Responding to Patrick Madrid’s Claims about Athanasius and Sola Scriptura

Patrick Madrid in “Envoy for Christ” accuses us of selective patristic quotation. He writes:

Sometimes Protestant apologists try to bolster their case for sola Scriptura by using highly selective quotes from Church Fathers such as Athanasius, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Jerusalem, Augustine, and Basil Caesarea. … These quotes, isolated from the rest of what the Father in question wrote about church authority, Tradition and Scripture, can give the appearance that these Fathers were hard-core Evangelicals who promoted an unvarnished sola Scriptura principle that would have done John Calvin proud.

John Calvin would likely retort that Madrid is reversing the order – Calvin inherited his view of sola Scriptura in large part from his extensive study of patristics. It’s certainly true that the “Church Fathers” were not Presbyterians or Reformed Baptists, but they did treat Scripture as being the only infallible writing they had. The accusations of isolation and selection are misleading at best. If one reads the works of Athanasius, one finds an almost constant appeal to the authority of Scripture, either implicitly or explicitly. It’s easy to allege that something has been misleadingly taken out of context, and it is quite another thing to provide the context that clarifies the meaning of the quotation.

Madrid argues:

Athanasius’s writings show no signs of sola Scriptura, but rather of his staunchly orthodox Catholicism. Athanasius, for example, wrote:

The confession arrived at Nicaea was, we say more, sufficient and enough by itself for the subversion of all irreligious heresy and for the security and furtherance of the doctrine of the Church. [Ad Afros, 1.]


[T]he very tradition, teaching, and faith of the Catholic Church from the beginning was preached by the Apostles and preserved by the Fathers. On this the Church was founded; and if anyone departs from this, he neither is nor any longer ought to be called a Christian. [Ad Serapion, 1:28]

These are his two go-to quotations from Athanasius, but neither of these statements involves any rejection of sola Scriptura. The first statement, for example, does not say that it is because of the authority of Nicaea that the confession is sufficient. Nor does the second statement refer to some extra-scriptural tradition. On the contrary, it refers explicitly to Matthew 28:19. Look at the complete statement in its context:

28. 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. Upon this the Church is founded, and he who should fall away from it would not be a Christian, and should no longer be so called. There is, then, a Triad, holy and complete, confessed to be God in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, having nothing foreign or external mixed with it, not composed of one that creates and one that is originated, but all creative; and it is consistent and in nature indivisible, and its activity is one. The Father does all things through the Word in the Holy Spirit. Thus the unity of the holy Triad is preserved. Thus one God is preached in the Church, ‘who is over all,and through all, and in all‘ — ‘over all‘, as Father, as beginning, as fountain; ‘through all‘, through the Word; ‘in all‘, in the Holy Spirit. It is a Triad not only in name and form of speech, but in truth and actuality. For as the Father is he that is, so also his Word is one that is and God over all. And the Holy Spirit is not without actual existence, but exists and has true being. Less than these (Persons) the Catholic Church does not hold, lest she sink to the level of the modern Jews, imitators of Caiaphas, and to the level of Sabellius. Nor does she add to them by speculation, lest she be carried into the polytheism of the heathen. And that they may know this to be the faith of the Church, let them learn how the Lord, when sending forth the Apostles, ordered them to lay this foundation for the Church, saying: ‘Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.‘ The Apostles went, and thus they taught; and this is the preaching that extends to the whole Church which is under heaven.

The final line of the section clarifies and explains the first line of the section, quoted by Madrid. Thus, it turns out that Madrid has misled his readers by quoting Athanasius out of context, as though Athanasius were referring to something other than Scripture.

The letters of Athanasius to Serapion were translated a bit later than some of his more famous works. The editor of the translation, however, points out that there weren’t any contemporary critics of authenticity of these letters, and that Erasmus is the most notable person to reject letter 1 (the one that Madrid directed us to). The editor provides this interesting observation (p. 14 – bold emphasis mine):

That the style of these letters is heavier and less attractive than that of Athanasius’s best works will readily be admitted. But it must be remembered that it was written under very difficult circumstances, and that the writer himself regards it as needing correction and polish. Parts of it are little more than a series of Scriptural quotations. As Montfaucon says, to complain of a stiff and heavy style in the handling of such material, ‘idipsum sit quod nodum in scirpo quaerere‘. If further proof is needed, the reader is referred to the notes, which illustrate at many points the close connexion in thought and language between these letters and the other works of Athanasius.

Apart from isolated references in later works, we cannot be certain that Athanasius ever wrote anything further on the doctrine of the Spirit. Few genuine works survive from the last decade of his ministry. Had we, for instance, his correspondence with Basil, the story might be different. As it is, two works which Montfaucon thinks genuine and dates after 362 fall to be considered. The de Incarnatione et contra Arianos deals with the Godhead of the Spirit, 9-10 and 13-19; and the de Trinitate et Spiritu Sancto, which survives only in Latin, is chiefly a series of proof texts in support of that doctrine. The two works are closely connected; without being a transcript, one of them is clearly dependent upon the other.

Notice that this is a comment from someone intimately familiar with the works, not someone considering an isolated quote own its own.

As to the letter Ad Afros, keep in mind that this was a group letter by ninety Egyptian and Liberian bishops (including Athanasius) to the other bishops of Africa. The quotation may sound strongly worded in favor of Nicaea, but consider the opening line of the letter:

The letters are sufficient which were written by our beloved fellow-minister Damasus, bishop of the Great Rome, and the large number of bishops who assembled along with him; and equally so are those of the other synods which were held, both in Gaul and in Italy, concerning the sound Faith which Christ gave us, the Apostles preached, and the Fathers, who met at Nicæa from all this world of ours, have handed down.

Notice the parity with which the African bishops treat the various councils, including those presided over by Damasus. So, it is definitely true that we should be careful about jumping to conclusions just because the group of bishops uses the word “sufficient.”

The group of bishops, in Ad Afros, advanced the argument of the council of Nicaea against the council of Ariminum. However, to prove that Nicaea is superior to Ariminum, the group of bishops argue that the Nicene foruma is in accordance with Scripture (section 4) of the letter. Moreover, the bishops defend the term “co-essential” as expressing the sense of Scripture, even though it is not the express term used in Scripture.

Although the letter does appeal to the allegedly ecumenical nature of the council as a persuasive reason for adopting its position, nowhere in the letter does the group of bishops say or suggest that the council’s decision has equal authority in itself with Scripture, simply by virtue of being ecumenical. Furthermore, the letter expressly states, section 5, that the council fathers “wished to set down in writing the acknowledged language of Scripture” and that the only reason they used a word not from Scripture was that the Arian party kept twisting the meaning of those phrases. Thus, section 6 explains: “And lastly they wrote more plainly, and concisely, that the Son was coessential with the Father; for all the above passages signify this.” In other words, the Nicene fathers weren’t passing on unwritten tradition or defining dogma by their authority, but simply expressing the teachings of Scripture.

(Letter Ad Afros) (Letters to Serapion)

10 Responses to “Responding to Patrick Madrid’s Claims about Athanasius and Sola Scriptura”

  1. Byzas Says:

    Hi There,
    You said “It's certainly true that the “Church Fathers” were not Presbyterians or Reformed Baptists,… “

    1) What were they then?

    2) And if they believed in sola scriptura why did they understand the Bible so differently from modern Evangelicals?

    3) Why did they all make the same mistakes in reading in the Bible (believing in sacraments, church hierarchy, baptismal regeneration, etc)?

  2. Reformed Apologist Says:


    Your points 2 and 3 seem to suggest the following argument.

    1. If the early church believed in sola scriptura, then they would agree on doctrine with modern evangelicals that believe in sola scriptura.

    2. Modern evangelicals and the early church don't agree on doctrine.

    3. Therefore, the early church couldn't have believed in sola scriptura.

    Regarding the first premise, certainly you recognize that Arminians and Calvinists while agreeing on sola scriptura can disagree on doctrine. Therefore, you should see from that observation alone the inadequacy of trying to undermine sola scriptura by establishing doctrinal antithesis.

    Regarding the second premise, you've failed to identify and distinguish all the various stripes of modern evangelicals, let alone proved the doctrine of the fathers. You've only asserted they weren't evangelical in their theology.

    Can Rome produce an infallible tradition not found in Scripture that has its origins with the apostles? Of course not, which leads to the question – If Scripture does not inform the Roman Catholic magisterium about what Scripture has to say, then who or what does? To deny that the popes affirm the analogy of Scripture for the magisterium is to reduce Scripture to brute particulars that have no discernible coherence, which would mean that the magisterium with respect to interpreting Scripture must be making things up as they go along and that any appeal to Scripture is disingenuous at best. Therefore, it’s not so much that Rome denies the intelligibility and lucidity of Scripture. Rather, Rome would have us believe that Scripture is only intelligible and clear to the magisterium. Consequently, individual Roman Catholics should not, as they do, appeal to Scripture to justify the Roman Catholic communion and the church’s need for the popes. Rather, Roman Catholics should be consistent by simply pointing to the authority of the popes to defend the claims of the popes, and once they do that then yes, we will be at an impasse. That, however, would be an admission of being a blind follower of something other than Scripture, which is an embarrassment for Roman Catholics yet a necessary implication of their view of the church and Scripture.

    In sum, as soon as a Roman Catholic argues from Scripture he denies the need for an infallible magisterium. Once he points to Rome apart from Scripture, he shows himself to be a blind follower of something in the face of Scripture.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    Dear Turretin Fan:

    I am doing some research in homoerotic poetry. Would you happen to have a copy of Theodor de Beza's Juvenalia? Could you post it for me?


    Jerome de Bolsec Fan

  4. Byzas Says:

    Hi Reformed Apologist,
    Thank you for trying to engage with me.

    How about answering question 1 as well?

    Just in case my name isn't a giveaway (Byzas = Byzantium, get it!) I am not a Roman Catholic so going on about the Pope's magisterium isn't relevant. FYI – Orthodox were against the puffed up claims of the Papacy 500 years before the Reformation!

    As for question 2 you don't actually answer. You just give the example of the Arminians and Calvinists who use the same methodology but arrive at diametrically opposite views. Why don't you tell me why all the 'sola scriptura' types can't agree on even some basic doctrines (Eucharist, baptism, church government, spiritual gifts, etc).

    My point, of course, is that sola scriptura is a poor methodology and doesn't work. You claim I didn't provide evidence that the early church varied in belief from modern Evangelicals but I thought I gave a reasonable list. I'll write it again – sacraments, three fold church hierarchy, asceticism, baptismal regeneration, veneration of the saints, infant baptism, prayers for the dead, male ministry). Or are you disputing they pretty much held a consensus on these beliefs?


  5. Reformed Apologist Says:

    How about answering question 1 as well?

    Question one is irrelevant to me. What might be relevant to me is the Jerusalem council of Act 15, but then we'd be discussing Scripture and not tradition.

    Orthodox were against the puffed up claims of the Papacy 500 years before the Reformation!

    Pretty much the same ball of wax and please take no offense but your tradition has all but kissed the ring.

    As for question 2 you don't actually answer. You just give the example of the Arminians and Calvinists who use the same methodology but arrive at diametrically opposite views.

    Any answer I might give is irrelevant because what I was able to establish is the “inadequacy of trying to undermine sola scriptura by establishing doctrinal antithesis.” Your argument, if it can even be called one, begs some pretty crucial questions. In fact, your thesis looks pretty much like the defense of your thesis.

    Why don't you tell me why all the 'sola scriptura' types can't agree on even some basic doctrines (Eucharist, baptism, church government, spiritual gifts, etc).

    See inadequacy principle above, but let me also put it in a way that you might better understand. Why do the non-sola scriptura types (like Rome and EO) disagree on the head of the church? At any rate, it's fallacious to reason from the premises P to P* where P and P* are defined thusly:

    P: some communion must be wrong given mutually exclusive doctrinal propositions


    P* the principle of sola scriptura must be wrong

    Doesn't it bother you that the heart of your “argument” is not cogent?

    My point, of course, is that sola scriptura is a poor methodology and doesn't work.

    Same fallacy. Your conclusion exceeds the scope of your premises. Try to construct a syllogism and see how far you get.

    You claim I didn't provide evidence that the early church varied in belief from modern Evangelicals but I thought I gave a reasonable list.

    No, I said you never proved the doctrine of the fathers. You merely asserted they differed from some moderns and then rested your case of P* upon P.

    I'll leave you to TF. He's both more patient and skilled at these things.

  6. Byzas Says:

    Hi Reformed Apologist,
    I see that being coherent isn't one of your strengths. Neither is responding to your opponent's questions. Dressing up a non-answer in pseudo-Aristotelian garb doesn't make it more convincing.

    Your understanding of the historic Papacy seems deficient if you think Roman Catholics and Orthodox believe the 'same ball of wax'. That's ok, I'm used to such ignorance.

    The only point you make is that Orthodox and Roman Catholics believe in tradition but disagree so we have the same problem as those who can't decide on what the Bible actually means even if they follow sola scriptura. Interesting point! Well, I would say that there are a limited number of groups that follow tradition (Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Monophysites, Nestorians, some Old Calendar Groups, some breakaway Catholics). Probably a dozen at most. Sola scriptura groups run into the thousands. The number 20,000 is often bandied about. The differences in the groups that claim to follow tradition is probably less than the diversity that exists in the hundreds of Reformed groups, or hundreds of Lutheran groups, or hundreds of Baptist groups let alone the chaos in the thousands of Evangelical groups.

    Which group follows the real 'Tradition' fully? You have to investigate what came before to find out!

    PS: ignorance alert. For Orthodox Scripture is Tradition.

  7. Turretinfan Says:


    1) What were they then?

    They don't fit any of the modern categories. They were Christians of their own age, not ours. They were part of any of our sects – they didn't have the burden of another millennium of human traditions, nor the benefit of another millennium of study of theology.

    2) And if they believed in sola scriptura why did they understand the Bible so differently from modern Evangelicals?

    I'm not sure why “modern Evangelicals” are the standard. Why are modern Evangelicals so different from Puritans? The answer to both questions is not that there has been an abandonment of Sola Scriptura by any of the groups, but rather that human tradition can have a powerful unnoticed effect on theology. The Puritans had their traditions, modern Evangelicals have theirs, and the Christians of the first few centuries were not immune to this same effect.

    Surely you don't expect that Sola Scriptura will mean that everyone believes the same thing about every point of doctrine.

    3) Why did they all make the same mistakes in reading in the Bible (believing in sacraments, church hierarchy, baptismal regeneration, etc)?

    The short answer here is that they didn't all make the same mistakes as one another. In fact, look at 1 Clement for an example of differences in view of church leadership already in the second century.

    I'm not sure why there's so much heat between you and R.A., but please try to be polite.

    Regarding your comment that “For Orthodox Scripture is Tradition,” I made that very point myself in a recent debate on the topic of “What is the Apostolic Tradition.” All that we know that the Apostles passed town to us is Scripture. Everything else that claims to be Apostolic tradition is (at best) speculation.


  8. Byzas Says:

    Hi Turretinfan,

    1) The Reformers would have been very surprised by your answer. They really pushed the idea that they were 'restoring' Christianity. Take Calvin's Letter to Jacopo Sadoleto (the Roman Catholic bishop of Carpentras in southern France) in which he clearly states he is in agreement with all the important Church Fathers (he names Chrysostom, Basil, Cyprian, Ambrose, Augustine).

    Luckily the Church Fathers left such a huge amount of writings that it is clear what they believed. I have to ask! When did the Roman Catholic Church emerge? When did the Orthodox Church?

    2) Your response begs the question as to how 'Reformed' theology is more immune to the unnoticed traditions than anyone else? Or how you are less immune to traditions than anyone else?

    My issues with sola scriptura is not just that it is unbiblical or that it is not found in the Creeds of the undivided church (or the Church Fathers for that matter) but that it can't even be used to sort out even BASIC disagreements among Protestants. Take infant baptism, is it allowable or not? What is the Eucharist – real presence, consubstantial or a memorial? Continuing miracles – yea or nay? Communion – open or closed? Female ministers- Biblical or not? When you get to the more abstract theological questions it becomes even more confusing.

    3) Clement of Rome used presbyter and bishop as synonyms (as does Luke and Paul) but this doesn't mean he didn't believe in the three fold ministry. In the Letter to the Corinthians chapters 40 – 41 Clement uses the Old Testament offices of high priest, priest and levite to discuss the ministry. This was an analogy used by numerous later Church Fathers. What Ignatius of Antioch did was solidify the terminology not change the structure. There was a debate on this very point on Called to Communion a few years ago and it discussed these things. So I say there is no disagreement with Clement over the ministry. Which other Church Father do you have who disagreed over the three fold ministry?

    I know one thing – Clement didn't believe in an annually (or biannual) elected 'Moderator' (or Co-moderator) elected by delegates from local synods!

    Don't get me wrong, Church Fathers can disagree but none of these disagreements can't be sorted out with a bit of historical inquiry. For example, Augustine supported clerical celibacy, a limited atonement and the Filioque. It is clear he is wrong on these points but he also said lots of other worthwhile things.

    What I find is that Protestants try to create differences between the Church Fathers when they aren't really there to project the image of disunity in the Early Church.

    Let's try a few more topics-
    Why don't you tell me a Church Father who disagreed on 'Baptismal Regeneration'?

    What about a Church Father who rejected prayers for the dead?

    What about a Church Father who rejected sacraments?

    Finally you misunderstand me on Tradition. I never said Orthodox only believe Scripture is Tradition. You jumped to a conclusion. Scripture is Tradition. The Nicene-Constantinoplian Creed is Tradition. The Ecumenical Councils are Tradition. The liturgy is Tradition. The Church Fathers are Tradition. Tradition is hardly speculation. Whenever Reformed/Presbyterians argue in favour of infant baptism they always fall back on the tradition argument.

    As much as I dislike Patrick Madrid he is right that you are very selective in your quotes from the Church Fathers. I've seen you do it with Athanasius. You ignore anything he writes that disagrees with you. There is also some misunderstanding- For example, you think a mention of 'preaching of the Apostles' means the New Testament but is this what Athanasius means?

    However Patrick Madrid does the same sort of things! One of his favourite mistakes is to project Medieval Catholic beliefs on the Church Fathers. For example prayersor the dead means purgatory or respect for the Pope means supporting Papal Supremacy!


  9. Dragonar Says:

    Hello, TurretinFan. As a Reformed Christian from Poland I really appreciate your work for the Lord. Thank you! I would like to listen to all your debates on Roman Catholicism, but there's a problem, because some of them are not still available. Could you repost mp3 files which are missing? 🙂

  10. Byzas Says:

    Hi TurretinFan,
    I'm still keen to know when you think a Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy developed from the 'unable to categorise' early church?


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