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Apologia for the Fathers July 8, 2007

Posted by Seraphim in Patristics, Tradition.
2 comments

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,

Seraphim

The Apple of Salvation November 30, 2006

Posted by Seraphim in Tradition.
1 comment so far

Christ is in our midst!

I come to you all today with a simile that I hope will be worthy of your attention.

Let us suppose that I come across a divine apple, a heaven-sent fruit that is wondrously delicious, endowed with the power to give life, heal the sick, and dry the tears of the afflicted.

Because of the marvelous properties of this apple, I undertake to write a description of it, in order that future generations might recognize it and know it when they see it. I therefore write thus:

“The apple rests on a marble pillar, red all over its rounded surface.”

Some years later, I die, after commending the manuscript into a great library.

Years and years after my death, a great dispute arises between those who have read my description of the apple.

“His meaning is plain,” says one (let us call him Adam). “It is an apple of uncertain description resting upon a rounded red marble pillar. He wrote thus, so that we might know that when we find such a pillar, so shall we have found our apple.” And thereby, the Adamites scour the earth for pillars of red marble, neglecting any white pillars, no matter how divine or tempting the fruit thereupon might appear.

“You are taking his words entirely out of context,” says another (let us call him Barlaam). “Clearly he is talking about a round, red apple resting atop a marble pillar of uncertain description. Surely his meaning is to describe the apple, a rare treasure, rather than the (by comparison) crude construct upon which it rests.” Thus it comes to pass that the Barlaamites do search in all places for apples of purest red atop marble pillars, neglecting any that even hint at another colour.

Certainly, both the Adamites and Barlaamites are sincere in their attempt to interpret what is written. Certainly, they both use the same writing for their interpretation. Certainly, their interpretations are not implausible from the text given.

Certainly, they cannot both be right. I cannot have been describing both apple and pillar. Of course, each group believes itself to possess the whole and actual truth; but neither can really be assured that their interpretation is correct save by supposing their reasoning to be superior (which is really no assurance at all).

Now, let us suppose that I had in my time a disciple, Constantos. He wrote thusly, shortly before his own death:

“Now, in those days I was talking with my friend Seraphim, and he told me: ‘My brother Constantos, you know the apple of which I so often speak?’

“And I replied to him, ‘Yes, my friend, but I have not seen it with my eyes, nor has it entered into my imagination.’

“And so Seraphim said unto me: ‘Brother Constantos, I have written that the apple rests on a marble pillar, red all over its rounded surface. For in truth, it sits upon a white pillar that is thusly high, the apple itself being completely and utterly red, save for one side, which is flat, unrounded, and coloured a glorious, emerald green. By this writing, then, shall you know the apple when you see it.’ And I thanked my friend Seraphim for the great goodness he showed me in this teaching.”

It has been passed down that no guile was ever found in the lips of this Constans, and he lived a full and virtuous life, ever speaking truth.

There was also a fourth person, Donovan, who taught that I was metaphorical in my writing, and that the apple was actually blue, and the pillar purple.

Now, stop a moment and consider. Whom would you believe out of these four individuals, Adam, Barlaam, Constantos, and Donovan? If you had to search for the apple, would you search for an apple on a pure red pillar, as with the Adamites; a pure red apple on any sort of pillar, as the Barlaamites teach; a red-and-green apple on a white pillar, as the Constantines adjure; or a blue apple on a purple pillar, as the Donovians declare? Let us consider.

I believe any reasonable person, with a sincere interest in the truth of the matter, would reject the interpretation of the Donovians without question as a complete fabrication of a fanciful teaching.

Between the doctrines of the Adamites and the Barlaamites, I would be inclined to favour the latter, as the language of the writing seems to refer more to the apple than the pillar.

But how much more should we delight in the teaching of the Constantines! Here is the testimony of one who knew and loved the author, in the flesh, and to whom was presented the interpretation of the things written. As an eyewitness of the teaching, and a trustworthy man, it seems to me that his testimony should be trusted as truthful and accurate. The interpretations of the Adamites and Barlaamites are certainly not unreasonable insofar as they extend, but they lack the fulness of revelation possessed by the Constantines and are, therefore, very probably incorrect.

Now, let us finish the story.

Despite the preserved teachings of the Constantines, the Adamites, Barlaamites, and Donovians strenuously reject their tradition, saying that, as Constantos was not a personal witness to the apple, his testimony cannot be trusted as in any way authoritative. Some among the Barlaamites point to the words of Constanos as proof for their assertion that the apple is red, but (as the description of the pillar and the green segment of the apple go umentioned in the writing proper) reject the further teachings of the Constantines.

And so it happens that the four sects each tell a different tale about the apple, each search for a different apple, and each believe themselves to know better than the others what the apple looks like. Of course, only one of them is right; the other three are, like the proverbial blind man and the elephant, believing honest, but misguided doctrine, on account of incorrectly perceiving the foundation of their beliefs.

Which of the four would YOU believe is closest to the truth?

The interpretation, of course, should by now be fairly clear. The apple is the Truth of God; the author is an author of the Scriptures, and his writing is the Bible. The Adamites, Barlaamites, Constantines, and Donovians are all different segments of those who confess Christ.

The Donovians are those who, like the Gnostics, quite plainly and heretically distort the Gospel. The Adamites and Barlaamites are those who cling to what is written alone (sola scriptura) and attempt to interpret and arrive at their doctrines through the sole interpretative faculty of their human reason.

Finally, the Constantines are those who base their doctrine off of the whole and continuous experience of the Church, making sure to stay in harmony with both what was written and what was experienced in the day-to-day life of the Church, passed down from the beginning. In such a way is the modern Church the same today–in essence, doctrine, and practice–as the Church that was founded two thousand years ago at Pentecost: One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic.

If you would, in the simile, hold Constantos to be the best possessed of understanding as to the nature of the apple and its location, then you are nothing less than a hypocrite when you reject the teaching of the early Fathers of the Church. Harsh words, perhaps, but true.

Naturally, those who practice sola scriptura do not place any stock in Apostolic Tradition. In doing so, however, they cut themselves off from the life of the Church which has unchangingly passed down that which it received at the beginning. Adam and Barlaam display nothing less than pure hubris when they rely on their own contradictory rational extrapolations on what has been written, rejecting the teaching of one who actually lived what was being written.

In such a way do many Christians, sincerely, I confess, but erroneously attempt to interpret the Bible clinically, using their own powers of deduction, completely (and irrationally) rejecting those who lived within the very teachings they are attempting to understand.

The Bible is not a living or self-interpreting document; Paul says, “one faith,” but there is no one faith amongst those who reject Holy Tradition. A Calvinist believes in predestination; an Arminian believes in free will. A Lutheran believes in liturgy and infant baptism; a Quaker believes in spontaneous worship and no baptism whatsoever. They all use the exact same Scriptures; with the command to “go forth and baptize all nations,” one will say they must be immersed in water; another will say the command refers to their undergoing a religious, spiritual conversion experience with no sacramental administration involved in the slightest.

Thus we see that Scripture is not an all-sufficient guide to our faith, nor is human reason efficacious for the interpretation thereof. Sincerity and/or intellect are no guarantees of arriving at the Truth.

Let us suppose I approach one of these rejecters of Tradition and ask him what the Christian faith consists of. He will tell me, “the Christian faith is such and such.” Then I ask him how he knows this to be true. He replies that “The Bible says thus and so, interpreted in this and that way; therefore, what I believe is true.”

No sooner does he conclude his exposition, however, than another man comes up and tells me, “Nay, the Christian faith consists of A and B!” I, greatly perturbed, ask him how he has arrived at this dramatically different conclusion. And, with equal confidence, he tells me exactly the same thing as the other fellow: “The Bible says thus and so, interpreted in this and that way; therefore, what I believe is true.”

Then I, miserable creature that I am, stand torn between these two erudites, one of whom tells me that red is true, and blue false, and the other telling me blue is true, and red false; how, then, am I to choose between them? In the end, I have no option save to follow the teaching that seems best and most reasonable in my own eyes.

Not long after this, a man comes to be and says, “This is the truth of the Christian faith, that we hold X and Y to be meet and necessary.” Once again, I enquire as to by what authority he believes these things. He replies to me, very simply, “It is what we have believed from the beginning, as revealed in the Scriptures and in the practice and experience of the Church from the earliest times to the most modern.” Then he proceeds to show me how the earliest Christians believed thus, and how their lineage and faith, in harmony with the Scriptures, has continued unbroken to the present day.

How much in that day do I rejoice that I may at last surely know the Truth! How much do I exult that my belief is the divine and everlasting experience of the faithful, and not constrained to error by my own pride and flaws of mind! How much, at that time, do I pity those who are still imprisoned and chained by the bonds of relying on their own finite wisdom to understand how to follow the Infinite God!

Thus is the majesty of Holy Tradition apparent to all who wish to hold to the “one Lord, one faith, one baptism,” of the “faith delivered once for all unto the saints.”

In Joy,

Seraphim