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The Early Church vs. Roman Catholic Tradition

Brandon Hines

The Roman Catholic’s primary source of authority is usually the official position of the Roman Catholic Church. The Church will claim that this position is based upon the historic Church’s view throughout the centuries. However, many beliefs of the Early Church clearly contradict the official teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Many of the Early Church teachers would be rejected by Rome today and would have been anathematized during the Reformation. This is not just the occasional fringe theologian like Origen or Savonarola or Tertullian, but a large variety of Early Church leaders, teaching things that would have them martyred if they were taught under Counter-Reformation Rome.

Salvation by Faith Alone or Faith + Works?

During the Council of Trent, Rome made it clear that their tradition taught salvation was by a combination of faith and works. They even anathematized those Reformers who believed in Salvation by Faith Alone. Even before Trent, Luther was excommunicated at the Diet of Worms for standing by the Doctrine of Sola Fide (Faith Alone), and not too long after men like Huldrych Zwingli and Philip Melancthon joined him. While Catholicism would claim that their view is the Historic view, a simple reading of teachers in the Early Church would contradict this claim.

Ambrosiaster was a teacher in the Early Church whose name we do not know, but most of his writings seem to come from the late 300s. Like Pseud-Tertullian, he is named because his writing style is very similar to that of another Early Church teacher (In this case, Ambrose of Milan). Ambrosiaster actually used the term “Sola Fide” (Which translates into English as “Faith Alone”) well before Luther, as he said in his commentary of 1 Corinthians 1:4,

“God has decreed that a person who believes in Christ can be saved without works. By faith alone he receives the forgiveness of sins.”

Ambrosiaster is not the only person to use the term “Faith Alone” in regards to Salvation. Jerome of Stridon was a teacher who wrote at about the same time as Ambrosiaster, and he also proposed Salvation by Faith Alone. In commenting on Romans 10:3, Jerome directly said,

“God justifies by faith alone.”

Clement of Rome was a contemporary of the Apostles and is often claimed by Roman Catholics to be one of the first popes. If anyone could be counted on to support the Roman Catholic tradition, it would be him. However, Clement also affirmed Sola Fide in his letter to the Church in Corinth, saying,

“We also, being called through God’s will in Christ Jesus, are not justified through ourselves, neither through our own wisdom or understanding, or piety, or works which we have done in holiness or heart, but through faith.”

The list could go on. Most of the Early Church would confess Salvation apart from works, including names like Athanasius of Alexandria, Irenaeus of Lyons, Augustine of Hippo, Prosper of Aquitaine, Polycarp, and John Chrysostom.

Icons or Iconoclasm?

Many a Catholic will point to the Second Council of Nicea in the late 700s as evidence that the Church has historically supported Icons. However, there is evidence to support the idea that Icons have also been condemned by Church leaders. One council known as the Council of Elvira (Or Synod of Elvira) actually had actually condemned Icons in canon 36, saying,

“It has seemed good that images should not be in churches so that what is venerated and worshiped not be painted on the walls.”

This is actually the first official statement on art made by the Church, as the Council of Elvira took place in either A.D. 305 0r 306. However, this is not the only instance in which the Early Church spoke about Icons. Epiphanius of Salamis was a polemicist in the Early Church who is known for dealing with many heresies (Including but not limited to the Collyridians, the Alogians, and the Origenists). He was a good friend of Jerome of Stridon, and Jerome preserved a letter written by Epiphanius to John of Jerusalem. The letter includes the following account of Epiphanius tearing down an Icon and advising the John and the Church at Anablatha to avoid Icons.

“Moreover, I have heard that certain persons have this grievance against me: When I accompanied you to the holy place called Bethel, there to join you in celebrating the Collect, after the use of the Church, I came to a villa called Anablatha and, as I was passing, saw a lamp burning there. Asking what place it was, and learning it to be a church, I went in to pray, and found there a curtain hanging on the doors of the said church, dyed and embroidered. It bore an image either of Christ or of one of the saints; I do not rightly remember whose the image was. Seeing this, and being loth that an image of a man should be hung up in Christ’s church contrary to the teaching of the Scriptures, I tore it asunder and advised the custodians of the place to use it as a winding sheet for some poor person. They, however, murmured, and said that if I made up my mind to tear it, it was only fair that I should give them another curtain in its place. As soon as I heard this, I promised that I would give one, and said that I would send it at once. Since then there has been some little delay, due to the fact that I have been seeking a curtain of the best quality to give to them instead of the former one, and thought it right to send to Cyprus for one. I have now sent the best that I could find, and I beg that you will order the presbyter of the place to take the curtain which I have sent from the hands of the Reader, and that you will afterwards give directions that curtains of the other sort—opposed as they are to our religion—shall not be hung up in any church of Christ. A man of your uprightness should be careful to remove an occasion of offence unworthy alike of the Church of Christ and of those Christians who are committed to your charge.”

Catholic Doctrines on Mary

Interestingly enough, Pope John Paul II concedes that the Church historically did not hold to a Roman Catholic view of Mary. In 1995, he said,

“Many centuries were necessary to arrive at the explicit definition of the revealed truths concerning Mary.” (Source)

What is interesting to note is that, if this Pope is correct, not a single member of the Early Church would be considered an orthodox Roman Catholic today. One such member was John Chrysostom, who, in his Homilies on the Gospel of John,  speculated that Mary may have sinfully experienced pride over the fact that Jesus was her son.

“Perhaps too she had some human feelings, like His brethren, when they said, Show yourself to the world, desiring to gain credit from His miracles. Therefore He answered somewhat vehemently, saying, Woman, what have I to do with you? My hour is not yet come.”

One notable example of a difference between the view of the Early Church and the Roman Catholic Church is the condemnation of the Collyridian sect. In his work entitled Against Heresies, while listing groups that according to him, “have Christ’s name only but not his faith,” Epiphanius described the Collyridians, who, “offer a loaf in the name of the Virgin Mary.”  This is a description of worship. In fact, Patrick Madrid himself even professed this was the heresy of the ancient Collyridians.

“The heresy of the Collyridians was very simple: They worshiped Mary.” (Source)

Often times, modern Catholics say that they only venerate Mary rather than worship her. However, this is a distinction without a difference. As Don Bosco put it, they believe that they will, “love and eternally thank [Mary] in heaven.” (Source) Furthermore, how does one pray to someone they do not worship? Were I to pray to Sun Myung Moon, Charles Manson, Jim Jones, King Herod, or any other historical Christ Claimants, I would rightly be condemned for worshipping that person. This is no different.

The Role of the Bishop of Rome (Pope)

Modern Roman Catholicism claims the Pope to be the head of the Church. Such a claim is disputed even by Canon 6 of the Council of Nicea, which equates Alexandria with Rome.

“Let the ancient customs in Egypt, Libya, and Pentapolis prevail, that the Bishop of Alexandria have jurisdiction in all these, since the like is customary for the Bishop of Rome also. Likewise in Antioch and the other provinces, let the Churches retain their privileges.”

Similarly, when Clement of Rome wrote, he did not write as a single, infallible, authoritative source. In fact, he even opened up his first letter with, “The Church of God which sojourns at Rome…” This is not how one would expect someone to open up if they were the single head of the Church on Earth.


On these four points alone, one can deduce that Catholic Tradition is inconsistent with the traditions of the historic Christian faith and that Romanist claims to Church History should be rejected. The Gospel did not start with Luther and Calvin. Christian truth was not lost after John only to be rediscovered 1400 or so years later by John Wycliffe, William Tyndale, and Jan Hus. God has preserved Biblical truth throughout the ages, and this is important to know when one studies Church History.

[Contributed by Brandon Hines]