Here’s a claim that I’ve heard Protestants make that, as far as I can tell, backfires so completely as to make it no less of an argument against Protestantism.
It’s sometimes said by Protestants that very early in Her history—as early as the 3rd century—the Church began to badly misunderstand the teaching of Scripture. As a result, She began to teach things which are actually serious theological errors.
Here’s why I think this claim does not accomplish what they hope (namely, to cast doubt upon the fidelity and reliability of the Catholic Church). In the first place, the Protestants asserting such things lived no earlier than the 16th century. But the culture in Europe then was drastically different from what prevailed in first century Palestine. And we’re supposed to believe that these guys, and their heirs today (who are even more wildly removed from the first century culturally), understand the Bible better than the Church Fathers who not only spoke Greek as their mother tongue, but who also lived in basically the exact same culture as the writers of Scripture? Better than St. Ignatius? Better than St. Irenaeus?
I’m sorry, but that strains credulity to the breaking point and beyond. To the contrary, we ought to give far greater weight to the Fathers, and likewise to the tradition passed on over the centuries from them. There is every good reason to suppose that the Fathers understood Scripture correctly, and I can’t think of a reason why we ought to suspect them that doesn’t spring from a theological predisposition against their views.
Just as important, though, is to consider the consequences of what the critics are saying. If they’re right—if the Fathers really did start “going astray” very early on—then why on earth should we believe anything that Protestants say, when their distance from the apostles is far greater? If a century or two is enough for error to creep in, what do 15 centuries do? What do 20 centuries do? We have no principled reason for supposing that Protestants are immune from the affliction from which they claim the Fathers suffered. None. If God did not preserve the early Church from error, He certainly is not going to preserve Protestants from it either. We have absolutely no basis for confidence in anything that Protestants say the Bible teaches if, on their terms, we cannot trust the early Church Fathers. The assertion that early on the Fathers started getting essentials of the Faith wrong proves too much.
We can trust the Fathers, and we ought to do so. They understood the Bible, and they can help us to understand it correctly as well.