-by Ken Hensley
If I had wanted to remain a Baptist pastor, I should never have read the brilliant Anglican convert John Henry Newman.
It was Newman who in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine famously said, “to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” He insisted that it was “easy” to show that the early Church was not Protestant. He went so far as to assert that if the system of doctrine I held as a Baptist minister had ever existed in the earliest centuries of Christian history, it has been swept from the historical record as if by a flood. There is simply no evidence of it.
A single quotation from St. Justin Martyr, writing around 150 A.D., sums up what seems to have been the universal teaching of Christianity, in both the East and the West, for the first fifteen hundred years of Christian history.
For not as common bread or common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food that has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nurtured, is both the flesh and blood of that incarnated Jesus (First Apology 66).
From History to Scripture
How does a Christian who has always viewed the Lord’s Supper as a simple symbolic meal of remembrance respond to this challenge?
A good number have ingrained into them so deeply the conviction that “nothing really matters except what the New Testament teaches” that they don’t care what the early Church believed.
Assuming that they know pretty well what the New Testament teaches on the topic, the idea that the Church might have held—even for the first fifteen hundred years of it’s existence—a view of the Eucharist that was in all essentials Catholic, doesn’t rattle them enough to make them even want to find out if it’s true.
I wasn’t able to respond like this.
First, I had spent years and years in academic study of the New Testament writings. I had preached verse by verse through a number of New Testament books, working directly from the Greek text. I knew enough about the New Testament to know that it is not even close to being a “manual of Christian doctrine.”
If it was a manual of Christian doctrine, we wouldn’t have so many contradictory opinions on so many doctrinal issues among Christians who all believe they are following the clear teaching of Scripture.
The ministry of the Apostles was primarily one of evangelizing, making disciples, establishing churches and teaching those churches the doctrines of the faith. Instructing them.
When the Apostles wrote, most of the time they wrote to deal with specific problems that had arisen in specific churches. They didn’t write to summarize Christian doctrine and with rare exceptions, they don’t summarize Christian doctrine.
I knew this. And I knew enough about the contents of the New Testament to suspect that there was no passage to which I was going to be able to point to say, “Here it is! Proof that the early Church’s belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is unbiblical!”
Second, with respect to the value of early Church history, it seemed reasonable to me to think that even as the teaching of the Apostles would be reflected in their writings, so would their teaching be reflected in the faith and practice of the early Church.
Would not the faith and practice of the early Church, I asked myself, be a good indicator of what the Apostles had taught – especially in a case like this where the Church’s belief and practice seemed unanimous and was evidenced very early in the Church’s history?
This seemed reasonable to me.
It did not seem reasonable to think that the apostles would teach one thing and the entire Church turn around and immediately teach another.
Third, what seemed reasonable to me clearly seemed reasonable to the early Church as well.
St. Irenaeus describes the Apostles as having deposited their teaching in the Church as a rich man deposits his money in a bank. Because of this, Christians, he says, can come to the Church to draw from her the truth.
As I said before, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith [from the apostles], although she is disseminated throughout the whole world, yet guarded it, as if she occupied but one house. She likewise believes these things just as if she had but one soul and one and the same heart; and harmoniously she proclaims them and teaches them and hands them down, as if she possessed but one mouth…. When, therefore, we have such proofs, it is not necessary to seek among others the truth, which is easily obtained from the Church. For the Apostles, like a rich man in a bank, deposited with her most copiously everything which pertains to the truth; and everyone whoever wishes draws from her the drink of life (Against Heresies I:10:2 and 3:4:1, c. 189 A.D.)