The question we’re asking in this series is the most fundamental of questions. How does an individual Christian know that what he or she has come to accept as the “teaching of Christianity” is true?
There’s the Roman Catholic Church. There’s the Coptic Church resulting from a split in the 5th century. There are the Eastern Orthodox churches resulting from disagreements in the 11th century. There are the Protestant churches that have fragmented into a whole host of denominations and sects and independent Christian movements and churches between the 16th century and the present time. Between them, a great number of doctrinal and moral issues are in dispute. There are brilliant and holy pastors and teachers in each of these ecclesial communities. How does a believer know?
The Pattern of Authority in the New Testament and Beyond
When we looked into the New Testament we saw that the earliest Christians, living during the time of the apostles, had for their authority Scripture. They had what we now call the Old Testament as well as whatever apostolic writings they could gather.
But they also had the oral teaching of the apostles as it was preserved within the churches. We see this in 2 Thess 2:15, where St Paul instructs the believers in Thessalonica to “Stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” (emphasis added).
We also see this in Paul’s instruction to Timothy to “guard by the Holy Spirit” everything Timothy had “heard” him teach so that he (Timothy) could entrust that teaching to faithful men who would be able to pass it on to others as well (2 Timothy 1:14, 2:2). (On the assumption that Paul expected Scripture to function as the sole infallible rule of faith for the Church, isn’t it odd that as he prepares for his departure from this world, rather than focusing on the preservation of his inspired writings, he focuses on the need for Timothy to carefully guard and hand on what he has “heard” Paul teach?)
So the earliest Christians has (1) Scripture. They had (2) tradition. And then, (3) when there were important issues that needed to be settled, we see that they also had Church leadership that could meet in council, decide the issue and send out a decree informing them of what the Holy Spirit had led them to decide (see Acts 15:1-31, especially vs. 28, “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…”).
In other words, for believers living during the time of the apostles “authority” was conceived as a kind of three-legged stool where Scripture, tradition and the authority of the Church’s Magisterium combined to provide a secure knowledge of what was to be believed.
OK, so now we’re looking at Christianity after the time of the apostles and asking the same questions: How did believers living during the second, third, fourth and fifth centuries of Christianity know that what they come to accept as the “teaching of Christianity” was true? How did they expect that disputes over doctrinal and moral issues would be settled?
Did Christians switch from thinking in terms of the three-legged stool to thinking in terms of Scripture alone?
In my last two posts (here and here) I presented three lines of evidence that I think make it hard to believe that after the apostles passed from the scene the early Church “switched” from thinking in terms of this pattern of Scripture, tradition and an authoritative Church to thinking in terms of sola scriptura.
But the strongest evidence of this (and here’s my fourth argument) is that we do not see the early Church teaching or practicing sola scriptura. Instead, what we see in the writings of the early centuries is a continuation of the basic pattern we saw in our study of the New Testament.
Of course Protestant apologists will insist that this is not the case.
They will insist that the fathers of the Church did in fact hold to sola scriptura, and to demonstrate this they will quote passages from early Church writings that speak of the authority of Scripture and how all true teaching must conform to Scripture and be supported by Scripture.
For instance, from the Catechetical Lectures of Cyril of Jerusalem:
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 you these things, give not absolute credence, unless you 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
This is a good passage because it gives me a chance to emphasize something that Protestants reading this may not know. Catholicism teaches that there is a “primacy” that pertains to Scripture as the inspired revelation of God. Vatican II described Scripture as “the speech of God as it was put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit.” There is nothing like Scripture, and because of this Christian teaching must conform to Scripture and be supported by Scripture.
The problem is that the Scripture has to be interpreted.
Scripture doesn’t, for example, leap up and say, “By the way, all those passages in the New Testament about justification and faith and obedience and whether salvation is something that can be lost? This is how you put them all together and make sense of them!” No. Someone has to read those passages and interpret them and draw out from them the teaching..
And because of this, while we find the Church fathers speaking eloquently of the inspiration and authority and, as in the quotation from Cyril, even the primacy of Scripture, we also find them speaking of the authority of Tradition as the lens through which Scripture must be read and interpreted.
When I first read the fathers of the Church and began to run into passages like the following, I recognized immediately that I was being exposed to a mindset that was very different from mine as an evangelical.
This is from St. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons and the greatest biblical theologian of the second century.
When, therefore, we have such proofs, it is not necessary to seek among others the truth which is easily obtained from the Church. For the Apostles, like a rich man in a bank, deposited with her most copiously everything which pertains to the truth; and everyone whoever wishes draws from her the drink of life…
What, then? If there should be a dispute over some kind of question, ought we not have recourse to the most ancient Churches in which the Apostles were familiar, and draw from them what is clear and certain in regard to that question? What if the Apostles had not in fact left writings to us? Would it not be necessary to follow the order of tradition, which was handed down to those to whom them entrusted the Churches?
When I was a evangelical Protestant minister, I can assure you that if I had preached a million sermons over the course of a million Sundays I would never have thought to describe the truth as something the apostles deposited in the Church like a rich man deposits his money in a bank.
I would have said they deposited the truth in the writings of the New Testament. Period.
I would never had said that “everything which pertains to the truth” can be found in the Church and drawn from the Church. I would never ever have implied that even if the apostles had left us no writings Christians could know the truth in “the order of tradition, which was handed down to those to whom [the apostles] entrusted the churches.” No way!
Least of all would my congregation have ever heard me utter words such as these: “If there should be a dispute over some kind of question, ought we not have recourse to the most ancient Churches in which the Apostles were familiar, and draw from them what is clear and certain in regard to that question?”
And yet, this is what Irenaeus says. In fact, this is the way all of the Church fathers speak. And the way they speak reveals a mindset that just doesn’t sound like Protestantism.
On the other hand, it does sound an awful lot like the mindset expressed in the Constitution on Divine Revelation from Vatican II:
Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit. And [Holy] Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God, which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit. It transmits it to the successors of the apostles so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they may faithfully preserve, expound, and spread it abroad by their preaching.
Bristling with Plausible Quotations
But why the need to look to Scripture and Tradition?
Since Scripture is the only “inspired” record we have of what the Apostles taught, why not look to Scripture alone?
Well, to begin Irenaeus would have been familiar with the example of the Church in the New Testament. He would have been familiar with the passages we cited earlier from St Paul and the Book of Acts. He would have believed that looking to Scripture and the teaching received and passed down within the churches (i.e. “tradition”) is what the apostles actually taught the Church to do when trying to distinguish true teaching from false.
But there was also a very practical reason. Christians don’t always agree on what exactly Scripture is teaching. And in the early Church there were heretical teachers. Orthodox Christians could argue passages of Scripture, but the heretics could argue passages of Scripture as well. And unless the Church wanted to simply divide and fragment to where there was a church for every sincerely held viewpoint, there had to be some method of testing whose interpretation was right and whose was wrong.
Saint Vincent of Lerins discusses this exact problem in his Commonitoria, written in the early fifth century. The quotation here is a little lengthy, but it really needs to be read in full. It’s also pretty humorous.
He begins by saying, essentially, “Imagine you ask one of the heretics…”
What ground have you for saying that I ought to cast away the universal and ancient faith of the Catholic Church? He has the ready answer: “For it is written.” And forthwith he produces a thousand examples, a thousand authorities from the Law, from the Psalms, from the apostles, from the prophets, by means of which, interpreted on a new and wrong principle, the unhappy soul may be precipitated from the height of Catholic truth to the lowest abyss of heresy… Do heretics appeal to Scripture? They do indeed, and with a vengeance. For you may see them scamper through every single book of Holy Scripture… Whether among their own people or among strangers, in private or in public, in speaking or in writing, at convivial meetings or in the streets, hardly ever do they bring forward anything of their own which they do not endeavor to shelter under the words of Scripture… You will see an infinite heap of instances, hardly a single page, which does not bristle with plausible quotations from the New Testament or the Old.
Now, I read this and I had to admit that it reminded me of my experience as a Protestant — especially with those believers most committed to the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura.
The evangelical Protestant world is filled with Christians and Christian communities, churches and denominations who have cast overboard what St. Vincent refers to as “the universal and ancient faith of the Catholic Church.” And on what basis? Because, each of them would say, “it is written!”
There are Christian churches led by 28 year-old men who will admit — even make it their boast — that they aren’t theologians, have never read the early Church and have no idea what someone like Irenaeus or Vincent or Augustine or Aquinas might have believed and taught. And yet there they are, week after week, casting away the universal and ancient faith of the Catholic Church, and leading others to do the same, on the basis of their “opinion” of what this or that passage of Scripture is teaching.
And of course it’s easy to bring forth “plausible” quotations from the New Testament to support any number of contradictory positions. This is precisely why there are within Protestantism so many denominations and sects and independent churches — each claiming to stand on Scripture alone.
In sharp contrast to all of this, when we read the writings of the early Church, we discover a mindset, a way of thinking, that is simply not how Protestants think. We find the writers of the early Church saying things you would never hear someone say who was committed to sola scriptura.
The teaching of the Church has indeed been handed down through an order of succession from the Apostles, and remains in the Churches even to the present time. That alone is to be believed as the truth which is in no way at variance with ecclesiastical and apostolic tradition.
Moreover, if there be any (heresies) bold enough to plant themselves in the midst of the apostolic age, so that they might seem to have been handed down by the Apostles because they were from the time of the Apostles, we can say to them: let them show the origins of their Churches, let them unroll the order of their bishops, running down in succession from the beginning, so that their first bishop shall have for author and predecessor some one of the Apostles or of the apostolic men who continued steadfast with the Apostles…. Then let all the heresies….offer their proof of how they deem themselves to be apostolic.
As I said before, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although she is disseminated throughout the whole world, yet guarded it, as if she occupied but one house. She likewise believes these things just as if she had but one soul and one and the same heart; and harmoniously she proclaims them and teaches them and hands them down, as if she possessed but one mouth. For, while the languages of the world are diverse, nevertheless, the authority of the Tradition is one and the same.
An Authoritative Church
As I read the fathers it was just apparent that they did not think as I thought. As an evangelical Protestant I talked about Scripture. The writers of the early Church talked about Scripture as well. But they also talked about Tradition. Finally, I found them talking about the authority of the Church.
Now, because I’ll be coming back later to deal with this issue in some detail, I leave you here with one last interesting, troubling, thought-provoking quotation from St. Irenaeus.
In his work Against Heresies, he’s talking about the Church and the Tradition, how the apostles deposited the truth in the Church and how in matters of dispute we must look to the Tradition, and so forth. In this context he begins to talk about apostolic succession. And this is what he says:
But since it would be too long to enumerate in such a volume as this the succession of all the churches, we shall confound all those who, in whatever manner, whether through self-satisfaction or vainglory, or through blindness and wicked opinion, assemble other than where it is proper, by pointing out here the succession of the bishops of the greatest and most ancient church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul, that church that has the tradition and the faith that comes down to us after having been announced to men by the apostles. With that church, because of its superior origin, all the churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world, and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the apostolic Tradition