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Principium Patristicum de Sancta Scriptura

Recently having had occasion to revisit a passage in Rufinus of Aquileia’s Commentary on the Apostles’ Creed, which I discussed briefly here, I was struck by the principles he sets out when dealing with the validity of confessing Christ’s descent into hell.

18. They who have handed down the Creed to us have with much forethought specified the time when these things were done— under Pontius Pilate,— lest in any respect the tradition should falter, as though vague and uncertain. But it should be known that the clause, He descended into Hell, is not added in the Creed of the Roman Church, neither is it in that of the Oriental Churches. It seems to be implied, however, when it is said that He was buried. But in the love and zeal for the Divine Scriptures which possess you, you say to me, I doubt not, These things ought to be proved by more evident testimonies from the Divine Scriptures. For the more important the things are which are to be believed, so much the more do they need apt and undoubted witness. True. But we, as speaking to those who know the law, have left unnoticed, for the sake of brevity, a whole forest of testimonies. But if this also be required, let us cite a few out of many, knowing, as we do, that to those who are acquainted with the Scriptures, a very ample sea of testimonies lies open.

What is evident here?

  1. The Creed must in the first instance be interpreted by the Scriptures, rather than vice versa.
  2. That is, Scripture is to be used to offer proof-texts (which is to say, proof-texting is a valid activity, though much maligned in our own day) for the articles of the Creed.
  3. That is, the witness of Scripture is absolutely requisite for the articles of faith–for anything, that is, that is to be believed de fide. The articles “need apt and undoubted witness.” The creedal undergirding of exegesis is not an afterthought, and is not simply a good gig if you can get it. It is required. Scripture is therefore sufficient.
  4. He further assumes that his audience is competent to see how what they confess is drawn directly from God’s testimony to himself. Scripture can be used, as noted above, for proof; the testimonies are evident. Scripture, then, must be clear.
  5. Because items 1-4 are so, Rufinus simply assumes that his readers hold Scripture in higher esteem than a confessional gloss upon it, rather than exhorting or persuading them to do so. He assumes, in other words, that they are Bereans.

In conclusion: what we believe about God must be what God, the infinite, eternal, incomprehensible, unfathomable, almighty Lord of Hosts, has told us about himself. Before we can testify to who God is, we must attend to God’s testimony of who he is. In absolute terms, only God can interpret himself.1 Where does God speak his thrice-holy Name to us? To ask the question in another way: where, right now, in the absence of prophets and apostles, can we find God’s revelation of himself? For Rufinus, the answer is obvious: we find it in Holy Scripture, and we then confess with our lips what we believe with our hearts.2

  1. Incidentally, this is why the doctrine of illumination and the internal witness of the Spirit is fundamental to a sound doctrine of Scripture.
  2. I have previously addressed this topic in the Didache, and in Irenaeus, and also in Augustine. Cf. also this on Thomas.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.

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