In my 22 years as a Christian I encountered many truth-claims. With an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, I listened to the teachers of many faith traditions, but the more I heard, the more contradictions. It comes down to these questions ...
- What did Jesus really teach?
- Which developments of doctrines did Jesus really intend?
- What kind of church did Jesus establish?
The main question is, who can we trust? The answer — we can only trust ...
- Jesus (He chose apostles and taught them for 3+ years).
But what did Jesus really teach?
- The apostles (They wrote the New Testament and passed-down the faith).
But how to interpret the Bible?
- The church (She received the faith from the apostles, and developed doctrine in response to heresy and other forces of history).
But how to sort out the true from the false?
Many Christians agree that God intended doctrine to develop over time. (Do we merely repeat the words of the Bible?) Everyone agrees that our modern doctrines were not expounded or understood in exactly the same way by the apostles. The teachings of the apostles (and of Jesus) contained seeds which only later came to fruition.
This article proposes a reasoned methodology for discovering what Jesus and the apostles taught.
Is there a God? ...
This is the first important question. I address it elsewhere ...
It must be true |
God Exists |
Light of the World
Conclusion: There is a God.
True Religion ...
Are all religions true? Is there one true religion? Is there truth in all religions?
The most important question is, "What is the final destiny (heaven or hell) for followers of each religion?"
Conclusion: Only Christianity is fully true, but there are elements of truth in all religions. Some non-Christians will end up in heaven and some Christians will not. I address this topic elsewhere ...
The Problem with God |
What is Truth? |
The Still, Small Voice |
A Short Testimony |
The Way |
My Conversion |
Letter to a Skeptic
True Christianity ...
There are so many varieties of Christianity, all claiming to be "true Christianity." Who are we to believe?
A brief historical overview and my assessment ...
- Jesus and the Apostles — We know we can believe Jesus. But he didn't write any books. Instead, he selected 12 disciples and trained them for 3+ years. He made various promises to these apostles and later choose Paul as an apostle. We have no alternative but to believe the apostles of Jesus.
- Apostles teach via written word and tradition — Some of the apostles wrote books and letters (these comprise the New Testament). Some founded churches. They all defended true Christianity against attacks by heretics. They taught what Christians should believe (faith) and do (morals). They specified particulars such as: What should church meetings be like? How should the church govern herself? How to discipline wayward members? But sadly, they did not write enough about many very important topics.
- Heretical writings and traditions — Meanwhile, other people (heretics) wrote books and letters, founded churches, etc. These did not represent the true Christian faith.
- The Church Fathers — The apostles chose a new generation of orthodox leaders to lead the church. These had all the same concerns and problems as the apostles as well as new problems. Meanwhile, the writings of the apostles (and other writings) were being circulated and read in the church meetings.
- The Canon of Scripture — It became apparent that the writings of the apostles were to play a key role in the church. For generations, the Church Fathers discussed which writings should be included in the Canon of Scripture and what principles should be used to select them. By the end of the 300's A.D. it was finally settled.
- Tradition — Two problems remained. (1) Not all topics were addressed in the New Testament, and (2) Various interpretations of the scripture appeared. Who could be trusted to provide correct scriptural interpretations and defend against heresy? By now the apostles were long gone and there were many variations of Christian practice, belief, and tradition. The Church Fathers had to be trusted but even they were starting to have contradictory opinions (the apostolic era of infallible truth was over).
- The Church — We must distinguish between the Church Fathers and the Church. The Church Fathers had their various opinions, some were even leaders of the Church. The Church is the defender and teacher of the faith (1 Timothy 3:15), mysterious but authoritative, inspired by the Holy Spirit. More on this later.
- Today — We have the age-old dilemma even today. We know that scripture is trustworthy, but interpretations are contradictory. And each Christian denomination and community has various traditions that are not even specified in the scripture at all. It is clear that scripture is not all that is needed. More in the next section.
Church Fathers ...
Reality compels us to trust the Church Fathers. Some obvious ways ...
- They determined the criteria for including a book in the canon of scripture.
- They determined which books and writings were apostolic.
- They developed the creeds.
- They developed key doctrines such as the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the nature of the church, sin and grace, Christ's atonement for our sins, etc. These doctrines are not obviously apparent from the scriptures; after all, the heretics based their false doctrines on scripture also.
But the Church Fathers are not completely trustworthy because they have contradictory opinions about things. Yet, just as we depend on them in the critical tasks of determining the canon of scripture and developing foundational Christian dogmas, we should not be shy about gleaning whatever trustworthy knowledge they have. For example, they can tell us about the early church: What church meetings were like and styles of church governance. But how can we be sure we only glean truth and not error?
Criteria to consider in determining which bits of information in the writings of the Church Fathers are trustworthy ...
- Not all Church Fathers are equal. Some are prone to excess while others are orthodox.
- Not all topics are equal. For some topics, the Church Fathers were all in agreement. For others, there were a variety of contradictory opinions.
- Some opinions we not held until later; these were not passed-down by the apostles.
- Some opinions of some Church Fathers contradict the scripture. These opinions should be rejected.
- Which opinions represent the "mind of the church", the "mind of the Holy Spirit?" More on this later.
With the information from the Church Fathers we have a more clear picture of the early church. I suppose we could choose to ignore the writings of the Church Fathers (except for their determination of the Canon of Scripture, which we simply can't ignore), but if we do, we are left in the dark in many key areas.
If we merely end here, we are stranded in a very unsatisfying predicament (I know because I've been stranded there several times ...)
- We must trust the church fathers for collecting and identifying the canon of scripture, but we must reject them on other points. But how do we know we can trust them at all? And how are we to decide when to accept, when to reject?
- There is no church today which matches the early church. To wholeheartedly join any of these churches is to accept arbitrary teachings as if they are true.
- We must admit that the "church went bad" immediately after the apostles died.
- We can arbitrarily accept sola scriptura and rely on our own personal, private interpretations. But what if our conclusions don't match with any established denomination or community? (That was my experience).
- We are very ecumenical, but with the side-effect of being accepting of others' firm belief in error.
The Church ...
There simply must be a thing called "the church" which is led by the Holy Spirit and leads us into truth. No other conclusion is possible. But what is the nature of this church? Is it an institution? Or a set of teachings?
But how can we know which declarations of the church are indeed authoritative and trustworthy? And who leads the church? My approach ...
- The teaching of the church is limited to the teaching of bishops. If the bishops don't teach it, the church doesn't teach it. (The Catholic Church teaches that Protestant denominations don't have valid bishops since they are in schism with the historical, Catholic Church)
- We must exclude the teachings of "bad" bishops, those who are heretics, or immoral, or focused on politics and worldly gain (there have been plenty of these).
- The teachings of the church must not contradict scripture or be immoral.
- Councils are helpful but don't guarantee truth.
- The teachings of the church must be logical developments of teachings passed-down by the apostles and contained within scripture.
- Once the papacy was established, the pope had a role.
- The doctrines of the church must withstand the test of time. There are cases of doctrines which were considered infallible at the time but which were infallibly reversed later.
- The doctrines of the church must represent truth and not error. (The Galileo case is an example of authoritative church teachings being wrong).
- The doctrines of the church must lead to unity in the church (but schismatics destroy unity).
For the last 1,600 years the universal (catholic) church has not taught any new essential doctrines — everything was settled by the time of the Nicene Creed (325 A.D.) and the Canon of Scripture (about 400 A.D.). Certainly particular churches, denominations, and communities have continued to introduce new teachings which they consider essential, and that is the problem. We have no basis to believe any of these new novel teachings.
The Catholic Church ...
There is something very unsatisfying about the conclusions in the previous section. It is even worse if we accept the doctrine of sola scriptura (scripture only) invented by the Protestants. The dilemma ...
- It seems odd that the Church established by Jesus would consist of only a handful of essential doctrines and many non-essential (and contradictory) doctrines from which we can pick and choose.
- There simply must be an authoritative interpreter of scriptures. It is bizarre that having various contradictory interpretations of scripture is a "normal" situation.
- To accept that the church is merely the invisible collection of all believers (and not a visible institution) does not match the teachings of the early church fathers at all.
- Historically, the various doctrines developed in response to real-world situations. It seems that this is what Jesus intended since he did not define all Christian doctrines and did not write these down himself.
- If we reject the infallible teaching authority of the Catholic Church, then we are in the predicament that there is no church today which is the church established by Jesus (although the Orthodox church claims to be).
- It seems that various external conditions shaped the nature of Christianity and that the seeds of the apostles' teaching in some way guided this development. God had a plan for what was to develop over the course of history.
The Catholic Church claims to be the true apostolic church founded by Jesus (and I once believed this claim), but there are some difficulties ...
- She claims to infallibly teach true doctrines, and so she does in many cases. But she is not free from errors.
- She claims to have merely handed-down the traditions (teachings) of the apostles, but, in fact, all doctrines have undergone radical development.
- It seems that she has missed the mark in some ways (works-based mentality, corruption and abuses, emphasis on temporal concerns, involvement in power-politics, excessive "churchiness", etc.)
- Schism with the eastern Orthodox communions.
- Allowing immoral and unorthodox priests and bishops, seminaries, etc.
The question is, did Jesus intend to establish a single, unified institution called the church? In my mind, the answer must be — yes. But he did not establish this church in his lifetime and pass it on to the apostles. The church was founded by the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.
Over time, as the church leaders (1) defended heresy; (2) fought for the church's very existence in a world which tried to exterminate them; and (3) attempted to provide spiritual leadership for Christ's people; they had to set up a strong, centralized hierarchy; to define doctrinal formulations; to develop codes of canon law; etc.
There are ongoing errors which the Catholic Church continues to make and which I pray she will change ...
- Refusal to admit her errors (except in very non-committal terms).
- Fix the wrong emphasis on things such as: works, "churchiness", no fellowship for many, rule-based system, etc.
- Some bishops refuse to publicly address or even acknowledge problems and abuses in the church or in their dioceses, preferring to deflect criticism or to blame the critics for daring to criticize. This erodes the trust of the laity.
Great Schism ...
Long before the great schism of 1054 A.D., the eastern (Orthodox) and western (Catholic) churches began to drift apart. Today they have important doctrinal differences, but they have much in common. Each claims to be the "true" church and demands our loyalty, but choosing is not easy. For a while I preferred the Orthodox church but eventually chose Catholicism, at first because I was already Catholic but finally because I became convinced that the Orthodox views were incorrect. Later I became an Ecumenical Christian.
The Great Schism marks the end of the golden age of church unity. It puts us Christians in a difficult position by demanding we choose between two conflicting sets of truth-claims, each having continuity from the apostles.
When I learned of the Orthodox church after being Catholic for 4 years it led to a crisis in faith. What if the Orthodox claims were the true ones? (Rather than the Catholic?) What if both were wrong? (Since they contradicted?) Although I finally chose Catholic, I did not do so because an infallible teaching authority guided me (since both claim to be the highest teaching authority). For a while I tried not choosing at all; of being Orthodox-Catholic. This had a bad result since I was now not united to any faith community at all. I felt disconnected and began to drift.
After studying the Orthodox church I have little reason to believe that the Catholic and Orthodox churches will ever unite. The differences are too vast. In my opinion the "eastern lung" of the church is represented by the Eastern Catholic communions (the uniates).
Protestant Reformation ...
There were two independent "reform" (revolutionary) movements: one by Martin Luther (a holy man of God) and one by King Henry VIII (a corrupt and wicked ruler).
(1) Martin Luther was justified in objecting to the abuses and corruption of the Catholic Church. He objected to the doctrine of indulgences (the Orthodox Church doesn't accept indulgences), and to the works-based concept of salvation. His reaction was to invent doctrines which contradicted the teachings of the Church and which had no basis in the early church fathers. His saving grace was that he kept the essential, foundational dogmas of the Christian faith. The fruits of the Protestant Reformation were not particularly good: Wars, dismantling of the social safety net for poor people (by destroying the monasteries), creation of "police state" (Genova), Protestant/Catholic conflict even into modern times.
(2) King Henry VIII was perhaps justified in objecting to the pope's interference in his personal business. Why had the pope become such a powerful world political leader anyway? Surely this was not in the best interests of the spiritual well-being of Christians?
In Conclusion: the "reforms" of the Protestant Reformation cannot be trusted. They did not re-establish the New Testament church, but merely traded one set of abuses and false doctrines for another.
God, in His great mercy and love, blesses Protestants. And it is clear that many Protestants are faithful, devoted, holy, Spirit-filled lovers and followers of Jesus.
I don't believe that most Protestant denominations will ever be able to have unity with the Catholic Church as they discarded too many valid doctrinal developments and added their own invalid innovations.
Did the Church Go Bad? ...
Protestants typically believe that the church went bad when it became "Catholic." They identify the "badness" of the church with those things which the Catholic Church added and which the Protestant Reformers rejected. There is no consensus on when the church went bad. Some views ...
- The first generation after the apostles. Only the apostolic church was sound.
- When the church became the state religion with Constantine.
- Somewhere in the Middle Ages.
I believe there is a sense in which the church "went bad." However, I don't believe that the Protestant Reformers rescued the church from her "badness" — rather, they merely substituted one form of badness for another. The badness introduced by the Protestant Reformers ...
- Added untrue doctrines.
- Created division in the church. 150 years of gruesome wars.
- In some cases, created a "police state" (Calvin's Geneva and the Puritans).
I believe the church gradually drifted away from the ideal church which Jesus established through the apostles. The early church defended against heresy, but in doing so she went too far in the opposite direction. Some examples ...
- In defining who has the authority to defend against heresy, she inadvertently created a rigid church hierarchy.
- In accepting Christianity as a state religion, she inadvertently created an overly political church instead of maintaining the spiritual focus. The monastic movement was a reaction against this.
- The east / west schism (long before 1054 A.D.) marked the end of church unity.
- In attempting to provide leadership, she inadvertently created a strong division between clergy and laity.
- In attempting to define true doctrine, she inadvertently overstated and overdefined some of these doctrines.
- It attempting to instill moral behavior, she inadvertently created an emphasis on works.
Nevertheless, I believe that the church (Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic) has maintained the essential doctrines which were established in the very early centuries of the church.
I believe that the very early Catholic Church was the most accurate expression of the apostolic church which Jesus founded. Today, she is in need of drastic reform. In every generation there are courageous and heroic Catholic church leaders and lay people who devote their lives to this reform. God bless them all. But reform via schism (Great Schism of 1054 A.D.; Protestant "Reformation") never works.
Today, there are four sources of Christian truth ...
- The scripture (unfortunately, conflicting interpretations result in division.)
- The unanimous teachings of the Church Fathers up to about 400 A.D. about topics that the first few generations of Church Fathers wrote about. (The later Church Fathers added things which were not apostolic such as hierarchical bishops, apostolic succession, division of clergy and laity, priesthood.) (There is not much in this category, but when they do agree they are very Catholic.)
- The teachings of the church. This includes: Canon of scripture, creeds, dogmas, moral theology, interpretations of scripture, church councils, and much more. (These are very Catholic.)
- Church councils and the papacy had a role until the great schism of 1054 A.D.
There are three categories of Christian teachings ...
- Essential — Must be believed or the person is not really a Christian. These teachings are true.
- Non-essential — Non-Catholic Christians can pick and choose which to believe. Catholics who wish to remain is good standing must believe the teachings of the Catholic Church.
- Heretical — These are false, un-christian teachings and are to be rejected by Christians.
A teaching must satisfy the following conditions to be an essential, core Christian truth ...
- The topic is clearly addressed in the New Testament and is emphasized. The interpretation is clear from the scripture.
- The topic is addressed by the Church Fathers in councils with representation by orthodox bishops from the main patriarchates (Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem).
- There was no significant interference by a secular ruler.
- There was unanimous agreement by the Church Fathers.
- There was no political coercion by popes or others.
I discuss which teachings satisfy these conditions in another article.
Non-Catholic Christians should feel free to accept whichever non-essential teachings they choose. (Catholics must accept the teachings of the Catholic Church.) We should not think less of other Christians who choose differently than we do.
How to Know what is True |
It Must Be True