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The Church Fathers Didn’t Teach Sola Scriptura (Part 1)

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The author of Reform Yourself! and the founder and editor of EpicPew.com helps you explain what the Church Fathers really taught about the Bible. He details how Protestant defenders of Sola Scriptura go too far when they enlist the early Church Fathers to defend the idea that Scripture is the sole rule of faith.


Cy Kellett: Did the early Church Fathers really teach sola scriptura? Next on Catholic Answers Focus.

Cy Kellett: Hello, and welcome again to Catholic Answers Focus. I am Cy Kellett, your host. We do hear, from time to time, folks who say they came into the Catholic Church because they read the Church Fathers, and they understood through reading the Church Fathers that the Catholic Church is the church that goes right back to the Apostles and to Jesus himself. But there are some who will read into the Church Fathers a more Protestant understanding and say, “No, when I read the Church Fathers, I find a defense, really, there of what I believe as a Protestant.”

Cy Kellett: Here to help us sort that out is Shaun McAfee. Shaun is the author of Reform Yourself! and other books. He’s the founder and editor of EpicPew.com, and contributes to many online Catholic resources. He holds a master’s degree in dogmatic theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. He’s made a temporary profession as a lay Dominican, and he lives with his family in Italy.

Cy Kellett: Hello, Shaun.

Shaun McAfee: Hello, Cy. Thanks for having me.

Cy Kellett: Thank you for being here with us, because I was reading articles that you wrote for Catholic Answers Magazine, the finest Catholic publication in the world, and you tackle just this bit about that Protestants will sometimes use the Church Fathers against Catholics. To Catholics, that might be surprising because we kind of think that the Church Fathers are Catholic.

Shaun McAfee: Yeah, I would say so. I enjoyed your introduction, but I would say that I don’t particularly feel that whenever a Protestant reads the data or the strata from the Church Fathers, that they would get a very Protestant notion out of them. I think what they do is they know that the Church Fathers are an exceedingly important tool to defend the faith, and so finding anything, any quote here or there, regardless of its context or the content surrounding it, is going to be a plus for them if they can read a Protestant idea out of that, especially something like sola scriptura. What we find is not that they read through the Church Fathers and the Protestant apologist would suddenly feel compelled to believe that the Church Fathers were overall supportive of Protestant ideas; but they’re probably cherry-picking certain ideas in order to support their own. They’re really just proof-texting is what they’re doing.

Cy Kellett: What about this idea, however, that the… Okay, so it’s not that the Fathers of the Church then were supportive of Protestant ideas, but it’s that maybe you might find quotes here and there that would say, “Hey, wait a second, Catholics, even your guys, the Church Fathers, believed this or that.” Would the idea then be that the Church Fathers really were not teaching quite the same faith that Jesus and the Apostles were teaching, that there had been a kind of disruption in the teaching of the faith?

Shaun McAfee: Well, certainly not, but I see where you’re going with that. I think it’s true that what a Protestant is probably trying to do is they’re trying to brand them as their own.

Shaun McAfee: Actually, writing these articles for the magazine actually took a lot of study. I had some ideas when I approached Tim Ryland for the idea, but I had a lot of studying ahead of me because I was required to read through a lot of the Church Fathers in order to get more of the contextual feel.

Shaun McAfee: What I found is that, yes, it is certainly Catholic, it is certainly apostolic, and certainly agrees with what we find in the Bible, especially where Paul says we have to mix tradition and Scripture, that the Church is the authority and the pillar and the bulwark of the faith, and the biblical citations that we’re familiar with; but we do also find heavy emphasis, based on the Church Fathers, on exactly what they’re talking about.

Shaun McAfee: For example, one of these, I think it’s Cyril of Jerusalem, he was a heavy proponent of scriptural basis of authority, so any Protestant is going to read through his and say, “Yeah, he’s heavy on Scripture. The Church Fathers were heavy on Scripture,” but that’s not necessarily the case. You’ve got to read everything they say in its context.

Cy Kellett: In a weird kind of way, that would seem to suggest that the Church didn’t do what it’s sometimes accused of doing, which is abandon the Bible in favor of its own traditions. If you have people who are saints and doctors of the Church, like Cyril, then you have a different view of the Catholic Church, don’t you?

Shaun McAfee: I would say so. I think one thing that’s special about them is that somebody like Cyril, he’s not just pointing to the Bible, but like we said, he’s pointing to a dual authority. Also, at the time, we have to remember, Cyril and Augustine were probably the later of the four that I covered, but what’s important is that three of these that I covered, other than Augustine, they were Fathers of the Church that were also pre-Council of Carthage Fathers of the Church. These are Fathers of the Church who weren’t… They weren’t discussing a canonized Bible. In fact, one of these, as I point out in the article, he even says that the New Testament, names all the books, were canon, but he says that the books of the Old Testament, he names a few of those, he says those are not, and he’s purely speaking of opinion. We really gotta read all of these in the context and in the complete contextual history of when they said it.

Cy Kellett: All right. Well, if I may, we’re going to get into the four that you covered in the magazine, but I want to ask you, since you did all that study of the Church fathers, what effect did that have on your sense of what the early Church was, who these people were, what their concerns were, what they were trying to communicate?

Shaun McAfee: I think it confirms something that maybe I’ve heard from the folks at Catholic Answers or read in some good apologetics from time to time, and that’s that the Church was pretty… It was coordinated, but it was also kind of a big mess. There were central points of authority. Ideas like the primacy of the bishop of Rome were fluid throughout the writings of the Church Fathers and that period of Christianity. But I really got the sense that there was also kind of a big mess, and there wasn’t probably a straightforward, collective way of approaching apologetics, which is why we find, I guess, some variances to the approach from different Church Fathers, even if they’re discussing the same topic, such as Scripture, or the heresies, like Arianism.

Cy Kellett: So it’s not like, “Oh, these guys are just a uniform…” This isn’t like the Jesuits going out, “Hey, we’ve all got this mission together. We know what the message is. We know what we got to say. Out we go.” This is a very motley crew.

Shaun McAfee: Sort of. I guess, if I could try to put it intelligibly, it’s that they all preach the same message, and they don’t contradict each other, as far as I found. But what they have is, they probably didn’t have a uniform way of approaching these subjects, and that’s because I think… We live in the 21st century now. We kind of have a bit of hindsight. We understand the mode and effects of the kinds of ways that we’re teaching. We’ve actually studied the study of teaching. Well, these guys were kind of just… I’m not saying the were just winging it, because they weren’t winging it with their theology, but they were sort of just winging it according to the defenses that they knew how to employ. We’ve become very synthesized now when we have people like Saint Robert Bellarmine and Saint Francis and the good folks at Catholic Answers who have really given us a wholesome model of a complete way to defend the faith, whereas these Fathers were doing the best with what they had.

Cy Kellett: Were they Greek speakers or Latin speakers, or who were they as far as that went?

Shaun McAfee: Actually, I’m not sure. I know that the common tongue would have been Latin throughout Christendom, but they were probably very fluent in Greek as academics. Most of these bishops were extremely studied, so they were not just approaching the Bible from a layman’s point of view as far as linguistics is concerned, if that’s what you’re asking.

Cy Kellett: Yeah. I guess I maybe should get a basic definition before we get into specific ones then. When we’re talking about the Church Fathers, to your mind, what period are we talking about? The Apostles would be excluded from that because the role of an apostle is different from any other role in the history of the Church or the world. But where does the age of the Fathers of the Church begin, and what does it extend to?

Shaun McAfee: It’s actually far more enormous than I realized. Like I said, writing these articles required me to actually answer a few questions that I didn’t know the answer to. That was the first one I said. What is the period here? I actually thought going in that it was like 200s, maybe first century, to 300s, 400s, Augustine of Hippo era. But, no, the answer that I found in most communities and schools of, I guess, apologetics, discussions were first century, Clement of Rome–not apostolic, I suppose, that wasn’t the apostolic age–all the way to John of Damascus in the eighth century. So early as the late first century to the 700s. Pretty big.

Cy Kellett: Wow. When you think about that, so you have Clement, who knows the Apostles, and all the way to John of Damascus, that means John of Damascus knows the followers of Muhammad. He has to deal with Islam.

Shaun McAfee: Yes. And the people in the later generations of the Church Fathers, imagine the wealth of knowledge and the extant writings that they could study in order to understand how to defend the faith, whereas people like Clement of Rome, they must’ve just thought, “Why do I have to defend this mess? What am I supposed to do? What are the tools that I have? Other than my own logical thinking and the tradition that’s been passed to me, what can I do?”

Shaun McAfee: That’s what a lot of these… Each of these authors in this, the common thread here is these guys were saying, yes, the authority is the tradition and the Scriptures, but you have to interpret those Scriptures according to the tradition that’s been given. It’s both.

Cy Kellett: But when you talk about it, two things come to mind. One, it sounds like they must’ve gotten some stuff wrong, then. They’re before even the definitions of the councils of the Church on, say, the nature of Christ and the relations in the blessed Trinity. They lived before these definitions are made. They must have made mistakes as well.

Shaun McAfee: We see in some of their writings, obviously I pointed out one of them, where I think it was Athanasius, he says that the canon of the Old Testament isn’t canon, when that hadn’t been decided yet. The continuity isn’t there. That doesn’t degrade our use of Athanasius’s words there. It actually kind of accelerates and promotes the idea of what he’s talking about, given the context.

Shaun McAfee: But yeah, I think some of them probably didn’t do us too much help in the 21st century now, looking back on the continuity, and then some of the others, I think they were probably pretty experimental, people like Tertullian or Origen, who is now being brought back into the fold as more worthy of being a Church Bather. But yeah, I detect what you’re pointing to there, and I think there’s some wisdom to that.

Cy Kellett: Okay, so the other thing, however, is we now in the 21st century with… We have a pope, and the pope has a curia, and there’s this orderly way of finding and appointing bishops. It’s just a very orderly thing. We have catechisms, and we have all this stuff. The sense I’m getting is, as good as all that is, I’m not saying it’s bad, the Holy Spirit doesn’t necessarily need that. He can work with what you got. That’s what I’m getting from the Church Fathers.

Shaun McAfee: That’s very true. I think that’s a stumbling block, for people to look at the first-century Church, especially the apostolic era of the Church, and see the simplicity and see the free flow of information and little changes to ideas and little governance, and then they see this somewhat bureaucratic and very organized hierarchy that the Catholic Church represents today, and to them, that is an affront and a veil, and it’s difficult for them to see past that, to see that these two churches were the same.

Shaun McAfee: I think, if I can say, I have him in mind only because his canonization is next month, but Blessed John Cardinal Henry Newman, his idea in Apologia Pro Vita Sua, where he picks apart the development of the Catholic Church, time period for time period, in his own way, I think it’s a helpful way, if anybody’s listening in and struggling with that too. I think he did it best. He was the best at showing the development of doctrine and the hierarchy of the Church.

Cy Kellett: I see what you mean. Yeah. Right. It’s something that’s been entrusted to human hands. It’s like watching the sausage made, I guess.

Cy Kellett: Well, how about we move to one of the four men that you covered? Basil of Caesarea. Who is he, where is Caesarea, and what’s his deal?

Shaun McAfee: Okay, so Basil, he lived from 329 AD to 379. He was the bishop in Caesarea of Cappadocia. I think they still call it Cappadocia. That’s not where we get cappuccinos, though. It’s in modern-day Turkey. His main interest of his time, of course, was battling the spread of Arianism. He was a huge, staunch advocate, being only a generation after the definitions that came out of the Nicene Creed.

Shaun McAfee: I was pondering, getting ready for this interview, the Nicene Creed this morning, and it’s a thought I have every time I say it at Mass, how repetitive and how much they drove home that divinity of Jesus, “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father.” They say the same thing a bunch of times to make sure that everybody is saying, hey, look, no matter which way you talk about it, they are the same substance. I think it’s really cool.

Cy Kellett: Yeah. No escape hatches.

Shaun McAfee: No.

Cy Kellett: Right. Okay, and he’s a bishop, you said?

Shaun McAfee: Yep. He’s the bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia.

Cy Kellett: Are most of these Fathers bishops, or are some of them just, I don’t know-

Shaun McAfee: Yeah. A number of them are bishops, yes.

Cy Kellett: All right, so here’s the way a Protestant-

Shaun McAfee: And there’s a reason for that. There’s a reason for that, an important reason for that, that I discovered recently as I was reading through the Second Lateran Council documents. I know, I’m a really boring person. But that’s because the office of preaching and the office of teaching, historically, until we had approved orders like the Dominicans–which I belong to, hi–belonged to the office of the bishop. So who did they go to when they had a problem? They didn’t go to the priests. They didn’t go to the laity. They didn’t go to the deacons. They didn’t go to Catholic Answers. They went to the bishop. So that role had to be a very academic and apologetic-oriented role, especially for that time.

Cy Kellett: I have to say, it’s a role the bishop can’t perform in most places anymore because the dioceses are too big. That’s just my personal polemic. I thought I’d throw that in there.

Cy Kellett: But this is a time when people had intimate contact… I shouldn’t say intimate, people will misunderstand that, but had personal and humane direct contact with their bishop. He wasn’t somebody far away in a chancery.

Shaun McAfee: Yeah, and that’s what’s made some of the great saints. We read that in their lives, especially of these bishops as the ones who… I think intimate is the right word. They intimately understood every single thing that was happening under their nose. They had a vested interest in it, and discovering who was talking about what, who was teaching what. It’s really quite cool, the authenticity of that power, not being centralized, but of these people stepping forward and taking ownership over their dioceses is really neat.

Cy Kellett: All right, so the thing with Basil then is that he was a sola scriptura guy, according to some Evangelicals who will pick out this quote. You call it the “smoking gun” that the early Church believed in sola scriptura, because Basil wrote, “Therefore, let God-inspired Scripture decide between us, and on whichever side be found doctrines in harmony with the Word of God, in favor of that side will be cast the vote of truth.” That sounds like sola scriptura.

Shaun McAfee: Definitely. Well, first of all, what I need to point out is that he is writing to a Trinitarian friend. He’s writing to another Catholic, another Christian. He’s not writing to an Arian. And he’s writing to this friend because he’s being attacked by these Arians saying, “Why do you believe in the divinity of Jesus when the Scriptures are so clear?” So he’s appealing to those.

Shaun McAfee: Arians, of course, defend their position by the two principles, their common tradition and the defense of the Scriptures. What Basil does is he points this out, and I think what he does here is he points out the hypocrisy of the first thing. Later in the letters, he points out their hypocrisy. He says, “If custom is to be taken as proof as what is right, then it is certainly competent for me to put forward my side which obtains here.”

Shaun McAfee: I know that’s fancy words, but what he’s basically saying is “Hey, look, two can play this game. If you say that the first way to defend your teachings as an Arian is traditions, well, okay, I can do the same thing. Let’s point to an authority we agree to: Scripture.” Another Church father that we’re going to discuss here soon also does the same thing. He basically says, “Hey, cool, I can do that too. We can both point to our tradition.” But what he eventually does later in the letter is he says, “Let’s look at the tradition that has been given to us by the Apostles. Let that agree with Scripture.”

Cy Kellett: It’s a very interconnected view of Scripture and tradition then. It’s the idea that the Lord has, especially through Saint Paul, but even in establishing the ministry of the Apostles, has given us a tradition that we are bound to follow. We cannot go against the traditions that were given to us by Christ and the Apostles, but that that tradition has to be in constant, I guess, conversation with the Scripture. It can’t ever deny something in Scripture or violate something in Scripture, but also the Scripture itself can’t ever be taken as apart from that tradition. They’re a balance together.

Shaun McAfee: 100% agree. This might not make sense or it might not be intelligible, but I either consider it the perfect conspiracy or the absolute truth. The chances that the Christian religion… I used to think of this as a kid. Who sat in a cave and wrote the Bible? Of course, I learned all of that, I learned exactly how the Bible was developed as I grew older, but that idea has kind of stuck with me.

Shaun McAfee: The Church did not just concoct these Scriptures that agree with what it also taught orally. One of those came first. One of those came first. The oral teachings came first, which Paul, over and over and over to the Corinthians and others, repeats and confirms. Then as those Scriptures became important for readings at Mass and for defending the faith, they realized that those were also inspired.

Shaun McAfee: I often wonder, if I was put in the shoes of a second-century Christian and was listening to somebody reading from one of these scrolls from the writings of Paul or something, or Peter, if they would’ve said, “Well, what am I supposed to do with all these writings?” since it’s not technically canon yet, “but I do understand the way I was catechized from my bishop.”

Cy Kellett: Yeah, I see. Right. The other thing I get from that, though, is with Arianism everywhere at this period, this idea that it’s… Frankly, we see this today with churches dividing from one another constantly, that you can’t say, “Well, without tradition, the Bible just does the job on its own. The Bible is a self-teaching document.”

Shaun McAfee: No, because you run into the obvious thing that happens next, and that’s interpretation. Well, what’s the Holy Spirit? Where is the word trinity in the Bible? What is baptism? We can look at the same words…

Shaun McAfee: Patrick Madrid pointed out once, I can’t remember if he did it on a radio show or in a book, but he said, “Look at just any sentence. Maybe I say, ‘I’m going to the grocery store to buy eggs.’ Is the point of the sentence to say, “I’m going to the grocery store to buy eggs?” Is it “I am going to the grocery store to buy eggs?” Is it “I am going to the grocery store to buy eggs?” What is the key point of what they’re saying in that simple sentence? If we can’t agree to that, how can we agree on something as complex as the Holy Scriptures?”

Shaun McAfee: What is it, over 60,000 verses or something in the Bible? We can’t agree to most of those. We have to have a common interpretation, and that thread is tradition.

Cy Kellett: Shaun McAfee is our guest. Shaun coming to us from the homeland, from Italia. Shaun is the founder and editor of EpicPew.com. We’re talking about a series of short articles he wrote for the most recent edition of Catholic Answers Magazine on the Fathers of the Church, particularly when Protestants quote the fathers against the Catholic Church. We’ve only gotten so far into Basil of Caesarea. We’ll get into the three others on the next episode of Catholic Answers Focus, so join us then.

Cy Kellett: By the way, if you like Catholic Answers Focus, would you give us a like wherever you get your podcasts? That’s what helps this podcast grow. Or you can tell friends that they can sign up for Radio Club, and they can be alerted every time a new episode of Focus is posted. To do that, you just go to CatholicAnswersLive.com, scroll down until you find the Radio Club bit, put your email address in, and we’ll just send you free stuff via your email.

Cy Kellett: We’ll see you next time, where Shaun will join us again to continue our conversation about when Protestants quote the Fathers against the Church here on Catholic Answers Focus.

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