Friday, August 21, 2015

Authority, Part III: Testing the Claims with the Early Church Fathers

This post is part of a five-post series on the Church's authority. Click the links below to visit the other parts of the series.

Authority, Part I:  Introduction  
Authority, Part II:  Defining the Claims  
Authority, Part III:  Testing the Claims with the Early Church Fathers  
Authority, Part IV:  Testing the Claims with History  
Authority, Part V:  Conclusions  

As we continue our study of Authority, we want to test the claims with the Early Church Fathers. What I mean is to think about it much like a scientific theory: we have claims of succession and we should be able to test those claims to determine if we should accept them or not.

Specifically, we should be looking through the earliest writers of Christianity to look for conflicts. When conflicts occur, how do they respond? Do they refer to succession for their authority, or to Scripture for their authority, or both?

Why Not Use Scripture?

The natural question for the Protestants is--why would we do the testing with the Early Church Fathers instead of by using Scripture?

Scripture is often used in this debate but to little value, on either side:

  • Protestants like to use Scripture to point out that no firm reference to apostolic authority is made. This is true. However...the authors of Scripture were themselves the apostles, so obviously they would not need to discuss transmission of authority explicitly.  The lack of a clear theology of succession while the apostles were still walking around is not necessarily a proof that it did not exist.
  • Catholic/Orthodox sources love to quote a few Scriptures, out of context, in an attempt to validate succession. However this is very spurious when one studies the passages in context. Some will point to Jude 3 which refers to the "faith that was entrusted to God's people"--but it is a major stretch to conclude that this means that this is referencing succession; if anything it would seem to imply that all God's people have the faith rather than just approved bishops. Others point out that 1 Timothy 4:14 refers to the laying on of hands of the elders, but it is also far from clear that this somehow references a succession of apostles (indeed, the elders are presbyters here, a Jewish word indicating local synagogue leaders and not the word for apostles). Finally is Matthew 16:18, a verse so often taken out of context that I will write a full post about that later.

The main point is that while the apostles were walking around, the idea of apostolic succession did not really exist, nor should it have. Succession implies the end of the apostolic work; it is by definition a discussion for post-Scriptural times.

Therefore, when we read the Early Church Fathers we should see more clearly what the results are. I honestly don't know where this post will go as I begin to write it (on 12 Aug) and I'm excited about that. What I do know is that it will be very long if I fully discuss all of the early church father works.

Instead, I plan to go through bit by bit and summarize below, including links so you can read the original sources yourself. I have purposefully avoided reading apologetics of either Protestant or Catholic-Orthodox variety in this case.

Clement I (80 AD) - evidence for Protestant position

Clement is considered one of the first popes, but read his letters and you will see a very weak evidence for apostolic succession.
  • First of all, when the Corinthians write to Clement he states that it is merely to seek advice--not leadership, but advice among equals. 
  • Secondly, Clement does not respond for a while and must apologize for it not being a high priority for him (again, indicating they are not in direct hierarchy). 
  • Clement in making arguments never refers to something taught by an apostle to him via tradition, or at least not that I can find. Instead he refers to Scripture routinely.
  • The closest one gets is the passage below, in which Clement says that the apostles chose the bishops and deacons in the new churches. No one disagrees with that. And then the apostles appear to have set up a system in which the pastors would choose their own successors or, lacking that, pastors from other churches would choose for them. But it is a recklessly far claim to say that this somehow implies anything remotely relating to the doctrine of apostolic succession.
"Through countryside and city [the apostles] preached, and they appointed their earliest converts, testing them by the Spirit, to be the bishops and deacons of future believers. Nor was this a novelty, for bishops and deacons had been written about a long time earlier. . . . Our apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry" (1Clement, Letter to the Corinthians 42:4–5, 44:1–3 [A.D. 80]). 

As such, I place the evidence for Clement I in the Protestant position.

Clement of Alexandria (150-213) - evidence for Protestant position

In Stromata 7:16:3, a different Clement says this: "[disciples] will not give over seeking for truth until they have found the demonstration from the Scriptures themselves." It is the Scriptures which are used to interpret traditions, not the other way around.

Hegesippus (180 AD) - evidence neutral but leans Protestant
"When I had come to Rome, I [visited] Anicetus, whose deacon was Eleutherus. And after Anicetus [died], Soter succeeded, and after him Eleutherus. In each succession and in each city there is a continuance of that which is proclaimed by the law, the prophets, and the Lord" (Memoirs, cited in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 4:22 [A.D. 180]). 

The work of Hegesippus names the pastors of the last few generations in Rome. That there was a succession is, of course, no surprise--any continually operating church has a succession. What I find most interesting is that Hegesippus says, "in each succession...there is a continuance of that which is proclaimed by the Law, the prophets, and the Lord." In other words, Hegesippus admits that there is a succession, but in no way indicates it is a continuance of church traditions...rather, he says that what they are handing down is the Bible (the law and prophet--Old Testament, and the Gospels--the teachings of the Lord).

This is a stronger argument for the Protestant position than the apostolic position; however, I will call it neutral because it could be taken that way even though it by no means is explicit.

Origin (185-252) - evidence for Protestant position

Origin said, "No man ought, for the confirmation of doctrines, to use books which are not canonized Scriptures." (Tract. 26 in Matt.) This clearly aligns with the idea of sola scriptura.

Irenaeus (189 AD) - evidence somewhat debatable but leans strongly Protestant based on AH3:1

Without doubt, if a Catholic or Orthodox is going to use an early church father to point toward apostolic succession in the manner in which they mean the doctrine, Irenaeus is the best candidate. He was pretty close to the apostles, writing in 189 (although, do not forget that this is still as far removed from the apostles as your current church is from its pastor in 1915, fresh off of WW I--so don't overestimate how close they are). 

Irenaeus is arguing against the Gnostics, a group who has arisen by saying that they are holding the "true" teachings of the church--a group of secretive teachings passed down only to them.  Irenaeus argues against them a lot using Scripture, as a traditional Protestant would. However, he also refers to the apostolic lineage of churches to their modern day. This he uses as a litmus test to separate the Gnostic churches from the catholic ones. He writes in long blocks of paragraphs so to save time I will summarize:
  • Heresy can be protected against when one can show a lineage of pastors back to the original apostle, name by name (Against Heresies 3:3:1)
  • Proclaims that Rome, because it has the firmest apostolic succession back to both Peter and Paul, is the litmus test for all church teachings--if it disagrees with Rome then it is not a true church. The Orthodox need to be careful using Irenaeus as he is firmly a Romanist in his cataloging of tradition (ibid., 3:3:2)
  • Defends the claim that Polycarp carries apostolic traditional authority (ibid., 3:3:4)
  • Argues that if a Scriptural misunderstanding arises we should turn to the most ancient church (by which he refers to Rome) in order to decide among it; thus he again places Rome at the forefront (ibid., 3:4:1)
  • He speaks about all of those Gnostic churches who have departed from the main church as vain, self-seeking, and heretical, teaching none of the truth. He also claims that those from succession are holders of infallible truth--though it is not completely clear from the context if he is saying that the Roman Church's interpretation is infallible (if so, this is the earliest reference to the doctrine of papal infallibility), or if he is referring to the infallibility of the Gospel itself, of which they are the proper holders of in his view. So this could be read on one extreme as a very Roman Catholic claim, or on the other hand as a rather mild reminder that the Gnostics at his time were not part of the apostolic church (ibid., 4:26:2)

So in Irenaeus' apostolic succession passages, we note that we have some difficulty. He is using the argument of succession as an apologetic against the Gnostics. Now to the Protestant reader, that is all he is using it for--he is implying nothing beyond the response to his current foes. To the Orthodox reader, he is using it as a denunciation of all non-apostolic-succession churches. To the Roman Catholic reader, he is using it even further as an endorsement of the papal authority and infallibility of the Roman bishop.

Now what is very interesting is that Catholics and Orthodox, however, tend to ignore this passage from Irenaeus:
We have known the method of our salvation by no other means than those by which the Gospel came to us; which Gospel [the apostles] truly preached; but which afterward, by the will of God, they delivered to us in the Scriptures, to be for the future the foundation and pillar of faith. (ibid., 3:1)

I will be honest: I had always thought the strongest argument from Irenaeus' work was for the Roman Catholic position, and I assumed that's where I would land on this...but having read this passage--which is the opening line and context under which all of the above are placed--I am back to the Protestant view. 

It seems quite clear that there is no traditional handing-down of other doctrines, but rather of the Scriptures. The apostolic succession and lineage to which Irenaeus refers is evidence as to why our Scriptures are trusted rather than the Gnostics. It seems very clear in this passage that the "output" of the succession machine is not doctrine but rather the Scriptures, which itself is the doctrine.

Now when you re-read the above bullet points, what you find is that Irenaeus in battling the heretics seems not to be endorsing a papal infallibility, but rather demonstrating that the infallible Scriptures held by the church proper are the foundation of faith rather than the Gnostic gospels--and furthermore, that the ancientness of the church of Rome guarantee that they have the proper Scriptures.

So I think this (combined with the fact that the rest of Against Heresies is seeped in Scripture and lacking any tradition-based argument) sides rather strongly for the Protestant, sola Scriptura position--although it does give the caveat that the Roman Catholics should be commended as the protectors of that Scripture, it does not imply that their magisterium have infallible interpretation of the Scriptures.

Tertullian (200 AD) - evidence for succession

By the time of Tertullian--who was as far removed from Jesus as modern America is from pre-Civil War America--we see the first strong arguments for succession.

I will not quote them here, but you can find them in Demurrer Against the Heretics, 20-32. Here he argues something like modern doctrine, without giving evidence for or against any one church over the other (though it must be said he was a follower of the Roman way of things). 

He argues that it is the doctrine which is handed down through the apostolic succession, and that only a church of apostolic origin is properly a church. There is little argument here, to me.

As Tertullian brings us to the close of the second century, it is there that we shall stop. By the time we get further away from Jesus than America is from the Civil War, we are no longer properly discussing early Church Fathers at all. 

Suffice it to say that the next 100 years or so, this doctrine is argued against among the churches. Cyprian of Carthage (200-250) argues that tradition is fine as long as it does not contradict Scripture; likewise Ambrose and Jerome seem to be strongly Scripture-only in the fourth century. However, by the time of the end of the fourth century, I would concede that the general opinion of the church was that apostolic tradition was indeed real, in the manner it is meant today. I will note again, however, that by the time everyone is in agreement, it is as far away from Jesus as modern America is from the writing of the Constitution--and obviously we have amended it considerably in that time. So it is misleading to state that these were "ancient" traditions of the church, when it is really not an agreed-upon tradition for many years.

Conclusion of the Evidence from Early Church Fathers

When we look objectively into the writings of the early church fathers from 80-200 AD, the first few generations removed from the apostles, we see a few consistent themes with which all church fathers agree:
  • Scripture carries infallible truth
  • Scripture is a valid source of doctrine
  • The ancient churches like Rome carefully handled and handed down Scripture
In addition, we see that from 33-180, every commentator argues the sola Scriptura  route--that only the Scriptures are sound bases of truth.

Then beginning around 189, we see Irenaeus take a mostly Protestant view but make some statements which indicate a strengthening belief in apostolic succession's power to control doctrine.

By 200, Tertullian is arguing for apostolic succession as the primary method. And this argument will continue until everyone mostly aligns with Tertullian by the end of the fourth century.

In conclusion, I must find that the earliest Christian authors universally taught something like either sola Scriptura or prima Scriptura. If we are to follow their lead, then we should interpret traditions via Scripture, not interpret Scripture via traditions.

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