Authority and the Early Church Fathers

Most Christians confess that we are able to disagree with one another theologically with regard to secondary or tertiary issues that are not related to the salvation of our souls: issues such as the proper mode of and candidate for baptism, a "biblical" model for church government, or the place of women in ministry do not affect our salvation by grace through faith in Christ. But who was given the authority by God to establish the essential elements of the Christian faith? Were not their conclusions based upon their hermeneutics?

We can insist that the early Church fathers established what we call essential Christian orthodoxy: in order to be considered a Christian one must adhere to the basic tenets of the faith. When we read the writings of second-century Church leaders, and discover their views of Christianity, we cannot help but notice 1) the manner in which they viewed the writings of the Gospels and St Paul; 2) views that they held in common with one another; and 3) issues, both theological and sociological, with which they disagreed with each other.

There were questions among early Church leaders about the New Testament. Their primary Bible was the Old Testament (cf. 2 Tim. 3:16). One question with which they wrestled was why we needed four perspectives of the Gospel (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). Were all the letters of St Paul to be considered holy Scripture? Could not the Didache, the Shepherd of Hermes, the Epistle of Barnabas and the Epistles of Clement, for example, be considered holy Scripture? For some followers of Christ these writings were spiritually beneficial.

But what of Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, Jude, and Revelation? These books were eventually considered inspired of God, but not by all, and not even by a giant like Reformer Martin Luther in the sixteenth century. John Calvin himself refused to write a commentary on the Revelation. Even though, as Peter Toon rightly notes, the early Church fathers are the ones who "actually decided, under God, the content of the canon of the New Testament"; we have to wonder that, if by "under God," we mean "a (determinative) inerrant inspiration."

If so then by what measure can we render such an insistence? We cannot look to Scripture since no author of Scripture addresses the matter of God determinately and inerrantly inspiring the collection of books that we name "the Bible." What shall we conclude regarding the so-called Deuterocanonical books contained in some Old Testaments (of Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and the Church of the East traditions)? These are considered canonical (inspired) in these traditions. Protestants disagree.

By the end of the fourth century, St Augustine had established "the catholic canon" of the Old Testament (with the help of St Jerome, who constructed the Latin Vulgate, the Bible in Latin), a collection that includes what many refer to as the Apocrypha. By the beginning of the fifth century, the Roman See, under Innocent I., and then Gelasius I., solidified the books of the catholic (or Church-universal) Old Testament that included the Deuterocanon. This collection remained intact and unquestioned until the time of the Reformation in the sixteenth century. What authority did the early Church leaders possess in establishing this list? What authority did the Protestants assume in changing this order of inspired books?


Authority is a fickle notion. I do not recognize the alleged authority of the Pope over my life and spirituality. I can confess the same regarding the likes of Pat Robertson, Franklin Graham, Al Mohler, James Dobson, the Southern Baptist convention, the United Methodist Church, the Lutheran Church, the theology of Martin Luther, or John Calvin, the Mormon church, the Watchtower of Jehovah's Witnesses, and the leadership of the Unitarian-Universalist organization, etc. Neither, perhaps, do many of you. Yet these persons and organizations are granted authority by those who submit themselves to such. That is the nature of authority. What authority do the early Church fathers maintain over us?

In the Episcopal (and Anglican) tradition, we claim the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed. At best the statements contained in these forms of the Faith suggest that we trust (believe) in a triune God (three divine persons in one being). But we also confess, in the Apostles' and Nicene creeds, the holy catholic (universal) church, the communion (or fellowship) of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. These are basic New Testament beliefs upon which all Christians are expected to agree without anyone demanding authority in propagating these tenets.

We call these notions essentials: what must one believe in order to be saved? We typically collectively insist that a perpetual trust in Jesus Christ (trusting that what He accomplished in His death, burial, and resurrection applies to you), by the grace of God in the inner working of the Holy Spirit, secures our salvation. But that trust in Christ's work also incorporates other statements of belief: e.g., the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection, and eternal life; and these beliefs are supported by interpretations based on the writings found in the New Testament. Christians throughout the Church age have weighed these interpretations and found agreement. Why, then, do we disagree on so many theological issues? We have agreed about what we must believe. What about the rest?

The majority of believers affirm the conclusions regarding the essentials of the Faith from the early Church fathers: regarding the essentials we declare their counsels authoritative. Others disagree even on the essentials and become fringe movements. But must we believe in every notion propagated by each early Church father -- or even by all Church fathers collectively. No. Even they did not all agree on every theological issue that can be named. So, Egalitarians reject the patriarchy advanced by the early Church fathers, just as Southern Baptists reject the motif of baptism affirmed and practiced by the early Church fathers. Are we permitted to disagree with them and with each other? Absolutely! Neither female pastors nor mode of baptism concerns the essentials of the Christian faith; and, therefore, we are permitted to reject the interpretations of the early fathers when we discover a different or, as each respective tradition will insist, a better hermeneutic.

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Peter Toon, "Episcopalianism," in Who Runs the Church? 4 Views on Church Government, ed. Steven B. Cowan (Grand Rapids: Zondervan 2004), 24.

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ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.