Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Even more thoughts on Church....

So, after having had some time to think through some of my thoughts about the importance of the Fathers, particularly in our view of the Church, I'm back with another post. How terribly exciting for all of us.

Basically, I think that the problem with modern Protestant views of the Church stem from the problem of sola scriptura. Stanley Hauerwas, in a lecture given at Boston College, called this "the great Protestant heresy." I don't know if I'm willing to use the H word here, but I think he's got a point, particularly in ecclesiology. If we look just to the New Testament for our view on the Church, we're going to get a strange animal. We're going to have to piece together a few verses here and there, try and look at Acts a bit, and see what we can figure out. But this has lead to a multiplicity of denominations. If the New Testament were all we needed for ecclesiology, why isn't it more clear? How does the same text provide us with Senior Pastors, Multiple Elder-led congregations, and the whole lot? Well, it's because we're only looking at half the story. We are only looking at half of what the Apostles revealed to their disciples.

I think what happens when we exclude Patristics from our study of the Church is we isolate the NT in an unnatural way from the earliest Christian communities that used the text. These communities had various traditions concerning liturgy that can be traced back to the Apostolic age. We don't read about this in the NT because that's not the aim of the NT. It's not a handbook on ecclesiology. So, we must look to the Fathers and their witness about the Church during their time. They are our glimpses into the first fruits of the Apostles' evangelization.

Also, on the topic of the Fathers from some of the comments in the earlier post:

The Fathers do disagree sometimes. The Church is made up of people, and people are going to disagree about some things. However, their disagreements are often fairly minor. Overall, there is an orthodoxy maintained throughout the Fathers. And like I said before: we are hard-pressed to find this notion of pop-up house churches that are without set liturgy and clergy in the Fathers. My comment on the Apostles having to be the worst teachers still stands (not that they are, but that they would be if their students got it that wrong). Yes, students sometimes go astray from their teachers, but the idea that the Apostolic Fathers and their students got it so wrong is without merit. It would be tantamount to reading Mark Goodacre's The Case Against Q and walking away believing he believes in Q. You would either have to be beyond stupid (which the Fathers weren't, their writings are really wonderful and deep) or Dr. Goodacre would be the worst communicator on the face of the planet (which he isn't and his book is one of the best I've ever read concerning the issue...I can't stress how much I love that book). Likewise, the Apostles would've had to have said, "Okay guys, no priests, no sacraments, Peter's not the Pope, and Christ isn't literally present in the Eucharist" and then their students would've said, "Okay, so you're telling us to have priests, sacraments, Peter is Pope, and Christ is literally present?" It just doesn't make any sense that the Apostles instruction would've produced something that different from what was intended.


Doug Chaplin said...

I've enjoyed reading your arguments on this, although while I think you ahve an important point about patristics and interpretation, you overstate your case. I've offered a much longer reflection on my blog.

Alan Knox said...


Do you think your theory about church, apostles, and the patristics would hold in other case? Would it be true that any group who chronologically close (say within 200 years like the early patristics) will also follow ideologically close to their teachers?

As one particular case, I don't think the American gov't system has followed closely to the teachings of the "Fathers". Instead, it seems to have expanded and morphed into something completely different. And, all of this happened after only 200 years and with much more of the Fathers' writings available to those who followed them.

Could this same thing have happened with the apostles and patristic "Fathers"?


Josh McManaway said...


Good question. My main "interests" with the Fathers generally are focused on the Apostolic and Ante-Nicene Fathers. Even amongst the Apostolic Fathers we see what I'm talking about (ordained clergy, set liturgy, etc). Pope Clement I discusses Apostolic succession. Shepherd of Hermas discusses supremacy of the Bishop of Rome. The Didache teaches about the Mass as the sacrifice. So, we don't even to have imagine a 200 year gap, we have people writing about these things while the Apostles themselves were still alive.

Alan Knox said...


As I said in a previous post on my blog and in comments here, I don't things were a homogenious during the Apostolic and Ante-Nicene eras as you are claiming here. I'm hoping to study this time frame more closely this semester for a paper. To prepare for that paper, I started reading JND Kelly's Early Christian Doctrines again last night. On the first page of his introduction, Kelly writes:

"If he is to feel at home in the patristic age, the student needs to be equipped with at least an outline knowledge of Church history and patrology. Here there is only space to draw attention to one or two of its more striking features. In the first place, he must not expect to find it characterized by that doctrinal homogeneity which he may have come across at other epochs. Being still in the formative stage, the theology of the early centuries exhibits the extremes of immaturity and sophistication. There is an extraordinary contrast, for example, between the versions of the Church's teaching given by the second-century Apostolic Fathers and by an accomplished fifth-century theologican like Cyril of Alexandria. Further, conditions were favourable to the coexistence of a wide variety of opinions even on issues of primse importance. Modern students are sometimes surprised at the diversity of treatment accorded by even the later fathers to sch a mystery as the Atonement; and it is a commonplace that certain fathers (Origen is the classic example) who were later adjudged heretics counted for orthodox in their lifetimes."

From reading several of the fathers personally, I agree with Kelly's assessment. The homogeneity only came about later. When the church standardized its doctrine, then the fathers were either emphasized or ignored or deemed heretical due to whether or not they agreed with the standard doctrine. However, while they were alive, they were not considered heretical.

There is much to learn from these early writers and from the developments that grew into the institutional Catholic church. I do not think that we can claim homogeneity or a strict following of the apostles' teachings. Besides my previous example from the American gov't, other modern examples demonstrate that a person's followers often expand his teachings in the name of the teacher (i.e. Luther, Calvin). I think this happened to those believers who followed the apostles as well.


Josh McManaway said...

Hey Alan,

Great comment! I really love Kelly's book as well. I'm not necessarily saying that the early Church had all the intricacies of theology down pat and everyone agreed with one another (we're still working on it). I think what I'm arguing for, though, is that there was a clear Apostolic succession and this was a guarantor of right faith.

Even Kelly admits it in the same book. On page 37 he discusses apostolic testimony and tradition being passed down. On the same page he discusses that for the Fathers, the "original revelation is guaranteed by the unbroken succession of bishops in the great sees going back lineally to the apostles." He goes on to talk about the Holy Spirit as a "safeguard" of the orthodox message. Then on page 41, Kelly shows why sola scriptura can't be all there is. For the Fathers, just arguing on the basis of Scripture was impossible because of how the heretics had twisted it. They could, however, state that they were heirs of the Apostles. They had the tradition which supplemented the text.