Lutheran Chemnitz: Errors Re Fathers & Sola Scriptura

Lutheran Chemnitz: Errors Re Fathers & Sola Scriptura October 18, 2018

— including analysis of Jerome, Augustine, Origen, Epiphanius, Ambrose, Lactantius, Athanasius, and Cyprian —

This is a reply to this aspect of the prominent 16th century Lutheran theologian Martin Chemnitz’ Examination of the Council of Trent, Part I (St. Louis: Concordia Pub. House, 1971; translated by Fred Kramer). It’s basically a follow-up to the previous installment, which dealt primarily with the views of St. Irenaeus and Tertullian.

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Before proceeding, I need to make a very important clarification that always comes up in these debates with Protestants over sola Scriptura and the Fathers allegedly espousing same (or, at any rate, some position on authority closer to Protestantism than Catholicism). This comes from a tongue-in-cheek paper of mine where I turned the tables on the usual logically-challenged tactics that Protestants apply to the Fathers in this regard, and “proved” that I, too, believed in sola Scriptura, because (after all) one can easily cite tons of positive statements have made about Holy Scripture (with original bolding removed and italics added presently):

It’s easy to pretend that these Fathers believed as Protestants do when you only cite one aspect of their beliefs and writings and omit equally important portions about Tradition and the authority of the Church and apostolic succession.

[A] half-truth is as bad as an untruth. Like I said, if you only cite them talking about Scripture, with carefully selected tidbits, chosen for the Protestant “ear”, then they will sound like Protestants, especially if someone is predisposed to anachronistically read Protestantism into their views in the first place.

This is why you must also see what these same Fathers think about Tradition, the Church, Councils, bishops, and apostolic succession, and then consider their entire view, not portions of it removed from immediate context and their overall thought.

This must always be kept in mind in these types of debates, as it is supremely relevant. Chemnitz, not surprisingly, falls prey to the same basic logical fallacy. We see it repeatedly throughout his treatment of the subject of Scripture and Tradition; particularly in his Section V, pp. 150-167, where he compiles statements by the Fathers on the Scripture and its place in the Rule of Faith and only infallible norm of doctrine (as virtually all Protestants believe), etc.

He cites St. Augustine (many times), St. Irenaeus, St. John Chrysostom (eight times), St. Athanasius, St. Jerome (four times), St. Basil (three times), Origen (four times), Epiphanius, St. Cyril of Jerusalem (twice), St. Ambrose, Lactantius, St. Cyprian, and Tertullian (thirteen in all).

I’ve dealt with the views on Bible and Tradition of most of these Fathers, in considerable depth, and with much documentation, in the past: for example, St. Augustine, St. John Chrysostom, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, St. Irenaeus, and St. Basil the Great, in my in-depth public debate with anti-Catholic apologist Jason Engwer (he departed, by the way, in the middle of the debate, after counter-replying about only four of the Fathers I researched). None of them, of course, believed in sola Scriptura, or anything like it, and all held views virtually identical to Catholic beliefs, then and now.

I showed in my last installment how shabbily and fallaciously Chemnitz treated St. Irenaeus’ views, and also Tertullian’s. I have treated the subject of St. Athanasius’ views on Bible and Tradition in a separate paper (also, St. Gregory of Nyssa), and St. John Chrysostom and Irenaeus (again) and many others (Justin Martyr, Clement of AlexandriaHippolytus, Dionysius, Basil the Great, Cyril of Jerusalem, Augustine, and Theodoret).

That leaves (from Chemnitz’ list), six Fathers out of thirteen: Jerome, Origen, Epiphanius, Ambrose, Lactantius, and Cyprian. Let us briefly examine each and see if the same dynamic applies to them that we have seen in the case of the other Fathers. I am quite confident (from universal past experience in studying this) that it will. But let us see with our own eyes. You, the reader, and I will be examining this together.

Let’s begin with St. Jerome. He’s a great favorite of Protestant polemicists, especially on the issue of the canon of Scripture. Does he believe in sola Scriptura or anything akin to it? Hardly. Jerome thinks the Church was founded upon Peter himself, and acknowledges the primacy and headship of the Church of Rome, headed by the pope:

. . . the apostle Peter, upon whom the Lord has founded the Church . . . (Letter XLI. To Marcella)

1. Since the East, shattered as it is by the long-standing feuds, subsisting between its peoples, is bit by bit tearing into shreds the seamless vest of the Lord, “woven from the top throughout,” since the foxes are destroying the vineyard of Christ, and since among the broken cisterns that hold no water it is hard to discover “the sealed fountain” and “the garden inclosed,” I think it my duty to consult the chair of Peter, and to turn to a church whose faith has been praised by Paul. I appeal for spiritual food to the church whence I have received the garb of Christ. The wide space of sea and land that lies between us cannot deter me from searching for “the pearl of great price.” “Wheresoever the body is, there will the eagles be gathered together.” Evil children have squandered their patrimony; you alone keep your heritage intact. The fruitful soil of Rome, when it receives the pure seed of the Lord, bears fruit an hundredfold; but here the seed corn is choked in the furrows and nothing grows but darnel or oats. In the West the Sun of righteousness is even now rising; in the East, Lucifer, who fell from heaven, has once more set his throne above the stars. . . .

2. Yet, though your greatness terrifies me, your kindness attracts me. From the priest I demand the safe-keeping of the victim, from the shepherd the protection due to the sheep. Away with all that is overweening; let the state of Roman majesty withdraw. My words are spoken to the successor of the fisherman, to the disciple of the cross. As I follow no leader save Christ, so I communicate with none but your blessedness, that is with the chair of Peter. For this, I know, is the rock on which the church is built! This is the house where alone the paschal lamb can be rightly eaten. This is the ark of Noah, and he who is not found in it shall perish when the flood prevails. . . . He that gathers not with you scatters; he that is not of Christ is of Antichrist. (Letter XV. To Pope Damasus)

Jerome thought that even priests were the successors to the apostles:

Driven from this line of defence you will appeal to the example of the clergy. These, you will say, remain in their cities, and yet they are surely above criticism. Far be it from me to censure the successors of the apostles, who with holy words consecrate the body of Christ, and who make us Christians. Having the keys of the kingdom of heaven, they judge men to some extent before the day of judgment, and guard the chastity of the bride of Christ. (Letter XIV. To Heliodorus, Monk)

In fact as if to tell us that the traditions handed down by the apostles were taken by them from the old testament, bishops, presbyters and deacons occupy in the church the same positions as those which were occupied by Aaron, his sons, and the Levites in the temple. [Letter CXLVI. To Evangelus]

In the (mildly anti-Catholic) introduction to Jerome’s writings in this volume of the Schaff edition of the Fathers, note how it is casually assumed that St. Jerome accepted the binding authority of the Church (utterly contrary to sola Scriptura):

His writings contain the whole spirit of the Church of the Middle Ages, its monasticism, its contrast of sacred things with profane, its credulity and superstition, its value for relics, its subjection to hierarchical authority, its dread of heresy, its passion for pilgrimages. To the society which was thus in a great measure formed by him, his Bible was the greatest boon which could have been given. But he founded no school and had no inspiring power; there was no courage or width of view in his spiritual legacy such as could break through the fatal circle of bondage to received authority which was closing round mankind. [my emphases]

Philip Schaff, in his History of the Christian Church, Vol. III (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1974, from the fifth edition of 1910, 987) describes St. Jerome thusly:

. . . Semi-Pelagian in anthropology, Romanizing in the doctrine of the church and tradition . . . a fanatical apologist of all monkish extravagancies . . .

That is clearly not a sola Scriptura view . . . it’s another case of someone who has an “enthusiastic love for the Holy Scriptures” and “manifold exegetical merits” (Schaff, ibid., 987-988, describing / praising Jerome), yet who, at the same time, rejects sola Scriptura, or the notion that Scripture holds the sole binding infallible authority in the Christian Church.

How about St. Ambrose? He refers to the authority of the See of Rome, and both apostolic and papal succession:

And this confession is indeed rightly made by them, for they have not the succession of Peter, who hold not the chair of Peter, which they rend by wicked schism; and this, too, they do, wickedly denying that sins can be forgiven even in the Church, whereas it was said to Peter: “I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound also in heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed also in heaven.” (Concerning Repentance, Chapter VII)

It was always believed in the Church that the power of binding and loosing had been entrusted by our Lord to His apostles, and by them handed on to their successors in the ministry. (Ibid., Note on the Penitential Discipline of the Early Church)

As to St. Cyprian, the abundance of proofs for his allegiance to binding Church authority and apostolic succession have already been provided, courtesy of Catholic apologist Phil Porvaznik, and Dom John Chapman. See the copiously documented paper: St. Cyprian on the Church and the Papacy. This more than adequately shows that Cyprian, too, was no “primitive Protestant” or adherent of sola Scriptura. Protestant historian Philip Schaff also bears witness to this and renders it beyond any doubt:

Finally, Cyprian, in his Epistles, and most of all in his classical tract: De Unitate Eccelesiae, written in the year 251, amidst the distractions of the Novatian schism, and not without an intermixture of hierarchical pride and party spirit, has most distinctly and most forcibly developed the old catholic doctrine of the church, her unity, universality, and exclusiveness. He is the typical champion of visible, tangible church unity, and would have made a better pope than any pope before Leo I.; yet after all he was anti-papal and anti-Roman when he differed from the pope. Augustin felt this inconsistency, and thought that he had wiped it out by the blood of his martyrdom. But he never gave any sign of repentance. His views are briefly as follows:

The Catholic church was founded from the first by Christ on St. Peter alone, that, with all the equality of power among the apostles, unity might still be kept prominent as essential to her being. She has ever since remained one, in unbroken episcopal succession; as there is only one sun, though his rays are everywhere diffused. Try once to separate the ray from the sun; the unity of the light allows no division. Break the branch from the tree; it can produce no fruit. Cut off the brook from the fountain; it dries up. Out of this empirical orthodox church, episcopally organized and centralized in Rome, Cyprian can imagine no Christianity at all; not only among the Gnostics and other radical heretics, but even among the Novatians, who varied from the Catholics in no essential point of doctrine, and only elected an opposition bishop in the interest of their rigorous penitential discipline. Whoever separates himself from the catholic church is a foreigner, a profane person, an enemy, condemns himself, and must be shunned. No one can have God for his father, who has not the church for his mother. As well might one out of the ark of Noah have escaped the flood, as one out of the church be saved; because she alone is the bearer of the Holy Spirit and of all grace. (History of the Christian Church, Vol. II: Ante-Nicene Christianity: A.D. 100-325, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1970, from the fifth edition of 1910, section 53, 172-173)

Protestants and Catholics wrangle over Cyprian’s views of the papacy, yet even aside from that vexed issue, there is more than enough in this evidence to show that he clearly rejected sola Scriptura and any diminution of the binding authority of the Church catholic.

Protestant historian J. N. D. Kelly describes Origen‘s view of the relationship of the Bible and Tradition:

Early third-century writers, like Clement of Alexandria and Origen, continued to use language about it [tradition, in context] closely akin to that of Irenaeus and Tertullian, and spoke of ‘the ecclesiastical canon’ or ‘the canon of faith’ . . . in addition to the Church’s public tradition, they believed they had access to a secret tradition of doctrine . . . for Origen it seems to have consisted of an esoteric theology based on the Bible . . . According to Origen, the rule of faith, or canon, was the body of beliefs currently accepted by ordinary Christians; or again it could stand for the whole content of the faith. In his usage it was equivalent to what he called ‘the ecclesiastical preaching’ . . . and he meant by it the Christian faith as taught in the Church of his day and handed down from the apostles. Though its contents coincided with those of the Bible, it was formally independent of the Bible, and also included the principles of Biblical interpretation. (Early Christian Doctrines, San Francisco: HarperCollins, 5th edition of 1978, 43)

Kelly’s last sentence describes almost exactly the Catholic distinction between material and formal sufficiency of Scripture. We agree with Protestants that Scripture is materially sufficient, but not formally sufficient as a Rule of Faith independently of Church and Tradition. Origen sets out his views very concisely in his Preface to his work De Principiis:

Since many, however, of those who profess to believe in Christ differ from each other, not only in small and trifling matters, but also on subjects of the highest importance, as, e.g., regarding God, or the Lord Jesus Christ, or the Holy Spirit; and not only regarding these, but also regarding others which are created existences, viz., the powers and the holy virtues; it seems on that account necessary first of all to fix a definite limit and to lay down an unmistakable rule regarding each one of these, and then to pass to the investigation of other points. For as we ceased to seek for truth (notwithstanding the professions of many among Greeks and Barbarians to make it known) among all who claimed it for erroneous opinions, after we had come to believe that Christ was the Son of God, and were persuaded that we must learn it from Himself; so, seeing there are many who think they hold the opinions of Christ, and yet some of these think differently from their predecessors, yet as the teaching of the Church, transmitted in orderly succession from the apostles, and remaining in the Churches to the present day, is still preserved, that alone is to be accepted as truth which differs in no respect from ecclesiastical and apostolical tradition. (complete section 2)

Therefore, again (contra Chemnitz and confessional Lutheranism and the “Lutheran Myth of Origins”), yet another Father is seen to be far closer (if not virtually identical) in belief (concerning Tradition, etc.) to Catholicism than to Lutheranism.

How about St. Epiphanius? J.N.D. Kelly concluded:

Epiphanius, it is noteworthy, evidently regarded the Roman church (his attitude was not singular) as having preserved the apostolic rule of faith uniquely intact; but the supreme expression of it, he thought, was the creed sealed by the fathers gathered in session at Nicaea. (Early Christian Doctrines, San Francisco: HarperCollins, 5th edition of 1978, 45-46)

And, lastly, does Lactantius provide patristic support for anything remotely approaching sola Scriptura? Nope. He wrote:

[T]hey were perverted from the right path, and corrupted the sacred writings, so that they composed for themselves a new doctrine without any root and stability. But some, enticed by the prediction of false prophets, concerning whom both the true prophets and he himself had foretold, fell away from the knowledge of God, and left the true tradition. But all of these, ensnared by frauds of demons, which they ought to have foreseen and guarded against, by their carelessness lost the name and worship of God. For when they are called Phrygians, or Novatians, or Valentinians, or Marcionites, or Anthropians, or Arians, or by any other name, they have ceased to be Christians, who have lost the name of Christ, and assumed human and external names. Therefore it is the Catholic Church alone which retains true worship. This is the fountain of truth, this is the abode of the faith, this is the temple of God; into which if any one shall not enter, or from which if any shall go out, he is estranged from the hope of life and eternal salvation. No one ought to flatter himself with persevering strife. For the contest is respecting life and salvation, which, unless it is carefully and diligently kept in view, will be lost and extinguished. But, however, because all the separate assemblies of heretics call themselves Christians in preference to others, and think that theirs is the Catholic Church, it must be known that the true Catholic Church is that in which there is confession and repentance, which treats in a wholesome manner the sins and wounds to which the weakness of the flesh is liable. I have related these things in the meanwhile for the sake of admonition, that no one who desires to avoid error may be entangled in a greater error, while he is ignorant of the secret of the truth. (The Divine InstitutesBook IV, Chapter 30)

We see, then, that there is strong counter-evidence for each and every Church Father that Chemnitz cites as supposed witnesses for the Lutheran rule of faith, sola Scriptura.

Picking up Chemnitz’s Examen from where I left off, I am encouraged to see that he makes a defense of implicit testimonies of Scripture (precisely the sort of argumentation that Catholics often make with regard to many Catholic distinctives, and which I myself use in my books and articles all the time. This has the effect (unbeknownst to him, of course) of undercutting his own rhetoric of Catholic doctrines being so devoid of biblical support. He writes (his words in blue henceforth):

We shall make this the fifth kind of traditions, that he fathers sometimes call those dogmas traditions which are not set forth in so many letters and syllables in Scripture but are brought together from clear testimonies of Scripture by way of good, certain, firm, and clear reasoning. Gregory Nazianzen says correctly and beautifully that some things are in the Scriptures and are also stated in them, but that some things are in the Scriptures, although they are not stated . . . 

Therefore, Origen and Augustine affirm that infant baptism is an apostolic tradition. This we accept . . . These letters and syllables are indeed not found in the Scripture: “infants are to be baptized; the apostles baptized infants.” But when the fathers say that infant baptism is a tradition, they prove and confirm this with certain and clear testimonies of Scripture. (pp. 249-250)

Augustine, who concedes that no actual example is found in the Scripture, nevertheless shows that the law itself (if I may express it this way) has many sure proofs in the Scriptures. We do not quarrel about letters and syllables, so long as the matter itself has a sure foundation in the Scripture . . . But this is the point of the controversy between us and the papalists, whether in dogmas of the church a custom or tradition which cannot be proved with any testimony of Scripture is to be accepted. (p. 254)

So far so good. But soon Chemnitz is back to error:

[I]t is the opinion of the men on our side that in religious controversies the word of God itself is the judge and that the confession of the true church is added later. (p. 256)

We have seen from the many Fathers examined that they did not hold to this view, which is a watering-down of Church authority and the binding nature of received apostolic Tradition. Chemnitz then provides a valuable aid, for he refutes himself:

We confess also that we disagree with those who invent opinions which have no testimony from any period in the church, as Servetus, Campanus, the Anabaptists, and others have done in our time. We also hold that no dogma that is new in the churches and in conflict with all antiquity should be accepted. What could be more honorably said and thought concerning the consensus and the testimonies of antiquity? . . . we search out and quote the testimonies of the fathers . . . (p. 258)

[T]he papalists, devoid of and convicted by the testimonies of Scripture, seek protection from the fathers. (p. 263)

Since sola Scriptura is devoid of any unquestionable patristic support (as I and many other Catholics have shown, I think), then it must be ditched, according to this true and wise maxim of Martin Chemnitz. I continue to await modern-day adherents of Chemnitz’ position (Lutherans) to come and defend both him and his argument.

[T]he papalists . . . bring forth certain statements from the fathers for the protection of their superstitions and somehow throw them together contrary to those things which are shown from the Scriptures . . . (p. 265)

Staphylus and Lindanus are not ashamed to make Athanasius the author of this opinion [the previous citation]. For they cite his statement to Epictetus in mutilated form and torn out of context: “It suffices to reply and say only this to the heretics, that this is not the way of the catholic church and that the fathers did not hold this.” . . . But they do Athanasius a great wrong . . . I ask you, dear reader, to compare this whole statement of Athanasius with the mutilated quotation of the papalists, and you may establish from this with what sincerity the papalists treat the testimonies of the fathers. (pp. 265-266)

Chemnitz contends that because Athanasius used a number of biblical arguments in the letter, that therefore, his statement about authority really didn’t mean what it manifestly means, and he must somehow believe in something resembling sola Scriptura. But this is simply untrue, both logically and contextually. Of course Athanasius will argue from Scripture, as everyone does who is serious about Christianity (and about heresy). But it is not inevitable or necessary from that fact alone, that such a person thinks that only Scripture has authority to rebuke error and bind people to the contrary.

Anyone can read St. Athanasius’ Letter LIX to Epictetus online, in the Schaff (Protestant-edited) collection of the Fathers. Note how he grants the Council of Nicaea binding authority in and of itself:

I thought that all vain talk of all heretics, many as they may be, had been stopped by the Synod which was held at Nicæa. For the Faith there confessed by the Fathers according to the divine Scriptures is enough by itself at once to overthrow all impiety, and to establish the religious belief in Christ. . . . How then, after all this, are some attempting to raise doubts or questions? . . . But if those who desire to reopen everything by raising questions belong to those who think they believe aright, and love what the fathers have declared, they are simply doing what the prophet describes, giving their neighbour turbid confusion to drink , and fighting about words to no good purpose, save to the subversion of the simple. (1)

Athanasius is arguing that such a council is authoritative by its very nature, and sufficient to shut the mouth of a heretic (just as the scriptural council of Jerusalem was). He mentions only a few Bible passages indirectly, in passing. The disputed section brought up by Chemnitz is in section 3. I cite the entire section (with the portion in particular dispute bolded):

Such were the contents of the memoranda; diverse statements, but one in their sense and in their meaning; tending to impiety. It was for these things that men who make their boast in the confession of the fathers drawn up at Nicæa were disputing and quarrelling with one another. But I marvel that your piety suffered it, and that you did not stop those who said such things, and propound to them the right faith, so that upon hearing it they might hold their peace, or if they opposed it might be counted as heretics. For the statements are not fit for Christians to make or to hear, on the contrary they are in every way alien from the Apostolic teaching. For this reason, as I said above, I have caused what they say to be baldly inserted in my letter, so that one who merely hears may perceive the shame and impiety therein contained. And although it would be right to denounce and expose in full the folly of those who have had such ideas, yet it would be a good thing to close my letter here and write no more. For what is so manifestly shewn to be evil, it is not necessary to waste time in exposing further, lest contentious persons think the matter doubtful. It is enough merely to answer such things as follows: we are content with the fact that this is not the teaching of the Catholic Church, nor did the fathers hold this. But lest the ‘inventors of evil things’ make entire silence on our part a pretext for shamelessness, it will be well to mention a few points from Holy Scripture, in case they may even thus be put to shame, and cease from these foul devices.

Chemnitz, in effect, argues that this statement cannot stand alone, and carry a meaning of Church and Tradition being themselves sufficient to refute error, with great and binding authority, and that to cite it in isolation violates the context of Athanasius making biblical arguments, too. He is wrong. The statement does stand alone. That is seen by the word “enough”. In fact, Chemnitz’s own fuller citation, as translated by the Lutheran Fred Kramer, bears this out (I shall cite also the important sentence before the one in question):

For what is clearly bad and perverse, that ought not to be treated more inquisitively, lest it seem ambiguous to contentious men; but it suffices to make only this reply to such things and to say that this is not held by the catholic church and that the fathers did not think thus. (p. 266)

Words mean things. “Enough” and “suffice” (and its cognate, “sufficient”) have definitions that can be ascertained. I think they are so obvious in the present instance that I won’t even bother to cite dictionaries. Citing the Tradition was sufficient or “enough”, but (as Athanasius goes on to say) “lest the ‘inventors of evil things’ make entire silence on our part a pretext for shamelessness, it will be well to mention a few points from Holy Scripture.”

In other words, the proclamation was sufficient itself, but because of obstinacy and “shamelessness” of the heretics, scriptural arguments will bolster the arguments and make it better and stronger. But they are not absolutely necessary to ascertain the truth of the matter. Note how in the next section (4), the great St. Athanasius makes reference to Scripture, but also to the authoritative decrees of Nicaea which expand upon what is not explicit in Scripture:

Whence did it occur to you, sirs, to say that the Body is of one Essence with the Godhead of the Word? For it is well to begin at this point, in order that by shewing this opinion to be unsound, all the others too may be proved to be the same. Now from the divine Scriptures we discover nothing of the kind. For they say that God came in a human body. But the fathers who also assembled at Nicæa say that, not the body, but the Son Himself is coessential with the Father, and that while He is of the Essence of the Father, the body, as they admitted according to the Scriptures, is of Mary. Either then deny the Synod of Nicæa, and as heretics bring in your doctrine from the side; or, if you wish to be children of the fathers, do not hold the contrary of what they wrote.

Context of this letter itself is “sufficient” (no pun intended) to overthrow Chemnitz’s contentions. But we also have several other statements of Athanasius that support my interpretation. He (like all the fathers) believed in apostolic succession and an authoritative Church and Tradition:

However here too they introduce their private fictions, and contend that the Son and the Father are not in such wise `one,’ or `like,’ as the Church preaches, but, as they themselves would have it. (Discourse Against the Arians, 3:10)

. . . 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, . . . (Festal Letter 2:6)

See, we are proving that this view has been transmitted from father to father; but ye, O modern Jews and disciples of Caiaphas, how many fathers can ye assign to your phrases? (Defense of the Nicene Definition, 27)

For, what our Fathers have delivered, this is truly doctrine; . . . (De Decretis 4)

Remaining on the foundation of the Apostles, and holding fast the traditions of the Fathers, pray that now at length all strife and rivalry may cease, and the futile questions of the heretics may be condemned, . . . (De Synodis 54)

Hence, patristics scholar J. N. D. Kelly writes of Athanasius:

So Athanasius, disputing with the Arians, claimed that his own doctrine had been handed down from father to father, whereas they could not produce a single respectable witness to theirs . . .

. . . the ancient idea that the Church alone, in virtue of being the home of the Spirit and having preserved the authentic apostolic testimony in her rule of faith, liturgical action and general witness, possesses the indispensable key to Scripture, continued to operate as powerfully as in the days of Irenaeus and Tertullian . . . Athanasius himself, after dwelling on the entire adequacy of Scripture, went on to emphasize the desirability of having sound teachers to expound it. Against the Arians he flung the charge that they would never have made shipwreck of the faith had they held fast as a sheet-anchor to the . . . Church’s peculiar and traditionally handed down grasp of the purport of revelation. (Early Christian Doctrines, San Francisco: HarperCollins, 5th edition of 1978, 45, 47)

Philip Schaff describes the general view of the Fathers on Bible and Tradition, in the period of 311-590 (including Athanasius):

The church view respecting the sources of Christian theology and the rule of faith and practice remains as it was in the previous period, except that it is further developed in particulars. The divine Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as opposed to human writings; and the oral tradition or living faith of the catholic church from the apostles down, as opposed to the varying opinions of heretical sects together form the one infallible source and rule of faithBoth are vehicles of the same substance: the saving revelation of God in Christ; with this difference in form and office, that the church tradition determines the canon, furnishes the key to the true interpretation of the Scriptures, and guards them against heretical abuse. The relation of the two in the mind of the ancient church may be illustrated by the relation between the supreme law of a country (such as the Roman law, the Code Napoleon, the common law of England, the Constitution of the United States) and the courts which expound the law, and decide between conflicting interpretations. Athanasius, for example, “the father of orthodoxy,” always bases his conclusions upon Scripture, and appeals to the authority of tradition only in proof that he rightly understands and expounds the sacred books. The catholic faith, says he, is that which the Lord gave, the apostles preached, and the fathers have preserved; upon this the church is founded, and he who departs from this faith can no longer be called a Christian. (History of the Christian Church, Vol. III, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1974, from the fifth edition of 1910, § 118. Sources of Theology. Scripture and Tradition, 606; my emphasis)

The always partisan yet thoroughly fair-minded Schaff takes the position himself that Athanasius ‘ position is neither the present-day Catholic or Protestant one:

Voigt (Die Lehre des Athanasius, &c. p. 13 ff.) makes Athanasius even the representative of the formal principle of Protestantism, the supreme authority, sufficiency, and self-interpreting character of the Scriptures; while Möhler endeavors to place him on the Roman side. Both are biased, and violate history by their preconceptions. (Ibid., 607, footnote 1 / footnote 1290 in the online version)

I think it is seen that a doctrinally Catholic interpretation of such utterances by Athanasius is not dishonest or implausible at all. Granted, reasonable men of good faith and will can disagree. But Chemnitz must make out that Catholics are dishonest and insincere connivers. He picks up this theme in his Section VIII, his eighth category of traditions:

[B]y heaping up many dissimilar statements from the most ancient writings the papalists gain for their disputation a certain appearance and cloak, or rather a deceitful disguise. But it is sophistical that they whitewash all traditions, which are not of one kind, as the proverb has it, out of the same pot, in order that the simpler people may not notice the fraud. (p. 272)

Chemnitz lists those traditions that he claims cannot be supported in the least from Scripture:

. . . the mutilation of the Lord’s Supper [presumably the sacrifice of the mass], the celibacy of priests, the choice of foods, purgatory, the traffic in indulgences, the cult of images, the legends of the saints, and, to sum it up: whatever the Roman Church believes, holds, and observes, which cannot be proved by any testimony of the Scripture . . . corruptions, abuses, and superstitions . . . (p. 274)

Earlier, he cited an opponent, Peter a Soto, claiming that he argued that the following things have no biblical warrant whatsoever:

“The offering of the sacrifice of the altar, the anointing with chrism, the invocation of the saints, the merits of works, the primacy of the Roman pontiff, the consecration of the water in Baptism, the whole sacrament of confirmation, the elements, words, and effects of the sacraments of ordination, of matrimony, and of extreme unction, prayers for the dead, the enumeration of sins to be made to the priest, the necessity of satisfaction.” These are the words of a Soto . . . matters of the greatest importance. (pp. 273-274)

This creates a host of difficulties, as a Catholic need only show how numerous Fathers believe in several of these “corruptions.” One could particularly cite those whom Chemnitz enlisted as supposed advocates of Scripture as the only norm of faith. How could they believe these things if they supposedly accepted only biblical proofs and evidences? I give patristic support for Catholic distinctives in many papers, notably in a lengthy overview. Of course, I also specialize also in biblical arguments for Catholic distinctives. I could cite literally dozens of my papers and book passages to confute all of these claims.

Let us look to St. Augustine, as one prime example, since he is the Lutherans’ (and Calvinists) favorite Father, and was cited so many times by Chemnitz as a proponent of Bible-Only binding authority and the norm of faith. Augustine believed in merit:

The Lord made Himself a debtor not by receiving something, but by promising something. One does not say to Him “Pay for what You received,” but, “Pay what You promised.” (Commentary on Psalms 83:16. From Jurgens, William A., editor and translator, The Faith of the Early Fathers, 3 volumes, Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1970, vol. 3, p.19)

You are glorified in the assembly of your Holy Ones, for in crowning their merits you are crowning your own gifts. (En. in Ps. 102:7; cf. Ep. 194, 5, 19)

He believed in penance and venial sins (as opposed to mortal):

When you shall have been baptized, keep to a good life in the commandments of God so that you may preserve your baptism to the very end. I do not tell you that you will live here without sin, but they are venial sins which this life is never without. Baptism was instituted for all sins. For light sins, without which we cannot live, prayer was instituted. . . . But do not commit those sins on account of which you would have to be separated from the body of Christ. Perish the thought! For those whom you see doing penance have committed crimes, either adultery or some other enormities. That is why they are doing penance. If their sins were light, daily prayer would suffice to blot them out. . . . In the Church, therefore, there are three ways in which sins are forgiven: in baptisms, in prayer, and in the greater humility of penance. (Sermon to Catechumens on the Creed 7:15, 8:16)

He believed in infused justification and denied the central “Reformation pillar” of sola fide (“faith alone”):

Now, if the wicked man were to be saved by fire on account of his faith only, and if this is the way the statement of the blessed Paul should be understood–“But he himself shall be saved, yet so as by fire”–then faith without works would be sufficient to salvation. But then what the apostle James said would be false. And also false would be another statement of the same Paul himself: “Do not err,” he says; “neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor the unmanly, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the Kingdom of God.” (Enchiridion, Chapter XVIII, paragraph 3)

Augustine denied predestination to hell, or reprobation by divine decree, apart from human free will. He does not deny human free will, as Luther did in his famous Bondage of the Will. (Lutherans later softened their position on this, and departed from Luther’s stricter position). St. Augustine believed in prayers for the dead, intercession of the saints, and purgatory:

Prayer, however, is offered for other dead who are remembered. For it is wrong to pray for a martyr, to whose prayers we ought ourselves be commended. [Sermons: 159, 1]

By the prayers of the Holy Church, and by the salvific sacrifice, and by the alms which are given for their spirits, there is no doubt that the dead are aided . . . For the whole Church observes this practice which was handed down by the Fathers . . . If, then, works of mercy are celebrated for the sake of those who are being remembered, who would hesitate to recommend them, on whose behalf prayers to God are not offered in vain? It is not at all to be doubted that such prayers are of profit to the dead; but for such of them as lived before their death in a way that makes it possible for these things to be useful to them after death. [Sermons: 172, 2]

The man who perhaps has not cultivated the land and has allowed it to be overrun with brambles has in this life the curse of his land on all his works, and after this life he will have either purgatorial fire or eternal punishment. [Genesis Defended Against the Manicheans, 2, 20, 30]

Temporal punishments are suffered by some in this life only, by some after death, by some both here and hereafter; but all of them before that last and strictest judgment. But not all who suffer temporal punishments after death will come to eternal punishments, which are to follow after that judgment. [The City of God, 21, 13]

The prayer . . . is heard on behalf of certain of the dead; but it is heard for those who, having been regenerated in Christ, did not for the rest of their life in the body do such wickedness that they might be judged unworthy of such mercy, nor who yet lived so well that it might be supposed they have no need of such mercy. [The City of God, 21, 24, 2]

That there should be some such fire even after this life is not incredible, and it can be inquired into and either be discovered or left hidden whether some of the faithful may be saved, some more slowly and some more quickly in the greater or lesser degree in which they loved the good things that perish, – through a certain purgatorial fire. [Enchiridion of Faith, Hope & Love, 18, 69]

The time which interposes between the death of a man and the final resurrection holds souls in hidden retreats, accordingly as each is deserving of rest or hardship, in view of what it merited when it was living in the flesh. Nor can it be denied that the souls of the dead find relief through the piety of their friends and relatives who are still alive, when the Sacrifice of the Mediator is offered for them, or when alms are given in the church. [Enchiridion of Faith, Hope & Love, 29, 109-110]

We read in the books of the Maccabees [2 Macc 12:43] that sacrifice was offered for the dead. But even if it were found nowhere in the Old Testament writings [Augustine regarded 1st and 2nd Maccabees as Scripture], the authority of the universal Church which is clear on this point is of no small weight, where in the prayers of the priest poured forth to the Lord God at His altar the commendation of the dead has its place. [The Care That Should be Taken of the Dead, 1, 3]

Augustine accepted the Sacrifice of the Mass (see my paper “St. Augustine’s Belief in the Substantial Real Presence”). He also believed in papal supremacy and the jurisdiction and the primacy of Rome, Mary’s sinlessness, and the so-called “Apocryphal” books of the Old Testament. Some “proto-Lutheran” huh?

Then there is the question of the Sacrifice of the Mass, which many fathers explicitly teach, and which Lutherans reject. I could go on and on with this patristic evidence that does not accord with Chemnitz’ claims of a patristic-Lutheran affinity; there is so much overwhelming evidence.

Chemnitz repeatedly condemns innovation and corruption. Hence, again on p. 274, referring to doctrines which Catholics “foist on the churches under the name of traditions and for which they invent originators for themselves.” Yet he fails to see (and detest with equal vigor) that Martin Luther departed in at least fifty ways (!!!) from received doctrinal precedent. Somehow he gets it exactly backwards and makes out that Catholics are the innovators (as well as reprobates):

[I]t must be a reprobate mind which can be persuaded in these dangerous times to forsake the clear light of the Scripture and to entrust his faith to the darkness of uncertain traditions. (p. 277)

On a humorous note, Chemnitz does detail a number of Fathers who went astray in various ways, according to a Lutheran orthodox understanding. He cites errors of St. Clement of Alexandria (pp. 279-283) and concludes:

I could quote very many similar things from the books of Clement about original sin, about free will, about freedom from passion, about perfection, about faith, about salvation, etc., which depart from the rule of the Scripture.

He goes on to chronicle errors of Origen, ending up with the lament:

But if in the best times of the primitive church the pretense and reputation of unwritten traditions was able to lead very outstanding men away from the sane and simple rule of faith to strange opinions, we certainly are warned by these examples to beware of the leaven of the Tridentine decree concerning the unwritten traditions, that they are to be received with the same devotion as the Holy Scripture itself . . . through the name, pretense, and reputation of the traditions outside of and contrary to Scripture both heretics and also great and rather good men in the church have been deceived and in turn have deceived others. (pp. 283-284)

That’s all well and good. Why, however, if Chemnitz is so concerned about false teaching among “good men”, does he not also chronicle (oh, to just pick a name out of a hat) Augustine‘s many “errors”, according to Lutheran orthodoxy? The answer to my rhetorical question is obvious: that would go counter to the game plan of how Chemnitz wants to portray the Fathers. It wouldn’t fit. It would be an anomaly and an embarrassment. So he simply omits any mention of such things. Clement of Alexandria and Origen are sufficient to make his point. Surely he couldn’t have been so ignorant as to not know that Augustine believed many errors that he decried as wicked and evil and false. A half-truth is little better than a lie.

Chemnitz could have done that. He cited also errors of Basil and Tertullian (p. 285), Basil alone (pp. 292-293), Epiphanius (pp. 286-287, 290), Ambrose and Jerome (pp. 288-289), etc. But he won’t mention anything where the beloved Augustine clearly comes down on the Catholic side. The one exception is when he mentions an error (from his perspective) of St. John Chrysostom (another great favorite of Protestants):

Epiphanius, in Contra Aerium, calls prayers for the dead a tradition of the church received from the fathers. others, indeed, adorn this tradition of the fathers with the title of apostolic tradition. So Chrysostom says in Homily 69: “Not rashly were these things sanctioned by the apostles, that at the awe-inspiring mysteries commemoration of the dead should be made.” (p. 291)

Catholics are so pathetic, though, according to Chemnitz, that they go beyond even what he regards as false teachings in the Fathers:

[T]he papalists have and fight for so many such traditions for which they cannot even bring forth any testimonies from approved writings of the ancients, but are compelled either to invent or to use apocryphal, corrupted, or spurious writings falsely ascribed to ancient men. This observation, rightly considered, will show how much faith should be given to most papalist traditions. (p. 299)

Chemnitz also goes after the (very early) letters of St. Ignatius:

[T]hey have many statements which are not to be despised, especially as they are read in the Greek. But there are also not a few other things mixed in which certainly do not represent apostolic dignity . . . those epistles are now adulterated . . . (p. 302)

What is therefore to be held of the things which lack the witness of Scripture, and which are quoted from these epistles of Ignatius as traditions of the apostles, is not obscure . . . In the same way certain spurious additions have been interpolated in the writings of almost all the fathers under their names. And of all the writings it is from these that the papalists most willingly take their proofs. (p. 303)

It so happens that there was a lively dispute in the 16th century over the authenticity of the letters of St. Ignatius. I’ve documented, for example, how John Calvin rejected their authenticity. What has more modern scholarship determined about this controversy? Chemnitz would not be pleased (assuming he wished to keep up his argument against the facts):

For a long time, however, many Protestant scholars continued to reject all the letters owing to their strong emphasis on episcopacy. The controversy was virtually settled in favour of the authenticity of the seven letters by J. Pearson’s Vindiciae Epistolarum S. Ignatii (1672).

In the 19th cent. the dispute arose afresh . . . Lightfoot’s learned defence of the authenticity of the seven letters in his monumental edition of the Apostolic Fathers (1885) has, however, won general acceptance. (The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, second edition, edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone, Oxford University Press, 1983, “St. Ignatius”, 689)

Both Pearson and Lightfoot were Anglicans, by the way, so it is heartening to see that the truth won out by virtue of objective scholarship and research, rather than partisan, polemical considerations such as confessional bias “owing to” the Ignatian letters’ “strong emphasis on episcopacy”.

I think the same dynamic could and should apply in the present examination of Chemnitz. Scholarship (often agreed-upon by the majority of Protestant historians of doctrine) and documentation is able to overcome the selective partisanship (where truly present) of a Lutheran selectively picking through the Fathers for passages that appear to support Lutheran distinctives (and omitting those that clearly do not).

We Catholics assuredly have our doctrinal and dogmatic biases, too (everyone does); yet I submit that there is a great abundance of patristic facts that can be strongly set forth as in accordance with Catholic positions. Hopefully, I have shown the proper respect for factuality and the actual reality of things, as best can be ascertained, and have not distorted the record or misrepresented anyone. I freely grant Martin Chemnitz his good faith and sincerity. I ask for the same consideration from Lutheran and other Protestants who care to take up the debate.

“Let the reader decide” — is always my motto: having at least fairly observed decently respectable and adequate presentations of both sides of a debate.


(originally 8-31-07)

Photo credit: Martin Chemnitz (November 9, 1522 – April 8, 1586): eminent second-generation Lutheran theologian, reformer, churchman, and confessor. Anonymous portrait from the 16th century; colorized [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


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