Catholics, Protestants, and History

MARTY ROTHWELL

Catholicism, not Protestantism, represents the faith of the early church.

In Chapter 5 of Evangelicals, Catholics and Unity, Dr. Michael Scott Horton, Vice Chairman of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, admits that Protestants are not too much into history.

Dr. Horton claims that Protestantism has been the true faith since the Church's inception. In chapter 2, Dr. Horton classifies himself and other Protestants as members of the "early Catholic Church". He defines the "early Catholic Church" by saying:

"Catholic means universal, and it refers to those truths that are, as St. Paul identified them, to be held "without controversy" (1 Tim 3:16 KJV). It also refers to that body of Christians who, distinct from the heretical and schismatic sects that have plagued Christian unity throughout the ages, submit to the doctrine and discipline of Christ as he mediates his prophetic, priestly, kingly ministry in the visible church throughout the Scriptures."

He also says, "It was the early Roman Catholic Church that successfully opposed the Gnostics, Arians, Pelagians, and numerous other false movement, and we who count ourselves evangelical Protestants belong to this Catholic Church today."

Dr. Horton believes that if the Catholic Church had not taken a disastrous wrong turn in her doctrines, then all Christendom would be what Protestantism is today. He says the time of the disaster occurred around the Middle Ages:

"Unfortunately, during the Middle Ages especially, the western branch of this Catholic Church (which had already divided into an East-West schism) became increasingly corrupt."

He mentions the 11th century as a time which by then the church was rampant with "superstition, ignorance, the Crusades, the Inquisition, and an ambitious and self-indulgent papacy."

But let us focus on two of Dr. Horton's points concerning the early Catholic Church:

  • There was a time when the whole Church believed "without controversy" certain fundamental truths about the doctrines of the faith.
  • The early Catholic Church had successfully identified and opposed the numerous false movements of the faith.

Since Dr. Horton acknowledges these two points about the "early Roman Catholic Church", then let us examine:

  1. The procedure the early Catholic Church used to successfully confront and oppose the numerous heresies of their day.
  2. The set of fundamental truths believed on by the entire church at the time prior to the Catholic-Orthodox schism.

As Dr. Horton notes, there were many heresies throughout the first 11 centuries of the Church's existence. Whenever there was a major issue concerning matters of faith and morals in the church, it seems the Church followed the pattern given in Acts 15.

Even in the time of the apostles, the Church had to decide on matters of faith and morals. There was a great schism developing between the Christian Pharisees and other Christians. The Church had to come to agreement on the issue regarding whether Gentile Christians were obligated to keep the law of Moses as Jewish Christians had been doing. Here is how they decided the issue:

  • The apostles and presbyters of various churches came together to discuss the issue.
  • All sides were allowed to explain and defend their position.
  • St. Peter, the apostles, and presbyters came to a consensus.
  • The Church, trusting that the Holy Spirit was guiding them, issued their declaration, which was to be believed and obeyed by the faithful.

In this particular instance, St. Peter first gave the parameters of what was allowed in the discussion, and it was further fleshed out and discussed from there. But the pattern remains basically the same.

What is done today? The bishops convene to discuss an issue, they reach a consensus and if the Pope (as sitting in the chair of St. Peter) ratifies the consensus of the bishops, the issue is believed to have been properly guided by the Holy Spirit and decided. If the bishops hold a council and reach a decision, but St. Peter does not ratify it, then nothing comes of the council.

Also, as we have already seen in Acts 15, if needs be, St. Peter can also issue guidelines of allowable parameters of discussion by himself without a council. But normally, a council is held and the consensus is given to St. Peter for his review.

This model has been used successfully for 2,000 years as the mechanism the Church uses to squelch heresy.

I think anyone can see this is a reasonable and proper manner for deciding matters in the Church. It provides a reasonable venue to let all sides discuss the matter and a system of checks and balances. When this procedure is used and the outcome decided, it is to be believed that the Holy Spirit himself infallibly guided the outcome; therefore it cannot be revoked at a later time.

This also serves to aid the Church, because now they can treat this decision as infallibly given by God and can be used as a defense in further discussions on other matters. This decision becomes part of clarifying the deposit of faith once delivered to the Church by the apostles.

Anyone who would try to deny that this method works could only do so by eviscerating God's power to speak to His own Church. Secondly, this method has a proven track record of working for 2,000 years. Anyone who contends for another method will be hard pressed to come up with a better method or one that has a better track record.

Now, given that the Church adhered to this procedure to ascertain correct doctrine from heresies, what doctrines were derived and held without controversy prior to the schism in 1054?

The list below gives the doctrines "held without controversy" throughout the Church prior to the 11th century.


Historical Christian doctrines "held without controversy" prior to the schism of the 11th century.

  1. God the Son is of the same substance and nature as God the Father.
  2. God is a Triune Being (Trinity).
  3. Jesus has a fully human and a fully divine nature in one being
  4. The Real Presence of the Body and Blood of Christ exists in the Eucharist.
  5. Apostolic Succession of Bishops is essential to the preservation of the Faith.
  6. Scripture and Tradition together are rules of faith.
  7. The Holy Spirit infallibly guides the Church into all truths.
  8. Baptismal Regeneration.
  9. Believers are saved by the grace of God and their obedient faith.
  10. Believers can lose their salvation through sin.
  11. Infant Baptism.
  12. The Bible is comprised of 27 books of the NT and 46 books of OT. (Deuterocanonical Books are part of Scripture).
  13. Male only Priesthood.
  14. Primacy of the Bishop of Rome among Bishops.
  15. Canonization and Veneration of Saints.
  16. The prayers of departed saints are effectual for us.
  17. Confessions of sins to a priest.
  18. Penance should be done for sins committed.
  19. State of most of the departed faithful are in a temporary holding place awaiting their final judgment, although those who have lived a truly holy life on earth can go straight to heaven.
  20. Prayers for the other departed faithful are effectual in helping them grow in grace.
  21. The Seven Sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation, Confession, Communion, Marriage, Holy Orders, and Extreme Unction
  22. High honor and veneration given to the Blessed Ever-Virgin Mary as the Theotokos (the Mother of God—the New Eve).
  23. Liturgical Worship as the "Melody of Theology".
  24. Images in worship were admitted as a helpful means in worship.

These are not simply Catholic doctrines, but historical Christian doctrines. How do we know this? Because in the 11th century when the Eastern Orthodox Churches split from the Catholics, both sides kept these doctrines!

These doctrines were "held without controversy", to quote Dr. Horton (and St. Paul) earlier. Regardless of their other differences, both sides believed, and continue to believe to this day, that all of the above doctrines are part of the deposit of faith given by the apostles to the Church.

Therefore, anyone who claims to be connected with historical Christianity would certainly hold to these doctrines also. Protestants must answers the following questions before Protestantism can be taken seriously:

  • Arguments over the nature of Christ went on for centuries. Heresies such as Docetism, Gnosticism, Adoptionism, Monarchianism, Arianism, Sabellianism, Apollinarianism, Nestorianism, Monphysitism and Monotheletism were all connected to the nature of Jesus. If Protestants believe the Holy Spirit kept the early Catholic Church from falling into error during those times of heresy, then why can't they accept the other doctrines that were decided using the same procedures to combat the heresies? Why do they pick and choose now what doctrines to believe? And who are they to pick and choose now what all Christendom had previously agreed upon?
  • The whole concept of Protestantism rests on Sola Scriptura. But in the councils convened to discuss the heresies listed above, all sides argued from Scripture to prove their point! Is it not obvious that there needs to be some governing authority in Christianity that can decide which interpretation is to be held? Would God leave us in a state where we could not know with certainty what truths we are to hold?
  • In fact, Protestantism itself can exist now only because the Catholic Church has successfully defined so much of Christian doctrine for Protestants to borrow from. There is much less doctrine for the Protestants to argue about. If the Church had to use the Protestant model from her inception, she would have disintegrated into a meaningless morass of confused doctrines with no means to pull herself out of the muck and mire. It only took 500 years for Protestantism to disintegrate into 28,000 denominations. Imagine if the Protestant model had existed for 2,000 years?
  • It is ironic that most Protestants now deny almost all of the articles of faith that historic Christians held! How would any religious organization that claims to be historic deny the previously held historic beliefs and then invent new doctrines that the historic Church had either never held or previously rejected! The historic Church had rejected doctrines like Sola Scriptura, Salvation by Faith Alone, and Eternal Security. In what sense, then, can Protestants claim to be "historic"?

Let us also examine these points about Catholicism:

  • Luther protested against the practices of the Church and introduced a new doctrine of justification. The Catholic Church accepted his criticism about the practices and changed them. But they denied his new doctrines were sound, because they were against the "tradition of deposit of faith".
  • The Church arrived at her decision against Luther's doctrines in the exact same way it had fought Arianism and other heresies. (i.e., through councils, discussion, study of Scripture, earlier council decisions, early church father's writings, prayer, vote and St. Peter's ratification). So when Luther did not "submit to the doctrine and discipline of Christ as he mediates his prophetic, priestly, kingly ministry in the visible church…" (to quote from Dr. Horton), then he became another of "the heretical and schismatic sects that have plagued Christian unity throughout the ages".

Where does that leave us?

Dr. Horton can choose to join or reject the Catholic Church, but he cannot claim Protestantism has any connection to historical Christianity. In fact, for Dr. Horton to feel the need to write to his fellow Protestants and assure them that they are connected to historic Christianity begs the point that Protestants today do not feel they are part of historic Christianity. It is absolutely clear that Luther broke with the historic doctrines of the faith and created his own doctrines.

Luther did have many debates with clerics and theologians. He certainly did not "overwhelm their opponents with citations from the Church Fathers as well as from scriptures." In fact, Luther tried to remove the Epistle of St. James, Revelation, and the Epistle to the Hebrews from the New Testament canon because he felt they were at odds with his interpretation of Scripture.

Cardinal John Henry Newman was a prominent 18th century Anglican bishop who also grappled with the problems between Protestantism and historical Christianity. Unlike Dr. Horton, he did not try to rewrite Church history. Instead he saw the fallacies Protestantism is built on, and converted to Catholicism. He wrote:

"And this one thing is certain…the Christianity of history is not Protestantism. If there ever were a safe truth, it is this. And Protestantism has ever felt it so… This is shown in the determination…of dispensing with historical Christianity altogether, and of forming a Christianity from the Bible alone: men never would have put [historical Christianity] aside, unless they had despaired of it… To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant."

Today, Protestants are continuing to come to the Catholic Church as they read the early Church fathers for themselves. We respectfully request Dr. Horton to do the same.

 

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Marty Rothwell. "Catholics, Protestants, and History." Petersnet September 4, 2002.

This article reprinted with permission from the author.

THE AUTHOR

Marty Rothwell became a Christian in 1973. As he began reading the early church fathers for a course he was teaching, it didn't take him long to realize the discrepancies between what the early church believed and what his Protestant denomination taught. He then began studying the differences between the Orthodox and Catholic positions and, in spite of his strong anti-Catholic bias was surprised to find that Catholicism had very well reasoned arguments for the positions it held. In addition it was the first time he had encountered a church that was intellectually vigorous and very pious spiritually. It also, as Marty says, could make a refreshing claim no Protestant church could, that it was there from the beginning. Marty and his family were received into the Catholic Church in Dec 1999. Marty Rothwell is now a member of St. Andrew the Apostle Catholic Church in Clifton, Virginia. He can be reached here.

Copyright © 2002 Marty Rothwell




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