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A Debate Between Professor James White, Director of Alpha and Omega Ministries, 
and Brother John Mary, Representing the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary

 Resolved: The Church of the Council of Nica is not the Roman Catholic Church


Opening Statement: Professor White

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If you were to walk into a Church today, how would you know what kind of Church it was? I suppose you could look at the sign over the door, but if there was no sign, how would you know? Most people would answer, "Well, you ask the folks what they believe, and determine their theological beliefs from that." Such would seem to be a proper procedure.

If you walk into a Church today that is in harmony with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, what distinctive doctrines would you expect to hear? Well, certainly, you would hear about the Bishop of Rome. You would hear about the Papacy, and how the Bishop of Rome is the head of the visible Church, the very Vicar of Christ on earth. You would also hear about the doctrine of Papal Infallibility, defined at the First Vatican Council. You would hear much about Mary, including doctrines like the Immaculate Conception and Bodily Assumption, both dogmas defined finally and infallibly within the past two centuries. In your conversations you would learn that the Bible is not a sufficient guide in and of itself (one must have "Sacred Tradition"), and you would also learn about purgatory, indulgences, transubstantiation, priestly celibacy, and the like. Taken as a whole, these doctrines would set that Roman Catholic Church apart from any other.

So the question before us can be rather easily resolved: if you walked into a Church in the year 325, say, in Alexandria, would the people there hold the same views as modern Roman Catholics? Or would fundamental, definitional doctrines that separate Roman Catholicism from all other groups be utterly absent from the everyday faith, life, and teaching of the Nicene Church? If, in fact, we discover that the Church of Nica did not hold to definitional doctrines that make Rome what it is today, then the debate is, for all practical purposes, over. Surely many modern Roman Catholics will agree with me in asserting that the ancient Church differed with the modern Roman Church on these topics: isn’t that what Newman’s "development hypothesis" was all about? Many Roman apologists have realized the impossibility of tracing many modern Roman dogmas to the primitive Church and have, as a result, abandoned the historical field of battle at this point. But a few die-hards remain who continue to believe (certainly as the majority at Trent believed) that the doctrines and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church are truly apostolic in the obvious and historical meaning of that term; that is, that they derive from the actual teachings of the Apostles and were passed down from the beginning as "oral traditions." Hence, for the person who really believes this, the necessity of historical defense is obvious.

I have undertaken to defend the thesis that the Church of the Council of Nica was not, in fact, the Roman Catholic Church. A few definitions are needed. When I say the Church of Nica is not Rome, what I mean is that there is a fundamental disjunction between the teachings and beliefs of the Nicene Church and those of the modern Roman Catholic Church. I am not saying that Rome cannot trace some kind of ecclesiastical genealogy back to that time period. She makes that claim all the time. What I am saying, however, is that such a claimed genealogy is irrelevant, since it only speaks to a succession of names not a succession of teaching or truth. Not only does such a succession beg the questions raised by such historical events as the Babylonian Captivity of the Church (14th century) and the Great Papal Schism, but it ignores the fact that while President Clinton, for example, stands in the succession of Presidents, one would not wish to assert that his views, and his "teachings," are in any way reflective of someone such as Abraham Lincoln. The mere historical "connection" guarantees nothing regarding fidelity to the truth itself.

The Church of Nica was not the Roman Catholic Church because that Church did not hold to certain fundamental, definitional beliefs that mark Roman Catholicism today. Specifically, the Church of Nica did not:

1) look to the Bishop of Rome as the Vicar of Christ, the head of the universal Church, the pastor of all Christians;

2) believe in the Marian doctrines that set Rome apart, such as the Immaculate Conception of Mary and her Bodily Assumption;

3) embrace such concepts as the thesaurus meritorum, purgatory, and indulgences;

4) believe in the Roman concept of authority, replete with extra-biblical, revelatory or inspired "traditions" that add to the "deposit of faith" items and beliefs not found in Scripture;

5) nor practice the necessary devotions to reserved, consecrated hosts that would substantiate the leap from a belief in "real presence" to the much later belief in "transubstantiation."

My opponents, then, should have an easy task, if, in fact, their position is correct. One need only demonstrate, using historically valid and scholarly sources, that the Church of Nica believed in these five concepts that set Rome apart from other communions, and the debate is over. It is not enough, of course, to present an isolated quote here, and another there. Context, both literary and historical, must be observed carefully. I am well aware of the "cut and paste" methods of many Roman Catholic apologists who use patristic sources in a willy-nilly fashion. Serious concern for accurately representing patristic materials should be present in this debate.

Let us look, then, briefly at each of these five areas. If we discover that, in fact, these are beliefs that were not a part of the fabric and makeup of the Church that existed at the time of the Council of Nica, then the debate is won.

The Church and the Bishop of Rome in A.D. 325. The Council of Nica itself is a glowing example of how modern Roman Catholic claims fly in the face of historical reality. The Council was not called with the authority of a Pope—indeed, the bishop of Rome had nothing to do with its convocation, and little more to do with its outcome. Sylvester was too aged to attend, and was represented by two presbyters. Later tradition, attempting to "fix" the obvious problem history presents with reference to the very first (and arguably, greatest) Church Council, assigned to these presbyters authority that was not theirs at the Council.

The very fact that a Council was necessary to determine this theological issue is a conundrum for the proponent of the Papal system. Why not just appeal to the final say of the bishop of Rome? The answer is amazingly simple: no one had yet thought that such an appeal would have final authority over the entire Church. John Henry Cardinal Newman, in his work An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, quoted approvingly from Barrow’s 1836 work against Papal supremacy. He noted that it was quite right for the Protestant to point out that there are historical facts that are contrary to a functioning, widely recognized Papacy in the early Church. For example, he agreed with Barrow that had the pagans been aware of the institution of the Papacy, they would surely have raised great objections to it, but such objections are not to be found anywhere. And very importantly he quoted with approval Barrow’s statement,

It is most prodigious that, in the disputes managed by the Fathers against the heretics, the Gnostics, Valentinians, &c., they should not, even in the first place, allege and urge the sentence of the universal pastor and judge, as a most evidently conclusive argument, as the most efficacious and compendious method of convincing and silencing them.

The same is true regarding Arianism. The position of the bishop of Rome was known: why didn’t that end the controversy? Because no one believed the bishop of Rome was the universal head of the Church. He was the bishop of the greatest see in the West—but not the head of the Church. And the Nicene Council itself made this plain in its famous sixth canon:

Let the ancient customs in Egypt, Libya, and Pentapolis prevail, that the Bishop of Alexandria have jurisdiction in all these, since the like is customary for the Bishop of Rome also. Likewise in Antioch and the other provinces, let the Churches retain their privileges.

Despite some incredibly strained attempts at getting around the plain meaning of these words, the import is clear: the bishop of Rome is seen as having jurisdiction in his own territory, which, plainly, is not worldwide, but is geographically limited, just as Alexandria, Antioch, etc. Nothing has changed since Cyprian had said eighty years earlier in the Council of Carthage:

For neither does any of us set himself up as a bishop of bishops, nor by tyrannical terror does any compel his colleague to the necessity of obedience; since every bishop, according to the allowance of his liberty and power, has his own proper right of judgment, and can no more be judged by another than he himself can judge another.

Therefore, we see that the Church of Nica was not the Roman Catholic Church, for Rome cannot be defined outside of a functioning Papal system, and no such system existed in A.D. 325. Indeed, in the decades following Nica, it was not Rome that led the way. It was not Rome that provided the necessary strength and leadership to withstand the Arian resurgency. Indeed, Liberius, bishop of Rome, caved in under Imperial pressure, and signed the Arianized Sirmium Creed. It was Alexandria, under the noble leadership of Athanasius, that led the way and eventually led to the defeat of Arianism.

The Nicene Church and the Marian Doctrines. If the Papacy is not evident at Nica, surely the Marian dogmas that define Roman Catholic worship are even more conspicuous by their absence from the same time period. One need only consult the work of Roman Catholic theologian Ludwig Ott (hardly a liberal!) to realize this. For example, with reference to the Immaculate Conception Ott admits on page 201:

Neither the Greek nor the Latin Fathers explicitly teach the Immaculate Conception of Mary.

Instead, he asserts an "implicit" teaching based upon Mary’s holiness and the contrast between her and Eve. Yet, I note that J.N.D. Kelly asserts that Ireneaus, Tertullian, and Origen all felt Mary had sinned and doubted Christ (Early Christian Doctrines, 493). In any case, Ott asserts on the same page that the first explicit assertion of the doctrine as believed today is found in the British monk Eadmer at the beginning of the 12th century! Even then, he notes it ran into much opposition, including the rejection of Bernard of Clairvaux. Certainly, it’s a doctrine absent from the early 4th century and the Church of Nica.

Likewise, the Bodily Assumption of Mary is a doctrine unknown to the Fathers of the Council of Nica. Ott says of it, "The idea of the bodily assumption of Mary is first expressed in certain transitus-narratives of the fifth and sixth centuries. Even though these are apocryphal they bear witness to the faith of the generation in which they were written despite their legendary clothing" (pp. 209-210). What Ott does not note is that these "transitus-narratives" were deemed heretical by the Church of the day and anathematized by Gelasius, bishop of Rome! Hence, the first documentable reference to the doctrine is from a heretical source, and that at least two and a half centuries after the Council of Nica! The doctrine, plainly, had no part in the Church in A.D. 325, and hence, again, the point is proven: the Church of Nica was not the Church of Rome.

The Nicene Church and Purgatory, the Treasury of Merit, and Indulgences. Here again we encounter a series of related doctrinal beliefs that were a long time coming in the history of Roman Catholicism. Historically, the concepts of purgation and merit came together to create the doctrine of purgatory, and then, later, the thesaurus meritorum, or "treasury of merit." Once these concepts were in place, indulgences could develop. But no one can seriously suggest that the bishops who gathered at Nica spoke of purgatory in a doctrinal sense, nor do they ever speak of a "treasury of merit," let alone a concept of indulgences.

The Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory, and the related concepts of merit, forgiveness, etc., and what all of these things mean to the concept of grace and salvation, is central to defining the differences between biblical Christianity and the Roman Catholic "gospel" as defined by Trent. When one believes in indulgences, one believes in an entire framework of beliefs that are inter-connected and held together by the glue that is Rome’s dogmatic authority. Yet, Rome didn’t have such an authority in A.D. 325, and hence it is hardly surprising that one can read the doctrinal works of the bishops who were in attendance at the Council and never encounter the ideas that now define Rome’s soteriology. Some might point to the view of martyrs during the persecution as a possible pre-cursor of later doctrinal concepts, but the dogmatic teaching of a place of purgation after death where the temporal punishments of sins were removed by meritorious suffering (i.e., the concept of satispassio) was not a part of the doctrinal structure of the Nicene Church. While the full doctrine of indulgences awaited the eleventh century for definition, only two centuries earlier than Nica Clement of Rome had written:

They all therefore were glorified and magnified, not through themselves or their own works or the righteous doing which they wrought, but through His will. And so we, having been called through His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified through ourselves or through our own wisdom or understanding or piety or works which we wrought in holiness of heart, but through faith, whereby the Almighty God justified all men that have been from the beginning; to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen (Clement of Rome, 32)

Such words hardly flow from a belief in the modern Roman dogma, to be sure.

The Nicene Church and Authority. Here we can but touch briefly upon the simple fact that Roman Catholic apologists engage in the most egregious misrepresentation of patristic truths when they attempt to portray a monolithic acceptance of modern Roman concepts of tradition and authority in the primitive Church. The simple fact of the matter is, the Church of Nica was neither Protestant nor Roman Catholic nor Eastern Orthodox. It was, well, the Church of Nica, with its own strengths and weaknesses. I, as a Protestant, do not have to make the early Fathers into Protestants. They can be just who they were. But the Roman Catholic who insists Rome’s doctrine has been the constant and universal faith of the Church, does not have that luxury.

We have already seen that the Roman concept of Papal authority was not in place at the time of Nica. In the same way, the concept of tradition—whether we identify this as "Sacred Tradition, Tradition, or tradition—that fuels Roman theology today, was not the driving force behind the Nicene Council either. This can be seen in many ways. The Nicene Council does not make its definition in the name of a Roman bishop; neither does it say, "Tradition states thus and so, and hence we define this doctrine." No, the Council, instead, is vitally interested in expressing themselves, as much as possible, in the language of Scripture, not the language of tradition.

Now, before my opponents blow a gasket, there are certainly references to "tradition" in the period prior to, and coinciding with, Nica. One can hardly open a copy of any Roman Catholic apologetic resource today without finding such references. But even a brief perusal of the patristic sources in their own context reveals immediately that what the early Fathers meant by "tradition" is not what Rome means by "tradition" today. For example, Irenaeus is often cited as being supportive of the concept of "tradition," yet rarely will one find any discussion of just what he meant by the term "tradition." What was Irenaeus’ "tradition"? Let’s see:

These have all declared to us that there is one God, Creator of heaven and earth, announced by the law and the prophets; and one Christ, the Son of God. If any one do not agree to these truths, he despises the companions of the Lord; nay more, he despises Christ Himself the Lord; yea, he despises the Father also, and stands self-condemned, resisting and opposing his own salvation, as is the case with all heretics (Ad Her. III:1:2).

One God, Creator, one Christ, Jesus, the Son of God. Such hardly qualifies as being very supportive of extra-biblical, oral "traditions"! No Bodily Assumption, no Papal Infallibility here.

When we speak specifically of the Nicene Church, we can find no greater example of that Church than the great Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria. And yet, his view of Scripture, and his view of tradition, and his view of authority, is far removed from anything a modern Roman Catholic would wish to present. Space does not permit but a few points. First, remember that Athanasius in the years following Nica at times stood alone against the vast majority of the hierarchy of the visible Church of his day in remaining true and faithful to the deity of Christ. He defended his faith by reference to Scriptural passages, not by reference to some nebulous, oral tradition. His was a biblical argument for the deity of Christ—all other "sources" are subserviated to the highest authority, that of Scripture. Nica was the very "word of the Lord" for only one reason: Nica spoke in concert with Scripture. This is Athanasius’ faith. And we can see this in his statements. I provide only a few representative samples:

...for the tokens of truth are more exact as drawn from Scripture, than from other sources.... (De Decretis, 31).

But since holy Scripture is of all things most sufficient for us, therefore recommending to those who desire to know more of these matters, to read the Divine word, I now hasten to set before you that which most claims attention, and for the sake of which principally I have written these things (Ad Episcopos 4).

Vainly then do they run about with the pretext that they have demanded Councils for the faith's sake; for divine Scripture is sufficient above all things; but if a Council be needed on the point, there are the proceedings of the Fathers, for the Nicene Bishops did not neglect this matter, but stated the doctrines so exactly, that persons reading their words honestly, cannot but be reminded by them of the religion towards Christ announced in divine Scripture (De Synodis, 6).

The Holy and Inspired Scriptures are sufficient of themselves for the preaching of the Truth. (Contra Gentes, I:1)

These [canonical] books are the fountains of salvation, so that he who thirsts may be satisfied with the oracles contained in them: in these alone the school of piety preaches the Gospel; let no man add to or take away from them. (Fest. Ep. 39).

The simple fact of the matter is that the Nicene Church did not function on a Roman Catholic model of ultimate authority. Hence, the Nicene Church was not the Roman Church.

The Church and the Host. I would imagine my opponents will be somewhat surprised that I present this particular issue. It is assumed, by many, that history is simply beyond question in support of the Roman Catholic concept of the Mass from the first days on. However, it isn’t. Not only can a case be made against the later, physically-oriented concepts of "real presence" that one will find in medieval writers, but the idea that the early Fathers would have understood, or embraced, the modern concept of transubstantiation simply finds no solid basis in the early Church. When Tertullian wrote against Marcion’s gnostic denials of the physical nature of Christ’s body during His earthly ministry, he used the Lord’s Supper as an illustration of how absurd it would be to believe as Marcion does. At one point Tertullian says,

When He so earnestly expressed His desire to eat the passover, He considered it His own feast; for it would have been unworthy of God to desire to partake of what was not His own. Then, having taken the bread and given it to His disciples, He made it His own body, by saying, "This is my body,"

If one were to find such a paragraph in the pages of most modern Roman Catholic works, one would expect to find it being read with the full-blown concept of the modern Roman Catholic Mass, replete with transubstantiation. "Here we find yet another witness to the early faith of the Church" we might expect to hear. Yet, as you may note, there is but a comma at the end of the sentence, not a period. For the rest of Tertullian’s statement is,

that is, the figure of my body. A figure, however, there could not have been, unless there were first a veritable body. An empty thing, or phantom, is incapable of a figure (Latin: Acceptum panem et distributum discipulus corpus suum illum fecit, Hoc es corpus meum dicendo, id est figura mei corporis. Figura autem no fuisset, nisi veritatis esset corpus. Ceterum vacua res, quod est phantasma, figuram capere non posset.) If, however, (as Marcion might say,) He pretended the bread was His body, because He lacked the truth of bodily substance, it follows that He must have given bread for us. It would contribute very well to the support of Marcion's theory of a phantom body, that bread should have been crucified! But why call His body bread, and not rather (some other edible thing, say) a melon, which Marcion must have had in lieu of a heart! He did not understand how ancient was this figure of the body of Christ…

As is so often the case, the reality of what is said by Tertullian (and many other early Fathers) is a good bit different than what we might be led to believe by the citation of just a part of the passage. Tertullian had no problems speaking of symbols and representations when speaking of the Supper. Of course, he never speaks of transubstantiation or anything that would lead us to believe that he thought in the Aristotelian categories of accidence and substance, either. In the same way Cyprian, fifty years later, could write an entire epistle regarding the Supper, and never once hint at the modern Roman concept. For example, he can write as follows:

Know then that I have been admonished that, in offering the cup, the tradition of the Lord must be observed, and that nothing must be done by us but what the Lord first did on our behalf, as that the cup which is offered in remembrance of Him should be offered mingled with wine. For when Christ says, "I am the true vine." the blood of Christ is assuredly not water, but wine; neither can His blood by which we are redeemed and quickened appear to be in the cup, when in the cup there is no wine whereby the blood of Christ is shown forth, which is declared by the sacrament and testimony of all the Scriptures (Epistle LXII).

These are surely not the words we would expect from a modern Roman Catholic bishop. Often those who embrace the authority of Rome have a difficult time removing from their thinking the basic presuppositions that are presented with such force so that even when examining historical information they end up reading it as Rome would have them to, not as the original authors would have intended. This is most true when reading the early Fathers and how they spoke of the Supper. A common example can be drawn from Ignatius, who, when writing to the Smyrneans, said,

They abstain from eucharist (thanksgiving) and prayer, because they allow not that the eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, which flesh suffered for our sins, and which the Father of His goodness raised up.

To the ear trained to hear the Fathers as Roman Catholics, Ignatius sounds as if he is referring to transubstantiation. He is not. Going back to the context, one finds he is making the same argument that Tertullian made above. He is arguing against the docetic gnostics who denied the reality of the physical incarnation of Christ. It is foolishness to participate in the Supper, which calls us to remembrance of the flesh and blood of Christ, broken for us, if, in fact, there never was such flesh! Only by reading a doctrine that would take a thousand years to crystalize back into Ignatius can one come up with a Roman understanding. Interestingly enough, Irenaeus, likewise, in his Against Heresies (5:2:2), is making the exact same argument, not teaching transubstantiation, but instead fighting against the docetic gnostics who denied the physical reality of Christ’s incarnation.

But there is another direction from which I wish to briefly approach this issue: that of the reserved host. If the doctrine of transubstantiation is, in fact, the proper understanding of the phrase "real presence" in patristic sources, then it would follow that consecrated hosts would be treated as later councils would demand. We should expect to find tabernacles in the churches of the days of Nica, and should expect to find worship of the reserved hosts. Yet, Roman Catholic sources are quick to admit that tabernacles did not develop for at least another six hundred years after Nica! Why? For the same reason the term "transubstantiation" did not appear until about the same time: the concept of "real presence" as found in modern Roman dogma was not a part of the ancient faith of the Church. And if you don’t have transubstantiation as a part of the faith of a Church, I submit you do not have the Roman Catholic Church.

In Conclusion

What, then, must we conclude on the basis of the facts of history? First, that there are certain doctrines and dogmas that set Roman Catholicism apart from all other communions. That these doctrines are, allegedly, based upon apostolic tradition. Furthermore, we assert that without these doctrines, you do not have Roman Catholicism. We have asked the question, "Did the Church which produced the Nicene Council exhibit these fundamental hallmarks of Roman Catholicism?" The answer provided by the facts themselves is quite simply, "no." Hence, we propose to the reader that the Church of Nica was not the Church of Rome, and that the changes that have taken place in the nearly 1700 years since then are not a matter of natural progression and "evolution," but are, instead, degenerations and perversions of the Church that so clearly defended the deity of Christ so long ago.

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Submitted April 17th, 1997

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