Johannes von Döllinger, a nineteenth-century Bavarian church historian, once announced he could not accept the claims of papal infallibility made by the First Vatican Council since they included historical statements that were demonstrably false. In response, Cardinal Henry Manning of Westminster famously declared, “We must overcome history with dogma.”
Döllinger reportedly called this a frivolous statement, and he was right. But how often do we Evangelicals abide by a softer version of precisely this sentiment? Only instead of justifying our present doctrine with an anachronistic reading of church history, we dismiss history altogether with a wave of our Bible. Ironically, the one bit of church history most Evangelicals seem to “know” is that the Reformation rendered church history entirely irrelevant. But sola scriptura is not some indulgence that forever absolves us from having to crack another book. The early Reformers who defended this doctrine had enormous respect for the teaching authority of their forbearers. In fact, the Augsburg Confession builds its argument of historical continuity with the early church on Scripture and the testimony of the fathers.
It’s only our woeful ignorance of church history that gives the claims of RC apologists (e.g., the canon) the appearance of credibility. The church survived quite well for fifteen and a half centuries with the faithful, though not infallible, witness of the early church vis-à-vis the NT canon (Hippo and Carthage, remember, were only provincial councils). Thus, an infallibly defined canon could hardly be the necessity Rome claims it to be. And it takes only an elementary understanding of church history to demonstrate this. But as long as Evangelicals sustain their cool indifference to history, we’ll continue to propel our brothers to Rome.