Why I Am a Christian

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Tradition and Doctrine

Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est
     One evening, as I was walking back to the station after working overtime, a man passed me a pamphlet and invited me to his church, which I gather was of a fundamentalist or pentecostal persuasion. I thanked him, but pointed out that my own church was only a mile from my home, that at the time I had no car, and that, in any case, I was at the time their sole liturgical assistant, so my absence would have caused problems with the congregation. That should have been sufficient, but he continued, and somehow the conversation got around to baptism. I referred him to the Didache.
     "What was that?" he asked.
     "It was a church handbook used at Rome in the middle of the second century." I replied.
     It soon became obvious I had raised matters completely arcane to him, and eventually he countered: "Look! I'm not interested in looking at anything except the Bible."
     He should have been. He didn't understand that tradition has been the greatest determinant of doctrine in all ages.
     If you read some of the very early Christian writers, you will find some remarkably eisegesis of the Bible. Thus, for example, one of the most influential theologians of the fourth century, St Jerome saw Eccles. 4:8 as a reference to Christ while for Eccles. 11:2 he saw the number seven as referring to the Old Testament and eight to the New Testament, and the whole verse as indicating that we should not restrict ourselves to either the Old or the New Testament, but to follow both. This sort of allegory is, of course, ridiculous, but the point to be made is: the doctrine already existed, and the author was interpreting the Bible accordingly.
     We see the same thing in the Middle Ages. St Thomas Aquinas, the greatest theologian of the 13th century, intrepreted "Let there be light" in Gen. 1:3 as firstly, the literal act of creation, then as allegorically "let Christ be light", and then that we should be mentally and morally let by Christ. The secondary meanings were being read into the text, but it is important to note that no new doctrine was being introduced. This is a constant pattern throughout history: at any time and place there is a general doctrinal consensus which theologians stick to. Anybody who moves out of that consensus will eventually be called out.
     Fundamentalists do the same thing, although they are unaware of it. They may think they are relying solely on the Bible, but their array of independent Bible colleges, with their shared corpus of textbooks, materials, and lecturers have produced a general consensus of Biblical interpretation which they accept without question, such that many of them are genuinely surprised to find that the rest don't share them. For example, most of them are unaware of to what extent their strange ideas about the end times are dependent on one significant book, the Scofield Reference Bible.

Doctrinal Drift
      As an Anglican, I was taught that doctrine should be based on the Bible, reason, and tradition, in that order. Now I know that a lot of people don't know how to understand the Bible, and even more are unable to reason properly, but it is tradition which is the crux of this essay. I also know that a lot of Protestants will have a phobic reaction to the term, because of the way it is abused by the Church of Rome. Both the Catholic Catechism and the Catholic Encyclopedia claim that the church's authority comes from both the Bible and tradition. However, it makes a great deal of difference whether tradition is used as an interpretive tool for the Bible, or as a separate source of doctrine, and this they leave open.
     In fact, some extreme Protestants appear to have the quaint idea that some central clique of the Church of Rome occasionally convenes and then invents brand new doctrines. This never happened. In fact, the closest anyone ever came to this was when my own church decided, willy nilly, to ordain women, something they knew was contrary to everything the Church has done since the days of the apostles.
     No, what really happened in the Middle Ages was something I prefer to call "doctrinal drift": first, a slightly new practice, a slight change in emphasis, a slight change in interpretation, followed a generation or a century later with another slight change, until the changes finally built up to something completely new. It is analogous to a clock which loses or gains a minute every day without being corrected, until it is completely out of synch with reality. Or, to use another analogy, it can be shown to be impossible for a human being to walk to a destination by dead reckoning. There will always be a bias towards either the left or right foot - which is why people who are lost in the wilderness end up walking in circles. Eventually, people are going to cry: "Hold it! It's the middle of the day, and the clock shows it should be evening. We need to set the clock according to the sun. We're lost! We need to get out the map and start looking for landmarks. And our theology has gone astray. We need to get back to the Bible and the teachings of the early Church." It finally happened in the sixteenth century.

Sola Scriptura
     Of course the Bible contains all the information necessary for salvation, in the sense that anything required to be believed as an article of faith must ultimately derive from some passage in the Bible! That is virtually self-evident, for why would God entrust the message of salvation to anything more evanescent than His written word? Not only that, but it is hard to find a Christian writer of the first few centuries who didn't take this for granted. The great Christological debates of the second to fourth centuries always centred around interpretations of the Bible. No appeal to any other source of authority was made. About AD 180, St Irenaeus criticized the Gnostics, who attempted to infiltrate Christianity with neo-Platonist ideas, because they claimed a tradition separate from the Bible (which also implies that by that stage a pretty clear idea existed of the canon of the scriptures).
     You'll will be hard pressed to find any of the Ante-Nicaean Fathers saying, in effect, "Although such-and-such a doctrine is not found in scripture, it is nevertheless an essential Christian belief." As late as the 13th century, the "Angelic Doctor", Thomas Aquinas stated in his commentary on John's Gospel that "only canonical scripture is the rule of faith" (sola canonica scriptura est regula fidei).
     In point of fact, in 99 times out of 100 we do not need to cite tradition at all. The Bible is no more difficult to read or understand than any other book, and passages which really are obscure are invariably irrelevant to its fundamental message. The main reason for the variety of interpretations, apart from the tendency to read what one wants to believe into the text, is that too many people seize on single texts without consideration of other texts, and frequently read a lot more into them than is actually there.
     The great fourth century theologian, John Chrysostom, whose commentaries on the books of the New Testament are still studied, was not impressed by the excuses some people cite for not reading the Bible.
     It is impossible for you to be alike ignorant of all; for it was for this reason that the grace of the Spirit appointed that publicans and fishermen, tentmakers and shepherds and goatherds, and unlearned and ignorant men, should compose these books, that none of the unlearned might be able to have recourse to this excuse; that the words then spoken might be intelligible to all; that even the mechanic, and the servant, and the widow-woman, and the most unlearned of all mankind might receive profit and improvement from what they should hear. For it was not for vainglory, like the heathen, but for the salvation of the hearers, that these authors were counted worthy of the grace of the Spirit to compose these writings. For the heathen philosophers, not seeking the common welfare, but their own glory, if ever they did say anything useful, concealed it, as it were, in a dark mist. But the Apostles and prophets did quite the reverse; for what proceeded from them they set before all men plain and clear, as being the common teachers of the world, that each individual might be able, even of himself, to learn the sense of what they said from the mere reading.
     And who is there who does not understand plainly the whole of the Gospels? Who that hears "Blessed are the meek," "Blessed are the merciful," "Blessed are the pure in heart," and so forth, needs a teacher in order to comprehend any of these sayings? And as for the accounts of miracles and wonderful works and historical facts, are they not plain and intelligible to any common person? This is but pretext and excuse and a cloak for laziness.
     You do not understand the contents; and how will you ever be able to understand them if you do not study them? Take the book in your hands; read the entire history; and when you have secured a knowledge of what is simple, come to the obscure and hard parts over and over again. And if you cannot by constant reading make out what is said, go to some person wiser than yourself; go to a teacher, communicate with him about the thing spoken of; show a strong interest in the matter; and if God see you displaying so much anxiety, He will not despise your watchfulness and earnestness; but if no man teach you what you seek for, He Himself will surely reveal it.
     If you follow this advice you can't go far wrong. On the other hand, it is failure to follow the last recommendation ("go to some person wiser than yourself ...") which is responsible for many of the crackpot sects. Typically they started when somebody without any training or background knowledge - someone like Charles Russell, John Thomas, William Miller, or John Nelson Darby - decided to read the Bible on the theory that his judgment was as good as anyone else's. Then, when he came to conclusions nobody else had made, he decided his judgment must have been better than anyone else's. He lacked the humility to think: if my opinion is wildly against the consensus, perhaps it is I who am wrong; I should go back over my chain of reasoning, or at least ask followers of the consensus where they get their ideas.
     The fact is, Christians were never meant to function as individuals, and the Church was set up to teach and explain. To quote George Salmon, in his classic tome, The Infallibility of the Church (which can be downloaded here), theology is like any other field; you do not expect to launch into it without the aid of a teacher. And, as in any other field, while at the beginning you have to accept whatever the professor says, the professor will not have done his work if, by the time you get your degree, you can provide no better argument for your opinion than, "The professor said ..."
     The error of the fringe Protestants is to think they can do without a professor. The error of Roman Catholics is to think they need nothing other than a professor.

The Creeds and the Councils
     The Apostles' Creed was a very early baptismal confession. The Nicaean Creed was specifically written to combat heresy. If there is anything which could be classed as an extra-biblical tradition, it is the creeds and the early ecumenical councils. But it is not quite as simple as that.
     First some terminology: two opposing proposition are called the thesis and antithesis. Assuming there is truth in both propositions, they can be brought together to form a synthesis. The great Christological debates of the early centuries revolved around attempts to form syntheses out of the theses and antitheses in the Bible concerning matters which are ultimately beyond human understanding, such as the nature of God, of the incarnation, grace, free will, and predestination. As a general rule, loose talk around these issues would be accepted until someone went to far, crossed a line, and broke the consensus, upon which he would be called out as a heretic. After that, the conversation was tightened up, in order to allow no leeway for the incipient heresy. In all cases, it was to the Bible that both sides appealed.
    For example, there are verses in the New Testament indicating Christ's identity with God, and others indicating His separateness, even subordination - at least in His earthly manifestation. Commentators could have just left it at that, but they would insist on trying to produce a synthesis. Finally some writers, including an obscure one called Sabellius, began emphasizing Christ's identity with the Father at the expense of His individuality, such that Father, Son, and Holy Ghost were simply modes or temporary manifestations of the Godhead. I don't suppose it would have made much difference to the faith if this theory had prevailed, but believers intuitively felt this was going too far. Indeed, it was the feeling that Sabellianism, as it was called, was the real enemy which made it possible for others to later accept the theory of Arius, which separated the Father and the Son completely, and made the Son merely a created being.
     This was the reason why the new Emperor, Constantine thought it would be a good idea to call a general council in order to obtain some unity in the religion. Many unbelievers, who have done no research in the matter, have some very strange ideas about what took place at the Council of Nicaea in 325. No, Constantine did not take any part in the debate, but merely opened it. He was a new Christian and didn't have a clue what it was all about. No, the canon of the New Testament was not decided there. It was already well established, and was common ground between Arius and his opponents. No, the final decision was not made by a small majority, rather the reverse. Arius arrived expecting a debate, but everybody else regarded it as a heresy trial. Arius was voted down, 316 to 2.
     These results should reveal what was really going on. Despite all the sound and the fury, Arius' support was very weak. It was contrary to the consensus established over the previous three centuries. Although the Council had been almost wholly an Eastern, Greek affair (less than ten representatives came from the Latin Church), its rulings were readily accepted in both east and west. It was also the reason why the non-Arian position ultimately triumphed, despite Constantine's successor's forcing an Arian creed onto the Council of Ariminum, and despite the conversion of the Goths to Arianism.
     It is also important to note that neither side considered the rulings of the Council authoritative. When a recognized umpire exists, both sides accept his decision, even if they don't like it. In this case, the debate continued for decades after the Council, until it eventually ended by establishing terminology understood by all for what was, in the last analysis, what the vast majority already believed.
    Ultimately, the value of the creeds is best expressed by Article VIII of the 39 Articles:
    The Three Creeds, Nicene Creed, Athanasius's Creed, and that which is commonly called the Apostles' Creed, ought thoroughly to be received and believed: for they may be proved by the most certain warrants of Holy Scripture. [emphasis added]
     The Creeds and the rulings of the Councils, in other words, are to be received because they are Biblically based. Experience shows that if we attempt to use some other formulae, we end up having difficulty establishing a synthesis. The issues have been thrashed out hundreds of years ago. We don't need to reinvent the wheel.

The Biblical Background
     Sola scriptura, the appeal to scripture as the final source of doctrine, is not the same as scriptura nuda, or scripture read in isolation, let alone private interpretation. The Bible was not written in a vacuum. There was, for example, a gap of about three hundred years between the Old Testament and the New in which various writings were produced. Some of them ended up in the Apocrypha, and some did not, but they elaborated doctrines which were only touched upon in the Old Testament, such as the resurrection, damnation, Satan, and demons. For example, the New Testament takes for granted that the demons are rebel angels, with Satan as their head, and most Christians would be surprised to discover that modern Judaism does not share this belief. This doctrine comes from a corpus of literature known as apocalyptic, most of which never even made it into the Apocrypha, but which heavily influenced the branch of Judaism from which Christianity sprung. Thus, although these writings cannot be used to establish doctrine, they are useful to help us understand the world which the early church took for granted.
     The fact that this literature was familiar to the New Testament writers is shown by the fact that two such books were cited in the Epistle of Jude. Verse 9 is based on The Assumption of Moses, and verses 14-15 is a quotation from the Book of Enoch.
     Likewise, if you wish to understand many of the controversies Jesus had with the Pharisees, you must remember that there is a large corpus of literature produced by the Pharisees. It is called the Talmud, for modern Judaism is, in fact, simply Pharisaism.
     Again, it must be remembered that the gospel was being preached for several decades before it was written down. "For you yourselves know well," says Paul in 1Thess. 5:2, "that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night." Obviously this was a frequent part of his sermons. Likewise: "maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you" (1 Cor. 11:2), and "For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received" (1 Cor. 15:3). The New Testament was written for people who had already heard the message before. In the case of the epistles, their aim was to re-emphasize the most important parts of the message, as well as to correct misconceptions and answer queries.
     What was seldom mentioned were the things everyone took for granted: the ritual. Thus, only by reading between the lines of the First Epistle to the Corinthians do we recognize that the early church services must have been a lot less structured than they are today. It is only in the second century, when Justin Martyr wrote tracts explaining Christianity to the heathen, do we discover that the wine was normally mixed with water. Nowadays we rationalise this as referring to the water and blood which issued from Jesus' side, but the fact was, they were simply following contemporary custom. In the ancient world drinking undiluted wine was a sign of intemperance. The Romans mixed it with equal parts of water (they still do, in Tuscany!), while the Greeks diluted it three or four times. Likewise, the eucharist was celebrated by normal (ie leavened) bread, as it still is in the Eastern churches. Unleavened bread was not introduced into the Western churches until the ninth century - about the same time as the bread and wine began to be stored in the church. (Prior to that, the congregation was expected to bring their own.)
    For these reasons, it is always useful to examine the early Christian writings, even if none of them, per se, have the authority of scripture.
    Nevertheless, this does not equate to one bogus argument which the Romans use. It goes like this: the authority of the Church (by which they mean their church) is greater than that of the Bible because it produced the Bible. See, they tell us, if you acknowledge the authority of the Bible you are accepting the canon of scripture established by our the Church.
    Wrong on all accounts! No, the Roman Catholic Church is not the same as the "One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church" celebrated in the creeds; it is only part of it. No, the Bible does not get its authority from the Church. (If it did, whence came the Church's authority?) The truth of the Bible can be established by using the same methods of investigation applied to secular writings. And no, the Church did not produce the canon; it simply discovered it. For a start, the Old Testament was already known, while the New Testament and the Church grew up together. Thus, whether or not St Paul recognized that he was writing scripture, he certainly expected that his letters be treated as authoritative. In fact, we possess quite a few lists of books which were considered canonical in the first few centuries of the Christianity. As a minimum, the four Gospels, Acts, and the letters of St Paul were always included. Orthodox writings, such as the Didache and the Shepherd of Hermas, which were known to be post-apostolic, quickly dropped out, while some of the shorter books at the back had to fight for their acceptance for a long time. However, there was never a time when some council sat down and ruled on which books should be included and which excluded. The canon had simply grown up and been accepted by consensus.

The Vincentian Canon
     The Vincentian Canon is the name given to the Latin phrase at the top of this essay, and it comes from the Commonitorium of St Vincent of Lérins about 434 AD. Strictly speaking, St Vincent is a rather minor individual and, of course, there is nothing authoritative about him. It is just that he became famous by being the first to express beautifully what is, when all is said and done, just plain common sense.
     I have often then inquired earnestly and attentively of very many men eminent for sanctity and learning, how and by what sure and so to speak universal rule I may be able to distinguish the truth of Catholic faith from the falsehood of heretical depravity; and I have always, and in almost every instance, received an answer to this effect: That whether I or any one else should wish to detect the frauds and avoid the snares of heretic as they rise, and to continue sound and complete in the Catholic faith, we must, the Lord helping, fortify our own belief in two ways; first, by the authority of the Divine Law, and then, by the Tradition of the Catholic Church.
     But here some one perhaps will ask, Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church's interpretation? For this reason—because, owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters. [He gives examples.] Therefore, it is very necessary, on account of so great intricacies of such various errors, that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of Ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation.
     Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which HAS BEEN BELIEVED EVERYWHERE, ALWAYS, AND BY ALL [quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est]. For that is truly and in the strictest sense Catholic.
     What then will Catholic Christians do, if a small portion of the Church have cut itself off from the communion of the universal faith? What, surely, but prefer the soundness of the whole body to the unsoundness of a pestilent and corrupt member? What, if some novel contagion seek to infect not merely an insignificant portion of the Church, but the whole? Then it will be his care to cleave to antiquity, which at this day cannot possibly be seduced by any fraud of novelty.
     But what, if in antiquity itself there be found error on the part of two or three men, or at any rate of a city or even of a province? Then it will be his care by all means, to prefer the decrees, if such there be, of an ancient General Council to the rashness and ignorance of a few. But what, if some error should spring up on which no such decree is found to bear? Then he must collate and consult and interrogate the opinions of the ancients, of those, namely, who, though living in various times and places, yet continuing in the communion and faith of the one Catholic Church, stand forth acknowledged and approved authorities: and whatsoever he shall ascertain.
     As I said before, this is just plain common sense. An appeal to tradition need only be made on the rare occasions when the scriptures really are obscure or ambiguous. We are commanded to keep "the faith once and for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 1:3). By definition, the Church cannot gain a new tradition. Tradition is such that it can only get stronger the further back you look. To quote George Salmon again:
When once it is proved that the Church at any period was ignorant of a doctrine, there can be no pretence that the Church, at any subsequent period derived its knowledge of that doctrine from Apostolic tradition.
    Therefore, if have any genuine doubts as to a doctrine, the people to ask as those closest to the apostles: the writers of the first few centuries recognized as orthodox. We shouldn't simply take any individual statement as definitive, as if it were part of holy scripture, but look for the general consensus of many authors, not only what they say, but what they take for granted. And if they express differences of opinion, that itself should be significant.

     With this in mind, let us apply it to a few examples. The easiest innovation to document is Monasticism. No-one disputes that it was started by St Anthony about 290. Strictly speaking, monasticism is a practice rather than a doctrine, but from the beginning it carried doctrinal baggage: the idea that celibacy and rigorous self-denial is a superior way of life to the ordinary Christian life which was good enough for the apostles.
     The Eastern (Greek) branch of the Church has undergone doctrinal drift just like the Western (Latin) branch. However, over the centuries they drifted in different directions. Therefore, if a major doctrinal difference appears between the two, the odds are that it was an innovation.
     Purgatory may have been rejected by the reformers of the 16th century, but it was never accepted by the Eastern Church in the first place, and this became a bone of contention when they were seeking reconciliation. In point of fact, the doctrine can be shown to have originated in the mid- to late-fifth century. In The City of God, 21:26, St Augustine states:
But if it be said that in the interval of time between the death of this body and that last day of judgment and retribution which shall follow the resurrection, the bodies of the dead shall be exposed to a fire of such a nature that it shall not affect those who have not in this life indulged in such pleasures and pursuits as shall be consumed like wood, hay, stubble, but shall affect those others who have carried with them structures of that kind; if it be said that such worldliness, being venial, shall be consumed in the fire of tribulation either here only, or here and hereafter both, or here that it may not be hereafter— this I do not contradict, because possibly it is true. [Emphasis added]
     And, as Salmon pointed out, something which was just a possibility at the beginning of the fifth century could hardly have become a certainty by the sixth.
     The Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary (which is not the same as the virgin birth of Jesus) is another Western doctrine which never caught on in the East. Apart from the fact that that it cannot, by any interpretation, be found in the Bible, in the west, it had been opposed by such eminent scholars as St Anselm, St Bernard, and St Thomas Aquinas. The Franciscans, who regarded the Virgin as their special patron, supported the doctrine, while the Dominicans rejected it. In 1483 Pope Sixtus IV censured both sides in attributing heresy to the other "since the matter has not yet been decided by the Roman Church and the Apostolic See". One might have thought this would have been a good time to exercise a little papal infallibility but, in fact, the doctrine was not made official until 1854.
     Papal Infallibility had likewise not been declared an article of faith until 1870. Prior to that, there had been any number of eminent bishops and laymen, acting in unison, who denied that the doctrine was anything but a Protestant invention. Besides, it should be obvious that this is the silliest idea ever propagated. If Christ had really left a line of successors to be the infallible guides to the Church, nobody could ever have forgotten it, because of the constant need to refer to it. There would never have needed to be a Council of Nicaea; all that would have been necessary would have been for the Pope to make his ruling.
    And in case you are thinking I am just sticking it to the Roman Catholics -
    The Rapture: unlike the other innovations mentioned above, this one was not developed over a long period of doctrinal drift. It sprang fully formed from the head of John Nelson Darby, later to be the founder of the Exclusive Brethren, about 1830. Darby based it on two Biblical passages: one from 1 Thess. 4:15-18, and the other duplicated in Matt. 24:40-41/Luke 17:34-36. The first very clearly refers to the Day of Resurrection, and the second apparently does so. Yet Darby came up with the strange idea that it really referred to a sudden collection of the saints prior to a "tribulation". If there is any good example of an orphan doctrine it is the Rapture. Nobody had ever heard of such a thing for the first eighteen centuries of Christianity, but because of the its spread into various independent seminaries, and the influence of the Scofield Bible, it has become taken for granted among so many Baptist and Pentecostal groups.
     And Baptism, the issue raised by the man introduced in the first paragraph? Well, chapter 7 of the Didache states that it should be performed
in running water; but if thou hast not running water, baptize in some other water, and if thou canst not baptize in cold, in warm water; but if thou hast neither, pour water three times on the head, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
     All of which might suggest that the early church was not as rigid in the method of baptism as his sect is. But that will be the subject of a later article.