The Faith of the Early Church Fathers

Last week, I wrote a post which dealt with the sort of strange position Creedal Protestants find themselves. They attempt to preserve parts of Christianity by appeal to Tradition and the continual Faith of the Church when they’re arguing against novel interpretations of the Bible propagated by some (here, Evangelicals); but then turn around and defend the Reformation against Catholicism by resorting to some equally novel (if a bit older) interpretations of the Bible. David Green, a Preterist who chucks all of Tradition, pointed out this inconsistency, and I found myself agreeing with his logic (though not, of course, his conclusion). Through Green, I discovered a guy named Brian Simmons, who fights Preterism as being against 2,000 years of Christian Tradition. He’s thoughtful, a cogent writer, and incredibly friendly, and we’ve struck up a dialogue of sorts regarding Tradition, Church, and the True Faith (you can click the Brian Simmons label at the bottom of this post to get other posts in this series; I think I’ve linked to all of his responses). Given yesterday’s Gospel (Mark 7:1-13), this is incredibly apt.

Brian has responded to my recent post with a post of his own. He begins with a sort of explaination of his own thinking, before addressing a few of my specific points. In this post, I’ll address that important background. Tomorrow, I’ll respond to his specific points. He begins with a caveat, of sorts: “When I claim that I am adhering to 2,000 years of Christian teaching, that does not mean that I follow the system of historicity endorsed by the Romish church, which is built upon the Darwinian concept of “natural selection.”” I’m not positive I grasp his point. Darwin is far younger than Catholicism, and far younger than really clear, explicit explanations of what the Catholic Church teaches. It’s not true that the Church incorporates Darwinian views of evolution in Her self-understanding of Tradition. G.K. Chesterton characteristically said it best, in his biography of St. Thomas Aquinas: “When we say that a puppy develops into a dog, we do not mean that his growth is a gradual compromise with a cat; we mean that he becomes more doggy and not less.” What I suspect that Brian means is that if you look at Christianity at virtually any point in Her history, there are a dozen or so heresies trying to drag Her in a new and different direction. Come back a millenium later and She’ll still be here, but the heresies are probably long forgotten. This, however, is something quite different than natural selection. It’s Supernatural election.

Apply this to something which we both believe in, like the Trinity. The individual beliefs which make up the Trinity are believed from the start: there is One God, God the Father is God, God the Son is God, God the Holy Spirit is God, God the Father is not God the Son, and so forth. This developed into a single, easier-to-grasp theological concept called the Trinity. The terminology isn’t Biblical, but it’s a summation of the Truths which we know from both the Bible and from Sacred Tradition. It’s the Faith of the Fathers. When the term Trinity is introduced, it isn’t Christianity compromising, or adopting some new pagan belief. It’s Christianity speaking Her Trinitarian Truth more clearly than when She was spreading the same beliefs without a helpful catch-all term like “Trinity.” Catholics simply believe this about other things, like “Transubstantiation.” The term is a newer invention to encapsulate a Truth believed from the start. Upon what grounds can we praise the term “Trinity” as a legitimate development in the Faith, and denounce the term “Transubstantiation” as an illicit one?

This isn’t an idle query, because Brian’s next sentence is problematic. Continuing to explain what Tradition means to him, he writes, “I am assuming, as a basic premise, that the New Testament contains the final assessment of truth for the church age; and that because God is sovereign and did promise to make His church the “pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3: 15), the faith as authoritatively laid down in the New Testament will be found running throughout 2,000 years of church history. ” What a fascinating sentence. He shows from Scripture that the Church is going to be an authoritative Body 2000 years old, established by Christ, and constantly proclaiming the same Truth. But right before that, he assumes, as a basic premise, sola Scriptura. He’s not basing it off of Scripture’s claim about itself, since Scripture points constantly outside of itself. He’s just assuming, contrary to Scripture, that the Bible was meant to be the final authority on all doctrinal issues. Of course, on the doctrinal issue of sola Scriptura, Brian doesn’t appeal to the Bible, or to the Church. He just assumes it. I’ve addressed this elsewhere before (frequently), so I’ll leave it at: which canon do we assume? the 66-Book Protestant Bible isn’t found in the early Church anywhere. The Catholic Bible is what was explicitly adopted at the Council of Carthage and the Synod of Hippo, and that which we see being embraced by St. Augustine, and the canon to which St. Jerome deferred, even though his personal understanding of Scripture had lead him to a contrary conclusion. Jerome is a great example of something which Brian talks about a lot on his blog: when your personal understanding of the Bible runs contrary to the Church it’s time for your personal understanding to change, not the Church. Jerome had the humility to do so, when he wrongly concluded that the Deuterocanon wasn’t canonical.

Brian next says, “Secondly, Joe is confusing the ancient additions and accretions of fallible men with the historic faith that was committed by the apostles to their immediate successors.” But that’s the very crux of what we’re discussing. I’m waiting to see what’s been added by fallible men to Tradition. “Whether he likes it or not, Joe must admit that modern Catholicism has very little in common with the teachings of Papias, Ignatius, Polycarp, Irenaeus, Lactantius, and other pre-Nicene fathers. Obviously, if the historicity argument applies at all, it cannot be rigged so as to exclude the testimony of the primitive church. But this is exactly what Joe seems to have done.” In contrast, I think I showed pretty extensively that these Fathers all took explicitly Catholic positions, citing each of those five by name. I focused on four areas of Tradition frequently rejected by Protestants: “first, the central Catholic claim – Apostolic Succession with Roman Primacy; second, the Eucharist; third, Mary; and fourth, Baptism by immersion,” and then quoted at some length from these Fathers to show exactly what they thought on the issues. In addition to this, of course, at least four of those five (I’m not sure on Lactantius) were Catholic Bishops. So let’s be clear: on what issues do we see any of these five writing against Catholic teachings? I think, in the face of such massive evidence of their Catholicity, the burden of proof should be on the person claiming that the Church has gone wrong from Her Apostolic origins and needed Reformation to get right again. Especially when that person believes, as Brian and I do, that the Bible makes clear that the Church is protected by the Holy Spirit.

Brian next says of me: “He argues from a basis of mere church authority, acting like because his church has been around for 2,000 years, its teachings represent true historic Christianity. But if the same church, over the course of history, changed its faith so as to exclude many doctrines that were committed by the 12 apostles to their immediate successors; and if they brought in doctrines that were never Christian to begin with; then a division must be made between that which constitutes the historic Christian faith, and that which is simply the baggage of man-made tradition. This is where the Protestant doctrine of “Sola Scriptura” comes in. It helps us to separate the wheat of pure doctrine from the chaff of falsehood.” Alright, I’ll bite:

  1. When did the Catholic Church come into existence?
  2. Which Christians opposed Her coming into existence?
  3. What doctrines did She change?

Even if this were true, of course, it wouldn’t prove sola Scriptura correct. But if Brian or I can use our own reading of the Bible to declare invalid the Church’s teachings, where’s the room to argue against people like Samuel Frost who suggest that there’s room (with sufficient warrant) to revisit whether the doctrine of the Trinity is properly decided? Brian, it seems to me wants to say, “interpret the Bible in accord with the Church,” to Frost, and “believe the Church only when She agrees with (my view of) the Bible” to me. I don’t think that those two beliefs can be rectified.

Joe, in pressing his version of the historicity argument, is really asking me to assent to his proposition that the Roman church is infallible. But this has yet to be demonstrated.” Brian has argued that if we truly believe that God is sovereign, it follows that He will not allow His Church to err. So I think he’s already demonstrated a strong basis for Catholic claims to Church infallibility. If the Church is the one founded by Christ, infallibility follows as a pretty logical result if we believe in the sovereignty of God (don’t get me wrong: there’s Biblical and Traditional support for this belief too, but I agree with Brian that it’s also logical). So what’s left is to determine if history, and the testimony of the Church Fathers support the Catholic Church’s claim that She’s existed from the time of Christ. That’s the debate I’d love to have, which gets me back to the numbered questions above. In addition to everything else mentioned, let me add two other proofs:

  • Liturgies: we have ancient texts of all sorts of liturgies, and a number of liturgies were practiced virtually or completely unchanged for centuries. If we want to know what the early Christians believe, it may be helpful to go beyond what the theologians talk about (since they tend to focus, by default, on areas in contention, rather than areas of agreement). Doctrines like the Eucharist are absolutely clear in the various Liturgies of the early Church from Western Europe to Eastern Africa to Northern India. Of course, this includes non-Latin Liturgies like the Divine Liturgies or the Holy Qurbanas.
  • The beliefs of separated Christians. Here, I mean particularly the “found” communities of Christians such as those which the Portugese “discovered” in Ethiopia and India. In both cases, they had existed “off the map” from a Western (and “Roman”) perspective, but both communities readily acknowledged the primacy of the papacy immediately – the Ethiopians in the 1620s, while the Mar Thoma Indians formally accepted the primacy of Rome in 1599. Both cases involve tragedies which show the differences between small-t traditions of men and big-T Traditions. The refusal to allow the use of their ancient Liturgies in the vernacular, for example, was directly responsible for a number of these Christians rebelling from the Church.

Brian continues, “Since the Roman church endorses an evolutionary system of doctrinal growth – a position admitted by Ratzinger, the present pope – its claim to fallibility becomes nugatory. The doctrines of the Roman Catholic church have been mutating, or rather “developing,” from the very get-go; although – and this is my point – the teachings considered fundamental have always remained the same. My thesis is that the true faith was committed to the churches through the inspired Scriptures, and preserved throughout church history, and in the ecumenical creeds. When I make mention of the historicity argument, this is what I mean. To put it succinctly, my view is not based on evolution, but on preservation.” I think that the Chesterton quote above answers this sufficiently. Needless to say, the fact that the child Jesus “evolved” into the adult Jesus doesn’t mean He became less Jesus Christ, or that His own claim to infallibility was compromised because He changed. He probably articulated Himself more clearly as an adult than as a young child, but this doesn’t render His claims about Himself “nugatory.” But while I think that Tradition-as-evolution is the accurate understanding of authentic Tradition, I’m willing to ignore all of that and get “back to the basics.” Let’s look at exactly what the early Christians believed, and proclaimed about their own Faith. Then look at which Tradition – the Catholic Church or the various Baptist churches – encapsulates those views. Which Church, for example, believes with Ignatius that the Eucharist is the flesh and blood of Christ? Which Church believes with Irenaeus that Apostolic succession headed by the Bishop of Rome is vitally important? Which Church believes with Ignatius that Bishops have authentic and binding authority, and are of a different rank than presbyters? Which Church has the office of Bishop, held by Ignatius, Irenaeus, Papias, and Polycarp?

3 Comments

  1. Ok, hold on a minute. At the end of your post, you quote Brian as saying:

    The doctrines of the Roman Catholic church have been mutating, or rather “developing,” from the very get-go; although – and this is my point – the teachings considered fundamental have always remained the same. My thesis is that the true faith was committed to the churches through the inspired Scriptures, and preserved throughout church history, and in the ecumenical creeds.

    Here’s where I’m confused. The Nicene Creed contains within it doctrines which were specifically “developed” by the Church in response to Arianism. To say that Christ is “consubstantial with the Father”, that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son”, is to profess belief in teachings that are nowhere mentioned in Scripture, and cannot be clearly demonstrated to be of Apostolic origin. Indeed, the terms employed by the Nicean Fathers are distinctly Aristotelian in nature.

    So, in your estimation, how does Brain rationalize his acceptance of the Nicene Creed when it would appear to contain “additions and accretions of fallible men” as opposed to “the wheat of pure doctrine”?

  2. Chris, it’s a great question, and one which you might need to ask Brian. But I would guess that his response would be one or both of the following:

    (1) While the language of the Nicene Creed is new, the Truth that Jesus is “One in Being” with the Father is something which the Apostles believed. To adopt any other position(in this case, Arianism) would require denying core Christian truths.

    (2) Where Scripture is ambiguous, and can be read to mean two different things, we should go with what the Creeds say, or the Church says, or Tradition says.

    For myself, I’d add just that the line between the “wheat of pure doctrine” and the “additions and accretions of fallible men” seems to be almost completely in the eye of the beholder. If there’s a dispute to begin with, it’s usually because private readings of Scripture have lead two people to opposite concludes. Brian seems to say that in such situations, defer to 2000 years of Church teaching, *unless that teaching is wrong.* But that’s begging the question in all sorts of ways.

    So yeah, great question, one I’m trying to get a good grip on, and one you might think about asking him directly!

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