The Catholic Argument from History

There are a lot of ways of establishing that the Catholic Church is correct.  One way is to show that the New Testament Scriptures describe a single, visible, authoritative Church capable of settling disputes.  When we find that governance in the Church was headed by the Apostles, with one Apostle (Peter) guiding the other Eleven, that’s good evidence that the Catholic Church was the Church Christ founded (Mt. 16:17-19) and intends us to be part of (John 17:20-23).

For some people, that’ll do the trick.  They’ll read John 6 on the Eucharist, or notice Apostolic Succession in Acts 1, or Petrine primacy in Matthew 16 and Acts 2 and Luke 22 and so on, and they’ll have a Eureka! moment – asking themselves, ‘how have I read these Scriptures so many times, and never noticed that?’  It’s an “Emmaus” moment, when you suddenly discover a Truth you’d never seen before in Scriptures you may well have memorized.  But there are other Christians who look at passages of Scripture which I think spell out core Catholic doctrines, and they just don’t read them that way.  For those folks, let’s look at a different way of establishing the Catholic Church.

Step One: At One Point, The Global Church Held Catholic Beliefs
To see what I mean above, take four common Protestant doctrines:
  1. Baptism is just symbolic (that is, it’s not regenerative, and the Holy Spirit doesn’t actually cleanse us through it);
  2. The Eucharist is just symbolic (it’s not actually the Body and Blood of Christ); 
  3. Justification is just forensic (we’re declared righteous by God, but we’re not actually made righteous through the Holy Spirit); and 
  4. The Bible is composed of the 66-Book Protestant canon.
To my knowledge, every Protestant denomination holds to at least one of these four doctrines, and many denominations hold to all four.  Now contrast these views with history.
Forget whatever you happen to think about Baptism, the Eucharist, justification, and the canon of Scripture.  At this point, we’re just determining what the whole of Christianity used to teach, rather than whether these teachings were right or wrong (we’ll turn to that, next). To my knowledge, even Protestants will concede that the visible Church was Catholic during a long period prior to the Reformation.  And although it’s true that there were eventually Coptics and Orthodox as well, on all four of the above doctrines, none of them take the Protestant view, either.
So at a bare minimum, we can say that the historic visible Church universally denied all four of the Protestant doctrines above.  In fact, the evidence suggests much more than that — it suggests that there are centuries of Christianity in which a Protestant would be hard-pressed to find to find a single orthodox Christian who held to any or all four of the above doctrines.  Let’s look at each, very briefly: 
  1. On Baptism, the Protestant history Philip Schaff, in his History of the Christian Church, Volume II: Ante-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 100-325, writes in the section on “The Doctrine of Baptism” that “This ordinance was regarded in the ancient church as the sacrament of the new birth or regeneration,” and that its “effect consists in the forgiveness of sins and the communication of the Holy Spirit.” Again, this is A.D. 100 – 325.  The situation remains the same for centuries more, until after the Reformation in the 1500s.
  2. On the Eucharist, the Protestant historian J.N.D. Kelly concedes that during the early Church period, “Eucharistic teaching, it should be understood at the outset, was in general unquestioningly realist, i.e., the consecrated bread and wine were taken to be, and were treated and designated as, the Savior’s body and blood.” (Early Christian Doctrines, 440).  Again, this didn’t change for centuries afterward.
  3. On forensic justification, the Calvinist scholar Alister McGrath concedes that the “Reformation understanding of the nature of justification – as opposed to its mode – must therefore be regarded as a genuine theological novum.”  Francis Beckwith, in Return to Rome, does a good job of handling the early Church Fathers who are sometimes used to defend forensic justification – he shows quotes from each proving that their views weren’t the Protestant one at all.
  4. On the canon of Scripture, I’ve addressed it here in greater depth. So far, no one’s been able to find a single early Christian who owned or used a 66-book Protestant Bible.
You’ll be hard-pressed to find any early orthodox Christian who doubted or denied that (1) Baptism actually regenerated you and made you a Christian, (2) the Eucharist was truly the Body and Blood of Christ, and (3) in justification, God declares us “holy” by actually making us holy, just as you’ll be hard-pressed to find an early Christian who (4) ever owned or used a 66-book Bible.
Step Two: This Leaves Only Four Possibilities
Given the above, what should we make of it?  Well, it’s theoretically possible:
  1. That the issues of Baptism, the Eucharist, justification, and the canon of Scripture aren’t “essential” doctrines;
  2. That the above are essential doctrines, so for long periods of time, no Christian got any of these issues right;
  3. That the above are essential doctrines, so the only true Christians were the dissenters;
  4. That the Catholic Church was, and is, right on these four issues.
The first three of these are very problematic:
  1. The issues of Baptism and justification go to the very heart of how we’re saved, and how we become Christians. For Protestants, the canon of Scripture determines where all other doctrines come from, so it’s the single most important doctrine.  And on the Eucharist, it’s either truly God or an idol Catholics worship.  These seem to be some of the most central questions of Christianity. If these aren’t “essentials,” it’s hard to see what is.  So this produces a theological relativism.  Furthermore, if these aren’t essentials, the Reformation was over non-essential issues, and is a wound that should be healed by a return to the Church.
  2. If all of Christianity could get these core doctrines wrong, we’re faced with two problems.  First, Christ appears to promise in Scripture that He and the Holy Spirit will perpetually guide and guard the Church (see the lists of Scripture references here and here).  It’s hard to rectify the notion that the Holy Spirit will guard the Church, and the notion that the Holy Spirit would allow the entire Church to fall into apostasy. But the second problem is just as ominous: if a Protestant claims that the entire global Church fell into heresy without knowing it, how can we say that’s not the case today?  So this produces theological agnosticism, where no one can even say if the Christianity Christ founded exists on Earth.
  3. This is essentially the argument that the only good Catholic is a bad Catholic. There are a number of problems.  Of those who denied the claims of Catholic Christianity but stayed in the Church, we’re dealing with people who lived a lie. That’s not just being a bad Catholic, but a bad Christian. As Christ says in Matthew 5:37, let your “yes” be a “yes,” and your “no” be a “no.”  Those who declare “yes,” while believing “no” are lying.  Of those who denied the claims of Catholic Christianity and left the Church, we know who these people were, historically speaking. Most importantly, they didn’t affirm the four doctrines above. (The third approach, that there was an unknown group of true Christians living in the mountains somewhere, is handled here).  So this produces theological self-refutation, because you would have to claim that the only true Christians were either those people Protestants denounce as heretics or those people who lived their lives denying their religion.
The remaining choice is that the Catholic Church is right.  
To state it positively:
  • Christ promised that He and the Holy Spirit would preserve the Church;
  • Historically, the Church has been incredibly clear (1) that Baptism is regenerative, (2) that the Eucharist is the true Body and Blood of Christ, (3) that the Holy Spirit makes us truly justified, and (4) that there are more than 66 Books of the Bible;
  • Even if we don’t understand how these things are true from Scripture, we can know that they’re true, because the Church said so, and God protects the Church, and we believe in God.
Any contrary reasoning seems to run into some quite severe problems.


  1. Great Post Joe,
    But I think you forgot to include a link…(The third approach, that there was an invisible group of Christians living in the mountains somewhere, is handled here).

    As Gertrude Stein would say there’s no there, there.

    I only mention it because I would like to read what should be linked there….

    Keep up the good work.

  2. On (1) you seem to miss the fact that when Prots say a doctrine is “essential” they mean just that it must be believed upon pain of damnation. And this is explicitly limited in the Bible to two doctrines:

    “If you declare with your mouth, (1) ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that (2) God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

    All the rest are inessential, which is why Prots normally don’t make much of a fuss about which denomination one is in so long as they are worshiping Christ and striving for relationship with Him and the God who raised Him from the Dead.

  3. Jon,

    (1) I referenced that concept very briefly: “Furthermore, if these aren’t essentials, the Reformation was over non-essential issues, and is a wound that should be healed by a return to the Church.”

    So if it truly doesn’t matter whether the Eucharist is Jesus or a false idol (a conclusion which I think is facially absurd), then Protestants have to answer for the countless schisms over non-essential issues.

    (2) But that aside, I think taking Romans 10:19 out of context like that runs you into some pretty serious trouble. Jesus specifically says that “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 7:21). So what we do actually does matter.

    (3) Finally, I addressed what Paul’s actually talking about in Romans 10 in my last post.

    God bless!

  4. It’s not that simple, though. What about the Orthodox- Chalcedonian and Non-Chalcedonian? Even the Ethiopian Orthodox have a slightly different canon of Scriptures than the Latin and Greek Churches. In addition, the papacy’s understanding of itself certainly changed during time as it held increasing temporal power.

  5. Re: Brantly and Michael’s comments about how awesome this is:

    I agree and I just noticed that May 2011 is already, by far, the biggest month ever in terms of views on this site. A very well deserved uptrend.

    Congrats! Time to start working on the book version?

  6. Brantly and Robert, thanks! And Robert, I know nothing about writing a book: what would it even be on? (Also, thanks for the Kelly quote, above).

    Ryan, I already factored in that criticism. While there are differences in the others’ canons, they’re bigger than ours, not smaller. More importantly, we uniformly reject the 66-Book Protestant canon. Nor did any of us ever use that canon. So the uniform witness proves Protestantism wrong, even if it doesn’t (alone) prove Catholicism correct.

    To all three: God bless!


  7. So often people who hold these Protestant views aren’t capable of taking in the logical and historic data, but are governed by irrational fear of the Catholic Church. Any attempt to initiate a calm and rational discussion that addresses these points results in strong rejection of the initiator and either causes or threatens severe damage to the relationship. In the case of family, it often seems that the course the Lord would most approve is that of patient prayer and steadfast love while hoping that the Holy Spirit will bring about openness to these ideas.

    Nonetheless, I love the concise way that you have put all of this together. Perhaps Mr. Robert Ritchie would please pray for a dear friend (of the same name!) in the Protestant camp.

  8. Paul, can you give me an example of what you mean? Are you saying that the Spirit used to work through Baptism, but doesn’t now? And that the Eucharist was Jesus, but is now an idol?

    More broadly, I’d just note that Catholics, like nearly all Christians, reject continuing revelation. We’re not looking for a Newer Covenant or Newer Testament or Newer Messiah. We’ve got “the faith delivered once for all to God’s holy ones” (Jude 1:3). God bless!


  9. I searched for some time for a copy of the Septuagint that had Greek and English. Finally I found a book at the right price; however it bears the silliest title I have. The Title: “The Septuagint (with the Apocrypha)”. And to top it off the “Apocrypha” is in a separate section.

  10. Fr. Bauer,

    That’s pretty unintentionally funny, and more than a little sad. I know plenty of intelligent Protestants who still believe that Catholics added a bunch of Books to the Bible at the Council of Trent.

    I know used to refuse to do searches within the Deuterocanonical Books, even on those versions of the Bible that had them.  When they finally decided to let people have the option of opting in to include them, they had to write a disclaimer.

    What’s sadder is that someone who move the LXX books to segregate them out. It’s a form of falsifying the historical evidence, whether it’s meant to be or not. A person reading it would assume that the early Christians had the Deuterocanon in a separate-but-unequal place in the Bible to show its second-class status. Were they instead to see a Bible that had both sets of Books intermixed, as if of equal status, it would send a very different signal.

    I’m reminded of Galatians 2: we’ve got Bible editors willing to invite the Greeks to the table, but only if they sit in a separate section from the Hebrews.

  11. On the canon of Scripture, I’ve addressed it here in greater depth. So far, no one’s been able to find a single early Christian who owned or used a 66-book Protestant Bible

    with regards to this Joe, is there any single early Christian account or several that clearly outline the specific canon used today by the Catholic Church?

  12. Cary,

    Yes.  There are at least three independent sources by the time we get to Augustine. St. Augustine (354-430) describes it in City of God here, in paragraph #13. Then there’s the Third Council of Carthage, the North African regional Council which declared the exact canon of Scripture to be the one we Catholics continue to use today. That was in 393 A.D.  Prior to both of these, in 382 A.D., Pope Damasus I commissioned  the Vulgate — St. Jerome’s translation of the Bible into Latin, the language of the people.  Each of those three are full and entire Catholic canons.  This was important because Jerome (who studied Hebrew under a Jewish convert) was of the opinion that Catholics should limit themselves to the Jewish canon as it appeared during his day (this would match the Protestant canon).  But he backed off this issue, because it disagreed with the Church’s view. The Pope, and the judgment of numerous churches throughout the world, won out over his own theological speculations.

    I think the Vulgate is an important turning point. After it was completed, with much better Latin than had existed in the piecemeal translations which preceded it, it quickly became the uniform Bible for Latin-speaking Christians.  From this, we know that it wasn’t simply a theologian here or there, or even a local Church council here or there, but anyone with a Latin Bible who had the Catholic canon. When the Council of Trent explained why the Reformers were wrong to cut Books out of Sacred Scripture, it explicitly cited to the Vulgate to show that this wasn’t some new 16th century Catholic teaching, but was in the Bible used by most of Christianity for more than a millennium.

    In addition to these sources, there are countless references to, and quotations from, the Deuterocanonical Books by the Church Fathers before and after that point.


  13. What about groups like the Waldensians who existed back to the time of the apostles? They held the Prot doctrines, no?

    And the Waldensians are probably just the best known of many such groups. There were probably loads of such Christians. And they are less documented b/c that did not attain the political power the Romans did, but I don’t see why this should be an issue. All we need is one that held the Prot doctrines to undermine your argument here.

  14. HocCogitat,

    (1) The Waldensians didn’t exist at the time of the Apostles. That’s a silly conspiracy theory. They take their name from Peter Waldo, who lived from about 1140-1218. To my knowledge, no serious historian questions that Waldo started the Waldensians. The theory that the Waldensians are older than Waldo was just an attempt by some Radical Reformers to trace their lineage back to the Apostles.

    The Wikipedia article notes that the modern Waldensian churches actually admit that Waldo founded their church, and provides good evidence:

    (2) As for the notion that we don’t know about these groups because they were rich or powerful enough, that’s pretty well refuted by the historical record as well. The Catholics were fantastic at documenting their opponent’s heresies. For example, if you want to learn about Gnosticism, read Irenaeus’ Against Heresies. He spends chapter after chapter outlining what it is that they believe, and why it’s wrong. Optatus and Augustine do the same for the Donatists. So if the Waldensians (or any other proto-Protestant group) existed, we would know either from their own writings, or at least the writings of the Catholics arguing against them. To my knowledge, you can find references to all of the known heretical movements in the writings of Catholic opponents. It’s much too much a stretch to imagine that Waldensians (or others) existed, had no ecclesiastical opponents, and left no historical trace.

    (3) Money and power don’t really enter into it, if you believe in the Holy Spirit. The Apostles = not rich or powerful, by earthly standards. But we know what they taught and wrote, and still have copies of their Writings. That’s because the Holy Spirit, working through the Roman Catholic Church, preserved these Writings… right?

    (4) Even if a proto-Protestant group existed, the argument above shows that they would have to have continued on from the time of the Apostles down to the present. That is, even if some early Christian somewhere believed the five Solas (which doesn’t appear to be the case), it wouldn’t be enough. If there are any points in history in which Protestant Christianity isn’t taught, then it seems that either (a) Protestant Christianity isn’t true, (b) Protestant Christianity isn’t essential to salvation, or (c) God abandoned His people by depriving them of essential Christianity.

  15. One detail I didn’t mention before: Peter Waldo, the founder of the Waldensians, was baptized Roman Catholic, and remained Catholic until his excommunication at the Synod of Verona in 1184.

    If that doesn’t establish that Roman Catholicism is older than Waldensianism, I’d be interested as to what does.

  16. Wow, nice take-down of that position, Joe. A couple thoughts:

    -Couldn’t we add “(5) That the Scriptures are the only authority to which a Christian must submit?”

    I’ve heard it argued that John Wycliffe held such a view in the 14th century. But even if we don’t get all the way to the Reformation, the point obviously still holds.

    -It seems like Hoc is advocating something equivalent to Baptist Successionism ( ). This is the view, as Charles Spurgeon put it, that:

    “We believe that the Baptists are the original Christians. We did not commence our existence at the reformation, we were reformers before Luther and Calvin were born; we never came from the Church of Rome, for we were never in it, but we have an unbroken line up to the apostles themselves. We have always existed from the days of Christ, and our principles, sometimes veiled and forgotten, like a river which may travel under ground for a little season, have always had honest and holy adherents.”

    That theory has been subject to some pretty intense criticism lately. Here’s part of a review of one of the key book-length take-downs of Baptist Successionism:

    “Dissident group after dissident group are placed under the historical microscope: Montanists, Novations, Paulicans, Bogomils, Petrobrusians, Arnoldists, Henricians, Albigenses, and Waldenses. Each group is shown to have no basic affinity to standard Baptist doctrine. Some were in schism on certain issues from the larger Church but had far more in common with them than anything we would consider Baptist. Others were so tainted by dualism as to only be “Christian” in a nominal sense. In no case is any group even remotely attached to Baptist beliefs and practices. McGoldrick also includes a refutation of the claim that St. Patrick was a Baptist. This contention is ridiculous but it shows how revisionists argue from silence (St. Patrick wrote very little and so they argue since he never endorsed certain Catholic doctrines in writing, he must be a Baptist) to produce Baptists ex nihilo. He then considers the claim that the Anabaptists were in the Baptist succession. That one could make such claims for a movement known to have sprung from the radical end of the Protestant Reformation is a mystery to all but those with successionist blinders, but McGoldrick patiently examines the claim and easily refutes it. Endings with a careful review of the true history of the Baptist movement, he concludes the obvious – Baptists are Protestants.”

    So, as Wikipedia puts it, “since the end of the 19th Century, however, the theory has increasingly come under attack and today has been largely discredited”

  17. I can’t stop thinking about this post and have more questions. First, can you unpack your “theological relativism” concept? Do you mean that these believers would be essentially stripping Christianity of all essentials and that this would lead to a situation equivalent to saying the doctrine of the Real Presence is true if you believe in it? Because that’s not quite right, is it? Wouldn’t they say “no, it’s false, but believing in it is harmless, like a child believing God has a beard”? Or am I missing a distinction between relativism and subjectivism?

    Not trying to be nitpicky, but I wanted to make sure I was following. And, regardless, its a great point (as you argue in the 4th comment) that the essentials can’t be boiled down to sound theology. For in James 2:19 we’re told quite explicitly that the devils have sound theology.

    But, also, it seems wrong to me to define “essential” as what must be believed on pain of damnation. For Catholics believe atheists can be saved. So, in that sense, no (explicit) belief is “essential”. Maybe “fundamental” (or something like that, “central”? “very important”?, I don’t know, anything but “essential“) is a better word. Surely, Christ’s promises preclude all of humanity being wrong on “fundamental” or “very important” doctrines for 1500 years. And, just as surely, whether or not the Eucharist is Jesus Christ or mere bread is at least “very important” or “fundamental”.

    PS–I forgot the link to the book/review on the prior comment:

  18. Robert,

    What I mean is that there’s a growing sense within Evangelicalism that we can just agree to disagree on everything, and that’s okay. And the end point to this is relativism, where nobody can really say who’s right or who’s wrong, because the Truth is just so unknowable.

    It’s distinct from the agnosticism of the second approach, because it doesn’t say “We don’t know if True Christianity even exists,” but says something closer to, “We’re all part of True Christianity, regardless of what we believe.”

    So it’s not “the Eucharist is true if you believe in it,” but “you think the Eucharist is true, I don’t, doesn’t matter,” or “you think the Eucharist is true, I don’t, there’s no way to know who’s right.” That approach ultimately strips Christianity of all of Her Truth-claims, as Evangelicalism is quickly finding out, thanks to the Emergents. We end like Pilate, asking, “What is Truth?” (John 18:38).

    That sounds hyperbolic, I’m sure, but if someone honestly says that Baptism, the Eucharist, and justification are non-essentials to the Christian faith, it’s hard to see what issues become essentials.

    Good use of James 2:19, by the way. Not only do the devils have good theology, but arguably one of the first people to articulate the theology of substitutionary atonement was the high priest Caiaphas, in plotting the death of Christ (John 11:49-50 and John 18:14). Good theology doesn’t equate to salvation.

  19. Joe,

    Have you read Rob Koons’s (Prof. of Philosophy at the U. of Texas) A Lutheran’s Case for Roman Catholicism?

    If not, it is quite brilliant and thoughtful on topics you often address, so I thought I should bring it to your attention. He echoes what you say here:

    “There is a real tension in the Lutheran position, which holds, on the one hand, that the doctrine of justification is the ‘article on which the Church stands or falls,’ and which also asserts, in defending infant baptism, that the Church has existed continuously from the time of the apostles. Given that we cannot find the Lutheran doctrine of justification among the pre-Reformation Church Fathers, we must conclude either that this doctrine is not essential to the Gospel, or that the Church literally ceased to exist until revived at the time of the Reformation. The latter thesis is both in conflict with the Lutheran Confessions (especially Luther’s defense of infant baptism in the Large Catechism) and in conflict with Jesus’ promise to be with the Church until the very end (Matthew

    This tension could be put in another way. The Lutheran church accepts the New Testament canon in accordance with the consensus of the Church as it developed over the first four centuries. Although Luther had some doubt about the epistle of James, this doubt was explicitly rejected by the normative confessions of the Lutheran church. Both Lutherans and Roman Catholics agree that it is not the authority of the Church that makes an inspired text canonical one, but both agree that the testimony of the Church is a reliable guide to which books were in fact inspired. However, Lutherans must also hold that the early Church during this period was hopelessly confused about the central doctrine contained in the canonical books, the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Thus, Lutherans are in the awkward position of holding that the early Church was wholly reliable in recognizing which books were inspired and yet wholly unreliable in understanding what those books were saying. This seems inconsistent: how could the Church reliably recognize a book as God’s Word without accurately understanding its meaning?”

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