No True Scotsman does Church History Polemics

One of the criticisms of Orthodoxy’s understanding of its own history (not to mention, Roman Catholicism’s) is that there really is no unbroken Christian tradition of anything at all, that Church history is really just about multiple movements, doctrines and practices that cannot coherently be traced back to the Apostles. This is essentially one version of the historiography of the anti-ecclesiologists. If there is no true Church, then there certainly cannot be any true tradition of continuity.

This historiographical doctrine (and it is indeed a doctrine) is believed despite the fact that the Church Fathers throughout the centuries manifestly regarded themselves as being nothing other than true successors to the Apostles, the inheritors of an unbroken tradition. Indeed, nearly every Christian prior to the Reformation who bothered to write anything down about it saw the Church in this way. Following the Holy Fathers, the phrase so often written not just in the various writings of the saints but even explicitly in the decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, is not just an appeal to authority, but a genuine theology of history, resting on the belief that Christ indeed established His Church and would never permit it or the faith given “once for all” to be vanquished. For St. Irenaeus of Lyons (2nd c., not even a century removed from the Apostles), apostolic succession (and all that entails) was the only reliable guarantor of doctrinal orthodoxy.

So the historical deconstructionist critic of Church tradition essentially has to say that he knows better than the Fathers and their Christian contemporaries did, that when looking at an incomplete and fragmented set of textual data—which is their only possible approach, like archaeologists sifting through broken pots and bone fragments—he can see the situation more clearly than those who were closer in time, language, culture and place to the Apostles: They thought that they were really just passing on the faith given to them by their fathers in the faith, but I can see that they were just fooling themselves.

There are multiple problems with this historiographical doctrine, but I’ll just pick out a few of the biggest ones.

As my previous paragraph suggests, there is the problem of the available data. The deconstructionist is working from a set of texts, objectified out as fragments of a supposedly long-dead civilization. From what he sees in these shreds and shards, there is no continuity, only fits and starts, movements and tensions. In short, because he does not believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, he is predisposed not to see one, and so he does not. He presumably comes by this perception honestly, but it is nevertheless the product of confirmation bias. That the Fathers themselves see things differently is evidence enough of that. They, too, may have been biased, but they weren’t dealing with objectified fragments the way the deconstructionist is, but rather being in the midst of a living culture—in most cases, breathing the same air as the Apostles, speaking the same languages, and living in the same places. Further, especially for the earlier Fathers, they were living much closer in time to the Apostles, and in the earliest cases, many of them knew them directly. So the deconstructionist is literally working with much less and much worse data than the Fathers.

The second major problem is also a problem with data, but it isn’t the paucity of it that is the issue, but rather how it is seen. It is essentially a variation of the No True Scotsman logical fallacy: No truly intelligent and sincere person would look at the data and see things differently than I. But nevertheless, not only the Fathers of old, but even numerous, serious, well-credentialed, devout men and women of integrity and expertise in our own time all look at the same historical data as the deconstructionist does and see not fragmentation but rather continuity. The deconstructionist’s only explanation for this is that they must be either stupid or dishonest, or that they still have yet to read all the right books.

I have to admit that I myself find it difficult to see how one could, for instance, read the epistles of St. Ignatius of Antioch and come away with the idea that bishops and the Eucharist weren’t central in the early Church. Yet some people do. Some people also look at all the data surrounding the Great Schism and honestly and prayerfully make a choice different from my own. I don’t know why. But I cannot claim that they must merely be unintelligent or insincere. But I have been told essentially that by such deconstructionists, who claim that this or that book utterly destroys the historical understanding Orthodoxy has of itself. I have to say, though, that I am still awaiting the mass exodus from Orthodoxy once word of this revolutionary tome reaches the ears of the populus Dei.

Further, what the deconstructionist fails to recognize in himself is that his own view of history is decidedly the product of post-Enlightenment skepticism, which is what requires his historiographical doctrine of deconstruction. Not even the Reformers saw history in this fragmentary, discontinuous way. They of course believed that they were restoring true Christianity after it had been lost (though a few of them actually did believe that it had been preserved in the East while the West fell into apostasy), but they certainly did not subscribe to the notion that there was no true Christianity, no true Church.

The third problem with this approach to Christian history is one that will probably not be terribly persuasive to the deconstructionist (if indeed any of this might be), but it is still worth mentioning: All indications from of old regarding the Fathers of the Church is that they were saints. That is, they weren’t ordinary Christians who happened to write theology or attend councils and such. They were people pulsating with the very energies of God, people who loved others unreservedly and self-sacrificially, people through whom God worked miracles, people who suffered and often died for their faith. Now, the deconstructionist may well discount all of that as legend (though it would be hard for any real historian to toss that much data), but these folks aren’t even making such claims for themselves. So, on the one hand, we have people who nearly everyone from their own time who bothered to record anything about are lauded as bearing about with them the presence of God on Earth, and then we have people who claim that it’s all just a bunch of contradictory nonsense. One can see why the former tend to inspire far more devotion than the latter. One does not really find saints among doctrinaire skeptics (for whom, by their own measures, I am not sure sainthood is even possible).

The final, and perhaps worst, problem that I’ll address here is the logical conclusion necessitated by this approach to Church history: We therefore have no way of knowing what the true Christian faith is. If there is no continuity, then we are cut off from the Apostles. Sure, we can read what the Church preserved and canonized of their writings (assuming one even buys that the texts we have are in any sense authentic), but we still have to interpret them. If there is no Apostolic succession in any workable sense, then how can we be sure that our interpretations are correct? For that matter, how can we even know that the Apostles or their Master existed? If there is no unbroken tradition from the Apostles, all we are left with is individual teachers claiming on their own authority that they have the true Christian faith, and there is no particular way—aside from our own preferences—to distinguish a Joseph Smith from a John Calvin, William Miller or Mary Baker Eddy. We can only embrace a kind of agnosticism. If there is no true Church, then there is no true Christianity, at least, none that we can detect. All we can do is have an anxious hope that perhaps we’re getting it right.

I’ll admit that of course that it’s possible that it’s all just a big joke and that no one really knows or can know how Christ intended His Apostles to baptize, preach and teach. But if that is indeed the case, why don’t we all just stay home on Sunday morning? After all, for all we know, the ultra-double-predestinationists have it right, and there’s nothing we can do about it, anyway. I may as well sit on the couch and have nachos and cheese. When one looks at Church history without the eyes of faith, there really are few other conclusions one can come to.

There are of course several different ways that anti-ecclesiologists can deal with Christian history. Historical deconstructionism—outright denying that it says what its primary witnesses have always understood it to be saying—is one of them. We’ll deal with others here in the future.

The Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick is pastor of St. Paul Orthodox Church of Emmaus, Pennsylvania, author of Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy (Conciliar Press, 2011), and host of the Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy and Roads from Emmaus podcasts.

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26 thoughts on “No True Scotsman does Church History Polemics

  1. Oh come on man, no true non-elect person would sit on the couch eating nachos and cheese. Some have concluded that the double-predestinationists have it right, yet they are convinced that they are not of the elect. But instead of making the rather impious decision to sit on the couch to have nachos and cheese, they have formed the Church of the Non-Elect. All for the glory of “God”, of course.

  2. A few months ago, my girlfriend and I were reading two books separately. She was trudging through “Pagan Christianity”, while I was reading “Formation And Struggles: The Church Ad 33-450: the Birth of the Church Ad 33-200″. What I found funny, yet somewhat disturbing, was that both books amply quoted Saint Ignatius’ statements on the centrality of the Bishop in the Eucharistic community, literally the exact same words of this Hieromartyr. But my book presented the interpretation that probably seems obvious to both of us, Father. Her book regarded such talk as an early powerplay by certain men in the “churches” to swallow up all power into their own office, leaving the “average Christians” devoid of, apparrently, the ability to have their own ministries. This was funny, because it sounded absurd, but it was frightening to think that somebody’s introduction to Saint Ignatius might be so interpreted as to not want anything to do with him or his episcopal/presbyter friends.

    • That is truly absurd. No one wanted to be a Bishop in the early Church, because that meant almost certain death. The apostolic succession of bishops came in quick succession in those days, some Bishops only lasting a year or two at a time before being martyred.

      Lord, have mercy.

  3. Pingback: No True Church? No True Church History. « Roads from Emmaus

  4. To add a further comment, one frequent position of the anti-ecclesiologists is “of course we accept the first [insert your own number here] councils”.

    What is actually meant here is “we accept our own definition and understanding of certain creedal statements resulting from the first [insert your own number here] councils, but we reject or simply ignore the canons that also resulted from the councils we accept. We also probably disagree or are skeptical of the theology of the Fathers who participated in these councils, but we do accept the first [insert your own number here] councils”.

    It’s baffling, actually.

  5. And . . . to put another testimony to this excellent treatment of history . . . “The idea that any man or writer should be opaque to those who lived in the same culture, spoke the same language, shared the same habitual imagery and unconscious assumptions, and yet be transparent to those who have none of these advantages, is in my opinion preposterous. There is an a priori improbability in it, which almost no argument and no evidence could counterbalance.” – C. S. Lewis

  6. I’m certainly not anti-Ecclesial, but I see one thing that your post perhaps failed to address. Which is the genuine strain of the Church? The Orthodox argue that it is theirs, while the Roman Catholics claim they have the original strain. There’s also Oriental Orthodox and the Nestorian Church. All of them claim the same patristics, speak of their saints and bishops in the same way, lay claim to apostolic succession, etc.

    I absolutely feel myself drawn to Orthodoxy, but I am also full of questions and uncertainty. Especially on this point.

    • Well, seeing as this is an Orthodox Christian site, you can imagine that we believe Orthodoxy is indeed the true Church!

      You are right, however, that that question is not what is being addressed here. It is a huge topic, and we cover varying aspects of it in multiple posts. That said, there is nothing that quite replaces sitting down and really doing the legwork to determine whether the same faith really has been preserved throughout 2000 years in Orthodoxy. That can’t really be done in a weblog post. I think the best place to start is with the period immediately following the New Testament, with the collection of writings known as the Apostolic Fathers. My personal favorite is Ignatius of Antioch, who was a disciple of the Apostle John.

      • The West is actually kind of the chink in the armor of this argument. In the West, we have centuries worth of ‘fathers’ and theologians claiming to be passing on the message of the Fathers, but who you and I know are wrong. Thomas Aquinas, for example, saw his entire theological project as reconciling the witnesses of all the Fathers and doctors of the church who came before him. Boethius saw himself as passing on the Trinitarian doctrine of the great Augustine, but clearly from our point of view in retrospect, he was shovelling in yet another load of unwanted Platonism.

        So, to be fair to our opponents, I don’t see how we can call an argument irrational which we, in fact, use. I.e. we say that although the theologians of the West thought they were passing along the Apostolic Tradition, they were wrong, and they were gradually distorting it. We say that although (at least after a certain point) there were all kinds of claims of the sanctity of these same individuals, that they weren’t really saints.

        The Deconstructionist just says about both East and West what we say only about the West. I obviously think they’re wrong about the East, but I don’t believe that’s based on their method. I believe that that’s because in the East, these men actually were saints and they actually were passing on the Apostolic Tradition. I think a better question is: to what extent is Holy Tradition an object of Faith?

        • Right, but the problem here is that there really is a traceable line to be followed, and the broken-up one conveniently really skews right around the same time as actual schism. The method is still a problem, because discontinuity in the West is presumed (but not proven) in the East.

          As to your question, I think perhaps the real question should be: To what extend is the Church an object of faith? Perhaps we are essentially asking the same thing, but when worded this way, the Creed actually stands explicit witness.

          I don’t think it’s proper to say that “Holy Tradition” is an object of faith in itself. It’s really just a descriptor for the life of the Church over time. I don’t believe “in Tradition”; I believe in the Church. We recognize in the Church’s life the handing down (Lat. traditio, Gr. paradosis) the apostolic faith, but that process is not what we believe in. We believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. I am honestly not sure how one can believe that and not also recognize the reality of Tradition.

      • Fr. Andrew,

        I can affirm what the previous poster stated, which is true: Nestorian, Oriental, or Orthodoxy? Reading the pre-Nicene fathers has led me to rule out the West with the additions of papal infallibility and supremacy, addition to the Creed, purgatory, merits, etc. But after reading Pelikan, Kelly, the Council of Chalcedon and Robber Synod, well I’m as confused as ever between the options of Nestorian, Oriental, and Orthodoxy!

        Any advice to this sinner who is having intellectual difficulties in finding the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church? Each of the three communions above appear to all confess a fully human and fully God Christ, but differ on how they use Greek, Syrian, and Arabic in explaining the unexplainable mystery.

        Thank you for this valuable resource that has enlightened the eyes of this blind fool.

        In Christ,
        EAI

        • I would not agree that the Nestorians truly confess a fully divine and fully human Christ. Rather, they refer to a “conjoined” pairing of two entities who are held together by “good will.”

          As for the differences between the Chalcedonians (“Eastern Orthodox”) and Non-Chalcedonians (“Oriental Orthodox”), the theological consultations between the two bodies held over the past decades have essentially concluded that the Christology is the same. There are, of course, some who disagree.

          In any event, choosing between these three bodies (and here in the US, actually having the opportunity to attend a local parish from all three is a rarity!) comes down to the same thing that it comes down to between any religious groups—whom do you believe? Proofs, evidence and reason may of course be offered, but for some mysterious reason, different people of good will and intelligence can look at the same sets of data and come up with different conclusions. Of course I believe that there is a right answer, but the actual act of making the choice really does come down to whom you believe.

          • “Proofs, evidence and reason may of course be offered, but for some mysterious reason, different people of good will and intelligence can look at the same sets of data and come up with different conclusions. Of course I believe that there is a right answer, but the actual act of making the choice really does come down to whom you believe.”

            This is what makes me despair to a certain extent. As a Protestant who is now realizing that I cannot be my own Pope and interpret Holy Scriptures, how can I also trust my reading of the Nestorian/Orthodox/Non-Chalcedon dispute to determine which is correct? Of course, this line of despair negates that there is a single Truth. Yet I do believe in a single Truth despite my lack of confidence in discerning which church is the Church.

            Reminds me of St. Paul’s dilemma in Romans 7: “O wretched man that I am!” I do not believe I can figure out the Truth, but I should not have such a post-modern way of thinking because I do believe there is Truth. Yet how shall I find the Truth when so many other look at the same schisms and conclude differently? “O wretched man that I am!”

            With that being said, I reviewed my small library regarding these early schisms and I agree with you Fr. Andrew regarding the Nestorians. The writings of Babai the Great were throwing me for a loop as to whether Nestorians simply had a difference in explaining the same thing. However, the denial of the Virgin as “God-bearer” appears to me to go against Holy Tradition.

            Although the Orientals and Eastern Orthodox have had talks about unitiy, now I’m pondering the Fifth and Sixth Ecumenical Councils. Do the Orientals accept those Councils’ Christology? Pope Shenouda, God give him rest, does not seem to agree with these later Councils and certainly does not think that a formal acceptance of the Fourth Ecumenical Council is necessary. If acceptance of a Council is not necessary then that would give creedance to Anglican claims of Branch Theory.

            My head spins.

            Thank you for this blog, it is an invaluable resource and if you aren’t able to comment again, could I be so bold as to request an author to write about the Nestorian/Oriental/Orthodox divide? I know most people think about Rome vs. Protestant vs. Orthodox but I think there are a few persons like me who have gone from that debate to the Nestorian/Oriental/Orthodox debate.

            Wretched man that I am,
            -braish

            • There is a difference between making choices based on what we earnestly come to believe and enthroning personal choice as the arbiter of all things. The former assumes the possibility of humility, while the latter discounts its necessity. From the outside, especially to the cynic, such choices may all look the same, but to the one who agonizes and is converted, they certainly do not.

              I talk a bit about this sort of thing here.

    • “There’s also Oriental Orthodox and the Nestorian Church.”

      Well, I think you can (historically) eliminate the Nestorians and limit your ponderings to the Os (= Orthodox) and the OOs (= Oriental Orthodox). The “Nestorian Church” split into two, and at times three, rival bodies in the course of the late 17th/early 18th centuries, and in the late 18th Century all of these bodies, in a process completed in, IIRC, 1804, submitted to Rome and now comprise the body called the “Chaldean Catholic Church.”

      But what, then, about the body whose official name is the “Holy Apostolic and Catholic Church of the East and of the Assyrians?” (“Assyrians” as an ethnic name was one they adopted only in the 1870s.) They originated as a split in the Nestorian Church in the 1550s over the election of a Catholicos/Patriarch, one faction of which submitted to Rome. Their patriarch was executed by the Turks on his arrival back from Rome in 1555, but down to the very early 17th Century they remained in ongoing contact and continuing communion with Rome. Then contact was lost, due more to the extreme isolation of their community in mountainous Kurdistan. When contact was resumed in the 1660s Catholic missionaries were appalled to discover that these “Syrian Catholics” still regarded Nestorius and Theodore of Mopsuestia and the like as “fathers and saints.” The matter was reported to Rome, and Rome ruled that if the group wished to maintain “Catholic communion” they had to remove Nestorius and others from the kalendar, and to confess clearly that the Blessed Virgin Mary truly was “Mother of God” and not simply (as they did and do confess to this day) “Mother of Our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ.” They refused, and repudiated communion with Rome in 1672 — and their extreme geographical isolation kept them from any involvement in the splits, schisms and reunions that brought the main group of Nestorians “down in the plains” into union with Rome by 1804.

      These “Assyrians” themselves were on the verge of some kind of “reconciliation” with Rome around 2004, after over twenty years of theological and ecclesiological discussions, but difficulties of a more ethnic and political, than theological, nature have made it impossible for the Assyrian bishops to proceed further with the project.

  7. One of the first threads I tugged on as I unraveled my Protestantism completely and happily was this: If we trust the Councils to have put together the Bible (even just the Protestant 66 books) that so many believe is literally true in everything, why in the world do we not trust those Councils and what they put in the, oh, Nicene Creed for example? You can’t have it both ways, but by golly they sure try.

    • Alot of that Rebecca, from my experience as well, is that Protestants just aren’t ready to open themselves to the idea that everything they’ve been taught to be polemic about might not be exactly what they think. I sympathize with that. Who of us hasn’t been in that boat?
      If all they knew was Roman Catholicism then they knew that “tradition” wasn’t to be trusted given how it was abused so in their view the Church can’t be the pillar of truth since the body that made that claim clearly wasn’t it.
      Now all of a sudden you have this body that they weren’t aware of (the Orthodox Church) and are confronted with some hard facts that they spent the past couple hundred years ripping out of their traditions and found ways to argue for them based on how Rome distorted them.
      It’s a big system shock and it rattles ones faith. It takes a long time to get the courage to take that first step in faith and see what really is there. And i think we both know that Protestants have alot to look in to from the physical historic Church actually existing, bishops, councils, the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in the Eurcharist, the fall, salvation and so on. It’s a real 180.

  8. Upon my introduction to the orthodox church I had the opportunity to sit down and talk about it with the pastor of the church I had been attending for about 8 years. This is a “megachurch” of about 10,000 in North Idaho of all places and he has also authored a few books. Someone who I looked up to and thought he would have some answers.
    He tried to convince me that John MacArthur, the modern evangelical author, had as much insight into the early church as Saint Ignatius in his letters to the churches on his way to martyrdom. I truly found his argument absurd! Since then I have noticed a couple things. There is a guy named michael dye who authored a book series called “the genesis process”. In the introduction in his first book he claims that after 2000 years he has finally figured out what Paul was talking about in Romans. Francis Chan is the pastor of a megachurch in southern. cali. He makes the claim that we today obviously have a better understanding of the new testament, intellectually, than those early christians.

  9. Continued from previous post
    He makes this claim in one of his books. It does seem that todays modern nondemoninational church thinks that they have found the way and we should all follow them. Even though many of their beliefs are what most people would consider new and were never even considered in the early church. This is a little more long winded than I was shooting for but I guess my point is that if they consider themselves, after 2000 years, to have
    Been in some way enlightened to the truth after 2000 years, and all the generations before were just messed up and power hungry, they will continue toward that truth truth whether or not it is objective or not.

    • If we define (as the early Church fathers did) heresy as “innovation” or “novelty,” we will almost always be kept on the straight (ortho) and narrow way of the one, true Faith.

  10. Pingback: A good expression of historical theology | OrthoCuban

  11. The argument often advanced by Mormons and other Restorationists is that we can know what the true Christian faith is by praying to God to provide the truth. This in effect neatly sidesteps any questions or objections that someone might have — save, perhaps, how they know that it was God who answered.

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