Did Jesus found a Church?
The question—phrased like that—did not actually occur to me until somewhat recently. Yes, I long had the conviction that the Catholic Church of today has its roots deep in the Gospels and that Peter was the rock upon which the Church was founded as recorded in Matthew 16. But the direct question as to who actually established the Church underscores anew the importance of the Church itself.
The answer that a well-known ad campaign—Catholics Comes Home—gives is that Jesus founded the Church. This means that the Church was not something that just happened to evolve after the resurrection—that it was not a human institution formed in response to the message of Christ. It means that not even Peter and the apostles were the founders of the Church.
The truth that the Church was founded by Jesus Christ means that we better make sure we really understand what the Church is and that we belong to it.
On this point, amazingly, Catholics and still-Reformed Protestants are actually in agreement: Jesus is the founder of the Church. (For an example of a Protestant perspective, here is the statement on the matter from an anti-Catholic ministry. See also Chapter 25 of the Westminster Confession and the fourth book of The Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin.)
Protestants: Church centers on the written word
The next question then becomes: How can Protestants claim continuity with the Church founded by Christ?
If you read the Westminster Confession and the Institutes closely the answer appears to be that wherever the Gospel is preached and the sacraments are celebrated is where the true Church is. Although this is incomplete, on the face of it, it’s not a bad definition.
But here’s the catch. For Calvin and other like-minded Protestants, that definition is heavily conditioned by their commitment to the false principle of sola scriptura—the Bible as the sole authority for the faith.
That means that Calvin only accepted the two sacraments for which he saw clear biblical evidence: baptism and communion. And Calvin did not see the sacraments as channels of grace or a place of encounter. Instead they were mere symbols of the salvation in which a Christian had come to believe through the preaching of the gospel.
Now when Calvin speaks of preaching of the gospel, he means the written gospel. In the Institutes he declares: “Let this be a firm principle: No other word is to be held as the Word of God and given place as such in the Church than what is contained first in the Law and the Prophets, then in the writings of the apostles; and the only authorized way of teaching in the church is by the prescription and standard of his Word.”
An evangelical organization put this telling interpretation on the above quotation: “Calvin makes it clear that Christ limited the mission of the apostles ‘when he ordered them to go and teach not what they had thoughtlessly fabricated, but all that he had commanded them.’ Without the Bible we have no revelation from God which is able to save us from sin and death.”
The Church was before the Bible
Here’s the problem: this account of the Church is quite at odds in what we actually see in the Scriptures themselves.
That’s because the preaching of the gospel—as later recorded in the Acts of the Apostles and elsewhere—actually began before the writing of the New Testament. There seems to be a general consensus among scholars that first book written in the New Testament is 1 Thessalonians, around 50 AD. According to the traditional timeline, the last was the Gospel of John, around 85 AD or later.
That means that some 20 years elapsed between Pentecost and the first New Testament book and that the Bible as we know it today would not be complete for nearly another century. And even then, it wasn’t a single book. Nor was there a solid consensus on what belonged in it. (For example, one of the earliest Fathers, Irenaeus, writing in the late 100s, quotes from most of the New Testament books, but not Philemon, 2 Peter, 3 John, or Jude.)
The point is not a trivial one. Either the Church did or did not exist in the years stretching from Pentecost to 1 Thessalonians. If it did not exist, it is hard to conceive how one could still believe Jesus was its founder.
Besides, what is happening at Pentecost very much looks like Church-building. Peter is indeed preaching the Gospel and he is calling his audience to the repentance of baptism (Acts 2:38).
Of course, Scripture—then just the Old Testament—does play a role in Peter’s sermon in Acts 2. He explicitly quotes from Joel and the Psalms and also makes allusions to Deuteronomy, 2 Samuel, and Isaiah. But just as much as he draws from written testimony he also relies on his own personal testimony of having encountered the risen Christ (Acts 2:32).
Peter’s approach here conforms to the Great Commission of Matthew 28:20
Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.
Pay close attention not only to what is said, but to what is not said. As Johannes Eck, a Catholic theologian of first half of the 1500s, pointed out in response to the Protestant Reformers:
The Lord Christ wrote no book, nor did He command the apostles to write, but He commanded a great deal concerning the church. Therefore when He sent out the apostles He did not say ‘Go forth and write’ but ‘Go forth and preach the Gospel to all creatures’ (Handbook of Commonplaces and Articles Against the New Teachings Currently Wafting About).
Again, this is a significant observation—because elsewhere in the Old Testament we have clear-cut examples of God actually commanding His words to be written down. Here’s one example from Jeremiah 30:
This word came to Jeremiah from the Lord: Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Write down on a scroll all the words I have spoken to you (verses 1-2).
So also Habakkuk 2:
Then the LORD answered me and said:
Write down the vision;
Make it plain upon tablets,
so that the one who reads it may run (verse 2).
Early Christians encountered the Word made flesh
The example Eck himself gives is of Moses writing down the Ten Commandments on stone tablets. Eck contrasts this written word of the law with how St. Paul describes the Gospel in 2 Corinthians 3:2-3,
You are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by all, shown to be a letter of Christ administered by us, written not in ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets that are hearts of flesh.
What this suggests is that the early Church had a different relationship to the Word of God than did the Israelites of old. The Word was not merely heard but also intimately internalized in one’s heart. In other words, the Word had become flesh. Hearing and believing in this Word, then, meant being transformed into it. (Which is why the Church is fittingly called the mystical Body of Christ.) This is exactly what Paul indicates in his conclusion:
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.
All of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as from the Lord who is the Spirit (verses 17-18).
The early Church thus was centered on the Word, but not so much the written word as the living Word, encountered through the Spirit. Of course, this does not mean that the written word, the Old Testament, was unimportant. In fact, the Old and now the New Testaments are incredibly important. But then—as it should be now—the Scriptures were not the source and summit of the life of the early Church. The direct encounter with God was, as Paul so beautifully and richly puts it in the above verses from 2 Corinthians.
If the Gospel spreads not through the letter but the Spirit, then its essential means of transmittal is word of mouth from an authoritative living witness, as we see at Pentecost. Over the course of generations, word of mouth becomes oral tradition. And tradition is not something that one individual hands off to individual to another but rather is something passed on within a community. And, as with all true communities, the community of early Christians had a point of authority that sustained, guided, and ensured its continuity—Peter and the apostles.
This is the true Church—the Church as commanded by Jesus and described by Acts. This vision of the Church also happens to be precisely the Catholic one.