My agnostic friend Andrew was puzzled.
His wife went to a Baptist church. But I went to a Catholic Church.
“So she’s Christian but you’re Catholic, right?”
“No,” I said. “I’m Catholic and she’s Protestant. We’re both Christians.”
Read on to find out whether Catholics or Protestants have the best claim to being Christians.
What’s the Difference Between Christians and Catholics?
To answer this question, we have to understand the issue of authority.
All Christians believe that Jesus gave authority to the Church when He founded her. But did the Church become corrupted at some point?
Did Christ then revoke the Church’s authority? And if so, who then were the true Christians?
The assumption in this question and the starting point for this article is that Christ gave His Authority to the Church in the first place. I have not heard any Christian reject this belief, perhaps because it seems quite clear from Scripture that Christ gave his apostles authority, and they were the leaders (under Him of course) of the Church.
I want to explore the different answers that Mormons, Protestants, and Catholics give to this question.
Protestants Beliefs on This Question
Most Protestants believe, some implicitly and some explicitly, that the Church lost this authority at some point in time,
Another way of saying it is that Christ revoked this authority, and then corruption entered (quickly or slowly) into the Church’s teachings of faith and morals. Some Protestants believe that this authority was reestablished in some form or fashion, but many do not think so. More on this later.
Also, I am going to differentiate between fundamentalist Protestants and other Protestants in my timelines of their beliefs. Yes, this post has clever little timelines that I created using a basic paint program!
The first timeline is what many self-describing Fundamentalist Protestants believe, and the second is what Protestants in general believe (the greenish bar denotes time periods when the Church still had Christ’s authority):
Mormon Beliefs on This Question
Mormons explicitly believe that the Church lost the authority Christ gave her sometime around 70 or 100 AD.
I have heard from one Mormon that it was at the death of St. Peter (which would correspond to the earlier date) and from another that it was at the death of the last apostle, which would be St. John (corresponding to the later date).
Then they believe that the Great Apostasy began and lasted for around 1700 years before Christ reestablished His authority to the (Mormon) Church in 1829 through Joseph Smith.
Catholic Dogma on This Question
Catholics believe that Christ gave authority to his Church and that He has preserved it by grace up to the present time. One of the concrete fruits of this authority is the Catholic belief that the Church cannot err in her teachings on matters of faith and of morals.
So what, you might ask, is the big deal? What is the problem if Christ revoked His authority from the Church and did so at such and such a date?
The Canon of Scripture and Sola Scriptura
The central problem in the belief that the Church lost Christ’s authority and corruption entered her teachings is the canon of Scripture.
Protestants believe in sola scriptura–the Bible alone is the final authority and only infallible one–but before we can think about sola scriptura we have to know what, exactly, comprises the scriptura part.
What writings are inspired by God and thus must be included in the Bible? Which ones are not inspired by God and thus must NOT be included in the Bible? These decisions were made in the latter half of 300s by the Church when she determined the canon of Scripture.
But if the Church lost authority before she discerned and declared the canon of Scripture, that means that her decision cannot be trusted!
Corruption had entered into her teachings as she had lost Christ’s authority; if this is the case, how do we know that the books she said were inspired by God actually were and the many, many more that she said were not indeed were not?
The canon of scripture was not given as a bolt out of the sky by God, which perhaps would have simplified things (or perhaps not, knowing us humans), but rather it was something the bishops of the Church prayerfully discussed and deliberated about for decades and decades.
The Catholic encyclopedia has a comprehensive entry on the New Testament canon’s history; in particular look at the Period of Fixation from 367 – 405; this was the time that the most important synods and Church councils decided on the canon. Nonetheless, it was after Protestants and Mormons believe that the Church’s teachings had become corrupted.
What Is the Truth and What Is Heresy?
A related problem that must be faced is the fact that the Church, throughout her entire history, has had to judge the truth or falsehood of many theological and moral teachings; in short, to determine if a belief is heretical or not, and if not, what the actual truth is.
If the Church lost Christ’s authority and corruption entered at X point in her history, then how do we know what beliefs she determined to be heresies are really heresies and those she determined to be true are actually true?
Protestant Christians take as a given (most of) the Nicene Creed and all that it asserts as true about God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
Many other truths that the Church’s bishops and faithful tirelessly fought for against heretical attacks are taken as givens as well: Is it obvious that Christ is one Person who subsists in two natures: divine and human (the hypostatic union, definitively determined in 451 at the Council of Chalcedon, refuting the Monophysites‘ heresy)?
The Burden of Proof
Upon whom does the burden of proof fall to demonstrate that the Church Christ established lost His authority, and if so, exactly when and why? Since the evidence from Scripture and from the writings of the early Christians recognize that the Church did have this authority, the burden of proof must fall to those who claim that she lost it.
At least three different dates or periods of time are given (see above) for when Christ revoked the Church’s authority, but where is the supporting evidence for it?
The Mormon Belief in the Great Apostasy
When I was an Evangelical Protestant going to a Southern Baptist Convention church, I spoke at length with Mormon missionaries who came to our door. They told me how the priesthood had left the Church at the death of the apostles and then the Great Apostasy began, which the Scriptures spoke about.
Only in the 1800s did Christ reinstitute the priesthood with Joseph Smith. “So what about all the Christians who lived and were martyred and followed our Lord from 100 to 1829?” They answered, “Those people had ‘faith in Christ'” but it was not the true faith; it was deficient.
The missionaries presented no historical nor theological evidence to support the claim that the Church lost her authority; it was an assertion.
But let’s assume it is true for a moment. Does it make sense? The Word became flesh, and Christ lived on earth for 33 years, giving his life for all of us. Then, He did not leave us alone but gave us the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of power, of love, and of self-mastery, who He promised would lead the apostles (who led the Church) into all truth, and the gates of Hell would not prevail against the Church.
But the Mormons assertion means that the Holy Spirit utterly failed to lead the Church into all truth–indeed, as soon as the last apostle died, the Church went belly-up for over 1700 years! The gates of Hell prevailed against the Church and overcame her. It means also that Christ failed to keep His Church together and pure from adultered teachings for even one generation beyond his life on earth.
What we actually see in history is that the apostles transmitted the faith to their followers, passing on by word of mouth and by letter all that Christ had taught them.
They also consecrated men, by the authority Christ gave to them, as deacons, as priests, and as bishops, and the Church, rather than becoming corrupted in her teachings and losing her authority, instead shone before men with the light of Christ, and thousands upon thousands joined her to follow Christ, many giving their lives amidst hundreds of years of persecution at the hands of the Romans, pagans, and barbarians–all by the power and action of the Holy Spirit.
Certainly individual persons sometimes apostatized, that is, renounced their faith, especially when confronted with mutilation, torture, and execution, but the Church as a whole could not and will never apostatize.
Interestingly, as a Baptist, I rejected these Mormon claims of the Church losing her authority at the death of the apostles, but as I pondered and prayed, I realized that my beliefs were not so very different in fact.
After all, when did I, a Baptist, think that corruption entered into the Church’s teachings? Because I certainly did. The truth was that I, like most Protestants, had never given it that much thought and didn’t know when I believed the Church lost authority. And so I believe that God used the Mormon missionaries in a way that neither I nor they ever would have imagined: To lead me to ask questions of my own Evangelical Protestant beliefs.
Martin Luther: By What Authority?
In my experience, Protestants take one of only a few stances toward Martin Luther: Either they canonize him and overlook his many personal faults and strange theological and moral beliefs, or they ignore him and say that their faith is not based on what he did or said or taught.
Remember that he lived only about 500 years ago. That is, in time and in history he is closer to us than he was to Christ and the apostles. He did many bold things, whether you think they are good or bad, but one of them was claiming authority for himself in determining which books were inspired by God and which were not.
Not all of his assertions in this regard were ultimately accepted by Protestants, but his influence was and is tremendous. I want to examine one point in particular here: By what authority did Martin Luther, 1500 years after Christ, make a determination over the Church’s decision about which writings were and which were not inspired by God?
By what authority? Imagine if someone today made such an outrageous claim? What if I stood up and said: “The book of James is an epistle of straw–I can see nothing from the Gospel in it”? Or what if I recommended throwing out 10 books of the Bible based on my own opinions? I would be run out of town on a rail and well should be! What hubris to declare that I know what books should be in the Bible over the Church’s decision, yet that was what Martin Luther did.
Protestants and Mormons are forced to maintain two curious positions with regard to the canon of Scripture:
1. The Church mostly got stuff right in the 300s, even though she had lost Christ’s authority and corruption had entered her teachings
2. Martin Luther and the reformers, building off what the corrupted Church mostly got right, figured out what they didn’t get right, removing the non-inspired books in the canon of Scripture in the 1500s (after 1200 years of Christians believing uninspired books to be inspired).
Mormons have additional beliefs in regard to writings inspired by God which are specific to them and which significantly differentiate them from Protestants, so I am not here saying that there is no difference between the two groups–there are stark and important differences, but for the purposes of the Church losing authority in the early centuries, they are quite similar.
The Rotten Fruit of the Reformation
What if Martin Luther was somehow right?
Let’s assume that and look at the fruits of his actions. Are Protestants unified under one truth, in one church? No, quite the opposite is the case. From the very beginning of the Reformation and ever since, what we have instead seen is the consequence of many, many other Christians doing what Martin Luther did: They declare their own authority and break off to form their own new church, with its own particular set of beliefs, and then this process repeats anytime someone thinks that their interpretation of Scripture is correct and another person’s is in error.
This first schism has led to countless more schisms.
No one knows how many different fractures there have been since that time; various people have attempted to make timelines with branches to show the major divisions of the largest Protestant ecclesial communities, but even just covering the big ones quickly becomes an exponential explosion.
An anecdote: Just down the street from our house there is a 1 mile stretch of road (Duval) that drives this point home to me: First comes the Covenant United Methodist Church, then right next door (literally) is Bethel Baptist Church, then a short way past that is Northwest Church of Christ; a few hundred yards later is the Imani Community Church, followed by the Austin Taiwanese Presbyterian Church; you then have only to cross the street to get to the First Church of God. All of these Christian communities exist along a single mile of road, and this is not a unique example but is duplicated with variations in every city and most towns in the United States.
Do the Christians going to these communities know the origins of them? Do they know why they aren’t unified with one another? In my experience, probably not, for most of these things have been long forgotten or never known in the first place. Few Christians see a problem with it, even though it flies in the face of Christ and his commandment that we should be one as He and the Father are one.
An Analogy with the United States
“So what?” you may ask. Does it really help us to know all of this history–does it actually matter for how I live my faith here and now?
Is there really a problem with the view of history that says: “There were the first century Christians and then later on at some point in time other Christians gave us the (mostly accurate) Bible and then a lot of stuff happened in between then and now but it doesn’t matter that much because here we are today with the Bible and our minds and the Holy Spirit”?
This attitude is akin to a United States citizen today saying that he doesn’t need to know his nation’s history in order to be a good American. He knows the Constitution exists, was written by people 200 years or so ago, and has even read part of it. What difference does it make to his life? After all, life is good in America and what’s the big deal about learning the foundations of my country?
The first problem with this idea is that we have no way of truly understanding who we are now as a citizen of our particular country if we don’t know how our country was founded and subsequently developed.
Such a person has heard of George Washington and knows he did some good things, and he knows about George Bush and Barack Obama, but he doesn’t know how we got from one to the other. He doesn’t know about Teddy Roosevelt or FDR, the Great Depression or Truman, World War II, and the nuclear bomb.
He doesn’t know about Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil War and Dred Scott and Brown vs. Board of Education and Plessy vs. Ferguson and “separate but equal” nor about women’s suffrage and the Oklahoma Sooners (not the football team) and Prohibition and the 14th amendment, just to name a few highlights from our nation’s relatively short history.
All of these persons and events have greatly contributed to the life every American person is now living, including all of the many great things about our country that make it a beautiful place to call patria. The freedoms enjoyed by the American today were fought tooth and nail for by our American forefathers and foremothers, and it is at best ungrateful to disdain to even learn about what they went through for us.
The third problem is that the barbarians are always at the gate of civilization. If you don’t know who you are, you do not know that you need to defend your gates against them (or even perhaps know how to recognize the barbarians–you may just let them in!), and so your civilization will fall before them. From John Courtney Murray, a Jesuit priest and philospher:
On both of these titles, as a heritage and as a public philosophy, the American consensus needs to be constantly argued. If the public argument dies from disinterest, or subsides into the angry mutterings of polemic, or rises to the shrillness of hysteria, or trails off into positivistic triviality, or gets lost in a morass of semantics, you may be sure that the barbarian is at the gates of the City. The barbarian need not appear in bearskins with a club in hand. He may wear a Brooks Brothers suit and carry a ball-point pen with which to write his advertising copy. In fact, even beneath the academic gown there may lurk a child of the wilderness, untutored in the high tradition of civility, who goes busily and happily about his work, a domesticated and law-abiding man, engaged in the construction of a philosophy to put an end to all philosophy, and thus put an end to the possibility of a vital consensus and to civility itself.
Can you imagine then forgetting or ignoring 1500 – 1700 years of the Church’s history? We remember Christ and Peter and John and Stephen and Paul but we say who? to Augustine, Aquinas, Francis, Dominic, Catherine of Siena, Pope St. Leo the Great, Ignatius Martyr, Justin Martyr, Polycarp, Helen (not of Troy), and Theresa of Avila (and Lisieux, and Calcutta) and we say what? to the Arian heresy, Gnosticism, Rome and Constantinople, the Te Deum, the Rosary, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Church Councils, just to name a few from Christian history that is also the history that Christ entered into and redeemed.
We forget or ignore this history at our great peril, yet I maintain that is what most Christians do when they make the claim that the Church lost Christ’s authority–that it came to them more or less as-is from the first century and that they don’t need to know about anything in between.
The history of the Church and of the Christian faith tell a different tale. Writings from Christians in the first centuries reveal a Church that involves the Eucharist, the Mass, the Sacraments, and the successors of the apostles, the Bishops, who had authority and were to be followed. Does this sound like the church or denomination you belong to?
Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, need to learn the origins and development of the Faith they believe in through reading and study, and then prayerfully discern the implications on where and how they worship.
Catholics Are Christians
The conclusion: Catholics are Christians. Protestants broke in rebellious schism from Christ’s Church.
Painful to read for some, I know. But it’s the truth.
The difference between Christians and Catholics is the wrong question: Catholics are Christians, the truest and fullest Christians that exist, because they are members of Christ’s Mystical Body, the Church.