In response to a recent Facebook post on sola Scriptura, my friend Erick Ybarra put out a thoughtful response. As always it is worth reading and pondering at length — which I will continue to do, this is not a response to the whole post. However, one of the points that came up is essentially how much the church can fall into error. For instance, if the assumption of Mary eventually became a universal belief in the church, to what extent does that imply its credibility?
On that point, here I want to share some paragraphs from my forthcoming book (shorn of footnotes and a few digressions) that might be relevant, at least to clarify where certain differences of methodology often lie between Protestants and Roman Catholics. The methodological issues often lurk underneath and hinder progress, so perhaps this will be useful (or, short of that, at least interesting; or, short of that, at least not annoying!).
In context, it is responding to the Newman quip that “to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” Essentially, I argue that each side has different intuitions and presuppositions for how to conceptualize historical depth. Here goes:
We will talk past one another less if here at the outset we probe what the word “deep” means in the phrase “deep in history.” One way of envisioning historical depth is what is most visible, most prominent, and/or most widely represented throughout church history. On this view, to be “deep in history” has a more diachronic thrust: it is more oriented toward the trajectory and overall result of church history. Thus, historical depth will focus more on what eventually becomes mainstream, widely accepted, or officially selected along the way of history. We will call this understanding of being deep in history “majority depth.” This is the kind of the historical depth that is assumed in many historical criticisms of Protestantism….
Protestants do not regard “majority depth” as insignificant or unimportant. On the contrary, it is a behemoth, a force to be reckoned with. But they do maintain that what is a finally decisive is the original teaching of the apostles, and that there are practices and beliefs that occasionally becomes mainstream despite departing from apostolic teaching. On this view, what is deepest is what is oldest and thereby most plausibly rooted in the first-century apostolic deposit. This view is also interested in what remains most constitutive of basically all Christians throughout church history (what C.S. Lewis called “mere Christianity”). We can call this “ancient depth.”
So we have two different kinds of depth: mainstream depth and ancient depth. The Protestant position is that the mainstream must be measured by the ancient, not vice versa. In adopting this position the early Protestants appealed to a principle widely articulated among the church fathers: namely, that in the absence of biblical attestation, earlier traditions were more reliable than later traditions because they more plausibly represented faithfulness to apostolic teaching. For example, in his Examination of the Council of Trent, the Lutheran theologian Martin Chemnitz utilized this passage in Cyprian, noting Augustine’s approval of it as well:
“If we return to the head and origin of the divine tradition, human error will cease. For if the channel of water, which before flowed copiously and purely, either fails or brings muddy water, then certainly one goes to the source in order to find out whether there is something wrong in the veins or in the source, or whether something got in midway.”
This metaphor captures the Protestant approach to historical depth: when you have muddy water in a stream, you have to go back to see where it came in. The pure water will be found before the muddy water started. When you hear Protestants speak of being “deep in history,” picture the deeper (earlier) parts of the channel of water. “Deep” means early.
The ultimate reason for using ancient depth to measure majority depth, rather than using majority depth to measure ancient depth, will come out in Part 2 of the book. But here we can canvass two initial considerations underpinning the Protestant mentality. Please note: these are not intended as a full case for the Protestant view; just some initial considerations to encourage a sympathetic hearing at this juncture.
The first consideration is something Newman was forced to reckon with: the simple fact is that what eventually becomes mainstream or a majority view in church history is an unstable guide. One striking example I have also drawn attention to in my videos is Augustine’s affirmation of the damnation of unbaptized babies. While there were qualifications to this notion such as the idea of limbo, Augustine’s general position remains overwhelmingly dominant, such that I am not aware of any Western theologians who affirmed that deceased unbaptized babies receive the beatific vision (full salvation) in the West between Augustine and the Reformation. Not a single one. This point is not disputed in the 2007 publication of the International Theological Commission, “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized,” the result of the study commissioned by Pope John Paul II in 2004. The publication notes Latin fathers (Jerome, Fulgentius, Avitus of Vienne, and Gregory the Great) who affirmed Augustine’s view, as well as medieval theologians such as Anselm and Hugh of St. Victor; in the late medieval period, many (following Peter Lombard) interpreted the nature of the punishment of unbaptized infants who die as merely privation of the beatific vision (21-25).
This was a common view in the East as well (at least up to Dositheus), though I do not know the historical record there to address how many exceptions there may have been. If majority depth is our criterion, I can imagine little possibly to overturn this view. Happily, many in both the East and the West no longer hold this view today.
There are many other examples of the slipperiness of “majority depth” we could work through. I have argued that Gregory of Nyssa’s condemnation of slavery is, sadly, by far in the minority among premodern Christians. Similarly, few Christians today would maintain how heavy-weight theologians like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas interpreted women as inferior to men in various regards. For example, Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I, Q. 92, Art. 1, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Notre Dame, IN: Christian Classics, 1948), 466, spoke of women as “defective and misbegotten,” resulting from a kind of defect in male seed. As one who regards Augustine and Aquinas in the highest regard and who regularly seeks to defend them from critique, I have to acknowledge that they did hold problematic views in some areas, many of which became mainstream in the church.
I understand that these are not points of magisterial teaching for Roman Catholic or Orthodox Christians. The point is simply to show that mainstream depth is a slippery guide. (This is appropriate to do, because Newman’s quip was not referencing merely magisterial teaching, but history generally.) We are simply observing that errors can become mainstream. Anyone who studies church history will see how easily this can happen.
If you can imagine someone saying to you, “to be deep in history is to cease to affirm the salvation of unbaptized babies who die,” and you think through how you would respond—you are on the road to understanding why Protestants want to clarify the meaning of the word “deep.”
Another cause to be uneasy with “majority depth” as our criterion is the history of the people of Israel. If there is anything that emerges from the history of the people of Israel, it is surely this: God’s people continually fall away and need to return to the Lord. The people of God have never enjoyed a kind of unbroken spiritual steadiness, from one century to the next. On the contrary, the entire history of the Jewish people prior to Christ can be well summarized as a recurrent pattern of idolatry and reform. Think of the book of Judges, for example. Or take the downward spiral of the book of Kings: so prevalent were idolatrous accretions that even during the reform efforts of good kings like Josiah and Hezekiah many of the idolatrous high places remained in use.
Again and again throughout redemptive history, the majority goes awry. The followers of Ahab could have appealed to majority depth against Elijah or Micaiah—and by a wide margin at that. In the New Testament as well, the apostles could have been condemned by this same criterion by the Pharisees, who claimed to be the legitimate successors of Moses. As John Jewel puts it:
“So likewise the false prophets of all ages, which stood up against the prophets of God, which resisted Esaias, Jeremy, Christ, and the Apostles, at no time craked of anything so much as they did of the name of the Church. And for no other cause did they so fiercely vex them, and call them runaways and apostates, than for that they forsook their fellowship, and kept not the ordinances of the elders. Wherefore, if we would follow the judgments of those men only who then governed the Church, and would respect nothing else, neither God nor His word, it must needs be confessed, that the Apostles were rightly and by just law condemned of them to death.”
Christians in the non-Protestant traditions will often argue that God has promised to watch over his church in ways that distinguish her from Israel. For example, Christ promised that “the gates of hell shall not prevail” against the church in Matthew 16:18. But this is a promise that the church will never die or fail to accomplish her purpose; not that she will never sin or err. The verb “prevail” can be translated “overpower” or “overcome;” to be “prevailed against” by the “gates of hell” refers essentially to death (here I cite D.A. Carson). If a wrestling coach promised one of his wrestlers that “your opponent will not prevail against you,” this means his wrestler will ultimately win, not that he will not make any mistakes during the match. Furthermore, this is a promise to the church as such, not to one particular teaching office or hierarchy within her. Therefore, that Christ will never abandon his church to hell no more substantiates claims of ecclesial infallibility than God’s Old Testament promises to Israel validated the Pharisees’ teachings and claims. The simple fact is that God has promised many things to his people, but he has nowhere promised them that they will not fall into sin and error. This is why Protestants, in the face of some frankly brutal historical realities, consider majority depth to be a frequently superficial criterion.
So to make the appeal again: if you can imagine someone saying to you, “to be deep in history is to cease to follow Elijah and instead trust the Israelite monarchy God established,” and you think through how you would respond—you are on the road to understanding why Protestants want to clarify the meaning of the word “deep.”