Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Sola Scriptura--What is Meant by Scriptura

As a Lutheran, I was taught the three solas:  sola fide, sola gratia and, probably the biggest one, sola Scriptura.  Sola, alone, is such a limiting word and it compartmentalizes the faith in such a way that it is little wonder that the Reformers jettisoned so much from the historic liturgy, historic praxis and catholic faith to fit into those categories.  Of course, the Reformers, in particular the Lutherans, rather than correct the necessary abuses, came up with these three categories and then pushed the faith into them. Whatever still remained outside was to be considered an error, heresy, etc and thus was pushed out, too.  Besides the problem with the word, sola (alone), is what the Reformers thought the words fides, gratia and Scriptura meant. We'll deal with the latter here.

Frequently, Lutherans and Protestants, in general, will quote church fathers arguing that when they use the term Scriptures, they mean "Bible."  Here are a few examples:

St. Athanasius-- The holy and inspired Scriptures are fully sufficient for the proclamation of the truth. (Against the Heathen, I:3)

St. Gregory of Nyssa--For we make Sacred Scripture the rule and the norm of every doctrine. Upon that we are obliged to fix our eyes, and we approve only whatever can be brought into harmony with the intent of these writings. (On the Soul and the Resurrection)  and   Let the inspired Scriptures then be our umpire, and the vote of truth will be given to those whose dogmas are found to agree with the Divine words. (On the Holy Trinity)

St. John Chrysostom--Regarding the things I say, I should supply even the proofs, so I will not seem to rely on my own opinions, but rather, prove them with Scripture, so that the matter will remain certain and steadfast. (Homily 8 On Repentance and the Church)

St. Cyril of Jerusalem--For concerning the divine and holy mysteries of the Faith, not even a casual statement must be delivered without the Holy Scriptures (Catechetical Lectures, IV:17)

These are some common "proof texts" from some of the Eastern Fathers about sola Scriptura.  To a Protestant, the word "Bible" can be be used synonymously with Scripture.  But what did Scripture mean for the early fathers?  Did it mean Bible?  It couldn't have been.  First, the concept of the Bible was unknown to the early fathers.  There wasn't even a codified "New Testament" before the 5th century or at least one that was agreed upon universally.  (Also, the Gospels were kept in their own codex, which is still preserved in the Eastern Churches called the "Evangelion" and the letters of St. Paul and St. Peter and St. Jude and St. James and St. John were kept in another codex called the "Apostolos."  During the Liturgy, the Gospel and Epistle are never read from a Bible but from the Evangelion and Apostolos, respectively.)  Even when used in the New Testament, Scripture refers exclusively to the "Old Testament."  In the Nicene Creed, the Symbol of Faith, when we confess secundum Scripturas or, in Greek, kata tas graphas, which mean "in accordance with the Scriptures" or "in fulfillment of the Scriptures" we are referring again to what is know as the Old Testament. And that is what the fathers quoted above mean by it, too.

But what did later fathers mean by Scripture?  A New Testament had been codified by then.  Did the terms Scriptura(e) or Graphi come to be synonymous linked with the term "Bible" maybe in the sixth century?  Even if we assume that it did (and I'm not conceding that point), it refutes the notion of the Reformers that the doctrine of sola Scriptura, referring to both the Old and New Testaments as the foundation of all doctrine does not hold up to historical scrutiny.  The Reformers and her modern heirs, frequently boast that their churches had returned to the church of the apostolic age. So, does Scripture mean both Old and New Testament by the middle of the first millennium?  Very hard to even come to that conclusion.

What is the basic meaning of Scripture, Scriptura, Graphi?  In Greek and Latin, it derives from the word meaning "writing."  By the middle of the first millennium, there were many writings beyond just the Old and New Testament concerning the witness to the revelation of Christ. (Aside:  Just to clarify, and I've said this many times. Word of God is a who not a what? The Word, the Logos is the God-Man (Theanthropos) Christ incarnate.  The Scriptures are a WITNESS to Him who revealed Himself).  This is from the introduction of a recent edition of St. Isaac the Syrian's Ascetical Homilies:

Saint Isaac very often writes about the reading of ‘Scripture’. In English this word has come to mean the Bible and nothing else. In Greek and Syriac, however, this is not the case. We may recall Saint Peter’s words, ‘For prophecy came not in old time by the will of man, but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Spirit’ (2 Peter 1:21). For the Church, ‘Scripture’ refers to the writings of all holy men who were moved by the Spirit: the Prophets, Apostles, and the holy Fathers. Therefore, by ‘Scripture’ Saint Isaac means both the Bible and the writings of the holy Fathers. On a few occasions it is evident from the context that he can only be speaking of the writings of the Fathers; here to avoid confusion, we have used ‘writing.' (emphasis mine; p. 573, published by HTM, 2011)
Now,  St. Isaac the Syrian was no innovator and he is not some minor figure in Orthodoxy (Aside:  I love how certain Protestants demand that the Orthodox faithful name a church father who defends what the Orthodox believe and when such a father is produced, the Protestant retorts that such-and-such is a "minor" figure.  Pr. McCain is particularly guilty of this).  St. Isaac is a very crucial witness in Orthodox theology.  Keep in mind that he lived and wrote in what is modern day Yemen.  Though he held a Christology that was near Nestorian (name me one church father who was completely right on everything), it shows that such a tradition of thought with regards to how to identify the Scriptures as meaning Old/New Testament and the writings of the church fathers was widespread even past the oikoumene of the Eastern Roman Empire which had long lost any political or military hold on the Arabian peninsula.

Orthodox can hold to sola Scriptura, then provided that the meaning of Scriptura is not just Old and New Testaments.  Not only would we include the writings of the holy fathers, but the decrees of the ecumenical councils, the liturgies of St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory the Dialogist and St. James and even icons as Scripture (icons are "written" not painted).  Of course, I doubt seriously that any Protestant would willingly expand the meaning of Scriptura to include all those other witnesses.  Such is why Protestantism cannot be considered to be "catholic" nor the historic faith.

My thanks to Under the Dome for pointing me to this quote from the new edition of St. Isaac's homilies.


  1. Chris,

    I'd be most interested in seeing where St. Isaac uses "scriptures" in the broader sense described in the quote. Can you supply us some instances from that work? By the way, Lutheranism also knows the wider sense when it speaks of the Apocrypha as writings that ought be read (and were read - even into the 20th century) in the Church, though not regarded as canonical of first degree.

    1. Fr. I'll have to get back to you on that. As you know, my knowledge of the languages of Christianity rests primarily on Greek and Latin. I don't know any Syriac to do what you ask. But, as the quote says, it's not just in St. Isaac; such thought pervades the fathers that what is Scripture is not just limited to Old/New Testament but to the writings of the fathers as well as the decrees of the Councils, the liturgies, the prayers, offices and even icons.

      As for your defense of Lutherans reading the Apocrypha, so what? My point was that the Lutheran definition of Scriptura is so limited and that the adjective of sola only enhances the limitations. There is nothing to suggest historically that use of the term Scriptura by church fathers should be confined only to Old (minus the "Apocrypha")/New Testament except when specifically delineated that way by an author. And for Lutherans, if an article of the faith is not Scriptural, it's not an article of the faith. The Catholic Principle was long ago jettisoned

  2. Chris,

    Well, you come across evidence I'd be interested in hearing it; the article contains only assertion. The canon that the Cappadocian fathers operated with (assuming, as I am, that St. Gregory of Nazianzus represented the same approach as Sts. Basil and Gregory of Nyssa) was closer to the typical "Protestant" canon of today than to the typical Roman or Orthodox canon. He enumerated basically the same books in that canon, leaving out Esther and Revelation. Regarding anything other than those books, he says: "If there's anything else besides these, it is not among the genuine." (On God and Man, p. 86) How does that fit with your description here?

    1. The evidence is in reading the Holy Fathers when they use the terms graphi or Scriptura or whatever the Arabic and Syriac may be.

      As far as enumerating the canon, very few of the Holy Fathers ever "agreed" as to what defined canon. That was formally decided on many years later in council as it should be.

      I'll have to reread that section on God and Man in the original Greek to give you a better response.