Over the next few days, I will publish some material from my Puritanism in Context lecture notes. In developing the class, it seemed important to spend some time considering how the Puritan divines viewed themselves in relation to the past. They were well aware of the criticism of novelty leveled against the Reformers and their followers by the Papal apologists. How did they answer them?
This is part 1:
The Puritans and the Church Fathers
Intro: What is Catholicity?
Catholicity: Everywhere, Always, by all (Vincent of Lerins)
The Vincentian Canon of St. Vincent of Lerins
From Chapter 4 of The Commonitory (aka The Commitorium), AD 434
(1) I have continually given the greatest pains and diligence to inquiring, from the greatest possible number of men outstanding in holiness and in doctrine, how I can secure a kind of fixed and, as it were, general and guiding principle for distinguishing the true Catholic Faith from the degraded falsehoods of heresy. And the answer that I receive is always to this effect; that if I wish, or indeed if anyone wishes, to detect the deceits of heretics that arise and to avoid their snares and to keep healthy and sound in a healthy faith, we ought, with the Lord’s help, to fortify our faith in a twofold manner, firstly, that is, by the authority of God’s Law, then by the tradition of the Catholic Church.
(2) Here, it may be, someone will ask, Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and is in itself abundantly sufficient, what need is there to join to it the interpretation of the Church? The answer is that because of the very depth of Scripture all men do not place one identical interpretation upon it. The statements of the same writer are explained by different men in different ways, so much so that it seems almost possible to extract from it as many opinions as there are men. Novatian expounds in one way, Sabellius in another, Donatus in another, Arius, Eunomius and Macedonius in another, Photinus, Apollinaris and Priscillian in another, Jovinian, Pelagius and Caelestius in another, and latterly Nestorius in another. Therefore, because of the intricacies of error, which is so multiform, there is great need for the laying down of a rule for the exposition of Prophets and Apostles in accordance with the standard of the interpretation of the Church Catholic.
(3) Now in the Catholic Church itself we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all. That is truly and properly ‘Catholic,’ as is shown by the very force and meaning of the word, which comprehends everything almost universally. We shall hold to this rule if we follow universality [i.e. oecumenicity], antiquity, and consent. We shall follow universality if we acknowledge that one Faith to be true which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is clear that our ancestors and fathers proclaimed; consent, if in antiquity itself we keep following the definitions and opinions of all, or certainly nearly all, bishops and doctors alike.
(4) What then will the Catholic Christian do, if a small part of the Church has cut itself off from the communion of the universal Faith? The answer is sure. He will prefer the healthiness of the whole body to the morbid and corrupt limb. But what if some novel contagion try to infect the whole Church, and not merely a tiny part of it? Then he will take care to cleave to antiquity, which cannot now be led astray by any deceit of novelty. What if in antiquity itself two or three men, or it may be a city, or even a whole province be detected in error? Then he will take the greatest care to prefer the decrees of the ancient General Councils, if there are such, to the irresponsible ignorance of a few men. But what if some error arises regarding which nothing of this sort is to be found? Then he must do his best to compare the opinions of the Fathers and inquire their meaning, provided always that, though they belonged to diverse times and places, they yet continued in the faith and communion of the one Catholic Church; and let them be teachers approved and outstanding. And whatever he shall find to have been held, approved and taught, not by one or two only but by all equally and with one consent, openly, frequently, and persistently, let him take this as to be held by him without the slightest hesitation.
This is a good place to begin. Someone has said that the Reformation was, in some sense, a dispute over the proper interpretation of the Fathers. There is a real truth to this comment, for the Reformers and their followers were very much sensitive to the charges of innovation laid against them by the Romanists. ‘Where was your church before Luther’ carried a powerful sting and required a measured and thoughtful response.
Consider what Cardinal Jacob Sadoleto wrote to the Genevans in 1539:
The point in dispute is, Whether [it is] more expedient for your salvation, and whether you think you will do what is more pleasing to God, by believing and following what the Catholic Church throughout the whole world, now for more than fifteen hundred years, or (if we require clear and certain recorded notice of the facts) for more than thirteen hundred years, approved with general consent; or innovations introduced within these twenty-five years, by crafty, or, as they think themselves, acute men; but men certainly who are not themselves the Catholic Church?
(Cited in Lane, Calvin and the Fathers, 33).
Whether or not Vincent’s maxim is true, it was (and is) certainly commonly used to defend both Romanism and Greek Orthodoxy. If this is a canon to determine truth, one must wrestle with it. Was the reformation a novelty, or were the reformers and their followers restoring ancient Christianity? Should the Reformed faith be regarded as ‘a small part of the Church [which] has cut itself off from the communion of the universal Faith’ and become a ‘morbid and corrupt limb’?
Notice that Vincent calls the church to take concern for the views expressed in the church: this is what our debate is about. The Reformers and their followers considered themselves as in recovery of truth. The Roman church was the corrupter—it was not catholic according to Vincent’s maxim. Though it may claim such, in reality it left the path and wandered in error. For this reason, the role of the Fathers was important.
Beyond this, it seems to me that there is a confessional issue involved as well. While our Confessions are properly post-reformation documents, it must be asserted that they themselves seek to make connections with the whole church. They adopt the formal language of the great councils—esp. Nicaea and Chalcedon, thus holding a truly catholic theology of God and Christ. We must teach our people that our churches did not begin in Wittenberg or Geneva or Heidelberg or London. They confessed the faith once delivered to the saints.