What Does it Mean to be “Deep in History?”


In response to a recent Facebook post on sola Scriptura, my friend Erick Ybarra put out a thoughtful response. As always it is worth reading and pondering at length — which I will continue to do, this is not a response to the whole post. However, one of the points that came up is essentially how much the church can fall into error. For instance, if the assumption of Mary eventually became a universal belief in the church, to what extent does that imply its credibility?

On that point, here I want to share some paragraphs from my forthcoming book (shorn of footnotes and a few digressions) that might be relevant, at least to clarify where certain differences of methodology often lie between Protestants and Roman Catholics. The methodological issues often lurk underneath and hinder progress, so perhaps this will be useful (or, short of that, at least interesting; or, short of that, at least not annoying!).

In context, it is responding to the Newman quip that “to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” Essentially, I argue that each side has different intuitions and presuppositions for how to conceptualize historical depth. Here goes:


We will talk past one another less if here at the outset we probe what the word “deep” means in the phrase “deep in history.” One way of envisioning historical depth is what is most visible, most prominent, and/or most widely represented throughout church history. On this view, to be “deep in history” has a more diachronic thrust: it is more oriented toward the trajectory and overall result of church history. Thus, historical depth will focus more on what eventually becomes mainstream, widely accepted, or officially selected along the way of history. We will call this understanding of being deep in history “majority depth.” This is the kind of the historical depth that is assumed in many historical criticisms of Protestantism….

Protestants do not regard “majority depth” as insignificant or unimportant. On the contrary, it is a behemoth, a force to be reckoned with. But they do maintain that what is a finally decisive is the original teaching of the apostles, and that there are practices and beliefs that occasionally becomes mainstream despite departing from apostolic teaching. On this view, what is deepest is what is oldest and thereby most plausibly rooted in the first-century apostolic deposit. This view is also interested in what remains most constitutive of basically all Christians throughout church history (what C.S. Lewis called “mere Christianity”). We can call this “ancient depth.”

So we have two different kinds of depth: mainstream depth and ancient depth. The Protestant position is that the mainstream must be measured by the ancient, not vice versa. In adopting this position the early Protestants appealed to a principle widely articulated among the church fathers: namely, that in the absence of biblical attestation, earlier traditions were more reliable than later traditions because they more plausibly represented faithfulness to apostolic teaching. For example, in his Examination of the Council of Trent, the Lutheran theologian Martin Chemnitz utilized this passage in Cyprian, noting Augustine’s approval of it as well:

“If we return to the head and origin of the divine tradition, human error will cease. For if the channel of water, which before flowed copiously and purely, either fails or brings muddy water, then certainly one goes to the source in order to find out whether there is something wrong in the veins or in the source, or whether something got in midway.”

This metaphor captures the Protestant approach to historical depth: when you have muddy water in a stream, you have to go back to see where it came in. The pure water will be found before the muddy water started. When you hear Protestants speak of being “deep in history,” picture the deeper (earlier) parts of the channel of water. “Deep” means early.

The ultimate reason for using ancient depth to measure majority depth, rather than using majority depth to measure ancient depth, will come out in Part 2 of the book. But here we can canvass two initial considerations underpinning the Protestant mentality. Please note: these are not intended as a full case for the Protestant view; just some initial considerations to encourage a sympathetic hearing at this juncture.

The first consideration is something Newman was forced to reckon with: the simple fact is that what eventually becomes mainstream or a majority view in church history is an unstable guide. One striking example I have also drawn attention to in my videos is Augustine’s affirmation of the damnation of unbaptized babies. While there were qualifications to this notion such as the idea of limbo, Augustine’s general position remains overwhelmingly dominant, such that I am not aware of any Western theologians who affirmed that deceased unbaptized babies receive the beatific vision (full salvation) in the West between Augustine and the Reformation. Not a single one. This point is not disputed in the 2007 publication of the International Theological Commission, “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized,” the result of the study commissioned by Pope John Paul II in 2004. The publication notes Latin fathers (Jerome, Fulgentius, Avitus of Vienne, and Gregory the Great) who affirmed Augustine’s view, as well as medieval theologians such as Anselm and Hugh of St. Victor; in the late medieval period, many (following Peter Lombard) interpreted the nature of the punishment of unbaptized infants who die as merely privation of the beatific vision (21-25).

This was a common view in the East as well (at least up to Dositheus), though I do not know the historical record there to address how many exceptions there may have been. If majority depth is our criterion, I can imagine little possibly to overturn this view. Happily, many in both the East and the West no longer hold this view today.

There are many other examples of the slipperiness of “majority depth” we could work through. I have argued that Gregory of Nyssa’s condemnation of slavery is, sadly, by far in the minority among premodern Christians. Similarly, few Christians today would maintain how heavy-weight theologians like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas interpreted women as inferior to men in various regards. For example, Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I, Q. 92, Art. 1, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Notre Dame, IN: Christian Classics, 1948), 466, spoke of women as “defective and misbegotten,” resulting from a kind of defect in male seed. As one who regards Augustine and Aquinas in the highest regard and who regularly seeks to defend them from critique, I have to acknowledge that they did hold problematic views in some areas, many of which became mainstream in the church.

I understand that these are not points of magisterial teaching for Roman Catholic or Orthodox Christians. The point is simply to show that mainstream depth is a slippery guide. (This is appropriate to do, because Newman’s quip was not referencing merely magisterial teaching, but history generally.) We are simply observing that errors can become mainstream. Anyone who studies church history will see how easily this can happen.

If you can imagine someone saying to you, “to be deep in history is to cease to affirm the salvation of unbaptized babies who die,” and you think through how you would respond—you are on the road to understanding why Protestants want to clarify the meaning of the word “deep.”

Another cause to be uneasy with “majority depth” as our criterion is the history of the people of Israel. If there is anything that emerges from the history of the people of Israel, it is surely this: God’s people continually fall away and need to return to the Lord. The people of God have never enjoyed a kind of unbroken spiritual steadiness, from one century to the next. On the contrary, the entire history of the Jewish people prior to Christ can be well summarized as a recurrent pattern of idolatry and reform. Think of the book of Judges, for example. Or take the downward spiral of the book of Kings: so prevalent were idolatrous accretions that even during the reform efforts of good kings like Josiah and Hezekiah many of the idolatrous high places remained in use.

Again and again throughout redemptive history, the majority goes awry. The followers of Ahab could have appealed to majority depth against Elijah or Micaiah—and by a wide margin at that. In the New Testament as well, the apostles could have been condemned by this same criterion by the Pharisees, who claimed to be the legitimate successors of Moses. As John Jewel puts it:

“So likewise the false prophets of all ages, which stood up against the prophets of God, which resisted Esaias, Jeremy, Christ, and the Apostles, at no time craked of anything so much as they did of the name of the Church. And for no other cause did they so fiercely vex them, and call them runaways and apostates, than for that they forsook their fellowship, and kept not the ordinances of the elders. Wherefore, if we would follow the judgments of those men only who then governed the Church, and would respect nothing else, neither God nor His word, it must needs be confessed, that the Apostles were rightly and by just law condemned of them to death.”

Christians in the non-Protestant traditions will often argue that God has promised to watch over his church in ways that distinguish her from Israel. For example, Christ promised that “the gates of hell shall not prevail” against the church in Matthew 16:18. But this is a promise that the church will never die or fail to accomplish her purpose; not that she will never sin or err. The verb “prevail” can be translated “overpower” or “overcome;” to be “prevailed against” by the “gates of hell” refers essentially to death (here I cite D.A. Carson). If a wrestling coach promised one of his wrestlers that “your opponent will not prevail against you,” this means his wrestler will ultimately win, not that he will not make any mistakes during the match. Furthermore, this is a promise to the church as such, not to one particular teaching office or hierarchy within her. Therefore, that Christ will never abandon his church to hell no more substantiates claims of ecclesial infallibility than God’s Old Testament promises to Israel validated the Pharisees’ teachings and claims. The simple fact is that God has promised many things to his people, but he has nowhere promised them that they will not fall into sin and error. This is why Protestants, in the face of some frankly brutal historical realities, consider majority depth to be a frequently superficial criterion.

So to make the appeal again: if you can imagine someone saying to you, “to be deep in history is to cease to follow Elijah and instead trust the Israelite monarchy God established,” and you think through how you would respond—you are on the road to understanding why Protestants want to clarify the meaning of the word “deep.”

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  1. I wrote a critique of YouTube’s favorite critic of Catholicism and Orthodoxy article; turnabout is fair play after all. Above all I think the reader should be encouraged to read the Early Chruch Fathers for themselves and understand exactly what St JH Newman was meaning with that quote. A great start would be my website https://www.churchfathers.org.

    It’s really no surprise that prots are still ,let’s just say, extreemly bent out of shape about that Anglican to Catholic convert. ; )

    While Ortlund presents his perspective on the concept of being “deep in history,” there are some critical points to be made about his argument:

    Subjective nature of “ancient depth” and “majority depth”: Ortlund introduces the concepts of “ancient depth” and “majority depth” to distinguish the original apostolic teachings from what eventually becomes mainstream in church history. However, the definitions provided by Ortlund are subjective and lack objective criteria. They assert that “ancient depth” is what is oldest and rooted in the first-century apostolic deposit, but this assumption is based on his interpretation of historical texts and lacks solid historical evidence. Likewise, “majority depth” is defined as what eventually becomes mainstream, but this is a vague notion without clear parameters for measurement.

    Selective interpretation of historical examples: Ortlund provides examples of historical teachings that became mainstream but were later rejected by some Christians. While they argue that this proves the instability of “majority depth,” they overlook the fact that even within Protestantism, there have been theological shifts and disagreements over the centuries. This selectivity in interpreting historical examples weakens his argument.

    Ignoring the development of doctrine: Ortlund seems to overlook the natural process of doctrinal development within Christianity. Theology often evolves as the church faces new challenges and interprets Scripture in light of those challenges. This development does not necessarily indicate error or unfaithfulness to the original apostolic teaching. It is essential to understand that the early church did not have a fully developed theology on all matters, and it took time to address various theological questions.

    Oversimplification of historical trends: Ortlund’s comparison of the history of Israel with the history of the church is an oversimplification. The analogy between the apostles and Elijah and the Pharisees and the Israelite monarchy overlooks the substantial differences between the contexts and roles of these figures. It fails to acknowledge the complexities and nuances of both biblical and church history.

    Disregard for the role of the Holy Spirit: Protestants believe in the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the interpretation of Scripture and the discernment of theological truths. While Ortlund raises concerns about the potential errors of majority views, they do not adequately address how they believe the Holy Spirit safeguards his own interpretations from error. This aspect is vital in any discussion about the understanding and interpretation of history within Christian traditions.

    In conclusion, while Ortlund attempts to emphasize the importance of being rooted in ancient apostolic teachings, his argument relies on subjective categorizations and overlooks the complexities of doctrinal development and the role of the Holy Spirit in guiding the church. Furthermore, Ortlund’s selective use of historical examples weakens his case. A more comprehensive and objective approach is needed to address the complexities of church history and theological developments.

  2. The single biggest problem with Gavin Ortlund’s argument lies in his oversimplification and mischaracterization of the concept of “majority depth” and the way he dismisses it as a criterion for understanding history. While he makes a valid point about the possibility of errors becoming mainstream within the church over time, his conclusion that “majority depth” is an unreliable guide due to this fact is flawed.

    Firstly, Ortlund defines “majority depth” as what is most visible, prominent, and widely represented throughout church history, with a focus on what becomes mainstream, widely accepted, or officially selected over time. He contrasts this with “ancient depth,” which he asserts is what is oldest and most rooted in the first-century apostolic deposit. However, this simplistic division ignores the complexities of historical development, the influence of various theological currents, and the interplay between continuity and change within the Christian tradition.

    Ortlund’s argument disregards the organic growth of theological ideas and practices within the church. While he acknowledges that Protestants do not consider “majority depth” insignificant, he seems to downplay its importance in favor of an exclusive focus on what he terms “ancient depth.” By placing such emphasis on the earliest Christian era, he overlooks the richness and depth that accumulated over the centuries and shaped the diverse theological landscape of Christianity today.

    Secondly, Ortlund’s argument against “majority depth” relies heavily on the example of historical errors that gained prevalence within the church, such as Augustine’s view on the damnation of unbaptized babies or certain views on women. While it is true that historical errors have existed and, at times, dominated Christian thought, it is problematic to use isolated instances to dismiss the collective wisdom of the broader Christian tradition.

    History is complex, and it is essential to approach it with nuance and humility. Acknowledging historical errors does not invalidate the entire historical tradition or the value of “majority depth” in understanding the development of Christian doctrine and practice. It is equally important to recognize instances of reform, correction, and growth within the church.

    Lastly, Ortlund’s comparison of the history of the people of Israel with the history of the Christian church oversimplifies the relationship between the two. While there may be some parallels in terms of recurring patterns of unfaithfulness and reform, the two histories are distinct, involving different theological contexts and divine covenants. Drawing direct parallels between the two can lead to misinterpretations and overlook the unique nature of each historical narrative.

    In conclusion, Gavin Ortlund’s rejection of “majority depth” as an unreliable criterion for understanding history oversimplifies the complexities of Christian development, ignores the rich contributions of later periods, and places an exclusive emphasis on the earliest Christian era. His argument could be strengthened by acknowledging the multifaceted nature of historical development and the importance of engaging with the collective wisdom of the Christian tradition, including both mainstream and minority voices, in a nuanced and balanced manner.

  3. I think the claim Newman made is not reasonably interpreted as a claim about majority views in the history of Christianity, but rather a claim directed at the facts that the apostolic era and pre-schism Great Church of orthodoxy is not plausibly Protestant on any of the relevant doctrinal issues that came to divide Christendom during the Reformation. Indeed, Newman thought that this Church’s history had shown that the Protestant account of ‘private judgment’ was fallacious and opposed to the spirit of the faith as held during the great trials of orthodoxy that produced the Creeds and first seven ecumenical councils. So, it seems to me that the better way to interpret Newman’s claim is: Protestants who adhere to the first seven ecumenical councils, and to the orthodox faith as represented by it, hold a deeply theoretically and historically inconsistent set of views.

  4. The view of the majority, by being the rule of the majority, doesn’t necessarily validate the truth, accuracy, viability, appropriateness or reliability of the particular majority trend. Gavin Ortlung’s insightful comments, form a logical perspective with valid arguments.
    Christ riled against the majority historical traditions of the Jews, because they perverted the meaning and intent of what God revealed through Scripture and the Prophets, although many of the rules and traditions imposed on the people were deep-rooted in historical approvals.
    The example Ortlung cites on the controversy of the salvation of unbaptized children who die in their infancy is one mired in deep-seated church doctrine, over a misunderstanding of the meaning of salvation. For that reason, the tradition of a Sacramental Baptism of newborns became so significant in some church organizations.
    While the validity of infant baptism is clearly outlined in Scripture, more specifically in Galatians, where Paul draws a comparison between Baptism and Circumcision, what is questionable is the rite of Sacramental Baptism as a necessity for Salvation.
    The role of Sacramental Baptism develops as a result of the erroneous doctrine of Original Sin, produced from a “Fall” from a state of perfection, to an altered state of sinfulness and condemnation.
    While Adam and Eve disengaged from God through their disobedience of God’s Command not to associate with the devil into what can be termed the initiation of the First Religion, Satan Worship, hence the First Commandment: “You shall have no other Gods besides me”, the “Fall” did not alter man’s created nature. Mankind, through the transgression became subject to suffering it would not have experienced in the Garden. Scripture doesn’t classify the transgression as a biological, constitutional or structural alteration of mankind’s DNA/RNA. Additionally, the concept of Original Sin is foreign to Jews and not supported in Scripture. But the error of the long-standing tradition persists.
    Consequently, to eviscerate the condemnation some feel follows from Original Sin, children are baptized for their salvation, obviating Christ’s disclosure that the Kingdom of God is inherited by children and a child-like adherence to Him and the Father.
    Children are not born sinful. We were created and are born in a state of susceptibility to corruption and deterioration. It is that state of natural deterioration that condemns us and from which Christ came to liberate us, because it leads to sin. “Who shall liberate me from this body of sin?” Daniel 9:24, Hebres 10:5 and Titus 1:2 give us God’s response: Jesus.
    Jesus said, “I am come that you might have life and that more abundantly!” Our state of being cannot be perfect and cold not have been perfect outside of the being of God, simply because only God can be perfect and eternal. It is therefore necessary that all things be subjected to and sustained by God in Christ, for things outside of the essential nature of God, to exist forever in a state of perfection. Christ didn’t come to free us from Original Sin. Christ came to liberate and rescue us from the existential corruptibility that brings sin, death and separation from God.
    Sin didn’t creep into creation unnoticed. Instead, God created this entire existence to attack and vanquish corruptibility, sin, evil, death and imperfection. At the end of the 7th Day, when God resumes His creative activity, nothing He creates will be subject to so much as the potential for corruption, death, sin, evil, rebellion, because of what Christ did for us on the Christ.

  5. On reading through the Thomas Aquinas question you quoted – First Part Q 92 Article 1 – his reply to the objection that “woman should not have been made at that first production” does include what you quoted. But then goes on to say in that same reply to objection 1 “…woman is not misbegotten but is included in nature’s intention as ordered to the work of generation…therefore in producing nature God formed not only male but also female.”

    I read this as Thomas Aquinas in defense of woman or am I misinterpreting?

    Additionally he poses 2 other objections and replies, both of which seem to be in support of the necessary creation and existence of woman “…as God is so powerful that He can direct any evil to a good end.” and noting that eliminating those things ” …which provide an occasion of sin…” from creation would have led to an imperfect creation.