By Michael Lynch
In his recently published dissertation on the English Reformed debates regarding the doctrine of perseverance of the saints, Jay Collier notes the important role the patristic period (especially Augustine) had in early modern theological debates. What is the logic behind the partiality shown towards early church doctrine over, say, the theological opinions of later theologians? We are given a clue from Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. Thomas asks whether the articles of faith have increased over time. Aquinas notes that while the substance of the faith, objectively considered, has not changed, the number of articles of faith to be explicitly believed has increased.
In other words, Abraham needed to believe in God, but he didn’t, nor could he, explicitly believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ who was yet to be revealed except by way of messianic promise. In reply to the objection that the faith is simply passed on generationally without an increase in the articles to be believed, Aquinas writes:
The ultimate consummation of grace was effected by Christ, wherefore the time of His coming is called the “time of fulness [*Vulg.: ‘fulness of time’]” (Gal. 4:4). Hence those who were nearest to Christ, wherefore before, like John the Baptist, or after, like the apostles, had a fuller knowledge of the mysteries of faith; for even with regard to man’s state we find that the perfection of manhood comes in youth, and that a man’s state is all the more perfect, whether before or after, the nearer it is to the time of his youth. (ST IIa-IIæ Q. 1, Art. 7)
What is fascinating about this answer is that Aquinas argues that proximity to Christ determines how “full” one’s knowledge of the faith can be. Those chronologically closest to Christ are/were in the best position to know and understand the depths of the Christian faith.
One area which plagued early modern Protestantism was the question of ecclesiastical unity. More specifically, the question asked was whether and on what grounds the various Protestant churches could unite? One answer was that perhaps unity could be achieved upon the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith. This led to the next obvious question: what are those fundamentals of the faith around which we might have ecclesiastical unity?
Given Thomas’ principle noted earlier, Bishop John Davenant suggested that we should look to the doctrine confessed by the primitive church, exemplified in the Apostles’ Creed. Davenant (also noting Thomas Cajetan’s commentary on Thomas’ Summa) says that “it is credible (what Aquinas observed) that the Apostles and others which were nearer to Christ, had a fuller Knowledge of the mysteries of the Faith, than we that are farther off.” (An Exhortation to the Restoring of Brotherly Communion, 35).
Davenant defines a fundamental doctrine as an article “which through the will of God revealing it to the attaining of salvation and eternall happinesse, is so necessary to be known and beleeved, that from the Ignorance, and much more from the opposing thereof, men runne the manifest hazard of losing eternal life.” (An Exhortation to Brotherly Communion, 13).
The Apostles’ Creed, given its nearness to Christ and its clear summary of the fundamentals of the faith, was believed by many of the Reformed to be the ideal document for ecumenical relations with other Protestant communions, such as the Lutherans.
Back to Aquinas. If it is presupposed that those nearest to Christ “had a fuller knowledge of the mysteries of the faith” then does it not follow that the church in its present state will not be as attuned to such mysteries? Is the church growing in its knowledge of the gospel as many modern theologians have taught? Further, if the Apostles and early church Fathers were more apt to know the intricacies of the gospel, should their confessions of faith be our own model for ecclesiastical unity?
However these questions are answered, one thing is clear. The reason why early modern theologians often deferred to the judgements of the early church was because many of them believed that the patristic period was in a better position to understand and explain the Christian faith.