The New Testament is the word of God, and the basis and of a Christian’s daily walk with Christ. It is our SatNav in the motorway network of life. May we always turn to it before we get to Spaghetti Junction!
The church that we see in the NT is (a) mostly Jewish (b) based on local congregations, but with an emotional loyalty to the apostles in the Jerusalem Church (c) not blessed with bishops and priests.
Very often, when we come to read the Fathers — especially the apostolic Fathers — our motivation for doing so is that we want to know what happened next. I would myself always refer people first to Eusebius Church History, in the excellent Penguin translation by G. A. Williamson, for answers to that, not least because he quotes verbatim otherwise lost early sources. Then I would recommend the reading of the apostolic fathers, and then all 10 extant Fathers writing before 200 AD. Such a course of reading gives one a mastery of the data not to be obtained in any other way, and really takes very little time. The whole lot could be skim-read in a week during the evenings.
But I suspect that many of us cannot help feeling that the Church (with a capital C) that we see in those works is a very different animal to that which we find in the New Testament. All these bishops, for one thing, look markedly unapostolic, and they look ever less apostolic as they swell in importance (and self-importance, sadly) in the years after Cyprian.
Indeed already, ca. 215 AD, Tertullian has cause to criticise one bishop as a “veritable pontifex maximus, a bishop of bishops”, who has ventured to take on himself the right to forgive adultery and fornication on application at his office! (De Pudicitia, 1). Tertullian suggests that the letter issuing this instruction should be posted where it will be of most use to those affected, namely in the red-light district, outside certain temples, or over the doorways of brothels. When one modern editor commented, “Churchmen have not liked Tertullian; they praise him with reservations,” it is perhaps passages like this that explain why. Another bishop is accused by Tertullian of violating the Scantinian law, which prohibited sodomy.
But it is less the abuses of the church in late antiquity that trouble us, so much as a sense that the organisation looks little like that which we see in the bible, and the literature emanating from it equally so. I think the impression is a valid one, and deserves consideration. Why is this the case?
Of course for a Roman Catholic the answer is that the New Testament does not concern itself primarily with such matters, but that the apostles appointed bishops and set up the organisation to take things forward. No doubt there is truth in this, and certainly the texts witness to such appointments. Whether the prelates of late antiquity such as Cyril of Alexandria were quite what Peter and John had in mind may, I think, be legitimately debated.
But there are other factors. Much of second century Christian literature — I exclude the apocrypha and the scribblings of heretics — consists of apologetic literature directed to an uncaring pagan emperor and casting itself in whatever form the author thought might gain a hearing. Other portions consist of anti-heretical literature. The NT contains neither, and these together give a quite misleading impression. If we exclude these, we are left with a selection of letters, more or less, mostly from the apostolic fathers.
These are far more like the NT than we might imagine. 1 Clement deliberately harks back toPaul’s letters to the Corinthians. The letters of Ignatius may be troubled by docetists, but their relation to the NT is also obvious. The Didache is not a letter, but is both Jewish and refers to apostles and prophets.
We must also remember that 99% of literature written before 200 AD is lost. What we have is largely a matter of accident. The large quantity of apologetic literature is the produce of a single accident. In the 10th century Archbishop Arethas of Caesarea was interested in early Christian apologies, and got one of his toadys to give him a book with a whole load of them copied into it. That book has survived, and thereby influences our perceptions. Other collections doubtless might have been made at that time; but since no-one was interested in copying such old and out-of-date texts, they perished.
Finally, and by no means least, we must consider the question of translation. Most of us will read this pre-200 literature in stilted older translations, often written by men in the Oxford Movement and steeped in ecclesiasticism. There is quite a gulf between these and a modern NIV, and still more a Good News Bible. This again fosters a sense of distance, which is purely accidental.
I suggest, therefore, that our picture of the early church in the first century should really follow New Testament lines. As time goes on, things change; but probably more slowly than we realise. I doubt that Polycarp, who died ca. 155, knew of a church other than that founded by John the Apostle. I have my doubts that Irenaeus, writing ca. 180, did so, although things were very clearly changing.
Change is inevitable, and so is a return to God. That is the nature of human beings, and it is the history of the church also. But I do not think we should be troubled if we find something very ecclesiastical in our reading. Think instead of the house churches that must have continued, where no member never wrote a line that has reached us, but in which the early Christians actually worshipped.