Skip to main content

The Rule of Faith in Patristic Thought

J. A. Gallegos March 16, 2010 No Comments

Remove not the ancient landmark which your fathers have set. (Prov. 22:28 RSV)

Regarding the authorities of Scripture, Tradition and a teaching Church, there are a number of recurring themes throughout the writings of the Church Fathers. The Church Fathers consisted of those men who exhibited these four marks: (1) orthodoxy in teaching, (2) holiness in life, (3) Church approval and (4) antiquity. Some partially fulfilled these marks such as Tertullian, Origen and Eusebius of Ceasarea. They have been included in this article due to their invaluable contribution to the Church.

Sufficiency of the Scriptures

First, the Fathers found that the most perfect expression of the apostolic heritage is to be found within the pages of Holy Writ.

Irenaeus (ca. A.D. 140-ca. A.D. 202) writes:

[B]eing most properly assured that the Scriptures are indeed perfect, since they were spoken by the Word of God and His Spirit. (Against Heresies 2,28:2).

Athanasius (ca. A.D. 295-A.D. ca. 373), the great Patriarch of Alexandria, writes:

 [T]he tokens of truth are more exact as drawn from Scripture, than from other sources. (Nicene Definition 32).

It is clear that the Fathers affirmed that  all of the doctrines of the Catholic faith are to be found within the Bible. If the doctrine is not found within its covers, then the doctrine is clearly not apostolic.

Tertullian of Carthage (ca. A.D. 155/160-ca. A.D. 240/250) writes:

If it is nowhere written, then let it fear the woe which impends on all who add or to take away from the written word. (Against Hermogenes 22).

Ambrose (ca. A.D. 533-ca. A.D. 397), the bishop of Milan, writes:

For how can we adopt those things which we do not find in the holy Scriptures? (Duties of the Clergy I,23:102).

Augustine, the bishop of Hippo (ca. A.D. 354-ca. A.D. 430), writes:

[W]hat more can I teach you, than what we read in the Apostle? For holy Scripture setteth a rule to our teaching, that we dare not ‘be wise more than behoveth to be wise;’ … Be it not therefore for me to teach you any other thing, save to you the words of the Teacher. (Widowhood 2).

Cyril of Alexandria (died A.D. 444) writes:

Not all that the Lord did was written down, but only what was deemed sufficient, either from the point of view of morals, or from the point of view of dogmas. (Comm. John 12).

The Fathers often appealed to Scripture for justifying and proving the apostolicity of  Catholic doctrines.

Origen of Alexandria (ca. A.D. 185-ca. A.D. 253/254) writes:

In proof of all words which we advance in matters of doctrine, we ought to set forth the sense of Scripture as confirming the meaning which we are proposing….Therefore we should not take our own ideas for the confirmation of doctrine, unless someone shows that they are holy because they are contained in the divine Scriptures as in the temples of God (Comm on Matthew 25).

Hippolytus of Rome (died A.D. 235) writes:

There is, brethren, one God, the knowledge of whom we gain from the Holy Scriptures and no other source. (Against Noetus 9).

Likewise, Cyril of Jerusalem (ca. A.D. 315-ca. A.D. 386) writes:

For concerning the divine and holy mysteries of the Faith, not even a casual statement must be delivered without the Holy Scriptures; nor must we be drawn aside by mere plausibility and artifices of speech. Even to me, who tell thee these things, give not absolute credence, unless thou receive the proof of the things which I announce from the Divine Scriptures. For this salvation which we believe depends not on ingenious reasoning, but on the demonstration of the Holy Scriptures. (Catechetical Lectures 4:17).

Passages similar to these on behalf of the authority of Scripture can be culled from the Fathers without end. The Church Fathers clearly affirmed the material sufficiency of the Scriptures. In fact, one may be tempted to present these passages in support of the novel idea that the Church Fathers embraced sola scriptura. However, when one examines the faith of these very same Fathers one can find equally forceful and authoritative testimony on behalf of Tradition and a teaching Church. Therefore, when the Church Fathers speak on sufficiency and authority of Scripture they do so not in a vacuum but within the context of the Church and her inerrant Tradition. The Fathers never separated Scripture from the Church and her Tradition.The Fathers never separated Scripture from the Church and her Tradition. Share on X

Sacred Tradition

The second recurring theme throughout the writings of the Church Fathers is that these very same Scriptures are to be understood and interpreted only within the milieu of the Church’s Tradition. A private understanding of  Scripture is the fatal flaw of the heretic. According to the Church Fathers, Tradition was simply the entire apostolic deposit that was transmitted to the Church  along with Scripture.

Irenaeus writes:

For how should it be of the apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary, [in that case] to follow the course of tradition which was handed down to those whom they did commit the Churches? (Against Heresies 3,4:1).

In other words, the substance of  Tradition is materially coincident with Scripture.

Both Scripture and Tradition were essentially the same in substance differing primarily in their degree of explicitness and mode of transmission. The substance of Tradition was transmitted to subsequent generations of the Church through various monuments. These traditional monuments include such things as the texts of the magisterium, liturgy, the writings of the Church Fathers, catechesis, art, creeds, and the faith of the Church.

The Fathers understood Tradition and Scripture as complementary authorities. The Fathers never pitted Scripture against Tradition or asked the question which authority was greater. Tradition was utilized not so much in providing material truths not contained in Scripture, but rather as the surest guide in interpreting  the Sacred text. This theme was so entrenched in the faith of the Church Fathers that it became one of their favorite charges against the heretics of the early Church. Athanasius refuting the Arians private understanding of Scripture writes:

[I]f we now consider the scope of that faith which we Christians hold, and using it as a rule, apply ourselves, as the Apostle teaches to the reading of inspired Scripture. For Christ’s enemies, being ignorant of this scope, have wandered from the way of truth,  and have stumbled on a stone of stumbling, thinking otherwise than they should think…[L]et us, retaining the general scope of the faith, acknowledge that what they interpret ill, has a right interpretation. (Against the Arians 3:28,35).

Gregory of Nyssa (ca. A.D. 335-ca. A.D. 394) in his refutation against Eunomius contrasts the ecclesiastical understanding of Scripture with the heretics private judgement:

[I]f they were about to bring over to their views, not men light as dust, and unstable, but men of weight and steadiness: but so long as their statement is advanced without being established, and without being proved, who is so foolish and so brutish as to account the teaching of the evangelists and apostles, and of those who successively shone like lights in the churches, of less force than this undemonstrated nonsense? (Against Eunomius 4:6).

As a result of abandoning the Church and her Tradition, heretics have divided and dissented among themselves.

Athanasius writes:

For they dissent from each other, and, whereas they have revolted from their fathers, are not of one and the same mind, but float about with various discordant changes. (Councils of Ariminum and Seleucia 14).

Similarly, Ephraem of Syria (ca. A.D. 306-ca. A.D. 373) observes the same:

For all heresies delight in division; on the other hand, the true mother, and the alone church of Christ, avoids dissension and schisms. (Comm. on Sacred Scripture).

Materially, the rule of faith of the early Church consisted of both Scripture and Tradition. The Fathers often brought together in their writings the normative  authorities of Scripture and Tradition. Athanasius in this magisterial passage writes:

But beyond these [Scriptural] sayings, let us look at the very tradition, teaching, and faith of the Catholic Church from the beginning which the Lord gave, the Apostles preached, and the Fathers kept. Upon this the Church is founded, and he who should fall away from it would not be a Christian, and should no longer be so called. (To Serapion 1:28)

Basil (ca. A.D. 330-ca. A.D. 374) in his defense of the deity of the Holy Spirit writes:

Of the dogmas and kergymas preserved in the Church, some we possess from written teaching and others we receive from the tradition of the Apostles, handed on to us in mystery. In respect to piety both are of the same force. No one will contradict any of these, no one, at any rate, who is even moderately versed in matters ecclesiastical. Indeed, were we to try to reject unwritten customs as having no great authority, we would unwittingly injure the Gospel in its vitals; or rather, we would reduce kergyma to a mere term. (Holy Spirit 27:66)

Cyril of Alexandria writes:

[W]e give thanks to God, the Saviour of the world, rejoicing with one another that our Churches, both ours and yours, hold a faith in accordance with the divinely inspired Scriptures and with the tradition of our holy Fathers. (To John of Antioch 39)

Many of the Church Fathers bring forth the very same passages that Catholic apologists today use in support of the Catholic rule of faith.

John Chrysostom  (ca. A.D. 344/354-ca. A.D. 407) writes:

‘So then, brethren, stand fast, and hold to the traditions which ye were taught, whether by word, or by Epistle of ours.’ [2 Thess 2:15] 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. (Homily 2nd Epistle to the Thess.)

Epiphanius, bishop of Salamis (ca. A.D. 315-ca. A.D. 403), writes in his work against various heresies:

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 scripture but some in traditions, as St. Paul says, ‘As I delivered the tradition to you,’ [1 Cor 11:2] and elsewhere, ‘So I teach, and so I have delivered the tradition in the churches,’ [1 Cor 4:17] and, ‘If ye keep the tradition in memory, unless ye believed in vain.’ [1 Cor 15:2] (Panarion 61).

The Fathers realized that Tradition as well as her Scriptures could be twisted and misinterpreted. The Fathers affirmed the Church alone, through her authentic succession from the Apostles,  possessed the authority to interpret and transmit the entire apostolic deposit.

Teaching Church

The final persistent theme in the faith of the early Church Fathers is that Christ entrusted the entire deposit of faith to the Church and the responsibility for interpreting it in an orthodox and authoritative manner. Irenaeus affirms that the truth is to be found nowhere else but within the Church. He writes:

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. (Against Heresies 3,4:1).

Athanasius writes:

[W]e are content with the fact that this is not the teaching of the Catholic Church, nor did the Fathers hold this. (Epistle 59:3).

Ambrose, in sharp contrast, compares  the authority of the Catholic Church and the wayward path of heretics:

Wherefore all other generations are strangers to truth; all the generations of heretics hold  not the truth: the church alone, with pious affection, is in possession of the truth. (Psalm 118:19).

Augustine in this classic passage against Manichaeus writes:

The epistle begins thus:—’Manichaeus, an apostle of Jesus Christ, by the providence of God the Father. These are the wholesome words from the perennial and living fountain.’ Now, if you please, patiently give heed to my inquiry. I do not believe Manichaeus to be an apostle of Christ. Do not, I beg you, be enraged and begin to curse. For you know that it is my rule to believe none of your statements without consideration. Therefore I ask, who is this Manichaeus? You will reply, An Apostle of Christ. I do not believe it. Now you are at a loss what to say or do; for you promised to give knowledge of truth, and here you are forcing me to believe what I have no knowledge of. Perhaps you will read the gospel to me, and will attempt to find there a testimony to Manichaeus. But should you meet with a person not yet believing in the gospel, how would you reply to him were he to say, I do not believe? For my part, I should not believe the gospel except moved by the authority of the Catholic Church. So when those  on whose authority I have  consented to believe in the gospel tell me not to believe in Manichaeus, how can I but consent? (Against Ep. Mani 5:6).

Irenaeus of Lyons refuting the Gnostics writes:

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, which is more precious than knowledge, more glorious than prophecy, and which excels all the other gifts [of God]. (Against Heresies 4,33:8).

In other words, the Scriptures are the property of the Church not the play toy of the individual. Likewise, Tertullian offers this classic passage:

Since this is the case, in order that the truth may be adjudged to belong to us, ‘as many as walk according to the rule, ‘ which the church has handed down from the apostles, the apostles from Christ, and Christ from God, the reason of our position is clear, when it determines that heretics ought not to be allowed to challenge an appeal to the Scriptures, since we, without the Scriptures, prove that they have nothing to do with the Scriptures. For as they are heretics, they cannot be true Christians, because it is not from Christ that they get that which they pursue of their own mere choice, and from the pursuit incur and admit the name of heretics. Thus, not being Christians, they have acquired no right to the Christian Scriptures; and it may be very fairly said to them, ‘Who are you? (Prescription 37).

In other words, in order to obtain the authentic and orthodox sense of  Scripture one must do so only within the Church.

During the patristic period, the ecumenical council was an example of the Church acting in an infallible and authoritative manner. The creeds, definitions and canons of the ecumenical councils were binding on the consciences of all Christians. The Church Fathers had a singular question in mind  in transmitting the faith, was this the faith that was given to me by my spiritual forefathers in the Church? The Church Fathers did not care to give their own understanding of Scripture or synthesize doctrines on the basis of the apostolic data. The Church Fathers did not want to be considered innovators rather they wanted to be known as faithful transmitters of the faith. This faithful transmission of the gospel is the purpose of an ecumenical council.

Athanasius commenting on the unimpeachable authority of the Council of Nicea writes:

As to the Nicene Council, it was not a common meeting, but convened upon a pressing necessity, and for a reasonable object….’Thus believes the Catholic Church;’ and thereupon they confessed how they believed, in order to shew that their own sentiments were not novel, but Apostolical; and what they wrote down was no discovery of theirs, but is the same as was taught by the Apostles. (Councils of Ariminum and Seleucia 5).

Vincent of Lerins (died A.D. 450) echos the same idea:

Next we expressed our admiration of the humility and sanctity of that Council, such that, though the number of priests was so great, almost the more part of them metropolitans, so erudite, so learned, that almost all were capable of taking part in doctrinal discussions, whom the very circumstance of their being assembled for the purpose, might seem to embolden to make some determination on their own authority, yet they innovated nothing, presumed nothing, arrogated to themselves absolutely nothing, but used all possible care to hand down nothing to posterity but what they had themselves received from their Fathers. And not only did they dispose satisfactorily of the matter presently in hand, but they also set an example to those who should come  after them, how they also should adhere to the determinations of sacred antiquity, and condemn the devices of profane novelty. (Commonitory 31:82).

According to the Fathers, the Church was given sole  authority and responsibility to preserve, transmit and interpret the apostolic faith.

Lastly, during this patristic period, there was a growing recognition of the authority of the See of Rome. Rome viewed herself, as did the Church Fathers, as the primary mouthpiece and expositor of the Catholic faith. Irenaeus provides us with this classic shortcut to the Church’s Tradition:

Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self‑pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the apostolical tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere. (Against Heresies 3,3:2).

Athanasius in communion with the bishops at Sardica write:

So it seems to us right and altogether fitting that priests of the Lord from each and every province should report to their head, that is, to the See of Peter, the Apostle. (Council of Sardica to Pope Julius).

Augustine writes:

[T]o the Roman Church, in which the supremacy of an apostolic chair has always flourished (Ep. 43).

Optatus of Milevis (ca. A.D. 330-ca. A.D. 385) lists all the Popes from Peter to Sircius writes:

[W]ith whom we, and all the world, are united in communion. Now you Donatists show us your genealogy of your episcopal ministry (Against Parmen.)

The Fathers at Ephesus (A.D. 431) write:

There is no doubt…that the holy and most blessed Peter, prince and head of the apostles,  pillar of the faith and foundation of the Catholic Church, received the keys of the kingdom … Our holy and most blessed Pope Celestine the bishop is according to due order his successor and holds his place (Ephesus Session III)

The Fathers at Chalcedon (A.D. 451) write:

Peter has spoken through Leo. (Chalcedon  Session II).

According to the Fathers, the exercise of the authority of the teaching Church  included the everyday teaching of the bishops throughout the world,  the teachings proclaimed by the bishops meeting in an ecumenical Council and  the particular authority vested in the See of Rome.

Toward Synthesis

Vincent of Lerins’ Commonitory is considered a pinnacle in the development of the Church’s understanding of authority during the patristic period. Vincent, in this classic passage, brings together the Fathers’ understanding of the sufficiency of Scripture, Sacred Tradition and a teaching Church. Vincent writes:

But here some one perhaps will ask,’ Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church’s interpretation? ‘For this reason,—because, owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters. For Novatian expounds it one way, Sabellius another, Donatus another, Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, another, Photinus, Apollinaris, Priscillian, another, Iovinian, Pelagius, Celestius, another, lastly, Nestorius another. Therefore, it is very necessary, on account of so great intricacies of such various error, that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of Ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation. (Commonitory 2:5)

The testimony of Vincent of Lerins, which represents the faith of the Fathers, is crystal clear. A private understanding of Scripture apart from Tradition breeds division, dissension and heresy. Scripture is put on its highest pedestal only when it is understood by the Church. According to the Fathers,  Scripture is sufficient only within the milieu of the Church and Tradition.

The Fathers regarded Scripture and Tradition as complementary authorities. Scripture and Tradition were less considered independent sources as they were simply two different mediums in transmitting the single deposit of faith. That is why one can readily find cries from the Fathers such as “all teachings must be in accordance with Scripture” as frequent as cries that say “all teachings must be in accordance with Tradition” or “this teaching must be in accordance with the ecclesiastical faith.”

The title “Church Father” by itself refutes the notion of sola scriptura. First, as a Church Father, they were first and foremost men of the Church, as such, they cared only to transmit the Church’s understanding of the apostolic faith. Second, as a Church Father, they cared only to transmit to their spiritual children what was taught to them by their spiritual forefathers in the church. Augustine writes:

[T]he sentiments of the bishops who have gone before us, men who treated these divine words faithfully and memorably… what they found in the church, they held; what they had learned, they taught; what they had received from the fathers, this they delivered to the children. (Against Julian 2,19:34)

This is the faith of the Church Fathers and the Catholic Church. The Fathers at Vatican II write:

Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit. And Holy Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit…Thus it comes about that the Church does not draw truths from the holy Scripture alone (Dei verbum 9).

Sacred Tradition and sacred Scripture make up a single sacred deposit of the Word of God, which is entrusted to the Church…But the task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God…has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. (Dei verbum 10).

The Church Fathers never separated Scripture, Tradition and Church. If one separated Scripture or Tradition or the Church they all become crippled. Once apart, Scripture becomes mere letters and Tradition becomes a lifeless traditionalism. Similarly, Ambrose and Augustine write:

The traditions of the Scripture are his body; the Church is his body.’ (Comm on Luke)

We learn about Christ in the Scriptures, we learn about the Church in the Scriptures. If you accept Christ, why do you not accept the Church? (Ep. 105)

J. A. Gallegos

Joseph A. Gallegos, is a graduate of the University of California, Irvine and West Coast University, Los Angeles. He is very active in Catholic apologetics, having created Corunum Apologetics BBS in 1992, and an international Web site ( for his expertise on patristic thought regarding the Papacy and Tradition. He is the author of “What did the Church Fathers Teach about Scripture, Tradition, and Church Authority” in Not by Scripture Alone (Queenship, 1997).

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap