Begging the question
Christianity is ancient history. Well…its beginnings are anyway. Way back in the day before television and the internet a movement that would change the world was born. But that was 2,000 years ago….how confident can we be about the facts surrounding its birth?
Actually, very confident, as I wrote about elsewhere. One of the many testifying evidences to the accuracy of the New Testament is the corroboration from writings of men who followed the apostles…the Church fathers, as they are collectively known. The Roman Catholic Church claims these early documents from the first three centuries support her unique teachings and practices, in particular that Jesus instituted a visible religious institution with the bishop of Rome as its head. But how confident are you, Catholic friend, of the validity of this claim? A lot depends on it. Are you willing to look at the evidence?
If you are, please consider Exhibit A.
Clement, bishop of Rome is considered the “first of the Apostolic Fathers” as his Epistle to the Corinthians is dated the earliest (late first century) of all the patristic writings generally recognized as authentic. The Catholic Church claims this letter supports their claim to papal primacy. But does it?
The occasion of the letter was to exhort the Corinthians to reject the sedition being promoted by some among them and “cleave, therefore, to those who cultivate peace with godliness.” A bishop of one church writing to another church to admonish, correct, or exhort was not uncommon and certainly not an indication of primacy. We have similar letters from bishops of other churches to congregations not their own. But as Clement was a bishop of Rome, the Catholic Church reads into this letter what she wants to find evidence for.
This image is of a page from my copy of The Sources of Catholic Dogma by Henry Denzinger, a resource which Catholic publishing house Ignatius Press says, “faithfully reflects the history of the Church’s faith and its development over the centuries. Indeed, its reference system has become an established part of citing important theological sources.” You’ll notice that this entry of selected passages from Clement’s letter claims to support “The Primacy of the Roman Pontiff.” I fail to see how it does. Read it yourself and see if you don’t agree that anyone without an a priori commitment to the Church will recognize that she is really reaching here.
If you are Catholic this should be of concern to you because the Church’s claims of authority are reliant on an unbroken line of primal popes traced back to Peter himself. Whether or not Peter actually was a bishop of Rome is debatable, but that’s a subject for another post. The crucial point here is that there is no good evidence that the bishop of Rome had unique authority over the entire church from the first century. None. Denzinger’s work is a chronological compendium of writings purported to support Catholic dogma, but the next earliest writing to supposedly support papal supremacy is from Julius I in the mid-fourth century.
There were attempts by one or another bishop of Rome in the first few centuries to assert primacy for the Roman see, but that’s all they were…assertions, which were refuted by their fellow bishops. I intend to highlight those in subsequent posts. For the Catholic Church’s claim of authority to go through, she must establish the conferring of that authority in the first century. And she cannot.
The writings of the church fathers are widely available. You can read the entire letter to the Corinthians from “pope” Clement here. Below are some other informative links.
Many Catholics will never examine the evidence but instead blindly believe and obey the Church from an attitude of unquestioning loyalty because they have been taught that she has the authority. But if the assertion of her authority is questionable, isn’t defending her authority on the basis of her authority actually begging the question?