The idea of sola scriptura is, simply put, that every point of Christian doctrine must be demonstrated to be true, and every practice must be demonstrated to be legitimate, from the holy scriptures in order to be accepted as true and legitimate and binding on Christians.
The logic of this stems from scripture itself: “Test all things; hold fast what is good.” (1 Thess 5:21 NKJV). This command, given to believers in the scriptures themselves, is short yet clear; all things are to be tested, and those which are good we are to hold fast to. When doctrine is presented to us, we must test it, and if it is shown to be good, we must hold fast to it; if a practice is suggested to us we must likewise test, and hold fast to those shown to be good.
What, then, is “good” doctrine? What is “good” practice? Simply, good doctrine is that which is true. Good practice is that which is legitimate and acceptable in God’s eyes. How then, do we know what doctrines are true, and what practices are legitimate?
Second century church father Clement of Alexandria explains well:
“But those who are ready to toil in the most excellent pursuits, will not desist from the search after truth, till they get the demonstration from the Scriptures themselves… He, then, who of himself believes the Scripture and voice of the Lord, which by the Lord acts to the benefiting of men, is rightly [regarded] faithful. Certainly we use it as a criterion in the discovery of things. What is subjected to criticism is not believed till it is so subjected; so that what needs criticism cannot be a first principle. Therefore, as is reasonable, grasping by faith the indemonstrable first principle, and receiving in abundance, from the first principle itself, demonstrations in reference to the first principle, we are by the voice of the Lord trained up to the knowledge of the truth.
For we may not give our adhesion to men on a bare statement by them, who might equally state the opposite. But if it is not enough merely to state the opinion, but if what is stated must be confirmed, we do not wait for the testimony of men, but we establish the matter that is in question by the voice of the Lord, which is the surest of all demonstrations, or rather is the only demonstration; in which knowledge those who have merely tasted the Scriptures are believers; while those who, having advanced further, and become correct expounders of the truth, are Gnostics. Since also, in what pertains to life, craftsmen are superior to ordinary people, and model what is beyond common notions; so, consequently, we also, giving a complete exhibition of the Scriptures from the Scriptures themselves, from faith persuade by demonstration.” (Stromata, Book 7, Chapter 16)
The way by which we as Christians can know that a doctrine is true, or a practice legitimate, then, is by seeing it demonstrated from the holy scriptures, which, as Clement says, are for us a first principle which we as Christians take on faith, as the infallible and inerrant word of God. From this infallible first principle, other knowledge can be safely attained by way of demonstration. The way in which we arrive at a knowledge then of what is good doctrine and practice is by way of demonstration from the scriptures- that which we see proven, we know is good.
We must then see every point of doctrine and every practice proven from the scriptures, in order to know that they are good. To seek demonstration of a given point from the scriptures then is the way which we can “test all things, and hold fast that which is good”. Upon which demonstration, any point of doctrine will appear more to us than mere opinion, but is known with certainty to be true and good; and any practice will no longer appear merely a human invention, but a practice genuinely given by God for His church.
It is worth noting here that what is proven good is to be accepted and held fast to, according to the command of scripture. This is not the same thing as simply saying that that which is proven bad- that which is proven to be false from the scriptures- is to be rejected, for in that case, any opinion which is not disproven might be accepted, even if it also lacks positive proof. What we are commanded to hold fast to is that which we know is good- which is exclusively that which we see proven from the scriptures.
This view has grown very uncommon among most Christian traditions. Even those which hold sola scriptura in name frequently insist that those traditional doctrines their churches teach should be accepted on the basis of tradition, despite lacking positive proof from the scriptures. Yet in the early church, there were more than a few who understood the importance of sola scriptura. Clement of Alexandria has already been mentioned; Cyril of Jerusalem will also bear witness when he says:
“Have thou ever in thy mind this seal, which for the present has been lightly touched in my discourse, by way of summary, but shall be stated, should the Lord permit, to the best of my power with the proof from the Scriptures. 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 thee these things, give not absolute credence, unless thou 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.” (Cyril, Archbishop of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 4)
The view of both Clement and Cyril is clear; a doctrine stated without demonstration from the scriptures, even if given from an ecclesiastical authority, is to be regarded as mere opinion until proven from the scriptures. This is to safeguard believers from, like those in the world, simply building their beliefs off of mere opinions of men, and holding mere plausibilities as truth. “Ingenious reasoning” is not enough- demonstration from the holy scriptures is required, and by this means we “test all things, and hold fast to that which is good”.
What about the command given by the apostle to keep the traditions he had given the church, whether in writing or by spoken word? 2 Thess 2:15 NKJV says “Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.” Is this a contradiction? Is there an oral tradition in the church which scripture tells us to regard as authoritative?
The answer is ‘no’. The command given does not mention a tradition passed down from generation to generation, but the oral and written instruction that first century believers received from the apostles directly. The written part is clear; the oral part, some wish to present as more than it is. But what is actually said here must be admitted to be simply that believers are to regard instructions they receive *from the apostles* as authoritative, whether those be received by writing or by word. After the apostles fell asleep, however, no one in the church is ordinarily receiving instruction from the apostles by any means other than their writings in the holy scriptures. Were we able to learn orally from the apostles, we should for reason of this verse regard what they say as a standard, as we do with the written scriptures; but we do not have their oral instruction today, and so the only ordinary standard we have is the holy scriptures.
From the scriptures we may learn what the apostles taught, and what traditions they handed down. Most are not truly interested in their traditions- “apostolic tradition” is simply an excuse to shoehorn into the Christian faith doctrines and practices which we have no knowledge of being legitimate. From the scriptures we have an actual knowledge of apostolic tradition. But beyond the scriptures, we have no knowledge of it.
Many are inclined to point to the earliest fathers as a source for this oral tradition. However, there is no legitimate grounds for taking what the church fathers say as though it were the words of the apostles. The fathers do not share their authority, and we have no way of knowing the accuracy with which their traditions reflect those taught by the apostles. Reading the church fathers is probably the most profitable exercise one can undertake besides reading the scriptures in a study of Christian doctrine; this is not meant in any way to denigrate the fathers or their teachings- I highly recommend them. But we must be realistic about their limits- their teaching is not infallible, and cannot be made a standard the way scripture can. Scripture is our infallible first principle by which we must test all things- including the teachings of the fathers. Indeed, as we read above, some of them very clearly wanted those who learned from them to test what they said by the scriptures.
The fact is, traditions found recorded in the writings of the fathers, ascribed to the apostles, can only be regarded as mere plausibilities, until they are demonstrated to be apostolic traditions from the scriptures. For even well-intentioned and godly men err; they make honest mistakes, and are not wholly free from sin. They can be deceived, and they can misunderstand. This does not mean we should cast aside their teaching, which is such a valuable resource as a help to understanding the scriptures, as any good teacher is, but we cannot make their teaching into more than it is by treating it as a first principle or rule of faith, when it is rightly neither, but is rather subject to being tested by the holy scriptures.
Having then examined ‘sola scriptura’, and seen it itself demonstrated from the scriptures, let us then examine the role this doctrine played in the trinitarian controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries.
We already saw a quote from Cyril of Jerusalem’s Catechetical Lectures on the topic. Cyril is a noteworthy fourth-century bishop, whose theology is marked by a clear commitment to scripture as its source, which is reflected in how biblical the doctrines he teaches are. His lectures on the persons of the Trinity are among the best treatments of the Trinity we have from this era. Avoiding the extra-biblical speculation that marked both the Arian and Homoousian camps during the Arian controversy, Cyril’s lectures both reject Arianism and Sabellianism, clearly, and biblically, without needing to bring the extra-biblical language of ‘ousia’ into the discussion at all. His beliefs on the Trinity can be summed up:
“There is One God, the Father, Lord of the Old and of the New Testament: and One Lord, Jesus Christ, who was prophesied of in the Old Testament, and came in the New; and One Holy Ghost, who through the Prophets preached of Christ, and when Christ was come, descended, and manifested Him.” On the Article, And In One Holy Ghost, the Comforter, Which Spake In the Prophets. (Lecture XVI)
Cyril’s commitment to sola scriptura can be seen again in Lecture 16, when he says, speaking of the Holy Spirit “And it is enough for us to know these things; but inquire not curiously into His nature or substance : for had it been written, we would have spoken of it; what is not written, let us not venture on; it is sufficient for our salvation to know, that there is Father, and Son, and Holy Ghost.”
Thus Cyril’s basic approach to the intense controversies of his time can be seen; rather than siding with one side or the other in “ingenious reasonings”, he insists on sticking to “demonstration from the scriptures”, and purposefully avoids going beyond the scriptures. Thus questions of the Spirit’s metaphysical substance are not to be entertained, because scripture does not treat the subject.
Cyril’s methods, of avoiding unscriptural language, and attempting to stick closely to what could be demonstrated from scripture without going beyond it, were shared by others as well.
The ‘Homoians’ were a party that came to prominence in the late 350s. They sought to resolve the Nicene controversy by returning to scriptural language and leaving the metaphysical speculation that had both caused the controversy, and characterized the major parties in it. Rather than insisting on a dogmatic assertion of the Son’s metaphysical essence in relation to that of the Father, the Homoian position advocated sticking to scriptural language about the person of the Trinity. Thus rather than using “homoousias” or “Homoiousias” they advocated simply “homoi” (like) from which they took their name. Their confession was a simple and unoffending one- that the Son is “like the Father according to the scriptures”. This embraces the scriptural teaching that the Son, as a distinct individual from the Father (Who is the one God) is the ‘brightness of the Father’s glory’, the ‘exact representation of His person’, and ‘the image of Him, the invisible God’, without getting into questions of metaphysics.
On the subject of “ousia”, the Homoian position was articulated thus:
“But the name of ‘essence,’ which was set down by the Fathers in simplicity, and, being unknown by the people, caused offense, because the Scriptures do not contain it, it has seemed good to abolish, and for the future to make no mention of it at all; since the divine scriptures have made no mention of the essence of Father and Son. For neither ought ‘subsistence’ to be named concerning Father, Son and Holy Ghost. But we say that the Son is like the Father, as the divine Scriptures say and teach; and all the heresies, both those which have been already condemned, and whatever are of modern date, being contrary to this published statement, be they anathema.” (Creed of Constantinople, 360)
Old heresies, like Arianism, were still anathematized. But the decision of Nicea to include ‘homoousias’ in the Creed was regarded as a mistake, as going beyond scriptural revelation. This exceeding of scriptural revelation was the cause of the doctrinal controversies of the fourth century; the way to heal them, it was felt, was to return to a strictly scriptural doctrine of the Trinity.
But the Homoians were not merely an obscure party in the Nicene controversy. Their position gained imperial favor, and in 359, became the official position of all the churches in the Roman empire, and beyond. The emperor, setting about to resolve the ongoing doctrinal disputes surrounding the Trinity which had only grown more intense after Nicea, sought to call a second ecumenical council to end the controversy and bring the whole church to agreement. In order to make this practically easier, the council was to be held in two locations, one in the West at Arminium, and one in the East at Seleucia.
The second ecumenical council, then, met in the joint sessions of Arminium and Selucia in 359. It is reported that over 400 bishops attended the western council. The details of the council are obscure; most of the reports of it we have are from the standpoint of extreme hostility to the Homoian confession, after the Homoousians gained ascendency in 381. Such reports regard the councils as secretly Arian, and all Homoians as Arians in disguise; not because of actual evidence that suggests the Homoian confession was an insincere cover for Arianism, but because the polemic of the homoousians was to slander every opposing viewpoint as Arian in an attempt to discredit them. That the Homoian creed left Arianism anathematized gives firm enough evidence for any moderately fair-minded observer to understand that the Homoians were not Arians, and the Councils of Arminium and Seleucia were no Arian victory.
For some time, these councils provided a greater degree of peace to the churches. For almost 20 years this remained ‘the second ecumenical council’ and its creed, with its rescinding of the Nicene ‘homoousias’, remained the official doctrine of the whole church. The churches among the Gothic tribes also subscribed to this Creed; bishop Ulfilias was present at the Council of Constantinople in 360 when the Homoian Creed was officially ratified.
That the church agreed to this confession is significant. For a time, at least, the church was officially committed to a position resembling sola scriptura.
After the Council of Constantinople sought to invalidate and replace the councils of Arminium and Seleucia as the next ‘second ecumenical council’ in 381, making the homoousian confession in the form a modified Nicene Creed the dogma of all the churches within the Roman Empire, the Homoians did not simply disappear. When they were kicked out of the churches, and their bishops banned from their offices to be replaced by homoousians, they continued meeting in private.
Outside the Roman Empire the Homoians did not need to hide, however. The Gothic and vandal churches were still committed to the confession ratified at Arminium; as time passed and distance grew between the semi-modalism of the Latin homoousians and the Homoian faith of the barbarian churches, the homoousian position would become known to them at the “Roman Religion”, while they continued to see themselves as holding “the catholic faith” (E.A. Thompson, The Goths in Spain (Oxford, 1969), 40).
As to the view of the Homoians on sola scriptura, we have a debate between a Homoian bishop named Maximinus, and Augustine of Hippo, which shows quite well the Homoian commitment to sola scriptura. Maximinus’s statements give us quite a bit of detail. He said:
“If you produce from the divine scriptures something that we all share, we shall have to listen. But those words which are not found in the scriptures are under no circumstance accepted by us, especially since the Lord warns us, saying, In vain they worship me, teaching human commandments and precepts” (Mt 15:9).”
“I wanted the decree of the Council of Ariminum to be present, not to excuse myself, but to show the authority of those fathers who handed on to us in accord with the divine scriptures the faith which they learned from the divine scriptures.”
“My reply is clear: I believe that there is one God the Father who has received life from no one and that there is one Son who has received from the Father his being and his life so that he exists and that there is one Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, who enlightens and sanctifies our souls. I state this on the basis of the scriptures. At your bidding, I will follow up with testimonies.”
“The authors of religion never resort to false accusations. You asked for testimonies in order that I might show by testimonies what I have professed, and you yourself have professed three that are the same and equal, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. And, though you professed that the three are equal, you now turn around and produce the testimony of the divine scriptures that pertains not to their equality, but to the singleness of the omnipotent God, that there is one author of all things.†28 You take precedence by your age and have greater authority; hence, go first and show by testimonies that there are three equals, three omnipotents, three unbegottens, three invisibles, three incomprehensibles. Then we would have to yield to these testimonies. But if you cannot give an account of this from the divine scriptures, then I must produce testimonies to the extent that you want for everything I have said in the foregoing: either that the Father alone receives his life from no one or that the Son†29 has received his life from the Father, as I have professed, or what I have said of the Holy Spirit.”
“You yourself are caught doing what you blamed in us. It is certain, as the divine scripture warns us, that with much talking you will not escape sin, but that you will be wise, if you spare your lips. Even if one produces testimonies from the divine scriptures all day long, it will not be truly counted against one as wordiness. But if one uses some literary skill or cleverness of mind and makes up words which the holy scriptures do not contain, they are both idle and superfluous.”
“Hear†57 him as he cries out, speaking of the invisibility of the omnipotent God, that no one has ever seen God; the only-begotten Son who is in the embrace of the Father has revealed him (Jn 1:18). Instructed by this, Paul cries out and says, The blessed and alone powerful, the King of kings and the Lord of lords, who alone has immortality and dwells in inaccessible light. No human has seen or can see him; to him be honor and power forever. Amen (1 Tm 6:15-16). Again he says of him, To God who alone is wise, through Jesus Christ, to him be glory forever. Amen (Rom 16:27). And so, we speak of one God, because there is one God above all, unborn, unmade, as we went on to say.†58 But if you do not believe Paul when he calls the Son born, the firstborn of all creation, at least believe the Son when he speaks to Pilate who asked him, Are you then a king? Christ says, For this was I born (Jn 18:37). I read born; I profess what I read. I read firstborn; I do not disbelieve.†59 I read only-begotten; even if I am tortured on the rack, I will not say otherwise. I profess what the holy scriptures teach us.”
“Those who read can test whether I made this point on my own authority and with many words, as you charge, or whether I have answered with the authority of the divine scriptures.”
““You say that the Holy Spirit is equal to the Son.†91 Provide the scripture passages in which the Holy Spirit is adored, in which those beings in heaven and on earth and under the earth bend their knee to him. We have learned that God the Father is to be adored from the exclamation of blessed Paul, Therefore, I bend my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom all fatherhood in the heavens and on earth has its name (Eph 3:14-15). By the authority of the holy scriptures we adore the Father; likewise, taught by these divine scriptures we worship and adore Christ as God. Do the scriptures anywhere say that the Holy Spirit should be adored? If the Father bore witness to him to that effect, if the Son did so, if he himself has made such claims concerning himself, read it from the scriptures against what we have said.”
“We believe the scriptures, and we venerate the divine scriptures. We do not want a single particle of a letter to perish, for we fear the threat that is stated in these divine scriptures, Woe to those who take away or add! (Dt 4:2).”
“We ought to accept all the things that are brought forth from the holy scriptures with full veneration. The divine scripture has not come as a source of our instruction so that we might correct it. How I wish that we may prove to be worthy disciples of the scriptures!”
“I pray and desire to be a disciple of the divine scriptures; I believe that Your Holiness recalls that I earlier gave the response that, if you produced the evidence that the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit have one power, one substance, one deity, one majesty, one glory, that, if you state this from the divine scriptures, if you produce any passage of scripture, we are eager to be found disciples of the divine scriptures.”
From these quotes, Homoian reliance on the scriptures, and the insistence that systematized doctrine should not exceed the scripture, can be seen clearly.
Once the Homoian position fell out of favor and was replaced by the homoousian position, however, sola scriptura seems to have been abandoned by the churches in the Roman Empire. The rejection of Homoian theology and the Homoian creeds, and the ongoing association of sola scriptura with the Homoians, led to the Roman churches to seemingly entirely abandon sola scriptura and instead place a newfound emphasis on tradition and ecclesiastical authority.
For instance, rather than, like Cyril of Jerusalem and the Homoians, leaving the Holy Spirit’s substance in the realm of mystery as something not spoken of in scripture, the churches embraced the position of Basil of Caesarea, which affirmed the co-essentiality of the Holy Spirit, and the need to worship the Spirit- not on the basis of scripture alone, but “ingenious reasoning” and appeals to tradition, as Basil famously appealed to the traditional benedictions and doxologies as support for the worship of the Holy Spirit in the apparent absence of sufficient scriptural data.
It is interesting then to note that there was indeed significant support for a ‘sola scriptura’ approach to the doctrine of the Trinity in the fourth and fifth centuries. Sola scriptura is so far from being a novel doctrine of Protestantism that it was effectively the official position of the churches for nearly 20 years in the fourth century. Prior to that, and after that, testimony is mixed of course. But from scripture itself, and plain reasoning, we may understand both the importance of sola scriptura, and its application to our understanding of the Trinity, with the Homoians of old giving us a useful though imperfect pattern of what an understanding of the Trinity built upon the foundation of ‘sola scriptura’ looks like. Once the Protestant reformation did come, and with it a return to sola scriptura, there was a revival of Homoian views, including in the church of England among such men as Sir Isaac Newton and Samuel Clarke.