Thursday, May 19, 2011

Apologetics toolbox: Did the Church Fathers believe in sola scriptura?


A correspondent sent me a post written by “Tur8infan” of Alpha & Omega Ministries (James White — yes, I believe, that James White — Director). This writer takes a Catholic apologist named Bryan Cross to task for this paragraph, which occurs in the combox discussion of his article:

The term “refute” means “shown an argument to be unsound”. The bishops did not “refute” Arianism; they condemned it, by defining the Faith by way of an extra-biblical term: homoousios. They were unable, by Scripture alone, to refute Arianism. The Arians could affirm every single verse of Scripture. That’s precisely why the bishops had to require affirmation of the term homoousios. So if the bishops had no authority by way of apostolic succession, then their requirement of affirming homoousios would have had no more authority than its denial by the Arians. Scripture alone was insufficient to resolve the dispute, precisely because both sides could affirm every verse in Scripture. And since sola scriptura denies the transfer of authority by way of apostolic succession, therefore the Council of Nicaea and the Creed, given sola scriptura, only have authority if you agree with its interpretation of Scripture.

“Tur8infan” then proceeds to beat Cross over the head with citations from the Fathers, in a fantastic display of the straw-man fallacy (Cross was not disputing whether the Fathers ever argued homoousios from Scripture, or whether Arian bishops were apostolic successors). In doing so, he misses Cross’ point: that the argument wasn’t truly settled until the Council of Nicaea.

Now if that were the only problem, I wouldn’t bother you with it. But “Tur8infan” wraps up with this stunning claim: “The Scriptures are our rule of faith, as was the case in the time of the early church.
“Orth.— Do not, I beg you, bring in human reason. I shall yield to scripture alone.
Eran.— You shall receive no argument unconfirmed by Holy Scripture, and if you bring me any solution of the question deduced from Holy Scripture I will receive it, and will in no wise gainsay it” (Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Dialogues 1).
(*whistle*) Personal foul! Fifteen yards and loss of down for Quoting Out of Context!


Orthodoxus and Eranistes: From “scripture alone” to an appeal to authority

The dialogue occurs between Orthodoxus (Theodoret’s stand-in) and Eranistes, a heretic; the quotation occurs about a quarter of the way through the dialogue. But a little further on, after Orthodoxus argues to homoousios from an intra-scriptural interpretation, Eranistes still denies it:

Orth.— It seems, as the proverb has it, as if we are drawing water in a pail with a hole in it. For after all our demonstrations and solutions of difficulties, you are bringing the same arguments round again.
Eran.— I am not giving you my arguments, but those of the gospels.
Orth.— And have I not given you the interpretation of the words of the gospels from those of prophets and apostles?
Eran.They do not serve to clear up the point at issue.

Later, after Orthodoxus goes through several more citations, Eranistes, on the point of being convinced, says, “You have given a plausible interpretation, but I was anxious to know how the old teachers of the Church have understood the passage ‘the word was made flesh.’” (Eranistes has been stuck on John 1:14 the whole time.) In reply, Orthodoxus cites Ss. Athanasius, Gregory Nazianzen, Ambrose of Milan, Flavian of Antioch, Gelasius of Caesarea, (John of Antioch), Severius of Gabala, Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, Amphilochius of Iconium and John of Constantinople; he even turns Apollinarius against Eranistes. It’s only after Eranistes is shown how tradition falls against his understanding that he finally collapses on the point.

This is precisely what Cross meant: Scripture citation by itself wasn’t sufficient; authorities had to be brought in to settle the matter. And that’s where the trap lies for the Protestant who wants to shanghai the Church Fathers into the debate — an appeal to the Church Fathers is an appeal to an authoritative Tradition. Moreover, when they appeal to the Church Fathers for a particular understanding of a scriptural text, they contradict sola scriptura, for Scripture can’t be more authoritative than that which determines its meaning.

But what did the Church Fathers say about sola scriptura?

The problem is, there’s really no point where a recognized Church Father says, “Scripture takes precedence over Tradition,” so we don’t have other Church Fathers saying, “No, it doesn’t!” So far as they say anything, they say that both Scripture and Tradition are authoritative, and that Tradition guides the true interpretation of Scripture … but not in a way we would recognize as directly refuting a position analogous to sola scriptura.

  • Saint Vincent of Lérins (Commonitory, 2:5): “But here someone 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. [Here he names heretics:] 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.
  • Saint Basil the Great (On the Holy Spirit, 27:66): “Of the beliefs and practices whether generally accepted or publicly enjoined which are preserved in the Church some we possess derived from written teaching; others we have received delivered to us in a mystery by the tradition of the apostles; and both of these in relation to true religion have the same force.” [The rest of the chapter is worth quoting at large, as it backs up the leading sentence.]
  • Saint John Chrysostom (Homilies on Second Thessalonians, 4): “’So then, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word, or by Epistle of ours’ [2 Thess 2:15]. Hence it is manifest, that they did not deliver all things by Epistle, but many things also unwritten, and in like manner both the one and the other are worthy of credit. Therefore let us think the tradition of the Church also worthy of credit. It is a tradition, seek no farther.”
  • Origen (On First Principles, preface:2): “… [S]eeing there are many who think they hold the opinions of Christ, and yet some of these think differently from their predecessors, yet as the teaching of the Church, transmitted in orderly succession from the apostles, and remaining in the Churches to the present day, is still preserved, that alone is to be accepted as truth which differs in no respect from ecclesiastical and [apostolic] tradition.”[1]
  • Saint Papias (Eusebius, Church History, 3:39:4): “If, then, any one came, who had been a follower of the elders, I questioned him in regard to the words of the elders — what Andrew or what Peter said, or what was said by Philip, or by Thomas, or by James, or by John, or by Matthew, or by any other of the disciples of the Lord, and what things Aristion and the presbyter John, the disciples of the Lord, say. For I did not think that what was to be gotten from the books would profit me as much as what came from the living and abiding voice.”
  • Saint Augustine (Against the Epistle of Manichaeus Called Fundamental, 5:6): “Perhaps you will read the gospel to me, and will attempt to find there a testimony to Manichaeus. But should you meet with a person not yet believing the gospel, how would you reply to him were he to say, I do not believe? For my part, I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church. So when those on whose authority I have consented to believe in the gospel tell me not to believe in Manichaeus, how can I but consent?”
  • Saint Athanasius (Letter on the Councils of Ariminum and Seleuca, 5): “As to the Nicene Council, it was not a common meeting, but convened upon a pressing necessity, and for a reasonable object. The Syrians, Cilicians, and Mesopotamians, were out of order in celebrating the Feast, and kept Easter with the Jews; on the other hand, the Arian heresy had risen up against the Catholic Church, and found supporters in Eusebius and his fellows, who were both zealous for the heresy, and conducted the attack upon religious people. … Without pre-fixing Consulate, month, and day, they wrote concerning Easter, ‘It seemed good as follows,’ for it did then seem good that there should be a general compliance; but about the faith they wrote not, ‘It seemed good,’ but, ‘Thus believes the Catholic Church;’ and thereupon they confessed how they believed, in order to show that their own sentiments were not novel, but Apostolical; and what they wrote down was no discovery of theirs, but is the same as was taught by the Apostles.” [N.B: The canons and synodal letter of Nicaea I cite no Scriptural references.]
  • St. Theodoret (“To Florentius the Patrician”, Letters 89): “So have I learned not only from the apostles and prophets [i.e., Scripture] but also from the interpreters of their writings, Ignatius, Eustathius, Athanasius, Basil, Gregory, John, and the rest of the lights of the world; and before these from the holy Fathers in council at Nicaea, whose confession of the faith I preserve in its integrity, like an ancestral inheritance, styling corrupt and enemies of the truth all who dare to transgress its decrees.”

So “Tur8infan’s” cheap attempt to sneak sola scriptura into the Church Fathers falls apart once we look closer. His larger problem is that he can’t conceive of a Tradition that isn’t separate from (and at odds with) Scripture, so he treats every patristic quotation of Scripture as prima faciae evidence for his position. And yet, every time he quotes a Church Father — yes, even when he quotes the Church Father out of context! — he appeals to an overarching, authoritative Tradition as a regula fidei. He can’t help it, and yet he can’t acknowledge it without fatal damage to his position.

Certain kinds of Evangelicals love to say, “Show me in the Bible where it says ….” So our challenge to Protestants — especially to Alpha & Omega Ministries — is: “Show me where a Church Father says that Scripture is the sole infallible regula fidei!


[1] The word “apostolic” is missing in the New Advent page, leaving an obvious gap in the sentence structure; the quotation at the Catholic Answers website is taken from a different translation but has the missing word.