What did the Apostles teach, and how can we know it?
That’s a key question that divides Protestants and Catholics. In my recent rebuttal of James White’s statements, I focused on correctly summarizing the Catholic and Protestant paradigms of authority, including the doctrine of Apostolic Succession and the Protestant belief sometimes called apostolicity.
Here I want to focus on White’s second statement:
We only know what the Apostles taught, from the New Testament.
White went on to add that because never once had any of his Catholic interlocutors produced writings from the Apostles beyond the New Testament, that means that the twenty-seven books of the NT are all that we know.
For this post, leave aside the question of how (or whether) Protestants know the New Testament contains those exact twenty-seven books (no more and no less).
Praise for Copts, Condemnation for Catholics
In response to the horrific murders by ISIS of twenty-one Coptic Christians, White wrote a blog post where, alongside some laudable statements, he both vilified Catholics for allegedly giving Muslims the wrong idea about Christianity–indicating Catholics worship crucifixes–and praised the “vital faith” of many “Coptic Christians” he has known. White wrote:
To my Muslim readers: I know you see Roman Catholics prostrating before crucifixes and praying and lighting candles. And you think that represents Christianity. Please, think with me: what represents Islam, if not that which is truly and fully in accord with the Qur’an? Look at the Christian scriptures: you will never find them invoking worship of anyone but God….We worship only one God, and we do not worship the cross.
Of course, this is a strawman fallacy: the Catholic Church teaches that God alone should be worshiped, and not a statue or crucifix or saint or any created thing. When considering Catholic claims, you must look to what she teaches, and not to what you may imagine or want to be true when you see a Catholic light a candle.
If you see a Catholic kneeling before a crucifix, it does not mean they are worshiping a piece of wood or metal; rather, the crucifix calls to mind our Savior Jesus Christ and they are worshiping Him.
Connecting the Dots
The New Testament goes into almost no detail about what the Christian worship service should look like. What is the structure of it? The order? What is read or not read? How are bread and wine used? What words are said? Who has the authority to preside over the worship service?
As a result, Protestant worship services vary widely. Some do some type of Lord’s Supper with bread and wine (or crackers and juice), some don’t do it, or do it less frequently. Some are more liturgical–more on this later–some just have praise and worship music plus a long sermon. Protestant denominations have even split over whether playing a piano is acceptable in the service.
Similarly, how many ordinances or sacraments are there, and what do they each do (or not do)? Protestants differ from Catholics on these questions, but also differ from each other on them (see, for example, the wide differences in doctrine surrounding the Eucharist).
And yet, the Coptic Church, which broke in schism from the Church in the 400s, looks and believes very similarly to the Catholic Church. Their “worship service” is the Liturgy, one which resembles closely Eastern Catholic liturgies, as well as the Divine Liturgies of Eastern Orthodoxy.
The Coptic Church, like the Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Churches, also recognizes seven sacraments, Apostolic Succession, the intercession of the saints, the veneration of Mary as Theotokos, prayers for the faithful departed, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and many other ancient doctrines.
In short, the Coptic Church is light years closer to Catholicism than it is to Protestantism.
If someone wishes to condemn Catholics for their their lit candles and crosses, their kneeling and prostration, then to be consistent one must condemn the Coptic Church for their Coptic crosses and lit candles and Liturgies, along with their other beliefs that align with Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.
So how is it that these different Churches, even ones that broke in schism early on in the Church’s history, all teach substantially similar things and have substantially similar Liturgies, even though the New Testament does not describe these things in detail?
One possibility is that the Church became corrupted early on, across the entire world, in peculiarly the same way.
Though the Christian worship service was not described in the New Testament, all the Apostles, wherever they planted Churches and practiced the Faith, somehow transmitted corrupted Liturgies that closely resembled one another (and that bear little resemblance to the vast majority of Protestant services, especially Evangelical, non-denominational, and Baptist ones).
That’s one possibility, reminiscent of the Mormon Great Apostasy theory. Another possibility exists however, one that is much more plausible and faithful to the Scriptures: These Churches have followed the Tradition of the Apostles. That Tradition includes truths passed down and lived out, like the shape and meaning of the Liturgy, like Apostolic Succession, like the sacraments–their number and meaning.
The New Testament, when interpreted accurately, certainly supports these practices and beliefs, but you cannot point to a list of verses that prove them to be true, or even describe them in detail.
The Apostles left more than just the New Testament; they left their Tradition as lived out in the life of the Church: the office of bishop as successor to the Apostle, the sacraments, the prayer life of the Church.
The Coptic Church provides strong evidence that all these teachings were not Catholic inventions and accretions of the Middle Ages. No, not at all. They were beliefs and practices from early on, from the Apostles themselves. They were found everywhere in the world where the Church had established itself. Hence, all the oldest Churches have strikingly similar Liturgies and beliefs on the sacraments and Apostolic Succession.
So, in fact, the New Testament is not the only place that the Apostolic teaching can be found; it is also found in the living Tradition of the Church. Protestants, you are invited to come and join the fullness of this Apostolic truth! Pray for the grace to be open to believing it.