"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Fr. Minns, St. Irenaeus, & the Development of Doctrine

This is the third time I have undertaken to defend the Catholic understanding of DD (cf. Vatican II, Dei Verbum §8; henceforth 'DV') from criticism by non-Catholic scholars. My fellow theology geeks will probably enjoy the fact that this effort will, of necessity, be the longest so far. Other readers can endure as they will.

My first two efforts analyzed and rebutted arguments by the Orthodox scholars Andrew Louth and John Behr. The latter post and its combox led to further, lengthy discussions with the two authors of the blog Fides Querens Intellectum, namely “Kepha” and “Ioannes”. To cut a long story short, Ioannes seems inclined to believe that the Church father St. Irenaeus’ view of Scripture and Tradition, as expressed in his Against Heresies (late 2nd century; henceforth 'AH'), is incompatible with DV's teaching on DD. Ioannes’ source for an argument to that effect is the book Irenaeus by the Dominican priest Denis Minns (G. Chapmen, 1994), to which Fr. Behr briefly refers in his own book The Way to Nicaea. If true, Ioannes' point would be rather embarassing for Catholics. That is partly because DV itself cites Irenaeus as a source for its teaching, and partly because the present pope, as a young peritus to Cardinal Frings at Vatican II, had a measure of direct and indirect influence in the drafting of DV—a document whose substance he continues to endorse because, if only by his understanding of magisterial authority, he is bound to. I'm also a bit piqued by Fr. Minns' interpretation because I love the Dominican charism and have sort-of fallen in with a chapter of the Dominican Laity (formerly known as the "Third Order" Dominicans.) In this post, then, I shall analyze and critique Minn's interpretations of AH and DV on the relevant points. (David Waltz, BTW, has been critiquing Minns' book on other points.) I shall argue that the combination of (a) Minns' error in interpreting DV and (b) Irenaeus' ambiguity about what is "novel" causes Minns to read into Irenaeus an incompatibility with DV's teaching on DD that just isn't there.

This is not to deny that, on the whole, Minns' scholarship on Irenaeus is balanced and sensitive. I especially benefited from his account of how much Irenaeus' theology was shaped by the exigencies of his polemic against the various brands of heretic that plagued the Church in his time, chiefly the Gnostics and the Marcionites. Irenaeus would probably have been quite at home in the chaotic, hard-nosed world of Internet religious polemics, some of which are fueled by the very sort of Gnostic ideas that he so successfully opposed. Indeed, the past several decades have seen a resurgence of such ideas, especially that of a dichotomy between the exoteric and esoteric sides of Christianity. I saw it all coming back in 1978 when Elaine Pagels, with whom I was taking an introductory course on the New Testament at Columbia, was readying the final draft of her book The Gnostic Gospels (still in print, three decades later). My roommate at the time, an older and wiser man, was preparing a seminar challenge to Pagels' account, in her final draft, of the relationship between the Gnostics and the orthodox church authorities. I did some research for him that he found helpful in what I considered his successful effort; but at the time I did not trouble to read more than a few snippets of Irenaeus, an odd omission given that Irenaeus was and remains a favorite target of Pagels' for his defense of "patriarchal" authority in the Church over against the Gnostics, who gave women a more prominent place. I had mostly contented myself with studying Irenaeus' theodicy, which I had viewed and continue to view critically. But now that I've just finished reading a lot more of AH, I feel I have rectified my youthful error.

As Minns points out, the main polemical exigency facing Irenaeus around 180 was that the Gnostics claimed the authority of apostolic tradition for their teaching just as "the Great Church"—i.e., the Catholic Church—did for her own. As bishop of Lyons, he was dealing with that claim right within his own diocese. Why was that such a serious problem?

Despite the various flavors and permutations of Gnosticism, spawned in ever-greater abundance by the outsized egos and speculative bent of its leaders, the Gnostics were in general agreement that the true God, the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, was not the "God" who had created the physical universe (and hence the human body in particular). The latter, the God of the Old Testament, was thought to have been a mere demiurge, a jealous, vengeful rogue unfit for true worship, a prison warden useful only for the moral instruction of the ordinary run of "the faithful" who could not attain the "knowledge" (gnosis) enjoyed by the elect. This was the fundamental point of doctrine at issue between Irenaeus and all his main opponents. For in denying that the God of pre-Christian Judaism was the Father of Jesus Christ, the Gnostics were at one with the Marcionites, even though the latter were not Gnostics strictly speaking because they did not lay claim to esoterically acquired gnosis.

What made the Gnostic-Marcionite doctrine so plausible to so many Christians was a hermeneutic of a kind I've become very familiar with in other contexts during my blogging years: what the present pope, in a very different contemporary context, has called a "hermeneutic of discontinuity." The heretics of the mid-1st century argued that there was no way to reconcile what they saw as the capricious, vindictive character of the God of the Old Testament, the God regarded by the Church as the Creator of all, with that of the all-loving God claimed by Jesus, the Word and Revealer, as his "Father." The Gnostics claimed possession of an esoteric gnosis that could explain the discrepancy in terms of a higher synthesis unknown to the dull, bumbling leaders of the Church; for his part, Marcion simply threw out much of the Scriptures. The heretics brought a lot of people along with them.

Indeed, Marcion and his followers were quite prominent in Rome in the middle of the first century, and there is some evidence to suggest that what Catholics call "the Apostles' Creed" was originally formulated as a baptismal profession of faith with precisely the aim of excluding the Marcionites from the Church. (That creed begins: "I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, Our Lord..." This was also to be a major issue in the Albigensian heresy centuries later, which was St. Dominic's first major assignment from the pope.) At any rate, and within Irenaeus' living memory, Marcion had been condemned and excommunicated, along with his followers, by the Bishop of Rome, Anicetus. It was the first major schism in the Roman Church's history; by the time Irenaeus wrote AH, Marcionism was well on the way into the dustbin of history. Yet Marcion's point of doctrinal agreement with the Gnostics had spurred Rome's crystallization of the biblical canon; for Marcion rejected nearly all the books of the LXX, which the Church had retained in its full integrity, and most of what we now call the NT, favoring only a truncated version of Luke and the clearly authentic letters of Paul. That fact was prominent in Irenaeus' mind, and he drew the right conclusion from it: the church catholic, exemplified by the church "of pre-eminent origin," that of Rome, had "the Scriptures" whose doctrinal content was at one with that of apostolic tradition and—even more important—equally available to all. Developing the hermeneutic of continuity such a move required was, and would remain, a huge theological task. But the die had been cast—and there were still the Gnostics.

Minns puts the challenge they presented, and its importance, quite well (emphasis added):

..for ordinary and gnostic Christians alike, Christ was the revealer, and therefore the authenticity of the doctrines of both groups had to be established by appeal to a tradition going back to Christ. For both groups, this tradition was normally guaranteed by reference to the Apostles. Hence many of the gnostic texts which have survived, like the books of the New Testament, claim authorship by one or another of the disciples of Jesus. The gnostic Ptolemy told Flora that, if God permitted, she would learn more in the future, when she was "counted worthy of the apostolic tradition which we also have received by succession, because we can prove all our statements from the teaching of the Savior."

So long as both sides insisted that theirs was the authentic tradition, no progress could be made. How was one to differentiate between two contradictory sets of beliefs both claiming to have been handed on from the same set of Apostles? If Irenaeus was to meet the challenge of the gnostics he would need to establish a claim that he held the authentic Scriptures and the authentic tradition and that his opponents did not (p 118).

That differentiation could not be made by mere appeal to "the Scriptures" any more than to "tradition." For the gnostics claimed that they had the authentically apostolic "tradition" in light of which the "Scriptures" were to be interpreted with real "knowledge." So, what was the solution? Continuing on page 118:

[Irenaeus] achieved this by calling into play the succession lists of the leaders of the various churches of supposedly apostolic foundation and showing that the apostolic tradition of these churches had predated the novelties of the heretics....As Irenaeus puts the case, if Christ had handed on any secret teaching to the Apostles, then that teaching would have been preserved in the churches founded by the Apostles, for they would surely have handed on anything they had received from the Lord, secret or otherwise, to those whom they had appointed to be leaders of the churches in their place. But we do not find the secret tradition of the gnostics in those churches, and therefore, these so-called traditions are simply inventions of recent date, while the doctrines actually found in churches of apostolic foundation are the doctrines passed on, in all their fullness, to those churches by the Apostles, and thus from Christ (AH III.3.1-2; V.20.1-2).

The appeal to the apostolic succession of church leaders is what brings authority into play as a touchstone of orthodoxy. Those leaders who were demonstrably and publicly successors of the Apostles could be reasonably presumed to have received and handed on the undiluted apostolic teaching; while the Gnostics' only claim to apostolic "succession" was their claim to somehow know better than the official leaders what the Apostles had really received from Christ. Irenaeus' move here was crucial at this stage of DD, where the link between orthodoxy and ecclesial authority was made more explicit than before. For the Roman and Orthodox communions, the concept and doctrine of apostolic succession has retained just that kind of importance ever since.

In just this respect, Irenaeus was the first major contributor to what I call "meta-doctrine," i.e. the development of doctrine about doctrine. As far as we know, he was the first theologian to argue explicitly that the "true doctrine," the orthodox faith, was that which was received, held and professed publicly and in common by the communion of churches led by those who enjoyed a publicly verifiable apostolic succession. Given that kind of succession, the only reasonable conclusion was that there was no esoteric "tradition" or "knowledge" or "Scriptures" whose import was contrary to that claimed by the official leaders of the Church. And that is just what we would expect if, as the Catholic Church has always insisted, divine revelation was given publicly to all for the salvation of all.

Notice that Irenaeus did not appeal to ecclesial teaching authority as, itself, an article of faith. For even though it was at least an implicit point of faith that those who had demonstrably succeeded the Apostles in church leadership shared in the Apostles' teaching authority, Irenaeus needed an argument for that belief in order to avoid begging the main question at issue between the Church and the Gnostics. His argument was a good one; but it was not rationally compelling, for its conclusion did not follow from axioms or premises that all parties to the dispute accepted. The argument was rather that, given the public "succession lists," it was far more reasonable to accept the Church's than the Gnostics' claim to have preserved and taught the truth handed on from the Lord himself. But the Church's claim, even though rationally plausible, could only be accepted as an article of faith. For if it were to be accepted as an opinion only, then orthodoxy and gnosticism would perforce have been presented to the faithful as mere opposing opinions; and that would have been incompatible with the kind of authority Irenaeus was producing an argument for accepting. As Fr. Richard John Neuhaus (may he rest in peace) was fond of saying: "Wherever orthodoxy becomes optional, it will sooner or later be procribed." Treating orthodoxy merely as a more reasonable opinion than others would have been tantamount to rejecting it. That's because an argument for orthodoxy had to be, among other things, an argument for accepting the kind of ecclesial authority whose claims for itself transcended mere opinion. In Irenaeus' circumstances, it had become essential to cite, as a touchstone of orthodoxy, the consensus of churches led by those who had acceded to publicly verifiable apostolic succession. For only such leaders could plausibly lay claim to sharing in the teaching authority of the Apostles themselves.

That such an understanding of the epistemology, as it were, of faith was crucial for Irenaeus becomes evident through Minn's quite cogent account of how Irenaeus cited the traditional "rule of faith" in the Church against the heretical doctrine shared by the Gnostics and the Marcionites. After quoting AH III.4.2, Minns writes:

The heretics are very clever in their manipulation and distortion of the Scriptures, but they will not mislead anyone, Irenaeus says, who holds fast to 'the unchanging rule of truth, which was received in baptism' (AH I.9.4). Irenaeus several times refers to this rule of truth, and its connection to baptism suggests a creedal formula. However, it does not appear to have had a fixed form, but to have been adaptable to the polemical context in which it was invoked. Its fundamental features are that there is but one God, who created everything from nothing by his Word, and who is the Father of Jesus and the author of the whole history of salvation.

Irenaeus' claim here is not that there is a "rule of truth" accepted in some one, particular form by all who bore the name 'Christian'. For such a rule had no fixed form, and could accordingly be interpreted away or even replaced by clever heretics claiming apostolic authority. Rather, his claim was that the core doctrinal content of that profession of faith which was required, by the church leaders enjoying verifiable apostolic succession, from those receiving baptism was, in its generally accepted sense, logically incompatible with the doctrine held in common by the heretics. A variously formulated "rule" which all the same possessed such a core doctrinal content required, for its status as a touchstone of orthodoxy, that the rule in some-or-other form be that which was imposed by those who enjoyed verifiable apostolic succession—and who thus could make a stronger claim to apostolic authority than the heretics.

Such is the understanding of ecclesial teaching authority for which DV §7 cites Irenaeus: But in order to keep the Gospel forever whole and alive within the Church, the Apostles left bishops as their successors, "handing over" to them "the authority to teach in their own place." (Note 3: AH III, 3, 1). It can be safely said that, to this extent at least, Vatican II's understanding of the Church's general teaching authority is the same as Irenaeus'.

But according to Minns, there is a crucial point of difference between Vatican II, which presents the ordinary teaching of the Church about her own authority, and Irenaeus on the question of DD.

DV §8 says (emphasis added):

This tradition which comes from the Apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. (5) For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (see Luke, 2:19, 51) through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through Episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her.

The words of the holy fathers witness to the presence of this living tradition, whose wealth is poured into the practice and life of the believing and praying Church. Through the same tradition the Church's full canon of the sacred books is known, and the sacred writings themselves are more profoundly understood and unceasingly made active in her; and thus God, who spoke of old, uninterruptedly converses with the bride of His beloved Son; and the Holy Spirit, through whom the living voice of the Gospel resounds in the Church, and through her, in the world, leads unto all truth those who believe and makes the word of Christ dwell abundantly in them (see Col. 3:16).

Thus says Minns (emphasis added):

It is fundamental to the logic of Irenaeus' argument that tradition cannot change, grow, or develop. It is not, in this sense, alive. Since the faith is everywhere one and the same it is equally immune from improvement in the discourse of an eloquent leader of the Church as it is from diminution in the mumbling of an inarticulate one (AH I.10.2). Bishops and teachers of the Church are not there to develop the tradition; there are there simply to hand it on. W. Wigan Harvey, whose edition of Adversus Haereses was published twelve years after [Newman's] Essay on the Development of Doctrine, refers pointedly, though anonymously, to...Newman's book in a note to the text of Irenaeus which I have just paraphrased. 'At least here', he says, 'there is no reserver made in favour of any theory of development. If ever we find any trace of this dangerous delusion in Christian antiquity, it is uniformly the plea of heresy' (28). He quotes Tertullian in support: 'The Valentinians allow themselves the same license as Valentinus, the Marcionites as Marcion: to invent belief at their own whim' (29). Harvey accurately reflects Irenaeus' position. A tradition with the potential to develop would ideally suit the gnostic cause, and be utterly fatal for Irenaeus' (p.119).

And on p. 134, Minns quotes DV §8 and remarks:

We have seen how different this is from Irenaeus' understanding of the tradition. For him, as Yves Congar noted, the 'sure charism of truth' resides not in the subject of the tradition, the church or its leadership, but in the objective tradition itself (3). A developing, or changing, tradition clearly requires an arbiter to determine what is an authentic development and what is not....For Irenaeus, the function of leaders of churches, and especially of churches founded by the Apostles, is to witness to the unchanging tradition. They are to be obeyed not because they have authority to interpret Scripture or Tradition, but because their succession from the Apostles guarantees that what is taught in their churches will be one and the same as that which is taught in every other church which possesses the unchanging tradition.

As plausible as that may seem, however, there are two serious difficulties with Minn's interpretation of Irenaeus here, which is incompatible with my own.

As we have already seen, the logic of Irenaeus' main argument against the Gnostics did not permit him to cite knowledge of fixed, authentic apostolic tradition that could be verified as divine truth independently of ecclesial authority. If, according to Congar and Minns, that's what Irenaeus nonetheless tried to do, then either they've got him wrong or, if they've got him right, he was being self-inconsistent. I'd rather believe the former.

The way Irenaeus rebutted the Gnostics' claim to teach the authentic apostolic "tradition" and possess the authentic apostolic "succession" was to show that it was more reasonable, given the public succession lists, to accept the Church authorities' claim thereto than to accept the Gnostics' claim. Therefore, it was not as though one could compare what the Church authorities taught, on the one hand, with "the Scriptures" and/or the "rule of faith" from "tradition" on the other, to see whether what the Church authorities taught had been handed on from the Apostles unchanged. Rather, one could reliably identify what had been handed on from the Apostles only by reverting to what the successors of the Apostles did in fact consistently teach, both in their application of the "rule of faith" and in their interpretation of what themselves called "the Scriptures." Accordingly, the way to discover the authentic, uncorrupted content and meaning of what had been handed on from the Apostles was simply to discover what those who were demonstrably the successors of the Apostles consistently taught as interpretations of the rule of faith and of the Scriptures. Attempting the task in reverse would have left the orthodox with nothing but question-begging against the Gnostics.

That result renders Minn's interpretation of Irenaeus on DD almost entirely idle. Given the logic of Irenaeus' overall argument in AH, the uncorrupted deposit of faith, or the "unchanged" apostolic "tradition," could only be reliably identified as that which said collegium had always and consistently taught with the aid, and as authentic interpretations of, Scripture and the "rule of faith." Hence, if by "development" or "growth" one means purporting to add to the tradition some-or-other doctrine which the Apostles would not have recognized as divinely revealed, or subtracting something which the Apostles had taught as divinely revealed, then it follows almost trivially that what the authorized successors of the Apostles always and consistently taught just was the unchanging, "undeveloped" deposit of faith handed on from the Apostles. There was no standpoint, independent of true ecclesial authority, by which the fidelity of such authority to the apostolic tradition could be judged. The only way to verify such fidelity was to determine whether this-or-that individual Church leader, or subset of Church leaders, was teaching what the collegium of the successors of the Apostles had consistently taught as divinely revealed, with the teaching authority which it had inherited.

But this is only the secondary difficulty with Minn's interpretation. The primary difficulty arises from Minns' misreading of Vatican II.

From the text of DV §8, which I've quoted above, one may reasonably infer that what the Fathers of Vatican II meant by such terms as "develops" and "progresses" and "moves forward," as applied to Tradition, is not addition to or subtraction from the deposit of faith, but the Church's collective growth in the understanding of Tradition, of what has been handed on from the Apostles. There is no basis for inferring that Irenaeus would have opposed such a notion in principle. He himself has his own theological ideas—e.g., about humanity's prelapsarian state, about theodicy, about millenarism, and other points—some of which, in my opinion, are aids to deepening our understanding of the DF and some of which are not. What he opposed, vigorously, as "novelties" were ideas constituting either idle speculations unmoored to the DF—which the Gnostics went in for on a huge scale—or doctrines that were logically incompatible with the DF as professed by leaders enjoying publicly verifiable apostolic succession—which, as we saw above, is exactly what both the Marcionites and the Gnostics held regarding what was perhaps the most fundamental point of the DF.

Nevertheless, Vatican II itself is partly responsible for Minns' misinterpretation, which is a very common one. According to that misinterpretation, the Church (perhaps in the person of the pope) can and may reverse teachings propounded with diachronic consensus for as far back as we have records—such as those on women's ordination or birth control. On this view, "development" can and sometimes ought to include negation of what the collegium of bishops has always and consistently taught. That is the view which Irenaeus opposed with all his might. But in keeping with DV, the present pope and his predecessor have opposed it too; for no other interpretation of "development" is compatible with the Magisterium's self-understanding. DV's language is defective because does not exclude the aforesaid misinterpretation as a matter of logic. Its language does not distinguish between "development" of Tradition as a process of "handing on" and development of the content of what is "handed on."

Tradition as a process can and ought to develop or grow, because the process of handing on the content of the DF can and ought to include ever-deepening understanding of that content, of what is "handed on," along with ever-more refined expressions of it that are adapted appropriately to historical context. But such a "growth in understanding" (DV §8) may never include propounding as divinely revealed what has not been, or negating what has been presented in the past as divinely revealed. By failing to resolve the verbal ambiguity of "tradition" as process and tradition as content, Vatican II failed to rule out, explicitly, a "hermeneutic of discontinuity" of the kind that Irenaeus faced in his own day, and that the Catholic Church faces today, albeit over different issues. But of course, one of the beauties of DD is that each historical stage of it helps to resolve ambiguities left by the previous stage. That's what the great christological and trinitarian debates of the fourth and fifth centuries did; in my opinion, that's what we need to do again today about morality and ecclesiology. The study of how St. Irenaeus dealt with the discontinuants of his own day should aid us in that task.
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