Monday, March 24, 2014

History vs. Roman Catholicism

Brandon Addison
Brandon Addison has published a 25,000 word guest article at the Called to Communion site, entitled (by the CTC folks) “The Quest for the Historical Church: A Protestant Assessment”.

Brandon is a 2012 MDiv graduate of WSCal. He’s seen friends of his, including Joshua Lim, be sucked in by the seemingly slick presentation of Roman Catholicism proffered by Called to Communion.

In the article, Brandon addresses head-on the Called to Communion claim that the Roman Catholic Church is “The Church that Christ Founded”, from a historical perspective, largely by analyzing head-on the notion of “apostolic succession” – showing that it was a later development that was not part of the thinking of the first-century church.

He begins by pointing out that what he has to say is not idiosyncratic, but rather is commonly held, even among Roman Catholics, that “the general consensus among Roman Catholic scholars is that the notion of an episcopate originating with Peter is virtually non-existent in the academic world”.

He says, “[t]hus to attribute this interpretation to a “Protestant Interpretive Paradigm” does not account for the myriad Roman Catholic scholars who reject the claims that Michael Liccione makes (failing to use the “Catholic Interpretive Paradigm”), instead labeling those claims “pious romance.” The Roman Catholic claims regarding the monarchical episcopate and Apostolic Succession “are not plausible to even the majority of the RCC’s own experts.”

He then turns to evidence from various places, including the New Testament and early writers such as 1 Clement, Didache, Ignatius, and even some fictitious second-century literature such as the Preaching of Peter and the Apocalypse of Peter, and examines the words πρεσβυτέρους and ἐπισκόπους (as well as προηγουμένοις and πρωτοκαθεδρίταις from Hermas).

Citing Patrick Burke, a Roman Catholic writer, he says:

“[Hermas] does not even seem to have heard of the idea [of a monarchical bishop]. Considering that there is general agreement that the book did not take its final form until about 140, and that it certainly was written in Rome, this constitutes a considerable puzzle for church historians, for it usually taken that the monarchical episcopacy had developed by that time” “The Monarchical Episcopate at the end of the First Century,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 7 (1970): 499-518

Then he turns to what he calls “Direct Evidence” for the apostolic succession (and especially the lists of “bishops of Rome” given by Hegesippus and Irenaeus). It is telling, as I have written many times, “Hegesippus states that he drew up for himself a succession of διαδοχην, or teaching”. Even the Roman Catholic writer Johannes Quasten (who compiled works of patristic writers) “acknowledges that the text as we have received it from Eusebius is not attempting to define a succession of bishops, but rather succession of doctrine”.

Regarding Irenaeus, he cites Peter Lampe’s work (An extended review of Lampe’s work may be found here), outlines the potential objections. Citing one of the most recent scholarly works on Irenaeus, he says:

Irenaeus is arguing that the apostolic faith has been handed down in the church and has been publicly taught in all of the churches (including Ephesus and Smyrna). In other words, Irenaeus’s focus is not on grounding Christian belief in the authority of church office, but of showing the continuity of the church’s teaching in history.

Brandon then goes on to outline the historical reconstructions from that period (Rome of the first two centuries), focusing on the work of Lampe and Allen Brent (who wrote about Ignatius and Hippolytus).

Finally, he analyses “dissenters from the consensus”, along with some of the objections put forth by the Called to Communion writers. Notably, he analyses Bryan Cross’s notion to the effect that “Christ founded a visible church, with a visible hierarchy”.

Noteworthy and ironic:

I have attempted to lay out Bryan’s full argument to the best of my ability to demonstrate something very important about Bryan’s argument: as clear as it is, the entire article begs the question by assuming Christ founded the RCC. Even though Bryan asserts that he has provided evidence that it is necessary that there is a hierarchy of bishops and priests united under the episcopal successor of St. Peter, he does not show that anywhere in the article. He simply assumes that this is the case without offering an argument for it. As my article has demonstrated, Bryan’s assumption is deeply flawed and problematic....

Bryan is right to make his argument depend on the historical claim of Jesus founding the RCC. The problem is that Bryan presents no argument for his historical assumptions. If visibility entails hierarchical government as established by Jesus and handed on from the Apostles, it is manifestly clear that Christ did not found a visible church. Of course, Protestants want to affirm the necessity and importance of the visible church. We believe that there is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, but Protestants want to understand this in its proper historical context (both of the Creed and of the institution of Christ himself). Bryan’s definition of the visible church is an anachronistic assertion that requires argumentation.

He points to Pope Pius X’s “Oath against Modernism” (which all priests were required to make, from about 1906 until 1967):

I firmly hold, then, and shall hold to my dying breath the belief of the Fathers in the charism of truth, which certainly is, was, and always will be in the succession of the episcopacy from the apostles...

Of course, today’s partisan Roman Catholic apologist would swear to “the succession of the episcopacy from the apostles” but say that “it existed in seed form” and then “it developed”. However, belief in such “development” is itself a tacit admission that the historical portion of Brandon’s account is historically correct and further, with such an admission, it then becomes incumbent upon the Roman apologist to say precisely what the seeds were and how exactly they pointed to what we now see as Roman Catholicism.

At a recent ecumenical discussion on “the Petrine ministry”, the Roman Catholic theologian Herman Pottmeyer has noted, “the historical facts are not disputed” (except by hardcore apologists such as those at Called to Communion).

There is another side to all of this, as Pottmeyer noted, and while “the historical facts are not disputed, … their theological evaluation is contentious.”

What makes the “theological evaluation” contentious from the Roman Catholic side is what I’ve called the “ontological” issue, and I believe that we will see this come up in the comments, and I believe it needs to be addressed. It is the notion, as Ratzinger has stated, that “the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” “is a reality ontologically and temporally prior to every individual particular Church”, and that this “ontological reality” somehow included the hierarchy as it existed through the middle ages, and as it exists today.

That is, Roman Catholicism and that the Roman Catholic Church, hierarchy and all, views itself (analogously) as “the ongoing Incarnation of Christ”. That it is:

an entity with visible delineation through which He communicated truth and grace to all. But, the society structured with hierarchical organs and the Mystical Body of Christ, are not to be considered as two realities, nor are the visible assembly and the spiritual community, nor the earthly Church and the Church enriched with heavenly things; rather they form one complex reality which coalesces from a divine and a human element. For this reason, by no weak analogy, it is compared to the mystery of the incarnate Word (Lumen Gentium 8).

However, given Brandon’s historical treatment, the “seeds” for such a “development” are much later, and much more difficult to find.

One should note that this historical account, about which “the historical facts are [generally] not disputed”, is completely different from the historical account proffered by Rome for centuries, that Peter “traveled to Rome, established the episcopacy there, reigned for 25 years, and then passed his full authority on to the next guy, and the next, and the next, etc…” I grew up believing THAT story (as did many of the older former Roman Catholics who may be reading this).

Does Rome owe the world an apology for putting THAT account forward as the truth of, and justification for, its supposed authority, for centuries?

How does the ontological “ongoing Incarnation of Christ” get away with telling THAT falsehood for centuries?

I would invite every reader of Triablogue to take a look at Brandon’s article, and show up in the comments section at Called to Communion and join in the discussion there. At a minimum, we owe Brandon a great debt of thanks for compiling all of this into one place. He has compiled much corroborating data that I have never even had access to. This article won’t be the “scholarly monograph” on the subject. But the monograph to be written on all of this will follow the overall shape of this article.

Of course, I’ll be watching this combox as well, and if anyone has any comments or questions, I’ll be happy to address them here as well.


  1. Great stuff John.
    I appreciated what he had to say about the "tu quoque" objection. I always felt we were losing the argument by not accepting the basic premise i.e. that we have no " principled way for people to infallibly distinguish their opinion from someone else’s" of course I don't believe the catholic belief that they do have a way and I appreciated the whole article to that end but what im always left wondering is where does this leave us? what is it that we are presenting to people when we tell them x y or about the Gospel. Must we believe we are only presenting what is effectively an unverified opinion? That seems a little "off" to me. Am I wrong here?

    1. Hi Space Bishop -- I definitely believe that this article is going to be a useful summary going forward for all investigations of early forms of ministry.

      I’m not sure about your concern that we are “losing the argument” -- having “no principled way for people to infallibly distinguish ...” God does not demand that we have this. Israelites and Christians for many centuries never considered it a criterion. The notion of “infallibility” was only first mentioned in the context of Islam in the 8th or 9th century, and picked up by Christian writers in the later middle ages (I don’t have a source for this, but I remember reading it somewhere).

      The bottom line is that the whole notion of “infallibility” is a distraction from what is really true. It’s “truth” that we should consider to be normative. Rome thought it had something with the concept of “infallibility”. It was proud of saying that only Roman Catholicism had the infallible truth about Christianity. The problem was, so many of their “infallible truths” have been shown to be untrue, and they’ve had to define “infallibility” so narrowly, that the whole concept has become meaningless in practice.

      Must we believe we are only presenting what is effectively an unverified opinion?

      I would hardly consider the Bible to be “unverified opinion”. Francis Schaeffer talked about “true truth”. While we don’t have comprehensive truth about things, we can trust what we know. And while there are skeptics from all quarters these days (and throughout history), the process of authenticating and verifying (in various ways) continues to go on – we can both trust and support these sources where we find them.