Question: Has the church of Our Lord always been “catholic?”
Question: Has the church of Our Lord always been “Catholic?”
Now, don’t accuse me of speaking out of both sides of my mouth. It is a matter of splitting a hair that needs to be split. There is a world of difference between little-‘c’ “catholic” and Big-‘C’ “Catholic.” Allow me to explain.
The word “catholic’ simply means “universal.” Or “worldwide.” The church—the TRUE church—is the joining together of all those who believe in and worship the Lord Jesus Christ and whom He has bought with His blood. Acts 20:28—“Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” It is my intention to show, as faithfully to the truth as possible, that the assertion that “No other churches existed except the Roman Catholic Church until the Reformation” is a false assertion which is based on a faulty knowledge of history.
Let me make one other thing known: it is not my intention to “bash” individual members of the Roman system. I’m sure these people believe with all their heart that Rome is the seat of all power in the church, and that Mary is answering their prayers. Just like Mormons believe the Book of Mormon is from God Himself and that Joseph Smith was His prophet. Just like Muslims believe they are going to “Paradise” if their “good deeds” and alms outweigh their “bad things.” So please do keep that in mind.
The Roman Catholic Church has taken it upon herself to misappropriate the word ‘catholic’ and apply it to herself. So, whenever you read one of the Early Church Fathers (ECFs) use the Greek word καθολικός (katholikos, catholic, universal), Rome says, “See? They were Catholic” (BIG-‘C’). But here’s their problem: the ECFs were using καθολικός in the “universal” sense—NOT the “Romish” sense. Another word they have appropriated is “Tradition.” Any time they see the word “Tradition” used by Augustine or Gregory of Nyssa or Cyprian—they take it to mean the “Traditions” that Rome has adopted. Therefore, they tell their followers, “See? These men taught that people back then should follow the old traditions! ” This, too, is faulty reasoning. Because what Rome has done is take a word that looked back in time and applied it to things they have added to Scripture (more on sola scriptura may come at a later date, but not here). All that being said, let’s begin by looking back at the founding of Christ’s church.
If you ask Rome, they will tell you that the headship of the church was given to Peter, in Matthew 16:18, when Jesus told Simon Peter, “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” However, in calling His disciples, Jesus never tells any of them that they will be the “visible head” of His church—unless you subscribe to the Romish misinterpretation of His words in Matthew 16:18. So when it all boils down, the validity of the Roman Catholic Church rests upon two things:
(1) The interpretation of a single verse of Scripture; and
(2) Whether or not one regards the ECFs as being of equal authority as Scripture.
I will answer these in reverse order. Are the writings of the Early Church Fathers (e.g., Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Chrysostom, Eusebius) of equal authority with the Bible? The answer to this question is, emphatically, “No!” How can I say that? For this reason: what was Jesus’ number one reason for His opposition to the Pharisees? Simple: they had allowed the “Tradition” of rabbinical writings (e.g., the Midrash) to supersede the word of the Tanakh—the God-breathed Scriptures. Many times, during the Sermon on the Mount, we read that Jesus told the people, “You have heard it said…but I say…” He was telling the Pharisees that instead of interpreting the Scriptures according to their traditions, they should be interpreting their traditions according to the Scriptures. Likewise, we could say of Roman doctrine, “You say……but the Bible says……” Since the Vatican does, indeed, interpret the Scriptures according to their “Traditions” instead of interpreting their “Traditions” according to Scripture. Anytime we give more weight to the ideas of men than we do to Scripture, the result is going to be messy.
Now, to answer (1). I could list all kinds of quotes that Rome uses to try and bolster their claim. I doubt, however, that we have enough bandwidth to contain the quotes themselves, nor the full quotes that show how Rome has taken them out of context. But, I will begin with what may be the most famous out-of-context quote, that of Augustine: “Rome has spoken; the case is closed” (it is sometimes rendered in other, but similar, forms). But is that what Augustine actually said? Answer: “No!” From an article by James White on this very issue:
[Karl] Keating puts these words in quotes, indicating that Augustine actually said this. He places it in the context of Papal Infallibility. It is clearly his intention to communicate to his readers that Augustine 1) said these words, and 2) was speaking about the subject in his sermon. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Augustine never said what Keating quotes. In fact, here is the actual Latin text of the final section of Sermon 131 from Migne, PL 38:734:
Jam enim de hac causa duo concilia missa sunt ad sedem apostolicam; inde etiam rescripta venerunt; causa finita est: Utinam aliquando finiatur error.
Translated, it reads,
. . . for already on this matter two councils have sent to the Apostolic See, whence also rescripts (reports) have come. The cause is finished, would that the error may terminate likewise.
The quote from Augustine comes from a sermon he wrote opposing Pelagianism. Long story short, what he was saying was that the church had condemned this error. And how did they conclude that the error had been refuted? By appealing to Scripture. Augustine was NOT saying that all authority rested in the bishop of Rome. He was saying “The cause is finished, would that the error may terminate likewise.” As Dr. White states it,
“It is obvious, beyond question, that Augustine’s point is that Pelagianism is a refuted error. It is not refuted because the bishop of Rome has refuted it. It is refuted because it is opposed to Scripture. Two councils have concluded this, and the bishop of Rome has agreed.”
Before we leave Augustine, there is one more quote from him I must share. Rome likes to say that Augustine was the chief defender of Roman Catholic teaching, especially equating Peter with “the Rock” upon Christ was to build His church. Read the following to see if this is true (emphases mine):
In a passage in this book, I [Augustine] said about the Apostle Peter: ‘On him as on a rock the Church was built’…But I know that very frequently at a later time, I so explained what the Lord said: ‘Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church,’ that it be understood as built upon Him whom Peter confessed saying: ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,’ and so Peter, called after this rock, represented the person of the Church which is built upon this rock, and has received ‘the keys of the kingdom of heaven.’ For, ‘Thou art Peter’ and not ‘Thou art the rock’ was said to him. But ‘the rock was Christ,’ in confessing whom, as also the whole Church confesses, Simon was called Peter. (The Fathers of the Church (Washington D.C., Catholic University, 1968), Saint Augustine, The Retractations, Chapter 20.1). [from The Church Fathers' Interpretation of the Rock of Matthew 16:18 by William Webster]
I could go on, but I think you get the general idea. Rome picks out part of a quote that is part of a much larger picture—a quote that is not meant to be interpreted the way Rome says it is—and automatically, it becomes part of “sacred Tradition,” and is used by RCC apologists as a “smoking gun” concerning Petrine primacy.
However, this idea—that Peter alone had the power to “bind and loose”—is, in fact, contrary to Scripture. For Jesus gave this right to the other apostles as well. Consider His words in Matthew 18:18— “Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” The same promise, made to all 12—not just Peter! And not made to any of their successors. Years and years of “Tradition” and volume after volume of apologetic work cannot wipe out the clear words of our Lord, contained in the Scriptures!
So, was there, indeed, a succession of bishops in Rome? Answer: yes…..kind of. One cannot say for certain whether the “succession” of the bishops of Rome has been unbroken, considering the many schisms, divisions, and turmoil that has surrounded the office. Peter was followed by Linus, who was followed by Anancletus, who was followed by Clement…etc. There is no denying this historical fact. However, it is is never equated with the “visible head of the (big-’C') Catholic church” until Damasus I in about 366 AD. It was this Damasus who was the first to use a title such as “Pope” in reference to the bishop of Rome. However, this was read back into the Scripture—it was not brought out of them. Although this view (and all the other dogmas) may be held by the current “bishop of Rome” (Benedict XVI at the time of this writing, if he is indeed the worthy holder of such title)—this is not the view that was held by the early church until being promulgated a great while after the founding of the true church. As Dr. White points out in a debate with RCC apologist Fr. John Mary (emphases mine):
[Rome holds] a succession of names, not a succession of teaching or truth. Not only does such a succession beg the questions raised by such historical events as the Babylonian Captivity of the Church (14th century) and the Great Papal Schism, but it ignores the fact that while President Clinton, for example, stands in the succession of Presidents, one would not wish to assert that his views, and his “teachings,” are in any way reflective of someone such as Abraham Lincoln. The mere historical “connection” guarantees nothing regarding fidelity to the truth itself.
For example, any idea about the sinlessness of Mary is absent from the writings of such men as Irenaeus, Tertullian, or even Origen. The belief in the bodily assumption of Mary? (emphases mine):
“The idea of the bodily assumption of Mary is first expressed in certain transitus-narratives of the fifth and sixth centuries. Even though these are apocryphal they bear witness to the faith of the generation in which they were written despite their legendary clothing” (Ludwig Ott, Early Christian Doctrines, pp. 209-210).
In fact, the doctrine of Purgatory did not develop until about 590 AD under Pope Gregory the Great (emphases mine):
The concept became much more widespread around 600 A.D. due to the fanaticism of Pope Gregory the Great. He developed the doctrine through visions and revelations of a Purgatorial fire. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia (CE), Pope Gregory said Catholics “will expiate their faults by purgatorial flames,” and “the pain [is] more intolerable than any one can suffer in this life.” Centuries later, at the Council of Florence (1431), it was pronounced an infallible dogma. It was later reaffirmed by the Council of Trent (1564). The dogma is based largely on Catholic tradition from extra- biblical writings and oral history…The Council of Trent dares to declare that “God does not always remit the whole punishment due to sin together with the guilt. God requires satisfaction and will punish sin…The sinner, failing to do penance in this life, may be punished in another world, and so not be cast off eternally from God.” (Session 15, Can. XI). Those Catholic Bishops had the audacity to declare that the suffering and death of God’s perfect man and man’s perfect substitute was not sufficient to satisfy divine justice for sin.
And for those of you who are good little students and have memorized your Nicene Creed: is there any mention of Marian devotion? Devotion to the Pope? Anything in there about “We believe in Jesus Christ His only Begotten, and the sinlessness of His mother?” No. Why? Because these were doctrines that were not even known even in 325 AD, except by a handful of people here and there, and which had not been adopted by the universal church! To say that what the Romish church teaches now is what the small-‘c’ catholic church has always believed is refuted by a simple study of history. So here goes.
Constantine became emperor in 306 AD, decreed tolerance of Christians in 313 AD, and “converted to Christianity” in about 318 AD. In 316 AD, he established the precedence of the Roman emperor deciding Christian doctrinal matters, essentially setting himself up as the first Pontifex Maximus (a title derived from Roman pagan priests). The Donatist Controversy was his first taste of ecclesiastical judgment, and was one of the earliest schisms in the church. This happened in 316 AD in North Africa. Caecilianus had been elected bishop of Carthage in 311 AD. However, it was later found out that one of the priests who voted for his ordination was a traditor (see definition here). A split ensued, with one side favoring Caecilianus, and the other favoring a fellow named Donatus. The root cause of the split was whether a sacrament (such as ordination), on its own, even when performed by one who is not in good standing with the church is a valid ordination (ex opere operato, “On account of the work that is worked”). Or, is that ordination void because of the one performing it (ex opere operantis, “on account of the work of the worker”).
The Donatists held to the position of ex opere operantis, while the Caecilians believed in ex opere operato. Eventually, Rome sided with the Caecilians, with Constantine giving the final verdict after three councils. This was, for all intents and purposes, one of the roots of the Roman Catholic Church. The fact that the Donatists were opposed to a “State Church” may have been one reason that the emperor was less than sympathetic to their cause, and also led to the conflation of Emperor and Pope. The doctrine of ex opere operato is still a central tenet of the giving of sacraments in the Catholic church. Paragraph 1128 of the Catholic Catechism (emphasis mine):
This is the meaning of the Church’s affirmation that the sacraments act ex opere operato (literally: “by the very fact of the action’s being performed”), i.e., by virtue of the saving work of Christ, accomplished once for all. It follows that “the sacrament is not wrought by the righteousness of either the celebrant or the recipient, but by the power of God.” From the moment that a sacrament is celebrated in accordance with the intention of the Church, the power of Christ and his Spirit acts in and through it, independently of the personal holiness of the minister. Nevertheless, the fruits of the sacraments also depend on the disposition of the one who receives them.
So, you can see that in its early years, the whole, universal church was not united, solidly, in lock-step, under the banner of Rome. There were many other schisms (e.g., the Quartodeciman Controversy) that took place as well, the tales of which fill volumes. And keep in mind, whenever there was a split, it was NOT a “vertical separation,” i.e., it was not a matter of breaking from Rome’s “authority.” It was a “horizontal” separation, one side went one way, Rome went the other.
For those that will still say that “Everybody was Catholic before the Reformation,” I will point you to another sect that was established by a disciple of Christ. The Coptic Church was founded by Mark in Alexandria, Egypt. It was the subject of the next schism in the church, as they broke ranks with Rome officially after the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD. One of the reasons for calling the Council of Chalcedon was to rule on the Nestorian heresy. By this point in time, the See of Rome had the favor of the emperor, and thus had been flexing its political clout over the other Sees. This usurpation of power was very troubling to Dioscorus, bishop of Alexandria, who did not believe that secular emperors should meddle in the affairs of the church. Add to the fact that Leo I, Bishop of Rome, was desirous that the Roman See should be the seat of ecclesiastical authority (above even Constantinople, which had been its equal for many years), and Leo’s close ties to Emperor Marcianus, and you can understand why Dioscorus was at a disadvantage. It was Leo I, by the way, who was the first to make dogmatic the doctrine of “papal primacy”–the teaching that the Bishop of Rome was endowed with the same “keys” and authority as the apostle Peter and was head of the whole, worldwide, (little-’c') catholic church.
The next few hundred years were a time of some confusion; there was a great deal of debating and establishing doctrines. It was also the time when the Romish church began to exercise its newly-found political power. As Roman Catholicism spread, and as popes became more powerful and influential in secular matters, they got more power-hungry, and sought to stifle any and all opposition to their authority. To that end, they “infallibly” interpreted the Scriptures as saying that they should torture and kill anybody who did not bow to them. This lust for power—and hatred of any who opposed them—led to what we know as “The Inquisition,” when people were arrested, dragged off to stand before popes and councils and bishops, and ordered to recant their “heretical” views. If they did not recant, they were sent to “examiners” who would inflict the same kind of cruelty on these people that the Roman soldiers inflicted upon our Lord.
It was because of this use of force that the RCC grew and spread across Europe. And why very few people spoke up and spoke out against Rome. Which in turn caused it to spread even more quickly. Soon—as had happened in the years prior to and immediately after the earthly life of Christ—all of Europe was under the thumb of Rome. And it is for this reason we don’t have a whole lot of theological works being produced which teach anything other than Roman Catholicism–because if a person wrote such a work, something was going to get burned: either (a) the work, or (b) the person (just ask William Tyndale).
But, in 1054 AD, something big happened. It was at this time that the Eastern Orthodox Church split from Rome. Constantinople and Rome could not agree on who was the true leader of the church, and The Great Schism saw the emergence of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
But now wait a minute!! I thought it was Martin Luther that caused everybody to leave Rome! I thought “Everybody was Catholic until the Reformation!” What your garden-variety anti-Protestant loves to go around declaring is that the whole church, all around the world, was unified until 1517. If that was the case, then will the anti-Protestants stand and say that the Eastern Orthodox Church, at the time it split from Rome, was indeed part of the “One True Church?”
Moving on. During the 1100’s, the Waldensians came along, only to be refused permission to preach by the Third Lateran Council. (This is not meant to be an endorsement, on my part, of Waldensian teaching. I do not agree with all they taught. It is for purely historical purposes I include them. You can read some about them here.). Much of what the Waldensians taught was not in line with many of Rome’s teachings, and if they were caught teaching such things–well, nearly 80 of them were burned at the stake in one city (Strasbourg, France) alone.
Then in the 1300’s, a fellow named John Wycliffe dared to defy Roman “law” and translate the Bible out of the Latin and into English. Wycliffe managed to live a long life and die a natural death. And for his efforts, Pope Martin V ordered Wycliffe’s body dug up, burned, at the ashes dumped into the River Swift. During the 1400’s, a fellow named Jan Hus came along, becoming a forerunner to men like Zwingli, Calvin, Luther, etc. Then William Tyndale further defied Rome and translated the Greek and Hebrew into English–for which he was strangled and burned. But, remember, it was Martin Luther who was the first one to stand up to Rome! [/sarcasm]
Then in 1378, there was even a division as to whether the seat of (big-’C') Catholic authority was seated in Rome or in Avignon, France. This “Western Schism” lasted for over 40 years. Hardly a time of “unity” within the Roman “Catholic” Church.
So, as you can see, the claim that “Until the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church was the ONLY church” is patently false. It has no basis in truth, and is a lie that Rome is only too happy to allow to spread. It is not a truth that Martin Luther was the first who came along and tipped the apple cart and broke off to make some “new religion.” There were many times during history when churches and Sees divided from Rome over doctrine, authority, etc. My many thanks to the men that have been used so greatly by God to teach us about the true history of the church of our Lord. Men like James White, William Webster, James Swan, Mike Gendron, and so many others to whom we owe so great a debt. May we always thank God in our every remembrance of them (Philippians 1:3-4).