top of page

Archbishop Usher on Traditions and the Place of Scripture.

Leipzig Disputation

July 1519, Leipzig. The controversy between Martin Luther and Roman Catholicism was coming to a head regarding the question of authority. The famous public disputation with counter-reformer Johann von Eck of Inglostadt was in session. The question was posed to Luther - had the Council of Constance (which condemned John Huss) erred? Luther responded: "among the condemned beliefs of John Huss and his disciples, there are many which are truly Christian and evangelical and which the Catholic Church cannot condemn." On finishing this statement there was uproar! Luther had crossed the Tiber he was declaring that the Ecumenical Church Councils were sometime errant and by doing so was rejecting Papal authority (for the Councils were controlled by the Pope). Luther was declaring Scripture as the authoritative and sufficient rule of faith and practice.

Roman Catholicism ostensibly holds that there are two sources of authority, (1) Scripture; and (2) Traditions, but to this they add a third in that they hold that the Church is the judge of Scripture and is able to declare authoritatively what the right interpretation is.

The Reformed churches sided with Luther in maintaining the holy Scriptures alone as authoritative. The Westminster Confession sets out the place of Holy Scripture in the life of the Church, and in doing so specifically rejects the errors of Rome:

"The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, depends not upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God." (WCF 1, Sec 4)

The Holy Scriptures are "[t]he supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture." (WCF 1, Sec 10)

Continuing our series on Archbishop Usher Responding to Rome we now present the Archbishop's argument from Answer to a Jesuit on the authority of Scripture and Traditions, wherein he challenges Rome's claim that the current of the Doctors, Pastors and Fathers of the primitatvie Church run on their side. But as we shall see, from the beginning it was not so...


We must not be mistaken in thinking that Traditions of all sorts are promiscuously struck at by us. Rather it is acknowledged that the word of God, which by some of the Apostles were set down in writing, was both by themselves and their fellow labourers delivered by word of mouth; and that the Church in succeeding ages was bound not only to preserve the sacred writings committed to her trust, but also to deliver unto her children the form of wholesome words contained there in. Traditions, therefore, of this nature, come not within the compass of our controversy: the question being between us is, “touching the substance of the doctrine delivered, not the manner of delivering it.”

It must be emphasised that here we speak of the doctrine delivered as “the word of God” that is, points of religion revealed unto the Prophets and Apostles for the perpetual information of God’s people; not of rites and ceremonies and other ordinances left to the disposition of the church and consequently not divine.

But that Traditions of men should be obtruded unto us for articles of religion, and admitted for parts of God’s worship; or that any provisions should be accepted for parcels of God’s word, beside the holy Scriptures and such doctrines as are either expressly therein contained, or by sound inference may be deduced from there; I think we have reason to gainsay, as long as for the first we have this direct sentence from God himself, Matthew 15:9, in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men; and for the second, the express warrant of the Apostle, 2 Tim 3 testifying of the holy Scriptures, not only that they are able to make us wise unto salvation, (which they should not be able to do, if they did not contain all things necessary to salvation), But also that by them the man of God (that is a minister of God) may be perfectly instructed to every good work: which could not be, if the Scriptures did not contain all the counsel of God which was for for him to learn or if there is any other word of God which he were bound to teach, that should not be contained within the limits of the book of God.

Now whether we do here disagree with the doctrine generally received by the Fathers, we refer ourselves to their own sayings.


In dealing with Hermogenes the heretic on the question of whether all things at the beginning were made of nothing answers:

"Whether all things are made of any subject matter, I have as yet read nowhere. Let those of Hermogenes's shop shew that it is written. If that be not written, let them fear that woe which is allotted to such as add or take away." Tertullian (Terul. advers. Hermog. Cap. 22).


In the two Testaments, Origen says, “Every word that appertains to God may be required and discussed, and all knowledge of things out of them may be understood. But if any thing do remain in which the holy Scripture does not determine, no other third Scripture ought to be received to authorise any knowledge; but that which remains we must commit to the fire, that is, we must reserve it to God. For in this present world God would not have us to know all things.” (Orig. in. Levit. Hom. v.)


In his Homily against the Heresy of Noetus:

"There is one God, whom we do not otherwise acknowledge, brethren, but out of the holy Scriptures. For as he that would profess the wisdom of this world cannot otherwise attain hereunto, unless he read the doctrine of the philosophers; so whosoever of us will exercise piety toward God, cannot learn this elsewhere but out of the holy Scriptures. Whatsoever therefore the Holy Scriptures preach, let us know; and whatsoever they teach, let us understand." Hippolytus the Martyr (Hippol. Tom. III Bibliotheca. Pat. Pg 20, 21).


In his Oration against the Gentiles:

"The holy Scriptures, given by inspiration of God, are of themselves sufficient to the discovery of truth." Anthansius 'Oration against the Gentiles'

St Ambrose

"The things which we find not in the Scriptures, how can we use them?" St Ambrose, Offic. Lib i. cap. 23.

And again: "I read that he is the first, I read that he is not the second; they can say he is the second, let them show it by reading." St Ambrose Virginis Instit. cap. 11

St. Hilary

“It is well that thou are content with those things which be written. (Hil. lib. iii. de Trinit.)

And he commands Constantius the Emperor for “desiring the faith to be ordered only according to those things that be written.” (Id. lib. iii. ad Constantium Aug.)

St Basil

“Believe those things which are written; the things which are not written, seek not." (Basil. Hom xxix. advers. Calumniantes S. Trinitat.)

"It is a manifest falling from the faith, and argument of arrogancy, either to reject any point of those things that are written, or to bring in any of those things that are not written." (Basil de Fide)

"That it is the property of the faithful man to be fully persuaded of the truth of those things that are delivered in the holy scripture, and not to dare either to reject or add any thing thereunto . For if whatsoever is not of faith be sin, as the Apostle saith, and faith is by hearing, and hearing by the word of God; then whatsoever is without the holy scripture, being not of faith, must needs be sin". (Basil in Ethicis Regul xvi and lxxx. cap. 22.)

Gregory Nyssen

In like manner lays this for a ground:

"which no man should contradict, in that only the truth may be acknowledged, wherein the seal of the scripture testimony is to be seen." Dialog. de. Anima et Resurrect Tom I. Edit Graecolat p. 639. And also "... forasmuch as this is a upholden with no testimony of the scripture, as false we will reject it." (Lib. De Cognit. Dei. cit. ab Euthymio in Panoplia, Tit. viii.)

St Jerome

St. Jerome disputed against Helvidius:

"As we deny not those things that are written, so we refuse those things that are not written. That God was born of a virgin we believe, because we read it: that Mary did marry after she was delivered, we believe not, because we read it not." (St Jerome, Hieron. advers. Helvid.)

St Augustine

"In those things, which are laid down plainly in the Scriptures, all those things are found which appertain to faith and direction of life." (Aug. de. Doctrina Christ. lib. I. cap.9.)

"whatsoever you hear [from the holy Scriptures] let that savour well unto you; whatsoever is without them, refuse, lest you wander in a cloud." (de Pastor. cap 11.)

"all those things which in times past our ancestors had mentioned to be done towards mankind, and have delivered unto us; all those things also which we see, and do you deliver unto our posterity, so far as they appertain to the seeking and maintaining of true religion, the holy scripture hath not passed in silence." (Epsit xlii.)

St Cyril of Alexandria

"The holy scripture is sufficient to make them which are brought up in it wise and most approved, and furnished with most sufficient understanding." (Cyril. lib. vii. cont. Jul.)

"That which the holy scripture hath not said, by what means should we receive and account among those things that be true?" (Cyril. Glaphyrorum, in Gen. lib. I.)


"by the holy scripture alone am I persuaded." (Theo. Dial. I.)

"I am not so bold as to affirm any thing which the sacred scripture passeth in silence." (Dial. II.)

"it is an idle and a senseless thing to seek those things that are passed in silence." Exod. (Quarts. xxvi).

"We ought not to seek those things which are passed in silence, but rest of the things that are written." (Theo's. in Gen. Qu. xlv.)

By the verdict of these twelve men you may judge, what opinion was held in those ancient times of such Traditions as did cross either the verity or the perfection of the sacred Scripture, which are the Traditions we set ourselves against. And to this we may add that remarkable sentence by Eusebius Pamphili in the name of 318 Fathers of the first general council of Nice:

“Believe the things that are written; the things that are not written, neither think upon nor enquire after.” (Gelas. Cyzicen. Act. Concil. Niven. part II. cap. 19.)

Leipzig Disputation

Single post: Blog_Single_Post_Widget
bottom of page