Was St. Athanasius Preaching for Sola Scriptura?

St. Athanasius preached the Bible, but also protected its proper use.

(photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Athanasius (A.D. 293-373) was the Bishop of Alexandria and one of the chief heroes for the development and defense of the Trinity, a champion of the Council of Nicaea, and author to a litany of apologetic writings.

He lived in a crucial period smack dab between the recent clarifications made on the personhood and divinity of Jesus at the Council of Nicaea and the late-fourth-century councils that would secure the biblical canon.

What’s cool is that, in one of his letters, he names the 26 books belonging the New Testament as we know it. He then goes on to say that they are “fountains of salvation, that they who thirst may be satisfied with the living words they contain”, and “In these alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness. Let no man add to these, neither let him take ought from these” (Festal Letter no. 39).

Because of his clear reverence and strong support of the scriptures as an authority for teaching, his words are sometimes used by supporters of sola scriptura as a defense for the Bible as the sole rule of faith.

But that’s one quote from one letter of about seven dozen we have available. A sample of the other letters will show any reader that Athanasius certainly did not believe (or teach!) that the Bible was the sole rule of faith. Here are some examples.

But after [the devil] and with him are all inventors of unlawful heresies, who indeed refer to the Scriptures, but do not hold such opinions as the saints have handed down, and receiving them as the traditions of men, err, because they do not rightly know them nor their power. . . Therefore Paul justly praises the Corinthians, because their opinions were in accordance with his traditions (Letter 2).

Sound familiar? Even in his time, there were prime and frequent examples of those who would come to the Scriptures for a defense of heresy. His point is in solid steadiness with Paul: an interpretation of the Bible cannot conflict with the tradition of the Apostles.

But our faith is right, and starts from the teaching of the Apostles and tradition of the fathers, being confirmed both by the New Testament and the Old (Letter 60).

His words cannot be clearer: Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition belong together. Not to mention, he lived before the canon of the Old and New Testaments were declared by the councils soon to come. His use here is a quality demonstration of continuity prior to the formalized canon. Here’s a similar quote:

This is no Ecclesiastical Canon; nor have we had transmitted to us any such tradition from the Fathers, who in their turn received from the great and blessed Apostle Peter (History of the Arians, 36).

For being forced from the conceptions or rather misconceptions of their own hearts, they fall back upon passages of divine Scripture, and here too from want of understanding, according to their wont, they discern not their meaning; but laying down their own irreligion as a sort of canon of interpretation (Four Discourses Against the Arians, 52).

This is a classic example of proof-texting, or the application of confirmation bias: a person cannot force a passage of scripture to support an unorthodox idea. He deals with this issue once again:

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 (Four Discourses Against the Arians, 53).

This is a short selection of quotes among a range of statements Athanasius makes. Putting it briefly, the parlance of Athanasian theology includes a defense of doctrine using the Bible, but must be interpreted according to the orthodox tradition handed down from the Apostles.

Let’s be thankful for Athanasius. First of all, for preserving this for us. But more importantly, for being creative in a time where important theological concepts and apologetic strategies were still being developed.

St. Athanasius, pray for us.