St. Thomas Aquinas and Sola Scriptura:
"...only canonical Scripture is a measure of faith..." (Commentary on John 21)

St. Thomas Aquinas, the Angelic DoctorThomas Aquinas and Sola Scriptura

The Protestant/evangelical/Reformed apologist Tim Enloe writes in a thread on Gary Hoge's (defunct) EZBoard on some Latin from St. Thomas Aquinas,

<< Or maybe you'd prefer Aquinas in Latin, since the following citation has such an interesting little phrase about Scripture in it (I've bolded it for you) >>

Notandum autem, quod cum multi scriberent de catholica veritate, haec est differentia, quia illi, qui scripserunt canonicam Scripturam, sicut Evangelistic et Apostoli, et alii huiusmodi, ita constanter eam asserunt quod nihil dubitandum relinquunt. Et ideo dicit Et scimus quia verum est testimonium eius; Gal. I, 9: Si quis vobis evangelizaverit praeter id quod accepistis, anathema sit. Cuius ratio est, quia sola canonica scriptura est regula fidei. Alii autem sic edisserunt de veritate, quod nolunt sibi credi nisi in his quae ver dicunt. Thomas's commentary on John's Gospel, Super Evangelium S. Ioannis Lectura, ed. P. Raphaelis Cai, O.P., Editio V revisa (Romae: Marietti E ditori Ltd., 1952) n. 2656, p. 488.


"It should be noted that though many might write concerning Catholic truth, there is this difference that those who wrote the canonical Scripture, the Evangelists and Apostles, and the like, so constantly assert it that they leave no room for doubt. That is what he means when he says 'we know his witness is true.' Galatians 1:9, "If anyone preach a gospel to you other than that which you have received, let him be anathema!" The reason is that only canonical Scripture is a measure of faith. Others however so wrote of the truth that they should not be believed save insofar as they say true things." (St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of John 21)

This was answered a number of years ago in an article in Catholic Dossier (March/April 1996 issue) by an Aquinas expert, Dr. Ralph McInerny. The issue was available online but the magazine has been discontinued.

The article in Catholic Dossier (March/April 1996) cites the passage from Aquinas above, and responds to its misapplication by the French Catholic theologian Florent Gaboriau, who suggested in a 1985 book (Theologie Nouvelle and repeated in an article in the Revue Thomiste) this makes the usual opposition of evangelical Protestants and Catholics on sola scriptura dubious --

<< Does Thomas say that Scripture alone is the measure of our faith? The words Gaboriau has quoted are from Thomas's commentary on John's Gospel, Super Evangelium S. Ioannis Lectura, ed R. Cai, OP, Marietti: Roma, 1952, n. 2656. Thomas is commenting on John's peroration, "This is the disciple who bears witness concerning these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his witness is true. There are, however, many other things that Jesus did; but if every one of these should be written, not even the world itself, I think, could hold the books that would have to be written. Amen" (John 21:24-25). In the paragraph Gaboriau cites, Thomas is concerned with "and we know his witness is true." Here is the text... [then follows the above passage in English]...It is clear that Thomas is contrasting canonical and apocryphal works and saying that only the former have credence for Christians. The issue Gaboriau is interested in simply does not arise in this passage. >>

Dr. Norman Geisler has used the same citation from St. Thomas I believe first in his evangelical book on Aquinas (1991) then repeated in his Forward to Elliot Miller/Ken Samples book on Catholic Mariology The Cult of the Virgin (Baker, 1992). Here is an excerpt from Geisler's Forward to the latter book:

"First of all, the Roman Catholic doctrine on Mary has gone well beyond Holy Scripture. But even the great Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas affirmed that 'only the canonical Scriptures are normative for faith' (Commentary on John 21, lect. 6). In going beyond Scripture in their teachings about Mary, Roman Catholics have threatened Scripture as the sole authority of the faith. This is one reason why those dedicated to the principle of Sola Scriptura cannot avoid addressing this issue." (Norm Geisler, forward to The Cult of the Virgin)

A few years later Geisler/MacKenzie enlisted a few additional passages from Aquinas in their otherwise excellent Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences (Baker, 1995) to suggest Aquinas held to sola scriptura. These were all answered competently in Not By Scripture Alone: A Catholic Critique of the Protestant Doctrine of Sola Scriptura (Queenship, 1997) edited by Robert Sungenis:

"Aquinas also said: 'The formal object of faith is Primary Truth as manifested in Holy Scripture and in the teaching of the Church which proceeds from the Primary Truth. hence, he who does not embrace the teaching of the Church as a divine and infallible law does not possess the habit of faith' [from Summa Theologica, II-II, q. 5, a. 3]. Thus one can easily see that not only does Aquinas direct his reader to the Church, but he also emphasizes that the Church houses the truth of Scripture, and that the Church, not just the Scripture is a divine and infallible entity. This is quite different from the impression the present Protestant apologist [referring to Geisler/MacKenzie] conveys to an untrained reader." (Not By Scripture Alone, page 324, see also page 372ff).

Ignoring this answer in Not By Scripture Alone, Webster/King in their large defense of sola scriptura titled Holy Scripture: The Ground and Pillar of Our Faith (2001) again picked up these citations from Geisler (or possibly from the French theologian Gaboriau) and tried to use them to suggest St. Thomas Aquinas believed in sola scriptura (which they define as both the material and formal sufficiency of Scripture). On Aquinas, William Webster states the following:

"This position [referring to a paragraph quoted by Alister McGrath on sola scriptura] was well expressed by Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century. Norman Geisler comments...."

A paragraph from Geisler's book (Thomas Aquinas: An Evangelical Appraisal) is then cited concerning Aquinas' view of the inspiration, inerrancy, and high authority of Scripture. Then Webster continues:

"The Scriptures held a place of supreme authority in the Church. In a quotation previously referenced, Aquinas echoed the sentiments of Basil of Caesarea and Augustine, stating that the teaching of the fathers was received as authoritative only when it could be demonstrated that it was true to Scripture. He taught that Scripture alone was the canonical standard of doctrine, and therefore the foundation and source of truth for the faith of the Church: 'Only canonical Scripture is the rule of faith' (quia sola canonica scriptura est regula fidei). Note that he used the term sola Scriptura." (Webster, Holy Scripture: The Ground and Pillar of Our Faith, volume 2, page 87-88)

Is Webster representing accurately the full view of St. Thomas Aquinas? Let's look at this issue of "sola scriptura" in Aquinas (I will use his primary work the Summa Theologica).

First, what does it mean that "only canonical Scripture is a measure [or rule] of faith" (note the translation at the top and in Webster's footnote 293, page 197 reads: "A measure of faith" not "THE rule of faith"). What St. Thomas is doing is contrasting Scripture to other apocryphal or non-canonical writings (as noted by Catholic Dossier above). And Catholics/Orthodox today would agree. Aquinas was not opposing "the canonical Scriptures" against the Church or her tradition which he also affirmed was a measure, a rule for faith and practice. In other words, St. Thomas is not saying sacred tradition is not ALSO A rule for faith and practice. How do I know this? He says so below.

See the full context of Aquinas' Commentary on John (below).

From something I posted to James White's old sola scriptura Email list (from June 1996). Anti-Catholic evangelical apologist Eric Svendsen was on that list, as well as Greg Krehbiel (at that time still Protestant)


Eric Svendsen wrote --

ES> Paul tells us in 2 Thess 2:15 that his teaching was sometimes written and sometimes passed along orally: "Hold to the teachings we passed on to you whether by word of mouth or by letter." Yet, it was, in any case, the *same* message. No appeal can legitimately be made to this passage to introduce the notion of an on-going oral tradition that was to be held on par with (yet as different from) Paul's written instructions to the churches. >>

Greg Krehbiel responded --

GK> When I asked, last week, how you thought 1 Cor. 11:34 related to 2 Thes. 2:15, you replied in a very literal manner, as if I were claiming that the precise teachings alluded to in 1 Cor. 11 were in view in 2 Thes. 2. My point was that 1 Cor. 11 shows that some apostolic teachings go beyond what is written in Scripture, and that in 2 Thes. 2 Paul exerts us to hold fast to all the teachings, not just the written ones. >>

Here is something from St. Thomas Aquinas SUMMA THEOLOGICA that I found

ST Third Part, Question 64, Article 2 on "Whether the Sacraments are instituted by God alone?"

OBJECTION 1: For those things which God has instituted are delivered to us in Holy Scripture. But in the Sacraments certain things are done which are nowhere mentioned in Holy Scripture. For instance, the chrism with which men are confirmed, the oil with which the priests are anointed, and many others, both words and actions, which we employ in the Sacraments. Therefore, the Sacraments were not instituted by God alone.

REPLY 1: Human institutions observed in the Sacraments are not essential to the Sacrament, but belong to the solemnity which is added to the Sacraments in order to arouse devotion and reverence in the recipients. But those things that are essential to the Sacrament are instituted by Christ Himself, who is God and man.

And though they are not all handed down by the Scriptures, yet the Church holds them from the intimate tradition of the Apostles, according to the saying of the Apostle : 'THE REST I WILL SET IN ORDER WHEN I COME' (1 Cor 11:34).

Concerning 2 Thessalonians 2:15, I found the following from St. Thomas

ST Third Part, Question 25, Article 3 on Worship (veneration) of Images

OBJECTION 4: seems that nothing should be done in the Divine worship that is not instituted by God; therefore the Apostle when about to hand down the doctrine of the Sacrifice of the Church, says: 'I HAVE RECEIVED OF THE LORD THAT WHICH I DELIVERED UNTO YOU' (1 Cor 11:23). But Scripture does not lay down anything concerning the adoration [i.e. veneration] of images.

REPLY 4: The Apostles, led by the inward stirring of the Holy Ghost, handed down to the churches certain instructions which they did not leave in writing, but which have been ordained in accordance with the observance of the Church as practiced by the faithful as time went on. Therefore the Apostle says: 'STAND FAST, AND HOLD THE TRADITIONS WHICH YOU HAVE LEARNED, WHETHER BY WORD' -- that is by word of mouth -- 'OR BY OUR EPISTLE' -- that is by word put into writing (2 Thess 2:15)....

On the relation of the Scripture to the Church, St. Thomas wrote [this one I got from Joe Gallegos, and it appears later in Not By Scripture Alone] --

ST II-II, Question 5, Article 3

The formal object of faith is Primary Truth as manifested in Holy Scripture and in the teaching of the Church which proceeds from the Primary Truth. Hence, he who does not embrace the teaching of the Church as a divine and infallible law does not possess the habit of faith.

Now of course you might disagree with these assertions but at least we have what this great Doctor of the Church believed. St. Thomas is well-respected among certain Reformed theologians as R.C. Sproul and John Gerstner -- See Thomas Aquinas : An Evangelical Appraisal by Norm Geisler (Baker Books, 1991). I also find it curious how Geisler tries to make it appear Aquinas believed in sola scriptura in his Roman Catholics and Evangelicals (Baker, 1995).

END of 6/96 Sola-L post

The Teaching of the Church as "an Infallible and Divine Rule"

The full passage on the infallible nature of the Church's teaching office is below in a different English translation and can be found online at here:

Objection 3. Further, just as man obeys God in believing the articles of faith, so does he also in keeping the commandments of the Law. Now a man can obey some commandments, and disobey others. Therefore he can believe some articles, and disbelieve others.

On the contrary, Just as mortal sin is contrary to charity, so is disbelief in one article of faith contrary to faith. Now charity does not remain in a man after one mortal sin. Therefore neither does faith, after a man disbelieves one article.

I answer that, Neither living nor lifeless faith remains in a heretic who disbelieves one article of faith.

St. Thomas Aquinas, the Angelic DoctorThe reason of this is that the species of every habit depends on the formal aspect of the object, without which the species of the habit cannot remain. Now the formal object of faith is the First Truth, as manifested in Holy Writ and the teaching of the Church, which proceeds from the First Truth. Consequently whoever does not adhere, as to an infallible and Divine rule, to the teaching of the Church, which proceeds from the First Truth manifested in Holy Writ, has not the habit of faith, but holds that which is of faith otherwise than by faith. Even so, it is evident that a man whose mind holds a conclusion without knowing how it is proved, has not scientific knowledge, but merely an opinion about it. Now it is manifest that he who adheres to the teaching of the Church, as to an infallible rule, assents to whatever the Church teaches; otherwise, if, of the things taught by the Church, he holds what he chooses to hold, and rejects what he chooses to reject, he no longer adheres to the teaching of the Church as to an infallible rule, but to his own will. Hence it is evident that a heretic who obstinately disbelieves one article of faith, is not prepared to follow the teaching of the Church in all things; but if he is not obstinate, he is no longer in heresy but only in error. Therefore it is clear that such a heretic with regard to one article has no faith in the other articles, but only a kind of opinion in accordance with his own will.

[ From St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II, Question 5, Article 3 ]

So the great Angelic Doctor never separated the "Holy Writ" (the canonical Scriptures) from the infallible teaching of the Catholic Church -- in fact he says one who does not hold to the teaching of the Church as a divine and infallible rule does not have a true faith. Further we see in my two citations from the Summa Theologica that Aquinas indeed appealed to Apostolic Sacred Tradition as a rule for faith and practice (see above from ST, Third Part, q. 64 a. 2, his citing 1 Corinthians 11:34 and ST, Third Part q. 25 a. 3, his citing 2 Thessalonians 2:15).

From Commentary on John's Gospel, chapter 21, Lecture 6

[ COMMENTARY ON THE GOSPEL OF ST. JOHN by St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I: Chapters 1-7 translated by James A. Weisheipl, OP,
Part II: Chapters 8-21 translated by Fabian R. Larcher, OP (Magi Books Inc, Albany NY, 1998) ]

24 This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things; and we know that his testimony is true. 25 But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

[St. Thomas refers to Jn 21:25 in the Summa Theologiae: III, q. 42, a. 4; q. 83, a. 4, ad 2].

2652 Now we have the last part of this Gospel, which is a kind of epilogue. First, the Gospel is commended; and then the vastness of the subject treated (v 25). The Gospel is commended because of two things: its author, and its truth. Three things are mentioned about the author.

2653 First, there is the authority of the author, because This is the disciple - understanding what was mentioned before who was loved above the others, intimate with Christ, able to question him with confidence, and to whom it was granted to remain until Christ came. All these things refer to the authority of the author.

John is said to have been loved more than the others because of his unique charity: "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (13:35). None of the other apostles speak so much of love for others as does John in his letters. We also read that as an old man he was carried to the church by his followers to teach the faithful. He taught only one thing: "Little children, love one another." This is the perfection of the Christian life.

2654 Secondly, John's office is mentioned, which was to give testimony, for he says, who is bearing witness to these things. This is the special office of apostles: "You shall be my witnesses" (Acts 1:8); "You are my witnesses!" (Is 44:8).

2655 Thirdly, he refers to his zeal when he says, and who has written these things. As an apostle he testified to the actions of Christ to those who were present; and in his zeal he recorded these actions in writing for those who were not with him and were to come after him: "Take a large tablet and write upon it in common characters" (Is 8:1); "The wisdom of the scribe depends on the opportunity of leisure; and he who has little business may become wise" (Sir 38:24). For it was granted to John to live until the time when the Church was at peace; and this is the time when he wrote all these things. John mentions such things so that we will not think that his gospel has less authority than the other three, seeing that he wrote after the death of all the other apostles, and the other gospels, especially that of Matthew, had been approved by them.

2656 Now John states that his Gospel is true, and he speaks in the person of the entire Church which received it: "My mouth will utter truth" (Prv 8:7). We should note that although many have written about Catholic truth, there is a difference among them: those who wrote the canonical scriptures, such as the evangelists and apostles and the like, so constantly and firmly affirm this truth that it cannot be doubted. Thus John says, we know that his testimony is true: "If any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed" (Gal 1:9). The reason for this is that only the canonical scriptures are the standard of faith [or "a measure of faith"]. The others have set forth this truth but in such a way that they do not want to be believed except in those things in which they say what is true.

[biblicalcatholic.comments: The contrast Aquinas makes is clearly between "the canonical scriptures" (those written by the original apostles and evangelists) and those other written documents that may also contain Catholic truth (this "many" would include any non-canonical writings, apocryphal writings, or post-apostolic writings, etc). He is not referring to the authority or teaching of the Church nor Sacred Tradition in contrast with Scripture, but Scripture versus other non-canonical writings. Only the original apostles in their writings affirm the truth where "it cannot be doubted." The others must be measured against Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the teaching of the Catholic Church. Note in this very paragraph Aquinas states the Apostle John "speaks in the person of the entire Church which received" his Gospel. We have Aquinas' position on the teaching of the Church as "an infallible and divine rule" and his statements on apostolic tradition above.]

2657 Now John states the incompleteness of his Gospel as compared with the reality, because Christ not only did these things but there are also many other things which Jesus did.

2658 His statement, were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written, can be understood in two ways. First, the word contain can refer to the capacity of our minds to understand. So the meaning is: So much could be said about Christ that the world could not understand all that could be written: "I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now," that is, understand them (16:12). We could also regard this statement as a deliberate exaggeration; and it then indicates the abundance of Christ's works.

2659 How reconcile this? He had just said, we know that his testimony is true, and then immediately resorts to hyperbole, exceeding the truth. According to Augustine, Scripture does use figures of speech, such as "I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne" [Is 6:1], and such statements are not false. [Tract. in Io., 124, ch. 8, col. 1976; cf. Catena Aurea, 21:24-25]. This is so when hyperbole is used. The desire of the speaker is not that we accept the literal meaning of the words, but what they were intended to mean, that is, the great number of Christ's works. Hyperbole is not used to explain what is obscure or doubtful, but to exaggerate or minimize what is obvious. For example, to emphasize how plentiful something is, one can say that there is enough for a hundred or a thousand people. And to minimize something, one could say that there is hardly enough for three. This is not speaking falsely, because it is so obvious that the words contort the reality that they show that one does not intend to lie, but to indicate that something is great or small.

2660 Or, this statement could be understood to refer to the power of Christ, who performed these signs; and the emphasis is on every one of them. For to write about each and every word and deed of Christ is to reveal the power of every word and deed. Now the words and deeds of Christ are also those of God. Thus, if one tried to write and tell of the nature of every one, he could not do so; indeed, the entire world could not do this. This is because even an infinite number of human words cannot equal one word of God. From the beginning of the Church Christ has been written about; but this is still not equal to the subject. Indeed, even if the world lasted a hundred thousand years, and books written about Christ, his words and deeds could not be completely revealed: "Of making many books there is no end" (Eccl 12:12); The works of God "are multiplied above number" [Ps 50:5].

See also:

Works by St. Thomas Aquinas (Wikipedia)
Commentary on the Gospel of John (complete)
Aquinas and Sacred Scripture by John F. Boyle (an Aquinas expert)

"Throughout his commentaries, Thomas is thoroughly theological; that is, he is first and always concerned with deepening his understanding of the revealed truths of the faith. Scripture always speaks to that faith. Furthermore, that theological reading is itself thoroughly ecclesial; that is, Thomas reads Scripture as a faithful son of the church. Scripture itself has its origin and confirmation in the church  [St. John the Evangelist says of his own witness in his Gospel, 'and we know that his testimony is true' (Jn 21.24). Thomas comments on this verse: "He [John] speaks in the person of the whole church, from which this Gospel has been received." (c. 21, lect. 6, p. 488) ]; it nourishes the truths learned from the church and lived in the church." (Dr. John F. Boyle, "St. Thomas Aquinas and Sacred Scripture").

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