Tuesday, August 12, 2008

If I Were a 2nd Century Christian

Issue. I think this might be a helpful intellectual exercise: where would I have looked to know what to believe about the faith and the Gospel if I were alive as a Christian in the 2nd century of the Church? [My comments are a rephrasing of those I made recently here.]

Rule. The properly ordained bishops taught the true faith and the Gospel in the 2nd century. Irenaeus tells us, "It is possible, then, for everyone in every church, who may wish to know the truth, to contemplate the tradition of the apostles which has been made known to us throughout the whole world. And we are in a position to enumerate those who were instituted bishops by the apostles and their successors down to our own times, men who neither knew nor taught anything like what these heretics [the Gnostics] rave about" (Against Heresies, 3:3:1 [A.D. 189]).

Analysis. Since properly ordained bishops held the truth, I would have believed about the faith and the Gospel what my local bishop taught me.

While the successor-bishops taught the true Christian faith, they did not do so infallibly (indeed, even the Apostle Peter could err, as Paul made plain in Galatians 2:11 ff. ("When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong.")). If I had doubts about my bishop's teachings, I would assure myself that all proper authorities are given by God (cf. Matt. 10:1, 2 Cor. 10:8, 13:10, 1 Thes. 4:2, Titus 2:15), and that we are to submit to our proper spiritual authorities (as Paul tells us in Heb. 13:17 "Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you."). Therefore, if in fact my bishop were in doctrinal or practical error, I would have remained submitted to him as my proper authority (trusting that any culpability for such error would rest with him and not me). I would trust that his fellow bishops, speaking for the Church, would eventually call him to correction.

What would my alternate be?
- Declare myself a bishop? I would lack the authority to do that, if the proper authority is one ordained by a successor-bishop of the Apostles.
- Declare myself without a bishop, until my bishop came around to what I understood to be the truth? First, this would not be true submission, but conditional submission ('I submit under my terms'). Second, by what standard would I determine that I would again 'submit' to him? Scripture (as it existed at that point)? Even the heretics argued from Scripture (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1:3:6, "And it is not only from the writings of the evangelists and the apostles that they endeavour to derive proofs for their opinions by means of perverse interpretations and deceitful expositions: they deal in the same way with the law and the prophets, which contain many parables and allegories that can frequently be drawn into various senses, according to the kind of exegesis to which they are subjected.").

Conclusion. In the 2nd century, I would have believed that our God loves us enough to give us shepherds on earth, easily identifiable, that we can follow with trust and confidence. I would have followed the local bishop's explication of the Gospel, and submitted myself to his God-given authority.


Devin Rose said...

Your logic makes total sense to me. Does this exercise then lead to the question: Is there any difference between being a Christian in the 2nd century versus the 21st?

I'd like to see what you think about that one next.

Thos said...


It's always good to hear from you. I hope you and Katie are well (I've been following things on your blog). As for your question, I'll see what I can come up with!

Peace in Christ,

contrarian 78 said...

I take it you were thinking about the barnacle metaphor by Peter Kreeft, esp. as it was mentioned on De Regnis Duobus. I am on your side on this matter, and it has led me to think that one must conclude either that some group with apostolic succession has a faithful understanding of reality, or one must think that a true corruption of the Church had occurred by the second century, a la Mormonism.

I have opted for the former, and investigation has led me to begin leaving the PCA and join those who see unity and truth most fully existing in submission to the bishop of Rome.


Thos said...


I was prompted to write this by a subsidiary discussion of the barnacle metaphor of Kreeft's professor. Thanks for commenting.

I believe the confessional Reformed cite a position other than your dichotomy (either/or), but in the final analysis, I would agree with you. The Reformed position is that there is no infallible church authority (so the church was not infallible in the 2nd century, nor the 15th, nor today), so corruptions would be evident in any age. I think a general consensus is that the errors sort of snowballed from an early period, but much of what was believed in the 2nd century was right, whereas much of what was believed in the 15th was wrong. I like this position better than one that has to identify a date and time of when the church became apostate -- became no church at all (such that breaking from it wasn't schism, because it had effectively ceased to be). But still, problems abound with it all, as I see it.

I'm not ready for any big "coming out" announcements at the time being, but would like to hear more from you: would you please tell me what it means to go about leaving the PCA, and specifically would you please tell me if your session chooses to pursue disciplinary action, or if they issue you a letter of transfer (the Book of Church Order allows that for people heading to non-Reformed but still biblical 'visible' churches, so on several levels I'm curious how various sessions would handle a 'transfer' to Catholicism)? You are in the Potomac Presbytery? If so, I am in the neighboring Chesapeake. I hope your family takes well to your decision.

May you have Christ's peace with your decision,

Gil Garza said...

You have come to Newman's dilemma. He writes, "It was difficult to make out how the Eutychians or Monophysites were heretics, unless Protestant and Anglicans were heretics also; difficult to find arguments against the Tridentine Fathers, which did not tell against the Fathers of Chalcedon; difficult to condemn the Popes of the 16th century, without condemning the Popes of the 5th. … The shadow of the 5th century was on the 16th. … What was the use of continuing the controversy, or defending my position, if, after all, I was forging arguments for Arius or Eutyches, and turning devil’s advocate against the much-enduring Athanasius and the majestic Leo?”

The question isn’t would you submit to Episcopal authority in the 2nd century but rather, to whose Episcopal authority would you submit? Marcion’s? The Ebionites? Montanus’? The Monarchian’s? The Modalist’s? Perhaps Basilidians’? Or the Adoptionists?

Would you use the test of Irenaeus to prove which bishop would receive your submission? More importantly, please take this with all kindness, if this test is valid in the 2nd century, why haven’t you done it already?

Tim A. Troutman said...

Thos you know why I love your blog? It's because your thoughts are clear and you attract clear thinkers as is evident in the preceding comments.

Even when you propose possible arguments against the Roman claim, they are clear and easy to understand why one might wrestle with the question. I can't say as much for many of the Protestants I've been interacting with recently. Surely the sophistry and deliberate confusing of issues (clever though some of it is) of these other discussions must be as evident to you as it is to me.

The difference in this combox and the one over at Pastor Stellman's is like night and day as far as clarity goes. (Whether the comments are right or wrong). (I'm not speaking of Pastor Stellman himself. He's obviously a clear thinker.)

Anyway, good stuff keep it coming.

samurfer said...

Great post, very clear and precise logic.

I get the feeling that infallibility is still a stickling point for you, which is understandable. Benedict XVI himself said that it was important to not misunderstand the doctrine, as "It doesn't mean that every word that the ecclesiastical authorities say, or even every word said by a pope, is infallible. It certainly does mean that wherever the Church, in the great spiritual and cultural struggles of history, and after all possible prayer and grappling with the truth, insists that this is the correct interpretation and draws a line there, she has been promised that in this instance she will not lead people in to error."

The conclusion you come to in your piece about how you would view authority in the 2nd century is strikingly similar to how the Pope views the charism of infallibility: a faith that God will preserve His Church, and prevent it from drifting into error. Or otherwise said, "The gates of hell shall prevail against it."

Pax et bonum,
Sam Urfer

samurfer said...

Whoops! That is, not prevail against it.

Obviously, I am not infallible.

Thos said...


Thanks for articulating Newman's dilemma. I can relate. If I deny the successor-bishops were guided by the Holy Spirit so that I *had* to submit to them, then I have a real problem with trusting the NT Scriptures at all. If Peter could err, so could Paul and the lot. If they could err, how do I know they didn't err when they penned the NT Scriptures (and the gospels, as I've been reading Justin Martyr from ~155 AD, weren't even called Scripture in the early church, but the 'Apostles Narratives')? I have to believe the Spirit was with them. Where do the Scriptures tell us 'the Holy Spirit will be with you [Apostles] until the end of your lives, so that you can live infallible teachings'? Rather, they tell us that the Spirit will be with us until the end of the age (as you know). I just want positive evidence to support skepticism of the charism of the successors of the Apostles. I don't think it should be a default position, given the promises of Christ.

Good point also that episcopal structure was probably the only show in town in the 2nd century, so the 'which' bishop would be the only struggle for me. As I said, I would have sought out the local successor-bishop under Irenaeus' rule. As for why I haven't done that today, as I said to Jonathan, I'm just not ready for my 'coming out' yet. Stay tuned.

Peace in Christ,

Thos said...


Thank you for the compliment. If I can bloviate for a second, I'm generally pleased with how I've been able to apply some law school skills here (clearly articulate issues, identify and analysis possible solutions, etc.). These aren't law tools, but tools fundamental to settling disputes, so I think they carry over well.

I'm with you in part, but not the part where you say the Protestant contributors in place's like Pastor Stellman's blog are *deliberately* confusing issues. I don't know their state of mind, but doubt that they have that intent. But I often do feel confused in that discussion, because people sometimes have a hard time addressing an issue (or critque) that has been tabled. They throw out new ones. They give long reading assignments before you can challenge their perspective (a particular peeve of mine).

I will make this critique by stereotype though. I have noticed, especially recently on Bryan Cross's blog, a pervasive skepticism about sources of truth. The immediate rejection of his proposal to look to the fathers *on the grounds that they're unreliable* had a big impact on me. (Impression:) the people interacting with Bryan on that point seemed to have an underlying understanding that if they gave him the Fathers in dialogue, they would lose their presuppositions. I decided I have to trust the general strokes of the fathers, because I think (a priori, subjectively) the Holy Spirit loves us so much that he would give us both immediate *and* mediate help in finding truth.

Peace in Christ,

Thos said...


I struggle not so much with doctrinal infallibility claims, but an overall skepticism of how far I am willing to go in believing the Holy Spirit is with His Church. It seems I come from strongly skeptical stock when it comes to Catholic claims. I am trying to temper my skepticism with prayer and with considering what the Love of the Holy Spirit can say to inform my opinion.

Peace in Christ,

Tim A. Troutman said...

Yes on second thought "deliberately" was not the right word. There's just a lot of fog there and a fear to look clearly and intently at individual issues.

Thos said...


Ah, excellent. In that case, agreed! I think the fear is to look intently at issues on other than one's own terms and grounds. Hence, an unwillingness to let the Fathers speak without first insisting that they are unreliable.

Peace in Christ,

Gil Garza said...

I thought I’d post the 2nd Century Christian Test for Truth as found in Against the Heresies Book 3, Chapter 3 by Irenaeus. He is writing to a friend who is a bishop who had asked for help with his flock. How can you tell that your bishop is teaching the truth? “We shall confound all those who, in whatever manner, assemble other than where it is proper, by pointing out here the succession of the bishops of the greatest and most ancient Church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul, that Church which has the tradition and the faith which comes down to us after having been announced to men by the Apostles. For with this Church, because of its superior origin, all Churches must agree, that is the faithful in the whole world; and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the Apostolic tradition.”

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi there

I found your post through the patristics carnival.

Great topic, and I wrote a reply over on my blog considering what methods I would use to be sure of the apostolic teachings in the second century and (while we're on the subject) what methods I would use to be sure of the apostolic teachings in the 21st century.


Take care & God bless
Anne / WF