Monday, May 23, 2011

Historical Criticism, Act II: The Early Church

In my previous post, I briefly outlined the intentions and the result of the methodology known as the historical criticism of the Bible, or “the historical-critical method”. With Schreiner, those of us who are conservative Christians may know that two centuries’-worth of historical biblical criticism have only served to confirm our “presupposition” that “a single Mind was orchestrating all of the events that led to the 66-book Canon of Scripture.” The literary and historical evidence in the Bible confirm the divine, θεόπνευστος nature of the Bible.

On the other hand, with respect to the early church – and especially accounts of the early papacy – historical criticism has decimated the story that Roman Catholicism has historically told about the “divine institution” of what is arguably its “perpetual, visible source and foundation” of unity.

A little more than a century after the advent of historical criticism in biblical studies, that same skepticism, that same set of methods was starting to be used in the study of the early church. With respect to the early papacy, however, the result of the historical research does not support the Roman Catholic presuppositions; rather, the “situation”[1] with respect to the papacy has been turned on its head, and in this case, the presuppositions are required to hold onto the papacy, because the historical research does not support the story that Roman Catholicism had for centuries told about the papacy.

In 1927, James Shotwell and Louise Ropes Loomis compiled “the canon” of texts that are used in support of the papacy. (It should be noted here with some irony that “the infallible church” has never identified “an infallible canon” of texts that support an “infallible papacy”). In the introduction, they referred to the difficulties they faced:
General Introduction
The texts upon which the Papacy rests its claims and asserts its great prerogatives—the vital ones at least—are so few in number, that it would seem as if they should have been long ago understood and evaluated by every reader of history. But when one examines them in detail, one realizes that the very scarcity of this material but enhances its difficulty. Practically every text has been and still is the object of controversy. For where the texts are few, criticism cannot easily check up one with another and so establish their historical value.

The first problem confronting the historical scholar is to make sure of the genuineness of the document upon which his work depends. This means more than simply to establish the fact that some document similar to that which he has in hand was produced at a certain time and by a certain person. He must identify every part of the text of the document he is using as that of the original, must be certain that the passage upon which he relies is not the addition of some later editor or interpolator; otherwise his problem is not entirely solved and his subsequent conclusion to some extent insecure…

For example, the first definite statement which has come down to us that Peter and Paul founded the Roman church, is made by Dionysius of Corinth about 170 A.D. That is a long way from contemporary evidence. We have no lists of the early bishops of Rome until about the same period, and those we have do not quite agree. There is almost a blank, as far as precise documentary evidence goes, for the preceding century; and that was a century of turmoil, persecution and obscurity for the Christians, in which mythical legends of saints and martyrs were springing up. The Christians themselves were, according to pagan critics, rather credulous people and were living under that high emotional pressure in which historic accuracy is of relatively little importance compared with the free life of the spirit. The great growth of what we call spurious apostolic literature in this and the following period points to a continuance of the same unscientific and unhistorical habits of mind. Who, under such circumstances, would be prepared to accept a text a century old as adequate evidence for any historical fact? (James T. Shotwell, Louise Ropes Loomis, “The See of Peter,” “Records of Western Civilization” series, New York: Columbia University Press, ©1927, 1955, 1991, pg. xix-xxii).
Apart from written documents, however, there are “unwritten traditions.” And it is upon these “unwritten traditions” that the foundations of the papacy are based. Shotwell and Loomis continue:
Here we strike a problem that can never be solved. What is the value of tradition as a basis for the papal claims? Since, in the nature of things, a tradition is never contemporary evidence, the determination of its value must depend upon verification through other sources. Undoubtedly the tendency to reject tradition went too far in the nineteenth century. It is now generally agreed that tradition, whole losing or distorting the details, very commonly embodies some historical elements. This is especially true where varying traditions come back to some essential starting point. If one applies this receptive attitude to the legends of the Church, one is still left with an unsolved problem. For even although this attitude strengthens the probability of the tradition in its general lines, still it by no means excludes the possibility that the details, which tradition by its very nature rearranges or develops at a later time, may in this case be those which are regarded by the critical historian as essential for the claims.

Therefore, although it is safe to say that few traditions are more solidly fixed, and few groups of them so readily fuse, as regards their essential facts, as those which support the Petrine claims of the Papacy, this does not finally settle the matter. Indeed it can never be settled, so far as historical evidence is concerned. The Catholic scholar is sure to see more in the argument than the Protestant, because one is predisposed to accept and the other to refuse.

With reference to the Petrine doctrine, however, the Catholic attitude is much more than a “pre-disposition to believe.” That doctrine is the fundamental basis of the whole papal structure. It may be summed up in three main claims. They are: first, that Peter was appointed by Christ to be his chief representative and successor at the head of his Church; second, that Peter went to Rome and founded the bishopric there; third, that his successors succeeded to his prerogatives, and to all the authority implied thereby. In dealing with these claims we are passing along the border line between history and dogmatic theology. The primacy of Peter and his appointment by Christ to succeed Him as head of the Church are accepted by the Catholic Church as the indubitable word of inspired Gospel, in its only possible meaning. That Peter went to Rome and founded there his See, is just as definitely what is termed in Catholic theology a dogmatic fact. This has been defined by an eminent Catholic theologian as “historical fact so intimately connected with some great Catholic truths that it would be believed even if time and accident had destroyed all the evidence therefor.” In this sense it may be said that Catholics accept the presence of Peter at Rome, on faith. But they assert at the same time that faith is really not called upon, since the evidence satisfactorily establishes the event as an historical fact (from the Introduction, pgs xxi-xxiv).
As I move forward, Lord willing, I’ll show the many different ways that presuppositions are required to hold onto the papacy, because the historical (and literary, and patristic) research does not support the story that Roman Catholicism had for centuries told about the papacy.

1. The word “situation” here refers to John Paul II’s statement in the 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint that he is “acknowledging the ecumenical aspirations of the majority of the Christian Communities” and seeking to find a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation. Of course, I will argue, not only is “a new situation” needed for the papacy, but that its “essential mission” is not found from any kind of “divine institution,” but rather, it is a late imposition upon the Christian world at the time.

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