Early Christian Authority: Series

papyrusChristians have long been called “People of the Book” and placed a great deal of importance upon the Bible. No matter the denomination, the Bible holds a place of reverence and authority (though, of course, the emphasis and interpretation vary). For some of us, how and why the Bible came to hold this place of importance as “scripture” and “authority” for followers of Christ remains a topic worthy of holding our attention. Questions abound: Who wrote the books of the Bible? How were they collected? How are they interpreted? How should they be interpreted? How did the writings of the Bible become considered authoritative? What does it mean if something is scriptural? How was the Bible transmitted? How do we translate the Bible? How do we know that we have the right books in the Bible? Is the Bible trustworthy? What is the relationship of the Bible to other institutions and authorities? And so on.

Christians (and non-Christians) approach and find varying answers to these questions. As someone who places a good deal of importance on the faith and practice of the early Church, it’s important for me to have an understanding of how the earliest followers of Jesus and, insofar as it is possible, Jesus Himself approached the scriptures. In my view, the theology of the early Church on this issue offers the starting point for a proper theology today; as a friend of mine recently noted, our presuppositions about what constitute “sources of authority” go a long way in shaping our worldview. One way in which I approach these issues comes through the lens of canon: how did the New Testament canon form and what are the implications of its formation?

The Early Church Fathers
The Early Church Fathers

To address this question, one must turn to the writings of the early Church: the writings of the New Testament, of course, but also the writings of Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna, Irenaeus of Lyon, Justin Martyr, the Didache, and a host of others. Yet when these early Christians wrote, they very often did not explicitly express their theology of scripture. Indeed, they were generally concerned with more practical matters. Instead, they demonstrate their theology through their writings, drawing upon Jewish thought and practice, the practice of the Church, the writings of the LXX and Second Temple Judaism, Greco-Roman sources, and the writings of other Christians to make their cases and shape the theologies of their readers.

But it is not enough to note, for example, that the author of First Clement used the Gospel of Matthew in his letter; in order to understand his theology of scripture, we must understand how he conceived of Matthew’s Gospel and what it meant for him to recount the words of Jesus therein. As Franz Stuhlhofer once wrote, “The important question is not whether particular books were cited [in the early Church], but how they were cited.” Through the earliest Christian centuries these theologies of scripture and authority were refined, building upon these earliest sources and culminating in the creation of the formal Christian canon of the Old and New Testaments. And through these earliest Christian centuries I engage the canonization process as a means of ascertaining answers to the questions listed above.

This post stands as the “launch point” for my musings on the subject of early Christian authority here at Pursuing Veritas. This is a topic I have wrestled with for years and with which I continue to work. My engagement began during high school through Paul Maier’s A Skeleton in God’s Closet. My questions grew during my undergraduate years, especially during my time at Oxford studying early Christian doctrine. My MA thesis at Wake Forest University, Discerning Witnesses: First and Second Century Textual Studies in Christian Authority, explicitly engages these questions (in time, I’m sure portions of that work will find their way into posts here). And my current doctoral work at Saint Louis University will continue to develop these themes. Please feel free to pose questions, suggest resources or routes of study, or anything else you feel might contribute as I continue to investigate early Christian authority. I’m excited to see what we can learn.

Two more technical notes: Posts on this topic will typically include an “ECA” label at the beginning. During the next several weeks we will be mixing in posts on the “Apostolic Fathers” that address these issues.

Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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