Conservative Colloquium

An Intellectual Forum for All Things Conservative

The History of Sola Scriptura

Posted by Tony Listi on December 7, 2007

In this discussion, I would like to focus only on the history of the doctrine of sola Scriptura and what it means to the Protestant. I appreciate your charitable cooperation in confining your comments to these subjects alone.  Surely Protestants have some appreciation for history, no?

I would like to know the answers to the following questions: Historically, who held this belief of sola Scriptura? When did these believers live? Who were the very first people to hold this belief? When in history did these first believers live? etc.

As far as I know, the first people to hold the doctrine of sola Scriptura, or something like it, were the early (first four centuries AD) heretics such as the Arians. They believed this because they couldn’t trace the doctrine further back than their leader Arius (d.c. 336). And except for these heretics, early Christians did not believe in sola Scriptura. In fact, strictly speaking, such a doctrine was impossible: there was no commonly defined “Scripture” to which one should “only” refer until 397 AD when the canon was created by the Church. Additionally, Bibles were not plentiful or capable of being mass produced. The Gospel was preached, not handed out. If the first 400 years worth of Christians, those closest to the time and culture of Christ and the Bible’s authors, did not believe in sola Scriptura, why should today’s Christians?

The Church Fathers (e.g. St. Augustine, Origen, Irenaeus, etc.) certainly did not hold this view. They always appealed to the history of doctrine and apostolic succession, which for them were always the clincher and coup de grace in their arguments against heretics.

With this past history (or, more appropriately, lack thereof) in mind, one can conclude that the doctrine of sola Scriptura, for all practical purposes, was created by Martin Luther (and thus widely adopted because of him) in 1521 at the Diet of Worms, a whole 15 centuries after the life of Christ.

The implications of this fact of history for the Protestant are quite interesting and profound. He would have to believe that all Christians from the time of St. Peter up until the time of Luther were all dead wrong in not accepting the doctrine of sola Scriptura. That’s a long time and a lot of people weighed against Luther’s conscience and “plain reason.” In fact, it seems as if the Protestant, to hold true to sola Scriptura, must despise all of historical precedent and the opinions of his spiritual ancestors (like a modern American liberal actually), at least selectively on particular important issues, which they are also the ones they disagree with Catholicism on. Additionally, he would be conferring greater authority on one man, Luther, than 15 centuries of consistent Christian thought and tradition on this issue going back to the very beginning of the Church. You tell me, does this seem plainly reasonable?

Now, I am open to objections to this account of history. Tell me why it is wrong and cite your historical sources for me, if you would be so kind. No groundless conspiracy theories please.

11 Responses to “The History of Sola Scriptura”

  1. […] Research more about this from here […]

  2. Jon said

    Sola Scriptura has its roots in Judaism. Also, note that sola and solo scriptura are not the same. Solo scriptura refers to the bible as the only source, i.e. nothing outside scripture (held only by a few fundamentalist groups). Sola scriptura, accepts tradition as long as it meets the benchmark of scripture, i.e. an issue of authority. In fact, sola scriptura is recognised as a tradition. I’ve noticed that some appologists confuse the two.

    • foospro86 said

      Wrong: Nehemiah 8:7-8 “the Levites, helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places. And they read from the book, from the law of God, clearly; and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.”
      The chair of Moses is also referred to in the New Testament as a seat of authority.
      The Catholic structure of authority is much more in line with Jewish roots than free-wheeling, democratic Protestantism.

      Your distinction between solo and sola is irrelevant. No Protestant really adheres to Solo Scriptura: they have theyre own teachers, Bible commentaries, etc. The point is that Protestants adhere to Scriptural traditions that are ahistorical, have no roots in early Church history. Sola Scriptura is a young, man-made tradition with no presence in the writings of the early Church fathers whatsoever. Instead of drawing upon the extra-biblical writings of the early Church leaders to illuminate Scripture, Protestants would rather ignore early history and tradition in order to hold onto to their young, man-made tradition of Sola Scriptura et. al.

  3. Frank Brito said

    Tertullian, in his book, “De Corona”, argues against christians that apparently held to Sola Scriptura.

    In the “De corona”, Tertullian defends a soldier who had refused to wear a chaplet on his head when he received the donative granted to the army on the accession of Caracalla and Geta in 211. The man had been degraded and imprisoned. Many Christians thought his action extravagant, and refused to regard him as a martyr. Tertullian not only declares that to wear the crown would have been idolatry, but argues that no Christian can be a soldier without compromising his faith.

    In chapter 2, he begins stating the arguments of the christians that believed that it was not a sin to wear a laurel crown and begins to answer their arguments:

    “This treatise, therefore, will not be for those who not in a proper condition for inquiry, but for those who, with the real desire of getting instruction, bring forward, not a question for debate, but a request for advice. For it is from this desire that a true inquiry always proceeds; and I praise the faith which has believed in the duty of complying with the rule, before it has learned the reason of it. An easy thing it is at once to demand where it is written that we should not be crowneded. But is it written that we should be crowned? Indeed, in urgently demanding the warrant of Scripture in a different side from their own, men prejudge that the support of Scripture ought no less to appear on their part. For if it shall be said that it is lawful to be crowned on this ground, that Scripture does not forbid it, it will as validly be retorted that just on this ground is the crown unlawful, because the Scripture does not enjoin it. What shall discipline do? Shall it accept both things, as if neither were forbidden? Or shall it refuse both, as if neither were enjoined? But “the thing which is not forbidden is freely permitted.” I should rather say that what has not been freely allowed is forbidden”.

    In chapter 3, he argues that tradition can establish beliefs and practices just as well as scriptures:

    “And how long shall we draw the saw to and fro through this line, when we have an ancient practice, which by anticipation has made for us the state, i.e., of the question? If no passage of Scripture has prescribed it, assuredly custom, which without doubt flowed from tradition, has confirmed it. For how can anything come into use, if it has not first been handed down?”

    Now comes an important statement that he makes about what his opponents would answer to this:

    Even in pleading tradition, written authority, you say, must be demanded.

    So it seems that his opponents were hostil to mere oral tradition and demanded that tradition be proved in Scripture.

    Look at how Tertuliian answers to that objection:

    “Let us inquire, therefore, whether tradition, unless it be written, should not be admitted. Certainly we shall say that it ought not to be admitted, if no cases of other practices which, without any written instrument, we maintain on the ground of tradition alone, and the countenance thereafter of custom, affords us any precedent. To deal with this matter briefly, I shall begin with baptism. When we are going to enter the water, but a little before, in the presence of the congregation and under the hand of the president, we solemnly profess that we disown the devil, and his pomp, and his angels. Hereupon we are thrice immersed, making a somewhat ampler pledge than the Lord has appointed in the Gospel. Then when we are taken up (as new-born children), we taste first of all a mixture of milk and honey, and from that day we refrain from the daily bath for a whole week…If, for these and other such rules, you insist upon having positive Scripture injunction, you will find none. Tradition will be held forth to you as the originator of them, custom as their strengthener, and faith as their observer”.

    You can read the whole book here:

  4. Frank Brito said

    Besides that, Sola Scriptura was explicitly held by the so-called “pre-reformers” like John Wycliffe and John Huss before Luther came along. They held beliefs similair to the Reformers altough the Reformers were not influence by them and Luther scarcely had any knowledge about him in the beginning of the Reformation.
    It seems that Gottschalk was a notorious theologian who also held to Sola Scriptura in the nineth century as well as to other beliefs later held by the Protestants like double predestination. It’s hard to tell how much influence he acctually had and for how long.

    Also you must remember that not everything that ocurred in history can be easily tracked, especially when it contradicted the opinions of those in power.

    • foospro86 said

      Why should I care about the pre-revolutionaries? I’ve never heard of Gottschalk. Must not be very important.

      If the 9th century is the best you can do, the furthest you can go back, then that is a very poor showing for Sola Scriptura. I can support my Catholic views for Tradition and papal authority going back to the 1st and 2nd c. AD.

  5. To save time, i will just post this link here:

    • foospro86 said

      I think you mean to save you the effort, sincerity, and charity of actually engaging my post and me in conversation.

  6. Gkoh said

    How about Jesus? Matthew 15:1-9. (Also Mark 7). Jesus here clearly accepts a place for tradition as long as it does not contradict the commands of God (Scripture). His entire argument, to those who sat on the seat of Moses, is that they should have held their traditions subject to Scripture and could judge any tradition’s validity by measuring it against Scripture. Not a bad starting place for the primacy of Scripture. Or is that not old enough?

    • Tony Listi said

      Gkoh, when I say “history,” I mean after the times related in the Bible. I’m talking about the those Christian leaders who came immediately after the Twelve Apostles and who *surely* had the correct interpretation of Scripture because they knew its apostolic writers personally. I explained this in this post above, but you apparently didn’t take seriously my invitation to explore/discuss history. Would you like to accept my invitation? If your interpretations of Scripture are correct, then surely the earliest Christian leaders would hold those same interpretations, no?

      Also, in that passage that you refer to (Mt 15), Jesus says absolutely nothing about Scripture itself. Jesus refers to the “word of God” and the “commandment of God” and to what “Moses said” (Mk 7:10). Moses was God’s authority on earth, and Moses spoke the “word of God” and the “commandments of God” to the people of Israel. What Moses spoke with divine authority on earth was later written down in the Torah. And when some Israelites rejected Moses’ divine authority on earth, God killed them (Number 16), though Miriam and Aaron were spared for their rejection of authority.

      Nowhere in the Bible does Jesus say the individual person’s personal interpretation of Scripture was the ultimate authority. Moreover, the New Testament Scriptures weren’t even written when Jesus was walking the earth. How do we even know what is Scripture and what is not unless someone with God’s authority tells us?

      It’s interesting that you bring up “Moses’ seat.” That phrase/tradition cannot be found anywhere in the Old Testament Scriptures and yet Jesus still refers to and accepts this authoritative “unbiblical” Jewish tradition. Moreover, Jesus’ point when referring to Moses’ seat is that the Pharisees held real divine authority: “The scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you…” (Mt 23). This same authority was transferred to Peter (Mt 16:18-19) and the other eleven apostles (Mt 18:18). Peter took over the seat of Moses, as did all his successors in Rome.

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