Posted by: Standing Solus Christus | February 23, 2008

Why Study Church History? (Lesson 1: Part 4)

Why Study Church History?  (Lesson 1: Part 4)

The fifth century church father Vincent of Lerins asserted that the catholic tradition is ubique, simper, et ab omnibus “what was believed always, everywhere and by everyone.”  We would have to confess that this is a severe overstatement and is not justifiable by the historical events as they are understood by the facts.  For example, this conflicts with Anthanasius’ testimony about his times in defending orthodoxy when he described the times as, “Athanasius against the world.”1 It is true that the term catholic comes from a Greek root whose meaning is “universal”, however we need to qualify how universal this tradition was.  A good measurement of the catholic or universal tradition passed down by the fathers is embodied perhaps in the Apostles Creed.  The creed itself includes within its statement of faith that “we believe in one holy catholic church”.  Some Protestants are leery of using this term providing a footnote or replacing the word altogether when reciting this creed.  We would argue, however that we should retain the word catholic.  A proper use of this term would distinguish it from the Roman Catholic Church, which is the source of the uneasiness for many Protestants. We as Protestants are not sectarian Christians and should not be afraid to use the term “catholic”.  We are part and parcel of the traditional catholic faith expressed in the ancient church, not latter-day saints.  The Reformers never seen themselves as restorers of the church, which is manifested in their affirmation that re-baptism was not necessary.        

We should agree and embrace the teaching of the catholic church entirely in at least four areas: 

1.  The Trinity:  All agree on this biblical tradition.

2. Christology:  Christ is one person with two natures; fully divine and fully human we accept the ancient churches conclusion.

3. The Canon of the New Testament: Protestants, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox all agree on the books of the New Testament. 

4. The importance of missions:  There was remarkable growth in the ancient Church.  The Church was about the same size from 500 ad to about 1800 ad. 

These are four areas where we entirely embrace the teaching of the catholic church.  We also go so far to say that we largely, not entirely embrace the conclusions reached by the ancient church on ecclesiology, sacraments, clergy, liturgy and on soteriology.  There are some areas where there would be a larger percentage of agreement than others.   

The way that the Reformation embraced these areas of the catholic tradition is seen in the debates between Reformed/Lutheran and the Anabaptists.  The Anabaptists rejected infant baptism and the real presence of Christ in the Supper. They also believed that Christians should not be involved in the civic realm (i.e. army or government officials).  A real debate ensued on the character of the church, the Anabaptist struggled to have a pure church requiring all believers to acquire a standard of righteousness.  They wanted a very disciplined, very purified and very holy church.  The Reformers, on the other hand, had a stronger sense that the church was unable to distinguish the true believers from false believers.  This is articulated well by the following statement made by a puritan father, “Better to include 10 hypocrites in the church than exclude 1 Christian.”  The Anabaptists, on the other hand, would promote the opposite “Better to exclude 10 Christians than include one unbeliever”.  That is a very different vision of what the church is to be.  Is the church to be the community of the righteous?  Or is the church to be the hospital of sinners?  Of course an orthodox view of the church would include church discipline, which would preclude the toleration of egregious sin.  Nonetheless, a member in good standing would not be required to maintain a lifestyle of “complete sanctification”. There were even some of the Anabaptists that rejected the Christological and Trinitarian conclusions of the ancient church.  By these examples we can see that the reformation tradition held to catholic tradition in opposition to the radical Anabaptists. 

We should not approach the ancient church with a high level of suspicion, but with charity considering it more as an investigation of our family history.  It may be that our family history is embarrassing and we will definitely have some disagreements. However, we should overcome the American tendency to a radical religious individualism, which finds its roots in the Anabaptist movement.  We know the famous story of Martin Luther when he appeared before the Diet of Worms.  When he requested of the emperor 24 hours to consider his response to the inquisition there was a question that haunted him during that time.  He was plagued by the question of “Martin Luther, are you alone wise?” Many in the Roman Church had been pressing him with this question before and during the inquisition.  This question really bothered him at the Diet of Worms.  Martin Luther believed in the community of the faithful and that individuals are not wiser that the church.  The Anabaptist would not struggle with this question.  We should, however understand that the church sometimes gets things right.  We don’t need to reexamine everything de novo, but build upon the foundation that has been laid. 

1Harold OJ Brown, “Heresies: Heresy and Orthodoxy in the History of the Church”(Peabody, MS; Hendrickson; 1988), p 9



  1. Well stated.

    Perhaps if we really value our ‘religion’ we should take the added responsibility of understanding where our religion has come from … hence our church history.

    We would begin to see how fallible is really is & how extraordinary it is to adhere to our faith in God alone.

    It all must be unctioned by the Spirit of God.

  2. Thanks for visiting and leaving a comment.

    I have not seen the term “unctioned” in a while. Interesting.

    This series is continuing on a weekly basis if you like to follow along.

  3. I was noting recently that I can’t find any justification/sanctification distinction in the Apostles’ or Nicene creeds — and yet I think you would agree with Luther (and me) that this is the article on which the church stands or falls. What do you think this means for catholicity?

  4. Rube,

    That is a great question. It is certainly an essential element of the “true” catholic church.

    For starters you may check out the September/October 2007 issue of Modern Reformation has an article by Thomas Oden entitled “Patristic Texts on Justification”:

    There is a bibliography of works cited that can lead you in the right direction for research.

    Got to go for now.


  5. Sorry Rube, it looks like I misunderstood your comment. That’s what I get for checking in during my lunch break and commenting in haste.

    Thought you were referring to the apostolic fathers not specifically the creeds.

    What makes you think that sanctification is mentioned in the creeds? Isn’t there reference to justification and no mention of sanctification?


  6. That’s kind of what I mean — if you don’t mention sanctification, you can’t distinguish between justification and sanctification. So it seems to me that the Apostles’/Nicene Creeds alone leave room for a RC infusion/transformation version of justification. On the one hand, this is bad, because a critical distinction is missing. On the other hand, (for what it’s worth — good or bad?), the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds can be commonly, honestly affirmed by all Protestants and Catholics, with no need for equivocation on either side.

  7. I was thinking that the following statement:

    Who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures;

    Included in the Nicene Creed represents the substitutionary characteristics of doctrine of justification articulated by the Reformation. So, your point is that those that do not ascribe to justification by faith alone can also affirm this statement?

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