Rome Disease

Over the past 20 years or so, Protestant leaders have grown awfully uncomfortable with a growing trend: Protestant traffic heading in the direction of Rome. And not just any Protestants – while Joe and Jane Pewwarmer may be comfortably ensconced at the corner Baptist or Presbyterian church, Joe and Jane’s pastor and the theologians who taught him may very well be suiting up to swim the Tiber. Over the past few decades such Protestant theologians, philosophers and educators as Francis Beckwith, Thomas Howard, J. Budziszewski, Reinhard Hütter, Bruce Marshall, Trent Dougherty, Robert Koons, Jay Richards, R.R. Reno, Joshua Hochschild, Leroy Huizenga, Richard John Neuhaus, Robert Wilken, Paul Quist, Richard Ballard, Paul Abbe, Thomas McMichael, Mickey Mattox, David Fagerberg, Jason Stellman and many more have left Protestantism for the Catholic Church – and I know this from Protestant articles and websites expressing shock at their conversion. At a loss to explain the defection of these once solidly Protestant luminaries, and unwilling to admit that these people might be reconciling with the Church because they have found the fullness of the Truth therein, Protestant apologists have latched onto a common thread in many conversion stories. Converts to Catholicism often complain that as Protestants they were kept in the dark regarding Church history. Take as an example the tales of those who studied theology at Protestant seminaries:

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)

Occasional references to St. Augustine did not obscure the fact that the majority of church history was ignored. (“Anthony“)

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)

We had never been taught any church history between the time of the apostles and Luther. I first heard of the “Church Fathers” in a Greek class in college. As I translated Irenaeus’ writings from the Greek, the truth of what he had written amazed me. I wondered why I had never been told of him before. None of my theology courses in college ever mentioned the Church Fathers. We were never given any devotional readings beyond what Luther wrote. (Kathy McDonald)

Hmmm… so Church history is the virus behind Catholic fever? They’re demanding access to Church history? Can we manufacture some sort of vaccine against that?

And thus today’s Protestant apologists have to know not only their Augustine, but their Athanasius, their Cyril (of Alexandria and of Jerusalem), their Irenaeus and their Vincent of Lerins (okay, maybe not Vincent of Lerins – “Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est” and all that). These brave souls familiarize themselves with the Fathers not so that they can explain the actual theology of the early Church to fellow Protestants (that would never do), but so that they can extract certain quotes from their writings and distill them into a “proof vaccine,” purporting to demonstrate that core Protestant doctrines were theological staples of the early Church, thereby inoculating potential upstarts (who then believe that they know what the Fathers taught) against Catholicism.

Epidemic contained.

It’s kind of funny, and it’s kind of sad. Because Protestants have their own version of what they think the Catholic Church teaches (you know, works-righteousness, Mary worship, a sinless pope, the Bible is wrong when it contradicts Holy Mother Church, etc.), they believe that by finding remarks in the Church Fathers which indicate that we are indeed “saved by grace through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God” (which the Church has been insisting for, oh, about 2,000 years or so now), or that “all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (there’s never been any argument from the Church on that, either), they have proved Catholicism wrong. It is this fundamental refusal to hear what Catholics are saying when we profess that we can’t work our way to Heaven or that “the Sacred Scriptures contain the Word of God and, because they are inspired they are truly the Word of God” that causes Protestants wielding the Church Fathers to make themselves look so silly. The Fathers were Catholic, you know. There’s just no getting around that point.

Consider the writings of the Church Fathers on the subject of the Holy Scriptures. Modern-day Protestant authors, believing that it is Catholic Church policy to hide the Bible under a bushel whenever it “contradicts” Catholic doctrine, will gladly dish up quotes which are supposed to “prove” that the Fathers were every bit as “sola Scriptura” as Luther or Calvin, quotes like these:

Since, therefore, the entire Scriptures, the prophets, and the Gospels, can be clearly, unambiguously, and harmoniously understood by all, although all do not believe them; and since they proclaim that one only God, to the exclusion of all others, formed all things by His word, whether visible or invisible, heavenly or earthly, in the water or under the earth, as I have shown from the very words of Scripture; and since the very system of creation to which we belong testifies, by what falls under our notice, that one Being made and governs it,—those persons will seem truly foolish who blind their eyes to such a clear demonstration, and will not behold the light of the announcement [made to them]; but they put fetters upon themselves, and every one of them imagines, by means of their obscure interpretations of the parables, that he has found out a God of his own. St. Irenaeus of Lyons, 2nd century Church Father

Scripture can indeed be understood by Luther’s proverbial ploughboy – so says Irenaeus!

Hmm… then why did Irenaeus even bother writing his monumental “Against Heresies” if everyone could just pick up a copy of the Scriptures and understand them? Sure, there were bad guys who twisted the perspicuous Scriptures to their own ends:

Their manner of acting is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skillful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of the man all to pieces, should rearrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox, and even that but poorly executed; and should then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which the skillful artist constructed, pointing to the jewels which had been admirably fitted together by the first artist to form the image of the king, but have been with bad effect transferred by the latter one to the shape of a dog, and by thus exhibiting the jewels, should deceive the ignorant who had no conception what a king’s form was like, and persuade them that that miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king. St. Irenaeus of Lyons

So, when heretics twisted the Scriptures, Irenaeus advised 2nd-century Christians to just pull a copy of the KJV out of their hip pocket and set the losers straight, right?

As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth. For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world. But as the sun, that creature of God, is one and the same throughout the whole world, so also the preaching of the truth shines everywhere, and enlightens all men that are willing to come to a knowledge of the truth. Nor will any one of the rulers in the Churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these (for no one is greater than the Master); nor, on the other hand, will he who is deficient in power of expression inflict injury on the tradition. For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one, who can say but little diminish it. St. Irenaeus of Lyons

That quote from Irenaeus demonstrates Sacred Tradition in action. Note the unity of the Faith that Irenaeus is touting; exactly the opposite of the divisions that plague sola Scriptura adherents running around with KJV’s in their hip pockets. That’s because the Church that Irenaeus defended did NOT believe in sola Scriptura – all believed the same thing because all were taught the same thing by the authoritative Church which “clearly, unambiguously, and harmoniously understood” the Scriptures according to the Tradition handed down by the apostles!

The Catholic Church’s point exactly: Scripture? YES! Tradition? YES! Quotes 1 and 2 and 3? YES! YES! YES!

Undaunted, many Protestant authors trot out St. Athanasius in defense of the indefensible doctrine of sola Scriptura, using this quote:

The holy and inspired Scriptures are fully sufficient for the proclamation of the truth. St. Athanasius of Alexandria, 4th-century Church Father

Sounds pretty “sola!” Yet this was the same Athanasius who thundered:

But beyond these sayings [of the Bible], let us look at the very tradition, teaching and faith of the Catholic Church from the beginning, which the Lord gave, the Apostles preached, and the Fathers kept. Upon this the Church is founded, and he who should fall away from it should not be a Christian, and should no longer be so called. St. Athanasius

So, the Scriptures, rightly understood through Sacred Tradition, are fully sufficient for the proclamation of the truth – hardly a Protestant sentiment. When you harmonize ALL that a particular Church Father wrote, rather than pulling statements out of context, there’s simply no way you end up with a proto-Protestant 2nd-, 3rd, or 4th-century Church. Athanasius himself grumbled about the cherry-picking of the Fathers who had gone before him:

Yes, [Church Father Dionysius] wrote it, and we too admit that his letter runs thus. But just as he wrote this, he wrote also very many other letters, and they ought to consult those also, in order that the faith of the man may be made clear from them all, and not from this alone. St. Athanasius

Selective quoting got mighty tiresome even back in those days….

Protestant apologists will earnestly endeavor to persuade you that the Church Fathers held Scripture in high regard, proclaimed the authority of the Bible and believed Scripture to be sufficient in itself, citing passages such as “How can we adopt those things which we do not find in the holy Scriptures?” and “The sacred and inspired Scriptures are sufficient to declare the truth” and “There is, brethren, one God, the knowledge of whom we gain from the Holy Scriptures and no other source.” If you look into this, you will find that it is certainly true – the Fathers held Scripture in high regard, proclaimed the authority of the Bible, and believed Scripture to be sufficient in itself. Those same Protestant authors will, however, decline to inform you that those same Fathers held Holy Tradition in equally high regard, proclaimed the authority of the Church, and declared that when heretics came up with novel approaches to the interpretation of Scripture, Tradition was essential to protect the orthodox interpretation of those Scriptures. Holy Tradition, the Fathers claimed, makes it possible for the Church to say, “THIS is the interpretation of Scripture that the apostles taught and which has been handed down to us – that’s why your interpretation of Scripture is wrong” when heretics twist the Scriptures and devise new doctrines.

Which doesn’t stop Protestant apologists from propping the Fathers up like ventriloquists’ dummies to mouth the Reformers’ doctrine of sola fide (faith alone). As Frank Beckwith pointed out in his Return to Rome, St. Augustine is often pressed into the service of Martin Luther’s pet doctrine:

St. Augustine of Hippo: [Grace] is bestowed on us, not because we have done good works, but that we may be able to do them – in other words, not because we have fulfilled the Law, but in order that we may be able to fulfill the Law.

See? St. Augustine was Protestant in his understanding of justification!

Or, as Beckwith puts it:

Now, if that’s all one read from the Fathers, one may be led to think that the Reformation attempted to restore what the Church had once embraced, or at least implicitly held, from its earliest days.

And that is, obviously, the fervent hope – that that’s all a questioning Protestant will bother to read of the Fathers – the “proof-texts.” As Dr. Beckwith points out, the understanding of “grace” which St. Augustine propounded is consistent with Protestant theology as well as with Catholic theology. No Catholic would find that quote on the subject of grace at all disturbing, because justification by faith is what Catholics believe. Protestants, however, have a tough time reconciling other quotes from that same Church Father with the Protestant belief system:

St. Augustine of Hippo: We run, therefore, whenever we make advance; and our wholeness runs with us in our advance (just as a sore is said to run when the wound is in process of a sound and careful treatment), in order that we may be in every respect perfect, without any infirmity of sin whatever result which God not only wishes, but even causes and helps us to accomplish. And this God’s grace does, in co-operation with ourselves, through Jesus Christ our Lord, as well by commandments, sacraments, and examples, as by His Holy Spirit also; through whom there is hiddenly shed abroad in our hearts . . . that love, “which makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered,” . . . until wholeness and salvation be perfected in us, and God be manifested to us as He will be seen in His eternal truth.

As Dr. Beckwith points out, the sentiments in this quote from Augustine are reflected, not in Protestant theology (Calvin forbid!), but in a very Catholic statement on justification:

Now they (adults) are disposed unto the said justice, when, excited and assisted by divine grace, conceiving faith by hearing, they are freely moved towards God, believing those things to be true which God has revealed and promised,-and this especially, that God justifies the impious by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus; and when, understanding themselves to be sinners, they, by turning themselves, from the fear of divine justice whereby they are profitably agitated, to consider the mercy of God, are raised unto hope, confiding that God will be propitious to them for Christ’s sake; and they begin to love Him as the fountain of all justice; and are therefore moved against sins by a certain hatred and detestation, to wit, by that penitence which must be performed before baptism: lastly, when they purpose to receive baptism, to begin a new life, and to keep the commandments of God. Concerning this disposition it is written; He that cometh to God, must believe that he is, and is a rewarder to them that seek him; and, Be of good faith, son, thy sins are forgiven thee; and, The fear of the Lord driveth out sin; and, Do penance, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of your sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost; and, Going, therefore, teach ye all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost; finally, Prepare your hearts unto the Lord.

This disposition, or preparation, is followed by Justification itself, which is not remission of sins merely, but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man, through the voluntary reception of the grace, and of the gifts, whereby man of unjust becomes just, and of an enemy a friend, that so he may be an heir according to hope of life everlasting. The Council of Trent on justification


The point is that St. Augustine can get an “Amen!” from Catholics on both quotes 1 and 2. Protestants, on the other hand, would much prefer that St. Gus had quit while he was ahead, so to speak. From a Protestant standpoint, the “proof-text” was nifty; the other stuff, not so much….

This kind of proof-texting is inflicted upon the writings of numerous Fathers. The moral of the story: Catholic fever is going around. If you have a vested interest in remaining Protestant, for Luther’s sake don’t sit down and actually read the Church Fathers to learn what they really thought! Get your vaccination against Rome disease: read a few quotes meticulously compiled by Protestant apologists and leave it at that. It’s safer, like a vaccine made of dead cells is a whole lot safer than the real living deal. Catholicism can be highly contagious; get your inoculation today, lest you come down with a bad case of the fullness of the Truth.


On the memorial of St. Isaac Jogues and Companions

Deo omnis gloria!


Photo credits: Woman receiving rubella vaccination, School of Public Health of the State of Minas Gerais (ESP-MG), Brazil, by Sandra Rugio/Wikimedia Commons

  1. russ said:

    I always say the Early Church Fathers are the Best Kept Secret! I was a Protestant for 30 years and never once was told there was a bunch of early Christians who wrote extensively of the early Church, talking about the Eucharist, and other sacraments. But silly me for not being willing to read on my own, regarding Church history. Basically I was told, Jesus started a CHurch which went south very quickly and the Holy Spirit went on sabbatical for 1500 years until blessed Martin found a bible and read it for the first time! Yeah, I believed this poop. Embarrasing to admit.

    • That’s what I believed, and that’s what everybody I knew believed. You’re right – it is embarrassing.

  2. Kala Nila said:

    I was told in my church history course that because of persecution, the earliest Christians didn’t leave a whole lot for us to read… :/ But in my Greek course, our prof joked that we should read the Church Fathers if we ever got bored of the Bible. So I put that on my to-do list after graduation but I never got around to it until recently… A treasure, for sure!!

  3. I wonder what led your church history teacher to believe that, because it would take the average gainfully-employed person a year or two to read through all the writings left by the Christians of the first, second and third centuries. Perhaps your teacher meant the writings which Protestants can agree with? That would be a short list! 🙂

    • Kala Nila said:

      Maybe. I don’t think it would would be beneficial to open THAT can of worms in a Church History course! I used to think the Church Fathers’ beliefs were very ambiguous, but I still remain speechless when I read some of what they had to say. Very straightforward, leaving no room for speculation or re-interpretation.

      • What I really love is that Catholic apologists are still using the arguments against heretics that St. Augustine, St. Vincent of Lerins and St. Optatus of Milevis used 1,500 years ago! Really, some of the best arguments against sola Scriptura come from the Church Fathers!

        • Kala Nila said:

          Yup! I find it kind of ironic (and sad) that Protestants will point to one thing the Church Fathers said, completely ignoring everything else they said!

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