Some Catholics, based upon cherry-picking of the writings of certain Early Church Fathers, would have you think that the early church was for all intents and purposes Roman Catholic. Becase I really got a kick out of reading Before 300: Pre-Constantian Christianity and I don’t disagree with all of his conclusions, as a reference for Protestants, I am going to offer comments on the conclusions that I take issue with.
Part #1: The Church
- The Church held to a three-fold structure of leadership: Bishops at the top, Presbytery (or “Priests”) in the middle, and Deacons on the bottom.
Wrong. In Acts 20:17, “the elders [Presbytery] of the church” of Ephesus are referred to as “Bishops” in verse 28. Further, the church in Philippi had several “Bishops” (Phil 1:1). Lastly, Paul tells Titus to appoint “elders” in every city (Tit 1:5) and then in verse 7 calls them by the term “Bishop.” We may safely conclude that Presbytery and Bishops are the same thing and that each city had more than one Bishop.
Further, Clement writes in his Letter to the Corinthians (written decades before any of Ignatius’ letters🙂 “Blessed are those presbyters who, having finished their course before now, have obtained a fruitful and perfect departure [from this world]; for they have no fear lest any one deprive them of the place now appointed them. But we see that you have removed some men of excellent behaviour from the ministry, which they fulfilled blamelessly and with honour” (Chapter 44).
He speaks of the same in Chapter 47: “It is disgraceful, beloved, yea, highly disgraceful, and unworthy of your Christian profession, that such a thing should be heard of as that the most steadfast and ancient church of the Corinthians should, on account of one or two persons, engage in sedition against its presbyters.” Again in Chapter 57: “You therefore, who laid the foundation of this sedition, submit yourselves to the presbyters, and receive correction so as to repent, bending the knees of your hearts.”
Clement was writing to the Corinthian church to correct them for sacking their leaders, even though they were appointed by the Apostles (or by men who were themselves.) He uses the plural when referring to these leaders, which of course makes no sense in the modern Roman Catholic view. However, it fits the obvious Biblical view.
- Sacred Tradition is Authoritative.
It is. However, in the words of Irenaeus “the tradition from the apostles does thus exist in the Church, and is permanent among us, let us revert to the Scriptural proof furnished by those apostles who did also write the Gospel” (Against Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 5, Paragraph 1). The Scripture is the only God-breathed, inerrant tradition we have handed down from the Apostles without dispute.
- Apostolic Succession.
This idea did exist in the early Church. However, to be a successor of the Apostles, one has to maintain consistent doctrine according to Irenaeus. If in less than 100 years the plurality of Bishops was generally dumped in favor of singular Bishops, that does not make it impossible for other issues to slowly be confused and changed over years. Just look at how much the US has changed since the 1950s.
Part #2: Salvation and the Sacraments
- Infants are to be baptized.
Perhaps, though it is worth noting that not a single infant baptism was recorded for almost 200 years after the death of Christ and it’s first mention was against the practice. So, while this concedes that practice at least predates it’s first mention, that would be like finding a newspaper article in the 1950s mentioning people protesting segregation. Sure, we would know segregation predates the article, but 170 years before 1950 was 1780, in which segregation was not going to exist for another 115 years.
Such a late mention is highly suggestive that the practice did not exist almost 200 years before. It is not like nothing was ever written about baptism beforehand. In fact, a ton of ink was spilled detailing what kind of water to use, how long to fast, and etcetera. Yet, the infant detail was conveniently left out by Clement, Polycarp, Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and every other writing until Tertullian. The first writer to approve of the practice was Cyprian of Carthage, which at least is highly suggestive that this was a North African custom and not seen in the rest of the Church.
Not surprisingly, long into the fourth century most Christians practiced baptisms after getting married (if devout) or near death (children, those who have lived questionable lives, etc.). Augustine reports that his father, a good friend of his, and even his own baptism were delayed on purpose. By the time Augustine dealt with the Pelagian controversy, infant baptism started catching on to the point where it became universal when Prosper of Aquataine wrote about it in the 5th century.
- Works are involved in salvation.
No. In fact, Clement adhered to what would be considered today a Calvinist soteriology:
”They all therefore were glorified and magnified, not through themselves or their own works or the righteous doing which they wrought, but through His will.” (32:3)
This faith is a gift of God’s grace. Clement does not ascribe to the “humans are totally free on their own to figure out that Jesus really is God and that He really saves everyone from their sins who trust Him to” line of reasoning. This is made explicit in 32:4—
“And so we, having been called through His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified through ourselves or through our own wisdom or understanding or piety or works which we wrought in holiness of heart, but through faith, whereby the Almighty God justified all men that have been from the beginning; to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.”
Part #3: The Saints and Our Lady
- Prayers for the Dead.
As we covered previously, if a practice is not mentioned for 200 years it is highly questionable if it is an Apostolic practice. Second, it is mentioned for the first time in a book (Tertullian’s On Monogamy) that asserts widows should never remarry or they commit adultery and endorses Montanism (a heretical sect that Tertullian joined and was excommunicated from the Church.) Oops!
- There is something about Mary.
This might blow some Catholics minds, but several important Protestants believe Mary was a perpetual virgin (Calvin and Luther upheld this view.) Calling Mary “the Mother of God” is not heretical, and is defended by modern Reformed Theologian R.C. Sproul. Therefore, much of what is quoted in the original 300 article is not earth-shattering at all. However, what is missing in the first 300 years of the church is any verifiable mention of the assumption of Mary, that she is “the mediatrix,” or is anything other than another Saint of the Church.
Catholics if you have read any of these…
1. Can you affirm that the early Church demonstrably has taught a different Church government and doctrines than that of the Roman Catholic Church? Further, is it also clear that many Roman Catholic doctrines are absent from the historical record for hundreds of years?
2. How much do you have to “fill in the gaps” and “explain away” the above quotations to make them fit with modern Roman Catholic teachings?
3. Can you find yourself agreeing with Clement, who according to your own tradition was the third Pope, about the things he has written about justification by faith and not by works?
A careful study of tradition brings us to a startling conclusion. No institutional church today exactly agrees with any one of what the church fathers taught. In fact, it is hard to find an institutional church that agrees with all what the Bible plainly teaches (head coverings for example). Lastly, there is not a single church that holds to the once universal extra-biblical tradition of tasting milk and honey after baptism.
Many converts to Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy are attracted to these churches because they hold claim to tradition. Meanwhile, Protestants have a pretty bad rep of bucking tradition and trying to reform how they think the Church once was. This makes the call of Rome or Orthodoxy very strong.
However, if one reads tradition honestly, it becomes obvious that no one actually follows the tradition that tons of the revered Saints used to follow. Tradition changed over the first few centuries of the Church, just as the Church has changed for centuries during the middle ages and modern era.
So, if you make an idol in your mind looking for the perfect church that has perfectly taught the same thing since the time of Christ, I have to break it to you, it does not exist. This is not opinion, this is demonstrable historical fact.
Why would God do this? I do not know. Why would He even allow schisms? Perhaps, He wanted us not to place our confidence ultimately in men, but in Him.
We can be confident in this. God will not permit the gates of Hell prevail against His Church. And as long as the name of Christ is preached, they haven’t.
And if we too have said like Peter,
You are Peter, etc. Matthew 16:18 For a rock is every disciple of Christ of whom those drank who drank of the spiritual rock which followed them, 1 Corinthians 10:4 and upon every such rock is built every word of the church, and the polity in accordance with it…
…prevail against it. But what is the
it? Is it the rock upon which Christ builds the church, or is it the church? For the phrase is ambiguous. Or is it as if the rock and the church were one and the same? This I think to be true; for neither against the rock on which Christ builds the church, nor against the church will the gates of Hades prevail; just as the way of a serpent upon a rock, according to what is written in the Proverbs, cannot be found (Origen, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, Book XII, Chapters 10 and 11).