Some passing thoughts on Catholicity (or, an Ehrman/Pagels view of catholicity)
Herein is a quick comment on the continuing online saga of what constitutes “catholicity.” So far most of the things I have read have been coming from Orthodox and Reformed bloggers, and I just wanted to my give two cents on something touched on, but which needs some expanding, namely that catholicity existed in the early Church not merely as “the truth.”
Many Protestants will say that “truth” is what constitutes catholicity —the proper confession of what Holy Scripture teaches—and then proceed to wax eloquent about how much the early Church did not know. One prof I had in seminary opined that St. John wasn’t even cold in the ground and here was Ignatius of Antioch selling the whole patrimony for a bowl of lentils called episcopal monarchicalism. The earliest Reformers, really up to Calvin, made attempts to call the Fathers theirs. Calvin, though, denied the Ignatian epistles were real, calling them noxious fairy tales. Others, such as the main Elizabethan apologist, John Jewel, qualified everything into oblivion, largely asking his Catholic interlocutors to show that scholastic distinctions existed among the Fathers, and since they did not, then claims of historical continuity were bogus. Interestingly, several items Jewel decided to keep off the table: episcopal supremacy, the real presence (he did attack transubstantiation), tradition as a rule of faith. He also never brought up the question of justification, never claiming in his disputes with such Catholics as Thomas Harding that the Protestant doctrine was that of the Fathers. In short what he was doing was claiming that the multiplicity of the early Church’s forms justified Protestant schism, and gave the lie to Rome’s assertions.
Jewel’s method comes back in spades with Walter Bauer, inter alios. What little Jewel did find in the early Church that he thought kept him within “the Faith,” such as the Trinity, and the deity of Christ, he affirmed. He did embrace the first four Councils, and tacitly even the fifth, though he seems quite unaware of its implications. His mentor, Peter Martyr Vermigli, openly denied that one of the Holy Trinity suffered in his Person’s human nature, and Jewel seems never to have corrected his teacher, even after Vermigli’s death in 1562. The point here is that Jewel, along with the other Reformers, boiled catholicity down to asserting the correct doctrine, and often this meant justification by faith alone, the doctrine on which the Church “rises and falls.” To him there was no such thing as catholicity in the sense that the Church was one, united around its local bishop in the Eucharist, and thus to Christ (Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels would happily agree).
But this inability to find Roman scholastic particulars or precise Latin medieval explanations of dogma in the Fathers amounted to nothing more than so many red herrings, for Truth in the early Church was union with Christ. And Christ was not, of course, only Truth, but also the Way and the Life. For the Fathers, what is handed over to them, what was tradition was Christ—the Way, the Truth, and the Life. This was found only within the Church, in the Eucharistic community under and guarded by the bishop, and not in sola scriptura, or justification by faith alone. The Reformers sought to make catholicity something it was not by focusing on items which the Roman church had added, expanded on, or minutely defined in such a way, and within the context of scholastic debate, that to the Reformers it bore little resemblance to what they were reading in the Fathers, let alone the Bible. The humanist training of most of the Reformers emboldened them to think that merely by critical tools they could come to understand the Scriptures, and indeed that a plow boy in the field was as equipped as any Parisian Master or bishop. What had occurred, however, was that they had thrown off one set of assumptions for another set, ones that just about every Protestant refuses to admit they have adopted, to the detriment of the Fathers.
For the Fathers, we joined with the bishop in the Eucharist because there was Christ, and, to use the words of St. Ignatius, that we might have a part in God. St. Hippolytus and Clement of Alexandria said we did this so that we might be made God (Theopoein). St. Irenaeus of Lyons said that God became what we are in order that we might become what He is. St. Irenaeus is also quite adamant that this union was only found within the Catholic Church: and we know that by being united with the bishops who link themselves with the Apostles, and not by our correct understanding of the Bible (the correct understanding of the Bible was dependent on union with the bishops).
Does this mean that bishops never err, and that a mere magic touch, something akin to an episcopal E.T. moment, preserves us? No, for tradition is not only the bishop. This can be seen in Gregory of Nazianzus and others writing during the Arian controversy. But for St. Gregory and others, that some bishops had betrayed the faith did not vitiate the need to have union with the bishop: St. Gregory invaded the dioceses of heretic bishops to consecrate Orthodox bishops. Bishops existed for the end of uniting us to God, but Arian bishops ipso facto denied this, in that Arius’s “God” could never be known, not even by the Son. Thus, as St. Athanasius asserted, we could never be made God in the Arian system, and echoing St. Irenaeus, asserted that God became man, in order that man might become God. This statement was not something the Reformers were repeating, and to them became something like bishops: another silly notion the Fathers had because they didn’t understand the Bible like they should have.
Dr. Cyril (Gary) Jenkins is John H. Van Gorden Professor in History and History Department Chair at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania, and a member of St. Paul Orthodox Church in Emmaus, Pennsylvania.