Thursday, September 20, 2007

Early Christians and the Bible

Lots of Christians view the Bible in lots of different ways. I think it is very useful to think about how the early Church viewed it.

The reason for that is because of the apostles. It was the apostles (plus a few of their friends) who wrote what is now the New Testament. It was the apostles who had been personally commissioned by Jesus to tell people about him. It was the apostles (equipped and strengthened by the Holy Spirit) who founded the church. I'd therefore want to make two assertions:

  • Jesus and the apostles were right in their view of the Bible
  • If we want to know their view of the Bible, a good place to look is the early church

For example, I think that Polycarp of Smyrna and Papias, who grew up in a church led by John and went on to lead churches of their own, would be in a fair good position to tell us what John meant and how he meant his writings to be understood.


The first thing that is worth noting is that they all regard what we'd now call the Bible as authoritative. Actually, the Bible didn't exist in its present form then. What they had was the Old Testament, a collection of four gospels, various collections of letters and assorted other stuff. But for the early Church, if the Old Testament taught something, or if the apostles taught it, that settled the issue.


Early on, especially while the so-called Apostolic Fathers (people like Polycarp, Papias, Ignatius, who had known the apostles) were alive, they didn't draw much distinction between what they had written down by the apostles and what they remembered the apostles saying. They saw the two sources as basically saying the same thing.

By the late 100s AD, all the Apostolic Fathers were dead, and there were people suggesting (mostly weird) new ways of understanding the Bible. The response of church leaders like Irenaeus and Tertullian was that the Old Testament and the writings of the apostles should be understood as they had been understood by the church before - that they should take the traditional understanding, because the tradition went back to Jesus and the apostles.

By the mid 400s AD, Vincent of Lerins summarised it well. He said that Scripture was "sufficient, and more than sufficient", and that it should be understood in the same way as it had been understood "always, everywhere and by everyone". If that wasn't clear, it we should go with the opinions of whole church councils, and if there was still doubt, we should follow the opinions of Christians who lived holy lives.

This of course raises an interesting question - should we understand the Bible in the "traditional way"? Should Luther have understood the Bible in the same way as the rest of the church? The answer is that it wasn't how the church had always understood the Bible. Over the 1500-odd years between the apostles and Luther, there had been a significant drift. Luther based a lot of his opinions (as did Cranmer, as did Calvin) on going back and reading early Christians. In fact, they saw that they needed to show that at least bits of the early Church agreed with them.

If quite a few Christians wrote on a topic between AD100 and AD350, and all of them say essentially the same thing about it, I think that's the right way to interpret the Bible. But not between 1200 and 1450, because that doesn't have the same guarantee of apostolicity at one end.

Christ and the Old Testament

One area where the opinion of early Christians is pretty much unanimous, and disagreeing from many modern Christians is about the Old Testament. Early Christians thought it was all about Jesus (Jesus is recorded as thinking that too).

Justin Martyr put it well in his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew (2nd century).

The Scriptures [OT] are much more ours than yours. For we lt ourselves be persuaded by them, while you read them without grasping their true import.

The normal way of interpreting the Old Testament is what we now call typology. John Chrysostom defined typology as "prophecy in terms of things" - what happened to on person or group of people acts as a picture for what happens to another. Where Platonic philosophy had a lot of influence on the Church, this sometimes tended to spill over into uncontrolled allegorising. But Christians in Antioch, especially Diodore of Tarsus and Theodoret, drew up some helpful guidelines for using typology with historical passages in the Old Testament, which they described as Theoria. I'm going to use my sermon on Psalm 21 as an example, because this is the approach I used there.

  • Keep the literal sense of the text. It is still true, it still matters.
  • There must be a correspondence between the historical figure and the spiritual one. For example, David and Jesus were both God's anointed king over his people, and were both called "Messiah".
  • The two figures need to be apprehended together, though differently. So in Psalm 21, David praises God because he is victorious over physical enemies. In my application of it to Jesus, Jesus praises God because he is victorious over spiritual enemies.

So, to summarise. Early Christians saw the Bible as authoritative. They saw that it should be interpreted in line with the way it had always been interpreted, and they saw the Old Testament as being about Jesus.

I wish that more of the church agreed with them!


ScienceDada said...

The notion that Luther and Calvin went back to base their views on what the early Church views. This is a popular notion, but unfounded.

Many of their positions were not so much as based toward what the early Church believed as a rejection of the Roman Catholic beliefs and practices.

Inherent in this assertion is the hidden argument that the Roman Catholic establishment represented "the Church." This is inaccurate. For example, Luther actively dismissed the East because he judged them to be too much like the West. Calvin also rejected practices that he judged were not scriptural, even though there was a lack of uniformity in the early Church. These men pursued reformation based on their judgement and their reading of the scriptures despite the lack of uniformity on what was considered "scripture" for hundreds of years.

While I can provide many examples, that would lead to a dialog that I am not sure you wish to have.

FYI: Your blog is interesting, and I have also "a bit of physics and theology, and like thinking"

John said...

I don't doubt that there are areas where Luther, Calvin and other Reformers departed from the Early Church, or claimed one line of their thinking as if it were unanimous when it wasn't. Calvin, for example, seems to have consciously gone back to the Antiochene School of hermeneutics rather than the Alexandrian one.

It's not a general and universal pattern. But in the areas I cited, I think it's pretty much exactly what they did. Debate away...