On occasion, I have seen people make reference to a peculiar protestant belief, that the Church founded by Christ at Pentecost fell into apostasy until it was restored either (a) at the time of the Reformation; (b) with the birth of the Pentecostal movement, or (c) with the establishment their particular sect. The particular time of restoration is not important. Rather, it is the belief itself that must be dealt with. I will confess, this belief is so odd that I always kind of thought this was an apocryphal story. But now, twice in the last month, I have heard it directly - once in person and once on social media. Since apparently this is something that some misguided protestants believe, let's examine it a bit more closely.
The first question we would need to know to evaluate this contention is when the supposed apostasy occurred. Unfortunately, nobody seems to have a definite answer, although two statements seem to recur. The most common answer seems to be that the Church apostasized with the legalization of Christianity under Constantine, around 311-313 AD. The argument goes that with actual tolerance and later acceptance by the government, Church affairs became about power and worldly things, leading to the apostasy of the Church. This argument is rather easily disposed of, as many of the conventions these protestants name as evidences of the apostasy are historically established to have been practiced well before the legalization of the Church. Whether it is icons, veneration of the Virgin mother, authority of bishops or most any other practice, the historical evidence for the universal practice of these marks of the faith are numerous. From the writings of St. Ignatius on bishops[i], to the excavation of 3rd century church buildings replete with icons[ii], to ancient papyrus scrolls with hymns to the Theotokos[iii], the idea that "everything changed" in the Church with the edicts of Constantine is simply historically disprovable.
This leads then to the second answer with seems to either be a first attack or a fallback position: that the Church apostasized shortly after the death of the last Apostle. Now this is a little harder to affirmatively demonstrate from historical record, as the protestant would automatically dismiss anything written after the last apostle died as tainted by apostasy. But let’s look instead at the theological implications of this argument and what it tells us about the theology of the person making the argument. First we know, and even the protestants would acknowledge that in Matthew 16:18 Christ promises that even the gates of Hell will not prevail against his Church.
Now if the Church apostasized after the death of the disciple whom Christ loved, Christ must have been wrong, because the Church did not prevail eternally, but rather ended with the death of the last apostle. Not only was Christ wrong, in their minds, the grace given to the Apostles on Pentecost was so ineffective that it could not even be transmitted past their lifetimes. So we have in this belief, (1) an errant Christ and (2) a weak and ineffective grace given by the Holy Spirit. So to make this argument, the protestant must renounce inerrancy of Scripture, perfection of Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit. That’s quite a trifecta for a supposedly “faithful” Christian. But let’s not stop here.
Jude 1:3 tells us that the faith was once delivered to the saints (the faithful). Again, this is a direct affirmation of Holy Scripture. To assert that the entire Church apostasized until it was restored means that the faith was delivered a second time to some later generation of faithful. This means the original faith was lost, and that centuries of Christian faithful were lost along with it, as they must have been wandering in apostasy. So to make this argument, the protestant believer again must deny scripture and at the same time consign all post-apostolic, pre-reformation Christians to Hell. This is truly an argument of immense scope.
Now at this point, the protestant usually realizes that these propositions are both factually impossible to prove and logically inconsistent with the beliefs they profess, particularly as to the inerrancy of scripture. At this point it is not uncommon to hear that most fanciful and imaginative fable yet. It is a fable that to their feeble minds reconciles all their argument with their beliefs and wraps it in a neat bow. Of course, I am speaking of the fable of the “faithful remnant.” The argument goes like this: after the Church fell into apostasy, there always remained a “faithful remnant” of Christians preserving the true faith until the time the Church was restored by their particular sect leader. This tale reconciles the truth of scripture with their hatred of Christ’s Church, and to their mind, clears all inconsistencies up.
There is just one small problem with this fable. It is entirely unhistorical. They cannot identify who the faithful remnant was. They cannot trace their continuity from the date of apostasy to the date of restoration. They cannot identify any writings, reports, accounts or activities of this remnant from the time of the purported apostasy to the date of restoration. But they have an explanation for that too. They argue that the established Church in apostasy was so threatened by this remnant that they persecuted them and wiped out the entire historical record of their existence. Truly, it is a conspiracy theory worthy of Oliver Stone or Dan Brown. But just as the faithful remnant fable is unhistorical, the conspiracy theory is ahistorical.
The idea that the Church destroyed all evidence of the faithful remnant is ahistorical because, in fact, evidence remains of many heretical groups which posed a far greater threat to the Church. For example, the Arians controlled at one time many of the Sees of the Church, including the see of Constantinople itself. Although condemned at the first Ecumenical Council, the Arians continued on in their efforts for decades. Yet the writings of Arians were never expunged. Many remain to the present day.[iv] Gnostic texts, such as the Gospel of Phillip, survive to this day.[v] Likewise iconoclasts, who did suffer a concerted effort to destroy their writings, are documented to exist in the history of the church, even to the point of iconoclast quotations being found in the records of the Ecumenical council and other iconodule writings.[vi] Yet there exists to this day not a single writing, account or record of any “faithful remnant” sect that mirrors beliefs found in modern protestantism.
The entire story of the apostasy of the Church raises another inconsistency for the protestants who espouse this story. They all contend to be some sort of “bible believing” sect. The Bible, or more specifically, what writings would comprise the Bible, was a matter of great fluidity in the early Church. In fact, it was not until 367 A.D., well after the latest supposed date of apostasy, that a Canon of the New Testament was produced that matches the 27 books of the New Testament. And this Canon was produced by St. Athanasius, within the Holy Church, in his Paschal Epistle of that same year.[vii] How then could the Church “in apostasy” produce what is today the accepted Canon of the New Testament? And why would these “bible believers” believe in a Bible determined by the same Church they contend left the faith?
The Church, to be sure, has had within it people of dubious character, bishops who departed to heresy, and scandals of all types. These issues continue to the present day. But this is not a mark of the Church or “evidence” of its corruption. Rather, it is the predictable result of humans filling roles within the Holy Church while living in a fallen world. In fact, the idea that the errors of humans can taint Christ’s eternal Church harkens to the Donatist heresy of the early 4th century. But yet the records of these imperfections were preserved. They were not expunged or banned. Rather, the Church addresses these individuals, these heresies, the canonical infractions as a means to preserve the faith. The record of improprieties serves as a bulwark against future infractions. This is a historical record completely at odds with the idea of a Church in apostasy erasing all record of the apostasy and its opponents.
In summary, the belief in the apostasy and the later restoration of the Church is completely at odds with New Testament scripture. Any attempt to reconcile it through the “faithful remnant” theory lacks any historical foundation and can be proffered only as a conclusory, self-proving statement. These arguments emanate from people who either are uneducated in the history of the Church, or who choose to ignore the historical record in favor of a personal belief unsupported by fact and inconsistent with Christian theology.
©2016 Fr. Irineos
[vi] M.-J. Mondzain, tr., Discours contre les iconoclastes (Paris, 1989), Exodus 20:1-17.
[vii] Lindberg, Carter (2006), A Brief History of Christianity, Blackwell, p. 15