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Of Athanasius and Infallibility
Brief Comments and Ruminations Regarding the Written Interchange
Between Douglas Jones and Patrick Madrid on the Subject of
Sola Scriptura.

 


by James White


The complaint is always the same: you never have enough time to say what you want to say in an oral debate, and you never have enough space to write what you want to write in a written one. I'm sure both Douglas Jones and Patrick Madrid wish they had more space to dedicate to the topic of sola scriptura than the four columns of small print that appeared in the recent issue of Credenda Agenda (Volume 8, Number 5, pp. 30-31). But publications generally keep a close eye on the usage of column inches, and the sparring match ended much too soon. A few points needed further comment, and I provide a very brief response below.

The reader is encouraged to peruse the article on the Credenda Agenda web site: http://www.moscow.com/ Resources/Credenda/. I will only reproduce those sections that especially call for comment and expanded response. "PM" stands for Patrick Madrid (of course), and "DJ" for Douglas Jones. I quote from the article:

PM: I'm simply trying to force you to defend the WCF claim, but you seem unwilling to do so. You haven't explained how Scripture can be its own "infallible interpreter," where Scripture claims this, and when Scripture ever actually functioned as such. These elements must be proven if you're to vindicate the WCF version of sola Scriptura. I contend that you can't prove them since your position is epistemologically untenable. The "who decides?" dilemma pivots on the a priori question: "which 'church' is the Church?" Under the WCF rubric, you can't even determine that with certitude; just as you can't be completely certain the Anabaptist or any view (Rome's, for example) is incorrect. That certainty requires infallibility, otherwise, you're simply guessing.

As I have noted in other articles on this page (such as my response to Patrick's article on our sola scriptura debate), this is the classic Roman argument, and it is certainly one that Patrick uses over and over again. Indeed, I have been told that the book he is writing against the sufficiency of Scripture is titled, Sola Scriptura: Blueprint for Anarchy. Yet, it continues to amaze me that Madrid and other apologists like him don't see that they have not escaped the dilemma they claim hangs over the Protestant head. I remember clearly talking with Madrid one afternoon on the phone. We were discussing some of the various viewpoints expressed by Roman Catholics, and I remember saying, "It is so obvious that there are all sorts of different understandings of what Rome teaches-about as many as there are Roman Catholics! You better not ever use that old argument about how many different Protestant denominations there are! It's obviously a double-standard!" Well, seemingly Patrick doesn't see it that way.

The argument used by Patrick here fails for one simple reason: he can't claim infallibility in interpreting the interpretation! All he's done, epistemologically speaking, is move things back one step. The Protestant openly admits his fallibility in approaching the infallible Scriptures. The Protestant does not claim personal infallibility for himself, or even for the body of believers that is the Church, whether local or universal. Infallibility is a function of the divine. God may well grant certainty to a person through the work of the Spirit of God in their heart, but that does not make that person an infallible authority. That kind of assurance and certainty is the result of regeneration and spiritual maturity.

Rome claims to get past all of that by claiming infallibility for the Church. You don't have to wonder what the Bible says anymore: Rome will tell you (as I call it, sola Ecclesia). But what does this accomplish? Now you have to interpret the teachings of Rome, rather than just the Bible. And it is painfully obvious to anyone who even observes the attacks of Traditionalists upon Karl Keating, or the modernists scoffing at the backward ways of the conservatives, that Rome's teachings are liable to just as many different understandings as the Bible's. Patrick has wrongly asserted in the past that if sola scriptura is true, then there should be no doctrinal differences amongst Protestants (talk about a straw-man view of sola scriptura!). If that's the case, then doesn't it follow that if the Roman view is true, all Roman Catholics should be in agreement with each other?

You see, once Rome puts an interpretation of the Bible into writing (and there are precious few of these infallible interpretations around, I might add), that writing now becomes subject to interpretation. Shall we begin to look for an infallible interpreter of the infallible interpretation of the infallible Scriptures? The series would never end, of course, for one simply can't get beyond one fact: we as human beings are fallible. And you, as an individual human being, will always be fallible in your knowledge of any infallible source, whether that be the Scriptures, or some other source you hold in esteem. Does Patrick claim infallible knowledge of all Roman teachings? Is it possible that he might just be wrong on a point or two? Well, doesn't he then fall into the very same dilemma he says Protestants are under?

One might expect the response, "But, the Church is alive, and can explain herself." That hasn't changed much, has it? Has the existence of a living Pope who can explain his teachings made all Catholics pro-life, for example? I mean, the current Pope couldn't be much more clear on an issue, could he? Do all Catholics reject the ordination of women to the priesthood, too? And even on issues where there is a true desire to be fully obedient to the Papacy, are there not differences amongst Roman Catholics as to what, exactly, the Church teaches on any one issue? Do we not see different groups citing this encyclical against that one, this pronouncement against that bull? Rome hasn't made the issue simpler with her claims: she's only complicated things.

Patrick's epistemology is only tenable under the rubric of sola Ecclesia: the church alone is the final authority in all things. Rome defines the canon, Rome defines the meaning of Scripture. Rome defines tradition, Rome defines the meaning of tradition. Her pronouncements are infallible and unquestionable, and as a matter of faith, they are all self-consistent, too. From that ground you can prove, or disprove, anything, and repulse any and all attacks. Error by a Pope? Can't be, by definition. Error by the Church. Not possible, must be another explanation. Inconsistency between the IVth Lateran Council and Vatican II? Dismiss it as mere ignorance on the part of Protestants. Such an epistemology is just as consistent as the Mormon testimony: and just as tightly circular, too.

PM: Please furnish even one example of Scripture interpreting itself. I reject your interpretation of the verses you cited and your premise that "Scripture alone is . . . infallible." On the contrary, Christ's Church is infallible (cf. Matt. 10:40, 16:18, 18:18,28:20; Luke 10:16; John 14:25-26,16:13; 1 Thess. 2:13; Tim. 3:15). Your argument entails the conclusion that the dogmas promulgated by Nicea I, Ephesus, and Chalcedon were merely fallible, as was the Church's determination of the NT canon. (If this is true, we're all in big trouble!) Your syllogism is flawed, and it's no non sequitur to claim that Scripture requires an infallible Church (cf. 1 Pet. 1:20-21; 3:15-16). And this debate is your perfect opportunity to prove otherwise: Please demonstrate how Scripture can "infallibly interpret itself" so as to solve this particular standoff.

Let's look at the passages Patrick claims teach that the Church is infallible:

(Mat 10:40) "He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me.

Christ is present in His people, most true. But does that make them infallible? No more than it makes them divine.

(Mat 16:18) "I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.

Does the eternal plan of God for the Church mean the Church is infallible? This would require Patrick to say that if the Church ever errs, then it has been overpowered by Satan. Does he believe this of himself? When he fails, is he lost? Such requires a tremendous amount of ecclesiastical baggage to be read back into the text. The Church that is united upon the rock of the Messiahship of Jesus (not Peter, I note), will not be overcome, that is quite true. But to extend that to mean that there is a single teaching magisterium, headed up by a Pope, that is infallible in all its doctrinal teachings, is to demonstrate oh so clearly how Roman eisegesis functions when trying to present a biblical basis for its claims.

(Mat 18:18) "Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.

Again we search in vain for infallibility. The Church's proclamation of the forgiveness of sins represents perfectly the reality that exists in heaven. Again most true, but how that makes Roman prelates infallible is a bit beyond the passage.

(Mat 28:20) teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age."

Again, this no more makes us infallible than it makes us divine. Christ is with the Church-even when the Church stumbles, becomes enamored with worldly things, and loses sight of what is most important. Aren't we glad for that?

(Luke 10:16) "The one who listens to you listens to Me, and the one who rejects you rejects Me; and he who rejects Me rejects the One who sent Me."

Same comments as above on Matthew 10:40.

(John 14:25-26) "These things I have spoken to you while abiding with you. "But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.

Quite true again-but what does this have to do with the bishop of Rome in the 10th century, or any other time? Nothing at all.

(John 16:13) "But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come.

The Spirit does guide into all truth. The Spirit is infallible. I am led by the Spirit. But I am not infallible. Does Patrick claim to be led by the Spirit? Is Patrick infallible?

(1 Th 2:13) For this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe.

A wonderful passage extolling the authority and power of the Word of God. What it has to do with Rome is hard to say, however, and how it makes the Church infallible, again, is hard to say.

Finally, the passage that is always cited:

(1 Tim 3:15) but in case I am delayed, I write so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth.

The Church is the pillar and support of the truth-which specifically differentiates the Church from the truth. The Church holds up, supports, presents, the truth. The question then is, where does she learn the truth? Not from herself, that's for certain. She learns the truth from the voice of God speaking to her. And where does she find the voice of God? In the Scriptures, the voice of the husband to the loving wife, the voice of the Shepherd to the sheep. Nothing about infallibility here, either.

Then Patrick points out that if the Church is not infallible, then the dogmas of the early Councils are likewise fallible. Does Patrick think this is a surprising thing to a Protestant? The authority of creeds and councils is always secondary and derivative. As we shall see, Athanasius defended the decisions of Nica on a better ground than the Council itself: that of Scripture. Nica was true and "sufficient" not because the "Church" is infallible, but because what Nica said was in harmony with Scripture! Anyone familiar with the history of these councils (especially the later ones) knows full well that they were hardly models of Christian behavior, and the wonder is that the main creedal statements were protected from error and kept in line with Scripture! Obviously, secondary issues decided upon by those councils were most definitely fallible, and often contained errors.

As to the claim that the Roman Church (at least in Patrick's figuring) created the NT canon, I refer the reader to the discussion of this large and complex subject in my book, The Roman Catholic Controversy, p. 92ff.

Finally, Patrick claims the Scriptures require an infallible Church. Let's look at the passages he offers. Now, I believe we have a typographical error, and Patrick was trying to make reference to 2 Peter, not first:

(2 Pet 1:20-21) But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, [21] for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.

Seemingly, Patrick is focusing upon the phrase "one's own interpretation," for I can't see anything else even slightly relevant. But how this presupposes an infallible Church is difficult to say. For a discussion of this passage, and the translational difficulties associated with it, see The Roman Catholic Controversy, pp. 237-239. The next passage cited is another commonly misused text:

(2 Pet 3:15-16) and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, [16] as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction.

It is the untaught and unstable who distort the Scriptures to their destruction; hence, what, logically, can the taught and stable Christian do with the Scriptures?

PM: We agree that the Church weighs passages, but notice that it has always done considerably more than that. The aforementioned councils show that since apostolic times the magisterium saw itself as teaching infallibly, imposing its interpretation of Scripture as dogmatic (Acts 15:28, 1 Thess. 2:13). St. Athanasius explained in De Decretis that First Nicea's definition of Christ as homoousious with the Father was not a merely fallible interpretation. This is hardly a "Roman novelty," as you allege. (The nascent Catholic model is visible in Acts 15:15-35, 16:4.) And remember, Orthodoxy also rejects sola Scriptura. Like the Catholic Church, they have preserved the ancient Christian teaching that the Church, at least in its ecumenical councils, teaches infallibly. Historically, sola Scriptura is the novelty.

I find Patrick's new fascination with Athanasius most heartening, since I have been presenting Athanasius' viewpoints for quite some time now (though Patrick has always accused me of doing little more than cutting and pasting from patristic texts). Indeed, in our debate in 1993, Mr. Madrid blustered that he would "bury" me under 53 pages of citations from the early Fathers! Yet, every time I find Patrick citing from the Fathers, he's providing nothing new at all. And here he's simply stumbled into a morass of error, since Athanasius is the last person he wants to attempt to enlist for the Roman viewpoint.

As Jones points out, Madrid doesn't actually quote from De Decritis in his response; instead, he quotes from Ad Afros, a later work. Why? Well, I won't repeat all the citations I provided in my article on sola scriptura in the Soli Deo Gloria publication of the same title (1995), nor will I re-enter all the citations I provide from him in their original language found in my open letter to Tim Staples. However, I will simply point out a few interesting things about De Decretis.

  • Nowhere in the text will you find an appeal to the Papacy, a Pope, or any similar concept. Why not?
  • Athanasius defends the Council of Nica on one basic, fundamental basis: Scripture.
  • He does assert that his doctrines are in harmony with those who came before (a clear mark of truth-consistency).
  • Passage after passage of Scripture is cited as being finally decisive in the matter.

What is most important, however, is the witness of Athanasius himself. Merely listen to his words:

We have learned from divine Scripture, that the Son of God, as was said above, is the very Word and Wisdom of the Father. For the Apostle says, 'Christ the power of God and the Wisdom of God ;'

If then they deny Scripture, they are at once aliens to their name, and may fitly be called of all men atheists , and Christ's enemies, for they have brought upon themselves these names. But if they agree with us that the sayings of Scripture are divinely inspired, let them dare to say openly what they think in secret that God was once wordless and wisdomless ;

yet they do not confess that He is the Son of God,-which is ignorance of the truth, and inexperience in divine Scripture.

And we have proof of this, not from external sources, but from the Scriptures; for God Himself says by Isaiah the Prophet;

Yes, it behooved, say I too; for the tokens of truth are more exact as drawn from Scripture, than from other sources ; but the ill disposition and the versatile and crafty irreligion of Eusebius and his fellows, compelled the Bishops, as I said before, to publish more distinctly the terms which overthrew their irreligion; and what the Council did write has already been shown to have an orthodox sense, while the Arians have been shown to be corrupt in their phrases, and evil in their dispositions.

That Scripture is Athanasius' infallible source is beyond question. That he has high regard for Nica is likewise beyond question. That he believes God was involved in Nica is quite true. That he believes what Nica decided is divine truth no one doubts. But Madrid is simply confusing categories when he tries to have Athanasius make the Church itself infallible along with Scripture. For Athanasius, the one is infallible, the other is only in so far as she speaks in harmony with the Scriptures. And it is just because Athanasius can honestly say that he has proven that Nica spoke in harmony with the Bible (just as any Protestant apologist today can say the same thing, having provided a full biblical defense of the deity of Christ), that he can utter the only words in De Decretis that Madrid might have reference to:

For the faith which the Council has confessed in writing, that is the faith of the Catholic Church; to assert this, the blessed Fathers so expressed themselves while condemning the Arian heresy; and this is a chief reason why these apply themselves to calumniate the Council.

But such a statement is hardly useful in its context. It does not provide Patrick with a denial of the material and formal sufficiency of Scripture from Athanasius. It does not deny in any way that Scripture is the sole infallible rule of faith for the Church. Hence, Madrid did not go to De Decritis, but to another source for his one citation of Athanasius:

PM: Your dismissal of De Decretis as "weak" evidence boggles the mind. Athanasius composed it precisely to refute the Arian claim that the Church teaches fallibly and erroneously. He did appeal "just to the council" to quell the dispute (as Orthodoxy does): "The Confession arrived at Nicea was, we should say, more sufficient and enough by itself for the subversion of all religious heresies and for the security and furtherance of the doctrine of the Church" (Ad Afros).

Let's take that second sentence: "Athanasius composed it precisely to refute the Arian claim that the Church teaches fallibly and erroneously." I invite any reader to read Ad Afros for yourself. It is readily available in the web at various places (for example, http://ccel.wheaton.edu/fathers/ is one source, the Sage CD Library contains it as well). Read De Decretis as well. Ask yourself a question: how can someone read these materials and say that Athanasius is specifically writing to defend the infallibility of the Church? He's writing against men who are in positions in the Church, who have convened council after council in the Church to condemn his own theology and the position of Nica! If anyone proves that you should always believe in the infallibility of Scripture over against any supposed infallibility of the Church, Athanasius proves this! He held out, almost alone, for decades against the combined weight of the institutional Church of his day! It is quite obvious that someone has to be looking for something that comes from another source to be able to read such a concern into Athanasius. His words, quoted above, are easily understood in their context: the definition of Nica was sufficient to refute Arianism. But the simple fact of history is, it took long years of fighting, replete with in-depth biblical exegesis and study, for the Nicene definition to gain acceptance and obedience. It did not win the final battle because it claimed inherent infallibility: it won that battle because it was in harmony with that which is inherently infallible: the revealed Word of God, the Scriptures.


I'm truly glad that Mr. Jones and Mr. Madrid took the time to discuss these issues. I salute them both for having the temerity to "buck the trends" so to speak in tackling the tough topics. I hope Christians will be challenged to look into these things for themselves, and consider well whether they will believe in sola scriptura, or sola Ecclesia. The decision has eternal consequences.

January, 1997


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