Early Christology: Development in Relation to Councils & Creeds

Early Christology: Development in Relation to Councils & Creeds July 6, 2020

vs. David Waltz

David Waltz was a Catholic (and an apologist online) from 2002-2009. Recently he announced that he can no longer accept all Catholic teachings in good conscience, citing infallibility and development of doctrine as the areas that particularly trouble him. [I believe he has subsequently become a Mormon]. This friendly dialogue was drawn from recent combox discussions at David Waltz’s blog, Articuli Fidei. His words will be in blue.

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[Rory, a Catholic friend of David’s] I am very interested in Dave W’s answers to Dave A. That is why I asked over in the other thread about whether the trouble for him starts in 1950, 1870, 1854, or 325.

In terms of the issue of infallibility pertaining to Ecumenical Councils (and/or Papal), it starts with Nicene Council of 325. I will try to get to reasons why I adopt this position ASAP. In your 01-20-10, 12:43PM post you wrote:

The use of “Christian groups”, on the other hand, could easily be construed as a broad ecumenical, somewhat sloppy usage. There is a sense in which one can say “Christian heretics” insofar as certain groups came out of Christianity, and not another religion. It’s the same for Islam (Black Muslims, the Islamicist terrorists) and other religions. For the Orthodox Jew Christianity is a Jewish heresy.

In any event, the Catholic Church and Orthodoxy (and most Protestants who still hold to classic theistic doctrine) have all determined that these groups are outside of Christianity. Even if Fr. Chilson believes as you do, so what? He would simply be wrong, in light of what historic orthodoxy has decreed. Why put so much stock into what he says?

I merely cited Fr. Chilson as an example of a Catholic scholar who disagrees with your position.

But he may not. I’m not sure that he does, because his language was a bit ambiguous. You may be right. I don’t know for sure. But he seems to have sent mixed signals in that passage: probably due to the desire to be as charitable as he could.

My position is that of the Church on this matter, since in Vatican II, it was presupposed that “Christian” is one who is validly baptized and accepts the orthodox formulation of trinitarianism. I showed that to Rory and he has already conceded the point.

The current understanding of extra ecclesiam nullus omnino salvatur among Catholic scholars exhibits differing interpretations, and the only ‘recent’ interpretation that has been ‘officially’ condemned (at least to my knowledge) is Feeneyism.

Who can possibly be saved and who is properly classifiable as a Christian are two completely different issues. I take a very broad view of who might be saved, according to Romans 2, even before we get to what the Church says about it. I have gotten into several debates with Calvinists over this very issue.

At the same time, we can’t get sloppy about the definition of “Christian” and “Christianity” because those are fundamental issues and supremely important. We must be very clear about that.

Be that as it may, I currently neither endorse, nor condemn, Fr. Chilson’s understanding.

Okay. As you presented his citation, however, it was clearly in favor of a broader interpretation of the word “Christian” — which I don’t think is sustainable in light of clear Church pronouncements about both the Trinity and baptism.

In my opinion, the development of the doctrine of the Trinity is THE classic (historic and doctrinal), ‘model’ which all theories of DD [development of doctrine] must come to grips with. To not discuss the development of Trinitarianism is to begin the discussion/dialogue from a significantly flawed position.

Of course it is part of development, being the doctrine of God. Cardinal Newman dealt with these issues in Chapter Four, sections 1 and 2 of his Essay on Development, and wrote an entire book on the Arians. He has not overlooked the issue at all.

Further, I submit that your question, “What would need to be done to establish the Trinity as true”, is not THE question that needs to addressed, but rather, what should be asked is: Which FORM of the Trinity is the “true” one?

What are the options? Arians don’t believe in the Trinity at all, having reduced Jesus to a creature. Is the Mormon conception of God in play, too? What do you think the choices are? What does the Bible teach about God (in its admittedly less developed level)?

For instance do you maintain the Son was begotten from the Father’s substance (ousia), or from the Father’s person (hypostasis); do you subscribe to Boethius’ classic definition of “person”, or some other; is the Son autotheos; do you believe that the Father is the fons totius divinitatis—these are but a few of the many questions that should be addressed.

I accept all that the Catholic Church dogmatically teaches, including the doctrine of God. I accept the notion that I as one person cannot figure all these things out on my own: that there were many thousands of great Christian minds all through the centuries — fathers, saints, doctors, popes, great theologians, philosophers — that worked out these issues with the guidance of the Holy Spirit and a Church specially protected by God.

So, perhaps you can now better understand why I was a bit hesitant in addressing your questions before I left on my vacation—as I said earlier, your questions are, in my opinion, too complex for simple yes/no answers.

And I continue to assert that at least some of the questions are simple enough to allow an easy answer yay or nay; namely, “is Jesus God?” and “is the Holy Spirit God?”

You imply above (I think) that you accept at least some form of the Trinity. Do not any variations of the Trinity, as you see them, presuppose that Jesus and the Holy Spirit are God? There may be all these fine details, as you allude to, but it is still a God in three Persons, no? The word means “Tri-unity” after all.

[Edward Reiss, Lutheran apologist] Regarding Arians and their teaching Christ is a creature, that needs to be qualified. If you read the Arian Creeds they sound quite orthodox except for a couple of concepts snuck in. For instance, they believed that while Christ was begotten, he was begotten before all times to in effect he is eternal, because time began after the Father begot him. They also had no problem calling him God of God etc. IOW, the heresy is a lot more subtle than “They said Jesus was a creature…” For some Arian creeds see here.

Your take is not what patristics experts hold: for example, J. N. D. Kelly. Describing the beliefs of Arians about Jesus, he wrote:

[T]he Son must be a creature . . . Whom the Father formed out of nothing by His mere fiat. . . . He is a perfect creature, and not to be compared to the rest of creation; but that He is a creature, owing His being wholly to the father’s will, follows from the primary fact that He is not self-existent . . . He must belong to the contingent order.

“Secondly, as a creature the Son must have had a beginning. ‘We are persecuted’, Arius protests, ‘because we say the Son has a beginning whereas God is without beginning.’ ‘He came into existence’, he writes in the same letter . . . Nevertheless, although ‘born outside time . . . prior to His generation He did not exist’. Hence the familiar, monotonously repeated Arian slogan, ‘There was when He was not . . .. The orthodox suggestion that He was in the strict sense eternal, i.e., co-eternal with the Father, seemed to Arius to entail presupposing ‘two self-existent principles’ . . . which spelt the destruction of monotheism.” (Early Christian Doctrines, 1978 ed., 227-228; Kelly goes on to provide much more evidence, including more citations from Arius)

Jaroslav Pelikan argues precisely the same in The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600), p. 196):

The Logos . . . was ranged among the things originated and created, all of which were fundamentally different from God in essence. In the ontological distinction between Creator and creature, the Logos definitely belonged on the side of the creature — yet with an important qualification.

Other creatures of God had their beginning within time, but the Logos began ‘before times.’ . . . Although the Logos was a creature, he was ‘not as one of the creatures,’ for they were created through him while he was created directly by God. He was ‘made out of nothing.’

This is precisely what Jehovah’s Witnesses (today’s Arians) teach. I have been aware of that for almost 30 years (and for nine years before I became a Catholic). You tell me nothing new.

My casual mention that Arians believed Jesus was a creature, was, then, exactly right. There is nothing wrong about it. He is “God’s greatest creation,” etc. (as JWs say) but He is still therefore a creation and a creature. And that is blasphemy and rank heresy and extraordinarily in conflict with Holy Scripture and traditional orthodox Christology.

I think it is important to note that what has termed “Arianism”, needs to be qualified, because the so-called “followers” of Arius split into at least 3 different camps (and there is also the teachings of Eusebius of Nicomedia and his disciples which have been labeled by some as “Arian”, but should be termed “Eusebian”). Of the three major theological schools which came out of the initial Arian controversy (Anhomoian/”Neo-Arian”, Homoian, and Homoiousian/“Semi-Arian”), only the Anhomoians retained the teaching the Logos/Son was a “creature”.

Precisely, the issue is more than Arians teaching Christ is a creature. The heresy was very subtle. I would also point out that not all the orthodox started out as “homoousians”.

Of course it is, but you are now removing my passing statement out of its context. All I said was that Arians couldn’t be considered trinitarians, because they “reduced Christ to a creature.” If He is a creature, He is not God; therefore, trinitarianism goes out the window. I was referring to Arians, not Semi-Arians, in the first place.

One could argue (no?) whether the latter two groups are properly classifiable under Arianism, since they are almost orthodox and rejected an essential element of Arianism. Going from Jesus being a creature, to being uncreated is a huge essential change.

In this new thread, I will attempt to address two issues: first, my affirmation of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed; and second, one of the important reasons why I have difficulty affirming the infallibility of the Ecumenical Councils.

. . . without getting into “fine details”, I would like to, yet once again, make it crystal clear that I do in fact “accept at least some form of the Trinity.”

Moving on the second issue, the infallibility of the Ecumenical Councils, it is the promulgation of the two respective creeds mentioned in the title of this thread that raises one of the important reasons why I have difficulty in affirming infallibility. I will now attempt to outline the evidence(s). Fact 1 – Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 deletes portions of the Nicene Creed of 325, even though we read from the “Definition of the faith” of the council of Chalcedon in 451 that:

…we have renewed the unerring creed of the fathers. We have proclaimed to all the creed of the 318 [i.e. Nicene Creed of 325]; and we have made our own those fathers who accepted this agreed statement of religion—the 150 who later met in great Constantinople and themselves set their seal to the same creed. (Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, Volume 1, Norman P. Tanner, S.J. editor, 1990, p. 83.)

Fact 2 – The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 is not “the creed of the 318” [i.e. Nicene Creed of 325]. Fact 3 – “No copy of the council’s doctrinal decisions, entitled τομος και αναθεματισμος εγγραφος (record of the tome and anathemas), has survived.” (Ibid., p. 21.) Fact 4 – “The Second Council of Constantinople, A. D. 381, was not originally a general council”. (Joseph Pohle, The Trinity, English trans. Arthur Preuss, 1912, p. 129.) In summation, we have a creed from an “Ecumenical” council, that “was not originally a general council”, altering (by deletion) the Nicene Creed of 325; and the 4th Ecumenical council erroneously declaring that the creed promulgated at council of Constantinople in 381 was “the same creed” that was promulgated at Nicea in 325. I submit that such evidence(s) (and the above is only one such example) make the teaching of the infallibility of Ecumenical Councils untenable.

Creeds develop along with everything else. Development is not contradiction, but consistent thought-processes, from simple to more complex.

P.S. I want all to know that this thread should not be construed as an attack directed at Dave Armstrong; for the record, I sincerely appreciate the substantial effort/work that Dave has produced since the posting of my 01-06-10 announcement, and shall be looking forward to his (and everyone else’s) comments.

Understood and appreciated. Nor is anything I have written to be construed as an attack on you. We’re simply having theological discussion.

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If by “trinitarianism” you mean to say that the range of options that come under this doctrinal umbrella can include belief-systems such as Arianism and Mormonism (or other heresies like Sabellianism), then I must again profoundly disagree. They are impossible to harmonize with trinitarianism.

Simply because to state that Jesus is “God” (as well as the HS) does not make one a Trinitarian; as you know, many Arians and Unitarians (and, of course, Mormons) have/do call Jesus “God”.

Classically speaking (i.e. creedal), Trinitarianism is the teaching that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, as three eternal, distinct persons (hypostasis), all share one divine essence/substance (ousia). Anyway, I am not an Arian, and certainly not a Socinian—I am a Trinitarian.

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[For those who would like to explore these issues a bit more deeply, I highly recommend that you read R.P.C. Hanson’s treatment, found in his The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, pp. 812-820.]

I looked over Hanson (what was available on the Google reader: about 70% of it), and he confirms what I already said:

[M]ost of these twelve differences [between the two creeds] have no significance at all. (p. 816)

We can, I believe, conclude with fair confidence that those who drew up C and those who knew of its existence and probably taught and used it for the next fifty years did not think of it as a new, separate, creed from N, but simply as a reaffirmation of N, an endorsement of what it really meant by means of a little further explanation . . . the fathers of the ancient church were not concerned about the exact wording of formulae, even of official formulae, so much as with their content. If they were assured that the content of one statement was virtually or in effect the same as that of another, they did not mind if the original structure of shape or origin of one of them was different from that of the other . . . N, of which C was a re-affirmation. C did not in their eyes cancel N, but rather enhanced it. (p. 820)

Precisely how I would argue it. Creeds develop, too. Development is not contradiction. Problem solved, if you value this guy’s opinion. If there is no contradiction, then obviously infallibility is not affected by what is merely an imaginary problem. Frankly, I think it is a case of not seeing the forest for the trees.

Thanks much for taking the time to read Hanson’s contribution (hope that some day you will be able to read the entire book). I have no problem with the development of doctrine and the creation of new creeds to clarify and crystallize DD; my difficulty lies with the alteration of already established creeds—creeds that are considered infallible by Catholics and the EO.

You miss the point. Some words being altered doesn’t necessarily mean that the belief-system is altered. This is what Hanson was trying to say. The Apostles’ and Nicene and Athanasian Creeds do not “contradict” each other simply because they are worded differently. They are all consistent with the apostolic Catholic faith. The four Gospels don’t “contradict” one another. Luke doesn’t “alter” Mark or Matthew. John doesn’t “contradict” the Synoptics. Many atheists, of course, claim that they contradict each other. Insofar as you argue as they do, in such a manner, you are adopting their same fallacies: claiming contradictions where there are none. This ought to trouble you; not the fact that Creeds word things differently.

. . . I am quite sure that Hanson’s assessment of what was going through the minds of “those who drew up C” is spot-on, but for me, such an attitude is much too cavalier, especially when one keeps in mind that C was produced by a distinctly regional council of only 148/149 bishops.

But you make that judgment on private judgment grounds. How do you decide as an individual that the decisions made by the Church: that have become the Mind of the Church and results of a patristic consensus, are “cavalier”?

You can do that if in fact you adopt the rule of faith of Protestants, which allows such judgments of historic Catholicism and her authoritative decisions all the time (themselves quite “cavalier”), but then what are you left with?

If you are reluctant to adopt Protestantism in some form, on other grounds, where do you go? Arianism? Mormonism? But you are trinitarian, so those options are ruled out. What is left? Traditional Anglicanism? Orthodoxy accepts the authority of the early councils, so you can’t go there, either, if you start to doubt them.

This sort of skepticism leads to nowhere, and that is what you must face, as I don’t believe you want to end up nowhere, without faith, and left only with your private judgment, which is infinitely more arbitrary than anything you are criticizing.

You care too much about truth to end up with nothing, and abject skepticism. That is evident. So we must warn you of what inevitably lies ahead, should you continue down this dangerous path, before it is too late.

There is already a loss of supernatural faith, once one starts doubting the tenets of the faith, and that is the scariest thing of all, because we are then left on our own, in our own logical and analytical powers (heaven forbid!) and that is not sufficient to attain to Christian faith, since the stream can’t rise above its source. It’ll never get there without divine help, and that is what is being spurned when we start doubting the faith, and on manifestly inadequate grounds.

It’s a battle for your soul, David. I don’t mean to sound harsh or judgmental at all. I’m simply providing a Catholic point of view and noting that the stakes are very high.

I cannot begin to convey to you (and so many others), the sincere appreciation I have as it pertains to your concerns about my eternal welfare—truth be known, I too have concerns! I want to be 100% sure that I have embraced “the faith once and for all delivered unto the Saints”. One of the biggest reasons why I am sharing my research on the internet is to elicit important feedback on my thoughts and reflections—I am deeply grateful for not only your contributions, but also for the many others who have taken time to share their thoughts with me.

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. . . Hanson penned:

We find plenty of passages in pro-Nicene writers in the second half of the fourth century expressing weariness with creeds and a desire to be satisfied with N. (p. 819)

I do not wish to convey that the four “facts” I provided in the opening post of this thread in and of themselves provide ‘proof’ against the doctrine of council infallibility, they are rather troubling “cracks” that appeared in the earliest stages of the formation of councils and creeds. I started with those four “facts” to lay the foundation for future posts that will examine the historicity of early the councils and creeds—the why and how some councils came to be recognized as Ecumenical/Universal, even though originally they were not such.

But they are not, I submit, troubling at all! Even the source you provided verifies that. I don’t see the “troubling ‘cracks'” that you see. If this is the sort of thing you actually start with as a premise, and move on from there, then it is a castle made of sand. You haven’t even established (by any stretch of the imagination) that this is a solid difficulty in the Catholic position.

Before I begin working on the material for a new thread, I wanted to respond to one more quote of Hanson’s that you provided:

most of these twelve differences [between the two creeds] have no significance at all. (p. 816)

I agree with Hanson; however, he also wrote:

The alterations which may be significant are the omissions by C of ‘that is, of the substance (ousia) of the Father (iii), originally in N; the new clause in C ‘and there will be no end of his kingdom’ (x); the considerable addition to the article on the Holy Spirit (xi); and the omission of N’s anathemas…The omission of ‘that is, of the substance ousia of the Father (iii) has caused much heart-searching among scholars. (p. 817)

Tanner seems to agree with Hanson on some key points:

Scholars find difficulties with the creed attributed to the council of Constantinople. Some say that the council composed a new creed. But no mention is made of this creed by ancient witnesses until the council of Chalcedon; and the council of Constantinople was said simply to have endorsed the faith of Nicea, with a few additions on the holy Spirit to refute the Pneumatomachian heresy. Moreover, if the latter tradition is accepted, an explanation must be given of why the first two articles of the so-called Contantinopolitan creed differ considerably from the Nicene creed. (Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, Volume 1, Norman P. Tanner, S.J. editor, 1990, p. 21 – bold emphasis mine.)

My response remains the same: two creeds can be different in wording and emphasis without being essentially different; one or the other can add, omit, or reiterate concepts without necessarily contradicting the other, just as the four Gospels do, and the later creed can develop the earlier. The demand that they be precisely, exactly the same, and have no differences whatsoever, even in linguistic or grammatical matters, is a modern hyper-rationalistic mentality imposed upon ancient texts. This appears to me what you are falling prey to. As Hanson explained, it was not regarded that way at the time (nor does the Bible generally manifest this concern about technical detail and minutiae).

You cited Hanson:

The alterations which may be significant are the omissions by C of ‘that is, of the substance (ousia) of the Father (iii), originally in N; . . . The omission of ‘that is, of the substance ousia of the Father (iii) has caused much heart-searching among scholars. (p. 817)

Here are the “Nicene” and “Constantinopolitan” creeds compared side-by-side in Philip Schaff’s Creeds of Christendom:

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father [the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God], Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance (ὁμοούσιον) with the Father; . . .

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds (æons), Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father;

This you pose as a problem, because of the omission in the later creed of the bracketed portion of the earlier.

I did? I know I am getting old, but when did I do so? I quoted Hanson who stated: “The alterations which may be significant are the omissions by C of ‘that is, of the substance (ousia) of the Father (iii), originally in N”.

In the later anathemas of the original N, we find that “hypostasis”/person and “ousia”/substance are treated as identical. If we allow the creed formulated at Constantinople to be a correction/clarification of N, then the omission is a ‘considerable’ one (as Tanner suggests). How so? We have later historical issues that arose which may very well be related to this omission, and the “semantic confusion” that surrounded the Nicene period (see Hanson, ch. 7, pp. 181-208). One of these issues needed to be resolved as late as the 13th century. Abbot Joachim, a student of Peter Lombard, accused Lombard of being a heretic. From the 4th Lateran Council we read:

We therefore condemn and reprove that small book or treatise which abbot Joachim published against master Peter Lombard concerning the unity or essence of the Trinity, in which he calls Peter Lombard a heretic and a madman because he said in his Sentences, “For there is a certain supreme reality which is the Father and the Son and the holy Spirit, and it neither begets nor is begotten nor does it proceed”. He asserts from this that Peter Lombard ascribes to God not so much a Trinity as a quaternity, that is to say three persons and a common essence as if this were a fourth person.

4LC then affirms:

We, however, with the approval of this sacred and universal council, believe and confess with Peter Lombard that there exists a certain supreme reality, incomprehensible and ineffable, which truly is the Father and the Son and the holy Spirit, the three persons together and each one of them separately. Therefore in God there is only a Trinity, not a quaternity, since each of the three persons is that reality — that is to say substance, essence or divine nature-which alone is the principle of all things, besides which no other principle can be found. This reality neither begets nor is begotten nor proceeds; the Father begets, the Son is begotten and the holy Spirit proceeds. Thus there is a distinction of persons but a unity of nature. Although therefore the Father is one person, the Son another person and the holy Spirit another person, they are not different realities, but rather that which is the Father is the Son and the holy Spirit, altogether the same; thus according to the orthodox and catholic faith they are believed to be consubstantial. For the Father, in begetting the Son from eternity, gave him his substance, as he himself testifies : What the Father gave me is greater than all. It cannot be said that the Father gave him part of his substance and kept part for himself since the Father’s substance is indivisible, inasmuch as it is altogether simple. Nor can it be said that the Father transferred his substance to the Son, in the act of begetting, as if he gave it to the Son in such a way that he did not retain it for himself; for otherwise he would have ceased to be substance. It is therefore clear that in being begotten the Son received the Father’s substance without it being diminished in any way, and thus the Father and the Son have the same substance. Thus the Father and the Son and also the holy Spirit proceeding from both are the same reality.

The omission of C was now added back into this new statement of faith by 4LC; and the equating of the hypostasis/person with ousia/substance in N, is now emphatically denied.

Does not this raise, at the very least, SOME question(s) concerning the actions of the regional (originally) council which convened in Constantinople in 381?

But is it such a difficulty that we must posit actual contradiction? No; and the reason is because the same concepts are taught in each, anyway; or, I should say, the two are harmonious in their assertions.

One way we know this is from “begotten” (present in both). If this is the scriptural monogenes, then it is dealing in large part with the notion of “same essence or substance”. For example, Marvin Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament, for John 1:14:

The glory was like, corresponds in nature to, the glory of an only Son sent from a Father. It was the glory of one who partook of His divine Father’s essence . . .

Or, W. E. Vine, An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (under “Only Begotten”):

He, a Person, possesses every attribute of pure Godhood. This necessitates eternity, absolute being . . .

In fact, the earlier version of the creed actually defines “only-begotten” in exactly this fashion (“the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God”), while the second adds this very clause: “only-begotten”. Therefore, if one knows the meaning of “only-begotten Son of God”, to define it further is not strictly necessary; thus, omitting a definition of a thing already known and understood in the previous clause, is not only not a contradiction, but not even necessary in terms of both logic and content (because it omits merely a clarifying parenthesis that adds nothing essentially new to what already was).

The so-called “problem” then, that some scholars have with this, is just an academic exercise and relative triviality. It may be interesting historiographically, as to exactly why it occurred (academics thrive on technical minutiae) — I’m as intellectually curious as the next guy — , but it poses no problem in terms of faith and continuity of consistent development, as I think I have shown.

Secondly, the phrase “very God of very God” remains in the later creed, and this includes, by nature, the notion of the substance and essence of God, as part of all the divine attributes.

Thirdly, the later creed retains “being of one substance with the Father” which is saying basically the same thing as “of the essence of the Father”.

These three considerations taken together demonstrate, I contend, that there is no problem here at all with dogma or infallibility. I spoke to that generally before, now I have spelled out with specificity why I believe it to be the case.

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I shall end this post with a thought provoking selection from the pen of St. Augustine:

Now let the proud and swelling necks of the heretics raise themselves, if they dare, against the holy humility of this address. You mad Donatists, whom we desire earnestly to return to the peace and unity of the holy Church, that you may receive health therein, what have ye to say in answer to this? You are wont, indeed, to bring up against us the letters of Cyprian, his opinion, his Council; why do ye claim the authority of Cyprian for your schism, and reject his example when it makes for the peace of the Church? But who can fail to be aware that the sacred canon of Scripture, both of the Old and New Testament, is confined within its own limits, and that it stands so absolutely in a superior position to all later letters of the bishops, that about it we can hold no manner of doubt or disputation whether what is confessedly contained in it is right and true; but that all the letters of bishops which have been written, or are being written, since the closing of the canon, are liable to be refuted if there be anything contained in them which strays from the truth, either by the discourse of some one who happens to be wiser in the matter than themselves, or by the weightier authority and more learned experience of other bishops, by the authority of Councils; and further, that the Councils themselves, which are held in the several districts and provinces, must yield, beyond all possibility of doubt, to the authority of plenary Councils which are formed for the whole Christian world; and that even of the plenary Councils, the earlier are often corrected by those which follow them, when, by some actual experiment, things are brought to light which were before concealed, and that is known which previously lay hid, and this without any whirlwind of sacrilegious pride, without any puffing of the neck through arrogance, without any strife of envious hatred, simply with holy humility, catholic peace, and Christian charity? (On Baptism, II.3-4 – NPNF 4.427)

The Augustine quote I already dealt with in my recent replies to Jason Engwer. My explanation was that he meant by “correct” not “correct what was dead wrong in earlier councils,” but rather, “develop the thought of earlier councils.” I suspect that if we were to examine whatever his word in Latin was for correct, that it would allow such an interpretation. We also can consult the immediate context. It supports, I think, what I am saying:

even of the plenary Councils, the earlier are often corrected by those which follow them, when, by some actual experiment, things are brought to light which were before concealed, and that is known which previously lay hid, . . .

This is development of doctrine. We know that St. Augustine believed in that from other of his utterances, too [see the St. Augustine section of my paper: Development of Doctrine: Patristic & Historical Development) ]. I think that is perfectly plausible as a counter-argument to what you are trying to contend. I don’t simply argue it because I am a Catholic and therefore can’t say otherwise. I say this because I truly think it is the most reasonable interpretation.

In English, the word correct can have such a meaning. Merriam-Webster Online gives as a third definition:

to alter or adjust so as to bring to some standard or required condition.

For example, we might speak of a “course correction” whereby the direction was basically right, but was fine-tuned even further, for more accuracy. This is very much like development of doctrine.

First, I want to thank you for culling the discussions between us from the combox, and placing them into a new thread on your blog—well done.

Second, as for the Augustine quote, I believe that your interpretation MAY be ‘correct’ (no pun intended), however, I must in all honesty maintain it is not the only one that is viable. The flow of the selection begins with “superior position” of “the sacred canon of Scripture”,


Material sufficiency and biblical inspiration . . .; this does not prove anything whatever with regard to some supposed quasi-sola Scriptura position in Augustine. That’s so patently obvious that I deliberately didn’t waste time answering it.

and then moves on to lesser authorities which undergo correction when, “anything contained in them which strays from the truth”. In my humble opinion, one can argue that the primary axiom for correction stems from that “which strays from the truth.” But, I do not wish to be dogmatic on this . . .

No one disputes that bishops can be corrected by councils, and local councils by ecumenical councils.

Question: do you believe that my understanding of what Augustine meant is an impossible interpretation, or that yours is merely a better one?

It is possible prima facie and in the realm of “all conceivable possible scenarios.” But things do not occur in isolation. We don’t just have this one statement from Augustine as to his beliefs about authority.

Agreed! Now, with this in mind, how often does Augustine appeal to a plenary council? How often does he appeal directly to Scripture? Further, to better understand what Augustine meant in the quote we have been discussing, would it not be wise to establish which councils he was referring to as the “plenary Councils”, and then establish which previous PCs needed to be ‘corrected’/freed from faults by the subsequent ones?

You want to take this, based largely on the one word “corrected” and make out that now St. Augustine thinks that ecumenical councils are not infallible. You wish to argue precisely (i.e., methodologically) as do the Protestant pseudo-scholars William Webster and David T. King when they deal with the fathers, and Jason Engwer alongside them (as he made this same exact argument).

I strongly disagree Dave—my online written record concerning the Church Fathers is at odds with the vast majority of the views propagated by Webster and King (can’t speak on this concerning Jason, for I have read very little of his writings).

That is hanging far too much on one citation. Therefore I looked into the word being used (which turned out to be emendari). When we say that an amendment to the constitution is added, we don’t hold that this is a contradiction of the Constitution; we say it is an expansion or “development” (if you will).

I own Lewis and Short’s massive revision (2,019 pages) of the Fruend-Andrews “Latin Dictionary”; the following is their definition:

“to free from faults, to correct, improve, amend” (p. 641)

This resolves little (if anything)…

* * *

Here is the Latin for St. Augustine, On Baptism, II. 3-4:

3. 4. Nunc se, si audent, superbae et tumidae cervices haereticorum adversus sanctam humilitatem huius sermonis extollant. Insani Donatistae, quos ad pacem atque unitatem sanctae Ecclesiae remeare, atque in ea sanari cupimus et optamus, quid ad haec dicitis? Vos certe nobis obicere soletis Cypriani litteras, Cypriani sententiam, Cypriani concilium: cur auctoritatem Cypriani pro vestro schismate assumitis, et eius exemplum pro Ecclesiae pace respuitis? Quis autem nesciat sanctam Scripturam canonicam, tam Veteris quam Novi Testamenti, certis suis terminis contineri, eamque omnibus posterioribus episcoporum litteris ita praeponi, ut de illa omnino dubitari et disceptari non possit, utrum verum vel utrum rectum sit, quidquid in ea scriptum esse constiterit: episcoporum autem litteras quae post confirmatum canonem vel scriptae sunt vel scribuntur, et per sermonem forte sapientiorem cuiuslibet in ea re peritioris, et per aliorum episcoporum graviorem auctoritatem doctioremque prudentiam, et per concilia licere reprehendi, si quid in eis forte a veritate deviatum est: et ipsa concilia quae per singulas regiones vel provincias fiunt, plenariorum conciliorum auctoritati quae fiunt ex universo orbe christiano, sine ullis ambagibus cedere: ipsaque plenaria saepe priora a posterioribus emendari; cum aliquo experimento rerum aperitur quod clausum erat, et cognoscitur quod latebat; sine ullo typho sacrilegae superbiae, sine ulla inflata cervice arrogantiae, sine ulla contentione lividae invidiae, cum sancta humilitate, cum pace catholica, cum caritate christiana?

Looks like the key phrase is posterioribus emendari, so we already have a better, more accurate idea, I think, of what St. Augustine truly meant.

We see that the various related Latin words that start with “emend” can carry the developmental meaning I have posited: “amendment,” “improvement,” “purifying,” “perfect,” etc., in the online Latin Perseus lexicon, for Latin words starting with “emend”.

Moral of the story: don’t hang your argument on one word. This reminds me of the wooden, context-free Protestant arguments from the simple presence of adelphos / brother in Scripture, supposedly proving that Jesus had siblings, as though “brother” even in English doesn’t have a wide range of meanings, as adelphos does in Greek.

I am honestly at a loss as to why you think a sustained dialogue concerning the meaning of the word “correct” is productive. I do not disagree that “to correct” CAN mean to clarify and/or add to something previous. As such, I saw no reason to interact with you and/or lexicons on this. Why argue over a point I concede?

I made two additional arguments: from the following context (“things are brought to light which were before concealed, and that is known which previously lay hid”) that strongly suggests development rather than contradiction; and St. Augustine’s espousal of doctrinal development elsewhere. These are crucial in order to understand his utterance in this case. But you ignored both things.

The fathers have to be interpreted in context and in light of their other writings, just as the Bible has to be interpreted in context and in light of its entire teaching, minus single words and supposed prooftexts ripped out and used in isolation.

What St. Augustine states in the present citation under consideration (“correct” / Latin, emendari) is quite similar to what he wrote about development in other places. Hence, my contention that this interpretation of “correct” / emendari is the most plausible one. We can make informed decisions as to the superiority of one “possible” option over another. We don’t have to be left hanging in the cold winds of uncertainty. Linguistics is not an exact science, but context and cross-referencing make it a question of lesser and greater degrees of probability. If this is an objection to the Catholic notion of infallibility, it is certainly an exceedingly weak one.

So you see no significance in his words right after “correct” / ememdari that seem to me to clearly be talking about development of doctrine, not correction of contradictions in earlier plenary councils?

Do you deny that he is discussing development there?

How often does he appeal directly to Scripture?

Tons of times, as I do. What is the point? What does that have to do with anything? Now you’re back to the Webster / King / Engwer methodology again, whereby any conceivable difficulty, no matter how weak when examined, supposedly shows that the contrary proposition is somehow profoundly questionable and no longer worthy of allegiance, and no better than the “difficulty” brought forth to counter it.

This is a fundamental error of method that you seem to have fallen prey to. It’s a dead-end. Keep doing that and you may very well end up not only out of Christianity, but out of theism altogether, because if you insist on being skeptical about everything you see, where does it end? As was alluded to by Rory earlier, if you consistently apply this sort of skeptical mindset, it will sooner or later be applied to the Bible, just as all theological liberals eventually take to hacking the Bible to pieces and treating it merely as a piece of ancient anthropology and myth.

Back to the absolute necessity and primacy of supernatural faith and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit . . .

In other words, all of us can continue to discuss relative minutiae and all kinds of technical philosophical, theological, and historical details, but if you don’t also examine your first premises and overall methodology, then you will not solve any of the problems of allegiance that you are trying to resolve for yourself.

I’m not saying to not do the technical discussions, but I urge you to also examine your presuppositions going in. The relentless skepticism you have chosen doesn’t lead anywhere, because it is reactionary. You have to develop a pro-active viewpoint, wherever you end up.

Your hostility to the infallibility of ecumenical councils precludes Catholicism and Orthodoxy as options, until you resolve it. So you are already a Protestant by default, or else “nothing” (some sort of vague unclassified theist who remains trinitarian) until you resolve the question of authority.

At this point I would be absolutely delighted to see you espouse some form of Protestantism, because to me it is a distinct possibility that you could lose Christian faith altogether if you keep going down this road, following this in-the-end deadly method of inquiry.

You could very well be writing over at, e.g., Debunking Christianity a year from now, giving your deconversion story. Why would I say that? Well, because I have read many of those (and have refuted some of them), and many started their journey into unbelief precisely as you are doing now: questioning many things, but not being quite as willing to entertain the prospect that the many “difficulties” suggested can be refuted by more plausible alternatives. They exhibit the same sort of skeptical mindset. We are (or will become) what we eat.

I feel that it is supremely important that you be warned of these dangers before it is too late. This is not a “Catholic thing” I am talking about now: it is a “Christian thing” and even a “theistic thing.”

If you want me to address specific arguments, I am certainly willing to do so, but ONE at a time. May I suggest that you start with the argument on the top of your list.

Sure. Why don’t you now interact with my reply to your two scholarly quotations regarding supposedly troubling differences between the two creeds? You presented your argument twice; I replied twice in two different comboxes (pasting one from the other, in hopes that it would be dealt with), and you didn’t reply to my arguments twice.

I compared the texts and gave several distinct but related arguments as to why I think there is no problem whatever. One can always disagree, but your “problems” were directly dealt with, reasoned replies were given, and I think they deserve at least minimal consideration on your part, since you threw out the questions and I made some attempt to answer them.

I understand your time is limited, too (whose isn’t?), but I remind you that I wasn’t among the ones who bombarded you with 1200 e-mails. I have confined myself to direct replies to your publicly posted material, that you have made time to write, and where you have stated interest (reiterated recently) in contrary opinions.

It seems that you are under the impression that the bulk of my difficulties with infallibility rests with the changes THEMSELVES of Nicene creed by the regional council of Constantinople. If I have given you this impression, I sincerely apologize. Before proceeding on to those changes (which, in and of themselves do not constitute a ‘proof’ against infallibility), I want to make it clear it was the PROCESS involved that I find particularly troubling (and even this, does not, by itself, constitute a ‘proof’ against infallibility, rather it sets the stage/foundation for future actions/processes that I find suspect).


(originally 2-6-10)

Photo credit: Dianelos Georgoudis (5-31-14). Marvelous mosaic of Christ Pantocrator (“ruler over all”) from the Hagia Sophia in Instanbul. It is the central figure of the so called Deësis mosaic (Δέησις, “Entreaty”) which probably dates from a relatively late 1261. It is considered by many to be the finest mosaic in Hagia Sophia. [Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license]


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