The Protestant Problem with History

Posted: September 3, 2012 in Church History
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The great Catholic Cardinal John Henry Newman is often quoted as saying “To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.”

20120903-103549.jpgCardinal Newman should know. He began his religious career as a prominent priest in the Church of England. He set out with the purpose of reforming the Anglican Church and returning to it the doctrines, practices and beliefs of the early Christian church. As he studied history and the beliefs of Christians throughout history, he became compelled to enter into full communion with the church of Rome.

He is not alone. Countless bible-believing Christians year after year are faced with the same wonderful truth when they study history. Despite what many fundamentalist churches teach and what so many non-denominational Christians want to believe, the historical evidence is overwhelming that the Catholic church is in fact the very same church that has continued through the ages, from before Jesus’ death on the cross even until today.

An Honest Assessment

Any serious, honest and objective assessment of the history of Christianity will show that the Catholic Church has been in existence from the age of the Apostles. History, more than any other factor, was what compelled my wife to convert to Catholicism, and history, more than anything else, is what always made me feel uncomfortable during my time outside of the church.

It is a hard thing to accept, I know, but facts are facts. It is undeniable that the Catholic Church is the oldest and longest standing institution in the history of the world. Many fundamentalists claim various dates for when the Catholic church was founded, keying in on some document or council where a doctrine was defined that they disagreed with. The dates vary; some claim it began when Constantine supposedly (though falsely) declared himself the head of the church “around” 313, or the Council of Nicea in 325. Some malinformed people even believe the Catholic church didn’t begin until the early 7th century with Pope Gregory.

First of all, it would be prudent to be cautious of any alleged foundation that begins with the word “around” or any other ambiguous date. Second of all, Constantine never declared himself head of the church. He was only nominally, if at ever, a Christian and may have not even been baptized until he was on his death bed. It is true that he called the Council of Nicea in 325, but not as the head of the church but as head of state, no different in practice than if the President of the United States called church leaders together today.

The Oldest Institution

Of course, all of these dates are false when it comes to identifying the beginning of the church, but even if we suppose the church didn’t begin until 604, as some claim, that would still make the Catholic church the oldest continuous and unbroken institution by more than 1,000 years. By contrast, the oldest current continuous government still in existence is that of United States, at less than 250 years. The Roman Empire itself survived less than 500 years.

This proves nothing in and of itself, although one must admit that for a supposedly false religion, it is remarkable that it has been able to stand as a continuous institution for so long. An argument could be made, though, that it is only through the grace God that the Church has been able to survive for two millennia.

Cardinal Newman, in his quest to find true doctrinal Christianity, worked his way backward, century by century, looking see if what was believed in one century was also held in the century prior. The overwhelming and compelling truth he found was that the Catholic church believes today what the Catholic church believed in the first century A.D.

The Church Universal

This even includes the name “Catholic.” Saint Ignatius, who was a student of the Apostle John, wrote a series of letters while en route to Rome to be martyred. Of particular interest to those who claim the Catholic church was started in 325, or 540, or 604 or some other much later date, is his exhortation to the Smyrnaeans, in 110 A.D., that Christians remain united with the bishop:

“Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”

The context in which the word catholic is used strongly suggests that it had been in use for quite a while prior to Ignatius’ letter. Clearly, he believed the people to whom he was writing would understand its meaning. Remember, too, that Ignatius received the faith directly from an Apostle, and a Gospel writer at that. In fact, Ignatius’ mentor, Saint John, had only passed away a mere 10 years prior to the writing of the letter to the Smyrnaeans.

Real Christian Beliefs

Doctrine after doctrine, from the real presence in the Eucharist to Mary’s Immaculate Conception, can be traced through a written record dating back through the ages to the earliest days of the church. Despite what some believe, no other Christian community can make this claim, nor can it provide proof or a written history.

History, of course, poses a huge problem for non catholics, if they are in fact concerned with truth. When confronted with history, fundamentalist and Protestant Christians alike are faced with only a few options besides entering into communion with Rome: either to dismiss Christian history as having no importance, to suggest that there was a falling away of the faith and that the church needed to be restored, or to claim that an ever-present body of believers has existed underground through the centuries.

The problem with these options are that they are contrary to scripture and are unsupported and unsubstantiated by both secular and religious history. Jesus promised that the gates of Hell would not prevail against His church; to suggest that the faith disappeared for 1900 years flies in the face of this promise and makes no logical sense whatsoever.

Thy Kingdom Come

God established on Earth His permanent Kingdom. When Jesus came, he proclaimed that the Kingdom of God is at hand, meaning it was near. In light of the fact that mere thousands of years had passed from the time of Moses to Jesus, are we to believe that “at hand” meant for us to wait yet another 2000 years before the Kingdom came? Of course not; the Kingdom of God was ushered in at Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Nor should we believe that the Kingdom went underground until the reformation or even later as some Christians have been lead to believe. The body of Christ, His church, is visible. The New Testament is full of prayers for unity in the church. Jesus himself tells us there is to be one fold and one shepherd. (John 10:16) He also reminds us that no one lights a lamp and puts it under a basket.

You Are the Light of the World

Even more striking, He tells us that his followers are the light of the world and that a city upon a hill cannot be hidden. This language does not indicate an “invisible body of believers,” but an active and visible beacon throughout the world and throughout time.

It is clear from scriptures that Jesus did not intend for the church to fall away, nor did He intend for His Kingdom to be invisible. There is only one organization in the world that has remained in existence continuously since the first century. There is also only one organization in the world that has been strikingly visible throughout this time. It can be no coincidence that this visibility and continuity is only found in the Catholic Church.

Reading Bibles in Caves?

So what then, of this idea that there have always been true Bible-believing Christians meeting secretly over the centuries, preserving the faith and reading the Bible to each other? The short answer is, they didn’t exist. Those groups that called themselves Christians outside of the Catholic Church, such as the Cathars, believed in ideas that every Christian community today would call heretical, including denying the divinity of Christ and believing in two Gods, one of the Old Testament and one of the New. “Bible Christians” as we know them simply were not around until nearly 100 years after the Reformation.

Bible Alone?

Fundamentalist Christians are fond of telling us that we need to stick to the Bible and that all a believer needs is a faith in Christ and a Bible to guide them to the truth. This raises an interesting question: until the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, where did these Bible Christians get their Bible from? The answer is, they didn’t have them.

The overwhelming majority of the population was illiterate. Books of any kind were a luxury that very few chose or were able to afford. Prior to the invention of the printing press, the Bible was copied by hand by none other than Catholic monks. Even then, those Bibles were retained in monasteries, churches, cathedrals and colleges.

To believe that there were pockets of Christians meeting in houses and reading the Bible through the middle ages is to fundamentally misunderstand society during those times. Complete Bibles may have been accessible to 5 percent of the population at the time. They were huge, cumbersome books. A single Bible, as we know it, consisted of upwards of 9 huge volumes. An entire university may not have been in possession of a complete Bible. The idea of a family sitting around a table reading the Bible, or even a preacher sitting down to read scripture in preparation for a sermon, simply did not, and could not, happen.

As fond as fundamentalists are of pointing to individual verses in the Bible to disprove this or that Catholic teaching, even the system of chapters and verses that we recognize in the Bible today were not introduced until the late middle ages, by none other than a Catholic monk.

Bringing the Word to Life

Interestingly, the Catholic Church, with its seemingly odd customs and ornate churches, was uniquely suited to preserve the Christian faith, no matter the circumstances. Even though most Christians couldn’t read about the Holy Trinity, they could be reminded of it every time they made the sign of the cross. Even though they were unable to read the wonderful stories of Jesus’ miracles, they could see them come to life in the stained glass windows at the grand churches and basilicas.

The Catholic Church brought the Bible to life through the liturgical seasons. The life of Jesus was remembered in the preparation of His coming in Advent, in the celebration of His birth at Christmas, in the penitential days of Lent and the joyous remembrance of His passion and resurrection at Holy Week and Easter.

To Serve and Protect

The fact is that the Catholic Church did not suppress the Christian faith, as so many want to believe, but it preserved it. Like it or not, the Catholic church protected, preserved or created nearly every aspect of western civilization as we know it, from colleges and universities to hospitals. I don’t know about you, but that sure sounds more like a city on a hill that cannot be hidden to me.

The Great Apostasy?

So, then, what of this notion that there was a great apostasy and that the Catholic church is the result of a departure of the faith? If such an apostasy occurred, the next obvious question is when did it occur, and what, exactly, about the Catholic Church is apostate? Every Catholic belief can be traced back to the earliest years of the Christian church, even if our understanding of the implications of these beliefs have evolved. No other Christian group, not even Orthodoxy, can make this claim, though at least the Orthodox Churches can make a better case than most.

The Faith of Our (Church) Fathers

Let me offer this challenge to you: take some time to do an honest, open minded study of the history of Christianity. Read the writing of those Christians who learned at the feet of the Apostles. Like Cardinal Newman, pick a Catholic belief and try to find a time in history when it was not held by Christians. The fact of the matter is, everything Catholics believe now was believed in the first century, and there is ample documentation to prove it.

Startling Possibilities

After a careful, objective examination of the history of the church, one is really faced with one of three possible conclusions:

  • The church fell away completely, even as some of the Apostles still lived, and needed to be restored at some point much later in history, which necessarily means that Jesus broke His promise that the gates of Hell would not prevail against it; or
  • The church hid it’s lamp under a basket, continuing to exist underground and invisible for nearly 2000 years, failing to spread the Gospel and preach it to all nations and failing to be the shining city on a hill as Jesus described His followers to be; or
  • The Catholic Church is exactly what it says it is – the one Holy and universal church founded by Jesus upon Peter the rock and his brother Apostles, having faithfully spread and preserved the faith for 2000 years in a visible, unbroken succession throughout the ages and throughout the world.

Logical Conclusions

I fully realize that there are plenty of people who will view these possible conclusions as simplistic or as straw men attacks. However, when you take the proposition all the way out to it’s only logical end, one truly is only faced with one logical conclusion based upon the historical facts and scriptural texts.

My most sincere prayer is that readers will conduct their own study of history and scripture so that they may be guided to to truth, wherever they find it. In the end, I believe whole-heartedly that the only truly logical conclusion is that the Catholic Church is in fact the church that Jesus founded for us all

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Comments
  1. SR says:

    Again, excellent! Regarding the Kingdom of God, to quote another author I love, Scott Hahn, He said, That Jesus said, He would not drink this fruit of the vine with the Apostles again, until the Kingdom of God came. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke Jesus refused the drink offered to Him, which was a narcotic drink. Then in John we see Him drinking the “wine” “fruit of the vine” and He died. According to the book I read, that is when the Kingdom of God came to earth. The Catholic Church. Just some more info I wanted to share with you about it. I tried to explain all of this to one of my friends from my former Church, to which I was told, “History is history, but the Bible is the Word of God.” To which my reply was, “If the Bible is not a “history book” “God’s history” then it is nothing.” So I do not get real far with it. Have you ever read the “Mass of the Early Christians?” Wonderful book. That is where I learned about St. Ignatius of Antioch, and most all of the early Church Fathers. It is a very good book, and proves much of what you have said here! Again thanks for sharing and God Bless, SR

    • I’ve not read “Mass of the Early Christians,” but I do have a very dogeared copy of Jimmy Akins’ compilation “The Fathers Know Best.” It’s a great resource to learn about the earliest Christian beliefs. I, too, love Scott Hahn. His work on Mary really went a long way in helping me get back to the Church!

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