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Did early church fathers teach about sola Scriptura?

A common definition of sola scriptura is that it:

posits the Bible as the sole infallible source of authority for Christian faith (source).


P.s- Don't provide writings that church fathers told about the authority of the scripture.

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    When did the scripture canon canon come into play here?
    – Ken Graham
    Apr 9, 2022 at 13:02
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    I'm confused as to what you would accept. What would the Church Fathers be talking about, if not the authority of scripture, if they were to be teaching sola scriptura?
    – user54757
    Apr 9, 2022 at 20:25
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    The early fathers regularly refer to important tradition or teaching handed down from the elders...some of which is not in the canon. They appear much more interested in a) whether a doctrine was taught by the apostles than b) whether it was committed to writing by the apostles. Apr 9, 2022 at 20:36

3 Answers 3

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The early church fathers do not represent a monolithic set of views; they disagreed with each other all the time. However, I believe the following are fair, representative statements:

  • They regularly appealed to the authority of scripture (though they did not always agree what counted as scripture)
  • The doctrine of sola scriptura, as expounded during the Reformation, is not to be found in the early church fathers
  • Several fathers made statements that are at odds with sola scriptura.

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Papias of Hieropolis (early 2nd century)

But I shall not be unwilling to put down, along with my interpretations, whatsoever instructions I received with care at any time from the elders, and stored up with care in my memory, assuring you at the same time of their truth. For I did not, like the multitude, take pleasure in those who spoke much, but in those who taught the truth; nor in those who related strange commandments, but in those who rehearsed the commandments given by the Lord to faith, and proceeding from truth itself. If, then, any one who had attended on the elders came, I asked minutely after their sayings — what Andrew or Peter said, or what was said by Philip, or by Thomas, or by James, or by John, or by Matthew, or by any other of the Lord's disciples: which things Aristion and the presbyter John, the disciples of the Lord, say. For I imagined that what was to be got from books was not so profitable to me as what came from the living and abiding voice. (Papias Fragment 1)

Papias acknowledges a preference for the teachings of the Lord and His apostles as preserved in human memory over the reliance upon written sources. And note that although two of Papias' sources (Aristion, John) may indeed be eyewitnesses of Jesus' ministry, Papias explicitly acknowledges that much of this information is coming to him orally through second-hand sources.

Papias, in the early 2nd century, ranks oral second-hand sources as more profitable than written sources.

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Irenaeus of Lyons (late 2nd century)

When claims of "secret" knowledge of hidden truths were made, which Irenaeus considered heretical, he made a direct appeal to Roman ecclesiastical authority:

...tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority...

...in the third place from the apostles, Clement was allotted the bishopric. This man, as he had seen the blessed apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing [in his ears], and their traditions before his eyes. Nor was he alone [in this], for there were many still remaining who had received instructions from the apostles. In the time of this Clement, no small dissension having occurred among the brethren at Corinth, the Church in Rome dispatched a most powerful letter to the Corinthians, exhorting them to peace, renewing their faith, and declaring the tradition which it had lately received from the apostles (Against Heresies 3.3.2-3)

After relating the succession of Roman Bishops from the 1st century down to his own time, Irenaeus states:

In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth. (Against Heresies 3.3.3)

When his views on recapitulation1 were challenged, Irenaeus appealed to tradition handed down from the apostles. In countering his opponents use (misuse, in his view) of Isaiah 61:2, Irenaeus used oral tradition as his primary source for establishing the truth (as he saw it):

all the elders testify; those who were conversant in Asia with John, the disciple of the Lord, [affirming] that John conveyed to them that information...Some of them, moreover, saw not only John, but the other apostles also, and heard the very same account from them, and bear testimony as to the [validity of] the statement. (Against Heresies 2.22.5)

After making this primary appeal to oral tradition, Irenaeus proceeds to use the Gospel of John as a secondary source for his argument.

Irenaeus regularly appeals to the authority of tradition/teachings which he believes come from the apostles, which are not found in the written canon (exception: note that some branches of the Orthodox church accept 1 Clement as scripture). Irenaeus even attributes to no less an authority than Jesus Himself words which are not found in scripture, but were handed down by Papias (e.g. Against Heresies 5.33.3-4).

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Hermas (late 1st or early 2nd century)

Contrast Luther's statement...

The true rule is this: God's Word shall establish articles of faith, and no one else, not even an angel can do so (Smalcald Articles 2.15)

...with Hermas, who makes the revelation he received from angelic ministration the focal point of his teaching and the source of authority for his message (e.g. Vision 1 1:6, 2:4-5; Vision 2 1:3-2:1; Vision 5:1-5, etc).

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Conclusion

The early fathers regularly refer to important tradition or teaching handed down from the elders, some of which is not in the canon. Especially among the very early fathers, they appear much more interested in a) whether a doctrine was taught by the apostles than b) whether it was committed to writing by the apostles



1 - I recognize that Irenaeus' views, as shared in this chapter, have been a source of great controversy among historians & theologians alike. I am not claiming here or elsewhere to agree with Irenaeus--this post is about what he believed, not what I think of his beliefs.

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  • Great Answer, Thank You.
    – Wenura
    Apr 11, 2022 at 13:46
  • And yet Paul praised the Bereans as more noble who searched the Scriptures to see if what he (Paul) said was true. Thus Paul elevated the written word above what he, himself, was saying as an Apostle. Apr 11, 2022 at 14:46
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    @MikeBorden interesting conundrum, isn't it? Especially since when Paul speaks of scripture he's referring to the Tanakh/Septuagint, not his own writings. But of course the OP wanted the views of the church fathers rather than Paul. Apr 11, 2022 at 14:57
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OP: Did early church fathers teach about sola Scriptura?

As usual, it is important to define Sola Scriptura (SS). It means that scripture is the sole source for all things salvific. It is the authority for faith and practice.

So, did early church fathers teach that? Yes.

  1. 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, AH III 1

At one time it was by voice, but then they wrote it down. Scripture is the ground and pillar of our faith.

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    This doesn't say "sole" source. He explicitly says "those from whom the Gospel has come down". It's a leap to go from that to "handed down to us in the Scriptures" to mean nothing else was handed down except what was in the Scriptures
    – eques
    Apr 9, 2022 at 14:55
  • PostScript Repeated
    – Wenura
    Apr 9, 2022 at 16:12
  • ... 'at one time proclaim ... handed down to is in the Scriptures' clearly indicates Sola Scriptura @ques. Up-voted +1.
    – Nigel J
    Apr 9, 2022 at 16:43
  • @NigelJ No, it doesn't. You are repeating the same mistake. The quote doesn't say that everything that was "at one time proclaim[ed] in public" ended up "handed down in Scripture"
    – eques
    Apr 11, 2022 at 15:49
  • Sola Scriptura is not the same as the Scripture contains truth or doctrine, but that it alone and nothing else contains truth and doctrine.
    – eques
    Apr 11, 2022 at 15:49
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Q: Did early church fathers teach about sola Scriptura?

A: No, they contradicted it.

EUSEBIUS OF CAESAREA

“At that time [A.D. 150] there flourished in the Church Hegesippus, whom we know from what has gone before, and Dionysius, bishop of Corinth, and another bishop, Pinytus of Crete, and besides these, Philip, and Apollinarius, and Melito, and Musanus, and Modestus, and, finally, Irenaeus. From them has come down to us in writing, the sound and orthodox faith received from tradition” (Church History 4:21).

IRENAEUS

“As I said before, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although she is disseminated throughout the whole world, yet guarded it, as if she occupied but one house. She likewise believes these things just as if she had but one soul and one and the same heart; and harmoniously she proclaims them and teaches them and hands them down, as if she possessed but one mouth. For, while the languages of the world are diverse, nevertheless, the authority of the tradition is one and the same” (Against Heresies 1:10:2 [A.D. 189]).

“That is why it is surely necessary to avoid them [heretics], while cherishing with the utmost diligence the things pertaining to the Church, and to lay hold of the tradition of truth... What if the apostles had not in fact left writings to us? Would it not be necessary to follow the order of tradition, which was handed down to those to whom they entrusted the churches?” (ibid., 3:4:1).

“It is possible, then, for everyone in every church, who may wish to know the truth, to contemplate the tradition of the apostles which has been made known throughout the whole world. And we are in a position to enumerate those who were instituted bishops by the apostles and their successors to our own times—men who neither knew nor taught anything like these heretics rave about.

“But since it would be too long to enumerate in such a volume as this the successions of all the churches, we shall confound all those who, in whatever manner, whether through self-satisfaction or vainglory, or through blindness and wicked opinion, assemble other than where it is proper, by pointing out here the successions of the bishops of the greatest and most ancient church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul, that church which has the tradition and the faith which comes down to us after having been announced to men by the apostles.

“With this church, because of its superior origin, all churches must agree—that is, all the faithful in the whole world—and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the apostolic tradition” (ibid., 3:3:1–2).

CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA

“Well, they preserving the tradition of the blessed doctrine derived directly from the holy apostles, Peter, James, John, and Paul, the sons receiving it from the father (but few were like the fathers), came by God’s will to us also to deposit those ancestral and apostolic seeds. And well I know that they will exult; I do not mean delighted with this tribute, but solely on account of the preservation of the truth, according as they delivered it. For such a sketch as this, will, I think, be agreeable to a soul desirous of preserving from loss the blessed tradition” (Miscellanies 1:1 [A.D. 208]).

ORIGEN*

“Although there are many who believe that they themselves hold to the teachings of Christ, there are yet some among them who think differently from their predecessors. The teaching of the Church has indeed been handed down through an order of succession from the apostles and remains in the churches even to the present time. That alone is to be believed as the truth which is in no way at variance with ecclesiastical and apostolic tradition” (The Fundamental Doctrines 1:2 [A.D. 225]).

ATHANASIUS

“Again we write, again keeping to the apostolic traditions, we remind each other when we come together for prayer; and keeping the feast in common, with one mouth we truly give thanks to the Lord. Thus giving thanks unto him, and being followers of the saints, ‘we shall make our praise in the Lord all the day,’ as the psalmist says. So, when we rightly keep the feast, we shall be counted worthy of that joy which is in heaven” (Festal Letters 2:7 [A.D. 330]).

“But you are blessed, who by faith are in the Church, dwell upon the foundations of the faith, and have full satisfaction, even the highest degree of faith which remains among you unshaken. For it has come down to you from apostolic tradition, and frequently accursed envy has wished to unsettle it, but has not been able” (ibid., 29).

BASIL THE GREAT

“Of the dogmas and messages 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 [Christian] message to a mere term” (The Holy Spirit 27:66 [A.D. 375]).

EPIPHANIUS OF SALAMIS

“It is needful also to make use of tradition, for not everything can be gotten from sacred Scripture. The holy apostles handed down some things in the scriptures, other things in tradition” (Medicine Chest Against All Heresies 61:6 [A.D. 375]).

AUGUSTINE

“[T]he custom [of not rebaptizing converts] . . . may be supposed to have had its origin in apostolic tradition, just as there are many things which are observed by the whole Church, and therefore are fairly held to have been enjoined by the apostles, which yet are not mentioned in their writings” (On Baptism, Against the Donatists 5:23[31] [A.D. 400]).

“But the admonition that he [Cyprian] gives us, ‘that we should go back to the fountain, that is, to apostolic tradition, and thence turn the channel of truth to our times,’ is most excellent, and should be followed without hesitation” (ibid., 5:26[37]).

“But in regard to those observances which we carefully attend and which the whole world keeps, and which derive not from Scripture but from Tradition, we are given to understand that they are recommended and ordained to be kept, either by the apostles themselves or by plenary [ecumenical] councils, the authority of which is quite vital in the Church” (Letter to Januarius [A.D. 400]).

JOHN CHRYSOSTOM

“[Paul commands,] ‘Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you have been taught, whether by word or by our letter’ [2 Thess. 2:15]. From this it is clear that they did not hand down everything by letter, but there is much also that was not written. Like that which was written, the unwritten too is worthy of belief. So let us regard the tradition of the Church also as worthy of belief. Is it a tradition? Seek no further” (Homilies on Second Thessalonians [A.D. 402]).

VINCENT OF LERINS

“With great zeal and closest attention, therefore, I frequently inquired of many men, eminent for their holiness and doctrine, how I might, in a concise and, so to speak, general and ordinary way, distinguish the truth of the Catholic faith from the falsehood of heretical depravity.

“I received almost always the same answer from all of them—that if I or anyone else wanted to expose the frauds and escape the snares of the heretics who rise up, and to remain intact and in sound faith, it would be necessary, with the help of the Lord, to fortify that faith in a twofold manner: first, of course, by the authority of divine law [Scripture] and then by the tradition of the Catholic Church.

Here, perhaps, someone may ask: ‘If the canon of the scriptures be perfect and in itself more than suffices for everything, why is it necessary that the authority of ecclesiastical interpretation be joined to it?’ Because, quite plainly, sacred Scripture, by reason of its own depth, is not accepted by everyone as having one and the same meaning...

“Thus, because of so many distortions of such various errors, it is highly necessary that the line of prophetic and apostolic interpretation be directed in accord with the norm of the ecclesiastical and Catholic meaning” (The Notebooks [A.D. 434]).

POPE AGATHO

“[T]he holy Church of God . . . has been established upon the firm rock of this Church of blessed Peter, the prince of the apostles, which by his grace and guardianship remains free from all error, [and possesses that faith that] the whole number of rulers and priests, of the clergy and of the people, unanimously should confess and preach with us as the true declaration of the apostolic tradition, in order to please God and to save their own souls” (Letter read at fourth session of III Constantinople [A.D. 680]).

*Origen is regarded by most not to be a Father properly speaking, as some of his teaching was regarded as heterodox and he isn't canonized. Nevertheless his antiquity and eminence of his other teachings can't be thrown out with the bathwater.

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  • None of these contradict the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. The quote from Basil the Great does appear to contradict the doctrine of the Sufficiency of Scripture, but that is a different and distinct doctrine to Sola Scriptura.
    – curiousdannii
    Apr 10, 2022 at 0:31
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    @sd Great Explanation, Thank You.
    – Wenura
    Apr 10, 2022 at 8:20

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