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Athanasius and the Myth of the “Great Apostasy”

As we celebrate the Feast of St. Athanasius today, we remember the central role he played in preserving the apostolic Faith. His brave opposition to Arianism in the fourth century prevented the Church from falling into heresy.

Belief that a Great Apostasy undermined the early Church is nonetheless common among Protestants and quasi-Christian sects. In an interview with Catholic Answers, author Rod Bennett—whose book The Apostasy that Wasn’t tells the story of Athanasius’s dogged courage during that pivotal time—talks about this influential myth.

Q. What is the Great Apostasy?

Bennett: It’s one of the cornerstones of American religion, actually—the notion that the original Church founded by Jesus and his apostles went bust somewhere along the line and had to be restored by some latter-day prophet or reformer. Most of our Christian denominations here in the Unites States teach the idea in one form or another, though, significantly, they usually disagree completely on which “Second Founder” ought to be followed.

Usually, they date the collapse to the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine in A.D. 313 and his subsequent adoption of Christianity for the whole Roman Empire. In doing this, he transformed the Christian Church (or so the story goes) from a simple body of pure, New Testament believers into the state religion of the Roman Empire.

This made Church membership socially advantageous for the first time, which brought in a vast flood of half-converted pagans who were admitted with minimal fuss by a mere external act of baptism. And this, in turn, subverted the original Faith so seriously that a Dark Age of idolatry and superstition was the result, a “great falling away” so serious that it required, in the end, a complete “reboot” from heaven.

Where did the notion of the Great Apostasy find its beginnings?

Well, if you think about it, any group that has a short historical pedigree—founded, as most of our denominations have been, within the last few centuries of Christianity’s very long timeline—will be driven to the idea eventually. If you find that your church was founded in the twentieth century (or the nineteenth or the sixteenth) and teaches things no one was teaching in the fourteenth, the tenth, or the fifth century, then you’re going to have to account for that fact somehow.

The most common solution has been to offer a “conspiracy theory” of some kind: this idea that the early Church actually did teach Jehovah’s Witness or Seventh-day Adventism or Unitarianism or what have you, but the “powers that be” hushed the original version up—burned their books, forced them underground, and so forth. The whole “Da Vinci Code” phenomenon from a few years back was based on the same idea.

Are there differences in the ways that Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, and Protestants view the Great Apostasy?

Many Protestant groups would try to differentiate their view by holding that the original Church didn’t actually become apostate but was simply obscured for a thousand years or so, leaving a “remnant” of true believers hiding somewhere in secret, waiting to reemerge. They often tell their members (without any evidence to back it up) that the true Christians had been there, alright, thinking and worshipping just as we do here at our church today, only the authorities of the day doctored up the records so that no trace of their existence has been left behind.

Or, occasionally, fundamentalist groups will send inquirers to shabby, disreputable sects like the Montanists and the Albigenses as examples of God’s true remnant. These, oddly, always turn out to be weird Gnostic sects whose real doctrine (as far as we can reconstruct it) was as divergent from their own as any other brand of “dark ages” Christianity.

Another set of voices, on the other hand, more moderate in tone, sometimes takes the opposite tack, directing us to examples of genuine Christianity lingering within the mainstream of Dark Ages religion. Ambrose, Augustine, Thomas à Kempis, even Francis of Assisi are sometimes cited as “crypto-Evangelicals”—genuine Spirit-filled Christians struggling to survive amidst the general wreck of the Church, and secretly on the outs somehow with the authorities of their day.

In your book you refer to the “Ghetto Church”—explain what you mean by that.

Central to most “Great Apostasy” theories is the notion that the underground Church prior to Constantine—during the late 200s and early 300s A.D., that is—retained the innocence and purity of Bible times but lost these qualities when the Christian faith was legalized. In reality, the Church was not underground at all during that period.

The catacombs had been left far behind by then; Christians of the mid to late third century had no need to hide their faith, and they did not hide it. The Church owned property during this period and built churches on it. And though still on the books, all of the laws against Christianity were routinely winked at during those years, and the Church was a well-known, well-recognized segment of Roman society.

For these reasons, I’ve compared the Roman Christian population of the third century to the Jews in Europe prior to World War II: living in their own enclaves, close to their places of worship; talking, dressing, thinking, believing differently than their neighbors; disliked precisely because of their ubiquity—and their growing influence. This is what I mean by “the Ghetto Church.”

This Church, incidentally, wasn’t, alas, very pure or innocent, either. The records show that it had nearly as much doctrinal impurity as it did after Christianity was legalized—and much greater moral laxity.

As revered as Constantine is in Church history, he did, in fact, seem to behave like so many politicians, constantly changing his stance. Do you have any sense as to where his heart really was in regard to the Church? Was there a true faith there, or did he just see the Church as a means to an end?

There’s lots of evidence that Constantine considered himself a Christian, at any rate. He immediately outlawed many of the worst atrocities of the arena—death by lions, for instance—and Eusebius tells us that he did so much testifying in his own palace that the members of his court found it wearisome. But there’s also no question that he believed the change would be beneficial to his empire.

Here’s an analogy that I used in the book: “Imagine, for instance, a man who falls genuinely in love with a goodhearted, beautiful, and very rich woman. Exactly what role will her wealth play—in his own mind and in the suspicions of others—as he decides whether or not to take her as his wife? Does he himself even know? Or will he not always be accused of mercenary motives, not only by unsympathetic outsiders but even, at times, by his own uncertain conscience?

“Constantine’s situation was very much like this. Yes, he found the Christian Church to be uniquely useful toward achieving his goals, as the leaven of Christianity will always be useful to the health of a society. Does that prove that this was his only—or even his primary—reason for getting involved with it? How could we ever know, if even the Emperor himself might not have been entirely sure?”

The world seems to be forcing the Church into another Dark Age. What do you see as the biggest challenges for the Church?

Our era is the third century in reverse. Constantine’s act created Christendom—created a civilization, that is, in which the secular order identified its own good with that of the Church and worked together with her in a partnership. Now the secular order has decided to dissolve the partnership, has asked for a divorce, so to speak, and is thus returning to the thought-forms of pagan Rome, in preference to those of Christian Rome.

These “Great Apostasy” theories we’ve been talking about were, in fact, some of the early steps in this process. The big challenge for the Church will be to adjust our own thinking to this new state of affairs, to “move on” from the broken relationship, and to become, in some sense, the early Church again.

This, I think, is why the writings of the ante-Nicene Fathers are becoming so popular nowadays—why we see so many new books about the Fathers, even in Protestant circles. They model for us something we in the West haven’t seen for many, many centuries—a Church standing wholly apart from “respectability” and “the establishment” and offering a completely different solution than our culture can offer. And we can do this in full knowledge that the Church will certainly be “the last man standing” once the chaos has run its course.

I think we can prophesy, in fact, that European culture’s new dalliance with her “old flame” paganism won’t last very long, and that the end of it may find her in a chastened and teachable state once more. G.K. Chesterton expressed this hope in his book Heretics:

My objection to . . . the reassertors of the pagan ideal is, then, this. I accuse them of ignoring definite human discoveries in the moral world, discoveries as definite, though not as material, as the discovery of the circulation of the blood. We cannot go back to an ideal of reason and sanity. For mankind has discovered that reason does not lead to sanity. We cannot go back to an ideal of pride and enjoyment. For mankind has discovered that pride does not lead to enjoyment. . . . If they like, let them ignore these great historic mysteries—the mystery of charity, the mystery of faith. . . . But if we do pursue, as a society, the pagan ideal of a simple and rational self-completion we shall end where Paganism ended. I do not mean that we shall end in destruction. I mean that we shall end in Christianity.

By Rod Bennett


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