Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Roman Catholicism and Church History

Roman Catholics often appeal to the church fathers to support their ecclesial framework. However, the lens by which they read the church fathers often involves assuming their conclusions prior to the investigation.

For example, in his Letter to the Prelates and Clergy of France in September 8, 1899, Pope Leo XII wrote "Those who study it [history] must never lose sight of the fact that it contains a collection of dogmatic facts, which impose themselves upon our faith, and which nobody is ever permitted to call in doubt." Or again, Cardinal Manning wrote, "The appeal to antiquity is both a treason and a heresy. It is a treason because it rejects the divine voice of the church at this hour, and a heresy because it denies that voice to be divine." Elsewhere Manning commented, "The appeal from the living voice of the Church to any tribunal whatsoever, human history included, is an act of private judgment and a treason because that living voice is supreme; and to appeal from that supreme voice is also a heresy because that voice by divine assistance is infallible." In other words, you person must begin your study of history assuming that Catholicism is already true. This circular approach makes it difficult for Roman Catholic theologians to come to an objective assessment of the history record, though they frequently make appeals to the church fathers for polemical purposes.

When one reads church history without Roman Catholic lenses on, one finds the church fathers actually challenge Roman Catholic teaching on a number of key points. For example, a survey from Roman Catholic scholar Jean de Launoy found that only seventeen Church Fathers thought of the rock as Peter in the iconic Petrine text of Matthew 16:18-19, whereas a full forty-four believed the 'rock' referred to Peter's confession, while sixteen thought that Christ himself was the rock and eight thought that the rock represented all of the apostles. The significance of this should be obvious: 80% of the Church Fathers did not recognize that Peter was the rock on which Christ was building His church! Commenting on this in his book his book Two Paths: Papal Monarchy - Collegial Tradition, Michael Whelton points out

Many Roman Catholic apologists ignore the writings of the Early Church Fathers, who were equally well versed in scripture, and focus solely on their interpretation of Matthew 16:18-19. "And I say unto thee: That thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my church.... And I will give thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven...." To them it is so clear, what else could it mean? They will even delve into the Hold testament to find supporting evidence for the imagery  of the 'keys.' In doing so they lapse into the practice of 'Sola Scriptura' (by scripture alone) that they accuse Protestants of committing - by ignoring the mind of the Early Church in favor of their own subjecitve judgment. In addition, they anticipate their own conclusion in their initial premise when they associate any reference by Early Church Fathers to Peter as head of the apostles, the seat of Peter, Peter and the keys, etc., as pointing to evidence of Rome's supreme universal authority.
Michael Whelton's book shares similar examples of discrepancies between the teaching of the Catholic church and the teaching of the church fathers. He shows, for example, that even though the see of Rome was always believed to have special honor, the early church fathers believed that judicially Rome was on the same standing as the other patriarchal sees. Whelton also shows that Rome shed many of the traditions of the early church which have been preserved in the East, such as using leavened bread for the Eucharist (a custom the Roman Church kept for the first 800 years) and allowing children to partake during communion. His book is worth reading in full because it establishes that Protestants are not the only ones who constantly innovate: Roman Catholicism itself is one of the greatest innovations of church history.
Further Reading 

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