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 reforming — then 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
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
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
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
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 message — we 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?