Essentially, every self-proclaimed Christian group sees Jesus as its founder, either literally and historically or spiritually. Thus, while George Fox would acknowledge that Quakerism was an innovation of the 17e century, he undoubtedly saw in Jesus the starting point of his discovery of the Inner Light. No Bible, no George Fox. No Jesus, no Bible. Even Mormons, whose scriptures radically rewrite salvation history, call themselves “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” Sure, they may be “last days,” but Jesus is right there.
A problem arises when other groups, usually for polemical reasons, decide who founded a competing group. Catholics might trace the Anglican Communion to Henry VIII or the Lutheran Church to Martin Luther. Anglicans might say that John Wesley invented Methodism. A Southern Baptist claiming to be a non-denominator might say that Pentecostalism has nothing to do with Pentecost and everything to do with the Azusa Street Revival (or worse, the British Israelism by Charles Fox Parham).
So when inquiring about who founded the Catholic Church, a Catholic will inevitably answer “Jesus”, while the stranger, depending on his background and program, might answer anything from “Paul ” to “Constantine” via “Cardinal Humbert de Silva Candida”. .” What I’d like to do for the rest of this article is attempt a historical answer (as best one can based on surviving evidence). I am catholic. Of course, I have my prejudices. But I also taught courses on the historical Jesus and the formation of early Christianity. I hope my arguments could, if grounded in tradition, transcend pure partisanship.
The first place where we can indicate and find the foundation of a church body is the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, namely 16:18-19“And so I say to you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the beyond shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Matthew was probably written somewhere between 70 and 110 AD, most likely in the 80-90 period. The translated word “church” is the Greek, “ecclesiameaning “assembly” or “congregation”. In other words, we know that around 80 AD, the Christian community saw itself as a moral person (or “church”) with Peter, designated by Jesus himself, as its foundation. This point of origin seems to carry with it power and authority (“everything you bind…”).
It’s possible that early audiences, assuming the end of the world was imminent, didn’t give much thought to how this power might be imparted. What we know from Acts and early accounts of martyrdoms and other texts (such as those of or by Polycarp, Ignatius and Justin) is that a system of investment developed during this first period, probably even before the writing of the Gospel of Matthew. This set of roles includes deacons, priests, and bishops (“overseers”). If it would take some time for these titles to develop into medieval (and then modern) versions of these offices (and this is where Constantine will be said to have “founded” the Catholic Church by uniting these positions with certain imperial functions), the basics were in place at least in this early period. By the time Peter and Paul died, that is, when the Synoptic Gospels were written, an official structure tracing itself through Peter and the other apostles of Jesus existed.
Other groups also existed. This is often forgotten. There were various Gnostic sects and quasi-Christian groups like the Manichaeans and the Valentinians. What is fascinating about the more explicitly Christian of these communities is that they too seem to have emphasized both Jesus and the Apostles. So, for example, the Gospel of Mary, a Gnostic text found at Nag Hammadi, has Mary Magdalene argue with the Twelve (especially Peter), emphasizing how intimately she knew Jesus. She claims to have received his secret teachings. Here, then, we can see that various competing early (and heretical) Christian groups turned to Christ and those immediately around him.
But the question asked at the top does not most often come from the partisans of the first Gnostic sects; rather, it tends to come from non-Catholic groups based on what we now call “the Bible.” What should be noted here, then, is that the community which canonized the texts (including Matthew) which we now call “the Bible” is, by its own proponents, called “Catholic”, most obviously and explicitly in the Nicene Creed. A few hundred years elapsed between the writing of the Synoptic Gospels and Nicaea, but much of that time was devoted to defending this self-definition against the encroachments and counterclaims of the types of sects mentioned above. It was only with legalization and eventually institutionalization that this Petrine ecclesia could begin to fully agree on a canon and various rules. The persecution had occupied them otherwise. This body was “Catholic,” which means “universal,” and it promulgated an “acceptable” version of Scripture.
As any Eastern or Eastern Orthodox commentator will tell you, this “Catholic” does not need to be with a capital “C”. Armenians, Ethiopians, Greeks, and St. Thomas Christians all recite the Nicene Creed without subscribing to the papacy in Rome (which “catholic” has come to mean). But there is a problem with applying this logic too vigorously here: all of these groups were in fellowship at the time of Nicaea. They all made up this “Catholic” group, even if they differed in certain ritual customs or even used different recensions of the biblical canon. They recognized themselves as part of the group, the one whose origins go back to Matthew 16, the one who had disputed with the Gnostic sects over the nature of authority and faith. They saw themselves as one in baptism and in framework, with deacons, priests, bishops and the institution of a Eucharist, traditions based on their now agreed upon minimum creed.
So how do you choose which of them was really founded by Jesus? Critics of the modern Catholic Church will say that this body separated from this original communion either because of its bad Christology as announced at Chalcedon or because of its adoption of a doctrine of papal supremacy. Catholics will argue that it’s all there in Matthew 16. Peter was the first bishop of Rome after all. The Antiochian and Syriac Orthodox will not fail to mention that Saint Peter was also the first overseer of Antioch (and that he was there long before he was near Rome!).
And then, how to decide? Well, as a Catholic (albeit a Byzantine), I tend to think that the universalizing primacy of Rome makes for the fullness of communion. But I think anyone from any apostolic tradition (especially Eastern and Eastern Orthodox) shares a claim to this original (and hopefully future) universal ecclesia who gathered at Nicaea.
Regardless of one’s view on this obscure question, the above suggests that most Christians who accept the authority of the Bible must accept that the Catholic Church was founded, at least, by the Jesus of the Gospel of Matthew, if not by Jesus Christ himself (and if one accepts the validity of the Gospel of Matthew, then the two are one). One might think, for example, as a Lutheran, that something eventually went wrong in this body and it somehow went astray. But even holding this belief, it is clear that a historical connection exists between the modern Catholic Church (or the medieval Church, for that matter) and the Council of Nicaea. Moreover, it is clear that those who gathered at this council identified themselves with the group that spent two centuries defining its identity over and against various heterodox and heretical groups by appealing to the Gospel of Matthew. In this sense, Jesus founded the Catholic Church – there are no ifs, ands or buts about that.