Sunday, January 07, 2007

Were The Early Church Fathers Papists?

This is my reply to Phil in the thread One Holy Universal Church. As I was writing my reply it became too long and too involved to just leave it to me and Phil so I thought I'd share.

Begin reply:

While I'm not suggesting that the early fathers believed in papal infallibility necessarily or that they even had an understanding of the papacy like the one we have today, I think "respect" is not adequate to describe their thoughts towards the Roman pontiff as that link I posted (I believe) clearly shows.

Studying the development of beliefs is an important task in determining their truth but it must be done with reason. The Protestant position is that the papacy developed gradually starting probably very late (as you have stated in the middle ages) and is unfounded Scripturally and the early Church didn't believe in it.

Obviously, Catholics see it differently. In my previous post I discussed the Catholicity of the Church in Acts. While Peter's clear prominence (mentioned more than any other apostle in the NT) is already well documented in the gospels, Acts continues this prominence. Much of Acts is centered on the journeys of St. Paul but St. Peter is consistently portrayed as the leading authority of the Church. Why, if he wasn't the rock on which Christ built His Church? (Not a rhetorical question, I don't know the answer and I'm sure you have a response).

Now as for the development of doctrine, yes we do need to pay very close attention. But if, as you say, a doctrine arising from nowhere or only gradually being developed and not pronounced until much later than the NT means it is false... then all Protestant doctrines would be false since they unequivocally arose many hundreds of years after the apostles. The biggest and most indisputable example would be sola fide which any pro-Luther scholar (like Heiko Oberman for example) would agree, never once appeared anywhere before Martin Luther came up with it. A weak argument can be made from the writings of Paul but only if you ignore the rest of Scripture and Paul never actually says it. You cannot argue that this doctrine didnt just come out of nowhere in 1521. So if a doctrine starting late means its false, then Protestantism would be false as well. In that case, maybe the Orthodox Christians are the ones who found the truth.

Nevertheless, as those quotes from that link above show, it did not completely arise out of nowhere in the middle ages. The understanding we have today has been developmental I will concede that. But in the Scriptures we see Peter's prominence and authority, and in the writings of the early fathers through history we see not merely respect for but extreme loyalty and even submission to the Roman pontiff.

Now you said this doctrine arose in the middle ages. Ignoring the quotes from the Fathers linked to above, Bruce Shelley (unambiguously anti-Catholic Church historian) in his book "Church History in Plain Language" on page 133 he says:

"Whatever the absolute claims of church authorities, history indicates that the concept of papal rule of the whole church was established by slow and painful stages"
(Again this doesnt mean its wrong even if what he says is true... Getting the Jews to accept Christ has been a much slower and much longer process but...) He goes on to say:
"Leo is a major figure in that process because he provides for the first time the biblical and theological bases of the papal claim. That is why it is misleading to speak of the papacy before his time."
Aside from Mr. Shelley being completely wrong in this point (see St. Irenaeus Against Heresies in the late 2nd century for example) Leo was the pope from 440 - 461 AD as attested to by Mr. Shelley's list of popes on page 505. So while even his date is very late for the pronounced beginning of papal rule, it is still much earlier than the middle ages.

On page 136 he goes on to admit:
"At a synod in Rome the next year[382], the bishops from the West argued: 'The Holy Roman Church takes precedence over the other churches, not on the ground of any synodal decisions, but because it was given the primacy by the words of our Lord and Redeemer in the gospel, when He said: 'Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church.''"
So now he has contradicted himself in his attempt to prove the issue of primacy to be as late as possible, since he said before that Leo was the first to argue from the Scriptures and he disproves it himself (ignoring the arguments that came before even the synod at Rome). Lets not forget that all this is coming from a book on church history which is very anti-catholic. I read this book while I was still a Protestant and I myself was anti-Catholic. But I remember how surprised I was at his not-so-cleverly disguised contempt for the Catholic Church. So if there's bias in his work (and there is), its in your favor not mine and thats why I quote him.

Back to my point, again even if all of this were true and even if the doctrine wasnt developed until the middle ages that wouldnt make it false. Or how many years do we have in the 'grace period' ending with Christ to nail down a doctrine? I hope its only a few because many Christian dogmas accepted by both Protestants and Catholics came much later.

Notably, the Trinity was never even mentioned until the second century. None of the authors of the New Testament had any knowledge of the doctrine as is made clear by their writings. (Not saying that they opposed it, just that the doctrine had not fully developed to the level of understanding we have today.. that would not come until more than 300 years later). But none of this means that the doctrine is false, I'm sure you will agree. So how can we say "doctrine x appeared y number of years after Christ and was a developed doctrine" when we ourselves believe in other doctrines originating at various intervals and some much later than doctrine x!

Now as for the Trinity, you can look back to Scripture and see the Trinity being taught. You can also look back and see the primacy of Saint Peter.

There's enough 'wiggle room' in history and in Scripture to deny the primacy of the Roman pontiff. It's a matter of faith (and no I'm not saying that if you have as much faith as me you'll belive.). I know many millions of faithful Christians do not believe in the primacy of St. Peter's chair. Much of the disbelief is based on misconceptions though such as the notions that the Pope is seen as sinless or inerrant in everything that comes out of his mouth. Neither of these are true. Some do not believe in it out of a contempt for authority in general. Others understand the doctrine very well but reject it theological grounds. I think though, to reject it on historical grounds is a bit lacking.

Ultimately as we all agree, Christ is the head of the Church, which is His bride. Let us find ways that we can in unison bring glory to His name and keep our brothers and sisters on the straight and narrow path.


Phil S. said...


I do understand what you are saying about the history, although I don't hink the RC case is as strong as you suggest. There is absolutely no doubt that the church at Rome and its bishop has a particularly high degree of respect from the other churches from the time of Clement of Rome onwards. Similarly, there is no doubt that the bishop of Rome was not shy about giving advice either nor is there doubt that that advice was considered irrelevant in most cases (even by opponents).

Yet, I go back to my question of what precisely you mean by papist. I am no anti-Catholic (despite my disagreements with some elements of the Roman Catholic theology), but I find it hard not to see a progression of papal authority from the time of Clement into the Middle Ages. No doubt, many of the seeds of later developments can be found in the patristic church, but I would argue that it is reading too much back to expect to find a papacy with the kind of developed claims and powers that the mediaeval and counter-Reformation papacy had at its disposal. Rome in the patristic era had a lofty status, but it was more of a primus inter pares status, not the kind of unchallenged ecclesial power that the papacy had after the collapse of Roman rule in the West. I personally think it is the patristic standard which should be applied to the bishop of Rome and I try to apply it when I read the statements of the Pope. I think it is important to listen to the Pope (because Rome's record of orthodoxy is an excellent one), but not always have to agree.

This puts me in rather a more middle position than I think you are presuming. I'm not interested in disproving the idea that Rome was a very important see in the patristic age. It clearly was. It, however, did not have the kind of hegemonic position that it would later have in the mediaeval Western Europe. That is all I'm arguing.


TheGodFearinFiddler said...

I agree with most of your points. I think we disagree only slightly on the level of "respect" or authority possessed by the Roman Pontiff in early Christianity. You seem to be much more studied on the fathers than me though so I'll assume you're right about that. I am a new Catholic and previously as a Reformed Protestant - the opinions of Early Church Fathers were taboo to me so I'm still reading. I have a one year plan laid out I'll get back to you on that :)

But my main point is that, yes the doctrine was developmental but so were others that we all agree on. Mariology was all developmental and I'm sure you agree with most of that don't you? Just because a doctrine wasnt fully understood from the very beginning doesnt mean that its false. The RC case doesnt rest on the notion that the papacy was exactly the same in the second century as it is today, but rather on the belief and teaching that the Holy Spirit would guide His Church into all truth through Apostolic Succession.

Thanks for the discussion.

Victor said...

This was something I posted in a forum back in 04-20-2006 that I think is relevant to the discussion.

I think the difficulties that some Eastern Orthodox/High Churches have with Catholic doctrine on the Procession of the Holy Spirit, Papal Infallibility, purgatory, the two Marian dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, and in fact, even some other teachings, stem from a profound miscomprehension of the development of dogma that has taken place in the history of the Church. From the conversations I've had and reading on this matter Eastern Orthodox interpret the immutability of Christian dogma in the sense that every defined dogma or traditional doctrine of the Church must have been explicitly believed as such by the faithful from the beginning of its history.

It is true that every dogma proclaimed by the Church for belief is true, always has been true, and its meaning can not be altered or changed so that it bears a different meaning than that held by the Church in previous times. But it is not true that every dogma or doctrine contained in the “deposit of faith” confided to the Apostles has been the object of explicit believe in every age, and only subject to new technical language in the definitions of Ecumenical Councils.

***Highly recommend John Henry Newman who mastered the meaning of Develpment of Doctrine***

Those who deny dogmatic progress in the life of the Church only manifest once again their adherence to a “non-historical orthodoxy”. For an authentic “development of doctrine” has taken place in the life of the Church, and it involves not only new philosophico-theological expression for the revealed truths that were always explicitly believed (say, the divinity of Christ) but also the folding of aspects of doctrine(e.g., the canon of Scripture, the number of the sacraments, the hypostatic union, the immaculate Conception of the Mother of God, the particular judgement, et.) under the guidance of the Holy Spirit leading the faithful to a greater understanding of the supernatural mysteries revealed in Jesus Christ.

This is the crux of our differences. It all stems from this misunderstanding.

In prayer that all may be One in Christ,

TheGodFearinFiddler said...

Thanks for the comments Victor. Good stuff.

NotMyOpinion30 said...

I think the same problem that occurs with selecting individual verses from Scripture and reading them out of context to "prove" something can occur with the writings of the Early Fathers. Unfortunately, in the process of pouring over volumes of Early Fathers' writings to find one or two quotable sentences that, out of context, seem to agree with some of the heretical teachings of the Reformation, those who do so lose out on the wealth of the teachings in those writings.

I think if they read the Fathers writings in their entirety rather than just scanning for something they can misinterpret, it would be much better for their Christian lives. I guess the same thing goes for the Sacred Scriptures.

Also, I think it is important to once again repeat that the Doctors of the Church would not be saints in the Catholic Church if they were heretics. As if the Catholic Church would not have taken notice of heretical teachings. From my understanding, Tertullian had alot of excellent writings, but he later fell into heresy (PLEASE, correct me if I'm wrong on that).