Thursday, October 25, 2007

Tradition and Athanasius

Certainly, nobody is arguing for a secret tradition. This was the tactic of heretics like the Arians.

Is Tradition exclusively in the writings of the Fathers, as Schaff seems to be saying here? I don't see any cause for thinking so.

I think Athanasius' own words speak for themselves:

"But after him 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. And the Lord most righteously reproved the Jews, saying, ‘Wherefore do ye also transgress the commandments of God on account of your traditions.’ For they changed the commandments they received from God after their own understanding, preferring to observe the traditions of men. And about these, a little after, the blessed Paul again gave directions to the Galatians who were in danger thereof, writing to them, ‘If any man preach to you aught else than that ye have received, let him be accursed" - 2nd Festal Letter of 330 AD.

As we can see, Athanasius is referring to heretics who use the scriptures, but don't interpret it according to "the opinions of the saints" which they have "handed down". I think it's noteworthy that Athanasius refers to the Mark 7 episode with the Pharisees and the Galatians instruction not to deviate from the Gospel (i.e. two favourite protestant hobby horses) in order to argue that we SHOULD follow the "opinions of the saints" in opposition to "heretics who refer to the scriptures". The opinion of the saints is apostolic tradition. The interpretation of the scriptures by those outside the church is the traditions of men.

And Athanasius says that to say that these opinions of the saints are traditions of men is an "error". To say so is not to understand them or their power.

Were these opinions written down? I don't see any cause to think so, and I think the context would argue against, otherwise Athanasius would have more opportunity to quote specific saints than he actually does.

But I also fail to see what difference it makes. To what extent the apostolic traditions were or weren't committed to writing in the form of the writings of the fathers, seems to me to be a minor point.

"Eusebius of Caesarea in Palestine, who had denied the day before, but afterwards subscribed, sent to his Church a letter, saying that this was the Church’s faith, and the tradition of the Fathers; and made a public profession that they were before in error, and were rashly contending against the truth." - Athanasius, Defence of the Nicean definition, chapter 2.

I don't see any reason to think that this is not Athanasius' understanding of tradition: it is the "Church's faith" and the "tradition of the fathers". These are the standard against we measure error, the Church's faith and the tradition of the Fathers. While someone could undertake to try and write down what the church's faith is, actually, by its nature, not something written, but something that lives in the Church.

Concerning a παράδοσις ἄγραφος, and "unwritten tradition", there may well be some ambiguity here, since the word for scripture is "writings" or γραφος. Therefore is a παράδοσις ἄγραφος an unwritten tradition, or is it rather an extra-scriptural tradition?

The idea that Schnaff has special (unwritten?) knowledge about who came up with the idea of unwritten tradition, and passed it onto whom, is of course, pure fantasy. One wonders where other early writers unconnected with Origen came up with the idea.

"If, for these and other such rules, you insist upon having positive Scripture injunction, you will find none. Tradition will be held forth to you as the originator of them, custom as their strengthener, and faith as their observer... This instances, therefore, will make it sufficiently plain that you can vindicate the keeping of even unwritten tradition established by custom" - Tertullian, De Corona.

"Whereas all doctrine must be prejudged as false which savours of contrariety to the truth of the churches and apostles of Christ and God. It remains, then, that we demonstrate whether this doctrine of ours, of which we have now given the rule, has its origin in the tradition of the apostles, and whether all other doctrines do not ipso facto proceed from falsehood. We hold communion with the apostolic churches because our doctrine is in no respect different from theirs. This is our witness of truth." - Tertullian, Prescription against heresies.

"When, however, that which is deposited among many is found to be one and the same, it is not the result of error, but of tradition. Can any one, then, be reckless enough to say that they were in error who handed on the tradition?" - ibid

What we always find in the fathers, is that the true church, handing down the traditions, is the standard of truth.

"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" - Athanasius, history of the Arians.

Speaking of having traditions of the Fathers "transmitted to us", would be an odd way of saying only that the Fathers didn't write a certain thing. It seems more naturally to say that such a thing was not transmitted by any means.

"Again we write, again keeping to the apostolic traditions, we remind each other when we come together for prayer; and keeping the feast in common, with one mouth we truly give thanks to the Lord. Thus giving thanks unto Him, and being followers of the saints, ‘we shall make our praise in the Lord all the day,’ as the Psalmist says. So, when we rightly keep the feast, we shall be counted worthy of that joy which is in heaven. We begin the fast of forty days on the 13th of the month Phamenoth (Mar. 9)." - Athanasius, Festal Letter II.

Athanasius regards keeping the 40 day fast "in common" to be part of the "apostolic tradition". Since it's reasonable to assume no apostle wrote down anything concerning this 40 day fast, we would be forced to conclude that it was passed on orally.

So to summarise and answer your question, Tradition is all of these things at once, with no contradiction:

1) It is the apostolic tradition, passed down in some way from the apostles.
2) It is the "opinion of the saints" or the "Church's faith". Because the saints are the conduit for passing on the apostles' tradition, the opinion of the saints is thereby the same as the apostolic tradition.
3) It is the teachings of the Fathers. This is really just saying that it is not just the opinion of the saints today, but the opinion of the saints and fathers who preceded us.
4) It is NOT the traditions of men, or a deviation from the gospel.

All of this we gleaned from Athanasius. But we could just as easily got it from Chrysostom, Tertullian, Basil, or any of the other Fathers that we have been discussing, or for that matter from the apostle Paul who said to hold to the traditions that were passed onto you.

The one thing we don't find in any of the Fathers, even the earliest ones, is any teaching about sola scriptura. For all the proof texting that goes on about the Fathers' high view of scripture, all of them were also committed to the authority of the Church, and its tradition. If the apostles had actually taught sola scriptura, we would expect to find it taught by at least some of the Fathers. But then again Francis has already conceded that sola scriptura couldn't work in the time of the apostles, and therefore the apostles didn't teach it. So I guess it isn't surprising at all.

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