Wednesday, August 1, 2007

More thoughts on Church...

This will serve as a comment to Michael Halcomb’s request to convey the importance of Patristics in New Testament study as well as furthering my ideas on Church. Taking a completely different route than the one I’m about to take, Mike over at εν εφεσο has commented on how (or how not) churches should be run.

I’ll start with why Patristics is so important. I view it as being essential because it allows us to see how the earliest Christian communities, some shaped by the Apostles themselves, interpreted Scripture. We know that we don’t have the full record about Christ, early Christianity, etc in the New Testament. These were men who had received tradition through a chain in the early church. Bishop to Bishop, etc. Look at 2 Timothy 2:2 where Paul encourages Timothy to share what Timothy has heard from Paul with other people. Not, “Make sure and copy this letter down word for word, because this is all there is.” No, that’s silly. Of course Paul taught Timothy a great deal more than is written down. So where did all of that go? To the Fathers! They are our windows into how this tradition helped shape the church, hermeneutics, etc. They allow us to see Orthodox interpretation of Scripture from the outset of this movement. How do we know what the Apostles taught? Not only by their writings, but the writings of their students, and their students, etc.

Now, on to the Church. My studying of Patristics has led me to some puzzling conclusions. We in Evangelical Protestant circles hear a great deal about “New Testament churches” which are springing up left and right. These churches pride themselves on being the “house churches” that mirror the New Testament church. However, I have to disagree for a few reasons:

1) Neither the New Testament, nor extant Christian literature, indicates anything that looks like these Protestant churches. In fact, I think Acts 15 is a great indicator of how the Church actually was run. Already we see a hierarchy of ruling Apostles who had Elders (πρεσβυτεροι). Pauline literature indicates the office of deacons as well. These weren’t “free to do whatever they wanted” churches; they were held in line by their leaders, the Apostles, the guarantors of the Faith. As far as what the Liturgy looked like, I would encourage you to take a look at the book of Revelation. The liturgical themes in this book are striking! These are all stolen from Scott Hahn’s The Lamb’s Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth (119):
Sunday Worship 1:10
High Priest 1:13
Altar 8:3-4; 11:1, 14:18
Priests 4:4; 11:15; 14:3 ; 19:4
Incense 5:8; 8:3-5
Book or Scroll 5:1
Sign of the Cross 7:3; 14:1; 22:4
Lift up your hearts 11:12
“Holy, Holy, Holy" 4:8

There’s considerably more on the list, I’ve just included some of the things I think are interesting as they seem to point to a very early, established liturgy.

2) Indeed, reading the Fathers leads us to some conclusions with which Protestants may not be entirely comfortable. The Church, in its earliest form, is extremely Catholic. The office of the Apostles was understood as ongoing, and they were the heads of the Church, with the Bishop of Rome being the lead Apostle (as he was the successor of Peter). First, I’ll start at Peter. Matthew 16 is quite hard to get around and most Protestant exegetes stumble over Christ’s affirmation and separation of Peter. Luke 22:31-32 again is difficult if Peter didn’t hold a prominent position. Jesus says to him, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you (plural) like wheat, but I have prayed for you(singular), that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” Why is Peter set aside? And why is Jesus commissioning Peter to strengthen his brothers? Well, it’s because Peter was the head of the Church. After Peter, it was assumed that his successor took over. If Judas received a successor, certainly Peter would. Pope Clement I in A.D. 80 affirms Apostolic Succession in his Letter to the Corinthians. Are these the pop-up house churches we’re told scattered the New Testament and early Christian landscape? Not at all. In fact, Tertullian mentions that the only way to tell a real Church is whether it enjoys Apostolic succession! (See Demurrer Against Heretics).

3) The real question for me is this: If these New Testament churches didn’t have the hierarchy that Catholics say they did, then why in the world does the Church immediately look like the Catholic church? Why do the Fathers support a hierarchical Church that enjoys Apostolic succession? The Apostles would be, by far, the worst teachers on the face of the planet if their students got it that wrong! There is often this imagined disconnect between the Apostles' teaching on "Biblical ecclesiology" and the Catholic Church. Where is it? It would've had to have been sometime in the first century, while some of the Apostles were still alive!


T Michael W Halcomb said...


I can see that you are highly interested and passionate about this subject. The beginning of your post kind of makes it sound like I am totally disinterested, which is not the case at all. Again, I have taken about 15-20 credit hours studying the works of the early fathers...I know they are important.

However, I feel that some of your comments are mistaken. To say that they are "essential" seems, in my opinion, to be a stretch. You are right that studying these early works shows us how the next few generations of Christianity (after the first century) spread. Yet, there are many, many, many different versions of Christianity even by the mid-to-late second century. This does not make the Apostles "the worst teachers on the face of the planet." (You should know that just because a student / disciple doesn't obey the teacher, that doesn't always mean the teacher was bad; sometimes, many times, it is the student's fault! Moreover, even a cursory reading of the Scriptures show the disciples constantly failing and fumbling. Look at all of the NT letters, what are they doing--correcting, exhorting and rebuking. You might as well say that because there are so many backsliders today, that the Apostles weren't good teachers but you know and so do I that this is not good logic.)

Anyways, back to all of the different sects and their many ways of interpreting Scripture. These guys weren't always following set patterns laid out by the Apostles (one needs to only compare Clement of Alexandria's work to someone like Irenaeus's work to see this; or Origen compared to Justin or Marcion). These guys differed greatly in their hermeneutics, theology and ecclesiology. And yes, it is a benefit to study them but I would not go as far as you and say "essential".

I hope I do not sound mean or arrognt here, I'm not trying to at all; if you were here, we'd just be having a calm civil discussion about it (this aspect often gets lost or overlooked in discussion boards). I'm just offering a different point of view. I am a fan of Church history (as you've seen, at this point, I have about 10 posts on the subject on my blog).

Oh yeah, I would also argue, again, that the worship services and hierarchical structures were much more fluid in the NT than we often allow. For instance, there is no leadership in Galatia but there is in Ephesus. There is little leadership in Thessalonike while there is more in some of the Churches mentioned in Rev. I'm not so sure that the Didache and the Sunday morning bulletins pulled from Revelation were "the" template for worship in all of the ancient Churches; one would be hardpressed to prove that. It seems to me that they did Church a bit differently in Corinth than they did in Ephesus and so on and so forth.

As for the whole Catholic issue, I take issue with the exegesis offered on those passages you presented. To base an entire paradigm off of a couple of passages where interpretations can differ greatly, causes me to take more caution when approaching those verses. You may be right, though, that it was more "Catholic" than Protestants often allow for. Yet, I would say that it was also more diverse and paganistic than we often allow for too. As you know, a reading of the Church fathers proves this. :)

Hope I don't sound arrogant or whatever, I'm just wanting to engage in a civil debate. God bless you brother! By the way, how was your conference in OH (my old stomping ground)?

Josh McManaway said...

I don't think I ever said you said studying the Fathers isn't important.

My argument basically boiled down to this:
1) The early church was more Catholic than not. We see this from extra-Biblical sources all throughout the Apostolic and Ante-Nicene Fathers.
2) The Book of Revelation perhaps hints at a very early liturgical practice in place, set up by the Apostles and continued through their successors.
3) Reading the Fathers helps us to get a fuller picture of Christianity. I'm not saying that every Father agrees with every other Father on every point. However, on the whole, the Fathers maintained Orthodox positions. And, I think it's vital to see how the line of students from the Apostles on interpreted Scripture. We could only dream of having such an informed hermeneutic like the Fathers did.

My trip to Ohio was amazing! The city stunk (old coal town I think), but the trip was great. Met some very intelligent people.

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Josh McManaway said...

I believe you're looking for my posts on "The Bible and Flying Saucers." That was a few months ago. All best!

T Michael W Halcomb said...

No, I didn't mean to suggest that you said that. I was just saying that the statement "this will serve as a comment to Michael Halcomb..." sounded a bit like a rebuke or something. As I noted, it is hard to pick up on tone on these discussion boards. I may have just taken the tone wrong; no harm, no foul.

I did understand your points but I think they are still to static and broad. Sure there was liturgy but certainly there were different forms of it and different ways of doing it. Of course, Paul would have done liturgy a bit differently than the synagogues he frequented did (e.g. eucharist, etc.). But as for a set liturgy, again, I think we're hardpressed to come up with a template.

I understand your appreciation for the patristics and I do think they are a good read. I think they are also iformative. However, I just don't think I'd go so far as to say they are "essential" to read to make sense out of early Christianity. Again, they help but if you think about context for a moment, by the 2nd and 3rd century Christianity had spread rapidly. From a social standpoint, Christianity was done and thought about differently in Egypt than in Rome and in Israel than in Asia. I think that when you look at the Early Christian movement in all of these places, you see a wide variety of differences. Sure there was some unity but perhaps not as much as you're suggesting. Of course, I could be wrong; I'm just going on what I've studied thus far.

Good convo so far. Glad you had a good trip! Maybe next time (if there is one) if you drive up, we can meet for coffee or lunch or something; I'm not too far from there. But who knows I may be secretly raptured up by aliens before then. :) Have a good one.

T Michael W Halcomb said...

How do you get Greek font/text to show up in your posts?

Alan Knox said...


I think I will be able to respond to this tonight. You make some good points about the importance of the patristic writings. I also agree they are important. I'll explain in my post tonight.


Alan Knox said...


I've added my thoughts on this topic in a post called "Historical Ecclesiology".


T Michael W Halcomb said...

This is kind of a new can of worms to open up for me; I've not really had this argument before. However, I am finding it stimulating. Alan, I responded to your post on your blog.

Brian F. said...

I am with Alan and Michael on this one, go with Scripture and not CHurch Fathers on how church is run. The Church Fathers have much to contribute theologically in terms of the key elements of the faith such as the Divinity of Christ - however I think they actually diverged from the Apostles on the nature of the church.

The Church Fathers need to be read in conjunction with Church history - for example Olsen's The Story of Christian Theology. In this book we we a gradual moving away from the teaching of the Apostles an a focus on function and character of the Church - as Mike and Alan have noted - and the move more toward form - they focus on obedience to bishops and leaders - Cyprian says there is no salvation apart from the Church, etc. It is quite sad actually. While I understand the need to get solid structures in place to maintain a working organization of leadership in the Church I think the "Catholics" went too far, imo.

Josh I think you are on the right track but I think you need to read patristics alongside Church historians. Also, I think if you over focus on the Church Fathers you'll become Catholic - I know because it happened to a close friend of my wife.

Josh McManaway said...

I'll write more, but I just wanted to ask Brian F : Just who do you think decided what was Scripture? And why do you think they departed from the Apostles teaching on the Church? That's what most Protestants are taught, but where is it in history?

Art said...

Great read. I also agree that the New Testament documents offer us little historical information about the apostles and the early years of the Church. Understanding also that the whole twelve chapters of Acts cover an entire decade! It seems as though the apostles were too busy making history to write about it.

We read the New Testament and notice that it was written not to give us a specific account of the early Church, as some of us might expect. Nor as a manuel for Church polity. But mainly to defend
the fledgling gospel, to correct a faulty practice, etc. . I look forward to your next post on this subject


Brian F. said...

Josh, I think the early church decided what was Scripture - the communities of faith that read and collected the various letters of Paul and the Gospels and such - it's just that by the time of Marcion(?) and others who went against what was common to the Church that the councils had to meet and reaffirm what was already known - that is how I understand it.

Please know I am not against reading the Church Fathers - as you have well said, we ned to do more of it and I think one error we protestants make is thinking we can dialogue about theological issues and leave others out of the conversation - others being Church Fathers - it is just we also need to realize they were as affected by their culture as we are ours - so they were not always right and neither am I.

Danny Garland Jr. said...

First, I'd like to say that the Church Fathers do not contradict the NT.

Also, Brian you said to Josh that if he continues reading the Fathers, then he will become Catholic. Why do you think that is? Could it be that the Church Fathers are Catholic! It was the Catholic Church that canonized the Bible and it was the Catholic Church that came up with the Creeds of the Church. And none of those Creeds contradict the NT!

Art is exactly right. The NT writers were too busy being the Church to write every single detail about it. The Bible Alone does not suffice. Many things were handed on through Tradition as St. Paul says. The NT was the guidepost for the teaching of the Church, since nothing that the Catholic Church teaches contradicts Scripture and likewise Scripture does not contradict the teachings of the Church!

I could have misread you, but in your first post, did you say that the early Church was paganistic?! If so, that is completely absurd!

It is also absurd to say that we do not know what the early Church liturgy looked like. Read Justin Martyr and his description of the Liturgy. And it is also unhistorical and once again absurd to say that there was only "some unity". The Fathers constantly speak of the unity of the Church and the Liturgy. Read Ignatius of Antioch's Letter to the Philadelphians. He says there (among other things):

"Make certain, therefore, that you all observe one common Eucharist; for there is but one Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, and but one cup of union with his Blood, and one single altar of sacrifice—even as there is also but one bishop, with his clergy and my own fellow servitors, the deacons. This will ensure that all your doings are in full accord with the will of God" (Letter to the Philadelphians 4)

I'd also suggest reading Dionysius' Ecclesiastical Hierarchy.

I apologize if I come of as abrasive, but I feel really passionate about the Fathers and insist that they be read with all honesty!

God Bless!

Johnny Vino said...

I find the more you read and study the Fathers, the greater the distance comes between someone and that initial exhileration at reading someone writing in 150 AD about a Christological controversy that still attacks Christian orthodoxy today. It's that immediate realization which is the "cupid's arrow" so to speak. Reading the Fathers is more often than not an excersize in discovering Eccliastes was right: "there's nothing new under the sun". What bolsters belief that the Spirit is guiding our vessel is that, the Church has so frequently been forced to rediscover the defenses against heresy that were first posited by the heirs to the Apostles centuries and centuries ago. The tragedy is that the previous generation (at least in American Catholicism) was so succesful at burning all bridges to our Patristic heritage that all of that material is waiting to be re-synthesized in Christian culture and belief.

BTW - nice blog!

Chris Tilling said...

"I believe you're looking for my posts on "The Bible and Flying Saucers." That was a few months ago. All best!"


Sorry, not really a comment of substance. As much as I would like to get involved, I've already got too many things on the go in my head at once ... But you're probably wrong. I'm no doubt right. Whatever it is.