Bishops vs. Bibles: Authority in the early church.

tug-o-war1

Snark MeterrealMID.003(Apostolic Succession for Newbies, episode 5)

The Development of authority: the role of bishop from 80-200CE

In the last installment I wrote about the rise of bishops in the New Testament church, a development that was occurring at the same time as false teachers were beginning to crop up.

In popular Christianity today a debate rages about authority in the church: the Bible (evangelicals) vs. Bishops (Roman Catholic, Orthodox, many Anglicans). In the early church there was no such debate. There was no tug of war. It was not an issue of either/or. In the second and third centuries as the church debated false teaching it was not a question, of bishops v. the Bible, because there was yet no “Bible” – no single book, but a collection of “God-breathed” or “inspired” (2 Timothy 3:16) “scriptures.” In the early church the question was about WHO gets to interpret those scriptures: individual Christians or the bishops.

“Heresy,” the word for “false teaching” comes from the Greek word, “to choose.” Today people feel free to pick and choose from religious beliefs as if they were walking down the food line in a cafeteria, “I prefer potato salad. I don’t like boiled okra.” That works well at Luby’s. It is a disaster as a test of truth. And it was decidedly un-bueno in the early church. Innovation and “choice” were not on the table: Paul repeatedly gives churches two thumbs up for “maintaining the tradition as I gave it to you” (1 Cor. 11:2, 2 Thes 2:15, 3:6).  Jude felt it necessary to write and appeal to Christians to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints.” Making up a religion of our own devising is something only the most arrogant and foolish would do.

Join me as the first-century turns and look the way the second generation of early Christian leaders known as the “Apostolic Fathers” maintained the message that had been given to them…

The question facing the church at the dawn of the second century: How would Christianity fare with the apostle’s successors-the first generation not led by those who walked with Jesus? This is more than an interesting question. It was a transition critical to giving us the faith and the understanding of the trinity that define the Christian faith to this day.

The Role of Bishop in the New Testament

“Bishops” (or sometimes “elders”) are sparsely mentioned in the New Testament. We have no record of Jesus speaking of the role. However, in the book of Acts, Paul appoints “overseers”* to leave behind in the churches he had started.[1] Paul, wrote and instructed two young pastors, Timothy and Titus, in what to look for in the selection of these bishops.[2] Paul, Peter, and John all greet church’s bishops in their epistles.[3] Bishops were the model of church leadership within twenty years of Jesus’ resurrection (c.50)…before much of the New Testament was written.

The Role of Bishop in the Church Age

The role of bishops expanded quickly. Their importance is seen in the writings of early church fathers…

The earliest Christian writings in existence after the close of the New Testament were from Clement, the second Bishop of Rome (after Peter’s death). Clement, in his First Letter to the Corinthians (c.95), confirmed the way apostles appointed the first bishops: “So preaching everywhere in country and town, they [the apostles] appointed their first fruits, when they had proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons unto them that should believe.”[4] In Clement, we have a first-hand confirmation of what Luke told us in Acts and what we would intuitively suspect – that bishops were appointed in each town by the same apostles that introduced them to faith in Christ.

How did this second generation of Christians view bishops? Ignatius of Antioch (c100) in his Epistle to the Ephesians cues us in: He advised Christians in Ephesus to “look upon the bishop even as we would look upon the Lord Himself.[5] Don’t miss this: A disciple of John equated unity with the local bishop to unity with Jesus! In his Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, Ignatius advises that those who do “anything without the bishop” both destroy the Churches’ unity, and throw its order into confusion.[6] For Ignatius, and virtually every other early church source who speaks on the issues, the church’s source of unity and spiritual authority went through the bishops and the apostles to Jesus himself. Ignatius also wrote, the “bishops tell us how to interpret the Bible” for “without them, there is no sacrament[7]

Second century father, Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon, (c180) telegraphs his concerns in the title of his treatise: “Against Heresies” – specifically against Gnosticism. In it Irenaeus argued that the unbroken teaching of the bishops proved the truth of orthodox Christianity: His argument was simple-Jesus sent out the Apostles who passed down Jesus’ teaching to us.[8]

In response to the Gnostic idea that there was “secret information” necessary for salvation, Irenaeus wrote,

For if the apostles had known hidden mysteries, which they were in the habit of imparting to ‘the perfect’ apart and privily from the rest, they would have delivered them especially to those to whom they were also committing the Churches themselves. For they were desirous that these men should be very perfect and blameless in all things, whom also they were leaving behind as their successors.[9]

Irenaeus pointed out the obvious: Why would the apostles not tell the disciples the whole truth about Jesus?

In Against Heresies 3:3, Irenaeus then went on to list the apostolic succession of bishops from the Apostles to both Clement in Rome and bishop Polycarp in Smyrna as two examples that would be well known in to all readers in 180AD. “We are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times.”[10] His argument in effect is “we can name names…there are no, and have been no secrets.” He finished the argument with a polemic: “This is the gateway of life [bishops]; all the rest are thieves and robbers.[11]

Coming on Irenaeus’ heals is Tertullian (c. 160-225). Tertullian was the first father to teach in Latin and coined the term “trinity” at the close of the second century. He followed on Irenaeus’ logic when arguing against the Monarchist heresy: “Your teaching may claim to be old. If it were, show us your apostle and the line of your bishops from him?[12]

So we see in the second century that the successors to the apostle’s, the bishops, were both the leaders of the churches and the interpreters of the scriptures. Where did they get that idea? From the apostles themselves, of course. Those outside of the touch and teaching of the bishops were “thieves and robbers.” In the debates with the heretics, it was the bishop, those who received and taught the unbroken message, who had the authority to interpret that message given to them by the apostles.

Next up: Game. Set. Match. Why the Bishop was the trump card in debates in the early church.

 

*“Bishop” is an English version of the untranslated Greek word “Episcopos.” We do the same thing with “baptism” which is the Greek word “baptizo” which means to “immerse.”

[1] Acts 14:23, Acts 20:28

[2] 1 Timothy 3:1-13, Titus 1:5-9

[3] Philippians 1:1, 1 Peter 5:1, 2 John 1, 3 John 1

[4] Clement. First Epistle to the Corinthians. 42:7 Retrieved from: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ii.html.

[5] Ignatius. Letter to the Ephesians, Chapter 4. Retrieved from: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.v.ii.html.

[6] Ignatius. Letter to the Smyrnaeans. Chapter 6. Retrieved from: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.v.ii.html.

[7] Documents of the Christian Church. Vol. 1. 3rd ed., ed. Henry Bettenson & Chris Maunder. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 41.

[8] Ibid, 78.

[9] Ibid, 74-75.

[10] Irenaeus. 3:3. Retrieved from: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.ii.html

[11] Irenaeus. 3:4. Retrieved from:  http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.ii.html

[12] Documents, 78.

 

 

 

 

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Game. Set. Match. Why bishops were the trump card in early church disputes.

Source: http://phillipsandco.com/blog/2013/5/6/the-dividend-trump-card/

Source: phillipsandco.com

Snark MeterrealMID.003

(Apostolic Succession for Newbies, episode 4)

Christians have a fondness for communicating in threes. Paul told the Corinthians, “but now abide faith, hope, and love,[1] Anglicans approach theology as a three-legged stool: Scripture, tradition and reason. Baptists love a sermon with a three-point outline. And the early church answered the rise of heresies with a 3-part argument of canon, creeds, and apostolic succession. You might be surprised at which of these three sources of authority was the second century church’s trump card. This has taken three posts worth of setup, but now look with me at the method the early church used to answer heresy…

The first argument: Scripture.

The first argument that the early Christians would appeal to in any argument of belief is, and always has been, the writings of the apostles (2 Pet. 3:14-16). In the first three hundred years of the church, however, which books would make up the canon of the New Testament was still being decided. The earliest known list of New Testament scriptures, the Muratorian canon, is thought to date from around c.200. Although the canon would not officially be “set” until c.381, by the second century churches appear to have been reading the four-fold gospel and rejecting the Gnostic gospels.[1] Still, in the second century, an argument from canon could still be met with “whose canon”?

The second argument: Creeds.

The second argument was the development of creeds (referred to as the “rule of faith” by Irenaeus and Tertullian). Early doctrinal creedal statements were apparently in use by c.150 (forerunners of Apostle’s Creed).[2] They formed a summary of the traditional teachings of the church. A creed is effectively a memorable, simplified statement of “here’s what we understand the Scriptures to teach.”

The trump argument: Bishops.

In response, the Gnostic cults argued that the reading of Scripture and traditional interpretation that led to the orthodox creeds were “flawed.” In a rebuttal to that argument, Irenaeus titles Against Heresies, 3:2: “The heretics follow neither Scripture nor tradition.” That led to the church’s final argument, the trump card that the heretics had no answer for: The succession of bishops from the first apostles. Bishops, as the successors given the teaching of the apostles, had determined the canon and developed the creeds. They alone were first, and they were always present throughout the history of the church. The argument for the succession of the teaching of the bishops was historical and inescapable. In effect, the argument against the Gnostics was, “If Jesus had taught some ‘secrets’ why did none of the apostles pass along this information? If they had heard something else, surely they would have passed it down. We know each and every bishop of the major cities by name and we know what they taught. Why have none of them taught these new things?” This formed the compelling and inescapable argument for orthodox theology and against these “new” ideas.

Conclusion

The early fathers, Ireneaus and Tertullian in particular, make the case against the Gnostics like a tennis player going deep on a combination of long, easy shots – and then, when the opponent shifts their position: Wham-o! An un-returnable drop shot just over the net. The early fathers built a compelling case for orthodoxy: In effect they said, “We start with the Scriptures…and you say you do too.” “We have creeds of our teachings…and you have yours.” And then the haymaker: “It is just that our teachings come from the ones that got them from the ones that got them from Jesus. We can name names. Names we all know.”

In the argument against the Gnostics, the three-point argument of canon, creeds and apostolic succession (bishops), it was the continuity of bishops that was the knockout shot. Game. Set. Match.

So when a church gives up Apostolic Succession to stand on the Bible Alone, rather than protecting itself, it actually opens itself to further theological problems.[3]

 

[1] Gonzalez, Justo. The Story of Christianity. (Peabody, Massachusetts: Prince Press, 2008), 62.

[2] Gonzalez, Justo. The Story of Christianity. (Peabody, Massachusetts: Prince Press, 2008), 63.

[3]which the first three articles in this series clearly show how unhistoric and poorly thought through this popular sentiment is

Saying dumb things: Yet another example of catholi-phobia hurting the church

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Photocredit: globalnerdy.com

Snark Meter Sorta Snarky.002

(Apostolic Succession for Newbies, episode 3)

When discussing false teaching in Christianity, it is common to hear evangelicals blame the early church fathers for wandering from the gospel and accepting false teaching early on. This is really not much more than an example of Catholiphobia. You have seen Catholiphobia. That is what is going on when you hear someone say, “That seems sort of…you know…Catholic.” Which is code for, “If a Catholic does it, it must be wrong.” Dropping the Eucharist as the normative weekly worship for Christians, clergy dressing like clergy so that non-Christians know a clergyperson when they see one, and full-body worship (like marking oneself with the sign of the cross) all come to mind as examples.[1] Perhaps the biggest mistake of Catholi-phobia: dropping bishops as leaders of churches.[2]

One seminary professor of mine expressed the Protestant anti-bishop bias like this, “The problem was bishops…a problem we solved by giving the church to teams of elders in the Reformation.” For some reason intelligent, God-fearing people don’t hear the implied heresy in the accusation. What my professor was really saying is that Jesus was wrong – that the “gates of hell” did prevail against the church (Matt. 16:18) for some 1400 years until the Reformation…or some other restoration movement of the 19th century (Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, LDS) or the 20th century (Pentecostalism). It might surprise many to know that in the early church, bishops did not give the church false teachers, it protected the church against them.

It might surprise many to know that in the early church, bishops did not give the church false teachers, it protected the church against them.

This will take a bit of setup, but it is necessary to get to our final installments on apostolic succession: Bishops vs. bibles: Authority in the early church. And, Game. Set. Match. Why bishops were the trump card in early church disagreements.

Organization in the Early Church

Early Christianity is a study in organic organization. In the gospels we read of Jesus of Nazareth, a compelling and unique itinerant rabbi who spends three years going from town to town with a core-group of followers. Like the rest of the public, the disciples are fascinated by Jesus’ public teaching and healing. They, however, were given private instruction into the meaning behind his teaching and miracle working…that he was ushering in a new kingdom through a new kind of king: “God with us,” a fulfillment of the meaning behind their scriptures. Jesus did this in the ultimate of informal environments: Three years around a fire with him.

After the resurrection, the Acts of the Apostles tells the story of the spreading of the message of Jesus by those apostles, primarily Peter and Paul. As Acts opens, we see the Jewish disciples of the Jewish rabbi leading in predictably Jewish ways. Change begins in Acts 8, when persecution forced many to leave Jerusalem. It took nearly a decade, but the scattered disciples finally begin to consistently extend the story of Jesus to non-Jews in Antioch (Acts 11:19-20). In Acts 11, the Jewish Christians were confronted with what to do with the increasing number of gentile converts. By the end of Acts (Chapters 20 and 24) we see the beginnings of formal organization: bishops (usually translated as “overseers” by modern Protestant translators) and deacons (usually left untranslated) appointed as leaders of local churches. Another word “presbyter” (usually translated “elder”) is sometimes used synonymously. Since churches met in households you would have multiple presbyters or “elders” in a town, and a single bishop (overseer), that would “oversee” them. It was a model co-opted from Roman government. The early Christians faced other core decisions besides organizational and leadership ones, of course. Questions like: What specifically would Christian’s believe? (A question they would solve with creeds)? And what books would comprise the Scriptures? (A question they would solve with canon-which books would be included in the New Testament.)[3] But in the book of Acts, we see the earliest church engaged, not with the story of the creation of the scriptures, but in living the faith out by the human successors to the Jesus story taking the message of faith to the next generation.

The Rise of Heresy

Very quickly, “strange ideas”[4] also reared their head. These were predictable: First, as I just pointed out, the young Christian church was still organizing itself. There were no New Testament scriptures.  The urban, diverse and, early on, rather under-educated Christians had no written source of authority to which to appeal.[5] Second, the witnesses to Jesus left a degree of vagueness about the exact nature of Jesus’ relationship with the Father (was Jesus God “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father” or was it, as Jesus also said, “The father is greater than I.”) Belief had yet to be systematized. Third, Christians had opened the door to increased confusion by our evangelism methods. We were using Greek and Roman philosophers to explain and validate the new Christian faith to the Greco-Roman world.[6] Some folks took this too far and moved from explanation to syncretism-melding the two. Fourth, surely some were intentional false teachers, unscrupulously and opportunistically taking advantage of Christians’ reputation for generosity.[7] But mostly there was a lack of discipleship due to Christianity’s rapid spread. Evangelistic success led to a shortage of mature Christians to see to the training of new converts in the faith. The earliest of the “strange ideas,” Gnosticism, held that it was necessary to learn the “secret knowledge of their spiritual essence” in order to receive salvation.[8] The big question was: How would an emerging movement face conflict? And to what source would they make their appeal?

The answer will surprise you.

Next up: Bishops vs. bibles: Authority in the early church.

[1] I am not critiquing the actual theological problems with Rome, such as allowing the tradition to actively overrule scripture through modern dogmas such as papal infallibility (1869), or the Immaculate Conception (1854) or the over-reactions of the later meetings of the council of Trent against the very reactive Protestants (1550s-1560s).

[2]This is an area that most Protestants, steeped in a materialistic worldview, generally don’t see as anything near a central issue. For sacramental Christians, touch and teaching both are quite important.

[3] Chadwick, Henry. The Early Church. (London, Penguin Books, 1967), 41-44.

[4] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, book 1. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.ii.html. Book one lists the bizarre beliefs of many heretical teachers.

[5] Gonzalez, Justo. The Story of Christianity. (Peabody, Mass, Prince Press, 2008. 50-51.

[6] Starting with Paul on Mars Hill (Acts 17) Christians struggled with the question of how to communicate faith to people who don’t accept the authority of the Scriptures.

[7] Gonzalez, 51.

[8] Robinson, B.A., “Gnosticism: Ancient and Modern Beliefs & Practices”, http://www.religioustolerance.org/gnostic2.htm

Everyone can’t be right. Why “the Bible alone” didn’t settle disputes in the early church.

Source: “Bearing Thorough Witness” About God’s Kingdom, New York: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society.

Source: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society.

Snark MeterrealMID.003

(Apostolic Succession for Newbies, episode 2)

Several weeks ago I posted on the unintentional consequences of the doctrine of “the Bible alone. In that article I asserted that, while “sola scriptura” was taught by the early Reformers, it was an over-reaction against medieval Catholicism and does not give a complete picture of the Reformers views. The Reformers did make strong statements against the medieval over-reach by Rome, but if you read more than topical quotes excised from context, the Reformers actually had a very high view of the necessity of the Church as the Body of Christ on earth, and in authority in the Church. They were students of the early Fathers and went to great pains to demonstrate that their views were the views of the Church Fathers.

I press forward today from that previous critique, one that modern evangelicals and Great Tradition Christians generally agree on, that Western culture is abandoning the church even as the church engages in a wholesale embrace of the culture. Popular/contemporary evangelicals and Great Tradition Christians generally stand shoulder to shoulder in our critique of the “fruit” of contemporary evangelicalism – both agreeing that when people do what they want to do, and the church then panders to those individualistic and idolatrous tendencies, that it does fill buildings, but it fills them with empty people…producing mealy, tasteless spiritual fruit in the lives of Christians. If faith were an apple, it would be a Red Delicious, which although it may be red, thanks to hybridization, is generally far from “delicious.”[1]

From there, however, our paths diverge as Christians of the Great Tradition see the problem as going much deeper than the fruit – It is a problem of the root. And the root is the issue of authority in the church. Evangelicals have made the Bible the sole authority. When we do that what we mean is that our own interpretation is our authority. In other words, we end up making ourselves our authority, becoming, de facto, our own “gods.”

The Reformers never intended this. Their actual view of “sola scriptura” was more nuanced and robust. Remember there were 5 solas. 5 “alones” is not really so “alone,” is it? Luther, Calvin, and Cranmer all believed in “Conciliar authority” – the decisions of the world’s bishops gathered in council. Conciliar authority did not rest in any single bishop, it was only present when the bishops were gathered together in council – a “worldwide” or “ecumenical” gathering. This, rather than a specific method of interpretation, was the safeguard against heresy.

The early church’s solution to disputes was grounded in the scriptures, not settled by them.

As surprising as it is to many today, the early church’s solution to disputes was grounded in the scriptures, but not settled by them. It was not individuals using the correct system of historical/grammatical interpretive principles, because the belief of the early church was not “sola scriptura” but rather more like, “prima scriptura” – the scriptures first. That is why church fathers like Ignatius of Antioch writing a mere 20 or so years after the close of the New Testament canon could write, “See that you all follow the Bishop, as Christ does the Father, and the elders as you would the apostles…Let no one do anything connected with the Church without the Bishop. Let that be considered a valid Eucharist which is under the leadership of the Bishop, or one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the Bishop appears, there let the multitude of the people be; just as where Christ Jesus is, there is the catholic (universal) church” (Letter to the Smyrneans, 8. CE 111).

So what about the Bible?

Whenever an appeal to bishops is made, evangelicals immediately begin to squirm. Part of this is an accommodation to American individualism in evangelicalism and an obliviousness to our own sin nature’s desire for an absence of authority over us. Part of it though is a rightful question as to the role of the scriptures and abuse by clergy. Objections are usually raised before a case has been made…

“Are you saying that the Bible is in error?” No.

“Are you saying that the Bible is not the Word of God?” Again, no.

I am saying that “The Bible” as a book did not exist in the early church. The “scriptures” (sacred writings) of the Old Testament existed in scrolls where they were stored in boxes in synagogues. These are what Jesus read from when he was handed the Isaiah scroll in Luke 4:17. The scriptures of the New Testament existed within 15-55 years of Jesus’ resurrection, but they had not yet been assembled in book form, called a codex (except for perhaps Mark, which is thought to be the first usage of this Roman accounting tool as an aid to evangelism). The assembling of the entire scriptures into codex form was first done, as far as we can tell, by Constantine when he ordered 50 copies of the Scriptures for the new churches popping up in his new capital, Constantinople in 331CE. The Greek texts (Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus) that our modern New Testaments are translated from are possibly from among those 50 Bibles. So, while the idea of God having revealed himself through inspiring authors to write God’s word was present, we have no evidence of either an exact list of those writings, nor copies of them in one binding prior to the mid-fourth century.

The Problem isn’t the Bible. It is interpreting it.

More important than the Bible not being dropped out of heaven in a soft leather binder, though, is the manner in which the early church solved the arguments that arose over the interpretation of those scriptures. Surely that (snark meter on full-high) never happens today!

The scriptures were indeed the rule of faith and conduct. However, interpreting those scriptures written not by Jesus, but by others to point to Jesus is remarkably complicated. Frustratingly, not a single one of the 27 books of the New Testament, written by the church and canonized by the church, was written by our Lord himself. It would have been a most convenient thing indeed if the Holy Spirit were to have given the church the two books necessary for true “clarity” of belief: “Jesus, Book One: Everything you should believe about me.” And “Jesus, Book Two: Everything you should do because of Book One.” Not having these, the early church debated the meaning of the scriptures. Decisions of belief needed to be decided upon and agreed to universally. Otherwise Christians would be staring at an infinite number of Joseph Smith-like “new revelations.” Correct me if I am wrong, but isn’t that precisely what we have today?

And, if interpreting by set principles actually solved theological problems, why do we have 40,000 denominations and counting?

Next Up: The secret of how early Christians settled disputes.

[1] I mean no pejorative in the description “contemporary/popular evangelical.” I am an evangelical in the sense that I have a high view of scripture, the work of Christ in salvation, and of the need for a personal faith. I use this in a descriptive sense of the contemporary evangelical big-box church and the current megachurch methodology of extreme simplicity that leaves people with very little else but Paul’s interpretation of Jesus.