The ancient church of the Waldenses. It makes the claim of being the oldest Protestant church in the world. The Worldwide Church of God disputed that claim and said that at one time it was one of its “parent” churches linking it back to the New Testament. They claimed it was, for a season, the true church of God. Could they prove it?
Was the Easter/Passover issue the indicator of true religion? Did Christ make Moses’ Law even more binding on Christians? Was there one great false system of Christianity and one true system? If so, how do we distinguish between these two systems?
It was important for Worldwide Church of God historians to establish that history drew a virtual blank in the first few centuries of the Christian movement until its organizing by Constantine. This was to emphasize Armstrong’s assumption that a great counterfeit system rose up in Rome as the GREAT WHORE of the book of Revelation.
But if the Worldwide Church of God adhered to the definition of Matthew 16–the same one that the Roman Catholic system used to establish itself as the one true Christian church–then the Worldwide Church of God was limited in its search for the alleged one true church among obscure groups of heretics.
It was then fundamentally assumed that the flame of the “primitive church” was never extinguished, but rather it continued to burn in “scattered” groups who were keeping “God’s true Passover” and “Sabbath.”
These Worldwide writers did not leave room for the slightest doubt by asserting that these authentic groups were the ancient Ebionites, Paulicians, Bogomils, Cathari and so on. They asserted that these groups were NOT apostate or heretical, but indeed the authentic lineage of “God’s one true church.” And all this simply because the Catholics did not accept them. Their reasoning is all very circular.
What is actually written in history about these early groups of heretics is so riddled with fable and ambiguity that it is difficult for the layman to scrutinize the references adequately to verify Armstrong’s claim. If we are careful, though, we will begin to see holes in Armstrong’s history.
A person lacking scholarly training could easily be made to yield to someone who claims to be an erudite authority. Advertisers have long used authority as a substitute for truth in statements like, “Nine out of ten doctors use Brand X Aspirin.” If we were further informed that those ten doctors may have been offered a year’s free supply of Brand X Aspirin for endorsing the product, we might wonder why one doctor chose not to go along with his colleagues.
In reality, what Armstrong and his writers had attempted to produce was a construct. A construct is a concept that is neither provable nor disprovable. The fairy tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes gives a good example of a construct in action. Convinced by two traveling salesmen, posing as “tailors,” that he could parade before his subjects in fine new clothes so exquisite that only pure hearted people could see them, the emperor surrendered a fortune in gold for the magic clothes. But, the only clothes that the emperor ended up wearing in the story were the clothes that he imagined. He had fallen for an invisible construct produced by two con artists. Finally, among all of his fearful devoted subjects, only an innocent child was brave enough to declare, “The emperor’s not wearing any clothes.”
Since I don’t want to chase after constructs, the group of Christian reformers that I would like to examine are those who rose up against an arrogant and wealthy papacy and followed a wealthy Catholic merchant named Peter Waldo. These were the Waldensians. Armstrong, as well as Joseph Tkach, have made specific claims about these Christian reformers of the Middle Ages.
In part seven of Ronald Kelly’s 1991 Plain Truth he entitled “The Church That Loved The Bible,” he wrote:
The story is told in many treatises on Church history, but we refer our readers particularly to History of the Waldenses of Italy From Their Origin to the Reformation by Emilio Comba, and The History of the Christian Church, From the Birth of Christ to the XVII. Century; Including the Very Interesting Account of the Waldenses and Albigenses by William Jones.
I read both histories cited above, in researching this book, and I would invite my readers to read them as well. Let’s see now if the sources, quoted by both Herman Hoeh in 1959 and Ronald Kelly in the early 90’s, do indeed substantiate this story of church lineage.
On page 22 of Herman Hoeh’s 1959 history, he too focused on this group of twelfth century “heretics” called the Poor Men of Lyons or Waldenses. To follow through with the alleged apostolic succession of the Church of God, Waldo had to have been raised up among an already existing “Church of God” as an apostle. This never really happened.
Remember, the “gates of hell” could not have prevailed against the “True Church” and it has “always” preserved the true Sabbaths, holy days, tithing and name “Church of God”. Here is what our historical guide, Hoeh wrote:
It was the close of the twelfth century. In Lyons, France, lived an astonishingly successful and wealthy merchant, Peter Waldo. “One day, while in the company of some of the leading citizens, one of his friends fell lifeless at his side. Terrified by the event, he said to himself: If death had stricken me, what would have become of my soul?”
Being a Catholic, Waldo asked one of these theologians what is the perfect way. “Ah! answered the theologian…’here is Christ’s precept’: “If thou wilt be perfect, go, sell that thou hast and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come take up thy cross and follow me.”‘” (Comba, History of the Waldenses, p. 21).
Waldo disposed of his property by distributing to the poor. But from his wealth he also had a translation of the Scriptures made. In this translation he noticed the command to the apostles to preach the gospel of the Kingdom of God. His mind began to understand the scriptures.
God was using Peter Waldo.
Comba says that “he brought to the study of the Scriptures that practical common sense which had guided him in his business transactions…The word of Christ was clear enough; for Waldo it was simply a question of furnishing a literal translation” (p. 243 of Comba’s history).
The humble remnant of the Church of God listened to him. Soon many new disciples were coming to repentance. “His disciples became almost as many co-workers for him” (p. 26). The world called them Waldenses.
God’s Church was once again spreading the gospel! A school for ministers was established to provide the trained help to carry the gospel.
The book that Herman Hoeh was quoting from is the same one that Kelly had referred to, History of the Waldenses of Italy, From Their Origin To The Reformation by Emilio Comba, DD. (Waldensian Theological College, Florence, Italy, 1889 ed.) Therefore, this will be one of our sources as well.
Notice what Dr. Comba mentions in the preface of this same book concerning the attaching of legends of “apostolic succession” to the Waldensians:
There has been desire on the part of some to extend backward their early history; with this only as a result, that it has been crushed out of all shape. The historian has filled it full of fables and traditions picked up at hap-hazard; then, as if with trumpet-blast and clarion ring, its antiquity was blazoned forth. But, although the sound re-echoed far and wide, it could not dispel the thick cloud that overhung that people’s origin and early days. Flatterers are more to be feared than assailants. The former would have it credited or imagined that the Waldenses are of a patriarchal age–of great duration; that they are apostolic in name and in fact, but barren withal; that they had an existence, but always in the cradle; that they did not live with all the word implies, but slept for three, seven, or even ten centuries! It is quite possible to conceive that such an uneventful existence–if such could be–might well have passed unnoticed; what we deny is that such an existence was possible. We shall examine facts, and after all if we find the antiquity of the Waldenses to be less far reaching than has been supposed, it is none the less grand and venerable…
There is an idea with some, that its origin may be traced back to the very time of the first preaching of the Gospel; but it is important that this idea be disentangled from a confused mass of legends.
We shall find the first authentic source appearing with Waldo, and the disciples whom tradition has called by his name. From that time onward, we shall follow the sinuous course of their followers’ history down to the eve of the Reformation.
“What made the Waldensians heretics was their defiance of the Pope.”
The other major source used by the Worldwide Church of God to make an apostolic lineage for the Waldenses was William Jones’ The History of the Christian Church, from the Birth of Christ, to the XVII. Century; including the Very Interesting Account of the Waldenses and Albegenses. To make the claim that William Jones somehow substantiated “Apostolic Succession” is untrue as well. To do so would be to quote him entirely out of context. He clearly stated his view of people who tried to read something into history that wasn’t there.
It may possibly strike some readers with surprise that no notice is taken, in the following pages, of a multiplicity of sects which arose, from time to time, in what is called the Christian world, and whose history occupies so very large space in the volumes of most of our modern writers on this subject…In tracing the kingdom of Christ in the world, I have paid no regard whatever to the long disputed subject of apostolical succession. I have, indeed, read much that has been written upon it by the Catholic writers on one side, and by Dr. Allix, Sir Samuel Morland, and several Protestants on the other; and I regret the labour that has been so fruitlessly expended by the latter, persuaded as I am that the postulatum is a mere fiction, and that the ground on which the Protestant writers have proceeded in contending for it, is altogether untenable. It is admitted, that the Most High has had his churches and people in every age, since the decease of the Apostles; but to attempt to trace a regular succession of ordained bishops in the Vallies of Piedmont, or any other country, is “labouring in the fire for very vanity,” and seems to me to proceed upon mistaken views of the nature of the kingdom of Christ, and the sovereignty of God, in his operations in the earth, as they have respect to it.
(Jones, vol. 1; p. xi)
Both of these historians were two of the highest regarded sources used by all of the Worldwide Church of God writers in the past. And yet both of these books warn against using the history of the Waldenses to establish a form of apostolic succession.
It has been said:–“There is hardly a sect whose origin has been more disputed over than that of the Waldenses.” Disregarding the expression “a sect”–which is here more or less out of place–the above statement is not without foundation. We know that any question of origin contains inherently an element of vagueness, which fascinates the imagination. What religion, city, or family is not inclined to trace its origin back to mythical sources?…If prejudice be allowed to have a voice in the matter, it will only accumulate legends; and history can no longer disentangle herself from them. This has too often been the case. Basnage says:–“It is a weakness belonging to all Churches, as well as States, to claim for themselves great antiquity.” The reason may be readily divined, for it is nothing new. Let us admit at the outset, that prejudice has taken a very active part in the researches relating to the origin of the Waldenses; it has exerted its influence, somewhat over everybody, friends as well as foes. But as prejudice has no part in true history, it must be our endeavour to free ourselves of it.
The following words, written more than five centuries ago, are often quoted:–“Among all the sects, there is none more pernicious to the church than that of the Leonists, and for three reasons:–In the first place, because it is one of the most ancient; for some say that it dates back to the time of Sylvester; others to the time of the Apostles. In the second place, because it is the most widespread. There is hardly a country where it does not exist. In the third place, because, if other sects strike with horror those who listen to them, the Leonists, on the contrary, possess a great outward appearance of piety. As a matter of fact they lead irreproachable lives before men, and as regards their faith and the articles of their creed, they are orthodox. Their one conspicuous fault is, that they blaspheme against the Church and the clergy, points on which laymen in general are known to be too easily led away.”
Here we have an indisputable testimony. It has been erroneously attributed to the Inquisitor Rainerius Saccho, who settled in Milan, and was in contact with the Waldenses of Italy; whereas it was rendered by one of his colleagues in the diocese of Passau in Austria, about the year 1260. We may assent to it, but on one condition, namely, that its meaning be not perverted. The writer in no wise affirms that the Waldenses date back to a period anterior to Waldo; he simply states that some claim that they do. As for himself, he believes in no such thing….Unquestionably it was, even at this early time, current among the Waldenses, that they were of ancient origin, truly apostolic…
The pretension to apostolic succession of the Church innate, manifests itself in the Catholic party in a way differing from that in the dissenting sections. In the former it takes a more material and gross form of expression than in the case of the latter, in which it has nevertheless a wider basis of truth, notwithstanding the little regard manifested for appearances. According to the popular tradition–which for many years has had an increasing ascendancy over men’s minds–the primitive Church, faithful and canonical, goes back to the days of Constantine, under whose reign the original fall of the Church took place, and the era of apostasy began. (Comba, 3-4)
We continue tomorrow….