"Proving" the Church has always taught X


It is a common demand to prove that the Church has always taught X, where X is some doctrine that Protestants disagree with (they never demand such proof for things they agree with :))

Of course in matters of faith, and even in matters of ancient history, we cannot offer proof, only evidence. So here is the generic line of evidence defending the claim that the Church has always taught X:

  1. There is ample evidence that the Magisterium of the Church has fought heresies when they have appeared, both through Councils and through Papal writings. I don’t think anybody would disagree with this.

  2. Heresies begin as local errors and spread. They do not come into existence full-blown and universal. Thus there is a time after a heresy begins when there are people who do not believe the heresy.

  3. At some point, it becomes a matter historical fact that doctrine X is taught in the Church.

  4. This just leaves the question, was X taught before that point in #3?

To claim YES (as Catholics do) without direct evidence (for we are before that point specified in #3), we rely on the facts #1 and #2, that the Church did and does fight heresy, and that no heresy can spread instantaneously. Therefore there must be a time in the life of every heresy when some portion of the Magisterium recognizes the heresy as a heresy. Thus the historical fact that the Church did not at that point attack the idea X is evidence that X was not considered a heresy by the Magisterium at the point it appeared in the historical record, and by implication, neither was it considered heresy at any previous point.

By contrast, to claim NO in the face of #1, #2 and #3, one must believe that the entire Church, which was at that time not teaching heresy, became suddenly incapable of recognizing heresy. It is to claim that, at the same time the Church was fighting some heresies, it began turing a blind eye to others. Such an abrupt and universal change behavior would be inexplicable.

Note carefully that in one sense both of these arguments, for YES and for NO, must be arguments from silence. Therefore it is no good to claim the other argument is argument from silence. That charge cuts both ways.

So, the question comes down to what is more reasonable to believe: That the Church did not attack “new” (in the historical record) idea X because it was already believed when it first entered the historical record, or that the (error-free until that moment) Church did not attack “new heresy” X because it was suddenly and totally incapable of recognizing a new heresy in its midst?

The former seems vastly more defensible in explaining the facts at hand than does the latter.


There’s one thing you’re missing – you’re assuming the infallibility of the Roman Catholic magisterium, at least to the extent of “they will always recognize and fight heresy”. This is a key point which many Protestants (including myself) don’t agree with.

Also, your proof is mostly an argument from silence in terms of affirmative teaching.


Then the caveman was asked if he had a reply to the psychologist’s psychobabble and the caveman replied, “Yeah…uh…WHAT?!”

No offense, but your answer reads like much of the Catholic texts I have read…wordy and convoluted…just my honest reaction, Vocimike.:blush:




Whoops – I missed reading that somehow. My apologies.

In that case, it’s a matter of “which makes more sense to me”, and we’re on to yet another round of inconclusivity. Not all that helpful. :frowning:


No, I don’t believe I am assuming anything regarding infallibility. At best I am assuming that an organization knows what it believes, and that it cannot change its beliefs overnight. What I have written would apply, I think, to any large and geographically spread-out organization which has some belief X. If X then appears in the historical record, but there is no record of the organization opposing X at that time, then the most reasonable explanation is that there was no opposition because X was already believed.

The alternative is that the organization really believed some other belief Y, but when X turned up on the scene they either could not or did not oppose X even though it was incompatible with their belief Y. And the job then is to explain why they did not oppose incompatible belief X, when at the very same time in history they were opposing other incompatible beliefs.


Well then, explain how it makes more sense that the Church would not oppose a new heresy. Guide us through the process of a new heresy arising and taking over the entire Church, a Church which was actively opposing other heresies, without any opposition. Because I can’t see how it could be the more reasonable conclusion to draw from the historical record.


No apology necessary, I was just being a smart-alec :o


VociMike, here’s my stab at explaining, at a very high level of generality, why a heresy or unsupportable doctrine could plausibly come to dominate a fallible church despite its sincere desire to maintain orthodoxy. (For purposes of this discussion, we have to assume the church is fallible, otherwise there’s no issue. If we assume it’s infallible, then it’s obviously correct and we don’t need to worry about the sorts of inferences you’re discussing.)

It’s the story of the instuitution that gradually yaws off course for reasons institutional, perhaps political, and perhaps to some extent even self-interested. There isn’t a moment when heresy X is introduced and inexplicably comes to dominate the institution; rather, a valid doctrine starts receiving a bit too much emphasis, and gets built on institutionally until it slowly departs from the original idea quite dramatically. For example, and it’s only an example, human institutions tend to adopt views that maximize the powers of those in positions of authority. Experience shows that you have to work really hard to stop institutions from gradually collecting more and more power, and things like internal checks and balances are often necessary. It’s at least a plausible story that a human institution could have perfectly pure motives but develop an institutional tendency to take expansive views of doctrines that (say) involve the powers attendant to certain offices. Then, these views could gradually build on themselves, adding new precedents – none in itself dramatically novel over all the precedents that came before – and the end result of this evolutionary process is an institution vastly different from the original. You don’t have to look past the history of the U.S. Supreme Court to see how activist judges have gradually added precedent upon precedent to create a Constitution dramatically at odds with the original meaning of the document in only 200 years. (Less in the case of many of the most significant amendments.)

For purposes of this discussion, I think all that matters is that this sort of story is at least intuitively plausible as an explanation for how an institution can gradually fall into error. It’s not that X springs up out of nowhere and is evaluated up or down in the abstract. It’s that X is the process of a gradual evolution into error, and no individual step along the path to X is crazy or absurd.

Sorry for the verbosity. I don’t know how well I’m putting this and I have a tendency to substitute more words for my own lack of clarity. But I think something like this general intuition plays a real role in the Protestant understanding of Church history, and it’s something you’ll want to give thought to no matter which way you come out on these issues.



:clapping: :clapping: :clapping:

Bravo. Seriously man, very well worded. You said it better than I could have myself. Thank you very much.


Hi CT,

You mention how areas of valid doctrine can start to receive too much emphasis, but that doesn’t explain to me how the Church can teach one doctrine at one time, and a completely opposing doctrine at a later time. It’s the theory of how to boil a frog, but there are Catholic doctrines which are not by any means just “more of the same” of the Protestant doctrine, as your explanation would suggest. Some Protestant/Catholic doctrinal differences would fit into your theory, but definitely not all of them.

Give me a possible script as to how this would have worked in the example of the Real Presence in the Eucharist. Assume that the original teaching was that the Eucharist was symbolic only, and then at some point the Church was teaching that the bread and wine did indeed become Christ. Show me how this 180 degree turnabout could happen under your theory, without anybody recording an objection.

I’m sorry, I just don’t see it.

Oh, and one thing you have overlooked is that the Church was fighting other heresies at the same time. How do you account for that?


A secular analogy is the Supreme Court. There are many things the Court has not ruled upon. Doesn’t mean they’re considered Constitutional. Doesn’t mean they’re not. It means the Court has not ruled on it. Gay marriage is a good example.

Where the analogy does break down is that the Court is very fallible, as it amply demonstrated with Roe v. Wade and its companion decisions.


HEY! Thats my job!!!


CThomas- well said! Verbose but comprehendible. :thumbsup:


Wait a minute. I am “wordy and convoluted” but CT is “verbose but comprehendible”? Now I am hurt. :crying:


The thing about Church doctrine is that it becomes more fleshed out,more fully articulated and thorough,more specific over the passage of time,in response to heresies and innovations and doubts. Doctrine sharpens itself against heresy and innovation,just as a man’s wits, opinions and beliefs are sharpened through arguing with other men who point out what they see as vagaries,inconsistencies,flaws.
Until a Church belief is attacked or challenged,whether from the inside or the outside,a doctrine will not fully articulated and delienated. Over the course of time,the Church theologians have had to think long and hard about what the Church believes,and why,in response to challenges to things that were before taken for granted as true,or were not fully explored. Knowledge about divine things and morality is clarified gradually over time.
So heretics and doubters are useful to the Church because they force the Church to search more deeply into the mysteries of the faith and to clarify what it believes.


Dear P. Please address your comments to the substance of what is being said. If you cannot follow it, then ask for clarity. The kind of comment you have made is an offence, even though you claim it is not. And it just starts a whole 'nuther avalanche of personal this-for-that which clogs up the threads. Good plan? Thank you!

To generalize that much of the Catholic texts you have read are wordy and convoluted is not helpful? Is this a comment on the texts themselves or on your ability to follow them?

Let’s make this thread unconvoluted, OK?

*]Do you agree with the OP? If so, then why?
*]Do you disgree with the OP? If so, then why?[/LIST]:smiley:

closed #18

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