Sunday, February 05, 2006

The Church Fathers (long!)

The following is a reply to a friend of mine who wanted to know what I thought about this article...basically an article about what Protestants are to make of the Church Fathers. You can read my response below, or go to the post itself, read it (it's long, too) and read what's here underneath in the comments section. Anyways, enjoy!
OK, so I really liked the first part of Steve's article, where he basically sets up how to approach the Fathers: things like "The church fathers have all the potential values and limitations of any historical observer," and "the chronological distance between the historical event and the historical witness is highly germane to the quality of his historical testimony" are both very good points, w/ which I obviously agree.

I also agree with the idea that "a heretic can unwitting witness to the very thing he denies," though perhaps for different reasons than the author does. I see things such as belief in apostolic succession of bishops and the Church's preservation from institutional apostasy in the writings of Tertullian, for example, both pro in the writings made when he was a Christian, and contra when he was a Montanist. By this we can see that these two doctrines were held by the early orthodox Christians and denied by heretics.

Statement #4, about Eusebius, Hippolytus, and Julius Africanus, is good. Nice to know the author is willing to give these post-apostolic fathers a place.

Using the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the author says that "the mere fact that A knew B is quite insufficient to connect a particular belief of A with a particular belief of B unless that connection is explicitly made by the party in question." This is true. However, given the extensive nature of the training all of the sub-apostolic bishops had to have received from the Apostles, it's not at all likely that every last one of them would have misunderstood such a crucial doctrine, much less that they all would have erred on the side of insisting on the Real Presence instead of some being memorialists, some being consubstantialists, etc. The uniformity of the sub-apostolic witness on this subject--hardly a family reunion with arguing siblings or a woman slapping her forehead about questions missed--is too great to dismiss with an argument from silence.

#7 is one I hear a lot -- that the apostles misunderstood Christ's teachings, and the Church misunderstood the Apostles. Christ knew the former, which is why He promised the Spirit, which would bring all things to their remembrance and guide them into all truth. He also predicted the latter, as did St. Paul, that false prophets would come...yet the prediction about the gates of hell not prevailing, that the whole Church would not be led into error, stands, largely due to the authority of the appointed leaders of the Church to teach and instruct, that error may be overcome and the Church may continue to "grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ" (Eph. 4:15). That troubles would come is seen in Revelation, in the letters to the Churches, but as long as one lampstand remained (as was obviously the case), the apostolically-ordained community of the Church would continue.

The last sentence of Steve's article, which said that "a generic appeal to the church fathers can never trump grammatico-historical exegesis on this or that verse of Scripture," is interesting because, imo, the ante-nicean fathers *are themselves* the historical half of said exegesis! I assume, then, a father-by-father breakdown regarding specific mentionings of specific doctrines would help move away from such "generic" appeals...I do, btw, agree that too many people in Catholic and Orthodox circles simply say "The Fathers say..." with about as much readiness (and as little proof) as many fundamentalist Protastants who say "The Bible says..."

Der Fuerspreche's main idea--that the well-documented institutional apostasy of OT Israel paves the way for a similar NT Church institutional apostasy--is definitely one that seems as though it could easily be true--the NT Church was made up of people no less human than those who comprised OT Israel--but I do not see that specific prophecy made anywhere in Scripture. Indeed, the Isrealites are told in advance, by Moses himself, that they would indeed betray God as a nation and go after other gods, be punished, and return to Him. The NT Church is given no such prophecy by our Lord. Instead, the NT Church is called "His body, the fulness of Him that filleth all in all" (Eph. 1:23). Instead of doing things on behalf of all the people (as the OT Levites did), the NT priesthood (the Apostles, ordained by the Great High Priest from the line of Melchizedek) were sent out to do what only God could do: forgive and retain the sins of men, and bind and loose with divine authority. Surely this would not be given to an ekklesia who, being just as brittle as OT Israel, would fall away so soon into obvious apostasy, or merely given to one generation of men (the Apostles), with the understanding that it was to be passed no further.

Christ's rebuttal of the Pharisees and Sadducees with written Scripture is also often used as a tactic in debates to say that one can do the same with extra-biblical Catholic and Orthodox teaching. Two thoughts on this: One--Christ had the benefit of being the Logos incarnate; it's a rather safe bet that His knowledge of the proper interpretation of Scripture would be *somewhat* thorough. Two--Protestants in any age cannot claim this, as they are simply men and women who read the Bible and come to (often very different) ideas of how the Catholic and Orthodox churches have strayed from biblical truth. This is hardly the authoritative voice we hear coming from Christ. Rather, we should look at how the Scriptures were received by the earliest Christians and, if there is, as St. Vincent of Lerins said, universality, antiquity, and consent displayed in the witness of these early men with respect to a particular interpretation of said Scripture, we can ascertain with reasonable certainty the original, historical theological meaning of said passage.

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