Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Trajectory of Church History

The Catholics who often comment here ask the question, "where and when did the Roman Catholic Church got off the trail?"

That's a legitimate question. I've answered it to some degree, but there are no easy answers to that question. And over the 1500 years of history which get cited repeatedly, there are many points to discuss.

There are a few easy-to-define moments, such as the conversion of Constantine, and the moment, as Eamon Duffy put it, "Bishops all over the Roman world would now be expected to take on the role of judges, governors, great servants of state." ("Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes" New Haven: Yale Nota Bene Press, 1987, 2001, pg 37). During that era, the leadership of the church was incorporated into the imperial bureaucracy and effectively became a functionary of the imperial government. Shortly thereafter Constantine decamped and "the Church" was left as the only game in town. It was easy for them to write their own rules. And they did. Rules that were different from what the earlier church had practiced.

In that way, the flip side of that question is also legitimate. Contra Newman, who suggested that “the Christianity of the second, fourth, seventh, twelfth, sixteenth, and intermediate centuries is in its substance the very religion which Christ and His Apostles taught in the first”, it is fair to say that the Roman church never was fully on the trail. Or rather, it was creating its own trail: one that did not have all of its roots in older Christianity.

I do think it is fair to say that, if early church history were to be studied in detail, no one group would be entirely happy with what was found. Yet that doesn't preclude any Protestant group from claiming the earlier church as part of its own heritage.

One individual who had a thorough knowledge of the Reformation was Jaroslav Pelikan. It was Pelikan who edited and catalogued Luther's Works in English. [And yes, I know that Pelikan converted to Eastern Orthodoxy at the end of his life. That will be another discussion.] Pelikan said: "Recent research on the Reformation entitles us to sharpen it and say that the Reformation began because the reformers were too catholic in the midst of a church that had forgotten its catholicity," said Jaroslav Pelikan, "The Riddle of Roman Catholicism," New York: Abingdon Press, 1959, pg 46. But he goes even further than this:
That generalization applies particularly to Luther and to some of the Anglican reformers somewhat less to Calvin, still less to Zwingli, least of all to the Anabaptists. But even Zwingli, who occupies the left wing among the classical reformers, retained a surprising amount of catholic substance in his thought, while the breadth and depth of Calvin's depth to the heritage of the catholic centuries is only now beginning to emerge.

It is important to make clear what we mean by "the heritage of the catholic centuries." The reformers were catholic because they were spokesmen for an evangelical tradition in medieval catholicism, what Luther called "the succession of the faithful." The fountainhead of that tradition was Augustine (d. 430). His complex and far-reaching system of thought incorporated the catholic ideal of identity plus universality, and by its emphasis upon sin and grace it became the ancestor of Reformation theology. … All the reformers relied heavily upon Augustine. They pitted his evangelical theology against the authority of later church fathers and scholastics, and they used him to prove that they were not introducing novelties into the church, but defending the true faith of the church.

Not only Augustine could serve to substantiate the claim of the reformers to be truly catholic. Throughout the centuries they found substantiation. Although they spoke of the "fall of the church" in the post-apostolic era, they seized upon individuals and groups in every epoch of Christian history who had opposed Roman domination or who had taught evangelical doctrine. (Pelikan, 46-47).
I think it's important to note at this point that "opposition to Roman domination" is as important as having "taught evangelical doctrine." There is a two-fold need: (a) kick the supports out from underneath the domineering Roman behemoth, and (b) understand evangelical -- Biblical -- doctrine as it appeared throughout the centuries. Continuing with Pelikan:
Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153) was practically canonized by the reformers for his opposition to Rome. They also managed to find more obscure figures in medieval history. To prepare books like the Magdeburg Centuries they combed the libraries and came up with a remarkable catalogue of protesting catholics and evangelical catholics, all to lend support to the insistence that the Protestant position was, in the best sense, a catholic position.

Additional support for this insistence comes from the attitude of the reformers toward the creeds and dogmas of the ancient catholic church. The reformers retained and cherished the doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of the two natures in Christ which had developed in the first five centuries of the church….

If we keep in mind how variegated medieval catholicism was, the legitimacy of the reformers' claim to catholicity becomes clear. With men like Augustine and Bernard on their side, the reformers could well protest against the usurpation of the name "catholic church" by their opponents" (47-48)
Probably nowhere was this "claim to catholicity" more apparent than when the Reformers cited "the Gospel." This was not a new "Gospel," it is one that Christ and the Apostles preached. Based on work that I've cited from T.F. Torrance and others, the admixture of the necessity of "works" into the gospel was not biblical, but a later accretion. The truest conformity to the Apostolic preaching was held by the Reformers. "Substantiation for this understanding of the gospel came principally from the Scriptures, but whenever they could, the reformers also quoted the fathers of the catholic church. There was more to quote than their Roman opponents found comfortable" (Pelikan 48-49).

In the end, the Council of Trent ended up (in true Roman fashion) condemning the true heritage, and canonizing its own path. In its decrees, Trent "selected and elevated to official status the notion of justification by faith plus works, which was only one of the doctrines of justification [found] in the medieval theologians and ancient fathers. When the reformers attacked this notion in the name of the doctrine of justification by faith alone -- a doctrine also attested to by some medieval theologians and ancient fathers-- Rome reacted by canonizing one trend [the wrong one] in preference to all the others. What had previously been permitted (justification by faith and works), now became required. What had been previously been permitted also (justification by faith alone), now became forbidden. In condemning the Protestant Reformation, the Council of Trent condemned [the better part of] its own catholic tradition" (Pelikan 51-52, Pelikan's comments (in parentheses), my own comments in [square brackets]).

Lord willing we'll explore all of this in further detail.


Andrew said...

In answer to a slightly different question I heard R.C. Sproul say that the RCC became an expressly Non-christian church at the council of Trent. So when they went of the trail might be hard to pin down, but I agree with Sproul that Trent is when they crashed. Do you agree, John?

John Bugay said...

Hi Andrew -- yes, there were many things wrong, and by the time of the Reformation, there were still a few things right. But at Trent they anathematized the Gospel.

steve said...

One complication in answering the question is that the church of Rome isn't an individual person. Rather, it's a collective, with tremendous turnover and fuzzy boundaries. A whole bunch of people who live and die at different times, with differing degrees of affiliation.

So it's like asking "When did a caravan (or wagon train) make a right turn?" Well, the caravan doesn't turn all at once. Different wagons turned at different times.

John Bugay said...

That's a good point Steve. Like a box of cats. "When did the cats start getting out of the box?" Well, they left at different times.

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

"The Trajectory of Church History"

It was going downward until the Reformation.

Constantine said...

More than four-in-ten Catholics in the United States (45%) do not know that their church teaches that the bread and wine used in Communion do not merely symbolize but actually become the body and blood of Christ.

Did you guys see this?

Talk about “off the tracks”.


John Bugay said...

Constantine, I did not see that. But it's probably all lies anyway, and even if it's not, the Catechism still says what it says; the "teaching" is unscathed.

Viisaus said...

"So when they went of the trail might be hard to pin down, but I agree with Sproul that Trent is when they crashed. Do you agree, John?"

I myself pretty much agree. Generally speaking, the Roman church had been "de facto" apostate for a long time already before Trent.

(IMHO, Rome became practically apostate during the 8th century iconoclastic dispute, where the papacy played a big part in the triumph of image-worshipping party. If not for Vatican's crucial support - in both political and moral sense - Byzantine anti-icon reform might have actually won the day, perhaps with the support of Western Franks who back in Charlemagne's days still opposed adoration of images also.)

But the Tridentine anathemas made the RCC apostate "de jure" as well. After that it was official, signed and sealed. Rome had sinned against light and could no longer claim medieval ignorance as excuse.

Viisaus said...

Anglican church historian Joseph Milner also considered the papacy of Gregory II (715-731) as a symbolical turning point:

pp. 157-158

"He who filled the Roman see at that time was Gregory the second, whom for his open defence and support of idolatry, I shall venture to call the first POPE of Rome. Many superstitions and abuses had been growing;* and since the decease of Gregory I, I have for the most part been silent concerning the Roman bishops, because very little of godliness appeared among them. The most honourable part of their conduct related to the encouragement of missions and the propagation of the gospel among the gentiles; in which, many, who were actuated by the same spirit as those, who had been sent by Gregory I, were successful in their provinces; and pure religion, in the fundamentals, at least, was extended into distant regions, while Rome and Italy grew more and more corrupt. The open avowal, however, of idolatry, was reserved for Gregory II, and from this time I look on the bishops of Rome as antichrist."

Edward Gibbon also considered Gregory II to have been the first "pope" in the high-medieval sense of the word, and in his trademark sarcastic style commented: II

"Two original epistles, from Gregory the Second to the emperor Leo, are still extant; (33) and if they cannot be praised as the most perfect models of eloquence and logic, they exhibit the portrait, or at least the mask, of the founder of the papal monarchy.

"During ten pure and fortunate years," says Gregory to the emperor, "we have tasted the annual comfort of your royal letters, subscribed in purple ink, with your own hand, the sacred pledges of your attachment to the orthodox creed of our fathers. How deplorable is the change! how tremendous the scandal! You now accuse the Catholics of idolatry; and, by the accusation, you betray your own impiety and ignorance. To this ignorance we are compelled to adapt the grossness of our style and arguments: the first elements of holy letters are sufficient for your confusion; and were you to enter a grammar-school, and avow yourself the enemy of our worship, the simple and pious children would be provoked to cast their horn-books at your head."

After this decent salutation, the pope attempts the usual distinction between the idols of antiquity and the Christian images. The former were the fanciful representations of phantoms or daemons, at a time when the true God had not manifested his person in any visible likeness. The latter are the genuine forms of Christ, his mother, and his saints, who had approved, by a crowd of miracles, the innocence and merit of this relative worship. He must indeed have trusted to the ignorance of Leo, since he could assert the perpetual use of images, from the apostolic age, and their venerable presence in the six synods of the Catholic church."

John Bugay said...

Hey Viisaus, great stuff as usual!

Viisaus said...

Thanks John, glad to make myself useful.

This book remains the best non-recent Protestant treatment of the iconoclastic controversy that I've seen - the unexpurgated acts of 2nd Nicene council, with long introduction and hard-hitting commentary:

"The Seventh General Council, the Second of Nicaea, held A.D. 787, in which the Worship of Images was established: with Copious Notes from the "Caroline Books" compiled by Order of Charlemagne for its Confutation."

Among other things, Mendham's book contains the both insolent letters that Gregory II sent to emperor Leo the Isaurian, should one be interested to check them out in full.

Viisaus said...

Richard Littledale pointed out that many things, smaller or bigger ones, that people usually think as "typically Roman Catholic" are actually surprisingly late innovations:

p. 22

"It maybe just remarked here, as showing how modern this sort of thing is, that the most popular of all devotions to the Blessed Virgin, the Angelus, does not appear to have been used at all till Pope John XXII. instituted it in 1316; while its latter clause, "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and in the hour of our death," cannot be found earlier than 1507, and was first sanctioned for general use by a bull of Pius V., July 7, 1568, while the use of the Ave Maria before sermons is due to St. Vincent Ferrer (1419)."

Littledale also provides a highly interesting example of how popular Roman piety gradually evolved, or devolved, away from Christ:

pp. 41-42

"First, then, the popular devotion of the Rosary, when it was first invented several centuries ago, consisted of the recitation of a certain number of Psalms, with prayers intercalated; in its second stage, it consisted of several repetitions of the Lord's Prayer, with the Creed added at intervals — whence the mediaeval name of Paternoster, given to the string of beads, a term still surviving in "Paternoster Row," where rosary-makers used to live; but now, and for a long time past, the rosary is made up of 166 beads, on which are recited one Creed, fifteen Our Fathers, and a hundred and fifty Hail Marys; thus entirely transforming the original devotion, and giving ten times as much to the B.V.M. as to Almighty God."

john said...

One should also mention the concept of Purgatory. Augustine made some personal general speculation about its possibility but admitted that it was his own thoughts and not a Church teaching. Later Origin wrote more about it, but Origin based much of his thoughts about Purgatory based on Pagan mythology and Neo-Platonism, not the Scriptures. Even then the Church had no "official" views on the matter, prayers for the dead had NOTHING to do with getting someone out of Purgatory but were actually prayers that the dead were enjoying heavenly refreshment.

It wasn't until Pope Gregory I that Purgatory as we know it began to take shape. Gregory based his teachings on assorted alleged "visions" he and others had, plus what Origen had written earlier based on Pagan mythology and Neo-Platonism. Before a Roman "e-pologist" cites the book of Maccabees we must remember the historical context, even though the Maccabees were rebelling against the Greeks they were still influenced by Hellenistic thought and ideas which would include Pagan myths and Neo-Platonism hence the blurb in Maccabees about "Prayers for the Dead to loosed from their sins" this comes right out of Paganism and Neo-Platonism. If prayers for the dead were a part of Judaism why do we not see any mention of it the "Canonical books" of the OT? Or better yet when God gave the Israelites specific details on all the different rituals and sacrifices why is there no sanction or instructions for such sacrifices for the dead from The Lord God about "making sacrifices that the dead may be loosed from their sins"?

John Bugay said...

Hi john, thanks for your comment here. There certainly were a lot of negative "developments" like this one that became codified in Roman doctrine. I think it's important to point out how these things came about. I think many "Catholic Converts" would just get the creepies if they knew where some of these things came from.

(Do you mean "Origen" -- not "Origin" -- he was prior to Augustine).

john said...

Yes, my bad typos, yes Origen, Even though he was before Augustine, he more clearly stated some concept of Purgatory, but the fact that Augustine made his own speculation he said that any such ideas were just speculation, not a doctrine or dogma of the Church. But both were Neo-Platonists, Origen based his ideasnot only on Neo-Platonism but Pagan ideas as well. Neither based their ideas on any clear Biblical witness. I think that current Roman Soteriology had its basis in the "moralism" of the early Church Fathers in that the whole idea of "Merit", "expiating and atoning" for sin already forgiven was based in "moralism" so that people would not feel they were "getting off the hook so easily" which they may have seen as encouraging people not to live righteously. IOW a Doctrine of Salvation that was purely Biblical and followed St. Paul, later clarified and expounded by the Protestant Reformers would lead to "moral laxity" and even "antinomianism", which is how and why the whole system of Purgatory "Confession of Sins to a Priest" and "Penance, and later "indulgences" developed, to discourage immoral behaviour and antinomianism.

John Bugay said...

Thanks for clarifying john.

I wanted to ask if you could point us to any source material on these topics. This is definitely some ground that I want to cover.

john said...

Sorry John I can't point to any "one source", much of it is my own conclusions based on what I learned as a Roman Catholic, broad reading of History and Philosophy and my own speculations base on reading and study. One source I can point you to is "The Birth of Purgatory" by Jacques LeGoff.

John Bugay said...

One source I can point you to is "The Birth of Purgatory" by Jacques LeGoff.

John I'll look this up.

Lvka said...

but whenever they could, the reformers also quoted the fathers of the catholic church.

...the accent resting on the words "whenever they could"... because, for understandable reasons, most times they "could" not...

John Bugay said...

You don't read very well. The very next statement after the one you quoted was "There was more to quote than their Roman opponents found comfortable" (Pelikan 48-49)".

Did you just ignore that? Or skip over it because it was inconvenient for the point you were trying to make?

Lvka said...

The fountainhead of that tradition was Augustine (d. 430). His complex and far-reaching system of thought incorporated the catholic ideal of identity plus universality, and by its emphasis upon sin and grace it became the ancestor of Reformation theology. … All the reformers relied heavily upon Augustine. They pitted his evangelical theology against the authority of later church fathers and scholastics, and they used him to prove that they were not introducing novelties into the church, but defending the true faith of the church.


John Bugay said...

Of course they're going to cite Augustine. He was prolific. There's no getting around him.

But at one point, Calvin exclaimed (Institutes, I think), "Augustine is ours!"

But your quote proves nothing. I've provided lists of dozens of other fathers of the church that the Reformers cited, and others here have provided many more.

Lvka said...

He was prolific.

So was Origen: great thinker, great intellectual...

There's no getting around him.

Search and ye shall find...


Protestantism relies theologically on Augustine's views on grace to the exclusion of the rest of the Fathers. -- this is NOT the way to establish orthodox doctrine.

John Bugay said...

All of western tradition relies on Augustine. And they don't rely wholly on him. "Scripture" is not Augustine.

That said, Eastern theology is full of its own problems.

Lvka said...

All of western tradition relies on Augustine.

Heavily, even... but NOT to the exclusion of the rest of Church Fathers. And when it DOES do that (Filioque), troubles soon start to appear...

John Bugay said...

Hey, did you not see, we're citing Florovsky here:

steelikat said...

What a great summary. This should go in the "John Bugay favorites" section or maybe a new section.

A lot of comments and questions could be dealt with summarily with a "Read John's Trajectory of Church History article and if you still have questions get back to me."