Great Apostasy

Great Apostasy

"The Great Apostasy" is a term used by some religious groups to allege a general fallen state of traditional Christianity, or especially of Catholicism, magisterial Protestantism and Eastern Orthodoxy, that it is not representative of the faith founded by Jesus and promulgated through his twelve Apostles: in short, that these churches have fallen into apostasy.


Most significant non-Anglican, non-Catholic and non-Orthodox Christian denominations have formally taught that at some point in history, the original teachings and practices of the primitive or original Christian church were greatly altered. All of these denominations have considered their own teachings to be major corrections of the errors of the state of Christianity preceding them, and for this reason believe that their separated continuation, especially outside of the Catholic-Orthodox-Anglican traditions, is not only justifiable, but a necessary measure. These views are not necessarily taught in the modern descendant denominations; but historically this type of doctrinal stance accounts for the continuing separation of the denominations from the Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox communions.

All of these groups differ in their perception of the types and the extent of errors evident in Catholic-Anglican-Orthodox traditions, and therefore their proposed corrections also differ, but all agree that the Catholic-Anglican-Orthodox tradition is to some important degree corrupted and apostate in the sense that it will not or cannot be reformed; to the extent other separated denominations contain these rejected traditions, they also are sometimes considered corrupt. This alleged corruption and resistance to reform by the traditional, especially Catholic, churches may sometimes be called "The Great Apostasy" by non-Catholics.

Some groups see themselves as uniquely restoring original Christianity. In their case, the term "Great Apostasy" is used more technically than above, 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.

Reformed Perspective

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, that the Church has the promise of Jesus that it shall do so. Furthermore, the Roman Catholic Church had also developed from early 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. In contrast, Protestants claim 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. 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 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 straight 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

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 official religion 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 first no longer openly taught, and instead suppressed, and at times persecuted, and cast out. The persecuted church was attractive to rejected people; but worldly men were attracted to the same church when it began to wield power and possessions. Protestants also believe that the Roman Emperors were not about to support a church that they did not control. The development of formal hierarchy within the Catholic Church, as opposed to local 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, 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.

The dangers of theology

Theological controversy also had a polluting effect, according to this view of "Apostasy" as a gradual process, rather than a cataclysmic event. That is, in the process of defending the received truth, the Church became sullied by the engagements with its opponents both outside and within the Church. To reject errors, specific arguments were designed which were effective against the opposition; but which contained imbalances and exaggerations, or disguised accommodations to error.

For example, the Church defeated paganism, but some argue that in the process it became subtly sympathetic with the opponent, and susceptible to incorporating attitudes and traditions which are foreign to the biblical faith. Or, for another case, in the process of overcoming Arius' religious hero-worship of Jesus, perhaps the church absorbed hero-worshipping ideas, so that, while the doctrine of Jesus was rescued from the heresy, the same idea continued in the veneration of the Saints, although veneration of the saints and marytyrs long predated the Arian heresy. Similarly for the early battles with Marcion and Valentinius and Montanus, perhaps even as early as Simon Magus, see also Early Christianity. This corruption was not necessarily intentional although, in some cases, it is suggested that teachers of error brought in these pollutions deceitfully in order to escape detection.

Compromise with folk religion

Especially in the worship of the Church, the many Protestants viewed the Roman Catholic Mass as an amalgam of superstitious inventions more reminiscent of a pagan mystery rite rather than the simple discipline taught by the Apostles and practiced by the early church. Protestants tend to think of many of the Catholic holy days, and most of the rituals, as accommodations to the popular tastes of unconverted people through the centuries, incompatible with biblical faith. Natural tastes for pomp and ceremony, and the sort of natural belief in mana and fetishism that seem common in unrevealed religions, and the natural man's wish to have sacred places to pray in, and sacred objects that enable mortals to touch the divine, tempted people away from the truth of the absolute sovereignty, holiness, and otherness of God. The Church was failing at its teaching mission and made too easy accommodations to practices that folk religion could accept in this erroneous fashion.

Descent into true apostasy

Although Lutherans and Calvinists hold that the Ecumenical Councils of the early and medieval church are true expressions of the Christian faith, many assert 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 [see discussion above] as reflecting the apostasy introduced by Jesus' disciple Judas Iscariot and David's counselor Ahithophel.


E. W. Bullinger framed the position for very early apostasy thusly:

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" [Carey,Juanita "E.W.Bullinger: A Biography", p.148,quoting from Bullinger's "The Church Epistles".]

Responses of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy

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 and general apostasy 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 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 fourth 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. Protestants 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 of Mary and Papal Infallibility. In the view of Protestants, these are new doctrines and they take Roman Catholicism further from the Protestant understanding of Biblical Christianity. Roman Catholics point out that the Dogmas of the Assumption and Immaculate Conception are well-supported in the writings of early Church Fathers. 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.

Catholic perspective

Protestants often assert that practices that seem especially strange to them, such as regular 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. Fasting is a biblical practice from even Old Testament times, and was mentioned by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and 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 Fat 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 (). The "Infancy Gospel of James" is attributed to James the Just but was certainly written no later than the second 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.The "forbidding to marry" (or becoming united with divine nature) and the "commanding to abstain from meats" (flesh) refer to the Lord's evening meal. However, some professed believers fall away from "the faith that has once for all time been delivered to the holy ones in the light" and teach that it is no longer necessary to partake of the body and blood of Christ in order to gain eternal life, and thus the way to God is blocked. Nevertheless, the Roman Catholic Church has consistently taught and upheld the words of Jesus when he speaks to those who oppose and disbelieve:

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also will live because of Me. This is the bread which came down out of heaven; not as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live forever. (Jn 6: 53-58)

Worldly ambitions

There have certainly been times when the Church has seemingly benefited from its affiliation with ruling governments, and vice versa. 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 twentieth 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 church of the Roman Empire, to the again persecuted church of the various Muslim and communist regimes.

Theological dangers

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; see Nestorianism. 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 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.

Natural or Popular Religion

Many liturgical practices and beliefs are asserted to be adapted from pagan customs or human preferences, however in some cases they were carried over from Temple Judaism, which practices most Christians believe were first given to Moses and the high priests by God. The idea of setting aside specific places as holy, treating certain items used in the worship of God with reverence, all go back to the Hebrew Temple worship, and to the visions the Bible records of what worship in Heaven looks like, not just to pagan ideas about "mana." Many assert that Marianism is a holdover of goddess worship from Roman Pagan times. The Roman Catholic Mass or Orthodox Divine Liturgy in many respects more closely resembles the Temple sacrifice than anything modern Jews practice, since in Judaism there is no current Temple in Jerusalem, just the Temple Mount. In other cases, local customs have been deliberately adapted and imbued with Christian meaning in an effort to keep the Church incarnate and accessible to local Christians. For example, in many Orthodox Churches in Europe, there has grown a custom of blessing pussiwillows on Palm Sunday instead of palm branches, since palms do not grow that far north. When worship involves the use of the entire body, and all the senses, the Orthodox believe this becomes very helpful in learning to actively love God with all their "mind, soul, heart and strength" as God commands. Restricting worship to a mental exercise removes the "strength" element of loving God, assert some sources. Prohibiting the use of material, created objects in giving worship to the Creator, is to condemn all the sacrifices offered by the holy men and women recorded in the Old Testament and elsewhere. It also appears to reflect the subset of Gnostic beliefs that all material things of this world are inherently evil, or at best temporary, and that only invisible, spiritual thoughts and actions can draw us closer to God. The Church has always fought against this idea, beginning with its first and second century controversies with the Gnostics of that day. Instead it affirms that all creation was made good, and while it has since become corrupt, it is being redeemed by continually offering it back to God. The epitome of this action occurs in the Eucharistic sacrifice, which represents the offering of ourselves, all that we have, and the entire world back to God.

Again, while it is always difficult to discern which elements of culture are compatible with Christianity or can be redeemed and which must be abandoned, Protestants continue to grapple with the same issues today, especially in missions work when they attempt to bring the Gospel to cultures that have not heard it before.

Traditionalist Catholics

Some 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. While contemporary Catholic theology classifies them as schismatic, most traditionalists maintain they are not. Traditionalists believe the differences between the Roman Catholic Church before and after Vatican II are essential in nature, and enough to regard the contemporary, official Catholic Church not truly Catholic. They also point to the precipitous drop in church attendance that occurred after the new rite of the Mass was made mandatory in the Catholic Church, along with more liberal interpretations of Church doctrine which are considered heretical in some circles. [] They share the idea with some Protestants that the Catholic Church, as represented by the Vatican is in a fallen state and no longer truly Christian, and indeed Traditionalist groups have attracted Protestant converts. However, they differ in that they 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, whereas some of the Protestants in question 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.

ee also

*Constantinian shift
*Summary of Christian eschatological differences
*Mormonism and Christianity
*Total depravity
*Criticism of the Roman Catholic Church



*Johann Lorenz Von Mosheim; "De rebus Christianorum ante Constantinum Magnum Commentarii" (6 vols.); (1753)
**Johann Lorenz Von Mosheim; "Ecclesiastical History from the Birth of Christ to the Beginning of the Eighteenth Century" (4 vols.), translated by Archibald Maclaine; (1758)
**Johann Lorenz Von Mosheim; "Ecclesiastical History", translated by James Murdock; (1851)
*James E. Talmage; "The Great Apostasy"; Deseret Book; ISBN 0-87579-843-8 (1909; Softcover, February 1994)
*Hugh Nibley; Todd M. Compton and Stephen D. Ricks, editors; "Mormonism and Early Christianity"; Deseret Book; ISBN 0-87579-127-1 (Hardcover, 1987)
*James L. Barker; "Apostasy from the Divine Church"; Bookcraft; ISBN 0-88494-544-8 (1952; Hardcover 1984)
*Barry R. Bickmore; "Restoring the Ancient Church"; Cornerstone Publishing, FAIR; ISBN 1-893036-00-6 (Paperback, 1999); [ Available directly from the publisher]
*Kent P. Jackson; "From Apostasy to Restoration"; Deseret Book; ISBN 1-57345-218-1 (Hardcover 1996)
*Holy Bible, King James Version, Isaiah 2:2,3; 5:20,21,25-29; 24:1-5; 28:10,11; 29:4,10-14,18,22-24; 49:22-23; 52:11,12; 54:1-3; 55:5; 56:6-8; 60:1-3,16. Malachi 3:1; 4:5,6.
*The "Geneva Bible" (1599), annotations of "Fr. Junius" to the Book of Revelation, repr. L. L. Brown Publishing, ISBN 0-9629888-0-4 (1990)
*The " [ Thirty-Nine Articles] " of the Episcopal Church in America.

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