Volume 9, Issue 5: Son of Presbyterion
When Protestants were Papists
My college history professors liked to call attention to the foulness that Christianity brought into the world. I replied that the nasty guys they mentioned--the inquisitors, the crusaders, the kill-joy ascetics, the simoniac popes, the Galileo-censors--were not part of the Christian Church at all. Their charge was removed; I thought. My approach to the medieval church was convenient, and it fit with human nature. We instinctively stick up for our fathers, but if dad becomes so despicable that we just can't stick up for him, we cease identifying him as dad. Indeed, disowning many of our medieval church fathers is easier than identifying ourselves with them. But an easier course isn't necessarily a biblical one.
The first-century church of Ephesus had lost her first love, and thus stood in danger of having her lampstand removed (Rev. 2:5). This side of glory, all churches are corrupt to some extent, for tares grow among the wheat. But the warning to the Ephesians suggests that corruption can go too far: a church can fall into apostasy; it can become a nonchurch, a synagogue of Satan (WCF XXV.v). Was the medieval church a synagogue of Satan, or was it the true Church of Jesus Christ, though corrupt? If the latter is true, then those simoniac popes, those unjust inquisitors, and those ruthless crusaders were our fathers. We Protestants are their posterity, and what their church was is our church now.
To answer the question, we must be able to identify apostasy. Simply cataloguing a church's corruptions will not suffice. Paul addressed Corinth as a true church, though it was split into self-serving factions, its members sued one another in civil court, it tolerated sexual immorality, and its worship was disorderly (even the Lord's supper was profaned by drunkenness!). In another case, Paul called the Galatians as his "brethren," though they were turning away from Christ to a false gospel (Gal. 1:6, 3:1, passim). These churches were in heresy's grip, yet they were true churches. Similarly, in the medieval church, impiety and heresy were widespread. Did these corruptions go too far?
Identifying apostasy requires a judicial decision, whether an individual or a whole church is the subject. According to the procedure outlined in Matthew 18:15ff., a brother in sin remains a brother and must be regarded as such until, and only until, he refuses to heed the official admonition of the church--this marks his apostasy. The judicial censure tells as much about the church as it does about the individual against whom its censure is pronounced. In judicial proceedings we see what a church stands for, what it tolerates, and what it rejects. Judicial proceedings are even a better display than creeds or statements of faith, for many communions permit doctrine that is contrary to its creed, and some denounce views that are not shunned in a statement of faith. How, then, can judicial proceedings mark the apostasy of a church? If a church, functioning as the whole church as represented in its duly-constituted tribunal, officially censures an individual propagating truth, then that communion ceases to be a church; it becomes apostate.
To illustrate: suppose a church adopts a creedal statement which denies the resurrection of Christ. Such a church is certainly corrupt, but not yet apostate. The duty of every God-fearing member of that communion is to work for reformation in that corrupt body. This is not the time to separate from the church, for this would be schismatic; this is the time to help one's brethren in Christ (especially those in the corrupt majority) when they need it most. Now suppose the church convenes in a tribunal, bringing charges against a reformer for his advocacy of Christ's resurrection. In the proceedings, the reformer may win over the tribunal, in which case the tribunal would not uphold the church's errant creed, effectively nullifying it. Reformation achieves a victory, and further progress is hopeful. But if the church instead hardens itself to the reformer's testimony--if the tribunal censures advocacy of Christ's resurrection--then the church has marked its own apostasy.
For this reason, the sixteenth-century Protestants correctly held the Roman Catholic communion to be apostate. Calvin wrote, "For if they are churches, the power of the keys is in their hands; but the keys have an indissoluble bond with the Word, which has been destroyed from among them. Again, if they are churches, Christ's promise prevails among them; `Whatever you bind,' etc. [Matt. 16:19; 18:18; John 20:23]. But on the contrary, they disown from their communion all that genuinely profess themselves servants of Christ. Accordingly, either Christ's promise is vain, or they are not, at least in this regard, churches" (Institutes IV.ii.10). Few Protestants realize that this was a late-breaking development in the sixteenth century. Heresy abounded in the medieval church, and some heresies became its official teaching. But the Church didn't officially start driving out truth as a tribunal until 1415, when the Council of Constance condemned the teachings of the late John Wycliffe and John Huss, a process begun at Constance and became undeniable at Trent.
Therefore, we may not disown the medieval Roman Catholic church. With all its flaws, it was still the Church of Jesus Christ. It was our church. The haughty Popes Gregory VII and Innocent III, and the simoniac Pope John XXII, were our fathers in the faith. In acknowledging the medieval churchmen as our fathers, we have a responsibility before God to know them: we must emulate their virtues and guard against their errors. In so doing, follow our New Testament fathers who were learned from the example of their fathers--both the righteous and the unrighteous.