Archive for the ‘Penal Substitution’ Category

Response to Bryan Cross on Penal Substitution

April 25, 2012

Bryan Cross has provided a significant number of posts in a comment box at the GreenBaggins blog, suggesting that somehow the doctrine of penal substitution is inconsistent with orthodox Trinitarian theology and/or orthodox Christology.

Bryan’s argument was provided a variety of different ways with many different tangents, but Bryan’s premises can be reduced to this:

1. Penal substitution requires Christ being punished by God.
2. Punishment requires a loss of communion between God and Jesus.
3. A loss of communion between God and Jesus means either that Jesus is two persons (one person who is God and one person who is man), that Jesus is not God, or that there are more gods than one. (Respectively, those positions would be identified as Nestorianism, Arianism, or Polytheism.)

Penal substitution requires Christ being punished by God.

We don’t object to Bryan’s first premise. Isaiah 53 teaches this. That chapter states:

Isaiah 53:3-12

He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth. He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken. And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth. Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

Christ was treated as though he was a sinner (“numbered with the transgressors”) and specifically received this treatment from God (“it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put him to grief”) and particularly as a result of attributing our sins to him (“the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all”).

So, we agree with Bryan’s first premise, namely that penal substitution requires Christ being punished by God. Moreover, we affirm that Scripture teaches this, something that Bryan (in this argument) does not dispute. One supposes that Bryan would dispute this point, but at least in the context of this argument he has not presented any exegetical reasons for doing so.

Instead, Bryan has attempted to argue that the conclusion conflicts with orthodox Christology and/or orthodox Trinitarian theology.  He argues this by first asserting:

Punishment requires a loss of communion between God and Jesus?

Bryan’s second premise is ambiguous.  The term “loss of communion” can refer to a variety of different things.  Bryan was asked a number of times to clarify what he meant by “communion” a number of times, but he declined to provide any clarification.  We could reject Bryan’s second premise on this ground alone.  We don’t need to accept premises that have undefined and ambiguous terms, particularly because such terms can lead to equivocation when it comes time to draw conclusions from them.

Nevertheless, we can answer this premise by distinguishing.

Punishment of Jesus by God does not require a loss of communion in the sense of God and Jesus being actually at odds.  Jesus underwent the punishment of humiliation, including suffering and death, willingly.  It is written: “Saying, ‘Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.'” (Luke 22:42) And again: “Who needeth not daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifice, first for his own sins, and then for the people’s: for this he did once, when he offered up himself.” (Hebrews 7:27)  Had Christ been an unwilling victim, we might have said that the will of Christ and the will of God were at odds, but Christ submitted himself according to his human will to the will of God.

Thus, at a minimum, this premise is not true in every sense of the term “communion.”

Bryan argued that punishment involves loss of communion in some sense, and that it is this loss of communion that primarily distinguishes punishment from discipline.  Bryan is wrong.  The primary distinction between punishment and discipline is the intent of the one inflicting the punishment or discipline.

In the case of punishment, the primary intent is to restore justice.  In the case of discipline, the primary intent is to improve the disciplined person.  It is worth noting that substitutionary punishment makes sense, while substitionary discipline largely does not.  One is reminded of the prince’s “whipping boy” in The Prince and the Pauper.  While justice may be served by a man being flogged for a crime committed that merits flogging, in general the ill-behaving does not learn his lesson by another being flogged.

It is true that in the usual case, without substitution, there is typically an accompanying attitude of fundamental displeasure with the person being punished and an accompanying attitude of fundamental pleasure with the person being disciplined.  Thus, a father beats a son whom he loves, although of course the father does not love the son’s behavior that led to the need for the beating.  If you are a modernist who thinks that beating children is immoral, read the Bible – but for the sake of this illustration just substitute “time out” for beating.

Hebrews 12:5-11

And ye have forgotten the exhortation which speaketh unto you as unto children, My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him: for whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not? But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons. Furthermore we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live? For they verily for a few days chastened us after their own pleasure; but he for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness. Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby.

Moreover, one can take the case of restitution as an example of retributive justice.  Justice can be served by the victim of theft receiving treble restitution for his losses, but that justice is served regardless of the source of the funds.  If those funds come from the criminal, they may have a disciplinary effect on the criminal, but even if they come from a substitute, they still make the injured person whole again.

Nevertheless, there is a sense in which communion, in the sense of felt favor of God, may have been lost.  While we need not be dogmatic about it, it is possible for Christ, on the cross, to have lost a sense or awareness of the presence and favor of God.  Christ was unaware, according to his humanity, of the day and the hour of the second coming.  Likewise, it was possible for him to be unaware, according to his humanity, of the pleasure and favor of God toward him for a time on the cross.

Such an absence of awareness of God’s presence and favor is one of the penalties that produce suffering for those in hell.  Christ could undergo that same punishment in terms of suffering without actually losing God’s presence or favor.   Therefore, if this falls within the ambit of “communion” in the sense that Bryan means, Christ may have undergone it on the cross.

Loss of Communion with God Implies Some Heresy or Other?

Bryan’s third premise depends heavily on the sense in which he means “communion,” a sense he’s seemingly unwilling to disclose.  If Bryan is suggesting that punishment requires God the Father to stop loving the Son in every sense, then we simply disagree with Bryan’s assertion.  Suggesting that God the Father stopped loving the Son in every sense is clearly wrong.

Likewise, it is wrong to state that the Trinity was somehow severed by the cross.  The intra-trinitarian communion was not damaged by the cross.  Indeed, Christ was unified in will with the Father and the Spirit in the purpose of the crucifixion.  If Christ and the Father were actually at odds, this would imply a serious error.

Furthermore, it is wrong to state that one person (Christ the God) was actually at odds with another person (Christ the Man).  Christ is one person in two distinct natures.  That means that Christ has two wills, but as one person Christ is unable to “commune” with himself, much less “lose” or “break” communion with himself.

On the other hand, Christ merely ceasing to be aware of God’s presence or favor for a time on the cross according to his humanity does not imply any sort of heresy.  So, much hinges on what Bryan means by “communion.”  Therefore, we cannot grant his third premise outright, just as we cannot grant his second premise outright.  Instead, we need to distinguish in each case.

– TurretinFan

Update: In the comment box, Bryan Cross denies that he holds to the second premise.  I’ve provided some documentation that seems to suggest he once advocated that premise.  Nevertheless, he recently continued the argument in the comment box by alleging that the essence of hell punishment in particular is loss of communion with God.   Even with this modification, the response above largely maintains.  A few parts may not be relevant, but the rest is.

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The Necessity of the Atonement

May 25, 2011

One thing that differentiates genuine Christianity from some counterfeits, such as Islam, is that the Living and True God is too holy to simply ignore sin. Instead, God’s holiness and justice demand satisfaction for sin. There are a number of ways that this can be seen in the Scriptures, both of the Old and the New Testaments. The following is one example

2 Samuel 24:10-25

And David’s heart smote him after that he had numbered the people. And David said unto the LORD, “I have sinned greatly in that I have done: and now, I beseech thee, O LORD, take away the iniquity of thy servant; for I have done very foolishly.”

For when David was up in the morning, the word of the LORD came unto the prophet Gad, David’s seer, saying,

Go and say unto David, “Thus saith the LORD, ‘I offer thee three things; choose thee one of them, that I may do it unto thee.'”

So Gad came to David, and told him, and said unto him, “Shall seven years of famine come unto thee in thy land? or wilt thou flee three months before thine enemies, while they pursue thee? or that there be three days’ pestilence in thy land? now advise, and see what answer I shall return to him that sent me. “

And David said unto Gad, “I am in a great strait: let us fall now into the hand of the LORD; for his mercies are great: and let me not fall into the hand of man.”

So the LORD sent a pestilence upon Israel from the morning even to the time appointed: and there died of the people from Dan even to Beersheba seventy thousand men.

And when the angel stretched out his hand upon Jerusalem to destroy it, the LORD repented him of the evil, and said to the angel that destroyed the people, “It is enough: stay now thine hand.” And the angel of the LORD was by the threshingplace of Araunah the Jebusite.

And David spake unto the LORD when he saw the angel that smote the people, and said, “Lo, I have sinned, and I have done wickedly: but these sheep, what have they done? let thine hand, I pray thee, be against me, and against my father’s house.”

And Gad came that day to David, and said unto him, “Go up, rear an altar unto the LORD in the threshingfloor of Araunah the Jebusite.” And David, according to the saying of Gad, went up as the LORD commanded.

And Araunah looked, and saw the king and his servants coming on toward him: and Araunah went out, and bowed himself before the king on his face upon the ground. And Araunah said, “Wherefore is my lord the king come to his servant?”

And David said, “To buy the threshingfloor of thee, to build an altar unto the LORD, that the plague may be stayed from the people.”

And Araunah said unto David, “Let my lord the king take and offer up what seemeth good unto him: behold, here be oxen for burnt sacrifice, and threshing instruments and other instruments of the oxen for wood.” All these things did Araunah, as a king, give unto the king. And Araunah said unto the king, “The LORD thy God accept thee.”

And the king said unto Araunah, “Nay; but I will surely buy it of thee at a price: neither will I offer burnt offerings unto the LORD my God of that which doth cost me nothing.” So David bought the threshingfloor and the oxen for fifty shekels of silver.

And David built there an altar unto the LORD, and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings. So the LORD was intreated for the land, and the plague was stayed from Israel.

There are a few points to notice from this passage. First, notice that God chastises David for his sin. This chastisement comes upon David, even after he expresses remorse for his sin and asks for forgiveness.

Second, notice that God sends this chastisement upon those whom David as King represents. There is a federal headship of Israel that is found in David, such that David’s sins are not only brought against David but against Israel in general.

Third, notice that David foreshadows the coming penal substitution of Christ, when he requests that the people of Israel be spared but that the sin be placed against him and and his father’s house, that is to say, his family. David’s theory is that the people have not sinned, but David has sinned. Nevertheless, God has placed the iniquity of our transgressions on Christ, the son of David, and he has borne them for us.

Fourth, notice that although God first desires not to destroy Jerusalem, and God stays the hand of the angel in advance, God does not simply say “never mind.” Instead, God demands sacrifice. It is on the basis of the sacrifice (which itself foreshadows Christ’s work on the cross) that God’s wrath against the land was propitiated.

From this we can learn that God did not have to wait until the coming of Christ to spare those who trusted in Christ. There was no need for a limbus patrem in which the patriarchs waited for Christ’s sacrifice to be performed. God could and did show mercy to the ancient based on the expectation of Christ’s sacrifice.

From this we can also learn to trust in God and not in man. David shows us the way in which we should repent of our sins. We ought humbly to go to God and confess our sins to Him. We ought to cast ourselves on his mercy – and we ought to avail ourselves of the sacrifice of Christ to turn away judgment from us.

We should not falsely imagine that God will be happier to judge us than to spare us. Rather, we should see from this passage that although God is a holy God who cannot ignore sin, nevertheless God delights in mercy and spares those who turn humbly in repentance and faith to Him.

-TurretinFan

The Law Justified Christ

April 11, 2011

Someone going by “Todd” (profile not available) wrote:

Your first counterargument is that “Christ fulfilled the law. The law didn’t condemn Christ, it justified Him.” I’m going to ignore the bizarre phrasing that the Law justified Christ, which hints at all sorts of problems. But more to the point, you seem to completely miss who the Law is for. Is it for God? Or did God give it to us sinners? You’d think the answer would be obvious, and yet you feels the need to point out that Christ was not a sinner. Duh. When Lutherans say “the Law always accuses”, we are not talking to Jesus, we are talking to fellow sinners.

I answer:

It’s a pity Todd ignored it. It’s an important point, something that Todd may not understand. Justification is a declaration of righteousness. As to those who are under the law, the law declares all (except Christ) to be sinners. The law accuses them.

This is why works righteousness as means of salvation is not just wrong, it’s stupid. Scripture puts it this way:

Romans 3:19-20

Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.

The way that law could, in theory, justify someone is by the person perfectly obeying the law.

Romans 2:13

(For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified.

Christ was justified in this way: he obeyed the law perfectly. This use of the term justify is found not only in the New Testament, but in the Old Testament:

Deuteronomy 25:1

If there be a controversy between men, and they come unto judgment, that the judges may judge them; then they shall justify the righteous, and condemn the wicked.

That is the role of judges: to declare the righteous and the innocent.

Moreover, the idea of justifying God is similarly to be found in the Old Testament:

Job 32:2

Then was kindled the wrath of Elihu the son of Barachel the Buzite, of the kindred of Ram: against Job was his wrath kindled, because he justified himself rather than God.

Notice that what Elihu wanted was for Job to declare God righteous and for Job to declare himself to be a sinner. But Elihu felt as if Job had declared himself to be righteous.

David provides us with a positive example:

Psalm 51:4

Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest.

See this similar New Testament example:

Luke 7:29

And all the people that heard him, and the publicans, justified God, being baptized with the baptism of John.

So, you see, if one gets too immersed in justification by faith, one may miss the broader context of justification as a declaration of righteousness.

We actually see the idea of an imputed righteousness (negatively) in the Old Testament:

Isaiah 5:23

Which justify the wicked for reward, and take away the righteousness of the righteous from him!

What is remarkable here is that unjust judges are being blamed for accepting a bribe to declare a guilty person as not being guilty.

Later in Isaiah, however, we see that something similar (though proper and legitimate) is going to take place in Christ:

Isaiah 45:25

In the LORD shall all the seed of Israel be justified, and shall glory.

Isaiah 53:11

He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities.

This gospel message is later explained by the apostles:

Acts 13:39

And by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses.

This is, indeed, the critical point that struck home with Luther as it should also with you:

Galatians 2:16-17

Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified. But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is therefore Christ the minister of sin? God forbid.

Roman apologists (and not just them) love to try to tell folks that the law here means simply circumcision and the ceremonial laws. But Paul goes on to explain the imputation of Christ’s righteousness rather than our personal righteousness, explaining it this way:

Galatians 2:18-21

For if I build again the things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor. For I through the law am dead to the law, that I might live unto God. I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.

In short, therefore, recall that we are justified by faith. We trust in Christ for our righteousness – not in our own works or in the works of some other creature, whether Mary, a martyr, or a saint. In Christ we die to the law. In that dread transaction, our sins are laid to his account, and though the law justified him, we are declared righteous, he is declared unrighteous, and he is crucified for us. We take his death for our sins, and we therefore live. Thus, our righteousness does not come by the law, but by the grace of God in Christ. The law no longer accuses us (as I explained in my previous post), because we are no longer under the law.

Paul beautifully explains it this way (by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit):

Galatians 4:3-5

Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world: but when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.

-TurretinFan

Sola Scriptura in Cyril of Alexandria’s "Against Those Who are Unwilling to Confess that the Holy Virgin is Theotokos"

January 19, 2011

The Orthodox Research Institute has published an English translation of Cyril of Alexandria’s work, “Against Those Who are Unwilling to Confess that the Holy Virgin is Theotokos.” It’s not a huge tome, weighing in at about 50 pages of English text. Nevertheless, I think it serves to illustrate the Sola Scriptura approach of Cyril. Most of the following will be quotations from this single work. Italics are in the original, but any bolding is my own:

From this viewpoint, it follows that the one Christ has been divided into two things, into God and a man. But this is alien to the apostolic teaching and is in fact an invention of a demonic imagination. For the divine word proclaims to us that at the end of the ages, the Logos became man, not indeed that he was transformed into human nature, but that he took himself this nature.

– Cyril of Alexandria, “Against Those Who are Unwilling to Confess that the Holy Virgin is Theotokos,” Part 1, Section 2

What is implicit in Cyril’s analysis is that if it is not in the Scriptures, it is not part of the apostolic teaching. We see him express the same thing negatively here:

But, if they say that the divine visitation has come upon a man born of a woman, then this is also what happened in the case of all the prophets. If this is true, then it is necessary to find in the divine Scripture two separate confessions, one, which praises God the Logos in himself, and another, which glorifies a man like us in words appropriate to human beings.

– Cyril of Alexandria, “Against Those Who are Unwilling to Confess that the Holy Virgin is Theotokos,” Part 1, Section 2

The same thing is repeated:

[After quoting John 1:1, John 1:14, and Hebrews 2:14] Do you hear then the one saying that the Logos was made flesh and the other that he partook of the same? But, if Jesus were born the man from a woman and afterwards the Logos descended upon him, as said before, it is necessary to find everywhere two completely separate confessions. Now, however, that the divinely inspired Scripture attributes to him conjointly the things, which belong by nature of man, the economy of the union is clearly seen.

– Cyril of Alexandria, “Against Those Who are Unwilling to Confess that the Holy Virgin is Theotokos,” Part 1, Section 3

Notice as well that in the quotation above Cyril says that the orthodox is “clearly seen” in Scripture, thereby affirming the perspicuity of Scripture on this issue.

Now consider Cyril’s rather sharp remarks about his theological opponents:

But we recognize that their words are full of madness and delirium that it is as if they were spoken in sleep or drunkenness. We shall say to them the words of the Savior, “You err, knowing neither the Scriptures nor the power of God” (Matt. 22:29). You ought to sober up and stop sinning, because you have become sick through ignorance of God.

– Cyril of Alexandria, “Against Those Who are Unwilling to Confess that the Holy Virgin is Theotokos,” Part 1, Section 6

What is implied in Cyril’s rather non-irenic comments is that ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of God. The two go hand in hand.

And again:

If, then, they apply the indwelling to him in a similar manner as in the saints, their blasphemy will be obvious to everyone, and it will be clear that their teaching is entirely alien to the apostolic teaching.

– Cyril of Alexandria, “Against Those Who are Unwilling to Confess that the Holy Virgin is Theotokos,” Part 1, Section 7

Notice that Cyril’s emphasis is on the fact that their ideas are not part of the apostolic teaching. In fact, they are foreign to it.

However, of course, the heretics did try to argue from the Scriptures. So Cyril analyzed their arguments. Consider his approach:

But look, they say, the Apostle openly confessed Him to be a man. For, in a letter to Timothy, he writes this: “a man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). They say this, because they want to disturb the mind of the most sincere [believers]. But, if anyone prudently examines the apostolic verse, he will cast his vote against their impiety on the basis of this very verse. However, we shall not cut short the verse like they do, but taking into account a little of what precedes this verse, we shall be able to understand correctly the confession of the economy which is made here.

– Cyril of Alexandria, “Against Those Who are Unwilling to Confess that the Holy Virgin is Theotokos,” Part 2, Section 12

There are at least three things to note in the preceding quotation. First, the perspicuity of Scripture is shown in Cyril’s comment about “if anyone prudently examines the apostolic verse.” Second, the sufficiency of Scripture is shown by Cyril’s comment, “on the basis of this very verse.” Third, the hermeneutical principle that Scripture interprets Scripture is shown by Cyril’s appeal to context.

It’s not a lone appeal either, for he continues:

If this is the case, then, let us bring right into the middle of our discussion the Lord’s statement, which they presumptuously say must be understood, as if in the Gospels he confessed that he was a mere man: “why do you seek to kill me a mere man, who has spoken the truth to you?” (John 8:40). But if one gives his mind as a love of truth to the verses of the Gospels and especially to the context, in which the Savior has spoken, then he will fully understand their cunning and will justly call them censorious and slanderous.

– Cyril of Alexandria, “Against Those Who are Unwilling to Confess that the Holy Virgin is Theotokos,” Part 2, Section 15

Notice again in the preceding quotation the double affirmation of Scripture’s perspicuity and the necessity to read Scripture in context, letting Scripture interpret Scripture.

Notice as well Cyril’s explanation for the faulty conclusion of the heretics:

But they are silent about all these verses and seize upon this word “man,” and in this, they are similar to the Jews of that time. For the Jews waited for the Savior to teach, not really because they wanted to believe or to be taught, but because they were planning to seize upon something he would say, as the evangelist reports. These men too read or rather speculate about the divine Scriptures in order to find an accusation against him, who laid down his life for them.

– Cyril of Alexandria, “Against Those Who are Unwilling to Confess that the Holy Virgin is Theotokos,” Part 2, Section 15

This is the difference between exegesis and eisegesis. The latter seeks to seize the Word for its own purposes, the former comes to the Word seeking to learn.

He even gets stronger:

[After quoting John 5:17, 19, 22-23, 25, and 27-29 and John 6:35] But they bypass all these verses as if they do not hear or rather, because they intentionally pretend to be deaf. They carry on about this statement, “but now you are seeking to kill me, a man, who has told you the truth,” in order to disturb the minds of the most sincere [believers]. But they should consider, if they are right, that he who spoke what was said before is he, who has said this statement also.

– Cyril of Alexandria, “Against Those Who are Unwilling to Confess that the Holy Virgin is Theotokos,” Part 2, Section 16

Notice how Cyril is bringing in the concept of tota scriptura – all of Scripture must be considered, not only a select verse or fragment of a verse. That is because Scripture interprets Scripture.

Cyril continues on with sola Scriptura:

We should be content with what we have said and seek nothing more. For those who are right thinking and instruct themselves by listening to the divine Scriptures will say in good faith that there is nothing absurd about him being at once God and man, if in saying these things sometimes he is called God and sometimes man. The one designation by no means annuls the other.

– Cyril of Alexandria, “Against Those Who are Unwilling to Confess that the Holy Virgin is Theotokos,” Part 2, Section 16

Notice that Cyril has proposed a self-magisterium. A person educates himself by reading the Bible. Such a person is “right thinking” to Cyril. When Cyril says that we should be content with what we have said and seek nothing more, he means that we should accept and limit ourselves to what Scripture teaches.

Cyril also addresses a counter-argument based on something akin to sola Scriptura:

If they insist on saying, “where the Virgin is called Theotokos in Scripture,” let them clearly hear the angel proclaiming this piece of good news to the shepherd and saying: “For today to you a Savior is born, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). He does not say, “Who shall be Lord” or in whom the Lord shall dwell,” but “who is Lord.”

– Cyril of Alexandria, “Against Those Who are Unwilling to Confess that the Holy Virgin is Theotokos,” Part 3, Section 23

Notice that Cyril doesn’t answer: “well, we don’t have to prove our doctrines from Scripture,” nor does he make vague comparisons to the fact that the word “Trinity” is not in Scripture. Instead, he answers the argument by showing where the Scriptures teach that Christ was God-become-man, not a human that was later indwelt by God. He accepts the major premise of his objectors (if it is not in Scripture it is not orthodox) but he rejects the minor premise (it is not in Scripture).

In view of the above, it should not be surprising to hear Cyril describe Paul this way:

Again, they should not whisper about this by putting forward the passion and resurrection and the fact that God raised him up. For already the reasoning, which applies to the economy, has been proven by what we have already said. If, however, they want to learn more clearly who it was who was crucified, then let them hear the teacher of the whole world, when he writes in his epistle to the Corinthians, “for I received from the Lord and delivered to you, that our Lord Jesus Christ on the night, on which he was betrayed, took bread,” etc. (1 Cor. 11:23). Do you observe that the one who suffered for us is openly declared to be Lord?

– Cyril of Alexandria, “Against Those Who are Unwilling to Confess that the Holy Virgin is Theotokos,” Part 3, Section 24

Is the quotation above itself a compelling proof that Cyril practiced sola Scriptura? Of course not. But it is not by itself. It is part of a larger context in which it becomes obvious that Cyril thinks that the Scriptures teach the reader important things plainly.

Hear then Cyril’s conclusion to his work:

He did, indeed, show that the one who was born from the Virgin, that is himself, was both son of David and Lord. However, those who heard this testimony were confounded and did not contradict him, as the evangelist says in the narrative: “For no one was able to reply to his word and dared from that time to ask him any more questions” (Matt. 22:46). May the same thing happen to these [heretics] as well. May they somehow abandon their madness and come to know the preaching of true religion. As for us, beloved, let us hold this faith forever, keeping it in mind, preaching it plainly and boldly with our mouths, being prepared willingly to suffer everything for it. For this is the prediction of the prophets, the preaching of the Apostles and the cause of the Kingdom of Heaven. This is the guide of eternal life. This is the wealth of the Fathers. This is our own true treasure, for the sake of which it is right that we sell and give away all things. If anyone ever wanted to steal this from us, let us despise him as an enemy of Christ and of our salvation, because we are persuaded by the commandment of the Apostle: “Whether we ourselves or an angel was to preach to you a different gospel from that which we preached let him be anathema” (Gal. 1:8).

– Cyril of Alexandria, “Against Those Who are Unwilling to Confess that the Holy Virgin is Theotokos,” Part 3, Sections 29-30.

For Cyril, as we have seen, it was crucial to keep doctrines Scriptural, and it was right to call down the anathema of Galatians 1:8 on those who were departing from Scripture’s teaching on an important point.

Someone might wonder, “perhaps TurretinFan has simply cited the portions of the rebuttal relating to Scripture, but has left out the rebuttal from the Fathers and from the authority of the Church.” Do not fear, I have not left out such items. In fact, the church is only rarely mentioned in the treatise. There is, of course, no mention of the Roman bishop (Cyril of Alexandria was no Romanist, after all) – and there is only a limited reference to councils. I think the limited reference to councils is illuminating, because Cyril is dogmatically condemning as heretics those against whom no counsel has yet proclaimed. He compares them to condemned heretics, and argues that his own position is founded on the unshakable rock. In the context of the work, that means Scripture, not the see of Peter, or apostolic succession generally:

These things and things like them are common to all those, who attempt to scatter the flock of true religion, as indeed the end of the aforementioned heresies has shown. What advantage did the deceit of Arius bring him? What advantage was there in the heresy of Eunomius and those, who blaspheme against the Holy Spirit? What profit in the heresy of Paul of Samosata or in the madness of the one called Apollinaris? All these men had a shameful end to their present life and were thrown out of the boundaries of the Church. They shall be thrown out of “the Church of the first-born in heaven” (Heb. 12:23), because their names have been erased from “the Book of the Living and shall not be inscribed with the just” (Ps. 68:29). The same end will come upon these current blasphemers, especially those, who have become the leaders of this perversity, if they do not quickly become aware of their madness and attempt to return to the place, from which they have fallen. For they shall hear from the Savior, “Just as a piece of cloth stained with blood is not clean, so you also will not be clean. Because you lost my land and killed my people, who shall not remain forever” (Isaiah 14:19-20). As for us, who have build our faith firmly upon the unbreakable rock, let us keep the true religion to the end. Let us not be disturbed at all by our opponents, but rather we will have the love of the Lord as an invincible weapon. Let us boast in Him for all things and laugh at the lowliness of our opponents and say the words of the prophet: “God is with us: Know all nations and be dismayed, be dismayed in your strength. If you regain your strength, you shall be dismayed; if you deliberate, the Lord will scatter your deliberations. And whatever words you might speak; it shall not persist among you, because the Lord God is with us” (Isaiah 8:8-10).

– Cyril of Alexandria, “Against Those Who are Unwilling to Confess that the Holy Virgin is Theotokos,” Part 1, Section 11.

So, quite the contrary, although Cyril believes that the Church will vindicate him, Cyril is bold to call these men heretics prior to any ecclesiastical decision on the matter. He doesn’t wait for a council to condemn them, but argues that their positions are heretical on the strength of Scripture alone. May we be stirred up to follow this example of Sola Scriptura that we have seen in Cyril.

-TurretinFan

P.S. The following excerpt may also be interesting from the standpoint of a discussion on penal substitution:

When, therefore, this is the case, obviously, he demonstrated his love for us by means of a great philanthropy and has partaken of our own nature in order that he might raise it up and deliver it from bondage to the devil. No one, then, should be ashamed in hearing about a child and a baby and anything else that has been written about him in a purely human fashion. For he underwent all things not for his own sake, but for our sake. He preserved everywhere what is proper to human nature in order that the economy might not be regarded as a mere fiction.

– Cyril of Alexandria, “Against Those Who are Unwilling to Confess that the Holy Virgin is Theotokos,” Part 3, Section 26.

Scriptural Doctrine of the Atonement Defended – against John Martin

April 28, 2010

John Martin has also responded to another of my previous posts (link to post, his comments are in the comment box there).

I had written: “The Christian position is that Christ is our substitute.”

JM responded: “If Christ is our substitute and we are impute a legal righteousness, even though the Father knows we are sinners, means”

Christ is our substitute, and we are imputed the righteousness of Christ … let’s examine the supposed implications:

“1 – Jesus has deceived the father and therefore the Father and Jesus are not God because God cannot be deceived, or sin.”

No. The Father has graciously permitted the substitution.

“2 – The Father sent the son to do a sinful act to deceive the father into believing we are righteous even though we are not.”

No. It’s absurd to say that Father sent the Son to deceive the Father – how could that even be possible? More to the point, the Father sent the Son to die in the place of the elect, so it was known to the Father all along.

“3 – There is no need for faith, because a substitute is a substitute for all our sins. Yet the scriptures say we need faith to be justified.”

Faith is the instrumental means of justification, not a meritorious cause of justification. Thus, faith does not satisfy divine justice, only Christ’s work does that.

“4 – Nobody can go to hell, because Jesus has already taken the punishment for sin as a substitute.”

None of the elect can go to hell (or the Romanist fiction of purgatory), because that would imply double payment.

“5 – The scriptures nowhere say Jesus was a substitute for our sins.”

a) You’ve lost track of supposed implications. That isn’t an implication of the doctrine.

b) It’s also not a true allegation. The Scriptures do teach that Jesus was a substitute for the sins of his people. I can provide a more extensive discussion on this, if needed.

“6 – The Holy Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son, after the Son has deceived the Father into thinking we are righteous, even though we are sinners. Therefore the Holy Spirit has been sent on a mission by a deceiver and the deceived, to guide the church into the truth of forensic imputation of righteousness, which is itself a deception. Evidently the Holy Spirit is also a deceiver and has been deceived.”

This blasphemy is built in the previous false claim that forensic imputation is deception.

“7 – There is no precedent in the OT for a substitute atoning for a sinner and the sinner having the substitutes righteousness imputed to the sinner, therefore if penal substitution is correct, it is not base upon the OT, so Jesus cannot be the Messiah, because he didn’t fulfill the OT.”

This simply shows JM’s unfamilarity with the OT sacrificial system. Practically the whole system was one of substitution and imputation. Of course, it was in shadows and types, but Hebrews helps us to see the connection between the shadow and substance.

“8 – There is no need for repentance because the substitute has been made and the Father sees all men as righteous.”

Repentance is not a meritorious cause of justification. See discussion of faith above.

“9 – According to Calvinism, the substitute only has limited value because it’s not applied to all men, even though it’s a perfect substitute. Somehow the father is deceived into thinking the substitute is only satisfactory for some men and not others, even though the Son was a perfect substitute. So the Father has been deceived in sending the Son as a substitute because the substitute didn’t work for some men even though Jesus was the perfect substitute. What’s a God got to do to be a substitute and perfect savior when not even an imputed exchange that is external to the sinner cannot cover all men’s sins?”

a) This misrepresentation of Calvinism is possibly the result of reading Dave Armstrong on Calvinism rather than reading Calvinists on Calvinism.

b) “the substitute only has limited value” That’s not the Calvinist position. The Calvinist position is that the value of the substitute is limitless – sufficient for all.

c) “Somehow the father is deceived into thinking the substitute is only satisfactory for some men and not others, even though the Son was a perfect substitute.”

The Son, as Priest, only offers himself (as sacrifice) for many (not all). That many is the elect.

“10 – The scriptures have deceived us into thinking we need to do something to be justified and pleasing to God, even though according to Calvinism, man is depraved and cannot do a good act in the eyes of God. Therefore we are told on one had to have faith and this is enough to be justified by a legal process, yet we are also told men cannot do an act pleasing to God, so God justifies man, even though He is not pleased with men’s acts. What’s a man to do to be justified after all? Does he have to do an act pleasing to God and if so, is this is a meritorious act? (Yep!) If not, then why does man have to do any act at all to receive justification, when the perfect sacrificial substitute has already been made?”

a) “we need to do something to be justified and pleasing to God”

Scripture’s message is clear that we cannot do anything to be justified and pleasing to God. Justification is by grace, through the instrumental means of faith in Christ and His work.

b) “man is depraved and cannot do a good act in the eyes of God.”

Until God’s Holy Spirit regenerates him, right. As Jesus said, “Except a man be born again … .”

c) “What’s a man to do to be justified after all?”

There is nothing a man can do to be justified. “In thy sight shall no flesh be justified.”

Instead, man must place his hope in the works of another so that he may be vicariously justified.

d) “Does he have to do an act pleasing to God and if so, is this is a meritorious act? (Yep!)”

That is the alternative to the Christian view of the atonement. The alternative is that man merits justification by an act that is pleasing to God.

“11 – If God sends anyone to hell then He is being unjust, because Jesus has already taken the punishment for sin.”

If God received Christ’s payment for the sins of anyone and still punished them for those sins, there would be a double punishment. Thus, none of those for whom Christ was offered will go to hell.

-TurretinFan

The Apology of Claudius of Turin and His Commentary on Galatians

March 18, 2010

I have previously remarked how the icon-favoring council of 787 overthrew the precedent of the similarly sized council of 754, which condemned as idolatry the worshiping of God by images. Some folks have tried to suggest that the iconoclastic controversy was exclusively an Eastern issue. Some have even gone so far as to try to suggest that there was a Muslim and/or Jewish influence at play. Nevertheless, we ought to note that there was at least some Western opposition to the council. Not only was the council of 787 rejected by the regional Council of Frankfurt of 794, but it was also rejected by Claudius of Turin (flourished 810 – 827, bishop of Turin from 817 to his death).

Claudius not only spoke and wrote against such images, he tore them down. He himself states:

It came to pass that, after I was compelled to undertake the burden of the pastoral office I came to the city of Turin in Italy, sent by Louis, that pious prince and son of the Lord’s holy Catholic church. I found all the churches filled with sordid images, which are anathematized and contrary to true teaching. Since everyone was honoring them, I undertook their destruction singlehandedly. Then everyone opened their mouths to curse me and, had the Lord not helped me, they would have swallowed me alive. . .

– Claudius of Turin (flourished 810 – 827), Apology (source of translation)

Here is an alternative translation of the same passage:

For which reason, of course, it came to pass that as soon as I was constrained to assume the burden of pastoral duty and to come to Italy to the city of Turin, sent thither by our pious prince Louis, the son of the Lord’s holy catholic church, I found all the churches filled, in defiance of the precept of Truth, with those sluttish abominations – images. Since everyone was worshiping them, I undertook singlehanded to destroy them. Everyone thereupon opened his mouth to curse me, and had not God come to my aid, they would no doubt have swallowed me alive.

– Claudius of Turin (flourished 810 – 827), Defense and Reply to Abbot Theodemir (Translation by Allen Cabaniss in Early Medieval Theology volume IX of the Library of Christian Classics, p. 242)

On a seemingly unrelated note, it is interesting to read what Claudius has to say about the atonement:

His anger did not blaze carnally for a carnal observance and sustain the penalty set for those who did not keep it, but that believers might be in themselves entirely free from fear of such penalty, to which applies what he now added as follows: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having been made a curse for us, since it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.'” A man’s death belongs to the nature of penalty for sin; wherefore it is also called sin. Not that a man sins when he dies, but that it is because of sin that he dies. In other words, the tongue properly so designated is that fleshly part which moves between the teeth and under the palate, yet that also is called a tongue which results because of the tongue, as the Greek tongue or the Latin tongue. Moreover, that member of the body which we use for work is designated the hand, but in Scripture that is called a hand which is brought about by the hand. We say, “His hand is stretched forth … His hand is observed by him … I hold your hand,” all referring to the hand as a part of a human being. Now I do not deem writing a part of a human being, yet it also is called a hand because it is done by the hand. So not only is that great evil which is worthy of punishment, sin itself, called sin, but also death, which comes because of sins. Christ did not commit that sin which renders one liable to death, but for us he underwent that other, namely, death itself which was inflicted upon human nature by sin. That which hung on the tree was cursed by Moses. There death was condemned to reign longer and was cursed to die. Wherefore by such “sin” of Christ our sin was condemned that we might be set free, that we might remain no longer condemned by the rule of sin.

– Claudius of Turin (flourished 810 – 827), Commentary on Galatians, at Galatians 3:16 (Translation by Allen Cabaniss in Early Medieval Theology volume IX of the Library of Christian Classics, p. 229-30)

Notice that Claudius’ comments are more or less specifically affirming a penal substitution view of the atonement. Admittedly, he does not provide a fully developed explanation of the atonement here, but the portion he does provide is explicitly one of penal substitution.

– TurretinFan

Athanasius to Marcellinus: How Sufficient are the Psalms?

March 16, 2010

Athanasius wrote a letter to Marcellinus regarding the Psalms (full text). Athanasius wouldn’t have fit into post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism very well for a lot of reasons, but one reason is his comment in this letter: “the knowledge of God is not with [the heathen and the heretics] at all, but only in the Church.” Vatican II stated: “In the first place amongst these there are the Mohamedans, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind.” (Lumen Gentium, 2:16).

Bigger than that, however, the letter is a testimony to Athanasius’ very non-Romanist views of Scripture. It’s also a testimony to the same views of Athanasius’ friend whom Athanasius relies on extensively throughout the letter so that is sometimes hard to say which part is originally Athanasius and which part is originally the work of his elderly friend.

Private Possession of Copies of Scripture

It’s interesting to note that Athanasius points out that the old man who told about the Psalms did so while holding in his hands his own copy:

I once talked with a certain studious old man, who had bestowed much labour on the Psalter, and discoursed to me about it with great persuasiveness and charm, expressing himself clearly too, and holding a copy of it in his hand the while he spoke.

There is a popular myth spread by Rome’s apologists today that folks of ancient times were too poor to have their own copies of Scripture and too illiterate to read it, even if they could own a copy. These sorts of comments from the ancients help us to see that the picture of ancient literacy and possession of Scripture was not quite as bleak as Rome’s apologists like to suggest.

Scriptures Open to Individual Study

Athanasius’ substantive comment begins:

Son, all the books of Scripture, both Old Testament and New, are inspired by God and useful for instruction [2 Timothy 3:16], as it is written; but to those who really study it the Psalter yields especial treasure.

Before we even get to the substance we can note how Athanasius (adopting his old friend’s words – his old friend calls him “son”) understands 2 Timothy 3:16 to be referring not only to the Old Testament Scriptures but also to the New Testament Scriptures. This isn’t a surprising interpretation, but it is an interpretation that contradicts the erroneous position taken by many contemporary Roman Catholics who try to say that Paul was referring only to the Old Testament Scriptures.

The substance here is that the Scriptures, but especially the book of Psalms, yields a treasure those who really study it. After a brief passage on the canon of Scripture (which we discuss below under the issue of the canon), Athanasius explains:

Each of these books, you see, is like a garden which grows one special kind of fruit; by contrast, the Psalter is a garden which, besides its special fruit, grows also some those of all the rest.

Athanasius comes back to this garden theme toward the end of the letter as well, when Athanasius writes:

So then, my son, let whoever reads this Book of Psalms take the things in it quite simply as God-inspired; and let each select from it, as from the fruits of a garden, those things of which he sees himself in need.

Notice how individual this metaphor is. Each individual person can go into the garden and get from it whatever help he thinks he needs.

It gets yet more individual after the discussion of how Scripture interprets Scripture, which we discuss below. The more individual part is that the Psalms describe you, the reader:

And, among all the books, the Psalter has certainly a very special grace, a choiceness of quality well worthy to be pondered; for, besides the characteristics which it shares with others, it has this peculiar marvel of its own, that within it are represented and portrayed in all their great variety the movements of the human soul. It is like a picture, in which you see yourself portrayed, and seeing, may understand and consequently form yourself upon the pattern given. Elsewhere in the Bible you read only that the Law commands this or that to be done, you listen to the Prophets to learn about the Saviour’s coming, or you turn to the historical books to learn the doings of the kings and holy men; but in the Psalter, besides all these things, you learn about yourself. You find depicted in it all the movements of your soul, all its changes, its ups and downs, its failures and recoveries.

Notice how he says not simply that the Psalter is like a picture, but almost as though it is a mirror: it is a picture of you the reader. In it, you the reader learn about yourself.

The idea is not simply that the church can extract good medicine from this garden for you, or interpret the picture for you. Instead, Athanasius and the old man insist that the individual can pick out his own cure from this medicine chest:

Moreover, whatever your particular need or trouble, from this same book you can select a form of words to fit it, so that you do not merely hear and then pass on, but learn the way to remedy your ill.

After some commentary on the sufficiency of the Psalms (which we discuss below), Athanasius and the old man re-emphasize the individual’s ability to learn from the Psalms to his own advantage:

In fact, under all the circumstances of life, we shall find that these divine songs suit ourselves and meet our own souls’ need at every turn.

Thus, there is a theme that the individual needs to read and apply the words of the Psalms to his life.

There is also a theme presented in the letter that the Psalter is something that the individual is supposed to make his own:

And herein is yet another strange thing about the Psalms. In the other books of Scripture we read or hear the words of holy men as belonging only to those who spoke them, not at all as though they were our own; and in the same way the doings there narrated are to us material for wonder and examples to be followed, but not in any sense things we have done ourselves. With this book, however, though one does read the prophecies about the Saviour in that way, with reverence and with awe, in the case of all the other Psalms it is as though it were one’s own words that one read; and anyone who hears them is moved at heart, as though they voiced for him his deepest thoughts.

It’s interesting to note in this selection that it is not simply that the reader can start to internalize and take personally the Psalms, but that this is (according to Athanasius and the old man) an intended purpose of the Psalm – one of the reasons for which it is written.

After some brief Scriptural demonstration, Athanasius continues to emphasize how the Psalms are intended to be read, understood, and taken personally by the individual reader:

For he who reads those books is clearly reading not his own words but those of holy men and other people about whom they write; but the marvel with the Psalter is that, barring those prophecies about the Saviour and some about the Gentiles, the reader takes all its words upon his lips as though they were his own, and each one sings the Psalms as though they had been written for his special benefit, and takes them and recites them, not as though someone else were speaking or another person’s feelings being described, but as himself speaking of himself, offering the words to God as his own heart’s utterance, just as though he himself had made them up. Not as the words of the patriarchs or of Moses and the other prophets will he reverence these: no, he is bold to take them as his own and written for his very self. Whether he has kept the Law or whether he has broken it, it is his own doings that the Psalms describe; every one is bound to find his very self in them and, be he faithful soul or be he sinner, each reads in them descriptions of himself.

I’m not sure one could express a more individual understanding of the text than that. Yet Athanasius follows this passage with another of the same kind. In this instance he finally uses the mirror metaphor:

It seems to me, moreover, that because the Psalms thus serve him who sings them as a mirror, wherein he sees himself and his own soul, he cannot help but render them in such a manner that their words go home with equal force to those who hear him sing, and stir them also to a like reaction. Sometimes it is repentance that is generated in this way, as by the conscience-stirring words of Psalm 51; another time, hearing how God helps those who hope and trust in Him, the listener too rejoices and begins to render thanks, as though that gracious help already were his own. Psalm 3, to take another instance, a man will sing, bearing his own afflictions in his mind; Psalms 11 and 12 he will use as the expression of his own faith and prayer; and singing the 54th, the 56th, the 57th, and the 142nd, it is not as though someone else were being persecuted but out of his own experience that he renders praise to God. And every other Psalm is spoken and composed by the Spirit in the selfsame way: just as in a mirror, the movements of our own souls are reflected in them and the words are indeed our very own, given us to serve both as a reminder of our changes of condition and as a pattern and model for the amendment of our lives.

The use of the mirror metaphor is a great way to show that the individual is to look to the Scripture, since a mirror is the sort of thing that is distinctively individual – one doesn’t ask his friend to look in the mirror for him – the mirror is specifically a tool for self-help.

After a very detailed explanation of how the Psalms can be applied to various occasions, Athanasius notes:

Such, then, is the character of the Book of Psalms, and such the uses to which it may be put, some of its number serving for the correction of individual souls, and many of them, as I said just now, foretelling the coming in human form of our Saviour Jesus Christ.

Notice that in the quotation above, the individual is made explicit.

We see this same theme of individual benefit in Athanasius’ argument as to why the Psalms must be sung:

But we must not omit to explain the reason why words of this kind should be not merely said, but rendered with melody and song; for there are actually some simple folk among us who, though they believe the words to be inspired, yet think the reason for singing them is just to make them more pleasing to the ear! This is by no means so; Holy Scripture is not designed to tickle the aesthetic palate, and it is rather for the soul’s own profit that the Psalms are sung.

Furthermore, Athanasius insists that one cannot sing the Psalms simply to amuse oneself but specifically to learn from them:

Well, then, they who do not read the Scriptures in this way, that is to say, who do not chant the divine Songs intelligently but simply please themselves, most surely are to blame, for praise is not befitting in a sinner’s mouth. [Sirach 15:9] But those who do sing as I have indicated, so that the melody of the words springs naturally from the rhythm of the soul and her own union with the Spirit, they sing with the tongue and with the understanding also, and greatly benefit not themselves alone but also those who want to listen to them.

Then Athanasius continues with the repetition of the garden metaphor (already discussed above) and he accompanies that with a summary of the preceding admonition that the Psalms have whatever we need for any occasion:

So then, my son, let whoever reads this Book of Psalms take the things in it quite simply as God-inspired; and let each select from it, as from the fruits of a garden, those things of which he sees himself in need. For I think that in the words of this book all human life is covered, with all its states and thoughts, and that nothing further can be found in man. For no matter what you seek, whether it be repentance and confession, or help in trouble and temptation or under persecution, whether you have been set free from plots and snares or, on the contrary, are sad for any reason, or whether, seeing yourself progressing and your enemy cast down, you want to praise and thank and bless the Lord, each of these things the Divine Psalms show you how to do, and in every case the words you want are written down for you, and you can say them as your own.

The final words of the letter re-emphasize that the investigation of Scripture is properly and fruitfully an individual task:

And so you too, Marcellinus, pondering the Psalms and reading them intelligently, with the Spirit as your guide, will be able to grasp the meaning of each one, even as you desire. And you will strive also to imitate the lives of those God-bearing saints who spoke them at the first.

We should also agree with Athanasius that of course the Spirit’s guidance is not an optional component, as much as we have not specified that guidance above.

Scripture Interprets Scripture

One interesting point that Athanasius (and the old man) makes is that the Psalter is almost a stand-alone Bible. However, Athanasius is quick to point out that the Psalter must be interpreted harmoniously with the rest of Scripture because they have a common author, namely the Holy Spirit:

My old friend made rather a point of this, that the things we find in the Psalms about the Saviour are stated in the other books of Scripture too; he stressed the fact that one interpretation is common to them all, and that they have but one voice in the Holy Spirit.

The single voice is the explanation, of course, for the single common interpretation. After some Scriptural proof, the old man (and Athanasius with him) concludes:

You see, then, that the grace of the one Spirit is common to every writer and all the books of Scripture, and differs in its expression only as need requires and the Spirit wills.

This provides a slightly different twist on the comments above, in that it indicates that one may simply find the same thing expressed in different terms in the different books.

Sufficiency of Scripture

One of the points that the old man and Athanasius make is that the Psalter provides the final component and makes the rest of Scripture sufficient to the man of God:

Prohibitions of evil-doing are plentiful in Scripture, but only the Psalter tells you how to obey these orders and abstain from sin. Repentance, for example, is enjoined repeatedly; but to repent means to leave off sinning, and it is the Psalms that show you how to set about repenting and with what words your penitence may be expressed. Again, Saint Paul says, Tribulation worketh endurance, and endurance experience, and experience hope, and hope maketh not ashamed [Rom 5:3, 5]; but it is in the Psalms that we find written and described how afflictions should be borne, and what the afflicted ought to say, both at the time and when his troubles cease: the whole process of his testing is set forth in them and we are shown exactly with what words to voice our hope in God. Or take the commandment, In everything give thanks. [1 Thess 5:18] The Psalms not only exhort us to be thankful, they also provide us with fitting words to say. We are told, too, by other writers that all who would live godly in Christ must suffer persecution;[2 Tim 3:12] and here again the Psalms supply words with which both those who flee persecution and those who suffer under it may suitably address themselves to God, and it does the same for those who have been rescued from it. We are bidden elsewhere in the Bible also to bless the Lord and to acknowledge Him: here in the Psalms we are shown the way to do it, and with what sort of words His majesty may meetly be confessed.

In other words, the entire Bible tells us how to live, but the Psalter shows us more clearly the way to fulfill the commands found throughout Scripture. The conclusion sentence talks explicitly about the ability of the Psalter to be sufficient, namely to meet the reader’s needs:

In fact, under all the circumstances of life, we shall find that these divine songs suit ourselves and meet our own souls’ need at every turn.

Another place where Athanasius makes the sufficiency point is in this comment:

For I think that in the words of this book all human life is covered, with all its states and thoughts, and that nothing further can be found in man.

It’s hard to be more sufficient than “nothing further can be found” – he might as well have said, “this is as good as it can possibly get.”

As strong as that statement of sufficiency is, the sufficiency of Scripture gets even more underscored by Athanasius’ insistence on the unadorned Psalms:

There is, however, one word of warning needed. No one must allow himself to be persuaded, by any arguments what-ever, to decorate the Psalms with extraneous matter or make alterations in their order or change the words them-selves. They must be sung and chanted in entire simplicity, just as they are written, so that the holy men who gave them to us, recognizing their own words, may pray with us, yes and even more that the Spirit, Who spoke by the saints, recognizing the selfsame words that He inspired, may join us in them too. For as the saints’ lives are lovelier than any others, so too their words are better than ever ours can be, and of much more avail, provided only they be uttered from a righteous heart. For with these words they themselves pleased God, and in uttering them, as the Apostle says, they subdued kingdoms, they wrought righteousness, they obtained promises, they stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, waxed mighty in war, turned to flight armies of aliens, women received their dead by resurrection. [Heb 11:33-36]

The ideas that their words are “better than ever ours can be” is a great way of showing that the Scriptures themselves, standing alone, are sufficient.

Finally, Athanasius gets explicit – even using the word “sufficient”:

For God commanded Moses to write the great song [Deut 31:19] and to teach the people, and him whom He had appointed leader He bade also to write Deuteronomy, to have it ever in his hand and to meditate unceasingly upon its words [Deut 17:18-19]; because these are sufficient in themselves both to call men’s minds to virtue and to bring help to any who ponder them sincerely.

Notice that it doesn’t just say “sufficient” leaving open the option of sufficient materially but not formally, but it even goes so far as to remove an doubt by saying “sufficient in themselves.”

The parting words of the letter confirm the same thing:

And so you too, Marcellinus, pondering the Psalms and reading them intelligently, with the Spirit as your guide, will be able to grasp the meaning of each one, even as you desire. And you will strive also to imitate the lives of those God-bearing saints who spoke them at the first.

Notice how positive Athanasius is: he says not simply that Marcellinus “may” be able to grasp the meaning, nor does Athanasius qualify the quest by whether Marcellinus adheres to the unanimous consent of the fathers or the guidance of an infallible magisterium. Instead, Athanasius insists that if Marcellinus has the Spirit he will, by intelligent study, grasp the meaning of each of the Psalms.

Scripture as a Teacher

Athanasius, as noted above, refers to the Scriptures as a teacher:

Briefly, then, if indeed any more is needed to drive home the point, the whole divine Scripture is the teacher of virtue and true faith, but the Psalter gives a picture of the spiritual life.

Athanasius even goes further and compares Scriptures a teacher to mere human teachers:

Never will such a man be shaken from the truth, but those who try to trick and lead him into error he will refute; and it is no human teacher who promises us this, but the Divine Scripture itself.

Thus, for Athanasius, the Scriptures themselves are a teacher and the best possible teacher.

Scripture as the Rule of Faith and Life

Athanasius is very plain about this aspect of Scripture:

Briefly, then, if indeed any more is needed to drive home the point, the whole divine Scripture is the teacher of virtue and true faith, but the Psalter gives a picture of the spiritual life.

Notice how he treats the Psalter as almost filling in what would be a gap in the rest of Scripture. With the Psalms, the Scripture is a thorough and sufficient teacher of virtue and true faith.

Christ Himself is in Scripture

Sometimes Rome’s apologists like to use the metaphor that the Church is Christ’s body to emphasize the Church’s authority. Athanasius makes an even stronger claim about Scripture:

On the other hand, daemons fear the words of holy men and cannot bear them; for the Lord Himself is in the words of Scripture and Him they cannot bear, as they showed when they cried out to Christ, I pray you, torment me not before the time.

Notice that Athanasius claims that “the Lord Himself is in the words of Scripture,” which is as strong a claim as one can make about them.

Canon of the Old Testament

The old man’s canon of the Old Testament only ends up referring to the canonical works:

Each book of the Bible has, of course, its own particular message: the Pentateuch, for example, tells of the beginning of the world, the doings of the patriarchs, the exodus of Israel from Egypt, the giving of the Law, and the ordering of the tabernacle and the priesthood; The Triteuch [Joshua, Judges, and Ruth] describes the division of the inheritance, the acts of the judges, and the ancestry of David; Kings and Chronicles record the doings of the kings, Esdras [Ezra] the deliverance from exile, the return of the people, and the building of the temple and the city; the Prophets foretell the coming of the Saviour, put us in mind of the commandments, reprove transgressors, and for the Gentiles also have a special word.

Furthermore, the old man ends up excluding the Apocrypha (deutero-canonical books) fairly plainly by (after discussing only the canonical works) stating:

You see, then, that all the subjects mentioned in the historical books are mentioned also in one Psalm or another; but when we come to the matters of which the Prophets speak we find that these occur in almost all.

Of course, the canon of the Old Testament is not the main point of the letter, and consequently there is no explicit discussion of the topic.

Unsurprisingly, one apocryphal part of one book is mentioned: “as when Daniel relates the story of Susanna …” and the Septuagint (or similar related Greek translation) title of the Psalms are referenced “if you want to know how Moses prayed, you have the 90th … .” There’s also an allusion to Sirach 15:9 (“Praise is not seemly in the mouth of a sinner, for it was not sent him of the Lord.”) as noted above.

Penal Substitution

It is interesting to note that the old man (Athanasius adopting his words) explains that the atonement, and particularly penal substitution, is set forth in the Psalms:

For He did not die as being Himself liable to death: He suffered for us, and bore in Himself the wrath that was the penalty of our transgression, even as Isaiah says, Himself bore our weaknesses. [Mt 8:17] So in Psalm 138 we say, The Lord will make requital for me; and in the 72nd the Spirit says, He shall save the children of the poor and bring the slanderer low, for from the hand of the mighty He has set the poor man free, the needy man whom there was none to help.

It’s interesting that he even brings Isaiah into the discussion. I’ve left the editorial bracketed citation to Matthew 8:17.

That’s not the only place that Athanasius mentions this theme – he repeats it slightly later on:

This is the further kindness of the Savior that, having become man for our sake, He not only offered His own body to death on our behalf, that He might redeem all from death, but also, desiring to display to us His own heavenly and perfect way of living, He expressed this in His very self. It was as knowing how easily the devil might deceive us, that He gave us, for our peace of mind, the pledge of His own victory that He had won on our behalf. But He did not stop there: He went still further, and His own self performed the things He had enjoined on us. Every man therefore may both hear Him speaking and at the same time see in His behavior the pattern for his own, even as He himself has bidden, saying, Learn of Me, for I am meek and lowly of heart. [Mt 11:29] Nowhere is more perfect teaching of virtue to be found than in the Lord’s own life. Forbearance, love of men, goodness, courage, mercy, righteousness, all are found in Him; and in the same way no virtue will be lacking to him who fully contemplates this human life of Christ. It was as knowing this that Saint Paul said, Be ye imitators of me, even as I myself am of Christ. [1 Cor 11:1] The Greek legislators had indeed a great command of language; but the Lord, the true Lord of all, Who cares for all His works, did not only lay down precepts but also gave Himself as model of how they should be carried out, for all who would to know and imitate. And therefore, before He came among us, He sketched the likeness of this perfect life for us in words, in this same book of Psalms; in order that, just as He revealed Himself in flesh to be the perfect, heavenly Man, so in the Psalms also men of good-will might see the pattern life portrayed, and find therein the healing and correction of their own.

Notice how Athanasius indicates that Christ both serves as penal substitute (“He … offered His own body to death on our behalf”) but also as example of the godly life.

Conclusion

This letter of Athanasius has value for a variety of reasons. For example, included in the letter are some very detailed and at-length suggestions for times and occasions upon which to sing the various psalms. This is of great practical value to those planning worship, either their own worship or corporate worship.

Athanasius’ letter also has value for providing insight into many aspects of Athanasius’ view of Scripture:

  • the practice of private possession of Scriptures,
  • individual study of the Scripture and the fruitfulness of such study,
  • the self-interpretation of Scripture,
  • the sufficiency of Scripture,
  • the magisterial role of Scripture,
  • Scripture as the rule of faith and life,
  • Christ himself being “in” Scripture, and
  • the canon of the Old Testament.

Athanasius’ letter even provides some insight into Athanasius’ view of the atonement. The discussion on the atonement even provides some discussion related to the doctrine of penal substitution.

In all, the letter is a very rich work. I hope that the reader of this article will not content himself with my report above, but will follow the link I have provided and see for himself not only that I have reported Athanasius accurately, but that I have not provided the full treasure that this letter offers.

– TurretinFan


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