"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)

Friday, October 23, 2009

Tertullian and St. Cyprian: On the Unity of the Church (audio)

Professor Feingold's fifth lecture in his series on the early Church Fathers is now available for download here. The title of the lecture is "Tertullian and St. Cyprian: On the Unity of the Church." This lecture in particular is directly relevant to the purpose of this blog, in pursuing the reconciliation of all Christians in full visible unity. Tertullian and St. Cyprian [represented in the icon at right] were both African Christians, writing at the beginning and middle of the third century, respectively. In their writings we have a window into the early Church's understanding of the nature of the Church and the principle of the Church's unity. As you listen, ask yourself this: What are the implications of Tertullian and St. Cyprian's understanding of the Church for contemporary Christians, especially for Protestant-Catholic reunion? If you have thoughts or questions about the lecture (especially regarding Church unity), please free to comment below.


Marty said...

Dear Bryan,

Thanks for the links to the talks by Father Feingold. Please recognize that as a Protestant I have great respect for the Roman Catholic tradition even though I'm Protestant, and am not some rabid anti-catholic a la Lorraine Boetner. I have spent much of my academic life reading and teaching medieval theology, which I find tremendously edifying at points.

However, I must say there are some very disappointing elements in each of Father Feingold's talks from a purely historic perspective. In my opinion, he regularly commits the fallacy of anachronism, reading later developed Roman theology back into earlier documents. This is a pity. It would be more helpful if he acknowledged various difficulties that the Roman position has. As a ROman Catholic said to me yesterday, "I don't want to smooth over the historical difficulties in our faith, it would mean defending the indefensible".

Hence, Father Feingold skirts over the clear evidence in Clement's letter that the presbyter is identical to the bishop (as it is in the NT). This then constitutes dissonance with Ignatius' teaching (i.e. Ignatius is most likely a development away from the NT and Clement). [He fails to mention that Ignatius calls "faith" the "flesh of Christ", and "love" the "blood of Christ", which shows how problematic it is to read Ignatius as teaching the real presence].

About Irenaeus, there are swathes of critical material Feingold leaves out that questions his thesis on apostolic succession: Irenaeus' teaching on the clarity and sufficiency of holy Scripture as the reformers taught it; that the oral tradition passed on from the apostles was the "canon of truth" NO MORE and NO LESS (!); that succession not only applied to bishops but also presbyters; that Rome's pristine form of the "canon of truth" was because of Peter and Paul's deaths there NOT because Peter was some papal figure ... and I could go on.

Then when we come to Cyprian, we find a whole host of novel (yes, very novel) developments in his ecclesiology and sacramentology precisely because of the local persecutions. He provides a definition of unity of the church (hitherto unknown) as centering on the episcopate.

The unity spoken of in John 17 doesn't focus on bishops let alone a papacy, but on Christians loving each other (as the Father and Son love each other). That is true unity.

Every blessing dear brother,


Bryan Cross said...


Thanks for your comments. Concerning whether or not there is anachronism in Prof. Feingold's lectures, I think it is very important to understand that you and he are looking at Church history through different lenses. (By the way, he is not a priest; he is a professor of theology.) What seems to you as a reading of Catholic theology back into the writings of these Fathers, is from a Catholic point of view seeing what was there in a less-developed form. The Church develops organically, so that theology taught at a later time is an unfolding or defense of what had already been believed and practiced, even if only implicitly.

The Protestant looks at history without the aid of that lens. (This is part of the point of my ecclesial deism article.) And this creates the appearance of anachronism on the part of the Catholic who, with the aid of tradition, is able to see in history what is implicit, but which, without the aid of tradition, is not apparent. This is why to the Protestant, the Catholic may seem guilty of anachronism. But from the Catholic point of view, the problem is that the Protestant does not have the aid of the tradition, and so looks at history with a perceptual limitation.

The reason why you see Clement's treatment of bishops as "clear evidence" of bishop/elder equivalence is, from a Catholic point of view, because that's all you've got to work with, and so if bishops can be understood as elders in Clement, then you infer that they were understood at that time to be equivalent. But that would be an unjustified inference, from a Catholic point of view, because of things like what St. Ignatius says. We don't want to read into a text what it does not explicitly say, when that would be contrary to the tradition. That wouldn't be a good hermeneutical practice.

The passages in St. Ignatius regarding flesh and faith have a very different immediate context, and so do not cast any doubt on the clear meaning of what he says about the Real Presence, especially as aided by the Catholic tradition. (Again, we see that it goes back to the same fundamental problem.)

Of course I agree about St. Irenaeus's statements concerning the clarity of Scripture, but those must be understood not as implying that the Scriptures may be interpreted outside the Church, but only in and with the Church. The two things (i.e. the authority of the Church via apostolic succession, and the clarity of Scripture) should not be construed as mutually exclusive, but should be held together; that's how St. Irenaeus understood them. Some Protestants take St. Irenaeus's statements about the clarity of Scripture out of context, so as to justify a Protestant sola scriptura approach. But that was not at all what St. Irenaeus was saying. The Catholic position holds the clarity of Scripture in the context of the Church and as informed by the Apostolic Tradition known from those who have the succession from the Apostles. Apostolic succession and perspicuity must not be pitted against each other; St. Irenaeus was not pitting them against each other or proposing that anyone else should do so.

Bryan Cross said...


As for whether St. Cyprian's notion of unity "centering on the episcopate" was "hitherto unknown", I think St. Ignatius's epistles are quick to dispel that. When you claim that something is "novel", it is essential to determine whether it is novel within the historical record, or novel as an organic development [making explicitly what was already implicit], or absolutely novel. The latter sort of novelty is a problem. But organic novelty is not a problem; we should expect that the Church, being a living organism, would grow in her understanding of the deposit of the faith. In addition, we cannot assume that just because a term or description of a practice or belief is first mentioned at time t, that it was therefore novel at that time. The first recorded mention of a thing is fully compatible with it having been already present (unrecorded), whether as developed to that degree, or whether in a less developed form.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Tap said...

Just curious, to what group was Professor Feingold giving this lecture to? or was is this just his normal class lecture?

Bryan Cross said...


These lectures are hosted by the Association of Hebrew Catholics. The attendees are mostly Catholic, from various backgrounds and ages.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan