Thursday, April 12, 2012

The agrapha

21 After this Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias, and he revealed himself in this way. 2 Simon Peter, Thomas (called the Twin), Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples were together...20 Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them, the one who also had leaned back against him during the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” 21 When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” 22 Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” 23 So the saying spread abroad among the brothers that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?” (Jn 21:1-2,20-23).

One argument which Catholic epologists commonly deploy is the claim that you can’t find Protestant distinctives in the early church. Protestant distinctives are theological innovations.

This argument takes two forms: (a) the claim that a Protestant distinctive (e.g. sola fide) isn’t mentioned in the church fathers, or (b) the claim that Protestant theology contradicts the church fathers (e.g. the real presence). (a) is an argument from silence (i.e. absence of evidence), whereas (b) appeals to (alleged) counterevidence.

This argument is generally bolstered by the attendant claim that patristic testimony, especially from the apostolic fathers, is presumptively apostolic. The apostolic fathers reputedly knew the apostles. Hence, they are transmitting apostolic doctrine.

There are several steps to this argument. Key assumptions. For instance, how many of the apostolic fathers actually knew the apostles? If so, which apostles did they know? How old were the apostolic fathers when they allegedly heard the apostles? How often did they hear them?

In addition, the appeal to patristic attestation is double-edged. Newman introduced the theory of development to account for innovations in Catholic dogma.

But let’s address the argument head-on. In Jn 21:23 we have an agraphon: an oral tradition of something Jesus said. 

We can also narrow down the source to one of the seven disciples present when Jesus spoke. This was then handed down by word-of-mouth.

[BTW, this is a mark of authenticity. If John’s Gospel was fictitious, why would the narrator invent 7 disciples for this post-Easter scene, rather than the 11 remaining disciples (prescinding Judas)? This is the sort of incidental detail that we’d expect from the narrator if he were an eyewitness, reporting what he saw.]

Yet what Jesus originally said quickly became garbled in transmission. It became a false rumor about the Parousia.

That doesn’t necessarily mean one of the seven disciples misreported what Jesus said. Rather, that what he reported was misinterpreted.

John therefore adds this editorial postscript to correct that distortion. John quotes Jesus, then carefully parses his statement.

But if we didn’t have that canonical corrective, if we were at the mercy of oral tradition, then the rumor would assume the status of venerable apostolic tradition. An erroneous tradition.

And not a mistake about some side issue, but something as fundamental as the return of Christ.

This doesn’t mean testimonial evidence is inherently suspect. We generally remember events better than words. And we generally remember the gist of what was said better than the verbatim wording.

The fourth Gospel itself doesn’t rely on the vicissitudes of unaided memory. Inspiration is necessary to refresh fading memories (Jn 14:26).


  1. "a) the claim that a Protestant distinctive (e.g. sola fide) isn’t mentioned in the church fathers... (a) is an argument from silence (i.e. absence of evidence)..."

    Why isn't (a) a claim *about* silence and not *from* silence? Wouldn't one expect something as watershed as sola fide to be prominent in the fathers?

  2. i) I haven't taken a position on whether the church fathers are silent on sola fide. The church fathers contain seminal, underdeveloped ideas which can be developed in more than one direction.

    ii) In addition, people often don't appreciate the significance of what's in Scripture even though it's right there in Scripture. People are often distracted by other priorities.