St. Thomas Aquinas and Sola Scriptura:
"...only canonical Scripture is a measure of faith..." (Commentary on John 21)

            Thomas Aquinas and Sola Scriptura

And a review of Keith Mathison's The Shape of Sola Scriptura

The Protestant/evangelical/Reformed apologist Tim Enloe writes in a thread on Gary Hoge's EZBoard on some Latin from St. Thomas Aquinas,

<< Or maybe you'd prefer Aquinas in Latin, since the following citation has such an interesting little phrase about Scripture in it (I've bolded it for you) >>

Notandum autem, quod cum multi scriberent de catholica veritate, haec est differentia, quia illi, qui scripserunt canonicam Scripturam, sicut Evangelistic et Apostoli, et alii huiusmodi, ita constanter eam asserunt quod nihil dubitandum relinquunt. Et ideo dicit Et scimus quia verum est testimonium eius; Gal. I, 9: Si quis vobis evangelizaverit praeter id quod accepistis, anathema sit. Cuius ratio est, quia sola canonica scriptura est regula fidei. Alii autem sic edisserunt de veritate, quod nolunt sibi credi nisi in his quae ver dicunt. Thomas's commentary on John's Gospel, Super Evangelium S. Ioannis Lectura, ed. P. Raphaelis Cai, O.P., Editio V revisa (Romae: Marietti E ditori Ltd., 1952) n. 2656, p. 488.


"It should be noted that though many might write concerning Catholic truth, there is this difference that those who wrote the canonical Scripture, the Evangelists and Apostles, and the like, so constantly assert it that they leave no room for doubt. That is what he means when he says 'we know his witness is true.' Galatians 1:9, "If anyone preach a gospel to you other than that which you have received, let him be anathema!" The reason is that only canonical Scripture is a measure of faith. Others however so wrote of the truth that they should not be believed save insofar as they say true things." (St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of John 21)

This was answered a number of years ago in an article in Catholic Dossier (March/April 1996 issue) by an Aquinas expert, Dr. Ralph McInerny. The issue is available online here

St. Thomas Aquinas on Sola Scriptura

The article in Catholic Dossier (March/April 1996) cites the passage from Aquinas above, and responds to its misapplication by the French Catholic theologian Florent Gaboriau, who suggested in a 1985 book (Theologie Nouvelle and repeated in an article in the Revue Thomiste) this makes the usual opposition of evangelical Protestants and Catholics on sola scriptura dubious --

<< Does Thomas say that Scripture alone is the measure of our faith? The words Gaboriau has quoted are from Thomas's commentary on John's Gospel, Super Evangelium S. Ioannis Lectura, ed R. Cai, OP, Marietti: Roma, 1952, n. 2656. Thomas is commenting on John's peroration, "This is the disciple who bears witness concerning these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his witness is true. There are, however, many other things that Jesus did; but if every one of these should be written, not even the world itself, I think, could hold the books that would have to be written. Amen" (John 21:24-25). In the paragraph Gaboriau cites, Thomas is concerned with "and we know his witness is true." Here is the text... [then follows the above passage in English]...It is clear that Thomas is contrasting canonical and apocryphal works and saying that only the former have credence for Christians. The issue Gaboriau is interested in simply does not arise in this passage. >>

Dr. Norman Geisler has used the same citation from St. Thomas I believe first in his evangelical book on Aquinas (1991) then repeated in his Forward to Elliot Miller/Ken Samples book on Catholic Mariology The Cult of the Virgin (Baker, 1992). Here is an excerpt from Geisler's Forward to the latter book:

"First of all, the Roman Catholic doctrine on Mary has gone well beyond Holy Scripture. But even the great Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas affirmed that 'only the canonical Scriptures are normative for faith' (Commentary on John 21, lect. 6). In going beyond Scripture in their teachings about Mary, Roman Catholics have threatened Scripture as the sole authority of the faith. This is one reason why those dedicated to the principle of Sola Scriptura cannot avoid addressing this issue." (Norm Geisler, forward to The Cult of the Virgin)

A few years later Geisler/MacKenzie enlisted a few additional passages from Aquinas in their otherwise excellent Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences (Baker, 1995) to suggest Aquinas held to sola scriptura. These were all answered competently in Not By Scripture Alone: A Catholic Critique of the Protestant Doctrine of Sola Scriptura(Queenship, 1997) edited by Robert Sungenis:

"Aquinas also said: 'The formal object of faith is Primary Truth as manifested in Holy Scripture and in the teaching of the Church which proceeds from the Primary Truth. hence, he who does not embrace the teaching of the Church as a divine and infallible law does not possess the habit of faith' [from Summa Theologica, II-II, q. 5, a. 3]. Thus one can easily see that not only does Aquinas direct his reader to the Church, but he also emphasizes that the Church houses the truth of Scripture, and that the Church, not just the Scripture is a divine and infallible entity. This is quite different from the impression the present Protestant apologist [referring to Geisler/MacKenzie] conveys to an untrained reader." (Not By Scripture Alone, page 324, see also page 372ff).

Ignoring this answer in Not By Scripture Alone, Webster/King in their large defense of sola scriptura titled Holy Scripture: The Ground and Pillar of Our Faith (2001) again picked up these citations from Geisler (or possibly from the French theologian Gaboriau) and tried to use them to suggest St. Thomas Aquinas believed in sola scriptura (which they define as both the material and formal sufficiency of Scripture). On Aquinas, William Webster states the following:

"This position [referring to a paragraph quoted by Alister McGrath on sola scriptura] was well expressed by Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century. Norman Geisler comments...."

A paragraph from Geisler's book (Thomas Aquinas: An Evangelical Appraisal) is then cited concerning Aquinas' view of the inspiration, inerrancy, and high authority of Scripture. Then Webster continues:

"The Scriptures held a place of supreme authority in the Church. In a quotation previously referenced, Aquinas echoed the sentiments of Basil of Caesarea and Augustine, stating that the teaching of the fathers was received as authoritative only when it could be demonstrated that it was true to Scripture. He taught that Scripture alone was the canonical standard of doctrine, and therefore the foundation and source of truth for the faith of the Church: 'Only canonical Scripture is the rule of faith' (quia sola canonica scriptura est regula fidei). Note that he used the term sola Scriptura." (Webster, Holy Scripture: The Ground and Pillar of Our Faith, volume 2, page 87-88)

Is Webster representing accurately the full view of St. Thomas Aquinas? Let's look at this issue of "sola scriptura" in Aquinas (I will use his primary work the Summa Theologica).

First, what does it mean that "only canonical Scripture is a measure [or rule] of faith" (note the translation at the top and in Webster's footnote 293, page 197 reads: "A measure of faith" not "THErule of faith"). What St. Thomas is doing is contrasting Scripture to other apocryphal or non-canonical writings (as noted by Catholic Dossier above). And Catholics/Orthodox today would agree. Aquinas was not opposing "the canonical Scriptures" against the Church or her tradition which he also affirmed was a measure, a rule for faith and practice. In other words, St. Thomas is notsaying sacred tradition is not ALSO A rule for faith and practice. How do I know this? He says so below.

From something I posted to James White's old sola scriptura Email list (from June 1996). Anti-Catholic evangelical apologist Eric Svendsen was on that list, as well as Greg Krehbiel (at that time still Protestant)


Eric Svendsen wrote --

ES> Paul tells us in 2 Thess 2:15 that his teaching was sometimes written and sometimes passed along orally: "Hold to the teachings we passed on to you whether by word of mouth or by letter." Yet, it was, in any case, the *same* message. No appeal can legitimately be made to this passage to introduce the notion of an on-going oral tradition that was to be held on par with (yet as different from) Paul's written instructions to the churches. >>

Greg Krehbiel responded --

GK> When I asked, last week, how you thought 1 Cor. 11:34 related to 2 Thes. 2:15, you replied in a very literal manner, as if I were claiming that the precise teachings alluded to in 1 Cor. 11 were in view in 2 Thes. 2. My point was that 1 Cor. 11 shows that some apostolic teachings go beyond what is written in Scripture, and that in 2 Thes. 2 Paul exerts us to hold fast to all the teachings, not just the written ones. >>

Here is something from St. Thomas Aquinas SUMMA THEOLOGICA that I found

ST Third Part, Question 64, Article 2 on "Whether the Sacraments are instituted by God alone?"

OBJECTION 1: For those things which God has instituted are delivered to us in Holy Scripture. But in the Sacraments certain things are done which are nowhere mentioned in Holy Scripture. For instance, the chrism with which men are confirmed, the oil with which the priests are anointed, and many others, both words and actions, which we employ in the Sacraments. Therefore, the Sacraments were not instituted by God alone.

REPLY 1: Human institutions observed in the Sacraments are not essential to the Sacrament, but belong to the solemnity which is added to the Sacraments in order to arouse devotion and reverence in the recipients. But those things that are essential to the Sacrament are instituted by Christ Himself, who is God and man.

And though they are not all handed down by the Scriptures, yet the Church holds them from the intimate tradition of the Apostles, according to the saying of the Apostle : 'THE REST I WILL SET IN ORDER WHEN I COME' (1 Cor 11:34).

Concerning 2 Thessalonians 2:15, I found the following from St. Thomas

ST Third Part, Question 25, Article 3 on Worship (veneration) of Images

OBJECTION 4: seems that nothing should be done in the Divine worship that is not instituted by God; therefore the Apostle when about to hand down the doctrine of the Sacrifice of the Church, says: 'I HAVE RECEIVED OF THE LORD THAT WHICH I DELIVERED UNTO YOU' (1 Cor 11:23). But Scripture does not lay down anything concerning the adoration [i.e. veneration] of images.

REPLY 4: The Apostles, led by the inward stirring of the Holy Ghost, handed down to the churches certain instructions which they did not leave in writing, but which have been ordained in accordance with the observance of the Church as practiced by the faithful as time went on. Therefore the Apostle says: 'STAND FAST, AND HOLD THE TRADITIONS WHICH YOU HAVE LEARNED, WHETHER BY WORD' -- that is by word of mouth -- 'OR BY OUR EPISTLE' -- that is by word put into writing (2 Thess 2:15)....

On the relation of the Scripture to the Church, St. Thomas wrote [this one I got from Joe Gallegos, and it appears later in Not By Scripture Alone] --

ST II-II, Question 5, Article 3

The formal object of faith is Primary Truth as manifested in Holy Scripture and in the teaching of the Church which proceeds from the Primary Truth. Hence, he who does not embrace the teaching of the Church as a divine and infallible law does not possess the habit of faith.

Now of course you might disagree with these assertions but at least we have what this great Doctor of the Church believed. St. Thomas is well-respected among certain Reformed theologians as R.C. Sproul and John Gerstner -- See Thomas Aquinas : An Evangelical Appraisal by Norm Geisler (Baker Books, 1991). I also find it curious how Geisler tries to make it appear Aquinas believed in sola scriptura in his Roman Catholics and Evangelicals (Baker, 1995).

END of 6/96 Sola-L post

The full passage on the infallible nature of the Church's teaching office is below in a different English translation and can be found online at here

Objection 3. Further, just as man obeys God in believing the articles of faith, so does he also in keeping the commandments of the Law. Now a man can obey some commandments, and disobey others. Therefore he can believe some articles, and disbelieve others.

On the contrary, Just as mortal sin is contrary to charity, so is disbelief in one article of faith contrary to faith. Now charity does not remain in a man after one mortal sin. Therefore neither does faith, after a man disbelieves one article.

I answer that, Neither living nor lifeless faith remains in a heretic who disbelieves one article of faith.

The reason of this is that the species of every habit depends on the formal aspect of the object, without which the species of the habit cannot remain. Now the formal object of faith is the First Truth, as manifested in Holy Writ and the teaching of the Church, which proceeds from the First Truth. Consequently whoever does not adhere, as to an infallible and Divine rule, to the teaching of the Church, which proceeds from the First Truth manifested in Holy Writ, has not the habit of faith, but holds that which is of faith otherwise than by faith. Even so, it is evident that a man whose mind holds a conclusion without knowing how it is proved, has not scientific knowledge, but merely an opinion about it. Now it is manifest that he who adheres to the teaching of the Church, as to an infallible rule, assents to whatever the Church teaches; otherwise, if, of the things taught by the Church, he holds what he chooses to hold, and rejects what he chooses to reject, he no longer adheres to the teaching of the Church as to an infallible rule, but to his own will. Hence it is evident that a heretic who obstinately disbelieves one article of faith, is not prepared to follow the teaching of the Church in all things; but if he is not obstinate, he is no longer in heresy but only in error. Therefore it is clear that such a heretic with regard to one article has no faith in the other articles, but only a kind of opinion in accordance with his own will.

From St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II, Question 5, Article 3

So the great Angelic Doctor never separated the "Holy Writ" (the canonical Scriptures) from the infallible teaching of the Catholic Church -- in fact he says one who does not hold to the teaching of the Church as a divine and infallible rule does not have a true faith. Further we see in my two citations from the Summa Theologica that Aquinas indeed appealed to Apostolic Sacred Tradition as a rule for faith and practice (see above from ST, Third Part, q. 64 a. 2, his citing 1 Corinthians 11:34 and ST, Third Part q. 25 a. 3, his citing 2 Thessalonians 2:15).

Review of Keith Mathison's The Shape of Sola Scriptura

Honest book but has some mistakes (April 2, 2003)

I recommend this book over the massive Webster/King volumes. Its shorter, more honest, clears up misunderstandings, and concedes a lot of ground to the Catholic/Orthodox position. The true doctrine of "SOLA scriptura" according to Mathison is that Scripture is the sole source of infallible revelation that is interpreted in and by the visible Church. The false doctrine of "SOLO scriptura" is Scripture as interpreted solely by the individual Christian ignoring the authority of the Church. He brings out that distinction throughout the book and demolishes a lot of so-called "Evangelical" misconceptions, and critiques some Catholic/Orthodox ones.

First, Mathison concedes a ton. For example: We have no evidence demonstrating that the Church considered the Apostles teaching to be entirely confined to written documents (page 21). The concept of tradition in the Fathers designated the body of doctrine committed to the Church by the Lord or His Apostles whether oral or written (21). The Scripture is to be interpreted in and by the Church within the regula fidei (rule of faith). Taken out of this context, it would inevitably be mishandled (this point is constantly repeated and emphasized: page 48, also 81, 85, 120, 140, 147, 150, 151, 167, 267).

In the early centuries it was not possible to go to a book store and buy a copy of the Bible. Manuscripts were hand-copied, some churches had only portions. Only gradually was the New Testament accepted. Large segments of the Church were illiterate for centuries (247-248).

On the nature of the Church, Mathison says: The Church is the pillar and ground of the truth, established by Christ, given by Him the authority to "bind and loose" that is not given to every member of the Church as individuals. The Church is Christ's body and bride, "the instrument through which God makes the truth of His Word known" (Eph 3:10). And outside the Church there is no salvation (extra ecclesiam nulla salus) refers to the VISIBLE Church according to Mathison (268). The Church is "our mother," "the pillar and ground, the interpreter, teacher, and proclaimer of God's Word...the Christian who rejects the authority of the Church rejects the authority of the One who sent her" (Luke 10:16).

And "it is to the Church as a visible body that we must turn to find the true interpretation and preaching of the good news of Christ. It is therefore to the Church that we must turn for the true interpretation of the Scripture, for it is in the Scripture that the gospel is found" (268-270). There are leaders in the Church "to whom we owe obedience and submission (Heb 13:17)" (272).

Wonderful, quite Catholic. The problem is in IDENTIFYING WHICH visible Church and therefore TO WHOM we are to be submitted. And Mathison admits this is a problem and that Evangelical "ecclesiology" is a mess (319-320 and his chapter on "solo scriptura").

But the Church is fallible and "when this fallible Church does err, it is her responsibility to correct herself according to the final and perfect standard of Scripture." (page 269) How is that done? Who speaks for the visible Church when she errs? Who corrects the Church?

On the Fathers and medieval doctors: he cites Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Cyprian (22-29) then Athanasius, Hilary of Poitiers, Cyril of Jerusalem (29-32) as adherents of "Tradition 1" = one-source concept of tradition which he says "was universally held for the first three centuries of the Church" (page 32).

However: how is this possible when no Fathers before St. Athanasius had a 27-book NT canon? Apparently, the true doctrine of "sola scriptura" can be held to without anyone knowing what the NT Scriptures are. That to me is a problem. He says "In his entire debate with the Arians, Athanasius never appeals to any plural 'traditions' " (30). But dozens of examples can be found, at least five here (De Synodis 7, 14, 47, To the Bishops of Africa 10, Festal Letter 2:6, 7). He cites Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom, and Augustine as probable adherents of "Tradition 2" = two-source concept of tradition.

St. John Chrysostom clearly makes "the specific distinction between what is written and what is unwritten..." (39) St. Augustine "clearly asserts the authority of scriptural revelation, he also suggests that there is an authoritative extra-scriptural oral tradition" (e.g. infant baptism) and he "advocated a two-source concept of tradition" (40, 41, 42). St. Vincent of Lerins rejects the formal sufficiency of Scripture, while accepting its material sufficiency (44) and "argues that Scripture must be interpreted by the Church because heretics have repeatedly promoted their own various false interpretations..." (44) Agreed.

After citing the Orthodox scholar Florovsky on Vincent, Mathison says this is "completely consistent with the early father's concept of tradition" (45). I agree since (like Vincent) none of the Fathers taught the "formal sufficiency" of Scripture, even if they may have taught "material sufficiency" or Mathison's Tradition 1 (as Yves Congar has demonstrated in Tradition and Traditions).

On Aquinas (77) he needs to check the Sungenis/Gallegos reference from the Summa Theologica to the teaching of the Catholic Church as "an infallible and divine rule" (ST II-II, Q. 5, A. 3) and Aquinas comments on 1 Cor 11:34 and 2 Thess 2:15 (ST Third Part, Q. 64, A. 2 and ST Third Part, Q. 25, A. 3).

Overall, very helpful book. I disagree with his Catholic critiques and many of the old tired issues he brings up (Matthew 16 and Rock, the Papacy, "problem" popes, Unam Sanctam vs. Vatican II) have been adequately answered by Catholic apologists.

Phil Porvaznik