Friday, 6 May 2011

Cyril of Jerusalem on Scripture's Authority

"Have thou in thy mind this seal, which for the present has been lightly touched in my discourse, by way of summary, but shall be stated, should the Lord permit, to the best of my power with the proof from the Scriptures. For concerning the divine and holy mysteries of the Faith, not even a casual statement must be delivered without the Holy Scriptures; nor must we be drawn aside by mere plausibility and artifices of speech. Even to me, who tell thee these things, give not absolute credence, unless thou receive the proof of the things which I announce from the Divine Scriptures. For this salvation which we believe depends not on ingenious reasoning, but on demonstration of the Holy Scriptures."

Cyril of Jerusalem [c. 318-386], Catechetical Lectures,
NPNF2: Vol.VII, Lecture IV:17.

Recently an Orthodox commenter asked me what my authority was; this question came in the context of a discussion about the Biblical authorisation, or lack of it I should say, for the practices associated with relics of the saints in Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism and more generally in regard to their promotion of 'sacramentals', broadly defined as extra-sacramental means of grace, from holy water to healing icons. I wonder if there was not, behind the question, the implication that Lutherans are ecclesiastical anti-authoritarians? This is, in my experience, a commonly held misconception among Orthodox and Catholics concerning Lutherans, based upon a fundamentally mistaken construal of Luther's stance at the Diet of Worms, where he was called before the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire to give account of himself and his teachings on April 16, 1521 (it is customary to date the beginning of the Reformation to the posting of the 95 Theses in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517 but it is the Diet of Worms which, in my view, marks the more decisive historical turning point).

It was at Worms that Luther uttered the famous words, "Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. May God help me. Amen."

Catholics and Orthodox are prone to cite this moment as the decisive and fatal intrusion of the Lutheran spirit of individualism and anti-authoritarianism into Christianity, and to point to the baneful consequences for Christendom which followed. Yet Luther does not insert his own will into the matter but actually binds his will to the Word of God, and submits to that Word as a higher authority than popes or church councils, which have demonstrably erred. In the face of the trade in indulgences and the theology of human merit attached thereto, Luther was effectively challenging the church of the day to restore scripture to its primacy as the sole infallible and inspired authority for the church, not by merely giving it lip-service, but by actually allowing scripture to function as both authority and judge in theological matters. Luther's speech at Worms was not an attack on legitimate authority, it was a call to restore a proper hierarchy of authorities in the church, which had usurped to itself the right to institute means of grace without divine warrant. Luther was not the innovator at Worms, but was reprising an ancient stream of patristic theology which finds concise expression in these words of Cyril of Jerusalem, "concerning the divine and holy mysteries of the Faith, not even a casual statement must be delivered without the Holy Scriptures; nor must we be drawn aside by mere plausibility and artifices of speech."

Many of the distinctive doctrines and practices of both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy are, I grant, set forth with skillful appeals to 'plausibility' and framed with great 'artifice of speech' and 'ingenious reasoning', but where are the demonstrations from Holy Scripture that important witnesses from church history like Cyril (and Luther) say are absolutely necessary?

For more quotations from the Fathers on the authority of scripture and other topics, see my other blog, Lutheran Catholicity [link provided at top of column to the right of this page].


Melanchthon said...

Amen and amen!

What good is any authority if it is contrary to Scripture?

Lvka said...

And what, pray, was Cyril's view on relics, prayers for the dead, prayers to Saints, holy water, icons, and so on? :-)

Mediaeval said...

Might it be said that for Protestants, ecclesiastical authority is such a light yoke that Roman Catholics and Orthodox do not recognize it, such light authority being so unfamiliar? I get the impression that some RC's and Orthodox do not consider church authority real unless it stings a little.

Pr Mark Henderson said...

I seem to be having trouble approving your comments (technically, not personally!), so I've had to copy and past your comment here:

Dear Pastor Mark,

Clearly, Saint Cyril of Jerusalem saw his teaching grounded in and proven by Holy Scripture.

The question is, though, what did Saint Cyril mean by "proof from the Scriptures." It may well be that he meant something very different from what Luther.

For example, the very same Saint Cyril who insisted on proof from the Scriptures, taught the following on Holy Chrism:

"But beware of supposing this to be plain ointment. For as the Bread of the Eucharist, after invocation of the Holy Ghost, is mere bread no longer, but the Body of Christ, so also this ointment is no more simple ointment, nor (so to say) common, after the invocation, but the gift of Christ; and by the presence of His Godhead, it causes in us the Holy Ghost." Mystagogical Catechesis III.4

He later appeals to the anointing of Moses and Solomon as priest and king as types of Chrismation. Finally he quotes Isaiah 25:6 in the Septuagint: "They shall be anointed with ointment".

Saint Cyril's proof from Scripture consists of an analogy with the Eucharist, the type in the Old Testament and a passage which historically made reference to anointing in the context of a promised feast in Jerusalem.

From my understanding, and correct me if I am wrong, this is a very different proof from Scripture than the one for which Luther asked, and which you have asked for in relation to the question of relics.

Kind regards

Tony Bartel

Pr Mark Henderson said...

Thanks, gentlemen, for your comments. Please be patient as you await my replies, as I am v. busy with pastoral duties, including a funeral for a young father accidentally killed.