I've mentioned the tremendous influence John Henry Newman had on me in my conversion to Catholicism. I want to go back now to Newman and the issue of history.
As a "Bible Christian", while I liked to read about Calvin and Luther, the history of the Reformation and of the Puritans, what Christians believed in the second, third, fourth and fifth centuries didn't matter too much to me. All that counted, really, was "what saith the scriptures?"
But over time the entire idea of "Bible-only" Christianity was coming under suspicion in my mind. I was discovering that "scripture alone" didn't seem to be the teaching of the New Testament. Rather, authority is described as residing in scripture, in the oral teaching of the apostles, and in the church, especially when it meets in council to settle disputes and define Christian teaching (cf. Acts 15).
Scripture alone certainly wasn't the belief and practice of the early church, where we find the apostolic fathers continually emphasizing the critical role of "tradition" in distinguishing true teaching from false.
And then there was Newman.
John Henry Newman was an Oxford scholar and Anglican minister so renown in his time that his sermons were printed out in the newspapers each week and read throughout England. He was one of the most brilliant Christian thinkers of the 19th century -- certainly one of the most brilliant I'd ever encountered. At the age of 45, he left the Anglican Church to enter the Roman Catholic Church.
I'm reading the defense he wrote of his decision, his Apologia pro Vita Sua. I'm reading his extraordinary Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. And here he is telling me that "to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant", that it's "easy to show" that the Christianity of history was not Protestantism, that if any church like the church I was pastoring at the time ever existed in the early centuries of the Christian history, there's no record of it.
This utter incongruity between Protestantism and historical Christianity is a plain fact, whether…regarded in its early or in its later centuries….
So much must the Protestant grant that, if such a system of doctrine as he would now introduce ever existed in early times, it has been clean swept away as if by a deluge, suddenly, silently, and without memorial.
And anyway, the writings of the fathers -- these are the writings of the first great saints, bishops, theologians, apologists and martyrs of the Christian Church. St. Irenaeus was a disciple of a man who was himself a disciple of John. We can't get any closer to the apostles.
Why not see what these men had to say?