In his conversion story the renowned Catholic philosopher and author, Dr. Peter Kreeft, recalls one fateful day in college. He was in “Church History” class. To stimulate thought-provoking discussion amongst his Calvinist students, the professor provocatively lamented at how absurd it would sound to the early Christians if they were to respond to the question “Who founded your Church?” with “John Calvin.” This controversial reflection stirred the mind of young Kreeft into a state of deep inquiry.
That day in class, Dr. Kreeft was compelled to ask a profoundly bold question; and that question catapulted him in the direction of the Catholic faith. His question went something like this:
If two Christians, a non-Catholic and a Catholic, could travel back in time to the earliest centuries of Christianity who would be more “at home”? The non-Catholic or the Catholic?
After a thorough critical investigation, the answer became clear. The early Church was Catholic, through and through. Although it was in a more primitive form, he found that the early Christian Church had a shocking resemblance to the Catholic Church of modern times. So he became Catholic. He had to. He loved Truth too much.
Are Early Church Writings Useful?
Serious historians work with the following fundamental principle in mind:
The closer a testimony is to the original source, the more reliable it tends to be.
An eyewitness testimony is most preferable when doing historical research; and we have this in the New Testament Gospels, particularly in Matthew and John. The next preferable choice for accurate historical information is the testimony of those closest in proximity to the eyewitnesses, which we have from Mark and Luke who were close companions to the apostles, Peter and Paul, respectively.
We also have reliable testimony in extra-biblical early Church writings. Thus, investigating early Church writings is a great way to test whether your church’s teachings (and your New Testament interpretations) correspond precisely with the actual teachings of Jesus and the apostles.
Remember: the Word of God compels us to “test everything” and hold on to what is good and true (1 Thess 5:21). To fulfill Jesus’ prayer for His Church we must do this (Jn 17). To not seek unity is to settle for disunity, and that is contradictory to what is demanded of us through the Scriptures (1 Cor 1:10-13). Seeking orthodoxy (or “right doctrine”) is of first necessity for all Christians (1 Tim 4:16).
Now let’s go back in time and see what we find. In Part I, we’ll look at the 1st century only:
1.The Bishop of Rome, or Pope, was the prime minister of the Church. Clement of Rome was a disciple of Peter the apostle, the first pope (Is 22; Mt 16:18; Lk 22:32; Jn 21:15-19). He was also a successor of Peter as Bishop of Rome. When interior corruption began to abound within the church at Corinth, the Corinthians appealed to Clement of Rome, seeking his intervention. Notice that they did not write to John “the beloved apostle,” who was still alive at the time and closer in location. This was because they recognized Clement’s special papal authority as a successor to Peter in Rome.
In his reply from Rome to the Corinthians, Clement writes:
“You will afford us joy and gladness if being obedient to the things which we have written through the Holy Spirit, you will root out the wicked passion of jealousy” (Letter to the Corinthians 1, 58–59, 63 [A.D. 80]).
Next let’s refer to a passage from The Shepherd of Hermas, a first century document seriously discerned by the early Church for inclusion in the New Testament Canon. Notice how this document alludes to Clement’s unique permission (from Christ) to minister to all Christians and not just one particular region:
“You will write therefore two books, and you will send the one to Clemens and the other to Grapte. And Clemens will send his to foreign countries, for permission has been granted to him to do so“ (The Shepherd 1:2:4 [A.D 80])
In later centuries, Tertullian (and others) confirm that Clement was a successor of Peter:
For this is the manner in which the apostolic churches transmit their registers: as the church of Smyrna, which records that Polycarp was placed therein by John; as also the church of Rome, which makes Clement to have been ordained in like manner by Peter” (Demurrer Against the Heretics 32 [A.D. 200]).
This succession of the bishop of Rome has been continued to present day. Pope Francis is successor #266 (click here for a full list of successors from Peter to Francis)
2. Bishops were chosen to succeed the apostles, and functioned primarily as ordained guardians of the Church of Jesus Christ and its teachings (Acts 1:20). One of the primary responsibilities of the bishops was to ensure that Christians interpreted and abode by the Scriptures and oral tradition rightly, in accordance with God’s will.
Our apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry” (Letter to the Corinthians 42:4–5, 44:1–3 [A.D. 80]).
3. Sunday was the official Christian day of worship and rest. The Jewish Sabbath was fulfilled by the Lord’s Day, the first day of the week, which was also the day of on which Jesus rose from the dead (see Acts 20:7).
“Assemble on the Lord’s day, and break bread and offer the Eucharist;” (Didache 14 [A.D. 70]).
4. The Sacrifice of the Mass was the highest form of Christian worship. The Mass was where the faithful would receive Jesus’ body, blood, soul and divinity through the Sacrament of the Eucharist, as instituted at the Last Supper by Christ. The real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist was not theologically disputed until Berengarius of Tours in the 11th centuries.
The Mass is not a re-sacrificing of Jesus, but a perpetuation of Jesus’ once and for all sacrifice on the cross (Heb 7:27). As the fulfillment of the Jewish Passover (Ex 12), proper participation in the Eucharist requires the eating of the sacrificed Lamb of God, just as the eating of the slain lamb was required in the Old Covenant Passover.
“Assemble on the Lord’s day, and break bread and offer the Eucharist; but first make confession of your faults, so that your sacrifice may be a pure one. Anyone who has a difference with his fellow is not to take part with you until he has been reconciled, so as to avoid any profanation of your sacrifice [Matt. 5:23–24]. For this is the offering of which the Lord has said, ‘Everywhere and always bring me a sacrifice that is undefiled, for I am a great king, says the Lord, and my name is the wonder of nations’ [Mal. 1:11, 14]” (Didache 14 [A.D. 70]).
5. The Sacrament of Baptism was unanimously testified to as a Sacrament by the apostolic Fathers; that is, they understood the post-Pentecost baptism to be not only a physical washing with water with a certain symbolism attached to it, but also a real conferral of grace resulting in spiritual washing and regeneration of the soul, a cleansing of all sins up to the present moment (Acts 2:38; 1 Pet 3:20-21; Tit 3:6). Baptism in the early Church was never understood to be a merely symbolic ritual.
“‘I have heard, sir,’ said I, ‘from some teacher, that there is no other repentance except that which took place when we went down into the water and obtained the remission of our former sins.’ He said to me, ‘You have heard rightly, for so it is’” (The Shepherd 4:3:1–2 [A.D. 80]).
6. Baptism was done by immersion and pouring. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “Baptism is performed in the most expressive way by triple immersion in the baptismal water. However, from ancient times it has also been able to be conferred by pouring the water three times over the candidate’s head” (CCC #1239)
“After the foregoing instructions, baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living [running] water. . . . If you have neither, pour water three times on the head, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Didache 7:1 [A.D. 70]).
7. Forgiveness of sins was obtained through the Church. Although the common teachings of the Catholic Church has always been that it is right and good to confess one’s sins “directly to God,” it has also been the Church’s constant teaching that the normative way for a Christian to obtain reconciliation with God is through the ministry of the Catholic priest, as instituted by Jesus (John 20:21-23; 2 Cor 5:18))
Although the first century writings do not explicitly mention “confession to a priest” they imply the authority given to the Church (presided over by ordained priests) for the absolution of sins. Notice also the relationship between reconciliation with God (through the Sacrament of “Confession”) and the worthily reception of the Eucharist in the Mass (see 1 Cor 11, especially verse 27).
“Confess your sins in church, and do not go up to your prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of life. . . . On the Lord’s Day gather together, break bread, and give thanks, after confessing your transgressions so that your sacrifice may be pure” (Didache 4:14, 14:1 [A.D. 70]).
8. The Sinlessness of Mary, known more officially as the dogma of the Immaculate Conception is implied in writings of the first century. In Genesis, God tells Eve that as a consequence of Original Sin all women from that point onward are to experience pain in childbirth (Gen 3:16). Yet, in first century accounts of Jesus’ birth the writers note something “different” about Jesus’ birth:
“[T]he report concerning the child was noised abroad in Bethlehem. Some said, ‘The Virgin Mary has given birth before she was married two months.’ And many said, ‘She has not given birth; the midwife has not gone up to her, and we heard no cries of pain’” (Ascension of Isaiah 11 [A.D. 70]).
“So the Virgin became a mother with great mercies. And she labored and bore the Son, but without pain, because it did not occur without purpose. And she did not seek a midwife, because he caused her to give life. She bore as a strong man, with will . . . ” (Odes of Solomon 19 [A.D. 80]).
Mary’s obedience (and sinlessness), contrasted against Eve’s disobedience (and resulting sinfulness), would earn her the title “New Eve” in the next century with such notable early Christian leaders as St. Justin Martyr.
9. Obtaining the intercession of saints and angels has been a Christian practice from the beginning. The Bible tells us that they offer our prayers before God’s throne in heaven (Rev 5:8; Rev 8:3-4). Catholics have requested the prayers of saints and angels, who are perfected in righteousness and charity, for two thousand years (see James 5:16).
“[The Shepherd said:] ‘But those who are weak and slothful in prayer, hesitate to ask anything from the Lord; but the Lord is full of compassion, and gives without fail to all who ask him. But you, [Hermas,] having been strengthened by the holy angel [you saw], and having obtained from him such intercession, and not being slothful, why do not you ask of the Lord understanding, and receive it from him?’” (The Shepherd 3:5:4 [A.D. 80]).
10. Condemnation of abortion. The Catholic Church has always, and will always, condemn abortion without exception. (The Church will also always reach out in love and support to those who have been associated in any way with abortion(s) – for more information click here)
“The second commandment of the teaching: You shall not murder … You shall not use potions. You shall not procure [an] abortion, nor destroy a newborn child” (Didache 2:1–2 [A.D. 70]).
11. The immoral nature of divorce has always been upheld by the Catholic Church. This was evidently the position taken even in the first century. Although the separated living of spouses may be permissible, divorce and remarriage is not, in the case of any valid sacramental marriage (CCC 1649).
“What then shall the husband do, if the wife continue in this disposition [adultery]? Let him divorce her, and let the husband remain single. But if he divorce his wife and marry another, he too commits adultery” (The Shepherd 4:1:6 [A.D. 80]).
Keep in mind that the following passages are only excerpts from first century Christian writings. It is now your responsibility to go to the original sources, to verify them by putting them in context, and to confirm for yourself what the early Church really believed and taught. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the wealth of information you’ll find.
These writings are good and valuable for any Christian to dive into. Clement’s Letter to the Corinthians, The Shepherd of Hermas, and the Didache were considered seriously by the early Church as it discerned which writings belonged in the New Testament canon. Although they were eventually determined to be “uninspired” they are valuable historical Christian sources that should not be ignored.
I urge you not to ignore the writings of the early Church, but rather, as time permits, to steep yourself in them.
Stay tuned for Part II when we explore the writings of the 2nd century Christians.