The Church Before the New Testament
(The Impossibility of Sola Scriptura)
By Matthew J. Bellisario 2010
Most people today do not often reflect on the actual time period of the Church before the New Testament was written down and recognized. The average Christian reads the Bible as if it has existed in its present form since the foundation of the Church. This however is not true. The average Protestant that I run into in my travels acts as if they believe in the Gospel only because the Bible in its current form exists. They assume it is the Word of God, yet they have no idea why, and they assume it contains everything that they need to know in order to live the Gospel and receive eternal salvation. What they fail to realize is that Christianity for the greater part of its existence was not spread by using the New Testament as an exclusive evangelization tool. In fact, it was the preaching of the “Word” that made millions of converts over the known world.
The 27 books of the New Testament were written over a period of about a 60 or 70 year span, and they were not all recognized as being Scripture right away in every church. They were gradually recognized as such as they were used in the early liturgies of the Church. They were accepted based on apostolic origin and oral testimony of those charged with proclaiming the Gospel. For example, the book of Romans was written by Saint Paul around the year 57 or 58AD. The first Gospel was written around the year 60 to 70 AD. (Visit this link for a compilation of opinions on the dating of the New Testament Books.) Saint Paul and his companions however traveled the world preaching the Gospel with no written New Testament books to back up their claims to the Gospel. In fact, all St. Paul had was the Old Testament which was written in Greek, known as the Septuagint, and his interpretations were accepted by the illumination of the Holy Spirit, given to him by the authority passed down to him through the apostles. If you recall, even after Our Lord called him, he still went to have hands laid upon him to receive the apostolic authority and gifts of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 9:17-19) Only then was he “sent.” How was Saint Paul able to convert people without a Bible? The answer is simple, he did so by the authority of the apostles which were given authority to preach the Gospel from Christ Himself.
Saint Paul died around 68AD by the hands of the brutal Nero in Rome, as did Saint Peter. So Saint Paul and Saint Peter spent almost their entire lives preaching with no New Testament letters to even refer to. In fact, they were primary contributors to the New Testament Canon. People were converted from hearing the oral preaching of the Gospel based on their authority to proclaim it, not because the Bible alone said so. The New Testament was a written testimony to some of what was being handed down in the early Church, and was used to further testify to the Gospel that was being preached orally. No place in the early Church do we see a shift away from this apostolic preaching to a sole reliability on the New Testament Scriptures. They merely become part of the same Church which produced them, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
The entire New Testament was written down by 100AD. Saint John’s Gospel being one of the last to be penned. In the early second century the Church unanimously recognized the four Gospels as being Holy Writ, yet they were not mass produced for everyone to retain their own copies, and the Gospel at this time was proclaimed orally by the authority of those who had maintained the apostolic authority that was handed down to them from the apostles. We can see this fact in a variety of Church Father writings, which give us a witness to such a reality. But even more importantly, we see this practiced in all of the ancient apostolic Churches as far back as we have written testimony, and it continues in actual practice in the same churches today. The same apostolic succession is maintained today by the Catholic Church. As more of the New Testament books were recognized in the churches across the known world, they were gradually collected together to form a New Testament canon.
Even around the year 200 however, certain books were not yet universally recognized as Sacred Scripture. Such books include the books of Hebrews, Revelation, I and II Peter, II John and James for example. The Church however functioned well making converts by preaching the Gospel with authority. The Protestant fallacy of Sola Scriptura was an impossibility for the entire early Church. Even once the New Testament canon was settled, which was around the end of the fourth century, the Christians did not have mass produced Bibles to use as an evangelization tool. It was the preacher sent by Christ’s authority, given through the apostles, within the Church that Christ founded, that won over converts. It would be interesting to see how the average pre-convert Protestant of today would have faired living in the year 150 in the early Church. Of course they would have had no idea as to the modern man-made doctrine of Sola Scriptura, but it would be interesting to transport Billy Graham back to that time and see how he would have reacted. The Catholic would have believed the Gospel based on Christ's authority given to the preacher through the apostles. They would have accepted their interpretation of the Old Testament as well as everything Christ taught and passed on to them. The Protestant however would have been searching the Old Testament until they were blue in the face trying to interpret it for themselves, fighting Saint Paul or one of the Church Fathers over what it meant, and protesting to their "additions" to the Old Testament Scriptures.
Would the modern Protestant have believed Saint Irenaeus' peaching of the Gospel on the streets of Lyons? Would they have insisted that he produce for them the entire New Testament before they believed the Gospel? When Saint Irenaues preached, “It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church,who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times...” would they have listened? And when he clearly spoke of the Church in Rome, would they have mocked him as they mock the Catholic Church today? “We do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority — that is, the faithful everywhere...”
The Catholic Church continues on preaching and proclaiming the Gospel today with the same authority as the apostles and early Christians did, except that it also now has the written testimonies of the Scripture of the New Testament to give an additional witness to this apostolic Gospel. If Protestants reject those who have this authority now, what makes them so sure they would have accepted it back then? To take the Scriptures out of the bosom of the oral preaching authority of the Church, which they have always been intimately united to, is an error of the gravest matter. Simply put, Sola Scriptura was never an accepted or proclaimed doctrine of any true Christian, and it is clearly an invention of the pretended “Reformers” of the 16th century.