A Tradition of Authority: Why Catholic Arguments Were Convincing to Me, and Not Merely a Cure for Exegetical Paralysis

This is a bit heavier than my usual posts here, but it answers an important question that Protestant apologists have posed to me and other Catholic converts: Was I only drawn to the Catholic Church because its claims to authority offered an “easy out” to the difficulties of weighing Scripture and doctrine for myself?

Paralysis

A Catalogue of Sects

A Catalogue of the Severall Sects and Opinions in England and other Nations: With a briefe Rehearsall of their false and dangerous Tenents. Broadsheet. 1647.

I’ve been accused before, and I readily admit that it’s true, that as a Protestant, I never had a very thoroughgoing commitment to Protestant theological principles. It was not for lack of trying: for a number of years I had studied theology, prayed, and pored over the Scriptures in an earnest attempt to arrive at some apprehension of the truth. But no Protestant theology, despite the ardent, sometimes vehement assertions of each’s adherents, had a firm enough foundation to convince me. Each was based in subjective interpretations of the Scriptures that lacked either the context or the clarity to convey everything their doctrines demanded of them. Each’s interpretation conflicted with every other, and yet was based in the very same texts; and each had no greater claim to being the correct and sole interpretation of those texts than the rest. I had not the knowledge or the faculty to sort it all out, and even if I had, any conclusion I reached would be, I realized, my own subjective conclusion, based only on my own interpretation and whosever opinion happened to sway me at that time. I realized the inherent weakness, instability, and insufficiency of this position. Though I would never have articulated it this way then, it was clear that Scripture by itself could not teach me everything I needed to know about God and His salvation.

So as a Protestant, I resigned myself to uncertainty, to never being sure exactly what Scripture was trying to teach; to never knowing, in the sea of competing and conflicting doctrines, which ones were the true ones. Since I could not discern, from Scripture, the truth or falsehood of every doctrine and theology, I was lulled into a sense of complacency, what I called a thoroughgoing ecumenism: if I could discern no school of theology to be absolutely true, then each of them must be more or less acceptable and worthy of consideration. On one hand, I am glad for this: it made me tolerant and accepting of a wide diversity of Christian brothers and sisters, and open-minded enough to listen to and consider what they have to say. It was an open-mindedness that eventually made me willing to examine the Catholic Church and finally found welcome in her walls. It troubled me, and still does, the Protestants who could assume a stance of enough certainty to condemn and judge the doctrines of other believers, based on so unsteady a foundation as I perceived theirs to be. On the other hand, this ecumenism eventually reached a point of doctrinal relativism, agnosticism, or universalism: that not only could we not know the truth of doctrine, but that it didn’t really matter and that God loved and accepted us all anyway.

A Protestant apologist recently referred to this as the “paralysis” of the Protestant mind; apparently it is common enough to have its own name. This apologist also suggested, as I have heard other Protestant apologists charge against other Catholic converts, that the Catholic Church was attractive to me simply because it offered a way to break this “logjam”: that I accepted the Church’s claims only because they asserted a singular authority, because the Church could dictate the answer rather than leave me to muddle it out on my own, and not because there was anything compelling or convincing about the claims of themselves: in short, that the singular, magisterial authority of the Catholic Church was a crutch, an escape, a deus ex machina, an easy out of the Protestant conundrum of having to reason through the Scriptures.

There are several answers I’d like to make to this charge.

I resisted until I couldn’t

no

First, I wasn’t looking for such a crutch. I was well aware of the position of the Catholic Church in claiming to be the only authoritative interpreter of Scripture for years before I ever considered Catholicism — and rather than being an attractive prospect, it horrifed me more than almost anything else I knew about the Church. It seemed the perfect setup for the many doctrinal abuses I had heard about and believed existed in Catholicism: if the Church can dictate that some thing in Scripture means something different than what it says, and that doctrines don’t even have to have a biblical basis at all, then she can teach her followers anything, no matter how contrary to reason and truth, and compel them to accept and believe it. (Of course, these are all mischaracterizations of what the Church teaches.) As an academic, I cared about and was convinced by reason and evidence, and was suspicious of claims without solid factual foundation. The Catholic teaching authority, as I understood it, was a proposition that I strongly and vehemently resisted, not one that I readily embraced as a savior.

“Authority” in a Different Sense

http://www.e-codices.unifr.ch/en/bnf/lat11641/6v/0/Sequence-204

Leaf from a manuscript of Augustine at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, dated c. 7th–8th century (e-codices.unifr.ch).

Once I examined her in earnest, the Catholic Church won me over, against my expectations or inclinations, because her arguments were compelling: not merely because they claimed to be authoritative, but because they were based on actual authority, on an authentic, continuous, and documented tradition of authoritative testimony. Protestants tend to think of “authority” only in terms of divine authority, the absolute, unquestionable authority of God, which they find solely in Scripture. In this regard — even if they acknowledge that Jesus granted authority to His Apostles — they find no essential connection between that authority and the Church, and so presume that the claims of the Catholic Church to be “authoritative” are based only on bald assertion. But to me as an historian, “authority” also has another meaning: the authority of support for a claim or argument. And rather than bald assertions or empty, unsupported claims, as I had been led to believe the Catholic Church stood on, I found, for every substantive point of Catholic doctrine, well-articulated, well-defined, and well-supported arguments based in a rich, academic, scholarly tradition and founded on a continuous and consistent corpus of authoritative documents and teachings spanning twenty centuries.

The Catholic Sense of Scripture

Monk at work in scriptorium

In most everyday matters, it is precisely this latter understanding of authority that is the substance of Catholic teaching, and not the sort of dictatorial pronouncements that Protestants presume. For example, Protestants commonly understand that the Catholic Church must dictate to the believer how to interpret every jot and tittle of every passage of Scripture, such that believers cannot read and interpret Scripture for themselves. But the truth is that the Church has given authoritative teachings on only a very small portion of the whole corpus of Scripture. The sense of the Catholic understanding of Scripture subsists not only in such pronouncements, but in the exegetical tradition of Church Fathers, bishops, teachers and theologians, whose mind and understanding is faithfully passed down and preserved in the Church — whose teaching is authoritative by its own merit, because of their great learning and holiness and their nearness in history to Christ’s revelation. Though not having divine authority on its own, this is more authoritative by bounds than the subjective, substantially unsupported interpretations of Protestants.* In exactly the same way, I accept the writings of past historians as having great knowledge and insight, as being authorities into their subject matter.†

* There are some Protestants, especially the great theologians, who do seek to support their exegetical arguments with appeals to the authority of the Church Fathers; but generally, I find, they do this selectively and unevenly, accepting a Father’s argument where it suits them but ignoring him where it does not, and looking to the Fathers only as a last recourse, designed to support their own subjective interpretation, and not as a primary means to discerning the meaning of the Scriptures in the first place.

† Of course, some historians are simply wrong; and Church Fathers can also be wrong. Here the consensus of the Church, the opinions of other Fathers and teachers and theologians, is important. If the consensus of later writers is that Augustine was a great and orthodox teacher, then that is the reputation and the authority he enjoys. If the consensus is that Tertullian strayed off track in his later life and expressed some opinions that are not in agreement with the Church’s teachings, then we read those opinions of Tertullian as dissenting and sometimes heterodox arguments. Nevertheless, because of his position in time, so close to the Apostles themselves, Tertullian’s authority as an historical witness to the doctrines believed and taught in his time is absolute.

Teaching from the Deposit of Faith

Burglechner, The Council of Trent

Matthias Burglechner, The Council of Trent, 16th century (Wikimedia Commons).

This is the raw material: Scripture and the generations of holy men and women who taught, prayed, and commented on it, preserving and passing on the teachings they had received, the inheritance of the faith delivered once unto the saints, and with it the teaching of Christ and the Apostles themselves. When the Catholic Church does make official pronouncements of doctrine — whether from a council of bishops or pastorally from the pope — these teachings are not invented from nothing, but are drawn from, based on, and supported by this raw material. Especially when the meaning of Scripture and doctrine is not completely clear from the sources themselves, and when there is uncertainty or dispute, it is the role of the Church’s Magisterium, her teaching authority, to weigh the body of evidence and discern the truth from it. Even then, the conclusion is not arbitrary: the Magisterium cannot declare something contrary to the evidence, contrary to Scripture or to the orthodox teachers of the faith; she cannot declare a circle square, or dictate something that revelation has not itself revealed, or compel her faithful to believe something not already contained in the deposit of faith. The Church teaches what she has received (1 Timothy 4:11): not anything more and not anything less.

A Well-Built Building

pyramid

Catholics believe that in such teachings, the Holy Spirit guides the Church into all truth (John 16:13) — and this is a simple matter to believe, because they are evidenced by the constant and unchanging course of that guidance, and founded in reasonable and well-supported arguments from authority. For example: the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the epitome of Catholic doctrine, is not a book of empty assertions, but bases its every sentence on several thousand citations to authority in Scripture, the Church Fathers, councils and popes. Every one of these citations can be followed to find the origin and basis of the Church’s teaching, like a well-built building, every element borne up by the support of another, until it reaches the ground of absolute authority in Christ’s revelation itself. Even the declarations of the most controversial doctrines to those outside the Church, such as the dogma of the Assumption of Mary in Pope Pius XII’s 1950 Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus, rest not on bald assertion or any empty claim to papal privilege or authority, but on carefully constructed and well-reasoned arguments from the tradition of received authority.

Thus, the charge that I was drawn to the Catholic Church solely because her claims to authority were a cure for my exegetical paralysis, a crutch and an escape from having to discern and decide for myself, is completely false. The Catholic Church did cure my exegetical paralysis, but I was not seeking and did not believe there could be a cure: I was taken by surprise, and thoroughly convinced, by something I was not expecting at all, something I never imagined could exist: a Christian body who based its arguments not on subjective interpretations of Scripture, not on concepts and constructs of theology with no other basis than such interpretations, not on vitriolic polemics against other sects — but on the very concepts of authority, evidence, and tradition I had been taught to embrace and accept as an academic; on a sturdy and unshakeable foundation of such authority reaching back through the ages to the Apostles themselves, evincing and confirming the origin of all authority, Christ Himself.

Were the churches of the New Testament independent of one another?

The beginning of a series: “How do I know the Catholic Church is the Church Jesus founded?”

It is a commonplace of Catholic apologetics that we claim that “the Catholic Church is the Church Jesus founded.” On the other hand, opponents charge that the Catholic Church was in fact founded at some later date, often said to be the fourth century, when the Roman emperor Constantine is a usual suspect for some charge of “invention” or another, or some other arbitrary date. Both these claims are empty without evidence. What is the evidence for the Catholic claim and how can we evaluate it?

Many Churches

Paul Preaching in the Areopagus, Sir James Thornhill

Sir James Thornhill (1675–1734), Paul Preaching in the Areopagus (BBC).

In a world with so many churches, how can we know which is the one Jesus actually founded? Can we even know? Is it even a valid claim at all to say that Jesus founded one Church?

Examining Scripture, Protestants tend to emphasize the apparent independence of the churches in the New Testament: The various apostles fanning out across the world founded churches, not one Church, they say:

And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they believed. (Acts 14:23)

And [Paul] went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches. … So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily. (Acts 15:41, 16:5)

But is it truly good ecclesiology to claim that each individual church was independent of one another? Is this assumption consistent with the rest of the New Testament — or are there assumptions being overlooked by this very premise? I would argue that the very fact of the collective plural — the churches referred to as a group — betrays a unity that countermands this whole argument.

Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you. (Romans 16:16)

All the churches greet the church of Rome with one voice — and one man, Paul, has the authority to speak for them.

Only, let every one lead the life which the Lord has assigned to him, and in which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. (1 Corinthians 7:17)

Likewise, Paul has the same, singular, recognized authority over all the churches. Does their unitary submission to the same leaders not contradict any notion of “independence”?

One Mind

Anthony Van Dyck, The Crucifixion (c. 1622)

Anthony Van Dyck, The Crucifixion (c. 1622) (WikiArt).

Does anything at all in the New Testament really suggest that these individual churches were truly independent of one another? On the contrary, the very fact that we have a unified collection of Christian documents known as the New Testament attests that all the churches were, in the beginning and for some time thence, unified in the same mind and purpose.

In fact, that is exactly what St. Paul admonishes again and again:

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any incentive of love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. (Philippians 2:1–2)

I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. (1 Corinthians 1:10)

Being of one mind, in full accord, of the same judgment and same love: this requires a constant, conscious, and active agreement, both within churches and without: a guiding of one church to another, a submission of one’s independence and a commitment to communion.

Next time: “One Body in Christ”

Some Early Testimonies to the Authority of Apostolic Tradition

Part of an ongoing discussion at Reformation500.

The Sermon on the Mount (1877), by Carl Heinrich Bloch

The Sermon on the Mount (1877), by Carl Heinrich Bloch (Wikimedia).

As I’ve been arguing, I think Protestants, in thinking about “Tradition,” fail to see the forest for the trees. You (and I presume these historians) are looking for “traditions,” “hidden doctrines,” something concretely novel or different from the Word of God in Scripture — but given that, according to the proposition, this “Tradition” came from the very same source and same revelation as Scripture, that isn’t something we should expect to see. You are looking for some separate, concrete body of knowledge which the Early Church hailed as authoritative — some esoteric, “secret” store of privileged revelation — which frankly reeks of Gnosticism. But that isn’t the sort of thing I am talking about at all.

Christ Preaching (1652), by Rembrandt.

Christ Preaching (1652), by Rembrandt.

What I’m talking about is simply the whole teaching of Christ to His Apostles, and of the Apostles to their disciples, and henceforth. In the main, this would have been no different than the content of the New Testament; and yes, we can have faith that God caused the most important points to be written down. But no document of the New Testament purports to be a catechism or compendium of Christian doctrine. In the teaching of the faith, from Jesus to the Apostles, from the Apostles to their disciples, and with each successive generation, even to today, Christian teachers do not simply hand the Bible to new converts and expect them to learn from it alone; Christian discipleship is accompanied by instruction in how to understand Christian Scripture and doctrine and how to live the Christian life; how to do the things Christians do. By nature of what it is, this teaching carries content not found in Scripture. And the Apostles would have passed on as fully as they could the teaching they received from the Lord (1 Corinthians 11:23), and instructed their own disciples to do likewise (1 Corinthians 11:2, 2 Thessalonians 2:15, 2 Timothy 2:2). Thus, this body of “Tradition” (παράδοσις [paradosis], lit. teaching that was handed over) was immediately apostolic in origin, if not from the very mouth of God Himself.

Baptism, Catacomb of St. Callixtus

A third-century representation of Baptism from the Catacomb of St. Callixtus, Rome.

I’ve been pointing out a few visible examples of this. Arguably, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the sacramental efficacy of baptism — i.e. baptismal regeneration; the understanding that the water of baptism washes away sins and gives rebirth in Christ — are clear enough from Scripture itself; but the fact that many Protestants have disputed these doctrines demonstrates either Scripture’s lack of perspicuity or the necessity of Apostolic Tradition: because from the earliest times, as witnessed by diverse Church Fathers, these understandings were universal and unambiguous throughout all the Church, evidently from the teaching that all the churches had received. Likewise, from the earliest times, universally, even in most Protestant traditions, the Church has transferred the Old Testament Sabbath observance to Sunday, the Lord’s Day, in honor of His Resurrection; and the annual commemoration of the Resurrection has been kept in conjunction with the Passover — but neither is taught by Scripture. The outlines of the liturgical celebrations of baptism and the Eucharist in all churches everywhere appear to stem from the same apostolic tradition. Likewise the testimony to a successive, singular episcopal office is universal. These things complement and guide the practice of the Church, and inform and fill out her doctrine, confirming and supporting the Word of God in Scripture, not contradicting it.

The Four Doctors of the Western Church

The Four Doctors of the Western Church: Pope St. Gregory the Great, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, and St. Jerome.

I could cite numerous testimonies to this παράδοσις of the Apostles from the Church Fathers, but I will pick out only a few of the earliest. I hope these examples will indicate the kind of doctrines and practices which the Church has always held by Tradition. Some of the earliest unambiguous references, appropriately enough, appear in the context of combatting the teachings of heretics, who twist the Scriptures to their own interpretations, arguing that they had received an esoteric tradition of secret knowledge (γνῶσις) — a charge not unlike Protestant caricatures against Catholic teachings about Apostolic Tradition. These people, Irenaeus argues, reject Scripture:

Irenaeus

Irenaeus of Lyon (ca. A.D. 120–200).

When, however, [the heretics] are confuted from the Scriptures, they turn round and accuse these same Scriptures, as if they were not correct, nor of authority, and [assert] that they are ambiguous, and that the truth cannot be extracted from them by those who are ignorant of tradition. For [they allege] that the truth was not delivered by means of written documents, but viva voce: wherefore also Paul declared, “But we speak wisdom among those that are perfect, but not the wisdom of this world” (1 Corinthians 2:6). And this wisdom each one of them alleges to be the fiction of his own inventing … (Against Heresies III.2.1)

On the other hand, Irenaeus says, the same heretics also reject apostolic tradition:

But, again, when we refer them to that tradition which originates from the Apostles, [and] which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches, they object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the Apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth. … (Against Heresies III.2.2).

The key for Irenaeus, therefore — the only sure means by which the heretics can be refuted — is not by Scripture alone, but by Scripture informed by Tradition, verified by Apostolic Succession:

It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the Apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the Apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times; those who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these [heretics] rave about. (Against Heresies III.3.1).

This tradition is demonstrated clearly, he continues, by the continuous testimony of all the churches of the world in agreement with one another (Against Heretics III.3.2). And as a personal testimony of this tradition, Irenaeus shares:

But Polycarp also was not only instructed by Apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by Apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried [on earth] a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departing this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the Apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true. To these things all the Asiatic Churches testify, as do also those men who have succeeded Polycarp down to the present time,—a man who was of much greater weight, and a more stedfast witness of truth, than Valentinus, and Marcion, and the rest of the heretics (Against Heretics III.3.4).

Tertullian

Tertullian of Carthage (c. 160 – c. 225).

Tertullian actually speaks to the impotence of Scripture alone in refuting heresies:

But with respect to the man for whose sake you enter on the discussion of the Scriptures, with the view of strengthening him when afflicted with doubts, (let me ask) will it be to the truth, or rather to heretical opinions that he will lean? Influenced by the very fact that he sees you have made no progress, whilst the other side is on an equal footing (with yourself) in denying and in defence, or at any rate on a like standing he will go away confirmed in his uncertainty by the discussion, not knowing which side to adjudge heretical. For, no doubt, they too are able to retort these things on us. It is indeed a necessary consequence that they should go so far as to say that adulterations of the Scriptures, and false expositions thereof, are rather introduced by ourselves, inasmuch as they, no less than we maintain that truth is on their side. (The Prescription against Heretics I.18)

Rather, one should ask, “With whom lies the very faith to which the Scriptures belong?” And how is this rule of faith known?

Our appeal, therefore, must not be made to the Scriptures; nor must controversy be admitted on points in which victory will either be impossible, or uncertain, or not certain enough. But even if a discussion from the Scriptures should not turn out in such a way as to place both sides on a par, (yet) the natural order of things would require that this point should be first proposed, which is now the only one which we must discuss: “With whom lies that very faith to which the Scriptures belong. From what and through whom, and when, and to whom, has been handed down that rule, by which men become Christians?” For wherever it shall be manifest that the true Christian rule and faith shall be, there will likewise be the true Scriptures and expositions thereof, and all the Christian traditions. (ibid, I.19)

It is this tradition, Tertullian argues, that distinguishes the true Apostolic Churches:

[The Apostles] founded churches in every city, from which all the other churches, one after another, derived the tradition of the faith, and the seeds of doctrine, and are every day deriving them, that they may become churches. Indeed, it is on this account only that they will be able to deem themselves apostolic, as being the offspring of apostolic churches. … Therefore the churches, although they are so many and so great, comprise but the one primitive church, (founded) by the Apostles, from which they all (spring). In this way all are primitive, and all are apostolic, whilst they are all proved to be one, in (unbroken) unity, by their peaceful communion, and title of brotherhood, and bond of hospitality,—privileges which no other rule directs than the one tradition of the selfsame mystery. (ibid, I.20)

Tertullian again speaks, presciently, to the situation so often separating Catholic and Protestant churches: Why should anyone accept practices not found explicitly in Scripture?

And how long shall we draw the saw to and fro through this line, when we have an ancient practice, which by anticipation has made for us the state, i.e., of the question? If no passage of Scripture has prescribed it, assuredly custom, which without doubt flowed from tradition, has confirmed it. For how can anything come into use, if it has not first been handed down? Even in pleading tradition, written authority, you say, must be demanded. Let us inquire, therefore, whether tradition, unless it be written, should not be admitted. Certainly we shall say that it ought not to be admitted, if no cases of other practices which, without any written instrument, we maintain on the ground of tradition alone, and the countenance thereafter of custom, affords us any precedent. To deal with this matter briefly, I shall begin with baptism. (De Corona 3)

I gave the same example above before I’d even discovered this passage. He elucidates:

When we are going to enter the water, but a little before, in the presence of the congregation and under the hand of the president, we solemnly profess that we disown the devil, and his pomp, and his angels. Hereupon we are thrice immersed, making a somewhat ampler pledge than the Lord has appointed in the Gospel. Then … we are taken up (as new-born children)… (ibid.)

This description very much resembles the rite of baptism in Catholic, Orthodox, and even Protestant churches, to this very day — thus is the authority and staying power of Tradition. And yet the details of this rite are not described in Scripture. Tertullian goes on to enumerate a number of other traditions, several of which are still very familiar in the Catholic Church, including the Sign of the Cross. Regarding these practices, Tertullian continues:

If, for these and other such rules, you insist upon having positive Scripture injunction, you will find none. Tradition will be held forth to you as the originator of them, custom as their strengthener, and faith as their observer. That reason will support tradition, and custom, and faith, you will either yourself perceive, or learn from some one who has. … If I nowhere find a law, it follows that tradition has given the [practice] in question to custom, to find subsequently (its authorization in) the apostle’s sanction, from the true interpretation of reason. (Ibid. 4)

Origen

Origen (184–254).

Origen, to add the voice of Alexandria to those of Gaul and Asia Minor (Irenaeus) and Africa and Rome (Tertullian), concurs:

Since many, however, of those who profess to believe in Christ differ from each other, not only in small and trifling matters, but also on subjects of the highest importance, as, e.g., regarding God, or the Lord Jesus Christ, or the Holy Spirit, … it seems on that account necessary first of all to fix a definite limit and to lay down an unmistakable rule regarding each one of these, and then to pass to the investigation of other points. … So, seeing there are many who think they hold the opinions of Christ, and yet some of these think differently from their predecessors, yet as the teaching of the Church, transmitted in orderly succession from the apostles, and remaining in the Churches to the present day, is still preserved, that alone is to be accepted as truth which differs in no respect from ecclesiastical and apostolical tradition. (De Principiis, Preface, 2).

A few more brief quotes from later Fathers, in both the East and the West:

Gregory of Nyssa

Gregory of Nyssa (c. 330 – c. 395).

Let no one interrupt me, by saying that what we confess should also be confirmed by constructive reasoning: for it is enough for proof of our statement, that the tradition has come down to us from our fathers, handled on, like some inheritance, by succession from the apostles and the saints who came after them. (Gregory of Nyssa, Against Eunomius IV.6)



Basil of Caesarea

Basil of Caesarea (329–379).

Of the beliefs and practices whether generally accepted or publicly enjoined which are preserved in the Church some we possess derived from written teaching; others we have received delivered to us “in a mystery” by the tradition of the Apostles; and both of these in relation to true religion have the same force. And these no one will gainsay;—no one, at all events, who is even moderately versed in the institutions of the Church. For were we to attempt to reject such customs as have no written authority, on the ground that the importance they possess is small, we should unintentionally injure the Gospel in its very vitals; or, rather, should make our public definition a mere phrase and nothing more. For instance, to take the first and most general example, who is thence who has taught us in writing to sign with the sign of the cross those who have trusted in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ? (Basil of Caesarea, On the Spirit 66)

Basil proceeds to name, like Tertullian, a great list of authoritative traditions held by the whole Church.

John Chrysostom

John Chrysostom (c. 347–407).

Hence it is manifest, that [the Apostles] did not deliver all things by Epistle, but many things also unwritten, and in like manner both the one and the other are worthy of credit. Therefore let us think the tradition of the Church also worthy of credit. It is a tradition, seek no farther. (John Chrysostom, In 2 Thess. hom. IV.14, commenting on 2 Thess. 2:15)

[The Scriptures] need examination, and the perception to understand the force of each proposition. But Tradition must be used too, for not everything is available from the Sacred Scripture. thus the holy Apostles handed some things down in Scriptures but some in traditions. (Epiphanius of Salamis, Panarion LXI.6.4)

Saint Augustine in His Study, by Botticelli.

Augustine of Hippo (354–430).

[I believe that this custom (i.e. of not requiring the rebaptism of heretics)] comes from apostolical tradition, like many other things which are held to have been handed down under their actual sanction, because they are preserved throughout the whole Church, though they are not found either in their letters, or in the Councils of their successors. (Augustine of Hippo, Contra Bapt. Donat. II.7.12)

So I’ve shown that the Church did possess an Apostolic Tradition, “passed down and preserved by all the churches” — and it is their agreement that makes it manifest. But of what authority was this tradition? Was it “infallible”? As John [Bugay] rightly pointed out — “infallibility” is not a concept or category that anybody in this age of the Church would have understood or thought about, and I’m not sure it’s helpful for this conversation. Certainty Christians considered Scripture of the highest authority — there’s no disputing that. But if a doctrine came from the very same source as Scripture, from the mouths of Jesus and the Apostles, would they have accepted it with any less authority, simply because one was written down and the other wasn’t? No less than Paul himself suggests that this distinction wasn’t so important as Protestants have sought to make it (2 Thessalonians 2:15). Why, within living memory of Paul, would anyone have drawn a distinction between what Paul taught by word of mouth or by letter? It is plain that the Early Church did not. Certainly Tradition is not Scripture, which is the very, written Word of God; but with legitimate evidence of its apostolic origin and belief throughout the ages, in all the churches, we can see by the testimony of these Fathers that the Church accepted it as authoritative. Several of them even declare that Tradition is held as of equal weight as Scripture. The fact that with regard to so many of these traditions, the Church everywhere has maintained them to this day, testifies to the authority in which they have been held.

The Prior Authority of Tradition

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

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 were 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?

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)

Towards the Truth

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 to 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 “Great Apostasy” Narrative

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.

Was Peter the First Pope? A Comprehensive Response

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.

St. Irenaeus’s Testimony to the Apostles

St. Irenaeus

St. Irenaeus (ca. A.D. 125–ca. 200).

Today is the feast day of St. Irenaeus (ca. A.D. 125–ca. 200), one of the earliest witnesses we have to the authority of the Church and to the doctrine of apostolic succession. I’m still trying to dig my way out from under this thesis, but I thought I would bring you a few quotes I’ve discovered recently that I found powerful.

Atheists and other critics of Christianity argue that there is little historical evidence of Jesus or even of the Apostles. The Gospels are, of course, valid historical sources in their own right; but in Irenaeus we have someone who was only one generation departed from the Apostles, who was the disciple of St. Polycarp, who himself was the disciple of the Apostle St. John the Evangelist. Irenaeus testifies clearly to his memories of Polycarp, who knew not only St. John, but also many others who had known Jesus Christ in the flesh. Irenaeus brings us almost tangibly to the feet of the Apostles and within earshot of Jesus Himself.

First, Irenaeus testifies explicitly to Polycarp’s memories of John and others who had known Jesus (Irenaeus, Letter [II] to Florinus):

For I have a more vivid recollection of what occurred at that time than of recent events … so that I can even describe the place where the Blessed Polycarp used to sit and discourse — his going out, too, and his coming in— his general mode of life and personal appearance, together with the discourses which he delivered to the people; also how he would speak of his familiar intercourse with John, and with the rest of those who had seen the Lord; and how he would call their words to remembrance. Whatsoever things he had heard from them respecting the Lord, both with regard to His miracles and His teaching, Polycarp having thus received from the eye-witnesses of the Word of life, would recount them all in harmony with the Scriptures. These things, through God’s mercy which was upon me, I then listened to attentively, and treasured them up not on paper, but in my heart; and I am continually, by God’s grace, revolving these things accurately in my mind.

Here Irenaeus testifies to Polycarp’s appointment as bishop of Smyrna by the Apostles themselves, to his place in the apostolic succession, and to the crucial role apostolic succession played in rejecting the claims of heretics (Against Heresies III.3.4):

But Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried [on earth] a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true. To these things all the Asiatic Churches testify, as do also those men who have succeeded Polycarp down to the present time,— a man who was of much greater weight, and a more steadfast witness of truth, than Valentinus, and Marcion, and the rest of the heretics. He it was who, coming to Rome in the time of Anicetus caused many to turn away from the aforesaid heretics to the Church of God, proclaiming that he had received this one and sole truth from the apostles — that, namely, which is handed down by the Church.

Thanks to Bryan Cross and Called to Communion for these quotations, and for a splendid exposition of justification in the thought of St. Irenaeus.