Revolutions and Apostasies
As discussed in my previous post, for every revolution or reformation in the church, there is a counter-reformation. For the past five hundred years, thousands of groups have popped up exclaiming, “Aha! We finally got it! This is the New Testament Church!” Of course all of that begs the question: why should I believe that you are the one who finally got it right? Isn’t there a bit of arrogance in that assumption?
Of course, for someone searching for something resembling the New Testament church, quite a bit of confusion can result as you have every group from the Baptists and Pentecostals to the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons claiming to be the New Testament church.
The Great Apostasy Theory
I’ve had many conversations with Christians about this topic. When asking, “When did the church get off track?” responses have included: as soon as Jesus ascended into Heaven, the disciples started messing things up; others date it at the death of the last apostle, John (this is quite common); and still others such as Frank Viola date it in his book Pagan Christianity at the time of Emperor Constantine*. I came to learn that this event of falling away is called the Great Apostasy. If you have grown up a Protestant like me, than you most likely believe in some version of the Apostasy.
Unfortunately, it is a necessary doctrine in order to justify a reformed church based solely on scripture. I have a few theological and logical problems with this idea:
- The Bible itself is a product of church tradition. Nowhere in the books of the Bible is a list of letters/books to be included in what should be called “The Bible.” It formed as a result of hundreds of years of dialogue.
- If Jesus is the head of the church, what does that say about him if he has an apostate bride (or at least had one for most of church history)?
- If Jesus truly picked the disciples and the church apostatized shortly after the death of John, then our only conclusion is that the disciples failed. If the men who walked with Jesus and wrote down his very words could not even train a second generation of Christians, then why should we trust any of their writings? They are obviously worthless. Again, that forces upon us a very low view of not only the disciples, but Jesus’ ability to pick competent leaders. In my view, that means that Jesus’ mission on earth also failed.
- If the Church apostatized during Constantine’s time, how can we trust our scriptures which were canonized by the Church hierarchy after the reign of Emperor Constantine? If the Church truly was steeped in paganism and was ruled by corrupt officials who were more interested in politics than religion, then we have no reason to hold fast to the New Testament canon. It can be a nice suggestion at best, but it has no authority and can be changed by anyone who feels they are less corrupt than the apostate leaders who canonized it. The Bible itself rests upon the authority of the Church that compiled it.
- Lastly, if the apostles failed to raise a second generation of Christians, or if it fell apart shortly after that, then we should logically conclude that Gamaliel was right when he said in Acts 5 that if this movement is not of God it will eventually fail. That means Martin Luther and Reformers were doing nothing more than attempting to revive a dead Jewish cult that followed a smooth-talking would-be messiah.
I feel that if we take the Great Apostasy to its logical conclusion, then we are forced to accept the idea that God has not done well in guiding his Church or that both He and His Church never existed in the first place. To see how I am trying to deal with all of this, continue on to my next post.
*To be fair, I haven’t read Mr. Viola’s book in a couple of years, and from what I remember he doesn’t actually call it the Great Apostasy, but the sum of all of the parts that he does teach equal something similar to the Apostasy. You can visit his site here to get his perspective.