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The Church Fathers Didn’t Teach Sola Scriptura (Part 2)

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We continue our conversation with the author of Reform Yourself! and the founder and editor of EpicPew.com on whether the Church Fathers believed in Sola Scriptura with looks at Athanasius, Cyril of Jerusalem, and Augustine.


Cy Kellett: This time Athanasius, Cyril of Jerusalem and Augustine, did they support Sola Scriptura?

Cy Kellett: Hello and welcome again to Catholic Answers Focus. I am Cy Kellett, your host, and we’re in the midst of a conversation with Shaun McAfee, the author of Reform Yourself!, among other books. Shaun wrote a series of four articles for Catholic Answers Magazine under the general banner “When Protestants Quote the Fathers Against the Church.”

Cy Kellett: And when we’re talking about the Church Fathers, well, if you want to know more about them, you can go to episode one in this conversation, but when we’re just generally, when we’re talking about the Church Fathers, we’re talking about that period from immediately at the time of the Apostles. Men who knew the Apostles and were men like the Bishop of Rome, Clement, who knew, probably, the Apostles Peter and Paul and became one of the first what we now call Popes there in Rome, and all the way up to men like John of Damascus who was a monk in the time of the Muslim conquest of Syria. He was a Syrian monk and so his father, for example, is probably a Christian official who worked for a Muslim kalif there in Damascus.

Cy Kellett: So you get a sense of the sweep of history that happens from Christ Himself and his Apostles all the way up until the Church begins facing the challenge posed by the invasions of Muslims into North Africa and Asia. These men were working out what is the truth that is revealed to us in the teaching and traditions of the Apostles handed on to us, both through the life of the Church and through the Scripture written by and selected by the Church. Well, how do we understand these truths? How do we understand the divinity of Christ? How do we understand the role of Mary as Christ’s mother and many other very basic questions needing thorough and helpful answers.

Cy Kellett: And it took a long time and it took saints to do it. So we’re discussing some of those. Last time we discussed Basil of Caesarea now we discuss, with Shaun, Athanasius of Alexandria and then a couple more: Cyril of Jerusalem and Augustine of Hippo. Thanks for joining us again, Shaun.

Shaun McAfee: Thank you for having me, Cy.

Cy Kellett: Anything you want to correct in that intro this time? No?

Shaun McAfee: I didn’t correct you last time.

Cy Kellett: No, I’m just saying like sometimes I’m just trying to set it all back up. I didn’t mean it that way. I just tried to set it all back up. I wanted to make sure I had got that basically correct. All right, so Athanasius of Alexandria. We know him as the defender of the Triune God, really. Isn’t that what most famous for?

Shaun McAfee: Yeah. All but, now, not to say Augustine never had to defend the Trinity, but really these first three that we’re discussing had to defend the Nicene Creed in their time, which was really oriented towards the Trinity. So Athanasius, yes, absolutely. He was an enormous proponent of the Trinity. The idea of a Trinitarian Godhead, they are actually using that word “Godhead” at that time.

Cy Kellett: But, and now here’s the strange thing among Christians–

Shaun McAfee: In English.

Cy Kellett: Oh, “Godhead?”

Shaun McAfee: I’m just kidding.

Cy Kellett: Oh, I was going to say that was pretty good use of English. Back in the 4th Century or the 5th, what is he? Four? Yeah, 4th century.

Cy Kellett: But here’s what I wanted to get to though. Good people, Christians trying to live the Christian life, people who have accepted Christ into their life could not come to agreement on what it meant that Christ was the Son of God, that Christ is God and the Son of God. These are not people who are evil. I’m sure there were some who were evil, but this is an actual, legitimate question that people are struggling with in the early centuries of the Church. Today the question is mostly settled among Christians. You have some Oneness Pentecostals, you have Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons, all of whom claim the title of Christian who have decided that this basic question about God’s nature is unresolved, but so we had a period when this was not resolved. We had, and have had since then, a long, long period where even Christians who have been fighting and killing one another have basically agreed on the Trinity.

Shaun McAfee: Yep. Isn’t that weird that even now, like, what has it been, 1500 years since the Arian Heresy, we still have people like Jehovah’s Witnesses. They actually came to my gate out front yesterday. My kids were out there riding their bikes and we had a conversation. Then Mom came home and the kids were like, “Mom, these guys came to the gate and they don’t believe in Jesus.” And she was like, “Oh, Jehovah’s Witnesses.” They were like, “Yeah, they tried to out-talk Dad.”

Cy Kellett: Big mistake. Try to out-talk Shaun McAfee. Well, I mean that’s the thing, is I, you know, when you have a conversation with Jehovah’s Witnesses, there’s all kinds of strategies people have, but myself, I’ve come to the conclusion, I just tell them I believe that Jesus is God and there is nothing that is going to convince me otherwise. And then, then if you still want to have a conversation with me, fine. But there’s nothing that you are going to say that convinces me that Jesus is not God.

Shaun McAfee: And I think it’s really interesting the way you put it. You’re probably right, and it’s probably me just using semantics here, but you said the issue was not solved and there’s kind of, was it not solved? Because the Church was saying that Jesus is God through Gnosticism and through Arian Heresy and the other weird ones that have come out since then that are talking about the graces and the Personhood and attack even the Holy Spirit as a part of the Godhead. And so to me it’s a weird thing where, yes, the Church is saying this. There’s a community and a collective of bishops, especially the Bishop of Rome, that are standing up and saying, “This is what we teach.” And they got to have these councils, or at least one major council, the Council of Nicaea, in order to define that. But it doesn’t mean that they weren’t teaching that before it.

Cy Kellett: I see. Okay. Fair enough. I guess I just wanted to make the point that like Jehovah’s Witnesses today, these are good people who are trying, they’re, in general, they’re not people who are just saying, “I don’t want Jesus” or “I want nothing to do with that Christianity thing.”

Shaun McAfee: And it’s, yeah, we don’t need to talk about Jehovah’s Witnesses, but to me, it’s even more difficult with them compared to Arians, cause it’s not just like a reading of Scripture that we don’t quite understand to the degree we do in the 21st century. But for Jehovah’s Witnesses, you’ve got the issues with the Watch Tower Bible Society, changing words in Scripture.

Cy Kellett: Right. Which you’re not supposed to do. I don’t know if you know that Shaun, but you’re not supposed to change the Word of God.

Shaun McAfee: I read that like on the back of a cereal box or something.

Cy Kellett: Or maybe the back of the Book of Revelation. One of those places.

Cy Kellett: Yeah, okay. So these, I guess what I’m getting at is that–maybe I’m doing this in an underhanded way, but a Protestant person today, an evangelical Protestant who is fully alive in defending the Triune God and loves the Triune God, owes a debt of gratitude to people like Athanasius who were the Catholics of the ancient world who figured this out and how to talk about it.

Shaun McAfee: That is an enormous debt we owe people like Athanasius and the others, when we think about the enormous volume of study and writing that they had to do to really defend the faith and give us extant documents to use now, especially to show continuity. Because we can always go ahead and say, “Hey, this is our interpretation.” But it is so valuable to Catholics now to say, “Look, since the Bible was written, we have a history of Church Fathers all the way to John of Damascus.” And then we have the academics taking the synthesis of the Greek philosophers in the Middle Ages and perfecting that theology with great terms, right? And then we have the Renaissance Catholics really showing the beauty of these teachings. And now we have modern Catholicism where we can show this enormous world of tradition and excellency because we have that thread through history to say, “This is what we’ve always taught and nothing else.”

Shaun McAfee: And that’s attractive. That’s attractive to Christians who take the time to realize that it’s the truth.

Cy Kellett: Alright, so Athanasius is again taken by, when Protestants quote the Fathers against the Church, taken to be a defender of Sola Scriptura. Essentially a person like James White or other apologists for Sola Scriptura will say, “Your own guy Athanasius says ‘The sacred, inspired Scriptures are sufficient to declare the truth.’ So that settles the issue.”

Shaun McAfee: Exactly.

Cy Kellett: Gotcha. Okay. Alright, so what’s the argument against that? Because that does seem kind of clear.

Shaun McAfee: Yeah, well, the argument against that is you have to read the entire quote. Plus, as I point to as later in the article, if you want me to read that, we have to read, really, the full spectrum of opinions of Athanasius, because right now he’s not talking about scriptures as a matter of Canon. He’s talking about scriptures at that point in time as a matter of opinion. And we can get into that.

Cy Kellett: Okay, so this is before the definition of the Canon?

Shaun McAfee: Yes.

Cy Kellett: And so what is the point that he’s trying to make here?

Shaun McAfee: So he’s basically pointing to the common issue of interpretation. So he says, “If you meet with a man, which will”–around this quote, he says “For although the sacred and inspired Scriptures are sufficient to declare the truth–while there are other works of our blessed teachers compiled for this purpose, if he meet with which a man will gain some knowledge of the interpretation of the Scriptures, and he be able to learn what he wishes to know–still, as we have not present in our own hands the composition of such teachers, we must communicate in writing to you what we have learned from them.”

Cy Kellett: Wow. That’s like saying the opposite of what…

Shaun McAfee: Yeah. He’s saying, “Look, the Scriptures are sufficient, but first of all, you need somebody to help you understand what that interpretation is. And right now we don’t have any of those people to help you learn those, so you must learn what we have been passed from them.” And he’s talking about the Apostles.

Cy Kellett: Okay, so basically, the Apostles can tell you what all this means, but we don’t have the Apostles, so we’ve been handed on something. What we learned from them, the faith, namely, of Christ the Savior. So we learned the faith from the Apostles, not we learned the faith from the Scripture.

Shaun McAfee: Correct.

Cy Kellett: Athanasius was not a Protestant.

Shaun McAfee: Because, as Paul says, and I know Tim Staples could quote me the passage here, but he says, “Faith comes by hearing”.

Cy Kellett: Right.

Shaun McAfee: And listening. Not by reading and doing your own interpretation. And that’s not what the quote says.

Cy Kellett: Okay. So he is giving very high praise and position to the Scriptures. He’s saying, “Yeah, you can get the faith from the Scriptures, but you’re going to need the Apostle to tell you what all that is about, and you don’t have an Apostle. What you’ve got is me and it’s been handed on to me.”

Shaun McAfee: Yeah. So really what they did is they cherry-picked this from a pretty important quote that points to a greater Catholic truth about the Scriptures and tradition.

Cy Kellett: Okay, so let’s move then to Cyril of Jerusalem. Who is Cyril of Jerusalem?

Shaun McAfee: Cyril of Jerusalem. He he lived from 313 AD to 386 and he is another post-Nicene Father of the Church. And he strongly advocated for orthodoxy through the strict teachings of Scripture.

Shaun McAfee: And so because–I looked up sixty of his letters and almost every one of them, he goes into the prominence of Scriptures as an authority for the truth. And it was really difficult, actually, to dissect and to find some nuggets in here to show that he wasn’t just saying, “Hey look, the Scriptures are the only authority and the highest authority, but that is a dual authority”. And so that’s in continuity with what we see with the rest of the Church fathers as well.

Cy Kellett: Okay, so why is he–what’s the situation that is prompting Cyril of Jerusalem to be so forceful in defending the position of Scripture as truth?

Shaun McAfee: I think it’s really just his charism as a Bishop, that’s the best way I’ve read it. In the introductions to his letters and in the introduction to this quote that I had here that Protestants sometimes use, it’s really just about his charism and his desire to produce the most catechized converts to the faith possible and to keep them learning after their baptism. And then he wants Scripture to do that job.

Cy Kellett: So there is some, I mean we, I guess there’s a preventive here in that we really as Catholics have to be very careful not to dismiss the Protestant love for Scripture and devotion to Scripture. That’s a bad strategy.

Shaun McAfee: No, no, absolutely not. Anybody who would read the Scriptures, anybody who reads Psalm 1:19 all the way through the end of the New Testament, we can understand the enormous prominence of the Scriptures all the way up to the modern day. I mean, we have Dei Verbum from the documents of Vatican II that clarify and confirm that the Scriptures are the Word of God and they are error-free and they are an authority for teaching. But no place in Church history has there ever been a thread, a common thread, that the Bible is the only authority. And not just that, but there was no place that–and actually this is just a logical fallacy, that everybody can interpret it the same way. That just doesn’t work.

Cy Kellett: Well, you found a fascinating quote from Cyril, which I would like to read in its entirety, because it’s basically a direct refutation of Sola Scriptura, from, again, a Bishop in Jerusalem in the 4th century. “What else is there that knows the deep things of God, save only the Holy Ghost, who spoke the divine Scriptures? But not even the Holy Ghost himself has spoken in the Scriptures concerning the generation of the Son from the Father.” So this is a thing that we know, that Jesus is the only-begotten Son of the Father, but he’s saying you can’t find that in Scripture.

Shaun McAfee: Exactly. And Protestants will cherry-pick portions of this like they did the other one, because it talks about the prominence of Scripture; but really, like you said, he’s not only saying that the Bible is an authority for teaching. You say, “Look, there are some things we teach that either aren’t directly in the Bible or they are only implied through the reading of the Bible.”

Cy Kellett: All right, thank you, Cyril of Jerusalem. Let’s move on to Augustus Aurelius himself.

Shaun McAfee: Is that his name?

Cy Kellett: I think his middle name is Aurelius. Yeah.

Shaun McAfee: Oh!

Cy Kellett: Augustine of Hippo. Saint Augustine of Hippo. He lives from the 4th into the 5th century. What do you want to tell us before we get into Augustine, the great man?

Shaun McAfee: Saint Augustine is important because, first of all, he has that enormously beautiful conversion story that almost everybody can relate to. He was world famous even in his own time, but at the same time, they said that he was the voice of the god Caesar. Well, he became really, he, he took that and he said, “Well, now I’m the voice of my God, the God of the Bible.” And so he became a prolific author. As he was a prolific publican, he became a prolific author. And so he defended the Church from every angle. And he’s world famous because of that. Like I said, if there’s anybody that a Protestant or Catholic wants to capitalize on, it’s Augustine.

Cy Kellett: Well, even his contemporary, Saint Jerome, I think said of him that he had re-established the Church, after all the centuries, on the truth; that he was the guy that got this thing started again with a new kind of clarity and freshness for a Church that was already 300 years old.

Shaun McAfee: Big statement to make whenever that person’s living in the same time as you.

Cy Kellett: Yeah. And from Jerome, who didn’t like anybody.

Shaun McAfee: Yeah, sure.

Cy Kellett: So, okay, so it’s also true that Catholics and Protestants share Augustine. Like Luther, great admirer of Augustine and drew from him. Protestants still today draw from Augustine as a great source.

Shaun McAfee: Yes. I can remember whenever I was 12 years old and I met my youth pastor and I was awe-inspired by his knowledge of the Bible and really just his peculiar holiness as a young, aspiring Christian myself. As I asked him, I said, “What do you read in order to help you have the faith that you want?” And he pointed to nobody but Augustine. He said, “You’ve got to to read the City of God, you’ve got to read the Confessions, you have to read the magnanimity of the truth coming from this young man who had a great conversion to Christ and went on to live in and really preach the faith as much as he believed in it.”

Cy Kellett: Yeah. Yeah. And I think every time the news reports on morality, you cannot report on morality, even in the modern world, without using Augustine’s words. Especially when it comes to war, they’ll talk about “just war” and “proportionate means” and all these kinds of things. I think “Well, guess where you got that?” Okay, so how do Protestants quote Augustine against the Church?

Shaun McAfee: So they use this interesting logical argument that kind of like, actually, Basil did, where he isolates Scripture from two common authorities to the person he’s writing the letter to. He says, “I am not bound by the authority of Ariminum,” which was a council that the Arians led and won, and they actually rejected the Nicene Creed at. He says, “I am not bound to that council. And you’re not bound to the Council of Nicaea. By the authority of the Scriptures that are not the property of anyone, but the common witnesses of us both, let position do battle with position, case against case, reason with reason.”

Shaun McAfee: So what a Protestant will say is that he is saying, “Look, nobody is bound to the authority of the Church, because Augustine says that you are not born or bound to the most important councill there was. And that’s Nicaea. But the mistake here is actually Augustine never says that Augustine is not bound to him. He actually says that the person he’s writing the letter to is not bound to him, and he confirms that Augustine, he says of himself, that he is not bound to the Counsel of Ariminum.

Cy Kellett: Right.

Shaun McAfee: Which makes perfect sense. Why would I be bound to something that happens over at Kingdom Hall? We were discussing the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Cy Kellett: Yeah.

Shaun McAfee: And why would, why should, a Jehovah’s Witness feel bound to Vatican II?

Cy Kellett: Right.

Shaun McAfee: But the common thing that we both hold as an authority, even if we don’t agree on how to interpret it, is the Bible. And that’s what he’s pointing at here. So really a basic reading of this one is very easy to dismantle and refute it.

Cy Kellett: Fair enough. So one thing however, today, you do see kind of growth, I say today, but really over the last 150 years, this growth and establishment of liberal Christianity. I don’t mean the politically liberal, I don’t care whether people are politically liberal or conservative. I have no interest in that. But I mean liberal in the sense of wanting to say that for example, the traditional teachings on, particularly today, sexuality, no longer hold and no longer have a place that we have to respect. So, for example, you’ll have bishops in some Episcopal churches here in the United States who are men married to other men, that kind of thing, for example, which is seen by many people as an advance. But it’s very hard…much of that involves a kind of dismissal of Scripture as a sociological document. “Well, sure, that’s what they believed at the time, but we need to take the teachings of Jesus and update them.” It does seem that all of these Fathers, and our Protestant brothers and sisters, are unanimously saying, “No, that is not how we are to respond to Scripture.”

Shaun McAfee: The dictatorship of relativism is, what we’re trying to do is, we’re trying to take something that we know works, like the teachings of Jesus, we know that–this is something that’s kind of almost in our blood as Western people, it’s just the Christian ethos is there–and so they take it and they try to, like you said, they try to manufacture it and matriculate it into something that agrees with modern interpretations of morality or politics or what have you. And you’re absolutely right. You said liberal, and I understand the word you mean, and I think you hit it on the head when you said it’s like progressivism; it’s advancing something that they know to be important and know to be an authority and they make it match what they need it to match in the 21st century. It’s pretty ugly.

Cy Kellett: Well, I bring that up in part to say that these Fathers of the Church that you quote are sometimes quoted against the Catholic Church by our evangelical brothers and sisters, but primarily the devotion they have to the Word of God as the Word of God, not just as a kind of story from the olden days or as a sociological artifact, but as the Word of God, is something that we do share. And these Fathers prove it, that we do share that.

Shaun McAfee: Yeah. And it goes back to kind of what I said, and I’m just getting it again, I said it in the first episode, that I think that these Fathers, these Church Fathers, especially these four–before John of Damascus, where he had all their writings for him to use as a thread to show the continuity–these guys must’ve had a like a big mess in front of them, and they must have said–they were trying to address one situation, where, I’m looking at you, Cy, and I’m thinking, what if 2000 years from now your podcast or your writings are dug up, and they’re thinking, “What did Cy believe? Was he clear enough?” And what if you knew that they were going to do that? You would do everything in your power to make sure you make a declaration of faith that says exactly what you believe in order to address that, or at least to address the issues going on in our time right now?

Cy Kellett: Right.

Shaun McAfee: They did the same, but they weren’t forward thinkers. I mean, people in these previous centuries were never thinking about how history would kind of turn out. They were thinking about what happened in the past in order to have continuity with that–that is a very Catholic principle–and to address the issues of their day. We see this all throughout Christian history, especially in things like–it’s actually visible in our architecture. They dug up Rome and now they’re finding all these churches and the catacombs and whatnot; but they weren’t thinking, “Hey look, we got to protect these churches after the Tiber floods every year so that the future centuries of Christians can understand that we were Catholics and we buried our dead this way, and we believed in the Blessed Virgin.” They found that image, the earliest image of the Blessed Virgin in the catacombs of, who was it? It wasn’t Domatilla…another one.

Shaun McAfee: What I’m saying is, I feel kind of bad sometimes. I’m so grateful for the Church Fathers because they’re an excellent resource, but they really had a job to do in their time, and thank God that He inspired them to do it the right way to give us a resource, but boy, oh boy did they have to choose their words carefully. But they weren’t thinking about us. They were thinking about, “What do I have to do, with what I have, to defend the faith, to protect people, to keep them within the fold of Christ’s flock and to also carry the baton to the next generation?”

Cy Kellett: Shaun, we’ll just leave it there. I think you are in error about people digging up my stuff 2000 years from now. I think it will be on the shelves in every home. I don’t think anybody’s going to have to dig it up, but thank you for your defense of the Fathers.

Shaun McAfee: There’s the humility we all know.

Cy Kellett: Yeah, right. Shaun McAfee is the founder and editor of EpicPew.com. You can get his book, Reform Yourself!, and if you’re looking for him you’re going to have to go to Italy to find him. Thanks, Shaun McAfee. Really appreciate that.

Shaun McAfee: Thanks. I hope it was helpful.

Cy Kellett: It was very much. Thanks for everybody who joins us here on Catholic Answers Focus. Please give us a like or a mention wherever you get this podcast so that the podcast can grow. And if you want to join Radio Club, just go over to CatholicAnswersLive.com, give us your email address and then you’re a member of Radio Club. We just send you free stuff. We’ll see you next time, God willing, on Catholic Answers Focus.

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