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Becoming Catholic #15—“To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant”

The “Becoming Catholic” series presents the biblical, philosophical, and historical evidence for why Eternal Christendom Founder, Joshua Charles, became and remains Catholic. The series table of contents is here.

John Henry Cardinal Newman.jpg
St. John Henry Newman (1801-1890)

One of the key moments in my conversion was reading An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, by the famous Anglican convert John Henry Cardinal Newman. Published in 1845, most of it was written and conceived before Newman had even been received into the Catholic Church.

Newman was a scholar of the Church Fathers, and his study of them is ultimately what led him to the Catholic Church. So I approached his famous Essay with great expectations, and found him confirming what my own reading of thousands of pages of the Church Fathers had already strongly suggested: that protestantism was nowhere to be found in the ancient Church. The way I have phrased it since those days has been, “I found nothing uniquely protestant in the Church Fathers.” Belief in the existence of God? The Trinity? The divinity of Jesus? Yes, of course. All those are there, and most protestants affirm each of them. But those are not uniquely protestant beliefs. Everywhere I looked, the Church Fathers were overwhelmingly and explicitly Catholic in their beliefs—and to the extent they articulated a belief that has since been rejected by the Catholic Church, their arguments for doing so were always predicated on Catholic assumptions—never protestant ones.

In short, I discovered that Newman’s famous phrase was true: “To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.” He didn’t mean that hyperbolically or rhetorically—he meant it literally, and definitively. That is how overwhelming the historical evidence is—which is why to this day, reading the Church Fathers has led many protestants back home to the Catholic Church.

Here is the more extended quotation from Newman’s Essay that expounds on this historical reality1:

History is not a creed or a catechism, it gives lessons rather than rules; still no one can mistake its general teaching in this matter, whether he accept it or stumble at it. Bold outlines and broad masses of color rise out of the records of the past. They may be dim, they may be incomplete; but they are definite. And this one thing at least is certain; whatever history teaches, whatever it omits, whatever it exaggerates or extenuates, whatever it says and unsays, at least the Christianity of history is not Protestant. If ever there were a safe truth, it is this.

And Protestantism has ever felt it so. I do not mean that every writer on the Protestant side has felt it; for it was the fashion at first, at least as a rhetorical argument against Rome, to appeal to past ages, or to some of them; but Protestantism, as a whole, feels it, and has felt it. This is shown in the determination already referred to of dispensing with historical Christianity altogether, and of forming a Christianity from the Bible alone: men never would have put it aside, unless they despaired of it. It is shown by the long neglect of ecclesiastical history in England, which prevails even in the English Church.

Our popular religion scarcely recognizes the fact of the twelve long ages which lie between the Councils of Nicaea and Trent, except as affording one or two passages to illustrate its wild interpretations of certain prophesies of St. Paul and St. John. It is melancholy to say it, but the chief, perhaps the only English writer who has any claim to be considered an ecclesiastical historian, is the unbeliever Gibbon.2 To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.

And this utter incongruity between Protestantism and historical Christianity is a plain fact, whether the latter be regarded in its earlier or in its later centuries. Protestants can as little bear its Ante-Nicene [pre-Nicaea] as its Post-Tridentine [post-Trent] period. I have elsewhere observed on this circumstance3: “So much must the Protestant grant that, if such a system of doctrine as he would now introduce ever existed in early times, it has been clean swept away as if by a deluge, suddenly, silently, and without memorial; by a deluge coming in a night, and utterly soaking, rotting, heaving up, and hurrying off every vestige of what it found in the Church, before cock-crowing: so that ‘when they rose in the morning’ her true seed ‘were all dead corpses’—Nay dead and buried—and without gravestone. ‘The waters went over them; there was not one of them left; they sunk like lead in the mighty waters.’…Let him [the Protestant] take which of his doctrines he will, his peculiar view of self-righteousness, of formality, of superstition; his notion of faith, or of spirituality in religious worship; his denial of the virtue of the sacraments, or of the ministerial commission, or of the visible Church; or his doctrine of the divine efficacy of the Scriptures as the one appointed instrument of religious teaching; and let him consider how far Antiquity, as it has come down to us, will countenance him in it. No; he must allow that the alleged deluge has done its work; yes, and has in turn disappeared itself; it has been swallowed up by the earth, mercilessly as itself was merciless.”

That Protestantism, then, is not the Christianity of history, it is easy to determine…


  1. John Henry Cardinal Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Sixth edition (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2015), 7-9. ↩︎
  2. Author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published in six volumes between 1776 and 1789. ↩︎
  3. From Church of the Fathers in Historical Sketches, Vol. I.: Church of the Fathers. ↩︎
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