I was catching up, as best I can before heading back out on the road soon, with my RSS feeds, and I couldn’t help but notice Dave Armstrong, who has decided recently to try his hand at church history, taking a shot at the Athanasius Problem. You see, the great bishop of Alexandria is a constant problem for Roman Catholics who wish to portray the early church as if it thought, spoke, and believed, as modern Rome. There is this really big problem about Athanasius’ decades long rejection of council after council, bishop after bishop, in standing for the full and uncompromised deity of Christ. The thinking person realizes that this mindset just does not fit well with modern Roman Catholic theories of papal primacy and the like. In any case, Mr. Armstrong recently published yet another book, this time addressing the subject of church history. I had obtained the e-text version of the work, looked through it, and realized that with my current studies and challenges, going back over all the egregious abuses of the early writers represented by Armstrong was surely not worth my while. Someone else with much more time and interest would find an inexhaustible source of classic Roman Catholic anachronism in this work. But as I noted, I happened upon just one quote in this blog entry while clearing my RSS feed lists. It reads:
They pretend that he taught sola Scriptura, or at any rate, something more closely akin to it than the Catholic “three-legged stool” rule of faith (Bible-Tradition-Church). But Athanasius was a good Catholic. I shall now list ten different areas where St. Athanasius thought very much like a Catholic and very unlike how Protestants approach things. The excerpts are from my book, The Church Fathers Were Catholic: Patristic Evidences for Catholicism (excepting the Deuterocanonical section):
. . . inventors of unlawful heresies, who indeed refer to the Scriptures, but do not hold such opinions as the saints have handed down, and receiving them as the traditions of men, err, because they do not rightly know them nor their power. (Festal Letter 2:6)
So I popped open my edition of Athanasius and read the context, and could not help but chuckle. Here, read it for yourself, and remember, let Athanasius define terms rather than Dave Armstrong, or the conflicts of our century:
4. Now those who do not observe the feast, continue such as these even to the present day, feigning indeed and devising names of feasts, but rather introducing days of mourning than of gladness; `For there is no peace to the wicked, saith the Lord.’ And as Wisdom saith, `Gladness and joy are taken from their mouth.’ Such are the feasts of the wicked. But the wise servants of the Lord, who have truly put on the man which is created in God, have received gospel words, and reckon as a general commandment that given to Timothy, which saith, `Be thou an example to the believers in word, in conversation, in love, in faith, in purity.’ So well do they keep the Feast, that even the unbelievers, seeing their order, may say, `God is with them of a truth.’ For as he who receives an apostle receives Him who sent him, so he who is a follower of the saints, makes the Lord in every respect his end and aim, even as Paul, being a follower of Him, goes on to say, `As I also of Christ.’ For there were first our Saviour’s own words, who from the height of His divinity, when conversing with His disciples, said, `Learn of Me, for I am meek and lowly in heart, and ye shall find rest to your souls.’ Then too when He poured water into a basin, and girded Himself with a towel, and washed His disciples’ feet, He said to them, `Know what I have done. Ye call Me Master and Lord, and ye say well, for so I am. If therefore I, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, ye also ought to wash one another’s feet: for I have given you an example, that as I have done to you, ye also should do.’
5. Oh! my brethren, how shall we admire the loving-kindness of the Saviour? With what power, and with what a trumpet should a man cry out, exalting these His benefits! That not only should we bear His image, but should receive from Him an example and pattern of heavenly conversation; that as He hath begun, we should go on, that suffering, we should not threaten, being reviled, we should not revile again, but should bless them that curse, and in everything commit ourselves to God who judgeth righteously. For those who are thus disposed, and fashion themselves according to the Gospel, will be partakers of Christ, and imitators of apostolic conversation, on account of which they shall be deemed worthy of that praise from him, with which he praised the Corinthians, when he said, `I praise you that in everything ye are mindful of me.’ Afterwards, because there were men who used his words, but chose to hear them as suited their lusts, and dare to pervert them, as the followers of Hymenaeus and Alexander, and before them the Sadducees, who as he said, `having made shipwreck of faith,’ scoffed at the mystery of the resurrection, he immediately proceeded to say, `And as I have delivered to you traditions, hold them fast.’ That means, indeed, that we should think not otherwise than as the teacher has delivered.
Now before moving on, have you caught his drift? Athanasius is saying the exact opposite of what Armstrong thinks he is saying. He even uses the classically abused text, 2 Thess. 2:15, and says nothing of any teachings that are not biblical in nature. “Apostolic conversation,” “apostolic tradition,” etc., for Athanasius, is nothing more than the words of the Apostles themselves! Roman Catholic controversialists, so accustomed to redefining terms based upon modern usage, read back into Athanasius the very distinctions that he is denying. But we continue on. I will bold the sole portion quoted by Armstrong:
6. For not only in outward form did those wicked men dissemble, putting on as the Lord says sheep’s clothing, and appearing like unto whited sepulchres; but they took those divine words in their mouth, while they inwardly cherished evil intentions. And the first to put on this appearance was the serpent, the inventor of wickedness from the beginning–the devil,–who, in disguise, conversed with Eve, and forthwith deceived her. But after him and with him are all inventors of unlawful heresies, who indeed refer to the Scriptures, but do not hold such opinions as the saints have handed down, and receiving them as the traditions of men, err, because they do not rightly know them nor their power. Therefore Paul justly praises the Corinthians, because their opinions were in accordance with his traditions. And the Lord most righteously reproved the Jews, saying, `Wherefore do ye also transgress the commandments of God on account of your traditions.’ For they changed the commandments they received from God after their own understanding, preferring to observe the traditions of men. And about these, a little after, the blessed Paul again gave directions to the Galatians who were in danger thereof, writing to them, `If any man preach to you aught else than that ye have received, let him be accursed.’
7. For there is no fellowship whatever between the words of the saints and the fancies of human invention; for the saints are the ministers of the truth, preaching the kingdom of heaven, but those who are borne in the opposite direction have nothing better than to eat, and think their end is that they shall cease to be, and they say, `Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die.’ Therefore blessed Luke reproves the inventions of men, and hands down the narrations of the saints, saying in the beginning of the Gospel, `Since many have presumed to write narrations of those events of which we are assured, as those who from the beginning were witnesses and ministers of the Word have delivered to us; it hath seemed good to me also, who have adhered to them all from the first, to write correctly in order to thee, O excellent Theophilus, that thou mayest know the truth concerning the things in which thou hast been instructed.’ For as each of the saints has received, that they impart without alteration, for the confirmation of the doctrine of the mysteries. Of these the (divine) word would have us disciples, and these should of right be our teachers, and to them only is it necessary to give heed, for of them only is `the word faithful and worthy of all acceptation;’ these not being disciples because they heard from others, but being eye-witnesses and ministers of the Word, that which they had heard from Him have they handed down.
See what a difference a context makes? Athanasius is making the exact opposite point, concluding, as he so often did, with the teaching that what has been “handed down” is exactly the Scriptures. So when you read Roman Catholics throwing out contextless tidbits like this, do some reading. Remember that they are dogmatically committed to historical anachronism: Rome tells them what they must find in the early writings of the church, and, lo and behold, that’s exactly what they find! Amazing!
Mr. Armstrong expanded his comments when people in his comboxes saw exactly what Athanasius is actually saying in this passage, and how Armstrong has misused the text. And as if to simply prove my point for me, Dave includes a wonderfully anachronistic comment like this: “All the text prior to these words pose no problem whatsoever for Catholics, who accept material sufficiency of Scripture.” Yes, folks, I’m sure such categories as “formal vs. material sufficiency” were right in the forefront of Athanasius’ thinking! It is clear Armstrong cannot even see his own shortcomings in the handling of the text even when the entire context is posted before his very eyes, the problem that makes his church history book as valuable for Roman Catholics as Hislop’s Two Babylons should be for Protestants. Neither source has anything of value to add to the discussion.