Dan Brown makes a lot of astounding claims in his best seller The Da Vinci Code. Most people are familiar with them such as Brown's assertions that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, that his death on the cross was faked, and that the divinity of Christ was invented by Constantine and the bishops at the church council in Nicea. These claims are shocking, untrue, and have been decidedly refuted by multiple authors. A Sunday school teacher in my own parish has compiled a nice list of resources debunking these claims. He is, of course, only one of many to do so.
However, despite all the well-meaning attempts to debunk the Code, its influence is clearly being felt. A poll, conducted for CanWest News Service in the days leading up to Easter 2006, indicated 17% of Canadians and 13% of Americans believe author Dan Brown's basic premises. The message is getting through, and it is getting a reception in many quarters, even before the movie has been able to make its contribution. While a lot of time and energy has been spent proving that the claims made by Brown in his novel are untrue, much less thought has gone into analyzing why his incredible version of events has found such resonance.
While Brown makes many claims about various topics in Christian history, the root of them all is, as the author says, that "almost everything our fathers taught us about Christ is false." In other words, the teachings that Jesus Christ left on Earth were systematically misrepresented and distorted to serve the interests of a fallen, very worldly bunch of men who were seeking power, wealth, and prestige. It was these men who crafted the Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church and who formulated false dogmas to cement its influence by creating an orthodoxy to which others were forced to adhere.
One reason why this idea of Brown's, that we have been collectively lied to about the person and ministry of Jesus Christ, has found such resonance might be because of its similarity to established radical Protestant doctrine. If that is the case, then Brown has actually some of the most conservative Protestants around to thank for his massive literary success.
The term 'Radical Reformation' is not well known to most Americans, but it is immensely important. The term refers to the diverse amalgamation of various movements comprised of individuals and groups that rejected both the Roman Catholic tradition and the Protestant alternatives to it. These groups claimed to be following the path of true apostolic Christianity. It is difficult to generalize too much about the groups that comprised these movements, given their diversity. Some of them were fairly subdued, while others rejected the Trinity, embraced polygamy, and did a great deal of other things that are rarely associated with Christian behavior. Some common elements, however, can be identified. Among these are a rejection of the sacraments, an indifference to Christian history and tradition, a rejection of Theology in favor of personal piety, a rejection of any form of hierarchy, and a simplified, non-liturgical worship style.
The spiritual heirs of the 'Radical Reformation' include the Evangelical Protestant Churches such as the Baptists and the Pentecostals. These groups are, of course, extremely important in the United States and even globally. All told there are some 75 million Evangelicals in the United States, and an additional 325 million or more worldwide. While the modern radical Protestant churches have largely toned down some of the more eccentric beliefs and behavior of their forebears of the 16th and 17th centuries, they are still characterized by many of the distinctive practices of the Radical Reformers such as democratic church governance, an informal worship style centered around a sermon, a rejection of all sacramental Theology, an emphasis on piety over systematic Theology, and 'Believer's Baptism' of those old enough to think rationally.
And, of course, almost all of these spiritual descendants of the radicals profess that they are worshipping in the mode of the original Christian Church. Common to them is the belief that by the time the Council of Nicea was organized in 325 A.D., the orthodox Christian Church had fallen into grievous error.
The following is a pretty standard radical Protestant discussion of what happened in the early 4th Century:
Now a few more points about Constantine. When he conquered Maxientus and became emperor in 313 A.D. he issued a statement of toleration and temporarily stopped the persecution which had been so severe under Diocletian and Decius. But by 314 he had appointed imperial commissioners to settle questions of orthodoxy in the churches. Naturally he wanted to include the separate churches under his influence, and he issued his edict against the Donatist churches in 320 A.D. By 315 he had begun to call himself the external bishop of the church and changed its constitution to conform to that of the state. In 319 he relieved the clergy of the duty to pay taxes and eventually provided state pensions for the bishops. This shows the gradual growth of the state church or sacral society system and how it subjugated the churches. Constantine also introduced splendor into the liturgy and architecture of the Roman church including such things as paintings and images and statues, so that the churches came to resemble pagan temples.
The corrupt bishops went along with Constantine, so this line of thought goes, and radically changed the Christian faith. Thus, it is from this time that many Evangelicals date the decline and collapse of the Christian Church on Earth until the true faith was resurrected during the Protestant reformation. Some Protestants claim that the true faith never departed, but was kept alive by various heretical groups who were persecuted by the evil Roman Catholic Church. More on that will be discussed later.
However, radical Protestants are noted for, among other things, their lack of liturgical worship, their denial of sacraments, and their mode of church governance which is democratic and non-hierarchical. That presents a historical problem, since it is quite obvious to any researcher that the Christian Church was already liturgical, sacramental, and hierarchical well before Constantine ever arrived on the scene.
That fact has led many radical Protestants to push the date for when the Church lapsed into sin and error farther back in time.
In fact, the religion of great numbers, in the third century, was a compound of Judaism and Paganism, with a slight seasoning of Christianity. Gaudy ceremonials were delighted in, and the strange power which had been ascribed to magical influences was transferred to the ordinances of the Gospel. The immersion in water, the eating of the bread, and the drinking of the wine, were associated in their minds, as producing causes, with spiritual transformations and blessings. The bodily act was substituted for the mental, and "faith was made void." We do not affirm that every professing Christian was enveloped in this darkness; but it is too evident that the views of the majority were confused, and that, under the leadership of such men as Cyprian, the churches were fast drifting into dangerous notions.
But even pushing the date for lapse into sin and error back into the 3rd Century is not really sufficient. Based on the writings that have survived to us from Tertullian, Justin Martyr, and others, it is quite clear that the orthodox Christian Church had such non-Protestant elements as hierarchy, liturgy, and sacraments as far back as the end of the First Century.
This has led to several different responses from Evangelicals and other radical Protestants. The first is to simply ignore all this. That is easy since most Evangelicals are ahistorical in any case. Another response is to push the date of 'apostasy' even farther back to accommodate the fact that inconvenient ideas are expressed in First Century documents such as Clement's Epistle to the Corinthians or the Epistles of Ignatius. Thinkers who subscribe to this line of reasoning believe that the Church was on its way downhill before the Apostolic Age was even closed.
Another response has been to merely claim that those Christians who believed like and worshipped like modern Evangelicals simply didn't leave writings or other evidence that has survived until today. This is a true 'leap of faith,' believing that such groups had to exist, despite our inability to actually find them. It is also more evidence of a 'conspiracy theory,' since the often unspoken subtext of this belief is that the ancient Evangelical writings had to have existed, but were suppressed by the evil Roman Church.
Finally, the last response is that often associated with 'Landmark Baptists.' This is the belief that the true church of Jesus did survive on Earth through the various groups, such as the Novatians and Donatists, who were condemned by the 'official' church as heretics. These groups maintained the true faith, under severe persecution, and often lived and worshipped in secret. In this belief system, all of these disparate groups are believed to have been essentially 'baptist.'
Various Pentecostal groups, who usually arose from within Baptist denominations, have also grabbed hold of this theory. This is the belief I was taught, as a boy in a Pentecostal denomination. More than one Sunday school teacher told me that a 'remnant' of Christianity survived through the Dark Ages prior to Martin Luther and the Reformation. We weren't really told who this remnant was or what it might have looked like, but we were assured of its existence. The fact of its existence explained how we, a Pentecostal denomination less than 100 years old, could in fact trace our lineage back to the First Century.
What about The Da Vinci Code?
This is all fine, but what has any of it got to do with the Da Vinci Code phenomenon? Well, a lot actually. As I said at the beginning, the basic premise of Dan Brown's thinking is that the truth of Jesus Christ was distorted and impregnated with false doctrines by men for their own advantage. This is, in fact, the standard teaching of literally hundreds of millions of radical Protestants, and it is their teaching which has opened the door to acceptance for Dan Brown's ideas.
I know, I know. Protestants such as the Baptists and Pentecostals are at the forefront of denouncing the Code and exploding its various myths. How could they possibly have tilled the soil into which the Dan Brown's seeds of doubt were sown? They did this in several ways.
As stated earlier, the standard teaching of radical reformers is that the church was fallen into error by the fourth century, and, according to many, was probably in error as far back as the end of the Apostolic Age. This means that the Christian Church which compiled the scriptures, which defined the precise doctrine of the Holy Trinity, and which formed the basis of Western Civilization was, in fact, near apostate and unreliable.
The radical Protestants believe that this Church managed to get some things right. The radicals, as a whole, accept that the divinity of Christ was taught in the early church, that the Trinity as defined in the Nicene Creed is true, and almost all accept the canon of the New Testament as received by the Christian Church pre-Constantine. But they also, as shown earlier, believe that this very Church was thoroughly infiltrated by pagan influences, and was led by men of dubious character who were all to willing to seek advantage for themselves through accommodation to the world.
By calling into question the reliability of the early church, the radical Protestants opened Pandora's Box hundreds of years before Dan Brown was born. If the early church was so riddled with error and superstition then how can we possibly trust anything that it produced?
Are the New Testament books accepted into the canon the authentic teachings of Christ, or were they merely the ones acceptable to bigoted, neo-pagans who were running the show as bishops? Is the doctrine of the Trinity, found nowhere in scripture, true to Christian traditional teaching or was Arius right? Or, was Montanus right when he claimed that his visions were equal to the scriptures around AD 150? Or perhaps Sabellius had it right when he claimed that God assumed various modes and the later Trinitarian formula was actually rank heresy?
How does one tell the truth teller from the heretical liar if you accept, as a matter of faith, that the visible, orthodox Christian Church was in decadent error? If the orthodox Church had ceased to be the true Church sometime in the 2nd or 3rd Centuries, and was instead an all-too human institution, then how is anyone going to be sure what is right belief and what is not?
Is it really so far-fetched then, to extend this belief just a little more to encompass the idea that the corrupt Christian Church could have changed even more about the faith and done so even earlier? By calling the witness of the early Church and her bishops into doubt, the radical Protestants prepared the way for Dan Brown's success. The doubts were already there, as literally hundreds of millions of Christians believe that the Church was hijacked and corrupted almost from its beginning. When one already embraces so many doubts about Christian history and Christian origins, a few more are easy enough to cozy up to.
But, besides interjecting doubts about the veracity of the early church, many radical Protestants have prepared the way for the Code in another way as well. Radical Protestants have the same overwhelming pre-occupation with an overpowering, omni prescient Papacy as does Dan Brown. As shown in the quotes above, radical Protestants refer to the orthodox church of the first few centuries AD as the 'Roman Catholic Church,' and impart to the Bishop of Rome powers at that stage which he would not develop for hundreds of years, and then only in the West. Dan Brown does the same thing with his references to the 'Vatican' during a century in which no such structure even existed. The Bishop of Rome in the early Christian centuries couldn't dictate doctrinal innovations to anyone, but that does not stop the radical Protestants and Dan Brown from ascribing to him just that infamy.
Growing up in a Pentecostal denomination, we were taught to blame the Pope for everything from introducing the idea of the 'Real Presence' in the Eucharist to introduction of a hierarchy. Whatever we didn't like was pinned on Constantine, the Pope, or both. Never mind the fact that the Eastern Church was never under that kind of control from a single source. We would never let facts get in the way of our anti-papal feelings.
Given that this belief system is regnant in so many Protestant Churches, is it any wonder that Dan Brown's anti-papal assertions seem plausible to some? After all, if they are like me, Dan Brown's ideas are merely a difference of degree, not kind, from what we learned in Sunday school.
In addition, one more radical Protestant teaching helped set the stage for the Code. Dan Brown states that the truth of the Christian religion was known to a small band known as the Priory of Zion. Many radical Protestants believe, as I did as a young man, almost exactly the same thing, only the 'remnant' which preserved the true faith was known by different names ('Novatian,' 'Donatist,' 'Waldens,' etc.) throughout history.
To radical Protestants, or those influenced by their teaching, the idea that the true Christian faith was betrayed by the 'official' church and kept alive by a small, conspiratorial band is hardly far-fetched. It is, in fact, an integral part of the radical Protestant faith for untold millions of believers. All that really separates such Protestants and Dan Brown are disagreements over which articles of the faith the ancient, apostate church got wrong, and who was the 'righteous remnant' (provided it existed) that forms a link between the Apostles and the Protestants of today. This teaching of the radical Protestants has so seeped into the world's consciousness that we find even Catholics and Orthodox influenced by it. It is little wonder, given this situation, that so many people have embraced Brown's theses.
The Baptists and other Evangelicals doing battle with Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code are standing on a foundation of sand. While their efforts should be applauded, it can not be overlooked that their own doctrinal assertions helped put us in the middle of this controversy to begin with. If so many of the teachings of Christ were abandoned or twisted by an unfaithful church so early in history, then how could one ever separate the truth from the lies?
To adequately refute the Code it is necessary to believe that the teachings of Jesus Christ were given to the Apostles and were held by the Church as a deposit of faith that was neither altered nor abandoned. To do otherwise is to admit the possibility that perhaps nothing we know of the faith is true.
Since the radical Protestants, such as the Evangelicals, are not able to stand on the firm foundation of the historic Christian faith, it falls to the Orthodox and Roman Catholics to firmly and effectively defend against the heresies of The Da Vinci Code. It is tempting to want to reach out and join hands with our Evangelical brethren in this endeavor, but we must not lose sight of the role that they played in getting us to where we are today. To ignore their heresies while focusing only on Dan Brown is to focus only on a symptom, rather than treating the underlying disease.
Glen Chancy is a graduate of the University of Florida with a degree in Political Science, and a certificate in Eastern European Studies. A former University lecturer in Poland, he currently holds an MBA in Finance and works in Orlando, Florida as a business analyst for an international software developer. He attends the Greek Orthodox Church in Orlando, Florida.