Don’t Pity the Fool
Despite having become something of a douche in the past 15 years or so, any honest and knowledgable music fan must admit that one of the best, most talented, and most musically diverse singer/songwriters of the 1980’s was (wait for it, wait for it) . . . Sting, whose Dream of the Blue Turtles (1985) and Nothing Like the Sun (1987) were nothing short of brilliant.
My favorite song on the latter is “History Will Teach Us Nothing” (seriously, he was such a better lyricist back when he was an atheist). In it he sings:
If we seek solace in the prisons of the distant past,
Security in human systems, we’re told, will always, always last.
If motions are the sail, and blind faith is the mast
Without the breath of real freedom, we’re getting nowhere fast.
If God is dead and the actor plays His part,
His words of fear will find their way to a place in your heart;
Without the voice of reason, every faith is its own curse,
Without freedom from the past, things can only get worse.
Now Sting’s point in this song is the inevitability of repeating history’s greatest mistakes, and the corresponding desire to “throw the past away.” For our purposes here, though, I want to use the song as a springboard to discuss what Protestants constantly demand of Catholics when debating apostolic succession, namely, history and the role that historical evidence plays in what we believe as Christians.
It seems to me that the Catholic approach to this question strikes the proper balance between two extremes. On the one hand we can be completely dismissive of history and reduce the gospel to a burning in the bosom, saying, “You ask me how I know he lives, he lives within my heart.” This is clearly an unbiblical posture to take — the apostolic preaching of the gospel focused strongly on the historia salutis, with the insistence that the events they heralded “were not done in a corner,” but actually happened and were witnessed by actual people.
The other extreme, however, focuses on history to the point where historical evidence is treated as both necessary and sufficient to establish an article of faith as trustworthy and true. This is the stance that Protestants often take when discussing things like apostolic succession, the infallibility of the Magisterium, and the primacy of Peter’s episcopal successor. The demand is made for historical proof, and when that proof is not furnished to the Protestant’s satisfaction, he dismisses the Catholic claims with a wave of the hand, often smugly uttering something under his breath about how gullible we Catholics are.
One problem with this posture is that it proves too much. If independent corroborative evidence from history is necessary in order to justify belief in a theological doctrine, then a whole host of doctrines immediately demand scrutiny and possibly rejection, beginning with the resurrection itself. Ironically (or perhaps not so ironically), this is the exact position that the atheist takes when examining Christianity as a whole: he expects a certain kind of scientific, empirical, and historical evidence for the claim that God became a man, was crucified, and then rose from the dead on the third day, and when he doesn’t find it, he dismisses our faith as a fanciful tale that would be wonderful if true, but at the end of the day cannot be substantiated by the evidence. So it is inconsistent for the Protestant to accuse Catholics of doing exactly what atheists accuse him of doing, namely, believing in supernatural and miraculous phenomena simply on authority, and without actual proof. Moreover, it is also inconsistent for Protestants to dismiss Catholics as gullible, when the Catholic response is virtually identical to the one the Protestant would give to an atheist who dismissed him as gullible.
Another problem with the Protestant demand for historical proof in order to justify belief in something like apostolic succession is that it reduces the Christian faith to a mere human system. One of the things that distinguishes special revelation from general revelation is the fact that while the latter can use mere physical and empirical evidence to produce things that can be known, special revelation is “special” precisely because the truths it reveals cannot be discerned by mere human and earthly means. St. Paul says to the Corinthians that “we walk by faith and not by sight,” and that “the natural man receives not the things of the Spirit of God, for they are spiritually discerned.” By insisting that an article of faith like apostolic succession can be proven by empirical evidence, or disproven by the lack of it, is to conflate general and special revelation, as well as to collapse faith and sight, reducing trust to knowledge and allowing a theology of glory to swallow the theology of the cross.
This is why the Catholic approach to this issue is superior. For the Catholic, belief in apostolic succession is neither a-historical and irrational, nor is it mere assent to empirical facts. Rather, it is a matter of faith in the authoritative claims of the Church that Christ founded. Is there evidence that the Catholic Church is that church? Yes. Is there evidence for the historical succession of bishops from the apostles to the Catholic bishops of today? Again, yes. But the evidence for both of those things is not absolutely conclusive or as airtight as the evidence that JFK was shot and that 9/11 happened. But the thing is, it doesn’t have to be (any more than the evidence for the resurrection has to be). Instead, we have a case that is philosophically compelling and historically plausible.
And coupled with that, we exercise faith in one holy Catholic and apostolic Church, a Church against which, our faith assures us, the gates of hell will not prevail. Is this intellectually respectable enough to satisfy Protestants, atheists, and other skeptics? Of course not. But if the message of the faith is no longer supposed to be foolishness to Greeks, I never got the memo.