Solis Apostolis: Not Sola Scriptura, but the Apostles Only does not receive any personally identifiable information from the search bar below.

The Roman Catholics (and the Orthodox) are correct when they argue that "the Church" and its tradition precede Scripture and that the Scriptures must be interpreted in the light of tradition. What they consistently forget to tell you, however, is that the only valid tradition is "apostolic tradition," tradition that can reasonably be shown to have come from the apostles.

Borrowing from the "solas" of the Reformation (sola Scriptura, solus Christus, sola fide, sola gratia, and soli Deo Gloria, which are only the Scriptures, Christ, faith, grace, and God's glory), I call this solis Apostolis, only the apostles. In fact, I want to replace sola Scriptura—though the Scriptures are the best source for teachings of the apostles—with solis Apostolis because there are traditions known to us that are definitely from the apostles.

My book, Rome's Audacious Claim, goes through the church fathers to refute the claim of Roman Catholic apologists that there was a pope in the first century. It explains how fourth-century events explain the rise of the papacy, the (later) development of Roman Catholicism, and then opens the door on the sordid results of Roman religious rule. Available where books are sold. See Amazon reviews.

If tradition has authority, as I am arguing and am about to present evidence for, then the earliest and most important tradition is that only the apostles can authorize tradition for the "catholic" churches.

* By "catholic" I mean "universal." To the apostles' churches, "catholic" meant the churches that were united by living out the apostles' teaching and handing that faith to the next generation.

Solis Apostolis Is a New Testament Teaching

There is one verse in the New Testament that directly says that the authority behind any valid tradition must be the apostles:

Beloved, while I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I was constrained to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints. (Jude 1:3)

It is apparent that the apostles are the ones who delivered the faith, "once for all," to the saints. By "apostles" I am not limiting authority to only the 12. Their companions, such as Luke and Mark, and the 70 that Jesus sent out in Luke 10 were considered apostolic by those churches founded by apostles and who preserved the faith delivered to them.

Besides Jude 1:3, the clearest of the NT verses supporting solis Apostilis, there are several NT verses teaching that tradition, both written and oral, has authority as long as it comes from one of the 12 apostles or one of their companions. 2 Thessalonians 2:15 is the clearest of these:

So then, brothers, stand firm and hold the traditions which you were taught by us, whether by word or by letter.

Notice that Paul commands the Thessalonians to hold his traditions whether the tradition came by a letter or by oral teaching. Not only that, but it is not just Paul's tradition that has authority, but Silas and Timothy, co-authors of the epistle (2 Thess. 1:1), as well. It is the traditions taught by "us," not just "me," that the Thessalonians must hold to.

Paul also writes:

If any man thinks himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him recognize the things which I write to you, that they are the commandment of the Lord. (1 Cor. 14:37)


Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw yourselves from every brother who walks in rebellion, and not after the tradition which they received from us. (2 Thess. 3:6)

This is surely why Peter says of the apostle Paul:

Regard the patience of our Lord as salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also, according to the wisdom given to him, wrote to you, as also in all of his letters, speaking in them of these things. In those, there are some things that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unsettled twist, as they also do to the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. (2 Pet. 3:15-16)

Today, "the ignorant and unsettled" continue to twist Paul's words so that "Bible-only" churches disagree on most major doctrines, including soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) and baptism in water and the Holy Spirit, the very foundations of our faith. This terrible situation does not arise from accurate interpretation of Paul's words (and Jesus' and the rest of the apostles' words), but from ignorance and confusion. Learning more about the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints can, of course, help with that, and who better to ask than the saints to whom it was first delivered? As one second-century Christian wrote:

Suppose there arise a dispute relative to some important question among us, should we not have recourse to the most ancient churches with which the apostles held constant intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question? For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they did commit the Churches? (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book III, ch. 4, par. 2)

For those that want to be contrary, they could argue that the apostles did leave us writings, so this paragraph means nothing; it can be ignored. But that is not true. Irenaeus wrote this in the AD 180's, almost a century after the last apostle died. The quote begins by giving advice about what to do if an important question arises "among us." In that case, the apostles' churches, such as Corinth, Rome, or Antioch, should be consulted. By bringing up the apostles' writings, he is simply pointing out that if they had not left the New Testament writings to the churches, then every question would have to be referred to the first generation of churches.

The context of the quote makes it clear. Just 2 (short) chapters earlier, in arguing against gnostic heretics, Irenaeus said he refers them both to Scripture and to "that tradition which originates from the apostles" (Against Heresies, Book III,ch. 2, par. 2). The traditions held by the churches founded by the apostles were still being passed down around AD 185, and those traditions had to originate from the apostles.

Twenty years later an African Christian from Carthage, named Tertullian, would make the same point. Being a lawyer, he wrote what he called a "demurrer" (an objection submitted to a court in writing) against several heresies of his time. (At that time, "heresies" were not Christians disagreeing on doctrines, but groups and teachers who denied that the God of Moses was the true God and claimed a different god sent Jesus.) He did not submit his demurrer to an actual court, nor to the gnostics themselves, but to Christians to help them know that the gnostics had no right to the Scriptures because the Scriptures belonged to the apostles' churches, handed down to them along with their oral teachings. He wrote:

Come now, you who would indulge a better curiosity, if you would apply it to the business of your salvation, run over the apostolic churches, in which the very thrones [Latin cathedrae, chairs) of the apostles are still preeminent in their places, in which their own authentic writings are read, uttering the voice and representing the face of each of them severally. Achaia is very near you, [there] you find Corinth. Since you are not far from Macedonia, you have Philippi; you have the Thessalonians. Since you are able to cross to Asia, you get Ephesus. Since, moreover, you are close upon Italy, you have Rome, from which there comes even into our own hands true authority. How happy is its church, on which apostles poured forth all their doctrine along with their blood! Where Peter endures a passion like his Lord’s; where Paul wins his crown in a death like John [the Baptist]’s [i.e, beheading]; where the Apostle John was first plunged, unhurt, into boiling oil, and from there sent to his island exile! See what she [i.e., the church in Rome] has learned, what [she] taught, what fellowship [she] has had with even [our] churches in Africa. Demurrer Against Heretics, ch. 36)

The main point of the quote is clear, but the peripherals bear a little explaining. Tertullian's central point to Christians was that they should not listen to, consider, nor examine the teachings of the heretics out of a misguided curiosity. Instead, he offers them a "better curiosity" in the first line of this quote.

At the end, the reference to fellowship with "our" churches in Africa is because Rome was the closest apostolic church to Carthage, which is modern Tunis in Tunisia. It was a short boat ride across the Mediterranean to the boot of Italy. Rome was near enough to exercise oversight over the churches in Carthage, which had not been founded by apostles. In the 250's, there would be many letters exchanged between Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage and the elders and several bishops of Rome which we still have (and are quoted below). Four Roman bishops were martyred between 250 and 258, and Cyrian himself was martyred in 259.

Again, though, the point of this article is solis Apostolis, that the apostles, not just their writings, are the sole authority for the church. The apostles did commit traditions to the churches orally, and those traditions were to be preserved faithfully, not added to, nor changed in any way. We will look at more quotes from early Christians below.

The Apostles' Traditions vs. Men's Traditions

The apostles' traditions only have authority because they came from Jesus. I don't think anyone will disagree with me nor require me to prove that, but as we go through the various writings of the apostles' churches, you will see them constantly saying that "the faith once for all delivered to the saints" was delivered from God to Jesus to the apostles to the churches. You will also find them saying that only the apostles, and those the apostles approved, are authoritative preachers of the one true faith.

If the faith was "delivered" to the saints, then it was delivered by someone or some people. If we are "Christians," then the Christ, Jesus, is not only our Savior, but our Lord. Obeying him is part and parcel of our salvation (Hebrews 5:8-9). One of the things he said, and which we must believe and obey is: "He who receives you [the apostles] receives me [Jesus], and he who receives me receives him who sent me [God]" (Matt. 10:40).

There we have the first example of Jesus saying that the faith, that was "once and for all" delivered to the saints was delivered from his Father to him to the apostles. It was the apostles that delivered the faith that we must contend for.

Jesus also makes it clear that it is only the traditions of the apostles, delivered to them by Jesus, and their teachings alone that have authority. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus rejects the traditions of the Jewish elders (the rabbis, whose traditions are now found in the Mishnah and Talmuds), saying they contradict God's commands (Matt. 15:6; Mark 7:8-9, 13). He caps this off with a thundering tirade against the Pharisees and scribes in Matthew 23, calling them hypocrites (v. 13), disciples of hell (v.15), and vipers (v. 33). He adds the Jewish lawyers (studiers of the law) to his denouncement in Luke 11:45-52.

It is certain that Jesus had no regard for the traditions handed down by Jewish rabbis, scribes, and lawyers. He drives that point home in Matthew 5, repeatedly saying, "You have heard it said ... but I say ... ." The Messiah, as the Jews would have expected, had his own traditions and his own law that trumped all traditions that came before him.

The apostles, too, were careful to distinguish between Messiah's (Jesus') tradition and the "traditions of men," just as Jesus did. Paul tells the Colossians to beware of the "traditons of men" in Colossians 2:8, and Peter calls the traditions the Jews received from their fathers "useless" (1 Peter 1:18).

Soli Apostoli in the Early Church Fathers

All that I have written above is confirmed repeatedly and without contradiction in the "early church fathers." The early church fathers are simply Christian writers from the first few centuries whose books and letters have survived the centuries.

Though I focus mainly on the writings from the first, second, and third centuries, that is no small amount of Christian teaching. The Ante-Nicene Fathers is a 10-volume set of writings from between the time of the apostles and the Council of Nicea in AD 325. These volumes are 500 pages (or so) of small print each. The first five, a good 2,500 pages of small print writing, reach only to the 250s AD.

I have read the first 5 volumes, and I have read the first 3 volumes twice. While I have not always collected quotes as I read, I can tell you that the writings of the apostles' churches, the ones from before the Council of Nicea, do not ever contradict the quotes you will read below.

Irenaeus, c. AD 185

The primary and most important quote is long, but it is well worth reading. It is interesting, so there should not be any problem taking it all in. I also updated the 1890 British English a bit and made the punctuation more modern. (Don't worry, I link the old translation if you want to check my updates.)

I added the ellipses (...) to the quote to emphasize that all the early Christian statements of faith, which they called the "rule of faith"), were given in Trinitarian form.

The Church, though dispersed throughout the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith:
... in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them;
... and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation;
... and in the Holy Spirit, ...
... who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, the advents, the birth from a virgin, the passion, the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and his manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father "to gather all things in one" [Eph. 1:10], and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus—our Lord and God and Saviour and King—according to the will of the invisible Father, "every knee should bow, of things in heaven, things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess" [Eph. 2:10-11] to him, and that he should execute just judgment towards all; that he may send "spiritual wickednesses" [Eph. 6:12] and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, unrighteous, wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of his grace, confer immortality on the righteous, the holy, and those who have kept his commandments and have persevered in his love, some from the beginning, and others from their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory.
As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points as if she had but one soul and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, teaches them, and hands them down with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth. For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world [i.e., the Middle East). But as the sun, that creature of God, is one and the same throughout the whole world, so also the preaching of the truth shines everywhere and enlightens all men that are willing to come to a knowledge of the truth. Nor will any one of the rulers in the churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these, for no one is greater than the Master nor, on the other hand, will he who is deficient in power of expression inflict injury on the tradition. For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it make any addition to it, nor does one, who can say but little, diminish it. (Against Heresies, Book I, ch. 10, par. 1-2)

This passage from Irenaeus is a wonderful explanation of the churches' position on tradition, which is consistently confirmed in other writers. Irenaeus was able to accurately represent the beliefs of the worldwide church because he was well-traveled and only one generation removed from the apostles. He was taught under Polycarp as a youth. Polycarp was bishop of Smyrna, one of the churches mentioned (and not rebuked) in Revelation 2-3. All the testimony we have about him says he was appointed by apostles.

Since Polycarp was not born until AD 70 or shortly afterward, only the apostle John would have still been alive. On the other hand, the early churches would have considered the companions of apostles, like Timothy and Silas, to be apostles in their own right. This is why the Gospels of Mark and Luke are in our Bible. The early churches understood Mark to have been the companion of Peter in Rome. Likewise, Luke was the companion of Paul as we read in Acts.

Irenaeus began his Christian life in Smyrna, but he eventually went from the eastern reaches of the Roman Empire—Smyrna was in what is now Turkey— to Lyons in Gaul (modern France) as a missionary. He was eventually appointed bishop there and became an advisor to the Roman church.

So let's move on to other writers.

Clement of Rome: Early 80's or AD 95-96

Tradition holds that Clement, the third bishop of Rome, wrote the letter from Rome to Corinth that is still extant. It is very unlikely that Rome already had one bishop, rather than a college of elders who were all bishops, but Irenaeus, who is one of those who lists Clement as their third bishop, wrote his book around AD 185. By then, all the apostles' churches had one bishop who functioned as head elder over the college of elders.

Rome's letter to Corinth, known as "1 Clement," was written during a time of persecution in Rome, and is therefore dated either in the early 80s or around AD 95, two periods when the Roman church was suffering a lot of persecution. The early writings report that Clement, too, was appointed by apostles, specifically Peter and Paul. The letter says:

The apostles have preached the Gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ [has done so] from God. Christ therefore was sent forth by God, and the apostles by Christ. Both these appointments, then, were made in an orderly way, according to the will of God. Having therefore received their orders, and being fully assured by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and established in the word of God, with full assurance of the Holy Ghost, they went forth proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand. And thus preaching through countries and cities, they appointed the first-fruits, having first proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of those who should afterwards believe. (1 Clement 42)

While Clement did not go into the same detail as Irenaeus, you can see the germ of the idea that Irenaeus expanded on around a century later. The Gospel came from God to Jesus and was committed to the apostles so they could establish churches and train the bishops and deacons in the faith. (One of the reasons that I am relatively certain that Clement was not "the bishop" of Rome, but one of a college of bishop-elders, is that Clement mentions "bishops and deacons" of the churches here, not "bishop and elders.")

Ignatius of Antioch: AD 107 or 116

Ignatius was the bishop of Antioch shortly after the turn of the second century (and probably decades before as well). Antioch was Paul's home church, but it is generally reported that Ignatius was appointed by either Peter or John. The modern Catholic and Orthodox churches still regard the bishop of Antioch, now called a "patriarch," as a successor to Peter. Ignatius was the second of the bishops of Antioch, and he wrote letters to Ephesus and surrounding churches on his way to being martyred in Rome. This happened in either AD 107 or 116, as the Emperor Hadrian was in Antioch in both those years.

As an interesting aside, two of those letters were to Smyrna, one to the church and one to Polycarp himself. I suspect it was John, not Peter, who appointed Ignatius because Ignatius was definitely a "monarchial" bishop, meaning that he was the singular bishop of Antioch with a college of elders under him. Polycarp was the same. Towards the end of John's life, he lived in Ephesus and oversaw all the churches in the area, which would include Smyrna and other nearby cities and towns. All those surrounding cities, such as Smyrna and Philadelphia, had monarchial bishops. It is my theory that while Paul and Peter appointed a college of elders who were all bishops (cf. Acts 20:17, 28; 1 Pet. 5:1-4, where elders are told to "oversee"—episkopeo, the verb form of the Greek word for "bishop"—the flock), John appointed one bishop to oversee the elders.

Back to the subject, in Ignatius' letter to Ephesus, he writes:

Let nothing glitter in your eyes apart from him, whom I carry about my bonds, my spiritual pearls in which I would fain [i.e., gladly] rise again through your prayer, of which may it be my lot to be always a partaker, that I may be found in the company of those Christians of Ephesus who moreover were ever of one mind with the Apostles in the power of Jesus Christ. (Letter to the Ephesians 11:2)

Ignatius considers it critical that the Ephesians be of one mind with the apostles.

To the Magnesians, he wrote:

Do your diligence therefore that you be confirmed in the ordinances of the Lord and of the Apostles, that you may prosper in all things whatsoever you do in flesh and spirit, by faith and by love, in the Son and Father and in the Spirit, in the beginning and in the end, with your revered bishop, and with the fitly wreathed spiritual circlet of your presbytery [i.e., college of elders], and with the deacons who walk after God. (Letter to the Magnesians 13:1)

Ignatius' letters can be hard to stomach for Protestants. He has an emphasis on submission to the bishop and elders, and a praise of them, that is nothing like any other early Christian writer. I think the explanation for this is simple. Throughout his letters, he, like Irenaeus, is fighting against gnostic heretics.

In Ignatius' letters, it can be seen that these gnostics were infiltrating the churches, and Ignatius was making every effort to root them out, just as his mentor, the apostle John, did in his letters. Irenaeus can be grateful to John and Ignatius that by the time he wrote his book, the gnostics were driven out of the churches and had formed their own separate churches.

Note: The term "catholic" probably arose to distinguish the churches that followed the apostles from the gnostic churches that rejected both the Old Testament and the public teaching of the apostles (claiming they had secret, private teaching from this or that apostle). Lazarus and Mary Magdalene were favorite supposed sources for gnostic teachers, and there is even a Gospel of Judas, still extant, that they wrote in his name.

That all said, the point of this last quote is that Ignatius wanted the church in Magnesus to be grounded in the teachings of "the Lord and of the apostles," not in the traditions of any church or a man who was not among the apostles.

Justin Martyr, c. AD 155-165

Justin was an aspiring student of Plato's philosophy when he met an old man on a beach who led him to Jesus. After that, he went around in a yellow philosopher's robe, sharing Jesus' teachings with anyone who would ask or listen. His two great works are his First Apology, addressed to the Roman emperors, and Dialogue with Trypho, a recounting of a conversation with a Jew. It is my opinion that Dialogue with Trypho is as close as one can get to reading a summation of Jesus' teaching to the two disciples on the way to Emmaus.

The quotes below, however, are from his First Apology.

But our Jesus Christ, being crucified and dead, rose again, and having ascended to heaven, reigned; and by those things which were published in his name among all nations by the apostles, there is joy afforded to those who expect the immortality promised by him. (First Apology, ch. 42)
That which he says, "He shall send to you the rod of power out of Jerusalem" [Ps. 110:2], is predictive of the mighty word, which his apostles, going forth from Jerusalem, preached everywhere. And though death is decreed against those who teach or at all confess the name of Christ, we everywhere both embrace and teach it. (First Apology, ch. 45)

Justin considers "those things which were published in Jesus name among all nations" to have been done by the apostles specifically, even though there were surely many besides the apostles who preached and converted the lost. In fact, in describing the growth of Christianity, he does not appeal to great preachers and evangelists, but to commmon Christians leading Christian lives:

For we ought not to strive; neither has he desired us to be imitators of wicked men, but he has exhorted us to lead all men, by patience and gentleness, from shame and the love of evil. And this indeed is proved in the case of many who once were of your way of thinking, but have changed their violent and tyrannical disposition, being overcome either by the constancy which they have witnessed in their neighbours’ lives, by the extraordinary forbearance they have observed in their fellow travelers when defrauded, or by the honesty of those with whom they have transacted business. (First Apology, ch. 16

Despite the fact that by Justin's time it was ordinary Christians driving the growth of the kingdom of God in the midst of the Roman Empire, Justin credits the apostles with going forth and preaching everywhere. This is because ordinary Christians knew their job was to adhere to and live out the faith that was one for all delivered to them by the apostles.

Clement of Alexandria: Late Second Century (c. AD 180-200)

Clement of Alexandria was a teacher of new converts in the church in Alexandria, Egypt in the very late second century. He was also a prodigious writer. He mentions the apostles 150 times or more in his extant writings, but I thought I would introduce you to Clement's—and perhaps the Alexandrian church's as well—unique way of dealing with the Scriptures. Teachers in the early churches were prone to figurative interpretation in order to stir their hearers, but Clement and the Alexandrian church (for we have writings from several of their third-century bishops as well) especially delighted in figurative truth.

In this quote, Clement is arguing against adorning ourselves with jewelry and other expensive items. He felt he needed to address the woman who anointed Jesus' feet with oil. He writes:

The use of crowns and ointments is not necessary for us; for it impels to pleasures and indulgences, especially on the approach of night. I know that the woman brought to the sacred supper "an alabaster box of ointment" [Luke 7:36-50] and anointed the feet of the Lord, and refreshed him. I know that the ancient kings of the Hebrews were crowned with gold and precious stones. But the woman, not having yet received the Word (for she was still a sinner), honored the Lord with what she thought the most precious thing in her possession: the ointment; and with the ornament of her person, with her hair, she wiped off the superfluous ointment, while she expended on the Lord tears of repentance, "therefore her sins are forgiven." This may be a symbol of the Lord’s teaching and of his suffering. For the feet anointed with fragrant ointment mean divine instruction travelling with renown to the ends of the earth: "For their sound hath gone forth to the ends of the earth" [Ps. 19:4]. And if I seem not to insist too much, the feet of the Lord which were anointed are the apostles, having, according to prophecy, received the fragrant anointing of the Holy Spirit. Those, therefore, who traveled over the world and preached the Gospel, are figuratively called the feet of the Lord, of whom also the Holy Spirit foretells in the psalm, "Let us adore at the place where his feet stood" [Ps. 132:7], that is, where the apostles—his feet—arrived; since, preached by them, he came to the ends of the earth. [The] tears are repentance, and the loosened hair proclaimed deliverance from the love of finery. (The Instructor, Book II, ch. 8)

Whether you enjoyed Clement's fanciful interpretation of the anointing of Jesus' feet or not, you can see that the apostles are the one who took Christ to the world. As the Scriptures teach us in Jude 1:3, what they taught is to be upheld and defended, not added to nor detracted from.

He says again, more clearly:

They [Clement's mentors]—preserving the tradition of the blessed doctrine derived directly from the holy apostles, Peter, James, John, and Paul, the sons receiving it from the father (but few were like the fathers)—came by God’s will to us also to deposit those ancestral and apostolic seeds. And well I know that they will exult [in what Clement has written]. I do not mean delighted with this tribute, but solely on account of the preservation of the truth, according as they [his mentors] delivered it. (Miscellanies, Book I, ch. 1, brackets mine, parentheses in original)

I want to remind you here that "tradition" simply means "handed-down teaching." Thus, a tradition is just a teaching, and when a tradition comes from the apostles, it is good and should be followed. This is true even in Scripture, as we saw in 2 Thessalonians 2:15, where Paul exhorted the Thessalonians to keep the traditions that "we," Paul, Silas, and Timothy, delivered to them, whether orally or by letter. Thus, Clement exults here that his mentors preserved the tradition of the apostles, and that they would be delighted that he had preserved it just as they delivered it.

Again, the point is that the faith, once for all delivered to the saints by the apostles, should not be changed. Only tradition that can reasonably shown to be from the apostles can have authority for the saints of God.

Tertullian, c. AD 200-215

I introduced you to Tertullian above, but I do want to add one more quote from his "Demurrer Against Heretics":

Since the Lord Jesus Christ sent the apostles to preach, no others ought to be received as preachers than those whom Christ appointed; for “no man knoweth the Father save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him" [Matt. 11:27]. Nor does the Son seem to have revealed him to any other than the apostles, whom he sent forth to preach—that, of course, which he revealed to them. Now, what that was which they preached—in other words, what it was which Christ revealed to them—can, as I must here likewise prescribe, properly be proved in no other way than by those very churches which the apostles founded in person, by declaring the gospel to them directly themselves, both vivâ voce [by living voice], as the phrase is, and subsequently by their epistles. If, then, these things are so, it is in the same degree manifest that all doctrine which agrees with the apostolic churches—those molds and original sources of the faith—must be reckoned for truth, as undoubtedly containing that which the churches received from the apostles, the apostles from Christ, Christ from God. ( "Demurrer Against Heretics," ch. 21)

Tertullian explains the point so well! "No others" than the apostles "ought to be received as preachers." There were teachers and preachers in Tertullian's day, the start of the 3rd century, but he is talking about the original communication of the Gospel to the churches. He also emphasizes that the apostolic churches must be trusted, but only because they are sources for what they received—but are not still receiving nor adding to what they received— from the apostles, the apostles from Christ, and Christ from God.

Cyprian, AD 250-258

Cyprian was the bishop of Carthage, a famed empire in its own right before being defeated by Rome. Carthage is now known as Tunis, the capitol of Tunisia. It is on the north African coast directly south of Italy. We are blessed to still have 82 of his letters, many of them friendly exchanges with the Roman elders in 250 while they were without a bishop due to martyrdom.

A few are between Cyprian and Stephen, bishop of Rome from 256 to 258, who were in sharp conflict over the rebaptism of heretics. In 251, when Cornelius was elected bishop of Rome, a man name Novatian opposed him, claiming Cornelius was immoral. He had himself appointed bishop of Rome by bishops in Italy who lived far from Rome. The churches of the empire rejected Novatian's claim and recognized Cornelius as Rome's bishop. Rather than submitting, Novatian created the first major church split in Christian history, sending evangelists around the empire to establish churches with stricter discipline than the catholic churches.

Some Protestants try to claim a lineage back to the apostles through Novatian (and the Montanists, a much smaller division that happened in the late first century), but those who do should think twice. Novatian taught all the same things that the catholic churches taught, but he refused to admit those who committed major sins (murder, adultery, and the like) even after they repented.

The conflict between Cyprian and Stephen was because Stephen, oddly, wanted to accept the baptism of the Novatians despite the fact Novatian had split the church in Rome—Stephen's own church—and was now building the first truly Christian churches that had ever competed with the apostles' churches. Cyprian was horrified, and the letters between Stephen and himself were harsh.

So let me start with one of Cyprian's responses to Stephen. The following quote was not written to Stephen, about about him to one of his supporters, named Pompeius.

Let nothing be innovated, says [Stephen], nothing maintained, except what has been handed down. From where is that tradition? Does it descend from the authority of the Lord and of the Gospel, or does it come from the commands and the epistles of the apostles? ... If, therefore, it is either prescribed in the Gospel, or contained in the epistles or Acts of the Apostles, that those who come from any heresy should not be baptized, but only hands laid upon them to repentance, let this divine and holy tradition be observed.("To Pompey," Epistles of Cyprian, # 73, par. 2)

Stephen may have been the first bishop of Rome to claim jurisdiction over other churches because of his spiritual descent from Peter. He excommunicated all churches that rebaptized, or intended to rebaptize, converts that had been baptized in Novatian's churches. Rather than simply giving in to the bishop of Rome, Cyprian strongly opposed him and demanded apostolic authority for the tradition Stephen wanted to impose on all churches everywhere.

I do have to tell you about my favorite quote from Cyprian, which is in this same letter:

Nor ought custom, which had crept in among some, prevent the truth from prevailing and conquering, for custom without truth is the antiquity of error. (par. 9).

The quote above is from Epistle 73 (in the Ante-Nicene Fathers series), but Epistle 74 is from Firmilian, the bishop of Caesarea, to Cyprian, and it gives further insight into the understanding of the churches in Cyprian's time.

And this indeed you Africans are able to say against Stephen, that when you knew the truth you forsook the error of custom. But we join custom to truth, and to the Romans’ custom we oppose custom, but the custom of truth; holding from the beginning that which was delivered by Christ and the apostles. Nor do we remember that this at any time began among us, since it has always been observed here, that we knew none but one Church of God, and accounted no baptism holy except that of the holy Church. (Firmilian to Cyprian, Epistle of Cyprian, #74, par. 19)

This quote requires explaining. The church in Carthage was not founded by the apostles. Someone else founded it later, so it did not carry the same testimony to apostolic tradition that Rome did. For Cyprian, the nearest apostolic church was the church in Rome, and Carthage appealed to Rome when there were issues they could not handle. Caesarea, however, was founded by apostles, and Caesarea could testify to the teachings delivered to them by the apostles with the same authority that Rome could. Thus, Firmilian is saying, "Carthage is limited to the Scriptures for opposing Rome's non-apostolic tradition, but we in Caesarea can oppose Rome's non-apostolic tradition with Scripture and our own apostolic tradition."

Firmilian's letter is extremely harsh. The Ante-Nicene Fathers editors preface this letter with "The Argument of This Letter is Exactly the Same as that of the Previous One, But Written with a Little More Vehemence and Acerbity Than Becomes a Bishop." Firmilian's third-century pen was a bit too sharp for the sensibilities of 19th-century British Christians. I think, though, that several Christians I have read from the second and third centuries can rival Firmilian in "acerbity."

Before we move on, do not miss the fact that Firmilian was using tradition to oppose Rome's tradition, but he carefully points out that the tradition he holds is "from the beginning ... delivered by Christ and the apostles." Yes, in the 250's, one Roman bishop was trying to impose a tradition on other churches that was not from the apostles, but his opinion was rejected because other churches, not as drunk with their influence as Stephen was, rejected his attempt to excommunicate them, wanting only the teaching of the apostles, not the authority of a trusted church.

In fact, in 250, while there was no bishop in Rome because of martyrdom, before Cornelius was elected in 251, the elders in Rome had a very interesting exchange with Cyprian as well. They wrote:

The apostle would not have published such praise concerning us (i.e., the church in Rome), when he said that "your faith is spoken of throughout the whole world" [Rom. 1:8] unless already from there that vigor had borrowed the roots of faith from those times. From that praise and glory it is a very great crime to have become degenerate. For it is less disgrace never to have attained to the heraldry of praise, than to have fallen from the height of praise; it is a smaller crime not to have been honored with a good testimony, than to have lost the honor of good testimonies; it is less discredit to have lain without the announcement of virtues, ignoble without praise, than, disinherited of the faith, to have lost our proper praises. For those things which are proclaimed to the glory of any one, unless they are maintained by anxious and careful pains, swell up into the odium of the greatest crime. ("The Roman Clergy to Cyprian," Epistles of Cyprian, #30, par. 2)

This is a good place to recommend my book, Rome's Audacious Claim, which traces the origin of the Roman Catholic claim that the pope has "full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 881) and explains the response of other churches to that claim. It is available wherever books are sold. It's not likely to be in stock at your local bookstore, but you can order it.

Let's address one last author who can carry us into the era of the interference of emperors in the affairs of the Church, an era when the adherence of the churches to solis Apostolis began to fail.

Archelaus: AD 260's or 270's

Here I need to point out that the later the quotes on this page are, the more authority they carry, as long as I can show that there is a consistent lineage back to the apostles. These later quotes show us that the tradition that nothing should be added to the teachings of the apostles handed was preserved universally through the catholic churches for centuries.

This work, titled The Acts of the Disputation with the Heresiarch Manes by the authors of the Ante-Nicene Fathers volumes is of questionable authorship. The translators of the Ante-Nicene Fathers series reference many later authors who discussed this disputation with Manes (founder of the Manichaeans). Those later authors do not all agree that Archelaus was the author, and those who do agree do not seem certain of just where Archelaus was bishop. The translators do agree that based on all the comments about this work, it was probably written in AD 277 or 278.

But the confusion about authorship only adds to the authority of the following quote, which asserts that "in addition to what has been once committed to us by the apostles, a disciple of Christ ought to receive nothing new as doctrine." The point is that this book, and the quotes from it, were known, believed, and discussed at even later periods than the 270's.

After the Council of Nicea in 325, and especially after the rise of Emperor Constantius II in 337, Roman emperors were not only interfering in affairs of the churches, but they were removing and appointing bishops based upon their whims and thoughts. It is only after the intervention of emperors that the churches of the Roman Empire began adding traditions to those of the apostles.

That is not good,of course, and Archaleus, if he is the author, shows us that solis Apostolis was still in effect in the 270's and later, appealing to it against Manes and his Manichaean sect:

You well understand, no doubt, that those who seek to set up any new dogma have the habit of very readily perverting into a conformity with their own notions any proofs they desire to take from the Scriptures. In anticipation, however, of this, the apostolic word marks out the case thus: "If any one preach any other gospel unto you than that which you have received, let him be accursed" (Gal. 1:7-8). And consequently, in addition to what has been once committed to us by the apostles, a disciple of Christ ought to receive nothing new as doctrine. (The Acts of the Disputation with the Heresiarch Manes, ch. 40)

Practicing Solis Apostolis in the 21st Century

The New Testament is the surest source of apostolic truth. Its 27 documents were deemed apostolic in source and teaching by the second- and third-century churches, and Christian churches have held all 27 as authoritative ever since with rare exceptions. Nonetheless, the New Testament is not the only way to determine apostolic truth.

A Protestant might ask why we need anything more than the Bible. Isn't the apostolic teaching available in the New Testament enough? In fact, hasn't the Holy Spirit himself, by completing the canon with the 27 books of the New Testament, testified that what we have is enough?

The answer to those questions is no, and the explanation is obvious. Look at us. There is almost nothing we Protestants agree on across the board except that Jesus is Lord and that God is a Trinity. Even the strictest and most literal Bible believers disagree on soteriology, baptism in water, the baptism of the Holy Spirit, how to get to heaven, and numerous other central issues. Yes, we need more than what we have!

John Wesley would agree with me. He wrote:

Can anyone who spends several years in those seats of learning (the universities), be excused if they do not add, to that of the languages and sciences, the knowledge of the Fathers, the most authentic commentators on scriptures, as being both nearest the fountain, and eminently endued with that Spirit by whom all scripture was given? It will be easily perceived I speak chiefly of those who wrote before the council of Nice [same as Nicea or Nicaea]. But who would not likewise desire some acquaintance with those who followed them. With St. Chrysostom, Basil, Jerome, Austin and, above all, that man of a broken heart, Ephraim Syrus. ("Address to the Clergy," vol. x, p. 484. In The British Magazine and Monthly Register of Ecclesiastical and Religious Information, Parochial History, and Documents Reflecting the State of the Poor, Progress of Education, &c. Vol. XXII. London:T. Clerc Smith. 1942. p. 275)

Just as Wesley charged only those who had graduated from a university to be familiar with the pre-Nicene Fathers, I do not suggest that everyone read the fathers. I do suggest that churches be aware that we know a lot more about what the apostles' churches believed back when they "believe[d] these points as if she had but one soul and one and the same heart, and ... proclaim[ed], [taught], and hand[ed] them down with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth" (Against Heresies, Book I, ch. 10, par. 2).

Knowing this, wouldn't each church assign someone to determine what faith that the churches of the apostles preserved and contended for until emperors, kings, and other secular authorities began participating in the affairs of the church?


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