The problem most Christians, professed traditionalists or no, have when they come to the Church Fathers is that they tend to take a “fundamentalist” approach to the Church Fathers. They treat it like a legal text where if it is something asserted by the text then it is so and that settles it, very much like how fundamentalists would treat the Bible. While that approach maybe correct when it comes to the direct speech or instructions from God himself, or divinely inspired prophets and apostles bearing direct divine revelation, everyone else needs to bring arguments. As such it is important for us to be able to analyse and breakdown the arguments employed by the Church Fathers in aid of their conclusions before we can determine its present applicability. As a legal principle in the law goes: Cessante Ratione Legis, Cessat Ipsa Lex (The reason for a law ceasing, the law itself ceases). A law, or instruction, is only as good as the reasons invoked.
Two Kinds of Testimonies
Evaluating testimonial arguments have come a very long way since Aristotle and Cicero especially with our modern highly developed law of evidence. However basically we can divide testimonial authority into two kinds (1) Witness and (2) Expert.
If you have personally seen something, or heard something from someone that would constitute “witness”. This is why suspected heretics like Tertullian and Origen can still be considered to be an “authority” because they provide us with a reliable testimony concerning the state of the Church’s beliefs at that time especially in the premises which they employ and assume to try to convince their audience of their conclusions.
Then we have “experts” whose authority you trust on the basis of their wisdom, learning, and expertise concerning the subject matter at hand. To put it simplistically, while the early Church Fathers are a good source of “witness” testimony concerning what the apostles transmitted and taught given their proximity to them, the later Church Fathers especially the Nicene ones are “authorities” only in the expert sense of wisdom and learning since it is obvious that they are no longer privy to the oral instructions of the apostles or their disciples.
To use one Father as an example of this distinction, when Jerome tells us that he has seen a Gospel of Matthew in Hebrew, he is speaking as a personal witness; when Jerome on the other hand makes theological arguments about the nature of Christ, he is speaking as an “expert”.
Three Case Studies
(i) Pope Damascus’s Argument that the Church is Founded on the Scriptures
I have frequently cited Pope Damascus I’s Council of Rome as justifying the Protestant claim that the Scriptures are the foundation of the church and which teachings are valid independently of conciliar action. The high church fundamentalist will however object and say that that council was trying to argue for papal primacy and that was the conclusion of the council, if I argue from that document then I must be forced to accept papal primacy.
But this argument is confused. I am not citing the Council of Rome as an authoritative document which compels our assent to every proposition contained within it. I am citing it as evidence as to what the Pope believed and what is widely believed in the church at that time by pointing out the premises used by the Pope to make that argument, premises which he would not use if he did not think that they were in fact widely believed throughout Christendom. Yes, papal primacy is the conclusion of his argument, but that’s not the point. The point is the premises which he used to arrive at that conclusion, and his premises involve the idea that the Scriptures are the foundation of the Church. If Pope Damascus is correct and the Scriptures are the basis of the Church, then if the “evangelical voice” of our Saviour taught papal primacy by establishing petrine primacy, then this is true and valid by virtue of it being taught in Scripture independently of whether the other Eastern councils or bishops agree. Naturally I disagree with the minor premise that Scriptures do so establish a petrine and papal primacy. But I cite this document merely to point out the other beliefs and propositions held by the pope. The high church fundamentalist doesn’t seem to get this sort of argumentation. For them the texts of the past are like biblical or legal texts which are to be accepted on their say so, not as records or evidence to the past and its beliefs and practices. A document serving as evidence to past beliefs is different from whether that belief is true.
(ii) Tertullian’s Argument Concerning the Universal Priesthood of the Believers
Here’s another example by Walter Lowrie. Lowrie cites Tertullian to justify the Protestant teaching of the universal priesthood of the believers,
Are not also we laity priests? …When there are no clergy thou makest the offering and baptizest and art priest for thyself alone. When three are present, there is the Church, although they be laymen.
~De exhort. cast. c. 7.
Lowrie then replies to attempts to dismiss this as an aspect of Tertullian heretical sectarianism,
Tertullian does not contend for this principle, he merely assumes it as a premise for his argument: therein lies the proof that it was not an individual opinion of his own, nor a distinctive tenet of Montanism, but a commonly accepted position, a primitive tradition which had not yet been successfully impugned.
Precisely. The point is not whether Tertullian is an expert, wise, or approved, church father or a heretic. The point is the content of his argument, what premises he employed to make his argument, premises which he would not use if he didn’t believe that they were widely held by the church at large. Thus, we look at Tertullian not as a set of legal texts but as good evidence for what the early church believed.
(iii) Ignatius’s Argument for the Episcopacy
While Ignatius’s arguments for bishops have frequently been cited as evidence that the episcopacy is of divine or even apostolic ordinance, we have to observe very carefully the premises which Ignatius appeals to to justify episcopal obedience to see that it demonstrates nothing of that sort.
Let’s begin with the fundamental basis upon which Ignatius rest his arguments for episcopacy. His arguments are not that the apostles handed down that teaching to him, his argument is that he has received it via direct revelation!
For even though certain persons desired to deceive me after the flesh, yet the spirit is not deceived, being from God; for it knoweth whence it cometh and where it goeth, and it searcheth out the hidden things. I cried out, when I was among you; I spake with a loud voice, with God’s own voice, Give ye heed to the bishop and the presbytery and deacons. Howbeit there were those who suspected me of saying this, because I knew beforehand of the division of certain persons. But He in whom I am bound is my witness that I learned it not from flesh of man; it was the preaching of the Spirit who spake on this wise; Do nothing without the bishop; keep your flesh as a temple of God; cherish union; shun divisions; be imitators of Jesus Christ, as He Himself also was of His Father.
-Letter to the Philadelphians, chapt. 7:1-2
So even if we want to discuss Ignatius’s arguments for it, he has already stated the ground for it, not that he received it from the apostles, but that it has been directly revealed to him by God. And all sides generally agree that revelation has ceased with the apostles, so Ignatius’s arguments here should be precluded tout court.
But let’s, for the sake of argument, examine his arguments for episcopacy. If we look at his letter to the Ephesians his argument for episcopacy are as follows:
It is therefore befitting that you should in every way glorify Jesus Christ, who has glorified you, that by a unanimous obedience you may be perfectly joined together in the same mind, and in the same judgment, and may all speak the same thing concerning the same thing, (1 Corinthians 1:10) and that, being subject to the bishop and the presbytery, you may in all respects be sanctified.
Wherefore it is fitting that you should run together in accordance with the will of your bishop, which thing also you do. For your justly renowned presbytery, worthy of God, is fitted as exactly to the bishop as the strings are to the harp. Therefore in your concord and harmonious love, Jesus Christ is sung. And man by man, become a choir, that being harmonious in love, and taking up the song of God in unison, you may with one voice sing to the Father through Jesus Christ, so that He may both hear you, and perceive by your works that you are indeed the members of His Son. It is profitable, therefore, that you should live in an unblameable unity, that thus you may always enjoy communion with God.
For if I in this brief space of time, have enjoyed such fellowship with your bishop — I mean not of a mere human, but of a spiritual nature— how much more do I reckon you happy who are so joined to him as the Church is to Jesus Christ, and as Jesus Christ is to the Father, that so all things may agree in unity!”
Ignatius’s argument here is decidedly not that “obedience to the bishop was something taught and commanded by apostles and Christ, because the episcopal office has been instituted by Christ and/or the apostles, which mandate I now pass on to you”, nor is his argument even “From Polycarp have I received this command concerning the apostolic institution of the episcopacy which I now pass on to you to obey your bishops.” Ignatius’s argument appeals to the ends of fostering harmony and concord and that, in aid of that end, one should obey one’s bishop. He appeals to “fitting”, “profitable”, not apostolically mandated. As such obedience to the bishop is merely a means to an end, towards fostering unity and concord, not that the episcopacy is a divinely instituted office possessing some sort of intrinsic divine authority. Furthermore, Ignatius feels that this is something which he feels needs justifying and argumentation, not merely something which he simply assumes as a premise to demonstrate some other point. So Ignatius’s arguments cannot serve as evidence for the prevailing practice and beliefs of the Church at that time concerning episcopal obedience. All this is very different from how St Paul, for example, discusses the institution of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11: 23: “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread…”
So if the bishops do not foster unity and concord in sameness of mind but instead promotes disconcord and contentions especially against the mind of the apostles, then we are at liberty to simply forsake the bishops because obedience to them is merely a means to an ends and not an ends in themselves. Ignatius’s arguments in the end are merely prudential and pragmatic, not testimonial witnessing to what he has received from the apostles or even from his predecessors of the faith.
Let’s look at one more passage from Ignatius in his letter to the Smyrnaeans:
But avoid divisions, as being the beginning of evils. Do ye all follow the bishop, as Jesus Christ doth the Father; and follow the presbyters as the apostles; and have respect unto the deacons as unto the commandment of God. Let no one, apart from the bishop, do any of the things that appertain unto the church. Let that eucharist alone be considered valid which is celebrated in the presence of the bishop, or of him to whom he shall have entrusted it.
Wherever the bishop appear, there let the multitude be; even as wherever Christ Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful either to baptize, or to hold a love-feast without the consent of the bishop; but whatsoever he shall approve of, that also is well pleasing unto God, to the end that whatever is done may be safe and sure.
Again note very carefully the end appeal to here. It is to “avoid divisions” not “because the apostles commanded you to whose commands I now pass on/repeat”. To be sure Ignatius employs a sort of allegorical projection of the bishop as God the Father and us as Christ and that we should obey our bishops as Christ obeyed the Father, and later on he again uses another allegorical projection to identify the bishop with Christ this time, instead of the Father, and that just as the Catholic Church is gathered around Christ so is the multitude to be gathered around the bishop. (Interestingly he doesn’t say that the bishop is the focus of unity for the Catholic Church but rather that Jesus Christ is, contra certain Eastern Orthodox arguments that around the bishop is the fullness of the Catholic Church.) However these are merely allegorical extrapolations on the part of Ignatius, not properly a handing down of an apostolic teaching.
Finally it is impossible to argue from this passage that some sort of charismatic power is passed on by tactile ordaination of the bishops because firstly, there is no mention of such tactile ordinations or reference to such charismatic powers, and more importantly, Ignatius speaks of “lawfulness”, or again, what fosters fitting unity and concord, and he mentions “baptism” in the same sentence as the love-feast or the eucharist. As such if his point is that a eucharist is only sacramentally valid when the charismatic power to celebrate it has been passed on by tactile ordaination by a properly ordained bishop, it would be odd that he would speak of the validity of “baptism” in that context since it is assumed, today at least, that no charismatic power by tactile ordination is required for a valid baptism. His point therefore is about good order and concord, not a discussion on sacramental validity based on some episcopally transmitted charismatic power.
Recalling our earlier principle that a law is only as good as its reasons, when applied to Ignatius’s arguments for the episcopacy we see that the reasons he cites for them are prudential and pragmatic, not that he was passing on an apostolic instruction or mandate from the lips of the apostles or his predecessors.
Heretical Arguments as Historical Evidences
The attitude of the contemporary high church fundamentalist is ironically very alien to the theologians of the past. Today you will hear Eastern Orthodox apologist dismiss Origen as a heretic and not to be used, when most theologians and Nicene fathers would have quoted from him, engaged his thought and invoked his arguments (even as late as into the medieval period). (Although to be fair there has been some recent pushback against this denigration of Origen by the Eastern Orthodox which seeks to rehabilitate him and reject his “heretical” status).
The point is not whether or not Origen is “authoritative” or a heretic. The point is that he is a very learned, respected and venerable theologian and who is very old and ancient and therefore a good guide as to what the Church in the past believed or practiced. This is also the value of Tertullian, or for the matter, any other past theologian or father’s writings. They were old and venerable; they lived in the time of the early church, and therefore were good evidence as to the practices and beliefs of that time. Whether those past beliefs are true or practices valid is a separate matter and are arguments to be evaluated on own intrinsic merits. The legalistic view of past theologians or fathers is, ironically, an import from Protestant fundamentalism.
Likewise the high church fundamentalist does not get my citation of Pelagius to justify the historicity of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. The point is not whether he is a heretic, not whether he is an “expert authority”. The point is that his writings are good evidence for what the past believed and that it shows that this doctrine was already there in the past.
Conclusion: On Doing Church History Properly
This is why Protestants ironically are light years ahead in the study of church history and are probably the only ones who can do it objectively and without biased. We don’t feel compelled to force the past to fit into our church narrative. We can let it stand on its own and let them make their own arguments whether or not we agree with it. When the past agrees with us, it agrees, when it disagrees, it disagrees. The high church fundamentalist, whose canon extends beyond the bible, along with their narrative of substantive continuity, would already have a vested interest to harmonise the past with their present teachings. In aid of that task, they will often need to “interpret” the fathers and conciliar documents with all kinds of mental gymnastic to make it fit into their narrative.
Ironically the amount of mental gymnastics which the high church fundamentalist needs to engage in in order to “interpret” the fathers rightly is self-defeating as those fathers are suppose to be uncontroversial and clear means to settle interpretations of the Bible in the first place.
The Protestant attitude towards the church fathers is ultimately that of Aquinas who wrote:
Nevertheless, sacred doctrine makes use of these [philosophical] authorities as extrinsic and probable arguments; but properly uses the authority of the canonical Scriptures as an incontrovertible proof, and the authority of the doctors of the Church as one that may properly be used, yet merely as probable. For our faith rests upon the revelation made to the apostles and prophets who wrote the canonical books, and not on the revelations (if any such there are) made to other doctors.
–Summa Theologica, The Nature and Extent of Sacred Doctrine, Q8. Whether Sacred Doctrine Is A Matter of Argument?
One thought on “On Evaluating the Testimonial Evidence of the Church Fathers”
[…] and evidences to the state of the church in the past (for a discussion on this distinction see here). Thus we draw upon “heretics” like Tertullian, Origen, Eusebius, Pelagius, etc, to point to […]