Wait . . . What? Baptist Dispatches From Deep In Church History, Part 1

Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea.

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.

Issue 1:

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.”




8 thoughts on “Wait . . . What? Baptist Dispatches From Deep In Church History, Part 1

  1. Hi Ben. I enjoyed reading part 1 of your historical quest. Having been on the journey myself and been blessed to find my home in the Orthodox Church, I look forward to your series.

      1. My journey began in 1999 after the untimely deaths of several family members. Having been an agnostic until early adulthood, I joined the Presbyterian Church of my wife a few years after our marriage, As I began to study the Christian Faith, I was attracted to several Churches that developed out of the Restoration Movement. After 1999 I wanted to know more about death and what happens to the departed. I was not satisfied with much of what I heard from Protestant Christians, so I sought to understand why there were so many denominations and sects. As I followed the history of Christianity back into time, I discovered the Orthodox Church. When I first attended worship there, I was amazed at how the Holy Scriptures came alive. At Pascha (Easter), they celebrated the Harrowing of Hades where all of the departed clear back to Adam and Eve heard the Gospel and most repented and were joined to the Church in paradise. This confirmed for me that my love ones were not lost, and they were likely saved after hearing the true Gospel in the intermediate state. It also confirmed to me that judgment belongs to God, not to people in their sectarian groups. Eternal torment is the baggage of the the Platonic concept of natural immortality of the soul, not the teachings of most of the early Church Fathers, or the weight of the Scriptures.

      2. That’s very interesting. Thanks for sharing. An Orthodox Mission Church actually just opened right around the corner from my house. Just to clarify, the Orthodox believe all people go to an intermediate state after death and have an opportunity to repent or was that only those before the Cross? What of those who reject the offer, are they simply annihilated?

  2. According to Orthodox Church doctrine, when the soul and spirit leaves the body there is a particular judgment in the intermediate state. This judgment takes into account what an individual did with what they were given in life. For the majority of people this will be the first time they are illumined with the true Gospel. Orthodox Christian understanding of Divine judgment is more like diagnosis than condemnation, and punishment is more like therapy than retribution. Because there is so much we do not understand about the spiritual realm and the particular judgment, Orthodox Christians pray for the Lord to have mercy upon the departed. The final judgment at the end of the age determines the eternal state of the individual. There is no Orthodox dogma regarding the state of the damned. The prevailing view today is probably eternal torment, yet there are those who believe in annihilation. There are also Orthodox Christians who believe in universal salvation. All three views have existed since early in Church history. I reject eternal torment because I believe it is a corruption that entered into the early Church due do the pagan concepts about an immortal soul, and because it does a great deal of harm to the Gospel.

  3. This is pretty well done, and a lot more informative than can normally be expected from a Protestant. I commend you. I guess I qualify as evangelical, too, and I spend a lot of time in the church fathers. I have a very long series of videos on apostolic succession, but i have a short discussion of it i think you would find interesting at http://www.christian-history.org/roman-catholic-one-true-church.html. My point in addressing apostolic succession is that it is an argument, not a doctrine. In the Pre-Nicene era, only Irenaeus and Tertullian mention apostolic succession, and they are arguing that bishops and elders with a lineage back to the apostles are much more likely to be holding to apostolic truth than gnostic heretics with no lineage back to the apostles. As Irenaeus put it concerning apostolic succession: “This is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now and handed down in truth. … Since therefore we have such proofs, it is not necessary to seek the truth among others which it is easy to obtain from the Church” (Against Heresies III:3:4 & III:4:1).

    Irenaeus and Tertullian argue for truth, not authority. The argument is a good one in an environment of independent churches a century removed from the apostles. It’s not a very good argument 2,000 years later when the churches with apostolic succession have forgotten the importance of preserving the faith as the apostles transmitted it.

    As Irenaeus said about the gnostics, “They reckon themselves improvers of the apostles.” That is NOT a good thing.

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