The Protestant Trilemma

by Elder J. R. Graves


The protestant religious societies face a three-edged dilemma when it comes to explaining their origins and history as they relate to the Roman Catholic “Church.” In 1855, Elder J. R. Graves wrote an essay addressing this matter and the manner in which a Presbyterian General Assembly had attempted to address it. His observations are as applicable to the protestants of our day as they were to those of the last century.

— Pastor Wilson


A little history connected with the last N. S. Presbyterian General Assembly, which held its session in Buffalo, May, 1854, … ought not to be allowed to pass without improvement.


A query was introduced into that body to this effect:—Are Romish baptisms and ordinations valid? A committee of junior and senior patriarchs was sent out to report an answer. They failed to agree. The majority reported negatively. But there were sundry gray haired doctors who saw the logical conclusions behind such a decision, and indeed any decision they as Pedobaptists could make; and those consequences would certainly be precipitated upon them by their Baptist friends and Catholic foes. The reports were read in the assembly, and a warm discussion ensued. Unfortunately, very little of that discussion has been given to the public; but the positions taken by the two parties were substantially these:


The majority reported that all ordinances at the hands of Romish priests were invalid, because the Romish Catholic Church was no Church of Christ, and no part or branch of Christ’s Church; but manifest Anti-Christ—the scarlet harlot riding on the beast with seven heads and ten horns, drunk with the blood of saints; the baptism and ordinations of such an apostate body are null and void; and to pronounce them valid, is to pronounce the Romish Church the Church of Christ; and more, to involve Presbyterians and all Protestant sects in the guilt of schism, since they rent the body of Christ when they came out of Rome!

But the party who sustained the minority report, or were unfavorable to a decision, urged on the other hand:—lf you deny the Church of Rome to be a true Church, and decide that her baptisms and ordinations are invalid, then do we to all intents and purposes unchurch ourselves, unless we can baptize the ashes of Luther and Calvin, from whom we have received our baptisms and ordinations! If the baptisms and ordinations of Antichrist, of the Man of Sin, and Son of Perdition are invalid, then Luther and Calvin were unbaptized as were all the members that composed the first churches of the Reformation! Then were they unordained, and consequently had no authority to baptize their followers, or ordain other ministers to follow them; in a word, all Protestant societies are unbaptized bodies, and consequently no Churches of Christ, since a body of unbaptized persons, however pious, cannot be considered a Church:

all Protestant ministers are both unbaptized and unordained, and consequently unauthorized to preach officially and administer the ordinances.


Thus we see the trilemma into which the query precipitated them.


I. To decide that “Antichrist,”“the Man of Sin,”“the Mother of Harlots” is a true Church of Christ, would be a monstrous solecism. But this would convict all Protestant sects of sin, and destroy at once every claim they could set up to be churches of Christ; for they confess themselves Schismatics.


2. To decide that the Romish apostasy is not the true Church of Christ is to decide that all her ordinances are invalid, and consequently that all Protestant societies are bodies of unbaptized persons, and therefore not churches of Christ, and all Protestant ministers are both unbaptized and unordained, and consequently unauthorized either to preach or administer the ordinances.


3. To say that we cannot decide a question so manifest, will arouse the attention of the people, and awaken their suspicion, at once, that there is a great wrong and a great failure about Protestant churches somewhere.


Finding that they could not extricate themselves from this labyrinth of fatal consequences, they moved an indefinite postponement of the question! Their membership which they have led into their societies, and the world which they are now using every possible effort to entice into their societies, should loudly and constantly demand of them to decide whether the Romish apostasy is a true Church of Christ or not, for let Protestant societies decide it affirmatively or negatively, according to their own admissions, they equally cut off all their own claims to be considered Christian Churches!



This is the continuing trilemma of ALL protestants including the so-called Reformed “Baptists” of our day.


The similarity of this Protestant Trilemma, with that faced by the opponents of the Lord in regards to John’s baptism will not be lost to the Bible student:


(Mat 2 1:23-27) And when he was come into the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came unto him as he was teaching, and said, By what authority doest thou these things? and who gave thee this authority? (24) And Jesus answered and said unto them, I also will ask you one thing, which if ye tell me, I in like wise will tell you by what authority I do these things. (25) The baptism of John, whence was it? from heaven, or of men? And they reasoned with themselves, saying, If we shall say, From heaven; he will say unto us, Why did ye not then believe him? (26) But if we shall say, Of men; we fear the people; for all hold John as a prophet. (27) And they answered Jesus, and said, We cannot tell. And he said unto them, Neither tell I you by what authority I do these things.