“To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant” (Cardinal John Henry Newman).
The surest way to determine which church can claim to be the New Testament Church or closest to it is to read the writings of the men who were around in the time of the apostles and the years immediately after them. It was these men, known as the Church Fathers, who knew the apostles, had original or very early copies of the New Testament writings, and, being bishops, monks, and senior religious figures, were the leaders of this apostolic and post-apostolic period (i.e. ante-Nicene period up to 4th century). The earliest Fathers actually knew the apostles (or at least some of them) and they knew those who knew the apostles – surely, then, what these men have to say must have some authority, at least. If any of them were wrong their peers would have picked them up on it because the Church at that time recognised the heresies from their many sources and dealt with them.
And while they taught salvation by faith in Christ, their writings are also saturated with specifically Catholic and Orthodox teaching and practice, and it is these that I wish to highlight. These references also show that most, if not all, of the Catholic and Orthodox doctrines and practices come from this early period, and are, therefore, not inventions by a later apostate church intent on using deception to gain power. Their theology, ecclesiology, and practices, were drawn from their Old Testament Septuagint bible, which included the “apocrypha”.
It needs to be understood here that at this early period, the Church was one; but there was a geographical division, namely East (Greek speaking) and West (Latin speaking). This geographical division later became organic when Rome in the West, excommunicated the Eastern part, and the two separated from each other forever in 1054 AD. Until this time the universal Church was called Catholic, but following the schism, the West, with Rome at its centre, retained the name Catholic; and the East, with Constantinople at its centre, officially retained the name Orthodox, as they had also been known since the second century. In this article I use the term “Catholic” to describe the early Church because that is how they described themselves.
I – Clement
Clement (Phil 4:3) knew St Paul, Luke, Timothy, Epaphroditus and others. He wrote his letter “The First Letter of Clement to the Corinthians” shortly before he died (around the end of the 1st century); thus at about the same time that St John wrote “The Revelation”. He was a presbyter in the church at Rome and became the 4th Pope, following Peter, Linus and Cletus. Irenaeus writes of him “This man, as he had seen the blessed apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing [in his ears], and their traditions before his eyes” (“Against Heresies” Bk III ch iii. 3).
In his letter he shows:
- That the Church was Episcopal (chap xliv). In chap xl-xlii the episcopate is compared to the Old Testament system of High Priest (bishop), priest (presbyter or priest) and Levite (deacon).
- That the episcopate was preserved through Apostolic Succession (chap xliv)
- There were appointed times and hours for prayer and worship (chap xl) – this refers to “The Liturgy of the Hours” (later called the Divine Office) and included prayer, fasting and penances.
- He also used the Septuagint (LXX), which was the bible of the writers of the Four Gospels, and early Church. Included in this bible were the books known to the Catholic Church as Deuterocanonical but to Protestants as Apocrypha. He referred to the books of Wisdom (chap iii) and Judith (chap lv) as scripture. The earliest and best existing copies, though not necessarily the best, of the bible are Codices Vaticanus (B), Sinaiticus (Aleph), and Alexandrinus (A), and they include the deuterocanonical books.
- His letter to the church at Corinth demonstrates in itself the Primacy of the church at Rome.
2 – The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus
The name of the author of this letter is unknown but he calls himself “Mathetes” (a “disciple” of the apostles). He said of himself “….but having been a disciple of the Apostles, I am become a teacher of the Gentiles”. This letter was written 130 AD, i.e. about 30 years after the death of the apostle John. In it we find:
- Apostolic Tradition (chap xi) – i.e. not written scripture but unwritten teaching handed down from the apostles.
- Sung Liturgy – Then the fear of the law is chanted….” (chap xi).
3 – The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians
Polycarp was bishop of Smyrna and this letter was probably written about 110-140 AD. His famous disciple, Irenaeus of Lyons, wrote of him “….he would speak of the conversations he had held with John and with others who had seen the Lord”; and “Polycarp was instructed by the apostles, and was brought into contact with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna” (“Against Heresies” Bk III ch iii. 4).
- Polycarp regarded the Deuterocanonicals (apocrypha) as scripture (chap x) – he quotes from Tobit.
- He believed in Apostolic Tradition. Irenaeus (see below) wrote of him that he “…always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down…”
- After his martyrdom (155 AD) the Christians gathered his bones and deposited them in “a fitting place, whither, being gathered together….the Lord shall grant us to celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom….” This is an early account of the collection of relics of saints (from “The Martyrdom of Polycarp” chap xvii) and celebration of saints’ days (from “The Martyrdom of Polycarp” chap xviii)
4 – Ignatius of Antioch
Ignatius (30-107 AD), along with Polycarp, was a disciple of St John the apostle. In his letters Ignatius shows:
- The Church was divinely established as a visible society, the salvation of souls its end, and those who cut themselves off from it separate themselves from God (Philadelphians ch 3)
- It was Episcopal (Ep to Ephesians ch ii, xx; Magnesians ch vi; Philadelphians Intro), not a democracy or independent, and was not considered a church without the hierarchy of bishops, priests and deacons (Smyrnaeans ch viii, ix; Trallians ch ii, iii, vii; Magnesians 6)
- The hierarchy of the Church was instituted by Christ (Intro to Phil; Eph 6)
- The order of the Episcopacy is superior by divine authority to that of the OT priesthood (Mag 6 and 13; Smyrnaeans ch 8; Trallians ch 3)
- Sacraments can only be administered by the bishop (Smyrnaeans ch viii)
- The Eucharist was regarded as a sacrifice (“…if anyone be not within the altar” Eph chap v)
- The bread of the Eucharist was regarded as the true body of Jesus Christ (“…breaking one and the same bread, which is the medicine of immortality, and the antidote to prevent us from dying that we should live forever in Christ Jesus” Eph chap xx; Philadelphians ch iv; Smyrnaeans ch vii). And he writes of the danger of rejecting this doctrine “They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ…..Those, therefore, who speak against this gift of God, incur death in the midst of their disputes. But it were better for them to treat it with respect, that they might also rise again” (Smrynaeans chap vii)
- The necessity of belonging to the visible church (“He, therefore, that does not assemble with the Church, has even by this manifested his pride, and condemned himself” Eph chap v)
- Baptismal regeneration. Of Christ he writes “He was born and baptised, that by His passion He might purify the water” (Eph chap xviii)
- The religious and spiritual character of marriage and virginity: “Speak to my sisters, that they love the Lord, and be satisfied with their husbands both in the flesh and in the spirit. In like manner also, exhort my brethren, in the name of Jesus Christ, that they love their wives, even as the Lord loved the Church. If anyone can continue in a state of purity, to the honour of Him who is Lord of the flesh, let him so remain without boasting…. But it becomes both men and women who marry, to form their union with the approval of the bishop, that their marriage may be according to God, and not after their own lust” (Ep to Polycarp ch 5)
- The primacy of the Church of Rome. Ignatius describes this church in superlative terms, the like of which he does with no other church. He writes “….the Church which is beloved and enlightened by the will of Him that willeth all things which are according to the love of Jesus Christ our God, which also presides in the place of the region of the Romans, worthy of God, worthy of honour, worthy of the highest happiness, worthy of praise, worthy of obtaining her every desire, worthy of being deemed holy, and which presides over love, named from Christ, and from the Father…” (Introduction to Ep to the Romans; ch iii)
- The unity of the Church (Trallians 6; Philadelphians 3; Magnesians 13)
- The sinfulness and danger of schism and heresy. “If any man follows him that makes a schism in the Church, he shall not inherit the kingdom of God. If any one walks according to a strange opinion, he agrees not with the passion of Christ” (Philadelphians ch iii)
- The Catholicity of the Church. “Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church” (Smyrnaeans 8)
As I showed from the section on Polycarp, the Church was already celebrating saints’ days. The next quote, from chapter vii of “The Martyrdom of Ignatius”, also demonstrates this practice. But interestingly it also describes Ignatius appearing to those disciples who were mourning and praying earnestly all night following his martyrdom.
“….it came to pass, on our falling into a brief slumber, that some of us saw the blessed Ignatius suddenly standing by us and embracing us, while others beheld him again praying for us, and others still saw him dropping with sweat, as if he had just come from his great labour, and standing by the Lord. When, therefore, we had with great joy witnessed these things, and had compared our several visions together, we sang praise to God, the giver of all good things, and expressed our sense of the happiness of the holy (martyr); and now we have made known to you both the day and the time (when these things happened), that, assembling ourselves together according to the time of his martyrdom, we may have fellowship with the champion and noble martyr of Christ…..”
This passage not only demonstrates the intercession of saints (see also 2 Maccabees 15:11-18) but shows that the Church was already praying to the saints. There is ample evidence of this practice in the early Church, with inscriptions on the graves of martyrs and in the liturgies, entreating departed loved ones and martyrs to pray for them; and it shows the sense of fellowship the Church had with their departed brothers and sisters.
In my opinion it is arrogant of Protestants to dismiss this account, and others like it, as coming from a superstitious or naive outlook on the part of the early Christians. This particular account was written close to the time of the apostle John by a disciple of Ignatius, and circulated around the Church which was very aware of heresy.
5 – Epistle of Barnabas
Thought to have been written by an Alexandrian Jew about 100 AD, thus about the time the Apostle John died. This letter shows
- Baptismal regeneration (“…baptism which leads to the remission of sins” chap xi; “…we indeed descend into the water full of sins and defilement, but come up, bearing fruit in our heart” chap xii)
6 – Justin Martyr
Justin (110-165 AD) was the first Christian apologist, the first Christian author, and the founder of apologetic Christian literature. His writings demonstrate the belief and practice of the Catholic Church.
- Apostolic Tradition (“…but we have received by tradition…” chap x)
- Baptismal regeneration (“Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated….For Christ also said ‘Except ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven’….And for this [rite] we have learned from the apostles this reason”). From “The First Apology of Justin” chap lxi. He has much more to say on baptismal regeneration.
- The Eucharist (“….we have been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word…is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh”). From “The First Apology…” chap lxvi.
- Used Septuagint as the bible (“Hortatory Address to the Greeks” chap xiii); it contained the apocrypha/deuterocanonicals
7 – Irenaeus
Irenaeus lived 120-202 AD; he was a disciple of Polycarp, who was in turn a disciple of the Apostle John. In his writings he shows how the Church believed in
- Apostolic Tradition: “But, again, when we refer them to that tradition which originates from the apostles, [and] which is preserved by means of the successions of presbyters in the Churches, they (the Gnostics) object to tradition…” and “…these men do now consent neither to Scripture nor to Tradition” (“Against Heresies” Book III chap ii.2 and iii.2)
- Baptismal regeneration: “And again, giving to the disciples the power of regeneration unto God, he said to them ‘Go and teach all nations, baptizing them…’” (“Against Heresies” Bk III chap xvii.1)
- The elements of bread and wine in the Eucharist are the body and blood of Jesus: “When, therefore, the mingled cup and the manufactured bread receives the Word of God, and the Eucharist of the blood and the body of Christ is made…”, and again, of the bread and wine “having received the Word of God, becomes the Eucharist, which is the body and blood of Christ” (Book IV chap ii.3)
- An intermediate state after death: “…it is manifest that the souls of His disciples also, upon whose account the Lord underwent these things, shall go away into the invisible place allotted to them by God, and there remain until the resurrection, awaiting that event; then receiving their bodies, and rising in their entirety, that is bodily, just as the Lord arose, they shall come thus into the presence of God” (Bk IV chap xxi.2)
- Episcopacy and Apostolic Succession. In Bk III chap iii.3 Irenaeus lists all the bishops of Rome from the apostles Peter and Pauldown to Eleutherius in his own time, having said that all the churches have apostolic succession, and that this is the means by which the Apostolic Tradition is preserved and the heretics proven to have no authority.
- Primacy of Rome: “For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its pre-eminent authority…” (Bk III chap iii.2). He demonstrates the reality of this authority from the Epistle of Clement (mentioned above). He writes in chap iii.3 “In the time of this Clement, no small dissension having occurred among the brethren at Corinth, the Church in Rome despatched a most powerful letter to the Corinthians, exhorting them to peace, renewing their faith, and declaring the tradition which it had lately received from the apostles…” Why didn’t the Church at Antioch or Jerusalem write it? After all, they were both older than Rome and the Church began at these two churches. It was because even at this early stage (i.e. in the time of Clement [30-100 AD] and Ignatius [30-107 AD] Rome was already regarded as pre-eminent among all the churches.
- The Authority and Infallibility of the Church “Paul…says ‘God hath placed in the Church, first, apostles; secondly, prophets; thirdly, teachers’. Where, therefore, the gifts of the Lord have been placed, there it behoves us to learn the truth, [namely] from those who possess that succession of the Church which is from the apostles, and among whom exists that which is sound and blameless….and they expound the Scriptures to us without danger, neither blaspheming God, nor dishonouring the patriarchs, nor despising the prophets” (Bk IV chap xxvi.5). “True knowledge is [that which consists in] the doctrine of the apostles, and the ancient constitution of the Church throughout all the world, and the distinctive manifestation of the body of Christ according to the successions of the bishops, by which they have handed down that Church which exists in every place, and has come even unto us, being guarded and preserved, without any forging of Scriptures, by a very complete system of doctrine…” (Bk IV chap xxxiii.8)
- The necessity of belonging to the Visible Church “He shall also judge all those who are beyond the pale of the truth, that is, who are outside the Church” (Bk IV chap xxxiii.7)
- The sins of heresy and schism “He shall also judge those who give rise to schisms, who are destitute of the love of God, and who look to their own special advantage rather than to the unity of the Church; and who for trifling reasons, or any kind of reason which occurs to them, cut in pieces and divide the great and glorious body of Christ, and so far as in them lies, [positively] destroy it, – men who prate of peace while they give rise to war, and do in truth strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. For no reformation of so great importance can be effected by them, as will compensate for the mischief arising from their schism” (Bk IV chap xxxiii.7). Protestants take note!
Irenaeus has much more to say on all these points but I’ve selected these for brevity’s sake. And I’ve only used these, the Apostolic Fathers, as they were the first writers after the New Testament period, beginning while St John was still alive, and those who knew the apostles and/or those who had seen the Lord. So it would be impossible for these Fathers to write as they did without being challenged by the rest of the Church if anything they said was suspect. The corollary is therefore that what they wrote was approved by the Church and by John and any other apostles still alive or those who knew them. The connection between the apostolic church and today’s church is seamless.
Those that followed, the later Ante Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, taught the same doctrines and practices, but in greater detail. As the Church grew and became established, it was able to define doctrine more precisely, e.g. the doctrines of the Trinity and the Person and Work of Christ.
The first seven Ecumenical Councils (325 AD to 787 AD), so called because they were representative of the whole Church, defined many doctrines that are only mentioned by the Apostolic Fathers. The pronouncements of these Councils were, and still are, regarded as infallible by the Churches, both East and West. The Reformers only acknowledged the first four of them.
So, getting back to my original question “What are the characteristics of the Christian Church?” I’m able to make some definite statements, based on what these early authorities wrote. I’ve found that the early Church was episcopal, liturgical, and sacramental in the full sense of these words. It didn’t resemble Protestantism in any way; and in fact the early Church would have condemned Protestantism as a heresy, a novelty, and as schismatic. Their words even now condemn it, as Irenaeus pointed out (see above).
So we must conclude that the Catholic Church is the Church of the New Testament and has been so ever since Christ said “I will build my church…” (Matt 16:18). And we must consequently conclude that Protestantism is new, a novelty, having been founded in the 16th century, with no connection to the apostolic Church.
“And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18 DRB).