Monday, November 02, 2009

"Catholic But Not Roman Catholic" series: Conclusion

Note: The following is the conclusion from a study by a Research Analyst for NTRMin named Jason Engwer, who has been posting a series on the NTRMin Discussion Board called "Catholic But Not Roman Catholic" which studies different theological areas taught by the Early Church Fathers and compares them to the teachings of Roman Catholicism. I found it very helpful so I'm posting parts of it so others can read it. I hope to post some of the body of the series as time goes on.

I began the Catholic, But Not Roman Catholic series one year ago, May 18, 2002. I'm concluding the series today (May 17, 2003) at 365 segments. In this conclusion, I want to summarize what's been documented and discuss the implications.

The series has addressed several dozen church fathers, churches, and church councils covering several hundred years of church history, from the first century to the eighth. (The father I cited most was Augustine, in 29 segments.) I addressed dozens of subjects, including foundational issues of authority and salvation and less significant issues of church discipline, for example. I quoted the most authoritative documents of Roman Catholicism to contrast with the teachings of the fathers. I cited many highly regarded Roman Catholic historians, theologians, and apologists, as well as credible non-Roman-Catholic scholarship.

We saw examples of the fathers rejecting the Roman Catholic view of church history. Hegesippus, Cyprian, and Dionysius of Alexandria, for example, referred to the fallibility of past generations and the need to go back to the original revelation of God rather than expecting an infallible succession of all apostolic teaching throughout church history.

We saw many examples of church fathers, churches, and councils, from the East and West, rejecting the Roman Catholic system of authority. We saw one father after another, generation after generation, commenting on the significance of the Roman church without saying anything of a papacy, even in the midst of giving reasons for the church's significance. We saw one father after another, along with regional and ecumenical councils, contradicting the doctrine of the papacy. We saw the fathers deciding what canon of scripture to accept without any infallible ruling from a church hierarchy. We saw widespread rejection of the Roman Catholic canon of scripture. We saw the rejection of the infallibility of ecumenical councils, rejection of the Roman Catholic definition of tradition, rejection of the Roman Catholic definition of apostolic succession, and rejection of the Roman Catholic definition of the church.

We saw a wide variety of views of salvation, contradicting Roman Catholicism from many different angles. We saw a Protestant view of justification in fathers like Clement of Rome and Mathetes. We saw fathers like Clement of Alexandria and Gregory of Nyssa advocating views we would associate with theological liberalism, such as post-death salvation and universalism. We saw widespread disagreements with Roman Catholicism on original sin, the salvation of infants, the atonement, whether and how salvation can be lost, etc. We saw widespread rejection of Roman Catholic ecumenism.

We saw a system of penance and church discipline that was much more public, much more severe than what we see in Roman Catholicism. We saw the fathers advocating standards of church discipline that are rejected by Roman Catholicism, including standards that would require the removal of many Roman bishops from office.

We saw widespread rejection of the Roman Catholic view of Mary. Fathers from the second century onward, from West and East, deny that she was sinless and even describe some of the sins she committed. Some of the fathers denied that she was a perpetual virgin. Epiphanius denies that anybody has received any tradition concerning the end of Mary's life, which excludes the possibility of an apostolic tradition of a bodily assumption. We've also seen some of the fathers deny the mediatorial role assigned to Mary in Roman Catholicism.

We saw widespread rejection of Purgatory among the earliest fathers. Irenaeus and Hippolytus, for example, referred to all deceased believers being in a heavenly region of Hades without the suffering associated with Purgatory. Even when some elements of Purgatory are advocated by some of the fathers, other elements of the doctrine are still rejected and other fathers continue to advocate something more along the lines of Irenaeus and Hippolytus.

We've seen that premillennialism was the popular eschatology among the earliest fathers, even though Roman Catholicism rejects and condemns premillennialism. Even the fathers who weren't premillennialists contradicted Roman Catholic eschatology in other ways.

We saw some fathers rejecting any physical presence of Christ in the eucharist or advocating a physical presence that they defined in a way that contradicts transubstantiation. We saw some examples of fathers rejecting the Roman Catholic definition of the sacrificial nature of the eucharist. We saw widespread rejection of the veneration of images, and we saw the fathers advocating traditions about baptism and the eucharist that Roman Catholicism rejects. We've seen rejection of prayers to the dead among the earliest fathers.

We saw Roman bishops and church fathers living in Rome rejecting the Roman Catholic view of the Trinity, justification, the canon of scripture, the eucharist, Mary, etc. One wonders how the bishops and church fathers of Rome could not only have not known of the apostolic traditions of Roman Catholicism, but even contradicted them. If the traditions weren't being handed down in Rome, then where were they being handed down, and what does that tell us about the reliability of Rome?

We saw examples of the fathers accepting Roman Catholic doctrine for reasons other than what Roman Catholicism claims. Irenaeus, for example, believed in a form of Roman primacy, but for non-papal reasons. Basil accepts the perpetual virginity of Mary, but he also says that many Christians reject the doctrine and that rejecting it is acceptable within orthodox Christianity. Augustine advocates something like Purgatory, but as an unproven speculation, not as an apostolic tradition always held by the Christian church.

We've seen the fathers advocate a much higher view of the sufficiency and perspicuity of scripture than we see in Roman Catholicism. We've seen them reject popular Roman Catholic interpretations of many passages of scripture.

We saw disagreements with Roman Catholicism on moral issues, such as when life begins, marriage, divorce, overpopulation, and the definition of murder.

We've seen that contradictions of Roman Catholicism aren't found only in a single father here or there or in a minority of fathers, but often among a majority of fathers, even universally. The conservative Roman Catholic theologian Ludwig Ott refers to the rejection of the veneration of images among the ante-Nicene fathers as a whole. Augustine describes the belief that Jesus was the only immaculately conceived human as the view of the universal church of his day. When the Council of Chalcedon passed its 28th canon despite the objections of the bishop of Rome, that ecumenical council didn't represent just one or two bishops. And when the ecumenical Second Council of Constantinople claimed authority over the bishop of Rome and excommunicated him, and multiple churches in the West also broke ties with the Roman church and its bishop, such actions don't just reflect the beliefs of one father or a small minority.

Even when the disagreements with Roman Catholicism are a minority view among the fathers, how does a Roman Catholic explain the beliefs of that minority? How does a Roman Catholic explain Ambrose's belief that original sin is removed by means of foot washing or Gregory of Nyssa's belief in universal salvation? Were those fathers Roman Catholic, but they chose to reject apostolic tradition on the issues in question? If so, why should they be considered faithful Catholics? Or were they not Roman Catholic, whereas other fathers were? If only some of the fathers were Roman Catholic, then which ones? Will we ever be given a list? If some of the fathers weren't Roman Catholic, then what is the universal church to which those fathers claimed to belong? If it wasn't the Roman Catholic denomination, then what was it?

I've given a few hundred examples of the fathers contradicting Roman Catholicism, and surely thousands more could be given. Development of doctrine is no explanation. Oak trees don't grow from apple seeds. A patristic belief in the limited jurisdiction of the bishop of Rome doesn't inevitably grow into a belief in the universal jurisdiction of the bishop of Rome. The patristic belief that Mary was a sinner doesn't inevitably grow into the belief that she was sinless. A patristic rejection of the veneration of images doesn't inevitably grow into an acceptance of the veneration of images. If logically unconnected and contradictory ideas are to be associated with one another under the banner of doctrinal development, then anything can be said to have developed from anything else. And anything that can prove everything proves nothing. If our beliefs can be logically unconnected to those of the fathers, even contradicting the beliefs of the fathers, yet still be considered patristic, then any and every professing Christian group in existence can claim to be patristic.

The claim is often made that to be deep into history is to cease being Protestant, as if Roman Catholicism is the alternative. But Roman Catholics aren't deep into history. They're deep into philosophical speculations based on personal preferences. Wishing for a Divine institution with the attributes the Roman Catholic Church claims for itself isn't equivalent to proving its existence. A wish isn't a proof. If the church fathers rejected Roman Catholicism's view of church history, its system of authority, its view of salvation, its view of the afterlife, its worship, its view of prayer, its morality, its eschatology, its view of Mary, its penitential system, its disciplinary standards, its ecumenism, and so many of its scripture interpretations, even in the city of Rome itself, what are we to think of the claim that the fathers were Roman Catholic? It's an attempt to derive an oak tree from an apple seed. The Roman Catholic Church isn't the church of the fathers. The change isn't a development. It's a long series of contradictions.

"The final authority [for Roman Catholics] is the living Magisterium, which, a priori, stands above criticism. Words, documents, and entire epochs of Church history have suffered the death of a thousand qualifications, and Rome still remains; ever-changing, ever the same. But what about the Protestant evangelical who, without a Magisterium, contemplates the path taken by his Roman Catholic counterpart?" (John Montgomery, God's Inerrant Word [Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House, 1974], p. 275).

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