Catholicism The Church

What does “Deep in History” Really Mean?

Cardinal John Henry Newman famously said “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.”[1] Newman seemed to refer to the institutional church and the rites and sacraments that came to prevail. Many apologists for high sacramentalism have offered similar arguments. What we see in history is not what “free churches” manifest. We see priests, bishops, archbishops, and the church occupying a central role in the Christian life. Along with this, the church as an institution defines these rites, which mediate grace. She further has the role of being the interpreter of Scripture. Outside the church, sound interpretation is not possible, nor was such a thing as “private interpretation” ever contemplated. Further on Newman said “So much must the Protestant grant that, if such a system of doctrine as he would now introduce ever existed in early times, it has been clean swept away as if by a deluge.”[2]

Many have said that reading the early church fathers will “make you a Catholic” or something similar. But, reading Thomas Torrance’s assessment of the fathers actually strengthened my commitment to the Scriptures alone as the only ground of authority. Torrance’s book (his doctoral dissertation) The Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers is a survey of several sub-apostolic writings for how they deal with the concept of grace vis-à-vis the New Testament.

Newman’s statement is taken from his book, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. While many Roman Catholics hold this to be an unanswerable case for the authority of tradition, a closer examination of Newman’s logic says otherwise. Kenneth Collins and Jerry Walls book Roman but Not Catholic: What Remains at Stake 500 Years after the Reformation contains a detailed analysis of Newman’s arguments and finds it wanting. The overarching claim Newman makes is this:

“It is a first strong point that, in an idea such as Christianity, developments cannot but be, and those surely divine, because it is divine; a second that, if so, they are those very ones which exist, because there are no others; and a third point is the fact that they are found just there, where true developments ought to be found – namely, in the historic seats of Apostolical teaching and in the authoritative homes of immemorial tradition.”[3]

I’ve commented elsewhere on the fact that tradition and history itself contradict what Newman affirms, but Torrance’s assessment is important in this regard. For, contrary to Newman, who evidently assumes any development that occurs must, ipso facto, be a legitimate one, Torrance highlights where the sub-apostolic writers go astray from the New Testament.

With the Didache, Torrance finds it perpetuating the Galatian problem—Judaizing. “The failure to distinguish Law and Gospel is most characteristic.”[4] Conversion or the imparting of new life upon faith in Christ is thrown into question, for “the whole time of faith would fail to profit except believers were found perfect at last.”[5] The writer does not see redemption from the penalty of sin as an accomplished fact, but something believers must strive toward, hopeful to reach the goal at last.

With 1 Clement, Torrance finds the writer still under the influence of Greek thought. “Clement falls back on the essentially Greek idea that salvation is knowledge. Jesus is thought of as the Teacher who by word as well as example calls men to God ‘from darkness to light, from ignorance to the full knowledge of the glory of His name.’ By laying all the emphasis on this ‘deathless knowledge’ mediated by Christ, Clement passes by the person of Christ and links salvation directly on to the Father and Creator.”[6]

Torrance finds Clement regarding the death of Christ not as that which purchases salvation, but as an example for us, that we may desire to do good. It is no wonder that later tradition ascribes utmost importance to doing in order to gain heaven, if one gives an authoritative position to something like Clement’s epistles.

This trend continues with Ignatius, who views his impending martyrdom as vital to his own discipleship. While Ignatius mentions the death of Christ, and “it might be argued that this represents the death of Christ as bringing about a reconciliation between God and man. No doubt this is what Ignatius intends, but it is a reconciliation of a different sort from what we find in the New Testament. It is not reconciliation as forgiveness, but reconciliation as attaining to God and becoming like Him…the particular way in which the death of Christ is grasped in these epistles puts Ignatius more or less in the same category as the other Apostolic Fathers; in a failure to realise that in relation to sin and guilt the death of Christ is a finished work , on the ground of which by a judgment of grace we pass from death to life.”[7]

Here too, Torrance finds not continuity with the New Testament, but departure. “This runs directly counter to the Gospel. The idea of salvific imitation makes a doctrine of grace impossible.”[8]

Even with Polycarp, who in his martyrdom is held forth as a paragon of faithfulness, Torrance finds a failure to grasp what the death of Christ means, and the significance of grace. “For Polycarp the death of Christ for our sins or on our account does not mean a forgiveness or a justification that cancels the power of sin. The Cross has not put men in the right with God but man is still regarded as on the debit side of an account with God. Christ, as it were, has paid the first instalment and has therefore redeemed man from the bankruptcy court. By this act Christ has set man on his feet again, and so put him into a position in which he can carry out the rest of his obligations towards God, namely, in fulfilling the command of righteousness.”

Newman and other apologists want to say that the Fathers show the institutional church in the role of mediation between God and the believer. This develops through the centuries in the seven sacraments, and further, that this development is legitimate because it occurs within the church. Where else would one expect to see it? But Torrance’s summary again shows that the fathers stray from the teaching of the New Testament, and Newman assumes his conclusion rather than proving it. So, Newman’s “deluge” began as a small stream of deviation from the New Testament, and later grew imperious over other views.

“Grace was taken under the wing of the Church in an official way. The Church was regarded as endowed in some way or other with this spiritual power which made the believer godlike, and in fact united him to God. The Church as the body of Christ was looked on as the depository of pneumatic grace, which might be dispensed in sacramentalist fashion after the analogy of the mystery religions. The Church, in other words, possessed the means of grace. With Ignatius this was closely associated with the episcopate. Grace was not only a quality which could be transferred by the Spirit from God, but also through the Spirit by the Church which acts in the place of God. Of the Church the Bishop was regarded as the focal point, and so grace was considered as residing particularly in him.”[9]

What we see, says Torrance, is a movement away from the clarity of teaching in the New Testament on grace associated with the person and work of Christ, and a shift to the Church as the arbiter and dispenser of this grace. It is sub-apostolic in more than one way; later in time than the apostles themselves, but also deviating from their teaching. So, going deeper in history, that is back to the documents of the New Testament itself, shows that Newman’s admonition is really without merit. The only choice is the make history itself an authority. Many have done so, but it is a different paradigm than what the earliest church held.


[1] Newman, John Henry Cardinal. An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (p. 3). Kindle Edition.

[2] Newman, Loc. Cit.

[3] John Henry Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 61-62.

[4] Thomas Torrance, The Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers (Eugene, Wipf & Stock, 1996), 39.

[5] Torrance, loc. Cit.

[6] Torrance, 47-48.

[7] Torrance, 66.

[8] Torrance, 67.

[9] Torrance, 141.

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