Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Reliability of the Fathers: (part 2 of 7)

Last time in this series I spoke on the issue of the cultural sensibilities of the early Church Fathers, and whether the fact that the majority of the Fathers were not 1st century Jews living in Palestine made their exegesis of Scripture suspect, since they were outside the cultural context in which the Scriptures were produced. I answered this in the negative, citing as proof the fact that :

(1) there was much more that went into the faith of the Fathers than the simple reading of a text; their faith was formed by a living Tradition primarily and by textual exegesis only secondarily. This provided a doctrinal continuity across the generations despite the fact that the ethnic make-up of the Church may have changed over time

(2) Greek and Romans of the 2nd and 3rd centuries were very well acquainted with eastern ideas; in fact, eastern religious ideals had thoroughly permeated the west in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th centuries of our era. We have no reason to assume the Greco-Roman Fathers were ignorant of eastern culture

(3) At any rate, it is not the Father's intellectual knowledge or cultural background that gives them authority (though these are important), but their holiness and closeness to God.

The Fathers certainly have their issues at times, but nothing so thorough  as to render them unreliable, as our interlocutor would suggest. Our interlocutor, a Protestant intellectual, after citing his objection based on the Fathers' "cultural horizons" went on to cite a further problem with the Fathers. In his words, this was:

[A] profound and pervasive change in perspective due to major shifts that had occurred in the development of institutional churches [for example], the evolution of Christianity as a form of Judaism which was (more than) open to admitting or "grafting in" Gentiles into a Christianity as a largely Gentile religion to be distinguished from Judaism.

So the Fathers cannot be trusted to offer reliable expositions of the Faith because the apostolic Church was largely Jewish ethnically while the Church of the 2nd, 3rd amd 4th centuries was primarily Gentile (especially Greek).

At the outset, I would question the interlocutor's assertion that early Christianity was "more than open" to grafting in Gentiles. The apostolic Church was not "more than open" to grafting in Gentiles. Remember, while our Lord was on earth, the Gospel was emphatically not preached to the Gentiles in anyway - recall our Lord's seemingly harsh words about dogs and crumbs to the Canaanite woman. In the years immediately following the Ascension, most of the apostles seemed to have viewed the Faith as something to be preached to Jews only; it took a divine revelation to St. Peter for the apostolic Church to finally admit that Gentiles were even capable of becoming Christians (Acts 10). Even after this, actual practice was sometimes reflexively anti-Gentile (as we see in Peter's conduct in Gal. 2:11); the issue of the welcoming of Gentiles and to what degree they were bound to obey the Law was so disruptive in the early Church that it led to the first council at Jerusalem.

Though the apostolic Church finally accepted Gentiles, it did so grudgingly, and the Jewish sect ("Judaizers") resisted it at every step. Even after the Council of Jerusalem the Judaizers remained a potent force within the Church, leading eventually to several early schisms - the Ebionites, Nazarenes and Nicolaitians, to name a few. Therefore, it is very misleading to state that the apostolic Church was "more than open" to grafting in Gentiles. The apostolic Church did indeed allow Gentiles to enter in, but it was a slow process and the environment remained hostile ot Gentiles for some time.

Despite this hostility, however, the Church did in fact become more and more Gentile in character. This was for two reasons (1) There were simply more Gentiles than Jews, and as the faith spread, simple demographics suggests that the Church would of course become more and more Gentile in character, and (2) following the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, and especially after the Second Jewish War ended the Jewish state in 135, the ethnically Jewish segments of the Church lost much of its influence. It is uncertain when it is in fact that the Church specifically "became" more Gentile than Jew, but I would say it was no later than 150, possibly earlier.

It is this ethnic transformation of the Church that our interlocutor sees as reflecting poorly on the theology of the Fathers. I don't see why; perhaps it is another way of phrasing the first argument about "cultural horizons." Whatever the point of this argument, I see it as holding little weight for two reasons:

First, the Jewish Christians alive during this period of transformation would not have been caught up in the revolts against Rome and vanquished - in the First Jewish War, most Jewish Christians, remembering the prophecy of Christ, fled Jerusalem to Pella and waited out the war in relative safety. In Bar Kochba's time (132-135), Jewish Christians again refused to participate in the suicidal revolt against Rome, inasmuch as Bar Kochba was hailed as the Messiah, he would have been seen as an anti-Christ in the eyes of the Church. This means that, throughout the Jewish wars and the fall of secular Israel, there was a continuous Christian presence in Palestine under an unbroken succession of Jewish Christian bishops. Eusebius says:

"Of the dates of the bishops of Jerusalem I have failed to find any written evidence; ­ it is known that they were very short-lived ­ but I have received documentary proof of this, that up to Hadrian’s siege of the Jews, there had been a series of fifteen bishops there. All are said to have been Hebrews in origin, who had received the knowledge of Christ with all sincerity, with the result that those in a position to decide such matters, judged them worthy of the episcopal office. For at that time their whole Church consisted of Hebrew believers who had continued from Apostolic times down to the later siege [A.D. 135] in which the Jews after revolting a second time against the Romans, were overwhelmed in a full-scale war. As that meant the end of the bishops of the Circumcision, this is the right moment to list their names from the first" (Ecclesiastical History, 4:3)

He then gives a list of fifteen Jewish-Christian bishops: 

* James, ‘the Lord’s brother,’ First Bishop of Jerusalem
* Symeon, Second Bishop of Jerusalem
* Justus, Third Bishop of Jerusalem
* Zacchaeus, Fourth Bishop of Jerusalem
* Tobias, Fifth Bishop of Jerusalem
* Benjamin, Sixth Bishop of Jerusalem
* John, Seventh Bishop of Jerusalem
* Matthias, Eighth Bishop of Jerusalem
* Philip, Ninth Bishop of Jerusalem
* Seneca, Tenth Bishop of Jerusalem
* Justus II, Eleventh Bishop of Jerusalem
* Levi, Twelfth Bishop of Jerusalem
* Ephres, Thirteenth Bishop of Jerusalem
* Joseph, Fourteenth Bishop of Jerusalem
* and Judas, Fifteenth Bishop of Jerusalem

The point is that in Palestine there was an unbroken succession of bishops from the time of our Lord until the time when the Church became Gentile, which Eusebius attributes to the siege of Hadrian and the subsequent banishment of all persons of Jewish origin from Palestine. Despite the political upheaval of the time, the fact that the episcopal succession endured unbroken, and then switched from Jew to Gentile around 135, suggests that there was no radical break bewteen the Jew and Gentile phases of the Palestinian Church, but that this transition happened smoothly and organically, despite the warfare going on all around.

Just because there was a transformation does not mean there was a radical break, at least certainly not the kind that would cause the Greek Fathers to be rendered completely unreliable only a century later. This tendency of assuming some kind of radical break  whenever there is any demonstrable change is a thoroughly modern phenomenon, perhaps due to our accustoming ourselves to a world in a constant state of flux and disorder.

Secondly, and more importantly, to say that the transformation of the Church from Jew to Gentile makes the Fathers lose credibility is to, in some way, deny the divine guidance of the Church - it is to deny that Christ willed the Church to take the turn of development it did. If we are told in the Scripture that God willed Gentiles to be incorporated into the Church (Acts 10), and that prophecy from the Old Testament said that "all nations" would "flow" into God's Church (Isa. 2:15, Mic. 4:1-5), and that St. Paul specifically tailored his missionary journeys towards the Gentiles, explicitly preached to them as a consequence of his rejection by the Jews (Acts 13:46) and called himself the "apostle to the Gentiles" (Rom. 11:13), and that our Lord prophesied that the kingdom of heaven, though at first small, would grow so large that "all the birds of the air" would be able to nest in its branches (Matt, 13:31-32), are we justified in regarding the surge of Gentiles into the Church as anything other than part of our Lord's divine plan? With such a vast amount of Scripture pointing to the "Gentilization" of the Church as positively willed by God, are we not demonstrating an insulting lack of faith in God's providence to keep sounding off on the thoroughly modernist mantra about the regrettable loss of the Church's "Jewish" identity?

Perhaps our interlocutor will argue that, while God willed Gentiles to be incorporated into the Church, He never willed for them to become such a majority or for the Church to ever lose its Jewish character. If someone would make this case, I would say: fine and good - but how can you prove this, and where will you draw the line as to when the Church is becoming "too Gentile," and where is it written that the Church is to be forever beholden to Jewish cultural forms, remaining forever some Christianized form of Judaism? This view reflects a modern evangelical preoccupation with ethnic Judaism, a desire to make the Church more "Hebrew" in character. 

Did the Church go from largely Jewish to largely Gentile in the 2nd century? Absolutely. Does this mean the Gentile Church of the 3rd century had lost or corrupted the apostolic faith of the 1st? By no means. There is no reason, either historically or theologically, to suppose that the Gentilization of the Church as it occurred was anything other than God's plan. The Church organically develops, and of course the Church of the 3rd and 4th centuries will look different than the Church of the 1st, just as the Church of St. Bernard looked different from the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola and the Church or today looks different than the Church of Vatican I. But once again our interlocutor is tripped up by external changes in the structure or demographics of the Church whilst ignoring its supernatural origin and the divine life of grace that vivifies it. Whether Hebrew, Greek or Latin, the Fathers constantly attest to this supernatural character.

Next time we will examine a bigger problem - whether the post-Nicene Fathers lose their credibility when the Church changed from being a subversive challenge to existing authority to being supported by that authority with the rise of Constantine.

I apologize for the focus on patristics in my last several posts, but this seems to be where the Lord is leading me at this time. God bless you.

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peet said...
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