The Church Fathers on the sufficiency of Scripture

Many a Roman Catholic friend of mine has, when confronted with a portion of Scripture which seems to militate against a particular Roman doctrine, recurred to the argument that the individual can never be sure what Scripture is saying without an authoritative interpreter. I invariably come back with the question, “Well, how can the same individual know for sure what the authoritative interpreter is saying?” I frankly don’t buy the contention that the writings of the holy apostles are so inchoate as to be inscrutable to ordinary human reason; however, to suggest on top of that the Roman magisterial interpretations (conciliar and papal) of these ostensibly inchoate passages of Scripture are less inscrutable is a bridge even farther, and, in my opinion, absurd. The same epistemological and hermeneutical problem that afflicts the individual in the first scenario is in no way eliminated by interpolating the “authoritative interpretation” in the latter. It is merely transferred, and in many ways it is worsened. This isn’t to say that all of Scripture is self-evident, or that its content doesn’t need to be taught — as though it could be absorbed by spiritual osmosis — or that there’s no tradition of exegesis. It’s just saying that within the Roman paradigm the certainty-chimera continues to gambol and frolic several yards ahead of the hounds, still no closer to being captured. Actually, quite a bit farther away, if you think about it, considering how voluminous and complex Rome’s preachments have been and continue to be.

It’s also interesting to note that the supposedly novel Reformation teaching of Scripture as sole rule and norm for faith and practice has plenty of adherents among the Church Fathers — or, rather, I should say, it seems to me that from what they’re saying, they thought that that the Scriptures were pretty perspicuous. Below is a smattering of Patristic quotations which evince this overall opinion.

+    +    +

St. Irenaeus of Lyons (+ca.195):

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. (Against Heresies, 3:1.1, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. I, p. 414.)

 

St. Athanasius (c.296-373):

The holy and inspired Scriptures are fully sufficient for the proclamation of the truth. (Against the Heathen, I:3, quoted in Carl A. Volz, Faith and Practice in the Early Church [Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1983], p. 147.)

 

St. Cyril of Jerusalem (c.310-386):

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. (Catechetical Lectures, IV:17, in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers [Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1983 reprint], Second Series, Vol. VII, p. 23.)

 

St. Gregory of Nyssa (330-395):

[W]e are not entitled to such license, namely, of affirming whatever we please. For we make Sacred Scripture the rule and the norm of every doctrine. Upon that we are obliged to fix our eyes, and we approve only whatever can be brought into harmony with the intent of these writings. (On the Soul and the Resurrection, quoted in Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971], p. 50.) 

Let the inspired Scriptures then be our umpire, and the vote of truth will be given to those whose dogmas are found to agree with the Divine words. (On the Holy Trinity, in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. V, p. 327.)

 

St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430):

Let them show their church if they can, not by the speeches and mumblings of the Africans, not by the councils of their bishops, not by the writings of any of their champions, not by fraudulent signs and wonders, because we have been prepared and made cautious also against these things by the Word of the Lord; but [let them show their church] by a command of the Law, by the predictions of the prophets, by songs from the Psalms, by the words of the Shepherd Himself, by the preaching and labors of the evangelists; that is, by all the canonical authorities of the sacred books. (On the Unity of the Church, 16, quoted in Martin Chemnitz, Examination of the Council of Trent, Part I [Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1971], p. 159.)

What more can I teach you, than what we read in the Apostle? For Holy Scripture sets a rule to our teaching, that we dare not “be wise more than it behooves to be wise,” but be wise, as he says, “unto soberness, according as unto each God has allotted the measure of faith.” (On the Good of Widowhood, 2, in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. III, p. 442. The quotation is from Romans 12:3.)

 

St. John Chrysostom (c.347-407):

Let us not therefore carry about the notions of the many, but examine into the facts. For how is it not absurd that in respect to money, indeed, we do not trust to others, but refer to [our own] calculation; but in calculating upon [theological] facts we are lightly drawn aside by the notions of others; and that too, though we possess an exact balance, and square and rule for all things, the declaration of the divine laws? Wherefore I exhort and entreat you all, disregard what this man and that man thinks about these things, and inquire from the Scriptures all these things; and having learned what are the true riches, let us pursue after them that we may obtain also the eternal good things… (Homily 13 on 2 Corinthians, in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. XII, p. 346.)

Regarding the things I say, I should supply even the proofs, so I will not seem to rely on my own opinions, but rather, prove them with Scripture, so that the matter will remain certain and steadfast. (Homily 8 On Repentance and the Church, in The Fathers of the Church, Vol. 96, p. 118.)

They say that we are to understand the things concerning Paradise not as they are written but in a different way. But when Scripture wants to teach us something like that, it interprets itself and does not permit the hearer to err. I therefore beg and entreat that we close our eyes to all things and follow the canon of Holy Scripture exactly. (Homily 13 on Genesis.)

There comes a heathen and says, “I wish to become a Christian, but I know not whom to join: there is much fighting and faction among you, much confusion: which doctrine am I to choose?” How shall we answer him? “Each of you” (says he) “asserts, ‘I speak the truth.'” No doubt: this is in our favor. For if we told you to be persuaded by arguments, you might well be perplexed: but if we bid you believe the Scriptures, and these are simple and true, the decision is easy for you. If any agree with the Scriptures, he is the Christian; if any fight against them, he is far from this rule. (Homily 33 on the Acts of the Apostles [in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 1, 11:210-11; PG 60.243-44])

 

St. Basil the Great (c.329-379):

They are charging me with innovation, and base their charge on my confession of three hypostases [persons], and blame me for asserting one Goodness, one Power, one Godhead. In this they are not wide of the truth, for I do so assert. Their complaint is that their custom does not accept this, and that Scripture does not agree. What is my reply? I do not consider it fair that the custom which obtains among them should be regarded as a law and rule of orthodoxy. If custom is to be taken in proof of what is right, then it is certainly competent for me to put forward on my side the custom which obtains here. If they reject this, we are clearly not bound to follow them. Therefore let God-inspired Scripture decide between us; and on whichever side be found doctrines in harmony with the Word of God, in favor of that side will be cast the vote of truth. (Letter 189 [to Eustathius the physician], 3, in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. VIII, p. 229.)

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. (The Morals, in The Fathers of the Church, Vol. 9, p. 204.)

We are not content simply because this is the tradition of the Fathers. What is important is that the Fathers followed the meaning of the Scripture. (On the Holy Spirit, 7:16.)

 

St. John of Damascus (c.675-c.749):

It is impossible either to say or fully to understand anything about God beyond what has been divinely proclaimed to us, whether told or revealed, by the sacred declarations of the Old and New Testaments. (On the Orthodox Faith, I:2, in The Fathers of the Church, Vol. 37.)

+    +    +

So it looks like none of the quotations here articulate the Roman view of the opacity of Scripture sans authoritative interpreter. On the contrary, the perspicuity of Scripture is assumed and explicitly stated.

That’s really all I wanted to post. More can be said, certainly, but that will have to wait for the jib-jab in the comments, if any is forthcoming.

+VDMA

13 Comments

  1. You left out Saint Thomas! See Gilby’s “St Thomas Aquinas: Theological Texts” OUP 1955:

    “The effective authority of Holy Scripture originates from God, who ‘found out all the way of knowledge and gave it to Jacob his servant and to Israel his beloved.’ ‘Which, having begun to be declared by the Lord, was confirmed unto us by them that heard “him. His authority is to be infallibly believed, because he is truth itself – ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life,’ possessed of the plenitude of knowledge – ‘O the depth of the riches of the wisdom and of the knowledge of God!’ and armed with might – ‘the word of God is living and effectual and more piercing than any two-edged sword'” (Principium fratris Thomae de Aquino quando incepit Parisiis ut Baccalaureus Biblicus, de Commendatione et Partitione Sacrae Scripturae).

    “Theology invokes great thinkers on matters where they are received authorities: thus St. Paul at Athens quoted Aratus, ‘in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain of your own poets have said, For we also are his offspring.’ [Acts 17:28] Theology treats them as sources of external evidence for its arguments. Its proper and indispensable court of appeal is to the authority of the canonical Scriptures. The writings of the Fathers of the Church are also proper sources, yet their authority is not final. Faith rests on divine revelation made through the prophets and apostles and set down in the canonical Scriptures, not on revelations, if there be any, made to other holy teachers” (Summa Theologica, Ia i. 8, ad 2).

    • Thanks for this, Edward. Unfortunately, I’m not sure what’s the quotation from Aquinas and what’s not. Can you email me a cleaned up, clearly demarcated version at some point? I’ll be happy to add it to the compendium and clean it up in your comment, as well.

      • Both quotations are entirely Saint Thomas, except for what is in parentheses. I put the biblical quotations in inverted commas, since I couldn’t figure out how to italicize! Apologies!

      • I would point your attention particularly to the last sentence of the second quotation!

        • “Faith rests on divine revelation made through the prophets and apostles and set down in the canonical Scriptures, not on revelations, if there be any, made to other holy teachers” — yeah, that’s pretty clear.

  2. Trent,
    I think you’re attacking a straw man. Every denomination has Scripture that they either seem to ignore or interpret in a way divergent from other faiths. The Catholics, I would argue, don’t even have MORE of these than other denominations. Rather, Catholics are sadly less well-informed about the Scriptures (because they don’t read them, a fact I will readily and sadly confess) and are more surprised when they hear an apparent contradiction, also known as a paradox. Some examples of ignored or hard to explain scripture is everything from John saying sinners can’t be Christians in his first letter, to “call no man father,” to “no one is good but your Father in Heaven,” to Onan’s sin in the OT, to “this is my body,” to countless others. But Basil’s quotation in this post is a perfect example. He is saying, find the doctrine (not something he assumes is in Scripture) that most coherently gels with Scripture. But, there are things we need to define, and we’re going to use extra-scriptural words and concepts and logic, but whoever comes down on the side of Scripture wins. No theologian worth his salt in the history of the Church, heretical or otherwise, has ever NOT backed up his work with copious Scripture. Are you annoyed the the Councils don’t quote enough Scripture? Are you annoyed that St. Thomas doesn’t quote enough scripture? Are you annoyed that the Church was trying to answer questions that were asked of her, and didn’t use enough Scripture? I’m not sure what you’re saying, but clearly everyone, at the highest levels of theology has always used Scripture to defend their beliefs. And every creed has struggled with certain passages that don’t seem to jive as well with their most highlighted doctrines. But, Catholics have a way out, because it was the authority of the Church that preceded Scripture and authenticated the Canon. Thus, we only all GO to Scripture in the first place because the Church told us where we needed to go. The only thing that Catholics claim that Protestants do not is one authoritative understanding of the Word as it applies to doctrine (obviously, there are the four ways of reading scripture, so I’m not saying every passage has only one meaning). Every Church has to have a system for ratifying/authenticating doctrine, and you just seem to chafe under ours because it’s a man in a hat. Why is that any better or worse than a synod of elders, or a couple of well-esteemed seminaries, or a man and his Bible?

    The bigger questions still remain. When talking in Christian circles, its all fine and good to assume the authority of the Bible. But I’m much more interested in how we convert those outside the Church (in every sense) so that more people see their errors and are washed in the Blood. I understand if this is a means for you to explore the question personally for yourself, I just don’t appreciate Roman straw men, which show up more frequently than any other kind of straw men in your arguments.

    • I’m confused, Tom. I’m not annoyed by Councils’ lack of Scripture…do they lack Scripture? My reading has been elsewhere as of late. I will say that there’s nothing magic about a Church council. Like the pope, they can err. I don’t know why you brought that up. I happen to love St. Thomas, actually. From what I know of him and his work, he probably would have demurred strongly from the sort of Catholicism espoused by Leo X. That is a topic for another day. Do look at Edward’s comment, though, as he’s got a brilliant quotation from the Angelic Doctor about the sufficiency of Scripture.

      “But, Catholics have a way out, because it was the authority of the Church that preceded Scripture and authenticated the Canon.”

      What authority of the Church? You assume something about the Office of the Keys that you do not prove, i.e., you are assuming that the authority given to the Apostles to bind and loose refers the the making of doctrinal pronouncements. As a Roman Catholic, you’re also operating from the assumption that Peter’s unique status as chief of the Apostles was a unique, i.e., qualitatively different, office which passed to his successors. I don’t share that view, obviously. I don’t mean to be plucky and abrupt, but I’d actually really like your thoughts on that matter not here, but on the previous post on the blog, where that’s been the topic of discussion for almost three weeks now.

      So simply saying that “the authority of the Church” preceded and authenticated the canon begs the question massively. You would first have to prove that the Church has ever had the authority (i.e., has an injunction from Christ, an office) to do more than preach the Word and administer the Sacraments. Then, well…then I’m not sure what you’d have to do.

      The Church did not define the canon. It couldn’t exclude the Gospel of John from the canon if it wanted to, nor could it include the Gospel of Thomas. Why? Because St. John did in fact write the Gospel which bears his name. It’s a well-corroborated historical fact. By the same token, St. Thomas did not write the gospel which bears his name. It’s pseudepigraphic gnostic bosh. (Finally! I can use the word pseudepigrapha on my blog.) St. Mark and St. Luke, though not written by apostles, nonetheless accord with the firsthand accounts of St. Matthew and St. John. You are of course aware of the distinction between the homologoumena and antilegomena — the apostolic authorship of some books has never been as well-corroborated as that of others. This distinction is simply noted…by both Carthage in 265 and Nicaea in 312? I’d have to check. Anyway, I’m not aware of any doctrine which finds its sole support amongst the antilegomena. Are you?

      “Thus, we only all GO to Scripture in the first place because the Church told us where we needed to go. The only thing that Catholics claim that Protestants do not is one authoritative understanding of the Word as it applies to doctrine (obviously, there are the four ways of reading scripture, so I’m not saying every passage has only one meaning).”

      Well, that may be true. But Lutherans also have one authoritative understanding of the Word as it applies to doctrine. It’s comprised by the Lutheran Confessions, which do not claim to be self-authenticating (sic iubeo, sic volo) as does the Roman Magisterium, but ask to be compared to the Scriptures. Rome refused to do this from the outset of the Conservative Reformation, insisting that Luther and those of like mind simply stop teaching what they were teaching, because Rome had decreed that it was false.

    • “Every Church has to have a system for ratifying/authenticating doctrine, and you just seem to chafe under ours because it’s a man in a hat. Why is that any better or worse than a synod of elders, or a couple of well-esteemed seminaries, or a man and his Bible?”

      Tom, I am sorry to have given offense. Please hear me out, though.

      I certainly do not chafe under the Roman system of ratifying/authenticating doctrine because it’s a man in a hat. I don’t chafe under it at all, to be perfectly honest — I am not under the Roman system at all! I am not under law, but under grace, as the Apostle says in the sixth chapter of Romans. Thanks be to God! I do, however, object to it, because it’s a perversion of the Office of the Keys, which, to remind you, is the ONE divine office established by Our Lord. Asking why the papacy is any better or worse than anything else seems to me to be the wrong question.

      “The bigger questions still remain. When talking in Christian circles, its all fine and good to assume the authority of the Bible. But I’m much more interested in how we convert those outside the Church (in every sense) so that more people see their errors and are washed in the Blood.”

      Tom, to me there is no bigger question than how the sinner is justified before God. It is absolutely crucial, therefore, that the message which the Church preaches to the heathen is Christ and Him crucified and that trust in the mercy of God on account of that sacrifice is preached as the only means by which they will be saved. Justification sola fide is thus the doctrina stantis et cadentis ecclesiae. To proclaim anything else to the unconverted is to proclaim a false Gospel. By the same token, Rome’s rejection of this doctrine is not “small potatoes” that can be lightly set aside. Frankly, Tom, the things that you say here and the things that I have heard you say in the past truly resonate with me — yes, we pray that all would repent and are washed in the Blood! But even here we are brought back to brass tacks. What is repentance? Is it the same as penance, or is it contrition? Does this distinction matter? Does repentance entail supererogatory works? And does baptism simply remove the stain and contagion of original sin only, but leave all other sins thenceforth committed to be expunged through the confessional, otherwise to remain bound to the soul of the sinner?

      These are non-trivial questions which, if left unanswered and unresolved, make glib slogans out of phrases like “washed in the Blood” and “convert those outside the Church.” Convert them to what?

      “I understand if this is a means for you to explore the question personally for yourself, I just don’t appreciate Roman straw men, which show up more frequently than any other kind of straw men in your arguments.”

      Again, I apologize, my friend. I still don’t see how I’ve created a Roman straw man. I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to help me see exactly which part of my writing sets one forth.

  3. Tom, there is one major problem with your argument, and that is an error of fact. You say, “But, Catholics have a way out, because it was the authority of the Church that preceded Scripture and authenticated the Canon.”

    But it is clear (from Scripture, no less, which regardless of origin and authentication we all accept) that the early Church had Scripture before any gospel or epistle was written: what we now call the Old Testament. If the constant references of St. Paul and others to learning Scripture, depending on Scripture, referencing the fulfillment of scriptural prophecies, and so forth was not enough, we have the accounts of Christ’s exposition of the prophets on the road to Emmaus; and less important but still indicative, Phillip’s preaching from Isaiah to the Ethiopian.

    True, this observation does not fully explain the New Testament. It is of course a question worth asking how the Jewish scriptures were established, and also a fascinating and important study to see what the Church’s view has been towards the establishing of new documents as Scripture. But the Church has had authoritative Scripture from before its existence.

  4. You miss the point of Sola Scriptura. Saying something nice about scripture is not Sola Scriptura. Even when some church fathers enter into hyperbole when they say nice things about scripture. That is completely and totally Catholic.

    So it looks like none of the quotations here articulate the Roman view of the opacity of Scripture sans authoritative interpreter. On the contrary, the perspicuity of Scripture is assumed and explicitly stated.

    This is just not the Roman view. The scriptures are often clear. Can they be twisted by false teachers? Sure. Does that make them inherently unclear? Sometimes. If someone is eloquently arguing for a false interpretation of scripture then it can become unclear. Of course this has been shown in protestant history so many times it is silly. I know your creed compels you to deny what history shows.

    What you really need is an early church father using the bible to destroy the church. That is what Luther did. That is what the fathers never did. Is it because they never disagreed with the church? I don’t think that is plausible. It is because they allowed the tradition of the church to form their thinking. Luther has too much pride to do that.

    • You miss the point of Sola Scriptura. Saying something nice about scripture is not Sola Scriptura. Even when some church fathers enter into hyperbole when they say nice things about scripture. That is completely and totally Catholic.

      Indeed. I think you miss the point of the comment section of my blog, sir — I assume that Randy is a man’s name? Was that your squirrel I hit with my car this morning, or do you have another reason for being so rude and puerile in your first interaction with someone you’ve never met?

      Right. Saying nice things about Scripture is not the same as sola scriptura. There’s no confusion there. I understand, though, that you’re implying that this is my view, which is “The Protestant View.” You, however, like most papists, don’t seem to know what sola scriptura means in Lutheran theology, in particular: it does not mean that Sacred Scripture is the only authority in the Church — that would be a Romanist straw-man. It simply means that Sacred Scripture is the only infallible rule for doctrine and practice. That’s it. The rest is debatable, but not germane to the definition of the term.

      Of course this has been shown in protestant history so many times it is silly. I know your creed compels you to deny what history shows.

      Protestant history? I’m intrigued. And what, pray tell, hath “history” shown that I am compelled to deny? I am so looking forward to learning about my creed from you. This will no doubt be fascinating.

      What you really need is an early church father using the bible to destroy the church. That is what Luther did. That is what the fathers never did. Is it because they never disagreed with the church? I don’t think that is plausible. It is because they allowed the tradition of the church to form their thinking. Luther has too much pride to do that.

      YES! That would be wonderful. That’s EXACTLY what I’m looking for! Seriously, it’s every Lutheran’s dream.

      Let me respond in kind: “your MOM needs an early church father who uses the bible to destroy the church!” There. Now you know how I feel. I’m trying to think of which specific piece of asinine assertion I’d like to deal with first, but I honestly don’t think it would be worth my time. People usually have to descend to the depths of inchoate, infantile rage at which you’ve chosen to start. I shudder to think of what lies in store with your next rejoinder. Is it dread or anticipation? We just can’t say right now…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CAPTCHA
Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code