History is not a creed or a catechism, it gives lessons rather than rules; still no one can mistake its general teaching in this matter, whether he accept it or stumble at it. Bold outlines and broad masses of color rise out of the records of the past. They may be dim, they may be incomplete; but they are definite. And this one thing at least is certain; whatever history teaches, whatever it omits, whatever it exaggerates or extenuates, whatever it says and unsays, at least the Christianity of history is not Protestantism. If ever there were a safe truth, it is this.
Quite an assertion. The man who made it was the great 19th century Oxford scholar and convert to the Catholic Faith, John Henry Newman.
He was also one of the most important influences in my own conversion. He’s the one who got me thinking about history — especially the history of the Church in its earliest centuries.
Here I was, just beginning to delve into these things. I was reading along in his masterful Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, when I came to this sentence: “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.”
What? To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant?!
I read on and came to this even more pointed statement: “It is easy to show that the early Church was not Protestant.”
What??? Easy to show that the early Church was not Protestant?!
And then, no doubt the most colorful of his statements along these lines:
This utter incongruity between Protestantism and historical Christianity is a plain fact, whether…regarded in its early or in its later centuries…. So much must the Protestant grant that, if such a system of doctrine as he would now introduce ever existed in early times, it has been clean swept away as if by a deluge, suddenly, silently, and without memorial….
I had graduated from a Protestant college and then a Protestant seminary. I had been ordained into the Protestant ministry and was about eight years into my career as a Protestant pastor. I was the senior pastor of an evangelical Protestant Church, and here was one of the most brilliant minds of the 19th century telling me that if the kind of church I was leading, in terms of its view of correct Christian doctrine, ever existed in the late-first century, the second century, the third, fourth and fifth centuries, it has disappeared from the historical record, leaving no trace.
Newman was throwing down the gauntlet with such claims. He was calling me out. I simply had to investigate.
The Question of History
Now, as a Protestant, sola scriptura was the foundation of my worldview.
I took inspired Scripture alone to be ‘Authoritative.’ The opinions of Bible scholars and theologians and Christian authors, even the solemn formulations of Church Councils, creeds and denominational statements of faith — these functioned for me as guides and counselors.
I respected them. But none of them possessed ‘Authority’ in the sense that I would accept their ruling as true and bow to it. No. When it came to what I should believe and hold as true — about God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Bible, the church, sin and salvation, faith and obedience, the various moral issues — for me the quest for truth in Christian doctrine amounted to the quest to rightly interpret inspired Scripture and organize its teaching into a coherent and consistent biblical worldview.
And with this essential view of things, I wasn’t all that terribly interested in what the Church of the second, third, fourth and fifth centuries believed.
Men like Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus — I knew they were heroes of the faith. Many of them martyrs. But what they believed? I didn’t think of it as something that would necessarily cast much light on the issues of New Testament interpretation.
After all, if they agreed with what I took to be the most accurate reading of Scripture, I would say they were wise faithful interpreters of God’s Word. If they disagreed with me, I would say they had drifted from the truth. I knew for sure that by the time of the emperor Constantine in the fourth century Christianity had pretty much twisted itself into the strange shape we call the Catholic religion.
So why would I trust anything said between the time of the apostles and the time of Constantine?
My working assumption was that the teachings of the apostles had become corrupted almost immediately and that the beliefs and practices of Christians in the early centuries didn’t necessarily tell us what the apostles actually taught, or what the earliest Christians actually believed.
Newman challenged that basic assumption. It’s more natural, he argued, to think that…
the society of Christians which the apostles left on earth were of that religion to which the apostles converted them… that as Christianity began by manifesting itself as of a certain shape and bearing to all mankind, therefore it went on so to manifest itself…
Sure, individual believers might drift off in any and all directions. Sure, the church at large might wander from the apostolic teaching with respect to this detail or that. But if we look at the Christianity of the late-first, second and third centuries, and we can see the shape of a basic shared theology; if, as Newman said, “bold outlines and broad masses of color rise out of the records of the past” to paint a picture that is “definite,” however dim and incomplete. Wouldn’t that mean something?
At minimum, what Newman was saying is that the burden of proof should be on the one who says the Christian religion we see in the second, third and fourth centuries is not the Christian religion taught by the apostles, that the Church we see functioning during that time is not the Church founded by Christ and his apostles, but some deformed version of the ‘original.’
I believed Newman had a point — at least enough of a point that I should read the Church Fathers and see what I could see. And this is what I set out to do. After all, having watched a good deal of television growing up in the 60’s, I had an intuitive sense that the Fathers might “Know Best.”
And so I began to read the documents.
I wanted to hear what those closest to the apostles had to say.
In particular, I wanted to hear what they had to say about the issue of authority. I wanted to know: was sola scriptura the faith and practice of the early Church?
Argument Number One
In our next two lessons I’m going to present the results of my reading of the Church Fathers. What I want to do in the remainder of this lesson is tie things back into what we’ve already seen in our thinking through the witness of the New Testament (see previous four posts).
You see, the first argument I would make that sola scriptura was not in the minds of the early Christians living immediately after the time of the apostles is the simple fact that not one of the New Testament writers gives us any hint that it would be.
When you think about it, what Protestantism essentially holds is that the Church Christ established, the Church we see functioning in the New Testament, is in a fundamental way not the Church our Lord intended to exist through the ages and until his return.
Let me explain. Within the Church we see ‘in action’ in the New Testament, authority resided (a) in Scripture, (b) in the oral teaching of the Apostles and (c) in the ability of the Church to meet in council as it did in Acts 15, to settle theological disputes and issue ‘Authoritative’ decrees.
What Protestants believe is that with the death of the apostles, everything changed. After that, ‘Authority’ resided in scripture alone.
In other words, what Protestantism is essentially saying is that on the most foundational level, dealing with the most fundamental issue of all, the issue of where Authority lies in the Church, a massive change occurred with the death of the apostles.
And yet (as we’ve already seen) there is not a hint in the writings of the New Testament that such a profound change would be coming.
We don’t find the apostles talking about it. We don’t find them preparing the Church for it.
Nowhere, for instance, are the churches told that once the apostles die it’s going to be Scripture alone. Nowhere are they informed that the Church will no longer have the ability by the Spirit to do what it did in Acts 15, that there will be no more decrees for Christians to receive with joy.
Nowhere is it said that the writings of the apostles will become the sole infallible rule of faith and practice for the Church and for each individual believer and that, as Luther said, every Christian will become “for himself pope and church.” That, for all practical purposes, every man will believe what he sees to be the teaching of scripture and every woman the same.
Basically, the ecclesiastical equivalent of Mad Max.
Okay, okay. The jury is instructed to ignore that last sentence and the court reporter to strike it from the record. But apart from that, everything else I’ve said here is assumed by the Protestant position.
And yet we see none of it in the New Testament documents themselves.
On the contrary, we see St. Paul commanding the believers to “stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thessalonians 2:15). We see him instructing Timothy, his spiritual son and successor in the ministry, to take the things he has “heard” Paul teach and “guard” them “by the Holy Spirit” so that Timothy can “entrust” them to other faithful men who will do what he has done (2 Timothy 1:13,14; 2:1).
The emphasis in the New Testament is on the faith being preserved by the Holy Spirit in the Church through something akin to apostolic succession.
Here is one reason I came to believe that sola scriptura was not in the minds of Christians living in the decades after the death of the apostles and that it was not the historic faith of the Church.
But (as usual) there’s more…