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

I have been on vacation with my family this past week, and amidst relaxing I have also had to take care of business as relates to my university, and have had scant ability to keep up with what was going on in Blogdom. So, this is not the continuation of the post on Romans 9, nor the next set of thoughts on prayer, but a quick comment on the continuing saga of what is catholicity. So far most of the things I have read have been coming from Orthodox and Reformed bloggers (I commend the several entries at Orthodoxy and Heterdoxy), 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 this is what catholicity consists in, in 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 Prot 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 it local bishop in the Eucharist, and thus to Christ (Barth Ehrman and Elaine Pagels would happily agree).

But this inability to find what they wanted to accuse Rome of teaching as Tradition, or what they were saying that Rome taught was in the Fathers, was 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 Naziazenus 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.

About Gary Cyril Jenkins

Professor of History
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8 Responses to Some passing thoughts on Catholicity (or, an Ehrman/Pagels view of catholicity)

  1. Pingback: Orthodox Collective

  2. Adam Saverian says:

    Nailed it! Very well put.

  3. Karen says:

    Cyril, could you comment on Philip Schaff’s work *History of the Christian Church.* I’m reading the volume on the ante-Nicene period. It’s obvious to me, he has a Protestant bias (for instance, in his view of even the Orthodox Christian asceticism of the period and in his using the “justification by faith” of the Reformers as his measure of “genuine NT” soteriology in which he finds most of the Fathers of this period deficient), but are you familiar enough with his work to comment on some of the particulars of this?

  4. Cyril,

    Could you comment a little more on how this is a “Pagels/Ehrman” view, or at least is consonant with them? The brief passing reference was tantalizing — where in their writings (and I’m sure it is everywhere) do they come to these same conclusions, or posit these implications? (I haven’t read anything by Pagels and only the “Orthodox Corruption of Scripture” by Ehrman, and that was years ago).

    Thanks in advance,

    Russ Warren

  5. Cyril says:


    Schaff, for all his learning, was, at least in his early years, a committed member of the German Reformed Church (the precursor of the modern UCC), and a devotee of the Heidelberg catechism. You have essentially nailed him and his biases. To see the “Reformed” side of him, look at his 7th vol. on the German Reformation where he paints a less-than-flattering picture of Luther at the Marburg Colloquy (the dispute between Luther and Wittenburg with Zwingli and the Swiss over the Eucharist). Luther is cast as too conservative and reactionary, prompted to his intransigence on his Eucharistic views by his more radical colleague, Karlstadt. When the controversies with the Swiss erupt, Luther has turned to his “me against the devil” mode.” Schaff’s sympathies for the Swiss and their Eucharistic theology pervade the text.

    Schaff taught at Mercersburg Seminary in central PA, but moved to Union in NYC in 1863 when the seminary closed with the coming of Lee’s invasion that ended at Gettysburg. Schaff’s colleague, John Nevin, ended his days at Lancaster seminary, and on more than one occasion seriously considered converting to Rome. Schaff’s temptations ran in more broadly ecumenical directions, working for the Parliament of World Religions when he died in 1893.

    A key to him can be seen in his book The Principle of Protestantism. The text is a theory of Church history, one in which Schaff asserts that the Reformation is the maturing of the Patristic and medieval churches, taking from them what was good, and letting the chaff be driven by the wind of the Spirit (adoration of the Virgin, the cult of saints, transubstantiation, the pope, semi-Pelagianism). The Church for Schaff becomes a dynamic entity, coming to new truths as they are revealed by the Spirit to the Church. While he had his prejudices, he admitted that the Reformers often forced their readings on the Church Fathers. Like his contemporary, John Henry cardinal Newman, Schaff would find things in embryonic form in the Fathers, embryos really only brought to birth in the Reformation. Unlike Newman, Schaff saw much in the medieval period that would have strangled in embryos in the womb.

    I think of Schaff the way I think of Edward Gibbon and his monumental Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: wonderful writers and erudite, but beset in almost exemplary ways with the biases of their times.

  6. Cyril says:


    My readings of the two have run far more to Pagels than Ehrman, though they are both really no different than the old German liberalism. Pagels started scholarly, but her recent book Beyond Belief really lays out the whole system of them both. She was recovering from the death of her husband when during a morning run she decided to rest in an Episcopal Church and there came face-to-face with what she thought the early Church really was: an amorphous, egalitarian, non-doctrinaire institution. The non-doctrinaire is the important part, for it was “beyond belief,” i.e., the early church, the real early church before that fascist dictator, Irenaeus of Lyons, turned the church against the truth of no-truth by his valorizing of the Gospel of John and slighting (in her mind) the other, more Gnostic gospels: Mark is more Gnostic, says Pagels, than John: in Mark Jesus is just some good Jewish boy-scout. Pagels and Ehrman differ in their respective takes on the Gnostics, Pagels more sympathetic, Ehrman not so much. But for both of them, the Gnostics were the real early Christians, and not the Orthodox Catholics. An excellent book on this is entitled The Heresy of Orthodoxy, and if you have the time, you can listen to a grand lecture on the topic by Fr. John Behr. In short, what both Ehrman and Pagels do is nothing but what Leithart and Jordan do: there was no Orthodox faith, there was no One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Unity is a chimera, and at best a hindrance to the truth. In fact, for the Reformation, ultimately there can be no one visible Church.

  7. Pingback: Some passing thoughts on Catholicity (or, an Ehrman/Pagels view of catholicity) « Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy

  8. Karen says:

    Thanks, Cyril. For all Schaff’s biases, one thing is clear from the volume I am reading: The ante-Nicene Church he describes is identical in all essential ways with the contemporary Eastern Orthodox Church. (No surprise there!)

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