I. Keith Mathison v. Karl Barth
Did the early Christians believe in sola Scriptura, the idea that the entirety of Divine revelation is contained within Sacred Scripture? Or did they hold that Christ also left the Apostles with particular Apostolic Traditions to be carried on? In Keith Mathison’s 2001 book The Shape of Sola Scriptura, he forcefully argues for the first of these views (sola Scriptura, or “Tradition I”), while claiming that the second view (the Catholic view of Scripture plus Tradition, or “Tradition II”), is a “novel doctrine.” He bases this claim on some pretty sweeping claims of early Church history:
An important problem for Tradition II is the fact that it finds no support in the witness of the earliest church fathers. For centuries, the view the fathers held was Tradition I – Scripture is the sole source of revelation which is to be interpreted in and by the Church within the context of the rule of faith. If there were a second source of divine revelation alongside Scripture in the post-apostolic church, the silence of the early Church to that fact and its explicit statements denying that possibility are weighty objections. The problem is that Tradition II itself is a novel doctrine.
I could try to explain why these claims are false, but I realize that it would be hard for you to know whether or not to believe me. If you’re someone looking to find out what the early Christians believed about sola Scriptura, it can be frustrating. You’ve got Catholic authors claiming that they took the Catholic view, Protestant authors claiming that they took the Protestant view, and both sides offer quotations that seem to support their views. What we need is someone arguing against their own position.
An analogy can be drawn to the rule against hearsay. Ordinarily, your out-of-court statements can’t be admitted into evidence. After all, you weren’t under oath, nobody had a chance to cross-examine you, and so it’s hard to gauge how honest or accurate your statements are (no offense). But one of the most important exceptions to this is for what are called statements against interest (Rule 804(b)(3)). The logic is clear. When you’re saying something that benefits you, you might be tempted to lie, or at least exaggerate, or stretch or color the truth, or select our facts selectively. But if you’re sharing information that you know hurts your interests, why would you lie about that? So we typically have good reason to believe you when you’re incriminating yourself.
In our context, we need a Protestant theologian arguing that most of the Church Fathers took the Catholic view. And we have just such a theologian in Karl Barth. If you’re not familiar, Karl Barth (1886-1968) is the Swiss Reformed theologian that Christianity Today declared “the most important theologian of the twentieth century,” crediting him with making ” it possible for theologians again to take the Bible seriously.” The Berkeley Institute’s Matthew Rose, in a First Things essay, would go further, describing him as “the greatest theologian since the Reformation.”
And make no mistake, Barth was no moderate on the question of sola Scriptura. He went so far as to deny that the Catholic Church was the true Church for denying this doctrine. In Church Dogmatics, his magnum opus, he declares that this question
…has constituted the true frontier which separates the Roman Catholic Church and the true, Evangelical Church, and which will inexorably separate them, so long as both continue to be what they are. […] The Evangelical, and with it the true Church, stands or falls by the fact that (apart, of course, from the revealed and proclaimed Word of God which is identical with Scripture) it understands exclusively the statement that the Bible is the Word of God, claiming direct, absolute and material authority neither for a third authority nor for itself.
(This and all subsequent Barth citations come from Volume I, Book II, Chapter III, Section 2, sub. 2 of Church Dogmatics, pp. 546-49.)
So Barth believes just as fervently in sola Scriptura as does Mathison, but with a key difference. Where Mathison claims that the early Christians were all believers in sola Scriptura, Barth has both the scholarly acuity and personal integrity to acknowledge that this isn’t true. He argued that the Reformed position (sola Scriptura) was present, but: “If the Reformed decision was no novelty in the Church, neither was the Tridentine, and we have to concede that the scales had long come down on the latter side. Had it been otherwise, the Reformation would not have had to be carried through in the painful but unavoidable form of a disruption.”
In reading that, you might imagine that he means that the sola Scriptura fight was settled in favor of the Catholic side in the Middle Ages or so. But no, he views those scales as having coming down by about 400 A.D. Here’s his assessment:
By the turn of the 4th and 5th centuries what the Church as such has to say side by side with Holy Scripture, even if only in amplification and confirmation of it, already has a particular weight of its own, so that the saying which we have already quoted from Augustine – which the Reformers attempted in vain to interpret in meliorem partem [“in the best way”] – now became possible: in answer to the question what we are to tell those who still do not believe in the Gospel, Augustine has to confess, obviously on the basis of his personal experience: Ego vero evangelio non crederem, nisi me catholicae ecclesiase commoveret aucrotias [“For my part, I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church”]. That I have the Gospel and can believe in it is obviously, as Augustine sees it and as he was rightly understood in the later Catholic polemics, itself a gift of Church tradition. Therefore the saying foreshadows that inclusion of Scripture itself into the tradition which was expressly accomplished at a much later date.
So Barth is saying both that Catholics (and not the Reformers) get Augustine’s views on this question correct, and that the Church of the 4th-5th century already recognized that dynamism between Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium that sola Scriptura would later rebut.
So Barth’s scholarship is valuable in that it consistent of ten major “statements against interest.” The reason Barth believes that the “Tridentine” (that is, the Catholic view, dogmatically defined at Trent) was present from the earliest days of the Church, and the reason he views the case as being virtually settled in favor of the Catholic position by the year 400, is because he knew the Church Fathers like few others. So with that in mind, I’m not going to give any further commentary until the conclusion. Instead, I’ve tracked down ten of the Patristic citations that he offers, provided some context (and emphasis), and place them in roughly-chronological order. This way, you can read the evidence for yourself. You be the judge of whether Mathison or Barth is getting the story of the early Church straight.
II. The Early Church Fathers on Sola Scriptura
True knowledge is [that which consists in] the doctrine of the apostles, and the ancient constitution of the Church throughout all the world, and the distinctive manifestation of the body of Christ according to the successions of the bishops, by which they have handed down that Church which exists in every place, and has come even unto us, being guarded and preserved without any forging of Scriptures, by a very complete system of doctrine, and neither receiving addition nor [suffering] curtailment [in the truths which she believes]; and [it consists in] reading [the word of God] without falsification, and a lawful and diligent exposition in harmony with the Scriptures, both without danger and without blasphemy; and [above all, it consists in] the pre-eminent gift of love, [2 Corinthians 8:1; 1 Corinthians 13] which is more precious than knowledge, more glorious than prophecy, and which excels all the other gifts [of God].
Chapter 19. Appeal, in Discussion of Heresy, Lies Not to the Scriptures. The Scriptures Belong Only to Those Who Have the Rule of Faith.
Our appeal, therefore, must not be made to the Scriptures; nor must controversy be admitted on points in which victory will either be impossible, or uncertain, or not certain enough. But even if a discussion from the Scriptures should not turn out in such a way as to place both sides on a par, (yet) the natural order of things would require that this point should be first proposed, which is now the only one which we must discuss: With whom lies that very faith to which the Scriptures belong. From what and through whom, and when, and to whom, has been handed down that rule, by which men become Christians? For wherever it shall be manifest that the true Christian rule and faith shall be, there will likewise be the true Scriptures and expositions thereof, and all the Christian traditions.
3. Tertullian again (using the parable of the wheat and weeds to show that new doctrines are necessarily false):
Let me return, however, from this digression to discuss the priority of truth, and the comparative lateness of falsehood, deriving support for my argument even from that parable which puts in the first place the sowing by the Lord of the good seed of the wheat, but introduces at a later stage the adulteration of the crop by its enemy the devil with the useless weed of the wild oats. For herein is figuratively described the difference of doctrines, since in other passages also the word of God is likened unto seed. From the actual order, therefore, it becomes clear, that that which was first delivered is of the Lord and is true, while that is strange and false which was afterwards introduced. This sentence will keep its ground in opposition to all later heresies, which have no consistent quality of kindred knowledge inherent in them— to claim the truth as on their side.
2. Since many, however, of those who profess to believe in Christ differ from each other, not only in small and trifling matters, but also on subjects of the highest importance, as, e.g., regarding God, or the Lord Jesus Christ, or the Holy Spirit; and not only regarding these, but also regarding others which are created existences, viz., the powers and the holy virtues; it seems on that account necessary first of all to fix a definite limit and to lay down an unmistakable rule regarding each one of these, and then to pass to the investigation of other points. For as we ceased to seek for truth (notwithstanding the professions of many among Greeks and Barbarians to make it known) among all who claimed it for erroneous opinions, after we had come to believe that Christ was the Son of God, and were persuaded that we must learn it from Himself; so, seeing there are many who think they hold the opinions of Christ, and yet some of these think differently from their predecessors, yet as the teaching of the Church, transmitted in orderly succession from the apostles, and remaining in the Churches to the present day, is still preserved, that alone is to be accepted as truth which differs in no respect from ecclesiastical and tradition.
66. Of the beliefs and practices whether generally accepted or publicly enjoined which are preserved in the Church some we possess derived from written teaching; others we have received delivered to us in a mystery by the tradition of the apostles; and both of these in relation to true religion have the same force. And these no one will gainsay—no one, at all events, who is even moderately versed in the institutions of the Church. For were we to attempt to reject such customs as have no written authority, on the ground that the importance they possess is small, we should unintentionally injure the Gospel in its very vitals; or, rather, should make our public definition a mere phrase and nothing more.
However, none of the sacred words need an allegorical interpretation of their meaning; they need examination, and the perception to understand each proposition’s force. But tradition must be used too, for not everything is available from the sacred scripture. Thus the holy apostles handed some things down in scriptures but some in traditions, as St. Paul says, “As I delivered the tradition to you,” [1 Corinthians 11:2] and elsewhere “So I teach, and so I have delivered the tradition in the churches,” [Cf. 1 Cor. 11:2; 7:17] and “If ye keep the tradition in memory, unless ye have believed in vain” [1 Cor. 15:2]. God’s holy apostles, then gave God’s holy church the tradition that it is sinful to change one’s mind and marry after vowing virginity.
[2 Thessalonians 2:15] So then, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word, or by Epistle of ours.
Hence it is manifest, that they did not deliver all things by Epistle, but many things also unwritten, and in like manner both the one and the other are worthy of credit.Therefore let us think the tradition of the Church also worthy of credit. It is a tradition, seek no farther. Here he shows that there were many who were shaken.
But as in the thief, to whom the material administration of the sacrament was necessarily wanting, the salvation was complete, because it was spiritually present through his piety, so, when the sacrament itself is present, salvation is complete, if what the thief possessed be unavoidably wanting. And this is the firm tradition of the universal Church, in respect of the baptism of infants, who certainly are as yet unable “with the heart to believe unto righteousness, and with the mouth to make confession unto salvation,” as the thief could do; nay, who even, by crying and moaning when the mystery is performed upon them, raise their voices in opposition to the mysterious words, and yet no Christian will say that they are baptized to no purpose. [….]
And if any one seek for divine authority in this matter, though what is held by the whole Church, and that not as instituted by Councils, but as a matter of invariable custom, is rightly held to have been handed down by authority, still we can form a true conjecture of the value of the sacrament of baptism in the case of infants, from the parallel of circumcision, which was received by God’s earlier people, and before receiving which Abraham was justified, as Cornelius also was enriched with the gift of the Holy Spirit before he was baptized.
12. Cease, then, to bring forward against us the authority of Cyprian in favor of repeating baptism, but cling with us to the example of Cyprian for the preservation of unity. For this question of baptism had not been as yet completely worked out, but yet the Church observed the most wholesome custom of correcting what was wrong, not repeating what was already given, even in the case of schismatics and heretics: she healed the wounded part, but did not meddle with what was whole. And this custom, coming, I suppose, from tradition (like many other things which are held to have been handed down under their actual sanction, because they are preserved throughout the whole Church, though they are not found either in their letters, or in the Councils of their successors),— this most wholesome custom, I say, according to the holy Cyprian, began to be what is called amended by his predecessor Agrippinus. But, according to the teaching which springs from a more careful investigation into the truth, which, after great doubt and fluctuation, was brought at last to the decision of a plenary Council, we ought to believe that it rather began to be corrupted than to receive correction at the hands of Agrippinus.
To make our confession short, we keep unchanged all the ecclesiastical traditions handed down to us, whether in writing or verbally, one of which is the making of pictorial representations, agreeable to the history of the preaching of the Gospel, a tradition useful in many respects, but especially in this, that so the incarnation of the Word of God is shown forth as real and not merely phantastic, for these have mutual indications and without doubt have also mutual significations. [….]
Those, therefore who dare to think or teach otherwise, or as wicked heretics to spurn the traditions of the Church and to invent some novelty, or else to reject some of those things which the Church has received (e.g., the Book of the Gospels, or the image of the cross, or the pictorial icons, or the holy relics of a martyr), or evilly and sharply to devise anything subversive of the lawful traditions of the Catholic Church or to turn to common uses the sacred vessels or the venerable monasteries, if they be Bishops or Clerics, we command that they be deposed; if religious or laics, that they be cut off from communion. [….]
The holy Synod cried out: So we all believe, we all are so minded, we all give our consent and have signed. This is the faith of the Apostles, this is the faith of the orthodox, this is the faith which has made firm the whole world. Believing in one God, to be celebrated in Trinity, we salute the honourable images! Those who do not so hold, let them be anathema. Those who do not thus think, let them be driven far away from the Church. For we follow the most ancient legislation of the Catholic Church. We keep the laws of the Fathers. We anathematize those who add anything to or take anything away from the Catholic Church. We anathematize the introduced novelty of the revilers of Christians. We salute the venerable images. We place under anathema those who do not do this.
I want to touch on a few things in closing. First, this isn’t all of the evidence out there in favor of the Catholic position within the earliest centuries of the Church. Rather, these were just the texts that Karl Barth happened to cite in the course of a few pages showing how the so-called “Tridentine” view actually dates back to about 1500 years before Trent.
Second, you might have noticed that the last citation (II Nicaea) is a great deal later than all of the others. It’s included because it shows a sort of final triumph for the Catholic view. At this point, upon pain of excommunication and damnation, you can’t reject extra-biblical Church teaching… and this is still only about halfway between the Resurrection and the Reformation.
Finally, having read all of the Patristic evidence – in the Fathers’ own words – is there any way to sustain Mathison’s assertion that the Catholic view “finds no support in the witness of the earliest church fathers”? I admit that my own biases might come into play here, but why do people still take these sorts of historical claims seriously?