The Early Church Was a Single, Organized Church

Today’s post is the first of what I forsee as two outlining Hilarie Belloc’s solid historical case for Catholicism from Europe and the Faith.  He makes two major points: first, the Church in the early 200s is clearly Catholic; and second, the Church in the early third century  accurately reflects what was taught in the first century.  Both of these points, as he was quick to note, are sheer history, not theology:

I would beg the reader to note with precision both the task upon which we are engaged and the exact dates with which we are dealing, for there is no matter in which history has been more grievously distorted by religious bias.
The task upon which we are engaged is the judgment of a portion of history as it was. I am not writing here from a brief. I am concerned to set forth a fact. I am acting as a witness or a copier, not as an advocate or lawyer. And I say that the conclusion we can establish with regard to the Christian community on these main lines is the conclusion to which any man must come quite independently of his creed. He will deny these facts only if he has such bias against the Faith as interferes with his reason. A man’s belief in the mission of the Catholic Church, his confidence in its divine origin, do not move him to these plain historical conclusions any more than they move him to his conclusions upon the real existence, doctrine and organization of contemporary Mormonism. Whether the Church told the truth is for philosophy to discuss: What the Church in fact was is plain history. The Church may have taught nonsense. Its organization may have been a clumsy human thing. That would not affect the historical facts.

So that’s the ground on which this exploration occurs: ideally, any unbiased researcher, regardless of faith, could agree upon these set facts.  With that, let’s look at his first point: that the Early Church was an Organized Church.

Setting the Stage 

Belloc begins by establishing that at the beginning of the third century, Christianity is the Catholic Church. He’s chosen the dawn of the third century for good reason: there’s a lot of historical evidence from the Church Fathers.  A Church History website gives the following timeline of the First Era of Persecution, leading from the time of Nero up to the early third century:

  • 64        Nero burns Rome
  • 70        The Destruction of Jerusalem
  • 81        Domitian Persecution Begins
  • 98        Trajan Persecution Begins
  • 100      Justin Martyr is Born
  • 108      Martyrdom of Ignatius
  • 117      Hadrian Persecution Begins
  • 130      Conversion of Justin Martyr
  • 130      Irenaeus Is Born
  • 138      Antoninus Pius Persecution Begins
  • 150      Clement of Alexandria Is Born
  • 153      Justin Writes First Apology
  • 155      Martyrdom of Polycarp
  • 155      Tertullian Is Born
  • 160      Justin Writes Dialogue with Trypho
  • 161      Marcus Aurelius Persecution Begins
  • 165      Martyrdom of Justin
  • 178      Irenaeus Is Bishop of Lyon
  • 178      Celsus Writes True Reason
  • 185      Iraneaus Writes Against Heresies
  • 185      Origen Is Born
  • 189      Clement of Alexandria Begins to Write
  • 193      Septimius Severus Persecution Begins
  • 197      Tertullian Begins to Write
  • 200      Cyprian of Carthage Is Born
  • 211      Caracalla Persecution Begins

So this is an era in which some of the most famous Church Fathers lived and died (often as martyrs).  We have written evidence to that faith which they died for, and at this point, there’s no serious risk that the Roman Empire is somehow manufacturing Christianity.  They are, after all, mortal foes at this point. 

How We Can Know This Was an Organized Church

Belloc, describing this point in history, makes a few important observations:

  1. There’s a clear three-tiered Church structure.  There are bishop, presbyters, and deacons.  The mythical two-tiered structure which we discussed last week isn’t even a possibility, since the documents we have clearly distinguish between bishops and presbyters.
  2. You either were, or were not, a member of the Church.  A Roman who sympathizes with the Christians, models his life off of Christ, and has leanings towards believing in the Divinity of Christ, but who isn’t a Baptized member of the Church… isn’t a Christian, at least in the sense the early Church is using the term.  This isn’t to say that the Church wasn’t already plagued with multitudes of lukewarm Christians: She was.  There were certainly many Baptized who disgraced their Baptism, but that’s the key.  Take, for example, the practice of many early believers to put off Baptism until late in life: the reason was that they knew that once Baptized, they were Christians, and a whole lot more was expected of them than as sympathetic pagans.  Or take the controversies raging in the Church about the Baptized Christians who, under pain of torture, renounced Christ.  There were real questions about how to handle such people, precisely because Baptism (as a one-time event) couldn’t be repeated, and these individuals had fallen into startlingly grave sin. 
  3. Membership in the Church was membership in a society: Belloc calls the Church a “State-within-a-State,” and the term is accurate.  The Church of the third century polices Herself, excommunicates those She feels aren’t abiding by Her rules, and onwards.
  4. Doctrine is clearly defined, and believers aren’t simply free to interpret doctrines anew, coming to contrary conclusions to what’s been established.

In a moment of pure brilliance, Belloc then points to the nature of the early heretics to prove his point:

The reader may here object: “But surely there was heresy after heresy and thousands of men were at any moment claiming the name of Christian whom the orthodox Church rejected. Nay, some suffered martyrdom rather than relinquish the name.”
True; but the very existence of such sects should be enough to prove the point at issue.
These sects arose precisely because within the Catholic Church (1) exact doctrine, (2) unbroken tradition, and (3) absolute unity, were, all three, regarded as the necessary marks of the institution. The heresies arose one after another, from the action of men who were prepared to define yet more punctiliously what the truth might be, and to claim with yet more particular insistence the possession of living tradition and the right to be regarded as the centre of unity. No heresy pretended that the truth was vague and indefinite. The whole gist and meaning of a heresy was that it, the heresy, or he, the heresiarch, was prepared to make doctrine yet more sharp, and to assert his own definition.
What you find in these foundational times is not the Catholic Church asserting and defining a thing and then, some time after, the heresiarch denying this definition; no heresy comes within a hundred miles of such a procedure. What happens in the early Church is that some doctrine not yet fully defined is laid down by such and such a man, that his final settlement clashes with the opinion of others, that after debate and counsel, and also authoritative statement on the part of the bishops, this man’s solution is rejected and an orthodox solution is defined. From that moment the heresiarch, if he will not fall into line with defined opinion, ceases to be in communion; and his rejection, no less than his own original insistence upon his doctrine, are in themselves proofs that both he and his judges postulate unity and definition as the two necessary marks of Catholic truth.
No early heretic or no early orthodox authority dreams of saying to his opponent: “You may be right! Let us agree to differ. Let us each form his part of ‘Christian society’ and look at things from his own point of view.” The moment a question is raised it must of its nature, the early Church being what it was, be defined one way or the other.

All of this is simply true, as a matter of history, and can be easily discerned from the writings of the early Church Fathers, and even the writings of those opposing the Church Fathers.  Both the orthodox Church and the heretical dissenters shared a common view of the Church, at heart: a view of the Church largely lost in the Protestant world: that it was a single entity which was to have a single body of doctrine. 

Belloc describes the Church of this period as “a definite, strictly ruled and highly individual Society, with fixed doctrines, special mysteries, and a strong discipline of its own.” In short, we see quite plainly the Catholic Church, more or less as She looks today.  What we don’t see is modern Christianity, with a multitude of politely (or impolitely) disagreeing denominations which simply consent to live apart.  Now, as discussed above, we may disagree on whether the Church in this era was right or wrong, but that’s a separate question from what She was teaching.  Tomorrow, we’ll follow this Catholic Church back through history, and consider whether it’s likely the third century Church is apostate or an historical aberration.

Edit: Part II is now available here.

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