Too catholic to be Catholic?

Peter Leithart has written an interesting post on a question that he is asked (with varying degrees of friendliness or hostility, depending on source): why not just swim the Tiber already?

Leithart talks of the pain which the church’s divisions cause him, which I think many of us can share:

The division of the church, especially since the Reformation, has largely been a story of horror and tragedy, with the occasional act of faithful separation thrown in.  I regard the division of the church as one of the great evils of the modern world, which has seen more than its share of evils (many of which are, I believe, quite closely related to the division of the church).  What more horrific sight can we imagine than to see Christ again crucified?  Christ is not divided.  I think our main response to this half-millennium of Western division, and millennium-plus of East-West division, should be deep mourning and repentance.

However, he continues, “it’s because I am so passionate to see the church reunited that I, not grudgingly but cheerfully, stay where I am”. He then presents two broad arguments as to why he considers himself to be “too catholic to become Catholic or Orthodox”.

The first is a fairly familiar list of objections to Catholic teachings (though I’ve been a Lutheran for long enough to do a double-take at his suggestion that iconoclasm is part of “true catholicism”):

Certain Catholic teachings and practices obscure the free grace of God in Jesus Christ; prayers through Mary and the saints are not encouraged or permitted by Scripture, and they distract from the one Mediator, Jesus; I do not accept the Papal claims of Vatican I; I believe iconodules violate the second commandment by engaging in liturgical idolatry; venerating the Host is also liturgical idolatry; in both Catholicism and Orthodoxy, tradition muzzles the word of God.

These are not, however, the “primary driving reasons” for Leithart to remain Protestant (probably just as well, I suspect a Catholic reader of that list would observe). Far more important to him is the question of what becoming a Catholic would say about his former Christian life, and the life and faith of those he left behind:

Here’s the question I would ask to any Protestant considering a move: What are you saying about your past Christian experience by moving to Rome or Constantinople? […] Are you willing to say that every faithful saint you have known is living a sub-Christian existence because they are not in churches that claim apostolic succession, no matter how fruitful their lives have been in faith, hope, and love? For myself, I would have to agree that my ordination is invalid, and that I have never presided over an actual Eucharist.  To become Catholic, I would have to begin regarding my Protestant brothers as ambiguously situated “separated brothers,” rather than full brothers in the divine Brother, Jesus.  […] Why should I distance myself from other Christians like that?  I’m too catholic to do that.

I do wonder how “catholic” Leithart really is here, though. After all, his list of objections to Catholic and Orthodox teachings imply that Catholics and Orthodox believers are obscuring the free grace of God, muzzling the word of God, and engaging in systematic idolatry in almost every element of their worship. It’s hard to see how that is any better than the Catholic Church calling Peter Leithart a “separated brother” or claiming that he is not validly ordained.

Setting that aside, it seems to me there are two slightly separate issues here: the question of whether one could be a Catholic, and the question of whether one could become a Catholic. What Leithart sees as the errors of Catholicism would prevent him from being a Catholic, and what he sees as the sectarianism of Catholicism would prevent him from becoming a Catholic. Or to put it another way: however truly “catholicity” might be found in the Roman Catholic Church (as it clearly is, for Leithart, even if in his view mixed with errors), the costs of becoming a Catholic would only be worth paying if to do so were absolutely necessary. And for Leithart, it is not necessary.

35 thoughts on “Too catholic to be Catholic?

  1. “the costs of becoming a Catholic would only be worth paying if to do so were absolutely necessary.” Excellent way of putting it – and one that fits my case. Much as I love the Catholic church I’m not convinced that what it would cost me (and it would cost me serious discomfort in some ways) is something I must pay. Thanks for making this useful distinction.

  2. Too catholic to be Catholic?

    Cute phrase, but no. Leithart can say that only by doing violence to the historical Christian, creedal meaning of the word catholic. Creedally and historically, catholicity is about fullness: the fullness of the faith and the fullness of the sacramental life of the Church. Something is καθολικός when it is κατά ὁλου — “according to the wholeness.” Leithart’s private definition of “catholic” is arrived at by giving a laundry list of teachings and practices that he has excised from the catholic fullness: the communion of saints, the veneration of icons, faithfulness to tradition, and so forth. Rather than demonstrating that he is catholic, Leithart has provided a list of items that demonstrate why, from a Catholic or Orthodox point of view (and on many issues even from a Lutheran point of view) he is simply a heretic: one who puts his own judgment of what is theologically correct over the tradition which has actually, historically been handed down in the Church from the Apostles.

    Although he pays lip service to the idea that there is such a thing as “an act of faithful separation,” he willfully misunderstands the entirely orthodox and catholic (because entirely historical and traditional) practice of closed communion. He complains that Protestants are “not welcome” to communion in a Roman Catholic Church, as if this were simply an offense against charity. But does he not understand that to receive communion at a particular Church’s altar is to make the confession that you are part of “one body” with that Church (we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread)? And that to be part of a body of believers is to confess the same faith that that body of believers confesses? So the standard for communion in the sacraments is, and must be, full agreement in the faith. That is why the Church’s response to false teaching (that is, teaching which falls short of the fullness of the faith) has always been to break communion in the sacraments. How can Leithart fail to understand this principle, or dissent from it, and still claim to be “catholic”?

    Finally, it seems to me that Leithart’s complaint that becoming Catholic or Orthodox means rejecting one’s Christian past is misplaced, and rather petty. First of all, both the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church do regard Protestants as real Christians, whatever the theological disagreements may be. So the notion that a person must reject his life in his former confession as “sub-Christian” is simply a canard. At the same time, however, if you become Catholic or Orthodox, presumably you have concluded that that is where the fullness of the faith (i.e. catholicity) is to be found. And that means that your former confession is in some way less than the fullness. To a greater or lesser extent, it is incomplete. Accepting that does not mean that you were less than, or other than, a Christian, and it does not mean that you cannot (and must not) still respect the convictions of those who remain in the confession that you have left behind. To hold back from embracing the fullness of the faith because it is somehow “not nice” to those who are still Protestant is a case of misplaced priorities.

    I know that Pastor Leithart is widely regarded as a thoughtful and interesting Christian thinker and writer, but I have to confess that the charm eludes me. It seems to me that his whole project of “Reformed Catholicity” consists of re-defining all of the key terms and concepts of traditional Christianity (starting, of course, with “catholicity” itself) so that all of the Reformed distinctives turn out (mirabile dictu) to be “Catholic”! For all his reputation as a deep thinker, his understanding of traditional, patristic Christianity seems rather superficial, and his “Reformed Catholicity” is something of a shell game.

    1. Chris: thanks for this. I largely concur. High-Church Calvinism != Catholic Christianity.

      The “too catholic to be Catholic” line did, however, remind me of the old “English Use” Anglo-Catholic joke that they couldn’t go to Rome, as to do so would mean having to stop being Catholic… 😉

      1. Hey! I resemble that remark (speaking as a crade Anglo-Catholic Episcopalian)!

    2. A brilliant and thorough analysis, Chris. Thanks for your commentary. I agree with you entirely. Given Dr. Leithart’s generally highly acclaimed status as a prominent Reformed theologian and writer, I am surprised and rather disappointed that his response was so petty and full of so many internal contradictions.

      He should simply state what he only hints at between the lines: he cannot bring himself to become Orthodox or Catholic because he cannot bear to adopt some of our doctrines and practices which he considers idolatry. Thus, while complaining that we deny him the chalice because his faith is not the same as our own, he thinks his own theology is superior to that that of those whom he would in ‘catholic’ fellowship offer communion! He holds to the contradictory position that he is more “catholic” [unfortunately interpreting the word as ‘universal’ in the Roman Catholic sense] than either the Orthodox or Catholics because he happens to believe in communing anyone, even people he considers idolaters. Thus he considers his practice of open communion more Christ-like than the Orthodox or Catholic Churches which ‘uncharitably’ maintain closed communion.

      He justifies his attack on the veneration of the saints and images not with any Patristic quotes, as that is impossible (since all the Church Fathers defended and expected veneration of the saints and icons) but with a vague reference to Scripture, which obviously prohibits idolatry. Thus he conflates Orthodox and Catholic veneration of the saints and of icons as idolatry, which he would know is not the case if he actually read the Catholic and Orthodox Church Fathers, especially St. Athanasius and St Germanus. Also, he is apparently unaware of the Seventh Ecumenical Council which anathematized those who refuse to venerate icons. Thus, he reveals himself to be quite ignorant of the extensive Patristic tradition and ecclesiology in defense of such veneration (doulia) which is emphatically *not* worship (latria). This ignorance is rather surprising given his status as a prominent theologian.


      1. Thanks, Ryan, for your kind words. I think “brilliant” is too strong but if I have achieved “clear” and “persuasive” I shall count it a success.

        To be fair to Dr Leithart, I have to presume that he is not unaware of the teachings of the Fathers and of the seventh Ecumenical Council. I am sure he is aware of them, but he just doesn’t buy them — he’s not persuaded. As a Reformed, Dr Leithart subscribes to a strong form of Sola Scriptura, and so a general respect for Councils and Fathers does not spare them from being measured and judged by Scripture. That gives him the ability to claim their authority when they agree with (his interpretation of) Scripture and to escape their authority when they do not. Nice work if you can get it.

      2. Yes, you were at the very least clear and persuasive! It does not surprise me that “he’s not persuaded” since accepting the wisdom of the Fathers and of the Ecumenical Councils would plausibly cause him to abandon his theological reasons for remaining a “reformed catholic” and move into either the Orthodox or Catholic camps. Once you buy into the notion that Christ actually established a Church, a Body which He would remain with and defend to the ages, you really cannot justify the insertion or need for a “Reformation” if Christ is actually leading that Church!

        With regard to Dr. Leithart’s use of Sola Scriptura, in other words, his interpretation essentially works, as have most applications of that doctrine, to side-step questions about whether or not he is part of “the Church” by claiming that the group claiming to be “the Church” deviates from what is explicitly permitted by Scripture? I have always marveled at the doctrine since it is actually *not* to be found anywhere in Holy Scripture. Martin Luther, for all his well-intended criticisms of contemporary abuses and corrupt practices by the papacy, nevertheless had the temerity to remove the apocryphal books from the canon, so when most Protestants speak of “Sola Scriptura”, they actually reference a different, slightly smaller Scripture. With respect, how can a man who articulated Sola Scriptura but deigned to remove certain of the Bible’s books from his approved translation be taken seriously in this regard? Why on earth did Luther presume to remove certain books from the canon? I am aware many Protestants still study these books, but as ‘references’ to be used aside, but not as part of, Scripture.

        Basic history tells us that “the Church” in her wisdom put together the books of the New Testament, rejecting various heretical books by Gnostics and others. Thus, how can one justify subordinating Church Tradition to the Holy Scriptures which the very Church canonized, of whose Tradition the Scriptures remain a vital part? Sola Scriptura inadvertently contributes to the mistaken idea that the Scriptures dropped out of heaven in one piece! I have great respect for the positive contributions many Protestant theologians and individuals have made to humanity, but I just never understood the appeal of the doctrine! It seems to defy common sense.


  3. Ryan,

    Be careful with your assessment of what Martin Luther did with respect to the deutero-canonical books. It is commonly thought that “Luther threw the Apocrypha out of the Bible” but the reality is not quite so simple.

    First of all, it is simply not true that Luther excluded the deutero-canonical books from his German translation. He translated all of the books of the Old Testament, including the deutero-canonicals. When Luther’s translation was printed and published, the deutero-canonicals were placed together at the end of the Old Testament. This differed from the customary order of the books in the Latin Vulgate (which itself differed somewhat, IIRC, from the customary order in the LXX used in the Greek Church), but none of the deutero-canonicals were excluded from Luther’s German Bible.

    What is true is that the deutero-canonical books are at a lower level of doctrinal authority for Lutherans than the other books of the Bible, in this sense: Lutherans do not use the deutero-canonical books as evidence for doctrine unless the doctrine is also taught in the proto-canonical books. To put it another way, Lutherans will use deutero-canonical texts to support doctrines taught elsewhere in Scripture, but will not use deutero-canonical texts as a primary source of doctrine. Whether one agrees with this lower placement of the deutero-canonicals or not (I do not), it has to be said that this notion was not invented by Luther, but inherited by him from the early Church. Several of the Church Fathers, notably St Jerome and St Athanasius, also placed the deutero-canonicals at a lower level of authority.

    The best evidence that the deutero-canonical books were not “thrown out of the Bible” by Martin Luther or any subsequent Lutherans is the fact that these books are still used liturgically in the Lutheran Church. Texts from the deutero-canonicals are read as Scripture lessons in public worship on some saints’ days, and have served as the basis of some of the best-loved Lutheran hymns (for example, Nun Danket Alle Gott, based on Sirach 50.22-24).

    Bibles used by Lutherans in the United States continued to include the deutero-canonical books as long as they were published in German for immigrant congregations. In the early twentieth century, American Lutherans made the transition to using English liturgically, and at that time they began to use the English Bibles which were then available. Those Bibles, published under the auspices of Reformed Protestants, did not include the deutero-canonicals.

    In sum, Luther did not remove the deutero-canonical books of the Bible. The exclusion of these books was a Reformed, not a Lutheran, phenomenon. The Reformed reject these books outright, but among Lutherans they continue to be regarded as Scripture, albeit at a secondary level of authority.

    1. Chris: indeed, and a similar point applies to the New Testament, where Luther was keen on the distinction between homologoumena and antilegomena, with the latter only to be used to support doctrines that could be established from the homologoumena.

      In practice, though, I suspect that most of Actually Existing Lutheranism, certainly in the English-speaking world, is now thoroughly Protestant in its attitude towards the Bible: the deutero-canonical books effectively excluded and the antilegomena/homologoumena distinction ignored, leaving a “flat” Old Testament and New Testament of equal authority throughout.

      1. In practice, though …

        You are quite right about Actually Existing Lutheranism. That is both good and bad, in my view: much has been lost by excluding the deutero-canonical books, but on the other hand the antilegomena/homologoumena distinction is nonsense on stilts, with no Scriptural, historical, or theological basis.

        My main point in replying as I did to Ryan is that, whatever the case is in Actually Existing Lutheranism, the exclusion of the deutero-canonicals cannot be blamed on Luther.

      2. Fair enough – a while since I’d looked at that one, and I was always loath to push the letter to the Hebrews into the second division…

  4. If you are interested in the antilegomena/homologoumena debate, see the catfight between me and Father Hollywood (whom I like and otherwise usually agree with) here.

  5. If Leithart can’t make a jump because he can’t swallow Orthodox or Catholic doctrines then those doctrines are functioning in the way that they ought, as shibboleths. 2nd. What he seems to be implicitly admitting by arguing that closed communion treats others (unjustly) as schismatic is that on his ecclesiology schism is not a real world possibility in terms of schism from the church. Schism can only relate to external ancilary forms relative to the church or so it seems to me. But this is just to say that his entire essay presupposes his own doctrinal measuring rod and so is question begging. As far as one’s past Christian experience, it requires one to admit that it was deficient in some real way. Are the Reformed asking non-denominational converts to admit anything less? Liethart’s complaint sounds like something any schismatic group in the early church could say, “We won’t join you because it would mean saying we were in schism.” Uh huh, you are.

  6. There are, of course, always two sides to an argument, and I would be interested to hear Leithart’s responses to some of these offerings. It’s easy to boast of his (or anyone else’s) shortcomings when he is not in a position to make a reply to some of these objections to his views on this matter. (I have [intentionally] overlooked the possibility that he reads this blog but withholds any comments because he is stunned into silence by the power and persuasiveness of these comments).

    I don’t intend to defend Leithart here; I’m sure he is quite capable of defending himself (and that I am not). John is right to point out some of the inconsistencies in his thinking, but attacking the “details” of his rather indiscriminate and colloquial blog post could be a bit of an exercise in kicking over a straw man. Of course, I’m assuming that he has stated his position on this matter in a more articulate manner elsewhere (or that he is capable of doing so).

    I’m no theologian (or church historian for that matter), so I don’t intend to get tangled up in this discussion with everyone here who is so much more knowledgable than I am. However, some of the comments have raised a few questions in my mind.

    Mr. Jones wrote the following:
    “It seems to me that his whole project of “Reformed Catholicity” consists of re-defining all of the key terms and concepts of traditional Christianity (starting, of course, with “catholicity” itself) so that all of the Reformed distinctives turn out (mirabile dictu) to be “Catholic”! For all his reputation as a deep thinker, his understanding of traditional, patristic Christianity seems rather superficial, and his “Reformed Catholicity” is something of a shell game.”

    I’m wondering just what are these key terms and concepts of “traditional Christianity” (that Leithart has so woefully re-defined)? I guess I’m asking just what is “traditional Christianity” as Mr. Jones conceives of it? From other comments Mr. Jones has made, he seems to think it is the Patristic consensus made authoritative through Apostolic succession. Is that correct? Is there even such a Patristic consensus (ie were all the Church Fathers just unanimously agreed on all these doctrinal issues)? If not, then just what is the consensus? Where does it come from? Which creed(s) does it spring from? Does it include “the communion of saints, the veneration of icons, faithfulness to tradition, and so forth” with “and so forth” being all the liturgical rites and traditions that are part of Mr. Jones’ Anglo-Catholic religious practice? What is excluded and what is not? Who decides? Which tradition is the correct (Apostolic/authoritative) one? And what about the idea of authority via Apostolic succession? Is that a coherent idea (both logically and historically)? Is it affirmed by Scripture (or should I say the tradition interpreting Scripture)? And what does it mean that the tradition interprets Scripture when the tradition produces such a variety of interpretations? These are only a few of the questions that come to my mind. I’m not sure these questions all have easy answers. But, if that is true, then I wonder at Mr. Jones’ trenchant confidence that they do and his scoffing at others (like Leithart) that think otherwise.

    1. I’ve leave Chris to come back on most of these points if he chooses to do so, but the one observation I was making is that Pastor Leithart’s definition of catholicity is violently at odds with both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox understandings. In his subsequent post he calls on the Roman Catholic Church to “tear down the high places”: in other words, to get rid of devotion to Mary and the saints, remove “idolatrous” imagery and statues from their churches, cease devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, abandon papal infallibility, and remove Tradition’s “muzzle” from Scripture. I think a Catholic would find this an unrecognisable definition of “catholicity”.

    2. Cam,

      Those are fair questions. I will try to give as substantial a response as the scope of a blog comment will allow.

      First of all, don’t read too much into my reference to being a “cradle Anglo-Catholic.” I was baptized in the Episcopal Church and raised as an Anglo-Catholic, but I left Anglicanism decades ago. I was Eastern Orthodox for about ten years and am now (like our host) a Lutheran. My thoughts on these matters are formed much more by my time as an Orthodox than my upbringing as an Episcopalian.

      What I mean by “traditional Christianity” is the Christian faith as it existed, and as the historical record shows it to us, in its first thousand years. The period of “a thousand years” is a bit arbitrary, and I don’t mean it as a sure guide to what is right and wrong in Christianity, as if one can say that if a teaching or practice existed before 1000 AD it is certainly right, and if the first evidence of it were in 1200 AD it must surely be wrong. But there is a definite and identifiable body of both teaching and practice which characterized mainstream Christianity in the first millennium, which goes back (so far as we have historical evidence) to the time of the Apostles and their immediate successors, and which is common to Latin, Greek, and Syriac Christianity in that early period. As an historical concept I think this is fairly coherent, and is a pretty good guide to the key ideas, concepts, and terminology of the Christian faith.

      Of course, another way of defining my use of “traditional Christianity” is simply to say that it is a shorthand for “Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism, especially what the two have in common,” a definition which pretty much picks out the same historical content. But the definition I gave in the last paragraph make clearer what the basis is of my concept of “traditional Christianity.”

      I’m wondering just what are these key terms and concepts of “traditional Christianity”?

      As noted, the term catholicity is itself the first of these concepts; and closely related are the other creedal marks of the Church (unity, holiness, and apostolicity), because Pr Leithart’s failures are generally in the area of ecclesiology. In traditional Christianity (as I have defined it), the Church is Apostolic because it is historically and concretely the same Church that the Apostles founded; it is Holy because it is set apart from the world as the context in which Christians receive and participate in the holiness of God; it is One because all the local Churches confess the same faith and follow the same practice, and that unity is manifested by mutual recognition (marked by communion in the sacraments) among all of the local Churches; and it is Catholic because it manifests the fullness of the faith in teaching and practice.

      This ecclesiology is very different from what Reformed protestants (including Pr Leithart) would believe and teach about the Church. Most Reformed protestants would say that the first-millennium Church got these teachings all wrong. But if the Reformed are right, then these concepts of traditional Christianity are simply meaningless. What Pr Leithart is doing is re-using the terminology of traditional Christianity, but emptying the terms of their original meaning. For Pr Leithart, the Oneness of the Church does not mean that there is a specific communion of Churches that all recognize one another, are in communion with one another, and teach and practice the same faith; it appears to mean any and all congregations that call themselves “Christian” even if they teach and practice completely different and inconsistent things. And for him, the Catholicity of the Church does not mean the fullness of the faith as historically taught and practiced, but rather a truncated set of teachings conforming to the Reformed interpretation of Scripture. This really is a use of terms not according to their common and historical definition, but according to one person’s idiosyncratic understanding of them.

      1. Thank you, Mr. Jones, for taking the time to reply. I am quite interested in this question, even if I am uninformed about it.

        I think I expressed myself rather poorly (as I tend to do). The thrust of my post was this: I am in agreement, as I stated earlier, with John’s initial assessment of Leithart’s insconsistent thinking on this matter since Leithart’s so-called catholicity would certainly not be shared by Catholics.

        Mr. Jones, you continued in the same vein of criticism, but went further than John in your claim that there is, in fact (and it appears a very clear fact to your mind), a catholic “wholeness” of doctrines great and small arising from the (so-called) Patristic consensus and based on Apostolic authority and succession (culminating in the life and practice of some High Church liturgical tradition of today). I find this claim to be a dubious one, and not because I simply want to find it so. I certainly wish I could believe that this was the case, for then I could rest my head on my pillow at night in the secure knowledge that I am in the Tradition in the full communion of the saints and of the Church unbroken from Christ and His Apostles until now. From the few courses that I have taken and from what I have read of church history and the Patristics, I don’t get the impression that there is this obvious consensus, particularly this Patristic consensus. In fact, the opposite seems to me to be the case – that doctrine was largely born out of disputes among the Church Fathers with the councils arbitrating between them.

        If what consensus there was (and is) was born out of these disputes, then it is reasonable to wonder whether this is best explained by the idea of Apostolic authority as succession within the Church that lends authority to those deemed to be in succession to make the hard decisions on doctrine, or as the Church’s often tumultuous, but faithful correspondence to the Apostolic tradition, particularly as it is made manifest in Scripture. I lean towards the latter, even as I have come to understand that Scripture and tradition “grew up together” so to speak. Of course, you will think my inclination an ill-gotten interpretation of history and Scripture, but I find I am similarly wary of the Tradition’s interpretation of Christian history. We are at an impasse, and it won’t do to contend that Leithart (and, by extension, myself) are eschewing the tradition because we simply don’t agree that what we are eschewing amounts to the tradition in the first place.

  7. Cam,

    Perhaps it is I who have been unclear, but I think you are still reading too much into what I have written. I am making a more limited claim than you think I am making.

    One has to distinguish between an historical claim and a theological claim. The historical claim is that there was, in the first millennium or so of Christianity, a coherent body of doctrine and practice that characterized mainstream Christianity, and constituted the central tradition of Christianity. The theological claim is that this first millennium body of teaching and practice was (and is) in fact correct and orthodox, and that whatever teaching or practice of later Christianity that deviates from it is therefore heterodox. For the purposes of this discussion, I am making the historical claim (there was such a coherent body of teaching and practice), not the theological claim (that body of teaching and practice is a sure guide to orthodoxy).

    It is true that Christianity in the first millennium was a diverse phenomenon, with a variety of voices within mainstream, orthodox Christianity and an even wider variety among those who eventually were judged to be beyond the bounds of Orthodoxy. Nevertheless, there was sufficient consensus to give key terms like “catholic” and “apostolic” coherent meanings, and sufficient consistency to key practices such as the basic structure of the Church’s liturgy and the practice of closed communion, that we may safely regard them as mainstream practice. If someone like Pr Leithart is going to make the claim to be a “Catholic Christian,” then he needs to be using the historical, mainstream meaning of the word “Catholic.” If he doesn’t, then his claim is simply meaningless.

    That is a very different, and much more limited, thing to say than an all-encompassing claim that Apostolic Succession and the consensus of the Fathers is a sure guide to orthodoxy and orthopraxis. I never made that claim (not in this discussion, at least). If one is going to make that specifically theological claim, then one has to be prepared to address a whole range of other questions which then arise (how do you identify that Patristic consensus? what is the proper role of doctrinal development within the tradition? how does this relate to the authority of Scripture? what is the proper role (if any) of the Pope in identifying the authentic tradition? etc, etc.). Now, I do believe that there is such a thing as an authoritative Apostolic Tradition, and I have a well-considered stance on all those ancillary questions. But that is an entirely different discussion, and it’s not necessary to make that claim for my criticism of Pr Leithart to stand.

    1. Thank you for this clarification, especially between the historical and theological, although the two are not completely separate, I think.

      Here is your claim that I am most interested in:
      “The historical claim is that there was, in the first millennium or so of Christianity, a coherent body of doctrine and practice that characterized mainstream Christianity, and constituted the central tradition of Christianity.”

      I think this is true. I think most Christians agree this is true, despite your unfortunate remark that “most Reformed protestants would say that the first-millennium Church got these teachings all wrong.”

      The question, of course, is, what was that “coherent body of doctrine and practice”? Leithart (along with most other Protestants) doesn’t seem to think it includes prayers through Mary and the saints, veneration of images or of saints, veneration of the host, certain Papal claims, etc. Is he simply wrong (he and every other intelligent Protestant)? Have they ignored their Pelikan and their Schaff and just turned a blind eye to the obvious truth of the history of doctrine? I find this hard to accept. If the history is so blatant, how have Protestants kept up the sham for so long? Shouldn’t Protestant theologians and historians be swimming the Tiber by the hundreds and thousands (or at least convert to some High Church tradition)? Or am I supposed to believe that they are all just either misinformed or intellectually dishonest?

      You will have to say that he (and all the Protestants with him) indeed is mistaken. They think your history is mistaken as well. This is the impasse I was speaking about. And I really don’t know how to proceed from here. But we are not talking about core doctrines or what is known as the “essentials” of Christianity here, although I get the feeling that you seem to think of some of those doctrines I listed above are core doctrines because they fall under catholic wholeness of accepted and established doctrine. If this is true, then we are, again, at an impasse, for what you consider core doctrine, I consider an accretion. We have both read our Pelikan and our Schaff. Where do we go from here?

      1. Leithart (along with most other Protestants) doesn’t seem to think it includes prayers through Mary and the saints, veneration of images or of saints, veneration of the host, certain Papal claims, etc. Is he simply wrong (he and every other intelligent Protestant)?

        I’m not sure that “every intelligent Protestant” denies that the undivided Church featured “Mary and the saints, veneration of images or of saints [and] veneration of the host” (at least within the context of the Mass/Divine Liturgy). (Veneration of the Blessed Sacrament outside the context of the Mass, and “certain papal claims” certainly infallibility may be a different matter – I don’t know enough concerning the pre-Vatican I history of the latter, in particular, to judge.)

        I’d always understood the Protestant objection to be that, yes, these things took place on a widespread (and ultimately near-universal) scale, but that they were part of a dismayingly-rapid fall from the gospel purity of apostolic Christianity as taught in the New Testament. In other words, the disagreement is more theological than historical (though, to be sure, Protestants have contested whether those things were as universally accepted from the earliest days of the Church as Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians claim).

        But I confess to having read little Pelikan and no Schaff, so will bow to the two of you on the historical questions…

      2. Cam, I haven’t time for an extensive reply at the moment, but I will at least leave you with a little joke.

        As you may be aware, Jaroslav Pelikan was baptized and raised a Lutheran, but towards the end of his life he converted to Eastern Orthodoxy. He was rather circumspect about his reasons for doing so, but at one point he quipped “Many Protestants who convert to Orthodoxy do so because of the books they have read. I may be the only one who converted because of the books I have written.”

        Evidently Prof Pelikan did not feel that the Church history that he so ably researched and wrote was inconsistent with Orthodoxy.

  8. To both, I am quite certain I know far less than either of you. To read is not necessarily to comprehend, nor to remember. I’m sure I could learn a lot from either of you.

    I thought of this, unfortunately, after the fact: As much as Mr. Jones distinguishes between theology and history, we read history through our theological inclinations (among other things). That doesn’t mean that there is no historical fact of the matter, but that it may be difficult to discover, much like any truth.

    My field is philosophy of religion and there is a famous Christian philosopher named Richard Swinburne who, much like Pelikan, made the move from RC to EO. I found the move quite astonishing considering that he is quite rationalist/evidentialist in his thinking (which fits much better with RC) and was, like Pelikan, not exactly a young man when he converted.

    1. According to Wiki, Prof Swinburne was in the Church of England prior to his conversion to Orthodoxy, rather than in the Catholic Church – though I gather his philosophy draws heavily on Thomas Aquinas, which I would imagine makes him pretty unusual among Eastern Orthodox Christians.

      1. Wow! Some teacher told me once that Swinburne was RC and I confess I have believed it unswervingly until now. The point remains the same. His rationalism still fits better in Anglicanism than it does in EO. Apparently, they let him join without making him drop the Filioque clause in his creedal affirmations! Scandalous!

  9. John,
    congratulations on your new blog, which I just belatedly discovered!

    Rev. Dr. Leithart was courteous enough to write me back when I sent him an email in response to his article. I’d be interested in what you all think of some of his follow-up articles, particularly the ones about the Vincentian canon, and the division between Israel and Judah as analogous to current divisions among Christians.

    From reading the Fathers and various church histories, it has long seemed to me that the united, authoritative, catholic voice of the Church does not extend much beyond the Nicene Creed. Like Dr. Leithart, I do not have the heart to unchurch another group of Christians because it “followeth not with us” (Luke 9:49).

    1. Hi Joel, good to have you with us. 🙂

      I know what you mean, but I suspect even the Nicene fathers would disagree with the claim that the Nicene Creed exhaustively expresses the catholic faith – which is why the subsequent “undisputed” ecumenical councils were necessary in order to determine points that had been left open by Nicaea. (And why, a Roman Catholic would no doubt argue, God provided a continuing teaching authority to guide the church.)

      Also, I don’t think it’s a case of “unchurching” other Christians. Even if the RCC regards Protestant churches as being mere “ecclesiastical communities” rather than true churches, it still sees those of us who are members of such “communities” as being in the Church by virtue of our baptism. The same is true of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, which doesn’t see as “unchurched” those who don’t accept its confessions.

      1. I have the same suspicion. However, do you think the ‘undisputed’ character of the so-called ecumenical councils is in the eye of the beholder? I think, for example, of how the Council of Frankfort rejected the 7th ‘Ecumenical’ Council’s decrees.

      2. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Frankfort only condemned what turned out to be a mistranslation of Nicaea II’s teaching on images. See also the “excursus on the Council of Frankfort” here, which suggests that the synod may have got confused between Nicaea II and the preceding heretical council at Constantinople.

      3. the united, authoritative, catholic voice of the Church does not extend much beyond the Nicene Creed

        If we are to measure the authority of an ecumenical council or the authority of its dogmatic teaching by the united and undisputed voice of the Church, then Nicaea I would be the first council to be excluded. No council of the Church was ever more vigorously or more widely disputed and denied than Nicaea. The imperial power was solidly Arian, there were Arian bishops everywhere (even Rome dithered and compromised at times). Arianism was so much in the ascendant that in the mid-fourth century (in St Jerome’s memorable words) “the world groaned and marvelled to find itself Arian” and Athanasius stood alone against the world (from exile, of course).

        In the end, of course, the Church came to its senses and Nicene orthodoxy prevailed (although Arianism remained a lively force and a theological threat for centuries to come). But you will look in vain for an ecumenical council that was ever unanimously received. The Nestorians rejected Ephesus (and still do), the Monophysites rejected Chalcedon (and still do), the Monotheletes rejected Constantinople III, and the Iconoclasts rejected Nicaea II. That does not mean that those councils are not authentic witnesses to the Catholic faith; the Vincentian canon is not meant to give heretics a vote.

    2. There can be little doubt that the iconoclasm of Frankfort is due either to a mistranslation or to a willful misunderstanding of the decrees of Nicaea II. Frankfort condemns the giving of “adoration” to the images “as to the Divine Trinity”, which Nicaea II certainly never taught. Nicaea II is very careful to distinguish between veneration of images (which is approved) and adoration of images (which is condemned). Frankfort ignores this distinction.

      Again, the authority of an ecumenical council does not depend on its “undisputed” character, since none of them were undisputed at the time and most of them are still not undisputed.

  10. John, Chris,

    thanks for the replies!

    Going by decade-old memories of a book I read in France: the Liber Carolini (possibly authored by Alcuin), while rejecting the conciliar decrees of Nicaea II, also stated positively what it thought good worship was where images were concerned. It approved the worship of the bread of the Eucharist because it was, in fact, not an image but Christ Himself; it allowed worship of the cross because the sign of the cross had been revealed from heaven; and it stated that man-made images were valuable as teaching aids. What was conspicuously left out of the list was the notion of worshipping man-made images to pass the worship along to the person depicted.

    Was Frankfort at fault for ignoring the distinction between veneration (bowing to, proskunesis) and adoration (giving divine service to, latreia)? By forbidding both, the Scriptures also seem to ignore the distinction.

  11. “It approved the worship of the bread of the Eucharist because it was, in fact, not an image but Christ Himself; it allowed worship of the cross because the sign of the cross had been revealed from heaven; and it stated that man-made images were valuable as teaching aids.”

    This is precisely what the “classical” Eastern iconoclasts (e.g., the purportedly ecumenical “Council of Hiereia” of 754) held as well.

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