Archive for the ‘Scripture Interprets Scripture’ Category

Christian Answers to Two Roman Catholic Questions on "Catholic Answers"

January 11, 2014

The show that calls itself “Catholic Answers,” recently featured a Missouri Synod Lutheran caller as highlighted on a recent Dividing Line.  In response to the caller, the hosts began asking him some questions.  I wouldn’t be surprised if you get these same questions from some of your Roman Catholic friends and acquaintances, particularly those who listen to “Catholic Answers.”

Question 1: Where is Sola Scriptura in the Bible?
Short Answer: John 20:31 says, “But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.” And many other verses.
Brief Explanation: John’s statement implies that a person could pick up John’s gospel, read it, believe it, and receive eternal life in that way.  Moreover, John’s statement at least hints at the fact that the other gospels have a similar purpose – they are written for us to read, believe, and have eternal life.
Possible Objection: But where is the only in that text?
Response: The sola or only of “Sola Scriptura” is simply a negative claim – in other words, it’s saying that Scripture is unique – there’s nothing else like Scripture. If you want some verses that emphasize the unique character of Scripture, those also exist.
For example, Romans 3:4 says “God forbid: yea, let God be true, but every man a liar; as it is written, “That thou mightest be justified in thy sayings, and mightest overcome when thou art judged.’ (Psalm 51:4)”  This emphasizes the crucial distinction between God’s word and mens’ words.
Another example is this: 

Deuteronomy 13:1-5If there arise among you a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams, and giveth thee a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder come to pass, whereof he spake unto thee, saying, “Let us go after other gods, which thou hast not known, and let us serve them;” thou shalt not hearken unto the words of that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams: for the Lord your God proveth you, to know whether ye love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. Ye shall walk after the Lord your God, and fear him, and keep his commandments, and obey his voice, and ye shall serve him, and cleave unto him. And that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams, shall be put to death; because he hath spoken to turn you away from the Lord your God, which brought you out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed you out of the house of bondage, to thrust thee out of the way which the Lord thy God commanded thee to walk in. So shalt thou put the evil away from the midst of thee.

The point to take away from that passage is that even if someone has authority that appears to be attested by working wonders, the person’s message should be judged by the Scriptures (in this case, by the Pentateuch). 
Paul similarly warns the Galatians: “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.” (Galatians 1:8)  Someone may object that “preached” could refer to the gospel Paul delivered orally.  Nevertheless, we have that gospel in written form today.
Likewise, the Bereans are commended for subjecting the apostles’ own preaching to a comparison with the Scriptures: “These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.” (Acts 17:11)
Question 2: Where is “Scripture interprets Scripture” in the Bible?
Short answer: 2 Timothy 3:16 says, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:” If that is true, then it follows that all Scripture has one divine author even if it has many human authors.
Longer answer: Indeed, we have examples of Scripture interpreting itself explicitly, such as the quotation from John 20:31, above, which provides a purpose for the book of John, and more broadly for Scripture. Other examples include the citation of Old Testament passages in the New Testament, together with explanations of what they meant or how they were fulfilled in Christ.  Indeed, sometimes the New Testament includes Jesus’ own explanation of his parables.  Numerous other examples could be provided.
Rejoinder: But even if we had no answer, can the matter seriously be doubted?  Does the person asking the question really think that the Bible is either incomprehensible or should not be understood by taking one part in relation to another?  
Even the Roman Catholic “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” puts it this somewhat poetic (and consequently imprecise) way (CCC 102): 

Through all the words of Sacred Scripture, God speaks only one single Word, his one Utterance in whom he expresses himself completely: You recall that one and the same Word of God extends throughout Scripture, that it is one and the same Utterance that resounds in the mouths of all the sacred writers, since he who was in the beginning God with God has no need of separate syllables; for he is not subject to time.

We understand that Rome wishes to deny Christians the ability to judge her doctrines by Scripture, but surely it cannot be denied that Scripture does interpret Scripture.  How else would one read it?  As just isolated statements each possibly meaning anything at all?  The very notion seems bizarre.


Post-Modern Roman Catholicism – Guest Post by Adam Blauser

May 25, 2012

Recently, in the comment box on this blog, a member of the Roman communion provided the following comment:

Again and again. Who has the authority in Protestantism to determine the correct interpretation of the Bible?. No one.

Adam Blauser has provided a thorough response, namely:

Again and again, why does Roman Catholicism pull out the arguments of Jacques Derrida and Stanley Fish, when postmodernism destroys Roman Catholicism too? What is the assumption behind this statement: that the only thing that factors into the interpretation of a text is the interpreter. If I allow for the author and his intention to play a role in interpretation, then it is easy to see who has the authority to determine the correct interpretation of the Bible-the authors of the Bible. Correct interpretation, then, is more of an ethical issue. The interpreter has an obligation to “not bear false witness” against the author of the text, and accurately represent what he is saying. If that is the case, then the issue of interpretation is actually an argument against Roman Catholicism, because, once you impose traditions upon the text, you are changing the world of the author, and thus, not accurately representing the world he has constructed accurately.

More than that, destroying the author as a reference point leads to total and complete postmodernism. For example, why do you accept Rome as the infallible interpreter of scripture and history? Eastern Orthodoxy also makes the same claim, as does Syrian Orthodoxy. Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses make the same claim. Before you go running off to history, let us also remember that these groups claim the right to infallibly interpret history too, just like Rome does. So, who has the authority to decide which group has the authority to infallibly interpret history and scripture? It becomes totally dependent upon which group you are a part of as to what the correct interpretation of both history and scripture is. Hence, it is relative to community. That is utter and complete postmodernism.

Not only that, but if you need an “infallible interpreter” to know which interpretations of a text are correct, then how do we know what the correct interpretations of the Egyptian Book of the Dead are? Scholars disagree. How do we know what the correct interpretation of the Baal epic is? Scholars disagree. How do we know what the correct interpretation of the Epic of Gilgamesh is? Scholars disagree. The point is, there is no text upon which there is not disagreement as to the correct interpretation. However, where is the infallible magisterium of the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Apparently, because it doesn’t exist, that must mean we cannot correctly interpret what the Book of the Dead says. Where is the infallible magisterium of the Baal epic? Apparently, because it doesn’t exist, that must mean we cannot correctly interpret what the Baal epic says. Where is the infallible magisterium of the Gilgamesh Epic? Apparently, because it doesn’t exist, that must mean we cannot correctly interpret what the Epic of Gilgamesh says. Such results in utter destruction of all of our knowledge of what written texts say.

The real problem here is that the church is finite. Not only can other groups claim the authority to infallibly interpret both history and tradition, but, because of the finitude of all of these groups including Rome, the issue can never be settled. Not only that, Rome cannot explain why, in the instance of other texts, we can come to the correct interpretation despite differences of opinion. All of these things relate to the limited and finite nature of the church. I really wish Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox would consider these things before they go making this argument again and again. A limited, finite church is a poor base for meaning in language.

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

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.


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.

Athanasius against Scripture’s Formal Sufficiency?

February 18, 2010

Sean Patrick of the Roman Catholic Called to Communion blog recently alleged that the following quotation from Athanasius demonstrates that Athanasius did not hold to the formal sufficiency of Scripture (I provide Sean’s words as well with his quotation embedded):

I invite you to read this letter as a good example in context. Note how he treats the judgement of the Catholic Church and tradition handed down concerning scriptural faith.

For what is so manifestly shown to be evil, it is not necessary to waste time in exposing further, lest contentious persons think the matter doubtful. It is enough merely to answer such things as follows: we are content with the fact that this is not the teaching of the Catholic Church, nor did the fathers hold this.

(source of SP’s statement)

Athanasius’ statement that “we are content with the fact that this is not the teaching of the Catholic Church, nor did the fathers hold this” doesn’t explicitly rely on Scripture, which is doubtless why it is being cited.

Standing alone, however, they don’t directly contradict the idea that Scripture is formally sufficient. Instead, this kind of comment says that it is enough that the church as a whole doesn’t teach this and that there is no historical precedent for the teaching.

One might argue that by “the teaching of the Catholic Church” Athanasius is referring to Nicaea. After all, the letter begins, immediately after the greeting sentence:

I thought that all vain talk of all heretics, many as they may be, had been stopped by the Synod which was held at Nicæa.

– Athanasius, Letter 59, Section 1 (source)

In fact, that sentence in isolation also looks nothing like a view of formal sufficiency of Scripture (although it doesn’t actually interact with the view of formal sufficiency).

Likewise, a couple of sentences in the conclusion don’t explicitly mention Scripture:

But thanks to the Lord, much as we were grieved at reading your memoranda, we were equally glad at their conclusion. For they departed with concord, and peacefully agreed in the confession of the pious and orthodox faith.

– Athanasius, Letter 59, Section 12 (source)

However, when we begin to examine Athanasius’ comments in context, a different picture emerges. Here’s the entire Section 3 from which the initial comment was drawn:

Such were the contents of the memoranda; diverse statements, but one in their sense and in their meaning; tending to impiety. It was for these things that men who make their boast in the confession of the fathers drawn up at Nicæa were disputing and quarrelling with one another. But I marvel that your piety suffered it, and that you did not stop those who said such things, and propound to them the right faith, so that upon hearing it they might hold their peace, or if they opposed it might be counted as heretics. For the statements are not fit for Christians to make or to hear, on the contrary they are in every way alien from the Apostolic teaching. For this reason, as I said above, I have caused what they say to be baldly inserted in my letter, so that one who merely hears may perceive the shame and impiety therein contained. And although it would be right to denounce and expose in full the folly of those who have had such ideas, yet it would be a good thing to close my letter here and write no more. For what is so manifestly shewn to be evil, it is not necessary to waste time in exposing further, lest contentious persons think the matter doubtful. It is enough merely to answer such things as follows: we are content with the fact that this is not the teaching of the Catholic Church, nor did the fathers hold this. But lest the ‘inventors of evil things [Rom. i. 30.]’ make entire silence on our part a pretext for shamelessness, it will be well to mention a few points from Holy Scripture, in case they may even thus be put to shame, and cease from these foul devices.

– Athanasius, Letter 59, Section 3 (source)

Notice that Athanasius says: “For the statements are not fit for Christians to make or to hear, on the contrary they are in every way alien from the Apostolic teaching.” That Apostolic teaching, of course, is Scripture. For Athanasius, it is adherence to the Apostolic teaching that is the guiding principle.

Notice as well that Athanasius doesn’t view the error of the heretics as being at all reasonable. He thinks that the bare repetition of their argument is enough to show its impiety, “For what is so manifestly shewn to be evil, it is not necessary to waste time in exposing further, lest contentious persons think the matter doubtful.” That middle expression, “it is not necessary to waste time in exposing further,” is then explained by the comment about the teaching not being one of the Catholic Church or the fathers. It is also a reiteration of his prior comment, in Section 2, “I write this after reading the memoranda submitted by your piety, which I could wish had not been written at all, so that not even any record of these things should go down to posterity. For who ever yet heard the like? Who ever taught or learned it?”

However, notice that the way in which these men are to be put to shame and converted from their evil way is not a simple appeal to Nicaea (after all, these men “make their boast in the confession of the fathers drawn up at Nicæa”) nor to the fathers (from what fathers does Athanasius quote?) but from Scripture: “But lest the ‘inventors of evil things [Rom. i. 30.]’ make entire silence on our part a pretext for shamelessness, it will be well to mention a few points from Holy Scripture, in case they may even thus be put to shame, and cease from these foul devices.”

The same contextual issues arise with respect to the introductory section of Athanasius’ letter. Looking at the context, indeed the next sentence, we see a somewhat different sentiment:

I thought that all vain talk of all heretics, many as they may be, had been stopped by the Synod which was held at Nicæa. For the Faith there confessed by the Fathers according to the divine Scriptures is enough by itself at once to overthrow all impiety, and to establish the religious belief in Christ.

– Athanasius, Letter 59, Section 1 (source)

Notice that Athanasius is quick to point out the rule that guided the fathers at Nicaea, namely the Scriptures. While there is some mention in the text of holding to the faith of the Nicene fathers, the bulk of the letter is exegetical – relying on and explaining the matter from Scripture.

So we should not be surprised at the conclusion mentioned above considered in its context:

This proves that while to all the others the Word came, in order that they might prophesy, from Mary the Word Himself took flesh, and proceeded forth as man; being by nature and essence the Word of God, but after the flesh man of the seed of David, and made of the flesh of Mary, as Paul said [Cf. Rom. i. 3; Gal. iv. 4.]. Him the Father pointed out both in Jordan and on the Mount, saying, ‘This is My beloved Son in whom I am well pleased [Matt. iii. 17, and xvii. 5.].’ Him the Arians denied, but we recognizing worship, not dividing the Son and the Word, but knowing that the Son is the Word Himself, by Whom all things are made, and by Whom we were redeemed. And for this reason we wonder how any contention at all has arisen among you about things so clear. But thanks to the Lord, much as we were grieved at reading your memoranda, we were equally glad at their conclusion. For they departed with concord, and peacefully agreed in the confession of the pious and orthodox faith. This fact has induced me, after much previous consideration, to write these few words; for I am anxious lest by my silence this matter should cause pain rather than joy to those whose concord occasions joy to ourselves. I therefore ask your piety in the first place, and secondly those who hear, to take my letter in good part, and if anything is lacking in it in respect of piety, to set that right, and inform me. But if it is written, as from one unpractised in speech, below the subject and imperfectly, let all allow for my feebleness in speaking.

– Athanasius, Letter 59, Section 12 (source)

Notice that Athanasius writes: “And for this reason we wonder how any contention at all has arisen among you about things so clear.” These are not vague obscure things, but clear things. And the thing from which this is clear can be seen from the proof that Athanasius had provided in, for example, Section 5 of his letter:

. But this is not so, far be the thought. For he ‘takes hold of the seed of Abraham [Heb. ii. 16.],’ as the apostle said; whence it behoved Him to be made like His brethren in all things, and to take a Body like us. This is why Mary is truly presupposed, in order that He may take it from her, and offer it for us as His own. And this Isaiah pointed to in his prophecy, in the words: ‘Behold the Virgin [Isa. vii. 14.],’ while Gabriel is sent to her—not simply to a virgin, but ‘to a virgin betrothed to a man [Luke i. 27.],’ in order that by means of the betrothed man he might shew that Mary was really a human being. And for this reason Scripture also mentions her bringing forth, and tells of her wrapping Him in swaddling clothes; and therefore, too, the paps which He sucked were called blessed [Ib. xi. 27.]. And He was offered as a sacrifice, in that He Who was born had opened the womb [Ib. ii. 23.]. Now all these things are proofs that the Virgin brought forth. And Gabriel preached the Gospel to her without uncertainty, saying not merely ‘what is born in thee,’ lest the body should be thought to be extraneously induced upon her, but ‘of thee,’ that what was born might be believed to be naturally from her, inasmuch as Nature clearly shews that it is impossible for a virgin to produce milk unless she has brought forth, and impossible for a body to be nourished with milk and wrapped in swaddling clothes unless it has previously been naturally brought forth. This is the meaning of His being circumcised on the eighth day: of Symeon taking Him in his arms, of His becoming a young child, and growing when He was twelve years old, and of His coming to His thirtieth year. For it was not, as some suppose, the very Essence of the Word that was changed, and was circumcised, because it is incapable of alteration or change. For the Saviour Himself says, ‘Behold, behold, it is I, and I change not [Mal. iii. 6.],’ while Paul writes: ‘Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, and to-day, and for ever [Heb. xiii. 8.].’ But in the Body which was circumcised, and carried, and ate and drank, and was weary, and was nailed on the tree and suffered, there was the impassible and incorporeal Word of God. This Body it was that was laid in a grave, when the Word had left it, yet was not parted from it, to preach, as Peter says, also to the spirits in prison [1 Pet. iii. 19.].

– Athanasius, Letter 59, Section 5 (source)

Notice how Athanasius explains it as being that “Nature clearly shews that it is impossible for a virgin to produce milk unless she has brought forth, and impossible for a body to be nourished with milk and wrapped in swaddling clothes unless it has previously been naturally brought forth.” It’s not a matter of obscurity or ambiguity or one man’s opinion over another. It is clear and plain to Athanasius.

Notice as well that after more Scriptural exegesis in sections 6-7, Athanasius provides the following comments in section 8:

These things being thus demonstrated, it is superfluous to touch upon the other points, or to enter upon any discussion relating to them, since the body in which the Word was is not coessential with the Godhead, but was truly born of Mary, while the Word Himself was not changed into bones and flesh, but came in the flesh. For what John said, ‘The Word was made flesh [Joh. i. 14.],’ has this meaning, as we may see by a similar passage; for it is written in Paul: ‘Christ has become a curse for us [Gal. iii. 13.].’ And just as He has not Himself become a curse, but is said to have done so because He took upon Him the curse on our behalf, so also He has become flesh not by being changed into flesh, but because He assumed on our behalf living flesh, and has become Man. For to say ‘the Word became flesh,’ is equivalent to saying ‘the Word has become man;’ according to what is said in Joel: ‘I will pour forth of My Spirit upon all flesh [Joel ii. 28.];’ for the promise did not extend to the irrational animals, but is for men, on whose account the Lord is become Man. As then this is the sense of the above text, they all will reasonably condemn themselves who have thought that the flesh derived from Mary existed before her, and that the Word, prior to her, had a human soul, and existed in it always even before His coming. And they too will cease who have said that the Flesh was not accessible to death, but belonged to the immortal Nature. For if it did not die, how could Paul deliver to the Corinthians ‘that Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures [1 Cor. xv. 3.],’ or how did He rise at all if He did not also die? Again, they will blush deeply who have even entertained the possibility of a Tetrad instead of a Triad resulting, if it were said that the Body was derived from Mary. For if (they argue) we say the Body is of one Essence with the Word, the Triad remains a Triad; for then the Word imports no foreign element into it; but if we admit that the Body derived from Mary is human, it follows, since the Body is foreign in Essence, and the Word is in it, that the addition of the Body causes a Tetrad instead of a Triad.

– Athanasius, Letter 59, Section 8 (source)

Of note, as a first point, is the fact that Athanasius begins the section by again repeating that even all this additional evidence he is giving is not necessary. Nevertheless, he’s providing it.

Also, of significance, notice that Athanasius teaches us (by example) to use Scripture to interpret Scripture when he states: “For what John said, ‘The Word was made flesh [Joh. i. 14.],’ has this meaning, as we may see by a similar passage;” which shows us that Athanasius agreed with us that Scripture is to be Scripture’s interpreter. (He does this again almost immediately: “For to say ‘the Word became flesh,’ is equivalent to saying ‘the Word has become man;’ according to what is said in Joel: ‘I will pour forth of My Spirit upon all flesh [Joel ii. 28.];’”)

Notice as well that Athanasius thinks that the sense of Scripture is so clear that the heretics will themselves see their error and condemn themselves. For he writes: “As then this is the sense of the above text, they all will reasonably condemn themselves who have thought that the flesh derived from Mary existed before her, and that the Word, prior to her, had a human soul, and existed in it always even before His coming.”

In section 9, Athanasius provides an interesting comment. He writes:

And how do these remain Christians who imagine another God in addition to the true one? For, once again, in their other fallacy one can see how great is their folly. For if they think because it is contained and stated in the Scriptures, that the Body of the Saviour is human and derived from Mary, that a Tetrad is substituted for a Triad, as though the Body created an addition, they go very far wrong, so much so as to make the creature equal to the Creator, and suppose that the Godhead can receive an addition.

– Athanasius, Letter 59, Section 9 (source)

Notice that Athanasius assumes that these putative Christians will derive their understanding from Scripture. Accordingly, he takes care to state their their understanding is wrong (as well as, at some length, to explain why it is wrong).

Athanasius’ argument reaches something of a pinnacle when, in section 10, he provides a very plain Scriptural demonstration that he thinks they must acquiesce to:

For this reason they also will henceforth keep silence, who once said that He who proceeded from Mary is not very Christ, or Lord, or God. For if He were not God in the Body, how came He, upon proceeding from Mary, straightway to be called ‘Emmanuel, which is being interpreted God with us [Matt. i. 23.]?’ Why again, if the Word was not in the flesh, did Paul write to the Romans ‘of whom is Christ after the flesh, Who is above all God blessed for ever. Amen [Rom. ix. 5.]?’ Let them therefore confess, even they who previously denied that the Crucified was God, that they have erred; for the divine Scriptures bid them, and especially Thomas, who, after seeing upon Him the print of the nails, cried out ‘My Lord and my God [John xx. 28.]!’ For the Son, being God, and Lord of glory [1 Cor. ii. 8.], was in the Body which was ingloriously nailed and dishonoured; but the Body, while it suffered, being pierced on the tree, and water and blood flowed from its side, yet because it was a temple of the Word was filled full of the Godhead. For this reason it was that the sun, seeing its creator suffering in His outraged body, withdrew its rays and darkened the earth. But the body itself being of mortal nature, beyond its own nature rose again by reason of the Word which was in it; and it has ceased from natural corruption, and, having put on the Word which is above man, has become incorruptible.

– Athanasius, Letter 59, Section 10 (source)

It’s particularly remarkable to see how Athanasius portrays Scripture as commanding them to believe (“for the divine Scriptures bid them”). Athanasius recognizes that the Scriptures can bid one to believe – they have authority – and they are the indisputable rule of faith. Athanasius indicates that the Christians will silence their own error once they see what Scripture so plainly teaches.

Section 11, which is about the only section we haven’t discussed, continues the same Scriptural arguments:

But with regard to the imagination of some, who say that the Word came upon one particular man, the Son of Mary, just as it came upon each of the Prophets, it is superfluous to discuss it, since their madness carries its own condemnation manifestly with it. For if He came thus, why was that man born of a virgin, and not like others of a man and woman? For in this way each of the saints also was begotten. Or why, if the Word came thus, is not the death of each one said to have taken place on our behalf, but only this man’s death? Or why, if the Word sojourned among us in the case of each one of the prophets, is it said only in the case of Him born of Mary that He sojourned here ‘once at the consummation of the ages [Heb. ix. 26.]?’

– Athanasius, Letter 59, Section 11 (source)

Notice how Athanasius refers to the opinion of men who suggest that the Word came to Jesus, rather than Jesus being the Word made flesh as “madness” in view of the plain Scriptural testimony. (As an aside, it is interesting to note that Athanasius viewed only Christ’s death as having taken place on our behalf, and not also the deaths of the martyrs.)

In conclusion, there are indeed passages of Athanasius that don’t expressly rely on Scripture. For example, in section 4:

For they say that God came in a human body. But the fathers who also assembled at Nicæa say that, not the body, but the Son Himself is coessential with the Father, and that while He is of the Essence of the Father, the body, as they admitted according to the Scriptures, is of Mary. Either then deny the Synod of Nicæa, and as heretics bring in your doctrine from the side; or, if you wish to be children of the fathers, do not hold the contrary of what they wrote.

– Athanasius, Letter 59, Section 4 (source)

But when we see the fact that the fathers of Nicaea are mentioned only occasionally, while Scripture is mentioned throughout and that even comments like the comment above from section 4 is immediately preceded by the following sentences:

Whence did it occur to you, sirs, to say that the Body is of one Essence with the Godhead of the Word? For it is well to begin at this point, in order that by shewing this opinion to be unsound, all the others too may be proved to be the same. Now from the divine Scriptures we discover nothing of the kind.

– Athanasius, Letter 59, Section 4 (source)

In short, for Athanasius it is those divine Scriptures that are the rule of faith, and consequently they are what the fathers at Nicaea followed and taught. As Athanasius put it in section 1, “the Faith there confessed by the Fathers according to the divine Scriptures … .”


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