Judging the Fathers with 20/20 Hindsight


#1

How accountable can we hold the ECFs for missing or misunderstanding all of the doctrines that we take for granted today? Should we expect them to get a perfect score on a systematic theology exam that we create centuries later?

Protestants frequently seek to read their own theology back into the Fathers (or to read Catholic theology OUT of them) by claiming that the “early church” did not teach this or that doctrine. This approach fails to take into account that doctrine has developed in a more or less sequential fashion and that some primary issues had to be worked out carefully before the secondary matters could become visible. Examples of the latter include the nuanced doctrines of Papal Infallibility (following on the understanding of infallibility of the Church) or the Immaculate Conception (which flows from an understanding of Christ’s true nature), etc.

Consequently, the idea that the ECFs were more Protestant than Catholic is put forward seriously by those who have not thought the issue through.

To counter this, I offer this passage from a noted apologist, Jonathan Prejean, who has presented a reasonable explanation of how we should view the writings of the Fathers in the context of the timeline of history.

Enjoy!

The better Protestant scholars admit that “justification by faith alone” and sola scriptura are entirely absent in the Fathers. They are left with arguing that the regula fidei is so minimal that even Protestants can endorse it, a la Eric Osborn, a view that cannot be sustained by anyone who views the Alexandrian Christology of the Councils as an authentic development. And then they must argue that the Fathers were either negligent or wrong about JBFA because of Hellenistic philosophy, ignorance, inchoate beliefs, unsophistication, or whatever excuse they can conjure (a la McGrath). This is the only road available to numerous Protestant scholars like D.H. Williams and Daniel Clendenin because their own lately-formed tradition says that the Bible allows it, absent any real historical argument for the normativity of their Tradition apart from “we like it, and we don’t want to lose it.” But no honest Protestant scholar takes the King/Webster position that there is no absence to explain; all of them concede by now that JBFA and SS simply aren’t there and that the absence MUST be explained for Protestants to advance a good faith historical claim. The last major attempt to do so was based on a supposed conflict between Alexandrian and Antiochene Christology (allegedly resolved in the “compromise” of Chalcedon) to argue that the Protestant concept of Scriptural authority was supported in the Antiochene school of theology (Bray is an example of someone who tried to make hay of this distinction, along with Harold O.J. Brown and David S. Dockery). That theory has been so convincingly brutalized by the scholarship that I can’t imagine it being taken seriously anymore. Likewise went the vain attempts to distinguish transubstantiation from the patristic doctrine of the Real Presence, which requires unsustainable connections between the supposedly Augustinian views of several Christian heretics to the patristic views. Maybe these thin reeds might have been considered a reasonable basis for a position in the early nineties, but they’ve all been broken in the last decade, and as far as I can tell, the only Protestants who are being honest are those like Williams and Clendenin who are willing to say “We consider the Fathers wrong, but since our interpretation of the Bible is the only authority, it’s OK.”

Frankly, most Catholics would simply dismiss the assertion that the Fathers need to be corrected in this manner out of hand, for which I can hardly blame them. This is what Newman means when he says “To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.” It is impossible to be Protestant without charging all of the Fathers with fundamental theological error (or at least serious Biblical or theological ignorance), and that is too much for most people to swallow. Newman considered it important to be on the side of St. Athanasius and not the Arians, and if one takes that view, one simply can’t be Protestant.

(cont.)


#2

And note that there isn’t parity here. Most Catholics recognize that doctrines like the Assumption, Immaculate Conception, and even the technical definitions of papal infallibility and authority are sufficiently peripheral that it wasn’t necessary for the Fathers to have any explicit knowledge of them. The experience of centuries is required to appreciate their significance. But Protestants have more or less equated Scriptural authority and JBFA with the Gospel, so they don’t have the luxury of inconsistently saying that they are peripheral doctrines. If a Father makes a mistake on the Immaculate Conception, it’s no big deal from the Catholic perspective, because the Immaculate Conception is the sort of doctrine that depends on considerable theological development. But the fact that every single recorded Christian blew it on the Gospel is more than a historical anomaly; it’s a disaster. Effectively, Protestants are charging the Fathers with error on major matters, while Catholics are charging them with error on peripheral matters that we wouldn’t even expect them to know (absent blatant abuse of Magisterial documents regarding the “unanimous consent of the Fathers,” doctrines having been “known in every age,” and the like to assert that they had to be known consciously and formally).

From a post by Jonathan Prejean in the Speak Your Mind Forum
http://www.envoymagazine.com/Forum/topic.asp?TOPIC_ID=3200&whichpage=5

Hope this helps. :tiphat:


#3

No - that would be a foolish thing to expect. Which is why it is very unwise to expect them to agree with the modern teaching authority on every point, or to be useful guides in such matters as evolution. As well might one expect Isaiah to agree with every iota of the Nicene Creed

Protestants frequently seek to read their own theology back into the Fathers

As do Catholics, among others; which suggests that Protestants are using pre-Reformation methods to read the Bible

(or to read Catholic theology OUT of them) by claiming that the “early church” did not teach this or that doctrine. This approach fails to take into account that doctrine has developed in a more or less sequential fashion and that some primary issues had to be worked out carefully before the secondary matters could become visible. Examples of the latter include the nuanced doctrines of Papal Infallibility (following on the understanding of infallibility of the Church) or the Immaculate Conception (which flows from an understanding of Christ’s true nature), etc.

Consequently, the idea that the ECFs were more Protestant than Catholic is put forward seriously by those who have not thought the issue through.

Which is by no means as risible as it may appear - it depends on what one understands by the idea

To counter this, I offer this passage from a noted apologist, Jonathan Prejean, who has presented a reasonable explanation of how we should view the writings of the Fathers in the context of the timeline of history.

Enjoy!

(cont.)


#4

Were the ECF’s always “on the ball” when explaining Church doctrine?

I give you exhibit A: Tertullian


#5

Tertullian is interesting because he was on the ball so much in his early writings then slowly wrote some dissent in his mid Motanist period and was downright heretical when he officially became a Montanist. He only demonstrates that Orthodoxy is consistent when adhering to the official line of the church and you delve into dissent and then latter downright heresey when you leave Mother Church.

In contrast Augustine demonstrated a backward conversion from Manicheanism to Catholicism and backward heterodoxy to Orthodxy thus demonstrating the same thing in a different manner.

But Tertullian’s early writings are still important witness to very early Catholcism and while some protestants will use some of his mid-term writings as he begins to dissent from the church we all know context is everything and he was on his way out of the church at this time and we should be quick to point this out to these protestants who ignore context and history.


#6

Exactly! Which is why I posted Tertullian.

When he preaches good sound doctrine, other ECF’s either praised his works or were silent on the matter.

But when Tully went off the deep end, his writings were met with much dissent.

Many ECF followers tend to forgot the fact that a lot of the wiritngs have corroborating (is that spelled right?) support.


#7

Applying this Protestant logic to another field of study, they would hold Louis Pasteur in contempt for not finding a cure for AIDS because they don’t appreciate development - the idea that one concept builds on another - A is followed by B which is followed in turn by C.

Ironically, whenever anyone points out some of the more “Catholic” ideas of the earliest Reformers, non-C;s are quick to dismiss them. Luther and Calvin got the ball rolling to be sure, but the further Protestantism gets from them, the more pure Reformed theology becomes, doesn’t it?

Sounds like development to me.

But it’s a one-way street…it’s okay for Protestant scholars to develop and tweak their ideas but Catholics have to have a manuscript from the second century defining our doctrines in very precise language or they will hear none of it.


#8

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit www.catholic.com.