What do you think of when you think of the early church?
I had been told time and again that the Protestant church was a return to the early church. Although the assertion wasn’t substantiated, it was such a fundamental presupposition that it was taken as a given. The Reformation was supposed to be a reform of established Christianity, an awakening, a return to the true orthodoxy of the early church. In my ministerial studies we studied the early church but if something wasn’t considered explicit in scripture it was viewed as uncertain. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was projecting concepts of a deliberate avoidance of theological and ecclesiastical sophistication; a focus on what was fundamentalist and basic which was contrary to historical fact.
Although I regretted the segregation and denominational disunity, and hungered for unity, I didn’t see a way to repair those divisions. It seemed as if each denomination thought of other denominations as mistaken or even as less mature spiritually. I would come to realize that I was part of the problem, and to face a decision to stay in protest or to submit to the church.
Prior to reading the Apostoloc Fathers I had a very loose concept of the early church. I thought of the house churches mentioned in the Pauline epistles and of church government as coming from the local elders and deacons mentioned in the books to Timothy and Titus. A closer examination of my concepts would have revealed something very close to the Plymouth Brethren paradigm. The apostles would have been an afterthought, because I assumed that after they died there was no structural sophistication beyond the local assemblies they had started. Apostolic succession was absent from these concepts. Although I had seen too much to believe cessationism (the idea that the charismatic gifts like healing and prophecy have ceased), and apostolic authority was clear in the scriptures; I had never really considered the concept of the apostles naming successors.
Ecclesiological sophistication was something else I would not have attributed to the early church, yet the apostolic fathers clearly show otherwise. I understood that Protestants held the first seven ecumenical councils in common with Rome, the Orthodox and Anglicans, but I was largely ignorant about them. (Although riddled with anti-Catholic rhetoric, Philip Schaff goes into more detail in his work on the first seven ecumenical councils and it is available online). In my collegiate theological courses we studied systematic theologies rather than these councils and things like the hypostatic union and the trinity were defined rather than studied in depth.
Also absent from my concepts would have been the sacraments – yet the earliest fathers clearly show a sacramental view of the eucharist and baptism. I was surpised to find that the descriptions of the liturgy and things like community prayer and confession were much more in line with Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican practice and theology than Protestant practice and theology.
The Patristics are far too complex to do justice to on a blog. For one thing I have just begun my study of them. However, the Apostolic Fathers are a small enough slice to be readily accessible. Have you read them? Have you evaluated your presuppositions? Have you tried to make sure you are not projecting your modern experience on Biblical truths? If the apostles were alive today, would your church be in full communion with them?