The Only Fountain of Salvation: Sola Scriptura and the Faith of the Early Church

One of the most common objections that I hear from Roman Catholics against the five solas of the Reformation, especially to sola Scriptura, is that these were complete novelties invented by the Protestant Reformers in blatant contradiction to the first centuries of church history. None of the church fathers, it is argued, had any conception of sola Scriptura (much less of any of the other solas), and thus the Reformation’s innovations should be denounced and abandoned.

I would beg to differ. Contrary to those who routinely resort to such platitudes (rather than actually engaging with whatever opposing argument is being offered), I am Protestant, as I have often stated, precisely in order to be more truly catholic in keeping with the apostolic faith of the early church. As an avid student of church history, I become ever more convinced that Sola Scriptura, far from being a Protestant invention, was a faithful re-articulation of the belief and practice of the early orthodox church in terms meant to oppose the swollen sense of the authority of church tradition that developed later on and came to dominate the medieval church. I realize that this will seem to some like an outlandish claim, and so it is one that I fully intend to defend here, but with the proviso that since this is a blog post (rather than a monograph), I will not be able to provide an exhaustive analysis of the issue. That said, I would like to begin by citing a lengthy section from Athanasius’ famous Festal Letter XXXIX, written in 367, in which the Alessandrian “father of orthodoxy” clearly delineates his view of Holy Scripture:

But since we have made mention of heretics as dead, but of ourselves as possessing the Divine Scriptures for salvation; and since I fear lest, as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, some few of the simple should be beguiled from their simplicity and purity, by the subtilty of certain men, and should henceforth read 220px-athanasius_iother books—those called apocryphal—led astray by the similarity of their names with the true books; I beseech you to bear patiently, if I also write, by way of remembrance, of matters with which you are acquainted, influenced by the need and advantage of the Church.

In proceeding to make mention of these things, I shall adopt, to commend my undertaking, the pattern of Luke the Evangelist, saying on my own account: ‘Forasmuch as some have taken in hand,’ to reduce into order for themselves the books termed apocryphal, and to mix them up with the divinely inspired Scripture, concerning which we have been fully persuaded, as they who from the beginning were eye-witnesses and ministers of the Word, delivered to the fathers; it seemed good to me also, having been urged thereto by true brethren, and having learned from the beginning, to set before you the books included in the Canon, and handed down, and accredited as Divine; to the end that any one who has fallen into error may condemn those who have led him astray; and that he who has continued steadfast in purity may again rejoice, having these things brought to his remembrance.

There are, then, of the Old Testament, twenty-two books in number; for, as I have heard, it is handed down that this is the number of the letters among the Hebrews; their respective order and names being as follows. The first is Genesis, then Exodus, next Leviticus, after that Numbers, and then Deuteronomy. Following these there is Joshua, the son of Nun, then Judges, then Ruth. And again, after these four books of Kings, the first and second being reckoned as one book, and so likewise the third and fourth as one book. And again, the first and second of the Chronicles are reckoned as one book. Again Ezra, the first and second are similarly one book. After these there is the book of Psalms, then the Proverbs, next Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs. Job follows, then the Prophets, the twelve being reckoned as one book. Then Isaiah, one book, then Jeremiah with Baruch, Lamentations, and the epistle, one book; afterwards, Ezekiel and Daniel, each one book. Thus far constitutes the Old Testament.

Again it is not tedious to speak of the [books] of the New Testament. These are, the four Gospels, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Afterwards, the Acts of the Apostles and Epistles (called Catholic), seven, viz. of James, one; of Peter, two; of John, three; after these, one of Jude. In addition, there are fourteen Epistles of Paul, written in this order. The first, to the Romans; then two to the Corinthians; after these, to the Galatians; next, to the Ephesians; then to the Philippians; then to the Colossians; after these, two to the Thessalonians, and that to the Hebrews; and again, two to Timothy; one to Titus; and lastly, that to Philemon. And besides, the Revelation of John.

These are fountains of salvation, that they who thirst may be satisfied with the living words they contain. In these alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness. Let no man add to these, neither let him take ought from these. For concerning these the Lord put to shame the Sadducees, and said, ‘Ye do err, not knowing the Scriptures.’ And He reproved the Jews, saying, ‘Search the Scriptures, for these are they that testify of Me.’

But for greater exactness I add this also, writing of necessity; that there are other books besides these not indeed included in the Canon, but appointed by the Fathers to be read by those who newly join us, and who wish for instruction in the word of godliness. The Wisdom of Solomon, and the Wisdom of Sirach, and Esther, and Judith, and Tobit, and that which is called the Teaching of the Apostles, and the Shepherd. But the former, my brethren, are included in the Canon, the latter being [merely] read; nor is there in any place a mention of apocryphal writings. But they are an invention of heretics, who write them when they choose, bestowing upon them their approbation, and assigning to them a date, that so, using them as ancient writings, they may find occasion to lead astray the simple.[1]

Let me simply highlight two significant points. This letter represents one of the earliest lists of the writings that came to be recognized by the church as divinely inspired and therefore canonical. For Athanasius, the list that he provides is not simply his own personal opinion but indeed comprises the Canon as affirmed by the church catholic. It is therefore instructive to note that Athanasius clearly distinguishes between the canonical books of Scripture and other apocryphal books that he acknowledges as useful for instruction but – and he is adamant on this point – are not to be equated with the unique authority of the canonical books. Interestingly, the books that Athanasius identifies as apocryphal and non-canonical are precisely those that many Roman Catholics would accuse Protestants of excising from the Canon! Clearly, that is not the case. The Protestant Canon, rather than that of the Church of Rome, is faithful to the Athanasian list.

Second, (and this should not be overlooked) Athanasius explicitly asserts that in the canonical books of Scripture “alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness”. As though to emphasize this point, Athanasius stresses that no one should either add or subtract anything from these writings, implying that he attributed to his list of canonical books an unparalleled authority over the church’s faith and practice. Indeed, as he had much earlier in his career affirmed, Athanasius resolutely believed that “the sacred and inspired Scriptures are sufficient to declare the truth”. What is this except sola Scriptura? It would seem, therefore, that the charge of sola Scriptura as a Protestant innovation is quite erroneous.

At this point, someone will, no doubt, accuse me of “cutting and pasting” these quotes and using them in a way that Athanasius would have found objectionable. This is indeed the criticism made in one particular article in which the author argues that an approach such as mine “transforms St. Athanasius into a ‘Bible-only’ Christian by selecting passages which speak highly of the inspiration and authority of Sacred Scripture while Nicaea_icondownplaying and even ignoring passages which speak equally forceful on the authorities of Tradition and Church”. The author speaks for many when he contends, conversely, that “St. Athanasius brings together Scripture and the teaching Church…There is no such thing as an isolated reading of Scripture in the faith of St. Athanasius…St. Athanasius finds a private reading of Scripture apart from the traditional faith of the Catholic Church as the fatal flaw of heretics”.

This objection, though common, trades on a grossly distorted caricature of what sola Scriptura actually means. Sola Scriptura does not mean “Scripture all by itself” (which is actually solo or nuda Scriptura), but rather Scripture as interpreted by but nevertheless free to correct the church and its tradition. Sola Scriptura does not pit Scripture against church and tradition, rather it reorders them into their proper places of authority. Sola Scriptura fully recognizes the authority of the church and its interpretive tradition, but since it also recognizes that the church consists of interpreters that are fallible and prone to error, it accords to Scripture, as the divinely appointed locus of God’s discourse, the authority to assert itself over the church and its tradition if and when necessary. This, I would argue, is faithful not only to Athanasius’ view but also to the conviction shared by the other orthodox fathers. Church historian J.N.D. Kelly explains:

With two main differences the attitude to Scripture and tradition…became classic in the Church of the third and fourth centuries. These differences were: (a) with the passing of the Gnostic menace, the hesitation sometimes evinced by Irenaeus, and to a rather greater degree by Tertullian, about appealing directly to Scripture disappeared; and (b) as a result of developments in the Church’s institutional life the basis of tradition became broader and more explicit. The supreme doctrinal authority remained, of course, the original revelation given by Christ and communicated to the Church by His apostles. This was the divine or apostolic ‘tradition’ (παράδοσις; traditio) in the strict sense of the word. It was with reference to this that Cyprian in the third century could speak of ‘the root and source of the dominical tradition’, or of ‘the fountain-head and source of the divine tradition’, and that Athanasius in the fourth could point to ‘the tradition … which the Lord gave and the apostles proclaimed’ as the Church’s foundation-stone. That this was embodied, however, in Holy Scripture, and found a parallel outlet in the Church’s general unwritten teaching and liturgical life, was taken for granted, and the use of the term ‘tradition’, with or without such qualifications as ‘ecclesiastical’ or ‘of the fathers’, to describe this latter medium now became increasingly common.

There is little need to dwell on the absolute authority accorded to Scripture as a doctrinal norm. It was the Bible, declared Clement of Alexandria about a.d. 200, which, as interpreted by the Church, was the source of Christian teaching. His greater disciple Origen was a thorough-going Biblicist who appealed again and again to Scripture as the decisive criterion of dogma. The Church drew her catechetical material, he stated, from the prophets, the gospels and the apostles’ writings; her faith, he suggested, was buttressed by Holy Scripture supported by common sense. ‘The holy and inspired Scriptures’, wrote Athanasius a century later, ‘are fully sufficient for the proclamation of the truth’; while his contemporary, Cyril of Jerusalem, laid it down that ‘with regard to the divine and saving mysteries of faith no doctrine, however trivial, may be taught without the backing of the divine Scriptures.… For our saving faith derives its force, not from capricious reasonings, but from what may be proved out of the Bible.’ Later in the same century John Chrysostom bade his congregation seek no other teacher than the oracles of God; everything was straightforward and clear in the Bible, and the sum of necessary knowledge could be extracted from it. In the West Augustine declared that ‘in the plain teaching of Scripture we find all that concerns our belief and moral conduct’; while a little later Vincent of Lérins (c. 450) took it as an axiom the Scriptural canon was ‘sufficient, and more than sufficient, for all purposes’…

Yet, if the concept of tradition was expanded and made more concrete in these ways, the estimate of its position vis-à-vis Scripture as a doctrinal norm remained basically unaltered. The clearest token of the prestige enjoyed by the latter 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. A striking illustration is the difficulty which champions of novel theological terms like ὁμοούσιος (‘of the same substance’), or again ἀγέννητος (‘ingenerate’ or ‘self-existent’) and ἄναρχος (‘without beginning’), experienced in getting these descriptions of the Son’s relationship to the Father, or of God’s eternal being, generally admitted. They had to meet the damning objection, advanced in conservative as well as heretical quarters, that they were not to be found in the Bible.

In the end they could only quell opposition by pointing out (Athanasius in the one case, and Gregory of Nazianzus in the other) that, even if the terms themselves were non-Scriptural, the meaning they conveyed was exactly that of Holy Writ. The creed itself, according to Cyril of Jerusalem, Augustine and Cassian, was a compendium of Scripture. An exception to this general attitude might seem to be Basil’s reliance, mentioned above, upon tradition as embedded in the liturgy, rather than upon Scripture, to demonstrate the full deity of the Holy Spirit. Even he, however, makes it crystal clear, in the very discussion in question, that there is no contradiction between unwritten tradition and the gospel, for in their traditionally transmitted teaching the fathers have only been following what Scripture itself implies. Indeed, all the instances of unwritten tradition lacking Scriptural support which the early theologians mention will be found, on examination, to refer to matters of observance and practice (e.g. triple immersion in baptism; turning East for prayer) rather than of doctrine as such, although sometimes they are matters (e.g. infant baptism; prayers for the dead) in which doctrine is involved.[3]

To put it succinctly, what Kelly summarizes here concerning the church’s view of Scripture in the first five centuries of its history is, quite simply, sola Scriptura. To those who may balk at this claim, I would merely repeat what I stated earlier: sola Scriptura does not mean Scripture against the church and its tradition but rather Scripture as correctly interpreted by the church and its tradition. As Kelly makes clear, however, the church and its tradition, as interpreters, were merely servants of and under the “absolute authority accorded to Scripture”. As Kelly notes further, the fourth century debates over the Nicene homoousion are a case in point: it was precisely because homoousion was an extra-biblical word that so many in the church were reluctant to accept it. This, indeed, is evidence that the early church, by and large, regarded its developing tradition not as an independent source of revelation (for otherwise Nicaea’s use of the homoousion should have been immediately and unquestionably accepted) but rather as subordinate to the authority of the revelation uniquely attested in the inspired writings of canonical Scripture. So committed to Scripture’s absolute authority was the fourth-century church that many within it were initially opposed to adopting a non-biblical word, even though that word provided a potent defense against the Arian heresy. This points to the fact that whatever support the church fathers sought in tradition, apostolic succession, church authority, etc. to expound and defend the orthodox faith, they appealed to these various sources of authority as ultimately faithful yet subservient witnesses to the divine authority uniquely mediated through the inspired writings of Scripture alone. Hence, sola Scriptura.

Conclusion

It seems fairly evident that not only was sola Scriptura not a heretical or aberrant invention of the Reformers but rather a retrieval of the basic pattern of authority under which the patristic church operated. Martin Luther and John Calvin were both deeply committed not to Scripture interpreted privately or in isolation but rather to Scripture interpreted in accordance with the church catholic, especially that of the first five centuries of church history. Why then did they use sola Scriptura to justify their protests and proposed reforms of the medieval church and its tradition? It was simply because they rightly discerned thatluther_und_calvin_kirchenfenster_evangelische_stadtkirche_wiesloch1 whereas in the days of Irenaeus, Tertullian, Athanasius, Augustine, and the other orthodox fathers there was, as Kelly states, “no contradiction between unwritten tradition and the gospel”, there had subsequently developed a contradiction between Scripture interpreted by early church tradition and Scripture interpreted by later church tradition. Their protest against Rome was not that Scripture opposed all tradition but rather that later medieval tradition opposed the way that the early orthodox tradition had interpreted Scripture. As such, they did not call the church to abandon its tradition and thereby leave biblical interpretation to the whims and fancies of every individual reader. Rather, they called the church to purge the deviant accretions that it had allowed to accumulate over time and to return to the apostolic faith delivered once and for all in Scripture and faithfully passed down by the early orthodox church and its authoritative tradition. This is what sola Scriptura really means, and this is why it truly represents “the faith of our fathers”.

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[1] Athanasius of Alexandria, 1892. Festal Letters. In P. Schaff & H. Wace, eds. St. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series. New York: Christian Literature Company, pp. 551–552.

[2] Ibid., p.4.

[3] Kelly, J.N.D., 1977. Early Christian Doctrines Fifth, Revised., London; New Delhi; New York; Sydney: Bloomsbury. pp.41-43, 46-47.

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