In recent years, there’s been a greater emphasis for Protestants, particularly Calvinists, to try and defend their faith by appeal to the Church Fathers. This is great news, although it’s still being done poorly, in my opinion: specifically, there’s a frustrating tendency for Protestants to read the Reformers on the Fathers, rather than reading the Fathers themselves. Now I think an honest reading of the Church Fathers themselves will support the Catholic position on any of the major issues dividing Catholics and non-Catholics. But for now, let’s content ourselves to accept that there are basically three positions on Church history:
- Catholics believe that the Church has never lost Her way. The Catholic Faith is the Apostolic Faith. A Catholic time-traveler from the first century or the thirty-first would feel comfortable in a modern Catholic Mass, and vice versa. There might be some liturgical changes they had to accept (there was probably no instrumental music in the early Church, for example), but on issues of faith and morals, we three would see eye to eye. In the chart below, we’re blue.
- Some Protestants (generally Calvinists and Lutherans from the “Magisterial Reformed” tradition) argue that the Church Fathers weren’t Catholic. Rather, in the first few centuries of the Church, something similar to modern Protestantism was practiced. At some later point (perhaps the fourth century), this true Faith was replaced by Catholicism. I’ll call this the late-Apostasy position, and it’s in green below.
- Other Protestants (generally associated with Evangelicalism) believe that the Apostolic Faith was almost immediately lost. The Church Fathers are Catholic heretics who somehow bungled the Apostolic teachings immediately. I’ll call this the early-Apostasy position, and it’s in pink below
I’ve tried to put the three camps into illustrative form. These are the basic positions. This is specifically related to the existence of a visible Church proclaiming the Christian Gospel:
All three camps agree on one major point: at least from the year 500 A.D. to the year 1500 A.D., the Church was Catholic, and not Protestant. The Church at this time is headed by the pope out of Rome, practices the sacraments with a sacramental priesthood, has lots of really great Catholic things to say about Mary, believes in the Real Presence, uses Tradition in addition to Scriptures, has binding Church Councils, etc. Now, Catholics would say all of the preceding is also found in earlier writings, but let’s focus on the areas we all agree upon. In other words, in this “Middle Church” time period, there’s no Protestant Church, but there’s very clearly a Catholic Church.
Why That Matters
Recall the collection of Scriptural references from one of last week’s posts about the ongoing role of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit in preserving the Church from error:
- It was for the Church that Christ went to the Cross (Ephesians 5:25-27), in order “to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.“
- Christ left the Church as “the pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).
- The promise that Christ Himself will build His Church, and the promise that “the gates of Hell shall not overcome” the Church in Matthew 16:18.
- The promise that Christ will be with Apostolic Church “always, until the end of the age” in Matthew 28:20.
- The promise that the “Spirit of Truth,” the Holy Spirit, will be with the Church “forever” (John 14:16-17).
- The promise that the Holy Spirit will teach the Church “all things” and “remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:25-26).
- The promise that the Holy Spirit will lead the Church into “all truth” (John 16:13).
- The commandment to bind and loosen given to Peter individually (Matthew 16:19) and to the Church collectively (Matthew 18:18-19).
- The commandment to obey the Church authorities (Hebrews 13:17-18), including bad ones (Matthew 23:2-3).
However one interprets these passages, it seems that the one thing we should all agree upon is that they don’t allow for the visible Church to disappear completely, or to be wholly overrun by heresy. So there’s no room for the Church to blink out of existence, and then back into existence later, like the mythical Atlantis resurfacing. In contrast, in Matthew 5:14, Christ says to the Church:
“You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.”
This verse, even in isolation, completely refutes the invisible theory of the Church. The Church was called by Christ to be visible. A Church too timid to proclaim the Gospel isn’t faithful to the Gospel. Christ continues in Matthew 5:15-16,
Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.
So here’s the ultimate issue. Between 500 and 1500 A.D., by the admission of virtually every Protestant apologist, there was no visible Protestant Church, and there was a visible Catholic Church (which proclaimed the Gospels to the ends of the known world). Are we to assume that between 500 and 1500, the True Church had simply disappeared, contrary to both the instructions of Christ (in Matthew 5:14-16) and His promises (in the bullet points above)? Or can we admit that this openly-Catholic “Middle Church” is the same Church established by Christ?
P.S. To be clear, I think that this argument should accompany, not replace, an argument from the Church Fathers. All of Church history is Catholic, not just the years 500-1500; it just happens, this is an entire millennium for which most Protestants admit Protestantism definitely wasn’t a visible Church. Also, a special thanks to Kevin for giving me the inspiration for this blog post.