Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Why the Apostles Didn't Read Their Bibles/Torahs

Scott Kistler posted a month ago about efforts to evangelize people in oral cultures. There seems be be some amount of debate about the best methods to go about doing this. What struck me at the time was the total absence of reference to the early church's methodology. Here was a group of people with almost unparalleled success in evangelism. They literally took Christianity from a rag-tag band of at most 100 misfits to half the Roman Empire in just 300 years. While perhaps one can point to the evangelism of the New World in Spanish speaking territories as another highly successful example of evangelism to an oral culture (7 million converts in less than 10 years), that happened in the wake of the apparition at Guadalupe and was not something whose methods can ever be duplicated or used as a pattern. I really can't think of another outreach to an oral culture that was as consistently successful as what was accomplished by the Holy Spirit through the early Church, so I would think that people studying this would give it more attention than they do.

That got me thinking that perhaps the reason the early church gets short shrift is the extreme reliance in some Protestant circles on the extraBiblical doctrine of Sola Scriptura. People look at the book of Acts and say, "The Bereans went home and read for themselves what the Prophets said, and that is what we need to do." This is assumed to be taken as the pattern for what we should all do as individuals. Therefore, any evangelistic activity that does not bring the individual into close personal literary contact with the Scriptures is doing something dangerous and setting these people up for a fall.

However, I think if one looks at the passage closely, one sees that things were really quite different than what is conveyed in the popular imagination. The Scriptures say in Acts 17, "[10] The brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Beroe'a; and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. [11] Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessaloni'ca, for they received the word with all eagerness, examining the scriptures daily to see if these things were so. [12] Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men."

Notice where the preaching was done: in the synagogue. That is also where the examination of Scriptures was done. Ancient Jewish culture, Roman culture, Greek culture, and indeed all ancient cultures were oral cultures in very important ways. They had to be, because the cost of books meant only the most wealthy could own one personally. All reading and study of the Scriptures was done in community because books were scarce and extraordinarily expensive resources. People might ponder the Scriptures when at home or at prayer, but they didn't actually study them on their own. That's why we read in several places about Jesus going off by himself to pray, but we never read about him going off by himself to read the Scriptures. He couldn't have afforded it and neither could his disciples. Pretty much nobody, not Jesus, not the apostles, not anyone but the most wealthy could have afforded to have the Scriptures in their home. Incidentally, I haven't read this and don't know it for a fact, but I would doubt that any but the oldest and most established house churches could have afforded a complete set of the Scriptures. Given growth rates in the early church, I think this pretty much precludes a large percentage of congregations from obtaining a complete set of the Scriptures in the earliest years. They would have had to share and pass around well-worn copies until they grew enough to be able to afford a full set, which also strikes me as a great promoter of unity... but I digress.

The point is that the study of Scripture during the most sustained growth ever experienced in Christian history was entirely communal in nature, and this has tremendous repercussions on how they would have viewed interpretive authority. The primary reason for discomfort with oral methods among Protestants, I believe, lies in the difference conceptions of the place of interpretive authority between the early Church and Protestantism.

Protestantism says, "4. Will we clarify for them that, although all other holy books may have some helpful religious insights, nevertheless they do not have any final authority from God, but only the Bible does?"

The pre-100 AD church said, "But I shall not be unwilling to put down, along with my interpretations, whatsoever instructions I received with care at any time from the elders, and stored up with care in my memory, assuring you at the same time of their truth. For I did not, like the multitude, take pleasure in those who spoke much, but in those who taught the truth; nor in those who related strange commandments, but in those who rehearsed the commandments given by the Lord to faith, and proceeding from truth itself. If, then, any one who had attended on the elders came, I asked minutely after their sayings,--what Andrew or Peter said, or what was said by Philip, or by Thomas, or by James, or by John, or by Matthew, or by any other of the Lord's disciples: which things Aristion and the presbyter John, the disciples of the Lord, say. For I imagined that what was to be got from books was not so profitable to me as what came from the living and abiding voice."

and the early 100's church said, "See that ye all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as ye would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is[administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude[of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid."

and the late 100's church said, "It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times; those who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these [heretics] rave about. For if the apostles had known hidden mysteries, which they were in the habit of imparting to "the perfect" apart and privily from the rest, they would have delivered them especially to those to whom they were also committing the Churches themselves. For they were desirous that these men should be very perfect and blameless in all things, whom also they were leaving behind as their successors, delivering up their own place of government to these men; which men, if they discharged their functions honestly, would be a great boon [to the Church], but if they should fall away, the direst calamity.

2. Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its pre- eminent authority,6 that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the apostolical tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere."

So, what's the point? Are the Scriptures not to be read by individuals, now that books are cheap and we have the opportunity? Of course they should be regularly read by individuals. The Scriptures are the Word of God, supremely authoritative for our lives. However, I think there is a danger in pridefully imagining that because we have personal access to the Scriptures, we actually understand the gospel better than those who relied primarily on congregational reading and preaching to learn about Christ, or better than the bishop God placed over us.

My main point in writing this is to point out how odd it is that people who acknowledge that the world of Jesus was an oral world and spend millions on conferences sharing the latest methods to spread the gospel in oral cultures have near zero interest in the most sustainably successful evangelistic effort to oral learners of all time. I suspect it is because what Newman wrote 100 years ago is as true today as it was back then, "And this utter incongruity between Protestantism and historical Christianity is a plain fact, whether the latter be regarded in its earlier or in its later centuries. Protestants can as little bear its Ante-nicene as its Post-tridentine period."


MarkC said...

Fascinating. In your opinion, if the organizations you are thinking of were to consider the early church experience more carefully and give it more weight, how would their ministry to non-literate cultures be changed from what was described in the article?

Kevin said...

Mark cuts to the essential question, but I'm also curious, what do you make of the divergence in early Christian doctrine and the fairly rapid exclusion of Jewish Christians who would have ostensibly had a firmer grasp on interpretation and concepts than gentile Christians?

Christianity, of course, also started off with quite a remarkable miracle-filled bang the likes of which has not seemed to be repeated.

Generally speaking, I'd imagine that writings slow divergence vs. oral teachings alone. That gap would be especially wide if those oral teachings are not memorized word for word. Such oral teaching probably encourages interaction, practical application, and speeds adaptation and adoption, but also increases divergence and the need for some authority to unify them. Does that sound about right to you?

Douglas said...


Have you read Rodney Stark's book, The Rise of Christianity? He presents a fairly convincing case that most Christian converts for quite some time were drawn from the Jewish diaspora.

What do you mean by the rapid exclusion of Jewish Christians? At what point in time was this accomplished, in your mind?

While Christianity did start out with a miracle filled bang, it didn't really gather many converts in the apostolic age. By the close of the first century, AD, Christianity still hardly had any converts relative to the size of the Roman Empire, and Paganism still had a virtual monopoly on religious worship. It took nearly 300 years to gain 6 million converts vs. less than 10 years in Latin America. For the early church, the vast majority of their growth took place in the post-apostolic age, which is why I think the early Christian experience has more lessons to offer. Again, a book like Stark's which lays out the growth numbers makes this clear.

Honestly, I'm not sure I understand what you mean by "writings slow divergence vs. oral teachings alone" and why you are bringing that up, Kevin. I don't see the early church using oral teachings *alone* anymore than they used Scripture alone. They used both, per the command of Scripture (2 Thess 2:15, 1 Cor 11:2). Most Protestants today abandon the Scriptural command to adhere to oral teachings not included in Scripture because they say such teachings are unknowable. I don't think such an excuse could be made for people who were taught by the apostle John himself (e.g., Ignatius and Polycarp).

Douglas said...


I haven’t studied the subject myself in this regard, so I don’t know what efforts would look like specifically. I do have some hunches, though. These are given in general outline form, with the caveat that any real study would probably look differently than this and would be able to come up with more focused and specific ideas.

First, though, I think many of these efforts would focus far more on building up the church than on getting people to "pray the prayer." The early church didn’t view salvation as a one-time experience. They clearly believed that Christians could lose their salvation and that one needed to be faithful “to the end.” In a culture where martyrdom was a real possibility at all times for bishops (and for the laity in brief spurts such as during the reigns of Decius and Diocletian), this was critical.

Second, the early church had a huge focus on real, tangible unity. They didn’t believe that Christian unity was simply spiritual. There was only one church per city. There was only one bishop per city. If more than one person claimed that title or if there were disputes over leadership, they got resolved in such a way that only one bishop was left that the church universal would recognize. Jesus said that unity was the key to evangelism in John 17, and the early church took Him at his Word.

Next, that unity had a visible expression in obedience to the local bishop. People may think their local bishop was wrong on a doctrinal topic, but they didn’t go start another church. They trusted the other bishops to formally correct him, and humbly obeyed the decisions of universal councils of bishops as true teachings of the Church and therefore of God.

The early church believed that Jesus had left the Church with the ability to decide on things that Scripture does not address clearly. They believed that teachings of Jesus were passed on orally as well as in written form, and they believed that those oral teachings were embodied in the teachings of the successors of the apostles: the bishops. They believed that the apostolic succession of bishops was something that Jesus himself had taught. Thus, the early church believed in obeying the bishops whether something was addressed clearly in Scripture or not. In fact, they believed that Scripture alone was insufficient to decide debates because of the variety of opinions regarding its interpretation and the inability of Scripture alone to produce the unity Jesus called for, as for instance, Tertullian taught in chapters 15-20 of Against Heresies. http://earlychristianwritings.com/text/tertullian11.html

Douglas said...

(continued from above)
The early church didn’t water things down to minimalist doctrinal statements with no hardline positions on controversial moral issues. They were against contraception, abortion and infanticide when Roman culture supported all three. They took a firm stand on circumcision, when Jesus never left any clear instructions himself. The early church also enforced church discipline and didn’t stand around and let people teach false doctrines/morality.

The early church took care of the poor first among themselves, but also among the culture at large. They risked their lives to stay in the cities and care for the sick when the plague came through decimating populations. This widespread love and care for the sick, poor and imprisoned showed that they loved people without regard to what they would get in return and had a special emphasis on loving the powerless.

As Justin Martyr, Ignatius and many other tell us, the early church made the Eucharist the center of their worship. They believed that it was, spiritually speaking, “the medicine of immortality” and that it was no longer ordinary bread and wine, but the real flesh and blood of Christ. They were willing to die to protect the Eucharist and the Scriptures, as for instance St. Tarcisius died during the Valerian persecution protecting the Eucharist.

In summary, I think that successful evangelism patterned after the early church will focus more on long term discipleship and less on "praying the prayer." It will express itself in very tangible, visible unity of leadership and belief that outsiders can see. It will express itself in holiness and a strong moral witness that does not accommodate itself to the spirit of the age. It will express itself in tangible love that outsiders can see and experience for themselves. It will be based on a love for Jesus in which communal worship centers around the Eucharist and the reading and teaching of the Scriptures. These are themes that I see repeated numerous times throughout the writings of the early church. I think that if one were to try and imitate the success of the early church in evangelism, it might behoove oneself to consider their defining characteristics.

Kevin said...


I haven't read Stark's book but that theory makes sense to me since the Hellenistic Jewish diaspora was probably the path traveled by the first Christian evangelists (being Jews); their beliefs were directly compatible and they were also less bound to the larger Judean power structures, enabling easier acceptance of Christ.

I imagine there were a lot of events and factors that separated and polarized the Jews vs. Jewish Christians vs. gentile Christians, including the major questions of gentile conversion, the Jewish revolts, Roman attacks, various edicts, etc.

But somehow, Jewish aspects of Christianity were gradually removed or replaced and IIRC, no Jewish Christians were even present at the First Council of Nicea in 325. Granted, if that is the end date of the Jewish "exclusion" then a couple of centuries might be too long to be called "rapid", but it still seems like there was a steep drop off of Jewish Christian Church Fathers given that the religion started as Messianic Judaism. That Jewish devolution along with the internal disputes and evolution of Christianity make it seem more like doctrine was (re-) built rather than preserved through the oral traditions.

I brought up "oral teachings alone" because Scripture at the time referred to books of the OT, and I suspected that it took a while for new teachings to be treated with similar fastidiousness and power structures to formalize. Or maybe that is a misconception of mine? As you note, I was also (erroneously) focusing on that early apostolic stage rather than the later stage where Christianity exploded that you were actually referring to.

Much of your description of practical evangelism makes sense to me, though I'm not sure who you are contrasting where "praying the prayer" is the focus. But what is it about Catholic authority that makes its instruction and interpretation of Scripture less prone to drift and error than the Jewish authority which preceded it? There is certainly value in unity and consistency, overlooking flaws, but at some point disobedience to error, immorality, or corruption becomes more important, no?


Douglas said...

Kevin, What does "IIRC" mean?

Douglas said...

"As you note, I was also (erroneously) focusing on that early apostolic stage rather than the later stage where Christianity exploded that you were actually referring to."

According to Stark, it was more likely a very steady growth, neither rapid at the end nor at the beginning. The absolute numbers may have multiplied more rapidly toward the time of the legalization of Christianity, but that had to do with the nature of geometric growth, not the actual *rate* of geometric growth. I think Stark estimates that 40% growth per decade would have been sufficient to take Christianity from 100 people to 6 or 7 million, but I'd have to look it up again. I believe he accounts for certain historical events that would have influenced it, so it isn't quite constant. It turns out that a steady growth rate capable of multiplying Christians to the point that they were half the Roman Empire in a few hundred years is about the same growth rate that the Mormons have experienced during their rise to prominence. Stark teaches at Baylor, and it's a fascinating book if you get a chance to read it.

Douglas said...

Here is a table that I took from Stark's book and copied into Excel to do some calculation further number crunching. It was a library book and I didn't annotate the charts well, so I'm guessing on most of the headers.


Kevin said...

Sorry! IIRC = "If I recall correctly". I probably should've just spelled it out! :) I'm not sure where I first read/heard it. I found some mentions of it on the web and it makes sense given the decrees but I haven't found primary sources yet so I'm not sure how it was determined.

Thanks for the spreasheet! That is neat. But why the two tables? It looks like the population of the Roman Empire remained constant over the 300 years, which is interesting. At least from a stats point of view, I think it seems natural to fit adoption to geometric growth as a baseline with events impacting that growth. Removing exclusive limits of Judaism seems like a big event in that respect. It surely would not have grown so quickly if everyone had to be circumcised!

And thanks for recommending Stark's book. It does sound interesting and I'm always curious how they come up with the numbers.

Douglas said...


I'm honestly not sure why there are two tables. I *think* the one on the left is out of the book and the one on the right was something I put together in order to play "what if" games regarding the effect of different growth rates. That said, they might be two variants from the book. Like I noted earlier, I didn't document them very well at all and I wrote them down from a library book since I couldn't afford to purchase it at the time.

Regarding the separation of Christianity and Judaism, that seems to me to have happened rather early in the sense that the two faiths that developed over time were mutually incompatible. Rabbinical Judaism had always demanded circumcision and went on to rejected the Septuigint after the Jewish Council of Jamnia for starters. The Septuigint was the translation used by Paul and others most often when quoting the OT, so Christians could never reject it without rejecting their own sacred writings. Combine that with the Christian Council of Jerusalem when circumcision for the Gentiles was rejected, the apostolic practice of making transfering the day of communal rest and worship to Sunday and you have three critical components of distinction in place before the apostles died. I guess my point is that not just Christianity but Judaism itself developed over time, especially in the wake of the destruction of the temple in AD 70, so that one could say a) that Judaism grew away from Christianity as much as Christianity grew away from Judaism and b) that it happened during the apostolic era.

I personally find the evidence cited in the link you posted to be quite weak. A lack of Jews at the Council could easily be accounted for by the relative numbers of Jews to Gentiles in the Roman Empire and the subsequent development of Judaism itself post AD 70 making observant Jews far less open to conversion. It would have likely been different among Hellenistic Jews, but then they could hardly be discerned from Gentile converts. Also, there is a tendency (supported by Scripture) to not let new converts become leaders in the Church. Given the tendency for Jewish Christians to marry other Gentile Christians and not segregate themselves into different camps, one has a perfect recipe for a strong dilution of Jewish identity, especially compared to the apostolic age when all of the oldest Christians were born Jews. Short of forbidding intermarriage among Christian Jews and Gentiles and allowing circumcision, and/or remaining a rather small movement whose numbers never grew much over time, I don't see how it could have been otherwise by AD 325.

Regarding the council of Nicea's pronouncement on the Sabbath, I don't see it as all that different from what had already been said for centuries. All Christian texts from the first century onward proclaim Sunday as the Lord's Day and the day on which Christian's worshiped. Given the difficulties that Christians had with Judaizers teaching people to keep the Rabbinical law, it strikes me as more of a clarification than anything. It was very clear early Christian practice to keep Sunday as the day of rest and not Saturday. What would be most unBiblical and inconsistent would be to allow the forbidden teaching that Saturday is the true day of worship. Honestly, if one can't accept the Sabbath teachings of the Council of Nicea as binding, I don't know how one can accept the Trinitarian teachings as binding. There was more clear Biblical and early church teaching on Sunday worship than the Trinity.

Douglas said...

"But what is it about Catholic authority that makes its instruction and interpretation of Scripture less prone to drift and error than the Jewish authority which preceded it?"

Did God establish the Sanhedrin? Did he found the pharisees and give them special promises? The early Church believed that Jesus made the apostles his first bishops, made special promises to them regarding things like binding and loosing and forgiving and retaining sin that he never made to the Jewish leaders. The early church (as Scripture taught) that the apostles were to appoint people to come after themselves and that they would share in the apostolic promises.

That's why the appeal to end all appeals for the early Church regarding true teaching was apostolic succession and the authority of the bishops. They believed that God had made special promises to the Church's leaders that he hadn't made to individual Christians. When writing about how to tell what was truth and what wasn't, the early church never appealed to Scripture alone, but always to apostolic authority too. For them, 2 Thess 2:15 and 1 Cor 11:2 were living realities, not dead words on a page as they are to those who reject apostolic succession.

Also, from a practical point of view, Sola Scritura was incomprehensible because one only had access to the Scriptures when part of the community and there was much confusion as to which books even belonged in the Christian canon. It wasn't until well after the council of Nicea that any individual came up with the same combination of books that we have in our NT today. A religion can only develop into a people of the book of the book is a known quantity. Islam developed into a people of the book rather quickly because Mohammad left a corpus of writing that was considered inspired before his death. Christianity developed very differently. Jesus didn't write a anything except in sand, as far as we know. He certainly never left any writings for his followers to pass on. Instead of leaving a book to follow, Jesus appointed men to follow. Protestantism could not come into being until two things had taken place, a) the firming up of the Christian Canon in the late 300's AD and b) the invention of the printing press. Before those two developments occurred, the preconditions necessary to implement the doctrine of Sola Scriptura did not exist.

"There is certainly value in unity and consistency, overlooking flaws, but at some point disobedience to error, immorality, or corruption becomes more important, no?"

Corruption, immorality and error should always be opposed. St. Catherine is remembered as a doctor of the Church because she opposed the error and weakness of the Pope when he remained in French exile for reasons of comfort rather than necessity. She, a woman, wrote and spoke to him, reprimanding him for his sin and pleading with him in the tradition of the Prophet Nathan to return to his bishopric.

Catholics do believe God preserves the truth through His Church in very special ways, but those conditions are actually quite modest. While what a Pope or the Church in Council can teach is more broad in application than Protestant teaching, it is more narrow in scope. There was never a more true saying than that the average Protestant gives him or herself more authority to interpret Scripture than the Pope. Popes are constrained by what has been taught by the Church in the past. Most Protestants are ultimately limited only by what they imagine the Holy Spirit is telling them.

Douglas said...

" though I'm not sure who you are contrasting where "praying the prayer" is the focus."

From my own background, I'm thinking of Baptist, Assemblies of God and Calvary Chapel type churches primarily. Growing up, there was an "altar call" at the end of every Sunday morning service, but teaching on hard topics that would offend American culture was avoided. I never once heard a pastor preach on when remarriage is veiled adultery according to Jesus. The whole topic of remarriage was pretty much ignored and divorce was preached about very, very carefully. I was disappointed to hear that similar pressure is being placed on an assistant pastor I know at an S.D. area megachurch to be careful and not preach too much on abortion. Such pussyfooting around the truth was completely foreign to the apostles and the early church. The lack of balance represented by the focus on conversion to the neglect of the moral teachings of Christ is a recipe for ineffective evangelism, long term.

MarkC said...


Thanks for your reply. In my experience with modern mission organizations, the "pray the prayer" approach has long ago gone by the wayside. Of course, I'm talking about mission organizations that might be working with oral or non-literate cultures, not your local Baptist church in suburban America. :)

Your description of Jesus-centered communal worship, visible and authoritative church leadership, active service to the needy, and moral noncomformity is, I think, an excellent description of a healthy church. I think all of those components are central to the mission work being done around the world today, and to our healthier churches here as well.


Douglas said...


When reiterating my description of a healthy church, you left off a very important aspect: unity. The two largest churches in Vancouver which I have personal experience with were born of schism: Crossroads was a breakoff from the Methodist denomination and Summit View was a breakoff from Crossroads: complete with hurt feelings, bitterness and even the withdrawal of ordination. And as long as the modus operendi for disagreement remains church hopping or schism, I don't see how that can change.

I wish I could share your positive outlook on moral nonconformity, but if I used that definition, healthy churches in America would be almost nonexistent. When was the last time anyone you know heard from the pulpit Jesus words that "whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery" or a sermon about the wanton and callous disregard for human life that occurs in IVF? We live in a consumer culture, and any pastor who preached that we shouldn't throw away leftover embryos and that remarriage after divorce is adultery wouldn't have a congregation left to preach to. So pastors compromise, ignore historical Christian teaching and figure out ways to justify it to themselves... and sometimes even their congregations.

I wish these conclusions didn't have such dire implications for missions, but America sends more missionaries around the world than any other country, and we aren't likely to found healthy churches when our "home bases" are so disfunctional.

MarkC said...


I don't disagree with your principles or concerns. I think I have a more hopeful and optimistic view about the direction and health of the American church, but maybe I'm wearing rose-colored glasses.


Douglas said...

Mark, I don't know whether you see the world through rose tinted glasses or I see the world through a welding helmet. I tend to get terribly discouraged about how much ground has been lost in the effort to evangelize our own church attenders, let alone the culture at large. When I consider that 90% of parents with a pre-natal Down's Syndrome diagnosis abort, I find that absolutely terrifying. C and I have faced that preliminary diagnosis a couple times now, and it can really pause and make people wonder how they are going to make it, but to take the step to kill your offspring because of a disability? The brutality of the thought makes me shudder. And to think that at least 75% of the people sitting in the pews of my church on Sunday would make that decision (and probably much closer to 90%)... I find that thought scary as hell. What good is it, if we say we love our enemies and kill our offspring? Faith without works is dead, and we are betrayed by our actions toward those we should love the most. When I consider that the moral rot has permeated and practically conquered not just the outside culture but the Sunday morning pews as well, I am reminded of what Jefferson said long ago, "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever."

Kevin said...

Thanks for the history and answers, Doug. Great point about Judaism pushing away from Christianity, too. I think the end result was to marginalize Jewish Christians amongst both Jews and Gentiles.

Interesting point about Jew and Gentile Christians freely inter-marrying. While I assume they were free to, I hadn't thought about it and I didn't know they actually did to any appreciable degree. Are you aware of the history of any of the Apostles's children? Or any early Jewish Christian's children?

I'm not confident that Hellenistic Jews "could hardly be discerned from Gentile converts". Even though the Jews were Hellenized, they were still Jews, probably kept themselves somewhat separate, and surely brought a significantly different cultural and religious background to their Christian belief. I can't help but think that the sheer numbers had a significant impact on the course of Christianity.

For example, I'd imagine that Jewish Christians continued to go to synagogue and practice other observances while Gentiles probably didn't. And if Jewish Christians spent Saturday at synagogue, perhaps Sunday was spent with Gentile Christians as a practical matter?

Are you saying that the apostles stopped observing the Sabbath on Saturday?

Do you know if there was a historical distinction between removing circumcision as a requirement for conversion vs. proclaiming there was no reason for it vs. prohibiting it?

Relative to other religions, Christians were Judaizers, no? The question seems to be a matter of degree, and it seems that some things, like worshipping on Saturdays, crossed the line for some. Still, and not to diminish the pivotal significance of his death and resurrection, it strikes me as a little odd that Jesus's own religious practices differed markedly from what Christianity became.

"Did God establish the Sanhedrin?" That is a good question, albeit probably intended to be rhetorical! :) God commanded them to appoint judges and He chose the Levites to be priests. I don't know the specifics off hand but I'd be surprised if Jews did not believe that God approved their annointing. From a brief search, it looks like the Sanhedrin originated in Numbers 11 by God distributing his spirit that was with Moses to 70 elders.

Of course, Christianity would not have solidified without such similar special authority and power structures.

Doug wrote: "Protestantism could not come into being until two things had taken place, a) the firming up of the Christian Canon in the late 300's AD and b) the invention of the printing press."

That is a great and fascinating point. Those two enabled widespread independent comparison between current teaching and old in a way impossible before.

Thanks for the bit about St. Catherine and I also really like your quote that "the average Protestant gives him or herself more authority to interpret Scripture than the Pope". Being constrained by the past is often a useful inertia, and your critique of Protestantism being too flighty and fragmented is well taken.

Douglas said...

That was a lot of questions, Kevin. I'm not sure you intended to get my perspective on all of them, but here are my 5 minutes answers. Suggestions for improvement/correction are appreciated.

"Still, and not to diminish the pivotal significance of his death and resurrection, it strikes me as a little odd that Jesus's own religious practices differed markedly from what Christianity became"

This is a major criticism of the historical Jesus movement (e.g., Wheaton grad Bart Ehrmans and others). They say that the religion founded by the apostles was strikingly different from what Jesus actually practiced and therefore different from what he must have intended for his followers.

"Did God establish the Sanhedrin?"
Matt. 23:2 Perhaps, indirectly.

"Do you know if there was a historical distinction between removing circumcision as a requirement for conversion vs. proclaiming there was no reason for it vs. prohibiting it?"

I think the apostles outright forbade circumcision Gal 5(:2-3) and I Cor 7(:18-19). I don't think such commands in Scripture necessarily stand for all time and place. They forbade it because they wanted a break from the Judaism they grew up in while starting Christianity. This was a stumbling block reflecting a lack of faith, so they sought to end it pastorily, is my impression. I would view this as a law that the bishops can impose and remove, per the pastoral needs of the time. I don't think that circumcision in the USA, for instance, carries with it the same cultural and religious significance, so (I think) the bishops have removed the prohibition that is contained in the New Testament.

One subject I've always found interesting/confusing was the prohibition against meat sacrificed to idols in Acts 15 when the gentiles were first coming in, "For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell."

However, later in I Cor 8, Paul says not to worry about it unless it offends someone else's conscience. Clearly, the teaching on this subject evolved rather rapidly.

"Are you aware of the history of any of the Apostles's children? Or any early Jewish Christian's children?"
Nope. I've never looked into it and don't recall anything off the top of my head. The early Christians had a huge emphasis on celibacy among the clergy (e.g., Paul in I Cor), so this may account for some of that. I sometimes wonder how often Peter, for instance, even saw his wife, while roaming the countryside with/as an itinerant preacher.

"Are you saying that the apostles stopped observing the Sabbath on Saturday?"
That's hard to say. Certainly, they made Sunday the day of communal Christian worship from the get go. The apostles appear to have attended the synagogues on the Sabbath in Acts. Whether or not they personally stopped observing Sabbath rest on Saturday, I think they probably had at least by the end of the apostolic period. Certainly they dropped the requirement and proclaimed that it was no longer necessary both in I Cor and the writings of Ignatius.

"If, therefore, those who were brought up in the ancient order of things have come to the possession of a new hope, no longer observing the Sabbath, but living in the observance of the Lord's Day, on which also our life has sprung up again by Him and by His death "

I think it is most instructive to note that the practice of bishops telling people to no longer observe the sabbath didn't start with the council of Nicea, but was clearly taught around 100 AD by those who learned about Christ from the apostles.

Douglas said...

"I'm not confident that Hellenistic Jews "could hardly be discerned from Gentile converts"."

I'm not too familiar with how Hellenized Jews acted. Point well taken. My impression of Hellenized Jews was that they had already stopped observing parts of the law in order to live in a practical manner among gentiles. Do you know who far this non-observance extended or if my impression is even correct?

"your critique of Protestantism being too flighty and fragmented is well taken."

I'm not sure I would phrase it that way, but I suppose it works on some level. On my side, Catholicism can certainly be slow to react and stodgy. If you want to know what ministry methods were white hot in the Protestant world 10-20 years ago, just look at the Catholic world today to find out(often in the form of a cheap imitation).

Scott said...

I realize that I'm coming into this conversation a bit late. I read over it this morning and found it really fascinating.

As far as the fate of Jewish Christians, I would lean more toward Doug's perspective that they were absorbed in most places. It's my very basic understanding that the Jerusalem church was driven out of the city by the Roman victory over the Jewish uprising in AD 70 and that it moved to Pella, where it did not maintain the orthodox. In other places, I would imagine that Jewish and Gentile converts merged into the Christian community. I don't know what the fate of the Christian community was.

The conversation also pointed to the lack of church authority and discipleship on the American Protestant scene. "Praying the prayer" and then receiving inadequate discipleship has not provided evangelical Protestants with a strong foundation. As Doug mentions in this conversation and has in other places, Catholics have struggled with this too. There are Protestants that have paid attention to this and are trying to pay attention to this, practicing church discipline. The small, recently started church that I attend is trying to move into this phase.

Regarding Sola Scriptura, I think that there are different Protestant categories on this. Broadly speaking, we can see these in the two streams of Protestant reformers: the "magisterial reformers" (like Luther and Calvin, and for the sake of argument I would throw the Anglicans in there too) and the Anabaptists (and their theological, if not directly historical, descendants).

Doug, the Protestants that you have most experience with are more from the Anabaptist, start everything over from scratch, and use the Bible as a textbook variety. This includes many Baptists and nondenominational American evangelicals. This approach tends to ignore a lot of the historical context that you point out. Doug Wilson, a conservative Presbyterian, has pointed out that evangelicals tend to treat the Bible as "the book that fell from the sky," and I think that he would see this as a manifestation of that trend. Protestants in extreme reaches of this camp would be most likely to be described with the saying that Protestants give themselves more authority to interpret Scripture than the pope does. But many are responsible and don't do that.

On the other hand, Luther, Calvin and their theological descendants have recognized the rich heritage of the Christian tradition (both in doctrine and practice) and essentially tried to get things back on the right track, from their perspective. They appreciated creeds and catechisms. If I am recalling correctly, Calvin wanted the Lord's Supper celebrated every week in Geneva, but could not convince the proper authorities. Some of the more provocative proponents of this view today, if my understanding is correct, are those affiliated with the Federal Vision movement (which has caused some controversy) in conservative Presbyterian circles. One of them, Peter Leithart, wrote this about Sola Scriptura: http://www.leithart.com/2011/08/13/sola-scriptura-2/.

From my perspective as a Protestant, these differences seem important. I realize that from a Catholic perspective, they might seem less important. The Catholic critique of a fractured Protestantism is a powerful one. On the other hand, Sola Scriptura enabled Protestants to challenge some errors. It seems like the doctrines of purgatory and the veneration of saints and Mary got way out of control.

Kevin said...

Sorry for the delay, Doug! Things got a bit hectic here. Boy, I did ask a lot of questions! And you responded well. I am very interested and glad to get your perspective on any and all that strikes you. You've given me pause on a couple of issues that I need to spend more time on.

Regarding sacrifices to idols in Acts 15, I've read that it was probably based on the less stringent Laws of Noah that already applied to Gentiles. From there, Paul ostensively evolved it based upon underlying meaning and practical considerations rather than the act itself. I agree with his intent but I wonder if he could discern the full meaning and purpose. e.g. it occurs to me that Abraham had some sexual reproductive issues that may have been hereditary and which may have been aided by circumcision. Likewise, there may have been practical reasons for clean vs. unclean foods.

With Scott also leaning away from me on early Jewish Christian integration, I'll pause. But without statistical commentary, I'm doubtful how we can tell the difference between their converting to Gentile Christian practices vs. being marginalized.

In terms of non-observance, my impression is that Hellenized Jews were too Greek for the Orthodox in Palestine and too Jewish for the Greeks they lived among. Generally speaking, there is a cohesiveness and separateness to Judaism that seems to even touch the well integrated Jews today who might consider themselves non-observant relative to the extremely strict Orthodox Jews. That dynamic is evident in the Bible as well, so I extrapolate, even though Paul was an opposing influence.

The Bible also reads differently from a Jewish perspective with idioms, symbols, and contextual implications that lend distinct significance that a Gentile perspective misses. Perhaps that is largely a Protestant failure, but it seems like Christian interpretation in general seems to lack that important Jewish and Hebraic basis.

btw, glad you've joined in, Scott!


Douglas said...

Scott, Thanks for joining in. I appreciate your input. I don't have time right now to discuss your comments, but I wanted you to know that I am thinking about them. They dovetail nicely with some things Kevin said earlier that really challenged me and which I glossed over for lack of time.

I do have one quick question that I'll ask, since it comes up in both your comment and Leithart's article that you refer to. You say that "doctrines of purgatory and the veneration of saints and Mary got way out of control." Both you and Leithart seem to indicate that these have changed in recent years. I was wondering if you could explain how you see Catholic doctrine in those areas changing?