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Outlines of Dogmatic Theology
CHAPTER III: MONUMENTS OF TRADITION.
93. Subject of the Chapter. – We have seen (n. 6) that it is the work of the Positive theologian to investigate the monuments of Tradition, and show that the faith of the Church held at the present day has been held with more or less explicitness in all former ages, or at any rate has not been contradicted. In the present chapter, and the next,we shall discuss the materials that he uses in this work. Far the principal among these is the Holy Scripture, the relations of which to Tradition shall form the subject of the following chapter; next come the writings of those men of theological learning of the earlier times of the Church who go by the name of Fathers, with whom we shall be chiefly occupied during the present chapter; but first something must be said concerning some monuments of Tradition which admit of shorter treatment.
94. Formal Definitions. – The most explicit declaration of the consent of the living Church is obtained when an express definition of doctrine is put forward, or an anathema is pronounced on error. This may be done by the Roman Pontiff, either acting alone, as when, in 1854, Pius IX. defined the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception; or con firming the decrees of a General Council, as the decrees of the Vatican Council of 1870 were con firmed by the same Pontiff. When a doctrine is defined in this manner, it becomes part of the Catholic faith, the denial of which is the sin and crime of heresy.
95. The Liturgy and Ritual. – It is a principal part of the work of the Church to direct the devotions of the Christian people; whence it follows that whatever doctrine can be deduced from the prayers and ceremonies sanctioned for use in any country, must be supposed to be the belief of the people of that country ; and the Sacred Liturgy and Ritual, so far as they are common to the Universal Church, guide us to a knowledge of what the Church holds. This principle is set forth in a letter written by Pope St. Celestine, about the year 431, to certain Bishops of Gaul, in which he argues against the Pelagians for the necessity of grace, and founds an argument upon what he calls "the sacraments, or mysteries, of the prayers of priests, handed down from the Apostles, and in constant use throughout the world and in every orthodox Church, so that the law guiding our supplications affords a rule for our belief." (St. Coelest. I. Epist. 21; P.L. 50, 537; Denz. 95.) Thus, the genuflection of the priest immediately after he has pronounced the words of institution in the Mass, shows that now for the first time there is an Object on the altar deserving reverence; nor can it be doubted that this reverence is an act of latria, or Divine worship, offered to our Lord, really present. This particular ceremony has not always been in use; and although its presence is a proof that the belief which it symbolizes is held, it would be a mistake to suppose that its absence from the liturgy at any particular date gave any indication that at this date the belief was unknown. Its presence has a positive force, its absence has no force at all.
96. History. – The importance of history as a source of knowledge of the doctrine held by the Church in former times, scarcely needs illustration. It may be enough to mention the story of the finding of the Holy Cross at Jerusalem, by the Empress St. Helena. This is mentioned by St. Cyril of Jerusalem, more than once, and he was writing on the spot about the year 345, or twenty years after the event (see Catech. Myst. 4, 10, 10, 19, 13, 4; P.G. 33, 467, 685, 776), and later, but with fuller detail, by Sulpicius Severus (Hist. Sacr. 2, 34; P.L. 20, 148), from whom the story passed into ordinary history. Whether or not we think that these authorities outweigh the negative argument drawn from the silence of Eusebius in the passage (De Vita Constantini, cc. 42 46; P.G. 20, 1101 − 1105) where he describes the pious munificence of St. Helena on occasion of her visit to the Holy Places, it is at least clear that St. Cyril and Sulpicius regarded it as natural that the holy Empress should esteem and honour the sacred relic; and this indirect testimony of history is often of no less value than its uncontroverted statements. A forger or inventor will set down nothing which does not at least seem to his contemporaries to be what is likely to have happened.
There is a remark which is true of all sciences, but which finds special application to the science of history. An imperfect acquaintance with the science may seem to raise difficulties against the truths of faith, but a fuller acquaintance with its teaching causes these difficulties to disappear. Truth can never contradict truth, and the supernatural teachings of faith will never be found in opposition to natural knowledge, provided this is certain, and not mere fancy.
A peculiar character attaches to that branch of history which is concerned with the lives and deaths of martyrs, who laid down their life for the faith. When these men were brought before governors and kings, to answer for their neglect to comply with the laws, it was not they that spoke, but the Holy Ghost. (St. Mark xiii. II.) Hence it is no wonder that the Church has always been diligent in collecting the “Acts” of the martyrs; and amidst much that cannot be trusted, many documents of undoubted antiquity survive, detailing the circumstances under which each attained his victory. The narratives are most interesting and full of instruction on various subjects ; and among the rest they incidentally throw much light upon the belief of the Church at the time. Anastasius, in his Lives of the Roman Pontiffs, names St. Clement as having assigned the seven regions of the city to seven Christian notaries, or shorthand writers, whose business was to set down the story of the martyrs. (P.L. 127, 1079.) This would have been in the first century. St. Aneros is said by the same authority (Ibid. 1331) to have lost his life in 237, a victim to his zeal in securing the safe custody of the notarial reports; and St. Fabian, in the following year, is reported to have appointed seven subdeacons to superintend the seven notaries. These notices, however, cannot be trusted as being historical, so far as names and dates go; but they seem to testify to a tradition that the matter was regarded as being of public concern in the Church of Rome, and there is evidence that the same was the case in other Churches.
97. Archæology. – Lastly, among these minor topics, we may mention the study of the remains of Christian art as a means of learning what was the belief of the Church. The artist uses a language which is, it is true, less readily intelligible than the language of literature ; but when the key to its meaning is once secured, it is vastly more impressive. Thus, in the Real-Encyclopédie of F. X. Kraus, we have (I, 344) a representation of the Prophet Habbakuk caught by the hair of the head as he carries a basket of provisions. It is impossible to doubt that the artist who drew this picture, accepted the account of this incident as being an integral part of the Book of the Prophet Daniel (Daniel xiv. 32 38); and in this way we have proof that the canon of Scripture, as accepted in the days of the artist, was wider than that which Protestants accept at the present day; and if the caricature where "Alexamenus his God" worships by kneeling before a crucified ass, be really directed against the Christians, it gives us very early proof of the adoration of the crucifix.
98. The Fathers. – But to come to the proper subject of this chapter. The Christian Fathers are not a class that admit of precise definition. It would be against common usage to apply the name "Father" to any modern writer, whatever might be his other claims to the title, and especially whatever might be the style in which he treated theological questions; a certain antiquity is requisite before an author can be put in the class of the Fathers. On the other hand, we cannot reckon all early Christian writers as being among the Fathers; for Constantinople produced many historians who were Christians, yet whom no one would reckon among the Fathers. The Episcopal character is not necessary, as has sometimes been thought, for no one will dispute the claim of St. Jerome to the title; nor is sanctity needed, for not to come down beyond the beginning of the third century, Tertullian died in heresy, Origen has the credit of the same, and Clement of Alexandria, though a Catholic, is not esteemed as a saint; yet none of the Fathers have more authority than these, as witnesses to the doctrine of their time. In the "is more or less fact, appellation, Father," arbitrary, distinguishing certain writers from the inspired Prophets and Apostles to whom we owe the Sacred Books on the one hand, and from those called "Schoolmen" on the other. In this way, the Fathers are the great bulk of Christian writers on theological matters who are later than the first century and earlier than the middle of the twelfth. But no strict chronological limit is possible: for, as already remarked (n. 6), St. Anselm, the first of the Schoolmen, is older than St. Bernard, the last of the Fathers. Understanding the term "Fathers " in this way, it is plain that their authority is of great weight as witnesses of the Christian Tradition. Putting aside for the moment the superintendence of Divine Providence, which preserves the doctrine of the Church in its purity, the Fathers, especially the earlier among them, are good witnesses to the primitive revelation, inasmuch as they are near the time when it was given, so that there had been less opportunity for error to creep in. Also, many of them were distinguished for their deep and varied learning, their ability and their sanctity, which adds weight to their authority as witnesses to Divine truth. But perhaps the most important consideration is that they often gave their testimony before any question was raised, and as it were unconsciously. The strong expressions used by them will disclose the view that they had imbibed from their teachers, in a manner that is perfectly satisfactory, even when they use expressions which at a later date, when controversy was raging, might have seemed inaccurate.
In all cases where we have the unanimous consentient voice of the Fathers, testifying to the tradition that they had received, there will be no difficulty in admitting that their evidence proves what was the belief of the Church in their time. Whoever does not accept this witness is a follower of profane novelties of words, coming under the condemnation of St. Paul, (I Timothy vi. 20.) It is to be kept in mind that this special authority which attaches to the Fathers as witnesses, does not cover every sentiment that is found in their writings; especially, in their interpretation of Scripture, they sometimes testify to the Tradition of the Church as to the meaning of a particular passage, but sometimes also they give the conclusion that they personally have come to, using such materials for forming a judgment as were available in their time. In these cases they act as critics, not as witnesses.
99. Tests of Unanimity. – It will seldom, perhaps never, happen that all the Fathers speak upon a particular question, and it would be vain, therefore, to rest upon the authority of their unanimous voice, as explained in the preceding paragraph. But even when we are left without direct evidence of their unanimity on any question, we often can prove indirectly what their view was. For the circumstances may be such that the voice of a few expresses with certainty the mind of all. This will be understood when we call to mind the horror which error regarding the faith excited in early times. St. John the Evangelist won the name of the Apostle of Love. In his second Epistle (verse 5), his exhortation was "that we love one another." Yet with all this gentleness, he expresses his horror of novel doctrines, when a few verses after (verse 10) he says, "If any man come to you and bring not this doctrine" – the doctrine which he had taught – "receive him not into the house, nor say to him, God speed you." The same loving spirit is also exemplified in the anecdote of St. John, preserved by St. Jerome in his Commentary on St. Paul to the Galatians (vi. 10), where he tells us that the holy Apostle in his old age wearied his disciples by incessantly repeating: “My children, love one another” (P.L. 26, 433); but the hatred of error comes out in another anecdote told us concerning the same St. John by St. Irenæus (Contra Hæreses, 3, 4; P.G. 7, 853) and by Eusebius (Hist. Eccles. 3, 28 and 4, 14; P.G. 20, 276 and 337) that he feared to remain under the same roof with Cerinthus the heretic. As long as this spirit prevailed, or was held worthy of admiration, we may be assured that no group of writers could teach a novelty without rousing those who heard them to protest.
100. Single Witnesses. – In some instances the testimony of a single ancient writer is conclusive as to the belief of the Church in his time, at any rate upon some special subject. Thus, certain letters written by St. Cyril of Alexandria were received by the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon as the "rule of the faith:” their statement of the true tradition upon the Incarnation can be trusted. (See the authorities collected in Fessler, Institutiones Patrologiæ, 2, 550 n.) In the case of St. Gregory of Nazianzum, sometime Patriarch of Constantinople, we may go further, for Rufinus expresses the general judgment of theologians when he says that whoever fails to follow the doctrine of St. Gregory, without limitation of subject, must be regarded as a heretic. (See the authorities in Fessler, Instit. Patrol. I, 582.) But perhaps the most famous instance of this sort is the case of St. Hilary of Poitou, who receives a special encomium from St. Jerome himself. This Saint wrote a long letter to his friend St. Laeta, giving her various practical directions as to the education of her daughter, Paula, and among other things he prescribes a course of reading; and he says that she will find nothing to lead her wrong in the Letters of Athanasius or in the works of Hilary. (St. Hieron. Epist. 107, n. 12; P.L. 22, 877.)
These cases, however, are exceptional. Generally speaking we must expect to find some passages in the works even of the greatest Fathers which looked at by themselves, seem to convey a sense opposed to the doctrine of the Church; among human writers, absolute inerrancy belongs only to the Roman Pontiff, when speaking ex cathedra, as will be explained in its place. When, then, we seem to find in an author of repute a passage which seems inconsistent with what is known from other sources to be the truth, we must first make sure that we have not been misled by a false text; a subject on which we still have need to keep in mind the warning given by St. Jerome to Laeta in the place just quoted. Errors of copyists are for this purpose as injurious as wilful forgeries. Next, we must ascertain whether we really grasp the author's drift, and especially we must not hastily assume that the terms as used by him have the same meaning as when used by other writers. Language is an imperfect instrument for conveying thought, and it is seldom that any writer distinctly expresses the whole of what he means: it is enough if he makes sure that he will not be misunderstood by those for whose immediate benefit he is writing; he cannot hope to preclude all risk of error on the part of readers for all time. In short, we must make sure that we understand the Status quæstionis as it was in the mind of the author.
When the author's meaning is thoroughly grasped, it may turn out that he used language which was harmless at the time, but which afterwards became associated with error, either by positive assertion, or by omission of some word which became the badge of orthodoxy. But it may also be seen to be necessary to abandon the defence of the passage and to acknowledge that the writer's mind was not in accord with the truth: as may happen blamelessly on points that have not yet been denned by the Church. When it is necessary thus to recede from the doctrine taught by some venerable Father, it should be done with all expressions of respect. St.Augustine was unable to follow the doctrine of St. Cyprian, who denied the validity of baptism administered by heretics, and he speaks as follows (St. Aug. De Baptismo, 6, 2 ; P.L. 43, 199): “With all reverence and honour for the gentle Bishop and glorious Martyr Cyprian, I do not hesitate to say that on the subject of heretical Baptism he thought otherwise than as the truth afterwards appeared."
Many illustrations of what we have been saying will be found in Fessler, when he enumerates the doctrines peculiar to each of the Fathers whose life and works he treats. St. Justin Martyr affords a good example. (I, 220.)
101. St. Augustine. – It will be observed that in cases like those of St. Cyril, St. Gregory, and St. Hilary, we regard them as safe guides because their writings have been examined and have been found to be free from error. They are not judges whose decision is authoritative and final, but they are witnesses who testify to the doctrine of the Church in their time, and their witness has been examined and found to be truthful. This principle was forgotten by some persons whose admiration for one of the greatest doctors of the Church led them to raise him from the witness-box to the bench, with the result that something of a slur has been cast upon his name.
Among the writers whom God has raised up to enlighten His Church and defend her doctrine, a place among the first, if not the very first place, must be given to St. Augustine, who for keenness of intellect, enormous and varied learning, quickness of insight, and zeal and success in combating heresies the most diverse, has scarcely an equal among the Fathers. The writings of St. Augustine were the principal store-house whence the Scholastics drew that matter which they put into shape and arranged, to form the theology of the Church. Testimonies concerning him will be found collected in Fessler. (2, 433.) Especially, St. Augustine's authority stands high on all questions connected with Grace, and we shall find that there are portions of the defined doctrine of the Church which are taken textually from his writings; and Suarez holds that the note of “rashness” would attach to any attempt of a private theologian to contradict any part of the teaching of St. Augustine on Grace. (Prolegom. 6, in Tract, de Gratia, c. 6, n. 17.)
But there are certain other subjects of which the same could not be said, and phrases may be found in the writings of the great African Doctor, especially on the subject of free-will, which taken simply by themselves, without reference to the meaning which they bear in their proper place, are indefensible. In the sixteenth century, Baius of Louvain advocated certain views on this subject, which he professed to draw from St. Augustine, and these views were condemned by Pope St. Pius V. in 1567. (Denzinger, Enchir. nn. 881-959.) Nevertheless, the teaching of Baius was supported by Jansenius, and in his hands became the foundation of the Jansenist heresy. This writer and his followers maintained that no account need be taken of Pontifical condemnations in face of the clear teaching of St. Augustine, which he termed irrefragable; and Pope Alexander VIII., in 1690, deemed it necessary to clear the ground by condemning the following proposition (Denz. N. 1187): “When a doctrine is found to be solidly based on Augustine, it may be held and taught, without regard to any Pontifical Bull." A discussion of the whole matter will be found in Viva. (Theses Damnatæ, part 3, prop. 30, Alex. VIII.) The condemnation was based upon the principle that no appeal is admissible from the living Church of the present day to the Church of past ages. The meaning of the present pronouncement is beyond doubt, whereas the ancient writer is not here, to explain what he meant; besides which, the present pronouncement undoubtedly represents the mind of the whole Church, whereas the ancient witness may have been mistaken in the testimony that he bears. It is to be observed that the condemnations in question were in form the utterances of the Popes alone; but they were accepted by the Bishops of the Church, with moral unanimity, and therefore certainly expressed the mind of the Church, without reference to the doubt which existed at that time as to the infallibility of the Pope.
102. Doctors. – It may be convenient to mention some of the various senses attaching to the word Doctor. It signifies primarily a Teacher, especially one who has received public license to teach from some University; thus we have Doctors of Medicine, of Law, and of Theology. Originally no one was allowed to teach publicly until he had received the degree of Doctor, and even now it is obligatory on the holders of certain positions in the Church to qualify themselves by obtaining the degree of Doctor of Theology or of Canon Law; but for the most part, the degree no longer confers any special privileges. Some eminent teachers of the thirteenth and following centuries received complimentary epithets which have remained in use, and become a kind of proper name, although the special appropriateness is often obscure. Some seventy cases of this kind will be found enumerated in the Freiburg Kirchen Lexicon of Wetzer and Welte, s.v. "Doctor," the best known being the name of Angelic Doctor, applied to St.Thomas Aquinas. More loosely, the name of Doctor has been applied to all teachers, without reference to academical qualification; but in a special sense it is given to certain Servants of God who have joined eminent learning to remarkable sanctity, and on whose feasts the Church has sanctioned the use of a special Mass and Office. (See Benedict XIV. De Canonizatione, lib. 2, part 2, c. II, n. 13.) Four such have long been recognized belonging to the Eastern Church, SS. Athanasius, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzum, and Chrysostom; and as many in the West, SS. Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, and Gregory the Great. It is possible that the selection of this number was primarily the work of Christian artists, but it has been long sanctioned by the Church. The first increase in the number occurred in the sixteenth century, when the title was formally conferred by St. Pius V. upon the Dominican St. Thomas Aquinas, and by Sixtus V. upon the Franciscan St. Bonaventure: each Pope promoting his Religious brother.
Of late years, the Mass and Office of a Doctor has been granted in the case of a large number of saints. It will be observed that the grant does not imply any special approbation of the doctrine of the writer so honoured; it merely testifies in general to the greatness of his learning, conjoined with sanctity. In the case of St. Alphonsus Liguori, a decree was issued by the Penitentiaria in 1787, declaring that his moral doctrine might always be followed with safety; but this is not the same thing as declaring that it is true: the title of Doctor was not conferred upon him till 1871.
103. Bishops and People. – The promise of Divine assistance in the work of teaching, which is the ground of our belief that the Church will not fail, was made primarily to the Apostles (St. Matt, xxviii. 20) and through them to their successors, the Bishops of the Church, under the headship of the Roman Pontiff: as will be explained in the Treatise on the Church. These constitute the Teaching Church (n. 203): all other Christians are the Taught. There is no direct Divine guarantee that the Taught shall be preserved in the truth: but indirectly we are assured that, as a body, they will never fall into error, for this could happen only through some failure on the part of the Teachers, such as is inconsistent with the promise of help that they have received. What is here said applies not only to the mere multitude of the faithful, but also to priests and other men of theological learning who teach in the public schools under the supervision of the Episcopacy and of the Holy See. It is a remark of Melchior Canus (De Locis Theologicis, 8, i) that there has always been a close connection between contempt for the Schools of the Church and the bane of heresy; and the general consent of the faithful people has in all ages been regarded as a test of truth or falsehood.
104. Recapitulation. – In this chapter we have considered the sources of our knowledge of the doctrine held by the Church in former times. These are, besides Scripture, formal definitions, the Liturgy, History, including especially the Acts of the Martyrs and the works of the Fathers. The meaning of this word is explained, and the reasons are explained why the consent of many of the Fathers, or even in certain circumstances the doctrine taught by one alone, guides to a knowledge of the doctrine of the whole Church. The peculiar case of St. Augustine is explained, as is the force of the title “Doctor of the Church," and finally it is pointed out that the Episcopate is the primary depositary of the tradition of the Church, all others being kept in the truth in virtue of their adherence to the body of Bishops.