Sola Scriptura’s Refutation in the 5th Century

Sola Scriptura’s Refutation in the 5th Century February 11, 2022

Did you know that the sixteenth century Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura was actually refuted in 431 AD by St. Vincent of Lerins? Allow to explain.

Who Should Interpret Scripture?

In the fourth chapter of his Commontorium, St. Vincent muses about who has the proper authority to interpret Scripture. His musings sound very modern. He wonders if there is a principle to properly discern between orthodoxy (right belief) and the “falsehood of heresy.”

He states:

“I have continually given the greatest pains and diligence to inquiring, from the greatest possible number of men outstanding in holiness and in doctrine, how I can secure a kind of fixed and, as it were, general and guiding principle for distinguishing the true Catholic Faith from the degraded falsehoods of heresy…?” [emphasis mine]

Many Scriptural Paths to Heresy

St. Vincent then takes up the difficulty of scriptural interpretation and how the improper use of Scripture leads many down a path toward heresy. He concluded all Scriptural interpretation must accord with that of the Catholic Church.

“Here, it may be, someone will ask, Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and is in itself abundantly sufficient, what need is there to join to it the interpretation of the Church? The answer is that because of the very depth of Scripture all men do not place one identical interpretation upon it. The statements of the same writer are explained by different men in different ways, so much so that it seems almost possible to extract from it as many opinions as there are men.

Novatian expounds in one way, Sabellius in another, Donatus in another, Arius, Eunomius and Macedonius in another, Photinus, Apollinaris and Priscillian in another, Jovinian, Pelagius and Caelestius in another, and latterly Nestorius in another. Therefore, because of the intricacies of error, which is so multiform, there is great need for the laying down of a rule for the exposition of Prophets and Apostles in accordance with the standard of the interpretation of the Church Catholic.” [emphasis mine]

Apostolic Authority, the Catholic Church, and Proper Interpretation

Finally, he then reaffirms this interpretive principle for all possible theological issues that may arise. One can turn to the Church Fathers, but even these “opinions” must be in line with, and in continuation and communion with, the Catholic Church.

“But what if some error arises regarding which nothing of this sort is to be found? Then he must do his best to compare the opinions of the Fathers and inquire their meaning, provided always that, though they belonged to diverse times and places, they yet continued in the faith and communion of the one Catholic Church;” [emphasis mine]

To read the full chapter, click here.

Sola Scriptura in the Ancient Church

The interpretative principle espoused by St. Vincent regarding the questions of who can properly interpret Scripture is the earliest formal warning against sola scriptura. The practice of sola scripture was not merely a 16th century innovation used to codify the divergent theological beliefs of the Reformers. On the contrary, sola scriptura IS the historical modus operandi for the justification for ALL theological beliefs that diverge from those held by the historic Church. The ONLY legitimacy both early heretics and later Protestant Reformers had for their beliefs were found in their ability to use “Scripture alone” to justify those beliefs. Without “Scriptural support,” their beliefs were merely unauthoritative opinion and held no weight.

Moreover, I do separate early heretics from Protestant Reformers. The latter’s acceptance of the Church’s Christology and Trinitology, which was the focus of early heretical beliefs, is not the Reformer’s error. Their error is of a totally different kind, even though the method to reach these errors were fundamentally the same. Martin Luther and John Calvin, for all their faults, were not foolish enough to attempt a full redefinition of Christianity. They recognized the early councils regarding the nature of Christ and the Trinity and they left those dogmas alone.

The date of St. Vincent’s Commontorium also gives it weight in this historical assessment of sola scripture. The Commontorium was written just after the Council of Ephesus (431 AD). St. Vincent lists all the major heretics of the early Church up to his own time (Nestorius). He demonstrates that the one unifying commonality amongst the variation of their beliefs is their universal reliance on, and misinterpretation of, Scripture alone. Let’s look at Arius and the Arians heresy of the 4th century to demonstrate this point.

The Arian Controversy 

Arius (d. 336) was a Cyrenaic (Libyan) presbyter who taught that God the Son was the first created being and that “there was a time when He was not.” The Son was therefore a creature. As the first creature created out of nothing, God created the Son and thus became the “Father” at that point. God then used the created Son to create the world out of nothing. For further reading, click here. If Arius was alone and had no followers or adherents, his heresy would have died with him. Sadly, such was not the case. His numerous followers led Constantine to call the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325 AD.

The Arian Use of Sola Scriptura

Arius’ greatest concern, the foundation of this theological position, was his belief that pagan philosophy had infiltrated the Church. According to Arius, and those who followed after him, those who support the eventual “orthodox” position, did so by adopting words and concepts foreign to Scripture, especially in declaring that the Father and the Son shared the same “essence” or ousia (homoousia). This word, and its entire concept, Arius viewed as an innovation of bishops who stood in direct opposition to Scripture. The Arian 3rd Council of Sirmium summarizes this claim plainly:

“But since many persons are disturbed by questions concerning what is called in Latin substantia, but in Greek ousia, that is, to make it understood more exactly, as to ‘coessential,’ or what is called, ‘like-in-essence,’ there ought to be no mention of any of these at all, nor exposition of them in the Church, for this reason and for this consideration, that in divine Scripture nothing is written about them, and that they are above men’s knowledge and above men’s understanding;” [emphasis mine]

Furthermore, Arius and his followers believed theirs was the “orthodox” or “biblical” position. They supported their view by “Scripture alone,” not by an appeal to “extra-biblical” words and concepts absent from Scripture. To them, “Scripture alone” had the final say, not “extra-biblical” pagan philosophy pushed by deceived bishops.

Does this argument sound familiar?

The Use and Abuse of Scripture

The use and abuse of Scripture to propagate heresy was not an innovation of the 16th century. It is as old as the written Word (Bible) itself. Wherever there exist individuals who claim to know better, or to have “special” insight into what “the bible teaches,” there will always be the allure of authority over others that comes with sola scriptura. Whereas the interpretive principle of St. Vincent seeks to contextualize scriptural interpretation within the Catholic Church, sola scriptura seeks to “extract from it [Scripture] as many opinions as there are men.” Therefore, it is no accident that most Protestant confessions start with a support of sola scriptura. They MUST do so.

Protestant Confessions Use of Sola Scriptura:

Sixty-Seven Articles of Zwingli (1523): Opening Statement

Augsburg Confession (1530): Preface Paragraph 8

French Confession of Faith (1559): Article 2 and 3 (1 is a short confession on God’s nature)

Belgic Confession (1561): Article 2 and 3 (1 is a short confession on God’s nature)

39 Articles of Faith (1563): Article VI

The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) Chapter 1: Of the Holy Scripture

1689 Baptist Confession Chapter 1: Of the Holy Scriptures

In conclusion, the above confessions teach varying doctrines. The foundation and justification for this variety of belief is sola scriptura. Devoid of scriptural support, these “confessions” are mere group opinion documents. Therefore, they require an authority easily manipulated that offers no possibility for objection. The Scripture (Bible) has no will or ability to resist misinterpretation – and Protestants want it no other way.


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