A common feature of modern evangelical speech and writing is to surrender the great word “catholic” to the Roman church, and to fear that patristic support may perhaps be found for Romanist innovations even though they obviously have no biblical or apostolic sanction. This mistake was not made by the sixteenth century Reformers. From the time of Zwingli onwards the doctrines of the Middle Ages were rejected not merely as nonbiblical but also as noncatholic, that is, as innovations which had no authority even in the early centuries. If the primary appeal was very rightly to Scripture, it was commonly agreed by all the Reformers that even by the test of catholicity the doctrinal and practical errors of the day could not stand.


Nowhere, perhaps, was this more dramatically and emphatically stated than at the Paul’s Cross sermon of November 26, 1559, in the early and critical days of the English Elizabeth. The preacher was John Jewel, Bishop-designate of Salisbury. A disciple of Ridley and Cranmer, and one of the most learned patristic scholars of his time, as well as a warm admirer and friend of Peter Martyr, Jewel had recently returned from Swiss exile during the fierce persecution in the days of Mary. His exile had been passed happily and profitably enough under the hospitable roof of Peter Martyr in Zurich, and Jewel had devoted himself to perfecting his knowledge of the Fathers by reading and conference. Already in the earlier part of the year he seems to have preached a first sermon at Paul’s Cross, but it was in November, 1559, and again in March, 1560, that he flung out the famous challenge which was to determine the course of most of his future writing.

The key point in the sermon came when Jewel stated a number of specific articles in the current sacramental theology of Romanism, and then made the bold offer that “if any learned man alive were able to prove any [such articles] … by any one clear or plain sentence of the scriptures, or of the old doctors, or of any old general council, or by any example of the primitive church, for the space of six hundred years after Christ, he would give over and subscribe unto him” (Works, Parker Society Ed., Vol. I, pp. 20, 21). In other words, Jewel offered to accept any or all the articles if they could be unequivocally supported by even a single sentence from any one father or council of the first six centuries, quite apart from the statements of the Bible itself.

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Even the friends of Jewel, who knew of his learning, seemed to fear he had overreached himself, for, after all, the fathers had written so much that support for almost any opinion could be found somewhere or at some time in their works. Yet the response to his challenge was meager. Supporters of the medieval positions treated it with disdain. The facts were supposedly so obvious that there was no point in attempting to prove the antiquity of these or other articles. Yet no actual statements were adduced. Hence in March, 1560, first at court and then before a vast and expectant crowd at Paul’s Cross, Jewel repeated and enlarged his challenge. Quoting first some of the false doctrines in relation to Holy Communion, he showed that they were plainly contrary to “so many old fathers, so many doctors, so many examples of the primitive church, so manifest and plain words of the holy scriptures,” and that “not one father, not one doctor, not one allowed example of the primitive church doth make for them.” He then recalled the original challenge which he had made, increased the number of the articles which he was willing to take into account, and confessed again his willingness to yield to them if in any one they could provide “such sufficient authority of scriptures, doctors, or councils as I have required” (ibid., pp. 21, 22).

On this occasion the challenge was taken up by two main supporters of the old order. The first was Dr. Cole, and it is noticeable that he made no attempt whatever to produce the evidence which Jewel demanded. He simply argued that the articles concerned relatively minor matters, and that it was for Jewel himself to produce the evidence for his own views, since he was the innovator. The second disputant was Dr. Harding, and he introduced a wide range of subsidiary matters which inevitably entangled Jewel in one of those prolonged theological disputes for which the latter part of the sixteenth century was famous. But the interesting feature is that Harding is no more successful than Cole in pointing to a single sentence or canon from the early days of the Church, let alone a verse or passage of Scripture, in support of the articles of medieval sacramental teaching and practice which Jewel had cited.

The full ramifications of the challenge and the ensuing controversy cannot be pursued, of course, in the present context. But there are features of it which call for notice and which may perhaps help us to see our way a little more clearly and firmly in relation not only to the errors but also to the spurious claims advanced by the Roman church right up to the present.

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The first is quite simply that the Roman church itself is historically the church of innovation and therefore of schism from catholic and apostolic doctrine. We see this most clearly today in such new formulations as papal infallibility and the assumption of Mary. With our longer historical perspective, we do not quite appreciate as did the sixteenth century Reformers the comparative newness of compulsory confession and transubstantiation. But the Reformers were very conscious that in these and in a host of matters the medieval church had been guilty of the most serious departure from the catholic as well as the scriptural norm. It needs to be said quite bluntly that so long as she maintains these new positions the Roman church forfeits her claim to be catholic, and should not be allowed to appropriate to herself this honorable description.


But this leads us to the second point, namely, that the Protestants themselves were conscious of being the true catholics in their very protest against Romanist innovation. Their main appeal was naturally to Holy Scripture as the supreme norm. But they realized that the first fathers were witnesses and commentators who deserved careful and respectful study, and that, so far as Scripture allows, the doctrine and practice of the present should also conform to that of the earliest days of the Church. In other words, the struggle for evangelical teaching is the struggle for true catholicism as opposed to a perverted and schismatic pseudo catholicism; and the most careful searching of the first centuries revealed that, while there were many things which did not stand the test of Holy Scripture, no clear support could be found for the medieval innovations. Protestant churches, following the example of the Reformation fathers, ought boldly to maintain their true catholicity to the extent that they are still true to their original confessions.

It is to be remembered, however, that neither Jewel nor any of the Reformation leaders gave to the fathers or councils of the first centuries an authority equal to that of Holy Scripture. For the purpose of the challenge Jewel declared himself ready to accept either fathers or Scriptures, but his own writings make it plain that for him as for all Reformers the Bible was the supreme norm. In other words, no doctrine or practice can be truly catholic unless it is apostolic. Even the teaching or practice of the first centuries ceases to be catholic to the extent that it is not plainly apostolic, that is, to the extent that it has no basis in the writings of the apostles. The catholic church is the church which is subject to and therefor reformable by the Word of God in Holy Scripture, which is for her the supreme rule of faith and conduct. Appeals to antiquity or to judgments or precedents are no substitute for this final guarantee. To be truly catholic, it is essential to be apostolic and therefore to be scriptural. Those whose norm is the Bible are the true catholics.

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Geoffrey W. Bromiley is Professor of Church History in Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California, and author of several published volumes on the Reformation period.

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As everyone knows, there are some individuals who look younger than their years. I am one of those. Some years ago I held a private Communion service for a dear old lady of my congregation whose years had not only confined her to her home, but also had left her with a mind which often became confused. The following Sunday two women visitors reported to me that they had called on the shut-in and found her feeling very sorry for the minister because he was ill. “Poor dear,” she told them, “he is terribly ill and is having a lot of trouble.” “Oh, I don’t think so,” replied one of the visitors who was unfamiliar with her condition. “Indeed,” insisted the old lady, “he is very sick, but he did not forget me.” Realizing her mental confusion and deciding to “go along” with her, the spokesman said, “It’s too bad the minister is sick. We must go to visit him too; but tell me, why do you say he did not forget you?” “Well,” replied the old lady, “he sent his son to have communion with me, and I thought it was so considerate of him with all that trouble of his own.”—The Rev. R. C. TODD, Kitchener Street United Church, Niagara Falls, Canada.

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