Monday, February 08, 2010

The New Testament Documents Were More Foundational Than Church Infallibility

In an article in 2008, I wrote:

While heretics and the many branches of what we call orthodoxy widely agreed about scripture, there was no comparable agreement about a system of church infallibility. The Arians would reject anti-Arian councils, and the anti-Arians would reject Arian councils, but neither side would reject the gospel of Matthew or Paul's epistle to the Romans when such a document was cited against that side's position. It seems that Christians, heretics, and those who didn't even profess to be Christians accepted the foundational role of scripture in Christianity while widespread disputes over church authority went on for centuries and continue to this day. A Celsus, an Arius, or an Athanasius will be more concerned with scripture than with any other authority when discussing Christianity. That doesn't rule out the existence of some other infallible authority, but it does say something about the level of evidence for one type of authority as compared to another....

Lane alludes to another point I've made in note 29, when he comments that "But it must be remembered that Tertullian became a Montanist" and makes reference to how "the fathers could sit very loose to tradition when it suited them". In other words, as I noted in my e-mail yesterday, commitment to scripture in the patristic era was more deeply rooted and consistent than commitment to various concepts of the church and extra-Biblical tradition, as is the case in our day.

Dave Armstrong recently responded:

Oh, this is brilliant. So because people whom we all agree agree were heretics rejected orthodox councils, and because orthodox Catholicism rejected heretical councils, this supposedly proves something because both sides accepted Matthew's authenticity as inspired Scripture? But in the same period we see all kinds of anomalies in views of the canon that I noted last time: even the NT canon. It's another rhetorical dead-end for Jason....

One reason for that, I submit, is that a book can be molded in many different ways: often according to the whims of the molder, whereas live, institutional authority of human beings entails a direct accountability that will always be rejected by significant numbers. This proves nothing, however, as to the truth or falsity of either thing.

As I explained in an earlier response to Dave, to compare a church father's rejection of 3 John to rejection of the papacy, for example, is misleading. Patristic disagreements over the canon aren't as significant as patristic disagreements over church infallibility. Not only is less at stake in the canonical disagreements, but those disagreements were less widespread as well, as I mentioned in the earlier response to Dave linked above.

But the entirety of the canon doesn't need to have the sort of widespread acceptance I referred to in order for my argument to be applicable to part of the canon. Dave can't dismiss the significance of my argument by claiming that it's only applicable to a portion of the canon, particularly since the portion in question is a large majority.

I addressed the issue of hostile corroboration of the New Testament canon in an article last year. I'll repeat some of what I said there, but not all of it. And I'll be adding some comments here that I didn't include there.

Bruce Metzger wrote:

"The Gnostics acknowledged this [that Gnosticism wasn't found in the New Testament documents], but asserted that such teachings had not been communicated by the Lord to the general public, but only to his most trusted disciples....The Gnostics also produced other texts in which the apostles report what the Lord had secretly communicated to them....Alongside such 'secret' traditions the Gnostics would, naturally, also know and even utilize the books received by the Church, while interpreting them in their own special manner." (The Canon Of The New Testament [New York: Oxford University Press, 1997], pp. 77-78)

Harry Gamble writes:

"This means that what was at stake between gnostic and non-gnostic Christians was not principally which books were authoritative, but rather how the scriptures were to be rightly interpreted. In point of fact, gnostic Christians employed virtually all the books that were used in the church at large. The difference lay not in the documents, but in different hermeneutical programs." (in Lee McDonald and James Sanders, edd., The Canon Debate [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2002], p. 293)

As Pheme Perkins notes:

"No claim to apostolic teaching could be credible without evoking the authoritative, publicly available text." (ibid., p. 360)

Irenaeus tells us that some heretics rejected some New Testament documents (Against Heresies, 3:11:7), but that most "do certainly recognise the Scriptures; but they pervert the interpretations" (Against Heresies, 3:12:12). From what we know of the Gnostics and other early heretics, from their own writings and from sources like Irenaeus, their beliefs are contradicted by the New Testament documents. The fact that they would think they needed to accept those documents anyway, but apply implausible interpretations to them and add their own documents and alleged secret traditions, reflects well on the New Testament. Irenaeus makes much of such hostile corroboration in his treatise Against Heresies, and he was right to do so.

The significance of the Gnostics' acceptance of the documents is illustrated by the absurdity of their interpretations. Why didn't they just reject the documents instead? As Irenaeus remarks after describing some of their views, "They have now been fully exposed; and simply to exhibit their sentiments, is to obtain a victory over them." (Against Heresies, 1:31:3) The historian Philip Schaff commented:

"These heretical testimonies [in support of the fourth gospel] are almost decisive by themselves. The Gnostics would rather have rejected the fourth Gospel altogether, as Marcion actually did, from doctrinal objection. They certainly would not have received it from the Catholic church, as little as the church would have received it from the Gnostics. The concurrent reception of the Gospel by both at so early a date is conclusive evidence of its genuineness. 'The Gnostics of that date,' says Dr. Abbot, 'received it because they could not help it. They would not have admitted the authority of a book which could be reconciled with their doctrines only by the most forced interpretation, if they could have destroyed its authority by denying its genuineness. Its genuineness could then be easily ascertained. Ephesus was one of the principal cities of the Eastern world, the centre of extensive commerce, the metropolis of Asia Minor. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people were living who had known the apostle John. The question whether he, the beloved disciple, had committed to writing his recollections of his Master’s life and teaching, was one of the greatest interest. The fact of the reception of the fourth Gospel as his work at so early a date, by parties so violently opposed to each other, proves that the evidence of its genuineness was decisive. This argument is further confirmed by the use of the Gospel by the opposing parties in the later Montanistic controversy, and in the disputes about the time of celebrating Easter.'" (History Of The Christian Church, 1:12:83)

Dave Armstrong tells us that "a book can be molded in many different ways: often according to the whims of the molder, whereas live, institutional authority of human beings entails a direct accountability that will always be rejected by significant numbers". But the Gnostics could have rejected both. They had other sources to utilize, such as their own documents and alleged oral traditions from the apostles. It's not as though they were obligated to accept a mainstream Christian source of authority and chose the Biblical documents as the source they would accept. They could have rejected both the Biblical documents and Dave's concept of an infallible church. Why did they, instead, accept the former while not accepting the latter? And what infallible church teachings would they have been "directly accountable" to? As I noted in an earlier response to Dave, we have no record of any allegedly infallible pronouncements from any sources like a Roman bishop or ecumenical council during the earliest generations of church history. Speculating that groups like the Gnostics didn't accept church authority because they anticipated how it might be used against them in the future wouldn't change the fact that they corroborate the New Testament documents, but not Dave's concept of an infallible church. Arguing that they had a bad reason for not corroborating Dave's position doesn't change the fact that they didn't corroborate it, whereas they did corroborate the New Testament documents.

And I didn't just cite heretics, like the Gnostics. I also cited non-Christian sources, like the ones discussed in my article on hostile corroboration. If non-Christian sources give us corroboration of the apostolicity of documents like the gospels, whereas they don't give us such corroboration for an infallible church, much less Dave's concept of an infallible church in particular, then that adds weight to the Evangelical position. Jewish and Roman opponents of Christianity weren't interested in how they might "mold" the New Testament documents to make them seem to agree with their own beliefs. They acknowledged their disagreement with the documents and rejected their authority. When the earliest enemies of Christianity acknowledge the apostolic origins of New Testament documents and treat those documents as foundational to Christianity, whereas they show no knowledge of Dave's system of church infallibility, that's a significant contrast that favors the Evangelical position.

I also cited the example of Tertullian, who's often considered a schismatic, not a heretic. He's one of the primary ante-Nicene sources cited to support some of the concepts often associated with an infallible church, like apostolic succession. His view of the church significantly changed over time, whereas his view of the New Testament documents was more consistent. Similarly, if Catholics are going to argue that patristic opponents of the papacy, like Cyprian, were inconsistent in their view of the church (inconsistent with themselves, inconsistent with the other Christians of their day, or both), then their more consistent view of the New Testament documents is a significant contrast.

Church infallibility could be rejected for more than one reason. It might be rejected because a source (heretical, schismatic, or other) doesn't agree with what the church teaches or is expected to teach in the future. But it could also be rejected because a source doesn't think there's sufficient evidence for an infallible church. Why should we think that the former was occurring rather than the latter? What if men like Tertullian and Cyprian supported the New Testament documents more consistently than they supported Dave's view of an infallible church because they had better evidence for the former?

Dave is trying to explain why there was a wider acceptance of the New Testament documents than an infallible church, but he isn't giving us reason to conclude that there wasn't a wider acceptance of those documents. I consider Dave's explanation for the wider acceptance less likely than my explanation. But it is a fact that the New Testament documents were more widely accepted. We know that those documents were corroborated by hostile sources early and often. We don't know that about Dave's system of church infallibility. It's also advantageous to the Evangelical position when scripture is cited earlier, more explicitly, and more often and is appealed to more consistently. The New Testament itself and the earliest patristic sources explicitly refer to New Testament documents as scripture at a time when alleged references to an infallible church exist in a far more vague seed form at best. When Eusebius composed his church history near the close of the ante-Nicene era, the large majority of the text of the New Testament could be reconstructed from citations in earlier sources, and he could name every one of the twenty-seven documents as well-known and widely accepted as scripture. In contrast, neither the concept nor an exercise of papal or conciliar infallibility is to be found. Roman Catholicism claims that the papacy is the foundation of the church, and that foundation is found in only one ante-Nicene source (the Roman bishop Stephen), a source who's contradicted by other sources rather than corroborated. Dave has to appeal to an alleged seed form of church infallibility that existed in the earliest centuries, and that seed is far too vague to single out Roman Catholicism as its future development. As we'll see in some upcoming posts about issues like apostolic succession and Irenaeus' view of the church (and as we've already seen with regard to Papias and other sources), even the vague seed Dave appeals to is less than he makes it out to be. It's not even an acorn. It's more like a mustard seed that Dave is trying to mutate into an acorn to justify his oak.

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