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July 13, 2007

Posted by Seraphim in Misc..

Christ is in our midst!

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In Christ,


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Apologia for the Fathers July 8, 2007

Posted by Seraphim in Patristics, Tradition.

Christ is in our midst!

There are some in this day and age who calumniate and malign the holy Fathers of the Church, in an attempt to deny the doctrine they preached as truly Apostolic. This criticism may range from the mild, that the Fathers were “erroneously influenced,” to the truly sinister accusations, such as that the Fathers were pagans, conspirators, and so on. It is a dangerous error to so lightly dismiss the early Christian writers, as, if their teachings truly reflect the Tradition of the Apostles, then many professed followers of Christ are in serious error as to their faith and worshop.

A close study of the Fathers, and examination of the arguments against their instruction, will swiftly reveal the error of those who protest their Tradition. Let us, then, examine the merits of the Fathers and the fallacies of their detractors:

1. The Witness of Scripture

Among the Reformed traditions, a belief in the inerrancy and divine origin of the Scriptures is all but universal, while a belief in the major errancy (if not outright heresy) of the Fathers is, sadly, likewise. This, however, is a patently ridiculous assertion, for we would not know the Scriptures at all, were it not for the doctrine of the Fathers.

We must first consider that knowledge of the authors of Scripture comes through Patristic tradition alone. Within the Synoptic Gospels, neither Matthew, nor Mark, nor Luke identifies himself, or attests to his apostolic origin. That these Gospels were written by apostles or their disciples is attested to solely by the patristic witnessness, such as Irenaeus and Eusebius. Ignatius of Antioch–so often disparaged as a theological radical by opponents of the monarchial episcopate–is possibly the earliest witness to the existence of the Gospel of Matthew. Then there is the Catholic Epistle to the Hebrews, which Tradition likewise ascribes to the Apostle Paul.

There are–as any serious student of Church history will know–myriad pseudo-apostolic writings within the corpus of early Christian literature, such as the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Thomas, the Acts of Peter, the Apocalypse of Peter, et. al. All of these claim apostolic authority, and some of them (such as the fragmentary Oxyrhynchus Gospel) are, at the least, derived from genuine apostolic writings (is it not said that the strongest falsehoods are flavoured with a sprinkling of the truth?). Amidst these swirling masses of documents, the Churches of God–spurred initially by the false theology of Marcion–were called upon to discern which of them were of truly apostolic origin and contained true doctrine breathed by the Holy Spirit. To be sure, a major body of the texts we now call the Bible were recognized as authoritative from the very beginning (primarily the Gospels and several of the Pauline epistles), but there were many texts initially dubious that were later accepted into the canon, and several that were ultimately rejected on one or another basis. In addition, there are several interpolations within even the canonical Scriptures (such as Mark 16:9-20, which appears in none of the earliest extant Mark manuscripts) that were later recognized by the Church as reflective of genuine Apostolic truth.

These texts were judged by the Fathers of the Church. For the faithful Christian, it is absolutely necessary to contend that the Holy Spirit directed the compilers of the texts to a proper understanding and consensus. There is no internal canon of Scripture, no particular textual or stylistic feature that distinguishes real Scripture from fables or profitable-but-uninspired writings, and, in several cases, no identification of the authors of Scripture. This brings us to the next point:

2. The Authority of Scripture

The Fathers, presented with inspired Scripture, spurious pseudepigrapha, and valuable but ordinary writings, swiftly established a rule of rather strict apostolicity for the writings worthy of being directly attributed to the authorship of the Holy Spirit. It is this criterion of extremest antiquity that is often brought to bear by individuals otherwise denying the Patristic witness.

However, it is truth that the antiquity of a writing does not necessarily boost its authority, and Scripture is filled with examples of writings not attributed to apostles. Jude, James (of Jerusalem), Mark, and Luke were not apostles, but rather disciples thereof; for the reason of their intimacy with the apostolic doctrine, therefore, their writings are given great reverence and placed in the canon of Scripture alongside such worthies as John and Peter and Paul.

What, then, of things written by those equally intimate with the apostolic doctrine, that were yet not, in final consideration, judged as breathed of the Spirit? Paul authored an Epistle to the Laodiceans (Col. 4:16) of which today not a trace survives (and yet Paul seems to ascribe significance to the apostolic doctrine contained in this now-lost letter). Hermas (Rom. 16:15) authored The Shepherd, a lengthy and greatly prized book which only narrowly failed acceptance into the canon. Barnabas, Paul’s sometime missionary companion and enlightener of the Gentiles (Gal. 2:9) authored an epistle, which is yet not today read in the Churches of God. Clement (Phil. 4:3), another true intimate of the apostles, who was so favoured of the early Christians that it was given to him to govern the very church of Rome, likewise wrote an epistle which is nowhere to be found in the modern Bible.

Whence, therefore, is it determined that some friends of the apostles wrote in the Spirit, while others did not? The earliest of the Fathers (as did their successors) judged the various writings by its authorship, by its antiquity, by its conformity the apostolic doctrine they and the remainder of God’s Churches had received, and thereby ascribed varying degrees of authority to various writings.

We must here pause to note that, prior to the advent of the Marcionite heresy, the Churches were not highly preoccupied with Scripture on the whole; the apostolic doctrine had sufficient power amongst the Churches to preserve the Truth in its fulness, while the various writings were circulated and read as exhortations and expositions on how the Lord lived, and how Christians ought likewise to conduct themselves.

The broader point of noting this is that the Churches of God have been content to hold to the words they received; the very history of the Church is proof that the Church very rarely embarked on doctrinal codification and dogmatization until one or another heresy would arise as enemy of that which had been received in the beginning. In the case of Marcion, it was his rejection of many writings that had previously been accepted by the Church as Godly which prompted the beginnings of the Church’s attempt to rightly divide the written word of Truth.

3. The Dignity of the Martyrs

Why would the Churches of God react so strongly against the Marcionites, unless elements within his canon were in opposition to the apostolic teaching? We must, of course, suppose that the Churches were quite well aware of the apostolic doctrine, being united as they were, and responded accordingly.

More than this, the great and humble Fathers of the early Church laid down their lives and paid in blood for their faith; it is arrogance of the highest order to presume that they would have perished to preserve a falsehood of their own devising. It is also truth that the Fathers lived in the very culture and context in which the Scriptures were written–and indeed, the Scriptures were, first of all, written to these very men, and for their understanding–not to mention that some among the Fathers (Ignatius most prominent among them) had indeed seen Jesus Christ, our Lord, in the flesh, and heard His teaching with their own ears! To complete the structure we are attempting to build, we must, at the last, note that these men were so respected for their piety and adherence to the true teaching of the Apostles that they were selected to guide the Churches in the absence of the Apostles (either because their missions took them elsewhere or because they had fallen asleep in the Lord). Few indeed in any age will be likened to the stature of the early Fathers.

Who, then, will presume to discredit the witness for which they paid so dearly in blood, and to contend contemptuously against their teaching? When Ignatius tells us that the Eucharist is in truth the Body and Blood of our Lord, and that this is the true apostolic teaching, can you testify against him with any authority? When Clement describes a monarchic episcopal ecclesiology in his Epistle to the Romans, how can you propound your doctrine against his without calling him either a liar or a fool, by extension maligning his teachers, who are the very Apostles who wrote the Scripture which you twist to be in harmony with your own preconceptions? What of Polycarp, who thought the letters of Ignatius so moving and theologically sound that he commissioned copies to be sent to the Philippians whom he instructed?

Do you really believe yourself to stand in a better position, both in history and in the humility of the Spirit of God, to judge these men of faith and learning, immersed in the Apostolic teaching, who gave their lifeblood in order that others, even like yourself, might be able to hear the Gospel of Christ in fulness?

4. The Potency of the Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit, as we know, is nothing less than God. Christ calls the Spirit “the Comforter” and “the Spirit of Truth,” Who will lead His people “into all Truth.” The Apostles and their followers, filled with the Spirit, contemplated realities too wonderful for human language, eloquently proclaimed the Gospel of Christ, corrected those with mistaken doctrine, made conciliar proclamations and rules as to the Truth, and even prophesied. We know from the Scriptures that the Spirit speaks to the Church of God (Rev. 3:6), and that it is by the charism of the Spirit that the bishops (episkopoi) of the Church are established (Acts 20:28). We also know by the Spirit that the Church of the Living God is “the pillar and foundation of the Truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). We know that all true believers are sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:13), and so, for as long as there are true believers, so also the Spirit of Truth will be with them.

Why, then, do we count the Spirit as slack concerning the promises of Christ? Why do we assume that the Spirit, from the very time of the Apostles–for indeed, the Didache, the Shepherd, and 1 Clement all date back to a time when the Apostles still lived and breathed the air of this earth–permitted all His people to be led not into Truth but out away from it into apostasy? Why do we assume that the very Spirit, Whom we trust in the lips of the Apostles to speak words of life, suddenly fled away from the very men who followed these selfsame words of life?

Is this not the height of arrogance? Is this not well-nigh blasphemy against the Spirit, to so disbelieve that the Spirit leads into Truth, that the Church anchors the Truth, and that the Truth lasts from everlasting to everlasting unchanged? God forbid that the Church pass so directly from the tender care of the Apostles into the malign hands of heresy! How can one have faith in such a God, Who forsakes His people as soon as His twelve chosen ones walk no longer in the flesh? If we truly hold “the Faith delivered once for all unto the saints,” how can we say with clear conscience that the full Faith fell to corruption, and this Faith had to be re-delivered unto the saints?

Again, I say, God forbid that the True Faith should prove so easily perverted! If the Spirit is our guide, and the Spirit leads us to Truth, then the holy Apostolic Fathers must have a testimony of Truth, and Truth alone. Yes, it is true that this leads to many conclusions uncomfortable to those who deny the doctrine preached by the Fathers. For the truly faithful, for those who truly believe in His promises, there must be a reckoning, must be a comparison of doctrine, not measuring the Fathers against one’s own standard, but measuring one’s own self against the Spirit-fortified testimony of the Church.

5. Conclusion

We have seen how even those who deny the doctrine of the Fathers still rest heavily on their authority. We have seen how the Fathers themselves are of unimpeachable fidelity, character, and authority. We have seen that the doctrine the Fathers preach is the Truth about the Church, inescapably. This conclusion will (and should) cause some discomfort and consternation amongst those who have been raised denigrating the doctrines of the Fathers. But at the same time, when they let the thought settle, what joy will present itself!

No longer is the path shrouded in shadow; it is illumined by the Light that gives life! No longer is the doctrine subject to personal whim; the very testimony of God and His works proclaims the Truth! No longer must we live in confusion; Christ, our guide, is in our midst, and ever shall be! As the hymn proclaims, “Understand, all you nations, and submit yourselves, for God is with us!” He is and always has been (and always will be) with His Church in fulness, guiding us at all times and shepherding us along the process of transforming us “into [His] image, from glory to glory” (2 Cor. 3:18).

Christ and the Church await. The Saviour saith: “I, Jesus, have sent My angel to testify to you these things in the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, the Bright and Morning Star. And the Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come!’ And let him who hears say, ‘Come!’ And let him who thirsts come. Whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely.” (Rev. 22:16-17)

In Christ,