Sola Scriptura and
the Early Church

By William Webster

The Reformation was responsible for restoring
to the Church the principle of sola Scriptura, a principle
which had been operative within the Church from the very beginning
of the post apostolic age. Initially the apostles taught orally
but with the close of the apostolic age all special revelation
that God wanted preserved for man was codified in the written
Scriptures. Sola Scriptura is the teaching and belief that
there is only one special revelation from God that man possesses
today, the written Scriptures or the Bible, and that consequently
the Scriptures are materially sufficient and are by their very
nature as being inspired by God the ultimate authority for the
Church. This means that there is no portion of that revelation
which has been preserved in the form of oral tradition independent
of Scripture. The Council of Trent in the sixteenth century, on
the other hand, declared that the revelation of God was not contained
solely in the Scriptures. It was contained partly in the written
Scriptures and partly in oral tradition and therefore the Scriptures
were not materially sufficient. This was the universal view of
Roman Catholic theologians for centuries after the Council of
Trent and is the predominant view today. It is interesting to
note, however, that in Roman Catholic circles today there is an
ongoing debate among theologians on the nature of Tradition. There
is no clear understanding of what Tradition is in Roman Catholicism.
Some agree with Trent and some don’t. But the view espoused by
Trent is contradictory to and is a repudiation of the belief and
practice of the Church of the patristic age. The early Church
held to the principle of sola Scriptura in that it believed
that all doctrine must be proven from Scripture and if such proof
could not be produced the doctrine was to be rejected.

From the very beginning of the post apostolic
age with the writings of what we know as the Apostolic Fathers
we find an exclusive appeal to the Scriptures for the positive
teaching of doctrine and for its defense against heresy. The writings
of the Apostolic Fathers literally breathe with the spirit of
the Old and New Testaments. With the writings of the Apologists
such as Justin Martyr and Athenagoras in the early to mid second
century we find the same thing. There is no appeal in any of these
writings to the authority of Tradition as a separate and independent
body of revelation. It is with the writings of Irenaeus and Tertullian
in the mid to late second century that we first encounter the
concept of Apostolic Tradition that is preserved in the Church
in oral form. The word Tradition simply means teaching. But what
do these fathers mean when they say this Apostolic Teaching or
Tradition is preserved orally. All they mean is that the Bishops
of the Church preach the truth orally and anyone interested in
learning the true Apostolic Tradition could learn by simply listening
to the oral teaching of the Bishops of any orthodox Church of
the day. Irenaeus and Tertullian state emphatically that all the
teaching of the Bishops that was given orally was rooted in Scripture
and could be proven from the written Scriptures. Both fathers
give us the actual doctrinal content of the Apostolic Tradition
that was orally preached in the Churches and every doctrine is
derived from Scripture. There is no doctrine in this Apostolic
Tradition that is not found in Scripture. And there is no appeal
in the writings of these fathers to a Tradition that is oral in
nature for a defense of what they call Apostolic Tradition. The
Apostolic Tradition for Irenaeus and Tertullian is simply Scripture.
It was Irenaeus who stated that while the apostles at first preached
orally their teaching was later committed to writing in the Scriptures
and the Scriptures have since that day become the pillar and ground
of our faith. His exact statement is as follows: “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”
(Alexander Roberts
& W.H. Rambaugh Translators, The Writings of Irenaeus,
Against Heresies
(Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1874), 3.1.1). Tradition, when referring to oral proclamation such
as preaching or teaching, was viewed primarily as the oral presentation
of Scriptural truth, or the codifying of biblical truth into creedal

Irenaeus and Tertullian had to contend with
the Gnostics who were the very first to suggest and teach that
they possessed an Apostolic oral Tradition that was independent
from Scripture. These early fathers rejected such a notion and
appealed to Scripture alone for the proclamation and defense of
doctrine. Church historian, Ellen Flessman-Van Leer affirms this

For Tertullian Scripture is the only means
for refuting or validating a doctrine as regards its content…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…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 this apostolic teaching, and
the second, what this apostolic teaching is
(Ellen Flessman-van
Leer, Tradition and Scripture in the Early Church (Van
Gorcum, 1953, pp. 184, 133, 144).

The bible was the ultimate authority for the
fathers of the patristic age. It was materially sufficient and
the final arbiter in all matters of doctrinal truth. As JND Kelly
has pointed out:

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
(Early Christian Doctrines (San Francisco: Harper
& Row, 1978), pp. 42, 46).

Heiko Oberman makes these comments about the
relationship between Scripture and Tradition in the early Church:

Scripture and Tradition were for the early
Church in no sense mutually exclusive: kerygma (the message of
the gospel), Scripture and Tradition coincided entirely. The
Church preached the kerygma which is found in toto in written
form in the canonical books. The Tradition was not understood
as an addition to the kerygma contained in Scripture but as handing
down that same kerygma in living form: in other words everything
was to be found in Scripture and at the same time everything
was in living Tradition
(The Harvest of Medieval Theology
(Cambridge: Harvard University, 1963), p. 366).

That the fathers were firm believers in the
principle of sola Scriptura is clearly seen from the writings
of Cyril of Jerusalem, the bishop of Jerusalem in the mid fourth
century. He is the author of what is known as the Catechetical
. This work is an extensive series of lectures given
to catechumens expounding the principle doctrines of the faith.
It is a complete explanation of the faith of the Church of his
day. And his teaching is thoroughly grounded in Scripture. There
is in fact not one appeal in the entirety of the Lectures to an
oral Apostolic Tradition that is independent of Scripture. He
states in unequivocal terms that if he were to present any teaching
to these catechumens which could not be validated from Scripture,
they were to reject it. This tells us that his authority as a
Bishop was subject to his conformity to the written Scriptures
in his teaching. The following are some of his statements from
the Lectures on the final autghority of Scripture:

This seal have thou ever on thy mind; which
now by way of summary has been touched on in its heads, and if
the Lord grant, shall hereafter be set forth according to our
power, with Scripture-proofs. For concerning the divine and sacred
Mysteries of the Faith, we ought not to deliver even the most
casual remark without the Holy Scriptures: nor be drawn aside
by mere probabilities and the artifices of argument. Do not then
believe me because I tell thee these things, unless thou receive
from the Holy Scriptures the proof of what is set forth: for
this salvation, which is of our faith, is not by ingenious reasonings,
but by proof from the Holy Scriptures
(A Library of
the Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church
(Oxford: Parker,
1845), The Catechetical Lectures of S. Cyril 4.17).

But take thou and hold that faith only as
a learner and in profession, which is by the Church delivered
to thee, and is established from all Scripture. For since all
cannot read the Scripture, but some as being unlearned, others
by business, are hindered from the knowledge of them; in order
that the soul may not perish for lack of instruction, in the
Articles which are few we comprehend the whole doctrine of Faith…And
for the present, commit to memory the Faith, merely listening
to the words; and expect at the fitting season the proof of each
of its parts from the Divine Scriptures. For the Articles of
the Faith were not composed at the good pleasure of men: but
the most important points chosen from all Scriptures, make up
the one teaching of the Faith. And, as the mustard seed in a
little grain contains many branches, thus also this Faith, in
a few words, hath enfolded in its bosom the whole knowledge of
godliness contained both in the Old and New Testaments. Behold,
therefore, brethren and hold the traditions which ye now receive,
and write them on the table of your hearts
(Ibid., Lecture

Notice here that Cyril states that these catechumens
are receiving Tradition and he exhorts them to hold to the traditions
which they are now receiving. Where is this Tradition derived
from? It is obviously derived from the Scriptures. The Teaching
or Tradition or Revelation of God which was committed to the Apostles
and passed on to the Church is now accessible in Scripture ALONE.
It is significant that Cyril of Jerusalem, who is communicating
the entirety of the faith to these catechumens, did not make a
single appeal to an oral Tradition to support his teachings. The
entirety of the faith is grounded upon Scripture and Scripture
alone. This principle is also enunciated by Gregory of Nyssa:

The generality of men still fluctuate in their
opinions about this, which are as erroneous as they are numerous.
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 (dogma);
we necessarily fix our eyes upon that, and approve that alone
which may be made to harmonize with the intention of those writings.
(Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, Nicene
and Post-Nicene Fathers
(Peabody: Hendrikson, 1995), Second
Series: Volume V, Philosophical Works, On the Soul And the
p. 439).

Basil the Great, the bishop of Caesarea from
370 to 379 A.D., testifies to his belief in the all-sufficient
nature of the Scriptures in these words taken from a letter he
wrote to a widow:

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 comprehend your duty. You
have the all-sufficient counsel and guidance of the Holy Spirit
to lead you to what is right
(Philip Schaff and Henry
Wace, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers
(Peabody: Hendrikson, 1995), Second Series: Volume VIII,
Basil: Letters and Select Works, Letter CCLXXXIII, p. 312).

These fathers are simply representative of
the fathers as a whole. Cyprian, Origen, Hippolytus, Athanasius,
Firmilian, Augustine are just a few of the fathers that could
be cited as proponents of the principle of sola Scriptura,
in addition to Tertullian, Irenaeus, Cyril and Gregory of Nyssa.
The early Church operated on the basis of the principle of sola
scriptura and it was this historical principle that the Reformers
sought to restore to the Church.

The extensive use of Scripture by the fathers
of the early Church from the very beginning are seen in the following

Irenaeus: He knew Polycarp who was a disciple
of the apostle John. He lived from @ 130 to 202 A.D. He quotes
from 24 of the 27 books of the New Testament. He makes over 1800
quotes from the New Testament alone.

Clement of Alexandria: He lived from 150 to
215 A.D. He cites all the New Testament books except Philemon,
James and 2 Peter. He gives 2400 citations from the New Testament.

Tertullian: He lived from 160 to 220 A.D.
He makes over 7200 New Testament citations.

Origen: He lived from 185 to 254 A.D. he succeeded
Clement of Alexandria at the Catechetical school at Alexandria.
he makes nearly 18,000 New Testament citations.

By the end of the third century virtually the
entire New Testament could be reconstructed from the writings
of the Church fathers. Norman Geisler and William Nix sum up the
position of the New Testament Scriptures in the early Church in
these words: “In summary, the first hundred years of the
existence of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament reveal
that virtually every one of them was quoted as authoritative and
recognised as canonical by men who were themselves the younger
contemporaries of the apostolic age”
(Norman Geisler
and William Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible (Chicago:
Moody, 1980), p. 190).

B.F. Wescott comes to a similar conclusion: “With the exception
of the Epistle to the Hebrews, the two shorter Epistles of St
John, the second Epistle of St Peter, the Epistles of St James
and St Jude, and the Apocalypse, all the other books of the New
Testament are acknowledged as Apostolic and authoritative throughout
the Church as the close of the second century. The evidence of
the great Fathers by which the Church is represented varies in
respect of these disputed books, but the Canon of the acknowledged
books is established by their common consent. Thus the testimony
on which it rests is not gathered from one quarter but from many,
and those the most widely separated by position and character.
It is given, not as a private opinion, but as an unquestioned
fact: not as a late discovery, but as an original tradition
Westcott, A General Survey of the History of the Canon of the
New Testament
(Cambridge: Macmillan, 1889), pp. 337-338).

It is true that the early Church held to the concept
of Traditon as referring to ecclesiastical customs and practices
and that they often believed that such practices were actually
handed down from the Apostles even though could not necessarily
be validated from the Scriptures. But these practices did not
involve the doctrines of the faith and were often contradictory
among different segments of the Church. An example of this is
found early on in the second century in the controversy over when
to celebrate Easter. Certain Eastern churches celebrated it on
a certain day, while the West celebrated it on a different one,
but both claimed that their particular practice was handed down
to them directly from the Apostles. It actually led to conflict
with the Bishop of Rome who was demanding that the Eastern fathers
submit to the Western parctice. This they refused to do firmly
believing that they were adhering to Apostolic Tradition. Which
one is correct? There is no way to ascertain which, if either,
was truly of Apostolic origin. It is interesting, however, to
note that one of the proponents for the Eastern view was Polycarp,
who was a disciple of the apostle John. And there are other examples
of this sort of claim in Church history. Just because a particular
Church father claims that a particular practice is of Apostolic
origin does not mean that it necessarily is. All it means is that
he believes it was. But there is no way to verify if in fact it
truly was a tradition from the apostles. There are numerous practices
which the early Church engaged in which they believed were of
Apostolic origin which are listed for us by Basil the Great which
no one in the Church practices today. So clearly, such appeals
to oral Apostolic Tradition are meaningless.

The Roman Catholic Church states that it possesses
an oral Apostolic Tradition which is independent of Scripture
and which is binding upon men. It appeals to Paul’s statement
in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 for the justification for such a claim,
where Paul states that he handed on traditions or teachings to
this Chruch in both oral and written form. Rome asserts that,
based on Paul’s teaching in this passage, the teaching of sola
Scriptura is false, since he handed on teachings to the Thessalonians
in both oral and written form. But what is interesting in such
an appeal is that Roman apologists never document the specific
doctrines that Paul is referring to which they claim they possess
and which are binding upon men. In all the writings of apologists
from the Reformation to the present day no one has been able to
list the doctrines that comprise this supposed Apostolic Oral
Tradition. From Francis De Sales to the writings of Karl Keating
and Robert Sungenis there is this conspicuous absence. Sungenis
is editor of a work recently released on a defense of the Roman
Catholic teaching of Tradition entitled Not By Scripture Alone.
It is touted as a definitive refutation of the Protestant teaching
of sola Scriptura. It is 627 pages in length. But not once
in the entire 627 pages does any author define the doctrinal content
of this supposed Apostolic Tradition that is binding on all men.
All we are told is that it exists, that the Roman Catholic Church
possesses it, and that we are bound therefore to submit to this
Church which alone possesses the fulness of God’s revelation from
the Apostles. But they can’t tell us what it is. And the reason
is because it doesn’t exist. If they are of such importance why
did Cyril of Jerusalem not mention them in his Catechetical Lectures?
I defy anyone to list the doctrines Paul is referring to in 2
Thessalonians 2:15 which he says he committed orally to the Thessalonians.

The Roman Catholic authority on Tradition,
Yves Congar, makes this interesting observation about the nature
of revelation from the Old Testament dispensation:

Revelation is a disclosure of his mystery
which God makes to men…a disclosure through created signs,
guaranteed by God not to mislead us, though they may be very
imperfect. These signs are events, realities, actions and words;
but ultimately, at least as regards the Old Covenant, the events
and actions are known to us only in words, and written words
at that: the writings of sacred Scripture
(Yves Congar,
Tradition and Traditions (New York: Macmillan, 1966), p. 238).

Yves Congar readily admits the principle of
sola Scriptura with regard to the Old Testament. The only
revelation we possess of that dispensation is the written Scriptures,
even though prophets from the very beginning preached and taught
orally. Protestants are simply saying that the same principle
applies to the New Testament dispensation. To paraphrase Congar:
God’s revelation in the New Testament dispensation is known to
us only in words, and written words at that: the writings of sacred
Scripture. The only special revelation man possesses today from
God that was committed to the Apostles is the written Scriptures
of the New Testament. This was the belief and practice of the
Church of the patristic age and was the principle adhered to by
the Reformers which they sought to restore to the Church after
doctrinal corruption had entered through the door of Tradition.
The teaching of a separate body of Apostolic revelation known
as Tradition which is oral in nature originated, not with the
Christian Church, but with Gnosticism. This was an attempt by
the gnostics to bolster their authority by asserting that the
Scriptures were not sufficient. They stated that they possessed
the fullness of apostolic revelation because they not only had
the written revelation of the apostles in the Scriptures but also
their oral tradition, and the key for interpreting and understanding
that revelation. Just as the early fathers repudiated this teaching
and claim by an exclusive reliance upon and appeal to the written
Scriptures, so must we.