The almost one-person Church Fathers reject the Sola Scriptura and hold that Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture constitute a single repository of the Word of God
Saint Athanasius (c. 297-373) was a great Father of the Church and a heroic opponent of the heresy of Arianism. He is probably the most cited Church Father after St. Augustine in the writings of Protestant apologists who wish to show that the fathers were closer in substance to various teachings of Protestantism than to Catholicism.
He is cited as a supposed supporter of Sola Scriptura – the Protestant rule of faith and the notion that the Bible is the only infallible source and standard for theology. It follows logically from this definition that the Church (including ecumenical councils) or sacred tradition (including apostolic succession) can not to be infallible sources or standards for theology.
Therefore, if someone claims that one or both are infallible sources, then by definition and logic this person cannot adhere Sola Scriptura. It is easy enough to demonstrate that St. Athanasius did indeed believe in infallible sources of authority alongside and in harmony with Holy Scripture.
I quote his words from the 38-volume edition of the Church Fathers edited by Philip Schaff (available online in its entirety on the New Advent website):
- “But the word of the Lord which came through the ecumenical synod at Nicea remains forever.” (Ad Afros Epistola Synodica 2)
- “But let the faith confessed by the Fathers at Nicaea alone stand firm among you, at which all the fathers, including those of the men who now fight against it, were present, as we have said above, and signed : that of us also the Apostle may say: ‘Now I praise you that you remember me in all things, and as I have handed down the traditions to you, hold them fast (1 Corinthians 11:2). ‘” (Ad Afros Epistola Synodica ten)
- “For if they had believed right, they would have been satisfied with the confession made at Nicaea by the whole Ecumenical Council; … Observe how totally ignorant they are of the truth and how everything they say and do is for the good of the Arian heresy. For in that they dare to question these sound definitions of the faith and take it upon themselves to produce others which are contrary to them, what do they do but accuse the Fathers and rise up to defend this heresy against which they opposed and protested? (Ad Episcopus Aegypti and Libyae5)
- “Who, then, who has any real respect for the truth, will suffer these men any longer? Who will not justly reject their writing? Who will not denounce their audacity, that being few, they would see their decisions prevail over everything, and as desiring the supremacy of their own meetings, held in corners and suspicious in their situation, would forcibly annul the decrees of a Council not corrupt, pure and ecumenical? (Ad Episcopus Aegypti and Libyaeseven)
- “It suffices simply to answer these questions as follows: we are satisfied that this is not the teaching of the Catholic Church, and that the fathers did not support it. (Letter n° 59 to Epictetus3)
- “What lack of teaching was there for religious truth in the Catholic Church? » (From SynodisI, 3)
- “…the sectarians, who have strayed from the teaching of the Church and have been shipwrecked concerning the Faith.” (against the pagans 1, 6, 3)
- “…the soul is made immortal is another point of Church teaching that you should know…” (against the pagans 2, 33, 1)
In seeking to establish that a particular Church Father believed in Sola ScripturaProtestant apologists often quote in their writings passages relating to the material sufficiency of Scripture: which means that the Scripture contains all that is sufficient to be saved. But Catholics and Protestants I agree on this doctrine, so it is off topic to the debate on Sola Scriptura. The Church Fathers – almost to a person, as I have discovered in my own research on the subject – reject Sola Scriptura, which is equivalent to the formal sufficiency of Scripture. Invariably they do this in the sense that they believe there are infallible sources of authority and theology alongside the Bible.
Another very common fallacy and mistake in this kind of Protestant treatment of the Church Fathers is the belief that if a Father quotes a lot of scripture in his argument (and often enough only scripture), that he must therefore believe in Sola Scriptura.
It does not follow at all. It’s two different things; apples and oranges. It is undeniable that we have believe that only Scripture is infallible in order to use Scripture in a theological argument. I quote scripture extensively, myself, in my many apologetics articles and books. One of my specialties, and what I am best known for, is “the biblical evidence of Catholicism”. Yet I vehemently deny Sola Scripturaand have written three books against it.
Saint Athanasius could (and did) make many arguments from Scripture alone. But he also asserted the authority of Tradition or of councils alone, or of an appeal to apostolic succession alone. In his statements about the Council of Nicaea (above) he clearly did not think he was wrong in his statements at all, or (it seems to me) even that he could maybe state an error. Several times Athanasius mentioned the infallible authority of scripture and non-scripture in the same context. For example, he wrote about the scriptures:
But…if you illuminate the text of the scriptures, truly applying your mind to them, you will learn from them more completely and more clearly the exact detail of what we have said. For they were spoken and written by God, by men who spoke of God. (On the incarnation of the Word56, 1-2)
But it’s not Sola Scripturabecause the following thing that he writes contradicts it: “But we transmit what we have learned from inspired masters who have familiarized them…” (Tradition and Apostolic Succession).