"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Bishop of Rome in Late Antiquity (III): the Fifth Century's Cautions and Caveats

In two previous installments discussing The Bishop of Rome in Late Antiquity, edited by Geoffrey Dunn of the Australian Catholic University, we noted some of the historiographical challenges such a book as this both poses and must also itself wrestle with; and then we discussed very briefly some of the fascinating insights of the fourth century, especially those pertaining to Pope Siricius, in whose letters (decretals) scholars increasingly detect the move from being merely bishop of Rome to a more universal primate or pope in a Petrine vein.

Now, let us turn our attention to the fifth century. The editor leads off this section with his chapter, "Innocent I and the First Synod of Toledo." Once again the interactions between the Spanish church and Roman bishop come in for close examination.

But quite apart from the particular conclusions Dunn reaches, I want to underscore the important hermeneutical and historiographical challenges this chapter itself gives witness to by its drawing of different conclusions after examining the same evidence as the two authors in the immediately previous section treating Roman-Spanish interactions, especially in Siricius's letters. Those earlier authors, discussed in my second part of this review essay, found evidence of a universalizing tendency and the beginnings of some kind of papal primacy extending beyond the Latin Church, or at the very least beyond Western Europe; but Dunn looks at the evidence and says that the interactions show a certain pre-eminence is being claimed by the Roman bishops, but only in juridical-appellate terms--not, that is, in either legislative or executive terms.

In this regard, Dunn's conclusions echo--as he very briefly acknowledges--what seems to have been the view of the council or synod of Serdica (Sardica) (modern Sofia in Bulgaria) in 343, which argued in favor--it would seem--of Rome functioning as a court of appeal that would not make the final decisions, but hear regional appeals, and then find other regional actors to re-try a case or to consider an appeal at the regional level.

Serdica has recently come in for renewed scholarly attention, not least in Hamilton Hess's The Early Development of Canon Law and the Council of Serdica and in Christopher Stephens's volume, Canon Law and Episcopal Authority: The Canons of Antioch and Serdica.

I think the enormously important and valuable lesson to draw from Dunn's chapter, and the other two chapters, as well as from the rest of The Bishop of Rome in Late Antiquity (to be discussed in future parts), must be this: one must approach history with great humility and caution, aware that trying to draw definitive and binding conclusions admitting of no difference on the basis of conflicting, ambiguous, and incomplete briefs is a dangerous and likely foolish thing to do. History can be instructive but not normative, as Taft famously said.

Dunn and the two preceding authors, all looking at the same evidence, draw conclusions that differ in some important respects. All three, in my judgment, have made perfectly plausible cases, with judicious reasoning and careful display of the evidence, for why they have interpreted matters as they have. In doing so, they have reminded us once again why an appeal to the past will not solve the problems of the present. Catholic apologists fondly imagining the first millennium gives copious and unambiguous evidence of a Vatican I-like primacy will be discombobulated by this as much as Orthodox polemicists dismissing the very concept of Roman primacy as a perfidious power-grab by the Latins.

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