Proving Too Much, Part II

I came across one of David Green’s opponents — a friendly seeming young guy named Brian — defending the notion of historic Christianity against innovations like hyper-Preterism. I asked him, more or less, what I posed in yesterday’s post: how can you reject theological novelties like hyper-Preterism on the basis that they are novelties, without also rejecting the novelty of the Reformation? My comment and his response are over on his blog, but long story short, he is an ex-Catholic who believes that the Church “speaks contrary to the Scriptures on many matters, and so precludes itself, on many levels, from historical consideration.” He offered a helpful insight as well, when he declared that “My faith is very similar to that of Papias, Irenaeus, Polycarp, Tertullian, Lactantius, and other early defenders of the true faith.” I’ve done my best to steer my response based upon that information. Without further ado, here’s my response:


I’ve gotta thank you for such a fast, charitable, and thoughtful reply. I can only hope that I can pay you back the same service (and I’m already slower, so off to a bad start, I suppose). First, probably a poor use of “eschatology” in my post. I meant that some of the future prophesies related to the destruction of the Temple, and some of the language is apocalyptic sounding. You’re right, though, that it’s not literally an eschaton, and thank you for point that out. I’ve fixed the post.

Second, and you’re right that this is off-topic, you say that you were part of the “Body of Christ” until the Lord regenerated you. Technically, we agree that you entrance into the Church, called the Body of Christ and the Kingdom of Heaven in Scripture, coincided with your regeneration. But on this point, you’ll find that the Early Church Fathers are unanimous that this regeneration is connected with Baptism. This is also the testimony of Scripture, whether it be 1 Peter 3:21 or Acts 22:16, or Mark 16:16. Lactantius, who you cite as a defender of the true Faith, wrote in The Divine Institutes, Book IV, chapter 15, “When He [Jesus] first began to reach maturity He was baptized by the prophet John in the river Jordan, that He might wash away in the spiritual layer not His own sins, for it is evident that He had none, but those of the flesh, which He bare; that as He saved the Jews by undergoing circumcision, so He might save the Gentiles also by baptism— that is, by the pouring forth of the purifying dew.”

Your underlying assumption seems to be that since the Body of Christ is called His Spotless Bride, it’s made up of only the saved. This runs directly counter to Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43, in which Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth to a field with wheat (planted by Christ) and weeds (planted by the Devil) which won’t be sorted out until the end of time. The verses which you quoted to Larry earlier about looking to the Church really support this. The Church is a visible Body which can be looked to. On Earth, it’s full of humans, and those humans often make it look bad, but that can be said even amongst the saved. All of us – even the elect – are sinners, and do doltish things at times which are terribly unbecoming to Christ. Doesn’t mean we’re not still in the Church.

Third, your problem against my article seems to be primarily that “The Catholic church speaks contrary to the Scriptures on many matters, and so precludes itself, on many levels, from historical consideration.” I’m not sure precisely which areas you mean. But I think that this immediately gets you into a problematic area for a number of reasons.

  • First, the men you cite to (Papias, Irenaeus, Polycarp, Tertullian, Lactantius, etc.) were Catholics [Tertullian flirted with the Montanist heresy at one point, but St. Augustine suggests that he returned to the Catholic Faith prior to death. The rest were steady Catholics].
  • Second, the Church has, from time immemorial, defended the teachings in question on the basis of Biblical passages. That is, you might disagree with the Catholic interpretation of a particular verse, but it’s not as if the Church isn’t reliant upon the Bible. Even in Her rejection of sola Scriptura, She relies largely upon the Bible itself.
    To say Her interpretation of Scripture is wrong — and that the interpretation of Scripture held unanimously by all Christians centuries or more is wrong — seems to put you in the exact same boat as Larry, as an individual willing to judge all of antiquity and Christian Tradition based upon their own interpretation.
  • Third, if the Catholic Church is excluded from historical consideration, who does that leave?
  • Fourth, if the Church isn’t who She says She is, where did this Church come from? And what doctrines distinguish the Catholic Church from the Church existent prior to Her? To be clear, I don’t read you as saying that Catholics aren’t Christians: just that they aren’t necessarily Christians. Is this an accurate understanding?

Since I don’t know the exact areas on which you disagree with the Church, I thought I’d very briefly take four: first, the central Catholic claim – Apostolic Succession with Roman Primacy; second, the Eucharist; third, Mary; and fourth, Baptism by immersion,. Obviously, I won’t do justice to any of the four here, but if you’re interested, I’ll gladly expand. My focus will be primarily related to the five you cite to as “defenders of the true Faith,” Papias, Irenaeus, Polycarp, Tertullian, and Lactantius (when I’m quoting them, I’ll use green), but I’ll also include a few references to Ignatius of Antioch and the Didache, who are as old or older as the five you mentioned.

I. Apostolic Succession Headed by Rome
Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, as you know, is an excellent work. He’s dealing with all sorts of heretics, and just lays them out. But look at how he does it in Book III, Chapter 3 (you can find it here). His argument isn’t that the heretics can’t find a defense in Scripture (he acknowledges that they have Scriptural proof-texts in Book I, Chapters 3, 8, and 19; Book II, Ch. 10, etc.). His argument is that they don’t have valid Apostolic succession. His entire authority as Bishop of Lyons is based on this same authority. Concluding that “it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches,” Bishop Irenaeus decided to trace the lineage “of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere.” In other words, every church has to agree with the Church in Rome, so it makes the most sense to trace their lineage. And so he does, in III, 3, 3, a near identical list to what we have from the other Church Fathers.

This proves that from the earliest days of the Church, the Roman See was considered primary, to the extent that the rest of Christendom as “a matter of necessity” must agree with Her. And authority is derived from Apostolic succession. The same list, from Peter to Linus onwards, can be traced to Benedict today. This particular point is absolutely fundamental: it’s the key to Irenaeus’ entire authority. If Apostolic Succession isn’t real, Irenaeus isn’t Bishop of Lyons; he’s just a guy with delusions of grandeur whose credibility is totally shot. This is true of the others, as well. Papias is Bishop of Hierapolis, for example, and Polycarp is Bishop of Smyrna.

Tertullian is in agreement with Irenaeus, and says of the heretics in Prescription against Heretics, Chapter 32: “Let them produce the original records of their churches; let them unfold the roll of their bishops, running down in due succession from the beginning in such a manner that [that first bishop of theirs] bishop shall be able to show for his ordainer and predecessor some one of the apostles or of apostolic men, — a man, moreover, who continued steadfast with the apostles. For this is the manner in which the apostolic churches transmit their registers: as the church of Smyrna, which records that Polycarp was placed therein by John; as also the church of Rome, which makes Clement to have been ordained in like manner by Peter. In exactly the same way the other churches likewise exhibit (their several worthies), whom, as having been appointed to their episcopal places by apostles, they regard as transmitters of the apostolic seed.

So the very men you cite to derive their authority not simply from Scripture alone (as Irenaeus is clear that the heretics did), but from Apostolicity. This is a ringing denunciation of sola Scriptura, and a ringing affirmation of the Catholic claim.

II. The Eucharist
On the issue of the Eucharist, there’s equally clear evidence. St. Ignatius of Antioch, in Chapter 7 of his Epistle to the Smyrnaeans (where Polycarp was later Bishop), says of the Gnostics, “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 …” In the next chapter, by the way, he says, “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.” The Epistle is so thoroughly Catholic that Calvin thought it was a forgery. We now know it isn’t one, and can be dated to 107 – 110 A.D., right before Ignatius was martyred in Rome. This predates all of the men you cited, although evidence could be found from them, as well.

Tertullian, in Chapter III of The Chaplet, or De Corona, writes “We take also, in congregations before daybreak, and from the hand of none but the presidents [presiding priest], the sacrament of the Eucharist, which the Lord both commanded to be eaten at meal-times, and enjoined to be taken by all alike. As often as the anniversary comes round, we make offerings for the dead as birthday honours. We consider it a crime to fast or to worship on our knees on the Lord’s Day. We rejoice in the same privilege from Easter Sunday until Pentecost. We suffer anxiously if anything of our chalice or bread shall fall upon the ground.

Irenaeus is astoundingly clear on the Eucharist. First, he declares it a sacrifice, and he bases it off of the New Testament and Malachi 1. This is from Against Heresies, Book IV, Chapter 17, section 5:

He [Jesus] took from among creation that which is bread, and gave thanks, saying, ‘This is my body.’ The cup likewise, which is from among the creation to which we belong, he confessed to be his blood. He taught the new sacrifice of the new covenant, of which Malachi, one of the twelve [minor] prophets, had signified beforehand: ‘You do not do my will, says the Lord Almighty, and I will not accept a sacrifice at your hands. For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is glorified among the Gentiles, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure sacrifice; for great is my name among the Gentiles, says the Lord Almighty’ [Malachi 1:10-11]. By these words he makes it plain that the former people will cease to make offerings to God; but that in every place sacrifice will be offered to him, and indeed, a pure one, for his name is glorified among the Gentiles.”

And If you’ll permit me to quote from Against Heresies Book V, Chapter V at some length, Irenaeus is crystal clear:

2. But vain in every respect are they who despise the entire dispensation of God, and disallow the salvation of the flesh, and treat with contempt its regeneration, maintaining that it is not capable of incorruption. But if this indeed do not attain salvation, then neither did the Lord redeem us with His blood, nor is the cup of the Eucharist the communion of His blood, nor the bread which we break the communion of His body. For blood can only come from veins and flesh, and whatsoever else makes up the substance of man, such as the Word of God was actually made. By His own blood he redeemed us, as also His apostle declares, “In whom we have redemption through His blood, even the remission of sins.” And as we are His members, we are also nourished by means of the creation (and He Himself grants the creation to us, for He causes His sun to rise, and sends rain when He wills).

3. When, therefore, the mingled cup and the manufactured bread receives the Word of God, and the Eucharist of the blood and the body of Christ is made, from which things the substance of our flesh is increased and supported, how can they affirm that the flesh is incapable of receiving the gift of God, which is life eternal, which [flesh] is nourished from the body and blood of the Lord, and is a member of Him?—even as the blessed Paul declares in his Epistle to the Ephesians, that “we are members of His body, of His flesh, and of His bones.” He does not speak these words of some spiritual and invisible man, for a spirit has not bones nor flesh; but [he refers to] that dispensation [by which the Lord became] an actual man, consisting of flesh, and nerves, and bones,—that [flesh] which is nourished by the cup which is His blood, and receives increase from the bread which is His body. And just as a cutting from the vine planted in the ground fructifies in its season, or as a corn of wheat falling into the earth and becoming decomposed, rises with manifold increase by the Spirit of God, who contains all things, and then, through the wisdom of God, serves for the use of men, and having received the Word of God, becomes the Eucharist, which is the body and blood of Christ; so also our bodies, being nourished by it, and deposited in the earth, and suffering decomposition there, shall rise at their appointed time, the Word of God granting them resurrection to the glory of God, even the Father, who freely gives to this mortal immortality, and to this corruptible incorruption, because the strength of God is made perfect in weakness, in order that we may never become puffed up, as if we had life from ourselves, and exalted against God, our minds becoming ungrateful; but learning by experience that we possess eternal duration from the excelling power of this Being, not from our own nature, we may neither undervalue that glory which surrounds God as He is, nor be ignorant of our own nature, but that we may know what God can effect, and what benefits man receives, and thus never wander from the true comprehension of things as they are, that is, both with regard to God and with regard to man.

III. Mary
Irenaeus, who you cited, described Mary as the New Eve, writing in Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter 22, “And thus also it was that the knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. For what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the virgin Mary set free through faith.” In Genesis, Eve took the fruit of sin from the tree to give to the first Adam. Mary took the fruit of her womb (Luke 1:42), the “last Adam” (1 Cor. 15:45), and allowed Him to be made sin, and put upon a tree (Gal. 3:13). Like Eve, She was formed by God without original sin. The difference between Her and Eve was precisely what they did with this freedom from sin. I talk about it a bit here. It’s significant that Jesus refers to His Mother as “Woman,” which is Eve’s title in Genesis 2, which is (a) before the Fall, and the introduction of sin; and (b) before she became Eve, the “mother of all the living” in Genesis 3. Also significant is the fact that Irenaeus’ description of Mary is older than the word Trinity. We’re talking about extremely early Christianity here.

IV. Baptism By Sprinkling
You said you’d been “sprinkled as a baby,” which I thought might be an indication that you disagree with Baptism by sprinkling. If I’m guessing right, you should check out the Didache. The Didache, as you may or may not know, is believed to be the oldest Christian text outside of the New Testament. In fact, parts or all of it are probably older than the later books of the NT (like John’s Gospel). It was a collection of Apostolic teachings assembled by an anonymous Christian or church to create a Catechism of sorts: to explain the general practices of the Church. The name means “Teachings of the Twelve Apostles,” and it was circulated while the Apostles were still alive. That it was accepted so readily by early Christians suggests it authenticity. It was even a popular candidate for early Biblical canons by orthodox Christians, which suggests the esteem in which it was held.

In Chapter 7 of the Didache, we read, “And concerning baptism, baptize this way: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living [running] water. But if you have no living water, baptize into other water; and if you cannot do so in cold water, do so in warm. But if you have neither, pour out water three times upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit.” So while Baptism by immersion was the norm, Baptism by sprinkling was clearly – from the earliest days of the Church – accepted as valid.

I agree with you that men like Irenaeus and Polycarp (particularly) are heroic defenders of orthodoxy – I’m less familiar with Papias and Lactantius, and Tertullian is a mixed bag. I’d add to that list Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, and the Didache. I also agree with you, contra Larry, that historical Christianity either is true or false: it will not do to simply concoct some sort of hybrid Christianity, where we just reinvent Christianity to comport with our own theology. You said to him, “By positing a brand new Christianity that nobody ever knew about until the 70’s, you have invalidated everything Christ did to ensure that His church would be and remain the ‘pillar and ground of the truth.’ You ought to be ashamed of yourself.” I suppose my challenge to you, if I may be so bold, is to apply that standard to your own theology. Are you holding everything which the Early Church Fathers preach as orthodoxy, or only those parts which agree with your personal reading of the Bible? And if the latter, how do you distinguish that from the conduct you condemn?

Finally, I just want to thank you for your charity so far, and look forward to hearing from you.

In Christ,


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *