Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Many Seeds And Many Trees (Part 2)

Dave Armstrong often cites Cardinal Newman, such as the following comments by Newman on the development of the papacy:

As to this doctrine the question is this, whether there was not from the first a certain element at work, or in existence, divinely sanctioned, which, for certain reasons, did not at once show itself upon the surface of ecclesiastical affairs, and of which events in the fourth century are the development; and whether the evidence of its existence and operation, which does occur in the earlier centuries, be it much or little, is not just such as ought to occur upon such an hypothesis....

For instance, it is true, St. Ignatius is silent in his Epistles on the subject of the Pope's authority; but if in fact that authority could not be in active operation then, such silence is not so difficult to account for as the silence of Seneca or Plutarch about Christianity itself, or of Lucian about the Roman people. St. Ignatius directed his doctrine according to the need. While Apostles were on earth, there was the display neither of Bishop nor Pope; their power had no prominence, as being exercised by Apostles. In course of time, first the power of the Bishop displayed itself, and then the power of the Pope....

St. Peter's prerogative would remain a mere letter, till the complication of ecclesiastical matters became the cause of ascertaining it....

When the Church, then, was thrown upon her own resources, first local disturbances gave exercise to Bishops, and next ecumenical disturbances gave exercise to Popes; and whether communion with the Pope was necessary for Catholicity would not and could not be debated till a suspension of that communion had actually occurred. It is not a greater difficulty that St. Ignatius does not write to the Asian Greeks about Popes, than that St. Paul does not write to the Corinthians about Bishops. And it is a less difficulty that the Papal supremacy was not formally acknowledged in the second century, than that there was no formal acknowledgment on the part of the Church of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity till the fourth. No doctrine is defined till it is violated....

Moreover, an international bond and a common authority could not be consolidated, were it ever so certainly provided, while persecutions lasted. If the Imperial Power checked the development of Councils, it availed also for keeping back the power of the Papacy. The Creed, the Canon, in like manner, both remained undefined. The Creed, the Canon, the Papacy, Ecumenical Councils, all began to form, as soon as the Empire relaxed its tyrannous oppression of the Church....as St. Paul had to plead, nay, to strive for his apostolic authority, and enjoined St. Timothy, as Bishop of Ephesus, to let no man despise him: so Popes too have not therefore been ambitious because they did not establish their authority without a struggle. It was natural that Polycrates should oppose St. Victor; and natural too that St. Cyprian should both extol the See of St. Peter, yet resist it when he thought it went beyond its province....

It will be said that all this is a theory. Certainly it is: it is a theory to account for facts as they lie in the history, to account for so much being told us about the Papal authority in early times, and not more; a theory to reconcile what is and what is not recorded about it; and, which is the principal point, a theory to connect the words and acts of the Ante-nicene Church with that antecedent probability of a monarchical principle in the Divine Scheme, and that actual exemplification of it in the fourth century, which forms their presumptive interpretation. All depends on the strength of that presumption.

I should first repeat something I mentioned in a previous response to Dave. Cardinal Newman appeals to "events in the fourth century". As the Catholic scholar Joseph Kelly notes, however, a non-papal view of church government continued, even in some parts of the West, into the fourth century and beyond, as reflected in the earliest ecumenical councils. If Christians in general believed in the papacy prior to the fourth century, why would it still be so widely unknown and opposed in the fourth century and later? I'm aware that Newman, in comments Dave doesn't quote, cites what some Roman bishops claimed about their own authority, how Christians in other parts of the world related to the bishop of Rome, etc. But study the context of those passages and read what modern scholars, including Catholic scholars like Kelly, have to say about what the ancient sources believed as a whole, on balance, and in context.

The alleged "antecedent probability of a monarchical principle in the Divine Scheme", if it's accepted, would have to be weighed against other factors. How likely is it that God, if He had chosen a monarchical system of church government, would have communicated that choice in such a way that it "did not at once show itself upon the surface of ecclesiastical affairs"? Given how suggestive the historical evidence (rather than antecedent probability) is of God's having not chosen a monarchical system, why should we think that the supposed antecedent probability of His choosing such a system weighs more? During the Old Testament era, God worked through many means (patriarchs, judges, kings, remnants in Israel, remnants in exile, etc.). Ancient Israel had a monarchy for part of its history, but that monarchy was established in rebellion against God (1 Samuel 8:7) and eventually became two co-existing monarchies (1 Kings 11:31-36). The church does have a monarch without a Pope (Ephesians 1:22), but some people want an additional king (1 Samuel 8:7).

Newman claims that the "tyrannous oppression of the Church" by the Roman empire was "keeping back the power of the Papacy". But Joseph Kelly notes:

"In fact, 99 percent of Christians lived and died in peace. Many became prominent locally, and some went well beyond that. In 258, when he initiated a short-lived persecution, the emperor Valerian (253-60) first removed all the Christians from the Roman senate, proof that Christians had reached that high level of Roman society. Diocletian (283-305) launched a persecution in 303, supposedly because Christian members of the imperial court crossed themselves to avoid blasphemy when the emperor was presiding over a pagan sacrifice....Although few endured persecution, all Christians had to live with the possibility of it, and many Romans never fully trusted them. There were martyrs, but, in general, Christians lived in peace in the empire." (The Ecumenical Councils Of The Catholic Church [Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2009], p. 13)

Christians were mistreated in other ways that didn't involve something like imprisonment or execution, and the possibility of the latter was significant, even though most Christians didn't experience it. But the sort of atmosphere Kelly describes isn't one in which we would expect a papacy to be "kept back" so much that Christians wouldn't mention it in letters to one another, opponents of the faith would show no knowledge of the subject when discussing Christianity, etc. The papacy is explicitly and frequently acknowledged among Catholics in today's world, even in regions where there's worse persecution than what most of the ante-Nicene Christians faced.

And did the empire "keep back" development of the canon of scripture and ecumenical councils in a manner comparable to how the papacy supposedly was "kept back"? Every book of the New Testament is mentioned, described, and cited as scripture in the ante-Nicene era, and canonical issues are explicitly and frequently discussed, such as in the writings of Serapion and Origen. Though there was disagreement about the canon, the twenty-seven-book New Testament is advocated in the ante-Nicene era, and canonical discussions were carried out explicitly and frequently. We don't know how much interest the earliest Christians had in ecumenical councils, but we know that they often traveled and met with one another, held regional councils in coordination with each other and communicated the results by means of letters, etc. Discussion of canonical issues and the holding of ecumenical councils would be easier after the rise of Constantine, and the Christianized empire would sometimes further such things, not merely allow them to occur more easily. But the increase in Christian freedom and opportunities doesn't explain the absence, and sometimes contradiction, of a papacy in earlier generations. The Christians of the ante-Nicene era often said and did things that most of their surrounding society didn't approve, and they often wrote about unpopular concepts and ideas the empire wouldn't approve of in their letters to one another, treatises on doctrinal and moral issues, etc. Why, then, is a papacy so absent and contradicted?

Newman tells us that "While Apostles were on earth, there was the display neither of Bishop nor Pope; their power had no prominence, as being exercised by Apostles". Actually, Peter died under the emperor Nero, and the apostolic era didn't end until around thirty to thirty-five years later. Supposedly, the apostle John, for example, would have been in submission to the higher authority of Roman bishops, like Linus, Anacletus, and Clement, during that period. Some of the New Testament was written during that timeframe. But even the documents written prior to Peter's death sometimes address general principles of doctrinal authority and church government and anticipate what will or should happen in later church history (Acts 20:29-35, 2 Timothy 4:1-8, 2 Peter 1:14-15, etc.). And Peter's alleged higher authority could have been discussed in many passages addressing what happened before any Roman bishop supposedly succeeded him, without our having to speculatively read such a concept into a passage like Matthew 16 or John 21. A papacy could and should have been mentioned during the apostolic era. It wasn't.

What should we make of Newman's attempt to explain the absence of a papacy in the writings of Ignatius? One of the reasons why Ignatius is so significant in this context is that he often discusses matters of church government in his letters. He makes explicit and frequent references to multiple church offices, and he refers to functions held by different individuals within the church regardless of whether they held any office. He does so even when no controversy over such matters is apparent. And he writes one of his letters to the Roman church in particular and comments in that letter about the significance of that church. He says nothing of a papacy in any of those contexts, but instead commends the Roman church for practical reasons, such as their love and generosity. He doesn't even mention a monarchical bishop when writing to Rome, even though he mentions that office so often in other letters, probably because the monarchical episcopate hadn't yet developed in the Roman church.

Newman refers to "the silence of Seneca or Plutarch about Christianity itself, or of Lucian about the Roman people". Nobody denies that different sources write in different genres, with different interests, with different levels of knowledge, etc. Thus, sometimes one source will mention something that another source doesn't mention. But while Seneca and Plutarch don't address Christianity (for a discussion of why such sources don't, see here), other sources from that timeframe do (Paul, Matthew, Josephus, Tacitus, etc.). There isn't anything comparable to the widespread absence and contradiction of an early papacy. To find early references to Christianity, we don't have to rely on anything comparable to Catholic interpretations of Matthew 16:18, John 21:15-17, Irenaeus' Against Heresies 3:3:2, etc. Rather, Christianity is mentioned explicitly and frequently by many sources, even though some sources don't mention it. Newman notes that "St. Paul does not write to the Corinthians about Bishops", but Paul and others do write about bishops explicitly and frequently elsewhere.

Newman claims that "whether communion with the Pope was necessary for Catholicity would not and could not be debated till a suspension of that communion had actually occurred...No doctrine is defined till it is violated". Then why don't we see the papacy asserted when heretics and schismatics were out of fellowship with the bishop of Rome and opposed his doctrines and alleged authority, which happened often from the first century onward? The early Christians explicitly and frequently cited the authority of Jesus, the Holy Spirit, scripture, bishops, etc. against such individuals and such movements. Why didn't they cite the alleged authority of the papacy? When the Roman bishop Stephen, acting in his own interests, became the first extant source to advocate something like papal authority around the middle of the third century, he was opposed by bishops from the West and East. Cyprian explicitly and repeatedly denied that any bishop, in Rome or elsewhere, has universal jurisdiction, and Firmilian made comments such as the following about Stephen:

"they who are at Rome do not observe those things in all cases which are handed down from the beginning, and vainly pretend the authority of the apostles...But with respect to the refutation of custom which they [the Roman church] seem to oppose to the truth, who is so foolish as to prefer custom to truth, or when he sees the light, not to forsake the darkness?...And this indeed you Africans are able to say against Stephen, that when you knew the truth you forsook the error of custom. But we join custom to truth, and to the Romans' custom we oppose custom, but the custom of truth; holding from the beginning that which was delivered by Christ and the apostles....But indeed you [Stephen] are worse than all heretics....Moreover, how great sin have you heaped up for yourself, when you cut yourself off from so many flocks! For it is yourself that you have cut off. Do not deceive yourself, since he is really the schismatic who has made himself an apostate from the communion of ecclesiastical unity. For while you think that all may be excommunicated by you, you have excommunicated yourself alone from all...But as far as he [Stephen] is concerned, let us leave him...And yet Stephen is not ashamed to afford patronage to such in opposition to the Church, and for the sake of maintaining heretics to divide the brotherhood and in addition, to call Cyprian 'a false Christ and a false apostle, and a deceitful worker.' And he, conscious that all these characters are in himself, has been in advance of you, by falsely objecting to another those things which he himself ought deservedly to hear." (Cyprian's Letter 74:6, 74:19, 74:23-24, 74:26)

If "No doctrine is defined till it is violated", as Newman asserted, then why didn't the church define the papacy in response to men like Cyprian and Firmilian? Why, instead, is there no indication that they were corrected, no indication of an affirmation of the papacy by the church in response to them, and ongoing ignorance of and opposition to the papacy after the time of Cyprian and Firmilian? For a further discussion of the early absence and contradiction of the papacy, see here and here. In the second article, I cite widespread scholarly support for the conclusion that Cyprian contradicted the doctrine of the papacy, including citations of some of the same scholars Dave has cited in other contexts.

Another of many examples that could be cited is the sinlessness of Mary. Nobody in the earliest centuries refers to her as sinless, yet her sinlessness was repeatedly either directly or indirectly denied by sources from the West and East during that same timeframe. See here and, for some later sources, here. Catholicism's view of Mary was explicitly and frequently "violated", but the church didn't respond by "defining" it.

And why should we think that a violation would be needed? People often affirm their beliefs without any denial having first occurred. There would be many occasions for mentioning a papacy (or the sinlessness of Mary, Purgatory, etc.) apart from a denial of the doctrine. For example, Paul often discusses Christology, church government, and other issues in his letters in order to teach, reinforce something, or encourage believers, for example, not because he's responding to a "violation". Think of the many contexts in the New Testament alone in which a papacy could easily have been mentioned, if the authors had believed in the concept. Think of the thousands of pages of literature we have from the ante-Nicene era, in which a large number of individuals and groups are mentioned, including many individuals and beliefs of relatively minor significance. Yet, aside from Stephen acting in his own interests in the middle of the third century, where do we see a papacy? Catholics have to rely on dubious, speculative interpretations of passages like Matthew 16 and John 21 in order to find alleged early references to a papacy in seed form. Yet, other church offices and other sources of authority are referred to explicitly and often.

Newman claims that "St. Paul had to plead, nay, to strive for his apostolic authority, and enjoined St. Timothy, as Bishop of Ephesus, to let no man despise him: so Popes too have not therefore been ambitious because they did not establish their authority without a struggle." Though some people disputed Paul's authority and Timothy's, their authority was also supported by the likes of Peter, James, and John in the case of Paul and by Paul in the case of Timothy, for example. Where's the comparable support for a papacy? And given the immoral conduct of so many Popes, in contrast to Paul's behavior, we have good reason to give Paul more of a benefit of the doubt than the Popes.

Comparisons to the Trinity and the canon are erroneous. Trinitarianism is implied by scripture, as is the canon. A concept like the papacy or the bodily assumption of Mary isn't.

And such Catholic doctrines aren't comparably difficult to understand, so as to explain why the comprehension of them might take more time to develop. Some elements of Trinitarianism, such as how Jesus' deity and humanity relate, are complicated or beyond our ability to understand. Understanding the Trinity is far more difficult than understanding whether there's a bishop who has universal jurisdiction or whether Mary was assumed to Heaven. And forming a canon of scripture, which involves judging many documents written by many authors to different locations under different circumstances, is much more difficult than judging whether one individual has papal authority or whether one historical event, like Mary's assumption, occurred. (For some examples of the difficulties involved in discerning the canons of other literature, see here.) To expect people to have as much difficulty discerning the papacy and the assumption of Mary as they have discerning the Trinity and the canon doesn't make sense.

Yet, while concepts like the papacy and the assumption of Mary are widely absent or contradicted when we get to the Nicene era, by that point the twenty-seven-book New Testament is already being advocated in multiple locations and Trinitarianism is being discussed in depth. If a Catholic wants to point to the later development of a more detailed understanding of the Trinity, then a better object of comparison would be a more detailed understanding of the papacy, such as modern discussions about when the Pope is exercising infallibility and when he isn't. To compare more advanced Trinitarian concepts to a basic concept like the papacy's universal jurisdiction is a false comparison. To say that the papacy was in its infancy when Trinitarianism was in its middle ages doesn't reflect well on the alleged comparable antiquity of the papacy.


  1. Very nice. You guys are doing great work.

  2. Thanks Jason, that was very informative!

  3. I believe I have concluded on a theory as to why all this discussion about Rome; distracting us from the Roman Road?

    Now, when I read the Book of Romans, I am changed by the Hand of God and established in the Truth.

    Now, when I read about the Roman Catholic Church, I am neither established in the Truth, but rather, I question the truth of Rome!


    The soul needs what the Book of Romans teaches. My soul finds it difficult keeping up with what Rome teaches.

    Why is that?

    Now, don't tell me I have to swim the Tiber too!

  4. "In fact, 99 percent of Christians lived and died in peace. Many became prominent locally...in general, Christians lived in peace in the empire."

    Dr White has made the contention that many Christians lived under persecution and fear of Roman soldiers a major plank in his defense of the textual integrity of the NT and such, vis-a-vis Ehrman and other libs. What influence does this citation from Kelly have on that, I wonder?

  5. Rhology,

    Keep in mind what else I cited from Kelly in that quote and what I went on to say after the quote. Persecution wouldn't have to be universal in geography or constant in time in order to have some influence on the textual record. And Kelly is addressing early church history in general, so exceptions have to be allowed under some circumstances, like the Diocletian persecution. But anybody who's thought of the persecutions along the lines of Christians everywhere being imprisoned and executed constantly needs to adjust his view.

    What I've cited from Kelly is something that's commonly noted in some form or another by scholars. It's not a recent discovery.

    I don't know where Kelly gets his figure of 99%. I didn't cite him for the percentage. I cited him for the general thrust of what he's communicating.