I have now gone through the Bible, as a man would go through a wood with an axe on his shoulder, and fell trees. Here they lie; and the priests, if they can, may replant them. They may, perhaps, stick them in the ground, but the will never make them grow. -Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason
But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom. (Isaiah 1:11 NABRE)
It is curious, that Thomas Paine, in challenging the priests to replant the trees he felled by challenging the authority of the Bible, used a metaphor which reminds the reader of the very reason for their hope.
He culminates his argument by saying that since he has completed his entire refutation of scripture using scripture, the reader must come to the conclusion that the Bible is a malicious lie or an accidental lie. That’s an easy premise to buy, if you don’t have anything else to back up the Bible.
Whatever it is Paine thought was behind the authority of scripture he ascribes to St. Athanasius, sneering at the idea that the the books to compromise holy canon could be voted on. He leaves it up to us to complete his chortle, that the Holy Spirit would never act like that.
But how, gentle reader, does the Holy Spirit act?
Christ has no body now, but yours. No hands, no feet on earth, but yours. Yours are the eyes through which Christ looks compassion into the world. Yours are the feet with which Christ walks to do good. Yours are the hands with which Christ blesses the world. St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582)
He acts through us! Even through our traditions of governance, be they monarchic, patristic or even democratic. Communism, libertarianism and plain old anarchy are certainly opposed to a Spirit working through an individual to better the world, in an ordered way, through compassion.
But there is one thing that I have never from my youth up been able to understand. I have never been able to understand where people got the idea that democracy was in some way opposed to tradition. It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time. It is trusting to a consensus of common human voices rather than to some isolated or arbitrary record. The man who quotes some German historian against the tradition of the Catholic Church, for instance, is strictly appealing to aristocracy. He is appealing to the superiority of one expert against the awful authority of a mob. It is quite easy to see why a legend is treated, and ought to be treated, more respectfully than a book of history. The legend is generally made by the majority of people in the village, who are sane. The book is generally written by the one man in the village who is mad. Those who urge against tradition that men in the past were ignorant may go and urge it at the Carlton Club, along with the statement that voters in the slums are ignorant. It will not do for us. If we attach great importance to the opinion of ordinary men in great unanimity when we are dealing with daily matters, there is no reason why we should disregard it when we are dealing with history or fable. Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea. We will have the dead at our councils. The ancient Greeks voted by stones; these shall vote by tombstones. It is all quite regular and official, for most tombstones, like most ballot papers, are marked with a cross. G.K. Chesterton – Orthodoxy – Chapter 4
Chesterton wrote that in 1908, 14 years before his reception into the Catholic Church. It is certainly about the small t traditions of man (like thanksgiving turkey) but I think one can as easily apply it to the big T Traditions of the Catholic Church (like the Eucharist). The Bible is like that as well. It’s a collection of promises made between God and those who would be His people.
When Jesus opened the scripture and preached He did so as one having an astonishing amount of authority (Matt 7:29). He bequeaths that authority to Peter (Matt 16:18) and Peter, after a little prompting, spreads the salvation around freely (Acts 11:17) but handed his office, with the keys still in it, to Linus.
The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate. Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy. To him succeeded Anacletus; and after him, in the third place from the apostles, Clement was allotted the bishopric. – St. Irenaeus Against Heresies
Too bad that wasn’t in the Bible, eh… well, it’s certainly evidence of Sacred Tradition. To which the Catholic duly considers even with Scripture and the Magisterium (the teaching office of the Bishops). Tradition is the example Jesus set which the apostles followed. (CCC 83) The New Testament is evidence for Sacred Tradition, it should not be construed as evidence against it! All Scripture is useful and profitable, but Scripture alone only leaves a tank one third full sending one cruising to Heaven hoping to get there on fumes.
So, when the council of Nicea is mistakenly pointed to by Thomas Paine as the event wherein Early Christian Aristocrats blithely came to an agreement on sacred scripture, you can be sure, that even if this event did occur, that it would be a result of the authority bestowed on the apostles and their successors by Christ Himself. But, since the event didn’t happen, you should probably realize that either Paine’s work to thwart the authority of scripture is either a malicious lie or an accidental one.
I like to think it’s an accidental one and he was merely conforming to the spirit of his age.