Friday, May 13, 2011

To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant

Many people are aware that the title for this post comes from a statement made by the Venerable John Henry Cardinal Newman, convert to Catholicism from Anglicanism. The sentiment being expressed is that you will not find any reasonable historical testimony in the Early Church Fathers (ECFs) for uniquely "Protestant doctrines." While Protestants might accept various early church teachings, such as the Divinity of Christ, in virtually every case Catholics accept that teaching as well. But the reverse is not true: there are many "Catholic teachings" found in the ECFs that Protestants not only do not accept, they contradict central dogmas of Protestantism (e.g. Sola Fide).

A popular form of 'damage control' Protestants use in response to this damning realization is to turn around and point to a few doctrines they believe don't have sufficient historical testimony and use that to say the Catholic Church must be false. This approach fails on two main grounds: (a) it doesn't get the Protestant out of the fact they are embracing a radically ahistorical Christian outlook, and (b) when looking at the 'big picture', that is all doctrines, the overall testimony of the ECFs shows the early Church to be very Catholic. Thus, for a Protestant to be fixated on something like the historical testimony for the Immaculate Conception, claiming it was not taught, and use that as their major criteria for rejecting/refuting Catholicism is a distortion of the big picture. No Catholic claims each and every doctrine has the same level of historical testimony, or even that some doctrines are not as well attested to as others; that doesn't mean we cannot form a reasonably solid conclusion on which Christian group today is best candidate for "One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church".

Consider the following list of doctrines I quickly put together (there are others that I've not included), which I believe far, far more strongly testifies the ECFs were Catholic than Protestant:

Almost no ECF testimony for Eternal Security, Imputation of Christ’s Active Obedience, The Father pouring out His Wrath on the Son at the Cross, Receiving Christ’s Righteousness by Faith, categorizing Justification as Forensic, etc.
On the flip side, there is clear ECF testimony for losing salvation by sin, the reality of Free Will, Justification via internal transformation, salvation by ‘works’ (i.e. entering Heaven based on your good or bad works), saving grace being available to all men, church imposed penances for falling into sin, etc (All of these latter concepts are very Catholic, but the former ones Protestants teach are essential for holding to the "true Gospel".)

The Bible:
I don’t know of a single ECF who espoused the Protestant Canon or who taught we go around determining canonicity the way the Westminster Confession teaches. There are ECFs who taught the Catholic Canon, and the rest who had a ‘mixed canon’ lean Catholic because they never totally excluded the "Deutero-Canonical" books. (Protestantism teaches the Church cannot even function without the proper canon of Scripture.)

There is clear Patristic testimony for the three-fold (i.e. distinct) offices of Deacon, Priest, and Bishop. Clear evidence for the binding authority of Ecumenical Councils, for Apostolic Succession (rather than self-appointment), a hierarchy among bishops (with strong examples of the Bishop of Rome being at the top of the list), for the Church and/or diocese having the power to impose disciplinary practices, and encouragement for things such as celibacy and the ascetic lifestyle. (All of these are uniquely Catholic but anathema to Protestant ears.)

There is clear evidence of the Mass being seen as a Sacrifice, the Bread and Wine being seen as really Christ (even if you want to dispute transubstantiation), Sunday being the normative day of worship (not any day you feel like it), and a structured Liturgy for each region. Further, there are prayers for the dead, veneration of Saint’s Relics, use of images, etc. Clear veneration of Mary as “Mother of God” and Perpetual Virgin, Infant Baptism, Baptismal Regeneration (including interpreting John 3:5 and Titus 3:5 as proof), and clear testimony against divorce and remarriage. (As with the other teachings, these sound much more Catholic than Protestant, with many of them being anathema to Protestant ears.)

The above list of teachings is a good example of what it means to look at the 'big picture', and this is how one should approach any Protestant challenge on the subject.

Now, to take that whole list and go trumpeting around a few doctrines and why this or that ECF didn't teach the doctrine - as if that’s the ‘big picture’ - is a distortion of the situation. On any such ‘disputed’ items, what a Protestant might consider weak evidence can be seen as sufficient evidence by Catholics in light of the strong testimony for the ‘big picture’ coming off far more Catholic than Protestant.

If a Protestant wants to respond to the overwhelming fact the ECFs come off sounding far, far more Catholic than Protestant by saying “so what,” that’s their right, but it’s also an admission of a radical ahistorical paradigm their ‘church’ is embracing. This radically ahistorical paradigm is where the concept of “to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant” comes from.


Jason Stellman said...

Hi Nick,

I am curious to hear what you make of this quote from Athanasius:

"But as I have said before, He came to suffer in the flesh.... He came, as we have often said, to take God's indignation and chastisements upon Himself that these evils might no longer dare to molest men, but might be utterly destroyed."

Quoted in Mersch, The Whole Christ, p. 274.

Thanks in advance.

Nick said...

Hi Jason,

I've never seen the quote before (thus nor do I know the context), but it's clearly speaking of Christ's Passion and alluding to Isaiah 53. In saying that "these evils might no longer dare moslest men," it brings to mind Hebrews 2:

"14Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery."

In other words, these evils (pain and suffering and death) tormented mankind up until the Cross, but after the Cross these were no longer to be feared but embraced as a gateway to better things. What used to be something to be feared and a tool of the devil was turned on it's head to be embraced and a 'tool' for Christians.

Jason Stellman said...

I have never understood the Catholic position on the atonement, so maybe you can help a brother out.

On the one hand you deny adamantly that Jesus bore the Father's punishment for my sins, but then you turn around and seem to say that exact thing. Every time I read a Catholic talk about Jesus bearing the curse for humanity, or in the case of Athanasius, about Jesus taking the Father's indignation I think, "But didn't you guys just get done insisting that you don;t believe that?"


Nick said...

Hi Jason,

The heart of the problem is not recognizing what the term "Atonement" means.

Protestants generally think it means the punishment due to a specific sin is transferred to an innocent substitute (i.e. Penal Substitution). Thus, if we deserve hellfire for our sins, this punishment was transferred to Christ.

Catholics teach that sin needs to be atoned for, and this involves making acts of reparation. Since sin requires an 'infinite reparation' (for lack of a better term), only someone Divine can merit that level of reparation (popularly called Propitiation and Satisfaction).

This should now help shed light on another important issue: whenever at text says something to the effect that Jesus died "for us," Protestants jump to the conclusion this must have taken place in a Penal Substitutionary framework, without realizing there is a more accurate and alternative model out there.

I strongly encourage you to read this short article, which discusses the Biblical term for "Atonement".

John Thomson said...


I have to admire your apologetic tenacity even when I disagree with conclusions. You do encourage me to reflect and make every effort to engage with Scripture which is more than some Protestant confessionalists do.

Andre said...

I had a friend who takes the position that the patristic fathers were good, but after Constantine, the church became corrupt and untrustworthy. I should direct him here.

Nick said...

Hello Andre,

That is a very good position for your friend to be in, for he is in for a serious surprise when he actually examines the Pre-Nicene Fathers! The Pre-Nicene Fathers were just as Catholic and anti-Protestant as those after Constantine.

Here is an amazing example from a good blog I follow:

In that link, Joe looks over one of the most pre-eminent Apostolic Fathers, St Ignatius. Joe quotes John Calvin as saying Ignatius must be a forgery because his teaching is repugnantly Catholic.