Sunday, Nov 09, 2003: “Early Christian Tradition: #1: Overview of Early History”

St. Mark’s Adult Education Meeting Summary

Early Christian Tradition

Session One: An Overview of Early Christian History

Led by and Summary Supplied by Mike Kreutzer

Sunday, November 9, 2003

Why do we even care? (Rebecca Lyman, Early Christian Traditions, Chapter One: “Anglican Identity and Early Christian Traditions” pages 1-3

“Given our own different historical context, what use or authority do these early centuries have? How can we be traditional or radical or anything in between unless we understand how our beliefs and liturgies originated? …Understanding our past is essential to dreaming our future.”

“Liturgy, orthodoxy, monasticism and scripture were all ‘invented’ during these centuries. The prayers, hopes and conclusions of these ancient peoples are ours whether we know it or not.”

“Moreover, the present structure of the Anglican Communion, with its independent national churches joined together not by a central authority but by mutual consultation and communion, reflects the unity and diversity of the ancient church. In England, the Americas, Asia and Africa, we Anglicans sing second-century hymns, recite fourth-century creeds and prayers, and worship according to ancient liturgical forms as part of our contemporary faith… Learning from our earlier struggles about unity is an essential part of living through our present questions and conflicts with faithfulness and courage.”

What Did Not Happen: a Common View:
Jesus > the Twelve, traveled out (Thomas to India, Andrew to the Scythians of southern Russia, etc.) > selected and ordained bishops to succeed them and carry on the work

Christians had a unified faith, a unified understanding of who Jesus was, how the Church was to live and function, how to celebrate and live their spiritual lives etc. 

This is not what happened. 

What Did Happen:

The situation was far more fluid and complex. Yet Christians saw the Spirit as working in the Church and guiding it throughout its struggles and its journeys.

Jewish background:
Jesus was born a Jew and remained a practicing Jew throughout his life. His followers also appear to have been practicing Jews.
Judaism at the time of Jesus: complex; Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes; widespread in the Roman Empire; life in the synagogues
The earliest Church saw itself as part of Judaism.

Gentiles Christians:
Influx created the first great crisis in the Church; Paul and Barnabas; encounter with Gentile Christians and experience of the Spirit working within and among them; Jerusalem Council

First great missionary; great versatility: great ability to adapt himself and the style of his message to the culture of his hearers; bridged the gaps in society (Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female; all one in Christ)

Church’s split with Judaism:
Suetonius’ Life of Claudius: Jews expelled from Rome (c. 50) because of arguments over “Chrestos”
By 85: prayer added to Jewish daily prayers, “May the Nazarenes and the heretics be suddenly destroyed and removed from the Book of Life.” 

Jewish Christian communities: continued to observe Jewish feasts and customs; quickly became a small minority and increasingly more isolated; Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho says that a Jewish Christian was free to continue keeping the Mosaic Law as a Christian; from Irenaeus onward, such Jewish Christians were considered to be a sect; “Ebionites”

Encounter with Eastern Mystery Religions
Focus on mysteries and professional priesthood (vs. the Christian “priesthood of all believers”); some interesting parallels: cult of Isis nursing her child (similar images to later depictions of the Madonna with child); sacred meals in which one came into contact with the divine; “Day of Blood” (March 22) on which death of Attis was mourned, followed by Hilaria (March 25) celebrating his resurrection

Encounter with the Roman Empire:
Empire tended to be tolerant of many cults, as long as their did not threaten the power of the Empire

64: Nero and the Great Fire of Rome; used Christians as a scapegoat (Tacitus insisted that there was no basis for this, even though he saw no harm in their execution as members of an anti-social group hated for their vices.); Christians were suspected of incest and cannibalism at their nocturnal meetings (probably based on talk of fraternal love and the eucharist)
Domitian (81-96) initiated a persecution, styling himself “Master and God”; condemnation of some for “atheism and Jewish sympathies” may have referred to Christians

About 112, Pliny the Younger (governor of Bythinia in Asia Minor) asked for Trajan’s (98- 117) advice on dealing with Christians; apparently, Christianity had become widespread in the countryside as well as villages and towns.
Several second-century persecutions: Christians were now accepted to be virtuous people, but they refused to accept the old religion; further, they were obstinate and refused to “repent” of their ways even when commanded to do so; therefore, they had forfeited any sympathy
(Tertullian: “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”)

Eighteenth-century historian Edward Gibbon wrote of the Antonines’ Rome: “The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord.” (Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 3 vols., (New York: The Modern Library, 1995), 1:22.)

Multiple movements, not a unified religion; Chadwick: “The word is often used in a much wider and vaguer sense to describe an imprecise, syncretistic religiosity diffused widely in the Levantine world, and existing independently of and prior to Christianity”; focused on special, esoteric knowledge

Creeds: There are ancient, basic creedal statements in the New Testament itself (e.g. “Jesus is Lord”). The Apostles Creed developed as a baptismal creed. The so-called Nicene Creed is based on a statement of faith from the Council of Nicaea (325), modified by the First Council of Constantinople (381).

By the late 4th century, there was almost universal acceptance, in both East and West, of 27 books as part of the New Testament. The development of this “canon” had been a long, involved process of discerning: first, which books were of apostolic (or putatively apostolic) origin; second, the importance of the communities to which they were addressed; and third, conformity with the faith of the Church (i.e. Tradition).

The orders of ministry likewise developed throughout this period and differed from place to place. Paul describes multiple ministries within the primitive Church, chief among them being apostles, prophets and teachers (1 Cor. 12:28). Later generations came to identify the seven men selected in Acts (6:5) as deacons. 

Paul seems to have worked with a variety of leading ministries within the Church. Philippians is addressed to the “bishops and deacons” at Philippi. The Pastoral Epistles indicate more of a monarchical bishop structure. Corinth in Paul’s time does not seem to have anyone in particular who presided on an ongoing basis.

The terms “presbyter” and “bishop” seem to have designated the same sorts of ministry at first. Different terms may have been in use in different places.

Ignatius of Antioch (60 or 70 years later) addresses a monarchical bishop who served together with a group of presbyters and deacons. He comments on the Spirit of God working in the sacramental life of the church gathered around its bishop.
The epistle of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians (c. 100) is addressed to bishops or presbyters (used interchangeably) and deacons.

The Didache (c. 100) likewise speaks of appointing bishops and deacons. (cf. Chadwick, op. cit., page 47) It appears that there is now a distinction in liturgical function: the bishop presides and the deacon assists.

Deacons in the early centuries of the Church assisted the bishops in looking after church property and caring for the poor. In Rome around 150 (according to Justin) the deacon took the consecrated elements to the sick and imprisoned. Later, the deacon proclaimed the gospel in some churches. By at least the third century, the deacon administered the chalice and, in larger churches, was responsible for keeping order.

(Owen Chadwick, The Early Church, page 48): “During the second and third centuries there must have been many occasions when he deacons actually celebrated the eucharist. This practice was frowned upon and at the Council of Arles (314) and Nicaea (325) explicitly forbidden. By then it was usual for rural congregations to be served by a resident presbyter.”

Rebecca Lyman, op. cit., pp. 7-8: In the 4th and 5th century, the lived experience of “Tradition” in East and West diverged. In the West, Carthage had been destroyed, leaving Rome as virtually the sole authority. The East maintained the ancient sense of Tradition as the common possession of all the churches, especially the patriarchal churches of Constantinople (the first among equals), Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem.

The Anglican reformers turned with respect to the concept of “unity in multiplicity” of the early Church. “Based on early Christianity, Anglicans believed they had every right to maintain ecclesiastical, doctrinal, and liturgical autonomy if they could justify it with reference to scripture and tradition.” (p. 9)