apostolic tradition; . . . (Epistle 73: To Pompey, 10)
. . . the divine tradition. (Epistle 73: To Pompey, 11)
. . . the evangelical and apostolic tradition, . . . (Epistle 75: To Magnus, 3)
[N]or can he who forsakes the Church of Christ attain to the rewards of Christ. He is a stranger; he is profane; he is an enemy. He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother. (Treatise I: On the Unity of the Church, 6)
Do you think that you can stand and live if you withdraw from the Church, building for yourself other homes and a different dwelling, . . . ? . . . nor is there any other home to believers but the one Church. (Treatise I: On the Unity of the Church, 8)
He Himself ordained and made the Church . . . (Treatise I: On the Unity of the Church, 13)
They cannot dwell with God who would not be of one mind in God’s Church. (Treatise I: On the Unity of the Church, 14)
Does he think that he has Christ, who acts in opposition to Christ’s priests, who separates himself from the company of His clergy and people? He bears arms against the Church, he contends against God’s appointment. An enemy of the altar, a rebel against Christ’s sacrifice, for the faith faithless, for religion profane, a disobedient servant, an impious son, a hostile brother, despising the bishops, and forsaking God’s priests, he dares to set up another altar, . . . (Treatise I: On the Unity of the Church, 17)
[N]either do they depart from the peace of the Church, who remember that they have obtained grace in the Church by the condescension of God . . . (Treatise I: On the Unity of the Church, 22)
God is one, and Christ is one, and His Church is one, and the faith is one, and the people is joined into a substantial unity of body by the cement of concord. (Treatise I: On the Unity of the Church, 23)
Is any one greater than God, or more merciful than God’s goodness, that he should either wish that undone which God has suffered to be done, or, as if God had too little power to protect His Church, should think that we could be preserved by his help? (Treatise III: On the Lapsed, 20)
There is one God, and Christ is one, and there is one Church, and one chair founded upon the rock by the word of the Lord. (Epistle 39, 5)
[W]e have exhorted them to acknowledge and hold the root and matrix of the Catholic Church. (Epistle 44: To Cornelius, 3)
I profess that I both have rendered and do render the greatest thanks without ceasing, dearest brother, to God the Father Almighty, and to His Christ the Lord and our God and Saviour, that the Church is thus divinely protected, and its unity and holiness is not constantly nor altogether corrupted by the obstinacy of perfidy and heretical wickedness. (Epistle 46: To Cornelius, 1)
[T]he Catholic Church has been shown to be one, and to be able neither to be cut nor divided. (Epistle 46: To Cornelius, 2)
[T]he Church which believes on Christ, and holds that which it has once learned, never departs from Him at all, and that those are the Church who remain in the house of God; . . . (Epistle 54: To Cornelius, 7)
[H]e who is not in the Church of Christ is not a Christian. (Epistle 51: To Antonianus, 24)
[T]here can be no salvation to any except in the Church. (Epistle 61: To Pomponius, 4)
[T]he Catholic Church, which has been appointed one and alone by the Lord . . . (Epistle 63: To Epictetus, 5)
For from this have arisen, and still arise, schisms and heresies, in that the bishop who is one and rules over the Church is contemned by the haughty presumption of some persons; and the man who is honoured by God’s condescension, is judged unworthy by men. (Epistle 68: To Florentius Pupianus, 5)
[A]lthough a rebellious and arrogant multitude of those who will not hear and obey may depart, yet the Church does not depart from Christ; and they are the Church who are a people united to the priest, and the flock which adheres to its pastor. Whence you ought to know that the bishop is in the Church, and the Church in the bishop; and if any one be not with the bishop, that he is not in the Church, . . . (Epistle 68: To Florentius Pupianus, 8)
[T]here is one Church which, having attained the grace of eternal life, both lives for ever and quickens the people of God. (Epistle 70: To Quintus, 1)
[T]he Church herself also is uncorrupted, . . . (Epistle 72: To Jubaianus, 11)
[T]here is no salvation out of the Church, . . . (Epistle 72: To Jubaianus, 21)
For the faith of the sacred Scripture sets forth that the Church is not without, nor can be separated nor divided against itself, but maintains the unity of an inseparable and undivided house; . . . (Epistle 75: To Magnus, 4)
. . . the commands which He left to us either by Himself or by His apostles? (Epistle 6: To Rogatianus, 4)
[T]hrough the changes of times and successions, the ordering of bishops and the plan of the Church flow onwards; so that the Church is founded upon the bishops, and every act of the Church is controlled by these same rulers. Since this, then, is founded on the divine law, I marvel that some, with daring temerity, have chosen to write to me as if they wrote in the name of the Church; when the Church is established in the bishop and the clergy, and all who stand fast in the faith. (Epistle 26: To the Lapsed, 1)
For this, my brother, we especially both labour after, and ought to labour after, to be careful to maintain as much as we can the unity delivered by the Lord, and through His apostles to us their successors, and, as far as in us lies, to gather into the Church the dispersed and wandering sheep which the wilful faction and heretical temptation of some is separating from their Mother; . . . (Epistle 41: To Cornelius, 3)
Now the apostles taught us those things which they themselves also learnt from the Lord’s precepts and the heavenly commands, . . . (Epistle 55: To the People of Thibaris, 2)
But deacons ought to remember that the Lord chose apostles, that is, bishops and overseers; while apostles appointed for themselves deacons after the ascent of the Lord into heaven, as ministers of their episcopacy and of the Church. (Epistle 64: To Rogatianianus, 3)
. . . Christ, who says to the apostles, and thereby to all chief rulers, who by vicarious ordination succeed to the apostles:He that hears you, hears me; and he that hears me, hears Him that sent me; and he that despises you, despises me, and Him that sent me.[Luke 10:16] (Epistle 68: To Florentius Pupianus, 4)
[T]he apostles only delivered one Church . . . (Epistle 72: To Jubaianus, 13)
I do not now recede from these things which have once been determined in our council by common agreement, . . . (Epistle 51: To Antonianus, 7)
I will consider it more at large with each one, so that a decided opinion, weighed in the council of many priests, on the subject on which you have consulted me, may be established among us, and may be written to you. (Epistle 52: To Fortunatus, 3)
But Jovinus also, and Maximus, were present as companions with the proved heretic, condemned for wicked sacrifices and crimes proved against them by the judgment of nine bishops, our colleagues, and again excommunicated also by many of us last year in a council. (Epistle 54: To Cornelius, 10)
[A]lthough long since it was decreed, in a council of the bishops, . . . (Epistle 65, 1)
. . . contrary to the rule lately made in council by the priests, . . . (Epistle 65, 2)
You say that you are wealthy and rich; but it becomes not a virgin to boast of her riches, since Holy Scripture says,What has pride profited us? Or what benefit has the vaunting of riches conferred upon us? And all these things have passed away like a shadow.[Wisdom 5:8] (Treatise II: On the Dress of Virgins, 10)
Petrine Primacy / Papacy
Peter also, to whom the Lord commends His sheep to be fed and guarded, on whom He placed and founded the Church, . . . (Treatise II: On the Dress of Virgins, 10)
Peter . . . upon whom by the Lord’s condescension the Church was founded, [Matthew 16:18] . . . (Treatise IX, 9)
There is . . . one chair founded upon the rock by the word of the Lord. (Epistle 39, 5)
Peter, upon whom by the same Lord the Church had been built, . . . (Epistle 54: To Cornelius, 7)
After such things as these, moreover, they still dare — a false bishop having been appointed for them by, heretics— to set sail and to bear letters from schismatic and profane persons to the throne of Peter, and to the chief church whence priestly unity takes its source; and not to consider that these were the Romans whose faith was praised in the preaching of the apostle, to whom faithlessness could have no access. (Epistle 54: To Cornelius, 14)
We had lately also congratulated you indeed, dearest brother, when the divine condescension, by a double honour, appointed you in the administration of God’s Church, . . . the benignant and liberal protection of the Lord has brought you back again to His own with the same glory, and with praises to you; that so the shepherd might be restored to feed his flock, and the pilot to manage the ship, and the ruler to govern the people; and that it might appear that your banishment was so divinely arranged, . . . (Epistle 57: To Pope Lucius, 1)
Peter speaks there, on whom the Church was to be built, . . . (Epistle 68: To Florentius Pupianus, 8)
[T]he Holy Spirit is one, and the Church founded by Christ the Lord upon Peter, by a source and principle of unity, is one also. (Epistle 69: To Januarius, 3)
Peter, whom first the Lord chose, and upon whom He built His Church, . . . he held the primacy, . . . (Epistle 70: To Quintus, 3)
Peter, upon whom He built the Church, . . . (Epistle 72: To Jubaianus, 7)
. . . the Church which is one, and is founded upon one who has received the keys of it by the Lord’s voice? (Epistle 72: To Jubaianus, 11)
For much more on sola Scriptura: see my Bible, Tradition, Canon, & “Sola Scriptura” web page.
For documentation of many more Church fathers who rejected sola Scriptura, see the “Bible” section of my Fathers of the Church web page.
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Summary: St. Cyprian rejected sola Scriptura & accepted the authority of the Catholic Church, apostolic succession, sacred tradition, councils, & the papacy centered in Rome.