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:
- The Roman and Eastern Orthodox Churches became (“were established” as) false churches at discrete and measurable points in time;
- These points must have been prior to the Reformation;
- Therefore, for some time before the Reformation, there was no genuine Christian Church;
- Therefore, for some time before the Reformation, there were no genuine Christians;
- 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.