I once explained to a Protestant the Catholic teaching that a valid marriage cannot be dissolved. I explained our understanding of Genesis 2:24, Malachi 2:16, Matthew 5:31-32, Matthew 19: 9, Mark 10:11, Luke 16: 18, and 1 Corinthians 7, and discussed the fact that no one up until the time of the Reformation felt that remarriage was ever an option after divorce. She listened carefully, asked many questions, and evinced understanding. But in the end, she shook her head and admitted that she would accept the Catholic teaching on the permanence of marriage, except for the fact that she couldn’t find another church which agreed with the Church that remarriage is an impossibility in cases where a valid marriage has previously taken place.
Not unusual for a Protestant to feel that way. Many things in a Protestant context are decided by the quasi-biblical principles of “free and fair elections” and “majority rules.” My friend simply felt that, in this case, Catholics were outvoted. What is not given due consideration, at least not in the more “modern” Protestant denominations of an Evangelical or charismatic bent, is that when Protestants are doing their polling, the vast majority of Christians are allowed no say whatsoever. You see, under their system, when you die you forfeit your right to cast a vote. The beliefs of those who have gone before are null and void.
Of course, no one thinks about it in exactly this way; no one really thinks about it at all. It simply never occurs to these Protestants to put in the time to research the historic teachings of the Christians in prior centuries on any given subject. It never occurs to them to do this because, despite their firm belief in eternal life in Christ, to them the dead are DEAD and they are GONE.
This attitude has consequences. The Assemblies of God USA has produced a statement of faith, over 2,700 words’ worth, chockfull of Scripture but absent of any references to how their understanding of the Bible matches up with what Christians have believed down through the centuries. Phooey on those dead folks – what do their beliefs matter? What we believe and teach NOW is REAL Christianity! It’s silliness like that which led Spurgeon to quip, “It seems odd that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to them should think so little of what He has revealed to others.”
Sometimes you really have to wonder….
In contrast, on the website of a Reformed Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, you are advised that the church considers itself to be “a part of the historic Judeo-Christian Church, and our foundational vision and beliefs seek to be rooted in scripture and the history of the Church. Therefore we hold to the most basic beliefs of the church found in The Apostles’ Creed.”
One can certainly make the case that one’s beliefs are “rooted in Scripture and in the history of the Church” by referencing the Apostles’ Creed:
We believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
We believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
We believe in the Holy Spirit,
The holy catholic Church,
The communion of saints,
The forgiveness of sins,
The resurrection of the body,
And the life everlasting. Amen.
The Apostles’ Creed is a good place to begin. In using one of the ancient creeds as their statement of faith, this church is demonstrating an interest in continuity, admitting that what the early Christians believed actually mattered. This is not unusual for the spiritual descendants of Calvin, a Reformer who often referred to the Church Fathers and their teachings (although Catholics would take issue with how he understood them).
So what does one of the more modern Protestant denominations (nondenominational, charismatic, independent) do should it be brought to their attention that the beliefs of 2,000 years’ worth of Christianity ought to count for something? They can do what the churches that I formerly attended did – they can simply claim that what they are teaching is exactly what the early Christians believed. That is what the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada has done. Their statement of faith reads in part:
“The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada stands firmly in the mainstream of historical Christianity.”
Of course, I can claim that I’m a direct descendant of St. Augustine of Hippo – but that doesn’t make it so. Let’s look at some of the PAOC’s beliefs:
1. The Lord’s Supper is a symbol, memorial and proclamation of the suffering and death of our Lord Jesus Christ. This ordinance of communion is to be participated in by believers until Christ’s return.
2. Water baptism signifies the believer’s identification with Christ in His death, burial and resurrection and is practised by immersion.
3. Assurance of salvation is the privilege of all who are born again by the Spirit through faith in Christ, resulting in love, gratitude and obedience toward God.
The denomination is serving up a purely symbolic Lord’s Supper, a baptism which “signifies” something rather than actually effecting something (and which MUST be by immersion), and eternal security – three beliefs/practices which the group claims are rooted “firmly in the mainstream of historical Christianity.”
The mainstream of historical Christianity in an alternate universe, perhaps?
Let’s let the early Christians explain their beliefs concerning the “Lord’s Supper” (Holy Communion). Jesus said “This IS My body.” Did the early Christians have the faith to believe what He said?
They [the Gnostics] abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in his goodness, raised up again. – St. Ignatius of Antioch, 107 A.D.
Moreover, as I said before, concerning the sacrifices which you at that time offered, God speaks through Malachi [1:10-12]…It is of the sacrifices offered to Him in every place by us, the Gentiles, that is, of the bread of the Eucharist and likewise of the cup of the Eucharist, that He speaks at that time; and He says that we glorify His name, while you profane it. – St. Justin Martyr, 2nd century
He taught the new sacrifice of the New Covenant, of which Malachi, one of the twelve prophets, had signified beforehand: [quotes Mal 1:10-11]. By these words He makes it plain that the former people will cease to make offerings to God; but that in every place sacrifice will be offered to him, and indeed, a pure one; for His name is glorified among the Gentiles. – St. Irenaeus of Lyons, 2nd century
“Eat My Flesh,” He says, “and drink My Blood.” The Lord supplies us with these intimate nutriments. He delivers over His Flesh, and pours out His Blood; and nothing is lacking for the growth of His children. O incredible mystery! – St. Clement of Alexandria, 3rd century
He Himself warns us, saying, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you shall not have life in you.” Therefore do we ask that our Bread, which is Christ, be given to us daily, so that we who abide and live in Christ may not withdraw from His sanctification and from His Body. – St. Cyprian of Carthage, 3rd century
Our Lord Jesus took in His hands what in the beginning was only bread; and He blessed it, and signed it, and made it holy in the name of the Father and in the name of the Spirit; and He broke it and in His gracious kindness He distributed it to all His disciples one by one. He called the bread His living Body, and did Himself fill it with Himself and the Spirit. And extending His hand, He gave them the Bread which His right hand had made holy: “Take, all of you eat of this, which My word has made holy. Do not now regard as bread that which I have given you; but take, eat this Bread [of life], and do not scatter the crumbs; for what I have called My Body, that it is indeed. – St. Ephraim. 4th century
Let us approach the celebration of the mysteries. This bread and this wine, so long as the prayers and supplications have not taken place, remain simply what they are. But after the great prayers and holy supplications have been sent forth, the Word comes down into the bread and wine — and thus is His Body confected. – St. Athanasius, 4th century
The bread again is at first common bread; but when the mystery sanctifies it, it is called and actually becomes the Body of Christ. – St. Gregory of Nyssa, 4th century
You may perhaps say: “My bread is ordinary.” But that bread is bread before the words of the Sacraments; where the consecration has entered in, the bread becomes the flesh of Christ. And let us add this: How can what is bread be the Body of Christ? By the consecration. The consecration takes place by certain words; but whose words? Those of the Lord Jesus. – St. Ambrose, 4th century
After the type had been fulfilled by the Passover celebration and He had eaten the flesh of the lamb with His Apostles, He takes bread which strengthens the heart of man, and goes on to the true Sacrament of the Passover, so that just as Melchisedech, the priest of the Most High God, in prefiguring Him, made bread and wine an offering, He too makes Himself manifest in the reality of His own Body and Blood. – St. Jerome, 5th century
“But by the prayers of the Holy Church, and by the salvific Sacrifice, and by the alms which are given for their spirits, there is no doubt that the dead are aided that the Lord might deal more mercifully with them than their sins would deserve. For the whole Church observes this practice which was handed down by the Fathers that it prays for those who have died in the communion of the Body and Blood of Christ, when they are commemorated in their own place in the Sacrifice itself; and the Sacrifice is offered also in memory of them, on their behalf. – St. Augustine, 5th century
The historical record goes on and on in this vein; every Christian up until the Reformation was taught that the bread and wine actually become the Body and Blood of Jesus. Those Christians took the words “This is My body” quite literally. So in what sense is the PAOC belief in the bread and wine as mere symbols “mainstream”? Perhaps by “historical Christianity” they mean Protestant Christianity? Sorry, Charlie…
Who, but the devil, has granted such license of wresting the words of the holy Scripture? Who ever read in the Scriptures, that my body is the same as the sign of my body? or, that it is the same as it signifies? What language in the world ever spoke so? It is only then the devil, that imposes upon us by these fanatical men. Not one of the Fathers of the Church, though so numerous, ever spoke as the Sacramentarians: not one of them ever said, It is only bread and wine; or, the body and blood of Christ is not there present.
Surely, it is not credible, nor possible, since they often speak, and repeat their sentiments, that they should never (if they thought so) not so much as once, say, or let slip these words: It is bread only; or the body of Christ is not there, especially it being of great importance, that men should not be deceived. Certainly, in so many Fathers, and in so many writings, the negative might at least be found in one of them, had they thought the body and blood of Christ were not really present: but they are all of them unanimous. – Martin Luther, 16th century
Okay, so the claim about being in the “mainstream of historical Christianity” is bogus as far as Holy Communion goes – the PAOC teaching on that subject wasn’t invented until very late in the game; even Martin Luther thought it was tommyrot. How about their belief that baptism merely signifies the change that takes place in the believer when he is baptized into Christ, and that baptism must be by immersion?
Having said all these things beforehand, baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit in living water [i.e., running water]. If there is no living water, baptize in other water; and, if you are not able to use cold water, use warm. If you have neither, pour water three times upon the head in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. -The Didache, 1st century
I will also relate the manner in which we dedicated ourselves to God when we had been made new through Christ; lest, if we omit this, we seem to be unfair in the explanation we are making. As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, “Except ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Now, that it is impossible for those who have once been born to enter into their mothers’ wombs, is manifest to all. And how those who have sinned and repent shall escape their sins, is declared by Esaias the prophet, as I wrote above; he thus speaks: “Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from your souls; learn to do well; judge the fatherless, and plead for the widow: and come and let us reason together, saith the Lord. And though your sins be as scarlet, I will make them white like wool; and though they be as crimson, I will make them white as snow. But if ye refuse and rebel, the sword shall devour you: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.” – St. Justin Martyr, 2nd century
Where there is no scarcity of water the stream shall flow through the baptismal font or pour into it from above; but if water is scarce, whether on a constant condition or on occasion, then use whatever water is available. – St. Hippolytus of Rome, 3rd century
There is absolutely nothing which makes men’s minds more obdurate than the simplicity of the divine works which are visible in the act, when compared with the grandeur which is promised thereto in the effect; so that from the very fact, that with so great simplicity, without pomp, without any considerable novelty of preparation, finally, without expense, a man is dipped in water, and amid the utterance of some few words, is sprinkled, and then rises again, not much (or not at all) the cleaner, the consequent attainment of eternity is esteemed the more incredible. – Tertullian, 3rd century
As [Novatian] seemed about to die, he received baptism in the bed where he lay, by pouring… – Pope Cornelius I, 3rd century
Being baptized, we are illuminated; illuminated, we become sons; being made sons, we are made perfect; being made perfect, we are made immortal… This work is variously called grace, and illumination, and perfection, and washing. Washing, by which we cleanse away our sins; grace, by which the penalties accruing to transgressions are remitted; and illumination, by which that holy light of salvation is beheld, that is, by which we see God clearly. – St. Clement of Alexandria, 3rd century
For prisoners, baptism is ransom, forgiveness of debts, the death of sin, regeneration of the soul, a resplendent garment, an unbreakable seal, a chariot to heaven, a royal protector, a gift of adoption. – St Basil the Great, 4th century
… for no one ascends into the kingdom of heaven except through the sacrament of baptism…. “Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” – St. Ambrose, 4th century
Good luck finding anyone among the early Christians who believed that baptism is just a symbol. They believed that “baptism… now saves you” (1 Pet 3:21). And don’t look to the Great Reformer for any help on this, either:
This is the simplest way to put it: the power, effect, benefit, fruit, and purpose of baptism is that it saves. For no one is baptized in order to become a prince, but as the words say, ‘to be saved.’ To be saved, as everyone knows, is nothing else than to be delivered from sin, death and the devil, to enter into Christ’s kingdom, and to live with him forever. Martin Luther, 16th century
Strike two! Now, what are the chances that the idea of “assurance of salvation” is “in the mainstream of historical Christianity”? Romans 11:19-22 warned the early Christians that “You may say ‘Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.’ Quite right, they were broken off for their unbelief, but you stand by your faith. Do not be conceited, but fear; for if God did not spare the natural branches, He will not spare you, either. Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off.” How did the early Christians interpret passages such as these?
He who raised Him up from the dead will raise us up also – if we do His will, and walk in His commandments, and love what He loved, keeping ourselves from all unrighteousness. – St. Polycarp, 2nd century
I hold further, that those of you who have confessed and known this man to be Christ, yet who have gone back for some reason to the legal dispensation, and have denied that this man is Christ, and have not repented before death – you will by no means be saved. – St. Justin Martyr, 2nd century
Those who do not obey Him, being disinherited by Him, have ceased to be His sons. – St. Irenaeus of Lyons, 2nd century
We ought indeed to walk so holily, and with so entire substantially of faith, as to be confident and secure in regard of our own conscience, desiring that it may abide in us to the end. Yet, we should not presume. For he who presumes feels less apprehension; he who feels less apprehension takes less precaution; he who takes less precaution runs more risk. Fear is the foundation of salvation; presumption is an impediment to fear. More useful, then, is it to apprehend that we may possibly fail, than to presume that we cannot; for apprehending will lead us to fear, fearing to caution, and caution to salvation. On the other hand, if we presume, there will be neither fear nor caution to save us. – Tertullian, 3rd century
Certain ones of those who hold different opinions misuse these passages. They essentially destroy free will by introducing ruined natures incapable of salvation and by introducing others as being saved in such a way that they cannot be lost. – Origen, 3rd century
Let us press onward and labor, watching with our whole heart. Let us be steadfast with all endurance; let us keep the Lord’s commandments. Thereby, when that day of anger and vengeance comes, we may not be punished with the ungodly and the sinners. Rather, we may be honored with the righteous and with those who fear God. – St. Cyprian of Carthage, 3rd century
You kind of know what’s coming, don’t you?
In my judgment, we must believe in the mercy of God, but remain uncertain about our and others’ future perseverance, or predestination. As he said: ‘if you think that you are standing, watch out that you do not fall,’ (1 Cor 10:12). Martin Luther, 16th century
Only by radically redefining the meaning of the words “historical Christianity” can one claim with a straight face that these modern-day teachings are what Christians down through the ages have believed. And not to pick on the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada – every “Bible-believing church” I was ever a part of taught me that I was being faithful to the teachings of historical Christianity. How so? Simple – I believed what the Bible says (I believed my own private interpretation of Scripture) and the early Christians believed what the Bible says, and therefore my modern-day beliefs, whatever they happened to be, were exactly the same as those of the early Christians. There was simply no doubt in my mind that this was true. That sincere belief was simply taken on faith; I never tried to demonstrate its historical accuracy. I just knew it was so.
Sometimes you really have to wonder….
On the memorial of Bl. Maria Angela Truszkowska
Deo omnis gloria!