The theory goes like this: Just a few centuries after Christ’s death, around the time the Roman Empire converted to Christianity, the true Faith suffered a catastrophic falling-away. The simple truths of the gospel became so obscured by worldliness and pagan idolatry—kicking off the Dark Ages of Catholicism—that Christianity required a complete reboot.
This idea of a “Great Apostasy” is one of the cornerstones of American Protestantism, along with Mormonism, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and even Islam. Countless millions today profess a faith built on the assumption that the early Church quickly became broken beyond repair, requiring some new prophet or reformer to restore the “pure” teaching of Jesus and the apostles.
This theory is popular… but it’s also fiction. Here are excerpts from an interview with author Rod Bennett.
Q: What is the Great Apostasy?
A. It’s one of the cornerstones of American religion, actually—the notion that the original Church founded by Jesus and his apostles went bust somewhere along the line and had to be restored by some latter-day prophet or reformer. Most of our Christian denominations here in the Unites States teach the idea in one form or another, though, significantly, they usually disagree completely on which “Second Founder” ought to be followed.
Usually they date the collapse to the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine in A.D. 313 and his subsequent adoption of Christianity for the whole Roman Empire. In doing this, he transformed the Christian Church (or so the story goes) from a simple body of pure, New Testament believers into the state religion of the Roman Empire. This made Church membership socially advantageous for the first time, which brought in a vast flood of half-converted pagans who were admitted with minimal fuss by a mere external act of baptism. And this, in turn, subverted the original Faith so seriously that a Dark Age of idolatry and superstition was the result, a “great falling away” so serious that it required, in the end, a complete “reboot” from heaven.
Q: Where did the notion of the Great Apostasy find its beginnings?
A. Well, if you think about it, any group that has a short historical pedigree—founded, as most of our denominations have been, within the last few centuries of Christianity’s very long timeline—will be driven to the idea eventually. If you find that your church was founded in the twentieth century (or the nineteenth or the sixteenth) and teaches things no one was teaching in the fourteenth, the tenth, or the fifth century, then you’re going to have to account for that fact somehow. And the most common solution has been to offer a “conspiracy theory” of some kind: this idea that the early Church actually did teach Jehovah’s Witness or Seventh-day Adventism or Unitarianism or what have you, but the “powers that be” hushed the original version up—burned their books, forced them underground, and so forth. The whole “Da Vinci Code” phenomenon from a few years back was based on the same idea.
Q: Are there differences in the ways that Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, and Protestants view the Great Apostasy?
A. Many Protestant groups would try to differentiate their view by holding that the original Church didn’t actually become apostate but was simply obscured for a thousand years or so, leaving a “remnant” of true believers hiding somewhere in secret, waiting to reemerge. They often tell their members (without any evidence to back up the assertion) that the true Christians had been there, alright, thinking and worshipping just as we do here at our church today, only the authorities of the day doctored up the records so that no trace of their existence has been left behind. Or, occasionally, fundamentalist groups will send inquirers to shabby, disreputable sects like the Montanists and the Albigenses as examples of God’s true remnant. These, oddly, always turn out to be weird Gnostic sects whose real doctrine (as far as we can reconstruct it) was as divergent from their own as any other brand of “dark ages” Christianity.
Another set of voices, on the other hand, more moderate in tone, sometimes takes the opposite tack, directing us to examples of genuine Christianity lingering within the mainstream of Dark Ages religion. Ambrose, Augustine, Thomas à Kempis, even Francis of Assisi are sometimes cited as “crypto-Evangelicals”—genuine Spirit-filled Christians struggling to survive amidst the general wreck of the Church, and secretly on the outs somehow with the authorities of their day.
Q: What is wrong with the popular notions that most people believe about the “Dark Ages”?
A. Mostly, they’re just historical nonsense. If the term is used strictly—which it almost never is—to refer to the chaotic period following the collapse of Roman rule in Western Europe (the Eastern Empire continued to thrive for another thousand years), then the phrase Dark Ages can have some limited meaning. But most of the time it’s just a ghost story spun almost purely out of the imaginations of anti-Catholic (and often just plain old anti-Christian) historians of the so-called “Enlightenment” of the eighteenth century.
Q. Early on in your book you refer to the “Ghetto Church”—can you explain what you mean?
A. Central to most “Great Apostasy” theories is the notion that the underground Church prior to Constantine—during the late 200s and early 300s A.D., that is—retained the innocence and purity of Bible times but lost these qualities when the Christian faith was legalized. But in reality, the Church was not underground at all during that period. The catacombs had been left far behind by then; Christians of the mid to late third century had no need to hide their faith, and they did not hide it. The Church owned property during this period and built churches on it. And though still on the books, all of the laws against Christianity were routinely winked at during those years, and the Church was a well-known, well-recognized segment of Roman society. For these reasons, I’ve compared the Roman Christian population of the third century to the Jews in Europe prior to World War II: living in their own enclaves, close to their places of worship; talking, dressing, thinking, believing differently than their neighbors . . . and disliked precisely because of their ubiquity—and their growing influence. This is what I mean by “the Ghetto Church.”
This Church, incidentally, wasn’t, alas, very pure or innocent, either. The records show that it had nearly as much doctrinal impurity as it did after Christianity was legalized—and much greater moral laxity.
Q. As revered as Constantine is in Church history, he did, in fact, seem to behave like so many politicians in the modern day, constantly changing his stance. Do you have any sense as to where his heart really was in regard to the Church? Was there a true faith there, or did he just see the Church as a means to an end?
A. Well, there’s lots of evidence that Constantine considered himself a Christian, at any rate. He immediately outlawed many of the worst atrocities of the arena—death by lions, for instance—and Eusebius tells us that he did so much testifying in his own palace that the members of his court found it wearisome. But there’s also no question that he believed the change would be beneficial to his Empire. Here’s an analogy that I used in the book: “Imagine, for instance, a man who falls genuinely in love with a goodhearted, beautiful, and very rich woman. Exactly what role will her wealth play—in his own mind and in the suspicions of others—as he decides whether or not to take her as his wife? Does he himself even know? Or will he not always be accused of mercenary motives, not only by unsympathetic outsiders but even, at times, by his own uncertain conscience? Constantine’s situation was very much like this. Yes, he found the Christian Church to be uniquely useful toward achieving his goals, as the leaven of Christianity will always be useful to the health of a society. Does that prove that this was his only—or even his primary—reason for getting involved with her? How could we ever know, if even the Emperor himself might not have been entirely sure?”