I was fascinated to read in Peter Turner's answer to the question Why does the Roman Catholic Church not hold to the perspicuity of Scripture? the following claim:

Catholics have always held there to be three pillars, Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition and Magisterial Teaching. These three in concert comprise the deposit of Faith.

What is the earliest record that we have of the pillars being referred to together in this way?

edit: let me clear, I'm not hung up on the specific word "pillars", but that the deposit of Faith is clearly defined as consisting of the three aforementioned elements.

  • I remember reading a rather old Catholic definition of hermeneutics, that put this into great perspective.
    – Ken Graham
    Jan 19, 2017 at 18:12
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    The "Pillars" analogy is something we teach to kids at religious Ed. class. I don't recall getting any historical reference behind it - this is a good question! (I may have to amend my answer with the "always" part...)
    – Peter Turner
    Jan 19, 2017 at 18:17
  • Actually, rather than pillars, I think we referred to them as the 3 legs of a stool (but that was just as a teaching device). Trying to find instances of the word Pillars in history is probably a wild goose chase.
    – Peter Turner
    Jan 25, 2017 at 15:07
  • @PeterTurner Specific mentions of the word "pillars" is not what I'm really after; but rather a clear statement teaching that the deposit of Faith consists of these threee things. Jan 25, 2017 at 15:59

2 Answers 2


November 18, 1965 by Pope Paul VI in Dei Verbum section 10

  1. Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church. Holding fast to this deposit the entire holy people united with their shepherds remain always steadfast in the teaching of the Apostles, in the common life, in the breaking of the bread and in prayers (see Acts 2, 42, Greek text), so that holding to, practicing and professing the heritage of the faith, it becomes on the part of the bishops and faithful a single common effort. (7)

But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, (8) has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, (9) whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.

It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God's most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.

This is later referenced with more exact wording in 1992 when Pope John Paul II released the Catholic catechism

95 "It is clear therefore that, in the supremely wise arrangement of God, sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church are so connected and associated that one of them cannot stand without the others. Working together, each in its own way, under the action of the one Holy Spirit, they all contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.

Partial/Incomplete references

I have found a reference to sacred scripture and divine tradition in A synopsis of the moral theology of Peter Dens: as prepared for the use of Romish Seminaries and Students of Theology published 1855

it may rightly be said that our faith rests alone on Sacred Scripture and divine tradition

In Against Heresies by Irenaeus, he says:

that these men do now consent neither to Scripture nor to tradition

Irenaeus was born 130 and died 202.

All emphasis was added by me, and is not in bold on the original source

  • I've got a bad feeling that you're right about this - It would be pretty nice if there was some evidence in at least the first millennium!
    – Peter Turner
    Jan 25, 2017 at 14:45
  • In the footnotes for the articles you've quoted, there are references to earlier councils and St Irenaeus - have you checked any of them to see if they constitute earlier references? Jan 25, 2017 at 15:30
  • Before Christianity was separated by the (t)editions of men, the many interpretations of the scriptural (T)radition, there was an organic understanding if the faith ((T)tradition), passed on in it's worship. That understanding, defined more completely in the passing of time, is that God humbled himself to become man (something hard to believe when you are a first century Jew). After being rejected, our lord humbled himself again, coming to us in the Eucharist for our consumption. The reality of this is very difficult to believe, and requires trusting the Word of god, and having a pure Faith.
    – Marc
    Jan 25, 2017 at 15:31
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    @bruisedreed I have been unable to find earlier references that have at least two of the pillars mentioned together, I'm still looking around but even in 1855 book it was more of a vague reference and not a grouping of pillars of belief
    – depperm
    Jan 25, 2017 at 15:37
  • Ok, well that is much later than I expected! Unless someone can demonstrate an earlier reference, I will mark yours as the accepted answer. Jan 25, 2017 at 15:56

There's an article in the Coming Home Network about the Rule of Faith. In it there are several interesting quotes from Church Fathers on the topic, let me select a few:

From St. Basil the Great's De Spiritu Sancto (circa AD 375) we have (emphasis mine):

Of the dogmas and kergymas preserved in the Church, some we possess from written teaching and others we receive from the tradition of the Apostles, handed on to us in mystery. In respect to piety both are of the same force. No one will contradict any of these, no one, at any rate, who is even moderately versed in matters ecclesiastical. Indeed, were we to try to reject unwritten customs as having no great authority, we would unwittingly injure the Gospel in its vitals; or rather, we would reduce kergyma to a mere term.

Epiphanius, Bishop of Salamis (circa AD 315–circa AD 403) writes (again, emphasis mine):

However, none of the sacred words need an allegorical interpretation of their meaning; they need examination, and the perception to understand each proposition’s force. But tradition must be used too, for not everything is available from the sacred scripture. Thus the holy apostles handed some things down in scripture but some in traditions, as St. Paul says, ‘As I delivered the tradition to you,’ [1 Cor 11:2] and elsewhere, ‘So I teach, and so I have delivered the tradition in the churches,’ [1 Cor 4:17] and, ‘If ye keep the tradition in memory, unless ye believed in vain.’ [1 Cor 15:2].

Regarding the Magisterium of the Church, we have St. Irenaeus (died circa AD 202) writes in Adversus Haereses:

Since therefore we have such proofs, it is not necessary to seek the truth among others which it is easy to obtain from the Church; since the apostles, like a rich man [depositing his money] in a bank, lodged in her hands most copiously all things pertaining to the truth: so that every man, whosoever will, can draw from her the water of life. For she is the entrance to life; all others are thieves and robbers.

Also St. Augustine (AD 354–AD 430), in his epistle against Manichaeus:

For my part, I should not believe the gospel except moved by the authority of the Catholic Church. So when those on whose authority I have consented to believe in the gospel tell me not to believe in Manichaeus, how can I but consent?

I concede that in none of these quotes we see the three pillars enumerated, but certainly the doctrine is to be found at the very least in the Fourth Century, even if not explicitly stated.

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