All scholars agree that the Protestant reformers broke with the historical Catholic Church. Very few laymen realize the history of degeneracy and the utter depravity to which this body had sunk before the call to reform was sounded. A realization of this fact, and a grasp of the historical background of the Protestant Reformation is most necessary for its proper understanding. It is widely recognized that the visible church in the early Roman Empire completely changed many of the beliefs and practices of Christ and the Apostles. We need to understand the nature of these changes to properly evaluate the later Reformation. And as we consider the record of the Roman system, we should ask ourselves: "Is this the history of God's true Church gone wrong?"
A mysterious change transformed the life, doctrine, and worship of the visible Church within fifty years after the death of the original Apostles. As Hurlbut observes: "For fifty years after St. Paul's life a curtain hangs over the church, through which we strive vainly to look; and when at last it rises, about 120 A.D., with the writings of the earliest church-fathers, we find a church in many aspects very different from that in the days of St. Peter and St. Paul" (The Story of the Christian Church, p. 41). This unusual transformation recalls the ominous words of Paul: "For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables" (II Timothy 4:3-4). Peter, in his second epistle, had given a similar warning: "But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction. And many shall follow their pernicious ways; by reason of whom the way of truth shall be evil spoken of" (II Peter 2:1-2). In fact, by the time of the Apostle John's last epistle about A.D. 90, perversions of the true faith were already rampant, and false teachers were gaining the ascendancy within the visible Church congregations. John states that one Diotrophes is already excommunicating those who adhere to the truth, "neither doth he himself receive the brethren, and forbiddeth them that would, and casteth them out of the church" (III John 9-10). From the detached viewpoint of the secular historian, Gibbon describes this portion of Church history: "A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian. He must discover the inevitable mixture of error and corruption which she contracted in a long residence upon earth, among a weak and degenerate race of beings" (Decline and Fall, vol. I, p. 380). The visible Christian assemblies, subverted by false teachers with worldly ambitions, began to adopt the practices and customs of the ancient pagans in place of the inspired faith and practice of the apostolic church. "Christianity began already to wear the garb of heathenism" (Wharey's Church History, p. 39). Ceremonies and rituals began to replace the worship of God from the heart until finally the whole of religion was made to consist of little else (Wharey, p. 40). This, of course, was true only of the visible church as a whole.
Some Continue Apostolic Practice
In spite of the apostasy of the majority, there is an abundance of historical evidence to indicate that a number of Christian societies — some holding much of the truth, some very little — continued to follow the basic doctrines and practices of the original Church right down to the time of the Reformation. Gibbon speaks of the plight of the principal imitators of the Apostolic Church, called the "Nazarenes," who, "had laid the foundations of the Church (but) soon found themselves overwhelmed by the increasing multitudes, that from all the various religions of Polytheism enlisted under the banner of Christ: and the Gentiles, who, with the approbation of their peculiar apostle, had rejected the intolerable weight of the Mosaic ceremonies, at length refused to their more scrupulous brethren the same toleration which at first they had humbly solicited for their own practice" (Decline and Fall, vol. I, p. 387). Thus we find that the gentile converts began bringing into the Church the customs of their former heathen religions, and an attitude of contempt for those who would remain faithful to the example and practice of Christ and the original Apostles. No doubt this very attitude was the reason Diotrophes could "cast out" the true brethren with the apparent approval of the visible congregations. Since it is not the purpose of the present work to trace the history of the small body of believers who remained faithful to the Apostolic faith and worship, and since it is a common practice for denominational church historians to distort or cast aspersions upon the belief of this people, it may be well to include an admission by Hurlbut of the difficulty in ascertaining the true beliefs of these people, or, for that matter, of the actual "heresies" of the time. He tells us: "with regard to these sects and so-called heresies, one difficulty in understanding them arises from the fact that (except with the Montanists, and even there in large measure) their own writings have perished; and we are dependent for our views upon those who wrote against them, and were undoubtedly prejudiced. Suppose, for example, that the Methodists, as a denomination, had passed out of existence with all their literature; and a thousand years afterward, scholars should attempt to ascertain their teachings out of the books and pamphlets written against John Wesley in the eighteenth century, what wrong conclusions would be reached, and what a distorted portrait of Methodism would be presented!" (The Story of the Christian Church, p. 66). Add to this scanty historical evidence, the fact that many modern Church historians write from a denominational viewpoint prejudicial to Apostolic practices and beliefs, and it is easy to perceive the inherent difficulty in finding the truth about such Christians in past ages. Nevertheless, even the testimony of enemies contains abundant proof that an unbroken chain of these faithful believers has existed until this day.
The Development of the Catholic Church
Although, as we have seen, much of the truth perished from the local congregations within fifty years after the death of the Apostles, the Roman Catholic Church as such did not develop until the fourth century. Before then, there were many splits and divisions within the visible Church, but the progress of literal idolatry was stayed because of persecution by the Roman state — which prevented many of the heathen from coming in and kept the Church pure to that extent. But, even so, it was mainly a purity in error, for the theology of the time had departed so far from the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles that many doctrines were now based upon the ideas of Plato and other pagan philosophers. Origen, one of the great "church fathers" of this period, was an admirer of this philosophy and employed it in explaining the doctrines of the gospel. This led him to the allegorical method of interpreting scripture (Wharey, p. 46). Dealing with this period, Gibbon describes for us the gradual development of what eventually became the Roman Catholic hierarchy, patterned after the government of imperial Rome. He states: "The primitive Christians were dead to the business and pleasures of the world; but their love of action, which could never be entirely extinguished, soon revived, and found a new occupation in the government of the church" (Decline and Fall, vol. I, p. 410). Of the development of this church government, he tells us that it soon followed the model of the provincial synods — uniting several churches in one area under the leadership of the bishop of the church possessing the most members and usually situated in the largest city (Gibbon, p. 413-415). With the conversion of Constantine to nominal Christianity, the church government began to be modeled more nearly after the Roman state. Wharey tells us: "Under Constantine the Great, the church first became connected with the state, and in its government was accommodated to such connection, upon principles of state policy" (Church History, p. 55).
Corruption and Moral Decay
The increased vice and corruption of the ministry is related by Mosheim, who aptly describes the lust for power, which entered the hearts and minds of the spiritual leaders of this period: "The bishops had shameful quarrels among themselves, respecting the boundaries of their sees and the extent of their jurisdiction; and while they trampled on the rights of the people and of the inferior clergy, they vied with the civil governors of the provinces in luxury, arrogance, and voluptuousness" (Institutes of Ecclesiastical History, p. 131). When Constantine became sole emperor of the Roman Empire in 323 A.D., within a year Christianity, at least in name, was recognized as the official religion of the empire. This recognition not only affected the government of the church and the morals of its ministers, but it had a profound influence on the entire church and its membership. All persecution of the established church ceased at once and forever. The ancient day of the sun was soon proclaimed as a day of rest and worship. Heathen temples were consecrated as churches. Ministers soon became a privileged class, above the law of the land. Now everybody sought membership in the church. "Ambitious, worldly, unscrupulous men sought office in the church for social and political influence" (Hurlbut, p. 79). Instead of Christianity influencing and transforming the world, we see the world dominating the professing Christian church. "The services of worship increased in splendor, but were less spiritual and hearty than those of former times. The forms and ceremonies of paganism gradually crept into the worship. Some of the old heathen feasts became church festivals with change of name and worship. About 405 A.D., images of saints and martyrs began to appear in the churches..." (Hurlbut, p. 79). The church and state became one integrated system when Christianity was adopted as the religion of the empire. The Roman Catholic system had begun, and Hurlbut tells us that "the church gradually usurped power over the state, and the result was not Christianity, but a more or less corrupt hierarchy controlling the nations of Europe making the church mainly a political machine" (The Story of the Christian Church. p. 80).
Catholicism in Power
Within two years after what was called Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, a new capital was chosen and built by Constantine. He selected the Greek city of Byzantium because its situation rendered it relatively safe from the ravages of war which had so often plagued Rome. Soon after this, the division of the empire took place — with Constantine appointing associate emperors for the West. The division of the empire prepared the way for the coming split in the Catholic Church. This also provided an easier path to the exaltation of the Roman bishop as he was not now overshadowed by the emperor. During this time, the established church ruled supreme — and any attempt to return to the Apostolic faith would have been severely punished as an offense against the state. "The command was issued that no one should write or speak against the Christian (Catholic) religion, and all books of its opposers should be burned" (Hurlbut, p. 85). Thus we can see that those who may have held much truth during this period were deprived of the means of preserving any record of their faith for future generations. This edict was effective in stamping out heresy, but it was also effective in stifling any truth which was held in opposition to Catholic doctrine. As for the substance of that doctrine, Wharey tells us: "The Theology of this century began to be much adulterated and corrupted with superstition and heathen philosophy. Hence, are to be seen evident traces of excessive veneration for departed saints, of a belief in a state of purgatory for souls after death, of the celibacy of the clergy, of the worship of images and relics, and of many other opinions, which in process of time almost banished the true religion or at least very much obscured and corrupted it" (Church History, p. 60). Thus we find that as the Catholic Church continued, superstition, heathenism, and idolatry increased. The development of papal power was the outstanding fact during the ten centuries of the Middle Ages. The Pope at Rome soon claimed to be ruler, not only over the other bishops, but over nations, kings, and emperors (Hurlbut, p. 105). Gregory I (590-604) made the church the virtual ruler in the province around Rome, and it was he who developed the doctrine of purgatory, the adoration of images, and transubstantiation. Fisher speaks of this period: "Christmas originated in the West (Rome), and from there passed over into the Eastern Church. Many Christians still took part in the heathen festival of New Year's" (History of the Christian Church, p. 119). Speaking of the doctrinal controversies which raged through the church at this time, he says: "The interference of the state in matters of doctrine is a fact that calls for particular notice. In philosophy, Plato's influence was still predominant: Augustine as well as Origen, was steeped in the Platonic spirit" (Fisher, p. 121). Here is a plain statement that the philosophical teachings of such heathen thinkers as Plato distinctly influenced the doctrinal positions of many of the early "church fathers"!
The Culmination and Decline of Papal Prestige
The height of papal supremacy was attained under Gregory VII, called Hildebrand. Under his reign, we behold the spectacle of the current emperor, Henry IV, in order to receive absolution from the pope's ban of excommunication, "having laid aside all belongings of royalty, with bare feet and clad in wool, continued for three days to stand before the gates of the castle" (Hurlbut, p. 111). Another high point in the progress of papal authority was the reign of Innocent III. He declared in his inaugural discourse, "The successor of St. Peter stands midway between God and man; below God, above man; Judge of all, judged of none" (Hurlbut, p. 112). Soon after this, however, followed the period known as the "Babylonish Captivity" of the church (1305-1378). Through political influence of the French king, the papacy was transferred from Rome to the south of France at Avignon. The political and moral scandals of the pope and clergy throughout this entire period weakened the papal influence, and began to prepare men's minds for the later attempts at reformation (Mosheim, p. 490). That there were many good and sincere men in the Roman Church even during this period is not doubted. But the complete departure of their ancestors from the doctrine and practice of Christ and the Apostles, the substitution in their place of heathen philosophies and doctrines of heathen church festivals, fasts, images, relics, and sundry other practices — all this would have made it well nigh impossible for most men to grasp the simple truths of the Bible, even if they had desired to do so. And, due to the prevailing ignorance and barbarism of the times, most of the common men and women would have been unable to read the scriptures even if they had been made available, and they had wished to do so (Mosheim, p. 491). Nevertheless, the constant abuse of ecclesiastical authority, by an ignorant and ravenous clergy, the continuing scandals of the papal court, and the compromising involvement of the popes and cardinals in temporal as well as religious affairs — all these things did much to arouse a questioning spirit in the masses of people. At the conclusion of the "Babylonish Captivity" in 1378, Pope Gregory XI, returned to Rome. But at his death, through political pressure and maneuver, two popes were elected by the cardinals! The world then beheld the spectacle of the nominal heads of Christendom hurling maledictions, threats, accusations, and excommunications, at each other over a period of many years. Mosheim aptly describes this unhappy state of affairs: "For, during fifty years the church had two or three heads, and the contemporary pontiffs assailed each other with excommunications, maledictions, and plots. The calamities and distress of those times are indescribable. For besides the perpetual contentions and wars between the pontifical factions, which were ruinous to great numbers, involving them in the loss of life or of property, nearly all sense of religion was in many places extinguished, and wickedness daily acquired greater impunity and boldness; the clergy, previously corrupt, now laid aside even the appearance of piety and godliness, while those who called themselves Christ's vicegerents were at open war with each other and the conscientious people, who believed no one could be saved without living in subjection to Christ's vicar, were thrown into the greatest perplexity and anxiety of mind" (Mosheim, p. 496). Such was the provocative state of "Christendom" on the eve of the Reformation. Well might men have asked themselves, "Is this the church that Jesus Christ built?"