That Old Time Religion

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?


  1. A couple times, I’ve tried to paraphrase St. Francis’s arguments, but you can’t. You have to quote him because he’s so direct, and his wording is so perfect. It seems to me like his is the best defense of Catholicism out there, but I don’t see his arguments a lot in the mainstream.

  2. Hey Joe. I’m probably one of a few of your protestant readers, but here’s what I’ve come to think about:

    God is bigger than the Church. I mean that in the sense that the Church (both Catholic and Protestant) will never be God. The truth of the Bible rests not in the Church, but in God and the salvation given to us by Jesus Christ.

    I believe this because I think both Catholics and Protestants have failed throughout our history to reflect the true presence of Christ. I am certainly no expert on this, but I do know of a few examples on each side where we can clearly see that each have biblical and often sinful mistakes. For ex. Pope Alexander VI (probably one of the most famous for being an adulterer) who had many children out of wedlock (committing sins of sexual immorality), various other popes’ actions during the Renaissance period could be deemed sinful, not to mention the countless Protestant leaders who have committed haneous sins while touting the name of God and claiming to be a Holy servant of Christ. My point is that the Church is run by human beings, not God. How could it ever be true? The Truth is in the Gospel, in the Word of God, not the structure of the Church. Yes God is the head of the Church, but unfortunately, human beings fail from time to time making the wheels go round. Church leaders are important to community growth and personal faith development and worship, but they are ultimately not the building blocks of my faith in God, and Jesus Christ my Lord and Savior.

    I don’t know if that makes any sense at all. But that’s what I would argue. I wouldn’t say that it’s an issue about what you say: “the The True Church can’t just pop in and out of existence. And this argument, if grasped, puts the entire Reformation to rest.”

    I would say that The True Church is irrevelant when it comes to realizing the power and omnipotence of God versus the incompetance and human failings of man.

    :/ dunno. hard to type this stuff and make any sense.

  3. Nice post, Joe. I agree that St. Francis’ argument cannot be refuted. The Catholic Controversy was instrumental in my conversion from Calvinism. As Stacey noted, it doesn’t get any better than this.

    Unfortunately, however, St. Francis’ argument is routinely ignored via a retreat to the fugitive concept of an “invisible church” (despite his admonition against doing that). I think most modern American Protestants (Erin, for example) see no problem at all with the proposition that the Holy Spirit could essentially go off on picnic for 1,500 years and permit the Church to fall into massive doctrinal error.

    Of course, arguing that the greatness of God and Scripture renders Church, doctrinal truth, etc. irrelevant is an exercise in extreme question begging. Whence do they suppose the Scriptures came? As you ably note, they did not fall from heaven neatly bound in cordovan leather with gilded pages. Rather it was the Catholic Church — the “pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15) to which Christ said “He that heareth you, heareth me; and he that despiseth you, despiseth me; and he that despiseth me, despiseth him that sent me.” (Lk 10:16) — that faithfully collected all the early Christian writings, sifted the wheat from the tares, and authoritatively told us — under the guidance of the Holy Spirit — what books are Scripture. Without the supposedly “irrelevant” Catholic Church, Protestants wouldn’t have a Bible at all.

  4. Zach, wow. I dislike that the internet gives people the ability to speak about a person they don’t even know in a manner that is judgemental and frankly disrespectful. I don’t appreciate being categorized and used as an example of Modern American Protestantism as a whole: “I think most modern American Protestants (Erin, for example) see no problem at all with the proposition that the Holy Spirit could essentially go off on picnic for 1,500 years and permit the Church to fall into massive doctrinal error.” When did I say that? The Holy Spirit hasn’t EVER been on a picnic, it has been alive in the scripture, the hearts and minds of Christians, and GASP I would even say The Catholic Church. Despite human failings, God and His spirit remain present. My argument is not that the Catholic Church is inherently wrong, rather that human beings make mistakes. I trust though that God’s spirit will ultimately guide us. The Catholic Church is a wonderful institution. Please, Zach, understand me. I respect the Catholic Church. Greatly. They provided me with a wonderful spiritual and academic education and have helped me along my own faith journey of figuring out God’s will in my life. It’s unfortunate that you’ve chosen to make a dramatic connection about me and other protestants based on a blog comment.

    Why the hostility? Why can’t we have a more direct and understanding discussion? You can disagree with me, but please don’t make assumptions about me, my faith. And for some reason, you got the impression that I have little regard for the Catholic Church. Quite the opposite. And Joe can attest to this. I went to Catholic school my entire K-12 life, my father and his family are Catholic, and continue to attend Catholic mass. I was not baptized Catholic, but I have spent my life respecting the tradition and even at times considering changing traditions.

    God is not a God of “should of” “could of,” He’s a God of grace. I don’t see HOW the Holy Spirit took a picnic for 1500 years based on what I stated in my comment.

    I also want to say (separate from my response to Zach) that I think it’s wrong to assume that all Protestants are hostile towards the Catholic tradition, just as it’s wrong to assume that Catholics are hostile towards Protestants. I hope that we have things to learn from each other.

    I’m sorry if I seem overly passionate, I just don’t want to be misunderstood.

  5. Erin,

    I promise you I haven’t forgotten about responding to you. I’m trying to make sure I understand the exact nature of your argument, so I don’t waste any more time in the wrong direction. (I’ve started and stopped a number of blog posts “responding”).

    I understand your thesis to be: “that the Church is run by human beings, not God. How could it ever be true?” And derived from that, that “The Truth is in the Gospel, in the Word of God, not the structure of the Church.”

    But I’m confused about the thesis itself. You point to the human leadership in the Church, and note that Alexander VI was a wicked sinner. But the Church readily concedes that every pope is a sinner, and some may not be saved. Even amongst the Twelve Disciples of Christ, one of them was Judas Iscariot.

    It seems to me that much of your argument turns on the idea that the Church must be *either* (sinful, visible) human *or* (perfect, invisible) Spiritual. Yet the Lord constantly works through human intercessors. For His first miracle, turning water into wine, in John 2, He never even touches the water or wine Himself. The servants do all of the physical labor, and it happens at *their* hands. But it’s still through *Jesus.*

    He makes this clear in Luke 10:16, when He says to the 72, “He who listens to you listens to me; he who rejects you rejects me; but he who rejects me rejects him who sent me.” And even Judas was given “power and authority” by Jesus Christ in Luke 9:1.

    It just seems to me that just as the Bible can be *both* written by sinful men AND written by perfect God, the Church can be run that way, too. If the Bible, written by sinners guided by the Holy Spirit, can be totally perfect, I just don’t see a reason why the Church can’t also be both (a) full of sinners; and (b) guided by the Spirit?

  6. Hey Joe,

    You got my thesis right for the most part. Here’s what I struggle with: the argument that one Christian church is better than the other. How can one be more true than the other? I have heard the arguments on this, and very intelligently stated especially by you and others, and I’ve heard it for years, but I just don’t get it. I think it’s because everything I was taught in regards to this issue runs parallel to most Catholic arguments. I don’t think that helps when we try and understand each other.

    I want to clarify, I don’t think that the church need be either, or, instead I agree with you quite vehemently that the Church is both human and spiritual. Where I disagree I think is that I don’t believe that the Catholic Church is the true church, as I don’t believe that any Protestant Church is the true church, rather the True Church is the community of believers.

    Maybe that makes my position more clear? Maybe it complicates the discussion? Who knows 🙂

    Have a great day,


    P.S. tried reading Isaiah when I want to get on facebook and I feel like I’m being slowly punished. But it works. Puts my petty facebook desires in perspective.

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