Did the Church Fathers Believe in Sola Scriptura by Joseph Gallegos

Did the Church Fathers Believe in Sola Scriptura?

by Joseph Gallegos

William Webster in an essay titled "Sola Scriptura and the Early Church" has attempted to transform the early Church Fathers into proponents of sola Scriptura. In my contribution in Not by Scripture Alone (Santa Barbara:Queenship,1997) Chapter 8 and the Appendix, I delineate three approaches used by Protestant apologists in defending sola Scriptura in patristic thought. Mr. Webster has chosen the third approach; equating sola Scriptura with the material sufficiency of Scripture.

Mr. Webster writes:

"The Reformation was responsible for restoring to the Church the principle of sola Scriptura, a principle which had been operative within the Church from the very beginning of the post apostolic age. Initially the apostles taught orally but with the close of the apostolic age all special revelation that God wanted preserved for man was codified in the written Scriptures. Sola Scriptura is the teaching and belief that there is only one special revelation from God that man possesses today, the written Scriptures or the Bible, and that consequently the Scriptures are materially sufficient and are by their very nature as being inspired by God the ultimate authority for the Church."

Two points are to be noted here. First, Mr. Webster equates sola Scriptura with the material sufficiency of Scripture. Second, according to Mr. Webster, the Reformers were responsible for restoring this narrow understanding of sola Scriptura. Sola Scriptura consists of a material and a formal element. First, sola Scriptura affirms that all doctrines of the Christian faith are contained within the corpus of the Old and New Testaments. Hence, Scripture is materially sufficient. Secondly, Scripture requires no other coordinate authority such as a teaching Church or Tradition in order to determine its meaning. Sola Scriptura affirms the formal sufficiency of Scripture. Catholics are allowed to affirm Scripture’s material sufficiency, therefore Mr. Webster’s case directed at proving the Fathers belief in Scripture’s material sufficiency is completely off target. In order for Mr. Webster to make his case for sola Scriptura he must prove that the Fathers affirmed the formal sufficiency of Scripture. The Fathers affirmed both the material sufficiency and formal insufficiency of Scripture.

Mr. Webster states:

"And there is no appeal in the writings of these fathers to a Tradition that is oral in nature for a defense of what they call Apostolic Tradition. The Apostolic Tradition for Irenaeus and Tertullian is simply Scripture."

Notice the sleight of hand by Mr. Webster. He equates St. Irenaeus’s and Tertullian’s understanding of Tradition to mean Scripture. Both of these Fathers clearly understood Tradition as a substantive and coordinate authority alongside Scripture. These same Fathers believed that the doctrines of the Catholic Church are found in Tradition as well as in Scripture. However, they do not make the misguided conclusion that Tradition is equated to Scripture since Tradition includes the same doctrines that Scripture contains. The primary difference between Scripture and Tradition is that they convey the same teaching but through different mediums. One transmits the doctrines via the written Scriptures while Tradition transmits these same doctrines through the life, faith and practice of the Church. If Scripture is equated with Tradition than the writings of St. Irenaeus and Tertullian are reduced to nonsense.

St. Irenaeus writes as if he was anticipating proto-Protestants:

"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...It comes to this, therefore, that these men do now consent neither to Scripture or tradition" (Against Heresies 3,2:1).

"Suppose there arise a dispute relative to some important question among us, should we not have recourse to the most ancient Churches with which the apostles held constant intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question? For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary, [in that case,] to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they did commit the Churches?" (Against Heresies 3,4:1).

According to Irenaeus, Tradition is substantive in content, normative in authority and continues to live in the Apostolic churches. Likewise Tertullian writes:

"Error of doctrine in the churches must necessarily have produced various issues. When, however, that which is deposited among many is found to be one and the same, it is not the result of error, but of tradition. Can any one, then, be reckless enough to say that they were in error who handed on the tradition" (Prescription against the Heretics,28).

Similarly, the words of Tertullian are reduced to nonsense if we apply Mr. Webster’s understanding of Tradition.

Mr. Webster continues:

"Irenaeus and Tertullian had to contend with the Gnostics who were the very first to suggest and teach that they possessed an Apostolic oral Tradition that was independent from Scripture. These early fathers rejected such a notion and appealed to Scripture alone for the proclamation and defense of doctrine."

First, St. Irenaeus and Tertullian had no issue with the concept of an authoritative Tradition alongside Scripture. Their criticism of the Gnostics was with a tradition that was private and available to only the Gnostic elect in contrast to a Tradition that was public, above board, taught and preserved by the Catholic Church. This was the point that was foisted in the face of the Gnostics by St. Irenaeus and Tertullian:

"But, again, when we refer them to that tradition which originates from the apostles, [and] which is preserved by means of the successions of presbyters in the Churches, they object to tradition, saying they themselves are wiser..." (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3,2:2).

"His testimony, therefore, is true, and the doctrine of the apostles is open and steadfast, holding nothing in reserve; nor did they teach one set of doctrines in private, and another in public" (Against Heresies 3,15:1).

"[The Apostles] next went forth into the world and preached the same doctrine of the same faith to the nations. They then in like manner rounded churches in every city, from which all the other churches, one after another, derived the tradition of the faith, and the seeds of doctrine, and are every day deriving them, that they may become churches. Indeed, it is on this account only that they will be able to deem themselves apostolic, as being the offspring of apostolic churches. Every sort of thing must necessarily revert to its original for its classification. Therefore the churches, although they are so many and so great, comprise but the one primitive church, (founded) by the apostles, from which they all (spring). In this way all are primitive, and all are apostolic, whilst they are all proved to be one, in (unbroken) unity, by their peaceful communion and title of brotherhood, and bond of hospitality, — privileges which no other rule directs than the one tradition of the selfsame mystery" (Tertullian, On Prescription Against the Heretics 20).

Mr. Webster’s understanding that the Fathers appealed to Scripture alone is simply a fantasy.

In support of Mr. Webster’s novel idea that St. Irenaeus and Tertullian embraced sola Scriptura he cites Ellen Flessman-Van Leer, a non-Catholic scholar. Unfortunately for Mr. Webster, Ellen Flessman-Van Leer has written in depth and without equivocation on St. Irenaeus’ and Tertullian’s understanding of Apostolic Tradition. Mr. Webster wants to leave us with the impression that Van Leer and the Fathers embraced sola Scriptura. Nothing could be further from the truth.

"For Irenaeus, on the other hand, tradition and scripture are both quite unproblematic. They stand independently side by side, both absolutely authoritative, both unconditionally true, trustworthy, and convincing" (Tradition and Scripture in the Early Church, p139).

Elsewhere Van Leer comments on Tertullian:

"Tertullian says explicitly that the apostles delivered their teaching both orally and later on through epistles, and the whole body of this teaching he designates with the word traditio...This is tradition in the real sense of the word. It is used for the original message of the apostles, going back to revelation, and for the message proclaimed by the church, which has been received through the apostles" (ibid.,pp. 146,147,168).

Van Leer concludes:

"Irenaeus and Tertullian point to the church tradition as the authoritative locus of the unadulterated teaching of the apostles, they can no longer appeal to the immediate memory, as could the earliest writers. Instead they lay stress on the affirmation that this teaching has been transmitted faithfully from generation to generation. One could say that in their thinking, apostolic succession occupies the same place that is held by the living memory in the Apostolic Fathers" (ibid., p.188).

Clearly, Mr. Webster has not understood Van Leer, St. Irenaeus and Tertullian. Mr. Webster continues:

"The Bible was the ultimate authority for the fathers of the patristic age. It was materially sufficient and the final arbiter in all matters of doctrinal truth. As J.N.D. Kelly has pointed out: ‘The clearest token of the prestige enjoyed by (Scripture) is the fact that almost the entire theological effort of the Fathers, whether their aims were polemical or constructive, was expended upon what amounted to the exposition of the Bible. Further, it was everywhere taken for granted that, for any doctrine to win acceptance, it had first to establish its Scriptural basis’ (Early Christian Doctrines, San Francisco: Harper & Row,1978,pp. 42,46).’"

Here we have Mr. Webster misrepresenting the faith of J.N.D. Kelly, the Anglican patristic scholar. Interesting how Mr. Webster failed to cite the following from the same work:

"It should be unnecessary to accumulate further evidence. Throughout the whole period Scripture and tradition ranked as complementary authorities, media different in form but coincident in content. To inquire which counted as superior or more ultimate is to pose the question in misleading terms. If Scripture was abundantly sufficient in principle, tradition was recognized as the surest clue to its interpretation, for in tradition the Church retained, as a legacy from the apostles which was embedded in all the organs of her institutional life, an unerring grasp of the real purport and meaning of the revelation to which Scripture and tradition alike bore witness" (Early Christian Doctrines, pp. 47-48).

Mr. Webster then cites several paragraphs from St. Cyril of Jerusalem, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Basil the Great in support of sola Scriptura. Mr. Webster summarizes his findings in the ancient Church:

"These fathers are simply representative of the fathers as a whole. Cyprian, Origen, Hippolytus, Athanasius, Firmilian, Augustine are just a few of the fathers that could be cited as proponents of the principle of sola Scriptura, in addition to Tertullian, Irenaeus, Cyril and Gregory of Nyssa. The early Church operated on the basis of the principle of sola Scriptura and it was this historical principle that the Reformers sought to restore to the Church."

For a complete rebuttal to the above claim I refer to my contribution in Not by Scripture Alone (Santa Barbara: Queenship, 1997), Chapter 8 "What did the Church Fathers teach about Scripture, Tradition and Church" and Appendix: "A Dossier of Church Fathers on Scripture and Tradition."

There are a couple of recurring themes throughout the writings of the Church Fathers on the rule of faith. First, the Fathers affirmed that the most perfect expression of the Apostolic faith is to be found in Sacred Scripture. The Fathers affirmed the material sufficiency of Scripture. According to the Fathers, all doctrines of the Catholic faith are to be found within its covers. Secondly, the Fathers affirmed in the same breath and with equal conviction that the Apostolic faith also has been transmitted to the Church through Tradition. According to the Fathers, the Scriptures can only be interpreted within the Catholic Church in light of her Sacred Tradition. The Fathers, particularly those who combated heresies, affirmed that the fatal flaw of heretics was interpreting Scripture according to their private understanding apart from mother Church and her Tradition. In sum, when the Fathers affirmed the sufficiency and authority of Scripture, they did so not in a vacuum, but within the framework of an authoritative Church and Tradition. Let me cite passages from the same Fathers Mr. Webster used.

St. Cyril of Jerusalem(c.A.D 315-386), Doctor and Catholic bishop of Jerusalem between A.D.348-350 writes: "But in learning the Faith and in professing it, acquire and keep that only, which is now delivered to thee by the CHURCH, and which has been built up strongly out of all the SCRIPTURES" (Catechetical Lectures, 5:12).

Mr. Webster provided this passage but I add it here to draw attention to St. Cyril’s Catholic understanding of the rule of faith. Elsewhere, St. Cyril points to the Church not to Scripture for the definition of the canon: "Learn also diligently, and from the Church, what are the books of the Old Testaments, and what those of the New" (Catechetical Lectures ,4:33).

St. Gregory of Nyssa(c.A.D. 335-394),brother of St. Basil the Great, Doctor of the Catholic Church and bishop of Nyssa writes:

"[F]or it is enough for proof of our statement, that the TRADITION has come down to us from our fathers, handed on, like some inheritance, by succession from the apostles and the saints who came after them. They, on the other hand, who change their doctrines to this novelty, would need the support of arguments in abundance, if they were about to bring over to their views, not men light as dust, and unstable, but men of weight and steadiness: but so long as their statement is advanced without being established, and without being proved, who is so foolish and so brutish as to account the teaching of the evangelists and apostles, and of those who have successively shone like lights in the churches, of less force than this undemonstrated nonsense?" (Against Eunomius,4:6).

St. Basil the Great(A.D. 329-379), Doctor of the Catholic Church, bishop of Caesarea, and brother St. Gregory of Nyssa’s writes:

"Of the dogmas and kergymas preserved in the Church, some we possess from written teaching and others we receive from the tradition of the Apostles, handed on to us in mystery. In respect to piety both are of the same force. No one will contradict any of these, no one, at any rate, who is even moderately versed in manners ecclesiastical. Indeed, were we to try to reject the unwritten customs as having no great authority, we would unwittingly injure the Gospel in its vitals; or rather, we would reduce kergyma to a mere term" (Holy Spirt 27:66).

Irenaeus, Cyril of Jerusalem, Gregory of Nyssa, and Basil are the only Fathers cited by Mr. Webster in support of sola Scriptura. I have provided passages from these same Fathers to provide the necessary balance. It would be easy for anyone to cut and paste the Fathers to their liking, however to find the authentic faith of a Father we must look at their entire writings.

It is clear the early Church Fathers appealed to Tradition alongside Scripture. This Tradition was normative, substantive, available to all, and preserved by the Apostolic Churches, particularly the See of Rome.


Joseph A. Gallegos is a graduate of the University of California, Irvine and West Coast University, Los Angeles. He is very active in Catholic Apologetics, having created Corunum Apologetics BBS in 1992, and an international web site (https://www.cin.org/users/jgallegos) for his expertise on patristic thought regarding the Papacy and Tradition. He is the author of What Did The Church Fathers Teach About Scripture, Tradition, and Church Authority in Not By Scripture Alone (Queenship Publishing, 1997).