|My Jesuit school with the new Pedro Arrupe annex. I do not recommend.|
Until 2012 my religious education consisted of eight years at an excellent parochial school, four years at a Jesuit high school, and four reactionary years attempting to deprogram what that last experience. A Jesuit philosophy teacher taught us Christ’s social doctrine attracted our attention more powerfully than the Resurrection; similarly, a textbook utilized during our senior year, Justice and Peace, intimated that William Jefferson Clinton’s welfare state policies reflected a perfect implementation of post-Vatican II Christian outreach.
|What makes the Bodlein so conducive to|
During the summer before the final year of high school I thought it worthwhile to peruse the greater religious works of Western culture and so I acquired a set of St. Augustine’s major writings, namely Confessions and City of God, which I read in succession. Like any sensible school boy, the working of things attracted me more than socialist philosophy, and I read the Doctor’s work only to remember that he articulated General Relativity in writing fifteen centuries before Einstein articulated the same truth formulaically. In college I borrowed a set of the Summa from the Theology library at Oxford to read scattered articles in my occasional boredom betwixt terms with no particular direction in reading. I was Edward Waverly, a dilettante in theology who knew just enough bits and bobs to cause trouble for myself.
In the basement of the Melkite parish the priest maintained a lending library of beaten up copies of books. Some covered the history of the patriarchate of Antioch; others were written by contemporary Orthodox academics, among them Hopko, Schmemann, Meyendorff, and Florovsky. And then there were thin volumes ascribed to names I had scantly heard before: Gregory of Nyssa, Polycarp, Vincent, Cyprian, Isaac the Syrian, and the odd work by Chrysostom. I took On the Soul and the Resurrection by St. Gregory of Nyssa, the smallest of the small books and the quickest read, I hoped. I half expected On the Soul to read like either a modern polemical work, a kinder version of Ann Coulter’s vague screed, or something of a philosophy book where Jesus replaces ideology. Neither On the Soul nor any other work I read fell under these narrow taxonomies.
One year of reading concluded with two impressions: that the Fathers spoke wrote with focus about truths of Christ and that they took much for granted that I took as development. No Father saw himself as the propagator of a “school” of theology or ideological take on matters of Christology. These men, mostly bishops, spoke and wrote with the authority of men who purported to know about God and who possessed the authority in their voices to make others hew to their doctrines.
Each had a perspective—be it Greek philosophical language, the Latin legal language, or Alexandrian popular philosophy—that modern scholars expurgate into a systemic thought absent in the minds of the original writers. These men used the tools and perspectives at their disposal to defend Christ in their times and pass on these plain truths for posterity. St. John of Damascus spoke in legal distinctions familiar to him as a minister of state for the Umayyad caliphate, breaking types of devotion to icons into categories based both on intention and the extent of the devotion. Moreover, without delving into Platonism, he connected the “image” of the icon with its prototype so intricately that he supposed to refuse the veneration of holy images was a refusal of the Incarnation itself. St. John connected representations of Jesus, of His miracles, and of the Saints with the very coming of God to earth to effect our redemption from sin. The Damascene saint’s work came to fruition when the holy images returned to Hagia Sophia on the “Sunday of Orthodoxy”; the Church met in a general council to bless the veneration of icons and condemn those who, in principle, refuse to do so.
For all their words the Church Fathers preached doctrine in a sparse, dogmatic way that modern ears might find unappealing, but which reified confusing concepts in an uncertain time. They were dogmatic in the truest sense of the word, dogma itself being a Greek word for a “little truth”. It was this “dogmatic” kind of teaching that permeated the best Councils in the Church’s history: Nicaea I and IV, Lateran IV, and Trent. Some of the worst councils—Constance, Vatican II—have little dogmatic value and are simply loquacious for their own sake. In the preaching of these “little truths” the Church has been strong in pronouncing narrow points, leaving the actual explication of these doctrines to the bishops themselves. The origin of the word “definition” may well be de finis, meaning “concerning limits”; ends were placed on what could be said, but limits were not placed on how much could be said of these “little truths”. Most late Patristic and medieval theology did little more than elaborate at length on what the Fathers and Councils bound all true Christians to believe.
While the Cappadocian Fathers and the Apostolic Father enumerated various teachings on the Divinity of Christ, on the title of the Theotokos, on holy images, they also spoke of many points of Church teaching that contemporary historians would have us believe to be medieval “developments”. In short, the Fathers did not elucidate a long doctrine for Apostolic succession precisely because every Christian—Catholic, monophysite, gnostic—already believed in it. No doctrine disputed by the Reformers is more arrant in ancient writings than the necessity of regenerative Baptism for salvation and its accompanying incorporation of the neophyte into the new creation that is the Church. The fourth and fifth century Fathers are perhaps less helpful in tracing teachings owing to the polemical nature of their work, but in the third century St. Cyprian of Carthage already used the terms “Trinity”, “Catholic Church”, “subdiaconate”, he spoke of Jesus Christ as “God”, and he ruled his flock in union with his council of presbyters. While these are impressive testaments to the antiquity of the Church, St. Irenaeus brought me much further.
Why believe? If viewed in a vacuum, as if the results of a priori inductions, the claims of the Church are certainly absurd. Slightly more helpful is that two-pronged “Scripture and Tradition” approach in vogue in the last half century, as though the Church is a Bible church with something called “Tradition” tacked on. What if we believed in Christ because we believed the people who told us of Christ? This was certainly the case of St. Irenaeus of Lyon, who at a young age knew St. Polycarp, who is turn knew either St. John the Apostle or St. John the Presbyter. What Polycarp recounted of St. John’s teachings enamored Irenaeus and ignited a burning industry in him that persisted until his death in 202AD. In his On the Apostolic Preaching Irenaeus speaks as a witness to Christ who knew something personally about Jesus rather than as one quoting books. He provided proofs that Our Lord was indeed the awaited Messiah by exegeting the stories and prophecies of the Old Testament, treating them as narratives with a point, not one-liners requiring an answer. If he quotes the New Testament, he does not seem to do so intentional, occasionally stumbling on a phrase from the Gospels—both Synoptic and Johannine—and the odd Pauline epistle. He taught not about Christ, he in fact taught Christ. He, in St. Paul’s words, “passed on what he received.”
This epiphany rent apart a veil that had covered my eyes since elementary school, when our religion teacher taught us that “tradition” was a collection of habits, customs, and legends. In fact tradition, properly understood as the passing on of something from one person to another, is the principle manner of the transmission of the faith. And to be a Catholic, one must hold the same faith with the same sense, the same outlook, and same instinct as those before. This need not mean aesthetics, devotions, and such, but it certainly means the underlying foundation of our praxis must be the same as that of those who came before us, both a generation ago and a millennium ago.
What this revelation did not mean was that we should arbitrarily revive customs or language that have been long dormant into a foreign, modern setting, almost always with a hidden mind toward novel ideas. That does not forbid miniature renaissances wherein we learn from the past, much like the Tractarian and Ritual Movements in Oxford reinvigorated Patristic study and sent numerous Anglicans to the Church. What is does mean is that the Tractarian Movement’s continental counterpart, the ressourcement, erred grievously in marrying the nouvelle théologie, telling unarmed people that what they held dear was all wrong, and leaving them to rot in the agnostic agony of the mid-twentieth century.
At the end of my exploratory reading I finally found that line of St. Vincent of Lerins, now repeated to the point of banality, but once quite profound in the eyes of a Patristic neophyte. We must hold nothing more or less than what was held “everywhere, always, and by everyone.” Anything else was not passed on to us.