Bowel-quivering prooftexts, anyone?

Tim Enloe had this to say about my recent posting of Eastern patristic quotes about the bishop of Rome:

I don’t care to discuss the issue on the level of “bowel-quivering” lists of prooftexts, Elliot. And I only got as far as your reduction of my post to “merely” rhetoric, “just…different and unfortunately unreliable modes of expression” to see that you truly do not understand the point.

I reply:


Where to begin?

First, I did not call your post mere rhetoric. I took issue with your reflex of waving many (non-Enloe-approved Ref Cath things) things away as rhetoric. Once again, I seem to have struck a deep nerve with you, this time about one of your favorite topics: rhetoric.

Second, I admit you did not deny all substance in material affirming Roman supremacy. But I am very uneasy with your casual dismissal of the BULK of such affirmations as rhetorical excesses we cannot, unfortunately, rely on TODAY. By calling some forms of rhetoric “unreliable” I mean they are unreliable for conveying a discernible meaning outside their immediate, visceral context. Hortatory effectiveness is not the same as catechetical reliability.

You said:

“…many times the grandiose authority claims made by Roman bishops and their supporters are fundamentally wrapped up with the fact that the speakers are deliberately attempting to model conventions of classical rhetoric for the purpose of moving their hearers to some sort of action, usually a moral one.”

But how about when these many deliberate attempts to achieve a result are made TOWARD the bishop of Rome by numerous Eastern Fathers? To say all they did without actually believing it is pure dissimulation, as if the pope were some kind of ecclesial dog constantly being called by competing masters.

If contemporary papal sovereignty – which so clearly borrows from the language and meaning of much of what I’ve cited – was so abhorrent to the early Church, how could these Fathers even imagine stirring a bishop to such heights? Were they simply out of their minds? Was there some inside joke in the whole Christian East? (“Oh, we just love getting that silly ol’ pope all hot and bothered as the ‘ruler of the whole world’ and the ‘foundation of the Church’!) Was this all a prank played on the Romans and the West for the amusement of later Christians?

For God’s sake (literally), what effect were they trying to produce, Tim? I can think of only two. 1) To make the bishop of Rome act BEYOND his authority as primus inter pares or 2) to call him to FULFILL it as the Head of the Apostles. If the former, then the whole Tradition is a messy joke, as the Fathers themselves laid the foundation for the “hubris” of the See you so ardently criticize. If the latter, then the Tradition is clearly Papal. Why did no one object to the rhetorical excesses as pushing the ecclesial envelope? Why did everyone, instead, act in accordance with what all that high falutin’ language meant?

This dilemma gets at heart of my larger dilemma as a disoriented Christian. I have come to respect and defer to the Tradition as the authoritative voice of God IN the life of the Church. But then I hear such mind-numbingly ROMAN CATHOLIC things in that Church Tradition. How can I be blamed that God built His holy Tradition on men that so readily and consistently and explicitly “trained” the bishop of Rome to claim all he does?

Truth be told, Tim, strange as it may sound, I hope you’re basically right about the use of rhetoric as a manipulative device. Because, assuming the Fathers I cited were just trying – disingenuously – to woo the popes with fansee werds, the question still remains why they were trying to woo THE POPES. Why such hyperbolic adulation for THAT See at the expense of others? This is a dilemma for you. If the patristic and medieval rhetoric was more than rhetoric (ie., straightforward appeals to the Head of the Church), then you must face that feature of the catholic Tradition. If, however, the rhetoric is mere rhetoric meant to win the support of Rome, you must answer WHY the support of ROME was so important. To quote Newman,

“I doubt very much whether the point of the Infallibility of the Pope was understood at that time –the time of Cyprian’s dispute with Pope Stephen – EBB]; but then I also doubt whether the Infallibility of a General Council was at that time understood either, for no General Council as yet had been. The subject was what Vincentius calls ‘obscurely held.’ The Popes acted as if they were infallible in doctrine – with a very high hand, peremptorily, magisterially, fiercely. But when we come to the analysis of such conduct, I think they had as vague ideas on the subject as many of the early Fathers had upon portions of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. They acted in a way which needed infallibility as its explanation.

(W. Ward, _The Life of John Henry Cardinal Newman_ (London: Longmans, Green and CO., 1912), vol. 2, pp. 378-79, as cited in S. Jaki, _The Keys of the Kingdom_, p. 188)

I’m curious to know what your explanation of proto-papism is, especially considering how much it was rhetorically inflated by the Fathers.

You said:

“It’s not that there’s no “intellectual” content in what’s being said, but it is that what’s being said cannot be reduced to intellectual content, as if it’s somehow “just” a statement of “simple” and unadorned “divine truth”, “obvious” on its face. Furthermore, it is demonstrably the case that around the same time as Gregory VII began to rise to power, the discipline of classical rhetoric had been seriously recovered and begun to be practiced, led most strongly by the monks at Monte Cassino. This is no made up objection to certain types of naive presentations of historical matters like ‘papal primacy’.”

I agree it’s not a made-up objection, but it’s totally off base since I cited numerous Fathers “being all papal” WELL before Gregory VII (1073-1085). What frustrates me so much about your replies here is that while you claim there is some real meaning “behind” or “beneath” the rhetorical flourishes of, say, these numerous Eastern Fathers, you make no effort to engage what that meaning IS. Tim, you write so regally from Moscow as if you are somehow above and beyond the effects of Eastern papal rhetoric. But it seems to me you’re so inoculated against rhetoric that you simply ignore the stripped down impact of what the Tradition says. You’re so immersed in the canonical quagmires of the high medieval era that you seem unwilling to listen to the Tradition BEFORE that period.

Frankly, who cares for the moment whether the Orthodox would say I’ve “misinterpreted” the Fathers. (At any rate, what interpretations did I make? I read and posted what the Fathers say.) How convenient it must be to say (as another commenter on another blog did) “one set of prooftexts deserves another,” when OTHERWISE those silly little sets of prooftexts would simply BE the record of Tradition. Let me grapple with the Orthodox objections to being Catholic, Tim; that’s too easy an out for you. The issue is for you, as a Reformed Catholic, to listen to the Tradition prior to Calvin and Ockham and Gregory VII, and honestly face what God says through it. You play the rhetoric card vigorously in your blog rounds and I’ve very mildly called you on it.

You’re much smarter and better educated than me, Tim, so I’m sure you’ll get the joke the Fathers are telling about Rome. But it breaks my heart to imagine you reflexively deflecting a simple presentation of the Eastern Tradition about the pope just because you’re recovering from your many e-pologetic battles. I must be a complete moron to “fall for” the rhetoric of the Fathers. But thank God he calls the morons of the world.

About The Codgitator (a cadgertator)

Catholic convert. Quasi-Zorbatic. Freelance interpreter, translator, and web marketer. Former ESL teacher in Taiwan (2003-2012) and former public high school teacher (2012-2014). Married father of three. Multilingual, would-be scholar, and fairly consistent fitness monkey. My research interests include: the interface of religion and science, the history and philosophy of science and technology, ancient and medieval philosophy, and cognitive neuroscience. Please pray for me.
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