"This is the generation of the great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently of that mortal god, to which we own under the immortal God, our peace and defense." -Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan
Fathers and Ecclesiastical Documents as “Authoritative” versus as “Evidence”
Many converts to high church denominations from Evangelical or fundamentalist backgrounds tend to bring their “fundamental” mindset with them except to apply it to a larger set of writings. This is quite obvious in the difference between how they do history and how an actual church historian does it.
The high church fundy treats the writings of the fathers or past ecclesiastical documents like how a fundamentalist treats the Bible. They have an “authority” view of a text. If a church father says it, or if it is written in some official document, then it is valid right and true simply by virtue of it being said or written by so and so. The validity of a claim is simply a function of the authority of the person or document, rather than a product of the intrinsic merits of their argumentation or claim. Of course, like the Bible, the fathers or council documents must be interpreted to get to their meaning, but at the core of their examination of the writings of the past is this authority attitude.
The proper church historian on the other hand does not examine the texts of the past simply as an extension of the biblical canon or as (pseudo-)authority figures. They are study them as witnesses and records to the church of the past and provide good evidence as to what the church believed and practiced. Whether or not those beliefs or practices are as a matter of fact true or valid is a distinct question as to whether or not it is said or believed by the church of the past. Thus the records of writings of the past have a referential function, they are meant to point to past beliefs and practices, not as valid by virtue of it being written on such and such document or spoken by such and such person.
Two Case Studies
I shall give two examples to illustrate this point. First, I frequently like to quote from Pope Damascus I’s Council of Rome as justifying the Protestant claim that the Scriptures are the foundation of the church and which teachings are valid independently of conciliar action. The high church fundamentalist will however object and say that that council was trying to argue for papal primacy and that was the conclusion of the council, if I argue from that document then I must be forced to accept papal primacy.
But this argument is confused. I am not citing the Council of Rome as an authoritative document which compels our assent to every proposition contained within it. I am citing it as evidence as to what the Pope believed and what is widely believed in the church at that time by pointing out the premises used by the Pope to make that argument, premises which he would not use if he did not think that they were in fact widely believed throughout Christendom. Yes, papal primacy is the conclusion of his argument, but that’s not the point. The point is the premises which he used to arrive at that conclusion, and his premises involve the idea that the Scriptures are the foundation of the Church. If Pope Damascus is correct and the Scriptures are the basis of the Church, then if the “evangelical voice” of our Saviour taught papal primacy by establishing petrine primacy, then this is true and valid by virtue of it being taught in Scripture independently of whether the other Eastern councils or bishops agree. Naturally I disagree with the minor premise that Scriptures do so establish a petrine and papal primacy. But I cite this document merely to point out the other beliefs and propositions held by the pope. The high church fundamentalist doesn’t seem to get this sort of argumentation. For them the texts of the past are like authoritative biblical texts which are to be accepted on their say so, not as records or evidence to the past and its beliefs and practices. A document serving as evidence to past beliefs is different from whether that belief is true.
Here’s another example by Walter Lowrie. Lowrie cites Tertullian to justify the Protestant teaching of the universal priesthood of the believers,
Are not also we laity priests? …When there are no clergy thou makest the offering and baptizest and art priest for thyself alone. When three are present, there is the Church, although they be laymen.
~De exhort. cast. c. 7.
Lowrie then replies to attempts to dismiss this as an aspect of Tertullian heretical sectarianism,
Tertullian does not contend for this principle, he merely assumes it as a premise for his argument: therein lies the proof that it was not an individual opinion of his own, nor a distinctive tenet of Montanism, but a commonly accepted position, a primitive tradition which had not yet been successfully impugned.
Precisely. The point is not whether Tertullian is an “authoritative” church father or a heretic. The point is the content of his argument, what premises he employed to make his argument, premises which he would not use if he didn’t believe that they were widely held by the church at large. Thus, we look at Tertullian not as a set of authoritative texts but as good evidence for what the early church believed.
Heretical Arguments as Historical Evidences
The attitude of the contemporary high church fundamentalist is ironically very alien to the theologians of the past. Today you will hear Eastern Orthodox apologist dismiss Origen as a heretic and not to be used, when most theologians and Nicene fathers would have quoted from him, engaged his thought and invoked his arguments (even as late as into the medieval period). (Although to be fair there has been some recent pushback against this denigration of Origen by the Eastern Orthodox which seeks to rehabilitate him and reject his “heretical” status).
The point is not whether or not Origen is “authoritative” or a heretic. The point is that he is a very learned, respected and venerable theologian and who is very old and ancient and therefore a good guide as to what the Church in the past believed or practiced. This is also the value of Tertullian, or for the matter, any other past theologian or father’s writings. They were old and venerable; they lived in the time of the early church, and therefore were good evidence as to the practices and beliefs of that time. Whether those past beliefs are true or practices valid is a separate matter and are arguments to be evaluated on own intrinsic merits. The “authority” view of past theologians or fathers is, ironically, an import from Protestant fundamentalism.
Likewise the high church fundamentalist does not get my citation of Pelagius to justify the historicity of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. The point is not whether he is a heretic, not whether he is “authoritative”. The point is that his writings are good evidence for what the past believed and that it shows that this doctrine was already there in the past without any objections from anyone, even when he was under fire in his controversy with Augustine, no one used his “justification by faith alone” teachings against him if it was truly heretical at that time.
Conclusion: On Doing Church History Properly
This is why Protestants ironically are light years ahead in the study of church history and are probably the only ones who can do it objectively and without biased. We don’t feel compelled to force the past to fit into our church narrative. We can let it stand on its own and let them make their own arguments whether or not we agree with it. When the past agrees with us, it agrees, when it disagrees, it disagrees. The high church fundamentalist, whose canon extends beyond the bible, along with their narrative of substantive continuity, would already have a vested interest to harmonise the past with their present teachings. In aid of that task, they will often need to “interpret” the fathers and conciliar documents with all kinds of mental gymnastic to make it fit into their narrative.
Ironically the amount of mental gymnastics which the high church fundamentalist needs to engage in in order to “interpret” the fathers rightly is self-defeating as those fathers are suppose to be uncontroversial and clear means to settle interpretations of the Bible in the first place.
The Protestant attitude towards the church fathers is ultimately that of Aquinas who wrote:
Nevertheless, sacred doctrine makes use of these [philosophical] authorities as extrinsic and probable arguments; but properly uses the authority of the canonical Scriptures as an incontrovertible proof, and the authority of the doctors of the Church as one that may properly be used, yet merely as probable. For our faith rests upon the revelation made to the apostles and prophets who wrote the canonical books, and not on the revelations (if any such there are) made to other doctors.
–Summa Theologica, The Nature and Extent of Sacred Doctrine, Q8. Whether Sacred Doctrine Is A Matter of Argument?