The early church fathers express a wide range of views on many topics. Issues of authority and how doctrine was to be determined valid, and the role of scripture, like other topics, saw a variety of views. While not necessarily ubiquitous throughout the early church fathers, several fathers ranging from the ante-nicene through post-nicene eras spoke in favor of what is basically ‘sola scriptura’.
They did not, of course, speak of it by that name. In short, for them, it was the principle that in order for doctrines to be established as true, they must be demonstrated from the scriptures. This idea of demonstration is simply that a given doctrinal proposition must be proven from the scriptures, either by way of an explicit testimony, or else as a necessary deduction from them, in order to be accepted by Christians as true. That it come from an esteemed person or an ecclesiastical authority is not enough- it must be demonstrated from the scriptures, these fathers argued.
The first father worth mentioning here will probably come as a surprise in this list to many, Irenaeus of Lyons, because one of the things he is enduringly remembered for is articulating a view called ‘apostolic succession’, which is often appealed to as an alternative to sola scriptura. Certainly to say that Irenaeus believed sola scriptura would be false- but he is worth mentioning here, because even as the father perhaps best known for extolling the importance of ecclesiastical tradition in determining true doctrine from false, yet he also took the effort to write an excellent work, Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, in which sets out to prove what the apostles taught from the scriptures. He relies on oral ecclesiastical tradition as his source for what the apostles preached- but then sets out to painstakingly demonstrate each point of what they taught from the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.
This is noteworthy, because it shows the great value that Irenaeus placed on scripture, and the importance he saw in actually proving the church’s traditions from the scriptures. Were the church alone without the scriptures sufficient to establish the truth of the apostles’ doctrines, one would not expect anyone to bother taking the trouble to go about proving that the various points of doctrine they taught can be demonstrated to be true from the holy scriptures- yet Irenaeus did just that. This shows us that even while Irenaeus held a very high view of the church and her tradition, even he saw it as of great importance to show people that the church’s faith can be known to be true on the basis of demonstration from the scriptures.
The next father we come to is Clement of Alexandria. In Clement of Alexandria’s Stromata, Clement takes up the theme of the ‘true gnostic’. The heresies in modern history known as “Gnosticism” were among the greatest threats that faced the church of his day. The Gnostic heretics claimed that by following the teaching of their various sects, people could gain hidden knowledge of the truth. The selling point of these heresies was that in order to have knowledge of the truth, one must leave the church and go to heretics to receive special esoteric knowledge handed down to them by the apostles. Knowledge of the truth then, was not, according to them, available to all Christians.
Clement responded brilliantly to this by arguing that the true ‘gnostic’ (knower, possessor of knowledge) was the faithful Christian, who gains a true and certain knowledge of the truth by way of demonstration from the scriptures, not those who joined various sects hoping to gain esoteric knowledge. Clement wrote, in Book 7, Chapter 16:
“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)
This excellent quote sums up the patristic doctrine of sola scriptura. It is not a doctrine that denies all ecclesiastical authority; it is not a doctrine that disvalues ecclesiastical traditions and teachers as aids; but it is a true and logically irrefragable principle, that we must be trained in a knowledge of the truth by the voice of the Lord in the scriptures, by seeing all doctrines we hold demonstrated from the holy scriptures. We cannot safely accept any opinion as true merely on human testimony; we must have it from God, in the holy scriptures. This way alone can an actual knowledge of the truth be ordinarily obtained, rather than merely holding uncertain opinions and theories.
Clement of Alexandria’s principle of sola scriptura was not novel to him alone (although it does not seem to have been universally held, either). Cyril of Jerusalem also witnessed to this same principle in the fourth century. His excellent catechetical lectures, which should be required reading for any student of theology or church history, bear several references to this same principle:
“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)
“For my part, I have ever wondered at the curiosity of the bold men, who by their imagined reverence fall into impiety. For though they know nothing of Thrones, and Dominions, and Principalities, and Powers, the workmanship of Christ, they attempt to scrutinise their Creator Himself. Tell me first, O most daring man, wherein does Throne differ from Dominion, and then scrutinise what pertains to Christ. Tell me what is a Principality, and what a Power, and what a Virtue, and what an Angel: and then search out their Creator, for all things were made by Him. John 1:3 But you will not, or you can not ask Thrones or Dominions. What else is there that knows the deep things of God 1 Corinthians 2:10-11 , save only the Holy Ghost, who spoke the Divine Scriptures? But not even the Holy Ghost Himself has spoken in the Scriptures concerning the generation of the Son from the Father. Why then do you busy yourself about things which not even the Holy Ghost has written in the Scriptures? Thou that know not the things which are written, busiest you yourself about the things which are not written? There are many questions in the Divine Scriptures; what is written we comprehend not, why do we busy ourselves about what is not written? It is sufficient for us to know that God has begotten One Only Son.” (Lecture 11)
“Neither today will we use the subtleties of men, for that is unprofitable; but merely call to mind what comes from the divine Scriptures; for this is the safest course, according to the blessed Apostle Paul, who says, Which things also we speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches, but which the Holy Ghost teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual. ” (Lecture 17)
“And it is enough for us to know these things; but inquire not curiously into His [the Holy Spirit’s] 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.” (Lecture 16)
Throughout his lectures, Cyril urges his students to test what they hear from ecclesiastical authority by scripture, and accept only what they see demonstrated to be true from it. Likewise, his lectures are replete with admonitions for his hearers to limit themselves strictly to what God has revealed in the holy scriptures, without going beyond it. Only what is demonstrated from scripture is known- therefore, one must limit themselves to those doctrines they see demonstrated.
Cyril taught this in the midst of the raging trinitarian controversies of the fourth century. In that context, he gave clear evidence of his consistency to these principles by refraining from teaching at all on the ‘ousia’ of the Son in relation to the Father, and the nature of the Holy Spirit, instead merely limiting his teaching to his students to what could truly be demonstrated from the scriptures.
Finally, we come to Maximinus the Homoian in the post-nicene era. In the fifth century, bishop Maximinus publicly debated Augustine of Hippo respecting their differing understandings of the Trinity. Throughout the debate, Maximinus constantly appeals to the scriptures as the determinative source of Christian doctrine, rather than philosophical conjectures. As a Homoian, Maximinus’s position seems characteristic of the outlook of the churches among the Vandals and Goths in general; Christian doctrine must be strictly limited to what can be known to be true by way of demonstration from the scriptures. For this reason, the doctrine of the co-essentiality of the Son and Holy Spirit with the Father was deemed to be inappropriate as a part of the Christian dogma- it was a theory which could not, in their view, be demonstrated true from the Holy Scriptures.
These churches held to the decision of the ecumenical councils of Arminium and Seleucia, which declared that:
“the word ‘substance,’ which was too simply inserted by the Fathers, and, not being understood by the people, was a cause of scandal through its not being found in the Scriptures, it has seemed good to us to remove, and that for the future no mention whatever be permitted of the ‘substance’ of the Father and the Son. Nor must one ‘essence’ be named in relation to the person of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. And we call the Son like the Father, as the Holy Scriptures call Him and teach”
Maximinus echoes this insistence on sticking to what can be demonstrated from the scriptures, and not going beyond that, throughout the debate:
“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.”
“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.”
Doctrinal truth, for Maximinus, was to be found in the holy scriptures. Anything not demonstrated from the scriptures, could not be considered to be known, but merely an opinion, and unworthy of being counted a part of Christian dogma.
It is noteworthy, in all these examples, that Clement, Cyril, and Maximinus all had doctrine in view when they spoke of ‘sola scriptura’, and insisted on the Christian principle that all things must be positively demonstrated from the scriptures in order to be accepted as true. In respect to practices, rites, and ceremonies, there is no evidence that these fathers took the same view. There seems to be things in the lectures of Cyril, at least, which would indicate that he was willing to accept various practices on the basis of tradition alone. But doctrine was to demonstrated strictly from the scriptures, and was not to be accepted otherwise.
Such a distinction in principle respecting doctrine compared to practice may have appeared to make more sense in that ancient era. The churches were still relatively close to the apostles, and there may have been greater hope of traditions genuinely reflecting apostolic practice than later eras would have. Regardless of what these fathers thought one way or the other, ordinarily the only way to know with certainty that a given practice is really an apostolic tradition, is to see that demonstrated from the scriptures.
However it is also simply possible that, as many Protestants believe today and since the Reformation, practices were considered by these fathers to fall within the specific purview of the church, and thus, since the church has liberty in such matters, demonstration of specific rites and practices was not considered necessary, as it was with doctrine. Rites, ceremonies, and practices, after all, deal with what is permissible in the life of the church; doctrine deals with what is true and believed by the church. These two different questions, of what is permissible in practice, versus what is true in doctrine, have often been treated as distinct within Protestantism, and there is no reason to think these church fathers were any different, adopting the rites and ceremonies of their times and the churches they were in, while insisting that doctrinal truth required not merely church sanction, but demonstration from the scriptures, so that what is believed can be known to be true, rather than merely supposed.
The doctrine of sola scriptura, then, is certainly no Protestant invention. It is a necessary principle, and one taught by several notable fathers of the ancient churches, that every point of doctrine must be demonstrated to be true from the holy scriptures in order to be accepted. Our beliefs must not, like those of the world, be founded on mere opinion and speculation, but on knowledge; we must be ‘true gnostics’, knowing the truth with certainty because we have seen it demonstrated from the infallible and inspired holy scriptures, and have so been taught it by the Lord Himself.
EDIT 9-18-18: Hippolytus also provides another witness to sola scriptura:
“There is, brethren, one God, the knowledge of whom we gain from the Holy Scriptures, and from no other source. For just as a man, if he wishes to be skilled in the wisdom of this world, will find himself unable to get at it in any other way than by mastering the dogmas of philosophers, so all of us who wish to practise piety will be unable to learn its practice from any other quarter than the oracles of God. Whatever things, then, the Holy Scriptures declare, at these let us look; and whatsoever things they teach, these let us learn; and as the Father wills our belief to be, let us believe; and as He wills the Son to be glorified, let us glorify Him; and as He wills the Holy Spirit to be bestowed, let us receive Him. Not according to our own will, nor according to our own mind, nor yet as using violently those things which are given by God, but even as He has chosen to teach them by the Holy Scriptures, so let us discern them.” (Against the Heresy of One Noetus)