Friday, October 07, 2016

Sola Scriptura and Alexander of Alexandria "The Deposition of Arius" (Possibly Athanasius)

Around A.D. 320-324 Alexander of Alexandria sent out a letter regarding "The Deposition of Arius" (available from the CCEL here) As Athanasius was Alexander's right hand man at the time and because the arguments are similar to Athansius' own later arguments, it is believed Athanasius may have possibly authored the letter. What does this letter have to say about adherence to Sola Scriptura or some other view?

The letter does talk about "the doctrines of the Catholic Church" (meaning the universal church, not today's RCC) and "the sound Catholic Faith" (at the beginning and end of the letter). How are these doctrines and this faith defined, though? The constant appeal is to Scripture. We will see that in each of the sections.

First, section 1:
1. As there is one body of the Catholic Church, and a command is given us in the sacred Scriptures to preserve the bond of unity and peace, it is agreeable thereto that we should write and signify to one another whatever is done by each of us individually; so that whether one member suffer or rejoice, we may either suffer or rejoice with one another. Now there are gone forth in this diocese, at this time, certain lawless men, enemies of Christ, teaching an apostasy, which one may justly suspect and designate as a forerunner of Antichrist. I was desirous to pass such a matter by without notice, in the hope that perhaps the evil would spend itself among its supporters, and not extend to other places to defile the ears of the simple. But seeing that Eusebius, now of Nicomedia, who thinks that the government of the Church rests with him, because retribution has not come upon him for his desertion of Berytus, when he had cast an eye of desire on the Church of the Nicomedians, begins to support these apostates, and has taken upon him to write letters every where in their behalf, if by any means he may draw in certain ignorant persons to this most base and antichristian heresy; I am therefore constrained, knowing what is written in the law, no longer to hold my peace, but to make it known to you all; that you may understand who the apostates are, and the cavils which their heresy has adopted, and that, should Eusebius write to you, you may pay no attention to him, for he now desires by means of these men to exhibit anew his old malevolence, which has so long been concealed, pretending to write in their favour, while in truth it clearly appears, that he does it to forward his own interests.
Notice that Alexander begins his comments with a reference to Scripture, specifically Ephesians 4:3-4 "Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling ... ." Next he alludes to 1 Corinthians 12:26 "And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it." He then seems to allude to 1 John 2 "18 Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time. ... 22 Who is a liar but he that denieth that Jesus is the Christ? He is antichrist, that denieth the Father and the Son." and Jude 4 "For there are certain men crept in unawares, who were before of old ordained to this condemnation, ungodly men, turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness, and denying the only Lord God, and our Lord Jesus Christ." There is an interesting comment made by Alexander: "I am therefore constrained, knowing what is written in the law, no longer to hold my peace, but to make it known to you all ... ." What law can he be referring to? As an examination of the rest of the letter shows, it seems the law he has in mind is Scripture.

Turning to section 2:
2. Now those who became apostates are these, Arius, Achilles, Aeithales, Carpones, another Arius, and Sarmates, sometime Presbyters: Euzoïus, Lucius, Julius, Menas, Helladius, and Gaius, sometime Deacons: and with them Secundus and Theonas, sometime called Bishops. And the novelties they have invented and put forth contrary to the Scriptures are these following:—God was not always a Father, but there was a time when God was not a Father. The Word of God was not always, but originated from things that were not; for God that is, has made him that was not, of that which was not; wherefore there was a time when He was not; for the Son is a creature and a work. Neither is He like in essence to the Father; neither is He the true and natural Word of the Father; neither is He His true Wisdom; but He is one of the things made and created, and is called the Word and Wisdom by an abuse of terms, since He Himself originated by the proper Word of God, and by the Wisdom that is in God, by which God has made not only all other things but Him also. Wherefore He is by nature subject to change and variation as are all rational creatures. And the Word is foreign from the essence of the Father, and is alien and separated therefrom. And the Father cannot be described by the Son, for the Word does not know the Father perfectly and accurately, neither can He see Him perfectly. Moreover, the Son knows not His own essence as it really is; for He is made for us, that God might create us by Him, as by an instrument; and He would not have existed, had not God wished to create us. Accordingly, when some one asked them, whether the Word of God can possibly change as the devil changed, they were not afraid to say that He can; for being something made and created, His nature is subject to change.
Notice that the standard Alexander immediately adopts is Scripture: "the novelties they have invented and put forth contrary to the Scriptures." Of course, as the rest of his comments are a short summary of the abominable heresies, he has no Scriptural support for these novelties.

Turning to section 3:
3. Now when Arius and his fellows made these assertions, and shamelessly avowed them, we being assembled with the Bishops of Egypt and Libya, nearly a hundred in number, anathematized both them and their followers. But Eusebius and his fellows admitted them to communion, being desirous to mingle falsehood with the truth, and impiety with piety. But they will not be able to do so, for the truth must prevail; neither is there any “communion of light with darkness,” nor any “concord of Christ with Belial.” For who ever heard such assertions before? or who that hears them now is not astonished and does not stop his ears lest they should be defiled with such language? Who that has heard the words of John, “In the beginning was the Word,” will not denounce the saying of these men, that “there was a time when He was not?” Or who that has heard in the Gospel, “the Only-begotten Son,” and “by Him were all things made,” will not detest their declaration that He is “one of the things that were made.” For how can He be one of those things which were made by Himself? or how can He be the Only-begotten, when, according to them, He is counted as one among the rest, since He is Himself a creature and a work? And how can He be “made of things that were not,” when the Father saith, “My heart hath uttered a good Word,” and “Out of the womb I have begotten Thee before the morning star?” Or again, how is He “unlike in substance to the Father,” seeing He is the perfect “image” and “brightness” of the Father, and that He saith, “He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father?” And if the Son is the “Word” and “Wisdom” of God, how was there “a time when He was not?” It is the same as if they should say that God was once without Word and without Wisdom. And how is He “subject to change and variation,” Who says, by Himself, “I am in the Father, and the Father in Me,” and “I and the Father are One;” and by the Prophet, “Behold Me, for I am, and I change not?” For although one may refer this expression to the Father, yet it may now be more aptly spoken of the Word, viz., that though He has been made man, He has not changed; but as the Apostle has said, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever.” And who can have persuaded them to say, that He was made for us, whereas Paul writes, “for Whom are all things, and by Whom are all things?”
Alexander begins by mentioning a regional council in Africa. He notes, however, that not everyone accepted the anathema of that council, focusing primarily on Eusebius of Nicomedia.

Alexander argues that Eusebius of Nicomedia is wrong to have communion with Arius, citing 2 Corinthians 5:14-15 "Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel?"

To rebut Arius' position, Alexander turns directly to Scripture, quoting from John 1:1: "In the beginning was the Word." He then also cites "only-begotten son" (John 1:18) and "all things were made by Him" (John 1:3).

He does not limit himself to the New Testament. He cites Psalm (LXX 44:2) "my heart has uttered a good word; I speak my works to the king." (See Psalm 45:1 in our Bibles) (Origen a spiritual ancestor of Athanasius in Alexandria (ca. 185 - 254), in his commentary on John, Book 1, at sections 151 and 280, pp. 64 and 91, draws the same connection to this psalm, which otherwise might not seem necessarily relevant.) He also cites Psalm (LXX 109:3) "Before the morning star have I begotten thee from the womb" (See Psalm 110:3 in our Bibles) (a younger contemporary of Athanasius, Epiphanius of Salamis (ca. 310 or 320 to 403) in his Panarion makes a similar connection to this Psalm, in Anacephalaeosis V, 65 "Against Paul the Samosatian," at 4,4-8, pp. 219-220)

He then goes back and cites Hebrews 1:3 "Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, ... " and John 14:9 "... he that hath seen me hath seen the Father ... ."

Alexander continues by citing the Biblical titles of "Word" (e.g. John 1:1) and "Wisdom" (e.g. 1 Corinthians 1:24, 30).

Alexander also cites John 14:10 "I am in the Father, and the Father in me" and John 10:30 "I and my Father are one."

Once again, Alexander goes back to the Old Testament and quotes Malachi 3:6: "For I am the Lord, I change not" (the "behold me" in Alexander's citation may be taken from Isaiah 65:1: "I am sought of them that asked not for me; I am found of them that sought me not: I said, Behold me, behold me, unto a nation that was not called by my name." or possibly from Malach 3:1: "Behold, I send forth my messenger, and he shall survey the way before me ...")

He then quotes from Hebrews 13:8: "Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever" and again from Hebrews 2:10: "For it became him, for whom are all things, and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons unto glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings."

Turning to section 4:
4. As to their blasphemous position that “the Son knows not the Father perfectly,” we ought not to wonder at it; for having once set themselves to fight against Christ, they contradict even His express words, since He says, “As the Father knoweth Me, even so know I the Father.” Now if the Father knows the Son but in part, then it is evident that the Son does not know the Father perfectly; but if it is not lawful to say this, but the Father does know the Son perfectly, then it is evident that as the Father knows His own Word, so also the Word knows His own Father Whose Word He is.
Notice again that Alexander quotes from Scripture, John 10:15 "As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father: ... ."

Turning to section 5:
5. By these arguments and references to the sacred Scriptures we frequently overthrew them; but they changed like chameleons, and again shifted their ground, striving to bring upon themselves that sentence, “when the wicked falleth into the depth of evils, he despiseth.” There have been many heresies before them, which, venturing further than they ought, have fallen into folly; but these men by endeavouring in all their cavils to overthrow the Divinity of the Word, have justified the other in comparison of themselves, as approaching nearer to Antichrist. Wherefore they have been excommunicated and anathematized by the Church. We grieve for their destruction, and especially because, having once been instructed in the doctrines of the Church, they have now sprung away. Yet we are not greatly surprised, for Hymenæus and Philetus did the same, and before them Judas, who followed the Saviour, but afterwards became a traitor and an apostate. And concerning these same persons, we have not been left without instruction; for our Lord has forewarned us; “Take heed lest any man deceive you: for many shall come in My name, saying, I am Christ, and the time draweth near, and they shall deceive many: go ye not after them;” while Paul, who was taught these things by our Saviour, wrote that “in the latter times some shall depart from the sound faith, giving heed to seducing spirits and doctrines of devils, which reject the truth.”
Here Alexander makes it explicit that his constant and continual practice in rebutting these heresies was appeal to Scripture:"By these arguments and references to the sacred Scriptures we frequently overthrew them ... ." In condemning them as wicked he again quotes from the Old Testament Scriptures, Proverbs (LXX - Brenton trans.) 18:3: "When an ungodly man comes into a depth of evils, he despises them; but dishonour and reproach come upon him."

Finally, Alexander comes back to mentioning the church. He says that in view of their folly/heresies "Wherefore they have been excommunicated and anathematized by the Church."

He says that their apostasy is sad but not unexpected, citing Biblical examples of Hymenaeus and Philetus (2 Timothy 2:17-18) as well as Judas (e.g. Acts 1:25). He then points to Jesus' warning in Luke 21:8: "Take heed that ye be not deceived: for many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and the time draweth near: go ye not therefore after them" and Paul's warning in 1 Timothy 4:1-2 " Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils; speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron;"

Lastly, turning to section 6:
6. Since then our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ has instructed us by His own mouth, and also hath signified to us by the Apostle concerning such men, we accordingly being personal witnesses of their impiety, have anathematized, as we said, all such, and declared them to be alien from the Catholic Faith and Church. And we have made this known to your piety, dearly beloved and most honoured fellow-ministers, in order that should any of them have the boldness to come unto you, you may not receive them, nor comply with the desire of Eusebius, or any other person writing in their behalf. For it becomes us who are Christians to turn away from all who speak or think any thing against Christ, as being enemies of God, and destroyers of souls; and not even to “bid such God speed,” lest we become partakers of their sins, as the blessed John hath charged us. Salute the brethren that are with you. They that are with me salute you.
Notice again that Alexander appeals to the authority of Scripture as being the mouth of Jesus and the Apostles, referring to the warnings of section 5. There is again a reference to church discipline, but notice that Alexander is only asserting a declaration of what has been discovered, not assertion the ability to define what is true. Finally, he concludes with yet another warning from Scripture, 2 John 10-11: "If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed: For he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds."

In conclusion, we see that Alexander of Alexandria, and possibly his right hand man Athanasius, both relied in this letter exclusively, explicitly, and extensively on the authority of Scripture to combat the Arian heresy. This letter, therefore, may not have any explicit assertion of Sola Scriptura, but it is a great example of Sola Scriptura in practice even in a ecclesiastical setting that is different from our own. A lot of the orthodox men of the church in that time endorsed this letter, which implicitly endorses the approach of Sola Scriptura. Amongst them were Athanasius, as Alexander introduces the letter by saying "Alexander, being assembled with his beloved brethren, the Presbyters and Deacons of Alexandria," which would have included Athanasius.



Brian Gorter said...

Hey Turretin Fan
Thanks for a great blog. I have been working slowly through Philip Shaff's Ante-Nicene Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers that Dr White recommended some time back on one of the DL's, and that letter was one of many i have read. We will learn a lot about orthodox Christianity from these Giants of the faith, and i for one am grateful for them. I certainly am thankful for your wonderful insights and am happy to follow your blogs and tweets and look forward to the next installment. Blue

Anonymous said...

Hi Turretin Fan,
I've noticed Protestant apologists often project their beliefs on to the Church Fathers. A quick reading of On the Incarnation by Athanasius shows me that he is no five point Calvinist. To claim that using scripture is akin to sola scriptura is a looong stretch.

There a two key elements of sola scriptura missing from Alexander's letter. Firstly, Alexander does not claim there is no need for the church. In fact his first section implies that Ephesians means the church is a organic unity with everyone is agreement to the whole. In Alexander's vision there is no room for an Arian denomination or some kind of 'invisible' church. Secondly, Alexander does not imply his christology is 'obvious'. Any writings from Alexander and Athanasius stress tradition and the need to interpret scripture with it. Athanasius, of course, claimed he was loyal to that tradition.

Do you have any quotes from Alexander to the effect that you dont need the church to interpret scripture?

PS: A fair amount of 'Arian' writings still exist in Greek and Latin. What strikes me is their appeal to scripture to back up their position. This is often neglected. Arius himself was a famous preacher and biblical exegete.

Turretinfan said...


Thanks for your thoughtful rebuttal. A couple of responses:

1) Sola Scriptura does not say that there is absolutely no need for the church. While one can read the Gospel of John, believe it, and have eternal life (as it says), the church is an important part of the Christian life. There is a lot of value in the fallible church. All that Sola Scriptura denies regarding church authority is that church councils (or individual bishops, including the Roman bishop) are infallible.

2) Alexander doesn't use the term obvious, to be sure. Moreover, as I think I pointed out in my article, Alexander's work doesn't explicitly describe Sola Scriptura, as such. On the other hand, you will find other fathers making that kind of claim. For example, Chrysostom's oft-quoted line is that "all things are clear and open that are in the divine Scriptures; the necessary things are all plain". While Alexander doesn't use that same line, I think he would agree with its sentiment. Of course, I'm not saying that can be definitively proven from the small number of Alexander's writings that we have today.

Byzas said...

Hi Again,
You are correct that some versions of sola scriptura do find a place for the church. However, the Church Fathers have a 'high' ecclesiology so the church is always integral to their thinking. They tend to have a church/scripture/tradition matrix that has some similarities to some versions of sola scriptura but not exactly. Since the scriptures (Jesus specifically) promise the Holy Spirit to bring 'all truth' it is only natural that the Church Fathers believed in the infallibility of the church. They would agree that there are fake (heretical) councils but that doesnt detract from the authentic ones any more than a crazy interpretation of scripture detracts from the truth of scripture. I feel that one of Protestantism's greatest weaknesses is its failure to account for the activity of the Holy Spirit between 100 AD and 1517.

The context of John Chrysostom's quote is as a presbyter (or maybe bishop) teaching his congregation. Bibles were few and there was mass illiteracy. People looked to their (more educated) leaders to teach them. Chrysostom represents the church/ scripture/tradition so he is confident on the clarity of scripture. There is no dicotomy between scripture and the church.

I would finish with three observations about Chrysostom-
1) He makes extensive use of the deuterocanonical books so he views the OT canon differently from the Reformers
2) Chrysostom is a firm advocate of the neccessity of tradition
3) I suspect what Chrysostom thought was 'neccessary' is very different from you which causes all sorts of problems about what is plain or not.