The Book of Kells: an old Irish Bible manuscript that is one proof of thousands of how little Catholics valued Holy Scripture
It's easy to “prove” that Church fathers believed as Protestants do with regard to sola Scriptura, (Holy Scripture as the only infallible norm of faith, and the denial of the infallibility of popes, the Church, and ecumenical councils), when only one aspect of their beliefs and writings (their view of Holy Scripture) is stressed and equally important portions about tradition, the authority of the Church, and apostolic succession are omitted.
A half-truth is as bad as an untruth. If the fathers are only cited when they write about Scripture, with carefully selected tidbits, chosen for the Protestant “ear”, then they will look a lot like Protestants, especially if someone is predisposed to read Protestantism (or reasonable facsimile thereof) into their views in the first place.
For this reason, one must also examine what these same fathers think about tradition, the Church, councils, bishops, and apostolic succession, and then consider their entire view, not portions of it removed from immediate context and their overall thought. The patristic researcher should look to see if a father thinks Scripture is formally sufficient for authority without the necessary aid of tradition and the Church, or if he does not, as indicated in other statements.
Entire books are written about the fathers' supposed belief in sola Scriptura, when in fact they are merely expressing their belief in the material sufficiency of Scripture, and its inspiration and sufficiency to refute heretics and false doctrine generally.
Any thinker's statements must be evaluated in the context of all of his thought, rather than having pieces taken out and seemingly “proving” something that they do not prove at all. In other words, even if a quote is found where a father seems (at first glance) to be stating something akin to sola Scriptura (since he is writing about the Bible without immediate reference to Church or tradition), one must examine what the same person believes about tradition, Church, and apostolic succession, because the very question at hand (what is the rule of faith?) has to do with the relation of all those things. All those factors in his writing have to be analyzed, in order to properly understand his overall and complete view.
Protestants place the Bible above Church and tradition, and deny that the latter two can be infallible. Catholics and Orthodox, on the other hand, believe in a three-legged stool, where, practically speaking, Church and tradition have equal authority with Scripture, because they are the necessary framework and grid through which Scripture can be properly interpreted in an orthodox sense.
The Church's and tradition's role in interpreting Scripture was and is more of a "negative" control or check. The Church is, in effect, asserting: "if you teach a heresy based on biblical passages a, b, c that contradict sacred tradition as passed down through apostolic succession and uniquely preserved by the Holy Spirit in the one true Church, then you are interpreting wrongly, because Scripture and tradition are harmonious."
The Catholic view of authority and Holy Scripture is not about some ubiquitous churchman looking over everyone's shoulder so that they would interpret each and every verse exactly as the Church says it ought to be interpreted (in fact, less than ten Bible verses are “officially” interpreted by the Catholic Church). People can read the Bible and it was largely clear; just not always, and it is not self-interpreting enough to prevent heresy without the Church intervening on behalf of orthodoxy. This is the Catholic rule of faith.The Protestant rule of faith, sola Scriptura, on the other hand, cannot pronounce on orthodoxy, except on a denominational level only. All it can do is appeal back to the individual and claim that Scripture is perspicuous (clear) and formally sufficient and that no Church council has binding authority if an individual sees otherwise in Holy Scripture. That can never bring about unity, and never has in fact, because it is inadequate for establishing orthodoxy as applying to all Christians across the board.
Sola Scriptura (rightly understood, or in its "classical" and most sophisticated form) does not rule out all considerations of and respect for tradition and the Church. Most Protestants would say they have a considerable amount of respect for the authority of both the “Church” (i.e., how they define it) and tradition. Sola Scriptura only denies that anything other than the Bible can be infallible. I am not here concerned with the extreme, fringe, a-historical "Bible Only" view because most thoughtful Protestant apologists and scholars and other thinkers reject that, just as Catholics do.
Protestant apologists often charge that Catholics see the word “tradition” in patristic writings and fail to understand how it is used in many different senses or definitions. But the exact nature of the tradition referred to by a father is less important than the fact that he places it in a certain position vis a vis Scripture. Furthermore, differing conceptions of tradition among the fathers also do not affect the goal of determining whether they believed in sola Scriptura or not.
Let us assume for the sake of argument that three fathers held three somewhat differing notions of what tradition is. This poses no problem for the Catholic argument, because it is not about the precise definition of tradition held by each father, but rather (again), about how they view tradition (however they define it) in relationship to Holy Scripture. Let me illustrate:
1. Church father #1 believes that tradition is the oral unwritten record passed down of things that can always be found explicitly in Scripture.
2. Church father #2 believes that tradition is the oral unwritten record passed down of things that can always be found either explicitly or implicitly in Scripture.
3. Church father #3 believes that tradition is the oral and written record passed down of things that can always be found explicitly in Scripture.
4. Church father #4 believes that tradition is the oral and written record passed down of things that can always be found either explicitly or implicitly in Scripture.
5. Church father #5 believes that tradition is the oral and written record passed down of things that can always be found either explicitly or implicitly in Scripture, including what is recorded in Scripture itself, since the Bible is inspired and preeminent part of the larger apostolic tradition, and equates the "word of God" and the "gospel" with "tradition."
There might be (and indeed were, as a matter of historical fact) a number of differing conceptions, but all of the hypothetical fathers above accept authoritative apostolic tradition. The bottom line is that a father could hold any one of these definitions of "tradition" and still would be opposed to sola Scriptura, depending on how he views each relative to the other.
If one's goal in argument, then, is to show that a father did not believe in sola Scriptura, whichever definition of tradition that he holds will not affect the demonstration, if in fact he places tradition (and/or the Church) in an authoritative position in a manner contrary to the Protestant rule of faith, or sola Scriptura.
Thus, if Church fathers #1, #2, #3, #4, and #5 each applies his particular definition of "tradition" and believes that Church and tradition have a practical authority and a necessary role in interpreting Scripture, and that it is meaningless to pit any of the three against another, and that they do not contradict, but are all of a piece, they all deny sola Scriptura; period; end of discussion.
It doesn't matter what definition of "tradition" each one utilizes because it is a relational proposition. It doesn't matter if any of the above views aren't absolutely identical in every particular to my view today as a Catholic, or what stage of theological development in the history of Christianity is involved, or what a Protestant debater may think (correctly or incorrectly) Catholicism is. All that has to be shown is that tradition and the Church are not surbordinate to Scripture in terms of authority, or deemed to be incapable of infallibility.
This brings to mind Jesus' conversation with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). Scripture states:
And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.
(Luke 24:27; RSV)
The two disciples later marvelled at how Jesus "opened to us the Scriptures" (Luke 24:32). In other words, those prophecies were not understood until Jesus explained them, and in fact, most of the Jews did not see that they were fulfilled. Thus, Old Testament Scripture was insufficient for these messianic truths to be grasped simply by reading them. One could retort that the Jews were hard-hearted and thus could not understand since they had not the Holy Spirit and God's grace to illumine their understanding. But that proves too much because it would also have to apply to these two disciples, and indeed all of the disciples, who did not understand what was happening, even after Jesus repeatedly told them that He was to suffer and to die, and that this was all foretold. They didn't "get it" till after He was crucified.
The rest of the Psalm shows that He knew that His Father would grant all His requests, and would raise Him from the dead. It also shows that He encouraged all who fear God to praise Him, because through the mystery of the Crucified One He had mercy on the faithful of every race; and that He stood in the midst of His brethren, the Apostles (who, after He arose from the dead and convinced them that He had warned them before the Passion that He had to suffer, and that this was foretold by the Prophets, were most sorry that they had abandoned Him at the crucifixion).
(St. Justin Martyr, Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 106, ANF, Vol. I)
The Phillips Modern English translation renders Luke 24:32 as, "he made the scriptures plain to us." The Greek word for "opened" is dianoigo (Strong's word #1272). According to Joseph Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1977 reprint of 1901 edition, p. 140), it means "to open by dividing or drawing asunder, to open thoroughly (what had been closed)."
This meaning can be seen in other passages where dianoigo appears: Mk 7:34-35, Lk 2:23, 24:31,45, Acts 16:14, 17:3). Obviously, then, Holy Scripture is informing us that some parts of it were "closed" and "not plain" until the "infallible" teaching authority and interpretation of our Lord Jesus opened it up and made it plain.
This runs utterly contrary to the Protestant notion of perspicuity of Scripture and its more or less ubiquitous self-interpreting nature; also to biblical passages such as 1 Peter 1:20: ". . . no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one's own private interpretation" (cf. Peter's description of Paul's letters: "There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures" - 2 Peter 3:16). The need for an interpreter was also illustrated in the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch:
It turns out that he was reading Isaiah 53:7-8, as we are informed in Acts 8:32-33. Philip then interprets the passage as referring to Jesus, and preaches the gospel to the eunuch (Acts 8:35). An authoritative interpreter was needed. And no one can say that the eunuch didn't understand because of "hardness of heart" because subsequent events show that he was willing to accept the truth (as he got baptized in Acts 8:38). He simply didn't have enough information. He needed the authoritative ("infallible," if you will) teacher. Old Testament Scripture (which was Justin's primary Scripture) was not sufficient enough for him to come to the knowledge of the truth.
. . . he was reading the prophet Isaiah . . . So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, "Do you understand what you are reading?" And he said, "How can I, unless someone guides me?"
(Acts 8:28,30-31; RSV)