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Great Apostasy

The Great Apostasy is a belief held by most non-Catholic and non-Orthodox Christian denominations that at some point in history, the original teachings and practices of the primitive or original Christian church were greatly altered. These denominations see themselves individually as restorations of original Christianity. They differ as to exactly when the Great Apostasy took place and what the exact errors or changes were.

Table of contents

Lutherans and Calvinists

Lutherans and Calvinists have taught that a process of gradual corruption began when the Christian church was made the official religion of the Roman Empire by the Emperor Constantine, and deepened over time until the church became corrupt and stopped teaching the true faith. The problem was allegedly twofold:

  • a degradation in the church's zeal for monotheism, caused by the influx of pagans and accommodations to their traditions; and
  • the increasing political clout and civil authority of the church, which exposed its leaders to temptations never suffered by the church of the apostles.

Lutherans and Calvinists hold that the Ecumenical Councils of the early and medieval church are true expressions of the Christian faith, but that the councils are inconsistent with one another, and err on particular points.

The Westminster Confession of Faith (Calvinist), states:

The purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated, as to become no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan. Nevertheless, there shall be always a church on earth, to worship God according to his will. (25:5)

Therefore, although these groups believe that errors can and have come into the church, they deny that there has ever been a time when the truth was entirely lost. They affirm that there shall be times when errors shall predominate, as they believe is foretold in the Bible. First Timothy 4:1-3 states:

Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils;
Speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron;
Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth. (KJV)

According to this view, these verses foretold the rise of errors, among which they count the veneration of relics, saints and the Blessed Virgin Mary, importing polytheism, idolatry, and fetishism into Christianity; these are the "seducing spirits and doctrines of devils."

"Speaking lies in hypocrisy" and "having their conscience seared with a hot iron" were held to refer to the general corruption of the Church as it became heir to the Roman Emperors and claimed to rule an earthly kingdom, and its prelates became authoritarian lords of civil government, achieving a social rank never sought by Jesus himself. (Gospel of John 18:36) The "searing of the conscience" was interpreted as referring to the Roman Catholic development of casuistry that sought to justify these various acts, and to excuse the sins of the powerful in exchange for gifts of land and money.

The "forbidding to marry" and the "commanding to abstain from meats" (foods) refer to the elaborate code, or canon of the Roman Catholic Church, involving priestly celibacy, Lent, and similar rules promulgated by the medieval church. The Reformers thought these rules were legalism and inappropriate impositions on the believers.

2 Thessalonians 2:3-12 was held also to refer to a coming great apostasy. This text announces that the Second Coming of Christ and the gathering of the church to him, cannot come:

unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God.

These were held to be prophecies of the Pope's claim to infallibility and to be the Vicar of Christ, sitting in Christ's seat and in Christ's stead. This interpretation is the source of the traditional identification of the Pope as Antichrist, which occurs throughout Protestant literature of the Reformation period and afterwards.

In this view, it would be difficult to set a clear dividing line as to when the Great Apostasy began. It was a gradual process of corruption, as venal and materialistic leaders came into the Church, in love with their own high office and authority; and more and more pagan gods were baptised as alleged saints and offered to the congregation for veneration. It is also important to note that this view of the Great Apostasy does not mean that the Gospel had lost its power to save, or that all Christians during this time were denied Heaven; rather, the Reformers characterized the papacy and the hierarchy of priests, as a usurpatious government pretending to rule over the kingdom of God. God's grace preserved the true teachings and the Bible intact despite the corruption of those who were supposed to be official spokesmen for Christendom.

Most mainstream Protestant churches have backed away from, or at least no longer emphasise this teaching, which is now felt to be divisive, and to belong to the more vehement quarrels of another day. Conservative and fundamentalist churches insisted on these teachings the longest, and some still do, especially among the stricter Calvinists. The rise of dispensationalism as a widely held doctrine among Protestant fundamentalists has resulted in a re-interpretation of the end times; and while they may continue to believe that the Roman Church errs, they are less likely to believe that the Pope is Antichrist, because dispensationalists generally view passages such as 2 Thessalonians (referenced above) to refer to a reconstructed Temple in Jerusalem.

For an extensive, 18th century, Protestant perspective on the Great Apostasy, see the treatment on that subject by the German historian J. L. Mosheim, a Lutheran, whose six volume work in Latin on Ecclesiastical History is often referred to by protestant denominations who emphasize a great apostasy.

Anglicans and Episcopalians

The reception of the Reformation views of the Great Apostasy by the Church of England and other churches of the Anglican and Episcopalian denomination is a historically complex subject. As a state church, the Church of England attempted to unite all the people of England in a single church. However, the English disagreed amongst themselves about the retention of various ceremonies of Roman Catholicism, and about Arminian versus Calvinist theologies.

Political issues shaped English attitudes towards Roman Catholicism. As a result of attacks by the Popes on the legitimacy of the English monarchy, which bore fruit in attacks such as the Spanish Armada, and the martyrdoms of the English Inquisition under "Bloody" Mary many English people were disposed to see Roman Catholicism as a hostile authoritarian force, associated with the divine right of kings and arbitrary rule by the monarchy. On the other hand, the Stuart[?] monarchs wished to play the royal game of marriages to cement political alliances with Continental powers, including Roman Catholic monarchs.

To oversimplify greatly, there arose a "high church[?]" party within the Church of England and a "low church[?]" party allied with Puritanism. The high church party had Anglo-Catholic and Arminian tendencies, and wished to continue at least some of the pageantry of Roman Catholic ritual. The low church party was Calvinist and wished to move the Church of England in the direction of the Reformed churches. The low church party was much more open to the vehement language of the Continental reformers about the Great Apostasy than was the high church party.

Officially, churches of the Anglican persuasion teach that Rome has fallen into error. The Thirty-Nine Articles provide that:

  • 19. Of the Church
. . .
As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred; so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.

  • 21. Of the Authority of General Councils
General Councils may not be gathered together without the commandment and will of Princes. And when they be gathered together, (forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and Word of God,) they may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God. Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of holy Scripture.

(This Article was abrogated in 1801.)

  • 22. Of Purgatory
The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping and Adoration, as well of Images as of Relics, and also Invocation of Saints, is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.

The churches of England therefore officially teach that the Roman Catholic Church has fallen into error and incorporated sinful practices into its worship. The stress any given Anglican will put on these teachings will depend on where that person fits into the continuum of Anglo-Catholicism versus Anglo-Protestantism.

Anabaptists

The Anabaptists[?] of the Protestant Reformation believe that the Church became corrupt when Constantine ended the persecution of Christians with the Edict of Milan[?], and was not recovered until the Anabaptists came along. Other Reformers set other dates or time periods when the Church became less than the true Church, making it necessary for them to leave the Roman Catholic Church in order to re-establish the true Church and begin again. Several groups, including some Baptists and Mennonites, believe that besides the Great Apostasy there has also always been a "little flock", a "narrow way" which struggled through persecution and remained faithful to the truth. For example, the Mennonites published a book called the Martyrs Mirror in the 18th (17th??) century that attempts to show that exclusive Believers Baptism was practiced in every century, and how those who held that belief were persecuted for it.

Christians in Military Service and Political Office

Philosopher Jacques Ellul[?], in his book "Anarchy and Christianity", mentions a dramatic shift in AD 313, at the Council of Elvira[?]. Christians who held public office were no longer cast out of the church entirely as apostates, but were only cast out for as long as they were holding office. At the Synod of Arles[?] in 314, Christian pacifism was totally reversed; the third canon excommunicated soldiers who refused military service, or who mutinied. The seventh canon of that same council allowed Christians to be state officials, as long as they didn't take part in pagan acts. With this, Ellul sees the end of the original anti-statist, anti-militarist, anarchist Christianity. However, accounts of martyred Christian soldiers from the 100s, 200s and early 300s indicate that Christians were allowed to continue serving in the Roman army provided they did not sacrifice to the Roman gods, and that therefore the original church may not have been as anti-militarist as Ellul supposes. Ignatius of Antioch's letters from the 100s, the use of deacons in the Acts of the Apostles and Paul's pastoral epistles describing deacons, elders and overseers suggest that the early church was not anarchist in the way it governed itself internally.

Adventists

Jehovah's Witnesses consider the Great Apostasy to have properly begun after the death of the last apostle, although there were warning signs, precursors, starting shortly after Christs ascension. They consider the key indicator of the apostasy to be the adoption of the Trinity, based on a specious application of Greek Platonic and sophistical philosophy to the simple message of the scriptures. Paul in one of his Epistles warned the Greek congregations about being too clever by half with the contents of the Bible. The apostasy is considered to have become complete and total with the Council of Nicaea, when the Nicene Creed was adopted, enshrining the Trinity doctrine as orthodoxy. Most other Adventist groups in the Millerite tradition hold similar beliefs about the Great Apostasy. Some of these, most notably the Seventh-day Adventist Church, retain a belief in the Trinity and therefore don't see the Council of Nicaea as an apostate council as judged on this issue of doctrine. However, they along with many other Millerites have traditionally held that the apostate church which gathers for worship on Sunday, instead of the Sabbath, bears the Mark of the Beast.

Latter-day Saints

According to the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Great Apostasy started not long after Jesus' ascension and continued until Joseph Smith's First Vision[?] in 1820. To Latter-day Saints, the Great Apostasy is marked by:

Beginning in the 1st century and continuing up to the 4th century A.D. the various emperors of the Roman Empire carried out occasional violent persecutions against Christians whose beliefs conflicted with Roman customs. Apostles, bishops, disciples[?] and other leaders and followers of Jesus Christ who would not compromise their Christian faith were persecuted and martyred. The succession of persecutions after a couple hundred years was so successful that near the end of the 3rd century under the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, monuments were erected memorializing the extinction of Christianity.

According to the Latter-day Saints, all Priesthood leaders holding authority to conduct and perpetuate the affairs of the Christian church were either martyred or taken from the earth. Latter-day Saints conclude that what survived the persecutions was not the Church of Jesus Christ but merely a fragment of what Jesus had established; that is, Christianity continued but not in its original form. Survivors of the persecutions were overly-influenced by various pagan philosophies either because they were not as well doctrinated in Jesus' teachings or they corrupted their Christian beliefs (willingly or by compulsion) by accepting non-Christian doctrines into their faith.

Latter-day Saints interpret various writings in the New Testament as an indication that even soon after Jesus' ascension the apostles struggled to keep early Christians from distorting Jesus' teachings and to prevent the followers from dividing into different ideological groups. However, some of those who survived the persecutions took it upon themselves to speak for God, interpret, amend or add to his doctrines and ordinances, and carry out his work without being called by him or his agents and without authority to do so. During this time without the aid of Priesthood leaders and continuing revelation, precious doctrines and ordinances were lost and corrupted. Latter-day Saints point to the doctrine of the Trinity adopted at the Council of Nicaea as an example of how pagan philosophy corrupted the teachings of Jesus. (Mormonism more closely parallels the fourth century Arian doctrine that God and His son, Jesus, are not one substance, but distinct personages.) The Latter-day Saints reject the early ecumenical councils for what they see as misguided human attempts without divine assistance to decide matters of doctrine as if doctrine were handed down by democratic debate or politics rather than revelation. That such councils were even considered necessary is evidence enough to them that the church was no longer directly led by divine authority.

Thus, Latter-day Saints refer to the restitution of all things mentioned in Acts 3:20-21 (http://scriptures.lds.org/acts/3#20) and claim that a restoration of all the original and primary doctrines and ordinances of Christianity was needed and happened through Joseph Smith. The Great Apostasy is considered by the Latter-day Saints to be one of many apostasies that have occurred from the time of Adam to the present although the Great Apostasy is the most notable. Latter-day Saints recognize that because of apostasy through time other faiths (Christian or otherwise) only have some teachings or practices that are true and genuine, and they claim that because of the restoration only The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has the Priesthood authority and all of the doctrines and ordinances necessary and sufficient for salvation.

The leading work on the Great Apostasy from the Latter-day Saint perspective is James E. Talmage's The Great Apostasy. Also notable is Apostasy from The Divine Church by James L. Barker.

Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy

Both the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church believe that they are still in harmony with the teachings and practices given by Jesus Christ to the Apostles, and that Christ's promise has in fact been fulfilled: "On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it." And elsewhere, "I will be with you until the end of the age." They point to their apostolic succession as evidence that they are maintaining the church's traditional teachings and practices. They see claims of a complete and general apostasy as a denial that Christ has been with the Church through the centuries, and as a denial that the Church has stood firm as Christ promised it would.


  • Johann Lorenz Mosheim; Ecclesiastical History from the Birth of Christ to the Beginning of the Eighteenth Century (4 vols.), trans. Archibald Maclaine; (1758)
  • Johann Lorenz Mosheim; De rebus Christianorum ante Constantinvm Magnvm Commentarii (6 vols.); (1753)
  • James E. Talmage; The Great Apostasy; Deseret Book Company; ISBN 0-87579-843-8 (Softcover, February 1994)
  • The Geneva Bible (1599), annotations of "Fr. Junius" to the Book of Revelation, repr. L. L. Brown Publishing, ISBN 0-9629888-0-4 (1990)
  • The Thirty-Nine Articles (http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1571-39articles) of the Episcopalian Church in America.



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