Was the Early Church Catholic?

“The Catholic church is the only Church around for 2,000 years!” To a Catholic, this is the strongest proof he needs that he is in the “true Church of Christ.” All that a Catholic needs to shut down his mind to your arguments is to chant this magic word. Once he mouths this party line, he disconnects his brain from any form of critical thinking and dismiss evidence from the Bible or history exposing his belief system as a fraud.

There’s no doubt that history is the game changer. Rome too is aware of this, so she either denies history or re-writes it to suit her ways. As a result, there is a big difference between how the Catholic religion and Bible Christianity approach history. While we take history as it is, a Catholic theologian describes Rome’s style:
We think first of developed forms for which we need to find historical justification. The developed forms come first and the historical justification comes second” (Kilan McDonnell, Journal of Ecumenical Studies 7:213).

This is called revisionism. If a Catholic, for example, attempts to prove that the Assumption of Mary was taught from the early days of the church, he would take this doctrine (as defined in 1950) and read it into certain isolated words from the early church fathers. To them, ancient “Catholicity” is whatever modern Romanism demands it to be. They interpret past beliefs based on the present. This is classic anachronism or Orwellian double-think, which attempts to re-write historical documents to match the constantly changing party line.

Up until the 17th century, the Roman “church” taught that all her doctrines and practices came from the apostles and has never changed from that time. They want us to believe Romanism just sprang up like Athena from Zeus’ skull! Very few modern Catholic scholars adhere to such peroration. What they hold to is Newman’s “development” theory, that the understanding and concept of Catholic doctrines have changed over time. Such lame excuse was cooked up to explain the huge disconnect between the beliefs of the early church and modern Catholicism.

Catholic or Roman Catholic?

Many Catholics try to prove their church was “the first church established by Christ” by quoting the words of Ignatius of Antioch (75-110 AD) who wrote that “even as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church.” The Pavlovian programming Rome utilizes makes Catholics think Ignatius was referring to their church here.

In several early church writings, the word ‘catholic’ (spelled lower case except in modern Catholic literature) from the Greek word catholikos meaning ‘universal.’ was used to differentiate between true believers, who made up the universal church from those outside. This is different from the term ‘Roman Catholic’ which includes the idea of papal authority, purgatory, indulgences etc. So, we can still say the early church was ‘catholic’ but not ‘Roman Catholic.’

The word ‘catholic’ has been used before and after Romanism gained its hold. That someone uses the term “orthodox” doesn’t mean he’s referring to Eastern Orthodox Church. The same applies to the word “catholic.” The Nicene creed confessed by the Orthodox church (and even the Mormon Church) includes the term “the catholic church.” The 1615 Irish Articles of Religion uses the term ‘catholic church.’ Even the 1646 Westminster Confession of Faith speaks of the “catholic or universal church.” Yet no one would say these are under the pope of Rome, because the term ‘catholic’ means ‘universal’. Catholics can’t hijack the word and misdefine it to suit their religion. Their church can’t be “universal” and “Roman.” That is paradoxical.

From the Bible itself, it’s clear that in the first century there was not a single “authoritarian” church in Rome to which all churches looked up to. Rather, the churches in Rome were house-churches led by simple Christians.

“Some details in the NT point indisputedly in the direction of house churches presided over by patrons and patronesses, including references to ‘the church in the house’ of particular patrons. The model of a house church presupposes a patron or patroness who owns or rents the space used by the Christian community. A number of such persons are mentioned in the Pauline letters, including Phoebe, Erastors, Crispus, Stephanos, Gaius, Appia, and Philemon and his wife, Nympha” (Robert Jewett, Romans, MN: Fortress Press, 2007, 64-65).

Professor of Biblical studies, William Lane wrote: “In Romans 16:3-15, Paul shows an awareness of the existence of several house churches in Rome, one of which was associated with the Jewish Christian leaders Aquila and Priscilla…” He concluded that “there is no evidence for a common meeting of the Christians in Rome, let alone a single church structure” (Judaism and Christianity in First Century Rome, ed. by Donfried K. and Richardson P., 1998, 208-10).

There are some key beliefs that set Romanism apart from other communions. They are: the papacy, purgatory, transubstantiation, Marian dogmas and the concept of extra-biblical revelatory “traditions.” History shows that the early church didn’t hold on to these beliefs. By “early church” I mean the church of the first 3 centuries (or “the Nicene Church”). There is not a single person at the council of Nicea who held on to the definitive beliefs that Catholics today hold. Of course, the Roman church may trace its ecclesiastical genealogy back to this period, but to trace its doctrines back to the Nicene church is impossible. Continuity in genealogy doesn’t imply a continuity of teaching or truth.

Before I proceed:
(a) The reliable record of what the early church believed is in the New Testament. The teachings of the early church leaders (whether they were Christians or not) is not an infallible authority and can only be accepted as true on the basis of their harmony with Scripture.

(b) Many Catholics have this stultifying habit of “copying and pasting” isolated quotes from early church fathers to prove their beliefs without regard to historical or literary contexts. This is intellectual dishonesty and it’s self-defeating. We don’t have to re-cast the church fathers as Protestants. We can just let them be who they are even though we don’t agree with everything they taught.

(c) The early church was not Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox. The challenge is not for Rome’s apologists to find some areas of agreement with the Nicene church (we can find the same), but rather to find all its major beliefs in early church history. That is the focus of this piece.

I. The Papacy

The myth that Peter is the first pope has been debunked here. In early writings such as The Shepherd of Hermas, which is the most detailed account of the church’s organization, there is not a single testimony suggesting the unique position of a bishop as the general leader of the entire Christian community.

The Matthew 16:18 “You are Peter…” passage used as support of the papacy is absent from The Didache, the writings of Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp and the fragment of Piapas. The first reference to the confession of Peter in Matt. 16:18 was vaguely mentioned by Justin Martyr (c 160) in his Dialogue with the Jew Tryphon and his interpretation opposes that of Romanism (Migne, S. G., 571). The few fathers from that period (like Tertullian) also gave a spiritual, metaphoric interpretation to the text which indicates that they didn’t consider a special priviledge attached to Peter (or alleged successors) over the rest.

When the Arian controversy came up in the 4th century, the bishop of Rome couldn’t settle the matter. Why? Because no one believed the bishop of Rome was the universal head of the Church. He was the bishop of the greatest see in the West, but not the head of the Church. The fact that a council had to be called to settle the matter – without the authority of a Pope – proves there was no Papal system at the time. Rome has tried to revise this historical fact by claiming (400 yrs later) that the bishop of Rome (pope Sylvester) convened over the council of Nicaea. But history is not on their side.

“Religious partisanship has in the past led some scholars to suggest that Sylvester, bishop of Rome, convoked the council of Nicea, but modern Roman Catholic Scholars honourably dismiss this idea” (R. P. Hansen, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, Edinburgh: 1997, 154).

Catholic historian, Joseph Kelly, wrote that: “The second ecumenical council, Constantinople I was called in 381, met, decided the issues, and adjourned without informing the pope, Damasus I (366-384), that a council was being held” (The Ecumenical Councils of the Catholic Church, Liturgical Press: Minnesota, 2009, 5)

Another Catholic historian admits:
“In all the early writings of the hierarchy there is no mention of a special role for the Bishop of Rome, nor yet the special name ‘Pope’ … Of the eighty or so heresies in the first six centuries, not one refers to the authority of the Bishop of Rome, not one is settled by the Bishop of Rome … No one attacks the [supreme] authority of the Roman pontiff, because no one has heard of it” (Peter de Rosa, Vicars of Christ: The Dark Side of the Papacy, 1988, 205-06).

Roman Catholicism today realizes it didn’t have the past position it claims for itself now, so it has tried hard to revise history by making up fraudulent documents like the Donation of Constantine and the false Isidorean Decretals as evidence of papal supremacy. These documents remain false.

2. Purgatory

The origin of purgatory has been addressed here. The concepts of purgation and merit led to the doctrine of purgatory and later the “treasury of merits.” These also gave rise to indulgences. No one in the Nicene church ever spoke of purgatory, let alone the treasury of merits or indulgences. Purgatory, treasury of merits and indulgences are held together by Rome’s dogmatic authority – an authority that Rome didn’t have in the early church. Besides, Rome’s belief about salvation (soteriology) from which these 3 concepts sprang up lack early historical support. Two centuries before the council of Nicaea, Clement of Rome wrote:

“They all therefore were glorified and magnified, not through themselves or their own works or the righteous doing which they wrought but through His will. And so we, having been called through His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified through ourselves or through our own wisdom or understanding or piety or works which we wrought in holiness of heart, but through faith whereby the Almighty God justified all men that have been from the beginning…” (Clement of Rome, 32)

This contradicts the modern dogma of Romanism. Jason Engwer points out that in earliest patristic works, deceased Believers are mentioned as being in heaven and not purgatory. This is seen in the works of Clement of Rome (1 Clement, 5-6, 44). The same is true of Polycarp in his Epistle to the Philippians and in a document written by the church of Smyrna after his martyrdom (Martyrdom of Polycarp, 19). Other sources refer to all believers going to Heaven or a heavenly region of Hades that doesn’t have suffering associated with purgatory. For example, Justin Martyr (Dialogue with Trypho, 5), Athenagoras (A Plea for the Christians, 31), Irenaeus (Against Heresies, 5:5:1), Hippolytus (Against Plato, 1-2), Cyprian (Treatises, 7) etc.

That Tertullian advocated prayers for the dead doesn’t logically follow that he taught purgatory. Church historian, Philip Schaff explained:

“The ante-Nicene idea of the middle state of the pious excludes, or at all events ignores, the idea of penal suffering, which is an essential part of the Catholic conception of purgatory. It represents the condition of the pious as one of the comparable happiness, inferior only to the perfect happiness after the resurrection. Whatever and wherever Paradise may be, it belongs to the heavenly world; while purgatory is supposed to be a middle region between heaven and hell, and to border on the latter” (History of the Christian Church, 156).

3. Transubstantiation

The early church didn’t believe in transubstantiation. What the Nicene church believed about the “real presence” is not relevant to what Romanism made a dogma a thousand years later. Nowhere in their writings would you find them setting aside consecrated hosts in a tabernacle or monstrance for worship. Even Catholic sources admit that the early church had no altar and use of tabernacles didn’t develop for at least 600 years after the council of Nicaea! The reason: transubstantiation didn’t come up until that time.

Catholics love to quote Tertullian: “We take anxious care lest something of our Cup or Bread should fall upon the ground.” But there is a sleight of hand Catholic trick here. The quote, properly translated reads: “We feel pained should any wine or bread, even though our own, be cast upon the ground.” The full context of the passage shows he wasn’t speaking of the Eucharist there.

Others cite Ignatius of Antioch: “They abstain from the eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the eucharist to be the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ…” (Romans 7:3)

There is nothing about transubstantiation in these words. Who are “they?” he was talking about? Why do they not confess the eucharist to be the flesh of Christ? And what did Ignatius mean by “Eucharist and prayer?” It is when the whole passage is read that one can understand what he was really writing about. Ignatius was writing against the Docetists (a Gnostic sect who denied the physical incarnation of Christ). They did not confess the Eucharist because they didn’t believe Jesus truly suffered or had a real human body. This was why they didn’t participate in the Lord’s Supper.

Catholic apologists decontextualise patristic works on this topic and read into them a kind of Aristotelian dogma of accidents and substance which was made up in the 13th century. This woefully consistent practice of misrepresentations to support transubstantiation has been addressed in another post. Catholic scholar, Joseph Kelly admits that a spiritual view of the real presence was believed by early theologians in contrast to the views of later theologians who had “a more material understanding of the real presence” (p 5). If transubstantiation wasn’t part of the faith of a church, then it wasn’t the Roman Catholic Church.

4. Marian Dogmas

The perpetual virginity, “Mother of God,” Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of Mary beliefs were made official later in the centuries. They all lack any early historical support. The Encyclopedia Britannica says that during the first centuries of the church there was no emphasis on Mary whatsoever (15:459). Early church writings had more positive titles for the original apostles like apostle John than for Mary (e.g Against Heresies V:18:2, Polycrates Letter etc). Second century writings also addressed her as Mary without the additional descriptions Rome have attached later (e.g Ignatius to Ephesians, 7; 18).

Regarding the devotion to Mary, the Catholic Encyclopedia (1912, Vol XV) admits:
“Seeing that this doctrine is not contained, at least explicitly in the earlier forms of the Apostles’ Creed, there is perhaps no ground for surprise if we do not meet with any clear traces of the cultus of the Blessed Virgin in the first Christian centuries… Further it is quite likely that the mention of the Blessed Virgin in the intercessions of the diptychs of the liturgy goes back to the days before the Council of Nicaea, but we have no definite evidence upon the point, and the same must be said of any form of direct invocation, even for purpose of private devotion.”

5. The Authority of Traditions

Since the Roman concept of Papal authority was not in place in the Nicene church, the concept of “Sacred Tradition” as unwritten Scriptures was absent as well. The early fathers made references to “traditions,” but what they meant by it differs from what Rome today define them as. What they meant by traditions were the different ecclesiastical customs and practices (such as dates of feasts) believed to be handed down from the Apostles, which didn’t involve doctrines of the faith. And they didn’t view them as binding as inspired Scripture.

Church historian, J.N.D Kelly stated:
“The clearest token of the prestige enjoyed by Scripture is the fact that almost the entire theological effort of the Fathers, whether their aims were polemical or constructive, was expended upon by what amounted to the exposition of the Bible… for any doctrine to win acceptance, it had first to establish its Scriptural basis” (Early Christian Doctrines, Harper and Row, 1978, 42; 46).

Their views of Scripture, traditions and authority were far removed from anything a modern Catholic would wish to present. For example:

Basil of Caesarea: “The hearers taught in the Scriptures ought to test what is said by teachers and accept what agrees with the Scriptures but reject that which is foreign” (Moralia 72:1).

Irenaeus: “We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith” (Against Heresies III:1:1).

Hippolytus: “There is, brethren, one God, the knowledge of whom we gain from the Holy Scriptures, and from no other source…Whatever things, then, the Holy Scriptures declare at these let us look; and whatever things they teach, these let us learn” (Against the Heresy of One Noetus, 9).

Athanasius: “The holy and inspired Scriptures are sufficient of themselves for the preaching of the Truth” (Contra Gentes 1:1).

From all presented so far, we can conclude that “to be deep in history is to cease to be a historically consistent Catholic.” There is no “acorn” seed developing into their “oak.” What we find are rather apple and mustard seeds (or even an evil seed). Catholics are caught in two traps. One, their blind submission to Rome prevents them from an objective view of church history. Two, the destructive pride of belonging to “the oldest and largest, one true Church” keeps them in Rome’s chains.

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