It’s sometimes argued the Reformers didn’t have the right to call for the reform of the Roman church. How could a small minority challenge the authority of the established majority? Of course, there are many nuances and rabbit trails to meander down when one gets into this discussion- like did the reformers have miracles to prove their reform efforts? or who left who: did the reformers leave, or were they expelled? I’d like to bypass those topics for a bit, and apply what I’ll dub, the rule of consistency.
Let’s assume that the Reformers were wrong to go against the established church. The majority position was the Roman position at the time of the Reformation. What then do we do with Athanasius? I recently re-read Dr. White’s article, What Really Happened at Nicea? The section most pertinent to this is about half way down entitled, “The Aftermath.” Dr. White explains:
Modern Christians often have the impression that ancient councils held absolute sway, and when they made “the decision,” the controversy ended. This is not true. Though Nicea is seen as one of the greatest of the councils, it had to fight hard for acceptance. The basis of its final victory was not the power of politics, nor the endorsement of established religion. There was one reason the Nicene definition prevailed: its fidelity to the testimony of the Scriptures.
During the six decades between the Council of Nicea and the Council of Constantinople in 381, Arianism experienced many victories. There were periods where Arian bishops constituted the majority of the visible ecclesiastical hierarchy. Primarily through the force of political power, Arian sympathizers soon took to undoing the condemnation of Arius and his theology. Eusebius of Nicomedia and others attempted to overturn Nicea, and for a number of decades it looked as if they might succeed. Constantine adopted a compromising position under the influence of various sources, including Eusebius of Caesarea and a politically worded “confession” from Arius. Constantine put little stock in the definition of Nicea itself: he was a politician to the last. Upon his death, his second son Constantius ruled in the East, and he gave great aid and comfort to Arianism. United by their rejection of the homoousion, semi-Arians and Arians worked to unseat a common enemy, almost always proceeding with political power on their side.
Under Constantius, council after council met in this location or that. So furious was the activity that one commentator wrote of the time, “The highways were covered with galloping bishops.” Most importantly, regional councils meeting at Ariminum, Seleucia, and Sirmium presented Arian and semi-Arian creeds, and many leaders were coerced into subscribing to them. Even Liberius, bishop of Rome, having been banished from his see (position as bishop) and longing to return, was persuaded to give in and compromise on the matter.
During the course of the decades following Nicea, Athanasius, who had become bishop of Alexandria shortly after the council, was removed from his see five times, once by force of 5,000 soldiers coming in the front door while he escaped out the back! Hosius, now nearly 100 years old, was likewise forced by imperial threats to compromise and give place to Arian ideas. At the end of the sixth decade of the century, it looked as if Nicea would be defeated. Jerome would later describe this moment in history as the time when “the whole world groaned and was astonished to find itself Arian.”
Yet, in the midst of this darkness, a lone voice remained strong. Arguing from Scripture, fearlessly reproaching error, writing from refuge in the desert, along the Nile, or in the crowded suburbs around Alexandria, Athanasius continued the fight. His unwillingness to give place- even when banished by the Emperor, disfellowshipped by the established church, and condemned by local councils and bishops alike- gave rise to the phrase, Athanasius contra mundum: “Athanasius against the world.” Convinced that Scripture is “sufficient above all things,” Athanasius acted as a true “Protestant” in his day. Athanasius protested against the consensus opinion of the established church, and did so because he was compelled by scriptural authority. Athanasius would have understood, on some of those long, lonely days of exile, what Wycliffe meant a thousand years later: “If we had a hundred popes, and if all the friars were cardinals, to the law of the gospel we should bow, more than all this multitude.”
Movements that depend on political favor (rather than God’s truth) eventually die, and this was true of Arianism. As soon as it looked as if the Arians had consolidated their hold on the Empire, they turned to internal fighting and quite literally destroyed each other. They had no one like a faithful Athanasius, and it was not long before the tide turned against them. By A.D. 381, the Council of Constantinople could meet and reaffirm, without hesitancy, the Nicene faith, complete with the homoousious clause. The full deity of Christ was affirmed, not because Nicea had said so, but because God had revealed it to be so. Nicea’s authority rested upon the solid foundation of Scripture. A century after Nicea, we find the great bishop of Hippo, Augustine, writing to Maximin, an Arian, and saying: “I must not press the authority of Nicea against you, nor you that of Ariminum against me; I do not acknowledge the one, as you do not the other; but let us come to ground that is common to both- the testimony of the Holy Scriptures.”
I often wonder about those who attack the Reformers for standing against the majority, and how they explain Athanasius. If we were to have witnessed Athanasius up close, would it appear that he was standing against the church? By what authority did he do so? Did he have miracles to back up his “mission”? Did he have “ordinary” or “extraordinary” authority to stand against the majority? On what basis, during the time period in which he lived, could one have judged him to be a true or false reformer?
People rebel against authority all the time, be they Catholic or Protestant. The real question: is their rebellion supported by the infallible source of truth, the Sacred Scriptures? Consider my Protestant friends, the recent Harold Camping debate shows, particularly Day 2. The logic and exegesis of the Bible used by Mr. Camping was outrageous: it was pure gnosticism. We don’t have to appeal to an infallible church or council to deem Mr. Camping heretical. The Bible itself, if allowed to be read like any document should be read, shows that Mr. Camping is in dire error.
Before you balk at that statement my Catholic friends, consider Jimmy Akin’s recent comment: “this isn’t exegetical rocket science.” Akin evaluated the errors of his priests based on…. Scripture. The Bible, according to Akin is clear enough to put his priests in their place. One has to admit, there are plenty of clear passages in the Bible. For some Roman Catholics, they give off the impression that the Bible must be so cryptic, confusing, and difficult, that none of us could ever understand any of it without being infallible. Just think of how difficult it is to understand such verses like Acts 3:1, “One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer- at three in the afternoon.” Imagine, without an infallible understanding of this text, none of us could ever comprehend even this simple verse. I would argue, even a non-believer could exegete a verse of Scripture and comprehend a passage in a context. When the Lord chastised the Sadducees in Matthew 22, he stated they were in error because they did not know the Scriptures. He further states, “have you not read what God said to you?” (Mt. 22:31). The Lord Jesus clearly held these men responsible for knowing and understanding the Scriptures. Were the Sadducees supposed to respond, “How could we? We did not have an infallible interpreter of the Bible!”
Ultimately Athanasius, the Reformers, or whoever, are right based on whether or not their teachings are supported by the infallible sacred deposit of truth. In the blog article I cited up top, it’s stated:
“It’s baffling, really, how men could have just decided that sola scriptura is the only rule of Faith, then based on that alone overturn 1500 years of traditions that did not contradict the Bible. Was it really Biblically necessary to cut the number of sacraments from seven to two? Of course not. But sola scriptura gave Reformers carte blanche to interpret everything themselves and start from scratch. Beliefs and practices began to boil down to the personal insistence “I’m right!” in their interpretation of the Bible, without consulting traditions or authorities. History meant nothing anymore, and perhaps that’s why you never hear modern apologists talk about whether the Reformers had the right to do what they did. There’s a disconnect with and almost an impertinent disdain for history in the world today.”
It isn’t baffling. Athanasius like Luther, appealed to a certain standard of infallible truth by which to judge by. Take the sacraments for example. During the early centuries the church did not limit the number of sacraments to seven. There were more, or less. Some lists had less than seven, others had as many as thirty. It wasn’t until the mid-13th century that the number was finally set at seven. How does one decide how many there are? From the Bible.
As to the insistence that the Reformers simply stated, “I’m right” “without consulting traditions or authorities” – this is simply historically untrue, say for someone like John Calvin. He had a decent grasp of church history. In Luther’s case, he stated, “the sum of my argument is that whereas the words of men, and the use of the centuries, can be tolerated and endorsed, provided they do not conflict with the sacred Scriptures, nevertheless they do not make articles of faith, nor any necessary observances.” This is a far cry from “History meant nothing anymore.”
There is indeed a “disconnect” but it’s not due to Protestants having “an impertinent disdain for history.” I love church history, as do many of my cyber friends. The “disconnect” that I see is that Catholics cannot produce what they claim to have. If there is another infallible rule of faith besides the Scriptures that could’ve helped out Athanasius, where was it? Why did Athanasius have to struggle for his life against the church majority? Why did he have to argue his position from Scripture? Why couldn’t he have argued from some other infallible authority?
Let’s apply the rule of consistency. I have a paradigm that can explain Athanasius and the Reformers. They both had an infallible standard that they sought to be true to: the Sacred Scriptures. Can you be just as consistent my Catholic friends? Did Athanasius have any right?