Find Me

Find new posts at!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

On the Doctrine of Tradition (Part 2): The Apostolicity of Dogma

This post is one of a series introduced in the first and last paragraphs here. That should explain why it might be kind of weird.

The doctrine of tradition is closely connected to the doctrine of the church. There may be some truth to a proposition that the doctrine of tradition is "between" the doctrine of Scripture and the doctrine of the church—it is influenced by the assumptions of both (and possibly influences both) without really being either.

It seems to me that all three wings of the faith agree that what makes a dogma worth believing is that it is true. So in one respect, truth is the sole criterion of dogma. The problem, of course, is, how do we know that a dogma is true? Simple: a dogma is true if it is apostolic. So what makes a dogma apostolic? Here I think that all three wings agree on the answer, but each differs in emphasis and thereby places one aspect above the others, and that makes all the difference.

The Orthodox believe that a dogma is true and apostolic if it has been believed by the whole church over time (illustrated here). Thus, they emphasize the tradition of the fathers (always plural) and the authority of councils, and they are clear that there has been no ecumenical council since the Great Schism, because we have not been able to gather all Christians together to have one. For the Orthodox, a dogma is apostolic if it is believed by the whole church from the beginning, because the whole church came into being at the hands of the apostles in the beginning.

The Roman Catholics believe that a dogma is true if it has been taught by its pastoral leadership, which for Catholics is the structure of the bishops, the College of Cardinals, and the Pope at the apex. The idea of a single human source of truth is hardly surprising given that in ancient times the West had only one metropolitan—the bishop of Rome—that dominated the rest of its clergy and only one father—Augustine—that dominated the rest of its teachers (notwithstanding other fathers that were not nearly so dominant in Western theology). For the Catholics, a dogma is apostolic if it has been propounded by the very men to whom the apostles authoritatively entrusted that dogma, who in turn passed it on to other trustworthy men for generations.

The Protestants believe that a dogma is true if it is proclaimed in Scripture—and, by implication, suspect if it is not—because the Bible alone is in its entirety the written Word of God. (In this case as with the other wings I am ignoring liberals in their midst.) Thus in its doctrines of Scripture and the Holy Spirit we have sola scriptura and the perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture; appealing to Scripture has always been the only or at least predominant acceptable basis for argument; and differing interpretations (or applications) of the Scripture have been the primary means by which new Protestant traditions (and on occasion institutional denominations) are formed. For Protestants, a dogma is apostolic if it was written down by the apostles themselves for the whole church to read.

Now what is interesting about all of this is that each group, except for a few extremists in each, agrees with how the other two understand the truth and apostolicity of dogma, at least to a point. For example, most Protestants do believe that true, apostolic dogma has been believed by the whole church over time and has been taught by its pastoral leadership. But because Protestants emphasize that dogma is true if it was inscripturated by the apostles, they define "the church" and "its leadership" as only those who through time have believed and taught the true dogma as revealed in the Scripture (as Protestants understand it). In other words, Protestants agree with both the Orthodox and the Catholics in principle, but they make their own principle supreme. As a result, they put their own spin on the others’ assertions to make them mean what the other two wings never intended them to mean—in this case, how “the church” and “the clergy” are defined. I believe the Orthodox do the same kind of thing with the principles of the Catholics and Protestants and the Catholics with those of the Protestants and Orthodox.

Is it possible to maintain all three principles of how to know a dogma is apostolic and true without subordinating two of them to the other?

No comments:

Post a Comment