Cyril of Jerusalem is one of the Christian church’s very early Fathers, and he seems to be one of the strongest testimonies we have to historically lineage of the Protestant understanding of Sola Scriptura.
Cyril delivered a number of “Catechetical Lectures.” In his day, catechism was long series of educational training one would go through before being baptized into the Christian faith. In short, these lectures served as a sort of “Christianity 101” class. They were introductory lessons about Christianity. That makes these very useful.
The Reformed tradition would not agree with all of the theology espoused by Cyril in the lectures. For example, he was a clear proponent of baptismal regeneration (as were all the Fathers) and his views on the Eucharist could be described as proto-transubstantion. One idea where he spoke very clearly, which the Reformed tradition would be in full agreement on, is the issue of authority. What is the highest rule of faith for Cyril? The answer to that question is Scripture alone (Sola Scriptura). Cyril did not believe in any infallible Traditions, nor an infallible ecclesiastical body. For him, the Scriptures were the final court of appeals for the Christian faith.
This can be most readily seen in two of his lectures. In lecture four Cyril says this,
Have thou ever in your mind this seal, which for the present has been lightly touched in my discourse, by way of summary, but shall be stated, should the Lord permit, to the best of my power with the proof from the Scriptures. For concerning the divine and holy mysteries of the Faith, not even a casual statement must be delivered without the Holy Scriptures; nor must we be drawn aside by mere plausibility and artifices of speech. Even to me, who tell you 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 (17).
This is such a powerful witness to Sola Scriptura. First, Cyril clearly articulates the doctrine when he says “For concerning the divine and holy mysteries of the Faith, not even a casual statement must be delivered without the Holy Scriptures.” For Cyril, no infallible church nor any alleged Tradition can supply or interpret even a casual statement of Christianity. He accepts nothing unless it comes directly from Scripture.
Additionally, he holds himself and his own teaching to be scrutinized, not according to some infallible council or liturgical Tradition, but only to the Scriptures when he says, “Even to me, who tell you these things, give not absolute credence, unless thou receive the proof of the things which I announce from the Divine Scriptures.” This implies he expects lay Christians to have the ability and the freedom to interpret Scripture themselves. He does not tell them that by holding teachers accountable to what they see in the Word they will spin off into chaos. He does not believe an infallible interpreter was what these new Christians needed in order to be unified. He expected each of them to know the Scriptures, and judge Cyril’s teachings in light of them. (This is why we in the Reformed community have graciously accepted the offer of the good Bishop to reject his views on baptism and the Eucharist after an examination of the Scriptures.)
Lastly, Cyril affirms the perspicuity of the Scriptures when he holds lay Christians to them, and also affirms that everything needed for salvation is found therein. But additionally, he sets up a dichotomy which speaks volumes: “For this salvation which we believe depends not on ingenious reasoning, but on demonstration of the Holy Scriptures.” Apparently, in Cyril’s mind our doctrines either come from ingenious human reasoning, or from God in the Scriptures. To those who reject Sola Scriptura, this would be a false dichotomy. For Cyril, if it isn’t from Scripture, it isn’t from God.
It would be also helpful to understand his idea of the role of the Church in his epistemology, which he says something about in his next lecture, lecture five.
But in learning the Faith and in professing it, acquire and keep that only, which is now delivered to you by the Church, and which has been built up strongly out of all the Scriptures. For since all cannot read the Scriptures, some being hindered as to the knowledge of them by want of learning, and others by a want of leisure, in order that the soul may not perish from ignorance, we comprise the whole doctrine of the Faith in a few lines. This summary I wish you both to commit to memory when I recite it , and to rehearse it with all diligence among yourselves, not writing it out on paper , but engraving it by the memory upon your heart, taking care while you rehearse it that no Catechumen chance to overhear the things which have been delivered to you. I wish you also to keep this as a provision through the whole course of your life, and beside this to receive no other, neither if we ourselves should change and contradict our present teaching, nor if an adverse angel, transformed into an angel of light should wish to lead you astray. For though we or an angel from heaven preach to you any other gospel than that you have received, let him be to you anathema. So for the present listen while I simply say the Creed , and commit it to memory; but at the proper season expect the confirmation out of Holy Scripture of each part of the contents. For the articles of the Faith were not composed as seemed good to men; but the most important points collected out of all the Scripture make up one complete teaching of the Faith. And just as the mustard seed in one small grain contains many branches, so also this Faith has embraced in few words all the knowledge of godliness in the Old and New Testaments. Take heed then, brethren, and hold fast the traditions which you now receive, and write them on the table of your heart (12) [Emphasis mine].
Cyril certainly does not have a low view of the church, her traditions, or her authority. This is consistent with the doctrine of Sola Scriptura which never claims that there is no role for the church at all. Cyril does tell new Christian converts to believe only that which the church has delivered. But the problem for those who reject Sola Scriptura is that Cyril does this more on pragmatic grounds rather than epistemic.
First he says, “But in learning the Faith and in professing it, acquire and keep that only, which is now delivered to you by the Church, and which has been built up strongly out of all the Scriptures.” Notice then that the church is to be believed because Cyril sees the church as passing on Scriptural doctrine. The church is not infallibly interpreting the doctrine, the church is not the arbiter of disputes, and the church is not supplying sacred Tradition with the Scriptures. The church’s role is to faithfully preserve and pass on doctrine that has only been built of strongly from Scripture. This is consistent with Paul’s teaching about the role of the local church,
[I]f I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth (1 Timothy 3:15).
The local church holds the truth up. The local church defends the truth. She does not define the truth, she does not create the truth, she does not infallibly interpret the truth, and she does not add sacred Tradition to it. For Cyril, the role of the church abroad is to pass down and protect biblical doctrine, and only biblical doctrine.
But the key is understanding the expressed reasoning Cyril provides for the role of the church. Why does he recommend Christians accept the teaching of the church, even though his last letter clearly established Scripture as the highest rule of faith?
For since all cannot read the Scriptures, some being hindered as to the knowledge of them by want of learning, and others by a want of leisure, in order that the soul may not perish from ignorance, we comprise the whole doctrine of the Faith in a few lines.
The church’s testimony has more of a pragmatic use for Cyril than in today’s religions that reject Sola Scriptura. Cyril knows that Scripture is what sets our doctrine and morals. But many of the lay people in their midst do not have access to the Scriptures. By God’s grace, this is rarely the case today. But it was not uncommon for people then to not have access to the Scriptures, not be able to read the Scriptures, or not have much time to study the Scriptures. It is for that reason that Cyril calls upon them to trust the leaders and teachers (Hebrews 13:17). But the point is that the leaders, the church’s teachings, are still only passing down what has been derived from Scripture. The church has a pragmatic role, but the chief authority for the Christian faith is still the Scriptures. This is why he tells them that the teaching of the church he is impressing upon them (the Apostles creed) ultimately comes from the Scriptures.
[B]ut at the proper season expect the confirmation out of Holy Scripture of each part of the contents. For the articles of the Faith were not composed as seemed good to men; but the most important points collected out of all the Scripture make up one complete teaching of the Faith. And just as the mustard seed in one small grain contains many branches, so also this Faith has embraced in few words all the knowledge of godliness in the Old and New Testaments.
He assures them not to merely listen to the church as rule of faith, but to listen to the church, trusting that the time will come when they will see what the teaching which the church handed down was derived solely from the whole of Scripture.
For Cyril, the church has an important and helpful role in the teaching and preservation of true doctrine (which is consistent with the Scriptures.) Nonetheless, Cyril clearly espoused the Scriptures as his highest authority, unmatched by any other. Cyril was very clear that no teaching should ever be believed that is not found in the pages of Holy Writ.
In conclusion, it’s important for us also to note how Cyril understands “tradition.” Roman Catholicism deems certain Traditions sacred, making them on par with Scripture as to rule of the Christian faith. Yet, “tradition” is not a bad word. It is a biblical word. But how should we understand the word? Understand it, I say, as Cyril did.
And just as the mustard seed in one small grain contains many branches, so also this Faith has embraced in few words all the knowledge of godliness in the Old and New Testaments. Take heed then, brethren, and hold fast the traditions which you now receive, and write them on the table of your heart (12) [Emphasis mine].
Cyril does call the Christians to receive the tradition of the church. However, he believes said tradition derives its content from the Old and New Testaments. In other words, for Cyril, Sacred Tradition is nothing more than the biblical formulations. The Christian faith, as taught in the Holy Scriptures, is the Tradition we are to believe and deliver to the nations. The traditions we believe are not an authority next to Scripture, but is the content of the faith we have collected from the Scriptures.
I will conclude with an interesting admission from Roman Catholic apologist Erick Ybarra from his personal Facebook page. Someone asked him what a good response is to my argument. Specifically he asked, “What do you think is the best refutation against the idea that St. Cyril of Jerusalem taught Sola Scriptura?”
Mr. Ybarra responded by saying,
I am not sure there is a good “refutation” against that idea. The Apostles and early Christians were very confident in extracting what today is the Catholic/Orthodox framework of Christian practice from the text of Scripture itself. When they read “This is My body”, they saw a crystal clear testimony to the real, true, and propitiatory sacrificial nature of the Lord’s Supper. For them, nothing more was needed than the record of Christ’s words. When Paul entered synagogues, he preached that everything he spoke of was to be found in the Law of Moses and the prophets. Of course, he elsewhere said that a “veil” lies over the un-enlightened readers of the Old Testament. A certain “mystery” (Rom 16) was hidden in the Old Testament that is only now unlocked through the revelation of Jesus of Nazareth, and it takes the power of God (2 Cor 4) to see it. Nevertheless, the interpretive key to bring the Old Testament alive was not natural to man, and needed the guidance of the Apostolic witnesses, and their successors. So I think something like “Sola Scriptura” sounding statements are plentiful in the early Church, and those recognizing that a simple and pure “Scripture only” approach was not logically tenable as a doctrinal definition that encompasses the whole of divine revelation were perhaps few. We already see guys like St. Basil of Ceasarea and St. Augustine recognizing the need for the universal tradition of the Church (emphasis mine).