For concerning the divine and holy mysteries of the Faith, not even a casual statement must be delivered without the Holy Scriptures…Even to me, who tell thee 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).
It is a real shame that many Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox decry the idea of sola scriptura. This idea, that all doctrine and dogma can only be derived from God’s word, would have been taken for granted by the church fathers.
What we are going to have here is not an exhaustive study of what the church fathers thought about Scripture. Much of it is not my own original research and credit is owed to Bible.ca.
Even though we are going to cover explicit references from the church fathers that Scripture alone carries final authority and that it is expected that Christians can profit from reading the Scripture, it is important to note that my opinion is that their general sentiment reflects a sola scriptura worldview. You can just “tell” by the emphasis Scripture has in their writings.
Unlike the writings of a modern Roman Catholic who might appeal to “tradition” more than Scripture in order to substantiate ideas, there is the opposite emphasis among the fathers. While they may talk about tradition sometimes, it is clear that their primary source of tradition is Scripture alone. If this model was good enough for them, it should be for us.
Many Protestants are unaware that the key theological difference between them and what is today Catholicism/Orthodox is that they have a tradition that is to be taken seriously alongside the Scripture. Also, many are ignorant about what the Bible itself says about this tradition: “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2; see also 2 Thes 2:5)
Apparently, there was important stuff that Paul told people to remember. The Triune nature of God, held uniformly by the early church but not explained in detail in the Bible, would seem to be one of these things. However, as we will see, the “tradition” according to the fathers is what we have in Scripture. It is not some mysterious unwritten stuff that has been vaguely handed down via apostolic succession.
There is good reason to believe what Paul talks about in 2 Timothy 2:2 is covered in verses 8 to 13, and 2 Thes 2:5 is likely covered by the substance of 1 Thessalonians and subsequently in the rest of the chapter. We then have confidence that “the sacred writings … are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:15-16).
I am unaware of any tradition, outside of Scripture, that is like this. Irenaeus writes of how he views Scripture as authoritative: “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” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, book 3, 1, 1).
Some argue that Irenaeus is vaguely speaking of oral tradition, handed down via apostolic succession. We know this to be wrong for two reasons. First, grammatically we know that “the ground and pillar of our faith” can only refer to Scripture, not “the plan of our salvation” or anything else in the sentence. Second, Irenaeus gives us a glimpse into what he does consider tradition:
While speaking of illiterate barbarians that rely upon tradition and not the written word he says that they have “salvation written in their hearts by the Spirit, without paper or ink, and, carefully preserving the ancient tradition, believing in one God, the Creator of heaven and earth, and all things therein, by means of Christ Jesus, the Son of God; who, because of His surpassing love towards His creation, condescended to be born of the virgin, He Himself uniting man through Himself to God, and having suffered under Pontius Pilate, and rising again, and having been received up in splendour, shall come in glory, the Saviour of those who are saved, and the Judge of those who are judged, and sending into eternal fire those who transform the truth, and despise His Father and His advent” (Against Heresies, book 3, 4, 1-2).
Interestingly enough, that tradition is the same as the Scripture! It is not anything new, different, or can abrogate something explicit in it. As Irenaeus warns: “When, however, they [heretics] 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, Book 3, Ch 2, 1).
First, it is interesting that the modern EO and RCC will accuse Protestants of being unable of extracting truth from Scripture because of their ignorance of a supposed “tradition.” Second, any reference of Irenaeus to “tradition” and apostolic succession should be read in light of the fact he didn’t view the tradition as separate from Scripture at all, and when he speaks of tradition what is found is Scriptural, as we seen in the previous paragraph. Therefore, it is his position that those who assumed the role of Bishop from the apostles had the correct interpretation of Scripture, not that they passed along important extra-biblical information (something the heretics he spoke of claimed.)
It should not be surprising that if you read those who wrote before him, such as Ignatius and Clement, they quote no other authority other than Scripture. Generally, the only thing in which “tradition” is appealed to is in matters of ecclesiology, but even then the basis for even this is found in Scripture anyway, much like the creed Irenaeus just referred to. Obviously, tradition is Scripture, or when the written word is unavailable, it is the oral tradition of Gospel preaching that has found its way in Scripture anyhow.
This is not only my assumption, but also Clement of Alexandria’s when he writes “those [who] have a craving for glory who voluntarily evade, by arguments of a diverse sort, the things delivered by the blessed apostles and teachers, which are wedded to inspired words; opposing the divine tradition by human teachings , in order to establish the heresy” (Scripture the Criterion by Which Truth and Heresy are Distinguished, Book 7, Chap 16).
Concerning tradition, it appears that Cyprian of Carthage was also in agreement that church tradition was authoritative: “Let nothing be innovated, says he, nothing maintained, except what has been handed down,” he writes. “Whence is that tradition? Whether does it descend from the authority of the Lord and of the Gospel, or does it come from the commands and the epistles of the apostles,” he continues. He then goes on to answer in the affirmative, “For that those things which are written must be done, God witnesses and admonishes, saying to Joshua the son of Nun: ‘The book of this law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate in it day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein.'” (To Pompey, Against the Epistle of Stephen About the Baptism of Heretics, Chapter 2)
Hippolytus stipulated that the source of doctrine for Christians is the Bible: “Not according to our own will, nor according to our own mind, nor yet as using violently those things which are given by God, but even as He has chosen to teach them by the Holy Scriptures, so let us discern them” (Against Noetus, ch 9).
Athanasius, defender of the doctrine of the Trinity, sees the Scripture as equivalent to tradition, saying that “our faith is right, and starts from the teaching of the Apostles and tradition of the fathers, being confirmed both by the New Testament and the Old” (To Adelphius, Letter 60, 6).
Tertullian went further yet, discounting any tradition that is not sourced in Scripture itself: “Let us inquire, therefore, whether tradition, unless it be written, should not be admitted. Certainly we shall say that it ought not to be admitted, if no cases of other practices which, without any written instrument, we maintain on the ground of tradition alone” (The crown or De Corona, ch 3). Or, in plain English, a tradition that has no bearing in the written word of Scripture “ought not to be admitted.”
This is similar to Cyprian’s warning: “Nor ought custom, which had crept in among some, to prevent the truth from prevailing and conquering; for custom without truth is the antiquity of error. On which account, let us forsake the error and follow the truth” (Epistle 73:9).
Now that we have substantiated that the Scripture was viewed as authoritative and not divorced from tradition, let’s move onto the sufficiency of Scripture. As one can see in the following, the church fathers did not portray relatively informed Christians as incapable of interpreting the Bible.
Clement of Alexandria didn’t feel that one had to be a priest to be like the Berean Jews or Timothy (2 Tim 3:14-15) in order to search the Scriptures to distinguish between heresy and orthodox doctrine. Instead he felt that all those with a faith in God will seek for answers in Scripture: “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” (Scripture the Criterion by Which Truth and Heresy are Distinguished, Book 7, Chap 16).
Athanasius noted that “since holy Scripture is of all things most sufficient for us, … to those who desire to know more of these matters, [ought] to read the Divine word” (To the Bishops of Egypt, Ch 1, 4). According to the RCC or EO, “those who desire to know” could only be clergy and not laity.
But, what if there are church fathers who taught contradicting teachings on Scripture? I believe it to be wise to follow the wisdom of Basil: “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, Letter 189, 3). So, if any RCC or EO folks want to accuse me of making incorrect assumptions, then show me where I am wrong from the Scripture. Tradition demands it.