The Church Fathers and the Authority and Sufficiency of Scripture

William Webster

Roman Catholics have leveled the charge against Protestantism that
her teaching on sola Scriptura is not only unbiblical, but also unhistorical. This charge is cogently articulated by Philip Blosser:

The doctrine that Scripture alone is sufficient to function as the regula fidei—the infallible rule for the ongoing faith and life of the Church—is of highly improbable orthodoxy since…it had no defender for the first thirteen centuries of the Church. It does not belong to historic Christianity…The proponent of sola scriptura must be able to show from Scripture that the whole content of God’s revelation for the ongoing instruction of His Church was committed wholly to writing without residue, and also that verses referring to the necessity of holding fast to oral as well as written apostolic traditions (such as 2 Th 2:15) are limited in their reference to the first century. Moreover, he must be able to show from history, that a preponderance of the data support sola scriptura but do not support the extrabiblical traditions of the Church…The Protestant insists that the deposit of faith is exhausted without residue in Scripture and, therefore, that only those doctrines that are “implicit” in Scripture can be “deduced” from Scripture as valid “developments”…Sola scriptura assumes no ultimate need for the larger context of the Church’s tradition and teaching. However, not only is the canon of Scripture incapable of being identified apart from tradition…but the meaning of Scripture cannot be fully grasped.1

Blosser makes a number of important claims that impinge on the historicity of the doctrine of sola Scriptura. He writes that the doctrine of Scripture alone as the ultimate authority and infallible revelation and source of doctrine for the Church is unhistorical. He claims:

1) The doctrine was never taught in the early Church.
2) The early Church taught that the Scriptures are not materially sufficient; that is, not all of God’s revelation to the Church is contained in Scripture, but there are extrabiblical doctrines and traditions handed down orally from the apostles which form the complete corpus of revelation.
3) The early Church did not consider the Scriptures to be formally sufficient; that is, Scripture requires an authoritative magisterium invested with an infallible, normative interpretive authority.

According to Blosser, the doctrine of sola Scriptura is unorthodox. He claims that the early Church consistently affirmed the need for authoritative tradition to supplement and complete Scripture, because not all revelation is contained in Scripture, and it is not self–interpreting. These statements hearken back to the Council of Trent which established the authoritative position of the Roman Church with respect to the nature of tradition. Trent affirmed, firstly, that Scripture and tradition are both sources of revelation and that the Roman Church alone has the authority to interpret Scripture.2 Secondly, Trent stated that tradition is authoritative because it is revelatory in nature, it contains truths handed down orally (from Christ and the apostles) which are independent of Scripture, and the Church was established as the authoritative interpreter of Scripture. Trent draws a direct correlation between its interpretive authority and the early Church historically by saying that it is unlawful to interpret Scripture contrary to the unanimous consent of the fathers. So, Trent explicitly denied the material and formal sufficiency of Scripture. Although there has been widespread debate within Roman Catholicism over the precise teaching of Trent on the nature of tradition, it is significant to note that at the time of Trent, and for centuries following, there was no debate about the meaning of Trent’s language. It was universally believed that Scripture was both materially and formally insufficient. Robert Bellarmine (1542–1621) is a canonized saint and was one of the leading Roman Catholic apologists subsequent to the Council of Trent. He expresses the position of Trent and the Roman Catholic critique of sola Scriptura in these comments:

We assert that the whole necessary doctrine either concerning faith or manners is not contained explicitly in the Scriptures; and that consequently beyond the written word of God is required also the unwritten word of God, that is, the divine and apostolical traditions…They (i.e. the Protestants) think that if there were any apostolical traditions they do not now exist, that is, that there cannot be any certain proof had of any apostolical tradition…We, on the contrary, assert that there are not wanting certain ways and methods by which apostolical traditions may be manifested…If the authority of an apostle when giving an oral precept is not less than when giving a written one, there certainly is no temerity in considering any thing unwritten equivalent to the written word…I assert that Scripture, although not composed principally with the view of its being a rule of faith, is nevertheless a rule of faith, not the entire rule but a partial rule. For the entire rule of faith is the word of God, or God’s revelation made to the Church, which is distributed into two partial rules, Scripture and tradition.3

Note that Bellarmine says that revelation itself is not contained wholly in Scripture. He insists there are doctrinal truths that were committed orally to the Church by the apostles and passed down orally in the Church through her Tradition. This is not merely an issue of tradition as an authoritative interpretation of Scripture but of supposed doctrinal truths that are part of revelation but not contained in Scripture. Neither Bellarmine nor Trent believed the Scriptures to be materially sufficient.
    According to Trent, then, there is the written and unwritten word of God which together comprise the fullness of God’s revelation to man. The Roman Catholic Church claims to possess both, emphatically stating that this was the belief and practice of the Church in the beginning and throughout the ages of the Church historically. It was supposedly during the Reformation that this teaching was radically altered as 1500 years of Church practice was suddenly eradicated and a false dichotomy introduced between Scripture and the Church.
    In contradistinction to the Council of Trent, the Reformers insisted that Scripture alone is the special revelation man possesses from God; that there exists no oral revelation in the form of tradition once the apostolic age had ended; and that Scripture, in its essential teaching on salvation, is clear (perspicuous) and self–interpreting. In other words, Scripture is both materially and formally sufficient. The Reformers argued that the Church is not infallible but that all tradition and teaching must be subject to the final authority of Scripture. Scripture is the sole and final arbiter of truth, infallible and the ultimate authority. As John Calvin has stated:

Let this be a firm principle: No other word is to be held as the Word of God, and given place as such in the church, than what is contained first in the Law and the Prophets, than in the writings of the apostles; and the only authorized way of teaching in the church is by the prescription and standard of his Word. From this also we infer that the only thing granted to the apostles was that which the prophets had of old. They were to expound the ancient Scripture and to show that what is taught there has been fulfilled in Christ. Yet they were not to do this except from the Lord, that is, with Christ’s Spirit as precursor in a certain measure dictating the words…Yet this, as I have said, is the difference between the apostles and their successors: the former were sure and genuine scribes of the Holy Spirit, and their writings are therefore to be considered oracles of God; but the sole office of others is to teach what is provided and sealed in the Holy Scriptures. We therefore teach that faithful ministers are now not permitted to coin any new doctrine, but that they are simply to cleave to that doctrine to which God has subjected all men without exception.4

Calvin also states emphatically that the doctrines preached by the Reformers reflected the teaching and practice of the fathers themselves, thereby claiming historical continuity with the early Church. Calvin repudiates the charge that the teaching of sola Scriptura is unhistorical. He writes:

Moreover, they unjustly set the ancient fathers against us (I mean the ancient writers of a better age of the church) as if in them they had supporters of their own impiety. If the contest were to be determined by patristic authority, the tide of victory—to put it very modestly—would turn to our side…With a frightful to do, they overwhelm us as despisers and adversaries of the fathers! But we do not despise them; in fact, if it were to our present purpose, I could with no trouble at all prove that the greater part of what we are saying today meets their approval.5

Thus, in embracing and teaching sola Scriptura, the Reformers claimed to be restoring to the Church a principle that would find overall patristic consent and, therefore, historical validation. But this is, after all, only a claim. The question is, Can the claim be validated from the writings of the fathers as Calvin affirms? In this section, we will examine what the Church fathers taught about Scripture and tradition. We will find that the Reformers were correct in claiming patristic support for the principle of sola Scriptura and did, in fact, restore the Church to the position which she had universally embraced and practiced for centuries. It is the Roman Catholic teaching on tradition and authority which is unbiblical and unhistorical.
    All agree that the primary issue involved in this debate is how the revelation of God is passed on and preserved in the Church. The word tradition, in its historical usage covers both the content of the revelation and the process by which it is handed on to the Church through succeeding generations. G.L. Prestige explains:

The Bible assumes that religion is a thing given. The agents through whom the gift was made are inspired men, law–givers, prophets, and apostles authorised to hand over to the keeping of mankind the word of God and the means of His grace…So the faith was indeed once delivered to the saints, uniquely, because it was a unique and final revelation; and the significant fact of Christ’s resurrection, and the central truth that His death was a sacrificial act, as indicated by the mysteries of the Last Supper, formed outstanding features of the ‘tradition’ which St. Paul delivered to his converts. These things were not a human discovery, but a Gospel sent from God through ministers on whom woe must fall if they should fail to preach it. This conception of tradition was firmly retained by the ecclesiastical writers commonly referred to under the general title of Fathers. In their works the word paradosis or ‘tradition’ regularly means the delivery of teaching or the contents of the teaching delivered…It may refer equally either to oral or to written information.6

So the question is, Has the special revelation given us by God been passed on and preserved through Scripture alone or has it also been passed on and preserved through oral teaching as well? No one denies that the apostles began their ministry by teaching orally, but once their teachings were committed to holy Scripture, were there any essential truths that remained oral in nature, or was the entirety of the apostolic message preserved in Scripture alone? And did the early Church believe herself to be the ultimate authority, incapable of erring, or did she believe that all teachings must be validated from Scripture, her authority being contingent on her faithful adherence to Scripture? What exactly was the position of the early Church?
    In the writings of the Church fathers, the term tradition came to include three major categories historically:

1) The apostolic teaching or doctrine handed down from the apostles to the Church—called the apostolic tradition.
2) Ecclesiastical customs and practices.
3) A patristic consensus of the interpretation of Scripture.

In this article, we will examine the patristic understanding of apostolic tradition and Church father’s commitment to the ultimate authority and sufficiency of Scripture.

The Authority and Sufficiency of Scripture in the Early Church

It is in the mid–second century in the writings of Irenaeus and Tertullian
that we encounter the first clear articulation of the concept of tradition. Prior to this, we find little use of the word by the earliest fathers, known as the Apostolic Fathers, and the apologists such as Justin Martyr, Theophilus of Antioch and Athenagoras. Rather, we find a constant appeal to the Old and New Testaments as authoritative sources of doctrine. These fathers held a very high view of the authority of the Scriptures because they believed them to be inspired by God. In his Epistle to the Corinthians, Clement of Rome wrote that the Scriptures are the oracles of God.
7 He made reference again and again to the authority of Scripture with the prefix, ‘it is written,’ and quotes both the Old and New Testaments as inspired by the Holy Spirit.8 In the same Epistle, he quotes from the New Testament book of Hebrews:

For it is thus written, ‘Who maketh His angels spirits, and His ministers a flame of fire.’9  

Polycarp quoted the writings of Paul, calling them Scripture and including them under the general title of sacred Scriptures.10  Justin Martyr likewise affirmed the inspiration of the Old Testament prophets by the Holy Spirit.11  Athenagoras gave one of the strongest statements of all the Apostolic Fathers and apologists on the inspired nature of the prophetic writings of the Old Testament:

If we satisfied ourselves with advancing such considerations as these, our doctrines might by some be looked upon as human. But, since the voices of the prophets confirm our arguments—for I think that you also, with your great zeal for knowledge, and your great attainments in learning, cannot be ignorant of the writings either of Moses or of Isaiah and Jeremiah, and the other prophets, who, lifted in ecstasy above the natural operations of their minds by the impulses of the Divine Spirit, uttered the things with which they were inspired, the Spirit making use of them as a flute–player breathes into a flute.12 

There is no appeal in these writings to the concept of tradition as that embraced by the Roman Catholic Church today. They are full of direct quotations from the Old Testament and paraphrases or direct allusions to the New. The writings of the Apostolic Fathers literally breathe the New Testament. With the exception of 3 John and Jude, every book of the New Testament is either cited or alluded to in these early writings. There is no appeal to an oral tradition. The word tradition, when used in its verb form, refers to the handing over of the faith, the means employed being the Scriptures, either the Old or New Testaments. Ellen Flesseman–van Leer makes these observations about the Apologists’ writings:

The only formal authority the Apologists call upon…is Scripture. Aristedes gives first a summary of the main points of the Christian creed and then an exposition of Christian morality, i.e., of the commandments of the Lord Jesus Christ. The source of knowledge of this Christian faith is the Scriptures of the Christians.13 

The Antignostic Fathers

It is with the antignostic fathers of the mid to late second century, in particular Irenaeus and Tertullian, that we see the emergence of the twin concepts of Scripture and tradition. These fathers made reference to a tradition handed down from the apostles which carries inherent authority because, as they contended, it was apostolic in nature. They referred to this teaching repeatedly as the rule of faith or the canon of truth. The question is, What relationship did this apostolic tradition have to Scripture? Was it a body of doctrine different from Scripture in content, oral in nature and therefore a second vehicle of revelation? Or was it a teaching, the content of which is derived from Scripture and therefore subordinate to Scripture in authority? Let us look in detail at the teaching of these two fathers.


Irenaeus is considered one of the most important of the early Church fathers. He was born around 140 A.D. in Asia Minor and in his early years was acquainted with Polycarp, the martyr from Smyrna, who was a disciple of the apostle John. He later became a bishop of Lyons and was highly respected as a Church leader and theologian. He is principally known for his refutation of the Gnostic heresies and defense of orthodoxy.

Irenaeus’ View of Scripture

Irenaeus leaves his readers in no doubt as to his view of Scripture. He referred to them over and over again as perfect and inspired,14 divine,15 the scriptures of the Lord,16 sacred,17 and authoritative.18 The Scriptures embody the fullness of truth handed down to the Church from the apostles, and being inspired, are fully authoritative for proof for the doctrinal teaching of the Church. He states:

Since, therefore, the tradition from the apostles does thus exist in the Church, and is permanent among us, let us revert to the Scriptural proof furnished by those apostles who did also write the Gospel, in which they recorded the doctrine regarding God, pointing out that our Lord Jesus Christ is the truth, and that no lie is in Him.19  

Irenaeus’ criticism of the Gnostic system was the lack of proof for their teaching:

Moreover, they possess no proof of their system, which has but recently been invented by them…Such, then, is their system, which neither the prophets announced, nor the Lord taught, nor the apostles delivered, but of which they boast that beyond all others they have a perfect knowledge. They gather their views from other sources than the Scriptures…20

It is clear that what Irenaeus meant by proof was documentation from Scripture. This lack of it proved to him that Gnostic teaching was not apostolic. In fact, Irenaeus goes on to say that if a doctrine cannot be proven from Scripture it is purely speculative and cannot be known.21 He made it clear  that revelation comes only through Scripture, so if Scripture is silent on a subject one cannot pretend to know what it does not reveal. He rejected the legitimacy of speculation on any matter not revealed in Scripture. The importance of this principle is apparent when applied to the subject of tradition. Irenaeus believed that true apostolic tradition cannot be purely oral in nature—it must be verified from the writings of the apostles. This was the point of contention between Irenaeus and his Gnostic opponents. The Gnostics claimed to possess an oral tradition from the apostles which was supplemental to Scripture and immune to the Scriptural proofs demanded by Irenaeus. We will look at this in more detail in a moment. According to Irenaeus, in order for tradition to be demonstrated as truly apostolic it must be documented from Scripture.
    He further buttresses his case by stating that Scripture is the medium by which the true apostolic teaching has been handed down to the Church. He acknowledged that the apostles initially preached orally, but goes on to say that their teaching was then committed to writing, and it is that writing—the New Testament—that is the medium by which the apostolic tradition or teaching is handed down to the Church. It is those writings which have become the ground and pillar of the faith of the Church:

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.22 

The phrase ‘handed down’ is the verb form of the word ‘tradition.’ What he is saying, then, is that the transmission of apostolic teaching is traditioned by means of Scripture. He writes further that the apostles committed to the Church the fullness of God’s revelation, and therefore, all things pertaining to the truth:

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.23  

It is clear that Irenaeus taught that Scripture is the pillar and ground of the faith. His reference to the apostles lodging the fullness of truth in the hands of the Church is primarily a reference to Scripture. He does assert that the Church possesses the truth which anyone can ascertain by listening to her preaching, and emphasizing that to embrace the teaching of the Church is to embrace the tradition of the truth:

Suppose there arise a dispute relative to some important question among us, should we not have recourse to the most ancient Churches with which the apostles held constant intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question? For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary, [in that case,] to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they did commit the Churches?24 

Irenaeus proposes here a hypothetical situation. The Churches have received the tradition of the truth from the apostles. What, he asks, if they had not left us any writings? Then it would be necessary to follow the teaching, the tradition, of those Churches which have had direct contact with the apostles. The operative phrase here is, ‘what if the apostles had not left us their writings.’ But in point of fact they have left us their writings. And the point he makes is that while the Church does preach and teach orally, the doctrinal content of that preaching and teaching is directly verifiable from the written Scriptures. Irenaeus is not affirming the existence of oral tradition. He is simply presenting a hypothetical situation as a way of combating the Gnostic heretics.
    The Bible is the means by which the traditio (tradition), or teaching of the apostles is transmitted from generation to generation and by which true apostolic teaching can be verified and error refuted. Irenaeus actually uses a form of the word ‘tradition’ to convey this idea. The importance of Scripture to Irenaeus as a doctrinal norm can be seen from the fact that, as Ellen Flesseman—van Leer put it:

The entire book of Adversus Haereses is broadly speaking but a demonstration from Scripture that the Church doctrine is right and the gnostic doctrine false…If Irenaeus wants to prove the truth of a doctrine materially, he turns to Scripture, because therein the teaching of the apostles is objectively accessible. Proof from tradition and Scripture serve one and the same end: to identify the teaching of the Church as the original apostolic teaching. The first establishes that the teaching of the Church is the apostolic teaching, and the second, what this apostolic teaching is.25  

J.N.D. Kelly writes:

His (Irenaeus’) real defence of orthodoxy was founded upon Scripture.26 

R.P.C. Hanson comments:

The whole purpose of Irenaeus, at least, as we can reliably collect it from the prefaces and endings of each of the books of Adversus Heareses, was to refute the Gnostics from Scripture…Irenaeus will allow Scripture alone as his source of information about God, and if Scripture tells us nothing, then we can know nothing.27 

In addition, Irenaeus states that the meaning of Scripture is not obscure. He says it can be easily apprehended by those who are willing to receive the teaching of Scripture as a whole, for Scripture itself clearly reveals its main message:

Since, therefore, the entire Scriptures, the prophets, and the Gospels, can be clearly, unambiguously, and harmoniously understood by all, although all do not believe them; and since they proclaim that one only God, to the exclusion of all others, formed all things by His word, whether visible or invisible, heavenly or earthly, in the water or under the earth, as I have shown from the very words of Scripture; and since the very system of creation to which we belong testifies, by what falls under our notice, that one Being made and governs it—those persons will seem truly foolish who blind their eyes to such a clear demonstration, and will not behold the light of the announcement [made to them]; but they put fetters upon themselves, and every one of them imagines, by means of their obscure interpretations of the parables, that he has found out a God of his own.28 

To Irenaeus, then, Scripture is the full and final revelation given by God to man through the apostles. It is inspired and authoritative and a source of proof for discerning truth and error. It is Scripture that has final and sufficient authority and is the ground and pillar of the Church’s faith. The Scriptures are both materially and formally sufficient.
    But the question arises, Did not Irenaeus also appeal to tradition as a source of authority? And did he not speak of the authority of the Church? The answer to both questions is yes. But this affirmation does not negate the fact that, for Irenaeus, Scripture is the final authority in all matters of faith. This becomes clear upon examination of his teaching on tradition and ecclesiastical authority.

Irenaeus and Apostolic Tradition

Irenaeus speaks often of tradition in his writings. He constantly referred to an apostolic tradition handed down to the Church which he called the canon of truth or the rule of faith. One of the most frequently quoted passages used to substantiate his belief and teaching of tradition is the following:

As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth. For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world. But as the sun, that creature of God, is one and the same throughout the whole world, so also the preaching of the truth shineth everywhere, and enlightens all men that are willing to come to a knowledge of the truth. Nor will any one of the rulers in the Churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these (for no one is greater than the Master); nor, on the other hand, will he who is deficient in power of expression inflict injury on the tradition. For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one, who can say but little diminish it…But, again, when we refer them to that tradition which originates from the apostles, [and] which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches, they object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth.29

It is not uncommon in Roman Catholic apologetic literature to see this particular passage quoted as confirmation of their concept of tradition. For example, under the heading of Sacred Tradition is a True Source of Revelation, listed in the Doctrinal Index of his book, The Faith of the Early Fathers, William Jurgens cites it to support this point of view. Roman Catholic apologist, Robert Sungenis, in Not By Scripture Alone, also gives the above quote and then makes this comment:

Obviously, Irenaeus believes not only in Scripture, but in the tradition that originates from the apostles. Moreover, Irenaeus also believes in the perpetuation of that tradition through the unbroken succession of presbyters (bishops and priests) in the Churches. How can Irenaeus be teaching that the oral tradition of the apostles was retired if he believes that the presbyters preserve it by means of successive generations…Catholics and Protestants accept as fact that after the first century God ceased the charism of divine inspiration. Hence Irenaeus is not saying that the preservation and perpetuation of the apostles’ oral tradition was retired, but only that the charism of inspiration had ceased. If anything, Irenaeus is assuring us that responsible and qualified men had systematically preserved the apostles’ orally inspired messages. Thus we have further proof of an unwritten Tradition that existed alongside the written Scripture in the life of the Church.30 

Clearly, then, Roman Catholics employ the teaching of Irenaeus to support their own doctrine of tradition—doctrine which they claim is handed down orally from the apostles and is independent of Scripture. This position, however, is untenable when the teaching of Irenaeus is interpreted in context. The above quote (by Sungenis) is taken out of context. This quote is preceded by a lengthy statement defining what Irenaeus meant by tradition. That passage reads:

The Church, though dispersed throughout the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father ‘to gather all things in one,’ and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Savior, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, ‘every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess’ to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send ‘spiritual wickednesses,’ and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory.31  

Note that according to Irenaeus, the Church has received what he callsthis faithfrom the apostles and their disciples. He then goes on to give the doctrinal content of this faith which are primarily the cardinal truths of the Creed. And this faith, and the content as he has defined it, is equated with what he calls the tradition. He puts it this way:

The Church, though dispersed throughout the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith…For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world…For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one, who can say but little diminish it.32 

So, tradition, as defined by Irenaeus, is equivalent to the faith handed down from the apostles, which he often refers to as ‘the rule of faith.’ This rule has a very specific content, all of which is contained in Scripture. He makes no mention of other and purely oral doctrines that are essential for the faith.33  Every doctrine of the rule is derived from Scripture. Tradition, therefore, is the rule of faith expressly taught in Scripture. We have already seen that Irenaeus believed that what was initially taught orally by the apostles was later committed to Scripture, and that it was through Scripture that the apostolic tradition was transmitted to the Church. In other words, the apostolic teaching did not remain oral in nature. It was inscripturated. Thus, the content of the apostolic tradition preserved and preached (orally) in the Churches by the presbyters is identical in content with the teaching of Scripture. Tradition is verified by Scripture; they are one and the same. Contrary to Sungenis’ assertion, there is no other body of doctrine, oral in nature and independent of Scripture. The tradition of the Church is simply that teaching which is grounded upon and derived from Scripture. According to Irenaeus, apostolic tradition reaches us by two means: Scripture and the preaching and teaching of the Church, preserved in purity by the succession of her bishops. Did Irenaeus believe this rendered Scripture insufficient? By no means, because oral proclamation of the truth is simply the public proclamation of the teaching of Scripture. It is Scriptural truth presented orally, just as the present day preacher preaches a message derived from Scripture.  He is passing on truth orally. He is ‘’traditioning,’ that is, handing on truth. But the actual content of that teaching is the same as that which is found in Scripture. As A.N.S. Lane has observed:

The first clear attitude to emerge on the relation between Scripture, tradition and the church was the coincidence view: that the teaching of the church, Scripture and tradition coincide. Apostolic tradition is authoritative but does not differ in content from the Scriptures. The teaching of the church is likewise authoritative but is only the proclamation of the apostolic message found in Scripture and tradition. The classical embodiment of the coincidence view is found in the writings of Irenaeus and Tertullian.34 

R.P.C. Hanson summarizes the position of Irenaeus on Scripture and its relationship to tradition:

It is easy to see why so many of the fathers regard the rule of faith as tradition. The rule of faith was the doctrine which the Church of their day was preaching, and they were convinced that the Church had always been preaching the same doctrine…Certainly, there is evidence in abundance that the very fathers of the second and third centuries who wrote most frequently of the rule of faith as interpreting Scripture regarded the content of the Scriptures as materially identical with the content of the rule of faith, or professed to draw all their doctrine from Scripture…Irenaeus claimed that the Church allowed neither addition to nor subtraction from the Scriptures…According to Irenaeus, says Flesseman–van Leer, ‘Scripture is the instrument with which to refute the heretics, and, what is even more important, the tradition of the Church (fides quae creditur) should be defended and proved through the Scripture. This is particularly true of Irenaeus’ later work, the Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching. The reader finds as he makes his way through it that it is no more or less than an exposition of the rule of faith, supported by copious quotations from the Bible which demonstrate that this rule is grounded upon Scripture.’35  

F.F. Bruce makes these observations about the relationship between the rule of faith, tradition and Scripture:

When the summary of the apostolic tradition is called the rule of faith or the rule of truth, the implication is that this is the church’s norm, the standard by which everything must be judged that presents itself for Christian faith or claims to be Christian doctrine, the criterion for the recognition of truth and exposure of error. If at times it is formally distinguished from Scripture in the sense that it is recognized as the interpretation of Scripture, at other times it is materially identical with Scripture in the sense that it sums up what Scripture says. Plainly what was written down by the apostles in their letters and what was delivered by them orally to their disciples and handed down in the church’s tradition must be one and the same body of teaching. As R.P.C. Hanson puts it, the rule of faith invoked by the church fathers is ‘a graph of the interpretation of the Bible by the Church in the second and third centuries, a statement of what was generally believed to be the essence of Scripture.’36 

This helps us to understand Irenaeus’ reference to barbarians who received the truth—the faith—apart from written documents. In other words, they received the truth orally as it was preached.37  There are barbarians, he says, uneducated, illiterate men and women, who received the true faith and carefully preserved the ancient tradition. In the absence of written documents they had believed the true faith. Was Irenaeus suggesting that the tradition or teaching received by these barbarians, though oral in nature, was somehow different in doctrinal content from the teaching of Scripture? No, the doctrinal content of the faith received by the barbarians consisted of the rule of faith, which is the teaching of Scripture. The equivalent today would be a missionary teaching the gospel to an illiterate tribal people. The missionary works to learn their language and then communicates the truth of Scripture orally to them. This is oral tradition, passing on or handing down Scriptural truth in oral form. Tradition, in this sense, is never a separate revelation independent of Scripture, but the explicit teaching of Scripture, derived wholly from it and communicated in two ways, one oral and the other written. The mediums differ but the content of the truth in each case is the same. Thus, for Irenaeus, the content of tradition and Scripture is the same. As J.N.D. Kelly observes:

The whole point of his (Irenaeus’) teaching was, in fact, that Scripture and the Church’s unwritten tradition are identical in content, both being vehicles of the revelation. If tradition was conveyed in the ‘canon’ is a more trustworthy guide, this is not because it comprises truths other than those revealed in Scripture, but because the true tenor of the apostolic message is there unambiguously set out.38 

Irenaeus and the Gnostics

To understand the appeal of Irenaeus to tradition, it is necessary to have a clear understanding of the circumstances which prompted it. He wrote Against Heresies to counter the heretical teachings of the Gnostics. Generally, the Gnostics did not dispute the authority of the books of Scripture (excepting Marcion). They accepted the entire canon as authoritative, but Irenaeus states that they fell into error on two counts. Firstly, they completely misinterpreted the text by imposing upon it an arbitrary allegorical method of interpretation. And secondly, they supplemented the authority of Scripture with another authority. The Gnostics claimed to have an oral tradition, independent of Scripture, handed down by the apostles which they alone  possessed. They sought to blunt the ultimate and final authority of Scripture by claiming that not everything the apostles taught was in Scripture. Irenaeus assesses the Gnostic position in these words:

When however, they are confuted from the Scriptures, they turn round and accuse these same scriptures, as if they were not correct, nor of authority, and assert that they are ambiguous, and that the truth cannot be extracted from them by those who are ignorant of tradition. For they allege that the truth was not delivered by means of written documents, but viva voce (orally)…For if the apostles had known hidden mysteries, which they were in the habit of imparting to &‘the perfect’ apart and privily from the rest, they would have delivered them especially to those to whom they were also committing the churches themselves.39 

Note the logic used against the Church—that the Scriptures are not fully sufficient for understanding revelation. Unless, then, a person understands the oral tradition handed down from the apostles, in particular that given to the Gnostics, one cannot understand the Scriptures. The Gnostics alone could give the correct interpretation of Scripture in conformity with the oral apostolic tradition. G.W.H. Lampe summarizes this Gnostic teaching:

Among the Gnostics paradosis was a common word, and the idea of an esoteric tradition, imparted by the apostles to a select few, is commoner still; indeed, it is the foundation on which Gnostic teaching claims to rest…Valentenian Gnosticism cultivated an apostolic tradition. ‘Flora’, says Ptolmaeus, ‘may learn…being deemed worthy of the apostolic tradition…which we also have received by succession’…According to Irenaeus the Valentenians claimed that the truth in Scripture cannot be discovered by those who are ignorant of tradition. This tradition was delivered orally, and this is the wisdom which Paul says: ‘we speak among the perfect.’…
    In Gnosticism, therefore, we encounter for the first time the idea of unwritten tradition as an authority for doctrine. Unlike the orthodox tradition, it is neither the raw material, as it were, of what is to become Scripture, nor the explication of what is contained in Scripture. It is wholly independent of Scripture and is even superior to it, since only in the light of the tradition can Scripture be understood. Doctrine and practice alike are founded upon it. It claims to be apostolic tradition, handed down in succession from the apostles.

Ellen Flesseman–van Leer adds these insights:

The word traditio…in book III (Against Heresies)…clearly means the secret Gnostic tradition not delivered by writing, but merely by means of the living voice, to which the Gnostics appeal when they are refuted from scripture, saying that this tradition is the necessary key without which scripture is not understandable.41 

Irenaeus refutes the Gnostic claims in two ways. He first establishes the fact that the apostles’ successors can be found in all the orthodox churches and can trace their succession directly back to the apostles. And, secondly, as we have seen previously, he points to the doctrinal content of the apostolic tradition. He tells us the content of the specific doctrines preached orally and handed down by the apostles to the churches and subsequently through the succession of bishops. The Gnostics, says Irenaeus, can claim no succession and their teaching contradicted what was universally embraced by the churches and proclaimed by the bishops. Although the church has authority, it is a contingent authority, that is, she has authority only because she possesses and is true to the apostolic tradition embodied in Scripture, not simply because of succession. As Church history clearly reveals, a particular see may claim apostolic succession and yet embrace heresy, thereby abrogating any true spiritual authority. Henry Chadwick writes of the importance of Scripture as a verification of the true apostolic tradition in light of the Gnostic challenge:

Papias differentiates between oral and written tradition to disparage the latter. This could no longer be safely said after the main Gnostic challenge had precipitated violent conflict over the nature of authentic Christianity. Marcion and Valentine arrived in Rome about 140; each claimed that his doctrine was the true faith and thereby denied the correctness or sufficiency of the doctrine being taught by the Roman clergy. It was good to be able to point in reply to the succession of occupants of the teaching chairs in which the martyred heroes St Peter and St Paul had once sat to instruct the Roman church. It was even better to be able to vindicate the proposition that the contemporary bishop and presbyters of Rome taught what the apostles had taught. It could be proved by written documents. The tradition was open to control in the words of scripture. The teaching of the apostles had providentially been put into writing, so that it was no matter of guesswork to ascertain its nature.42 

When Irenaeus defines the doctrinal content of the canon of truth or the apostolic tradition, he defines it as simply the summation of the major teaching of the Old and New Testaments. Thus, any oral tradition separate from Scripture in content, which does not conform to the teaching of Scripture, is, in the view of Irenaeus, a Gnostic heresy. Succession proves that the bishops preach and teach the true apostolic tradition, while Scripture verifies what the content of that apostolic tradition is. Heiko Oberman confirms this when he says:

Irenaeus seems to identify the transmission of truth with episcopal succession. Inasmuch as the Apostles did not institute other Apostles but bishops, however, the episcopal witness is a derived witness, and its function is to preserve the integrity and totality of the original apostolic witness. To this end the Canon was formed…the writings of the Apostles which were in the process of being received—not produced by the Church—were understood to contain the original kerygma in toto.43 

Tradition, then, according to Irenaeus, is another term for the oral proclamation of the truth of Scripture in preaching, teaching or creedal statements. It is not an independent source of revelation but a verbal presentation of the one authoritative revelation of God—the holy Scriptures. Thus, the foundation of tradition is the written word of God.
    It is significant to note that by the second century it was recognized that all apostolic truth necessary for the full understanding of the faith had been transmitted to the Church by means of Scripture. A separate body of doctrine, oral in nature and meant to supplement Scripture, did not exist. This concept originated, not in the Church, but with the Gnostic heretics. Flesseman–van Leer makes this comment:

For Irenaeus, the church doctrine is certainly never purely traditional; on the contrary, the thought that there could be some truth transmitted exclusively viva voce (orally), is a Gnostic line of thought.44 

G.L. Prestige agrees with this assessment, writing:

The line taken by Irenaeus in defending orthodoxy against his heretical Gnostic opponents gives an instructive illustration both of his argument from apostolicity and of his practical dependence on the Bible. The apostles, he contends, first preached the Gospel, then by God’s will traditioned it in the Scriptures. Matthew, Peter, Paul, and John are cited as authorities behind the four Gospels (haer. lib. 3. cap. I). The heretics, however, deny the authority of the Scriptures, call them ambiguous, and say that the truth cannot be discovered from them by anybody who is ignorant of the tradition, which was not, according to themselves, delivered in writing, but orally. When, however, they are confronted with ‘that tradition which comes from the apostles and is preserved in the churches through the succession of the priests’—the episcopate is often designated the priesthood by the earlier ecclesiastical writers—they start objecting to tradition and say that they themselves know better than either bishop or apostle. ‘It comes to this,’ says Irenaeus: ‘they won’t agree either with the Scriptures or with the tradition’ (cap. 2). Yet, he continues, any honest investigator can observe in every church the tradition of the apostles; and the orthodox were ‘in a position to enumerate those who were appointed bishops in the churches by the apostles’, together with their successors, and to prove that their teaching bore no resemblance to that of the heretics…The heretics are pure innovators. Now comes the climax. Since the tradition derived from the apostles is an established and lasting fact, ‘let us revert to that proof which comes from the Scriptures, furnished by those apostles who also wrote the Gospel’ (cap. 5.1). And he proceeds to vindicate the faith out of the Bible for the rest of the book. If it is the duty of the Church to teach, it is the privilege of the Bible to prove.45

F.F. Bruce sums up Irenaeus’ position in these words:

The way of salvation and the tradition are in practice synonymous. But Irenaeus attached supreme importance to what was written with paper and ink. The apostolic tradition is for him the proper and natural interpretation of Scripture: the faith that he summarizes and expounds is what Scripture teaches. He is convinced of the perspicuity of Scripture; any honest student of Scripture must agree that this is its meaning.46  

The Roman Catholic appeal to Irenaeus for support for her doctrine of tradition is erroneous. Jaroslav Pelikan confirms the fact that the oral teaching of the apostles was later committed to writing which became the standard for determining apostolic tradition:

What the apostles had preached viva voce (orally), they had ‘handed down to us in the Scriptures as the pillar and bulwark of our faith.’ Not to assent to the content of these scriptures was to hold in contempt those who had communion with Christ the Lord…So it was that the terms apostolic, catholic, traditional, and orthodox became synonymous terms. The apostolic dogmas was a standard term for that which was believed, taught and confessed by the orthodox catholic church on the basis of the word of God.47 

The parallels between the claims of Roman Catholicism and those of the Gnostics are clear. By teaching the existence of an oral apostolic tradition independent of Scripture as a separate vehicle of revelation, and the inability to understand Scripture apart from that tradition, the Roman Catholic Church has embraced a Gnostic heresy repudiated by Irenaeus and the fathers in general.


Tertullian was born in Carthage in North Africa and practiced law before his conversion to Christianity ca. A.D. 193. He was a prolific writer and has been called the ‘Father of Latin Christianity.’ He was most likely a layman and his writings were widely read. He had a great influence upon the Church fathers of subsequent generations, especially Cyprian.
    The teaching of Tertullian on apostolic tradition and its relationship to Scripture is a mirror image of Irenaeus. Like him, Tertullian believed the revelation of God to be the ultimate authority for the Church. This revelation was handed down in the Old Testament Scriptures and through Jesus Christ to the apostles who in turn faithfully handed on this teaching to the churches which they founded. Tertullian referred to the doctrine which the apostles taught as tradition,
48 and equated this apostolic teaching with the fundamental doctrines of the faith and the gospel. Initially, this tradition or teaching was given orally by the apostles and later inscripturated in their Gospels and epistles:

Now, what that was which they preached—in other words, what it was which Christ revealed to them—can, as I must here likewise prescribe, properly be proved in no other way than by those very churches which the apostles founded in person, by declaring the gospel to them directly themselves, both vivâ voce, as the phrase is, and subsequently by their epistles.49  

So the means of passing on the authoritative message was both oral and written. Like Irenaeus before him, Tertullian stressed that the true apostolic message could be ascertained by availing oneself of the preaching of the apostolic churches. He was convinced that these churches had faithfully handed on the fullness of the apostolic message without error, dilution or addition through the succession of bishops. And as Irenaeus did, Tertullian used the verb form of the Latin word for tradition to describe the process of transmission—the handing down—of apostolic teaching:

From what and through whom, and when, and to whom, has been handed down that rule, by which men become Christians?50 

But what was Tertullian’s view of the relationship between Scripture and tradition? When he used the term, tradition, did he have in mind an oral apostolic teaching that is a separate revelation from Scripture? That is, is God’s revelation contained partly in Scripture and partly in tradition, the two comprising the fullness of his truth? Are the Scriptures materially sufficient or do they need to be supplemented by tradition?

Tertullian’s View of Scripture

Tertullian unambiguously taught that the Scriptures consist of the Old Testament with the apostolic epistles and Gospels designated as the New Testament.51 In his descriptions of the Scriptures, he refers to them repeatedly again as divine, inspired, sacred, holy, the word of God and the voice of the Holy Spirit.52 He considered them fully inspired and authoritative for the establishing of doctrine and the refutation of error. His writings are replete with examples. He believed the Scriptures to be the sole authoritative source from which we derive Christian doctrine and an understanding of apostolic tradition. Ellen Flesseman–van Leer comments on the authoritative nature of Scripture for Tertullian:

Because scripture contains the revelation and is part of tradition, it has of course absolute authority…And therefore, if a doctrine or precept is written in the Bible, it cannot be but true, and if a dogma needs to be proved true, it is entirely sufficient to show that it is written. And even more important, scripture is not only sufficient evidence, but strictly necessary evidence for proving the truth of a dogma.53  

For Tertullian there is no other source of doctrine but Scripture, which he described as the records of the faith.54 Consequently, he emphatically stated that it is not possible to know truth apart from Scripture because it reveals the entirety of God’s special revelation. It is materially sufficient and if Scripture is silent on an issue it is illegitimate to raise theological speculation to the status of revelation. We see this principle applied by him in his conflict with those who promoted the patripassian heresy and sought to bolster their heretical teachings with the logic that nothing was impossible with God. While agreeing with the statement in principle, Tertullian repudiated the notion that one could determine the truth of what God has or has not done apart from the revelation of Scripture. He demanded Scriptural proof for all teachings:

Of course nothing is ‘too hard for the Lord.’ But if we choose to apply this principle so extravagantly and harshly in our capricious imaginations, we may then make out God to have done anything we please, on the ground that it was not impossible for Him to do it. We must not, however, because He is able to do all things suppose that He has actually done what He has not done. But we must inquire whether He has really done it. God could, if He had liked, have furnished man with wings to fly with, just as He gave wings to kites. We must not, however, run to the conclusion that He did this because He was able to do it…It will be your duty, however, to adduce your proofs out of the Scriptures as plainly as we do…55 

In his treatise Against Hermogenes, he states further:

I revere the fullness of His Scripture, in which He manifests to me both the Creator and the creation. In the gospel, moreover, I discover a Minister and Witness of the Creator, even His Word. But whether all things were made out of any underlying Matter, I have as yet failed anywhere to find. Where such a statement is written, Hermogenes’ shop must tell us. If it is nowhere written, then let it fear the woe which impends on all who add to or take away from the written word.56  

Tertullian clearly taught that if a proposed teaching or doctrine could not be verified through what is written it was to be rejected. All doctrines, according to Tertullian, must receive their proof from Scripture. This is a fundamental principle of his theology, occurring often in his writings.57  In his treatise On the Resurrection of the Flesh, Tertullian wrote that heretics should support their inquiries from the Scriptures alone:

Take away, indeed, from the heretics the wisdom which they share with the heathen, and let them support their inquiries from the Scriptures alone: they will then be unable to keep their ground.58  

These quotations demonstrate the high estimate Tertullian had of the Scriptures in both theology and practice. He described them as the instruments of doctrine and went so far as to say that it is by Scripture that believers have their being.59 In teaching that Scripture is the only source of doctrine and that all teaching must be proven from the written Scriptures, Tertullian affirmed that Scripture is the ultimate authority for validating truth and refuting falsehood and error. In his treatise Against Praxeas, he cites numerous Scriptures in refutation of Praxeas’ doctrine of God and in defense of the Trinity writing that it is unlawful to believe anything that has not been ‘handed down’ in the Scriptures.60 The term ‘handed down’ is a form of the word tradition. Therefore, true apostolic tradition is traditioned through Scripture. J.N.D. Kelly explains Tertullian’s perspective on Scripture:

Scripture has absolute authority; whatever it teaches is necessarily true, and woe betide him who accepts doctrines not discoverable in it.61  

The Rule of Faith

Although Tertullian held a very high view of Scripture and its authority, it is also true that he often spoke of tradition. However, we must carefully assess what he meant by it because he used it in two distinct ways. Often Tertullian’s references to tradition are quoted indiscriminately by Roman Catholics to promote a theology that is actually foreign to his true teaching and intent. Tertullian taught that tradition was the original apostolic preaching faith, which he called the tradition of the faith or the rule of faith. It was fully contained in Scripture, and was passed down to the Church in completeness by the apostles.62  These are the essential doctrines by which churches are established and men and women become Christians:

They obtained the promised power of the Holy Ghost for the gift of miracles and of utterance; and after first bearing witness to the faith in Jesus Christ throughout Judaea, and founding churches (there), they next went forth into the world and preached the same doctrine of the same faith to the nations. They then in like manner founded churches in every city, from which all the other churches, one after another, derived the tradition of the faith, and the seeds of doctrine, and are every day deriving them, that they may become churches…From what and through whom, and when, and to whom, has been handed down that rule, by which men become Christians?63 

This tradition is preached orally and publically in the Churches, and is fixed in doctrinal content. It is not subject to addition or subtraction:

The rule of faith, indeed, is altogether one, alone immovable and irreformable.64  

But is this rule a separate vehicle of revelation independent of Scripture? The answer is no. In essence the rule of faith sets forth the major doctrines of Scripture. As Ellen Flesseman–van Leer points out:

Regula can signify for Tertullian a number of formulated religious truths, more particularly those which are to him the most fundamental ones…a summary, formulated according to the need of the moment, of the entire Christian faith…But even when regula signifies a more or less well–formulated summing up of the Christian doctrine in its entirety, it is not being given its most fundamental meaning…When Tertullian speaks here of regula he has in the mind the real purport of revelation, the essence of the events of the holy history and preaching of Jesus Christ, something so closely linked with revelation that it can never be separated from it. This, however, does not mean that it is fully the same as revelation; it is rather the implicit, essential meaning of revelation…not merely the fixation of faith, but its inmost meaning.65 

The content of Scripture and the teaching of the rule of faith are identical. This is evident when we examine the doctrinal content of the rule as defined by Tertullian, which is very similar to Irenaeus’ canon of truth.66  It consists of the primary doctrines that make up the creed pertaining to the three persons of the Trinity and the judgment to come. It is obvious from the listing of these doctrines that they are all taught in Scripture. Tertullian taught that the apostles received the fullness of the revelation from Christ and passed on that revelation in its entirety in their preaching and epistles.67 
    Just as Irenaeus taught that the oral teaching of the apostles was later committed to writing as Scripture, Tertullian taught that the tradition of the apostles was committed by them to the Church in the Scriptures as a will and testament.
68 The apostolic tradition was summed up in the rule of faith, which was grounded in the truth of Scripture and preached orally in the Church, but  was not in doctrinal content oral in nature, that is, there were no doctrines included that were not explicitly taught in Scripture. It was derived from Scripture and embodied the fundamentals of the faith:

Now, faith has been deposited in the rule; it has a law, and (in the observance thereof) salvation…To know nothing in opposition to the rule (of faith), is to know all things.69  

Faith (the apostolic tradition) has been deposited in the rule and the rule is derived from Scripture, so Scripture is the foundation for faith and tradition.
However, Tertullian also taught a concept of tradition that was indeed a novelty. He was the first to cite, as tradition, ecclesiastical customs and practices which had a long history of use in the Church, but were not explicitly mentioned in Scripture. He wrote of this in his treatise De Corona:

And how long shall we draw the saw to and fro through this line, when we have an ancient practice, which by anticipation has made for us the state, i.e., of the question? If no passage of Scripture has prescribed it, assuredly custom, which without doubt flowed from tradition, has confirmed it. For how can anything come into use, if it has not first been handed down? Even in pleading tradition, written authority, you say, must be demanded. Let us inquire, therefore, whether tradition, unless it be written, should not be admitted. Certainly we shall say that it ought not to be admitted, if no cases of other practices which, without any written instrument, we maintain on the ground of tradition alone, and the countenance thereafter of custom, affords us any precedent. To deal with this matter briefly, I shall begin with baptism. When we are going to enter the water, but a little before, in the presence of the congregation and under the hand of the president, we solemnly profess that we disown the devil, and his pomp, and his angels. Hereupon we are thrice immersed, making a somewhat ampler pledge than the Lord has appointed in the Gospel. Then when we are taken up (as new–born children), we taste first of all a mixture of milk and honey, and from that day we refrain from the daily bath for a whole week. We take also, in congregations before daybreak, and from the hand of none but the presidents, the sacrament of the Eucharist, which the Lord both commanded to be eaten at meal–times, and enjoined to be taken by all alike. As often as the anniversary comes round, we make offerings for the dead as birthday honors. We count fasting or kneeling in worship on the Lord’s day to be unlawful. We rejoice in the same privilege also from Easter to Whitsunday. We feel pained should any wine or bread, even though our own, be cast upon the ground. At every forward step and movement, at every going in and out, when we put on our clothes and shoes, when we bathe, when we sit at table, when we light the lamps, on couch, on seat, in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon the forehead the sign.
    If, for these and other such rules, you insist upon having positive Scripture injunction, you will find none. Tradition will be held forth to you as the originator of them, custom as their strengthener, and faith as their observer. That reason will support tradition, and custom, and faith, you will either yourself perceive, or learn from some one who has.

Tertullian is referring specifically to customs and practices under the heading of tradition. We should note that these traditions applied to matters of secondary importance in the Church, many of which are no longer observed, such as triple immersion at baptism. It is clear from his teaching on Scripture though, that he repudiated any notion of oral tradition with respect to doctrine. Any doctrine that claims apostolic authority must be grounded in Scripture. As Kelly observes:

Tertullian’s attitude does not differ from Irenaeus’ in any important respect. He was an innovator, it is true, in extending the meaning of ‘tradition’ to cover what had been customary in the Church for long generations. In this sense practices like the triple renunciation and triple immersion at baptism, the reception of the eucharist in the early morning, the prohibition of kneeling on Sundays at Eastertide, and the sign of the cross could be described as traditions; one tradition might even be said to be at variance with another. In its primary sense, however, the apostolic, evangelical or Catholic tradition stood for the faith delivered by the apostles, and he never contrasted tradition so understood with Scripture. Indeed, it was enshrined in Scripture, for the apostles subsequently wrote down their oral preaching in epistles. For this reason Scripture has absolute authority; whatever it teaches is necessarily true, and woe betide him who accepts doctrines not discoverable in it.71  

In spite of the evidence, Roman Catholic apologists misinterpret and distort Tertullian’s teaching on tradition by neglecting to make the distinction he made between doctrine and customs and practices in his writings. They imply he taught that there existed some essential doctrine of the faith passed down through oral tradition that was not rooted in Scripture. For example, in Not By Scripture Alone, Joe Gallegos cites a portion of the above quotation indiscriminately and out of context, misleading the reader regarding Tertullian’s real position. In the following quote, he implies that Tertullian’s use of the word tradition is the same as the present day Roman Catholic concept:

On occasion, both Irenaeus and Tertullian specifically referred to Tradition as something distinct from Scripture. Tradition was applied in a narrow sense meaning those teachings which (though coincident with the Scriptures) have come down to us through unwritten means.72  

He then quotes Tertullian, as listed above, from De Corona:

If, for these and other such rules, you insist upon having positive Scripture injunction, you will find none. Tradition will be held forth to you as the originator of them, custom as their strengthener, and faith as their observer. That reason will support tradition, and custom, and faith, you will either yourself perceive, or learn from some one who has (De Corona 4).73 

This citation does come from De Corona 4. But the context of Tertullian’s remarks is found in the paragraph immediately preceding in De Corona 3 where he defines what he means by tradition. Gallegos omits this, and by so doing, fails to inform his readers that Tertullian is referring, not to doctrines, but to customs, the majority of which are no longer even accepted or practiced by the Roman Catholic Church. As Sungenis misrepresented Irenaeus, so Gallegos misrepresents Tertullian.

Authority of the Church and Apostolic Succession

In addition to the authority of Scripture and apostolic tradition, Tertullian spoke of the authority of the Church. The churches have authority because they have received and have faithfully preserved and passed on the teaching of the apostles. We can know the true apostolic tradition by appealing to the doctrine proclaimed by the churches founded by the apostles.74 The authority of any church, then, comes from its adherence to apostolic teaching:

They (the apostles) then in like manner founded churches in every city, from which all the other churches, one after another, derived the tradition of the faith, and the seeds of doctrine, and are every day deriving them, that they may become churches. Indeed, it is on this account only that they will be able to deem themselves apostolic, as being the offspring of apostolic churches. Every sort of thing must necessarily revert to its original for its classification. Therefore the churches, although they are so many and so great, comprise but the one primitive church, (founded) by the apostles, from which they all (spring). In this way all are primitive, and all are apostolic, whilst they are all proved to be one, in (unbroken) unity, by their peaceful communion, and title of brotherhood, and bond of hospitality—privileges which no other rule directs than the one tradition of the selfsame mystery.75  

Tertullian taught that authoritative apostolic succession is not ecclesiastical but doctrinal. What characterizes a Church as apostolic is conformity to apostolic tradition, which is preeminently enshrined in Scripture. Tertullian appealed to the apostolic churches (those founded directly by the apostles) as an affirmation of true apostolic tradition, and in so doing aligned those churches with the written Scriptures of the apostles.76 

The Alexandrians

The Alexandrians is a term referring principally to Clement of Alexandria and Origen who were associated with the Church of Alexandria in Egypt. We find similarities to Irenaeus and Tertullian in their approach to Scripture and tradition, but also much that marks them as distinctive and unique among the church as a whole. While Irenaeus and Tertullian combated the philosophizing tendencies in the Church, Clement and Origen approached Christianity from a philosophical perspective and sought, as far as possible, to accommodate Christianity to the leading philosophical concepts of their day. They are fond of employing philosophical terms to define and defend Christian truth and were greatly influenced by the leading philosophies of their culture. They attempted to present Christianity as the highest and purest form of philosophy. Unlike Tertullian, who rejected all philosophy, Clement and Origen embraced it, or at least, to reinterpret it in Christian terms. As Clement puts it:

For, like farmers who irrigate the land beforehand, so we also water with the liquid stream of Greek learning what in it is earthy; so that it may receive the spiritual seed cast into it, and may be capable of easily nourishing it. The Stromata will contain the truth mixed up in the dogmas of philosophy, or rather covered over and hidden, as the edible part of the nut in the shell. For, in my opinion, it is fitting that the seeds of truth be kept for the husbandmen of faith, and no others. I am not oblivious of what is babbled by some, who in their ignorance are frightened at every noise, and say that we ought to occupy ourselves with what is most necessary, and which contains the faith; and that we should pass over what is beyond and superfluous, which wears out and detains us to no purpose, in things which conduce nothing to the great end. Others think that philosophy was introduced into life by an evil influence, for the ruin of men, by an evil inventor. But I shall show, throughout the whole of these Stromata, that evil has an evil nature, and can never turn out the producer of aught that is good; indicating that philosophy is in a sense a work of Divine Providence.77  

Clement of Alexandria

William Jurgens gives us the following historical background on Clement:

Titus Flavius Clemens, St. Clement of Alexandria, was born of pagan parents, probably at Athens, about the year 150 A.D. After becoming a Christian he journeyed to Italy, Syria and Palestine, seeking Christian teachers for his own instruction. Finally he met the celebrated Pantaenus in Alexandria, and was so attracted to the master that he settled there and became, in order, Pantaenus’ associate, assistant, and finally succeeded him as director of the school of catechumens, attaining the latter position about the year 200 A.D. Two or three years later he was forced by the persecution under Severus to flee from Egypt. He died in Cappadocia between the years 211 and 216 A.D., without ever having seen Egypt again.78 

When we venture into the realm of philosophical Christianity as expounded by Clement of Alexandria, we are headed into a decidedly different environment from that of Irenaeus and Tertullian and the vast majority of later fathers. While the emphasis is still placed on the ultimate and final authority of Scripture, its message is often obscured by the philosophical bent and hermeneutical principles (also heavily influenced by philosophy) employed by Clement. Nevertheless, Clement shared the position of Irenaeus and Tertullian, that the Scriptures are materially sufficient and the ultimate authority for the Church.

Clement’s Estimate of Scripture

Clement used much the same terminology as Irenaeus and Terullian to describe the Scriptures, calling them the voice of God and inspired,79 divine80  and truth.81 Because they are inspired, Clement taught that the Scriptures are the ultimate authority in all matters of faith and the sole source for all doctrine.82 He affirmed Scripture alone as the criterion for all truth so that all doctrine must be subjected to the bar of Scripture for validation. In refuting heretics and presenting the truth, Clement emphatically stated that all arguments must to be rooted in and derived from Scripture. He disdained personal opinion void of Scriptural proof,83 and believed that those who are spiritual and orthodox are led by God in Scripture. They will seek proof from Scripture for the confirmation of all doctrines:

Accordingly, those fall from this eminence who follow not God whither He leads. And He leads us in the inspired Scriptures…Our Gnostic then alone, having grown old in the Scriptures, and maintaining apostolic and ecclesiastic orthodoxy in doctrines, lives most correctly in accordance with the Gospel, and discovers the proofs, for which he may have made search (sent forth as he is by the Lord), from the law and the prophets. For the life of the Gnostic, in my view, is nothing but deeds and words corresponding to the tradition of the Lord.84  

Clement believed that Scripture was the heart and soul of all theology and the preeminent authority in the life of every Christian. G.L. Prestige gives the following overview of Clement’s attitude towards the authority of Scripture and its relationship to tradition, noting that he is representative of the fathers as a whole:

The Bible was associated, and largely identified, with the tradition as early as Clement of Alexandria, at the turn of the century. He claims the authority of scriptural texts with the new phrase ‘as the Scripture has traditioned’ (strom. I.21, 142.2; ib. 7.18, 109.2), and speaks of the ‘spiritual knowledge traditioned through the Scriptures’, by which Christ makes a man truly great–minded (strom. 7.16, 105.1)…The genuine ‘‘nostic’—that is to say, the devout and intelligent Christian, the man of real enlightenment—will grow old in the Scriptures, preserves the apostolic and ecclesiastic orthodoxy in his doctrines, and lives according to the Gospel; for his life ‘is nothing else than the deeds and words conforming to the Lord’s tradition’ (ib. 104.1 & 2). In his maintenance of such an attitude, basing a deep reverence for the Bible on the unique character of the tradition which it contained, Clement is not singular. He merely gives expression in words to the spirit which animated all the Fathers, who repudiated with horror the idea of possessing any private or secret doctrine, and supported all their arguments with the most painstaking exegesis of the text of Holy Writ.85 

It is interesting to note that Clement does not emphasize the rule of faith as did Irenaeus and Tertullian. Even so, this does not mean that the rule of faith played no role in the church at Alexandria. We know this because Irenaeus wrote that the rule of faith summarized the entirety of the faith and was received throughout the entire world. In addition, Origen, who succeeded Clement in the Church at Alexandria, did emphasize the rule of faith. The rule played an important role in the Church there and in the theology of Clement, but his main interest was not in the rule itself. This was because the rule of faith was a summary of the bare essentials of the Christian faith as it applied to the common Christian—it was merely foundational. Clement taught there were two levels of Christianity. The first was the common faith, represented by the rule, and embraced by all Christians. The second level comprised an elite few, whom Clement referred to as the Christian Gnostic, who went beyond the essentials of the faith.86 Through contemplation, this individual obtained a higher level of knowledge which he called gnosis. This more spiritual Christian or Gnostic, entered more deeply into the Christian faith and was able to comprehend what he called the secret tradition handed down from Jesus to his apostles and through them to the elite few:

The apostle, then, manifestly announces a twofold faith, or rather one which admits of growth and perfection; for the common faith lies beneath as a foundation. To those, therefore, who desire to be healed, and are moved by faith, He added, ‘Thy faith hath saved thee.’ But that which is excellently built upon is consummated in the believer, and is again perfected by the faith which results from instruction and the word, in order to the performance of the commandments…For intensification of the righteousness which is according to the law shows the Gnostic. So one who is placed in the head, which is that which rules its own body—and who advances to the summit of faith, which is the knowledge (gnosis) itself, for which all the organs of perception exist—will likewise obtain the highest inheritance.
    The primacy of knowledge the apostle shows to those capable of reflection…But he teaches that knowledge (gnosis), which is the perfection of faith, goes beyond catechetical instruction, in accordance with the magnitude of the Lord’s teaching and the rule of the Church. Wherefore also he proceeds to add, ‘And if I am rude in speech, yet I am not in knowledge.’

These elitist Christians are, he says, able to expound the truth of the Scriptures in accordance with the Church’s ecclesiastical rule, that is, by an authoritative method of interpreting the Scriptures. Clement taught that although the Scriptures are the source of all doctrine, they must be aligned with correct interpretation which is only found in the Church and handed down from the apostles by way of oral tradition. He mentions that this method was derived from eminent teachers who had preceded him.88 
    It is with this distinction, between the ordinary and the Gnostic Christian, that Clement propounded a concept of tradition that is both novel and outside the orthodox mainstream of the Church of his day. As we have seen earlier, apostolic tradition was equated with the rule of faith and the written Scriptures. It was not purely oral in nature but could be documented and verified by Scripture. The rule itself was not strictly a method of interpretation but a collation of the major and fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith as expressed in Scripture. Clement went beyond the orthodox understanding of tradition to teach that it included the handing down of an unwritten method of interpreting Scripture which he referred to as the ecclesiastical canon or rule.
89 We will examine Clement’s concept of interpretive tradition in detail in chapter three.

Origen (A.D. 185–253/254)

Origen succeeded Clement as head of the catechetical school at Alexandria during the first half of the third century. It was under his direction that the school gained its greatest influence and prominence. He was a man of enormous intellect, and by far the most prolific writer of the patristic age. Eusebius tells us that his writings numbered near six thousand. He has been called the greatest scholar of Christian antiquity, and had immense influence on fathers in the East and West in subsequent centuries.

Origen’s View of Scripture

As with the fathers who preceded him, Origen held to the unique authority of Scripture. He describes it as holy,90 sacred and inspired.91 Because Scripture is inspired by God it is uniquely authoritative for the establishing of doctrine and truth:

Let us now ascertain how those statements which we have advanced are supported by the authority of holy Scripture.92  

Along with Irenaeus, Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria, Origen recognized no other source of doctrine than Scripture:

But that we may not appear to build our assertions on subjects of such importance and difficulty on the ground of inference alone, or to require the assent of our hearers to what is only conjectural, let us see whether we can obtain any declarations from holy Scripture, by the authority of which these positions may be more credibly maintained.93  

Since Scripture is the sole source of doctrine there can be no apostolic teaching that is purely oral in nature:

But let this Jew of Celsus, who does not believe that He foreknew all that happened to Him, consider how, while Jerusalem was still standing, and the whole Jewish worship celebrated in it, Jesus foretold what would befall it from the hand of the Romans. For they will not maintain that the acquaintances and pupils of Jesus Himself handed down His teaching contained in the Gospels without committing it to writing, and left His disciples without the memoirs of Jesus contained in their works.94 

As Hanson has written:

The most cogent argument for the view that Origen believed that Scripture was the sole source of doctrine for himself or any other Christian is that (unlike Clement) he never quotes any other source as his authority for doctrine, and usually assumes without question that in any discussion the deciding factor is the evidence of the Bible.95  

Like Irenaeus and Tertullian, Origen appealed to the authority of the Church’s rule of faith and listed its doctrinal content.96  This rule he referred to as the Church’s canon. Like the fathers preceding him, Origen believed that the rule of faith summarized the fundamental truths of the Christian faith. It was representative of the preaching of the Church in its broad outlines, was given by the apostles, and, in its specific doctrines, was grounded in Scripture. It could be appealed to as an authority outside of Scripture but the particular doctrines had to be validated from Scripture. They were parallel authorities but identical in content. Hanson notes:

Origen did regard the Church’s rule of faith as separate from Scripture, but not entirely dissociated from it. The Church’s rule of faith was in fact the Church’s handling and interpretation of Scripture, and its content must therefore be identical with and derive its support from Scripture. But because the rule of faith is what the Church teaches and preaches, and because it derives in unbroken continuity from what the Church always has taught and preached from the very beginning, it cannot be precisely the same as the written books of the Bible, though it is certainly not thought to constitute a separate source of doctrine from Scripture. The rule of faith is the Church’s tradition as the Church teaches it, preaches it, and hands it on to her faithful children. The Scriptures are the same tradition of the Church as it is written down to be for all Christians ‘the certainty of those things wherein they are instructed’, and the source of the Church’s teaching and preaching.97  

In Not By Scripture Alone, Joe Gallegos cites Origen’s statements that those who are truly Christian remain true to what he calls the Church’s ecclesiastical and apostolical tradition. He gives the following interpretation of Origen’s words:

One of the most prolific writers of the third century is Origen of Alexandria. Like the Fathers before him, he testifies in his dogmatic treatise on the Christian faith of the necessity of holding fast to the traditional faith of the Church. This faith is transmitted and preserved through orderly succession from the apostles:

Since many, however, of those who profess to believe in Christ differ from each other, not only in small and trifling matters, but also on subjects of the highest importance, as, e.g., regarding God, or the Lord Jesus Christ, or the Holy Spirit; and not only regarding these, but also regarding others which are created existences, viz., the powers and the holy virtues; it seems on that account necessary first of all to fix a definite limit and to lay down an unmistakable rule regarding each one of these, and then to pass to the investigation of other points. For as we ceased to seek for truth (notwithstanding the professions of many among Greeks and Barbarians to make it known) among all who claimed it for erroneous opinions, after we had come to believe that Christ was the Son of God, and were persuaded that we must learn it from Himself; so, seeing there are many who think they hold the opinions of Christ, and yet some of these think differently from their predecessors, yet as the teaching of the Church, transmitted in orderly succession from the apostles, and remaining in the Churches to the present day, is still preserved, that alone is to be accepted as truth which differs in no respect from ecclesiastical and apostolical tradition.98  

His implication in these comments is that the Roman Catholic Church adheres to the ecclesiastical and apostolical tradition because she is directly descended from the apostles, the Protestant Church having departed from it. If we are not one with the Church then we are not one with apostolic teaching. But what did Origen mean by ‘the ecclesiastical and apostolical tradition?’ He was referring to the specific doctrines that made up the creed. Origen’s comments come from the Preface of his treatise On First Principles which is an explanation of and commentary on the creed. The Protestant Church therefore fully agrees, in the main, with the ecclesiastical and apostolical tradition as defined by Origen. On the other hand, although the Roman Catholic Church affirms the same doctrines, she does not embrace the same rule of faith defined by Origen and described as the ecclesiastical and apostolical tradition. She has added numerous doctrines to the rule which were completely unknown to the early Church, such as the papal and Marian dogmas. As Origen put it, ‘that alone is to be accepted as truth which differs in no respect from ecclesiastical and apostolical tradition.’ By Origen’s standard, those distinctively Roman doctrines are to be rejected because they differ from the ecclesiastical and apostolical tradition and are therefore not truth. It is the Roman Catholic Church, not the Protestant, that has departed from tradition as defined by Origen.

Cyril of Jerusalem

Cyril was bishop of Jerusalem from 348 A.D. to 386 A.D. His treatise, The Catechetical Lectures, is important historically because this is the earliest documentation we possess of the catechetical instruction of the early church. In this work, Cyril gives an exposition of the Christian faith for those who are being prepared for baptism; a systematic defense and explanation of ‘the canon of truth’ and ‘the rule of faith.’ This is an exhaustive treatise on what was taught the initiates into the Christian faith in the mid–fourth century. It is, in effect, the Creed. Following the example of the major fathers who preceded him, Cyril wrote with conviction of the divine inspiration and absolute authority of both the Old and New Testaments. He referred to them some fifteen times as holy,99  twenty–nine times as divine.100 three times as sacred,101 and four times as divinely inspired by the Holy Spirit.102  
    Because he believed the Scriptures to be divinely inspired writings, Cyril taught that they are the ultimate authority for the Church and the sole source of doctrine and truth. Throughout his Lectures, Cyril defends each point of the Creed with Scripture, emphasizing repeatedly the necessity for every doctrine to be validated and proven from Scripture. He is emphatic that not the least point of doctrine is to be delivered without proof from the Scriptures:

Have thou ever in thy mind this seal, which for the present has been lightly touched in my discourse, by way of summary, but shall be stated, should the Lord permit, to the best of my power with the proof from the Scriptures. For concerning the divine and holy mysteries of the Faith, not even a casual statement must be delivered without the Holy Scriptures; nor must we be drawn aside by mere plausibility and artifices of speech. Even to me, who tell thee these things, give not absolute credence, unless thou receive the proof of the things which I announce from the Divine Scriptures. For this salvation which we believe depends not on ingenious reasoning, but on demonstration of the Holy Scriptures.103

As with Irenaeus and Tertullian, Cyril used the verb form of the word tradition (paradivdosqai – paradidosthai) to refer to the handing down of the faith,104 saying that no teaching of the faith is to be delivered or ‘traditioned’ apart from the Scriptures. He is insistent that if a doctrine is not written it cannot be known and is to be rejected. He rejected theological speculation on subjects not written in Scripture.105  Furthermore, he stated that his Lectures contained the entirety of the faith with nothing omitted. Therefore the entirety of the faith is grounded upon Scripture:

But in learning the Faith and in professing it, acquire and keep that only, which is now delivered to thee by the Church, and which has been built up strongly out of all the Scriptures….We comprise the whole doctrine of the Faith in a few lines….For the articles of the Faith were not composed as seemed good to men; but the most important points collected out of all the Scripture make up one complete teaching of the Faith. And just as the mustard seed in one small grain contains many branches, so also this Faith has embraced in few words all the knowledge of godliness in the Old and New Testaments.106

There is nothing in the rule of faith that is not written in Scripture. Thus, no oral tradition exists which is authoritative for establishing and confirming the faith of individual members of the Church. Cyril certainly knew of no such tradition. Cyril did, however, speak of tradition. For example his Lectures state:

Take heed then, brethren, and hold fast the traditions which ye now receive, and write them on the table of your heart.107 

What does Cyril mean by ‘tradition’ here? Roman Catholic apologists contend that he is referring to oral teachings handed down to the Church by the Apostle Paul. They argue that the Protestant insistence that all of the above quotations from Cyril which seem to suggest reliance on Scripture alone as a source and norm of doctrinal truth are proven fallacious by this one reference to tradition. They charge that Protestants distort the teaching of Cyril by neglecting to take into account his full teaching, taking his comments out of context. Robert Sungenis gives expression to this point of view:

Finally, to show how dangerous it can be to quote from a Father without examining the context of his quote, or all that he says on a given subject, we will observe a case of selective quoting, which if not scrutinized, seems to support the sola scriptura position. The same Protestant apologist (Eric Svendsen) quotes Cyril as saying:

For these articles of our faith were not composed of human opinion, but are the principle points collected out of the whole Scripture to complete a single doctrinal formulation of the faith.

The implication the apologist is attempting to draw from this quote is that only Scripture, not human tradition, has been amassed in all its parts to form the doctrinal stipulations of our faith. This seems like a plausible interpretation, that is, until we read the remainder of Cyril’s paragraph and the beginning of the next paragraph:

Take heed then, brethren, and hold fast the traditions which ye now receive, and write them on the table of your heart. Guard them with reverence, lest per chance the enemy despoil any who have grown slack; or lest some heretic pervert any of the truths delivered to you (Catechetical Lectures 5.12)

Here Cyril is paraphrasing the famous passage in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 (‘So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter’) which stipulates both oral (‘word of mouth’) and written (‘by Letter’) as divine revelation and the Tradition Paul wanted the Thessalonians to preserve. Cyril’s citation of 2 Thess. 2:15 comes only two sentences after the quote extracted by the Protestant apologist which he used to teach that Cyril believed in sola scriptura. We must assume that this apologist did not bother to read Cyril’s entire paragraph, or, more likely was quoting a secondary source whose objectivity he did not question.108

What becomes abundantly clear is that the one who has actually distorted Cyril’s writings, citing quotations out of context, is Sungenis. By his use of the word tradition Cyril is not referring to oral tradition. The context of his statement reveals this to be the case:

So for the present listen while I simply say the Creed, and commit it to memory; but at the proper season expect the confirmation out of Holy Scripture of each part of the contents. For the articles of the Faith were not composed as seemed good to men; but the most important points collected out of all the Scripture make up one complete teaching of the Faith. And just as the mustard seed in one small grain contains many branches, so also this Faith has embraced in few words all the knowledge of godliness in the Old and New Testaments. Take heed then, brethren, and hold fast the traditions which ye now receive, and write them on the table of your heart.109 

The context is very important here. Cyril is referring to the doctrines of the faith which he says he is passing on to the catechumens. He says they are embodied in the Creed and all were collected out of the Scriptures. In addition, he says he committed the faith to them in its entirety. Thus, by ‘tradition,’ Cyril meant the fundamental doctrines of the rule of faith which were derived from Scripture and passed down by Scripture. Cyril was not referring to oral tradition when he used the term ‘tradition.’ There is no mention of any doctrine in the entirety of the Lectures which was derived from such a tradition. Rather than reading the full context of Cyril’s Lectures so as to interpret individual statements within that broader context, Sungenis isolated one statement, imposing his own preconceived theology on Cyril’s words. Sungenis insists that Cyril is referring to both oral tradition and Scriptural teaching. Cyril exhorted the catechumens to write the traditions he handed down to them on their hearts. Where are the supposed oral traditions mentioned in his Lectures? There are none. Every teaching or tradition that Cyril gave was derived from Scripture, conclusively proving  that Cyril’s use of the term ‘tradition’ meant teaching passed on by the Church, rooted in and proven by Scripture. By alluding to 2 Thessalonians 2:15, Cyril demonstrated his belief that the Apostolic tradition is preserved in and passed on through the written Scriptures. As he put it, it is ‘traditioned’ through Scripture.
    The above documentation from the teaching of Cyril is a strong endorsement of the principle of sola Scriptura. Even Roman Catholic apologists are forced to admit that Cyril’s words are supportive of this principle, though they attempt to blunt the force and implication of his words as seen from the following comments by Philip Blosser and Patrick Madrid:

A good example of this Protestant misuse of the Church Fathers is furnished by James White. He typically begins his foray into the Fathers in search of evidence for sola scriptura with a quote from Cyril of Jerusalem’s Catechetical Lectures, in which he says: ‘not the least part [of the mysteries of the faith] may be handed on without the Holy Scriptures…Even to me, who tell you these things, do not give ready belief, unless you receive from the Holy Scriptures the proof of the things which I announce.’ Taken in isolation the passage may seem mildly promising to the Protestant, but the key issue here is the meaning of Scriptural ‘proof.’ The term is open to wide and narrow meanings. We cannot, in a narrow sense, ‘prove’ many doctrines from Scripture (e.g. the Trinity, or infant baptism). But in a wider sense, the Church that teaches these doctrines can look for ‘proofs’ from Scriptures. What does Cyril mean by ‘proof’? As Patrick Madrid points out:

If Cyril was in fact teaching sola scriptura [in this passage], Protestants have a big problem. Cyril’s Catechetical Lectures are filled with his forceful teaching on the infallible teaching office of the Catholic Church (18:23), the Mass as a sacrifice (23:6–8), the concept of purgatory and the efficacy of expiatory prayers for the dead (23:10), the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist (19:7; 21:3; 22:1–9), the theology of the sacraments (23:23), baptismal regeneration (1:3; 3:10–12; 21:3–4), indeed a staggering array of specifically ‘Catholic’ doctrines.
It is clear, therefore, that Cyril didn’t mean Scriptural ‘proof’ in the narrow sense, and he certainly wasn’t teaching sola scriptura.

Blosser and Madrid have blatantly misrepresented this Church father. As we have seen, Cyril does demand Scriptural proof for every doctrine in the narrow sense. He explicitly states this. Much of his Catechetical Lectures is given to proving the doctrine of the Trinity from Scripture, contrary to Blosser’s assertion that one cannot, in a narrow sense, ‘prove’ the doctrine in this way.
    We are told that Protestants who appeal to Cyril in support of sola Scriptura have a big problem because Cyril also taught many things that are supportive of Roman Catholic dogma. Some of these claims are true but some are not. We are informed by Madrid, for example, that Cyril taught the infallibility of the Church in Book 18:23 of his Lectures, but this is actually a mistranslation. He did not say that the Church teaches infallibly, rather that she teaches ‘completely’ or ‘precisely.’
    On the other hand, some of Cyril’s teachings are supportive of Roman Catholic doctrine. What are we to make of this? Roman Catholic apologists imply that if we accept a particular tenent of Cyril’s teaching, we are then obligated to accept everything he taught. We must make an important distinction—a distinction between the principle of sola Scriptura and the principle of interpretation. Although we agree with certain aspects of Cyril’s teachings, such as the fundamental principle of the supreme and final authority of Scripture and its sufficiency, this does not necessitate our acceptance of every conclusion he comes to about the meaning of Scripture. Every doctrine he proclaimed, even those listed by Roman Catholic apologists as supportive of their own teachings, he sought to derive from and defend by Scripture. From a Protestant perspective, we may agree with Cyril on sola Scriptura and yet take issue with some of his interpretations of those same Scriptures. This is the same attitude the fathers themselves held toward one another. One noted example is Augustine’s attitude toward Cyprian and other bishops of the Church:

For the reasonings of any men whatsoever, even though they be Catholics, and of high reputation, are not to be treated by us in the same way as the canonical Scriptures are treated. We are at liberty, without doing any violence to the respect which these men deserve, to condemn and reject anything in their writings, if perchance we shall find that they have entertained opinions differing from that which others or we ourselves have, by the divine help, discovered to be the truth. I deal thus with the writings of others, and I wish my intelligent readers to deal thus with mine.111 

Roman Catholic apologists prove themselves to be completely inconsistent in their own practice. They suggest that if we appeal to Cyril on a particular issue, we are bound to accept everything he teaches. Why, then, are there teachings endorsed by Cyril which are rejected by these same Roman apologists today? For example, Cyril lists the specific books of the canon of Scripture, which he says were handed down by the Church.112 Yet Cyril rejected the majority of the books of the Old Testament Apocrypha from the canon of Scripture. In Not By Scripture Alone, Joe Gallegos makes reference to Cyril’s teaching on the canon in the context of promoting the authority of the Church. He purposefully misleads his readers, giving the impression that Cyril and the present day Roman Church are in agreement:

It was the Church who decided which books were and were not included in the canon of Scripture…Cyril of Jerusalem discusses where one finds the authentic canon of the Bible in his lectures on the faith: ‘Learn also diligently, and from the Church, what are the books of the Old Testament, and what those of the New.’113 

This is all Gallegos says. He fails to give all of Cyril’s comments on the canon. For obvious reasons, he purposefully omits the catalogue of books which Cyril says were authoritatively determined by the Church as canonical. The Roman Catholic Church has rejected Cyril’s view, demonstrating the inherent contradiction between the claims of Roman apologists and the facts of history. If the Church in Cyril’s day authoritatively defined the canon and Gallegos appeals to that Church in support of the authority of present day Rome, how can he reject what that Church authoritatively taught in the person of Cyril of Jerusalem? Gallegos wants to appeal to Cyril of Jerusalem on a fundamental point of authority but rejects the teaching which he says is illustrative of that authority. This is disingenuous. If he is at liberty to reject the teachings of Church fathers, while appealing to the authority of the Church, then Protestants are at liberty to reject whatever teachings we believe do not conform to Scripture. As we have seen, this was the overall practice of the early Church and its approach to the writings of the Church fathers.
    In his Lectures, Cyril addressed the issue of his authority as a teacher and bishop. He made it clear to the catechumens that his authority was contingent on his fidelity to the written word of God. His authority as a teacher was to be disregarded if he taught anything that cannot be proven from Scripture:

Even to me, who tell thee these things, give not absolute credence, unless thou receive the proof of the things which I announce from the Divine Scriptures. For this salvation which we believe depends not on ingenious reasoning, but on demonstration of the Holy Scriptures…Now mind not my argumentations, for perhaps thou mayest be misled but unless thou receive testimony of the Prophets on each matter, believe not what I say: unless thou learn from the Holy Scriptures concerning the Virgin, and the place, the time, and the manner, receive not testimony from man.114

So, the ultimate issue with respect to authority was not the ecclesiastical position but conformity to the truth of Scripture. We ask, if the Roman Church has changed the teaching of the earlier Church, what will keep her from changing fundamental teachings which she embraces today? In fact, this has occurred on numerous occasions throughout the history of Roman Catholicism. The Protestant Church is in fundamental agreement with the rule of faith taught by the fathers of the early Church. This does not mean, however, that we accept every practice and interpretation of Scripture of the patristic age any more than did the early Church herself or the modern Roman Catholic Church.


Athanasius succeeded Alexander of Alexandria as Bishop of that see in 328 A.D. He is renowned as the indomitable champion of Nicene orthodoxy and the principal theologian responsible for the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity. He was one of the most influential and important bishops of the fourth century. His views of Scripture are clearly articulated in his many treatises and letters. They are compatible with those of the fathers we have examined thus far. He held to a high view of the inspiration, primacy, sufficiency and authority of Scripture. In his writings he called the Old and New Testaments inspired,115 holy,116 and divine.117 Athanasius taught there is only one revelation from God, the written and inspired Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. They are the only source of truth for the Christian, the ultimate criterion against which all doctrinal teaching must be measured, and the ultimate and final judge in all doctrinal controversies. In his first letter to Serapion, Athanasius wrote:

Since, therefore, such an attempt is futile madness, nay, more than madness!, let no one ask such questions any more, or else let him learn only that which is in the Scriptures. For the illustrations they contain which bear upon this subject are sufficient and suitable.118  

He emphasized repeatedly in other letters that the faith of the Church is derived and known from the Scriptures.119 In one of his Festal Letters after giving a catalogue of the canonical books of Scripture, he wrote that these books alone comprise the source from which one derives the teachings of salvation and godliness.120 That is, Scripture is sufficient as a revelation for all teaching related to faith and morals.121
    One of the applications of his belief in the sufficiency of Scripture was that if a truth could not be demonstrated from Scripture, it was not true and could not be known.
122 Since he considered the Scriptures to be all sufficient, the source of all truth and the sole criteria and judge in all controversies, Athanasius demanded Scriptural proof for all teachings. In all his argumentation, he appealed to Scripture alone for validation of his doctrine. He demanded exactly what Cyril of Jerusalem demanded—Scriptural warrant for each and every doctrine.123  
    This perspective is evident in his four letters to Serapion where he defends the doctrine of the Trinity, the deity of Christ and the full deity of the Holy Spirit completely from Scripture. Over and over again, when asserting truths about the specific persons of the Godhead, he says, ‘it is written,’ and he proceeds to quote Scripture. It is clear from the above quotes that Athanasius considered Scripture the ultimate source and authority for the Christian faith. It is also noteworthy that he described Scripture as the Apostolic Tradition. From his view, the teaching of the apostles was uniquely enshrined in the Scriptures. Any teaching claiming apostolic authority had to conform to what was written. Archibald Robertson gives the following summation of Athanasius’ position of Scripture:

On the sufficiency of Scripture for the establishment of all necessary doctrine Athanasius insists repeatedly and emphatically…and he follows up precept by example. His works are a continuous appeal to Scripture. There is no passage in his writings which recognizes tradition as supplementing Scripture, i.e., as sanctioning articles of faith not contained in Scripture.124 

Some may object that this is an overexaggeration since the term Athanasius utilized for the defense of the deity of the Son was nonbiblical. While true, Athanasius defended the use of the term stating that it conveyed the essential message of Scripture as a whole. He wrote:

Vainly then do they run about with the pretext that they have demanded Councils for the faith’s sake; for divine Scripture is sufficient above all things; but if a Council be needed on the point, there are the proceedings of the Fathers, for the Nicene Bishops did not neglect this matter, but stated the doctrine so exactly, that persons reading their words honestly, cannot but be reminded by them of the religion towards Christ announced in divine Scripture.125

Athanasius and Tradition

Athanasius also spoke of tradition. In his first epistle to Serapion he wrote:

These sayings concerning the Holy Spirit, by themselves alone, show that in nature and essence he has nothing in common with or proper to creatures, but is distinct from things originate, proper to, and not alien from, the Godhead and essence of the Son; in virtue of which essence and nature he is of the Holy Triad, and puts their stupidity to shame. But, beyond these sayings, let us look at the very tradition, teaching, and faith of the Catholic Church from the very beginning, which the Lord gave, the Apostles preached, and the Fathers kept. Upon this the Church is founded, and he who should fall away from it would not be a Christian. and should no longer be so called. There is, then, a Triad, holy and complete, confessed to be God in Father, Son, and holy Spirit, having nothing foreign or external mixed with it, not composed of one that creates and one that is originated, but all creative; and it is consistent and in nature indivisible, and its activity is one…And that they may know this to be the faith of the Church, let them learn how the Lord, when sending forth the Apostles, ordered them to lay this foundation for the Church, saying: ‘Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ (Mt. 28:19). The Apostles went, and thus they taught; and this is the preaching that extends to the whole Church which is under heaven. Since then the Church has this foundation of faith, let these men tell us once again and let them make answer, Is God tryad or dyad?126 

The tradition Athanasius refers to is the teaching of Christ in Matthew 28, which forms the foundation for the various creeds of the Church and therefore the faith of the Church. This, he says, is what Christ handed on to the apostles, which they in turn preached and the fathers have kept. Regarding the doctrine of the person of Christ, Athanasius speaks of the tradition of the fathers as a confirmation of the true faith. He says:

But our faith is right, and starts from the teaching of the Apostles and tradition of the fathers, being confirmed both by the New Testament and the Old.127 

Athanasius emphasizes that the faith is derived from the teaching of the apostles, by which he meant Scripture, and the tradition or teaching of the fathers, which, he says, is confirmed by Scripture. In other words, the proof that the teaching of the fathers was truly apostolic is conformity to Scripture.
    In his treatise, A Defense of the Nicene Creed, Athanasius explains what he meant by the faith being derived from the tradition or teaching of the fathers. In defending his use of homoousios—because it was not a Scriptural term—Athanasius wrote that its use had historical precedent in the writings of four fathers: Dionysius of Alexandria, Theognostus, Origen and Dionysius of  Rome.
128 He appealed to two bishops and two heads of the catechetical school at Alexandria, calling them all fathers, including Origen. However, he did not accept their teaching uncritically; he accepted it only because it could be confirmed by Scripture. Thus, there are not two sources of knowledge but one, the holy Scriptures. After providing extensive documentation from Scripture in his defense of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, Athanasius made this appeal to those who had distorted the scriptural teaching on the Holy Spirit, ‘Harken to the Scriptures.’129 
    Another reference from Athanasius utilized by Roman Catholic apologists in their attempts to augment the authority of their Church and tradition over the primacy of Scripture concerns his use of the term ‘saints.’ For example, Athanasius wrote:

But after him and with him are all inventors of unlawful heresies, who indeed refer to the Scriptures, but do not hold such opinions as the saints…have handed down, and receiving them as the traditions of men, err, because they do not rightly know them nor their power.130 

Roman apologists jump to the conclusion that Athanasius’ use of the term saints here refers to Church fathers who preceded him. They assume that he is acknowledging their authority in handing down right opinions or right teaching. The term handed down is another way of saying tradition, so  they use this statement to support the contention that the fathers looked to the Church and her tradition as the ultimate authority over Scripture. But, as the context reveals, in his use of the word saints, Athanasius is not referring to Church fathers but to the writers of Scripture.131 He calls them saints and Fathers, and refers to their writings as the apostolic tradition. We are to be followers of the saints, that is, of the apostles, by following what they have written:

Of these the (divine) word would have us disciples, and these should of right be our teachers, and to them only is it necessary to give heed, for of them only is ‘the word faithful and worthy of all acceptation;’ these not being disciples because they heard from others, but being eye–witnesses and ministers of the Word, that which they had heard from Him have they handed down.132  

This word ‘saints’ is also found in Athanasius’ letters to Serapion. He writes:

The divine Scriptures, then, consistently show that the Holy Spirit is not a creature, but is proper to the Word and to the Godhead of the Father. Thus the teaching of the saints joins in establishing the holy and indivisible Traid; and the Catholic Church has one faith, even this.133 

Shapland gives this clarification on his use of the word saints:

The teaching of the saints: i.e. of the Scriptures… a{gioi (hagioi) in Athanasius usually refers to Biblical characters or writers, whether of New Testament or Old Testament. So in de Inc. 57, de Fug. 15.134

Thus, for Athanasius, the Scriptures are the foundation for the faith of the Church. They are an all–sufficient source of knowledge of what God had revealed to the Church and the ultimate standard against which all teachings must be measured. The authority of a Council or bishop is contingent on conformity to the teaching of Scripture.

John Chrysostom

John Chrysostom holds the distinction of being not only a prominent  Church father but also one of the greatest preachers of the early Greek Church and one of its most prolific writers. We possess more of his writings than any other Church father. As Bertrand de Marjerie has noted:

As J. Quasten rightly observed, no Father of the Church has left behind a literary heritage (and we would add, an exegetical heritage) as significant in volume as is that of Chrysostom. He is the only early Antiochian whose writings have survived almost in their entirety.135

Chrysostom’s writings are important also because many were sermons delivered to his congregation and breathe a pastoral spirit. His emphasis was not polemical for the most part, but his primary concern was for the spiritual growth and maturity of those for whom he was responsible. So we have, in Chrysostom, one who dealt with the practical affairs of everyday living in the life of the Church. His sermons are significant, then, in revealing what he thought the priorities of the Christian life should be. Throughout his writings, one truth is emphasized repeatedly: the primacy of the written Scriptures. He teaches that they are the all–sufficient source of truth, the indispensable means of sanctification, and the all–important weapon for spiritual warfare in the Christian life. Chrysostom never tired of exhorting his congregation to read, study, meditate upon and obey the Scriptures. These exhortations and admonitions were rooted in his belief in the full inspiration of the Scriptures. He refers to them as divine,136 holy,137 sacred,138 the divine oracles.139 To hear or read the Scriptures is to hear God speak.140 They are utterances of the Holy Spirit.141 He believed that both the Old and New Testaments were inspired by God and infallible,142 and because they are inspired, they carry divine authority. There is nothing useless or superfluous in them—every word has a purpose.143 As a result of this divine authority, Chrysostom operated on the basis of a number of fundamental principles and convictions. First, Scripture is the all–sufficient source of truth; there is no other revelation from God. He never quoted from tradition to support a doctrinal argument or to defend the faith:

‘For I am now ready to be offered up’ (2 Timothy 4:6), he says. For this reason he writes: ‘All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.’ All what Scripture? all that sacred writing, he means, of which I was speaking. This is said of what he was discoursing of; about which he said, ‘From a child thou hast known the holy Scriptures.’ All such, then, ‘is given by inspiration of God;’ therefore, he means, do not doubt; and it is ‘profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.’
    ‘For doctrine.’ For thence we shall know, whether we ought to learn or to be ignorant of anything. And thence we may disprove what is false, thence we may be corrected and brought to a right mind, may be comforted and consoled, and if anything is deficient, we may have it added to us.
‘That the man of God may be perfect.’ For this is the exhortation of the Scripture given, that the man of God may be rendered perfect by it; without this therefore he cannot be perfect. Thou hast the Scriptures, he says, in place of me. If thou wouldest learn anything, thou mayest learn it from them. And if he thus wrote to Timothy, who was filled with the Spirit, how much more to us!

Note that Chrysostom taught that it is from inspired Scripture alone that we learn the truth. There is no other source. In the place of the Apostles, who gave us inspired revelation from God, we have the Scriptures. Thus, if Scripture does not teach something it cannot be known.145 
     Secondly, Chrysostom taught that all arguments must be proven from and supported by Scripture, else they are mere human conjecture and reasoning:

These then are the reasons; but it is necessary to establish them all from the Scriptures, and to show with exactness that all that has been said on this subject is not an invention of human reasoning, but the very sentence of the Scriptures. For thus will what we say be at once more deserving of credit, and sink the deeper into your minds.146  

Thirdly, Chrysostom appealed consistently and constantly to Scripture to support his teachings. He was a strong advocate of the principle that Scripture interprets Scripture.147 Robert Charles Hill makes these comments:

These lapses are few compared with the frequency of his reference to the Scriptures to support his teaching. In place of exegetical conviction his words are reinforced with scriptural testimonies and his own rationalizing and the underlying theology of the Word….All in all, it is a rich scriptural diet his congregation is fed…148 

Fourthly, the only true teacher from God, the ‘true householder’ as Chrysostom calls him, is the one who has an intimate knowledge of Scripture and teaches in accordance with it.149 Scripture is the instrument used by God’s servants for the building of his Church.150 It is by fidelity to Scripture that the sheep will  discern the true shepherds from the false. That one who does not teach according to the Scriptures he calls a robber, a thief and a false prophet.151 The true Christian is one whose profession and practice agrees with Scripture.152  
    Fifthly, Chrysostom constantly exhorted his congregation to fill their minds and hearts with the Scriptures. In part, the argument against sola Scriptura has been the insinuation that there could not have been practical application of this principle in the life of the Church in the early centuries because of widespread illiteracy and the unavailability of bibles. Such assertions are refuted, however, by Chrysostom’s own admonitions. He exhorted his hearers (repeatedly) to procure bibles (poverty being no excuse) and to give themselves diligently to their reading.
    The benefits he lists, accompanied by the constant exhortations he gave, underscore his belief in the authority, sufficiency and primacy of Scripture for individual Church members. Some of the benefits to be derived from Scripture he listed as: they are the door to the kingdom of God;
154 they are an all–sufficient aid to sanctification;155 they guard the Christian and keep him safe from the attacks of heretics and false teachers;156 they give discernment;157  they are the soul’s food and security;158 by adhering to the Scriptures Christ becomes our pilot and guide;159 through them we please God and receive reward;160 through them we learn right doctrine and a perfect life;161 they are our spiritual weapon;162 they arm the Christian against heretics;163 they are a great aid against sinning;164 they quench pride, lull desire to sleep, tread under foot the love of money, inspire confidence, give patience and enable the believer to despise pain;165 they expel despondency, engender pleasure, extirpate vice, make virtue take root in the heart, bring stability to one’s life;166 they overthrow false doctrine, confirm the truth, aid in living a holy life;167 they thoroughly quench the darts of the devil;168 banish all satanical influences;169 transform our souls into surpassing beauty;170 and sanctify us.171 It was Chrysostom’s conviction that no man could be saved who did not give diligent attention to the consistent reading and application of Scripture:

We must thoroughly quench the darts of the devil and beat them off by continual reading of the divine Scriptures. For it is not possible, not possible for anyone to be saved without continually taking advantage of spiritual reading.172

Thus, given the importance of Scripture and the spiritual benefits which accrue to those who apply them, Chrysostom continually exhorted the members of his congregation to saturate their minds and hearts with the word of God: to study the Scriptures attentively and diligently;173 earnestly and continually read them;174 search them;175 take them wholly to themselves and keep them in their minds;176 be diligent hearers of them;177 continually dwell upon them;178 give heed to them; let them be the subjects of their earnest care and constantly in their hands;179 engrave them on their hearts;180 and apply themselves to the Scriptures with great exactness.181 
    Sixthly, Chrysostom enumerated the spiritual harms derived from a neglect of the divine writings. This neglect, he wrote, renders one incapable of resisting sin;
182 it is the cause of all evils;183 it incapacitates a person in spiritual warfare, leaving him defenseless and bereft of the Holy Spirit;184 it renders one a slave and captive of the world.185 The ignorance of scripture is the cause of the plague of heresies, negligent lives, labor that results in no advantage, and much sinning.186 It is a great evil to be ignorant of the Scriptures;187 a betrayal of salvation;188 and makes salvation impossible.189 
    Chrysostom frequently chided his congregation for their neglect of the Scriptures.
190 It was a recurring theme in his sermons. He instructed that children should be taught to appreciate the discipline of Scriptural reading and meditation, and exhorted parents to set the example.191 Chrysostom exhorted his congregation to read, study and meditate on Scripture that they might  understand and obey it. As we will see in chapter three, he was convinced that the Scriptures were formally sufficient and could be understood by the common individual if certain conditions were met.
    It is clear that Chrysostom held to the principle of sola Scriptura encompassing both its material and formal sufficiency. Some argue against this, claiming that Chrysostom affirmed the existence of traditions handed down from the apostles independent of Scripture. The following comments which he made on 2 Thessalonians 2:15 are often cited in support of this contention:

‘So then, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye were taught, whether by word, or by Epistle of ours.’ Hence it is manifest, that they did not deliver all things by Epistle, but many things also unwritten, and in like manner both the one and the other are worthy of credit. Therefore let us think the tradition of the Church also worthy of credit. It is a tradition, seek no farther.192 

Is this evidence that Chrysostom was no adherent of sola Scriptura? The key, once again, is in the meaning of his words. When he speaks of tradition, he is referring to ecclesiastical customs and practices. He assumed that if a practice had been in use for many ages it was apostolic in origin. However, nowhere, in the entirety of his writings, does he make an appeal to a tradition that is independent of Scripture in defense of a doctrine or as proof to support any teaching. Scripture alone is the source of truth and carries within itself its own normative authority.  

The Cappadocians

The Cappadocians is a general title for three of the most influential and important Church fathers of the fourth century: Basil of Caesarea (also known as Basil the Great), his brother, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus. Occasionally, the sister of Basil and Gregory, Macrina, is also included as the ‘fourth Cappadocian.’ Gregory of Nyssa referred to her as the Teacher. The three Cappadocians were responsible for finally formulating the orthodox Trinitarian doctrine which ultimately quelled the Arian heresy and those heresies arrayed against the person of the Holy Spirit. They are called the Cappadocians because were born and held bishoprics in the region of Cappadocia in central Asia Minor, now modern Turkey. Their importance is obvious from the following comments:

Gregory of Nyssa: His theological work won him high regard at the Second Council of Nicea (787) which bestowed on him the title Father of the Fathers.193 
Gregory of Nazianzus: The Five Theological Orations of Gregory of Nazianzus, a defense of the trinitarian doctrine against the Eunomians and Macedonians, won him the title of The Theologian. It is said of these discourses, ‘In a few pages, and in a few hours, Gregory has summed and closed the controversy of a whole century.’
Basil of Caesarea (Basil the Great): Basil is accounted the founder of Eastern monasticism; and with St. John Chrysostom, he is one of the two pillars of the Oriental Church.

The Cappadocians’ use and view of Scripture conforms in every way to that of the fathers we have studied thus far. They taught that Scripture is holy, divine, sacred, inspired, and the one authoritative revelation we possess from God.196 Scripture is authoritative as the judge of all controversies and sufficient to declare the fullness of the Christian faith. In a dialogue with Gregory of Nyssa, his sister Macrina made the following remark, with Gregory’s approval:

We are not entitled to such license, I mean that of affirming what we please; we make the Holy Scriptures the rule and the measure of every tenet (dogma); we necessarily fix our eyes upon that, and approve that alone which may be made to harmonize with the intention of those writings.197  

Basil wrote in much the same language insisting that Scripture alone is the touchstone of faith and safeguard against error. He stated that all that is not expressly taught in Scripture is to be rejected and every teaching must be demonstrated and proved from Scripture:

But if ‘the Lord is faithful in all his words’ and ‘All his commandments are faithful, confirmed for ever and ever, made in truth and equity,‘ to delete anything that is written down or to interpolate anything not written amounts to open defection from the faith and makes the offender liable to a charge of contempt. For our Lord Jesus Christ says: ‘My sheep hear my voice,’ and, before this, He had said: ‘But a stranger they follow not but fly from him because they know not the voice of strangers.’ And the Apostle, using a human parallel, more strongly forbids adding to or removing anything from Holy Writ in the following words: ‘yet a man’s testament if it be confirmed, no man despiseth nor addeth to it’.198 

Gregory of Nyssa echoed the same sentiments:

Whatever is not supported by the testimony of Scripture we reject as false.199  

So if Scripture does not teach a particular doctrine it cannot be true. All speculation that exceeds the revelation of Scripture is to be rejected as ‘idle.’ One cannot know what Scripture does not reveal.200  In matters of controversy, Scripture is the final arbiter between truth and error. It takes precedence over tradition and custom. In his controversy with the Pneumatomachi (those who denied the deity of the Holy Spirit), Basil was accused of introducing novel teachings, which they claimed were unhistorical because they contradicted their tradition. Basil rejected the argument from tradition and defended Scripture as the only appeal for final judgment:

Their complaint is that their custom does not accept this, and that Scripture does not agree. What is my reply? I do not consider it fair that the custom which obtains among them should be regarded as a law and rule of orthodoxy. If custom is to be taken in proof of what is right, then it is certainly competent for me to put forward on my side the custom which obtains here. If they reject this, we are clearly not bound to follow them. Therefore let God–inspired Scripture decide between us; and on whichever side be found doctrines in harmony with the word of God, in favour of that side will be cast the vote of truth.201 

Gregory of Nyssa made the same assertion:

They allege that while we confess three Persons we say that there is one goodness, and one power, and one Godhead. And in this assertion they do not go beyond the truth; for we do say so. But the ground of their complaint is that their custom does not admit this, and Scripture does not support it. What then is our reply? We do not think that it is right to make their prevailing custom the law and rule of sound doctrine. For if custom is to avail for proof of soundness, we too, surely, may advance our prevailing custom; and if they reject this, we are surely not bound to follow theirs. Let the inspired Scripture, then, be our umpire, and the vote of truth will surely be given to those whose dogmas are found to agree with the Divine words.202 

When referring to the writings and teachings of the fathers who preceded him, Basil stated they possessed a definite authority.203 However, while according them respect and authority, he qualified their authority as secondary and contingent in nature. They had authority only because their teachings conformed to Scripture. He never received the teaching of the fathers as autonomous or coequal with Scripture:

What our fathers said, the same say we, that the glory of the Father and of the Son is common; wherefore we offer the doxology to the Father with the Son. But we do not rest only on the fact that such is the tradition of the Fathers; for they too followed the sense of Scripture, and started from the evidence which, a few sentences back, I deduced from Scripture and laid before you.204 

He warned that it is the duty of all teachers to beware lest they teach anything beyond the will of God as it is revealed in Scripture, thereby becoming false witnesses and false teachers:

What mind ought a prelate to have in those things which he commands or appoints? To which the reply is, Towards God, as a servant of Christ, and a steward of the mysteries of God, fearing lest he should speak or order anything beyond the will of God, as declared in the Scriptures, and be found a false witness of God, or sacrilegious, in either introducing anything foreign to the doctrine of the Lord, or omitting anything acceptable to God.205 

Basil gave an admonition similar to that of Cyril of Jerusalem, exhorting his readers to examine every teacher and to reject any teaching that did not conform to Scripture:

Concerning the Hearers: that those hearers who are instructed in the Scriptures should examine what is said by the teachers, receiving what is in conformity with the Scriptures and rejecting what is opposed to them; and that those who persist in teaching such doctrines should be strictly avoided.206 

This perspective was also enunciated by Augustine who said he would receive the teaching of the fathers only as they conformed to the teaching of Scripture.207 Many centuries later, Thomas Aquinas restated the position expressed by Basil, Cyril and Augustine:

All the intermediaries through which faith comes to us are above suspicion. We believe the prophets and apostles because the Lord has been their witness by performing miracles, as Mark (16:20) says: ‘…and confirming the word with signs that followed.’ And we believe the successors of the apostles and prophets only in so far as they tell us those things which the apostles and prophets have left in their writings.208  

These fathers never taught a blind acceptance of the teaching of the Church, but that all teaching must be ratified by Scripture. To requote Basil:

Rule Twenty–six: That every word and deed should be ratified by the testimony of the Holy Scripture to confirm the good and cause shame to the wicked.209 

One of Basil’s writings is a treatise titled Concerning Faith. He wrote in his introductory remarks that he intended to expound the essential doctrines of the faith as he had learned them from the divine Scriptures. He stated that Scripture is the source of doctrine for the faith and that it is unlawful to add anything to it not written in Scripture.210 Basil followed precisely the pattern we witnessed with Cyril of Jerusalem. He expounded the creed, giving proof of each and every doctrine from Scripture. He exhorted his readers to ground their convictions in its truth. The entirety of the faith, as it relates to doctrine and morals, is, according to Basil, communicated through the Scriptures, a sentiment likewise expressed by Gregory of Nyssa.211 The Scriptures, then, are a sufficient rule for the proclamation of the truth. All that is necessary to be believed for salvation is revealed in them, and anything not revealed therein is to be rejected, for it is outside of the faith. Basil warned that the true Christian is characterized by strict adherence to the teaching of Scripture:

What is the mark of a Christian? Faith working by charity. What is the mark of faith? A sure conviction of the truth of the inspired words, not to be shaken by any process of reasoning, nor by the alleging of natural requirements, nor by the pretences of false piety. What is the mark of a faithful soul? To be in these dispositions of full acceptance on the authority of the words [of the Scripture], not venturing to reject anything nor making additions. For, if ‘all that is not of faith is sin,’ as the Apostle says, and ‘faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the word of God,’ everything outside Holy Scripture, not being of faith, is sin.212 

We need to note here that when Basil said it was unlawful to add anything to the faith which is not in Scripture, he did not mean the use of terms not found in Scripture, such as homoousios or Trinity, but that all terms used must reflect the overall meaning of Scripture—its overall scope or intention. As Macrina put it:

We make the Holy Scriptures the rule and the measure of every tenet (dogma); we necessarily fix our eyes upon that, and approve that alone which may be made to harmonize with the intention of those writings.213 

Gregory of Nazianzus expresses a similar view:

Again, where do you get your Unbegotten and Unoriginate, those two citadels of your position, or we our Immortal? Show me these in so many words, or we shall either set them aside, or erase them as not contained in Scripture; and you are slain by your own principle, the names you rely on being overthrown, and therewith the wall of refuge in which you trusted. Is it not evident that they are due to passages which imply them, though the words do not actually occur? What are these passages?—I am the first, and I am the last, and before Me there was no God, neither shall there be after Me. For all that depends on that Am makes for my side, for it has neither beginning nor ending. When you accept this, that nothing is before Him, and that He has not an older Cause, you have implicitly given Him the titles Unbegotten and Unoriginate.214 

The Cappadocians, while holding tenaciously to the primacy and sufficiency of Scripture, did not emphasize a slavish adherence to the literal words of Scripture but to its meaning. They employed logic and reasoning to express the truth of Scripture but both were always subject to the word of God. They reasoned from Scripture to Scriptural conclusions. As Gregory of Nyssa wrote: 

Thus does our reason, under the guidance of the Scripture, place not only the Only–begotten but the Holy Spirit as well above the creation, and prompt us in accordance with our Savior’s command to contemplate Him by faith in the blessed world of life giving and uncreated existence: and so this unit, which we believe in, above creation, and sharing in the supreme and absolutely perfect nature…215 

The argument for the supremacy, primacy and authority of Scripture in all theological discussions is well defended by Gregory of Nyssa and his sister Macrina. In their dialogue with one another over the nature of the soul and the reality of the resurrection, Macrina maintained, as we saw above, that Scripture is the rule of every tenant or dogma. Here we want to give a fuller context for her comments. They were made in reference to Greek philosophical speculations, in particular, those of Plato and Aristotle. She emphatically stated that the Christian is never to give full reign to intellectual speculation about reality. All reasoning must be subject to the authority of Scripture:

As for ourselves, if the Gentile philosophy, which deals methodically with all these points, were really adequate for a demonstration, it would certainly be superfluous to add a discussion on the soul to those speculations. But while the latter proceeded, on the subject of the soul, as far in the direction of supposed consequences as the thinker pleased, we are not entitled to such license, I mean that of affirming what we please; we make the Holy Scriptures the rule and the measure of every tenet; we necessarily fix our eyes upon that, and approve that alone which may be made to harmonize with the intention of those writings. We must therefore neglect the Platonic chariot and the pair of horses of dissimilar forces yoked to it, and their driver, whereby the philosopher allegorizes these facts about the soul; we must neglect also all that is said by the philosopher who succeeded him and who followed out probabilities by rules of art, and diligently investigated the very question now before us, declaring that the soul was mortal by reason of these two principles; we must neglect all before and since their time, whether they philosophized in prose or in verse, and we will adopt, as the guide of our reasoning, the Scripture, which lays it down as an axiom that there is no excellence in the soul which is not a property as well of the Divine nature….If on the other hand any one will accept a discussion which is in a naked unsyllogistic form, we will speak upon these points by making our study of them so far as we can follow the chain of Scriptural tradition. What is it, then, that we assert?216 

Macrina then proceeded to expound upon the nature of the soul using logical argumentation without any specific appeal to Scripture. Gregory admonished her by reminding her that although he agrees with her conclusions and her process of reasoning, they had determined to support all their teaching and conclusions from Scripture. A reasoning process devoid of Scriptural testimony was not sufficient. She must adhere to her own basic principles, supporting her conclusions from Scripture:

Much moved by these words, I said: To any one who reflects indeed, your exposition, advancing as it does in this consecutive manner, though plain and unvarnished, bears sufficiently upon it the stamp of correctness and hits the truth. And to those who are expert only in the technical methods of proof a mere demonstration suffices to convince; but as for ourselves, we were agreed that there is something more trustworthy than any of these artificial conclusions, namely, that which the teachings of Holy Scripture point to: and so I deem that it is necessary to inquire, in addition to what has been said, whether this inspired teaching harmonizes with it all.217 

Macrina agreed with this admonition. She responded with:

And who, she replied, could deny that truth is to be found only in that upon which the seal of Scriptural testimony is set? So, if it is necessary that something from the Gospels should be adduced in support of our view, a study of the Parable of the Wheat and Tares will not be here out of place.218  

Jaroslav Pelikan sums up the Cappadocians’ position:

When the Cappadocians interpreted God, the world, and man as topics in orthodox dogmatics, they could and did presuppose, as obvious assumptions, some views of God, the world, and man that had come to them from their heritage in Classical culture. Clearly they claimed to be ascribing authoritative priority to scriptural teaching. In the doctrine of God, they declared, the incarnation of the Logos came not to supplement but to correct all existing presuppositions about the divine nature. In the doctrine of immortality, Gregory of Nyssa acknowledged that Macrina’s philosophical ‘exposition, advancing as it did in this consecutive manner,’ was convincing on purely natural grounds. But then he immediately went on to identify Scripture as ‘more trustworthy than any of these artificial conclusions’; and therefore he demanded of her: ‘It is necessary to inquire, in addition to what has been said, whether this inspired teaching harmonizes with it all.’219 

According to the Cappadocians, then, the Scriptures are materially sufficient. What is more, according to Basil, they are formally sufficient through the illuminating ministry of the Holy Spirit. In writing to a widow, he encouraged her with these words:

Enjoying as you do the consolation of the Holy Scriptures, you stand in need neither of my assistance nor of that of anybody else to help you to comprehend your duty. You have the all–sufficient counsel and guidance of the Holy Spirit to lead you to what is right.220 

In all their controversies the Cappadocians grounded their arguments on the teaching of Scripture, demanding proof from their adversaries for any and all teachings. Gregory of Nyssa is representative in these comments against Eunomius:

Let him tell us whence he has this boldness of assertion. From what inspired utterance? What evangelist, what apostle ever uttered such words as these? What prophet, what lawgiver, what patriarch, what other person of all who were divinely moved by the Holy Ghost, whose voices are preserved in writing, ever originated such a statement as this?221 

We need to say a word here about tradition because Basil is cited more than any other father in support of the principle of extra–biblical apostolic oral tradition. Roman Catholic apologists reject the conclusions we have drawn regarding the Cappadocian view of the primacy and sufficiency of Scripture due to Basil’s comments on tradition. We will examine this issue in detail in the next chapter but suffice it to say here that Basil did indeed believe in apostolic tradition independent of Scripture. However, when his teaching is examined within the context of his overall writings, what becomes clear is that his position on tradition did not diminish his belief in the material and formal sufficiency and primacy of Scripture. He wrote that there were many practices in the Church which were rooted in tradition and were not mentioned in Scripture.222 He gave specific examples of traditions he believed were handed down from the apostles apart from Scripture.223 It is important to remember that when Basil referred to unwritten traditions, he was referring specifically to ecclesiastical practices and customs and not doctrine. This whole issue arose when he was criticized for using a nonscriptural term to defend the deity of the Holy Spirit which had a long history of use in the Church. But, even with the appeal to the traditional use of a word, Basil did not rely on the argument from tradition in an exclusive sense. He stated that the use of the word was acceptable only because it was in harmony with the overall teaching of Scripture.224 Furthermore, the practices that Basil mentioned were clearly unnecessary for the faith because most of them are no longer practiced demonstrating that they are of secondary importance. The ultimate authority was still Scripture.


Augustine was the bishop of Hippo in North Africa from 395 A.D. until his death in 430 A.D. He was one of, if not the most, influential of the Church fathers. He was a prolific writer and one of the greatest theologians of the early Church. He is one of few given the title ‘doctor of the Church.’ William Jurgens explains his importance:

If we were faced with the unlikely proposition of having to destroy completely either the works of Augustine or the works of all the other Fathers and Writers, I have little doubt that all the others would have to be sacrificed. Augustine must remain. Of all the Fathers it is Augustine who is the most erudite, who has the most remarkable theological insights, and who is effectively the most prolific. If Origen or Didymus the Blind or some other Father or Writer wrote more than Augustine—a hypothesis by no means certain—it is now of little account, because their works have not survived…Augustine’s writings are no less remarkable than his life. The surviving corpus of his letters is one of the most instructive known from antiquity; and the corpus of his sermons is the largest. His Confessions, the source of so much autobiographical information, is in a form quite unique in its time; and his City of God, which might be termed his major and typical writing, constitutes the earliest known theology of history. Again, his Corrections is perfectly unique, being a work written towards the end of his life, in which he pronounces judgment, generally quite severe, on the effectiveness individually of all his previous writings. Of all the Fathers, none wrote so well or so much as Augustine; and in modern times none other has been so much written about. He was unique in his time, and none like him has since been seen.225 

Augustine left no doubt as to his view of Scripture. He is clear and unambiguous. His writings are saturated with direct quotations from and allusions to the Scriptures. As will become evident on examination of his teaching, he believed Scripture to be the foundation of the Church and the supreme authority over her. Few fathers have written as forcefully for the primacy of Scripture, the primary reason being his unequivocal belief in the divine inspiration and infallibility of the bible. His position is completely consistent with the fathers we have examined thus far, demonstrating the unanimous view of the early Church fathers towards the inspiration of Scripture. The usual descriptions of Scripture consistently enunciated by the fathers are reiterated over and over again by Augustine, though he is often even more fervent. Taken as a whole, his statements are a powerful witness to the patristic doctrine of inspiration. For example, he refers to the written Scriptures as holy,226 divine,227 sacred,228 divinely inspired,229 the divine oracles,230 the Scriptures of God,231 spoken by God,232 the word of God,233 the voice of God,234 the face of God,235 and the divine utterance.236  
    His belief in inspiration was not primarily because the Church testified to it but because of the evidence within Scripture itself, particularly the fulfilment of prophecy.
237 This implicit belief in Scripture’s inspiration led him to the application of a number of related principles, namely infallibility, authority and sufficiency. He believed that whatever God has revealed in the Scriptures is absolutely true and completely free from any error, mistakes, contradictions or falsehoods.238 The Scriptures cannot err at any point. They are inspired and infallible, carry divine authority and are, therefore, the paramount and supreme authority for the Church, outweighing every other:

This Mediator, having spoken what He judged sufficient first by the prophets, then by His own lips, and afterwards by the apostles, has besides produced the Scripture which is called canonical, which has paramount authority, and to which we yield assent in all matters of which we ought not to be ignorant, and yet cannot know of ourselves.239 

That Augustine looked to the Scriptures as the supreme authority for every Christian, is seen in his attitude towards Church councils and the writings of Church fathers. He never believed the Church to be infallible. The only infallible standard is holy Scripture. In his work, On Baptism, Augustine wrote that Councils carry authority only in so far as they conform to the truth of Scripture; they can be corrected by later Councils. He clearly believed Councils could err:

You are wont, indeed, to bring up against us the letters of Cyprian, his opinion, his Council; why do ye claim the authority of Cyprian for your schism, and reject his example when it makes for the peace of the Church? But who can fail to be aware that the sacred canon of Scripture, both of the Old and New Testament, is confined within its own limits, and that it stands so absolutely in a superior position to all later letters of the bishops, that about it we can hold no manner of doubt or disputation whether what is confessedly contained in it is right and true; but that all the letters of bishops which have been written, or are being written, since the closing of the canon, are liable to be refuted if there be anything contained in them which strays from the truth, either by the discourse of some one who happens to be wiser in the matter than themselves, or by the weightier authority and more learned experience of other bishops, by the authority of Councils; and further, that the Councils themselves, which are held in the several districts and provinces, must yield, beyond all possibility of doubt, to the authority of plenary Councils which are formed for the whole Christian world; and that even of the plenary Councils, the earlier are often corrected by those which follow them, when, by some actual experiment, things are brought to light which were before concealed, and that is known which previously lay hid, and this without any whirlwind of sacrilegious pride, without any puffing of the neck through arrogance, without any strife of envious hatred, simply with holy humility, catholic peace, and Christian charity?240 

In referring to Cyprian, the third century North African Church father, Augustine drew a distinction between his writings and the Scriptures, saying that his writings were to be received as authoritative only when it could be demonstrated they were consistent with the truth of Scripture. He claimed  the liberty to reject any writings which contradicted or could not be validated from Scripture:

We do no injustice to Cyprian when we make a distinction between his epistles and the canonical authority of the divine Scriptures. Apart from the Sacred canonical Scriptures, we may freely pass judgment on the writings of believers and disbelievers alike…For that reason Cyprian’s epistles, which have no canonical authority must be judged according to their agreement with the authority of the divine writings. Thus we can accept from Cyprian only what agrees, and safely reject what does not agree, with Scripture.241 

This was his position on the writings of all the bishops of the Church, including himself:

For the reasonings of any men whatsoever, even though they be Catholics, and of high reputation, are not to be treated by us in the same way as the canonical Scriptures are treated. We are at liberty, without doing any violence to the respect which these men deserve, to condemn and reject anything in their writings, if perchance we shall find that they have entertained opinions differing from that which others or we ourselves have, by the divine help, discovered to be the truth. I deal thus with the writings of others, and I wish my intelligent readers to deal thus with mine.242 

Thomas Aquinas reiterates the same perspective, even quoting Augustine approvingly as an authority for his convictions.243 It is clear that Augustine believed and taught that the Church’s authority is contingent on her adherence to Scripture; where she deviates from that standard she is to be rejected. The true Church of Jesus Christ is evidenced by conformity to Scripture alone.244 Scripture is the foundation of the Church:

Intending to speak, in dependence on God’s grace, of the day of His final judgment, and to affirm it against the ungodly and incredulous, we must first of all lay, as it were, in the foundation of the edifice, the divine declarations.245 

Augustine also taught that Scripture is sufficient as the source of all truth and is the final arbiter in all theological controversies. He wrote:

For holy Scripture setteth a rule to our teaching, that we dare not ‘be wise more than it behoveth to be wise;’ but be wise, as himself saith, ‘unto soberness, according as unto each God hath allotted the measure of faith.’ Be it not therefore for me to teach you any other thing, save to expound to you the words of the Teacher, and to treat of them as the Lord shall have given to me.246  

According to Augustine, all that is sufficient for salvation is contained in Scripture, meaning that there are no truths necessary for salvation and handed down from Christ to the Church through the apostles which are independent of Scripture. All that Christ desired for us to know, he commanded to be written, and what has been written is sufficient for salvation.247  
    Augustine’s view of the sufficiency of Scripture is seen in his exposition of the creed for catechumens. In it he reiterated what Cyril of Jerusalem, Irenaeus and Tertullian taught, that the rule of faith is derived and proved from Scripture alone:

Receive, my children, the Rule of Faith, which is called the Symbol (or Creed). And when ye have received it, write it in your heart, and be daily saying it to yourselves; before ye sleep, before ye go forth, arm you with your Creed. The Creed no man writes so as it may be able to be read: but for rehearsal of it, lest haply forgetfulness obliterate what care hath delivered, let your memory be your record–roll: what ye are about to hear, that are ye to believe; and what ye shall have believed, that are about to give back with your tongue. For the Apostle says, ‘With the heart man believeth unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.’ For this is the Creed which ye are to rehearse and to repeat in answer. These words which ye have heard are in the Divine Scriptures scattered up and down: but thence gathered and reduced into one, that the memory of slow persons might not be distressed; that every person may be able to say, able to hold, what he believes.248 

The specific doctrines of the Symbol or the Creed are listed by Augustine in his sermon On Faith and the Creed:

We believe in God the Father Almighty, the creator of all things…In Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only–begotten of the Father, that is to say, His only Son our Lord…Who under Pontius Pilate was crucified and buried…On the third day he arose again from the dead…He ascended into heaven…He sits at the right hand of the Father…He will come from thence and will judge the quick and the dead…We believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy Church…catholic, the remission of sins and the resurrection of the flesh.249  

It is these doctrines which Augustine claimed are the saving truths of the catholic faith and sufficient for salvation.250 In his expositions of these doctrines he made no appeal to any source of authority other than Scripture. After covering each point, Augustine closed with these remarks:

This is the faith which in few words is given in the Creed to Christian novices, to be held by them. And these few words are known to the faithful, to the end that in believing they may be made subject to God; that being made subject, they may rightly live; that in rightly living, they may make the heart pure; that with the heart made pure, they may understand that which they believe.251 

Augustine considered the Scriptures the all–sufficient source for the proclamation of the truths necessary for salvation. There is nothing in the Creed, which Augustine believed summarized the essence of saving faith, that was not supported from Scripture. As we have seen, this is the same perspective held by Cyril of Jerusalem. In addition it is a view also expressed by Niceta of Remesiana (335–415)252 and John Cassian.253 These fathers all taught that the tradition handed down by the Church as summarized in the Creed, contained a sufficient knowledge of salvation and all the mysteries of the faith, and were in turn derived completely from Scripture. Scripture then is the all–sufficient source of doctrine for the faith.
    Given its authority and sufficiency, Augustine considered it axiomatic that all teaching which could not be proven from Scripture was to be rejected. He demanded Scriptural proof all teaching.
254 It was the evidence or proof of Scripture which determined the faith of the Church:

Our belief is determined…by the declarations of Scripture, resting as they do on foundations of the strongest and surest evidence.255 

Consequently, if anyone teaches anything beyond what is received in Scripture, especially with respect to the gospel, he is anathema:

Furthermore, whether concerning Christ, or concerning His Church, or any other matter whatsoever which is connected with your faith and life, to say nothing of ourselves, who are by no means to be compared with him who said, ‘Though we,’ at any rate, as he went on to say, ‘Though an angel from heaven preach any other gospel unto you than that which’ ye have received in the lawful and evangelical Scripture, ‘let him be accursed.’256  

This principle of not violating the silence of Scripture by promoting doctrines which cannot be proven from Scripture was practiced consistently by the fathers. As we have seen it is taught by Irenaeus, Tertullian, Athanasius, Cyril of Jerusalem, John Chrysostom, Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa. It is also taught by Caesarius of Arles,257 Prosper of Aquitaine,258 Theodoret259 and Salvian the Presbyter.260 
    According to Augustine, the gospel which the apostle Paul handed down to the Church was handed down in the Scriptures, and woe to him who teaches anything that distorts or modifies that message. Therefore, in all doctrinal controversies, given the inspired, infallible, authoritative and sufficient nature of Scripture, it is the final arbiter. In his controversy with the Donatists he states this principle succinctly when he says, in effect, ‘Let us look to Scripture alone’:

Let us not bring in deceitful balances, to which we may hang what weights we will and how we will, saying to suit ourselves, ‘This is heavy and this is light;’ but let us bring forward the sacred balance out of holy Scripture, as out of the Lord’s treasure–house, and let us weigh them by it, to see which is the heavier; or rather, let us not weigh them for ourselves, but read the weights as declared by the Lord.261 

In his controversy with the Pelagians, it was not the authority of the Church, but the authority of Scripture which settled the doctrinal issues for Augustine:

Moreover, in the sacred books of the canon, the authority of this doctrine is vigorously asserted in the clearest and fullest way. The apostle exclaims: ‘By one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so it passed upon all men, in which all have sinned.’ Now from these words it cannot certainly be said, that Adam’s sin has injured even those who commit no sin, for the Scripture says, ‘In which all have sinned.’262  

Augustine’s position on the authority and sufficiency of Scripture is encapsulated in the following statement from his treatise, On the Unity of the Church: ‘These are the proofs, these the foundations, these the supports of our cause.’263 
    The foregoing evidence sufficiently demonstrates that Augustine was a firm believer in the principle of sola Scriptura, that is, in the ultimate authority, sufficiency and primacy of Scripture. In spite of this, Roman Catholic apologists insist that Augustine held to a three–fold concept of authority: the Church (as the ultimate authority), Tradition and Scripture. For example, in Not By Scripture Alone, Joe Gallegos mentions the debate between Maximinus the Arian and Augustine, in which Maximinus maintained that any use of nonbiblical terms (such as homoousion) was illegitimate because they were not found in Scripture. All argumentation had to be based expressly on Scripture alone. Gallegos argues that Maximinus was a strong promoter of sola Scriptura and attempts to equate the Protestant position with the Arian heresy. He says:

Maximinus insisted on adhering to Scripture alone, throughout the debate. He did not allow traditional formulas such as the Nicaean Creed or ‘homoousion,’ since he did not find these in Scripture. Therefore, the oral debate between Maximinus and Augustine was based on Scripture, since this was the only common authority between them. In the debate and his follow–up replies, Augustine imparted the ecclesiastical understanding of Scripture and never wavered from the traditional Catholic faith. Not surprisingly, Maximinus imparted his own Arian understanding of Scripture and rejected Catholic tradition. Maximinus not only exhibited a great facility in handling Scripture, he also possessed great oratory skills. His deftness in Scripture allowed him to defeat Heraclius, a disciple of Augustine, in debate. This defeat brought the bishop of Hippo out of retirement to debate Maximinus. The first series of passages below are from Maximinus. These passages clearly show Maximinus’ insistence and reliance on Scripture alone, apart from any traditional landmark. He even appeals to 2 Timothy 3:16, a favorite passage often used by Protestant apologists today, in defending the concept of scripture alone.264 

By painting Maximinus as proponent of sola Scriptura, Gallegos is seeking to identify Protestants with the heretical Arian movement. He suggests that Maximinus appealed to Scripture alone apart from any ‘traditional landmarks’ while Augustine appealed to tradition and the authority of the Church. But, in fact, Gallegos has misrepresented both Maximinus and Augustine. It was not Maximinus who insisted on adhering to Scripture alone, but Augustine. While both men appealed to tradition by appealing to the authority of the Councils, it was Augustine who realized how counterproductive this was and insisted on appealing to Scripture alone. Here are his comments:

I should not, however, introduce the Council of Nicaea to prejudice the case in my favor, nor should you introduce the Council of Ariminum that way. I am not bound by the authority of Ariminum, and you are not bound by that of Nicaea. By the authority of the scriptures that are not the property of anyone, but the common witnesses for both of us, let position do battle with position, case with case, reason with reason.265 

Roland Teske, the translator of Augustine’s works in the Rotelle series, confirms that it was indeed Augustine, and not Maximinus, who insisted on adherence to Scripture alone:

Early in the debate, when Maximinus appeals to the Council of Ariminum, Augustine insists that both parties leave aside appeals to councils and carry on the debate on the basis of the scripture which they both accept rather than on the basis of conciliar authorities over which they are divided. Maximinus had appealed to the Council of Ariminum (Rimini), where in 359 an Arian creed was ratified by 330 Western bishops. It was of this council that Jerome wrote: ‘The world groaned and was astonished to find itself Arian.’ Accordingly, Augustine agrees not to appeal to the Council of Nicaea, as Maximinus gives up appealing to that of Ariminum, so that the debate proceeds on the basis of the scripture common to both parties.266 

The Church fathers did not generally disagree with Maximinus and the Arians on the principle of the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. As has been documented, both sides believed that Scripture contained the fullness of revelation from God and that all doctrinal formulation must be validated from it. However, the fathers disagreed with their Arian opponents arguing that it was not illegitimate to use nonbiblical terms such as homoousion and Trinity because, though not explicitly found in Scripture, the terms conveyed concepts clearly taught there. The real battle in the Arian heresy was not over sola Scriptura, but over interpretation. The Arians isolated biblical passages, interpreting them out of the context of the broader teaching of Scripture. They did not interpret Scripture in light of its overall scope (as Athanasius put it).     Therefore, in the name of Scripture, they introduced teachings which undermined its true meaning.
The terms introduced by the fathers present at Nicaea became traditional and standard for expressing the biblical message. It is important to note that these bishops went to great lengths to justify their use of these terms, by demonstrating they could be supported from Scripture. Consequently, the Church cited them as authoritative. The Church’s interpretation was accepted by later fathers, such as Augustine, only because the terms were found to have a solid biblical basis. This, then, is how we are to understand the appeal of fathers like Augustine to the authority of the Church’s tradition. Gallegos attempts to draw a contrast between Maximinus and Augustine. However, the historical evidence demonstrates otherwise. Augustine did not blindly follow the Church. He agreed with what had become the Church’s understanding of the Trinity because he was convinced it was taught in Scripture. We come back again to Basil’s statement regarding the fathers:

But we do not rest only on the fact that such is the tradition of the Fathers; for they too followed the sense of Scripture, and started from the evidence which, a few sentences back, I deduced from Scripture and laid before you.267 

Gallegos has misrepresented Augustine by failing to take into account his complete teaching on the Church and councils. Augustine believed that the Church had authority because her teaching agreed with the apostolic deposit handed down in Scripture. That Augustine and the North Africans did not slavishly follow the authority of the Church is demonstrated conclusively in the conflict between the North African bishops and Zosimus, the bishop of Rome, during the Pelagian controversy. At one point, Zosimus affirmed the orthodoxy of Pelagius and Celestius after their condemnation by the North Africans for heresy, demanding that the North Africans retract their position and receive Pelagius and Celestius as orthodox. They refused to submit to the bishop of Rome, convinced that the teachings of Pelagius and Celestius were heretical because they contradicted Scripture. They refused to yield to the authority of the Roman Church because, at that point, the Church’s authority (as represented by the bishop of Rome) was at odds with Scripture. The authority of Scripture took precedence over the authority of the bishop of Rome.
    Gallegos constructs a straw man argument against sola Scriptura in citing Maximinus. The Protestant Church does not disagree with Augustine’s arguments against Maximinus. In fact, it rejects the arguments of Maximinus himself, yet firmly holds to the principle of sola Scriptura. Where in the teaching of the Trinity does the Protestant Church contradict what Augustine calls the faith of the Catholic Church of his day? Sola Scriptura does not prohibit the use of nonbiblical terms to express the teaching of Scripture. Evangelicals agree completely with Augustine, Athanasius and other great theologians of the patristic age who argued for the sound principle of interpretation, that individual passages must be interpreted in light of the whole of Scripture. This is the Reformation principle of the analogy of faith. What we do reject, however, is the notion promoted by Roman apologists that there is direct correlation between the Church of the patristic age and the Church of Rome today; that whatever the Church of the patristic age is, Rome is, and therefore whatever Rome teaches must be true. Just because the Church was right on certain issues in the fourth and fifth centuries does not mean we are to blindly follow the Church of Rome in whatever she teaches today. The logic here is skewed. If Roman apologists were consistent they would become Orthodox because the tradition Augustine cited as authoritative originated, not with Rome and the West, but with the Eastern Church through the council of Nicaea, Athanasius and finally the Cappadocians.
    As for Maximinus and the Arians, it is the Roman Catholic Church, not the Protestant, that follows their hermeneutical example. In many of her dogmatic teachings, Rome has isolated Scripture from its broader context and given an interpretation of those passages that is antithetical to the overall teaching of Scripture. Furthermore, in the name of tradition and the authority of the Church, Rome has introduced novel teachings which are contrary to both Scripture and the tradition of the early Church. She appeals to the principle of tradition as justification for her present day teachings which actually contradict the past tradition. Like Maximinus, who used the principle of Scripture alone to introduce teachings which were contrary to Scripture, so the Church of Rome appeals to tradition to introduce teachings which are contradictory to both tradition and Scripture.
    That Augustine believed in the sufficiency and supreme authority of the Scriptures is also evidenced in his description of their function and the response to which he called his hearers regarding them. As to function, Augustine taught that the Scriptures guard against error,
268 enable the faithful to overcome iniquity,269 and heal the ailments of the soul.270 He exhorts his hearers and readers to know the books of Scripture, to read them, commit them to memory and diligently study them.271 They are to be believed without doubt or hesitation,272 considered as the authoritative standard,273 received as true and submitted to as the supreme authority;274 and wholeheartedly embraced.275 Augustine believed the Scriptures to be the ultimate authority for the Church. A.D.R. Pohlman comments:

From his first writings onward, St. Augustine was clearly and fully convinced of the divine authority of Holy Writ, and recognised no authority above it. In his famous discussion with Jerome he observed that Scripture must be placed on the highest pinnacle of authority.276 

We have examined the teaching of the Apologists, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Athanasius, Cyril of Jerusalem, John Chrysostom, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus and Augustine. We have seen conclusively that all looked to Scripture as the ultimate authority for the Church. The Scriptures were the only source of truth for the faith of the Church and the all–sufficient deposit of the apostolic tradition. The tradition preached orally by the bishops of the Church was identical in content to the teaching of Scripture. Not one doctrine necessary for salvation had been handed down orally from the apostles that was independent of the Scriptures. They were and are, therefore, materially sufficient. These fathers universally taught that all doctrinal teaching must be proven and validated from Scripture. Any doctrine which could not be proven from Scripture was rejected as a false tradition, even though it might claim apostolic authority. Jerome epitomizes the overall view attitude of the Church fathers when he says:

The other things, also, which they find and feign, of themselves, without the authority and testimonies of the Scriptures, as if by apostolical tradition, the sword of God [the word of God in the Scriptures] strikes down.277  

Scripture was the ultimate judge and arbiter in all doctrinal controversies. The fathers agreed that the Church’s authority was contingent upon her conformity to Scripture. In addition to the fathers cited, there are others whose writings reflect this same belief in the authority, primacy and sufficiency of Scripture. These include Hippolytus, Cyprian, Epiphanius, Marius Victorinus, Hilary of Poitiers, Ambrose, Jerome, Theophilus of Alexandria, Niceta of Remesiana, John Cassian, Theodoret, John of Damascus, Cyril of Alexandria, Salvian the Presbyter, Cesarius of Arles, Vincent of Lerins, Gregory the Great and Cosmus of Indicopleustus.278 Earlier, we quoted Philip Blosser:

The doctrine that Scripture alone is sufficient to function as the regula fidei—the infallible rule for the ongoing faith and life of the Church—is of highly improbable orthodoxy since…it had no defender for the first thirteen centuries of the Church. It does not belong to historic Christianity.279  

The above documentation demonstrates the fallaciousness of Blosser’s assertion. Such statements manifest an ignorance of the patristic and medieval perspective on the authority of Scripture. Scripture alone as the infallible rule for the ongoing life and faith of the Church was the universal belief and practice of the Church of the patristic and medieval ages. J.N.D. Kelly affirms this in the following summation of the teaching of the fathers on the authority, primacy and sufficiency of Scripture:

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’ (paradosis; 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 or 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 Lerins († c. 450) took it as an axiom the Scriptural canon was ‘sufficient, and more than sufficient, for all purposes’…The clearest token of the prestige enjoyed by [Scripture] 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.

Roman Catholic theologian, Louis Bouyer, likewise confirms this, writing:

…it is right to insist that this narrow ‘biblicism’ is by no means to be confused with the affirmation that the Bible, and in one sense the Bible alone, is the ‘Word of God’ more directly and fully than any of its other expressions, since it alone is so inspired by God as to have him for its author. In making their own this assertion, and giving it the vigour and emphasis so characteristic of their doctrine, the Protestant reformers did not go beyond the unanimous verdict of Judaism on the Old Testament, once constituted, and of the Fathers and theologians on the Bible as a whole. The cautious reservations introduced by modern Catholic writers, as a result of the controversies of the sixteenth century, cannot disguise the fact that the Protestants, in the positive statements we refer to, say no more than the unanimous ecclesiastical tradition…
    The Fathers of the Church, St. Augustine above all, themselves practiced that devotion derived from Scripture, whose ideal the Protestants steadily upheld; they hardly knew any other. No doubt they were much more careful than many Protestants not to isolate the Word of God in its settled form of Scripture from its living form in the Church, particularly in the liturgy. But, this reserve apart…they were no less enthusiastic, or insistent, or formal, in recommending this use of Scripture and in actually promoting it. Particularly from St. John Chrysostom, one might assemble exhortations and injunctions couched in the most forcible terms; they have often been recalled by those Protestants, from the sixteenth century onwards, the best grounded in Christian antiquity. It would be impossible to find, even among Protestants, statements more sweeping than those in which St. Jerome abounds: Ignoratio scripturarum, ignoratio Christi is doubtless the most lapidary, but not necessarily the most explicit.
    What is more, in this case just as when the authority of Scripture is viewed as the foundation of theology, the constant practice of the Church, in the Middle Ages as well as in the patristic times, is a more eloquent witness than all the doctors. In the same way that Popes, Councils, theologians, always resorted to the scriptural argument as the really fundamental one, the practice of the great spiritual writers of every epoch attests the fully traditional character of a devotion based on the Bible. Writers as eminent and influential as Origen in the East and Augustine in the West equally prove the truth of this. Their entire spirituality in both cases is but an immense meditation on Scripture. The same is true of the great teachers of the Middle Ages, who often enough are disciples of both, as was St. Bernard. We can apply to them all that we said of the best of Protestant spirituality: not only did they know the Bible and make abundant use of it, but they moved in it as in a spiritual world that formed the habitual universe of all their thoughts and sentiments. For them, it was not simply one source among others, but the source par excellence, in a sense the only one.

This point of view is likewise affirmed by the historians G.L. Prestige,282 H.E.W. Turner,283 Heiko Oberman,284 Jaroslav Pelikan,285 Philip Schaff,286 Ellen Flesseman–van Leer,287 R.P.C. Hanson,288 and Geoffrey Bromiley.289 

The Post Patristic Age: The Middle Ages

Throughout the Middle Ages the biblical perspectives of the fathers on the supremacy, authority and sufficiency of Scripture were reiterated by the leading theologians of the Western Church. Alister McGrath provides the following summation of this fact:

One of the most enduring, if not endearing, stereotypes of the relation between the Reformation and the late medieval period is that the latter is characterized by an appeal to both scripture and tradition as theological sources, whereas the former appealed to scripture alone (sola scriptura). The Council of Trent, in its decree on scripture and tradition, has generally been regarded as endorsing the medieval view in recognizing these two distinct theological sources. The Reformation, therefore, may be regarded as marking a break with the medieval period this important respect, and Wycliffe and Hus may thus be regarded as ‘Forerunners of the Reformation’. In fact, however, it is becoming increasingly clear that the medieval period in general was characterized by its conviction that scripture was the sole material base of Christian theology, thus forcing us to reconsider what, if anything, was distinctive concerning the Reformation principle of sola scriptura.
    Recent studies have indicated a general medieval consensus on the material sufficiency of scripture—in other words, that scripture contained all that is necessary for salvation. Thus Duns Scotus affirms that ‘theology does not concern anything except what is contained in scripture, and what may be drawn (elici) from this’, the latter being ‘contained there virtualiter’. Indeed, it is evident from even the most superficial reading of late medieval sources that scripture, and scripture alone, was regarded as the materially sufficient source and norm of Christian theology. No other theological source could be regarded as having this status. Is this not what is expressed by the Reformation principle of sola scriptura?

This position was well expressed by Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century. Norman Geisler comments:

Aquinas insists that ‘the author of holy Scripture is God.’ Thus, ‘revelation is the basis of sacred Scripture or doctrine.’ For ‘holy Scripture looks at things in that they are divinely revealed.’ So it is ‘in Holy Scripture, through which the divine will is revealed to us.’ Citing 2 Timothy 3:16 (‘All Scripture is inspired of God’), Aquinas refers to the Bible as ‘Divinely inspired Scripture.’…While many in modern times have denied the inerrancy of Scripture, there is no question where Aquinas stands on the issue. In his commentary on Job he declares that ‘it is heretical to say that any falsehood whatsoever is contained either in the gospels or in any canonical Scripture.’…Agreeing with Augustine, Aquinas confesses of the books of Scripture, ‘I firmly believe that none of their authors have erred in composing them’ and refers to Scripture as ‘unfailing truth.’291  

The Scriptures held a place of supreme authority in the Church. In a quotation previously referenced, Aquinas echoed the sentiments of Basil of Caesarea and Augustine, stating that the teaching of the fathers was received as authoritative only when it could be demonstrated that it was true to Scripture.292  He taught that Scripture alone was the canonical standard of doctrine, and therefore the foundation and source of truth for the faith of the Church: ‘Only canonical Scripture is the rule of faith’ (quia sola canonica scriptura est regula fidei).293 Note that he used the term sola Scriptura. This particular view was expressed by Anselm (1033–1109) in the following statements:

For, indeed, in our preaching, nothing which Sacred Scripture—made fruitful by the miracle of the Holy Spirit—has not set forth or does not contain is conducive to spiritual salvation. Now, if on the basis of rational considerations we sometimes make a statement which we cannot clearly exhibit in the words of Scripture, or cannot prove by reference to these words, nonetheless in the following way we know by means of Scripture whether the statement ought to be accepted or rejected. If the statement is arrived at by clear reasoning and if Scripture in no respect contradicts it, then (since even as Scripture opposes no truth, so it favors no falsity) by the very fact that Scripture does not deny that which is affirmed on the basis of rational considerations, this affirmation is supported by the authority of Scripture. But if Scripture unquestionably opposes a view of ours, then even though our reasoning seems to us unassailable, this reasoning should not be believed to be supported by any truth. So, then, Sacred Scripture—in that it either clearly affirms them or else does not at all deny them—contains the authority for all rationally derived truths.294 

This documentation demonstrates that the Reformation principle of sola Scriptura was not a novel theological concept. It can claim historical continuity with the Church from the patristic age up through the Middle Ages. Roman Catholic medieval scholar, Brian Tierney, summarizes the overall view of the relationship between Scripture and Tradition in the early Middle Ages:

Such texts were often quoted and discussed by medieval theologians. But, before the thirteenth century, there is little trace in their works of the view that Tradition constituted a source of divine revelation separate from Scripture and little inclination to set up a distinction—still less an opposition—between Scriptural revelation and church doctrine. One modern author has observed that, for twelfth century theologians (as for the Fathers themselves), church and Scripture ‘co–inhered.’ This seems true in the sense that the teaching of the church and the teaching of Scripture were conceived of as essentially one. ‘The men of the Middle Ages lived in the Bible and by the Bible.’ When twelfth century theologians observed—as they sometimes did—that many things were held by the church that were not to be found in Scripture they seem to have had in mind only liturgical customs or pious practices. An extra–Scriptural source of faith like the Apostles’ Creed (which was commonly regarded as a work of the apostles themselves) was held to define various tenets of Christian doctrine with absolute fidelity; but it was not considered to be a body of revealed truth supplementary to sacred Scripture. Rather the Creed could be called in the twelfth century a ‘summary’ of the contents of Scripture. In this view Scripture recorded divine truth once and for all and the living voice of the church, guided by the Holy Spirit, interpreted that truth and proclaimed it anew to each succeeding generation.295  

Yves Congar offers this assessment of the period of the Middle Ages:

It was generally held that Scripture contained all the truths of faith necessary for salvation. If a question was put concerning a nonscriptural doctrinal formulation, attempts were made to provide some scriptural reference which was at least equivalent or indirect.296 

Richard Muller comments on the historical continuity of the Reformation principle of sola Scriptura with the patristic and medieval Church:

The reading and study of Scripture were central to the theological enterprise of the Middle Ages. Indeed, before the late twelfth century, the Bible was the only ‘set text’ in the medieval schools…Just as the medieval view of the text, canon and exegesis is the proper background against which the Reformation and the subsequent development of Protestant approaches to Scripture must be understood, so also is the medieval doctrine of Scripture the necessary background to an understanding  of the development of an orthodox Protestant doctrine of Scripture. With striking uniformity the medieval doctors declare the authority of Scripture as the divinely given source of all doctrines of the faith…Thomas Aquinas…clearly argues…that Scripture by its very nature is the ground or foundation of necessary argument in theology—whereas other sources, such as the church’s normative tradition, yield up only ‘probable’ arguments…Albert the Great similarly argued the higher certainty of theological science on the ground of the inspiration of Scripture: theology and theologians derive their authority from the books inspired by ‘the Spirit of truth.’ Even so, it is not possible to doubt a single word of Scripture. Reason itself may fall into contradiction but Scripture stands against error as a foundation of truth higher than anything present within the human soul…Alphonsus Vargas held as a basic maxim that all theological statements rested on either ‘a proposition of sacred scripture or were deduced from statements in sacred scripture.’ Indeed, it was the assumption of the theologians of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries that Scripture was the materially sufficient ‘source and norm’ for all theological formulation, granting the inspiration and resulting authority of the text. The language of these thinkers, although not precisely the meaning and application, looks directly toward the Protestant orthodox assumption of a positive biblical principium for theological formulation.297  

Louis Bouyer draws a similar conclusion:

…it is right to insist that this narrow ‘biblicism’ is by no means to be confused with the affirmation that the Bible, and in one sense the Bible alone, is the ‘Word of God’ more directly and fully than any of its other expressions, since it alone is so inspired by God as to have him for its author…St. Augustine may be said to have given definite expression to this in a passage of his 19th letter to St. Jerome, repeated so often by writers in the Middle Ages: ‘To those books of Scripture alone that are now known as canonical I have learned to pay the honour and respect of believing firmly that none of their authors made any mistake in what they wrote.’ St. Thomas, far from moderating this expression, brings out its doctrine most precisely in the beginning of the Summa Theologica. The scriptural books alone, in and by themselves, enjoy absolute authority, since the Christian faith rests entirely on the revelation made by God to the apostles, and before them to the prophets; it is handed down to us with the direct authority of God only in the canonical books. All other writers, including the doctors of the Church, can by themselves only be the basis of probable arguments. Arguments drawn from Scripture are alone by themselves conclusive. Therefore, the Bible alone provides the real foundations for sacred science.
    Duns Scotus is no less trenchant. According to him, Scripture alone is necessary and sufficient to make known to man the truths of salvation. That does not mean that all other kinds of writings, within and even outside the Church, may not be useful in this respect; but they cannot do more than throw additional light on our understanding of Scripture. Likewise, all the work of theologians and doctors only serves to bring out the content of Scripture.

Clearly, the teaching of the Church of the early Middle Ages was consistent with that of the patristic age on the sufficiency and primacy of Scripture. As Roman Catholic scholar George Tavard puts it:

The greatest centuries of the Middle Ages—twelfth and thirteenth—were thus faithful to the patristic concept of ‘Scripture alone’.299  

A shift took place in the teaching of the later Middle Ages, however, which Heiko Oberman has documented in his book The Harvest of Medieval Theology. He writes of two opposing views on tradition that developed after the fourteenth century which he calls Tradition I and Tradition II. Tradition I is the historic position of the patristic and early Middle Ages, that Scripture contains all the truths necessary for salvation. Scripture is the materially sufficient source of all doctrine for the Church and tradition the authoritative ecclesiastical interpretation of that standard. Tradition II, however, made tradition more than the authoritative interpretation of Scripture. It became a source of revelation, supposedly containing truths which were handed down orally from the apostles and independent of Scripture. This meant that Scripture was not materially sufficient. As Oberman writes:

Tradition I, then, represents the sufficiency of Holy Scripture as understood by the Fathers and doctors of the Church. In the case of disagreement between these interpreters, Holy Scripture has the final authority…Since the appeal to extrascriptural tradition is rejected, the validity of ecclesiastical traditions and consuetudines is not regarded as ‘self–supporting’ but depends on its relation to the faith handed down by God in Holy Scripture…
    The second concept of tradition, Tradition II, refers to the written and unwritten part of the apostolic message as approved by the Church…Ecclesiastical traditions, including canon law, are invested with the same degree of authority as that of Holy Scripture.

Alister McGrath concurs:

Whatever the origins of the ‘two source’ theory may have been, the late medieval tradition unquestionably included representatives of a school which insisted that ‘there are many truths which are necessary for salvation which are neither contained in scripture, nor which are necessary consequences of its contents’.301 

This two source theory of revelation eventually found dogmatic formulation in the decrees of the Council of Trent on Scripture and Tradition. These decrees state that the revelation of God was contained in both the written Scriptures and the unwritten traditions. The point Oberman makes is that the decrees of Trent, sanctioning tradition as a vehicle of revelation, thereby rendering Scripture materially insufficient, are inconsistent with the historic testimony of the patristic and Middle Ages. The opinion of the fathers and theologians throughout the history of the Church and up to the Reformation was overwhelmingly in favor of the Reformation principle of sola Scriptura and antithetical to the position of the Council of Trent. Contrary to claims by Roman Catholic apologists, the principle of sola Scriptura is not only biblical, it is historical. It is Roman Catholic teaching, as defined by the Council of Trent, which is, in fact, unhistorical.