The coming vindication of Martin Luther – Athanasius, Augustine, Cyril, Maximus… Luther (part IV of V)

02 Nov

Athanasius, Augustine, Cyril, Maximus, Luther






Preface, Part V, Part IV, Part III, Part II, Part I

update: the first link below has been changed, linking to a paper by Pastor David Jay Webber

Athanasius and Augustine were two church fathers who, in their fight vs. heresy, found themselves needing to part with the Church’s past formulations of doctrine (see here)  In like fashion, Cyril of Alexandria found himself needing to create “novel” teachings.  In Olivier Clement’s “You are Peter” we also learn about Maximus:

“At [Maximus’s] behest, the pope convoked the Lateran Council in 649, which affirmed the full human freedom of Christ and which, for Maximus, had the weight of an ecumenical council… In the midst of this controversy, and when the support of Rome became clear, Maximus affirmed that Rome was ‘the head and metropolis of the churches,” “the ‘rock’ truly solid and unmoving… the greatest apostolic church.”

…But whenever Rome seemed to waver, ready to compromise, were it only by silence, the example of Maximus recalled that the pope’s confession of faith could never take the place of a personal act of faith.  The petrine charism cannot replace personal conscience, humble and courageous, based on the internal evidence of the Good News.  ‘Yesterday, the eighteenth of the month (April 658), on the day of mid-Pentecost, the patriarch [the new Pope Vitalian had just taken up again with Constantinople] spoke to me as follows: ‘To what church do you belong?  To the church of Constantinople?  To Rome?  To Antioch? To Alexandria?  To Jerusalem?  But they are all one.  If, then, you belong to the catholic Church, remain at one with it lest in taking a path other than the way of life you meet with something unforeseen.’  I said to him: ‘The catholic Church is the forthright and saving confession of faith in the God of the universe who showed this in proclaiming Peter blessed for confessing it forthrightly.

Thus it is Peter’s ‘forthright confession’ of faith that alone has the power to make him the ‘rock” on which Christ founded his Church.  Private conscience, informed by ecclesial communion, must, if need be, rise up in opposition, but its path should be that of martyrdom, not rebellion.  This is Paul, once again, ‘opposing [Peter] to his face, since he is manifestly in the wrong.’  It is a regrettable fact that the importance of Paul in defining the primacy of Rome diminished little by little until, in the sixteenth century, seeking to stem the tide of the Reformation which claimed the authority of the charismatic apostle, Rome denounced as heretical all those who stressed the equality of Peter and Paul.” (p. 36 and 37)

…one could say that the Church had several aerials for receiving what the Spirit had to say to her:

-The council as an expression of universal communion.

-The pope as being charged with care for this communion and watching over the Petrine and Pauline correctness of the faith.

-But also, the utilitas of the people of God, its ‘sense of the Church,’ which can express itself in times of major crisis through the witness, the martyrdom, of a lone prophet.  ‘Anyone who is not with me is not with the truth,’ exclaimed Maximus the Confessor when nearly everyone was content either to keep quiet or to compromise.  And Theodore the Studite, witness to orthodoxy during the second outbreak of iconoclasm and persecuted by the majority of bishops and the patriarch himself, affirmed most evangelically that ‘three believers who were united in the orthodox faith constitute the Church.’ (p. 54 and 55)

It is, in the end, an admirable complementarity, a providential collaboration between popes and councils.  The councils only achieved their full ecumenicity through the fruitful contribution of the Roman tomes, however freely debated and amended, through which both the West and the petrine charism expressed themselves.  If the councils had not been complemented in this way, the rule of faith by which we live could not have worked out.  Without the popes, more distanced from the political center of the empire and hence more independent (in which particular they joined hands with the monks), the ultimate transcendence of the Church could not have been preserved.

Each of the two structures, taken alone, can be seen to have failed.  Under Celestine the papacy vacillated, under Honorius and Vitalian it bent before the wind.  From the eighth century on, militarily abandoned by Byzantium, rescued from the Lombards by Carolingians, it fell back on the West, hardening its pretensions to the point of creating another emperor.  In this, too, the tension inherent in the Byzantine ‘symphony’ was replaced by a logic of another kind: the absorption by the ‘spiritual’ of the ‘temporal’.  Thus was the ground prepared for the schism between West and East.

For its part, the council could not prevent the tearing asunder of the Church in the ancient Christian lands of Egypt and Syria in the fifth and sixth centuries.  Clearly the dogma of Chalcedon was an immense accomplishment ; even today it is pushing back the horizons of Christian thought.  But how can one forget all those bishops in the Middle East who claimed that the new definition ran counter to Tradition?  Philoxenus of Mabbug, for example, who was no heedless theologian of little consequence, disputed the claim that the council had been ‘received’ by the entire Church, a reception which alone, for him, would have obliged acceptance of its decisions.  Who was right one might naively ask?  Choices are often influenced by geographical, social, cultural, even ethnic factors, but at this time in the East choices were also made according to conscience, as they would be in the West at the time of the pre-Reformation and Reformation, as Maximus the Confessor had made his at the decisive moment.  Conscience protects and justifies itself first though polemic.  Burrowing deeper over time, it seeks communion, so that it is today that Chalcedon (and Ephesus) can be universally received; it is today, too, that ways can be found of bridging the schism between Orthodox East and Catholic and Protestant West: not through compromise, but through a clearer discovery in the Holy Spirit of the original core of the message.

These schisms aside, the true greatness of the period of the ecumenical councils is precisely  that the power of decision rested with no one: neither pope, nor council, nor emperor, nor public feeling.  All thought they had the final word, which meant that no one had it except, rightly, the Holy Spirit.” (p. 56 and 57)

It is our task today, going beyond the words – words which ‘stick out their tongues at each other,’ as Antoine de Saint-Exupery said in Citadeelle – to reflect on the lived ecclesial experience of a period when, through compromise and miracles, tensions were resolved throughout the greater part of Christendom neither through forcible insertion, nor through violent schism, but after another fashion: and that was surely the free communication of personal consciences in the Holy Spirit.” (p. 58)

I note that words can surely do what Clement says they do.  On the other hand, we also know that God’s words to us are spirit and life – and that we live from every word that proceeds from His mouth.  Surely Maximus *the Confessor* , for one, was well aware of this: “The divine reading of the sacred Books reveals the counsels of the most holy God….  After they have heard it, they gather together among themselves in accordance with it, and in gratitude for their own salvation they offer their testimony; that is, they recite the divine Symbol of faith.”  (Translation by Thomas Spidlik, Drinking from the Hidden Fountain: A Patristic Breviary, Cistercian Publications, Kalamazoo, MI – Spencer, MASS, 1994).

Athanasius, Augustine, Cyril, Maximus, and Luther… these men stood strong with the Word of God.  To be sure, “internal evidence” and “personal conscience” “informed by ecclesial communion”, as Clement says… but always in captivity to the Word of God!

Part III coming in two days

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Posted by on November 2, 2012 in Uncategorized


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