I posted a new article on Academia entitled Faithful to the First Millennium: Fr. Joseph Ratzinger’s Commentary on Eastern Orthodoxy.
A few weeks ago I saw something and I thought to myself that I would have to share it just because it was truly noteworthy. As many can tell, Catholics are continually talking about how questions of infallibility and indefectibility pertain to the Bishop of Rome. More traditionally minded Catholics are trying as hard as they can to become infallible-minimalists, i.e. they realize a far more narrow conditioning of the mode of infallibility is preferable in light of how much they disagree with the Papacy over the last 50 years. So in discussion with a very trad-minded friend, I quoted the below citation (it is actually famous), and inquired of his thoughts:
“When the Latins say that the bishop of Rome is first, there is no need to contradict them, since this can do no harm to the Church. They must only show that he has the same faith as Peter and his successors … and that he possesses all that came from Peter, then he will be the first, the chief and head of all, the supreme high priest… All these qualities have been attributed to the patriarchs of Rome in the past. We will say that his See is apostolic, and he who occupies it is said to be the successor of Peter, as long as he professes the true faith. No one who thinks and speaks truth would dare deny this. That the Bishop of Rome profess only the faith of Silvester, Agatho, Leo, Liberius, Martin, and Gregory, we would proclaim him first among all other high priests, and we will submit to him not simply as to Peter but as to the Savior Himself. But if he is not successor in the faith of these saints, nor is he successor of the throne. Not only is he not apostolic, neither is he first, nor Father, but he is an adversary and devastator and enemy of the Apostles.”
The trad-friend heartily agreed with this statement. I’m not sure if he knew once he read it, but I then said that this was actually said by a 15th century Greek Orthodox monk and theologian Symeon, Archbishop of Thessaloniki (1381-1429), who was not in communion with Rome precisely because of its “errors”. He then said that the monk was wrong on doctrine, and didn’t properly understand the doctrine of the Filioque.
And so on. But this exchange illustrated something profound to me. Some Catholics are willing to have the same understanding that the Byzantine Orthodox had about Rome in the years following the 11th-13th century disputes, only with respect to contemporary Rome (since the 2nd Vatican Council). And yet, where the Byzantine Orthodox thought it was only logical to break religious fellowship with those whom they deemed “heretical”, the trad-Catholics still uphold the invinciblility of the Roman communion for eternal salvation. The former maintains this view that ecclesiastical communion has the criteria of a shared faith, sacramental economy, and mutual recognition of orthodox bishops, whereas the latter maintains this view of ecclesiastical communion where the loss of agreement in faith still maintains the forge of unity.
Let that sink in.
I know I’ve been quite forward with my being a fan of Eric L. Mascall, but he just nailed it so many times. Here in his book “He Who Is” (which can be read free online, see link), he speaks to the reality of how Hellenism and the Christian project intersected by the design of divine providence, and so we don’t need to become Tertullianites and begin speaking Tertullianese about the bifuration of Jerusalem and Athens. I might quibble about omitting some earlier thinkers on the synthesis of Greek thought and Christian revelation. Surely, as Mascall notes later in the book, the early Fathers did lean on Platonic structure and thought in the framing of doctrine, even if they were not expressive of doing so.
Another antidote to be found here is for that form of apologetics which shuns philosophy and/or foundational epistemology (from the ground up). Too often classical thinkers are thought of as believing everything (the sum of doctrine) is to be guaged by naturalist theology, or that my mixing the two the genuine Christian revelation can be distorted to become something it isn’t. I can’t imagine telling this to St. Maximus the Confessor.
Enough of me. Mascall writes:
“Historically speaking, the Christian doctrine of God arises from two main sources: Jewish religion, with its culmination in Jesus of Nazareth, and the philosophy of the Graeco-Roman world. For the Christian Church emerged from the self-contained milieu of Judaism, with its rigid, and indeed almost fanatical monotheism, into the syncretistic culture of the Roman Empire with its Gods many and Lord many. And the history of the Christian controversies of the first five centuries is very largely the story of the adaption of the categories of Greek thought to the Christian revelation and of the successful resistance on the part of the Church to all attempts to distort her Gospel in the process. “The contrast between the Jewish and Greek approaches to the problem of existence is very largely the contrast between effective and formal causality. We might perhaps say that, while the Greeks were interested to know what sort of thing the world was, the Jews wanted to know what was the power behind it. But even to say ‘the Jews wanted to know’ is to attribute to them an interest in philosophy which was, except where they became hellenized, foreign to their character.
For the Jews were quite certain that they did know, since God had revealed himself to them. In his mighty redemptive acts, when he had delivered them, first from slavery in Egypt and then, centuries later, from captivity in Babylon, and in his disclosure of himself in the teaching of the great line of prophets — of Moses, Elijah, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the rest — he was manifested, not as a mere principle of philsophic explanation, nor as just the basis of man’s moral aspirations, but as the Living God, who made heaven and earth out of nothing, who had chosen the Jews out of all the nations of the earth to be his own peculiar people… “The God of the Jews was living, personal, and creative; he was supreme being and transcendent act… The revelation of God’s true name and nature had been made to Moses at the burning bush, in words which became the basic text of the Christian doctrine of God… “the metaphysic of Exodus.” His name is… ‘I AM that I AM” or “I WILL BE that I WILL BE’.
“In contrast to the Jews, the Greeks were almost devoid of any historical sense, and the Jewish conception of a Great Day at which the end of time when the Living God would finally vindicate his supremacy over his creation and destroy the powers of evil was entnirely alien to them. Their interest was not in what was happening in the course of history but in what was going on around them. How was the multiplicity of the world to be explained? What was its principle of unity? Who could solve the problem of the many and the one? What was the world’s formal cause, its unifying principle? The answers to these questions were many and diverse, and there were almost as many philosophies as philosophers…
“There had , of course, been some contact between Greek and Jewish thought, especially in the neighborhood of the city of Alexandria, with its large colony of Jews and its extraordinary cosmopolitan setting. Indeed, this provided Christian thought with at least one of the ideas that it needed for the proper formulation of its doctrine (namely, the Logos/Word). But in spite of this clash of the Jewish religion of Christianity with the world of Greek thought was like the impact of flint upon steel — the fire was kindled by it…”Notwithstanding the work of the great Christian apologists and Fathers, the final synthesis did not appear until the thirteenth century, and then in the west of Europe. The immediate cause was the production at various times in the previous two centuries of some of the works of Aristotle in inaccurate… St. Thomas Aquinas, with his clear delimitation of the spheres of philosophy and his doctrine of an ordered and organic relation between them, achieved the final synthesis of the Judeo-Christian revelation with Greek philosophical thought.”
He Who Is, 5-7
Some time ago I asked you all for books that “thwack” hit you so hard that it changed how you viewed the world. I want to share one book that has changed by view of Christian history. This would be Philip Jenkins, Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 Years (HarperOne, 2010). The book is a long chronicle of the 5th-century struggles and fights over the doctine of Jesus Christ both God and man. By showing how the camps within the Church relied on a variety of authorities, including Emperors, to rally for their respective positions, Jenkins illustrates how Christian division is not something that began in 1054 A.D. with the Greek and Latin schism (that date is merely symbolic, anyhow). Far before the 11th century, members of the ancient Churches had formed crystallized schisms apart from one another, and all claimed they had a right to do so. The first massive sign of enduring separation was the population of Christians in Assyria/Persia, all who eventually held large populations in the far East, and these were not in communion with the Western Churches, that is, of the Roman Empire (Antioch and further West to Rome). These Christians continued to exist even to this day, and they have struggled to incorporate the Council of Ephesus (431) as binding upon them (for more info, see R&T interview with Qasha Ephraim Ashur Alkhas).
Most notable is the schism that resulted from the Synod of Chalcedon (451) which broke the unity of the Churches especially in Egypt, Syria, and Palestine. These Churches, categorized as Miaphysite by general historical reference, are within Syriac, Coptic, and Armenian Orthodoxy (et. al.). Rejecting Chalcedon (451), they are content with counting only 3 Ecumenical Councils (I’m under the impression they also count Ephesus 449, and perhaps one or two more that are off the grid), and continued to exist in massive sections of the East Roman Empire throughout the 1st millennium. Of course, they are a significant portion of Oriental Christianity to this day.
These divisions show that many Christians in the first 5 centuries had different ideas of what is the “final authority” in matters of doctrine and discipline. Of course, we all know there were the bold and absolute claims of the Bishop of Rome. We also know that many felt quite ready to part ways with him. We also know, as already can be seen from above, that many Christians felt quite ready to reject the authority of Ecumenical Councils if they thought they were going against the truth of Apostolic tradition. It would seem many of them were content to simply refer to their best understandings of the tradition over and against Popes, Councils, and even renowned doctors of the faith in their time. The perception of truth was something that was verified *inwardly* in their own minds, and they were happy to tell everyone this was the case.
One impact this had on me is that I couldn’t be so bold and brash to uphold the magisterial Papacy as if this was understood by everyone to be the crystal ball in which perfect truth was revealed, or an oracle that reveals all the right answers on request Nonsense. While it is true that the Papacy was clearly claimed as divine in origin and definitive in doctrine, not everyone thought that breaking communion with the Pope was akin to grabbing a live wire that would ecclesiastically electrocute you from communion with Christ. If they thought this, they couldn’t come close to acting as they did in many instances.
I also couldn’t be so bold and brash to uphold the authority of Ecumenical Councils as if this was understood, as well, to be the crystal ball from which all questions get their divine answer. Too many were willing to thumb their nose at Councils, and we see large swoths of Apostolic churches felt they could do so, regardless of how many Bishops were present, and regardless of whether Emperor and Pope supported it. Again, their perception of the “final authority” was largely subjective to their own interpretations. Luther, therefore, wasn’t the first one to say that both Councils and Popes could err. That’s for sure. Knowing what Council was a true Council was key, and while we may gravitate towards the Papal-Episcopal explanation (which seems right to me), that wasn’t adhered to by everyone. Often times it was the Emperor who procured orthodoxy on behalf of the realm. And so, this has led me to have a much more tempered attitude when speaking with other Christians. Determining the right doctrinal epistemology in light of history is like navigating very rough waters. It can’t be done with rash presupposition and overly exaggerative platitudes. Often enough, getting to the truth involves being willing to listen to alternative views before going on the offense. Now, please don’t mistake me for thinking that there is no place for the Papacy or Ecumenical Councils. I’m simply calling attention to the crooked lines of history that God has, for whatever reason in his divine wisdom, allowed to be carried out.
One part of the book which struck me dead is cited below. Now, we might say that Jenkins here is guilty of a little bit of exaggeration, but, for the most part, it checks out. I wouldn’t go as far as saying precisely what he says, but it is true enough to make one think. Christian division is a tragedy that has been with us for far longer than many who think there was this transparently singular and visible Church until the Latin vs. Byzantine schism, let alone the Protestant reforms. Even between the Latins and the Greeks there were schisms on and off throughout the 1st millennium, all which count up cumulatively (between 324 to 787) to almost half the time, as the late historian L. Duchesne once calculated. This is all something to dwell on, for sure. Before rushing to speak of how the Roman Pope was divinely instituted by God to be the principle of unity until the end of time (a belief I’m committed to defend, however difficult), a moment to meditate on the below is in order.
“Despite the theological slogans of the time, Christ was not divided; but the Christian world certainly was, irreparably. Now, Christian divisions as such were not new. At least since the apostles left Jerusalem, at no point in Christian history has one single church plausibly claimed the loyalty of all believers to the exclusion of rival institutions. In the mid-fourth century, perhaps half of all Christians belonged to some group that the Great Church regarded as heretical or schismatic, and new splits continued to form. Viewed historically, a denominationally divided world is not an exceptional circumstance for Christians, but the conventional norm. Dilemmas of interchurch conflict and cooperation go back literally to the foundation of the faith… Already in 550, Christendom was quite as divided as it would be during the great early modern split between Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox” (p. 12-13)