Amateur Theology Hour: On Irenicism and Heresy

After my conversion, and having no loyalty one way or the other for any particular communion, and, being an American, having a Constitutional right to join which ever I pleased without fear of legal retaliation, I was in the position of an orphan who, having just discovered that his parents are alive after all, rushes to their arms only to find them divorced, and commanding to chose whether he will live with father or mother. He is put in the position of a judge between them, despite not being trained to judge such disputes, nor being inclined by temperament to do so.

I discovered that you Christians, you foolish Christians, had shipwrecked and severed your Church, and the world is scandalized. The mocking atheist points at this as evidence that She is merely a human institution, no more sacred than the local Zoning Commission, and he says, “Those who preach love and altruism fight over homoousianism and homoiousianism, the difference of an iota! Religion breeds division rather than quells.”

Being a local and lawyerly thinker, I looked to the sources of dispute.

That the Protestants find the Real Presence to be scandalous was no concern to me: I did not see why, if almighty God can incarnate Himself as a Jewish Rabbi, He cannot incarnate Himself as a loaf of bread. Is one so much more dignified than the other?

The existence of icons and statutes likewise meant nothing to me. It was clear even to an outsider that these were objects of reverence but not worship, no more idolatrous than singing a hymn.

I had no enmity against St Mary. I was raised Lutheran, and to this day am not sure what the point of the contempt for St Mary is, or why the mother of the savior merits being ignored.

Whether or not man was justified by works of faith or by faith that produced works was of no moment to me, since I intended both to have faith and to do good works, as do all true Christians.

These were all non-issues, not worth writing a paragraph to discuss, much less write a book, much less fight a war.

So, to me, the only point in contention worthy of consideration was the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. My reasoning was as follows.

It is a paradox for a Christian to hold the Bible to be the sole authority settling all matters of Christian dispute. There is no paradox to hold it as a final authority, and that any doctrine which contradicts unambiguous scriptural teaching, such as the prohibition on divorce and remarriage, is doctrine of men and condemned.

But those who propose the Bible to be the sole authority, and the traditions of the Church to mean nothing, propose either a seeming impossibility or a real impossibility. If it is a seeming impossibility, he who proposes the paradox must resolve it, and show us a way out of the dilemma. The paradox is this: the Gospels cannot have more authority, cannot be trusted, more than the Church who wrote it, compiled it, protected and transmitted it, interprets it and teaches from it. No water can rise higher than its source.

The usual way out of this paradox is to propose that the Church at one time, the Early Church had the authority to write the Gospel, but since has grown corrupt and untrustworthy, as proof of which there is much the Church teaches, such as prayers for the dead or the perpetual virginity of Mary, not found in the Gospels. But this is making an historical claim: one must select a date after which the increasing corruption removes the authority of the Church.

The earlier one pushes this date, the less believable is the claim. If Polycarp and other Fathers who learned from the feet of the Apostles in the early Second Century got the message wrong, and if the only message we have is the message they preserved and taught, there are no grounds to assume a theologian or visionary in the Sixteenth or Nineteenth Century somehow can get the message right. Gnostics say the Apostles themselves got the message wrong, before any of them took pen to paper.

Unfortunately, an investigation of the earliest surviving Church writings shows a continuity rather than a discontinuity with current teaching. I refer the curious reader to Cardinal Newman’s essay on the Development of Christian doctrine.

The error with the argument about Church corruption is Donatism, namely, that if the Church is somehow held responsible for the existence, say, of the Spanish Inquisition, and is said to lack teaching authority on that ground, then once the Spanish Inquisition is disbanded, why does the authority not return? Why did the authority lapse in any territory beyond Spanish control?

Or to put it another way, if some bad men mislead an overly worldly Church in days of yore, what does that mean to me, if those bad man are centuries gone, and the Church no longer worldly? Was the Real Presence in the Eucharist up until the time of Ferdinand and Isabella, then it fled?

And since there is no uncorrupted denominations to which to turn in contrast, the question is moot.

So we are left with two theories: one is that the Church became heretical beyond redemption at a particular point in time, and the other is that the Protestants are heretics no different from any others, with the sole exception that they were more successful in their rebellion against their fathers and teachers.

Now, for personal reasons, this is a difficult subject for me to discuss. As an ex-atheist, I have trouble distinguishing any real difference between the Church and the various schisms and heresies that broke off from her are almost invisible to me.

Having said that, I do know that there are major differences between the various opinions of Christianity, differences vehement enough to provoke wars and persecutions, and an endless flood of letters. Nothing else can be expected: if Christian teaching is correct, it is the only light in the world, and the enemy has no other weapon aside from heresy and division to quench that light.

What I cannot see is why the Protestant ideas are any more authentic and original than those of other break away sects. I agree that they were more successful, but are the obviously so much more reasonable than say —

certain Gnostics, who interpreted Jesus as a purely spiritual being;

the Ebionates, who interpreted Jesus as being a Jewish rabbi and prophet and nothing more;

the Marcionites, who interpreted Jesus are being not Jewish at all, and repudiated the Old Testament;

the Monainists, who interpreted the Church as being the province of private revelation of the Holy Spirit;

the Donatists, who quite reasonably said that no one who betrayed the Church could ever hold Church office again, nor were any of their sacraments valid;

the Arians, who quite reasonably said that if God is One and God is the Father, Jesus was not God, not eternal, but some lesser (but still very dignified) created being;

Pelagius, who, quite reasonably said that the sins of Adam did not necessarily contaminate all human nature, since it would be unfair to punish a son for the sins of the father;

Nestor, who, quite reasonably said that Jesus must be both God and Man, and that the godhead absorbed the human nature (or maybe that is monophysite–I get them confused);

the Monophysites, who, quite reasonably said that Jesus was one being with one nature, and that was a divine one(or maybe that is a Nestorian–I get them confused);

Shall I go on? I am only up to the Fifth Century, and I have not listed the heresies of Menander, Cerenthis, Saturnalius, Basilides, the Nicholites in the First Century;

nor Corpocrates, Valentine, Epiphanes,  Prodicus, Tatian, Severus,  Cerdonius, Marcion, Apelles, the Cataphrigians, Artotirthrites, Peputians, Ascodrogites, Pattalorinchites, Bardesanes, Theodotus the Currier, Artemon, Theodotus Argentarius and Hermogenes in the Second Century;

nor have I mentioned the heresies of Praxeas, Sabellius, Paul of Samostata, of Manes, nor Tertullian and Origen (both of whose whose writings are preserved and respected by the Church nonetheless) nor the heresies of Novatus and Novatian, nor Nepos and the Angelicals in the Third Century;

nor the Circumcellionists of the Fourth Century, who were total nutbags, going around trying to get people to martyr them, and beating and robbing them when they wouldn’t.

Now, at some point, the mind starts aching at all this river of diverse opinion, and one either says, as an atheist does, that it is all imaginary nonsense and there is no truth whatever to be had in this morass, or one says, as the orthodox and catholic Christian does, that there is a malign spirit in the world attempting to stir up controversy and division — because this amount of divergent opinion on these matters, the degree of hair splitting, the degree of hatred, is unusual.

But if one says that each individual man is, by himself, armed only with his own natural wits and a copy of the Bible translated by someone, somewhere, whose names only scholars know, can negotiate this mass of refined and excruciating theological and technical arguments, guided only the Holy Spirit, one also has to say, as many Protestants do, that God does not desire the unity of His Church.

However, nothing in the Bible nor the early Church writings indicates that the Lord desires a marketplace of ideas and a flock without a shepherd.

I admit it is possible that God does not desire a unified Church — Allah certainly does not. Not having a clergy is one of the distinguishing marks to draw the Christians of African and Near Eastern provinces of the Roman Empire into Muslim society. I limit myself to the statement that the scripture and the Patristic writings do not confirm this theory.

I do not see a remarkable difference between Luther and Calvin and any of these other enthusiasms which carried men away from the mainstream Church. The argument in favor of no Real Presence in the Eucharist or in favor of Sola Scriptura has even less evidence, in terms of proof texts from scripture or Patristic writings, than the argument for Arianism.

Worse, I do see that each and every heresy I’ve looked at in detail, with the sole exception of Gnosticism, the first and oldest, was based on political and cultural considerations: Donatism was Romans versus Egyptians, for example, Filioques was Greek-speakers against Latin-speakers, Lutheranism was Germanic Princes on the fringe of civilization against civilization of the Mediterranean, the Holy Roman Empire.

The rebellion of the Anglicans under Henry VIII was not even given the dignity of being hidden behind a theological dispute: it was a naked power grab by the nobles of England, who looted the monasteries that owned most of the land, and the rich dispossessed the poor because no one was strong enough to stop them.

So I firmly pray all the various branches of the tree planted by Christ would gather back together. I doubt it will happen before the end of the world.

The reason for my loyalty to the Roman Catholic Church is merely my human reason telling me that if Christianity means anything at all, it means what the Church teaches; and, given the painfully obvious weakness of men for heresy, the Church must have a legal process for determining what the Church teaches, such as by General Councils.

Following the opinion of a man with a new idea about why the Church should be stricter than she is, is not, and cannot be that process. Following a man with a private revelation, like Joseph Smith, or a radical new theory of healing, like Mary Baker Eddy, cannot be that process.

So, by all means, let us embrace each in only love, as brothers, despite our differences of opinion. Let us also be aware that not just the worldly powers like German princes and English kings want to tear the Church in sunder, otherworldly princes of Hell wish it also, creatures well able to deceive the wise and great.

A little bit of love and good will despite our differences annoys the worldly powers more than anything.