Did Athanasius Accept Sola Scriptura? (vs. Bruno Lima)

Did Athanasius Accept Sola Scriptura? (vs. Bruno Lima) October 14, 2022

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Bruno Lima is a Brazilian Calvinist (and anti-Catholic) writer and apologist.


I am replying to his article, “Atanásio e a Sola Scriptura” [Athanasius and Sola Scriptura] (1-16-18). His words will be in blue. I use the standard Schaff 38-volume collection of the Church fathers, including for Bruno’s own citations. St. Athanasius’ words will be indented. I cite RSV for Bible passages.

The knowledge of our religion and of the truth of things is independently manifest rather than in need of human teachers, for almost day by day it asserts itself by facts, and manifests itself brighter than the sun by the doctrine of Christ. 2. Still, as you nevertheless desire to hear about it, Macarius, come let us as we may be able set forth a few points of the faith of Christ: able though you are to find it out from the divine oracles, but yet generously desiring to hear from others as well. 3. For although the sacred and inspired Scriptures are sufficient to declare the truth — while there are other works of our blessed teachers compiled for this purpose, if he meet with which a man will gain some knowledge of the interpretation of the Scriptures, and be able to learn what he wishes to know — still, as we have not at present in our hands the compositions of our teachers, we must communicate in writing to you what we learned from them — the faith, namely, of Christ the Saviour; . . . (Against the Heathen, Part 1, 1)

This quotation is one of the strongest statements in favor of the material and formal sufficiency of Scripture.

It teaches the material sufficiency of Scripture for salvation: a doctrine where Catholics and Protestants are in full agreement: and so irrelevant to the debate about sola Scriptura. It does not, however, teach the formal sufficiency of Scripture, which means sola Scriptura (Scripture is the only infallible norm and standard of Christian doctrine). That’s simply wrongly read into the quote, which is perfectly harmonious with Catholicism. The fact that Bruno doesn’t grasp this is part and parcel of the problem with Protestant interpretation and citation of the Church fathers. I just wrote a few minutes ago in a Facebook announcement of this very article:

When anti-Catholic Protestants who try to “co-opt” the Fathers and turn them into good little “proto-Protestants” it’s almost always the same methodology: they pick and choose passages that they wrongly think support their view over against the Catholic one, when in fact they do no such thing (because of their lack of understanding of Catholicism).
The classic example of that is citing Church fathers who believe in the material sufficiency of Scripture. So do Catholics, so it’s irrelevant to the sola Scriptura debate (what’s called a non sequitur in logic).
Then, above all, they deliberately ignore any and all passages that directly support Catholic teachings and contradict their own. Because they almost always do this, it’s very easy (though laborious and time-consuming) to refute their efforts, and it always ends up embarrassing for them, because the cynical, objectionably selective and “sneaky” nature of their method is exposed for all to see.

Bruno is starting out with textbook, playbook, classic Protestant methodology in arguing about the Church fathers and maintaining the pretense that their teachings are closer to theirs than ours. I can already see how this will go, with his first citation and sentence in commentary. It’s the same old same old.

Athanasius is communicating with Macarius. He wanted to know more about Christian doctrines. First, he asserts that knowledge of religion and truth manifests independently, without the need for human teachers. This obviously contradicts the idea that Scripture does not speak for itself, but needs an authorized magisterium to speak for it.

Catholics agree that Scripture speaks for itself. But the Catholic Church also wisely understands (in its “both/and” thinking) that human beings have misinterpreted Scripture in hundreds of different ways; therefore, authoritative Church guidance is necessary to maintain orthodoxy. This is, of course, the same view that Scripture teaches about itself:

Nehemiah 8:7-8 Also Jesh’ua, Bani, Sherebi’ah, Jamin, Akkub, Shab’bethai, Hodi’ah, Ma-asei’ah, Keli’ta, Azari’ah, Jo’zabad, Hanan, Pelai’ah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places. [8] And they read from the book, from the law of God, clearly; and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. (cf. 8:12)

Luke 24:25-27 . . “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! [26] Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” [27] And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.

Luke 24:45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures,

Acts 8:30-31 So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, Do you understand what you are reading? [31] And he said, How can I, unless some one guides me? . . .

2 Peter 1:20 First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation,

2 Peter 3:15-16 . . . So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, [16] speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.

Therefore, the person who claims to be going by Scripture alone (i.e., the Protestant) must necessarily include the abundant biblical teaching on the necessity of authoritative teachers and interpretation of the same Bible. One is either “biblical” or not, and the above six passages are in the inspired Bible, after all. Catholics take them to heart. Protestants either don’t at all, or only partially do.

He then places side by side the inspired Scriptures (sufficient to declare the truth) and other works of the Christian teachers. The message is simple – Scripture is sufficient to declare Christian knowledge, but there are also teachers who are useful and desirable.

That’s again perfectly harmonious with Catholicism. But where we part is in the notion of infallible teachers. Protestants deny infallibility to anything but Scripture. Catholics allow it for specific teachers (bishops in an ecumenical council, in union with popes, or in popes alone) in particular, highly specified conditions. Athanasius doesn’t deny the possibility of infallibility of such teachers in this quotation. Again, Bruno simply reads into it what he wants to (wrongly) believe is present there. We know that elsewhere, St. Athanasius did affirm infallible Church and conciliar pronouncements, the Catholic rule of faith, and the binding, infallible nature of doctrines received through apostolic succession and apostolic tradition (all expressly contrary to sola Scriptura):

But the word of the Lord which came through the ecumenical Synod at Nicea, abides forever. (Ad Afros Epistola Synodica 2; in NPNF2, IV:489)

But let the Faith confessed by the Fathers at Nicæa alone hold good among you, at which all the fathers, including those of the men who now are fighting against it, were present, as we said above, and signed: in order that of us too the Apostle may say, ‘Now I praise you that you remember me in all things, and as I handed the traditions to you, so hold them fast 1 Corinthians 11:2.’ (Ad Afros Epistola Synodica 10)

For had they believed aright, they would have been satisfied with the confession put forth at Nicæa by the whole Ecumenical Council; . . . Observe how entirely they disregard the truth, and how everything they say and do is for the sake of the Arian heresy. For in that they dare to question those sound definitions of the faith, and take upon themselves to produce others contrary to them, what else do they but accuse the Fathers, and stand up in defense of that heresy which they opposed and protested against? (Ad Episcopos Aegypti et Libyae, 5)

Who, then, that has any real regard for truth, will be willing to suffer these men any longer? Who will not justly reject their writing? Who will not denounce their audacity, that being but few in number, they would have their decisions to prevail over everything, and as desiring the supremacy of their own meetings, held in corners and suspicious in their circumstances, would forcibly cancel the decrees of an uncorrupt, pure, and Ecumenical Council? (Ad Episcopos Aegypti et Libyae, 7)

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. (Letter No. 59 to Epictetus, 3)

What defect of teaching was there for religious truth in the Catholic Church . . .? (De Synodis, I, 3)

But ye are blessed, who by faith are in the Church, dwell upon the foundations of the faith, and have full satisfaction, even the highest degree of faith which remains among you unshaken. For it has come down to you from Apostolic tradition, . . . (Fragment from Letter No. 29 [Migne, xxvi, p. 1189] )

It is obvious that these teachers (Athanasius himself was one of them) were fallible teachers.

It’s not obvious to Athanasius (as just shown) that all of them are fallible or that no one is ever infallible. Thus, as he thought, the bishops of the Council of Nicaea in 325 made infallible proclamations.

When we discuss sola scriptura and the Church fathers, Catholic apologists fail in one simple respect. It would be easy to demonstrate that a church father did not uphold sola scriptura.

It sure is! Glad to agree on something!

It suffices to demonstrate that Athanasius appealed to an infallible magisterium. He repeatedly appealed to the Scriptures as inspired and infallible, but he never appealed to the supposedly infallible magisterium.

That’s a false statement, as just demonstrated. Accordingly,  J. N. D. Kelly, the Anglican patristic scholar, wrote about Athanasius’ views:

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 Nicene faith embodied the truth which had been believed from the beginning. The fathers of Nicaea, he declared, had merely ratified and passed on the teaching which Christ bestowed and tghe apostles proclaimed; anyone who deviated from it could not count as a Christian. . . . 

[T]he 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, revised edition, 1978, 45, 47)

The Protestant principle never denied the magisterial function of the Church and the usefulness of teachers, theologians, scribes and many others. What we claim is that Scripture is the only unquestioned authority. Church authority is fallible, and in case of conflict with the teaching of Scripture, we are left with the latter.

Yeah, I know. Athanasius and virtually all of the Church fathers disagree with the sola Scriptura view. I proved this about Athanasius above beyond all doubt and argument (which is why Bruno will likely not ever reply to this paper). It was a novelty introduced by Martin Luther in his 18-day Leipzig Disputation with Johann Eck in July 1519. I have proven it about most of the most well-known Church fathers in manty articles collected on my Fathers of the Church web page (search “Bible/Tradition”).

Athanasius grounds all of his teachings from Scripture in the 47 chapters of this work.

This is untrue also. In Against the Heathen 1, 6, 3 he refers to “the sectaries, who have fallen away from the teaching of the Church, and made shipwreck concerning the Faith.” In 2, 33, 1 he states that “the soul is made immortal is a further point in the Church’s teaching which you must know, . . .”. He never cites Scripture to establish this in the entire long chapter. He appealed to Church teaching and made various philosophical arguments. I provide another example of his appealing to extrabiblical sources below.

On the other hand, Athanasius or any other father could write a treatise wholly based on biblical evidences and proofs, just as I have done several hundred times myself. It doesn’t follow from that, that the writer denies the Catholic rule of faith. He’s simply producing biblical argumentation. Protestants — believe it or not! — don’t have a monopoly on either love of the Bible or its interpretation.

In another famous work – “The Incarnation of the Word”, he says:

For Jews in their incredulity may be refuted from the Scriptures, which even themselves read; for this text and that, and, in a word, the whole inspired Scripture, cries aloud concerning these things, as even its express words abundantly show. For prophets proclaimed beforehand concerning the wonder of the Virgin and the birth from her, saying: Lo, the Matthew 1:23; Isaiah 7:14 Virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a Son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which is, being interpreted, God with us. (On the Incarnation of the Word, 33, 3)

Of course, merely mentioning or arguing from the Scriptures does nothing whatsoever to prove that a writer believes in sola Scriptura. Bruno simply assumes that this is the case, but (with just a moment’s reflection) it clearly is not. The totality of a father’s work must be considered. My citations of St. Athanasius are all far more relevant to the debate than what he is coming up with (two non sequiturs thus far).

See how Athanasius argues that the Hebrew Scriptures (OT) were enough to refute the Jews’ unbelief. From the very Scriptures they read, it would already be possible to believe that Jesus was God.

Yes; oftentimes this is the case, It proves nothing with regard to whether Athanasius’ believed in sola Scriptura. I have already proven that he did not, in showing that he accepted tents directly contrary to sola Scriptura.

This kind of argument only makes sense if you assume the formal sufficiency of Scripture.

That doesn’t follow at all. It’s undeniably the case that one doesn’t have to (logically) believe that only Scripture is infallible in order to utilize Scripture in theological argument. A Catholic could make the argument that Athanasius made above, in perfect conformity with his “three-legged stool” rule of faith (Scripture-tradition-Church). I’ve done it myself, many many times, and I have written more about sola Scriptura (denying it) than any other of the hundreds of topics I address as a Catholic apologist.

Someone like Athanasius could (and did) make many arguments from Scripture alone. But he also made arguments of the authority of tradition or councils alone, or from an appeal to apostolic succession alone. And that’s because he believed any of those things could be infallible, just as Scripture is. In his statements about the Council of Nicaea (above), clearly he doesn’t think that it erred at all in its pronouncements, or (so it seems to me) even that it could possibly err.

There are other quotes along the same lines:

For if they do not think these proofs sufficient, let them be persuaded at any rate by other reasons, drawn from the oracles they themselves possess. (On the Incarnation of the Word, 38, 1)

Or if not even this is sufficient for them, let them at least be silenced by another proof, seeing how clear its demonstrative force is. For the Scripture says: . . . (On the Incarnation of the Word, 38, 3)

[T]hen it must be plain, even to those who are exceedingly obstinate, that the Christ has come, and that He has illumined absolutely all with His light, and given them the true and divine teaching concerning His Father. So one can fairly refute the Jews by these and by other arguments from the Divine Scriptures. (On the Incarnation of the Word, 40,7-8)

He cited Scripture. Great! But (for the billionth time in these foolish discussions) nothing here proves that he held to sola Scriptura. They’re consistent with sola Scriptura, but we don’t have enough information here to conclude that he holds that view. Such utterances are also perfectly consistent with the Catholic rule of faith.

Throughout the work Athanasius quotes Scripture abundantly. Tradition and the Church are never cited as independent authorities. All allusions to them are connected with some teaching clearly expounded in Scripture. In the same work he says:

 Who then is he of whom the Divine Scriptures say this? Or who is so great that even the prophets predict of him such great things? None else, now, is found in the Scriptures but the common Saviour of all, the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ. (On the Incarnation of the Word, 37, 3)

Since then nothing is said in the Scriptures, it is evident that these things had never taken place before. (On the Incarnation of the Word, 38, 5)

All this proves is that in this particular work he made only scriptural arguments; nothing more than that. In others he uses a different methodology: and one that proves that he doesn’t hold to sola Scriptura. Bruno simply ignores those. I don’t, because I present the whole truth. Bruno’s approach is “out of sight, out of mind . . .” (whenever a patristic citation contradicts Protestantism’s traditions of men). That won’t do when I’m around: scrutinizing arguments to see if they can withstand close examination.

Note that the presupposition is that if Scripture was silent, nothing could be said.

That goes far beyond the point he was making, which was simply that Scripture would have plausibly recorded certain things if indeed they had happened. He was commenting on prophecies having to do with the coming of the Messiah, Christ. Since prophecies were in the Bible, obviously a discussion of them would also remain within the text of the Bible. Here is the larger passage, which provides the full context:

[T]he prophecy not only indicates that God is to sojourn here, but it announces the signs and the time of His coming. For they connect the blind recovering their sight, and the lame walking, and the deaf hearing, and the tongue of the stammerers being made plain, with the Divine Coming which is to take place. Let them say, then, when such signs have come to pass in Israel, or where in Jewry anything of the sort has occurred. 5. Naaman, a leper, was cleansed, but no deaf man heard nor lame walked. Elias raised a dead man; so did Eliseus; but none blind from birth regained his sight. For in good truth, to raise a dead man is a great thing, but it is not like the wonder wrought by the Saviour. Only, if Scripture has not passed over the case of the leper, and of the dead son of the widow, certainly, had it come to pass that a lame man also had walked and a blind man recovered his sight, the narrative would not have omitted to mention this also. Since then nothing is said in the Scriptures, it is evident that these things had never taken place before. 6. When, then, have they taken place, save when the Word of God Himself came in the body? Or when did He come, if not when lame men walked, and stammerers were made to speak plain, and deaf men heard, and men blind from birth regained their sight? (On the Incarnation of the Word, 38, 4-6)

Now compare this to Catholic apologists who say that Scripture is an incomplete record, that there are several other records that we must obey independently of Scripture.

We believe that Scripture is incomplete because Scripture itself teaches it:

Mark 4:33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, . . .

By implication, many parables are not recorded in Scripture.

Mark 6:34 . . . he began to teach them many things.

None of these “many things” are recorded in the immediate context.

John 20:30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book;

John 21:25 But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

Acts 1:2-3 . . . to the apostles . . . [3] . . . he presented himself alive after his passion by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days, and speaking of the kingdom of God.

Only very few of these appearances are recorded. In just one appearance, if Jesus had talked to the disciples for an entire evening, the amount of words might possibly have been more than those in the entire New Testament. And He appeared for forty days.

2 Timothy 1:13-14 Follow the pattern of the sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus; [14] guard the truth that has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us.

2 Timothy 2:2 and what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.

As I wrote in my first book, A Biblical Defense of Catholicism (2003):

Protestants usually deny that any of Christ’s teachings not recorded in Scripture could possibly be faithfully transmitted orally by primitive apostolic Tradition. Reflection upon the closeness of Jesus to his disciples and on the nature of human interaction and memory makes quite dubious any such fancy. Who could make the claim that the Apostles remembered (and communicated to others) absolutely nothing except what we have in the four Gospels? . . .

It seems that whenever the Catholic argues that the Bible is not the be-all and end-all of the Christian faith, he is accused of disrespecting God’s Word, etc. This is one of many unfortunate Protestant false dichotomies . . . (pp. 6-7)

Athanasius closes the work by giving a very clear statement of the formal sufficiency of Scripture:

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 to 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. 2. For they were spoken and written by God, through men who spoke of God. (On the Incarnation of the Word, 56, 1-2)

He does no such thing. Once again, the Protestant in his misguided and illogical zeal, foolishly thinks that a passage proves the notion of sola Scriptura (i.e., that Scripture is the only infallible authority) when it plainly does not. In fact, in the very next portion of section 2, which Bruno cut off because (it seems) he knew it contradicted the point he was trying to make, we read:

But we impart of what we have learned from inspired teachers who have been conversant with them, who have also become martyrs for the deity of Christ, to your zeal for learning, in turn.

Once again Bruno presents partial truths; I present the whole truth. Let the reader decide where the truth resides. Athanasius is expressly stating that he passes down the tradition that he received from men who knew and learned from the apostles and writers of the Bible. That’s apostolic tradition! I don’t know how it could be expressed any more clearly than this.

Athanasius had just written a treatise, but he closes it by asserting that this man could from the diligent study of Scripture gain a still fuller understanding.

Of course He can, because it is inspired revelation.

This is the kind of claim a Roman Catholic could never make.

Sheer nonsense. If Bruno is stupid enough to believe that, why doesn’t he prove it from official Catholic documents? Rather, in typical anti-Catholic fashion, he simply makes sweeping, prejudicial, ignorant statements that Catholics supposedly believe this and that. Does he actually believe that is a serious and not laughable, ludicrous argument?

Note that he still demonstrates the primacy of Scripture by establishing why it would be a teacher superior to any other – its author was God.

Exactly! No one disagrees. It’s the only inspired document, but not the only infallible one. But then he immediately refers to apostolic tradition that “we impart”. This shows that it’s not an “either/or” scenario but a “both/and” one: and that Athanasius does not believe in sola Scriptura.

When Catholic apologists claim that Scripture is insufficient (formally or materially), they are indirectly saying that God has not done a good job.

We don’t deny material sufficiency, so Bruno’s claiming that we do is a falsehood. We deny formal sufficiency of Scripture precisely because the Bible itself does, and because we think the Bible has “done a good job.” Protestants like Bruno are the ones (if anyone is to be so accused) who seem to think God did a lousy job in the Bible, because they ignore so much of it: anything that refutes their own man-made, arbitrary traditions of men. As usual in my replies, I am running rings around my opponent, in terms of citing Scripture. Who’s being more “biblical”?

Furthermore, why teach someone to diligently search the Scriptures for himself, when the infallible interpretation of the magisterium already exists? Why take the risk of misinterpreting if the infallible interpretation provided by tradition already existed?

This is a red herring. The Catholic Church requires only one interpretation of only nine Bible passages That hardly suggests that the Church believes that no one is capable of reading and interpreting the Bible on their own without her constant and immediate guidance.

I have already blogged a series of over 100 quotes demonstrating the Church fathers’ belief in the sufficiency of Scripture (here).

Again, they accept material sufficiency, just as the Catholic Church does. But they do not teach its formal sufficiency. I have proven that time and again with almost all of the major Church fathers. The flaw is in the illogical Protestant methodology, along the lines of what I have again shown in this paper. It’s virtually always the same fallacies trotted out over and over. It gets very wearisome and tedious, and it’s only by the grace of God that I have anywhere near the patience to point it out here for the billionth time.

Quotes Used by Catholic Apologists
In the face of Athanasius’ clear testimony, apologists accuse us of taking such quotations out of context, but never bring the “correct” context. They then proceed to present other quotations from other works by the Alexandrian.
That is indeed what we do, and what I have done here. It’s necessary because Protestant apologists are incessantly citing Church fathers out of the overall context of the their entire work, and ignoring whatever doesn’t fit into their preconceived notions.
That is, at most they would be proving that Athanasius was inconsistent.
Ah; isn’t that interesting? Now the game is to act as though Athanasius was wrong whenever he disagreed with Protestants, and right when he agreed with them (and couldn’t get his logical “act” together; poor guy!). In fact, he is quite consistent; he simply believes as Catholics believe, and as the Bible teaches (being a big Bible guy — as I am, too — , which is the only thing Bruno has proven). Since Bruno and Protestants are convinced that our view of the rule of faith is inconsistent, they accuse Athanasius of the same thing when he expresses the same view.
Let’s take a look at these quotes:
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 immediately 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. (Festal Letter No. 2, 6)
The argument is that heretics appeal to Scripture to spread their errors.
No; the argument is that they appeal to Scripture alone without also taking into account (or to the exclusion of) received tradition (in other words, an extreme version of sola Scriptura).
They err in not holding “the opinions as the saints conveyed it.” These opinions would be in the oral tradition.
Not just that; also written tradition from Church fathers.
Likewise, Protestants misinterpret Scripture by despising this oral tradition.
Sometimes yes. It is beyond question that Scripture teaches the authority of oral tradition. I already provided two passages from Paul along these lines, above.
However, what Athanasius is referring to is nothing more than Scripture itself correctly interpreted. Let’s look at the context in section 5:
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 you are mindful of me [1 Corinthians 11:2].’ Afterwards, because there were men who used his words, but chose to hear them as suited their lusts, and dared to pervert them, as the followers of Hymenæus 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. (Festal Letter No. 2, 5)
Notice that heretics listened to the words of the apostles, but instead of submitting to them, they preferred to adapt them to their own will. They did not misinterpret it because of the insufficiency of Scripture, but because of their own sin.
These things are not at issue between us.
Thus, “the opinions which the saints conveyed” is what the apostles left us in the Scriptures, which heretics did not obey and distorted.
Here is a typical (anti-Catholic) Protestant sleight-of-hand. Whenever sacred, apostolic tradition is referred to, they immediately assume that it is merely a synonym for Scripture, or that all of this tradition referred to is included in Scripture. The problem (and no small one!) is that Scripture itself never teaches that, just as it never teaches sola Scriptura.
The Catholic view is that legitimate sacred, apostolic tradition is indeed always harmonious with Scripture, but not necessarily or always identical to it in content. Neither Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:2, nor Athanasius in referring to it, ever imply (let alone assert) that all traditions are simply referring to what was later included in Scripture. This is the Protestant myth (and yet another mere “tradition of man”) of “inscripturation”: that I have written about.
St. Athanasius makes it very clear in the same letter that Paul was teaching about the distinction between man-made, merely human traditions, and apostolic tradition and succession: classifying the latter as a good and necessary thing:

6.  . . . Therefore Paul justly praises the Corinthians [1 Corinthians 11:2], because their opinions were in accordance with his traditions. And the Lord most righteously reproved the Jews, saying, ‘Wherefore do you also transgress the commandments of God on account of your traditions [Matthew 15:3].’ 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 anything else than that you have received, let him be accursed [Galatians 1:9].’

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 tomorrow we die [Isaiah 22:13].’ 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 has seemed good to me also, who have adhered to them all from the first, to write correctly in order to you, O excellent Theophilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things in which you have been instructed [Luke 1:1].’ 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 [1 Timothy 1:15];’ 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. (Festal Letter No. 2, 6-7; my bolding)

This sort of thinking about authority and tradition is exactly in accord with the Catholic rule of faith, and not at all in harmony with the Protestant rule of faith: sola Scriptura. Yes, of course it includes Scripture, but also sacred tradition (and Church authority: such as Athanasius’ unconditional reverence for the proclamations of the Council of Nicaea). The Bible and tradition are, as Vatican II eloquently described them, “twin fonts of the same divine wellspring.”

Bruno cites the entirety of section 7, erroneously thinking that it supports his case. Here’s what he says about it:

In this respect, the Roman Church radically deviated from the Ancient Church. Athanasius, like the other church fathers, understood that the apostolic magisterium was unique. Only the apostles or their authorized companions could teach infallibly. All those who came later could make a mistake. Athanasius points out that they were eyewitnesses. A Roman bishop who lives centuries later does not meet this prerequisite. 

He does not teach that: as we see in his statements about Nicaea: that I recorded above.

Therefore, we give Scripture the status of supreme authority.

It’s unique because it is inspired, but it’s not the only infallible authority, according to the Bible and Athanasius and Catholicism (and Orthodoxy). Nor does the Bible itself teach that it is such. The Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 asserted infallible authority, invoking the Holy Spirit:

Acts 15:28-29 “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: [29] that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”

That’s infallible Church authority, which is why Paul pronounced it to his hearers all over Asia Minor, “for observance”:

Acts 16:4 As they went on their way through the cities, they delivered to them for observance the decisions which had been reached by the apostles and elders who were at Jerusalem.

1 Timothy 3:15 (“the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth”) also teaches the infallibility of the Church, as I have explained. Thus, the Bible explicitly condemns sola Scriptura. No one who accepts the Bible’s sublime inspired authority ought to believe in sola Scriptura. This is the biggest irony and self-contradiction of many such in Protestantism.

It is nothing more than the magisterium of the apostles and no one else can teach with the same authority as they. Thus, all subsequent teaching must be submitted to the sieve of these men who were inspired by the Holy Spirit. The word of the apostles alone is “faithful and worthy of all acceptance.” Only they are unquestionable. All the others are not (including the magisterium of Rome).

Again, that is not what Athanasius teaches. It’s what Bruno wishes that he taught. It’s what Bruno improperly superimposes onto Athanasius: to desperately “force-fit” him into Protestantism. But it can’t be done. His own words preclude it. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, as the old saying goes, and a Protestant can’t make a Protestant out of the historic person named Athanasius. It’s impossible because it’s untrue. Athanasius couldn’t write,the word of the Lord which came through the ecumenical Synod at Nicea, abides forever” without at the same time accepting the infallibility of Nicaea. All the wishful thinking and special pleading in the world from Bruno can’t change that fact.

Athanasius can’t refer tothe decrees of an uncorrupt, pure, and Ecumenical Council” and at the same time deny that Nicaea was infallible. He couldn’t make it more clear than he did. But Bruno is able somehow to wish that away, or simply claim that Athanasius was inconsistent. He got it right in some places and fell into a sordid Catholicism in others, so we’re told. How pathetic. Bruno, in the final analysis, doesn’t really respect Athanasius or accept his full teachings for what they are. Rather, he employs a skewed, ultra-biased methodology. That won’t do, and his argument has been roundly refuted in this reply (if I do say so).

Let’s see others:

The confession arrived at at Nicæa was, we say once more, sufficient and enough by itself, for the subversion of all irreligious heresy, and for the security and furtherance of the doctrine of the Church. (Ad Afros Epistola Synodica 1)

This quote itself does not testify against Sola Scriptura. The Nicene confession had derived authority insofar as it shone forth the teaching of Scripture.

Of course it does. Sola Scriptura denies that anything but Scripture can be infallible. And here is Athanasius saying that Nicaea was exactly that, and (remarkably in terms of our debate), also asserting that it was “sufficient and enough by itself, for the subversion of all irreligious heresy.” Folks, that is not Protestant language. We can be absolutely certain that if Athanasius had stated instead, “Scripture is sufficient and enough by itself, for the subversion of all irreligious heresy”: that Bruno would be all over that, trumpeting it from the housetops as a marvelous proof of sola Scriptura (even though it wouldn’t even establish that; only material sufficiency).

But when it is said about a council, he has to play games and obfuscate and engage in the illusion of inscripturation and “all true tradition as only those things that cite Scripture word-for-word.” This is obviously a proof of conciliar infallibility, just as the Jerusalem Council in the Bible also is. And Bruno’s “vision” is an “ignorant man’s Christianity.” It’s not thought-through. It’s illogical and shallow and outside of lived historic Christian reality, and insufficiently biblical.

As we have already seen, Athanasius would never accept a confession that could not be substantiated in Scripture.

As I already noted, Catholics believe that all genuine traditions must be in harmony with scriptural teaching. They can be found somewhere in Scripture, either explicitly, or implicitly or indirectly by deduction and cross-referencing. Athanasius, then, is thinking nothing that is different from how Catholicism approaches these matters. He’s in perfect harmony with us and in disharmony with man-made Protestantism. In the same section of this writing, Athanasius offered a magnificent description of conciliar infallibility and the Catholic rule of faith, including apostolic succession (even including, for good measure — and to Bruno’s chagrin, no doubt — , the authority of the pope):

The letters are sufficient which were written by our beloved fellow-minister Damasus, bishop of the Great Rome, and the large number of bishops who assembled along with him; and equally so are those of the other synods which were held, both in Gaul and in Italy, concerning the sound Faith which Christ gave us, the Apostles preached, and the Fathers, who met at Nicæa from all this world of ours, have handed down. For so great a stir was made at that time about the Arian heresy, in order that they who had fallen into it might be reclaimed, while its inventors might be made manifest. . . . they were not afraid of God, who says, ‘Remove not the eternal boundaries which your fathers placed [Proverbs 22:28],’ and ‘He that speaks against father or mother, let him die the death [Exodus 21:17]:’ they were not in awe of their fathers, who enjoined that they who hold the opposite of their confession should be anathema. (Ad Afros Epistola Synodica 1; my bolding)

Bruno cited part of the above and then commented on it:

A bit of historical context is important here. The Council of Nicaea ruled for the divinity of Christ in opposition to the Arian heresy. It turns out that this was not enough to quell Arianism. Several councils were held afterwards denying or reinterpreting the Nicaean words. Athanasius himself testifies that there was a time when most bishops were Arians (hence the expression “Athanasius against the world”). These bishops were specifically opposing the Council of Rimini (here) which was opposed to the Nicene creed. Up until the Council of Constantinople, nearly a hundred councils had taken place with contradictory directives regarding the Nicene creed. This alone is enough to assert that the church itself did not consider the Council of Nicaea to be infallible.

No it’s not. There are false councils. Heretics held councils and pretended that they were orthodox. The most authoritative councils were the ecumenical councils, which were considered infallible, just as Athanasius views Nicaea. The ratification by popes was the key to determine orthodoxy of councils.

Also, note that the decisions of the synods of Gaul and Italy were placed on an equal footing with the letter of the bishop of Rome (which was also subscribed by other western bishops). Ultimately, such synods as Nicaea were founded on “the solid faith that Christ gave us and the apostles preached.” In this way, the Nicene creed was sufficient insofar as it was grounded in Scripture.

If these other councils asserted Christological truth, then they were to be commended for it. This doesn’t, however, deny the infallibility of Nicaea. Nicaea was grounded in Scripture, but not absolutely identical to it. That’s the whole point. Bruno is stuck in an “either/or” illogical unreality and dream-world.

To prove that Nicaea is superior to Rimini, the group of bishops argues that the Nicaean teaching is in accord with Scripture (section 4).

Of course it is. Catholic teaching always is that. But that proves nothing as to 1) whether Nicaea was infallible, or 2) whether sola Scriptura is true.

Furthermore, the bishops defend the term “co-essential” as expressing the meaning of Scripture, even if it is not the express term found in Scripture.

This perfectly illustrates precisely what I just asserted: “grounded in Scripture, but not absolutely identical to it.”

While the letter invokes the supposedly ecumenical nature of the council as a persuasive reason for adopting its position, nowhere does the group of bishops say or suggest that the council’s decision has equal authority with Scripture.

Technically, it doesn’t have to do that. It’s not inspired. It has to merely be infallible to refute sola Scriptura. I’ve already provided the language which claims that:the word of the Lord which came through the ecumenical Synod at Nicea, abides forever”. Again, if Athanasius had said: “the word of the Lord which came through Holy Scripture, abides forever” Bruno would place that front and center in the pathetic collection of supposed “proofs” of sola Scriptura. But when it’s stated about a council, he plays games and tries to ignore the obvious meaning and implication.

I want to make it clear that I don’t think he deliberately means it to be so (I don’t deny his sincerity), but in actuality one must conclude that the result is misrepresentation, even though it’s likely unwitting and not deliberate in intent — out of misguided zeal and the usual bias.

I hasten to add also that I’m not talking about all Protestants. Protestant historians who are actually patristic scholars: people like J. N. D. Kelly, Philip Schaff, and Jaroslav Pelikan present the Church fathers’ views with complete honesty and accuracy. I admire their work and have cited all of them many times. I have their books in my personal library. If a Church father has Catholic views (in cases where it contradicts Protestant views), they don’t try to hide the fact and play games. They simply describe it as it was. They don’t have the agenda that the anti-Catholic apologist has: always trying to bash the Catholic and the Catholic Church, no matter what the facts of the matter may be.

Furthermore, the letter says in section 5 that the council fathers “desired to set down in writing the recognized language of Scripture” and that the only reason they used a non-Scriptural word was that the Arian party kept twisting the meaning of these phrases. 

That’s just wisdom and Catholic belief. It proves nothing that Bruno thinks it proves.

So section 6 explains, “And finally they wrote more clearly and concisely that the Son was co-essential with the Father, as all the above passages [of Scripture] mean this.” In other words, the Nicene fathers did not pass on unwritten tradition or define dogma on their own authority, but simply expressed the teachings of Scripture.

The immediate point at issue is whether this council was believed to be infallible. I have shown that it was. All the rest of this is interesting, but unnecessary detail, in relation to our specific debate about what Athanasius believed regarding Christian authority. Nicaea was not identical with Scripture (though in harmony with it) and was infallible. Sola Scriptura prohibits such a position. So much for sola Scriptura, which was already self-defeating and refuted in the Bible anyway, and, thus, unworthy of any serious Bible Christian’s allegiance.

The letter (in section 6) includes another acknowledgement of the constant orthodoxy of popes: “For ancient bishops, of the Great Rome and of our city, some 130 years ago, wrote and censured those who said that the Son was a creature and not coessential with the Father.” The Council is said to be in line with apostolic succession as well as Scripture:

For that of Nicæa is sufficient, agreeing as it does with the ancient bishops also, in which too their fathers signed, whom they ought to respect, on pain of being thought anything but Christians. But if even after such proofs, and after the testimony of the ancient bishops, and the signature of their own Fathers, they pretend as if in ignorance to be alarmed at the phrase ‘coessential,’ . . . (Ad Afros Epistola Synodica 9)

The purpose of the letter (section 10) was so that “among all the bond of peace might be preserved, and that all in the Catholic Church should say and hold the same thing” and for “the harmony of the Catholic Church.” Protestants obviously don’t care about achieving a perfect harmony, or else they would cease creating denominations, that contradict each other, and thus enshrine falsehood and error, whenever the myriad numbers of contradictions occur (one of the sects being necessarily wrong in such cases).

Denominationalism and sola Scriptura guarantee the maintenance of perpetual theological relativism and ecclesiological chaos. But the Catholic rule of faith makes for far greater unity: as much as possible given human sin and widespread ignorance. The letter then appeals to conciliar infallibility as a doctrinal standard, and cites the Bible’s acceptance of genuine tradition:

But let the Faith confessed by the Fathers at Nicæa alone hold good among you, at which all the fathers, including those of the men who now are fighting against it, were present, as we said above, and signed: in order that of us too the Apostle may say, ‘Now I praise you that you remember me in all things, and as I handed the traditions to you, so hold them fast [1 Corinthians 11:2].’ (Ad Afros Epistola Synodica 10)

All of this couldn’t be any more Catholic or less Protestant than it is. In section 11 it even goes so far as to state: “For this Synod of Nicæa is in truth a proscription of every heresy.” No one can possibly imagine a Protestant making such a statement, or most of these others that I have presented. Bruno continues his survey of some Catholic disproofs of his untenable position:

The tradition, teaching and faith of the Catholic Church from the beginning were preached by the apostles and preserved by the fathers. On this the Church was founded; and if any one departs from this, he must also no longer be called a Christian. (Ad Serapion, 1:28)

I couldn’t find this citation in Schaff, and am too lazy to search for it elsewhere (at 8,000 words and counting), so I have accepted the translation of Bruno’s citation.

Church teaching could be found in the church fathers and would be traceable back to the beginning (the apostles). Well, if the Catholic wants to refute Sola Scriptura with this quote, he would need to demonstrate that the teaching in question was not found in Scripture (material insufficiency) or else that the parents who passed on the teaching were infallible (Athanasius did not believe it).

That entirely misses the point, and is obfuscation. The point is the fact that Athanasius could make a statement like this in the first place, about authority and true doctrine, without mentioning Scripture. He simply doesn’t talk like a Protestant and no one can force him into that mold, no matter how hard they try. This citation has everything that is infallible besides Scripture: “tradition,” “the Catholic Church,” and apostolic succession (“preserved by the Fathers”).

This was true doctrine and tradition, preserved in the Church via apostolic succession. Whoever disagrees with it can “no longer be called a Christian.” What more does one need? If this is not a standard of faith: a standard that can remove someone from holding the name of “Christian” what is, pray tell? At this point it’s embarrassing to still be disputing what is utterly obvious to any fair observer.

Bruno cites more and observes that it is talking about the Trinity which is a scriptural doctrine, therefore, no tradition is in play, etc. But that all misses the point: whether any of these other things are regarded as infallible by Athanasius. They clearly are so regarded.

Bruno from this point to the end of his article cites Athanasius with regard to the material sufficiency of Scripture (boring, because we completely agree!) but (as always) does not and cannot establish that he taught the formal sufficiency of Scripture to the exclusion of councils, apostolic tradition and succession, and Church and papal proclamations. There’s no reason to address this because it’s a total non sequitur.

As far as I am concerned, he has proven absolutely nothing that he has set out to prove, and I have decisively refuted his contentions with other passages from Athanasius.

Related Reading

St. Athanasius’ Rule of Faith (NOT Sola Scriptura) [6-16-03] [includes lengthy citations of St. John Henry Cardinal Newman about St. Athanasius’ rule of faith, from his Select Treatises of St. Athanasius, Volume II, 1844 (his Anglican period) ]

Council of Nicea: Reply to James White: Its Relationship to Pope Sylvester, Athanasius’ Views, & the Unique Preeminence of Catholic Authority [4-2-07]

Lutheran Chemnitz: Errors Re Fathers & Sola Scriptura (including analysis of Jerome, Augustine, Origen, Epiphanius, Ambrose, Lactantius, Athanasius, and Cyprian) [8-31-07]

St. Athanasius: Catholic, Not Proto-Protestant [12-26-07]

Armstrong vs. Collins & Walls #9: “Apocrypha” (Jerome, Athanasius, Etc.) [10-21-17]

14 Proofs That St. Athanasius Was 100% Catholic [National Catholic Register, 6-4-20]


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Summary: Brazilian Calvinist apologist Bruno Lima’s attempt to prove that St. Athanasius held to sola Scriptura is an utter failure. I provide relentless refutations of his contentions.

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