Alpha & Omega Ministries Apologetics Blog
Sola Ecclesia Produces Amazing Historical Anachronism
05/16/2009 - James WhiteYears ago in a written debate on the claims of Roman Catholicism I pointed out the bankruptcy of the constantly repeated slogan that states that Rome is the church of the past 2,000 years. The fact that Newman had to create his development hypothesis proves that the claim is empty: the early centuries did not embrace, as part of their faith, so much that defines modern Roman Catholic dogma. I have often pointed to Nicea as a convenient and important date in church history and asked which of the bishops there embraced, as part of the Christian faith, such concepts as transubstantiation, purgatory, the thesaurus meritorum, Papal Infallibility, the Marian dogmas, etc. and etc. Now, we do not have an exhaustive record of every sermon preached by every bishop who was at the Council of Nicea. In fact, we don't even have an exhaustive list of their names, for that matter. But remember, it is Rome's claim that she is the church, the same church, that has existed since Pentecost. She, uniquely, bears Christ's authority. Is this not the claim? So, if it is, then it should follow that this claim could garner positive documentation, correct? We should be able to discern these beliefs in the surviving sermons and records of that period, should we not?
Recently one of our channel regulars posted this argument in the Envoy forums. Quickly Patti "Scissor Hands" replied to it. Now, I am very impressed with Patti's zeal. What a life it must be to sit next to your computer day and night, just waiting for someone to post something so you can quickly either attempt to refute it, or, if it was written by Art "Mad Dog" Sippo, edit it or delete it (and quickly before it can be added to the long, long list of embarrassing flaming posts written under Art's name). It did not take long for Patti to respond, and she did so by posting from this website the following words:
Let’s start with the first. Transubstantiation. Would the Bishops at Nicea recognize the word? No. If the concept was explained, would they agree? Absolutely. Purgatory? No. The concept, once explained? Most likely. And so on. Explaining some of the positions (i.e., thesaurus meritorum) might take some time, but I don’t think there’d be any real hang-ups. A chunk all go together (Purgatory/indulgences/thesaurus meritorum…without Purgatory, there’s no need for indulgences, nor a treasury of merit.)Now, before reviewing this attempted response, I note two things: 1) evidently, for Patti, any commentary, no matter how accurate or useful, is "sufficient" as long as it has sought to defend Mother Rome, and 2) bland assertions, without even an attempt at documentation, are sufficient in defense of Rome. Surely the reader immediately asked the question, "Wait a minute--how can you possibly know that those bishops would have agreed with these later formulations? Is that not arguing in a circle?" Of course it is, but remember, Patti, and all of those like her, are caught in the circle of sola ecclesia, the Roman Church as the final authority in all things. So when you ask how they can possibly know what the bishops at Nicea would have accepted, "had it been explained to them," they say they know because the Roman Church teaches it, and it has existed for 2000 years. Now at this point, if you are experiencing nausea due to the spinning of the tight circles of bad logic, please stop reading, sit down, focus on the horizon, and breathe deeply for a few moments before continuing.
But there’s a greater underlying problem in White’s argument. White is relying on Sola Scriptura, without recognizing that sola scriptura itself wouldn’t be recognized by the Bishops at Nicea. White has left himself in a bad position, because in trying to argue that the Bishops wouldn’t agree with something like Papal Infallibility (which, again, they would agree with once the concept was explained), he makes them the judges, the authorities. Ask the judges if absolutely everything that a Christian should believe is contained in the Scriptures. Explain the concept to them, and watch them reject the idea. “You think we were able to put everything needed to be a Christian into the Bible? You think everything we believe is contained in 2000 pages of text, and that by writing it down we’ve done away with Oral Tradition? HA!”
Obviously, replying to this basic observation (that the definitional elements of modern Roman Catholic dogma were not propounded or held by the bishops at Nicea, a fact that would not even be disputed in the vast majority of Roman Catholic universities today--indeed, one wonders what percentage of modern Roman Catholic scholarship would even think that Nicea got the answer to the question right!) by saying that we may not have any positive evidence to cite (for surely, if there was such evidence, they would have been producing it!) but that we can be sure that they would have agreed with us had anyone explained the concepts to them is the kind of argumentation that can be used to defend anything. It isn't even argumentation, really. It is wishful thinking hiding behind empty assertions. And notice how fast the writer abandons this very unpleasant area (one in which the Roman Catholic apologist's every move will only throw more light upon the absence of evidence in support of his central assertions) and moves on to an attack upon...sola scriptura of course! It is a common ploy for Roman Catholics, when they are on shakey ground, to toss some dust in the air of the argument by means of "Hey, we all know sola scriptura is wrong!" Sadly, for most of their compatriots, that's pretty much all it takes.
The first paragraph of the response, then, is irrelevant. It is a non-response. The second is even worse, if that is possible. The objection is not, in fact, based upon sola scriptura at all. How can a challenge that notes the evolutionary nature of Roman dogma over time, which stands at complete odds with the claim that Rome is the same church over 2000 years of history, be based upon sola scriptura? We are not told. But we are told that those bishops would have rejected sola scriptura! Really? So when I quote Athanasius not only asserting the sufficiency of Scripture, but demonstrate that he consistently argued for the deity of Christ upon that bedrock of truth, and point out that his actions in opposing the entire ecclesiastical structure of his day (including the bishop of Rome) are utterly incompatible with the modern Roman understanding of scripture and tradition and magisterium, what will be the response? "He's just one theologian" possibly, as Gerry Matatics was want to do in such situations? It is hard to say. But compare the shallow sounding mockery of the sufficiency of the Scriptures found in the last lines with the words of Psalm 119. Compare such Roman-inspired error with Jesus' own view of Scripture. Such empty mockery rings very hollow when compared with the biblical testimonies to the Word's sufficiency.
But let us allow Athanasius, himself at Nicea (though not yet a bishop), to refute this cavil against divine truth. I am grateful to announce that the work on scriptural sufficiency that originally came out in 1995 is coming out again! This work, with chapters by R.C. Sproul, John MacArthur, and Sinclair Ferguson, addresses many facets of this vitally important topic. I contributed a lengthy chapter on the early church's view, and I focused a good bit on Athanasius, starting with the best Rome has to offer in citations from him, then, having provided the relevant context, moving to the positive testimonies he provided. In celebration of the re-release of that book in the near future, I provide that material. Let the reader compare the shallow triumphalism of Rome with a sober discussion of what this early writer actually said, and what he actually meant.
What then of the positive testimony from Athanasius? We note first and foremost the plain words from his work against the heathen:
For indeed the holy and God-breathed Scriptures are self-sufficient for the preaching of the truth.In this passage Athanasius begins with a fundamental tenet of his faith: the full sufficiency of Scripture for the proclamation of the truth. He immediately goes on to note that God uses other sources to teach truth as well, including godly men with an insight into Scripture. But he begins where Protestants and Roman Catholics part company: with the sufficiency of Scripture. He had learned such things from those who came before him. He even mentions the words of Antony, "The Scriptures are enough for instruction, but it is a good thing to encourage one another in the faith, and to stir up with words."
When writing to the Egyptian bishops he asserted:
But since holy Scripture is of all things most sufficient for us, therefore recommending to those who desire to know more of these matters, to read the Divine word, I now hasten to set before you that which most claims attention, and for the sake of which principally I have written these things.The high view of Scripture is continued in this passage from Athanasius work on the Incarnation of the Word of God:
Let this, then, Christ-loving man, be our offering to you, just for a rudimentary sketch and outline, in a short compass, of the faith of Christ and of His Divine appearing usward. But you, taking occasion by this, if you light upon the text of the Scriptures, by genuinely applying your mind to them, will learn from them more completely and clearly the exact detail of what we have said. For they were spoken and written by God, through men who spoke for God.
One will search in vain for a reference wherein this Father describes oral tradition in such a way, and yet Trent did not fear to so speak of tradition. Rather than finding OBrien's idea that Scripture is not a safe guide as to what we are to believe, Athanasius said: ". . . for the tokens of truth are more exact as drawn from Scripture, than from other sources." These other sources included church councils, such as that of Nicea, which Athanasius defended so strongly. Yet he realized that his sufficiency was not based upon the alleged authority of a council, but that the power of that council came from its fidelity to Scripture. Note his words with reference to the Arians:
Vainly then do they run about with the pretext that they have demanded Councils for the faiths sake; for divine Scripture is sufficient above all things; but if a Council be needed on the point, there are the proceedings of the Fathers, for the Nicene Bishops did not neglect this matter, but stated the doctrines so exactly, that persons reading their words honestly, cannot but be reminded by them of the religion towards Christ announced in divine Scripture.
By now the phrase "for divine Scripture is sufficient above all things" should be familiar, as it is a constant thread in Athanasius writings. And it is vital to note that the weight of the Nicene Council is described in terms of the consistency of the Councils teachings with the religion towards Christ announced in divine Scripture.
 Translation of the author. Greek text found in Robert Thomson, editor, Athanasius: Contra Gentes and De Incarnatione (Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1971), p. 2. Or Migne, PG, 25:4. With reference to the term sufficiency, we note the definition provided by Bauer, sufficiency, a competence and contentment, self-sufficiency. See Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, and Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 2nd ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1979), p. 122. The most helpful work of Louw and Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains (United Bible Societies: 1988), p. 680 says of the term, "a state of adequacy or sufficiency what is adequate, what is sufficient, what is needed, adequacy. . . . In a number of languages the equivalent of this expression in 2 Cor. 9:8 may be always having all that you need or, stated negatively, not lacking in anything."
 Athanasius, Vita S. Antoni, 16, NPNF, Series II, IV:200.
 Athanasius, Ad Episcopos Ægyptiæ, NPNF, Series II, IV:225. The Greek text is found in Migne, PG, 25:548.
 Athanasius, De Incarnatione Verbi Dei, 56, NPNF Series II, IV:66. Text in Meijering, p. 10, and Migne, PG, 25:196.
 Athanasius, De Decretis, 32, NPNF, Series II, IV:172, Migne, PG, 25:476.
 Athanasius, De Synodis, 6, NPNF, II, IV:453, Migne, PG, 26:689.
[The original notes provide the Greek, as will the new edition; I don't have time to convert the font files however for this blog entry, which forced me to remove even more discussion based upon the Greek text in the notes.]