One of the common criticisms of sola Scriptura is that it has no support prior to the Reformation, especially in the early centuries of church history. Not only is sola Scriptura without patristic support, but (so it is claimed) it represents a total contradiction to the way that the fathers viewed the relationship between the still-to-be-determined canon of Scripture and the authoritative tradition of the church. Now while it is true that we cannot find the exact phrase “sola Scriptura” in the extant patristic documents, I am nevertheless convinced that the fathers did indeed beleive and practice the essence of what that phrase inteds to convey. In this post, we will see how this was true in the case of one of the most important church fathers: Irenaeus of Lyon.
In his magisterial work The Way to Nicaea, John Behr (who, for the record, is not a Protestant theologian but an Eastern Orthodox priest, patristics specialist, and dean of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary) carefully delineates how Irenaeus understood the relationship between the Scriptures (defined in the sense of 1 Cor. 15:3-4), the canon of truth (used in the struggle against heresy), and church tradition (represented by the canon of truth). I quote Behr at length because everything he writes here is crucial for grasping the overall point that he wants to make:
The aim of philosophy,… at least since Plato, has been to discover the ultimate, non-hypothetical first principles. But even here, as Aristotle concedes, it is impossible to demand demonstrations of the first principles themselves; the first principles cannot themselves be proved, otherwise they would be dependent upon something prior to them, and so the inquirer would be led into an infinite regress. This means, as Clement of Alexandria points out, that the search for the first principles of demonstration ends up with indemonstrable faith. For Christian faith, according to Clement, it is the Scriptures, and in particular, the Lord who speaks in them, that is the first principle of all knowledge. It is the voice of the Lord, speaking throughout Scripture, that is the first principle, the (nonhypothetical) hypothesis of all demonstrations from Scripture, by which Christians are led to the knowledge of the truth.
These first principles, grasped by faith, are the basis for subsequent demonstrations, and are also subsequently used to evaluate other claims to truth, acting thus as a “canon.”… In the same manner in which Hellenistic philosophers argued against the infinite regression of the Sceptics by appealing to a canon or criterion of truth, Irenaeus, Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria countered the constantly mutating Gnostic mythology … by an appeal to their own canon of truth….
The point of the canon of truth is not so much to give fixed, and abstract, statements of Christian doctrine. Nor does it provide a narrative description of Christian belief, the literary hypothesis of Scripture. Rather, the canon of truth expresses the correct hypothesis of Scripture itself, that by which one can see in Scripture the picture of a king, Christ, rather than a dog or fox. It is ultimately the presupposition of the apostolic Christ himself, the one who is “according to the Scripture” and, in reverse, the subject of Scripture throughout, being spoken of by the Spirit through the prophets, so revealing the one God and Father. As a canon it facilitates the demonstration of the incongruous and extraneous nature of the Gnostic hypotheses. By means of the same canon of truth the various passages, the “members of truth” (AH 1.8.1), can be returned to their rightful place within “the body of truth” (Dem. 1), Scripture, so that it again speaks of Christ, while exposing the Gnostic fabrications for what they are.
The canon of truth is neither a system of detached doctrinal beliefs nor a narrative. Based upon the three names of baptism, the canon of truth is inextricably connected, for Irenaeus, with “the order (τάξις) and the connection (εἱρμός) of the Scriptures” (AH 1.8.1) for it presents the one Father who has made himself known through the one Son by the Holy Spirit speaking through the prophets, that is, through the Scripture—the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets. It is striking that in the fullest canon of truth outlined by Irenaeus, in AH 1.10.1, all the economies of Christ, the episodes recounted in the Gospels, are presented under the confession of the Holy Spirit, who preached these things through the prophets, Scripture when read according to the Spirit, rather than under the second article, as in the later declaratory creeds, where what it is that the Spirit “spoke through the prophets” is left unspecified. For Irenaeus, the canon of truth is the embodiment or crystallization of the coherence of Scripture, read as speaking of the Christ who is revealed in the Gospel, the apostolic preaching of Christ “according to Scripture.”…
The key elements of the faith delivered by the apostles are crystallized in the canon of truth. This canon expresses the basic elements of the one Gospel, maintained and preached in the Church, in an ever-changing context. The continually changing context in which the same unchanging Gospel is preached makes it necessary that different aspects or facets of the same Gospel be drawn out to address contemporary challenges. However, whilst the context continually changes, the content of that tradition does not—it is the same Gospel. So, after stating the rule of truth in AH 1.10.1, Irenaeus continues:
The Church … though disseminated throughout the world, carefully guards this preaching and this faith, which she has received, as if she dwelt in one house. She likewise believes these things as if she had but one soul and one and the same heart; she preaches, teaches and hands them down harmoniously (συμφώνως), as if she possessed one mouth. For though the languages of the world are dissimilar, nevertheless the meaning of tradition (ἡ δύναμις τῆς παραδόσεως) is one and the same. To explain, the churches which have been founded in Germany do not believe or hand down anything else; neither do those founded in Spain or Gaul or Libya or in the central regions of the world. But just as the sun, God’s creation, is one and the same throughout the world, so too, the light, the preaching of the truth, shines everywhere and enlightens all men who wish to come to a knowledge of the truth. Neither will any of those who preside in the churches, though exceedingly eloquent, say anything else (for no one is above the Master); nor will a poor speaker subtract from the tradition. For, since the faith is one and the same, neither he who can discourse at length about it adds to it, nor he who can say only a little subtracts from it. (AH 1.10.2)
As the faith is the same, those who can speak endlessly about it do not add to it, any more than those who are poor speakers detract from it, for the meaning or the content of tradition is one and the same. It is clear, then, that for Irenaeus “tradition” is not alive, in the sense that it cannot change, grow or develop into something else. The Church is to guard carefully this preaching and this faith, which she has received and which she is to preach, teach and hand down harmoniously….
Irenaeus further examines the relation between Scripture and tradition in the opening five chapters of his third book Against the Heresies, this time to counter the claim of the Gnostics to possess secret, oral traditions. He begins by affirming categorically that the revelation of God is mediated through the apostles. It is not enough to see the “Jesus of history” to see God, nor to imagine God as a partner with whom one can dialogue directly, bypassing his own Word. Rather the locus of revelation, and the medium for our relationship with God, is precisely in the apostolic preaching of him, the Gospel which, as we have seen, stands in an interpretative engagement with Scripture. The role of the apostles in delivering the Gospel is definitive. As Irenaeus puts it:
We have learned from no 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 (tradiderunt) to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith … Matthew issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching in Rome, and laying the foundations for the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who had leaned upon his breast, did himself publish the Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia. These have all declared to us that there is one God, Creator of heaven and earth, announced by the Law and Prophets; and one Christ the Son of God. (AH 3.1.1–2)
It is the apostles alone who have brought the revelation of Christ to the world, though what they preach is already announced by Scripture—the Law and the Prophets. The Gospels composed by those who were not apostles, Irenaeus claims, are interpretations of the preaching of those who were apostles. Irenaeus further emphasizes the foundational role of the apostles by asserting, in the passage elided from the above quotation, that the apostles did not begin to preach until they were invested with the fullness of knowledge by the risen Lord. That the apostles preached the Gospel and then subsequently wrote it down is important for Irenaeus, as it will later enable him to appeal to the continuous preaching of the Gospel in the Church, the tradition of the apostles. It is also important to Irenaeus to specify that what they wrote has been handed down (“traditioned”) in the Scriptures, as the ground and pillar of our faith. While Paul had spoken of the Church as being the pillar and foundation of the truth (1 Tim 3:15), in the need to define more clearly the identity of the Church Irenaeus modifies Paul’s words so that it is the Scripture which is the “ground and pillar” of the faith, or, he states later, it is the Gospel, found in four forms, and the Spirit of life that is “the pillar and foundation of the Church” (AH 3.11.8). It is by their preaching the Gospel that Peter and Paul lay the foundations for the Church, and so the Church, constituted by the Gospel, must preserve this deposit intact.
Having specified the foundational character of Scripture and the Gospel, Irenaeus turns to the mechanics of his debate with his opponents:
When, however, they are confuted from the Scriptures, they turn round and accuse these same Scriptures as not being correct, nor of authority, and that they are ambiguous, and that the truth cannot be derived from them by those who are ignorant of tradition. For [they allege that] the truth was not delivered by means of written documents, but through a living voice, for which reason Paul says “we speak wisdom among those that are perfect, but not the wisdom of the world” (1 Cor 2:6). And this wisdom each one of them alleges to be what is found by them, that is, a fabrication; so that, according to them, the truth properly resides at one time in Valentinus, at another in Marcion, at another in Cerinthus, then afterwards in Basilides, or has even been indifferently in any other disputant, who could say nothing salvific. For every one of these, being completely perverted, distorting the canon of truth, is not ashamed to preach himself. (AH 3.2.1)
According to Irenaeus, his opponents’ response to the charge that their teaching is not to be found in Scripture is simply to assert that these Scriptures are not authoritative, that they are inadequate for full knowledge, that they are ambiguous and need to be interpreted in the light of a tradition which is not handed down in writing but orally. That is, they appeal to a dichotomy between Scripture and tradition, understanding by the latter the oral communication of teaching derived from the apostles, containing material not to be found in the Scriptures yet which is needed to understand Scripture correctly. As we have seen, the apostles certainly delivered a new manner of reading the Scriptures, proclaiming Christ “according to the Scriptures,” but, according to Irenaeus, what they handed down, both in public preaching and in writing, remained tied to the Scripture.
After such a lengthy quote, I want to keep my own comments to a minimum, but I think that it’s important to highlight the salient points. Throughout this section, Behr clearly acknowledges the important role that Irenaeus accords to church tradition, especially in terms of the canon of truth, in preserving the faith delivered once and for all to the saints. What is equally clear, however, is that for Irenaeus, tradition was not something distinct from the Scriptures and the apostolic writings destined to become the New Testament; rather it was a faithful distillation of the essential content of the Scriptures as interpreted in light of the advent of Jesus Christ. Highly instructive is the modification that Irenaeus made to 1 Tim. 3:15 in order to drive home his point: Scripture (not the church!) is the “ground and pillar” of the faith, and the apostles served as the foundation of the church only in the sense that they preached the gospel which alone gave the church its existence. Thus, we can see that for Irenaeus, as for Clement of Alexandria, it was Scripture, the voice of the living God mediated through Scripture, that was the first principle, the hypothesis, the absolute starting point of the Christian faith whose authority, therefore, did not, nor could not, rest upon anything other than its own testimony authenticated by the Holy Spirit. This is exactly what John Calvin would argue centuries later when he asserted that the supreme authority of Scripture and our understanding of it as Scripture is due to the fact that it is the means through the voice of the living God speaks in person to his church.
It is also highly instructive to note Irenaeus was particularly critical of the heretics’ appeal to a tradition outside of Scripture to justify beliefs that were not to be found anywhere in Scripture. It was the tactic of the heretics to assert that the Scriptures “are inadequate for full knowledge, that they are ambiguous and need to be interpreted in the light of a tradition which is not handed down in writing but orally”. This begs an interesting question: who adopts this same approach today? If I didn’t know better, I would have thought that Irenaeus’ critique against the heretics had been written by one of the Protestant Reformers against the Catholic Church! Indeed, it seems to me that the (official) Catholic view of Scripture and its relation to tradition is very similar, if not identical, to the one attacked by Irenaeus as who condemned the heretics’ “appeal to a dichotomy between Scripture and tradition, understanding by the latter the oral communication of teaching derived from the apostles, containing material not to be found in the Scriptures yet which is needed to understand Scripture correctly.” Is not this very rationale – that a tradition beyond that which is found solely in Scripture is necessary to properly interpret Scripture – the argument used by contemporary opponents of sola Scriptura?
Behr’s characterization of Irenaeus view on Scripture vis-à-vis church tradition is, for all intents and purposes, the confessional Protestant position of sola Scriptura. Certainly, Irenaeus did not use those exact words, but he clearly seems to have anticipated the convictions concerning biblical authority that would be forcefully reiterated by the Reformers.
 John Behr, The Way to Nicaea (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), pp.33-40. Emphasis mine.