Everybody’s got a favorite TV detective. I grew up watching Mannix and Jim Rockford. Kojak was popular in those days. Magnum was huge in the 80s, and Monk broke the mold in the New Millennium. But I’ve got a real soft spot in my heart for one special lieutenant – Columbo, the disheveled, distracted, disarming homicide detective who never, never gave up. He lulled his suspects’ suspicions, apparently accepting whatever story they cared to dish out, but then spent the next 50 minutes making Swiss cheese of that story, at which point the perp invariably decided that coming along quietly was really the only option left to him. I loved it. Some commentators have made the case that the show was a classic portrayal of class struggle – Columbo was a working-class kinda guy patronized by all the high society murderers, and the audience loved to watch him cut them down to size. I think most of us fancied that we saw ourselves in him. He wasn’t all perfectly pulled together. He was disheveled. One eye wandered. People tended to underestimate him, and he was okay with that. To this day, when 2 and 2 just don’t make 4 in my life, I tend to go into Columbo mode, determined to get to the bottom of things.
Channeling our inner Columbo can be something of a challenge, however, when it comes to getting to the bottom of our own religious beliefs. I should know – I was raised as a Protestant, and it took me 45 years before I was ready to investigate the strange goings-on that occurred every time my church expounded on verses like “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” or “If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained,” or “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” We all admire Ginger Rogers for being able to do everything Fred did, backwards and wearing high heels. The song-and-dance my denomination did around these verses made Ginger look like an amateur – we were dancing on our heads trying to make these verses say something, ANYTHING, other than what they actually said. Finally, one day I stopped dancing, sat down, and asked myself, why? It turned out that there was a fatal flaw in our theology, one which we covered up by suppressing various verses. The clues had been there all along; it just took me 45 years to decide to investigate.
There was a pretty basic explanation for my reluctance. We all know that someone who just doesn’t want to know will selectively filter information in or out of the picture to come to his or her foregone conclusion. Take the example of a wife who dearly loves her husband – when confronted with mysterious business trips, late nights at the office and lipstick on his collar, she will see nothing more than an overworked, underpaid hero who needs a better laundry detergent. The opposite is of course true – a jealous wife reads betrayal into every innocent pastime her husband enjoys, certain that everything he does is proof of adultery and grounds for divorce. Evidence is twisted, misused, overlooked – whatever it takes to uphold preexisting beliefs. We see this clearly in the debate over abortion – intelligent, thoughtful adults who have bought into the notion of a woman’s “right to choose” pretty much have to stumble into the illogical insistence that a baby on this side of the womb is a human being entitled to the full protection of the law, while a baby on that side of the womb is not a human being and can be murdered at will – the evidence is forced to fit the pre-existing conclusion. Conservative “right to life” Protestants wonder how anyone could be so foolish. And yet, those same Protestants who are taught that “justification by faith ALONE” is the key to interpreting the Scriptures (rather than “justification by faith,” which is the teaching of both the Bible and the Church) will then find themselves forced into the predicament of denying a literal understanding of verse after verse of Scripture which teaches the necessity of perseverance in the faith, of a genuine concern for the least of these, of obedience to God’s commandments, of baptism for the remission of sins, etc., etc. – these verses cannot be saying what they appear to be saying because they contradict the foundational assumption which shapes the denomination’s teaching. All of us are in this same boat – when we go into any experience with a grab-bag of assumptions, we risk assuming all sorts of untenable positions, until we dispassionately prove or disprove those assumptions and get our feet on the solid ground of the truth.
One day it dawned on me that there is some serious lipstick besmirching the collar of Protestantism. As a female I was aware that various shades of lipstick go by creative names like “Wild Child” and “Candy Yum-Yum.” This shade of lipstick had a name that was really far-out: “Historical Evidence.” Everyone who gives their heart to Protestant interpretations of Scripture must sooner or later ask what this tattletale lipstick betokens. Is it something that I need to investigate?
If you believe it is, you can start by investigating the common Protestant assertion that the first Christians believed and preached exactly whatever the Protestant church you happen to attend believes and preaches. This claim is more important than it appears. Those first Christians were taught by the apostles, so if your church believes and preaches doctrines that the first Christians disagreed with, it is pretty likely that your 21st-century church is preaching “a different Gospel,” the very thing St. Paul warned the Galatians against in no uncertain terms. All Protestant churches therefore will insist that their doctrine reflects the beliefs of the first Christians. Even a cursory inspection of this assertion should set off warning bells, for the Lutherans practice, for example, infant baptism while the Baptists decry it. The Baptists insist that a Christian cannot lose his salvation while the Lutherans insist that he can. The Baptists as a rule wholeheartedly embrace the “secret rapture” doctrine; the Lutherans as a rule think that’s kinda nutty. When you attend a Baptist church they will assure you that the first Christians believed and preached exactly what Baptists believe and preach. This is also the foundational assumption at your friendly neighborhood Lutheran church. Somebody’s wrong – the first Christians simply could not have been taught by the apostles that it was appropriate to baptize infants AND NOT appropriate, that Christians can lose their salvation AND definitely cannot, or that they should be expecting to be raptured out of this world AND that no such thing was to be expected. And these are but a few of the beliefs over which Protestant denominations in good standing disagree vehemently. While the “secret rapture” is a secondary issue, baptism and eternal security are most definitely not – they are essential doctrines, for they inform the believer what he must do to be saved….
Reading one’s Bible cannot straighten this issue out, for the Bible does not tell us what the first Christians believed. It gives us the teaching of the apostles, but then we must understand that teaching. The $64,000 question is: are we understanding that teaching the way the first Christians understood it? The only way to know that is to read the writings of the first Christians – what were the first-generation Christians teaching the second-generation Christians? This will make clear to us what they understood the apostles to say. It will solve the nagging questions of infant baptism vs. believer’s baptism/eternal security vs. you can lose your salvation/imminent secret rapture vs. secret-rapture-my-foot! To find the writings of the first and second generations of Christians, though, we must look outside the Bible. We must go to the historical record.
When I was a Protestant, I really had no idea what a wealth of documents sprang from the pens of 1st- and 2nd-century Christians. We didn’t talk about those writings at the nondenominational and Baptist churches that I attended. The “fact” that the first Christians believed and taught exactly what we believed and taught was just assumed. Had we looked into the writings of the early Christians, we would have found that they were united in their belief that baptism is for regeneration and that it is appropriate to baptize infants, that they insisted on the necessity of final perseverance, and that no one ever even hinted at the doctrine of the “secret rapture.” Score 3 for Team Lutheran! Either the first Christians all apostatized immediately after the death of the apostles (something groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Latter-Day Saints may try to tell you), or the Lutherans may be onto something here!
Investigating further, we nondenoms and Baptists also would have found that the 1st– and 2nd-century Christians considered the Virgin Mary to be the second Eve (as Christ was the second Adam), and taught that the Mass was a sacrifice, and that Jesus was actually physically present in Holy Communion, with the bread and wine actually becoming His Body and Blood. St. Justin Martyr’s description of the Sunday gathering of Christians circa 150 A.D. is Catholic to the core. Now, that’s not exactly what the Lutherans want to hear….
Upon further study it would have become clear to us that the 1st– and 2nd-century Christians unanimously supported the idea that after the free, unmerited gift of initial justification, works were necessary for salvation. You know Luther must be spinning in his grave right about now.
And those first Christians were, according to their writings, committed to the idea of there being only one Church, a visible Church gathered around the bishops, and that the church of Rome was accorded “the primacy of love.” They claimed that St. Peter was the first bishop of Rome, and they wrote about the apostolic succession which gave the bishops their authority. Those Christians called their Church Catholic. No, that really doesn’t sound like the kind of doctrine Lutherans propound. It doesn’t really sound Protestant at all….
Which helps to explain the experience of so many students in Protestant seminaries when it comes time to study early Christian history. Lest they should start questioning the lipstick evident on the collar of whatever denominational doctrine they espouse, these students are taught ABOUT the early Church and the writings of the 1st– and 2nd-generation Christians, as opposed to being given a copy of the Ante-Nicene Fathers and asked to read what those men actually wrote. This limited exposure suffices to convince them that they know what the first Christians believed and that it was exactly what their seminary teaches. Four quotes from former students:
My theological roots were at most only 150 years deep. Contrary to what I had been taught, my version of Christianity didn’t go all the way back to the New Testament. Not even close.
From that point on I had a deep desire to understand historic Christianity. I borrowed Paul Johnson’s book, The History of Christianity, from a missionary friend. Over the next year I read several books on Church history. I read the works of men I had never heard of before: Anthony of the Desert, Cyril of Jerusalem, Clement of Alexandria, Basil, Ambrose, Eusebius, Ignatius of Antioch. It felt like finding new friends, Christians who knew my Lord so intimately. But their words also profoundly shook my Evangelical theology. The fact that these men were Catholic made me embarrassed and indignant. In all my years as a Christian I had never heard of these people, let alone studied their writings. I didn’t know much about the early Christian Church. In seminary (we attended Biola, in Southern California) we had been taught to believe that after the death of the Apostles, the Church slid immediately into error and stayed that way until Luther nailed his Theses to the door, and then the “real” Christians came out of hiding. (Kristine Franklin)
Like many young evangelicals I had little denominational loyalty, but the Southern Baptists had a fantastic seminary and missions program. After delaying my entry into seminary for a year after graduation, I finally started classes in early January. The troubles didn’t start until the second week. We were learning about spiritual disciplines like prayer and fasting and I was struck how often the professor would skip from St. Paul to Martin Luther or Jonathan Edwards when describing admirable lives of piety. Did nothing worthwhile happen in the first 1500 years? The skipping of history would continue in many other classes or assigned textbooks. Occasional references to St. Augustine did not obscure the fact that the majority of church history was ignored. (“Anthony“)
That’s when I did something really dangerous. I started reading the early Church Fathers firsthand. I had studied some early Church history, but too much of it was from perspectives limited by Protestant history textbooks. I was shocked to discover in the writings of the first-, second- and third-century Christians a very high view of the Church and liturgy, very much unlike the views of the typical Evangelical Protestant. (Steve Wood)
In the first year of seminary, we studied church history, one of my favorite fields of study. I went beyond the required readings and explored the writings of the early Church Fathers. In their writings, I found a world very different from that of the Evangelical and Reformed Christianity of my experience. (Ed Hopkins)
And so, folks, we have evidence of a deception and a cover-up. That’s some pretty serious lipstick. The question is, what are you going to do about it? Buy some industrial-strength laundry detergent and scrub harder? Send the shirts to a high-priced dry cleaners and hope for the best? Or follow the lipstick trail and see where it leads?
The writings of the Ante-Nicene Fathers can be read online, or are available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and many other booksellers. Channel your inner detective.
Make Lt. Columbo proud.
On the Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist
Deo omnis gloria!