In this section of our series on sola scriptura, we’ve been looking at what the earliest Christians living in the decades and centuries after the apostles can teach us.
How did those closest to the apostolic age think about the relationship between Scripture, tradition and the authority of the Church? How did they think important disputes would be settled?
My goal here is to present four basic arguments or lines of thought that I think taken together demonstrate conclusively that sola scriptura was not the faith of the Early Church.
The first was our subject last week. It goes like this.
1. Evidence that sola scriptura was not in the minds of Christians living in the post-apostolic period is that there isn’t a hint in the writings of the apostles, who established and taught the earliest Christians, that it would be.
There’s no mention of the idea that once the apostles died what they had written would serve as the sola and sufficient infallible rule of faith and practice for the Church.
There’s no indication that the apostles were preparing the churches for this.
In short, there’s no evidence in the writings of those who actually authored the New Testament that they thought like Protestants think about the question of how their teaching would be faithfully preserved and passed down within the Church. For the evidence, see last weeks lesson.
In this lesson we’re going to hit arguments two and three.
2. Another evidence that sola scriptura was not the faith of the early Church is the simple fact that the Church took so long to formally define the canon of Scripture.
Take a moment and think carefully about the situation of the earliest Christians. During the time in which the apostles were still living, believers had Scripture, Tradition and an authoritative Magisterium.
They had everything the apostles wrote (Scripture). They had a basic knowledge of the apostolic doctrine preserved in the churches the apostles founded and instructed (Tradition). And then, when needed, the Church’s leadership could meet in council to authoritatively settle disputes and issue decrees on matters of Christian teaching (Magisterium).
“It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” (Acts 15:28).
And then — at least according to the Protestant view of history — the day comes when the apostles are all gone and the early Christians begin to realize that everything has changed. Tradition can no longer be trusted. It’s losing its authority by the hour. What Timothy “heard” from Paul and guarded by the Holy Spirit and passed on to other faithful men who would be able to teach others? This has become essentially worthless. Because, after all, it’s not infallible.
Church leaders can continue to meet in council but their decisions are no longer binding. After all, they’re not infallible either. Only Scripture is infallible and therefore only Scripture is binding.
From now on, it’s scripture and scripture alone.
Question: what would you do if you were a bishop in this post-apostolic Church? What would you do? I’ll tell you exactly what you would do: You would move immediately, if not much sooner, to assemble the leadership of the Church in every city, launch a massive inquiry into which apostles wrote what and to whom, gather the apostolic documents and formally define the canon of New Testament. The identification of the inspired writings would become your number one priority.
So is this what happened? Surely this is what the bishops did. No?
Nope. Instead, the Church went for years and decades and even centuries without taking up in a serious way the issue of the canon of Scripture (“canon” from a Greek word meaning “rule,” or “measuring stick”). In fact, it wasn’t until the latter part of the fourth century that councils were convened to clearly delineate and formally define which books the Church accepted as apostolic, inspired and authoritative: the councils of Hippo and Carthage and Rome.
And even then it was in response to heresies that had arisen in the Church!
There was Marcion who attacked the integrity of the New Testament by cutting out a number of books he decided were too Jewish and not written for Christians. There were the Gnostics who attacked the meaning of the New Testament with their New Age interpretations (New Age “Christians” are essentially modern day Gnostics.) And then there were the Montanists who claimed to be receiving new revelation from God that could, at least theoretically, be added to the New Testament.
In response to this, the Church moved to settle the issue of which books exactly were to be regarded by Christians as inspired and canonical and provide a formal list.
In other words, if it had not been for this situation, the Church would have waited even longer. It might have gone on forever without feeling an intense need to settle the question definitively.
Now, this is at least understandable on the Catholic premise that the Church didn’t view Scripture as the end-all and be-all for its ability to know and preserve the apostolic teaching.
But it makes no sense whatsoever on the Protestant premise that the Church viewed Scripture as the ‘sole and sufficient infallible rule of faith and practice.’
In his book Answers to Catholic Claims, Protestant apologist James White talks about this bit of church history without realizing the implications it has for his view that the Church at that time was a Church that believed in and was practicing sola scriptura.
In the early history of the church there were events and people that gave impetus and rise to the formalization of the canon list. These things could be viewed as being used of God to prompt his people, the Church to give serious consideration to providing to all concerned a listing of the books which the Church, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, received as authoritative.
Now, if you don’t stop to think about what James White is saying here, sounds reasonable enough. But if and when you do stop to think about it, what he’s saying is almost hilarious.
How so? Well, he’s casually talking about how a Church that, according to him, based its entire teaching on Scripture alone, waiting four hundred years to decide for sure which books belong in Scripture!
And even then, he’s proposing that the Church needed to be “prompted” by God to give “serious consideration” to providing “to all concerned” this list of the inspired books. In other words, not everyone was concerned to have such a list. But some were. And to those who were, the Holy Spirit used the crisis created by these heresies to essentially put a cattle prod to the Church’s rear end and get it to provide all Christians, and all the churches, with a New Testament!
All I can tell you is that if I were a bishop in the time of Peter and Paul, and I believed that after their death what the apostles had written would become the sole rule of faith and practice for the Church, I would have been “concerned” from the day the first apostle showed up with a runny nose and cough.
By the time I was attending my first apostolic funeral, the burning concern of my life would have been the work of identifying and collecting the inspired writings of every apostle!
When you really think of it, it verges on the incredible to conceive of a Church, committed to sola scriptura, waiting nearly four centuries to formally define its list of inspired and infallible writings. And only doing it then because it was prompted to do so by circumstances.
It would be like someone building a skyscraper and then sixty years later thinking, “I wonder if we shouldn’t give serious consideration to putting a foundation under this thing. You know, at least for those who may be concerned!”
The Church’s actions in this regard don’t fit a people holding the Protestant view of sola scriptura.
On the other hand, its actions fit quite well a people who believed that the basic doctrinal content of their Christian faith was preserved and handed down within the Church, and that while it was of course reflected in the inspired writings of the apostles, it wasn’t based solely on those writings.
In other words, the Church’s actions fit a people holding the Catholic view.
3. A third evidence that sola scriptura was not the faith of the early Church is the simple fact that the earliest Christian Creeds say nothing at all about Scripture.
When you look at the Creeds and Confessions that came out of the Reformation, you notice something right away: They all begin with a strong statement on the inspiration, authority and sufficiency of Scripture. Essentially, they all begin by asserting their belief in sola scriptura.
For instance, both the Westminster Confession of Faith of the Presbyterian Church (written in 1646), and the Baptist Confession of 1689 — begin with chapters titled “Of the Holy Scriptures”. I’ll quote from the Westminster, but the Baptist Confession is nearly identical.
The Supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures.
You find this same pattern in all of the major creeds of the Reformation.
And of course this makes perfect sense. After all, the Reformation was all about rejecting the authority of the Church and standing on the principle of sola scriptura. Obviously, when drawing up a Creed to describe in clear and systematic terms what their particular Church believed, it would make sense for them to begin with the foundational issue of Scripture’s inspiration, authority and sufficiency.
Now, it seems to me more than interesting to compare and contrast this with what we find when we look at the Creeds of the early Church.
For instance, if we look at the earliest of all Christian creeds, the Apostles Creed. we find that while it contains an article on the Church (“I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the Communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting”) there is no mention of the Bible. There’s not a word about it’s inspiration, or its authority, or its sufficiency as the sole basis for Christian belief and practice.
And then, if we look at the Nicene Creed, which came out of the first Ecumenical Council of the Christian Church, the Council of Nicea (A.D. 325), we find the same thing. While it contains, this time an expanded article on the Church (“I believe in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church…”), again there isn’t a word about the inspiration and authority of sacred Scripture.
Now, assuming the early Church was Protestant, this is hard to understand.
Again, it fits the Catholic view of things, where the emphasis is on the deposit of faith being preserved by the Holy Spirit and passed down within the Church. But it doesn’t fit the Protestant view of things.
These two arguments, lines of thought, bits of evidence — whatever you want to call them — they don’t constitute a proof of the Catholic position. What they do, however, is provide evidence of a mindset that I think clearly fits much better the Catholic worldview than it does the Protestant.