Does studying church history lead a person to support Roman Catholic doctrine?

Q. I appreciated your writing on pre- and post-millenialism. I thought it was very interesting. Thank you. You have a Ph.D. in Church History. What do you think of this video? Thank you for your time.

In the video in question, a Presbyterian minister who has converted to Catholicism is interviewing a Baptist minister who has also converted to Catholicism. The Baptist actually grew up Methodist, but he changed denominations when he got married. Divisions arose in his family over the doctrinal differences between the two denominations. He realized that the differences were due to the way people were interpreting the Bible, and he wondered who had the authority to say how the Bible should be interpreted.

He also started studying church history and through these studies, he says, he first began to be persuaded of Roman Catholic doctrine. He quotes John Henry Newman, an Anglican who became Catholic, to the effect that “to be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.” In other words, the claim is that if you really understand what followers of Jesus have believed from the start and for most of their history, you see that Catholics have it right and Protestants don’t.

As someone who, as you noted, has earned a Ph.D. in church history, I do not find this claim convincing. (Full disclosure: I am a Protestant.) What I have seen instead is that throughout history, different understandings of various doctrines have continually been arising within the community of Jesus’ followers. And it is not always the earliest understandings that have been carried forward into Catholic teaching today. To give just one example, the split between the Catholic and Orthodox churches was occasioned by the addition, by Western popes, of a phrase to the Nicene Creed, so that it then stated that the Holy Spirit proceeded “from the Father and the Son.”

The Orthodox churches objected more to the Pope adding this phrase to the creed unilaterally than they did to the phrase itself. The creed had been adopted by a council of all the bishops of the church, and they felt that if it were going to be changed, this could only be done by a similar council. But this illustrates the essential issue here: the question is not so much who has the authority to interpret Scripture (though Catholics grant this authority to the Magisterium or official teaching of the church), but who has the authority or power to enforce various interpretations. The Pope, it turned out, did not have the power to keep the Orthodox churches in line, and this caused a split that lasted nearly a thousand years and was only reconciled relatively recently.

We might say that the Pope at the time of the Reformation similarly did not have the power or authority to bring the new Protestant groups back under Rome’s doctrinal control, and another split occurred that has persisted to this day. One difference is that while the Orthodox churches remained essentially unified in their understandings, the Protestant groups have continued to split and bicker. So I can certainly understand how someone would want an authority to step in and say, “This is how we’re going to understand things,” and be comfortable finding that authority in the Catholic Magisterium.

But that’s different from saying that this authority is reflecting what followers of Jesus have basically believed from the start and in almost all places and times. Actually, the Catholic Church as we know it today dates essentially from the Council of Trent in the mid-16th century, when the variety of practices then in use were standardized. Before that, the Catholic Church itself exhibited great diversity, as frankly it still does in many respects today.

In conclusion, I have no problem with people being on a spiritual pilgrimage as followers of Jesus that leads them to find a new home in a different denomination. I have no problem with Protestants, even Protestant clergy, converting to Catholicism if they come to find their heart’s home there. But I am a bit uncomfortable with the way this video speaks of the Roman Catholic communion as the “true church,” as if Protestant expressions of Christianity were somehow “false,” and of converts “coming home,” as if those of us who remain Protestant are still wandering off somewhere. Let’s recognize all sincere followers of Jesus as “true” Christians, honor one another’s convictions, and make sure that we explore and discuss our differences peacefully and respectfully.


Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

4 thoughts on “Does studying church history lead a person to support Roman Catholic doctrine?”

  1. Much as Protestants try to subscribe to the Bible where the mention of Lord Jesus is limited and only through the Holy Spirit that brings them into the fold of the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles to the real understanding of Christianity. The Catholics are mainly lead to believe the ultimate of the Catholic church via the rules of the church leaning more towards the mother of Christ. Yes, interpretations differs. The question of “Christianity” must hold supreme…irregardless of which church you go to. My two cents worth.

  2. I’m currently reading about the history of the Eastern Roman Empire (commonly called Byzantine by us), and when the split between the Roman Catholic church and the Orthodox church came up, I found myself thinking that the Orthodox church sounded “righter” – that the five patriarchs (Rome, Antioch, Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Constantinople) were *together* the “head” of the church, rather than one having primacy over the others, and that a change to the creed should be made by council, as you mentioned. Also, in the Orthodox realm, the church was kept more separate from the state, it seems. Due to the power vacuum in the Western part of the Roman empire after its collapse, popes began to take on more of a political role, and to engage in governance that included military activity. In the East, by contrast, when one emperor tried to persuade the patriarch of Constantinople to label all soldiers who died fighting Islamic soldiers as “martyrs”, the patriarch refused, rejecting the notion of a “holy warrior”. I imagine him thinking, “If you want to fight, you do that on your own authority – not that of Jesus.” I wonder if the Church of Rome’s more militant “culture” is sort of the reason (as in, the origin of the fact) that many Western Christians today accept an idea of “Just War Theory” rather than pacifism.

    1. I don’t know what contribution the culture of the Church of Rome may have made to Just War Theory, but I do know that its two greatest theologians, Augustine and Aquinas, made significant intellectual contributions to that theory, and I think their influence is still being felt across Western Christianity.

      1. Well, Augustine was before the split between East and West, so I guess it got going early on, then. I don’t know why I had assumed that it was a later development.

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