Protestantism, Church History, and Psychological Defects

Happy New Year Everyone!

There’s an interesting dispute going on in the combox of one of my older posts, but I wanted to provide some background first.

It seems to me that the average person sort of assumes that the Bible just showed up one day, or at least that the Apostles were passing out copies during the early years. And when they discover that there were, in fact, heretics and heresies, plenty of books which were rejected or questioned, and that even good God-fearing Christians differed over which books are in the Bible, this can lead to a sort of crisis of faith.

Are we really to assume that all views of Christianity should be afforded equal weight? There are, today, Americans who still believe that the Earth is flat. But to say that 21st century Americans were divided on whether the Earth was round or flat would be wildly misleading. On this issue, there are vast differences between scientists and quacks, and perhaps some technical differences amongst scientists. Similarly, in the early Church, the Gnostics disagreed with the Catholics on just about everything, to the extent that calling some forms of Gnosticism “Christianity” is being overly generous — they denied the Diety of Christ and the Trinity, so “Christian” seems like a faulty label. Amongst Catholics, the differences tended to be far smaller, and foreshadow the issues seen today. The two most famous Church Fathers to not be canonized are Tertullian and Origen, because both were at least mildly heretical. Tertullian’s major beef with the Catholic Church (which caused him to leave Her bounds after years of faithful service) was that She was too lax on sinners – a complaint shared by certain quarters of modern Christendom. Origen, on the other hand, couldn’t bring himself to imagine anyone was damned, so he imagined up an entirely new afterlife of Heaven for everyone, no matter how bad – a view popular amongst other corners of modern Christendom.

I. Thesis
Chris wrote a good comment on this subject, which I recommended previously, largely because of the line, “Is it logical to say that because heretics questioned a doctrine, the doctrine itself was therefore ill-defined?” I really like that summation, because I think it puts the dispute largely to rest. The existence of the Flat Earth Society doesn’t shake the foundations of heliocentrism, just as the existence of Gnostics calling themselves Christians didn’t stop orthodox Christians from knowing that the Gnostics are a bunch of Greek weirdos with overactive imaginations. Chris’ comment reflects on an ex-Christian friend who fell into this trap, and he concludes in part:

The best explanation I can come up with so far is that such people possess a queer psychological defect which causes them to give Church history a reading which suits their own predefined agenda. In other words, they possess a certain hermeneutic of suspicion or dissent, a disease of the intellect whereby they perceive the facts yet interpret them in a distorted manner that is more favorable to their current position.

The name for the “queer psychological defect” he’s describing is “confirmation bias.” We’re prone (all of us) to give excessive weight to evidence which supports our theories or views, and give insufficient weight to evidence which contradicts it. Converts from Protestantism regularly talk about the surreal feeling of reading a familiar Bible passage, only to realize its full implications, after comfortably glossing over it numerous times. And virtually everyone has a friend who’s just convinced that the Catholic Church was started by Constantine. Maybe their imagined early Church was Bible-only and disorganized, or maybe there were priestesses and a Sacred Feminine, or maybe it was all about withdrawing from society (or at least government), or Jesus was just a cool Hippie, etc. But you’ll notice immediately, 9 times out of 10, that this pre-Constantine Christianity sounds suspiciously like exactly what they want the Church to look like.

II. Antithesis
Anyways, my friend Erin takes issue with Chris’ description, and writes:

A queer psychological defect? Perhaps instead of a psychological defect it’s more of a lack of knowledge? Being raised protestant Christian and being exposed to Catholic faith through my father’s family and my education, I find it hard to comprehend that I have a psychological defect concerning early church history. Nobody teaches it. And no one really reads source materials, even though they should. Frankly, in order to develop strong and educated opinions concerning early church history I think one would have to be a great scholar, reading many early and contemporary documents in order to form an educated opinion…as I’m sure you and Joe have done. I am simply arguing that the average individual is not a scholar…and certainly doesn’t have a psychological defect for being uninformed.

I agree with Erin nearly 100%, although I’m not sure that the two necessarily disagree. She’s right that the average Protestant (or frankly, anyone) suffers not from a psychological defect so much as a lack of knowledge. And she’s right about the cause: virtually nobody teaches Church History. The popular view of Church History is not particularly hospitable to Catholicism.

For starters, we’re English speakers, and our history has been heavily influenced by the lingering Black Legend. England and Spain were bitter rivals, just as at various other points, England and France were bitter rivals. England was Protestant, and extremely nationalistic about its religion. Spain and France were both thoroughly Catholic, and so Catholicism in particular was viewed as unpatriotic. It didn’t exactly take a lot of work for ridiculous exaggerations about France, Spain, and Catholicism to make their way into English-language texts. After all, this is the era of “Whig history,” which imagined history as the story of the triumph of the English people over all odds. The number of people killed in the Inquisition went from 3000 over a period of centuries to millions, after enough Protestant writers respun the yarn.

Modern pop history is also tainted by an increasingly anti-religious sentiment in academia which treats all religion as villainous. Non-religious writers treat their subjects as if religion is something people just gave lip service to. They can’t seem to fathom that Michelangelo might have actually believed in the Christian scenes he was depicting. Finally, the History and Discovery Channel are entertainment, not reliable history. History conferences are dull. The History channel isn’t, because it advances ridiculous views of history, particularly religious history.

The only area I take mild exception with Erin is where she says, “Frankly, in order to develop strong and educated opinions concerning early church history I think one would have to be a great scholar, reading many early and contemporary documents in order to form an educated opinion.” I’m inclined to think that a great many of the Fathers are very readable, and that carefully chosen secondary sources (like Fr. O’Connor’s excellent The Hidden Manna for Eucharistic theology in the Fathers, for example) can make that even easier. Additionally, their writings are really easy to find online. I mention this only because I know that the idea of reading a bunch of 2nd and 3rd century texts can seem daunting. You may not become a Patristics expert overnight, but you’ll find you know much more about what the heck people are talking about.

III. Synthesis?
It seems to me that Chris has in mind those individuals who research Church History and are just able to deflect some glaringly obvious Catholic references. And he’s right that there are people who read a lot of Patristics without ever really “getting it.” I’m inclined to think that those folks read the Fathers with a goal of trying to cherry-pick language which supports their given position, and they’re just building “confirmation bias” into epic proportions. His response to Erin really reinforces that this is what’s going on, since the person he’s talking about literally set down Augustine’s Confessions when it didn’t agree with him. But I think Erin’s right that these are really exceptional cases. Most folks don’t read the Fathers at all, and there’s a big difference between reading someone telling you about what the Fathers believed and reading it yourself. Seems to me that the solution to what both Erin and Chris identify as problematic is to prayerfully read the Church Fathers with as open a mind as possible, and (ideally) recourse to someone who’s familiar with them for parts which might be confusingly worded.


  1. Well put and very charitable. This is what I would like to see all discussions between Christians to be like. Thanks for highlighting some of the finer points.

  2. I kind of agree with all you, Chris (not just because I’m married to him), you, and Erin. Most people are, like Erin says, completely ignorant of Church history. But there are people who do look into Church history and like Chris says, and find something that is objectively not there. Some of this may be accounted for by intellectual laziness or even by confirmation bias. But there seems to be something more in some cases, and I think these are the cases that Chris is talking about. I’m one of them. I’ve encountered others.

    I was deeply and vaguely Protestant when I met Chris. Staunch without knowing exactly what I was staunch about, except I knew it wasn’t Catholic. Our conversations about religion were confusing and frustrating, not because I didn’t want to understand what he was telling me, but because it honestly didn’t make sense to me. I think that I was deeply entrenched in a “Protestant paradigm”. More than confirmation bias, it didn’t really allow me to think about things from any other perspective. I was incapable of coming to the conclusions that naturally came from the evidence that was in front of me. It was a way of thinking, and difficult to overcome. I think this could be called a “psychological defect” because it deals with the way that we think. It doesn’t mean that we need to go to a looney bin or take a pill and it’s fixed, but that there’s something more to it than just pigheaded confirmation bias or simple ignorance.

    Another case in point. I spent some time last year dialoguing on the “Beggars All” blog with many Reformed apologians. Many recommended the Holy Scriptures trilogy to me, with the third volume in mind to show me that I was mistaken and that the Church Fathers were not Catholic (although not necessarily Protestant either). It was a bizarre experience, reading that third volume. Everything I read was distinctly Catholic, but it was over 300 pages of quotes from Church Fathers that “spoke for themselves” supposedly showing they believed in sola scriptura. This is from men who have assumedly read the quotes that they compiled, recommended to me by several Protestants who also read it and found it compelling. Repeatedly, I gave evidence of widespread belief of the Real Presence, the necessity of baptism, the importance of the bishops, etc. in the early Church. This wasn’t always merely glossed over, but they attempted to refute this evidence with the same tactics you’ve spoken of before, moving from the specific to the general. “Oh, the Church Fathers never agreed on anything, it doesn’t matter that someone said Christ was present in the Eucharist.” When they are asked who disagreed about the Eucharist and where, and their weak examples (like saying Augustine thought it was figurative) are disproved, they still they stubbornly held their position, saying the Church Fathers will even contradict themselves, lending no credence to explanations of apparent contradictions from differences in language. It seems that they were incapable of seeing the evidence for what it was, and I’m completely bewildered as to why.

    Can this stubborn mindset be mere confirmation bias? Just reading in their own views and cherry picking favorite phrases? Sure, that has a lot to do with it, but what about people who really look into things, and despite all evidence, cannot see what is right in front of them? I do believe the devil is active in this world, and uses our own vices against us, tempting us deeper into them. It may be a demonic exaggeration of confirmation bias, playing on our own pride, where all we can think is that we have it right, the other people must be wrong, must be mistaken, no matter what they say. It’s too comfortable, too easy to stay the same. And all we need is Screwtape to assure us of this. I really don’t know, but it is a bizarre phenomenon, whatever the cause.

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