Meanwhile the abuses that shocked and enraged Luther also shocked and enraged many good and godly clerics who remained in the Church. And while it’s true to say that the Reformation forced the issues, the Council of Trent (1545-1563) corrected most of the abuses and launched the Catholic Church into a new era of spiritual, intellectual, and missionary vigor. Meanwhile the shattered chunks of Protestantism did as they were told.
Rail against my wrong-headed reading of the history if you wish, but keep it to ad hominem attacks. If you start reading more broadly from Catholic as well as Protestant sources it will only cause you to get “deep in history.” When that happens, don’t say that Blessed John Henry didn’t warn you.
Rule #4: Do Not Read the Church Fathers
Our small group began meeting just before Advent. “Why don’t we read St. Athanasius’s book On the Incarnation?” I suggested.
“Athanasius?” said one of the group members, “Wasn’t he Catholic?”
How exactly do you answer that question? Yes, of course, Athanasius is a Catholic. But what my friend meant was Catholic as opposed to Protestant. That distinction 1,100 years before the Reformation is more than anachronistic, it’s absurd. Athanasius belongs to all Christians. He was, after all, in the front lines of the battle defending the deity of Christ from the Arians. The Arian belief that Jesus was not God, but a sort of super-duper angel was taking over the Church one city at a time and if it had prevailed, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Athanasius is one of Christianity’s greatest heroes. He belongs to us all.
And Polycarp, Ignatius of Antioch, Clement of Rome, Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom, Anthony, Augustine of Hippo, and the rest of the Church Fathers stretching from the early second century into about the seventh century belong to us all as well. They laid the foundation for all genuinely Christian theology and many were involved in writing the creeds that we still recite—or at least, that some of us still recite.
That makes reading the Fathers sound mighty attractive, but consider: most of them were bishops and some, Clement of Rome for example, were popes. Resist the temptation since they will demand that you think seriously about many things including Church government and why yours is probably not biblical.
There are three church polity “options”: government by bishops or episcopal (from the Greek word episcopos meaning overseer or bishop), government by elders or presbyterian (from the Greek word presbyteros meaning elder), and congregational (who don’t get a Greek word).
Like many, I left seminary believing that church government didn’t even make it to the level of a tertiary concern. The New Testament talks about bishops and elders in ways that I saw as interchangeable. It seemed clear to me that the New Testament congregations were run locally with elders/overseers or whatever they wanted to call themselves aided by deacons. Apostles, being the authoritative conduits for Christian truth, could and did have special input, but then they died. Did I mention that I was a licensed Congregational minister at the time?
Reading the early Church Fathers makes clear that a matter of a few decades after the apostles and all across the Church there was a hierarchy of bishops, priests (presbyters), and deacons.
There are only two ways to explain this.
Explanation #1: The apostles had no strong opinions about church polity and the New Testament is intentionally ambiguous so that congregations could pick what worked best for them. (Alternative Explanation #1 reflecting my Presbyterian years: The apostles writing the New Testament intended Presbyterian polity, Acts 15 being the minutes of the first General Assembly.) Then as soon as the last apostle went to his reward, the Church from Jerusalem to Antioch, from Ephesus to Corinth, across North Africa to Rome underwent a massive reorg that instituted episcopal polity everywhere complete with the doctrine of apostolic succession. And, unlike every other reorg in history and unlike every other change in the early Church, no one complained.