Thursday, February 21, 2008

Fortescue on the Church's Worst Enemy

This year is the one hundreth anniversary of Adrian Fortescue's book, The Greek Fathers. So I thought it would be a good time to get back into that fine introduction. I think I became aware of Fortescue by way of his liturgical work before I knew of his patristic scholarship. In fact, for a man who was a parish priest his whole career in England, he had a remarkably keen appreciation for the Church in the East. He was the kind of man who was completely unafraid of making seemingly out of place or outrageous statements. In that way he reminds me of David Scaer. At one point, Fortescue, a Roman Rite priest, mind you, says that Damascus is "the real eternal city." So much more ought to be said about this great churchman. But for now I just wanted to make an observation based on a point he makes in his book, The Greek Fathers.

In his discussion of Saint Athanasius, Fortescue sets the scene by explaining how the age of persecution actually gave way to an even more tragic era, viz., that of the great christological heresies. He writes, for example,

"The great heresies were coming as successors to the great persecutions, and the Church was to be more troubled and to suffer greater evils from her own children than she had from the sword of the Roman magistrates."

The evil of the age of heresies in the fourth and fifth centuries is manifold. First is the obvious evil of good churchmen suffering banishment and exile. Athanasius himself suffered this fate five times. Another evil to result in this situation, though, is perhaps even more troubling, namely, the great confusion it must have caused to the common man. As Fortescue puts it,

"Under five emperors and five popes, he was the one tower of strength and rallying point to all Catholics in that hopeless confusion of synods and anti-synods, banishments and userpations."

And later he writes,

"During the very lifetime of the heroes who could show the glorious wounds they had received under Diocletian, the Christian Church was tossed by a raging storm that nearly wrecked her. Bishops fell on every side, intruders and counter-intruders filled every see, Anathemas and counter-Anathemas thundered across the empire from Tyre to Milan, so that the wretched layman who wanted to serve God in peace may well have wondered whether the old cry of Christianos ad leones were not on the whole pleasanter than the shouts of Homousios and Homoiusios, of which he understood nothing except that, whichever he said, someone was sure to excommunicate him."

"Homousios" and "Homoiusios," by the way, are two different ways of conceiving the Son's relationship with the Father, the former confessing that the they are of the same substance, the latter promoting the false notion that they are of merely similar substance. The next time you say the Nicene Creed in the Mass, think about how deadly important these issues were to the Church of the age that gave us this creed.

Fortescue's discussion on the trouble within the Church in the age of Arianism makes me think of how it tends to always be the case that the Church's worst enemy is herself. I recall Robert Rahn of the Lutheran Heritage Foundation giving a sermon at Zion, Ft. Wayne about forteen or fifteen months ago, in which he made the point that Lutherans around the world are suffering...at the hands of Lutherans. One need only think of the church's situation in Finland, or Sweeden. Of course it happens on much smaller scales as well. Christians can so easily trip across the line bewteen doing the Lord's work and using their power to actually fight the Lord's will. Oh, to have a new Athanasius for the Church today.

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