I read a book by an Assemblies of God writer some months ago, and in it, the author creates a hypothetical wherein someone stranded on a desert island finds a (presumably Protestant, 66-Book) Bible for the first time. This sort of “the Protestant Bible dropped from Heaven fully formed” hypothetical is the essence of the anti-historical view of the Faith, like the Greek Athena, who was said to have sprung from her… um, father’s head … fully-formed and clad for war. (I’d originally written “mother’s womb,” which was quickly caught!).
The truth is, the person reading the Bible will read it at least partially influenced by a historical lens. In this case, that history will be shaped by the Reformation: the number of books in the Bible, the manner in which certain passages are translated, and so forth. Most likely, certain external markers exist to signal that these books are considered canonical, and not merely inspirational: perhaps the title says “The Holy Bible,” for instance. This external presence is dramatically more influential if the Bible has footnotes and commentaries. So even though that guy may be stranded on a desert island, he’s reading Scripture through the lens of a church or ecclesial community. The dialogue between St. Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:30-31 is characteristic here: the eunuch explicitly recognizes that the Bible can’t be read apart from a Church.
So everything we deal with when talking about the Bible or Christianity is drenched in history. My B.A. is in history, and at the time, I had no real idea of how important it would turn out to be for questions of the Faith. But the questions of the Truth of Catholicism are almost always historical claims: Did the Catholic Church declare which books were in the Bible? Are the Biblical Books we have now unedited versions of the original Books? Do they date back to the Apostolic age, or are they the product of later writers? Were there other Books, once considered canonical, but which the Church destroyed? Were these Books, now considered canonical, considered canonical at the time? And so on. The questions in Catholic/Protestant debates usually involve: Was the papacy created at some point in Church history? Were foreign doctrines introduced – and if yes, when and by whom? And so forth. A guy on a desert island with a newfound Bible would simply be unable to answer any of these critical questions.
The best argument from history, however, goes to St. Francis De Sales. This is again from The Catholic Controversy, this time from a tract called “The Authority of the Catholic Church,” chapter 12. He begins by pointing out that Calvinists and Catholics agree that at least for a time “the Roman Church was holy, Catholic, Apostolic. ” For support, he points to Romans 1, where St. Paul says, “I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world” (Romans 1:8), and “All the Churches of Christ salute you” (Romans 16:16). Starting from this point – that the true Faith was firmly, famously, and visible entrenched in Rome from the start, St. Francis walks through a number of Roman Early Church Fathers considered to be holy by both Catholics and Calvinists. Then he asks:
Well then, when was it that Rome lost this widely renowned faith? When did it cease to be what it had been? at what time? under what bishop? by what means? by what force? by what steps did the strange religion take possession of the City and of the whole world?-what protest, what troubles, what lamentations did it evoke? How! was everybody asleep throughout the whole world, while Rome, Rome I say, was forging new Sacraments, new Sacrifices, and new doctrines? Is there not to be found one single historian, either Greek or Latin, friend or stranger, to publish or leave behind some traces of his commentaries and memoirs on so great a matter?”
And, in good truth, it would be a strange hap if historians, who have been so curious to note the most trifling changes in cities and peoples had forgotten the most noteworthy of all those which can occur, that is, the change of religion in the most important city and province of the world, which are Rome and Italy.
I ask you, gentlemen, whether you know when our Church began the pretended error. Tell us frankly; for it is certain that, as S. Jerome says (Adv. Lucif. 28) “to have reduced heresy to its origin is to have refuted it.” Let us trace back the course of history up to the foot of the cross; let us look on this side and on that, we shall never see that this Catholic Church has at any time changed its aspect -it is ever itself, in doctrine and in Sacraments.
It’s a great line of argumention: (1) when did the Apostasy occur? (2) By whom? (3) Why didn’t the Christians respond? (4) Why didn’t anyone outside of Rome speak out? (5) Why didn’t ancient historians note it – even neutrally, the way a Josephus might? And it’s a great reference to Jerome, although he could have used many other Fathers for the same point. A number of the Church Fathers showed the error of heresy by simply tracing it to its founder. St. Francis proceeds to follow their example:
We have no need against you, on this important point, of other witnesses than the eyes of our fathers and grandfathers to say when your pretended Church began. In the year 1517 Luther commenced his Tragedy: in ’34. and ’35 they composed an act in these parts; Zwingle and Calvin were the chief players in it. Would you have me detail by list with what fortune and deeds, by what force and violence, this reformation gained possession of Berne, Geneva, Lausanne, and other towns -what troubles and woes it brought forth? You will not find pleasure in this account; we see it, we feel it. In a word, your Church is not yet eighty years old; its author is Calvin ; its result the misery of our age. Or if you would make it older, tell us where it was before that time. Beware of saving that it existed but was invisible: for if it were not seen who can say that it existed? Besides, Luther contradicts you, who confesses that in the beginning he was quite alone.
So the argument from history disproves Protestantism, since we can trace both Protestantism generally, and Lutheranism and Calvinism specifically, to individual founders at specific dates. So the standard which St. Francis sets for disproving the Catholic Church is a standard he can meet for disproving Protestantism. Finally, he goes back to the Fathers:
Now, if Tertullian already in his time bears witness that Catholics refuted the errors of heretics by their posteriority and novelty, when the Church was only in her youth-” We are wont,” says he, [De Praesc. xxx. seqq.] “to prescribe against heretics, for brevity’s sake, on the argument of posteriority ” -how much more right have we now? And if one of the Churches must be the true, this title falls to ours which is most ancient; and to your novelty the infamous name of heresy.
So if there is such thing as a true Church, it has to – by definition – be the one which continually and visibly existed from the time of Christ to the present. The True Church can’t just pop in and out of existence. And this argument, if grasped, puts the entire Reformation to rest.
For Protestant readers of this blog, is there a persuasive response to this argument? It seems that for 72,000 Calvinists in Geneva, there wasn’t. Have the five centuries since St. Francis posed this argument exposed any weaknesses, or uncovered any helpful history?