Ever since the Protestant Reformation divided Christendom in Western Europe, many outside the Catholic Church have viewed religion as a matter of retrieving what Christ taught his disciples, rather than receiving and believing it. “If only we could return to the faith of the early Christians,” thought the founders of various Protestant denominations. So they tried, with results that were just as varied.
Kenneth D. Whitehead has set out to prove that nostalgic Protestants are seeking the Church described in the Nicene Creed. “Despite superficial differences in certain appearances—and just as an adult differs from a child in some appearances but still remains the same person—the worldwide Catholic Church today remains the Church that was founded by Jesus Christ on Peter and the other apostles in the first century in the Near East,” he writes. “The early Church was—always!—nothing else but the Catholic Church.”
The author makes his case by systematically reviewing the first six centuries of Christian history. His argument starts with the Acts of the Apostles. The first followers of the New Way “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). This verse encapsulates important facts about the early Christians: “1. They subscribed to a specific doctrine about what they must believe and do in order to be saved. … 2. They belonged to a definite, organized community ("the Church"), precisely the one led by the apostles. … 3. They participated in a sacred rite that included a meal regularly enacted within this same organized community.”
To prove the third point, Whitehead would have to write another book on the history of the sacraments, which continue Christ's saving and sanctifying actions in the Church in every age. Instead he focuses on the ministry of St. Peter and his successors, the vicars of Christ governing the one true Church. The longest chapter, “The Primacy of Rome in the Early Church,” begins again at the first century A.D. The author methodically examines historical events in which the popes exercised primacy over the local churches—mediating disputes, clarifying doctrinal questions and ratifying (some, not all) councils. At a distance of so many centuries, no one incident conclusively proves the Catholic claims about the papacy, but, as he shows, the cumulative effect of the historical evidence is compelling.
Whitehead recounts the history of the Church in enough detail that the reader learns about the human side as well. The Church is not an abstraction; her features become apparent in dramatic moments, such the arrest of St. Paul in 58 A.D. The Church rose to societal acceptance in the early fourth century, only to contend with Arian intrigues and imperial meddling. These trials, however, in no way deformed the Church or distorted the Gospel.
The author's study of the Church's four great councils explains the Christological doctrines that they defended against fourth- and fifth-century heresies. He shows that those same doctrines have been the constant teachings of the Catholic Church. As he makes his way from the time of Christ through the early Church Fathers to the Conciliar age, he also gathers plenty of evidence for apostolic succession, the unbroken line of bishops who guarded and handed on that faith.
Whitehead's book skillfully hews stones from early Church history and fits them together with the mortar of apologetics. The resulting edifice is an impressive, scholarly tribute to the Catholic Church. If it was good enough for the Church Fathers, it should be good enough for Christians of the 21st century.
Michael J. Miller writes from Glenside, Pennsylvania.------- EXCERPT: Book Reviews