When Did the Early Church Lose its Way?

When Did the Early Church Lose its Way? June 3, 2015

Photo Credit: drufisher.
Photo Credit: drufisher.

As an Evangelical Protestant convert to Catholicism one of the most common objections I hear to the Catholic Church is an earnest one,

“The Church lost its way when it began to add stuff.”

The line of thinking runs like this:

Somewhere along the way, usually in the very early centuries, the Church got confused. They fell into a Old Testament legalistic tangle, they began to venerate the saints and Mary, and they effectively Romanized, becoming unrecognizable as the Church of the New Testament.

The Catholic Church, as we know it today, is therefore a descendent of a church which became “lost” from the original Church that Jesus founded. That Church, the Church of Jesus was, in some way, reset and rebuilt by the Reformation which jettisoned all the built-up exclusively Catholic stuff.

It’s one of the most common objections I hear, and like I said, it’s a truly honest one.

But at the same time, it’s a truly confusing perspective. I, as a devout Evangelical, wrestled with this same question. I had these exact same concerns. I laboured for years under the notion that, indeed, the Catholic Church had “added” onto the simple Gospel of Christ and therefore rejected the Catholic Church.

I hope, as succinctly as possible, to provide a different perspective for my Evangelical friends. I do. Because I love you, and I pray you’d consider another point of view, one which I’ve found to be far more compelling biblically, historically, and intellectually.


Jesus Founded a Church, Was it Overcome?

Jesus’s words in Matthew 16:18 could not be clearer,

“I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.”

Jesus was founding a Church. Jesus tells us that the “gates of Hades” will never overpower His Church.

If the Church somehow lost its way, and somehow began to add stuff as early as the first few centuries after Jesus’s death than Jesus must’ve been a liar.

How could the Church be overcome so quickly?

Remarkably, this was never the argument of the Reformers, or even of any of the early schismatics who were excommunicated by the Church for teaching heresies. Heresies like the Eucharist not being the genuine blood and body of Jesus Christ. While the Reformers certainly argued that the Church had failed to truly understand the Bible, they never argued that it had lost its way as early as the first few centuries—that Jesus’s Church had been overcome so quickly.

Incredibly, if the Early Church lost it’s way within the first few centuries this must mean that Jesus was wrong or lied or wasn’t who He said He was after all because His promise was explicitly clear.


Rejecting the Tradition but Keeping the Bible

I’ve shared this paraphrase of the incredible G.K. Chesterton by his biographer Dale Ahlquist elsewhere but it’s significance for our present purpose cannot be ignored,

“Chesterton says he can understand someone looking at a Catholic procession, at the candles and the incense and the priests and the robes and the cross and the scrolls, and saying “It’s all bosh.” But what he cannot understand is anyone saying, “It’s all bosh — except for the scrolls. We’re going to keep the scrolls. In fact, we’re even going to use the scrolls against the rest.”

An objection which says that the Early Church lost it’s way, quite early on, not only negates the promise which Jesus made to His Church (never to perish) but also resists logic.

While the apostles began writing down the teachings of Jesus, and writing to each other and their communities, as early as about 33AD, the authoritative canon of the New Testament wasn’t settled until the 300’s.

That means, for some 300 years following Jesus’s death and the beginning of the Church Christians didn’t have Scripture to fact check their beliefs against. While we certainly know that they had access to various documents and it was, indeed, the affirmation of those reading these documents which helped lend credibility to them, their primary mode of passing on their faith and their beliefs was through tradition.

Jesus didn’t leave us any written record, and in those early days the faith was passed on from generation to generation by tradition.

There’s no way around that.

And by the time the biblical canon was settled it was settled by a decidedly Catholic Church. A Church which had “added” all sorts of elements like a Mass which looks strikingly similar to the one celebrated today, a robust understanding of the Eucharist as the blood and body of Jesus, a laudable tradition of the veneration of the saints and the Blessed Virgin Mary, prayers for the dead, and an understanding of the necessity of baptism for salvation.

In fact it was Augustine, a Catholic bishop who espousing fully Catholic theology and doctrine, in whom we find the first complete list of what would later become the biblical canon.

As G.K. Chesterton argues, it’s completely illogical to argue in favour of taking the Bible (which the Catholic Church affirmed) while rejecting the rest.

If the Early Church lost its way then it lost its way; we cannot pick and choose.


The Reformation Didn’t Jettison the Catholic Bits

Finally, an argument that says the Early Church lost its way not only needs to sideline the promise made by Jesus, and confusingly step around all the other stuff which the Church affirmed alongside the Bible, but it needs to come to terms with the reality of the Reformation.

And it can be a confusing one.

I’d understood, and argued myself, that the Reformation put the Christian Church back on its proper footing. Lots have argued this before me, and lots will argue this after me. There’s nothing new under the sun, but this argue fails to actually appreciate or understand the Reformation in its right context.

The Early Reformers did not see themselves as resetting the Church back to a time before it became burdened with all the “Catholic” trappings.

Huldrych Zwingli, who went the furthest in his rejection of what Evangelicals may see as Catholic add-ons was extreme, to say the least, and was persecuted not only by Catholics but chiefly by other Reformed Christians for his extremism. But even Zwingli didn’t see himself as setting the Church back on a path which it had strayed from over a 1,000 years prior, Zwingli’s doctrine flatly rejected what the Church had believed from the beginning, and revived what were—perhaps unknowing to him—ancient heresies which the Church had dealt with in the very early years.

For their parts, Calvin and Luther never called for a wholesale discarding of the bits which we might call “Catholic” either. Look, for example, at a modern day Lutheran worship service and I can point out to you how very similar in all ways it is to a Catholic Mass.

Likewise, far from prying the Gospel from a Catholic Church which had become overly politcized, all the Early Reformers themselves were actually attempting, according to historical record, to have their various interpretations of Scripture validated by none other than the secular princes and rulers of Europe.

While, indeed, the Catholic Church was in many ways a political organism it’s easy to look back in hindsight, with our very different-colour spectacles, and see all the faults. A better perspective, admittedly, requires a little legwork (and a bit of reading) but provides a far more complete picture. Yes, the Catholic Church was political, it was the largest institution in the European world, but the Reformers didn’t laudably free the Gospel from the clutches of politics—they proffered the secular princes with another way of seeing it.

Paul says it best in Galatians,

As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed!

Remember, the gospel of the Reformers was a gospel contrary to what had been received for the prior 1,500 years. Incredibly, if one counts the Church as having become “lost” and the Reformers as having “found” it again, one must make a wholly shocking claim about the salvation of those faithful Christians that lived and worshipped in the interim thousand and a half years—were they somehow saved within the lost Church?

Was that God’s plan?


A Different Narrative Instead

In the end, there are all sorts of ways to object to the Catholic Church. I’ve heard many of them, and I’ve made many more myself. But, ultimately, I’ve found, many stem simply from a misunderstanding of either what the Catholic Church stands for, and teaches, or a misunderstanding of our shared Christian history.

I’ve been there, and it’s with nothing but love that I offer this alternative narrative.

If the Early Church went wrong then when? And how does this jive with Jesus’s clear and unmistakable words as Matthew records them?

If the Early Church added on all sorts of unnecessary bits, if they fallaciously fell into Old Testament legalism and idolatry then how can we accept a Bible from the very same bishops? And Pope?

And if the Reformation really set right the Church and jettisoned the unfortunate add-ons then what about the salvation of all those Christians in the prior 1,500 years? And what about the fact that none of the Reformers actually saw themselves as performing that supposed mission? And the fact that their teachings were remarkably tainted with the Catholic bits?

I submit, instead, that the Church did not lose its way. While its denizens haven’t been perfect, while the Reformation was a good thing and that the Church had to reform (it did, with the Catholic Counter-Reformation), I would argue that Jesus didn’t break His promise. The Church didn’t lose its way. And all that Catholic stuff is beautiful, incredible, and based on the Sacred Tradition (which includes the Bible) passed down from Christ, to His apostles, to His Church.

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