As we continue in our Sola Scriptura series we will continue to focus on common Roman Catholic arguments against Sola Scriptura. I gave a definition for Sola Scriptura in the previous two posts so I would encourage you to check those out before reading this one. Today we will engage a very common argument used by Roman Catholics that revolves around the early church fathers.
The Early Church and Sola Scriptura
Many Roman Catholic apologists will refer to the early church. They will claim that the early church was Roman Catholic. They say that all the early church fathers agree with them. We see this shown in the “Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent”. The fourth session of Trent says:
Furthermore, in order to restrain petulant spirits, It decrees, that no one, relying on his own skill, shall,—in matters of faith, and of morals pertaining to the edification of Christian doctrine, —wresting the sacred Scripture to his own senses, presume to interpret the said sacred Scripture contrary to that sense which holy mother Church,—whose it is to judge of the true sense and interpretation of the holy Scriptures,—hath held and doth hold; or even contrary to the unanimous consent of the Fathers; even though such interpretations were never (intended) to be at any time published. Contraveners shall be made known by their Ordinaries, and be punished with the penalties by law established.
So, according to Rome we are to believe what they teach because their traditions are the “unanimous consent of the Fathers”. Vatican 1, chapter 2, point 9 says this:
In consequence, it is not permissible for anyone to interpret holy scripture in a sense contrary to this, or indeed against the unanimous consent of the fathers.
The wording that these two councils use are easily defined and leave little wiggle room. As we will see later, these councils end up disproving themselves by claiming “unanimous consent”. Tim Staples is a well-known Catholic apologist. He speaks of being a former Protestant and this is what he said in an article on http://www.catholic.com entitled “According to Scripture”:
This bedrock Protestant teaching [Sola Scriptura] claims that Scripture alone is the sole rule of faith and morals for Christians. Diving deeper into its meaning to defend my Protestant faith against Catholicism about twenty years ago, I found that there was no uniform understanding of this teaching among Protestant pastors and no book I could read to get a better understanding of it.
One of Staples reasons for rejecting Sola Scriptura is because there was no “uniform understanding” of it among Protestants. Did you notice how similar Staple’s language is to the Councils of Trent and the First Vatican? When he says that there is no “uniform understanding” of Sola Scriptura among Protestants he implies that the Roman Catholic church provides uniformity or “unanimous consent”. Let’s investigate the early church on the subject of Sola Scriptura.
You can find a plethora of Catholic websites that will give you quote after quote from early church fathers that seem to go against Sola Scriptura. Here are a few from www.scripturecatholic.com:
[T]hey who are placed without the Church, cannot attain to any understanding of the divine word. For the ship exhibits a type of Church, the word of life placed and preached within which, they who are without, and lie near like barren and useless sands, cannot understand. –Hilary of Poitiers, On Matthew, Homily 13:1 (A.D. 355).
But beyond these [Scriptural] sayings, let us look at the very tradition, teaching and faith of the Catholic Church from the beginning, which the Lord gave, the Apostles preached, and the Fathers kept. –Athanasius, Four Letters to Serapion of Thmuis, 1:28 (A.D. 360).
It is the church which perfect truth perfects. The church of believers is great, and its bosom most ample; it embraces the fullness of the two Testaments. –Ephraem, Against Heresies (ante A.D. 373).
Now I accept no newer creed written for me by other men, nor do I venture to propound the outcome of my own intelligence, lest I make the words of true religion merely human words; but what I have been taught by the holy Fathers, that I announce to all who question me. In my Church the creed written by the holy Fathers in synod at Nicea is in use. –Basil, To the Church of Antioch, Epistle 140:2 (A.D. 373).
There you go! The early church fathers have spoken so the issue is settled. Mr. Staples is on safe ground with rejecting Sola Scriptura because all the early church fathers are “unanimous” and uniform in their rejection of Sola Scriptura right? Wrong. Let’s take a look at a few more quotes from some other early church fathers.
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. -Cyril of Jerusalem, A Library of the Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church (Oxford: Parker, 1845), “The Catechetical Lectures of S. Cyril” Lecture 4.17.
The holy and inspired Scriptures are fully sufficient for the proclamation of the truth. -St. Athanasius, Against the Heathen, I:3, quoted in Carl A. Volz, Faith and Practice in the Early Church [Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1983], p. 147.
What is the mark of a faithful soul? To be in these dispositions of full acceptance on the authority of the words of 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. -St. Basil the Great, Letter 189 [to Eustathius the physician], 3, in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. VIII, p. 229.
What do these quotes mean? They mean that there is no “unanimous consent” of the early church fathers. There is no uniform understanding against Sola Scriptura. Even St. Basil, quoted in both blocks, didn’t give a consistent rebuttal to Sola Scriptura. Mr. Staples should not have been so quick to reject Sola Scriptura because he cannot give us a uniform witness against Sola Scriptura on the Roman Catholic side. Not only that, the Bible speaks about the Scriptures being God-breathed in 2 Timothy 3:16-17:
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. -ESV
It is clear from reading church fathers that they were not uniform on Sola Scriptura. However, the Bible is uniform. It never changes because it is “breathed out by God“. It is the Roman Catholic’s job to prove to us that their tradition is God-breathed. If they can’t then we have no reason to stand on their tradition because it is not uniform nor “unanimous”. Instead, as Cyril of Jerusalem said, “we ought not to deliver even the most casual remark without the Holy Scriptures”.
Thanks for reading.