The Protestant epistemology is the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. The basic idea is that God has given us an infallible revelation in the Bible, and that this is the only place we can find God's infallible revelation. God has not granted infallibility to any Church tradition, and he has not granted to the Church or to anyone else infallibility in their interpretation and application of God's revelation in the Bible. No doubt the best and most classic statement of this position is in the words of the founder of Protestantism, Martin Luther, at the Diet of Worms. Luther was commanded by the Catholic Church to recant his teachings in light of the fact that they were condemned by the Church. Luther refused, and gave his reason for this refusal:
Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason - I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other - my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen. (Retrieved from http://www.luther.de/en/worms.html)
Sola Scriptura does not mean that we can't try to get help in our attempts to interpret the Bible from popes, councils, the Fathers of the Church, theologians, Church historians, etc., but it does mean that we cannot trust any of these other sources implicitly. We must always examine them in light of what we think Scripture is saying. After carefully taking into consideration all of the evidence we can get our hands on, after listening humbly and respectfully to the advice of others, especially those who are rightly held in high esteem in the Church, we must decide what we think is the correct biblical interpretation, and then we must stick with that, no matter who disagrees with us.
The Catholic view, on the other hand, is that God has given us, as it were, a three-legged school, and that all three legs are necessary for the correct interpretation and application of the word of God. God has given us the Bible. The Bible is the infallible, inerrant word of God. In this, Catholics agree with Protestants. God has also handed down his word in the Tradition of the Church. In addition to the writing, collecting, preserving, and handing on of Scripture, the Church has also passed down the message of God by means of her preaching, her life, her worship, and her teaching. The Catholic view is that this other way of handing down the message of God has been blessed by God's gift of infallibility as well. The Tradition of the Church is also infallible, like the Scriptures. We can learn the revelation of God from both with equal surety. God has also blessed the Church herself with the gift of infallibility, and particularly her leaders, the bishops. The body of leaders and teachers in the Church is called the Magisterium. The Catholic position is that God has granted to the Church the gift of being able to unerringly recognize, gather, preserve, hand down, interpret, and apply the revelation of God whether found in Scripture or Tradition. The Catholic position also holds that the Church grows in her understanding and application of the word of God through history by the infallible guidance of the Holy Spirit. (You can read about this in the Catholic Church's own words here, especially Chapter II.)
In practice, then, where the rubber meets the road, if a Protestant is confronted with a contradiction between his own (carefully, humbly thought-out) interpretation of Scripture and what the visible, institutional Church is teaching (say, in a recognized Ecumenical Council), he will go with his own interpretation of Scripture. A Catholic, on the other hand, will follow the teaching of the Church. To take a concrete example: The Bible doesn't explicitly address the question of whether or not infants should be baptized. Proponents and opponents of infant baptism try to derive their view from inferences made from various statements and doctrines of Scripture. If a Protestant comes to the conclusion that, as far as he can tell, the best interpretation of Scripture would oppose infant baptism, then he will (if he is consistent) oppose infant baptism, even if the institutional Church as a whole is telling him to do otherwise. A Catholic, on the other hand, upon hearing the teaching of the Church, will decide that his own attempt to interpret Scripture in this case has been faulty, and he will abandon his own interpretation for that of the Church.
So the big question is, Which of these views or attitudes was embraced by the early Church and the Fathers of the early Church?
A few years back, when I was trying to get a clear idea of what the early Church had to say about the idea of the papacy (the authority and role of the Pope of Rome), one of the books I found by far to be the most helpful was a book written by an Anglican who simply printed out the vast majority of the quotations from the Fathers that had a bearing on this issue and also provided commentary on each quotation from both Catholic and Anglican scholars arguing for or against the papacy. The reason I found this book so helpful was that, while there are a host of books and articles on all sides arguing various views of what the Church Fathers had to say about the papacy, this book wasn't trying to present a case for one view or another. It was simply trying to lay out for readers the basic data and the arguments on both sides, allowing the reader to do his own critical thinking for himself without having to worry he was getting only a biased polemical argument or a set of one-sided quotations. This book had a huge influence on shaping my view of the papacy in the early Church.
There are many articles out there by Catholics and Protestants trying to argue that the Church Fathers took this or that view of Scripture and its relationship to the Tradition and authority of the Church. But I have not found an easily available resource doing what that book on the papacy did—simply presenting the relevant quotations used by all sides so that the reader can form his own judgment. So that's what I have done in this set of posts. I've gone through a number of articles written by both Catholics and Protestants. I've picked out from these the major quotations from the Church Fathers appealed to, gone back to their original sources to check the context, and then I've printed them here with enough context to tell what the quotation is trying to say in its own setting. There are a lot of quotations! I've ended up with fifteen posts full of them! But if you're the kind of person who wants to see for yourself what the Fathers had to say about Scripture, Tradition, and Church authority, and the relationship between these, you will find these posts a treasure-trove. I'm not sure you could get much closer to an objective presentation of the teaching of the Fathers on these issues unless you would go back and just read through all of them yourself in their entirety.
One of the things I've often found annoying about quotations from the Fathers used in controversy is that people tend often to provide tiny snippets of quotation, sometimes only a single sentence or two. The problem with this is that it is difficult to be sure that one is not getting words, phrases, or sentences out of context. So what I have done is go back to find the original sources of each of the quotations I've printed here, and I've put in enough context so that readers can see clearly what the quotation means (rather than taking the quoter's word for it). Some may think I've gone too far in this sometimes and provided too much surrounding text, but I say, better safe than sorry. There are a few times I have not been able to find the original source or context of a quotation. In such cases, I have made a note after the quotation that this has been the case.
Just to illustrate the importance of context, let me provide an example I came across of a quotation taken out of context. A Protestant apologist provided a quotation from St. Vincent of Lerins, a fifth century Father, in one of his articles. Here was his quotation: “. . . the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient.” The author intended this quotation as evidence that St. Vincent believed in Sola Scriptura. However, here is some larger context for this quotation:
But here some one perhaps will ask, Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church's interpretation? For this reason — because, owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters. For Novatian expounds it one way, Sabellius another, Donatus another, Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, another, Photinus, Apollinaris, Priscillian, another, Iovinian, Pelagius, Celestius, another, lastly, Nestorius another. Therefore, it is very necessary, on account of so great intricacies of such various error, that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of Ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation. (This is from St. Vincent of Lerins's Commonitory, which you can read in full here.)
The context here reveals the meaning of St. Vincent's comment to be pretty much the exact opposite from what that little snippet by itself suggested. And in these posts, you will find even more context given for St. Vincent's comment in its proper place.
(Of course, I should add that Catholic apologists sometimes do the same sort of thing. For one example, I came across a Catholic apologist providing a quotation seeming to support a Catholic view of Tradition from St. Jerome. The apologist, however, had neglected to mention that the quotation came from a fictional dialogue written by St. Jerome, and particularly that the quotation was from the bad guy [from St. Jerome's point of view] in the dialogue. In this case, however, it does seem that St. Jerome himself endorsed what his fictional opponent was saying, based on the wider context, but I found it frustrating to be presented with a quote from St. Jerome without being told a very relevant aspect of its context.)
The large majority of my quotations are taken from the plain text versions of the writings of the Ante-Nicene, Nicene, and Post-Nicene Fathers found on the website of the Christian Classics Ethereal Library. (You can find the collection here.) This is the famous nineteenth-century edition of the Fathers edited by Philip Schaff. I chose to make use of the plain text versions of these writings from CCEL because they are completely in the public domain, and, especially with so many quotations, I find looking up lots of proper citations for copyrighted books tedious. The quotations that come from other sources are, of course, provided with fuller citations. Although I have decided not to provide links with each of these quotations, if you know how to do a good Google search, I've provided you plenty of material to find the full works each of these quotations have come from, should you be inclined to go and look them up.
I mentioned that I found many of these quotations with the help of various Protestant and Catholic articles (even though, unless otherwise noted, I did not actually take the quotations from these sources but rather looked them up and copied them myself from their original source locations). I made use of two very helpful (but also very polemical) articles by Protestant apologist William Webster (found here and here). I also made use of some articles from Catholic apologist Dave Armstrong (here, here, and here), as well as some other sources (here and here). I no doubt utilized some other sources I don't even remember at this point. (I've been working on this for some time now.) I also found some of the quotations on my own. So thank you to all who helped me compile all of this!
Note that my focus in this compilation has been narrowly upon the Fathers' ideas of Scripture, Tradition, and Church authority, and the relationships between these. There are a number of related issues I avoided but that are also important, particularly the issue of the papacy. The papacy plays a hugely important role in Catholic epistemology, and I think the Catholic position is abundantly testified to in the early Church, but I have not focused any attention on garnering quotations related to this issue. It comes up from time to time incidentally in the quotations, but most of the data from the Fathers relevant to that issue is not here. You will have to look elsewhere for that. (And one resource I would very highly recommend is that book on the papacy in the early Church I mentioned earlier, which you can read about here.)
Also, note that, of course, even though there are a lot of quotations, lots more could be added! What is here provides a nice, overall picture of the thinking of the Fathers, and it also includes most of the typical quotations that are used polemically by Protestants trying to show Sola Scriptura in the Fathers and by Catholics responding to them. In fact, the selection of Fathers and quotations to focus on has been driven largely by the choices of Protestant apologists, and particularly by William Webster, looking for evidence of Sola Scriptura in the Fathers. There are Fathers, especially later Fathers like St. Gregory the Great, that have been left out mostly because Protestants have not focused on them as much. Nevertheless, what we have here illustrates well the overall thinking of the Fathers. I also included at the end a series of quotations from various Church councils, especially Ecumenical councils, which round out the whole collection of quotations a bit.
I should also briefly note that a few of the authors here are somewhat on the borderline when it comes to being categorized with the "holy Fathers"--such as Origen, Tertullian, and, to some extent, Theodoret--because of certain viewpoints that came to be seen as at odds with some of the Church's overall teaching (Tertullian actually left the Catholic Church eventually and joined a sect called the Montanists). I won't go into details about this here except just to make that note. But, regardless of their overall position among the Fathers, they are important for their historical testimony and for their contributions.
OK, without further ado, here are the Fathers!
Part One: St. Irenaeus, Tertullian
Part Two: Clement of Alexandria
Part Three: Origen, St. Cyril of Jerusalem
Part Four: St. Athanasius
Part Five: St. John Chrysostom
Part Six: St. Gregory of Nyssa
Part Seven: St. Basil of Caesarea, St. Gregory of Nazianzus
Part Eight: St. Augustine of Hippo
Part Nine: St. Augustine of Hippo, continued
Part Ten: St. Augustine of Hippo, continued
Part Eleven: St. Epiphanius of Salamis, St. Isidore of Pelusium, St. Jerome, St. Vincent of Lerins
Part Twelve: St. Cyprian, St. Ambrose, Theophilus of Antioch, St. Nicetas of Remesiana, Theodoret of Cyrus
Part Thirteen: St. Thomas Aquinas, Church councils
Part Fourteen: Church councils, continued
Part Fifteen: Church councils, continued
My Personal Conclusion
Taking the teaching of the Fathers as a whole, I, personally, would summarize their view of Scripture, Tradition, and Church authority in this way:
The word of God has been handed down to us in the Sacred Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as well as in the Holy-Spirit-guided Tradition of the Catholic Church.
The Scriptures contain the fullness of the gospel message. They have parts that are more plain and parts that are more obscure. The message of salvation is plain in them, so that all can understand, while there is enough depth to keep the intellectuals busy forever. The Scriptures are, in principle, sufficient to give us everything we need to live the life God calls us to.
God gave to the apostles and to their successors in the Church, the bishops, his Holy Spirit to guide them to unfailingly hand on the truth, both through the writing and preservation of the Sacred Scriptures as well as through the Tradition of the Church—the unwritten proclamation of the truth, the teachings of the holy Fathers, the Church's divine worship, the declarations of the holy councils of the Church (especially the Ecumenical Councils of the entire Catholic Church), etc. Since the Fathers of the Church, both past and present, have been granted the grace and guidance of the Holy Spirit and the authority of Christ and his apostles, it is just as blasphemous to oppose the Tradition of the Church as to oppose the Scriptures. One can disagree with individual Fathers, but one must not find oneself in opposition to the Fathers or the Church as a whole.
While the Scriptures are sufficient and sufficiently plain, yet they only lead to truth when used aright. One must approach them prayerfully, with a pure heart and mind. One must compare Scripture with Scripture. And one must interpret and apply Scripture in the context of the Church's Tradition, for the Church provides the authoritative and true interpretation of the meaning of the Scriptures, and the Church has also handed down outside of the Scriptures certain practices and observances (such as, for example, using the sign of the cross, the anointing with holy oil those who are baptized, and the baptizing of infants) which provide essential context for how Scripture is to be applied.
The Church develops in her understanding and articulation of the divine word through time, especially as God prompts his people through the rising up of false teachings or previously-unconsidered questions. What at one time is obscure may become more plain to the entire Church through the teaching of the Fathers and the deliverances of councils (especially Ecumenical Councils, which decisively and authoritatively affirm doctrine for the entire Church).
It seems to me that a thorough read-through of the Fathers makes it abundantly clear that the early Church held to the Catholic rather than to the Protestant epistemology. But the reader must judge for himself. That, after all, is why I've created these posts! Go see what you think!