Christianity and Conservatism

Robert Merry thinks conservatism is in crisis:

In an influential 1957 essay entitled “Conservatism as an Ideology,” political scientist Samuel P. Huntington listed fundamental elements of the conservative creed, embraced by nearly all of its proponents: society is the organic product of slow historical growth, and existing institutions embody the wisdom of previous generations; man is a creature of instinct and emotion as well as reason, and evil resides in human nature rather than in any particular societal institutions; the community is superior to the individual, and the rights of men derive from civic responsibility; except in an ultimate moral sense, humans are unequal, and society always consists of a variety of classes, orders, and groups; the settled schemes of government based on human experience are always superior to abstract experimentation.

Thus, wrote Huntington, conservatism differs from other ideologies (except radicalism) in that it lacks any “substantive ideal”—a vision of the perfect society. “No political philosopher,” he said, “has ever described a conservative utopia.”

George W. Bush was a utopian. No other word adequately defines his vision of a Middle East culture in which the ancient Bedouin sensibilities are wiped away in favor of Western values and structures. His stated resolve to “rid the world of evil” demonstrated a lack of any conservative sensibility on where evil resides. He certainly didn’t manifest any understanding of society, particularly Middle Eastern society, as the organic product of slow historical growth. And he placed abstract experimentation over human experience in formulating this war policy rationale.

Why do Christians invariably side with Bush over Huntington? Why would they immanentize the eschaton (bring heaven to earth) when they are supposed to believe a perfect social order won’t come until Christ returns. Is it:

a) Christians are invariably Pelagian or Semi-Pelatian

b) Christians invariably reject amillenialism

c) modern Christians are inherently democratic

d) all of the above?

Following the apostle Paul or agreeing with Augustine certainly doesn’t require someone to be a conservative as Huntington defines it. But clearly, you have to reject important pieces of Christian orthodoxy to avoid conservatism.

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Alabamans Went with Augustine

Or so argues William Jason Wallace:

Christianity is not very helpful for negotiating political differences. In AD 410, when the Rome fell to Alaric and the Goths, traditional Romans believed instinctively Christians were responsible for weakening the empire and causing the calamity of decline and invasion. Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, determined to respond to this claim in his enormous work The City of God. After a careful deconstruction of Rome’s history and beliefs, Augustine turned his attention to theology and the meaning of history in light of Christianity. His stunning conclusion is that although Christians and pagans share separate eternal destinies, and understand human purpose and ends differently, they nevertheless desire the same peace and justice that good politics provides. Christians, he argues, can pursue the common good with non-Christians while rejecting the notion that politics is the highest human pursuit. Liberals and conservatives, especially in Alabama, are guilty of claiming ownership of the Christian message. Augustine implores that while the aims of Christianity and the aims of politics are infrequently congruous, they both should be respected. Alabama, in this election, was with the ancient bishop.

That’s even biblical — put no trust in princes (or Democrats or Republicans).

Re-THINK!

Here‘s how comprehensive Christianity breeds Manichaeism (and paranoia) to boot:

In the meantime, we live in the midst of a cosmic struggle. As C. S. Lewis once said:

There is no neutral ground in the universe. Every square inch, every split second is claimed by God, and counterclaimed by Satan.

Thus every act of obedience—including political obedience—is a part of Christian mission, a bold declaration that we support God’s claim to the throne. And because the assault on that throne comes from every nook and cranny of creation, we must aim our redirective efforts at every nook and cranny as well.

Does Bruce Ashford really mean to implicate cats?

But consider where this notion that the assault on Christ’s reign comes from everywhere. Christians in the United States live with non-Christians. So how do comprehensive Christians live with Jews, Mormons, Roman Catholics, and Muslims? And wouldn’t such either-or language signal some kind of aggression to those who don’t trust Christ? In other words, doesn’t this use of the antithesis turn non-Christians into people “of Satan”? If Aryan science is bad, why not Christian culture?

That’s why those inspired by Abraham Kuyper need to take a page from Augustine:

This heavenly city, then, while it sojourns on earth, calls citizens out of all nations, and gathers together a society of pilgrims of all languages, not scrupling about diversities in the manners, laws, and institutions whereby earthly peace is secured and maintained, but recognizing that, however various these are, they all tend to one and the same end of earthly peace. It therefore is so far from rescinding and abolishing these diversities, that it even preserves and adopts them, so long only as no hindrance to the worship of the one supreme and true God is thus introduced. Even the heavenly city, therefore, while in its state of pilgrimage, avails itself of the peace of earth, and, so far as it can without injuring faith and godliness, desires and maintains a common agreement among men regarding the acquisition of the necessaries of life, and makes this earthly peace bear upon the peace of heaven…

Two Cities or One?

Michael Sean Winters thinks Bishop Robert McElroy’s article on the religious duties of voters has merits, but I wonder after reading this paragraph:

Most important, a spiritual political conversion requires the orientation of soul that flows from the principle of solidarity that St. John Paul II powerfully outlined as a fundamental element of Catholic social teaching. This orientation reminds us that in society we must always understand ourselves to be bound together in God’s grace and committed, in the words of “On Social Concerns,” “to the good of one’s neighbor, with the readiness, in the Gospel sense, to lose oneself for the sake of the other rather than exploiting him.”

The implications of such a spiritual stance for discipleship in voting are clearly reflected in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church: “The principle of solidarity requires that men and women of our day cultivate a greater awareness that they are debtors of the society of which they have become a part.”

I get having a sense of belonging to the rest of the people in the society of which I am a member. I don’t get what grace has to do with this.

Is it really true that Christians understand themselves to be bound together with non-Christians in God’s grace? Or if we apply the antithesis that Augustine affirmed in his formulation of 2 cities, then are we only bound together in society with other Christians? That was the construction that led European Christians to wonder about where Jews and Muslims fit in Christendom, and John Calvin to wonder about where Michel Servetus fit in Geneva.

So once again, perhaps the Bishop needs to make clear the difference between the two kingdoms, one that affirms a spiritual antithesis and a social commonness. Blurring the two will get us to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.

In Defense of Neutrality

When did “neutral” become such a dirty word (along with Lutheran; is it because Lutheran’s cuss?)? It’s a perfectly fine word to use on colors such as beige, ivory, taupe, black, gray, and white. It also works when describing countries like the United States before 1917 or Switzerland to this day. It’s a word that any of us going to court hope is in play with the judge hearing our case — though fair comes close. In sports, if an umpire is wearing the colors of one of the competing teams, we would definitely wonder about his (or her) — watch out — neutrality. By the way, if your run a word search for the word at the ESV websit, you get verses that include the word, “natural.” Which makes me think that the neo-Calvinists gremlins got into Crossway’s software.

Scott Clark explains that the aversion Reformed Protestants have to “neutral” — not because they are flashy dressers — owes to the influence of Dutch (neo) Calvinism:

Anyone who is familiar with the work of Abraham Kuyper or Herman Bavinck or Cornelius Van Til knows that the idea of “neutrality” is consistently and thoroughly rejected by the framers of much of modern Dutch Reformed theology and thus, were the 2K (as people like to put it) guilty of introducing it into Reformed theology that would be a great, even fatal flaw. In this discussion, “neutrality” means “a sphere of life which is un-interpreted by God’s Word” or “an un-normed sphere of life” or “an un-interpreted sphere of life” over which the Christian or even an unbeliever would be able to say, “This is mine.” This is a truly legitimate concern. Reformed theology opposes human autonomy (self-rule). Abraham Kuyper was absolutely correct to say, “There is not one square inch of the entire creation about which Jesus Christ does not cry out, ‘This is mine! This belongs to me!’””

For proponents of the so-called 2K ethic, the question is not whether Jesus is sovereign but how. As I understand the neo-Calvinist movement (van Prinsterer, Kuyper, Bavinck, Van Til, Berkhof, et al) they all taught two complementary principles: antithesis and common grace (Gemeene Gratie). As I understand the so-called 2K model, it is an attempt to describe the way common grace functions relative to the antithesis.

So if the question is only about the ultimate day of judgment when the goats and lambs go their separate ways, then who could defend using neutral to describe persons standing before a holy God?

The problem is that with the exception of the keys of the kingdom, when pastors and elders administer God’s word and open and shut the kingdom of heaven, most us using the English language are dealing not with ultimate but proximate realities. And in this world of sports, politics, law, and interior design, neutral is a good thing.

Here’s one example, Ross Douthat (via Rod Dreher) on the problem of guns in the United States:

With 300 million guns in private hands in the United States, it’s very difficult to devise a non-intrusive, “common-sense” approach to regulating their exchange by individuals. Ultimately, you need more than background checks; you need many fewer guns in circulation, period. To their credit, many gun control supporters acknowledge this point, which is why there is a vogue for citing the Australian experience, where a sweeping and mandatory gun buyback followed a 1996 mass shooting.

The clearest evidence shows that Australia’s reform mostly reduced suicides — as the Brady law may have done — while the evidence on homicides is murkier. (In general, the evidence linking gun ownership rates to murder rates is relatively weak.) But a lower suicide rate would be a real public health achievement, even if it isn’t immediately relevant to the mass shooting debate.

Does that make “getting to Australia” a compelling long-term goal for liberalism? Maybe, but liberals need to count the cost. Absent a total cultural revolution in America, a massive gun collection effort would face significant resistance even once legislative and judicial battles had been won. The best analogue is Prohibition, which did have major public health benefits … but which came at a steep cost in terms of police powers, black markets and trampled liberties.

Does any policy on gun use and restrictions rise to the level of “neutral”? Maybe not. But neither does this issue of public safety and personal freedom achieve the ultimate heaviosity of the anti-thesis. Most matters stemming from our common life together — Augustine’s heavenly city living in the earthly city — do not have a Christian solution. So turning “neutral” into an expletive really does nothing to help pilgrims living in exile, except to tempt some to think their real home is in a low-lying delta below sea level (and I’m not talking about New Orleans).

Glass Half-Full Kind of Guy that (all about) I Am

So who is more optimistic or pessimistic? Two-kingdom folks are generally dismissive of efforts to Christianize society and so are known for being overly sour about the possibilities of human “flourishing.” Theonomists, neo-Calvinists, and transformationalists, in contrast, are much more hopeful about the prospects of improving the world and doing so through Christian influence (however defined). (In light of certain affinities among the obedience boys, experimental Calvinism, and sanctification, we may also count the pietistic Calvinists as optimists. And just so Roman Catholics don’t feel left out, the folks who are nostalgic for Christendom and think it possible to defend and maintain western civilization also seem to qualify as optimists.)

And yet, look at how this works out in practice. The optimists about improving society wind up being nattering nabobs of negativism (thanks Spiro) because they look around and recognize that everything is not measuring up to the standards of human “flourishing.” In contrast, the pessimists wind up being fairly hopeful about the prevailing social conditions because they sense it could be a lot worse. Think back to Cain and Abel, or think of all those monarchs in Israel and Judah who were not exactly in the obedience-boy camp, or think of those early Christians who were falling away to bad teaching or committing immoral acts (think Corinth).

So maybe the question is where do we place our expectations? Are they high or low or somewhere in between? It does strike me that anyone who takes original sin seriously, that means Calvinists (who put “total” in Total Depravity), can never set the bar too low. Even though Augustine was not a Calvinist — it would have been anachronistic for him to be — he seemed to understand (according to Francis Oakley) the value of low expectations based on human turpitude:

. . . accepting the fact that Augustine’s whole conception of the two cities is shaped by his overriding preoccupation with the effects of original sin and his insistence that only the grace of God, gratuitously given, can counteract those effects, and accepting also the corollary that the elect and the reprobate remain inextricably commingled in all the societies of this world, we can still ask of him what position, what dignity, is under such circumstances to be accorded to the civil community, to the empires and commonwealths of this world. And in the reply that Augustine yields to this question, he succeeds in being responsive not only to the several strands, positive as well as negative, woven into the Christian pattern of thinking as it emerges from the New Testament but also to some strands of Hellenistic political thinking and even, in more muted fashion and going back further still, to the Platonic vision of the ideal republic capable of assuring to its citizens true peace, concord, harmony, and fulfillment.

In so doing, however, he is responsive also to the complexity of the Gospel teaching about the Kingdom of God. He recognizes, that is to say, that according to that teaching the Kingdom of God is at once a spiritual kingdom coming into existence as Christ comes to reign in the hearts of the faithful and, at the same time, a transcendent society, a kingdom not of this world, one not destined for complete realization until the ending of time. And by that recognition Augustine firmly endorses the New Testament’s forthright rejection of the archaic sacral pattern and its revolutionary reduction of what we call “the state” to the position of a merely secular entity . . . . because of the Fall and the concomitant corruption of human nature, not only has there been a palpable dimming in man=s perception of those norms but, beyond that, and even when he recognizes them, a catastrophic diminution in his ability to follow them. Only among the ranks of the redeemed, by God’s inexplicable mercy and the gratuitous bestowal of supernatural grace, can now be attained the peace and harmony that, in the state of innocence, man had enjoyed as his natural condition. As for the rest of humankind, their very survival depends on the protection of new institutions and new laws of an essentially political nature appropriate to their fallen condition.

For Augustine, then, subjection to political authority enters the picture not as something natural to man but, like slavery or for that matter death itself, as an outcome of Adam’s primordial fall from grace. Far from being a means of redemption, or a school for character, or even an agency capable of securing for humankind a good quality of life, the commonwealth or empire is a remedy, indeed a punishment, for sin, and it has in all humility to be accepted as such. . . .

The central thrust, then, of Augustine’s mature theopolotical thinking, as we encounter it in The City of God, is to make unambiguously clear the fact that the “state” or civil authority, however vital its function, is nothing more than a secular instrumentality adapted to the evanescent conditions of the saeculum or present age, an essentially limited and necessarily coercive force that lacks both the authority and the ability to reach beyond the imposition of a merely earthly peace and a merely external order to mould the interior dispositions of men. (Francis Oakley, Empty Bottles of Gentilism, 127-130)

Finding the West's Inner Augustine

Peter Lawler has responded to Patrick Deneen about the divide among U.S. Roman Catholics on whether or not to get right with America. Part of Lawler’s response is to invoke Augustine on the homelessness that all people feel this side of the eschaton (or is it merely the impermanence of creaturely existence?):

All political arrangements, devised as they are by sinners, have within them the seeds of their own destruction. It’s the City of God, not the City of Man, that’s sustainable over the infinitely long term. Still, Christians have the duty not to be too alienated from their country, and to do what they can to be of service to their fellow citizens by loyally encouraging what’s good and could be better in the political place where they live. America, we southerners know especially well, is the easiest place in the world to be both at home and homeless, to enjoy the good things of the world without forgetting that our true home is somewhere else.

When Lawler does this, he implicitly invokes the Augustinian- vs. Whig-Thomist debate previously mentioned here. Ironically, it is Lawler the Whig, who identifies more with Augustine than the Augustinian-Thomists who seem to be motivated more an older view of politics than an Augustinian one.

Through most of these debates I fail to detect a recognition of an even older division in political thought, namely one between pagan and Christian theories. Here is how R. A. Markus describes that difference in his book on Augustine:

For the polis-centered tradition of Greek thought the political framework of human life was the chief means of achieving human perfection. Life in a city-state was an education for virtue, a fully human life, the good life. Politics was a creative task. It consisted in bringing into being the kind of ordering of society which was most conducive to the realisation of ultimate human purposes. In this sense, Plato, Aristotle, the Sophists and the rest all upheld fundamentally the same conception of political activity. . . .

In Judaeo-Christian tradition the key-note of political thinking was different. The people of God, whether of the old or the new Covenants, could not think of themselves as citizens involved in creating the right order in society, nor of their leaders as entrusted with bringing such an order into being. Only God’s saving act could establish the one right social order. In relation to that kingdom they were subjects, not agents; in relation to all other human kingdoms, they were aliens rather than citizens. . . . Their whole tradition was dominated by the need to adjust themselves to a society radically alienated from the one ultimately acceptable form of social existence. In such a society they could never feel themselves fully at home. (Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St Augustine, 73-74)

Since Thomism is what seems to bind both sides of the Roman Catholic debate about the U.S., and since Thomas Aquinas was responsible for injecting a major dose of Aristotle into western Christianity, could it be that Thomism is responsible for the preoccupation of contemporary Roman Catholics about society and politics instead of ecclesiology and sacraments (what accounts for the transformers, neo-Calvinists, and theonomists is likely nostalgia for Christian nationalism — Dutch, Scottish, or U.S.). In fact, I wonder if anyone who is serious about Augustine and his views on the church as a pilgrim people can ever talk about “human flourishing” with a straight Christian face. If Markus is correct, human flourishing is what the pagans wanted through the polis. For Christians, human flourishing doesn’t happen this side of the new heavens and new earth.

The Heavenly City

When I heard reports that Benedict XVI’s butler was imprisoned for leading secret documents to the press, I was skeptical of the idea that the accused was actually locked up in a Vatican prison. Talk about a violation of two-kingdom theology. But thanks to the long and contested history of the papacy, it does turn out that the Vatican is a mix of temporal and spiritual authority still to this day. Here is a bit of the history:

Popes in their secular role ruled portions of the Italian peninsula for more than a thousand years until the mid 19th century, when many of the Papal States were seized by the newly united Kingdom of Italy. In 1870, the pope’s holdings were further circumscribed when Rome itself was annexed. Disputes between a series of “prisoner” popes and Italy were resolved in 1929 by three Lateran Treaties, which established the independent state of Vatican City and granted Roman Catholicism special status in Italy. In 1984, a concordat between the Holy See and Italy modified certain of the earlier treaty provisions, including the primacy of Roman Catholicism as the Italian state religion. Present concerns of the Holy See include religious freedom, international development, the environment, the Middle East, China, the decline of religion in Europe, terrorism, interreligious dialogue and reconciliation, and the application of church doctrine in an era of rapid change and globalization. About 1 billion people worldwide profess the Catholic faith.

Here is how the current Vatican penal system works:

It’s like criminal justice in Italy, but smaller. Upon the founding of Vatican City in 1929, Pope Pius XI decided it would be easier to adopt Italian criminal law and procedure—and any subsequent changes to that system—than it would be to build his own version from nothing. (Italy has since become too liberal for the Church on certain issues, such as abortion and homosexuality.) The Vatican’s promotor iustitiae (promoter of justice, or chief prosecutor) has the authority to haul scofflaws before the giudice unico, or trial court judge. Convicts can appeal to the three-judge Tribunale, and ultimately to the Corte di Cassazione, or Supreme Court of Appeals. Accused criminals have the right to a public defender.

Most of the differences between Vatican City’s penal system and those of other Western countries result from the country’s size. There are no jury trials in Vatican City, in part because the country’s entire jury pool consists of fewer than 900 people. Most convictions result in fines rather than confinement, because the Vatican doesn’t have a long-term prison. Those few prisoners who do receive prison sentences are housed in Italian facilities at Pope Benedict XVI’s expense. There is no plea-bargaining.
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Vatican City does boast a single jail, just to the south of St. Peter’s Basilica, for pretrial detention, but it’s small and more often used for storage of equipment than criminals.

I don’t think this is what Augustine had in mind but it gives a whole new meaning to “I fought the church and the church won.”

Who is Responsible for Secularization?

One of the Communing Callers came by yesterday and blamed Protestants for secularization. “Protestantism paved the way for secularism which is a battle the Catholic Church continues to fight. To ignore this truth is to ignore history.”

This is a curious point of view for those who claim to be standing in continuity with Christian history — especially that history BEFORE the Reformation. As the wonderful current three-volume study by Francis Oakley of medieval political theology is showing, secularization was hard wired into Christianity from the beginning:

The conception of the Kingdom of God, then, that Lies at the heart of the teaching of the Gospels on matters political is one that differs radically from that associated with the messianic views dominant in Jesus’s own lifetime. To that fact attests the evident bewilderment both of his own followers, at least one of whom appears to have been a Zealot (Luke 6:15), and of his Jewish opponents, who certainly were not but who at the end sough to convince Pontius Pilate that Jesus had at least to be something of a Zealot fellow-traveler. But Jesus’s negativity in matters political, his frequent disparagement of the kings and governments of this world and of their coercive methods, had little in common with Zealot attitudes. The less so, indeed, in that it was directed against all the governmental structures with which he had come into contact. Jewish no less than Roman. Nor should we miss the fact that that negativity was balanced, somewhat, by at least some measure of approval extended to governmental authority. Admittedly limited in scope, that approval finds practical expression in Jesus’s own obedience to the laws of the land and formal expression in his celebrated statement on the tribute money (“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”). If that statement evaded the trap being set for him by the Pharisees and Sadducees, it must certainly have scandalized the Zealots. For if the Things that were God’s had to be rendered unto God, the Tribute money, nevertheless, was identifies as Caesar’s, and Jesus indicated that it had to be rendered unto Caesar. That position was wholly in keeping with his insistence that the Kingdom whose advent he was preaching was “not of this world.” And both positions imply (in modern terms) an altogether novel separation of “religious” from “political” loyalties that stands out, in the broader context of the history of political thought . . . “Empty Bottles of Gentilism” (58)

Oakley goes on to quote approvingly Fustel de Coulanges (don’t worry, I didn’t know him either — a late nineteenth-century French historian):

Christianity completes the overthrow of local worship; it extinguishes the prytanea [sacred fire], and completely destroys the city-protecting divinities. It does more: it refuses to assume the empire which these worships had exercised over civil society. It professes that between the state and itself there is nothing in common. It separates what antiquity had confounded. We may remark, moreover, that during three centuries the new religion lived entirely beyond the action of the state; it knew how to dispense with state protection, and even to struggle against it. These three centuries established an abyss between the domain of government and the domain of religion; and, as the recollection of the period could not be effaced, it followed that this distinction became a plain and incontestable truth, which the efforts of even a part of the clergy could not efface. (59)

Oakley goes on to suggest that medieval churchmen played a substantial role in effacing the distinction that de Coulanges observed (and that Augustine elaborated in The City of God and was undone by the claims of a magisterial papacy):

. . . the Augustine whom one characteristically encounters in the Middle Ages is the Augustine of The City of God only insofar as that work was read or reinterpreted in light of what he had to say in his tracts against the Donatists. Medieval churchmen, after all, did not fully share his somber doctrine of grace; they rejected his sternly predestinarian division between the reprobate and the elect; they saw instead in every member of the visible Church Militant a person already touched by grace and potentially capable of citizenship in the civitas dei. More familiar with the anti-Donatist writings, in which Augustine had ascribed to the Christian emperor a distinctive role in the vindication of orthodoxy, than with the sober, limited and essential secular conception of rulership conveyed in his City of God, those churchmen were also apt, it may be, to assimilate the historical vision embedded in the latter to the optimistic Christian progressivism that Orosius had made (influentially) his own. They were led, accordingly, even while invoking Augustine’s authority, to depart from his mature and controlling political vision. That is to say, they broke down the firm distinction between the city of God and the Christian societies of this world that we have seen him draw so firmly in all but a handful of texts in The City of God itself. Instead, and what he actually had had to say about justice and the commonwealth to the contrary, they understood him to have asserted that it is the glorious destiny of Christian society — church, empire, Christian commonwealth, call it what you will — to labor to inaugurate the Kingdom of God and the reign of true justice in this world. (140-41)

This is why the CTC assessment of two-kingdom theology needs to go back to the drawing board and do a little historical investigation. Oakley’s interpretation of Christ and Augustine does sheds some light on CTC’s reading of the church fathers. They have precedent for seeing what they want to see.

Postscript: Orosius was an early fifth-century Spanish theologian who set out to do “nothing less than demonstrate “in every respect that the empire of Augustus had been prepared for the advent of Christ.” (Oakley, 116)

The Primacy of James (or the Ante-Ante-Nicene Fathers)

One of the puzzles of Roman Catholic claims about the primacy of the papacy is that the biblical support for this view rests almost entirely on Matt. 16:18. Theologians and church members (at least of Protestant derivation) should always beware of so little biblical support. In addition, when you read the New Testament (if you do), Peter largely fades from view. In Acts Peter does not show up after the fifteenth chapter (according not to superior biblical knowledge but to a word search — “advanced,” mind you — at ESVBible.org). The rest of the book is really Paul’s story. And the rest of the New Testament is really Paul’s teaching. Yes, Peter, John and James write epistles but they are short compared to Paul (leaving aside Revelation in page count totals).

What is also striking about the New Testament is the interaction among the apostles. Galatians 2 proves to be a particularly difficult text to square with claims about Peter’s primacy, not to mention his infallibility, since it records Paul publicly rebuking Peter for caving to the Judaizers. Here first is Calvin’s rendering of Paul’s order of James, Peter, and John in Galatians 2:9:

I have already stated, that James was the son of Alpheus. He could not be “the brother of John” who had been lately put to death by Herod, (Acts 12:2,) and to suppose that one of the disciples had been placed above the apostles would be absurd. That he held the highest rank among the apostles, is made evident by Luke, who ascribes to him the summing up and decision of the cause in the council, (Acts 15:13,) and afterwards mentions his having assembled “all the elders” of the church of Jerusalem. (Acts 21:18.) When he says, that they seemed to be pillars, he does not speak contemptuously, but quotes the general opinion, arguing from it, that what was done by such men ought not to be lightly set aside. In a question relating to diversity of rank, it is surprising that James should be mentioned before Peter; but the reason perhaps is, that he presided over the church at Jerusalem.

Calvin follows with these remarks on Paul’s rebuke to Peter:

Now, as I have said, he goes further, and asserts that he had blamed Peter for leaning to the other side; and he proceeds to explain the cause of the dispute. It was no ordinary proof of the strength of his doctrine, that he not only obtained their cordial approbation, but firmly maintained it in a debate with Peter, and came off victorious. What reason could there now be for hesitating to receive it as certain and undoubted truth?

At the same time, this is a reply to another calumny, that Paul was but an ordinary disciple, far below the rank of an apostle: for the reproof which he administered was an evidence that the parties were on an equal footing. The highest, I acknowledge, are sometimes properly reproved by the lowest, for this liberty on the part of inferiors towards their superiors is permitted by God; and so it does not follow, that he who reproves another must be his equal. But the nature of the reproof deserves notice. Paul did not simply reprove Peter, as a Christian might reprove a Christian, but he did it officially, as the phrase is; that is, in the exercise of the apostolic character which he sustained.

This is another thunderbolt which strikes the Papacy of Rome. It exposes the impudent pretensions of the Roman Antichrist, who boasts that he is not bound to assign a reason, and sets at defiance the judgment of the whole Church. Without rashness, without undue boldness, but in the exercise of the power granted him by God, this single individual chastises Peter, in the presence of the whole Church; and Peter submissively bows to the chastisement. Nay, the whole debate on those two points was nothing less than a manifest overthrow of that tyrannical primacy, which the Romanists foolishly enough allege to be founded on divine right. If they wish to have God appearing on their side, a new Bible must be manufactured; if they do not wish to have him for an open enemy, those two chapters of the Holy Scriptures must be expunged.

Of course, defenders of the magisterium need not trust Calvin since he is writing out of a position of disobedience to the papacy. That is why it is intriguing what a Roman Catholic biblical commentary has to say about this passage:

St. Paul says that he withstood St. Peter to the face “because he was to be blamed,” inasmuch as, whereas he had hitherto eaten openly with Gentiles, he was now led by fear of the Judaizers to refuse to do so, “fearing them who were of the circumcision.” “To his dissimulation,” adds the Apostle, “the rest of the Jews consented, so that Barnabas also was led by them into that dissimulation.” St. Jerome maintained that the whole scene was a “dissimulation,” Peter was not “to be blamed” by Paul, but solely by those brethren whom he had offended by withdrawing from their table; the scene, therefore, was meant to appease both parties, viz. those who believed in circumcision—for they could follow Peter, and those who repudiated circumcision—for they could follow Paul. St. Jerome’s reasons for holding this view are briefly that Paul could not have withstood Peter, who was his senior, and further that Paul, by circumcising Timothy and shaving his head at Cenchre, was guilty of the same obsequiousness towards Jewish prejudices. Some, he says, try to avoid the dilemma by saying that “Cephas” is not the Apostle Peter, but one of the Seventy disciples, and, moreover, that Acts is silent concerning the whole affair. But St. Jerome replies that Cephas and Peter are but Aramaic and Greek forms of the same name; that he knows of no other Cephas than the one who is termed at one time “Cephas,” at another “Peter”; and finally, that St. Luke was not bound to mention every event he knew of.

St. Chrysostom’s explanation is fundamentally the same as that of St. Jerome. It could not, he urges, have really been a dispute, for this they would have had in private. Therefore “to his face,” κατὰ πρόσωπον, must be a figure of speech, and the equivalent of “in appearance,” σχημα. The explanation, then, is that Peter withdrew from the table of the uncircumcised converts for two reasons: lest he should offend the Jewish converts, and in order to give St. Paul an occasion for correcting him. This correction was necessitated, not because St. Peter was in the wrong, but because those who saw him eat with Jews might fancy he did so out of fear of St. Paul. The latter, of course, had no such feeling. “Paul, then, rebukes, and Peter bears with it; so that while the master is silent under rebuke his disciples may be the more easily induced to put aside their suspicion. . . . Peter, then, joins Paul in this pretense, συνυποκρινεται, as though were really in fault, so that owing to this rebuke they might be corrected. . . . Thus, by his silence Peter corrected their false suspicions; he put up with the imputation of dissimulation so as, by a real dissimulation, to free the Jews.”

This view was strenuously combated by St. Augustine, who pointed out that it made Scripture untruthful. St. Jerome replied that his view was derived from Origen, and that it seemed to him compelling from the twofold consideration that (a) Peter knew from the conversion of Cornelius that the Gentiles were to be received into the Church, and (b) that St. Paul had done the same in the case of Timothy, and in shaving his own head at Cenchre. Finally, he endeavored to show that he and Augustine were really saying the same thing in different words. But Augustine declined to accept this statement. The idea that the whole scene was fictitious was repellent to him, since it imperiled the whole truth of Scripture: “Non nunc inquiro quid fecerit, sed quid scripserit quaero.” “If Peter was doing what he had a right to do, then Paul lied when he said that Peter walked not uprightly unto the truth of the Gospel. . . . But if Paul wrote the truth, then it was true that Peter walked not rightly.” St. Augustine then shows that the cases of Timothy and the shaving of Paul’s head are not parallel with this episode at Antioch; he further points out that in St. Jerome’s list of authorities for his view Apollinaris the Laodicean and Alexander are heretics, while Jerome himself acknowledges that there are errors in Origen and Didymus. Augustine’s main exegetical point, however, is that the scene at Antioch took place either after or—as he himself at that date seems to have thought merely more probable—before the Council at Jerusalem. If after the Council, then it is to be noticed that whereas the Decrees forbade anyone to compel the Gentile converts to Judaize, they did not prohibit the Jewish converts from Judaizing. If before the Council, then it is not to be wondered at that St. Paul should urge St. Peter to uphold what he had already learnt from the case of Cornelius. But Augustine really based his whole position on the irrefragable veracity of Scripture; again and again in the course of the controversy does he return to the principle that if the scene is fictitious, then we can no longer trust Scripture. It is certainly remarkable that St. Jerome nowhere takes up this point, while his marked descent from acrimony to an unusual suavity in the course of the correspondence seems to indicate that he felt that Augustine’s position was really the sounder, though he never sang the palinodia for which St. Augustine called!

The point to notice in this commentary is the lack of consensus among the early church fathers even about as important an episode as this for claims about the primacy of Peter. The constant theme at Called To Communion is that the early church is in agreement about the deposit of the faith and that this provides a much more certain basis for faith than do Protestant interpretations of the Bible. Well, if Jerome, Chrysostom, and Augustine don’t see eye to eye on this matter, how unified are those early fathers? What kind of consensus exists that falls right down from Matt. 16:18 to a unified body of truth? Or how is it that Roman Catholic understandings of the early church fathers’ teaching do not rely on interpretations while Protestants only have their opinions? History is not so easily appropriated.

And that is an important point implicitly in Eamon Duffy’s history of the papacy (Saints & Sinners: A History of the Popes, Yale, 1997). As students of the Reformation may know, Duffy is one of those historians that Roman Catholics like to cite because his book on England (The Stripping of the Altars) shows how vibrant Roman Catholic piety was before Henry VIII came along. Instead of being moribund, late medieval piety was alive and popular. But his introduction to Saints and Sinners will not set well with those CTCers who claim that the reality of Rome needs no interpretation:

All the essential claims of the modern papacy, it might seem, are contained in this Gospel saying about the Rock, and in Irenaeus’ account of the apostolic pedigree of the early bishops of Rome. Yet matters are not so simple. The popes trace their commission from Christ through Peter, yet for Irenaeus the authority of the Church at Rome came from its foundation by two Apostles, not by one, Peter and Paul, not Peter alone. The tradition that Peter and Paul had been put to death at the hands of Nero in Rome about the year AD 64 was universally accepted in the second century, and by the end of that century pilgrims to Rome were being shown the ‘trophies’ of the Apostles, their tombs or cenotaphs, Peter’s on the Vatican Hill, and Paul’s on the Via Ostiensis, outside the walls on the road to the coast. Yet on all of this the New Testament is silent. Later legend would fill out the details of Peter’s life and death in Rome — his struggles with the magician and father of heresy, Simon Magus, his miracles, his attempted escape from persecution in Rome, a flight from which he was turned back by a reproachful vision of Christ (the ‘Quo Vadis’ legend), and finally his crucifixion upside down in the Vatican Circus in the time of the Emperor Nero. These stories were to be accepted as sober history by some of the greatest minds of the early Church — Origen, Ambrose, Augustine. But they are pious romance, not history, and the fact is that we have no reliable accounts either of Peter’s later life or of the manner or place of his death. Neither Peter nor Paul founded the Church at Rome, for there were Christians in the city before either of the Apostles set foot there. Nor can we assume, as Irenaeus did, that the Apostles established there a succession of bishops to carry on their work in the city, for all the indications are that there was no single bishop at Rome for almost a century after the deaths of the Apostles. In fact, wherever we turn, the solid outlines of the Petrine succession at Rome seem to blur and dissolve. (p. 1)

As I’ve said, the idea that only Protestants have opinions and Roman Catholics have epistemic certainty is nonsense historically considered.