Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Sufficiency of Scripture and the Church Fathers (Particularly, St. Athanasius and the Trinity)

Dave Armstrong vs.

E.L. Hamilton (blue) and "Cranmer" (red)

The following exchange with three Protestants took place on a public Internet discussion board:

It dawned on me recently that I'm not sure I have ever seen a single patristic citation which would suggest the early church Fathers didn't believe their doctrine of the Trinity or Christ could be proved from Scripture. After having read considerable portions of Athanasius' Trinitarian writings, Augustine's De Trinitate, and others, I have found just the opposite to be the case. Athanasius' trinitarian writings, for example, could be called a "proof texting bonanza."

Indeed. No argument here. I feel the same exact way as a Catholic, and this changed not a whit when I converted from Protestantism. I have papers on my site in this regard that were written mostly in 1982. I didn't have to change a thing.

What is interesting about this is that in my experience it is hard to engage a Roman Catholic discussion list on any issue whatever without hearing something about how the early church did not think Scripture was sufficient for demonstrating the doctrine of the Trinity.

You are confusing material with formal sufficiency. The doctrine can be proven from Scripture, indeed (material sufficiency), but Scripture Alone as a principle was not formally sufficient to prevent the Arian crisis from occurring. In other words, the decisive factor in these controversies was the appeal to apostolic succession and Tradition, which showed that the Church had always been trinitarian. The Arians could not appeal to any such tradition because their christology was a heretical innovation of the 4th century.

The Arians thus appealed to Scripture Alone. And that is the point Catholics make about this. The Arian formal principle was deficient, so that they could appeal to the Bible Alone and come up with Arianism (just like Jehovah's Witnesses do today). If they had held also to an authoritative Sacred Tradition, this could not have happened because the "tradition of Arianism" was non-existent.

I would also go on to state that the full development of trinitarianism and christology in practice was post-biblical and post-apostolic, extending up to the Council of Chalcedon in 451 and even later in some respects (Monothelete christological heresy, etc.).

So, could anyone provide me with a few patristic citations that clearly suggest what Roman Catholics claim on this issue?

We don't claim that. We claim that apostolic Tradition is necessary along with Sacred Scripture. This was the patristic principle, and how they invariably fought the heretics. The biblical arguments provided the "meat" of their arguments, but in the end they would appeal to the Tradition of "what had always been believed everywhere by everyone" (St. Vincent of Lerin's dictum -- the Commonitorium where this comes from is also the most explicit exposition of development of doctrine in the Fathers, and Newman's starting-point).

Please note, I'm not talking about some reference to the authority of a council, but a rather explicit statement from a Father which says something to the effect of ," Hey, if it weren't for the council or the church, we could all be Arians (or modalists, or Nestorians, or whatever) through reading Scripture. The Bible just isn't that clear on the Trinity."

That is not an accurate summary of either the Catholic or patristic position on this, as explained. So it could not be easily found. The argument you make doesn't cast the least doubt on the Catholic outlook.

By the way, this is a very good answer. I want to be clear that I do have sympathy for the idea of distinguishing between material and formal sufficiency in the way Dave does here. Any objection above is simply related to the request (by Cranmer) that the "skeptical side" of Catholic thought (i.e., statements of "formal insufficiency") be detected in patristic sources. I'm not even sure that such sources don't exist. If they do, I think they would be worth examining and discussing.

We all know that this is what modern Catholics believe about the Arian crisis. The question was whether there's any evidence that patristic writers felt the same way.

It looks to me like you are begging the question; assuming that what Cranmer described was our view in the first place. It is not, as I think I have explained.

Was there ever an instance of anyone in the orthodox camp admitting that Arianism was a valid way of interpreting Scripture, one that could only be refuted by recourse to tradition, or not?

I doubt it, because their interpretation was all wet and invalid from the get-go, involving fundamental difficulties of hermeneutics and cross-referencing, and massive contradiction. There is good and bad hermeneutics, apart from what the apostolic Tradition happens to be. Those principles stand on their own qua hermeneutical principles.

I know a little bit about this first-hand because in the early 80s (in my Arminian evangelical days) I was a cult-researcher and counter-cult evangelist and my specialty was Jehovah's Witnesses: the modern descendants of the ancient Arians. And I refuted them largely (but not totally) from Scripture Alone. That paper is now on my website also: Jehovah's Witnesses: "The Apocalyptic Arians": A Biblical and Historical Critique.

Reading this paper, one can see that I possessed 20 years ago the Reformed-like understanding of sola Scriptura (which incorporates a great respect for Christian history and precedent). I was citing Church history and precedent all over the place.

I'd be interested in seeing an answer to that question as well. Even if there might be a few such references used in isolation, I still think that the dominant view was that the rulings of Nicea and Constantinople were just reiterating the plain teaching of Scripture.

Cardinal Newman makes the somewhat-related argument that certain passages of the earlier Fathers could, prima facie, be deemed as "Arian" by someone unfamiliar with orthodox christology and its presuppositions. This is what happens with heretics: they misunderstand and misrepresent both Tradition and Scripture. To the extent that they appealed to Tradition at all, they would have to butcher patristic texts which were less explicit and developed and act as if they were consistent with Arian theology. This happened before, during, and after councils as well, particularly with the Monophysites who tried to wrongly interpret certain phraseology by christologically-orthodox Fathers.

Tradition must play the decisive role in such situations by asserting "this is what orthodox Christianity holds." Hence, the need for creeds (and confessions, in the Protestant traditions, ostensibly based on Scripture Alone and some semblance of orthodoxy-throughout-history, even though operating on a different formal principle than Catholicism or Orthodoxy).

The sense of exegetical despair over biblical unclarity that permeates the modern Catholic critique of the Reformation is not obviously precedented in the patristic era, so far as I can tell.

Where do you see such despair? I haven't seen it among my Catholic apologist friends. One must distinguish between any Catholic on the internet and apologists, and also distinguish between apologists and scholars. Material sufficiency is believed in by everyone that I know. This is why there are several books now which defend Catholicism from the Bible, such as my own first book (to put in a shameless but relevant plug), just re-released at Sophia Institute Press: A Biblical Defense of Catholicism.

This does not imply an advocacy of formal sufficiency; only material sufficiency and a belief that Catholic doctrines are as well or more grounded in Scripture than Protestant ones. It is, in effect, Catholics, saying, "you want to argue doctrines based on the standard of Bible Alone? We can match you there as well. We aren't afraid to subject our views to the most intense biblical scrutiny and exegesis."

To the contrary, the early Fathers had enormous confidence in both Tradition and Scripture, and regarded them both as fully sufficient and redundant checks against the encroach of heresies.

Precisely; this is exactly the Catholic view. But in a practical sense (as with the canon of Scripture), the Church had to proclaim authoritatively what was orthodox and what was heretical. Otherwise, heretical sectarianism would run rampant.

(I'm more than willing to concede that they may have been too optimistic in this regard, I just think that Catholics should recognize that the Fathers were strong advocates of the sufficiency of Scripture, without even an identifiable awareness of the "formal vs material" qualifiers that Catholics want to use to rescue them from their overconfidence.)

They were as aware of the distinctions as we are today, whether or not they used the words "formal" and "material." The words are not nearly as important as the presence of the ideas of authority and the "three-legged stool" model: Bible, Church, Tradition.

It's actually a very simple question. I'm asking for something substantial in support of what is really a staple of Catholic apologetics.

I deny that it is a staple of legitimate, published (and/or professional) Catholic apologetics. If you disagree, please document, and I will either agree with you -- with regard to the single instance -- or show how the person's intention and thought-paradigm was pretty much as I have described it, and not how you have described it. I don't care what every Tom, Dick, and Harry on the Internet argues, if that is what you are referring to as "apologetics."

My underlying motivation is that I believe the early church fathers are seriously misrepresented by those who use this argument in its various forms.

I agree with that. I disagree as to your interpretation of supposed widespread use of the "argument" as you are presenting it. It would be good once in a while if people documented the errors they are complaining about. I would love to see an example that I could respond to: something solid and concrete, as opposed to bald claims and characterizations of opposing views.

You should read Athanasius' treatment of the Arians. I think it fair to state that he thought the full deity of Christ "blindingly obvious." Again, you can believe that the doctrine of the Trinity is not clear from the Bible, this thread concerns the Fathers, who I believe are consistently and pervasively misrepresented on this matter.

By whom? Would it be too much trouble for you to provide us with an example (from a known apologist) of this "pervasive misrepresentation"? Thanks.

Edwin Tait, an Anglican, wrote (in substantial agreement with the Catholic view):

Of course the Fathers thought that they could prove their view from Scripture. They also thought that the historic communion of bishops in succession from the Apostles, gathered in Councils (with Rome playing some role, which I don't want to debate here), could be counted on to interpret Scripture correctly. The whole sola scriptura debate only became possible when a sizeable number of influential Christians began proclaiming that the bishops gathered in Council, in communion with Rome, had seriously erred in interpreting Scripture over a period of several centuries. Of course both sides can appeal to the Fathers, because the Fathers never thought of Scriptural sufficiency and the authority of the Church/Tradition as being at odds.
I agree wholeheartedly. The last sentence is key. This is the "both/and" outlook of the Apostles, Fathers, Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and historic Anglicanism. Many Protestants, however, feel an immediate, logically- and biblically-unnecessary need to dichotomize the two. Entire books are written about the Fathers' supposed belief in sola Scriptura, when in fact they are merely expressing their belief in material sufficiency of Scripture, and its inspiration and sufficiency to refute heretics and false doctrine generally. It is easy to misleadingly present them as sola Scripturists if their statements elsewhere about apostolic Tradition or succession and the binding authority of the Church (especially in council) are ignored. But a half-truth is almost as bad as an untruth (arguably worse, because in most instances the one committing it should know better).

Your challenge to produce an example of exegetical pessimism from an online apologist is a fair one. I expect you (as webmaster of a site called "Biblical Catholic", after all!) would take a fairly optimistic view of the ability of Christians to refute Arianism from Scripture, so I wasn't writing with you in mind. But the idea that Scripture is virtually useless without an accompanying tradition is not as rare as you seem to make out.

I'm not sure "useless" would be an accurate description even of people who are taking a view identical or similar to that which you and I both are disagreeing with. Now you are exaggerating the claim and complaint (perhaps on purpose for effect, but even so . . . ).

Here, for example, is an excerpt from a response Gary Hoge [a Catholic apologist] made to me last fall:

I can understand why you don't think some of these things are obvious. I'll go you one better and say that I don't think Trinitarianism is obvious from Scripture. I've always thought (long before I became Catholic) that some form of Arianism or Modalism was also a plausible way of reading Scripture. I didn't see much reason, other than "because our Baptist magisterium says so" to brand these ideas heretical. But my Church was firmly Trinitarian, and so, in a splendid example of eupocrisy, I also remained firmly Trinitarian.
Okay. It would be interesting to see the context surrounding this, and how Gary would elaborate upon this point. I think I know where he would go with it, but I could be wrong.

Now, I don't mean to pick on Gary here (I'm only trying to comply with your request to produce harder evidence), but I have difficulty imagining Athanasius expressing similar sentiments. I hear Catholics say, "We believe in material sufficiency, just not formal sufficiency", but it's hard for me to read something like this and find much trace of either. (And yes, I know that Gary isn't a scholar, but he's not an intellectual lightweight either.)

Essentially, this is saying that Scripture can mean virtually anything that anyone wants it to, unless we have a magisterium to instruct us. I don't think the situation is so hopeless as all that, and I think that Baptists have defensible and scholarly reasons for believing that Arianism is less consistent with Scripture, well beyond the blind fortune of "eupocritically" inheriting Catholic orthodoxy.

I essentially agree with you. Let me try to do an interpretation of what he said there which may or may not correspond to his own (we can contact him and ask him to verify this or disagree).

I think one could definitely argue that trinitarianism is not crystal-clear and explicit in Scripture. This follows from the historical fact that trinitarianism in all its Chalcedonian fullness was the end-result of a process that took over 400 years. That is not insignificant.

So at the very least we can all agree, I think, that the above paragraph is a true one. It is simply history. If Chalcedonian trinitarianism and the Two Natures of Christ, etc. were explicitly biblical notions then the theology of same would have been fully-developed by maybe 150-200 A.D. (?) or perhaps even earlier.

But is Scripture sufficient to refute Arianism on its own (which is a different question)? I think so, and I suspect that my friend Gary would agree if he interpreted his own statement above and interacted with this discussion.

Nevertheless, I think it is also true that if a person was in a hypothetical situation where they knew absolutely nothing of Church history, Christian theology, and precedent in how these doctrines were and are thought about and derived from Scripture, and was tossed a Bible, that modalism (aka Sabellianism) and Arianism might seem as "plausible" to them as trinitarianism seemed. After all, the Trinity is not an easily-grasped doctrine, and it is not immediately accessible to human reason. It is a revelation and mystery which must ultimately be accepted in faith (not to undermine its scriptural proofs).

So, while wholeheartedly agreeing with you that the case can be made by Scripture, I think we fool ourselves if we don't recognize the role of Tradition and precedent as a strong influencing factor in how we all think. Most of us have grown up in cultures and/or households where trinitarianism and the Deity of Christ was taken for granted. It was the air we breathed.

But if one grew up in a secular context or was completely ignorant of historic theology, sure, I could see how they could grab a Bible and conclude that it taught Arianism or modalism (which is quite a bit more subtle). Of course, I agree that this would be an opinion based in ignorance of the totality of Scripture teaching and proper exegesis and hermeneutics and lack of understanding of difficult passages where commentary is most helpful. But one could still do it.

In fact, I know this to be the case from my experience in my own life, and in my dealings with Jehovah's Witnesses. They approach Scripture with a typically liberal, rationalistic mindset whereby they make certain assumptions; e.g., "that three cannot equal one" (which is certainly mathematically or geometrically true but -- as it turns out -- not applicable to the nature of God).

Actually, to be technical, trinitarianism (as you know) doesn't assert 3=1, but a different proposition: "God is a Being such that He subsists in three Persons yet remains one God." We're not saying that God has three personalities and one at the same time or that He is three gods-in-one. or three gods and one God at the same time. JW's, though, will say ridiculously assert that trinitarianism entails a "three-headed god." They can't even describe the doctrine correctly.

Arianism is obviously a distortion of what I would call the "intellectual/theological imagination." It is an inability or unwillingness to follow biblical, incarnational mystery where it leads one in revelation. But they do it, and they do it by the millions. And these poor deluded souls are firmly convinced that they are reading Scripture properly. I know; I've witnessed to scores of them.

The other example is from my own life. I grew up as a very nominal Methodist. Of course, Methodists are trinitarians, but I knew next to nothing of theology. I was so ignorant at age 17 that when I was watching a movie about Jesus with my older brother (by then an evangelical Christian convert), I was shocked when he said that Jesus was God. I replied, befuddled, "no, he's the son of God." Then my brother had an evangelistic opportunity to share some basic Christian christological theology with me. That's how ignorant I was.

In other words, if one knew very little about theology, they could easily go to the Bible and (just like the JWs) see the verses about Jesus being the son of God (and speak in terms of "we're all sons of God," etc.) or where He says "My God and your God" or "the Father is greater than I," and many other similar passages, it would appear at first glance that He is lesser than God, or at least lesser than God the Father. And that is Arianism. JW's will use a verse like Revelation 3:14, where Jesus calls Himself "the beginning of the creation of God" (KJV). You can see how they would distort that and think it proves Jesus was created. This is the sort of thing that all heretics have done throughout history.

In your closing, you first seem to affirm my statement about how early patristic commentators viewed Scripture and tradition as redundantly sufficient, but then you mention the "three-legged stool" metaphor. My understanding of that metaphor is that it implies a delicate interdependence of all three components; take away one, and the stool is useless.

As a principle of authority, yes. It doesn't follow from that that one could not refute heretics from Scripture. As far as I am concerned, the three are inextricably bound together in Scripture and regarded as inseparable in the practical sense (and, if one really gets into it, the epistemological sense as well).

To me, this is a more fragile understanding of the interconnectedness of Scripture and tradition than the one found in antiquity. A stool's legs are not "redundant"; take away one, and the stability of the stool is lost entirely. What I'd really like to see is some citation of a similar analogy in antiquity, something that says that authority would be seriously impaired if it had to function on the basis of only one "leg".

One doesn't have to find the exact sentiment stated by a Father in one place, anymore than one has to find Chalcedonian trinitarianism expressed explicitly in one place in Scripture. All one needs is to find the ideas. To do that with regard to the Fathers, all that is necessary is to verify the following three propositions as held by a particular Father:

1) The Bible is authoritative and binding.
2) The Church's teaching is authoritative and binding.
3) Sacred Tradition is authoritative and binding.
If you establish that someone believes these three things, it is impossible to attribute a belief in sola Scriptura to them, because in that view, the Bible (and the individual conscience) has the final authority over both Church and Tradition (Luther at Worms is the classic picture of this and the assertion in his very act and stance of the principle), with ostensible grounding -- supposedly -- always in the "clear" teaching of the Bible.

The Protestant view essentially removes the word "binding" from #2 and #3. I think it's as simple as that. The Fathers viewed the three legs of the stool as of a piece, working together, and not contradictory in reality, because God would not allow them to be. That's where the faith part comes in.

Again, I'd like to thank you for your interaction on this subject. Maybe some of the Catholics here are disinterested, but I'm far from having any conclusive opinion on how to resolve the disjunction between modern pessimism (at least my own, if no one else's), and classical optimism (including during the early apostolic period, where we don't see much concern about deep epistemological questions).

You're welcome; my pleasure.

My initial statement here was misguided. But, thank you, EHamilton, for providing such a fine piece of evidence, from the moderator of a Catholic apologetics board no less. Perhaps the bottom line in my question is this: How does this approach to Scripture, demonstrated so clearly by Gary Hoge, compare to the patristic approach to the Trinity and Scripture? I think it compares very poorly, and if Catholics are attempting to theologize with the Fathers, they had better stop saying the sort of thing Gary is reported to have said here.

I don't think anyone is saying that the Bible yields trinitarianism when read tabula rasa, and in historical isolation. Certainly one would need to be well acquainted with pre-Christian Jewish thought, with koine Greek lexicology, and with the nature of ancient philosophical discourse. The question is whether or not it is necessary to call upon the Councils of Nicea and Constantinople as authorities before having any hope of deciding that Trinitarianism is preferable to Arianism. I think that all the Christians of the apostlic age were effectively Trinitarians, and not Arians. Somehow they figured this out from apostolic teaching of the sort represented in Scripture (i.e., they didn't have words like "substance", or "person", or "Trinity"). I'm proposing that modern Christians, if they were forced back to square one using just Scripture and other literary references of either contemporary or antecendent date, would have good reason to hold to identifiably Trinitarian beliefs. It might take a few generations to work out the details... but then, it did historically as well!

Gary Hoge then replied to a letter of mine, asking him to clarify his position::

This is an interesting discussion. Thanks for bringing me into it as the "infallible interpreter" of my own statements. Before I expound on my meaning, I want to say that I think you interpreted my meaning correctly. I also want to emphasize that what I said to Edward was just my personal opinion. It wasn't The Catholic Position, or anything like that. It was just my opinion. It's what I thought when I was a Protestant, and it's what I still think now.

Let me explain my opinion by asking a question: If you handed a New Testament to a Muslim and said, "Listen, I know you think this isn't the Word of God, but could you read it and tell me what you think it teaches about the nature of God," what are the odds that Muslim would come back a week later and say, "Well, clearly it's saying that the one God exists as three coequal, coeternal persons in one divine nature"?

I don't think that's very likely. It took hundreds of years to hash that out, and I don't think all that controversy would have happened if the trinitarian teaching of Scripture were prima facie obvious. (Imagine a third- or fourth-century meeting between orthodox Catholics and representatives from the various Christological heresies. Can you imagine one of them standing up and saying, "Hey, guys, instead of all this bickering, why don't we just agree to follow the plain and obvious teaching of Scripture?" Would all the others say, "Why didn't we think of that!"? I don't think so.)

Now, when I say that other interpretations (Modalism, Arianism) are, at first glance, plausible, that doesn't mean I think they're better than the trinitarian interpretation. On balance, I think the trinitarian interpretation best accounts for the biblical data (which is what we would expect, since it is after all true). But my point is that that conclusion is the result of a lot of thought and study. It's not obvious, and if one is biased against it (e.g., if one is raised as an Arian or a Modalist), I can see how one might never come to accept it as true.

Edward, after reading my statement, says, "Essentially, this is saying that Scripture can mean virtually anything that anyone wants it to, unless we have a magisterium to instruct us." No, I think, given the biblical data, there's a limit to the number of errors that can plausibly be constructed about the nature of God. But I'd like to ask a question: How many of us trinitarians (whether Catholic, Protestant or otherwise) came to the conclusion that the one God is a trinity of coequal, coeternal persons without having a magisterium instruct us? I'd bet that not one of us came to that conclusion on our own, without being taught it by our church, whether our church is St. Augustine Catholic Church, St. Cyril Orthodox Church, or Shepherd's Gate Baptist Church.

You guys can now offer more examples if you like (that would be fun). If Gary agrees with my interpretation which was basically acceptable as a "good answer" (at least to Edward), then this seems like much ado about nothing. In the end we pretty much agree (at least concerning material sufficiency of Scripture) and it is only a matter of slight difference of degree. The fact remains that the Catholic position accepts the material sufficiency of Scripture (which was also the Fathers' position). But Catholics and the Fathers reject formal sufficiency of Scripture, which is the Protestant rule of faith, or sola Scriptura.

Another Catholic poster, "Dionysius Areopagitus," offered a correct understanding of the Fathers' views:

I think you're asking the wrong question (at least if your intent is to undermine Catholic thinking regarding ecclesiastical authority in settling matters of doctrine.)

In the various theological and christological controversies of the first millenia, you will not find a Church father admitting that the Arian case from the Holy Scriptures was just as good as theirs, or even admissible in any sense. This is because Arianism is contrary to the intent of the Holy Scriptures - they do not teach Arianism, but Trinitarianism. That is the objective fact, and the Church Fathers understood this.

However, there is a difference between what the sources of revelation objectively teach, and our subjective capacity as individuals to discern that teaching. Not everyone has the capacity (or resources) to comb the Scriptures and come to a correct conclusion on these matters. This is particularly the case if one starts out labouring under false philosophical premises, or has been spoon fed an incorrect doctrine on this subject to begin with. While Arianism started out as the modernism of it's time (seizing upon the ambiguity and differing articulations of Trinitarian doctrine up to that point in time), for many (labouring under false teachers, who in turn would become false teachers without even realizing it) it would become an "orthodoxy" (as far as they were concerned.)

The Church setteled the matter, by Her authority, in so far as She made clear that the position of Arius was erroneous. Her witness (and it is an authoratative one) did not make "Trinitarianism" true; but it certainly vindicated those who preserved the true understanding of Christian tradition on this subject, and openly condemned those who disagreed with it. It also gave a formal articulation of this faith which protected against future attempts to resurrect this error (by removing any ambiguity that may have existed in certain previous approaches to explaining the Holy Trinity).

It is precisely because many men do not have the capacity/means to rightly divide what Scripture teaches on this subject, that the Church's rebuke was necessary and so vital.

It is my conclusion that at the heart of Cranmer's challenge (and the use by modern Protestant polemicists of the Church Father's to argue favourably for sola scriptura) involves a profound misunderstanding of just why ecclesiastical authority exists.

. . . the necessity of an authoritative/infallible teaching Church is not because the Scripture's witness on core theological issues is imperceptible (or that even secondary theological matters do not have ample Scriptural witness, or at least logically follow from the facts contained in the Holy Writ), but is intertwined with the Church's mission to save sinners.

Due to sin, corruption reigns in the world. As such, the truth will invariably be corrupted by someone (or many) and this corruption will become total unless there is someone/something with the ability to offer a firm, authoritative rebuke to such perversions.

The Holy Scriptures do not teach Arianism. However, if one approaches them after being perverted (even unwittingly) by false teachers, or simply lacks the capacity or means to study the Scriptures thoroughly, they will walk away heterodox (only seeing what they want to see in the Scripture's witness.)

At the heart of the problem of sola scriptura is a curious over estimation of man's objectivity (not to mention every man's intellectual powers and ready access to the Holy Scriptures . . .

Good men do not need laws, as the saying goes. However, it is precisely because of original sin (which places in man a propensity to commit actual sins) that laws do exist - to inform his conscience (often compromised by a darkened intellect, which can result in an erroneous conscience . . . honestly thinking well of what is in fact objectively immoral, or conversly thinking sinful what is in fact objectively good), and compel him when he knowingly chooses evil (which is always sinful). Such laws need someone to authoritatively enforce them.

. . . you've introduced enough qualifications to the concept of (material) sufficiency that I can't find much to disagree with in your presentation myself. That is, once you limit the cases where Scripture is insufficient to interpreters who are ignorant of history and biblical theology, and thus more easily deceived, then I begin to agree with you; the case against Arianism is a subtle one, and Arians can easily confuse uneducated persons with clever-sounding sophistry.

Indeed, and Gary agrees with me and so does Mark Shea [see below], so I contend that your two examples fail and do not establish the point you are trying to make.

But again, I think the question is not whether or not Protestants may use extra-biblical material in order to better understand the Bible. No one would deny this. The question is whether it is sufficient to regard Christian tradition as merely "instructive" or "informative", in the same sense that any secular historian would use other sources to interpret any ancient secular text, or whether one must assert that Christian tradition is actually "authoritative", so as to be removed beyond criticism.

It must be the latter. This is the Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican (and, I say, biblical and apostolic and patristic) argument. The criticism can take place regarding how to apply it, just as there is discussion among Protestants how to interpret and apply biblical teachings, which all alike regard as inspired and absolutely authoritative. This is altogether to be expected in both camps. It's simply reality.

I'm not sure I'd argue that any Catholic tendency is is "pervasive", by the way, based only on my limited contact with the Cathlic apologetics community.

That's good. Your friend "Cranmer," who seems strangely absent as of late, takes a dimmer view, calling it "a staple of Catholic apologetics" and claiming that the Fathers are "consistently and pervasively misrepresented on this matter" by Catholics. I asked for examples. He gave none. You provided a quote from Gary Hoge, but we have now seen that he agrees with my interpretation of his words, which were in turn agreeable to you. So that example of this "pervasive tendency" (according to Cranmer) fails.

The best I can say is that in my own conversations, I've seen what I consider to be a repeated pattern of pessimistic conclusions about the ability of evangelicals to argue from Scripture for their theology, at the same level of Gary's quote. Mark Shea, for example, similarly states that Arian exegesis is "plausible", and that the best that evangelicals can ever hope for, under the postulate of Sola Scriptura, is a "stalemate" with modern-day Arians.

That statement of his needs to be read in context, too. I will provide some of that:

Well-known Catholic apologist Mark Shea:

. . . is my point "Be Arian"? No. My point is that an Evangelical, relying on Scripture alone and "never binding the conscience of the believer on those questions in which Scripture permits different interpretations," is in a poor position to say definitively, "Don't be Arian." Arianism has just the sort of scriptural ammo which today leads, not so much to a triumph of Arianism as to a stalemate between Arianism and orthodoxy in the Evangelical arena.

For Arian "simplicity" is not dead. Indeed, that enormous marketplace of ideas called the Internet teems with Arians from various sects who have a field day as simply an "alternative Christian theology" and we Bible-only Evangelicals are remarkably weak in argument with them. (The summary of Arian/orthodox debate given above is culled from long experience of watching such arguments on the Internet.) I cannot count the times I have seen orthodox Evangelicals finally retreat from the issue with a fuddled shrug and some muttered variation on, "Well, I just feel you're wrong." Yet this is tantamount to telling the confused non-Christian that Christianity is (1) whatever we feel like or (2) an irrational belief in the impossible.

How then, I wondered, can we even be sure of this foundation stone of the Faith (much less communicate it to others) if the ambiguity of Scripture made it too a "matter of liberty" according to our own Evangelical criteria?

I discovered the answer as I listened to one of those radio call-in shows where theologians tackle various questions about the Bible. The host of this show was a solid Evangelical with a high regard for the Bible who was always very careful to speak of Scripture alone as the bottom line of revelation. Yet the odd thing was, when a particularly articulate exponent of anti-trinitarianism called and pointed out the typical Arian readings of various Scriptures, the host had one final bottom line below the bottom line. After citing various counter-Scriptures (and receiving more plausible Arian readings by the caller until yet another stalemate seemed imminent), the host finally said, in essence, "Your interpretation is simply not what historic Christianity has ever understood its own Bible to mean." He then asked the Arian caller if he was really prepared to insist that twenty centuries of Christians (including people who had heard the apostles with their own ears and who clearly regarded Jesus as God) had been utterly wrong about the central fact of their faith while he alone was right?

This made sense. It seemed plain to me that it was idle for the Arian caller to wrench Scripture away from twenty centuries of ordinary Christian interpretation of so crucial a matter and declare the entire Church, from those who knew the apostles down to the present, incapable of understanding what it meant in its own Scriptures concerning so fundamental an issue. To deny that the deity of Christ was part of the apostolic preaching is to say that the apostles managed to leave a wildly blasphemous impression upon their fledgling churches when really they had no such intention. It is to assert that everywhere -- north, south, east and west, among Jews and Gentiles, across a bewildering smorgasbord of ethnicities, cultures, languages and peoples from Palestine to Asia to Greece to Rome to Spain to Africa to India to Gaul -- the apostles managed to fix in the minds of every one of their churches something they had not meant . . .

. . . my Evangelical radio show host (and my Evangelical friends and I) was saying that a Tradition of Trinitarian Interpretation living in the Church was just as essential and revealed as the Scripture being interpreted. When we spoke of the absolute union of the Father and the Son, of the Holy Spirit as God Almighty and the Creator of all things, we Evangelicals were in fact resting serenely, not on the Bible alone, but on the interpretative tradition of the Church just as we rested serenely on its Tradition of the Table of Contents, its Tradition of the Sanctity of Human Life, and its Tradition of Monogamy.

This again meant that whatever we Evangelicals said about tradition being "useful but not essential" to Christian revelation, we behaved exactly as though we believed trinitarian tradition -- a tradition both in union with and yet distinct from the Scripture it interprets -- is the other leg upon which the revelation of Christ's deity and the Spirit's Lordship stands. Once again we were treating Scripture and tradition, neither as competitors nor as identical, but as light and lens.

. . . we lived (and had to live) by tradition almost as deeply as any Catholic. For us, as for Rome, tradition was the lens that focused the light of Scripture. For us, as for Rome, that tradition was not a pair of "useful but not necessary" disposable glasses; it was the lens of our living eye and the heart of vision. It was so much a part of us that we were oblivious to it. I realized we Evangelicals had been so focused on the light of Scripture that we had forgotten the lens through which we looked.

(From, "The Lens in My Eye," excerpted from Chapter 6 of By What Authority?, Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 1996, 92-117; this article/chapter is online)

Now, of course, my friend Mark Shea agrees with me concerning material sufficiency as well, so you should have no beef with his presentation, interpreted rightly. He writes elsewhere, in a section on "Formal vs. Material Sufficiency of Scripture":
Material sufficiency means that all the bricks necessary to build doctrine is there in Scripture. However, it also teaches that since the meaning of Scripture is not always clear and that sometimes a doctrine is implied rather than explicit, other things besides Scripture have been handed to us from the apostles: things like Sacred Tradition (which is the mortar that holds the bricks together in the right order and position) and the Magisterium or teaching authority of the Church (which is the trowel in the hand of the Master Builder). Taken together, these three things -- Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the Magisterium -- are formally sufficient for knowing the revealed truth of God.

. . . those who hold to the formal sufficiency of Scripture warn darkly that setting Scripture in the context of Sacred Tradition will inevitably put Scripture under the Church. The fear, in fact, is that to admit the revelatory nature of Sacred Tradition will necessarily subjugate Scripture to merely human agendas.

(in Not by Scripture Alone, edited by Robert A. Sungenis, Santa Barbara, CA: Queenship Pub. Co., 1997, chapter 4: "What is the Relationship Between Scripture and Tradition?," 169-210; quote from 181-182)

My initial point here was that it's very difficult to imagine St Athanasius performing a survey of various suggested Arian prooftexts (as Mark does) and concluding that all of them sound more or less equally sensible relative to the orthodox interpretation.

Mark's point, mine, and the Catholic point would be to note that to the Arian (from within his false heretical hermeneutical paradigm) they would indeed seem "more or less equally sensible," whereas to the orthodox Catholic (or Protestant today) they would not. The difference is Tradition. Catholics view christological theology derived from conciliar pronouncements as binding, as do Protestants for the most part. The Protestant accepts the Tradition because he regards it as a biblical tradition, grounded in Scripture. If the same Catholic tradition pronounces on Mary or the papacy, however, the Protestant rejects it because he claims it is unbiblical.

Rather , I think that the Nicene Fathers believed that the orthodox tradition of exegesis was superior to the heretical alternatives on the basis of objective criteria that could be jointly appreciated by both sides, rather than "just because it was the tradition".

We would agree with that. As I have stated repeatedly, binding Church authority, is a practical necessity, given the propensity of men to pervert the true apostolic Tradition as taught in Scripture, whether it is perspicuous or not. The fact remains that diverse interpretations arise, and a final authority outside of Scripture itself is needed in order to resolve those controversies. This does not imply in the least that Scripture itself (rightly understood) is not sufficient to overcome the errors. It is only formally insufficient by itself.

That is to say, "Our tradition is shown to be superior because it yields objectively better exegesis", rather than "Our exegesis is automatically right just because it conforms with our tradition".

The Catholic says it is both, but the argument per se proceeds on the biblical evidence.

I don't mean to discount to value of tradition in any absolute terms. I'm certainly grateful to have the corroboration of Christian tradition on this and other points. I just don't think the situation is hopelessly unresolvable, to the extent of leaving even the most brilliant Protestant exegete on the planet with nothing to do but flip a coin.

I agree.

I have to confess to feeling pretty awkward about arguing this issue with you, since by my nature I am on the more pessimistic side of the equation. I was only pointing out that most of the Fathers speak more confidently about the obviousness of orthodox interpretation (and the absurdity of heretical interpretation) than modern Catholic apologists are inclined to do, and that this makes the usual "no Fathers believed in Sola Scriptura" talking point less impressive to me, in the sense that it suggests that both modern Catholics and modern Protestants are more open to a more complicated reality of conflict between tradition and (certain readings of) Scripture.

That would have to be shown on an individual basis. I intend to show that St. Athanasius would not disagree in the least with the matter as I have presented it.

If we were to switch to some other important Christian doctrine (Mark Shea mentions abortion in the article I link to above), I think I'd have to fairly quickly concede the point. We almost certainly do need to appeal to tradition in order to have a fully functional understanding of Christian ethics and morality.


This is why, in my earlier discussions with Gary, I fell back quickly to arguing a more limited position, that Scripture is only sufficient with respect to the proclamation of the gospel (the Christological and apostolic kerygma), and thus for salvation. I have little interest in denying the importance of a living tradition to the practice of Christian life; indeed, virtually all Christian communities, Protestant and Catholic alike, have continued to benefit from their fidelity to historic Christian doctrine. (And suffered accordingly when they have departed from it.) To me, the fundamental difference between Catholics and Protestants is not that the former make use of tradition while the latter do not. It is that the latter allow for at least the possibility of a conflict between tradition and Scripture (with the latter interpreted in ways that reflect the influence of improved scholarship), and insist that in such cases, tradition must yield the right of way.

That's where faith comes in. If one believes that the Holy Spirit guided the Church and preserved the apostolic deposit of faith inviolate and free from error, a change is not possible. There are plenty of discussions on particulars, though, just as there are plenty of discussions about texts in the Bible. Mere discussion of "difficulties" does not prove that the thing itself is not what it is: infallible, etc.

This, again, is the distinction between saying that Scripture is the only infallible witness-- what I think is an authentic Protestant teaching-- and saying that it is the only witness of any value at all-- an axiom hard to reconcile with the historic practices of any mainstream Christian community, regardless of how loudly some of them protest to the contrary!


At some point, you'll accuse me of defining down Sola Scriptura into something totally different than its historical meaning. I'm still inclined to think that you underestimate the respect of both the Reformers and modern evangelicals for tradition;

Then you still have failed to understand my understanding of the meaning of sola Scriptura. As I mentioned earlier, I had your view of respect for tradition 20 years ago as a cult researcher. It is nothing new to me. Yet I firmly believed in sola Scriptura. So it is more than a little amusing to see you question my understanding of the concept when I held it in basically the same form you do, 20 years ago.

. . . to be honest, I don't care much about whose side I end up being on. I'm happy to switch slogans, if that's what needs to be done, and speak of "prima scriptura" (to use Scott Hahn's phrase), or something else. I'd be happy to discover a formulation that falls as close to Catholicism as possible, to minimize the interconfessional distance between us. I don't have much interest in defending historical Protestantism as a system, or a magisterial authority, as if I were any sort of partisan; I only want to discover truth wherever it is to be found. I'm a student, and make no claims to being a pedagogue in the service of anyone's private academy.

Excellent attitude. I commend you for it. I am offering to you the Catholic understanding, as best I know how. If you come to be persuaded of it, then you may wish to consider adopting a more historically-oriented Christian tradition, such as Anglicanism, Orthodoxy, or Catholicism.

Thanks again for the dialogue. It's most enjoyable.

I write entire books and huge papers citing nothing but Scripture. It doesn't mean for a second that I don't respect the binding authority of the Catholic Church or espouse sola Scriptura. St. Athanasius made some extensive biblical arguments. Great. Making such arguments, doing exegesis, extolling the Bible, reading the Bible, discussing it, praising it, etc., etc., etc., are all well and good (and Catholics agree wholeheartedly); none of these things, however, reduce to or logically necessitate adoption of sola Scriptura as a formal principle, hard as that is for some people to grasp. I shall now proceed to prove my overall contention about St. Athanasius with regard to Scripture, Tradition, and the Church.

Does St. Athanasius (c. 296-373) believe in sola Scriptura? Hardly. Let us look at some of his statements. After citing several passages from Scripture which indicate the Holy Spirit's deity, St. Athanasius writes:

But, beyond these sayings, let us look at the very tradition, teaching,
and faith of the Catholic Church from the beginning, which the Lord gave,
the Apostles preached and the Fathers kept.

(To Serapion 1:28)

But after him and with him are all inventors of unlawful heresies, who
indeed refer to the Scriptures, but do not hold such opinions as the saints
have handed down, and receiving them as the traditions of men, err,
because they do not rightly know them nor their power.

(Festal Letter 2:6)

We may see easily, if we now consider the scope of that faith which we
Christians hold, and using it as a rule, apply ourselves, as the Apostle
teaches, to the reading of inspired Scripture. For Christ's enemies, being
ignorant of this scope, have wandered from the way of truth, and have
stumbled on a stone of stumbling, thinking otherwise than they should

(Discourse Against the Arians 3:28)

See, we are proving that this view has been transmitted from father to
father; but ye, O modern Jews and disciples of Caiaphas, how many
fathers can ye assign to your phrases? Not one of the understanding and
wise; for all abhor you, but the devil alone; none but he is your father in
this apostasy, who both in the beginning sowed you with the seed of this
irreligion, and now persuades you to slander the Ecumenical Council , for
committing to writing, not your doctrines, but that which from the beginning
those who were eye-witnesses and ministers of the Word have handed down
to us . For the faith which the Council has confessed in writing, that is the
faith of the Catholic Church; to assert this, the blessed Fathers so expressed
themselves while condemning the Arian heresy; and this is a chief reason why
these apply themselves to calumniate the Council. For it is not the terms which
trouble them , but that those terms prove them to be heretics, and
presumptuous beyond other heresies.

(Defense of the Nicene Definition, 27; A.D. 355; in NPNF2,IV:168-169)

But the sectaries,who have fallen away from the teaching
of the Church, and made shipwreck concerning their Faith . . .

(Contra Gentes, 6; A.D. 318, in NPNF2,XIV:7)

For, what our Fathers have delivered, this is truly
doctrine; and this is truly the token of doctors, to confess
the same thing with each other, and to vary neither from
themselves nor from their fathers; whereas they who have
not this character are to be called not true doctors but evil.

(De Decretis 4; A.D. 351, in NPNF2,IV:153)

Had Christ's enemies thus dwelt on these thoughts, and
recognised the ecclesiastical scope as an anchor for the
faith, they would not have made shipwreck of the faith, nor
been so shameless as to resist those who would fain
recover them from their fall, and to deem those as enemies
who are admonishing them to be religious.

(Orationes contra Arianos III:58; A.D. 362, in NPNF2,IV:425)

[The Fathers at Nicea]...but concerning matters of faith,
they did not write: 'It was decided,' but 'Thus the Catholic
Church believes.' And thereupon they confessed how they
believed. This they did in order to show that their
judgement was not of more recent origin, but was in fact
Apostolic times; and that what they wrote was no
discovery of their own, but is simply that which was taught
by the apostles.

(De Synodis 5; A.D. 362,in NPNF2,IV:453)

The blessed Apostle approves of the Corinthians because,
he says, 'ye remember me in all things, and keep the
traditions as I delivered them to you' (1 Cor. xi. 2); but
they, as entertaining such views of their predecessors, will
have the daring to say just the reverse to their flocks: 'We
praise you not for remembering your fathers, but rather we
make much of you, when you hold not their traditions.'

(De Synodis 14; A.D. 362,in NPNF2,IV:453)

But the word of the Lord which came through the
ecumenical Synod at Nicea, abides forever.

(Ad Afros 2; A.D. 372,in NPNF2,IV:489)

Remaining on the foundation of the Apostles, and
holding fast the traditions of the Fathers, pray that now at
length all strife and rivalry may cease, and the futile
questions of the heretics may be condemned, and all
logomachy; and the guilty and murderous heresy of the
Arians may disappear, and the truth may shine again in the
hearts of all, so that all every where may 'say the same
thing'(1 Cor. i. 10), and think the same thing, and that, no
Arian contumelies remaining, it may be said and confessed
in every Church, 'One Lord, one faith, one baptism' (Eph.
iv. 5), in Christ Jesus our Lord, through whom to the
Father be the glory and the strength, unto ages of ages.

(De Synodis 54; A.D. 362,in NPNF2,IV:453)

Such are the machinations of these men against the truth:
but their designs are manifest to all the world, though they
attempt in ten thousand ways, like eels, to elude the grasp,
and to escape detection as enemies of Christ. Wherefore I
beseech you, let no one among you be deceived, no one
seduced by them; rather, considering that a sort of judaical
impiety is invading the Christian faith, be ye all zealous for
the Lord; hold fast, every one, the faith we have received
from the Fathers, which they who assembled at Nicaea
recorded in writing, and endure not those who endeavour
to innovate thereon. And however they may write phrases
out of the Scripture, endure not their writings; however
they may speak the language of the orthodox, yet attend
not to what they say; for they speak not with an upright
mind, but putting on such language like sheeps' clothing, in
their hearts they think with Arius, after the manner of the
devil, who is the author of all heresies. For he too made
use of the words of Scripture, but was put to silence by our
Saviour. For if he had indeed meant them as he used them,
he would not have fallen from heaven; but now having
fallen through his pride, he artfully dissembles in his speech,
and oftentimes maliciously endeavours to lead men astray
by the subtleties and sophistries of the Gentiles. Had these
expositions of theirs proceeded from the orthodox, from
such as the great Confessor Hosius, and Maximinus of
Gaul, or his successor, or from such as Philogonius and
Eustathius, Bishops of the East, or Julius and Liberius of
Rome, or Cyriacus of Moesia, or Pistus and Aristaeus of
Greece, or Silvester and Protogenes of Dacia, or Leontius
and Eupsychius of Cappadocia, or Caecilianus of Africa,
or Eustorgius of Italy, or Capito of Sicily, or Macarius of
Jerusalem, or Alexander of Constantinople, or Paederos of
Heraclea, or those great Bishops Meletius, Basil, and
Longianus, and the rest from Armenia and Pontus, or
Lupus and Amphion from Cilicia, or James and the rest
from Mesopotamia, or our own blessed Alexander, with
others of the same opinions as these;--there would then
have been nothing to suspect in their statements, for the
character of APOSTOLICAL MEN is sincere and

(Ad Episcopos 8; A.D. 372,in NPNF2,IV:227)

(NPNF2 = Philip Schaff, et al., editors, A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Church Fathers, 14 volumes, Series 2)

John Henry Cardinal Newman wrote about St. Athanasius' rule of faith, in his Select Treatises of St. Athanasius, Volume II, 1844 (from his Anglican period):

The recognition of this rule is the basis of St. Athanasius's method of arguing against Arianism. Vid. art. Private Judgment. It is not his aim ordinarily to prove doctrine by Scripture, nor does he appeal to the private judgment of the individual Christian in order to determine what Scripture means; but he assumes that there is a tradition, substantive, independent, and authoritative, such as to supply for us the true sense of Scripture in doctrinal matters—a tradition carried on from generation to generation by the practice of catechising, and by the other ministrations of Holy Church. He does not care to contend that no other meaning of certain passages of Scripture besides this traditional Catholic sense is possible or is plausible, whether true or not, but simply that any sense inconsistent with the Catholic is untrue, untrue because the traditional sense is apostolic and decisive. What he was instructed in at school and in church, the voice of the Christian people, the analogy of faith, the ecclesiastical [phronema], the writings of saints; these are enough for him. He is in no sense an inquirer, nor a mere disputant; he has received, and he transmits. Such is his position, though the expressions and turn of sentences which indicate it are so delicate and indirect, and so scattered about his pages, that it is difficult to collect them and to analyse what they imply. Perhaps the most obvious proof that what I have stated is substantially true, is that on any other supposition he seems to argue illogically. Thus he says: "The Arians, looking at what is human in the Saviour, have judged Him to be a creature ... But let them learn, however tardily, that the Word became flesh;" and then he goes on to show that he does not rely simply on the inherent, unequivocal force of St. John's words, satisfactory as that is, for he adds, "Let us, as possessing [ton skopon tes pisteos], acknowledge that this is the right ([orthen], orthodox) understanding of what they understand wrongly." Orat. iii. § 35.

Again: "What they now allege from the Gospels they explain in an unsound sense, as we may easily see if we will but avail ourselves of [ton skopon tes kath' hemas pisteos], and using this [hosper kanoni], apply ourselves, as the Apostle says, to the reading of inspired Scripture." Orat. iii. 28.

And again: "Since they pervert divine Scripture in accordance with their own private ([idion]) opinion, we must so far ([tosouton]) answer them as ([hoson]) to justify its word, and to show that its sense is orthodox, [orthen]." Orat. i. 37.

For other instances, vid. art. [orthos]; also vid. supr. vol. i. pp. 36, 237 note, 392, fin. 409; also Serap. iv. § 15, Gent. § 6, 7, and 33.

In Orat. ii. § 5, after showing that "made" is used in Scripture for "begotten," in other instances besides that of our Lord, he says, "Nature and truth draw the meaning to themselves" of the sacred text—that is, while the style of Scripture justifies us in thus interpreting the word "made," doctrinal truth obliges us to do so. He considers the Regula Fidei the principle of interpretation, and accordingly he goes on at once to apply it.

It is his way to start with some general exposition of the Catholic doctrine which the Arian sense of the text in dispute opposes, and thus to create a præjudicium or proof against the latter; vid. Orat. i. 10, 38, 40 init. 53, ii. § 12 init. 32-34, 35, 44 init., which refers to the whole discussion, (18-43,) 73, 77, iii. 18 init. 36 init. 42, 51 init. &c. On the other hand he makes the ecclesiastical sense the rule of interpretation, [toutoi] ([toi skopoi], the general drift of Scripture doctrine) [hosper kanoni chresamenoi], as quoted just above. This illustrates what he means when he says that certain texts have a "good," "pious," "orthodox" sense, i.e. they can be interpreted (in spite, if so be, of appearances) in harmony with the Regula Fidei.

It is with a reference to this great principle that he begins and ends his series of Scripture passages, which he defends from the misinterpretation of the Arians. When he begins, he refers to the necessity of interpreting them according to that sense which is not the result of private judgment, but is orthodox. "This," he says, "I conceive is the meaning of this passage, and that a meaning especially ecclesiastical." Orat. i. § 44. And he ends with: "Had they dwelt on these thoughts, and recognised the ecclesiastical scope as an anchor for the faith, they would not of the faith have made shipwreck." Orat. iii. § 58.

It is hardly a paradox to say that in patristical works of controversy the conclusion in a certain sense proves the premisses. As then he here speaks of the ecclesiastical scope "as an anchor for the faith;" so when the discussion of texts began, Orat. i. § 37, he introduces it as already quoted by saying, "Since they allege the divine oracles and force on them a misinterpretation according to their private sense, it becomes necessary to meet them so far as to do justice to these passages, and to show that they bear an orthodox sense, and that our opponents are in error." Again, Orat. iii. 7, he says, "What is the difficulty, that one must need take such a view of such passages?" He speaks of the [skopos] as a [kanon] or rule of interpretation, supr. iii. § 28. vid. also § 29 init. 35 Serap. ii. 7. Hence too he speaks of the "ecclesiastical sense," e.g. Orat. i. 44, Serap. iv. 15, and of the [phronema], Orat. ii. 31 init. Decr. 17 fin. In ii. § 32, 3, he makes the general or Church view of Scripture supersede inquiry into the force of particular illustrations.

The conclusion is inescapable: St. Athanasius accepts the "three-legged Catholic stool": Scripture + Church + Tradition. This is not sola Scriptura. J.N.D. Kelly, the Anglican patristic scholar, recognizes this:
So Athanasius, disputing with the Arians, claimed that his own doctrine had been handed down from father to father, whereas they could not produce a single respectable witness to theirs . . .

. . . the ancient idea that the Church alone, in virtue of being the home of the Spirit and having preserved the authentic apostolic testimony in her rule of faith, liturgical action and general witness, possesses the indispensable key to Scripture, continued to operate as powerfully as in the days of Irenaeus and Tertullian . . . Athanasius himself, after dwelling on the entire adequacy of Scripture, went on to emphasize the desirability of having sound teachers to expound it. Against the Arians he flung the charge that they would never have made shipwreck of the faith had they held fast as a sheet-anchor to the . . . Church's peculiar and traditionally handed down grasp of the purport of revelation. Hilary insisted that only those who accept the Church's teaching can comprehend what the Bible is getting at. According to Augustine, its doubtful or ambiguous passages need to be cleared up by 'the rule of faith'; it was, moreover, the authority of the Church alone which in his eyes guaranteed its veracity.

It should be unnecessary to accumulate further evidence. Throughout the whole period Scripture and tradition ranked as complementary authorities, media different in form but coincident in content. To inquire which counted as superior or more ultimate is to pose the question in misleading terms. If Scripture was abundantly sufficient in principle, tradition was recognized as the surest clue to its interpretation, for in tradition the Church retained, as a legacy from the apostles which was embedded in all the organs of her institutional life, an unerring grasp of the real purport and meaning of the revelation to which Scripture and tradition alike bore witness.

(Early Christian Doctrines, San Francisco: HarperCollins, revised edition, 1978, 45, 47-48)
Likewise, Protestant Church historian Philip Schaff, in his History of the Christian Church, Vol. III: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity (A.D. 311-600), Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974; reproduction of 5th revised edition of 1910, Chapter IX, section 118: "Sources of Theology: Scripture and Tradition," 606-608, 612-615:
The church view respecting the sources of Christian theology and the rule of faith and practice remains as it was in the previous period, except that it is further developed in particulars. The divine Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as opposed to human writings; and the oral tradition or living faith of the catholic church from the apostles down, as opposed to the varying opinions of heretical sects together form the one infallible source and rule of faith. Both are vehicles of the same substance: the saving revelation of God in Christ; with this difference in form and office, that the church tradition determines the canon, furnishes the key to the true interpretation of the Scriptures, and guards them against heretical abuse. The relation of the two in the mind of the ancient church may be illustrated by the relation between the supreme law of a country (such as the Roman law, the Code Napoleon, the common law of England, the Constitution of the United States) and the courts which expound the law, and decide between conflicting interpretations. Athanasius, for example, "the father of orthodoxy," always bases his conclusions upon Scripture, and appeals to the authority of tradition only in proof that he rightly understands and expounds the sacred books. The catholic faith, says he, is that which the Lord gave, the apostles preached, and the fathers have preserved; upon this the church is founded, and he who departs from this faith can no longer be called a Christian . . .

The old catholic doctrine of Scripture and tradition, therefore, nearly as it approaches the Roman, must not be entirely confounded with it. It makes the two identical as to substance, while the Roman church rests upon tradition for many doctrines and usages, like the doctrines of the seven sacraments, of the mass, of purgatory, of the papacy, and of the immaculate conception, which have no foundation in Scripture. Against this the evangelical church protests, and asserts the perfection and sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures as the record of divine revelation; while it does not deny the value of tradition, or of the consciousness of the church, in the interpretation of Scripture, and regulates public teaching by symbolical books. In the Protestant view tradition is not coordinate with Scripture, but subordinate to it, and its value depends on its agreement with the Scriptures. The Scriptures alone are the norma fidei; the church doctrine is only the norma doctrinae. Protestantism gives much more play to private judgment and free investigation in the interpretation of the Scriptures, than the Roman or even the Nicene church.

[Footnote 1 on page 607: " . . . Voight . . . makes Athanasius even the representative of the formal principle of Protestantism, the supreme authority, sufficiency, and self-interpreting character of the Scriptures; while Mohler endeavors to place him on the Roman side. Both are biassed, and violate history by their preconceptions."]

. . .

II. The Holy Scriptures were universally accepted as the supreme authority and infallible rule of faith. But as the Scriptures themselves were variously interpreted, and were claimed by the heretics for their views, the fathers of our period, like Irenaeus and Tertullian before them, had recourse at the same time to Tradition, as preserved from the apostles through the unbroken succession of the bishops. With them the Scriptures are the supreme law; the combined wisdom and piety of the catholic church, the organic body of the faithful, is the judge which decides the true sense of the law. For to be understood the Bible must be explained, either by private judgment or by the universal faith of Christendom.

Strictly speaking, the Holy Ghost, who is the author, is also the only infallible interpreter of the Scriptures. But it was held that the Holy Ghost is given only to the orthodox church not to heretical and schismatic sects, and that he expresses himself through assembled orthodox bishops and universal councils in the clearest and most authoritative way. "The heretics," says Hilary, "all cite the Scriptures, but without the sense of the Scriptures; for those who are outside the church can have no understanding of the, word of God." They imagine they follow the Scriptures, while in truth they follow their own conceits, which they put into the Scriptures instead of drawing their thoughts from them.

Even Augustine, who of all the fathers stands nearest to evangelical Protestantism, on this point advocates the catholic principle in the celebrated maxim which he urges against the Manichaeans: "I would not believe the gospel, if I were not compelled by the authority of the universal church." But he immediately adds: "God forbid that I should not believe the gospel."

But there are different traditions; not to speak of various interpretations of the catholic tradition. Hence the need of a criterion of true and false tradition . . .

Vincentius [St. Vincent of Lerins (d. 450)] is thoroughly Catholic in the spirit and tendency of his work, and has not the most remote conception of the free Protestant study of the Scriptures. But on the other hand he would have as little toleration for new dogmas. He wished to make tradition not an independent source of knowledge and rule of faith by the side of the Holy Scriptures, but only to have it acknowledged as the true interpreter of Scripture, and as a bar to heretical abuse. The criterion of the antiquity of a doctrine, which he required, involves apostolicity, hence agreement with the spirit and substance of the New Testament. The church, says he, as the solicitous guardian of that which is intrusted to her, changes, diminishes, increases nothing. Her sole effort is to shape, or confirm, or preserve the old. Innovation is the business of heretics not of orthodox believers. The canon of Scripture is complete in itself, and more than sufficient. But since all heretics appeal to it, the authority of the church must be called in as the rule of interpretation, and in this we must follow universality, antiquity, and consent. It is the custom of the Catholics, says he in the same work, to prove the true faith in two ways: first by the authority of the holy Scriptures, then by the tradition of the Catholic church; not because the canon alone is not of itself sufficient for all things, but on account of the many conflicting interpretations and perversions of the Scriptures.

In the same spirit says pope Leo I (d. 461).: "It is not permitted to depart even in one word from the doctrine of the Evangelists and the Apostles, nor to think otherwise concerning the Holy Scriptures, than the blessed apostles and our fathers learned and taught."

Protestant Church historian Heiko Oberman takes the same general approach:

As regards the pre-Augustinian Church, there is in our time a striking convergence of
scholarly opinion that Scripture and Tradition are for the early Church in no sense mutually exclusive: kerygma, Scripture and Tradition coincide entirely. The Church preaches the kerygma which is to be found in toto in written form in the canonical books.

The Tradition is not understood as an addition to the kerygma contained in Scripture but as the handing down of that same kerygma in living form: in other words everything is to be found in Scripture and at the same time everything is in the living Tradition.

It is in the living, visible Body of Christ, inspired and vivified by the operation of the Holy
Spirit, that Scripture and Tradition coinhere . . . Both Scripture and Tradition issue from
the same source: the Word of God, Revelation . . . Only within the Church can this kerygma be handed down undefiled . . .

(The Harvest of Medieval Theology, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, rev. ed., 1967, 366-367)

Lutheran Church historian Jaroslav Pelikan also essentially concurs:

Clearly it is an anachronism to superimpose upon the discussions of the second and third
centuries categories derived from the controversies over the relation of Scripture and
tradition in the 16th century, for 'in the ante-Nicene Church . . . there was no notion of sola Scriptura, but neither was there a doctrine of traditio sola.'. . . (1)

The apostolic tradition was a public tradition . . . So palpable was this apostolic tradition
that even if the apostles had not left behind the Scriptures to serve as normative evidence of their doctrine, the church would still be in a position to follow 'the structure of the tradition which they handed on to those to whom they committed the churches (2).' This was, in fact, what the church was doing in those barbarian territories where believers did not have access to the written deposit, but still carefully guarded the ancient tradition of the apostles, summarized in the creed . . .

The term 'rule of faith' or 'rule of truth' . . . seems sometimes to have meant the 'tradition,' sometimes the Scriptures, sometimes the message of the gospel . . .

In the . . . Reformation . . . the supporters of the sole authority of Scripture . . . overlooked the function of tradition in securing what they regarded as the correct exegesis of Scripture against heretical alternatives.

(The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine: Vol. 1 of 5: The
Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600), Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1971,
115-117, 119; citations: 1. In Cushman, Robert E. & Egil Grislis, eds., The Heritage of
Christian Thought: Essays in Honor of Robert Lowry Calhoun, New York: 1965, quote
from Albert Outler, "The Sense of Tradition in the Ante-Nicene Church," 29. 2. St.
Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3:4:1)

After reading what Gary said, I can't find anything I would find objectionable. It certainly alters the force of what I thought he was originally claiming. I accept some culpability for any misrepresentation, of course,

Good for you. I admire that.

. . . although I still see some evidence that emphasis is being shifted in a way that moves the target I thought I was aiming for. Saying "A Muslim couldn't come up with the Trinity in a week" is a much weaker claim than "All Baptists have no basis for their Trinitarianism except by the authority of their own magisterium".

All the more reason to understand a writer's comments in context, not only immediate in the piece of writing under consideration, but his overall thought. This is also true of the Fathers, so [Protestant polemicists] William Webster, David King, and other people intent on anachronistically reading Protestant doctrine and formal principles back into the Fathers, tend to ignore or minimize or de-emphasize passages where Fathers speak of the binding authority of Church or Tradition/Council, because those things disprove the contentions they are vainly trying to make, viz., that the Fathers are more accurately regarded as closer in spirit and teaching to Protestants than to Catholics.

The consensus I see emerging at the center is that 1) some theological issues are too difficult for the average layman to extract directly from Scripture, but 2) there is nonetheless a good basis for trained scholars (ancient or modern) to conclude that certain interpretations are superior to others relative to a text, although it may take a good deal of time and effort to fully express this in a precise vocabulary, and 3) attentiveness to Christian tradition makes the latter determination much easier by removing the necessity of reinventing the proverbial wheel. I don't have much objection to that formulation, and if that's what you (Gary, Mark, et al) are trying to say, then I'm not going to bother anyone any further with debating over a matter where we essentially concur.

I would agree with this formulation as well. I think this is helpful, ecumenical-type language.

I'll let Cranmer push the point alone, if he's still interested.

Who's Cranmer? Did he start this thread?

Of course, that doesn't bring us any closer to agreement over the second stage of the argument that you've alluded to, the question of how one ought to use tradition. That may be beyond what you wish to go into at this time, and it certainly would involve a digression from the initial challenge, so I'll let you say whatever you like, or provide links to your previous work, or just let it drop here, as you prefer.

I have shown, I think, that St. Athanasius did not deny the Catholic three-legged stool, and I recognize in his approach exactly that of the Catholic approach today and throughout history. I just don't see this supposed disconnect between present-day Catholic apologetics and patristic methodology and formal principles of authority.

(In particular, I'm not persuaded by your claim that tradition "must be inspired and absolutely authoritative" to be of any value. I still see a middle way, where we view tradition as a reservoir of accumulated knowledge that must occasionally be drained for periodic cleaning and inspection.)

One would expect this in a sola Scriptura position, so I am not surprised.

I don't believe this exchange has been fruitless, if only because it gave you and Gary a chance to clarify a point where I may have been inaccurately understanding your intention, and unfairly assigning to you a less credible stance.

I think it was fruitful and constructive because there was some sort of resolution.

I appreciate everyone who took the time to post a response to my post, but I have just started an intensive summer school program and will not be able to participate for the time being. I still believe at this point, despite all the qualifications, that Catholic apologetics utilizes an approach to Scripture which is not represented by the Fathers in an attempt to discredit Protestantism. And I'm not talking about all of the patristic citations which could be brought forth that sound very similar to Protestants statements of sola scriptura. I'm referring more generally to the unmediated way patristic authors read the text and attempted to argue conclusively on the basis of it. I suggest to you that the patristic approach to Scripture generally is in tension with much of modern Catholic apologetics and its ever-present emphasis on the need for ecclesiastical mediation to derive doctrine from Scripture.

In my extensive treatment of St. Athanasius' views, I think I demonstrated conclusively that his Scripture + Church + Tradition rule of faith and approach is precisely that of orthodox Catholic exegetes and apologists and theologians today, and assuredly not that of Protestants (particularly Calvinists).

Perhaps (just a wild guess) this is why not a single counter-reply to my documentation was offered. I understand that you are busy now, and that's fine, but it would be nice once in a while to see some minor concessions from our Protestant friends when some argument of theirs is decisively refuted, with massive documentation.

Instead, you simply re-state your bald claim, as if nothing contrary whatsoever has been shown, and we have once again a refusal to look at the actual facts regarding St. Athanasius, as a typical test case for the methodology of the Fathers compared to present-day Catholic apologetic and exegetical methodology. This is not impressive. But the case has been made, and people can decide for themselves where the truth lies.

Best wishes in your studies.

I dont believe, first of all, that your documentation from Athanasius' writings decisively refutes my basic concern outlined earlier. This is because I dont have a simplistic understanding of the Fathers which requires them to fit into a "sola scriptura" grid, a "tradition, apostolic succession, and scripture" grid, or "a material sufficiency vs. formal sufficiency grid," or whatever. No, I think the patristic evidence is much more ambiguous than that, and I think there were competing conceptions of authority that show up in different fathers at different times for different reasons.

When it comes right down to it, I've read enough of the Fathers myself to simply know that I dont trust many of the Catholic apologetic perspectives that I have encountered on the internet. I dont expect you to take seriously a great deal of Protestant apologetic on the early church either. The difference might be that it is the Catholic church which claims the legacy of the fathers. I am suggesting that your amateur Catholic internet apologist is involved in a distortion of the church fathers, especially when it comes to issues of authority, that is comparable to the Protestant who claims that everyone in the early church believed in justification by faith alone, denied baptismal regeneration, and affirmed sola scriptura. The "Catholic stance" is harder to disprove, but in the end, I submit it is often as much of a distortion as the Protestant one above.

This is easy to claim, quite another matter to demonstrate. You have done the former but not the latter.

I cant help but speculate if the process for a number of Catholic converts from Protestantism goes something like this: 1) Individual feels uncomfortable about the "authority" questions posed by Catholicism. 2) Individual contemplates how much clearer and easier it could be if he or she could count on the Catholic magisterium for doctrine. 3) Individual decides, perhaps even subconsciously, that he or she is ready to do whatever it takes intellectually to have the sort of authority and clarity promised by Rome. The perceived benefits of the "infallible" authority begin to outweigh the costs of conversion.

One and two I can understand, respect, and relate to. It's at three that I draw the line. At this point, I feel I have read too much in church history and Scripture to be able to feel that the benefits of conversion truly outweigh the costs.

First you ignore the argument and simply re-state the position as if I have provided nothing contrary to it. This is an old tactic, but as anyone can see, it is not a rational argument. Arguments involve some sort of chain of reasoning and demonstration, not simply proclamation.

Now you are speculating as to the motives and supposed intellectual bankruptcy of Catholic conversion (which has nothing to do with the original topic -- at least not the objectively verifiable, historical aspect of it).

What do the opinions of Protestant historians like Schaff, Pelikan, Kelly, and Oberman have to do with the epistemology of Catholic belief and "Catholic apologetic rhetoric / polemics," etc., etc. (nothing that I can see)? But it is so much easier (it takes far, far less work) to ignore even Protestant corroboration of what I am arguing and dismiss it as yet another exercise in Catholic apologetic special pleading. I don't mind if you plead lack of time as the reason for a non-response, but this present tactic is unacceptable and must be exposed for what it is: evasiveness and either inability or unwillingness to actually engage the argument.

Be that as it may, the scholarly opinions of Schaff, Pelikan, Kelly, Oberman et al do not change because they are cited by a Catholic. They are what they are. And my argument remains unanswered. Thanks for again verifying that your case here with regard to St. Athanasius is nonexistent and amounts to bald claims without any argumentation, documentation, or response to any counter-claims. I knew there was nothing there, but perhaps you didn't, so I trust that it has been a learning experience for all concerned.

My problem arises when in the face of the complexity of early church history, Catholics claim, "well, hey, its basically clear." That's the problem really and the fact is that the modus operandi of Catholic apologists is that "Hey its basically clear." That in my experience has been the basic Catholic apologetic starting point. When I encounter this, I am forced to think either the individual simply doesn't know better, as many don't, or perhaps unintentionally, the person is being dishonest. Presuppositions can be so strong that I dont think its difficult for us to fall into what in the end is dishonesty in our seal to preserve them.

Let's re-cap briefly what has taken place in this thread, lest people forget:

1. Cranmer: "it is hard to engage a Roman Catholic discussion list on any issue whatever without hearing something about how the early church did not think Scripture was sufficient for demonstrating the doctrine of the Trinity."

[I replied by discussing the difference between material and formal sufficiency]

2. Cranmer caricatured the Catholic position on the clarity of Scripture, as : "Hey, if it weren't for the council or the church, we could all be Arians (or modalists, or Nestorians, or whatever) through reading Scripture. The Bible just isn't that clear on the Trinity."

[I showed how this is not an accurate understanding of our position at all, and that our position was essentially the same outlook as that of the Fathers]

3. E.L. Hamilton wrote: "this is a very good answer. I want to be clear that I do have sympathy for the idea of distinguishing between material and formal sufficiency in the way Dave does here."

4. Cranmer reiterated that his caricatures of #1 and #2 above are "a staple of Catholic apologetics," and that the Fathers "are consistently and pervasively misrepresented on this matter."

5. I asked for examples of this alleged "pervasive" tendency from actual Catholic apologists, and Gary Hoge (which Cranmer called "a fine piece of evidence") and Mark Shea were suggested by E.L. Hamilton.

6. I demonstrated how Gary Hoge's views were not being understood correctly, by interpreting them myself and then getting Gary's agreement for my interpretation. I showed the same with regard to Mark Shea.

7. E.L. Hamilton then wrote: "you've introduced enough qualifications to the concept of (material) sufficiency that I can't find much to disagree with in your presentation myself." And: "After reading what Gary said, I can't find anything I would find objectionable. It certainly alters the force of what I thought he was originally claiming."

8. Cranmer suggested: "Athanasius' trinitarian writings, for example, could be called a 'proof texting bonanza.'"

9. I massively documented that St. Athanasius used the same method that Catholic apologists use, and the same rule of faith, citing four reputable Protestant historians in the process (and also Cardinal Newman from his Anglican period).

10. All of this was ignored. Undaunted and unburdened by the task of providing actual counter-arguments, Cranmer claimed: "the patristic approach to Scripture generally is in tension with much of modern Catholic apologetics."

11. From there it went from bad to worse in the evasiveness and rationalizations for the non-answers (from Cranmer, but not EL Hamilton), including Cranmer's (not surprising) conclusion about Catholic apologists: "I am forced to think either the individual simply doesn't know better, as many don't, or perhaps unintentionally, the person is being dishonest."

12. Meanwhile my documented historical arguments (including that of many Protestant historians) sat there, absolutely unresponded-to.

Readers are thus free to choose between historical argument and mere subjective opinions which included a few suggested examples, all of which have been decisively answered. I just wanted to summarize what has happened here, because of all the charges that are now being flung (sadly typical of the ending of so many Internet discussions).

I again highly commend E.L. Hamilton for his refusal to engage in all this kind of rationalizing silliness and willingness to admit when a decent counter-case has been set forth. One can, of course, disagree without having to resort to potshots, sweeping, unsubstantiated charges, claims that the opponent has answered nothing, etc., etc.

Uploaded by Dave Armstrong on 16 June 2003. Slightly revised on 20 January 2004. Added to blog on 21 November 2006.

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