Thursday, December 17, 2009

Answering the Specific with the General

I'm wondering how many times I'm going to make the comments section of iMonk's post on Catholic radio an integral part of my posts, but hopefully two isn't too many.

The reason I'm posting from the now-closed comments section is that I've observed a trend lately which I think needs exploring, and I think this captures the phenomenon well.

A commenter named Christopher Lake confesses that the Early Church Fathers are making him question Calvinism, and trend towards Catholicism:

I am a Reformed Baptist who has been studying the writings of the early Church Fathers for a few months. In the last five years, I have known few people who have been more convinced of the Biblical truth of Reformed theology than I am– but that *may* be changing. This is potentially earthshaking for my life and more than a little frightening.

My studies are leading me to the impression that at least certain beliefs of the early Christians (100-300 A.D.) appear to be much more “Catholic” than “Protestant” (the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, baptismal regeneration, justification being initially based on faith but *continued* through faith and works). Now, I could be wrong in these impressions. For many reasons, part of me hopes that I am. I’m still reading and researching from both sides of the Tiber. However, if many people in my church knew that I were even wrestling with these questions, I have no doubt that they would see me as being in a place of potentially “abandoning the Gospel”– and I would understand their concern, having emphatically shared that point of view myself for years. I haven’t made any decisions yet though– there is much more reading, thinking, and praying to be done. I may still “stay Reformed”– we shall see!

To this, another Protestant, , RonP reassures him:
Christopher, I have also been doing a lot of studying on the church fathers and early church history over the past few months — not so much to make a choice between Catholic or Reformed theology, but rather to try to figure out and account for many of the stark differences and contradictions I see between both the Catholic and Protestant traditions and what I read in the gospels and the writings of the apostles. Basically, I’ve been looking for the origins and the hows and whys of the changes that took place during those first few centuries of the church. And, though I hate to say it, I’ve found some of the most unbiased, eye-opening information from secular scholars in this field of study.

One thing I’ve discovered is that, even in those first centuries, there was some seriously absurd religious nonsense going on in mainstream Christianity — stuff that rivals a lot of the junk you’ll find on Christian TV these days. Another thing that has made itself clear to me, is that the early church was in a state of constant argument with itself, and many of those arguments were over things Christianity is still arguing about to this day.


I guess I’m cautioning against too romantic a view of the early church and the early church fathers. Just like us, they were struggling to work out how the gospel and the teachings of Christ and the apostles should be applied in everyday life and in the continuing life of the church. And in that mix, one can find situational adjustments, cults of personality, influences from the prevailing culture, the influence of government and economic realities, strange religious tangents, the gradual evolution of institutional structures and theological contructs, and that age-old tendency to move from invention to popular practice to sacred tradition — basically the same dynamics that are still taking place in Christendom today.


Don’t get me wrong. I’m not promoting a purely cynical view of church history. I just think that what we’ve been given in the NT writings and in the gift of the Holy Spirit really are sufficient guides when it comes to following Christ, both individually and collectively as the church. When it comes to everything else in church history and tradition, I think those things should be examined closely through the lens of Christ’s teachings, His example, and His character.

On face, this is a pretty good answer. Obviously, the last paragraph is classically creedal Protestant (we have Scripture and the Holy Spirit, and tradition is only so good as it comports with how we understand those two). But at first brush, the meat of the comment (paragraphs 2 and 3) are just obviously right. There is a tendency to imagine that the early Church was utopian, and yet the writings from the period suggest that while there were some great saints, there were also a lot of heretics, and a lot of confused Christians in the middle trying to figure out which camp was right.

But then I go back and read what Christopher actually wrote: "My studies are leading me to the impression that at least certain beliefs of the early Christians (100-300 A.D.) appear to be much more “Catholic” than “Protestant” (the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, baptismal regeneration, justification being initially based on faith but *continued* through faith and works)." Frank Beckwith, in his book Return to Rome, roughly the same list (although he looks at a slightly longer time-period) for his own reversion to Catholicism.

In other words, Christopher has laid down something of a challenge: on these three issues (the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, baptismal regeneration, justification being initially based on faith but *continued* through faith and works), are there any Fathers who disagree with the Catholic position in the first three centuries? RonP's response sounds like the answer is "yes, there are - a lot of things were up in the air." But he doesn't say that. And I think that there's a reason he doesn't. In response to a hyper-specific question (these three areas, this time period of Church Fathers), he responds with vague platitudes about how the early Church wasn't a utopia.

And he can't do better than vague platitudes, either. For had he said, "Oh, the Early Church disagreed on the Eucharist," he would have immediately opened himself up to the unanswerable question, "Who and when?" I don't imagine that this was ill-intentioned: I just think he had no real response, but based on the heresies he'd seen being combated in the early Church, simply stopped putting much weight on the authority of the men who defeated those same heretics.

Because despite all of the internal conflict within the early Church, while the Fathers are fighting heretics who deny either the Divinity or Humanity of Christ, or who argue that the Gods of the Old and New Testament are clashing, on these three issues - the Eucharist, Baptismal regeneration, and justification - there's seemingly no dissent. Or more precisely, the only people who disbelieve in the Real Presence are those who deny it because they don't believe Christ had Human Flesh. And Ignatius of Antioch points to this denial of the Eucharist as evidence of their root heresy. Ignatius isn't concerned with proving the Eucharist: he uses it as a fruit to test the goodness of the seed.

This puts Protestants in a weird position. Do they affirm what the Catholic side keeps saying: namely, that the early Church was thoroughly Catholic, and demonstrably so on the areas which separate us? Or do they side with the heretics in the early Church, try and say the Gnostics were right on the Eucharist and wrong on literally every other area of dispute? Neither of those positions are amiable for defending the Protestant position. So instead, you get non-answers like RonP's which conflate the early Church with the Early Church Fathers, the heretics with the defenders of orthodoxy, and which never addresses the substance of Christopher's question at all.

I've seen the above in other areas, as well, but this was the one I could recall that didn't involve myself. Anyways, it's just a trend I've noticed, something to be aware of, I guess.

3 comments:

  1. Good post, Joe.

    I have a friend who left Protestant Christianity a little over a year ago in favor of a non-dualistic religious philosophy. He looks back on his Christian days with a lot of disdain, and has turned against Christianity in many ways.

    What's interesting about his story is that, after he left Protestantism, he looked at the early history of the Church and was able to conclude that Protestantism is not the true historical expression of Christianity whereas Catholicism is.

    However, he likes to make a big point now that there was a lot of confusion in the early Church, with many dissenting and differing opinions over important issues such as baptism, the Eucharist, and the canon of the Bible. From this, he likes to conclude that Christianity is not trustworthy because it is almost impossible to tell who got it right, or if there even is a "right" to get.

    Of course, as you point out, this is not really the case. Many of the pre-Nicene Fathers do espouse strong, consistent, orthodox views on matters like baptism, episcopal authority, Eucharist, and justification. So, what's really going on then with these people who look at Church history and are able to conclude that everything about Christian doctrine was up in the air? Is it logical to say that because heretics questioned a doctrine, the doctrine itself was therefore ill-defined? No, I don't think it is, but these people seem to believe the contrary.

    The best explanation I can come up with so far is that such people possess a queer psychological defect which causes them to give Church history a reading which suits their own predefined agenda. In other words, they possess a certain hermeneutic of suspicion or dissent, a disease of the intellect whereby they perceive the facts yet interpret them in a distorted manner that is more favorable to their current position.

    Usually, however, the most effective approach in answering the objections raised by such a deficient intellect is to push the discussion back to the specific from the general. If they are espousing the notion that the early Church was rife with confusion, that all matters of doctrine were still being hammered out and settled, then simply push them to give examples. After that, it should be relatively straightforward to dispel the fog that clouds their minds.

    I do agree: this phenomenon does appear to be a rising trend.

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  2. A queer psychological defect? Perhaps instead of a psychological defect it's more of a lack of knowledge? Being raised protestant Christian and being exposed to Catholic faith through my father's family and my education, I find it hard to comprehend that I have a psychological defect concerning early church history. Nobody teaches it. And no one really reads source materials, even though they should. Frankly, in order to develop strong and educated opinions concerning early church history I think one would have to be a great scholar, reading many early and contemporary documents in order to form an educated opinion...as I'm sure you and Joe have done. I am simply arguing that the average individual is not a scholar...and certainly doesn't have a psychological defect for being uninformed.

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  3. Erin:

    "A queer psychological defect? Perhaps instead of a psychological defect it's more of a lack of knowledge?"

    Lack of knowledge is one thing, but one who investigates Church history and concludes that the Catholic Church does not have any basis on which it can claim to have existed prior to the Roman Emperor Constantine urging the Bishops to meet at the Council of Nicea, despite the extant testimony of the ante-Nicene fathers such as Irenaeus of Lyons, Ignatius of Antioch, Tertullian, Justin Martyr, and so on, is an individual with a psychological predisposition that prevents him from seeing the truth, such is the case with the friend I mentioned in my last comment.

    This same friend, might I add, recently told me that he threw St. Augustine's Confessions to the side after reading books I and II simply because, for no other reason, he "could not abide by the mentality expressed in it."

    Simple ignorance is not the underlying issue with such people. There is something else wrong with them in the brain department that more exposure to facts will not fix. It is a psychological defect if we have convinced ourselves that the facts are painting a picture which we only wish to be true, but is not actually true.

    On the other hand, an interesting question is how do people such as my friend come to obtain such a flaw in their minds? After much observation, I'm beginning to conclude that the answer is spiritual in nature -- a type of demonic oppression, perhaps, that is tied to that "spirit of the Anti-Christ" spoken of by many of the Church Fathers. I have no other possible explanation for why some people obstinately misinterpret the facts to support an anti-Catholic fiction that does not exist.

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