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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Patrick Madrid's critique of certain Protestant quotes of the Church Fathers

For those that don't know, Mr. Madrid is a Roman Catholic Apologist, so he is going to be talking from a Roman Catholic perspective. Selective quotes are always misleading and Protestants aren't the only ones who do it, Roman Catholics do it too (on certain issues), and I've done it in the past myself. So it is something we all do. It's not right, but it is something all groups need to work on.

I have to agree with Madrid here because I saw the samething back when I was a protestant, some years ago. When you quote the fathers about what they thought of scripture, you also have to quote them on what they thought about Tradition in general, and the Church itself. If not then you will have a distorted view of what they really tought on the issue of "scripture".

As seen from the website:

"Sometimes Protestant apologists try to bolster their case for
(sola scriptura)3 by using highly selective quotes from Church
Fathers such as Athanasius, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Jerusalem,
Augustine, and Basil of Caesarea. These quotes, isolated from the
rest of what the Father in question wrote about church authority,
Tradition and Scripture, can give the appearance that these
Fathers were hard-core Evangelicals who promoted an unvarnished
principle that would have done John Calvin proud.
But this is merely a chimera. In order for the selective "pro-
" quotes from the Fathers to be of value to a
Protestant apologist, his audience must have little or no
firsthand knowledge of what these Fathers wrote. By considering
the patristic evidence on the subject of scriptural authority in
context, a very different picture emerges. A few examples will
suffice to demonstrate what I mean.

Basil of Caesarea provides Evangelical polemicists with what they
think is a "smoking gun" quote upholding (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" (). This, they think, means that Basil would have been
comfortable with the Calvinist notion that "All things in
Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto
all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed,
and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened
in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned,
but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain
unto a sufficient understanding of them" (The Westminister Confession 7).

Yet if Basil's quote is to be of any use to the Protestant
apologist, the rest of Basil's writings must be shown to be
consistent and compatible with (sola scriptura) . But watch what
happens to Basil's alleged (sola scriptura) position when we look
at other statements of his:

"Of the beliefs and practices whether generally accepted or
enjoined which are preserved in the Church, some we possess
derived from written teaching; others we have delivered to us in a
mystery by the apostles by the tradition of the apostles; and both
of these in relation to true religion have the same force" (,On the Holy Spirit 27).

"In answer to the objection that the doxology in the form with the
Spirit' has no written authority, we maintain that if there is not
another instance of that which is unwritten, then this must not be
received [as authoritative]. But if the great number of our
mysteries are admitted into our constitution without [the] written
authority [of Scripture], then, in company with many others, let
us receive this one. For I hold it apostolic to abide by the
unwritten traditions. 'I praise you,' it is said [by Paul in l
Cor. 11:1] that you remember me in all things and keep the
traditions just as I handed them on to you,' and Hold fast to the
traditions that you were taught whether by an oral statement or by
a letter of ours' [2 Thess. 2:15]. One of these traditions is the
practice which is now before us [under consideration], which they
who ordained from the beginning, rooted firmly in the churches,
delivering it to their successors, and its use through long custom
advances pace by pace with time" (, 71).

Such talk hardly fits with the principle that Scripture is
formally sufficient for all matters of Christian doctrine. This
type of appeal to a body of unwritten apostolic Tradition within
the Church as being authoritative is frequent in Basil's writings.

Protestant apologists are also fond of quoting two particular
passages from Athanasius: "The holy and inspired Scriptures are
sufficient of themselves for the preaching of the truth" ( 1:1). And: "These books [of canonical Scripture] are the
fountains of salvation, so that he who thirsts may be satisfied
with the oracles contained in them. In these alone the school of
piety preaches the Gospel. Let no man add to these or take away
from them" (39th ). But in neither place is
Athanasius teaching .

First, in the case of the , he was instructing his
churches as to what could and could not be read at Church as
"Scripture." The context of the epistle makes it clear that he was
laying down a liturgical directive for his flock.

Second, as in the case of Basil and the other Fathers Protestants
attempt to press into service, Athanasius' writings show no signs
of , but rather of his staunchly orthodox
Catholicism. Athanasius, for example, wrote: "The confession
arrived at Nicea was, we say more, sufficient and enough by itself
for the subversion of all irreligious heresy and for the security
and furtherance of the doctrine of the Church" ( 1).
And: "[T]he very tradition, teaching, and faith of the Catholic
Church from the beginning was preached by the apostles and
preserved by the Fathers. On this the Church was founded; and if
anyone departs from this, he neither is nor any longer ought to be
celled a Christian" ( 1:28).

And consider this quote from Cyril of Jerusalem's , a favorite of the Protestant apologists: "In
regard to the divine and holy mysteries of the Faith, not the
least part may be handed on without the Holy Scriptures. Do not be
led astray by winning words and clever arguments. Even to me, who
tell you these things, do not give ready belief, unless you
receive from the Holy Scriptures the proof of the things which I
announce. The salvation which we believe is not proved from clever
reasoning, but from the Holy Scriptures" (4:17).

How should we understand this? Catholic patristic scholars would
point out that such language as Cyril uses here is consistent with
his and the other Fathers' high view of Scripture's authority and
with what is sometimes called its material sufficiency (more on
that shortly). This language, while perhaps more rigorously
biblical than some modern Catholics are used to, nonetheless
conveys an accurate sense of Catholic teaching on the importance
of Scripture. Even taken at face value, Cyril's admonition poses
no problem for the Catholic. But it does, ironically, for the

The proponent of (sola scriptura) is faced with a dilemma when he
attempts to use Cyril's quote. Option One: If Cyril was in fact
teaching (sola scriptura) , Protestants have a big problem. Cyril's
are filled with his forceful teachings on
the infallible teaching office of the Catholic Church (18:23), the
Mass as a sacrifice (23:6-8), the concept of purgatory and the
efficacy of expiatory prayers for the dead (23:10), the Real
Presence of Christ in the Eucharist (19:7; 21:3; 22:1-9), the
theology of sacraments (1:3), the intercession of the saints
(23:9), holy orders (23:2), the importance of frequent Communion
(23:23), baptismal regeneration (1:1-3; 3:10-12; 21:3-4), indeed a
staggering array of specifically "Catholic" doctrines.

These are the same Catholic doctrines that Protestants claim are
not found in Scripture. So, if Cyril really held to the notion of (sola scriptura)
, he certainly believed he had found those
Catholic doctrines in Scripture. One would then have to posit that
Cyril was badly mistaken in his exegesis of Scripture, but this
tack, of course, leads nowhere for Protestants, for it would of
necessity impugn Cyril's exegetical credibility as well as his
claim to find (sola scriptura) in Scripture.

Option Two: Cyril did not teach (sola scriptura) ; the Protestant
understanding of this passage is incorrect. That means an attempt
to hijack this quote to support (sola scriptura) is futile (if not
dishonest), since it would require a hopelessly incorrect
understanding of Cyril's method of systematic theology, the
doctrinal schema he sets forth in , and his
view of the authority of Scripture. Obviously, neither of these
options is palatable to the Protestant apologist.

Were there time and space to cycle through each of the patristic
quotes proffered by Protestants arguing for ( sola scriptura), we
could demonstrate in each case that the Fathers are being quoted
out of context and without regard to the rest of their statements
on the authority of Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium. It
will suffice for now, though, to remind Catholics that the Fathers
did not teach (sola scriptura) , and no amount of clever "cut-and-
paste" work by defenders of (sola scriptura) can demonstrate



Tony said...

Thanks for posting this. I've noticed such selective use of Church Fathers before, which is why I laugh when I hear Protestant apologists say that only Protestants can look at the Church Fathers with an unbiased view (they say this in response to Roman Catholic if Eastern Orthodoxy didn't exist).

I've seen that quote from Saint Athanasius ("The holy and inspired Scriptures are sufficient of themselves for the preaching of the truth") misused before, but when I went to the original source material I found that it left out half the sentence. Right after saying that, Athanasius adds that there is also "other works of our blessed teachers", referring to the early Church Fathers as well as his peers.

Jnorm said...

I'm glad you cought that. But this type of stuff happens all the time.


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