When did we go wrong?

Jesus prayed to the Father in the 17th chapter of the Gospel of John, that we would all be one so that the world might believe. We are not one, and those who do not believe take every opportunity to use that against us. Why are we not one? That is a question far too complicated to answer in one essay, but I want to address one simple, related question: when did the Church go astray? If I am to believe most Protestants, there must have been a time at some point between the New Testament and the Reformation when the universal Church lost Her way. Because, if she hadn’t, we’d all be one. So, when did this happen?

How about immediately after the New Testament was written? We must have lost our way very early. There are several problems with this idea, not the least of which is that the Christian world had no idea exactly what books should be included in the New Testament for quite a while after they were written. So, if the Church had lost its way so early, the only honest way to reconcile this is to become either Mormon, declaring that a Great Apostasy happened, or to become a neo-Gnostic, believing that any number of the non-canonical Gospels that floated around the Mediterranean world in the century after the Resurrection actually contained the truth. To believe that the canonical Gospels are indeed canonical is to accept the authority of the Church in the first few centuries, leading up to Nicaea. The objection that the Holy Spirit inspired the compilers of the Canon is perfectly correct, but who were the compilers of the Canon? The Church. And why would the Holy Spirit have decided He had done enough with those men and withdrawn Himself into only those who read the written Word that He inspired?

So, I suppose the other definitive break would have been when the Emperor Constantine, for some reason or another, decided that Christianity was to become the official religion of the Roman Empire. Whether or not he actually saw a vision of a cross with “In Hoc Signo Vinces” is really not the issue, but whether or not the Church immediately lost its way when it was no longer the subject of persecution. Granted, this produced a whole new level of difficulties with respect to church-state relations, especially when the state periodically had the misguided opinion that it should dictate to the Church what She should do. However, there is absolutely zero evidence that the Church pre-Nicaea was pure and equivalent to modern-day Protestants, and ample evidence that the doctrine of the Church, while surely it developed over time (and continues to develop), pre- and post-Nicaea was a smooth continuum without any departure from orthodoxy. The structure of the Mass, infant Baptism, the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Real Presence and associated Eucharistic doctrine, the necessity of auricular confession (and to a priest), and countless other doctrines commonly associated with the Catholic Church ALL have clear origins during the time of persecution. So, again, the idea of the pernicious effects of the Donation of Constantine and the institutionalization of the Church does not hold water.

So, where then do we draw the line? 8th, 9th, 10th, 12th, 14th centuries? Where? As I survey the history of the Church, the inescapable conclusion is that the only major introduction of novel doctrine that did not quickly die was in the Reformation. Heresies came and went, but the insidious twin heresies of private judgment and sola scriptura seem to be here to stay. Why? Because they’re easy, they empower people, and they avoid the nasty truth of the necessity to submit to an external authority. But, if you’re honest, if you read history and think through the problem logically, there is but one Church. She has developed over the years, She has made any number of errors in discipline , judgment, and tactics, but She has never erred in doctrine and cannot, because the gates of Hell will never prevail.

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