Did the Early Church Fathers Believe in Sola Scriptura?

Sometimes people get the idea that sola Scriptura was a 16th-century invention

“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.”

 

Sola Scriptura: the reformed Protestant belief that the Scriptures alone are the final and only infallible authority for the Christian. This does not mean that Scriptures are the only authority (nuda or solo Scriptura), as Protestants believe in the authority of tradition, reason, experience, and emotions to varying degrees (after all, “sola scriptura” itself is an authoritative tradition in Protestantism). It does mean that Scripture trumps all other authorities (it is the norma normans sed non normata Lat. “norm that norms which is not normed”).

Controversy of Sola Scriptura

Sometimes people get the idea that sola Scriptura was a 16th-century invention. While it was definitely articulated a great deal through the controversies during the Reformation, its basic principles can be found deep in church history. Take a look at some of these early church fathers who seemed to believe in the primacy of Scripture:

Hippolytus (170-235)

“There is, brethren, one God, the knowledge of whom we gain from the Holy Scriptures, and from no other source. For just as a man, if he wishes to be skilled in the wisdom of this world, will find himself unable to get at it in any other way than by mastering the dogmas of philosophers, so all of us who wish to practise piety will be unable to learn its practice from any other quarter than the oracles of God. Whatever things, then, the Holy Scriptures declare, at these let us took; and whatsoever things they teach, these let us learn; and as the Father wills our belief to be, let us believe; and as He wills the Son to be glorified, let us glorify Him; and as He wills the Holy Spirit to be bestowed, let us receive Him. Not according to our own will, nor according to our own mind, nor yet as using violently those things which are given by God, but even as He has chosen to teach them by the Holy Scriptures, so let us discern them.” (Against the Heresy of One Noetus, 1-4, 7-9)

Irenaeus (175)

“They [heretics] gather their views from other sources than the Scriptures. 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.

For they [the Apostles] were desirous that these men should be very perfect and blameless in all things, whom also they were leaving behind as their successors, delivering up their own place of government to these men; which men, if they discharged their functions honestly, would be a great boon to the Church, but if they should fall away, the direst calamity. Proofs of the things which are contained in the Scriptures cannot be shown except from the Scriptures themselves.”  (Against Heresies, 1:8:1, 3:1:1, 3:3:1, 3:12:9)

Ambrose (330-397)

“For how can we adopt those things which we do not find in the holy Scriptures?” (On the Duties of the Clergy, 1:23:102)

“The Arians, then, say that Christ is unlike the Father; we deny it. Nay, indeed, we shrink in dread from the word. Nevertheless I would not that your sacred Majesty should trust to argument and our disputation. Let us enquire of the Scriptures, of apostles, of prophets, of Christ. In a word, let us enquire of the Father. So, indeed, following the guidance of the Scriptures, our fathers [at the Council of Nicaea] declared, holding, moreover, that impious doctrines should be included in the record of their decrees, in order that the unbelief of Arius should discover itself, and not, as it were, mask itself with dye or face-paint.” (Exposition of the Christian Faith, 1:6:43, 1:18:119)

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