Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Principium Unitatis

A blog that I thought was interesting has come back from the dead. The blog's name is Principium Unitatis. This is ostensibly an ecumenicism blog but it is really in tone and discussion and catholic apologetic board with a focus on addressing the legitimacy of the reformation. What makes this blog worth reading is the degree of detail and quality of the argument of the case for the authority of the church. The argument is often made in catholic apologetics but the details aren't argued just asserted. Not the case here the argument is fully expounded on the blog. In summarize it:
  1. There is no qualitative difference between the types of questions that were raised about the church during the reformation and those that were raised earlier in church history.
  2. Thus the reformers were schismatics in the classic sense.
  3. Modern protestants have developed a theology totally alien to traditional Christianity, and this theology essentially undermines the legitimacy of all ecumenical councils and the entire faith tradition.
  4. Protestantism will continue to fragment into more and more smaller and smaller specialized religious subgroups primarily based on what is currently theologically fashionable.
  5. So real ecumenicism requires that Protestants return to Rome and resolve any disputes they have with The church through the mechanisms of The Church.
I'll notify Bryan, the host and author of Principium Unitatis about this thread and I'm sure he'll to qualify this quick summary but it works well enough for our purposes.

Well there are of course to my mind at least several possible holes in this argument.

The first point of weakness is the assumption of authority rather than social construction. That is that the church has an authority independent of its membership, essentially the argument for monarchy. The standard argument for democracy works here. That is if one believes in Christianity as a social construction among the Christian community then all the ecumenical councils are equal. I tried this, and it was entertaining. I saw in this argument was the belief that a Protestant would shy away from attacking early ecumenical councils as being a social construction and not binding. I think the fact that this argument wasn't covered was a matter of politics as much as theology. The people on the blog are politically conservative and didn't think they really needed to address democratic theories. That is liberal Christianity as a counter point, just didn't occur to him.

The way this argument shapes is an attack on something that is assumed to derive from "authority" and a defense based on popular consensus. In the particular case I would need to defend as "binding" like the choice of books for the bible. Simply holding the social construction line worked. One can defend the bible and the creeds quite effectively from a purely social construction theory of Christian authority. So this apologetic doesn't seem likely to be effective against liberal Christianity. (see for example this thread where we discuss the bible)

The other point was an attack on historicity. This type of theology has a strong collection of historical claims, which means it is objectively disprovable. That is what happened in what order matters. The faith is based on the theory that Christianity developed in the manner described in acts, as a matter of historical reality not just faith. That is Christianity developed
Jesus -> apostles -> disciples -> historical Christian community
and from that authority derives:
Jesus -> apostles -> magisterium.
Being a follower of the Walter Bauer, Birger Pearson school I happen to believe that the actual origins were more like:
Primitive Judaism -> Hellenistic Judaism -> Jewish Gnosticism -> Christian Gnosticism -> Orthodox Christianity.

Challenge that assumption, that is simply utilize the objective historical record and all the arguments on the blog about "original authority" would run in reverse. I couldn't quite test that theory since that would get into a whole debate on atheism. I was able to test the variant by simply continuing to point out the document record showed the exact opposite of the historical claims. In other words I could argue that there was no evidence (and in fact lots of counter evidence) for Orthodox Christianity existing before or being a mainstream theology during the early church relative to various shades of gnosticism. There wasn't any ability to dispute this. The primary counter theory seemed to be that the Christian message spread earlier than the ecclesiology with no evidence nor any plausible theory as to how that happened. This was nice because I got to argue from what I had believed in my 20s when I still was Christian.

So the primary case:
1) the original family of churches was led by Peter
2) that church has some sort of unique claim to authority
3) the Orthodox Church & RCC is the continuation of that church
Thus: Reunity comes from submission to this leadership

My counter was typical Bauer:
1) There was no original family of churches
2) There never was authoritative leadership that was respected by all until the Catholic church established authority through state violence in the 4th century
3) Virtually all churches today are continuations of the 15th century church they are just evolving along different paths.
Thus: Reunity comes from resolving the underlying issues that led to the break in the 16th century

The third counter argument was one I hadn't anticipated. The early church fathers in their original construction of the authority of the church (1st and 2nd century) are unbelievably shoddy in their use of the bible. They simply pull analogies out of context and quotes out of context. Where this was important was on the role and authority that God granted priests. They asserted all sorts of things about the sacrificial system and the role of priests in Judaism that were not just false, but in fact were the exact opposite of what they asserted. Simply dead wrong on the facts.
That would be troubling but Christians are often weak on the old testament. However, the Book of Hebrews is essentially a discourse on what the Jewish priestly system meant and how to translate that into the Christian system. Hebrews spends 2 full chapters discussing Jesus as "a priest after the order of Melchizedek", as contrasted with "a priest after the order of Aaron." If one understands this concept then there is no excuse for the casual confusion between the office priest, governing authority and religious authority that exists in the discourse of the fathers. And in reading their discussions, I simply don't believe the 1st and 2nd century church fathers understood Hebrews. So the problem is not limited to the old testament.
Now, I know how incredibly arrogant that sounds. I wish I could think of some way to present it that didn't sound this strident. Given there is no reason to believe me on a claim this strong I'm not sure what to say other than look for yourself and come to your own conclusions. I hadn't expected this, but frankly the effect of this debate was to reduce my opinion of Church fathers substantially. I think one can point to the ancient church fathers defense of church authority to disprove the infallibility of the church.


So given this harsh criticism my reader might wonder why recommend the blog. And I'll repeat what I said in the introduction. While I think Bryan's argument has genuine fundamental holes he has presented the case in a detailed and thoughtful manner. It is truly excellent apologetic to someone who takes a conservative Christian opinion. The fact is most Protestants do believe that something interesting or unique or different happened just prior to the Reformation and there is some profound difference between the church of the 15th century and the church of the 5th century in terms of doctrine. They do believe that the church developed like acts and that the "heretics" only came later. And for them this website by putting the question clearly back at the 1st and 2nd century Church forces a confrontation. Bryan argues very effectively that is one is going to reject the Catholic position, one is forced to stand along side gnostics. A valid and very well argued point and relatively unique to this blog. It is great to see it expounded upon.

The second thing worth reading it for is that the debating or discussing things with intelligent Catholics is a relief in terms of history. Catholics genuinely know church history. Frequently when discussing things with conservative Protestants I have had a hard time because they seem to fail to appreciate there is as much historical distance between Paul and the Council of Chalcedon as between Barack Obama's stimulus bill and the Pilgrim treaty with the Wampanoags. 100 years took just as long back then. Intellectually Protestants tend to treat the entire ancient world as it all happened within a few decades. Knowing the details of church history makes this viewpooint go away. That's why people who know some American history understand how much different the country of Abraham Lincoin was than that of George Washinton even if they fail to appreciate the difference between the early pilgrims of 1620 and those of 1710. There is not a hint of that historical compression in Principium Unitatis, and I should comment I generally don't find it among knowledgeable Catholics in general. This is a delight.

I should also make a quick apology on the people on Principium Unitatis regarding the "Colin" issue. Originally there was some sort for demand my name, denomination,.... as my readers know I don't generally discuss this on religious forums. I like debates to avoid ad-hominum and as much as possible, and I believe that religious debates are so frequently dominated by ad-hominum that cutting off any avenue for that to happen is the best way. So in answer to a request for my name I answered sarcastically that CD-Host stood for Colin D Host (CD actually stands for Church Discipline the name of the blog, which I did link to). This wasn't taken as sarcasm but as an actual answer and I let the answer stand. That was dishonest of me and I owe Bryan an apology for that.

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