Reading Church History as a Protestant: The Catholic Church, Dead in “Religion”

Clio, muse of heroic poetry and history, by Pierre Mignard, 17th century.

Clio, muse of heroic poetry and history, by Pierre Mignard, 17th century.

Cardinal Newman famously stated, “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” If any single sentence could sum up the reasons for my conversion, that would be it. Yet there are many, many well-educated and thoughtful Protestants, who seem thoroughly versed in the facts of the history of the Church, for whom that hasn’t been true. I’ve been thinking on this a lot lately, how and why that could be, but have up till now refrained from writing, fearful that I might stray into polemic. I pray now that God give me the graces to consider it fairly.

Learning History

My first inclination is to say that as a history major in college, I had a fairly secular and unbiased education — but I’m not sure that’s true. I did attend a public, state university, and at least in the beginning, was prescribed standard textbooks of Western Civilization, which presented a fairly balanced account of Church history. But as I progressed, most of my tutelage came under Dr. G, a dyed-in-the-wool Lutheran and a medievalist, with a flair for the great men of history, who simultaneously held as heroes Luther, Erasmus, Bernard, Abelard, Peter Lombard, Gregory the Great, and Augustine. That is the stump from which my developing view of the Christian Church sprang, and if there was any self-contradiction in it, I didn’t realize it then. Dr. G also loved the great historians, and looking back, many of the ones he had us read were anything but favorable toward the Catholic Church: Gibbon, Burkhardt, Huizinga. But we also read the Catholic Friedrich Heer, and Arnold Toynbee, who probably better than anybody represents where I eventually found myself: loving and admiring whatever was great in all Christianity and every religion. (And recounting all of this makes me want to dust off my old history books.)

Martin Luther

Martin Luther (1533), by Lucas Cranach the Elder.

I grew up a Protestant, so naturally I viewed the Protestant Reformers as heroes, as having accomplished something good; and in Dr. G’s accounts of Luther, he confirmed me in that. But the more I studied the early and medieval Church, the more I fell in love with the Church Fathers. And the more I read of the Church Fathers, the more I longed for the order and consistency of the Early Church, the sure orthodoxy each of these men affirmed and upheld, and the coherency and unity with which they viewed themselves and the whole Christian world as “the Universal Church.” Those things were clearly lacking from the churches I knew in my day. Where had they gone? I presumed, as a Protestant, that they had been lost somewhere over the ages, along with the true faith that Luther and the Reformers later sought to recover; I believed that they had been destroyed and were irrecoverable. I knew nothing of the modern Catholic Church then; I was only vaguely aware of it, that there were Catholic churches and there was a pope. I presumed, as a Protestant, who in my own upbringing had been taught a distaste for “dead religion” — that is, the regimented and ritualistic and institutional; anything that would impede a “relationship” with Christ — that “dead religion” is all that was left of the Catholic Church; that all the spiritual life had been choked out by dogma and rote and rituals and rules; by scholastic definitions and speculation.

St. Augustine

St. Augustine (c. 1645-1650), Philippe de Champaigne.

I wonder if this isn’t the view that many Protestant historians of the Church have: even if they have an admiration for the Early Church, their understanding of what the Catholic Church became being rooted in assumptions and prejudices and ignorances. Of course, it is my own assumption that an historian, having studied the Early Church and the Church Fathers, must admire it! I suppose there are two understandings the Protestant historian could take of the Early Church: either as something bright and new and pure and glorious, the thing that the Church today should long for and strive to recapture; or as something gradually corrupted and misled and fallen and apostate, the thing they presume had departed from the pure (and Protestant) teaching of the Apostles.

There is a lot more coming from this vein, and hopefully soon! This one’s really gushing (I wrote this all straight through in one sitting)! Stay tuned!

20 thoughts on “Reading Church History as a Protestant: The Catholic Church, Dead in “Religion”

  1. I can tell you, as a former Protestant myself, and as a recent theologian who has studied Church history in very good detail: many Protestants who are in search of truth and who are willing to give up their livelihoods for Christ (that is, their high-paying positions in Protestant institutions) do make the decision and cross over to the Catholic Church. But many who are biased do not.

    Following is a good TV series, “The Journey Home” which focuses on the lives of former Protestants who have “come home” to the Catholic Church. Marcus also writes a book which focuses on the same topic – the good Protestant leaders who gave up their livelihood for the sake of truth – for Christ.

    And here’s the link to Marcus Grodi’s book, “Journey’s Home.” You may find it to be interesting. Afterall, it is real history from real people living today.

    • Great! Thanks for stopping by, and thanks for those links! I love conversion stories, especially of highly respected Protestants whose “defections” really shake the Protestant world. And I’m very pleased to meet you, as a fellow southerner and convert. 🙂 Sadly, despite living in Alabama (the northern part), we don’t get EWTN on our cable, else I would so love to watch this show regularly. I suppose I should get with the 21st century and start streaming.

  2. I get both the Roman Catholic channel and the Evangelical channel, and they are next to each other (that never ceases to amuse me).

    I am one of those Protestants who, while not as well-read in the Church Fathers as I would like, has an admiration for them nonetheless. I would dispute your assertion, though, that they lived and wrote during times of great order and consistency. Such a time does not exist in church history. The great ecumenical councils were attempts to end many of the debates once and for all, but that didn’t always work, either. Arianism and Orthodoxy fought many back and forth battles, deposing each other repeatedly. Chalcedon caused a major split in the church. The church has never been the stable, monolithic institution we want it to have been.

    • Oh, the times were full of strife — we could never expect anything less — but the orthodox Church Fathers were all fixed to true north. Even reading the polemic works of Irenaeus and Athanasius, there was never any doubt in their minds where the true faith lay, and they appealed to communion with a united Church. The academic argument (which, even as an academic, I don’t accept) is that what we see today as “orthodoxy” is merely a retrospective labeling of the victors of doctrinal conflicts, that in the early Church there were many “Christianities.” But that doesn’t square with the unity and universality that I read in the sources. What struck me most in my early readings of the Fathers was the lack of any sense that theirs were merely “interpretations” of Scripture — there was a firm foundation in an absolute authority in which their arguments were based, and that authority was the Church.

  3. Everything you said is so true, I think.. especially about the “dead religion” kind of view on Catholicism that Protestants will often have. I can certainly say for myself.. this is something that was holding me back in the faith, at one point as I had considered conversion. I think all I saw were just some meaningless rituals and traditions. I pray that God could use my experience to help other Catholics who may be uneducated on the TRUE teachings of the faith because I understand a lot of the anti catholic views on the church, but I also know the true teachings. Once again, another great post, Joseph.

    Peace and blessings,
    Thomas Brunt.

    • Thanks, Thomas. So many Catholics who don’t have a very firm foundation or support do buy into those falsehoods and convert away to Evangelicalism. When I found your blog and read about your recent evangelical experience, I thought, oh no! here’s another one. When I replied I was afraid it might be too late, but I prayed that God might speak to your heart, and I really believe He led me to you when He did. God bless you and His peace be with you, and may you stay strong in the faith.

      If you haven’t read it, a really good book on debunking the attacks that Evangelicals make on Catholicism is Catholicism and Fundamentalism: The Attack on “Romanism” by “Bible Christians”, by Karl Keating, who is the founder of Catholic Answers. I read it early in my conversion and it answered nearly every objection.

  4. The willingness to worship God together in a common liturgy demonstrates also the willingness to know the One True God. He is not 27,000 different Gods according to the number of Protestant denominations which claim Him: He is One in Three Persons. He has One Bride, the Church.

    • The vast, vast majority of Protestant denominations would not say that they worship a different God from any other. They all worship the same God, the same God that Roman Catholics worship.

      • But, by their choice to be separate and detached from an authority willed by Jesus Christ Himself, there exists a problem. To love God is to obey God. The Lord established authority on Peter and the Apostles, and their successors and called for unity. While the Church’s Magisterium rightly believes there is one Church of Christ (because baptism can be valid outside of the Catholic Church), there is still the problem of institutional disobedience to / non-acceptance of authority and denial of those doctrines and dogmas which the Holy Spirit has led the Church to believe and establish. So, in sum, while Protestants do not worship a different God (in most cases), Protestants have not yet in many cases been able to set aside biases and that spirit of division which holds many captive – bound in that ignorance which comes with seclusion and the passing on of, in many cases, falsehoods about the Catholic Faith.

        History lesson: the name “Protestant” was born of a situation in Germany with Luther which began with the Diet of Worms (1521) and culminated at the time of the Diet of Speyer of 1529. What was happening was that princes were leaving the Catholic Church and joining rebellion of Lutheranism. When they did this, they would also outlaw the celebration of the Holy Mass within their home regions. In response, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V issued an edict that the Holy Mass should be allowed to be celebrated throughout Germany – that no one can ban the Holy Mass in the regions of Germany. In response to Charles V’s edict, 14 representatives of the nobility from 14 cities formally protested the edict – as such – formally protesting the celebration of the Holy Mass. They became known as Protestants: those who protest the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

        Lutheranism so sought to undermine that authority which Christ Himself established in the papacy and the priesthood that it attempted to dismantle the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the liturgy where only the ministerial priesthood can bring about the Eucharist – a practice long established in the Church by the authority and command of Jesus Christ Himself…”Do this…” Lutheranism sought to destroy the Church by (which, of course, is not possible) by striking the shepherd through the outlaw of their purpose for being – the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, which is supposed to be a unifying Sacrament (one Christ, one bread, one body…).

        And so, notwithstanding the Orthodox Catholics and that situation, Protestants seem to belong to 27,000 fragments loosely gathered in one anamorphous group through Baptism. But it seems that in recent times, there is a healing going on which is bringing the many back into the one.

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  7. You know, you guys all sound like you know Protestants, some having been Protestants, but I have never even heard the term “dead religion” to describe Catholicism. I do come from a long line of Protestants – for which I can date back 400 years on both sides of my family – but I have tried looking at stuff objectively – I say stuff instead of being stuffy – because I keep hearing Mary was crowned Queen of Heaven, I hear Catholics say “Oh we don’t PRAY to her” oh no – you just TALK TO HER which is talking to the dead which is specifically commanded against. Mary is dead; asleep in Jesus. She cannot intercede for us nor can anyone else. And if they could, I’d pray for my dear old dad to pray for me instead of the Virgin Mary. Holy Mary? Mother of God? Jesus said, when someone shouted out blessed are the breasts that suckled thee – that everyone who follows him is his mother, brother, sister etc. He was trying to shoot down “Mary worship” in that one sentence. Even if you venerated Mary, why would you do 30 Hail Mary’s on a Rosary? Why wouldn’t you touch each bead and say “I love you JESUS.?” I’ve been talking to Jesus directly since I was 3 years old. I don’t need any intercession. I do appreciate that the Catholic church has a daily mass and Protestants have their doors locked Mon-Saturday. That’s just wrong – there can be a lot of improvement there, in many ways. But don’t keep dancing around the obvious – Mary worship, “Dear saint so and so pray for me” etc. All those things that you try to justify with simple sayings like “Behold your mother” at the foot of the cross. Not good enough to build an entire religion around that.

    • Hi, Susan. Thanks for the comment. I speak from personal experience: growing up Protestant, we called not only Catholicism a “dead religion,” but also the faith of any Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, or anybody else who was not as “on fire,” emotional, or excited as we were. Is what you’ve written here — speaking of Catholics “worshipping dead saints,” and supposing that they have “built an entire religion” around this — not itself the characterization of a “dead religion”?

      I for one think you have some serious mischaracterizations here. Did Jesus Himself not say that “[God] he is not God of the dead, but of the living; for all live to him” — “all” in this context referring to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Luke 20:37-38)? Does Paul not present the possibility of being “away from the body and home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8)? Does the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews not present the image of “the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, … the spirits of just men made perfect” (Hebrews 12:23) — in the context of a “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1)? Does the Revelation of John not present the twelve elders in heaven raising to the throne of God “golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (Revelation 5:8) — “saints” in this context being the holy ones still living on earth, and the elders being holy ones in heaven, a picture of heavenly intercession if there ever was one? Why would you say, then, that anyone who departs this life in Christ is “dead” or even “asleep” in spirit, unable to intercede for us? You’re perfectly welcome to pray for the intercession of your dad, and I’d encourage you to. I certainly pray for my Granddaddy’s.

      The Hail Mary is a standard prayer, for the most part right out of Scripture (Luke 1:28, 42-43) — in which we’re told that Mary is “highly favored,” “blessed among women,” and the “mother of the LORD” — a term which, in context (cf. Luke 1:28, 32, 38, 46, 58, 68) refers explicitly to God. For what it’s worth, the Hail Mary honors Jesus just as much as Mary (“and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus”), and honors Mary only as His mother. You ought to read about the history of the Rosary before you complain so stridently. The Rosary originated as a counting tool for monks praying the Psalms. When it spread to laypeople as a devotion, the Hail Mary was chosen for the small beads because it was a short prayer, as opposed to the longer Our Father for the five larger beads. There are many prayers that can be prayed on a Rosary, most of which have nothing to do with Mary at all (the Divine Mercy Chaplet being another popular one) — so if you’d like to pray “I love you, Jesus” thirty times, then by all means do it! Rosary beads are a devotional tool, not a doctrine or a commandment. They are to be used for your spiritual benefit, however they may benefit you.

      Catholics likewise talk directly to Jesus, and many have a personal relationship with Him just as surely as you do. But really, you don’t need any intercession? You mean you’ve never asked friends, family, or pastors to pray for you in a time of special need? And you’ve never interceded for anybody else? “Just you and Jesus”, huh?

      Devotion to Mary — not “Mary worship,” that’s insulting — is a marginal if not optional part of the Catholic faith. It is certainly not what “the entire religion [is] built around.” Personally, I love Mary as our Lord loved her and think she’s a praiseworthy woman, an example to Christians, and a powerful intercessor, but I don’t have any extraordinary devotion for her. So please put your cudgel away. You’re beating on a straw man. If there are indeed things you admire about the Catholic Church, then you might try to be more understanding and less judgmental.

      The peace of the Lord be with you.

  8. Sorry to see people turn to the cult of Mary and a Catholic church steeped in money, greed, power and scandal. Jesus warns us not to worship his mother, and in another book we are warned against the “queen of heaven” cult. It’s actually pretty simple to understand – but being Catholic is so much more intellectual and you’ve got all that stuff to study.

    And by the way, you can write a book – but you take too many words to convince people of false doctrine.

    • Question: “would we have Jesus, if we didn’t have Mary?”
      Answer: No.

      Mary is held in high honor to us for saying “yes” to the Lord. To become pregnant when she did, without a husband, was unheard of in that day. She was scorned and rediculed for it. Imagine saying “yes” and enduring all the difficulties that she had to in just birthing the Lord Jesus. Not to mention watching Him suffer and die on the cross right before her very eyes. She didn’t lash out or scorn the men that persecuted Jesus. She simply stood there with incredible Faith in the Lord’s will. She actually did something quite unnatural for mother’s. Would you step in between a Grizzly and her cub? Certainly not.
      My point is, Mary endured so much for us as well. Certainly not as much as Jesus, but he loves her and knows what she had to go through. He asked us to “behold her” when He died. We are doing that in honoring her as we do.
      Also, the Wedding at Canna is the first sign of intercession. Mary interceded on behalf of the couple and told Jesus to make more wine. She gently nudged him in to his ministry on that very day.
      May God Bless You!

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