Listening to the Church Fathers

Yesterday, I shared part of an ongoing debate I’ve been having with Brian, a Creedal Protestant ex-Catholic who runs a blog dedicated to fighting against theological novelties in the field of eschatology. He fights for traditional, Creedal Christianity, the faith of the Church Fathers (as he understands it) against those who are completely fine with judging all of Christian history wrong because of some fancy new reading they’ve heard. I support this, but think it puts him into an uncomfortable position I mentioned in the first of the two posts on this issue: you can’t argue “theological novelties are inherently wrong” to 21st Century innovations and not to 15th Century innovations (like Protestantism’s unique doctrines). Either the Church has been right throughout 2000 years, or it hasn’t. If it has, Catholicism is right. If it hasn’t, the Truth is unknowable.

Bizarrely, one of Brian’s Preterist opponents (Larry) makes the same argument, saying, “That whole “being led by the Holy Spirit” has really worked out for the “UNITED” testimony of hundreds of conflicting religious denominations, eh Brian?” In other words, if Brian is right about the Holy Spirit leading the Church, we should expect to see a single Church, not conflicting denominations. Larry’s right. But then, so is Brian, inasmuch as he declares (with Scripture supporting him) that the Holy Spirit will guide the Church. So we should be looking for one visible Church which has existed for 2000 years… Hmmm…..

The major arguments I’ve tried to advance with Brian have been more or less as follows:

  1. The Fathers which Brian describes as “defenders of the True Faith,”
  2. The Church Fathers he identifies as “Defenders of the True Faith,” Papias, Irenaeus, Polycarp, Tertullian, and Lactantius, were Catholics. They believed as Catholics do on the core doctrines dividing Catholics and Protestants (I addressed Roman primacy, the Eucharist, Mary, and Baptism by sprinkling, but any list would do). For prolific writers like Irenaeus, this is particularly defensible. Even the heresy which Tertullian flirted with (Montanism) dealt with the nitty-gritty of the sacrament of confession and its effectiveness. The debate between Tertullian and orthodox Christianity isn’t even a debate a modern Protestant (who doesn’t recognize sacramental confession) could enter or fully grasp. Modern Protestantism simply isn’t the fullness of the faith proclaimed by the men mentioned above or their contemporaries, and their writings prove that abundantly clearly.
  3. The Early Church Fathers defended their belief in the issues in question by recourse to Scripture.
  4. Saying that the ECFs are wrong on their Scriptural interpretation when it disagrees with your own Scriptural interpretation is the precise arrogance which Brian correctly scolded Larry. The Bible must be read in harmony with the Fathers (a point Brian makes repeatedly).

In his hilariously-titled and illustrated response to me, Brian makes a number of arguments:

  1. The Church is spiritual, not physical. This is based on philosophy derived from Scripture, but he doesn’t show anywhere where Christ distinguishes (as the Reformers do) between the Visible and Invisible Church. The distinction Christ actually draws is the Church on Earth and the Church at the End of Time, purged of Her impurities (Matthew 13:39-40; Ephesians 5:25-27). The Church, in both forms, is visible. Even the Church at the End of Time will include our Resurrected Bodies. The Gnostic distinction between good souls and evil bodies isn’t Christian.
  2. He argues John 6:63 against the flesh. This is an interpretation opposite that of the Church Fathers. I quoted Augustine at length here, and I think that’ll suffice for now.
  3. He argues that Infant Baptism wasn’t part of the early Church, quoting Schaff. Schaff’s actual quote says that, “In the Apostolic and whole ante-Nicene age to the time of Constantine, baptism of believing converts was the rule, and is to this day on every missionary field. Hence in the New Testament the baptized are addressed as those who have died and risen with Christ, and who have put on Christ. Baptism and conversion are almost used as synonymous terms.” Schaff’s use of the word “rule” seems to be the source of confusion. He’s using it like “norm,” like “eating dinner at 6 is the rule, but Sundays we eat at 4.” The new members of the early Church were almost all converts, not born into it, as is true of mission fields, and the NT is written to those adults. Schaff obviously isn’t suggesting that infant baptism is forbidden in mission fields. He’s explaining why the NT seems to contemplate adult baptism as normative.
  4. Brian then argues that “while it is true that some of the early church fathers acknowledged Rome as seat of the church visible, this was far from the general consensus. Lactantius (c. 320) stated that the catholic church is that alone which retains the true worship, in which there is confession and repentance, and which “treats in a wholesome manner the sins and wounds to which the weakness of the flesh is liable (Divine Institutes, IV. 30). Obviously, Lactantius did not consider communion with the Roman see essential. ” The conclusion doesn’t flow from the premise at all. I consider the Catholic Church that alone which retains true worship. Heck, Feeneyists (who believe no one besides self-proclaimed Catholics are saved) believe this. If all Grace comes from God through the Catholic Church, and worship is possible only with the Grace of God, then any authentic worship is a connection of sorts to the Catholic Church.
  5. Hippolytus was an anti-pope who rejected Roman Primacy. Of course, this helps the Catholic case. You wouldn’t pretend to be pope if you didn’t believe in the papacy.
  6. The Church is only the storehouse of the word, not in charge of anything more than making sure it’s kept. Of course, if the Bible could replace the Church, Paul never would have written 1 Timothy 2:15 about looking to the (visible) Church to know how to behave.
  7. The Eucharist is spiritual. Here, he reads 1 Corinthians 10 in the exact opposite way that the Church Fathers understood it.
  8. As for Mariolatry, veneration of icons, images, etc., all you have to do is read the Bible and you’ll see that such practices are wrong.” While this misstates the Catholic position (obviously), the actual Catholic views are defended by Scripture, supported by the Church Fathers – included, as I noted before, by the very Fathers he appeals to as defenders of the True Faith.
  9. The Catholic Church hid the Bible from people; once they got it, they had a Reformation. The bit about hiding the Bible is bad history, but it’s definitely true that when everyone is in charge of figuring out what the Bible “really” means, there’s no agreement. But then, that’s Brian’s own point against Larry.
  10. Vigilantius argued against Catholic practices. Indeed. And Jerome demolished his argument. So when someone did try and advance a vaguely Protestant position, the Church Fathers corrected them.
  11. At the council of Frankfort in 794, Charlemagne and 300 bishops protested against Rome’s image worship and idolatry. As noted here, the pope sent two legates, and what was condemned was a bad translation of an earlier Council’s canons. They’d authorized veneration in the Greek, but it was translated to worship in the Latin, and correctly condemned. But the pope was on the condemning side, not the condemned.
  12. “In the 10th century, Arnulph, bishop of Orleans, identified Rome as the harlot. In the 11th, Berenger, archdeacon of Angers, called Rome the seat of Satan.” I haven’t read the actual works, but my guess is that these were writers interpreting Revelation to mean that the Antichrist would be a false pope. That (a) doesn’t mean they rejected the authority of the actual Pope, (b) comes from the 10th-11th century (long after the Western Patristic age), (c) isn’t founded upon the teachings of the Church Fathers, etc., and (d) expresses the views of three men total. There’s no question even amongst Catholicism’s fiercest opponents that by the 10th century, Catholicism was the established religion of Europe. Even if Arnulph and Berenger were discontents (which has yet to be established, by any means), it wouldn’t really advance the Protestant view of history.
  13. ” I do not, however, deny that God used Rome to preserve the fundamental truths of the Christian religion even during times of the greatest darkness. Let me make myself clear on this. The faith delivered by the apostles to their successors was faithfully handed down, and is preserved in the ecumenical creeds which all orthodox Christians accept as having a certain authority over the conscience.” This seems to be the heart of the confusion. The reason that Creeds were produced is that Councils of Catholic clerics met. If you take the position that Catholic bishops aren’t really bishops with authority, the Councils (and thus, the Creeds) have no weight other than being the conclusions of some guys in a room. If you take the position of the early Church – that they have a very real authority – then Catholicism is true. What’s the third option here?
  14. What I mean when I say “historic Christianity” is not the history of the Roman church, but the history of the “one faith” as contained in the New Testament canon, and which may be seen running throughout the whole 2,000 years of the Christian era. This is the faith I follow. The best evidence for what has been consistently believed over the last 2000 years is the Church Fathers. And they’re clearly Catholic.

At no point does Brian refute or deny any of the conclusions from my earlier post:

  • That Papias, Irenaeus, Polycarp, Tertullian, and Lactantius all believe in the authority of the bishops, with Irenaeus and Tertullian writing in a clear advocacy of Apostolic Succession (which Baptists don’t have, but Catholics do). Irenaeus rejects using only the Bible as something which the heretics use to defend their beliefs against the Catholic Faith.
  • That these same men were clear believers in the Eucharist, using the Bible to defend this belief.
  • That Irenaeus is the first writer to clearly identify Mary as the New Eve.
  • That the early Church allowed Baptism by sprinkling in at least some circumstances.

So let me make a few more points:

  • As Chris said on an old post: “Is it logical to say that because heretics questioned a doctrine, the doctrine itself was therefore ill-defined?” Does the existence of Iconoclasts disprove the Catholic Faith any more than the existence of, say, Gnostics?
  • Unopposed statements of Church Fathers should be afforded more weight than statements which land them in controversy.
  • If the Fathers are only reliable as long as they agree with you, you’re not basing your Faith off of solid Church history and Tradition, but your imagined history and tradition off of your faith.
  • Attempting to create a Protestant early Church from proof-texts and “odds and ends” is disingenuous. You can do it for anything. For example, both of the Republican Senators from Maine are pro-choice, Rep. Joseph Cao (R-LA) voted for the original House Version of the Healthcare Bill, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) lead the charge for sweeping regulations of campaign finance, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has come out in favor of a climate-change bill to restrict carbon emissions. Would it be honest to say, therefore, that Republicans in 2010 are a pro-choice party in favor of the House’s healthcare bill, increased campaign finance regulation, cap-and-trade, etc.? You can easily define Republicans as Democrats with a little cherry-picking, and that’s exactly what’s going on here in trying to turn Catholics into Protestants.

So lets apply that logic to Brian’s arguments above:

  • # 1, 2, 6, 7, 8, and 9 are Brian’s own interpretation of what the Bible means.

Relying on the Bible alone is an unreliable guide. On the basis of the Bible, Brian writes of his own journey,”“Over the course of about a year, I moved from Full Preterism (top of the slope) to Partial Preterism (mid-way down) to A-Millennial Futurism (several steps lower), and finally to Historic Pre-Millennialism – which put me back on solid ground.” The Bible didn’t change in that time. Nor did he accept some new authority, like the Church. Rather, he came to the realization that, “the Bible must be interpreted in harmony with 2,000 years of Christian teaching.” In all of the above, he draws conclusions contrary to that same teaching, as I attempted to show previously. So by his own terms, his views are indefensible.

  • 3 and 11 are just bad history.

The early Church primarily baptized adults not because of a moral opposition to baptizing children, but because most of the new members were converts. Schaff supports this, Brian simply misread him. When I pointed this out, he attempted to defend his reading of Schaff by his own (that is, Brian’s) views of the dangers of infant Baptism. This, of course, moves #3 into the category above of taking his own reading contra the Fathers.

  • # 4, 5, 10, and 12 are examples of cherry-picking, and taking heretics’ views as normative.

Let’s assume that everything he says in these four arguments is true. That wouldn’t impact the Catholic claim at all. I could say, for example, “in 1517, Martin Luther argued against a number of core Catholic doctrines.” Does this mean that Catholicism wasn’t the widely-known, widely-believed orthodox faith of Europe at the time? Or does it just mean that orthodoxy always has its opponents. Here, the New Testament is instructive: the churches are Christian, but are dealing with constant heresies. And that brings me back to how you should read the Fathers. Vigilantius is an Iconoclast against any images. Jerome demolishes his argument, and Christianity never embraces his views. That’s not an argument in favor of saying early Christianity was Iconoclastic! In contrast, Ignatius writes by 107-110 of the Eucharist being the Flesh and Blood of God the Son, Jesus Christ. Does anyone oppose him?

That brings us to 13 and 14. These are Brian’s conclusions based upon 1-12, all of which are now refuted. He writes that he’s defending traditional Christianity, rather than Catholicism, but which Church Fathers view themselves as Christians-and-not-Catholics? I think it’s easily proved that it’s none.

I’m from Kansas City. There are two men who claim to be bishop there. One is Archbishop Finn, the Catholic Archbishop. The other is Rev. Barry R. Howe, the Anglican Bishop. Why are there two claimants? Because Anglicanism and Catholicism are different. For the Anglicans to accept Finn as their Bishop would be accepting that the Catholic ecclesiastical structure is true, that our Bishops really are validly Bishops with authority and jurisdiction, and so forth. We see this only rarely in the early Church: Hippolytus believed in the papacy, but rejected the sitting pope. Therefore, he became his own pope.

My point is that even when you cherry-pick certain things which seem unorthodox from individual Church Fathers, this doesn’t mean they think the Catholic Church is wrong. They’ve dedicated their entire lives to representing the Church. In almost every case, the man being quoted from is a Catholic priest, often a bishop: few of the Church Fathers were laymen. Are we to believe that they secretly rejected the Church, but rather than form a separate diocese, paraded as Catholics? So if these men authentically believed that traditional Christianity was not the Catholic Church, why did they continue to act as agents and apologists for that same Church?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *