From Church of Christ to Catholic
Let me guess: You're wondering how someone like me, a member of the church of Christ, someone taught nothing but scriptural truth three times a week for all of her conscious life, could possibly embrace the most obviously apostate organization ever to usurp the pure Gospel. How could I be so taken in by a system of such demonstrable untruth as the Catholic Church?
I thought you might ask that.
As members of the
But implicit in this approach are a few key presumptions about the character of the early church, the nature of the Bible, and the power and plan of God--presumptions so foundational as to be undetectable, yet integral to the Restoration approach. Over the course of my twenty-seventh year, and quite by accident, I was confronted with the logical underpinnings of these presuppositions. In each and every instance the integrity of these presumptions unraveled under examination; in each and every instance the conclusions reached revealed to me that if I were to continue to be a Christian, I must do so as a Catholic Christian.
This book is not necessarily intended to defend my decision, or even to make a case for why you, too, should follow me. It is only a travelogue of the terrain I covered and the stops I made on my journey. It should be read in that light. But don't be alarmed if you find yourself making the same stops: The last stop will bring you home.
The Restoration Principle
I wasn’t looking for a new church.
I was raised by firmly grounded members of the
Most members of the church of Christ know the history of the Restoration Movement, that in the first years of the nineteenth century, Thomas Campbell and his son Alexander--both originally Seceder Presbyterians--sent out the call to Christians in all denominations to join together under no authority but that of the Bible‘s, to put aside doctrines and divisions and truly become one church, as the Lord intended. Thomas Campbell's Declaration and Address, which outlines his proposal for the creation of the "denomination of the Christian Association of Washington, for the sole purpose of promoting simple evangelical Christianity," states,
disentangled from the accruing embarrassments of intervening ages. . . . [to purge] this gross and prevalent corruption . . . by a radical reform . . . by returning to the original simplicity, the primitive purity of the Christian institution, and, of course, [to take] up things just as we find them upon the sacred page.2
He believed that had followers of Christ only "held fast that form of sound words contained in the holy Scriptures,"3 nothing of the complicated practices characterizing Christianity for hundreds of years would have infected the church. Thus, Campbell further proposed that in any matter on which the New Testament had nothing to say, neither did anyone coming after the closing of the New Testament have any authority to "interfere, in order to supply the supposed deficiency by making laws for the Church,"4 a principle pithily put out by his spiritual descendents in his maxim "Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent." Throughout the Declaration and Address
Unfortunately, Campbell's vision of a movement of Christians of all denominations uniting on the simple terms of the New Testament quickly developed into a sect of its own--and eventually this union built on "the same ground on which the church stood at the beginning" splintered into three separate fellowships, the Disciples of Christ, the Christian Church, and the church of Christ, all, ironically, taking their cue from one or another difference of interpretation of the plain words of the Scriptures.6
Among these, only the
This is the heritage of the church of my youth, the church I worshipped with and defended. I was among the more conservative of the mainstream, definitely not down with hand-clapping, and for a time wholly unwelcoming to the more casual contemporary songs. At
Over time, the resemblance of the modern church to that body written about in the New Testament became a subject of fascination for me. Without swerving in any way from the basic doctrines derived from the Bible--the necessity of baptism, for example, or the requirement that we sing a cappella--I found myself frustrated with the often complacent implementation of those doctrines. It wasn’t necessarily that I felt personally dissatisfied; instead, I saw a disconnect with the Restoration ideal. In congregation after congregation, I recognized a general consensus in place: The work was finished, the church was restored, and everything was going exactly according to plan.
Myself, I wasn’t so sure.
Why, for example, did we so often look to our evangelists as the shepherds of the congregations, when the Bible clearly laid down a directive to elders to be those shepherds? Wasn't this just a lingering vestige of the days when the priest ruled the parish? Or what of our treatment of the Lord’s Supper? The Scriptures demonstrated that the purpose of meetings of the early church was to commemorate Christ’s death. Yet the modern church had reduced it to a nibble of cracker and a hasty swallow of grape juice--evidently without sensing that this reduction cut the heart out of worship. It seemed clear to me that the work wasn’t done. The church wasn’t yet quite restored. We had to keep going.
Without any clear idea of what I could do personally, even in my own local congregation, to encourage openness to further restoration, I set about gathering books and materials on the early church. After all, it wasn’t about what I thought the church should look like. To argue for something just because it seemed like a good idea--that would be unthinkable! No, I intended to study the early church, to discern a clear picture of the church as God had established it. And if in the process I reached any unavoidable conclusions on the incompleteness of the restoration--well, then, I would prayerfully submit to God’s divine design.
As it turned out, my study of those first believers did draw for me a clear picture of the early church. And I did come to an unavoidable conclusion.
It just wasn’t the conclusion I’d expected.
1. Thomas Campbell, Declaration and Address (St Louis: Mission Messenger, 1972), 44-45.
6. William Whalen, Separated Brethren (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Company, 1961), 94.
7. See Leroy Brownlow's Why I Am a Member of the Church of Christ (
Never Mind the Gnostics, Here's the Marcionites
As a member of the
That's not an uncommon teaching; most evangelical churches teach some variation on this theme. In the
As this apostasy developed, human philosophy and paganism crept into the church, and it became difficult for the church to preserve the simplicity of the gospel, purity of the worship and the form of government that existed in the church in the beginning. . . . [The Nicene] council marks the beginning of the apostasy that ushered in the Dark Ages, during which human laws were substituted for divine laws, and the word of God was forgotten.1
In his popular work Catholicism Against Itself, O.C. Lambert writes,
. . . . Because of [the church’s] simplicity and the fact that it was the unpopular religion [Christians] were spared the contaminating influence of those who used religion as a means of personal advancement. . . . Even in the days of persecution there was a very perceptible slipping away from the original moorings. Almost every detail of divine order was being gradually changed to conform to human ideals. . . . The apostasy which had grown steadily under persecution now spread much more rapidly. Unconverted pagans flocked into "the Church" by countless thousands and began clamoring for the retention of their time-honored "traditions." We can easily see that the natural consequence of such circumstances would be a hybrid religion, becoming more like heathenism and less like Christianity as time went on.2
A book used in Bible classes at
The persecution in many respects had served a good purpose. . . . The church was able to remain comparatively pure. . . . There was great danger ahead. With the removal of persecution and a growing popularity, the church was to be perverted and polluted with growing heresy. . . . During the first fifty years after the death of the Apostle John, the church struggled to maintain Apostolic purity. The literature of this period . . . shows clearly the efforts made to maintain the New Testament pattern and the trends that later brought on apostasy.3
As a member of the church of Christ, this doctrine of a single, apostolic church gradually polluted by "heathenism" was thus so familiar as to hardly need investigating--all I thought I had to do with it, in fact, was to certify that we had indeed winnowed out all the unbiblical nonsense that had crept in. But as I set out into the waters of history, I soon discovered myself to be sailing in a quite leaky ship--and it was getting leakier all the time.
First to be disturbed was my expectation that I would be studying a monolithic body. As far as I had always understood it, in the first few centuries after Christ's birth, all who professed to be Christians, whether in
The only exception I knew of was that small, pesky group of Gnostics--those libertine dichotomists who had insisted on the wickedness of the flesh and the primacy of the spirit, and who thus made the inconsequentiality of the body an excuse to throw parties and get drunk on a regular basis. My reference for this was, of course, passages like Jude 4, where the writer warns of "intruders" and writes of "godless persons, who pervert the grace of our God into licentiousness and who deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ."
Gnostics there indeed were, but as it turned out, I had miscalculated my heresies by a few hundred sects.
Contenders for the faith started turning up quite unexpectedly. Begin with the Naassene version of Gnosticism, which wove together Greek, Egyptian, and Semitic myths to produce a complicated cosmogony and soteriology. Claiming to follow the teachings of James the Just, as handed down to a female teacher named Mariamne, the group flourished in
In his second-century work A Refutation of All Heresies, St. Hippolytus of
The world's producing law was Primal Mind,
And next was First-born's outpoured Chaos; and third, the soul received its law of toil:
Encircl'd, therefore, with an acqueous form, with care o'erpowered it succumbs to death.
Now holding sway, it eyes the light, and now it weeps on misery flung;
Now it mourns, now it thrills with joy; now it wails, now it hears its doom;
Now it hears its doom, now it dies, and now it leaves us, never to return.
It, hapless straying, treads the maze of ills.
But Jesus said, Father, behold, a strife of ills across the earth
Wanders from thy breath (of wrath); but bitter Chaos (man) seeks to shun,
And knows not how to pass it through.
On this account, O Father, send me; bearing seals, I shall descend;
Through ages whole I'll sweep, all mysteries I'll unravel,
And forms of Gods I'll show; and secrets of the saintly path,
Styled "Gnosis," I'll impart.5
So pervasive was this sect that, interestingly, a few modern scholars make the case that the Naassenes were not a heresy at all, but the pure and true tradition established by Christ. Says Mark H. Gaffney, "The Gnostic element was . . . the very heart of the teachings of Jesus. . . . The institutional Church turned its back on and even suppressed the Wisdom teachings, thus aborting the incipient spiritual revolution. . . . Within three centuries of the crucifixion the mystical teachings of Jesus had been all but extinguished."6
Next to turn up were the Docetists, a sect which took its name from the Greek word dokesis, appearance or semblance. Docetists claimed that the Savior was merely "disguised" as a man, never actually taking flesh at all; it could well have been a variation of this sect that John had in mind when he wrote, "Every spirit that acknowledges Jesus Christ come in the flesh belongs to God, and every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus does not belong to God" (I John 4:2-3). No literal birth or death of Christ for the Docetists--their theology admitted nothing so profane as a God made flesh. (Some went so far as to deny any human nature at all in Christ.)
As proof of their theories, the Docetists circulated a Gospel of Peter, on the apostolic authority of which they held their ground. Likely composed in the mid-first century, the work is contemporaneous with the first efforts at eyewitness accounts of Christ's life. Some writers, such as Ron Cameron, are quite willing to see this early date as proof of its viability. In The Other Gospels, he writes,
It is possible that the Gospel of Peter used a source similar to that preserved independently in Mark and John. The basic stories underlying the accounts of the epiphany and the empty tomb are form-critically discrete and probably very old. In fact, these stories are closely related to certain legendary accounts and apologetic fragments that intrude into the gospel of the New Testament (Matt. 27:51-54, 62-66; 28:2-4; Mark 9:2-8 and parallels).7
Apparently it all sounded authentic enough to some otherwise "orthodox" early Christians, because for a short time, the church at Rhossus was known to read and teach this Gospel in their worship--with the approval of their bishop, Serapion of Antioch. (The congregation abandoned the book after Serapion thought better of it.)
Of the subtle Docetic teaching in the Gospel of Peter, F.F. Bruce says,
The docetic note in this narrative appears in the statement that Jesus, while being crucified, "remained silent, as though he felt no pain," and in the account of his death. It carefully avoids saying that he died, preferring to say that he "was taken up," as though he--or at least his soul or spiritual self--was "assumed" direct from the cross to the presence of God. (We shall see an echo of this idea in the Qur'an.) Then the cry of dereliction is reproduced in a form which suggests that, at that moment, his divine power left the bodily shell in which it had taken up temporary residence.8
Further confusing my comfortable view of the early church were the Ebionites. Just as ancient as the more familiar church, these Judaizing Christians were, however, incapable of accepting the fullness of the Gospel, and "turned more and more resolutely toward the past."9 They bound the Law not just on themselves, but on all converts, and in order to do this they accepted an apocryphal Gospel of the Ebionites--a synthesis of Matthew, Mark, and Luke10 --and an amended version of the Gospel of Matthew, in which they found no proof of the Virgin Birth and, opposite the Docetists, no evidence of Christ's divine nature. Christ, they maintained, was only a man adopted by God for his righteousness.11 In one form or another, this sect held on until the fifth century. Of them, Epiphanius writes,
The Gospel that is in general use among them . . . is called "according to Matthew", which however is not whole and complete but forged and mutilated - they call it the Hebrews Gospel. . . . Moreover, they deny that he was a man. . . . They say that Christ was not begotten of God the Father, but created as one of the archangels. . . . Their Gospel, which is called Gospel according to Matthew . . . reports: "I am come to do away with sacrifices, and if you cease not sacrificing, the wrath of God will not cease from you." . . . But they abandon the proper sequence of the words and pervert the saying, as is plain to all from the readings attached, and have let the disciples say: "Where will you have us prepare the passover?" And him to answer to that: "Do I desire with desire at this Passover to eat flesh with you?"12
But I hadn't seen anything yet. Next to make their claim on the Gospel were the Montanists. Followers of the Phrygian “prophet” Montanus, this late second-century sect insisted that the Paraclete favored them for conveyance of His divine message: One recorded prophecy reads, “Man is a lyre, and I [God] move over him like a plectrum.”13 As a matter of fact, these prophecies came only when the speaker was in ecstasy, much to the contrary of the custom and tradition of the church. Montanists claimed that the miraculous signs and wonders which had been gradually disappearing from the activity of the church still flourished among their number; this, of course, was because only through them did the Holy Spirit still work. The Spirit, they said, had abandoned that church which thought herself the standard-bearer of Christian truth, a church that was nothing more than a “bunch of bishops,” as the brilliant (but unfortunately, ultimately, Montanist) Tertullian once said. (It seems the Montanists were Protestant before Protestantism was cool.) Asceticism was demanded of its members: sexual abstinence, even in marriage, excessive fasting, and the impossibility of forgiveness of certain sins were emphasized.14 Though they relied for their authority on the Gospel of John, “the claims made for their prophecies seemed to question the emerging canon of New Testament Scriptures.”15
But the sect that turned out to have the most lasting effect on the church was the Marcionite heresy. For as it turned out, it is entirely due to this sect that the church of Christ even possesses a New Testament to rely on for religious authority.
Marcion was born the son of the bishop of Sinope, in
What were these ideas which got the Christian world in such a huff?
Primarily, Marcion insisted on the existence of two Gods: the God of the Jews, the giver of laws and dispenser of vengeance, and the God who had sent Jesus Christ as our redeemer from the punishments of the Old Testament God. Since the God of the Jews was also the Creator, and therefore the originator of the material substance of the world, this meant that the Savior sent by the good God had not actually been born in the flesh, but rather, had simply walked into town one day in the appearance of a full-grown man (clearly, this was a borrowing of Docetic thought). All of Christ’s suffering was likewise only the appearance of suffering, and all to fool the vengeful Creator God into accepting his death as payment for the sins of mankind.18 (How the Creator God didn’t catch on to the scheme is not left to us.)
Marcion explicated his views in two works. The first he called the Antitheses, or Contrasts, a collection of statements opposing the implacable God of the Jews with the merciful God of Christianity, this in order to establish their irreconcilable natures, and thus, to prove beyond a doubt that they really were separate beings. Of the nature of the now-lost work Bart Ehrman gives the following examples:
The Old Testament God . . . tells the Israelites to murder all their enemies in Jericho, but the God of Jesus tells his followers to love all their enemies. The God of the Old Testament allowed the prophet Elisha to call out a bear to attack and kill the children who were taunting him; Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me.” The God of the Old Testament said “cursed is anyone who hangs on a tree”; the God of Jesus ordered him, the one who was blessed, to be hanged on a tree.19
But of greater influence on the development of the church was Marcion's second literary endeavor. For this arch-heretic, the “firstborn of Satan,” as Polycarp once called him, was, in fact, the first churchman in history to establish an official canon of Scripture for the church!
And it was at this point that my troubles really started.
Note: Yes, the title of this chapter is a nod to the Sex Pistols.
1. Robert H. Brumback, History of the Church Through the Ages (St. Louis: Mission Messenger, 1957) pp. 16, 36
2. O.C. Lambert, Catholicism Against Itself (Shreveport: Lambert Book House, 1976), pp. 9, 12.
3. F.W. Mattox, The Eternal Kingdom (Delight, AR: Gospel Light, 1961), pp. 98-9, 107.
4. Mark H. Gaffney, Gnostic Secrets of the Naassenes (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2004), p. 61.
5. Hippolytus, A Refutation of All Heresies, 5, 12.
6. Mark H. Gaffney, Gnostic Secrets of the Naassenes (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2004), pp. 4, 203, 210.
7. Ron Cameron, ed., The Other Gospels (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1982), pp. 77-78.
8. F.F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament (Grand Rapids:
William B. Eerdmans, 1974), p. 93.
9. M.L. Cozens, A Handbook of Heresies (London: Sheed and Ward, 1974), p. 13.
10. Bart D. Ehrman, "Christians Who Would be Jews," Lost Christianities: Christian Scriptures and the Battles over Authentication (Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company, 2002), audiotape series.
11. Bart D. Ehrman, "Christians Who Would be Jews," Lost Christianities: Christian Scriptures and the Battles over Authentication (Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company, 2002), audiotape series.
12. Epiphanius, Panarion, 30, 13; 30, 14; 30, 16; 30, 22.
13. David F. Wright, "The Montanists," Introduction to the History of Christianity, Tim Dowley, ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), p. 87
14. David F. Wright, "The Montanists," Introduction to the History of Christianity, Tim Dowley, ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), p. 87
15. David F. Wright, "The Montanists," Introduction to the History of Christianity, Tim Dowley, ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), p. 87
16. Bart D. Ehrman, "Christians Who Refuse to be Jews," Lost Christianities: Christian Scriptures and the Battles over Authentication (Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company, 2002), audiotape series.
17 "Marcionites," The Catholic Encyclopedia Online, 1909 Catholic Encyclopedia
18. Bart D. Ehrman, "Christians Who Refuse to be Jews," Lost Christianities: Christian Scriptures and the Battles over Authentication (Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company, 2002), audiotape series.
19. Bart D. Ehrman, "Christians Who Refuse to be Jews," lecture notes, Lost Christianities: Christian Scriptures and the Battles over Authentication (Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company, 2002), p. 14.
CHAPTER THREE: HOW FIRM A FOUNDATION?
One of the pillars of doctrine in the church of Christ is the belief in the foundational value of the Holy Bible for revealing the will of God for the church’s worship, organization, and practices. Edward Wharton puts it nicely in his book The Church of Christ:
What God revealed to the apostles to be preached, believed and obeyed in the apostolic age can be identified in the New Testament . . . God intentionally made that clear in New Testament writings so that this same message would be reproduced in proclamation and practice throughout history until Christ returns. The New Testament pattern principle insures the identity of the body of Christ as God purposed it from eternity.1
Implicit in such statements is the understanding that the early church, which was also the pure and uncorrupted church, used the Bible in the same way: For them it was the Bible only, with only biblical results. Writes Robert H. Brumback, "After the death of the apostles, the church continued to accept the New Testament as the only source of authority for the church and for every act of work and worship."2 Later, after the legalization of Christianity, a whole crowd of self-righteous fellows stepped in to fix up the plain words of the Bible with supplanting, and eventually eclipsing, creeds--once again in the words of Thomas Campbell, to “interfere, in order to supply the supposed deficiency by making laws for the Church."3
Heretics were one thing. After all, the heretics we will have with us always, as evinced by the Baptists, right? So, maybe the church wasn’t monolithic, as I had imagined, but in and of itself, this discovery did little to disabuse me of my notions about the early church. It had to assert itself against all manner of nutjobs, yes, but there we see God’s wisdom in giving us the Bible to go by--so we’d know a heresy when we heard one.
Or so I would have said until discovering Marcion. Marcion was the first to declare a canon of Scripture? But how could that be, I asked myself--for as Leroy Brownlow writes, “In the time of the apostles and for the first three centuries the Bible was the only creed."4 Obviously, if the Bible was the only creed of the early church, then the early church knew what books made up the Bible. Didn’t they?
At this time, approximately 140 A.D., no one had yet proposed the notion of pulling together the sacred writings into an authoritative standard to which to turn. Clement of Rome, the author of the earliest non-canonical piece of orthodox Christian writing--the Epistle to the Corinthians, written around 90 A.D.--never refers to any conception of a New Testament. The seven epistles of Ignatius, written in 110 A.D. while the old man was en route to his martyrdom, never defer to any conclusive list. In his single epistle, Polycarp, who was a disciple of the Apostle John (and whom Irenaeus, his own disciple, remembered as being "fond of recalling his precious memories of the saint"5), never laments the church's failure to round up the writings.
And consider the anonymous Didache, which according to some scholars actually predates Clement's Epistle to the Corinthians by several decades, though it can just as reasonably be placed as late as 150 A.D. This work, an early attempt to systematize church practices across congregations, contains precepts for baptism, fasting, prayer, Communion, and testing "apostles and prophets"--yet nowhere does the Didache mandate a particular set of writings for exclusive use! Other anonymous works from the first half of the second century--including a few which, as we shall see, were understood to be as authoritative as those books which eventually made it into the New Testament--are similarly silent about the need for a closed canon. The Letter of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Fragments of Papias--not a warning in any of them regarding the reading of "non-canonical" books. In all these works, in all the alluding to, quoting from, knowledge of, and reverence for the works of the Apostles, not one early writer seems concerned that no definitive list has been established from which the orthodox church may take its cue!
But if they revered and frequently referenced the books we now call the New Testament, doesn't that amount to a tacit understanding of them as authoritative? Of course--it just doesn't make them exclusively authoritative. The sacred writings formed only part of the fabric of thought in the ancient church--and what's more, the early Christians apparently couldn't even agree on what exactly fell in the category of “sacred writings”! For at the time of the first orthodox canon list, a late second century list known as the Muratorian Canon, perfectly orthodox Christians were using the Revelation of Peter and the Shepherd of Hermas, while excluding Hebrews, James, and 2 Peter, among others.6
So if the idea of a closed canon, let alone the settled canon itself, doesn't even make its appearance until well over a century after the foundation of the church, what convinced the church, then, to establish a definitive canon?
I had already stumbled across the answer: Marcion, the arch-heretic of the second century, the scourge of orthodoxy.
For Marcion, proclaiming the theology which no previous churchman had truly understood, it seemed a perfectly useful idea to isolate the writings which gave authority to his teachings. And naturally enough for one who saw the God of the Old Covenant as the cause of ill fortune, Marcion included nothing of the sacred Jewish writings in his canon; Tertullian says, "The whole of the Old Testament, the heretic, to the best of my belief, holds in derision.”7 Explaining Marcion's disdain for the Old Testament, Jaroslav Pelikan writes, "Marcion was reflecting the influence of Jewish interpreters . . . [who admitted that its] purpose had not been to predict the coming of the true Christ or to prescribe the conduct of the members of his church."8
Marcion believed Paul to be the only apostle faithful to the message of Christ--not, however, without reservation. Just ten of the apostle's letters met with his approval--1 and 2 Timothy and Titus did not work well with his beliefs--and even then, he carefully amended his selections to make sure nothing "unorthodox" remained. All references to the Old Testament, every hint that the God who had sent Jesus was one and the same as the God of the Jews, these were deleted. He believed that the gospel "had been adulterated by the other apostles and their followers and was now being restored.”9 As for Gospels, he accepted only a Luke bereft of the Nativity account. And it was this production, pronounced by Marcion the rule by which correct Christian belief was to be measured, that was the first New Testament of the Christian world.10
In response to this, the proto-Catholic church decided to establish its own canon by which to measure orthodoxy. As I'd already seen, the Muratorian Canon was the first list proposed, consisting of "twenty-two of the twenty-seven books of our New Testament. Not mentioned are Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, and 3 John. But it accepts additional books, as well: the Wisdom of Solomon and the Apocalypse of Peter."11
That, however, settled nothing.
Of the matter, Henry G. Graham writes:
Now in class (1) i.e., those acknowledged by [orthodox] Christians everywhere to be genuine and authentic, and to have been written by Apostolic men, we find such books as the Four Gospels, 13 Epistles of St Paul, Acts of the Apostles. . . . But there was a class . . . of books that were disputed, controverted, in some places acknowledged, in others rejected; and among these we actually find the Epistle of St James, Epistle of St Jude, 2nd Epistle of St Peter; 2nd and 3rd of St John, Epistle to the Hebrews, and the Apocalypse of St John. . . . But further still . . . in this class of "controverted" and doubtful books some were to be found which are not now in our New Testament at all, but which were by many then considered to be inspired and Apostolic. . . . Among these we may mention specially the "Shepherd" of Hermas, Epistle of Barnabas, the Doctrine of the Twelve Apostles [the Didache], Apostolic Constitutions, Gospel according to the Hebrews, St Paul's Epistle to the Laodiceans,12 Epistle of St Clement, and others.13
My tidy picture of early Christianity now looked just a bit messy.
I had been taught to think of the early church as a body proceeding only as the Bible instructed, and thus remaining free from corruption or doctrinal blemish. Apostasy had come when the early Christians, finally freed from persecution, no longer "searched the Scriptures daily." Right? But . . . if the early church had indeed relied on the Scriptures for their guidance, I had, now, to ask: Which Scriptures? The Letter of Barnabas? That was considered Scripture. The Shepherd of Hermas? Inspired also. The Revelation of Peter? Word of God.
Further troubling me was the lateness of the final settling of the canon. The Muratorian canon opened things up at the close of the second century, but the early church went on discussing and disagreeing for over another two hundred years--it was not until the Council of Carthage in 397 A.D. that all involved finally agreed that the canon list would definitely be that which we have today.14 Even worse, this did not happen until long after the identifying marks of apostasy are traditionally said to have entered the practice of the church: the monarchal bishop (96),15 a separate, elevated priesthood (150),16 infant baptism (c. 200),17 and monastic life (305)!18
What was more, in the scheme of the ancient world, the church that had chosen Mark and Titus and Hebrews as inspired writings was acting in the same way as the church that had chosen only Luke and ten of Paul's letters as inspired writings. For what was intriguing about all the heresies my study had turned up was that they, too, considered themselves to be setting the Word of God apart from the mass of obviously heretical texts. They, too, were searching the Scriptures! Ask the average Ebionite to prove from the revealed text that Jesus was only a man adopted by God for his righteousness, and he could do it. Ask a Montanist to demonstrate from the Scriptures that she worshipped in spirit and in truth, and she could do so. Insist that a Marcionite show you where in the Holy Writ he found his evidence for two Gods, and he would have it for you.
The only difference was that the church that had chosen only Luke and ten of Paul's letters--Marcion's church--hadn't survived. The church that had closed the canon at our twenty-seven books--the same church that practiced infant baptism and a sacrificial Mass--was the church that had survived. I had inherited her canon, her choice of which books to establish as God's Word. And according to everything I knew about biblical principles, that church--rife with baptized babies and priests and a Pope at the unbiblical head of it all--was an apostate, corrupt organization heedless of God's will.
At this point in my study I panicked.
For I now had to ask myself: Was the Bible as I knew it--the Bible on which I relied for my guidance and authority in matters of religion--the Bible which “if . . . not true, then there is no acceptable and trustworthy history”:19 was that Bible nothing more than yet another creation of the apostate Roman Catholic Church?
1. Edward C. Wharton, The Church of Christ (Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1997), pp. 14-15.
2. Robert H. Brumback, History of the Church Through the Ages (St. Louis: Mission Messenger, 1957) pp. 273-274.
3. Thomas Campbell, Declaration and Address (St Louis: Mission Messenger, 1972), p. 45.
4. Leroy Brownlow, Why I Am a Member of the Church of Christ (Fort Worth: Brownlow, 2002), p.44.
5. Betty Radice, ed., and Maxwell Staniforth, trans., Early Christian Writings (New York: Penguin, 1982), p.136.
6. Tim Dowley, ed., Introduction to the History of Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), pp. 134-135.
7. Tertullian, Against Marcion, 5, 5.
8. Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1971), p. 77.
9. Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1971), p. 79.
10. Bart D. Ehrman, "Christians Who Refuse to be Jews," Lost Christianities: Christian Scriptures and the Battles over Authentication (Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company, 2002), audiotape series.
11. Bart D. Ehrman, "Formation of the New Testament Canon," lecture notes, Lost Christianities: Christian Scriptures and the Battles over Authentication (Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company, 2002), p. 37.
12. Cf. Col.. 4:16.
13. Henry G. Graham, Where We Got Our Bible (St. Louis: B. Herder, 1960), pp. 33-35.
14. Henry G. Graham, Where We Got Our Bible (St. Louis: B. Herder, 1960), p. 36.
15. Robert H. Brumback, History of the Church Through the Ages (St. Louis: Mission Messenger, 1957) p. 16.
16. Morris M. Womack, The Church Through the Ages, Part I (Austin: R.B. Sweet, 1965), p. 26.
17. Everett Ferguson, Early Christians Speak (Austin: Sweet, 1971), p. 60.
18. “Monasticism," The Catholic Encyclopedia Online, 1909 Catholic Encyclopedia
19. Leroy Brownlow, Why I Am a Member of the Church of Christ (Fort Worth: Brownlow, 2002), p.52.
CHAPTER FOUR: UNFORESEEN DEVELOPMENTS
Without a doubt, the entire Restoration Movement hangs on the belief that the church was designed to operate "just as it was when first founded by Christ through the apostles."1 To tinker with it, even with the best of intentions, even for the best of purposes, no matter how positive the development appeared to be, was to alter an already flawless institution. That's certainly what I would have said when it came to a perfectly useful mechanism such as a hierarchical organization or a Nicene Creed. And for me, as a member of the church of Christ, the principle was simply axiomatic; my aim in studying the early church was based entirely on my desire to be obedient to that tenet of faith! How, then, could it be that the New Testament might actually fall, not into the category of a divinely ordered element of the constitution and worship of the church--but might, instead, fall squarely into the category of a law made for the Church "in order to supply a supposed deficiency": that of the lack of an authoritatively enumerated list of approved Scriptures?
After all, apply the argument to any number of post-apostolic developments--the diocesan bishop, for example. Years of sermons and Bible classes had taught me that the early church was organized very simply. Each congregation possessed complete autonomy in its affairs; no one church or churches could direct the practices, worship, or belief of any other church. Writes Leroy Brownlow:
Autonomy is defined as "right of self-government" . . . In the first century each congregation was such. . . . There was no tyranny of one church over another. The church in Rome or Jerusalem had no authority over the churches in other communities. . . . The elders and deacons in one congregation had no authority to exercise despotic rule . . . over the elders and deacons in another congregation.2
That autonomy meant that a very limited infrastructure was needed for the church: a plurality of elders to oversee the work of the congregation, restricted in their oversight to that congregation which had appointed them. Edward Wharton explains, "The three Greek words presbuteros, episkopos, poimein, from which we translate, elder or presbyter, overseer or bishop, and shepherd or pastor, all refer to the same ministry group of men."3
The office of elder was to encompass all three roles. Elders "were the official representatives of the congregation. . . . (Their duties were to) watch on behalf of souls . . . administer discipline . . . minister to the sick," as well as act as a teacher to the congregation.4
Answerable to the elders were to be found deacons likewise appointed by the congregation to serve in whatever capacities were necessary. "Deacons' special work," explains Wharton, "should be relieving the church of any burden needing attention so that it can function effectively in evangelism and the maturing ministries of the local church."5 Thus, a deacon's duties may be the oversight of the food distribution, the staffing of Sunday Schools, or the responsibilities associated with keeping up a permanent meeting place.
Then, of course, there was to be an evangelist, or in common parlance, a preacher. The word evangelist "simply means 'proclaimer of good news'";6 an evangelist was to preach the gospel and all corollary doctrine, to teach, exhort, rebuke, and admonish. The elders of each congregation were the only ones with the authority to hire a preacher for the congregation under their care, and that preacher was, in turn, answerable to those elders alone. Further, of course, a preacher was not a pastor, as some of our religious friends (as we like to say) had it; no, the preacher had no special title, and deserved no "reverending."
That was it. No other church offices were instituted by God; clearly and unquestionably demonstrable from the New Testament accounts was God's intention that the church operate on this simple, decentralized level. But, as Leroy Brownlow puts it, "This simple organization, however, failed to satisfy many. Hence, they made changes whereby their unchristian aspirations for ecclesiastical lordship could be realized."7
According to everything I had been taught, by perhaps as early 110 AD those "unchristian aspirations" had produced the "monarchal episcopate [which] refers to congregational rule by one man, as a distinction arose between the terms bishop and presbyter."8 The letters of Ignatius of Antioch, written while the bishop was en route to his execution, are the first source of evidence for this change:
It is therefore meet for you . . . [that by] submitting yourselves to your bishop and presbytery, ye may be sanctified in all things.9
So then it becometh you to run in harmony with the mind of the bishop. . . . For your honourable presbytery, which is worthy of God, is attuned to the bishop, even as its strings to a lyre.10
I advise you, be ye zealous to do all things in godly concord, the bishop presiding after the likeness of God and the presbyters after the likeness of the council of Apostles. . . . Be ye united with the bishop and with them that preside over you as an ensample and a lesson of incorruptibility.11
Therefore as the Lord did nothing without the Father, whether by himself or by the Apostles, so neither do ye anything without the bishop and the presbyters.12
It is therefore necessary, even as your wont is, that ye should do nothing without the bishop; but be ye obedient also to the presbytery, as to the Apostles of Jesus Christ our hope.13
Fare ye well in Jesus Christ, submitting yourselves to the bishop as to the commandment, and likewise also to the presbytery.14
Do ye all follow your bishop, as Jesus Christ followed the Father, and the presbytery as the Apostles; and to the deacons pay respect, as to God's commandment. Let no man do aught of things pertaining to the Church apart from the bishop. Let that be held a valid eucharist which is under the bishop or one to whom he shall have committed it. . . . It is not lawful apart from the bishop either to baptize or to hold a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve, this is well-pleasing also to God.15
According to F.W. Mattox, these passages, as well as another dozen or more Ignatian references to a bishop, are not to be taken as a description of an existing situation. That writer assures us,
It has become more apparent that the statements attributed to Ignatius cannot be taken as the true picture of conditions in the church, but rather represent what he wanted them to be. . . . His desire for martyrdom and his attitude toward the elders of the church has led many to believe that he had a "neurotic will to power," and that this explains his statements that elders should be in subjection to their bishops.16
After this, of course, "certain bishops came to be looked upon with greater respect than others. Country churches that had been established by city churches were expected to respect the judgments of the bishops of the mother churches. . . . By the fourth century these country bishops were subordinated to city bishops."17
Now, "unchristian aspirations" aside, the diocesan bishop actually served a good purpose. As I had already discovered, in the first few centuries, new heresies were turning up every few years, challenging the authentic church, introducing perverted doctrine, and luring the unsuspecting to their spiritual deaths. What better way to combat the spread of heresy than to tighten up the controls?
Bishops, or fully ordained priests with the care of their own flock, but which oversee the work of the Church in the separate parishes of their diocese, are considered successors to the college of the Apostles. As such, they are described as having "the powers of order and jurisdiction."18 A multitude of congregations in submission to a single, doctrinally tested overseer, congregations all "running in harmony with the mind of the bishop," are congregations not likely to chase after suspicious doctrines, and even Mattox admits that Ignatius was only trying to protect the church:
It seems clear that Ignatius felt the need for a strongly organized system in the church to meet the conditions of his day. . . . There was a rapid development of heresy within the church, and the chief desire of Ignatius was to maintain unity in the congregation and provide protection against such heresy.19
Contrast that to the fate of a church operating autonomously. Should a previously orthodox congregation contract the disease of heresy, who, in the absence of an Apostle, would be qualified to admonish it? Not the congregation across town. They could reason with these erring brothers all they liked, but there would be no higher power available to remove the one "preaching and teaching a gospel contrary to the one which you received." And if that heretical congregation was stronger, more influential, wealthier, than the one which held fast to the truth, then the power of the orthodox church to overcome the spread of heresy would be diminished indeed. The only men with the authority to excommunicate heretical leaders--the Apostles--would all be dead, and in an autonomous structure, no system of inheritance of their divine appointment was provided by God to ensure a strictly orthodox succession. Indeed, in actual practice, didn't an autonomous structure actually just ensure the survival of the fittest?
Hold on there, I reasoned with myself. It might seem so, but obviously, any such thing was still an alteration in the original organization of the church, and that was inherently unnecessary, no matter how good of an idea it seemed to be. God had structured the primitive church in just the way he meant for it to operate, and being perfect, the structure never needed to change. Did it?
So I might have continued to insist, until my review of the book of Acts drew a very different picture for me.
The first moments of the kingdom of heaven are described in the second chapter of Acts. There, we read the first sermon, preached by Peter, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to a crowd of "devout Jews from every nation under heaven" (Acts 2:5), come to Jerusalem for Pentecost. These Jews received his message and were baptized, and "three thousand persons were added that day" (Acts 2:41). The New Testament gives a picture of the activity of the church in these first days of life:
They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers. . . . All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one's need. Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes (Acts 2:42, 44-46).
No problem so far, right? Not for long. In four years' time, the church, planted and growing but still local only to Jerusalem, encounters a problem with some of its members:
At that time, as the number of disciples continued to grow, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. So the Twelve called together the community of the disciples and said, "It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to serve at table. Brothers, select from among you seven reputable men, filled with the Spirit and wisdom, whom we shall appoint to this task" (Acts 6:1-3).
This office, that of deacon, was not established at the outset, yet as time had passed, the need for such a ministry became apparent, and the Apostles responded by creating a new, permanent office in the organization of the church. This very fact created a disparity in the familiar argument that the church should need no improvement: If God had ordered the church from the outset after a perfect and unchanging pattern, why hadn't the necessity of the existence of this office been revealed from the get-go?
There was more, though. While the first wave of converts was exclusively Jewish, in 41 A.D. Peter encounters Cornelius, an "upright and God-fearing" Gentile, who claims that a vision has directed him to summon the apostle. Peter, having had a vision of his own, quickly realizes that God means for Gentiles to share in the gospel as well, and baptizes the first non-Jewish believers (Acts 10). From the reaction of Peter's fellow Jews, his move was shocking and clearly unanticipated; Luke writes, "The circumcised believers confronted him, saying, 'You entered the house of uncircumcised people and ate with them'" (Acts 11:2-3).
Here, then, was a second case in which the early church had progressed beyond its originally established boundaries. Clearly, the early Christians had expected their church, like their Judaism, to consist only of the circumcised--and left up to them, it more than likely would have remained just that way. What was more, even though God had indisputably intended from the beginning to extend salvation to the Gentiles, instead of making His intentions known from the start, He waited until the time was right to reveal the true scope of salvation. The pattern of the "primitive church," then, was clearly not the pattern God meant for it to keep!
But things were about to get even more troublesome for me. By 49 A.D. the church, now over fifteen years old, faced a difficulty with its Gentile converts, specifically, whether or not these Gentiles should be required to keep the Law of Moses:
Some who had come down from Judea were instructing the brothers, "Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice, you cannot be saved." Because there arose no little dissension and debate by Paul and Barnabas with them, it was decided that Paul, Barnabas, and some of the others should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and presbyters about this question. . . . The apostles and the presbyters met together to see about this matter (Acts 15:1-2, 6).
The conflict over circumcision concerned whether or not to discontinue an existing practice--and the leaders of the church make the resolution that they should not continue to require it of certain members:
It is the decision of the holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities, namely, to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meats of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriage. If you keep free of these, you will be doing what is right (Acts 15:28-29).
With the gradual transformation of the makeup of the church into an almost entirely Gentile population, this decision, once made for the sake of the minority Gentiles, has now been "adopted in its major outlines as the accepted practice of the Church."20 Thus here the apostles were, years after the foundation of the church, faced with a question over traditional practices--and they make an adjustment which eventually becomes the rule!
I was disturbed. Development in practices was intrinsically unnecessary because God had perfectly constituted the worship and practice of the church. Wasn't that what I had always been taught? Yet the Bible did not show me this static church: it showed me a church which, under divine guidance, was working out how to live in the world.
Ah, yes, but that's just it, I said. The difference between, say, the creation of the ruling bishop and the creation of the office of deacon was that the office of deacon was created under the auspices of men guided by the Holy Spirit and personally appointed by God to establish His kingdom. Obviously, the guys who thought it would be a good idea to set one bishop over another, even with the best of intentions, couldn't lay claim to any such measure of the Holy Spirit.
So, therefore, it seemed pretty clear. The creation of the monarchal bishop, the rise of infant baptism, the monastic life--these were all alterations that while seeming to further the work and worship of the church, were in reality innovations introduced by men not divinely guided. I could accept the introduction of the office of deacon, because the Holy Spirit had guided the Apostles, but I couldn't accept the introduction of the office of the diocesan bishop, because that was done after that specific measure of the Spirit had been given out. As I well knew, "the last of the apostles were preserved to the church until the entire apostolic work was done."21
Except, of course, for that one continuing inconsistency in my neat solution.
I firmly believed that the men who lived after the deaths of the Apostles could in no way claim divine guidance. And divine guidance was the only exception to the rule that the practices and beliefs of the church were not to be rearranged by mere men. Without divine guidance, you were trespassing on God's boundaries.
What, then, did that say about my willingness to accept as implicitly divinely authorized the version of the Scriptures chosen by the same men whom I was steadfastly refusing to allow divine guidance in any other matter?
1. Robert H. Brumback, History of the Church Through the Ages (St. Louis: Mission Messenger, 1957) p. 55.
2. Leroy Brownlow, Why I Am a Member of the Church of Christ (Fort Worth: Brownlow, 2002), pp. 39-40.
3. Edward C. Wharton, The Church of Christ (Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1997), p. 77.
4. Don De Welt, The Church in the Bible (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1958), pp. 103-105.
5. Edward C. Wharton, The Church of Christ (Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1997), pp. 97-98.
6. Don De Welt, The Church in the Bible (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1958), p. 89.
7. Leroy Brownlow, Why I Am a Member of the Church of Christ (Fort Worth: Brownlow, 2002), p. 40.
8. F.W. Mattox, The Eternal Kingdom (Delight, AR: Gospel Light, 1961), p. 108.
9. Ignatius, Epistle to the Ephesians, 2.
10. Ignatius, Epistle to the Ephesians, 4.
11. Ignatius, Epistle to the Magnesians, 6.
12. Ignatius, Epistle to the Magnesians, 7.
13. Ignatius, Epistle to the Trallians, 2.
14. Ignatius, Epistle to the Trallians, 13.
15. Ignatius, Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, 8.
16. F.W. Mattox, The Eternal Kingdom (Delight, AR: Gospel Light, 1961), p. 59.
17. Morris M. Womack, The Church Through the Ages (Austin: R.B. Sweet Co, 1965), p. 31.
18. “Bishop," The Catholic Encyclopedia Online, 1909 Catholic Encyclopedia
19. F.W. Mattox, The Eternal Kingdom (Delight, AR: Gospel Light, 1961), p. 60.
20. Richard M. Hogan, Dissent from the Creed (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 2001), p. 34.
21. J.W. Shepherd, The Church, The Falling Away, and the Restoration (Nashville: Gospel Advocate Company, 1973), p. 49.
CHAPTER FIVE: CORRECTIVE LENSES
Distressed? You bet I was. As a member in good standing of the Restoration Movement, I staked my claim on the belief the church needed rescuing from centuries of development, that it must be recreated after the original pattern of organization and doctrine which God meant for it to keep. But the Bible was showing me that the primitive Christians had maintained no such principle of stasis as I claimed for it, but rather, that they had judiciously developed the church's structure and doctrine. Now, while I could get around this discovery by reminding myself that the church observed in the Bible had developed while still under the guidance of the inspired apostles, I was refusing to make the same allowance for the development of the church existing after the apostles--all while arbitrarily accepting one of those very developments, the definitive list of the Scriptures, as divinely guided! If the selection of the canon had been divinely guided, well, how was I to be sure the other developments weren‘t?
I was quick to reassure myself. There was no reason that the one had to equal the other. So I'd discovered that the Catholic Church may have had a hand in preserving the Word of God; that didn't automatically make her the true Church. After all, God often used wicked men to carry out His work. Surely, that was the case here. The church had apostatized, but God had still made use of it for the sake of those sincere Christians who would follow, so that they could use His Word to excavate the "unspoiled" church of Christ:
Problems originating from the pride of men also led to new interpretations and changes in the organization of the church as ambitious men led off groups of disciples. The Apostles had warned the church that departure would come through drifting away from the original teaching. To safeguard against such departure, adherence to the "Word of his grace" was encouraged.1
Of course, I had always believed that for medieval man, the Catholic Church had made such adherence to the Word impossible by suppressing, even forbidding, the Bible, to keep its members ignorant of what it actually said. As Robert H. Brumback writes, "The purpose of withholding the Bible from the laity was to prevent the private interpretation of it."2 O.C. Lambert adds, "The Catholic Church for centuries forbade the reading of the Bible. Men see that Catholicism is not in the Bible, and that what is taught in the Bible has been discarded. There is no institution on earth that has as much to fear from reading the Bible as the Catholic Church."3 And Loraine Boettner explains,
The Word of God as given in the Scriptures . . . is sufficiently clear so that the individual Christian has a responsibility to read and to think for himself. . . . The Bible was first officially forbidden to the people by the Church of Rome and placed on the Index of Forbidden Books by the Council of Valencia . . . in the year 1229. . . . As the top-heavy structure of law and ritual developed, the Bible had to be denied to the people. Otherwise they would have seen that it was merely a man made structure. . . . So, for a thousand years, from the early sixth century to the sixteenth century, while the Roman Church held sway, the Bible remained a closed book. The Roman Church, instead of being a kingdom of light, became a kingdom of darkness, promoting ignorance and superstition and holding the people in bondage.4
Thus, the argument goes, the Bible was left to us so that by "adherence to the Word of his grace," we could know the will of God for ourselves. That Bible, and not the Pope, was to be our religious authority. The Catholic Church, however, had interfered, taking the Bible out of the hands of her members so she could promulgate false doctrine without detection..
But this explanation now sounded a little too easy. First of all, my studies had revealed that the confusion surrounding the identity of the Scriptures meant that "adherence to the Word of his grace" might, in fact, be as much adherence to a decision made by a "bunch of bishops" as was obedience to a Pope! But even if I took it on faith that the Bible I held in my hands, and to which I referred with such ease, was the Word as God meant for it to be received, what did it really mean when I insisted that God had left us a written document to serve as our "only authority in matters of religion"?
It meant, first of all, that I had twisted history nicely and neatly backwards, for no other reason than that it served my particular doctrinal claims to do so.
After all, when I so complacently explained that we individual Christians had the duty to search the Scriptures for ourselves, being vigilant that what we practice and believe always line up with what we found in the pages of the Bible, in actuality I was requiring that all Christians throughout history and in every place exist in times and conditions like my own, in which the complete New Testament is available in pocket-sized form for a few bucks at the corner dollar store.
And no world could be farther from the first-century world than that.
If a church of the first century found itself wrestling with doctrinal or disciplinary issues, the leaders of the church could not have paged through their Bibles for guidance. To resort to the written word for guidance would mean, first, sending word to dozens of other congregations, asking after the nature of precious letters they might have in their possession. Should one of the documents in the possession of another congregation be useful for their situation, a copy could not simply be FedExed over; no, it would have been carried many miles, perhaps hundreds, frequently in dangerous conditions. And upon arriving, it would not have been photocopied and handed out for study by each member of the congregation; even if it could have been, it would have done little good, because few members of any given congregation would have been educated enough to read the letter. Instead, it would have been read aloud to the church, and if a copy was made, it would have been laboriously done by hand and kept in the home of one of the few educated members, where it more than likely would have very little company in the way of the other books of the Scriptures, and where it certainly would not have been at hand for study at whim, even if most of those who might want to study it had been able to read it.
Even when the question of the canon was settled, and complete copies began to be made steadily, the average poor and uneducated Christian would have found it beyond his ability to defer to a personal copy of the written word when seeking the will of God. After all, even after the invention of the printing press around the year 1450, books would remain few and expensive, and the prerequisite for even owning a book, education, would be a pointless pursuit in such an age! For the ordinary peasant with a doctrinal difficulty, his recourse, every time, would have been to go to the leaders of his church--and whether or not they correctly interpreted the will of God would have been completely out of his control.
And this, of course, meant that for well over a thousand years, the eternal fate of each and every Christian soul was completely at the mercy of the interpretations of the leaders of the church.
This picture was quite a reversal from what I had always believed. I had always insisted that God had wisely invested all authority in the cold, hard, written word so that no individual Christian would have to rely on anyone else's interpretation, but could read the Bible for himself, seeing to his own salvation. Now I realized that this explanation only worked for those of us living in the age of the printing press and its consequent literacy. When I so quickly argued that God had left the written word as our guide, I was, in essence, arguing that God had deliberately left as the only source of knowledge of His divine plan a resource to which virtually no one would have access for hundreds of years! And by the terms of my own belief in the apostasy of those few who did have access to it, this, in fact, meant that many millions of those Christians had never even had a chance. Even if it were true that the medieval Church had deliberately kept the Bible out of the hands of its members, this still brought me back to one question: Didn't God know any of this? Or if He did know, did He not care that He was leaving the vast majority of His people at the mercy of men of heedless ambition?
Once again I rushed to reassure myself. It wasn't that He didn't care--that would be out of keeping with a just God. And it wasn't that He hadn't known--that would be out of keeping with an omniscient God. No, it was that He was also a God who had endowed us with free will. And as such, when those men of heedless ambition decided to trample on the precepts of the Bible, He had allowed them their exercise of free will. If the consequences were sin and death for good people, well, then, it wouldn't be the first time good people had suffered because of wickedness.
It all worked out, then--right?
1. F.W. Mattox, The Eternal Kingdom (Delight, AR: Gospel Light, 1961), p. 107.
2 Robert H. Brumback, History of the Church Through the Ages (St. Louis: Mission Messenger, 1957) p. 116.
3. O.C. Lambert, Catholicism Against Itself (Shreveport: Lambert Book House, 1976), p. 28.
4. Loraine Boettner, Roman Catholicism (Philadelphia: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1969), pp. 30, 97, 99, 100-101.
CHAPTER SIX: MONKEY WRENCHES
At this point I felt certain the pieces would all fit into place at any moment. I could still avow that the inspired Scriptures had been written as a record of the will of God for those living in the ages after direct inspiration. I could still maintain that they had been preserved and collected under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, even if He had to use self-serving men to achieve this. No, not everyone could access them, true, but as long as the leaders of the church had been godly, truth had been maintained and the precepts of God observed. And, of course, superstition and paganism hadn't gotten the upper hand until after the legalization of Christianity, when imperial patronage made the church a profession for ambitious and godless men, which, sadly, caused many sincere believers down through the ages to suffer the consequences.
Except . . . there was one small problem. For my theory to work out, doctrinal perversion had to be the result of state promotion. But I had to admit that I now knew that this wasn't exactly accurate. Most unfortunately for my application of cause and effect, I was discovering that many hallmarks of Catholic doctrine were actually evident from writings of the period preceding legalization.
First, there was the practice of saying prayers to aid the souls of the dead. While Protestants traditionally date the practice as beginning in about 300 A.D.,1 the evidence, as it turns out, tells a different story.
Laid to rest sometime in the very late second century, the tomb inscription of Abercius, bishop of Hierapolis, relates in metaphorical language his cherished experience as a Christian, and concludes by pleading, "May everyone who understands and agrees with these things pray for Abercius."2 For him to make this request, he would necessarily have to believe such prayers were efficacious; such a bishop, for whom, as he says, "faith led the way," would hardly request that other believers make futile gestures on his behalf. Yet this plea comes at least one hundred years before prayers for the dead are admitted to enter the practice of the church. Was Abercius simply possessed of an idiosyncratic faith?
Apparently not, for Tertullian, writing only a few years after the inscription was cut, says, “We offer sacrifices for the dead on their birthday anniversaries [anniversaries of death]."3 In another work of the same period, he writes, “[A widow] prays for [her husband’s] soul and asks that he may, while waiting, find rest. . . . And each year, on the anniversary of his death, she offers the sacrifice."4
This notion about prayer for the dead couldn't, then, be blamed on the laxity of the post-legalization church. But where had these early Christians gotten such an idea? Was it just wishful thinking?
Actually, it seems they got the idea from no less an authority than the Septuagint.
The Septuagint, of course, is the Greek translation of the sacred Jewish writings which Christians call the Old Testament. Tradition says that this translation was made in the third century B.C., in Alexandria, Egypt, at the request of the Egyptian ruler Ptolemy, by seventy-two Israelite scribes, who, working separately, produced duplicate renderings of the sacred writings. While the story is surely fanciful, it is certain that the resulting translation, the Septuagint, “was recognised as a legitimate text, and was employed in Palestine even by the rabbis. The Apostles and Evangelists utilised it also and borrowed Old Testament citations from it, especially in regard to the prophecies."5
What sets this Greek recension apart from its Hebrew counterpart, however, is its inclusion of those books written after the return from captivity in the fifth century B.C. These were the books that did not circulate with the Palestinian collection--specifically, that group of books that Protestants call the Apocrypha. Early Christians made no such distinctions, of course, and accepted the Septuagint as Scripture, even after the Jews, concerned about the Christian use of their sacred writings, decided around the year 100 A.D. to "officially" designate only the Palestinian collection as Scripture. Now, among the books of the Septuagint is found a work known as 2 Maccabees, an account of the Jews' successful uprising against the occupying Greek forces, an uprising which resulted in a brief restoration of independence for the Jewish people. In this book, we find the following passage:
But under the tunic of each of the dead they found amulets sacred to the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear. So it was clear to all that this was why these men had been slain. . . . Turning to supplication, they prayed that the sinful deed might be fully blotted out. . . . [Judas] then took up a collection among all his soldiers . . . which he sent to Jerusalem to provide for an expiatory sacrifice. In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection of the dead in view; for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been useless and foolish to pray for them in death. . . . Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from this sin (2 Maccabees 12:40-46).
Now, as a non-Catholic I naturally looked with suspicion on the use of "apocryphal" works to establish doctrine. But whether or not I considered 2 Maccabees Scripture, the Hellenistic Jews and the early Christians certainly did, and in this work, they found expressly taught the efficacy of prayers for the dead. Thus it was anything but a heathen superstition--it was, in fact, a part of the deposit of Jewish faith!
Searching the books I had at my disposal, I found little explanation for this curious anachronism. Indeed, I hardly found mention of these testimonies of the primitive church--Everett Ferguson, for example, who quotes the inscription of Abercius as an example of early Christian poetry, passes without comment over the implications of the bishop's request.6 What, then, was I to make of this suspicious appeal?
But prayers for the dead wasn't the only unexpected practice turning up. There was also the organization of the Catholic Church to consider. Unless I was willing to discount the numerous Ignatian references to a ruling bishop as the delusions of an old man, I'd already seen from the martyr's letters that much of the hierarchical structure was no Dark Ages attempt to reconfigure the previously autonomous church, but that its constitution, in fact, reached back to the very beginnings of the church. More upsetting for my vision of the self-ruling primitive church, however, my perusal of early church writings soon provided me with glimpses of that most emblematic figure of the hierarchy--the Pope himself.
Probably the earliest extant non-inspired writing is a letter written to the church at Corinth by a churchman named Clement. Generally dated to about 90 A.D., the letter addresses a rebellion by the church against its presbyters--and it does so in surprisingly authoritative terms:
You, therefore, who laid the foundation of the rebellion, submit to the presbyters and be chastened to repentance.7
Accept our counsel, and you will have nothing to regret.8
If anyone disobeys the things which have been said by Him through us, let them know that they will involve themselves in transgressions and in no small danger.9
Further, Clement seems to argue against the removal of the presbyters on grounds of an approved apostolic succession--something I had always been assured did not exist. He writes, "Our Apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned, and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to the ministry."10
Evidently no other bishop thought it his duty to send letters of reprimand to and fro. So just who was this Clement who felt it his responsibility to interfere in the business of another church, even claiming he did so by counsel of the Holy Spirit? Most disconcertingly, history records that this man who wrote in such authoritative terms was none other than the man the Catholic Church describes as Pope St. Clement I, Bishop of Rome!
Was this letter of reprimand just the bluster of an interfering busybody? Apparently not, for Clement is mentioned again some sixty years later in the work commonly known as the Shepherd of Hermas. There, the writer describes a vision in which the Church, personified as an old woman, instructs him to "write two little books, and . . . send one to Clement, and one to Grapte. So Clement shall send to the foreign cities, for this is his duty; while Grapte shall instruct the widows and orphans."11 Anachronistically invoking Clement, Hermas clearly attributes to the bishop the oversight implicit in the letter to the Corinthians.
Thirty years later, in his Against Heresies, Irenaeus reinforces the implication of a Clementine jurisdiction. He writes, "In the time of Clement, no small dissension having arisen among the brethren in Corinth, the Church at Rome sent a very strong letter to the Corinthians, exhorting them to peace and renewing their faith."12 Note that he records Clement's action as a reprimand properly administered. If Clement, brimming with overweening grandiosity, had overstepped boundaries universally understood by the primitive church, why no outrage? Indeed, I almost detected approval!
But what was worse, Irenaeus relates this incident while delineating the line of bishops down to his day--specifically, the line of Roman bishops:
The blessed Apostles [Peter and Paul], having founded and built up the [Roman] Church, they handed over the office of the episcopate to Linus. . . . To him succeeded Anencletus; and after him, in the third place from the Apostles, Clement was chosen for the episcopate. . . . To this Clement, Evaristus succeeded; and Alexander succeeded Evaristus. Then, sixth after the Apostles, Sixtus was appointed; after him, Telesphorus, who was also gloriously martyred. Then Hyginus; after him, Pius; and after him, Anicetus. Soter succeeded Anicetus, and now, in the twelfth place after the Apostles, the lot of the episcopate has fallen to Eleutherus.13
Why had Irenaeus singled out the Roman bishops? Because, as he explains, the Roman church wasn't just another church:
[We point] out here the successions of the bishops of the greatest and most ancient Church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious Apostles, Peter and Paul, that Church which has the tradition and the faith which comes down to us after having been announced to men by the Apostles. For with this Church, because of its superior origin, all churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world; and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the Apostolic tradition.14
"With this Church, all churches must agree"? That certainly did not sound like the sentiments of a man used to a system of autonomously functioning churches!
Certain that this time I would find an explanation for my discovery, I turned to my books. But to my dismay, the seemingly unilateral move by Clement, as well as the corroborating evidence found in Hermas and Irenaeus, seemed to have been simply . . . glossed over.
Referring to Clement's letter to the Corinthians, F.W. Mattox says carefully, "To encourage the Corinthian church to settle its difficulties, the church at Rome wrote a general letter. . . . . Clement . . . made a distinction between inspired writing and his own. He appealed to the 'the blessed epistle of Paul the Apostle' as authority and considers his own as a work of admonition."15
Admonition? The words of Clement again: "If anyone disobeys the things which have been said by Him through us, let them know that they will involve themselves in transgressions and in no small danger." That sounded downright authoritative to me--it almost smacked of curses and anaethemas!
Of Irenaeus' statements, Mattox writes simply, "He appealed to the fact that some of the churches were established by Apostles and had a continuous succession of officers to this day. . . . As an example he appeals to the church at Rome."16 What of Irenaeus' declaration that "with this Church . . . all churches must agree"? Incredibly, Mattox insists, "Submission to Rome was yet in the future."17
Likewise, Everett Ferguson passes over the incongruously authoritative notes of Clement's letter and omits any mention of Irenaeus' peculiar veneration of Rome. In his Early Christians Speak, a compendium of passages drawn from Christian writings of the first few centuries of the life of the church, he discusses the epistle only in terms of its advocacy of obedience to God's order.18 That Clement is understood by the Catholic Church to have been Pope is not even mentioned; in fact, he assures the reader, "Hermas identifies Clement as the corresponding secretary of the Roman church."19
This inexplicable pre-Constantinian papacy was bad enough, but it was about to get worse. For by now I had discovered a third "pagan" concept evident in early Christian worship: a solid belief in the Real Presence--a doctrine I had always been taught was medieval in origin:
There were no serious controversies about the Lord's Supper until the early part of the ninth century, when one Paschasius Radbert . . . wrote a book in which he promulgated the doctrine of transubstantiation. . . . At first the doctrine was repugnant to the cultivated, but it was broached in a rude age, and the monks favored it; the materialistic character of European thought assisted it, and gradually it had a host of friends and was prepared to frown down all opposition. The controversy, however, continued with fury till A.D. 1215, when Pope Innocent III . . . gave transubstantiation a legal place in the Catholic Church.20
But, in fact, the belief that the substances of the bread and wine used in the Eucharist transform into the substance of the flesh and blood of Christ Himself makes its appearance almost from the beginning. From the first decade of the second century, statements such as the following turn up in Ignatius: "They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the Flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ."21
Irenaeus also reveals an early belief in the supernatural character of the Eucharist: "The mixed cup and the baked bread receives the Word of God and becomes the Eucharist, the Body of Christ."22
But most startling of all was this statement made by Justin Martyr in his First Apology, dated to 150 A.D.:
For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Saviour was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by Him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nourished, is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus.23
In this face of such explicit language, how was I to continue to assert that transubstantiation was a superstition of medieval origin? Clearly, its only medieval aspect was its technical name! Could it be denied that the early Christians, those unassailable believers, plainly understood the doctrine of the Real Presence?
Surely, I thought, I could find a reasonable explanation for all this. But I didn't.
Ferguson writes, "A certain amount of the 'realistic' language in the early church is simply the repetition of the New Testament language, with no reflection on its meaning."24 Reminding the reader of the strongly anti-material stance of the second-century Gnostics, he demurs to find any evidence of a truly supernatural belief in the Eucharist: "The anti-heretical thrust of the language of the real presence makes it difficult to determine any metaphysical thought about the real presence. Indeed the case might be made that initially there was none."25 What? Ignatius' insistence on confession of the Eucharist as flesh and blood, Justin's and Irenaeus' descriptions of the transformation of bread and wine into the Eucharist, these all sounded pretty metaphysical to me!
Prayers for the dead, a Pope, transubstantiation--these practices, inexplicable one and all, intruded into my picture of a pristine early body as yet untainted by imperial favor or worldly ambitions.
How was I to explain the early presence of these supposed nods to pagan custom?
1. Loraine Boettner, Roman Catholicism ((Philadelphia: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1969), p.7.
2. Quoted in Everett Ferguson, Early Christians Speak (Austin: Sweet, 1971), pp. 155-156.
3. Tertullian, The Crown, 3, 2.
4. Tertullian, Monogamy, 10, 1.
5. "Septuagint," The Catholic Encyclopedia Online, 1909 Catholic Encyclopedia
6. Everett Ferguson, Early Christians Speak (Austin: Sweet, 1971), pp. 161-162.
7. Clement, Epistle to the Corinthians, 57, 1.
8. Clement, Epistle to the Corinthians, 58, 2.
9. Clement, Epistle to the Corinthians, 59, 1.
10. Clement, Epistle to the Corinthians, 44, 1.
11. The Shepherd of Hermas, Vision 2, 4.
12. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3, 3, 3.
13. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3, 3, 3.
14. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3, 3, 3.
15. F.W. Mattox, The Eternal Kingdom (Delight, AR: Gospel Light, 1961), p. 57.
16. F.W. Mattox, The Eternal Kingdom (Delight, AR: Gospel Light, 1961), p. 79.
17. F.W. Mattox, The Eternal Kingdom (Delight, AR: Gospel Light, 1961), p. 81.
18. Everett Ferguson, Early Christians Speak (Austin: Sweet, 1971), pp. 171-173.
19. J.W. Shepherd, The Church, the Falling Away and the Restoration (Nashville: Gospel Advocate, ) p. 61.
20. Ignatius, Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 6, 2.
21. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 5, 3.
22. Justin Martyr, First Apology, 66.
23. Everett Ferguson, Early Christians Speak (Austin: Sweet, 1971), p. 110.
24. Everett Ferguson, Early Christians Speak (Austin: Sweet, 1971), p. 110
CHAPTER SEVEN: "CROWNS FROM GOD"
Certainly, it was easy to dismiss an innovation of the tenth century as a practice that was thoroughly the fault of vanity. After all, the Church had ruled the world in the Middle Ages, with nothing to fear and everything to gain. Novelties in such a time could safely be said to be the result of a disdain for obedience to the revealed Word. But I couldn't make the same judgment about the doctrines and practices traceable to times of imperial persecution.
In July of 64 A.D., just over thirty years after the founding of the church, the demonstrably insane emperor Nero Caesar ordered the first persecution of Christians. It was in this first persecution, local only to the city of Rome, that the apostles Peter and Paul were executed. Needing a scapegoat for the great fires which had destroyed a large percentage of Rome, Nero
charged and tortured some people hated for their evil practices--the group popularly known as 'Christians'. . . . First those who confessed to being Christians were arrested. Then, on information obtained from them, hundreds were convicted, more for their anti-social beliefs than for fire-raising. In their deaths they were made a mockery. They were covered in the skins of wild animals, torn to death by dogs, crucified or set on fire--so that when darkness fell they burned like torches in the night.1
Eusebius records that the emperor Domitian (81-96), a "successor of Nero in his hatred and enmity toward God. . . . was in fact the second that stirred up a persecution against us."2 During this persecution, the Apostle John was exiled to Patmos, where he received his vision of heaven and wrote the Book of Revelation. Quoting Tertullian, Eusebius writes, "Domitian also, who possessed a share of Nero's cruelty, attempted once to do the same thing that the latter did. But because he had, I suppose, some intelligence, he very soon ceased, and even recalled those whom he had banished."3
By the time of the emperor Trajan (98-117), "profession of Christianity could be a capital offence."4 The letters of Pliny the Younger, governor of Bithynia from 111-113, reveal that while Christians were not sought out, those who were discovered to be practicing Christians were, in fact, executed. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, and advocate of the monarchal bishop, was one of those killed in this persecution.
Under Marcus Aurelius (161-180), Christians in Rome and in the provinces of Gaul and Africa suffered persecution. Eusebius quotes a letter written by the churches of Gaul to the churches of Asia and Phrygia:
Maturus, therefore, and Sanctus and Blandina and Attalus were led to the amphitheater to be exposed to the wild beasts. . . . [Maturus and Sanctus] endured again the customary running of the gauntlet and the violence of the wild beasts . . . and at last, the iron chair in which their bodies being roasted, tormented them with the fumes."5
Eusebius further adds that those who survived such tortures steadfastly refused to be honored, but rather "refused the title of Witnesses as distinguishing them from their brethren, being filled with the fear of God."6 Strange behavior indeed for those supposed by "connivance . . . . [to] obscure the word of God, under the guise of tradition"!7
Under the persecution of the Libyan-born emperor Septimus Severus, "athletes of God . . . won crowns from God through their great patience under many tortures and every mode of death."8 One such "athlete" was the father of the theologian Origen (himself tortured in a later harrying of the church). Soon after, in the brief sixth persecution, Maximinius "[commanded] that only the rulers of the churches should be put to death, as responsible for the Gospel teaching."9
In 249 the emperor Decius launched the first "full-scale, systematic persecution."10 It was in this purge that Origen suffered "bonds and bodily tortures and torments under the iron collar and in the dungeon . . . his feet stretched four spaces in the stocks."11 The letter of Dionysus to Fabius, bishop of Antioch, details the sufferings of Christians in the city of Alexandria:
They seized first an old man named Metras. . . . They beat him with clubs, and tore his face and eyes with sharp sticks, and dragged him out of the city and stoned him. Then they carried to their idol temple a faithful woman, named Quinta. . . . They bound her feet and dragged her through the entire city over the stone-paved streets, and dashed her against the millstones, and at the same time scourged her; then . . . stoned her to death. . . . Then they seized also that most admirable virgin, Apollonia, an old woman, and, smiting her on the jaws, broke out all her teeth. . . .Then they seized Serapion in his own house, and tortured him with harsh cruelties, and having broken all his limbs, they threw him headlong from an upper story.12
Dionysius goes on to list by name another dozen of the Alexandrian faithful who were executed for their profession of Christ.13
But it was under the emperor Diocletian that the bloodiest atrocities were carried out. Eusebius relates the gory details:
Royal edicts were published everywhere, commanding that the churches be leveled to the ground and the Scriptures be destroyed by fire, and ordering that those who held places of honor be degraded, and that the household servants, if they persisted in the profession of Christianity, be deprived of freedom. Such was the first edict against us. But not long after, other decrees were issued, commanding that all the rulers of the churches in every place be first thrown into prison, and afterwards by every artifice be compelled to sacrifices.14
Some of [those in Egypt], after scrapings and rackings and severest scourgings, and numberless other kinds of tortures, terrible even to hear of, were committed to the flames; some were drowned in the sea; some offered their heads bravely to those who cut them off; some died under their tortures, and others perished with hunger. And yet others were crucified; some according to the method commonly employed for malefactors; others yet more cruelly, being nailed to the cross with their heads downward, and being kept alive until they perished on the cross with hunger.15
[Christians in Thebais] were scraped over the entire body with shells instead of hooks until they died. Women were bound by one foot and raised aloft in the air by machines, and with their bodies altogether bare and uncovered, presented to all beholders this most shameful, cruel, and inhuman spectacle. Others being bound to the branches and trunks of trees perished. For they drew the stoutest branches together with machines, and bound the limbs of the martyrs to them; and then, allowing the branches to assume their natural position, they tore asunder instantly the limbs of those for whom they contrived this.16
Some of them were slain with the axe, as in Arabia. The limbs of some were broken, as in Cappadocia. Some, raised on high by the feet, with their heads down, while a gentle fire burned beneath them, were suffocated by the smoke which arose from the burning wood, as was done in Mesopotamia. Others were mutilated by cutting off their noses and ears and hands, and cutting to pieces the other members and parts of their bodies, as in Alexandria. Why need we revive the recollection of those in Antioch who were roasted on grates, not so as to kill them, but so as to subject them to a lingering punishment? . . . In Pontus . . . their fingers were pierced with sharp reeds under their nails. Melted lead, bubbling and boiling with the heat, was poured down the backs of others, and they were roasted in the most sensitive parts of the body. Others endured on their bowels and privy members shameful and inhuman and unmentionable torments.17
Observe the special notice of the "rulers of the church." Eusebius lists numerous bishops and presbyters and those in "places of honor" among the martyrs--yet these were the very men I was condemning as concerned only with promoting their own agenda for the church! Was it not simply absurd of me to go on insisting that these early Christians--those scourged, drowned, suffocated, grilled alive, mutilated, beheaded, eaten by wild animals, disemboweled, and dismembered because they professed Christ--were really that careless about how exactly they professed Him? Indeed, writes Mark P. Shea, "My reasoning . . . demanded . . . that these presumably apostate successors were both promulgating alien pagan dogmas in direct defiance of the apostolic teaching and simultaneously undergoing suffering, persecution, and fearful deaths with an avowed determination to bear witness for the Faith of the apostles."18
Obviously, I couldn't make such a patently ridiculous claim. If the church had become recognizably Catholic quite early on (and I could not deny that it had), it had done so under the watch of leaders who were willing to undergo the most unimaginable horrors for that church. There could be no doubt, then, that these early witnesses to the faith had not deliberately tampered with the divine plan.
There had, then, to be another explanation.
1. Tacitus, Annals, 15, 44
2. Eusebius, History of the Church, 3, 17.
3. Eusebius, History of the Church, 3, 20.
4. W. Ward Gasque, “The Challenge to Faith,“ Introduction to the History of Christianity, Tim Dowley, ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), p. 83.
5. Eusebius, History of the Church, 5, 1.
6. Eusebius, History of the Church, 5, 2.
7. John F. Rowe, The History of Apostasies (Rosemead, CA: Old Paths Book Club, 1956), p. 3.
8. Eusebius, History of the Church, 6, 1.
9. Eusebius, History of the Church, 6, 28.
10. Tim Dowley, ed., Introduction to the History of Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), p. 84.
11. Eusebius, History of the Church, 6, 39.
12. Eusebius, History of the Church, 6, 41.
13. Eusebius, History of the Church, 6, 41.
14. Eusebius, History of the Church, 8, 2.
15. Eusebius, History of the Church, 8, 8.
16. Eusebius, History of the Church, 8, 9.
17. Eusebius, History of the Church, 8, 12.
18. Mark P. Shea, By What Authority? An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 1996), p. 151.
CHAPTER EIGHT: WORKS OF THE SPIRIT
I now saw only one alternative that left me with my dignity: Perhaps the early Christians hadn't meant to allow heathenism to corrupt the church; it had just . . . happened.
That seemed a reasonable enough explanation. After all, following the deaths of the apostles, the church had been on its own, lacking divinely appointed management. As I now knew, early Christians hadn't had the authority of the settled canon to guide them; thus, they had been simply unable to avoid distorting the original design, try as they might to adhere to the revealed plan. It was only more proof that we needed the Bible, more proof that we had to be vigilant in studying the Word, as Robert Brumback says: "One departure from the truth will bring about another departure from the Word of God."1
The corrupting influence of contemporary paganism, then, was not the result of a failure to conscientiously tend to the church. Rather, that "progression toward disorder" was just the natural consequence of existing in the sin-wracked world. So, while the church's leaders may have been full of zeal and good intentions, they were still only human, and the church would, necessarily, feel the effects of it. Made sense.
Until I fell head first through the gaping hole in my reasoning. My explanation required that that body progressing toward disorder be under jurisdiction of natural law--and the church wasn't a natural institution to which natural laws could apply. Far from it! The church, instead, was a body under supernatural jurisdiction. She was an institution constituted by divine command, existing by divine intent, to serve divine purposes. Paul says of the church, "[It] is his body, the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way" (Ephesians 1:23). Indeed, "the manifold wisdom of God [is] made known through the church to the principalities and authorities in the heavens" (Ephesians 4:10). And yet again: "He saved us and called us to a holy life, not according to our works but according to his own design" (2 Timothy 1:9).
What was more, to get to my explanation, I had to leave out the most important factor in the regulation of the church: the oversight of the Holy Spirit. For, if by no malicious intent of their own, the early Christians had participated in the corruption of what was divinely revealed, then they could only have done so because the Holy Spirit did not have the power to preserve the church from the natural process of corruption that affects any ordinary institution established by fallible human beings.
But what did that mean, "the oversight of the Holy Spirit"? My understanding of the Spirit was limited to an allowance for His miraculous work in the first few decades of the church, together with the dim perception that He was still around to bolster us in some vague, non-charismatic manner. When I thought of His work, if I thought of it, I saw it in operation as a beneficent, mild, loving aura of peace hovering over us.
Writes Jimmy Jividen,
His works changed from the confirming miraculous phase during the ministry of Jesus and the apostles to a different phase that will continue until Jesus comes again. . . . The Holy Spirit not only works through the written Word of God to break and change the heart of a sinner. He also works in the godly life of a Christian to bring about conversion. . . . [But] there are at least five ways in which the Holy Spirit works beyond the Word of God today. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit gives assurance to us as Christians that we are God's children. . . . helps us to live moral, godly lives. . . . works in providence. . . . aids Christians in worship. . . . [and] helps Christians in our attitudes.2
Thus the assumption that the whole work of the Holy Spirit, while initially miraculous, gradually shifted to a merely "bolstering" work, was not just my own, but was widely accepted in the church of Christ.
The Bible, however, portrays a Holy Spirit engaged in a second, altogether different work. In Acts, Luke writes, "They [Paul and Timothy] traveled through the Phrygian and Galatian territory because they had been prevented by the holy Spirit from preaching the message in the province of Asia. When they came to Mysia, they tried to go on into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them" (Acts 16:6-7). What was this? Here, the Spirit is neither working miraculously, nor hovering docilely; rather, He is firmly seeing to it that His servants proceed as He wills them to.
And there was more. Paul, stopping at Miletus while on his journey to Jerusalem, tells the presbyters of the Ephesian church, "Keep watch over yourselves and over the whole flock of which the holy Spirit has appointed you overseers" (Acts 20:28). None of the men addressed are apostles or even one of the original disciples of Christ; yet Paul's statement implies that because they were overseers, they were so because the Holy Spirit willed that they be such.
Then there were the words spoken by Jesus Christ himself. In John chapter 16, Jesus tells his apostles, "But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth." Here it is no "uplifting Spirit" Christ promises, but a Spirit actively maintaining and teaching truth!
All of this drew for me a very different picture of the Holy Spirit. Certainly, the Spirit, at times, had operated miraculously, but now I saw that He also worked to send His servants where He wanted them to go; saw to the election of those whom he willed to lead His church; and preserved the transmission of truth.
What was I to make of this? Was it now in deliberate ignorance of the plainly revealed work of the Holy Spirit that I postulated that the church had become corrupt and ignorant because "that's just how it goes"?
Of course not, I argued with myself. In times past God had worked in a myriad of ways which He no longer utilized. For example, once the need for miraculous gifts was past, His operation though such activities as prophecy and glossolalia (speaking in tongues) had ceased. As Jividen says, "The present work of the Holy Spirit is distinctive from His work in the apostolic period in its nature, its purpose and its scope."3 There was no reason that this particular method of intercession wasn't simply part of the start-up operation, too. Right?
James D. Bales, the late Harding University professor, admits the onetime work of the Spirit in guiding to truth, but maintains an interpretation which evades any present need for this service. He writes, As sure as the promise of Jesus was fulfilled, the "all truth" was revealed and confirmed by the time the last apostle died. . . . The apostles did not have the written Word of the New Testament when they went forth to preach . . . but by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they gave us the written word. We have "all truth" in the Bible and by that "all truth" we are to test all things. . . . We have the "all truth" which was revealed in the first century, and through it the Spirit teaches us.4 But this didn't quite click.
While a handful of religious groups do claim a continuing dispensation of the miraculous gifts of the Spirit, mainstream Restorationists make no such claims. But on what did we base our understanding that this particular work of the Holy Spirit had ceased? We found our evidence in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians: "If there are prophecies, they will be brought to nothing; if tongues, they will cease; if knowledge, it will be brought to nothing. For we know partially and we prophesy partially, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away" (1 Corinthians 13:8-10). Much debate centers on the nature of that "perfect" which is to come, but one thing is certain: Paul explicitly states that at some point, tongues and prophecies will cease.
The same cannot be said, however, for this other, “guiding” activity of the Holy Spirit. At no time does Paul or any other inspired writer warn of a time when the Spirit will withdraw His direct involvement with the administration of His church. Nor is there any mention of a future time when the truth will cease to be safeguarded.
In fact, the Bible outright promises just the opposite.
Just before His ascension into heaven, Jesus tells the Apostles, "Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age" (Matthew 28:20). Not long before, He had revealed to Peter that He would "build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18). Were these conditional promises, subject to change without notice? I had to admit, Jesus adds no caveat: "The gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it so long as you don't mess it up!" In fact, His words indicate that by dint of His promise they couldn't mess things up.
My suspicions were further confirmed by a passage in Paul’s first letter to Timothy, in which he reminds his protégé, “The church of the living God [is] the pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). If the church was to stand as the pillar and foundation of the truth, did it not follow that God intended a divine preservation of that foundation?
And as it turns out, the Bible reveals just such a divine intent in the following prophecy: "This is the covenant with them which I myself have made, says the Lord: My spirit which is upon you and my words that I have put into your mouth shall never leave your mouth, nor the mouths of your children, nor the mouths of your children's children, from now on and forever, says the Lord" (Isaiah 60:21).
In none of these passages--in fact, nowhere in the New Testament at all--does any inspired writer remind us that the church was to be maintained strictly through recourse to the Bible. Instead, the inspired writers promise an actively managing Spirit through which the church will be maintained and through which the truth will be preserved.
What was more, in none of these passages are we given to understand that this work of guidance is not everlasting. Thus, when I had to explain how it was that the Holy Spirit no longer bestowed miraculous gifts on the church, I was quick to provide a somewhat unclear passage as proof of their limited dispensation. But if I had to explain how it was that the Spirit's work of transmitting and preserving truth had ceased when the last book of the Bible was written, thus immediately allowing imperfect and corrupted ideas to replace the divinely revealed plan of salvation, I had no Scriptures to quote. In fact, I was
quick to simply ignore several explicit passages promising perpetual guidance of the church!
I saw that I would now have to make a decision. Either I was going to have to believe Christ when He promised that His Spirit would maintain His church--or I was going to have to call Him a liar.
If Christ was a liar, of course, then my entire search automatically became meaningless. I wasn't interested in keeping up a sentimental pretense of religiosity; what intellectually honest person would be?
On the other hand, if I was prepared to actually believe Him--what would that mean?
1. Robert H. Brumback, History of the Church Through the Ages (St. Louis: Mission Messenger, 1957), p. 66.
2. Jimmy Jividen, Alive in the Spirit (Nashville: Gospel Advocate Company, 1990), pp. 109, 122, 138-144.
3. Jimmy Jividen, Alive in the Spirit (Nashville: Gospel Advocate Company, 1990), p. 110.
4. James D. Bales, The Holy Spirit and the Christian (Shreveport: Lambert Book House, 1966), p. 125.
CHAPTER NINE: HIDE AND SEEK
Wait just a minute, I told myself sternly. Christ did promise to remain with the church forever, and I was exactly right, I had to believe Him. The church, then, did continue to exist down through the centuries. The problem, I assured myself, is that I'm looking at the wrong church.
After all, I had certainly uncovered more than a few dozen sects claiming they alone understood the Gospel; what made the Catholic Church any different from, say, the Montanists or the Marcionites? Piety and persecution didn't ensure correct doctrine; all those "heretics" were surely as pious and as persecuted for professing Christ! What if the true church had survived in some quiet "heresy" somewhere?
F.W. Mattox writes,
From the days of the Reformation there have been groups who were interested in trying to trace their own history back to the days of the apostles. . . . Conditions being what they were. . . . all opposition groups were annihilated, and no adequate record remained of their work and teaching. We have sufficient evidence, however, to know that there were groups which opposed the papacy in every generation. We believe that the true undenominational church of Christ--the Eternal Kingdom--continued throughout this entire period.1
Adds E.M. Borden,
During this one hundred years of ecclesiastical darkness [the tenth century], the real truth and simplicity of the gospel could be found only among people who were called sects and heresies by the “Universal Church.” . . . Some of these sects date back to the time of the fathers in the second century, and have a right to claim perpetuity of the religion of Jesus Christ.2
If that was the case, then, an inspection of the "opposition groups" would surely provide me with evidence of the perseverance of the true church of Christ, against which the gates of hell could not prevail. I'd already had a look at the Naassenes, the Docetists, the Ebionites, the Montanists, and the Marcionites; I felt pretty confident that their claims to be the true church notwithstanding, none of these groups could possibly constitute the true church of Christ, what with their crazy--and diverse--theories about the nature of Christ and number of Gods and such. There were, however, other possibilities.
First to consider were the Monarchians. Developing at the end of the second century, this heresy, also known as Sabellianism or Patripassianism, was "anxious to preserve the divine unity or 'monarchy,'"3 probably to stay any creep into a conception of three Gods. The result, however, was a belief that "the Father and Son were but different aspects or conditions of the one being. . . . It was the Father . . . who by taking flesh of Mary became Son."4
Far from talking like primitive Christians, this suspicious group talked more like, well, heretics. And I was a bit leery to start substituting this over-anxious sect's long-forgotten understanding of the Supreme Being for the traditional conception of the Trinity. After all, who was I to make that call? I decided to keep looking.
What about Arianism? Conceived by Arius in 319, this challenge to the newly legalized church presented the hypothesis that because Christ was begotten, He was therefore created, and obviously, then, not one in being with the Father, denying, in essence, the possibility of the Trinity. According to the Arians, “Jesus was not truly divine, but was simply the first and greatest of all God’s creatures.”5
More rather unorthodox conclusions. And once again, I was unwilling to start switching out concepts of the Godhead in favor of some long-discarded theory. What else was there?
Well, there was Apollinarianism. Devised in answer to Arius, its exponent, Apollinarius, insisted on Christ's equality with the Father--so much so that he denied the possibility that Christ, being God, could have a human soul. Such a concept, however, endangered the efficacy of Christ's sacrifice, for after all, "unless Christ had a rational human soul, He was not capable of a free-will human act."6
So that one was clearly out. But what about Nestorianism? Now here was a "heresy" that sounded pretty Scriptural! First promulgated by Nestorian, bishop of Constantinople, in 429, the doctrine insisted that Mary, while certainly the Mother of Christ, could not possibly be considered the Mother of God. After all, he wrote, "If Mary is called the Mother of God, she is made a Goddess."7
Most certainly, I thought, this was a clear rejection of the growing Catholic tendency to worship Mary. Was this opposition the work of the Spirit?
That, too, would be a hard case to make. For Nestorius carried this distinction to its logical end, teaching, as Richard M. Hogan explains, that "there were two persons in Christ, a divine person and a human person.“8 That amounted to a refusal to admit that the Incarnation had produced a God-man, but, rather, that Mary, somehow, gave birth only to the human being Jesus.
Okay, maybe not so Scriptural after all. But maybe I would have better luck with the Monophysites. These heretics, followers of Eutyches, rejected Nestorian's error, insisting that in Jesus, the Christ and the man were completely united. That was all well and good, except that they also insisted that they were so united that Christ could not possibly have been both human and divine, for the “human nature was absorbed or subsumed into the divine nature.“9 That meant that Christ, not being fully human, could not have been the “new Adam,” as the Bible clearly taught.
This didn't sound so good, either. Well, how about Monothelitism? Gotten up, probably accidentally, in the seventh century by Cyrus, Patriarch of Alexandria, in response to the Monophysites, this heresy, in essence, was the belief that the human and divine natures did not have to cooperate, but worked “theandrically“--in other words, once again nullifying the sacrifice that the human Jesus freely made.
Okay, but there was also Pelagianism. This heresy originated in the fifth century with a British monk named Pelagius, who denied the concept of original sin, teaching that babies were born untainted by the sin of Adam. Well, I thought, now that sounds right! At least, it sounded right until it turned out that Pelagius denied original sin because he "regarded the moral strength of man's will . . . when steeled by asceticism, as sufficient in itself to desire and to attain the loftiest ideal of virtue.“ The Church, of course, said otherwise, teaching that "the grace of Christ not only discloses the knowledge of God's commandments, but also imparts strength to will and execute them.”10
I could see the point. Pelagianism seemed out, too. What about the Cathars, then? Here was a promising heresy! The term "Cathari," a kind of catch-all term deriving from the Greek word for "pure," was used for a number of geographically distinct medieval heresies (known variously as Arnoldians, Paulicians, Petrobrusians, Albigenses, and Waldenses), which "opposed the Roman hierarchy and were persecuted as heretics."11 Of their doctrine, Mattox says,
All of these groups were similar in that they opposed the Roman hierarchy, accepted the Scripture as their only authority, claimed to be the only true Christians in their generation and lived puritanical lives. . . . In their services they read the Scripture aloud and had the Lord's Supper at every service. They refused infant baptism, baptizing only believers. They rejected all human authority, had no formal creed or confession, denounced the ignorance and vice of the clergy.12
Adds E.M. Borden, “They held to believers’ baptism. To that extent they could be pronounced New Testament Christians.”13 Autonomous, bible-believing, creed-rejecting, baptizing Christians--this was a group whose practices and doctrine were clearly identical to the doctrine and practices I had been taught from the Bible, making them a good candidate for guardianship of the faith! Could I then safely identify this persecuted sect as the church against which the gates of Hades would not prevail, the church in which "there were . . . true saints of God, following the New Testament pattern and constituting the Eternal Kingdom"? Adds Mattox, "One cannot put his finger on the evidence of such, but we believe it to be the case."14
Unfortunately, it wasn't. For there turned out to be a little more to the story.
Cathars certainly rejected creeds and the authority of the Roman church, but not on Scriptural objections. Rather, they undermined the church in order to undermine state authority, which, of course, served the Church: “This was an attack, not only on the religion that made our civilization, but on that civilization itself. . . .[It was an] evil . . . .which . . . imperilled all our culture.”15 M.L. Cozens explains further: "Nor was the danger to the Church only, but to all civil government, and, indeed, to human society as a whole. This teaching attacked . . . those first principles of Natural Religion and Ethics on which human knowledge and rational human conduct are based."16
Their doctrine was in substance a dualistic one, opposing matter and spirit; they named the good god as the creator of spirit, and an evil god, identified with the Old Testament deity, they named as creator of the material world. Because of this they rejected matter as evil and sought to be freed from its constraints. Marriage was discouraged, as was sex and, consequently, pregnancy, "a calamity for which abortion was recommended."17 It follows that the Incarnation was vehemently denied. Sacraments were certainly rejected, but the “believers’ baptism” praised by my sources was in actuality the consolamentum, a "spiritual baptism, administered by the laying-on of hands.”18 Upon receiving the consolamentum, a Believer was reckoned one of the Perfect, who alone could pray to God, who alone would receive salvation after death, and who "received unquestioning obedience and great veneration from the Believers.“19 As one of the Perfect, vegetarianism, excessive fasting, and abstinence from oaths was required, as well as complete chastity.
Naturally, not everybody could handle such strictures, so many Believers waited until their deathbeds to accept the consolamentum. This wasn't always a wise decision, for if by bad luck the new Perfect recovered, "it was thought well to safeguard him from a spiritual relapse by persuading him to undertake the endura--a fast prolonged to starvation,"20 with the helping hand of his friends to see to it that he was successful, of course.
Now, it was possible that these people possessed the true understanding of Christian teaching. But it certainly didn't square with any understanding of Christianity that I was accustomed to; they looked, on close inspection, nothing like "New Testament Christians."
I had exhausted my possibilities. There seemed to be no body of believers existing down through the centuries, hewing to the biblical pattern. All presented vastly different pictures of belief. All of these “heresies” persecuted by the Catholic Church were turning out to be, well, nothing but heresies! In fact, in the case of each heresy I had looked at, it almost seemed that the Catholic Church, with all its own interpolations and additions--was, in every case, actually defending the true biblical teaching.
Still, I argued with myself, you haven't actually proved that the Catholic Church is the true church. God is faithful, and always leaves a remnant; from all outward appearances, then, the church underwent total apostasy, but there must have been a continuous body of believers down through the centuries, resisting the changes imposed on them by the Roman church, even if you can't identify their whereabouts. Surely, they existed underground:
During this period the church as a Scripturally organized body worshipping according to the New Testament pattern is entirely lost to view. It should be remembered, however, that the Eternal Kingdom could have lived on hidden from the pages of history--overshadowed by the power and grandeur of an apostate Romanism. . . . although we cannot discern a body of Christians functioning throughout this period according to the New Testament pattern, we can believe [in] that such existence with every assurance that there has never been a time when the gates of death prevailed against God's kingdom.21
Robert Brumback adds, “As the church of Rome developed, the true church of Christ was obscured. Because of the severity of the persecutions which were directed against her, she was compelled to go under cover. God sent the church into the wilderness for her own protection, where she remained for twelve hundred sixty years.”22
There was a problem with this theory, though. In Matthew 5:14, Jesus tells His disciples, "You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden." In other words, it would be impossible to drive the church from view! There was simply no allowance in this promise for a secret, underground church to carry on the work of the Lord. In fact, Christ indicated that the church would be visible to all, the standard-bearer of Christian truth. And in light of her centuries-long battle against the heresies, I had to admit that these were characteristics of no other church but the Catholic Church.
After all: She alone had persisted since the very beginning. She alone had protected and transmitted the New Testament. She alone had defended the doctrines of the Bible. She alone had done the work of bringing the Gospel to millions. Was it possible the Spirit had been with the Catholic Church after all? Was it possible that the "alterations" and "additions" I thought she had made were nothing less than directives of the Spirit which preserved, guided, and oversaw her?
I could no longer reject the idea out of hand. Still, I had one last objection.
1. F.W. Mattox, The Eternal Kingdom (Delight, AR: Gospel Light, 1961), pp. 206, 208.
2. E.M. Borden, Church History (Austin: Firm Foundation, 1939), p. 160.
3. David F. Wright, "What the First Christians Believed," Introduction to the History of Christianity, Tim Dowley, ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), p. 113
4. M.L. Cozens, A Handbook of Heresies (London: Sheed and Ward, 1994), p.27.
5. Richard M. Hogan, Dissent from the Creed (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 2001), p.100.
6. M.L. Cozens, A Handbook of Heresies (London: Sheed and Ward, 1994), p.40.
7. M.L. Cozens, A Handbook of Heresies (London: Sheed and Ward, 1994), p.42.
8. Richard M. Hogan, Dissent from the Creed (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 2001), p.128.
9. Richard M. Hogan, Dissent from the Creed (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 2001), p.133.
10. "Pelagius and Pelagianism," The Catholic Encyclopedia Online, 1909 Catholic Encyclopedia
11. F.W. Mattox, The Eternal Kingdom (Delight, AR: Gospel Light, 1961), p. 208.
12. F.W. Mattox, The Eternal Kingdom (Delight, AR: Gospel Light, 1961), pp. 208-209.
13. E.M. Borden, Church History (Austin: Firm Foundation, 1939), p. 201.
14. F.W. Mattox, The Eternal Kingdom (Delight, AR: Gospel Light, 1961), p. 209.
15. Hilaire Belloc, The Great Heresies (Rockford, IL: TAN, 1991) pp. 82, 90.
16. M.L. Cozens, A Handbook of Heresies (London: Sheed and Ward, 1994), p.60.
17. H.W. Crocker, Triumph: The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church (New York: Three Rivers, 2001), p.171.
18. John Clare, “The Cathars," Introduction to the History of Christianity, Tim Dowley, ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), p. 323.
19. John Clare, “The Cathars," Introduction to the History of Christianity, Tim Dowley, ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), p. 323.
20. M.L. Cozens, A Handbook of Heresies (London: Sheed and Ward, 1994), p.62.
21. F.W. Mattox, The Eternal Kingdom (Delight, AR: Gospel Light, 1961), pp. 215-16.
22. Robert H. Brumback, History of the Church Through the Ages (St. Louis: Mission Messenger, 1957), p. 363
CHAPTER TEN: STRAW MEN
Paul warns the Ephesian elders of false teachers who will come; Peter makes it clear that destructive heresies are afoot. In his second letter to Timothy, Paul even names suspiciously Catholic traits by which to identify the apostasy. And writing to the Thessalonians, the same apostle speaks clearly about an apostasy headed by a "man of sin." I had to admit, the Bible did warn of an apostasy. Could I be absolutely certain the Catholic Church was not it?
In Acts chapter 20, St. Paul, speaking to the Ephesian elders, says, "I know that after my departure savage wolves will come among you, and they will not spare the flock. And from among your own group, men will come forward perverting the truth to draw the disciples away from them" (Acts 20:29-30).
Did this prophesy teachers of Catholic doctrines? As it turns out, no. F.F. Bruce points out that this prophecy is fulfilled in the very pages of the New Testament;1 John, writing at the instruction of Christ to the Ephesians, says, "You have tested those who call themselves apostles but are not, and discovered that they are imposters" (Rev 2:2). Clearly, the "savage wolves" worked contemporary mischief; the passage could not be legitimately extended to apply specifically to a future Catholic apostasy, even if it continued to serve as a general warning against imposters.
But what about 2 Peter 2:1-3, with its caution against destructive heresies, fabrications, and licentiousness? Could its note of warning be applied to Catholicism? Writes Peter,
There were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will introduce destructive heresies and even deny the Master who ransomed them, bringing swift destruction on themselves. Many will follow their licentious ways, and because of them the truth will be reviled. In their greed they will exploit you with fabrications, but from of old their condemnation has not been idle and their destruction does not sleep (2 Peter 2:1-3).
The passage reveals that the heresy condemned bears the following characteristics: "Licentious, greedy, exploiters, libertine (despising authority), passionate (since they live by base desires), bold, wilful, revilers, irrational animals, creatures of instinct, revelers (even in the daytime), carousers, dissipaters, unsteady, lustful, waterless springs, boastful, liars (promising what they cannot give), dogs, pigs.”2
But these, I saw immediately, were characteristics of Gnosticism, not Catholicism. As Michael Green says, "There is wide agreement among commentators that the heresy envisaged is . . . a primitive form of Gnosticism."3
William Barclay explains, "In all probability they were Gnostics, who said that only spirit is good, and that matter is essentially evil, and that therefore, it does not matter what we do with the body, and that we can glut and sate its appetites, and it makes no difference. They lived the most immoral lives; and they encouraged others to do so."4
But the most important error named by Peter is these heretics' denial of "the Master who ransomed them;" once again, this distinguishes not the Catholic Church, but rather the Gnostics, who by replacing the Christ who had come to redeem us from sin with a mini-god come to redeem us from the material world, did, in fact, deny Christ.
2 Peter, then, could not reasonably be applied to a Catholic apostasy. But could I deny that Paul's first letter to Timothy actually names distinguishing characteristics of Catholicism?
Now the Spirit explicitly says that in the last times some will turn away from the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and demonic instructions through the hypocrisy of liars with branded consciences. They forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving (1 Tim 4 1:3).
As I well knew, the Roman Catholic Church forbids marriage for its clergymen and, until recently, "the law of the Church [was] to abstain from meat on Fridays. . . . Even today, many families continue to forgo eating meat on Friday."5
At first glance it certainly seemed to fit. R.C.H. Lenski says, "His object is to warn in advance of coming danger, to have all the churches fully fortified long before the actual danger arrives. The whole monastic system that developed, together with all the lying teachings from which it arose, appeared soon enough. It still flourishes in Rome."6
The trouble with applying the religious traits named in this passage to the Catholic Church, however, was that they also applied to a small number of other groups. There were, for example, the Essenes, a "hybrid sect" of mostly Jewish tradition, which practiced vegetarianism and celibacy and which lived a monastic life in the desert of Palestine.7 Specifically Christian heresies existed, too: "The second century syncretistic cult . . . in which the prophecy was partly fulfilled, was Gnosticism. . . .[The religion] despises God's ordinances, for example, the marriage-ordinance . . . and the ordinance concerning food."8 And I'd already seen that the description fitted the medieval heresy of the Cathars as well!
But couldn't these characteristics apply equally to any apostasy fitting them? J.W. Roberts, while admitting that Paul referred not to Catholicism but to Gnosticism, says, "However the same marks of apostasy among early heretics would be marks also of another later apostasy."9
But common sense resisted. For if Paul were truly indicating the Catholic Church--or even the Cathars--as the apostasy he foretold, why, out of the literally hundreds of practices of the Church, would he select the two relatively unimportant, minor disciplines of fasting and celibacy? What was more, why would he choose to identify this great threat by means of traits that also distinguished a number of other groups?
No, 1 Timothy could not be made to predict Catholicism. But there was one more passage to consider, the darkest of all: 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12. Did this passage predict a total
apostasy headed by a "man of sin," a lawless one who would exalt himself in the temple of God, opposing God?
For unless the apostasy comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one doomed to perdition, who opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god and object of worship, so as to seat himself in the temple of God, claiming that he is a god. . . . For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. . . . the lawless one will be revealed . . . the one whose coming springs from the power of Satan in every mighty deed and in signs and wonders that lie (2 Thessalonians 2:1-12).
In Thinking Through Thessalonians, Wilbur Fields states, “The falling away refers to that corruption of the apostles' teaching by heathenism which occurred during the early centuries of the church and resulted in the development of the Roman Catholic religion. . . . The man of sin probably refers to the papacy, the visible, personal head of the 'falling away.'"10
J.W. McGarvey writes,
The antichrist is the personification of sin. . . . He opposes his will against God, and exalts himself against God, and enthrones himself in the temple of God, and displays himself as God. . . . His coming is according to the working of Satan with lying power, signs and wonders. . . . And finally, his kingdom rests on belief--the belief of a lie.11
Analyzing the passage, Wayne Jackson isolates ten traits of the "man of sin." Among them are a "predominating quality" of sin; a disregard for the law of God; an exaltation of himself over all that is sacred; an arrogant positioning of himself in the house of God; a reliance on "miracles;" and a perseverance until the Second Coming. Additionally, he notes that the apostasy, while working already, had not yet come to fruition in Paul's time, but would be apparent soon. From these traits, he concludes, "We believe that the best evidence indicates that the Man of Sin represents the papal dynasty of the apostate church of Rome."12
Referring to Paul's warning that the "man of sin" will claim to be a god, Matthew Henry adds, "To whom can this better apply than to the bishops of Rome, to whom the most blasphemous titles have been given, as Dominus Deus noster papa--Our Lord God the Pope; Deus alter in terra--Another God on earth?"13
But was all of this accurate? I hated to admit it, but it seemed to me that in their haste to identify the Man of Sin as the Pope, these writers were not only demanding certain things of the text which the passage did not necessarily indicate, but were also being a bit overzealous to find papal attributes to fit the text.
First, they demanded there be but one apostasy--yet I now knew that there were dozens. To make the claim that the Catholic Church was "the" apostasy, I'd have to clamber right over the heads of the Gnostics, the Docetists, the Ebionites, the Marcionites, the Montanists--the list went on, with a new apostasy for every decade. That Paul predicts a great apostasy was certain, but with so many candidates to choose from--past and still to come--was it not a bit indiscriminate to focus on the Church of Rome as the only possibility?
And what of the Man of Sin himself? Here the Catholic Church actually came up short in comparison to those many other heresies. For where Marcionism had had Marcion, and Arianism had had Arius, and Mormonism had had Joseph Smith, Catholicism boasted no singular historical leader drawing believers away from the historic faith. Indeed, for the apostasy to refer to Catholicism it was necessary to interpret the Man of Sin as not one charismatic leader, but as a succession of them, and in so doing, one would have to ignore the countless apostasies that did boast an individual deceiver!
But didn't the named attributes of the apostasy apply to the Catholic Church--and didn't that rule out the other possibilities? On inspection, there turned out to be a wholly incongruous application of those traits to the Papacy. For example, the passage marked the "man of sin" as opposing God--did the papacy oppose God? In order for this to be so, it would have to be so despite twenty centuries of promotion of Christ and defense of His deity, His humanity, His purpose, and His message. It would all have to be an act to conceal the "diabolic" character beneath. Could such an act really be maintained so firmly, for so long, by so many men--265 men, to be exact? If the motives of the men who had held the office of Pope were all uniformly subversive, why were so few examples of their subversion available? And more importantly, when, exactly, did they plan to get around to subverting God?
The text also reveals that the "lawless one" would claim to be a god. Had the Pope really claimed to be "Our Lord God, another God on earth"? Never, as it turned out. For in fact the "blasphemous title" quoted by Henry turned out to have quite another history.
The phrase seems to have originated as a gloss (marginal note) in a manuscript of canon law dating from 1325. Far from being an official decree or claim to title, it was merely one isolated, random comment jotted alongside the text by one individual, a comment completely lacking force of law or binding authority. But that's not all: The original gloss doesn't even read Dominus Deus noster papa, Our Lord God the Pope. Instead, it reads, "Dominum nostrum Papaem," or "The Lord our Pope." The offensive phrase meaning Our Lord God the Pope" first appeared in a printed version of these textual notes in 1685, and is at best a careless mistake, at worst a deliberate insertion for nefarious ends.14
But how could I be sure that this comment wasn't secretly authoritative? Well, because no Pope, before or since the misprint, has ever seized that title for use! Was the blame for another person's mistaken--or even deliberately nefarious--tag to be laid at the Pope's feet?
But yet another incongruity of the passage with the Papacy was the description of the "predominating quality" of sin of this lawless one. For despite the examples available of the personal sinfulness of the occupants of the office, there was a surprising poverty of examples of their official approval of sinfulness. Indeed, far from encouraging the predomination of sin, the Catholic Church stood immovable against contemporary idols such as greed, fornication, homosexuality, and abortion. If a succession of men bent on fostering sinfulness of every imaginable variety had really taken the Chair of Peter, why had the Church steadfastly promoted just the opposite course of behavior? Was a house divided against itself to stand?
But the application of the passage to the Papacy didn't just rely on narrow interpretations of the text and incongruities. It was also predicated on prior assumption. When saintly or Marian apparitions, cures, and other miracles were reported within the Church, the first response of the non-Catholic was not to "test the spirit to see whether it is from God," but to deny the very possibility, and to attribute it instead to Satan. That explanation especially didn't add up when one considered that in case after case involving inexplicable events (in modern times, Fatima, documented in newspaper reports, is foremost among such cases), nonbelievers, even atheists, were converted to the Catholic faith because of the supernatural encounter they had experienced. For someone of my faith, the nonbeliever and the Catholic were in either hand of the devil--why would Satan waste his time shuffling his clutch of the damned from one fist to another?
Another prior assumption was that the Pope, with no right to the stewardship of the kingdom of heaven, had "seated himself in the temple of God." Yet his occupation of the leadership of the church of God did not de facto make him an usurper, any more than the local preacher in the pulpit was an usurper in the house of God. Only prior assumption that he had no right to be there made him an usurper. But how did they know he had no right?
I closed my Bible, chills creeping over me. The Bible certainly did warn of apostasy--but in not one instance did it warn of an apostasy which looked like Catholicism. Did, however, it need to name Romish doctrines for its warning of departures from the faith to apply to Catholicism?
Consider this: If the Catholic Church was and is the work of Satan, a blasphemous lie, then it is the most successful blasphemy in history. It is a blasphemy allegiant to which the earliest of believers can be reckoned, men and women who were willing to die for their love of God, yet under whose watch the true plan of salvation was being tossed aside in favor of sophisticated philosophies. If it is a blasphemy, then it is a blasphemy which without retribution, without a cry of protest, distorted the revealed will of God into a monstrous system of untruth by which it deceived millions upon millions of devout, God-fearing men and women for over a millennium and a half, condemning them to the eternal fires of hell before they even took their first breath, so completely did it extinguish the light of the Gospel.
If it is a blasphemy, then it is a blasphemy about which the Holy Spirit did not cause even one warning to be written down for the prevention of this harvest of the hellbound.
1. F.F. Bruce, Commentary on the Book of Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1974), p. 417
2. Albert E. Barnett, “The Second Epistle of Peter: Exegesis" The Interpreter's Bible, Volume XII, George Arthur Buttrick, ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1957), p. 189.
3. Michael Green, The Second Epistle General of Peter and the Epistle of Jude (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1973), p. 37
4. William Barclay, The Letters of James and Peter (Philadelphia,: Westminster, 1960), p. 336
5. Mike Aquilina and Regis J. Flaherty, The How-to Book of Catholic Devotions (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor), p. 140-141..
6. R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians, to the Thessalonians, to Timothy, to Titus and to Philemon (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1964), p. 623
7. “Essenes,” The Catholic Encyclopedia Online, 1909 Catholic Encyclopedia
8. William Hendrikson, New Testament Commentary: The Pastoral Epistles (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1974), p.147.
9. J.W. Roberts, Letters to Timothy (Austin: Sweet, 1964), p. 46.
10. Wilbur Fields, Thinking Through Thessalonians (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1971), p. 195.
11. J.W. McGarvey and Philip Y. Pendleton, Thessalonians, Corinthians, Galatians and Romans (Cincinnati: Standard Publishing Foundation, n.d.), p. 39-40.
12. “A Study of Paul’s ‘Man of Sin,’” The Christian Courier <http://www.christiancourier.com/feature/2003_08.htm>.
13. Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Vol. VI, Acts to Revelation (New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, n.d.), p. 798
14. “The Truth About the Title ‘Lord God the Pope,’” <http://www.angelfire.com/ms/seanie/forgeries/zenzelinus.html>.
CHAPTER ELEVEN: INTO THE LIGHT
Sitting in the quiet afternoon at my kitchen table, I retraced the path down which my studies had taken me. I recalled the heroic struggles of the early church against overwhelming heresy and horrific persecution. I called to mind the Spirit of God as He had actively preserved truth, guided the development of the church, and supervised the selection of the Scriptures. I had been drawn, quite without my consent, to question the very basic assumptions on which my Restorationist faith had been founded--and I had found them lacking. It now remained only for me to lift my eyes and comprehend exactly where this place was that I had come to.
If I closed my eyes and returned down the path I had come? If I once again took up my old, deflated conceptions about the church, God, and history? To do so would be nothing less than a deliberate acceptance of spiritual poverty. With all that I had discovered, if I continued to insist that the primitive church had been swallowed by apostasy, it would be nothing less than an obscene affront to the power, purpose, and righteousness of God. And for me to continue to make claims that it was up to us to restore God's church? Nothing less than breathtaking vanity could now compel me to assume such work was in our hands.
On the other hand: If I accepted all that I had discovered about the history of the church, the nature of the Bible, and the power of God--if I stepped forward, into the light of understanding--where would it take me? I would leave all that I had ever known behind me, grieving my family, probably alienating dear friends. I would awkwardly submit to a humble relearning of all that I knew about God and Christianity. I would struggle with the uncertainty and the discomfort of one unfamiliar with new terrain.
But that step forward would also make me a daughter in a family marked by its love, and holiness, and perseverance, and devotion, a companion to saints, mystics, and those who intuited the mysteries of God; my birthright would be an experience of a reality not trimmed and restricted, but one verdant with meaning and profundity; my heritage would be one of unspeakable richness and unexpected grace.
It was a step I could not pretend did not need to be taken; it was a step I could not with a clear conscience turn away from. I must cast off my prejudices: I must leave all, and follow Him.
FOR FURTHER READING
Scott Butler, Norman Dahlgren, and the Rev. Mr. David Hess, Jesus, Peter and the Keys: A Scriptural Handbook on the Papacy (Goleta, CA: Queenship, 1996).
David B. Currie, Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1996).
Henry G. Graham, Where We Got Our Bible: Our Debt to the Catholic Church (St. Louis: B. Herder Book Company, 1960).
John A. Hardon, S.J., The Catholic Catechism: A Contemporary Catechism of the Teachings of the Catholic Church (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1975).
Thomas Howard, Evangelical Is Not Enough: Worship of God in Liturgy and Sacrament (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1984).
Karl Keating, Catholicism and Fundamentalism: The Attack on Romanism by "Bible Christians" (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1988).
Mark P. Shea, By What Authority? An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 1996).
F. J. Sheed, Theology and Sanity (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1956).
F.J. Sheed, Theology for Beginners (Ann Arbor: Servant Books, 1981).
Robert A. Sungenis, Not by Scripture Alone: A Catholic Critique of the Protestant Doctrine of Sola Scriptura (Santa Barbara: Queenship, 1997)