We have filled a small corner of our mosaic of church history so I will soon be moving on to discuss some of the early theologians of the church. I am certainly not done talking about the ordinary people who made up the beginnings of the church but I wanted to try to have a small closure for now. I couldn’t find a better quote about that than this one from Harvey Cox in The Future of Faith:
In the last few decades however, all these assumptions have proven erroneous. The following are now evident. First, there never was a single “early Christianity” there were many, and the idea of “heresy” was unknown. Second, it was not the apostles themselves, but subsequent generations who invented “apostolic authority,” and both creeds and hierarchies emerged much later than had been thought. Third, an essential key to comprehending the earliest Christians, including those who wrote the New Testament, is to see their movement as a self-conscious alternative to the empire that tyrannized them. And the best way to understand the succeeding generation of Christian leaders is to notice how they reversed course and gradually came to admire and emulate that empire.
This quote was in reference to some recent discoveries, among them the Dead Sea Scrolls and other studies. What I want you to learn from these studies so far is:
- There was never a single “early Christianity”. Instead it was a very diverse group.
- The idea of heresy was unknown for hundreds of years. Given its preponderance in later church history this is a very important thing to remember.
- Apostolic authority was the invention of later years. Church leadership and its very vertical structure was an invention of men who came centuries after the early people of the Way. Let’s not forget that as we move forward.
- There were basically no creeds or hierarchies in the early church. This is probably one of the most important points.
- We must understand the early Christians relative to the times they lived.
- We must understand that at some point in early church history the leaders reversed course and came to admire and even emulate the empire they were taught to be distinctly separate from.
It is difficult to know where to put the blame for this reversal of being a foreigner in the empire’s land and being one of them. It was not a distinct moment in early church history but instead creeped into it via the opinions of some of the early leaders being influenced by the power of the empire. That is not to say that we cannot identify turning points but it was not a single event that caused this reversal. We certainly can and will be looking at this in this study.
Is it possible to bring back the foundations and practices of the early church today? To a degree yes it can be done but we must realize that it must be done relative to our current situations and our past history. The old saying that “You can’t go home again” is true in the respect that it won’t be the same as when you left. You will be a different person with different perspectives and wisdom. The same goes for the church…