The Historical Claim for Catholicism

Hilaire Belloc’s historical case for Catholicism is a simple enough two-part argument: (1) the early third century Church [the point in Church history where we start to get a substantial body of Patristic evidence] was clearly Catholic; and (2) the views of the Church in the third century are the views of the Church of the first.  This avoids any question of, “looking at these sayings of Christ or the Apostles, how might I interpret them?” and instead asks, “how did the earliest followers of the Apostles interpret them?”  I looked at the first of these two parts yesterday, but the important thing for today’s post is Belloc’s conclusion:

So much for the Catholic Church in the early third century when first we have a mass of evidence upon it. It is a highly disciplined, powerful growing body, intent on unity, ruled by bishops, having for its central doctrine the Incarnation of God in an historical Person, Jesus Christ, and for its central rite a Mystery, the transformation of Bread and Wine by priests into the Body and Blood which the faithful consume.

For now, suffice to say that this conclusion is well supported by the Patristic evidence, and if there’s anyone in serious doubt on this point, I’d welcome debate on the point.  From this starting point, we can trace backwards.  The central question is whether it is likely that the third century Church is apostate, or how somehow gravely misunderstood the Apostolic teaching.  Belloc puts it quite simply:

[…] the false history which has had its own way for so many years is based upon two false suggestions of the first magnitude. The first is the suggestion that the period between the Crucifixion and the full Church of the third century was one in which vast changes could proceed unobserved, and vast perversions of original ideas be rapidly developed; the second is that the space of time during which those changes are supposed to have taken place was sufficient to account for them.
It is only because those days are remote from ours that such suggestions can be made. If we put ourselves by an effort of the imagination into the surroundings of that period, we can soon discover how false these suggestions are.

In response to the first of his opponent’s two arguments, Belloc says:

The period was not one favorable to the interruption of record. It was one of a very high culture. The proportion of curious, intellectual, and skeptical men which that society contained was perhaps greater than in any other period with which we are acquainted. It was certainly greater than it is today. Those times were certainly less susceptible to mere novel assertion than are the crowds of our great cities under the influence of the modern press. It was a period astonishingly alive. Lethargy and decay had not yet touched the world of the Empire. It built, read, traveled, discussed, and, above all, criticized, with an enormous energy.
In general, it was no period during which alien fashions could rise within such a community as the Church without their opponents being immediately able to combat them by an appeal to the evidence of the immediate past. The world in which the Church arose was one; and that world was intensely vivid. Anyone in that world who saw such an institution as Episcopacy (for instance) or such a doctrine as the Divinity of Christ to be a novel corruption of originals could have, and would have, protested at once. It was a world of ample record and continual communication.

Belloc is, if anything, understating his case.  This is a Church which loudly fought over whether Christ had one or two Natures; whether He was one or two Persons; the nature of the Trinity; whether the Son was co-equal to the Father; even the seemingly academic question of whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son, or the Father alone.  She fought over the question of how, and under what conditions, apostates could re-enter the Church, a dispute so heated that early Saints exchanged surprisingly harsh words; perhaps most tellingly, excommunications were issued in response to a controversy over … which day to celebrate Easter.  And we’re to expect that a Church this obsessed with having pure and perfect dogma would just ignore, without comment, the rise of novel heresies?   This is a Church in which “this is what we were taught from the Apostles” is considered a game-winning argument: such was Her hatred of theological novelties. Belloc continues:

Granted such a world let us take the second point and see what was the distance in mere time between this early third century of which I speak and what is called the Apostolic period; that is, the generation which could still remember the origins of the Church in Jerusalem and the preaching of the Gospel in Grecian, Italian, and perhaps African cities. We are often told that changes “gradually crept in;” that “the imperceptible effect of time” did this or that. Let us see how these vague phrases stand the test of confrontation with actual dates.
Let us stand in the years 200-210, consider a man then advanced in years, well read and traveled, and present in those first years of the third century at the celebration of the Eucharist. There were many such men who, if they had been able to do so, would have reproved novelties and denounced perverted tradition. That none did so is a sufficient proof that the main lines of Catholic government and practice had developed unbroken and unwarped from at least his own childhood. But an old man who so witnessed the constitution of the Church and its practices as I have described them in the year 200, would correspond to that generation of old people whom we have with us today; the old people who were born in the late twenties and thirties of the nineteenth century; the old people who can just remember the English Reform Bill [of 1832], and who were almost grown up during the troubles of 1848 and the establishment of the second Empire in Paris: the old people in the United States who can remember as children the election of Van Buren to the office of President: the old people whose birth was not far removed from the death of Thomas Jefferson, and who were grown men and women when gold was first discovered in California.

Now, Europe and the Faith was written in 1920, so let’s update his argument ninety years. In place of the old people who were born in the late 1820s and 30s, these would be the old people born in the 1910s and 1920s, the people who barely remember the Roaring 20s, who were almost grown up at the outbreak of World War II and the establishment of the Third Reich; the old people in the United States who can remember as children the election of Coolidge or Hoover to the office of President; the old people whose birth was not far removed from the death of Woodrow Wilson, and who were grown men and women when the Hindenberg exploded.  

Belloc then steps back one lifetime more: just as the elderly man assisting Mass at the dawn of the third century would remember, as a boy, the Christianity of the middle of the second century, so too would he remember the (then elderly) Christians who’d met the Apostles:

Well, pursuing that parallel, consider next the persecution under Nero. It was the great event to which the Christians would refer as a date in the early history of the Church. It took place in Apostolic times. It affected men who, though aged, could easily remember Judea in the years connected with Our Lord’s mission and His Passion. St. Peter lived to witness, in that persecution, to the Faith. St. John survived it. It came not forty years later than the day of Pentecost. But the persecution under Nero was to an old man such as I have supposed assisting at the Eucharist in the early part of the third century, no further off than the Declaration of Independence is from the old people of our generation. An old man in the year 200 could certainly remember many who had themselves been witnesses of the Apostolic age, just as an old man today remembers well men who saw the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. The old people who had surrounded his childhood would be to St. Paul, St. Peter and St. John what the old people who survived, say, to 1845, would have been to Jefferson, to Lafayette, or to the younger Pitt. They could have seen and talked to that first generation of the Church as the corresponding people surviving in the early nineteenth century could have seen and talked with the founders of the United States.
Updating, we might say that the persecution under Nero was to the old man assisting at the Eucharist in the early third century was no further off than the Civil War was to the old people of our generation: and an old man in the year 200 could certainly remember witnesses of the Apostolic age, just as an old man today remembers well men who saw Reconstruction or the Industrial Revolution.  The old people who had surrounded his childhood would be to St. Paul, St. Peter, and St. John what the old people who survived, say, to 1935, would have been to William Jennings Bryan, to Wilbur Wright, or to Queen Victoria.  They could have seen and talked to the first generation of the Church as the corresponding people surviving in the early twentieth century could have seen and talked with the generals of the Union Army.

In other words, the chasm from the Apostles to the beginning of the third century isn’t as hard to cross as we might imagine: there were, in the second century, elderly Christians who had learned from the Apostles in their youth, living with and teaching young Christians who would grow up to see the third century.  Considering that the Apostle John is believed to have died around 100 A.D., there were likely those even into the latter part of the 100s who remembered him well.  Belloc concludes, rightly:

 It is quite impossible to imagine that the Eucharistic Sacrifice, the Rite of Initiation (Baptism in the name of the Trinity), the establishment of an Episcopacy, the fierce defence of unity and orthodoxy, and all those main lines of Catholicism which we find to be the very essence of the Church in the early third century, could have risen without protest. They cannot have come from an innocent, natural, uncivilized perversion of an original so very recent and so open to every form of examination.
That there should have been discussion as to the definition and meaning of undecided doctrines is natural, and fits in both with the dates and with the atmosphere of the period and with the character of the subject. But that a whole scheme of Christian government and doctrine should have developed in contradiction of Christian origins and yet without protest in a period so brilliantly living, full of such rapid intercommunication, and, above all, so brief, is quite impossible.

Thus, even if we had no evidence whatsoever of what the Christians of the first or second century believed, the mere fact that we do have historical evidence that there was a stable Christian community obsessed with doctrinal accuracy, loathing theological novelty, and holding fast to what they claimed was Tradition into the early third century would make it quite likely that theres was the authentic Apostolic Faith.  But we’re not left with only third century writings.  Those relatively few post-Apostolic first and second century writings we do have are in complete harmony with the picture of the third century Church, and show the Church as an institutional structure much earlier than 200 A.D.:

Such is known to have been, in a very brief outline, the manner of the Catholic Church in these early years of the third century. Such was the undisputed manner of the Church, as a Christian or an inquiring pagan would have been acquainted with it in the years 160-200 and onwards.
I have purposely chosen this moment, because it is the moment in which Christian evidence first emerges upon any considerable scale. Many of the points I have set down are, of course, demonstrably anterior to the third century. I mean by “demonstrably” anterior, proved in earlier documentary testimony. That ritual and doctrine firmly fixed are long anterior to the time in which you find them rooted is obvious to common sense. But there are documents as well. Thus, we have Justin Martyr. He was no less than sixty years older than Tertullian. He was as near to the Crucifixion as my generation is to the Reform Bill—and he gave us a full description of the Mass.
We have the letters of St. Ignatius. He was a much older man than St. Justin—perhaps forty or fifty years older. He stood to the generations contemporary with Our Lord as I stand to the generation of Gladstone, Bismarck, and, early as he is, he testifies fully to the organization of the Church with its Bishops, the Eucharistic Doctrine, and the Primacy in it of the Roman See.

Tertullian was born in about 160, and was in active ministry during the period Belloc’s describing.  Justin Martyr was born about 103, and died about 165.  When he wrote his First Apology (about 150 A.D.) with its full description of the Mass, he was well past “over the hill,” had been an adult for nearly three decades, and yet we were still not 120 years past the Crucifixion.  Ignatius, being forty or fifty years older than Justin  (actually, some sources place his birth as far back as 35 A.D.) was simply a generation younger than those who heard Apostles.  He stood to the contemporaries of our Lord as I stand to contemporaries of John F. Kennedy or Richard Nixon, and as Belloc notes, his letters are chock full of Catholic doctrine.


This is the Catholic historical claim in a nutshell: that whether one believes or disbelieves the Catholic claim, it’s nigh upon undeniable that the Catholic claim is as old as She claims it is.  You can claim “the Catholic Church is wrong,” or “the Pope is wrong,” but you must recognize that you’re saying, in essence, is “the students of the Apostles were wrong,” and really, that “the Apostles were wrong.”  And just to hammer this home, you’ll note that this argument doesn’t require you to first assume the Catholic Church is infallible.  It requires you only to consider the ancient historical evidence, and consider the likeilhood that the Church, such as it was, could have so thoroughly accidentally misunderstood the teachings of the Apostles.  Because remember: at the end of the day, there’s no dispute that the early Christian martyrs gleefully went to an early grave to honor Christ and to avoid embracing heresy. It’s just unthinkable that a group which gave their lives so willingly for the cause wouldn’t know what the cause was, given that they had living resources (in the form of innumerable eyewitnesses) capable of correcting them at any turn.

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