Monday, March 13, 2006

More Than The Church Fathers

I recently received e-mail from a person who is having a discussion with a relative considering a conversion to Roman Catholicism. The person who e-mailed me said that he wanted to discuss what he perceives as some of the sins of the Roman Catholic Church, such as the Crusades and the Inquisition. I told him that I thought that it would be a bad idea to start with such issues, and that he ought to focus more on issues like what's taught by the Bible and the church fathers. I referred to how he should begin with a discussion of what was taught by the pre-medieval sources rather than beginning with a discussion of something like the Crusades. He asked me a good question in response. What do I mean by "pre-medieval sources", aside from the Bible and the church fathers?

Paul Owen made a good point along these lines in our recent discussion of infant baptism. He said, rightly, that if Tertullian refers to people practicing infant baptism in his day, then we would know that infant baptism existed as early as the time of Tertullian. I disagree with Paul's use of Tertullian, since it's possible that Tertullian is responding to an argument without any practice existing in his day. And if there was a practice, we don't know who practiced it or how widespread it was. However, Paul is correct in the general principle he's appealing to. The church fathers don't represent the entirety of the Bible's historical context or the entirety of early post-apostolic Christianity.

Sometimes, we learn of what other Christians believed by means of what the church fathers tell us about those other Christians. And we can learn more about the Bible's historical context and the history of Christianity from Egyptian records, Josephus, archeology, and other sources other than the church fathers.

For example, the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary was widely accepted by the church fathers from the fourth century onward. (Some of the earlier fathers, such as Hegesippus and Tertullian, seem to have contradicted the concept.) Thus, advocates of the perpetual virginity of Mary will often speak of the doctrine as something universally accepted, at least from the fourth century onward. However, Basil of Caesarea commented that the view that Mary had other children after Jesus "was widely held and, though not accepted by himself, was not incompatible with orthodoxy" (J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines [San Francisco, California: HarperCollins Publishers, 1978], p. 495). As far as I know, none of the writings of these people Basil refers to are extant. However, we know that they existed, because Basil writes about them.

Similarly, though various forms of justification through works were popular among the church fathers (though not universal), some of those fathers who advocated justification through works refer to people in their day who disagreed with them, people who advocated justification through faith alone. Their writings don't have to be extant for us to know of the existence of these people.

Along the same lines, we can learn much about what the early opponents of Christianity were arguing by reading something like Justin Martyr's Dialogue With Trypho or Origen's Against Celsus. When Justin and Origen tell us that non-Christian sources were acknowledging Bethlehem as Jesus' birthplace, for example, that fact has some significance in evaluating the historicity of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem.

Even when discussing the beliefs of the church fathers themselves, there are some qualifying factors that make an appeal to the fathers more complex than people often suggest. There are ongoing disputes about just who should or shouldn't be considered a church father. Would anybody deny that a document like Polycarp's letter to the Philippians is generally more significant than something like the Epistle of Barnabas? Would anybody argue that John of Damascus is just as relevant to the historical context of the New Testament as Clement of Rome? Would anybody place Tertullian's Montanist writings in the same category as his writings prior to becoming a Montanist?

Much of what I'm saying here is obvious and widely known. But I think that these things sometimes bear repeating, and they're often underappreciated.

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