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Was There A Major Widespread Apostasy In Church History?


Eric V. Snow



Could the mainstream traditional Christian church have changed major doctrines without triggering protests in the historical record?  Traditional Christians have argued that the observation of Christmas and the replacement of the seventh-day Sabbath with Sunday worship by appealing to church history.  They argue that the church couldn’t have gone into apostasy on major doctrines during or before the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine in the fourth century A.D.  Much of this would have to be long before the time of the Emperor Constantine’s proclamation of the Edict of Milan (313 A.D.) in which Rome granted legal toleration to Christians, if we’re going to count the departure from the observation of the Holy Days and the Saturday Sabbath as being required for Christians as being central to what is apostasy.  The union of church and state that so corrupted the established churches of Medieval Europe became only possible in the fourth century and onwards.  So how would a Sabbatarian who doesn’t keep Christmas or Easter because of their pagan origins make the case for a major apostasy’s occurrence early in the history of what became the Catholic Church?  Here the case will be made that the bible itself as well as some evidence from the church history that has been preserved demonstrate that a major departure from the doctrines of the first-century primitive church occurred by the early second century A.D.


The first line of evidence for a major early apostasy comes from the bible itself.  The Catholic Church long has had a problem with the premillennialist interpretation of the Book of Revelation.  It consistently has advocated other systems of interpretation of that book, such as the preterist, amillennialist, and even futurist systems in some cases, in order to escape the premillennialist historicist interpretation, which inevitably points a finger directly at the Catholic Church as being apostate.  The past leader of the Worldwide Church of God, Herbert W. Armstrong (HWA), taught a system of eschatology that was a mixture of the historical and futurist schools of prophecy, through which he emphasized prophetic fulfillments are often dual in nature.  The Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) system of prophetic interpretation is consistently of the historical school.  So then, who is the Beast?  Who is Babylon the Great?  Who is the second Beast of Revelation 13?  Who is the false prophet?  Who is the man of sin in II Thessalonians 2?  Who is little horn that is more stout than his fellows (Daniel 7:20)?  Historically many Protestants, including Martin Luther himself, saw the papacy as the fulfillment of many of these prophecies.  The SDA book, “Questions on Doctrine,” conveniently lists and sometimes quotes many the Protestants from the 16th century onwards who believed that the Church of Rome was Babylon.  In the past century and more, Protestants have generally toned down or abandoned such positions about the Roman Catholic Church, but the older interpretation is actually very sound indeed.  For example, if a woman represents a church (Ephesians 5:25-32), then a corrupt woman would represent a corrupt church (Revelation 18:2-10).  If the second beast of Revelation 13 is led by a man who calls fire down out of heaven (verse 13), and he is to be identified also as the man of sin who performs lying wonders (II Thessalonians 2:9), this inevitably has to be the future leader of an apostate church.  In II Thess. 2:3, Paul writes this in the middle of the first century A.D., “Let no one in any way deceive you, for it [the Day of the Lord] will not come unless the apostasy comes first and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of perdition.”  I would maintain, based on HWA’s model, that this section of Scripture has an earlier, lesser fulfillment in the papacy of the ancient world and the Middle Ages, but will have a later, greater fulfillment in the years immediately ahead of us today.  If a skeptic of this viewpoint does live to see a pope in Rome calling down fire out of heaven, he should seriously reconsider his views on the teachings of Catholicism that disagree with the bible, such as concerning the seventh-day Sabbath and the holy days listed in Leviticus 23.  After all, HWA, if he had been alive, would not have made the mistake Prime Minister David Cameron did about the vote for Brexit.  HWA made mistakes of timing, such as by predicting Christ’s return in 1975 (or allowing others to do this when he had the authority to stop them), but his general prophetic outline is coming into shape, as the European Union has slowly been becoming more unified politically even amidst all of its fractious bickering and policy disputes.


So who is the “woman” who rides the beast?  She’s the great harlot who sits on many waters (rules over many peoples/nations) and who committed fornication with the kings of the earth (Rev. 17:1-2) is also the woman who rides the beast (Roman 17:3).  The book of Daniel is the key to the book of Revelation, as even the likes of Hal Lindsey, the author of “The Late Great Planet Earth” observed, who was perhaps the most influential exponent of futurism at a popular level for the masses.  (Interestingly enough, he also thought that America would no longer be important in the world when the clash came between the Kings of the South, the North, and the East, much like HWA did).  So if the fourth Beast of Daniel 7 and the legs of iron of Daniel 2 are symbolic references to the Roman Empire, which most conservative scholars of the bible do accept, then inevitably the woman who rides the Beast has to be an institution that has existed for many centuries, when using the historical school of prophecy and applying the premillennialist interpretation to the Book of Revelation.  It has to be something already around when the Roman Empire still existed before 476 A.D., and it also has to be in existence in the future also.  So if a woman indeed represents a church, as is clearly the case concerning the true church in Revelation 12:13-17 and especially in Revelation 21:9; 22:17, (i.e., the bride of Christ), then the false church is represented by a sexually corrupt woman.  This status symbolizes her compromises in doctrine that occurred, such as through the union of church and state that generally ruled Europe in the Middle Ages and well into the early modern period.  Even the likes of the Fascist Italian dictator Mussolini felt the need to make a concordant with the Pope in the 20th century.  So based on this interpretation of eschatology, we have to conclude that an apostasy came early to mainstream Christianity.   After all, the first thing Christ warned about in the Olivet Prophecy was about religious deception (Matthew 24:4-5), which corresponds with the first horse of the Apocalypse (Revelation 6:2).  In time order, this precedes the other disasters in time order that Christ predicted:  "Take heed that no one deceives you. "For many will come in My name, saying, 'I am the Christ,' and will deceive many.”  These will be people who are preaching about Jesus as the Messiah, but they will spread false doctrines in His name. Interestingly enough, Billy Graham had the same interpretation of the first horseman of the apocalypse that HWA did. The majority following Babylon or her daughters simply aren’t right; the little flock is right, based on this interpretation of Scripture. 


When it comes to the issues to the continued observation of the Sabbath and the Holy Days listed in Leviticus 23, we can easily see how they would be abandoned early on by anti-Semitic gentiles who accepted the Christian message in general, but wished to discard certain publicly identifying features of early Christianity that were like Judaism.  Here the SDA church historian Samuele Bacchiocchi’s perspective in his book “From Sabbath to Sunday” makes sense.  It occurred mainly in the early second century during the time of the Emperor Hadrian, who had to harshly crush a Jewish revolt in the Holy Land and then imposed anti-Jewish policies in order to try to prevent another.  So this first line of evidence against an optimistic interpretation of the mainstream church’s history is based on the bible’s prophecies.  The main way to escape this, of course, is to deny the premillennialist historicist interpretation is correct.  But to engage in this stratagem, it becomes necessary to resort to dubious expedients, such as the allegorization of Revelation (as per the amillennialist view).  Alternatively, there’s preterist view, often upheld by modernist liberal skeptics, that tries to force the entire book to be about the first-century Roman Empire (i.e., Nero is the Beast, etc.) which simply isn’t plausible, especially given the grim list of worldwide disasters prophesied in it.  The post-millennialist view, which optimistically believes the church will take over the world and then Jesus comes at the end of the millennium, is frankly absurd in a world in which petty dictators have their fingers on nuclear buttons, and doesn’t fit the mechanized slaughters of the 20th centuries’ world wars and genocides, so I won’t hardly give it the time of day here.


Even a liberal Christian historian like Adolf Harnack (“What is Christianity?,” 1903, p. 269, 270) perceived how the Roman Church was a continuation of the Roman Empire, which fits in well with the view the papacy is one of the horns on the fourth beast in Daniel 7:20:   “Whatever Roman elements the barbarians and Arians left standing in the provinces . . . were . . . put under the protection of the Bishop of Rome, who was the chief person there after the Emperor’s disappearance. . . . The Roman Church in this way privily pushed itself into the place of the Roman World-Empire, of which it is the actual continuation; the empire has not perished, but has only undergone a transformation.  If we assert . . . that the Roman Church is the old Roman Empire consecrated by the Gospel, that is no mere “clever remark,” but the recognition of the true state of the matter historically, and the most appropriate and fruitful way of describing the character of this Church.  It still governs the nations. . . . It is a political creation, and as imposing as a World-Empire, because the continuation of the Roman Empire.   The Pope, who calls himself “King” and “Pontifex Maximus,” is Caesar’s successor.”  By copying the Roman Empire’s system of government, it became the image of the beast (Romans 13:15).  So why should we believe the doctrines from such a tainted source are reliable and that they reflect the teachings of Christ and the first-century apostles?


Then, there’s another line of argument, which comes down to historical evidence that the doctrines of the church changed early on in history, even before the time of Constantine.  For biblical evidence on this point, Jude’s appeal (c. 60s A.D.) fits well this perspective (verses 3-4) concerning the corruption that set in early in the church’s history:  “I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.  For certain persons have crept in unnoticed, those who were marked long beforehand for this condemnation, ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness.”  We find Diotrepes, who was casting out true Christians in the 90s A.D. (III John 9-10).  In II John 7, John noted that many deceivers had gone into the world.  Paul warned that even some of the elders that he preached to would end up speaking perverse things and taking away disciples to follow them (Acts 20:30).  Peter predicted that there would be false prophets early on in the church’s history (2 Peter 2:1-3, NKJV):  “But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their destructive ways, because of whom the way of truth will be blasphemed. By covetousness they will exploit you with deceptive words; for a long time their judgment has not been idle, and their destruction does not slumber.”  Paul predicted that even among the elders gathered at Miletus that apostates would arise among them (Acts 20:28-31, NKJV) "Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. "For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears.” 


If we want to look at non-biblical historians, consider what the Protestant historian Jesse Hurlbut’s “Story of the Christian Church” says, “For fifty years after St. Paul’s life a curtain hangs over the church, through which we strive vainly to look; and when at last it rises, about 120 A.D. with the writings of the earliest church-fathers, we find a church in many aspects very different from that in the days of St. Peter and St. Paul” (1918, p. 41).  Bacchiocchi finds that under the Roman bishop Sixtus (c. 116-126 A.D.) that Sabbath services and the annual observation of the Passover were replaced with Sunday worship and Easter during the time of mass Roman anti-Semitism and pogroms against Jews in major cities.  That is, the gentile converts to Christianity didn’t want to be mistaken for being Jews by observing Old Testament commands that are the hallmarks of Judaism. 


In this light, consider this interesting historical incident, which Edward Gibbon describes in his “History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.”  After Hadrian crushed the Jewish revolt by 135 A.D., Marcus, an Italian, became bishop of Jerusalem:  “At his [Marcus’] persuasion, the most considerable part of the congregation renounced the Mosaic law, in the practice of which they had persevered above a century. By this sacrifice of their habits and prejudices, they purchased a free admission into the colony of Hadrian, and more firmly cemented their union with the Catholic church” (p. 171).  So what happened to those who wished to keep “the Mosaic law” still?  Gibbon said that “the crimes of heresy and schism were imputed to the obscure remnant of the Nazarenes, which refused to accompany their Latin bishop.… In a few years after the return of the church of Jerusalem, it became a matter of doubt and controversy, whether a man who sincerely acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah, but who still continued to observe the law of Moses, could possibly hope for salvation” (p. 171).  Eventually, most professing Christians who no longer kept the Saturday Sabbath “excluded their Judaising brethren from the hope of salvation… [and] declined any intercourse with them in the common offices of friendship, hospitality, and social life” (p. 171).  So in a very short time indeed, those who followed Bishop Marcus’ “new truth” in Palestine condemned those who continued to keep the older, more Jewish (and authentic) form of Christianity.  We find Ignatius of Antioch, writing around 110 AD, claiming, “It is monstrous to talk of Jesus Christ and to practice Judaism” (Magnesians 10:3, translated by J.B. Lightfoot, 1891).  In addition, he talked about “no longer observing sabbaths” (Magnesians 9:1), which shows it was some kind of live issue to even mention the subject.  We find the second-century writer Justin Martyr trying to take a middle of the road position about observing the Sabbath.  As Henry Chadwick, “The Early Church,”1973, pp. 22-23 describes:  “Justin believed that a Jewish Christian was quite free to keep the Mosaic law without in any way compromising his Christian faith, and even that a Gentile Christian might keep Jewish customs if a Jewish Christian had influenced him to do so; only it must be held that such observances were matters of indifference and of individual conscience. But Justin had to admit that other Gentile Christians did not take so liberal a view and believed that those who observed the Mosaic law could not be saved.”  To take this position shows again that many were still keeping the Old Testament law at the time; it wasn’t some kind of long discarded heretical teaching to do so. 


Around 190 A.D., Polycrates made the same point against Victor, the Bishop of Rome, that Polycarp had made 50 years earlier made against his predecessor Anicetus about observing Easter instead of the Passover, as the Catholic Church historian Eusbeius records:  “We… therefore, observe the genuine day [Passover]; neither adding thereto nor taking therefrom. For in Asia great lights have fallen asleep, which shall rise again in the day of the Lord’s appearing, in which he will come with glory from heaven, and will raise up all the saints; Philip, one of the twelve apostles, who sleeps in Hierapolis… John, who rested upon the bosom of our Lord… Polycarp of Smyrna.… All these observed the fourteenth day of the Passover according to the gospel, deviating in no respect, but following the rule of faith… and my relatives always observed the day when the people… threw away the leaven [Nissan 14]. I, therefore, brethren, am now sixty-five years in the Lord, who having conferred with the brethren throughout the world, and having studied the whole of the sacred Scriptures, am not at all alarmed at those things with which I am threatened, to intimidate me. For they who are greater than I, have said, ‘We ought to obey God rather than men.’”  So he rejected the commands of the bishop of Rome to come into conformity with Easter observation.  Notice that the chain of witnesses for keeping the Passover goes from Polycrates to Polycarp to the Apostle John himself.  So what authority did the bishop of Rome have to change the observation of the Passover to Easter?  The alternative church tradition, based on what Polycrates said here, shows that the Apostle John kept the Passover, so why would anyone have any authority to change it to something else?  And what motivated that change?  The clear inference is that they desired to escape persecution by anti-Semitic pagan gentile Romans, as per the historical research of Bacchiocchi.  Otherwise, what else would have made the Roman Christians under the early popes do this?  There’s nothing in the bible that authorizes this change, even if one thinks the Holy Days of Leviticus 23 were abolished instead. 


Let’s now notice this argument from silence, which uses church history, as we have it, to deny that the seventh-day Sabbath should be observed by Christians today:  If there had been no good doctrinal reason for transferring or abolishing the Sabbath, then this change would have sparked a lot of controversy about it in church history.  There are three key defects with this argument.  One of them is the lack of documentation from the ancient world.  Not much church history has survived or other historical works, given what various barbarians did in the ancient and Medieval worlds.  For example, take Tacitus’ “Annals.”  Only a single manuscript copy of this survived to reach the age of printing, and part of it is still missing.  Second, the winners wrote what little history that got almost fortuitously preserved.  We only know about the dissidents and heretics based on what the orthodox Catholics said about them in most cases.  For example, the Gnostic heretic Marcion’s writings aren’t known except through what Catholics who counter-attacked him said when quoting him.  That would be about as reliable at best as what the anti-cultists wrote about the theology of the Worldwide Church of God when HWA was alive.  (Their errors can be documented in exquisite detail at great length, which I did myself many years ago).  Distortions when people’s religious passions are unleashed are inevitable; furthermore, it’s easy to simply ignore what doesn’t fit the writer’s paradigm when the writer doesn’t want to lie.  It just goes down the memory hole, gone forever.  This tactic is endlessly engaged in by contemporary journalists today when facts that are inconvenient to their political viewpoints suddenly appear. Third, an argument from silence is intrinsically unsound.  It’s an argument from a lack of evidence.  Furthermore, the tables on this score can be easily turned to make another kind of argument from silence:  If abolishing circumcision caused such an uproar as documented in Acts 15 and elsewhere in the New Testament, such as the letter to the Galatians, how much more of an uproar would have occurred in the first-century church if someone proposed abolishing one of the Ten Commandments?  Wouldn’t there have been some who would have objected? At the barest minimum, one of these arguments from silence cancels out the other, thus proving nothing.


Give this analysis above based upon the bible’s predictions of apostasy and what little church history actually has survived over the past nearly two millennia, it’s perfectly reasonable to believe that the early second-century church apostasized and transferred the obligations to keep Saturday as holy to Sunday.  The same goes for the abandonment of the Passover in exchange for Easter.  Evidence of the motives for these changes could easily have been lost or hidden in the centuries since this change occurred.  However, the bible itself bears witness, through both its prophecies and through some of its discussion of apostasies even in the first century, that major departures from true doctrine and religious confusion were going to happen.  In this case, the majority shouldn’t confidently think that they are automatically right about doctrine.


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