Church history made me a Catholic. Specifically, the early Church and its doctrine of salvation made me a Catholic.
I grew up an evangelical Protestant in Birmingham, Alabama. I “prayed to receive Jesus” at an early age, trusting Christ, and Christ alone, to get me to Heaven. I understood that faith alone could settle the issue of my justification before God. Pastors, parents, and teachers told me that Christ had paid for all my sins – past, present,and future. All I had do do was receive this gift by faith. No amount of good works on my part could earn, or even contribute, to my justification before God. In fact, my best moral efforts were blameworthy, detestable to God. If I relied on good works, I was sunk.
My leaders taught me that this “faith-alone Gospel” was the doctrine of the early Church. According to legend, Martin Luther recovered this gospel from antiquity after sifting through the wreckage of medieval Catholicism. The problem was – when I went looking for this “faith-alone Gospel” in the early Church, it was nowhere to be seen.
My first doubts emerged when reading St. Augustine (A.D. 354-430), a great favorite of Martin Luther’s. Augustine wrote a lot about faith, grace, justification, and salvation, but not a word about “faith alone.” In fact, he specifically denied it. For Augustine, grace and faith bring not only forgiveness, but a transformation of the moral life – “the love of God shed abroad in our hearts,” as St. Paul says. (Romans 5:5) It is this transformation (Christ’s love dwelling within us) that makes us acceptable to God (Romans 8:3-6), not just the forgiveness of our past sins through baptism or penance.
Reading Augustine was a major blow to my Protestant upbringing, but it took more than “Augustine alone” to make me a Catholic. Next I went looking in earlier Church fathers, from the first, second, and third centuries. This search was even worse for my Protestant faith. Augustine at least spoke at great length about grace and justification. He used a vocabulary I knew, even if he used it in an unfamiliar way. But the earliest Church fathers did no such thing.
The second and third-century fathers were intensely moralistic – perfectionistic even – and framed their work entirely around the Church’s sacramental and liturgical life. Their big question was not whether Christians could merit salvation. (They assumed they could.) It was what to do when Christians sinned. Hard liners like Tertullian (160-220) wanted to kick them out of the Church. “Softies,” like Pope Callixtus, (d. 223) thought they should be forgiven if they did sufficient penance. Clearly, this was not the world of evangelical Protestants.
This issue was still alive at the time of the Nicene Council (325). What to do with those excluded from communion because of public sin? (The canons of Nicaea deal with this issue, making sure penitents are readmitted to communion if in danger of death.) Many Protestants who recite the Nicene Creed do not appreciate this context. They think Nicaea dealt only with Arianism, or the question of Chrit’s divinity. They do not realize that the Church fathers insisted on Christ’s full divinity in part because of their understanding of salvation. The divinity of Christ was no mere abstraction. It had everything to do with the practical, moral demands of the Gospel.
We find the earliest detailed theology of salvation in the works of St. Ireneaus (130-202). Ireneaus spelled out the theory of recapitulation or theosis: that God became a man in order to infuse a new principle into human life, to restore what was lost in Adam. (Against Heresies 3.18.1; 5.21.2) Ireneaus explained that God confers immortality “on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments.” He continued, “The Lord did not abrogate the natural [precepts] of the law, by which man is justified.” (Against Heresies, 1.10; 4.13.1)
The very same theology of salvation remained constant up to and including the Nicene Council. St. Athanasius (296-373), the great defender of Nicaea, summed up this theology in his famous phrase, “For He was made man that we might be made God.”(On the Incarnation, 54.3) After the council, St. Gregory Nazianzus (330-390) explained how Nicene theology fits with the Church’s doctrine of salvation:
That which is united to His Godhead is also saved . . . if the whole of his nature fell, it must be united to the whole nature of Him that was begotten, and so be saved as a whole. (Letter to Cledonius)
“For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven and was incarnate.” Like Ireneaus, Athanasius, and Nazianzus, the Nicene Creed ties salvation directly to the incarnation and the sacraments. (“One Baptism for the Forgivness of Sins.”) The doctrine is one of moral transformation, a new principle of keeping the law “by which man is justified.” This is what the Church fathers found in Sacred Scripture. (Romans 2:13, Romans 5:5, Romans 6: 1-7) It’s what the passed on to St. Augustine, to the medieval Catholic Church, to the Council of Trent, and today. It was this discovery, above all, that moved me towards the Catholic faith.