A Protestant reader reached out to me recently with some questions that he came up with having read my recent article The Dogmatization of the Bodily Assumption of Mary and the Appeal to History: A Brief Introduction to the Interpretative Differences between the Apostolic Churches and Protestant Skeptics. Apparently, some thought that I was simply divorcing the need for historical evidence and I thought the questions posed to me provided an opportunity for me to clarify my thought on the issue of history and its relationship to the credibility of the Catholic magisterium.
I – Catholic objection: Does not St. Vincent’s criteria for discerning truths of the faith via consensus fundamentally assume that this consensus can be found in documentary evidence throughout all ages? So how could your paradigm be compatible with the Church’s historic claims?
Very good question. Let me first say that we need to make an important distinction between Scripture, Tradition, the Magisterial expounding of those two prior sources of divine revelation, and the writings of the Church Fathers or Christian theologians. The only written source that is absolutely necessary is divine revelation put to word in the Holy Bible. So when we come to consider “documentary evidence” we have to be careful to define that correctly and thereby understand its nature relative to what St. Vincent claims is the body content of the Christian faith. If we are going to lump into “documentary evidence” any document written by any self-proclaimed Christian or anyone who served as observer of Christian life and doctrine, whether they be Christian or not, then we certainly are not speaking about what St. Vincent calls the belief of the Church of Christ across time, space, and people. St. Vincent was a man writing in the mid-5th century, around 445 AD. To him, there were only 4 centuries of Christian history, and even for him there were heresies to combat in each century from 1st with the Apostles versus the Judaizers. From there you had the Gnostics, the Donatists, the Empire-wide Arian crisis, the Pelagian controversy, and the Nestorian crisis just before his own time of writing. These errors were all born from the baptized community, within that fold of what St. Vincent understood as the one catholic church. St. Vincent was well aware that when it comes to “documents” in the general, there was not a chance in the world for there to be a “consensus” in the “documentary evidence.” Even within the pool of Saints we find that St. Vincent can find a variance, e.g. North Africa on the 2nd or more iteration of the sacrament of baptism. And yet, St. Vincent still persisted in his view of ecclesial infallibility and ecclesial indefectibility across time, space, and true Christian society, regardless of the variations that one could find up to this time (all which are considerable given his own documentation!):
But the Church of Christ, the careful and watchful guardian of the doctrines deposited in her charge, never changes anything in them, never diminishes, never adds, does not cut off what is necessary, does not add what is superfluous, does not lose her own, does not appropriate what is another’s, but while dealing faithfully and judiciously with ancient doctrine, keeps this one object carefully in view — if there be anything which antiquity has left shapeless and rudimentary, to fashion and polish it, if anything already reduced to shape and developed, to consolidate and strengthen it, if any already ratified and defined, to keep and guard it. Finally, what other object have Councils ever aimed at in their decrees, than to provide that what was before believed in simplicity should in future be believed intelligently, that what was before preached coldly should in future be preached earnestly, that what was before practised negligently should thenceforward be practised with double solicitude? This, I say, is what the Catholic Church, roused by the novelties of heretics, has accomplished by the decrees of her Councils — this, and nothing else — she has thenceforward consigned to posterity in writing what she had received from those of olden times only by tradition, comprising a great amount of matter in a few words, and often, for the better understanding, designating an old article of the faith by the characteristic of a new name. (Commonitorium 23.59, New Advent)
One can see here that Vincent was aware that there might be periods of time (who knows to what length) where the Church lacks written formulas and encoded doctrine on matters that stem from the Church’s tradition that was divinely “deposited in her charge.” Hence, what might be, at one time, “shapeless and rudimentary” can becomes later “fashioned” and “polished.” Until such fashioning, shaping, and polishing, there is little form that might exist on that particular doctrine, and that lack would include a lack of explicit written definition. St. Vincent is also aware that the Church has a magisterial office that is called upon at certain moments to issue clean decrees in writing on something that, prior to, was not well established sufficiently. He also held that there might be even a time where Saints might hold to an otherwise condemnatory error but are nonetheless sanctified in light of some mitigating circumstances. He gives as an example the errors of the North African Church under St. Cyprian who erred on rebaptism, an error that St. Vincent believes consigns its adherents to everlasting hell. As a side note, he also recognized the duly authorized office of St. Stephen as the Pope to enforce his decrees as he did in dioceses foreign to Rome. St. Vincent, indirectly, provides support for a doctrinal development of the Papal magisterium in relation to the universal Church.
Secondly, the question seems to suggest that St. Vincent’s rule entails that the Church’s doctrinal must make be written down.It assumes that the body content of what St. Vincent or the Catholic Church means by the depositum fidei, or that body content of teaching what was deposited into the Church to be faithfully handed on (i.e., Apostolic tradition) will necessarily get instant written report to go alongside. But it should be noted that not everything that was said orally got written down. Not everything that got written down was preserved. Not everything that was preserved was copied. Not everything that was copied was spread profusely. Not everything that was copied and spread profusely was maintained forever to be read by people of later centuries, let alone 20+ centuries later. Not even within the lifetime of the Apostles do we have such a paradigmatic concept of documentation. Out of the original 12 Apostles, we have the writings of only 4 of them. That does not mean they did not write anything. However, it should not be ignored that it was Mark and Luke who took up the task of writing before the Apostles did (more probably so). The former probably under Peter and the latter under the plain sense of need. But what reliable body of writing comprises the era of 33 AD to 150 AD? There is quite a bit, to be honest, but hardly anyone attributes equal significance to all of it. We’d better not!
And so, we must not think that the Catholic faith is beholden to “documentary evidence” as such. Now, one might rephrase the question, “Should not there be somewhat of an echo or reflection of the catholic consensus in each age?” To this I think I should say that there should be. But that is a very much different thing than that is must be of necessity, as if the catholic is beholden to the sum content of whatever Christian writing there can be found or discovered. When it comes to necessity, we must be careful since “necessity” is a strong word that can bite if mishandled. The only thing that is necessary is that God the Father sent Christ into world as the prime Apostle who then created the Apostleship of the New Covenant with the Twelve. This founding institution created the Church as the eschatological furtherance of God’s people in the Church. Out of this comes the full order of Scripture and Tradition. But as for written documentation, we see Christ giving no strict order or command. Nor do the Apostles, for that matter. The Scripture, nevertheless, comes into the realm of necessary after the fact. It is now undeniably considered infallible, inerrant, and divine revelation. No man can question is without spiritual peril. But if we go back to the concession that there “should” be a reflection of the doctrinal consensus of the Church in historical writings, we are just repeating what I said in the original article: “[…] while it is true that the faith of the Catholic Church rests upon the call and ordination of the Apostles by Christ as continued through the Episcopal College, it still remains that there should be a concurrence between the content of the magisterial teaching of the Church throughout time and what was received by the majority of orthodox Christian society.” It simply cannot be, though not from absolute necessity, that we would lack some kind of testimony produced in the literature of Christian society reflecting the consensus, at least at some point. Since the veracity of the catholic faith is not behold to such tests, however, it needs only be loosely utilized as a general, rather than strict, test.
II – More general objection, mostly Prot but could also be levelled by Catholics: Does not this conception of the Catholic paradigm totally vitiate claims to being the “historic” Church rooted in “historic” i.e. Apostolic doctrine, if the Church’s authority and doctrine is not beholden to historical testimony? More bluntly, doesn’t this mirror the claims of Gnostic groups to have received secret teachings that nobody beyond their clique could access, in contrast to the Church’s very public teaching?
Another good question. However, I do think there are some assumptions in this question as well which need to be examined before moving forward. What does it mean to be “historically rooted”? Must it be that in order for something to be historically rooted, there must be an exposition of historical documents that explicitly write about a supposed content before said content can be deemed historically rooted? In some sense this must be the case. If by the word “history” we mean the Latin and Greek usage of historia which means the task of knowing through chronicled story or history, then we might say there is a sense in which the Christian religion is rooted in history and in a sense in which it is not. We would not want to say that the very root of the gospel is the record of the gospel since the gospel event itself gave birth to the record. We can then say that the Apostleship of Christ and His Twelve were also born of events that came prior to their records, and thus the authoritative content of the Apostolic tradition is something that can’t be born or rooted in historia. On the other hand, we might say the Christian religion as known is rooted in historia. How else do scholars, historians, archaeologists, and any inquirer know about the Christian religion if not by the record of history? They certainly would not blindly trust the claims of the Christian church before first testing, right? Well, that’s just the point I was drawing people to in my article. The 19th-century Protestant, following historicism and source criticism, approaches the knowledge of Christianity through what might be known from records. Whether or not they believe the Old and New Testaments to be infallibly produced and inerrant (they mostly did not), they still saw the Testaments as simply read together with all the other documents of history. Adolf Von Harnack (1851-1930) was one of the most prolific authors to demonstrate this tendency to flatten out the consideration of the historical record and sought to interpret everything he read as if it were the definition of “Christianity”. He himself thought the truth was largely lost right from the start and the Roman Church began to be the source of the slow turning away from the original ideal the Jesus of the Gospels. In any case, this archaeological digging project that seeks to have a fresh, ground-up, and assumption-free reconstruction of the Christian religion is what I have come to see as both the Protestant starting point and its abiding method. With all that said, there still is an appropriate expectation of concurrence and reflection that should exist between the records of history and the Catholic religion, so much so that they largely (if not all the way) point to Catholicism. John Henry Newman was right to say that whatever the records of history tell us they do tell us that the Christian religion prior to the 16th century going back to the 1st was not Reformed Protestantism.
Getting back to the original question, it must be said that the Catholic Church does not understand the founding principle (the root, as it were) of transmitting the contents of Apostolic tradition in the historical records and chronicles of the past but rather in the vocation of the Apostolic College as continued in the Episcopal College under and with the successor of Peter (cum Petro et sub Petro). This vocation is rooted in Christ’s own Apostleship begun, in a special way, at the Jordan River with his baptism and the descent of the Holy Spirit which, as He would proclaim in the synagogue in Nazareth, was the fulfillment of the Isaianic Servant’s mission (Luke 4:20-21). Christ would similarly anoint His Twelve with the power of Apostleship and commanded them to go out and authoritatively preach the Gospel to all creatures administering to them sacraments and the commandments of life. Since that point, everyone was bound to believe the preaching of the Apostles just as much as one was bound to hear and obey Jesus Christ Himself: “He who hears you, hears Me.” And so, it is not the case that the preaching of the Apostles as continued in the preaching of the Bishops is beholden to the test of whatever mass of historical documents written by Christians from all times says. The Apostles did not require passing the test of history before they issued authoritative proclamations of Jesus Christ. If the Bereans would have continued to examine the Scriptures and came out disbelieving Paul and throwing him out of the city, they would be guilty of rejecting God’s prophet. They would not simply be guilty of poor interpretive methods of the Old Testament. Nevertheless, there should be an overwhelming congruity between the dominant trend found in historical chronicles and the Catholic Church’s beliefs. And after all, that’s precisely what we find.
To the second question: we first have to see how the Catholic Church responded to the Gnostics. The principal voices of opposition were Irenaeus and Tertullian. Both of these men appealed to the living voice of the Apostolic Episcopate. Both of them discriminated as to who had the right to read the Bible, interpret it, and transmit the full tradition handed on from the Apostles. In that sense, they aren’t doing anything differently than I am. They were not teaching the archaeological method of the Protestants. Consider how Irenaeus speaks:
“Since therefore we have such proofs, it is not necessary to seek the truth among others which it is easy to obtain from the Church; since the apostles, like a rich man [depositing his money] in a bank, lodged in her hands most copiously all things pertaining to the truth: so that every man, whosoever will, can draw from her the water of life… For how stands the case? Suppose there arise a dispute relative to some important question among us, should we not have recourse to the most ancient Churches with which the apostles held constant intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question? For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary, [in that case,] to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they did commit the Churches?” (Contra Heresies 3.4)
Irenaeus here goes so far as to hypothesize the situation where we not only lacked historical writings, but also the writings of the Apostles themselves! What then!? To the Churches that have the “commission” says Irenaeus. He held that the Church is the depository of truth and cannot err. This is the primitive teaching on ecclesial infallibility. Where the Church is, there is the Spirit of Truth:
“For this gift of God has been entrusted to the Church, as breath was to the first created man, for this purpose, that all the members receiving it may be vivified; and the [means of] communion with Christ has been distributed throughout it, that is, the Holy Spirit, the earnest of incorruption, the means of confirming our faith, and the ladder of ascent to God… For where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church, and every kind of grace; but the Spirit is truth.” (Contra Heresies, 3.24)
These are not simply Roman Catholic readings of the early apologists. Below I cite from a Patristic work by Methodist historical theologian John Lawson entitled The Biblical Theology of Saint Irenaeus (1948) and the well-known Patristic work by the late J.N.D. Kelly’s Early Christian Doctrine (1978). First, Lawson writes:
“With [Irenaeus] it is fundamental that the Scripture provide complete proof of all Christian doctrine….However, the question of religious authority for S. Irenaeus is by no means so simple as this. Very many other passages speak of the unwritten tradition of the Church as the determinative voice. It is even maintained that the faith could well have continued upon this ground alone, had the Apostles left no writings behind them” (pp. 32 f.)
“According to S. Irenaeus, the available authentic information from the Apostles regarding the life, teaching, and saving work of the Lord was not wholly written. There was also an oral tradition handed down by the Apostles and their successors. We may most accurately describe this tradition as the unwritten New Testament. It will be seen that in the system of Irenaeus it occupies a position of dogmatic value equivalent to that of the Epistles, save only that ink and paper is absent” (p 87)
“As the Canon and interpretation of the written tradition is to be determine by authority, so also is the unwritten…Once granted that there was such a thing as unwritten information to which valid appeal could be made, the only answer to the heretic was the plain assertion that the true oral tradition was the exclusive possession of the Church, just as was the written tradition. This was seconded by the assertion that, as the Church was alone competent to expound the Scripture, so she alone could determine the meaning of that which was not written…It was the teaching of S. Irenaeus that the witness to tradition is collective, and, indeed, by inherent nature universal. It is not individual, for individualism is the mark of heresy… The voice of the Church is always for practical purposes regarded as the voice of her official and recognized leaders” (pp. 91 f.)
“To enquire whether tradition or Scripture is the primary authority is to obscure the mind of S. Irenaeus by asking the wrong question. To him both are manifestations of one and the same thing, the apostolic truth by which the Christians lives….The truth hands by two cords, and he can speak of either as self-sufficient without intending to deny or subordinate the other” (p. 103)
“Religious authority…is bound to dissolve into the tones of the present voice of the Church… This ‘Living Voice’ is the actual religious authority for S. Irenaeus. We may candidly agree that he would probably not have recognized this as the truth about himself” (p. 105)
“The ‘Living Voice’ of the Church was therefore the essential and determinative factor in whatever he actually taught” (p. 292)
J.N.D. Kelly writes:
“But where in practice was this apostolic testimony or tradition to be found? It was no longer possible to resort, as Papias and earlier writers had done, to personal reminiscences of the Apostles. The most obvious answer was that the apostles had committed it orally to the Church, where it had been handed down from generation to generation. Irenaeus believed that this was the case, stating that the Church preserved the tradition inherited from the apostles and passed it on to her children. It was, he thought, a living tradition which was, *IN PRINCIPLE*, independent of written documents; and he pointed to barbarian tribes which ‘received this faith without letters’. Unlike the alleged secret tradition of the Gnostics, it was entirely public and open, having been entrusted by the apostles to their successors, and by these in turn to those who followed them, and was visible in the Church for all who cared to look for it….Irenaeus makes two further points. First, the identity of oral tradition with the original revelation is guaranteed by the unbroken succession of bishops….Secondly, an additional safeguard is supplied by the Holy Spirit, for the message was committed to the Church, and the Church is the home of the Spirit. Indeed, the Church’s bishops are on his view Spirit-endowed men who have been vouchsafed ‘an infallible charism of truth’ (charisma veritatis certum)” (Early Christian Doctrines, page 37)
“The difficulty was, of course, that heretics were liable to read a different meaning out of Scripture than the Church; but Irenaeus was satisfied that, provided the Bible was taken as a whole, its teaching was self-evident. The heretics who misinterpreted it only did so because, disregarding its underlying unity, they seized upon isolated passages and rearranged them to suit their own ideas. Scripture must be interpreted in the light of its fundamental ground-plan, viz. the original revelation itself. For that reason, correct exegesis was the prerogative of the Church, where the apostolic tradition or doctrine which was the key to Scripture had been kept intact.” (page 38)
Something should also be said about the issue of secrecy. The early centuries of the Church typically reserved the explanation of the mysteries to those who had passed the catechumenical process and were ready to be illumined through the sacrament of Baptism. Irenaeus held that the “gift of truth” was discriminately handed on to teaching government of the Church from Christ and the Apostles through succession:
“Wherefore it is incumbent to obey the presbyters who are in the Church — those who, as I have shown, possess the succession from the apostles; those who, together with the succession of the episcopate, have received the certain gift of truth, according to the good pleasure of the Father.” (Contra Heresies 4.26)
Tertullian says precisely the same thing:
“Since this is the case, in order that the truth may be adjudged to belong to us, as many as walk according to the rule, which the church has handed down from the apostles, the apostles from Christ, and Christ from God, the reason of our position is clear, when it determines that heretics ought not to be allowed to challenge an appeal to the Scriptures, since we, without the Scriptures, prove that they have nothing to do with the Scriptures. For as they are heretics, they cannot be true Christians, because it is not from Christ that they get that which they pursue of their own mere choice, and from the pursuit incur and admit the name of heretics. Thus, not being Christians, they have acquired no right to the Christian Scriptures; and it may be very fairly said to them, Who are you? When and whence did you come?…”(Prescriptions against the Heretics, 37).
So here Tertullian is not even permitting a match to be had between catholics and heretics. The latter simply don’t even have qualifications through which to utilize Scripture in a matched debate. They are disqualified because of their lack of Apostolic communion. And so, I am saying the same in principle as Irenaeus and Tertullian. They are appealing to the living voice of the Apostolic Church whose rule is the succession from the Apostles. That is the criteria of veracity for even beginning to be able to discuss the Bible with anyone. They were not entering into a contest over documentary evidence, but to the abiding principle of perpetuation promised by Christ in His Church and which can be identified by the criteria of succession. In other words, “what saith the Church of God, the pillar and ground of the truth?”
More could be said about this matter of “public teaching.” The early centuries show us a Church hesitant to expound on all the mysteries before baptism. In most places, this was forbidden. This already shows an ecclesial society that is conscious that something belongs to her that cannot be thrown into the field of testing and experimentation. Either you believe or you do not. Now, I would not say that the Church was a secret society, withholding all their goods from everyone. However, they sought to be wise as serpents in their context. Nevertheless, we do see that the Church understands herself to have been given rights of interpretation in the Holy Scripture and that the “gift of truth” that Christ gives through ecclesial succession renders one fit to proclaim the truth. I don’t see the Protestant method here. I see the Catholic and Orthodox (Apostolic) method.
Here something should be added about what precisely I think the historical evidence does for the Catholic apologist. I think I’ve made it clear that the authority and legitimacy of the Church’s doctrine does not depend on the accidental availability of historical documents that show forth a consensus throughout time. The Church’s credibility and authority is not beholden to such tests. It would be the same for Christ Himself. Where did the authority of his Incarnational earthly ministry derive? From God. His preaching was essentially legitimate and authoritative in itself. Since the Apostolic Church has the promise of divine assistance from Christ our God Himself, the Apostolic Church, too, does not depend on the accidental features of historical documentation. Nevertheless, one can say that in the field of debate, historiography, and apologetics, it then becomes rather important to try and do one’s best to show that Catholicism/Orthodoxy is reflected by the unmistakable majority of the source material. I’ll cite Newman once more:
“For myself, I would simply confess that no doctrine of the Church can be rigorously proved by historical evidence: but at the same time that no doctrine can be simply disproved by it. Historical evidence reaches a certain way, more or less, towards a proof of the Catholic doctrines; often nearly the whole way; sometimes it goes only as far as to point in their direction; sometimes there is only an absence of evidence for a conclusion contrary to them; nay, sometimes there is an apparent leaning of the evidence to a contrary conclusion, which has to be explained; in all cases, there is a margin left for the exercise of faith in the word of the Church.” (John H. Newman, Certain Difficulties Felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching, Vol. II (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1900), 312.)
What can we say to back this up? Well, I can say the historical evidence of a divinely appointed visible government of the Church that is with and under Peter’s successor is evidenced in almost every century going back to the 3rd century. There is evidence of the sacramental nature of the Church. There is evidence of the power to forgive/retain sins by the power of holy orders. There is evidence of the necessity of ecclesial mediation. There is evidence of the true and real presence of Christ in the Eucharist as a real and true propitiatory sacrificial-renewal of Christ’s one-time sacrifice on the cross. There is evidence of baptismal regeneration. There is evidence that only bishops have immediate, direct, and ordinary jurisdiction in their dioceses (as opposed to all Protestant thinking). There is evidence of praying to the saints for intercession. There is evidence of veneration of icons. There is evidence of post-baptismal satisfaction for remaining temporal guilt for sins which have had their eternal debts paid in baptism or penance. There is evidence of post-mortem suffering to satisfy for unsatisfied faults during one’s earthly life. There is evidence for the mutual compenetration of the members of the body of Christ such that one can pray, give alms, and offer the Eucharist for the suffering souls in purgatory. There is evidence of relics and their intercessory powers. There is evidence of Apostolic succession as a sine qua non for the Church’s existence. We could go on and on and on. The history of the Church prior to the 16th century show a consistent religious life and thought that goes quite contrary to Protestant thinking. This is why I think the most serious Protestant reactionary was the Lutheran turned radical anabaptist Sebastian Franck who realized the “rot” of Rome can be found even so far back as St. Cyprian, St. Irenaeus, and St. Justin the Martyr. Such historical facts are extremely difficult to ignore.
Lastly, what does it all mean for the issue of the dogma of Mary’s bodily assumption into heaven? We see what Newman called the “absence” of evidence, and we even have “contrary evidence” which “requires explanation.” That absence covers the first 5 centuries at least. But, then we see the Church giving far more questionable expression to it beginning in the 7th and 8th centuries, even becoming a universal feast in East and West. Given the ecclesiology of the historic Church, such a thing is illustrative of the truth of the tradition, despite the considerable contrary evidence and absence of evidence that historians have rightfully pointed out in the research for over a couple of centuries now.