Friday, June 17, 2011

As poor Timothy is about to discover in the comments on the previous post, I'm long-winded, and possibly insane. I need to explain some more; what is it about the patristic writings that leads people to be non-Protestant, oftentimes? Well, on the one hand, you could look at the data and say, "There was a gradual corruption of the apostolic witness, corrected by the Reformers." It had always been their contention that the church fathers vindicated their positions, in fact. In other words, their defense against the charge of schism had been that the body laying the charges was no church at all, and was itself out of accord with Scripture and these early witnesses.

The problem is that there are tons of affinities with the fathers and the medieval Catholic Church that drew the Reformers' ire, and also between that Church and the Catholic Church today. These continuities of themselves say nothing; however, if Scripture and Tradition are illegitimate means of the transmission of the apostolic deposit of faith, we need the hermeneutics we choose instead (Sola Scriptura, defined as the doctrine that the Scripture alone is to be the final infalliable rule of faith and practice for Christians) to be reasonably definitive to: 1. make clear the errors of the other method, and 2. adequately account for the differences in doctrine and practice among the children of the Reformation. Because the legitimacy of the Reformation depends on a demonstration of continuity with the early church, that claim must be proved as well. On all three counts, in my judgment, the Reformation fails. Sola Scriptura provides no clear, unified Scriptural teaching to counter Catholic claims, no means to explain or correct divisions, and no way to establish continuity with the ancient church. One could treat the Reformation dogmas, though novel, as a legitimate development, but this undercuts the idea of continuity with the early church. For the Fathers, their theology could not be separated from their ecclesiology; thus, the decisions of the Nicene Council, for example, cannot be legitimately separated from the ecclesiastical structures under which it was convoked. It has authority in that context. Just as we would not permit the ignoring of questions of context in the interpretation of the Bible, so it is also for the history of Christianity. If the bishops believed the council to be authoriative in itself, we are obligated to believe the Council to be authoritative. We cannot be ahistorical creedal Christians, any more than we can be ahistorical biblical Christians. So if the Reformational hermeneutical process cannot be definitive as to the plain meaning of Scripture (as countless unresolvable disputes over its meaning attest) it is patently unethical to subject the Councils to what amounts to a moving target, even if we accept the idea that the ecclesiastical structures must be subject to the Scriptures.
On the contrary, the Church in those early days exercised the authority she claimed to possess from Christ Himself, and drew visible lines in the sand, as it were, between herself and others. This visible community alone claimed the prerogative to interpret the Scriptures she had been given; indeed, she proclaimed Christ before the written New Testament was composed. The most tragic aspect of the Reformation, in my view, is that "tell it to the church" in Mt. 18:17 is utterly incomprehensible. Who is the the Christian's mother? Does he have a mother if he cannot find her? Is it akin to the idealized picture of a dead relative we remember fondly? Who or what is "the pillar and foundation of the truth"?