Someone asked me the other day for recommendations for reading in Church history. Where to start! I became interested in the history of the Church about 12 years ago, and I continue find out there’s far more out there than I ever expected. As a student in canon law, I have lately been researching the origin and development of the legal tradition of the Church, obtaining my own copies of the Decretum of Gratian (~1150) and the Corpus Iuris Canonici (1234-1500), and I am also reading a biography of Pope Benedict XIV (1740-1758), who is considered one of the greatest canonists of all time. This biography is itself one volume of the 40 volume History of the Popes by Ludwig Pastor—which is just to say, there is a lot of history out there. Continue reading
Despite reading very little throughout the summer, I managed to finish Alcuin Reid’s Organic Development of the Liturgy, where he considers the history and principles of changes in the liturgy over the course of the millenia, eventually focusing on the Liturgical Movement in the decades leading up to the Second Vatican Council. (He wisely does not go beyond the year 1962.)
One of the more important concepts considered in the book is the objectivity of the liturgy, and consequently the “authenticity” of developments or changes to this objective liturgical tradition. Continue reading
I am now reading Helena by Evelyn Waugh. In one place, Lactantius is speaking to Helena about why he dedicates himself to writing about Christianity:
“You see it is equally possible to give the right form to the wrong thing, and the wrong form to the right thing. Suppose that in years to come, when the Church’s troubles seem to be over, there should come an apostate of my own trade, a false historian, with the mind of Cicero or Tacitus and the soul of an animal,” and he nodded toward the gibbon who fretted his golden chain and chattered for fruit. “A man like that might make it his business to write down the martyrs and excuse the persecutors. He might be refuted again and again but what he wrote would remain in people’s minds when the refutations were quite forgotten. That is what style does–it has the Egyptian secret of the embalmers. It is not to be despised.”
Now I had never heard of a gibbon before, but the context indicated that it was some sort of primate. Two seconds of research indicated that there is a primate called a gibbon, depicted just above. But I imagine that Waugh was hoping the word would also call to mind the English gentleman pictured just below.
That is, he is almost surely referring to Edward Gibbon, the author of the many-volumed History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Looking around only briefly to see if Waugh ever engaged the work of Gibbon more directly, I discovered that Waugh’s first novel was actually titled Decline and Fall, a clear borrowing from Gibbon’s major work. In Lactantius’ observation, there is a passing reference to both the excellence of Gibbon’s style and the error of his content.
Newman shared similar thoughts, lavishing the highest praise on Gibbon’s style, “With all his faults, his want of simplicity, his affection, and his monotony, few can be put in comparison with him; and sometimes, when I reflect on his happy choice of expressions, his vigorous compression of ideas, and the life and significance of his every work, I am prompted indignantly to exclaim that no style is left for historians of an after day. O who is worthy to succeed our Gibbon!” And for all of the philosophical disagreements he may have had, he still admits Gibbon’s superiority as a historian with respect to others, “It is melancholy to say it, but the chief, perhaps the only English writer who has any claim to be considered an ecclesiastical historian, is the unbeliever Gibbon.”
This is all to say that I am quite eager to arrive at reading Gibbon, whose work is perhaps the longest on my list. I only read excerpts of it for college, but I doubt I grasped the extent of his importance for our modern biases about history and Christianity in particular. To conclude: “[T]he ecclesiastical historian could not ignore the issue of the miraculous, a question which was to make Gibbon a sceptic and Newman a Roman Catholic.”
The following is no more than a loose paraphrase of the Introduction to Newman’s Development of Christian Doctrine.
“Christianity has been long enough in the world to justify us dealing with it as a fact in the world’s history.” With this line, Newman begins his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, and it sets out his task for the essay: showing that there is a historic Christianity.
Ahistorical Hypotheses about Christianity
- Christianity does not fall within the province of history.
- It is to each man what he thinks, a mere name for a cluster of religions.
- Not because of a doctrine which is a common foundation.
- Or: All existing denominations of Christianity are wrong.
- None represents what Christan apostles taught.
- Died out of the world at its birth, and was succeeded by a counterfeit.
- Or: Christianity historically has no substance of its own.
- From the first, only an assemblage of doctrine and practice from other sources.
- Or: True Christianity only has hidden and isolated life in hearts of elect.
- Or: Christianity is a literature or philosophy, not surely from above, but furnished us by providence.
Newman’s Evaluation: All such views of Christianity imply that there is no sufficient body of historical proof to interfere with [them]. And further, This is not self-evident, and has to be proved.
The more natural hypothesis is that the community left by the Apostles were of the same religion to which the Apostles converted them.
- Continuity of name, profession, communion argue continuity of doctrine.
- Has a certain shape and bearing before mankind.
- A power visible in the world, as prophesied.
It is not a violent assumption to take it for granted that the Christianity from the 2nd to the 16th centuries is in substance the very religion which Christ and His Apostles taught in the 1st.
There is the abstract of possibility of extreme changes. But that a counterfeit Christianity supplanted the original (identity is lost without loss of continuity) is possible, but not assumed.
Difficulty: In history, one sees doctrine variously represent and inconsistently maintained. For this reason, one rejects history as a source falls back on the Bible as the sole source of Revelation, and upon their own personal private judgment as the sole expounder of its doctrine.
Answer: Newman admits this is a fair argument if it can be maintained. Admits apparent variations that need to be explained.
Goal: To explain variations, and show the unity, directness, and consistency of doctrine.
He continues with the incongruity of history and Protestantism. Protestantism, seeing the difficulties in history, will often reject it as a source and rely on the Bible alone with private interpretation. Newman then supplies a number of hypotheses to answer the difficulty of variation over the centuries:
- First, that Christianity changed from the first and ever accommodates to the times. This is difficult to reconcile with the special idea of revealed truth. Its advocates tend to abandon the supernatural claims of Christianity.
- Second, more plausible: to cut off what does not have the sanction of primitive times. There is a pure Christianity, and then a corrupt one. The problem then becomes where to draw the line between corrupt and pure.
- They appeal to the principle of Vincent of Lerins (+445): “What is believed always, everywhere, by all.” This is a promising solution. Since men speak sometimes from themselves and sometimes from tradition, this could sort things out. This gives some reason for accepting the early and rejecting the latter.
- The difficulty with the rule is applying it in particular cases. It is just as effective against Protestantism as it is against Rome and England.
Newman goes on to consider the consensus of the Ante-nicene Church concerning the Trinity:
- There is consensus on the Consubstantiality and Coeternity of Christ with the Father. But there is no consensus on the Trinity, so stated. The divinity of the Christ partly implies and partly recommends the doctrine of the Trinity, but this is not the same thing.
- Moreover, one writer is not the same a whole set. The Catholic truth is made up of a number of propositions which maintained to the exclusion of the rest is a heresy.
- The Son is God (held by Sabellians and Macedonians)
- Father is not the Son (held by Arians)
- Son is equal to the Father (held by Tritheists)
- There is only one God (held by Unitarians)
- Some sense of Threefold Power attached to the Almighty (indeed, held by all who accept the NT)
There continues a discussion of difficulties related to the Trinity. Only Tertullian seems to affirm the doctrine plainly, and he is heterodox. And then even Basil (4th cent.) refrains from calling the Third Person of the Holy Spirit by the name of God. He proceeds with several other doctrines:
- Purgatory and Original Sin. The former is more widely testified.
- Real Presence and Papal Supremacy. The latter is more widely testified.
This ultimately shows that the solution of Vincent of Lerins is as difficult as the problem it had hoped to solve.
- Third, the disciplina arcani, that there was no variation, but that some doctrines were hidden early on. That this happened early on is clear. And yet this is no key to the difficulty, for the variations continue beyond the time when it is conceivable that the discipline be in force. Also, the variations do not come abruptly, but by a visible growth which has persevered up to the present time.
And so this Essay is directed to solving the difficulty which lies in the way of using in controversy the testimony of 1800 years of history concerning Christian doctrine and worship.
View on which this Essay is written has probably been adopted implicitly by theologians at all times: the increase and expansion of Christian Creed and Ritual, and variations which attend this process are the necessary attendants on any philosophy or polity which takes possession of the intellect and heart, and has had any wide or extended dominion. That from the nature of the human mind, time is necessary for the full comprehension and perfection of great ideas; the highest and most wonderful truths, communicated to the world once and for all could not be comprehended by the recipients. Being received and transmitted by by minds not inspired, have required longer time and deeper thought for their full elucidation.
“This may be called the Theory of the Development of Doctrine.“
He affirms that this is merely a hypothesis, and gives examples of such hypotheses in other sciences. Yet he argues for the need of a hypothesis against unbelievers who (without any such hypothesis) interpret the data from their own principles. An argument is needed, unless Christianity is to abandon the province of argument; and those who find fault with the explanation here offered of its historical phenomena will find it their duty to provide one for themselves.
He concludes by saying that such an inquiry does not immediately imply a reception of Roman Catholic doctrine. And yet the explanation might serve as a fair ground for trusting her in parallel cases where the investigation has not been pursued.