Even though Catholics and Orthodox claim that Sola Scriptura is a 16th century invention, one would be hard pressed to find any mention in the early Church of an infallible teaching authority being found in the judgments of the Church, in the Magesterium, in oral tradition, or anywhere other than Scripture for that matter. The early church fathers appeared to be completely ignorant of there being an inerrant authority outside of the Scripture. Augustine voiced doubts over the authority of ecumenical councils and the written opinions of all the Bishops, the Council of Ephesus was held in defiance of a Papal edict, Athanasius asserted the Scripture was sufficient above all else, and no one made the claim that God spoke infallibly through anything other than the Scripture.
Now, let’s note the limits of the preceding statements of fact. From them we cannot infer that a man alone with his Bible can arrive at correct doctrines. This does not make it theoretically impossible for someone to arrive at the truth divorced from the community of believers, but even still we cannot read into the statements of the Fathers pertaining to the Scripture’s authority as an endorsement of the preceding.
Rather, I posit, the only firm conclusion we can draw from their statements is that the early Church explicitly believed that the Scripture had the authority of God speaking and they ascribed this inerrancy and infallibility to nothing else. To say that the Church ascribed inerrancy to an oral tradition, liturgy, creeds, or Canons of councils is to state a claim that no one explicitly believed. So, while Catholics and Orthodox draw inferences from the Early Church Fathers pertaining to their view of authority, Protestantism’s credo of sola scriptura is the only view of authority that explicitly has merit historically.
Inferences and Presuppositions. The danger of drawing inferences based upon preconceived notions is profound. For example, many Catholics horribly misread Irenaeus’ Against Heresies Book III Chapters 2 and 3 as “proof” of the existence of both an infallible extrabiblical tradition and Papal Infallibility. As I have shown, Irenaeus was explicitly speaking nothing of the sort.
As we can see, inferences set aside, Irenaeus’ explicit words endorses the sola scriptura view. This should not surprise us, because as we have already shown this would have been true of nearly all the Early Church Fathers when they speak of the subject.
However, you clicked on this article to read about this guy named Caius. So, why the whole long introduction?
It is my contention that Caius’ view, formulated around one generation after Irenaeus’, merely reiterates the same sort of reasoning that we have seen from the same.
Caius and Sola Scriptura. All of Caius’ writings have been lost and we know little more than the fact that he was an “ecclesiastic” (probably a preacher/priest) in Rome between the years 199 to 217 AD. What we know about him are from long block quotes coming almost entirely from Eusebius’ history of the church, and therefore there is the slight possibility he has been misquoted. Nonetheless, here’s what we know about Caius’ (and ultimately his view of Scripture)–
Against the views of “Cerinthus” (who espoused a millennial kingdom where there would be literal marriages:)
While Gnostics like Cerinthus are often portrayed as hedonists, the preceding more likely is not so much a description of an orgy as much as a portrayal of the millennial kingdom (such as Irenaeus and Papias held) with the literal description of the said kingdom in Is 65:20-23. Eusebius viewed Papias as an adherent to a similar belief. Nonetheless, while Papias did not draw any hedonistic conclusions from such a belief, followers of Cerinthius might have.
Nonetheless, it is interesting how Caius attacks this false doctrine–not as an attack on oral tradition or the authority of the Church, but rather as an attack on the Scriptures themselves. The only authority explicitly attacked by the doctrine, even though it has certain Scriptural merits, is the Scriptures themselves.
Concerning Apostolic Succession in Rome:
[T]he apostles themselves, both received and taught those things which these men [followers of Theodotus the tanner] now maintain; and that the truth of Gospel preaching was preserved until the times of Victor, who was the thirteenth bishop in Rome from Peter, and that from his successor Zephyrinus the truth was falsified. And perhaps what they allege might be credible, did not the Holy Scriptures, in the first place, contradict them.
Caius’ view of authority is remarkably similar to Irenaeus’, and is explicitly sola scriptura. As we can see, he speaks of adoptionist heretics claiming that the correct Christological doctrine (supposedly adoptionism) was preserved for 12 generations of Bishops in Rome. These Bishops, all parties agreed, “preserved” what the Apostles “received and taught.” The idea that the Popes taught adoptionism “might be credible” if it were not for the fact that “the Holy Scripture, in the first place, contradict[s] them.”
If it was well known and accepted that Bishops of Rome are infallible, then Caius would have not failed to say that Pope Zephyrinus preserves Christological orthodoxy by the grace of God. However, it is obvious that he knew nothing of Papal Infallibility. In fact, he actually entertains that it is possible and credible for a Pope to err, but that he pays no mind to Theodotus’ claims as the Scriptures clearly contradict adoptionism. As we can see, Scripture is held up as the preeminent authority and the authority of the Bishop of Rome is openly called into question.
The support of ecclesiastical tradition:
And then, besides, there are writings of certain brethren older than the times of Victor, which they wrote against the heathen in defence of the truth, and against the heresies of their time: I mean Justin and Miltiades, and Tatian and Clement, and many others, in all which divinity is ascribed to Christ. For who is ignorant of the books of Irenaeus and Melito, and the rest, which declare Christ to be God and man? All the psalms, too, and hymns of brethren, which have been written from the beginning by the faithful, celebrate Christ the Word of God, ascribing divinity to Him. Since the doctrine of the Church, then, has been proclaimed so many years ago, how is it possible that men have preached, up to the time of Victor, in the manner asserted by these? And how are they not ashamed to utter these calumnies against Victor, knowing well that Victor excommunicated Theodotus the tanner…?
As we can see, the writings of earlier churchmen (and hymns, liturgies, and local excommunications) are not portrayed as absolute authorities in addition to the Scripture. Rather, they are cited as historical verification of what the Scripture teaches. This is why someone who adheres to sola scriptura uses the historic interpretative community to assist in the interpretation of Scripture without applying to those within the community infallibility like that of the Scriptures.
Now Natalius was persuaded by them to let himself be chosen bishop of this heresy, on the understanding that he should receive from them a salary of a hundred and fifty denarii a month. Connecting himself, therefore, with them, he was on many occasions admonished by the Lord in visions…as he gave little heed to the visions, being ensnared by the dignity of presiding among them, and by that sordid lust of gain which ruins very many, he was at last scourged by holy angels, and severely beaten through a whole night, so that he rose early in the morning, and threw himself, clothed with sackcloth and covered with ashes, before Zephyrinus the bishop, with great haste and many tears, rolling beneath the feet not only of the clergy, but even of the laity, and moving the pity of the compassionate Church of the merciful Christ by his weeping. And after trying many a prayer, and showing the weals left by the blows which he had received, he was at length with difficulty admitted to communion.
While in the modern day it is believed that acts of penance in effect satisfy God’s need for justice, this was not the universal view of the early Church. Jerome wrote:
In Leviticus we read of the leprous that they are commanded to show themselves to the priests, and if they have leprosy then the priests reckon them unclean, not that the priests make them leprous and unclean, but that they have knowledge of what is leprous and what is not, and discern who is clean, who unclean…[W]hen he [the priest] has heard the various natures of the sins, he knows who is to be bound [i.e. told to perform penance in order to be in Communion] and who is to be loosed (Jerome, Comments on Matt 16, quoted in Tertullian 1842, p. 388).
As we can see, Caius is describing exactly such an event. Natalius’ public confession of sin and outward penance, sackcloth and all, merely served as outward proof of an interior repentance in his heart. Having heard his cries and seen the bruises allegedly left by angels, the Bishop of Rome was convinced of the earnestness of his repentance and readmitted him to communion. Being that the bruises did not yet heal, it appears that “at length with difficulty” was more likely a matter of hours instead of days/months. Nonetheless, it was the acknowledgement of true contriteness, and not the belief that the act moved God to forgive, which served as the basis for penance.
The purporseful perversion of Scriptures:
And should any one lay before them [the adoptionists] a word of divine Scripture, they examine whether it will make a connected or disjoined form of syllogism; and leaving the Holy Scriptures of God, they study geometry, as men who are of the earth, and speak of the earth, and are ignorant of Him who comes from above. Euclid, indeed, is laboriously measured by some of them. and Aristotle and Theophrastus are admired; and Galen, forsooth, is perhaps even worshipped by some of them. But as to those men who abuse the arts of the unbelievers to establish their own heretical doctrine, and by the craft of the impious adulterate the simple faith of the divine Scriptures, what need is there to say that these are not near the faith? For this reason is it they have boldly laid their hands upon the divine Scriptures, alleging that they have corrected them.
We can see two things. For one, Caius accuses the adoptionists of having many authorities (Greek philosophers, the sciences, and the Scriptures that they falsify to fit their doctrines.) This is obviously a criticism and not an acceptance of authorities alongside the Scripture. Second, he classifies Christianity as “the simple faith of the divine Scriptures.” The faith is not so profound, and difficult to understand, that philosophers, sciences, or infallible Bishops are authorities needed to practice that faith. Rather, the faith is of the Scripture and not explicitly of oral tradition, liturgy, or whatever else.
Conclusion. It is the very height of irony that those who make the claim “to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant” hold to doctrines entirely lacking a historical basis. Forget about the assumption of Mary, purgatory, and the “necessity” of valid orders to confer grace through sacraments. Their whole view of religious authority is not found in the annals of early Church history. As we have seen in the examples of Caius, Irenaeus, and others, the church fathers explicitly endorsed the doctrine of sola scriptura. In Caius, for example, he explicitly concedes it is possible for a Bishop of Rome to contradict the doctrines of a previous Bishop.
In all honesty, to be deep in inferences drawn from Roman Catholic presuppositions is to cease to be Protestant.
The burden of proof is on those who deny that the primary sources of the early Church themselves, when speaking of religious authorities such as the Scripture, coincide much more closely with historical Protestantism.
Now, let’s get this straight. None of this means that the view of the church fathers and the study of history as a whole justify the Protestant view of religious authority in an absolute sense. My claim is much more limited. Rather, they merely verify that the Protestant view was the popular understanding of the early Church.