Archive for the ‘Tota Scriptura’ Category

Responding to K. Doran regarding Athanasius

January 13, 2010

In the comment box at Called to Communion (source), K. Doran responded to Andrew M. who had written:

At Nicea, since we can find no record of theologians of that time arguing for the truth of the things Nicea taught based on an appeal to claims of ecclesiastical infallibility of de fide pronouncements, it is hardly likely that any of the theologians who came to side with Nicea came to their understanding in this manner.

K. Doran first provided the following alleged quotation from Athansius (I quote K. Doran here quoting Athanasius):

Athanasius said: “the word of the Lord pronounced by the ecumenical synod of Nicaea stands for ever” (Ep. ad Afros, n. 2)

(This quotation comes, either directly or indirectly, from the Catholic Encyclopedia, 1910/13, from the article on Infallibility, by Msgr. Patrick J. Toner)

A better translation of the text would be: “But the word of the Lord which came through the ecumenical Synod at Nicæa, abides for ever.” (Athanasius, Letter to the African Bishops, Section 2)

The Catholic Encyclopedia entry cites as its source, PG26:1031, which is the Latin side of the page on which the underlying Greek of Athanasius can be found: “τὸ δὲ ῥῆμα τοῦ Κυρίου τὸ διὰ τῆς οἰκουμενικῆς συνόδου ἐν τῇ Νικαίᾳ γενόμενον μέ νει εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα.” (Migne’s Latin is: “Domini autem verbum per oecumenicam Nicaenam synodum prolatum in aeternum manet.”)

What one supposes that the original quotation was provided for was to suggest that somehow the council of Nicaea itself had some sort of public prophetic gift, such that it proclaimed a new “word of the Lord.” If the quotation above existed in a vacuum, perhaps such an interpretation would be possible.

But note that a little later on Athanasius does not hang his hat on the authority of Nicaea but invites the reader to judge the two councils (Nicaea and the Arian councils considered collectively):

And again, if a man were to examine and compare the great synod itself, and those held by these people, he would discover the piety of the one and the folly of the others. They who assembled at Nicæa did so not after being deposed: and secondly, they confessed that the Son was of the Essence of the Father. But the others, after being deposed again and again, and once more at Ariminum itself, ventured to write that it ought not to be said that the Son had Essence or Subsistence. This enables us to see, brethren, that they of Nicæa breathe the spirit of Scripture, in that God says in Exodus [Ex. iii. 14.], ‘I am that I am,’ and through Jeremiah, ‘Who is in His substance [ὑποστήματι, Jer. xxiii. 18, LXX.] and hath seen His word;’ and just below, ‘if they had stood in My subsistence [ὑποστάσει, v. 22.] and heard My words:’ now subsistence is essence, and means nothing else but very being, which Jeremiah calls existence, in the words, ‘and they heard not the voice of existence [ὕπαρξις, Jer. ix. 10, LXX.].’ For subsistence, and essence, is existence: for it is, or in other words exists. This Paul also perceiving wrote to the Hebrews, ‘who being the brightness of his glory, and the express Image of his subsistence [Heb. i. 3.].’ But the others, who think they know the Scriptures and call themselves wise, and do not choose to speak of subsistence in God (for thus they wrote at Ariminum and at other synods of theirs), were surely with justice deposed, saying as they did, 491like the fool did in his heart [Ps. xiv. 1.], ‘God is not.’ And again the fathers taught at Nicæa that the Son and Word is not a creature, nor made, having read ‘all things were made through Him [John i. 3.],’ and ‘in Him were all things created, and consist [Col. i. 16.];’ while these men, Arians rather than Christians, in their other synods have ventured to call Him a creature, and one of the things that are made, things of which He Himself is the Artificer and Maker. For if ‘through Him all things were made’ and He too is a creature, He would be the creator of Himself. And how can what is being created create? or He that is creating be created?

– Athanasius, Letter to the African Bishops, Section 4 (source)

K. Doran also provides a second quotation:

And again, Athanasius said: “[H]old fast, every one, the faith we have received from the Fathers, which they who assembled at Nicaea recorded in writing, and endure not those who endeavour to innovate thereon. And however they may write phrases out of the Scripture, endure not their writings; however they may speak the language of the orthodox, yet attend not to what they say; for they speak not with an upright mind, but putting on such language like sheeps’ clothing, in their hearts they think with Arius, after the manner of the devil, who is the author of all heresies. For he too made use of the words of Scripture, but was put to silence by our Saviour. . . . the character of apostolical men is sincere and incapable of fraud. (Circular to Bishops of Egypt and Libya 8; NPNF 2, Vol. IV)”

Whenever I see an elipsis, I wonder what has been omitted. In this case, the final phrase of the quotation misleads the reader, because the context is missing:

For if he had indeed meant them as he used them, he would not have fallen from heaven; but now having fallen through his pride, he artfully dissembles in his speech, and oftentimes maliciously endeavours to lead men astray by the subtleties and sophistries of the Gentiles. Had these expositions of theirs proceeded from the orthodox, from such as [List of specific orthodox teachers] with others of the same opinions as these;—there would then have been nothing to suspect in their statements, for the character of apostolical men is sincere and incapable of fraud.

– Athanasius, To the Bishops of Egypt, Chapter I, Section 8

In other words, the point is that the Arians pay only lip service to the words of Scripture, but they do not heed its meaning. This is not the first time in the circular that Athanasius makes reference to this fact. Indeed, a previous discussion makes the situation even more clear:

And again, when He put a curb in the mouths of the demons that cried after Him from the tombs. For although what they said was true, and they lied not then, saying, ‘Thou art the Son of God,’ and ‘the Holy One of God [Matt. viii. 29; Mark i. 24.];’ yet He would not that the truth should proceed from an unclean mouth, and especially from such as them, lest under pretence thereof they should mingle with it their own malicious devices, and sow these also while men slept. Therefore He suffered them not to speak such words, neither would He have us to suffer such, but hath charged us by His own mouth, saying, ‘Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheeps’ clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves [Matt. vii. 15.];’ and by the mouth of His Holy Apostles, ‘Believe not every spirit [1 John iv. 1.].’ Such is the method of our adversary’s operations; and of the like nature are all these inventions of heresies, each of which has for the father of its own device the devil, who changed and became a murderer and a liar from the beginning. But being ashamed to profess his hateful name, they usurp the glorious Name of our Saviour ‘which is above every name [Phil. ii. 9.],’ and deck themselves out in the language of Scripture, speaking indeed the words, but stealing away the true meaning thereof; and so disguising by some artifice their false inventions, they also become the murderers of those whom they have led astray.

– Athanasius, To the Bishops of Egypt, Chapter I, Section 3

Indeed, Athanasius goes on to explain how the various heretics attempt to dress up their words in Scripture, but explains that the remedy is what we colloquially call tota scriptura (intending “all of scripture”) and inward illumination from the Holy Spirit:

For whence do Marcion and Manichæus receive the Gospel while they reject the Law? For the New Testament arose out of the Old, and bears witness to the Old; if then they reject this, how can they receive what proceeds from it? Thus Paul was an Apostle of the Gospel, ‘which God promised afore by His prophets in the holy Scriptures [Rom. i. 2.]:’ and our Lord Himself said, ‘ye search the Scriptures, for they are they which testify of Me [John v. 39.].’ How then shall they confess the Lord unless they first search the Scriptures which are written concerning Him? And the disciples say that they have found Him, ‘of whom Moses and the Prophets did write [John i. 45.].’ And what is the Law to the Sadducees if they receive not the Prophets? For God who gave the Law, Himself promised in the Law that He would raise up Prophets also, so that the same is Lord both of the Law and of the Prophets, and he that denies the one must of necessity deny the other also. And again, what is the Old Testament to the Jews, unless they acknowledge the Lord whose coming was expected according to it? For had they believed the writings of Moses, they would have believed the words of the Lord; for He said, ‘He wrote of Me [John v. 46.].’ Moreover, what are the Scriptures to him who denies the Word of God and His incarnate Presence, which is signified and declared both in the Old and New Testament? And of what use are the Scriptures to the Arians also, and why do they bring them forward, men who say that the Word of God is a creature, and like the Gentiles ‘serve the creature more than’ God ‘the Creator [Rom. i. 25.]?’ Thus each of these heresies, in respect of the peculiar impiety of its invention, has nothing in common with the Scriptures. And their advocates are aware of this, that the Scriptures are very much, or rather altogether, opposed to the doctrines of every one of them; but for the sake of deceiving the more simple sort (such as are those of whom it is written in the Proverbs, ‘The simple believeth every word [Prov. xiv. 15.]),’ they pretend like their ‘father the devil [John viii. 44.]’ to study and to quote the language of Scripture, in order that they may appear by their words to have a right belief, and so may persuade their wretched followers to believe what is contrary to the Scriptures. Assuredly in every one of these heresies the devil has thus disguised himself, and has suggested to them words full of craftiness. The Lord spake concerning them, that ‘there shall arise false Christs and false prophets, so that they shall deceive many [Matt. xxiv. 24.].’ Accordingly the devil has come, speaking by each and saying, ‘I am Christ, and the truth is with me;’ and he has made them, one and all, to be liars like himself. And strange it is, that while all heresies are at variance with one another concerning the mischievous inventions which each has framed, they are united together only by the common purpose of lying. For they have one and the same father that has sown in them all the seeds, of falsehood. Wherefore the faithful Christian and true disciple of the Gospel, having grace to discern spiritual things, and having built the house of his faith upon a rock, stands continually firm and secure from their deceits. But the simple person, as I said before, that is not thoroughly grounded in knowledge, such an one, considering only the words that are spoken and not perceiving their meaning, is immediately drawn away by their wiles. Wherefore it is good and needful for us to pray that we may receive the gift of discerning spirits, so that every one may know, according to the precept of John, whom he ought to reject, and whom to receive as friends and of the same faith.

– Athanasius, To the Bishops of Egypt, Chapter I, Section 4

Notice that Athanasius (unlike Cross, Beckwith, and Liccione) not only thought that Arianism was not consistent with Scripture, but also insisted that the Arians knew this full well and simply pretended Scriptural proof to deceive the simple.

K. Doran asks:

Did Athanasius believe that he who interprets scripture in a manner contrary to a representative synod of bishops, united to the pope, which has made a decree with the binding formula “it has seemed good to the holy spirit and to us,” is in fact ipso facto breaking the rule of truth that Christ has established through his Church? Perhaps. This interpretation is certainly quite consistent with statements of the sort above. Perhaps he didn’t. Perhaps his rule of ecclesial infallibility was different than the Catholic one of today. Or perhaps his words above just mean that he really really liked the Council of Nicea, and he liked it so much that he decided it should “stand firm forever,” even though it wasn’t infallible.

Athanasius thought that the word of God proclaimed through the Nicaean council should stand forever. That doesn’t require him to think that the Nicaean council was constitutionally or naturally (as an ecumenical council) infallible. Instead, it requires him to think that it is right. He thinks it was right, as he explains at great length, because of what the Scriptures teach.

K. Doran continued:

We can never know what he really believed. He’s dead. And if God wanted us to know for sure what he believed he would have sent us to his century, instead of our own. But everyone who comes to the ECFs must be aware that their “Catholic”-sounding statements did not start at any particular period in history — they go back, in one form or another, in seed or in bud, to the beginning. So there is no use in using the ECFs to _casually_ claim that ecclesial infallibility is a corruption of the deposit of faith. You will need a more subtle argument, along the lines of your non-ECF-based philosophical discussion.

Such remarkable post-modernism! We have writings of Athanasius. We can learn a lot about what he believed from them. Learning what ancient people believed doesn’t require us to go back in time to their day, provided they leave behind writings.

In this case as well, we learn from Athanasius how the bishops at Nicaea decided the matter, and you should not be shocked to discover that their rationale was that the Arian heresy was contrary to Scripture:

For the Bishops who all assembled from all parts at the Council of Nicæa, began to hold their ears at these statements, and all with one voice condemned this heresy on account of them, and anathematized it, declaring it to be alien and estranged from the faith of the Church. It was no compulsion which led the judges to this decision, but they all deliberately vindicated the truth: and they did so justly and rightly. For infidelity is coming in through these men, or rather a Judaism counter to the Scriptures, which has close upon it Gentile superstition, so that he who holds these opinions can no longer be even called a Christian, for they are all contrary to the Scriptures. John, for instance, …

– Athanasius, Letter to Bishops of Egypt, Chapter II, Section 13

So then, when wrapping up his letter, what did Athanasius do? Did he appeal to the dignity of the Roman bishop’s office? Did he remind them that the council of Nicaea was ecumenical? Hopefully you will not be shocked that Athanasius commends to them to clothe themselves with the Scriptures:

Let them however thus dream and imagine vain things. We know that when our gracious Emperor shall hear of it, he will put a stop to their wickedness, and they will not continue long, but according to the words of Scripture, ‘the hearts of the impious shall quickly fail them [Prov. x. 20, LXX.].’ But let us, as it is written, ‘put on the words of holy Scripture [2 Kings xvii. 9, LXX.],’ and resist them as apostates who would set up fanaticism in the house of the Lord. And let us not fear the death of the body, nor let us emulate their ways; but let the word of Truth be preferred before all things.

– Athanasius, Letter to Bishops of Egpyt, Chapter II, Section 23

Indeed, so let it be,


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