It’s been a while since I have done a post on the Roman Catholic book Not By Scripture Alone, so read here for my last entry in the series. We left off there talking about the appeal to the majority that Madrid uses that ultimately leaves the Scripture useless. In this post, I would like to address the question of the early church fathers (hereafter ECF), and who is quoting them correctly and who is not, and what they can prove and what they cannot.
It is my opinion that there are several opinions that can be found in the ECF on the question of authority. The bare fact of the matter is that there was only one church at the time. The issues that now divide Romanists and Protestants were not as front and center then as they would be later in history. The early church was more concerned about Christology and the Trinity in their debates (although Pelagianism was certainly a very important debate). This is not to say that they did not think long and hard about some of these issues concerning authority. It is to say that more than one opinion can be found there. This is in contrast to what Madrid says (slanders!) about the Protestant position. He seems to be claiming that Protestants think of ALL the ECF as proto-Protestants “who promoted an unvarnished doctrine of sola scriptura that would have made John Calvin proud” (p. 6). I would claim that the Protestant position on the Bible can certainly be found in the ECF. Can Rome claim that there is support from some of the ECF for the papacy? Yes, they can (which in no way makes their claim correct. After all, the ECF were not infallible). Some of the ECF thought of the Roman bishop as a first among equals (although whether they would have claimed all that the modern Pope claims is another question entirely). Nevertheless, there were also plenty of ECF who did say things that the Protestants would say later. If this is true, then the Romanists were wrong to kick out the Protestants from the church on the basis of the ECF. When Calvin quoted the ECF, his Romanist opponents were speechless.
A related problem to this is how we determine whose interpretation of the ECF is correct. The Romanists claim that the Protestants selectively quote the ECF (see Madrid, p. 6). The Protestants will claim that Romanists selectively quote the ECF. How is one going to determine who is quoting the ECF correctly? The Romanist has a ready-made answer for that: the church tells us how to understand the ECF just as it tells us how to interpret the Scriptures. How convenient! But then the ECF cease to be the real authority, don’t they? What it really comes down to, in the end, is the current church’s position: that is what is authoritative. Tradition is no longer authoritative, the current church is what is authoritative. But if that is the case, then the church is completely unteachable. At least, the church can never be shown to be wrong on any occasion. But wouldn’t this contradict the letters to the seven churches in Asia? Didn’t the Holy Spirit tell them that they were wrong on certain points of doctrine and practice? The next post will deal with Madrid’s example of Basil.