The concept of “doctrinal corruption” – that is, the notion that Christianity fell into a state of apostasy or has drifted from the Truth, has been around for some time. Although throughout the history of Christianity groups have said that this has happened, the most well-known example (at least in North America) is the Reformation, spearheaded by Martin Luther. More recently, since then we’ve seen other groups make the same claims and gain an impressive following, namely the Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) and Jehovah Witnesses (JW’s).
The concept of a prolonged apostasy, followed by a period of reformation, is an interesting one. One can certainly argue that some reform was needed during the time or Luther, at least from a behavioral standpoint. Even Catholic sources detail that certain members of church leadership at the time were hardly living sanctifying lives. That should not have resulted in a clean break away from a large group of Christianity though, instead the reforms would have rebuked individuals into improving themselves and their behavioral patterns. We can see small cases of this in Acts where some members of leadership were rebuked, including Peter being rebuked by Paul. Yet no schism happened – Paul did not create his own church. Additionally in Paul’s example, he still called Peter “Cephas”, continuing to call him by his Office and acknowledging his authority.
However during the reformation, we also had individuals proclaim that not only was leadership engaging in corrupt behaviors, but it was doctrine itself that was corrupt. No longer was Catholicism home to authentic Christian doctrine, it had to be reformed into True Christianity. And for that to happen, people must start anew. There’s two issues with that line of thinking, which were applicable then and even more applicable now. The first is that there was no indication of when the reforming would stop, which is evidenced by the fractures within Christianity that followed. By all accounts, it appears that most Christian denominations are continuing to reform – indicating that as of yet we have no reached “original Christianity”. The second, the nature of reforming means that the original doctrine at some point would have been deviated from, that there would have been some manner of difference between them. And, most importantly, it would mean that all reforms that happened would make Christianity go back to the way it was within the first couple of hundred years.
There’s two items I specifically want to talk about. One is a pillar of Protestantism, which means that post Reformation it should truly be Scripturally sound *and* have been widely practiced by the early Christian Church (aka “original Christian Church). The second will be a piece of doctrine which is referenced in Scripture, and in theory should remain consistent from that time to the present.
We begin with the pillar Protestantism, Sola Scriptura – Scripture alone as the sole rule of Faith. If we go all the way back to “original Christianity”, did they practice using Scripture alone? Forgive my momentary sarcasm, but with the amount of times I have been asked “where is that in the bible?” by Protestants, you would think that Sola Scriptura was certainly taught by the early Christians. But each time I hear that expression, I find myself thinking in my head “where in the Bible does it say everything has to be in the Bible?” Eventually when asked enough times I usually follow-up with that question, people usually follow up with 2 Timothy 3:16 (NIV) “all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness”. The issue with that verse though is that not only does it not say that it is essential (merely “useful”), but also the very obviously situation where the New Testament wasn’t even finished yet – because Paul at the time was literally writing one of the books. The Scriptures Paul was talking about was the Old Testament, the Scriptures of Timothy’s use. Of course, as a former ace Jewish scholar, these books Paul would be well familiar with and have a deep devotion for, so of course he will tell Timothy they are useful. But, and a key “but” here; they were not singled out as being the sole measurement, or being the most essential part.
Because as a former Jew, Paul knew the value of leadership and traditions. He also knew that for the Church to survive, they would need more than just a compilation of writings. “I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you” (1 Cor. 11:2) and “so then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thess. 2:15) and two clear examples of him exhorting this message. In fact, he doubles-down with the Thessalonians by then saying “Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is living in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us” (2 Thess. 3:6). Of course, the most powerful Scriptural witness of this occurrence takes place before 2 Timothy 3:16, “What you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2). Paul is entrusting that Timothy (then a Bishop) will continue to teach, and later on informs him that Scripture is a useful tool in that area.
There’s other logistical problems with Sola Scriptura. Others have done a magnificent job of discussing this, so I’ll simply summarize; since there was no printing press for mass distribution, no efficient way to write out the Scriptures (it used to take three years to write everything out on animal skins), there would be immense hurdles to say that Scripture alone was sufficient for the Faith during the early Church.
That brings me to the clearest issue with Sola Scriptura within the early Church; The Thomas Dilemma. There’s two issues involving Thomas, the first being that there was a Gospel with his name on it. Someone would have had to determine if that book was inspired, someone with authentic authority given to them by Christ Jesus Himself. If we look closely, Church leadership got together and officially pronounced a Canon during the Council of Carthage in 397 AD, which means 350 years had passed before we see any official notice(s) about the Canon. This of course makes Paul look brilliant in telling his followers to listen to their leaders and follow the traditions set forth by them, because it took 350-ish years for there to be an official Canon.
The second issue with Thomas, and is something that we seriously need to reflect on, is the Apostle traveled 4775km’s and founded the Church in India. With no Scripture. No Bible, it wasn’t even written yet. The Church in India basically was stood up solely by the work of Thomas and others, with things being passed down to the next generation(s). There was no break from doctrine, they remained consistent.
One last point on this topic; I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about Romans 3:20, where Paul talks about not being saved by “the works of the law”. What some don’t know, but when Paul’s talking about “the law” he’s actually talking about “the works of the Torah” (the Greek is “ergon nomou”), which makes sense because Paul was all about preaching to the Gentiles – they would possibly react harshly to having to follow Jewish laws or customs.
So now at this time I’d like to discuss doctrinal consistency with a key piece of doctrine which has been around for a while now, examine what it means to be consistent, and see if there was an apostasy of sorts. Fortunately, when it comes to apostasy of doctrine, we have a modern day case study we can look at; Marriage.
An institution that spans millennia, marriage is what I consider to be a key piece in understanding doctrinal consistency. Marriage, as defined by the Catholic Church – is binding until one of the parties passes away. Two people becoming one flesh, one person. When we look at Christianity, we can see from the writings of the Early Church Fathers that the early Church that the definition of marriage fit the description above – one man, one woman. What God has joined, no man may tear asunder. Divorce and re-marrying is strictly prohibited. Yes there are “annulments”, however annulments are not “Catholic divorce”, annulments are granted when it is deemed the marriage was never valid in the first place versus divorce it doesn’t matter if the marriage was valid or not.
When we look at other Christian denominations, we see that most of them don’t condone divorce – yet they also do not outright prohibit it. This infamously started with the Church of England, and eventually spread to all other Christian denominations. These days some folks use Matthew 19:9 as justification for divorce when a partner commits adultery (“I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery”), but there’s a small catch; it doesn’t jive with the rest of the New Testament which says that under no circumstances can man tear apart a marriage. It also doesn’t mesh with the consistent teachings of the Early Church Fathers, which were unanimous in their stance.
Hermas in 80 AD said “what then shall the husband do, if the wife continue in this disposition [adultery]? Let him divorce her, and let the husband remain single. But if he divorces his wife and marries another, he too commits adultery| (Shepherd 4:1:6). This takes place well before the Canon of Scripture was ratified, certainly before the Book of Matthew would have been readily available.
Justin Martyr in 151 AD said that “According to our Teacher, just as they are sinners who contract a second marriage, even though it be in accord with human law, so also are they sinners who look with lustful desire at a woman”.
In 398 AD Jerome wrote a very reasonable commentary on the passage saying “wherever there is fornication and a suspicion of fornication a wife is freely dismissed. Because it is always possible that someone may calumniate the innocent and, for the sake of a second joining in marriage, act in criminal fashion against the first, it is commanded that when the first wife is dismissed a second may not be taken while the first lives”.
And of course, in 419 AD Augustine tackled this with his usual sublime nuance: Neither can it rightly be held that a husband who dismisses his wife because of fornication and marries another does not commit adultery. For there is also adultery on the part of those who, after the repudiation of their former wives because of fornication, marry others. This adultery, nevertheless, is certainly less serious than that of men who dismiss their wives for reasons other than fornication and take other wives. Therefore, when we say; “Whoever marries a woman dismissed by her husband for reason other than fornication commits adultery,” undoubtedly we speak the truth. But we do not thereby acquit of this crime the man who marries a woman who was dismissed because of fornication. We do not doubt in the least that both are adulterers. We do indeed pronounce him an adulterer who dismissed his wife for cause other than fornication and marries another, nor do we thereby defend from the taint of this sin the man who dismissed his wife because of fornication and marries another. We recognize that both are adulterers, though the sin of one is graver than that of the other. No one is so unreasonable to say that a man who marries a woman whose husband has dismissed her because of fornication is not an adulterer, while maintaining that a man who marries a woman dismissed without the ground of fornication is an adulterer. Both of these men are guilty of adultery”.
So then, what to make of that passage? We need to look at the Greek. The Greek word used here is “porneia,” which means unlawful sexual intercourse. “Moicheia” is the ordinary Greek word for adultery, which means that Jesus wasn’t talking about marriage, he was referring to spiritually unlawful relationships (such as common law, or back then concubines)
The interpretation I provided above is the only way to reconcile what is found in Scripture with what the early Christian church practiced, and dovetails with Scripture’s consistent message of one man-one woman, until death do them part. When we look at the entire package, the outlook is clear; there’s only one group of Christians who have remained *consistent* over 2000+ years. And we can see this in so many areas. Same-sex marriage. Masturbation. And especially artificial birth control, which to this day I will stand on a soapbox and that particular battle created a Saint unlike any other.
Picture if you will, a battle. A “revolution”. The sexual revolution is in full gear, and everyone (including some leaders), are putting pressure on the Pope. Release restrictions on birth control, they said. Give people the freedom, they called for. He was surrounded by people against him, with the media fighting him. So what is a former lawyer to do when under assault?
Become a prophet.
Because that man, Paul VI, wrote Humanae Vitae, where he slammed the door shut on artificial contraceptives, and unleashed prophecies saying that allowing artificial contraceptives would:
– “lead to conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality”.
– “the man” will lose respect for “the woman” and “no longer (care) for her physical and psychological equilibrium” and will come to “the point of considering her as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment and no longer as his respected and beloved companion” (sounds like pornography, no?)
– “a dangerous weapon… in the hands of those public authorities who take no heed of moral exigencies.”
– Would lead man to think that he had unlimited dominion over his own body (aka designer babies, cloning).
– That it would lead to an increase in abortions, since if the birth control failed a backup would be required.
All of those have come to pass. And standing in the way of those things, the Catholic Church. And if you look at *any* of those issues, you can see a clear line of doctrinal teaching from the Catholic Church starting from Scripture, the early Church, to the present day.
Something that I have to mention, which is especially relevant with recent curriculum changes in Ontario; people can change things like sexual education, but that does not mean the Church will change. I have and will continue to hammer this home in this post; the Catholic Church has remained consistent on all issues of sexual morality for 2000+ years. The Catholic Church is the only Christian faith to not have changed their beliefs on any issue of sexual morality. The beliefs are based on philosophy, biology, psychology, with a bit of theology thrown in. Do not confuse people like teachers being forced to teach something to mean that the Church has changed Her teaching. Do not confuse a school’s curriculum to be what the Church actually teaches. Ask for sources, ask for citations. *Every* teaching the Church has is written down and can be corroborated and explained. If you were a journalist, you can see a clear lineage in these teachings and the documents that have them. So when someone says “things are changing!”, ask for sources. Ask for Church documents, Church teaching. Ask for Scripture passages, ask for Catechism references. Ask your local priest, ask your local church leaders. Ask your local catechists (which I am one of), The doctrine has never changed. The people in charge changed, the people attending Mass changed, but the doctrine never changed. The language used to celebrate Mass changed, the liturgical calendar changed, Canon Laws changed. But the doctrine never changed. How the doctrine was presented has changed, the language used to describe doctrine has changed, but the doctrine itself has not.
I mentioned earlier about Mormons, who believe in a “Great Apostasy”. In addition there’s modern day Protestantism, where there is still an (sometimes sub-conscious) inherent belief that an apostasy and departure from doctrine has still happened (otherwise there would be no reason to continue protesting, right?). There’s some Christians who infer that there was an apostasy of some kind after the death of Christ and before the Reformation. But as established, for there to be an apostasy from doctrine, things should have changed, and they clearly haven’t. So what is the danger in this? A very real one, a very old one. And consider that huge complaint that non-believers say about the Catholic Church is that it is “behind the times” and they should change doctrine. A Christian needs to examine why those would say this, and why it’s teachings in key doctrinal teachings such as marriage (prohibition of divorce, marriage is to be between one man and one woman), human life (prohibition on direct abortions, life begins at conception), who would stand to benefit from this. Who would benefit if the prophecies of Paul VI came to pass?
After all of this, I have a single paragraph, which If you were to rebuild Christianity from the ground up, starting with the Bible and then looking at historical documentation from the first 600 years; you would have a church that looks nothing like any current Protestant denomination. You certainly would have a Church that has remained consistent with doctrine for 200+ years though. Along with a visible successor of Peter, but that’s a post for another time.