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Three Protestant Myths of Early ChristianityAugust 22, 2013
I was motivated as a young man to read early Christian writers. As a Protestant involved in what can be called the "Free Church" model, I had been taught certain things about the early Church and the Catholic Church; as I studied and became more familiar with early Christianity in my Ph.D studies I began to realize that I had been taught something like a conspiracy theory.
Basically what I am arguing here is that the early Church was similar to the modern-day Church and similar to the Church in every era: areas of greatness in serving Christ AND areas of disappointment and/or hypocrisy. The argument that things are worse now is easy: there are more Christians living in more diverse circumstances and in so many different cultures - it would make sense that we have more ridiculous behavior and doctrine now. My point is that the early church, though it had some great examples to follow, was flawed just like the modern church.
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The myth that the early Christian church was a model for following Christ.
I am not sure that is what we think. It is not what was taught in Seminary when I was there. It is not what I think now.
The conviction is that the primitive or Apostolic church modeled some things that are not only good but should be normative. However, no one who reads the New Testament as a historical document would say that the primitive church was ideal. There was ethnic prejudice, immorality, conflict, theological error, not to speak of spiritual immaturity.
But there were some things that seem to be closer to the ideal than the present and certainly closer than the church of the fourth century and following:
- The first is that the Apostolic church was more an organism than an organization. That looked messy at times, I agree, still it had life, and at its best it was very good.
- The second is that the Apostolic church was not political. Of course, at the beginning the church was small, and was made up largely of the powerless. It is not surprising that it had no political power. But that is not the point. The point is the primitive church sought no political power. Jesus taught that change happened as people were personally changed from the inside. Forcing conformity either within the church body or upon society was not God's way. Historically, the church gradually became more organized and, with organization, imposed more rules. With the merging of the church and political power both in the east and the west more rules were imposed and enforced. Perhaps some of this was inevitable. It would have been difficult to resist. But the result was not better than the ideal of the primitive church.
It is that longing for the primitive, I believe, that Christians feel, not a myth that the early church was a model of following Christ.
Thank you for your thoughtful comments.
Myth Two: Constantine was a Pagan
I have just recently (Nov/Dec 2013) read an eye-opening book by DH Williams, "Retrieving the Tradition & Renewing Evangelicalism" and written a thorough review. Williams shows how the "Free" Church (Anabaptists, Baptists, basically non-liturgical, non-episcopalian [no bishops, etc.]) has been affected by believing and using an 8th century forgery as historic information about Constantine.
The Donation of Constantine and the Life of Sylvester are two documents that surfaced in the 8th century telling the story of how the Emperor Constantine came down with a form of leprosy, had no success getting help from his pagan soothsayers and called for Sylvester, the Bishop of Rome. Sylvester shared the gospel with Constantine and administered baptism. A day or two later Constantine was healed and in response he writes an edict "The Donation" in which he gifts the bishop of Rome with lands and wealth and bestows on him, as "The Chair of Peter," the leadership of all churches.
These documents had a significant impact on the Church from the 8th to the 13th century with various Popes and others leveraging these documents to garner wealth and political power. In the 15th century these documents were proven to be forgeries, but great damage had already been done. What D.H. Williams points out is how Reformers in the "Free"/Anabaptist movements used and made negative references to these documents AS IF they were true. Williams indicates that at least some of these men did this without knowing the documents were forgeries. This negative view and tone against both Constantine and his influence on the Catholic Church still influences anabaptist and "free" Protestants to this day.
Numerous CH101 readers have written to me with questions and critical comments about what I have written regarding Emperor Constantine. There is a significant percentage of conservative Protestants who believe Christianity suffered greatly under Constantine. As a young man I was taught that the Catholic Church started with Constantine and was the beginning of Christianity losing its way.
"Paul said that the 'mystery of iniquity' was already at work in the church even during his day (2 Thes. 2:7). How much more in the years following the death of Paul and the other Apostles would the 'mystery of iniquity' be working."While there are some valid points to be made for Christianity losing its zeal and spiritual power, Constantine gets a bad rap in MY opinion. If you are interested in learning more about Constantine I would highly recommend the text by Charles Odahl (to the right) to better decide if Constantine was a Christian or just a political opportunist. My articles will be edited using Odahl's excellent research:
Emperor Constantine comes to Power
Emperor Constantine and Christian Faith
Emperor Constantine at the Council of Nicea
Emperor Constantine and Worship of the Sun (Sol Invictus)
Emperor Constantine and Christians in the Military
Emperor Constantine Against the Donatists
Myth Three: The Catholic Church Started Under Constantine
Again, one should consult my review mentioned above of the D.H. Williams text. This myth against Constantine and the Catholic Church/Pope is a direct result of the 8th century forgery, "The Donation of Constantine."
If having a single man as "The" leader defines the Catholic Church papacy, this certainly did not happen with Constantine. Bishops were in sharp disagreement prior to Constantine and during his reign there were numerous sharp conflicts between bishops. Catholics argue that the "Catholic Church" started with Peter, but early church historians are all over the map regarding WHEN one can refer to the "Catholic Church." I tend to place the date at 590 when Gregory (later known as "The Great") was installed as Pope. It was under Gregory that all bishops (huge majority) agreed to regard his voice as definitive.
Worldliness? Following Montanus (cir. 172) Tertullian complained about worldliness in his day (cir. 210-220); the monastic movement began as a response to worldliness. In the beginning these men who gave up everything to live on water and bread (with an occasional chickpea) were definitely NOT worldly. Penance and Purgatory were around long before Constantine. Tertullian writes extensively about penance in his aptly titled work, "On Penance." Purgatory, or at least the concept of a holding place where the dead MIGHT find mercy, is found in 2 Maccabees.
A reader pointed out that my heading was confusing and thus she did not recognize where the "Myth" ends, adding this comment: "But, I don't see how those last two [points] could be part of the myth when its OBVIOUS that the catholic church is the embodiment of 'carnal and political'. Also, it wouldn't hurt to state what the Truth is. If Constantine didn't start the Catholic church, who did? When, where and why? Because you can't just leave people with bad information they can't use, you have to give them something to replace it with that they can use.
First, I appreciate the feedback and have corrected this confusion by making the Myth all bold.
Unfortunately, I cannot offer the Truth as easily. The Catholics believe the Catholic Church was already there when Constantine came to power - Peter was the first Pope according to this view. I do refer to the early church as the catholic church with a lower case "c" because THAT was how early fathers referred to the movement from the Greek katholikos, "universal."
The problem with this third Myth is that for many early church historians the answer is not crystal clear. I will attempt to give some kind of answer below.
Who started the Catholic Church?
I'm a convert from Protestantism to Eastern Orthodoxy and agree that, in every age, the Church has had shining examples and regrettable episodes. I'm writing to ask you to clarify your comments about Gregory in 590 -- you say that "all bishops" agreed to consider his voice definitive and thus the Roman Catholic church began.
From the Orthodox perspective, this would seem to be a premature date as the Great Schism of 1054 is still 350+ years in the future. Also, even in Rome, many people did not embrace the idea of Pope as the universal leader of all Christians; he was an important Bishop given honor but no outsized ecclesiastical authority. Thanks for clarifying, and for your labors on the site. - Mark W.
Yes, you do point out something of a Chinese finger puzzle introducing the East/West split. However, as you mentioned bringing up the Great Schism in any discussion of Gregory the Great is premature. At the same time there were many issues that went into the ever-growing division of East and West.
I do think that Gregory the Great is the first Roman bishop hailed by the overwhelming majority of bishops (at least in the West) to be THE leader. I am not sure whether it was something about Gregory's disposition, his charisma or just timing, but he had a unifying influence. It was probably a combination of all of this...and more.
The split between the Eastern and the Western Churches had seeds as far back as the early second century. From very early times many churches in the West celebrated Easter on a different date than the East which celebrated Easter connected with the Jewish observance of Passover. The West, probably reflecting Roman thinking, wanted more separation from Judaism. Interestingly enough, this was another important move Constantine pushed at Nicea even though the overwhelming majority of bishops present were Eastern.
Comment from Steve:
In my Christian "tradition" (Baptist) it has always been considered cool to bash anything "Catholic". This "coolness" is quite nasty in actual practice. As I age I have noticed something about my attitude toward other branches of Christian faith. Never has any "rant" of mine uplifted, encouraged, or blessed another believer in Christ. There is something most surely NOT cool about this fact. Based on this observation, I humbly withdraw from the "Christian bashing" business.
I have better things to do than refute or tear down other believers in Christ no matter how "wrong" I perceive their practices to be. My perception of their "wrongness" may be wrong itself after all...I truly pray and hope every person who seeks Jesus finds Him and successfully accesses the provision He has made to save them. If there is a greater hope than this, I don't know what it is.
If I have a "need" to make a statement of faith, I guess the Apostles Creed works as well as anything I have ever read, so I will go with that for now. As for other "religions", I will present Christ as the answer their faith has missed. I have NO issue refuting the spirit of anti-Christ as this can and should be done by every believer in Christ. If any of this is off the mark in some way, I will stand to be corrected. I find myself in a period of life where I am seeking to boil faith in Jesus down to the simplest answer that will bless hearers. I am closer to this goal now than when I began ... ~ Steve
Comment from Sherry:
This is a response to Steve.
I, too, have "bashed" the Roman Catholic Church because I see so many unscriptural practices in this religion. I think, however, that you are right about what you say. Bashing any religion is not productive or kind. One should always just present the TRUTH through the WORD instead of making any kind of comments which do not edify or bring glory to Christ.
I do believe that a genuine discussion of the Roman Catholic faith may be important to a person considering the conversion to that religion. But this should always be done with kindness and love. I think many Christian religions should be boiling their message down the to the important salvational issues of Jesus Christ and giving up pagan influences and rituals which have infiltrated the earliest churches. If something cannot be identified or validated by Holy Scripture it is probably not necessary and may even be harmful. Also, in my opinion, one should be careful of the influences of the emerging church and the mixing of all kind of religions into Christian practice.
Response from Al Baker
First, THANK YOU to everyone sending in comments. This comment above illustrates how CH101 readers DO read comments.
I get nasty e-mails from Protestant fundamentalists accusing me of being Catholic. From time to time I will get a dismissive e-mail from a Catholic or Orthodox believer, but in all honesty I rarely get nasty notes from that side of the aisle. One exception was an Orthodox priest (he had "converted" from being a Baptist pastor) who felt it his duty to show me the way. Once he discovered that I was not ignorant of Orthodox dogma, but simply did not agree with it he began to wax judgemental and I stopped replying to his messages.
Here is my point for Protestants regarding many of the things they see in the Catholic (or Orthodox) Church that reflect, as Sherry says "so many unscriptural practices:" Many of these practices were gained FROM the early church fathers in the first to the fourth centuries. Protestants fail to understand the concept of "tradition." Indeed, many Protestants boldly proclaim they do not believe in "tradition" while they actually do - many things they hold as true are NOT clearly taught in the New Testament - this points to "tradition."
Historical data is a difficult thing to deal with when it goes against your particular set of "tradition." To be clear, I do not accept ALL the traditions of the early church as valid or "inspired." This was my problem with the above-mentioned Orthodox priest and this is why I could never follow that tradition with all of my loyalty. I would be expected to agree with ALL of their traditions. I have found the Catholic Church to be less dogmatic in this way, but cannot see myself moving into tradition either. Sorry, I cannot do this just because "that is the way it has been done from the beginning." I realize this can appear arrogant from their perspective, but what those from the more ancient traditions sometimes fail to acknowledge is that the early church was not monolithic - there were ALWAYS bishops/regions that did not agree with certain particulars.
Al Baker, CH101
I welcome your Questions, Comments or Criticisms:
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