Sunday, January 15, 2012

Reliability of the Fathers (4 of 7)

In my previous posts on the Church Fathers and their general reliability as authentic interpreters of the truths of the Gospel, we have looked at the objection that the legalization of Christianity fundamentally altered the Church's understanding of itself and its beliefs, that the difference in "cultural horizons" between the Greek and Latin fathers and the Jewish apostles made a faithful transmission of apostolic truth to later generations impossible, and that the transformation of the Church from a Jewish to a Gentile reality made the teachings of the Gentile Fathers unreliable.

Today, we look at the fourth objection of my Protestant interlocutor (the original objections of this interlocutor can be found in post one of this series). In objection four, our interlocutor states that the teaching of the Fathers is unreliable due to:

The rise and dominance of the legalistic and ascetic strains within Christianity.

This is actually two objections: by "legalistic" I assume he is referring to the gradual development of the Church's hierarchical and canonical structure of governance, especially with relation to the "charistmatic" tendencies in the early Church, which though never entirely died out, were less and less prevalent from the 4th century on. By "ascetic", I can only assume he is referring to the rise of monasticism from the late 3rd century onward.

Let's start with the first objection: Do the evolution of a hierarchy governed by canonical norms and the simultaneous rise of monasticism mean that the Church Father's understanding of the Scriptures is flawed or untrustworthy?

First, note that the interlocutor is coming at the early Church with what we could call a hermeneutic of historical rupture. He is operating on the assumption that Early Apostolic Church = No Legalism, but Patristic Church = Legalism.  The interlocutor shares the common Protestant idea that the primitive Church was governed in a decentralized manner with charismatic impulses fulfilling the role that the hierarchy would fulfill later. This is too big an argument to take up here, as it would involve a massive survey of the role of hierarchy in the early Church and the development of what we would call "canon law." I think it suffices to say that asserting that apostolic Christianity was not "legalistic" is based on a false understanding of apostolic church, and that opposing a primitive "charismatic" Church to a latter "hierarchical" or "legalistic" Church is a false dichotomy. I have written about the charismatic vs. institutional concept elsewhere. Regarding whether or not the Church of the apostolic era (late 1st t- mid 2nd century) was "legalistic", we should keep a few things in mind:

The Didache, the earliest Christian document we have outside of the New Testament, is full of what many Protestants would consider "legalisms", for example:

"But concerning baptism, thus shall ye baptize. Having first recited all these things, baptize {in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit} in living (running) water. But if thou hast not living water, then baptize in other water and if thou art not able in cold, then in warm. But if thou hast neither, then pour water on the head thrice in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. But before the baptism let him that baptizeth and him that is baptized fast, and any others also who are able; and thou shalt order him that is baptized to fast a day or two before" (7:1-7).

These are distinctions that modern Protestants would presume to be legalistic - why the preference for running water over still? And why cold rather than hot? And commanding fasting for two days prior? Most Protestants would consider these commands to be legalistic, if for no other reason than that they are not commanded by the New Testament, but in a larger sense, because the convey the message that not only Faith matters, but exactly how the commandments of our Lord are carried out liturgically.

Or consider this passage, also from the Didache:

"And let not your fastings be with the hypocrites, for they fast on the second and the fifth day of the week; but do ye keep your fast on the fourth and on the preparation (the sixth day) day" (8:1-2).

If I were a Protestant and insisted that fasting should only be done on certain days of the week, my teaching would be called "legalist" for the reason that one day would be valued above another. Yet here we have this alleged "legalism" right in the midst of the apostolic era, in fact, in the earliest document outside of the New Testament. The Didache is full of this sort of stuff - the exact words to use in the Eucharist, how many days a prophet is allowed to stay in a home, and, interestingly enough, commands to appoint bishops and deacons (15:1). Yet all of this occurs in the midst of commandments about how to handle visionaries and prophets, and in one verse, it says that bishops and deacons also "perform the service of prophets" (15:2). 

What we gather from this is that those who say that the first generations of Christians were only concerned with living the Sermon on the Mount and living by charismatic impulses are mistaken. The charismatic certainly existed, but it existed side by side with a developing canonical ("legalistic") framework. Furthermore, these two aspects of the Church were not opposed to one another; in fact,  the ideal seems to be that the charismatic is exercised through the hierarchical, as we see in the comment about bishops being prophets.

Not to deny any change between the apostolic era and later generations. The institutional aspect of the Church did become more solidified over time, but that is natural and to be expected with any concept, as Newman said. And it is true that as Christianity became more mainstream, and the average lay Christian became less of an ascetic, that charismatic gifts decreased among the laity. But the point we need to stress here is that there was never a time when a hierarchical, legalistic Christianity "rose" and then "dominated" because Christianity never was an amorphous, non-legalistic movement. The charismatic and hierarchical, the Spirit-filled and "legalist" were all the same movement, and there was no "dominating" of an earlier form of Christianity by a latter. Thus, though the Church developed naturally as it grew, we can discern no radical rupture between an apostolic and a patristic Church, and since there is no rupture in the form of the Church, we should assume no rupture in its teaching or interpretation of the content of Revelation, either.

Not that there was no resistance to hierarchical developments, but interestingly enough, those who most resisted the hierarchical developments and insisted on granting primacy to the charismatic were the heretical groups such as the Marcionites, Montanists and the various Gnostic sects.

Let us move on to the second objection: that the "rise and dominance" of the ascetic strain of Christianity means a disruption in the Church's understanding of Sacred Scripture.  

As with the first objection, this one puts up a false dichotomy between a non-ascetical primitive Christianity and a later Christianity dominated by asceticism. The fundamental error in this thinking is the confusion of ascetical with monastic. The interlocutor is correct if he means that Christianity was not always monastic, but he is sadly mistaken if he thinks it was not always ascetical. Asceticism means the disciplining of the body to bring it into subjection to the higher faculties, especially through fasting and abstinence from external things that, while good, are given up in order that the soul might attain to higher things. This practice of ascecis was always present in the Church, from the virgin martyrs of the first centuries who voluntarily abstained from marriage for the sake of the kingdom, going right back to St. Paul who said:

"Know you not that they that run in the race, all run indeed, but one receiveth the prize. So run that you may obtain. And every one that striveth for the mastery refraineth himself from all things. And they indeed that they may receive a corruptible crown: but we an incorruptible one. I therefore so run, not as at an uncertainty: I so fight, not as one beating the air. But I chastise my body and bring it into subjection: lest perhaps, when I have preached to others, I myself should become a castaway"
(1 Cor. 9:24-27).

Monasticism did not spring up until the mid-third century, but asceticism was always with us. Indeed, monasticism was simply a new expression of asceticism, which was necessary as Christianity became an increasingly mainstream movement and ascetics sought new ways to live out their ascecis within the developing Church. But, as with the arguments about the hierarchy, the problem here is in viewing the monastic movement as a radical departure from what had come before. But, once we recognize the presence of the ascetical spirit even in the early, urbanized Christianity of the apostolic era, we see the emergence of monasticism as something that organically flowed from what had come before it and in no way constituted a real rupture, either in practice or belief.

Furthermore, as we established in our first post on this subject, with regards to accuracy of biblical interpretation, the gradual intensification of the ascetical spirit in the monastic movement does not make the Church's interpretive tradition less sure, but rather more certain, as the teachings of the Fathers carry weight "because they are men of eminent sanctity and of ardent zeal for the truth, on whom God has bestowed a more ample measure of His light" (Providentissimus Deus, 14), according to Pope Leo XIII. In other words, the fact that in the third century we start to see incredibly holy men like St. Anthony and St. Paul the Hermit pop up means that, by their ascecis and rigorous life of prayer and penance, they have a greater focus on the truth and a clearer insight into the meaning of the Scriptures.

Based on this, exegesis that comes out of this period is not only consonant with what came before (inasmuch as the monastic movement was an organic development of the earlier ascetical tradition, rather than a new idea that "rose" to "dominance"), but we can expect a more precise development and a greater insight into the spiritual life inasmuch as the desert fathers were eminently holy.

This is a very long post and I do not pretend that it has answered the objections as fully as they could be. But, I do believe that we are mistaken to think the Fathers in general are unreliable just because the hierarchy and the Church's expression of ascecis naturally developed over the centuries. Development does not mean change. Development means development, and as development is natural and organic, and in the case of the Church, Spirit led, what comes prior must be interpreted in light of what comes later. The first century is interpreted in light of the second, the second in light of the third, and so on. There is no real rupture, no real sense in which we can assert that what a Christian of the fourth century understood when he read the Scriptures was radically different than what a Christian of the first century saw.

Next time, we will look at a similar objection based on the development of using the process of "deselection" to establish orthodoxy.

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