Did Saint Basil the Great teach Sola Scriptura?

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Even retrieved on 2022-10-15 (author unknown).

That seems to be the claim of a meme (above) that was posted this week in a Facebook group I occasionally attend. The origin of the meme itself is unknown to me (it can also be found here). The message is simple. Catholics regularly refer Protestant interlocutors to the early Church Fathers to support their arguments. In the meme, the advice is taken and a quote from St. Basil of Caesarea (d. 379 AD) Epistle 283 is supposed to prove the fact that this Greek Father was a follower of Sola Scriptura. Case closed. But that’s the problem with the text messages of evidence, which, I point out, aren’t confined to just one side of the denominational divide. That being said, reading Saint Basil in the context of his other writings yields a different result. This is especially the case when taking an overview of the approach of the early Church Fathers to Scripture and Tradition in general.

It is beyond the scope of this modest article to make a full analysis of the early Church Fathers on this subject. It will suffice to consult the well-known work of the specialist in Anglican patristics, JND Kelly. After having made a brief overview of the 3rd and 4th centuries [the period to which St. Basil belongs]he concludes :

“Throughout the period Scripture and tradition have been regarded as complementary authorities, media differing in form but coinciding in content. To ask what counted as superior or more ultimate is to put the question in misleading and anachronistic terms. If Scripture was abundantly sufficient in principle, tradition was recognized as the surest index of its interpretation, for in tradition the Church preserved, like a heritage from the apostles which was embedded in all the organs of its institutional life, a infallible understanding of the reality, scope and meaning of the revelation to which Scripture and tradition have testified”.[1]

It is in this context that we can now consider the quote from Saint Basil’s meme. Epistle 283 is a very brief letter that this Cappadocian father writes to an anonymous widow. His last words are those printed on the meme: “Enjoying as you do the consolation of the Holy Scriptures, you need neither my help nor that of anyone else to help you understand your duty. You have ample guidance and direction from the Holy Spirit to lead you to what is right.[2] Divorced from both the broader historical context and the narrower of his other writings, it is understandable that the above can be misinterpreted. However, in chapter 27 of his treatise From Spiritu Sancto we see him introducing the concept of apostolic Tradition as normative.

There, as Basil tells us, his adversaries accuse him and his followers of “[introducing] this new phrase, saying “with the Spirit” instead of “in the Holy Spirit”, thus employing an expression quite useless and sanctioned by no usage in the churches”. In this chapter, he “will trace the origin of the word ‘with’; to explain what force it has, and to show that it is in harmony with Scripture”. It is then that he deploys an argument typically grasped by Catholic apologists:

“Of the generally accepted or publicly prescribed beliefs and practices which are preserved in the Church, some which we possess come from written teaching; others whom we have received who are handed over to us in a mystery by the tradition of the apostles; and both in relation to true religion have the same force. And these, no one will contradict them—no one, in any case, who is even moderately versed in the institutions of the Church. For if we try to reject customs which have no written authority, on the pretext that the importance which they possess is small, we shall unwittingly wound the Gospel in its very essence; or, rather, should make our public definition a mere sentence and nothing more.[3]

It should be fairly obvious that Basil places Apostolic Tradition here on an equal footing with Sacred Scripture (“both in relation to true religion have equal force”). For him, they differ only in the method of delivery. In his book chapter Sola Scriptura!Reformed apologist Dr. James White complains that this verse is often quoted without Basil’s words immediately following:

“For example, to take the first and most general example, who taught us in writing to sign with the sign of the cross those who have entrusted themselves in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ? What scripture taught us to face the East when praying? Which of the saints left us in writing the words of the invocation during the display of the bread of the Eucharist and the cup of blessing? For we are not, as is known, satisfied with what the apostle or the Gospel has recorded, but both in the preface and the conclusion we add other words as being of great importance to the validity of ministry, and these we derive from unwritten teaching. . In addition, we bless the water of baptism and the oil of chrism, and in addition the catechumen who is baptized. On what written authority do we do this? Is not our authority a silent and mystical tradition? No, by what written word is the anointing with oil itself taught? And where does the custom of baptizing three times come from? “.[4]

Space does not allow to interact with all the objections White raises to Catholic claims (at least how he perceives them) about Scripture and Tradition. That being said, it is important to note that neither subverts the scope of the original quote which clearly puts Apostolic Tradition and Holy Scripture on the same level (“both in relation to true religion have the same force”). In short, Basil’s words in From Spiritu Sancto above are irreconcilable with a belief in Sola Scriptura. However, the meme’s claim appears to be that Basil was an early proponent of this very belief. On the other hand, his remarks in Epistle 283 and elsewhere[5] are reconcilable with a high opinion of Scripture which regards the Apostolic Tradition as equally authoritative. This agrees well with the general observation made above by Kelly regarding the patristic consensus on this subject in the third and fourth centuries, the period in which St. Basil wrote.

[1] JND Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (Peabody: Prince Press, 2007), 47-48.

[2] Translated by Blomfield Jackson. Of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 8. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1895.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. . Accessed on 10/15/2022.

[3] Translated by Blomfield Jackson. Of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 8. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1895.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. . Accessed on 10/15/2022.

[4] Same. Cf. James White, “sola Scripture and the early Church”, in Sola Scriptura! : the Protestant position on the Bible, ed. Don Kistler (Morgan: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1995), 35-38.

[5] White cites his controversy with Eustathius the Physician, “sola Scripture», 37-38.


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