The Introduction of Samuel Clarke’s ‘The Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity’

I have for some years now desired to write a book on the doctrine of the Trinity; but when I read Samuel Clarke’s work, the Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity, I was so impressed both by the quality of the work itself, and the similarity of my own views with those of Clarke, that I thought I may not need to write a work of my own at all, but simply recommend his work to others for the same basic purpose. Small differences between our views, and the desire to treat aspects of the subject in addition to those which Clarke addresses, and Clarke’s inclusion of extensive sections of the book which, while important to the Church of England in his day, bear little immediate relevance to the churches of the twenty-first century, continue to provide sufficient motivation for me to still aspire to write in the future. I continue, however, to strongly recommend Clarke’s work above any other written in the last millennia and a half, as the best book I am aware of written on the Trinity within the last fifteen-hundred years.

Samuel Clarke’s Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity is an excellent work, one which is not only largely unknown, but also in some respects inaccessible to most modern Christians. The text of the book itself, scanned from very old editions, my be readily found online, free to read, and is searchable in such format. However, the mode of expression and style of the print make it a difficult (although worthwhile) read for modern students. The old font used in the scanned editions makes the letter ‘S’ appear much more like the letter ‘F’ than most modern readers are used to, making the work as a whole slow and difficult to read for those accustomed only to modern English fonts.

I have therefore set out to update the style and language of the original work here on Contra Modalism, in an effort to make this work more widely accessible to those interested. The main alterations are an updated font, and the removal of the very frequent use of capitalization and italics, in order to make the book appear in a style more comfortable for modern readers. This removes the added emphasis these provide in the original, but make it much simpler for modern readers. If the details of a specific passage are in question, the passages should be kept in mind, and the scanned originals available on the web referred to, so that any special emphasis provided by such things may be taken note of by the reader. For simplicity, the extensive parallel columns of the Greek and Latin of quotations in the original are left out here; anyone wishing to see the Greek or Latin basis for Clarke’s quotations is referred to the scans of the original work available on the web. I have inserted the citations for such quotations into the English text, where they were only present in the Greek or Latin column.

The content of Clarke’s work combines at once careful exegesis of scripture with an equally careful handling of relevant patristic data, making this book highly useful for all Christians, and of special interest to those who are interested in the teaching of church fathers as they relate to the doctrine of the Trinity. Those who follow this blog will find Clarke’s views closely aligned with my own, although there is not perfect agreement between our views, as is to be expected. The points of disagreement are generally quite minor, enough so that I would happily profess myself to hold the same general view as Clarke, with only a few areas wherein our views differ on details. This work has been a great help to me, and I hope it will be for others as well. My hope is that this work will abound to the glory of God and His Son, and for the good of His people.

The Introduction.

     As, in matters of speculation and philosophical inquiry, the only judge of what is right or wrong, is reason and experience; so in matters either of human testimony or divine Revelation, the only certain rule of truth is the testimony or the revelation itself.

The Christian revelation, is the doctrine of Christ and his apostles; that is, the will of God made known to mankind by Christ, and by those whom Christ instructed with infallible authority to teach it. For the right apprehending of which doctrine, men are (as in other matters of the greatest importance to them) sincerely to make use of their best understanding; and, in order thereunto, to take in all the helps they can find, either from living instructors or ancient writers: But this, only as a means to assist and clear up their own understanding, not to over-rule it; as a means to afford them light to see what Christ has taught them, not to prejudice them with supposing that Christ has taught any thing, which, after the strictest inquiry and most careful examination, they cannot find to be delivered in his doctrine.

If in all things absolutely necessary to be believed and practiced in order to salvation, the revelation of Christ was not itself so clear, as that every sincere person, using the best helps and assistances he can meet with, could sufficiently understand it; it would follow, that God had not at all made sufficient provision for the salvation of men. For the doctrine of Christ and his apostles being the only foundation we have to go upon, and no man since pretending to have had any new revelation; ’tis evident there can never possibly be any authority upon upon earth, sufficient to oblige any man to receive any thing as of divine revelation, which it cannot make appear to that man’s own understanding (sincerely studying and inquiring after the truth,) to be included in that revelation. For if any man can by any external authority be bound to believe any thing to be the doctrine of Christ, which at the same time his best understanding necessitates him to believe is not that doctrine; he is unavoidably under the absurdity of being obliged to obey two contrary masters, and to follow two inconsistent rules at once. The only Rule of Faith therefore to every Christian, is the doctrine of Christ; and that doctrine, as applied to him by his own understanding. In which matter, to preserve his understanding from erring, he is obliged indeed, at his utmost peril, to lay aside all vice and prejudice, and to make use of the best assistances he can procure: but after he has done all that can be done, he must of necessity at last understand with his own understanding, and believe with his own, not another’s, faith. For (whatever has sometimes been absurdly pretended to the contrary,) ’tis evidently as impossible in nature, that in these things any one person should submit himself to another, as that one man should see or taste, should live or breathe for another.

Wherefore in every inquiry, doubt, question or controversy concerning religion, every man that is solicitous to avoid erring, is obliged to have recourse (according to the best of his capacity) to the rule itself, to the original revelation. Using (as is before said) all the helps and assistances he can obtain; but still taking care to use them, only as helps and assistances; not confounding and blending them with the rule itself. Where that rule is to be found by every sincere Christian, is very evident. Whatever our Lord himself taught, (because his miracles proved his divine authority,) was infallibly true, and to us (in matters of religion) the rule of truth. Whatever his apostles preached, (because they were inspired by the same Spirit, and proved their commission by the like testimony of miracles,) was likewise a part of the rule of truth. Whatever the apostles wrote, (because they wrote under the direction of the same Spirit by which they preached,) was in like manner a part of the rule of truth. Now in the Books of the Scripture is conveyed down to us the sum of what our Savior taught, and of what the apostles preached and wrote: and were there as good evidence, by any certain means of tradition whatsoever, of any other things taught by Christ or his apostles, as there is for those delivered down to us in these writings; it could not be denied but that such tradition would be of the same authority, and in every respect as much a part of the rule of truth, as scripture itself. But since there is no such tradition (and indeed in the nature of things there can be no such tradition) at this distance of time;  therefore the Books of Scripture are to us now not only the rule, but the whole and the only rule of truth in matters of religion.

This notion is well expressed by Irenaeus: “We have not [saith he] been taught the method of our salvation by any others, than by those from whom the Gospel itself was delivered to us: which the apostles, at first, preached; and afterwards, by the will of God, delivered down to us in writing, that it might be the foundation and pillar of our faith. And it is impious to imagine, that they preached before they had perfect knowledge of what they were to deliver; as some, who boast themselves to be the amenders of the apostles doctrine, have presumed to affirm. For after our Lord was risen from the dead, and they were indued by the Holy Spirit with power from on high; they were fully instructed, and had perfect knowledge in all things; and went forth into the ends of the world, declaring the good things which God hath provided for us, and preaching peace from heaven unto men; having all and each of them the Gospel of God. Thus Matthew set forth the Gospel in Writing, etc.”

Nevertheless, though the whole Scripture us the rule of truth; and whatever is there delivered, is infallibly true; yet because there is contained in those writings great variety of things, and many occasional doctrines and decisions of controversies, which though all equally true, yet are not all equally necessary to be known and understood by all Christians of all capacities; therefore the church from the beginning, has out of scripture selected those plain fundamental doctrines, which were delivered as of necessity to be known and understood by all Christians whatsoever. And these, all persons were taught in their Baptismal Creed: Which was therefore usually called, the rule of faith: not that itself was of any authority, any otherwise than as it expressed the sense of scripture; but that it was agreed to be such an extract of the rule of truth, as contained all the things immediately, fundamentally, and universally necessary to be understood and believed distinctly by every Christian.

As in process of time men grew less pious, and more contentious; so in the several churches, they enlarged their creeds, and confessions of faith; and grew more minute, in determining unnecessary controversies; and made more and more things explicitly understood; and (under pretense of explaining authoritatively,) imposed things much harder to be understood than the scripture itself; and became more uncharitable in their censures; and the farther they departed from the fountain of catholic unity, the apostolical form of sound words, the more uncertain and unintelligible their definitions grew; and good men found no where to rest the sole of their foot, but in having recourse to the original words of Christ himself and of the Spirit of Truth, in which the Wisdom of God had thought fit to express itself.

For, matters of speculation indeed, of philosophy, or art; things of human invention, experience, or disquisition; improve generally from small beginnings, to greater and greater certainty, and arrive at perfection by degrees: but matters of revelation and divine testimony, are on the contrary complete at first; and Christian Religion, was most perfect at the beginning; and the words of God, are most proper significations of his will, and adequate expressions of his own intention; and the forms of worship set down in scripture, by way of either precept or example, are the best and most unexceptionable manner of serving him.

In the days of the apostles, therefore, Christianity was perfect; and continued for some ages, in a tolerable simplicity and purity of faith and manners; supported by singular holiness of life, by charity in matters of form and opinions, and by the extraordinary guidance of the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Peace, Holiness and Love. But needless contentions, soon began to arise; and faith became more intricate; and charity diminished; and human authority and temporal power increased; and the regards of this life grew greater, and of the next life less; and religion decayed continually more and more, till at last (according to the predictions of the apostles) is was swallowed up in apostasy. Out of which, it began to recover at the reformation; when the doctrine of Christ and his apostles was . again declared to be the only rule of truth, in which were clearly contained all things necessary to faith and manners. And had that declaration constantly been adhered to, and human authority in matters of faith been disclaimed in deeds as well as words; there had been, possibly, no more schism in the church of God; nor divisions, of any considerable moment, among Protestants.

But although contentions and uncharitableness have prevailed in practice, yet (thanks be to God) the Root of Unity has continued amongst us; and the Scripture hath universally been declared to be the only rule of truth, a sufficient guide both in faith and practice; and those who differ in opinion, have done so only because each party has thought their own opinion founded in Scripture; and men are required to receive things for no other cause and upon no other authority, than because they are found (and consequently in no other sense than wherein they are found) in the Holy Scriptures. Wherefore in any question of controversies in a matter of faith, Protestants are obliged (for the deciding of it) to have recourse to no other authority whatsoever, but to that of the Scripture only.

The incomparable Arch-Bishop Tillotson, has made this sufficiently appear, in his Rule of Faith; particularly, Part I, Sect. 3; and Part IV, Sect. 2.

And the very learned and judicious Bp Wake: “I choose rather [saith he in the Name of ever Christian,] to regulate my faith by what God hath delivered, than by what man hath defined.” Comment. on Ch. Catech. pag. 21.

And the excellent Mr Chillingsworth: “By the religion of Protestants [saith he,] I do not understand the doctrine of Luther, or Calvin, or Melancthon; nor the Confession of Augusta, or Geneva; nor the Catechism of Heidelberg; nor the Articles of the Church of England; no, nor the harmony of Protestant Confessions: but that wherein they all subscribe with a greater harmony, as a perfect rule of their faith and actions; that is, the Bible. The Bible, I say, the Bible only, is the religion of Protestants. Whatsoever else they believe besides it, and the plain, irrefragable, indubitable consequences of it; well may they hold it as a matter of opinion: but as matter of faith and religion, neither can they, with coherence to their own grounds, believe it themselves; nor require the belief of it of others, without most high and most schismatical presumption. I, for my part, after a long and (as I verily believe and hope) impartial search of the true way to eternal happiness, do profess plainly, that I cannot find any rest for the sole of my foot, but upon this Rock only. I see plainly and with mine own eyes, that there are Popes against Popes, Councils against Councils, some fathers against others, the same fathers against themselves, a consent of fathers of one age against a consent of fathers of another age against the church of another age. Traditive interpretations of Scripture are pretended, but there are few or none to be found. No tradition, but only of Scripture, can derive itself from the fountain; but may be plainly proved, either to have been brought in, in such an age after Christ; or, that in such an age it was not in. In a word, there is no sufficient certainty but of Scripture only, for any considering man to build upon. This therefore, and this only, I have reason to believe: this I will profess; according to this, I will live; and for this, if there be occasion, I will not only willingly, but even gladly lose my life; though I should be sorry that Christians should take it from me. Propose me any thing out of this book, and require whether I believe it or no; and seem it never so incomprehensible to human reason, I will subscribe to it hand and heart: as knowing no demonstration can be stronger than this; God hath said so, therefore it is true. In other things, I will take no mans liberty of judgement from him; neither shall any man take mine from me. I will think no man the worse man, nor the worse Christian: I will love no man the less, for differing in opinion from me. And what measure I mete to others, I expect from them again. I am fully assured that God does not, and therefore that men ought not, to require any more of any an than this; to believe the Scripture to be God’s word, to endeavor to find the true sense of it, and to live according to it.” Ch. 6. S 56.

In the Statutes given by Queen Elizabeth of glorious memory, to Trinity-College in the University of Cambridge, the following oath is appointed to be taken by every fellow in the chapel, before his admission. “I, N. N. do swear and promise in the presence of God, that I will heartily and steadfastly adhere to the true religion of Christ, and will prefer the authority of Holy Scripture before the opinions of men; that I will make the Word of God the rule of my faith and practice, and look upon other things, which are not proved out of the Word of God, as human only; —- that I will readily and with all my power oppose doctrines contrary to the Word of God; that, in matters of religion, I will prefer truth before custom, what is written before what is not written; etc”

And, in the same university, ever Doctor of Divinity, at his taking that degree, does [profiteri in Theologia] make his profession in the following words: “In the Name of God, Amen: I A. B. do from my heart receive the whole sacred Canonical Scriptures of the old and new Testament: And do hold, or reject, all that the True, Holy, and Apostolical Church of Christ, subject to the Word of God, and being governed by it, holds or rejects: And in this profession I will persevere to my lives end, God of his great mercy giving me grace, through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

And every Priest at his ordination, (and Bishop at his consecration,) being solemnly asked, “Are you persuaded that the holy Scriptures contain sufficiently all doctrine required of necessity to eternal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ? And are you determined out of the same holy Scriptures to instruct the people committed to your charge, and to teach (or maintain) nothing as required of necessity to eternal salvation, but that which you shall be persuaded may be concluded and proved by the Scripture?” answers in the following words; “I am so persuaded, and have so determined by God’s grace.”

And the whole church, in the 6th, the 20th, and the 21st Articles, declares; that “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation; So that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an Article of the Faith, or be though requisite or necessary to salvation: That it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s word written; neither may it so expound one place of scripture, that it be repugnant to another: wherefore, although the church be a witness and a keeper of Holy Writ, yet as it ought not to decree any thing against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce any thing to be believed for necessity of salvation: that even general councils, —- [forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and the Word of God,] may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God: Wherefore things ordained by them, as necessary to salvation, have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of Holy Scripture.”

To apply this general doctrine (which is the whole foundation of the Protestant and of the Christian Religion,) to the controversies which have been raised in particular, with great animosity and uncharitableness, concerning the manner of explaining the doctrine of the ever-blessed Trinity; I have in the first part of the following treatise, (that it might appear what was, not the sound of single texts which may easily be mistaken, but the whole tenour of the Scripture,) collected all the texts that relate to that matter, (which I am not sensible has been done before,) and set them before the reader in one view, with such references and critical observations, as may (’tis hoped) be of considerable use towards the understanding of their true meaning.

In the second part, is collected into methodological propositions the sum of doctrine, which (upon the carefullest consideration of the whole matter) appears to me to be fully contained in the texts cited in the first part. And I have illustrated each proposition with many testimonies out of the ancient writers, both before and after the Council of Nice; especially out of Athanasius and Basil; of which, are several not taken notice of either by Petavius or the learned Bp Bull. Concerning all which, I desire it may be observed, that they are not alleged as proofs of any propositions, (for proofs are to be taken from the Scripture alone,) but as illustrations only; and to show how easy and natural that notion must be allowed to be, which so many writers could not forbear expressing so clearly and distinctly, even frequently when at the time they were about to affirm, and endeavoring to prove, something not very consistent with it. The greatest part of the writers before and at the time of the Council of Nice, were (I think) really of that opinion, (though they do not always speak very clearly and confidently,) which I have endeavored to set forth in those propositions. But as to the writers after that time, the reader must not wonder, if many passages not consistent with (nay, perhaps contrary to) those which are here cited, shall by any one be alleged out of the same authors. For I do not cite places out of these authors, so much to show what was the opinion of the writers themselves, as to show how naturally truth sometimes prevails by its own native clearness and evidence, even against the strongest and most settled prejudices: according to that of Basil: “I am persuaded [saith he] that the strength of the doctrine delivered down to us, has often compelled men to contradict their own assertions.” (De Spiritu Sancto, cap. 29.)

In the third part there is, first, brought together a great number of passages out of the Liturgy of the Church of England, wherein the doctrine set forth in the former parts is expressly affirmed; and then in the next place are collected the principle passages, which may seem at first sight to differ from that doctrine: and these latter I have endeavored to reconcile with the former, by showing how they may be understood in a sense consistent both with the doctrine of Scripture, and with the other before-cited expressions of the liturgy. And this is absolutely necessary to be done by every one, who when he prays with his mouth, desires to pray with his understanding also.

It is a thing very destructive of religion, and the cause of almost all divisions among Christians; when young persons at their first entering upon the study of divinity, look upon human and perhaps modern forms of speaking, as the rule of their faith; understanding these also according to the accidental sound of the words, or according to the notions which happen at any particular time to prevail among the vulgar; and then picking out (as proofs) some few single texts of Scripture, which to minds already strongly prejudiced must needs seem to sound, or may easily be accommodated, the same way; while they attend not impartially to the whole scope and general tenour of Scripture. Whereas on the contrary, were the Scriptures first thoroughly studied, and seriously considered, as the rule and the only rule of truth in matters of religion; and the sense of all human forms and expressions, deduced from thence; the greatest part of the uncharitable divisions that have happened among Christians, might in all probability have been prevented. The different states, which controversies concerning predestination, original sin, free will, faith and good works, and the doctrine of the ever-blessed Trinity, have at different times gone through, are a sufficient evidence of this truth.

The Church of Rome indeed requires men to receive her particular doctrines (or explications of doctrines) and traditions, as part of the rule itself of their faith: and therefore with them no good Christian can possibly comply. But the Protestant Churches, utterly disclaiming all such authority; and requiring men to comply with their forms, merely upon account of their being agreeable to Scripture; ’tis plain that every person may reasonably agree to such forms, whenever he can in any sense at all reconcile them with Scripture.

The first Reformers, when they had laid aside what to them seemed intolerable in the doctrines of the Church of Rome, in other matters chose to retain the words they found; yet declaring that they meant thereby to express only the sense of Scripture, and not that of tradition of the schools. If tradition or custom, if carelessness or mistake, either in the compiler or receiver, happen at any time to put a sense upon any human forms, different from that of the Scripture, which those very forms were intended to explain, and which is at the same time declared to be the only rule of truth; ‘its evident no man can be bound to understand those forms in such a sense; nay, on the contrary, he is indispensably bound not to understand or receive them in such a sense. For (as the learned Mr Thorndike rightly observes,) “That which once was not matter of faith, can never by process of time, or any act the church can do, (or by any interpretation of words, that custom or carelessness or contentiousness may have introduced,) become matter of faith.” Epilog. Part II. pag. 155.

As in reading a comment upon any book whatsoever, he that would thence understand the true meaning of the text, must not barely consider what the words of the comment may of themselves possibly happen to signify; but how they may be so understood, as to be a consistent interpretation of the text they are to explain: so in considering all forms of human composition in matters of religion, it is not of importance what the words may in themselves possibly most obviously signify, or what they may vulgarly and carelessly be understood to mean; (for there is in almost all words, some ambiguity;) but in what sense they can be consistent expositions of those texts of Scripture, which they were intended and are professed to interpret. Otherwise it may easily happen, that a comment may in effect come into the place of the text, and another interpretation afterwards into the place of that comment; till in process of time, men by insensible degrees depart entirely from the meaning of the text, and human authority swallows up that which is divine. Which evil can no otherwise be prevented, than by having recourse perpetually to the original itself; and allowing no authority to any interpretation, any further than ’tis evidently agreeable to the text itself.

Not to mention many examples of this kind, in almost all the confessions of faith that ever were published; there is one very remarkable instance of it, in the Apostles Creed itself. The word, Hell, in the English language, signifies always the place or state of the damned; and every vulgar English reader, when he professes his belief that Christ descended into hell, is apt to understand the article, as signifying Christ’s descending into the place of the damned: and probably they who first put the article into the Creed, about the beginning of the fourth century, might mean and intend it should be so understood. Nevertheless, since all learned men are satisfied, that the Greek word (hades) in those texts of Scripture upon which this article was founded, does not signify Hell, but in general only the invisible state of those departed out of this world; they now with great reason think themselves obliged to understand it in the Creed, not as the word my in modern speech seem to sound to the vulgar, but as it really signifies in the original Texts of Scripture.

The same is to be understood of every part of all human compositions whatsoever. According to that excellent observation of the learned Bp. Pearson: “I observe [saith he] that whatsoever is delivered in the Creed, we therefore believe, because it is contained in the Scriptures; and consequently must so believe it, as it is contained there: whence all this exposition of the whole, is nothing else but an illustration and proof of every particular part of the Creed, by such Scriptures as deliver the same, according to the true interpretation of them.” Expos. on the Creed, 4th Edit. pag. 227.

And the whole church has made the like declaration, in the 6th, the 20th, and 21st of the 39 Articles, before-cited; and in the eighth Article, which declares that the creeds ought only to be received and believed, “because [and consequently only in such sense wherein] they may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture.”

In what sense the most difficult passages in the liturgy, concerning the doctrine of the Trinity, can be understood agreeably to the doctrine of Scripture, I have endeavored to show in the following papers. And (as I think the sincerity of a Christian obliges me to declare, ) I desire it may be observed that my assent to the forms by law appointed, and to all words of human institution, is given only because they are, and in that sense wherein they are, (according to the following application,) agreeable to that which appears to me (upon the most careful and serious consideration of the whole matter) to be the doctrine of Scripture; and not in that sense which the popish schoolmen, (affecting, for the sake of transubstantiation, to make everything look like a contradiction,) endeavored to introduce into the church.

Every sincere Christian, assenting (for the sake of peace and order) to the use of any forms of words; must take care to assent to them in such a sense, as may make them consistent with the Scripture; (otherwise he assents to what is false:) and in such a sense, as may make them consistent with themselves; (otherwise he assents to nothing.) This is what I have attempted to do in the third part: and I am sure it is no more a putting of violence upon the expressions cited in the second chapter of that part, to make them consistent with Scripture, and with the expressions of the liturgy cited in the first chapter of that part; than it is on the contrary a putting of violence upon Scripture and upon the expression cited in the first chapter of that section, to make them consistent with the expressions cited in the second chapter of that section.

I am well aware it may to many seem needless, to enter into questions of this nature; and that, in matters of such nicety and difficulty as this, it were better (in their opinion) to let every man frame to himself such obscure notions as he can, and not perplex him with subtle speculations. And indeed, with regard to Scholastic and philosophical inquiries concerning the metaphysical nature and substance of each of the Three Persons in the ever-blessed Trinity, this manner of judging is so right and true, that had these things never been meddled with, and had men contented themselves with what is plainly revealed in the Scripture, (more than which, they can never certainly know;) the peace of the Catholic Church, and the simplicity of the Christian Faith, had possibly never been disturbed. But that which is properly theological in this matter; viz. the distinct powers and offices of each of the Three Persons, in the creation, government, redemption, sanctification, and salvation of man; and the proper honor due consequently from us to each of Them distinctly; this is the great foundation, and the main economy of the Christian Religion; the doctrine, into which we were baptized; and which every sincere Christian ought, according to the best of his ability and the means he has of informing himself, to endeavor thoroughly to understand. The Supremacy of God the Father over all, and our Reconciliation and Subjection to him as such our Supreme Governor; the Redemption purchased by the Son; and the Sanctification worked in us by the Holy Spirit; are the three great articles of our Creed: and in maintaining these rightly, so as seriously to affect men’s understandings, and influence their lives accordingly; is the honor of God, and the interest of True Religion greatly concerned. Tritheism, Sabellianism, Arianism, and Socinianism, have, to the great disparagement of Christianity, puzzled the plain and practical doctrine of Scripture, with endless speculative disputes: and it has been no small injury to religion, in the midst of those disputes; that as on the one hand, men by guarding unwarily against Tritheism, have often in the other extreme run into Socinianism, to the diminution of the honor of the Son of God, and to the taking away the very Being of the Holy Spirit; so on the contrary, incautious writers in their zeal against Socinianism and Arianism, have no less frequently laid themselves open to Sabellianism or Tritheism, by neglecting to maintain the honor and supremacy of the Father. The design of the following papers, is to show how this evil may be prevented, and in what manner both extremes may rationally be avoided.

There are others who have thought, that we ought not at all to treat concerning any of these matters, because they are mysterious. By which if they meant, that the words of God were mysterious, and that therefore we ought not to be wise beyond what is written; no man could say that herein they judged amiss. But if they mean, that the words of men are mysterious; and that we must not reason concerning them, nor inquire whether or no, and in what sense, they are agreeable to the words of God: what is this, but substituting another mystery in the stead of the true one; and paying deference to the mystery of man’s making, instead of the mystery of God? The true veneration of mysteries consists, not in making them ourselves, and in receiving blindly the words of men without understanding them; but it consists, either in taking care there to stop, where the Scripture itself has stoped, without presuming to go further at all; or else, in taking care to understand all words of human institution in such a sense, as that they be sure to signify neither more nor less than the words of Scripture necessarily and indisputably do. Whosoever puts any meaning upon words of human institution, which does not appear to another (upon his sincerest and most careful examination) to be the same with the sense of the words of Scripture; must not complain that the other opposes his own reason to the authority of God, when indeed he opposes it only to those who would make human authority the same with divine. Affecting to speak unintelligibly, where the Scripture itself has not done so; is indeed promoting skepticism only, not true religion: nor can there be any other so effectual a way of confuting all heresies, as it would be to restrain men within the bounds of the uncontested doctrine of Scripture; and give them as few advantages as possible, of raising objection against human and fallible forms of speaking.

Lastly; as to those, who, in the whole, are of opinion that every man ought to study and consider these things according to his ability; and yet, in the particulars of the explication, have quite different notions from those which I have thought reasonable and necessary to set forth in the following papers; I have, with regard to such persons as these, endeavored to express myself with all modesty and due submission. And if any learned person, who thinks me in an error, shall in the Spirit of Meekness and Christianity, propose a different interpretation of all the texts I have produced, and deduce consequences therefrom different from those which seem to me unavoidably to follow; I shall think myself obliged, either to return him a clear and distinct answer in the same Spirit of Meekness and Candor, or else fairly and publicly to retract whatsoever is not capable of being so defended. But if, on the contrary, any nameless or careless writer shall, in the spirit of popery, contend only that men must never use their own understandings, that is, must have no religion of their own; but, without regarding what is right or wrong, must always plead for what notions happen at any time to prevail; I shall have no reason, in such case, to think myself under the same obligation of answering him.

Do the Church Fathers Matter?

Those familiar with this blog will be familiar with the great weight I place on sola scriptura. It is a necessary paradigm for determining true doctrine from false doctrine amid a sea of false teaching. Summed up, it is the principle that we must obey the command to “Test all things, and hold fast that which is good” (1 Thess 5:21); what is “good” being, in respect to doctrine, what is true, and in respect to practice, those practices which are legitimately apostolical and in accord with the will of God; and that what is indeed true in respect to doctrine and legitimate in respect to practice can ordinarily only be known by way of demonstration from the holy scriptures. Ordinarily to know that any doctrine is true or practice legitimate, we must see it demonstrated from the holy scriptures, either by an explicit testimony, or by demonstration that it is a necessary consequence of what is said.

This method will ordinarily provide the Christian with as much knowledge of true Christianity as they can ever hope to have in this world. The word “ordinarily” is inserted because what we really want is knowledge, and knowledge can only come by demonstration from an infallible indemonstrable first principle, taken on faith. Ordinarily this is only the scriptures- but at times in history it has includes other special revelation. God is not limited by the scriptures. But this exception laid aside, we can reasonably speak in generalities; not all of God’s people will hear a prophet speak, an apostle preach, or be visited by an angel. Of course the frequency of these things, the legitimacy of supposed instances of these things, etc, is a highly debated issue, and not something I intend to speak to here. Whether one believes that prophecy is ordinary to the church at all times, or is a rare event largely limited to ancient history and the apostolic era, anyone can agree that at times God has chosen to give men special revelation besides the scriptures, and that this revelation is just as reliable and just as useful a first principle for the discovery of truth as scripture is.

But these things are not common, not equally available to all believers. For instance, I know from the scriptures that some in Corinth prophesied, but I do not know what they said. In contrast to that, all believers have access to God’s infallible revelation in the scriptures. Thus ordinarily, scripture alone is our indemonstrable first principle, and ordinarily, only what can be demonstrated from the scriptures is truly known by the believer. Thus anything beyond what is demonstrable from the scriptures remains a mere theory, and in order for anything to be accepted, it ought to be positively proven from the scriptures. No doctrine that cannot be demonstrated has a place in the dogma of the church.

All that said, given these views, one might wonder why this blog gives so much attention to the early church fathers. After all, if sola scriptura is true, then no one needs the church fathers to come to a knowledge of the truth. Why then should we read the church fathers, or bother studying them at all?

One might argue that we need the church fathers for sake of catholicity. What catholicity is, and that as a paradigm it is flawed I have covered here. The various versions of the paradigm employed by different traditions are woefully arbitrary, inconsistent, and self-defeating. But one version especially is popular with many who value the church fathers. This is called the Vincentian Canon, named after fifth century church father Vincent of Lerins.

Vincent’s big idea is that we should all be catholic, and that what is catholic is what has ‘been believed always, everywhere, and by all’. Its perhaps the simplest form of the catholicity paradigm. And it sounds quite nice. After all, you can fool some people some of the time, but you can’t fool all the people all of the time. Anything that everybody in the church has always agreed on must be a genuine apostolic tradition, it is reasoned. This view lives for ‘patristic consensus’, and whatever is understood to have had a consensus in the early church is deemed ‘catholic’, and true. This is one of the only versions of ‘catholicity’ that doesn’t betray its own name, since, according to this standard, anything that meets it must be truly universal, at least up till a certain point in history.

The Vincentian Canon is a beautiful idea. But it is fatally flawed. Like some mythical creature, its beauty is only dampened by the cold reality that it is not truly attainable. That’s because in order to know that there was a patristic consensus on any doctrine not only takes an enormous amount of research among the many volumes of church fathers available in English translations, and a knowledge of many ancient original languages to access untranslated works which are otherwise inaccessible, but also requires access to the great multitude of patristic writings that are not available to us, because they are lost to history.

In Eusebius of Caesarea’s famous Church History, we get a glimpse at what a fourth century theological library might look like. Eusebius painstakingly takes the time to list the works of many major church fathers, such as Irenaeus. From these lists, we are well aware that the surviving works we have from the many ante-nicene fathers are only a very small portion of what was produced in that era. There are many fathers we have no surviving works from at all. Many are known only by fragmentary quotes from later authors who quoted them in their own preserved works, thereby preserving small portions of otherwise lost books.

As if this is not depressing enough to the eager student of the ante-nicene fathers, we must also remember that the fathers Eusebius gives us lists of works from, and whose works we have preserved, are almost all Greek-speaking fathers from within the bounds of the Roman Empire. Almost all the ante-nicene fathers who we know much about and have surviving works from are from around the Mediterranean basin. Even still, fathers from ancient Roman Britain and Hispania are almost completely unknown. When we consider the ancient churches of Ethiopia, Assyria, China, and India, and how vast they were, we realize that we truly only have a relatively small sampling of ante-nicene writings, and even a relatively small knowledge of ante-nicene authors. We know who influential fathers within the Mediterranean basin area were- but who were the prominent theologians of non-Greek speaking lands? Who were the Irenaeuses and Justin Martyrs of ancient Britain, Ethiopia, China, and India? We simply do not know.

This massive gap in our data is significant. To claim that looking at the small sampling of sources we do have is enough data by which to determine what was believed ‘always, everywhere, and by everyone’, is simply ludicrous. We may make educated guesses. We may see things in which we find consensus among surviving sources, and extrapolate from that incomplete data that it is very likely that all churches would have held a given belief. But we lack the concrete evidence to make a solid case, let alone to suppose that we truly know. After all, on top of everything mentioned above, even what was preserved from the Mediterranean basin was often selectively preserved according to the ‘orthodoxy’ of later periods- works supporting Quartodecimanism, Iconoclasm, non-nicene views of the Trinity, and pre-millennialism, for instance, were far less likely to be preserved than their ‘orthodox’ counterparts.

This means that the Vincentian Canon is impossible- we cannot know what was believed everywhere, always, and by everyone, in the early church. We lack the data, and what those who claim to use this paradigm to discover truth present to us is not what they claim. To base one’s doctrine off such great uncertainty is foolish. It is to make speculation and guesswork into dogma. We should rather base our dogma off an actual knowledge of truth, for which we must go to God’s infallible revelation in the holy scriptures.

All the more so, then, after dismantling the theory of the Vincentian Canon, one might wonder what use studying the writings of the church fathers is? After all, if we cannot gain a certain knowledge of true doctrine and legitimate practice from them, but only what is tentatively true, what is the point of investing effort in understanding their doctrines and beliefs?

The answer is multifaceted. Firstly, sola scriptura does not deny the value of teachers. Scripture affirms the value of teachers to help us understand the truth. Whatever we receive from teachers must be taken as tentative until it is confirmed to be true by demonstration from the holy scriptures- but that tentative instruction is extremely valuable, as a guide to understanding the scriptures, and as a witness to the truths they teach. While doctrines must be confirmed by scriptural demonstration to be known, they can be pointed out to us by teachers. Were it not for such instruction drawing our attention to what scripture says, we would often not understand the scriptures as clearly and fully as we can with the aid of such instruction. The very principle of “Test everything, and hold fast to that which is good” requires that we be receiving some extra-biblical instruction which requires testing.

Studying the church fathers is also valuable in order to avoid novelty. If a doctrine was not believed within the first three centuries of Christianity, it is almost certainly false. The apostles, after all, are the original teachers of the early church. What they taught was the doctrine of the early church. Of course, we do not have a complete record of all that was believed early on. Even honest men make mistakes and err, and false teachers and outside influences may result in certain truths receiving an undeservedly small amount of attention, or being lost early in church history. Certainly, new things were added over time. Seeing a doctrine in the fathers is no assurance that it is true. But the faith handed down once for all was not invented in the sixteenth century. It found a home in the hearts of first century Christians, instructed by the apostles themselves, and those Christians, and their students, remain among the best possible resources at our disposal for tracking down what that apostolic faith is.

Due to the incomplete record of early Christian belief, we may fairly say that not having a record of someone holding a given doctrine within the first few centuries of church history does not mean that it is not true. Scripture is our source of knowledge of what is true, and if some doctrine is demonstrable from it, we can know it is true, even if it lacks patristic witness. Yet, that being said, novelty is still suspect. And so studying the church fathers, and showing one’s beliefs to be in accord with the teachings of the church fathers, bears much value, to see for oneself, and to show others, that one’s views are not the novel inventions of a much later time.

The writings of the church fathers, then, are to be valued highly; not overvalued, as an infallible authority on par with scripture when they are not, but as knowledgable teachers, who can help guide us to the truths taught by scripture, which we will know to be true by seeing them demonstrated from the holy scriptures themselves. Any Christian who neglects them, neglects a valuable help that God has given him, and those who study their writings know how blessed it is to be their students.

 

Testimonies of Early Church Fathers In Favor of Sola Scriptura

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.

 

See also: https://contramodalism.com/sola-scriptura-catholicity/

Thoughts and Questions on the Councils of Arminium and Seleucia

-The joint councils of Arminium and Seleucia met in 359 to resolve the ongoing trinitarian debates of the fourth century. The council of Nicea had succeeded in largely nullifying the threat of Arianism, but also, by introducing highly philosophical, extra-biblical, controversial language of ‘ousia’, ‘being’, or ‘substance’, had continued to be a source of controversy to the churches of the Roman empire.

-The joint councils of Arminium and Seleucia were called by emperor Constantius to settle the ongoing debates that divided the church. These councils were intended to be ecumenical, and their decision was one. They met in separate locations sheerly for the convenience of the bishops attending. The council of Arminium alone was said to have included 330 bishops, making it larger than Nicea, and over twice as large as the first council of Constantinople.

-The decision of these councils, with the approval of the emperor, was to remove all language of ‘ousia’ from the church’s dogma, and to ban extra-biblical speculation on what the metaphysical relation of the Son’s nature to that of the Father is. The Son was to be described as “like to the Father Who begat Him, according to the scriptures”, and after a brief creed, their decision included this statement: “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.”

-Although the council proscribed all previously condemned heresies, and thus that of Arius as well, it has been slandered by the Romans and homoousians as an Arian council, and a victory of Arianism.

Questions:

1) Were not the councils of Arminium and Seleucia faithful to the instruction of the apostle Paul in holding fast to “the pattern of sound words” given in the scriptures?

2) Do not the councils of Arminium and Seleucia constitute a valid second ecumenical council?

3) How can a decision which maintained the anathemas of previous councils against Arianism, and thus continued to proscribe Arians from communion, be Arian? How can the continued excommunication of Arians represent a victory of that heresy?

4) If, as the Romans and homoousians have so been inclined to say, the councils pronounced a sentence in favor of Arianism, did not the churches err in their official teachings?

5) Is a refusal to call the Son ‘homoousias’ with the Father not damnable heresy, as the official decisions of later councils say?

6) If the church then supposedly erred in its official teachings in rejecting the word ‘homoousias’, in a damnable way, did the churches of the Roman empire not, according to that view, go apostate in 359? How can churches not be said to go apostate, if they embrace damnable heresy as their official teaching?

7) If the church then erred, as the homoousians are inclined to say, why then do the Eastern Orthodox, the Romans, the Coptics, and the other ancient communions hold that the church cannot err in its official teaching, since it is guided by the Spirit to be free from error?

8) If it be argued that the pressure of the Roman government on the church is what secured the decision of these councils, and thus they are invalid, why can it not equally be argued that the decisions of Nicea and Constantinople may likewise be disregarded on that same basis, since in both the Emperors were intimately involved?

9) If it will be argued in defense of the councils of Nicea and Constantinople that since the churches could not be compelled to compromise their faith in the face of three hundred years of open and brutal persecutions, therefore they surely would not have bent to the will of the emperors against the true sentiments of the churches, and so the involvement of the emperors in these councils cannot be said to invalidate their decisions, must not the same argument be equally valid when applied to the councils of Arminium and Seleucia?

10) If the churches of the fourth century believed, by way of an apostolic tradition, that ecumenical councils cannot err, as the Eastern Orthodox hold, why then were such a great multitude of bishops from both the eastern and western reaches of the Roman Empire willing to declare that Nicea had erred in introducing the term ‘homoousias’ into the church’s dogma? Does not such a decision manifestly testify that the ancient churches held no such sentiment about ecumenical councils?

11) If the approval of the Pope of Rome were known by the churches to be necessary for the decision of a council to be legitimate, as the papists claim, why then did the churches of the Roman empire give their acceptance to the decision of the councils of Arminium and Seleucia, which the Pope refused to consent to, and was therefore deposed?

12) Is it not conducive to the peace and unity of the churches to impose nothing on them beyond what can be proven from the scriptures, as the councils of Arminium and Seleucia sought to do?

13) If it is to be counted as a great sin to charge the churches with having apostatized, as some count it, are not those then who, while accepting the 7 so-called ecumenical councils, denounce those of Arminium  and Seleucia as Arian, guilty of the same supposed impiety they charge others with, since they must regard the churches as having apostatized for over twenty years following the councils of Arminium and Seleucia?

14) Is it not manifestly an impossible position to say that the church cannot err in its official teaching, when at Nicea, the church officially taught that the Son is ‘homoousias’ with the Father, and yet also officially taught at the councils of Arminium and Seleucia that it is improper to teach that the Son is ‘homoousias’ with the Father, and banned such speculation? Likewise is it not a manifest contradiction when the church officially taught at Arminium and Seleucia that Nicea had erred in introducing ‘homoousias’, while about twenty years later the churches officially taught that Nicea was correct in doing so, and made ‘homoousias’ a dogmatic standard again? How can two mutually exclusive positions be officially taught by the churches at different times, and it not require that in at least one of those decisions, the churches erred?

15) Are not those churches which hold sola scriptura, while requiring a dogmatic confession of ‘homoousias’ from their members, manifestly acting in self-contradiction?

16) Did not the Homoians who held to the decision of the councils of Arminium and Seleucia faithfully hold and teach a form of sola scriptura some one thousand years before the Protestant Reformation, and apply that principle more consistently than the latter?

17) According to the standard of the holy scriptures alone, can there be any insufficiency ascribed to describing the Son as “like the Father as the scriptures say and teach”?

18) If the Son is homoousias with the Father, and does by virtue of His divine nativity before the ages share one and the same metaphysical nature and essence with the Father, is He not “like the Father”? For He is another person from the Father; begotten, not unbegotten; Son, not Father. And so He cannot be said to be the same person, nor a completely identical person, but a like person.

19) Is not the confession of the Son being “like the Father, according to the scriptures”, without any mention of metaphysical nature, a more scriptural confession than describing the Son as homoousias?

20) Is it not better suited to the capacity of the simple and less-educated to describe the Son as being like the Father, as the scriptures teach, than to demand that the simple must learn platonic or aristotelian metaphysics to be good Christians?

21) Is it not better suited to the teaching of scripture, that while the Son is the exact representation of the Father’s person, the brightness of His glory, Who has life in Himself as He has life in Himself, Who is eternal and before all creation with the Father, through Whom all creation was made, and is the Image of the invisible God, and so not invisible as His Father is, to simply describe the Son as being “like the Father, according to the scriptures”, than to demand a philosophical confession which seems to contradict that the Son is from eternity the visible Image of the invisible God?

22) Has not the historic teaching of most, if not all homoousians, such as Hilary and Augustine, been that since the Son is of the same divine metaphysical nature as the Father, He must according to that nature be invisible?

23) And is not such teaching manifestly contradictory not only to the plain sense of the scriptures, but to the ecclesiastical tradition of the ante-nicene church, which taught that the Son, as the Angel of the Lord, was visible in His pre-incarnate nature? Did not those same ante-nicenes argue for the identity of the Angel of the Lord being the Son on the very basis of there being a difference between the Father and the Son, that the Father cannot be seen, but the Son can be, and on that very basis argue that the Son was the Angel of the Lord?

These questions are more intended to be rhetorical than to solicit an answer; answers and comments, however, are welcome.

Sola Scriptura And the Trinity

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.