Dialogue on Church History and Tradition
Over the past few years, Timon and myself (Ben Winter) have engaged in fruitful discussion—via the “comments” section on Conciliar Post—about church history and the authority of tradition. Recently, Timon stated that many of the questions we worked through “are very common . . .from both Catholic friends and fellow protestants.” In light of that, we have decided to reprise our debate. Our goal is to further expand ecumenical dialogue, while learning something new in the process. We hope this conversation will be edifying to all.
Ben (Roman Catholic): How do you trace the “chain of continuity” in the Church from its beginnings up to the decades preceding the Reformation? You’ve stated that the Church is “sustained by the Holy Spirit throughout the ages.” In your view, then, the Reformers reconnected the Church to the “chain of continuity” by “bring[ing] all life under the sway of Scripture.” But if the Holy Spirit sustains the Church throughout the ages, when did the Spirit stop sustaining the Catholic Church (or other apostolic communions), and start instead sustaining the Reformed communities? I see this “shift” in the activity of the Spirit as problematic. How could the Spirit leave a community that practices apostolic succession? Ultimately, my question could be summarized as: “Did the Reformers truly reform, or did they create a new structure of authority—one that bypasses apostolic succession through the Spirit?”
Timon (Reformed Protestant): When I refer to the chain of continuity, I am speaking in theological, not ecclesiological, terms (though obviously the latter is informed by the former). The Reformers saw themselves as trying to reconnect the Church to her true doctrinal roots. To my knowledge, the broad consensus among the Reformed (Calvin, Beza, etc.) was that the Catholic Church was a true, yet corrupt and misguided, church. This is also how the majority of the Puritans viewed the Anglican Church several decades later. Thus, they were not claiming that the Holy Spirit had ceased to influence her, but only that they could no longer have fellowship with her in good conscience. Luther did not have breaking with the Church of Rome as his original goal, but rather, correcting her. I think he was increasingly backed into doubling down on certain conclusions as time went on, and we are all aware of his sometimes, shall we say, harsh rhetoric directed at the Church. That being said (as I have already mentioned), this did not mean that the Reformers thought that the Holy Spirit had ceased to operate within the Church for several hundred years, especially regarding the local, everyday experience of the average Christian. They were not seeking to “recover” the Holy Spirit, but to recover what they saw as the true doctrine of the Church. Much of this project was concerned with “recovering” Augustine (see more below) and earlier Church Fathers. I think that the Reformers saw themselves as standing in continuity with a particular strand of theology that can be traced throughout the centuries, in particular, the anti-Pelagian Augustinian strand. Most importantly on the doctrinal front, they were concerned with recovering what they saw as the true doctrine of grace, and the so-called law/gospel dialectic. The Reformed (distinct from the Lutheran) faction of the Reformation (speaking in post-1529 terms) was also eager to sanitize the Church of idolatrous worship. There is a very different aesthetic focus in Geneva, Zurich, and Knox’s Scotland, that is not present in Germany at the time. They saw this as consistent with Scripture and the early Church. Correspondingly, there was also a high premium placed on preaching as central to worship (over and against the mass). This is evident from even the change in architecture of the Reformed churches.
Back to the main point, the Reformers abandoned the doctrine of apostolic succession as the Roman Church professed it. This was driven by 1) scriptural exegesis (we have to remember the significant strides that had been made by the Renaissance humanist movement in producing better editions of Scripture and emphasizing the study of the original languages); 2) a general decline in confidence regarding apostolic succession in the late middle ages; and 3) new, critical editions of the Church Fathers. All of these things (among others) led some to challenge the dogma of the Church on this front. The Reformers affirmed that the apostolic witness was preserved by the Spirit throughout time, but denied that this work of the Spirit was institutionally tied to the Catholic dogma of apostolic succession. For the Reformed, the office of the pastor stands in the apostolic lineage. This is not a “bypassing” of apostolic succession via the Spirit, but a reformulation (or “recovery”) of what that meant.
Ben: A theology that “acts in trust with those who came before us” must engage with the teachings of the Doctors of the Church. You affirm as much when you speak positively of Augustine: “The 16th century was a Renaissance of Augustine, if you will.” But the teachings of these doctors—on subjects like grace, the role of icons in worship, and the sacraments (to name a few)—often contradict those of the Reformers.
Specifically when it comes to Scholastics, the Reformed tradition appears to practice selective memory (or no memory at all). Your quote about Augustine was immediately followed by: “His writings, now liberated from the confines of Lombard’s Books of Sentences …” This statement fits within the narrative that we can dismiss the views of theologians who wrote in this period.1 If a Christian should read Augustine, why shouldn’t they read Anselm, Lombard, Aquinas, or Bonaventure?
Timon: I would say that the Reformed tradition does not practice selective memory of the medieval Scholastics and the great tradition, but rather, eclectic use of them. In short, a Christian should read all of those authors, and more. The Reformers did. And when I said that Augustine was “liberated” from Lombard this was not to disparage Lombard. Rather, it was referencing the fact that just prior to the Reformation, new, full texts of Augustine began being reproduced, which sparked new debates. This did not mean that Lombard was then discarded.
This aspect of the Reformed tradition has been attested to by people like Richard Muller in his Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics (PRRD). I wish more people who claim a Reformed identity would read Muller and others like him. It would give them a more robust and, dare I say, catholic understanding of their own tradition. His book Divine Will and Human Freedom, which I’m currently reading, is outstanding in showing the continuity between Aquinas, other medievals, and the Reformers. Muller’s PRRD illustrates well that, contra how many modern neo-Calvinists try to paint the tradition, beginning with the magisterial Reformers and perpetuated throughout the subsequent century (i.e. period of high orthodoxy, per Muller), Reformed theologians did theology in self-conscious dialogue with the whole of the Christian tradition. Innovation was still a bad thing back then. If one was going to change something, they had better have a good, scriptural basis for such, supported by received hermeneutical standards, and they had better have citations of credible support.
Thus, the Reformers regularly and positively invoked medieval theologians like Aquinas. Just the other day, I was reading a Puritan who positively cited Lombard, Bonaventure, Occam, and Biel to prove a point on the pastoral office. The Reformed also exhibited a deep affection for the works of antiquity, and they generally affirmed the Renaissance view that the classics were foundational for human knowledge. The Reformers had a very high view of tradition, which had necessarily been transported through the Church of Rome for some time. So, even while they vehemently disagreed with Rome on say, the Mass, which undermines the mediatorial work of Christ in the Reformed mind, they had no problem citing the great Catholic theologians of the past. And even when doctrines were modified by Protestants, they were expressed through the inherited language of the prior period. This increasingly became the case during the so-called Counter Reformation, and as Protestantism became more confessionally and institutionally solidified. As Carl Trueman shows in his John Owen biography, Owen used Aquinas’s “Five Ways” and borrowed liberally from the first part of the Summa in his attack on Jesuits and Arminians. This is just one example of how Owen employed Aquinas (and other medievals) regularly. Owen was not a full-on Thomist (e.g. obvious sacramental views, etc.), but he did have Thomistic tendencies, as did Peter Martyr Vermigli and others, while still others borrowed from a more Scotist tradition of thought. All of this to say, the Reformed, far from discarding the medieval tradition, used it regularly, if eclectically. They disagreed with Rome on a significant but narrow range of issues. Most of orthodoxy was carried on in the Reformed tradition without alteration until the nineteenth century, thus showing real continuity with the broad orthodox tradition.
Ben: You say, “The total neglect of both patristic and apocryphal (deuterocanonical) literature is regrettable.” To me, “regrettable” isn’t strong enough wording here. I would actually say something along the lines of “reprehensible.” I grew up Lutheran, but without clear knowledge of what Luther wrote beyond the Small Catechism (not to mention the writings of other important Lutherans, like Melancthon). Without knowledge of the history leading up to Luther, how could I understand Luther himself? When I came of age, the reasons and narratives behind my belief and practice quickly fell to the wayside. So it’s more than “regrettable” that many Protestants (and Catholics, for that matter) are not educated in the history of the Church. How else can they understand the context of their own communities? I firmly believe that dialogue would be furthered, across the board, if everyone were to take some time to explore the history and teachings of the Church throughout the ages. And this includes not only the “early Church,” but also the Church in the middle ages (see above).
Timon: I think I basically agree (see above). Without historic and dogmatic rootedness, people fall away from their faith. To gain this rootedness, I think that at least some familiarity with church history is essential. In my opinion, it is the discipline that unifies the other branches of theology, because each branch should operate with historical orthodoxy as its check and balance. Theology is never (or shouldn’t be) practiced in a vacuum. The fact that history as a discipline has fallen into disrepute generally speaking, cannot be insignificant for the result you mention. Perhaps a recovery of an older view of history, in which, given that human nature does not change, it is seen as a guide for future challenges as well, would be beneficial. As you note below, a familiarity with the ecumenical creeds and their context, is immensely helpful because heresey doesn’t seem to be very creative. In evangelicalism, over the past few years, the big debates have involved subordinationism and divine simplicity. These are not new debates, historically speaking. But apparently Chalcedon and Nicea are just too old to consult. I would add that for Protestants, the historic Reformed confessions are indispensable as well. People need to be familiar with the particulars of their tradition in their most robust expression.2
Ben: You rightly mention that the Reformers did not intend to reject the ecumenical councils wholesale. I agree, and it’s quite clear when reading a document like the Augsburg Confession. After only a few generations, though, the Protestant world fractured so intensely that any semblance of agreement over the interpretation of these councils is difficult to find. I’m specifically thinking of the Council of Ephesus as a case-study. It is known that Reformers such as Calvin and Luther held Mary in high esteem—while of course, preserving the true teaching that she is not to be worshiped. But I am hard-pressed today to find Protestants (outside of Anglicans) who are even aware that the third ecumenical council (Ephesus) defined Mary as “Mother of God.” My point: because of the complexity and critical importance of the debates surrounding Church councils, there needs to be some kind of institutional authority that upholds their significance and, in a way, enshrines their teachings. Without this larger framework, I fear that even the contributions of the Reformers would fall by the wayside.
Timon: Not only did Calvin and Luther hold Mary in high esteem, but so did second-generation Reformed Scholastics like Francis Turretin.3 There was always concern regarding what the Reformed saw as inappropriate regard for Mary, insofar as it supplanted the sole mediatorial role of Christ. But, at least early on, they did not see this as necessitating a rejection of her perpetual virginity or veneration for her righteous character and faith. But more to your point, I would agree and again return to the importance of historic, confessionally-based Protestantism. Without allegiance to a particular confession, I do not see how the particulars of the Reformed tradition, and indeed, of historic orthodoxy in general (e.g. classical theism), will not be lost among Protestants. The primary goal of my post last year was to call Protestants back to some of the concerns and attitudes exhibited by the Reformers themselves. There is an evident creedalism or confessionalism that runs through them. From the start they set about summarizing their distinctives in document form both for the sake of clarity in their apologetic, and (especially in the case of their enthusiasm for catechesis) faithfulness in their pastoral ministry.
It is also good for modern Christians to remember that development of doctrine (which, of course, is what I would argue the Reformation largely did) is evidence of the Spirit’s continued work in the Church writ large. By development I mean a deepening and sharpening of understanding. You and I would, of course, disagree on whether the changes in doctrine at the hands of the Reformers is rightly constituted “development”; a real work of God. But we can both agree that development will happen overtime and that it is usually messy. This debate has no end in sight. But I think it’s appropriate that debate surrounding the most significant historical event (for good or evil) of the last 500 years is not yet totally settled. I also think that for said debate to be fruitful, whether among Protestants themselves, Lutherans and Reformed (yes, they’re different things), or between Protestants and Catholics, it is essential that we do not get lazy and resort to smoothing out our distinctives and real differences. It seems to me that this is a prerequisite for iron-sharpening, constructive debate (which is hopefully what we’ve done with this post). A belittling of our distinct differences has the undesirable effect of belittling dogmatic commitments that are essential to our faiths. Honest debate serves to clarify and uphold orthodoxy on all fronts. Borrowing from John Stuart Mill, good debate gives us the chance to exchange error for truth, or, perhaps of even greater benefit, “the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”
(2) As a general note, to understand many of the Reformers it helps to view them and their moment in history as they viewed it themselves, which was often through an Old Testament, prophetic lens. They were calling Israel out of idolatry and cleansing the temple. Many of them also thought that they were living through the end times, which demanded urgency. —T.C.
(3) I think we are both in agreement that “scholasticism” is an often misunderstood, and consequently misused, term today. It denotes a method rather than a particular content of theology, though there are obvious common theological features present in certain periods of scholastic practice. As I’ve said before, a recovery of the precision, order, and historical awareness that marked scholasticism would be immensely helpful to the modern church. I would recommend to all Reformed Christians the collection of essays edited by Carl Trueman and R. Scott Clark, Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment, as well as Willem van Asselt’s Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism. Both volumes were of great benefit to me. —T.C.