Friday, March 05, 2010

The title of "heretic" for early writers

This I write in response to DavidW's assertion here.

All I want to say here is that it makes a difference at what point in history certain things are discussed.  Context, you know?  If there wasn't a great deal of discussion about a certain topic beforehand or contemporarily for a given writer and he makes some comments that, if placed in someone's mouth today, AND if that person today had been educated from the Scripture and refuted from the Scripture and then refused correction, then the label "heretic" would certainly apply.  So it has to do with what people had a responsibility and opportunity to know, and in what capacity.  "From the one to whom much is given, much will be demanded" - Luke 12:48.  It also has a lot to do with resistance to correction.
For example, I can share the Gospel with some total unbeliever, let's say a Muslim.  He hears the Gospel, is pricked to the heart, is regenerated by the Holy Spirit, repents of his sin and places his full faith and trust in Christ.  We then start walking to a place so I can teach him about the Bible a bit and set up times to meet later so I can disciple him, "teaching him to observe all that I commanded you" (Matt 28:20).  On the way, I get run over by a truck.  Said just-converted man knows the name of Jesus, that He is the Savior, that He was crucified for our sins and raised to bring us eternal life, that he himself is a sinner and needs to have a growing friendship with the Savior...and that's it.  And it just so happens he doesn't meet another Christian for quite some time, during which time he reads the Bible and reaches the correct conclusion, say, that "My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand" (John 10:27-28) and thus that he will never perish, which is a great encouragement to him.  He also forms the erroneous position that God is a unitary being with three various modes of self-expression.  Then he meets another Christian, finally, who knows the Bible better than he.  Shall that Christian, upon learning that this man holds to modalism and learning of his story of faith, then harshly rebuke the younger believer for his heresy?  No!  He'd teach him the true Scriptural position of the Trinity.  A mark (not a cause, but an effect) of a regenerate heart is a proper response to biblical correction.  This guy, being for the sake of argument (from our "omniscient view" as the narrators of the story) a true regenerate adopted child of God, not self-deceived or playacting, would inevitably submit himself to correction.  In the real world, you never know for sure what's in someone else's heart, so you have to watch for the fruit.  Stubborn resistance to biblical correction on essential doctrine is a great sign of an unregenerate heart, but auto-downloads of the entire corpus of knowledge in the Scripture into the brain is not to be expected.  So the amount of knowledge beyond a bare minimum is not a sign of that; refusing biblical correction is

So, having said all that, I am not going to put these early church writers in the position of forcing their words into commenting on issues they didn't know much about nor had experienced much discussion of.  Just as much of the formal and conciliar formulations of Christian doctrine were hammered out in response to the rise of large movements of support for doctrines that, it would turn out, were incorrect and of central importance to the Gospel and the nature and identity of God Himself, just as Roman anathemas "don't work retroactively", I don't expect these early church writers to have the opportunity of exposure to the breadth and depth of theology and reflection on every single issue that I have opportunity of exposure to.  I have every reason to expect that these men, being adherents to the idea that God-inspired Scripture was to be held to on a higher level of authority than non-Scripture, would hold to MY positions, were they alive today.  Hope that helps clear this up.  It will thus be dishonest of you to continue saying things like "You don't see the problem with stating that the early Christians, many of whom sat at the feet of Apostles and listened to them speak, who gave us the New Testament we know today and without whom Christianity would have ceased to exist, were all heretics?"
So I hope you will stop.


Viisaus said...

In his commentary on 1 Corinthians 3, John Calvin showed a rather generous attitude towards pre-Protestant writers:

"He himself will be saved, etc. It is certain that Paul speaks of those who, while always retaining the foundations, mix hay with gold, stubble with silver, and wood with precious stones — that is, those who build upon Christ, but in consequence of the weakness of the flesh, admit something that is man’s, or through ignorance turn aside to some extent from the strict purity of God’s word. Such were many of the saints, Cyprian, Ambrose, Augustine, and the like. Add to these, if you choose, from those of later times, Gregory and Bernard, and others of that stamp, who, while they had it as their object to build upon Christ, did nevertheless often deviate from the right system of building. Such persons, Paul says, could be saved, but on this condition — if the Lord wiped away their ignorance, and purged them from all dross."

Calvin also wrote elsewhere:

"Doubtless, if those who first passed the law of celibacy were now alive, instructed by present experience, they would be the first to abrogate it."

In other words, "if they lived today and see what we see, they would side with us."

So the attitude of Protestants towards church fathers would be rather "condescending" than condemning.

We have learned our lessons from the medieval corruption (that grew at its worst in papal tyranny), and are thus now "sadder but wiser" than the early Christian writers who had overly optimistic and affirming attitude towards various un-Biblical innovations.

Far from being "older" than us, they actually represented Christianity in its YOUTH, partly irresponsible and inexperienced youth. We have (inevitably) grown more mature in knowledge than uninspired early Christians.

Pilgrimsarbour said...

It's a kind of sickness in our society at large. Might as well despise the American founding fathers for not immediately eliminating slavery with a stroke of the pen. What were they thinking? Why couldn't they just "do the right thing?" Aren't we so much more enlightened, though. It shows a child-like mentality without reference to societal/generational factors and other complexities of the human condition throughout the times in which we find ourselves living.

Viisaus said...

Pilgrimsarbour, I understand that what I said may sound offensive even to conservative Protestants. It surely is not my intention to support shallow newer-is-ALWAYS-better modernism.

And yet, I believe we must clearly spell out the proper Reformational position on the authority of church fathers. Because RCs and EOs have turned them into such idols (something they did not set themselves as) we have been simply forced to give them an iconoclastic "Nehushtan-treatment," putting them to their proper place.

But the ironic thing is that post-Vatican II RCs themselves (and increasingly, EOs also) have now adopted the "Doctrine of Development" which actually, when taken to its logical conclusion, leads to the very same kind of "derogation" of church fathers as the Protestant position I described!

I humbly suggest you read Victorian Anglican apologist George Salmon's expert treatment of this issue, here:

"Now, this making the authority of the Fathers the rule and measure of our judgment is absolutely inconsistent with the theory of Development. In every progressive science the latest authority is the best. Take mathematics, which is in its nature as immutable as any theory can represent .theology to be, and in which what has once been proved to be true can never afterwards come into question; yet even there the older authors are only looked into as a matter of curiosity, to illustrate the history of the progress of the science, but have no weight as authorities. We study the science from modern books, which contain everything of value that the older writers discovered—possibly may correct some mistakes of theirs, but certainly will contain much of which they are ignorant. And, in like manner, anyone who holds the theory of Development ought, in consistency, to put the writings of the Fathers on the shelf as antiquated and obsolete. Their teaching, judged by the standard of the present day, must certainly be defective, and might even be erroneous. In point of fact, there is scarcely one of the Fathers who does not occasionally come into collision with modern Roman teaching, and for whom it is not necessary to find apologies. A good deal of controversial triumph took place when, by the publication of certain expurgatorial indices, it was brought to light that the Roman authorities regarded certain genuine dicta of early Fathers as erroneous, and as needing correction. But if the Development theory be true, it is only proper that the inaccuracies of the time when Church teaching was immature should be corrected by the light of fuller knowledge."


"But you must carefully observe that the doctrine of Development would be fatal to the Roman Catholic cause if separated from the doctrine of the Infallibility of the Church. Without the latter doctrine the former, as I have already pointed out, leads to Protestantism or to infidelity rather than Romanism. In fact, the motto of the doctrine of Development is 'We are much wiser men than our fathers.'"

Pilgrimsarbour said...


I was making a general comment based upon Rhology's post. I was not responding to your comment, so no worries about me being offended. :-)

Thanks for your interesting comments, however, and for the further information. I'll look them over again later.

Gotta run--one more appointment to keep.


David said...


I've seen this same argument used many times in response to the statement of the obvious historical fact that Augustinianism didn't exist before St. Augustine. It is, however, nonsensical given that a great many of the opinions which you consider me heretical for holding, and which I hold in common with the early Church Fathers, were in fact points of major controversy and discussion in the early Church. In the end, this doesn't make sense in the context of those issues which I've raised in reference to this point. Let's go with three easy ones for now:

1. The Real (Sacramental) Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is affirmed time and again by the early Church Fathers. There were some, namely the docetists (forerunners of the Gnostics) in the early Church who raised an objection to the Real Presence. See what St. Ignatius of Antioch, that great disciple of the Apostle John and martyr for Christ, has to say about them in his Epistle to the Smyrnaeans chapters 6-7.
2. Even James White has admitted that all of the Fathers held to Baptismal Regeneration. This doctrine, too, had objections raised to it (by the Gnostics, specifically) -- see what St. Irenaeus of Lyons, the disciple of St. Polycarp of Smyrna the disciple of the Apostle John, has to say about them in his Against Heresies 1, 21.
3. To use a negative example, let's also look at predestination. The Gnostics, probably under influence from the pagan Stoic philosophers, held very firmly to predestination in much the same shape as modern Calvinists hold to it. And they are refuted time and again by the Church Fathers for holding to this. See, for instance, St. Justin the Philosopher (aka St. Justin Martyr), that great early Christian apologist and martyr for the Lord, writing in his First Apology chapters 43-44, as well as St. Irenaeus of Lyons in his Against Heresies, book 4, chapter 37.

Clearly, these issues were discussed. Clearly, there were people (namely, the Gnostics [and you still claim that Calvinism isn't Gnosticism?]) who tried to persuade the early Church Fathers to the "true" faith. Clearly, the Church Fathers rejected such admonition. Clearly, your claim that they would agree with you if they were around today (with our abundant evidence beyond the men who learned directly from Apostles and spoke the language of the New Testament as their own common language?) is ridiculous. If you think that these three issues are just easy targets and puppet doctrines, then please present those you would like to find out whether the early Fathers discussed and I will be more than happy to do the research. My hypothesis is that we can expect fairly similar results. And are you yet unwilling to call them heretics? And what else is this but fear of the obvious logical conclusion, which would be that you are condemning yourself, your Scriptures, and the Apostles in the process?

Which raises yet a further difficulty for your position here. The Fathers of the early Church largely sorted the Apostolic from the apocryphal in their collation of the New Testament by deciding based on whether or not it agreed with their Faith. They did not have access to the same historical and archaeological methods as we do, and so this was the rule of which they made use. An example is the case recorded by Eusebius of Caesaria in his Church History 6, 12. St. Serapion, Bishop of Antioch in about AD 200, found that one of his churches was using a Gospel allegedly written by the Apostle Peter. After reading the Gospel, he had it banned. He had no other reason for declaring that it did not actually come from the Apostle Peter than that it disagreed with the Faith as taught and lived by the Church. If the Faith of the early Church was as deeply flawed as you allege that it is, your New Testament is also apparently deeply flawed. Error does not produce truth.

Rhology, please stop distorting and ignoring the evidence and the historical facts. Dishonesty does nothing to further your cause.

Rhology said...

Addressed here.

John said...

"This guy, being for the sake of argument (from our "omniscient view" as the narrators of the story) a true regenerate adopted child of God, not self-deceived or playacting, would inevitably submit himself to correction."

And why would this budding Protestant submit his personal interpretation to the interpretation to this other Christian who "knows the bible better than he"? I've seen Jehovah's witnesses who know the bible better than many Reformed Baptists. Does that make him right? Nope. Is he supposed to just roll over and submit because he is a child of God and is presented with the truth? But wasn't he already presented with the truth in the all-sufficient, perspicuous word of God? So why would we assume he would or should roll over if some random guy presents the truth?

Rhology said...

why would this budding Protestant submit his personal interpretation to the interpretation to this other Christian who "knows the bible better than he"?

He wouldn't; he'd submit it to the Bible.

John said...

He already did that. And he was a heretic.

Rhology said...

1) Do you have someone specifically in mind?

2) The responsibility to submit all of one's teaching to the Word of God does not imply that everyone who does that (and especially not everyone who *claims* to do it) will in fact arrive at correct conclusions.

3) Heretic according to whom and on what basis?

John said...

1) Your hypothetical friend.

2) So are you admitting that your hypothetical scenario might not play out the neat way you originally imagined?

3) According to your hypothetical scenario.

Rhology said...

He already did that. And he was a heretic.

Yes, and now he'd be seeing the flaws in his interp of the Bible, thus correcting his interp of the Bible.
Why, what do you propose in its place?

So are you admitting that your hypothetical scenario might not play out the neat way you originally imagined?

Of course - the man might not be regenerate at all. But I said specifically that I'd be assuming the man IS regenerate. Though I can never know that with complete certainty in real life.