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Did the Early Christians Subscribe to Sola Scriptura?

The issue of authority remains the most fundamental source of division between Catholics and Protestants. Mainline Protestants (Lutherans, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Episcopalians, Methodists, etc.) do not reject tradition or ecclesial authority; indeed, they have a high regard for both and believe that Scripture can only be interpreted correctly within the context of the creeds of the early Church. However, Protestants believe that only Scripture is exempt from the possibility of teaching error. Consequently, when the Protestant senses a conflict between Scripture and the authoritative teachings of a church, he feels a moral obligation to go with (his interpretation of) Scripture. Although sola scriptura is difficult to define rigorously, this obligation is an essential aspect of the doctrine.

Did Reformers Just Get It Wrong?

The most common Catholic argument against sola scriptura is that it has splintered the Church. Thousands of Protestant denominations exist today, each one claiming to interpret Scripture by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In his book The Shape of Sola Scriptura, Protestant Keith Mathison defends the doctrine but admits, “There is no doubt that hermeneutical anarchy reigns in much of Protestantism” (305). Mathison offers several reasons for the apparent failure:

What about its workability during Protestantism’s “relatively brief life-span”? We cannot point to the same kind of practical success of Tradition I [sola scriptura] over the last five centuries for several reasons. First, the Reformation occurred long after the Church had initially split, and this initial split created problems which the Reformation could not possibly solve immediately. Second, the rather rapid substitution of solo scriptura for sola scriptura within Protestant circles led to the rapid fragmentation of Protestantism. Third, the radical individualism of the Enlightenment in Western Europe contributed to the weakening of virtually every branch of Christendom. (290) [Note: Mathison uses the term “solo scriptura” to describe the Protestant tendency to interpret Scripture apart from its historical and theological context.]

After offering these explanations, Mathison goes on to argue that, although sola scriptura has not enjoyed practical success since the Reformation, we can be sure that the problem is not with the doctrine itself, because sola scriptura was the guiding principle of the earliest Christians. (This view is common among mainline Protestant theologians; Mathison’s book was endorsed by R.C. Sproul.) Mathison’s explanation is actually a response to an essay by Patrick Madrid, a Catholic apologist:

If Madrid is asking about Tradition I, which was framed by the classical Reformers in terms of sola scriptura, then the response to his request for “just one” example of when it has worked would be the first three to four hundred years of the Church. This was a time prior to the existence of either of the positions Rome has advocated for the last five hundred years, and Tradition I [sola scriptura] worked fine . . . It worked without a universal bishop, and it worked without any claims to ecclesiastical infallibility. (The Shape of Sola Scriptura, 290)

By “worked fine,” I shall assume that Mathison means “preserved orthodoxy.” So, as a case study in ecclesial authority, we shall examine how orthodoxy was preserved in the early Church on the issue of what constitutes a valid Christian baptism.

Cyprian’s Concern

Today, mainline Protestants and Catholics agree as to what constitutes a valid Christian baptism. Protestants and Catholics agree that baptism is valid if it involves the application of water and is performed in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit with the intention of doing what Jesus commanded. Therefore, it is against God’s intentions for a person ever to undergo this rite twice. I can attest to this unity: I was baptized in a Baptist church. During my adult life I have been Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Catholic, and no one ever suggested that my baptism was anything other than valid. We may take such unity for granted today, but there was a time in the early Church when it was seriously threatened.


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