Do we find the New Testament church in the Fathers?

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.


7 thoughts on “Do we find the New Testament church in the Fathers?

  1. Thank you for these thoughts. I have read through the Ante-Nicene Fathers series and understand what you mean about the ecclesiastical grammar. Michael Holmes’ edition of the apostolic fathers was refreshing in comparison.

    As for the makeup of the church in those first two centuries, I also have noted the gradual change in polity from the NT documents to Ignatius to Tertullian/Cyprian to Nicaea. Currently, I am working through the canons of early church councils (Niceaea, Ancyra, and Neocaesarea to date) with comments in my blog. The hierarchical structure in place in those councils in the early fourth century is remarkably different than the late first century. The development and elevation of the overseer/bishop’s office is somewhat understandable in view of the need, though one might make a case that the Church acquiesced and became pragmatic rather than apostolic in that regard.

  2. I agree. I read a few of the interesting articles on your blog. The one about law replacing grace seems to me bang on.

    Already in the second century there is discussion of one repentance only (in the Shepherd of Hermas, and also in Tertullian’s Montanist works), which fits in with the same idea. Not that there is not a sound psychological principle there, but I don’t think this is how the NT saw things.

  3. Every time I’ve been in a group, it’s followed the same number pattern. Fewer than 20-30 members, survival tenuous and constantly in jeopardy. 30-100 members, everyone is buoyant and interested and friendly. Over 100, it all becomes too much to keep up with. People either retreat into subgroups (usually clique-ish, not as friendly as before), become hierarchical leaders by default (often the only people who post regularly, for example), or fade into the background and just live their lives.

    Jesus doubtless knew all about this, since he’d lived in various sizes of society. He commanded folks to go out and convert all the nations, not to remain in groups of less than 100. We do see numbers and logistics already catching up with the early Church in Acts, with stuff like the institution of the diaconate and (typical shenanigans of a newly big group with people newly hungry for prestige) the whole Ananias and Sapphira thing.

    Things like church planting try to get around the numbers rules, but it’s just not going to happen unless every few blocks there’s another neighborhood church.

    And unless you have an organization behind it, no individual church is going to last more than 50 or 100 years. (Another phenomenon that tends to happen in clubs. A lot of those enthusiastic clubs die within ten years or so, because it’s very tiring to be enthusiastic and know lots of people closely for that long. Families often kill off or loosen club membership, at least while the kids are young, and they often kill non-hierarchical church membership too. Often a lot of non-hierarchical churches are very hierarchical about demanding participation in certain group activities by all the family, to counteract this effect.)

    Gah… having flashbacks to all that group growth drama….

  4. And also because Jesus made all things, include people and the basic characteristics of networks. Obviously, not everybody in the world takes that as read, so I should say it. 🙂

  5. Wise words indeed. My experiences have been similar, although not put so well!

    As I moved into middle age, the demands of many of these groups were just too much.

  6. Roger, I’m a little confused by your comments as I thought you read Greek? Have you not noticed that the word bishop (episcopos) is used in the NT in both Acts and 1 Timothy, and the word for elder/presbyter is used mutliple times? And if you read St Ignatius, bishops and priests are very clearly front and centre, and he wrote around AD 105. That seems pretty apostolic. Agree with you about some bishops getting out-of-line into power- other bishops at the time said so too!

  7. Ouch!

    Just dealing briefly with the point, I think that every schoolboy knows about episcopos = overseer/bishop and presbuteros = elder/priest, and that these words don’t necessarily have the meanings “bishop” and “priest” in the New Testament, because as far as I know they did not have those meanings in pre-Christian times, although I have never researched it. Indeed wouldn’t it be interesting to know how they *are* used, in the Jewish Diaspora? In the LXX, perhaps.

    But I think you’re coming at my post from the opposite end. I’m addressing the disconnect that most people — not you, evidently — find between the NT and the Fathers and suggesting that it is to some extent illusory. You’re castigating me for suggesting that there is any such disconnect, as if it were something I am trying to promote. Not so!

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