Thursday, March 01, 2007

Is Tradition Reliable?

I will be discussing St. Clement of Rome shortly, but before I do, I wanted to make an introduction concerning the reliability of tradition when it pertains to historical research.

First, much of the argument of the skeptic rests on the fact that we have relatively few remaining manuscripts from that time period. The anti-Catholic has an unwarranted distrust for tradition and it’s historical reliability. Not that this distrust is an unfair position, but because it rules out many options a-priori, it would be a little far fetched to assume that any historical research carried out with this presupposition was very accurate.

When Did the Tradition Begin?
Dating the origin of traditions can often be a very misleading task. When someone says “this tradition originated in the 4th century” for example, it is important to verify if there is significant evidence to suggest that it did not exist prior to that. Simply stating that it did not exist in writing prior to that time is hardly adequate to prove the date. It can be generally assumed, that at that time period; traditions existed long before they were ever put in writing.

For example, Justin Martyr described the order of the mass around the middle of the second century. This is the earliest detailed explanation of the chronology of a Christian service in the early Church. But the traditions of the mass most certainly pre-date that! They undoubtedly extend back to the home-churches spoken of in Acts (though they undoubtedly underwent some significant evolution). It would not, therefore, be unreasonable to assume that the basic structure of the mass (as recorded by St. Justin Martyr) was nearly the same if not identical to the one instituted by the apostles. It would, however, be unreasonable to assume that the traditional order of the mass had it’s beginnings in the middle of the second century (at least unless you were able to produce some strong evidence suggesting so from other sources).

All of the above could be stated and remain unchallenged even if all the writings of the early Church were extant today. That is, traditions pre-date their original appearance in literature (especially in that culture; no mass media etc…) But to further complicate the issue, we have only a portion of the writings which were at one time in existence!

So therefore, when we see a tradition (supposedly) not being mentioned before the 3rd or 4th century, it is a fallacy of colossal proportions to assume a-priori that the tradition originated at the precise date when we first see it mentioned. The above two premises, I think, clearly demonstrate that. 1) Traditions most likely predate their first appearance in writing by many years & 2) It is highly probable that we are not in possession of the earliest appearances of various traditions since many writings are no longer extant.

It could, however, be validly argued (albeit weakly) that the tradition does not predate it’s first mention if it can be demonstrated that we have legitimate reason to believe that the tradition did not or could not have existed before the date in question. That is, we have to have some contradictory evidence not merely a lack of positive evidence. However, even in the rare cases where contradictory evidence is present, they are almost always inconclusive; still leaving the possibility of an earlier origin for the tradition in question.

So then in much of the issues (not merely surrounding St. Clement but also of many other historical truths which would otherwise be taken as settled fact except that they are convenient for Christianity) the way we handle traditions will have a considerable effect on our historical research.

Different Approaches to Studying Tradition
A skeptic often insists that the lack of evidence indicates a lack of tradition. He is also all too eager to dismiss the claims of Christian historians because of the mere fact that they are Christian. Church historian Eusebius, for example, is often accused by skeptics of being a ‘dishonest historian’. You cannot make that claim without some pretty hefty assumptions.

On the other hand, I tend to believe the Church fathers and trust in their historical competency unless I have significant evidence to the contrary. That is; by default I believe they are correct. (The skeptic assumes by default that they are incorrect unless he sees strong evidence to prove that they are correct).

In some cases, even the skeptic is forced to submit to the overwhelming evidence that supports the claims of the early Christians. But in many cases, the evidence is simply impossible to produce. We don’t have time machines after all. So whenever possible, the skeptic will assume an error or an outright lie by a Christian historian if it cannot be reasonably proved one way or the other.

Now, lest you consider me blind to my own bias I am openly admitting that my bias is toward the other extreme (as I just explained). The skeptic has for his underlying reason his primary presupposition that there is no god. I of course have the opposite presupposition; that there is a god, but I also argue that I have valid reasons for my other presupposition when it comes to historical research (i.e. that I trust in the Church fathers by default). I have already explained that in some detail but perhaps a modern day example would be helpful.

Modern Day Tradition
This is a story of my father when he was growing up with his two older brothers. For Christmas, they all received a bow & arrow set. Eager to try out their new gifts, they rushed out to the field and set up targets. My grandfather warned them, of course, on how to be safe while using these potentially deadly weapons. He said all three of you shoot all of your arrows, and then you can all go and pick up your arrows after you’re done. It is important to make sure everyone stays behind the line before anyone goes to pick up any arrows. (You can already see where this one is going).

So the eldest brother of course, got to try his first. And after shooting, instead of letting the others take their turn, he went to pick up his arrows. The middle brother noticed that he was bending over to pick up his arrow and decided to ‘seize the opportunity’. He fired the arrow and wouldn’t you know it, the older brother stood up just in time. Luckily, he was wearing a leather cap which protected him from serious injury but it did break the skin and cause bleeding.

Of course all granddad heard was “John shot me” from a crying adolescent with blood running down the back of his head. So John got himself in some serious trouble.

Many years from now, I may tell this to my children and maybe even my grandchildren (I’m not married yet so it may be some time). So let’s say in the year 2050, I’ve told my young grandchildren and they put it in writing for their school project on family history. Here it is, almost 100 years after the original event and no one has ever written this down (forget that you just read it in my blog!) Some of my grandchildren’s contemporaries may even question whether the event really happened. In fact, no eye witnesses are alive, and even his grandfather who told him of the event was not an eyewitness.

Why would a grandfather give children dangerous weapons for toys? And even if he did, would he let them play with them unsupervised? This sounds a little more like a made up fairy tale to teach kids a lesson than an actual event. By our best guesses chronologically, the middle son would have been between 10 & 13 and the oldest son between 12 & 15. Would the middle son really have the lack of common sense to do such a thing? Would the oldest son really be crying to his dad? Wouldn’t he be tough enough by that point to suck it up? All these evidences point to the idea that it didn’t even happen (or at least has been exaggerated). To make it even more certain, no one even mentioned this event until the year 2050, some 80-84 years after the supposed event even took place. This is merely a tradition that arose in the early to mid 21st century which was created to teach kids a lesson about safety.

So the future skeptic may well reject the validity of the story. Now I can’t verify if the skeptic is right or wrong because I wasn’t there. I merely passed the story along to my grandchildren, I didn’t offer proofs for why I believed it was true. They knew I believed it was true because I told them it was and I wouldn’t lie. Now suppose I’m no longer around in 2050, there is no one around to defend the story. If I were alive, I could tell you that I heard the story many times from several sources. I sat in a room on more than one occasion with no less than 6 eye witnesses (including my grandparents) to the event as the story was told and no one raised any objections.

I have significant reason to believe that the story was true despite what parts of it may seem unlikely (I know I am exaggerating their unlikelihood and its not easily comparable to the types of claims made by early Christians but it's only to prove a point). Now the same sort of thing (I suggest) is occurring with our historical study of early Christian traditions. The earlier you go, the less extant writings there are and therefore the more room for historical speculation. I implore the student of historical research therefore, to (when necessary) offer the benefit of the doubt for the early historian (whether he’s Christian or not). Much like those skeptics in 2050 would be better off offering the benefit of the doubt to my future grandchildren, so we too in the interest of truth and accuracy would be better off I suggest by assuming that the historian of that time has valid reasons likely unknown to us why he makes the claims that he does.

For example, Eusebius mentions a number of writings which we know nothing about. Is it unreasonable to assume that he may be drawing from those traditions? How about the many writings which were undoubtedly extant and the time and not now which he doesn’t even mention? How about the ample oral tradition he is privy to which we are not? Apply the same sort of questions to all of the early Church fathers; Irenaeus, Papias, Justin Martyr etc…

Some skeptics claim that the bias of early Christians led them to fabricate history. I find that in the majority of cases, this argument has a serious problem holding water. It especially becomes difficult to fathom such a scenario the closer you get to the apostles. The second century is really key for the understanding of the establishment of Christian tradition and the continuance of Apostolic Succession.

Most of the skeptics have only a superficial understanding of the Christian religion (and indeed, most Christians do too). But the truth is, that in the first & second century, true Judaism moved from an insignificant, ethnic sect into the religion that would soon dominate the known world and became known as Christianity. How this happened (if not for the truth of it’s claims) has yet to be sufficiently explained by any skeptic.

It makes the skeptic’s argument even harder to swallow to suggest that these great fathers of the second century converted from their ancestral religions to this small but growing ethnic cult which until a few decades ago considered them ‘dogs’ because of their ethnicity, and then proceeded to conjure up lies to defend this faith.

Now I’m not suggesting that the early Church fathers never made any historical errors. To be sure; they did. But I find it far fetched to accuse them of dishonesty. And in general, I believe them to be very accurate.

So, my conclusion is that the early Church fathers are innocent until proven guilty; accurate until proven inaccurate.


Phil S. said...

An excellent post. I don't think you'll convince any skeptics out there, but I think you challenge the notion that tradition is necessarily wrong as well as you can.

Ultimately, I'm never surprised when tradition is attacked, whether from other Christian or secular scholars. You put your finger on the divide between these groups, but I don't know we can ever quite convince anyone on the other side of the discussion to reconsider.

Peace, Phil

TheGodFearinFiddler said...

I think you're right, I doubt I'll be convincing any skeptics any time soon but hopefully it can be of some use to someone.

Thanks for the comments.