Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Introducing the Fathers

The Fathers need a genuine return to Church life and catechesis. We must not know merely what the Church Fathers believed but also how they believed. We have received doctrine from them through succeeding generations with the sensus fidelium intact, we pray. Several movements to reinvigorate interest in Patristic texts arose in the 19th and 20th century, among them the Oxford Movement and the Ressourcement component of the Nouvelle Théologie. The latter group, as well as the 20th century liturgical reformers and certain German speaking writers, selectively read the Church Fathers to advance novel concepts. A more genuine return to Patristics transpired in English Catholicism and Protestantism, as well as in the Orthodox Church. While the revival has not led to any significant changes at the parish level it has precipitated publishers to print affordable volumes of the Fathers. St. Vladimir's Seminary is one such publisher.

St. Vladimir generally puts out a good product, a faithful translation accompanied by a moderate introduction from a qualified academic. Their volumes from St. Cyprian of Carthage are introduced by Dr. Allen Brent, a leading professor of theology at King's College and the Lateran University. While one might think an introduction to a Church Father might merit a short biography and an outline of the work about to be read. Dr. Brent supplies these necessities and more. No fewer than three times in his edition of On the Church does Brent delve into the consequence of Cyprian's writing for the Papacy. Why? Because "Clearly Cyprian's theology of the Church seems to render unnecessary a pope of Rome as the guarantor of the unity of the Church." Brent writes off Cyprian's short and almost easily missed exegesis of Matthew 16:18 as a lingering foible from his pagan mindset, which, in the "tradition of Tertullian and Irenaeus.... made the See of Rome analogous to that of the emperor as princep, or as first citizen and leader of the Senate." Both in the introduction and in the actual text Brent rambles about the supposed forgery of the later version of the the purportedly papalistic text by proto-Ultramontanists as hypothesized by Edward Benson, father of Robert Hugh Benson, while acknowledging that other commentators believed Cyprian may have modified the text when his address reached a different audience. While I am sure St. Vladimir's is pleased that Dr. Brent penned his gloss of St. Cyprian, but I am equally sure they read past his equation of Anglican ecclesiology with Greek and in contrast to Roman.

Brent's dodgy ideas do not stop there. He goes on to lament that Cyprian "has not the fruits, if such they be, of modern literary criticism of the Fourth Gospel, which would see the Petrine passages, principally John 21, as the later imposition of a hierarchical principal in which Peter as a named individual receives the ministry of teaching and preserving the flock." In contrast to this "later imposition" of authority, "Many scholars would argue that Paul's early communities were charismatic" and "self-authenticating" coteries "united by the same Spirit." An honest question for Dr. Brent from someone who read History at two respected universities: just what is a self-authenticating community in the Spirit? Rather than answering a reasonable question, Brent passes another question: "Why cannot therefore the Church as the body of Christ be understood as such a self-authenticating movement of the Spirit, creating new communities without hierarchy, in which every Spirit filled believer receives the power to absolve?"

A more prudent question might be: why do men who do not trust the texts of the Gospels still, in one form or another, dedicate their lives to some fluid concept of Christianity which would render them irrelevant if taken to its full conclusion? The Holy Spirit does not blow where ever it will in the loose sense Brent asks it to. The Holy Spirit came once at Pentecost and is passed on by the Church, which is a community authenticated by the Spirit, not by itself.

I am deeply disappointed that St. Vladimir is publishing this sort of scholarship in their Popular Patristics series. Hopefully their seminary instruction is more traditional.

Dr. Brent is now a priest in the Ordinariate.


  1. "Dr. Brent is now a priest in the Ordinariate." - :worrying intensifies:

    1. In fairness, his volume on Cyprian was published in 2005 - six years before he joined the Ordinariate.

      Perhaps his views changed in the interim.

    2. I actually have the Cyprian book.

      I would also point out that largely we don’t have Cyprian’s ecclesiology, because, as was seen a century later with the Donatists, problems emerge.

    3. Could you elaborate on that a bit, Matthew?

      I'm asking because, as I noted in my first comment on this blog on a different post recently, I struggled last year with a strong temptation to leave Rome for Orthodoxy (a temptation I have largely gotten over, mainly because of the self-contradictory nature of Orthodox theologians on ecclesiology and their incompatible arguments among themselves for rejecting Rome).

      One of the big arguments from the local Orthodox priest I had met with many times was St. Cyprian's ecclesiology and his position on heretical baptism vis-a-vis the Pope. But then, when I read the collection of essays edited by Fr. Meyendorff on "The Primacy of Peter," one of them posited that (a) a universalist ecclesiology necessarily implied papal primacy, and (b) Cyprian advocated for a universalist ecclesiology. So, my (amateur) read of this essay was basically, Cyprian was a proto-Papist and he shows the first sign of the "corruption" of a supposedly non-universal ecclesiology, so we have to reach back to before Cyprian's time for "real" authentic Orthodox ecclesiology.

      It was a bit confusing, and admittedly, I'm not formally educated on these things and I am quite a newcomer to ecclesiology as such, which was "thrust upon" me out of necessity because of the "Orthodox temptation."

      Hence, I'd appreciate your wisdom & elaboration on this.

    4. "Orthodox temptation" is quite easy to get over once you've attended a few Byzantine Orthodox churches and heard some anti-Catholic vitriol when attending as a curious onlooker. The hyperdox convertodox are the worst.
      That said, if all the good or tolerable Catholic churches in my city were to disappear in a flash then I'd take refuge in a Syriac or Coptic church with no qualms whatsoever.

    5. The basic point of St Cyprian's ecclesiology—that to be in the Church one must be in Communion with a bishop who is in Communion with all the other bishops—indeed became the standard view of the Church until the Reformation broke out.

      I think Matthew is alluding to some of Cyprian's more extreme views that were in their time new and which did not stand the test of time. Cyprian, for example, held that all Sacraments conferred outside of the Church were invalid (Eucharist was rejected as a sacrifice as the false Old Testament sacrifices were), including Baptism (St Stephen, the Roman Pope, held the more traditional opinion that those Baptized in heresy should be received by Confession, but defended it poorly). The Donatist controversy, which posited the validity and efficacy of Sacraments depended on the disposition of the minister, understandably relates to Cyprian's view. The Church did not accept this element of Cyprian's ecclesiology.

      Interestingly, the Orthodox have atavistically and occasionally accepted this controversial point. Some Orthodox writers have argued all Roman Sacraments are either invalid or valid, but without value, because they are outside of the Church and one cannot confer a Sacrament without belonging to the Church that owns the Sacrament; of course for most of history since the separation the Orthodox have accepted the validity of Roman orders (I distinctly remember Jesuits were given Confession faculties in Eastern Europe). I do not think Orthodoxy has accepted this element of Cyprian's ecclesiology, but it does seem to be a permissible opinion, which it is not in Catholicism.

    6. I agree with you EV. I was Orthodox for a short time and attended DL at a monastery that was under the Jerusalem Patriarchate, but since has switched to ROCOR. Every coffee hour was filled with anti-Catholic vitriol and lies. I left years ago and now go to a Ukrainian Catholic parish. I also agree with you about the Oriental Orthodox. They don't have hatred toward the Catholic Church as many EOs do.


  2. That's how New Testament and Early Church studies use to work in many university departments: let's deny the text every reliability if its content don't match our (modern, secularist) prejudices. Though textual criticism is often a necessary tool when dealing with ancient writings, this anachronistic kind of approach is an insult to genuine Philology (and Theology, of course!)

  3. Wipf and Stock reprints tomes of the Fathers with far less commentary, and being older, it is more excusable. I have one volume of the Ante-Nicene Fathers.