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#14: When the Church Fathers Described Heresy, it was my Protestantism—#1: St. Athanasius

The “Becoming Catholic” series presents the biblical, philosophical, and historical evidence for why Eternal Christendom Founder, Joshua Charles, became and remains Catholic. The series table of contents is here.

One of the most striking discoveries I made in the writings of the Church Fathers is that every time they spoke about heresy and heretics, they were describing me and my protestantism.

I don’t mean they described the specific details of protestant beliefs. Rather, they explained how heresies and heretics worked, and invariably their descriptions matched what many protestants take for granted.

And their descriptions were remarkably consistent.

Many think the word “heresy” is inherently connected to Faith. It isn’t. It actually stems from the Greek words meaning choose and choice, haireomai and hairesis respectively. Thus, in the context of theology, to engage in heresy is “to choose” to believe other than what the Church teaches. It has an inherently ecclesiastical definition.

With that in mind, I discovered at least six features shared by virtually all the heresies and heretics described by the Church Fathers.

FIRST, they separate from the Catholic (“Universal”) Church, and deny its authority. This first point deserves some brief reflection, given its immense significance. The Fathers everywhere take it as normative that the Catholic Church—the one and only Church founded by Christ Himself—has the authority to teach, and in fact does teach a common doctrine to all men in the name of Christ Himself (the means by which it does this is discussed in other blogs). The idea that, at best, we can only speak of the authority of the “local church” (as most protestants will claim) was virtually unknown to the Fathers. But even then, protestants do not believe the “local church” speaks with Christ’s authority, and therefore refuse to obey it if their interpretation of Scripture changes—as we have seen literally thousands of times (and hence the wide variety of Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist, etc. sects). Thus, heretics not only separated from the Catholic Church, but denied its authority to teach in Christ’s name.

SECOND, they interpret Scripture on a new and novel principle, and deny being bound by any Apostolic and ecclesial tradition.

THIRD, based on this novel principle, they concoct a new set of beliefs around which they form their own sect, which they erroneously claim is “Christian” and “the true faith.”

FOURTH, to justify their heresy, their primary tactic is to cite and quote Scripture as much as possible so that their new religion sounds “biblical.”

FIFTH, they were often named after the men who started them.

SIXTH, their beliefs and definitions of their own heresies constantly shift and change, whereby the certainty and unity of Faith to which we are commanded by the Apostles is subjected to endless argumentation.

To say that I was shocked after reading such descriptions from Church Fathers East and West, century after century, is an understatement, as they precisely fit normative protestantism, regardless of its particular brand or flavor. You can be Lutheran, Independent Baptist, Methodist, Reformed (Calvinist), Arminian, Hillsong, evangelical, or “non-denominational,” and every single feature of heresies described by the Church Fathers nearly 2,000 years ago continues to apply to protestant sects today. Note: these principles do not have to do with particular beliefs, as there are an almost unimaginable number of heresies that have been promulgated since Christ ascended into Heaven, as He predicted. Rather, they have to do with how heresies come about, and the means by which heretics propagate their heresies. There is, indeed, nothing new under the sun.

Suffice it to say, after reading such consistent descriptions of heretics, I realized that what I had grown up and considered normal well into my adulthood was in fact not normal, not Christian, and contrary to the Christian Faith of my ancestors. I took for granted principles which all of them considered certain signs of heresy. But it was not altogether a shock to me, for having loved and voraciously studied Scripture for many years, it was impossible to avoid the constant commands to remain unified, and hold the exact same Faith. Indeed, I had not found a single example in Scripture of a Christian taking the Scriptures, interpreting them for themselves, and separating from the Church or apostolic authority.

Instead, I found St. Paul telling the Philippians to (Phil. 2:2): “complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.

And to the Ephesians declaring (Eph. 4:4-6, 13): “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all…until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God…”

And to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 1:10): “I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment,” after which he decried the fact that various factions were choosing leaders and identifying themselves by those leaders instead of Christ (as the Fathers observed about the heretics of their own day, and as is normative in protestantism).

Naturally I also remembered St. Peter’s words about the ease with which Scripture may be twisted, and used as a pretext to undermine the very commands cited above (2 Pet. 3:16-17): “There are some things in them [St. Paul’s letters] hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, beware lest you be carried away with the error of lawless men and lose your own stability.

Nor was this any mere congregational or local church matter—indeed, St. Peter was writing to numerous churches at the same time. And in the same Scriptures we have a Council of the Apostles and the elders they had appointed declaring of their teaching (Acts 15:28) “it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us,” and their decision was (Acts 16:4) “delivered to them [all the local churches] for observance.” (See Why Acts 15 Led Me to the Catholic Church)

And finally, Christ Himself (John 17:20-21): “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.

Thus, having read the Scriptures for many years, I was already aware of how often it commanded those things which I had never been able to square with what I saw in protestantism (though it took me many years to even consider Catholicism). So when I read how the Church Fathers described heretics, shocked as I was, they were already striking a deep chord—for the same descriptions are already found in Scripture, and manifestly fit the reality of protestantism ever since the 16th century.

St. Athanasius and the Arian Heretics

St. Athanasius the Great (c. AD 298-373)
St. Athanasius the Great (c. AD 298-373)

So I wanted to share some of the most striking examples that I discovered. Since I found so many, I will do so by highlighting individual Church Fathers in different articles.

The first will be St. Athanasius of Alexandria. He was perhaps the greatest champion of the Catholic Faith against the Arian heresy in the fourth century, hence his sometimes being called “the Great.” The Council of Nicaea had been called to respond to the teachings of an Egyptian priest named Arius who taught that Christ was not fully God and fully man, but was rather just a man—though one chosen for a unique and special purpose by God. The Council of Nicaea affirmed the Catholic Faith, teaching that Christ was fully God and fully man, and that He was the eternally begotten Son of God the Father. The Arians, on the other hand, taught that Christ had not always existed, but was created. This in turn meant that God was not a Father by nature, since prior to Christ’s supposed creation, there was no Son, and thus there was a time when there was no Father.

St. Athanasius attended the Council of Nicaea as a deacon, but was later made the Bishop of Alexandria in Egypt, in which capacity he heroically defended the Nicene creed against the Arians. He was exiled, slandered, expelled from his own church multiple times, and nearly murdered more than once.

The ins and outs of the life of this great Saint are beyond the scope of this article. But since St. Athanasius is generally respected among protestants, I was shocked to discover him saying so many things that directly contradicted protestant beliefs and principles. For the purpose of this article, we will explore how he did so with respect to describing the heretics of his day.

We’ll begin with St. Athanasius’ Discourse I Against the Arians (§1), in which he identifies one of Arianism’s most dangerous tendencies—its constant use of Scripture to deceive the faithful:

But, whereas one heresy, and that the last, which has now risen as harbinger of Antichrist, the Arian, as it is called, considering that other heresies, her elder sisters, have been openly proscribed, in her craft and cunning, affects to array herself in Scripture language, like her father the devil, and is forcing her way back into the Church’s paradise—that with the pretense of Christianity, her smooth sophistry (for reason she has none) may deceive men into wrong thoughts of Christ — nay, since she has already seduced certain of the foolish, not only to corrupt their ears, but even to take and eat with Eve, till in their ignorance which ensues they think bitter sweet, and admire this loathsome heresy, on this account I have thought it necessary, at your request, to unrip “the folds of its breast-plate,” and to show the ill savor of its folly. So while those who are far from it may continue to shun it, those whom it has deceived may repent; and, opening the eyes of their heart, may understand that darkness is not light, nor falsehood truth, nor Arianism good; nay, that those who call these men Christians are in great and grievous error, as neither having studied Scripture, nor understanding Christianity at all, and the faith which it contains.

Next, in §3, he made an observation I saw frequently among the Church Fathers, namely that this new heresy, like all the others—while claiming to be “Christian”—was in fact known by the name of him who founded it:

Thus, though Arius be dead, and many of his party have succeeded him, yet those who think with him, as being known from Arius, are called Arians. And, what is a remarkable evidence of this, those of the Greeks who even at this time come into the Church, on giving up the superstition of idols, take the name, not of their catechists, but of the Savior, and begin to be called Christians instead of Greeks: while those of them who go off to the heretics, and again all who from the Church change to this heresy, abandon Christ’s name, and henceforth are called Arians, as no longer holding Christ’s faith, but having inherited Arius’ madness.

Likewise, in §§52-53, St. Athanasius asserts that while heretics tend to frequently employ Scripture, since they do so apart from the Church “according to their wont,” they employed it in an “irreligious” way. They thereby make their own peculiar beliefs the standard by which they interpret—and thereby misinterpret—the Scriptures:

For being forced from conceptions or rather misconceptions of their [the Arians’] 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, they wrest the whole of the divine oracles into accordance with it. And so on the bare mention of such doctrine, they deserve nothing but the reply, “You do err, not knowing the Scriptures nor the power of God” (Matt. 22:29)…These passages they brought forward at every turn, mistaking their sense…and thus they deceive the thoughtless, making the language of Scripture their pretense, but instead of the true sense sowing upon it the poison of their own heresy.

In another work, De Synodis (§14), St. Athanasius decried the manner in which heretics simply rejected the traditions and teachings of the Fathers (by which he meant previous Church Fathers, as well as the Bishops who promulgated the Nicene Creed), and that by doing so they were acting contrary to the teachings of the Apostles, which had been faithfully delivered by such means:

The blessed Apostle approves of the Corinthians because, he says, “you remember me in all things, and keep the traditions as I delivered them to you” (1 Cor. 11:2).

But they [heretics], as entertaining such views of their predecessors, will have the daring to say just the reverse to their flocks: “We praise you not for remembering your fathers, but rather we make much of you when you hold not their traditions.

And let them go on to accuse their own unfortunate birth, and say, “We are sprung not of religious men, but of heretics.” For such language, as I said before, is consistent in those who barter their Fathers’ fame and their own salvation for Arianism, and fear not the words of the divine proverb, “There is a generation that curseth their father” (Prov. 30:11; Ex. 21:17), and the threat lying in the Law against such.

They then, from zeal for the heresy, are of this obstinate temper; you, however, be not troubled at it, nor take their audacity for truth. For they dissent from each other, and whereas they have revolted from their Fathers, are not of one and the same mind, but float about with various and discordant changes.

In fact, while rejecting their Fathers in the Faith, he described how the Arians who justified doing so appealed to Scripture as their sole authority, claiming to reject everything that was not written (§36):

“But,” they say, “all this is not written: and we reject these words as unscriptural.” But this, again, is an unblushing excuse in their mouths. For if they think everything must be rejected which is not written [in Scripture], wherefore, when the Arian party invent such a heap of phrases, not from Scripture, “out of nothing,” and “the Son was not before His generation,” and “Once He was not,” and “He is alterable,” and “the Father is ineffable and invisible to the Son,” and “the Son knows not even His own essence,” and all that Arius has vomited in his light and irreligious Thalia [a work by Arius], why do not they speak against these, but rather take their part, and on that account contend with their own Fathers?

16th century fresco depicting the Council of Nicaea (AD 325)
16th century fresco depicting the Council of Nicaea (AD 325)

Later in the same work (§54), he praised those Christians (the Catholics) who were “remaining on the foundation of the Apostles, and holding fast the traditions of the Fathers…”

Likewise in De Decretis (§3), he called the definitions of the Council of Nicaea “sound and ecclesiastical,” and “the Church’s faith, and the tradition of the Fathers.” In §4 of the same work, he describes how those who hold true doctrine are not only united among themselves, but with what had been delivered to them by the Fathers. Heretics, on the other hand, were constantly shifting their positions and quarreling with one another—a process he describes in detail as taking place among the Arians, who were constantly rewording and changing their confessions of faith (sound familiar?):

For, what our Fathers have delivered, this is truly doctrine; and this is truly the token of doctors, to confess the same thing with each other, and to vary neither from themselves nor from their fathers; whereas they who have not this character are to be called not true doctors but evil. Thus the [heretics], as not witnessing to the same doctrines, but quarreling one with another, have no truth of teaching; but the holy and veritable heralds of the truth agree together and do not differ.

I saw that St. Athanasius was consistently appealing to the very things the heretics rejected—binding Apostolic tradition, and the rulings/definitions of our Fathers in the Faith at Ecumenical Councils whose authority bound the entire Church. And I was disturbed to realize that the principles myself and all the protestants I respected espoused agreed not with St. Athanasius, but with the Arian heretics. To add insult to injury, we defended the same principles the great Saint identified as heretical in exactly the same way he described the Arians doing so: claiming to reject anything outside of, and profusely quoting Scripture based on our own interpretations to justify our own theologies.

But it got even worse.

In many places, St. Athanasius went on to explain why citing Scripture, on its own, was not the path to the true Faith. After all, Satan himself had quoted Scripture to Christ. So quoting Scripture, and being able to weave it together according to a seemingly coherent individual or denominational theology, wasn’t enough. Rather, the interpretation of Scripture must be guided by what in various places St. Athanasius calls the “ecclesiastical” and “religious sense.” See, for example, his Discourse I Against the Arians (§44).

In his Discourse II Against the Arians (§34), he rhetorically asks the following:

Who heard, in his first catechizing, that God has a Son and has made all things by His proper Word, but understood it in that sense in which we now mean it [referring to the Arian interpretation]? Who on the rise of this odious heresy of the Arians, was not at once startled at what he heard, as strange, and a second sowing, besides that Word which had been sown from the beginning?

Notice his reference to the reader’s “first catechizing.” Catechesis was the process by which converts were taught the Catholic Faith prior to being baptized, confirmed, and receiving the Eucharist. In other words, St. Athanasius directs the reader to what had been passed down and taught in the Church itself as the proper standard for interpreting Scripture! In De Decretis (§13), he contrasts this with the Arian pretension to basing their heresy on Scripture:

Therefore let them tell us, from what teacher or by what tradition they derived these notions concerning the Savior? “We have read [in Scripture],” they will say…But they seem to me to have a wrong understanding of this passage also; for it has a religious and very orthodox sense, which had they understood, they would not have blasphemed the Lord of glory.

Elsewhere, in his Discourse III Against the Arians (§10), he contrasts private interpretation of Scripture with the preaching of the Church:

However here too they introduce their private fictions, and contend that the Son and the Father are not in such wise “one,” or “like,” as the Church preaches, but, as they themselves would have it.

In the same work (§18), he refers to the various ways in which one arrives at a correct interpretation:

And yet, needless though it may 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.

In other words, right interpretation is inherently connected to a pre-existing “religious sense” derived from “orthodox belief” in accordance with what has been “received from the fathers”—the doctrine, as we previously saw, St. Athanasius said every Catholic learned in Catechesis. This is confirmed later in the same work (§28):

[W]hat they [the Arians] now allege from the Gospels they certainly give an unsound interpretation, we may easily see if we now consider the scope of that faith which we Christians hold, and using it as a rule, apply ourselves, as the Apostle teaches, to the reading of inspired Scripture.

Likewise, in §40, he speaks of rejecting an Arian notion about God’s wisdom because “neither in the divine oracles [Scripture] is found another wisdom besides this Son, nor from the fathers have we heard of any such…”

Throughout his writings, the great Saint constantly extols Scripture as having the greatest authority in the Church. It is an essential element of the “rule of faith.” However, and crucially, it is not the only one. According to St. Athanasius, the rule of faith is that standard by which we properly understand the Scriptures as well—a canon of interpretation, and thus a rule of faith that is both outside, and completely compatible with (indeed necessary to) a proper reading of Scripture, having been passed down in the Church Herself, as the Scriptures themselves were. Indeed, as the saintly man says, this is exactly “as the Apostles teaches.”

Perhaps he was thinking of verses such as 2 Thessalonians 2:15, in which St. Paul commands: “So brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.” Or 1 Corinthians 11:2, where he told the Corinthians “I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you.

In other words, the original means by which the original Christians had received the Faith—through the Apostolic preaching and example lived out among them—could not be pitted against that which they also received from the Apostles in writing, namely Scripture. Both constitute the Apostolic tradition. They are not at odds, but partners in a necessary union. It is because heretics lack this essential rule of faith found only in the Catholic Church that St. Athanasius later says (§42):

[B]eing in great ignorance as regards these words [of Scripture], and being stupefied about them, they think they have in them an important argument for their heresy. But I, when the heretics allege it and prepare themselves with it, see in them the giants fighting against God.

It was for this reason, in §55 of the same work, he called heresy “self-willed irreligion.” In §58, he again asserts the necessity of interpreting Scripture with an “ecclesiastical scope”:

Had Christ’s enemies [heretics] dwelt on these thoughts, and recognized the ecclesiastical scope as an anchor for the faith, they would not have made shipwreck of the faith, nor been so shameless as to resist those who would fain recover them from their fall, and to deem those as enemies who are admonishing them to be religious.

In his conclusion (§67), he declares that it is because they have rejected this “ecclesiastical scope,” this “anchor of the faith,” that when it came to the Arian heretics, “the divine Scriptures are closed to them…” Private interpretation apart from the Church was the path not to the pure Christian Faith, but to perdition.

Conclusion

In reading St. Athanasius, I couldn’t help but remember how much he contrasted with the man who began the family of sects I once belonged to (protestantism), and who I once considered a hero, namely Martin Luther. A bare comparison between the two shall suffice to make this final observation.

St. Athanasius, in his Discourse I Against the Arians (§8), wrote:

But if they themselves [the Arians] own that they have heard it [their heresy] 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’ (1 Tim. 4:1)?

This could not be more different than Martin Luther in his Table Talk (§530), openly despising the Fathers, and admitting that he could not find his notion of “faith” among them (and thus, the novelty of his theology):

Behold what great darkness is in the books of the Fathers concerning faith…St Jerome, indeed, wrote upon [books in Scripture], but, alas! very coldly. Ambrose wrote six books upon the first book of Moses, but they are very poor. Augustin wrote nothing to the purpose concerning faith…I can find no exposition upon the Epistles to the Romans and Galatians, wherein anything is taught pure and right…We must read the Fathers cautiously, and lay them in the gold balance, for they often stumbled and went astray, and mingled in their books many monkish things…The more I read the books of the Fathers, the more I find myself offended

Luther and Athanasius.png

After reading St. Athanasius, I knew that when he described heretics, he was describing me. My protestantism—indeed all protestantism—operated in precisely the same way he described the heresies of his own day operating, including the constant multiplication of new beliefs and sects which operate according to the same anti-ecclesial principles. I realized that my protestant faith, no matter what variety it happened to be, could only be self-made faith, not the Faith. It rejected at the outset the authority of the Church; introduced as dogma ideas that had never been believed by Christians; used these ideas as a new canon of interpretation by which to re-interpret Scripture in a novel way; and cited and quoted Scripture constantly to make it seem as if this non-Christian interpretation was in fact “biblical.”

And it all stemmed from a rejection of the Catholic Church in which the full Apostolic tradition, the Rule of Faith, had been passed down, preserved, and in cases of controversy defined by the Fathers with divine authority.

I realized that while neither I nor anyone I knew was an Arian, we nonetheless acted like them, and shared a great deal of theological presuppositions. I knew something had to change—me.

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