Some passing thoughts on Catholicity (or, an Ehrman/Pagels view of catholicity)

This post was originally featured on the Lux Christi site. The original is here.

Herein is a quick comment on the continuing online saga of what constitutes “catholicity.” So far most of the things I have read have been coming from Orthodox and Reformed bloggers, and I just wanted to my give two cents on something touched on, but which needs some expanding, namely that catholicity existed in the early Church not merely as “the truth.”

Many Protestants will say that “truth” is what constitutes catholicity —the proper confession of what Holy Scripture teaches—and then proceed to wax eloquent about how much the early Church did not know. One prof I had in seminary opined that St. John wasn’t even cold in the ground and here was Ignatius of Antioch selling the whole patrimony for a bowl of lentils called episcopal monarchicalism. The earliest Reformers, really up to Calvin, made attempts to call the Fathers theirs. Calvin, though, denied the Ignatian epistles were real, calling them noxious fairy tales. Others, such as the main Elizabethan apologist, John Jewel, qualified everything into oblivion, largely asking his Catholic interlocutors to show that scholastic distinctions existed among the Fathers, and since they did not, then claims of historical continuity were bogus. Interestingly, several items Jewel decided to keep off the table: episcopal supremacy, the real presence (he did attack transubstantiation), tradition as a rule of faith. He also never brought up the question of justification, never claiming in his disputes with such Catholics as Thomas Harding that the Protestant doctrine was that of the Fathers. In short what he was doing was claiming that the multiplicity of the early Church’s forms justified Protestant schism, and gave the lie to Rome’s assertions.

Jewel’s method comes back in spades with Walter Bauer, inter alios. What little Jewel did find in the early Church that he thought kept him within “the Faith,” such as the Trinity, and the deity of Christ, he affirmed. He did embrace the first four Councils, and tacitly even the fifth, though he seems quite unaware of its implications. His mentor, Peter Martyr Vermigli, openly denied that one of the Holy Trinity suffered in his Person’s human nature, and Jewel seems never to have corrected his teacher, even after Vermigli’s death in 1562. The point here is that Jewel, along with the other Reformers, boiled catholicity down to asserting the correct doctrine, and often this meant justification by faith alone, the doctrine on which the Church “rises and falls.” To him there was no such thing as catholicity in the sense that the Church was one, united around its local bishop in the Eucharist, and thus to Christ (Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels would happily agree).

But this inability to find Roman scholastic particulars or precise Latin medieval explanations of dogma in the Fathers amounted to nothing more than so many red herrings, for Truth in the early Church was union with Christ. And Christ was not, of course, only Truth, but also the Way and the Life. For the Fathers, what is handed over to them, what was tradition was Christ—the Way, the Truth, and the Life. This was found only within the Church, in the Eucharistic community under and guarded by the bishop, and not in sola scriptura, or justification by faith alone. The Reformers sought to make catholicity something it was not by focusing on items which the Roman church had added, expanded on, or minutely defined in such a way, and within the context of scholastic debate, that to the Reformers it bore little resemblance to what they were reading in the Fathers, let alone the Bible. The humanist training of most of the Reformers emboldened them to think that merely by critical tools they could come to understand the Scriptures, and indeed that a plow boy in the field was as equipped as any Parisian Master or bishop. What had occurred, however, was that they had thrown off one set of assumptions for another set, ones that just about every Protestant refuses to admit they have adopted, to the detriment of the Fathers.

For the Fathers, we joined with the bishop in the Eucharist because there was Christ, and, to use the words of St. Ignatius, that we might have a part in God. St. Hippolytus and Clement of Alexandria said we did this so that we might be made God (Theopoein). St. Irenaeus of Lyons said that God became what we are in order that we might become what He is. St. Irenaeus is also quite adamant that this union was only found within the Catholic Church: and we know that by being united with the bishops who link themselves with the Apostles, and not by our correct understanding of the Bible (the correct understanding of the Bible was dependent on union with the bishops).

Does this mean that bishops never err, and that a mere magic touch, something akin to an episcopal E.T. moment, preserves us? No, for tradition is not only the bishop. This can be seen in Gregory of Nazianzus and others writing during the Arian controversy. But for St. Gregory and others, that some bishops had betrayed the faith did not vitiate the need to have union with the bishop: St. Gregory invaded the dioceses of heretic bishops to consecrate Orthodox bishops. Bishops existed for the end of uniting us to God, but Arian bishops ipso facto denied this, in that Arius’s “God” could never be known, not even by the Son. Thus, as St. Athanasius asserted, we could never be made God in the Arian system, and echoing St. Irenaeus, asserted that God became man, in order that man might become God. This statement was not something the Reformers were repeating, and to them became something like bishops: another silly notion the Fathers had because they didn’t understand the Bible like they should have.


  1. Just to be fair to Calvin, the collection of St. Ignatius’ letters that were circulating at the time in the West had a few added letters, to St. John and to the Theotokos, that, while I don’t find them noxious, are definitely spurious.

    I also don’t understand singling him out about the episcopacy, since the English Calvinist tradition (at least its three-office adherents) referred to the presiding minister in a church as Bishop well into the 19th century. In the Dutch tradition, the presiding minister was known as ‘Domini’ (or Master), comparable to Orthodox practice well into the 20th. On a micro-structure, it did actually represent a return to the earliest Church polity, with a bishop, council of presbyters, and deacons in each church.

    In Calvin’s own ecclesiology, the Church was made up of the communion of all of those pastors of true churches, his definition of which included a lot of Roman Catholic churches, churches forced out by the Reformation, and in potential though not in fact, Eastern churches. He also had a very strict definition of schism and considered it worse than heresy, following St. Augustine.

    The problem here is with various ideologies that call themselves calvinism and bodies which call themselves calvinist, not with Calvin himself on this point. If they actually practiced what their founder preached, they’d be much closer to Holy Orthodoxy.

    1. He had a third office, in addition to presbyter and deacon, which he referred to with terms like Pastor or ‘Minister of the Word’ or ‘Minister of the Sacraments’, which office among three-office Presbyterians was referred to throughout most of their history as ‘Bishop’, and in the Dutch tradition with the referent ‘Domini’ or Master as I said before. This, as I said, parallels the function of Bishops in the Apostolic era, before the growth of the Church necessitated multiple churches within a city, at which point the Bishop began to preside at one of them with the presbyters delegated to oversee the others.

      But the point being, Calvin’s own ecclesiology was very much based on the people gathered around the Eucharist, administered by a Pastor, the communion of which Pastors consituted the church. No doubt a large factor in the loss by calvinism of this ecclesiology is the loss by calvinism of Calvin’s entire conception of the Eucharist.

      The reason Calvin declines to use the term Bishop is that at that time in the West, the episcopacy bore little to no resemblance to the office in the Orthodox Church, and was essentially a bureaucratic administrator. Calvin’s father, at one point in his young life, attempted to purchase him a Bishopric, remember.

      Frankly, for someone in 16th Century Switzerland to talk about “catholicity in the sense that the Church was one, united around its local bishop in the Eucharist” would have been so much nonsense, both theologically and practically in the lives of his hearers. I’m arguing that what Calvin was trying to recover is something similar to this, but clearly, from a historical perspective, he failed miserable.

  2. Nathaniel, what do you mean by “unfair jabs”? Each of them have written that there was no such thing as a catholic church at least till he fourth century. Please be kind and illuminate me as to how I was unfair.

    1. Oh, I know they would all agree. But you haven’t really dealt with their arguments, but rather another unknown interlocutor. Then you tack on these three persons. But really you are discussing protestant ecclesiology. Bauer, Ehrman and Pagels make three distinct arguments that aren’t really protestant. Their arguments are of another species. It just seems unrelated to me. I think a post that dealt with each of their arguments in turn would be very welcome.

      Just as an example, Bauer’s first chapter in his magnum opus, the one on Edessa, is quite good. It is pretty clear that the “gnostics” were in Edessa first. However, his chapter on Antioch, and Ignatius in particular is quite a stretch. Bauer is making specific claims out of the historical material that are such a different nature than Jewel’s that I think they deserve to be treated separately. I think that failing to do this is an associative fallacy.

      Of course, I pretty much consider Pagels to be a non-scholar, so maybe I’ll let that one slide. 🙂

      1. Nathaniel, my point is not that they aren’t making different arguments (that doesn’t enter my equation at all), but that their respective views spring from the same font, they share the same axiom: there has never been, nor ever shall be, one, true, visible (Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic) Church. Bauer clearly held that unity arises from chaos, and not that chaos descends out of unity. I commend, if you haven’t read it already, Kostenberger and Kruger’s The Heresy of Orthodoxy. They give Bauer his due on the matter of Edessa, but then begins all the needed qualifications. Fr. Behr gave a very good lecture on this as well that can be found in Youtube. I would maintain thus, that what Bauer et al are doing (and I tend to agree about Pagels), stem from the notion, unstated but absolutely essential to Protestantism, that there was never a visible Catholic church since the moment after Pentecost: If there was, then why aren’t they following it? I am not accusing Calvin of Jewel of having sired Bauer et al., even though we are responsible for the implications of our words; what I am saying is that there assumptions have consequences. If you think otherwise, please let me know how I can clarify my argument.

        In Christ, C

  3. Fr. Stephen, Calvin’s ecclesiological structures were rather elastic. His “doctor” was not a sacramental minister, but only a teaching office. He countenanced bishops in Hungary, and wrote warmly to Cranmer about true bishops. He was far more interested in his flocks’ personal discipline, I believe, than with any necessary forms. Real Presbyterianism only emerges with Cartwright in England and Melville in Scotland, though probably preceded to a degree by the French Reformed church. As Calvin envisioned France’s godly, they were organized as they were for they lacked a godly magistrate. Since England had these, Calvin may well have thought his ruling elders superfluous. But Cartwright, influenced by Beza, saw Presbyterianism not as ad hoc, bu jure divino.

  4. Though also to add, I generally hold Calvin the most catholic of the reformers (granted, feint praise), for he at least had a doctrine of the ministry, something Lutherans still struggle with. It should also be remembered, Calvin never had any formal theological training.

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