Theology in the Patristic Era: Stephen O. Presley on Scripture and Tradition

Historical Theology for the Church is a new book from B&H Academic that treats the entire 2000 year history of Christianity with a focus on doctrinal development through major figures, events, and written works. By steering this work “for the church” this textbook shows the development of doctrine in history through congregations as well as provide a resource for contemporary congregations. The following is an excerpt from one of the contributing authors’ chapters.

Stephen O. Presley serves as associate professor of Church History and Director of Research Doctoral Studies at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.


One of the most fundamental question in the history of Christian thought concerns the proper interpretation and ordering of authoritative sources. In various areas of life, we all follow authorities that help guide and shape the patterns of our daily routines: children obey their parents, employees fulfill the requests of their employers, and students follow the directions of their teachers. In a similar way, theological reflection is dependent on various sources that guide and shape the church’s faith, and from the earliest days, theologians have naturally appealed to two main sources: Scripture and tradition. Unlike later periods of Christian history, these two sources in the early church were intertwined and converged like two streams flowing together through the river of theological discourse.

Historical Overview

In the years following the apostles, the church continued to thrive despite living as a marginalized community and suffering through many internal and external pressures. The prevailing philosophical and theological assumptions of Greco-Roman culture competed with Christianity. What the early church demanded above all was an entire revision of the first principles that challenged the foundations of classical culture. Amid their Greco-Roman world, the early church claimed to possess a new identity in Christ superior to any religious ideology or spirituality the culture had to offer. It was on this basis that they worshipped and served, worked and played, lived and died.

The church also relied on pastors to ensure the proper dedication, preservation, and interpretation of the inspired books of Scripture. These clergy were responsible for providing regular instruction on the church’s teachings, as well as evangelizing and catechizing new converts to the faith. The decisions about preaching and worship, as well as discipleship or catechetical curriculum, necessitated that pastors play an active role in transmission of Scripture and development of doctrine. Early catechetical manuals, such as the Didache, Irenaeus’s On Apostolic Preaching, and Augustine’s On Catechizing the Uninstructed, show that new converts to the faith were thoroughly immersed in the Scriptures. Together these texts and figures show how Scripture and tradition work in harmony to prepare the church to face the challenges of every new generation.

Case Studies

1. The Muratorian Fragment

2. Athanasius Letter 39 (c.367)

3. Irenaeus on the Rule of Faith

4. Hippolytus, On the Apostolic Tradition

For the Church

From the earliest days of the church, Scripture and tradition are the two sources that inform Christian faith and practice. Although the rest of the tradition would continue to debate the relationship of these sources, they were closely intertwined in the early church. It seems clear that Scripture holds the primary place of authority, but the Fathers would not think that tradition is entirely separate and distinct. As the church gathered the inspired Scriptures, they also studied them regularly and continued to clarify the basic apostolic teaching expressed in them.

The early church assumed the inspiration of Scripture.

The proper ordering of Scripture and tradition. Given that Scripture is inspired, the early church also assumed a close relationship between Scripture and tradition.

The church should not neglect tradition. Although all Christian faith and practice is rooted in the Scriptures, the church must recognize the abiding value of the history of creeds and confessions.

The discussion of Scripture and tradition in the early church situations a conversation that will continue throughout the church history. Though there will be times that tradition attempts to subvert Scripture, in the early church the sources were much more intertwined. The Scriptures are given for the life and ministry of the church, and the faithful will dedicate themselves to the study of the church, and the faithful will dedicate themselves to the study of those inspired texts within the context of the apostolic tradition.

Historical Theology for the Church
Jason G. Duesing & Nathan A. Finn, editors
B&H Academic, 2021

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