As we noted in our previous installment, Revelation 12 is an Exodus narrative in which the Woman is depicted as fleeing from the error of the devil and seeking her place in the wilderness. In a word, she leaves. The Church simply departs, and takes up refuge in the Wilderness, and is nourished there by Her Savior. In that installment, we provided evidence of the objections of Ærius, Jovinianus, Vigilantius, Sarmatio and Barbatianus to the novelties being introduced in the latter part of the 4th century. These men, according to the historical record, were all taking their leave of the company of error and striking out on a separate path (except Jovinianus, who was apparently imprisoned for his objections).
The testimony of these Protestants, and the evidence of their departure, is important because the typical Roman Catholic, referring to the Reformation, will ask why it took the “true church” 1,500 years to respond to and correct errors that arose in the early centuries. That typical Roman Catholic, assuming Roman Catholicism was the only expression of Christianity until the 16th century, will also ask where the “true church” was all that time.
The answers to these questions are simple: It did not take 1,500 years, and the “true church” never stopped existing. When Roman Catholicism manifested as a religion in the latter part of the 4th century, it did so as the great “falling away” of 2 Thessalonians 2:3. Roman Catholicism arose from within the ranks of the church, just as Paul and Peter had warned, “speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:30), and “who privily shall bring in damnable heresies” (2 Peter 2:1). The “true church” immediately Protested against the perversions and heresies, and was preserved intact as a beacon of truth in the wilderness, orthodox in her doctrine and evangelical in her preaching, but unwilling to bend the knee to the religion of Rome.
Two women therefore had found their places in the wilderness. On the one hand was the pure Woman of Revelation 12, arrayed in the beauty of the heavens and protected from errors of the devil (Revelation 12:1,6,14), and on the other was the great city of Rome, “mother of harlots and abominations of the earth,” and arrayed in earthly encumbrances (Revelation 17:4,5,18). Roman Catholicism, captivated by her earthly beauty, had taken up residence there, and was carried away by the flood of error. From their respective vantage points in the wilderness, these two religions vied for the souls of men, Rome purveying the novelties of Satan upon the lost, and the Church of Christ resisting them at every turn.
As we have shown in the preceding posts, the protests against the late 4th century novelties were abundant. As Vigilantius observed,
“Under the cloak of religion we see what is all but a heathen ceremony introduced into the churches” (Jerome, Against Vigilantius, paragraph 4).
What Vigilantius was seeing was the flood of error that John prophesied in Revelation 12:15. It was overtaking all but the elect. Examples of the protests go well beyond Ærius, Jovinianus, Vigilantius, Sarmatio and Barbatianus, and include more doctrinal issues than just the matters of episcopal power, consecrated virginity and the celibate priesthood.
At the end of the 4th century the novelty of Mary’s virginity in partu was also being introduced. Jovinianus immediately raised a protest against it, insisting instead that Christ’s birth had been normal. The very idea of Jesus passing through the womb like a phantom smacked of Docetism, a denial of the reality of the incarnation. Tertullian of earlier ages had been aghast, for example, because they “who represented the flesh of Christ to be imaginary” were “equally able to pass off His nativity as a phantom” (Tertullian, The Flesh of Christ, paragraph 1). To counter the argument, Tertullian insisted that Jesus’ birth had been normal, precisely because Christ’s flesh had been real, and therefore that Mary was a virgin until the Christ Child physically opened her womb:
“[S]he was ‘a virgin,’ so far as (abstinence) from a husband went, and ‘yet not a virgin,’ as regards her bearing a child. … Indeed she ought rather to be called not a virgin than a virgin, becoming a mother at a leap, as it were, before she was a wife.” (Tertullian, The Flesh of Christ, chapter 23)
Origen had argued similarly on the opening of Mary’s womb through childbirth:
“In the case of every other woman, it is not the birth of an infant but intercourse with a man that opens the womb. But the womb of the Lord’s mother was opened at the time when her offspring was brought forth …” (Origen, Homilies on Luke, Homily 14, paragraphs 7-8).
Such language as this is now verboten in Roman Catholic circles, for in Rome it is maintained that Mary delivered Christ without pain, without tearing, without blood, and in such a manner that her physical virginity was not compromised in the process. But like so many other Roman Catholic novelties, this can only be traced to the latter part of the 4th century, as evidenced by Monsignor Arthur Calkins’ defense of the antiquity of the dogma:
“The fact is that the mystery of Mary’s virginity in giving birth to the Savior was preached and taught consistently by the Fathers and Doctors of the Church. One finds beautiful expositions of it in the homilies and catecheses of St. Gregory of Nyssa (+ c. 394), St. Ambrose (+ 397), St. John Chrysostom (+ 407), St. Proclus of Constantinople (+ 446), Theodotus of Ancyra (+ before 446), St. Peter Chrysologus (+ 450), Pope St. Leo the Great (+ 461), Severus of Antioch (+ 538), St. Romanos the Melodist (+ c. 560), St. Venantius Fortunatus (+ c. 600), and Pope St. Gregory the Great (+ 604).” (Our Lady’s Virginity in Giving Birth, Monsignor Arthur Calkins)
Lest we miss an opportunity to highlight the obvious, note that the Roman Catholic apologist struggles to trace the origins of the dogma to a time earlier than the latter part of the 4th century. Jerome taught the error, too, trying to liken the passage of Christ’s physical body through the “closed doors” of Mary’s womb to the miraculous passage of Christ’s physical body through the closed doors of the upper room without opening them (John 20:19). But Jerome was running into resistance, for he complained of his critics:
“Let my critics explain to me how Jesus can have entered in through closed doors when He allowed His hands and His side to be handled, and showed that He had bones and flesh, thus proving that His was a true body and no mere phantom of one, and I will explain how the holy Mary can be at once a mother and a virgin. A mother before she was wedded, she remained a virgin after bearing her son.” (Jerome, Letter 48, paragraph 21)
The alleged preservation of Mary’s virginity in partu was just another novelty being introduced to the Church. The earlier generations had relegated the story to the mythology of the gnostics, but Jerome was bent on re-introducing it as an apostolic truth, and the Church resisted.
Cyril of Jerusalem also complained that people were not embracing his novelties. We will highlight two here: the veneration of the True Cross and prayers for the dead. Regarding the “True Cross,” Cyril was proposing a devotion to the True Cross, and claimed that by his day it had already been “distributed piecemeal from hence to all the world” (Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 13, paragraph 19). Those who heard of his nonsense accused him of “inventing subtleties,” and refused to believe:
“But some one will say to me, ‘You are inventing subtleties; show me from some prophet the Wood of the Cross; unless you give me a testimony from a prophet, I will not be persuaded.'” (Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 13, paragraph 19)
These Catechetical Lectures date, by some reckoning, to about 350 A.D., others placing them possibly as early as 348 A.D.. They are the first known references to the legend of the True Cross, and even the hapless Catholic Encyclopedia reluctantly acknowledges the glaring silence on the fate of the wood of the cross until Cyril. But “however difficult it may be to explain this silence,” the Encyclopedia rationalizes, we should rest assured that there must be some truth to it, because, after all, it was accepted as a “universal tradition” at least “since the beginning of the fifth century” (Catholic Encyclopedia, Archæology of the Cross and Crucifix). Accustomed as we are, however, to the flood of Roman Catholic novelties that were spreading throughout the known world in the latter half of the 4th century, we hardly find such assurances compelling. What is assuring is that an objection was raised to the novelty.
Cyril was at the same time introducing intercession of the saints and prayers for the dead, and for this too he was running into similar objections. In his explanation of the prayers during the Lord’s Supper, Cyril complained that so “many” were objecting to the novelty:
“Then we commemorate also those who have fallen asleep before us, first Patriarchs, Prophets, Apostles, Martyrs, that at their prayers and intercessions God would receive our petition. … And I wish to persuade you by an illustration. For I know that many say, ‘What is a soul profited, which departs from this world either with sins, or without sins, if it be commemorated in the prayer?'” (Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, Lecture 23, paragraphs 9-10)
That Cyril felt compelled to “persuade” the new catechumens against what “many say” against him, suggests that the protestation against the novelty was not a small one. Indeed, Ærius of Sebaste, as we noted last week, had objected to that very practice (Epiphanius, Panarion 3.1.75, 3.5).
In other areas, similar signs of protest were appearing. Jerome, registering a hyperbolic objection, was shocked to hear that men of Vigilantius’ stripe were taking seriously the Scriptural imperative that the qualification of a deacon is that he manage his household and children well (1 Timothy 3:12). The implications of such a mandate were shameful to Jerome:
“Shameful to relate, there are bishops who are said to be associated with him in his wickedness— if at least they are to be called bishops— who ordain no deacons but such as have been previously married; who … unless the candidates for ordination appear before them with pregnant wives, and infants wailing in the arms of their mothers, will not administer to them Christ’s ordinance.” (Jerome, Against Vigilantius, paragraph 2)
Ambrose, too, was disappointed to relate that in the remoter regions of his own parish, there were some ministers who were not only married, but were still having conjugal relations with their wives:
“But ye know that the ministerial office must be kept pure and unspotted, and must not be defiled by conjugal intercourse; … I am mentioning this, because in some out-of-the-way places, when they enter on the ministry, or even when they become priests, they have begotten children. They defend this on the ground of old custom, when, as it happened, the sacrifice was offered up at long intervals.” (Ambrose, On the Duties of the Clergy, Chapter 50, paragraph 258)
We provide these many data points in order to demonstrate a little known fact of history. Roman Catholicism did not rise to worldly prominence by acclamation. There were many, many objections raised by the people of God against Rome’s perversions and heresies. Christians did not agree with the “invented subtleties” being purveyed upon the saints or the novelties being “introduced into the churches.” They did not approve of the errors taking root as if they were apostolic truths—Passover sacrifices, prayers for the dead, intercession of saints and martyrs, bowing down to relics, kneeling before and kissing the “true cross,” the celibate priesthood, the magnification and mythologizing of Mary, the new civil power of the episcopate.
Roman Catholics and their apologists will want to insist that there was no objection to, and no Protest against, Roman Catholic doctrines until the 16th century. But the historical records show otherwise: there were more than a few voices of protest, in fact many, many more than just Ærius, Jovinianus, Vigilantius, Sarmatio and Barbatianus. That protest against Roman Catholicism arose just when we would expect it: in the latter part of the 4th century when Roman Catholicism was born.
Along with that evidence, there is evidence of a separate Protestant church flourishing from this time forward, and causing no small difficulty for Roman Catholicism. Rome had not risen to prominence without objections, and those who raised the objections were persistent in their protest. They had gone to a place in the wilderness, but they had not stopped preaching the Word of God. As we noted in our previous post, the last we heard of Vigilantius was that had taken up refuge in the Alps, had converted the bishop of the diocese to his cause (Jerome, Epistle 109, paragraph 2), and from that position was living as a bandit, making successful “raids upon the churches of Gaul,” where he had the support of the people (Jerome, Against Vigilantius, paragraph 4). Jerome reported these events around 406 A.D..
By 432 A.D., Pope Celeste I had to write to the bishops of Gaul about the persistent problem of people raising “indiscreet questions” (indisciplinatas quæstiones) in churches there, and had to correct the presbyters there who were complicit in “allowing them to preach against the truth” (pertinaciter eos dicant praedicare adversantia veritati) (Celeste, Epistle 1, Ad Episcopos Galliæ; see Poisson, Nicolas Joseph, Delectus actorum ecclesiae universalis, (Lugdunum: Deville (1738) col 177). In his second letter, Celeste wrote to the Bishops of Vienne and Narbonne, expressing concern that foreign priests, well educated in the Scriptures “had been disguising themselves as pilgrims and strangers” and were preaching things “contrary to the custom of the Church.” Celeste’s remarkable complaint was that these “foreign priests” were in fact teaching in accordance with the letter of the Scriptures, but not according to the Spirit (credunt se Scripturae fidem, non per Spiritum, sed per literam completuros). Additionally, they were apparently denying last rights to the dying (pœnitentiam morientibus denegari) (Celeste, Epistle 2, Ad Episcopos provinciæ Viennensis & Narbonensis; see Poisson, cols. 181-184), suggesting opposition to the Roman Catholic sacrament of extreme unction.
These references to Roman Catholicism’s problems in Gaul would not have caught our attention were it not for the complaints of Jerome earlier in the 5th century that the errors of Vigilantius and Jovinianus had taken root there. And Celeste’s epistle warning of the foreign priests disguised as “pilgrims and strangers” would not have been so notable, were it not for the fact that Vienne and Narbonne were at the limits of Vigilantius’ influence, “between the Adriatic and the Alps of King Cotius,” according to Jerome’s last description of his whereabouts (Jerome, Epistle 109, paragraph 2).
Notable, as well, is the fact that Archbishop Boniface in Germany, by the middle of eighth century, had written to Pope Zachary to complain that there was a full-fledged church operating there independently of Rome, wandering about in his diocese, its ministers “disguised under the name of bishops or priests,” meeting in “separate assemblies,” and “in strange places.” Just like in the days of Vigilantius, and similar to the concerns raised by Celeste, these “false vagabonds” engaged in a ministry of “deceiving the people” and perplexing and troubling the ministers of Rome. Remarkably, the members of this competing Church were “more numerous than the Catholics,” and as in Vigilantius’ day, they were being defended by the populace against the Roman bishops:
“As for the priests whom your fraternity report to have found who are more numerous than the Catholics, wandering about, disguised under the name of bishops or priests, not ordained by Catholic bishops, who deceive the people, perplex and trouble the ministers of the church, they are false vagabonds, adulterers, murderers, effeminate, sacrilegious hypocrites, the greater part tonsured slaves who have fled from their masters, servants of the devil transformed into ministers of Christ, who live as they list, being without bishops, having partisans to defend them against the bishops, that they may not attack their irregular lives, who meet in separate assemblies, with persons that abet their proceedings, and exercise their erroneous ministry not in a Catholic church, but in strange places, in the cellars of country-people, where their stupid folly may be concealed from the bishops.” (Pope Zachary, Epistle X to Boniface; for original, see Sacrosancta Concilia, Tomus Sextus (Lutetiæ Parisiorum, 1671) cols 1518-1522)
What is of particular interest here is that Archbishop Boniface (c. 675 – 754 A.D.) was a missionary to Germany when he encountered this “non-Catholic” Church already so well established. He was therefore confounded in his attempts to preach Romanism and ran into obstacles at every turn. The Catholic Encyclopedia briefly acknowledges the existence of this “non-Catholic” church encountered by Boniface, and complains that they “taught doctrines and made use of ceremonies at variance with the teaching and use of the Roman Church, especially in regard to the celebration of Easter, the conferring of baptism, celibacy, [and] the papal and episcopal authority” (Catholic Encyclopedia, Saint Boniface).
In this series, we will continue this survey of history from the late 4th century rise of Roman Catholicism and the perseverance of the Woman of Revelation to the dawn of the Reformation. This week we simply desire to highlight the historical fact that the Protest against Roman Catholicism was not delayed 1,500 years as Roman Catholics imagine. Additionally, by their own accounts, there really was a separate religion consistent with the Scriptures, evangelizing the lost, always accused of invading the churches, and teaching doctrines at variance with Rome’s late 4th century novelties.