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Sola Scriptura in the Fathers

Protestants claim the early Church Fathers were sola scriptura believers. To prove this, they selectively cite the Church Fathers regarding statements concerning the sufficiency of Scripture. However, Protestants fail to acknowledge that there is a difference between the formal sufficiency of Scripture and the material sufficiency of Scripture. Protestants believe in the formal sufficiency of Scripture–the belief that all Christian truths are explicitly stated in the Bible, and Tradition and a Magisterium are not needed to interpret its plain meaning. Catholics believe in the material sufficiency of Scripture–that all Christian truths are found in Scripture, either explicitly or implicitly, but require the aid of Tradition and the Magisterium to be understood properly. The Fathers of the Church believed in the material sufficiency of Scripture, as opposed to its formal sufficiency. The Church likewise teaches that all of Christian truth is found in both Scripture and Tradition, whether explicitly or implicitly. Scripture, when it was written, did not replace Tradition. Catholic teaching is derived from the Word of God, found in Scripture and Tradition, as interpreted by the Magisterium.

St. Irenaeus writes: "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 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). Irenaeus states that both Scripture and Tradition are mediums through which the Word of God is transmitted. Tertullian states: "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). Neither of these fathers are saying that Tradition is simply Scripture, but rather a separate entity.

Other Fathers, when speaking of the sufficiency of the Scriptures, always acknowledge the material sufficiency of Scripture with the need for Tradition. According to Athanasius (Against the Heathen, 1:1), "The Holy and Inspired Scriptures are sufficient of themselves for the preaching of the Truth"; and (The Councils, 6) "For it is right and meet thus to feel, and to maintain a good conscience toward the fathers, if we be not spurious children, but have received the traditions from them, and the lessons of religion at their hands" (The Councils 47); "But our faith is right, and starts from the teaching of the Apostles and tradition of the fathers, being confirmed both by the NT and the Old" (Epistle 60). Augustine writes (On the Good of Widowhood, 2), "Holy Scripture fixes the rule for our doctrine, lest we dare to be wiser than we ought", also stated, (On Baptism, Against the Donatists 5:23[31]) "The custom [of not rebaptizing converts] . . . may be supposed to have had its origin in Apostolic Tradition, just as there are many things which are observed by the whole Church, and therefore are fairly held to have been enjoined by the Apostles, which yet are not mentioned in their writings". Basil writes (Moralia 72:1), "The hearers taught in the Scriptures ought to test what is said by teachers and accept that which agrees with the Scriptures but reject what is foreign", and states elsewhere (Holy Spirit 27), "Of the beliefs and practices whether generally accepted or enjoined which are preserved in the Church some we possess derived from written teaching; others we have delivered to us in a mystery by the Apostles by the tradition of the Apostles; and both of these in relation to true religion have the same force". Cyril of Jerusalem says (Catechetical Lectures 4,17), "In regard to the divine and holy mysteries of the faith, not the least part may be handed on without the Holy Scriptures . . . do not give ready belief, unless you receive from the Holy Scriptures the proof of the things which I announce"; and added (Catechetical Lectures, 5,12), "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". John Chrysostom says (Homily 13 on 2 Corinthians), "Therefore I beg you all that you give up what appeals to this one or that one and that you address all these questions concerning these things to the Scriptures"; and likewise said (Homilies on 2 Thess 2:15), "[The Apostles] did not deliver all things by Epistle, but many things unwritten, and in like manner both the one and the other are worthy of credit. Therefore let us think the tradition of the Church also worthy of credit. It is a tradition seek no farther"; and (Homilies on Acts 1,1), "There are many things which have been delivered by unwritten tradition".

One of the Protestants' favorite citation is from Irenaeus of Lyons: (Against Heresies 3,1) "The apostles at that time first preached the Gospel but later by the will of God, they delivered it to us in the Scriptures, that it might be the foundation and pillar of our faith". To Irenaeus, the Scriptures were indeed the foundation and pillar of the faith, but were never sufficient in themselves. Scripture required Tradition and an authoritative Church, without which the Scriptures, to Irenaeus, could not be that foundation and pillar. Their other favorite citation is from John Chrysostom: (Epis 2 ad Thess 3,4) "But when Scripture wants to teach us something like that, it interprets itself and does not permit the hearer to err . . . Everything in the divine Scriptures is clear and straightforward; they inform us about all that is necessary". This is perhaps the best quote used by Protestants to show a patristic belief in the formal sufficiency of Scripture. But Chrysostom simply means that the Scriptures are clear and straightforward only in light of Tradition and only when read according to the teaching of the Catholic Church. Origen supports the Catholic teaching of "Word of God alone": (First Principles 1,2) "The Church's preaching has been handed down through an orderly succession from the Apostles and remains in the Church until the present. That alone is to be believed as the truth which in no way departs from ecclesiastical and apostolic tradition". Epiphanius of Salamis writes: (Panarion 61,6) "But for all the divine words, there is no need of allegory to grasp the meaning; what is necessary is study and understanding to know the meaning of each statement. We must have recourse to tradition, for all cannot be received from the divine Scriptures. That is why the holy Apostles handed down certain things in writings but others by traditions. As Paul said: ‘Just as I handed them on to you'".

Vincent of Lirens sums up the teachings of the Church fathers on material sufficiency perfectly when he says: (Commonitory, 2) "Here perhaps, someone may ask: Since the canon of the Scripture is complete and more than sufficient in itself, why is it necessary to add to it the authority of ecclesiastical interpretation? As a matter of fact, Holy Scripture, because of its depth, is not universally accepted in one and the same sense. The same text is interpreted different by different people, so that one may almost gain the impression that it can yield as many different meanings as there are men. . . . Thus, because of the great distortions caused by various errors, it is, indeed, necessary that the trend of the interpretation of the prophetic and apostolic writings be directed in accordance with the rule of the ecclesiastical and Catholic meaning"; (Commonitory, 29) "It has always been the custom of Catholics, and still is, to prove the true faith in these two ways; first by the authority of the Divine Canon, and next by the tradition of the Catholic Church. Not that the Canon alone does not of itself suffice for every question, but seeing that the more part, interpreting the divine words according to their own persuasion, take up various erroneous opinions, it is therefore necessary that the interpretation of divine Scripture should be ruled according to the one standard of the Church's belief, especially in those articles on which the foundations of all Catholic doctrine rest".

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