Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The authority of the ancient councils and the tradition of the Fathers (part 2)

[Again apologies for the format. I do not feel comfortable altering the original text even by breaking it into paragraphs.]

Christ: the criterion of truth

There is no easy answer to this query. Indeed, there is a very simple answer — Christ is the Truth. The source and the criterion of the Christian Truth is the Divine Revelation, in its twofold structure, in its two dispensations. The source of the Truth is the Word of God. Now, this simple answer was readily given and commonly accepted in the Ancient Church, as it may be also gratefully accepted in the divided Christendom of our own days. Yet, this answer does not solve the problem. In fact, it has been variously assessed and interpreted, to the point of most radical divergence. It only meant that the problem was actually shifted a step further. A new question came to be asked. How was Revelation to be understood? The Early Church had no doubt about the "sufficiency" of the Scriptures, and never tried to go beyond, and always claimed not to have gone beyond. But already in the Apostolic age itself the problem of "interpretation" arose in all its challenging sharpness. What was the guiding hermeneutical principle? At this point there was no other answer than the appeal to the "faith of the Church," the faith and kerygma of the Apostles, the Apostolic paradosis. The Scripture could be understood only within the Church, as Origen strongly insisted, and as St. Irenaeus and Tertullian insisted before him. The appeal to Tradition was actually an appeal to the mind of the Church, her phronema. It was a method to discover and ascertain the faith as it had been always held, from the very beginning: semper creditum. The permanence of Christian belief was the most conspicuous sign and token of its truth: no innovations [For further discussion of this topic see my articles: "The Function of Tradition in the Ancient Church," The Greek Orthodox Theological Review, IX (No. 2, 1964), 181-200, and "Scripture and Tradition: An Orthodox point of view," Dialog, II (No. 4, 1963), 288-293. Cf. also "Revelation and Interpretation," in: Biblical Authority for Today, edited by Alan Richardson and W. Schweitzer (London and Philadelphia, 1951), pp. 163-180]. And this permanence of the Holy Church’s faith could be appropriately demonstrated by the witnesses from the past. It was for that reason, and for that purpose, that "the ancients," i palei (οι παλαιοι), were usually invoked and quoted in theological discussions. This "argument from antiquity," however, had to be used with certain caution. Occasional references to old times and casual quotations from old authors could be often ambiguous and even misleading. This was well understood already at the time of the great Baptismal controversy in the third century, and the question about the validity or authority of "ancient customs" had been formally raised at that time. Already Tertullian contended that consuetudines [customs] in the Church had to be examined in the light of truth: Dominus noster Christus veritatem se, non consuetudinem, cognominavit [Our Lord Christ designated himself, not as custom but as truth; de virginibus velandis, I.I]. The phrase was taken up by St. Cyprian and was adopted by the Council at Carthage in 256. In fact, "antiquity" as such might happen to be no more than an inveterate error: nam antiquitas sine veritate vetustas erroris est [for antiquity without truth is the age old error], in the phrase of St. Cyprian (epist. 74.9). St. Augustine also used the same phrase: In Evangelio Dominus, Ego sum, inquit, veritas. Non dixit, Ego sum consuetudo [In the Gospel the Lord says — "I am the truth." He did not say — I am custom; de baptismo, III. 6.9]. "Antiquity" as such was not necessarily a truth, although the Christian truth was intrinsically an "ancient" truth, and "innovations" in the Church had to be resisted. On the other hand, the argument "from tradition" was first used by the heretics, by Gnostics, and it was this usage of theirs that prompted St. Irenaeus to elaborate his own conception of Tradition — in opposition to the false "traditions" of the heretics which were alien to the mind of the Church [See B. Reynders, "Paradosis, Le progrès de l’idée de tradition jusqu’à Saint Irénee," Recherches de théologie ancienne el mediévale, V (1933), 155-191, and "La polemique de Saint Irénée," ibidem, VII (1935), 5-27]. The appeal to "antiquity" or "traditions" had to be selective and discriminative. Certain alleged "traditions" were simply wrong and false. One had to detect and to identify the "true Tradition," the authentic Tradition which could be traced back to the authority of the Apostles and be attested and confirmed by an universal consensio of Churches. In fact, however, this consensio could not be so easily discovered. Certain questions were still open. The main criterion of St. Irenaeus was valid: Tradition — Apostolic and Catholic (or Universal). Origen, in the preface to his De Principiis, tried to describe the scope of the existing "agreement" which was to his mind binding and restrictive, and then he quoted a series of important topics which had to be further explored. There was, again, a considerable variety of local traditions, in language and discipline, even within the unbroken communion in faith and in sacris. It suffices to recall at this point the Pascal controversy between Rome and the East, in which the whole question of the authority of ancient habits came to the fore. One should also recall the conflicts between Carthage and Rome, and also between Rome and Alexandria, in the third century, and the increasing tension between Alexandria and Antioch which came to its tragic climax, and impass, in the fifth century. Now, in this age of the intense theological controvercy and context, all participating groups used to appeal to tradition and "antiquity." "Chains" of ancient testimonies were compiled on all sides in the dispute. These testimonies had to be carefully scrutinized and examined on a basis more comprehensive that "antiquity" alone. Certain local traditions, liturgical and theological, were finally discarded and disavowed by the overarching authority of an "ecumenical" consensus. A sharp confrontation of diverse theological traditions took place already at the Council of Ephesus. The Council was actually split in twain — the "Ecumenical" Council of St. Cyril and Rome and the conciliabulum of the Orient. Indeed, the reconciliation was achieved, and yet there was still a tension. The most spectacular instance of condemnation of a theological tradition, of long standing and of considerable, if rather local, renown, was, of course, the dramatic affair of Three Chapters. At this point a question of principle has been raised: to what extent was it fair and legitimate to disavow the faith of those who had died in peace and in communion with the Church? There was a violent debate on this matter, especially in the West, and strong arguments were produced against such retrospective discrimination. Nevertheless, the Chapters were condemned by the Fifth Ecumenical Council. "Antiquity" was overruled by Ecumenical consensio, as strained as it probably was. (Cont)

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