I came to Catholicism (very slowly) from an atheist worldview. From my previous perspective, the Church was old, rigid, and dogmatic—a relic from times past in drastic need of an update. The Church's insistence on clinging to outdated teachings was something of a deterrent for me, but through my journey to the Church I began to appreciate the necessity of dogma.
After several years of deliberation I had come to the conclusion that Jesus Christ did in fact exist; he had performed miracles, was crucified on the order of Pontius Pilate, and resurrected from the dead. The weight of the evidence by which I came to this conclusion is perhaps the subject of another blog post, but for now it is enough to say that I had arrived at the conclusion that Jesus Christ was the Son of God as his first followers claimed him to be.
The problem—as I imagine most others who arrived at this conclusion have faced—was finding the church that teaches authentic Christianity. Did such a thing even exist?
Scripture as Evidence of a “Correct” Belief
I was a guest not long ago on an atheist podcast, and near the end of the show the host asked me why I chose to become Catholic over every Christian denomination. The answer is simple: Authority.
In addition to the repeated scriptural exhortations to remain unified in doctrine (see Eph. 4:3-6, 1 Cor. 1:10, Rom. 15:5, Phil. 2:2), the very existence of Scripture reveals that there must be a correct belief, or “orthodoxy.” This is especially evident in the epistles. Every one of them is either congratulating the recipients on their adherence to the correct teachings of the Church, or admonishing them for departing from it.
The problem for the modern man investigating Christianity for the first time is the number of churches that exist, all of which revere the Bible and claim to interpret it correctly.
How Did the Early Christians Know Who to Follow?
The early Church Fathers provide a wealth of knowledge in this regard. In his lecture series, From Jesus to Constantine, the ever-skeptical Prof. Bart Ehrman claims that in the beginning there were many “Christianities,” and eventually the one that survived became the “orthodox” position.
But in my own study of the early Christians I came to see that the Christianity that survived did so because it was the orthodox position.
The infant Church of the first few centuries after Jesus was not immune to heresy (false beliefs) and so the early Christians used apostolic succession as the yardstick by which they measured the correctness of doctrines. For example, in battling the Gnostic heresy in the second century, St. Iranaeus wrote:
But since it would be too long to enumerate in such a volume as this the successions of all the churches, we shall confound all those who, in whatever manner, whether through self-satisfaction or vainglory, or through blindness and wicked opinion, assemble other than where it is proper, by pointing out here the successions of the bishops of the greatest and most ancient church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul—that church which has the tradition and the faith with which comes down to us after having been announced to men by the apostles. For with this Church, because of its superior origin, all churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world. And it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the apostolic tradition (Against Heresies, 3:3:2).
It is evident from Scripture that there is only one system of correct belief (hence the call for doctrinal unity from the example verses above), and we know from the witness of the early Christians that incorrect beliefs were deemed so because they could not be traced back to the Churches founded by the apostles.
In order to proclaim something dogmatically, one must exercise authority. Since the early Christians traced correct belief through the apostolic churches—and especially the one in Rome—then it is not far-fetched to arrive at the conclusion this Church must be authoritative.
There is only one Church that can trace its roots back to the one founded by Peter and Paul in Rome—the one that St. Iranaeus proclaims “maintained the apostolic tradition”—and that is the Catholic Church.
“Dogma” is Not a Dirty Word
In this day and age it has become fashionable to use the word “dogma” as a pejorative. But from the first days of the Church it has been indispensible.
When heresies arise, it becomes necessary to define what the Church believes and teaches, and the early Christians did this by deferring to those churches founded by the apostles. This is as true of the nature of Christ or the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist as it is for the canon of the Bible.
If Jesus is indeed “the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8), and Scripture exhorts us to be unified in doctrine, then it makes perfect sense that Dogmas be declared in order to preserve the faith accurately as it is handed down thousands of years to the next generations of Christians.
If you are interested in becoming a better defender of the Catholic Faith, I highly recommend picking up a copy of The Essential Catholic Survival Guide published by Catholic Answers Press.