Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Reliability of the Fathers (part 3 of 7)


Continuing this long and in depth series on the reliability of the Church Fathers as guides to Christian belief and practice, we return to the objections of my scholarly Protestant interlocutor, who had argued that the Fathers were an unreliable source for determining true doctrine, essentially saying that modern, critical biblical scholarship should be preferred before the testimony of the Christians of the first four centuries. He had many objections, the first on the allegation that the Greek and Latin Fathers were "insensitive" to different "cultural horizons" and could not possibly understand the Jewish Scriptures correctly (refuted here) and the argument that the transition from a Jewish Church to a Gentile Church also caused a transition in the Church's theology further away from biblical principles (refuted here).

The next fact the interlocutor cites in favor of his view is the following:

The evolution of Christianity as a progressive and subversive challenge to social structures into Christianity as an upholder of said social structures.

Thus, because Christianity went from being illegal and subversive to legal and supportive of the imperial structure under Constantine and his successors, the objectiveness of the Fathers in intepreting the content of revelation was somehow impugned. Basically, it is the same argument has the last one but rehashed - an external transformation in the Church's socio-political station is taken as grounds to assume an inner evolution in the life of the Church - presumably, an evolution away from the Truth rather than towards a deeper understanding of it.

This proposition rests on three assumptions, which I think are all ungrounded: (1) That the political categories of "progressive" and "conservative" are rightly applied to the Church of Christ (2) That Christianity was "progressive" before the conversion of the empire and "conservative" after its conversion (3) That the changes in the post-Constantinian Church represent not just developments but breaks with the apostolic past. Let us examine and break down these assumptions one at a time. I ask your forgiveness ahead of time for the length and depth of this post, but it is a complex issue that requires a complex answer.

1) Political categories applied to the Church?

It is a constant temptation, especially in modernist or liberal ideologies, to see the Church in political terms: progressive or regressive, liberal or conservative, supporting the oppressed or serving as a tool of the oppressors. Such blanket judgments about the Church's relation to existing social mores should always make us pause. The Church is not a political body and does not fall into political categories; she is a supernatural reality that transcends them all. The Catechism, quoting Gaudium et Spes, reminds us of this: "The Church, because of her commission and competence, is not to be confused in any way with the political community. She is both the sign and the safeguard of the transcendental character of the human person" (CCC 2245).

Since the mission of the Church is the salvation of souls, the Church will be in different relations to differing political institutions in the context of this mission. Hence, she appears conservative to some and progressive to others; in reality, she is both because she is neither. She is neither conservative as the political conservatives mean it, nor is she liberal as the political liberals mean it. When a political ideology denigrates some long-held teaching of the Church, then the Church appears conservative for adhering to tradition. The Church also appears progressive when it challenges society to have more care for the poor, the fatherless and the widow. and to turn away from the snares of imperialism, consumerism and unchecked capitalism.

So, in the first place, we must recognize the supernatural character of the Church and her transcendental mission. This reality means that, although words like "conservative" and "liberal" might help in understanding the Church's position on certain specific matters relative to the culture at large, but these political categories are of no help in coming to understand the Church's inner reality.

If political categories are inadequate, how can we best describe the Church? Pope Pius XII answers this for us: "If we would define and describe this true Church of Jesus Christ - which is the One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and Roman Church - we shall find nothing more noble, more sublime, or more divine than the expression "the Mystical Body of Christ" (Mystici Corporis, 13). All of these theories that we are debunking fail in that they refuse to see the mystical reality behind the institution.

2) Was the Church always "progressive" before Constantine?

But now that we have dealt with the issue of our language and categorization of the Church, let us examine the question of the Church's societal role prior to the advent of Constantine. It is generally assumed that the pre-Constantinian Church was progressive and subversive of Roman culture while the post-Constantinian Church was conservative, oppressive, and upheld the status quo. An group is said to be "progressive" or "subversive" if it undermines accepted mores by insisting on a loosening the bonds of tradition; hence, support of homosexual marriage is said to be "progressive" because it proposes loosening the bonds of traditional mores and weakening the power of tradition. A group is said to be "conservative" or "regressive" (or even "oppressive") if it seeks to uphold the power of traditional mores and represented by the status quo. Hence, proponents of traditional marriage are called "conservative" because they believe in upholding and strengthening the traditional understanding of marriage.

Unfortunately for my interlocutor's view, we see the Church prior to Constantine being quite conservative on many issues. For example, while the sanctity of marriage was basically a joke in the late pagan empire (with adultery common and divorce rampant), the Church insisted on a extraordinarily rigid marital code - marriage only once and no such thing as divorce. Old Republican Rome had strict marital mores as well, but they were about 400 years extinct by the time the Church was large enough to influence Roman society. It was an amazingly regressive position to take socially, as if we were to suddenly today to insist on the etiquette of the court of Louis XIV as the social norm. Yet this was prior to Constantine. Here we see the pre-Constantinian Church as definitively conservative.

Abortion is another example. While ancient and Republican Rome allowed infanticide for deformities (see Table IV of the Twelve Tables), Roman tradition strictly condemned abortion. The early Roman view of abortion is summed up in the Sentences of the Roman jurist Paulus, who wrote: "Those who administer a beverage for the purpose of producing abortion, or of causing affection, although they may not do so with malicious intent, still, because the act offers a bad example, shall, if of humble rank, be sent to the mines; or, if higher in degree, shall be relegated to an island, with the loss of a portion of their property. If a man or a woman should lose his or her life through such an act, the guilty party shall undergo the extreme penalty." Yet this law had become a dead letter by the time Paulus wrote it, for beginning in the 1st century BC, abortion became more and more acceptable, so much so that Augustus had to order all bachelors in Rome to marry and have children because they were aborting themselves out of existence!

And yet here again we see Christianity exerting a conservative influence, not a progressive one. The Church had always opposed infanticide as well as abortion, despite the trend of Roman society to embrace contraception and abortion. It was the Church that called Rome back to its ancient discipline through her exemplary moral virtue.

Likewise, we could point to examples of Christian progressiveness after the age of Constantine. If the post-Constantinian Church really was only a tool of the state, we would not expect it to subvert any of the power structures of the state. Yet we see the abolition of slavery in the Christian empire, that very institution which the pagan empire was built on. Another example is the ending of the gladiatorial games and of the Olympics, the removal of the Statue of Victory, the continued exodus of men to the monasteries who in prior ages would have been diverted to the military. In all these movements the Church exercised a progressive influence upon the post-Constantinian empire.

Not to mention the moderating effect that Christianity had upon the monarchy. Roman monarchy after Constantine was abundantly better than monarchy before Christianity. There are no more tyrants like Caligula, Nero or Caracalla in the Christian age. Plus the imperial throne became more stable, despite the fact that the empire itself became less so. From 217 to 313 there were 30 emperors, almost all of whom died violently. But from 313 to 410 there were only 12 western emperors, almost all of whom died naturally. Add to this the  role the Church had in confronting and condemning emperors who overstepped their bounds, as when St. Athanasius confronted Constantius II about the latter's support for Arianism or when Theodosius was rebuked by St. Ambrose. No noble of the age of Nero or even Hadrian would rebuke an emperor in such a way; this freedom of expression (called parrhesia) had a truly progressive effect on the empire. Check out this this post here for more on parrhesia.

The Church before Constantine prayed for and supported the pagan emperors just as the Church after Constantine prayed for and supported the Christian emperors; pre-Constantinian apologists like St. Justin wrote rebukes to emperor's for their immorality just as post-Constantinian bishops like Athanasius and Amrbose rebuked Christian emperors. When looking at the patristic Church, the one constant is that it was always jealous to guard its own prerogatives.

So what does all this have to do with the Church Fathers? If nothing else, it at least demonstrates that the Church cannot be said to be "progressive" pre-Constantine but "conservative" post-Constantine. It is not that clear-cut of a break. In fact, as we will see below, there really was no break - and if there is no break, it is that much more difficult to establish a break down in the quality or reliability of patristic thought during the period.

3) The development of the 4th century was not a rupture

We have it on the authority of the illustrious Cardinal Newman that, if we see hints or traces of a dogma in earlier phases of Church history, we ought to interpret those dogmatic seedlings in the context of the fully formed dogmas they later became. Newman says, "The fact of such early or recurring intimations of tendencies which afterward are fully realized, is a sort of evidence that those later and more systematic fulfillments are only in accord with its original idea" (Essay on the Development of Doctrine, II:V.5.1), thus, though a systematic Mariology was not worked out until the middle ages, we have Ireneaus, for example, teaching that Mary is the "cause of salvation" by untying the "knot of Eve's disobedience" (Adv. Haer. 3:22:24). Though Irenaeus' statement does not contain anything like the systematic fullness of medieval Mariology, because the rude patristic Mariology was followed by that of the medievals, it makes sense to see statements like that by Ireneaus as representing the true precursor of the later development.

Thus St. Ireneaus' statement on Mary is always placed as one of the most important Mariological texts of the patristic era, though Protestant commentators, because they do not accept Newman's principle of definite anticipation, fail to see any connection between the Mariology of Ireneaus and that of, say, Bernard of Clairvaux. But, if we are to make sense of the doctrinal development that occurred in the Church from the patristic to the medieval period, we must understand that earlier doctrinal seeds should be interpreted in light of what they eventually grow into, just like a sapling or an infant is cared for with an aim towards what it will eventually become.

If we understand this principle, we see that what happened between 313 and the early medieval period was not a rupture, but a continuation of that development which had already been going on uninterrupted for centuries. It is very important to note the circular reasoning in the interlocutor's accusations: In order to postulate a huge doctrinal break between pre-Constantinian and post-Constantinian Christianity, one has to adopt the assumption that Catholicism of the 5th and 6th centuries was errant. "Obviously there was a drastic change after Constantine because the Church in the 5th and 6th centuries started teaching that Mary is the Mother of God and that the Bishop of Rome is the head of the Church on earth!" This only seems like a rupture if you have predetermined that these doctrines are errant. But to those who accept the Catholic Faith and understand that these doctrines which Protestants assume "appeared" in the 4t, 5th and 6th centuries were actually developments from earlier ideas present even in apostolic Christianity, there is no rupture, only a glorious unfolding and a seamless continuity.

This rupture, attributed to a supposed influence of Greek philosophical and Roman pagan thought on the Church's doctrines during this time, is what Mark Shea has rightly referred to as the Pagan creep Theory - that throughout the patristic age (but especially after the time of Constantine), the Church, in order to accomodate the world, allowed pagan influences to "creep" into the Church, eventually perverting the Gospel to such a degree that it would be unrecognizable to Christ and the Apostles.

This Pagan Creep Theory is widely accepted as fact in the Protestant world; indeed, I myself once touted it as truth. But there are many huge problems with it, which Mark Shea points out in his excellent book By What Authority? According to Shea (whom I second here), the Pagan Creep Theory requires us to believe some principles which would be considered quite absurd by the principles of secular history (that is, if we were dealing with any other subject besides the catholic Church). The Pagan Creep Theory forces us to believe the following "schizophrenic absurdities" about the Church Fathers:
  • That these presumably apostate successors of the apostles were both promulgating alien pagan dogmas in direct defiance of apostolic teaching and simultaneously undergoing suffering, persecution, and fearful deaths with an avowed determination to bear witness to the Faith of the Apostles. 
  • The these same Fathers were allowing pagan ideas en masse into the Faith while at the same time contending vehemently over the subtelties of Trinitarian and Christological theology, like the difference between homoousios and homoiousios.
  • That not one single Christian anywhere was willing to oppose this apostasy, even though many Churches were apostolic and had the apostolic preaching "ringing in their ears."
  • And that while all this was going on, all of these supposed apostates and heretics (the Fathers), these lax stooges of paganism who perverted Scripture, were all still willing to vehemently defend Scripture against the paganizing attacks of other heretics, such as Marcion and Montanus (see By What Authority, pp.148-151).
When confronted with the contradiction we must believe to hold this Pagan Creep Theory, we can see how absurd it truly is.

But if the explosion of Catholic dogma appearing in the writings in the 4th and 5th centuries is not due to a copromise with the world or the accommodation of paganism, to what do we attribute it?

I would attribute it simply to the cessation of the persectuions. Anyboy who has really read the Fathers, even without acknowledging Newman's principle of definite anticipation, can see that even the pre-Nicene Fathers hold many peculiarly Catholic dogmas - the Real Presence, consecrated virginity, monasticism, the priesthood, episcopate and even indulgences are clearly and undeniably found in the pre-Nicene Fathers. But, as the pre-Nicene Fathers practiced the discipline of arcana (secrecy) because of constant persecution, we ought not to be surprised that they did not write more and only alluded to certain dogmas in less precise terms than we would like, since many of their treatises were not so much theological as apologetical or pastoral. Once the persecutions ceased, the Church could come out in to the light and begin to truly develop a systematic theology, expounding on those truths she had always professed, but which the necessity of secrecy due to persecution had always kept partially obscured. Thus, the developments of the 4th and 5th centuries can be seen in this light to be nothing other than the mature theoloical blossoming of a garden whose seeds were firmly planted in the apostolic and pre-Nicene age.

To sum up - it is not true to simply assert that the Church went from being subversive to conservative; the reality is more complex than that. But even given this complex realities, there are better historical solutions to the developments of dogma in the 4th and 5th centuries than to simply assert that the political changes in the Church's status vis-a-vis the empire changed its doctrine substantially, as exemplified by the absurdities we fall into if we adopt the Pagan Creep Theory. What accounts for the astounding development of dogma in the generations after Nicea is the cessation of persecution which allowed a freer and more open development and a real systematic theology, which though it certainly became more refined, nevertheless preserved and built on the Faith of the apostolic age.

Until next time, when we look at the influence of the development of the hierarchy and the monastic movement.

3 comments:

seneca said...

an excellent post, Phillip! I have heard the pagan creep theory before, In a book on how to answer Mormons, though according to the Mormons it was much bigger and was called the great apostasy. One thing to add against this theory, why didn't enemies of the church, who studied it's teachings to combat it, point at the so-called changed doctrine to show the church was not all it claimed to be. Just a thought.

BONIFACE said...

Now that is a great point...when I still worked for the Church, I gathered a massive corpus of data I was going to use to do a three part series refuting the Mormon's claims of biblical corruption, but sad to say, when I cleaned out my office it seems to have been lost. :(

scotju said...

Two good books that slay the pagan creep theory are; "The Babylon Connection" by Ralph Woodrow and "Baptist Successionism" by James McGoldrick.
BC is a devastsating dissection of Hislop's "Two Babylons". Woodrow shows Hislop has a complete lack of scholarship in the way he handled his sources for his TB.
Likewise McGoldrick's BS (no pun intended!) shows that the idea of Baptist Church being the original form of the New Testament church is based on a false reading of the Church Fathers.
If anyone is having a problem with someone pushing "pagan creep" get these books. The evidence given by both authors is enough to confound and refute any anti-catholic ot there.