|Woodcut of St. Patrick, Nuremberg Chronicle (1493)
In an article entitled Saint Patrick the Baptist?, Stephen R. Button tries to claim St. Patrick for Evangelical Protestantism… or at least disassociate him from Roman Catholicism. Button is hardly alone: you can find similar attempts by Don Boys and others, some of them dating back several decades.
The argument tends to work like this. From Patrick, we have (in Button’s words) only the “84 short paragraphs that make up both his Confession and his ‘Letter to Coroticus.’” Baptist authors then mine these texts for any doctrines that Patrick doesn’t mention explicitly, and then claim that he must have held the Baptist view. So, for example, since Patrick doesn’t say who ordained him a bishop, Button concludes that Patrick must have believed that ordination came directly from God, rather than through the Church:
Patrick claimed to have served as a deacon, presbyter, and bishop. In his “Letter to Coroticus,” he wrote, “I, Patrick, a sinner, unlearned, resident in Ireland, declare myself to be a bishop. . . . Most assuredly I believe that what I am I have received from God” (in R. P. C. Hanson, The Life and Writings of the Historical Saint Patrick). While this may simply be a way of giving God all the glory, Patrick was silent regarding any formal education, ordination, appointment, or support by Rome or any other church, suggesting instead that his ordination came directly from God.
This position requires ignoring that Patrick is a Nicene Christian who quotes from the Latin Vulgate, speaks of the Romans as his countrymen, and is the son of a Roman Catholic deacon. It also means ignoring, or being ignorant of, the Mission of St. Palladius, the fourth-century Catholic mission to Ireland. More to the point, it requires ignoring the description of ordination given by Patrick himself:
What is more, when I baptized so many thousands of people, did I hope for even half a jot from any of them? [If so] Tell me, and I will give it back to you. And when the Lord ordained clergy everywhere by my humble means, and I freely conferred office on them
, if I asked any of them anywhere even for the price of one shoe, say so to my face and I will give it back.
More, I spent for you so that they would receive me. And I went about among you, and everywhere for your sake, in danger, and as far as the outermost regions beyond which no one lived, and where no one had ever penetrated before, to baptize or to ordain clergy or to confirm people. Conscientiously and gladly I did all this work by God’s gift for your salvation.
The rest of Button’s arguments proceed just like this: Patrick doesn’t tell us if he baptized infants or not, so he must not have; he doesn’t tell us how he baptized, so it must have been by full immersion only. His favorite color must have been orange, too, since he doesn’t say otherwise. Meanwhile, inconvenient details like Patrick’s performing the Sacrament of Confirmation are passed over.
This odd Baptist St. Patrick argument highlights a very real problem within Evangelical Protestantism: its radical disconnect from the early Christianity that it wants to emulate.
In virtually every dispute in early Christianity, Evangelicals believe that (a) the Catholic party, the party in communion with and headed by the Bishop of Rome, was right; or (b) nobody was right. The way that (a) points towards Catholicism is clear enough: how likely is it that it was just a string of good luck that Catholics got all of these right? And if this points to the protection of the Holy Spirit, why would we assume that the Spirit suddenly switched teams in the 16th century?
But (b) is actually what I want to focus on today: those times in Christian history in which Evangelical Protestantism is an outsider, an alien party for whom the dispute doesn’t make sense, or who views all parties as wrong.
To illustrate my point, I’ve chosen 6 early Christian controversies, each of them originating before the Council of Nicea, before Constantine, and before any of the other fourth century events that allegedly corrupted the Christian Church (and before St. Patrick, by the way). In each case, the Evangelical is left without a side — either the whole debate is alien to his belief system, or he’s left concluding that everybody is wrong:.
1. The Easter Dating Controversy
Most of the Church followed the Roman calendar, so that Easter always fell on a Sunday. The churches in Asia Minor, founded by the Apostle John, followed the Hebrew calendar, so that Easter always fell three days after the start of Passover. Pope St. Victor (189-99) ordered the Asian churches to get with the universal Church calendar. They initially refused, since the Apostle John
, St. Polycarp, and others had used this calendar. Eventually, they switched to the Roman calendar.
What’s required to understand the dispute: the debate is not over whether to use a liturgical calendar, but which liturgical calendar. This points to an orderly, liturgical Church in the second century. As I’ve argued before, this dispute always shows the centrality of the papacy extremely early on: this is a second-century pope who feels comfortable intervening in Asia Minor to tell the Christians there to stop using a liturgical calendar set up by an Apostle.
What we don’t hear: Anybody rejecting liturgical calendars as unbiblical, contrary to Apostolic practice, or otherwise unnecessary or undesirable.
2. The Diocletian Persecution
|Bust of Diocletian
What happened: The Roman Emperor Diocletian was a pagan, but was not particularly hostile to Christians at the outset of his reign. In fact, he even had Christians in his retinue. All of this changed in 299 A.D. when Diocletian visited the pagan haruspices to divine the future. One of the Christians in Diocletian’s retinue made the Sign of the Cross. Lactantius recounts: “At this the demons were chased away, and the holy rites interrupted.” The haruspices were rendered powerless. A furious Diocletian ordered both the haruspices and Christians punished, and ordered that all Roman soldiers be forced to offer pagan sacrifices. This quickly escalated into the bloodiest persecution of Christians in Roman history.
What’s required to understand the dispute: the importance of the Sign of the Cross. On one side, you have the Roman pagans, or more accurately, the forces of evil that they’re messing around with: “the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). On the other side, you have the Catholic who use “the immortal sign,” the Sign of the Cross, to vanquish demons.
What we don’t hear: Christians siding with the pagans in denouncing Catholics for using the Sign of the Cross, or claiming that it’s a pagan ritual dating to the time of Constantine (a particularly ironic claim, given that we’ve just seen that these pre-Constantinian pagans ruthlessly persecuted the Catholics for the Sign of the Cross).
3. Fasting and the Eucharist
A question arose about whether or not to receive the Eucharist on fasting days (called “station” days). Tertullian, in On Prayer
, written between 200-206 A.D. approaches question this way:
Similarly, too, touching the days of Stations, most think that they must not be present at the sacrificial prayers, on the ground that the Station must be dissolved by reception of the Lord’s Body. Does, then, the Eucharist cancel a service devoted to God, or bind it more to God? Will not your Station be more solemn if you have withal stood at God’s altar? When the Lord’s Body has been received and reserved each point is secured, both the participation of the sacrifice and the discharge of duty.
What’s required to understand the dispute: the question is whether receiving the Lord’s Body at the Eucharistic Sacrifice breaks the fast. For this question even to make sense, you must acknowledge that there are days of fasting, the Eucharist is the Lord’s Body, and the Eucharistic Liturgy is a Sacrifice.
What we don’t hear: Either side rejecting fasting, the Eucharist, or the sacrificial nature of the Mass.
4. Donatism on the Sacraments
What happened: During the Diocletian persecution (see #2),
some Christians – including bishops and priests – renounced the faith, or offered pagan sacrifice. This lead to a Sacramental crisis: were the Sacraments performed by these lapsed priest still valid? The Donatists said no,
arguing “that Catholic sacraments, including baptism and ordination, were powerless because they were performed by morally lax priests.”
In contrast, the
Catholics held that the Sacraments work ex opere operato
(“from the work worked”), depending upon the grace of God rather than the priest’s holiness. St. Augustine explained
that this is why the Apostles rebaptized those who had received only John the Baptist’s non-sacramental baptism (Acts 19:3-5), but didn’t rebaptize those baptized by Judas:
You give the baptism of Christ, therefore baptism is not administered after you: after John it was administered, because he gave not the baptism of Christ, but his own; for he had in such manner received it that it was his own. You are then not better than John: but the baptism given through you is better than that of John; for the one is Christ’s, but the other is that of John. And that which was given by Paul, and that which was given by Peter, is Christ’s; and if baptism was given by Judas it was Christ’s. Judas gave baptism and after Judas baptism was not repeated; John gave baptism, and baptism was repeated after John: because if baptism was given by Judas, it was the baptism of Christ; but that which was given by John, was John’s baptism.
What’s required to understand the dispute: the efficacious nature of the Sacraments (particularly the regenerative nature of Baptism), the necessity of valid Sacraments for Holy Orders, and the nature of the priesthood.
What we don’t hear: that the Sacraments are just symbols, or that the Sacraments are unnecessary for salvation.
5. Gnosticism and the Eucharist
|Bernardino Campi, Holy Communion of Mary Magdalene (detail) (1580)
What happened: St. Ignatius of Antioch, a student of the Apostle John, wrote a series of seven letters on his way to martyrdom. In one of them, his Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, he denounces the Gnostics for disbelieving in the Eucharist:
They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again. Those, therefore, who speak against this gift of God, incur death in the midst of their disputes. But it were better for them to treat it with respect, that they also might rise again. It is fitting, therefore, that you should keep aloof from such persons, and not to speak of them either in private or in public, but to give heed to the prophets, and above all, to the Gospel, in which the passion [of Christ] has been revealed to us, and the resurrection has been fully proved. But avoid all divisions, as the beginning of evils.
See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.
Ignatius’ letter shows that in the earliest days of Christianity, one had to believe that the Eucharist was actually the flesh of Christ. The Gnostics didn’t believe this, and were cut off from the Church.
What’s required to understand the dispute: the Real Presence of the Eucharist and the Oneness of the Church. The two sides of the dispute are the Catholics, who believe that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior; and the Gnostics, who deny this on the grounds that Jesus didn’t actually have flesh. The Apostle John, St. Ignatius’ mentor, denounced the Gnostics for their position in 2 John 1:7, labelling them deceivers and Antichrist.
What we don’t see: Christians siding with the Catholics on the Incarnation, and with the Gnostics against the Eucharist.
6. The Donatist Anti-Popes
|Paolo Emilio Besenzi, Saint Peter (17th c.)
What happened: Although Donatism (see #4) was a schismatic movement largely confined to North Africa, they sought to establish their credibility by establishing their own Bishop of Rome. St. Optatus of Milevis, commenting some decades later, compares Catholicism and Donatism on this point. First, he establishes that the Catholic Church can trace a continual lineage of popes, from St. Peter down to the present age (in his case, Pope Siricius):
You cannot then deny that you do know that upon Peter first in the City of Rome was bestowed the Episcopal Cathedra, on which sat Peter, the Head of all the Apostles (for which reason he was called Cephas), that, in this one Cathedra, unity should be preserved by all, lest the other Apostles might claim—-each for himself—-separate Cathedras, so that he who should set up a second Cathedra against the unique Cathedra would already be a schismatic and a sinner.
To Peter succeeded Linus, to Linus succeeded Clement, to Clement Anacletus, to Anacletus Evaristus, to [….] Siricius, who to-day is our colleague, with whom ‘the whole world,’ through the intercourse of letters of peace, agrees with us in one bond of communion. Now do you show the origin of your Cathedra, you who wish to claim the Holy Church for yourselves!
Optatus then contrast this with the Donatist lineage of antipopes:
But you allege that you too have some sort of a party in the City of Rome. It is a branch of your error growing out of a lie, not from the root of truth. [….]
How do you explain that your party has not been able to possess a Roman citizen as Bishop in Rome? How is it that in that City they were all Africans and strangers who are known to have succeeded one another? Is not craft here manifest? Is this not the spirit of faction—-the mother of schism?
This Victor of Garba was sent first, I will not say as a stone into a fountain (for he could not ruffle the pure waters of the Catholic people), but because some Africans who belonged to your party, having gone to Rome, and wishing to live there, begged that someone should be sent from Africa to preside over their public worship. So Victor was sent to them. He was there as a son without a father, as a beginner without a master, as a disciple without a teacher, as a follower without a predecessor, as a lodger without a home, as a guest without a guest-house, as a shepherd without a flock, as a Bishop without a people.
Every subsequent Donatist Bishop of Rome could trace his lineage to Victor of Garba, but no further, thus disproving their pretense at being Apostolic in origin:
Since then, Claudian has succeeded to Lucian, Lucian to Macrobius, Macrobius to Encolpius, Encolpius to Boniface, Boniface to Victor. Victor would not have been able, had he been asked where he sat, to show that anyone had been there before him, nor could he have pointed out that he possessed any Cathedra save the Cathedra of pestilence; for pestilence sends down its victims, destroyed by diseases, to the regions of Hell which are known to have their gates—-gates against which we read that Peter received the saving Keys—-Peter, that is to say, the first of our line, to whom it was said by Christ: ‘To thee will I give the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven,’ and these keys ‘the gates of Hell shall not overcome.’ How is it, then, that you strive to usurp for yourselves the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, you who, with your arguments, and audacious sacrilege, war against the Chair of Peter?
What’s required to understand the dispute: The necessity of being in union with the Bishop of Rome, papal possession of the Keys of the Kingdom, and the importance of Apostolic Succession. The dispute was not over whether there was a pope, but who the pope was.
What we don’t hear: Anyone treating the papacy as itself heretical, or even unnecessary. You also don’t hear anyone defending the idea that you can simply declare yourself a bishop, which is one reason why the Baptist St. Patrick idea is so ahistorical.
Evangelicals tend to believe that Scripture is self-attesting and perspicuous (an unclear way of saying “clear”). In other words, you can pick up a Bible and understand what it means without needing a Magisterium to clarify its meaning for you. Therefore, they’re putting themselves in a particularly untenable position when they proceed to say that all of the early Christians got Christianity fundamentally wrong in regards to the Eucharist or the other Sacraments, the Liturgy and liturgical calendar, the Sign of the Cross, the pope, Apostolic Succession, etc., etc.
On the one hand, they’re saying that Scripture is so clear that anyone can grasp its meaning. But then their view of history requires believing that nobody grasped its meaning: that even in the midst of theological disputes over Scriptural questions, nobody figured out what Scripture was trying to teach. Even if you don’t believe in the perspicuity of Scripture, that’s an odd thing to believe: the Holy Spirit inspired the Scriptures, and but left us without any way of correctly understanding them until … when, exactly?
For this reason, even if you are inclined to give zero weight to Tradition (contra 2 Thes. 2:15), you simply can’t write off Christian history. If the Holy Spirit inspired Scripture to be understood in every age, history should evidence people correctly understanding Scripture in every age. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be folks who get Scripture wrong; it just means that we’ll never be left with only people who get Scripture wrong. It’s the difference between saying that Christ entrusted us to shepherds after His own heart, who have to fend off wolves in every age (Jeremiah 3:15; Matthew 7:15; Acts 20:29), and saying that Christ abandoned us to the wolves.
All of this points strongly to the Catholic claim. Unlike Baptists or other Evangelical Protestants, we see Catholics in every age. And that’s exactly what we should expect to see from orthodox Christianity.