Picture this. A conversation is going on at the coffee machine at work. It’s about, of all things, religion. After several people offer their opinions about religion in general, one of the caffeinated interlocutors offers this for his hearers: “There is only one True Religion from the beginning of the world and it’s mine.” The man is a Catholic. We can well imagine that the conversation will either heat up intensely, or end very quickly while the coffee-breakers disband, looking incredulously at “that weirdo.”
However harshly our protagonist’s words may fall on modern ears, they express the truth. This article is an effort to show the reasonableness of this assertion in the context of the history of religion. It will also demonstrate the folly of certain common alternative views.
Our title bears some explaining. The words “our Patriarch Abraham” are verbatim from the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, wherein the priest asks God the Father to accept this sacrifice “as You accepted the sacrifice of our patriarch Abraham.” The term “continuity of religion” is best broken down into its constituent parts. “Continuity” is defined as an “uninterrupted duration or continuation especially without essential change.” “Religion” is defined as “the service and worship of God.” With the addition of a few specifics from revelation, we can formulate this definition of the phrase “continuity of religion”: “the essentially unchanged continuation of belief in and worship of the true God from the time of Adam and Eve until the end of time.”
“Continuity of religion” is one of those consecrated phrases of Catholic Theology one will often run into while reading good old books about the Faith. It also happens to be the title of a literary masterpiece by Bishop Bossuet, the famous French pulpit orator.
Our purpose is to present the continuity of religion by using Abraham as a “case study.” We also want to present the true doctrine of religious continuity in opposition to two false alternatives, both of which are alive and well today.
And what are these false alternatives? The first one is the “comparative religion” approach. This is the view generally presented by secular, atheistic sociologists and anthropologists. It considers all religions as variations on the same set of basic themes. This view looks at religion totally divorced from divine revelation and suggests that, just as man’s body evolved, so did his beliefs in the supernatural. Joseph Campbell, known for his public television collaborations with Bill Moyers, was one of the popular proponents of this notion.
The second view, the liberal or modernist one, considers these matters in terms of what we now call ecumenism. To the liberal Catholic, all religions have a certain basic kinship and strive for a common goal. This view holds that all religions are to be respected inasmuch as they bring man closer to God; they are, in fact, authentic expressions of man’s desire for the supernatural. As far as our Abrahamite roots go, both Jews and Mohammedans claim descent from this Patriarch; therefore, according to the liberal Catholic, these two creeds are really our “brother religions.” To the liberals, Abraham is the foundation of our ecumenical dialogue with these particular unbelievers.
Bossuet and Continuity
Much of our exposition will be in the words of Bishop Bossuet from his famous Discourse on Universal History. Aside from his various priestly and episcopal duties, Bishop Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627-1704) was, for twenty-one years, the tutor of the Dauphin, the son of Louis XIV. The Discourse on Universal History was composed as one of the Dauphin’s textbooks. The Continuity of Religion is the first part of this work and is available in English translation. 1
Bossuet begins his book this way: “Religion, and the continued existence of the people of God 2 throughout the centuries, is the greatest and most useful of all objects that can be proposed to man” (page 3). He then quickly makes the point that there is only one True Religion, and it is one in Christ, who is the subject of both the Old and the New Testaments. He continues: “Behold then religion ever uniform, or, rather, ever the same from the foundation of the world! The same God has ever been acknowledged the Maker, and the same Christ, the Savior of mankind.
“Thus you will see that there is nothing more ancient among men than the religion you profess, and that it is not without reason that your ancestors have placed their greatest glory in being its protectors” (page 4).
Ignoring the bit of royal flattery at the end, Bossuet could have made this statement to any faithful Catholic. We all have the religion that is the oldest among men, because we all profess that same religion that Adam was taught by God. The concept of the continuity of religion is really quite simple: From the beginning of the world until its consummation, there has been, is, and will be only one True Religion. There is a “flip side” to this coin: Every other religion, inasmuch as it departs from that one, is false.
We should stress that when we say “religion,” we are not speaking of a natural religion, by which a man, without the aid of supernatural revelation, can know that there is a God and strive to serve Him by keeping the law written on his heart. No, we are speaking of “revealed religion,” that is, a way of serving and worshipping God that God Himself has taught us. Given the nature of God — that He is true and not a liar — we must reason that there can be only one True Religion. Since God is not fickle, this must apply not just today, but yesterday and tomorrow, too. For all time, then, there has been only one True Religion. Because of original sin and man’s consequent loss of integrity — exemplified by the struggle between his animal passions and his higher powers of intellect and will — it was inevitable that this revealed religion would be corrupted.
Abraham is the Father of the faithful, not just of the Old Dispensation, but of the New one as well. Though he flourished around the year 2000 BC, he is named in the New Testament about sixty times. He is an ancestor of Our Lord according to the flesh. The Jew, St. Matthew, traces Our Lord’s genealogy from Abraham; the Gentile, St. Luke, traces it from Adam through Abraham. Two of the inspired canticles of the New Testament, the Magnificat and the Benedictus, uttered under divine inspiration by Our Lady and St. Zachary respectively, both mention his name. He has the honor of being named by our Lord a few times in the Gospels, including in the parable of Dives and Lazarus. He also has a feast-day on our liturgical calendar: October 9, and is the Old Testament saint most mentioned in the Church’s liturgy.
He is held up by two New Testament authors, St. Paul and St. James, as a model and pattern of the justified believer. St. Paul in his Epistles to the Romans (Chapter 4) and to the Galatians (Chapter 6) cites Abraham to show that justification does not come from the Law of Moses, and neither from our own unaided works, but by grace through faith. Refuting the heresy of Luther, St. James complements St. Paul’s doctrine, stating that Abraham was justified by faith and works (James 2).
We mentioned above that, because of the fall and its consequences, it was inevitable that the religion God revealed to Adam would be corrupted. This happened even during Adam’s lifetime, with Cain and his descendants. After the flood, the Canaanites, and later, people such as the Idumeans and Moabites did the same thing. These groups were the first Protestants, inasmuch as they protested the authentic supernatural revelation of God and put a humanized hybrid in its place. But alongside those who corrupted the True Religion, there existed those who were faithful to God’s Word. Beginning with Noe, God protected the truth of His revelations by making a series of covenants with certain holy men in order to set them apart as custodians of true faith and worship. As dispensers of sacred tradition, these men had an implicit authority to teach people what to believe and how to live. Abraham enters into the picture as one of these faithful men.
This is how Bishop Bossuet summarizes Abraham’s times: “He was born about three hundred and fifty years after the flood, at a time when human life, though reduced to narrower limits, was still very long. Noe was just dead; Sem, his eldest son, was yet alive, and Abraham might have passed the most of his days with him.
“Figure then to yourself the world still new, and still, so to speak, drenched with the waters of the deluge, when men, so near the origin of things, in order to know the unity of God and the service that was due to Him, had no need of anything but the tradition which had been preserved of it from Adam and Noe: a tradition otherwise so conformable to the light of reason that one would have thought that so clear and important a truth could never have been darkened or forgotten among men. Such is the first state of religion, which continued down to Abraham, when, to know the greatness of God, men had to consult only their reason and memory” (page 19).
A little more detail will put this in perspective. The creation of the world was about three thousand years before the time of Abraham. It is important to recall that because of the longevity of men’s lives, a thousand years was not then what it is now. Before Abraham, there was the age of the patriarchs. They are ten in number: Adam, Seth, Enos, Cainan, Malaleel, Jared, Enoch, Methusala, Lamech, and Noe. They were all priests and prophets of the True and Living God. The last of the ten patriarchs, Noe, was commanded to build an ark because God was to visit the earth with a deluge.
After the flood, Noe continued in this patriarchal, tradition-disseminating role, teaching all his children the true Faith and offering up pleasing sacrifices to God. Sem, who was the son to inherit the greatest blessing from his father, was the heir to this office. It was from this faithful firstborn that the Messias was to descend.
Abraham was nineteen generations removed from Adam and ten from Sem. But Sem was still alive at the time of Abraham. Many commentators from before Our Lord and after — Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant — believe that the Melchisedech who blessed Abraham was, in fact, Sem.
After describing the evil condition into which the world had fallen due to the rise of idolatry and infidelity, Bossuet says this: “So great an evil made wonderful progress. Lest it should infect all mankind and utterly extinguish the knowledge of God, the great God called from on high His servant Abraham, in whose family He meant to establish His worship, and preserve the ancient belief as well of the creation of the universe as of the particular Providence with which He governs human things” (page 20).
The baton of the True Religion was passed from Adam through the Patriarchs, until it reached Noe. Then the flood came. Noe’s son Sem received it and he, Sem, lives long enough to see his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson and give him a blessing. The world has once more fallen into a state of general rebellion against God, but because of His promise to Noe, sealed with the rainbow, God will not again destroy the world with a flood. Abraham has a peculiar challenge: to be a bulwark of True Religion in the midst of growing infidelity. In this, he is the type of the follower of Christ, who is called to be “in the world, but not of it” (Cf. John 17:11-14).
With this challenge, the great God granted a tremendous consolation to Abraham: the promise that the Messias will be his Seed. “He declared to him, that He would be his God, and the God of his children, that is, that He would be their protector, and that they should serve Him as the only God, Creator of heaven and earth.
“He promised to him, and his seed after him, the land, (namely that of Chanaan) for a perpetual possession, and for the seat of religion.
“Now, Abraham had no children, and Sarah his wife was barren. God swore to him by Himself, and by His eternal truth, that of him and that woman should spring a nation that would equal the stars of heaven and the sand of the sea.
“But here comes the most memorable article of the divine promise. All nations were running headlong into idolatry. God promised to the holy Patriarch that in him and in his Seed all those blinded nations which had forgotten their Creator, should be blessed, that is, recalled to the knowledge of Him, wherein true blessing is to be found.
“By this saying Abraham is made father of all the faithful, and his posterity is chosen to be the source whence the blessing is to flow throughout the whole earth.
“In this promise was included the coming of the Messias, so often foretold to our fathers, but always foretold as He Who was to be the Savior of all the Gentiles and of all the nations of the world.
“Thus, that blessed Seed promised to Eve, became also the Seed and offspring of Abraham.
“Such is the foundation of the Covenant; such its conditions. Abraham received the token of it in the circumcision, a ceremony, the proper effect of which was to signify that this holy man belonged to God with all his family” (pages 22-23).
This promise was never forgotten by the faithful people of the Old Testament. Indeed, from that point on God is referred to about a dozen times as the “God of Abraham.” He even calls Himself this when speaking to Isaac. Through the times of Moses and Aaron, of David and the kings, of the two kingdoms, of the Babylonian Captivity, right down to the time of the Machabees, Abraham is remembered as God’s faithful servant, and the promise made to him is kept alive as a consolation amid the trials of the people of God.
Outside the True Religion
However, Abraham was not only remembered by God’s chosen people. Along the way, there were many who kept the memory of Abraham alive outside of the confines of the True Religion, though in a mutilated form. Bossuet narrates this of Abraham’s memory among unbelievers: “Abraham has ever been celebrated in the East. It is not only the Hebrews that look upon him as their father. The Idumeans boast the same origin. Ismael, the son of Abraham, is known among the Arabians as the fountain whence they sprang. Circumcision is continued with them as the mark of their origin, and they have in all times received it, not on the eighth day after the manner of the Jews, but at their thirteenth year. Scripture informs us that circumcision was given to their father Ismael at that age. This custom still prevails among the Mohammedans. Other Arabian nations commemorate Abraham and Cetura, and they are the same [people] the Scripture derives from that marriage. This patriarch was a Chaldean, and those people, famed for their astronomical observations, have counted Abraham as one of their most learned observers. The Syrian historians have made him king of Damascus, though a stranger and come from the neighborhood of Babylon; and they tell that he quitted the kingdom of Damascus in order to settle in the country of the Chanaanites, afterwards called Judea” (page 20-21).
We can add to this testimony of Bossuet an interesting bit of trivia from the Hindu religion. Many have said that the name of one of the Hindu gods, Brahma, was a derivative of the name Abraham. The Brahmans, the upper caste in India, claim to be descended from this four-faced demon. When St. Francis Xavier was spreading the Gospel in India, he spoke to some Brahmans who claimed ancestry not from a four-faced demon, but from the real Abraham in whom St. Francis believed. They admitted to St. Francis that the vulgar religion of the common Hindus was superstitious but that they wouldn’t dare let the truth get out, probably because it would jeopardize their social standing. It is possible that some inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent are indeed descended from Abraham through his concubines, whose children he separated from Isaac and sent “to the east country” (Gen. 25:6). There may be a linguistic connection between the words “Urian,” as in “an inhabitant of Ur of the Chaldees,” where Abraham was from; and “Aryan,” as in the ancient Indo-European peoples from whom are descended modern Indians. But this connection is by no means certain.
We will see that this memory of Abraham outside of the people of God has led to some problems.
In The New Testament
Shortly after the Incarnation of God in her womb, Our Lady rejoiced that God had been “mindful of His mercy. As he spoke to our fathers: to Abraham and to his seed forever.” When about to commence His public ministry, Our Lord is heralded by the precursor, St. John the Baptist, who forbids the Jews to say within themselves, “We have Abraham for our father.” “For I tell you,” he continues, “that God is able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham” (Mt. 3:9). Immediately after relating this sermon, St. Matthew shows us how God will raise up stones to such a status. When Our Lord comes to St. John and institutes the Christian sacrament of Baptism, the Gentile “stones” can be made members of the Mystical Body of Christ and, therefore, become heirs of the promises to Abraham. St. Paul later explains that the promises made to Abraham’s seed are to one seed — in the singular, that is Christ (Gal. 3:16). Christ is the promised seed. All we, who are baptized into Christ, become joint heirs with Him.
Here is how St. Paul says this to the Galatians: “For you are all the children of God by faith, in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized in Christ, have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek: there is neither bond nor free: there is neither male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you be Christ’s, then are you the seed of Abraham, heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:26-29).
Our Lord made one of His greatest challenges to the Jews in terms of Abraham. “Abraham your father rejoiced that he might see my day: he saw it and was glad” (John 8:56). 3 To this, the Jews reply, “Thou art not yet fifty years old. And hast thou seen Abraham?” Then, Jesus replies, “Before Abraham was made, I AM.” Because of the obvious reference to His being the “I AM,” that is, Yahweh (God), the Jews tried to kill Him then and there. So the same Jesus, who is, in time, the descendant of Abraham according to the flesh, is, in eternity, the God of Abraham. All who are to hold Abraham’s religion must believe that. In rejecting it, the Jews rejected the Father; hence Our Lord tells them that their “father is the devil” (John 8:44). In accordance with what we explained above, those who refused to accept Our Lord became “Protestants.”
From here on out, the adherents of the True Religion — the true People of God — are members of the one Church that Jesus founded, the Catholic Church.
False View I: Secular
Now we will consider views opposed to the continuity of religion. The first is the secular “comparative religion” approach. Looking at the subject of religion totally divorced from divine revelation, the adherents of this view propose that religion evolved from polytheism, through various stages of animism, nature worship, and tribal and national gods, until it finally developed into monotheism. Some propose odder theories still, e.g., that man’s ideas of God come from memories of our life in the womb and the birthing process. But their fundamental tenet is that religion evolved from lower to higher forms.
The thin evidence upon which this theory is based is being turned on its head. The same is true of its sister, biological evolution. In both cases, reputable scholars are establishing the theories as scientifically untenable. One example will illustrate our point. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, there arose a legion of silly liberal Protestant theories about Holy Scripture. One of these was the Documentary Theory of Julius Wellhausen, which postulated multiple authors of the Pentateuch, spanned over a ridiculously long time period. There were J, E, P, and D: the Jahwist, Elohist, Priestly, and Deuteronomist authors, men of different “traditions,” whose writings were pieced together by later redactors. The scholars liked to play a game trying to figure out who wrote what. While this silliness strikes us as sophomoric and arbitrary, it was quite stylish among the rationalist spiritual perverts of its day. Now, even most liberals have rejected it as old hat. Another popular liberal fantasy was that of a man named Herman Gunkel (1862- 1932), who held that the creation account of Genesis was just a purification of the grossly polytheistic Babylonian creation myth, the Enuma Elish. Gunkel held that the various authors of Genesis plagiarized the Enuma Elish and Judaized it.
These theories supported the evolutionary view of religion. The liberals thought they had the archeological proof that religion developed gradually from polytheism into monotheism. The theory was undone in the 1970s, when an older creation myth was found with the discovery of the Ebla library in Syria. It gives a more ancient Babylonian creation myth, one from which the Enuma Elish was probably drawn. The Ebla creation myth portrays the god Lugal, “the great one,” forming heaven and earth out of nothing.
So the Enuma Elish was a corruption of the older creation myth of the Ebla Tablets, which was, in turn, a corruption of what Adam and Eve, Abraham, Moses, and all the faithful have known to be the true account of creation. The ancient Babylonians were “Protestants B.C.”
Father Paul Trinchard, in his book God’s Word, summarizes this subject well: “Leading anthropologists assure us that all primitive people had some type of belief in one high god. They had a remnant of some type of monotheism. Dr. Stephen Langdon of Oxford University sees the Babylonians starting with a belief in one God and ‘de-volving’ into polytheism.
“Lastly, the famous Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 1800 B.C.) has a creation account which is the closest to ours in Genesis. This would lead us to conclude that this part of our Bible was based on knowledge which existed previous to the time of Moses…” (page 53-54).
The same holds true for the flood account in Genesis, concerning which Fr. Trinchard has this to say: “The biblical account of the flood is not only not a legend or myth, but of all events of such antiquity, it is the most attested to and the most provable. We have similar flood stories centering on man’s guilt, man’s salvation and the deluge in literature, from such diverse regions as Persia, Hawaii, India, Egypt, the Congo, Greece, most of the ancient nations of the Near East, the Eskimos and even from some of the American Indians. Obviously, some type of flood actually happened way back in history and was judged worthy of historical notice and recollection” (page 54).
In addition to the literary evidence cited by Fr. Trinchard, the geological evidence for a universal deluge is staggering. 4
So what are we left with? Genesis is right, after all. God didn’t lie. The science of archeology, which was supposed to debunk the Bible, has only supported its claim to be accurate history, even to the detail that men lost the True Religion and began to adore strange gods after they turned away from the One, True, and Living God. This explains Dr. Langdon’s theory of “de-volution” of religion. 5
False View II: Modernist
The next false alternative to deal with is that of the liberal Catholic or modernist. As noted earlier, this view is a major foundation for the traitorous ecumenism we see rampant in the Church. It should be noted that there is a great deal of overlapping between these two views. However, since the one described above is “secular,” and this one is espoused by those who profess religious beliefs, a distinction should be made.
Liberal Catholics are often very vague and non-committal in their tenets, so broad outlines are the most realistic way of describing their beliefs. In relation to Abraham, they might refer to the three “great” religions that arose out of this man: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. A liberal Catholic may claim that the Jews are our “older brothers in the Faith.” To some liberals, the idea of “one True Religion” is completely anathema. Some, however, will refer to the “True Religion,” but in the last analysis, they will rate all religions that approximate the truth as having some value in the sight of God.
Such a liberal may speak of Moslems and Jews in words like these, quoted from a high-ranking Catholic prelate: “Muslims, like Jews and Christians, see the figure of Abraham as a model of unconditional submission to the decrees of God (Nostra aetate, n. 3). Following Abraham’s example, the faithful strive to give God his rightful place in their lives as the origin, teacher, guide and ultimate destiny of all beings (Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Message to Muslims for the end of Ramadan, 1417/1997). This human docility and openness to God’s will is translated into an attitude of prayer which expresses the existential condition of every person before the Creator.
“Along the path marked out by Abraham in his submission to the divine will, we find his descendant, the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus, who is also devoutly invoked by Muslims, especially in popular piety.
“We Christians joyfully recognize the religious values we have in common with Islam.”
What’s wrong with this view of religious continuity? One problem is that it leads its adherents into certain grave external sins against the first commandment: kissing the blasphemous Koran, participating in Seder meals, and suchlike abominations done in the name of ecumenism. But at a deeper level, it betrays an internal perversion of God’s holy revelations on the part of the liberal. It gives the impression that the religion of Abraham has nice diverse variations among different cultures and peoples and that they are all pleasing to God. Not only does it insult the Holy Ghost who leads the People of God into all truth, it also robs from Abraham his real greatness, his love of truth. “Abraham believed God and it was reputed to him for justice,” say Moses, (Gen. 15:6), St. Paul (Rom. 4:3; Gal. 3:6), and St. James (James 2:23). If we claim that a post-Christian Jew, Mohammedan, or Protestant “believes God” we lie and the truth is not in us.
Abraham saw Jesus’ day and rejoiced. Does the Jew rejoice at Jesus’ day? Or the Moslem? The Koran has this awful verse in it, “La yalid wala yulad”: “He [Allah, that is God] neither begets nor is begotten” (Surah 112:3). This is a perfect denial of the Trinity! Jesus is the only-begotten Son of the Father, who has begotten Him from all eternity. Whatever nice things the Moslems may say of Jesus the Prophet, their religion is built on a denial of His divinity. And whatever nice things they say about Our Lady in their “popular piety,” they rob her of her little Child, who is the Emmanuel, “GOD with us,” and replace Him with an Arian counterfeit.
We know perfectly well, from speaking to hundreds of Jews and Moslems, that they do hold certain beliefs in common with us. When we approach them as missionaries, we have to use those things, so to speak, against them, in order to bring them to the truth. The same holds true for Protestants, when they agree with us on some doctrine, e.g., the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture. But to give even the remotest impression that any of these religions are pleasing to God is to deny the indivisibility of God’s truth. Those people in whose midst Abraham was striving to hold to true Faith were not atheists. They had their religions and, as the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Enuma Elish, and the Ebla Tablets show, their religions had, in varying degrees, beliefs in common with the True Religion. But their religions were corruptions of the authentic revelations of God. Judaism, Islam, and Protestantism belong in the same category.
The liberal / modernist view of “other Christians” is that they somehow agree with us on certain “essentials,” and that is sufficient. This denies the very nature of revealed religion and its transmission to men through a God-ordained authority. It implies that any break-off from the “stock” of the True Religion is acceptable to God; thus it denies Scripture, which always portrays the sins of schism, heresy, syncretism, and indifferentism as abominations.
The Last Drop
“There is only one True Religion from the beginning of the world and it’s mine,” said our friend at the beginning of the article. If more believing Catholics gave such testimony confidently and with a holy motive, we would be on our way to converting this nation and the world. In order to make such every-day apostles increase, Catholics should be reading books like The Continuity of Religion. They should strive to acquire and deeply engrain into their children those convictions that inspired the great missionaries, crusaders, and monks alternatively to preach to, fight against, and flee from, the world for the sake of Christ. It starts with the serious conviction that, despite our unworthiness, God has given us a heavenly truth which will save our souls from hell and lead us to Himself. We Catholics can humbly say that we are right and everyone else wrong. If Abraham did all he did without that conviction, he would have been rightly considered crazy. Who cares if the world thinks we’re crazy for thinking like Abraham?
2 The phrase “the people of God” merits some explanation. Because of its vagueness, liberals prefer it to such terms as “Catholic.” In a modernist context, “the People of God,” is a less exclusive term which extends the borders of true religion beyond the confines of the Catholic Church. Bossuet did not use the expression in that manner. He used it as a moniker common to the faithful of the Old and New Dispensations. To call Abraham a member of the Catholic Church would be anachronistic.
3 Catholic commentators give varying interpretations of how Abraham “saw” Our Lord’s day. Some say that, while offering Isaac, he was given infused knowledge of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. Others — such as St. Augustine, who said that “my day” meant eternity — held that Abraham had an understanding of the divinity of the Messias. Another group considers that from his abode in limbo, he was given to know the mystery of the Incarnation when it happened.
4 See In the Beginning by Walt Brown.