Thursday, March 17, 2016

Early Christians on the Run: Too Busy to Write?

When I was growing up in the Church there were some things I questioned, and some I didn't. For instance, I never questioned that the Church went apostate not too long after the death of the Apostles. We knew the early church looked pretty much like an independent Baptist church, but over time it picked up these awful calcifications called "traditions." If the leaders of the early church came forward in time they would be dismayed at all of the baggage the Church gathered over two millennia.

"If only," I thought, "we had some records from the era right after the Apostles. Then we could really prove what the early church thought."

I was assured, however, that early Christians were too busy running for their lives to write much.  Christian lives were certainly under threat for large swaths of history, but to say that the Apostolic Fathers didn't write is pretty inaccurate. So, for my own sake and for the sake of those who were raised in a similar milieu, I worked up a chart. I'm not usually a chart kind of guy, but I think it captures the information succinctly.

 Here's the takeaway. The Apostolic Fathers, who wrote in the generation following the Apostles, wrote plenty of works. The Apostles and those who wrote under their authority penned 27 books in 45 years (if you accept the late date for Revelation). The Apostolic Fathers wrote eight fewer books in four fewer years (if you push St. Polycarp's Letter to the Philippians to it's latest possible date. It may have been written as early as AD 110).

While the Apostolic Fathers did not write as much as the Apostles, we can still put the thesis that the early church didn't write much to bed. Please note that we no longer have full copies of several of the works I mentioned. The work of Quadratus of Athens, for example, and also the five books of St. Papias. We only have quotations from these.

One Step Beyond
Now I want to move one step beyond the previous argument. Since the Apostolic Fathers were writing actively, and since they had been taught by Apostles themselves, we need to take what they wrote quite seriously. This is no partial witness made up of men who don't represent the Church in its entirety. This is the witness of men who were directly instructed by men who were taught by Christ himself. Either they accurately represent what the Apostles were taught by Jesus, or the Apostles were the absolutely worthless as instructing their hand-picked disciples.

You might say, "These men were too influenced by Greek philosophy and/or other ideas floating around at the time. With modern scholarly techniques we are better able to return to what the Apostles meant to write than the Apostolic fathers."

I challenge this in two ways: First, St. Clement and St. Ignatius were writing in 95 and 107 respectively. By the end of that year St. Ignatius was dead. The Apostle St. John, who was St. Ignatius's spiritual father, had died a decade earlier. Is it really plausible to hold that St. Ignatius departed from St. John's teaching over the course of a decade? Would he not have treasured the instructions St. John gave him? Also consider the fact that St. Ignatius was sparring with Gnostics, who truly were influenced by Platonism.

My second challenge: It is precisely our modern mentality that prevents us from understanding the Scriptures properly. We are not Platonists, but we are nominalists. We are sons and daughters of the Enlightenment. In the ancient world words like "symbol" and "remember" carried richer meaning--meaning that brought past realities into the present in a real way. A symbol carried with it the thing it symbolized. Rememberance was an actual participation in a past event. This was true even of Ancient Israel in the Passover celebration.

If we as moderns miss this, then we will not be able to interpret Scripture properly. We will read the words and assume that the realities behind these words are only subjective cognitive associations. A symbol is nothing more than a stand in. A rememberance is merely an act of the mind. The Apostolic Fathers were much closer to the mind of the Apostles. We should accept their authority over and above modern methods of Biblical interpretation.