The One True Church

Down below, in comments following Stephen Wolfe’s article “Two Roman Catholic claims that cannot both be true”, I responded to a comment by the Roman Catholic blogger Joseph Richardson, in which I put together a brief summary of what I believe the one true church is, a positive accounting of the traditions that emerged from the Reformation:

He asked:

The [Roman] Catholic Church, after all, is the stump from which Protestantism sprang. Why would you presume that if you disproved Catholicism, you would somehow have Protestantism left?

I think [Paul Basset’s comment] about “the stump” is apt – but this goes to the heart of “what is ‘the church’?” What genuinely constituted “the church” in the days beginning from Christ onward? At first, it was the gospel – it was the message – it was “all who accepted the message” (Acts 2:41). When did “the hierarchy” even come into being, much less, make itself foundational to “the church”?

The whole thrust of Protestant apologetics, as you yourself admit, is directed at disproving Catholic claims — but where is the positive support for Protestantism? Do Protestant claims have any basis, any reason for being, apart from a rejection of Catholicism? Why should I presume such claims at all, let alone a priori?

My whole thrust is not “disproving” Catholic claims, but showing them for what they are – just simply vacuous (within the context of history). Yes, over and over again, Christ strips us down to the point at which “Christ alone” is sufficient.

We, all of us, do need to understand history – Biblical history, and church history, to understand what it was into which Christ came. No kidding, there are “ministers of the gospel”, but to think that “the hierarchy” is somehow constitutive of what “the church” is, is badly mistaken.

If you want “positive support”, look here, for example. This whole site is devoted to giving believers the opportunity to understand what “traditions” did survive through the Reformation – all of them being “traditions”, none of them taking priority over “the gospel message”, all of them likely having flaws. But that is human – to have flaws. The important thing is to understand what the best traditions have been in Christian history – and to know that we live in fundamentally different times, though we may find something worth imitating at very many points within Christianity.

That was Paul’s primary message of “church leadership” – note that he avoided issues of “leadership”, understanding that there were individuals taking “leadership” roles based on some form of social status, rather than what Paul viewed the true mark of “leadership” – that of being a servant, that of being imitated. Which medieval “bishops” were worthy of being imitated? And yet, Paul “expressly commended others who were worthy of imitation”. That is what was constitutive of “church leadership” in Paul’s mind, in his writings. “A particular model [of leadership] was considered appropriate not because of who that person was, but because of the extent to which that life was conformed to the gospel. Consequently, all other [leadership] models were secondary in importance. Their supreme goal was imitation of Christ” (Andrew D. Clarke, “Serve the Community of the Church: Christians as Leaders and Ministers”, Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., ©2006, pg 251).

I’m putting together a whole series on “Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics”. Click on that link in one of my posts. It’s easy to find the first one. Read some of the others. These are men in an era who sought to serve the church, whose lives and works [Paul would say] were worthy of imitation. That’s where “the one true church” may be found.

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22 Responses to The One True Church

  1. Thanks for the notice and the response, John. I also responded below. I’ll also repost the summation of my comments on this particular section:

    This is perhaps the best and most succinct statement of the Protestant problem of “traditions” that I’ve seen — and it explains the Protestant attitude that, even when I was a Protestant, was entirely foreign to me, that would lead Christians to be entirely indifferent to the fact that their modern churches have no resemblance at all to the Early Church or to anything that has preceded — or to be entirely oblivious and blissfully ignorant to that fact. Protestants presume that “the church” is something of their own fashioning, as if they make it and can make it whatever they please, and that it can somehow be separated from what has been handed down to us — that they are free to pick and choose what “traditions” are “worth imitating,” as if they were putting on a costume, and they might or might not find parts of it fashionable. They presume that the only “essential” parts of the message are those found in Scripture, which makes for an artificial limitation and exclusion of the “essentials,” and an artificial reduction of the other parts to merely dispensable things that “may be worth imitating.” This is not a notion that anyone in the Church prior to the Reformation could have comprehended. A church of one’s own making, in piecemeal “imitation” of picked and chosen “traditions” we have received, makes for merely an imperfect “imitation” of the Church of Christ. And it is no surprise at all that Protestant churches and denominations everywhere are now shedding parts of the “costume” as fast as the rest of the world is shedding clothing in today’s fashion.

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    • John Bugay says:

      modern churches have no resemblance at all to the Early Church or to anything that has preceded — or to be entirely oblivious and blissfully ignorant to that fact.

      Who cares? How do you even know what “the early church” looked like? If you had any care at all about “what the early church looked like” you might like to take a look at the works of Paul Bradshaw of Notre Dame, who studies the early “liturgy”. He makes this statement: “We know much, much less about the liturgical practices of the first three centuries of Christianity than we once thought that we did … and many of our previous confident [Roman Catholic] assertions about ‘what the early Church did’ now seem more like wishful thinking of the unconscious projections back into ancient times of later practices” (“Search for the Origins of Christian Worship”, Oxford University Press, 2002).

      So, your statement strikes me as little more than a repetition of the “wishful thinking” that has been so confidently asserted by other Roman apologists in the past.

      Protestants presume that “the church” is something of their own fashioning, as if they make it and can make it whatever they please, and that it can somehow be separated from what has been handed down to us — that they are free to pick and choose what “traditions” are “worth imitating,” as if they were putting on a costume, and they might or might not find parts of it fashionable.

      It’s not about fashion at all. For Reformed Christians, it’s about worshipping in a way that is biblical. Not everyone agrees precisely how that’s done, and that’s ok – because as Jesus said, true worshipers “worship in the Spirit and in truth”. What does that mean to you? Does it mean imposing 4th century Roman forms upon everyone for all time? Trent certainly tried to impose its Medieval form of worship on everyone. How “spiritual” was that? How much “in truth” was the Medieval Latin Mass?

      They presume that the only “essential” parts of the message are those found in Scripture, which makes for an artificial limitation and exclusion of the “essentials,” and an artificial reduction of the other parts to merely dispensable things that “may be worth imitating.”

      Paul was very clear about what was worth imitating (and again, note that what I said about this was in the context of “leadership”. Here’s something that Clarke points out:

      in 2 Corinthians 6:4 Paul again describes himself (and his associates – “God’s co-workers”) as one of God’s ministers (θεοῦ διάκονοι)…. Also in 2 Corinthians 11:23 Paul applies the metaphor of “servant of Christ” to himself. In both these cases, however, Paul juxtaposes the self-designation with a catalogue of sufferings and deprivations which amount to his credentials. As such the term διάκονος (“servant”) does not emphasize a position of status with respect to association with God as his mouthpiece (as we see when Roman popes, for example, call themselves “servant of the servants…”), rather, it is one of suffering and hardship with respect to the Corinthians and in contrast to the apostle’s opponents. Paul’s point is precisely that he is boasting about things which show his weakness, rather than his status” (Clarke, 242).

      Here is what Paul finds worthy of imitation: “as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”

      Yet consider the Medieval church hierarchy: They were the ones giving the beatings; they were the ones imprisoning and sanctioning the torture of “heretics”. They knew luxury, not hunger, hardships, or distresses; there was no purity – many Medieval “popes” had mistresses and children. They knew nothing of “weapons of righteousness” – they themselves bore the physical sword. They were the rich, making many poor (through their sanction and practice of indulgences”). They had kingdoms at their disposal, while Paul had “nothing”.

      So here is your genuine “lack of resemblance” to the early church. Why do you not rail about that? Why do you excuse that behavior, and sweep it under the carpet?

      You said:

      They presume that the only “essential” parts of the message are those found in Scripture, which makes for an artificial limitation and exclusion of the “essentials,” and an artificial reduction of the other parts to merely dispensable things that “may be worth imitating.” This is not a notion that anyone in the Church prior to the Reformation could have comprehended.

      I’ve never said “the modern Protestant churches are perfect”. However, they have models to follow, genuine “traditions” to follow, and my intention here is to make those more well known to modern Protestants. I would much rather that the Scriptures be followed than either (a) the soupy, syrupy“wishful thinking” that Bradshaw points out (and which exists in many post-Vatican II circles) – which is where I suspect that you have placed your hopes, or (b) the “Church” of the Council of Trent, where the more traditionalist and Medievalist Roman Catholics see the true glory of “the Church”.

      A church of one’s own making, in piecemeal “imitation” of picked and chosen “traditions” we have received, makes for merely an imperfect “imitation” of the Church of Christ.

      Again, what are you imitating? What’s worth imitating? There are things that are important, and there are superficial things. What is “the church”? What’s important in God’s eyes? What has God told us, through the Revelation of Scripture, is important?

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      • Who cares?

        “Who cares?” is precisely my point.

        How do you even know what “the early church” looked like?

        It’s true that we only have a few glimpses of the liturgy of the first few centuries, and that the liturgy developed over time, and that it continues to develop. (You might read Fortescue on The History of the Mass, who is quite honest about this and not one for “wishful thinking” or “unconscious projections,” even a century ago.) The Tridentine Mass was largely built upon a sixth-century Gregorian development, with a good many medieval accretions. Bradshaw’s statement is quite correct, and not the kind of scandalous admission you seem to take it as. Do you suppose that the development of liturgy somehow makes it invalid or false? Rather, development is a natural (and beautiful) part of tradition, an indication that it is a continuous passing on and not merely an imitation or fabrication.

        So, your statement strikes me as little more than a repetition of the “wishful thinking” that has been so confidently asserted by other Roman apologists in the past.

        What statement would that be? You seem determined to cast me in some caricature you have of Catholic apologetics, when I’ve said nothing of the sort.

        What I said here was a critique of the Protestant attitude toward “traditions” and didn’t have any bearing on what I thought of the Catholic Church at all. I in no way suggested or implied that the Catholic Church is a facsimile of the Early Church or any other such: she’s not. What I said was, Protestants are entirely indifferent to the fact that their churches have no resemblance at all to the Early Church (a statement proved by your “Who cares?”). They don’t even make an effort. They (at least many of them; forgive me for applying such a wide brush — I know some Protestants, even some Evangelicals, to whom this doesn’t apply) are content to fabricate, to imitate what “traditions” they might or might not find “worthy of imitation” — and generally for such “traditions,” they look more to their Protestant, post-1517 heritage than anything even remotely proximate to the worship of early Christians.

        And yes, we do know quite a bit about the Early Church, both from Scripture and from the other early writings of the Church.

        It’s not about fashion at all. For Reformed Christians, it’s about worshipping in a way that is biblical. Not everyone agrees precisely how that’s done, and that’s ok – because as Jesus said, true worshipers “worship in the Spirit and in truth”. What does that mean to you?

        What I said was that Reformed Protestants’ attitude toward “traditions” was about fashion. Attempting to be “biblical” is admirable, but, and this is the key — tradition is about continuity, what is handed on. It’s not something that one can pick and choose according to what is fashionable. It’s the package the message comes in, and yes, the Bible is part of that package. By casting away that package, or choosing piecemeal what parts of it to keep, Protestants have lost the essential context and continuity and even parts of the message. The Bible itself comes to us as part of an interpretive tradition. How did the New Testament’s earliest readers — those who knew and were taught by its authors themselves — understand it? What did that generation teach their disciples? So many Protestants treat Scripture as if it exists in a vacuum, as if they can pick it up by itself and as if “what it means to them” individually, out of context, is somehow relevant. Speaking of “soupy” and “syrupy”: it’s no wonder that there are 40,000+ disparate Protestant sects.

        Here is what Paul finds worthy of imitation…

        I don’t see how any of this is relevant to the discussion at hand.

        Why do you excuse that behavior, and sweep it under the carpet?

        Wherever did I say that I did?

        I’ve never said “the modern Protestant churches are perfect”. However, they have models to follow, genuine “traditions” to follow, and my intention here is to make those more well known to modern Protestants.

        I think that’s an admirable endeavor, and I’d like to see more of that. I would hope that you would look, at least a little, to the pre-Reformation traditions of the Church. It’s not all medieval corruption and excess.

        I would much rather that the Scriptures be followed than either (a) the soupy, syrupy “wishful thinking” that Bradshaw points out (and which exists in many post-Vatican II circles) – which is where I suspect that you have placed your hopes…

        That’s not very nice. Where have I given you that impression?

        (b) the “Church” of the Council of Trent, where the more traditionalist and Medievalist Roman Catholics see the true glory of “the Church”.

        Why does it have to be either of those caricatures? I accept the Church for who she is, warts, wounds, and all. And why does this have to be contrary to following the Scriptures? I would much rather follow the Scriptures also.

        Again, what are you imitating? What’s worth imitating? There are things that are important, and there are superficial things. What is “the church”? What’s important in God’s eyes? What has God told us, through the Revelation of Scripture, is important?

        I strive, in every way that I can, to imitate my Lord Jesus Christ. And I would rather be a part of the Church than “imitate” her.

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  2. Erick Ybarra says:

    Hi John Bugay,

    Thanks for posting this.

    I disagree with your statements that early Christianity was simply a matter of the gospel, a group of those those “believed in the message”. We see right from the beginning that baptism was essential for receiving the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:36). The Spirit is what incorporates us into Christ, and thus, the Church. And it is the sacramental rite of baptism which performs this supernatural work.

    Secondly, when the Samaritans heard the gospel and “believed”, they had still not yet received the Holy Spirit. It took the travel of John and Peter so that they could lay hands on the Samaritans in order for them to receive the Holy Spirit. And so much to the contrary, it was not simply a matter of “believing the gospel” in isolation from Ecclesiastical principles that are enshrined in the teaching of the Catholic Church., but rather early Christianity truly included the ecclesiology of the 3rd and 4th centuries.

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    • John Bugay says:

      Erick, you are failing to understand the overall sweep of Acts, and the spread of the church – yes, Baptism was important, but not so important that Paul couldn’t say, “I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius…”, or that he couldn’t say to the Philippian jailer, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” Or that what constitutes salvation is to “see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts” so that they “turn, and I would heal them” (Acts 28 citing Isaiah 6).

      You talk about “the ecclesiology of the 3rd and 4th centuries”, but see the comments above where I cite Paul Bradshaw: “We know much, much less about the liturgical practices of the first three centuries of Christianity than we once thought that we did … and many of our previous confident [Roman Catholic] assertions about ‘what the early Church did’ now seem more like wishful thinking of the unconscious projections back into ancient times of later practices”.

      In that context, what “ecclesiastical principles” are you talking about? The 4th and 5th century practices of “the Church” were more and more an adoption not of earliest church practices, but rather a wholesale adoption of Roman cultural practices – that’s where the statues came from – that’s where Roman “gods” became “the saints” of “the Church”.

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  3. explorer says:

    I want to know what a typical Catholic opinion is about which dogmas/practices existed in the early church.

    I have heard that the council of Trent or some other council say that what it promulgated was “always believed by all” or something similar.
    Does this indicate that all or many currently-defined dogmas/practices (and potential future ones), were believed by all (or at least a vast majority of) theologians (eg. St Paul) during the pure apostolic church?

    Some of the Traditionalists websites really dont seem to like Newman’s theory of development and seem to hold this view. But is this view the Church’s “official” one?

    Thanks

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    • John Bugay says:

      Hi Explorer — I don’t have a great deal of time now, but basically, everything is “development”. There was a period of time when Vincent of Lerins (5th century) judged everything by what was believed “always, everywhere, by all”. Adrian Fortescue in 1920 basically addressed this suggesting, “everything they believed then, we believe more strongly now”. In 1845 Newman then came up with his “Theory of Development” and converted to RCCism. “Development” was a hard sell prior to Vatican II (evidenced by Fortescue’s remarks) — however, Newman did say explicitly that Vincent of Lerins’s theory was unworkable. Now, everything is based on what the current church says. However, you are right, during the period of Trent and the couple of centuries immediately following, the “unanimous consent” phrase was used quite a bit.

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    • Explorer: Speaking as a Catholic, I would point out that there’s a crucial distinction between dogmas and practices — they shouldn’t be lumped together. Practices (or disciplines) change. Dogmas, once they are defined, don’t.

      Here’s a helpful explanation on the formal definition of the term “dogma.” We do believe that everything that is defined as dogma was present in some form in the original revelation of Christ.

      The Church doesn’t have an “official” teaching on “development.” But Newman’s theories are very well respected.

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      • explorer says:

        “I would point out that there’s a crucial distinction between dogmas and practices”
        I understand this point. Can the church promulgate soul-killing disciplines/laws?
        Were practices more pure back in apostolic times than post-Trent or post-Vatican I or today?

        “We do believe that everything that is defined as dogma was present in some form in the original revelation of Christ.”
        Does a dogma require the unanimous consent of the fathers and can something with the unanimous consent fail to become a dogma?

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      • Paul Bassett says:

        Actually, Newman’s theories were not that well respected during his time or since. The medieval historian Francis Oakley cites several sources then and now who show that Newman’s theories actually contradict Catholic tradition.

        “When he wrote that work (Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine), he appears to have known nothing about the older scholastic views on doctrinal development.”

        Oakley cites as older scholastics, church Fathers Aquinas, Duns Scotus and Bonaventure. So for Newman to depart from Catholic tradition especially in an era where the Pope idolized and made official the teachings of Aquinas is to show that his theories, however well received by some today, were not really that well liked in his day.

        That’s not a bad thing to keep in mind when you ponder whether or not the Catholic church really “strives to carry forward” the tradition of the Apostles or not.

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        • Newman’s theories are well respected among many people I’ve read.

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          • John Bugay says:

            Newman’s theories are well respected among many people I’ve read.

            Right, and this is in spite of what Paul said, that “Francis Oakley cites several sources then and now who show that Newman’s theories actually contradict Catholic tradition”. Respect for Newman falls into two categories: (1), a need to reconcile the many historical errors that Rome made, while all along claiming “semper eadem”, and (2), wishful thinking, that somehow the many vague connections that he makes somehow constitutes continuity. In reality, “development” (which is frequently appealed to, but infrequently explained, in any given situation), is a haven for any unexplainable situation.

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            • Oakley’s interpretation, like Newman’s theories, and like the opinions of the other authors I have read, are scholarly opinions. You seem to hurl claims around, John, as if they were absolute truths. I would like to know where, as a Protestant, you find the certainty to do that. That was something that always eluded me, and I’m fascinated to see it in other people. May God bless you, and may His peace be with you!

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  4. Paul Bassett says:

    Joseph writes,

    “I in no way suggested or implied that the Catholic Church is a facsimile of the Early Church or any other such: she’s not.”

    If neither the Roman nor Protestant churches today resemble the early church, I guess I’m missing the point. Why make the comparison at all, Joseph? What is the import of the early church if both Roman and Protestant churches have deviated therefrom?

    Thanks,

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    • Hmm, Paul, the last time I checked the dictionary (and I checked again just now, just to be sure I was using the word correctly), “facsimile” meant “an exact copy.” That has nothing to do with resemblance. And as I made clear to John above, my point has nothing to do with whether the Catholic Church does or doesn’t: my point is that, in John’s words, Protestants “don’t care” whether they do or not.

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      • OK Joseph, I’ll bite on your “resemblance” comment. How much does the Early Christian Church resemble the RCC of today or the RCC of the Reformation era? As I read church history there is not that much resemblance. But how do we go about making this judgment? Could we start with say the leader of the Church of Rome at the turn of the first century and compare their beliefs and actions with the leaders of the RCC at the time of the Reformation? Let’s compare Clement with Leo X – how much do their beliefs and actions resemble each other?
        – Andrew McCallum

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        • Hi Andrew. The Catholic Church strives to carry forward the tradition received from Jesus and the Apostles. And insofar as elements of this tradition have been universal and timeless — for example, the mysteries of Baptism and the Eucharist; the basic outlines of sacred liturgy; the episcopal, presbyterial, and diaconal orders — which are visible in all ages of the Church, in both the East and the West, from the writings of the New Testament forward through the Church Fathers — the Catholic Church can be said to resemble the Early Church.

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          • Joseph,

            The Protestant churches also strive to carry forward the Apostolic tradition. We maintain the simple Nicean/Athanasian orthodoxy of the Apostolic and Early churches, which are visible in all ages of the Church. We reject the Medieval RCC innovations which are not visible in all ages of the Church

            It sounds like you have read the ECF’s. So have I. So how do we decide who’s interpretation is correct?

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            • I don’t know which Protestant tradition you come from, Andrew, so I’m not sure which “innovations” it is you reject. But the vast majority of Protestants reject ideas that are plainly evidenced even in the earliest of the Church Fathers: for example, in Ignatius, the monoepiscopacy, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist; in Clement of Rome, a successive episcopal office; in Irenaeus, baptismal regeneration, the necessity of an apostolic tradition to complement and inform Scripture; in Origen, the perpetual virginity of Mary. Interpretation, of course, is subjective and not absolute, but it seems to me that Protestant reading of the Church Fathers is often very selective. God bless you, and His peace be with you!

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  5. ajmccallum says:

    Paul,

    You ask a great question here. There are ways that both Protestant and Catholic churches are different form the Early Church. I read the writings of the ECF’s and then the writings of the RCC from the High Middle Ages, and the descriptions of the respective churches from these different eras are very different. But of course that’s just my interpretation. To me this raises the question as to whether the writings of the Church of any age are meant to provide us with normative content. That is, did God intend for us to look the state of the Church in any given era and derive some sort of prescriptive content out of it?

    I read these comments from converts to Rome that the Early Church was “not Protestant,” but then it was not Roman Catholic either. But then I don’t think RC’s in general believe that the there is a fundamental continuity between the 1st century Church and the RCC of today because they can somehow derive such a belief from the collective history of the Christian Church. They believe that such continuity exists because that’s what the current Magisterium teaches.

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    • Paul Bassett says:

      Hi ajmccallum,

      You make some great points. And I think your observations point up some very important distinctions that need to be made.

      The first that I would like to offer is that God’s work on this earth is at the behest of His Holy Spirit. And we can never pinpoint the Spirit but we can feel His effects. (John 3:8) That’s why the Roman church is fundamentally wrong. They are not oriented “in the Spirit” but rather in the earth, at Rome. And that is why they have taught that salvation exists nowhere outside their church. If you’re a Catholic you have a specific, earthly plce to go for salvation, contrary to what Christ taught. And physical continuity is a manifestation of our earthly presence but not of God’s spiritual work.

      And because the “writings of any age” as you say, are part of God’s (fallen) creation, I think you are exactly right – they are not infallible. Which is where Rome goes astray again. She teaches that some of her pope’s “infallible” teachings are preserved from error. There really is only one writing from any age that is meant to “provide us normative content” and that of course, is the Scripture. Because the Scripture is God’s Word, it carries His attributes and power (Hebrews 4:12)

      Lastly, I think John and his team here are doing tremendous work. By exposing the fundamental and glaring contradictions between what Rome teaches and what is objectively discernible from history, God may well use these pages to open some eyes.

      Blessings to you…..

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  6. explorer says:

    Ok, so no one answered my questions:
    1. Can the Church promulgate evil or soul-killing disciplines/laws/practices? + If, the answer is no, which document says this? (give me the most magisterial document).
    2. Is the current Catholic church (post-1960s) more pure in its doctrines and disciplines than the apostolic church and/or the early church? Is it a more preferable state?
    3. Must a dogma/doctrine always have unanimous consent of the fathers and can something with unanimous consent fail to become dogma/doctrine?

    Thanks.

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