Sunday, December 16, 2007

Patristics and Christian Reconciliation

Today's entry is my attempt to answer my own question for the Christian Reconciliation Carnival, namely:

How does our understanding of Early Christianity (here defined as the apostolic period to the end of the patristic age c. 750 AD)help or hinder our efforts at Christian Reconciliation?

To some degree, part of my project on this blog has been to try to answer this question and I don't think I've quite solved the problem (surprisingly, since no one else since the Reformation has either), but here are my current thoughts on the issue.

First, I have to concede that the use of the Fathers and of Early Christianity has not been the source of Christian unity for a very long time. One of the running polemical battles in and since the Reformation has been the conflicting vision of what the Early Church was as a way of justifying either the status quo or justifying the reforms suggested by the Reformers. Sometimes Catholics are surprised to hear the degree to which the Protestant Reformers were concerned with the Fathers and the degree to which they quoted them. Luther and Calvin were particularly active in this patristic interest. Certainly, Luther was, at heart, an Augustinian, although he tended to stress rather different aspects of Augustine's program than the Catholics did. Similarly, Calvin was well able to quote the Fathers at length. Catholics, of course, exploited the catholic language of the Fathers and the clear respect for the Roman church which most Fathers displayed.

These polemics, of course, continue. Protestants are accustomed to assume some kind of breaking point in the early Church, when the 'Romish' error really took root and corrupted the pure Church (which looks, unsurprisingly, like the Protestant church). Those breaking points are things like the introduction of philosophy into theology with Origen, the Constantinian revolution and such things. Before this period, Protestants could take the practices and the writings of the period seriously. After that period, all was lost.

Catholics are accustomed to assume that everything said in the patristic era backs them up. That means, all too often, the assumption that the references to the catholic church are, actually, references to the Roman Catholic Church. It also tends to mean an assumption that the respect granted to Rome translated into some kind of ecclesiastical jurisdiction.

Now, if we added the Eastern Orthodoxy, of course, we'd have another polemical vision of the early Church; one that wouldn't be far from the Roman Catholic one, but differing largely in the degree of respect that the church should give to Rome. Yet, we have to recognize that all of these polemics retain both truth and distortions. Indeed, if we are to move to reconciling Christians in a real sense, we need to have a second look at these visions, return to the sources and figure out where we have been right and where we've misconstrued in our hope to score points off each other.

This means that the answer is ressourcement , that French word which signials a return to sources. Of course, this term was first used by Roman Catholic theologians from the middle of the last century to mark a return to the sources of the Roman Catholic faith, most notably, the Fathers. Much of the vigour both in patristic study and in the Roman Catholic faith over the last fifty years has been due to this ressourcement.

What is more there are distinct signs of a Protestant, especially evangelical, ressourcement from the 1990s. The efforts of such Protestant theologians as D.H. Williams, Thomas Oden, Robert Wilken and many others have created what could only be called the rise of a breed of catholic evangelicals; evangelicals who retain all the marks of the evangelical tradition, but who are influenced by the ecclesiology, christology and theology of the Early Church and, directly or indirectly, the Fathers. The efforts of these theologians have led to such projects as The Ancient Commentary on Scripture series and the Evangelical Ressourcement series from Baker Academic.

More encouragingly, these efforts at ressourcement among evangelicals (and Protestants, in general) have gone hand in hand with an ecumenical interest which has sought to bridge the divides between Protestant denominations and the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. One of the products of this interest is the 'Emerging' Church movement which has been catching the interest of younger evangelicals and which has sought to apply a catholic ecclesiology and understanding of the Christian past to an evangelical setting. Now, there are problems with the Emerging Church model, of course, but its use of the Christian past to unite, rather than divide is a positive model for how we might use the Christian past for those interested in Christian Reconciliation.

Ultimately, we can't know how this ressourcement will affect all of the great traditions of Christianity. What is encouraging in this movement is that there has been an equal interest in the Fathers and the Christian past and in making sure that, this time, the past unites us. There is, of course, no question of papering over our differences or pretending that we don't have much to divide us. However, we share a past together and it is in understanding this past that gives us a chance to come together again, accepting our differences, but celebrating our similarities.



Tim A. Troutman said...

All of Christianity needs to seek unity on some level but not at the cost of truth. The orthodox faiths (or at least much of them) may some day return to full unity.. in fact that may even happen within our lifetimes.

However, unity can only go so far with Protestants. If the claims that the orthodox Church (East & West) make are true (and believing that they are is sort of central to our religion) then we cannot share at the table in full unity under any circumstance with Protestants. Without the sacraments - we can only loosely consider them Christian. (This is not said in disrespect to Protestants but in respect to the sacraments).

There has to be a breaking point at which denominations cease being "Christian" in any meaningful sense of the word. Unfortunately, by anyone's standard most Protestant denominations have gone beyond that point. And generally speaking, as Mormons are to Protestants - Protestants are to the orthodox. (This isn't a discussion about who's in Heaven & Hell as I assume and hope to find many Mormons in Heaven if I make it there)

So when we talk about reconciliation, I don't know what it means if not "let's not kill each other any more" which I would say is a good idea... but true reconciliation and full unity can only come with Protestants changing their doctrine - we can't change ours, we do not the have the authority to do it.

Phil Snider said...


I understand what you're saying, but I hope you realize that I recognize that full communion between Protestants, Catholics and the Orthodox is along time away. I also hope you realize that I'm not expecting to paper over differences, but, rather to suggest resources for all of us to learn how to find common ground. I don't expect to be in communion with Roman Catholics right now and I continue to respect that on the occasions that I'm in a Catholic church.

That said, I don't think that all Catholics and Orthodox would go so far as to claim that Protestants are not Christian. They would say their wrong, but I think it hyperbolic to make that claim that Protestants either explictly or implicitly accept basically the same Christology, Trinitarianism, Scriptures (albeit with some dispute over the authoritive of the Jewish Apocrypha) and even the Creeds (in many cases).

Yes, the understanding of sacraments is different, but there is a wide variation of understandings even among Protestants; everything from Real Prescence to a symbolic understanding. For myself, I hold a Real Prescence position, even if it isn't transsubstantiation. Where would that put me?

I don't know I'm expecting a solution to Christian reconciliation anytime soon, but, really, I think as a minimum we can concede that we are all trying to follow the same God and the same Jesus Christ.


Tim A. Troutman said...

I think Catholics tend to be more ecumenical in their language of Protestants than the Orthodox and that's probably just because we're more accustomed to them.

I've said it before, there will be a million fundamentalist Protestants admitted to heaven before one dissenting Catholic gets in (and there's a lot of dissenting Catholics).

I think we will soon come to a time where unity of some level is forced on us and those who don't band together on some level will fall away. Radical secularism and Islam both have it in for faithful Christianity. They don't care about the sacraments (but their puppeteer does).

My reply was becoming lengthy and a bit off topic so I posted something new on my blog.

But my main point is about the Eucharist and how it is the center of Christian worship. You're on the Anglican side of things so I think you might not appreciate how far away from historic Christian worship most Protestants have gone. The founder of your church himself was an outspoken critic of the Reformation before he broke from the Church (not on theological reasons but on personal ones). The hundreds of thousands of Anglicans who have returned and or are returning to the Catholic Church over the last two decades is history's way of saying "I told you so".

Most of the differences between Catholics and Protestants who truly know their theology can be reconciled fairly painlessly.

Protestants are right about many things and these things they KNOW they're right about so they dig in and prepare to defend to the death. What they don't realize is the Church isn't attacking them on those points.

The goal of Protestantism is to glorify Jesus Christ. They're right about that and they know they're right and they're never going to change that goal and they shouldn't. Catholics share the same goal and can't change either. The practices of Catholicism which Protestants interpret as obstacles to that goal are what keep them from returning to full communion.

It should be principally the demonstration that such practices or doctrines (papacy, Mariology, the saints etc...) are not obstacles but in fact aides to the mutual goal that convinces the Protestants to return to full communion. In the words of Peter Kreeft, to convert Protestants, Catholics need to be better Protestants than the Protestants themselves. (Likewise Islam has noble and true goals- total submission to the will of God and it is by being better Muslims than the Muslims themselves that we can convert them).

Arguing about doctrine rarely (if ever) converted anyone. Experience (of the Holy Spirit or of the flesh in cases of de-conversion) are what convert people. As I said of King Henry VIII, it wasn't the bad doctrine of Rome that de-converted him but the desires of his flesh.

There's a former student of William Lane Craig who is now an atheist and a vehemently anti-Christian one at that. He readily admits in his own de-conversion story that it wasn't that he searched out the truth of Christianity and found it not to match up to the truth but that he had a personal experience where Christianity failed to live up to his personal expectations of what it should be. It was the weakness of his flesh by his own admission.

Likewise, to return to full communion is not a matter of reading books but of searching the heart. I have several Protestant friends each of who are devoutly devoted to the Lord and highly trained in theology (much more than me). I know of at least two different incidents where a Protestant friend (different one each time) was on the very brink of converting to the Catholic Church and by their own admission decided not to because of non-doctrinal issues.

I want Christian unity as much as anyone. The Catholic Church may have to be the aggressor in this relationship of wooing other Christians back into communion (and she is certainly willing to do so as the pope himself has stated that the office of the papacy may even have to change slightly to accommodate full reconciliation with Christians like the Orthodox and the Anglicans).

Of course, like I said there are certain things that Catholics can't change (and certain things that Protestants chant change). But those things that Protestants truly can't change can be accepted by the Church and are already and those things which Catholics cant change can (and to some degree may already be) accepted by some Protestants.

Neither the Catholics or Orthodox can or will ever abandon the idea of Christ establishing a visible Church - the one holy catholic and apostolic one. Even the FV movement in PCA/OPC circles moved closer to admitting that and (in some way) rejecting or at least reinterpreting Calvin's arbitrary redefinition of the word "Church".

Reconciliation is possible, even true reconciliation. It seems like an insurmountable mountain but with God all things are possible as I needn't tell you or anyone else. Lets keep praying and working.

Phil Snider said...

It's been a busy couple of days, so I haven't had a chance to deal with your comments, so here we go.

First, I think it is probably understood that both Protestants and Roman Catholics have plenty of people whose understanding of the faith is seriously flawed. I'm note entirely sure that picking on the faults of these people is necessarily indicative of much, other than the weak points where misunderstandings occur.

So, I'm really not interested in defending the kind of evangelical you are citing because I think it obvious where they are wrong. What I'd really like to see you do is engage with an evangelical whose faith you can take seriously, instead of taking the rather convenient route of a blanket criticism. I don't expect agreement, but this would be more credible to me.

What we really need to do is to engage each other and not assume that one side is going to get the better of it. We may think it will, but, as far as I've seen, the dishonours in the Protestant-Roman Catholic split are even and they remain even. Both sides have distinct points, but both sides really not getting each other properly. Perhaps this is where the progress can be made.


Tim A. Troutman said...

"So, I'm really not interested in defending the kind of evangelical you are citing"

What kind of evangelical? Are you talking about the post on my blog or this thread?

Phil Snider said...


I think I'm confusing myself. I suspect I'm thinking of both.