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 “ÎµÎ½ ÎµÏ†ÎÏƒÏ‰: 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:
Iâ€™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 donâ€™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, â€œMake sure and copy this letter down word for word, because this is all there is.â€ No, thatâ€™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 â€” 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, youâ€™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”.