James Swan was good enough to give a different perspective on whether the Reformers had the right to reform the Catholic Church (it was reposted on free republic with some interesting comments). He compares the right of Athanasius, who fought against the majority holding Arian opinion (that Christ was not fully God), with the right of the Reformers who also fought against a majority. He asks, “Did Athanasius Have the Right?” and supposes that if you answer in the affirmative then must also do so for the Reformers, assuming that their situations were the same because they both argued from Scripture against a majority. However, their situations were not the same. My answer is yes, Athanasius had the right. No, the Reformers did not.
The major differences between the case of Athanasius against the Arians and the case of the Reformers against the Catholic Church are as follows: Athanasius was an archbishop, an authority holding position in the Catholic Church, whereas the Reformers were not. His beliefs were orthodox and he was faithful to the teachings of the fathers, and the Reformers were not. He argued with an orthodox interpretation of the Scriptures, whereas the Reformers argued with new interpretations of the Scriptures, forsaking previous teachings and understanding.
Some people may object to my first reason, that Athanasius was an archbishop and so possessed “ordinary authority” to oppose the Arians, on the grounds that his opposition were also bishops, and there was also an Arian anti-pope installed in an attempt to force the Church into Arianism. However, the position of bishop is still that of authority, though some obtained it illegitimately and abused it. So how is a lay-person on the ground to know who to follow and who is right when leaders disagree? The next point is a good place to start:
Athanasius was orthodox in his beliefs and understanding, conforming to established doctrine. He believed that Christ was begotten not made, in one being with the Father, as had been professed and taught by the Apostles and their successors, and codified in the Nicene Creed. James Swan quotes James White’s article in which he states Athanasius went against the “established church”, but this is backwards. Athanasius conformed to the established church, and the Arians presented new doctrines to overturn established doctrine, though they at times may have outnumbered orthodox believers. The established church is not the same as the majority of the church. The orthodoxy of Athanasius’s beliefs were openly acknowledged by his opponents. In his History of the Arians, he writes about the Arians:
“[T]hey were not ashamed to say in their letters, ‘since Athanasius suffered, all jealousy has ceased, and let us henceforward receive Arius and his fellows;’ adding, in order to frighten their hearers, ‘because the Emperor has commanded it.’ Moreover, they were not ashamed to add, ‘for these men profess orthodox opinions;’”
In his Four Discourses Against the Arians, Athanasius disparages the Arian unorthodoxy as grounds in itself to dismiss their beliefs as heresy:
“But if they themselves own that they have heard it now for the first time, how can they deny that this heresy is foreign, and not from our fathers? But what is not from our fathers, but has come to light in this day, how can it be but that of which the blessed Paul has foretold, that ‘in the latter times some shall depart from the sound faith, giving heed to seducing spirits and doctrines of devils, in the hypocrisy of liars; cauterized in their own conscience, and turning from the truth?’”
“Or how are they of the Catholic Church, who have shaken off the Apostolical faith, and become authors of fresh evils?”
It’s similar to what Tertullian says of heresies in relation to orthodoxy:
“[H]ow comes it to pass that the things of God were on their course before it was known to what God they belonged? That there were Christians before Christ was found? That there were heresies before true doctrine? Not so; for in all cases truth precedes its copy, the likeness succeeds the reality.”
The Reformers, unlike Athanasius, presented a gospel different than that taught by the Catholic Church, one that was news to the people of the day. They went against the established doctrine and so against orthodoxy. This demands much greater proof that they speak the truth. They must prove that God has sent them to change the gospel and reform His Church, a Church that He promised would not perish and paid for in His precious blood, sustained and guided by the Holy Spirit. How is such an extraordinary mission to be proved? Through miracles alone. It is not enough that they twist the bare letters of the Bible to fit their own meanings.
James Swan seems to think Scriptural support of their argument was sufficient for people to accept the authenticity of Athanasius (although I have already shown he has more to recommend him), and is also sufficient for us to accept the truth of the Reformed gospel. The Holy Scriptures are authoritative, yet sometimes both sides claim to derive their solution from Scriptures. Such was the case of Arianism. Athanasius bemoans the twisting of Scriptures that heretics use to “prove” Arianism, and in his discourses he painstakingly sets straight the orthodox interpretation of passages that had been misinterpreted by Arians. In other words, he is relying on the interpretation of Scriptures taught by the fathers of the Church since the Apostles. This is the much misunderstood importance of Tradition. It ultimately questions whether the gospel presented is the one preached from the beginning (1 John 2:24), despite supporting evidence that heretics and schismatics invariably give from the blessed and authoritative Scriptures.
Here are a few examples of Athanasius propounding the orthodox interpretation of Scriptures, and lamenting the twisting of Scriptures common to heretics:
“If then the use of certain phrases of divine Scripture changes, in their opinion, the blasphemy of the Thalia into reverent language, of course they ought also to deny Christ with the present Jews, when they see how they study the Law and the Prophets; perhaps too they will deny the Law and the Prophets like Manichees , because the latter read some portions of the Gospels. If such bewilderment and empty speaking be from ignorance, Scripture will teach them, that the devil, the author of heresies, because of the ill savour which attaches to evil, borrows Scripture language, as a cloak wherewith to sow the ground with his own poison also, and to seduce the simple.”
“And yet, needless though it be to refine upon these passages, considering their so clear and religious sense, and our own orthodox belief, yet that their irreligion may be shown here also, come let us shortly, as we have received from the fathers, expose their heterodoxy from the passage.”
“But since they allege the divine oracles and force on them a misinterpretation, according to their private sense , it becomes necessary to meet them just so far as to vindicate these passages, and to show that they bear an orthodox sense, and that our opponents are in error.”
In their works against heresies, Tertullian and Irenaeus also speak of the twisting of Scripture, showing by their testimony that it’s a trait common to heretics. Like Athanasius, they advise individuals to discern the true understanding of Scripture using the Catholic understanding of it, because that is consistent with the Apostolic Faith.
In Tertullian’s Perscription Against Heretics, he shows that orthodox Apostolic doctrine is the only true doctrine, and with it the only true understanding of Scripture, since heretics will always insist their interpretations are right:
“Truth is just as much opposed by an adulteration of [Scripture's] meaning as it is by a corruption of its text… They rely on those [passages] which they have falsely put together, and which they have selected, because of their ambiguity…
It is indeed a necessary consequence that they should go so far as to say that adulterations of the Scriptures, and false expositions thereof, are rather introduced by ourselves, inasmuch as they, no less than we maintain that truth is on their side…
Our appeal, therefore, must not be made to the Scriptures;… (yet) the natural order of things would require that this point should be first proposed, which is now the only one which we must discuss:With whom lies that very faith to which the Scriptures belong. From what and through whom, and when, and to whom, has been handed down that rule, by which men become Christians?For wherever it shall be manifest that the true Christian rule and faith shall be, there will likewise be the true Scriptures and expositions thereof, and all the Christian traditions…
From this, therefore, do we draw up our rule. Since the Lord Jesus Christ sent the apostles to preach, (our rule is) that no others ought to be received as preachers than those whom Christ appointed; forno man knows the Father save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal Him.Matthew 11:27 Nor does the Son seem to have revealed Him to any other than the apostles… If, then, these things are so, it is in the same degree manifest that all doctrine which agrees with the apostolic churches— those moulds and original sources of the faith must be reckoned for truth, as undoubtedly containing that which the (said) churches received from the apostles, the apostles from Christ, Christ from God. Whereas all doctrine must be prejudged as false which savours of contrariety to the truth of the churches and apostles of Christ and God. It remains, then, that we demonstrate whether this doctrine of ours, of which we have now given the rule, has its origin in the tradition of the apostles, and whether all other doctrines do not ipso facto proceed from falsehood. We hold communion with the apostolic churches because our doctrine is in no respect different from theirs. This is our witness of truth.”
Irenaeus, in his Against Heresies, like Tertullian and Athanasius, describes the adaptation of Scriptures to the heretic’s own ends, and the importance of adhering to the the truth of Apostolic churches and their correct understanding of Scripture to resist such falsehoods:
“[T]hey maintain that these are great, and wonderful, and hitherto unspeakable mysteries which it is their special function to develop; and so they proceed when they find anything in the multitude of things contained in the Scriptures which they can adopt and accommodate to their baseless speculations.” [Book 1, Chapter 1]
“And others of them, with great craftiness, adapted such parts of Scripture to their own figments, lead away captive from the truth those who do not retain a steadfast faith in one God, the Father Almighty, and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” [Book 1, Chapter 3]
“When, however, they are confuted from the Scriptures, they turn round and accuse these same Scriptures… For [they allege] that the truth was not delivered by means of written documents, but vivâ voce: wherefore also Paul declared,But we speak wisdom among those that are perfect, but not the wisdom of this world.1 Corinthians 2:6 And this wisdom each one of them alleges to be the fiction of his own inventing, forsooth…
But, again, when we refer them to that tradition which originates from the apostles, [and] which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches, they object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth… It comes to this, therefore, that these men do now consent neither to Scripture nor to tradition.” [Book 3, Chapter 2]
“Wherefore it is incumbent to obey the presbyters who are in the Church—those who, as I have shown, possess the succession from the apostles; those who, together with the succession of the episcopate, have received the certain gift of truth, according to the good pleasure of the Father. But [it is also incumbent] to hold in suspicion others who depart from the primitive succession, and assemble themselves together in any place whatsoever, [looking upon them] either as heretics of perverse minds, or as schismatics puffed up and self-pleasing, or again as hypocrites, acting thus for the sake of lucre and vainglory. For all these have fallen from the truth. And the heretics, indeed, who bring strange fire to the altar of God— namely, strange doctrines— shall be burned up by the fire from heaven, as were Nadab and Abiud. Leviticus 10:1-2 But such as rise up in opposition to the truth, and exhort others against the Church of God, [shall] remain among those in hell (apud inferos), being swallowed up by an earthquake, even as those who were with Chore, Dathan, and Abiron. Numbers 16:33 But those who cleave asunder, and separate the unity of the Church, [shall] receive from God the same punishment as Jeroboam did. 1 Kings 14:10
Such presbyters does the Church nourish… Of whom also did the Lord declare,Who then shall be a faithful steward (actor), good and wise, whom the Lord sets over His household, to give them their meat in due season?…Matthew 24:45-46 Paul then, teaching us where one may find such, says,God has placed in the Church, first, apostles; secondly, prophets; thirdly, teachers.1 Corinthians 12:28 Where, therefore, the gifts of the Lord have been placed, there it behooves us to learn the truth, [namely,] from those who possess that succession of the Church which is from the apostles… For these also preserve this faith of ours in one God who created all things;… and they expound the Scriptures to us without danger, neither blaspheming God, nor dishonouring the patriarchs, nor despising the prophets.” [Book 4, Chapter 26]
“He shall also judge those who give rise to schisms… For no reformation of so great importance can be effected by them, as will compensate for the mischief arising from their schism. He shall also judge all those who are beyond the pale of the truth, that is, who are outside the Church;…
True knowledge is [that which consists in] the doctrine of the apostles, and the ancient constitution of the Church throughout all the world, and the distinctive manifestation of the body of Christ according to the successions of the bishops, by which they have handed down that Church which exists in every place, and has come even unto us, being guarded and preserved without any forging of Scriptures, by a very complete system of doctrine, and neither receiving addition nor [suffering] curtailment [in the truths which she believes]; and [it consists in] reading [the word of God] without falsification, and a lawful and diligent exposition in harmony with the Scriptures, both without danger and without blasphemy…” [Book 4, Chapter 33]
The idea that Athanasius was some kind of proto-Protestant, much like the idea that other Church Fathers are proto-Protestants, probably comes from his extensive use of the Scriptures. Yet we also see he is concerned with the teachings of the fathers and with orthodoxy. Sometimes these men often failed to use traditions and orthodoxy in their arguments against heretics and outsiders because heretics and outsiders do not value them. Which is why they were heretics. The Fathers could still use Scripture in their arguments, because many heretics still hold the Scriptures as authoritative. The Fathers often lamented their inability to use tradition, as seen by James White’s quote of Augustine “I must not press the authority of Nicea against you, nor you that of Ariminum against me; I do not acknowledge the one, as you do not the other; but let us come to ground that is common to both- the testimony of the Holy Scriptures.”. It does not mean they held no regard for traditions, just that they were often unable to use them against people with wonky ideas and those who despise authority (2 Peter 2:10). In this particular quote, the council of Ariminum was set up to overthrow Nicea, the established doctrine, and Ariminum was not approved by any valid pope and the decrees were annulled by Pope Liberius after he returned to his see, so of course Augustine wouldn’t recognize it’s authority. The fact the Arians felt the need to hold a council in order to impose their beliefs shows that councils were indeed important and the bishops held authority in determining doctrine.
There is one difference between Athanasius’s time and the Reformers time that some people might think justifies a reform against orthodoxy. At the Reformation, those on the side of orthodoxy had become corrupt and irreligious men, abusing their position, which led to a widespread devaluation of the Church heirarchy. In my initial post, I have already answered that this is not a sufficient excuse for Christians not to follow those God has placed in authority over them. We are called to discern truth using the foremost three rules of Faith – the Holy Scriptures, teachings of the fathers (Tradition), and the authorities of the Church (Magesterium) – but not to overturn all three rules in favor of our own perceived truth.
Is it too hard a thing to ask that we trust in God, though all men be false (Rom 3:3-4), and by trusting in Him believe He will guide His Church in all truth (John 16:13), that it is the pillar and ground of truth (1 Tim 3:15), that the gates of hell will not prevail against it (Matt 16:18)? But who thinks that God has abandoned His visible Church so that His flock scatter dangerously without seeing or knowing their Earthly shepherd, when God is most able to gather and lead them? If you say He is unwilling, you say He is not Love or Truth. He has preserved His Church, a much lesser thing than when He created it by the power of the cross. Who says He has let it fall denies the power of the cross. Who says a mere sinful man can destroy what God preserves doesn’t know the power of God.
Athanasius had the right to oppose Arianism, because he held ordinary authority in the Church as an archbishop, he retained the Faith given him by the fathers, and he used the orthodox understanding of the Holy Scriptures to show Christ revealed as both fully God and fully man. He had the three highest rules of Faith on his side: the Scriptures, Tradition, and the Magesterium. The Reformers fail on all three points. They did not hold an office worthy of their impertinence, they did not retain the faith given to them and instead overturned it, and they used new interpretations of the Holy Scriptures to form their arguments and beliefs. Their faith was a new invention, like Athanasius says, it was not given by the fathers, so is it not obviously a foreign heresy?