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The Dogs That Didn’t Bark

Wouldn't the early Christians have raised the alarm if they had seen a great apostacy going down, as Protestants believe it did? Their silence speaks volumes.

Investigating the theft of a racehorse in a story titled “Silver Blaze,” the famous fictional detective Sherlock Holmes notes “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.” When a Scotland Yard detective protests “the dog did nothing in the night-time,” Holmes responds, “That was the curious incident.”

“A dog was kept in the stables,” Holmes explains after he has solved the mystery, “and yet, though someone had been in and had fetched out a horse, he had not barked enough to arouse the two lads in the loft. Obviously, the midnight visitor was someone whom the dog knew well.” In other words, there are times when the lack of a response is telling.

Thus, one way we can tell that the early Church was Catholic is because of the dogs that didn’t bark.

Imagine that Protestantism is true and that the apostles taught some form of what we now call Protestantism to their followers: that baptism and the Eucharist are mere symbols, that being “born again” is a matter of a personal commitment to Christ rather than anything to do with baptism, that churches should be governed by elders and not a single bishop, and so on. In that world, we would see two things.

First, we would see the early Christians saying things that can’t be harmonized with Catholicism. After all, listen to a Protestant preacher discuss baptism or the Eucharist, and likely it won’t be long before he says something with which Catholics can’t agree. Yet when we read the writings of the early Christians, there’s nothing distinctly Protestant in these areas. That dog doesn’t bark.

There’s a second dog we should find barking. Prominent Christians at the beginning of the history of the Church were saying things that are explicitly Catholic. If this had been a departure from what the apostles had so recently taught, surely there would have been an outcry.

Some Protestant theologians have tried to explain away the silent dogs of the early Church. The nineteenth-century Scottish theologian William Cunningham argues that it’s “by no means certain that important changes of doctrine may not have taken place in what is called the early Church without our having any very specific evidence regarding them” (Historical Theology, vol. 1, 2nd ed. [Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1864], 177). Put plainly, he is suggesting that almost immediately the Church fell into heresy, but we don’t have evidence of this because it happened secretly.

How does Cunningham defend such a theory? First, he says

“the history of the Church abundantly confirms what the Scripture gives us reason to expect, viz., that error and heresies may creep in privily—the enemy sowing the tares while men are sleeping.”

That’s a reference to Christ’s parable of the weeds among the wheat. But in that parable, the weeds didn’t replace the wheat. The enemy introduces weeds, but the wheat still “came up and bore grain” (Matt. 13:26).

Nor are the good ones silent when they see the weeds: “The servants of the householder came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then has it weeds?’” (v. 27). If anything, the parable proves the opposite of the analogy Cunningham wants to draw: good Christians wouldn’t allow the devil to overcome the Church with heresy without speaking out!

Cunningham’s second argument is historical:

“The history of the Church fully proves, moreover, that very considerable changes may be effected in the prevalent opinions of a church or nation, and of course of many churches or nations, in a comparatively short period of time; and without, perhaps, our being able to trace them to any very definite or palpable cause” (Ibid.).

Cunningham offers no evidence of churches or nations that changed rapidly without leaving a trail of historical evidence. To be sure, there are plenty of times in which a church or nation radically changes, but where are the times where a radical change happened quickly and quietly?

In any case, the question isn’t whether we can trace the changes in the Church to some “very definite or palpable cause”; it’s whether we can prove that any change occurred. The problem isn’t that Protestants don’t know exactly why the early Christians jettisoned their twofold Church structure for a threefold structure with bishops. It’s that they can’t point to any clear evidence that this ever happened in the first place.

What Cunningham shows us is that there’s a serious evidentiary problem for Protestantism: where were the early Christians saying distinctly Protestant things? And where were the early Christians protesting the distinctly Catholic things that Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and the rest were saying?

Are we superior to the early Christians?

But if the early Church was the Catholic Church, why can’t we say that Christians just lost their way early on? Many Mormon and Protestant theologians make this argument.

In Mormon theology, this idea is expressed in terms of an apostasy that followed the death of the apostles:

Following the death of Jesus Christ, wicked people persecuted and killed many Church members. Other Church members drifted from the principles that Jesus and his apostles taught. The apostles were killed, and priesthood authority—including the keys to direct and receive revelation for the Church—was taken from the Earth, and error crept into Church teachings. Much truth remained, but the gospel that Jesus Christ established was lost. This period is called the Great Apostasy (The Restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ [Salt Lake City: Intellectual Reserve, 2008], 8).

But in 1820, “Father in heaven again chose a prophet to restore the gospel and the priesthood to the earth. That prophet’s name was Joseph Smith” (Ibid., 11).

One problem with this story is that it’s really two stories that don’t jibe. The first story is of the early Church 2,000 years ago. As Scripture says, Jesus built the Church “upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord” (Eph. 2:20–21). But according to Mormons, the followers of Jesus quickly lost the structure of the Church that he intended, and each generation drifted farther from the fullness of the gospel. This story, in other words, is a tragedy.

But then there’s a second story, a story beginning in 1820, in which God, through Joseph Smith, restores “the complete gospel” (Ibid.). If the second story were like the first story, then Joseph Smith’s followers would have quickly corrupted his teachings, and the priesthood would be lost again. But the second story isn’t a tragedy: it’s about how the gospel and the Church were restored and stayed that way from one generation to the next.

It’s not clear how these two stories can be reconciled. Is Joseph Smith superior to Jesus? Were his followers better than the apostles and their successors? Were nineteenth-century Mormons holier than the early Christian martyrs? If none of those things are true, then why would a Church started by Jesus quickly fail but a church restarted by Smith endure forever?

My point here isn’t about Mormonism exclusively. Many Protestants, including theologians and Church historians, settle for a version of Church history that sounds more like Mormonism than Christianity. The seventeenth-century Protestant preacher Jean Daillé wrote a book on how to approach the “Church Fathers” in deciding religious controversies. In it, he argues:

Now according to this hypothesis, which, as I conceive, is equally common to all Protestants, the doctrine of the Church must necessarily have suffered some alteration in the second age of Christianity, by admitting the mixture of some new matter into its faith and discipline: and so likewise in the third age some other corruption must necessarily have crept in: and so in the fourth, fifth, and the rest that follow; the Christian religion continually losing something of its original purity and simplicity, and on the other side still contracting all along some new impurities, till at length it came to the highest degree of corruption (A Treatise on the Right Use of the Fathers in the Decision of Controversies Existing at this Day in Religion, 2nd ed., trans. T. Smith, ed. G. Jekyll [London: Henry G. Bohn, 1843], 294–295).

In other words, the standard Protestant narrative (as Daillé expressed it) is basically the same as the first of the two Mormon stories: Jesus established the Church, but it fell apart almost immediately. What’s more, this theological erosion “must necessarily” have occurred, because the second generation of Christians simply could not be counted on to faithfully preserve what their parents taught them, even though the disciples themselves had taught their parents.

This story also is a tragedy, and its logical conclusion is a complete loss of faith in Christianity. If the second generation of Christians couldn’t figure out the gospel, and the third generation was worse, and Daillé is writing some 1,600 years after that, what hope could he (or we) possibly have of knowing what Christ really taught?

Religion straight out of the book

But Daillé has a second story, beginning with the Reformation, in which Protestants “have now at last, by the guidance of the Scriptures,” restored the Church “to the self-same state wherein it was at the beginning; and have, as it were, fixed again upon its true and proper hinge” (Daillé, 295). For some reason, it’s not the case that the second generation of Protestants “must necessarily” have fallen farther from the truth than the original Reformers in the same way that the second generation of Christians allegedly fell from the truth of Christ.

Daillé explains that this is because, unlike early Christianity, Protestant “doctrine is the very same that was in the time of the apostles, as being taken immediately out of their books” (Ibid.). By this reasoning, all that the Christians of the second century needed to avoid the “progress of corruption” was to ignore what they had learned from their elders (those who had learned from the apostles in person) and rely only upon the information that could be found in books.

Of course, Protestantism isn’t really “taken immediately out of” the Bible, which is why serious Protestants read biblical commentaries and works of spirituality and theology and try to educate themselves beyond their own best guesses about what the biblical texts mean. In what other areas of life does expertise come only from reading a book and not listening to experts in the field? Imagine a constitutional lawyer who decided to skip law school because he could read the Constitution on his own, or a Shakespeare scholar who refused to read any prior scholarship.

Why did it take Christians 1,500 years to realize this? Moreover, if what Daillé calls the “pure and simple doctrine of the apostles” was immediately obvious from the biblical texts, how did anyone—let alone everyone—fall into doctrinal error in the first place? Why didn’t the first generation of Christians simply say, “Everything you need to know is in the text, so don’t worry about Tradition”?

Daillé’s description of Scripture contrasts starkly with the Bible’s description of Scripture. In Acts 8, the Holy Spirit inspires St. Philip (one of the first deacons) to approach a man reading the book of Isaiah and ask, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The man replies, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” and he invites Philip to sit with him in his chariot (vv. 26-31).

By Daillé’s reasoning, the man instead should have objected that getting Christianity from Philip (who got it from the apostles, who got it from Christ) was a clear example of “the progress of corruption in religion,” and that he would instead just get his beliefs “immediately” from the book (in this case, Isaiah). But the man in Acts 8 saw what Daillé failed to see: how can we hope to arrive at an orthodox interpretation of Scripture unless someone knowledgeable guides us?

Daillé is not alone in imagining that modern Protestants understand Christianity better than the early Christians did. John Piper argues that “we are in a better position today to know Jesus Christ than anyone who lived from A.D. 100 to 300. They had only parts of the New Testament rather than the collected whole” (“Don’t Equate Historically Early with Theologically Accurate,” Desiring God, Jan. 19, 2011, available at Piper singles out A.D. 100 as “a precarious and embattled time” since the apostle John died that year, meaning that “the churches had neither the collected New Testament nor a living apostle.”

By Piper’s reasoning, we are better able to understand John’s Gospel now, reading it (almost always in translation) more than 1,900 years later, than did the first recipients of the Gospel, who knew and walked with the man who wrote it, whom he personally taught for years, and who had the ability to ask him questions when they were confused about the meaning of something he said or wrote. This is a bit like insisting that we know more about Paris than Parisians because we’ve read a travel guide.

Another trilemma

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis proposed his famous trilemma that if one took Christ at his word, he was either a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord. When someone proposes that the earliest Christians weren’t Catholics, it presents another trilemma of sorts.

First, we could conclude that the early Christians were duped into thinking false things about Christianity. It’s difficult to see how anyone can settle for this theory, because the timeline is just too short. I might fool someone about ancient history, but I’d have a harder time fooling people about the teachings of the apostles when the apostles or their students lived among them.

Second, we could conclude that they were themselves deceivers, knowingly peddling a false version of Christianity and lying by claiming that they had received this from the apostles. It’s hard, though, to square this cynical view of the early Christians with the faithfully selfless lives we know they led.

(It’s worth recognizing that if we opt for either of these first two approaches, we can hardly have confidence in the Bible. For how can we trust a bunch of dupes or liars when they tell us they’re accurately preserving the writings of the apostles? Moreover, our trust in the Holy Spirit is based in no small part upon what we read in the same Scripture whose reliability is now in question. And so, concluding that the early Christians are untrustworthy is even worse for Protestantism than assuming they’re trustworthy.)

That leaves us with a third option: that the early Christians, for all their individual faults, were faithful disciples. They listened attentively to what the apostles taught, they lived by those teachings, and they defended those teachings, no matter the price. And what it looks like to live out what the apostles taught is simply the Catholic Church.


Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

Some Protestants grasp that not only did these first generations of Christians prove their fidelity, even to the point of shedding their blood, but they laid the theological foundations upon which all mainstream Christianity is built. We have an orthodox sense of the mystery of the Trinity (three persons in one essence) and of the natures of Jesus (a single divine person with two natures, fully God and fully man) because the early Christians put the pieces together.

In John Piper’s version of history, the New Testament comes along and saves an erring Church. But if the Church was in error, how can we trust the Church that the books really are apostolic? We may see things that they didn’t, but only because we’re perched on their shoulders.

These Protestants understand that those who reject or ignore the theology of the early Church are doomed to (at best) continually reinvent the wheel or (at worst) resurrect old heresies.

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