Sunday, May 15, 2011

If Christ's Church is not the Catholic Church then Where is it?

Preliminary Note I: This is not an Article to Bash Protestants.  It is an Article dealing with an Anti-Catholic Smear

Please also note that this article is not intended to paint all Protestants as believing this.  Not all Protestants are anti-Catholic.

Nor do I wish to speculate on the percentage of Protestants who actually believe this.  Since Protestant denominations have different beliefs, it is difficult to say "All Protestants believe [X]" except when [X] is something very generalized.  If (I'm speaking as a hypothetical example here, not an actual Statistic) 75% of Protestants believe [A], and of them 75% believe [B] and of this subgroup, 75% believe [C] and of that subgroup 75% believe [D], you wind up with the problem that slightly less than 32% of them believe [A]+[B]+[C]+[D].  This means 68% can say "I don't believe that!"

This is important to remember when reading the testimony of certain individuals who have converted (or reverted) to Catholicism who describe what their denominations taught.  I want to make clear I am not saying that all Protestants hold to what these men have experienced.  I merely use these as examples to show that some do hold these beliefs.

Remember, the task of this article is looking at the claim itself and what is wrong with it.  Obviously, I am not intending to lump together those who do not hold this belief with those who do.  If it ever appears I am making such a point, please recognize that it is poor phrasing on my part.

Preliminary Note II: Limiting the Topic Under Consideration

This article does not attempt to deal with those Eastern churches not in communion with Rome, known collectively as the Orthodox Church. These churches share with the Catholic Church a belief in the ancient nature of the Church, in the Sacraments, in the hierarchical nature of the Church and Apostolic Succession. Instead, the dispute there is over whether the See of Rome was intended to be the head of this Church. Since these issues of dispute are different from the intent of this article, those issues are simply outside of the intent of this article.

Instead, this article deals with the argument that there was the original church of the New Testament which was replaced by the Catholic Church.

Introduction: A Look at the Charge

Among the slanders against the Catholic Church out there, one tends to be popular with those not well informed about Christian history and that is the claim that there once was the true Christian church which existed, and this church was supplanted by the Catholic Church which began later and introduced all sorts of paganized and man-made doctrines.

The most common variant claims that the Catholic Church was an invention of the government of the Roman Empire to control Christianity or otherwise sided with a "false" Church against the "real" Christians.  Under such an argument, it is claimed that a Roman Emperor (usually Constantine, but not always) established the Catholic Church, which mixed Christianity with paganism and man-made doctrines.

The so-called "true Church" is then said to have vanished or gone underground in the face of the Catholic Church or else was never intended to be a visible Church to begin with.

Former Evangelical David Armstrong describes his experience this way:

Many Protestants (particularly evangelicals) date the downfall of the early Church at 313, with the conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine and the subsequent "paganization" of institutional Christianity. Others will place this alleged calamitous event around 440, with the beginning of the papal reign of Pope St. Leo the Great, who - in the eyes of many Protestant historians - was the first pope in the full-blown jurisdictional sense (however that is defined by these same historians). Still another school of thought believes that the derailing of the young Christian Church occurred soon after the last Apostle's death and the cessation of the writing of New Testament books, around the year 100, or else sometime during the course of the second century A.D. at the latest.

A certain portion of non-Catholics still accept this argument unquestioningly.  They point to Catholic doctrines they reject, claim they were invented (without credible citation of when) based on the assumption that the first Christians could not have believed what the Catholic Church teaches, so it must mean that the Catholic Church supplanted the earlier Church.

Such a charge reflects the bigotry of the one who repeats it – it presumes that the Catholic Church is an evil institution formed out of malice with the intention of corruption of the "true" Christian message for whatever motive is alleged.  This kind of slander operates under the following assumptions:

  1. The "original church" was a group of independent small communities based on the Bible alone.
  2. The Catholic Church teaches things which do not mesh with this assumption of the "original church."
  3. Therefore the Catholic Church was an invention or a corruption in competition with the "original church."

These assumptions are never questioned and those who hold to the beliefs never bother to check the truth of the claim.

The Argument from Ignorance fallacy

Because the Catholic response, pointing out the lack of evidence, is often termed (wrongly) an argument from ignorance fallacy, I believe we should first discuss what this fallacy is before moving on.  This fallacy argues from a lack of evidence (that the accuser is aware of one way) that the opposite must be true:

  • There is no proof for [X], therefore [Not-X].
  • There is no proof against [X], therefore [X].

Logically, premises must express claims of knowledge.  "Nothing logically follows from nothing, i.e. from no-knowledge" (Kreeft, Socratic Logic 3e p86).  So one cannot say "Something" is proven from "Nothing."

However, if one makes a charge but cannot back it up with evidence we can say that the charge is unproven.  In this case, pointing out the lack of proof is not an argument from ignorance fallacy.

I bring up this fallacy to distinguish it from the valid question of asking If the Catholic Church did supplant the so-called "True Church" then where is the evidence that this occurred?  This question is not an argument from ignorance ("Well, I don't know of any evidence supporting this true Church so therefore the Catholic Church must be true.")  Instead it is taking a charge ("The Catholic Church replaced the 'true Church'") and asking "How can you justify such a claim?"

We are under no obligation to accept such charges credulously after all.

Considering the Problems with the Claim of the "True Church was Supplanted."

One thing which is seldom considered with this charge is that it immediately throws doubt on the veracity of Christ – even though most of the proponents of this argument do not consider this.  Essentially, if this argument is true, it makes the promises of Christ false.

Christ has made certain statements about His protection of His Church which do not admit to a counterfeit obliterating it.  (I use the NAB and, if necessary, also the KJV as a preemptive defense against the charge that the NAB wording does not justify the citation of the verse).  For example:

  • Matt 28:20 "And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age." (The KJV uses "unto the end of the world")
  • Matt 16:18 "upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it." (The KJV uses "the gates of hell")
  • John 20:21 “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

These verses demonstrate a permanence to the Church and Christ's presence with it.  So if it vanished until Luther (or Wycliffe or Tyndale – claims do vary here) "rediscovered" the truth, then we can see that Christ either could not or did not keep His word.

Considering the Problem with the Claim of the Hidden or Underground Church

Now, when it comes to the idea of an underground or hidden Church ("The evil Catholic Church drove it underground and it stayed hidden until the Protestant Reformation"), we do have the right to ask "What happened to it?"  For example, prior to the legalization of Christianity in AD 313 we do indeed have works written by early Christians defending their faith against Paganism and heresies, appealing to the legal authorities of the time to treat them justly (See St. Justin Martyr's First Apology for example).  Yet, if the Catholic Church forced the "true Church" underground as some argue, we can validly ask why the "true Church" did not continue to do so against this new foe.

Some will argue that the Catholic Church destroyed all the "true Church" writings… an admission that there is no evidence to justify the claim of the "true Church."  This becomes dubious when we consider the writings known to exist from historical Christianity prior to AD 313 when Christianity was legalized. 

During the times prior to Constantine, the Roman Empire attempted to destroy all the Christian writings but failed to do so.  Certainly there are mentions of lost works out there, but other works of these authors do exist, and excerpts of lost works also exist as quotations in the writings of others (Eusebius, for example, has quoted lost works of previous Early Christian Fathers).

So we have to ask two questions:

  1. Where are the writings of the "true Christians" protesting the encroachment of these changes?
  2. If the writings were destroyed, why do we have no record of these mass burnings? 

I find the second point significant.  After all, when the Catholic Church went after heresies, they had published their condemnations.  Yet, assuming a malicious Catholic Church, we can see no condemnation or action against these supposed "true Christians."  Isn't that odd?  Instead of using propaganda to slander a threat, they say nothing.

This objection is not an argument from ignorance.  An allegation is made, and we wish to see the credible evidence if we are to accept it.  The argument from ignorance is made by the accusers who say that because there is no evidence, the evidence therefore must have been destroyed.

Blessed John Henry Newman wrote on this absence of any original Christians speaking out against this "invented Church" and the absence of any proof of the destruction of said evidence:

And this utter incongruity between Protestantism and historical Christianity is a plain fact, whether the latter be regarded in its earlier or in its later centuries. Protestants can as little bear its Ante-Nicene as its Post-tridentine period. I have elsewhere observed on this circumstance: '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; by a deluge coming in a night, and utterly soaking, rotting, heaving up, and hurrying off every vestige of what it found in the Church, before cock-crowing: so that 'when they rose in the morning' her true seed 'were all dead corpses'-Nay dead and buried-and without grave-stone. 'The waters went over them; there was not one of them left; they sunk like lead in the mighty waters.' Strange antitype, indeed, to the early fortunes of Israel!-then the enemy was drowned, and 'Israel saw them dead upon the sea-shore.' But now, it would seem, water proceeded as a flood 'out of the serpent's mouth, and covered all the witnesses, so that not even their dead bodies lay in the streets of the great city.' Let him take which of his doctrines he will, his peculiar view of self-righteousness, of formality, of superstition; his notion of faith, or of spirituality in religious worship; his denial {9} of the virtue of the sacraments, or of the ministerial commission, or of the visible Church; or his doctrine of the divine efficacy of the Scriptures as the one appointed instrument of religious teaching; and let him consider how far Antiquity, as it has come down to us, will countenance him in it. No; he must allow that the alleged deluge has done its work; yes, and has in turn disappeared itself; it has been swallowed up by the earth, mercilessly as itself was merciless.'

(The Development of Christian Doctrine Introduction, part 6, Emphasis added)

In other words, if this "true Church" was destroyed or forced underground, the destruction was so total as to destroy all parts of its existence AND also destroyed all evidence of the existence of the destruction.

That isn't a reasonable accusation. That is a "tinfoil hat" conspiracy theory.

Also, we should remember that Jesus commanded His disciples with the Great Commission.  If this "true Church" was underground, it was so well hidden that it seems it utterly failed to obey the teachings of Christ which it did obey before the legalization of Christianity.

If the Charge is True, When Did It Happen?

57  Some took the stand and testified falsely against him, alleging,
58 “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with hands and within three days I will build another not made with hands.’”
59 Even so their testimony did not agree. (Mark 14:57-59)

One thing which makes it difficult to accept such accusations is that the accusers themselves cannot agree on when the Catholic Church was allegedly created.  This actually becomes a dilemma for the accusers.

  • The earlier the alleged corruption or replacement, the more instances we have of beliefs held my Catholics and non-Catholics alike being proclaimed by this so-called "false Church."
  • On the other hand, the later the alleged corruption or replacement, the more "uncomfortable" doctrines must be placed  as held by the "true Church" yet are rejected today.

Let's look at some of the events within the history of Christianity which become uncomfortable to the one who argues that the Catholic Church replaced the true Church.  There are three general breakdowns of the periods suggested:

  1. At the time Constantine Legalized Christianity
  2. At some time after Constantine (Some time between the 5th and 11th century)
  3. At some time before Constantine (Some time between AD 100 and AD 313)

Let us look at these and the see the problems with the claim.

1) Constantine's Time?

Some try to argue that this was done during the reign of Constantine (reigned AD 306-337 [AD 313-337 over entire Empire]).  The claim was that with the legalization of Christianity and the outlawing of paganism, it became advantageous to become Christian and many pagans joined the Church and either brought over their corrupted beliefs or else the Catholic Church is accused of implementing these "corruptions" to gain the support of Paganism. 

This claim is utterly unhistorical.  While Christianity was legalized with the Edict of Milan in AD 313, the outlawing of paganism did not take place prior to the reign of Theodosius in AD 391.  Constantine did proclaim the legalization of Christianity, but this still left Christianity a minority for many years.  It also overlooks how the classical Paganism of the Roman Empire was utterly failing to appeal to the spiritual needs of the people (as Julian the Apostate [reigned AD 361-363] found out when he attempted to reinstitute paganism).

Moreover, we must consider the Council of Nicaea in AD 325.  Constantine merely wanted a settlement, though he leaned towards the heresy of Arianism (some of his descendants and successors to the throne would openly advocate it).  So it seems that if a Church established by the Empire existed as alleged, it would hold to these heresies rather than condemn them.

That's not all.  The Council of Nicaea also made pronouncements on certain things called invention by some non-Catholics, such as the clergy and Sacraments… which demonstrates that as of AD 325, these things were in the Church and were in the Church long enough to require correction of abuses caused by some individuals.

So the dilemma is: If the Council of Nicaea was called by a false Church, then it had no authority to condemn Arianism (Arius took his views from his personal interpretation of Scripture).  However, if it was the true Church, then it means that those denominations rejecting the Sacraments and Clergy cannot claim to be practicing the true faith.

Don't Forget Who Approved the Canon of Scripture

If we are to use Constantine as a baseline, then we must remember it was the Catholic Church who formally declared the canon of Scripture which we still hold today (73 books), reaffirming them in Councils of Rome (381), Hippo (393), and Carthage (397). 

Let's not forget that there were disputes over whether James, Hebrews, 2 Peter, 2+3 John, Jude and Revelation should be accepted as Inspired.  There were disputes over whether the Didache, 1 Clement and the Shepherd of Hermas should be accepted as Inspired.  It was these Councils submitted to the Pope for approval which gave us the approval for the Scriptures today.

If the Catholic Church supplanted the true Christians during the reign of Constantine, then we have a Bible which was approved by a so-called "false church" and we have no way of knowing if any books are inspired or not.

2) Later than Constantine?

Some denominations recognize the first seven Ecumenical Councils (the Seventh was in AD 787) and the Patristic Period and try to allege that the supplanting happened later.  Some even go so far as to say it was the Middle Ages when this happened.

Former Independent Baptist (who has returned to the Catholic Church), Michael Matthews describes the belief known as the "Trail of Blood":

According to this view, during the Middle Ages the Catholic Church went off into apostasy and idolatry, while all the "Bible-believers" went underground. These "real Christians" formed all the groups that were so viciously persecuted by the "Papists". Today's Baptists are all descended from those groups, and so were never part of the "Harlot of Babylon".

The problem with this is that before the time of the Middle Ages, it becomes impossible to deny that the Church was hierarchical, sacramental and all the rest of the things that many denominations call "innovations."  So if this "apostasy" happened in the Middle Ages, the true Church would still have these elements so often denied by those who make this accusation.

Also, since one variant of the the allegation is that the Catholic Church was established by the emperors to control Christianity, we need to be aware that the Pope was the one who stood firm against the heresies embraced by the later emperors.  Arianism (it did not die once condemned at Nicaea – in fact, briefly Rome stood alone against a tide of people falling to the Arian heresy), Nestorianism, Monophysitism, Monothelitism, Iconoclasm etc.   All of these were embraced by the emperors in Constantinople, and all of them were opposed by the Roman Catholic Church.

Medieval Heresies Not Early Protestantism

Also, the view which Matthews was taught has a problem that the medieval heresies opposed by Catholics were not "Bible Christians" as some allege.  For example, the Cathar/Albigensians, sometimes called Bible Christians by those ignorant of history, believed in two gods, one good, one evil.  They believed matter was evil, and therefore having children was also evil.  Fornication was considered less evil than marriage because marriage had the intent of having children.  Sodomy was considered superior than natural intercourse because it could not result in children.

People like Wycliffe, Hus and Tyndale are often cited.  However they were condemned for different errors, NOT because they were Bible Christians.  Their origins are far later than the time period argued for "original Christians."  They had different beliefs, sometimes contradictory beliefs which shows they did not have a common set of beliefs passed on from "original Christians."

3) Earlier than Constantine?

Some groups, recognizing the Early Church Fathers do speak of a visible, hierarchical and sacramental Church attempt to argue that there was a great apostasy early on.  Therefore, the Early Christian Fathers who speak of a Church which was Catholic were apostate.

Former Fundamentalist Carl Olsen described an encounter with a former pastor when he announced he converted:

Our conversation began quietly enough. I gave him a little background and told him we were going to enter the Catholic Church in the spring. Slowly his intensity level grew, and finally he began to attack the "Romanist" Church, with its needless "ritual and pomp" and its "unbiblical traditions and false teachings." He railed against the "organization" and "hierarchy" of the Church. "You think the Church is an organization, and it is not. It is spiritual and has no physical organization. Early Christianity was simple. It didn't have organization and was never meant to have it."

"That's not what we find in the book of Acts and in the Church Fathers," I replied.

He laughed. "Much of the early Church was in apostasy. Most of the Church Fathers were apostates. Besides, their writings are not inspired and infallible."

—(This Rock #9 vol.6 June 1998)

The problem with the attempts to date the apostasy of the Catholics to before AD 313 in favor of a simple Biblical Church is that one cuts out many of the beliefs which are held by the allegedly apostate Church as well as those who call her apostate.  The term "Trinity" did not appear before AD 181.  St. Augustine, so often cited by Luther and Calvin, lived in the Fifth Century AD.  The Gnostics, the Sabellians, etc. were condemned by this allegedly apostate Church.

Essentially this belief Olsen describes is another example of the argument from ignorance fallacy.  Because something was not mentioned by the same term we hear today, it is claimed the thing was a later invention.

Such a claim is like saying that mailing letters through the post office did not happen before the 1990s because there was no mention of the term Snail-Mail before then.  The problem of course is that "Snail mail" was a term later developed to distinguish the traditional system of mailing letters from e-mail.

It is also a No True Scotsman fallacy.  Anything early which does not fit the conception of the early Church is automatically categorized as "apostate."  Therefore no attempts at rebuttal will be accepted.

Did the Catholics Die for their Faith while the "True Christians" Hid?

Another problem with the argument that the apostasy was early in the history of Christianity is this: Prior to the legalization of Christianity in AD 313, during the Arian Barbarians attacks on Catholics, during the Moslem invasions and so on, many Catholics chose to embrace Martyrdom for preaching the faith rather than to stay silent and live.

Where were these "true Christians" who certainly had the same choice?  Did they simply go underground, pretending to be Catholics, allowing the "errors" to spread unchecked?  If so, how is this a witness for the faith?  That the Catholics thought their faith in Christ was worth dying for, while the so-called "true Christians" hid during the same time does not speak to the credit of these "true Christians."

Considering the Problems with the Claim of the Invisible Church

In defense against these objections, I have seen some claims made as to the Invisible nature of the Church. Generally speaking the Church is denied to be a unified visible Church, but rather is the conglomerate of faithful everywhere.

Nelson's New Christian Dictionary (which strikes me as a source which tries to be as even handed as possible) speaks of the belief of the Invisible Church as:

Universal church comprised of living and dead believers as well as those who are not official members of any denomination but whose names are known to God.

The problem with this view is that it contradicts Scripture as to the role of the Church carrying out His commands. The Church is to be the Light of the World which is not hidden under a basket and to be the city on the hill which cannot be hidden (Matt 5:14-16). The Church is commanded to preach the message of salvation to the whole world (Matt 28:19-20), to bind and loose (Matt 16:19, Matt 18:18) and to forgive sins (John 20:23). Moreover, The Church is to have an authority where, if one will not heed the Church, they do not heed Christ (Luke 10:16), and if one will not heed the Church, they are to be treated like the tax collectors (Matt 18:17).

The problem with the argument of the Invisible Church is, it cannot be the Light of the World, the City of the Hill. It cannot preach the good news, and none can appeal to it.

It should be noted that to argue that these commands were merely directed to the Apostles and not the Church means we have a break between the Apostles and the faith of today.

The Quandary This Claim Creates

Any attempt to accuse the Catholic Church of persecuting or imposing itself over the "true Church" creates a quandary for the one who would argue it.

  1. If the original Christians disappeared until Luther or Tyndale or Wycliffe rediscovered what was really meant, it means Christ was either in error or lying when He said he would be with the Church until the end of the age.
  2. If the original Church was hidden so that we can find no trace of it, it means these true Christians utterly failed to carry out the Great Commission and instead surrendered the field to an impostor for over a thousand years.
  3. If the original Church was invisible, then we have false passages in the Bible which equates listening to the Church to listening to Christ, and we have Apostles demanding obedience – which requires a visible and authoritative Church.
  4. If the original Church is the Catholic Church, then Jesus' words must be remembered: "Whoever listens to you listens to me. Whoever rejects you rejects me. And whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me" (Luke 10:16)


Ultimately, the "true Church" claim is a phantasm.  There is no evidence to justify it, while there is evidence that the early Church was visible, sacramental, hierarchical and claiming to be carrying on the work of the Apostles.  To accept such a claim would be to abandon all the commonly held Christian beliefs.

The argument claiming that the Catholic Church usurped authority is a circular argument.  It takes as proven the claim that the early Church could not believe what the Catholic Church teaches.  Therefore it must be corrupt.  Why?  Because the early Church could not believe what the Catholic Church teaches.

But the premise is the conclusion.  It assumes as true what it needs to prove and ignores the fact that it has not been proven.  It's like the old adage about law:

If the Law is on your side, hammer on the law.  If the facts are on your side, hammer on the facts.  If neither is on your side, hammer on the table.

In this case, neither the Bible nor Christian history supports the claim that the Catholic Church supplanted the early Church.  However, we can point to both to justify what the Catholic Church believes.

Since the "supplanting" argument is shown to be without evidence to support it, one is obligated to set aside one's fears and suspicions and ask oneself if they have perhaps misunderstood the Catholic Church, and perhaps need to find out what she truly teaches.

Recommended Reading

For those wanting some access to Patristic writings but don't want to shell out the $200-$500 it costs for the reprinted  38 volume Early Christian Fathers set (which is the fullest version currently available in English I am aware of but not the best version.  The American editors (under Philip Schaff) of the 19th century take a strongly anti-Catholic view and presume the "corruption" theory), there are some good books which are much less expensive which can introduce the reader to how the Early Christians viewed the Church:

  1. Upon this Rock by Steven K. Ray
  2. The Early Papacy by Adrian Fortescue and Alcuin Reid
  3. Faith of the Early Fathers (3 volume set) by William A. Jurgens

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