The Prior Authority of Tradition

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This originated as an off-the-cuff reply this morning, in this thread. I thought it came out rather well.

James Tissot, The Lord's Prayer, 1896

The Lord’s Prayer (1896), by James Tissot (WikiArt.org).

I think you’re overlooking the very crux of the matter. “Sola scriptura” is more than just a claim that Scripture is an infallible standard: it’s a claim that it is the only infallible standard. And if we stand back at A.D. 50 — there is then no New Testament to hold as any sort of infallible standard. What is this “Scripture” and what is this “Tradition” we are referring to? “Scripture,” to the earliest Christians, was the Old Testament. And the message of Christ was entirely oral. And Christians accepted this message as infallible — because it was the Word of God — the word of the Word Made Flesh Himself.

So from the very beginning, Christians accepted a message and teaching in addition to Scripture. And this is “Tradition” — what was handed down by Christ to His Apostles and by the Apostles to their disciples — and it was infallible, and it preceded the New Testament. Why were the writings of the Apostles and their disciples enshrined as “Scripture” in the first place? Because they preserved in writing the word and teachings of Christ and His Apostles, the literal Word of God, that had been preserved and passed down orally for several decades. Why were the letters of Paul considered infallible and held as Scripture? Because the teachings of Paul himself, orally and in person, were first considered infallible. The very authority of the New Testament depends on the prior authority of the word of Jesus and the Apostles, and on this authority continuing as that word was communicated to the next generations of Christians orally — otherwise why should the Gospels of Mark and of Luke — who are believed to have been disciples of the Apostles who did not witness the earthly life and ministry of Christ firsthand, but who recorded their accounts from the teachings of their teachers — be held as authoritative?

James Tissot, The Sermon on the Mount, 1896

The Sermon on the Mount (1896), by James Tissot (WikiArt.org).

So the claim that “there was no infallible ‘Tradition’ for the Early Church” fails on its face: there was, and must be. Yes, we believe the New Testament was “God-breathed” by the authority of the Holy Spirit, much as God spoke through the Old Testament prophets. But if we believe that Jesus Christ was God Incarnate, that He, the Word of God, walked among us and gave His Word to men, and that the authors of the New Testament were firsthand and secondhand witnesses to this Word — then we must believe that that Word itself, spoken by God Himself, was authoritative and infallible, and that it did not cease to be authoritative and infallible when it was the Apostles and their disciples repeating it and setting it to writing. The alternative is absurd: Did the Word of Jesus carry no authority until decades later, when it was “God-breathed” by the Holy Spirit to men who did not even know Him? Did Paul, and Peter, and John, and James, not teach by the authority of the Holy Spirit in their oral teachings, but only have His authority when they set those teachings to writing?

Fra Angelico, St. Peter Preaching in the Presence of St. Mark

St. Peter Preaching in the Presence of St. Mark, by Fra Angelico (c. 1433) (Wikipedia)

So the Protestant claim of “sola scriptura” is not merely a claim that “Scripture is an infallible standard”: it must somehow explain how Scripture became the only infallible standard; how the Word of God spoken by Jesus and passed down by the Apostles ceased to be the Word of God except in the parts of it that were put to writing. We have in the New Testament Church an advantage that the Old Testament people of God never had: where the Old Testament prophets spoke and wrote only by the revelation of the Holy Spirit, the Apostles and writers of the New Testament spoke and wrote from their personal encounters of the Word of God Made Flesh. To limit the Word of God to only what is written is to call into question the essentially public witness of the Church: to say that only those writers, in their writings, could speak with the authority of God, who experienced a private revelation of words “God-breathed” by the Holy Spirit.

Le Sueur, The Preaching of St. Paul at Ephesus

The Preaching of St. Paul at Ephesus (1649), by Eustache Le Sueur.

So no, once again, the onus is on Protestants to demonstrate why anyone in the Early Church would have reverted to “Scripture alone” as an infallible standard, after the Word of God Made Flesh had lived among them and taught them, and after His Apostles and their disciples continued to pass on those teachings. We see no note of “Tradition” in the earliest of the Church Fathers because they took such teachings for granted: what we see instead is the personal testimony that “Peter and Paul gave their witness among us and “I sat at the feet of the blessed Polycarp as he recalled hearing John share stories of Our Lord”. This, though it was not called by that name until late in the second century, is “Tradition”; and it is up to Protestants to demonstrate why the Early Church should no longer have held it as authoritative (for it is plain that they did).

Oxford

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Part of my ongoing conversion story.

The Lyceum, the University of Mississippi

The Lyceum at the University of Mississippi.

By the spring of 2010, I had narrowed my graduate search to three institutions, who each had accepted me to their history programs and offered me assistantships. I was not at all impressed with Mississippi State University in Starkville, Mississippi; the less said about that the better. I was very pleasantly surprised by the faculty and department at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. But at the University of Misissippi in Oxford, Mississippi, I was immediately charmed and captured — by the town, by the campus, by the department, and by the people.

The Grove

The Grove.

I was especially swayed by the fact that, while at the other schools, I got the feeling that they were doing me a favor by extending their substantial assistantship packages to me and inviting me as a student; while at Mississippi, my impression was that they genuinely wanted me, that I would be doing them a favor by coming there. Even despite the generous offers of the other schools, the whole search and application process with them felt as if I was courting them, while at Mississippi, I felt that they were genuinely courting me. The graduate coordinator and the department chair both called me personally to invite me and offer their assistance. In meeting with the department chair, when I told him honestly that I loved what I saw, but that their assistantship was the lowest offer, he doubled the offer on the spot. A small cadre of friendly graduate students greeted me warmly, answered my questions, and generally made me feel welcome. I have no doubt that they had been requested to stay as a welcome party, but they stayed late into their afternoon to meet me, on Good Friday, when they didn’t have to; and as I later got to know them, I found them each to be genuinely friendly people.

Exploring the campus that day, I stepped into the library archives — since archives are among my favorite places in the world. I chatted up the archivist at the desk, who gladly answered my questions and told me how great the campus and town were. And then he told me that there was a history Ph.D. student working in the archives that day, and asked if I would like to meet her. He brought her back in a moment; and even more than anybody else I met that day, she was overflowing with passion and exuberance for history and for Oxford. She dropped what she was doing and for half an hour, poured out tips and advice that made this university and town a vivid prospect. And that was Audrey.

Audrey's Cup of Soul

I often think back and try to recollect how I became friends with someone; and often, it is simply inexplicable, other than to say that in that moment, something clicked. Perhaps, with Audrey, it was that we both shared interests in antebellum southern history, notably with the people, with farmers and planters. But neither of us is very outgoing, and Audrey, as an A.B.D. (“all but dissertation”) Ph.D. candidate, had largely withdrawn from interacting with new students. But from that bizarre moment, that chance meeting, that rare stroke of lightning, we were fast friends. I very much believe that this is something God designed: Audrey became one of my dearest friends, an encourager and fellow pilgrim.

That was Good Friday. When I got home, I added Audrey and the other students I had met on Facebook. And immediately I noticed the congratulations: Audrey had been received into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil that Saturday night, and it was one of the other students I’d met, also Catholic, who was congratulating her! I felt a vague and somehat disquieting sinking in my stomach. Had I happened upon some sort of Catholic enclave? Even before I’d made a definite decision for Oxford, the thought occurred to me, with some misgiving: This is probably going to end up with me becoming Catholic.

Baptism with the Holy Spirit or Fire?

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Part of a series on Baptism in Depth.

Titian, Pentecost

Pentecost (c. 1545), by Titian.

In my last post on Baptism, a commenter raised an important question that I had overlooked: When John prophesied that the Messiah would “baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire,” did he refer to an efficacious Sacrament of Baptism in water, by which believers would be immersed in the Holy Spirit and filled with His fire; or was this merely a figure for the outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost, with no implications for the Christian Sacrament? In short: Is Water Baptism the “Baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire” prophesied by John?

I conclude that “Baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire” refers to an efficacious Water Baptism — but the fire of Pentecost itself is also an image of this. These events are essentially connected. It was the arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, manifested in tongues of fire and miraculous signs, that most visibly marks the greater miracle that coincided that day spiritually: The spiritual regeneration the Spirit wrought in the waters of Baptism; the washing away of sins, and the burial of the sinful man in Christ’s Death and Resurrection in His new life. Certainly it is this redemption and rebirth, the greatest work of Christ, to which John referred in his prophecy. The charisms of the Holy Spirit in tongues and wonders are only a visible effusion of the fire within.*

* This is reminiscent of the Pentecostal doctrine I grew up with. In fact, it is a plank of the “fundamental truths” of the Assemblies of God that the charism of speaking in tongues is the initial physical evidence that a believer has been fully immersed in the Holy Spirit (“baptized in the Holy Spirit”).

There are several key verses that point to this interpretation, that necessarily connect John’s prophecy to Christian Baptism. Prior to His Ascension, the Lord told the Apostles:

Murillo, Baptism of Christ (c. 1665)

Baptism of Christ (c. 1665), by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.

And while staying with them he charged them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me, for John baptized with water, but before many days you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 1:4–5)

Certainly this is — and the Apostles understood it as — a promise of the descent and outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. They thus entered the Upper Room to pray, and then:

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2:1–4)

And it followed that all those who came to believe were commanded to repent and be baptized in water (Acts 2:38).

The Baptism of Cornelius, by Francesco Trevisani

The Baptism of Cornelius (1709), by Francesco Trevisani (Wikipedia).

But the prophecy of John and of the Lord were not limited to this. For after the Holy Spirit came to Cornelius and the Gentiles, Peter reported to the other Apostles and brethren:

“As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?” When they heard this they were silenced. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance unto life.” (Acts 11:15–18)

Peter specifically relates the falling of the Holy Spirit on these Gentiles to His falling on them at Pentecost — which was prophesied by Our Lord’s prophecy, and before that, John’s. The gift He gave to [the Apostles] was the Holy Spirit; and He has here given it also to the Gentiles. But note the key here: In this passage, the gift of the Holy Spirit promised in the prophecy is definitively connected with repentance unto life — that is, with salvation. And in the initial narration of the story, that repentance unto life was marked by Baptism:

While Peter was still saying this, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, “Can any one forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. (Acts 10:44–48)

The Baptism of Infidels, by Gustave Dore

The Baptism of Infidels, by Gustave Dore (WikiPaintings).

Repentance unto life: John preached a Baptism of repentance, but Christ’s Baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire — also marked by repentance and a washing away of sins (Acts 2:38, 22:16) — brought new life (John 3:3–5). It is with this same language of immersion into life that St. Paul described Baptism:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. (Romans 6:3–8)

“Sola Scriptura” is in the Bible? Thoughts on the Canon and Interpretation of Scripture

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The following is a response to John Bugay’s review of Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books by Michael J. Kruger, in which John announces, “Attention Roman Catholics: ‘Sola Scriptura’ is in the Bible.” It proved too long for his comment box, so I thought I would put it in full here.

Hi again, John. Thank you for pointing out this review. I haven’t read this book yet, but thanks to a recent Amazon giftcard from my brother (also named John), I intend to give it top priority.

Van Gogh, Still Life with Bible (c.1885)

Still Life with Bible (c.1885), by Vincent van Gogh (WikiArt.org).

Catholics are “helpless” to interpret Scripture without the Church?

I’d like to respond first to this paragraph above that stuck out to me like a sore thumb:

To be sure, some Roman Catholics pay some lip service to Scripture. It’s “in there”, among the legs of the stool. But in practice, for Roman Catholics, the Bible has no intrinsic authority as the Word of God. That is, even though God may speak, still God’s very Word is helpless to communicate its message without the “interpretation” of the Roman Catholic Church. …

Speaking of “caricatures”: This is a rather crude one, and flatly contradictory to the Church’s own teachings on Scripture. I’d encourage you to read the whole of Chapter III from Dei Verbum, the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation; but for here, a few quotes:

“Since God speaks in Sacred Scripture through men in human fashion, the interpreter of Sacred Scripture, in order to see clearly what God wanted to communicate to us, should carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words. …

“In Sacred Scripture, therefore, while the truth and holiness of God always remains intact, the marvelous “condescension” of eternal wisdom is clearly shown, “that we may learn the gentle kindness of God, which words cannot express, and how far He has gone in adapting His language with thoughtful concern for our weak human nature.” For the words of God, expressed in human language, have been made like human discourse, just as the word of the eternal Father, when He took to Himself the flesh of human weakness, was in every way made like men.” (Excerpted from Dei Verbum 12, 13)

Second Vatican Council

The Second Vatican Council, assembled in St. Peter’s Basilica.

Does giving guidance and direction to “interpreters” in how to “see clearly what God wanted to communicate to us,” “expressed in human language … like human discourse,” really suggest the idea to you that to a Catholic, “God’s very word is helpless to communicate its message”? Surely you are aware that the magisterium of the Church has actually given authoritative interpretations of a relatively minuscule portion of the whole corpus of Scripture. Do Catholics, then, consider the rest of God’s Word in Scripture, where the Church has not spoken, “helpless” to communicate to them? Are Catholics “helpless” to read and interpret Scripture for themselves? Like so many Protestants — and like I did myself, when I too was a Protestant — you seem to mistake the role of the Church’s magisterium for that of a dictator rather than a teacher. It is a poor teacher who dictates every rote fact to her student but never teaches him to think or function for himself, and it is a poor student who never learns anything more than to parrot his teacher’s answers! The Church’s role and mission is to guide and raise up healthy disciples of Christ, not blind, mindless, and helpless sheep. Like a good teacher, the magisterium teaches not only divinely-revealed truths, but approved principles, methods, and guidelines: and within those guidelines, the Catholic exegete is equipped and encouraged to listen to and interpret God’s Word for himself. The Church has spoken authoritatively to teach the truth of the Gospel as Jesus charged, particularly in scriptural matters where uncertainty has arisen; but the Catholic believer is free and entitled to his own opinion in any matter on which the Church has not given an interpretation.

John Calvin, by Titian

John Calvin, by Titian (This blog). I am thrilled to find this! I had no idea Titian painted Calvin! I love it when my favorite people cross paths!

Protestants are “helpless” to have any certainty in interpreting Scripture

I would submit, actually — speaking from my own experience — that the Protestant exegete is absolutely helpless to arrive at any meaningful certainty or confidence regarding the interpretation of Scripture. For all the talk of “due use of ordinary means” — the man out to sea with a boat-full of “ordinary means” is nonetheless out to sea. “Ordinary means” (e.g. lexica, grammars, commentaries) are nonetheless human means; and my “sufficient understanding” is nonetheless a human understanding. If, by my fully-informed, “sufficient understanding,” I disagree with the “sufficient understanding” of someone else whose faculties and authorities I respect — which is bound to happen, and obviously has — how can I have any confidence at all that I have the correct and proper understanding? It is arrogance and hubris — an exaltation of of my own human understanding and that of others — to assert, as I’ve seen so many Protestants, particularly in the Reformed camp, assert, that my human understanding is the only one that “anyone in his proper mind” could come to. On what is such certainty based, other than prideful self-aggrandizement and self-assurance?

As an academic, and a human one, I must accept that other reasonable people can disagree with me and arrive at different, and reasonable, conclusions than mine. And regardless of how convinced I may be of mine, I must always accept that because my reasoning and interpretation are human and uncertain, so is my conclusion. This is not the character of the Christian teaching I witness in Scripture: which was taught authoritatively by divinely-appointed Apostles and teachers, and accepted as the direct Word of God Himself. There is no indication in Scripture of this Word being submitted to “interpretation” or “deduction” or “ordinary means” or “sufficient understanding”: if there were any doctrinal question, the resort was to the judgment of these authoritative teachers, not to common, human interpretation of the message’s meaning. And when these teachers spoke, their voice was clear, authoritative, and certain: and this is a certainty I do not find today in the Protestant paradigm, nor can I find it in any degree of smug self-assurance of my own reasoning.

Codex Sinaiticus

A leaf from Codex Sinaiticus, the oldest known Greek uncial manuscript (c. A.D. 330–360).

Is “Sola Scriptura” in Scripture?

What I also do not find in Scripture, despite your assurance that it is there, is the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura. Now, it is entirely possible that I am one of those who caricature that position, and if that is the case, I humbly ask you to correct me. But by the Protestant teaching of sola scriptura itself, as I find it presented in the Westminster Confession, “all things necessary for [God's] own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from scripture”; and, “nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men” — in other words (and if I am in possession of a caricature, it surely must be in this understanding): all doctrine to be believed by the Church is either plainly stated in Scripture, or implied by necessary consequence; and no doctrine can be added from any source to what is plainly stated or necessarily implied in Scripture. The problem is, I cannot for the life of me find these doctrines either “expressly set down [or] by necessary consequence [implied]” in Scripture. How, then, can sola scriptura be said to be in Scripture? And how can it not be self-refuting if, as a “necessary” doctrine taught by Protestants, it can’t be found in Scripture? I wrote a recent post on these questions. I would appreciate it if you read it and gave it an honest critique.

Gutenberg Bible

The Gutenberg Bible, the first printed Bible. (Wikipedia)

The canon of Scripture: “Self-authenticating”?

Regarding the canon: As I said in my other comment, you pounced on my one throwaway comment out of context and ignored the rest of my statements. For the sake of reference, let me paste a little of what I said there:

As Catholic apologists often present, Protestants cannot appeal to the authority of Scripture alone without first accepting the canon of Scripture as declared by the Church — and this is true. But is it that declaration of the canon that makes those texts scriptural, for a Catholic? Before any formal declaration of the canon of the Scripture, were Christians unable to appeal to Scripture? No, of course not — because such declaration defined the canon; it did not bestow some “divinely inspired” status on texts otherwise presumed to be human.

(For that matter, the Church for the most part declared a truth that had already been accepted sensu fidei fidelium for centuries: the canon was only defined for the sake of a few books whose scriptural authority was disputed. The canonicity of the majority of books was a self-evident truth to most Christians. This does not mean that the canon as a whole was “self-authenticating” — it certainly wasn’t.)

As I made clear there, I completely agree that with regard to most of the books of the scriptural canon, the books’ divine inspiration, apostolic origin, and scriptural nature were readily, at an early date, and universally accepted. But this idea of unanimous consensus and immediate acceptance certainly can’t be applied to all the now-canonical books of Scripture, nor to the conception of a unified, universal “canon.” Consider, for example, 2 Peter, which by all appearances, nobody prior to Origen and Eusebius in the third century had ever heard of, and they considered its authenticity and inspiration doubtful. Or, books such as 1 Clement, the Shepherd of Hermas, or the Epistle of Barnabas, which some included among their early compilations of Scripture, such as Codex Sinaiticus, and other Church Fathers quoted from as scriptural authority. Or, consider that no sooner than Protestant sentiments were breathed, the so-called “self-authenticating” canon of Scripture was open again to question: Luther himself designed to dismiss the Epistle of James, as well as Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation. Did those books not “self-authenticate” to him? Or was his judgment not in accord with those “of proper mind”? And of course, Luther succeeded in excising seven books of the Old Testament that had previously been declared canonical. And Protestant scholars ever since have considered the canon “fallible” and seen it fit to question the authenticity and canonicity of various books. And yet you insist that the canon is “self-authenticating” and rests on something more authoritative than fallible human reason and judgment? The very facts of Protestant history contradict this statement.

The fact that Protestant apologists so easily gloss over with regard to the canon is the plain fact that, regardless of any “self-authentication,” the traditional canon declared by the Catholic Church is the starting point, and (with the exception of the Old Testament deuterocanon) usually the ending point, even for Protestants today. It’s easy to declare that one knows the answer when it was declared by someone else centuries ago. Whether they like it or not, Protestants do inevitably depend on the Church’s declared canon, epistemologically: One can’t very well un-know what is already known and accepted; and any argument about whether or not one could have known it otherwise is a moot quibble. And yet, given the fact that Christians questioned and doubted a number of scriptural books both before the Church’s declaration of a universal canon and after Protestants denied the Church, I tend to doubt that anyone ever really had certainty as to a complete and closed canon without the Church’s declaration — or would have any today. I observe that putting five Protestants in a room usually results in six or seven opinions, on any given matter: so I very much doubt that, if the canon hadn’t already been declared as a starting point, Protestants could have reached any meaningful agreement at all concerning it. Likewise for Christology, the Trinity, and every other doctrine hammered out by the toil and tears of centuries of early Christians whose heritage Protestants take for granted.

It seems to me that so much of Protestant rhetoric is aimed at dismissing Catholic claims of the Catholic Church being an authoritative interepreter and guide to Scripture with one hand, while with the other advancing the thesis that the individual, fallible believer has access to some other, concrete, authoritative and infallible interpretation of Scripture — one that, apparently, is self-evident and “self-authenticating” from Scripture itself and Scripture alone, to “anyone of proper mind.” But one can’t hold both at once. Scripture does not interpret itself, and submitting it to fallible human reason by necessity yields a fallible and uncertain human interpretation.

God bless you for your thought on this matter, and may His peace be with you!

Towards the Truth

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It’s been brought to my attention that I’ve left you all hanging for a while for the next chapter of my conversion story. Sorry about that.

Journey of the Magi (c. 1894), by James Tissot

Journey of the Magi (c. 1894), by James Tissot (WikiArt.org).

Deep in history

The year I taught at Veritas brought great progress in what, I’d finally realized, was my search for the Church — or at least, I thought then, for a church. I had graduated with my bachelor’s degree, moved out of my own, gotten a job, and was instructing young people in history, Latin, Greek, and English grammar and vocabulary. Last time I wrote about how my teaching of the Latin and Greek languages became a guiding light to me. Even more than that, history paved my path.

When I studied history in college, I fell in love with the Church Fathers, the good and faithful and virtuous forbears of our faith. I acknowledged and understood that their Church, in its unity, orthodoxy, order, and charity, was the true Church of Christ. I had concluded that that purity and truth had been lost, that the Catholic Church had fallen and necessitated the Protestant renewal. As a budding historian then, I believe I was beginning to understand — though I had not even acknowledged it to myself — that there was nothing Protestant about the Early Church or any of the Church Fathers. I still took for granted, out of ignorance, the Protestant precepts of sola scriptura and sola fide and the rest — but my commitment was to Christ and His truth, never to the Protestant Reformation as a thing in itself.

St. Gregory the Great

St. Gregory the Great, a Christian of the sixth century.

When I taught, I brought these same understandings and commitments to the classroom, and was forced for the first time to follow them to their logical ends. My task for the upper class at Veritas was to teach the history of Europe from the Late Antique period to the Protestant Reformation — a period that was, essentially, the age of the Church. Teaching at a Christian school, I felt, gave me the prerogative and mandate to approach that history from a perspective of faith. And so I immersed myself in the history of the Church more completely than I ever had before. Perhaps someone should have warned me about being deep in history.

I longed to introduce my students to the heroes of the Church who had so captured me: Augustine, Ambrose, Gregory. Benedict, Bernard, Bede. At the beginning of class each day I listed important figures on the board, popes and bishops and theologians and saints. I peppered every lecture with Greek and Latin etymologies of familiar Christian concepts — understanding many of them for the first time myself: what it meant to be a bishop (“overseer”), a deacon (“servant”), a monk (“alone”). a pope (“papa”). I was beginning to realize, nascently, just how deeply the doctrines of the Catholic Church — from the episcopate, to the papacy, to confession — were rooted in Scripture.

Luther, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1526.

Luther, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1526.

Climax: The Reformation

The climax of my course to the students was the Protestant Reformation. Recognizing the diversity of my flock (a Reformed majority, but also Evangelical Protestants and several Catholics) and the potential for disagreement, I made an appeal to ecumenism from the very first day: Despite our divisions, we were all brothers and sisters in the Lord. I brought the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds to class one day for us all to read together. My students seemed to accept my appeal; at least, no one disputed it. I was very pleased, and more than a little fascinated, by the picture of Christian unity my class presented. Was there hope yet for my finding a safe port?

I had the idea in my head that, to facilitate a focused class study of the Reformation, the students could write their research papers on various Reformation figures — each student a different one — and present a report to the class. To most people, even Protestants, I thought, the only Reformers with whom they were familiar were Luther and Calvin, or if one really knew a lot, Zwingli or Melanchthon or Beza. So I proceeded to make a list of possible topics — and I was stunned. I knew there were more than a few — but I found that there were actually dozens of Reformers and Reform movements going on at the same time. I had been under the impression, somehow, that there was some rational, intentional sense of order and orthodoxy to the Protestant Reformation, an effort to restore something that had been lost — but it began to dawn on me that it was in fact exactly the opposite: it marked the breakdown of all order and orthodoxy. Rather than an ordered and deliberate revision and restoration, the Reformation became a chaotic free-for-all with every “Reformer” clamoring for “reform” according to his own grievance. The doctrinal confusion and uncertainty I’d been feeling were nothing new: it had been part of the very fabric of Protestantism from the beginning. (I gave up on assigning my students Reformation topics.)

Abraham's Servant Meeteth Rebecca, by James Tissot (c. 1902)

Abraham’s Servant Meeteth Rebecca, by James Tissot (c. 1902) (WikiArt.org).

The church I was looking for

During this time I felt increasingly alienated, again, from my parents’ church, the church I grew up in, which I was again attending (a church of the Assemblies of God in the Pentecostal and Charismatic traditions, in case you are new). It no longer “fit” me, I thought, if it ever did. I felt intellectually and spiritually unchallenged, if not completely unwelcome as an academic. I found no real fellowship or support, and little opportunity within the church for me to grow or improve. I prayed and reflected and read the Scriptures, and began to see more clearly than ever before the direction in which I thought God was leading me.

I wrote a lot in those days about searching for a new church, seeking to understand the nature of the church and where I fit in it. Why do Christians go to church at all? What’s to be gained from worshipping communally that can’t be attained worshipping privately? The most important purpose of the church, I concluded, was community — having something in common with fellow believers; sharing fellowship with one another and supporting one another, whether spiritually, emotionally, or materially. That being so, I decided, it was important that a church have a community of people I had things in common with: people of my own age and state in life, to whom I could relate. Second, I decided, preaching and teaching were an important purpose: to raise up and educate believers as disciples of Christ, and nourish them in their Christian walks. And teaching should be rooted in Scripture, challenging both intellectually and spiritually: educational and not just inspirational, motivational, or evangelical. I wanted to learn, to mature as a Christian, to grow in understanding and faith. Finally, I resolved, the purpose of the church was service — to carry out the mission of Christ to the world: to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, visit the prisoner, and seek the lost.

I began to see, I thought, the kind of church I was looking for. But how could I find it? I visited a number of churches during that time. And I confess, though I said previously that I had shut the door on Calvinism, I continued to be drawn to the intellectual rigor of the Reformed tradition: I actually visited several Presbyterian (P.C.A.) churches and found them appealing.

Several times I visited the Presbyterian church where Veritas met. I appreciated it a lot and was drawn to a number of the things they were doing: a liturgy of worship, including singing the Psalms, kneeling at appropriate moments (rather awkwardly, given the absence of kneelers), recitation of the Nicene Creed, and weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper. I knew nothing of Catholic liturgical practice at the time, but looking back I see a definite appeal to more traditional forms. I do not know if any of this is common in other Presbyterian churches, or if this palatable flavor was distinct — but the taste, I now see, was distinctly Catholic. Some there were aware of it, too: in the liturgical booklets the church produced, they were especially careful to note in the creed that “catholic” meant “universal” and did not refer to the “Roman Catholic Church.”

I might have stayed at that church, if not for a certain feeling of alienation: I was the only single adult in the congregation, made up largely of couples with young children. So I decided to visit another Presbyterian church, a large P.C.A. church in Huntsville at which I knew some people. I only attended one or two Sundays — but I liked it a lot. They had a vibrant young adult Sunday school class to which I was particularly drawn. I was drawn to the community and to the worship — I gave little thought at this time to theology — but I do not know what path I might have taken, had not the calendar intervened: I soon was involved in visiting, choosing, and moving away to graduate school.

Josquin des Prez

Josquin des Prez.

Into sacred spaces

In my private devotion too, this time brought great spiritual renewal and growth. It was during that year that I discovered early sacred music. Entirely by accident, via Last.fm, I happened upon musical settings of the Mass — especially those of Dufay, Josquin, Ockeghem, Byrd, Palestrina, Victoria, and Lassus — and fell in love with them, these angelic voices, these echoes of the heavenly liturgy. This, probably more than any other single happenstance, paved the final stretch between me and the Church: Unexpectedly and unintentionally, I was receiving the holy words of the Mass into my soul. And I felt holy: I remember commenting that I “felt monastic,” by which I guess I meant that I felt a single-minded devotion, cut off from the worldly affairs around me. I was entering into a sacred space, set apart from my workaday life and mundane home, and drawing closer and closer to the Lord in prayer and study. I felt my heart burning within me. I felt a deep longing, more sharply than I’d ever felt it, for a faraway home. What was happening to me?

More and more — in everything I did — I found myself drawn to the ancient faith of the Church — which I still did not yet identify with the modern Catholic Church. In a quest for greater spiritual discipline and rigor, I sought out and read the Rule of Saint Benedict. To delve deeper into the wonderful music I was hearing, I looked up the Latin Mass and read along. I had always been fascinated by the saints, by the great Christians of ages past, and it occurred to me that a convenient way to learn about them would be to follow the traditional calendar of saints — so I incorporated it into my own calendar. From there, seeking an orderly way to study the Bible, I discovered the lectionary of the Catholic Church, which arranged Scripture readings throughout the calendar. I found an app for my new Android phone which brought them to me daily. I even began ro read and enjoy the daily meditations on Scripture that were featured in that app.

So the summer of 2010, as I was poised to move off to graduate school, I presented a ridiculous picture: I was listening to and reading Catholic liturgy; reading traditional Catholic, monastic texts; observing the Catholic calendar of saints; and following the Catholic lectionary in my personal Scripture study and devotion, and reading Catholic meditations, using a popular Catholic phone app. And yet if you’d asked me, I would have vehemently denied that I was becoming Catholic. I wasn’t the least bit interested in it. I could readily rattle off a long list of reasons why the Catholic Church wasn’t for me: they dictate the proper interpretation of Scripture; they dogmatize and define away every mystery of the faith; they limit the believer’s personal relationship with Christ by the imposition of a priest; the very heart and fire of faith had been subjected by scholastic reasoning and dead works. I felt fully assured of where I was heading spiritually, and the Catholic Church wasn’t it. But the truth is, I was completely oblivious to where the Lord was leading me. I wouldn’t realize where I was going until I was already there.

Reading Church History as a Protestant: The Epistemology of Sola Scriptura

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Van Gogh, Still Life with Bible (c.1885)

Still Life with Bible (c.1885), by Vincent van Gogh (WikiArt.org).

Protestants argue that Scripture itself is sufficient to support the doctrine of sola scripturabut a more important question to ask is if one, not having held such a doctrine before, could come to a doctrine of sola scriptura by Scripture alone.

The “Great Apostasy” thesis presumes, first of all, that “true” Christianity originated as something other than Catholic Christianity, but that Roman authorities designed to introduce “pagan” elements into the faith. (Or, in a more moderate form of the claim, gullible and lukewarm Christians — apparently, early Christians were less committed to the truth and orthodoxy of their faith, as well as less intelligent, than modern Protestants? — passively allowed pagan accretions to gradually creep into their doctrine.) Some of the usual suspects for these allegedly “pagan” doctrines include the “worship” of images and statues (“idolatry”); the “worship” of the Virgin Mary and the saints; the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist (often less correctly attacked as “transubstantiation”); the understanding of the Lord’s Supper as the sacrifice of the Mass; the subjection of correct adherence to Scripture alone to “traditions of men”; and the injection of “works’ righteousness” into the true faith in justification by faith alone. In short, the presumption is that “true” Christianity was essentially Protestant, and that any other doctrine particular to the Catholic Church must have been a “pagan” corruption. But is this thesis itself sound?

I argue that this whole “Great Apostasy” claim proceeds from Protestant assumptions about Scripture, doctrine, and the Church — namely, that the Early Church held to the same understanding of sola scriptura (“Scripture alone” as a rule of faith) that later Protestants formulated; that early Christians would have interpreted the Bible in exactly the same way as later Protestants (i.e. that the Protestant interpretation is the correct one); that “true” Christians would have rejected any doctrine not defined explicitly in Scripture, according to that interpretation; and that therefore a Church that believed anything different must, by definition, be “apostate.” It proceeds from a very specific conception of “the Church” and Christian practice, defined by Protestant practice, such that, if the Church does not resemble that conception, then it must have fallen away from the truth. To accept that the Catholic Church is “apostate,” one must first accept these Protestant assumptions. The result is that this “Great Apostasy” thesis rests on circular logic: The Church was “apostate” if it did not resemble a Protestant one; in order for the Church to be “true,” it must be Protestant.

Where does sola scriptura come from? A begged question

Calvin with books

Is there any way to verify the initial assumptions of this begged question? Can we know whether the Early Church was Protestant in belief and practice? Yes, we can, by turning to the very earliest written documents of the Church outside the New Testament, composed within years or decades of the writing of the New Testament itself, if not within that very time period — though many proponents of the “Great Apostasy” would extend their assumptions to say that, if these documents do not verify their Protestant assumptions, then the Church must have apostatized even before then — before the canon of the New Testament was even closed. This stretches the credibility of our belief in a Lord who proclaimed that His Church would stand against the powers of death and that His Holy Spirit would guide His followers into all truth.

But to put a boot into this circular reasoning, I hope, let me ask: How did we, as Christians, come to our understandings of the Protestant church? Where do our understandings of these Protestant assumptions — sola scriptura and all the rest — come from? The Protestant Reformers dictated these doctrines, and professed that they were held by the earliest, “true” Christians — but how did they know they were held by early Christians, if not even the earliest extrascriptural texts can verify this claim? How did they know what they claimed to know, if no one knew it before? It is a basic epistemological as well as an historical question: since this knowledge could not have come from nowhere.

Protestants claim, of course, that their understanding of these doctrines came from reading Scripture alone — but if Scripture had been being read laboriously by exegetes and theologians for 1,500 years, and none prior to them had come to such an understanding — could they truly have come to this understanding by Scripture alone? Is this doctrine of sola scriptura so plainly written on the face of Scripture that all prior exegetes must have willfully ignored it? This is in fact what a claim of “perspicuity” entails. Or, if this understanding depends on a new interpretation, where did this new interpretation come from? If it came from any source outside Scripture alone — even, as Protestants might argue, from a special revelation of the Holy Spirit — then it contradicts the very notion of sola scriptura as Protestants defined it: stating that all doctrine is perspicuously written in Scripture, or else implied by it by necessary consequence.

Perspicuously taught?

Scripture illuminated

Scripture was illuminated a long time before Protestants came along.

If the doctrine of sola scriptura does not itself rest on circular reasoning, then it must be plainly stated or necessarily implied by Scripture. And what is it that, according to the definitions of Protestants themselves, Scripture alone must plainly, or by necessary consequence, teach? Turning to one of the most widely acknowledged statements of Protestant belief, the Westminster Confession of Faith, we find that the authority of Scripture is thus understood:

  1. All things necessary for man’s salvation, faith, and life are either expressly stated in Scripture, or implied by necessary consequence. (WCF I.6)
  2. No doctrine may be added to this at any time, whether by new revelations of the Spirit or “traditions of men.” (WCF I.6)
  3. Scripture is to be the final appeal of the Church in all controversies of religion. (WCF I.8,10)

There is more, but that’s enough for starters. It is these points in particular that give rise to Protestant prejudice against the Catholic tradition, and support conclusions about the “apostasy” of the Church. How is it that Protestants draw these tenets from Scripture? Where is this perspicuously written?

Even when so confronted, there are only a few verses of Scripture that Protestant exegetes are able to produce in support of sola scriptura. But what do these verses actually, perspicuously dictate?

“Do not go beyond what is written” (1 Corinthians 4:6)

Paul writes, in his first epistle to the Corinthian Church:

I have applied all this to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brethren, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another. (1 Corinthians 4:6)

Ripped from its context, this verse appears to be sure support for the argument that the Church is not to go beyond what is written — that is, surely, Scripture — in anything she does. As a corollary, it is assumed, the Church should remain within the parameters of the doctrine taught in Scripture.

But even a closer examination of this single verse calls into question this interpretation. Why is it that Paul’s recipients should not go beyond what it is written? Is it to preserve the Church in doctrinal purity, to exclude error or accretion of unscriptural tradition, to maintain orthodoxy — as the Protestant understanding of sola scriptura would lead us to believe? No, it is that [ἵνα (hina), in order that, marking a purpose clause] none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another. What, then, is Paul talking about? What is written that he is referring to? Apparently whatever is written is meant to address this matter of prideful self-aggrandizement. Has Paul previously referred to such a passage?

Sure enough, he has, earlier in the same letter — making his references explicit by similarly noting what is written:

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will thwart.” (1 Corinthians 1:18–19)

He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption; therefore, as it is written, “Let him who boasts, boast of the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:30–31)

For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” and again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.” So let no one boast of men. (1 Corinthians 3:19–21)

These references to what is written plainly refer to prideful boasting — being “puffed up.” This is the specific context of Scripture beyond which Paul admonishes his readers not to go beyond — to learn from his humility, clearly the context of 1 Corinthians 4 and surrounding chapters. This single phrase, not to go beyond what is written, separated from this context, cannot be taken as any sort of far-reaching doctrinal dictate or prohibition. This verse fails to offer the support for sola scriptura — let alone the plain, perspicuous pronouncement — that Protestants seek from it.

The matter of the Bereans (Acts 17:10–12): “Examining the Scriptures to see if these things were so”

Luke writes, in the Acts of the Apostles:

The brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Beroea; and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with all eagerness, examining the scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men. (Acts 17:10–12)

Paul to the Bereans

The Bereans are so often held up as the picture of sola scriptura in practice, praiseworthy in their commitment to Scripture. And it is certain that they were faithful to God’s Word. But is this really the same thing as what Protestants practice? What Scriptures did the Bereans examine, and what is it that they sought in them? The word they received was the gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news of his coming, Death, and Resurrection. The Scriptures they read were the only ones available to them, the Old Testament (most likely in the Greek Septuagint), since the New Testament had not yet been written. And in the Old Testament, they verified the fulfillment of prophecy that Jesus brought, the thrust of the gospel that Paul and Silas taught, which is what would have been convincing to faithful Jews. So it demands the question: Does the practice of the Bereans resemble the Protestant practice of sola scriptura? Does this Scripture passage offer the perspicuous support that doctrine demands?

It is plain that it does not. Does it demonstrate that “all things necessary for man’s salvation, faith, and life are plainly stated or necessarily implied by Scripture”? No, it does not: While the Bereans were able to verify Christ’s fulfillment of prophecy by Scripture, they could not have come to knowledge of Him without the preaching and illumination of Paul. Does it demonstrate that “no doctrine can be added to Scripture”? No, it does not: The message of Jesus taught by Paul, His life and mission and way of salvation, were all “new doctrine” not plainly stated or even necessarily implied by the Scripture of the Old Testament; and if the Bereans had held to a Protestant understanding of Scripture, not accepting any doctrine that went beyond it, they would have rejected Paul and the gospel of Christ. Does this passage demonstrate that Scripture must be the final appeal of the Church in matters of controversy? No, it does not address this at all. Plainly, then, this passage does not offer the support for sola scriptura that is necessary for Protestants. It does not teach this doctrine perspicuously, nor could it have led anyone to hold it who did not hold it before.

Parting Exhortations (2 Timothy 3:14–17): “Equipped for every good work”

Among Paul’s final words to Timothy were this exhortation:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:14–17)

Paul ordaining Timothy

Paul ordaining Timothy bishop of Ephesus.

This is by far the Scripture most commonly cited by Protestants in support of sola scriptura. I have written at greater length about it before. Supposedly, according to the argument I often hear, this offers proof that Scripture alone is profitable for these good purposes, that Scripture alone can instruct us for salvation, that Scripture alone can complete a man to be equipped for every good work; and that, therefore, if Scripture does not equip us for it, it is not a good work. This, presumably, is meant to exclude any doctrinal element not plainly found in Scripture — since, the man of God, already “complete,” has no need of anything else.

But that reading fits neither this Scripture passage nor its context. Paul, again, is not advising the Church in doctrinal matters; he is exhorting Timothy to persevere in good works. In this, does he mean to limit the good works to which Timothy is called, or forbid him from any practice or activity? No, clearly not: he is extolling the inspiration of Scripture, all its merits and applications, and all the good works for which it can equip the believer. There is nothing prohibitory about Paul’s statement here. Does he mean to be exclusive, as if to say that Scripture alone is profitable for good works, or Scripture alone can instruct one for salvation? There is nothing about his words that imply this.

Even taken at its most literalistic, this passage does not offer the perspicuous support for sola scriptura that the doctrine demands. Does it clearly teach that Scripture teaches all things necessary for salvation and life? No, it merely shows that Scripture is instructive (it can make one wise) for salvation. Does it teach that no doctrine may be added to the plain teachings of Scripture, or that no doctrine outside such plain teachings may be believed? No, it does not speak to anything outside Scripture at all. Nor is Scripture as a means for resolving doctrinal controversy (let alone the sole means) included among Scripture’s worthy applications. This passage, like the other passages, fails to teach plainly or necessarily the doctrines and claims that Protestants make about scriptural authority.

True Scriptural Authority

The Council of Trent

The Magisterium of Church, assembled at the Council of Trent.

To many Protestants, a notion of church authority rooted in sola scriptura appears to be common sense. Scripture is Holy Writ, the very written Word of God — why wouldn’t it be the Church’s ultimate authority? The suggestion of any qualification to this authority appears to be abject heresy, the placing of human authority above that of Scripture. But in fact, the Catholic view presents completely the opposite.

It is the Protestant view, paradoxically, that ultimately compromises the authority of Scripture, by subjecting it to private human interpretation. For Scripture is effectively of no authority at all to the person whose private interpretation disagrees with the one being asserted; that is, any given interpretation of Scripture is only as authoritative as the person giving it, or as the hearer himself accepts it to be. Where is the absolute, infallible authority of Scripture in this? The Westminster Confession declares that Scripture is to be the final authority of the authoritative Church; but who interprets Scripture if not the Church? Protestants themselves deny the possibility of the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, being an infallible interpreter of Scripture; therefore, any interpretation given by the Church is by definition fallible and questionable. Any Christian who disagrees, who has his own divergent, private opinion, is free to dismiss whatever authority the Church claims to have, citing, ironically, the divine and infallible authority of Scripture: when in truth he appeals to nothing more than his own private opinion.

The traditional, Catholic view — the view held in all the ages of the Church up until the schism of the Reformation — is not the opposite of this; it is not a subjection of the authority of Scripture at all, but rather its affirmation. In order for His Word to continue with an authoritative voice, He appointed His Apostles to teach in His name (Luke 10:16), and this teaching mission continued to the bishops and presbyters they appointed (1 Timothy 3:2, 4:13, 5:17, 2 Timothy 2:2, Titus 2:1, etc.). Not just anyone had the authority to teach and interpret Scripture, but only those duly called by God and ordained by the Church (1 Corinthians 12:28, Ephesians 4:11, 1 Timothy 3). And He gave the Church the Holy Spirit, that He might guide her into all truth (John 16:13). For the Catholic Church too, Sacred Scripture is the highest authority, together with Sacred Tradition — the ultimate recourse in matters of doctrine and faith — but as the chaos of Protestant division demonstrates, Scripture cannot speak for itself. It is only through the authoritative voice of the Church’s whole magisterium, in accord with Scripture itself, that the Word of God can authoritatively speak.

Sola scriptura is self-refuting

Martyrdom of Ignatius

The Martyrdom of St. Ignatius of Antioch

Sola scriptura is ultimately self-refuting. The doctrine of sola scriptura demands that Scripture teach all doctrine plainly and perspicuously, or else by necessary consequence — and it does not teach itself. No reader of Scripture could have arrived at the specific requirements and conclusions of sola scriptura as defined without presuming them to begin with: the doctrine rests on circular reasoning. Moreover, to even be able to define “Scripture” — to possess a canon of inspired, authoritative, scriptural books to which to appeal — one cannot stand from Scripture alone, but must refer to the traditional agreement and resolution of Christians in the Church. And thus, to begin one’s reasoning about the Church and Christian history from a position of sola scriptura from the outset is an unjustified and prejudicial assumption. To hold the Early Church, or the Church in any age, to a Protestant, sola scriptura standard, is to place limitations upon Christians that they neither observed nor understood themselves.

The proof of this is in the history of the Church itself: Early Christians, generations upon generations of whom paid for their faith in their own blood, were certainly no less committed to the truth and purity and orthodoxy of Christian doctrine than modern Protestants; in fact, it was precisely for the cause of orthodoxy that many of them suffered persecution and even death (see especially the matter of the Arian heresy). These Christians — who held no less to a closed deposit of faith in the revelation of Scripture and Tradition than Protestants — did not accept, at any point, new and novel doctrines never before taught, let alone the corruption of their faith by visibly pagan and syncretistic doctrines injected from pagan or secular society. And yet these same Christians did not feel themselves bound by a rigid restriction to Scripture alone — which was certainly never taught by Jesus, the Apostles, or their disciples — but accepted Scripture for what it is: the divine, infallible Word of God; the continuing voice of their Lord to His Church, to teach, correct, exhort, encourage, and guide — not to shackle or condemn the rest of the Sacred Tradition of the Apostles, but to affirm it, support it, and verify it. They did not close their minds or their hearts to the development of Christian doctrine, to the flowering of the seeds planted by their Lord and His Apostles, as the Church grew in understanding and pondered upon the truth having once been revealed.

Reading Church History as a Protestant: The “Great Apostasy” Narrative

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Duccio, The Last Supper (c. 1311)

The Last Supper (c. 1311), by Duccio (WikiArt.org).

Recently I’ve been writing about assumptions and presumptions that Protestants make in reading the early history of the Church: particularly the presumption that if the Church they observe in early documents does not resemble their Protestant one, then it must have apostatized from the true, apostolic faith of Christ that they read in Scripture. Scripture speaks with enough generality that they can project their Protestant interpretation upon it; but the image of the subapostolic Church, becoming clearer with even the earliest Church Fathers, allows no such reading.

This notion of an apostate Church is more than just my idle speculation: it forms the centerpiece of one of the most prevalent Protestant interpretive frameworks for understanding the history of the Church. The so-called “Great Apostasy” narrative is ubiquitous in Protestant literature, appearing in some form even in the writings of Luther and Calvin (who identified the papacy with the Antichrist), but is most pronounced in the thought of Christians of the nineteenth-century Restorationist movement, including the Churches of Christ and Seventh-Day Adventists. The Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, sects which originated as part of the same movement, base their doctrines in similar claims.

St. Clement of Rome

St. Clement of Rome.

The most troubling thing about this thesis, to me as a Catholic and especially as an historian, is that it is almost completely impervious to fact. Even when presented with the very earliest of the Church Fathers — say, the authors of the Didache (c. A.D. 70s), who suggest Baptism by effusion (pouring) as a valid alternative to immersion; Clement of Rome (c. A.D. 70s?), who argues for authority by apostolic succession; or Ignatius of Antioch (c. A.D. 107), who clearly states his belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and unequivocally places local authority in the hands of a single, pastoral bishop — proponents of this “Great Apostasy” theory reject such writings, arguing that, since these doctrines do not fit with their own biblical interpretations, it demonstrates that the Church had already fallen away from “biblical truth,” even within the lifetimes and memories of the Apostles and within the era of New Testament authorship. When presented with documented fact, even from primary sources or eyewitness testimony, they maintain that the “apostate” Catholic Church altered documents and falsified historical evidence to support its own version of events. When proponents of a belief reject even the most basic laws of evidence and authority, in favor of claims based in nothing more than unfounded self-assertion, an irrational invincibility results that borders on delusion.

Codex Sinaiticus

A leaf from Codex Sinaiticus, the oldest known Greek uncial manuscript (c. A.D. 330–360).

These claims do not stand up to logic. If the Church had “apostatized” from “biblical truth” so soon, and over the centuries conspired to falsify historical evidence to support its false doctrines — why did she not also alter the biblical texts to support such doctrines? Why not insert explicit teachings about hierarchical papal authority, Marian veneration, the use of images in worship? Proponents’ answer, of course, is that the Holy Spirit miraculously preserved the biblical texts from error, even as the Church corrupted every other document and erased from history the teachings of “true Christians” — but if this were true, why could not the Holy Spirit, whom the Lord promised would guide His people into all truth (John 16:13), have also preserved the Church? — the hearts and minds of His people, and the shepherds of His flock? These are very often the same opponents who argue that the Catholic Church corrupted the text of Scripture in such early biblical manuscripts as Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus (they accepting arbitrarily the later, far more meddled-with Byzantine manuscripts) — thus allowing that the Church could corrupt the biblical text — and yet even in these “corrupt” manuscripts, apparently left unguarded by the Holy Spirit, there does not appear to have been any deliberate effort to falsify or deceive. These opponents have a substantial burden of proof to even allege such motives, given the observable nature of the textual variants.

Major claims of this “Great Apostasy” thesis include:

    The Council of Nicaea

    Icon depicting the Council of Nicaea. The emperor Constantine and the bishops of the Church hold the Nicene Creed.

  1. Catholic Christianity is a late invention (usually fourth century or later), the result of an amalgamation of Christian truth and elements of pagan philosophy and worship, an effort by the Roman government to adopt Christianity and make it more palatable to pagan Roman citizens. The compromise and “watering down” of the faith was readily accepted by Romans, at the expense of the truth of the gospel.

  2. The Roman emperor Constantine was the essential culprit of this enterprise, an enthusiastic and devout pagan sun worshipper who embraced Christianity merely as a political ploy and never truly converted to the faith. He declared himself head of the Roman Church and exercised autocratic authority to alter the doctrine of Christianity and introduce pagan elements.

  3. Idol worship?

    A favorite image of Catholic opponents — but is this “idol worship”?

  4. The worship of images — both icons and statues — was introduced as a substitute for pagan idolatry, to Romans who were accustomed to having statues and images to worship. The mere existence of such images was in direct contradiction to the Ten Commandments, and the Catholic Church accordingly removed the commandment concerning “graven images” to hoodwink the Christian people.

  5. The Catholic Church moved Christian worship to Sunday from the Jewish Sabbath (Saturday) to unite it with pagan sun worship, of which Constantine was a devotee. True Christians kept only the Sabbath. The new pagan regime of the Church instituted persecution of Jewish Christians and purged all Jewish elements from the Christian Church.

  6. Cybele

    Cybele enthroned, with lion, cornucopia and Mural crown. Roman marble, c. 50 CE. Getty Museum (Wikipedia).

  7. The worship of the Virgin Mary was introduced as a substitute for pagan goddess worship, particularly for popular mother deities like Isis or Cybele. Proponents of this idea point to the prophet Jeremiah’s polemics against the “queen of heaven” (e.g. Jeremiah 7:18) as evidence of Catholic apostasy, or to pagan deities of whom perpetual virginity (e.g. Athena, Artemis), heavenly queenship (e.g. Hera, Juno), or virgin motherhood were claimed.

  8. The Mass, the Catholic understanding of the Lord’s Supper, was a repackaged pagan ritual, an adaptation of Christ’s ordinance to animal sacrifice and consumption, with distinct and un-Christian connotations of cannibalism. The repetition of the Mass is in mirror of the need to repeat pagan sacrifices, and is a denial of the completeness of Christ’s work on the cross.

  9. The highest indication of the Church’s apostasy is the office of the papacy, which united elements of the Roman emperorship and the pagan high priesthood, and presents itself as a “replacement” for Jesus on earth as head of the Church and “Vicar of Christ,” with quasi-divine elements such as supremacy and infallibility. The pope is identified with the Antichrist and the “son of perdition” of 2 Thessalonians 2:3.

  10. Spanish Inquisition

    The Spanish Inquisition is the subject of elaborate Protestant and anti-Catholic exaggeration and invention, resulting in a mythos with almost no basis in fact.

  11. The Catholic Church committed mass murder in Europe, wiping out thousands, even millions of people (as many as 50 million) who voiced opposition to Catholic doctrine, through such devices as the Crusades and the Inquisition — ostensibly Protestants and proto-Protestants, as the Church sought to quell the inevitable rebellion of true Christians who would refute its falsehoods and rediscover the faith of Christ.

  12. But there have always been “true” Christians existing as an underground, persecuted minority — sects outside the Catholic Church who secretly read the Bible and adhered to true biblical doctrine, all the while being sought, oppressed, and murdered by Roman operatives. These sects have been maligned by history as “heretics,” and the Catholic Church suppressed their true teachings and obliterated their writings, erasing any trace of their truth from history.

  13. Chained Bible

    It’s true, the Bible was often chained — to prevent vagrants from walking off with it (Wikimedia).

  14. The Catholic Church prohibited the reading of the Bible by laypeople, and kept Scripture “locked up” in incomprehensible languages and away from the people for centuries. Christians were persecuted, arrested, even executed, for merely possessing copies of Scripture, let alone reading or attempting to translate it.

Many Protestants — even those who deny such a broad claim as that “the Catholic Church was completely apostate from the truth of Christ” — readily accept many of these suggestions or their implications. In future posts, I will examine each of these claims and indicate their logical fallacy and lack of historical foundation.

Reading Church History as a Protestant: The Early Church, Apostolic or Apostate?

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Duccio, Appearance of Christ to the Apostles (1311)

Appearance of Christ to the Apostles (fragment) (1311), by Duccio. (WikiPaintings.org)

The broken WordPress app misdated my last entry, and rather than break all the links I’ve already made, I thought I would share a link to it. When Protestants read the history of the early Church, do they understand the faith of those early Church Fathers to be the fruit of the Apostles, or rather the sign of a very early falling away from the truth of Christ? Examine with me the implications of these statements:

Reading Church History as a Protestant: The Early Church, Apostolic or Apostate?

 

 

Reading Church History as a Protestant: The Early Church, Apostolic or Apostate?

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Duccio, Appearance of Christ to the Apostles (1311)

Appearance of Christ to the Apostles (fragment) (1311), by Duccio. (WikiPaintings.org)

I suppose there are only two or three ways for the Protestant reader of Church history to understand the Early Church (by which I mean the subapostolic Church, the Church of the first several generations of Christians after the Apostles). The inherent thesis of the Protestant Reformation is that the changes brought about by the Reformers in the sixteenth century were a reformation of the Church, a return to the true faith and doctrine of Christ that had been lost. So then, in reading the history of the Early Church, the Protestant can either view it as apostolic in nature: as the true, original Church, essentially as it had been received from Christ and the Apostles only years before, alive and vibrant in freshness and purity of belief, practice, and doctrine. Or, if the Protestant reads this Church and finds that it does not resemble his own church at all — that it is not the Church to which the Reformers believed they were reformingthen he must assume that the Early Church had already fallen away from the Truth; she must have already lost the true faith.

An Un-Protestant Church

El Greco, St. Paul and St. Peter

St. Paul and St. Peter (c. 1595), by El Greco.

The problem with this latter proposition is that even the earliest documents of the Church present a very un-Protestant Church. The very earliest Christian writers after the Apostles express faith in a sacramental economy, in the necessity and efficacy of baptism, in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. They appeal to authority not in Scripture alone, but in an apostolic succession of bishops and a faith having been received by tradition. They evince trust from the very beginning in the intercession of saints, the primacy of the bishop of Rome, the perpetual virginity of the Virgin Mary. So if the Protestant cannot discover a time when the Church did not clearly hold these doctrines the later Reformers considered “corruptions” — what does this mean for the belief that the Reformation was a return to a lost “purity” of faith?

The Protestant, not finding Protestant doctrine in the Early Church, must then ask: Did the Early Church fall away from apostolic truth immediately? — before even the earliest extrascriptural Christian writings? To assume this begins to stretch the limits of historical credulity. If not a single extrascriptural writing clearly supports one’s interpretation of Scripture, and one must conclude that the Church apostasized even before this time — then the Protestant is forced to denounce the earliest Christians, and every Christian since, as unfaithful to the teachings of our Lord: so unfaithful, in fact, as to have turned aside from the plain teachings of their apostolic teachers before even the death of the last Apostle. (The Apostle John is believed to have lived until around the turn of the second century, while the earliest extrascriptural documents can be dated to the A.D. 70s.) In this extreme case, is it not more feasible to consider that one’s interpretation of Scripture might be mistaken?

Looking for Proto-Protestants

Saint Augustine in His Study, by Botticelli.

Saint Augustine, a favorite candidate for being a proto-Protestant.

I do not think many Protestants come to these conclusions — that is, and remain Protestant. The far more common tack is to equivocate: to avoid reading very deeply into the Church Fathers, and when one does, to gloss over the differences; to evade the necessity of declaring either that the Fathers were explicitly Protestant (which they clearly were not) or that they they were distinctly un-Protestant. Instead, the Protestant looks for seeds of Protestant belief: if the Church Fathers were not full-blown Protestants, then they must have at least been proto-Protestants, holding nascent doctrines that would someday flower into the Reformation — in a way suspiciously similar to the Catholic conception of the development of doctrine which the Protestant would otherwise reject. Protestant apologists have collected an arsenal of quotations, taken out of context, that appear superficially to support such doctrines as sola scriptura and sola fide — and this is an easy matter to do, since both doctrines take genuine truths that were always present in the Church and carry them to unwarranted extremes. Certainly Sacred Scripture is the very, infallible, inerrant Word of God, and the Church has always held it as the highest authority; but she never held it to be an authority to stand alone. Certainly justification is by faith, and no human work can merit our salvation or even bring us closer to God apart from His grace; but no Church Father ever held that we could be justified by faith alone, with no works accompanying. Since the Fathers often emphasize both the authority of Scripture and the power of saving faith, it is an easy matter to find isolated quotations and read these errors back upon them. But no one could ever come to the conclusions of these doctrines by reading the Fathers in their full context.

A Gradual Decay

St. Vincent de Paul

St. Vincent de Paul (1581–1660), a great Catholic saint of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

A more moderate understanding of the Church’s corruption is similarly equivocal: the reader imagines that the corruptions of doctrine that brought about the Reformation were gradual, subtle, and evolving — a view that is supportable, since, it’s true, doctrine did develop. This allows the Protestant to admire and keep the many great Christians of the ages, all the martyrs and theologians and Church Fathers — finding in them many virtues and qualities of true faith, even if, and despite, their doctrine being gradually corrupted. The problem, then, becomes one of demarcation: When, if ever, did the Church become so corrupt as to be no longer viable as Christian — as to warrant a radical schism? Was it after the second, or third, or fourth ecumenical council? Was it after Saint Augustine, the doctor of grace? Or after Saint Bernard, the last of the great Church Fathers? At whatever point the Protestant draws the line, he must reject all else that follows. The earlier he draws the line, seeing less and less Protestant sentiment and more and more corruption — just as the Protestant who decides the Church was apostate from the very beginning — the more praiseworthy Fathers, teachings, and events he must cast away. The later he draws the line, the more and more development he must accept as validly Christian, the closer he brings this corruption of the Church to the time of the Reformation, and the more he must wonder why such a Reformation was justified at all. If, mere centuries or decades prior to Luther, the Church was still bearing good fruit in holy men and women, bringing them in faith to sanctification and glory, thriving in good works, even if only at the branches — what could justify uprooting and rending the entire tree? Once again, most Protestants who take this view equivocate: since they are unable to draw the line at all, they mentally place it sometime “after the last great Catholic Christian” and “before Luther.” Realizing that there continued to be great Catholic Christians complicates the Protestant’s justifications even further.

Ultimately, the Protestant is forced back to the initial question: was the Early Church apostolic or apostate? If, embracing the many great Church Fathers, he accepts that the Early Church was apostolic, then eventually he is forced to admit that the doctrines of the Reformation, to which the Reformers claimed to be returning the Church, were never apostolic at all — in which case, to what did the Reformers turn her, if not to innovation?

The Work of Christ, an Abject Failure

Christ on the Cross (1665), by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo

Christ on the Cross (1665), by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (WikiPaintings)

If, on the other hand, the Protestant believes that the Church was apostate from the very beginning, he is forced to question the fundamental nature of the faith he has received: If this Jesus is God Incarnate, how could His Church — against which He promised the gates of Hell would not prevail (Matthew 16:18); which He promised His Spirit would guide into all truth (John 16:13) — have fallen away so completely and immediately from the faith having been delivered to the saints (Jude 3)? If we are to believe that Jesus the God-Man took on human flesh to live, die, and be resurrected for the salvation of all humanity, and returning to the Father, charged His Apostles to make disciples of all nations — only for those Apostles and their disciples to immediately abandon His saving messagewe must, in all honesty, call our Lord’s salvific mission — foreordained from the beginning of the world; the culmination of ages of preparation and prophecy — a complete and utter failure. And how can we ascribe such an abject failure to God Himself?

I have heard many a Protestant claim that even though the Church of God fell into apostasy, God always preserved His true and untarnished Word in Scripture. But that begs the question: through whom did God preserve Scripture? How can the Protestant in good faith believe that the Christian Church faithfully preserved and transmitted the Scriptures, free from error and corruption, for 1,500 years, if she could not even faithfully keep the purity and sanctity of Christ’s doctrine of salvation? And if God could miraculously preserve the truth and indefectibility of Scripture for all that time, even in the hands of such a corrupt institution — why could He not also have preserved the Church?

Was Peter the First Pope? A Comprehensive Response

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St. Peter

Friends, here’s a very detailed post I’ve been working on, answering as comprehensively as I could, from Scripture and history, a question often asked by Protestants: Was Peter really the first pope? I’ve been working hard on this for a couple of weeks, so I hope you enjoy it. If anyone has any further questions or objections, please feel free to throw them at me.

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