Archive for the ‘Carl Beckwith’ Category

Carl Beckwith on Sola Scriptura and the Arian Controversy

September 16, 2011

Carl Beckwith in Hilary of Poitiers on the Trinity: From De Fide to De Trinitate (New York and Oxford, 2009) provides a number of interesting comments in relation to Hilary of Poiters and the Scripture, particular in the context of the Arian controversy. One of the first passages of this book that caught my eye is the following:

The Homoian appeal to scripture alone in these debates should not be misconstrued as resembling the same appeal made by the Reformers. For example, Martin Luther expresses the need for extra-biblical words or phrases in such disputes as the Trinitarian debates. Note Luther’s appeal to Hilary’s understanding of scripture. He writes: ‘It is certainly true that one should teach nothing outside of Scripture pertaining to divine matters, as St. Hilary writes in On the Trinity, Book I, which means only that one should teach nothing that is at variance with Scripture. But that one should not use more or other words than those contained in Scripture—this cannot be adhered to, especially in a controversy and when heretics want to falsify things with trickery and distort the words of Scripture.’ See ‘On the Councils and the Church’, Luther’s Works, general editors Helmut Lehmann and Jaroslav Pelikan (St Louis, Mo.: Concordia Publishing House, 1957– ), 41: 83

(p. 66, fn 41.)
In the passage above, we see an interesting point.  Both the Homoians (the folks that Mr. Waltz would prefer I didn’t call “Arians”) and the Niceans agreed that Scripture alone is the rule of faith.  If we take Beckwith’s comment at face value, the difference between the two is that the Homoians practiced (or claimed that they practiced) a rigid rule by which there was no need for extra-biblical words.  The Niceans (like Hilary), however, saw value in the use of extra-biblical terms.

Moreover, as Beckwith explains, what Hilary saw as the problem was that the words of Scripture were being interpreted arbitrarily.

Before commenting on the analogy, Hilary predictably begins with a number of comments on the limitation of human speech. Although we should by ‘faith alone’ (sola fide) adore the Father, venerate the Son, and abound in the Holy Spirit, conflict and dispute over the Trinity has forced Hilary to address a subject that cannot be described by human words.[FN12 De Trinitate, II.2.3–9.] Although human speech is limited in what it is able to communicate about an infinite God, the distortion of the scriptural witness to the Triune God and the consequent threat to the faithful force Hilary to enter the discussion. He writes: ‘Many have appeared who received the simplicity of the heavenly words in an arbitrary manner and not according to the certain meaning of truth itself, interpreting them in a sense which the force of the words did not demand.’[FN13 Ibid. II.3.1–4: ‘Extiterunt enim plures, qui caelestium verborum simplicitatem pro voluntatis suae sensu, non pro veritatis ipsius absolutione susciperent, aliter interpraetantes quam dictorum virtus postularet.’ On Hilary’s use of simplicity, see SC 443, p. 278, n. 2.] Hilary repeatedly charges his opponents with interpreting the words of scripture in an arbitrary manner because they ignore the unity of God’s revelation, the progressive disclosure of Christ’s person and work, and the context of the heavenly words. He continues: ‘Heresy comes not from scripture, but from the understanding of it; the fault is in the mind [of the interpreter], not in the word.’[FN14 De Trinitate, II.3.4–5: ‘De intellegentia enim heresies, non de scribtura est; et sensus, non sermo fit crimen.’] At this point, he makes reference to Basil’s analogy.

He asks:

Is it possible to falsify the truth? When the name Father is heard, is not the nature of the Son contained in the name? Will he not be the Holy Spirit who has been so designated? For, there cannot but be in the Father what a Father is, nor can the Son be wanting in what a Son is, nor can there not be in the Holy Spirit what is received. Iniquitous men confuse and complicate everything and in their distorted minds even seek to effect a change in the nature so that they deprive the Father of what the Father is and take away from the Son what the Son is. They despoil him, however, since according to them he is not a Son by nature. He does not possess the nature if the one born and the begetter do not have the same properties in themselves. He is not a Son whose being (substantia) is different from and unlike (dissimilis) that of the Father. In fact, how will he be a Father if he does not recognize in the Son the substance and nature (substantiae adque naturae) that belong to him? [FN15 Ibid. II.3.5–19.]

(pp. 101-02)

Hilary explains that the way to avoid this hermeneutic of capriciousness is to attempt to understand the Bible according to the author’s original intent.  Look for the reason the words were spoken or written and you will discover the meaning of the words more easily.

The heretics, however, are not really concerned with this question. As Hilary observes, they undermine the co-equality of the Spirit with the Father and the Son by focusing on the questions quid sit and qualis sit.[FN73 De Trinitate, II.29.23–4.] Hilary charges his opponents with obscuring the true nature of the Spirit by not properly distinguishing between God qua Spirit (John 4: 24) and God the Holy Spirit. Hilary proceeds, then, with a discussion of how we properly read and interpret scripture. He writes: ‘There is a cause for every statement being made as it is [in scripture] and the meaning of what is said will be understood from the purpose for which the words were spoken, lest because of the response given by the Lord, God is spirit, the name Holy Spirit, his use and gift be denied.’[FN74 Ibid. II.31.3–4: ‘Omne enim dictum ut dicatur ex causa est, et dicti ratio ex sensu erit intellegenda dicendi: ne quia responsum a Domino est: Spiritus Deus est, idcirco cum sancti Spiritus nomine et usus negetur et donum.’] Hilary has already given similar advice at the beginning of Book Two. His opponents deliberately neglect the circumstances of particular verses in scripture and offer interpretations which the force of the words does not warrant.[FN75 Cf. ibid. II.3.1–4.] They distort the meaning of passages because they separate the circumstances that occasion Christ’s words from the words themselves. The faithful interpreter, however, will make the words dependent on their circumstances.[FN76 Cf. ibid. I.18.14–16 and I.30.4–5.]

Hilary’s opponents fail to answer properly the questions quid sit and qualis sit about the Holy Spirit, because they refuse to approach scripture free from their preconceived ideas about God. Hilary’s concern for how to read scripture properly reinforces his statements from the preface to Book Two: ‘heresy comes not from scripture, but from the understanding of it; the fault is in the mind [of the interpreter], not in the [divine] word.’[FN77 Ibid. [i.e. De Trinitate] II.3.4–5: ‘De intellegentia enim heresies, non de scribtura est; et sensus, non sermo fit crimen.’] His opponents take the Lord’s comment, God is Spirit, out of context in order to deny the name Holy Spirit and, as a result, his use and gifts. Since the Holy Spirit has been promised to us that we may know the things that have been given us by God (1 Cor. 2: 12), the denial of the Spirit is the denial of the light of knowledge. If the soul does not breathe in the gift of the Spirit through faith, it will, explains Hilary, ‘have the natural faculty to perceive God, but it will not have the light of knowledge’.[FN78 Ibid. II.35.11–13.]

Hilary ends by insisting that this gift, the Holy Spirit, is everywhere and available to all who are willing to receive it. When we approach scripture free from preconceived ideas, and when we allow faith to guide us in our search for understanding the mystery of God, we demonstrate our willingness to receive the gift of the Spirit. This gift not only brings the light of knowledge, but it brings us ‘the assurance of our future hope’.[FN79 Ibid. II.35.18–19: ‘hoc [munus] . . . futurae spei pignus est . . .’] Hilary ends Book Two, and his discussion of St Matthew’s baptismal formula, by emphasizing the certainty and comfort the soul receives when it confesses the catholic and apostolic faith in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

(pp. 124-25)
Notice how, in the passage above, Hilary (like us) affirms the perspicuity of Scripture whilst blaming the errors of heretics not on the Scriptures but on the heretics.  They neglect the “circumstances” of the text, that is to say – they don’t consider the context.  In short, their problem is that they are not letting the text be its own interpreter.

For whatever reason, Hilary chose to write what purports to be an autobiographical narrative describing his intellectual journey to the Christian faith. According to this autobiography, Hilary’s soul, troubled with thoughts of death, began to search for answers about God and his involvement with creation. He turned first to popular philosophy, and discovered numerous opinions that he thought contradicted one another. Frustrated with these diverse and uncertain teachings, Hilary turned to scripture and discovered, as he puts it, ‘God’s testimony about himself’. He learned who God is and the salvation won by Jesus Christ, who, according to scripture, is both human and divine. Amidst the comfort and certainty of the saving promises of the Gospel, Hilary next encountered people professing an adherence to scripture but denying the divinity of Christ and consequently, in Hilary’s estimation, his saving work. These people rejected the very teaching that calmed Hilary’s anxious soul, yet claimed to accept scripture, the very source of Hilary’s assurance. He ends his narration with a pro-Nicene statement on the Trinity, which, he tells the reader, he has learned from his own private reading of scripture.

(p. 152)

Notice how Beckwith reports that Hilary is claiming to have arrived at the Nicene view not by simply bowing down to the Nicene fathers, but rather through a journey through Scriptures.  He is providing a sola scriptura defense of Nicaea.

It should be noted that Beckwith quotes (with disagreement) from E.W. Watson:

Scholars addressing the historical reliability of the narration fall into three groups. The first group takes a traditional approach that follows the Church Fathers and uncritically accepts the narration as it reads: an account of Hilary’s journey to the faith.1 For example, E.W. Watson writes: ‘It was, then, as a man of mature age, of literary skill and philosophical training, that Hilary approached Christianity. He had been drawn towards the Faith by desire for a truth which he had not found in philosophy; and his conviction that this truth was Christianity was established by independent study of scripture, not by intercourse with Christian teachers; so much we may safely conclude from the early pages of the De Trinitate.’2 The problem with Watson’s straightforward reading of Hilary’s narration …

1 Jerome and Augustine both think Hilary converted to Christianity because of the narration in Book One. See Jerome, Commentariorum in Isaiam prophetam, XVII. 60 (PL 24: 594–5), and Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana, II.61. On the other hand, Hilary’s biographer, Venantius Fortunatus, flatly states that Hilary was Christian from infancy: Venantius Fortunatus, Vita S. Hilarii I.3 (PL 9: 187A). For a discussion of these sources, see E. Boularand, ‘La Conversion de saint Hilaire de Poitiers’, Bulletin de Littérature Ecclésiastique, 62 (1961), 82–6, 95–104.
2 Watson, ‘Introduction Chapter 1, The Life and Writings of St. Hilary of Poitiers’, NPNF, 2nd ser., IX, p. v.

(p. 153)

While we may disagree with E. W. Watson taking Hilary at face value, Watson is correct about what Hilary is conveying to the reader.  In other words, Hilary is portraying his journey in a way that is almost solo scriptura.  That is to say, almost as though it were just Hilary and his Bible without the aid of Christian teachers.

Beckwith provides an excellent analysis of Hilary’s view about the relationship between Scripture, philosophy, and certainty.

At this point in the narrative Hilary’s troubled soul encounters scripture, and begins to find an answer to its questions. Hilary reads, ‘I am that I am’ (Exod. 3: 14), and discovers God testifying about his most characteristic property, his being (esse). What reason rightly suspected, scripture made certain and expressed, continues Hilary, ‘in language best adapted to human understanding, an incomprehensible knowledge of the divine nature’.[FN20 [De Trinitate] I.5.7–9.] Indeed, it was worthy of God to reveal his existence, ‘as the testimony (ad protestationem) [FN21 Hilary always uses protestatio in reference to the testimony given in scripture. It is either the testimony given by God about himself (I.5, I.18), by Jesus (I.27, I.31, IX.58, IX.66, IX.67, X.49), by Wisdom (XII.35), or by the Apostle (XI.45). Only once does Hilary use protestatio in reference to our testimony. But even here he is talking about our confession of faith which is derived from scripture (X.70). Since it is God’s testimony or the Holy Spirit’s testimony through the Apostle, it brings assurance and certainty. Philosophy never achieves this kind of certainty, no matter how correct it might be in its assertions.] of his everlasting eternity’. [FN22 De Trinitate, I.5.15–16. In his Commentary on Matthew, Hilary uses aeternitas to designate the ‘community of substance’ shared by the Father and Son. See In Matt., 5.15, 16.4–5, 23.5 and esp. 31.2–3. Cf. CaP B II.10 (CSEL 65: 151–2). On this point, see Smulders, La Doctrine trinitaire, 75.] When the soul is guided by natural reason, it fails to achieve the certainty brought about by God’s own testimony. Reason finds nothing to confirm its ideas, guide its thoughts, or limit its speculations. However, when the troubled soul encounters scripture, it encounters God’s testimony about himself, and in that testimony finds certainty.

A third point established by Hilary in the opening of his narrative is that certainty is found only in scripture. That is to say, certainty is found not within the individual (natural reason) but beyond the individual (God or scripture).

(pp. 160-61)

The key point to take away from the passage above is that the certain comes from Scripture.  For our friends at the Roman blog “Called to Communion,” Scripture is not sufficient to provide certainty.  Indeed, the folks there have even alleged that – in essence – Nicaea rendered things heretical that Scripture could not or that Scripture alone was not sufficient to address the Arian heresy.

Rather than allowing God to descend to them, and ascending to an infinite knowledge of God with their boundless faith, they ‘confined infinite things within the boundary of their own understanding and made themselves judges of religion’. [FN37 De Trinitate, I.15.3–6.] These people sought to be masters of religion, while the work of religion, explains Hilary, is a work of obedience (opus oboedientiae): faithful obedience to what God has revealed about himself. By seeking knowledge of God from themselves rather than from God, Hilary charges his opponents with making their own natural reason, instead of scripture—God’s own testimony about himself—the ultimate standard of judgement on theological matters.

(p. 166)

Notice that this is something of an identical problem that is presented by our friends of the Roman communion in their role as skeptic (a role they don in order to attempt to persuade us of our need for Rome).  In their role as skeptic they attempt to make natural reason the ultimate standard of judgment on theological matters.  Once you are a member of their communion, of course, that will no longer be your standard, but for purposes of alleging the insufficiency of Scripture, they must adopt the position of those who Hilary bravely fought.

At this point in the treatise Hilary is not interested in refuting the claims of his opponents, only in exposing their faulty approach to the evangelical faith. According to Hilary, they correctly look to scripture for answers, but are misled because they do not depend on faith in their reading of scripture. Instead of being obedient to God’s word, they make God’s word obedient to their natural reason: rending it from its context, pitting one revelation against another, and allowing their limited human reason to guide their interpretation and to form the acceptable content of their faith. The correct interpreter, continues Hilary, will make use of the ‘regenerate intellect’, and ‘not measure God’s nature by the laws of his own nature but judge God’s assertions by the magnificence of God’s testimony about himself’.[FN40 [De Trinitate] I.18.14–16.]

(p. 167)

How many times have we seen happen just what Hilary describes above!  When we point out Paul’s teaching on justification by faith alone in Romans and Galatians, replete with context, instead of a contextually driven analysis, we are simply provided with a comment from James ripped out of its context!  There is an attempt to pit James against Paul. 

Hilary continues by describing the best method for approaching scripture:[FN42 Hilary’s method, briefly stated here, is frequently cited and used by the Reformers. See e.g. Martin Luther’s comments in Luther’s Works, general editors Helmut Lehmann and Jaroslav Pelikan (St Louis, Mo.: Concordia Publishing House), 1: 263, 32: 194, 33: 205, 41: 53, quoting De Trinitate I.18 directly at 31: 276 and offering an interpretation of it at 41: 83–4; Calvin, Institutes, 1.7.4, 1.11.1, 1.13.21. Martin Chemnitz also made explicit use of Hilary’s comments on scripture in his treatise De Coena Domini. See Martin Chemnitz, The Lord’s Supper, trans. J. A. O. Preus (St Louis, Mo.: Concordia Publishing House, 1979), 31–3, et passim.] ‘For he is the best reader who allows the words to reveal their own meaning rather than imposing one on them, who takes meaning from the text rather than bringing meaning to it, and who does not force a semblance of meaning on the words that he had determined to be right before reading them.’[FN43 De Trinitate, I.18.14–16: ‘Dei naturam non naturae suae legibus metiatur, sed divinas professiones secundum magnificentiam divinae de se protestationis expendat. Optimus enim lector est, qui dictorum intellegentiam expectet ex dictis potius quam inponat et rettulerit magis quam adtulerit, neque cogat id videri dictis contineri quod ante lectionem praesumpserit intellegendum.’ Cf. In Matt., 7.8: we must not accommodate the scriptures to our thoughts but our thoughts to scripture.]

(p. 168)

It’s hard to present the principle of “Scripture is its own interpreter” more clearly than Hilary has done in the passage above.  Beckwith is exactly correct in saying that this is the approach that the Reformers used. It’s the same approach that we, the spiritual heirs of Hilary and the Reformation, use today.

Once a person acknowledges that he is an imperfect and finite creature seeking to understand a perfect and infinite creator, he needs to know where to find authoritative knowledge about God and his mysteries. The person will ask, explains Hilary: ‘From what books shall I take words to explain such difficult mysteries?’[FN3 De Trinitate, II.12.5–6.] The answer is, scripture. From the very beginning of the treatise, Hilary informs the reader that he will have recourse only to God’s words when discussing God. He writes: ‘Since our treatise will be about the things of God, let us leave to God knowledge of himself and let us in pious reverence obey his words.’ Indeed, argues Hilary, God is ‘a fitting witness to himself who is only known through himself’.[FN4 Ibid. I.18.21–3. Cf. II.6–7, III.9, IV.1, IV.14, V.20, VIII.43, IX.40, IX.69.]

(p. 188)

Notice how Beckwith correctly arrives at “only to God’s words” from the whole body of Hilary’s writings.  Even if Hilary does not use the exact expression “sola scriptura,” it is plain enough that Hilary is using that principle.

Hilary will maintain throughout De Trinitate that our thoughts about God must be governed only by scripture. At the same time, Hilary is aware that this is insufficient to overthrow the assertions of his opponents. They, too, appeal to scripture and use God’s testimony about himself. Indeed, Hilary repeatedly acknowledges their reliance on scripture and laments their ‘deception’, as he calls it, of promoting anti-Nicene theological positions under the guise of scripture alone.[FN6 Cf. Ibid. IV.7–9; IV.11; V.1.23 ff.] Although both parties appeal to scripture, the difference rests, argues Hilary, with how scripture is approached and the normative role assigned to scripture in forming the content of a person’s confession about the mystery of God.

(p. 189)

Notice what Hilary doesn’t do.  Hilary doesn’t say, “one has to read Scripture the same way the Nicene fathers did.”  Hilary instead says that the problem of the heretics is that they don’t let Scripture decide its own meaning.  They are right to appeal to the authority of Scripture, they have just misused Scripture.

The first point to be noted when it comes to the language of scripture, insists Hilary, is that God speaks to us, not to himself, and therefore his speaking is done with words most fitting to our finite and created nature. Hilary writes, ‘we must first of all know that God has not spoken to himself [in scripture] but to us and has adapted the language of his declaration to our understanding such that the weakness of our nature is able to grasp his meaning’.[FN9 De Trinitate, VIII.43.1–4. Cf. Tract. in Ps., 126.6 (CSEL 22: 617): ‘Sermo enim divinus secundum intellegentiae nostrae consuetudinem naturamque se temperat communibus rerum vocabulis ad significationem doctrinae suae et institutionis aptatis. Nobis enim, non sibi loquitur, atque ideo nostris utitur in loquendo.’ This last sentence summarizes Hilary’s understanding of the language of scripture well: ‘he [God] speaks to us, not to himself, and therefore makes use of our language in speaking.’] God’s revelation is for us and is meant to be understood by us. Hilary’s comment echoes the very beginning of his treatise. God gives testimony about himself, he explained, ‘in language best adapted to human understanding’.[FN10 De Trinitate, I.5.7–9. Cf. VIII.16; XII.9; Tract. in Ps., 126.6.] Since the purpose of God’s testimony is to disclose who he is and what he has done, he necessarily accommodates his revelation to the words most easily grasped by us. Hilary writes: ‘The Lord expressed the evangelical faith in words as simple as possible, and adapted his language to our understanding to the extent that the weakness of our nature could grasp them; nevertheless, he did not say anything that was unworthy of the majesty of his nature.’[FN11 De Trinitate, IX.40.14–18. See also VI.16.20–6.] Since scripture discloses who God is in words best adapted to our limited understanding, if we fail to grasp God’s word the fault ‘lies with our faith’, not scripture.[FN12 Ibid. VII.38.]

(pp. 190-91)

Hilary’s argument above is key.  Scripture is perspicuous on the essential doctrines of the faith, because the purpose of Scripture is soteriological.  Scripture is designed by God to be read and understood – heard and obeyed – proclaimed and believed.  With this teleology, of course Scripture is written well for that purpose.  It is not written to be a gem of the most magnificent complexity and intricate grammatical craftsmanship.  Instead, it is a communication piece.  Thus, it is written in a manner that is accommodated to the reader.

Hilary’s emphasis on the unity of scripture allows him to negotiate any argument that is grounded in isolated verses of scripture and not in scripture as a whole or unit. When individual texts are used to overthrow the larger narrative or sense of scripture, Hilary argues that the Spirit is undermined by breaking the word of God and by pitting one verse against another.[FN20 Cf., [De Trinitate] V.23, VII.24, and XII.3.3–6.

When theological argument focuses on particular verses or passages, the best interpreter, argues Hilary, must consider the larger scriptural context. By discerning the reason or motive (causa) of the verse, a proper understanding of its meaning (ratio) will follow.[FN21 Ibid. II.31.3–4.] It is this attention to context that, Hilary argues, his opponents neglect. From his perspective, they arbitrarily accept various words of scripture but neglect the circumstances of those words. They take words spoken in one context and for one purpose, and arrange them so as to understand them in a different context for a different purpose.[FN22 Hilary’s criticism here is reminiscent of Irenaeus, who complained that the Gnostics ‘contradict the order and the continuity of the scriptures, and, as best they can, dissolve the members of the truth. They transfer and transform, making one thing out of another and thus lead many astray by the badly constructed phantom that they make out of the Lord’s words they adjust’ (Against Heresies, I.8.1). Irenaeus proceeds with the well-known description of the disfigured mosaic of a king. The good image of the king is rearranged by heretics into that of a dog or fox and used to deceive simple believers. Hilary’s point throughout this section and his earlier discussion of his opponents’ show of piety is very similar to the concern expressed here by Irenaeus. See Irenaeus of Lyons, trans. Robert Grant (London: Routledge, 1997), 65–6.] For example, they deny the equality of the Father and Son by citing ‘The Father is greater than I’ (John 14: 28) whenever confronted with such verses as ‘I and the Father are one’ (John 10: 30) or ‘I am in the Father and the Father is in me’ (John 14: 10). Therefore, conclude Hilary’s opponents, when Christ is called God, the name is only a title, not a true description of his nature. When scriptural verses are used in this way by his opponents, they fail, argues Hilary, to grasp their meaning because they do not ‘discern the circumstances of time, or apprehend the mysteries of the Gospel, or understand the force of the words’.[FN23 De Trinitate, IX.2.28–30.] They pass over the reasons that prompted these verses by neglecting the words that either precede or follow, and in the end undermine the unity of scripture and its progressive disclosure of God’s saving work.

(pp. 192-93)

Of course, the principles of Irenaeus and Hilary above are fully correct.  One of the problem of heretics is a fondness for taking Scripture out of context and rearranging it.  Irenaeus mosaic illustration is gripping – one can take a mosaic of a king and rearrange it into a fox – and the heretics attempt to do the same with Scripture.  The only proper way to understand the verses of Scripture is in their context – in their original relationship to one another.

There’s a lot more to Beckwith’s book than the points I’ve raised above.  These were, however, points that particularly piqued my interest, and answered some of the frequent objections we hear from Rome’s advocates.  While Cardinal Newman may have claimed that to be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant, depth in history continues to confirm that history is no friend of Rome.  Was Hilary a “Protestant”?  Of course not.  Nevertheless, an adherence to fundamental aspects of sola scriptura can be seen in his writings, as has been demonstrated above.

– TurretinFan


%d bloggers like this: