Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Within the Great Stream of Tradition

This week I had a follow up meeting with my Protestant acquaintances that I blogged about last time. We spent several hours at the local Big Boy drinking shakes, eating seasoned fries and talking about different issues in theology. As last time, we wandered in a disorderly manner over many topics, starting with the atonement and moving on to the concept of tradition and finally ending with Nominalism and the influence of Occam and the Nominalists upon the proto-Reformers like Wycliffe.

In speaking about Tradition and the break with Catholic Tradition that came out of the Protestant Revolt, one of my companions asked a very decent question. He said, "You speak of different dogmas developing over the centuries; not everything the Catholic Church teaches is found explicitly in the apostolic age" (which is true)...he continued, "so, if you can admit a development of dogma in the Church, why can't it be said that the theological doctrines that came out of the Reformation were themselves developments of Christian dogma?"

The question was raised in the context of Lutheran-Calvinist soteriology. Since there had been much disagreement before as to how the atonement actually works (the Fathers favored the Ransom Theory, Anselm had his Satisfaction Theory, St. Thomas the modified Satisfactory Punishment Theory, etc), why could the historic Christian traditio accommodate all of these diverse theories but find no place for Penal Substitution as a legitimate development? Could it not just be seen as the next step in Christian soteriological development, a development that had already been going on since the days of the Fathers?

The late Fundamentalist Bible teacher J. Vernon McGee (d. 1988)  made a similar point when speaking of eschatology. When it was pointed out to this proponent of the novel Rapture doctrine that the concept of the Rapture was not held by the historic Church, he countered by arguing that, just as the great Christological disputes of theology were worked out in the fifth century, so the Church's eschatological disputes were being worked out in the 20th. Therefore, the "emergence" of the Rapture doctrine so late in the history of Christianity is just the latest step in the development of dogma; Christians ought to be no more wary of the emergence of the Rapture doctrine in the 19th century than of the Trinity in the 4th, the Hypostatic Union in the 5th or any other development.

This does of course beg the question of what is a legitimate development and what isn't. No doubt Dr. McGee would not sanction the devotion to Mary or the saints that grew out of the patristic period or the Scholastic teaching on the nature and efficacy of the Sacraments to be legitimate developments of doctrine but rather deviations. In other words, Dr. McGee would sanction only those developments, like the Rapture, that already conformed to his theology.

But couldn't a Protestant jump back and make the same accusation? The Church only rejects Calvinist soteriology because it is contrary to its teaching while accepting Aquinas' because his conforms. Isn't this the same argument?

Yes. As a matter of fact it is. The only difference is the Catholic has a right to make the argument while the Protestant does not.

Of course the reason why an innovation like the Rapture or Penal Substitution would be rejected as not in keeping with the Tradition for the very reason that they contradict Church teaching, because Church teaching is nothing other than the Tradition. That which is in the stream of Tradition is part of the Church's teaching and that which is not is not proposed by the Church for belief. The Church, the Magisterium in particular, is the custodian of Tradition and is responsible for handing that Tradition on intact to each subsequent generation - this is done by explaining the True Faith, but also by excluding and condemning propositions that are against the Faith. This what the Church does and what it has always done. If the Church is a credal, confessing, historic Church (i.e., One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic) then such a conclusion is self-evident and entirely in keeping with the nature of the Church and Christian dogma as understood by Catholicism.

But, if one rejects this ecclesiological concept of a credal, historic Church, as Dr. McGee does, then by what right does one accept one dogma and reject another, especially if adherents of both sides use the Bible to justify themselves? We know that Protestant sects can argue from the Bible all day long and get nowhere; this is one of the inherent flaws in Protestantism - a lack of a Magisterium to authoritatively resolve conflicts.  The whole Protestant movement was based on the premise that the Church could, and indeed had, erred on several fundamental points of doctrine for several centuries. If Protestants accept Luther's premise that Catholicism had erred in its teachings on justification, the Eucharist, devotion to the saints, etc., then why can't any other Protestant teacher make the similar assertion that Protestantism has erred in its teaching on anything from soteriology to eschatology to the eternality of hell? There is no reason why not, unless you appeal to a universal Tradition.

But if we appeal to that Tradition, we cannot do so haphazardly. That is, if we use the Tradition to support belief in, say, the Trinity or the divinity of Christ, we cannot reject it when it tells us that Mary is sinless or the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Christ. A Protestant might respond that we can only accept those aspects of Tradition that are in keeping with the Bible, but if we say that we are arguing in a circle - we use the Tradition to interpret arguments about the meaning of Scripture but deferring to the "plain meaning of Scripture" when interpreting the Tradition. Either the Tradition is authoritative or it is not; if it is, then the Catholic Church is the Church of Christ; if it is not, then there can be no appeal to Tradition to solve any theological dilemma. We are left solely with every man to his own sect and each sect its own interpretation and the Baptists and the Presbyterians are no more right or wrong than the Adventists or the Unitarians.

But to go back to the original question of why every development can't be accepted within the larger stream of Tradition - the answer is that Tradition is not to be understood as simply "whatever happens", in such a way that each and every thing that crops up is said to be part of the Tradition just by virtue of existing. Tradition means "that which was handed on", and something within the stream of Tradition must have evidence of being handed on in some way. In other words, that which is truly in the "stream" of Tradition must go "with the stream" and not against it; it must be clearly deducible from principles which came before and one must be able to discern the later development from the seeds of earlier teaching. This is one of the principles Cardinal Newman lays down in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.

Let's use two examples: Mary's Immaculate Conception and the Protestant assertion that the Eucharist is not the real Body and Blood of Christ. First, the Immaculate Conception. The Immaculate Conception, formally defined in 1854, is according to one of my Protestant friends, the prime example of a doctrine "invented out of thin air." But if we look at the Tradition, we can see that it is not the case.

  • First of all, the data of Scripture itself that calls Mary "full of grace" can be said to at least suggest the concept of sinlessness, since to be full of grace is to be without sin, depending on how we understand grace.

  • In St. Irenaeus' writings (c. 180), Mary is described as "undoing the knot of Eve's disobedience" through her own obedience, so Mary is contrasted with Eve and her fiat is given an important place in the Redemption of Man.
  • Fathers of the third century continue to contrast Mary with Eve, using Mary as an antitype, contrasting not only Eve's disobedience with Mary's obedience, but Eve's sinfulness with Mary's purity.
  • By the fourth century, this has crystallized into a language of Mary being "all holy" and "without stain of sin." This is found in the writers of the west, like St. Ambrose, as well as in the east, like in the case of St. Ephrem the Syrian, who wrote poems in honor of Mary's purity. As the devotion to the saints and martyrs evolved, devotion to Mary uniquely as the first and holiest of the saints (hyperdulia) emerged.

  • In the early fifth century, St. Jerome and St. Augustine treat Mary's sinlessness as a given, something all Christians assume rather than argue about. Liturgical feasts also are first recorded here honoring things like Mary's Dormition and her Immaculate Conception, though that language is not yet used. Mary's sinlessness is assumed by all Christians; the Council of Ephesus in 431 declares Mary theotokos.
  • Marian devotion in general spreads throughout the early Middle Ages and all Christians agree that Mary is sinless. Bernard of Clairvaux composes hymns and orations on her purity. In the 12th and 13th centuries, the Scholastics ruminate on how exactly Mary is sinless; since actual sin proceeds from original sin, if Mary was free of actual sin or from any stain of sin, it means she was free from original sin. But since original sin is part of human nature, she must have been rendered free from it at her very conception. There are arguments over how this happened, when a human is really "conceived" and so forth, but there is a general agreement that Mary is not only free of actual sin, but free of original sin, and this from her conception. This is the natural conclusion that flows from the patristic consensus on her sinlessness.
  • Marian devotion continues to spread with the promulgation of the Rosary devotion by the Dominicans and the rise of humanistic Christian devotion in the late medieval period that focuses more on the humanity of Christ, in which the Virgin finds a prominent place as an object of veneration, as well as the art of the Renaissance. Liturgical feasts celebrating the Immaculate Conception are celebrated all over Christendom.
Okay, pause. So, we have a clear linear development of Marian theology from the apostolic age to the Renaissance, both in the special place Mary is accorded in the devotional life of the Church, and in the doctrine of her sinlessness and Immaculate Conception, which is either clearly taught by the Fathers or easily deduced by principles the Fathers espoused. There is a solid and unambiguous line connecting the Fathers with the Scholastics and the later medievals, creating a clear line of development. Thus, when Pius IX proclaims the Immaculate Conception ex catherda in 1854, it is evidently clear that this dogma stands firmly within the stream of Tradition. It is clearly handed on, there is a historical continuity of Marian devotion, and the 1854 dogma stands "in the stream" or in the same line of thinking as that of earlier ages. We can, in a sense, anticipate the Immaculate Conception definition from the teachings that came before. This teaching is a legitimate development of Tradition.

Now compare this with the denial of Transubstantiation by the Reformers. Let's look at the Eucharistic Tradition up to the time of the Protestant Revolt:
  • Scripture has Christ refer to the sacrament as His "Body and Blood", there are string Eucharistic allusions in John 6 suggesting that eating and drinking the flesh of the Son of God is somehow necessary in order to be incorporated into Him; St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 11 states that he who profanes the Lord's supper will be judged for "not discerning the Body of the Lord."
  • References from the apostolic Fathers and the sub-Apostolic Fathers consistently refer to Holy Communion as the Body of Christ. St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. 110) calls it the "medicine of immortality" and "the flesh of Jesus Christ", a strange phrase to use about a symbol. St. Justin Martyr calls it "the flesh and blood of Jesus who became flesh."
  • Fathers like Tertullian and St. Cyprian make very clear references to belief in Christ's real presence; Cyprian tells stories of curses that have fallen on apostates for receiving the Body of Christ unworthily. The doctrine is firmly established and undeniable by 250 and will only be further confirmed by the writings of fathers like Augustine, Jerome and Ambrose.
  • In the early medieval period (Gregory the Great on), liturgical praxis develops around the assumption that the Eucharist was the true Body and Blood of Christ. Reception on the tongue was prescribed to prevent possible sacrilege; later, the Minor Elevation was added. Belief in Transubstantiation is evidenced by certain Eucharistic miracles that occur throughout the period, like the famous one of Lanciano, c. 700. Note that, even if specific Eucharistic miracle tales can be written off as legendary or of questionable historicity, the fact that such tales were being circulated at the time is proof that the people of the age believed unquestioningly in the Real Presence. Paschasius Radbertus writes an influential treatise affirming Transubstantiation.
  • In the 11th century, the heresiarch Berengarius becomes the first person on record to doubt Trasubstantiation officially. He is controverted by Lanfranc, the most eminent ecclesiastic of his day, as well as the Holy See and several local synods; the Church universally condemns his teaching.

  • In the 13th century, the doctrine of the form and matter of the sacraments is more perfectly worked out and Transubstantiation is defined formally at the Fourth Lateran Council (1215). Eucharistic devotion spreads with the institution of the Feast of Corpus Christi and the rise in the practice of Eucharistic Adoration. This continues throughout the medieval period.
Okay, so again, we have a clear line of development in the direction of affirming the real, true and substantial presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Now insert the Protestant doctrine that the Body and Blood of Christ is not truly present but is merely a symbol. Given the brief history we just sketched, how can this teaching be said to be a development from anything that came before? It does not flow with the stream of Tradition but adamantly opposes it, holds the former popes and saints to be in error, and posits a teaching that the Fathers and Scholastics would not have recognized; a teaching which, in fact, many condemned. Are we supposed to believe that the 16th century Reformers' denial of everything that came before is somehow also a development of what came before? So contradictions can become developments? This is in the same vein as the Protestant idea of "unity in disunity" as an explanation for why Protestant communions still have "unity" despite being fractured into 20,000+ denominations.

There fact is there is no unambiguous line connecting denial of Transubstantiation with anything that came before, no historical continuity, and no one reading the statements of Augustine or Ignatius or Aquinas would anticipate a denial of the Real Presence as a logical development of earlier ideas. The Protestant concept of the Eucharist is not in the same stream as that of the earlier ages, neither in teaching nor liturgy. Therefore, this is not a legitimate development of doctrine but rather a deviation from it. And the same can be said of every major teaching that came out of the Protestant Revolt or subsequent Protestant sects.

The theory that the developments that came out of the Reformation are legitimate developments of doctrine within the stream of historic Christian Tradition is ultimately an attempt to have your cake and eat it too; to maintain professing a single, uninterrupted Christian traditio that has survived intact throughout the ages, but yet a traditio that can also encompass teachings that are in direct contradiction to the direction of the rest of the Tradition. It is a way to maintain the Protestant dissent from Catholic dogma while affirming the appealing Catholic concept of a single Christian Tradition. It is nothing other than the Via Media that enticed Newman for a time until he came to see that it is a contradiction to claim that things directly contrary to the traditio can themselves be part of that traditio. As Newman discovered so many years ago when he came from Anglicanism into the Catholic Church, there is no way to assert the claims of Catholic Tradition with the right hand while insisting one is independent of it with the left.

Let us stand firm with the stream of Tradition, or let us stand alone to the side, casting rocks at the Tradition like Shimei did to King David and accuse the Tradition of being entirely corrupt; but to try to affirm a Tradition while placing things contrary to that Tradition within the stream of the same Tradition is not possible and conflates the concepts of "development" and "change" as if they were the same thing. That kind of broad accommodation is not possible; either Catholicism is totally right, or it is really, really wrong. If you are with the Tradition, you must be within it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It is not at all clear to me that all statements from the Second Vatican Council on grace outside the Church and religious liberty would pass this test.