Some time ago, I decided to tell you about the reasons why I joined the Catholic faith. In my last post, I mentioned the abundant value of the Catechism of the Catholic Church as a guiding source for official Church teaching. In this post, I’d like to share with you the importance of history and how it supports modern-day claims about the Catholic Church.
As a Protestant, it seemed like church history started with the Protestant Reformation. It seemed like every major doctrine that encompassed the five Solas revolved around the Reformation. The people who I admired most in Protestant circles highlighted Martin Luther and John Calvin as if they were the apostles themselves that received direct revelation from Christ to start their revolution against the Church. It seemed like every major thing I knew about my faith as a Protestant originated from these figures.
All I heard and read from Protestant pastors and scholars was that Christianity was compromised early on. This is a popular theory sometimes called the Great Apostasy. This narrative has many popular renditions, but most goes like this: authentic Christianity was thriving for many centuries until Constantine came and made Christianity into a political and institutional organization. By doing so, he allowed Christianity to evolve into an idolatrous and power-hungry force which is now the “Roman Catholic Church.” Strong emphasis on “Roman” because anti-Catholic sentiments want to distance what the early church called the “Catholic church” from a corrupted counterfeit ripoff.
After much doubting my beliefs and going back and forth on the Great Apostasy, I started to have this thought, “If Jesus Christ promised his Church would never be compromised by evil than Christianity couldn’t have possibly been in error that many centuries.” I was always told the Reformers wanted to reclaim authentic Christianity that was lost. Christ died about 1500 years before the Reformation which means a false Christianity existed for far too long.
Catholicism praised itself on being the unbroken historical Church that can be traced back to Jesus, so after much thinking, I decided to be open-minded and investigate what the early church believed to see how Catholic it was. If what the Catholic Church said was true then I would be able to find great scholars or theologians that would’ve expanded on doctrines that Catholics believe today.
I went to find out exactly what the first six centuries of Christianity believed. Granted, I didn’t do an exhaustive trek of reading every homily, epistle, or text available by apostolic, ante/ post-Nicene fathers, but I read and heard enough legitimate sources to abandon my Protestant beliefs on Catholic claims on history.
One of those doctrines is the Primacy of Rome and the papacy which are probably one of the most dividing points between Catholics and Protestants. Catholics see the early church as having primacy in the Bishop of Rome, but Protestants see such a belief as either unsupported by Scripture or just a development of a later compromised “Roman Christianity.” Which one was true?
When I started digging deeper into the papacy/primacy of Rome, I found a quote that really warped my Protestant lenses. Although not before the Constantine era, it still managed to uproot deep anti-Catholic claims about the ancient church looking nothing like today’s Catholic Church.
In 451, the Council of Chalcedon was summoned to clarify the Christological nature of Christ against heresy advanced by Eutyches and his widespread belief of monophysitism. The council agreed on the orthodox belief that Christ is one in two natures. During the second session of the council, the bishops declared:
“This is the faith of the fathers, this is the faith of the Apostles. So we all believe, thus the orthodox believe. Anathema to him who does not thus believe. Peter has spoken thus through Leo. “
After reading this, I couldn’t believe I stumbled across a historical truth concerning the primacy of Peter and the Magisterium of the Church What I got from this excerpt was this: Peter is the apostle with the elevated position to lead and be the visible head of the flock, didn’t intend on allowing his role to die when he martyred. As a result, he allowed a successor to be the Bishop of Rome and eventually there was an identifiable unbroken link of successors to Peter’s seat. Since Peter is the rock on which the Church is built, his authoritative foundation was alive through Pope Leo I during Chalcedon.
And there it was. A clear link from the past to the present. As I crept into being satisfied with the prospect of being Catholic, I bought a book called Upon This Rock: St. Peter and the Primacy of Rome in Scripture and the Early Church by Stephen Ray. This book provides a scriptural and historical case for the papacy. The chapter on the first five centuries cites several Church Fathers and proves how the earliest Christians were governed by the Bishop of Rome and recognized Peter as having a preeminent position among the twelve. This book totally debunked the myth of the Great Apostasy by demonstrating that before the Edict of Milan or Constantine, the Fathers were convinced about the importance of Rome as a governing authority for the Church.
For example, when Irenaeus wrote Against Heresies, he mentions Pope Victor’s dispute with Asia Minor churches on the correct Easter celebration date. In response to Pope Victor’s authoritative decision to excommunicate the churches because of their hesitancy to transfer to a unified liturgical calendar, the peaceful Saint states:
“It is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church [of Rome] on account of its preeminent authority.”
Irenaeus shows that the churches across the scattered world must agree with the Roman Church because of its reputation, founding and being organized by Sts. Peter and Paul. This further shows that Peter had a special honor as an apostle. Scholars estimate Irenaeus wrote his letter in about 180 or 190 AD, so this is clearly prior to Constantine. I walked away from this quote feeling even more affirmed that the ancient Church was indeed the Catholic Church.
One thing I’ve learned about looking at history is the Church today doesn’t resemble the primitive Church 100% and that’s a good thing. The Church encompasses more believers and has fewer theological terms to define. You definitely won’t find a Pope Mobile either! Thankfully, the Mystical Body of Christ gradually changed without transforming into an entirely new institution. As time went on in the earliest centuries, the Church became more clearly defined. We can see this in topics such as Christology. Today we have full-fledged teaching on this essential aspect of Christianity, but earlier on it took a few centuries against heresy to formulate the orthodox understanding of hypostatic union.
Friends, If you’re anything like me and asked the question “How did the earliest Christian’s worship?” then the Fathers will be of great aid. There’s a popular quote circulated by Catholics from John Henry Cardinal Newman, “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant. ”
That pretty much sums up my experience in my conversion to the Catholic Church.
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