Sola Scriptura in the Early Church

The debate over sola Scriptura or the sufficiency of Scripture as the sole infallible rule of faith is the area where Catholic apologists believe they have the strongest argument. I have already responded to the most common objections to sola Scriptura, but here I will be demonstrating from church history that sola Scriptura is the historic belief of the early church, not the invention of Protestants:

“Such, then, is their system, which neither the prophets announced, nor the Lord taught, nor the apostles delivered, but of which they boast that beyond all others they have a perfect knowledge. They gather their views from other sources than the Scriptures” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.8.1).

“We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith. For it is unlawful to assert that they preached before they possessed ‘perfect knowledge,’ as some do even venture to say, boasting themselves as improvers of the apostles” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.1.1).

“When, however, they are confuted from the Scriptures, they turn round and accuse these same Scriptures, as if they were not correct, nor of authority, and [assert] that they are ambiguous, and that the truth cannot be extracted from them by those who are ignorant of tradition. For [they allege] that the truth was not delivered by means of written documents, but vivâ voce” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.2.1).

“But those who are ready to toil in the most excellent pursuits, will not desist from the search after truth, till they get the demonstration from the Scriptures themselves” (Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 7.16).

“There is, brethren, one God, the knowledge of whom we gain from the Holy Scriptures, and from no other source. . . . So all of us who wish to practice 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 look; and whatever things they teach, these let us learn” (Hippolytus, Against Noetus 9).

“Vainly then do they run about with the pretext that they have demanded Councils for the faith’s sake; for divine Scripture is sufficient above all things; but if a Council be needed on the point, there are the proceedings of the Fathers, for the Nicene Bishops did not neglect this matter, but stated the doctrine so exactly, that persons reading their words honestly, cannot but be reminded by them of the religion towards Christ announced in divine Scripture” (Athanasius, De Synodis 6).

“These are fountains of salvation, that they who thirst may be satisfied with the living words they contain. In these alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness. Let no man add to these, neither let him take ought from these. For concerning these the Lord put to shame the Sadducees, and said, ‘Ye do err, not knowing the Scriptures.’ And He reproved the Jews, saying, ‘Search the Scriptures, for these are they that testify of Me’” (Athanasius, 39th Festal Letter).

“For how can we adopt those things which we do not find in the holy Scriptures?” (Ambrose, On the Duties of the Clergy 1.23.102).

“Have thou ever in your mind this seal, which for the present has been lightly touched in my discourse, by way of summary, but shall be stated, should the Lord permit, to the best of my power with the proof from the Scriptures. For concerning the divine and holy mysteries of the Faith, not even a casual statement must be delivered without the Holy Scriptures; nor must we be drawn aside by mere plausibility and artifices of speech. Even to me, who tell you these things, give not absolute credence, unless thou receive the proof of the things which I announce from the Divine Scriptures. For this salvation which we believe depends not on ingenious reasoning, but on demonstration of the Holy Scriptures” (Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 4.17).

“Now mind not my argumentations, for perhaps you may be misled but unless thou receive testimony of the Prophets on each matter, believe not what I say: unless thou learn from the Holy Scriptures concerning the Virgin, and the place, the time, and the manner, receive not testimony from man. For one who at present thus teaches may possibly be suspected: but what man of sense will suspect one that prophesied a thousand and more years beforehand? If then you seek the cause of Christ’s coming, go back to the first book of the Scriptures” (Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 12.5).

“It would be the instigation of a demonical spirit to follow the conceits of the human mind, and to think anything divine, beyond what has the authority of the Scriptures” (Theophilus of Alexandria, Epistola 96; PL 22:778).

“But as we do not deny what is written, so we do reject what is not written” (Jerome, Against Helvidius 21).

“We are not entitled to such licence, I mean that of affirming what we please; we make the Holy Scriptures the rule and the measure of every tenet; we necessarily fix our eyes upon that, and approve that alone which may be made to harmonize with the intention of those writings” (Gregory of Nyssa, On the Soul and the Resurrection).

“The hear­ers taught in the Scrip­tures ought to test what is said by teach­ers and accept that which agrees with the Scrip­tures but reject that which is for­eign” (Basil of Caesarea, Moralia 72).

“Therefore let God-inspired Scripture decide between us; and on whichever side be found doctrines in harmony with the word of God, in favour of that side will be cast the vote of truth” (Basil of Caesarea, Letter 189).

“Enjoying as you do the consolation of the Holy Scriptures, you stand in need neither of my assistance nor of that of anybody else to help you to comprehend your duty. You have the all-sufficient counsel and guidance of the Holy Spirit to lead you to what is right” (Basil of Caesarea, Letter 283).

“Wherefore I exhort and entreat you all, disregard what this man and that man thinks about these things, and inquire from the Scriptures all these things; and having learned what are the true riches, let us pursue after them that we may obtain also the eternal good things” (John Chrysostom, Homilies on Second Corinthians, Homily 13).

“What more shall I teach you than what we read in the apostles? For Holy Scripture fixes the rule for our doctrine, lest we dare be wiser than we ought. Therefore I should not teach you anything else except to expound to you the words of the Teacher” (Augustine, Of the Good of Widowhood 2).

“It is to the canonical Scriptures alone that I am bound to yield such implicit subjection as to follow their teaching, without admitting the slightest suspicion that in them any mistake or any statement intended to mislead could find a place” (Augustine, Letter 82.3.24).

“For the reasonings of any men whatsoever, even though they be Catholics, and of high reputation, are not to be treated by us in the same way as the canonical Scriptures are treated. We are at liberty, without doing any violence to the respect which these men deserve, to condemn and reject anything in their writings, if perchance we shall find that they have entertained opinions differing from that which others or we ourselves have, by the divine help, discovered to be the truth. I deal thus with the writings of others, and I wish my intelligent readers to deal thus with mine” (Augustine, Letter 148.15).

“You are wont, indeed, to bring up against us the letters of Cyprian, his opinion, his Council; why do ye claim the authority of Cyprian for your schism, and reject his example when it makes for the peace of the Church? But who can fail to be aware that the sacred canon of Scripture, both of the Old and New Testament, is confined within its own limits, and that it stands so absolutely in a superior position to all later letters of the bishops, that about it we can hold no manner of doubt or disputation whether what is confessedly contained in it is right and true; but that all the letters of bishops which have been written, or are being written, since the closing of the canon, are liable to be refuted if there be anything contained in them which strays from the the truth, either by the discourse of some one who happens to be wiser in the matter than themselves, or by the weightier authority and more learned experience of other bishops, by the authority of Councils; and further, that the Councils themselves, which are held in the several districts and provinces, must yield, beyond all possibility of doubt, to the authority of plenary Councils which are formed for the whole Christian world; and that even of the plenary Councils, the earlier are often corrected by those which follow them, when, by some actual experiment, things are brought to light which were before concealed, and that is known which previously lay hid, and this without any whirlwind of sacrilegious pride, without any puffing of the neck through arrogance, without any strife of envious hatred, simply with holy humility, catholic peace, and Christian charity?” (Augustine, On Baptism, Against the Donatists 2.3).

“Especially as in writings of such authors I feel myself free to use my own judgment (owing unhesitating assent to nothing but the canonical Scriptures), whilst in fact there is not a passage which he has quoted from the works of this anonymous author that disturbs me” (Augustine, On Nature and Grace 71).

“This shows that the established authority of Scripture must outweigh every other; for it derives new confirmation from the progress of events which happen, as Scripture proves, in fulfillment of the predictions made so long before their occurrence” (Augustine, Reply to Faustus the Manichaean 13.5).

“In the matters of which we are now treating, only the canonical writings have any weight with us” (Augustine, Reply to Faustus the Manichaean 23.9).

“But for us the sufficient demonstration of the soul’s immortality is the teaching of Holy Scripture, which is self-authenticating because [it is] inspired of God” (Nemesius of Emesa, On the Nature of Man, Chapter 2, Of the Soul).

“Do not, I beg you, bring in human reason. I shall yield to scripture alone” (Theodoret of Cyrus, Dialogue 1).

“All things, therefore, that have been delivered to us by the Law, and Prophets, and Apostles, we receive, and acknowledge, and confess; and beyond these, we seek not to know anything. For it is impossible for us to say, or at all think anything concerning God, beyond what has been divinely declared by the divine oracles of the Old and New Testament” (Cyril of Alexandria, De Sacrosancta Trinitate 1).

“The canonical scriptures alone are the rule (measure) of faith (Sola canonica scriptura est regula fidei)” (Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on John XXI. 24-25, paragraph 2656).

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2 thoughts on “Sola Scriptura in the Early Church

  1. This is an impressive defense of sola Scriptura – I’ve never seen so many authorities quoted in one place. My uninformed thought was that a little tradition here and a little tradition there might fill in some minor gaps in the full meaning and proper execution of our faith. Maybe not. Obviously you have done a lot of research making use of quotes from very early church luminaries. A tour de force in opposition to the heavily encrusted doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. There are of course very sincere and devout intellectuals in the Catholic Church who take a different view. It would be fascinating if you could supplement this essay with one reciting some of the evidence that Catholic intellectuals claim in support of the many extra-scriptural pronouncements of the Catholic Church. Thank you for this good work!

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