Cyril of Jerusalem and Sola Scriptura

Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 315–c. 387, sedit c. 350) has remained relatively obscure compared to some of his fourth-century counterparts. He is often remembered as a combatant in—or victim of—the long-running Arian controversies of this period, though even there, his “side” is not entirely clear. Much like Athanasius, his career as bishop was marked by repeated ejection and recall. Cyril seems to have grown up in Jerusalem—he was probably there during the discovery of the relics of Christ’s cross—and served there as a presbyter before his accession to bishop.[1] Most reports have Acacius of Caesarea (the historian Eusebius’ immediate successor and someone Athanasius specifically identified as an enemy) playing a key role in securing the episcopal office for Cyril, which came at a time when Caesarea was the superior see to Jerusalem.

Of his extant work, perhaps the most historically valuable item is the collection of his catechetical lectures, delivered to baptismal candidates every year during the Lenten season. Like much of what comes down to us from antiquity, we face the problem in early Christian theology of adjudicating to what extent a given source simply represents one set of elites talking other elites. Imagine if—horribile dictu—in a millennium from now, Twitter is the only artifact to survive from our era. Aside from threatening future historians’ sanity, Twitter’s records would give them a very skewed picture of our society as a whole, greatly overrepresenting certain demographic cross-sections and their opinions. To a much greater degree, we have just such a problem in premodern history. To illustrate, how many ancient Christians “in the pews” could really articulate the issues at stake in the fourth century’s all-consuming Christological battles? There’s no easy methodological solution to such a question when one’s evidence comes from the most educated elements of society.

That is, unless you have a source like Cyril who addresses matters of baseline beliefs per se. Sermons and homilies are invaluable for the same reason: they are more “democratized” forms of Christian discourse. Catechetical lectures of the sort we have from Cyril appear to be a relatively new genre, perhaps spurred by the need to catechize larger numbers of would-be Christians in an efficient manner following Constantine’s conversion. (For context, the first Christian emperor had died only just over a decade prior to Cyril’s episcopacy.)

Particularly in Lecture Four, Cyril acknowledges that he is going to be covering some potentially boring basics of Christian belief, encouraging his more advanced listeners to patience. Cyril emphasizes that the purpose of this particular talk is to lay down a basic foundation upon which the rest of the ensuing catechetical instruction can stand. Much of the lecture, then, entails a point-by-point preview of the creed.[2] But Cyril also lays down a theory of Scripture, supplying his own canon and warning his students against apocrypha.[3] Now, given that sola scriptura was a Protestant invention in the sixteenth century, what Cyril tells his catechumens after previewing the creed is highly peculiar:

So keep always in your mind the seal of which we have now spoken to you summarily, touching on the most important points. However, if the Lord allows it, I shall speak about this later as best I can and give scriptural proof. For where the divine and holy mysteries of the Creed are concerned, one must not teach even minor points without reference to the sacred Scriptures, or be led astray lightly by persuasive and elaborate arguments. Do not simply take my word when I tell you these things, unless you are given proof for my teaching from holy Scripture. For this is the guarantee of our Creed, not clever argument, but proof based on Scripture.[4]

Perhaps Edward Yarnold, Cyril’s translator, has it right after all: Cyril “subscribed to a form of sola scriptura doctrine.”[5] That Cyril was teaching this way here in the mid-300s, a few years before even Augustine was born, should suggest to us that the Protestant emphasis upon Scripture was hardly de novo in the grand scheme of things.

  1. For an introduction to Cyril’s life and times, see Edward Yarnold, Cyril of Jerusalem, The Early Church Fathers (London ; New York: Routledge, 2000) and Jan Willem Drijvers, Cyril of Jerusalem: Bishop and City, Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae, v. 72 (Leiden ; Boston: Brill, 2004).
  2. Catechetical Lecture 4.3.
  3. Catechetical Lecture 4.33­–6.
  4. Catechetical Lecture 4.17, taken from Yarnold, 103.
  5. Yarnold, 56.


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