Wednesday, April 23, 2008

James Swan on Patrick Madrid and the early Church Fathers

This morning, I came across the following POST by James Swan, concerning the use and misuse of the early Church Fathers, with particular reference to the doctrine of sola scriptura and Patrick Madrid.

Before I delineate my thoughts on bulk of James’ post, I would like to briefly comment on these words of his: Maybe his new book won’t be filled with emotionally charged words like ‘hijacking,’ and poor historical analysis like his ‘Blueprint for Anarchy’ chapter was.”

I must in all sincerity agree with James concerning the use of “emotionally charged words”; they add nothing to constructive dialogue, and have a tendency to polarize readers. And with that said, I am left at a bit of a loss, for James Swan’s fellow blogger at AOMIN has a real penchant for using “emotionally charged words”. There are literally dozens examples, but I shall at the present time limit myself to this recent POST, from which I have culled the following gems: “wild-eyed abuse”; “childish behavior”; “outlandish antics”; “busily mocking and ranting”; “childish behavior and infantile rants”; “foolhardy action”; “outrageous and absurd”…

Perhaps it is just myself, but I cannot help but sense a bit of a ‘double-standard’ at work. OK, got that out of my system; I shall now proceed to examine some of the more important aspects of James Swan’s post.

Much of James’ commentary stems from certain remarks made by Patrick Madrid in the book Not By Scripture Alone. So that AF readers do not have to go back and forth between blogs, I shall provide James’ first selection from Madrid in full:

“A ploy being adopted by a growing number of evangelical apologists is what I call the ‘hijacking’ of the Church Fathers, attempting to press them into service for sola scriptura. This ploy mimics the Jehovah's witnesses and Mormons, who also attempt to defend their unorthodox teachings from behind a carefully-constructed facade of patristic quotes—quotes invariably taken out of their immediate context and without regard to the complete writings of the Fathers.

The practice of selective quoting from the Fathers—great Fathers such as Athanasius, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Jerusalem, Augustine, and Basil of Caesarea—is spreading. In fact, often the very Protestant apologists who misuse and twist the testimony of the Fathers to fit their hermeneutic of anachronism (i.e., reading their own views such as sola scriptura and sola fide back into Scripture and the Fathers) are themselves accusing Catholics of ‘misusing’ or ‘prooftexting’ the Fathers.” (Patrick Madrid, “Sola Scriptura: A Blueprint for Anarchy”, Not By Scripture Alone, ed. Robert Sungenis, pp. 5-6 – I have made minor typographical and citation changes.)

James then proceeds to critique Patrick’s use of Basil, with regard to Scripture and Tradition. I shall not duplicate James’ balanced critique, for I, in substance, concur with the bulk of it. I say this for Patrick seems to confuse two mutually opposing positions concerning Scripture and Tradition: material sufficiency and Tradition as interpretive, with non-sufficiency and constitutive Tradition—both cannot be true, yet Patrick seems to employ each respective position in his essay.

However, with that said, I maintain that Patrick was essentially correct concerning those, “Protestant apologists who misuse and twist the testimony of the Fathers to fit their hermeneutic of anachronism (i.e., reading their own views such as sola scriptura and sola fide back into Scripture and the Fathers)…

I say this with a high degree of confidence for the Evangelical patristic scholar, D.H. Williams, has observed the same phenomenon:

As a result of the renewed attention to Evangelical, Roman Catholic, and Greek Orthodox relations, there is increased interest among Evangelicals in the early sources of Christian doctrine and exegetical practices. This too is certainly to be welcomed, though with cautious enthusiasm, since the current reconsideration of the patristic era is not a “return the sources” (ad fontes), but governed by a very specific agenda: to read the ancient fathers through the lens of post-Reformation Protestantism in the search for criteria, such as sola scriptura, embedded within the religious consciousness of the early church. Ancient vindication of such religious ideas would presumably further the claim that Protestants, not Roman Catholics, are the upholders of true faith. Witness the recent attempts to find a “patristic principle of sola scriptura” in Irenaeus(11) or Athanasius, from which the conclusion is reached, “Sola scriptura has long been the rule of believing Christian people, even before it became necessary to use the specific terminology against later innovators who would usurp the Scriptures’ supremacy in the church.”(12) Is the principle sola scriptura historically tenable in the form which is usually defined so that the Bible is the only normative source for the Christian faith and practice? Do the writings of the early church affirm this principle? As will become apparent, the very search for such a principle in the writings of the fathers is misguided in the light of the early church’s understanding of apostolic authority. Even if one argues that a biblicism that approximates sola scriptura can be detected within the patristic age, it in no way guarantees a Christian doctrine of God or salvation. On the contrary, a scripture-only principle was found to create greater problems which have plagued Christianity ever since. (D. H. Williams, “The Search for Sola Scriptura in the Early Church”, Interpretation vol. 52.4 (October 1998) pp. 355, 356.)


(11) T. Nettles, “One Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church,” Roman Catholicism: Evangelical Protestants Analyze What Divides and Unites Us, ed. J. Armstrong (Chicago: Moody, 1995) 40. Nettles seems oblivious to the crucial distinction between written and oral authority in Irenaeus when he says, “The Scripture is that which is ‘handed down,’ that is, tradition.”

(12) J. White, “Sola scriptura and the Early Church,” in Kistler, Sola Scriptura! The Protestant Position on the Bible, 53. White's essay exhibits very limited familiarity with patristic doctrinal history such that it claims Athanasius stood against Liberius’, bishop of Rome (p. 42), whereas in fact, Athanasius sought the protection of Liberius’ successor, Julius, during his exile, and he, of all the Greek fathers, remained the most intimate with Rome after Julius’ death in 352. There is hardly a case for a proto-opposition between “Protestants” and “Roman Catholics.” Moreover, it is striking White argues that Athanasius makes no appeal to unwritten tradition, and yet in the very citation offered as proof of this point (Oration Against the Arians 3:29) Athanasius refers to Mary as Theotokos, bearer of God; an Alexandrian tradition which few Protestants would espouse! [D. H. Williams, “The Search for Sola Scriptura in the Early Church”, Interpretation vol. 52.4 (October 1998) p. 365.]


I would like to submit that we have a major paradigm flaw at hand: the tendency of ‘popular’ (non-specialists) apologists (both Catholic and Protestant) to read back into the Church Fathers their much later, developed, theologies. Interestingly enough, each side accuses the other of this flaw, while failing to recognize that they too are guilty of the same. But there is a solution: put aside the polemical materials and start reading the considerably more objective patristic scholars works that are available. For an excellent start, I would like to recommend the collection of essays found within the pages of, Your Word Is Truth – A Project of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, ed. Charles Colson and Richard John Neuhaus, 2002. [A.N.S. Lane’s masterful ESSAY is also a must read.]

Grace and peace,


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