Sunday, October 08, 2006

Cyril of Jerusalem and Sola Scriptura

A discussion on the CARM boards recently caught my attention concerning Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem from 348 A.D. to 386 A.D. Cyril is an interesting Early Church Father due to his lengthy catechetical treatise for the early church.

It was brought up that Cyril made statements that advocate sola scriptura. For Cyril, the ultimate issue with respect to authority was not the ecclesiastical position (sola ecclesia), but rather conformity to the truth of Scripture:

"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 demonstration of the Holy Scriptures."

There is no way to subsume Cyril's understanding of the authority of Scripture into the Roman Catholic paradigm. The Roman Catholic Church holds that a doctrine can be defined, but the scriptural proofs used to support it utilized by the Church’s theologians might not actually support it. In other words, one can have (alleged) certainty for a doctrine, but not have certainty in the scriptural proof texts for that doctrine. The infallibleness is in the decree, not in the reasoning to that decree. Cyril would probably run far away from such reasoning. In describing his argumentation, Cyril says at one point:

"Now mind not my argumentations, for perhaps thou mayest be misled but unless thou receive testimony of the Prophets on each matter, believe not what I say: unless thou learn from the Holy Scriptures concerning the Virgin, and the place, the time, and the manner, receive not testimony from man."

In the CARM discussion, Cyril had to be reinterpreted by Catholics to make him into a modern-day Roman Catholic. It was pointed out that Cyril appears to have believed in such things like “prayers for the dead” and held to a position on the Eucharist similar to modern day Catholics. Thus, Cyril could not have been an advocate of sola scriptura, because those who advocate sola scriptura do not find these teaching in the Bible.

This type of defense have misses a key point: the distinction between the principle of sola scriptura and the principle of interpretation. Every doctrine Cyril proclaimed he declared to be based on proof furnished from the Scriptures. While I don't agree with his conclusions in some instances, I agree with his underlying presupposition of sola scriptura.

One thing appears certain with Cyril- he doesn't agree with the underlying presuppositions of the Roman Catholic Church, that certain doctrines find their certainty outside of Scripture, proclaimed to be true by unwritten extra-Biblical tradition or papal pronouncement.

In the CARM discussion, I found a distinct desire to make Cyril a modern day Roman Catholic- believing all the doctrines they would. Rather, I wish they would simply let Cyril be Cyril. I saw a strong attempt to dismiss his quotes which imply sola scriptura or not interact directly with them. Why not Just accept what Cyril says? He's not the Pope, nor his he an infallible council. He's just an Early Church Father.

The early church fathers said a lot of things that a modern day Roman Catholic would disagree with. Also, the writings of the early church fathers have not avoided corruption. I'm reading a book currently that points out how the early church father's had passages deleted, or even added too, as well as translated incorrectly, either by maliciousness or accident. I point this out to note what Cyril does: his writings prove nothing. Only the Scriptures can be trusted.

Cyril did not hold to the modern-day authority structure of the Roman sect. some try to prove he did by citing him from book 18:23 that he held the church teaches infallibly, but in actuality a proper translation renders the sentence that the church teaches "completely" or "precisely".

If Roman Catholics want to believe in the ultimate authority of the Roman Catholic Church, that's unfortunate, but they are entitled to do so. But they should try to at least just let the Early Church Fathers say what they said. Many of them contradict the modern Roman Catholic position on various issues, as well as contradict each other

You know what's ironic- I'd much rather discuss doctrine with Cyril than modern day Romanists. Cyril and I would have a fruitful discussion, rather than quibbling about philosophical sophistry. At least we would agree on the basic foundation of objective truth.


Iohannes said...


Do you have a copy of William Whitaker's Disputations on Holy Scripture? I am reluctant to recommend a book I have not personally read, but suspect you would greatly like it.

The Oxford DNB notes of Whitaker: "it is said that Bellarmine placed his picture above his desk, rather as Montgomery was to keep an eye on Rommel."


James Swan said...


I was just looking at that book last week- I'll probably be picking it up.


phatcatholic said...

Mr. Swan,

Could it be that Cyril upholded both the authority of Scripture and the authority of the Church (as is the Catholic practice)?

In his Lectures we also read:

"But in learning the Faith and in professing it, acquire and keep that only, which is now delivered to thee by the Church, and which has been built up strongly out of all the Scriptures" (5:12).

"And to be brief, let us neither separate them, nor make a confusion: neither say thou ever that the Son is foreign to the Father, nor admit those who say that the Father is at one time Father, and at another Son: for these are strange and impious statements, and not the doctrines of the Church" (11:18).

"But lest any from lack of learning, should suppose from the different titles of the Holy Ghost that these are divers spirits, and not one and the self-same, which alone there is, therefore the Catholic Church guarding thee beforehand hath delivered to thee in the profession of the faith, that thou "BELIEVE IN ONE HOLY GHOST THE COMFORTER, WHO SPAKE BY THE PROPHETS;" that thou mightest know, that though His names be many, the Holy Spirit is but one;--of which names, we will now rehearse to you a few out of many" (17:3, original emphasis).

"It is called Catholic then because it extends over all the world, from one end of the earth to the other; and because it teaches universally and completely one and all the doctrines which ought to come to men's knowledge, concerning things both visible and invisible, heavenly and earthly; and because it brings into subjection to godliness the whole race of mankind, governors and governed, learned and unlearned; and because it universally treats and heals the whole class of sins, which are committed by soul or body, and possesses in itself every form of virtue which is named, both in deeds and words, and in every kind of spiritual gifts" (18:23).

"Concerning this Holy Catholic Church Paul writes to Timothy, That thou mayest know haw thou oughtest to behave thyself in the House of God, which is the Church of the Living God, the pillar and ground of the truth" (18:25).

"[F]or this cause the Faith has securely delivered to thee now the Article, 'And in one Holy Catholic Church;' that thou mayest avoid their wretched meetings, and ever abide with the Holy Church Catholic in which thou wast regenerated" (18:26).

"And while the kings of particular nations have bounds set to their authority, the Holy Church Catholic alone extends her power without limit over the whole world; for God, as it is written, hath made her border peace" (18:27).

"In this Holy Catholic Church receiving instruction and behaving ourselves virtuously, we shall attain the kingdom of heaven, and inherit ETERNAL LIFE; for which also we endure all toils, that we may be made partakers thereof from the Lord" (18:28, original emphasis).

These are interesting statements, and in the very least, they imply Cyril's acknowledgement of the authority of the Church just as much as the articles you have cited imply (as you admitted) his acknowledgment of the authority of Scripture.

Pax Christi,

James Swan said...


Cyril definately believed the church has authority, as do I. The issue is what Cyril believed was the ultimate authority for Christian truth.

phatcatholic said...

Mr. Swan,

You said:

Cyril definately believed the church has authority, as do I. The issue is what Cyril believed was the ultimate authority for Christian truth.

Well, I could have sworn that you said, either on your blog or in the CARM debate, that Cyril believed that Scripture was the "sole authority," in which case you would be incorrect because he obviously views the Church to be authoritative as well. But, I can't seen to find that now. Perhaps someone else said it.

With your comment, I see that you believe Cyril was a "sola" scripturist, not a "solo" scripurtist. I have always been confused by this distinction. It just seems like a desparate attempt to acknowledge the role of Tradition and of our ancient creeds yet still maintain the "ultimate" authority of Scripture. In the "sola" understanding, is the Church (or Tradition) really that much of an "authority" in the life of a protestant if it gets dismissed every time it disagrees with his interpretation of Scripture? In that system, Church doesn't seem like much of an authority at all. But, perhaps this is a digression.

The point is that I don't see "solo" or "sola" in the paragraphs from Cyril's Lectures that you cited. I think that a balanced look at how he viewed both the authority of Scripture and the authority of the Church shows that he is speaking of the material sufficiency of Scripture, not its formal sufficiency.

Lecture 5:12 is a critical piece of this context. Look at what it says again:

"But in learning the Faith and in professing it, acquire and keep that only, which is now delivered to thee by the Church, and which has been built up strongly out of all the Scriptures" (5:12).

Catechumens are to keep that only which is
1. Delivered to thee by the Church (this would be Tradition).
2. Built up strongly out of all the Scriptures.

But, what is that which is delivered by the Church and attested in the Scriptures? It is the Teaching of Christ, the Deposit of Faith handed on to the apostles. That is what is important to Cyril, and as a bishop he would have felt a great responsibility to preserve Apostolic teaching. The Church and the Scriptures are rules (and equal rules) because they both attest to this Deposit.

That is what the Catholic Church believes and that is what Cyril believed.

How could one say that Cyril believed the Church to be something he could toss aside whenever it disagreed with him? Cyril specifically says that it is the Church who:

--"teaches universally and completely one and all the doctrines which ought to come to men's knowledge" (18:23)
--is "the pillar and ground of the truth" (18:25; quoting 1 Tim 3:15)
--is the one in whom we should ever abide (18:26)
--has "power without limit over the whole world" (18:27)
--delivers instruction for eternal life (18:28).

I think you have severely downplayed Cyril's understanding of the role of the Church. In Cyril's mind, the Church is not an inferior rule. Instead, the Church is just as much a guide as the Scriptures, and a doctrine taught by the Church is just as sure as a doctrine taught in Scripture.

In my opinion, the context I have provided bears this out. I await your treatment of it.

Pax Christi,