Burden of Proof in Protestant-Catholic Dialogue

It has been asserted by some that in order for Protestants to prove their case, we have to prove that the statements of the early church are statements with which modern Catholics could not agree. As long as modern Catholics can agree with the early church, then the Protestant position is unjustifiable.

The early church fathers are not so easily parsed. For one thing, they were not usually dealing with the same debates as those which took place in the time of the Reformation. At times they will sound Protestant, and at times they will sound Romanist. It would therefore be anachronistic for either side to say that the early church fathers were Romanist or Protestant. Such categories did not exist in the early church. I would argue that the Protestant position must depend not on the early church fathers, but on the exegesis of Scripture. However, historically, if Protestants can prove that the Protestant position is compatible with the early church fathers, then we will have proven that the Catholic excommunication of us is invalid, and invalid on two counts: first of all, the Protestant position is biblical; secondly, it is compatible with the early church fathers. We do not have to prove, therefore, that modern Catholics cannot affirm the early church fathers. We only need prove that Protestants can affirm what the early church fathers teach. And even there, we need not prove that we have to affirm all of what they teach. For even Romanists admit that the early church fathers certainly did not always agree on everything.

Most scholars agree that Luther wanted to reform the church, not leave it. He stayed in the church until he was excommunicated. The Romanists were certainly not interested in the truth at the Diet of Worms. They did not ask to debate Luther’s positions at all, from Scripture or from the fathers. They only wanted him to recant. That is not a debate.

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The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus

As before, I will offer a brief introduction, sources for further study, and highlights from the document itself.

The author is unknown. We know him as “Mathetes,” but that is merely the Greek word for “student” or “disciple.” He calls himself a “mathetes” of the apostles. Some have come to the conclusion, based on that assertion, that the author knew the apostles personally. Other scholars have denied that this is a necessary inference. Surely yours truly could presently call himself a “mathetes” of the apostles! Estimates of the date of this epistle vary widely. Those who assume it was written by a personal disciple of the apostles date it to the early second century. Those who do not make that assumption date it sometimes at the end of the third century. We know nothing, either, of who Diognetus is, except that he was probably asking questions about Christianity. That is not much to go on, especially since a person could be asking questions from the standpoint of unbelief (even scorn!), or from the standpoint of a new believer. We can probably infer, however, that whoever he was, he was not a mature Christian. That is about all we can say. The nature of the document itself is thoroughly apologetic. In twelve chapters, the epistle starts with the folly of idolatry (chapter 2), moves to an answer of Judaism (chapters 3-4), and ends with a panegyric of the Christian faith (chapters 5-12). Some scholars believe the last two chapters to be spurious, but there is no real way to substantiate such a claim.

To read the document online is easy, as we have both Lightfoot’s translation, and the Roberts-Donaldson translation available. For the original Greek, go here for the text only, and go here for the Patrologia Graeca volume 2 (the epistle itself starts on page 1168). A number of introductions are available on this page.

There are two passages I wish to highlight in this letter. The first is chapter 5, a gorgeous description of Christianity in relation to the world. The writing (which most scholars admit is some of the most polished and beautiful writing of antiquity) is exquisite:

They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified.

The whole of that chapter is wonderfully written. I would also like to point out his beautiful words describing justification in chapter 9:

But when our wickedness had reached its height, and it has been clearly shown that its reward, punishment and death, was impending over us; and when the time had come which God had before appointed for manifesting His own kindness and power, how the one love of god, through exceeding regard for men, did not regard us with hatred, nor thrust us away, nor remember our iniquity against us, but showed great long-suffering, and bore with us, He Himself took on Him the burden of our iniquities, He gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for transgressors, the blameless One for the wicked, the righteous One for the unrighteous, the incorruptible One for the corruptible, the immortal One for them that are mortal. For what other thing was capable of covering our sins than His righteousness? By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified, than by the only Son of God? O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! that the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous one, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors!

I would ask this question of Romanists: what does “exchange” mean here? Does not his description imply that the two-way exchange works in the same way? If so, then is our wickedness infused into Christ?