Which Church can rightly claim to be the New Testament Church? Is it the Roman Catholic Church? Is it the communion of Orthodox Churches – if so, which one – Greek, Russian, Antiochian, etc. Is it Nestorian, Coptic, Miaphysite, or any other of the Orthodox fringe dwellers? Or is it all of them? Or is it Protestantism? If so, which one – the number of Protestant denominations, communions, groups, independent churches, house churches, sects, and cults is eye watering – there are literally tens of thousands of them. And their various theologies differ from each other wildly. There is no single theology that they share and which unites them; no single ecclesiology; no single canonical Bible; no single practice or meaning of the Eucharist/mass/Lord’s Supper; no single meaning or mode of baptism – it is therefore appropriate that Professor Bart Ehrman refers to them as Christianities rather than Christianity.
The best way to determine which is right is to go to the writings of the men who were around in the time of the apostles and the years immediately after the apostles. 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 and senior religious figures, were the leaders of this post-apostolic period. The earliest Fathers actually knew the apostles (or at least some of them) or else they knew those who knew the apostles – surely, then, what these men have to say must carry weight. If any of them were wrong the others would have picked them up on it because the Church at that time recognised the heresies from their many sources and dealt with them. They taught salvation by faith in Christ, and Evangelicals would have no problem with them in that respect. But their writings are 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 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 forever from each other in 1453 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, was known as Orthodox. In this article I use the term “Catholic” to describe the early Church as it covers both halves of the Church.
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 (see also chap xl-xlii where 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 of the bible are Codex Vaticanus (B), and Sinaiticus (Aleph), and they include the deuterocanonical books.
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. It is thought that he was “the angel of the church in Smyrna” in Rev 2:8. 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” (I’ve lost the reference); 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; Smyrn ch 8; Trall 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)
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 or Ante Nicene 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.
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 seven Ecumenical Councils (so called because they were representative of the whole Church) were held within the 4th through to 9th centuries, and they 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 Church, 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 Episcopalian and sacramental in the full sense of the word. 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).
There are, of course, essential doctrines from the early Church which both Catholics and Protestants share e.g. the Trinity, deity of Christ, justification by grace through the cross of Christ, belief in the gospel, obedience to Christ and the scriptures etc. But Protestants have removed the sacramentalist characteristics mentioned above and focused on the evangelical doctrines alone. And in order to support their position they’ve removed those books from it which contradict their theology, and spiritualised others. So they have a truncated and corrupted version of Christianity and the Church. But where did they get their authority to make such changes? For the first 1500 years of its existence the whole Church believed the doctrines and practices that Protestants removed.
I don’t argue that the Catholic Church was not corrupt in the period leading up to the Reformation, but there were during that time voices within calling for reform. These voices were suppressed and silenced but the desire for reform grew. Even Martin Luther initially only intended to discuss issues within the confines of the Church and in submission to its authority; and Erasmus, while scathing in his denunciations of the greed and corruption of the priesthood, never left the Catholic Church.
But the main problem with Protestantism is that it separated itself from the Church which was from the beginning and established a new organisation(s). It took the bible out of its context within the Church and gave it to the individual. Its catch-cry is sola scriptura (scripture alone), and it is this doctrine which is the root cause of the multitudinous groups within its pale. The scripture insists “that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation…” (2 Pet 1:20 RSV-2CE). By the end of the 16th century there were 270 new Protestant groups, and in the following centuries this number increased exponentially; and in our own time there can be several churches on the same street, all teaching different things to each other; and all, of course, getting their teaching from the bible. And in Baptist unions and Pentecostal movements there are new churches forming every day, as some man filled with his own importance undermines the pastor, drives him out of office and church, and takes over the congregation himself; or else he gains a following within the congregation and takes it out and starts a new group with himself as head, leaving the original congregation struggling for existence as many of its “best” people abandon it.
Jesus warned that a house divided against itself cannot stand (Matt 12:25). And St Paul warned “But if you bite and devour one another take heed that you are not consumed by one another” (Gal 5:15 RSV-2CE). Protestants are forced to justify the unbiblical and ludicrous situation they find themselves in by saying the church needs to be continually reforming itself. This is a tacit admission that their system doesn’t work and that there is need of an authority to oversee the whole Church. Jesus himself said “….thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt 16:18-19 DRB). The early Church acknowledged that the church at Rome had the primacy and that the bishop of Rome was the successor of Peter and that he had authority over all bishops. For example, Cyprian (200-258 AD) wrote, “For first of all the Lord gave that power to Peter, upon whom He built the Church, and whence He appointed and showed the source of unity – the power, namely, that whatsoever he loosed on earth should be loosed in heaven” (“The Epistles of Cyprian – Epistle LXXII: To Jubaianus, Concerning the Baptism of Heretics”; Ante Nicene Fathers Vol 5, chap 7, p 381).
And we should point out that Jesus didn’t leave us a book, he left us a church. He didn’t say “I will give you a book that will have all you need to know”; he said “I will build my church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18 DRB). And St Paul wrote: “….the household of God, which is the Church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark [Gk: foundation] of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15 RSV-2CE). The Church was established and growing and courageously facing persecution and martyrdom without having the New Testament as we know it (although the NT documents were in circulation, along with other edifying documents, but also with corrupted copies of NT documents, and pseudo gospels, acts and epistles teaching Gnostic heresy); but they had the teaching of the Church handed down by the succession of bishops, and also contained in formulae like the Apostles’ Creed (see also examples in 1 Cor 15:3-8; 1 Tim 3:16) and the liturgies. Their authority was not “scripture alone” but the Rule of Faith as found in Scripture and Tradition as taught by the Church.
Some final quotes
St Francis de Sales went to the Chablais region in France, which had a population of about 72,000 people, about 60 years after it had become Protestant through the enforcement of the Reformed Faith on the people by the Calvinists. He wrote a series of tracts which he distributed throughout the district. After about 4 years almost the entire population had returned to the Catholic Church. This first quote is from one of his tracts:
“To say that the whole of Christendom has failed, that the whole Church has erred, and all truth disappeared, – what is this but to say that Our Lord has abandoned his Church, has broken the sacred tie of marriage he had contracted with her? And to put forward a new Church, – is it not to attempt to thrust upon this sacred and holy Husband a second wife? This is what the ministers [i.e. the Reformers] of the pretended church have undertaken; this is what they boast of having done; this has been the aim of their discourses, their designs, their writings” (St Francis de Sales “The Catholic Controversy” publ. Tan Books 1989, page 12).
Tertullian wrote: “….that which saves us is faith, and not arguing on Scriptures. Reasoning proceeds from curiosity….curiosity must yield to faith, and the glory of the knowledge of salvation….To know nothing contrary to the rule which the Church gives us, is to know all things” (“The Prescription against Heretics” Tertullian).
And Augustine famously said: “I would not accept the Gospel, but for the authority of the Catholic Church” (Augustine “Epis. Cont. Fund. c.v, n.6). Irenaeus presents Scripture, Tradition and Apostolic Succession as proof that the Catholic Church is the sole depository of Apostolic Doctrine. He writes “Since therefore we have such proofs, it is not necessary to seek the truth among others which it is easy to obtain from the Church; since the apostles, like a rich man [depositing his money] in a bank, lodged in her hands most copiously all things pertaining to truth; so that every man, whosoever will, can draw from her the water of life. For she is the entrance to life; all others are thieves and robbers. On this account are we bound to avoid them [i.e. the heretics], but to make choice of the things pertaining to the Church with the utmost diligence, and to lay hold of the tradition of the truth. For how stands the case? Suppose there arise a dispute relative to some important question among us, should we not have recourse to the most ancient Churches with which the apostles held constant intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question? For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary, [in that case] to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they did commit the Churches? (“Against Heresies” Book III chap iv.1).
“Revised Standard Version Bible, Ignatius Edition, Copyright 2006, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America”.
Douay Rheims Bible, published by Baronius Press, London, 2010.