Protestant Church History?
Protestant Church History?

The Non-Normativity of Church History

Given the Protestant tenet of sola scriptura or the Bible as the supreme normative source of divine revelation, what responsibility do we have towards the past? It is one thing to say that the study of the past is useful in that we don’t have to keep reinventing the wheel or reengaging questions or issues which has been argued and engaged in the past. However, do we have a positive duty to past traditions?

Since I take a more “low church” approach to the church than most, I rule out the idea that past traditions possess any normative qualities altogether and that every piece of writing and argument by the Fathers are to be tested against the Scriptures as St Cyril of Jerusalem himself admonishes: “Even to me, who tell thee these things, give not absolute credence, unless thou receive the proof of the things which I announce from the Divine Scriptures.” (Catechetical Lectures, NPNF2: Vol.VII, Lecture IV:17.)

Church History as Theodicy

I think primarily the Protestant approaches church history as essentially an exercise in theodicy. We believe, as firmly as any high church believer does, that the Church which was founded upon St Peter will endure unto the end of time. Therefore our doctrines and practices should have existed continuously throughout history. A total eclipse or disappearance from the Church of what we claim to be essential to the Christian faith would mean serious theodicy problems for us, calling into question whether God has in fact preserved the faith. If we affirm the perspicuity of the Scriptures, that is, those doctrines which are vital to the faith can be clearly discerned, then obviously there should have been people before the Reformation who have discerned it.

However our responsibility is lower than that of the high church advocates. We need only give evidence that our doctrines and practices have existed before in Christendom, not that they were received approved or codified in some council or in the writings of the “correct” people, etc, since we don’t believe that councils or the “correct people” possess any intrinsic normative properties. As such, we do not need to engage in harmonisation of church history or create some Grand Narrative to explain the whole. As the Russian Orthodox theologian Georges Florovsky puts it:

…we are not to seek for outward, formal criteria of catholicity; we are not to dissect catholicity in empirical universality. Charismatic tradition is truly universal; in its fulness it embraces every kind of semper and ubique and unites all. But empirically it may not be accepted by all. At any rate we are not to prove the truth of Christianity by means of “universal consent,” per consensum omnium. In general, no consensus can prove truth. This would be a case of acute psychologism, and in theology there is even less place for it than in philosophy. On the contrary, truth is the measure by which we can evaluate the worth of “general opinion.” Catholic experience can be expressed even by the few, even by single confessors of faith; and this is quite sufficient. Strictly speaking, to be able to recognize and express catholic truth we need no ecumenical, universal assembly and vote; we even need no “Ecumenical Council.” The sacred dignity of the Council lies not in the number of members representing their Churches. A large “general” council may prove itself to be a “council of robbers” (latrocinium), or even of apostates. And the ecclesia sparsa often convicts it of its nullity by silent opposition. Numerus episcoporum does not solve the question. The historical and practical methods of recognizing sacred and catholic tradition can be many; that of assembling Ecumenical Councils is but one of them, and not the only one. This does not mean that it is unnecessary to convoke councils and conferences. But it may so happen that during the council the truth will be expressed by the minority. And what is still more important, the truth may be revealed even without a council. The opinions of the Fathers and of the ecumenical Doctors of the Church frequently have greater spiritual value and finality than the definitions of certain councils. And these opinions do not need to be verified and accepted by “universal consent.” On the contrary, it is they themselves who are the criterion and they who can prove. It is of this that the Church testifies in silent receptio. Decisive value resides in inner catholicity, not in empirical universality. The opinions of the Fathers are accepted, not as a formal subjection to outward authority, but because of the inner evidence of their catholic truth.

-The Catholicity of the Church

We admit frankly that the Church is, as Luther would put it, simul iustus et peccator, always mixed with both error and truth. We engage the writers of the past, not as normative authorities, but as witnesses 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 the state of Christian belief and practices in the past. (This is also ironically the approach of many of the Fathers who, notwithstanding the condemnation of Origen as a heretic, continue to draw upon his writings).

Contra Narratives and Harmonisation of Church Writings

To make our point, we need only demonstrate the existence and presence of our doctrine and practices in the Church, whether in approved Fathers or unapproved theologians. Since we are not committed to triumphalistic claims of “Tradition” with a capital “T” as some seamless coherent whole, we don’t need to distort or re-interpret the writers of the past into some coherent narrative for our point to be made. We can let each and every particular theologian speak for themselves, in all its inconsistent and complex plurality, without needing to make them say what we want them to say or artificially harmonise them.

Conclusion: Church History for Everyone

Because the Protestant bar is set lower, we can be more confident in our engagement in church history compared to the high church advocates which faith ultimately is set upon a certain historical narrative which needs to be constantly updated and adjusted with each new piece of data or writing from the past. It is interesting to note how Pope Benedict XVI in a book of his introducing the works of the early Fathers, lamented the widespread study of Fathers by others who miss their general tenor or orientation in Tradition conceived as a whole. In other words, he’s getting a bit annoyed about other people studying the Fathers for themselves and coming to conclusions divergent to that of the “Holy Mother Church”. Such is the angst and anxiety for those whose faith is based upon a human construct and who feels the need to keep a tight rein on history.

If the printing press and the proliferation of the Bible facilitated the Protestant Reformation, then the internet and the easy access to a wealth of patristic resources facilitates the Protestant answer to the high church claims of some seamless church Tradition which only they possess. Since it is difficult, if not impossible, for everyone to read the entire wealth of the church fathers and history for themselves, the internet provides a easy way for the masses to access the fathers piecemeal to refute the high church claims.

Ultimately the Protestant’s case is easier to prove, it is enough for us that there is some evidence for the mere existence and presence of our views, we do not need or feel compelled to harmonise them with other writings which seemingly contradict it. The high church advocate’s case is the harder one for they need to harmonise every single piece of writing to fit it into their seamless “Tradition” with a capital “T” narrative.

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