David T. King & William Webster Misinterpret the Fathers on Authority: Part I: St. Cyril of Jerusalem

David T. King & William Webster Misinterpret the Fathers on Authority: Part I: St. Cyril of Jerusalem November 9, 2013

In Vol. III, Ch. 2 (“The Ultimate Authority of Scripture”). Webster and King cite the following passages from St. Cyril:

Have thou ever in your mind this seal , which for the present has been lightly touched in my discourse, by way of summary, but shall be stated, should the Lord permit, to the best of my power with the proof from the Scriptures. For concerning the divine and holy mysteries of the Faith, not even a casual statement must be delivered without the Holy Scriptures; nor must we be drawn aside by mere plausibility and artifices of speech. Even to me, who tell you these things, give not absolute credence, unless thou receive the proof of the things which I announce from the Divine Scriptures. For this salvation which we believe depends not on ingenious reasoning , but on demonstration of the Holy Scriptures.

[Catechetical Lectures, IV: 17]

And first let us inquire for what cause Jesus came down. Now mind not my argumentations, for perhaps you may be misled but unless thou receive testimony of the Prophets on each matter, believe not what I say: unless thou learn from the Holy Scriptures concerning the Virgin, and the place, the time, and the manner, receive not testimony from man. For one who at present thus teaches may possibly be suspected: but what man of sense will suspect one that prophesied a thousand and more years beforehand? If then you seek the cause of Christ’s coming, go back to the first book of the Scriptures.

[Catechetical Lectures, XII:5]

Catholics have no problem with these statements. We only would if Cyril intended them to be in opposition to or in exclusion of the authority of the Church and tradition; but of course he doesn’t do that. In other passages that Webster and King conveniently omit, he acknowledges these.

In the same Lecture 4 (first quote above), St. Cyril writes at length about Holy Scripture (sections 33-36). How does he instruct a believer to determine which books are in the Bible? He does so by an extrabiblical authority: the Church:

Learn also diligently, and from the Church, what are the books of the Old Testament, and what those of the New. (IV:33)

Right off the bat, this is contrary to several of the tenets that the authors laid out in the Introduction to Vol. III:

3.) All doctrines must be proven from Scripture.
4.) What the Apostles taught orally has been handed down in Scripture.
5.) Scripture is the ultimate judge in all controversies.
6.) Scripture is the ultimate and supreme authority for the Church.
7.) If Scripture is silent on an issue it cannot be known.

The canon of Scripture is never listed in Scripture, which contradicts all five tenets above. Scripture is silent on that issue, and Webster and King say, therefore, that it can’t be known (#7). But the canon is known through the authority of the Catholic Church. The Church delivers Holy Scripture to the Christian believer. Protestantism has never been able to rationalize away this clear contradiction of sola Scriptura. Hence, Cyril states:

Study earnestly these only which we read openly in the Church. Far wiser and more pious than yourself were the Apostles, and the bishops of old time, the presidents of the Church who handed down these books. Being therefore a child of the Church, trench thou not upon its statutes. (IV:35)

Moreover, when Cyril lists the books of the Old Testament, delivered authoritatively by the Church, he includes “Jeremiah . . . including Baruch and Lamentations and the Epistle” (IV:35). Baruch was thrown out of Protestant Bibles, but accepted by the Church fathers and Catholics. The “Epistle of Jeremiah” is the last chapter of Baruch in Catholic Bibles, but excluded by Protestant ones. In the next section (IV:36), he lists all New Testament books except for Revelation, and states: “. . . whatever books are not read in Churches, these read not even by yourself,. . .”

Thus — so Cyril would say — , not only is Revelation not Scripture, but not to be read at all by an individual. This is because the canon of the Bible was itself a developing doctrine of the Church. Revelation was one of the last books accepted. Cyril died in the decade before the Church finalized the canon at the councils of Hippo (393) and Carthage (397). These included the deuterocanonical books (what Protestants call the “Apocrypha”: those that they arbitrarily reject).

This is an example of why Catholics don’t grant individual Church fathers binding authority: only the Church in its authoritative pronouncements (through councils and popes) has that. The fathers are guides when they agree en masse. The canon was still developed, and reached its final development shortly after Cyril. But neither what he said about the biblical canon, nor what the Church declared shortly afterwards, comports totally with what Protestants think, nor with sola Scriptura.

We know that St. Cyril cited deuterocanonical books in these same Catechetical Instructions; e.g., Wisdom of Solomon (9:2; 9:16; 12:5), Sirach (6:4; 11:19; 13:8), and the chapters of Daniel that Protestants discarded (14:25; 16:31).

Commenting on the Creed, Cyril again upholds a strong notion of the authority of the Catholic Church:

Now then let me finish what still remains to be said for the Article, In one Holy Catholic Church, on which, though one might say many things, we will speak but briefly.

It is called Catholic then because it extends over all the world, from one end of the earth to the other; and because it teaches universally and completely one and all the doctrines which ought to come to men’s knowledge, concerning things both visible and invisible, heavenly and earthly . . . (XVIII:22-23)

Now, imagine if Cyril had said this about Scripture, that it “teaches universally and completely one and all the doctrines which ought to come to men’s knowledge.” Webster and King would be all over that as proof that he was teaching material sufficiency of Scripture and also formal sufficiency (“complete”). But here he is stating these attributes with regard to the Church, not Scripture (the Church teaches with completeness, just as Scripture does); and so for that reason, Webster and King decided that this passage was not commensurate with their sophistical plan of “proving” that the Scripture alone provides this sort of sufficiency or “completeness” — and they deliberately omitted it.

This is their standard practice with all the Church fathers, and it’s intellectually dishonest, on the grounds that a half-truth or a partial truth is almost as bad as a lie. They habitually present one strain of patristic teaching that agrees with Catholicism: glowing remarks about Holy Scripture, while ignoring all that is said of the Church, tradition, apostolic succession, bishops, councils, popes, etc.

Even this would be acceptable if their stated intent was simply to show what the fathers believed about Scripture. We would have no beef with that. But this isn’t what they are doing. They claim that the fathers taught sola Scriptura: the notion that nothing is infallible or finally binding except scriptural teaching. That’s not true (as a matter of demonstrable fact), and it’s shown to not be true precisely by noting what these fathers thought about these other elements of authority (the Church, tradition, apostolic succession, bishops, councils, popes). St. Cyril rejects all sectarianism and denominationalism:

Concerning this Holy Catholic Church Paul writes to Timothy, That you may know how you ought to behave yourself in the House of God, which is the Church of the Living God, the pillar and ground of the truth [1 Tim 3:15].

But since the word Ecclesia is applied to different things (as also it is written of the multitude in the theatre of the Ephesians, And when he had thus spoken, he dismissed the Assembly [Acts 19:14], and since one might properly and truly say that there is a Church of evil doers, I mean the meetings of the heretics, the Marcionists and Manichees, and the rest, for this cause the Faith has securely delivered to you now the Article, And in one Holy Catholic Church; that you may avoid their wretched meetings, and ever abide with the Holy Church Catholic in which you were regenerated. And if ever you are sojourning in cities, inquire not simply where the Lord’s House is (for the other sects of the profane also attempt to call their own dens houses of the Lord), nor merely where the Church is, but where is the Catholic Church. For this is the peculiar name of this Holy Church, the mother of us all, which is the spouse of our Lord Jesus Christ, . . . (XVIII:25-26)

He teaches that salvation comes through the Catholic Church:

In this Holy Catholic Church receiving instruction and behaving ourselves virtuously, we shall attain the kingdom of heaven, and inherit eternal life; . . . (XVIII:28)

He refers to the passing-on of apostolic tradition:

And now, brethren beloved, the word of instruction exhorts you all, to prepare your souls for the reception of the heavenly gifts. As regards the Holy and Apostolic Faith delivered to you to profess, we have spoken through the grace of the Lord as many Lectures, as was possible,. . . (XVIII:32)

Make thou your fold with the sheep: flee from the wolves: depart not from the Church. . . . The truth of the Unity of God has been delivered to you: learn to distinguish the pastures of doctrine. (VI:36)

He refers to “the divine Scriptures used in the Church” and “the tradition of the Church’s interpreters” (XV:13). This goes against Webster and King’s typically Protestant notion that “Scripture interprets Scripture, i.e., it is self-interpreting.”

He regards the Church as the determinant of orthodoxy, insofar as what it holds, is apostolic Christianity:

And to be brief, let us neither separate them, nor make a confusion : neither say thou ever that the Son is foreign to the Father, nor admit those who say that the Father is at one time Father, and at another Son: for these are strange and impious statements, and not the doctrines of the Church. (XI:18)

And formerly the heretics were manifest; but now the Church is filled with heretics in disguise. For men have fallen away from the truth, and have itching ears. [2 Tim 4:3] Is it a plausible discourse? All listen to it gladly. Is it a word of correction? All turn away from it. Most have departed from right words, and rather choose the evil, than desire the good. This therefore is the falling away, and the enemy is soon to be looked for: and meanwhile he has in part begun to send forth his own forerunners , that he may then come prepared upon the prey. Look therefore to yourself, O man, and make safe your soul. The Church now charges you before the Living God; she declares to you the things concerning Antichrist before they arrive. Whether they will happen in your time we know not, or whether they will happen after you we know not; but it is well that, knowing these things, you should make yourself secure beforehand. (XV:9)

. . . the Catholic Church guarding you beforehand has delivered to you in the profession of the faith,  . . . (XVII:3)

He speaks in terms of the Catholic “three-legged stool” rule of faith: tradition, Church, and Scripture: all harmonious:

But in learning the Faith and in professing it, acquire and keep that only, which is now delivered to you by the Church, and which has been built up strongly out of all the Scriptures. For since all cannot read the Scriptures, some being hindered as to the knowledge of them by want of learning, and others by a want of leisure, in order that the soul may not perish from ignorance, we comprise the whole doctrine of the Faith in a few lines. This summary I wish you both to commit to memory when I recite it , and to rehearse it with all diligence among yourselves, not writing it out on paper , but engraving it by the memory upon your heart , taking care while you rehearse it that no Catechumen chance to overhear the things which have been delivered to you. . . . for the present listen while I simply say the Creed , and commit it to memory; but at the proper season expect the confirmation out of Holy Scripture of each part of the contents. For the articles of the Faith were not composed as seemed good to men; but the most important points collected out of all the Scripture make up one complete teaching of the Faith. And just as the mustard seed in one small grain contains many branches, so also this Faith has embraced in few words all the knowledge of godliness in the Old and New Testaments. Take heed then, brethren, and hold fast the traditions which you now receive, and write them on the table of your heart.

Guard them with reverence, lest per chance the enemy despoil any who have grown slack; or lest some heretic pervert any of the truths delivered to you. For faith is like putting money into the bank , even as we have now done; but from you God requires the accounts of the deposit. I charge you, as the Apostle says, before God, who quickens all things, and Christ Jesus, who before Pontius Pilate witnessed the good confession, that you keep this faith which is committed to you, without spot, until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ. (V: 12-13)

At every turn, then, we see that St. Cyril is thoroughly Catholic, and does not teach sola Scriptura. Webster and King have misled their readers in claiming the contrary, by trotting out just two passages, while ignoring the many other relevant ones that I have highlighted above.

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