The purpose of this post is to provide a brief response to the claims by Trent Horn, a Catholic apologist who writes for Catholic Answers. First, Horn believes that John MacArthur was flat out wrong in his understanding of the relationship between the church and government from Constantine forward. Second, Horn believes that MacArthur was just flat out wrong on the facts surrounding the martyr of William Tyndale. It was the civil authorities who killed Tyndale, not the church says Horn. Finally, he says that the Roman Catholic Church had no problem with people translating the Bible into the vernacular language. So, did John MacArthur deliberately paint a false narrative of the state of affairs as they existed in the history of Christianity, or, was he spot on and is Trent Horn deliberately attempting to spin the facts in a more favorable light for the sake of what is left of the reputation of Rome?
Horn claims that Constantinianism as MacArthur described it “lacks any basis in fact.” Horn provides not one single example to counter MacArthur’s narrative. Instead, he engages in the ad hominem known as tu quoque, a logical fallacy that basically accuses one person of being guilty of what he is criticizing. Horn’s logical fallacy aside, did MacArthur paint a false narrative?
One has to look no further than the historical account of Constantine’s conversion to understand that Constantinianism is suspect from its very beginning. It was Diocletian, a former Roman soldier who seized power in 284. One of the moves of his very successful reforms was to divide the Roman Empire into East and West. He retained power in the East and his close friend, Maximian took power in the West. It should be noted that under Diocletian, the church, at the behest of Galerius, Diocletian’s second in command, suffered severe persecution early in the fourth century. This persecution was fierce. In the West, however, Maximian’s second in command, Constantius was much more tolerant. In 305, Diocletian stepped down and also forced Maximian to step down with him. This left Galerius and Constantius in charge in the East and West respectively. In 306, Constantius died and his troops made his son, Constantine the new Caesar. This split the Western empire between Constantine and a man named Maxentius.
War broke out in the West in 312. It was during this time, as the two armies faced one another at the Milvian Bridge on the river Tiber, that Constantine experienced his conversion to Christianity. He had a dream in which he saw two letters of the Greek alphabet in a symbol, Chi and Rho, and heard a voice that said “by this sign you shall conquer.” Those two letters are the first two letters for the word Christ in the Greek language. And even though he had a much smaller army, Constantine won a resounding victory that resulted in the unification of the Western empire. Constantine believed that it was the Christian God who had granted him victory and from that point on, he acted as the great champion and protector of Christianity. Constantine’s conversion altered the religious destiny of the Roman Empire forever.
I am not calling into question Constantine’s Christian faith. But I am calling into question any claim that this point in history represented a genuine conversion. If Constantine was ever converted to Christianity, it wouldn’t be here. It would be at some other time when he may have heard the gospel. Whether he was truly a Christian or not is not the point of this post. The point is what happened in church-state relations after Constantine. Any cursory reading of church history will demonstrate that corruption of the state almost immediately infected the church to the point that at numerous points in church history, it was almost impossible to tell the difference between the two. And that is precisely what MacArthur was getting at. It was Constantine who declared Sunday, the Christian day of worship, into an official day of rest. He made Christian bishops into part of the Empire’s legal structure, by decreeing that in a civil law dispute, the two parties take their case to the local bishop, if they so desired, and the bishop’s decision would be final. He outlawed witchcraft and private sacrifices. Here are the seeds of the church bearing the sword for social order. They were planted and watered very early in the history of the church.
Just as the emperor honored the gods as a pagan prior to his conversion to Christianity, Constantine felt an obligation to do the same with Christianity. Needham writes, He felt he owed his position as emperor to the will of the Christian God, and that he must further the interests of God’s church if he was to continue to enjoy God’s blessing. This thinking is present in the minds of many American Christians to this very day. Needham, commenting on Eusebius’ perspective tells us that He saw Constantine as Christ’s spiritual representative on earth; through the conversion of the emperor, Christ had adopted and sanctified the Empire. This type of thinking soon led to the emperor acting as head of the Church as well as head of the state, appointing and dismissing bishops and trying to control the Church’s theology and worship.
Moving to Constantine’s son, the emperor Constantius forbade all animal sacrifices and ordered all Pagan temples to be closed down. Many people began to join the church because it became fashionable. This all sounds incredibly familiar, doesn’t it? In fact, after Julian the apostate died in battle fighting the Persians in 363, state-Christianity took off like a wild fire. By the time we get just 20 years or so down the road, Theodosius I announced his intention to lead all citizens in his domain to accept Catholic Christianity.As the rule of the entire empire from 392 forward, Theodosius the Great issued a number of edicts. He once again closed all Pagan temples; all sacrifices became illegal; Christianity was to become the official religion of the state.It was the Arian controversy that gave pause to the Western church regarding the emperor’s relation to the church. Because Constantius landed on the wrong side of the Arian controversy, Athanasius recognized the serious danger that had obtained in the state-church relation. The West adopted the doctrine of the independence of the church while the East did not. It was Ambrose who rebuked Theodosius imprudent and wicked behavior that demonstrated, for the first time, that the power could, and in fact did, swing from the state to the church. That the church used its influence and power to shape policies and behavior of secular emperors is a well-documented fact of church history that only the most biased observer could not ignore.
Horn’s description of MacArthur’s “Dark-Ages Myth” is long on rhetoric and short on details and facts. Horn is simply doing what Catholic apologists have done for centuries. He is ignoring the facts rather than dealing with them honestly. The state-church relation is documented right up to the time of the reformers and beyond in both Protestant and Catholic camps. MacArthur is right. The magisterial reformers got it wrong on state-church relations. We can see this clearly in one example alone when many Reformers response to the heretical Anabaptists was to drown many of them. This was not an act that Christ would have condoned even for a minute. The point is that John MacArthur is on the right side of history here and he is on the right side of the biblical text.
Horn then puts together an incredibly weak argument in an attempt to claim that Catholics allowed Bible translations into the common vernacular. He uses two examples that are worth a mention and one that is just laughable. Horn writes, “The Church did not oppose the idea of vernacular Bible translations as such; it opposed the idea of private individuals making their own translations of the Bible on their own authority, since they could mistranslate the Word of God and lead people away from the Faith (the Church still prohibits this, in section 825 of the Code of Canon Law).” Over the course of 1,000+ years, I ask, how many bible translations were produced by the RCC in the common vernacular of the people? The answer is none. Even though the people did not speak Latin, the RCC’s official Bible remained the Latin Vulgate. It wasn’t until Douay-Rheims that the RCC responded with their own translation in the common vernacular and they only did that because of immense pressure. And that wasn’t completed until 1609. Sure, there were other translations taking place. But if one really wants to get at the attitude of the RCC toward fencing the Scriptures, it is better to look to John Wycliffe. Wycliffe attacked the privileged status of the clergy, which served to bolster their power and status in England. The church used the state to carry out its persecution against dissenters like Wycliffe. So, when Horn says that Tyndale’s martyr was a matter of the state, he is being more than a little dishonest. As a Roman Catholic apologist, he knows full-well what went on with men like Wycliffe, Tyndale, and what the church would have done to Luther if it could have managed to capture him. There is no doubt what Luther’s fate would have been. Th RCC controlled the translation of the Bible, not because it was in love with Scripture, but because it was in love with power. Had the RCC wanted to do so, it could have been producing Bibles in the common vernacular all along. But oddly, it was not. Was this an oversight? Of course, it was not an oversight and Horn knows it.
Constantinianism was a turning point in the history of the church. From Constantine forward, the organized church became consumed with power and control. No honest person could ever read church history and miss this fact. The Constantinian influence dominated the Roman Church and has had incredible sway in Protestantism as well. John MacArthur was not picking on Catholics. He was highlighting the historical reality of the influence of Constantinianism on the churches and it was and is dark and dirty all the way around. By controlling the Bible, the Roman Church was able to control the people, even empires, for centuries. It was really when the Bible began to be translated into the common vernacular that the Roman Church began to encounter problems. Again, this is the reality of church history. Horn at least admitted that the Church controlled the translation process. While he claims it was out of love for Scripture, the blood of men like Wycliffe and Tyndale tell a completely different story.
The Roman Catholic Church controlled everything from religion to philosophy to morality, academia, the arts and on and on from the late 6th century to the early 16th century. The key to this control was keeping the people in ignorance where Scripture is concerned. And of course, the key to ending the corruption, abuse, and control was educating the people on Scripture. For this reason, putting the Scripture, Rome’s key to power and control, in the hands of the people was the greatest threat the Roman Catholic Church faced. Anyone who would dare to do so would be a most dangerous enemy of those in power within the church. If this period of time is not rightly called the dark ages, then perhaps Horn can come up with something more accurate. Truth be told, to call this period the dark ages is probably too polite.
This state of affairs was warned about by Christ himself. The parable can be found in Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43. It’s called the parable of the Wheat and the Tares. And the whole point is that the Church is NOT to impose itself on the culture. Jesus said the field is the world, not the church. The wheat are the sons of righteousness. The tares are the sons of the devil. The point of the parable is that the reapers at the end time will gather up the tares for final judgment. When the church attempts to impose its policies on the pagan culture, things get really ugly really fast. The job of purging the tares from the world is not the job of the anyone BUT the reapers in the end. If you don’t believe, read church history for yourself.