Elsewhere: the early Church


As a Protestant, even though I knew the history, I would not have given much thought about who were the Christians for the first 1,500 years before the “reformation.” The thought that they were Catholic would not be readily conceded. I wrote about this cognitive dissonance last year.

Our Lord founded only one Church. To differentiate that true Church from the long gone heresies that appeared by the end of the first century, it was called “Catholic” meaning “universal.” Of this there is ample historical evidence. That Church continues today much as it was then – in beliefs, worship and structure. The many Protestant communities which appeared over a millennia later differ significantly from the Church then, now and from each other.

Most Protestant communities feel a connection to the “early Church.” The start and end dates of that are a little murky. Many view favorably the period up to around 400AD when the Bible was canonized (they prefer not to recognize by who). At that time the Church had been known as Catholic for 300 years. Similarly, they feel a strong connection with the “early Church Fathers” of this period – all of whom would have identified themselves as Catholic. Finally, many recognize Saints…   guess how they identified themselves and who canonized them as saints!

Brantly Millegan is a young, Evangelical convert. Recently, he wrote an excellent essay on the early Church for his Young, Evangelical, and Catholic blog.

Tertullian, Against Praxeas, ch 2 (~A.D. 200):

“That this rule of faith has come down to us from the beginning of the gospel, even before any of the older heretics, much more before Praxeas, a pretender of yesterday, will be apparent both from the lateness of date which marks all heresies, and also from the absolutely novel character of our new-fangled Praxeas. In this principle also we must henceforth find a presumption of equal force against all heresies whatsoever — that whatever is first is true, whereas that is spurious which is later in date.”

Below is a list of the year of the earliest (of which I am aware) extant extra-biblical witness of various Christian doctrines.

  • (A.D. 33 – death and resurrection of Christ)
  • A.D. 90 – the Lord’s Supper as a sacrifice
  • (A.D. 95 – death of the last apostle, John)
  • A.D. 95 – apostolic succession
  • A.D. 110 – real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist
  • A.D. 110 – the necessity of bishops to the Church, and the necessity of submitting to bishops
  • A.D. 150 – baptismal regeneration and the necessity of baptism for salvation
  • A.D. 150 – basic structure of the Mass as Christian worship
  • A.D. 155 – veneration of saints and their relics
  • A.D. 160 – Mary as the New Eve
  • A.D. 170 – use of the word ‘Trinity’
  • A.D. 180 – primacy of the bishop of Rome
  • A.D. 200 – ‘Trinity’, ‘Person’, ‘Substance’ formula
  • A.D. 367 – today’s 27 book New Testament canon
  • (A.D. 1500s – Protestant Reformation)

(Note: Those that are (underlined) are relevant events to help put the other dates in perspective. Those doctrines in bold are accepted by evangelicals and Catholics and are also listed for the purpose of helping to put the other dates in perspective. Those doctrines not bolded are accepted by Catholics and are rejected by most evangelicals as corruptions of the faith. All dates listed are of course approximate. The quotes showing the witness to these doctrines in those years are at the end of this post.)

I have ten comments:

  1. Since it doesn’t appear as though any of the authors are proposing a new doctrine in any of the quotes, it can be assumed that all of these doctrines in the very least pre-date by some amount of time their first extant extra-biblical witness. It should be noted that in some cases, the authors were contemporaries of the apostles and most likely knew some of the apostles themselves, e.g. St Clement, who was the bishop of Rome at the end of the 1st century and is traditionally identified with the Clement referred to by Paul in Philippians 4.3. And in other cases, the authors knew disciples of the apostles, e.g. St Irenaeus was a disciple of St Polycarp who was a disciple of the Apostle John.
  2. All of the Catholic beliefs listed were maintained from the early Church onward. In other words, I’m not citing anomalies in the early Church and recommending that Catholics should revive them. Catholics have maintained these beliefs/practices since then without a break. Neither am I implying that these beliefs do not have a basis in Scripture. These quotes are merely the first extant extra-biblical witnesses of the doctrines.
  3. Remember that evangelicals claim that all of those Catholic beliefs listed above were all invented and did not come from the apostles, even though the Christians immediately following the apostles, including some who knew the apostles personally, thought that those doctrines came from the apostles. In particular, regarding apostolic succession, St Clement – who, as stated above, was surely a contemporary of the apostles and may have also known them personally – explicitly states that apostolic succession was set up by the apostles.
  4. Notice the large number of doctrines/practices that are rejected by most evangelicals as Catholic corruptions of the faith that are witnessed to prior to explicit development of the doctrine of the Trinity or even the first extant witness to the 27 book New Testament canon. In other words, if all of those beliefs which most evangelicals tend to view as sure markers of the obviously perverted corruption of the Catholic Church were already there, then the same Church that settled the New Testament canon and fought the Trinitarian and Christological fights of the early Church was already well immersed in corruption, superstition, and heresy.
  5. Ironically, those issues that evangelicals claim to be obvious corruptions of the faith were accepted throughout the early Church with relatively little dissent*. And it was on issues like the New Testament canon and the doctrine of the Trinity – two issues on which evangelicals agree with the early Church – that had the most widespread disagreement and dissent. The confusion/dissent regarding these two issues was so widespread and entrenched that they were only settled for the whole Church when the bishops of the Church wielded their authority from apostolic succession – the same authority who’s existence evangelicals deny. In other words, those beliefs for which apostolic authority was not needed to be well established in the Church, evangelicals reject; whereas those beliefs for which apostolic authority was needed to establish them within the Church, evangelicals accept, even though evangelicals reject apostolic authority and succession.

The essay continues with the last 5 comments then examines each of the dates in detail. Well done, interesting, informative and worth the read! His complete piece (titled to poke fun at the Protestant claims of Catholic heresy) is at How Quickly Catholic Heresy Took Over the Church (Immediately).

Brantly writes specifically from an Evangelical perspective, but the points made apply well to Protestantism in general (at least as well as anything applies to Protestantism “in general”).

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