Friday, September 02, 2022

Too Hot to Handle: Off the Rails or On Track?

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

A convert to Catholicism asks the question “When did the Church go off the rails?” His answer, rather unsurprisingly, is that it didn’t.

Tom: But he brings up an interesting point, Immanuel Can, and that is that if we look at the writings of the church fathers prior to the point at which the canon of scripture was finally fixed in the late fourth century, we find that the seeds of what Protestants consider major error were already planted in the church; things like papal authority, apostolic succession, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, holy tradition, faith and works, the intercession of saints and the doctrine of purgatory.

He sums it up this way:

“The point is that wherever the Protestant wants to settle as the point of departure from the true faith, there is ample demonstration that before that time the Church was Catholic and held the Catholic doctrines that so many Protestants cannot abide.”

I’m wondering what you think of that line of argument.

Some Interesting Admissions

Immanuel Can: He starts with some interesting admissions, doesn’t he? He says “we can safely say that the first Christians were on track”, or again, “at least while the Scripture was being written, the faith was alive and the true faith”. Let’s grant him that.

Tom: Agreed.

IC: Then he points out that either in going to Sola Scriptura (i.e. only the scriptures), the Reformers were wrong, or the Catholics were wrong. Check. However, having granted the period of the formation of the scriptures, he then goes on to argue that “traditions” rather than scripture is how Christianity was passed down, and thus that the Reformers were wrong to have committed themselves to the only documentary source created when “the faith was alive and the true faith”.

Church and Churches

Tom: Right. And that’s a good point. There might be several lines of argument that come out of this. The one that jumped out of me is his view of “the Church”, as opposed to “the churches”.

IC: Ah, yes, that’s good. Yes, he wants to say that there is but one Church (the universal one, which is what the term “Catholic” claims), and ignores the concept of a multiplicity of local churches, which the scriptures affirm. And he is very sold on the old “continuity” argument — an argument which, I think, holds no water at all.

Tom: Yes. If we’re going to discuss anything about the Church (which I will capitalize when referring to the Church Universal to avoid confusion), we need to do so from the perspective of the Head of the Church. And I think we get that perspective in Revelation 2 and 3 in the letters to the seven churches (plural, I note). In those letters, we find the Church viewed and addressed only at the local level. There is no means of directly addressing the Church Universal that I’m aware of. So the article we’re referencing goes on to talk a lot about “Authority” and labels Protestants “rebels” against the supposed authority of “the Church”, but nowhere does he stop to demonstrate that anything larger than a local church actually possesses divine authority.

Churches off the Rails

IC: That also brings under serious criticism his suggestion that we don’t know when the churches started to stray from the “on track” phase: by the time of Revelation, the churches were already struggling — with mixed success — with their faithfulness to the patterns and behaviors mandated by Christ and supported by the apostles. Sin has always been a problem, even in the churches. But there’s no evidence of a mandated system of uniformity among them: they struggled with different problems in each case.

Tom: So if I can break the problem down so far, our Catholic friend has asked “When did the Church go off the rails?” and we find ourselves differing with him on the meaning of “Church” and the meaning of “going off the rails”. It does make for a bit of a problem establishing any sort of meaningful dialogue, doesn’t it?

But you’re right, local churches have been “off the rails” in various ways since the very beginning. Not all of them, and never in precisely the same ways, and usually some more than others, but all a little … off. And this, I might add, BEFORE the canon of scripture was completed, because we find them going off within the canon itself.

Institutionalism and Error

And I’ll give our Catholic friend this: Institutional Protestantism has shown itself capable of going off the rails doctrinally just as frequently as Institutional Catholicism. We can argue about severity of error, sure, but if scripture is the gold standard (and it is), it is hard to make a persuasive argument that modern Institutional Protestantism is less inclined than modern Catholicism to misinterpret scripture, use it to advance an agenda, or abandon it.

In fact, while all churches are subject to error in faith and practice, it’s groups of institutional churches that hard-code their errors into their own DNA in perpetuity, whereas individual local fellowships that err either eventually recover the truth or simply die off.

IC: Quite so. But this touches on a common misconception: the belief that Christianity can be institutionalized. That is, that rather than being personally devoted to scripture and to truth, and rather than cultivating a personal relationship with the Lord, people can simply join an institution and trust it to carry them along.

Any belief that sees relationship with God as a matter of “getting on a corporate bus” is bound to find that the bus is in the ditch very shortly, with passengers aboard. That’s as true for Protestants as for Catholics. And it’s abundantly attested by history.

The Historical Existence or Non-Existence of Doctrines

Tom: Indeed. Now our anonymous Catholic friend points out that “the doctrines of Sola Fide and Sola Scriptura did not exist before the Reformation” and again, it’s his erroneous concept of the Church as institution that leads him to that conclusion. Sure, those doctrines did not exist with those particular Latin names, I’ll certainly give him that. They may not even have existed as systematic theological conclusions written down and widely disseminated by church fathers. But since these doctrines are found in the New Testament and derive from apostolic teaching, their substance is by definition orthodox Christianity. And if the Church, as seen by its heavenly Head, consists of thousands of autonomous local churches all individually responsible to Christ — if it is “cellular” or “modular” in nature rather than institutional and monolithic — then how can anyone say which doctrines did or did not exist at any particular time in history?

In short, if the five Solas were not embraced within Institutional Catholicism, that doesn’t tell us the first thing about the extent to which they were known and appreciated in individual local churches all throughout Church history. Luther merely rediscovered a whole lot of existing biblical truth. He did not invent it.

IC: Agreed, absolutely. And this touches back to why I think the continuity argument is nonsense. For one thing, it’s not historically supportable; but even if it were, it would tell us nothing. Continuity can be good or bad. If I start out sober and “continue” into an alcoholic stupor, there’s continuity, but without merit.

But I think what he wants to say is that IF Reformation theology is not continuous with the pronouncements of the Catholic organization, then it’s suspect. And that’s just unreasonable, given, as you say, the clear teaching of scripture, from which it IS continuous ... and is the “tradition” he himself admits is original.

Off the Rails Just Out of the Station

Tom: The other thing he doesn’t mention at all is the East-West Schism in which the Eastern Orthodox churches and Catholicism parted ways. Even before they divided in 1054, there were significant ecclesiastical and theological differences going back centuries. It’s not as if the Reformation was the first time there’s been a significant secession from Catholicism.

That’s not to trash Catholics specifically, but merely to point out that every church and every denominational group of churches in every century has come “off the rails” over one issue or another. And this was not unanticipated by the Lord when he speaks to the angels of the seven churches. He makes it clear that this sort of thing was very much to be expected.

Getting Back on Track

IC: Okay, then … if EVERY church can be expected to be in danger — at least sometimes — of “going off the rails”, how can we find the rails to get back on them? What’s our principle, Tom? Tradition? In that case, it just means the error that people have been in previously. Authority? That just means the guy who has been sponsoring the error. So how do we get back on track?

Tom: Well, this is the safeguard the Lord has built into a “cellular” or “modular” church, rather than an institutional one: in any generation, if a local church commits itself to the word of God and determines, under the direction of the Head of the Church, to follow it as their sole source of instruction in faith and practice, they can get right back where they should be. There’s no head office to call up and say, “Hey, what are you people doing over there?” There’s no authority outside of the authority of Christ.

Now admittedly that can be difficult to do in practice, because you’ll always have people in any given location who are determined to do things the way the previous generation did them no matter what. But it’s that commitment to the headship of Christ and the word of God that makes course correction even a possibility.

For an institutional church, though, there is next to no possibility of changing course. The sheer size and weight of it, and the number of unbelievers and entryists involved — not to mention the dollars and cents involved in any large scale church enterprise — make such a thing unfeasible. You can change the minds of thirty or fifty people, but rarely thousands.

IC: So, once again, there’s no substitute for the personal devotion of the individual believers in the local assembly … not corporatism, clergy or creed … just the word of God, plus personal obedience.

I can buy that. Anything else, Tom?

The Seat of Moses

Tom: Well, our Catholic friend has one final point to make. He references the Lord’s words in Matthew:

“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do.”

It seems to me he’s trying to draw some sort of equivalency between Jews under Judaism before the death of Christ and Christians allegedly under the “authority” of Catholicism. What do you think of that?

IC: Actually, maybe that’s a topic for another day: how far we ought to obey authority.

Tom: True, but my point would be that there IS no authority over Christians vested in Catholicism. That belief turns on a misreading of the “keys to the kingdom” verse, on the myth of papal authority and succession, and so on, none of which have any sort of solid basis in scripture. There’s no equivalency to the “seat of Moses” in that.

Scribes and Pharisees

IC: Heh. Well, that went fast. It amused me to see the author compare the Catholic hierarchy to the Pharisees, whom Jesus called “hypocrites” who “shut people out of heaven” and are “sons of hell”. Given the comparison he draws, I would say the author is accidentally quite hard on his own leaders. But hey, who am I to contradict him? I suppose he knows them better than I do.

In political matters, such as paying taxes or following civic laws, we obey the “governing authorities”, but in theological matters, especially matters of salvation, it’s clear that we “must obey God rather than men” — and Peter’s the one who’s talking about the highest Jewish religious authorities there. That’s a pretty clear and scriptural distinction, I think. So the author’s got no case, and makes an unfavorable comparison to boot.

Still, maybe at some time in the future we ought to talk about the Christian responsibility to unprincipled authority.

Tom: Deal.


  1. This is instructive. A letter from the first Church fathers to the Roman emperor (138-161 AD)

    The First Apology


    Chapter 1. Address
    To the Emperor Titus Ælius Adrianus Antoninus Pius Augustus Cæsar, and to his son Verissimus the Philosopher, and to Lucius the Philosopher, the natural son of Cæsar, and the adopted son of Pius, a lover of learning, and to the sacred Senate, with the whole People of the Romans, I, Justin, the son of Priscus and grandson of Bacchius, natives of Flavia Neapolis in Palestine, present this address and petition in behalf of those of all nations who are unjustly hated and wantonly abused, myself being one of them.
    Chapter 4. Christians unjustly condemned for their mere name
    Chapter 8. Christians confess their faith in God
    Chapter 65. Administration of the sacraments
    Chapter 66. Of the Eucharist
    And this food is called among us Εὐχαριστία [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, This do in remembrance of Me, Luke 22:19 this is My body; and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, This is My blood; and gave it to them alone. Which the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water are placed with certain incantations in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated, you either know or can learn.
    Chapter 68. Conclusion

  2. It seems the link to the letter got lost from my previous append. Here it is.