The Witness of the Church Fathers With Regard to Catholic Distinctive’s : Part 1 Tradition and Scripture

[This portion of the blog post The Witness of the Church Fathers With Regard to Catholic Distinctives is re-posted with permission of Dave Armstrong.  This material is also found in his book: The Church Fathers Were Catholic: Patristic Evidences for Catholicism]

I. History of the Doctrines of Tradition and Scripture

Many prominent Protestant scholars and historians agree that, for the early Church, Scripture and Tradition freely coexisted and were not in the least mutually exclusive. (0) While the early Church Fathers constantly assert the supreme authority of the Bible, they do not oppose the Scriptures to the Church, which had for them a necessary practical priority. In this way they are much nearer in spirit to the continuous Catholic view than to the classic Protestant outlook. Protestant polemicists tend to impose upon the early Church categories of thought which have only been prevalent from the 16th century to the present time. This is a common error, since everyone has their preconceived notions which they would like to see substantiated.

In the late first century, the Didache speaks of Tradition as something “received,” reflecting the biblical language of St. Paul. (1)

In the second century St. Polycarp (2) and St. Irenaeus (3) reiterate this teaching more explicitly, and speak of apostolic succession.

Tertullian (4) and St. Hippolytus (5) expand upon this understanding in the early third century. And Origen states,

That alone is to be believed as the truth which is in no way at variance with ecclesiastical and Apostolic Tradition(6).

In the fourth century, St. Basil the Great, (7) St. Gregory of Nyssa, (8) and St. Epiphanius inform us that dogmas of the Church are received both from written and oral sources, or the “tradition of the Apostles,” and that, as in St. Epiphanius’ words, “not everything can be gotten from Sacred Scripture.” (9)

In the early fifth century, St. John Chrysostom, whom many consider the greatest preacher who ever lived, cites 2 Thessalonians 2:15 (examined above) and concludes from it that,

. . . there was much also that was not written. Like that which is written, the unwritten too is worthy of belief. So let us regard the Tradition of the Church also as worthy of belief. (10)

In the same period, St. Augustine – the greatest of all the Fathers and highly regarded by Luther, Calvin and most Protestants – clearly teaches that there exists a Tradition of the Church which is extrascriptural (11) and, in some cases, not even yet dealt with in ecumenical Councils. (12) For example, he mentions the rebaptism of heretics and schismatics as a practice which is contrary to apostolic Tradition, even though the matter had not been written about. He opposes rebaptism (over against the Donatist heresy) because it is not in accordance with the practice “kept by the whole Church everywhere and handed down by the Apostles themselves.” (13) Thus, for St. Augustine, the authority of the Church, derived from apostolic Tradition, is normative and final. This is exactly the opposite of the Protestant view, which regards Scripture as somehow the final arbiter (even though it still has to be interpreted by someone authoritatively).

St. Vincent of Lerins, writing c.434, soon after St. Augustine’s death, makes the same point about the necessity of Church authority and interpretation, since,

. . . quite plainly, Sacred Scripture, by reason of its own depth, is not accepted by everyone as having one and the same meaning . . . it can almost appear as if there are as many opinions as there are men. (14)

Thus, all the essential components of the Catholic view of Scripture and Tradition are in place within the first 400 years of the Church’s existence, and this was the unanimous Christian view until the time of the rise of Protestantism in the 16th century. The constant Catholic teaching was strongly reaffirmed and presented even more explicitly in the Council of Trent in 1546 (15) and the Second Vatican Council in 1965. (16)

Martin Luther, who essentially originated the notion of sola Scriptura, did so somewhat reluctantly and gradually, as dictated by unfortunate circumstances (viewed from his perspective). In his examination at Augsburg in October, 1518 he placed the Bible (that is, his interpretation of it) above the pope, but still admitted the equal authority of Councils. In the Leipzig Disputation with Catholic apologist Johann Eck in July, 1519, he was more or less forced in the heat of debate to place the authority of Scripture above that of Councils as well. Even in this instance he tried in vain to evade the consequences of the inner logic of his own theological position. This evolution is well-documented in many Protestant biographies of Luther.

In the final analysis, both Luther and Calvin espoused a radically subjective and experiential method of determining Christian truth which is somewhat contradictory and not even strictly in harmony with a sola Scriptura perspective, since the interpretational supremacy of the individual (itself an unbiblical notion) is accepted as an unproven axiom. This overly-idealistic assumption was shown to be evidently false in Luther’s own lifetime, and all the more so since. In 1522 Luther said that Christians must not regard the “opinion of all Christendom,” but that “each one for himself alone” must believe the Scriptures. (17) Later, however, he set up a State Church which operated on markedly authoritarian principles diametrically opposed to his earlier, more radical and subjective stance.

In theory, then, for Luther Scripture was both supreme and self-interpreting for all honest and sincere Protestant inquirers. In practice, however, since this Protestant “axiom” is demonstrably false, Luther’s own theology simply became the substitute for traditional Catholic theology. The sheer arbitrariness of such a position is apparent upon fair-minded reflection.

Likewise, John Calvin, a much more logical and systematic thinker than Luther, wound up in the same logical conundrum, a foundational flaw in Protestantism’s sola Scriptura not often dealt with by Protestant scholars and clergymen. In his Institutes he writes, “God bestows the actual knowledge of himself upon us only in the Scriptures.” (18) Yet in the very next chapter, Calvin becomes radically subjective, not seeming to notice the contradiction involved:

Scripture indeed is self-authenticated; hence it is not right to subject it to proof and reasoning . . . Illumined by his power, we believe neither by our own nor by anyone else’s judgment that Scripture is from God . . . We seek no proofs, . . . Such, then, is a conviction that requires no reasons . . . I speak of nothing other than what each believer experiences within himself. (19)

This perspective, if taken to its logical conclusion, would dispose of reason, Christian apologetics, authoritative interpretation by some ecclesiastical body (as opposed to the mere individual under the illumination of the Holy Spirit), and even the nature of the biblical Canon itself. Calvin seems to think that every Christian (that is, the predestined elect) would know what books constituted Scripture even if the Canon had never been authoritatively determined by the Council of Carthage in 397 (this Canon also contained the books which Protestants call the Apocrypha, which they removed from their Bibles). Yet this is clearly not the case. We know from the actual history of the establishment of the Canon that sincere, godly, and learned Christians had great disagreements about what books were biblical, (20) and it is quite unrealistic and fanciful to think that Christians of any period (especially many years later) would be any different.

Calvin’s system, then, is every bit as self-defeating as the Mormon belief, where one “knows” the truth of the Book of Mormon by means of a “burning in the bosom.” He himself constantly employs highly complex reasoning and hermeneutical arguments, and even appeals to Church history, where it suits his purpose. Such a methodology is contrary to the above citation.

Calvin’s extremely influential theological schema (and Protestantism, generally speaking) might be self-consistent once certain axioms are accepted uncritically, and presuppositional flaws overlooked, but when these are examined objectively, the Achilles’ Heel of Protestantism, sola Scriptura, is revealed to be a very weak pillar indeed.

FOOTNOTES (Scripture and Tradition)

0. Oberman, Heiko, The Harvest of Medieval Theology, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, rev. ed., 1967, 366-371; Pelikan, Jaroslav, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition, Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1971, 115-119 (both Lutheran sources).
1. Didache, 4:13. (cf. Deuteronomy 4:2, 12:32).
2. 2nd Letter to the Philippians, 7,2.
3. Against Heresies, 1,10,1-2; 2,9,1; 3,3,4; 4,33,8.
4. Demurrer Against the Heretics, 19,3; 21:2-4; 37,1.
5. Against the Heresy of Noetus, 17.
6. The Fundamental Doctrines, 1, Preface, 2. From Jurgens, William A., ed. and tr., The Faith of the Early Fathers (FEF), 3 volumes, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1970, vol. 1, 190.
7. The Holy Spirit, 27,66.
8. Against Eunomius, Bk. 3 (4).
9. Panacea Against All Heresies, 61,6. Jurgens, FEF, vol. 2, 73.
10. Homilies on 2 Thess 4:2. Jurgens, FEF, vol. 2, 124.
11. Letter to Januarius, 54,1,1.
12. Baptism, 4,24,31.
13. Ibid., 2,7,12. Jurgens, FEF, vol. 3, 66.
14. The Notebooks, 2,2. Jurgens, FEF, vol. 3, 262-263.
15. “Decree Concerning the Canonical Scriptures,” Council of Trent, Session IV, April 8, 1546. All Trent citations are taken from Dogmatic Canons and Decrees, Rockford, IL: TAN Books & Publishers, 1977 (orig. 1912).
16. “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation,” Nov. 18, 1965.
17. From: Grisar, Hartmann, Luther, tr. E.M. Lamond, ed. Luigi Cappadelta, 6 volumes, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1917, vol. 4, 391-392; Von Menschen leren tzu meyden, 1522.
18. Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1559 ed., Book I, ch. 6, sec. 1, emphasis added (this is the title of the section). From tr. of Ford L. Battles, ed. John T. McNeill, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, two volumes, 1960, vol. 1, 69.
19. Ibid., Book I, ch. 7, sec. 5. Battles/McNeill, ibid., vol. 1, 80-81; emphasis added.
20. See, e.g., Westcott, Brooke Foss, A General Survey of the History of the Canon of the New Testament, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1980 (orig. 6th ed., 1889); Bruce, F.F., The Canon of Scripture, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988 (both Protestant sources).


About Rob Brock

A Catholic convert with a fire for discipleship, catechesis, and formation that leads to transformed lives in Christ. View all posts by Rob Brock

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