I used to occasionally post on another board, established to provide Roman Catholics and others a forum in which to address issues generated by postings to a forerunner of the Proclaiming The Gospel forum. Though I publicly declared my intention to not become embroiled in debate at that board, I did occasionally interact with some of the folks who posted there. Usually, my interaction was limited to posting my comments and observations concerning a particular post. Now and then, I responded to questions. A couple of the regulars at that board really put me through the hoops with courteously worded questions that were just too darned interesting to ignore. What follows is one of the questions concerning a post of mine to the thread: How do PTG-ers know the NT is the Word of God?
Before stating his questions, this individual established two possible conclusions for consideration. These were:
Those are interesting alternatives, but not diametrically opposed as might appear at first blush. There are dangerous waters here for those who are not wary. An example is the final "condition" in the first possibility. I put on waders and attempted to keep my feet dry as I responded to the following questions:
Now by any standard, this is a HUGE question. A truly thorough response would fill a large book. Fortunately, I don't know enough to fill a book, so my response turned out not to be incredibly long. I thought that the best way to deal would be to address individual parts, one at a time. And the place to start was with some of the presuppositions that helped form the question itself.
The first issue to get out of the way concerns those "bishops." Did they exercise ecclesiastical rule over a number of churches scattered over a large area? Or were they simply people in leadership positions in local churches, much as we see pastors, elders and deacons in many of today's non-Catholic churches? I go with the latter understanding.
The organization of the earliest church was nothing at all like what we see today. There were no special-purpose buildings devoted to religious worship. The first Jewish Christians gathered in private homes to discuss and learn of their Christian faith and to participate in the Lord's Supper. On the Sabbath, they went to shul (synagogue), where they joined with other Jews in reading and studying Scripture.
These first Christians had no formal organization; no pastors or boards of elders. There were no bishops ruling over churches collected into dioceses. There was not even a central authority to oversee doctrinal development and catechetical instruction. At the very beginning of its existence, the Christian church was a collection of small groups, likely centered on a neighborhood or village shul. It seems quite likely that, in the absence of formal guidance and doctrinal oversight, each of these little churches began to build individual primitive doctrinal statements. All these groups were Christian, I should think, for all the memberships must have been believers, given that there were serious reasons not to frivolously associate with a persecuted sect.
These infant churches were scattered throughout Israel, Judea and the Diaspora and probably had limited communication with one another. Who formed these churches? The very first Christian assembly was made up of those Apostles and disciples of Jesus gathered in that room in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. I do not doubt that these had been secretly meeting since the Crucifixion. No doubt in their gatherings they marveled at reports of sightings of their risen Lord and exchanged anecdotes concerning His acts and teachings. But they really were catechumens learning to receive the unspeakable riches of adoption into the very family of God.
Once Peter and the others had taken the Gospel message to the streets, and all those Jews who had gathered in Jerusalem for Pesach had returned to their homes, who did the teaching? The little churches - by this I mean the assemblies, not buildings - around Jerusalem could call upon the rich experiences and insights of the Apostles and others who had traveled with the Master. Churches in outlying areas and in the Diaspora likely soon identified people to teach, though one can only speculate on the criteria used to make the selections. That these teachers were esteemed may be adduced from their inclusion in the ministry order in Paul's 1st letter to the church in Corinth:
Apparently, teachers were common in the infant church and they shared in the honor enjoyed by apostles and prophets. Teachers held no official position in the church; they were no more officers than were the apostles and prophets. But they had influence and exercised a measure of authority on the same basis as did the prophets. What really gave them clout was that they spoke the word of God. They could not claim to speak oracles, so I imagine what they had to say was not given the same weight as the utterances of the prophets and, therefore, their dignity and authority likely were something less than that enjoyed by prophets.
They may have enjoyed less dignity and authority than prophets or apostles, but they had great practical influence in the conduct of the church and in the development of Christian thought and life. Paul tells us that these teachers were endowed with gifts of wisdom and knowledge, which qualified them to instruct and edify the church.
Once the enthusiasm of the first days of the new church had passed, when consciousness of the immediate presence of the Spirit was no longer vivid and widespread; when there were no more prophets to share new revelations from God; there remained plenty of work for teachers. Christians now looked to those who had the gift of teaching for the instruction and guidance that they once had received from apostles and prophets.
The apostles, prophets and teachers appear to have belonged to the church at large, not just to some local congregation (cf. Didache, chaps 10 & 13). It may be suggested that the apostles, prophets and a few others were the only ones who spent their lives travelling from place to place. However, prophets and teachers, though they may usually have remained in a single city, had their significance for the entire church, not just for their local congregations. Teachers had no authority to force a congregation to listen to them, but I imagine that most could get a hearing just about anywhere. Once it became evident that they were acting under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and therefore capable of speaking God's word, I do not doubt that the folks in every church listened eagerly to their inspired utterances.
When the apostles and prophets were gone from the picture, the teachers naturally moved in to fill the leadership void. As men especially inspired by God, they necessarily became the natural guides of the church in all its spiritual activities. Since there was nothing but spiritual activities in the early church, their controlling influence was extended to every aspect of church life. And so teachers became responsible not only for the spiritual feeding of the church but also for exercising control wherever control was needed. As it was in Corinth, so must it have been everywhere else in these first days of the Christian church.
Think about it. The apostles and prophets could not be everywhere at once. Likely there were not enough teachers to go around; and some churches may have been left with no one endowed with the teaching charism. Did these churches without spiritual rudders shut down, their memberships being absorbed into other congregations? Some may have, but I doubt that many did. More likely, they either elected spiritual leaders and teachers from within their membership and these took over the responsibilities of the missing apostles, prophets and teachers or they adopted a free-flowing mode in which no one led and all shared equally in authority. Either situation prepared the ground for planting the seeds of error.
As the church increased and spread, so also did heretical doctrine and practice. It was the growing lack of ecclesiastical discipline that contributed to the rise of presbyters (elders); that made it necessary to appoint men with special responsibilities that once had been the province of apostles, prophets and teachers. At one time, the inspiration of teachers had fitted them above all others to exert control in matters of church discipline. But the numbers of such men grew decreased as the years passed, while the need for careful and faithful administration of church discipline was on the increase.
How long did it take for error to raise its ugly head? Not long at all. We read of the heresies advanced by Judaizers in Acts 15 and Galatians 2. In the Didache, believed to have been written near the end of the 1st century, one can read that some churches were especially directed to appoint bishops and deacons in order that the Eucharist might be kept pure. (Chaps. 7, 9, et seq.)
These early overseers were not bishops in the monarchical sense so often assigned them by RCC interpreters of church history. The Roman Church likes to refer to those first bishops as successors to the apostles. Actually they were substitutes for the apostles, prophets and teachers in the performance of various duties once performed by these early church leaders. The office of overseer (bishop) came into existence due to the fact that men especially inspired to declare the will of God were not always available and could not, therefore, be relied on to be in any particular city when needed.
Lacking the reliable availability of inspired men, early Christians looked to the most trusted of their own membership to act in their places. I imagine that the men chosen usually were mature and experienced, with years of Christian life behind them. Just being a Christian was universally regarded as a gift from God, so the man who had proved himself to be a true disciple of Christ by a long life of faithful and devoted service probably was thought to be especially blessed by the Holy Spirit. Therefore, such a man must have been considered to be particularly qualified to teach and lead younger and less experienced believers. That this was so may be seen in Paul's instructions to Timothy concerning the qualifications of church leaders in his 1st letter to Timothy (chap 3).
Stepping back a moment to address the Catholic apologist's wonderfully worded question, there is some evidence, i.e., the Didache, Acts and the Pastoral letters, that error indeed had crept into the doctrine and practice of the primitive church at a very early date. Given this reality, it would be inappropriate to charge that bishops either abused their authority or adulterated the faith of the visible church in the early formative years of its existence. In those first days, there were no bishops. In fact, the office of overseer (bishop) was created specifically to deal with errors of doctrine and practice.
Back to church history. Even among the tried and true long-service Christians, there were some who seemed to have been equipped by the Lord for particular service. Thus it came about that some of the overseers (presbyters, elders) were selected for greater responsibilities within their own communities. No sooner that came about than a distinction came to exist between these "bishops" and the other elders (presbyters). This was not the same distinction that came into being in the second century, when both bishops and presbyters were church officers, with distinctive areas of responsibility.
The bishops (elders/presbyters) of the 1st century church were not officers in any sense, nor were they appointed to particular service. They were but older and more mature disciples, naturally honored by younger and less experienced brethren. Though it is true these first bishops (elders/presbyters) had no official status, it would be a mistake to suggest there were no distinctions between them or to consider them as having been identical in the primitive church. Think of it this way. All those who became bishops were elders, but all elders were not bishops.
In that these new bishops (elders/presbyters) were selected from the corps of older believers explains the historic relationship between bishops and teaching. The chief function of the apostles, prophets and teachers was to instruct believers in the will and truth of God. In that they were gifted with the power to do so, the leadership of the church, in all its varied functions, devolved upon them. When these first teachers and leaders had left the scene, their responsibilities and authority eventually fell to the older and more mature Christians who had heard the Word proclaimed by the inspired apostles, prophets and teachers. And so the functions of teaching, distributing charity, leading worship services and administration eventually came under the authority of these new "super-elders" or bishops.
We have no date to point to as the moment in time when the very first bishop, in the sense that office is understood today, was appointed. There is no reference to a bishop in the letters Paul wrote to the churches in Galatia or Rome or, more significantly, to the church in Corinth. Though we have no evidence of the appointment of bishops anywhere in Scriptures, there is evidence in Paul's 1st letter to the church in Corinth (16:15) and in his 1st letter to the church in Thessalonica (5:12) that even before churches began to appoint officers some took it upon themselves to serve in certain capacities and this service entitled them to some degree of deference and a measure of control in the affairs of the congregation.
Even after the churches had begun to appoint bishops, they had no official status in the church. They did not have an absolute right to rule, nor could they insist upon the obedience and submission of other believers. The ability to rule in the church was as much a charism as the ability to teach or prophesy. Anyone appointed to the office of bishop was believed to have been called by God to that office. So, a man's right to hold the office of bishop was dependent upon the recognition of the congregation that he had a divine call. Should a congregation ever begin to doubt that call, they could refuse to permit him to exercise his functions, to follow him or to listen to his teaching.
Over time, the duties of the bishops became increasingly complicated and pressing. The need for regularity and order became apparent and, inevitably, so did the idea that control of the affairs of a particular church should remain permanently in the hands of its bishops. As a result of this, bishops began to regard themselves, and to be regarded, as possessing certain exclusive rights of which they should not be deprived. The first indication of this sentiment is found in paragraph 44 of Clement's letter to the Corinthians, which was prompted by leadership disputes in the church there near the end of the 1st century.
At the close of the Apostolic Age, it appears that at least some churches had regularly appointed deacons and bishops (presbyters/elders), some of whom were officers in the strictest sense. If it were necessary, I would continue this study right through the 4th century, but I believe I have taken my review of the early church and how it came to create bishops far enough to serve the purposes of this study. With this understanding, it is possible to address another part of the mega-question.
I believe that some early bishops indeed did depart from the pure Christian faith in so much as they failed to correct all the heresies extant in the churches at the time they ascended to offices of genuine authority. In that some of the old heresies were not wiped out, they continued to grow and, for whatever reason, new ones were added. Doctrine and practice in some ways indeed did depart from the "pure" Christian faith.
I am convinced that the bishops faithfully preserved the Scriptures, though they erroneously included in the Canon of Scripture historical and literary documents that, while useful, were not Divinely inspired. I do not charge the bishops or the early councils with deliberately corrupting the received Scriptures, though I do believe that, over the years, zealous or careless scribes allowed errors to creep into their transcriptions of the sacred writings. One example of error introduced by carelessness seems to concern the wonderful stable of Solomon, which had either 4,000 or 40,000 horses. Other changes were introduced into some transcriptions deliberately, it seems, by over-zealous monks and transcriptionists, An example of this could be at Matthew 27:49, which reads as follows in the KJV:
Some early manuscripts add these words:
I note that my 21st Edition of Eberhard Nestle's NovumTestamentum Graece does not include the added words; nor does the Roman Catholic Douay-Rheims translation of the Vulgate Bible.
In that it is extremely unlikely the Apostle wrote two versions of this passage, it seems reasonable to suggest that someone deliberately introduced a change. Though the date Matthew wrote this book cannot be known with certainty, it does appear to have been penned prior to the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. When was the change that appears in verse 49 introduced? Did some member of the primitive church change it, as he copied the book, in an ill-considered desire to underscore the reality of Christ's death? Did a Catholic monk make the change as he labored under the light of a small window in some scriptorium? Can the changes be laid at the feet of some Catholic Bishop? I don't have the answer to that.
My Catholic antagonist proposed a means for testing his two possible theses:
I agree that the decisions and doctrines proceeding from the first ecumenical councils provide sufficient information to permit choosing from between the two alternative possibilities you have set. I shall limit my review to the first three such councils: Nicea I (325), Constantinople I (381) and Ephesus (431).
Despite the eagerness of some Roman Catholic church historians and apologists to declare the primacy of the Bishop of Rome over the catholic (small c) Christian Church, that seems not to have been the case when Ignatius of Antioch (d. ca. 107) wrote to the church in Rome. In this letter, one of seven letters written to the seven churches of the ancient Mediterranean world, the soon-to-be martyred Ignatius wrote:
Some Catholic church historians and apologists I have encountered like to point to the words, "the Church which presides in the place of the region of the Romans," as "proof" that the Bishop of Rome had primacy over the catholic (small c) Christian Church. I interpret that phrase to mean simply that the church in Rome is the "mother church," for want of a better term, in the region around Rome. I do not interpret that region to be the great Roman Empire. It would seem that Ignatius, who identified himself as the Bishop of Antioch, thought the same way. Of the seven letters he wrote to the Churches, only his letter to Rome fails to mention the local bishop. Could that be because that church had not, as yet, elected a bishop? Something to think on.
Something else to think on: In his letter to Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, Ignatius wrote:
"Who has, as his own bishop, God the Father." Those words would appear to indicate that Polycarp answered only to Almighty God, rather than the apparently non-existent bishop of Rome.
The Christian Church continued to grow, and to consecrate men as bishops (overseers/elders). Something else was happening. With the apostles, prophets and teachers no longer present to teach under Divine inspiration, the church began to drift away from its pure form. It began to lose its focus and to incorporate beliefs and practices from the Jewish and pagan backgrounds of its membership.
In the Apostolic Age, Christians were renowned for their high standards of morality and godly living. In their lives and in their worship, they were more like the strictest of the Jewish sects, even having as their principal day of worship the Sabbath. Major inducements to such living were the presence of Apostles, prophets and teachers who imparted God's word to them and also the belief that Christ would return soon. As time passed, the hope of Christ's imminent return faded and the voice of the flesh rose again.
Sometime during the 2nd century, the Christian church changed it's day of worship from the Jewish Sabbath to Sunday, which they called Dies Domini, the Lord's Day. On that day, they assembled to listen as their leaders read from the Scriptures. These leaders, who were coming to be viewed as priests, led them in prayer, taught them church doctrine and exhorted them to moral living.
The primitive Christian Church, with it's strict moral code and simple form of worship was morphing into what we know today as Roman Catholicism as it incorporated elements of pagan religions and philosophies.
The Christian Church not only survived every effort to crush it. It actually grew in response to the efforts of secular rulers to wipe it out. The persecutions eventually ended. Somewhere along the way, Rome ended up with a real bishop. Did the Roman bishop hold a position of supremacy over the catholic (still small c) Christian Church? Not really.
Melchiades (311-314) was the Bishop of Rome when Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, conferring favored status on the Christian Church, but he does not appear to have been the Big Boss Man, as the following events demonstrate.
In 311, Caecilian was consecrated bishop of Carthage. The rigorists, folks who opposed readmission to the church of those who had wavered during the persecutions, were outraged and consecrated their own bishop, who was soon replaced by Donatus. The rigorists appealed to Constantine, who directed Melchiades to hear the case and report back to him. Melchiades convened a synod, comprised of 15 Italian bishops of his choice and three Gallic bishops selected by Constantine. This synod, which met at the Lateran Palace in 313, found in favor of Caicilian and excommunicated Donatus. The Donatists were outraged at the decision and appealed to Constantine, who summoned a council of representatives from all the Western provinces to meet in Arles. Melchiades died before the council met.
Was the Roman Bishop truly ruler of the catholic (small c) Christian Church? Hardly. On at least two occasions, those supposedly under his rule appealed to the secular authority of the emperor to overturn his ecclesiastic actions. When Constantine called a church council to review the case, neither Melchiades nor Sylvester, his successor, took exception. Chrestus, bishop of Syracuse, presided over this council, to which Pope Sylvester sent two presbyters and two deacons as his representatives. This synod is noteworthy in that, at its conclusion,
The 4th century had opened to see the Roman see beginning to grow in ascendancy over the other Christian churches, principally as a consequence of its favored position near to the seat of secular authority. Error and pagan influences had been introduced into the Christian Church long before the 1st ecumenical council convened at Nicea. Were bishops responsible for the corruption of the once pure faith? In so far as they failed to prevent unwholesome changes to Christian worship or to act to remove them once identified, I would say that indeed they must be considered at least to share in the responsibility.
Time for a quick look at that council convened in Nicea in 325. Pope Sylvester (314-335) had very little to do with it, which would seem a strange thing were the primacy of the Roman see a reality. Sylvester did not call the council, nor did he even attend. Emperor Constantine the Great convened the council and was present during its proceedings. Another indication that the Roman see was not considered superior to all others was its representation at this great council. Of 318 bishops and a great number of priests, deacons and acolytes, most from the Eastern Church, Rome's contingent numbered but two presbyters, who were given no special consideration. Sylvester had been invited but demurred, pleading advanced age. The presiding bishop was Hosius of Cordoba.
The Nicene Council formulated the Nicene Creed, which settled once for all that Jesus is of the same substance as the Father. It also addressed administrative issues such as how to deal with Cathars, Paulinists and certain apostates. There were prohibitions against usury by clergy and against religious keeping women in their homes. I find Canon 4 to be particularly interesting:
Bishops to be appointed by other bishops, not the Pope. I reckon that is another indication that, as of this point in time, the Bishop of Rome was not the ruler over all the Christian Church.
The 2nd ecumenical council was summoned by Emperor Theodosius the Great in 381. I cannot understand why it is identified as an ecumenical council, since only 150 bishops, all from the Eastern Church, were in attendance. In calling the council, the emperor summoned only adherents of the Nicene party, the membership of which had been greatly reduced during the previous reign. The emperor did not attend and the council was presided over by Meletius of Antioch until his death and afterwards by Gregory Nazianzen and after his resignation by patriarch Nectarius of Constantinople. This council is notable for having enlarged the Nicene Creed by the addition of an article on the divinity and personality of the Holy Spirit. It also issued seven new canons, only four of which appear in the Latin versions. This council also anathematized all heretics and established limits on the authority of bishops. Notably, Canon 3 seems to indicate that the Roman see had primacy of honor over all other sees.
The 3rd ecumenical council, summoned at Ephesus in 431, was summoned by Emperor Theodosious II in connection with the Western co-emperor Valentinian III. It was presided over by Cyril of Alexandria. The council ultimately included 198 bishops, including for the first time, papal delegates from Rome, who were instructed not to involve themselves in the debates, but to sit as judges over the opinions of the others. This council condemned Nestorius' position on the two natures in Christ, but failed to clearly state the correct doctrine. The six canons of this council deal exclusively with Nestorian and Pelagian heresies. Of the 12 anathemas pronounced by this council to deal with the Nestorian heresy, I believe that the first is of particular interest to the purpose of this paper.
And now to the possible conclusions my Catholic antagonist proposed for consideration:
I believe that the Christian Church was not overwhelmed by false teachings in the 4th or 5th centuries. I believe, as I hope I have shown, that the incorporation of error into the Christian Church and the subsequent corruption of doctrine and practice was an insidious process that began while the Apostles, prophets and teachers armed with God's inspiration were still on earth. I believe the early church did preserve the Scriptures faithfully under Divine guidance, but that it included some writings that were not inspired in its developing canon of scripture.
I believe, without reservation, that some indeed were saved who were part of that religious body, even though it was teaching several unscriptural errors which obscured the Gospel. That this is true we know from Christ's own words in the 6th Chapter of John's Gospel:
The Scriptures inform that God elected those predestined to salvation in eternity past. This is a teaching held by the RCC in common with the non-Catholic Christian churches. Given this truth, it must be that He ensured that the elect heard the Gospel message and by God's grace received the gift of saving faith.
I do not believe that the situation was finally corrected sometime during the Reformation (or after). Certainly, as a non-Catholic Christian, I believe that some of the errors that had been introduced into the True Church (the Body of Christ which is comprised of all true believers) by the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church were eliminated or corrected, but I do not believe that the Reformation resulted in the re-establishment of the pure church as it was in Apostolic times. Certainly, some of the churches which grew out of the Reformation come may have come closer to that ideal, but none are pure in worship or doctrine to my knowledge. The doctrine of some is every bit as corrupted, or worse, than is that of the RCC.
In light of the foregoing, the second possible conclusion also fails to accurately define reality. The early "catholic" Church indeed did lapse into formal error and not all of the dogmatic teachings of the ecumenical councils (325+) were, in my considered opinion, given under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. I believe the Holy Spirit does continue to protect from error the True Church, which is dispersed throughout the various visible churches in that those truly saved may be among the membership of all of the professing Christian churches.
I believe that what the bishops did, or failed to do, that resulted in the early Church's departure from the "pure" Christian faith was not in accordance with the will of God, but I do not know that it was in every case an abuse of their authority. As I attempted to show, many departures from the doctrines and practices of the earliest church had already occurred before ever there was a bishop. In my understanding, abuse implies intent and I do not believe that many of the bishops truly intended to introduce heresy. That they sometimes did is more likely the result of well-intentioned, but misguided, zeal to serve the Lord. I do insist, however, that some heretical doctrines and practices of the Catholic Church before the Reformation, and still to be found in the RCC and the various non-Catholic churches even today, indeed were deliberately introduced and as such did constitute abuse by senior church officials, whether Catholic bishops or non-Catholic ministers.
Given the above, what view do I take of the promises about the Church in Matthew 16:18 and 1 Timothy 3:15? I understand this is not an issue concerning the "Rock". I understand that this is a question dealing with the indefectibility of the Church itself. He was, thankfully, quite specific in the formulation of the question:
"Indefectibility." What a wonderful word. It is one of those words that has the power to establish those who are able to employ it as knowledgeable and experienced theologians. For those who may not have been exposed to this jewel of theological jargon, I offer the following definition from a respected Catholic dictionary:
I like this definition and I agree with it 100% -- given the proviso that it refers to the True Church, and not any of the manmade religions of today. As I have declared above, I believe that the Holy Spirit indeed has preserved the True Church, that dispersed congregation that includes all true believers, through the most horrific trials and temptations. I believe that the supernatural life and channels of grace (whatever that may imply) remain intact and unchanged from the way they were on that wonderful Day of Pentecost when the True Church was born.
The True Church, the Body of Christ, indeed is the pillar and ground of truth. This reference is taken from Paul's 1st letter to Timothy.
The theme of the entire letter is declared in the second half of this verse. It deals with setting things right in the household of God. Believers are members of God's household and should conduct themselves accordingly. Paul is not talking about a building in this passage, but the people who make up the True Church (Not the Roman Catholic Church). The Apostle points out that the church belongs to God. The "pillar and ground" imagery may be referent to the magnificent Temple of Artemis in Ephesus. The word translated as "ground" is used only here in the New Testament and denotes the foundation on which a building rests. The inference is that the church, the True Church, upholds the truth of God's revealed word and what is that truth? It is the content of the Christian faith as recorded in the Scriptures and is declared in the following verse:
Turning to Christ's words as recorded in Matthew 16:18 as addressing the Indefectibility of the Church, it would be well to post that passage here:
We are concerned with the words "and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." Hell is the place where the spirits of dead unbelievers will suffer eternal punishment. There is but one way to enter Hell, and that is by dying. This is a Jewish idiom referring to death. Christ is here saying that not even death, the ultimate weapon of Satan, can stop the church (True Church). Quite the contrary, in fact. The blood of martyrs hastened the growth of the True Church both in numbers and in spiritual power. So my response again is that the Scriptures are true and the gates of Hell indeed have not prevailed. The Indefectibility of the True Church is a fact.
And with that, I close this study. I pray that I have addressed all the issues and satisfactorily answered all the questions.
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