Great Apostasy

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For the book by James E. Talmage, see The Great Apostasy (book).
Antichristus, a woodcut by Lucas Cranach of the pope using the temporal power to grant authority to a generously contributing ruler

The Great Apostasy is a term used by some religious groups to describe a perceived fallen state of traditional Christianity, especially the Roman Catholic Church, because they claim it allowed the traditional Greco-Roman mysteries and deities of solar monism such as Mithras and Sol Invictus and idol worship into the church. In short, in their opinion, the church has fallen into apostasy.[1][2] They feel that to attract the pagans to nominal Christianity, the Catholic Church took measures to amalgamate the Christian and pagan festivals [3] so pagans would join the church; for example, bringing in the pagan festival of Easter as a substitute for the Pasch or Passover, although neither Jesus nor his Apostles enjoined the keeping of this or any other festival.[4][5]

They consider the Papacy to be in full-blown apostasy for allowing pagan rituals, beliefs and ceremonies to come into the church, having those who pointed out its apostasy persecuted and killed and never repenting of or fully admitting the true extent of its actions. Some Catholics counter that it was magisterial Protestantism and Eastern Orthodoxy that fell into apostasy.[citation needed]


Greek mysticism influenced many early church theologians such as Clement of Alexandria and Origen.

Some modern scholars[who?] believe that the church in the early stages picked up pagan oral teachings from Palestinian and Hellenistic sources which formed the basis of a secret oral tradition, which in the 4th century came to be called the disciplina arcani. Mainstream theologians believe it contained liturgical details and certain other pagan traditions which remain a part of some branches of mainstream Christianity (for example, the doctrine of transubstantiation is thought to have been a part of this by Catholic theologians).[6][7][8] Important esoteric influences on the church were the Christian theologians Clement of Alexandria and Origen, the main figures of the Catechetical School of Alexandria.[9]

Protestants (most significantly starting with Martin Luther) and evangelical Christians have formally taught that the Bishop of Rome, along with the Catholic Church, greatly abused the original teachings and practices of the primitive or original Christian church. They teach that the Papacy slowly became corrupted as it strove to attain great dominion and authority, civil and ecclesiastical.[10][11] For example, it reinstated the ceremonies and obligations of the Collegium Pontificum and the position of Pontifex Maximus and created Christian religious orders to replace the ancient Roman ones such as the Vestal Virgins and the flamines.

The 95 Theses, circa 1517. Written in protest by Martin Luther against Church abuse.

Following the Protestant Reformation, the denominations spawned from the Reformation have considered their own teachings to be restorative in nature, returning to the basic tenets of Biblical Christianity and sola scriptura. These views are taught in the modern descendant denominations and these doctrinal stances account for their continuing separation from the Catholic Church. Although Protestant Christianity, as a whole, rejects the overall concept that the original church was thrown into complete anarchy and chaos through Catholicism, it does assert that there was gross abuse of Biblical authority (especially by the Papacy) and a wandering from clear Biblical teachings prior to the Reformation.

Some groups see themselves as uniquely restoring original Christianity. In their case, the term "Great Apostasy" is directed in a sweeping way over all of Christianity beyond their group, indicating that true Christianity has not been preserved, but rather restored. These various groups differ as to exactly when the Great Apostasy took place and what the exact errors or changes were, but all of them make a similar claim that true Christianity was generally lost until it was disclosed again in themselves. The term "Great Apostasy" appears to have been coined in this narrower, technical sense, by "Restorationists". The term may sometimes be used in this sense by other groups claiming their unique authority as representing Christianity.

Protestant views[edit]

Many Protestant reformers, including Martin Luther, John Calvin, Thomas Cranmer, John Thomas, John Knox, and Cotton Mather, felt the early church had been led into apostasy by the Papacy and identified it as the Antichrist.[12] The Centuriators of Magdeburg, a group of Lutheran scholars in Magdeburg headed by Matthias Flacius, wrote the 12-volume "Magdeburg Centuries" to discredit the papacy and identify the pope as the Antichrist.

To a large degree, Protestantism recognizes that Constantine the Great (c. 325 AD) sought to bring stability, continuity and organization to the Christian faith.[citation needed] However, through decades of succession by poor, often politically motivated leadership, abuses of scriptural application became prevalent. Nevertheless, it does not suggest that these abuses led to a complete state of anarchy and apostate renderings of scripture within the Early Church. From the Protestant perspective, abuses within the church led to a poor application of doctrine and Biblical truths. Protestantism generally asserts that although scripture itself remained pristine, the leaders and teachers became fouled. To that end, most of traditional Christianity agrees that the Biblical message itself was ultimately never lost to mankind.

Reformed perspective[edit]

Calvinists have taught that a gradual process of corruption was predicted in the New Testament, that this process began within the New Testament era itself, and culminated in a self-proclaimed corrective brought about by the Protestant Reformation. The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches had developed from early on the idea of infallibility of the Church — that the Church may speak entirely without error in particular councils or edicts; or that, in a less definable way, the Church is infallibly directed so that it always stands in the truth; and indeed, and claim that the Church has the promise of Jesus that it shall do so. The Roman Catholic Church also developed on the parallel and complementary idea of papal infallibility — that the pope may speak in the same capacity; this idea was finally defined dogmatically at the First Vatican Council of 1870 and incorporated into doctrine.

In contrast, Protestants believe that the Church has only spoken infallibly through the Scriptures since the time of the Apostles, and should not expect to be completely free of error at any time until the end of the world, and rather must remain continually vigilant to maintain a Biblical (and therefore authoritative) doctrine and faith, or else fall away from the Christian faith and become an enemy of the truth.

In the Reformed view of church history, the true church cannot declare itself infallible, but rather calls itself ecclesia semper reformanda ("the Church which must be always reformed"), the church that is always repenting of error. This Protestant view is that people are naturally inclined to elevate tradition to equality with the written testimony of the Bible, which is the word of God[citation needed] (cf. Sacred Tradition). The reforming churches believe that human weakness is naturally drawn to a form of false religion that is worldly, pompous, ritualistic, anthropomorphic, polytheistic, infected with magical thinking and legalism, and that values human accomplishment more highly or more practically than the work of God (divine grace) is valued. Given the chance, people will substitute the sort of religion they naturally prefer, over the Gospel, see also Cafeteria Christianity. The Hebrew Bible contains multiple episodes of backsliding by the very people who first received God's revelation; to the Protestant mind, this shows that teaching the Gospel is a strait and narrow path, one that requires that natural religion be held in check and that God's grace, holiness, and otherness be rigorously proclaimed.

Temptations of power[edit]

According to these Reformers, even as early as the apostles a natural process of corruption began, and reached a crucial point of development when the Christian church was made the state church of the Roman Empire by Theodosius I. From this point on, compromise of the truth deepened over time until the church became thoroughly worldly and corrupt, so that the true faith was no longer openly taught but instead suppressed, and at times persecuted and cast out. The development of formal hierarchy within the Catholic Church, as opposed to local autonomy among Christian congregations, with levels of rank among the bishops, and a handful of patriarchs to supervise the bishops, is seen by some Protestants as conducive to imperial manipulation of the Church, susceptible to general control by capture of only a few seats of power.

Similarly, the defenses of the right belief and worship of the church resided in the bishops, and Protestants theorize that the process of unifying the doctrine of the Church also concentrated power into their own hands (see also Ignatius of Antioch, who advocated a powerful bishop), and made their office an instrument of power coveted by ambitious men. They charge that, through ambition and jealousy, the church has been at times, and not very subtly, subverted from carrying out its sacred aim. For the Reformers, the culmination of this gradual corruption was typified, in a concentrated way, in the office of the Pope who took on ancient titles such as Pontifex Maximus and supreme power in the church, which they characterized in its final form as being an usurpatious throne of Satanic authority set up in pretense of ruling over the Kingdom of God.[citation needed]

Verses used to support apostasy of the Roman Catholic Church[edit]

One verse in particular is used to point specifically to the coming apostate church: 2 Thessalonians 2:7 King James Version (KJV) For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way. This verse gives prophecy which foretells that when the empire of Rome is taken away, the seat that falls away from God will succeed and hold its place, as the old writers, Tertullian, Chrysostom, and Jerome explain and interpret it.

Jerome (347–420): "Says the apostle [Paul in the second epistle to the Thessalonians], ‘Unless the Roman Empire should first be desolated, and antichrist proceed, Christ will not come.’" Jerome in addition identifies the little horn power of Daniel 7:25 which 'shall speak great words against the most High, and shall wear out the saints of the most High, and think to change times and laws' as the Papacy.[13]

John Wesley's Explanatory Notes give the following on this apostate power which follows the empire of Rome: 2 Thessalonians 2:7 He will surely be revealed; for the mystery - The deep, secret power of iniquity, just opposite to the power of godliness, already worketh. It began with the love of honour, and the desire of power; and is completed in the entire subversion of the gospel of Christ. This mystery of iniquity is not wholly confined to the Romish church, but extends itself to others also.

Martin Luther stated, "We are not the first to declare the papacy to be the kingdom of Antichrist, since for many years before us so many and so great men have undertaken to express the same thing so clearly."

Martin Luther believed and taught that the church had strayed and fallen away from the true teachings of the scripture and challenged the authority of the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church by teaching that the Bible is the only source of divinely revealed knowledge[14] and opposed sacerdotalism by considering all baptized Christians to be a holy priesthood.[15]

The very doctrine of indulgences that angered Luther and sparked the Reformation remains a mainstay of Catholicism. In fact, John Paul II offered new indulgences such as if you walked through one of the four "holy doors" that the pope opened for the "Jubilee Year of 2000," in Rome, you would receive a plenary indulgence.

Although Lutherans and Calvinists hold that the Ecumenical Councils of the early and medieval church are true expressions of the Christian faith, many assert[weasel words] that the councils are at times inconsistent with one another, and err on particular points. The true Church, they argue, will be mixed with alien influences and false beliefs, which is necessary in order for these impurities ultimately to be overcome and the truth to be vindicated. 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)

Acts 20:28-29

Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.
For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. (KJV)

Even Jesus warned:

"Then many will fall away, and they will betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. And this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations; and then the end will come." Gospel of Matthew 24:10-14(NRSV)

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."

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

"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 (see also Evangelical counsels and 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.

2 Thessalonians 2:3-12 was held also to refer to a coming great apostasy. This text announces that the Second Coming of Jesus 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 Jesus' seat and in his 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. Chapter XXV, article 6, of the Westminster Confession, a confessional statement issued in 1646 and important to the Presbyterian and other branches of the English-speaking Reformed churches, states that:

There is no other head of the Church but the Lord Jesus Christ: nor can the Pope of Rome in any sense be head thereof; but is that Antichrist, that man of sin and son of perdition, that exalteth himself in the Church against Christ, and all that is called God.

This article was abrogated in 1967 by the Presbyterian Church (USA), the largest Presbyterian denomination in the United States. It remains officially in force in other Presbyterian denominations.

"Roman Catholic apostasy" doctrine supplanted by dispensationalism[edit]

Most leaders in mainstream Protestant churches have changed what was held from the start of the Reformation and backed away from teaching the apostasy of the Roman Catholic Church as it is the largest in the world, 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 and Fundamentalists. The spread of dispensationalism doctrine has led conservative Protestants to drop the traditional interpreting of the Book of Revelation as predicting events that have taken place throughout history (historicism) and pushed it to some far off future events (futurism). This has resulted in a re-interpretation of the end times; and while Protestant fundamentalists may continue to believe that the Roman Church errs, they have dropped the Protestant Reformation view or are less likely to believe that the Pope is Antichrist.

Dispensationalists generally view passages such as 2 Thessalonians (referenced above) as referring to a reconstructed Temple in Jerusalem (see also Jerusalem in Christianity and Christian Zionism) in the last days. The great "Falling Away", they tend to view as a present or future affair, in which not only Rome but all of the world's religions join against the truth, for the sake of a false peace and prosperity.

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 referred to by some Protestants who emphasize a great apostasy.

Restorationist perspective[edit]


The Anabaptists of the Protestant Reformation believe that the Church became corrupt when Constantine I 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 corrupted itself, making it necessary for them to leave the Roman Catholic Church in order to re-establish the true Church. Several groups, including 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 1660 that attempted to show that exclusive Believer's baptism was practiced and passed down in every century, and how those who held that belief were persecuted for it.

Some Anabaptist and Baptist groups have held that the Apostasy of the Roman Catholic Church was so complete as to nullify its claims to Christianity. Consequently, in these groups, repudiation of the ecumenical councils has followed, in a few minority cases engendering seventh-day Sabbatarianism and unitarianism, along with believers baptism and pacifism, and other anti-traditional views. Some of these views, more radical than other Protestants, were influential in the founding of the Restoration Movement and the Adventist churches in the United States in the 19th century and continue to be influential in the house church movement.

Christians in military service and political office[edit]

The fusion of church and state as seen in the Papacy is a central theme of the Anabaptist view of the Great Apostasy, and of their consequent assertion during the Protestant Reformation that the churches of Catholic Europe needed not simply reform, but a radical re-establishment based on the Bible alone. In sympathy with this assessment, philosopher Jacques Ellul, in "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 so long as they held 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 did not 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, bishops and presbyters suggest that the early church was not anarchist in the way it governed itself internally.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints[edit]

LDS Church members believe that Joseph Smith, Jr. was called by God to restore the true teachings of Jesus Christ

According to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), the Great Apostasy started not long after Jesus' ascension[16] 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 AD the various emperors of the Roman Empire carried out violent persecutions against Christians.[21] Apostles, bishops, disciples and other leaders and followers of Jesus who would not compromise their faith were persecuted and martyred.

The LDS Church declares that all Priesthood leaders with authority[16] to conduct and perpetuate church affairs were either martyred, taken from the earth, or began to teach impure doctrines, causing a break in the necessary Apostolic Succession. Latter-day Saints believe that what survived was but a fragment of the light and truth that Jesus had established: the Church of Jesus Christ, as established by him, was no longer to be found on the earth. Survivors of the persecutions were overly-influenced by various pagan philosophies either because they were not well indoctrinated in Jesus' teachings or they corrupted their Christian beliefs (willingly, by compulsion, or with good intentions but without direct revelation from God to help them interpret said beliefs) by accepting non-Christian doctrines into their faith. Latter-day Saints believe that many plain and simple truths of the gospel of Christ were, therefore, lost.[16]

Latter-day Saints understand various writings in the New Testament to be 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.[22] Latter-day Saints claim that various Old Testament and New Testament scriptures, including teachings of Christ himself, prophesy of this "falling away" or "apostasy." The Christian believers 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 proper authority and divine direction from God. During this time, important doctrines and rites were lost or corrupted.[23] Latter-day Saints point to the doctrine of the Trinity adopted at the Council of Nicaea as an example of how pagan philosophy corrupted Jesus' teachings. Mormonism teaches that God, the Eternal Father, His Son, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost are not one substance, but three separate and distinct beings forming one Godhead.[24] 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, substituting debate or politics for divine revelation. Latter-day Saints believe that the often heated proceedings of such councils were evidence that the church was no longer led by revelation and divine authority. Indeed, the normative Christian view is that public revelation, or revelation having a binding on all Christians, concluded with the death of the last apostle,[25] meaning that any doctrinal development after the apostolic era was not aided by revelation.

Thus, Latter-day Saints refer to the "restitution of all things" mentioned in Acts 3:20-21 and claim that a restoration of all the original and primary doctrines and rites of Christianity was necessary.[22] The LDS believe that God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, appeared to a 14-year old boy named Joseph Smith and called him to be a prophet.[26] Later Peter, James, and John, three of Christ's apostles in the New Testament, appeared from heaven to Smith and ordained him an apostle.[27] Through Christ's Priesthood authority and divine direction from Christ, the LDS believe that Joseph Smith was called and ordained to re-establish Christ's church. Hence, members of the LDS faith refer to their church as "The Church of Jesus Christ." The term "latter-day saints" refers to the fact that members of Christ's church were originally called "saints" and that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is Christ's restored church in these, what LDS and other Christian denominations believe, are the last days prior to prophesied second coming of Jesus.[28] Latter-day Saints maintain that other religions—Christian or otherwise—have a portion of the truth, though mingled with inaccuracies due to misinterpretations of some doctrines, such as the nature of the Godhead, how Adam and Eve's choice in the Garden of Eden and their fall advanced the Plan of salvation, the need for modern divine revelation through living prophets and apostles, and the universal divine potential of mankind. They claim that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the restoration of Jesus' original church, has the authentic Priesthood authority, and all doctrines and ordinances of the Gospel, fulfilling many of the prophecies of Daniel, Isaiah and Malachi in the Old Testament and also the prophesies of Peter and Jesus in the New Testament. (See Ref.) They also maintain that many other religions, Christian and otherwise, advance many good causes and do much good among the people insofar as they are led by the light of Christ, "which lighteth every man that cometh into the world." (John 1:9)


Most Adventist groups in the Millerite tradition hold similar beliefs about the Great Apostasy to those of other Restorationist types of Christian faith. Some of these, most notably the Seventh-day Adventist Church, have traditionally held that the apostate church formed when Bishop of Rome began to dominate and brought heathen corruption and allowed pagan idol worship and beliefs to come in, and formed the Roman Catholic Church, which teaches others traditions over Scripture, and to rest from their work on Sunday, instead of Sabbath, which is not in keeping with Scripture.

Seventh-day Adventists teach that great apostasy corresponded with the rise of the power of the Roman Bishop which they see as the Little Horn Power of Daniel 7 prophecy, which as predicted rose after the breakup of the Roman Empire. In 533 A.D. Justinian, the emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, legally recognized the bishop (pope) of Rome as the head of all the Christian churches. Because of the Arian domination of some of the Roman Empire by the barbarian tribes, this authority could not be exercised by the bishop of Rome. Finally, in 538 A.D., Belisarius, one of Justinian's generals routed the Ostrogoths, the last of the barbarian kingdoms, from the city of Rome and the bishop of Rome could begin establishing his universal civil authority. So, by the military intervention of the Eastern Roman Empire, the bishop of Rome became all-powerful throughout the area of the old Roman Empire.

Like many reformation-era Protestant leaders, the writings of Adventist pioneer Ellen White speak against the Catholic Church as a fallen church and in preparation for a nefarious eschatological role as the antagonist against God's true church and that the pope is the Antichrist. Many Protestant reformers such as Martin Luther, John Knox, William Tyndale and others held similar beliefs about the Catholic Church and the papacy when they broke away from the Catholic Church during the reformation.[29]

Ellen White writes,

His word has given warning of the impending danger; let this be unheeded, and the Protestant world will learn what the purposes of Rome really are, only when it is too late to escape the snare. She is silently growing into power. Her doctrines are exerting their influence in legislative halls, in the churches, and in the hearts of men. She is piling up her lofty and massive structures in the secret recesses of which her former persecutions will be repeated. Stealthily and unsuspectedly she is strengthening her forces to further her own ends when the time shall come for her to strike. All that she desires is vantage ground, and this is already being given her. We shall soon see and shall feel what the purpose of the Roman element is. Whoever shall believe and obey the word of God will thereby incur reproach and persecution.[30]

Seventh-day Adventists view the length of time the apostate church unbridled power was permitted to rule as shown in Daniel 7:25 "The little horn would rule a time and times and half a time" or 1,260 years. The papacy ruled supremely in Europe from 538 A.D. when the last of the Arian tribes was forced out of Rome and into oblivion, until 1798 A.D. when the French general Berthier took the pope captive, which history records a period of 1,260 years.

Seventh-day Adventists believe that the mark of the beast refers to the apostate church which in the end times will legally enforce Sunday-worship. "Those who reject God's memorial of creatorship — the Bible Sabbath — choosing to worship and honor Sunday in the full knowledge that it is not God's appointed day of worship, will receive the 'mark of the beast.'"[31] "Sunday Sabbath is purely a child of the Papacy. It is the mark of the beast."[32] They see an apostate church that changed God's law in preference of pagan traditions, and allowed pagan beliefs and ceremonies into the church and brought oppression against and persecuted the true believers throughout the Dark Ages for 1260 years as prophesied in Revelation 12:6, 14-16.[33][34] They see the Roman Papacy stepping in after the Roman Empire was taken out of the way and fulling 2 Thessalonians 2:7 (New International Version) "For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way."

Jehovah's Witnesses[edit]

Like many groups, Jehovah's Witnesses strive to reflect Christianity as they believe it was practiced in the 1st century, the Apostolic Age. The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society and its precursor organization, Zion's Watch Tower Tract Society, considers the Great Apostasy to have properly begun before the death of the last Apostle, along with the warning signs and precursors starting shortly after Jesus' ascension. Jehovah's Witnesses consider adoption of the Trinity—which they allege is based on a specious application of Greek Platonic and sophistical philosophy and is a violation of the Scriptural precepts set forth beginning in the Law of Moses—as a prime indicator of apostasy. Jehovah's Witnesses consider that the falling away from faithfulness was already complete before the Council of Nicaea, when the Nicene Creed was adopted, which then enshrined the Trinity doctrine as the central tenet of nominal "Christian" orthodoxy.

This group strictly abstains from political involvement and military service, for reasons similar to those cited by earlier Anabaptists, and they point to such entanglements as another aspect of apostasy, or the willful rebellion against God and rejecting his Word of truth. Jehovah's Witnesses also teach that Jesus' statements regarding his disciples being separate from the world at John 17:6, John 17:14-16, and John 18:36 demonstrates that it is Jesus' intention that his disciples follow the pattern he set for them, as he said at John 13:15.

They cite 2 Thessalonians 2:3 [see discussion above] as indicating that the apostasy prophesied by Jesus at Matthew 7:15, Matthew 13:24-30 and Matthew 13:36-43, as well as Matthew 24:24 (and others) had already begun in the 1st century of the Common Era, prior to the formation of the Catholic Church as a religion separate and distinct from the true Christian faith as taught and practiced by Jesus and his 1st-century followers.


Hyperdispensationalism is a niche view in Protestantism which views Pauline Christianity or the beliefs and doctrines espoused by the Apostle Paul through his writings, as the purest form of Christian faith and worship. E. W. Bullinger framed the position for very early apostasy thus:

We are told, on every hand, today, that we must go back to the first three centuries to find the purity of faith and worship of the primitive church! But it is clear from this comparison of Acts xix.10 and 2 Tim.i.15, that we cannot go back...even to the apostle's own life-time!...It was Pauline truth and teaching from which all had "turned away".[35]

Traditionalist Catholic perspective[edit]

Sedevacantists and certain other traditionalist Catholics believe that the Great Apostasy began at the time of the Second Vatican Council, or with the election of Pope John XXIII, or shortly thereafter. Sedevacantists (and conclavists) believe the differences between the Roman Catholic Church before and after Vatican II are essential in nature, and enough to regard the Vatican 2 "Catholic" Church as not Catholic, sometimes pointing to the Church of England as a model. They also point to the precipitous drop in church attendance that occurred after the new rite of the Mass was made mandatory in the Vatican 2 "Catholic" Church, along with more liberal interpretations of Church doctrine which are considered heretical. [1]

Sedevacantists and Protestants believe that the Vatican 2 "Catholic" Church is in a fallen state and no longer truly Christian. However, they differ in that traditionalists accept the Church as it existed until Vatican II, usually until the death of Pope Pius XII and all his pronouncements regarding doctrine, faith, and morals, and the rite of Mass before Annibale Bugnini's first innovations were introduced in the 1950s, whereas most Protestants believe that the Catholic Church began to fall away with the rise of the Emperor Constantine, his legalization of Christianity, and its latter establishment as the state religion of the Roman Empire. (Traditional Catholics argue that Constantine, as a pagan Emperor, would have had no authority over the Church in doctrinal matters anyway.)

Responses of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy[edit]

Both the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church contend that they are still in harmony with the teachings and practices Jesus gave the Apostles, and that Jesus' promise has 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." Also, "The Father . . . will give you another Advocate to be with you always." And the passages of St. Paul describing the church as Christ's body and as the "pillar and bulwark of the truth." (1 Tim 3:15) They point to their apostolic succession (among other things) as evidence that they are maintaining authentic orthodox Christian teachings. They see claims of a complete apostasy (as opposed to a widespread revolt) as a denial of the promise that Jesus made (as recorded in scripture) to be with his Church "until the end of time". They also claim that their ecclesiastical structure (e.g. the Biblical practice of having bishops) and liturgical practices have their essential roots in the teachings and practices of the Apostles and early Christian community, and are not the result of radical changes introduced by either the imperial government or new converts in the 4th century. Many elements of modern orthodox teachings are traced back to the writings of those known as the Ante-Nicene Fathers. In these writings there is found information about the sacraments, organizational structure, and general Christian lifestyle.

The Catholic Church also believes in a future event termed "The Great Apostasy" based on Biblical teachings. First there is the quote from 2 Thess. 2:3-4 :"Let no man deceive you by any means, for unless there come a revolt first, and the man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition, Who opposeth, and is lifted up above all that is called God, or that is worshipped, so that he sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself as if he were God" which points to the Great Apostasy happening in the future, during the time of anti-Christ. Furthermore, 2 Thessolonians identifies this with the anti-Christ, who is held back by the Pope: "And now you know what withholdeth, that he may be revealed in his time. For the mystery of iniquity already worketh; only that he who now holdeth, do hold, until he be taken out of the way. And then that wicked one shall be revealed whom the Lord Jesus shall kill with the spirit of his mouth; and shall destroy with the brightness of his coming, him, Whose coming is according to the working of Satan, in all power, and signs, and lying wonders" (2 Thess. 2:6-9). This verse clearly shows that a man, whom Catholics believe is the Pope, holds back the anti-Christ, until he is killed. This is due to the fact that the man was already holding back the wicked one, and must be the office of the Pope or otherwise this man has lived for 2000 years. These verses again also show that the Great Apostasy is a future event.[citation needed]

The Early Church Fathers also predicted a future Great Apostasy in the Church, for example Hippolytus: "And the churches too will wail with a mighty lamentation, because neither oblation nor incense is attended to, nor a service acceptable to God; but the sanctuaries of the churches will become like a garden-watcher's hut, and the Holy Body and Blood of Christ will not be shown in those days. The public service of God shall be extinguished." (Third Century)

Protestants[which?] claim, however, that the Roman Catholic Church has added to the Deposit of Faith handed down by the Apostles, especially since the time of Reformation, such as the Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Mary and Papal Infallibility, though Catholics can point to Biblical support for each. The Orthodox Church also believes in the Assumption (which is termed the Dormition). In the view of Protestants, these are new doctrines and they take Roman Catholicism further from the Protestant understanding of Biblical Christianity, even though Catholics provide the Bibilical citations supporting their views. Roman Catholics also counter that the Dogmas of the Assumption and Immaculate Conception are well-supported in the writings of early Church Fathers (although some Protestants question the way Catholic theologians cite and interpret early Christian writings, or whether they have the same validity as the Holy Scripture), in addition to being supported by Holy Scripture.

Orthodox Churches also note that the Roman Catholic Church has added doctrines since the time of the East-West Schism, which justifies disunity between Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. At the same time, both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy see much of Protestantism as having jettisoned much Christian teaching and practice wholesale, and having added much non-Christian dogma as well. They also accuse Protestants of distorting Scripture itself to support their own claims, whether by faulty translations, misinterpretations, or ignoring passages of Scripture which support Catholicism or Orthodoxy against Protestantism.[36]

While both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches can claim Apostolic Succession, the Orthodox Church claims to be the only Christian church that has remained unchanged since its establishment by Christ and His Apostles. Although the Orthodox Church sees corruption of doctrine and authority in the Catholic Church just as the Protestants do, they view Protestantism as essentially "throwing the baby out with the bathwater", ultimately separating themselves from the Truth to a larger degree than the Catholics.

Historic perspective[edit]

Protestants often assert that practices that seem especially strange to them, such as regular fasting[dubious ] (several Protestant Churches practice fasting), veneration of relics and icons, honoring the Virgin Mary (known as the Theotokos to the Orthodox and as Mother of God to Catholics), and observing special holy days, must have been introduced after the time of Constantine (or even introduced by Constantine as a way to lead the Church into paganism). Documents from the pre-Constantine church often show otherwise;[citation needed] however, there were several different Christian sects before Constantine. Fasting is a biblical practice from even Old Testament times, and was mentioned by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and reportedly practiced by him as well. Early Christian documents refer to the regular practice of fasting. For example, the Didache (or "Teaching of the Twelve") instructs Christians to fast every Wednesday and Friday, a practice the Orthodox Church continues to this day. Every feast day is preceded (or followed, as with Shrove Tuesday followed by Ash Wednesday) by a fast as well, in part to avoid the excessive revelry of pagan feasting without moderation. The catacomb church was surrounded by relics of necessity, but accounts of early martyrdoms show that Christians regularly sought the remains of the martyrs for proper burial and veneration. (See the Martyrdom of Polycarp.) Many of these early accounts associate miracles with the relics: mentioned in Acts are Paul's handkerchiefs which healed the sick (Acts 19:11-12). The Infancy Gospel of James is attributed to James the Just but was certainly written no later than the 2nd century; it lays out additional details of Mary's life. This "gospel" is viewed by the Orthodox Church as apocryphal, and beneficial as a teaching tool only. The practice of observing special holy days was borrowed from the Jews, who were commanded to observe such days by God. In the same way, other practices were borrowed from the Jewish liturgy as well, such as the use of incense and oil lamps.

Regarding "forbidding to marry" and the "commanding to abstain from meats" in 1 Timothy 4, (Paul might have spoken in general in regards to any new sects or doctrines which could arise) the Catholic Church responds:

"...Regarding the Church's discipline of celibacy, men and women freely abstain from the high and holy good of marriage so that they can more fully give themselves to God and His work. Marriage is not "forbidden." Neither is it considered evil. See the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Catechism), numbers 1618-20, especially the quote from St. John Chrysostom. 1 Timothy 4:1-5 needs to be read in context. There were those in Paul's time that forbade marriage on heretical presuppositions that marriage was intrinsically evil, a teaching based in turn on the false belief that the body or all matter was evil, and only the Spirit was good. This Gnostic heresy became prevalent again in the second century. The heresy became manifest in later centuries as well, with groups like the Albigensians, who also fell away from the Catholic Faith...With regard to foods, none are forbidden to Catholics. Unlike vegetarians, we may eat meat; unlike Jews and Muslims, we may eat pork, shellfish, and other non-kosher foods. Fasting—a practice actively promoted in Scripture—and abstinence from certain foods at particular times are good spiritual disciplines, but there is no food from which Catholics must abstain at all times...So who is Paul condemning regarding abstinence? He is referring to Gnostics and their spiritual descendants. In ascetic Gnosticism, we find both practices Paul condemned in his First Letter to Timothy. Ascetic Gnostics categorically forbade marriage (which libertine Gnostics also did) and abstained from sexual intercourse and meat all the time."[37]

The Orthodox Church also defines the concept of oikonomia which is exercised to facilitate salvation or worship, and is exemplified in the New Testament: in Acts 16:3 St. Paul set aside the usual rule to circumcise Timothy, whose father was a gentile, to placate certain Jewish Christians. In both instances, economy was exercised to facilitate the salvation of some of the parties involved.

Worldly ambitions[edit]

There have certainly been times when the Church has seemingly benefited from its affiliation with ruling governments, and vice versa. There is also much evidence that the Church sought to subvert or undermine ruling governments to bring them under its influence. It used its agents or allowed the methods to be adopted for the acquisition of greater power and influence for the Roman Catholic Church. The Jesuits were seen as church's soldiers, and, in the view of some, given free rein to use whatever methods as outlined in the forged anti-Catholic document Monita Secreta, also known as the "Secret Instructions of the Jesuits" published (1612 and 1614) in Kraków,[38] and were also accused of using casuistry to obtain justifications for the unjustifiable in their work (See: formulary controversy; Blaise Pascals' Lettres Provinciales).[39]

There are also times in its history when the Church has taken a doctrinal stance directly contrary to the interests of the State. The Council of Chalcedon introduced a religious schism that undermined the Byzantine Empire's unity. The Emperor called the following Ecumenical Council in an attempt to reach a compromise position that all parties could accept, urging those involved to do so. A compromise was not reached, and the schism persisted. Later emperors introduced policies of iconoclasm; yet many Christians and Church leaders resisted for decades, eventually triumphing when a later Empress (Irene) came to power who was sympathetic to their cause. In Russia, Basil, a "Fool for Christ" repeatedly stood up to Ivan the Terrible, denouncing his policies and calling him to repentance; for this and other reasons he was buried in the cathedral that now popularly bears his name in Moscow. The Greek Orthodox Church survived roughly 400 years under the Muslim Ottoman Empire, preserving its faith when it would have been socially advantageous to convert to Islam. More recently, in the 20th century, the Russian Orthodox Church survived over 70 years of persecution under Communism, while Christians in many Muslim countries continue to refuse assimilation, in places including Egypt, Palestine, Turkey, and Iraq. Therefore, it would be more correct to say that there have been times when the State has seen that it was to its advantage to cooperate with the Church and to adjust accordingly, than to advocate the opposite position. More importantly, there is a consistency in Christian teaching, beginning with the persecuted church of its first few centuries, to the more established state church of the Roman Empire, to the again persecuted church of the various Muslim and communist regimes.

Theological dangers[edit]

In response to the claim that the Church's response to one heresy led to an overcorrection in the opposite direction, it can only be admitted that this is always a real danger, and history provides abundant examples. One famous example is Nestorius, the Patriarch of Constantinople who so vigorously defended Jesus' humanity that he undermined Jesus' divinity; A brief definition of Nestorian Christology can be given as: "Jesus Christ, who is not identical with the Son but personally united with the Son, who lives in him, is one hypostasis and one nature: human.".[40] Orthodoxy and Catholicism believe that the Church's leaders have on the whole navigated the centuries between opposing errors, on occasion providing subtle clarifications or restatements of earlier doctrines. Some Church fathers have suggested that the abundance and variety of early controversies were a blessing, in that they enabled the Church to deal with most or all of the major questions surrounding the Christian faith in a rather brief period. Protestants who ignore or attack the historic church's conclusions are at best bound to fight the same fights all over again, running the same risk of overcorrecting in response to current doctrinal disputes.

Compounding this risk of overcorrection is the growing propensity among Protestants to split into different denominations when serious disagreements arise. This risks having two groups, one or both of whom err in different directions, rather than a single group that adheres to the purported truth without deviating to any extremes. Some Protestant denominations avoid this more successfully than others. Of those that avoid further schism, many of these ignore doctrinal differences within their ranks and just play down the importance of the issue, which eventually leads to a greater variety of beliefs within the denomination. This variety, and toleration of greater and greater differences in belief, has resulted in further deviations from historic Christianity.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Newcomb, Harvey (2003). Great Apostasy: Being an Account of the Origin, Rise and Progress of Corruption and Tryanny in the Church of Rome. Kessinger Publishing. pp. ix. 
  2. ^ Talmage, James E. (1973). Jesus the Christ (40th ed ed.). LDS Church. pp. 745–757. OCLC 2012826. 
  3. ^ Will Durant in The Story of Civilization, Volume 3, "Caesar and Christ":
  4. ^ Socrates, Church History, 5.22, in Schaff, Philip (July 13, 2005). "The Author's Views respecting the Celebration of Easter, Baptism, Fasting, Marriage, the Eucharist, and Other Ecclesiastical Rites.". Socrates and Sozomenus Ecclesiastical Histories. Calvin College Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Retrieved March 28, 2007. 
  5. ^ Hislop, Alexander (1903). "Chapter III: Festivals; Section II: Easter". The Two Babylons. London: S.W. Partridge. pp. 104–105. 
  6. ^ G.G. Stroumsa, Hidden Wisdom: Esoteric Traditions and the Roots of Christian Mysticism, 2005.
  7. ^ Frommann, De Disciplina Arcani in vetere Ecclesia christiana obticuisse fertur, Jena 1833.
  8. ^ E. Hatch, The Influence of Greek Ideas and Usages upon the Christian Church, London, 1890, Chapter 10.
  9. ^ Jean Danielou, Origen, translated by Walter Mitchell, 1955.
  10. ^ The Council of Chalcedon (415 AD) made the following declaration in Canon 28: "The Bishop of New Rome (Constantinople) shall enjoy the same honor as the Bishop of Old Rome, for the former possesses the same privileges." (Disciplinary Decrees of the General Councils, Schroeder, p. 125)
  11. ^ He (Theodore I, bishop of Rome, 642-649 DJR) was the first Pope officially styled 'Sovereign Pontiff,' and the last whom the bishops called 'brother.' The preeminence of the first See and the extension of the Pontifical authority were becoming more necessary in proportion as the Church spread further her conquests." (Darras, Vol. II, p. 232).
  12. ^ The AntiChrist and The Protestant Reformation
  13. ^ Clarke, Adam. Commentary on the Old Testament Vol IV page 596.
  14. ^ Ewald M. Plass, What Luther Says, 3 vols., (St. Louis: CPH, 1959), 88, no. 269; M. Reu, Luther and the Scriptures, Columbus, Ohio: Wartburg Press, 1944, 23.
  15. ^ Luther, Martin. Concerning the Ministry (1523), tr. Conrad Bergendoff, in Bergendoff, Conrad (ed.) Luther's Works. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1958, 40:18 ff.
  16. ^ a b c d Preach My Gospel (A Guide to Missionary Service). LDS Church. 2004. p. 35. ISBN 0-402-36617-4. 
  17. ^ Richards, LeGrand (1976). A Marvelous Work and a Wonder. Deseret Book Company. p. 24. ISBN 0-87747-161-4. 
  18. ^ Talmage, James E. (1909). The Great Apostasy. The Deseret News. p. 68. ISBN 0-87579-843-8. 
  19. ^ Eyring, Henry B. (May 2008), "The True and Living Church", Ensign (LDS Church): 20–24 
  20. ^ Talmage, James E. (1909). The Great Apostasy. The Deseret News. pp. 64–65. ISBN 0-87579-843-8. 
  21. ^ Renan, Joseph (1890). The History of the Origins of Christianity. Book IV. The Antichrist. Mathieson & Company. pp. 60–75. 
  22. ^ a b Faust, James E. (May 2006), "The Restoration of All Things", Liahona (LDS Church): 61–62, 67–68 
  23. ^ Merrill, Hyde M. (November 1971), "The Great Apostasy as Seen by Eusebius", Ensign (LDS Church) 
  24. ^ Doctrine and Covenants 130:22
  25. ^ (first paragraph)
  26. ^ Roberts, B. H. (1902), History of the Church, Deseret News Press, pp. 1–8 
  27. ^ D&C 27:12 
  28. ^ Cook, Quentin L. (November 2003), "Are You a Saint?", Liahona (LDS Church): 95–96 
  29. ^ The Antichrist and the Protestant Reformation
  30. ^ White, Ellen G. (1999) [1888]. "Enmity Between Man and Satan". The Great Controversy: Between Christ and Satan. The Ellen G. White Estate. p. 581. ISBN 0-8163-1923-5. Retrieved 2006-06-06. 
  31. ^ Seventh-day Adventists Believe (2nd ed). Ministerial Association, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. 2005. p. 196. 
  32. ^ Advent Review, Vol. I, No. 2, August, 1850.
  33. ^ The Great Controversy by Ellen White, p266. "Chap. 15 - The Bible and the French Revolution"
  34. ^ Seventh-day Adventists Believe (2nd ed). Ministerial Association, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. 2005. pp. 184–185. ISBN 1-57847-041-2. 
  35. ^ Carey,Juanita "E.W.Bullinger: A Biography", p.148,quoting from Bullinger's The Church Epistles.
  36. ^ [A Discovery of the Manifold Corruptions of Holy Scriptures]
  37. ^ "Doesn’t St. Paul Condemn Celibacy, Fasting and Abstaining From Meat?". Catholic Exchange. 2003-03-04. Retrieved 2012-08-17. 
  38. ^ Gerard, John (1911). "Monita Secreta". Catholic Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2 August 2011. 
  39. ^ "Pascal: Adversary and Advocate" Robert J. Nelson, Harvard University Press, 1981. p. 190
  40. ^ Martin Lembke, lecture in the course "Meetings with the World's Religions", Centre for Theology and Religious Studies, Lund University, Spring Term 2010.

Further reading[edit]