Sola Scriptura and the Early Church (James White)

By James White

“In regard to the divine and holy mysteries of the faith, not the least part may be handed on without the Holy Scriptures. Do not be led astray by winning words and clever arguments. Even to me, who tell you these things, do not give ready believe, unless you receive from the Holy Scriptures the proof of the things which I announce. The salvation in which we believe is not proved from clever reasoning, but from the Holy Scripture” (Old English Text is at the bottom of the post)

This essay is “dense” with history and makes the point that where “tradition” is used as the rule of faith, tradition is rarely defined, other than that the Council of Trent tells us that it is unwritten.

So we look to history to see if the early church defined “tradition”. Was it unwritten, or is there an infallible source of “tradition”?

In this essay we are shown that the tradition that the early church fathers cited were NOT unwritten beliefs (although some were practices). From the beginning, the church fathers cited Scripture alone as the rule for faith.

Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon (c.130-c.200) writes in his work, “Against Heresies“,

“On this account are we bound to avoid them, but to make choice of the things pertaining to the Church with the utmost diligence, and to lay hold of the tradition of the truth…For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us the writings? Would it not be necessary [in that case] to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to whom they did commit the church?”

He also wrote,

“As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it…for, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same.”

If Irenaeus had failed to define “tradition”, we would be left to believe that “tradition” is extra-biblical teaching. But Irenaeus DID define what he was writing about:


These have all declared to us that there is one God, Creator of heaven and earth, announced by the law and the prophets; and one Christ, the Son of God. If any one does not agree with these truths, he despises the companions of the Lord; nay more, he despises Christ Himself the Lord; yea, he despises the Father also, and stands self-condemned, resisiting and opposing his own salvation, as is the case with all heretics.

Basil of Caesarea also writes of tradition:

“…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 it’s very vitals; or, rather, should make our public definition a mere phrase and nothing more.”

If we stopped there, we would have a ground for “tradition” as we see it today. But Basil did not stop there; he defined the traditions that he was writing about:

For instance, to take the first and most general example, who is there who has taught us in writing to sign with the sign of the cross…What writing has taught us to turn East at the prayer…Which of the saints has left us in writing the words of the invocation at the displaying of the bread at the Eucharist and the cup of the blessing? …Moreover, we bless the water of baptism and the oil of the chrismm and besides this the catechuman who is being baptized…Nay, by what written word is the anointing of oil itself taught? And whence comes the custom of baptizing thrice?

It is clear that Basil is not teaching the existence of extra-Biblical teaching for the rule of our faith, but rather for the teaching of practices to carry out the faith that we learn in the Bible.

It is interesting that Basil preached tradition of practices, of of which (regardless of the teaching of the equality of tradition to the Word) have been abandoned. Does Rome teach that we must face to the East at prayer?

What was Basil’s writing when he encountered those who considered that their “tradition” should be held as sacred?

Their complaint is that their custom does not accept this, and that Scripture does not agree. What is my reply? I do not consider it fair that the custom which obtains among them should be regarded as a law and rule of orthodoxy. If custom is to be taken in proof of what is right, then it is certainly compentent for me to put forward on my side the custom withch obtains here…Therefore let God-inspired Scripture decide between us; and on whichever side be found doctrines in harmony with the word of God, in favor of that side will be cast the vote of truth.

Basil also wrote:

“Plainly it is a falling away from faith and an offense chargable to pride, either to reject any of those things that are written or to introduce things that are not written.”

Clearly, this early church father was not the friend of those who demand that unwritten tradition be given equality with written Scripture.

Yet another saint, Augustine wrote:

“If anyone preaches either concerning Christ or concerning His church or concerning any other matter which pertains to our faith and life; I will not say, if we, but what Paul adds, if an angel from heaven should preach to you anything besides what you have received in the Scriptures of the Law and of the Gospels, let him be anathema.”

Yet another church father, Athanasius said,

“on this [tradition] was the church founded; and if anyone departs from this, he neither is nor any longer ought to be called a Christian.”

Fortunately, he (along with the others) defines this “tradition”:

There is a Trinity, holy and perfect, acknowledged as God, in Father, Son and Holy Spirit, having nothing foreign or external mixed with it, not composed of a fashioner…and thus there is preached in the Church one God, “who is over all and through all, and in all…”

It is vital that we recognize that the traditions that the church fathers cited were all IN Scripture, they were not appealing to extra-Biblical, unwritten revelation.

From the beginning, Sola Scriptura, Scripture alone, was the rule of faith.

“This seal have thou ever on thy mind; which now by way of summary has been touched on in its heads, and if the Lord grant, shall hereafter be set forth according to our power, with Scripture proofs. For concerning the divine and sacred Mysteries of the Faith, we ought not to deliver even the most casual remark without the Holy Scriptures: nor be drawn aside by mere probabilities and the artifices of argument. Do not then believe me because I tell thee these things, unless thou receive from the Holy Scriptures the proof of what is set forth: for this salvation, which is of our faith, is not by ingenious reasonings, but by proof from the Holy Scriptures.” – Cyril of Jerusalem