The fundamental problem with trying to use Church History (post-apostolic history at least) to prove theological claims is that it is like trying to use the history of science to prove claims about the nature of gravity.

The history of science can tell you what Aristotle believed, what Newton believed, what Einstein believed about gravity. You can even argue about how their ideas were subsequently discussed by their disciples and those who followed them, etc. But no amount of history of science can tell you whether their gravitational theories *are true*. History only tells you what *other people believe*, it cannot tell you whether their beliefs are right. To determine whether or not a gravitational theory is correct, scientific experimentation, data and deduction, not historical investigations, are necessary.

Likewise the history of the Church can only tell you about the theological theories and beliefs of other people, but it cannot tell you whether their beliefs are true. To determine if their ideas are true or right, theological argument from divine revelation in the Scriptures are necessary, and no amount of investigation of what other theologians believed can tell you if they are right.

The second problem with using history to prove a theological point is that it is inevitable that such people become invested in trying to force and read historical figures and people in a way as to suit their theological point rather than on their own terms. The moment you want and need the Fathers or Doctors of the Church or whatever to support your theological contention, you’ll inevitably end up distorting them to suit your theological narrative. Just as the history of gravitational theory is to be distinguished from the science of gravitational theory, likewise trying to determine what the past believed theologically has to be distinguished sharply from whether their theological beliefs are true. When the former is used to rationalise the latter after the fact, people will invariably end up reading the Fathers in bad faith.

A friend of mine made the following important point about “historical fundamentalism”:

Generally, contemporary Catholic dislike historical theology, or at least it enters very little into how they think of religious problems. Why this is the case requires some rather creative speculation. I think one reason is perhaps because of the modernist crisis of last century, when Pope Pius X and his goons saw modernist hiding under every Vatican bush. Modernism was all about using history to contextualize doctrine, and such an exercise is always dangerous. Even the last two popes, who many educated Catholics look up to as “intellectuals”, are profoundly “a-historical” in their approaches to theological and philosophical questions. Papa Wojtyla was a spacey phenomenologist obsessed with the idea of “Biblical myth” in the worst sense (theology of the body), and not at all enamored with Patristics or liturgy. The little I have read of Ratzinger shows me that insofar as he addresses history he addresses it like Newman (the other ten ton elephant in the room) addresses it: as a Hegelian procession of ideas through time and the ether. In other words, that doctrines change is admitted but not why they change. History always has to be subjugated to theory: history exists to create the desired ideological result. The real is rational and the rational real, and so forth.

Not all Catholics are like this, though. One of my mentors (a Catholic) once told me that if Scripture is the object for fundamentalism for the Protestant, and liturgy for the Orthodox, for the Catholic it is very easy to fall into historical fundamentalism. History always has to tell OUR story or things fall apart. I don’t read many Catholic authors on principle, but the two from last century that I really appreciate are Henri de Lubac and Marie-Dominique Chenu. That is because both let history stand as is to a certain extent: de Lubac in his sometimes flawed analysis of the supernatural in post-Tridentine theology (and his book, Corpus Mysticum), and Chenu in his analysis of the social and economic conditions that led to the rise of scholasticism. I am sure Peter E. could give us more authors, as he is better read than I am on this topic. It just seems of interest in these conversations how ill-informed Catholics are about history, and how even now, historical theology is suspected of being modernist and liberal. Sort of goes with the secular prejudice against religious people that to have faith means to put blinders on. If you want to believe with any modicum of virtue in the classical sense, you have to take the blinders off.

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