Monday, October 10, 2011

Rome is all about aggrandizing Rome

I want to take a minute to comment on a David Anders article that’s currently on the front page of the Called to Confusion website. If your inclination is to think, off the bat, that I’m not being “charitable” in this appellation, then consider the misrepresentations that Anders is making. In his article on Tradition I and Sola Fide, there is plenty to disagree with throughout, but I want to focus on the closing section Protestants and the Problem of the First Four Centuries, where Anders misrepresents both the essence and the importance of what “leading Protestant historians” are saying about the early church. Anders cites three Protestant historians: Torrance, McGrath, and Harnack, and he misuses all three.

Let’s look first at what Anders has to say:
The evidence that the early church fathers did not hold JBFA is fairly straightforward and uncontroversial. Leading Protestant historians have conceded this for well over a century. Thus, the Protestant McGrath can write, “The first centuries of the western theological tradition appear to be characterized by a ‘works-righteousness’ approach to justification . . . The pre-Augustinian theological tradition is practically of one voice in asserting the freedom of the human will . . . The Protestant understanding of the nature of justification thus represents a theological novum.”37 T.F. Torrance similarly complains, “The plain fact is that the Church of the Apostolic Fathers has but a very feeble understanding of the great truths of the Gospel [sic].”38 And finally, the legendary Harnack concludes: “The moralistic view, in which eternal life is the wages and reward of a perfect moral life . . . took the place of first importance at a very early period.”39
And here are the references for those footnotes:
37. McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 34,215.
38. T.F. Torrance, The Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers (Edinburgh, 1948).
39. Adolph von Harnack, History of Dogma, trans. Neil Buchanan (London, 1894) ,I: 170.
Just to be sure that the true believers are not missing anything, Anders throws in this little snippet from McGrath:
How do Protestant apologists deal with the embarrassing absence of their chief article from the earliest years of the Christian tradition? McGrath, to take one example, suggests that this fact “has little theological significance today, given current thinking on the nature of the development of doctrine.”40 – [footnote: McGrath, Iustitia, 218.]
Anders places all of this Protestant “embarrassment” in the context of Mathison’s view of “Tradition I”:
Mathison himself admits that Protestants cannot simply insist on the basis of Scripture that their interpretation of these articles is the correct one. That would be precisely the kind of private and partisan hermeneutics that he wishes to avoid. If Protestants wish to correct Roman “errors,” he argues, they must do so with reference to the Patristic testimony and the consensus of the Church…
There is an alternative to Mathison’s hermeneutic of reliance on the concept of “Tradition I” and it has far more historical justification than any of the alternatives that Anders (or his echo chamber) provides.

What I’m providing here is necessarily going to be a condensed version, but there are links and references for anyone who wants to follow up with this. But Anders shows everything that is wrong with the popularly-fashioned Roman Catholic apologetic today.

In fact, in what follows, I’m presenting a historical framework that not only show’s Anders’s claims to be bankrupt, but it provides a positive understanding of what the “early church” believed about justification, church authority, and a lot of other things.

But first, I want to start by showing how Anders misused his sources.

Anders cites T.F. Torrance (The Doctrine of Grace and the Apostolic Fathers), Torrance similarly complains, “The plain fact is that the Church of the Apostolic Fathers has but a very feeble understanding of the great truths of the Gospel [sic].”

There is a reason why Torrance says “the Apostolic Fathers” (generally the writings up through the year 150) generally have “a very feeble understanding the great truths of the Gospel”, and it isn’t an embarrassment to Protestants. Torrance’s study is an intensive study of the word “grace” – including hesed in the Old Testament, concepts of “grace” in Greek culture and language, and the usage of “grace” describing Christ in the Gospels and in the letters of Paul. And in truth, the embarrassment belongs in the category of “oral tradition”. As Oscar Cullmann noted,
For a long time it has been noted that, apart from the letters of Ignatius, the writings of the so-called Apostolic Fathers, who do not really belong to the Apostolic age but to the beginning of the second century—[1 Clement, Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas]—despite their theological interest, are to a considerable distance from New Testament thought, and to a considerable extent relapse into a moralism which ignores the notion of grace, and of the redemptive death of Christ, so central to apostolic theology [emphasis supplied].

It has also been noted that the Church Fathers who wrote after 150—Irenaeus and Tertullian—although chronologically more remote from the New Testament than the authors of the first half of the century, understood infinitely better the essence of the gospel. This seems paradoxical, but is explained perfectly by that most important act, the codification of the apostolic tradition in a canon, henceforward the superior norm of all tradition. (Oscar Cullmann, from the article, “The Tradition” in “The Early Church,” London: SCM Press LTD., pg 96.)
If it’s true that the Christian writers of the second and early third century did not rely on scripture alone, what did they rely on? Cullmann notes:
About the year 150 there is still an oral tradition. We know this from Papias, who wrote an exposition of the words of Jesus. He tells us himself that he used as a basis the viva vox and that he attached more importance to it than to the writings. But in him we have not only this declaration of principle; for he has left us some examples of the oral tradition as he found it, and these examples show us well what we ought to think of an oral tradition about the year 150! It is entirely legendary in character. This is clear from the story that Papias reports about Joseph Barsabbas, the unsuccessful candidate, according to Acts 1:23 f., for the post of twelfth disciple rendered vacant by Judas’s treason. Above all there is the obscene and completely legendary account [in Papias] of death of Judas Iscariot himself.

The period about 150 is, on the one hand, relatively near to the apostolic age, but on the other hand, it is already too far away for the living tradition still to offer in itself the least guarantee of authenticity. The oral traditions which Papias echoes arose in the Church and were transmitted by it. For outside the Church no one had any interest in describing in such crude colours the death of the traitor. Papias was therefore deluding himself when he considered viva vox as more valuable than the written books. The oral tradition had a normative value in the period of the apostles, who were eye-witnesses, but it had it no longer in 150 after passing mouth to mouth (Cullmann, 88-89).
So the viva vox, the “oral tradition”, not only was not helpful, but was actually a hindrance to the proper understanding of New Testament teachings.

McGrath not only endorses this view, but expands upon it, on the very page that Anders cites (34) [citing Stendahl], “It has always been a puzzling fact that Paul meant so relatively little for the thinking of the church during the first 350 years of its history. To be sure, he is honored and quoted, but -- in the theological perspective of the west -- it seems that Paul’s greatest insight into justification by faith was forgotten.”

What both Torrance and McGrath are saying is that, insofar as the early church was not reliant on the Scriptures, it erred in its understanding of what is truly important in the economy of God.

McGrath further points out how this happened.
In part the early patristic neglect of the Pauline writings may reflect uncertainty concerning the extent of the New Testament canon at this early stage. As the Pauline epistles came to be accorded increasing authority within the church so their influence upon theological debate increased accordingly. Thus the end of the period of oral tradition (c. 150) may be considered to mark a return to Paulinism in certain respects, so that writers such as Irenaeus of Lyons may be regarded as representing the gospel more accurately than Ignatius of Antioch (34).
Think about that. Irenaeus of Lyons, who lived probably 80 years after Ignatius, “represents the gospel more accurately” than Ignatius did. But there is more to this trend.

While writers outside of Rome came to see the value of Paul, and incorporate him into their theologies (during the late second and early third centuries), the church at Rome had other things on its mind. The late second and early third centuries featured an absolute mushrooming of the expansion of legendary stories about Peter and his importance. Works such as the fictional Acts of Peter (c. 180) began to be spread around, and not coincidentally, the aggrandizement of the Peter of fiction saw a corresponding suppression of Paul. Here’s where Anders’s turn to Harnack is especially disingenuous. I’m citing Daniel William O’Connor, (Peter in Rome: The Literary, Liturgical, and Archaeological Evicence New York and London: Columbia University Press, ©1969), who cites from Harnack (and others), especially on the reason why Paul’s influence was lacking, especially in Rome:
In Dionysius of Corinth [c. 170] and possibly also in Ignatius’ Epistle to the Romans, Peter and Paul share a common role as founders of the Church of Rome. This belief in the importance of both apostles is also reflected in the graffiti found at San Sebastiano and in the character of the liturgical celebration held on June 29 [the feast of Saints Peter and Paul].

The point is well taken … that between the mid-second and the mid-third century a change took place in the function of the bishops’ list [outlining the ‘bishops’ of Rome]. In the earliest period the kerygma of the apostles was guaranteed by the diadoke or succession of the bishops. But by the beginning or middle of the third century, certainly by the time of Cyprian, another factor became singularly important, the legitimization of the Roman episcopacy by means of this same diadoke. While the earlier interest was served in retaining both Peter and Paul, the later was served by the exclusive presence of Peter as bishop. Naturally, in the evolution of a monarchical episcopacy there was room for only one bishop at any time. Therefore, Paul had to be sacrificed. The See of Rome became “Cathedra Petri.”

The expressions of confidence concerning the length of the episcopacy of Peter [i.e., “25 years”], like those concerning the exclusive episcopacy of Peter itself, are phenomena of the third century. It is not valid to dismiss the claim as a side manifestation of the development of the papal claims. More probably it evolved out of the desire for further details on the part of the early Roman ecclesiastics. As the list grew longer, the inclusion of the dates of accession for the various bishops made it more clear and obvious to the reader or hearer that no name had been lost from the list and that points of doctrine had been handed down in an unbroken line from the time of the apostles themselves. The proposal of exactly twenty-five years for the episcopate of Peter suggests that there was confusion in the minds of those who composed the early Episcopal lists…

According to Harnack the “official” establishment of the twenty-five-year episcopate of Peter, for whatever reason, is to be recognized as roughly coincident with the supplanting of Paul in the tradition [O’Connor’s footnote: “Which he estimates happened between A.D. 190 and 217 in the pontificate of Zephyrinus. Harnack, Die Chronologie, I, 703-4].
Rome Forgot Paul and Paul’s theology, and in the service of aggrandizing itself, it aggarandized not just Peter, but legends of Peter, and lost the theological notions of justification in the process.


  1. Some scholars think justification through faith alone and related concepts are found in the church fathers, including the earliest ones. I documented some examples here. Close to two years ago now, I had a lengthy discussion at the Called To Communion web site about the doctrine of justification in early church history. See here.

    When a patristic source disagrees with a Protestant concept of justification, it doesn't follow that he's agreeing with a Roman Catholic perspective. What we find in early church history is a variety of views of justification, and some of the sources that contradict Protestant views also contradict Roman Catholicism on the subject. The same can be said regarding issues of authority and tradition. See here regarding Papias, for example.

  2. Hi Jason -- you are absolutely right in saying "When a patristic source disagrees with a Protestant concept of justification, it doesn't follow that he's agreeing with a Roman Catholic perspective." The point I hope to make in the longer run is that, after the apostles died, there was no system of authority in place (outside of that developed among the local churches), and that concepts of church authority, "being right with God", and others were hashed out. The "monarchical episcopacy", for example, is a concept that was worked out over several centuries. So in that context, it makes sense that other doctrines (like justification) weren't given the kind of systematic treatment that they deserved.

    As for your first paragraph, I think someone like Torrance would say that, while the language of "justification by faith alone" was present (in 1 Clement, for example), "moralistic" concepts were also present, and insofar as the Pauline concept of "grace" was misunderstood, the New Testament understanding of justification by grace through faith was also set aside in favor of some of the more moralistic, legalistic concepts that developed.

    Tracing these, of course, is a painstaking matter, and I'm sure such a thing needs to be done by someone like Andreas Kostenberger and Michael Kruger (who, together, wrote "The Heresy of Orthodoxy") or Darrell Bock (who has studied and written about issues relating to the New Testament and early church fathers).

    My primary intention here was just to connect some loose threads and to show how Anders misused some very fine historical sources by ignoring the main thrust of what they were saying.

  3. Isaac Taylor opined on the difference between the position of church fathers, and that of later Roman church, on the matters of justification thusly:

    "Nicene fathers are confused and inconsistent in their stance on sins committed after baptism, while Rome is consistent and pernicious."

    In other words, Rome took the worst, more legalistic parts from CFs (rather than their more evangelical parts) and developed them into a systematic system.

    That is, consistency is not always a virtue! (Like when Thomas Aquinas "developed" the Byzantine idea of "proskuneing" images being OK into a logical theory that allows people to offer "Latria"-worship to images of Christ.)

  4. "When a patristic source disagrees with a Protestant concept of justification, it doesn't follow that he's agreeing with a Roman Catholic perspective."

    This is indeed true. One big example of this phenomenon is the way how those prayers that Nicene-era Christians offered "for dead" greatly differed from later RC notions of Purgatory.

    Those ancient Christians were praying - and EOs still do - for people whom they assumed to be in blessed rest, not in any purgatorial flames; for apostles, martyrs, even FOR Virgin Mary herself!