John McAlpine (left), who started me pondering Cardinal Newman and Catholicism; sponsor at my reception into the Catholic Church: 8 February 1991
As a committed evangelical Protestant with a great respect for the history of Christian doctrine, I subscribed to a fairly widespread non-Catholic view of Church history: a vague, ethereal, semi-legendary conception of the early Church as quasi-Protestant, and lacking those elements which are now termed "Catholic distinctives." If the early Christians weren't technically & exhaustively Protestant (as defined theologically and ecclesiologically by the revolutionary movement in the 16th century), they certainly (in the main, anyway) weren't Catholic - or so I had casually assumed.
Many Protestants (particularly evangelicals) date the downfall of the early Church at 313, with the conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine and the subsequent "paganization" of institutional Christianity. Others will place this alleged calamitous event around 440, with the beginning of the papal reign of Pope St. Leo the Great, who - in the eyes of many Protestant historians - was the first pope in the full-blown jurisdictional sense (however that is defined by these same historians). Still another school of thought believes that the derailing of the young Christian Church occurred soon after the last Apostle's death and the cessation of the writing of New Testament books, around the year 100, or else sometime during the course of the second century A.D. at the latest.
This whole endeavor to date the "apostasy" of institutional, historic Christianity strongly reminds me of arbitrary attempts to maintain that human life or personhood in the womb begins at a time other than conception, which is clearly the determinative biological event. It simply can't be done with any logical or historiographical rigor. The Church, like a human soul and body in the womb, organically develops from the beginning in a gradual, consistent fashion, and it is altogether futile to try and assign a date to its supposed demise. Like the preborn child, the essence is there from the first.
Intuitively sensing this, I myself took a more complex, nuanced view that the ostensible "Church" was truly Christian all through this period, down through the early Middle Ages, up to the period of the Inquisition and Crusades (roughly 1100-1500), at which time it did, however, lose much of its integrity and moral authority, if not the title and claim "Christian" altogether. I was reluctant to go the whole way and deny that Catholicism was Christian, because I knew too much about what it had always taught on the "central doctrines" of Christianity, such as the Trinity and all the Christological doctrines, and its indispensable role in preserving both medieval culture and the Bible itself. To deny Christian status to Catholicism at any point of its development would be to cut off the limb on which Protestantism sits: in effect, this would logically reduce to a very curious and self-defeating standpoint that Christianity is not an historical religion by its very nature.
Rather, I believed that the Catholic Church had "passed the baton," so to speak, to the Protestants in the sixteenth century, who succeeded in reforming the Church universal. In other words, I held to an "organic" conception of Church history, somewhat like the Protestant Church historian Philip Schaff, and many Reformed, Anglican and Lutheran theologians and historians, whereby Protestantism was a legitimate development of, heir to, and legatee of, historic Catholicism. Henceforth, in my thinking, Protestantism became the superior and more "biblical" form of Christianity, since the Catholic Church had "obviously" compromised itself both morally and theologically with its reactionary and extremely harsh, "un-ecumenical" Council of Trent in the sixteenth century.
This was the background of my ecclesiological thinking when, in early 1990, I began to moderate an ecumenical discussion group in my home. A friend of mine, John McAlpine, whom I had met in the pro-life movement, and with whom I enjoyed conversing, stunned me one night when he claimed that the Catholic Church had never contradicted itself in any of its dogmas. This, to me, was self-evidently incredible and a priori implausible, and so I embarked immediately on a research project designed to debunk once and for all this far-fetched notion that any Christian body could even claim infallibility, let alone actually possess it.
During the course of this study, I gleefully discovered many of the standard "anti-infallibility" works, which are cited again and again: the Anglican George Salmon's The Infallibility of the Church (originally 1890), Johann von Dollinger's Letters of Janus and Letters of Quirinus (1869-1870) and Hans Kung's Infallible?: An Inquiry (1971). Salmon's work has been refuted decisively twice, by B.C. Butler, in his The Church and Infallibility: A Reply to the Abridged "Salmon", and also in a series of articles in The Irish Ecclesiastical Record, in 1901 and 1902 (1)
Yet Protestant polemicists Norman Geisler and Ralph MacKenzie still claimed in 1995, in a major critique of Catholicism, Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences, (2) that Salmon's book has "never really been answered by the Catholic Church." I was amused recently by the accusation of a prominent professional anti-Catholic, that I must have never been familiar with the best Protestant arguments against infallibility and Catholicism in general - hence my eventual conversion on flimsy grounds! The truth was quite otherwise: the above works are the cream of the crop of this particular line of thought, as evidenced by Geisler and MacKenzie's citation of both Salmon and Kung as "witnesses" for their case (3). And the Church historian Dollinger's heretical opinions are also often utilized by Eastern Orthodox polemicists as arguments against papal infallibility. I know this well as a result of my own ongoing dialogues with Orthodox Christians over the Internet.
George Salmon revealed in his book his profoundly biased ignorance not only concerning papal infallibility, but also with regard to even the basics of the development of doctrine:
- Romish advocates . . . are now content to exchange tradition, which their predecessors had made the basis of their system, for this new foundation of development . . . The theory of development is, in short, an attempt to enable men, beaten off the platform of history, to hang on to it by the eyelids . . . The old theory was that the teaching of the Church had never varied. (4)
Will there, then, be no progress of religion in the Church of Christ? Certainly there is, and the greatest . . . But it is truly progress and not a change of faith. What is meant by progress is that something is brought to an advancement within itself; by change, something is transformed from one thing into another. It is necessary, therefore, that understanding, knowledge and wisdom grow and advance strongly and mightily . . . and this must take place precisely within its own kind, that is, in the same teaching, in the same meaning, and in the same opinion. The progress of religion in souls is like the growth of bodies, which, in the course of years, evolve and develop, but still remain what they were . . . Although in the course of time something evolved from those first seeds and has now expanded under careful cultivation, nothing of the characteristics of the seeds is changed. Granted that appearance, beauty and distinction has been added, still, the same nature of each kind remains. (5)
It is beyond our purview here to examine the faulty and jaundiced reasoning employed by the above-cited "anti-infallibility" works, and my own ambitious and zealous adoption of them, in my effort to refute the Catholic Church on historical grounds. Suffice it to say that it is largely a matter of misunderstanding or misapplying the true doctrine of infallibility, as defined dogmatically by the First Vatican Council in 1870, or else a conveniently selective and dishonest presentation of historical facts and patristic citations. These practices run rampant throughout the current anti-Catholic literature, and always have. And I, too, was guilty of it. Bias has a way of blinding one to even basic logical errors.
The First Vatican Council of 1870 defined papal infallibility as follows:
- We teach and define that it is a dogma divinely revealed: that the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when, in discharge of the office of pastor and teacher of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the universal Church, is, by the divine assistance promised to him in Blessed Peter, possessed of that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed that His Church should be endowed in defining doctrine regarding faith or morals; and that, therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, irreformable.
Furthermore, the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) did not change this teaching in the slightest, despite the claims of heterodox self-proclaimed "Catholics" and misinformed non-Catholics and nominal, undereducated Catholics. Referring to the decree on the Pope from Vatican I, the Council declared:
- This teaching concerning the institution, the permanence, the nature and import of the sacred primacy of the Roman Pontiff and his infallible teaching office, the sacred synod proposes anew to be firmly believed by all the faithful . . .
The college or body of bishops has for all that no authority unless united with the Roman Pontiff, Peter's successor, as its head, whose primatial authority, let it be added, over all, whether pastors or faithful, remains in its integrity. For the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, namely, and as pastor of the entire Church, has full, supreme and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered. The order of bishops is the successor to the college of the apostles in their role as teachers and pastors, and in it the apostolic college is perpetuated. Together with their head, the Supreme Pontiff, and never apart from him, they have supreme and full authority over the Universal Church; but this power cannot be exercised without the agreement of the Roman Pontiff. The Lord made Peter alone the rock-foundation and the holder of the keys of the Church (cf. Mt. 16:18-19) . . . (7)
A cursory glance at Scripture confirms this general principle. For instance, Jesus refers to the sign of Jonah, comparing the prophet Jonah's three days and nights in the belly of the fish to His own burial in the earth (Matthew 12:38-40). In this case, both events, although described as signs, were quite real indeed. Jesus also uses the terminology of sign in connection with His Second Coming (Matthew 24:30-31), which is believed by all Christians who adhere to the Nicene Creed, and who have not denied biblical authority or the possibility of miracles, to be a literal event, and not symbolic only.
Protestants tend to use the same flawed analysis when they find the abundant patristic citations extolling the greatness and centrality of Holy Scripture, and thus assume that these Fathers believed in the Protestant formal principle of Scripture Alone (sola Scriptura), when in fact, further objective study reveals that they accepted Tradition and Scripture as part of a unified whole. The historical centrality of Scripture in the contention against heretics, for example, did not mean that Tradition was divorced from Scripture, since the Church Fathers routinely appealed to apostolic Tradition in order to decisively counter heretical claims. In actuality, that was the bottom line for the Fathers, the coup de grace. And this appeal was an historical, rather than a biblical argument, based on apostolic Church authority, as opposed to the methodological approach of Scripture Alone.
Examples in the Fathers are legion. For instance, St. Augustine makes many remarks which show that he regarded the authority of the Church as supreme, all the while accepting the primacy of Scriptures. In other words, they were two sides of the same coin for him and the early Church, not opposed in terms of ultimate authority, as in Protestantism:
- The authority of our Scriptures, strengthened by the consent of so many nations, and confirmed by the succession of the Apostles, bishops and councils, is against you. (8)
No sensible person will go contrary to reason, no Christian will contradict the Scriptures, no lover of peace will go against the Church. (9)
Wherever this tradition comes from, we must believe that the Church has not believed in vain, even though the express authority of the canonical Scriptures is not brought forward for it. (10)
To be sure, although on this matter, we cannot quote a clear example taken from the canonical Scriptures, at any rate, on this question, we are following the true thought of Scriptures when we observe what has appeared good to the universal Church which the authority of these same Scriptures recommends to you. (11)
My Catholic friend John, confronted with the mass of jaded, highly selective historical evidence I had compiled, and my relentless polemics, was understandably frustrated. He kept urging me to read John Henry Cardinal Newman's An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. What little familiarity I had with Newman had shown me that he was a very impressive figure. I knew that he was a brilliant Church historian, and highly respected by all, regardless of theological affiliation.
So I started reading the Essay in October 1990, after having been somewhat "softened" in the previous months by my reading of Catholic books by the cultural historian Christopher Dawson, pro-life heroine Joan Andrews, the famous Trappist monk and convert Thomas Merton, and the marvelous, unparalleled summary The Spirit of Catholicism by Karl Adam, which has been described by Lutheran historian Jaroslav Pelikan as the best single volume written for the purpose of explicating and defending Catholicism. The timing - in God's Providence, and in retrospect - was perfect.
A few months before, I had also concluded, as a result of intense discussions in my ecumenical group, that the Catholic Church possessed the highest and most sublime moral theology of any Christian group. Furthermore, I had been convinced (around July 1990) of the wrongness of contraception, after involved arguments and the dumbfounded realization that all Christians of all types had opposed it until 1930, when the Anglicans adopted it at their Lambeth conference for "hard cases" only. This was my first overt change of opinion, but little did I suspect what was yet to come.
Charles Harrold, the editor of an anthology of Newman's writings, described the Essay as follows:
- It was composed in 1845, when Newman was halting midway between two forms of Christianity . . . Its aim was to explain and justify what Protestants regarded as corruptions and additions to the primitive Christian creed, and to show these to be legitimate developments . . . In a series of eloquent and erudite analogies, he seeks to show that the present highly complex doctrines of the Church lay in germ in the original depositum of faith, which has evolved or developed through progressive unfolding and explication. (12)
Finally, I was now reading some sort of response to the research I had been doing for months, under the influence of thoroughly Protestant presuppositions. Newman wrote, near the beginning:
- However beautiful and promising that Religion is in theory, its history, we are told, is its best refutation . . .
In reply to this specious objection, it is maintained in this Essay that, granting that some large variations of teaching in its long course of 1800 years exist, nevertheless, these, on examination, will be found to arise from the nature of the case, and to proceed on a law, and with a harmony and a definite drift, and with an analogy to Scripture revelations, which, instead of telling to their disadvantage, actually constitute an argument in their favour, as witnessing to a superintending Providence and a great Design in the mode and in the circumstances of their occurrence. (13)
And this one thing at least is certain; whatever history teaches, whatever it omits, whatever it exaggerates or extenuates, whatever it says and unsays, at least the Christianity of history is not Protestantism. If ever there were a safe truth, it is this. And Protestantism . . . as a whole, feels it, and has felt it. This is shown in the determination . . . of dispensing with historical Christianity altogether, and of forming a Christianity from the Bible alone: men never would have put it aside, unless they had despaired of it . . . To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant . . . I have elsewhere observed:
"So much must the Protestant grant that, if such a system of doctrine as he would now introduce ever existed in early times, it has been clean swept away as if by a deluge . . . Let him take which of his doctrines he will, his peculiar view of self-righteousness, of formality, . . . his notion of faith, . . . his denial of the virtue of the sacraments, or of the ministerial commission, or of the visible Church . . . the Scriptures as the one appointed instrument of religious teachings and let him consider how far Antiquity, as it has come down to us, will countenance him in it" (14) . . .
That Protestantism, then, is not the Christianity of history, it is easy to determine. (15)
After summary statements such as the above, Newman proceeded to make brilliant specific analogies in order to bring home his point. The first had to do with the doctrine of purgatory, vis-a-vis the doctrine of original sin, which is, of course, accepted by Protestants as well:
- Some notion of suffering, or disadvantage, or punishment after this life, in the case of the faithful departed, or other vague forms of the doctrine of Purgatory, has in its favour almost a consensus of the first four ages of the Church. (16)
No one will say that there is a testimony of the Fathers, equally strong, for the doctrine of Original Sin. (17)
In spite of the forcible teaching of St. Paul on the subject, the doctrine of Original Sin appears neither in the Apostles' nor the Nicene Creed. (18)
. . . these valuable insights into the doctrine of justification had been largely lost throughout much of Christian history, and it was the Reformers who recovered this biblical truth . . .
During the patristic, and especially the later medieval periods, forensic justification was largely lost . . . Still, the theological formulations of such figures as Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas did not preclude a rediscovery of this judicial element in the Pauline doctrine of justification . . .
. . . one can be saved without believing that imputed righteousness (or forensic justification) is an essential part of the true gospel. Otherwise, few people were saved between the time of the apostle Paul and the Reformation, since scarcely anyone taught imputed righteousness (or forensic justification) during that period! (19)
The trick for Protestants (granting Church history an important and legitimate role, whether it is considered normative and authoritative or not), is to determine a non-arbitrary rationale for accepting some doctrines while rejecting others. It will not do to simply say that certain doctrines are "unbiblical" and thus unworthy of Protestant allegiance, since it must immediately be explained why the majority of early Christians believed in them, and why beliefs such as the Canon of the New Testament and Scripture Alone are adopted despite the absence of biblical rationale, or why (chances are) many other strands of Protestantism disagree with the one making the claim, when Scripture is allegedly so "clear" and able to be interpreted in the main without difficulty by the layman.
Newman writes, regarding the New Testament Canon:
- As regards the New Testament, Catholics and Protestants receive the same books as canonical and inspired; yet . . . the degrees of evidence are very various for one book and another . . . For instance, as to the Epistle of St. James . . . Origen, in the third century, is the first writer who distinctly mentions it among the Greeks and it is not quoted by name by any Latin till the fourth . . . Again: The Epistle to the Hebrews, though received in the East, was not received in the Latin Churches till St. Jerome's time . . . Again, St. Jerome tells us, that in his day, towards A.D. 400, the Greek Church rejected the Apocalypse, but the Latin received it. Again: The New Testament consists of twenty-seven books . . . Of these, fourteen are not mentioned at all till from eighty to one hundred years after St. John's death, in which number are the Acts, 2nd Corinthians, Galatians, Colossians, 1st and 2nd Thessalonians, and James. Of the other thirteen, five, viz. St. John's Gospel, Philippians, 1st Timothy, Hebrews, and 1st John, are quoted but by one writer during the same period. On what ground, then, do we receive the Canon as it comes to us, but on the authority of the Church of the fourth and fifth centuries? . . . The fifth century acts as a comment on the obscure text of the centuries before it. (20)
Ecclesiastical recognition of the place which St. Mary holds in the Economy of grace . . . was reserved for the fifth century, as the definition of our Lord's proper Divinity had been the work of the fourth . . . In order to do honour to Christ, . . . to defend the true doctrine of the Incarnation . . . to secure a right faith in the manhood of the Eternal Son, the Council of Ephesus determined the Blessed Virgin to be the Mother of God . . . The title 'Theotokos,' or Mother of God, was familiar to Christians from primitive times, and had been used, among other writers, by Origen, Eusebius, . . . St. Athanasius, St. Ambrose, St. Gregory Nazianzen, St. Gregory Nyssen. (21)
If the Imperial power checked the development of Councils, it availed also for keeping back the power of the Papacy. The Creed, the Canon, in like manner, both remained undefined . . . All began to form, as soon as the Empire relaxed its tyrannous oppression of the Church. (22)
It becomes necessary . . . to assign certain characteristics of faithful developments . . . the presence of which serves as a test to discriminate between them and corruptions . . . I venture to set down Seven Notes . . . as follows: - There is no corruption if it retains one and the same type, the same principles, the same organization; if its beginnings anticipate its subsequent phases, and its later phenomena protect and subserve its earlier; if it has a power of assimilation and revival, and a vigorous action from first to last. (23)
A corruption is a development in that very stage in which it ceases to illustrate, and begins to disturb, the acquisitions gained in its previous history . . . A true development . . . is an addition which illustrates . . . the body of thought from which it proceeds . . . it is of a tendency conservative of what has gone before it. (24)
Newman builds his case to its climax, with the following lucid comment:
- If it be true that the principles of the later Church are the same as those of the earlier, then . . . the later in reality agrees more than it differs with the earlier, for principles are responsible for doctrines. Hence they who assert that the modern Roman system is the corruption of primitive theology are forced to discover some difference of principle . . . for instance, that the right of private judgment was secured to the early Church and has been lost to the later, or again, that the later Church rationalizes and the earlier went by faith.
Moreover . . . the various heresies . . . have in one respect or other . . . violated those principles with which she rose into existence, and which she still retains. Thus Arian (25) and Nestorian (26) schools denied the allegorical rule of Scripture interpretation; the Gnostics (27) and Eunomians (28) for Faith professed to substitute knowledge; and the Manichees (29) also . . . The dogmatic Rule . . . was thrown aside by all those sects which, as Tertullian tells us, claimed to judge for themselves from Scripture; and the Sacramental principle was violated, ipso facto, by all who separated from the Church . . . In like manner the contempt of mystery, of reverence, of devoutness, of sanctity, are other notes of the heretical spirit. As to Protestantism it is plain in how many ways it has reversed the principles of Catholic theology. (30)
One need not posit an absolute break of continuity in order to equate the present Catholic Church with the "Church" of the early centuries. One need only understand the true nature of development, whereby doctrines can grow in the sense that they are more clearly understood, and more deeply and thoroughly explicated, while not undergoing any essential transformation. But Protestantism requires a radical change of principle, and hence, fails the test of what constitutes a true development, in Newman's analysis. Besides, corruption can just as easily consist of subtraction as addition. Corruption entails a departure from normalcy and precedent.
Furthermore, it is instructive to realize that what we now consider orthodox in early Christianity, is simply the position of the Roman apostolic see, which was proven right again and again on this score, far beyond coincidence, given the multiplicity of heretical sects in the early centuries, and the thousands of competing Christian denominations today.
This fact and the others recounted above in Newman's Essay and my own commentary upon it, are what basically compelled me to become a Catholic (along with the profundity and beauty of unchanging Catholic moral teaching). I had too much respect for logic, historical theology, and Church history to resist what I felt to be an utterly unanswerable argument. I discovered, with the inestimable assistance of Cardinal Newman, that the Catholic Church had far and away the most cogent, consistent claim to ecclesiological and apostolic preeminence, and this, coupled with my simultaneous intensive study of what happened in the sixteenth century (especially the stated reasons for the Protestant Revolution, and the motivations of its leading proponents) and the theological and moral views of the major Protestant Founders (such as: sola fide, sola Scriptura, libertine views of clerical vows and divorce, lying, filthy language, disrespect for authority and precedent, plundering and violence, iconoclasm, anti-intellectualism, etc.) made any further resistance to Catholicism on my part equivalent to rearranging chairs on the deck of the sinking Titanic.
Thus it was fitting that a little more than a month after completing the Essay, while reading Cardinal Newman's meditation on "Hope in God the Creator," I quietly gave up what little remaining emotional resistance I had to conversion, and realized that I had already entered the gates of Rome (and therefore, historic Christendom) for good. And, thus far, I've never had the slightest desire or inclination to look back.
1. Butler: New York, Sheed & Ward, 1954, 230 pages. A friend was recently able to obtain the articles from the Irish Ecclesiastical Record in the library of a well-known evangelical seminary in the Chicago area.
2. Geisler, Norman L. and Ralph E. MacKenzie, Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1995, p.206, which calls it the "classic refutation of papal infallibility." See also p.459.
3. Geisler and MacKenzie, ibid., pp.206-207.
4. Salmon, George, The Infallibility of the Church, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House (originally 1888), pp.31-33 (cf. also pp.35, 39).
5. 23:28-30, cited from Jurgens, William A., The Faith of the Early Fathers (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1979), vol. 3, p.265.
6. Geisler and MacKenzie, ibid., p.459.
7. Vatican II: Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, chapter III: "The Church is Hierarchical," sections 18, 22. From edition / translation by Austin Flannery (Northport, NY: Costello Publishing Co., 1988 revised ed., pp.370,375).
8. C. Faustus, 8,5.
9. The Trinity, 4,6,10.
10. Letter 164 to Evodius of Uzalis.
11. C. Cresconius, 1,33.
12. Harrold, Charles F., A Newman Treasury, London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1943, pp.83-84.
13. All quotes from the Essay are taken from the edition published by the University of Notre Dame Press, 1989, with a foreword by Ian Ker, from the 1878 edition of the original work of 1845; pp.vii-viii.
14. Newman, John Henry, Historical Sketches, vol.1: The Church of the Fathers, London: 1872, p.418.
15. Newman, Essay, ibid., pp.7-9.
16. Ibid., p.21
17. Ibid., p.21.
18. Ibid., p.23.
19. Geisler and MacKenzie, ibid., pp.247-248,503.
20. Newman, Essay, pp.123-126.
21. Ibid., p.145.
22. Ibid., p.151.
23. Ibid., pp.170-171.
24. Ibid., pp.199-200,203.
25. Arianism: a heresy holding that Jesus Christ was a mere created being and not co-equal with the Father.
26. Nestorianism: a heresy which denied that Christ had a Divine Nature.
27. Gnosticism: a heresy which claimed a secret knowledge ("gnosis") which went beyond revelation, faith, and reason.
28. Eunomianism: akin to Arianism, it held that Jesus was inferior in essence to the Father, and that the Holy Spirit was created by Jesus.
29. Manichaeanism: a form of Gnosticism; it held to a sub-personal cosmic dualism between good and evil and was severely ascetic.
30. Newman, Essay, pp.353-354.
Uploaded in 1996 by Dave Armstrong. Published in The Coming Home Newsletter, Sep-Dec 1997, pp. 1-8; also in The Latin Mass, Fall 1999, Vol. 8, No. 4, 65-71.