Golly, what a completely novel idea. Who’da thunk a Protestant would claim–for the thirty thousandth time–that everybody before him (especially those EEEEEEVIL papists) was wrong and part of an Evil Conspiracy and he is the very first person in history to discover the TRVTH! There’s even a “once the Jews get *our* vision of gnosticism, they will totally all convert” thing that ended up rather disappointing Luther.
This is what I’m talking about when I speak of Fundamentalism’s peculiar Darwinian vibe. It’s a rehash of the beloved “Hidden Church/Trail of Blood” narrative.
I discuss this beloved Fundamentalist and Evangelical narrative in Mary, Mother of the Son:
On the one hand, we have this portrait of a conservative early Church whose Tradition comes from the apostles. On the other hand, the modern Catholic Church appears to Evangelicals (as it long appeared to me) to add novel doctrines to the faith in broad daylight while claiming that they had been there all along. So the exasperated Evangelical naturally cries out, “If these Marian doctrines come from the apostles as you claim, then where the blazes is the Immaculate Conception of Mary in Scripture and why did it not become dogma until 1854?! How come the Assumption isn’t a dogma till 1950 if it’s always been part of apostolic teaching?”
Barking Up the Wrong Tree: False Ideas of Sacred Tradition and the “Hidden Church”
These are, of course, very reasonable questions. And when the Church replies, at the Council of Trent, that Catholic “truth and teaching are contained in written books and in the unwritten traditions the apostles received from Christ himself or that were handed on, as it were from hand to hand, from the apostles under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and so have come down to us”104 this doesn’t seem at first like a very good answer. To Evangelicals, it looks as though the Church is basically saying, “Okay, so the Immaculate Conception isn’t in Scripture. It’s in, uh . . . Tradition! Yeah! That’s the ticket! Tradition! St. Peter and the apostles used to talk about the Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Mary in exactly the same language Catholics do today. But the apostles kept it hushed up among themselves and left it out of the Bible till people were ready to hear it. So these doctrines always have been in Tradition because . . . uh . . . they were passed on at the Double-Secret Tradition-Passing-On Ceremony that all Catholic bishops have to go through in the dungeons beneath the Vatican! Then, when the time was ripe the Church told the rest of the faithful about them.”
In other words, there is a broad assumption among Evangelicals that what Catholics mean by sacred Tradition is a body of revelation that’s secret, separate from, and parallel to Scripture, transmitted from bishop to bishop (“Psst! Mary is Immaculate, Ever-Virgin and Assumed into Heaven, pass it on!”), and then “leaked” into official teaching over the centuries. That is one reason why, not to put too fine a point on it, the Catholic appeal to Tradition smells like a rat to the “Bible-only” nose. Confronted with the baffling discovery of an early Church that looks pretty Catholic and a modern Catholic Church riddled with what appear to be teachings completely disconnected from Scripture, some Evangelicals seize on this misconception of sacred Tradition as the solution to their confusion. To explain the survival of “true Christianity” through the long ages when the Catholic Church was the only game in town, they will often posit a theory of the “hidden, true Church of Bible Christians” that allegedly rejected this false “sacred Tradition” and was, as a result, driven underground by a mass apostasy of proto-Catholics occurring shortly after the apostolic era. Supposedly, this hidden church of underground believers preserved the true biblical gospel through the long night of pre-Reformation error in which the “apostate” proto-Catholics evolved into full-blown Catholics and dominated the written record of Christianity with all those documents filled with sacred Tradition. Meanwhile, according to this theory, the true Bible Christians hid out in the hills or the catacombs as the Catholic Church made war on them. It is, so the theory goes, the documents of the fallen-away apostates we’re reading when we read the works of writers like Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Irenaeus, Polycarp, Hippolytus, Athanasius, Augustine and all the other Fathers who make the early Church look so Catholic. Not until the Reformation was it safe for true Bible Christians to come out of hiding. (For a fairly typical exposition of the “hidden church” theory, see J.M. Carroll, The Trail of Blood (Lexington, Ky.: Ashland Avenue Baptist Church, 1974).
The irony of the “hidden church” theory is that it requires the very idea it tries to refute, namely the absurd belief in a revelation secret, separate from, and parallel to Scripture. For, despite all her faults and failings, we at least know what the supposedly apostate Catholic Church was doing for fifteen centuries before the alleged hidden Christians allegedly emerged from the shadows and declared themselves to be Protestants. In addition to dealing with the inevitable sins of her fallen human members, the Catholic Church was busy defending the integrity of Sacred Scripture from heretics like Marcion; settling questions like “Is God a Trinity?”; withstanding the onslaughts of Islamic jihads and Viking longboats; laying the foundations for the rule of law amidst the chaos of the Dark Ages; converting nation after nation to Christ; integrating Scripture into all her worship and prayer; renewing art, science and philosophy; inspiring saints such as Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Francis of Assisi; building hospitals and universities; and evangelizing the New World. In short, the Catholic Church was working tirelessly to do the things commanded by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Meanwhile, if any church lived a secret, separate, and parallel existence, it’s the supposed “hidden church” which, for fifteen centuries, was so hidden that it did nothing, said nothing, accomplished nothing, and was so invisible that we do not even find a record of opposition to it by the supposedly apostate Catholic Church which allegedly usurped its place the moment the apostle John died. Some advocates of the “hidden church” theory will claim that various early heresies opposed by the Church were actually these hidden Bible Christians. The problem with this claim is that every heretical sect from a.d. 100 to a.d. 1500 teaches things a modern Protestant would not be especially eager to touch with a barge pole, such as the rejection of the Old Testament, the doctrine that the God of Israel is evil, and rejection of the Incarnation.
So if we want to argue that all record of the hidden church was obliterated by sinister Catholics, we’ll have to ignore the mysterious fact that it’s only the hidden church that seems to have been written out of the historical records. All the other groups the Catholic Church opposed (e.g., Gnostics, Arians, Sabellians, Manicheans, Modalists, Paulicians, Bogomils, Albigensians and a host of other movements) show up again and again in the polemical writings of the Church as movements to beware of—and with ample record of what they actually taught. Only the hidden church is completely absent from the historical record. And yet devotees of the “hidden church” theory expect us to think this was the Church whose light so shone that men praised their Father in heaven? This is the city on the hill that cannot be hid? This is the unquenchable fire of the Holy Spirit burning for all the nations to see?It’s pretty obvious then that the “hidden church” theory is neither biblical, nor very good history, nor common sense. Indeed, it looks like nothing so much as the equally illusory cult of the Sacred Feminine that Jesus supposedly bequeathed to Mary Magdalene. Once again, there’s no There there.
So is there another way to account for the apparent contradiction of an extremely Catholic-looking early Church whose Tradition never changes and a modern Catholic Church that seems to have changed a great deal from the early Church?
What Sacred Tradition Really Is
To answer that, we need to first ask, “Is sacred Tradition really a revelation secret, separate from, and parallel to Scripture?” The answer of the Catholic Church is “No. Indeed, it’s precisely this view of Tradition which the Church has always condemned.” That’s because the notion that salvation lies in some secret knowledge given only to the elite is the essence of Gnosticism, not Christianity. And the Catholic Church has always been Gnosticism’s mortal foe. That is why Irenaeus writes the following in the second century:
It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and to demonstrate the succession of these men to our own times; those who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these heretics rave about. For if the apostles had known hidden mysteries, which they were in the habit of imparting to “the perfect” apart and privily from the rest, they would have delivered them expressly to those to whom they were also committing the Churches themselves. For they were desirous that these men should be very perfect and blameless in all things, whom also they were leaving behind as their successors, delivering up their own place of government to these men. . . . (Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, 3, 3, 1.)
Irenaeus firmly commits the idea of “secret revelations” to the realm of heresy, and yet does so in the name of Scripture and sacred Tradition handed down from the apostles. So, if sacred Tradition is not a body of secret revelation, separate from and parallel to Scripture, from which the Church can suddenly produce brand-new dogmas like rabbits from a hat, what is it?
It is the living, growing truth of Christ passed down in the Church in both written and unwritten form in the common doctrine, common life, and common worship of the Church. Vatican II sums up the idea of Tradition by saying, “the Church, in her doctrine, life and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes.”
The common doctrine, life and worship of the Church can be seen in Acts 2:42 when the disciples devote themselves, not only to Bible study, but the fullness of the apostolic Tradition, described by Luke as “the apostles’ teaching and fellowship . . . the breaking of bread and the prayers.” The “apostles’ teaching” is given, as Paul says, both by word of mouth and by letter (2 Thess. 2:15). In its unwritten form Tradition is not secret, separate from, and parallel to Scripture, but common, widely known, derived from the apostles (not from paganism) and—mark this—reflected in Scripture.
The “fellowship” and “the breaking of bread and the prayers” spoken of in Scripture means more than chummy glad-handing and church socials. The early Christians “devoted themselves” to the common life (“fellowship”) and to the common Eucharistic, liturgical worship of the Church (“the breaking of bread and the prayers”)—a life and worship that’s essentially public and communal, not private and esoteric. And just as it is for the Catholic Church today, the common teaching, life and worship of the Church in the New Testament is a living thing—a truth which was planted as a mustard seed in first-century Jerusalem and which has not ceased growing—just as our Lord prophesied in Mark 4:30–32. The mustard plant may not look like its seed anymore, but it is, if anything, more mustardy than ever. Just as every branch and flower shooting out of the plant is in the seed, so every dogmatic development that shoots out of the Church was in the seed of apostolic Tradition handed down to us in written (i.e. Scriptural) and unwritten form.
It’s this relationship between written and unwritten apostolic Tradition that lets the Church know, for example, that while Holy Communion is to be celebrated continually, the washing of feet is not, even though both actions were part of the Last Supper and even though in both cases Jesus commanded his disciples to imitate him. On the basis of the scriptural texts, read alone and without Tradition, we’re powerless to make such a distinction. But since the Church has a common apostolic Tradition about how to read Scripture’s accounts of the Last Supper, the Church was able to make this distinction.
In the same way, both Catholics and Protestants know how to contract a valid marriage, not because Scripture gives us any guidelines on how to do this, but because they’re both the inheritors of sacred Tradition, which guides both groups in such matters. Catholics receive this Tradition from the apostles, preserved by the body of Christ in union with the bishops and Pope in succession from the apostles. Protestants receive pieces of this Tradition as part of the Christian heritage they took with them in the break with the Catholic communion. But in both cases, what we’re looking at is Christians living by and developing sacred Tradition, not the letter of Scripture alone.
Similarly, both Catholics and Evangelicals reject polygamy, despite the fact that (as Martin Luther* and John Milton** both point out) the bare text of Scripture—read apart from sacred Tradition—appears to give us little reason to condemn polygamy and much encouragement in thinking it a good thing. Why do Evangelicals ignore Luther’s and Milton’s very logical arguments? Because, to the Evangelicals’ great credit, in this case they’ve kept a Catholic approach to Scripture and do not rely on the Bible alone. They’ve kept an understanding of marriage derived from sacred Tradition which the Catholic Church preserved and which percolated down to Evangelicals through older Protestant traditions.
Marriage isn’t the only area where Evangelicals benefit from their Catholic heritage. Despite a great deal of fuzziness in Scripture about the precise nature of pre-born human life, both Catholic and common Evangelical teaching unequivocally opposes abortion. Why? Because here again both Catholics and Evangelicals derive their teaching from apostolic Tradition, both written and unwritten. And, of course, Catholics and Evangelicals know what books belong in the New Testament not because the Bible tells them so, but because sacred Tradition does. In short, the reality isn’t that Catholics rely on sacred Tradition and Evangelicals don’t. The reality is that Catholics rely on sacred Tradition and know they do, while Evangelicals rely on sacred Tradition and usually don’t know they do.
*Martin Luther, Letter to Chancellor Briick, January 27, 1524. Cited by Hartmann Grisar, S.J., in Luther, Vol. V, (London: Kegan, Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Ltd., 1916). (Available online at http://www.archive.org/stream/grisarsluther05grisuoft/grisarsluther05grisuoft_djvu.txt as of June 3, 2013). “I, for my part, admit I can raise no objection if a man wishes to take several wives since Holy Scripture does not forbid this.”
**John Milton, “The Christian Doctrine” in John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose, ed. Merrit Y. Hughes (New York: The Odyssey Press, 1957).