The Early Church was Catholic

The Early Church Fathers are those learned and saintly ecclesiastical writers who lived before 750 AD and whose orthodoxy is specially recognised by the Church. They are important because: 1) their testimonies prove that the Early Church was Catholic; 2) the councils of Trent and Vatican I declared that no-one may interpret Scripture in a manner contrary to the unanimous consent of the Fathers; 3) all the Fathers were convinced that the original texts of the Bible were absolutely immune from all error.

The Protestant doctrine of 'Bible alone' was completely unknown to the early Fathers of the Church. Instead, they appealed to Church Tradition for Biblical interpretation.

Many Protestants claim that the Church of the first three centuries was a "pure" Church, and only after the legalisation of Christianity by Roman Emperor Constantine (313 AD) did the Church become "Catholic" and corrupt. However, the doctrines of Post-Constantine Catholicism are the same doctrines that were held by Christians for the preceding three centuries. In fact, the evidence below clearly shows that the beliefs of the Early Church are the same as those of the Catholic Church today in the 3rd millenium.


St Hegesippus (2nd century) compiled a list of Popes up to St Anicetus (11th Pope) which contained the name of St Peter as the first Pope. St Cyprian of Carthage (3rd century) said that Cornelius (21st Pope) "mounted the lofty summit of the priesthood … the place of Peter." Cyprian also wrote: "If someone does not hold fast to this unity of Peter, can he imagine that he still holds the faith? If he desert the chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, can he still be confident that he is in the Church?"

Ignatius of Antioch (c. 110), writing to the church at Rome, describes it as the pre-eminent church that is "presiding in love". Ignatius also wrote in the same letter: "But I desire that those things may stand fast which you enjoin in your instructions". Clement of Rome (1st century), Epistle to the Corinthians: "But if some be disobedient to the words which have been spoken by him [Christ] through us, let them know that they will entangle themselves in transgression and no little danger." Also, in the same epistle: "The Apostles received the gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ; and Jesus Christ was sent from God. Christ, therefore, is from God, and the Apostles are from Christ. Both of these orderly arrangements, then, are by God's will. They appointed their earliest converts, testing them by the spirit, to be the bishops and deacons of future believers. Nor was this a novelty: for bishops and deacons had been written about a long time earlier. Indeed, Scripture somewhere says: 'I will set up their bishops in righteousness and their deacons in faith' ". (See also Phil 1:1.) Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon, (180 AD, Against Heresies, 3, 4, 1) writing about the church at Rome: "For it is a matter of necessity that every church should agree with this church, on account of its pre-eminent authority …" Irenaeus then proceeds to list the succession of the bishops of Rome to his own day, adding: "In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of truth have come down to us. This is a most complete proof of unity and identity of the life-giving faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now and handed down in truth". Also, in the same letter, we read: "What then? If there should be a dispute over some kind of question, ought we not have recourse to the most ancient churches in which the apostles were familiar, and draw from them what is clear and certain in regard to that question? What if the apostles had not in fact left writings to us? Would it not be necessary to follow the order of tradition, which was handed down to those to whom they entrusted the Churches?" Pope Victor I (189-198) played an authoritative role during the Quartodeciman dispute (a controversy over the date on which Easter was celebrated) by threatening to excommunicate the Asian churches. During the early Trinitarian and Christological controversies, after the patriarchs of Alexandria, Jerusalem, Antioch and Constantinople had succumbed to one heresy or another, only the papacy remained constant in witnessing to the orthodox Faith.


Present-day Catholic interpretations of Scripture were held by the earliest Christians. They were passed down by Sacred Tradition and preserved and disseminated just as carefully as Scripture was preserved and copied. St Augustine (354 - 430): "These traditions of the Christian name, therefore, so numerous, so powerful, and most dear, justly keep a believing man in the Catholic Church".


St Irenaeus: "For what is the use of knowing the truth in word, while defiling the body and accomplishing the works of evil? Or what real good at all can bodily holiness do, if truth be not in the soul? For these two, faith and good works, rejoice in each other's company, and agree together and fight side by side to set man in the Presence of God".


St Vincent of Lerins (434): "Therefore, may God forbid that anyone should attempt to defraud Holy Mary of her privilege of divine grace and her special glory. For by a unique favour of our Lord and God she is confessed to be the most true and most blessed Mother of God." St John Chrysostom (d. 407): "One purpose for which the Blessed Virgin Mary was created Mother of God is that she may obtain the salvation of many who, on account of weakness and wickedness, could not be saved according to the rigour of divine justice, but might be so with the help of this merciful mother's powerful intercession." From the 5th century Christians have celebrated the Assumption of Mary.


St John Chrysostom (4th century): "When you perceive that God is chastening you, fly not to His enemies, but to His friends, the martyrs, the saints, and those who were pleasing to Him, and who have great power".


The primitive Church Fathers regarded the doctrine of Purgatory as one of the basic tenets of the Christian Faith. Ancient tomb inscriptions from the 2nd and 3rd centuries frequently contain an appeal for prayers for the dead. In fact, the custom of praying for the dead (which is meaningless if there is no Purgatory) was universal among Christians for the 15 centuries before Protestantism began in 1517. St Augustine said that the doctrine of Purgatory "has been received from the Fathers and it is observed by the Universal Church". Augustine believed that prayers for the dead has its place (421).


St Ephrem the Syrian (306): "Mark all you do with the sign of the life-giving cross. Do not go out from the door of your house until you have signed yourself with the sign of the cross. Do not neglect to make that sign when you are eating or drinking or going to sleep whether you are at home or on a journey."


The 7 Sacraments are not only accepted by the Catholic Church, but by all of the other ancient and semi-ancient Christian communities (Coptic Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, Syrian Jacobite, Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox).


The teaching that the Eucharist is the actual Body and Blood of Jesus was believed by ALL faithful Christians until the advent of Protestantism. Not one Christian writing in the early Church viewed the Lord's Supper as a mere symbol. No other so-called Christian "symbol" ever carried the death penalty for its ill treatment (see 1 Cor 11:27-32). Wrote Justin Martyr (100 " 165): "This food is known among us as the Eucharist … We do not receive these things as common bread and common drink; but as Jesus Christ our Saviour, being made flesh by the Word of God". St Cyril of Jerusalem (4th century): "Since then Christ has declared and said of the bread, 'This is my Body', who after that will venture to doubt? And seeing that He has affirmed and said, 'This is my blood', who will raise a question and say it is not His Blood?" St Ignatius of Antioch (c. 110), a convert of the Apostle John, wrote to the church at Smyrnna while being led to execution in Rome: "They [the heretics] even absent themselves from the Eucharist and the public prayers (see Acts 2:42), because they will not admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ which suffered for our sins and which the Father in His goodness raised up again". Also, to the church at Ephesus, Ignatius wrote that the believers were: "to obey [the] bishop and clergy with undivided minds and to share in the one common breaking of the bread " the medicine of immortality and the sovereign remedy by which we escape death and live in Jesus Christ evermore." And finally, in his Epistle to the Smyrneans 8:1-2 Ignatius says: "The sole Eucharist you should consider valid is one that is celebrated by the bishop himself or by some person authorised by him. Where the bishop is to be seen, there let all his people be, just as wherever Jesus Christ is present, there is the Catholic Church".


We know the primitive Church baptised infants because the ancient catacombs of Rome contain inscriptions on the tombs of infants that make mention of their Baptism. One such inscription reads: "Here rests Archillia, a newly baptised; she was one year and five months old; died February 23rd". St Cyprian of Carthage (252) condemned the novel proposal that baptism ought to be postponed until the eighth day after birth: "As to what pertains to the case of infants: you said that they ought not to be baptised within the second or third day after their birth, … In our council it seemed to us far otherwise. No one agreed to the course which you thought should be taken. Rather, we all judged that the mercy of God ought to be denied to no man born". Origen (185-253, Commentaries on Rom 5:9): "The Church received from the Apostles the tradition of giving baptism even to infants". St Hippolytus of Rome (c. 215): "Baptise first the children …"


The Didache of the 1st century mentions the use of running water, but if not, "then pour water on the head thrice …" Most baptisteries of the 3rd century had knee-deep fonts.


St Ignatius of Antioch (c. 110): "Now God forgives all who repent, so long as their repentance turns to union with God and to communion with the bishop." The Sacrament of Penance was understood by Irenaeus (c. 180) to go back to the beginning of the Church. Tertullian (c. 200), on the subject of Confession, says that the sinner is "to bow before the priests." St Cyprian of Carthage writes that the forgiving of sins can take place only "through the priests". In his Treatise on the Lapsed (251) Cyprian speaks of penitents thus: "… before they have made their confession … at the hand of the priest." St John Chrysostom (386): "Priests have received a power (the loosing of sins) which God has given neither to angels or archangels." St Ambrose (d. 397), speaking on the subject of Confession: "this right is given to priests only." St Leo the Great (d. 461) condemns insistence on public confession as being "opposed to Apostolic rule … since it suffices that guilt of conscience be revealed to priests alone in secret confession."


St Augustine: "The Sacrament of Chrism is one of the visible signs and, like Baptism itself, is most holy." St Cyprian (200 "258): those who are baptised in the Church are presented to the Bishops, and, through our prayer and the laying on of hands, they receive the Holy Spirit and are made perfect by the seal of the Lord."


Aphrates the Persian Sage (c. 280 " 345) says that olive oil is used by Christians to "anoint the sick". Pope St Innocent I (416): "if the bishop is able to do so, or thinks it suitable, he should personally visit the sick person and bless him and anoint him with the chrism without delay."


St Clement, Bishop of Rome, around the year 96, draws a parallel between the Old Testament's triad of High Priest, priests and levites " and the New Testament triad of Bishop, priests and deacons. St Ignatius of Antioch (c. 110) mentions the same: "the bishop and his assistants, the presbyters and deacons". St Cyprian: "Since by the imposition of hands we receive the Episcopate, that is, the Holy Ghost as the guest of our heart, let us offer no cause of grief to Him who shares a dwelling with us."


Inscriptions written in the 4th century, from the Catacombs of Rome, prove that marriage between Christians was regarded as a sacred rite. For example, in one sarcophagus Christ is seen behind the bride and groom and the inscription reads: "Almighty God bound them together in sweet Matrimony." Tertullian (c. 200) writes to his wife: "How shall we be able to describe the happiness of that marriage which the Church performs, the sacrifice ratifies, the blessing seals, the angels declare and the Heavenly Father recognises?" St Ignatius of Antioch (c. 110) testifies to the sacred character of Marriage thus: "It is right for men and women who marry to be united with the consent of the bishop, that the marriage be according to the Lord and not according to lust."


Potions mixed to prevent pregnancy or cause abortion were known and used in the 1st century. The sin of "sorceries" or "witchcrafts" (known as "pharmakeia" in the Greek of the New Testament: Gal 5:20; Rev 9:21; 21:8) is condemned in the Bible along with other serious sins. The Didache (1st century): "… do not practice magic, do not go in for sorcery, do not murder a child by abortion or kill a new-born infant".


Steve Wood (Protestant convert): "After considerable study and reflection I saw that Scripture taught the indissolubility of the marriage bond. An examination of history revealed that the teaching of the ancient Church was the same."

Madrid, Surprised by Truth 1 and 2; Jurgens, The Faith of the Early Fathers; Wood, Christian Fatherhood; Whitcomb, The Catholic Church has the Answer.

* Please note that this text should be read in the context of the whole work and in recognition of the appropriate paragraphs of the Catechism of the Catholic Church highlighted in the index.