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.