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When Protestants Quote the Fathers Against the Church

Why these quotes fall short of supporting Protestant teaching

Shaun McAfee

The Church Fathers span a period of history beginning with Clement of Rome circa the late first century to John of Damascus in the eighth century, Most of their writing was for the purpose defending the Faith, so they are among an apologist’s best sources for arguing the historicity and consistent teaching and practice of the Catholic faith.

Protestant apologists understand this criticality. They could claim a major victory if they could show that Christian history exhibits a continuity of distinctly Protestant beliefs. That leaves them scouring the writings of the Fathers for ammunition against the Church. There have been many Protestant attempts to identify the teachings of apostolic Fathers with those of sixteenth-century Reformers by way of selective quotes.

In four short articles throughout this issue, I’m going to review some of these quotes and explain why they fall short of their objective.

Basil of Caesarea

Basil of Caesarea, also known as St. Basil the Great (329-379), was the bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia (modern-day Turkey). His main concern for decades was battling the growing spread of Arianism. This heresy, which denied that Christ was of the same divine substance as the Father, swiftly gained adherents and was seen by many, particularly those in Alexandria most familiar with it, as a threat to the unity of the Church.

Basil became a highly influential theologian who helped defend the Nicene Creed. Suffice it to say, anything he wrote is read with particular note for his impact and influence. Basil provides Evangelical polemicists with a quote they think is a “smoking gun” to show that the early Church believed in sola scriptura:

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 (Epistle to Eustathius the Physician, 3).

His instruction appears straightforward: if something agrees with Scripture, it is in favor with the truth. But we need some context. Basil is apparently writing to a trinitarian friend, defending his position of “asserting one Goodness, one power, one Godhead.” The Arians defend their position by claiming it is verified by two principles: their common tradition and by the defense of Scripture. Basil shows them the hypocrisy of the first principle, saying, “If custom is to be taken in proof of what is right, then it is certainly competent for me to put forward on my side the custom which obtains here.” Translation: “It works both ways.”

So then, Basil turns with the same position, naturally, with the defense of Scripture referencing the quote above. By the time Basil was defending trinitarian theology (perhaps as early as A.D. 370, when he became bishop), the Church had set the canon of Scripture. Therefore, it’s impossible to apply his meaning to the Bible we know today, and certainly not to the Protestant Bible, since readings like Tobit and Maccabees, which the Reformers rejected, were widely accepted in Basil’s time.

In any case, we know that Basil defended the Church’s position. The Council of Nicaea was a major ecumenical council, and the whole Church accepted its statements as a dogmatic framework—although not the complete synthesis—for the Church’s final position on the argument of the multiplicity of the Godhead.

That Basil is arguing for this position is all the confirmation one needs to know which side he was on in the treatment of dogma as a role given to the authority of the Church, or to the Bible as something against which every doctrine is to be verified.

Athanasius of Alexandria

Athanasius (A.D. 293-373) was bishop of Alexandria and one of the chief proponents for the doctrine of the Trinity and a hero of the Council of Nicaea. Protestant apologists are fond of quoting two particular passages from Athanasius in their defense of sola scriptura.

The first one reads: “The sacred and inspired Scriptures are sufficient to declare the truth” (Against the Heathen).
What the apologist has done is cherry picked this fragment from a much larger—and more important—statement in the opening of his letter. The full quote is revealing:

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 be able to learn what he wishes to know—still, as we have not at present in our hands the compositions of our teachers, we must communicate in writing to you what we learned from them—the faith, namely, of Christ the Savior; lest any should hold cheap the doctrine taught among us, or think this faith unreasonable.

In short, Athanasius is saying that Scripture is sufficient to defend the truth, but the reader rightly necessitates instruction on interpretation, and the interpretation must agree with the tradition of the apostles. Isolating the quote is exactly the sort of cheap trick Athanasius is warning about.

The other Athanasian quote Protestants enjoy cherry picking is from an letter he wrote concerning Sacred Scripture:

[The books of the New Testament] are fountains of salvation, that they who thirst may be satisfied with the living words they contain. In these alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness. Let no man add to these, neither let him take ought from these (Festal Letter no. 39).

In the paragraph prior to this, Athanasius confirms which books necessarily belong to the New Testament canon. Bear in mind that this is his opinion; the Church had not yet formally decided the issue of which readings may be read for liturgy as God’s word. It’s telling that he includes all twenty-six books that were later declared the New Testament canon. There were others of his time with similar but divergent lists.

The quote might help the Protestant apologist’s argument but not when we read the rest of Athanasius’s letter. Remember, Athanasius already quantified and qualified the scriptures he named, but only those of the New Testament. Referring to the New Testament as the former, and the Old Testament as the latter, he goes on to clarify the uses of Old Testament writings:

But for greater exactness I add this also, writing of necessity; that there are other books besides these not indeed included in the canon but appointed by the Fathers to be read by those who newly join us and who wish for instruction in the word of godliness. The Wisdom of Solomon, and the Wisdom of Sirach, and Esther, and Judith, and Tobit, and that which is called the Teaching of the Apostles, and the Shepherd. But the former, my brethren, are included in the canon, the latter being merely read.

That’s a dilemma for the Protestant, holding a sixty-six-book Bible that includes the book of Proverbs (the Wisdom of Solomon), who says that Athanasius preached that the Bible was the inerrant and infallible word of God. It’s also difficult to defend when read with consideration of the full breadth of Athanasius’s writings.

Cyril of Jerusalem

St. Cyril of Jerusalem (A.D. 313-386) is another post-Nicene Father of the Church who strongly advocated for orthodoxy, particularly orthodox interpretations of Scripture. In response to the widespread confusion inflicted by Arians and other heretics of his time, he was a proponent of thorough preparation of his catechumens. He firmly positioned his diocese to support the education of new Christians before and after their baptism.

Perhaps because of his activism in mining Scripture to support theological positions he is a common target for Protestant theologians and apologists. One special quote from Cyril comes from a record of his catechetical lectures:

For concerning the divine and holy mysteries of the Faith, not even a casual statement must be delivered without the Holy Scriptures; nor must we be drawn aside by mere plausibility and artifices of speech. Even to me, who tell you these things, give not absolute credence, unless thou receive the proof of the things which I announce from the divine Scriptures. For this salvation which we believe depends not on ingenious reasoning but on demonstration of the Holy Scriptures (4:17).

The premise of the quote from Cyril is reasonable: theological teaching should be supported with biblical evidence. But proponents of Protestantism strain this quote as a go-to proof that the early Church supported the position of biblical infallibility; meaning, of course, that early Christians believed that the Bible was the only authority for Christian teaching.

But that argument quickly falls flat when confronted with multiple contradictions from the Bible. That is, the Bible itself denies that it is the complete and sufficient rule of faith: “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thess. 2:15).

But tradition was not just an acceptable mode of teaching; oral teaching was the norm of apostolic teaching. “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me” (Luke 10:16). And “So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ” (Rom. 10:17).

We know, then, that the Bible doesn’t profess itself as the sole rule of faith. Another question is, what did Cyril believe? Did he believe that every dogma was to be found first in Scripture? No, he didn’t. Cyril states this when he writes about the mysteries of the Incarnation:

What else is there that knows the deep things of God (citing 1 Corinthians 2:10-11), 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 (Lecture 11:12).

Cyril did not declare that every theological position must be found explicitly in Scripture. He understood that Scripture is the word of God, but he reminds us that it must be interpreted properly. In the same document of his lecture (sections 2 and 9) as the quote Protestants use, Cyril outlines the perverse handling of Scripture interpretation by the heretics of his day—even though the heretics and orthodox apologists are quoting from the same texts. In fact, in Lecture 15, he confirms that the fourth beast in the Book of Revelation, understood as the Roman Empire, “has been the tradition of the Church’s interpreters” (13).

To the dismay of advocates of sola scriptura, Cyril is simply in agreement with the Bible, maintaining that the responsibility of interpretation is solely vested the Church, which is the “pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).

Augustine of Hippo

St. Augustine (A.D. 354-430) was the bishop of Hippo, which at the time was one of the epicenters of Christian intellectual thought and learning. That powerful intellectual tradition, unfortunately, was also a harbor for heresy and its stubborn cohorts.

Augustine’s powerful conversion story has inspired people for millennia, and his command of Christian theology was groundbreaking. Together, these make him an enduring patron for the Catholic Church and therefore an appealing target for Protestants looking to use his words for their own cause.

Such is the case with a letter he wrote to Maximinus, the Arian bishop of Hippo. Although not a Goth himself, Maximinus came to Africa with the Gothic army commanded by Count Sigiswulf. The Gothic ruler wanted peace between local religious factions, so Sigiswulf ordered Maximinus to solve the trinitarian issue, and the result was an series of letters between the bishops. One of these responses by Augustine contains a short statement that Protestant apologists often quote as proof that Augustine believed Christians were not bound by ecumenical councils but rather by Scripture.

I am not bound by the authority of Ariminum, and you are not bound by that of Nicaea. By the authority of the scriptures that are not the property of anyone, but the common witnesses for both of us, let position do battle with position, case with case, reason with reason (Letter to Maximinus).

This one is simple to deconstruct and refute. Because the Church was still divided even thirty-three years after the Council of Nicaea, the Roman Emperor Constantius II arranged two councils East and West, Seleucia and Arminum, respectively. Arminum was held in the Italian city of Rimini, and the result was dissent from the Nicene Creed.

For Protestants, the first sentence from Augustine’s quote confirms the Christian’s freedom from the authority of any Church council. But they fail to recognize the logical arrangement of Augustine’s defense. What Augustine is doing is framing the conversation with an object of common authority, the Bible, and proposing that the arguments of neither party be based on councils that support those respective arguments.

Pope Liberius rejected the results of the Council of Arminum, whereas all Arians rejected the Council of Nicaea by drafting and approving a new creed. It is, then, rightful for Augustine to separate the sources of disagreement and to argue with a common authority on which both agree: the Bible.

We put this principle to work when we argue for the Real Presence in the Eucharist using John 6 and 1 Corinthians 11. But what if our opponent rejects the Pauline epistles? It would then be reasonable to use only the Gospel of John as a source in debate.

Augustine opens the passage by granting and recognizing the authority of the councils respective to their division: “I am not bound by the authority of Ariminum, and you are not bound by that of Nicaea.” His appeal to a shared authority, namely the Bible, is a common and suitable strategy in debate. By doing this, he is most certainly not stating that the Bible is a higher nor independent authority for Christians.

If anything, by showing Nicaea and the Bible as the authorities he is “bound” to, he demonstrates in full color the position of the Church: that Scripture and Tradition together are manifested in the Magisterium, the teaching body of the Church.

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