Following up with my recent comments about Larry Hurtado’s work and in the context of what he’s called “earliest Christianity” (basically the first 100 years of Christianity), I want to mention a comment by K Doran, who provided the first comment in Andrew Preslar’s response to R. Scott Clark and Robert Godfrey had on “the Lure of Rome”. Doran is wrong in this comment:
One additional point is that the data of antiquity is sparse — it is almost certain that the vast majority of what was written has been lost, and that much of what was lived and believed was never written in the first place. In light of this sparseness, arguments that the data do not contain sufficiently explicit references to the precise definitions of transubstantiation, the papacy, etc before, say the late 300s, are completely useless arguments from silence. They tell us nothing either one way or another. Give me the same sample size from 30 A.D. to 330 A.D. that we have from 330AD through 630AD, and then we can talk clearly about development on subtle issues from the very early church to the church of late antiquity. But, with the data as it stands, all we can say is: (1) as soon as the data set gets rich in the late 300s, it looks quite obviously non-protestant even on subtle issues; (2) no one during that time complained that the obviously “Catholic” teachings were corruptions; (3) many people at the time did explicitly and implicitly state that these “Catholic” teachings had always been taught; and (4) the sparse data from the first 300 years do not by any means contradict what was so clearly taught in the late 300s and beyond (unless, again, one is to abuse the statistically impossible argument from silence in that sparse data).
In light of the above, the protestant approach to the data of antiquity is very inadequate in comparison to the Catholic one. There is a deep sense in which the majority of the data is Catholic. There is a deeper sense in which the Catholic church has had the confidence to be intellectually honest about the sparse data, applying arguments from silence when and where the data itself permits it, and ignoring silly arguments from silence where the data itself do not. I think this intellectual maturity is what many converts notice, even if they can’t explain it in words; to compare the Catholic embrace of the “mean” of history with the Protestant attempt to find a tiny niche in antiquity to call its own, is an eye-opening experience.
Rather, the New Testament provides for us an embarrassment of riches with respect to our knowledge of the earliest Church and antiquity. Roman Catholics like K Doran make a fundamental mistake in holding on to what Hurtado refers to the darkened pre-Constantinian centuries.
What’s really happening is that, in the first 100 years of church history, we see a picture of Christ-worship and an authority structure in the earliest church that is totally turned on its head, not by “subtle issues” as Doran says, but with true violence. Not all of it was intentional, but some of the Rome-ward and Pagan-ward drift was quite intentional.
There is no need for Protestants to make “arguments from silence” with respect either to “authority” or to what “the church that Christ founded” was really like. The Roman story – and even the Anglican story on “the episcopacy” has changed in recent years to reflect what’s now known about what he calls “the historical phenomenon” of both “Christ devotion” and the earliest church.
Both are now subtly fudging their account of how the episcopal structure came into being. It's important to note just how this fudge is being produced.
Roman Catholics are fond of saying that the Roman Church is “The sole Church of Christ” that is, [the Church] which our Savior, after his Resurrection, entrusted to Peter’s pastoral care, commissioning him and the other apostles to extend and rule it. . . . This Church, constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists in (subsistit in) the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him…”
But as I noted last week, that’s a bait and switch. So too is the Anglican conception of “orders”. Some time ago, I cited Roger Beckwith in his work, “Elders in Every City: The Origin and Role of the Ordained Ministry” (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster Press ©2003). Beckwith [an Anglican] noted what he called “fuzzy language” in the preface to the Ordinal in the Book of Common Prayer to describe the existence of “Bishops, Priests, and Deacons” in the church:
“It is evident unto all men diligently reading holy Scripture and the ancient Authors, that from the Apostles’ time there have been these Orders of Ministers in Christ’s Church” Bishops, Priests, and Deacons.”
Of this statement, Beckwith says:
This is a very carefully phrased statement which, through loose interpretation, has been misrepresented both by its defenders and by its critics.
For, in the first place, it does not say that this is evident to those “diligently reading holy Scripture and ancient Authors’; in other words, it is evident from Scripture and the Fathers taken together, but not necessarily from one of the two taken singly. If we have difficulty finding the threefold ministry in the New Testament taken by itself, the preface does not say that we should be able to find it there.
In the second place, the preface does not say that “by the Apostles’ decision there have been those Orders of Ministers in Christ’s Church” but from the Apostles time there have been these Orders of Ministers in Christ’s Church”; in other words, from the period before the last of the apostles died there have been three orders of ordained ministers; and the last of the apostles, St John, is stated by Irenaeus (Against Heresies 3:3;4) to have lived until the reign of Trajan, who did not become emperor till AD 98. Since the threefold ministry was [evident] when Ignatius of Antioch was writing his letters, about AD 110, it can hardly have arisen later than the beginning Trajan’s reign, in other words, later than the end of the apostolic age. So the preface to the Ordinal is stating the simple truth in saying that it dates from the apostle’s time. But how far the apostles were responsible for the development which took place is left an open question (Beckwith pgs 9-10).
Francis Sullivan, evidently in agreement with Beckwith and Kilmartin [whom I’ve cited earlier] and a raft of other modern scholarship on this topic of “authority in the earliest church”, concludes his work “From Apostles to Bishops: The Development of the Episcopacy in the Early Church” (New York, Mahwah, NJ: The Newman Press, © 2001 by The Society of Jesus of New England [Jesuits]):
While most Catholic scholars agree that the episcopate is the fruit of a post-New Testament development, they maintain that this development was so evidently guided by the Holy Spirit that it must be recognized as corresponding to God’s plan for the structure of his Church (230).
On the contrary, the earliest history of the church shows a completely different “structure”, put into place by the Apostles and the earliest disciples. It was this “structure” that was cast aside in favor of an Episcopal structure that has its roots not in the authority structure that Christ left with his apostles, but rather, with the pagan and Roman world around them. As such, it is not a “divine institution” in any way, and the Reformers were clearly in the right to cast off the accretions.
Christ did not say to the earliest church, “I give you my authority”. He said, “go, and I will be with you”. There’s a big difference.