I’ve posited before my suspicion that all church splits (denominations) are a result of differing ecclesiology, moreso than any other area of theology. Upon re-reading something else I shared a while back, it occurs to me that how people go about setting the definition of “the apostolic church” is a more specific issue which underlies these divisions among Christians today. In general, all Christians intend to be (and/or believe themselves to be) part of the same Church as the Apostles. This post will explore some of those possibilities.
“the Church that Jesus founded”
This is not typically an educated approach to defining the Church, because Jesus was not there in person on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit birthed the Church. Most of the people who say they’re part of the Church that Jesus started usually just mean the Church that the Apostles received from Him. It seems picky, but it’s an important distinction: there were many early heresies that claimed secret knowledge from Jesus preserved through only one single faithful “disciple.” The refutation of this was largely grounded in the fact that Jesus raised up twelve apostles, taught them openly, and together they witnessed to the whole faith. Setting up doctrines only passed on by one of them was an error the likes of which Paul rebuked in 1 Corinthians 1.
“the Church in the book of Acts”
This is also not usually the argument of an educated Christian, but is nevertheless becoming extremely popular. This perspective is based on the assumption that the book of Acts is a manual for how the Church ought to look. While there are certainly a number of valuable descriptions of Church life and activity in that book, it would be biblicaly unsound to treat Acts that way. In its introduction, Luke makes it pretty clear that he’s continuing the story that he started in book 1 – the gospel of Luke. He didn’t set out to write a church manual, but a summary narrative of what went down in the past four decades or so.
Besides, the book of Acts simply doesn’t have enough information to define what the Church should be, do, and look like. It’s got a lot of hints, clues, references, and samples, but hardly anything by way of definitive commands.
“the Church of the New Testament”
What I last said about Acts is true here too: the New Testament does not contain a self-identified Church Manual. Many New testament epistles do contain foundational theological statements about what the Church is: the body/bride of Christ, the temple of the Holy Spirit, a chosen people, a royal priesthood, and many more. We can even draw inferences on what pastors/overseers are supposed to be like based on the sorts of things that Paul tells Timothy and Titus to look for in others, and reminding them of their own qualifications. But there’s nothing in the New Testament as developed as the episcopal, presbyterian, congregational, or anarchic models that we see & discuss today. Yes, there are some descriptions of things going on, but considering how widely they’ve been interpreted by Christians since then, they clearly aren’t as defined as a Church Manual would be.
“the Ante-Nicene Church”
‘Ante’ means ‘before,’ and ‘Nicene’ refers to the Council of Nicea in 325AD held shortly after Christianity was declared legal in the Roman Empire. This, I gather, is the standard argument for many Christians today. There’s roughly 300 years of writings of various genres and perspectives to wade through – and there is a lot of it – and from that wealth of insight we can trace the growth of the Church in its theology, self-identification, and practice. Or can we?
Trouble is, there are lots of conflicting opinions to be found in this seeming treasure horde of writings. One well-known teacher in Alexandria named Origen was, in particular, a bizarre case. On one hand he wrote a great many biblical commentaries and did a lot of valuable work with identifying different manuscripts. But meanwhile he was coming up with one of the wackiest doctrines of Christ the Logos and the human soul that you’ll probably ever hear. He was never excommunicated for what we would unquestionably declare to be heresy today, though, so what do we make of this?
The fact is, there was still a wide diversity of thought in the first three centuries, and it can be difficult to find the orthodox consensus there. If you’re a slow reader like me, you’ll probably never read close to half of the ante-Nicene Fathers, and without reading and studying all of them there’s no way to be sure what the orthodox consensus is. The best I can do is read something like The Shepherd of Hermas, and evaluate it for what it is as best I can, without trying to place it too definitively in the spectrum of ante-Nicene orthodoxy. Perhaps patristics scholars who specialize in this field are capable of teasing out a coherent consensus of what true Christianity really is, and how the Bible really is to be interpreted, from the ante-Nicene period.
But, I’d argue, the most reasonable point of Church history to look to as a safe and authoritative informant for defining Christianity and the Bible would be (roughly) the 4th & 5th centuries. More on that next time…