Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Coptic Connection

I frequently ponder afresh my own journey to Catholicism from evangelical Protestantism. What were the main things that drew me to the Catholic Faith? Two things stand out: authority and continuity.

My friend Dave Brown, an Eastern Orthodox Christian, points out that the ancient Coptic Church provides some interesting insight into the nature of Christianity from time immemorial. In Protestantism's Eastern Blind Spot he notes that many of the theological and liturgical features that certain non-Catholic Christians consider to be medieval "inventions" are found fully-formed in Christian communions which separated from Rome and Constantinople hundreds of years before the Great Schism:

The Coptic Church demonstrates that a liturgical and sacramental theology permeated the Christian Church 600 years before the East-West Schism. At the very least, we can say that at the time of the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD), a Protestant theological approach is light years away. Did it exist before then? Were there Christians in the Early Church who looked like the Evangelicals of today? If so, they left no mark in either the Ancient Churches nor in the writings of the Church Fathers in East or West.
I made a similar point in my essay "Review of David Bercot's Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up?"

Christians have always been distinctively Catholic in their doctrine and worship. The Protestant "Reformation" was not a return to a lost "pure Christianity" but was in many areas something entirely new and revolutionary. Even David Bercot's attempt to do the Protestant "reformers" one better by resurrecting certain early Christian traditions is seen to be both inconsistent and lacking true authority. It is futile to try to uphold Protestantism of any stripe through an appeal to the early Church and it is good to recall the words of John Henry Newman in this regard:

"So much must the Protestant grant, that if such a system of doctrine as he would now introduce ever existed in early times, it has been clean swept away as if by a deluge, suddenly, silently, and without memorial; by a deluge coming in a night, and utterly soaking, rotting, heaving up, and hurrying off every vestige of what it found in the Church, . . . Let him take which of his doctrines he will, his peculiar view of self-righteousness, of formality, of superstition; his notion of faith, or of spirituality in religious worship; his denial of the virtue of the sacraments, or of the ministerial commission, or of the visible Church; or his doctrine of the divine efficacy of the Scriptures as the one appointed instrument of religious teaching; and let him consider how far antiquity, as it has come down to us, will countenance him in it. No; he must allow that the alleged deluge has done its work; yes, and has in turn disappeared itself; it has been swallowed up by the earth, mercilessly as itself was merciless."

Some Christians, like Bercot, begin to feel uncomfortable with a wholesale rejection of the early Christian witness and so begin to take that witness seriously on a few points. But as we've seen he lacks consistency. Other fundamentalists and Evangelicals are more consistent than Bercot. They recognize that the early Christians universally held to doctrines such as episcopal Church government, apostolic succession, baptismal regeneration, the Eucharistic sacrifice, et al. But because they consider these to be errors, they conclude that the corruption of the Church must have taken place even earlier than the reign of Constantine. Indeed, it must have taken place during the Apostolic age. So we don't even get a couple of hundred years or even a few decades of Christian light on the earth. On this view the true Gospel was swallowed up before the bodies of the Apostles were cold and was only resurrected, 1) by the so-called reformation started by Martin Luther , or 2) by the "restoration" of a Joseph Smith or some other latter-day "prophet".

But such a position flies in the face of the clear promises of our Lord Jesus Christ to prevent any such wholesale defection of the Church from the true faith. No, the only possible solution is to cleave to a Christian body that can trace its lineage all the way back to the time of the Apostles. Only such a body can have any reasonable claim to be the Church established by Jesus Christ. And when we look at those few such groups that still exist today—what we might call the apostolic Churches (Catholic, Orthodox, Copt, Nestorian, Chaldean, Armenian )—they have these beliefs in common:

• Three-fold, hierarchical Church government comprised of bishops, priests, and deacons.

• Belief in the apostolic succession of bishops from the Apostles. Belief that schism from these bishops places one outside the Church.

• Belief in the infallibility of this visible, hierarchical Church when her hierarchs meet in ecumenical council and give an authoritative definition on a disputed doctrine.

• Belief in sacred Tradition alongside sacred Scripture as a means by which the Apostolic faith is transmitted to and in the Church. This entails a rejection of the modern doctrine of sola Scriptura.

• Seven sacraments: Baptism, Eucharist, Confirmation/Chrismation, Holy Orders, Annointing of the Sick, Confession, Matrimony. That these sacraments are a true means of grace.

• Belief in the Real Presence in the Eucharist, a true transformation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ (whether or not they use specifically Aristotilean language to describe this change.)

• Belief in the Eucharist as the sacrifice of the New Covenant wherein the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ is re-presented by the priest to the Father and the graces that flow from that infinite sacrifice are made present and applied to Christians in time.

• Baptism of infants.

• Liturgical worship, in imitation of the heavenly liturgy.

• Belief in the necessity of obedience to Christ for justification. This entails a rejection of the new-fangled doctrine of sola fide, justification by faith alone.

• Veneration of the saints and prayers for their intercession.

• Veneration of the relics of saints and martyrs.

• Veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary, requests for her intercession, belief in her absolute holiness throughout her life, belief in her status as Theotokos (Mother of God), belief in her perpetual virginity, and belief in her bodily assumption into heaven.

• Prayers for the faithful departed and belief in their purification before entering Heaven.

• Consecrated individuals living the religious life (monks and nuns.)

• Practices such as the use of incense, holy water, fasting, iconography, the sign of the Cross.

The historical record makes clear that this list represents the very minimum of the apostolic deposit.
My list above is hardly authoritative, but hopefully it is illustrative. It highlights one of the two great themes in my own conversion, continuity.

Evangelical Protestantism can claim many things to its credit, but one thing it certainly cannot claim is historical continuity back to the time of the Apostles. Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism, on the other hand, can each credibly sustain the claim of continuity. So in that arena the issue of authority looms largest. For me, the evidence for the divine establishment of the papacy remains convincing. But as a Catholic and traditionalist, I do at times resonate with my Eastern Orthodox brethren in finding certain exercises of the papal office to be problematic, difficult to reconcile with that very continuity to which we cling. It's an interesting dynamic, this collision between two fundamental aspects of the life of the Church. It highlights why, at least for this reluctant traditionalist, issues of continuity and authority remain always in the forefront of my thoughts.


Michael Forrest said...

Excellent piece, David. Thank you for it.

Badger Catholic said...

Great post. Although I've heard many scripture debates, it seems they miss the largest point that you make so clear here. If protestants didn't get their faith from the apostles, then whom is it from?