Review: Fortescue, Adrian – The Early Papacy to the Synod of Chalcedon in 451

Apr 24th, 2010 | By | Category: Blog Posts

The following is a guest post written by R.E. Aguirre, General Editor., Paradoseis Journal


Book Review: Fortescue, Adrian – The Early Papacy to the Synod of Chalcedon in 451
San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2008.
Fourth Edition, ed., Alcuin Reid.
Pp. 7 + 121. ISBN 9781586171766

It is always rather exigent to review an older work, especially one which is aimed at a specific problem in a specific academic discipline.1 The Early Papacy to the Synod of Chalcedon in 451 by Adrian Fortescue was written to defend the thesis that the early Church had a clear awareness of the Primacy of Peter.2 In order to accomplish this Fortescue uses clear reasoning along with a survey of the primary writings of the Church Fathers to 451 AD.3 Much development has occurred in the field of Patristics and Patrology since 1920 and the argument for the Primacy of Peter and the Roman Papacy has become ever more sophisticated.4 Still, the editor Alcuin Reid notes in his introduction,

Fr. Fortescue wrote in 1919, and since then, there have been advances in the study of patristics, none of which calls into question any of the texts adduced5

It is evident that Fortescue is a master of the patristic literature.6 Yet he writes this short work in a readable and accessible manner, distinctly not for the scholar alone but also for the educated layman as well. It is intelligent, and utilizes philosophical, historiographical, and theological arguments to bolster the dogma of the Primacy of Peter and the Roman Papacy. Among the various grounds brought forward by Fortescue (many of which have been rehashed, – and usually with much less power) I found his discussion on the presumptions that are used in the hermeneutics of Scripture and the Patristic literature very stimulating. Fortescue’s case being that every scholar reads both Scripture and the Patristic writings according to the bending of his current presuppositions.

We say that it is impossible for a plain man to make up his own religion out of sixty six books (seventy-three if you count the deuterocanonical books), written at different times, and not specifically for his difficulties now. It is even more obviously impossible if to these you add about a hundred volumes of Migne. All these methods of taking some early documents, whether the Bible of the Fathers, and making them your standard, mean simply a riot of private judgment on each point of religion…When one Anglican has admitted that he finds a constitutional papacy in the Fathers and councils down to 451, another Anglican, possibly still more learned in patrology, will deny that these old texts mean any real primacy at all7

What is needed is an authoritative voice on these matters, and that voice according to Fortescue is the Church via her official and living leadership. Another highlight of this work is the most excellent survey given to us by Fortescue concerning the numerous examples of the juridical cases in the ancient Church that were brought to the Roman Bishop or cases in which he took the initiatory lead in order to settle theological disputes, all of which declares and assumes Roman Primacy. In conclusion, I recommend Fortescue’s work on the early papacy for both specialist and as a entry level academic work for the interested layman. It is free from the harsh polemical tones of the earlier centuries, and it is as well an interesting oeuvre on this subject well before Vatican II.

R. E. Aguirre
Reader in New Testament Studies and Patrology,
Southern California.
General Editor., Paradoseis Journal

  1. Father Adrian Fortescue (1874-1923) first published this work in 1920 and it is steeped in the latest Patristic scholarship of his day. Names such as Harnack, Migne, Ramsay, Lightfoot and Zahn (to name a few) are cited throughout. The editor of this fourth edition Alcuin Reid brings the discussion up to speed with contemporary citations and thoughtful remarks. Such a one is Reid’s observation concerning Fortescue’s style on page 14, “Clearly Adrian Fortescue was no ultramontanist! His exercise of critical ability (in strictly private correspondence), while remaining thoroughly loyal and obedient; his sense of history; and indeed his sense of humor offer a helpful guide to those participating in any discussion of possible reforms of the papacy.” []
  2. A proposal Fortescue contends, “To the present writer the papacy seems one of the clearest and easiest dogmas to prove from that early Church.” (p.104) Or again, “There are difficulties against every article of the faith. Many early Fathers would seem to have been Chiliasts (Millenarians); Justin Martyr seems to say that God the Father is greater than the Son; altogether a man could make a very pretty collection of apparent difficulties against the Holy Trinity from the ante-Nicene Fathers. There are fewer difficulties against the papacy than against most articles of the Catholic faith.” (p. 102). []
  3. Someone might rightfully ask at this point, why the date 451 as terminus ad quem and not the more standard seventh century (for the Western fathers) and the eight (East)? It is because this was the date set by his Anglican interlocutors and so then this will be the date that Fortescue will use as his boundary marker. []
  4. On a popular level Stephen K. Ray has presented the patristic attestation in great detail, Upon This Rock: St. Peter and the Primacy of Rome in Scripture and the Early Church (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999). For more academic defenses see for example Henri de Lubac, “The Service of Peter,” in his The Motherhood of the Church (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1982); Hans Urs von. Balthasar, The Office of Peter and the Structure of the Church (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1986); Joseph Ratzinger, Called to Communion: Understanding the Church Today (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1996) and the bibliographies cited therein. For a critical Catholic treatment see Jean Marie Tillard, The Bishop Of Rome (London: SPCK, 1983). []
  5. Early Papacy, p. 9 fn# 3. []
  6. Among other works see his The Greek Fathers: Their Lives and Writings (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2007). []
  7. Early Papacy, p. 22. []
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21 comments
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  1. This is an excellent book and was recommended to me by a friend as I was working through the claims of the Catholic Church. My friend said that if he had read it earlier in his own journey to the Catholic Church, he would have made his decision to convert much sooner, and with less difficulty. Having read the book I do agree with him, both on the excellence of the book, and the help it affords a Protestant looking for help in understanding the legitimate basis for the Papal office.

  2. I have flipped through Fortescue’s book and found it helpful. I should probably pick it up at some point.
    I would ask one question on something in this review:

    What is needed is an authoritative voice on these matters, and that voice according to Fortescue is the Church via her official and living leadership.

    But isn’t that authoritative voice of the Roman Church exactly what Fortescue is attempting to argue for in the church fathers? Wouldn’t these lead to a sort of Catholic equivalent of Van Tillian presuppositionalism, seeing it as being necessary to accept Rome’s authority and interpretation a priori to read the fathers correctly and find…Rome’s authority?

    Pax Christi,

    Spencer

  3. Spencer,

    Excellent question. What I believe you are asking in other words is that the (Roman) Catholic argument that Fortescue is utilizing is in effect similar to the epistemological argument of the school of Van Til et al, or presupposing something before you attempt to prove it (the bearbug of circular reasoning). But I do not think this is what is going on here and in fact Fortescue argues exactly counter to this. The school of presuppositional apologetics in the final analysis continues to turn on the principle of autonomous reasoning. Or in other words, (A) is true because I (A) believe it to be so. The circular reasoning is plain. The thesis is said to be true because the individual interpreter deems it to be so – through his best reading of the extant material (in this case the patristic writings).

    Yet Fortescue clears the issue when he writes,

    “We believe in a Church that exists and lives all days, even to the end of the world, guided by Christ, infallible in faith and morals as long as she exists. We have exactly the same confidence in the divine guidance of the Church in 1870 as in 451. To be obliged to hark back some fifteen hundred years, to judge for yourself, according to the measure of your scholarship, what the documents of that period imply, would be the end of any confidence in a living authority.” (pp. 21-22)

    So then Fortescue is upholding two premises here. First, that as a Catholic he believes that Church history and its doctrinal formulations have been divinely guided, (something that a Protestant can never say). Secondly and intimately tied to the first premise is that as a Catholic he looks outside of himself, of his own private judgements; concerning the patristic writings (and the interpretation of Scripture) and looks to an external authority for official and dogmatic pronouncements.

    _____________

    R. E. Aguirre
    Paradoseis Journal
    Christians are Called to Communion
    Called To Communion

  4. Spencer:

    I’d like to add my own take to what Mr. Aguirre said.

    What Fortescue shows is that the early sources can reasonably be interpreted in such a way that Rome’s later claims appear as an organic development thereof. He does not show that his way is the only rationally plausible way to interpret the sources. So, what’s the argument for preferring his way, which supports Rome’s?

    That argument, in my view, must be philosophical. On the assumption that divine revelation is definitive and complete in Jesus Christ, and is meant for all humanity to receive as such in faith, then only an authority in the Church that shares in Christ’s infallible teaching authority as the Church’s founder and head can enable the faithful to distinguish reliably between human opinion and divine revelation. For if we just consigned the definitive and infallible revelation to a fixed collection of writings, and left things at that, then there would be no way to adjudicate with divine authority among rationally plausible but mutually incompatible interpretations of that collection. We would be left simply with a clash of opinions.

    There are of course plenty of people who say that Scripture is the sole infallible rule of faith, and that such a stance is sufficient for the purpose I’m describing. A few of them comment at this blog, and most of the authors of this blog once believed it themselves. But they reached the point, as have many others, of realizing that when people say that “Scripture” is the sole infallible rule of faith, what they really mean is that their interpretation of Scripture, or that of some leader or academy they like, is the only one that’s authoritative. Their reasons for thinking so, however, are only opinions based on their preferred scholarship, or bosom-burning, or just on how they have experienced authority in their own churches. Since they don’t claim infallibility, they admit they could be wrong. And that means their interpretations aren’t authoritative in the sort of way that’s needed to enable us to sort divine revelation from opinion.

    In sum, the reason to accept Rome’s claims is that otherwise the Christian religion reduces to a matter of opinion.

    Best,
    Mike

  5. Dr Liccione,

    I am, as you know from a previous thread, in entire agreement concerning the philosophical argument you made in #4 – as well as with the reasons why it must be made. I do have a slight hesitation – depending upon your meaning – concerning the following comment:

    He does not show that his way is the only rationally plausible way to interpret the sources

    Now I agree with the assertion that there is more than one “rational” way to assess the historiographic data of Christianity. As everyone knows, one of the most fundamental ways that bias enters into the production of any historical account is by way of the historian’s methodology in selecting which data to include or exclude when developing his synthesis of the record. Focusing on this aspect of historiography has caused me to somewhat modify my view as to just how reasonable the non-catholic attempts at historical syntheses are. Here is what I mean:

    Often times in dialogue with both Orthodox and Reformed Christians, general statements are made of the sort: “Christian history is not monolithic”, or “you only see Roman claims therein because you are Roman Catholic” (In fact, I came to accept the Roman historical account “kicking and screaming” all the while). I generally get the impression that these kind of statements are made during discussions in order to cast a wet blanket over doctrinal (especially ecclesiological) assertions built upon any sort of Catholic synthetic reading of Christian history and documentary evidence. The amount of raw data is so massive, the non-catholic thinks that by simply making such statements (i.e. “surely you don’t think the Catholic apologetic is the ONLY way to interpret the sources”), he has neutralized any threat to his position by way of historical counterfactuals.

    Now I have spent a respectable amount of time among the patristic sources; but I do not claim to be an expert, or to possess the encyclopedic knowledge of say a Cardinal Newman. However, during my studies of patristic sources, a thought keeps recurring to me. The gist of the thought is this: the Reformed synthesis especially, and the Orthodox synthesis to a lesser degree, seem to gain hermeneutic currency by way of exclusion or neglect of source material; whereas the Catholic position appears more inoculated against this charge.

    For example, Reformed scholars and theologians assert that they embrace and honor the fathers, councils, etc. They often gather patristic sources in support of their paradigm which pertain to the high view of scripture held by the fathers; or certain statements (especially by Augustan) which seem to give credence to a more symbolic understanding of the sacraments –especially the Eucharist. The problem, though, is that they tend to ignore or downplay the many references to the authority of bishops, apostolic succession, and the many Eucharistic passages which seem very much to align with Catholic theology (including such references in Augustan). To put it another way; nearly everything in the Patristic record that the Reformed pointed to as supportive of their theological outlook is something to which the Catholic can say – yes – so what – we agree – the fathers have a very high view of Scripture – so do Catholics. And where a father (say Augustan) is being interpreted as supportive of a symbolic understanding – say of the Eucharist, the catholic says – but you are ignoring other passages where Augustan clarifies or states his position in a way consistent with the Catholic view. But above all, the catholic can say – Augustan was a BISHOP. What does a Reformed theologian do with innumerable appeals to apostolic succession or substantial witnesses to Papal jurisdiction (such as Fortescue shows)? My point is that the Reformed strike me as capable of making their synthesis plausible only by way of exclusion or neglect; whereas the Catholic synthesis is richer because of its both/and posture. When I was Reformed, my initial exposure to the fathers was through the “Institutes” and other Reformed works written by Calvin and his successor. I eventually bought a 38 volume set of the fathers and began exploring the sources directly. The shear volume of Catholic or proto-catholic material I ran into simply dislodged my entire theological paradigm – and that despite the fact that the volumes I had purchased were chalk full of footnotes by protestant scholars taking every opportunity to try and put a non-catholic spin on patristic sources. I was faced with a choice between Orthodoxy and Catholicism – so, of course, I chose Orthodoxy (since for personal and family reasons – anything but Catholic!). I spent about a year devouring Orthodox theology, attending Orthodox churches and going deeper into the patristic record but then . . .

    A similar situation arises within Orthodoxy. The Orthodox tend to view the Church as united until 1054, and they see the juridical paradigm of the Church as essentially counciliar (albeit the Roman See possessed a primacy of honor – what that caveat would really means in practice I am not sure). Again, though, this sort of historical synthesis seems to work only by way of exclusion or neglect or certain data– by rejecting just the kind of juridical evidence that Fortescue presents (and, of course, there are other works that delve even deeper into source material supportive of pre-1054 Roman jurisdiction). Again, the Catholic says – well yes – all bishops have a special charism and a share in Christ’s authority – and yes this is most especially expressed within the context of an ecumenical council – but BOTH this fact AND the fact of a special juridical role for the Petrine ministry are evident in the Church’s life prior to the spilt of 1054. Reading works like Fortescue’s, as well as Newman’s “Apologia Pro Vita Sua” and “Development of Christian Doctrine”, presented such powerful patristic support for the unique role and authority of the Bishop of Rome – during the Patristic ‘golden age’ – that my Catholic fate (from a historical POV) was sealed.

    So it seems to me that the Reformed, and to a lesser extent the Orthodox, make their historical syntheses work by way of exclusion or neglect of data that does not fit; whereas many or most of the theological notions which they see as supportive of their outlook by way of historical source material, are aspects which the Catholic agrees with, and already recognizes. Thus, the Catholic responds – what you are saying is true so far as it goes – it just doesn’t go far enough AND the sources bear out that it does not go far enough; because the sources contain data that is truly contra your paradigm. Its not as if there is only historical silence (say with respect to apostolic succession or Petrine jurisdiction) out of which all sides might build a theoretical synthesis of equivalent strength (although there is silence on more than a few other issues). The Reformed and Orthodox syntheses seem to require a certain “passing-by” of real data; whereas the Catholic synthesis does not suffer so much from this accusation. In my mind, the way that Vatican II presents the Orthodox as being in a close, yet still imperfect, union with the Catholic Church and the Reformed as being in less perfect union than the Orthodox; somewhat mirrors the way all three relate to the historical record. The Reformed, in order to assert a hermeneutic of continuity with the Patristic record must neglect a great deal of data. The Orthodox must neglect less than the Reformed – yet some data nonetheless – especially data supportive of Roman Jurisdiction. The Catholic Church, being the fullness of the faith, can offer a hermeneutic of continuity which is admissive of a much wider range of data.

    Perhaps I have grossly over-simplified the situation above – and I am happy to be corrected.

    With the above in mind, let me tidy up my main thought:

    If we were to evaluate side-by-side the most erudite historical syntheses of all three traditions:

    Say the Catholic synthesis by Newman or Congar or ??
    And the Orthodox by Schmemann or Ware or ??
    And the Reformed by ?? whoever is best

    Given that all three will be the products of both goodwill and serious scholarship; is it the case that each of these will be equally plausible (I realize you never made that assertion – you said there is more than one rationally plausible interpretation)?

    I am inclined to alter your general argument in #4 just slightly. I would say that the Catholic historical synthesis – the Catholic hermeneutic of continuity – has the most explanatory power, a sort of inference to the best explanation. However, there are other non-catholic syntheses, constructed by intelligent persons, which have a certain degree of persuasive power. Nonetheless, when one considers the philosophical problem of establishing a means by which doctrinal orthodoxy can be reliably differentiated from mere human opinion, one sees that the Catholic synthesis is the only one capable of meeting this need.

    I would be interested in whether you think I am off base in thinking this way.

    Pax et Bonum,

    -Ray

  6. Ray,

    That was most thoughtful and erudite. Like the rest of us, I’m sure, I appreciate the work that went into it. And I agree almost entirely with your conclusion, to wit:

    I would say that the Catholic historical synthesis – the Catholic hermeneutic of continuity – has the most explanatory power, a sort of inference to the best explanation. However, there are other non-catholic syntheses, constructed by intelligent persons, which have a certain degree of persuasive power. Nonetheless, when one considers the philosophical problem of establishing a means by which doctrinal orthodoxy can be reliably differentiated from mere human opinion, one sees that the Catholic synthesis is the only one capable of meeting this need.

    Your first sentence above, as is, gives one of the reasons why I’m Catholic. Your second sentence, as is, gives one of the reasons why some Christians are not Catholic. It’s your third sentence I’d put differently.

    Specifically: “Once one grants the necessity of establishing a means by which divine revelation can be reliably differentiated from mere human opinion, one sees that the Catholic synthesis is the one best suited to meeting this need.” This is not to say that I think Protestantism in general is at all suited to meeting the need in question. Some “high” Anglicans or “Anglo-Catholics” come pretty close, but the elixir of private judgment keeps them shy of the goal. What I would say is that Orthodoxy too has a way to make the needed distinction, and does so. It acknowledges the infallibility of the Church when she speaks in a manner intended to bind all the faithful. That’s the key.

    I’ve already explained elsewhere, however, why I believe that Orthodox ecclesiology is not as well suited as Catholic ecclesiology to supply the criteria for identifying when “the Church” speaks with her full authority. In case you saw that explanation, I won’t repeat it here. But in any case, and for general benefit, here’s the link.

    Best,
    Mike

  7. Ray,

    You wrote:

    The problem, though, is that [the Reformed] tend to ignore or downplay the many references to the authority of bishops, apostolic succession, and the many Eucharistic passages which seem very much to align with Catholic theology (including such references in Augustan).

    Mostly we do that because the original texts were corrupted by those low-down dirty no-good Papists and Greeks. Fortunately, WE are here with our correct interpretations of the church fathers. ;-) ;-) Otherwise we’d have to actually take seriously the fact that a lot of Christians disagree with us!

    …if you can’t enjoy a good laugh on a Sunday, when can you? =)

    Sincerely
    ~Benjamin =)

  8. Benjamin,

    Oh, I see how it is – next thing you know you’ll be labeling the pope the beast (actually there really are horns under that wierd hat) and the entire Catholic Church “the whore of Babylon” :>) Just joshin around! Thanks for the laugh – time now for an ice cold beer!

    -Ray

  9. Ray,

    That was a well-written post, I can tell you put a lot of thought into it. You’ve expressed what I’ve been thinking for a while as Reformed Christian investigating Church history and the claims of the Roman communion, which is how the Reformed tend to use the fathers. Oftentimes I see the Reformed speak highly of the early church fathers, or say that Rome’s modern teachings are way out of line with what they taught, but most seem either to either ignore or be unaware of the many things that the fathers said which are directly contradictory to the Reformed views.
    I recall one well known Protestant apologist, Reformed Baptist James White, saying something to the effect that it was alright that he disagreed with St. Augustine on so much, because St. Augustine supposedly believed in sola scriptura. The basic idea among the Reformed apologists I have read who deal with the church fathers seems to be that they were wrong on a lot of things, but they believed in sola scriptura as do the Reformed, and so the Reformed can reject anything they wish from the church fathers’ teachings on the basis of appealing to Scripture, but still consider themselves in line with “the great Christians of the past.”

    The Reformed do try to view the church fathers as if they were themselves Reformed in doctrine, as can be seen by the use of patristic quotations by David T. King and William Webster in their three volume Holy Scripture: The Ground and Pillar of Our Faith. However, given the fathers’ overall outlook (on issues such as you mentioned: apostolic succession, bishops, Real Presence in the Eucharist, baptismal regeneration, etc.) on theology, it seems most fair to them to view them as Catholics–maybe not in the fully Roman sense of the word, but certainly closer to Rome than Geneva in theology–and interpret their seemingly Protestant-esque statements in that context, rather than try to explain away or misinterpret their clearly Catholic views on other points of doctrine.

    Dr. Liccione and Mr. Aguirre,

    Thanks for your responses. I’ve just started reading Fortescue’s book today after reading this review, and I think it will be helpful in my research.
    Dr. Liccione, your philosophical argument for the necessity of an infallible interpreter is compelling. I recall reading one of Jonathan Edwards’ Miscellanies where he was talking about the necessity of divine revelation, and how human reason, without the light of divine revelation, stumbles around in the dark and has difficulty finding the truth–and how human reason is incapable of knowing the truths about salvation in any form without divine revelation. When I read it I remembered some of what you had said on C2C about the necessity of an infallible interpreter, and it struck me that what Edwards said really confirmed that. He rightly showed the inadequacy of human reason, on its own, to discover all the truths that need to be known about God, and showed from this that divine revelation is necessary. Yet all we have to do is take his argument another step farther, and show how human reason, while enlightened greatly by divine revelation, still cannot completely grasp the truth on its own without the revelation being rightly interpreted to him, and you have the position you are arguing for.

    Pax Christi,

    Spencer

  10. Ray said: The Reformed and Orthodox syntheses seem to require a certain “passing-by” of real data; whereas the Catholic synthesis does not suffer so much from this accusation.

    Ray,

    In your discussion here it seems to me that you are assuming that the patristic sources taken collectively are a coherent body of truth that give us a standard for evaluating what we believe concerning the Christian faith. Have I got that right and if so, why do you believe this?

    Then secondly if we grant that the Patristics are such a source, what principles do we bring to bear to interpret this body of data and who rightfully should establish these principles? I often get the idea that Catholics think that tradition just speaks for itself. Newman said that “to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” Do you agree that we just need to study the history of the Church and if we do so with a truly open mind that we will be convinced that the current RCC is indeed the spiritual successor of the Church Christ founded?

    So let me give you an example. I read the foundational Christian ecclesiological documents in the Scripture and the early few centuries of the Church and then I read the ecclesiological claims of the RCC in the High/Middle Ages and I don’t see that the later is a proper development of the former. Do you understand why I might not be able to make the connection between say Clement in the the 1st century and Boniface VIII in the 14th? What principle of interpretation allows to say that Boniface’s defense of the position of the Church of Rome is a proper development of Clement’s understanding of the Church of Rome in his epistle?

    Cheers….

  11. I just ordered this book–thanks for the recommendation.

    When I began reading the Fathers as a Baptist, I realized one thing: whether or not they were part of the same Church as the modern-day Catholic Church, they sure weren’t Baptists.

  12. I read this book a few weeks ago and it was worth it. It is BREIF considering the subject matter. The writing is very accessible to a layman like myself. Fortescue comes off as an apologist who does not think he will convince the Anglicans to whom he is responding. But he may have convinced this Presbyterian! He is very aware of the way we seem to read these texts through our preconceptions. Many of the texts he prefaces by pointing out that it is a well known or famous text that the reader is probably familiar with. Not me! It was all new to me and to my mind Fortescue makes a devastating case.

    On the flip side I am reading Studies on the Early Papacy, by Dom John Chapman. Interesting so far, but not nearly as accessible (some quotes are in untranslated french!) And I will be reading it for a long time. Next up I will be looking for books that present the best Protestant case on this topic.

  13. Hi Andrew,
    Your questions are great. In fact, I tend to think that some of the answers-issues surrounding these very questions might go more to the core of the sad reality of our current Protestant / Catholic separation than many of the lengthy infallibility / fallibility debates in which you and others (including myself on occasion) have engaged in different threads. I say this, because in a way, the questions you ask force us to actually “zoom out” (to use a photography idiom) from our confessional commitments and (to the degree that it is possible) survey Christianity the way a pagan might – and ask well . . what is it (Christianity) fundamentally? Okay, so some thoughts relating to your post . .

    In your discussion here it seems to me that you are assuming that the patristic sources taken collectively are a coherent body of truth that give us a standard for evaluating what we believe concerning the Christian faith. Have I got that right and if so, why do you believe this?

    My response here is going to be a little personal in nature, rather than an academic thesis because I actually think it serves to address the question better; but also, because it might allow us to meet each other as real persons facing real personal crisis/difficulties, as opposed to armchair theologians floating up academic balloons that simply bump and bounce off each other.

    How does one evaluate what one “believe(s) concerning the Christian faith”? But then that forces one to ask what exactly is meant by “the Christian Faith”? Is it a set of doctrines? Is it a Person (Christ)? Is it essentially existential – “my relationship with Christ”? From age 21 to 26, I was a card carrying agnostic (of a hyper-skeptical bent philosophically). I won’t bore you with that part of the story here, but between age 25 and 27 I went through a philosophical conversion (return to philosophical realism) and eventually began to take seriously the claims of “revealed” religion – and I mean that term in the most generic sense. Shortly thereafter, through exposure to CS Lewis and other figures, I was drawn towards a personal, but doctrinally and historically generic, commitment to Christ. I was both theologically and historically ignorant. I had no roots.

    On a practical level I started attending the non-denominational church where my extended family worshiped – but I was working through the general question “what is Christianity” all the while – so I was unable to sort of plant my feet. I kept asking – well why does my family practice Christianity this way? – where do they get all this from? So, having no personal experience with anything other than non-denominational Protestantism, I instinctively started “zooming out” to survey the landscape – to try and locate the origins of my immediate non-denominational experience. What did I find? My parents were (unbeknownst to them) practicing a form of Christianity whose origin traced back, through untold twists and turns, to the inception of the Reformation. There I encountered for the first time, among the original Reformers, and especially with Calvin (who I still think is a sort of systematic genius – given his principals), a form of Christianity that appealed and answered powerfully to my intellectual proclivities.

    I embraced Reformed Protestantism for several years, loading up on original Reformation works, and studying Reformed theologians and scholars – I think I read everything Francis Schaffer ever wrote (I even gave my first born son the middle name “Schaffer” because of my affection for Francis). I subscribed to Doug Wilson’s journal “Credenda Agenda” and unfortunately (God forgive me) started looking down my nose in theological disgust at the ill-formed, doctrinally chaotic state, of my parents non-denominational church. Still, I had absolutely zero exposure to the Catholic Church and I literally had never heard, in all my life, of “Eastern Orthodoxy” – until I discovered that Francis Schaeffer’s son Franky had left the Reformed world for EO. I read a few things written by Franky explaining his decision, much of which referenced “the Fathers”. About the same time I noticed a 38 volume set of “the Fathers” for sale in a CBD catalogue.

    To show how ignorant I was – although I had read many a passage by Calvin, Luther and other Reformed theologians referencing works and passages of certain “Fathers”; I remember thinking – “My God, there are 38 volumes of writings by Christians prior to the Reformation – and 7 or 8 (I don’t feel like going to the library to verify) called “Ante-Nicene” – i.e. pre-325AD”. I was actually shocked – bothered by the fact that these works had escaped my attention given my penchant for seeking the “roots of things”. To return to my camera metaphor, I suddenly realized that I had need to zoom WAY out and take in a much larger landscape. The rest of the story you have already read in #5.

    So why go through that story in relation to your question? Well, because my experience led me to see that part of the question “what is Christianity” involves asking the question “how do we get it – how does it come down to us in 2010”. My initial focus on Christianity simply as “Revealed” religion, followed by my subsequent and repeated “zooming out” to get a wider angle, forced me to ask the “pipeline” question. In other words, we spend a lot of time talking/arguing about the CONTENT of what has been revealed, but not so much considering the pipeline by which that content of revelation makes its way to us. But in every stage of my journey, both the quality and quantity of the content I recognized as “revealed” expanded with each “zooming out” – with each recognition that the flow was being restricted by the size and type of pipeline that fed that content to me.

    My main point is that if you are dealing with a “revealed” religion, the CONDUIT by which it is revealed, is inextricably tied into the CONTENT of that revelation. In fact, I see the “pipeline” question as sitting “outside” as a “preamble” to ALL discussions regarding content; for WHAT exactly the content is (and what it means) is significantly determined what one’s recognizes as its proper means of transmission – the pipeline. This is why a review of the historical data regarding the nature, or even the need for, “the church”, is in my mind, not unlike the historical considerations one gives to the claims of Jesus Christ to be God, or the veracity of the apostolic testimony to His resurrection. How we answer the question of Christ’s divinity and how we answer the pipeline question will, for the reasons I have given, materially affect what we come to see as the actual content of that which is understood as having been “revealed by God”. While the historical data, like the data supporting belief in Christ’s divinity is crucial in this consideration, the real kicker is this: the claims of Christ are well – claims that must be dealt with. How one directs his entire life turns on how a person responds to those claims. But there is a Church that exists in the here-and-now – in 2010 – that is making extraordinary claims – in some ways not unlike those of Christ – the claims of the Catholic Church. She claims to be THE pipeline – a human/divine covenant community – tracing its way back to Christ Himself.

    Catholics might describe this “pipeline” as – a living, organic, family that is both human (God knows this is too true), but also Divine. Protestantism does not propose such a pipeline as the fundamental conduit of revelation. In fact, calling attention to the small notice heretofore paid to the “pipeline” problem by our Protestant brothers and sisters is the occasion of most of the debates on CTC. Rather than a pipeline – a human/divine covenant – Protestants tend to focus on a book. Catholics, of course, see the book as the covenant family’s memoirs. Since the family has a Divine Father and a Divine founder, and is animated with a Divine Spirit, it is not odd (as it otherwise would be) that her memoirs possess a Divine quality. But like the case with any set of family memoirs, the family from which the memoirs originate is in the best position as a sort of “pipeline” to pass the proper interpretation of the memoirs on to posterity (us).

    So the bottom line for me goes something like this: do I think that “patristic sources taken collectively are a coherent body of truth”? I don’t think anyone familiar with the muck and mire of history would describe the data as coherent in themselves. What we have is a mass of facts. But what we also have is a unique present day reality called the Catholic Church which, considered as a mere human institution, has existed as an identifiable community across every single decade from which the mass of facts arise. She claims to possess (actually to BE) the interpretive key to the facts. Let’s face it, nobody else, except the Orthodox can even attempt to make such a brazen assertion with a straight face. Thus, it is entirely sensible, given a confrontation with these claims, to insert the key and see if the data opens up to the mind in any unique way. This is not question-begging, its testing a hypothesis – a claim – a challenge. It reminds me of when CS Lewis said that the claims of Christ, when applied to the story of world history acts like an author’s plot by causing all of the apparently disconnected chapters of a book to form a novel. This is exactly how I as a non-catholic approached the problem. I suspect it is also how Spencer and David Myers and countless others have and are approaching the problem. I see no reason why it is not a very sensible approach. I will have to address your other questions later as this has gotten way to long (I’m actually embarrassed) – but I feel kinda passionate about all this because its serious business.

    Peace and Good brother!

    -Ray

  14. Ray (#13):

    For a combox, that was a tour de force! Thanks once again. Still, I see a need to clarify something.

    You wrote:

    Thus, it is entirely sensible, given a confrontation with these claims, to insert the key and see if the data opens up to the mind in any unique way. This is not question-begging, its testing a hypothesis – a claim – a challenge.

    One thing that needs to be kept clear here is the difference in aims one might have in “testing the hypothesis.” One might do the testing because one is convinced that such is the only way to identify the overall, definitive content of divine revelation; or one might be doing the testing to see which family claim to be the sure pipeline of divine revelation has the most rational support. Given the subject matter, the latter is legitimate but the former is not. But a lot of people confuse the two.

    Here’s what I mean. Some people, including a few I’ve known who have converted to Catholicism but fallen away after some years, think that what they have to do is take this massive data-set we have from the early Church, study it thoroughly, and then decide for themselves, on the basis of the best scholarly principles and techniques, whether Catholic doctrine in general is consonant with whatever sources they take to be normative. That assumes that the full content of divine revelation can be reliably identified and assented to as such while holding in suspension the claims of the Catholic Church. That assumption is the essence of private judgment, whether it takes the form of sola scriptura or not. It can never yield anything more than opinions. And so, when the guys I’m talking about converted to Catholicism, they did so because Catholic doctrine taken as a whole seemed to them to be supported by the results of their study. When, after further study, they came to doubt that conclusion, they left the Church. And that shows that they had never made the assent of faith to the Church’s “brazen” claims to authority. The whole way they carried on, after as well as before their “conversion,” was just an exercise of private judgment.

    But as an objective inquirer, one can also “test the hypothesis” of the Church’s claims as you have: by asking oneself which church family’s story about itself explains the early data-set best and relates it best to the present. A study of that sort enables one to make a reasonable decision of faith to accept the Church’s claims for herself to be the unfailing “pipeline” of divine revelation. Such a claim can never be deductively necessitated by the data-set, because it’s a claim calling for the unconditional assent of faith, which transcends the provisional assent of reason. But accepting the claim would be reasonable if, after due study, it appears to the inquirer to make the most overall sense of the data-set in answer to the question I specified. That, I take it, is the kind of project you undertook. It’s the only fair way to approach the matter, given the nature of the subject.

    What makes it so easy to confuse the two approaches I’ve contrasted, however, is that the Catholic Church’s claims for herself, as the pipeline of divine revelation, are ipso facto and also part of the content of divine revelation. It is normal for people to have learned to accept much of the latter before they ever think through the former and come to accept the former as necessary for the latter. That is why it’s possible for non-Catholic Christians to pose the many challenges they do pose to concluding a personal project such as yours by accepting the Catholic Church’s claims for herself. So those claims have to be handled by showing that that which does not make sense to a non-Catholic can make perfect sense in Catholic terms.

    One example is adduced by Andrew, who wrote:

    I read the foundational Christian ecclesiological documents in the Scripture and the early few centuries of the Church and then I read the ecclesiological claims of the RCC in the High/Middle Ages and I don’t see that the later is a proper development of the former. Do you understand why I might not be able to make the connection between say Clement in the the 1st century and Boniface VIII in the 14th? What principle of interpretation allows to say that Boniface’s defense of the position of the Church of Rome is a proper development of Clement’s understanding of the Church of Rome in his epistle?

    As bishop of Rome around the turn of the 1st and 2nd centuries, Clement wrote as though he had the authority to intervene decisively in the affairs of other local churches that weren’t even in Italy. If he had that authority from Christ, then he is pastor of the universal or “catholic” Church, i.e. the communion of all the local churches. Now in 1302, his successor in the chair of Peter, Boniface VIII, defined that “it is absolutely necessary for the salvation of every human creature that they be subject to the Roman pontiff.” Can we get directly, as a matter of deductive logic, from Clement’s assumption of authority to Boniface’s? No. But in the 5th century, Cyril of Alexandria asserted that “outside the Church there is no salvation,” a doctrine that expressed the established self-understanding of the Church, and which later got defined as a dogma by the Church. So if, as Clement seems to have assumed, the Roman pontiff is pastor of the communion of all local churches, which is the Church, then given extra ecclesiam nulla salus, being “subject” in that sense to the Roman pontiff is necessary for salvation. Such is a good example of how the Church’s later claims to authority develop organically out of the earlier.

    To that, non-Catholics typically reply as follows: “Well, that works if you assume Catholicism to be true, and thus assume the papal claims. But it gives us no independent reason to accept the papal claims.” But it does give us such a reason: it makes sense of the sources—in this case Clement’s letter, when seen in the context of all the other pertinent sources up to the mid-5th century, which Fortescue smartly collates and explains. Is that enough to prove the Catholic Church’s claims for herself? No, but it supports them by showing how they make good sense of the sources on the matter. Hence it gives a good reason to make an assent of faith in a given church family’s claim to be the “pipeline” of divine revelation, a claim that is itself part of divine revelation. It is a reason that fits neatly with others, at least one of which is philosophical in nature, and which I have given. Thus the reasons converge and, collectively, afford an “inference to the best explanation.”

    It’s important to keep all these epistemological distinctions in mind because otherwise we will get confused about what kinds of arguments are apposite, and at what points. In your next reply to Andrew, I’m sure you’ll observe these caveats.

    Best,
    Mike

  15. Dr. Liccione,

    Such a claim can never be deductively necessitated by the data-set, because it’s a claim calling for the unconditional assent of faith, which transcends the provisional assent of reason. But accepting the claim would be reasonable if, after due study, it appears to the inquirer to make the most overall sense of the data-set in answer to the question I specified

    Thank you for the epistemological clarifications. I heartily agree with them -but failed to move them from the implicit to the explicit. Most especially the point that all of this sort of hypothesis testing is a rational “pre-amble” to an assent of faith – but it can never BE an assent of faith. Just like one cannot equate ratioanl reasons for accepting the claims to Christ divinity as an assent of faith in His divinity – as if one’s faith in Christ might fall apart the moment some “historical Jesus” critic shows up on Discovery Channel. Not to mention, this “historical data” inquiry is just one of many factors which led me (and I know from previous posts – yourself) to make an assent of faith in the Church.

    As bishop of Rome around the turn of the 1st and 2nd centuries, Clement wrote as though he had the authority to intervene decisively in the affairs of other local churches that weren’t even in Italy. If he had that authority from Christ, then he is pastor of the universal or “catholic” Church, i.e. the communion of all the local churches. Now in 1302, his successor in the chair of Peter, Boniface VIII, defined that “it is absolutely necessary for the salvation of every human creature that they be subject to the Roman pontiff.” Can we get directly, as a matter of deductive logic, from Clement’s assumption of authority to Boniface’s? No. But in the 5th century, Cyril of Alexandria asserted that “outside the Church there is no salvation,” a doctrine that expressed the established self-understanding of the Church, and which later got defined as a dogma by the Church. So if, as Clement seems to have assumed, the Roman pontiff is pastor of the communion of all local churches, which is the Church, then given extra ecclesiam nulla salus, being “subject” in that sense to the Roman pontiff is necessary for salvation. Such is a good example of how the Church’s later claims to authority develop organically out of the earlier.

    I was going to go just this route with Andrew’s third paragraph, and toss a recommendation to read Nemwan’s “Development” along with Congar’s “Tradition and Traditions” with a bit about how both theologians (as well as the Church herself) sees the Principal at work in the unfolding over-time of the deposit of faith (say from Petrine texts in the gospel, through all the examples you just gave, even up to to the statments in Vatican I) as the Holy Spirit operative among the covenant community. But you saved me the effort and put it in clearer terms than I probably would have.

    Pax et Bonum,

    -Ray

  16. Andrew,

    So here are some thoughts on your second paragraph. I do want to affirm the epistemological distinctions that Dr. Liccione made in #14 –especially as it relates to my idea of trying different “keys” out below. It is not as if everything rests upon the analysis of the historical data set; nor that the assent of faith required can somehow be forced by the analysis – such assent is of a different order entirely – but the analysis does make the assent “reasonable”; as distinct from some blind “leap of faith”.

    Then secondly if we grant that the Patristics are such a source, what principles do we bring to bear to interpret this body of data and who rightfully should establish these principles? I often get the idea that Catholics think that tradition just speaks for itself. Newman said that “to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” Do you agree that we just need to study the history of the Church and if we do so with a truly open mind that we will be convinced that the current RCC is indeed the spiritual successor of the Church Christ founded?

    Newman did indeed say that “to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant”. I fully agree with him – to see in the Ante-Nicene record the doctrine of Sola Scriptura built into the high view of scripture held by the fathers, or to see a merely symbolic approach to sacraments – especially the Eucharist – might be possible if all we had were texts in the first 4 centuries discussing the nature of scripture or the Eucharist in a sort of nebulous way. But that is not the case. I maintain, prior to Catholic pre-commitments, that those centuries are inundated from the very start – yes inundated – with an ecclesiology (bishops, apostolic succession, examples of Roman jurisdiction) foreign to Protestantism – as well as many a statement regarding the Eucharist which seems to defy any Reformed interpretation (and more besides about Mary – saints -etc.) Even fathers like Augustan, who are frequently employed by the Reformed to lend credence to Reformed positions, write so many Catholic-like things antithetical to Reformed theology – one can marvel that Calvin ever thought it wise to employ Augustan to his ends in the first place. And as I say, Augustan was a bishop of the Catholic Church and knew himself to be so.

    The point which I will stick to, is that the Catholic hermeneutic can account for the ante-Nicene data, including the high view of scripture and the seemingly symbolic renderings of certain Eucharistic passages (say in Augustan); while the Reformed hermeneutic can only pretend itself to be the heir of the ante-Nicene church, frankly, by ignoring or neglecting wheelbarrow loads of ante-Nicene patristic thought and commentary. This is the contrast I was emphasizing in #5 and which I maintain. I, like Newman, and so many others came to recognize this fact readily upon engaging the texts BEFORE accepting the claims of Rome. Basically, whatever else the church in these first 4 centuries is; it certainly is NOT Protestant. This is the core truth of Newman’s insight. It is also why Bryan often recommends reading the epistles of Ignatius out loud. It is also why more than a few Reformed who spend serious time among these sources almost always resort to making statements to the effect that a lot of things (especially regarding ecclesiology) went very badly wrong – very early on. So in Christian charity, I would challenge you on this point: the incompatibility of the ante-Nicene record with Reformed theology (especially ecclesiology) – regardless of whether you go on from there to see that record as a young sapling of the tree that would grow to be the present day Catholic Church.

    Now Newman never said “and to cease to be Protestant is ipso fact to become Roman Catholic” and neither would I. But I do think that unless you are willing to say that the whole kit-n-kaboodle was just hopelessly corrupt from the early 2nd century on (a common Protestant solution), the ante-Nicene ecclesiology alone sends you on your way to either High Church Anglicanism, Eastern Orthodoxy or the Roman Catholic Church (or a despairing rejection of Christianity proper). But as I said in #5, Eastern Orthodoxy (and I would add High Church Anglicanism) have to do something with the pre-Chalcedonian examples of Petrine jurisdictional authority that Fortescue and others have presented – I mean if its there, its there – the only remaining question is whether it can be seen as having a trajectory set towards the modern day reality of the Catholic Church (see Dr Liccione’s response to me in #14 and my response back in #15 for a general take on your third paragraph). In my view, the interpretive principals which come to bear on the data can only be derived from present day – real world claimants – who present themselves as heirs to the ante-Nicene Church. So take the key offered by Reformed Protestantism (say Sola Scriptura), the key offered by High Church Anglicanism (say the “Via Media”), the key offered by the Eastern Orthodox (say counciliarity), and the key offered by the Roman Catholic Church (Peter and the apostles) and apply the keys to the mass of historical data and let the chips fall where they may. The entire line of argument I was making in #5 is just that the Roman Catholic key – its hermeneutic of continuity – when applied to the data, has the most explanatory power because it can account for the widest range of real data.

    Pax et Bonum,

    -Ray

  17. Erratum on my #14. The phrase “in the 5th century, Cyril of Alexandria” should be “in the 3rd century, Cyril of Jerusalem.” Whew. I gotta slow down.

  18. I think that there is an item related to the series above and it occurred to me as I meandered in the vicinity of the Tiber. As Catholicism’s claims grew clearer, greater and more acute, concurrently the claims of Protestantism (evangelical Pentecostalism) were shrinking.

    There were places in Scripture which we were clearly avoiding, the Eucharist being a prime example. The dynamics of foreshadow and fulfillment, as with the manna in the desert being greater than the symbol of the communion table, appeared to be an obvious error. Could Christ Jesus and the reality He represented be less than the reality of Moses in the desert? Such considerations were not sustainable, especially as the scripture was committed to something stupendous. God could become a Man, and then God could become a Meal for those in transit between this world and the next. Jesus evidently intended not merely to rescue us, but also to sustain us with Himself!

    The fathers were a key as was Newman and Chesterton. God would not be limited in what He would do to reclaim His creation, and His Church was part and parcel of that redemption and sustenance.

    I did like the fiery evangelical Pentecostal preaching. I did like the singing. I liked the people in the pews. I was committed to the idea that God was manifesting Himself through the charismata. However the answer to Peter was the answer that counted: “What is that to you? You follow Me.”

    Lewis noted a thing called undulation and I have certainly had that experience yet, since entering the Church, everytime I felt compelled to make a new challenge, I surrendered anew and usually got the answer anyway. I found the courage to be Catholic, to defend the Church and its teachings, to stand up for the value of human life made in the image and likeness of God. I have never been compelled to cross my conscience but I have had to face my prejudices including the one about our “separated brothers and sisters” as I was instructed to do by the Church. I have gone to the Catechism to find out if I was on the right side of the argument and if I was not, I moved to the position of the Church. I had ceased to be the authority and I already had a phonebook to recognize the failure of sola scriptura (the yellow pages under Church).

    The failure of her children not withstanding, I am like Peter who said, “To whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life.” That was about 40 years ago. At my best, I am looking forward. Hope to see you there.

  19. Donald,

    Welcome to CTC and thanks for sharing your experience. You said:

    and if I was not, I moved to the position of the Church.

    And that is the difference between the Catholic approach to authority and the Protestant approach. For a Catholic, if my position is not in line with the Church, then I adjust my position accordingly. For a Protestant, if my position is not in line with “the church,” then I find a new “church.”

  20. For a Protestant, if my position is not in line with “the church,” then I find a new “church.”

    And for Protestants who think seriously about theology, the first time they do that won’t be the only time.

  21. Dr. Liccione

    Just FYI, my FB connection is behaving in a VERY odd way, so I am not sure if you got my response to your post on my wall. If so great – write back whenever you want to – I know your busy. Just thought I would mention the prob in case nothing came through on your end.

    Peace and Good,

    -Ray

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