“History is not a creed or a catechism, it gives lessons rather than rules; still no one can mistake its general teaching in this matter, whether he accept it or stumble at it. Bold outlines and broad masses of color rise out of the records of the past. They may be dim, they may be incomplete; but they are definite. And this one thing at least is certain; whatever history teaches, whatever it omits, whatever it exaggerates or extenuates, whatever it says and unsays, at least the Christianity of history is not Protestantism. If ever there were a safe truth, it is this.”
Quite the bold assertion! And of course the man who made it was none other than the great nineteenth-century Oxford scholar and convert to the Catholic faith, John Henry Newman.
He was also a major influence in my own conversion.
Essentially, he’s the one who got me thinking about history, in particular the history of the Church in its earliest centuries.
Here I was, a typical evangelical Protestant who really hadn’t spent much time wrestling with the question of what Christians believed in the second, third, fourth centuries of the Church’s existence. I was just beginning to look into Catholicism. I’m reading along in Newman’s masterful Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine and I come to the following words:
“To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.”
Well, this guy is certainly throwing down the gauntlet, I thought.
I continued reading and soon came upon an even more pointed statement: “It is easy, Newman said, to “show that the early Church was not Protestant.”
At this point I think I was beginning to respond out loud. “What? Easy to show that the early church was not Protestant? Easy?”
I kept on and came to the most colorful of Newman’s statements along these lines:
This utter incongruity between Protestantism and historical Christianity is a plain fact, whether . . . regarded in its early or in its later centuries. . . . 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.
I had graduated from a well-known Protestant seminary. I had been ordained into the Protestant ministry and was about eight years into my career as a Protestant pastor. And here was one of the most brilliant Christian minds of the nineteenth century telling me that if the kind of church I was leading, in terms of its system of doctrine, had ever existed in the earliest centuries of Christianity, it has disappeared from the historical record, leaving no trace.
Newman’s challenge was too direct, too devastating, if true. I simply had to investigate.
The question of history
Now, as a Protestant, sola scriptura was the very foundation of my worldview.
I took inspired Scripture alone to be “authoritative.” The opinions of Bible scholars and theologians and Christian authors, even the solemn formulations of Church councils, creeds and denominational statements of faith—these functioned for me as guides and counselors. I respected them. But none of them possessed “authority” in the sense that I would accept their rulings as true and bow to them.
No. When it came to what I should believe and hold as true with respect to Christian doctrine and moral teaching, as far as I was concerned the quest for truth amounted to the quest to rightly interpret Scripture and organize its teaching into a coherent and consistent biblical worldview.
And with this essential view of things, I wasn’t all that terribly interested in what the Church of the second, third, fourth and fifth centuries believed.
Men like Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus—I was familiar with their names. I knew they were heroes of the Faith, many of them martyrs. But what they believed? I didn’t think of it as something that would necessarily cast much light on the issues of New Testament interpretation.
After all, if they agreed with what I took to be the most accurate reading of Scripture, I would say they were wise faithful interpreters of God’s word. If they disagreed, I would say they had drifted from the truth. I knew for sure that by the time of the emperor Constantine in the fourth century Christianity had pretty much twisted itself into the strange shape we call the Catholic religion. So why should I trust anything said between the time of the apostles and the time of Constantine?
My working assumption was that the teaching of the apostles had become corrupted almost immediately and therefore that the beliefs and practices of Christians in the early centuries didn’t necessarily tell us what the apostles actually taught, or what their disciples—the first Christians—believed.
Newman challenged that basic assumption.
He argued that it’s more natural to think that “the society of Christians which the apostles left on earth were of that religion to which the apostles converted them.” Sure, individual believers and local congregations might wander off in any and all directions. But if we look at the Christianity of the late-first, second and third centuries, spread throughout the then known world, and we can see the shape of a basic shared theology; if, as Newman said, “bold outlines and broad masses of color rise out of the records of the past” to paint a picture that is “definite,” however incomplete—wouldn’t that mean something?
At minimum, what Newman was saying is that the burden of proof should be on the one who says the Christian religion we see in those centuries closest to the apostolic age is not the Christian religion taught by the apostles: that the Church we see teaching and ruling during that time is not the Church founded by Christ and his apostles, but some deformed version of the original.
I believed Newman had a point—at least enough of a point that I should read the Church Fathers and see what I could see. And this is what I set out to do. After all, having watched a good deal of television growing up in the ’60s, I had an intuitive sense that Fathers might “know best.”
I began to read the post-apostolic writings. I wanted to hear what those closest to the apostles had to say. In particular, I wanted to hear what they had to say about the issue of authority. I wanted to know: was sola scriptura the faith and practice of the Early Church?
Argument No. 1
In our next two installments I’m going to present the results of my reading of the Church Fathers. What I want to do in the remainder of this post is tie things back into what we’ve already seen in our thinking through the witness of the New Testament (see previous four posts). You see . . .
The first argument I would make that sola scriptura was not in the minds of those Christians living immediately after the time of the apostles is the simple fact that not one of the New Testament writers gives us any hint that it would be.
When you think about it, what Protestantism essentially holds is that the Church Jesus established and that we see functioning in the New Testament is in a fundamental way not the Church our Lord intended to exist through the ages and until his return. After all, when we look at the Church we see “in action” in the New Testament, we see that authority resided (a) in Scripture, (b) in the oral teaching of the apostles, and (c) in the ability of the Church to meet in council as it did in Acts 15 to settle theological disputes and issue authoritative decrees.
Protestants don’t dispute this. What they say is that with the death of the apostles, all this changed and “authority” came to reside in Scripture alone.
In other words, what Protestantism essentially says is that on the most fundamental issue of all—the issue of where authority lies in the Church—a massive change occurred with the death of the apostles.
And yet (as we’ve already seen) there is not a hint in the writings of the New Testament that such a profound change would be coming. We don’t find the apostles talking about it. We don’t find them preparing the Church for it. Nowhere, for instance, are the churches told that once the apostles die, it’s going to be Scripture alone. Nowhere are believers informed that the Church will no longer have the ability by the Spirit to do what it did in Acts 15, that there will be no more decrees for Christians to receive with joy.
Nowhere does the New Testament say that the writings of the apostles will become the sole infallible rule of faith and practice for each individual believer and that, for all practical purposes, every Christian will become “for himself pope and church.” Nowhere is there a hint that from the time of the apostles on, every believer will believe what he or she sees to be the teaching of Scripture.
On the contrary, we see St. Paul commanding the believers to “stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thess. 2:15). We see him instructing Timothy, his spiritual son and successor in the ministry, to take the things he has “heard” Paul teach and “guard” them “by the Holy Spirit” so that Timothy can “entrust” them to other faithful men who will do what he has done (2 Timothy 1:13,14; 2:1).
The emphasis in the New Testament is on the Faith being preserved by the Holy Spirit in the Church through something akin to apostolic succession.
Here, then, is one reason I came to believe that sola scriptura was not in the minds of Christians living just after the apostles and that it was not the historic faith of the Church. In the next installment we’ll focus on two more.