Harvardman has posted some comments in another thread that reflect a common Roman Catholic sentiment:
"While it is possible to find fathers who seemed to believe in justification by faith, and while various interpretations of particular early patristic sources can be advanced to support some aspects of modern evangelical Christianity, the preponderance of the evidence DOES NOT look anything like modern evangelical Christianity. Rather, it appears that Christians who knew the apostles (or who knew men who knew them) and who were obviously neither Gnostics nor Arians, and who served as living examples of apostolic Christianity for the next generation, lived a Christianity centered around: obedience to their Bishop, rejection of the many rival claimants to the chair of their Bishop, and celebration of the Eucharist."
Different Catholics will cite different areas of agreement with the early church, and the argument can vary in other ways, but the general thrust of Harvardman's comments is commonly expressed by Catholics. The amount of truth in the argument depends on how some of the terms are being defined. Harvardman refers to "Christians who knew the apostles (or who knew men who knew them)", but often the length of time involved isn't defined so specifically. Some doctrines and practices, such as the perpetual virginity of Mary and the veneration of images, were widely rejected in earlier generations, but were widely accepted later. A lot depends on what timeframe is in view and how other terms are being defined.
What should we expect to see in early church history in light of the claims of Roman Catholicism and its advocates? Should we just see the sort of vague similarity with Roman Catholicism that Harvardman refers to at the close of his comments above? Think of the claims made by the Council of Trent and the First Vatican Council, for example. Think of the claims made by Popes and Roman Catholic theologians and apologists over the centuries. The Roman Catholic denomination claims to be the one true church, founded by Christ, infallible and maintaining all apostolic teaching in unbroken succession throughout church history. Catholics often state or suggest that all or most of the church fathers were Roman Catholic, that there were few or no rival orthodox groups in early church history, etc. Given such claims, should we expect Catholics like Harvardman to be appealing to such vague similarities with the early church, such as that they were "centered around: obedience to their Bishop, rejection of the many rival claimants to the chair of their Bishop, and celebration of the Eucharist"?
And what about the claim that the early church, as Harvardman defines it, "DOES NOT look anything like modern evangelical Christianity"? It doesn't look anything like Evangelicalism?
In the thread linked above, part of my response to Harvardman consisted of a series of links to articles in this blog's archives relevant to Roman Catholicism and the history of the patristic era. I believe that the following conclusions can be reached about the earliest post-apostolic generations of Christianity in light of the sort of evidence discussed in those linked articles:
- There was no papacy.
- There were multiple forms of church government, including forms not involving a monarchical episcopate.
- Church leaders were required to meet moral and doctrinal standards, and it was considered acceptable to disobey or separate from a leader who violated such standards.
- When apostolic succession was discussed, it was defined in different ways by different sources, and the concepts discussed involved reasoning and qualifications that we don't find in modern Roman Catholic arguments for apostolic succession.
- Infants weren't baptized initially, and the later practice of infant baptism was largely done for a different reason and at a different time than we see in modern Catholicism.
- There were multiple views of the eucharist on issues such as a eucharistic presence of Christ, and John 6 was sometimes interpreted metaphorically, for example.
- Though most of the early post-apostolic sources advocated some form of justification through works, some advocated justification through faith alone, and those who advocated justification through works disagreed with each other about the nature of the works, sometimes contradicting Roman Catholicism on the issue.
- Mary was believed to have sinned.
- They often discussed subjects such as bodily assumptions and what happened to men like Enoch and Elijah without mentioning a bodily assumption of Mary. The concept of an assumption of Mary is absent, including in contexts where it would be appropriate to mention the concept.
- Whether Mary was a perpetual virgin isn't discussed much, though the earliest view seems to be that she wasn't.
- Passages of scripture often cited in support of Roman Catholic Marian doctrines, such as Revelation 12, were interpreted differently than Catholics interpret those passages.
- The concept of Purgatory was initially absent and widely contradicted, and some of the later ante-Nicene fathers who are sometimes cited in support of the doctrine can only be cited for partial support, along with partial contradiction.
- There was widespread opposition to the veneration of images.
- There was widespread belief that prayer is to be offered only to God, not to angels or deceased humans.
- Despite much acceptance of one or more Apocryphal books as scripture, some of the Apocryphal books accepted aren't accepted by Roman Catholicism, and some sources rejected the Apocryphal books.
- Premillennialism seems to have been the most popular eschatology.
Other examples could be cited, such as a comparison between the ecumenism of modern Roman Catholicism and how the early patristic Christians viewed other religions and their adherents. But I think the examples above are sufficient to make the point. Why should we think that the early post-apostolic Christians were Roman Catholic? And why should we think they weren't anything like Evangelicalism?