The Argument from (Dis-)Similarity

Will the real Church please stand up?  Go to a phone directory of any moderately sized settlement and see if the listings for “churches” don’t rapidly get bewildering.  Indeed, such an exercise is often an education into varieties of Christianity we didn’t know existed!  How should those who worship Christ sort through this denominational chaos?

One method frequently suggested by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Disciples of Christ (along with a few Baptists, on occasion) is to look at the evidence for early Christianity and see which contemporary denomination is most similar to the churches of the apostles and their successors.  This is the argument from similarity.  I recently read a blog post making this argument against Protestants of all stripes, and a commentator here pressed me to consider the same line of reasoning.  It was not the first time.  I have heard this argument made in favor of multiple different branches of contemporary Christianity.  I like to imagine the question by asking which church would look most familiar to the apostle Peter or any of the other earliest Christians, if he were sent on a time-travel expedition from AD 60 to the present.  I prefer someone else to Jesus for this exercise because Jesus is the God who knows the hearts, and this is usually posed as a question about external appearances. There are many ways one can compare churches, including leadership structure, worship services, theology, architecture, spiritual gifts, and devotional practices.

Leadership Structure

The church at Jerusalem started out as a group of apostles among a larger group of other “followers of the Way,” (Acts 1) of whom Peter was (at least) the most prominent spokesman (Acts 2).  Within a few years they ordained seven deacons to assist with some practical matters (Acts 6).  By the time of the famine in the 40s, during the reign of Claudius, the church of Jerusalem was being led by a group of elders (presbyters, the common Greek word for Christian “priests” as opposed to Jewish “priests”), with a prominent role for James, the brother of Jesus (Acts 11:30; 12:17; 15:13-21).

Meanwhile, churches were being founded elsewhere.  We’re not told anything about the structure of the early Samaritan churches (Acts 8).  At Antioch the church seems to be led by a group of “prophets and teachers” (Acts 13:1).  Paul and Barnabas were traveling around (as were others) founding churches and appointing elders to lead them (Acts 14:23).  At this early time, the term ἐπίσκοπος (“overseer,” the root of the English term “bishop”) seems to be used interchangeably with “elder” and “shepherd” (compare Acts 20:17 and 20:28; also Titus 1:6-7).  Whatever the term, there were several of them in Ephesus (Acts 20:17) and in Philippi (Phil 1:1; as noted already by Jerome c. 400).  In Rome, before Paul arrived there, the Christians seem to be arranged in multiple congregations, several of which are identified by household (Romans 16).

Among non-biblical early Christian texts, the Didache (15) and Clement of Rome (42) likewise refer to two orders of clergy, “bishops/overseers” and deacons, the latter author seeming to identify the “bishops/overseers” with “priests” in chapter 44.  Shortly after the year 100, Ignatius of Antioch is the earliest known Christian author to distinguish between “bishops” and “priests/elders,” putting the former in “God’s place” and the latter “as the college of apostles” (Ig.Magn. 6:1; cf. Ig.Tral. 3:1; 7:2; Ig.Eph. 2:2).  It is often stated that Ignatius argued for the necessity of having only a single bishop; as I reviewed his letters for this post, I find no evidence for such an argument.  Rather, he identifies a single bishop in each town, though he writes to the local church as a whole.  The curious exception is Rome, whose letter from Ignatius mentions no bishop.  And the bishops of the various cities he wrote to apparently met him in Smyrna and carried their letters back; it is unclear the degree to which his identification of single bishops is due to his own Syrian usage, rather than the usage of Asia Minor.

Nor is the absence of a mention of a bishop of Rome entirely unique.  The letter ascribed to Clement of Rome never names Clement, despite the fact that letters typically begin by naming their author, nor does the letter refer to an ecclesiastical authority in Rome.  It was instead addressed from “the Church of God which is inhabiting Rome” to “the Church of God which is inhabiting Corinth.”  Later tradition ascribed the letter to Clement of Rome, who is likewise only known from later tradition.  (He was subsequently identified with the Clement mentioned by Paul in Phil. 4:3, who is not in any way linked to Rome in Paul’s letter.)  Nor could subsequent tradition agree on how many bishops of Rome there were between the apostle Peter and Clement, suggesting zero, one, or two.  Indeed, in the time of the Shepherd of Hermas (date disputed, but probably mid-2nd century), the author still referred to “the presbyters who lead the church” in the city of Rome (Vision 2.4.3).  Later authors committed the almost unavoidable mental error of anachronism by reading into early Christianity in Rome the presence of a single bishop, which had become (nearly?) universal by the late second century.

So which modern denomination do these data most resemble?  The tidy hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, which deacons and priests all answering to bishops, who in turn answer to the Pope in Rome, is foreign to this context.  Indeed, it appears that there was no single bishop in Rome within a century of the apostle Peter.  This also does not look much like the Chalcedonian insistence on the pentarchy, which only attained five patriarchates after the elevation of Jerusalem to a patriarchate in 451; indeed, in the second century, only three of the later five had any prominence.  Protestants are divided among those who have bishops, those who have presbyteries, those who have elder boards, and those who claim to be led by prophets or even apostles.  Protestant bishops also look little like the multiple “overseer/bishops” of a single city, while Presbyterians presume a regional authority structure (the presbytery) for which no evidence exists in the early church.  Baptists have multiple “elders” in their churches, but they usually don’t preach or perform the Eucharist, as they did in the earliest churches, and those who claim to be led by apostles don’t send them packing often enough; apostles were mainly migratory birds.  Those who claim to be led by prophets should have those prophets’ words judged for exactitude (Deuteronomy 18), and do not adhere to the instructions to appoint “elders/presbyters/priests” in every city (Titus 1:5).  Most non-episcopal and non-presbyterian churches are also intensely congregationalist, rejecting “outside interference” in their affairs of exactly the sort contained in 1 Clement and in all the letters of Paul.

To sum up, the earliest Churches were somewhat diverse in their leadership structures, which changed over time, and they do not closely resemble any existing denomination.

Worship Services

What about the worship?  Perhaps one denomination worships God exactly as Christians always have.  (Indeed, I saw this claimed by an Antiochian Orthodox church website a few evenings ago, and they are not unique in the claim.)  The difficulty, of course, is identifying from the hints available what can be said of the worship of the earliest churches.  They certainly did not recite the Nicene Creed, or even the Apostles’ Creed, as neither had been composed before 200.  The Eucharist was evidently a big portion of the gathering, which may be implicit in Acts 2:42, 46, though Paul speaks of the bread preceding the cup (1 Cor 11:23-25) and the Didache speaks of the cup preceding the bread (9:2-3).  Paul also speaks of prophesying, revelation, and speaking in tongues in the communal worship, and that multiple people should contribute elements to it (1 Cor 14:26-33).  Paul elsewhere speaks of men praying with their hands raised up (1 Tim 2:8).  The Didache gives a post-Eucharistic prayer which is, to my knowledge, no longer used in any denomination (10), though prophets are expressly permitted to pray longer.  Pliny’s letter to Trajan offers a meeting time of pre-dawn and responsive singing, as well as some sort of oath not to commit crimes, followed by an adjournment and then coming together for a meal, which is plausibly the Eucharist.  Justin Martyr (1 Apology 67) gives the most detailed consecutive account of a Christian worship service in the mid-2nd century which specifies reading scripture for as long as available, followed by a sermon or homily of exhortation to imitate these things, evidently while the congregation is seated.  This is followed by standing and congregational prayer, then communion with bread, water, and wine, followed by taking a collection.  Justin completes his description with an explanation of why the worship must be on Sunday.

So which denomination worships in this way?  Well, the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox recite the “new” creeds, and no one reads scripture for “as long as time allows.”  Most scripture readings are all too brief, in fact, although in this regard the liturgical Christians often excel the “Bible-only” Protestants.  But those same liturgical Christians do not generally allow prophesying or speaking in tongues in their liturgies, unlike the apostle Paul, who to our modern ears almost sounds like a charismatic or Pentecostal in his preferred worship style.  The liturgical Christians also sit and stand (not to mention kneel) at the wrong times, according to Justin.  And the Roman Catholic  Many Protestants do not celebrate the Eucharist every week, an odd relic of the fact that in medieval Europe it was customary for the laity not to partake of the Eucharist except once per year, which is far removed from earliest Christian practice.  With the second Vatican Council of the 1960s, the Roman Catholic Church changed their dominant practice and permitted the laity once more to receive the cup which had previously been partaken of by all Christians.  Most Christians worship on Sundays, except for the Seventh-Day Adventists, and recently the Roman Catholic Church has started offering “Sunday Mass” from mid-afternoon on Saturday.  But I don’t know of any denomination outside of the illegal churches of China that habitually meets in the pre-dawn to sing and take an oath not to commit crimes.  I also don’t know of any denomination today that takes the collection after the communion, and of course no denomination both partakes of the Eucharistic bread before the cup and the cup before the bread.

In short, early Christian worship practice varied, and resembles different modern worship services in different ways, to different degrees, but no modern denomination worships “in the same way” as the earliest Christians, at least judging by externals.


This is a highly contentious issue, of course, but I can make short work of it without saying anything very contentious.  The earliest Christians everywhere taught that salvation is by grace, and everywhere emphasized the importance of faith, and nowhere described it as “by faith alone.”  As one Roman Catholic friend of mine liked to remind me, “the only time ‘faith’ and ‘alone’ occurred together in the Bible is when James wrote that justification is ‘not by faith alone’ (James 2:24).”  They also nowhere taught that scripture alone is the only basis for belief.  On the other hand, the earliest Christians (before c.200) nowhere taught the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary, and indeed Tertullian rejected the theory of her perpetual virginity, a theory whose main earlier advocate is the bizarre Protoevangelium of James.  (It is often asserted, without citation of his works, that Irenaeus taught Mary’s perpetual virginity, but this Roman Catholic site rejects that assertion.)  The doctrine of purgatory is not to be found in the earliest Christian texts, and Augustine frankly declares himself uncertain on the subject.  Regarding the doctrine of transubstantiation, its specificity is often misunderstood by lay Roman Catholics: the notion that the bread and the wine are the body and blood of Christ is everywhere witnessed by the earliest Christians, and this formulation is shared with Eastern Orthodox and many Protestants; the notion that this identity is accomplished according to Aristotle’s theory of substance and accidents is attested nowhere among the earliest Christians.  With regard to Chalcedonian Orthodox distinctives, the distinction between divine essences and energies is absent from the earliest writings.  Nor in fact did the earliest Christian authors specify how many natures (whether 1 or 2) are found in the incarnate Christ; here again we must distinguish between the primitive Christian assertion that Jesus was both God and human from the various expressions of that idea using Aristotelian metaphysics from the fifth century onward.

What does this show?  All branches of Christianity believe things which were not taught by the earliest Christians.  As Newman argued, doctrine develops, and it has developed in all of the branches of Christianity.  Christians of various branches will contend that their direction of development was more consistent with the theology of the earliest churches, and not all such cases are equally valid, but the fact that doctrinal development is universal means that no denomination today teaches exactly and only what the earliest Christians believed.  The argument from similarity, on the question of theology, has no modern winners (though it has a few modern losers, who clearly teach less and not more than the earliest Christians believed).


This is even briefer: the earliest Christians met in houses.  Only later did they meet in public buildings, but Roman basilicas don’t look much like modern churches (usually too many open columns, not enough wall space).  Lest some of our “house church Protestant” friends claim that therefore they have the similarity market cornered on this dimension, I would point out that modern houses do not look much like 1st-2nd C houses (no electricity back then, for starters, and much worse insulation).  No one today worships in buildings used by or resembling buildings used by the earliest Christians.

Spiritual Gifts

Jesus worked miracles.  The apostles worked miracles.  Other Christians at the time of the apostles worked miracles.  Most modern denominations (other than the charismatics and Pentecostals) don’t work miracles in the same ways.  Not all spiritual gifts are showy or miraculous, of course (see 1 Cor 12:28), and so most modern Christian denominations emphasize the non-miraculous gifts (especially the gift of committee work).  But while there are spiritual gifts at play in these denominations, the balance of spiritual gifts is very visibly different than among the earliest Christians.  Augustine already noticed this, and had an explanation for it.  But to the degree that charismatic and Pentecostal prophets are not simply frauds, they alone can claim to resemble the earliest Christians in this domain.

Devotional Practices

Here we can say the least, as we know basically nothing about the earliest Christian devotional practices.  All that we can say is that all devotional practices popular today have a history.  Icons, and the modes of venerating them, were developed over time, and the earliest Christian images (such as the frescoes of Dura Europos) don’t even qualify as icons according to the strict later Orthodox view that they must be painted on wood panels.  The Rosary was invented in the past millennium, as was Eucharistic adoration, as was hesychasm.  Speaking in “my personal prayer language” is even more recent.  Most early Christians were unable to manage the individual “devotional time” of Bible reading which is the mainstay of most Protestant devotions.  Other Protestant devotional practices such as fasting and prayer are idiorrhythmic, which has a long history in Christian asceticism, but already the Didache enjoins fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays rather than on Tuesdays and Thursdays (8:1).  So whatever else may be said, no modern denomination’s devotional practices mirror those of the earliest Christians.

Our Options

From the various things that have been said, it is clear that no single denomination or church organization visibly mirrors the earliest Christian Church in all particulars.  The argument from similarity fails.  Where does that leave us?  There are various options, not all of them equally good.

1. The Church is inherently defined by unchanging visible features, and has now ended.  Despite the Lord’s promise in Matthew 16:18 that the Church would never be overcome, if all of these visible features are essential to the definition of the Church, then the Church exists no longer.  This seems silly to me, and I don’t really know anyone who believes this, despite occasional sede-vacantist whingeing that it’s on the verge of happening.

2. The Church is inherently defined by some unchanging visible features but not others.  Since no denomination mirrors the earliest Christians in all visible features, perhaps some of these are cosmetic while others are essential.  This is an attractive position, but notice that the areas which most churches want to claim as unchanging have in fact changed.  The Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox are going to have a hard time making good on their claim that their leadership structures are the same as those of the earliest Christians.  Since there was no singular Roman bishop after Peter and before Hermas in the mid-2nd century, submission to the Roman pontiff could not be necessary for salvation, as was later taught by the medieval Pope Boniface VIII in his bull Unam Sanctam.  On the other hand, Protestants and Pentecostals will not find that the ways in which they resemble the early Church were preserved continuously in the intervening periods.  So I also think this position untenable.

3. Certain visible features which have not always defined the Church now necessarily do.  This view would assert that, though God was content to have an “irregular” Church early on, nevertheless through the guidance of the Holy Spirit certain changes took place which are now mandatory.  What were once structural and liturgical possibilities for the Church of God are no longer.  This is a tenable position, although the current lack of visible unity among Christian denominations makes it difficult to convince others that any particular tradition is normative.  That is why apologists out to steal sheep from other denominations do not adopt this position, but rather appeal to the fallacious argument from similarity.

If those three were the only possibilities, then #3 would be the only reasonable option.  But there is another option:

4. The visible characteristics of the Church are not its defining marks.  Instead, the defining features of the Church of Christ now, as always, are invisible.  The earliest Christians were diverse as to their leadership structures and worship styles; those aspects were not fixed and uniform for all Christians then, and they never have been.  What characterized the Church of Christ then were invisible qualities which continue to characterize the Church of Christ to this day.  I might appeal to the “new command” of Jesus in John 13:34-35: “A new command I give you: that you love one another, so that, just as I have loved you, you may love one another.  By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”  Or Paul’s list of the “fruits of the Spirit” from Gal. 5:22-23: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Irenaeus, at the close of the period of “earliest Christians” discussed here, seemed to take this view of the defining nature of the Church: “For where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church, and every kind of grace; but the Spirit is truth” (AH III.24.1).

I think #4 is the most defensible option.  The argument from dissimilarity indicates that the spiritual essence of the Church cannot be delineated visibly. But let me anticipate one last objection, by way of clarification: it is often objected that the Church founded by Christ must be visible, based on various reasons, some more plausible than others.  There is a difference between saying a Church is visible and saying it may be precisely delineated by visible features, as there is a difference between saying the essence of the Church is invisible and saying that the Church itself is invisible.  If there are human beings as part of the Church, the Church is visible in part.  No one, not even Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox, believe the Church is wholly visible, for that would be to exclude those in heaven now.  What #4 above says is that the essence of the Church, what makes the Church the Church, is not visible; the Church itself is very visible in its members who are worshiping and serving Christ.  The Church itself has various organizational structures, and always has, which change over time, but that does not make the Church less visible.  It is not the organizational structures which define the Church, but the Church which defines various structures for its own uses.  Option #4 probably does imply that the precise boundaries of the Church are not knowable to us before our glorification, but that is hardly surprising: the Lord taught in parables that the visible Church would always be mixed between those being saved and those not (see Matt 13:24-30 and 36-43; 25:1-10), and Paul’s response to the issue of false teachers within the Church is that “the Lord knows those who are His” (2 Tim 2:19).  Eastern Orthodox Christians of an ecumenical mind have recently (in Orthodox terms) offset the traditional statement that “outside of the Church there is no salvation” with the assertion, “We can say where the Church is; we cannot say where the Church is not.”  And, in fact, breaking with Pope Boniface VIII, the Roman Catholic Church also now teaches that those who are saved may be found outside the Roman Catholic denomination, although they refrain from equating “the collection of those who are saved” with “the Church of Christ,” which for them still connotes an ecclesiastical hierarchy in communion with the Roman papacy.

By way of conclusion, then, the argument from similarity is fallacious because no modern Christian group “looks like” the earliest Christians, especially in those ways which distinguish them from other modern Christian groups.  Apart from a few positions which no one I’ve ever met actually holds, we are either left asserting that the essentially visible nature of the Church has changed since the apostles, or that the essential nature of the Church is not visible (though much of the Church itself is visible).  I think the weight of evidence is in favor of the latter option, and regardless of my opinion, “the Lord knows those who are His.”


  1. Interesting post. I think however that the premise itself is a little misconceived – namely that the churches you mention at the outset actually do attempt to make an argument from similarity at all. The Catholic Church for example does claim to have the strongest link to the apostolic Church, but this is not necessarily one of similarity but of resonance or consonance. Very few churches actually claim to be the same as the early Church (though some Protestant groups such as the Baptists and various Restorationist movements do) but rather claim that their doctrines and ecclesiastical structures have better roots in the apostolic era than others – i.e.; the issue is not one of similarity as sameness, but one of authentic development.

    This is something you mention briefly in your post (citing Newman) but do not include it in the list of options in your conclusion (though some combination of #2 and #3 might lead to it).

    Given that it is plain enough to most people that the historical support for various doctrinal and ecclesiological positions is incomplete, surely the question should be whether we can trust received tradition on such matters, rather than concluding that absence of evidence means evidence of absence. For instance, regarding episcopal government, this doesn’t seem to have been queried at all until the Reformation – was God then misleading all Christians up to that point by allowing them to think that this was how He wanted things (or perhaps He doesn’t care)?

    The secondary question of course is then which particular tradition has the best claims to be an authentic interpreter of tradition and also represents the most authentic development of doctrine (do the roots match the branches of the tree, as it were). Again (though I still can’t find the reference!) Newman’s concept of the Church in his day being like a portrait of the older man that the picture of the young boy the early Church was is helpful in this regard I think.

    Finally, re visibility, when you say:

    ‘There is a difference between saying a Church is visible and saying it may be precisely delineated by visible features’

    it seems to me that if we admit that the Church has a visible dimension at all (and that its oneness, apostolicity and catholicity are shown in that visible dimension) then it surely must be delineated by visible features. Otherwise it is a bit like saying that my flat is visible, but I’m not quite sure where the door is or how many rooms it has, etc – I’d be better off saying that I couldn’t see the flat at all.

    1. I did not claim that churches make the argument from similarity, but that Christians of many stripes do. Just to clarify, when you write, “Very few churches actually claim to be the same as the early Church (though some Protestant groups such as the Baptists and various Restorationist movements do),” I assume you do not mean “Very few churches actually claim to be the same Church as the early Church” (which Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and most Protestants claim), but that “Very few churches actually claim to be the same in every respect as the early Church.” Can I ask you to clarify what you mean by “resonance” or “consonance” in this context, if not “similarity”?

      The option you did not see in my list, the view that “my” denomination’s doctrines and structures “have better roots” from the beginning and are “authentic development,” must I think boil down to #3 or #4. Are these developments necessary for the Church now? If so, you hold #3. Are these visible developments not necessary for the Church, but evidence of an unchanging invisible essence? If so, you hold #4. Or am I missing something?

      As a professional historian, I am very sensitive to the axiom that absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence. This is why I was careful to cite only positive evidence for ways in which the earliest Christians diverged from what is acceptable in any contemporary denomination. These points are not speculation; if you disagree with my interpretation of the evidence, please feel free to raise the points at issue specifically.

      Actually, the episcopal model has been questioned repeatedly throughout the history of Christianity, long before the Reformation. As I mentioned in my post, Jerome (whom Roman Catholics regard as a saint) remarked that in the New Testament “bishops” and “presbyters” were the same. Some challenged the authority of bishops, for example the Messalians, and from late antiquity to the end of the Middle Ages, at least, monks often challenged bishops’ claims to be the spiritual leaders of Christianity. It is hard to know exactly the early Waldensian beliefs, but it may have included rejecting episcopacy, and I cannot say for sure if Wyclif rejected episcopacy (the Wikipedia page seems conflicted, and perhaps John Wyclif himself was as well). One may conclude that these people were wrong, but it is simply historically incorrect to say, “regarding episcopal government, this doesn’t seem to have been queried at all until the Reformation.” But I am not arguing in this post or this comment that bishops are wrong (history has amply demonstrated that some are, and some are not), just that they are different from the earliest Church, and therefore either not essential to the nature of the Church (pace Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox) or only so after a certain point in time.

      Your next question, “which particular tradition has the best claims to be an authentic interpreter of tradition and also represents the most authentic development of doctrine,” is an important question for which different (evidently devout) Christians have come to different answers. Though you are right to point out that they can’t all be right, perhaps the problem is that we are trying to settle on a single modern denomination, rather than attempting to embrace all Christians in their diversity. But this might get back to Jim’s post, suggesting that God may not share the obsession some of us (myself included) have about nailing down correct doctrine!

      Could it be, I am curious, that the reason a “visible Church with invisible boundaries” which “defines various structures without being defined by them” sounds like an oxymoron to you, is that you might have defined the Church as the institutional structure, rather than as the people? Paul’s letters, I Clement, and Irenaeus (as I argued in our last comment exchange here) all regard the Church as the people rather than the institutional structure; the Church has a structure, rather than is a structure. If the Church is the people, it is common Christian experience to look at someone and not know whether they are Christian or not (or, for RCCers with a narrower definition of “Church” than “Christians,” even to know whether they have been baptized or not). Baptism is a sign and seal (among other things), but more the most part it is not visible after the water has dried. So the Church, as the people, is visible, but it is not visibly apparent what the precise boundaries are or are not. But perhaps I misunderstand our objection.

      1. In answer to your first question, yes I mean that very few churches claim to be the same in every respect as the early Church – obviously a great number claim to be able to trace their roots back there, and that their doctrines etc have the most continuity with apostolic teaching. Also, by resonance or consonance, I meant a correspondence – a relation that is not an identity; so yes, similarity, but not sameness. I only made this distinction as it seemed to me that what you have laid out is an argument from sameness (whether a particular church is the same as the early Church) rather than whether it is the most similar or has the most points of contact with it, etc. I’m not doubting your intentions or anything like that, it is just that this is how it read to me.

        Regarding whether my position falls into either #3 or #4, yes I think #3 is the closest to it, but what I am saying has one important difference, namely that though the evidence we have for what the early Church was like is incomplete and ambiguous, it does not follow that we therefore have to say that the traditions and doctrines we see in more concrete form later have no more claim to be authentic developments than others. For instance, if different terms were used for Church leaders in the apostolic era, with the term ‘bishop’ (as opposed to ‘elder’) only becoming common currency a bit later, this doesn’t mean that the role itself was substantially different. Also, the fact that the role of overseer/elder itself developed from a looser structure is surely only testimony to the fact that these things don’t just drop out of the sky, but develop – again, the question is which development has the best case.

        This leads in to the role of tradition – until relatively recently, Christians depended upon tradition, rather than investigation of Church history, to let them know whether the doctrines and structures they received were authentic. And of course, until the Reformation, the doctrines and structures received in East and West were for the most part on the same page – it is only the introduction of private judgement that has led to the sort of problems you have tackled in your post. My point is that it seems rather strange that God would allow His Church to be misled in such a major way for three quarters of Christian history, and that He would prefer a process wherein each person (or groups of people) decide for themselves what the early Church might have been like, whether this or that doctrine has apostolic roots or not, to one where both doctrine and practice could be (and had been) preserved carefully via tradition. It is in this sense that I raise the ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’ issue – I was just pointing to the great amount of supposition and theorising that is necessary to try and make sense of what the Church is and what it believes along Protestant lines; I was not trying to impugn your honesty and/or capability as a historian. Apologies for any offence there.

        It is in this light as well that I would address the issue of what Jerome thought about bishops and presbyters and what the Waldensians had to say on the matter. I should have phrased my original objection more accurately – I didn’t mean to say that there were no objections to episcopacy at all, from any quarters (though that is indeed what I, carelessly, wrote!), rather that it was largely assumed for the better part of Church history. Indeed, the examples you cite sort of highlight what I mean – Jerome’s opinion (and that he is a saint doesn’t matter – to be a saint, indeed even a Doctor of the Church, does not mean that one is incapable of error; and in this instance he may well be right that the two terms were interchangeable at one point; this just brings us back to the question of development again) is just that, the opinion of one man; and Wycliffe and the Waldensians were quite clearly going against the received tradition of episcopacy. Similarly, that some monks challenged the spiritual authority of bishops is not surprising – the question is whether their questioning was valid or not, and the wider tradition stands against them.

        Re whether I regard the Church as an institution, yes I do, but I do not therefore see this as undermining the fact that it is an institution made up of people (it is a case of both/and here, not either/or), and would agree that it has a structure rather than is a structure. However, this does not therefore mean that the structure is incidental. If it were indeed the case that the Church was simply the sum of all Christian believers, not united by any particular confessional or ecclesiological commitments, then all claims to continuity (not to mention unity) go out the window, given the enormous amount of post-Reformation disagreement on these things. It would be nice to say that we can just say we are Christians and that is that, but at some point we have to sit down and say what it is we believe, why and where it comes from, so it seems (to me anyway) that the #4 option is not one that can really last in practice. Saint Paul, in Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4, does indeed talk of people being part of the Body of Christ, but if he is not also talking about those people forming something that is visible, and visibly one, his statements on the matter don’t make that much sense. I guess maybe this is the point – you can, on your model say that the Church is visible (see a group of Christians – there’s the Church) but cannot say that it is visibly one, catholic or apostolic; and these are pretty important things for (most) Christians to be able to say.

        1. Thank you for pointing out the distinction between similarity and sameness. You are right that I primarily dealt with sameness, because that is how I have usually heard the argument presented. When similarity is meant while tolerating differences, then one must ask about the normative status of those differences.

          With regard to the name and role of bishops, the term was present from the beginning (the letters of Paul), but was used in a way which would have been precluded by the later technical usage of a single bishop per city. Of course I’m not offended by your citing a canon of my profession! 🙂 I just don’t yet see where you interpret the positive evidence differently from me.

          I am not opposed to tradition at all; indeed, I greatly value it. But I would suggest that what you call tradition is a river into which many streams of private judgment have flowed. Private judgment has always been exercised by Christians; even the decision to submit is a personal choice. But those who claim to represent the tradition have an obligation to do so honestly, which has manifestly not always been the case (I could give you examples from multiple periods). Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox are not necessarily closer to each other than either to Protestants; Othodox polemicists tends to lump both Roman Catholics and Protestants together as “Latins” (or, more fully, “Latin heretics”). The Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox are closer to each other on the issue of episcopal governance (though even here there are divergences) than they are to, say, Presbyterians or Baptists. But most of what Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics share (i.e. the Creed minus filioque, the Trinity, the Incarnation, most of a canon of Scripture) they share also with Protestants.

          And that is why I don’t see how viewing the Church as the sum of all Christians (who by virtue of being led by the Holy Spirit have certain confessional commitments, just fewer than any given denomination), means that “all claims to continuity (not to mention unity) go out the window.” I think it rather clarifies how far continuity does and does not extend. Though, of course, our identification of which Christians to include in our definition of catholicity is not infallible.

          1. Thanks for getting back to me again, and for another well-considered response, and apologies in advance for what will probably be another lengthy reply – it is the only way I can make myself (hopefully) clear!

            Firstly, regarding the role of the bishop, I agree with you here, and I think I actually drew attention to this kind of issue in my previous response – namely that what became normative in the post-apostolic era did not fall fully fledged into our laps, but developed from an earlier model, and that this is what gives us pause to ask which development is therefore the more valid. Which tradition, which narrative, has the best case for being able to present its development of doctrine and practice as the most true to the roots.

            That tradition is a ‘river into which many streams of private judgement have flowed’, and that ‘private judgement has always been exercised by Christians’ is certainly not something I would dispute, but my agreement would depend upon what you mean by private judgement. If you mean that throughout history Christians have had their own ideas about things, some of which may have been in conflict with what was considered to be orthodoxy, then yes that is undeniably true; also, if you mean that what we receive in tradition is the result of many voices coming together in dialogue and creative conflict, then yes, again I agree. If however you mean that individual opinions contrary to orthodox doctrine or practice were seen to be just as valid as the latter, or that the individual voices in dialogue were all considered to be of equal validity, then I would disagree. Private judgement as conceived by the Reformers, I would argue, goes very much against the idea of thinking with the Church, and I would be surprised to see anything of that kind being endorsed (though no doubt such opinions existed) by the Church as a whole prior to the Reformation.

            Again, it is true that we all exercise private judgement in our decision to submit to Christ. But when the Catholic or Orthodox does this, they also submit to a visible Body that claims to be able to speak for Christ, discern His will, and pronounce on it with authority, thus putting private judgement behind them (not conscience, this is something different, as I am sure you know). The Protestant does not do this, but continues to exercise private judgement in matters of faith and morals (to differing degrees, depending on the type of Protestant), and this is a significant difference.

            This leads me to what you say about Catholics and Orthodox being no closer to one another than either is to Protestantism, which I cannot myself see at all. For starters, there is not just one Protestantism, there are a great many, due in large part to the doctrine of private judgement. The fact that the Orthodox lump Catholics and Protestants together is (I would suggest) more to do with cultural antipathy towards the West than anything based on doctrine or practice. Generally speaking though, there are lots of things that Catholics and Orthodox share, which Protestants (for the most part) reject, such as: Episcopal governance and the authority of clergy; A belief in the importance of Apostolic Succession; The centrality of the liturgy, especially the Eucharist; The necessity of the Sacraments, and a deeply sacramental vision; Prayer for the dead and a belief in a process of purification after death; Veneration of saints and appeal for their intercession; the special role of the Blessed Virgin Mary; Use of relics, icons and other sacramentals; the importance of the papacy (despite the obvious dispute over how much authority the Pope has).

            An individual Protestant can accept any one of these things if he or she wants to, but it will be according to a selective, ‘cafeteria’ style approach, accepting some elements but rejecting others; whereas both Catholics and Orthodox see all these as part of a totality – Sacred/Holy Tradition, a cohesive body of teaching which one cannot pull part out of and leave another. To say that all three groups agree on the Creed, Trinity and Incarnation is true, but we receive these as part of Tradition, and we receive them from the Church. What I don’t understand is why we should be able to trust that Church to formulate such doctrines and pass them down faithfully to us, but are free to question the rest – if the Church has the authority to pronounce on these things, why not on others? Furthermore, it was clearly not the sum total of all Christians that decided these things either, it was a set of visible representatives of a visible, institutional, Church that did so; so, why does continuity stop there, and the nature of the Church change from that to what you have laid out in your option #4?

            One final point. It is good that tradition is important for some Protestants (yourself included), but, to take the paramount example of such – the Eucharist, its role in Christian life, and Christ’s presence there – surely if one accepts that it is important, and that a ‘high’ doctrine of it is apostolic, then do we not need an authoritative, visible guarantor of its validity? Or, can anyone step up and consecrate the elements? If you believe in lay presidency then fine, but if not, I do believe that we need the means to know whether or not the person standing at the altar really has the authority to do what he is doing and say what he is saying in the name of Christ – thus, just on these particular grounds, it seems to me that the Church must have visible structures as part of its essential features.

          2. Your response is very rich, and addresses a number of points, more than I can respond to in any detail here. But please don’t think it due to any disdain on my part, if I must pass over some good points in silence.

            It sounds like we agree entirely on private judgment, as I would certainly not say that every individual’s private judgment is equally valid. Neither would any of the Protestant Reformers with which I am familiar; that seems to be a peculiarly modern liberal idea.

            On the other hand, speaking of what “the Catholic” or “the Orthodox” does I find misleadingly singular. I have known enough cafeteria Catholics on both the left and the right, and enough cultural Orthodox who go to church more to find a culturally appropriate marriage partner than to worship God. You are right to speak of a plurality of Protestantisms; there is also a plurality of Roman Catholicisms and Eastern Orthodoxies, what is actually believed by the real members of these churches. You may object that the beliefs of actual Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox in the churches are neither here nor there, in terms of the truth, but they are the fitting comparanda for speaking of Protestant plurality. It is true that some Catholics and Orthodox see these things as part of a totality of Tradition, but certainly not all, and I’m not even persuaded of most.

            Perhaps I’ll write a post sometime about different things which Protestants share with either Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox against the other. But not now. But I agree with your list of things shared between Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, except for the importance of the papacy. Eastern Orthodox regard the Roman papacy as (regrettably, it is true) dispensable, where it fell into schism and heresy.

            You press me again on what mechanisms Christ put in place to safeguard the truth through the ages, and I am still intending to respond to your question. I haven’t forgotten! I just had other things to address first.

            I fear you might have misunderstood me: I am not opposed to church structures! I believe that they are useful and indeed necessary for the operation of the Church as the Church. I just argue that no particular structure is part of the essential nature of the Church.

            But your insistence on visible structure I do not find all that different. When you go to mass and see someone standing at the altar, how do you know that that person is duly qualified to be there? No one in the congregation evidently objects to that person being there, and you could, now in the age of smart phones, get online and double check that the priest at the altar (if you heard his name) is the priest assigned to that parish church, which is not under ecclesiastical discipline from the bishop, and that the bishop is in good standing with Rome, etc. I’ve never known anyone so scrupulous. And before the age of smart phones, the laity took the credentials of the priest on faith, by virtue of the fact that he wore the right clothes, spoke the right (for many of them incomprehensible) syllables, and seemed to go about his business as if he knew what he were doing! That was the limited degree to which most laypeople were able to verify that the person standing at the altar really had the authority to consecrate the Eucharist. The ecclesiastical hierarchy was understandably concerned with trying to drive out frauds, a very important function, but it was not fully successful nor did it impinge much on the lives of lay Christians.

          3. No, no, not a problem at all – I certainly don’t expect you to address every point; as I said, the length of reply is purely down to my inability to explain myself with brevity! 🙂

            I see what you mean about the wealth of ‘cafeteria’ Catholics and Orthodox (in the West at least – I’d wager that those in say Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe are more faithful to Church teachings on the whole – and particularly with respect to teaching on sexual morality), but I must admit that I have always found it strange when people compare this situation to that of Protestantism. Catholics and Orthodox who pick and choose which parts of Tradition to adhere to are actively going against a coherent body of teaching (dissenting, if you will) that exists whether or not they decide to submit to it; Protestants on the other hand are almost defined by the individual approach. Whilst one can say that there are ‘bad’ Catholics and Orthodox, one cannot truly say there is such thing as a ‘bad’ Protestant (at least not in this sense – obviously there are many ‘bad’ Christians of all stripes in other senses!).

            This of course again raises the question of what the Church is, as if it us in essence the sum total of all Christians, then there is no such thing as a dissenting Catholic or Orthodox – they are just as representative of their religion as those who adhere to the fullness of Tradition. If however, there exists a necessary visible means of preserving and transmitting doctrine and practice as well as (again, it is both/and, not either/or) the opinions of the faithful, then there is a distinct difference between Catholic/Orthodox pluralism (which goes against orthodoxy) and Protestant pluralism (which is the nature of the thing itself). So, whilst I do understand that you are not opposed to Church structures in general, it is the essential nature of those structures which I am arguing for.

            With respect to valid consecration of the Eucharist, I was not talking about whether the priest was assigned properly, fully licensed and in good standing, etc (important though these things are). What I meant was that a valid consecration requires someone consecrated (‘set apart’) for the job of doing so, and so requires a fully sacramental ordination – it is in this sense only that the clergy are truly other than the laity. For the priest to receive the ‘mark upon the soul’ which ordination confers, and which makes him a priest forever, it is necessary that the one who confers it has also received the proper graces and the correct authority to do it – thus visible means of doing this are essential to the valid consecration of the Eucharist. If one believes that Christ is really present there, then these means are essential – not just anyone can step up and do it. Whether the man at the altar is a fraud or not (and yes, we take it on faith that he is not) is not the issue; the issue is whether in general there are ways we can know that Christ actually speaks through His Church in order to make Himself present on the altar, or whether anyone can do so (a position which I personally find untenable). For us to be sure of this, the visible structures that tell us so must be essential and indispensable to the Church’s life, not just useful.

            As for the Reformers, you are right indeed to point out that they had a very different view of private judgement to the modern one, but I think that perhaps the modern view is more consistent. Luther and Calvin for example decided that the Church did not have a monopoly on Truth, and they exercised their ‘right’ of private judgement to counter various doctrines and practices. However, all this meant in practice was that they had the right interpretation and the Church didn’t – other people’s interpretations were not to be countenanced! It seems much more consistent to me that, once it is admitted that the institutional Church cannot dictate what we believe, then each person does indeed have just as much right to interpret Scripture their own way as another. In a sense, once private judgement is admitted, everyone who accepts it is a liberal (in the theological sense, not the political) and whilst we can say that some interpretations seem more in harmony with Scripture and Tradition than others, we can no longer say so definitively – we are all our own authorities in the final analysis.

          4. Regarding the Reformers, I don’t think Luther or Calvin decided that they could use private judgment and the Church could not. I think they regarded it as obvious that the Pope was no longer part of the Church. This is unthinkable from the perspective of most contemporary Roman Catholics (not all; there are sede vacantists), but it is logically very distinct from rejecting “the Church.” And their hemeneutical naivete would have said their rejection of the papacy was not based on private judgment, but the plain meaning of scripture. Many people today (of all denominations) similarly fail to distinguish the concept of what scripture means from the concept of what they understand it to mean, however obvious it appears. For Luther and Calvin, once it was stated that the papacy was not part of the Church, and certain teachings of popes and bishops (many of which appeared recent to them, not part of time-hallowed tradition) seemed directly to contradict Scripture, then they would not have defended private judgment. Instead, they regarded their stances as obligatory, compelled by God through his revelation in the Bible, and anyone who resisted God’s compulsion was clearly either actively Satanic or deluded by Satan. I don’t share this view. I think Brad Gregory’s argument, in the book I mentioned to you on AATW, is that the result of these competing necessary beliefs, in a context when no party could any longer fully dominate the other, led people to view absolute truth as relative, in a way which no one earlier had viewed as acceptable. I think the incongruity of the Thirty Years’ War’s devastation and looting in the name, on both sides, of the Prince of Peace, contributed to this, as did widespread spiritual apathy. But the Reformers were not defenders of “private judgment” as a principle, nor would they have agreed that they exercised any such thing themselves. Again, I think they (and their opponents) were naive on this point, but so are most Christians, as am I much of the time. 🙂

          5. Nail bang on head there – I completely agree with all the above. Obviously I see what Luther and Calvin did in a different light to how they did, but this is certainly how they saw it! Also, you have provided me with another incentive to read Gregory’s book – it’s been moved up the reading list a couple of places 🙂

  2. This was EXCELLENT article! I have never looked at the situation precisely from this angle, but it adds a lot of clarity for me.

    “Not all spiritual gifts are showy or miraculous, of course (see 1 Cor 12:28), and so most modern Christian denominations emphasize the non-miraculous gifts (especially the gift of committee work). ”

    I spilled my morning coffee all over my keyboard when I read that one! Funny and true!

  3. Reblogged this on Not For Itching Ears and commented:
    We don’t often re-blog things over here at Not For Itching ears. Today, we ran a cross an excellent article about how to identify those modern churches that most closely resemble the early church. It’s a great article that we wanted to share. If you care about the church, we think this thought provoking and detailed analysis by our friends over at Finite Reflections of Infinity will be well worth your time! Which modern church most accurately resembles the early church? Read on and find the answer.

  4. This article is phenomenal. I don’t care about the little details where I might interpret history differently, or whether the claims of any church are accurately represented. My issue is always practicality. What do I do in the midst of this incredible mess called Christianity?

    The folks who embrace this conclusion of yours–assuming they’re Jesus followers (not just fans)–will let the Holy Spirit out of the various cages we have put him in. He’s waiting around for people who don’t have their own constructs, but are willing to surrender themselves to his.

    1. paulfpavao and theophiletos,
      I agree with Paul that this article is phenomenal. I like how you put it, Paul, that ‘the folks who embrace this conclusion of yours…will let the Holy Spirit out of the various cages we have put him in…’
      Being concerned about unity in the church as a whole and hoping that the world will see us loving one another, rather than assuming the high ground and attacking one another, I keep making the statement in discussions with Catholics (3 of my family have become Catholic in the last few years) that: Instead of seeing the diversity of denominations/groups within the church as a ‘bad’ thing, maybe one reason God has allowed this separation is to encourage us to love one another in spite of our differences, which I see as mainly over non-essentials.
      theophiletos, I truly love your conclusion that the invisible qualities of loving one another as Christ has loved us, and the presence of the Spirit of God and His fruits and gifts, is the hallmark of the church. Thank you for this article, and Paul, thank you for sharing it.

      1. Thank you, Jennie, for the encouragement. Your suggestion of a reason for the denominational diversity mirrors the most plausible interpretation I have of 1 Cor 11:19, which is otherwise a very difficult passage for me to understand on the traditional “my-church-is-correct” model. Of course, this is not to say that denominational differences are irrelevant, or that every denomination is equally good, just that at a certain point we have passed out of differences worth breaking fellowship over. And in any contest among Christians, the one who loves best (i.e. most like Jesus) is the real winner.

    2. Thank you for the kind words. Very practically, I think our response to the mess ought to be love, to love God with everything, to love our neighbors like ourselves (and we’re all very good at taking care of ourselves), and to love other Christians like Christ did. Most of us are really bad at it, but that’s why we need forgiveness too!

  5. An excellent post. Very interesting from both a historical and a theological perspective. I have understood #4 implicitly for a while, but this is the first I’ve really thought in detail about how to get there.
    If I may offer the “layperson’s” perspective, I find it interesting that there is so much of this debate going on (and it’s not an unproductive one), when in the untamed wilds of the Internet, I’ve mostly seen the practices of the early Church referenced from the political angle that they were socialist and/or communist (Acts 4:32-35). But that’s a whole other can of worms.
    I would be interested to know if there have been any serious attempts to recreate the worship service described by (say) Justin Martyr. It might be fun (and edifying) to try it out, even if it’s not something that would be likely to replace the “normal” Sunday service in this day and age.

    1. Thanks for the comment! I too have found various references to early Christian socialism/communism, but decided not to go there (in this post). 🙂

      There have been various movements attempting to “drop everything and start over, recreating the earliest Christians.” The Franciscan order comes to mind, and various parts of the Reformation, and more recently the Stone-Campbell restorationists (Disciples of Christ). The difficulty with all such restorationist attempts, as mkenny pointed out above, is that there is much speculation and supposition that are necessary to fill in the picture. I’m not sure specifically if anyone has attempted to do services just as Justin Martyr described, but to do so one would need to decide which parts of Scripture to read, how to preach to imitation of these things, what prayers to offer afterward, and how to distribute the Eucharistic elements (and what to do with the water mentioned). Justin Martyr also does not mention any singing, although Pliny’s letter to Trajan did, so should one entirely give up singing? If not, what should be sung? So the descriptions give us some outlines and indications, but not enough to actually recreate a second-century worship service (even without getting into questions of incense and vestments).

      Thanks for the comment!

  6. I just want to pitch in one thing. I would dispute that the Orthodox, the Catholic, and the Protestants agree on the Trinity. The Catholics and Protestants don’t even believe the apostles or the Nicene creed, if you will allow me to say that is currently as possible. The two creeds say that there is one God, the Father, not one God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

    The Orthodox would still be able to see the begetting of the Word in the beginning, so that a proper illustration of the Trinity would be a stream flowing from the spring, which is the source of the stream. The Father is the source, and the Son flows from him.

    The Orthodox still would frame the Trinity that way, although they might not quite use early Christian terminology concerning the one God.

    I am not sure how anyone reads the Athanasian and the Nicene Creed and can think that they teach the same thing. The Athanasian creed is well received in the West, but the Orthodox, I am pretty sure, would reject it.

    So for this catholic wannabe (me), there is little in common with the RCC except a love for apostolic tradition.

    I was raised Catholic, and there was nothing of the apostolic tradition that was preserved for me by the Roman Catholic Church. All of the apostolic tradition that I know now came from reading the writings of the early Christians themselves.

    Most important of all, what the Roman Catholic Church did not preserve, and as far as I know does not have anywhere, is the life of the church that is described in Acts 2:42–47, Justin’s _First Apology_ (ch. 14), and Tertullian’s _Apology_ (ch. 39).

    Overall, I’m astonished at the claim of the RCC to apostolic succession after, what, 75 years with no bishop in Rome at all, and then 50 with 2-3 competing popes. What sort of succession is that?

    According to the Orthodox I’ve talked to, for our fellowship to be catholic there should be a “conciliatory” and a consecrated priesthood. I don’t accept their claim to succession, so we’ll never have the latter in their eyes, but an openness and submission to other churches we do in every case where we can. Our concept of apostolic tradition has been formed with mutual dialogue, but when a church does not understand or know about the main issue in the very first and thus most important council, how could we possibly acknowledge them as the storehouse of tradition and the authorative interpreter’s of the Scriptures?

    1. Thanks for your comments! (Thank you also for the traffic you have directed to this blog.)

      In your comments I see two separate objections about the Trinity: one, that Protestants don’t agree with Catholics and Orthodox, and two, that none of them agree with the Nicene Creed and earlier Christianity.

      While it is true that not all who call themselves Protestants believe in the Trinity (a number of Episcopalians have revived Arianism, or even adoptionism, and Oneness Pentecostals teach Sabellianism), most Protestants today and most Protestant denominations traditionally believe in one God who eternally exists in three Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, of which the Son is begotten of the Father before all ages (although I’ve met a few evangelical theologians are starting to quibble on this point) and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father (and from the Son). That last phrase, of course, is the dividing point between the Roman Catholic understanding of the Trinity and the Eastern Orthodox, which is precisely why Eastern Orthodox do not accept the Athanasian Creed (along with the canon of the Council of Ephesus saying no new creed can be created). But with the exception of that point, it seems to me that most Protestants agree with Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox doctrine on the point of the Trinity. Do you disagree with my characterization of any of these positions?

      Now how does that square up with the Nicene Creed and, more importantly, the New Testament? To establish disagreement, as opposed to difference of emphasis, it is important to assess not merely the words used, but what they mean. Early Christian sources and the Nicene creed say there is one God; modern Trinitarians agree. They teach that the Father is God; modern Trinitarians agree. They teach that Jesus Christ is God and the Son of God; modern Trinitarians agree. They teach that the Holy Spirit is God and “proceeds” (i.e. in some sense flows) from God; modern Trinitarians agree. How these various propositions can all be true was one of the driving forces of fourth-century theological reflection and debate, and the model which gained the widest adherence as most faithful to the Scripture, beating out various other models which were considered, is the Trinitarian model outlined in the preceding paragraph. The earliest sources were fighting against pagan polytheism; for the past millennium and more most Christian theologians have been more concerned about aggressive Unitarianism, and thus the emphasis tends to fall less on “one God” and more on “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” But just because the latter phrase is not found in Scripture or Creed does not mean that it is false.

      All true Christians are led by the Holy Spirit, who leads them through their particular experiences, and I think often to particular denominational affiliations. The essential unity of the Church is the Holy Spirit, but I believe I have met Roman Catholics who are indwelt by the Spirit as I have met Eastern Orthodox and Protestants who are indwelt by the Spirit. I can’t be sure, of course, but it seems to me. Those who hold the model of particular apostolic succession of the papacy have an answer, of course, regarding the Avignon papacy and the great western schism, which you mention, namely that being in the city of Rome is not essential for the papacy, but correct succession is. But I don’t believe in a particular apostolic succession of the papacy, and I find a deeper critique to be the various modes by which the new pope has been selected at various epochs, some of which were downright dicey.

      Your last paragraph seems to imply that the Council of Nicea also did not “understand or know about the main issue,” but I don’t see this critique spelled out elsewhere in your comment. Could you clarify what you meant by that?

      Thanks again!

      1. Wow, I must be a terrible communicator. I am so sorry.

        My assertion was that on the Trinity the Protestants and Catholics agree against the Orthodox. (The reason I made that point is because MKenny used the Trinity as one of only three points where all three streams agree.)

        I am also asserting that only the Orthodox understand the Nicene Creed, which I consider a wonderful presentation of the Trinitarian beliefs of their forefathers.

        The terminology used by Catholics and Protestants does not match the use of the early Christians, nor does it match the Nicene or Apostles’ creeds. The early Christians (and the NT) refer to the Father as the one God. They do not refer to the one God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, even though they would say the three share one divinity.

        That assertion is either empirically true or not. It can obviously be verified. Compare the Nicene and Apostles’ creeds with 1 Cor. 8:6. That is the terminology of Christians universally (except the Sabellians) up to and through the time of Nicea. It only change in the 4th century, during the long decades of battle over Arianism.

        Tertullian addresses that terminology directly in _Against Praxeas_:

        “I shall follow the apostle [Paul], so that if the Father and the Son are alike to be invoked, I shall call the Father “God” and invoke Jesus Christ as “Lord.”
        “But when Christ alone [is invoked], I shall be able to call him “God.” As the same apostle says, ‘Of whom is Christ, who is over all, God blessed forever’ [Rom. 9:5].
        “For I should give the name of ‘sun’ even to a sunbeam, considered by itself. But if I were mentioning the sun from which the ray emanates, I would certainly withdraw the name of sun from the mere beam. For although I do not make two suns, still I shall reckon both the sun and its ray to be as much two things—and two forms of one undivided substance—as God and his Word, as the Father and the Son.” (ch. 13)

        I don’t think most Roman Catholics or Protestants would like this remark by Tertullian, either:

        “Before all things God was alone … He was alone because there was nothing external to him except himself. Yet even then he was not alone,for he had with him that which he possessed in himself, that is to say, his own Reason.” (ch. 5; “Reason” is Tertullian’s chosen translation of the Greek _Logos_)

        The Orthodox, however, have no problem with this. The Orthodox have no problem with Proverbs 8:22 being applied to the generation of the Son before time began, though they might not like the way pre-Nicene Christians applied it, but Protestants greatly object to applying Prov. 8:22 to the Son.

        My point, really, was to show that the Catholic and Orthodox are not agreed on the Trinity. The Protestants, being the daughters of Rome, share the same Trinity belief as Rome, but not the same as the Orthodox.

        I cite Tertullian, but I could cite Justin, Athenagoras, Theophilus, Irenaeus, Clement, and Origen all saying the same thing. Athenagoras and Theophilus are especially clear.

        1. Actually, I have no trouble with those Tertullian quotes. (I have trouble with other Tertullian quotes, mostly about women.) But they seem in no way to disagree with the assertion that the Son is God as well. Unless I misunderstand, Tertullian here seems merely to be suggesting that Christians not refer to God the Father and God the Son in a way which might sound to Jews and pagans as referring to two gods. And I would agree! What do you think Tertullian is asserting that modern Protestants and Catholics would disagree with?

          I also have no problem applying Prov. 8:22 to the Son, depending how the verb is interpreted. If it means “possessed” (so NASB, and the more usual meaning of the Hebrew verb), it’s totally fine. If it means “created” (so Arius, and the more usual meaning of the Greek verb in the LXX), then Orthodox would object as much as Protestants to regarding the Son as created. The Nicene Creed specifically rejects the notion that the eternal fathering of the Son can be termed “creation.” So I’m still not seeing the dispute you see between Latin Christians and Eastern Orthodox Christians over the Trinity.

          1. Last try, and then I’ll leave you alone.

            I am asserting that the way Tertullian describes Christians speaking of God, that he is the Father and that he has a Son, is not accepted terminology among mainline Protestants nor Catholics. The statement that the one God is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is the only statement that Protestants or Catholics will accept.

            Saying that the one God is the Father, whose divinity is in the Son because the Son is the Word of God birthed from him in eternity past, may be taught in seminaries, but in the pews it is very close to heresy.

            In other words, the Catholic and Protestant creed would be, “There is one God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” The ancient creeds said, “There is one God, the Father, and one Lord, Jesus Christ.”

            That is not a minor difference to Protestant apologists. They don’t like it despite the fact that it is the only terminology used in Scripture, except where Jesus is referred to apart from the Father. That is why Catholics and Protestants are so quick to say “God the Son,” while that phrase is not found in Scripture, and if it is in the fathers, it is surely very rare.

            “God the Son” would be rare among the Orthodox, too.

            Saying “This is the one God, who has a Son” is different than saying the One God *is* the Father and Son.

            Here’s how the early churches (and the early creeds said it):

            “We acknowledge a God, and a Son, his Logos.” (Athenagoras, _A Plea for the Christians_ 24)

            “The God and Father of all truly cannot be contained, and is not found, in a place … but his Word, through whom he made all things, being his power and his wisdom, assuming the person of the Father and Lord of all, went to the garden in the person of God and conversed with Adam.” (Theophilus, _To Autolycus_ II:22)

            “When God wished to make all that he determined, he begot this Word, uttered, the firstborn of all creation, not himself being emptied of the Word [or Reason], but having begotten Reason, and always conversing with his Reason.” (ibid.)

            Do you really think this is what Catholics and Protestants teach? If so, I must be going to different churches than you. They don’t like it when I list out the things the early Christians said and the Scriptures they used. The Orthodox don’t mind at all.

            Either way, if I’m still not making my point, I will quit and leave you alone.

          2. Okay, I think I see your point. If I hear you correctly, you are saying there is a

            difference between how the early Christians (and the Eastern Orthodox) speak of God’s

            unity, trinity, and incarnation, and how modern Catholics and Protestants speak of these

            things. In particular, early Christians and Orthodox are comfortable saying “God and His

            Son” or “God and His Logos,” and this sounds odd to Protestants and Catholics, who instead

            say “God is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” You don’t see how the differences

            in expression can represent the same doctrine, and when you have shared these early

            Christian expressions with modern Protestants and Orthodox, they have not responded well.

            Did I get that right?

            (Minor point: “God the Son” is not uncommon among Orthodox; see, e.g. here and here. Among the patristic sources,

            I don’t recall offhand, but I know “God the Word” was definitely the fashion in the fifth

            century, and made it into the Orthodox liturgies.)

            I guess I think that what the early Christians you quote is the same as what modern

            Protestants and Catholics teach because I cannot find an assertion which distinguishes

            them. Tertullian acknowledged that the Son was God, but just chose not to use the term for

            the Son when it was necessary to speak of God the Father. New Testament writings

            similarly, as Tertullian quotes, speak of the Son as God, but more frequently refer simply

            to God and to His Son our Lord, Jesus Christ. I guess one particularly point of division

            here was laid out by a modern Greek theologian named John Zizioulas, who argued that

            Latin theologians found the principle of divine unity in an abstract divine nature, while

            Greeks found the principle of divine unity in the Person of God the Father. I think his

            critique has merit, and I’ve known several Protestants who have been fully persuaded by his

            model. I myself find his model of absolute divine Personhood attractive, although I think

            the early Christian writers of any language never achieved consensus on this point, and it

            is a point of sufficient abstraction itself that I do not regard it as obligatory on either

            side of the Latin/Greek divide. In particular, Justin Martyr already suggested that most of the places where the Old Testament says “God,” it means the Logos rather than the Father.

            But words mean things in contexts. As I suggested earlier, after the first century, pre-

            Constantinian Christians were mainly speaking to a pagan (or recently ex-pagan) audience,

            and the “talking points,” if you will, were that there is only one God who really created

            everything (not like the silly myths you all grew up with), and His Son/Reason who was

            eternally God became a human like us and died and rose again so that everything could be

            fixed. The talking points today are often very different: God is not a heavenly vending

            machine but a loving Father and a serious Judge, and Jesus was not just a good moral

            teacher but really God from eternity past to eternity future, and the Holy Spirit is not

            just a pious mood but a real divine Person, too. In the context of the latter talking

            points, if you seem to disagree with the phrase “God the Son,” you seem to be denying the

            deity of Christ (which the early Christians you cite did not do). At very least, saying

            “This is the one God, who has a Son” leaves open what many regard as a crucial talking

            point today, namely the deity of that Son. I think your phrase that the Father’s “divinity

            is in the Son because the Son is the Word of God birthed from him in eternity past” is

            problematic, because it could easily sound as if the Son is not himself divine but is some

            sort of receptacle for the divine. The Eastern Orthodox would object to such a view as much as any Latin Christian. The Cappadocians speak of the Father being in the Son, of course,

            but they also speak of each of the divine Persons being in all of the divine Persons

            (perichoresis). I think the Nicene Creed summarizes the scriptural and patristic position

            better when it says, “one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the

            Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not

            made.” This emphasizes that Christ is truly God (as the Scriptures say), and yet there is

            only one God, and yet three distinct Persons, and the relationship between the Father and

            the Son is the normal relationship between fathers and sons, that of begetting, which is

            not making, and in this case took place before all time. The original ending of the Nicene

            Creed was a sharp-edged anathema against Arian teaching that “there was a time when

            [Christ] was not,” among other propositions, which the Armenians still recite in every


            But I still think Protestants, Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox, as well as the earliest

            Christians, all taught that there is only one God, and the Father is God, the Son is God,

            and the Holy Spirit is God, and yet the Father is not the Son, the Father is not the

            Spirit, and the Son is not the Spirit. This is agreement among Trinitarian Christians

            which they share, apart from any differences about the filioque or the ground of divine

            unity, which distinguish them from all others. I think that is no small body of agreement.

            So I think I see the point you are making, but it seems to me a point about language more than about doctrine, and objections to certain expressions probably have more to do with how those expressions do or do not line up with what modern Protestants and Catholics consider the necessary Christian “talking points” in our present culture.

  7. Boundaries are always fuzzy; I have yet to find a single exception. The physical boundary between what is you and what is not you (at what point does incoming oxygen become part of your body?), the line between liberal and conservative (what if I’m pro-life and pro-welfare?), the line between life and not-life (viruses?), and so on. So it should hardly be surprising if the boundaries of who is Christian, who is in the Church, and who is not also has fuzzy edges.

    That does not, however, mean that we can’t label things. The fuzzy line at the boundary is often just a narrow fuzziness circling a great category of things which clearly *are* and keeping out the other things which *are not*. The more-extreme cases in which a principle or label cannot clearly be applied does not invalidate all the situations in which it can be applied.

    In looking for “visible” markers of the Church, it seems to me that the most obvious choice is baptism. Denominations disagree on the exact nature or significance of baptism; there are differences in the details of how and when they believe it ought or must be done. But almost all denominations *do* it. And this has been true since Biblical times. It is true that you can’t look at someone and know if they’ve been baptized or not. But baptism itself is a visible act… even among Christians who don’t think the visible part is particularly important.

    More broadly, when looking at the question of which, if any, denomination is the real Church, I think we need to ask what we mean by that question in the first place. Catholics think they are the real Church because they have preserved the Tradition and authority passed down from Jesus through the apostles. Evangelicals think they are the real Church because they know what it takes to be saved. Lutherans, if they claim to be the real Church, think so because the Lutheran Church has preserved a correct understanding of the role of faith and Scripture in salvation. (And so on.) It’s not just that they disagree on which Church is the real Church; it’s that what they mean by “real Church” is not really the same thing. Eighty years ago, each denomination believed it was the real Church because it believed its members were going to heaven and everyone else was going to hell. These days, that’s a rare belief. Even gung-ho Catholics mostly acknowledge the Catholic teaching that other Christians can get to heaven, and many fewer fundamentalists are willing to say that Catholics can’t be saved.

    So if we aren’t fighting over how to get to heaven (and, granted, sometimes we are), then what are we fighting over? What does it mean to *be* the “real Church”?

    I would suggest that people almost always say this because they feel there is something “right” about their denomination which they do not see in other denominations. Most often, that something “right” has to do with the denomination’s understanding of doctrine, but sometimes it may be about a spiritual experience or about how something is done.

    I would further suggest that many of these things that people feel are right about their church are not mutually contradictory. Some can’t both be true, of course, especially when it comes to doctrine. But even with doctrine, it is very common for two groups to think they are disagreeing when they are really just emphasizing different areas or using different terms to describe the same concepts or the same terms to describe different concepts. Lutherans and Catholics (and maybe some others?) came out with a joint statement of faith/works/salvation; centuries of arguments that suddenly turned out to be not so incompatible as people thought.

    In each denomination, there are things they consider central, defining, and things which are not; every group has its own idea of ideas or practices which should be *universal* in the Church and which customs can legitimately vary from place to place. It is common these days for the ecumenically-minded to encourage Christians to shift their thinking on particular beliefs from the “universal” category into the “ok to be different on this” category, to reduce friction.

    But I would like to suggest that there is a middle ground in between “you’re going to hell” and “all paths are equal”. The middle route says, “Yes, it does matter; but you’re not screwed if you get it wrong.”

    What I’m trying to lead up to with all this is that I think many of the things that people believe make their denomination the real Church are, in fact, things that should be universal or nearly so. We would all be better off if all Christians held the Baptist’s devotion to the Bible, the Pentecostal’s practice of the Spirit’s charisms, the Lutheran’s doctrine that we can’t earn our salvation, and the Catholic’s submission to apostolic authority*.

    *For the record, many of the above comments seem to apply “apostolic succession” specifically to the pope. But it’s primarily about ALL bishops worldwide being able to trace their received authority in an unbroken line back to the apostles. That’s why the RCC says that the Orthodox have maintained apostolic succession; the Orthodox bishops have passed that on through history, even though the Orthodox don’t have a pope nor especially acknowledge the Catholic one.

    1. Thank you for your comment, and for your balanced reflections here! I entirely agree with your statement that we would all be better off if we all did what each of the denominations does well. (I also agree that “apostolic succession” is usually understood more broadly than just the Roman papacy.) Thanks for stepping in to clarify. 🙂

      1. As an additional note, I would say that it is worth arguing—in a charitable manner—about which parts each denomination is getting right.

          1. If you agree with that, let me go further. I think that many people, when they say that their church is the “real Church”, actually mean “you should have what I have”. Instead of dismissing the term as divisive or short-sighted (which it can be), it’s more productive to ask… what is it you think your church has, that mine doesn’t, and which would benefit me?

            But, you know, that question requires people to actually listen and hear; a phenomenon about whose existence I find myself growing pessimistic these days. 😉

          2. I like that approach; it had not occurred to me. I shall have to try it.

            Your second paragraph also reminds me that I have been among those who are quicker to tell others to listen than to listen myself, the opposite of the apostolic admonition at James 1:19. I guess that’s what repentance is for… Thanks for your very helpful comments!

          3. I really appreciate the effort you put into these comments, and the insights toward practical ecumenism which they contain. Would you object if I highlighted a few paragraphs from these in a post (with attribution and link to the original comment, of course)?

  8. For the record, my pessimism about people listening was not directed at you. Just leaking out some general frustration with politics and Facebook and whatnot. 🙂

  9. I’ve been behind on stuff, but at the nudging of @mkenny114, I wrote a response to this piece. I don’t really wish to get involved in a heated debate, but I thought you might be interested in it. I’ve been writing on the dissimilarity of Protestant churches from the Early Church, too, but taking a different tack. I apologize that this is written with you in the third person — it was originally a comment on my own blog.

    [Regarding] the “argument from dissimilarity”: it’s specious — for the very same reasons that I think most “arguments from similarity,” in trying to link one’s church to the Apostolic Church, are ultimately inconclusive. Rather than asking what something is like or not like — highlighting the things that are similar or dissimilar — the more important question is what something is ontologically. Yes, it’s quite true that no church today is completely like the Apostolic or Subapostolic Church — as I’ve been arguing, some being more unlike than others. But what I’m arguing here is not that Protestants are wrong simply because their churches are unlike the Apostolic Church — but that they’re wrong because those unlikenesses call into question their basic beliefs about themselves, that they are a “restoration” of the Early Church. Both Catholic and Orthodox traditions have a legitimate claim to being like the Apostolic Church — and the author is right, one can’t readily pick one over the over, based only on similarities. But to conclude that, because of that inconclusiveness, neither could be the true Church, is specious and a cop-out.

    I think most knowledgeable Protestants realize that they are dissimilar, but argue that they are a true and godly thing anyway. The problem that I’d like to point out is that, even if they are a true and godly thing, their whole reason for being in the first place was the proposition that the Catholic Church was not a true and godly thing — and that the beliefs that Protestant churches are true and godly things and that the Catholic Church is also a true and godly thing is self-contradictory. This resort to an “invisible Church” presumes that if there is more than one “true Church,” then all who are in communion with Christ must be true Churches. But whoever concluded that there was more than one “true Church”? Is this not begging the question? What did the Early Church consider itself to be? Did early Christians hold that their dissimilarities somehow separated them? No, they all universally held that despite their developing differences, they remained part of one and the same Body of Christ — the same Church. It was not until that unity was dissolved that anyone began thinking about any “invisible Church.”

    Back to “dissimilarity”: The author makes some unsupportable assumptions, presuming that the leadership structure of the Church was diverse among various local churches. There’s no evidence of that at all. Scripture does equate bishops and presbyters, as do, apparently, both the Didache and Clement of Rome’s letter. But then, all of a sudden, Ignatius addresses all these diverse churches along his way and admonishes them to adhere to their one bishop, as if the monoepiscopacy were a fait accompli everywhere. There’s no indication of diversity at all there. By all appearances, everywhere at roughly the same time, between the A.D. 70s and the end of the Apostolic Era, all the churches everywhere spontaneously and uniformly decided to adopt a model of a single bishop over a college of presbyters. One might be inclined to suspect that perhaps these churches were communicating with one another, or perhaps even some authority had spoken on the matter.

    He concludes that “early Christian worship practice varied” from, as far as I can tell, no evidence at all — from the fact that modern Christian worship varies? This conclusion does not seem to follow his argument at all. As he admits, we have only one or two glimpses of the liturgy of the Early Church — but I think here, the similarity of the basic liturgical structure that has existed everywhere and for all time, in both the East and the West, is overwhelming. The words and specifics of the liturgy have changed, but examining the earliest complete liturgical texts we have, the scholars I have read conclude not an origin in diverse practices, but a common, apostolic origin for all. (I recommend Adrian Fortescue on the History of the Mass — which focuses on the Mass, but the opening chapters on the origins of the Mass treat all early liturgy.)

    As I said, the more important question to ask, I think, is what did the Early Church understand herself to be? What made them “Church”? From the very earliest times, as evidenced by Clement’s letter and especially Ignatius’s admonitions, it was communion with one’s bishop who held a valid succession from the Apostles that made one “in the Church”; anyone who strayed from the leadership appointed by the Apostles was not.

    “See that you all follow the bishop, as Jesus Christ follows the Father, and the presbytery as if it were the Apostles. And reverence the deacons as the command of God. Let no one do any of the things appertaining to the Church without the bishop. Let that be considered a valid Eucharist which is celebrated by the bishop, or by one whom he appoints. Wherever the bishop appears let the congregation be present; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church” (Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans 8, trans. Lake).

    Both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches claim, to this day, to be in communion with their bishops, who hold valid successions from the Apostles. And the Catholic and Orthodox Churches both recognize each other’s legitimacy in that regard. So what makes one the “true” Church and the other schismatic? How can one come to that conclusion? The key element, the source of unity in the Church, is the papacy. Just as Jesus appointed Peter to “strengthen his brethren” and “feed His sheep,” the Petrine office is what must hold the Church together. St. Irenaeus, St. Cyprian, so many Early Fathers and Fathers throughout history, in both the East and the West, affirm it again and again. And the Orthodox departed from that unity. It leaves no question at all in my mind who has the legitimate claim, and it should not in anyone else’s who accepts these basic facts. “Similarity” or “dissimilarity” cannot mark the true Church; but the marks of the Church, what the Church has always understood herself to be, and most importantly, the papacy, can.

    1. Thank you for your detailed reply. I appreciate your taking the time to clarify your position, and I am particularly gratified by your agreement, if I understand you correctly, that the question we ought to ask is not which modern denomination “looks most like” the earliest Christians, but which modern denomination(s) are the Church, and that the earliest Christians did not allow various divergences to separate their unity in Christ. I fully agree. I don’t think I asserted that the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches are not the true Church, just that the essential nature of the true Church is spiritual, characterized by the theological virtues promised by Christ.

      I am surprised by your statement that my assertion of diverse leadership has no evidence; I thought I had cited evidence in favor of that view. Do you propose interpreting the evidence as suggesting that the leadership structure changed in favor of single bishops everywhere in Christianity in the decade or two between 1 Clement and Ignatius of Antioch? How do you read Hermas, which is typically dated later than Ignatius of Antioch (although dating such texts is always difficult), and seems to suggest that the Roman church (significantly the only church addressed by Ignatius whose bishop he didn’t mention) was still ruled by elders? I guess I find it more plausible to read the near-contemporaneous post-NT Christian documents (Didache, 1 Clement, and Ignatius, only the last of which is tightly dated) as evidence for contemporary local diversity of structure, rather than as consecutive universal stages of structure. A post-Constantinian indication of contemporaneous structural diversity within the Church is shown by Jerome’s letter 146, which I cited, which argues against the local practice at Rome by appealing to more widespread customs elsewhere.

      The variation of early Christian worship comes from the impossibility of reconciling Paul’s order of the Eucharist with that of the Didache, among other things, although of course if one wished one might gratuitously assert that after Paul’s day, the putative pope (no evidence for one exists until later) swapped the order of the Eucharist in the mass, and then some time after the Didache was written, the pope swapped it back. I agree, by the way, that much of the various Roman, Orthodox, Lutheran, Anglican, Syriac, Armenian, etc. liturgies stem from a common apostolic source, and I love the liturgies myself. But if the order of liturgy has changed (and no one really disputes the fact), then the order of liturgy is not a necessary component of the nature of the Church (something various groups have asserted and do assert).

      I agree with you that a very important question, which I did not seek to address in this post, is what the earliest Christians understood the Church to be. I disagree with your characterization of that, and perhaps the next time I have the space to write a 3600-word blog post, I’ll tackle part of that question, because the question would be very large. I’m afraid I don’t see apostolic succession in the part of Ignatius you quote, nor do I remember it in the parts I recently skimmed, although I am tired and perhaps I misremember.

      Of course you know that the interpretation of the relevant passages from the writings of Irenaeus and of Cyprian is contested, and I think not unreasonably. That suggests that the “facts” to which you appeal are not so universally compelling that they should “leave no question at all” in our minds on the subject.

      Thank you again for your comment; I was surprised by the degree to which you agreed with me that the visible features of the Church which are often cited by controversialists are not essential marks of the Church. What the true marks of the Church are is not a subject on which we agree, but I appreciate your taking the time to share your response over here; I had not yet seen it on your own blog.

      1. Thanks so much for the thoughtful and thought-provoking response. A few points to clarify: I would not say I agree that “the visible features of the Church … are not essential marks.” I would say that the visible features alone do not make one essentially “the Church.” I have encountered Protestant groups (not mainstream ones) who parrot many of the visible features of Catholicism or Orthodoxy or Early Christianity as they interpret it, picking and choosing what they like and insisting that they are re-creating “the Church,” only modifying it where they see fit (usually inserting some heterodox idea about ordination of women or acceptance of homosexuality or some other such). But even if such a sect copied word for word the Catholic Mass, mimicked every outward feature of historic and traditional Christianity, it would still be bogus, because it would be severed from any valid, traditional, ontological connection to the Church as it has always existed. Protestant sects, in breaking communion with the Church, likewise severed such connections, and the foundation of their new churches did not reestablish them.

        The visible features of the Church were certainly essential to early Christians — but the most essential was their unity and communion with one another. Outward differences did not separate the various local churches, any more than differences of language, race, or rite separate Catholic Christians today. This was not evidence of a merely “spiritual” communion, but an actual, visible, tangible unity — visible, most of all, in that they could break bread together and share in the same Loaf. A Christian could travel from Asia to Rome and partake of the same Eucharist, even preside over the same liturgy. You may dispute what it was that defined this communion — I look forward to hearing your opinion — but the indisputable fact is that something did, and something caused it to cease to exist when the Assyrian, when the Non-Chalcedonian, when the Orthodox departed. Both elements of each of these schisms recognized a breach in communion — but what was it that marked that communion in the first place? And why would you presume that this communion doesn’t matter today? — that despite its demise, Christians today continue to have some “invisible,” “spiritual,” and especially complete unity? (The Catholic Church does affirm that all Christians are united with the Lord through Baptism, even if their communion with each other is imperfect.)

        I have not studied Hermas as extensively as I’ve studied Clement or Ignatius. But the dating of Hermas is widely disputed, and there is nothing at all placing it definitively after Ignatius. John A.T. Robinson dated Hermas to before A.D. 85, giving strong reasons, and George Edmundson to c. A.D. 90. But Ignatius is solidly dated to c. A.D. 107, and full of firm, doctrinal, even didactical exhortations on the nature of episcopal authority. In six of the seven canonical Ignatian letters, he argues strongly and unequivocally for adherence to each church’s one bishop — not that they should adopt a single bishop, but that one was already well established in each place — but perhaps only recently, explaining his insistence on maintaining it. It is true that he does not refer to the bishop of Rome in his letter — but neither does me mention multiple elders or any other diverse model. He could have not personally addressed the Roman bishop because he was not personally acquainted with him; or perhaps the bishop had recently died in the same persecution under which Ignatius was meeting his death; or any number of explanations — all speculative. But even apart from Ignatius — the indisputable fact is that sometime by the middle of the second century, all churches everywhere had adopted a model of monoepiscopacy, which they maintained from then on — and why? If there were a “diversity” of leadership structures, if the churches were “developing” differently and further apart — why would every church spontaneously and independently arrive at the very same model? There is reason to believe that some agreement among the churches — whether an informal consultation, or a council, or even an apostolic or papal pronouncement — led the churches to unite in this matter; there is definite evidence here of some tangible unity among the churches and not “diversity.” It is somewhat amusing to hold out Rome — which developed the singularly strongest monoepiscopal claims of all — as the lone holdout for a plurality of bishops, as the indication of “diversity” in the Church’s leadership structures — Rome, which almost uniquely among churches maintains a roll of monoepiscopal succession from the Apostles to the present.

        And you don’t see apostolic succession in Ignatius? He does not appeal to it explicitly, it is true — but the matters he addresses are the laity’s adherence to the bishop, not the succession of the bishop. The doctrine is implied in Scripture, explicit in Clement, and inferable in Ignatius: “See that you all follow the bishop, as Jesus Christ follows the Father, and the presbytery as if it were the Apostles.” The presbyters are analogous to the Apostles: and every presbyter is indeed a successor and a representative of the Apostles, carrying apostolic authority and tradition. This is a strong metaphor that he repeats and not one that can be simply dismissed. One cannot conclude that Ignatius did not hold to apostolic succession simply because he does not explicitly mention it, especially since unanimous tradition holds that Ignatius — doubtless a bishop — was himself the third in episcopal succession from Peter at Antioch.

        I had not read Jerome’s letter 146, but I’m rather surprised by your interpretation of it. Thank you for pointing it out — it’s quite helpful for my argument. 😉 Yes, Jerome stated that bishops and presbyters were the same in the New Testament — which they most clearly and certainly were (cf. Titus 1:5,7), as every Catholic exegete worth his salt will agree. This, by the way, is one of the clearest evidences against assertions that the Early Church held a Protestant view of sola scriptura — that bishops and presbyters were so clearly the same in the New Testament, and yet as early as A.D. 107 the Church felt justified in superseding the Word of Scripture by making the offices distinct, with nary a cry of protest. But back to Jerome: you claim that he “argues against the local practice of Rome by appealing to more widespread customs elsewhere.” And I say, did you read the same letter I read? What Jerome is arguing here is against the practice of those who would place deacons ahead of presbyters, appealing to the Roman practice, not against it. Yes, he says, bishops and presbyters were the same — but where in Scripture do you find that there were multiple bishops in any local church? “Lest any should in a spirit of contention argue that there must then have been more bishops than one in a single church, there is the following passage which clearly proves a bishop and a presbyter to be the same…” Regarding the monoepiscopacy, he affirms the thesis that I’ve asserted elsewhere: that an explicit monoepiscopacy developed as a result of the crisis in Corinth which Clement wrote to resolve concerning episcopal succession:
        “When subsequently one presbyter was chosen to preside over the rest, this was done to remedy schism and to prevent each individual from rending the church of Christ by drawing it to himself.” His essential argument is very much the Catholic position to this day: that all bishops are presbyters, but not all presbyters are bishops: the bishop is chosen from among the college of presbyters to oversee. And rather than asserting diverse practices elsewhere against Rome, as you say, Jerome is presenting uniform practices everywhere, in communion with Rome, against the practice he is rejecting. For “it is not the case that there is one church at Rome and another in all the world beside.” “The world outweighs it capital” — not because diverse practices overrule the capital, but because all agree with one another: “Gaul and Britain, Africa and Persia, India and the East worship one Christ and observe one rule of truth.” “Wherever there is a bishop, whether it be at Rome or at Engubium, whether it be at Constantinople or at Rhegium, whether it be at Alexandria or at Zoan, his dignity is one and his priesthood is one.”

        Regarding the “variation” of early Christian worship: The Didache is it out of step with every other early liturgical testimony and with Scripture itself. Paul gives the order in which Christ Himself, in all three Gospel accounts, gave us the Eucharist. Citing one “variation” as evidence of “diverse” practices everywhere is unconvincing. You might read Fortescue, who addresses this question generally and the Didache specifically. But the bottom line: the fine pickings of the liturgy (to which the order of the Bread and Cup belongs) is not at all a necessary component of the Church. The liturgy itself — doing what Christ commanded us to do — is the necessary element, not any specific form of it. Anyone who argues otherwise (and I have not heard anyone take the argument you are rejecting) has missed the boat entirely.

        Though the precise nuances of Irenaeus and Cyprian in reference to the primacy of Rome can be contested, I do not think it is reasonable to dismiss those passages entirely, or to simply reject the consensus to which the whole Church came — which is the common Protestant approach. If you have a different one, I’d like to hear yours.

        God bless you, and His peace be with you!

        1. So would it be fair to say that you regard certain visible characteristics, such as a papacy, as necessary but not sufficient to identify the Church? Forgive me for mischaracterizing your position; I wish to understand it correctly.

          You do seem consistently to misunderstand my position, but that is probably due to the fact that this post does not lay out much of my position on the subject. Its more modest goal was to refute an argument I have commonly heard from certain apologists. I would never assert that all churches spontaneously and independently adopted mono-episcopacy, although if they had done so I might regard the fact as clear proof of the structure’s divine sanction! I suspect, without documentary proof, that such a structure spread from some churches to others, and did so on the basis of its inherent merits. There is much to be said in favor of the structure, even if the assertion that it was practiced by the apostles does not seem to me to be among its historically legitimate praises. But you have agreed that mono-episcopacy is a post-apostolic development, so we are in agreement that such development does not invalidate it as a church structure.

          I see little point quibbling about likely dates of this or that undated early Christian text. So much of those debates for the past centuries has been driven by contemporary inter-denominational polemical needs, and I am not in fact expert enough on antiquity to form independent arguments regarding such dating. If Hermas preceded Ignatius, as you assert, then what has been established is merely that Hermas does not provide evidence for diversity of structure. Such a position does not prove that Hermas or anyone else provides positive evidence for unanimity of structure. As I said in the post, I agree with you that Ignatius is not arguing for establishing mono-episcopacy, but the fact of the matter is that Ignatius only refers to a double-handful of churches, by no means all. If, on the other hand, Hermas post-dates Ignatius, as has often been asserted, then there is solid evidence for diversity of structure.

          Regarding Jerome, you are right that he argues against those who value deacons over presbyters, but I am amazed at your proposed reading of the letter. He asserts, “It is not the case that there is one church at Rome and another in all the world beside,” not to emphasize the communion of all the world with Rome, but to chastise Rome for departing from the unified practice of the rest, for he immediately follows by saying, “Gaul and Britain, Africa and Persia, India and the East worship one Christ and observe one rule of truth. If you ask for authority, the world outweighs its capital.” I notice you re-arranged the sentences, and failed to quote the phrase identifying in what sense the world outweighs its capital: it outweighs it in authority. This is clearly not Roman Catholic teaching since at least the death of the conciliar movement in the 1400s, and you may assert that Jerome is expressing his private opinion. That may be, but I am here less interested in the truth of his opinion and more in the implications it has regarding church practice in different locales. In his next paragraph, he explicitly cites a practice at Rome to which his interlocutor might appeal in support of making deacons more important than presbyters: “But you will say, how comes it then that at Rome a presbyter is only ordained on the recommendation of a deacon?” His response to this imagined objection is that such a practice exists only at Rome and is an exception to the universal rule, and therefore without authority: “To which I reply as follows. Why do you bring forward a custom which exists in one city only? Why do you oppose to the laws of the Church a paltry exception which has given rise to arrogance and pride?” (emphasis added). He then proceeds to argue from the Roman custom regarding who sits and who stands in whose presence, in order to indicate that Roman practices are inconsistent regarding the relative priority of deacons and presbyters (and thus don’t support his interlocutor’s position), although he acknowledges that in fact practices vary at Rome regarding standing and sitting.

          I’m afraid I don’t see your point in saying that the Didache disagrees with every other liturgical witness. (I don’t disagree with the point, with the minor possible exception of one textual variant in the Last Supper narrative of Luke’s Gospel.) But how does that refute the notion that early Christian liturgies were not uniform? The argument I was making was not intended to address the range of acceptable liturgies today. Its goal was much more modest.

          I likewise reject the extreme sola Scriptura doctrine advocated especially by Southern Baptists in the US, no doubt for the reason you do: it is self-referentially incoherent. If it is true, then it is false. Having now read a bit more of your writings, and your responses to me, it seems to me that you presume all Protestants hold to a single doctrinal position, and usually an easily refutable one. I find this a surprising presumption of Protestant unity given the typical Roman Catholic criticism of Protestant disunity! The position you expound as “Protestant” is not a straw man, for I too have heard variations on those points expressed by serious Protestants. On the other hand, it is also not the most defensible position in the range of Protestant views, and certainly not the view of all Protestants. While your writing style gives me the impression that you regard no stick as too good to use for beating on Protestants, I can sympathize with your frustration as an intelligent Roman Catholic author wishing to refute Protestants but finding them too pluriform to conveniently disprove in short compass. I would be curious to know, if you do not think the question impertinent, why do you hold such venom towards Protestants everywhere? What did they do to you?

          You identify “the common Protestant approach” to Irenaeus and Cyprian, and I do not doubt it is common enough, but in fact it is not my approach nor common among the Protestants of my acquaintance. Your desire to hear my approach if it differs from this one makes me sigh. I could blog, if I wished, about why I am not Roman Catholic. When I first became Christian, converted from post-modern paganism, I wrestled for several years about whether to become Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox. There are many things I like and admire about the Roman Catholic Church, today and historically. There are many points where I agree with Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox against most Protestants (such as sola Scriptura, although I think a common polemical Roman Catholic response of elevating tradition over scripture to be offensive). But in my reading of scripture, tradition, and history, I came to certain views that would make it impossible for me to accept contemporary Roman Catholic doctrine on a few key points, until either I change my understanding of those points or (less likely, but I believe it has happened) Rome changes its understanding of those doctrines. I would think becoming Roman Catholic would require me to adopt Rome’s view on the points where I disagree with it, although certain Roman Catholics have disputed the necessity of adopting that position. Yet I have refrained from “crossing the Tiber,” simply because on a few points, which I would consider minor but which Rome considers major, I believe Rome is wrong. So what? Rome doesn’t answer to me. I *could* write about why I’m not Roman Catholic, why I think Roman Catholics are wrong about this or that detail of doctrine, practice, or history, why I think history does not support this or that claim. But what would be the use? Who would benefit from such a blog post? I’ll gladly share those points, preferably over a drink, with a personal friend who is weighing Roman Catholic claims to be the Church of Christ simpliciter. But for a general audience, I have no wish to write anti-Roman polemic. I prefer to write constructive posts, advocating a certain position, which even this post was in its limited way.

          “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”

          1. As I said to begin with, I don’t have any wish to get involved in a heated debate. I’m going to do my best to extricate myself from the one that now seems to be brewing.

            What visibly identifies the Church is what has always visibly identified the Church: her oneness (meaning not only her singularity, but her unity), her holiness (meaning that she is chosen out of the world, set apart by God’s grace and for His purpose, and identifying herself by doing His work of love and by her adherence to His Word), her apostolicity (meaning not only apostolic doctrine, but apostolic succession: a valid, traditional connection and descent from the Apostles), and her catholicity (meaning united as a universal whole). When Christians first acclaimed their church “Catholic,” they did not refer to some “invisible” or “spiritual” unity, but an actual, visible agreement “in one mind and spirit” throughout the Body of Christ, by which Christians throughout the world embraced each other in brotherhood and full communion. Such “catholicity” does not exist in any form among Protestants. Any claim to “oneness” among the 40,000+ Protestant denominations is laughable. I would question the “holiness” of a tradition that has gradually capitulated to modernity, accepting, in various sectors, secular demands for women’s ordination, divorce, contraception, and recognition of homosexuality, just to name a few points. And Protestants certainly show no mark of “apostolicity,” either in terms of “similarity” or in any sense of legitimate succession.

            You mention the papacy as a visible characteristic “not sufficient to identify the Church.” The papacy, as such, is an outward form. But as Jesus acclaimed to Peter, the Petrine office is an essential marker of the unity (“oneness and catholicity”) that defines and identifies the Church.

            Who do you think Jerome is arguing against in his letter? Is it against anyone at Rome? No, it’s not. Jerome criticizes certain Roman practices, but most of all criticizes his opponent’s claiming of a single city’s practice over the practice everywhere else. Is he writing to chastise Rome? No, he’s not. He’s writing to chastise whomever it is who places deacons over presbyters. Do they place deacons over presbyters in Rome? No, they don’t — but whoever does is appealing to the practice in Rome of deacons nominating presbyters as support for their heterodox position. But in the matter that matters — the authority of presbyters over deacons — “even Rome” adheres to the doctrine of the universal faith. “Even in the church of Rome the deacons stand while the presbyters seat themselves.” “Wherever there is a bishop, whether it be at Rome [or anywhere else], his dignity is one and his priesthood is one.” Does “the world outweigh its capital” in authority? Sure, in matters of outward practice. This is perfectly consistent with the Catholic understanding. No other church is obligated to adopt the Roman rite in anything: the rite, the custom, is not essential to the faith. Eastern Catholics practice entirely different rites than Rome, ordain married clergy, serve Communion to infants — why? Because these things don’t matter. Jerome’s criticism of Roman practice is inconsequential to his argument, not the center of it as you seem to be presenting.

            A single anomalous exception (such as the Didache) is not an argument for any sort of early “diversity.” But we know very well that liturgical diversity did develop over time. Again, this is the small potatoes of the liturgy that you are quibbling over. The more importaint point: Did all of the liturgies we have seen over the centuries originate in a single, divine act (Christ’s institution of the Eucharist), reenacted and taught by the Apostles? Or were there many “diverse” practices and re-creations from the very beginning? Your argument for “dissimilarity” loses all coherence if we acknowledge that all Christians indeed are working from the same, singular source: Jesus Christ Himself. That diversity developed is irrelevant. Diversity developed for 800 years, and yet those Christians in the East and West continued to embrace each other as brothers and sisters in the same faith until the very point of schism. Diversity continues in the Catholic Church today, and yet the various church bodies are united in full communion.

            I do not presume all Protestants hold the same doctrinal position. My most frequent commenter is as “moderate” a Protestant as they come. But I criticize the positions I most frequently encounter — and you yourself acknowledge that they are common, if not prevalent, positions. Regarding “defensible” Protestant positions: I’m of the opinion that most “moderate” Protestant positions are logically and historically inconsistent, since there was nothing “moderate” about the Reformers or the Reformation itself. They are attempts to backtrack from the extreme positions of the Reformers — but it was only those extreme positions which could justify their schism in the first place. Any “moderate” Protestant position must first justify its reason for being in the first place.

            I have no “venom” for Protestants. If that’s what you read, then you didn’t read very far. I was raised a Protestant. My whole family and the vast majority of my friends are Protestants. Many Protestants love the Lord and serve Him well, and many Protestant beliefs and practices are worthy and admirable. I do not criticize Protestants. I criticize Protestant doctrinal positions, and more than anything I criticize Protestant anti-Catholic fallacies.

            If you could write about why you are not Catholic, then you should, rather than evading the issue.

            The peace of the Lord be with you.

          2. I appreciate you taking the time to clarify your position. Regarding our conflicting interpretations of Jerome’s letter, I don’t think them very important, but those who wish can read the letter and judge for themselves. I agree with you that all Christian worship originates from Christ, both historically and spiritually; I don’t see how that contradicts the fact that even by around the end of the first century, there were liturgical differences between congregations. The end of the first century is not “the very beginning,” of course, although it is as early as we have evidence in this case. You acknowledge that liturgical differences developed, and regard those differences as not critical (hence the Eastern Rites of the Uniate Roman Catholic Churches), so it seems to me that we agree on this point. Our only point of disagreement seems to be whether the Didache indicates liturgical differences between congregations so early. This seems to me, again, to be a point not worth disputing.

            Being the lone Catholic among a large group of Protestants may explain why you never seem to pass up the opportunity to argue against this or that Protestant position. I could tell you were a convert from Protestantism; most (though thankfully not all) converts from one denomination to another virulently hate what they left. I have seen this among Protestant converts to Orthodoxy as well as to Roman Catholicism, and especially among Roman Catholic converts to Protestantism or Eastern Orthodoxy. But I appreciate your saying a kind thing about Protestants here; praising their love for the Lord (in fulfillment of the.greatest commandment) and how well they serve him is no small commendation. In the context, of course, I do not interpret your praise as justifying their existence.

            If it is the case, and I’m not sure it is, that “any ‘moderate’ Protestant position must first justify its reason for being in the first place,” then it must justify that position to God and perhaps his divinely ordained ecclesiastical authorities, not to the public. In my spiritual life and in my personal discussions, I do not evade the issue of why I am not a Roman Catholic. If we were proximate and you had an interest, I would gladly meet up with you to discuss the issue. But I do not believe my criticisms of Roman Catholic doctrine will be as edifying to general readers of this blog, most of whom I have never met, as my (very) finite reflections of Infinity.


          3. I’ve had completely the opposite experience of converts — and a very good portion of my Catholic friends, if not the majority, are converts from Protestantism. Nearly all of them love Protestants and their Protestant roots very much, and are grateful for a loving and uplifting upbringing in Christ — as I am.

            Peace be with you.

  10. I wanted to mention about the single bishop issue in the early church that even the current Catholic Church actually has debates centering onto this issue about the authority of the Pope–note that Cardinals are technically “Cardinal-Bishops”. This is the more legalistic aspect though and it’s really a debate that more moderate Catholics will dare to discuss (such as Raymond E. Brown) and sometimes canon lawyers will debate. Basically, Catholics tied to the church causing confusion. I’ve seen dissertations written about just how much authority the Pope actually has over the Eastern Catholic Churches. Confused yet?

    1. It doesn’t surprise me; lawyers of any stripe argue by profession (as do historians like me, so that’s not a criticism per se).

      But what are the points under debate? And what’s Raymond Brown’s position? I don’t agree with much that he wrote, but at least he had the decency to fairly summarize opposing viewpoints, a scholarly virtue is which rare because it is difficult to practice well (and because we don’t wanna).

      1. Fr. Brown doesn’t seem to take a position on the issue. He does agree though with the history you lay out (from what I’ve read of him).

        >>>>>what are the points under debate?
        Liturgical authority of the Pope, whether he should have command over the Eastern Catholic liturgies (even if he is an Eastern Catholic), should he be equal to the cardinals, should he make decisions without consulting the cardinals, etc.

        I personally just like to take the position of my professors (neither of them are Catholics though) who have claimed the cardinal-bishop-papal system to be more semblant of an oligarchy as opposed to a monarchy. It seemed that a position of that sort was where Fr. Brown was leaning toward as well though he was a Biblical scholar and commented on it rarely.

        If you’d like to learn more, learn Italian and then go to The Pontifical Institute of Oriental Studies and work toward an S.E.O.D. or an I.C.O.D.

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