Did the early Church subscribe only to Scripture when settling disputes?
No, the early Church didn’t rely on Scripture alone to settle disputes. Jesus gave his apostles the authority to bind and loose, for example, an authority affirmed in Scripture (see Matt. 16:18-19; 15:15-18), for which the apostles had to exercise prudential judgment in matters that couldn’t be resolved simply by referring to Scripture.
Acts 15, the Council of Jerusalem, which took place around A.D. 40, is a classic example. The apostles did require the Gentiles to avoid unchaste conduct and abstain from blood and that which had been strangled or sacrificed to idols (Acts 15:20, 28-29). However, led by St. Peter, the apostles break with a major Old Covenant norm in saying that the Gentiles do not have to be circumcised (see Gen. 17:10-14)—and they implicitly convey that the Gentiles also don’t have to observe a variety of other Old Covenant ceremonial laws (Acts 15:6-11, 19). The Gospels do not report that Jesus told his apostles to make this change. But the Gospel of John does say that Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit to guide them into all truth (John 16:13). And so he did.
In writing the Acts of the Apostles, St. Luke says that the early Christians devoted themselves to “the teaching of the apostles” (Acts 2:42), affirming that the apostles had God-given authority received from Jesus. Notice that he doesn’t say that they devoted themselves to the teachings of the Old Testament. Nor does he say that they devoted themselves to the New Testament, the books of which would not be written for several decades after Christ’s Ascension and not formally compiled by the Church until the latter 300s.
Many Protestant apologists say that all unwritten Tradition eventually became entirely contained in the New Testament books. However, this contention doesn’t resolve the fundamental problem of authority for Protestants. For example, sola scriptura—operating on the Bible alone—couldn’t have worked before the New Testament was written and then compiled. There had to be Church leaders teaching authoritatively what Jesus taught them and commissioned them to teach others (see Matt. 28:18-20; John 20:21). And the Old Testament wouldn’t have sufficed as an authoritative source, as we see in Acts15, because the apostles explicitly overrode the Old Covenant prescription regarding circumcision, a prescription that preceded the Old Covenant Mosaic ratified (see Exod. 24), as it was first given to Abraham (see Gen. 17:10-14).
Finally, you also need to have an authority external to the Bible not only to determine which books should be included in the Bible and which should be excluded but also to settle interpretive disputes when a passage or passages of Scripture is called into question. The plethora of Protestant denominations testifies to this reality.
By Tom Nash