Historical Evidence and Critical Thinking

The blog Catholic Sensibility today featured an excerpt from Vatican II's Lumen Gentium (22) that affirmed that the bishops of the church are "successors of the apostles."

So this got me thinking. Fr. Raymond Brown, the eminent American biblical scholar, had said somewhere that this affirmation was "biblically naïve." I wanted to find the source of that quotation, which led me to an article that I read a few years back by Msgr. George Kelly entitled, "A Wayward Turn In Biblical Theory."1

The first time I read this I was an undergrad, gobbling up all of the New Testament scholarship I could handle (which was quite a bit, as it turns out!). I didn't care much for Raymond Brown's work at the time, because I found him a little too conservative (and I still sort of do, although I've come to appreciate his work tremendously). Anyway, when I originally read Kelly's article I remember being quite angered by it. I guess I've mellowed with age, because when I read it again today I was only mildly irritated by it, and even a little bit amused.

Here's an excerpt:

Cardinal Cooke mailed a copy of Raymond E. Brown’s Priest and Bishop: Biblical Reflections to every New York priest free of charge. My copy of the book lay unread on a table for many months, until a troubled journalist visited me to say that Priest and Bishop had shaken his convictions about the truth of Catholicity. Halfway through the book, I understood the journalist’s concern: Fr. Brown could not prove on historical grounds, he said, that Christ instituted the priesthood or episcopacy as such; that those who presided at the Eucharist were really priests; that a separate priesthood began with Christ; that the early Christians looked upon the Eucharist as a sacrifice; that presbyter-bishops are traceable in any way to the Apostles; that Peter in his lifetime would be looked upon as the Bishop of Rome; that bishops were successors of the Apostles, even though Vatican II made the same claim.
This really leaves me shaking my head. When someone claims that they cannot find historical evidence that the first bishops (some 1900 years earlier) were successors to the apostles, you cannot refute that claim by citing a church council that took place in the 1960s. That is not historical evidence, by any stretch of the imagination.

If someone says they can't find historical evidence for something, and you are troubled by this, complaining about their work is hardly an appropriate response. Either there is historical evidence to be found, or there is not. If there is, one should find the evidence and present it. If there is not, there is no basis for complaining, because the person was correct.

So Kelly cannot present evidence to refute Brown's claims because, as Brown correctly pointed out, there is no extant historical evidence to be presented. That doesn't necessarily mean those things are false, but it is not on the basis of historical evidence that one can believe them to be true.

In a mostly unrelated story, today I was looking over the curriculum policy document for religion in Ontario's Catholic secondary shools, in preparation for the school year that begins tomorrow. It says, "Critical thinking is an essential expectation in Religious Education."2

Yes, indeed it is.


[1] The article has been posted on a number of websites. Here, for example.

[2] Emphasis in original. Institute for Catholic Education, "Ontario Catholic Secondary Curriculum Policy Document," page 4.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

For me, this is what faith in the Catholic Church is about -- not accepting every word that comes out of the Vatican curia as golden truth, but believing (without historical evidence, but also without historical evidence against it) that there is a connection over that chasm between the obscure history of the gospel writers and the recorded beginning of the organized Church.

I would never argue with Raymond Brown, but doesn't the Didache (roughly contemporary with NT texts) refer to the Eucharist as a sacrifice?

2:16 p.m.  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...

doesn't the Didache (roughly contemporary with NT texts) refer to the Eucharist as a sacrifice?

The Didache's teaching about the Eucharist is somewhat unusual. Here is chapter nine, the section explicitly dealing with the Eucharist:

Now about the Eucharist: This is how we give thanks: First in connection with the cup: 'We thank you, our Father, for the holy vine of David, your child, which you have revealed through Jesus, your child. To you be glory forever.'

Then in connection with the piece [broken off the loaf]: 'We thank you, our Father, for the life and knowledge which you have revealed through Jesus, your child. To you be glory forever.

'As this piece [of bread] was scattered over the hills and then was brought together and made one, so let your Church be brought together from the ends of the earth into your Kingdom. For yours is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ forever.'

You must not let anyone eat or drink of your Eucharist except those baptized in the Lord's name. For in reference to this the Lord said, 'Do not give what is sacred to dogs.'

The chapter that follows deals with the prayer that follows the "meal." So the section that deals most explicitly with the Eucharist says nothing of it being a sacrifice. It is also interesting that there is no connection made to the body and blood of Jesus. For that matter, the Didache doesn't say anything about Jesus's death at all.

In chapter 14 we find this:

On every Lord's Day -- his special day -- come together and break bread and give thanks, first confessing your sins so that your sacrifice (thysia) may be pure. Anyone at variance with his neighbor must not join you, until they are reconciled, lest your sacrifice be defiled. For it was of this sacrifice that the Lord said, 'Always and everywhere offer me a pure sacrifice; for I am a great King, says the Lord, and my name is marveled at by the nations.'

So the word 'sacrifice' is used, but it is not connected specifically to the Eucharist. Some people like to read later Christan theology into early Christian texts, but when you really pay attention to what isn’t there (i.e., in the Didache), you see that this is really misguided.

12:50 a.m.  
Blogger Todd said...

If anything, the Didache reflects the commission of the baptized as a "royal priesthood." Vatican II also reinforces this notion in Lumen Gentium. Additionally, the approach to worship as "source and summit" implies that one takes and intermixes both one's worship and one's life in the world.

For me the question isn't so much about how much the Mass is a sacrifice or a meal, but how much one's celebration of the Mass inspires one to live as a Christian in the world.

10:47 a.m.  

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