Alpha & Omega Ministries Apologetics Blog
Quoting the Early Church Fathers
04/17/2008 - James SwanIt was a little over ten years ago that a group of Catholic apologists contributed chapters to the 600+ page book, Not By Scripture Alone: A Catholic Critique of the Protestant Doctrine of Sola Scriptura [Santa Barbara: Queenship Publishing, 1997]. Patrick Madrid was responsible for the first chapter: Sola Scriptura, A Blueprint for Anarchy. I've heard Madrid is coming out with a new book on sola scriptura, so I've been re-reading this old presentation against Scripture as the only infallible and sufficient authority for the Church. Call it an exercise in compare and contrast: I'm curious to see what type of argumentation Madrid will put forth ten years later. Madrid made some bold, if not at times insulting assertions ten years back, including a section derogatorily entitled, "How Protestants Distort and Misreport the Church Fathers." Madrid states,
"A ploy being adopted by a growing number of evangelical apologists is what I call the 'hijacking' of the Church Fathers, attempting to press them into service for sola scriptura. This ploy mimics the Jehovah's witnesses and Mormons, who also attempt to defend their unorthodox teachings from behind a carefully-constructed facade of patristic quotes- quotes invariably taken out of their immediate context and without regard to the complete writings of the Fathers.
The practice of selective quoting from the Fathers- great Fathers such as Athanasius, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Jerusalem, Augustine, and Basil of Caesarea- is spreading. In fact, often the very Protestant apologists who misuse and twist the testimony of the Fathers to fit their hermeneutic of anachronism (i.e., reading their own views such as sola scriptura and sola fide back into Scripture and the Fathers) are themselves accusing Catholics of 'misusing' or 'prooftexting' the Fathers" [Not By Scripture Alone, pp. 5-6].
At this point, Madrid includes a footnote mentioning Dr. White's use and opinion of the Church Fathers in defense of sola scriptura and how "absurd," it is, and how White manages to "dupe many." During his opening statement in his debate with Dr. White, Madrid stated that he was resisting the temptation "to bury Mr. White under a mountain of quotations from the Church Fathers, proving they did not teach sola scriptura." Madrid compared Dr. White's use of the Fathers to a kidnapper cutting and pasting words from a newspaper to make a ransom note. These are strong assertions indeed, and Madrid does appear confident he can prove his case. In Not By Scripture Alone, the first example put forth is a citation from Basil of Caesarea (that Dr. White used eighteen years ago during his debate with Madrid on sola scriptura). Madrid explains,
"Basil of Caesarea has provided Evangelical polemicists with what they think is the 'smoking gun' to deny Catholic claims and uphold 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 ad Eustathius). This, they think, means that Basil would have been comfortable with John Calvin's theology 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 Westminster Confession of Faith, 7). But if Basil's quote is to be of any use to the Protestant apologist, the rest of Basil's writings should be consistent and compatible with the theology expressed in this quote from the Westminster Confession. But watch what happens to Basil's alleged sola scriptura mindset when we look at other statements of his..." [Not By Scripture Alone, p. 7].
Madrid then lists two citations from Basil that appear to affirm "Tradition" as another equally authoritative source of divine revelation. For example, the first citation states:
"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)."
One can see the discrepancy. Basil states that Scripture is to decide on matters, but then, according to Madrid, Basil also refers to a second source of revelation, the "mystery by the apostles by the tradition of the apostles." Madrid states, "Such talk hardly fits with the notion that Scripture is formally sufficient for all matters of Christian doctrine. Basil's appeal to an authoritative body of unwritten apostolic Tradition within the Church is frequent in his writings" [Not By Scripture Alone, p.8]. Has Madrid proved his case? Was Basil referring to an unwritten apostolic Tradition that held contents like the Assumption or Papal infallibility, passed down from the Apostles? Did Basil receive an unwritten God-inspired Tradition, passed down from the Apostles, able to infallibly decide between disputing parties?
It may shock you to read that William Webster, in his magnificent treatment defending sola scriptura stated, "It is also true that the Church fathers embraced a form of tradition that was independent of Scripture. This can be easily documented from their writings, examples being Papias, Tertullian, Epiphanius, John Chrysostom, Augustine and Basil the Great" [William Webster, Holy Scripture: The Ground and Pillar of Our Faith, Vol. II (Battle Ground: Christian Resources Inc.), p. 139]. The explanation though of what Webster and Basil mean, in no way support Madrid's charges. Rather, the opposite is true: Madrid is the one misrepresenting Basil.
What Basil meant by "Tradition" is not what Madrid is trying to make it. Basil, in using the term, is describing "mysteries" of the Christian faith that were allegedly communicated in an unwritten form. These refer to liturgical rites of say, baptism or the Eucharist. In other words, Basil was not teaching two sources of infallible revelation, with "Tradition" functioning similarly to Scripture. As William Webster has pointed out, "This tradition referred primarily to ecclesiastical practices and customs and not to doctrine" [Holy Scripture Vol. 2, p.139]. Similarly, after discussing Basil and other Early Church Fathers, the great patristic scholar J.N.D. Kelly noted, "Indeed, all the instances of unwritten tradition lacking Scriptural support which the early theologians mention will be found, on examination to refer to matters of observance and practice (e.g. triple immersion in baptism; turning East for prayer) rather than of doctrine as such, although sometimes they are matters (e.g. infant baptism; prayers for the dead) in which doctrine is involved) [J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (New York: HarperSan Francisco, 1960), p. 47].
Explaining Basil's citations in greater detail, Georges Florovsky, an Orthodox theologian stated,
"In any case, one should not be embarrassed by the contention of St. Basil that dogmata were delivered or handed down by the Apostles, en musterio. It would be a flagrant mistranslation if we render it as 'in secret.' The only accurate rendering is: 'by the way of mysteries,' that is- under the form of rites and (liturgical) usages, or 'habits.' In fact, it is precisely what St. Basil says himself: ta pleista ton mustikon agraphos hemin empoliteuetai. [Most of the mysteries are communicated to us by an unwritten way]. The term mustika refers here, obviously to the rites of Baptism and Eucharist, which are, for St. Basil, of 'Apostolic' origin... Indeed, all instances quoted by St. Basil in this connection are of ritual or liturgical nature" [Florovsky, Georges, Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View. The Collected Works, vol. 1. (Vaduz: Buchervertriebsansstalt, 1987), pp. 86-87].
Commenting on Basil's passages on authoritative tradition (On the Holy Spirit, 27), Emmanuel Amand de Mendieta stated,
"The whole passage has frequently been misinterpreted by Roman Catholic theologians, who imagine that in it they have found something to prove the Tridentine dogma of Tradition, considered as an equal and distinct source of revelation... In reality, this passage of Basil, the beginning of which is a little vague and lacking in precision, cannot be considered as confirming the Tridentine dogma that doctrinal Tradition is a second fully distinct source of divine revelation. In order to be convinced of the falsity of such an assertion, one need only take the trouble to read the whole passage. In brief, in all his homiletic, doctrinal, ascetic and monastic works, Basil refers constantly, and almost in every line, to the Bible, quoting, expounding, or illustrating it, or drawing out in detail what it teaches without departing from the traditional doctrine of the Church. He leaves us in no doubt that he regards the Bible, especially the New Testament, as the sovereign and all-sufficient moral and doctrinal standard for all Christians, and particularly for the cenobites under his charge. Basil of Caesarea thus taught me a never-forgotten lesson. [Emmanuel Amand de Mendieta, Rome and Canterbury: A Biblical and Free Catholicism, trans. Coslett Quin (London: Herbert Jenkins, 1962), pp. 140, 141, 143].
Just like a shell game, one must keep an eye on the ball. Madrid shuffled Basil around just enough so that one is left unsure of what exactly Basil held to. For instance, Madrid hasn't defined what contents make up "Tradition" for either himself or Basil, or even if they believed the same content of Tradition. But guess who does define the contents of tradition? Basil! Webster points out, "Basil's teaching primarily had to do with customs and practices such as triple immersion in baptism and turning to the East in prayer, practices of secondary importance" [Holy Scripture Vol. 2, p.144]. By not defining Tradition, Madrid misrepresents Basil, hoping no one will actually read On The Holy Spirit 27.66 and 29.71 in which Basil clearly points out what he means. Look through Madrid's chapter for the same definitional honesty put forth by Basil, you will not find it.
One last area should not be left unexplored. Madrid argues for the early Fathers holding to Tradition, implying that the early Fathers are in unity with modern-day Roman apologists. In other words, if Basil and Madrid were able to sit down together and discuss "Tradition," both should be on the same page as to what that "Tradition" is. For Basil, tradition included turning to the east in prayer. Is Madrid praying toward the east? Other early Fathers held that prayers should be directed west. In his Disputations on Holy Scripture, William Whitaker evaluates many of the traditions put forth by Basil, and concludes,
"The papists themselves retain not all these traditions of Basil's. They do not dip, but sprinkle; they do not pray standing upon the Lord's day, as Basil here determines that we ought; for if we follow Basil, we ought to pray standing on all Sundays from Easter to Pentecost. This the papists do not observe, shewing therein that Basil is not to be listened to upon that matter. For Basil contends most earnestly for this tradition, and adduces three reasons in support of the practice: 1. because Christ arose upon the Lord's day; 2. because we seek the things that are above. But we should do this always; and according to this reason, we should always pray standing: 3. because the eighth day is a symbol of the world to come; and therefore, says he, the church hath taught its nurslings to make their prayers in an erect posture, and that upon a necessary obligation. A similar decree was made in the first council of Nice, can. 20. But a different custom hath now for a long time prevailed. The papists themselves have taught us by their own example to reject such traditions. For these traditions of Basil's are either necessary, or they are not. If they be not necessary, why do they press us with the authority of Basil? For either we should not be attacked, if they be unnecessary; or they sin in not observing them, if they be necessary. Let them choose which they will" [ William Whitaker, Disputations On Holy Scripture, trans. and ed. William Fitzgerald(Cambridge: University Press, reprinted 1849),p. 593].
Well, it has been ten years since Mr. Madrid's accusations on Protestants quoting the Early Church Fathers. Maybe in the past ten years, Madrid has come across the same information presented above. Maybe his new book won't be filled with emotionally charged words like "hijacking," and poor historical analysis like his "Blueprint for Anarchy" chapter was. The object of the historical analysis on the early Fathers is not to make them Protestant or Roman Catholic, but to let them be who they were in their own place in history. We can only hope that Mr. Madrid treats Basil, if at all, with integrity in his forth-coming book.