Back to John Robin's Homepage

 

Dear T,

 

I'd like to respond briefly to an observation you made in your reading of various writings of ancient Christians.

You spoke of observing a disturbing "difference" in "focus" between some of the earliest post-apostolic writings and those of a century or two later. At first I wondered whether you would maintain this view after taking time to read a fuller sampling of the early writers. Next, I wondered whether we shouldn't expect to find new issues come into focus throughout the history of the Church.

It seems to me that even within Scripture, the "focus" often differs significantly from one book to another, from one author to another and even from one epistle to another of the same author. For example, Saint Paul seems to focus frequently on circumcision, something that Saint John seems hardly to focus upon at all. John's Apocalypse focuses extensively on the continuous worship taking place in Heaven, whereas his gospel has an entirely different focus. And so on. But your issue here is with extra-biblical writings, isn't it? So, should we or shouldn't we expect authentic, post-biblical, Christian writings to expand on different issues throughout the history of the Church? Should their "focus" change or remain constant?

I think the true answer is "both". We would agree, I'm sure, that the Truth of Christ is a timeless, unchanging truth, and itself is the foundation of all authentic Christian teaching. But the same can be said of all Scripture, yet the Bible's books vary profoundly in their foci. So it is natural, at least within the writings of the Old Testament, and of the Disciples of Jesus, to see different aspects of the truth come into focus. Why, then, should the same not be true among the writings of the disciples of the Disciples?

As the Church grew and Christianity was proclaimed to an ever larger audience, it found itself challenged by an ever increasing number of doctrinal questions and disputes: issues never before debated or even perhaps anticipated. Many such questions could not be answered adequately merely by quoting verses of Scripture -not even after the Church precisely defined the canon of Scripture and largely settled confusion over which books were authoritative! For example, even with the benefit of twenty centuries of Scripture studies to draw upon, many Christians today would be hard pressed to formulate -from Scripture alone- a strong defense of the doctrine of the Trinity capable of withstanding refutation by an astute rabbi.

You won't have to read very much of the early Church fathers to discover that these early saints were called upon to discern some very tough, novel, and even subtle doctrinal challenges. The fact that new theological problems commanded attention in the arena of Church history really should be no surprise. Rather, what should concern us would be to see in these ancient writings a pervasive failure of "overseers" and theologians to grapple with these very problems which confronted the faith.

Perhaps a contemporary illustration would help. Think for a moment about what the Bible has to say about human cloning; or sperm-banks; or biological surrogate motherhood; or in-vitro fertilization; or, even, the moral evil of human slavery. What about the use of drugs that prevent the successful uterine implantation of a fertilized human ovum? Can a person validly baptize himself? May one validly marry one's own sibling?

Can you give me solid, Scripture-alone, teachings on all these issues? Or are they perhaps unimportant? No, I believe that they are issues of great relevance to divine revelation. But I think it's also clear that Scripture does not address all these issues explicitly.

So, is Christianity impotent to answer today's and tomorrow's astounding and unanticipated moral and spiritual questions? Does the Gospel have no implications in those areas where Scripture is not explicit? Certainly not!

Saint John tells us about Jesus that "the world itself could not contain the books that would be written" if somehow all could be recorded (John 21:25). The Bible indeed contains everything God intended to be recorded in His written Word, but there is no end to the myriad consequences of this truth and its limitless implications. How true it is that God's revelation to man is NOT primarily a book but a living Person!

It is evident from Scripture that Jesus gave certain men -the apostles and first "overseers"- the power and authority to correctly discern and teach not just the words of Scripture, but also the meaning and implications of His whole message; and permanent power to bind and loose with the authority of Heaven. As the Church grows, it is ever in need of these same necessary gifts in order to preserve the Gospel and apply it correctly to the present conditions of man.

So, as the Church journeys through history like a pilgrim in the wilderness, She is faithfully guided by the Holy Spirit. Jesus solemnly promised that the Spirit would "teach [Her] all things, and bring to [Her] remembrance all that I have said to [Her]" (John 14:25 RSV). Throughout this journey the Church encounters new and unfamiliar terrain. Yet, if Jesus is to be believed, then we know that His Church is not abandoned by the Holy Spirit when called upon to shine the unchanging light of Christ upon man's changing circumstances.

In summary, we should not be surprised to see throughout Church history new questions, problems, and responses emerging; implicit truths, once barely contemplated, later developing into explicit doctrine; centuries of controversy eventually yielding carefully defined articles of faith. The teachings of Christ, whether explicit or implicit within Scripture, are handed down as a "paradosis" (1 Cor. 11:2; 1 Cor. 11:23; 2 Thes. 2:15; et al) from apostle to overseer to overseer. To me they are reassuring evidence that Jesus has not abandoned His Church.

 

Best wishes,
John Robin.