From my diary

The mobile broadband provided by O2 is of poor quality, in that it took me over an hour to connect to it.  It is very slow, as is proven by my utter inability to download an interesting article from Alin Suciu’s site, despite trying for two nights running; the download always times out.

In desperation I opened a PDF that has sat on this laptop — my travelling laptop — for almost a year, and began to skim the pages.  It is a copy of J. J. Blunt’s On the right use of the early fathers: two series of lectures delivered in the university of Cambridge (1857)[1] which may be readily found online. 

The book is tedious.  The lecturer was responding to a volume written in French, and rewritten in Latin in 1631 by a French Protestant named Daillé, designed to show that Romanist appeals to the fathers had no authority. The volume, we learn, circulated widely.  Each chapter summarises one of Daillé’s arguments, and responds to it.  Blunt advises his hearers — for this is a lecture series — that the Latin version is to be preferred, as augmented from the original French.

The writer does not say so, but Daillé had recently been reprinted and translated into English, in 1843.[2] A less than charitable person might wonder whether Dr Blunt was, in truth, working from the English version that was readily available to him, while praising the Latin to his students.  Such little pieces of self-aggrandisement are  not unknown even today, I believe.  But perhaps we may give the good doctor the benefit of the doubt.

We need not dwell on Daillé.  The urgencies that led him to try to dismiss the fathers, arising from the period of the French wars of religion, are not ours.  Few Catholics  today will attempt to browbeat protestants with the authority of Augustine, and even fewer of those would be wise to try. 

On the other hand there are indeed Catholics who try to argue from the fathers that the early church was the church of the Council of Trent; and that those who believe the bible must also believe the teachings superadded upon it during a thousand years of superstition and ignorance.  Such is a possible opinion, but I myself, with Talleyrand, have always failed to see the necessity.  But it seems unlikely that this polemic will be rebutted in the manner that Daillé attempted, by throwing the fathers out with the indulgence-sellers.

We need not enquire too curiously whether the high-church Cambridge don of 1857 sympathised very much with the Hugenot of two centuries earlier.

The book contains interesting things, among the tedious material.  For instance the Methodist movement is already described as suffering from “decrepitude”, and its continued existence called into question. 

Daillé argues that the works of the fathers are in the main few and fragmentary, and tend to be directed to subjects now obsolete.  He instances, apparently, the anti-gnostic works.  Of course he could hardly have foreseen the manner in which 1960’s hippy fads have reinvigorated this ancient nonsense, but his general point as to their subject matter is valid, and Blunt admits it.  The other point is only partially true, of course.

Blunt responds that the fathers are unmethodical writers.  A study of the table of contents for most patristic works would not inform us as to what subjects are truly introduced.  In consequence, the works of the fathers frequently contain digressions on subjects which no reasonable person would expect to be contained therein, and from which their views on some very contentious subjects not present to their minds at the time — such as transubstantiation — may be inferred. 

There is truth in this; although inferring the opinions of writers on a subject that did not arise until after their time would seem to be a somewhat risky proceeding.

Daillé also accuses the Church of Rome of corrupting the text of the fathers, in the editions published under Catholic auspices during the 17th century.  This should be interesting, but I have not yet reached that portion of the book.

In the course of discussing the use of apocrypha by the fathers[3], Blunt discusses the case of Clement of Alexandria.  His remarks are sound, and worth reproducing.

But does the manner in which Clemens avails himself of Apocryphal writings affect his own credit as an author or a candid Apologist? Certainly he refers to the “Gospel according to the Hebrews;” to the “Gospel according to the Egyptians;” to the “Traditions of Matthias;” to the “Preaching of Peter” to a “certain Gospel” and perhaps to the “Acts of Peter.”

And often he refers without any remark whatever as to the value of the document he is laying under contribution.

But you will bear this in mind, a fact which Daillé altogether overlooks, but a very important one; that on one of these occasions he expressly speaks of no Gospels being of authority except the four.

“On Salome inquiring,” this is the passage, “when the things which she asked about would be known; the Lord replied, when ye shall tread under foot” (or have no need for) “the covering of your shame; and when two shall become one, and the male with the female shall be neither male nor female;” and then Clemens adds, by way of shaking the effect of this paragraph, which was advocating a cause to which he was opposed, “First, then, I contend, that we have not this saying in the four Gospels delivered to us, but in the Gospel according to the Egyptians.”[4]

I say this observation must be carried along with us, when we meet with other quotations from Apocryphal Gospels and like works in Clemens; for however he may not at the moment declare in so many words the comparative estimation in which he holds them, we have it under his own hands, that none of them rank with him at all as the four Canonical Gospels do.

For example, he adduces this same Gospel according to the Egyptians in another place, as follows: “But they who oppose themselves to the Creation of God by their specious continence, allege those things which were addressed to Salome, whereof I have made mention already. They occur, I think,” continues Clemens, “in the Gospel according to the Egyptians.'”

Now here you see the Gospel according to the Egyptians is cited without any notice of distrust in it or any mark of depreciation. Yet from the other passage, already laid before you, it appears, that though he is here silent about its merits, Clemens had no wish to disguise his real opinion of it.

(The paragraphing is mine)

I shall read more of Blunt, I think.  And perhaps I shall look at Daillé also.  These old disputes sometimes contain gems.

  1. [1]Online here.
  2. [2]Jean Daillé, Treatise on the Right Use of the Fathers in the Decision of Controversies, Bohn, 1843.  Online here.  I haven’t looked at this.
  3. [3]p.63
  4. [4]Stromat. III, 13.

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