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Refuting a Pastor’s ‘Dark Ages’ Myths

Trent Horn

In response, MacArthur gave a rambling answer that focused instead on the Reformation and the Catholic Church, in the process repeating numerous anti-Catholic myths.

He began by saying we need to “look at the big picture” and remember that:

When Christianity comes and the Church is founded, the Church flourishes in the first century, and by the time you get to the third century, the time of Constantine, everybody’s gonna be a Christian so they baptize all the babies. And so essentially you have state-sponsored Christianity.

Many Protestants like to claim that fourth-century pagan converts ushered in a “great apostasy” when they allegedly joined the Faith for political expediency. Because of their pagan backgrounds and bad motives they soon introduced to the Church “man-made doctrines” that contradicted God’s revelation, leading to a repression of the pure gospel.

But not only does this tired claim lack basis in fact—it’s an assertion that can also be deployed against Protestantism. During the Reformation, most Protestant denominations became state-sponsored churches. In many cases it would have been politically expedient for a person to become a Calvinist in Geneva or an Anglican in England. But mere association with a secular government doesn’t disprove these churches’ teachings. Whether Catholic or Protestant, the teachings need to be evaluated on their own.

MacArthur is also wrong about the historical origins of infant baptism. In the third century (over 150 years before Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire) the ecclesial author Origen wrote, “The Church has received the tradition from the apostles to give baptism even to little children” (Commentary on Romans 5.9). Even Protestant theologian R.C. Sproul says that by the middle of the second century infant baptism “is spoken of as the universal practice of the church. It appears to be occurring everywhere.”

MacArthur continued:

That launches a thousand years of the dark ages. Where religion and relationship to God is not personal. The Church is a surrogate for God. You connect to the Church. You don’t connect by faith. You don’t connect in your heart by loving the Lord or knowing him. . . . You have this institutionalized Christianity, that was dead, cold, and the Gospel was lost and truth was lost.

I can’t stand the term dark ages: it’s politically loaded and imprecise. And MacArthur doesn’t even use it in its common academic sense—to refer to the centuries following the fall of Rome and the barbarian invasions. He imagines that period extending over a millennium to include most of pre-Reformation Christendom.

Traditionally, of course, Christians believed the time before the fifth century was “dark” because the world was shrouded in pagan darkness. For the next ten centuries, the light of Christ spread all over the world because of the dreaded “institutions” the Catholic Church provided to it.

Even before this time, Christians encountered God through the Church he gave us. St. Cyprian of Carthage wrote in the early third century, “You cannot have God for your Father if you do not have the Church for your mother.” St. Ignatius of Antioch exhorted believers at the beginning of the second century, “Follow the bishop even as Jesus Christ does the Father.” But MacArthur claims that this age of Church authority was the result of the Church’s suppression of Bible reading:

[The Church said], “Don’t put the Bible in their language. Don’t let them read it. The Church is the only interpreter of the Bible.” If anyone tried to interpret Scripture on their own, they would be murdered. We know the story of William Tyndale. What was his crime? He translated the Bible into English so that every plowboy in England could read the Scripture. That is a crime that brings down that kind of false system.

In reality, Catholics had been allowed to publish vernacular translations of the Bible for centuries before Tyndale published his English New Testament in 1534. Two late medieval examples include the 1466 German “Mentelin Bible” and Guyart des Moulin’s 1297 French Bible Historiale. The Peshitta, or Syriac Bible, was a fifth-century vernacular translation for the Eastern Church, while the Western Church at that time was blessed with St. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate. Even though it was in Latin, this Bible was indeed a vernacular translation because it was read aloud in churches and could be understood by the masses.

The Church did not oppose the idea of vernacular Bible translations as such; it opposed the idea of private individuals making their own translations of the Bible on their own authority, since they could mistranslate the Word of God and lead people away from the Faith (the Church still prohibits this, in section 825 of the Code of Canon Law). The Church took seriously its duty to protect the integrity of Sacred Scripture—something that any Protestant who loves the Bible should appreciate.

In this case, the Church rejected Tyndale’s translation because he rendered words in a way that pointedly undermined Church teaching (like translating ekklesia as “congregation” instead of “church”). The notes and prologues in his Bible also contained caustic attacks on institutions like the papacy. Protestant authors David Price and Charles C. Ryrie say of his translation, “Unquestionably, anti-Catholic outbursts are sufficiently numerous to make a strong impression on any reader.”

It was the state that later executed Tyndale for his heresies that threatened to undermine its authority (the Church only disciplined Tyndale by publicly removing his priestly clothing). Heresy was considered a crime against the public order, which led to executions of both Protestants and Catholics throughout the Reformation. Matthew A.C. Newsome informs us:

Ultimately, it was the secular authorities that proved to be the end for Tyndale. He was arrested and tried (and sentenced to die) in the court of the Holy Roman Emperor in 1536. His translation of the Bible was heretical because it contained heretical ideas—not because the act of translation was heretical in and of itself. In fact, the Catholic Church would produce a translation of the Bible into English a few years later (the Douay-Reims version, whose New Testament was released in 1582 and whose Old Testament was released in 1609).

There’s more I could say about the interview, including MacArthur’s oversimplification of the relationship between the growth of industry in Protestant and Catholic countries, but MacArthur’s answer to Shapiro about the value of the Enlightenment was basically that a personal relationship with God is the ideal that mankind should aim for, and this ideal was lost early in the history of the Catholic Church, briefly recaptured during the Reformation, and lost again during the Enlightenment.

But it’s a complete falsehood that Christians had no “personal relationship with God” until the Reformation. Has MacArthur not read Augustine’s Confessions? The intimate writings of the mystics? MacArthur is right about the importance of having a personal relationship with God but mistaken in thinking that this is mutually exclusive with the sacraments and an institutional Church.

He’s also mistaken in thinking that a personal relationship, by itself, guarantees a Christian’s salvation. A person could earnestly claim to have a relationship with God derived from personal Bible study, but radically misunderstand either God’s nature (such as Mormons who deny the Trinity), the way he bestows of grace (such as Protestants like MacArthur who reject infant baptism), and God’s moral demands (such as Christians who believe abortion and homosexual acts are not sinful).

The Bible even says that there are passages in it that are confusing, passages that people twist to their own destruction (2 Pet. 3:16), so it makes sense that God would give us a “pillar and foundation of truth,” the Church, to guide us through Scripture and lead us more deeply into a personal relationship with him.

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