Early Church Fathers and the Primacy of Rome  

Better one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere.  Better the threshold of the house of my God than a home in the tents of the wicked.  Psalms 84:11*

JohnHenryCardinalNewman

John Henry Cardinal Newman

In the last post, we considered the witness of the Church Fathers and the peculiarly-Catholic doctrine of purgatory.   (St. Augustine believed in purgatory? ) John Henry Cardinal Newman realized that his Anglican communion accepted ancient doctrines from the Church of Rome, but hypocritically rejected others.  Similarly, Cardinal Newman saw another indefensible standard when reflecting on the Eucharist in light of the doctrine of the Papacy.

The Bread of Life

Cardinal Newman had no doubt about the Gift which the Sacrament contains.  He confessed to himself his belief: “The Presence of Christ is here, for It follows upon Consecration; and Consecration is the prerogative of Priests; and Priests are made by Ordination; and Ordination comes in direct line from the Apostles. Whatever be [Anglicanism’s] other misfortunes, every link in our chain is safe; we have the Apostolic Succession, we have a right form of consecration: therefore we are blessed with the great Gift.” An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Notre Dame Series in the Great Books, Newman, John Henry Cardinal, [Kindle iOS version], Retrieved from Amazon.com at page 23, location 598.

Received from the Fathers

Newman knew that it was from the Church Fathers he learned of the Gift of the Real Presence.  For example, “St. Ignatius calls it ‘the medicine of immortality:’ St. Irenæus says that ‘our flesh becomes incorrupt, and partakes of life, and has the hope of the resurrection.’ as ‘being nourished from the Lord’s Body and Blood;’ that the Eucharist ‘is made up of two things, an earthly and an heavenly’.”  (23/603). And so, the Anglican priest cast his lot with the Fathers; he believed as they believed.  (Id.)

It occurred to Newman, however,“[D]o not the same ancient Fathers bear witness to another doctrine, which you disown?  Are you not as a hypocrite, listening to them when you will, and deaf when you will not? How are you casting your lot with the Saints, when you go but half-way with them?”  (24/609).  Newman realized that the pre-Nicaean Church Fathers spoke more of the Pope’s supremacy than the Eucharist.  (Id.) The holy scholar and priest heard in the early Father’s “a cumulative argument ris[ing] from them in favour of the ecumenical and the doctrinal authority of Rome, stronger than any argument which can be drawn from the same period for the doctrine of the Real Presence.”  (25/636)

One Lord, one faith, one baptism

As Cardinal Newman studied the doctrines of the Catholic Church, he found the faithful preservation and transmission of the deposit of faith; not, as some might say, accretions or barnacles that build up over the ages.  He recognized “that, from the nature of the human mind, time is necessary for the full comprehension and perfection of great ideas; and that the highest and most wonderful truths, though communicated to the world once for all by inspired teachers, could not be comprehended all at once by the recipients, but, as being received and transmitted by minds not inspired and through media which were human, have required only the longer time and deeper thought for their full elucidation. This may be called the Theory of Development of Doctrine”. (29/689).

The ring of truth

This theory rang true, even to a Bible-alone Christian like me.  Already I knew something of the idea.  For example, in the beginning we see an early hint at the nature of God as Trinity: “Then God said: Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness.” (Gen. 1:26a)(emphasis added).  Elsewhere, and later, God made it clear there is only one God: “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone!” (Deuteronomy 6:4) (also translated, “the Lord our God is one Lord” or “the Lord our God, the Lord is one” or “the Lord is our God, the Lord is one”).  Then Moses prophesies that the LORD God would raise up a prophet from among your own kin, “[a] prophet like me”, and “that is the one to whom you shall listen.” (Deuteronomy 18:15).  Centuries later, the poet-king David, Isaiah and Daniel (to name a few) continued unpacking God’s revelation about the Messiah:  Man of Sorrows; Root of Jesse; Son of Man.

One day is like a thousand years

The deposit of faith contains the reality of the triune God.  However, it was not until the fourth and fifth centuries (Council of Nicaea in AD 325; Council of Chalcedon in AD 451) that the Church, responding to the exigencies of the day, defined doctrines of the Trinity and the nature of Jesus Christ (“truly God and truly man”).  As Protestants, we took those doctrines for granted with our Bible-alone scheme.  In reality, however, the doctrines did not fall from the sky; nor flow effortlessly from the pages of Scripture.  The Bible is not written like a theological treatise for seminary students.  Rather, the Church hammered out dogmas over centuries, not as mere academic exercises but as medicine against ancient heresies.

And a thousand years like a day

How many millennia passed between Genesis 1:26 and AD 451?  How many devout men and women searched intently for the seed of the woman who would make things right?  It’s a long way from Genesis 3:15 to Calvary, then to Chalcedon.  The pace of revelation, and its understanding among the faithful, has been slow and incremental.  We’re reminded: “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, and the glory of kings to fathom a matter.” (Proverbs 25:2).

Cardinal Newman had my attention. Sacred Scripture and the Catechism of the Catholic Church were fitting like hand in glove.  The slippery slope toward Rome started to feel like free-fall; quite unsettling to a former anti-Catholic Baptist.

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AS FOR ME, I KNOW THAT MY VINDICATOR LIVES, AND THAT HE WILL AT LAST STAND FORTH UPON THE DUST. THIS WILL HAPPEN WHEN MY SKIN HAS BEEN STRIPPED OFF, AND FROM MY FLESH I WILL SEE GOD: I WILL SEE FOR MYSELF, MY OWN EYES, NOT ANOTHER’S, WILL BEHOLD HIM: MY INMOST BEING IS CONSUMED WITH LONGING. JOB 19:25-27

 

*New American Bible Revised Edition

Author: Danny Collier

Catholic husband, father, lawyer

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