Polycarp (69-155) against Sola Scriptura


Protestant apologists, in addressing the subject of sola Scriptura and whether the Fathers of the Church believed it or not, very often argue as follows:

Father X of the Church believes in sola Scriptura, because, look, see! : he praise Scripture in this place and that, and another over there, and says that Christians should read the Bible to learn theology! He therefore clearly agrees with the formal Protestant principle of sola Scriptura! Who could doubt this?

But it is fallacious and illogical through and through. The proper approach to this and what an Church father believed is:

Sola Scriptura (as classically defined by Protestants) means that Scripture is the the only ultimate infallible standard and source and standard (rule of faith) for Christian doctrine and faith. It follows from this that neither the Church, nor the Ecumenical Councils, nor the Popes, nor the sacred apostolic tradition, nor the apostolic succession are infallible sources of authority. They are generally respected by thoughtful Protestants and regarded as authoritative to some extent, but not infallibly so.

We must therefore seek whether the Father of the Church X think scripture is formally sufficient for authority (not just materially sufficient, which we agree with) without the necessary help from tradition and the Church, or if it does not, as stated in other statements. A thinker’s statements about Christian authority must be evaluated in the context of all his thinking in this area, rather than pulling out pieces of it and then claiming that they “prove” something that they do not prove. Actually not at all.

In other words, even if we find a quote where a father seems (at first glance) state something that looks like sola Scriptura (since he writes on the Bible without immediate reference to Church or tradition), we must examine what he thinks of the (obligatory?, infallible?) authority of tradition, of the Church (y including ecumenical councils) and apostolic succession, because the question at hand (what is the rule of faith?) has to do with the relationship of all these things (all except Scripture being non-infallible, according to sola Scriptura).

For this reason, their beliefs regarding all of these other elements have to examine, in order to fully understand how they view their relationship to each other, and whether or not they adhere to sola Scriptura. as a rule of faith. If they hold to the infallible authority of anything other than Scripture, they do not not believe in sola Scriptura.

The Protestant always places the Bible above Church and tradition, and denies that the latter two can be infallible. Catholics and Orthodox believe in a three-legged stool, where, practically, Church and tradition have equal authority with Scripture, as they are the necessary framework and grid of interpretation through which Scripture can be correctly interpreted in an orthodox sense.

With this in mind, we proceed to determine whether Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna and disciple of Saint John, believed in sola Scriptura, or the rule of Catholic faith. The material below is from his Letter to the Philippians, in Philip Schaff’s collection of 38 volumes on the Church Fathers.

Sacred tradition

[N]neither I nor anyone like that can attain the wisdom of the blessed and glorified Paul. He, when he is among you, with precision and firmly taught the word of truth in the presence of those then alive. And when absent from you, he wrote you a letter, which, if you study carefully, you will find to be the way to build you up in this faith that has been given to you,. . . (chapter 3)

[W]the one who perverts the oracles of the Lord to his own lusts, and says there is no resurrection and no judgment, he is Satan’s firstborn. (chapter 7)

You and Ignatius wrote to me that if someone went [from this] in Syria, he should carry your letter with him; . . . the Ignatius Epistles written by him for us, and all the rest [of his Epistles] that we have by us, we have sent to you, as you requested. They are appended to this epistle, and by them you can be greatly benefited; for they deal with faith and patience, and with all that tends to build up in our Lord. (chap. 13)


. . . subject to priests and deacons, as to God and to Christ. (chapter 5)

Apostolic succession

Let us therefore serve him with fear and reverence, as he himself commanded us, and like the apostles who preached the Gospel to us, and the prophets who foretold the coming of the Lord [have alike taught us]. (chapter 6)

Therefore, abandoning the vanity of many and their false doctrines, let us return to the word which has been transmitted to us from the beginning; . . . (chapter 7)


Related reading

For many safer sola Scriptura: see my Bible, Tradition, Canon and “Sola Scriptura” web page.

For the documentation of many more Church Fathers who rejected sola Scriptura, see the “Bible” section of my Church Fathers webpage.


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Photo credit: Carole raddato (4-1-15). Agora of Smyrna (west coast of present-day Turkey), built in the Hellenistic period [Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0 license]


Summary: Polycarp (69-155) did not believe in the Protestant rule of faith: sola Scriptura, and accepted the authority of the Church, apostolic succession and sacred tradition.


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