I like to think I don’t just believe things because I grew up with them. I like to think I am clear thinking and will follow facts to their conclusions, however uncomfortable.
For any low church, evangelical Baptist like myself, diving into church history can be a jarring experience. As we wade back through the years past the hymns and alter calls and past the 95 Thesis, we suddenly find ourselves starring face to face with bishops, councils, creeds, liturgy and all kinds of uncomfortable, “papist” tomfoolery right there in our own spiritual DNA. What are us Baptists to make of this? Are we just a Christianized hybrid of Enlightenment rationalism with a little down home democracy thrown in as some “high church” folks allege?
I’ve been wrestling with this for months (actually on and off for years . . . dang education and books).
At last, I’ve distilled the the primary issues my evangelical Baptist faith is obstensibly unable to answer from church history into five questions. Over the next few weeks, we will look at them one at a time and I will offer a summarized rebuttal explaining why despite them all I choose to remain a low church, evangelical Baptist.
So, here we go.
***Please note I haven’t cited all my historical quotes due to laziness. If you want them let me know.
How could the early church be so wrong about Communion and apostolic succession? The early church fathers testify Communion is in fact the actual Body of Christ and the apostolic succession of bishops was in fact instituted by the apostles and Christ himself. It appears unanimous. End of story. These doctrines are not later corruptions as many Protestants believe but don’t think about much. They are present right at the beginning. Many early church leaders knew the apostles personally. Therefore, no matter what other failings might exist, can a Christian justify separating from the Body of Christ and His ordained leaders and remain a Christian?
Answer: This is admittedly a tough one, perhaps the toughest. For many Catholic/Orthodox believers and converts looking for the original church this questions settles it.
Not so fast.
A good example of early church language on Communion is Ignatius of Antioch, who died around 100 A.D. and was a disciple of John. Ignatius describes the cosumption of the bread and wine as leading to immortality. But what does he mean by that? Are we really to believe that he is describing here the accidents of Aristotelian philosophy as later church dogmatism claims? I find that hard to believe. Does not also the Reformed view that Christ is spiritually but mysteriously present in Communion also fit Ignatius’ description? Baptists theologians also once held a view similar to the Reformed expression. The Second London Confession of 1689 reaffirmed in Philadelphia in 1742 describes the Lord’s Supper as a time when believer’s can truly but spiritually, “feed on Christ crucified . . . and (receive) all the benefits of his death.” This is a view today’s Southern Baptists would do well to reconsider. So while the currently prevailing memorial view constitutes a radical break from primitive Christianity, the Reformed spiritual presence view does not. And the Reformed view is a legitimate part of Baptist heritage.
But what of apostolic succession? There is not doubt apostolic succession became a major theme in early centuries. Numerous church fathers point to lists of bishops going back to the apostles as proof of their own legitimacy, and some even express a Roman primacy. What is a Baptist church, who picks a new pastor from random applicants every few years, to make of this?
I have no problem saying monarchial bishops developed early on as an effective defense against schism and heresy. But was such a system derived directly from the apostles? That’s a difficult questions to answer. Certainly some leaders were appointed by the apostles (such as Clement of Rome and Polycarp of Smryna). But did this second generation see themselves as possessing the same powers and authority of Peter, Paul, and John? Did they function the same way and with the same authority as Catholic/Orthodox bishops today? I’m not sure, but it doesn’t seem so. Here is Clement’s strongest statement on the issue, from his letter to the Corinthian Church around 90 A.D.,
“Our apostles also knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, and there would be strife on account of the office of the episcopate. For this reason, therefore, inasmuch as they had obtained a perfect fore-knowledge of this, they appointed those presbyters already mentioned, and afterwards gave instructions, that when these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry. We are of opinion, therefore, that those appointed by them, or afterwards by other eminent men, with the consent of the whole Church, and who have blame-lessly served the flock of Christ in a humble, peaceable, and disinterested spirit . . . cannot be justly dismissed from the ministry.”
Certainly, lot of of issues could be raised here. But I don’t see this passage necessitating monarchial bishops who hand on their authority to another monarch. Why can’t Clement simply be saying that new, well-trained, wise elders need to be raised up for each new generation? Secondly, Clement says each appointment requires the approval of the whole church? Hmmm . . . that sounds like another denomination I’m pretty familiar with. Thirdly, it’s not entirely clear what Clement means by “bishop” or “elder.” It seems likely at least some churches were governed by councils of elders during this time. The 4th Century church father Jerome hints at this and some modern historians such as Eamon Duffy think so as well. Duffy believes the Church of Rome itself at the time was governed by a group of elders and that Clement was a sort of foreign secretary. Therefore, those seeking a definite line of apostolic bishops are anachronistically reading back into the words of this passage what they wish to hear . . . at least I think so.
Even more damaging to the cause of apostolic succession is the fact that numerous contradictory traditions exist which all claim to be apostolic. The examples are many, but one will suffice. Infant baptism. If this is truly an apostolic teaching then it is crucially important. However, no where in scripture do we see any apostle commanding it. While it became a normative practice relatively early in the church and is claimed as apostolic by several churches, it was still contested until around the 4th Century. Let’s look at a couple of brief examples. From the West, the African church father Tertullian advises the faithful to wait until children are old enough to at least understand the basics of what is going on. He also says if we truly understood the weight of baptism we would delay it even longer. From the East, Gregory of Nanzianzan advises children wait until at least 3 years of age. Hardly ringing endorsements for a supposedly apostolic practice.
This is a large example, but there are numerous smaller ones. If apostolic tradtion is truly authoritative apart from scripture then we have done a poor job preserving it. A faithful believer simply has no way to navigate what is truly apostolic and what developed later in varying Christian communities.
Certainly much more could be said, but for me there is enough ambiguity in the historical record that it seems much more logical simply to trust that all necessary apostolic tradition was preserved in Scripture.
I’ll close with the words of church father Irenaeus of Lyons (disciple of Polycarp, only one generation removed from the apostles):
“We have learned from no others the plan of our salvation than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they DID AT ONE TIME proclaim in public, and AT A LATER PERIOD, by the will of God, HANDED DOWN TO US IN THE SCRIPTURES, to be the GROUND & PILLAR OF OUR FAITH.”