Which Comes First? Truth, or the Church?


I had occasion some years ago while writing a large paper on Medieval resistance theory to read portions of Dante’s Monarchia, a vigorously logical treatise defending the idea, contrary to the spirit of the times, that temporal rulership is not derived from the decree of the pope, but directly from Christ.  Of late I’ve been revisiting the Monarchia, and wanted to share the following reasoning about the locus of spiritual authority, a discussion which opens Dante’s treatment in Book III of the origin of the temporal power.

Not one to mince words throughout the treatise, Dante boldly states early in this Book the principle that sometimes even men who want to be guided by reason allow disordered passions to distort their reason:

…the truth concerning this third question [the origin of the temporal power] is so fiercely disputed that, just as in other matters it is ignorance which gives rise to dispute, so here it is rather the dispute which is the cause of ignorance.  For it often happens that men who guide their will by the light of reason, should they be swayed by misguided impulses, put the light of reason behind them and are dragged by passion like blind men, and yet obstinately deny their own blindness.  And it so happens very often that many stray beyond their own borders and make incursions into the territory of others, where, understanding nothing, they quite fail to make themselves understood; and thus they provoke some people to anger, others to disdain, and many to mirth. - Dante, Monarchy, trans. Prue Shaw (Cambridge University Press, ninth printing, 2006), pg. 66

Moving on to three classes of people who deny that the temporal power is directly instituted by Christ, Dante writes of certain commentators on papal legal statements (people known as the Decretalists), that, “I once heard one of them say and stubbornly insist that the traditions of the church are the foundation of faith.  Let this wicked belief be removed from the minds of mortals, before the traditions of the church, believed in Christ the Son of God…” (ibid., pg. 67).

To prove his strong statement that it is wicked to believe that the traditions of the church are the foundations of the faith, Dante next discusses three types of “scriptures” (here meaning just “written works”): one that preceded the church, another that is contemporaneous with the church, and a third that follows after the church.  In the first category are the Old and New Testaments.  In the second are the decrees of the first four ecumenical councils and the writings of the doctors of the church.  In the third class are the learned commentaries on the Decretals (papal legal statements).  Dante likens this third class, especially, to the traditions held up by the priests of Christ’s day, whom He rebuked, “‘Why do ye also transgress the commandments of God by your tradition?’ By this he gave to understand clearly enough that tradition takes second place.” (ibid., pp. 67-68).

But as if this were not enough, Dante then invokes the commonplace legal principle that no one can be a judge in his own case, lest justice be perverted, and the equally commonplace philosophical principle of his day that to understand an issue one must start with first principles, not derivatives from them:

Now if the traditions of the church come after the church, as has been shown, it must be the case that the church does not derive its authority from the traditions but that the traditions derive their authority from the church.  And so those who rely only on traditions must be excluded from the arena, as we said; for those who seek to grasp this truth [of the disputed matter of the origin of temporal authority] must conduct their investigation by starting from those things from which the church’s authority comes. - (ibid., pg. 68)

Bear in mind that this treatise was written in the early years of the 14th century, long before anything remotely able to be called “Protestant” was even a gleam in anyone’s eye.

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