This is the second half of what I began writing last week. It is, thus, in turn, a response to this long quote that I posted back in April. I left off with the preview that 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. So here goes!
Quoting Fr. Michael Pahls,
The place to look for “Apostolic Christianity” isn’t, as we might guess, somewhere prior to 300. Rather, the assimilation taking place generally in the 4th century suggests that the church was finally able to consult with itself after Constantine and the attendant cessation of local and imperial persecutions.
This is just plain history, really. Under persecution, Christians had a lot more to worry about than if the folks in Alexandria were reading the same number of Paul’s letters as the folks in Carthage, Rome, or Toledo. Not that they weren’t in communication – the amount of back and forth we have from that era is pretty impressive – but most of their energy seemed to be focused on encouraging one another in the face of almost certain death by government edict, and only the most basic of theological statements saw widespread promulgation.
Therefore, we should read the Bible and the early fathers according to the light provided by this Nicene/Post-Nicene consensus. A universal three-fold holy orders, an authoritative canon of Scripture, a coherent creedal theology, and a normative liturgy all appear in the fourth century and were specifically commended by the church as a stable Catholic and Apostolic inheritance.
Most of those things he lists didn’t strictly speaking “appear” in the fourth century. The New Testament had been around since it was written in the first century! The Apostles’ Creed is just about as old, too, as is the three-fold order of ministry and all the major theological ideas of the Nicene Creed. Even the shape of the liturgy shows up by Justin Martyr’s time (2nd century). What he means is that these things finally appeared consistently in the fourth century.
It sounds picky at first, but it’s a big deal. Take, for example, codex sinaticus, one of the oldest complete Bible manuscripts still in existence. It dates to the 300’s, and includes the Epistle of Barnabus and The Shepherd of Hermas at the end of the New Testament. Most of you probably haven’t read those two documents. I have. Barnabus would strike most Protestants as weird, but generally okay. Hermas, well, you’d probably never recommend it to anyone else unless you really didn’t like them. I mean, they’re interesting an’ all, but they’re not scripture. Nobody in their right mind would try to say otherwise. But before the Council of Nicea announced the final consensus on the New Testament canon, there were still local churches treating extra books as canon, and leaving out others. Here’s a table to give you an idea of what I mean. If you want to define what the Christian Bible is, you turn to the Nicean era.
The same thing really goes for theology and doctrine. The Nicene Creed really is the authoritative statement on the basics of Christian dogma. Without it, the argument against Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other such offshoot religions is much more long-winded and tedious. They reject Christ as fully God and fully human, as Nicea nicely sums up for us. They claim their arguments are based on the Bible… Nicea sets forth the basic authoritative Christian interpretation of the Bible.
Again for the three orders of ministry (bishops, priests, deacons) – the 1st century writings are not terribly clear about the distinction between bishops and priests, but by the end of the 2nd century the distinction is clear, and by the Nicean era the definition of succession was sorted out.
This conciliar possibility, to my mind, is the most convincing argument for episcopacy and apostolic succession as of the plene esse of the Church.
As Francis Chan wrote in his book Liturgical Theology, The New Testament was itself the result of more than three centuries of church life, reflections and discussions in councils. How can we accept the New Testament and reject that very process in the church that ‘canonizes’ it? Without tradition, the present day church cannot legitimately claim to be in line with the New Testament – sola Scriptura notwithstanding.”
The way I see it, if we can comfortably say that the Holy Spirit is the author of Scripture, and the One who revealed the authentic New Testament canon to the Early Church (pointing us toward Christ who is the Truth), we should not be in the least bit surprised to find the Holy Spirit simultaneously leading the Early Church to the Way and the Life of Christ as well. Christian ethics and practice, as well as doctrine, have been pretty stable since the beginning. Why must Protestants pick and choose? Is the Bible and the ethical system all that really matters? Who says the Church Order is expendable, or open to such reinterpretation after all this time? If it was a clear as day in 325AD part & parcel with the Bible, the Creed, and system of moral values, why should that Order (of liturgy as well as ministry) be so different today even though the Bible and Creed and morality haven’t changed one iota?
To me the answer is obvious: be a Catholic Christian. It was easier to say than to do, I admit. Changing from the non-denominational church in which I grew up to the Anglican tradition was a pretty bold move, a big change, and would probably have troubled more folks in my old church had they realized where I was going. Meanwhile my Roman Catholic friends don’t even think I’ve made it to real Catholicism yet. Sigh, you can’t please everyone.