Monday, August 15, 2005

Untraditional Traditionalists (Part 1)

Steve Hays and the Pedantic Protestant have had some good posts at their blogs lately on the subject of liberal influences in Roman Catholicism. Not only do liberal scholars and clergymen go largely undisciplined, but they're even promoted by the hierarchy, including the Popes themselves.

Think of the damage that's done, and not just to Roman Catholics. How many parents send their children off to college with good intentions, but see them come back educated in the theories of liberal Catholic scholarship? How many people interested in the Bible or theology, who don't know where to look for the best information, end up being misled by the material produced by liberal Catholic scholars? When you see Newsweek, Time, and other media sources running stories critical of the Biblical infancy narratives each Christmas, you can attribute it largely to the late liberal Catholic scholar Raymond Brown. When Jon Meacham of Newsweek wrote an article critical of the traditional view of Jesus' infancy this past Christmas, the theories of Brown seemed to be the centerpiece around which the story was built.

I think we would be putting this issue in better perspective if we started looking at these liberal clergymen and scholars in much the same way we look at the sexually deviant clergymen who have been in the news lately. Our undiscerning age is so physically-minded and short-sighted that we have so much concern over sexual abuse and so little concern over oceans upon oceans of spiritual poison.

We're sometimes told that the Catholic Church needs time to evaluate what these clergymen and scholars are doing. Supposedly, church discipline takes some time, and we should be more patient. Well, when multiple decades pass, and liberal scholars who undermine large portions of the Bible not only go undisciplined, but are even promoted, what are we to conclude? How much time is needed to come to the conclusion that it's unacceptable to late-date or deny the traditional authorship attribution of a third, half, or more of the Bible?

The Catholic Church is the largest denomination with this problem, and Catholicism makes claims about itself that other denominations don't make, but this sort of mixture of conservatism and liberalism isn't unique to the Roman Catholic Church. When I was participating in a Protestant/Catholic forum on America Online several years ago, there was an Anglican there who had a highly negative view of Evangelicalism. He would frequently criticize Evangelical doctrine, and he'd rarely say anything critical of Catholicism. He often appealed to tradition, without explaining just what that tradition is or how he knows that it's reliable. Over time, it became apparent that his concept of tradition was arbitrary and irrationally selective. While he made much of patristic support for concepts such as baptismal justification and a presence of Christ in the eucharist, he eventually acknowledged that he only accepted some of the ecumenical councils, not all of them, and that he only accepted some portions of those councils he did consider authoritative. He also explained that he rejected Biblical inerrancy, and, without defending his view, he claimed that Daniel wasn't written until the second century B.C. That's what he was taught in college, and he didn't want to interact with any of the arguments of conservative scholarship.

Groups like Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism often make high claims about their deep historical roots and their concern for tradition, yet they or their followers often adopt beliefs that aren't particularly traditional. When Porphyry speculated about Daniel being written in the second century B.C., the Christians of that time didn't respond the way we see so many professed traditionalists respond today:

"What Porphyry wrote about Daniel was so revolutionary, and so disturbing to Christian interpreters, that his critics sought to refute him in detail and at length....Eusebius devoted three books to Daniel in his work in response to Porphyry, Methodius gave it close attention, and Apollinarius allowed it one large book. After all these scholars had written their responses, Jerome wrote an entire commentary on the Book of Daniel in defense of the traditional Christian interpretation." (Robert Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them [New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984], p. 138)

While a minority of fathers questioned the authorship of books like 2 Peter and Revelation, the general perspective was that the books ought to be kept out of the canon if their traditional authorship attributions weren't correct. The earliest church fathers repeatedly referred to Moses, Solomon, Isaiah, Matthew, John, and other traditional figures authoring the books attributed to them and writing those books according to the traditional dating. Justin Martyr refers to Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch (First Apology, 63), Theophilus of Antioch attributes Isaiah 40 to Isaiah (To Autolycus, 2:13), Clement of Alexandria refers to Matthew's authorship of the gospel of Matthew (Who is the Rich Man That Shall be Saved?, 17), etc. Athenagoras refers to Moses, Isaiah, and Jeremiah writing by Divine inspiration, like a flute played by God (A Plea for the Christians, 9). Theophilus of Antioch not only holds a highly literal view of Biblical history, but even argues for historical corroboration of the Old Testament in non-Biblical sources (To Autolycus, 3:29). Anybody reading a work such as Irenaeus' Against Heresies will notice that traditional authorship attributions and dating are affirmed over and over again. Irenaeus refers to the traditional authorship attributions of the Biblical books repeatedly: John wrote the gospel of John (1:9:3), David wrote Psalm 8 (1:14:8), Moses wrote Genesis (1:18:1), Luke wrote Acts (1:23:1), Paul wrote Ephesians (2:2:5), Paul wrote 1 Timothy (2:14:7), Solomon wrote Proverbs 5 (3:9:3), etc.

People often discuss individual doctrines of Roman Catholicism that were contradicted among the church fathers, such as the papacy and the sinlessness of Mary. But what about the different view the fathers held of the background and historicity of the Bible in general? When we read Raymond Brown, and we consider how he was so highly regarded in Roman Catholicism and repeatedly was given promotions by the Popes themselves, do we see the spirit of Raymond Brown and the modern Roman Catholic hierarchy reflected in these church fathers?