The Early Church Was Catholic

One of the arguments put forward by anti-Catholics, often of the Evangelical flavor but not always, is the notion that the Catholic Church was “invented” by Emperor Constantine in the fourth century. The idea here is that Emperor Constantine hijacked Christianity when he legalized it in AD 313 with the Edict of Milan, otherwise known as the “Edict of Toleration.” This is what I call the “Constantine Conspiracy” and I thoroughly addressed it in my book Are Catholics Christian? A Guide to Evangelical Questions about the Catholic Church. Needless to say, the theory is totally false, has no basis in history and zero evidence to back it. Nevertheless, it is widely subscribed to by many Evangelicals, especially in the United States. This is likely the result of the ever-notorious Jack Chick cartoon tracts, which are widely distributed among American Evangelicals. In other words, people often tend to believe what’s popular, more that what’s accurate.

There are many false claims made by Constantine-Conspiracy devotees, and they are far too many to address here. So let’s address just one issue, and that is the word “Catholic.” Anti-Catholic devotees of the Constantine Conspiracy like to point out that the word “Catholic” demonstrates that those who identify with this term are not Christian. If they were, they would call themselves Christian not Catholic.

Of course, to explain this, it helps to know the definition of the word “Catholic.” Simply put, the word “Catholic” is Greek in origin, from katholikos (καθολικός) and it’s an adjective, not a noun. It means “on the whole,” or “according to the whole,” or “in general.” Accurately used, in accordance with its Greek origin, it must be connected to the word Christian to make sense. So to call one’s self a “Catholic Christian” is the Greek equivalent of saying a “general Christian.” In other words, a typical Christian or a normal Christian, in accordance with what is common and seen everywhere. It’s used to contrast those who follow specific men and sects. Because of this, the words “Catholic” and Christian” came to be interchangeable as time passed. Most of the time, the word “Catholic” was used in reference to the Early Church, to contrast it with sectarian groups (such as the Arians for example) who had their own communities. Today, it is typically used to describe general Christianity, the largest Christian Church, which is in contrast to the many sects of Protestantism: Lutheran, Anglican, Presbyterian, Calvinist, Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, Evangelical, “Nondenominational,” etc..

To easily debunk the anti-Catholic claim that the word “Catholic” means something other than Christian, and that the Catholic Church was started by Emperor Constantine in AD 313, we only need to look at history prior to AD 313, to see if there are any instances of early Christians referring to themselves or their church as “Catholic.” If so, we can dismiss the Constantine-Conspiracy devotee’s claims that the Catholic Church is a fourth-century invention. Thankfully, the early Christians were fairly prolific in their writings, and a good amount of it has survived to this day.

The first citation comes to us from St. Ignatius of Antioch. Now Ignatius was made the Bishop of Antioch by the Apostle John, and he was a favored disciple of the Apostle John. He was captured by Roman authorities in AD 105. On his way to be martyred by lions and other wild animals, in the Colosseum in Rome, he penned letters to the churches he was responsible for. This is what he wrote to the Church in Smyrnea…

“See that ye all follow the bishop, even as Christ Jesus does the Father, and the presbytery [or priests] as ye would the apostles. Do ye also reverence the deacons, as those that carry out [through their office] the appointment of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”

Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Smyrneans, 8:2 (AD 105)

So there we have it. The word “Catholic” was used to describe the Church founded by the Apostles as early as AD 105. In fact, Ignatius’ use of the word is so casual here, it would appear that it was well-known and in use for a long while by the time he penned it. If that were all we had, it would be more than enough to blow the Constantine-Conspiracy argument, against the word “Catholic,” right out of the water. But it doesn’t stop there. The following are citations from other Early Church leaders long before Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in AD 313.

“All the people wondered that there should be such a difference between the unbelievers and the elect, of whom this most admirable Polycarp was one, having in our own times been an apostolic and prophetic teacher, and bishop of the Catholic Church which is in Smyrna. For every word that went out of his mouth either has been or shall yet be accomplished.”

Martyrdom of Polycarp, 16:2 (AD 155)

“Nor does it consist in this, that he should again falsely imagine, as being above this, a Pleroma at one time supposed to contain thirty, and at another time an innumerable tribe of Aeons, as these teachers who are destitute of truly divine wisdom maintain; while the Catholic Church possesses one and the same faith throughout the whole world, as we have already said.”

Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1:10,3 (AD 180)

“For the blessed Apostle Paul himself, following the rule of his predecessor John, writes only by name to seven Churches in the following order — to the Corinthians first… there is a second to the Corinthians and to the Thessalonians, yet one Church is recognized as being spread over the entire world… Howbeit to Philemon one, to Titus one, and to Timothy two were put in writing… to be in honor however with the Catholic Church for the ordering of ecclesiastical discipline… one to the Laodicenes, another to the Alexandrians, both forged in Paul’s name to suit the heresy of Marcion, and several others, which cannot be received into the Catholic Church; for it is not fitting that gall be mixed with honey. The Epistle of Jude no doubt, and the couple bearing the name of John, are accepted by the Catholic Church… But of Arsinous, called also Valentinus, or of Militiades we receive nothing at all.”

The fragment of Muratori (AD 177)

“Was anything withheld from the knowledge of Peter, who is called the rock on which the church should be built, ‘who also obtained the keys of the kingdom of heaven,’ with the power of loosing and binding in heaven and on earth?’… Where was Marcion then, that shipmaster of Pontus, the zealous student of Stoicism? Where was Valentinus then, the disciple of Platonism? For it is evident that those men lived not so long ago — in the reign of Antoninus for the most part,–and that they at first were believers in the doctrine of the Catholic Church, in the Church of Rome under the episcopate of the blessed Eleutherus, until on account of their ever restless curiosity, with which they even infected the brethren, they were more than once expelled.”

Tertullian, On the Prescription Against Heretics, 22, 30 (AD 200)

“Peter speaks there, on whom the Church was to be built, teaching and showing in the name of the Church, that although a rebellious and arrogant multitude of those who will not hear and obey may depart, yet the Church does not depart from Christ; and they are the Church who are a people united to the priest, and the flock which adheres to its pastor. Whence you ought to know that the bishop is in the Church, and the Church in the bishop; and if any one be not with the bishop, that he is not in the Church, and that those flatter themselves in vain who creep in, not having peace with God’s priests, and think that they communicate secretly with some; while the Church, which is Catholic and one, is not cut nor divided, but is indeed connected and bound together by the cement of priests who cohere with one another.”

Cyprian, To Florentius, Epistle 66/67 (AD 254)

As you can see, the claim made by devotees of the Constantine Conspiracy, doesn’t hold water when held up to actual historical records. The word “Catholic” was well in-use during the Early Church to describe the Church. The Early Christians, those who suffered martyrdom at the claws of lions and other methods of torture devised by the Pagan Roman Empire, considered themselves members of the “Catholic Church” which was headquartered in Rome. Don’t take my word for it. Look to their own words. Some of these people not only lived as members of Christ’s Catholic Church, but they died professing it too.