This image is large and may not be laying out clearly on your browser. Try clicking on the image to see it better, and magnify if you need to. Or click and download. I'm about to enter into a debate on Christian origins, the "one true church" debate. I put together this little diagram, which still has some definite flaws, breaking down how various groups merged to form ancient Christianities.
Arrows are for strong influence or descent, these sects are interacting with one another and passing ideas between them just as religions today do. Where possible I've tried to include a sample work in parenthesis for each sect making it clear how I'm using the term, and also letting the chart do double duty explicating the origins of the bible.
In terms of colors:
Yellow are full blown alternate Christianities.
Light Blue are proto-Christianities
Salmon is for groups that are Jewish sects. They may have Christian aspects but they are not yet meaningfully Christian and are in some sense fundamentally Jewish or Samaritan.
Purple I'm using for groups that I can meaningfully call Catholic.
Pink I'm using for groups that broke away Catholicism. Sects that I would agree are "schismatic".
Dark Olive Green I'm using for non Christian religions.
Yellow Green I'm using for non-Christian groups with strong Christian influence.
The core argument for the Catholic apologetic is:
Classically Protestants have disputed (2). That debate generally comes down to the Catholic arguing the "gates of Hell shall not prevail..." doctrine vs. the Protestant citing lots of bad stuff the Catholic did or believes. Unlike Protestant, I will grant (2). I see no evidence for a sharp breaks anytime after the early church. As this diagram implies.
- There was a unique historical church that had a clear hierarchy with other local churches and sects in the Early Christian world (say 30-150 CE)
- The church from (A) is contiguous with the current day Catholic church (I'm being ambiguous here with respect to Wester or Eastern for flexibility).
- Continuity is the key determining factor for what church one should join now.
(1) is very tricky to prove. I would argue the evidence we have is that pieces of proto-Christianity formed around 200 BCE and from 200 BCE-200 CE these diverse sects merged. The 2nd century debates over Montanism show most clearly that it there was a great deal of ambiguity about which churches were or were not associated with other churches; totally inconsistent with the notion of a universally accepted hierarchy
Going back further to the first century we see debates among equals. Paul is arguing in his letters against Judaizers and proto-gnostics based on scripture (the LXX) because he doesn't have access to an authoritative hierarchy.
From a Protestant perspective this diagram is to some extent supportive of the theory in Landmarkism, of Baptist perpetuity. The idea that the Baptists have always existed. Certainly for example the Sabians are a baptist sect: believers baptism, salvation by faith... Though I'm actually putting it several centuries earlier and disagreeing that they have rolled back nearly enough. Renowned English Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon described Baptist perpetuity as:
We believe that the Baptists are the original Christians. We did not commence our existence at the reformation, we were reformers before Luther and Calvin were born; we never came from the Church of Rome, for we were never in it, but we have an unbroken line up to the apostles themselves. We have always existed from the days of Christ, and our principles, sometimes veiled and forgotten, like a river which may travel under ground for a little season, have always had honest and holy adherents.
As for point (3) I see the affirmative primarily rests on sacramental authority. That is apostolic succession is mostly demanded in a situation where sacraments (in particular the eucharist / mass) need a laying on of hands (sacramental) to be valid.
I'd argue for any Protestant which has a theory of ordinances rather than sacraments (3) falls apart and this is mainly a begging the question argument for most Protestants. For those like Anglicans or Lutherans that do have a sacramental theology the question becomes is there any reason to believe other than assertion in the claim that the chain is completely unbroken for the first 1500 years but shattered in the last 500?
As an aside the diagram above was a lot of work and is still has errors, I'm reserving the right to update and make improvements; though the basic structure will remain intact.