No Early Evidence for Roman Catholic Doctrine

Rock Tombs
“To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.” ― John Henry Newman

This is part of a series on Roman Catholicism. See this index.

In our last post “Scripture is Tradition“, we showed how the early church—after the apostolic era, but before the late 4th century—viewed tradition as scripture, which was complete and permanent. Scripture was the source of all doctrine and any doctrines defined outside of scripture were heretical.

Rome’s doctrines did not exist in the first 300 years of the catholic church. But, the Patristic writings are not silent. They testify loudly against the Roman doctrinal innovations of the 4th century and later. For example, more than a dozen writers before 350AD can be cited to show that the Roman Eucharist is false[1], but after 350AD the writers become increasingly Roman Catholic[2].

Roman Catholic doctrines cannot be supported before the late 4th century without citing the axiom…

“The recent explicates the older”[3]

…which is circular reasoning. This principle will now be demonstrated in action with respect to papal primacy, mariology, priestly celibacy, the liturgical mixing of water into wine, kneeling, relics, veneration of the cross, burning incense, the Roman Catholic Eucharist, and lighting candles.[4] In the process we show that this axiom is generalized to apply to any doctrine, not just the ones highlighted. We will also show that Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants all except this axiom.


Papal Primacy

The first example comes from John Henry Newman, a Roman Catholic Cardinal who lived from 1801 and 1890. He was first an Anglican priest, but later converted to Roman Catholicism. He was canonized as a Saint of the Roman Catholic church. He was and continues to be important as a Roman Catholic dogmatist and apologist.

On the Development of Christian Doctrine

“The acts of the fourth century speak as strongly as its words. [..citations from Barrow’s on the Supremacy..] More ample testimony for the Papal Supremacy, as now professed by Roman Catholics, is scarcely necessary than what is contained in these passages; the simple question is, whether the clear light of the fourth and fifth centuries may be fairly taken to interpret to us the dim, though definite, outlines traced in the preceding.”

Citation: John Henry Cardinal Newman, “On the Development of Christian Doctrine” (1878). Section III. The Papal Supremacy. 14-17

Newman could not find Papal Supremacy (that is, Papal Primacy) any earlier than the 4th and 5th centuries because the doctrine didn’t exist before then. As late as 358, Rome did not even have primacy in its own diocese, when Athanasius explicitly wrote that Rome was not the chief metropolis. But Rome would soon start grasping for power and authority, ultimately successfully declaring its own primacy in the councils of Rome in 378 and 382. Not Newman, nor any other Roman Catholic, can find papal primacy any earlier because it didn’t exist before the Bishop of Rome manufactured it. In the absence of evidence, Newman assumes that the later practices are found in the earlier practices. The dim hints of papal supremacy in the preceding centuries are phantoms from the imagination fueled by expectations.


The second example comes from John Brande Morris, who lived from 1812 to 1880. Like John Henry Newman, he also converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism.

Jesus, the Son of Mary

“[If] there are early traces of identity of belief, they may be invisible, except to the eye of a Catholic, but perfectly clear to him. For an immense number of minute expressions, observations, and practices prove to him, that the genius of his faith is what it always was. [..] Either Almighty God, who knew in the fifth century what would be wanted in subsequent ones, so taught his Church the Incarnation, as to pave the way to the recognition of Mary’s privileges, or the Church did it by chance”

Citation: John Brande Morris, “Jesus, the Son of Mary, Volume I” (1851). p.27-30

Writing on a variety of Marian doctrines, Morris acknowledges that the positive evidence for these doctrines is invisible in the early centuries, that is, a complete absence of evidence. Morris has to cite other 3rd through 5th century doctrines just to reason by analogy. Direct evidence is not only completely missing, but what Morris doesn’t say is that the early writings actively testify against the doctrines. Like Newman, Morris cites later doctrines to explicate earlier doctrines.

Priestly Celibacy

The third example comes from Jesuit priest Christian Cochini:

Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy

“The four documents of the late 4th century we have studied pose the problem that started our research: does the dicipline of ecclesiastical celibacy … go back to the time of the apostles? [..] We will therefore choose the late 4th century as our chronological basis for inquiry on the birth and development of the law on clerical celibacy rather than the year 325, the date of the First Ecumenical Council.”

Citation: Christian Cochini, “Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy” (1990), p.16

Cochini started his research on the topic precisely because of an absence of evidence for priestly celibacy prior to the late 4th century, when there was suddenly an abundance of documentation. He’s completely clear here that the evidence for priestly celibacy does not exist prior to the late 4th century. Remarkably, to justify the claim that the 4th century evidence can be used to demonstrate the apostolic nature of the doctrine, he cites the same Newman quote that we cited above as a principle of interpretation:

Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy

In his research about the development of doctrine, Newman did not hesitate to lay down as a principle: “The whole question boils down to whether we can faithfully be guided by the strong light coming from the 4th and 5th centuries in order to explore the still pale, though sharp, outlines of the previous centuries.” It seems to us that we too can attempt to look into time with the help of that light.

Citation: Christian Cochini, “Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy” (1990), p.17

Newman had only been discussing papal primacy, but Cochini, like all faithful Roman Catholics, recognizes the universality of the central axiom that whatever the church believes is apostolic now must have been apostolic for the entire history of the church. Any absence of evidence is irrelevant to the acceptance of those doctrines and any contrary evidence can be dismissed in favor of the presumption that the church has continuity.

Liturgical Use of Water

The fourth example comes from the Catholic Encyclopedia.

Catholic Encyclopedia: Liturgical Use of Water

“With regard to the water mingled with the wine in the Mass, the Fathers from the earliest times have tried to find reasons why the Church uses a mixed chalice though the Gospel narrative implies that Christ consecrated pure wine.”

Citation: Herbert Thurston, “Liturgical Use of Water.” Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol 15. (1912)

Roman Catholics do not know why the early church mixed water with wine, or else it wouldn’t include it in the canonical liturgy. The answer is simple: in that era it was considered barbaric to drink pure wine. All wine was mixed with water prior to the meal it was consumed in, just bread was mixed with water and baked before the meal in which it was eaten. Mixing water with wine was exactly as mundane as mixing water with flour before making bread: basic food preparation. For example, in the 3rd century, Cyprian of Carthage emphasized both common applications within a mixed metaphor. There was nothing liturgical about it and it was not an apostolic rite. Timothy F. Kauffman explains:

The Mingled Cup, Part 3

Ambrose’s late 4th century novelty, coupled with ignorance of the ancient manufacturing process of wine, led to a comical, medieval dispute between the West and the East. The West insisted erroneously that Jesus had mixed His wine at the table (He had not), and the East denied it, insisting instead that Jesus had used straight “merum sine aqua,” merum without water (He had not). Such were the combined fruits of ignorance mixed with the novel late-antique liturgizing of a common agricultural manufacturing process to make it part of the Eucharistic liturgy.

Citation: Timothy F. Kauffman, “The Mingled Cup, Part 3.” (2016)

Thus did both the East and the West err and were divided. Both assumed that their own views were apostolic, when in fact there was no apostolic tradition and neither got it right due to historical ignorance. But, and this is key, both used the axiom that the later practice explicated the earlier practice. That the Roman Catholic church claimed apostolicity for something that was plainly not apostolic is also a doctrinal error, proof of its fallibility and lack of apostolic continuity, notwithstanding its tragically comical nature.


The fifth example also comes from the Catholic Encyclopedia.

Catholic Encyclopedia: Genuflexion

“It is remarkable that the ‘orantes’ (praying figures) of early Christian art are in the catacomb frescoes invariably depicted as standing with arms extended. Some remarks of Leclercq suggest that a probable explanation may be found in the view that these ‘orantes’ are merely conventional representations of prayer and of suppliants in the abstract. They are symbols, not pictures of the actual.”

Citation: Frederick Thomas Bergh, “Genuflexion.” Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol 6. (1909)

Here the Roman Catholic is confused that the early church is not depicted as kneeling to pray. But that’s because prior to the late 4th century, it was forbidden to kneel on the Lord’s Day and on every day from Easter through Pentecost. The prohibition on kneeling was codified at the Council of Nicaea in 325:

Council of Nicaea, Canon XX

“Forasmuch as there are certain persons who kneel on the Lord’s Day and in the days of Pentecost, therefore, to the intent that all things may be uniformly observed everywhere (in every parish), it seems good to the holy Synod that prayer be made to God standing.”

Citation: Council of Nicaea, Canon XX (325AD)

But, because the Roman Catholic Church claims apostolic authority for kneeling, it must explicate the earlier evidence in the light of later teachings. Roman Catholics are left perplexed, but they do not allow this confusion to alter their faith in the apostolicity of kneeling to pray.

The prohibition of kneeling is also a sixth example. Since kneeling was forbidden on the Lord’s Day, the later liturgical kneeling during the Roman Catholic Eucharist could not have been apostolic. But Roman Catholics claim that the later practices explicate the earlier, and thus do not find a conflict.


The seventh example also comes from the Catholic Encyclopedia.

Catholic Encyclopedia: Relics

Few points of faith can be more satisfactorily traced back to the earliest ages of Christianity than the veneration of relics.

Citation: Herbert Thurston, “Relics.” Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol 12. (1911)

You can really get a sense for the enthusiasm of the writer here. So few points of Roman Catholic faith can be satisfactorily traced back to the very earliest ages of Christianity—a point of agreement that we share—such that it is deeply satisfying to the Catholic that finally there is one that is so clear. And then we read on:

From the Catholic standpoint there was no extravagance or abuse in this cult as it was recommended and indeed taken for granted, by writers like St. Augustine, St. Ambrose, St. Jerome, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Chrysostom, St. Gregory Nazianzen, and by all the other great doctors without exception.

Every writer listed comes from the late 4th century. It continues.

Neither is it quite easy to determine the period at which the practice of venerating minute fragments of bone or cloth, small parcels of dust, etc., first became common. We can only say that it was widespread early in the fourth century, and that dated inscriptions upon blocks of stone, which were probably altar slabs, afford evidence upon the point which is quite conclusive. [..] Omitting one or two words not adequately explained, the inscription runs: “A holy memorial [memoria sancta] of the wood of the Cross”

Again, we see the earliest that it can be traced back—even accepting the claim uncritically—is to the 4th century. But, at least this time it is the early 4th century, right?

For thousands of years Jews (and later Christians) respectfully buried their dead. It was not until the introduction of veneration of relics in the late 4th century that the dead were dug up.[5] The Church in the early 4th century went to the tombs of martyrs once per year to celebrate and memorialize their ‘birthday’ (date of martyrdom), but the martyrs remained buried. They did not dig up bodies to kiss the bones or to distribute pieces of martyrs bones to be put into the altars of their churches or stored in reliquaries. They buried the bodies and there they stayed, to be periodically brought to mind in remembrance of their deeds. Athanasius told how Antony, when he was 105 years old in Egypt, wanted to leave Egypt because Egyptians…

The Life of Antony

…are wont to honour with funeral rites, and to wrap in linen cloths at death the bodies of good men, and especially of the holy martyrs; and not to bury them underground, but to place them on couches, and to keep them in their houses, thinking in this to honour the departed.

Citation: Athanasius, “The Life of Antony.” (360AD)

This horrified Antony, who stated…

‘…that this thing was neither lawful nor holy at all. For the bodies of the patriarchs and prophets are until now preserved in tombs, and the very body of the Lord was laid in a tomb, and a stone was laid upon it, and hid it until He rose on the third day.’ And thus saying, he showed that he who did not bury the bodies of the dead after death transgressed the law, even though they were sacred. [..] Many therefore having heard, henceforth buried the dead underground, and gave thanks to the Lord that they had been taught rightly.

And so we find that the church buried men, including those who were holy. It did not dig them up.

So what about the tomb to the cross of Jesus? The Catholic encyclopedia notes that the alleged wood of the cross was discovered in c.318 and its pieces distributed. The inscription on the stone appears to refer to one of those pieces. The two men who buried the pieces of the cross did so in imitation of the act of burying a holy body. By burying the cross, they were not distributing it, looking upon it, kissing it, or kneeling to it. In short, they were not venerating it, but they treated it as a holy memorial, just as they would have a dead body.

And that is all the evidence. The inscription on the stone is not a letter explaining its significance. Can the inscription mean more than mere respect, such celebrating a birthday or the respect paid to the symbolic bread and wine by taking care not to drop it on the floor? Were the two men named devout Christians countering a popular heresy?[6] Does it prove veneration of relics? The most we can do is look to the church’s practices of burial and reason from there, as we do not have anyone in the church attesting to this practice. In the absence of direct evidence to explain this and in opposition to the evidence against veneration of relics[5], the Catholic Encyclopedia relies on later traditions to explicate the earlier.

The Cross

The eighth example is related to the veneration of relics: the veneration of the cross.

American Catholic Priest Rueben Parsons speaks of the practice of venerating the cross:

Studies in Church History

“[We] show the antiquity of the Catholic custom of venerating the Cross. Protestant authors insist that there is no vestige of our practice to be found in the records of the first three centuries. In the fourth and succeeding centuries the evidence of this veneration is so plain, that no Protestant writer of importance has ventured to impugn it.”

Citation: Rueben Parsons, “Studies in Church History, Volume 1”.

Here he notes that due to the overwhelming presence of the practice in the 4th and later centuries, Protestants do not contest the practice, even though they know it to be absent in the first three centuries of the church. Yet, as the Catholic Encyclopedia states above, when some churchmen in the early 4th century found an alleged piece of the cross, rather than place it on display and venerate it, they buried it as they would have a dead body.


The ninth example also comes from the Catholic Encyclopedia:

Catholic Encyclopedia: Incense

When, exactly, incense was introduced into the religious services of the Church it is not easy to say. During the first four centuries there is no evidence for its use. Still, its common employment in the Temple and the references to it in the New Testament (cf. Luke 1:10; Revelation 8:3-5) would suggest an early familiarity with it in Christian worship.

Citation: Patrick Morrisroe, “Incense.” Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol 7. (1910)

Here we have yet another Roman Catholic doctrine that has no evidence during the early church, yet once again we have an interpolation derived from explicating the newer practices onto the older ones. But there is no evidence of Christians burning incense until the 5th century.

Roman Catholic Eucharist

The tenth example comes from a Protestant, Philip Schaff.

The Catechetical Lectures of Cyril, Eucharistic Doctrine

“[In Gregory of Nyssa and Cyril] we have the full explanation of what Irenæus meant when he said that the elements “by receiving the Word of God become the Eucharist”

Citation: Philip Schaff, “The Catechetical Lectures of Cyril, Eucharistic Doctrine.” (1894)

In his historical work, he could not find evidence of the Roman Catholic Eucharist in Irenaeus[7], so he used later patristics to try to explain away the plain meaning of Irenaeus’ words. Thus do we add Protestants to the ranks of the Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox: those who use the axiom of explicating the older by way of the newer.


The eleventh example involves the burning of Candles. Here we have the example of an early writer mocking the heathens for burning candles to their gods, for the true God has no need of candles.

Divine Institutes, Book IV — Of True Worship

Or if they would contemplate that heavenly light which we call the sun, they will at once perceive how God has no need of their candles, who has Himself given so clear and bright a light for the use of man. [..] Is that man, therefore, to be thought in his senses, who presents the light of candles and torches as an offering to Him who is the Author and Giver of light?

Citation: Lactantius, “Of True Worship.” Divine Institutes, Book IV (250-330)

The Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics further states:

Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics

“We may take it as established beyond dispute that there was no ceremonial use of candles or lamps in Christian worship or in churches for the first three centuries.”

Citation: “Candle.” Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, Volume III (1911). p.188.

If a Roman Catholic desires to assert that the burning of candles has an apostolic origin, he will have to invoke the axiom that the later practices explicate the earlier practices.


As we have shown, the Roman Catholic church does not have tradition on its side. It can find an abundance of evidence after 350 to support its claims, but it can find precious little before that. Because it claims apostolic continuity for its current doctrines and practices, it is thus forced to appeal to the later to explicate the former. Its own writings testify to this.

On the Development of Christian Doctrine

“The acts of the fourth century speak as strongly as its words. … the simple question is, whether the clear light of the fourth and fifth centuries may be fairly taken to interpret to us the dim, though definite, outlines traced in the preceding.”

Citation: John Henry Cardinal Newman, “On the Development of Christian Doctrine” (1878).

Not only is this circular reasoning, but the testimony of the early church is not neutral. It affirmatively militates against Roman Catholic tradition.

We have shown how Rome’s deception catches both Eastern Orthodox and even Protestants—like Schaff—in its trap. We have shown how many—like former Anglicans Newman and Morris—turn towards the false security of Roman Catholicism’s later tradition to determine the earlier. But Roman Catholic tradition is nothing more than an attractive deception.

We have shown that the axiom of the Catholic Church…

“The recent explicates the older”

…is applied universally, both by way of its application to a variety of doctrines and by the recent direct testimony of Christian Cochini.

If the axiom were to be rejected, then the Roman Catholic church would be rejected, for by sola scriptura,

“The older explicates the recent”

A Note on the Development of Ideas

While the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary came late, the idea of the perpetual virginity of Mary did not. The Proto-Gospel of James, a forgery estimated to be written in the mid 2nd century, expanded the birth of Jesus and suggested that a midwife proved that Mary remained a virgin after she had given birth to Jesus.[7]

Similarly, the elevation of virginity became quite popular before the rise of Roman Catholicism and remained popular for some time. For example, another forgery Pseudo-Thomas was written in the 5th century and argued that sexual intimacy leads to damnation.[8]

Many ideas of what came to be Roman Catholic doctrines existed long before being codified in the law of the church. This is not surprising, as most of the Roman Catholic innovations have roots elsewhere. They are not, when all is said and done, truly original ideas. They ‘merely’ come from outside of accepted scripture.

The point, of course, is not that the ideas have an ancient origin, but that that those ideas were not accepted by “church fathers.” For example, the duality of the body and soul is a notion from Greek philosophy that is older than any book of in the New Testament. Even though Jesus and his fellow Hebrews had a different view, this didn’t stop people centuries later from adopting the Greek view and interpreting Jesus’ words as if he himself taught it.


[1] Didache (50-90AD), Ignatius (107), Clement (150), Justin Martyr (155), Irenaeus (189), Hippolytus (215), Tertullian (208), Didascalia Apostolorum (230), Origen (248), Firmilian (256), Cornelius (250), Cyprian (253), Dionysius (256), Gregory Nazianzus the Elder (300), Council of Nicaea (325)[link], and Athanasius (339).

[2] Cyril (350AD), Serapion (353), Apostolic Constitutions (375), Gregory of Nyssa (382) (the first mention of sacrificing the elements), John Chrysostom (387), Ambrose (389), Macarius (390), Augustine (408), and so on.

[3] The axiom is variously described. Another version is sola ecclesia—the church alone. Still another is the claim “apostolic succession is true and continous.” All of these forumlations point to the authority of the Roman Catholic church to claim that what it teaches is correct, apostolic, and testified to by the apostles in unbroken succession backwards, either by written or spoken word, with the latter doing most of the heavy lifting.

[4] These are just a few of the Roman Catholic innovations. A larger list includes: papal and Roman primacy, papal infallibility, priestly celibacy, elevation of virginity and fasting over marriage, Mariology (immaculate conception, perpetual virginity, assumption of Mary, Mother of the Church), kneeling on the Lord’s Day, incense, candles, relics and images, veneration of the cross, baptismal regeneration, intercession of the saints, the title of Pontifex Maximus, ex communicare replaced by ex civitate, taking up the civil sword to persecute and kill the faithful, civil taxes flowing through the Bishops and priestly wealth acquisition, the system of sacraments, and the eucharistic alterations: the alteration of the liturgical order, transubstantiation, the sacrifice of the Mass, eucharistic adoration, communion on the tongue, the liturgical mixing of water with wine, the church holidays (Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday).

On the ancient prohibition on the veneration of images, see: Epistle of Barnabas, Chapter 2; Minucius Felix, Octavius, Chapter 32; Origen Against Celcus, Book 6, Chapter 70; Lactantius, Divine Institutes, Book 6, Chapter 2 and 25; Aphrahat, Demonstration 16 sections 4 and 7 and Demonstration 21 section 7; Epiphanius (from Jerome’s Letter 51 section 9).

[5] In 354, Caesar Constantius Gallus was the first to disinter bones: St. Babilus of Antioch. In 356, Constantius II disintered St. Timothy and in 358 disintered St. Andrew and St. Luke. These are the earliest known references to digging up the bones of the saints after burial. The first example we have of this practice within the church is 373 by Basil of Caesarea in Letter 155. The practice was objected to by Vigilantius.

[6] The veneration of the relic of the cross may merely have been a popular heresy that would eventually become the source of the church heresy. Consider how the Apocalypse of Peter was a very popular heresy, but we have Ignatius who responded against it. No contemporaneous writer accepts relics or their veneration in the early 4th century. Those are clearly in the last half of the 4th century.

[7] The “Amen” in the eucharist—as demonstrated by many early church writings[1]—completes the offering of praise, thanksgiving, tithes, and firstfruits for the poor: the oblation. Since the eucharistic offering was completed before the Consecration (epiclesis; invocation) and Lord’s Supper, the elements of Christ’s body and blood could not be offered as a sacrifice to God, because they were consecrated after they were eucharisted. The Roman Catholic liturgy merged the eucharist with the epiclesis to produce a sacrifice of consecrated elements.

The Dismissal was moved from before the Eucharist to after the Lord’s Supper, as shown in the word “Mass” itself. No Roman Catholic understands why it has the chanted “ite missa est” tradition at the end, because (as previously cited) it originates in the 4th century and is supposedly ‘missing’ in the early church. To understand why it isn’t missing would be to admit that the liturgy has changed, thus the axiom is invoked.

[8] See Bart Erhman, “Lost Christianities.” p. xii, 9

[9] See Bart Erhman, “Lost Christianities.” p. xiv, 9


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