The Primitive Church: Scripture Superior To Tradition?


I had received an anonymous email from a reader in a different country, and his question pertained to whether the early Church fathers believed in the Protestant dogma of “Sola Scriptura” and/or whether the appeal to “tradition” was, however useful, still a component inferior to the substance of Scripture. I put my answer in 2 points.

(1) The position of the early Church was very clearly dedicated to Holy Scripture as “God-breathed” revelation. As such, the inspired writings were venerated as infallible and inerrant. However, so was the “oral” preaching of the Apostles. This is clearly indicated by 2 Thess 2:15 where St. Paul writes to the Church of Thessaly with the following instruction – “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter“. So here, a portion of Sacred Scripture tells us that the oral Apostolic witness was equally to be assented to alongside of written Scripture. The imperative is to “standfast” and “hold to” the “traditions” which either found manifestation in writing or in oral communication. Thus, at the very least, the Apostolic era had an inspired oral medium through which the content of divine revelation was being disseminated among the Greco-Roman world (1st Century).

(2) The question is whether after the Apostolic era, would the boundaries of divine revelation be solely inscribed to the text of a canon of some sort. Well, we know there was not a singular canon in use for the first few centuries of the Church. The fathers *did* refer to a “Body of Scriptures” which included the Old Testament and the New Testament, and they did pay special respect to it in contradistinction to the common and public preaching of the officials of the Church. You might even find them saying that appeal to Scripture is amply sufficient to settle doctrinal disputes. And such would be no problem at all. That might be the scenario for a son of the Church who is following the tradition of the Bishops in Apostolic succession. To “him” it might be abundantly clear, and certainly from very early on we see “Bible-thumping” as a way to refute heretics. Nothing wrong with that at all.  However, what the early Apologists learned was that appeal to Scripture and its proper interpretation was not sufficient to protect the veracity and authenticity of the divine Gospel, and so what we begin to see is *in addition* to an appeal to Scripture, we have an appeal to the public guardianship of the Apostolic faith by the Elders of the Churches which had received physical origination from the Apostles themselves, or those apostles (lower case) who associated closely with the Apostles. In other words, another institution came into the weaponry of the early Apologists, namely, the visible tradition held by the visible succession of Bishops. Therefore, if the heretics did not conform to the regula fide (rule of faith) as held by the tradition of the succession (Bishops), they were invalidated simply thereby. It is around this time that guys such as Tertullian and St. Irenaeus codify this structure of a visible criteria or standard by which to identify the authentic Apostolic faith against the myriad schismatics and heretics who all claimed to have Scripture, its proper interpretation, and the “secret” knowledge of the Apostles (Gnostics). I recommend reading St. Irenaeus (Adversus Heresies) and Tertullian (Prescription Against the Heretics). Both of these are free online. Now, one last note – This does not mean that the Apologists were merely appealing to some accidental component of history (i.e .Apostolic succession) which merely strengthened the Scriptural interpretation of one side. No, the progression from “Bible thumping” to an “appeal to the true Church” was not an innovation, but rather the latter utility was something deduced from Scripture and the original Christian tradition itself. So what the Apologists were simply doing was initially using the citations of Scripture to fight their primary battle, but then drawing out other weaponry from the arsenal which *was always there* but which did not get taken out and put into use as much. The regula fide as held by the universal succession of Apostolic bishops who were all united in one and the same belief system as itself not an inferior element under the Word of God, but was the guardian of the latter. The dictum was “The Scripture belongs to the Church”, etc,etc. This development was particularly useful contra the Gnostics who, for the most part, at least initially, appeared to be very ascetic communities dedicated to the Eucharistic meal, avid readers of Holy Scripture, studious in intellectual study, and whose piety appeared extraordinary. Warring by citation vs. citation, thankfully, is not all that the Apologists had to fend and protect the Apostolic faith, being convinced more artillery was available by the promise of Christ which was understood to pertain to the Spirit’s ongoing guidance and assistance through the Apostolate which is perpetuated through the succession spoken of above. I will cite from one particular passage in Irenaeus below which points in the direction I’m going here, but please read all of his Adversus Heresies.

“Since therefore we have such proofs, it is not necessary to seek the truth among others which it is easy to obtain from the Church; since the apostles, like a rich man [depositing his money] in a bank, lodged in her hands most copiously all things pertaining to the truth: so that every man, whosoever will, can draw from her the water of life. For she is the entrance to life; all others are thieves and robbers. On this account are we bound to avoid them, but to make choice of the thing pertaining to the Church with the utmost diligence, and to lay hold of the tradition of the truth. For how stands the case? Suppose there arise a dispute relative to some important question among us, should we not have recourse to the most ancient Churches with which the apostles held constant intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question? For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary, [in that case,] to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they did commit the Churches?” (Book 3, Chapter 4)

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