Great Apostasy

The Great Apostasy is a term of opprobrium used by some religious groups to allege a general fallen state of traditional Christianity, or especially of Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy: that it is not representative of the faith founded by Jesus Christ through his twelve Apostles. This view is not of course shared by the churches so accused.

Table of contents
1 Non-Catholic view of history
2 Lutherans and Calvinists
3 Anglicans and Episcopalians
4 Anabaptists
5 Adventists
6 Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
7 Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy
8 References

Non-Catholic view of history

All non-Catholic and non-Orthodox Christian denominations have formally taught that at some point in history, the original teachings and practices of the primitive or original Christian church were greatly altered. All of these denominations see their teachings as significant corrections of the errors of the Catholic and Orthodox tradition, and for this reason believe that their continuation outside of the Catholic/Orthodox communion is not only justifiable, but a necessary expression of Christian faith. These groups also differ among themselves concerning their perception of the types and the extent of error, and therefore their proposed corrections also differ, but all agree that the Catholic tradition is to some important degree corrupted, and apostate in the sense that it will not or cannot be reformed. This alleged corruption and resistance to reform, by the Catholic churches, may sometimes be called The Great Apostasy by non-Catholics. See also: Protestant Reformation, Heresy.

Some groups see themselves as uniquely the restoration of original Christianity. In their case, the term, Great Apostasy, is used more technically than above, directed in a sweeping way over all of so-called Christianity beyond their group, indicating that true Christianity has not been preserved, but is restored in themselves. These various groups differ as to exactly when the Great Apostasy took place and what the exact errors or changes were, however all of them make a similar claim that true Christianity was generally lost until it was disclosed again in themselves. The term Great Apostasy appears to have been coined in this narrower, technical sense, by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The term may sometimes be used in this sense by other groups claiming their unique authority as representing Christianity in its original purity over against the devastation of the truth in so-called Christianity, or in the Catholic churches in particular. See also: Restorationism, Whore of Babylon.

The kinds and extent of corruption believed by various groups to have taken place in the Christian Church, which may be called The Great Apostasy, is described below.

Lutherans and Calvinists

Lutherans and Calvinistss have taught that a gradual process of corruption was predicted and evident, even in the New Testament, which finally reached a culminating stage and brought about the Protestant Reformation. The Orthodox and Catholic church had developed from early on, an idea that the Church may speak entirely without error in particular councils or edicts; or that, in a less definable way, the Church is infallibly directed so that it always stands in the truth; and indeed, that the Church has the promise of Christ that it shall do so. In contrast, the Protestants claimed that the Church since the Apostles only speaks infallibly in the Scriptures, and should not expect to be completely free of error at any time until the end of the world, but rather must remain continually vigilant to maintain a biblical (and therefore, authoritative) doctrine and faith, or else fall away from the Christian faith and become an enemy of the truth.

In the Reformation view of church history, the true church cannot declare itself infallible, but rather calls itself ecclesia semper reformanda ("the church always reforming"), the church that is always repenting of error. This Protestant view is that people are naturally inclined to elevate tradition to equality with the written testimony of the Bible, which is the word of God. The reforming churches believe that human weakness is naturally drawn to a form of false religion that is worldly, pompous, ritualistic, anthropomorphic, polytheistic, infected with magical thinking, and that values human accomplishment more highly or more practically than the work of God (grace ) is valued. Given the chance, people will substitute the sort of religion they naturally prefer, over the Gospel. The Hebrew Bible contains multiple episodes of backsliding by the very people who first received God's revelation; to the Protestant mind, this shows that teaching the Gospel is a straight and narrow path, one that requires that natural religion be held in check and that God's grace, holiness, and otherness be rigorously proclaimed.

Temptations of power

According to these Reformers, even as early as the Apostles a natural process of corruption began, and reached a crucial point of development when the Christian church was made the official religion of the Roman Empire by the Emperor Constantine. From this point on, compromise of the truth deepened over time until the church became thoroughly worldly and corrupt, so that the true faith was first no longer openly taught, and instead suppressed, and at times persecuted, and cast out. The persecuted church was attractive to rejected people; but worldly men were attracted to the same church when it began to wield power and possessions. Protestants also believe that the Roman Emperors were not about to support a church that they did not control. The development of formal hierarchy within the Catholic Church, as opposed to local autonomy among Christian congregations, with levels of rank among the bishops, and a handful of patriarchs to supervise the bishops, is seen by Protestants as conducive to imperial manipulation of the Church, susceptible to general control by capture of only a few seats of power.

Similarly, the defenses of the right belief and worship of the church resided in the bishops, and Protestants theorize that the process of unifying the doctrine of the Church also concentrated power into their own hands, and made their office an instrument of power coveted by ambitious men. They charge that, through ambition and jealousy, the church has been at times, and not very subtly, subverted from carrying out its sacred aim. For the Reformers, the culmination of this gradual corruption was typified, in a concentrated way, in the office of the Pope, which they characterized in its final form as being a usurpatious throne of Satanic authority set up in pretense of ruling over the kingdom of God.

The dangers of theology

Theological controversy also had a polluting effect, according to this view of Apostasy as a gradual process, rather than a cataclysmic event. That is, in the process of defending the received truth, the Church became sullied by the engagements with its opponents both outside and within the Church. To reject errors, specific arguments were designed which were effective against the opposition; but which contained imbalances and exaggerations, or disguised accommodations to error.

For example, the Church defeated paganism, but it could be argued that in the process it became subtly sympathetic with the opponent, and susceptible to incorporating attitudes and traditions which are foreign to the biblical faith. Or, for another case, in the process of overcoming Arianism's religious hero-worship of Jesus, perhaps the church absorbed hero-worshipping ideas, so that, while the doctrine of Christ was rescued from the heresy, the same idea continued in the adoration of the Saints. This corruption was not necessarily intentional; although in some cases, it's suggested, teachers of error brought in these pollutions deceitfully in order to escape detection.

Compromise with natural religion

Especially in the worship of the Church, the Reformers viewed the Roman Catholic Mass as an amalgam of superstitious inventions more reminiscent of a pagan mystery rite, than of the simple discipline taught by the apostles and practiced by the early church. Protestants tend to think of many of the Catholic Holy days, and most of the rituals, as accommodations to the popular tastes of unconverted people through the centuries, incompatible with biblical faith. Natural tastes for pomp and ceremony, and the sort of natural belief in mana and fetishism that seem universal in unrevealed religions, and the natural man's wish to have sacred places to pray in, and sacred objects that enable mortals to touch the divine, tempted people away from the truth of the absolute sovereignty, holiness, and otherness of God. The Church was failing at its teaching mission and made too easy accommodations to practices that folk religion could accept in this erroneous fashion.

Descent into true apostasy

Although Lutherans and Calvinists hold that the Ecumenical Councils of the early and medieval church are true expressions of the Christian faith, they assert that the councils are inconsistent with one another, and err on particular points. The true Church, they argue, will be mixed with alien influences and false beliefs, which is necessary in order for these impurities ultimately to be overcome and the truth to be vindicated. But in Rome's case, in the arbitrary authority presumed by the bishops, and the Catholic doctrines of infallibility, the final result was a dark epitome of falsehood, an ideal model of rebellion against God.

The Westminster Confession of Faith (Calvinist), states:

The purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated, as to become no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan. Nevertheless, there shall be always a church on earth, to worship God according to his will. ''(25:5)

Therefore, although these groups believe that errors can and have come into the church, they deny that there has ever been a time when the truth was entirely lost. They affirm that there shall be times when errors shall predominate, as they believe is foretold in the Bible. First Timothy 4:1-3 states:

Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils;
Speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron;
Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth. (KJV)

According to this view, these verses foretold the rise of errors, among which they count the veneration of relics, saints and the Blessed Virgin Mary, importing polytheism, idolatry, and fetishism into Christianity; these are the "seducing spirits and doctrines of devils."

"Speaking lies in hypocrisy" and "having their conscience seared with a hot iron" were held to refer to the general corruption of the Church as it became heir to the Roman Emperors and claimed to rule an earthly kingdom, and its prelates became authoritarian lords of civil government, achieving a social rank never sought by Jesus himself. (Gospel of John 18:36) The "searing of the conscience" was interpreted as referring to the Roman Catholic development of casuistry that sought to justify these various acts, and to excuse the sins of the powerful in exchange for gifts of land and money.

The "forbidding to marry" and the "commanding to abstain from meats" (foods) refer to the elaborate code, or canon of the Roman Catholic Church, involving priestly celibacy, Lent, and similar rules promulgated by the medieval church. The Reformers thought these rules were legalism and inappropriate impositions on the believers.

2 Thessalonians 2:3-12 was held also to refer to a coming great apostasy. This text announces that the Second Coming of Christ and the gathering of the church to him, cannot come:

unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God.

These were held to be prophecies of the Pope's claim to infallibility and to be the Vicar of Christ, sitting in Christ's seat and in Christ's stead. This interpretation is the source of the traditional identification of the Pope as Antichrist, which occurs throughout Protestant literature of the Reformation period and afterwards.

The end result

In this view, it would be difficult to set a clear dividing line as to when the widespread Apostasy began. It was a gradual process of corruption, as venal and materialistic leaders came into the Church, in love with their own high office and authority; and more and more pagan gods were baptised as alleged saints and offered to the congregation for veneration. The Great Apostasy surely was complete, for purposes of the Reformers, when the Council of Trent emphatically rejected even a modified form of Protestant reformation for the Roman Catholic Church. The ultramontane tendencies of Rome continued to increase until at least the First Vatican Council, with its proclamation of both papal infallibility and papal absolutism, down to early twentieth century changes in canon law that make it more clear today than it was in the past that the Pope is the absolute monarch of the Roman Catholic Church, answerable to no council, no other bishop, and indeed to no other man. The Second Vatican Council, however, may mark a partial retreat from these positions.

It is also important to note that this view of the general Apostasy does not mean that the Gospel had lost its power to save, or that all Christians during this time were denied Heaven; rather, the Reformers characterized the papacy and the hierarchy of priests, as a usurpatious government pretending to rule over the kingdom of God. God's grace preserved the true teachings and the Bible intact despite the corruption of those who were supposed to be official spokesmen for Christendom.

"Roman Apostasy" less commonly, or differently, taught today

Most mainstream Protestant churches have backed away from, or at least no longer emphasise this teaching, which is now felt to be divisive, and to belong to the more vehement quarrels of another day. Conservative and fundamentalist churches insisted on these teachings the longest, and some still do, especially among the stricter Calvinists and Lutherans. The rise of dispensationalism as a widely held doctrine among Protestant fundamentalists has resulted in a re-interpretation of the end times; and while they may continue to believe that the Roman Church errs, they are less likely to believe that the Pope is Antichrist. Dispensationalists generally view passages such as 2 Thessalonians (referenced above) as referring to a reconstructed Temple in Jerusalem, in the last days. The great "Falling Away", they tend to view as a present or future affair, in which not only Rome but all of the world's religions join against the truth, for the sake of a false peace and prosperity.

For an extensive, 18th century, Protestant perspective on the Great Apostasy, see the treatment on that subject by the German historian J. L. Mosheim, a Lutheran, whose six volume work in Latin on Ecclesiastical History is referred to by some protestants who emphasize a great apostasy.

Anglicans and Episcopalians

The reception of the Reformation views of a general falling away from the Christian faith, by the Church of England and other churches of the Anglican and Episcopalian denomination is a historically complex subject. As a state church, the Church of England attempted to unite all the people of England in a single church. However, the English disagreed amongst themselves about the retention of various ceremonies of Roman Catholicism, and about Arminian versus Calvinist theologies.

Political issues shaped English attitudes towards Roman Catholicism. As a result of attacks by the Popes on the legitimacy of the English monarchy, which bore fruit in attacks such as the Spanish Armada, and the martyrdoms of the English Inquisition under "Bloody" Mary many English people were disposed to see Roman Catholicism as a hostile authoritarian force, associated with the divine right of kings and arbitrary rule by the monarchy. On the other hand, the Stuart monarchs wished to play the royal game of marriages to cement political alliances with Continental powers, including Roman Catholic monarchs.

To oversimplify greatly, there arose a "high church" party within the Church of England and a "low church" party allied with Puritanism. The high church party had Anglo-Catholic and Arminian tendencies, and wished to continue at least some of the pageantry of Roman Catholic ritual. The low church party was Calvinist and wished to move the Church of England in the direction of the Reformed churches. The low church party, occasionally called the Evangelical wing, was much more open to the vehement language of the Continental reformers about the Great Apostasy than was the more liturgical, high church party.

Officially, churches of the Anglican persuasion teach that Rome has fallen into error. The Thirty-Nine Articles provide that:

  • 19. Of the Church
. . .
As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred; so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.

  • 21. Of the Authority of General Councils
General Councils may not be gathered together without the commandment and will of Princes. And when they be gathered together, (forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and Word of God,) they may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God. Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of holy Scripture.

(This Article was abrogated in 1801.)

  • 22. Of Purgatory
The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping and Adoration, as well of Images as of Relics, and also Invocation of Saints, is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.

The churches of England therefore officially teach that the Roman Catholic Church has fallen into error and incorporated sinful practices into its worship. The stress any given Anglican will put on these teachings will depend on where that person fits into the continuum of Anglo-Catholicism versus Anglo-Protestantism. Modern efforts of reconciliation have gone a long way toward reversal of former hostilities between Anglican churches, and the Catholic and Orthodox communions.

Anabaptists

The Anabaptists of the Protestant Reformation believe that the Church became corrupt when Constantine ended the persecution of Christians with the Edict of Milan, and was not recovered until the Anabaptists came along. Other Reformers set other dates or time periods when the Church became less than the true Church, making it necessary for them to leave the Roman Catholic Church in order to re-establish the true Church and begin again. Several groups, including some Baptists and Mennonites, believe that besides the Great Apostasy there has also always been a "little flock", a "narrow way" which struggled through persecution and remained faithful to the truth. For example, the Mennonites published a book called the Martyrs Mirror in the 18th (17th??) century that attempts to show that exclusive Believers Baptism was practiced in every century, and how those who held that belief were persecuted for it.

Christians in Military Service and Political Office

Philosopher Jacques Ellul, in his book "Anarchy and Christianity", mentions a dramatic shift in AD 313, at the Council of Elvira. Christians who held public office were no longer cast out of the church entirely as apostates, but were only cast out for as long as they were holding office. At the Synod of Arles in 314, Christian pacifism was totally reversed; the third canon excommunicated soldiers who refused military service, or who mutinied. The seventh canon of that same council allowed Christians to be state officials, as long as they didn't take part in pagan acts. With this, Ellul sees the end of the original anti-statist, anti-militarist, anarchist Christianity. However, accounts of martyred Christian soldiers from the 100s, 200s and early 300s indicate that Christians were allowed to continue serving in the Roman army provided they did not sacrifice to the Roman gods, and that therefore the original church may not have been as anti-militarist as Ellul supposes. Ignatius of Antioch's letters from the 100s, the use of deacons in the Acts of the Apostles and Paul's pastoral epistles describing deacons, elders and overseers suggest that the early church was not anarchist in the way it governed itself internally.

Adventists

Jehovah's Witnesses consider the Great Apostasy to have properly begun after the death of the last apostle, although there were warning signs, precursors, starting shortly after Christs ascension. They consider the key indicator of the apostasy to be the adoption of the Trinity, based on a specious application of Greek Platonic and sophistical philosophy to the simple message of the scriptures. Paul in one of his Epistles warned the Greek congregations about being too clever by half with the contents of the Bible. The apostasy is considered to have become complete and total with the Council of Nicaea, when the Nicene Creed was adopted, enshrining the Trinity doctrine as orthodoxy. Most other Adventist groups in the Millerite tradition hold similar beliefs about the Great Apostasy. Some of these, most notably the Seventh-day Adventist Church, retain a belief in the Trinity and therefore don't see the Council of Nicaea as an apostate council as judged on this issue of doctrine. However, they along with many other Millerites have traditionally held that the apostate church which gathers for worship on Sunday, instead of the Sabbath, bears the Mark of the Beast.

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

According to the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), popularly known to outsiders as "Mormons", the Great Apostasy started not long after Jesus' ascension and continued until Joseph Smith's First Vision in 1820. To Latter-day Saints, the Great Apostasy is marked by:

Beginning in the 1st century and continuing up to the 4th century A.D. the various emperors of the Roman Empire carried out occasional violent persecutions against Christians whose beliefs conflicted with Roman customs. Apostles, bishops, disciples and other leaders and followers of Jesus Christ who would not compromise their Christian faith were persecuted and martyred. The succession of persecutions after a couple hundred years was so successful that near the end of the 3rd century under the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, monuments were erected memorializing the extinction of Christianity.

According to the Latter-day Saints, all Priesthood leaders holding authority to conduct and perpetuate the affairs of the Christian church were either martyred or taken from the earth. Latter-day Saints conclude that what survived the persecutions was not the Church of Jesus Christ but merely a fragment of what Jesus had established; that is, Christianity continued but not in its original form. Survivors of the persecutions were overly-influenced by various pagan philosophies either because they were not as well doctrinated in Jesus' teachings or they corrupted their Christian beliefs (willingly or by compulsion) by accepting non-Christian doctrines into their faith.

Latter-day Saints interpret various writings in the New Testament as an indication that even soon after Jesus' ascension the apostles struggled to keep early Christians from distorting Jesus' teachings and to prevent the followers from dividing into different ideological groups. However, some of those who survived the persecutions took it upon themselves to speak for God, interpret, amend or add to his doctrines and ordinances, and carry out his work without being called by him or his agents and without authority to do so. During this time without the aid of Priesthood leaders and continuing revelation, precious doctrines and ordinances were lost and corrupted. Latter-day Saints point to the doctrine of the Trinity adopted at the Council of Nicaea as an example of how pagan philosophy corrupted the teachings of Jesus. (Mormonism teaches that God and His son, Jesus, are not one substance, but distinct personages.) The Latter-day Saints reject the early ecumenical councils for what they see as misguided human attempts without divine assistance to decide matters of doctrine, substituting democratic debate or politics for prophetic revelation. The proceedings of such councils were evidence to them that the church was no longer led by revelation and divine authority.

Thus, Latter-day Saints refer to the restitution of all things mentioned in Acts 3:20-21 and claim that a restoration of all the original and primary doctrines and ordinances of Christianity was needed and happened through Joseph Smith. Latter-day Saints recognize that through the decades, other religions (Christian or otherwise) have a portion of the truth, but their doctines mingle false teachings with correct ones. They claim through the restoration of the original church The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has the authentic Priesthood authority and all of the doctrines and ordinances of the Gospel.

The leading LDS work on the Great Apostasy is James E. Talmage's The Great Apostasy. See also Apostasy from The Divine Church by James L. Barker.

Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy

Both the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church believe that they are still in harmony with the teachings and practices given by Jesus Christ to the Apostles, and that Christ's promise has in fact been fulfilled: "On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it." And elsewhere, "I will be with you until the end of the age." They point to their apostolic succession as evidence that they are maintaining the church's traditional teachings and practices. They see claims of a complete and general apostasy as a denial that Christ has been with the Church through the centuries, and as a denial that the Church has stood firm as Christ promised it would. They also affirm that their ecclesiastic structure and liturgical practices have their essential roots in the teachings of the first apostles, rather than being the result of radical changes introduced by the imperial government or new converts in the fourth century. In fact, most of the teachings of the Eastern Orthodox Church can be traced back to the first and second centuries in the writings of Church Fathers. In the writings of Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tatian, Athenagoras, the Didache, etc. there is found information about the sacraments, Church structure, etc. The Great Apostasy must then have come extremely early in the Church's history if it were to have happened.

Instead, both Catholicism and Orthodoxy see much of Protestantism as having jettisoned a lot of Christian teaching and practice wholesale in an exaggerated attempt to avoid any possibility of "pollution", thereby at best spiritually impoverishing themselves.

Catholic view of history

Protestants often assume that practices that seem especially strange to them, such as fasting, veneration of relics and icons, honoring the Virgin Mary, and observing special holy days, must have been introduced after the time of Constantine. Documents from the pre-Constantine church often show otherwise. Fasting was taken for granted by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount ("When you fast..."), and the Didache or "Teaching of the Twelve" instructs Christians to fast from meat on every Wednesday and Friday, a practice the Orthodox Church continues to this day. The catacomb church was surrounded by relics of necessity, but accounts of early martyrdoms show that Christians regularly sought the remains of the martyrs for proper burial and veneration. Many of these early accounts associate miracles with the relics; this is also mentioned in Acts when Peter's handkershiefs were taken to the sick and healed when they touched them. The Infancy Gospel of James is attributed to James the Just but was certainly written no later than the second century; it lays out additional details of Mary's life and provides much of the basis for the church's teaching regarding her. The practice of observing special holy days was borrowed from the Jews, who were commanded to observe such days by God; the same is true of other practices as well.

Thus, it appears to Catholic and Orthodox Christians that their critics either assume that some or most of these practices were introduced in the fourth century or later; or have confidence in the superiority of their modern interpretation of Biblical revelation as against the traditions of any age.

Worldly ambitions

There have certainly been times when the Church has seemingly benefited from its affiliation with the ruling government at the time, and vice versa. There are also times in its history when the Church has taken a doctrinal stance directly contrary to the interests of the State. The Council of Chalcedon introduced a religious schism that undermined the Byzantine Empire's unity. The Emperor called the following Ecumenical Council in an attempt to reach a compromise position that all parties could accept, urging those involved to do so. A compromise was not reached, and the schism persisted. Later emperors introduced policies of iconoclasm; yet many Christians and Church leaders resisted for decades, eventually triumphing when a later Empress (Irene) came to power who was sympathetic to their cause. In Russia, Basil "Fool for Christ" repeatedly stood up to Ivan the Terrible, denouncing his policies and calling him to repentance; for this and other reasons this poor beggar was buried in the cathedral that now popularly bears his name in Moscow. The Greek Orthodox Church survived roughly 400 years under the Muslim Ottoman Empire, preserving its faith when it would have been socially advantageous to convert to Islam. More recently, in the twentieth century the Russian Orthodox Church survived 70+ years of brutal persecution under the Communist atheists. It would be more correct to say that there have been times when the State has seen that it was to its advantage to cooperate with the Church and adjusted accordingly, than the reverse. More importantly, there can be clearly seen a consistency in teaching beginning from the persecuted church of the first few centuries, to the more established church of the Roman Empire, to the again persecuted church under various Muslim, Mongol and later atheist rulers.

Theological dangers

In response to the claim that the church's response to one heresy led to an overcorrection in the opposite direction, it can only be admitted that this is always a real danger, and history provides abundant examples. One famous example is Nestorius, the Patriarch of Constantinople who so vigorously defended the truth of Christ's humanity that he undermined the truth of Christ's divinity; see Nestorianism. Over the course of centuries, Orthodoxy and Catholicism believe that the Church's leaders have on the whole navigated between opposing errors, on occasion providing subtle corrections or restatements of earlier doctrines. Some Church fathers have suggested that the abundance and variety of early controversies were a blessing, in that they enabled the Church to deal with most or all of the major questions surrounding the Christian faith in a relatively brief period of human history. Protestants who ignore or attack the historic church's conclusions are at best bound to fight the same fights all over again, running the same risk of overcorrecting in response to current doctrinal disputes.

Compounding this risk of overcorrection is the growing propensity among protestants to split into different denominations when serious disagreements arise. This risks having two groups where there was only one, one or both of whom err in different directions, rather than a single group that adheres to the truth without deviating to either (or any) extreme on the issue. Some protestant denominations avoid this more successfully than others. Of those that avoid further schism, many of these ignore doctrinal differences within their ranks and just play down the importance of the issue, which eventually leads to a greater variety of beliefs within the denomination. This variety, and toleration of greater and greater differences in belief, has resulted in further deviations from historic Christianity.

Natural or Popular Religion

Many liturgical practices and beliefs are presumed to be adapted from pagan customs or human preferences, when in fact they are in many cases carried over from Temple Judaism, which practices most Christians believe were first given to Moses and the high priests by God. The idea of setting aside specific places as holy, treating certain items used in the worship of God with reverence, all go back to the Hebrew Temple worship, and to the visions the Bible records of what worship in Heaven looks like, not just to pagan ideas about "mana". The Roman Catholic Mass or Orthodox Divine Liturgy in many respects more closely resembles the Temple sacrifice than anything modern Jews practice. In other cases, local customs have been deliberately adapted and embued with Christian meaning in an effort to keep the Church incarnate and accessible to local Christians. When worship involves the use of the entire body, and all the senses, the Orthodox believe this becomes very helpful in learning to actively love God with all their "mind, soul, heart and strength" as God commands. Restricting worship to a mental exercise removes the "strength" element of loving God. Prohibiting the use of material, created objects in giving worship to the Creator, is to condemn all the sacrifices offered by the holy men and women recorded in the Old Testament and elsewhere. It also appears to reflect the subset of Gnostic beliefs that all material things of this world are inherently evil, or at best temporary, and that only invisible, spiritual thoughts and actions can draw us closer to God. The Church has always fought against this idea, beginning with its first and second century controversies with the Gnostics of that day. Instead it affirms that all Creation was made good, and while it has since become corrupt, it is being redeemed by continually offering it back to God. The epitomy of this action occurs in the Eucharistic sacrifice, which represents the offering of ourselves, all that we have, and the entire world back to God.

Again, while it is always difficult to discern which elements of culture are compatible with Christianity or can be redeemed and which must be abandoned, Protestants continue to grapple with the same issues today, especially in missions work when they attempt to bring the Gospel to cultures that haven't heard it before. And they do it largely without the benefit of two millennia of experience that the historic Christian faith has to offer.

Compare Whore of Babylon.

References


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