the weblog of Alan Knox

Historical ecclesiology

Posted by on Aug 1, 2007 in blog links, church history, definition | 11 comments

A couple of days ago, Josh from “A New Testament Student” asked some very good questions concerning the study of the church in a post called “Some thoughts on church“, which he followed up with another post called “More thoughts on church…” Mike from “εν εφέσω: Thoughts and Meditations” replied with his own post called “A Handbook?” This is my part in this discussion.

In his opening post, Josh asks:

For whatever reason, I’ve been suckered into Ecclesiology. I enjoy figuring out what exactly the “Church” is. There are a great many blogs out there dedicated to this topic. However, something I’m noticing is that they stay only within the New Testament for their views on the Church. Is this proper? Is the New Testament the handbook on ekklesia? My answer: It’s not *the* handbook. We have to look not only at the New Testament, but also at the history of the Church and how the Apostolic Fathers viewed Church, etc. How did the earliest Christians do it after the New Testament period?

He further explained his position in his second post:

I’ll start with why Patristics is so important. I view it as being essential because it allows us to see how the earliest Christian communities, some shaped by the Apostles themselves, interpreted Scripture. We know that we don’t have the full record about Christ, early Christianity, etc in the New Testament. These were men who had received tradition through a chain in the early church. Bishop to Bishop, etc. Look at 2 Timothy 2:2 where Paul encourages Timothy to share what Timothy has heard from Paul with other people. Not, “Make sure and copy this letter down word for word, because this is all there is.” No, that’s silly. Of course Paul taught Timothy a great deal more than is written down. So where did all of that go? To the Fathers! They are our windows into how this tradition helped shape the church, hermeneutics, etc. They allow us to see Orthodox interpretation of Scripture from the outset of this movement. How do we know what the Apostles taught? Not only by their writings, but the writings of their students, and their students, etc.

Josh continues this second post with three examples of how the apostolic fathers can teach us about the church: 1) the early church was more Catholic than not, 2) the book of Revelation hints at an early liturgy, and 3) the hermeneutic of the fathers was more informed than ours.

I am one of those who “stay only within the New Testament” for my views on the church, and I hope that this post explains why. At this point, I do not plan to answer Josh’s three points, instead I hope to make three points of my own in order to explain why I prefer to learn about the church from Scripture. To begin, here are a couple of boring definitions:

Historical theology is a branch of theological studies that investigates the socio-historical and cultural mechanisms that give rise to theological ideas, systems, and statements. Research and method in this field focus on the relationship between theology and context as well as the major theological influences upon the figures and topics studied. Historical theologians are thus concerned with the historical development of theology.

In Christian theology, ecclesiology is the study of doctrine pertaining to the Church itself as a community or organic entity, and with the understanding of what the “church” is — ie., its role in salvation, its origin, its relationship to the historical Christ, its discipline, its destiny (see Eschatology) and its leadership. It is, therefore, the study of the Church as a thing in itself, and of the Church’s self-understanding of its mission and role.

Thus, combining these into my own definition, historical ecclesiology would be concerned with the historical development of ecclesiology. Historical ecclesiology is very important to New Testament studies, as is any type of historical theology. It is true that through studying the writings of the second and third generations of believers we can understand how they interpreted the apostolic traditions and Scripture.

However, there are at least three reasons that I look to Scripture in order to develop my ecclesiology instead of looking to sources outside of Scripture: 1) even during apostolic times people turned away from the apostolic teachings, 2) the post-apostolic authors were not consistent in their ecclesiology, and 3) I believe that Scripture is authoritative and sufficient.

First, even during the apostolic times – while the apostles were still alive – people regularly turned away from apostolic teaching. Many of the books of the New Testament were written to correct disciples who had strayed from earlier teachings. First and Second Corinthians, Galatians, Hebrews, and James are examples of letters written to remind believers of what they were taught and to exhort them to return to what they were taught. Other books, while not written specifically to correct believers, include instructions of how to deal with people who were teaching or acting contrary to the gospel and to the teachings of the apostles. For example, in 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, and Jude the readers are encouraged to beware of those who no longer live according to the teachings of the apostles. Perhaps most strikingly, of the seven churches mentioned in Revelation, most of them are rebuked because of their failure to live consistently with what they were taught. If believers strayed from the teachings of the apostles while the apostles were living, there is reason to believe that those who lived after the apostles could also stray from the apostles’ teachings.

Second, the post-apostolic writers were not consistent in their understanding or description of the church. For one example, consider what the early writers said concerning leaders within the church. The Didache (2nd or 3rd century AD) mentions two different types of leaders: those who travel away from their home (called prophets, teachers, or apostles) and those who stay near their home (called bishops or deacons). In this early document, there is no distinction between bishops or elders. Ignatius (35-107 AD) recognizes three levels of leaders (bishops, elders, and deacons) and exhorts the church to submit to the bishop as to Jesus Christ. Meanwhile, Polycarp (69-155 AD) – who received a letter from Ignatius – exhorts the church to be subject to the elders and deacons, but does not mention the bishop. Similarly, Tertullian (155-230 AD) says that authority lies with anyone who possesses the Spirit and not to bishops. If we examine the writings of the patristic era concerning other areas of ecclesiology we will find that they were not consistent in those areas either. Consistency did not come along until later.

Finally, while the historical writings of the post-apostolic period are important, I believe that Scripture is authoritative and sufficient, while other writings give us a view of someone else’s interpretation of Scripture. I admit that this is a personal belief, and many may not agree with this belief. However, for me, if Scripture is sufficient, then Scripture includes what I need to know about the church. If Scripture is authoritative, then I should obey what is revealed to me in Scripture concerning the church. Historical and theological writings are important, but I do not give them the same weight of authority or sufficiency.

This does not mean that academic studies should not include a study of the patristic writings. On the contrary, writings of different periods of history are important and should be included in academic studies, including studies of the church. For example, for my dissertation, I hope to include a diachronic (through history) view of ecclesiology; specifically, I hope to study how different authors from different time periods viewed the meeting of the church. These views will be different. How will we determine if a view is “correct”? We only have one source of comparison: Scripture.

In conclusion, I’d like to comment on the “form” vs. “function” distinction that Mike mentions in his post (see above):

The New Testament does not give us a specific form for doing church. There is actually very little discussion at all about what the first century church looked like. Now before anyone protests, I am quite aware of the Book of Acts. There are some discussions about form. But I do not see these descriptions as necessary for the church today. A couple points are in order:

1. If you notice, the New Testament church in Acts adjusted its form depending upon its needs.

2. If you read 1 Timothy and Titus, you’ll see that the focus when it comes to church leadership positions are not on form, or function, but character.

Mike makes a great observation concerning “form” and “function”. He is correct that Scripture says very little about “form” and much more about “function”. However, every believer should be concerned about “form” when that “form” hinders scriptural “function”. For example, most believers would not be satisfied by a “form” of church meeting that did not allow for teaching. Teaching is a valid, scriptural function for believers. But, what about other functions? Does our “form” allow us to teach one another, or only one person teach everyone else? Does our “form” allow us to “consider one another in order to stir up love and good works”? Does our “form” allow us to use our spiritual gifts for mutual benefit? Does our “form” allow us to exhort, comfort, admonish, bear with, and forgive one another?

If the “form” hinders “function”, then one of the two must change. I would suggest that, for years, we have ignored “function” in order to maintain “form”. Instead, I would also suggest, we should modify “form” in order to encourage “function”.

Patristic authors – those who followed the apostles – are important and their writings should be read. However, Scripture is more important and should mold our ecclesiology. Similarly, “form” can be adjusted, as long as “form” does not hinder “function”.


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 8-1-2007

    When I said on Josh’s post that the NT Church was often more fluid than we allow, I was saying something akin to the other Mike about form and function.

    As for going astray, to which you speak quite a bit about, that was from teachings mainly concerning allegiance to God, not really Church form or function. Just as well, it is the turning from God that has led to corrupt practices (forms and functions). These are what Paul is against and is trying to fix to some degree.

    What this says to me is that we should teach and defend our teachings about God, when we let those go, the Church is no longer the Church. If there is anything the patristics show us, it is this fact. They were apologists of high degree and I thank God for them.

    Still, we need to be more firm in what we believe about God and less strict about polity concerning form and structure! When we major on that minor, the Church also doesn’t look like what it is supposed to and we fall into a world of hurt.

    When you say “the sufficiency of Scripture” I’m not sure what you mean by that. What is it sufficient for? Do you mean the plan of salvation? What? If Scripture alone is sufficient, why do we need anything else at all, like the patristics? Why do we need Jesus? The Spirit? What do you mean by this phrase? Just wondering.

    Interesting post, nice visiting your blog. Check mine out at:

  2. 8-1-2007


    I would say that I am quite inline with your position on this matter. Great post, well written.


  3. 8-1-2007


    Thank you for the comment. I have visited your blog and enjoyed your posts.

    I agree concering the fluidity of the form of the church in the NT. I think it is interesting that Scripture says little about form, but we tend to stress form.

    Concerning “going astray”… yes, much of the scriptural exhortation to return to the apostles’ teachings concerns “allegiance to God”. However, church form and function are also mentioned, especially in 1 Corinthians. Similarly, I definitely agree that “turning from God” is the major reason for corruption in both form and function for the church.

    I will use Grudem’s definition of “sufficiency of Scripture”: The sufficiency of Scripture means that Scripture contained all the words of God he intended his people to have at each stage of redemptive history, and that it now contains all the words of God we need for salvation, for trusting him perfectly, and for obeying him perfectly.

    Notice this defintion concerns the words of God we need, not God himself. The sufficiency of Scripture does not set Scripture up as an idol that replaces God. Our primary need is God whom we related to through his son as we are indwelled by his Spirit. Apart from this, Scripture is no benefit to us.

    By the way, did you know that the Greek text in your banner (πιστεύωμεν) is subjunctive, but your translation (we believe) is indicative? The indicative would be πιστεύομεν.


    Thanks for reading. I know it was a long post.


  4. 8-2-2007

    Great post, Alan!

  5. 8-2-2007


    I’m thankful for the direction taken by your part in the discussion.

  6. 8-2-2007

    I have been away but I see that you are continuing to offer up great discussions. I enjoy the Patristics but in this case I believe they are a very limited source of truth concerning ecclesiology. My mother-in-law is an atheist living in England. She sees all religion as a few men manipulating the many to prop themselves over others. When I walk into the modern church and look at it through her eyes I find it very difficult to disagree with her! We lost something very early on in the history of the church and what many of us are doing in looking to the NT for form and function is trying to recover what we lost. I agree with your post here in that to promote a new form is no better than to continue the old. We must recover the function of Church, we must recover the ‘one anothers’ of the Word and relate to each other in a new and dynamic way. A new way that is not new at all but what they had in the first century and we have largely failed to achieve since. Namely that Jesus is Lord of the Church and he commands us to love one another. From the early church till today too many men have usurped the authority of Christ and raised up their own kingdoms which continually divide and ostracize God’s people instead of uniting them in love and purpose. The early church fathers had much wisdom but their writings will not bring us to this. They will not restore the Church to form, function, and power that is so desperately needed in this broken and dying world.

  7. 8-2-2007

    Alan, you elaboration on form and function exactly expresses my thoughts. I agree with everything you wrote.

    The terms “form” and “function” as I used them are sort of “short hand” for discussions/arguments with people who have argued for a specific form of church government/leadership to such an extent that it destroyed the unity of that local body. Stop back to my blog where I’ll give a more length elaboration…

  8. 8-2-2007


    Thanks for starting the discussion. I see that others have joined on your blog.

    Aussie John,

    Thanks for the encouragement.


    I agree. I think “function” was lost in the “form” of the organization of the church. I’m not concerned about “form” unless it hinders “function”… which I think many “forms” today hinder “function”.


    I thought we were very close in our emphasis of “form” over “function”. Thanks for verifying that.


  9. 8-3-2007


    I definitely agree with you that Scriptural teaching on the church trumps early church practice as a model for us as present-day disciples. A question I still have, however, is to what degree might early church practice serve as a hermeneutical clue in our attempts to understand Scriptural teaching that is sometimes less than perfectly clear. Is it possible, for instance, by way of careful studies of Patristics, to trace the pathway those who eventually diverged from Scriptural teaching took on the way to the practices they adopted? If so, it seems it would be quite enlightening, though perhaps a bit complicated, to attempt to do so. I imagine some church historians have attempted to do just this. I am familiar, for instance, with Broadbent’s “The Pilgrim Church”.

    Do you know of any other good sources along this line? Or any other thoughts regarding this basic premise?

  10. 8-3-2007


    Good call on the subjunctive versus indicative! Didn’t realize I did that on the banner but that one letter puts a different spin on it eh?

    “If we believe” or “we might believe”


    “We believe”

    Good eye man. It’s amazing that out of the thousands of visitors I’ve had, only one has noticed that; kudos to you.

  11. 8-3-2007


    I don’t know of a study like you described. I think it would be very interesting, and perhaps it does exist. Maybe if someone else knows about one that person will let us know about it here.


    Others may have noticed, but decided not to say anything. I almost didn’t say anything.