Sunday, August 10, 2008

On Barnacles, Time Travel, and Ancient Christian Worship

Roman Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft recalls a conversation he had with his professor while a freshman at Calvin College during his last days as a Protestant. The professor explained that the Christian church is like Noah's ark floating through the water, and that over the course of centuries it had accumulated a huge number of barnacles attaching themselves to its hull. "All the reformers did," the professor explained, "was scrape the barnacles off and restore the ship to its original simplicity." In other words, all the elements of Catholic worship were medieval pagan accretions and completely foreign to biblical, New Testament Christianity.

Kreeft raised his hand and asked, "So you're telling us that if we could travel back in time with a Catholic and visit a service in an early church, that it will resemble a Protestant church rather than a Catholic one?" "Exactly," the professor replied.

Kreeft became excited about this claim because, not being a theologian himself, it still allowed him to put each tradition to the test of history. He writes:

"I thought this made the Catholic claim empirically testable, and I wanted to test it.... I discovered in the early Church such Catholic elements as the centrality of the Eucharist, the Real Presence, prayers to saints, devotion to Mary, an insistence on visible unity, and apostolic succession. Furthermore, the Church Fathers just 'smelled' more Catholic than Protestant, especially St. Augustine, my personal favorite and a hero to most Protestants too. It seemed very obvious that if Augustine, or Jerome, or Ignatius of Antioch, or Anthony of the Desert, or Justin Martyr, or Clement of Alexandria, or Athanasius were alive today they would be Catholics, not Protestants."
The way we Protestants respond to this kind of thing is to insist that the decline in Christian ecclesiology happened almost immediately upon the dawn of the post-apostolic period (you know, everyone attending John's funeral on Patmos suddenly decided to hail Mary and re-crucify Jesus).

Does this version of history hold up? How do we explain the seemingly early appearance of such doctrines as apostolic succession and the veneration of Mary?