At the recent T4G Conference, Ligon Duncan offered six pieces of evidence that supposedly prove that the early Fathers held the Protestant “gospel” (i.e. for Duncan this means the Calvinistic doctrine of justification). Bryan Cross, who has posted many helpful articles about justification from a Catholic perspective, correctly points out that Duncan’s presentation is flawed on multiple levels and very misleading in light of the evidence and Catholic perspectives on justification. I have posted his conclusion below, but for his arguments and critique you will have to visit their ecumenical website full of scholarly research: Called to Communion: Reformation meets Rome.
All six pieces of evidence he offers are fully Catholic, completely compatible with the doctrine of justification taught by the Council of Trent. And therefore it is misleading to claim that these patristic quotations are evidence that the Fathers in some nascent way “knew” or affirmed or would have affirmed, the Reformed conception of the gospel over that of the Catholic Church. Such a claim amounts to a proof-texting that attempts to read into the patristic writers a theology that is in no way there. If the reason Protestants cannot return to the Catholic Church is that the Catholic gospel is incompatible with the Reformed conception of the gospel, and if present-day orthodox Catholics can without contradiction fully affirm the very best patristic evidence Dr. Duncan can find that the Church Fathers knew of the Reformed conception of the gospel, it follows that the Church Fathers did not know the Reformed gospel. My hope and prayer is that Dr. Duncan and other Protestants will see and acknowledge that the Church Fathers did not know or teach the Reformed conception of the gospel. Recognizing that the Reformed conception of the gospel is a theologicalnovum (i.e. novelty) of the sixteenth century is a necessary step, in my opinion, for Reformed Protestants and Catholics to be reconciled in full communion.
UPDATE :: Duncan has responded to Cross’s article, and Cross has also replied.
Here is the snipet from the thread penned by Bryan Cross:
This morning Dr. Duncan responded to my post, writing: “For instance, recently a Roman Catholic apologetics site has published a blog post that purports to refute my address, but which, in fact, completely misses its point. My little talk at T4G was not a polemic against Roman Catholicism, but a commendation of the Church Fathers to Bible-believing evangelicals. Had I wanted to polemicize against Rome from the Church Fathers, I could have, easily.”
Apparently, the point of his talk was not to show that the Church Fathers knew the [Reformed] gospel. He only wanted to commend the Church Fathers to Bible-believing evangelicals. Apparently, if he had wanted to show that the Church Fathers held a Reformed (and not Catholic) conception of the gospel, he could have easily done so, but just chose not to do it at this conference of 7,000+ young Reformed men. He didn’t want to bore them at 8 AM, so apparently he gave them six weaker points of evidence, even though he could have easily given them much stronger evidence. It seems to me that if he didn’t want to bore his audience, he would have given them the strongest evidence he could find. It seems to me that when these 7,000+ find out that the Church Fathers didn’t hold a Reformed conception of the gospel, they will feel deceived by this talk. It used to be that denominations could get away with this sort of thing, because this sort of communication mostly stayed in-house. But now, because of the new media, you just can’t get away with this sort of thing anymore.
In the peace of Christ,