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The Way of the Church

Part 1:

 1.  Controlling the Past – I (A Consideration of Methods)

 by Hugh Nibley, Ph.D.

Improvement Era 58 (Jan. 1955), 20-22, 44-45


GRANTED that Jesus founded a church, was that church expected by its founder and members to remain upon the earth for a limited time only, to be removed and restored at a later date, or was the "apostolic church" the ultimate and final foundation of God on earth, destined "to remain firm and steadfast until the end of the world"? That is one of the most important questions that confront students of church history today.

Every day it becomes more apparent that on its solution depends the whole nature and history of the Christian church. The solution is not far to seek: By the simple, almost mechanical, process of extracting from the literature of the ancient church those passages dealing specifically with the church's future, or what the saints thought would be its future, placing these passages in chronological order, and reading them over, anyone who has the requisite time and patience may discover the answer. That is what the present study intends to do.


It has not been done heretofore because when churchmen have found themselves confronted by the above question, with its alarming implication that all the churches of Christendom might conceivably be astray, they have dismissed the awful thought with a shudder. What! cries Tertullian, can all those martyrs have shed their blood for nothing?—carefully evading the declaration of the martyrs themselves, that the only reward they ever think of is a crown in heaven, where they have been repaid a thousandfold for their brief sufferings here below. Conventional church history is resolved never to raise the question of whether the church of Christ actually survived, as the best way to avoid a disastrous answer. Thus at the present time leading church historians would forestall any embarrassing questions touching the main issue by devising ingenious titles for their studies: "The Infant Church" (L'Eglise Naissante—Batiffol), "A World Being Born" (Un Monde qui Nait—Daniel-Rops), The Unquenchable Light (Latourette), etc., titles as "loaded" as Neander's Planting and Training of the Christian Church.

They are "loaded" because they suggest and permit research only along one carefully channeled course. The mere title "Infant Church" as used by these authors fixes unalterably the whole course of church history in advance: If the early church was by very definition an infant church or a world being born, we can tell no other story than one of growth and advancement regardless of what happened—calamitous failures are merely setbacks; success in any direction is growth; the story can have only one outcome; within a thematic framework we can ask all the questions we want to, but the main question of whether the church really was an infant church and not something totally different, must never be raised. And what other tale can one tell of an "Unquenchable Light," again an expression of those authors, save that it never goes out? That wonderful title has forestalled any embarrassing questions as to whether the light was to overcome the darkness or the other way around—for merely to ask such a question is to remind oneself of John's terribly emphatic answer, that the "Unquenchable Light" was by no means to remain among men.

"The task of church history," writes the author of the latest large church history to appear, "is to give a clear, comprehensive, scientifically established over-all picture of the evolution of the visible institution of salvation founded by Christ."

This is very much as if he were to say, "Our business is to describe the triumph of the church," as if that triumph were inevitable. Like the classic question, "Have you stopped beating your mother-in-law?" it cleverly avoids a very important question by asking a less important one resting on the assumption that the other has been answered. The assignment of describing the evolution of the institution established by Christ assumes (1) that there was such an institution, (2) that it remained on the earth, and (3) that it underwent an observable process of evolution. All this is taken for granted, yet until very recently the bulk of scholars have regarded the first proposition as unproven, and they have only just begun to think about the second. The third point is, thanks to the systematic avoidance of the second, never questioned.


The study of church history has in the past been of interest to but a few, and their interest has been a strenuously partisan one. Who writes church histories? Churchmen. Who reads them? Divinity students. It would be hard to find another branch of science or the humanities in which so few scholars ever engage in the study of the thing for its own sake. Even the rare researcher of disinterested motives must end up taking sides, for the nature of the thing requires it.

"Only one who is personally convinced of the truth of the gospel," writes Heinrich Bornkamm, "can fully grasp its historical manifestations and what is lasting or changing in them. There is no such thing as pure objectivity in the history of thought, which in fact would be rendered sterile by such." In 1699 Gottfried Arnold published his Impartial History of the Church and Heresy, to show that the true church through age has been that of the persecuted mystics and heretics—whether his theory is right or not, it cannot by any effort of the imagination be called impartial.

Recently Professor Pfeiffer has vigorously deplored any side-taking at all in the study of religion; he thinks one can maintain perfect scientific detachment by "keeping facts and faith, history and revelation, historical research and theological speculation separate and distinct." But is not this appeal for a double book-keeping that shall "distinguish sharply between true facts and true doctrines" simply a device for placing one's own particular beliefs beyond the reach of objective investigation? Is it fair of the doctors to denounce with moral indignation those who have not yet given up those partisan strivings in which they themselves engaged for generations, and only gave up with reluctance when years of determined seeking led to unforeseen and embarrassing conclusions? It is altogether too convenient when one's own methods of soapmaking have failed, to declare to the world that soap simply cannot be made and heap contempt on those who are still trying and abuse on those who have succeeded.

When the professor finds that his facts do not square with his doctrines, then, but not until then, he announces to the world as a general moral principle that no one should ever try to compare facts with doctrines. That lets him out. But the escape is altogether so convenient; the cause of cool and scientific detachment is defended with such surprising heat and censure; and the announcement of these so liberal and so obvious principles has come so suddenly and so late (for until now church scholars have all admitted to a degree of partisan interest) that one is forced to the conclusion that all this pleading to keep religion out of religious studies is possibly just an extreme form of partisan pleading, an attempt to save face by the belated declaration that the rules do not hold any more—that religious and historical facts have absolutely nothing to do with each other. Since the rules no longer favor us, we will abolish them!

The modern scientific credo is thus no exception to the rule that an ulterior motive has marked the writing of church history from the very beginning. "It is dangerous to enquire after truth among later writers," wrote the great Baronius, "who are often found to write that which false rumors, vain imaginings, private affection and sometimes Flattery suggested to their Minds, to the great prejudice of Historical Truth." But what about the earlier writers? "The age was one of rhetoric," writes Harnack of the period from the fourth century on "which did not draw back at artifice and unveracity of every kind. ... Forgery was the order of the day. ... Already in the fourth century a spirit of lying prevailed mightily in the official documents. ... and in the fifth and sixth centuries it ruled the Church." At that time "no one any longer put any faith in any written record or official document or report."

After giving various examples of the use of falisfication by the most illustrious fathers as a partisan weapon, and describing the controversial literature as "a morass of lies and rascality," Harnack concludes that "one cannot escape the fear that present-day historians are still altogether too trusting in their attitude towards this whole literature. ... We stand almost everywhere more or less helpless in the face of a systematically fabricated tradition."

Recently Walther Volker has shown that the great church history of Eusebius was actually a "tendentious" writing designed to prove a particular point. The events culminating in the riotous councils of the fourth century led thinking men of the time to doubt whether the church was still on earth or not: It was to silence his own doubts on this head that Eusebius undertook the researches that resulted in the ecclesiastical history. "By the simple process of excerpting ... only what agreed with his fundamental thesis," Eusebius, according to Volker, "altered the appearance of the old church history. All the tensions were removed, all the conflicts smoothed over. ..." This work, which rightfully won for its author the title of "Father of Church History," laid down the line which church historians have followed ever since, namely the implicit and unquestioning defense at all times of the basic proposition that the Christian church of today is actually the "apostolic church" of the beginning, no matter how strangely and wonderfully altered. To this proposition all conventional church history is dedicated; it is the axiom which may never be questioned and which predetermines the direction of all research, the bed of Procrustes into which all the evidence must be made to fit, cost what it may.

Before we address ourselves to our proper task, which is (1) to set forth in order the early reference to the future of the church, and (2) to show what modern scholars have to say on the subject, it is necessary to get some idea of the nature of the documents with which we have to deal, and of the extent to which church historians have controlled those documents, actually inventing the past which they claim, and often sincerely, to be only discovering. The reader should be warned that the thesis of the present study runs counter to the massive consensus of church history for over a thousand years.

Long ago Socrates showed what a hollow thing consensus is. More recently, in 1932, Olaf Linton published his now famous study of what he calls "the Consensus" of church history in the nineteenth century. Therein he shows how the scholars when they think they are being most sound, most objective, and most scientific in their construction of church history, are actually doing little more than faithfully reflecting their own background and conditioning. As they are liberal, democratic, congregational, individualist, so must the "primitive church" be; if they like ritual, so did it; if they eschewed it, so did the early Christians. But what the general public dreams not of, and even the experts underestimate is that the invention of history has been a major industry for many centuries, one of the primary concerns of scholars having been in every age to control the past. This is a serious, but not criminal charge, for as we shall presently see, it is virtually impossible for anyone to handle ancient records without in some way having to control them; and so, as the records have been handed on from one generation to the next, there has been exercised over them a cumulative, all-pervasive, and thorough control.


To begin with, anyone who writes church history has the inescapable and dangerous obligation of deciding somehow just what evidence shall be made available to his readers and what shall not; obviously, he cannot include it all. Now anyone who takes it upon himself to withhold evidence is actually determining what the reader's idea of church history is going to be—he is controlling the past. And when the evidence held back is a thousand times more extensive than what is brought before the jury, it is plain that the historian is free to build up any kind of case he desires.

Is there no alternative to this commission of all but absolute power to a few notoriously partial authorities? There is none. The only completely fair presentation of church history would be a full display of all known evidence laid out before the public in chronological order—all the written stuff: histories, letters, sermons, tomes of philosophy, all the artifacts, ruins, and inscriptions, all the traditions, rituals, liturgies, and legends would have to be there, without any attempt on the part of the custodian to interpret or control. But such a corpus would be all but useless, an impenetrable jungle of stuff beyond the capacity of any reader. To be made available even to specialists it would have to be classified, broken up into departments that could be handled by one man and, as far as the general public is concerned, each of these would have to be further reduced by sampling or condensing. If one were to include in a source book but one-tenth of one percent of the writings in the old Patrologiae alone—and they are far from exhaustive, even in their area—the reader would be confronted by five hundred solid pages of quotation. But how representative is a selection of one page in a thousand? One need only examine Kirch's Enchiridion for the answer. Aside from all policy and prejudice, sheer necessity has brought it about that what has been handed on from generation to generation as standard church history is a growing accumulation of carefully hand-picked evidence.

But the business of control does not end with the selecting of evidence. Once our texts have been chosen for presentation, we discover that they are all without exception in an imperfect and fragmentary state, marred by scribal slips, emendations, interpolations, and deletion. Generations of careless, or (what is far more dangerous) careful and deliberate scribes have been busy day and night at the game of controlling the past by altering the texts they were supposed to be copying, and as often as not the alterations have been intentional. And what is the cure for this? More correction! The conscientious, modern editor proceeds to control his text by reconstructing it to say what he believes the original should have said. Such reconstructions are not always infallible. In fact, in the opinion of most scholars, the reconstructions perpetrated by most other scholars are pretty bad.

Once the church historian has picked out the most highly favored passages to call to the witness stand and, as a textual critic, carefully tidied them up and brushed their hair to make a favorable impression for his client (the client being the church of his choice—for most church historians are professional churchmen) a most effective control still remains; for before the evidence can be heard by the general public, it must be translated. Translation is a far more effective and aggressive way of controlling the past than most people suppose.

The business of selecting, restoring, and translating pertinent texts is one that calls for the constant exercise of judgment and the constant making of choices. To enable the scholar to choose between two or more equally authentic but conflicting passages. between equally plausible but conflicting readings of the passage chosen, and between equally grammatical but conflicting translations of the text thus selected and restored, he invariably adopts some rule or policy in the light of which one interpretation will always enjoy a clear priority, thus obviating the necessity of giving serious consideration to the others. Let us consider the well-established principles upon which the experts operate.