Monday, August 17, 2015

Quote-mining the church fathers

A popular tactic in Catholic apologetics is to quote-mine the church fathers for statements that coincide with Roman Catholic dogma. There are potential problems with this appeal even on its own grounds. There's the danger of reading later developments and later interpretations back into these early statements. The risk of recontextualizing the original in light of subsequent developments, where you transplant a statement into a different theological framework.

For instance, an apologist like Newman may treat these statements as seminal claims ripe for further development. The beginning of an ongoing process which will reach fruition centuries down the line. From acorn to oak. But why assume the church fathers viewed their positions as merely seminal? What if they never intended to take it any further than that? What if that's where their position begins and ends? What if that was their complete position? 

ii) But beyond that, there's another problem. To my knowledge, Benedict XVI and Archbishop Lefebvre share many theological positions in common. You could read pages of each and not see any difference. You could arrange their theological positions in parallel columns, where they match up on doctrine after doctrine.

But, of course, that would be deceptive, for despite their extensive theological commonalities, there was a major rift in their respective theological outlooks. Lefebvre became the leading dissident, on the right, of Vatican II. Their dissimilarities are at least as significant as their similarities. Despite having so much in common, Benedict XVI and Archbishop Lefebvre move further apart. They are ultimately defined by their theological divergence rather than convergence. They aren't moving toward a common destination, but in opposing destinations. 

In principle, Catholic Answers could quote-mine Lefebvre to attest Roman Catholic dogma, just like they quote-mine the church fathers, but that would be misleading and underhanded, because Lefebvre sharply diverged from official developments in Catholic theology in the 60s. Likewise, there's no reason to think church fathers, even those with "proto-Catholic" sympathies, would side with Pope Francis rather than Archbishop Lefebvre. 


  1. Well, said.

    Conservative Protestants often get around the problem by just pretending that the first three centuries didn't happen, or as Dr. Hurtado said in a recent interview with me, as a mere warm-up to the real game, which of course happened c. 325-451.

    There are parallel abuses when Protestants decide to look into these early "Fathers." A common one I'e seen, from otherwise good scholars, is spinning them as half- incomplete- or quasi-trinitarians, or ones merely deficient in terminology, striving to express what they can't quite, and marching inexorably (unbeknownst to them) towards Nicea.

    But as you say, the only really honest dealing is taking each seriously, as a thinker in his own right, and understanding his views in their entirety, and in their 2nd c. (etc.) context. And this is a great remedy for thinking that the NT *obviously implies* certain things, when you don't see competent readers in these early centuries registering those things (the alleged implications) at all.

    1. Actually, the church fathers weren't especially competent readers of the Bible. They generally lacked the Jewish background or knowledge of the ANE.

    2. Amen again!!! What is this, agreeing with Steve. Weird sensation. Is there a new moon? A unique alignment of the stars?

    3. Still, there are implications, and then there is missing the whole (alleged) point, which to some evangelical apologists today is: Jesus = God, i.e. the one true God.

    4. Dale, the fact that the Sabellian controversy occurred before the Arian controversy tells us at least two things.

      1. That many in the church did identify Jesus with the one true God (but too closely). But they're just considered heretics nowadays and therefore aren't considered among "the Church Fathers." As if only the Catholic approved "Fathers" are the only witnesses of beliefs of that period in church history (whether the belief was orthodox, aberrant or heretical). If Unitarians are right that we shouldn't ignore the arguments and historicity of the latter Arians, then we also shouldn't do the same for the earlier Sabellians. Both groups sprang from *within* the church and had genuine historical connection with the apostolic church.

      2. That Jesus was truly God is not a view that was only later developed in Nicaea I, and especially Constantinople I.

    5. There were always factions within the post-Apostolic visible church that tended toward one extreme (Modalism) or the other (Unitarianism). Just as there were for Universalism, Annihilationism and Eternal Conscious Torment.

    6. Hi Annoyed,

      Numerical identity doesn't come in degrees - so there is no "too closely" here. I'm well aware of what you mean by "Sabellians" - but I think, on historical grounds, that many of the so-called "Monarchians" were uncharitably misread by various of the logos theologians whom they opposed. Can't make that case here, but in brief, they probably thought the logos was a divine attribute or power which was at work in the man Jesus - as Jesus says in John, it is the Father doing the miracles through him. And it is the spirit with which he was filled. So for them, the logos isn't really distinct from the Father, whose attribute or power or exercise of power it is. As the logos theologians assumed, controversially, than the logos was Jesus himself, in his pre-human phase, they read the monarchians as implying the strict identification of Jesus and the Father. Which of course, is a terrible reading of the NT. What I say above is essentially the interpretation of the monarchians urged by the patristic superheavyweight scholar Nathaniel Lardner.

      Yes, I agree that both monarchians and the so-called "Arians" were will within the catholic mainstream, and thay we must account for them in judging what catholics thought in those times.

      To me, these are all friendly points you are making.

    7. To me, these are all friendly points you are making.

      I'm just trying to be honest with the historical record. Unfortunately, Steve is right that it's so easy to quote-mine the fathers in a biased way. Trinitarians do it too. Not just Unitarians, Traditionalists on hell etc.

      That's why the principle of Sola Scriptura is so foundational. As important and useful as the church fathers are, Scripture is the alone infallible rule of faith for professing Christians. And that's why I myself lean toward some kind of Trinitarianism as opposed to some kind of Unitarianism (despite its prima facie plausibility on account of the foundational teaching of God's unity and ONE-ness).

    8. To me, it's the one-ness, unity and uniqueness of Yahweh that persuades me of Trinitarianism. Over and over in the Old Testament it teaches that NO ONE is like Yahweh (even given Yahweh's Divine Council of lesser "gods"). Yet, the New Testament so closely connects Jesus with Yahweh that I can't bring myself to believe Jesus is a lesser God than the Father.

      To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him? says the Holy One.- Isa. 40:25

      To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him?- Isa. 40:18

      The obvious answer to the rhetorical question is, "no one." No one is in anyway like Yahweh. Yet, the NT teaches Jesus is very much like the Father. Jesus states, "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:9,7).

  2. HIGHLY Recommended by many, Peter Toon's The Development of Doctrine in the Church is Freely Online.

    1. The link also includes Toon's book on the church's development of the doctrine of the Trinity, titled Our Triune God.

      Part ONE
      Part TWO

  3. Looks interesting. Will check it out. Thanks.

    1. Ugh... Couldn't get all the way through it. He *tells* us, 4th paragraph, that he is a partisan Nicene, and that's just how it's going to be.

      His chapter 2 section "The Dogma of the Trinity" shows that he is ignorant of 2nd-3rd c. mainstream views on which Son and Spirit didn't always exist, and are lesser than the Father in various ways. (Either that, or he chooses to protect the reader from them.) He seems to be just projecting what he wants to see there, that there is one official Trinity doctrine that was always held - it's just that there was trouble properly talking about it before Nicea. Sorry, that's just demonstrably mistaken. At the end of ch 3 he postulates that NT writers were somehow indistinctly aware of "plurality within the unity of God." Well, that's what his theory needs, but there's no evidence of it in the NT. Same hand-waving claim in ch. 12, para 4. And note that unlike most readers of this blog, he *denies* that the Trinity can be deduced from the NT. He sees the councils, correctly, as adding content to the tradition, not merely as drawing out what is implicit. In ch. 8, we see a clear fallacy in his reasoning. "theos" can be used to refer to Son sometimes, and not only the Father (though that's overwhelmingly the norm), therefore, "Theos now included both the Father and the Son, and so the Son could also be called theos." But that first part doesn't follow from the NT facts he's dealing with. You never see theos used for the sum or the conjunction of those two, or for any "multipersonal" being in the NT. And there is never offered as justification for calling the Son "theos" that he is somehow part of, an aspect of, or somehow within the one God, or that he's the same god as the Father.

      Annoyed, honestly, the guy is learned, and has a certain cantankerous charm, but is basically a zealot who has only really heard one side of the argument, and who lacks a really firm grasp of any of the pre-Nicene sources. He admits all of this.

      I urge you to be a good Berean, and also to dig into what the pre-Nicenes actually thought.