Thursday, August 31, 2006

Perry Robinson's Claims About What The Church "Always Taught"

Perry Robinson has posted another response to me on Al Kimel's blog. In it, he writes:

"In any case, the man of God in that passage and by and large throughout scripture is not Joe Blow layman. Ministers, even if you reject episcopacy, are the primary teachers of the church."

I haven't disputed either of those two concepts, and neither leads to your Eastern Orthodox conception of "what the Bishops taught". If you didn't intend to cite 2 Timothy 3 to support your position over mine, then you were citing scripture to support concepts that aren't in dispute.

You write:

"It stands to reason that if you want to know what a body officially professes, you don’t go to the average member. You go to representative sources. Consequently representing a widespread belief among the people carries with it little purchase, for as I noted before, lots of heresies were widespread among the people, the chief example during the 2nd century being Modalism."

I addressed this issue in my responses to you earlier this year, such as in this article. If you're going to claim that concepts such as the veneration of images and prayers to the deceased were always taught by the church, then we wouldn't expect to see widespread rejection of those concepts, whether among bishops or among laymen. If a doctrine you claim to have always been taught by the church isn't advocated by any of the earliest bishops and is repeatedly contradicted in a variety of early sources, whether laymen or others, then why should we believe your assertion that the doctrine was always taught by the church? In your last post, you yourself appealed to popular practice, not just "what the Bishops taught". You wrote:

"We know from archaeological sites and texts and even hostile Gnostic sources that the Church had images, used them in the Liturgy and venerated them in their homes. Moreover, the pervasiveness of a belief or practice among the laity wouldn’t of it self show that the practice or teaching was the teaching of the church."

So, while you tell us that the laity can be wrong in belief and practice, you also appeal to evidence of what happened in "archaeological sites" and other places outside of the writings of bishops, such as in "homes", though you give us no documentation. As I explained to you earlier this year, I was primarily addressing the ante-Nicene fathers, and I was addressing the veneration of images, not the use of them. Some early sources oppose even the use of images, but a person can oppose their veneration in some sense without opposing their use altogether. You still haven't given us any reason to think that the veneration of images was always taught by the church.

You write:

"Are we to believe on the same line of reasoning that the Christian Church once professed modalism too? What is the difference between that and your infant baptism example?"

One difference is that I've given you sources for my claims about infant baptism, whereas you haven't yet given me a source for your claims about how widespread Modalism was. Another difference is that Modalism is contradicted by apostolic sources, whereas no apostolic source teaches the veneration of images. And another difference is that I don't claim that there was an infallible church that always existed and always taught the same doctrines. My position is that the Bible contradicts Modalism and that Modalists were wrong in their belief, but I wouldn't claim that there was an infallible institution that was widely recognized as the one true church and always taught that Modalism is wrong. I don't make the same claims about Modalism that you make about infant baptism.

Furthermore, we can understand why some people would oppose a concept such as Trinitarianism, since such a view of God wasn't common and involves some difficult concepts. Something like baptizing infants or praying to the deceased, on the other hand, not only is easy to understand, but also would have been reminiscent of much that's found in non-Christian religions. If the leaders of the church were encouraging people to baptize their infants and pray to the deceased, why would there be widespread opposition to such practices? I can see Gentile converts to Christianity having difficulty with something like Trinitarianism, but not so much with something like praying to the deceased.

You write:

"Heck, even with established doctrine, I still know lay people who don’t take infant baptism seriously or even have a rudimentary understanding of it."

It's not a matter of people "not taking it seriously". Rather, it's a matter of nobody referring to it in the earliest generations. And when it's first mentioned by Tertullian, he's writing in opposition to the concept. We know that there was a widespread practice of baptizing infants if they were nearing death, and that wouldn't have been done if baptisms were occurring earlier in the lives of those infants. We know of church leaders who had Christian parents who did take living the Christian life seriously, yet they weren't baptized until adulthood. I've cited this sort of evidence and other evidence at length, and David Wright discusses it in depth in the sources I've mentioned. To conclude, in light of this sort of data, that infant baptism was always taught by an infallible church that was established by Christ doesn't make sense. As I said before, the reason why you have to keep offering explanations for why nobody advocates your positions early on is because the historical evidence doesn't support your assertion that your positions were always taught by the church.

You write:

"I think that the texts you cite on images have to do with idols and not images per se. I think the context makes that pretty clear."

In my discussion with you earlier this year, I cited the council of Elvira as an example. That council legislated on images in churches, not "idols". Just after the ante-Nicene era, when the veneration of images was becoming increasingly popular, Epiphanius would still write:

"Moreover, I have heard that certain persons have this grievance against me: When I accompanied you to the holy place called Bethel, there to join you in celebrating the Collect, after the use of the Church, I came to a villa called Anablatha and, as I was passing, saw a lamp burning there. Asking what place it was, and learning it to be a church, I went in to pray, and found there a curtain hanging on the doors of the said church, dyed and embroidered. It bore an image either of Christ or of one of the saints; I do not rightly remember whose the image was. Seeing this, and being loth that an image of a man should be hung up in Christ's church contrary to the teaching of the Scriptures, I tore it asunder and advised the custodians of the place to use it as a winding sheet for some poor person. They, however, murmured, and said that if I made up my mind to tear it, it was only fair that I should give them another curtain in its place. As soon as I heard this, I promised that I would give one, and said that I would send it at once. Since then there has been some little delay, due to the fact that I have been seeking a curtain of the best quality to give to them instead of the former one, and thought it right to send to Cyprus for one. I have now sent the best that I could find, and I beg that you will order the presbyter of the place to take the curtain which I have sent from the hands of the Reader, and that you will afterwards give directions that curtains of the other sort--opposed as they are to our religion--shall not be hung up in any church of Christ. A man of your uprightness should be careful to remove an occasion of offence unworthy alike of the Church of Christ and of those Christians who are committed to your charge." (Jerome's Letter 51:9)

The bishops at the council of Elvira and Epiphanius, a bishop, weren't laymen. And they weren't just addressing "idols". Similarly, men like Clement of Alexandria (The Stromata, 2:18) and Lactantius (The Divine Institutes, 2:19) make comments about images in general, not just "idols". Tertullian comments that Peter couldn't have known what Moses and Elijah looked like from seeing images of them (Against Marcion, 4:22), since the law had forbidden such images, and he comments that the law against images is still in place (On Idolatry, 5). The segments of The Octavius Of Minucius Felix that address images (2-3, 20-21, 32, etc.) are about the veneration of images in general, not just "idols". Origen associates the Christian view of images with the Jewish view (Against Celsus, 7:64). The Eastern Orthodox patristic scholar John McGuckin comments that "Origen of Alexandria in the third century remains immensely hostile to the idea of figurative art" (The Westminster Handbook To Patristic Theology [Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004], p. 32). Critics of Christianity like Celsus (Origen's Against Celsus, 7:62) and Caecilius (The Octavius Of Minucius Felix, 10) were associating opposition to the veneration of images with Christians in general, not just some laymen who rejected what was taught by the church. Ludwig Ott summarizes:

"Owing to the influence of the Old Testament prohibition of images, Christian veneration of images developed only after the victory of the Church over paganism. The Synod of Elvira (about 306) still prohibited figurative representations in the houses of God (Can. 36)." (Fundamentals Of Catholic Dogma [Rockford, Illinois: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1974], p. 320)

You write:

"Just because Tertullian dissented, it doesn’t follow that because Athanasius didn’t that Athanasius or Cyril some how altered the religion."

How do you know that Tertullian "dissented"? Where's your evidence that the veneration of images, infant baptism, etc. were always taught by the church?

Nothing in Tertullian's comments about infant baptism, for example, suggests that he was opposing something accepted by the bishops of the Christian world throughout church history. Similarly, when men like Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Eusebius of Caesarea, Epiphanius, etc. contradict Eastern Orthodoxy on an issue like the veneration of images, they don't present any argument as to why they're rejecting a teaching that's always been accepted by an infallible church. In some cases, these men don't even seem to expect any Christian to disagree with them. When somebody like Epiphanius does anticipate some disagreement among Christians, he approaches the issue as if it can be settled by an appeal to better argumentation on the grounds of general principles. He doesn't seem to think that some consensus of bishops or an unbroken teaching lineage of an infallible church is involved. The sort of background you keep assuming in these contexts, as if there was some unbroken teaching of an infallible church in support of your doctrines, is unproven and highly dubious.

It's not as though there were no opportunities for your alleged infallible church to leave traces of its teachings in the early historical record. Let's take prayers to the deceased as an example. There are hundreds of passages on prayer in the Bible and in the earliest patristic literature. Some of the earlier church fathers wrote entire treatises on prayer. Those early treatises not only never advocate praying to the deceased, but they even sometimes refer to prayer as if it's something to be directed only to God or directly condemn the offering of prayer to any being other than God. If there was an infallible Eastern Orthodox church that was widely recognized as the one true church, and it had been teaching people to pray to the deceased all along, we would expect to see explicit evidence in the historical record, in many places. Prayer is one of the most common elements of the Christian life. It was discussed frequently and in depth. Why, then, is praying to the deceased absent and contradicted early on?

You write:

"It is quite true that many common people delayed baptism, including for adults as well as children. That only tells us the practice of the common people and not the teaching of the church."

Again, where's your evidence that the church always taught infant baptism? Why would the common people, including Christian parents who seem to have been serious about following church traditions, disregard what the church supposedly had always taught about infant baptism? When the bishop Gregory Nazianzen suggested that people baptize infants only if the infants are dying, was he rejecting what was always taught by the church?

You write:

"Moreover, if your line of reasoning is legitimate here, then what ever shall we do with Gregory of Nazienzen’s comment in his oration on the Holy Spirit that the wise men of the church had all kinds of different views regarding the personality and the deity of the Spirit? Now, why doesn’t that prove that the church’s teaching changed on the Trinity?"

See my comments above on Modalism.

You write:

"I simply disagree with your reading of the Cappadocians on Baptism and denying Tertullian as a Father is all too easy, given that all sides admit that he was something of an extremist and became a heretic."

Christians agree with Tertullian on most issues. The fact that he was wrong on some issues doesn't justify an assumption that he was departing from church teaching on issues like the veneration of images and infant baptism. Other patristic sources were wrong on some issues as well, but I can't therefore dismiss what they said on every other subject. Besides, I've cited much more than Tertullian to support my position on these issues. Even if I had only cited Tertullian on an issue like infant baptism or prayers to the deceased, his testimony would be of more significance than the absence of sources supporting your position in the earliest generations.

In summary:

- You haven't demonstrated that doctrines such as infant baptism, the veneration of images, and prayers to the deceased were always taught by the church.

- Though you ask for "what the Bishops taught" as evidence against such doctrines, you've cited archeological data, such as what's been found in ancient "homes", in support of your position. If "what the Bishops taught" must be cited against your position, then that's what you have to produce in order to prove your position as well. Where, then, is your evidence that concepts such as infant baptism, the veneration of images, and prayers to the deceased were always "what the Bishops taught"?

- If there was one church founded by Christ that was infallible and always taught Eastern Orthodox doctrine, then why did not only so many non-bishops, but also bishops (the bishops at the council of Elvira, Epiphanius, Gregory Nazianzen, etc.) contradict what Eastern Orthodox believe about issues like infant baptism and the veneration of images?

- If the people who contradicted Eastern Orthodoxy were opposing what had always been taught by an infallible church that was widely recognized as the one true church established by Christ, then why do these sources repeatedly neglect to address such an unbroken infallible teaching and sometimes even act as if they weren't expecting any Christian to disagree with what they were saying?

- It's not as though issues like baptism and prayer weren't mentioned much in the early generations. They were mentioned frequently, and a practice like infant baptism or praying to the deceased ought to have left many and explicit traces in the historical record.


  1. Ministers, even if you reject episcopacy, are the primary teachers of the church."

    That's true in that they are primary teachers. The problem here is that it fails to account for the fact that in the NT, there were no bishops as such, only elders/presbyters and deacons, and not all bishops were great theologians, and not all great teachers and theologians were bishops. With respect to the NT itself, all elders are teachers in the NT, but not all teachers are elders. We can even find some examplies, viz. Apollos, Aquila. We are never told what church in which either was an elder (though it's possible Aquila was an synagogue elder in Rome prior to the expulsion of the Jews), and its apparent they were not an Apostles, and it appears they traveled. So, there are teachers who teach under the auspices of their churches and their elders, but they are not clearly depicted as "ministers," if by that you mean "presbyters/overseers." What's more this is a fundamental function of the priesthood of all believers, given that the elders are drawn from the members of the local church itself. Schaff notes that "in the apostolic church, preaching and teaching were not confined to a particular class, but every convert could proclaim the gospel to unbelievers, and every Christian who had the gift could pray, teach, and exhort the congregation;" (CH, Vol. 2.4.42, 124) the higher orders beyond the basic elder/deacon polity itself evolved over time, and the fixing of teaching into a a regular class of persons appears later than the apostolic period, so it is not illicit to discuss what the laity was doing when it comes to these matters of practice, as there is no clear evidence that this process of development in that respect was uniform throughout the Church of the primitive period.

    Lots of people believed in modalism, that's true; whether or not they were a majority is actually unknown. And even if that could be shown, all that shows is that there was error among the people; and they had departed from Scripture itself, whether they were laity or elders. By the same token, the NT recognizes that this would happen in the pastoral epistles and John's epistles. What's more, in the primitive period, they simply didn't have a clear conception of many things in that period, just as a toddler doesn't have a clear conception of many things early in its life, so appealing to modalism among them is just a diversionary tactic. The real issue is whether or not you can find justification for things like infant baptism and prayers for the dead in Scripture itself and whether those practices were taught from the very beginning.

  2. Gene, you've made many good points, but I think you mistyped something significant in your closing line:

    "The real issue is whether or not you can find justification for things like infant baptism and prayers for the dead in Scripture itself and whether those practices were taught from the very beginning."

    We have to distinguish between praying to the dead and praying for them. I've been addressing the former, not the latter. We often think of praying for the dead in the context of Purgatory, which would be unacceptable, since Purgatory is a false doctrine. But there are other contexts in which praying for the dead could be acceptable, such as in praying that a deceased person would be remembered in kindness for the good things he did.

  3. Epiphanius of Salamis, Doctor of Iconoclasm? Deconstruction of a Myth

    Amazon link

    Epiphanius of Salamis, Doctor of Iconoclasm? Deconstruction of a Myth represents a thorough examination of the dispute over the authenticity of five relevant texts of St. Epiphanius between iconoclasts and iconophiles in the 8th/9th century and between modern scholars in the 20th century: i) The postscript of a Letter of Epiphanius to John of Jerusalem; ii) The treatise of Epiphanius ... against those who make images of Christ, the Mother of God, the Angels and the Prophets; iii) The Dogmatic Letter; iv) The Letter to Epiphanius to the Emperor Theodosius; and v) The Will of Epiphanius addressed to the members of his Church. Following a brief introduction to Epiphanius' history, literary works, theology and the dispute over the alleged iconoclastic texts (ch.1), the author provides: an English translation of the above five documents (ch. 2); an analysis of the "Byzantine Controversy," which focuses on the arguments (against authenticity) of St. John Damascene, of the Seventh Ecumenical Council of Nicaea (787), of St. Nicephorus of Constantinople and of St. Theodore the Studite (ch.3); an analysis of the modern controversy focusing especially on the debate between Karl Holl (for authenticity) and George Ostrogorsky (against authenticity), including the reactions of several scholars (ch. 4); and, finally, a critical evaluation of the arguments for authenticity, which concludes that such arguments "are sufficient to justify their rejection." Fr. Bigham has convincingly argued that Epiphanius's so-called iconophobia, a notion that is present in the popular imagination and in scholarly works for nearly a century, is only a myth ... and, therefore, "the Christian tradition has been and remains fundamentally and essentially iconophile." This reexamination and reevaluation of the critical studies of the recent past is an excellent example of a post-modern criticism of criticism.

  4. A compilation of most if not all our posts on the topic of graven images and the second commandment can be found here.

  5. THere is some early art in the church at Dara and the one found in Palestine which has an inscriptioin about a centurian. This is interesting because some eastern orthodox are pacifist these days. Jesus in early art doesn't have a beard even up to some art in the 6th century, the church of St Viale. One mosaic in England he looks like a Roman and the Chi-Rho symbol is there. The Panocrator of Eastern Orthodoxy shows up in art in the 6th century in St Catherine's. I'm not one that is totally against icons or images but as stated before the early church did have some disagreements.