One obstacle to Catholic-Protestant dialogue is that we don’t put equal weight to the testimony of the Church Fathers. If the earliest Christians univocally said that X or Y is true, we Catholics trust that it’s true, simply because the Holy Spirit would never let the entire Church fall into heresy, given that His perpetual task is to guide the Church into the fullness of truth forever (John 14:16, 16:13). Protestants can’t affirm this without affirming some very Catholic doctrines that were universally believed in the early Church, like the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. That’s not to say Protestants give no weight to the Church Fathers – many do, although as with most doctrines, it’s impossible to speak of Protestants holding a single cohesive position on the question. But frequently, they will point out (quite correctly) that the Church Fathers aren’t individually infallible or inspired: they can, and do, make mistakes. So how can we put weight in their witness?
I want to consider the question in light of three classically-Reformed doctrines: perseverance of the Saints (the idea, sometimes called “One Saved, Always Saved,” that if you have true faith in Christ at any point in your life, your salvation is guaranteed, and you cannot fall away permanently); a rejection of the degree of authority given the bishop and the visible Church by the Catholic Church; and the rejection of transubstantiation. On this last point, Dr. Keith Mathison notes that: “The Reformers were united in their rejection of both aspects of Rome’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. They rejected transubstantiation, and they rejected the idea that the Lord’s Supper is a propitiatory sacrifice.” For example, John Calvin writes:
What remains but for the blind to see, the deaf to hear, children even to perceive this abomination of the mass, which, held forth in a golden cup, has so intoxicated all the kings and nations of the earth, from the highest to the lowest; so struck them with stupor and giddiness, that, duller than the lower animals, they have placed the vessel of their salvation in this fatal vortex. Certainly Satan never employed a more powerful engine to assail and storm the kingdom of Christ.
My question, then, is: What would you have to believe in order to accept the standard Protestant position on these three points?
I. The Church in Asia Minor
To answer this, let’s go back to Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) in the first century. St. John writes the Book of Revelation around the year 96 A.D. (we know this from some of the earliest witnesses). He’s writing from exile in Patmos, and he has specific revelations from Christ for the seven churches of Asia Minor:
So, for example, here is what Jesus has to say to the church of Smyrna (Revelation 2:9-11):
I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who conquers shall not be hurt by the second death.
So Christ warns them that their faith will be tested, but He also praises them for the spiritual riches, comforts them in the face of the impending suffering, and promises the crown of life to those who persevere. It’s night and day different from the words of rebuke that Our Lord has for, say, the church of Laodicea (Rev. 3:14-22).
Flash forward about a decade. There are a few things that you should know about the Church in Asia Minor in the first decade of the second century. Eusebius, the earliest Church historian, sets the scene well in Church History (which was written around 323-325 A.D.):
At that time Polycarp, a disciple of the apostles, was a man of eminence in Asia, having been entrusted with the episcopate of the church of Smyrna by those who had seen and heard the Lord. And at the same time Papias, bishop of the parish of Hierapolis, became well known, as did also Ignatius, who was chosen bishop of Antioch, second in succession to Peter, and whose fame is still celebrated by a great many. At that time Polycarp, a disciple of the apostles, was a man of eminence in Asia, having been entrusted with the episcopate of the church of Smyrna by those who had seen and heard the Lord. And at the same time Papias, bishop of the parish of Hierapolis, became well known, as did also Ignatius, who was chosen bishop of Antioch, second in succession to Peter, and whose fame is still celebrated by a great many.
Like Polycarp, the oldest account of his martyrdom records that Ignatius was also a disciple of the Apostle John. In about 107 A.D., this Ignatius is being led off to his martyrdom in Rome. Along the way, he writes seven letters: to the Roman Christians, asking them not to stop his martyrdom; to Polycarp; and to five of the churches of Asia Minor (Smyrna, Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, and Philadelphia). Eusebius mentions all seven of these letters, down to the chronology of when they were written.
Let’s consider just a couple passages from those letters. To the Ephesians (another of the churches St. John writes to in Revelation: Rev. 2:1-7), Ignatius writes:
For if I in this brief space of time, have enjoyed such fellowship with your bishop — I mean not of a mere human, but of a spiritual nature— how much more do I reckon you happy who are so joined to him as the Church is to Jesus Christ, and as Jesus Christ is to the Father, that so all things may agree in unity! Let no man deceive himself: if any one be not within the altar, he is deprived of the bread of God. For if the prayer of one or two possesses [Matthew 18:19] such power, how much more that of the bishop and the whole Church! He, therefore, that does not assemble with the Church, has even by this manifested his pride, and condemned himself. For it is written, God resists the proud. Let us be careful, then, not to set ourselves in opposition to the bishop, in order that we may be subject to God.
To the Smyrnaeans, Ignatius warns them about the Gnostics, writing:
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.
Note what he’s not saying. He’s not saying, “Hey, I have this unique, controversial theory that the Eucharist really is the Flesh and Blood of Christ. You should believe it, too.” Nope. Rather, he takes it for granted that the Church in Smyrna, the same church Christ praised a decade earlier, (a) universally believes in the Real Presence; and (b) will recognize that the Gnostics are heretics simply by his pointing out that their theology is incompatible with orthodox Eucharistic theology. He’s able to use the Real Presence as a litmus test for orthodoxy, declaring that those who dissent should be cut off from communion, and incur spiritual death. And he’s writing this to the local church headed by St. Polycarp, the disciple of the Apostles who was “entrusted with the episcopate of the church of Smyrna by those who had seen and heard the Lord.” And notice how the Church responds: Ignatius is praised and venerated throughout Christendom, not rejected as a heretic.
That Ignatius of Antioch holds to the Catholic position on the Eucharist and the authority of the bishop and the visible Church is beyond serious question. You cannot side with both the Protestant Reformers and Ignatius on the Eucharist or the visible Church.
So go back to my original question: to side with the Reformers, what would you have to believe? Consider a few of the implications:
- St. Ignatius, a disciple of the Apostle John, is a heretic.
- St. Polycarp, a disciple of the Apostle John and other disciples, is a heretic.
- After St. Peter left Antioch, either he or the local church he led immediately replaced him with a heretic (Ignatius).
- The Church in Smyrna, consisting of “those who had seen and heard the Lord,” chose a heretic (Polycarp) as their bishop.
- The Church in Smyrna itself fell into heresy, since their Eucharistic views mirrored Ignatius, and they venerated him and preserved and distributed his letter.
- This means that the Church in Smyrna somehow went from being praised and encouraged by Christ in 96 to heretical (seduced by satanic fictions) within a hair over a decade. Think about that: it’s not just that the local institution went bad. We’re talking about the same individual Christians, praised for their faith by Christ and then condemned for their faith by Calvin. And somehow, we’re supposed to believe all of this while simultaneously believing that individuals can’t permanently fall away.
- The same, of course, is true for the Church in Ephesus, the one praised and edified by St. Paul, and directly encouraged in Revelation 2 by Jesus Christ Himself. In 96, they’re believers; by 107, they’ve somehow all become heretics (without history recording a single peep of protest as true Christianity was overthrown!).
Surely you see the problem. We’re supposed to believe that the Smyrnaean Christians are doing great in 96, and somehow become heretics by 107, all under the watch of a disciple of the Apostles (Polycarp) and seduced into a satanic parody of Christianity by another disciple of the Apostles (Ignatius).
If these believers were destined to end up heretics, did they have the true faith and lose it? That would debunk the doctrine of perseverance of the Saints. Did they never have the true faith? That would contradict the explicit Scriptural address to them. Or did they still have the true faith in 107? That would confirm the orthodoxy of belief in the Real Presence, and the ugly insanity of Calvin’s railing against the teaching as “satanic.”
II. The Global Church
Now let’s step back and consider the entire Church. Calvin seemingly recognizes that in condemning Catholic Eucharistic views as Satanic, he was making war on the whole Church throughout history. He wrote:
By these and similar inventions, Satan has attempted to adulterate and envelop the sacred Supper of Christ as with thick darkness, that its purity might not be preserved in the Church. But the head of this horrid abomination was, when he raised a sign by which it was not only obscured and perverted, but altogether obliterated and abolished, vanished away and disappeared from the memory of man; namely, when, with most pestilential error, he blinded almost the whole world into the belief that the Mass was a sacrifice and oblation for obtaining the remission of sins.
That’s a remarkable claim: Calvin is saying that Satan succeeded in misleading “almost the whole world” into the false Catholic view. And he has to say almost, because to say that the entire Church fell away would be obviously unworkable. If the entire Church fell under the snare of Satan, then the gates of Hell overcame the Church (which Christ promised wouldn’t happen, in Matthew 16:17-19).
But what’s the basis for this “almost”? Where was the group of first or second or third or fourth century Christians who denied Catholic Eucharistic theology? As I’ve mentioned before, they simply don’t exist. The whole Church of antiquity holds to the faith of Ignatius, no “almost” about it. So work out those conclusions. Did the Apostles simply fail to produce any orthodox followers, or produced such a meager crop that history no longer remembers them? Or were these “orthodox” Christians of the early Church simply too shy about their faith to share it? Or did they produce orthodox followers who then fell away within a decade of the death of John, contrary to the perseverance of the Saints?
Now remember what Christ promised about how the gates of Hell wouldn’t overcome the Church (Matthew 16:17-19); about how “he who hears the word and understands it […] indeed bears fruit, and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty” (Matthew 13:23). Remember also what the Scriptures say about how if Christ is the true Messiah, the faith won’t simply die out within a few years, and that if it does, it shows Jesus isn’t the true Christ (Acts 5:35-39).
Can you reject Ignatius, Polycarp, and the churches of Ephesus and Smyrna without rejecting Revelation and Paul’s Epistle Ephesians? It’s not clear to me how you could, particularly while clinging to the fiction of “perseverance of the Saints.” But equally clear is that to hold to Ignatius, Polycarp, et al – to believe that the students of the Apostles actually know a thing or two about the Apostles and their teaching – is to reject the Protestant beliefs about the Eucharist and the visible Church.