The Try Square of Truth

Try squareReformation-era theologians had it made. Early Church history was shrouded in mystery, having accreted so many legends and myths that many decided that the entire story of the first Christians needed to be pieced together from Scripture alone, since all other writings were, in their eyes, obviously suspect. The Reformers were more than happy to concoct their own histories. Based on what very little information they had, they felt free to assume that the Jewish canon had been decided centuries before the birth of Christ, thus making the Protestant Old Testament canon a slam dunk. When the Catholic Church protested that God had invested in her the power to discern the canon, this claim was held up as proof that the Church was a self-deceived, power-mad institution that couldn’t be trusted. Protestantism marketed itself as the historically correct version of events.

Protestant historians have had to eat that marketing claim over the ensuing five centuries. A number of well-known, modern-day, conservative, Protestant scholars concede that there is simply no proof that the canon was decided by the time of Jesus, and that that idea was an assumption on the part of the Reformers. They’ve been chewing on some other uncomfortable historical revelations over the years as well, certain archaeological discoveries and literary finds. The Didache is one of those finds. The Reformers knew of the Didache, which was a “church order,” something that author Mike Aquilina likens to “a missal, a manual, and a catechism rolled into one.” But they knew of it only because it was named in the writings of the early Christians. No extant copies were available, until one fine day in 1873 when an Orthodox metropolitan found one in the Codex Hierosolymitanus. This was published in 1883, knocking Protestant historians for a loop, for the Didache is an ancient document. Most historians date it to the late first to early second century, while some claim that it was written even earlier than that, actually before the composition of most of the New Testament. And what it tells us about the early Church is pretty hard to swallow from a Protestant point of view.

Many modern-day Protestant scholars will graciously admit that the 1st-century Church looked nothing like the church envisioned by the average Protestant believer. The average Protestant, however, does not get his history from Protestant scholars; he gets it from more popular sources such as Dr. Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Books such as these allow the average Protestant to feel educated on certain Christian topics without ever being confronted with historical facts which might upset his theological applecart. I should know; I used to rely on books like these. Systematic Theology serves as a good example of how popular Protestant authors do history.

In his chapter on the canon of Scripture, Dr. Grudem addresses the subject of the Didache by adding a footnote to address his concerns. It begins:

It is appropriate here to say a word about the writing called the Didache. Although this document was not considered for inclusion in the canon during the early history of the church, many scholars have thought it to be a very early document and some today quote it as if it were an authority on the teaching of the early church on the same level as the New Testament writings.

Dr. Grudem’s objections to the teachings of the Didache shed light on the popular Protestant method of evaluating early Christian historical documents, and are instructive because they demonstrate to Catholics how Protestants come to very different conclusions than do Catholics concerning early Church history. Note what Dr. Grudem objects to, and why.

This footnote begins with a historical error – we know that the Didache WAS considered Holy Scripture by some in the early Church – Protestant Bruce Metzger, a recognized expert on the history of the New Testament canon, mentions Clement of Alexandria, Origen and Didymus the Blind, specifically. Dr. Grudem is not overly familiar with the history of the canon, as he demonstrates in Systematic Theology‘s chapter on the canon of Scripture, and a great deal of what he proposes concerning the discernment of the canon would be hotly contested by Protestant scholars. Dr. Grudem, however, writes for a popular audience and takes a good number of his talking points from other popular Protestant authors, who likewise ignore the assertions of contemporary conservative Protestant scholars when they contradict the popular narrative.

Concerning his specific objections to the teachings of the Didache, Dr. Grudem lists nine areas in which he believes that the document “contradicts or adds to the commands of the New Testament.” He worries, for example, that fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays, fasting before baptism, the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer 3 times a day, and baptism in running water or by pouring have no grounding in the New Testament and are therefore suspect. Dr. Grudem objects to these presumably because he attends a church where “everything we do comes straight from Scripture!

All congregations have practices. I have attended many Protestant churches where “everything we did came straight from Scripture,” and I was told to stand up at a certain point in the service, shake hands with those around me and possibly even introduce myself. No one ever began shrieking that such a practice can be found nowhere in Scripture. We were also required to pray the Sinner’s Prayer before we would be considered “saved” – a prayer which is found nowhere in the Bible. Dr. Grudem complains that being instructed to pray the Lord’s Prayer 3 times a day is “adding to the commands of the New Testament.” Seriously?

Dr. Grudem’s concern stems from the belief that “some today quote [the Didache] as if it were an authority on the teaching of the early church on the same level as the New Testament writings.” Let’s try to sort that out. The New Testament is the inspired, inerrant word of God; so says the Holy Catholic Church. It contains many of the teachings of the apostles. The men whom the apostles ordained went on to impart those teachings to a new generation of disciples. Our only means of determining what those men taught the next generation is to read their writings. To my knowledge no scholar, Protestant or Catholic, claims that writings like the Didache are inspired Scripture. Scholars do, however, claim that those writings provide an invaluable window into the way the early Christians understood the apostolic teachings. I believe it is to that invaluable window which Dr. Grudem objects, because he is appalled by what he sees through that window. The view is exceedingly Catholic.

Like the thrice-daily recitation of the prayer which Jesus prefaced with the words, “When you pray, say “Our Father…” (in obvious contradiction to the Evangelical aversion to rote prayers), the doctrines taught by this very Catholic document are jarringly foreign to Dr. Grudem’s Evangelical Protestant sensibilities. Holy Communion only for the baptized and the necessity of final perseverance are teachings which have been held by Catholics for 2,000 years, teachings found in the Didache, and teachings which Dr. Grudem finds unbiblical. He could have objected as well (although he apparently overlooked it) to the Didache’s insistence that the Mass is a sacrifice. Such teachings are enough to convince Dr. Grudem that the Didache fails to faithfully reflect the beliefs of the early church. Yet, many, many of his fellow Protestants would present to Dr. Grudem various and sundry New Testament passages, all of which teach the necessity of persevering to the end (Mt 24:10-12) – to those Protestants, a first-century document enjoining Christians to remain faithful unto death is simply what one would expect, and Protestant historians would chime in, pointing out to him that that is exactly what they find in the historical record, not only in the Didache but in all the writings of the Fathers. But Grudem, a “once-saved/always-saved” proponent, feels comfortable making the assertion that “Such a document, of unknown authorship, is hardly a reliable guide for the teachings and practices of the early church.” The necessity of final perseverance is out of the question – as an Evangelical, Dr. Grudem simply does not read his Bible that way, and therefore assures his readers that the Didache cannot be representative of early Christian beliefs…

because the early Christians believed and taught exactly what Wayne Grudem believes and teaches.

And that is the foundational Evangelical assumption which leads teachers like Dr. Grudem into so much error. Dr. Grudem and Evangelicals like him will tell you that he looks at writings such as these, measures them “against the Bible,” and finds them wanting. He does not realize that he is not measuring the teaching of the Didache against the teaching of Holy Scripture; he is measuring the teaching of the Didache against his own admittedly fallible understanding of Scripture, which he then ascribes to the first Christians no matter what they themselves wrote. In that sense, he is the ruler against which truth is being measured, and when the Didache is found wanting, it is wanting in the sense that it contradicts HIS beliefs.

How can fallible human opinion be the tool against which we measure truth?

There’s a nifty thing used by carpenters called a try square. If you want to construct a perfect corner, you need a perfect, predetermined right angle, which means you must introduce into the situation a tool which authoritatively presents a perfect right angle as the model.  A ruler will lay out a straight line for you. If you want something to be “dead square,” you need a try square.

A similar tool is necessary when attempting to “square” writings such as the Didache with the teachings of the Bible. Protestants lay down their “ruler,” the Scriptures, “eyeball” the document in question, and then list objections such as the ones compiled by Dr. Grudem. When asked if the document “squares” with the Bible, Protestants will say “no,” pointing out that they have used “the Bible” as their measurement. That is like using a board (albeit in this case an inspired, inerrant board) to determine how to lay another board at a right angle. A Protestant of another denomination will use the same Bible and yet come up with a different list of objections, because he too is “eyeballing” the Didache’s relationship to Holy Scripture, going by his own fallible understanding of the Bible.

Nowhere does the Bible tell us that it is the try square by which other teachings can be measured. It does, however, tell us what that try square is:

…the Church, which is the pillar and foundation of the truth.

This “pillar” and “foundation” form the perfect right angle, the perfect try square. Catholics lay Holy Scripture along the “foundation line,” and place the writings we wish to compare with Scripture along the “pillar line.” Rather than “eyeballing” the relationship between the writings in question and our fallible understanding of Scripture, we avail ourselves of the divinely provided try square – the Church with her teaching Magisterium. Thus we can say that the teachings of the Didache, while NOT inspired, square with the teachings of Scripture, and do not “contradict or add to the commands of the New Testament.”

Protestants will be the first to admit that human beings can err, and err grievously. They err when they believe that their own individual understanding of what the Bible says IS “what the Bible teaches.” No pastor can make the claim that his understanding of Scripture is the same exact thing as Scripture itself, and neither can any pope, for that matter. But Catholics have the Church, given the official seal of approval in 1 Timothy 3:15, to guide our investigations. Protestants have… their own understanding.

The Reformers struggled with this. Calvin, when evaluating the letters of the martyred bishop St. Ignatius of Antioch (c. 107 A.D.) against his own very set notions on church government, came to the conclusion that the letters were forgeries – they had to be, because they described a turn-of-the-second-century Christian community with the ecclesiastical hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Throwing the God-given try square into the trash, Calvin substituted his own understanding of Scripture, and was forced to reject the priceless testimony of a very, very early martyr for the Faith because that testimony just couldn’t be squared with the way Calvin read his Bible. Modern-day conservative Protestant historians, setting aside the ax Calvin was grinding, accept the authenticity of Ignatius’ seven letters to the churches, dating their composition to the earliest years of the 2nd century.

Yet many great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren of the Reformers are still having the same allergic reaction to the early Church Fathers. The Fathers’ works describe a Church that is Catholic to the core. Their writings debunk the very useful Protestant myth that Catholic distinctives like the papacy and the Mass are the invention of those participating in the Constantinian conspiracy, when the “real Christians” were forced into hiding. The utter silence of the early Christians on popular Protestant themes such as once-saved/always-saved baffles modern-day Evangelicals, while the Fathers’ insistence on the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and on baptismal regeneration can be downright indigestion-provoking to Evangelicals who then feel tempted to construct historical workarounds like the “Bible-only Christians of the Dark Ages” theory. At odds with the rank-and-file, conservative Protestant scholars do not hesitate to admit the historical truth that the Church of the first few centuries was exceedingly Catholic in appearance.

Yep, the Reformation-era theologians had it made. They just blithely discounted the witness of the early Church, discarding the try square of the “pillar and foundation of truth” and insisting on their own versions of history and their own understandings of Scripture.

And there were no pesky conservative Protestant historians around to prove them wrong.


On the memorial of the Carmelite Nuns of Compiègne

Deo omnis gloria!

  1. russ said:

    Great Post Renee! You have said in one post what I have been attempting to say over many posts over many years regarding “what the bible says” = “what I want it to say” and what the historical record shows the early Christians actually believed and practiced. When presented with the historical evidence that the early Church practiced what looks like Catholicism, I have heard some non-Catholics make the argument that the early Christians didn’t get it right, but that true doctrine, later developed as their understanding developed! Wow, how come they are allowed to believe in the development of doctrine (ala Newman) but we are accused of “making up stuff” when we use the concept to explain transubstantiation?
    I pray that this will be read by open minded Protesants of good will .

    • Wow, then there is really some pretty overwhelming evidence of how the early Christians “misunderstood” the doctrines of baptismal regeneration, the Real Presence, the Mass as a sacrifice, the necessity of final perseverance, the necessity of works…. As Mark Shea would say, “If only the apostles hadn’t mumbled so!” 🙂

      Thanks, Russ!

  2. R. Webb said:

    Great post – Love this blog. However, you can layout a perfect square with a ruler – works even better than a carpenters square. Ask your construction friends or high school geometry teacher about the 3,4,5 rule and think Pythagoras — it’ll come back to you ;>

    Again – great post!

    • Well, shoot – that blows that analogy! 🙂

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