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Where were the Christians before the Reformation?

A response to a Catholic correspondent’s question: “I am genuinely puzzled by your statement that neither the Orthodox nor Catholic Churches are Christian, but false churches … I really would like to know the answer: when were these false churches established? Who were the Christians up to the time of the Reformation?”

A Catholic correspondent emailed me after reading my recent ‘Fallout’ article:

I am genuinely puzzled by your statement that neither the Orthodox nor Catholic Churches are Christian, but false churches … I really would like to know the answer: when were these false churches established? Who were the Christians up to the time of the Reformation?

To my mind, this question seems calculated to embarrass away my view of Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. It implies the following about my position, and its consequences:

  1. The Roman and Eastern Orthodox Churches became (“were established” as) false churches at discrete and measurable points in time;
  2. These points must have been prior to the Reformation;
  3. Therefore, for some time before the Reformation, there was no genuine Christian Church;
  4. Therefore, for some time before the Reformation, there were no genuine Christians;
  5. This is untenable and should not be believed (presumably because of Jesus’s promise in Matthew 16:18).

Lemme take a crack at these.

1. The Roman and Eastern Orthodox Churches became false churches at discrete, measurable points in time

I’m not a historical theologian, so frankly I can’t comment. Perhaps there are specific points in time at which both the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches accreted so much false doctrine that they ceased to be genuine Christian institutions. But who could say? Perhaps there is a discrete point in time at which the grains of sand I keep dropping on the ground become a pile. But why does it matter that I can identify that point? Once a certain amount of sand has accumulated, it’s indisputable that there is a pile. And once a certain number of false teachings about the doctrine of justification are accumulated (for example), it’s indisputable that there is no gospel any longer. A church without the biblical doctrine of justification is preaching a false gospel (Galatians 1:6-9; 2:16,21; 3:1-3).

2. These points of apostasy must have been prior to the Reformation

I tend to agree. I’m not very familiar with Eastern Orthodoxy, but it seems to me that both the Roman and Eastern Orthodox Churches had fully vacated the gospel of grace by the time of the Reformation, teaching instead a gospel of works.

3. Therefore, for some time before the Reformation, there was no genuine Christian Church

This seems to presuppose a rather tendentious view of ecclesiology. I don’t grant that “the Church” is contiguous with a monolithic religious institution. The Bible doesn’t use the word that way. It mostly speaks of individual churches.

I think individual churches could be genuinely Christian, even if technically under the authority of a non-Christian ecclesiastical institution. Of course, I also think it’s not particularly likely that they would be.

On the other hand, if we take “the Church” to be a spiritual entity rather than a physical one, (3) is obviously false. Inasmuch as there were still Christians prior to the Reformation (see below), there was still an invisible church comprising all those believers—even if it never met together.

4. Therefore, for some time before the Reformation, there were no genuine Christians

This premise, of course, only highlights how false the Catholic gospel is. Unless I’m much mistaken, I glimpse the hidden assumption that salvation is through the sacraments, and so without a “true church” to belong to, you can’t be saved.

But of course, salvation is not through the sacraments; it’s through faith in God’s promise that your sins are dealt with by the atoning work of Christ. And that promise is something not particularly hard to come by, even in the most hopelessly lost church. You can accumulate an awful lot of useless baggage in your beliefs, but still be counted among the sheep if you’re trusting exclusively in the work of Christ for your salvation.

Now, it goes without saying that most adherents to Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy are not trusting exclusively in the work of Christ. That would have been especially so among the laity of the middle ages and Renaissance, who had no access to the Bible, and who therefore had to simply trust what their priests told them about the means of salvation—which of course was that they had to perform certain works.

To a large extent, that situation continues. From the evidence I’ve seen, Catholicism has not improved since then (again, I know little of Eastern Orthodoxy). Its adherents, especially in countries like Italy, Spain and the Latin Americas, are highly indoctrinated in all manner of superstitions and practices by which they hope to be saved. In fairness, much of this is not directly from the Church. But in equal fairness it’s the natural extension of what the Church teaches; and the Church certainly does nothing to discourage or correct it. It makes my blood boil just to think on it, that Roman Catholicism is actively encouraging such rank idolatry and “Christianized” paganism, leading these poor ignorant, lost souls straight into hell.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

Be that as it may, I don’t think there were no genuine Christians prior to the Reformation. I have no doubt that God continued to gather his elect, even out of the grim sludge of false doctrine that would, without his grace, have drowned them.

The above premises are untenable and should not be believed

I actually do think it’s untenable to claim there were no Christians for some time prior to the Reformation. But I don’t think it’s untenable to believe that the number of those whom God saved during the middle ages dwindled because the gospel was largely obviated by an increasingly apostate and politically-motivated “church”. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. But the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.


  1. Nick

    I don’t really think your answer solves the dilemma. I would offer a similar argument that I believe cuts right to the heart: can you name a few Early Church Fathers (say from the year 200AD to 500AD) that you believe were orthodox Christians in what they preached?

    I’ve yet to have a Protestant answer this question honestly and directly. Not saying you wont, but I believe that any answer you give, that same ECF can be shown to be equally if not more “Catholic” in their overall theological views.

    p.s. I don’t see an “email me of follow up responses” check-box, so I might not know if you respond.

  2. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    that same ECF can be shown to be equally if not more “Catholic” in their overall theological views.

    Nick, your own supposed objection works against you. If the early church fathers can only (and arguably) be shown to be more Catholic than Protestant, then they were neither Catholic nor Protestant. But isn’t a fundamental tenet of Catholicism the homogeneousness of church tradition from the earliest times? And isn’t church tradition from that period comprised in significant part by the teachings of the early church fathers? If Catholicism existed back then, as Catholicism claims, then the early church fathers would have been Catholic.

    In either event, I don’t see the relevance of your question. So what if the early church fathers weren’t orthodox in everything they taught? That’s hardly surprising given that most of them didn’t have more than fragments of poorly translated bits of Scripture to work from. The issue is whether they were Christians, or whether they denied the gospel. And whether it matters in any given instance.

  3. Bruce

    Thank you for this blog, may God bless you.

  4. Scott Windsor

    But how about answering the original question? When were the Catholic and Orthodox churches formed? If they were originally Christian, in your view, when did they leave orthodoxy and cease to be Christian?


  5. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Scott, I made my reasons for not answering this question quite clear.

  6. Scott Windsor

    While you did provide rationalizations – what is clear is that you’re avoiding dealing with the meat of the thesis. Were the Catholic and Orthodox churches at one time, by your standard, to be considered “Christian?” If so, when did these churches cease to be “Christian,” again, in your view? It appears you’re avoiding a direct answer because (IMHO) you do not want to admit Catholics and Orthodox were EVER “Christians.” Yet, once you state Catholics and Orthodox were never “Christians” – you leave a HUGE hole in the history of the Christian Church – one which no amount of rationalization can fill. I challenge you to study history a bit more objectively and consider what it means to be a Catholic and see if you have a bit of a change of heart in your position. If the Holy Ghost so moves you – I believe you will soften your heart.


  7. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Scott, your question is like asking when enough grains of sand become a heap. Like all Catholics, you have this idea that it’s reasonable to call the church of, say, 700 AD the “Catholic” Church in the same way you call the Roman Church of 2011 the “Catholic” Church.

    Sorry, but I just deny that claim as obviously false.

  8. Scott Windsor

    Actually, I will admit in your article that you’re not definitively saying that Catholicism and Orthodoxy were never Christian – and the implication is that at one time they WERE Christian, but that at some point prior to Luther, et al, (by your view) they became so corrupt that they could no longer be called Christian.


  9. John

    Just because you can’t identify an exact date, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be held accountable to provide a date by which you can certainly say these churches were not Christian. I mean, are we talking about 2nd century, or 18th century? If you can’t even narrow it down at all, you’re just full of hot air.

    As for whether Orthodox “trust exclusively in the work of Christ for their salvation”, how are you going to know that? Is it by the statements Orthodox make? Are you interpreting them correctly? Would you have accused the author of James in the bible of the same problem if you simplistically interpret what he said?

  10. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    John, I already stated that the Roman and Orthodox churches had left behind the gospel by the time of the Reformation. So that is a date by which I can certainly say these churches were not Christian.

    I can’t narrow it down further given what I know of historical comparative theology (which is not my field of study). Does that mean I am full of hot air? If so, why?

    As regards the Orthodox trusting exclusively in the work of Christ, yes, I know this from statements the Orthodox make. Am I interpreting them correctly? I don’t know—am I interpreting you correctly? Are you interpreting me correctly? Are you really trumpeting skepticism? If you’d searched my blog before posting, you’d know I’ve written on the issue of faith and works in James.

  11. John

    By the reformation eh. Well, I think we deserve at least… oh say a 500 year window here surely. Does that mean the Orthodox church was ok in the year 1000? If you can’t narrow it down even within such a big window as this, then you are hardly qualified to be talking about it.

    You make a lot of effort to fit James into your theology, even though a cursory reading would have it contradict you. So how do we know you give Orthodox the same courtesy? Give us some reason to have confidence in your impartiality in this matter.

  12. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    John, you’re not making sense.

    1. Why exactly do you think you “deserve” a 500 year window? In what way am I obligated to give you such a thing? I gave an upper limit for when the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches could no longer be considered Christian. How does that bind me to providing a lower limit? Or a window of any kind?

    2. How is my upper limit invalidated if I don’t provide a window? If I have enough historical knowledge to give an upper limit, but not enough to give a lower limit? You’re implying that my inability to give a lower limit entails my inability to give an upper limit. How?

    3. Why should I care if you have confidence in my impartiality towards the Eastern Orthodox? If you don’t know what the EOC teaches about salvation, and the ways in which that contradicts the gospel, then go and educate yourself. That’s not my responsibility, and it’s not a focus of this post.

    4. If you want to contest that these churches had vacated the gospel of grace by the time of the Reformation, then you’ll need to actually argue for your position instead of casting these nonsensical aspersions.

  13. John

    1. If you’re incapable of even narrowing it down to 500 years, what makes you think you are qualified for anybody to be paying any attention to you whatsoever? You should hand in your bloggers license.

    2. Both the substance and the credibility of your position is affected by your ability to provide a window. If it turns out you really don’t think there were many Christians since the year 150, then your position is certainly made clear.

    3. If you’re going to comment on Eastern Orthodoxy, then you should be prepared to substantiate it. Obviously you can’t, so you ought to cease and desist.

    4. This is your blog, and therefore your responsibility to substantiate whatever positions you decide to enunciate.

  14. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    John, I’m embarrassed for you. You seem incapable of actually arguing for any position. You just make these laughable assertions as if I should accept them on your own authority. If you’re Catholic, I suppose that makes sense. Either way, don’t post here again unless you are going to argue for the statements that you make.

  15. Laura

    I liked your article. I don’t see very many people come to the Biblical conclusion that God claimed His church would prevail. Institutions do not define it. That is just psuedo religious authorities claiming headship that isn’t theirs. I just can’t see Him waiting around for a few 100 years for Luther to be born, either, even if I believed Luther did that much to change religious rituals. Just because institutions claim the title of Christian, doesn’t make it so. Have you ever read “A Noble Army of Heretics” by Bill Jackson?

  16. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Thanks Laura. I haven’t read anything by Jackson I’m afraid.

  17. Laura

    Based on what you write, I think you might like it:

    I read it out loud to my kids before they “graduated” from being taught at home. It is not an easy read, but was refreshing in how it (graciously) pointed out how whatever the politically powerful religious institution of the day, history tended to be written by them to obscure those believers who would not follow the dictates of that institution.

  I don’t post ill-considered articles and I don’t sponsor ill-considered comments. Take a moment to review what you’ve written…