On occasion Protestant writers and apologists make claim for their theological distinctives as being found in the fathers. The doctrine of Sola Scriptura is one such case where a good many citations are brought forward to establish that this doctrine is nothing novel. And so Protestantism is introducing nothing new in advocating for the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. The two major works from which practically all contemporary Protestant cases directly or indirectly depend on are by Whitaker and Goode. If you have read them (I have) there really isn’t much else to read.
One father who is advanced for the case of Sola Scriptura is Pope Gregory the Great (540-604) Gregory is usually enlisted to support a few parts of the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, scripture as the ultimate authority, its material sufficiency and perspicuity. The following citations are some of the usual suspects.
“In silver the power of speaking, in gold brightness of life or of wisdom I used to be denoted. And because heretics are so filled with pride for the brilliancy of their speaking, that they are not based firmly by any authority of the sacred books, (which books are for speaking like a kind of veins of silver to us, because from those identical books we derive the spring and source of our speaking,) he recalls them to the pages of sacred authority, that if they have a desire to speak in a true way, they may from that source draw forth what to say. And he saith, The silver hath the beginning of its veins, and to the gold there is a place, where they fine it.
As if he said in plain words, ‘He that is fitting himself for the words of true preaching, the originals of the cases he must of necessity derive from the sacred page, so as to bring round everything that he speaks to a fountain of divine authority, and in that set firm the edifice of his own speaking. For, as we before said, oftentimes heretics, whilst they are eager to prop up what is bad of their own, broach things which assuredly not maintained in the page of the sacred books. And hence the great Preacher admonishes his disciple, saying, O Timothy, keep that which is committed to thy trust, avoiding profane novelties of speaking, for whereas heretics long to be extolled as if for their excellency of wit, they as it were bring out new things which are not maintained in the books of the ancient Fathers, and thus it follows that whilst they desire to appear wise, they scatter seeds of foolishness to their wretched hearers.” Morals on the Book of Job, Bk 18, ch. 25.
There are a number of things that could be pointed out here, namely that this material is not sufficient to establish Sola Scriptura and none of the conceptual parts of that doctrine are the conceptual property of that view alone. Further, what is missing from these and other citations is the expression of a concept that is a necessary constituent of Sola Scriptura, namely the right of private judgment. That is the view that no ecclesial authority can absolutely bind the conscience of an individual apart from or contrary to that individual’s assent to that authority. As a consequence the individual has the right to trump every secondary ecclesial authority by appeal to his own reading of the scriptures. The buck stops with him and no one else. Without a demonstration that the fathers express that idea, there is no doctrine of Sola Scriptura to be found in them. It matters not whether they articulate any other conceptual parts of the doctrine. But this is rather easy to perceive once one is clear on the essential parts of Sola Scriptura.
None of the above though directly tackles the question of what Gregory is in fact doing in those and other quotes. The Protestant reads these quotes and they certainly seem to him to be advocating for Sola Scriptura or at least some of its conceptual parts. But this is not I think the case. To see why, we need to take a romp through some history.
The first part of the picture is to grasp that Western writers, both pagan and Christian, exemplified a distaste and opposition to things eastern in the first millennium.
“Although Rome had a long fascination for things Greek, the allure of Hellenism paradoxically carried with it a dark counterpart in Roman contempt for the very same things made the East appealing. While mimicking Greek customs and practices, Roman were nonetheless wary of vacuous Hellenic theorizing and Greek tendencies toward verbal trickery rather than genuine understanding…Rome’ pagan authors had often been scathing in their attacks on Easterners. Juvenal had satirized Antioch’s Orontes river discharging ‘its language and morals and slanting strings’ into Rome’s Tiber, and he lamented the infectious and ubiquitous ‘hungry Greekling’ forever hawking him seemingly endless store of knowledge. Plautus invented the word pergraecari, meaning to live dissolutely, in order to contrast Roman moral superiority over Greek tendencies to debauchery.
Christian writers centuries later were no less vitriolic. Tertullian was strident in his condemnation of the East’s love for argumentation, conjecture and the ‘useless affectation of stupid curiosity.’ For him such ‘sublime speculations,’ expressed in verbal trickery and an ‘artful show of language,’ inhibited rather than illuminated the search for truth. A disciple of Greece could not also be a disciple of heaven. When Julian, bishop of Eclanum, refused to accede to Pope Zosimos’ condemnation of Pelagius, Augustine produced a polemic containing citations from a host of Latin Fathers ranging from Ireneaus of Lyon to Ambrose of Milan. He then sarcastically taunted his adversary demanding to know whether his sources were less authoritative merely because they were Latins instead of Greeks. Writing in the middle of the fifth century, Salvian of Marseilles complained bitterly that in their moral depravity the Romans of his day were even closer to the Greeks than their fathers had been. Apparently the Christianization of the empire had not extirpated the undercurrent of suspicious and even disdain that still flowed between Latin West and Greek East. Nor had the Justinianic reconquest of Italy effaced it. The discontented citizens of Rome petitioned the emperor to recall Narses, whom they accused of subjecting them to slavery, declaring that it would have been better for them to continue serving the Goths rather than the Greeks. When Vacis, Witigis’s commander, reproached the Romans for their faithlessness, he did not hesitate to remind them that Goths could at least defend them while the Greeks who had ever come to Italy were ‘actors of tragedy and mimes and thieving sailors.’
Paul the Deacon reflected a sense of differentiation between the Latin West and Greek East in the later part of the sixth century when he called attention to the fact that Maurice was the first of Greek birth to become emperor. Italian antagonism toward the Greeks was not limited to Rome. Writing to the Lombard king Agilulf in 607, the Patriarch of Aquileia questioned whether the Istrian schism [ a western schism rejecting the Fifth Ecumenical Council] could ever be healed in the face of the cruelties shown by the Greeks who, through the exercise of force from Ravenna, had established a more compliant patriarch of Grado. The Ravennates showed a similar contempt for the Greeks. Agnellus reminded his fellow citizens of the venom they had drunk from the mouth of the Byzantine serpent and vowed never to yield to the Greek’s swollen sense of pride. In times of necessity, however, the ancient animus revealed its latent ambivalence and cautiously relented. Rome’s ties to the East had a history characterized by such ambivalence, and that same unease and tension, which simultaneously drew Rome to and repelled it from the East, was to mark its Byzantine years.
Genuine anti-Eastern sentiment must, however be distinguished from the mere repetition of well-established literary topoi to which Western authors routinely resorted when they wrote about the East. Although from the time of Tertullian the West harbored an innate distrust of Greek theological speculation because of its likelihood to lead to heresy, that did not necessarily translate into a wholesale rejection of things Eastern. Western ambivalence toward the East was largely the result of a justified apprehension that oriental infatuation with philosophy generally resulted in doctrinal error. It was not the Greek language, for example, that was objectionable, but rather those who spoke it. Thus the rhetoric of inherited anti-Eastern topoi that permeates Western sources from thepre-Christian period onward must never be taken to mean that all things Greek were somehow tarnished and objectionable. Quite the contrary, even before the end of the sixth century, the East was becoming warmly and increasingly embraced in Byzantine Rome.”
(Ekonomou, Andrew J., Byzantine Rome and the Greek Popes: Eastern Influences on Rome and the papacy from Gregory to Zacharias. A.D.590-752, Lexington Books, 2009, pp. 1-3)
It was into this context that Gregory was born. The next part is taking into account Gregory’s familiarity with and access to Eastern texts and their theological influence on his thinking. While Gregory was not completely unfamiliar with various Eastern writers, his grasp of them could justifiably be characterized as “weak.” This is in part due to the fact that Gregory’s access to Greek writers largely came from a limited number of Latin translations. Dominant in his theological thought by contrast was Augustine of Hippo with whom Gregory shows great familiarity. This is not to say that Gregory was some parochial dope. He spent six years in Constantinople as a papal envoy to the imperial court. But what is salient is what he left behind in Rome.
“He left behind a city both under siege and under water. Traditional classical education had declined nearly to the point of extinction. The Eastern fathers cold not be read in the original Greek; even intellectuals of Gregory’s caliber had to rely on translations. Pope Agapetus’ grand design for a papal library lay un ruins. Venantius Fortunatus’ claim that Vergil was still read in the Forum of Trajan was the fond delusion of an Italian expatriate who ha already been at Poitiers for half a century and could not have known the city’s true condition.” (Eknonomou, 8)
Gregory’s already somewhat anti-Eastern disposition soured during his time in Constantinople such that during his time as pope he,
“…indiscriminately painted all Easterners as bribers, Simoniacs, heretics and heresiarchs.” Ekonomou, 15-16
Gregory’s disposition did not significantly change when he returned to Rome and later became pope. While there still existed in Rome competent translators of Greek works, the access to Greek texts both sacred and profane was rather minimal. So much so that when Eulogius of Alexandria asked, for example for a copy of the acts of martyrs complied by Eusebius of Caesarea, Gregory replied to the effect that no collection in Rome possessed the work or anything like it. The case of Eudoxius of Antioch is also illustrative of the point. Eudoxius was condemned as an Arian by Constantinople I. Gregory had to write to patriarch Kyriakos of Constantinople in 596 to not only find out why Eudoxius had been condemned but who he even was.
This anti-Eastern disposition influenced him in his privileging not just the see of Rome over against Constantinople, but even of setting the western theological tradition above that of Eastern fathers.
‘The faith, to which Rome was so tenaciously attached, was somehow purer when expounded by the Latin fathers. While Gregory extolled the unanimous spirit that both oriental and occidental patristic writers had shown in condemning the Agnoetic heresy, he could be confident that the East’s position was doctrinally sound only because he had found Western fathers who concurred in anathematizing it. Thus the East’s doctrinal pronouncements were valid only if they found support in Western sources.” Ekonomou, 16.
Between 565 and 577 during Gregory’s tenure at Constantinople he became involved in the dispute surrounding the Apthartodocetist heresy with Patriarch Eutychius. At some point Gregory makes his case before emperor Tiberius II. Western sources (e.g. Bede’s History, Bk 2, ch. 1, Paul the Deacon, Vita PL 75:45) paint the picture of Gregory’s defense of the materiality of the body in the post resurrection state as being something of a decisive turning point in the debate. From Gregory’s telling some simple references to biblical texts not only routs the heretics, particularly patriarch Eutychius, but puts an end to the dispute.
But strangely no Eastern source mentions such a meeting or Gregory’s defense.Whether Gregory’s account is fabricated or Eastern writers omitted it we do not know. Perhaps the truth is somewhere in between. Maybe such a meeting took place but Gregory embellished his account or exagerated his standing or the significance of his argument. In any case, what is important about the affair is the extent that it reveals the impoverished state of the western theological tradition and Rome’s access to patristic texts.
“The Eutychian affair also shows that Rome was, by comparison with the East, an intellectual wasteland. Although Gregory is supposed to have quickly settled the debate, the claim that he had to do so by relying on Scripture alone reflects the educational poverty of the former imperial capital, where, dependent upon Latin translations of whatever meager Eastern sources were available, intellectuals like Gregory retreated to an almost complete reliance on Scripture alone in their writings. In his Liber Regulae Pastoralis, for example, except for a reference taken from Pliny the Elder and the allusion to Gregory of Nazianzen, Gregory’s nearly five hundred citations to authority all refer to the Bible: 261 are drawn from the Old Testament and 237 from the New Testament. He refers to no commentator on the Scriptures, and appears to have had no knowledge of John Chrysostom’s six chapter work Περί ιερωσύνης on the same subject. By taking refuge in the sole authority of the Bible, Gregory could conceal his own educational shortcomings.” Ekonomou, 12
Now it is certainly possible that Gregory did sincerely hold to the thesis that the scriptures were capable of addressing and resolving for the reader, the complex theological matters in a straightforward and unproblematic way and were therefore superior. But it seems to me that the historical context of his statements at most leaves us with the conclusion that Gregory used such a belief to his advantage. (And of course, that thesis isn’t necessarily distinctive of Sola Scriptura in any case.) But I think that when we take into account the long tradition of anti-Eastern sentiment to which Gregory was exposed along with the extended theological and textually impoverished state of the Roman city and church, and Gregory’s own experience and stated dispositions it seems far more likely that Gregory is appealing to scripture over against the richer and deeper theological schools and texts of the East because he doesn’t have much of anything else to appeal to. It is not then that Gregory appeals to scripture as the only acceptable grounds, but rather he has no other grounds upon which to compete with Eastern writers.
“The ‘supreme distrust of abstract thought’ an theological speculation that prevented Gregory from opening himself up ‘to the theology of the monks of Chrysopolis,’ may have been in part based upon a genuine belief that it was through the Bible alone that God speaks to human beings. But we should not ignore the likelihood that Gregory’s esaltazione della Bibbia, was also a convenient way of concealing his ignorance of a vast body of literature that he simply had not had at his disposal.” Ekonomou, 12.
Gregory’s insistence on scripture over against the bringing out of “new things” from other works then is not an expression of the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, but rather Gregory’s attempt to cloak the West’s weak grasp of the tradition. In other words, Gregory appeals to scripture over other sources because that is all he has by and large to appeal to. It is the only substantial tool he has in his toolbox to use in theological disputes with Eastern figures.
There are a few lessons here to take away. It is simply not sufficient to cite material from a given source. Citations need to be contextualized by situating them within their historical, theological and philosophical context. The key terms will at times require analysis relative to the wider body of writing of a given author. And most important, an actual argument will need to be given.
Furthermore, what is most ironic is that Protestant apologists in using this and other texts from Gregory to support Sola Scriptura seem blinded to the real apologetic value of Gregory’s texts in relation to Catholic claims for the papacy. The fact that Gregory has to appeal almost exclusively to scripture to conceal the impoverished state of western theological learning and because he has almost nothing else to appeal to (it is not as if Augustine carried the same weight in the East as he did in the West) undermines Catholic claims for the papacy. Rome, (let alone the rest of the western churches) was simply not the theological hub of the Christian world standing ready to issue judgments from an informed position as the events surrounding the Fifth Ecumenical Council prior to Gregory make plain.