COC #2: When Did the Church Begin?

A Personal Introduction and an Example of the Richness of Catholic Theology

Non-Catholic Christians,

One force that pushed my conversion towards Catholicism from non-Catholic, Stone-Campbellite Christianity was Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s theology, who is already our former pope. Of course, such interest antagonized my low-church Fundamentalist sensibilities. Though he haunted me, I enjoyed every moment, and am now attempting to illustrate the richness of Catholic theology by focusing on only one question: When did the Church begin?  

I already risk losing my Protestant Church of Christ readers because I draw from sources other than Scripture, so I ask for you to be patient and allow this chapter to unfold. All Christians, Catholic and Protestant, accept extra-biblical sources to form our understanding of Christianity, and this chapter illustrates how the collective Protestant intuition is wrong—that they, not Catholics, are in some ways more dependent on extra-biblical influence.

The chronology of my theological curiosity began within Protestantism’s realm. Like me, I think most people enter into Protestantism by accepting several unexamined premises. The “Bible alone” offers no exposition of when the Church began; “Bible-only” Christians can only find an answer to this question by seeking sources other than the Bible. And when Pentecost (cf. Acts 2) is quickly nominated as the seemingly obvious answer, few people, as did I, sense a need to dig into the details of the question, much less scrutinize what the tribe or social network had already established as truth; a quick and confident answer, even as a guess, often disguises a lack of theological and scriptural depth. Little did I know, Pentecost’s nomination as the birth of the Church was a forced answer that I now believe is meant to undergird Protestant presumptions, which often equal the purposed undermining of Catholicism. In other words, recognizing what much of Protestantism values can simultaneously reveal pre-existing Christian truth Protestantism works to avoid.  

Pentecost, as recorded in the second chapter of Acts and if presented in a populist fashion, represents what Protestants advertise as “church”—preaching, emotion, and conversion; elements St. Luke’s chapter dramatically portrays. Of course, Protestantism’s presentation of Pentecost as the birth of the Church is consistent with Protestant norms, that is, with a preference for proof-text answers over contextual answers (as I will prove throughout this book), and therefore, St. Peter’s reference to Pentecost is often used as a proof-text regarding the question at hand. St. Peter said, As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them [the Gentiles] just as on us at the beginning (Acts 11:15). St. Peter was indeed speaking of Pentecost as the beginning; however, the text does not speak of “the Church” per se. Of course, it makes sense that St. Peter was speaking of the Church in some way, but the Bible does not expound in depth, but rather, reveals that the Gentiles were indeed gathered/invited into the Church at Pentecost—that the beginning was indeed a kind of beginning for the Church, and the Catholic Church in this way agrees that the Church began at Pentecost. Put another way, St. Peter’s reference to the beginning satisfied his audience regarding the subject he was in fact addressing (Gentile inclusion)—he was not answering the question of when the Church began.  

With St. Peter’s words the beginning from Acts 11, many non-Catholic Christians accept Pentecost as the final answer—an answer that is easily packed into a “biblical” proof, but the soil of Acts 2 is much richer in scriptural and theological context than what many Protestants want to acknowledge.  

The isolation of the second chapter of Acts from the first chapter of Acts reveals interwoven pro-Protestant proclivities: 1) omission of the cenacle of the upper room with its Eucharistic implications, 2) support for its own self-preservation by usurping the sacramental priesthood with the priesthood of believers, and 3) the erasure of Mary’s presence in the Church by presenting an apparent linguistic imperative that omits an overt reference to her. (For the remainder of this book, St. Mary will be referred to as simply “Mary”; the world knows who she is—there is only one Mary Christians of all generations joyfully call blessed). 

St. Luke’s narrative begins by referring to his prior volume. The first chapter of Acts takes its audience back to the upper room where Jesus instituted the Sacrament of the Eucharist (cf. Luke 22). In his book, Called to Communion, Cardinal Ratzinger regarded the details of “the cenacle, the ‘upper room’ as [providing] the context in which the Church is born.”1 The first chapter of Acts reads:

And when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James. All these with one accord devoted themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers. In those days Peter stood up among the brethren (the company of persons was in all about a hundred and twenty), and said, “Brethren . . . (Acts 1:13-16a).

After Jesus’ Crucifixion and prior to Pentecost, the eleven remaining Apostles, Mary, a covenant assembly with a numerologically significant count2 who were devoted to prayer and order, where St. Peter spoke for the Christian kingdom, retreated to the upper room. In addition to the Eucharistic (Christ-centered) sacramental significance of the upper room’s purpose (institution of the Eucharist; cf. Luke 22:12), the primitive ecclesiology, as also revealed in the first chapter of Acts, displays the Sacrament of Holy Orders with an allergen Protestantism must reject, which is succession of the apostolic office (cf. Acts 1:24-26).

The omission of the upper room from Protestantism’s encapsulated answer to the question at hand (Pentecost; Acts 2) inadvertently stigmatizes the significance Acts 1 forces upon the preface of the Pentecost account. When Protestants do in fact grant attention to the demands of the room’s purpose, the modern apologetic strategy is to diminish the sacrament(s) into a symbolic nothing(s), or argue that the Church could not be present until the Crucifixion or later. Almost in anticipation of such objections, Pope Benedict XVI included a response in a homily:

Now, however, a further question arises. In the Upper Room, Christ gives his Body and Blood to the disciples, that is, he gives himself in the totality of his person. But can he do so? He is still physically present in their midst, he is standing in front of them! The answer is: at that hour, Jesus fulfills what he had previously proclaimed in the Good Shepherd discourse: “No one takes my life from me: I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down and I have power to take it again . . .” (Jn 10:18). No one can take his life from him: he lays it down by his own free decision. At that hour, he anticipates the Crucifixion and Resurrection. What is later to be fulfilled, as it were, physically in him, he already accomplishes in anticipation, in the freedom of his love. He gives his life and he takes it again in the Resurrection, so as to be able to share it for ever.3

Elements such as sacraments, ecclesiastical order, and the presence of Mary are significant Catholic identifiers; and are more easily avoided if Pentecost, purposefully dissected from its preface in Acts 1, is presented as the unquestioned birth of the Church. In other words, if the literal words and only the literal words of Acts 2 are presented as the birth of the Church, without its real and appropriate context, then the uniquely Catholic identifiers disappear—the chapter becomes “Protestant-ized”. 

English reformer John Wyclif’s rebellion against the Catholic Church of Christ could be understood as a prototype for much of Protestantism. The spirit of his revolt could be summed up in his declaration that “preaching is of more value than the administration of any sacrament.”4 The Pentecost narrative, consisting of what Protestantism often regards as the first sermon, includes a call for repentance without sacraments. Of course, St. Peter commanded Baptism in Acts 2:38, but many Protestants have preemptively redefined Baptism as a symbolic work or less. (To its benefit, the Protestant Church of Christ has retained the Sacrament of Baptism, and the Catholic Church of Christ accepts the effect of its Baptisms and recognizes its members as brothers and sisters in Christ, though not in full communion with her.)  

The new priority diminishes the importance of the old sacramental priesthood and builds a framework for a community to value preaching to the point of recognizing the sermon as more of a locational indicator of the real Church than the administration of the sacraments—abolishes Holy Orders (properly ordained leaders); essentially, usurping the established pattern of knowing where the Church is by knowing where the bishop is. As such, Pentecost becomes useful for providing a model for any person (Protestant) to stand on any street corner and “preach”—for any person (Protestant) to start his or her own “church”; the new model allows it, the new model casts itself as “biblical”.

The Protestant ecclesial model is entrepreneurial, and it is greatly founded on a few favored proof-texts. One is: But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood . . . (1 Peter 2:9). Protestant theology is largely constructed from only spliced portions of Scripture selected and placed within the context of pre-existing preferences (as proved not only by this particular example, but the entirety of this book), and allows the faithful Protestant to find comfort in knowing, by use of often-quoted proof-texts such as this, that the priesthood of believers has usurped the sacramental priesthood—that all Christians are priests, and therefore, the Catholic hierarchy is not biblically substantiated.

A full reading and understanding of the text, however, reveals that St. Peter had no intention of teaching the revolutionary abandonment or overthrow of any sort of clerical priesthood within Christ’s Church. In fact, St. Peter’s writing of his Letter is a product of his acting as a pastor, an elder—a clergy priest with authority. In other words, if Protestantism encouraged consistency, St. Peter would be accused of hypocrisy and acting in ways to undermine the authority he was exercising, and therefore undermine the authority of his Letter itself. 

When the verse is singled out and presented as the entirety of truth, not as a portion of truth, the conclusion of a single priesthood of believers becomes a populist promise. And the preferred conclusion would require that a reading of Acts 2 be prefaced not with the context of Luke 22 and Acts 1, which reveals a Catholic ecclesiology and sacramental nature of the New Covenant Church, but a redefining of the sacraments and the abolishment of proper ecclesiology altogether. In other words, the Pentecost narrative can be forced to portray a modern Protestant-styled sermon with a standard call to repentance and a soteriology that includes a kind of easy-believism, which is what dominates too many strains of Protestant Evangelicalism: And it shall be that whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved (Acts 2:21)—an isolated verse that seems to override every scriptural call to obedience and good works. Fortunately, again, the Protestant Church of Christ has not fully sanitized the second chapter of Acts, still recognizes baptismal regeneration, and incorporates verse 38 into its model: Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.

 If Protestantism entertained the entirety of Scripture to develop its theology instead of finding apparent proof-texts, then the verse, . . . and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation (Exodus 19:6), a description of the people of Israel, would make some sort of impact; would reveal that the established, ordained, legitimate priesthood of the Old Covenant was not usurped by the Old Covenant laity. In parallel, St. Peter nearly quoted word-for-word of what would become the “Old Testament” Scriptures. Under the Old Covenant, the entire assembly (ekklesia) was a royal priesthood and a holy nation, and yet they acknowledged the legitimacy of the ministerial priesthood. So too, the entire New Covenant assembly (ekklesia) is a royal priesthood and a holy nation, and still contains a legitimate ministerial priesthood—and it was none other than St. Peter, the first pope, who so clearly referenced that reality within his Letter—a clear reference that is rarely, if ever, acknowledged by the Protestant academy.

The existence of St. Peter’s Letter, which actually supports Catholic ecclesiology (structure and governance) when allowed to exist within the context that St. Peter alluded, is a result of an already established proper ecclesiology. Put differently, the Church’s laity recognized St. Peter’s role as a priest with authority, or else his Letter would not have been respected as authoritative; the priesthood he was a part of was not usurped by the holy nation of believers.   

Behold the Pierced One and Called to Communion are two of Cardinal Ratzinger’s books that I believe are best read side-by-side. Together, Ratzinger describes proper Christian ecclesiology by keeping Acts 1 at the forefront of his references to Acts 2. For example, he prefaces the Pentecost narrative and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit by noting Mary’s presence. 

A word search for “Mary” in Acts 2 comes up empty. Of course, Mary was present if context infects the events of Pentecost (cf. Luke 22 and Acts 1), but if “the birth of the Church” is packaged into the precise wording of an isolated chapter, then Mary is not present. Mary’s disappearance within modern Protestantism is deliberate, and when an entire chapter of an important event is presented without a specifically identified presence, arguments can, and will, be made to prove that Catholicism’s emphasis on what modern Protestants routinely demote as “just a good woman” is a distraction from what they hope and preach is “biblical Christianity”.

Cardinal Ratzinger, in his book God Is Near Us, wrote a sentence that initially seemed awkward to my Protestant sensibilities. He wrote, “She [Mary] is a tent for him [Jesus], and thus she is the beginning of the Church.”5 He essentially wrote that Mary is the beginning of what Jesus said he will build (cf. Matthew 16:18; emphasis mine). To my non-Catholic mind, a Protestant Christian who believed that many theological notions (e.g. moment of salvation) have specific origins in time, the Cardinal seemed to be contradicting both Jesus and himself.

But the Cardinal does not default to thinking like a Protestant. In the third chapter of Jesus of Nazareth, Cardinal Ratzinger, as Pope Benedict XVI, wrote about the varying aspects of the “kingdom of God”. A mystical manifestation of the term, he wrote, is “. . . located in a man’s inner being. It grows and radiates outward from that inner space.”6 Although he was not writing about Mary per se, it seems reasonable to infer that Mary, who perfectly rests into the Pope’s description of “the kingdom”, was indeed in mind as he wrote that sentence. The chapter, as I understand his theology, clarifies that the “kingdom of God” is synonymous with “the Church”, that the kingdom is “at hand”, and that where Christ is, there is the Church. As I synthesize this conclusion with the Cardinal’s former lesson: “[Mary] is the beginning of the Church,” I can conclude that there is a specifically Catholic [= not Protestant] understanding of the birth of the Church—that Catholic thought assumes a much more timeless, and both physical and mystical allowance to Jesus’ words, I will build my Church.

Cardinal Ratzinger’s theology of creation reveals how he understands the “moment” when the Church was born—an understanding that certainly includes Pentecost, the cenacle of the upper room prior to Pentecost, as well as with Mary carrying Jesus in her womb. In the Beginning is a collection of Cardinal Ratzinger’s homilies regarding creation. As I illustrated how I believe the Cardinal had Mary in mind as he described a mystical understanding of the “kingdom of God”, his theology of creation seems similarly applicable to the question at hand.

In Scripture, God’s chronology of how he revealed his creation to man was developmental. As a Protestant, developmental revelation is an unexamined fear because it undermines several Protestant-friendly premises, which is why only the first creation account from Genesis is used as the normative “creation science” outline. Although Catholics are surely free to sympathize with the conclusions of Young Earth creation science, the purpose of the creation accounts are God’s ways, at least within Scripture, to communicate that He is the creator of the entire world, that He wants to give us everything, that He is love, and so on; but is ultimately geared for establishing a framework for the Apostle John’s greater creation account: the Incarnation (cf. John 1). So instead of regarding Genesis as a zoological or cosmological textbook, Ratzinger understands the creation accounts as God arranging a pattern of developmental revelation regarding the creation of the world, and revelation of Himself to creation. Ratzinger wrote:

The classic creation account [Genesis 1] is not the only creation text of sacred Scripture. Immediately after it there follows another one, composed earlier and containing other imagery. In Psalms there are still others, and there the movement to clarify the faith concerning creation is carried further: In its confrontation with Hellenistic civilization, Wisdom literature reworks the theme without sticking to the old images such as the seven days. Thus we can see how the Bible itself constantly readapts its images to a continually developing way of thinking, how it changes time and again in order to bear witness, time and again, to the one thing that has come to it, in truth, from God’s Word, which is the message of his creating act. In the Bible itself the images are free and they correct themselves ongoingly. In this way they show, by means of a gradual and interactive process, that they are only images, which reveal something deeper and greater.7

If we Christians can understand the singularity of Eden’s creation as either a process that spanned a few days, or even billions of years (a belief contested within the Fundamentalist sects), then why must the singularity of the Church’s creation be relegated to having a birth dated to a nanosecond? Is anything born at a precise moment? Are not labor pangs often long? The pangs of birth that she endured, as described in Revelation 12:2 is a mystical (not physical) reference to Mary, yes, but the pangs were actualized by the Church’s persecutions for centuries, and continues as she brings forth new Christians in every generation. If instruments larger than Pentecost’s microscope can measure the birthing pangs of the Church, then is it not fathomable to understand that Mary, when she was found with child, might be included within the creation understanding of the Church? Is conception not Incarnation?

God’s written word, which was developmentally revealed to man over centuries, reveals how the nature of creation itself is revealed over time, and Jesus Himself was developmentally revealed as well. The kingdom is the Church, the kingdom is where Christ resides, and Mary was first to be there; was the “beginning of the Church,” was a “tent” for Jesus who “radiated outward from that inner space” and was with Jesus in “the cenacle, the ‘upper room’ as [providing] the context in which the Church is born.” Mary was the first Christian.

In many ways, the first few chapters of Genesis foreshadow beginnings that had not yet come. Prior to creation, The spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters (Genesis 1:2)—that is the Holy Spirit, and then the next verse reads, And God said, Let there be light; and there was light. In parallel, the New Testament begins its inclusion of the Holy Spirit’s work at the Annunciation, when Gabriel saluted Mary as Queen, and then announced to her that she will be the mother of God—that she will be the mother of the light of the world, that she will be the physical and mystical mother of the Church.

Needless to point out, though I will, this Marian perspective of the Church’s birth is shunned by modern (not original) Protestants for no reason other than its pro-Catholic allusion. And divorcing the context of Acts 1, which names only Mary as one among the women, from the Pentecost account of Acts 2, propagates an incomplete context suggesting that the Church’s birth can somehow not involve a mother.

With humility, my attention to the question at hand illustrates the comparative value between Catholicism and Protestantism. And with great respect, this is an attempt to answer the question by utilizing glimmers of light from some of Cardinal Ratzinger’s writings. Did the Church begin at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was poured out? Yes. Did the Church begin in the upper room prior to Pentecost? Yes. Did the Church begin at the Crucifixion when Jesus’ sacrifice was actualized? Yes. Did the Church begin when Jesus instituted the Eucharist—when He anticipated His Crucifixion and Resurrection? Yes. Did the Church begin when Mary agreed to become the tent for Jesus? Yes. Do these answers make sense to a Protestant mind that “knows” the moment he is saved, that “knows” how many days old the earth is, or that cannot allow developmental revelation? No. Do most Protestants care what the Vicar of Christ thinks? No—and that is why Pentecost is almost always their definitive answer.

      1 Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Called to Communion (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996). 41.

      2 Twelve times ten; a multiple of twelve and a symbol of completion. St. Luke keeps the numerological theme consistent in both volumes. Luke 22:29-30 reads, . . . and I [Jesus] assign to you [Apostles], as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. Acts 1:15 (only three chapters later, if both volumes are read consecutively) recalls the number of tribes (twelve), and reveals that the new Davidic King has assigned authority to the twelve Apostles. The multiplication of twelve Apostles/thrones with ten indicates a kingdom, thus, there were one hundred and twenty people in the upper room (the kingdom, the Church). 

      3 Available at as of December 24, 2018.

      4 Bruce L. Shelley. Church History in Plain Language (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995). 229.

      5 Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, God Is Near Us (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2003). 24.

      6 Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007). 50.

      7 Pope Benedict XVI, In the Beginning (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995). 14,15.