Having established the historical reliability of the Scriptures, as well as Jesus’ claim to Divinity. What can we say about the church? Specifically, did Jesus in fact, establish a church and is that church still in existence today?
Before diving into Scripture, we can say at the very beginning that the sheer necessity of some governing religious authority is, itself, tremendous evidence that Jesus did, in fact, found one (cf. St. John Henry Newman, Sermons to Mixed Congregations).
If Jesus were to call people from various nations, upbringings, and educations, who would have just as many varying opinions regarding Himself and His teachings; it’s hard to see how Christianity, without a legitimate authority to judge between such opinions, could have come together in the first place, let alone maintain a unified creed overtime.
For Scripture alone is just not going to cut it, as Shakespeare famously wrote:
Even the devil can quote scripture for his own purposes (The Merchant of Venice, Act. I, Sc. III, L. 107).
So, if Jesus planned (post ascension) to instruct and direct man towards Himself, he must have left us some governing authority to guide us on that journey.
Along with the sheer necessity of a church to suggest its historical foundation, there also stands the witness of Scripture, and not only in the New Testament but also in the Old.
For, Christ came “not to abolish the (old) law but to fulfill it” (Mt. 5:17) and as St. Paul points out, what was decreed of old is:
…a shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ (Col. 2:17).
Therefore, if a “shadow” or “type” of the Church is found in the Old Testament, we would be right to look for one in the New.
And a “type” there is, in the Davidic Kingdom.
Under King David, not only were God’s people united under a common creed, but also under a common rule. To be a member of God’s people meant not only worshiping the one true God but also pledging obedience to the King.
King David’s governance, moreover, was not merely temporal but also spiritual, since he wrote portions of the Scriptures himself as well as enacted reforms in worship (Cf. 1 Chron. 25 & Ps. 51).
Along with matters pertaining to faith, the King of Israel also sat as judge over morals. We see this most overtly in the kingship of his son, Solomon, whose responsibilities are illustrated here in the first book of Kings, where he prays:
Give thy servant therefore an understanding mind to govern thy people, that I may discern between good and evil; for who is able to govern this thy great people?…And all Israel heard of the judgment which the king had rendered; and they stood in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him, to render justice (1 Kgs. 3:9, v. 28).
To govern matters of faith and morals, would not only be the work of the Davidic Kingship, it would also endure into Jesus’ day, in the authority of the Scribes and Pharisees. Jesus would even affirm the legitimacy of such authority, saying:
The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice (Mt. 23:2).
Holy or Not
We should note, that both before and during Jesus’ day, these religious authorities, although lawfully instituted, were sometimes made up of the most lawless of characters, as Jesus testifies:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others (Mt. 23:23).
Or, take the High Priest Caiphas, who in sanctioning the murder of Christ, still retained the Divine gift of prophecy which was relegated to his office:
Ca′iaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them,..you do not understand that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.” He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied…(Jn. 11:49-50).
Even King David and Solomon were far from perfect men (Cf. 2 Sam. 11 & Sir. 47).
Therefore, both before and during Jesus’ time there existed a divinely instituted governing religious authority, which judged on faith and morals as well as remained legitimate even amidst the depravity of its officers.
Now, Jesus would perfect and subsume this authority to Himself as the true King foreshadowed by the Davidic Kingdom. This Kingship and Kingdom would be declared both by His words and deeds as we see in the Gospel of Luke:
But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you (Luke 11:20).
Yet, Jesus knowing that He would eventually ascend into heaven, and at the same time, realizing the necessity for such a governing body to continue, appointed a head-steward to govern in his absence, which was also foreshadowed in the Old Testament. Here is an instance of such an appointment as described in Isaiah:
…I will call my servant Eli′akim the son of Hilki′ah, and I will clothe him with your robe, and will bind your girdle on him, and will commit your authority to his hand; and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open (Is. 22:20-22)(emphasis added).
Jesus fulfills this shadow in the appointment of Peter:
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hades shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven (Mt. 16:18)(emphasis added).
In passing authority to Peter and his successors, Jesus founded the rock of his Church and gave the people of God the means to remain unified in creed and code within His Kingdom, until He, the True King, would return.
Drawing and connecting these various and interrelated themes of kingdom citizenship, old testament foreshadowing, new testament fulfillment, and apostolic stewardship, St. Paul writes:
So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone (Eph. 2:19-20).
Thus, in fulfillment of the Old Testament and for the sake of a unified people under God, Jesus founded this particular governance, the church, and under a particular governor, Peter.
But is this same church in existence today?
Jesus promised in the Gospel of Matthew (as cited above) that the church built on Peter would not fail, and since to be corrupted or annihilated would surely imply failure, then we must assume, given the Divine promise, that this Church founded by Jesus is still in existence today.
So, after Peter, who took over stewardship? Ireneaus gives us the oldest account of Peter’s successors, from his second-century work, Adversus Haeresus:
The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate. Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy. To him succeeded Anacletus; and after him, in the third place from the apostles, Clement was allotted the bishopric (Bk. III, Ch.III).1
Then, from these earliest men, history can trace a line of successors all the way to Pope Francis today, the head of the Roman Catholic Church.
Not only has the lineage of Peter been retained over time but also his authoritative prerogative, as Clement of Rome stands as witness:
Accept our counsel and you will have nothing to regret. . . . If anyone disobeys the things which have been said by him [Jesus] through us, let them know that they will involve themselves in no small danger (Epistle to the Corinthians, Ch. LIX, circa 80 A.D.).
Ignatius of Antioch testifies to Rome’s primacy as well, when he writes to Rome saying:
You have envied no one, but others have you taught. I desire only that what you have enjoined in your instructions may remain in force (Epistle to the Romans, Ch. III, circa 110 A.D.).
And Irenaeus will write:
…the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority (Ibid., Ch. III)
But if this church is historically speaking the same Catholic Church we see today, why don’t we see the name “Catholic” in Scripture?
The first written account of the name Catholic is found in the writings of St. Ignatius of Antioch who writes:
You must all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ follows the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles. Wherever the bishop appears, let the people be there; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic (καθολικός) Church (Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, Ch. VIII circa 110 A.D.).
This Greek word, καθολικός (Katholikos), comes from two other Greek words, κατα (kata, concerning), and ὅλος (holos, whole). Thus, Catholic means “according to the whole,” “universal,” or “everyone.”
The Catholic Church, founded by Jesus Christ, is that Kingdom of Heaven upon earth. A Church open to all and historically enduring. The home of the Christian Faith. For more on the necessity of the Catholic Church, read Faith vs. Doubt.
1. Though the names of these men is debated, their line of succession to the current Pope is not.