[To understand what this blog is, read this first.]
I recently read a new book by a Protestant professor at a well known seminary (not naming names as usual) on the subject of Evangelicals reconnecting with history. For reasons that should be obvious to anyone reading this blog this is a topic that is very interesting to me. I want to know more about the subject of history for Protestant sources as a double check on what I’ve been thinking, and I’m also interested in resources that might be helpful for my family.
(I didn’t find this professor’s book particularly helpful, but I’m not going to name names. One book that I thought was very good from a Protestant perspective is Retrieving the Tradition, by Dr. D. H. Williams (not the author I’m talking to). I can recommend that book for anyone who wants to spur on Protestant family or friends to engage with early church history.)
While I was reading this professor’s book I noticed many references to Orthodoxy in a negative light, but since the book wasn’t directed at Orthodoxy the author never developed his reasoning for dismissing it. I emailed him and asked why he never became Orthodox, and this is what he said. Since the professor didn’t write with the intent to do public debate I’ve withheld his name and edited the letter down to just a few relevant bits:
The ways that various traditions have claimed to be the “One True Church” actually amount to circular (or self-authentication) arguments. Apostolic succession is one such claim, as the concept of apostolic succession itself as the mark of the One True Church is itself a development. It is not something that had been believed everywhere, always, and by all. Which means at some point it began to be affirmed as the mark of authentic apostolicity…. So, for any tradition to point to their succession from apostles as a mark of their authenticity, they must assume that the development of this doctrine as the mark of authenticity is itself an authentic development….
I do believe in “episcopal and presbyteral succession,” as did the earliest church. That is, the apostles pretty clearly established the presbyters in each local church, with the intention that those offices continue on. But as I treat this in chapter X, the hierarchical developments that occurred when the church grew in the Imperial period do not reflect what was established by the apostles. So the development itself cannot be authenticated with apostolic authority….
Also, it can be demonstrated through a study of the earliest fathers and reading chronologically, that a number of doctrines that are central to the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox traditions are developments (and even deviations) from what had been held in earlier centuries. We can actually see when these doctrines and practices enter the Christian tradition; they usually enter with protest from the earlier doctrines or practices; then they eventually take over, claiming to have been the original practice from the beginning. The devotional use of icons is one such practice…. The Fathers of the first few centuries actually use the LACK OF IMAGES among Christians as a point of marked difference between Christian and pagan worship…
So, to any objective reader of the history, images were not only not used in the first few centuries of catholic Christianity, but their liturgical use were explicitly rejected. Yet the seventh “ecumenical council” (Nicaea II) condemns iconoclasts and claims that the liturgical use of images is THE (not just “a”) Orthodox, Catholic Faith. This is obviously an error, especially from the standard of St. Vincent of Lerins’ mark of catholicity: “that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.”
So, because all claims to being the One True Faith are circular, I had to conclude that either 1) ALL orthodox Christian traditions [as I describe them in the book] all make up the One True Faith in its historical and contemporary diversity [including the Eastern and Western catholic traditions, Protestantism, etc.] OR 2) there is no One True Church. What Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox want me to believe is that they are, in fact, the One True Church even if it takes a circular argument to authenticate their claims.
I wrote him back and thanked him for his comments, and asked if he wouldn’t mind a clarification at a later point. He followed up with this email, again edited:
…I am always astounded when a student spends a few months or a year or so reading just a fraction of sources and concluding that the Anglican, Orthodox, or Roman Catholic church is the One True Church. The few that do come to me for advice can’t answer the simplest critical questions, in fact, don’t even know the questions that need to be asked: 1) how does one avoid anachronism in reading the primary sources? 2) What is the nature of doctrinal development? 3) What constituted the authentic church in apostolic times? 4) Does evidence of episcopal succession imply apostolic succession? 5) How do we deal with the fact that later church authorities picked which early church Fathers to keep copying and preserving? Etc., etc.
I was really surprised that the author wrote back in such detail, and that gave me a lot to think about. I’ve worked through the issue of icons and apostolic succession, and I’ve written a bit to my family on the subject of iconography, but having a Ph.D. in patristics make such strong assertions gives you pause and makes you want to re-evaluate your previous conclusions. I’ll follow up on this in my next blog post.