Where Were The Church And The Truth Between The Fathers And The Reformation?

Johnny Carson was a kid from Nebraska, who hosted The Tonight Show from 1962–92. One of his more famous recurring gags was Carnac the Magnificent, ostensibly a magician—Carson had a magic act as a high school and college student—who was able to determine through telepathy what was in the envelope he had just received. As part of the set up his sidekick (Ed McMahon) proffered that that the envelope had been hermetically sealed in a jar on the front porch of Funk and Wagnall’s (an encyclopedia publisher). That is the way some, perhaps many evangelical Christians have been given to think about the history and nature of the church between the Fathers (roughly 100 AD to 500 AD) and the Reformation (beginning in the early 16th-century). They think that the truth and the true church was hermetically sealed, in a jar, in the Alps among the Waldensians or somewhere else. It is true that there were theologians in the 16th and 17th centuries who also said things like this but most of them also thought that the earth was at the center of the universe and that the natural order of things requires a state-established church. To the degree they taught such things, they were wrong. The earth is not at the center of the universe and the true church and true faith was not kept in a jar in the Alps. It was always in, with, and under the whole church.

Why Some Think This Way
This way of seeing the history of the church is relatively popular for a variety of reasons. One of them is that though evangelical scholars have been engaging the early Fathers over the last three decades or so, they have not engaged the medieval theologians with the same vigor. Further, the academic engagement with the Fathers has not yet filtered down to the laity. One result of this break in the transmission lines is that evangelicals tend to think of the 2nd century AD (the 100s) and relatively pristine but they begin to lose interest in the 3rd century. There are some reasons for that. For one thing, most evangelicals assume/believe that the biblical view of redemptive history, of the church, and of the sacraments leads to believers’ baptism. They believe that was the New Testament practice. Because of the relative silence of the second century they infer that to be the practice but by the early 3rd century it becomes increasingly clear that infant baptism was relatively widespread and not controversial. From this it is inferred that the church and her theology was already becoming corrupt. So, the thinking seems to be, the interlude between the truth as it existed in the 2nd century and the Reformation (or pick your favorite point in time) the  becomes that much longer.

Second, apart from a relatively small band of scholars, evangelicals who have been told anything about the Middle Ages, have been given to think that it was a time of unrelenting theological, ecclesiastical, and moral corruption. Again, the rhetoric of the sixteenth-century Reformers (and their orthodox successors) could contribute to this perception. Add to those factors the relative absence of direct experience with medieval theology in most evangelical schools, and we have a recipe for fairly pervasive ignorance of the medieval theologians and traditions. To be sure, until recently, it has not been easy for English-only readers to access a good bit of medieval theology but we may be thankful that is changing. Now there is an English translation of Lombard’s Sentences. Other texts that were essential to the medieval understanding of Scripture and development theology are becoming more readily available. Still, many undergraduate and even seminary church history courses barely touch the medieval period. I suppose that it is a black hole in the education of most evangelical pastors, thus there is little or nothing to mediate to the laity. This likely contributes to the Funk & Wagnalls approach to telling the story of the church. When Abelard (the great villain in many narratives—no hero to be sure!), Anselm, Bernard, Peter Lombard, and Thomas Aquinas remain utter strangers reduced to a few paragraphs in a survey text or covered in a single 45-minute lectures, it is easy to see them as bad guys.

Third, in some groups there is an internal narrative of victimization. They identify with marginalized groups who were persecuted by the majority. Some evangelicals identify with the Montantists, others identify with the medieval Albigensians, and others with the Waldensians, still others with the Anabaptists. Not infrequently the story is told that the majority of the church became essentially apostate early on and the truth was preserved by one (or all) of these marginalized groups until it was finally rediscovered and the jar was cracked open and the truth proclaimed once more. Again, we cannot entirely excuse the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Reformers, who told a somewhat more sophisticated and nuanced version of this narrative. If we set aside the internal, tribal narratives and look at the story more objectively (so that we are seeking to find out, as best we can, what really happened regardless of the cost to our tribe) the story is more complicated.

A More Likely Story
Johnny Carson was not Carnac. He was a kid from Nebraska who became a charming late-night host with a quick wit and good timing. Behind the charming smile, however, the story was, as they say, “complicated.” So it is with the preservation of the church and the truth in the period between the Fathers and the Reformers.

For starters, we should stop referring to the writers in the pre-Reformation period as “Roman Catholic.” Of course Rome would like us to think that what she says now is what the church has always taught, if only in seminal form. That story is just as incorrect as the Funk & Wagnalls narrative. What we know as the Roman communion today has roots in the earlier history of the church her defining theology, piety, and practice is mostly rooted in the high and late middle ages and was only finally codified in the 16th century. The pre-Reformation church was not “Roman Catholic.”

When the great Reformed orthodox theologian Francis Turretin (1623–87) responded to the Romanist taunt, “Where was your church before Luther and Zwingli?” he responded by appealing to 1 Kings 19:18, which records the Yahweh’s words to a discouraged Elijah: “Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him” (ESV). Elijah was not the only one left. The Lord still had his people. The Apostle Paul capitalized on this narrative to make the point that God always has his elect (Rom 11:1–6). God has not failed. He has not abandoned his people. He always has his remnant, even if we do not see them.

So it is with the truth and the true church. God has always had his 7,000. The great mistake of the jar narrative is to think that the truth and the true church were in one place at one time and we can identify exactly which group it was. Such analyses depend on premises that are in doubt. There is some doubt as to exactly what the Montanists actually taught. The Albigensians were probably not a group with which one wants to identify. The Waldensians were most likely not the theological heroes needed for the story. The Anabaptists certainly were not conserving the ancient Christian faith. One of the methodological faults of the Funk & Wagnalls story is that it reads history not to find out what actually happened but to find good guys and bad guys. Such an approach will inevitably produce poor results. History is always provisional. Historians are always correcting (revising) the record. When we make it a partisan project the outcome is even less useful.

A better approach is to see that what the Protestants regard (rightly) as the truth and the true church was always, to borrow a phrase, in, with, and under the whole pre-Reformation church. The Fathers (East & West), the Medieval theologians, the whole pre-Reformation “shootin match” (as Grandpa used to say) is family. Just as we disagree with some members of our family but continue to regard them as family so we should consider the pre-Reformation church. The Protestants were deeply influenced by the Fathers. They made a serious study of the Fathers in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Reformed orthodox in the 17th century helped to pioneer modern Patrology. The Reformers and their orthodox successors read the medieval theologians with profit. Though they did not agree with Lombard or Thomas on a number of things they still profited from them and regarded them as Christians and not as evil or as writers to be avoided.

The Reformation did not drop out of the sky. It was a tapestry the threads and fabric of which was drawn from the entire pre-Reformation tradition. We inherited vocabulary from Lombard and distinctions and categories from Thomas. We revised Anselm’s account of the atonement. If you know the first 12 questions of the Heidelberg Catechism, you know the outline to Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo. Our theologians modified and used Bernard’s account of free choice. They sought to recover the earliest post-canonical practice of Christian worship. We could go on.

Carnac was an amusing gag but it is a poor model for doing history and for forming a sense of identity or connection with the past. The Fathers and Medieval writers should not be regarded as enemies but as friends and family from whom we can learn, whom God used to preserve and transmit the faith and the Scriptures to us. We did not re-invent the faith in the Reformation and certainly not in the 19th century (as some seem to think). As family members we are heirs and beneficiaries of a long, complicated, and great tradition before us. We should receive and read it that way. Just as we do not always agree with biological family nor with friends, so too, we have a right theologically to criticize the earlier church on the basis of Scripture but even as we do so, we should realize that they were reading the Scripture long before we and we have profited from their work, even if we are not always aware of it nor appropriately grateful. After all, is this not what we mean when we confess, “I believe a holy catholic church”? When the creed was formed, there was no “Roman Catholic Church” as such. That is a confession that we alone are not “the church.” It was with the recognition of our connection to the church in all times that the Westminster Divines confessed “[t]his catholic church hath been sometimes more, sometimes less visible” (WCF 25.4) but a church catholic, i.e., universal, there has always been and shall be until Christ returns.

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  1. Great post. One of my passions has been to see great fathers as real people who were contemplating deep theological issues that we now stand on. A good example is the Nicene fathers. They didn’t have rounded luminescence around their head with their hands posed in a sign of blessing. These were real people who made real history that we all have learned from.

  2. Excellent post! I have always wondered why Calvin seemed to have such antipathy for the Scholastics. While they have their flaws, there is much value in their work, and in my view they laid the groundwork for many aspects of Reformed thought, as you note in the post. Yet every time Calvin refers to them you can practically feel the disdain and contempt. Any insight into why?

  3. Thanks for the response! That is certainly true in some cases, but in others he is clearly referring to the Medievals. See Institutes 2.2.4-12, for example. He doesn’t always disagree with them, but rarely cites them approvingly and often critiques them harshly, compared with his “kinder, gentler” rebukes of Augustine and the Fathers.

    • Mason,

      In 2.2.4-5 he criticized the Fathers re their language concerning “free will” (by downplaying the effects of sin). In 2.2.6 he rightly criticized the medieval doctrine of cooperating grace. Etc. I’m not denying that criticized the medievals. What I’m saying is that he did not vilify them or speak about them the way he did the contemporary Sorbonne theologians. Most of the criticism in these sections is aimed that the Fathers on their downplaying the effects of sin. In this sections he doesn’t spend much time on the medieval theologians at all.

    • Dr. Clark and Alberto,

      Thanks for the responses – makes perfect sense. And I did listen to that edition of office hours with Dr. Muller – very helpful!

  4. Hi Dr. Clark,

    I was very encouraged by this post. Like Calvin, right now I am assailed by two sects. My brother and mother recently became Roman Catholic and two close friends joined an Anabaptist congregation. The Anabaptist congregation proudly identifies with a few of the groups you mentioned above. Here is a quote from their website:

    “We are a group that emphasizes the Word of God and obedience to it. For the historically minded, you will find that our teachings are close to the ante-Nicene church, as well as the persecuted, suffering church throughout the ages (the Waldensians, the Lollards, and the early Anabaptists). But we point to Scripture rather than a church document for the source of our understanding.”

    Do you have any suggested resources for further study on the Waldensians, Lollards, or early Anabaptists? I would like to better understand why these groups might not be a great example for us to follow and how they have departed from the ancient Christian faith. So far I have not been able to find very helpful resources.

    Any help would be appreciated.


    • Derek,

      On the Anabaptists and related groups, the standard modern work has been George Hunston Williams, The Radical Reformation (3rd edition).

      On the Lollards, I would start with Richard Rex, The Lollards (2002).

      On the Waldensians, see Euan Cameron, The Reformation of the Heretics: The Waldenses of the Alps, 1480-1580. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984); idem, Waldenses: Rejections of Holy Church in Medieval Europe (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000).

      These will get you started.

  5. Did any of the men you quote teach transubstantiation? Did Ramon teach transubstantiation? How far did Nestorian, Coptic and Armenian churches veer from the truth, compared with the transubstantiationists and Mariolaters?

    • The doctrine of transubstantiation first arose in the 9th century, first formulated by Radbertus in his treatise on the Lord’s Supper. Over time it became accepted doctrine. I’m not sure whether Lombard taught it (I would have to check) but Thomas did. The Nestorians are, by definition, heretics because they separate the two natures. The Coptic (Egyptian) church developed along the same lines as the Greek (including the Armenian) and the rest of the Eastern church, which followed a somewhat different trajectory. They developed sacramentals (popular ecclesiastical practices) into sacraments beyond the two instituted by the Lord. The Eastern churches, however, tend to think less about “salvation” than the Western church and more about “being” and “Enlightenment” and arguably (debatably) divinization (theosis). This last point is disputed. It’s not always clear to me what “theosis” means in their writers. I suspect that is because it signals different things in different circumstances. The Eastern churches generally have their own history and difficulties and claims to being “the authentic” or “the most ancient” church cannot be taken at face value.

  6. I recently did some reading about the Eastern Orthodox Church. It is very critical of the Reformed church and, specifically, our doctrine of the atonement. They say it was not present in the church before Anselm and is a heresy. I’ve never read Anselm but I assume he didn’t just pull it out of thin air as their argument suggests. Are you aware of anyone who taught the outlines of the atonement before Anselm? (Aside from the Bible.) Curiously, Eastern Orthodox don’t have a settled doctrine of the atonement from what I can tell. They just agree that the Reformed doctrine is wrong. It seems they have a pronounced tendency to universalism but that’s not dogmatic so there’s room for some kind of limitation. But how one can claim to be the one, true church but have multiple doctrines about the nature of Christ’s Cross is beyond me.

    • I must be missing something. How could anyone claim that the doctrine of atonement didn’t exist until Anselm? It is the most basic of Christian doctrines! In spite of all the corruptions and heresies that has beset Christianity, it has survived in, with, and under the administration the covenant of grace in the Church, beginning in the garden when God announced that He would send a second Adam that would crush the Serpent’s head while suffering the consequences of our sin.

  7. Would you offer perhaps three primary and secondary lit on that time period, to help the curious to start looking into it?
    Thank you

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