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Why Propaganda Need No Longer Pass for History

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The Introduction to my textbook, Exploring Scriptural Sources,
testifies to my ability to present early church history as a heritage that reaches across the intellectual passions separating Protestants and Catholics. I enclose these pages since they offer a personal statement of how a Catholic theologian can be entirely at home within a Protestant milieu and even participate in an evangelical faith.


Winston Churchill once remarked, "The first casualty in every war is truth." This was the case during the Second World War as it was four hundred years earlier when Protestants and Catholics were pitted against each other in verbal and physical war. As a result, during the long years of mutual antagonism which followed the Protestant Reformation, there have been two opposing versions of what constitutes the true church and two versions of the history of the early church to back that up.

Incompatible Protestant and Catholic Perspectives

Protestants, for their part, were persuaded that God wanted a church of simple faith and simple practices very much like that described by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles. Using the New Testament as their norm, Protestants reformed their churches so that they reflected the faith and practices of the early church. Since the papacy, indulgences, relics, devotion to the saints, purgatory, celibate priests, and seven sacraments (save for baptism and the Lord's Supper) found scarcely any place in the New Testament records, Protestants determined that these were to be scrapped. These things appeared to Protestants as so many vain human inventions which detracted from the purity and simplicity of the Gospel being rightly preached and the sacraments being rightly administered.

Catholics, for their part, were persuaded that the true church could not be anything less than what the church had become in the sixteenth century. In fact, Catholics were convinced that they could not meddle with the essential structure of the church since this was the very structure which had existed from generation to generation going all the way back to the Apostles. While papacy, relics, indulgences, etc., may not have appeared to have sufficient warrant in the eyes of Protestants, Catholics were persuaded that not everything believed and practiced by the apostolic church was written down in the New Testament. Accordingly, when Catholics wanted to know what was essential to the true church, they consulted not only the Scriptures but also the writings of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church as well.

In the light of this larger and longer tradition, the papacy, for instance, appeared to Catholics as an essential and constant ingredient in the true church. Thus, if the pope was the master of the universal Church in the sixteenth century, this was precisely because his predecessors had exercised the same dominion in the twelfth, in the sixth, in the third, in the first (century)--all in fidelity to the mandate which Christ gave to Peter when he said, "Upon this rock I will build my church" (Matthew 18:18). In parallel terms, if there were seven sacraments in the sixteenth century Church, this was precisely because there were seven and only seven being practiced in the twelfth, in the sixth, in the third, in the first (century)--all in fidelity to the expressed will and intention of Christ. Every one of the seven, therefore, could be explained by reference to some text of institution within the New Testament. In the minds of Catholics, therefore, the true church has to be the existing Roman Catholic Church because only this church had retained all the essential church structures which were originally established by Christ and his Apostles.

Neither side was able to persuade the other as to what constituted the true church. Accordingly, in the heat of controversy, both sides engaged in propaganda wars which systematically overstated their own claims while undercutting their opponents claims. Protestants claimed that their church submitted to the divine authority of Christ (as found in the Christian Scriptures) and not to the human authority of the papacy (which, history demonstrated, often played the role of "anti-Christ"). Catholics claimed that Christ had deliberately established the papacy for the very purpose of safeguarding the correct interpretation of the bible against the erroneous (self-willed and sometimes even "demonically inspired") interpretations insisted upon by the Protestants. On both sides, charity and truth often suffered in the zeal to defend the true church and to vilify its opponents.

The Cooling of Passions Today

In our own day, these passions have cooled. The machinery of propaganda has slowed down. Sensitive persons on both sides of the great divide have had a chance to reassess the former "enemy." As a result, this has been the first generation, since the sixteenth century, wherein Catholic and Protestant scholars have been officially able to sit down together and to engage in collaborative biblical studies. Many ordinary believers, meanwhile, have started up dialogue groups and prayer groups wherein confessional boundaries have been softened and, in some instances, even miraculously overcome. Many ordained clergy, for their part, brought their people to pray together and to act together in ways that would have been unthinkable during the time of the religious "cold war."

Stories could be multiplied here. One, however, stands out because it is so public and so symbolic. A dozen years ago, when the Crossroad Publishing Company decided to issue an illustrated biography of Martin Luther on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of his birth (1483-1983), the editors invited a Roman Catholic priest, Peter Manns, to write the text and a world-famous Lutheran theologian, Jaroslav Pelikan, to write the introduction. This reversal of things indicates how far the "cold war" had thawed: a Catholic historian was trusted to present the meaning and significance of Luther's life and gift for both Protestants and Catholics alike. With a disarming candidness, Pelikan acknowledged that Mann's portrait of Luther rang true to his Lutheran sensibilities, and he went on to recall what a reversal of things this represents:

Martin Luther: An Illustrated Biography can serve as a corrective of the distortions of Luther and his Reformation that have marred the confessional literature in English. Above all, the Luther who emerges from these pages stands out as profoundly Catholic in his devotion to the Church, to her creeds, and to her sacraments. Even when he denounced the Church for betraying the trust given to her by Christ, he was speaking in the name of that which the Church confessed and had taught him to confess. . . .

Neither Roman Catholics nor Protestants will find such a Luther easy to handle. Things were so much simpler when Protestant celebrations of Reformation Day on October 31 could be devoted to a litany about such evils as Mariolatry, celibacy, papal tyranny, and the practice of chaining the Bible; or when the pamphlets available in the tract of a Roman Catholic parish could continue to portray Luther as a foulmouth, a psychopath, or even a suicide. These caricatures, which it is all too easy to caricature in turn, have now yielded on both sides to the more complex but also more accurate picture. . . . Can the man who is usually blamed or credited for tearing us apart help to bring us together? That may be too much to hope, at least for the present. But the cause can only be aided by a book about this man that dares to tell the truth (Manns: 8-9).

The distortion of history by propaganda does not stop with the biography of Luther. Every epoch of history has received its due amount of distortion. Let me provide an illustrative case to make my point.

An Illustrative Case: How Many Sacraments Were Instituted by Christ?

Consider the whole debate as to whether two or seven sacraments were instituted by Christ for his church. In contrast to the confessional rhetoric of the past, recent studies on both sides have been able to acknowledge that every presentation of Jesus of Nazareth as "instituting" a fixed number of "sacraments" for "his" church is the result of projecting the concerns of another age upon the first century. If one just sits back and thinks about it for a moment, one never finds Jesus taking his disciples aside and saying, "I want to make it clear right from the very beginning how many sacraments I am instituting. . . ." In fact, the entire Christian Scriptures are entirely devoid of any listing or naming of official rites. Neither the "two" nor the "seven," consequently, can be claimed as being the definitive number of rites which Jesus wanted his church to have for all time.

The term "sacrament" itself has a history. The New Testament did not create or use this word. Rather, it comes from the Latin term, sacramentum. This word was used by Romans to designate the military oath taken by new recruits at the close of their initial military training. This solemn military oath made the recruit into a "soldier" bent upon total fidelity to the cause and to the orders of one and only one man--his commanding officer. Tertullian (d. 225 CE) was the first known Church Father to have made use of this term within Christian circles and, even then, he used it exclusively to designate the seriousness with which Christians attached themselves exclusively to the Father of Jesus. With time, however, the term caught on and had a life of its own. By the time of Augustine (d. 430 CE), "sacrament" (sacramentum) was being used not only to designate the rite of baptism, but also the making of the sign of the cross, the receiving of ashes on the head at the beginning of the Lenten fast, the rites of Christian burial, etc. Neither Augustine nor his contemporaries felt any necessity to imagine that the true church had a fixed number of "sacraments" that had been "instituted by Christ."

When the medieval theologians first raised the question as to "how many sacraments," there was wholesale confusion because no Church Father had either addressed or answered such a question. Accordingly, in his Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274), after having considered various opinions as to the number of sacraments, settled for the number seven on the basis of an imaginative parallel whereby the Church rites imitate key aspects of our natural life (e.g., birth=baptism, growth=confirmation, eating=eucharist, etc.). Thomas knew that he was an innovator in his day and, accordingly, he never imagined that there had been seven from the beginning or that his contemporaries who preferred to name six or nine sacraments ought to be excluded from the Church.

As the stature of Thomas and his Summa grew in importance, however, his personal professional opinion was increasingly made to serve as the official organizational position of the entire Church. Over and against the appeal of the Protestant reformers, consequently, the Council of Trent (1545-1563) solemnly declared that there were seven and only seven sacraments and that this question was not any longer open for theological discussion by anyone who calls themselves Christian. Faced with the Protestant upheaval, it became a point of honor and loyalty for Catholics to maintain their identity against the Protestants by affirming that it was "historically certain" that Christ instituted seven sacraments.

From the vantage point of history, however, it is just as inaccurate to imagine Jesus of Nazareth instituting two and only two sacraments as it is to press for seven and only seven. The time is coming and perhaps already here when Catholics and Protestants will be able to say to each other, "Jesus never made this a critical issue on his agenda; therefore, we need to seriously examine whether this issue must continue to remain the litmus test whereby one decides which is the true church." At this point, a respectful dialogue and a shared inquiry into history can begin.

The official dialogue which has taken place between bishops and theologians of the Catholic and Lutheran (Evangelical) Churches in Germany from 1981-1985 provides an apt instance of how, following upon shared historical and biblical studies, "important controversial questions appear in a new light" (Lehmann:182). Relative to the number of sacraments, the dialogue partners discovered that Catholics in the sixteenth century were using a broader notion of "institution by Christ" than were the Protestants in this same era. For Catholics, there was "no difference in principle being seen between Christ's institution and the action of the Holy Spirit in the church" (Lehmann:73). Protestants, on the other hand, required that "institutio means the directly demonstrable institution through Jesus Christ himself, or through an explicit divine mandate" (Lehmann:73). In the end, both sides concluded that the sixteenth century condemnations regarding the number of sacraments can no longer be held as strictly binding upon the partner churches. Their consensus statements read, in part, as follows:

The historical process in which the number of the sacraments was fixed shows that there was considerable openness in this matter. Since for both the Catholic and the Protestant churches the institution by Jesus Christ is a constitutive aspect of the concept of sacrament, the weight of disagreement has shifted from the varying number of the sacraments to the question about their authorization and their ecclesial foundation (Lehmann:73).

All in all, the condemnations on both sides may be viewed as not ecclesially insignificant; but largely speaking, the lines of division which they draw still obtain in their traditional vigor only if their formulations are viewed superficially. As soon as the way in which the sacraments are understood is considered, as well as the theological reasoning about the mode of their efficacy, a considerable measure of agreement emerges (Lehmann:84).

Summary and Conclusion

Church history has been, until now, written scholars doubling as propagandists. Catholics relied upon their respected authors and publishing houses to correctly understand "what really happened," free from Protestant bias. Meanwhile, Protestants were equally concerned to credit their "truth-sayers" over and against Catholic distortions. Given the dismantling of the "Berlin Wall" which separates us, the ideologically distorted versions of history may now safely be scrapped on both sides.

Our settled intuitions, however, frequently betray us. So much human energy has been spent on "documenting" and "proving" that the true church must be this and not that as to make it impossible for most lay people to get their bearings. Even sensitive pastors, whether Catholic or Protestant, struggle with how to wisely and prudently forward the shift from propaganda to dialogue. It would be unwise, for example, for a Catholic priest to tell traditional Catholics that they can soften up on their insistence that the true church must have seven sacraments if such information would only serve to shake their Catholic identity and make them redouble their efforts to keep the faith (and the propaganda) as they have known it. The same thing holds true for a Protestant minister who would unwisely try to get traditionalists within his own congregation to lighten up on their insistence upon two and only two sacraments. On the other hand, it would be socially and historically irresponsible and an affront to the Gospel itself for any Catholic priest or Protestant minister to continue to feed into the old-time propaganda on the grounds that he or she can't risk disturbing "the identity" of his congregation.

The time is ripe, consequently, for both Catholics and Protestants to go back to the sources and hear them again with open hearts and minds. This is precisely what the Case Studies that follow are all about. The goal of this book, therefore, is to enable both professionals and non-professionals to develop the necessary skills for rediscovering and reappropriating for themselves critical dimensions of the early church which have been hitherto distorted or unnoticed due to confessional polemics. More importantly, however, these Case Studies are designed to offer Christians a solid, historical experience of Jesus and of the early church. Rootedness in this past is the surest and the safest and the proven way for Christians to enlarge their commitment to God's cause and to his church.


Further Readings

Lehmann, Karl, and Wolfhart Pannenberg, eds.
1990 The Condemnations of the Reformation Era: Do They Still Divide? Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Manns, Peter
1983 Martin Luther: An Illustrated Biography. New York: Crossroad.