Friday, August 12, 2005

More as Witnesses than Thinkers

Wildboar has started up a discussion of the Lutheran viewpoint on the Christian Fathers. Charles Porterfield Krauth has something to say about this, as about almost every other aspect of Augsburg Evangelicalism. (For the previous installments in my on-going serialization of his masterwork, The Conservative Reformation and Its Theology, see here, here, here, here, and here.) In his discussion of the Patristic background on the Real Presence he sets forth some general principles on approaching the writings of the Fathers.

The importance of the testimony of the early Church in regard to the Lord’s Supper has been felt in all the churches. Extremists, in the churches most alien in their faith to the testimony of the Fathers, have tried to torture their declarations, if not so as to teach their own peculiar views, yet, at least, so as not directly to contradict them. Some, as for example, Marheineke, have claimed that the three leading views of modern times all have their representatives among the Fathers. In presenting the facts of most importance, it may be useful to premise the following principles:

First. For the early Fathers, as mere thinkers, we need feel comparatively little regard. It is only where they are competent witnesses that we attach great value to what they say.

Second. We propose first to show, not what was the whole line of patristic thinking, but what was the original view, so early as to create a moral presumption that it was formed not by speculative thinking, but on the direct teaching of the Apostles. With this as a sort of "Analogy of Faith," we shall assume that the later Fathers agree, if their language can be fairly harmonized with it.

Third. The easiest and simplest interpretation of the Fathers is the best; the less use we make of the complex ideas and processes of the scholastic or modern theology the better. If we find our faith in the Fathers, we must not always expect to find it couched in the terms which we should now employ. It is their faith rather than their theology we are seeking; and we should compare our faith with their faith rather than our dogmatics with theirs. Systematic thinking and nicely balanced expression are the growth of ages in the Church. We must not suppose that the faith of the Church is not found in a particular writer, because we miss many of its now current phrases. No existing system of theology, and no dogmatic statement of a single distinctive Christian doctrine, can find its absolute facsimile in the writings of the Christian Fathers - - not the doctrine of the Trinity, not the doctrine of sin, not the doctrine of the person of Christ, in a word not any doctrine. The oak of a thousand years is not a facsimile of itself at a hundred years; yet less a facsimile of the acorn from which it grew. Yet the oak is but the acorn developed, its growth is its history; and if the bond with its past be broken anywhere the oak dies.

Fourth. That interpretation, all other things being equal, is best which most naturally harmonizes all the sayings of a particular Father with each other, or all the sayings of all the Fathers with each other. We have no right to assume a contradiction in either case, where a harmony is fairly possible.

Fifth. That is the best interpretation of the past which most naturally accounts for the sequel. When a doctrine has taken an indubitable shape, or even has undergone a demonstrable perversion and abuse, we are to ask what supposition in regard to the precedent doctrine best solves the actual development or the actual abuse.

Sixth. We reach the faith of a father by the general drift of his statements, although seeming, or even real, contradictions with that general drift are to be found in his writings. No man, perhaps, is perfectly self-consistent. The reader may discover inconsistencies which the writer himself has not noticed. The mass of mankind hold very sincerely views which really involve a conflict. But in the ancient Church, with the vast influx of men of every school of philosophy and of every form of religious education - - with the ferment of the wonderful original elements which Christianity brought into human thought - - with Christian science hardly yet in existence, we would expect many discrepancies, especially where dogmatic accuracy is required.

From The Conservative Reformation and Its Theology (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1871), pp. 726-727.

Originally posted at Here We Stand