C. The Sacred Deposit: A Brief Doctrinal Synopsis for the Post- Apostolic Church
1. What it means to be catholic.
Having covered much of the ideological and cultural context of the early church, at this point, it is expedient to clarify some of the specific beliefs of the church. The first concept that must be stressed is the immutability of the faith. Reading the writings of the early church fathers, one is overwhelmed at the emphasis on unity with regard to the general beliefs of the church. The essence of the Gospel, which you will see defined in detail, is referred to as the "apostolic rule of faith." All churches that professed the rule of faith were part of the "catholic" church, that is, the "universal" church. Just to be clear, the term "catholic" has nothing to do with the any peculiar beliefs that might have come from Rome. As a matter of fact, to preface the apostolic term "catholic" with the qualifier "Roman" is an oxymoron. By very definition, according to the first "Catholics", they are mutually exclusive. (See in particular quote from Clement of Alexandria at end of this section). If a particular church or belief found it's source in Rome, then it ceases to be universal or catholic.
Wherever possible, I have listed out in chronological order, primary sources and extended quotes grouped by subject matter. In the following quotes, notice the use of the word catholic, the "rule of faith", and the enmity that the early church fathers had for anything that was "novel" (new) that did not come from antiquity.
The first two references come from Ignatius and the account of the Martyrdom of Polycarp. There is no specific definition of catholicity, but only evidence that "catholic" is a proper and fitting appellation of the church as a whole, to distinguish it from both the heretical churches and from specific, local congregations.
Ignatius (Epistle to the Philadelphians, ca. 107 A.D.):
Where ever the bishop shall appear, let the people also be, just as where ever Christ Jesus is, there is the catholic church.
Martyrdom of Polycarp (ca. 156 A.D.):
The church of God which sojourns at Smyrna, to the church of God sojourning at Philomelium, and to all the congregations of the holy and catholic church in every place.
Again, it is important to note that this has nothing to do with Roman Catholicism. The Roman church at this point was "catholic" in the sense that it was of apostolic origin and held to the tradition that was passed down from the apostles, yet the Roman church neither believed nor practiced anything that we equate today with modern day Roman Catholicism. There was no Pope, priests, veneration of images, mass, doctrines about Mary, or other things unique to the Roman church. The following statements detail some of the specifics of catholic (universal) doctrine, and demonstrate how the church regarded these central doctrines as a deposit vested with them from the apostles, and the responsibility of the church to keep this rule of faith pure and undiluted. Irenaeus offers one of the most majestic declarations of the apostolic faith. It is understood as being fixed, with these essential points being fundamental and universal. .
Irenaeus: (Against Heresies 180 A.D.):
The church, though dispersed throughout the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith:
[She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and earth, and the sea and all things that are in them;
and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation, and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents,
and the birth from a virgin,
and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead,
and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus our Lord,
and his future manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father "to gather all things in one" and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, that "every knee should bow...and every tongue confess to Him...
As I have already observed, the church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down as if she had but one mouth...Nor will any of the rulers in the churches, however highly gifted in eloquence teach doctrines different from these (for no one is greater than the Master); nor, on the other hand, will he who is deficient in power of expression inflict injury on the tradition. For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it make any addition to it, nor does one who says but little, diminish it.
(Against Heresies, XXIV)
Our faith, which having received from the church, we do preserve, as if it were some sacred deposit in an excellent vessel.
Tertullian likewise offers us his version of the rule of faith. It addresses almost all of the same points as Irenaeus, in a slightly abbreviated fashion. He also strongly supports the unchangeableness of it, the faith having been preserved from the very first apostles. .
Tertullian (On the Veiling of Virgins 210 A.D. ):
The rule of faith, indeed, is altogether one, alone unmovable and irreformable; to wit, of believing in only one God, omnipotent, the Creator of the universe, and His Son Jesus Christ, born of the virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate, raised again the third day from the dead, received in the heavens, sitting now at the right hand of the Father, destined to come to judge the quick and the dead through the resurrection of the flesh as well as the spirit. This law of faith being constant...while the devil is always operating and adding daily to the ingenuityís of iniquity.
Tertullian, having mentioned that the devil is "adding ingenuities", goes on to demonstrate how the question of "novelty" was one of first importance when evaluating doctrine that was allegedly revealed by the Spirit, and whether it could be considered "catholic".
We must join the issue in a general handling of the subject, whether there is room for maintaining that the Paraclete (Holy Spirit) has taught any such thing as can be charged with novelty, in opposition to catholic tradition, or with burdensomeness, in opposition to the "light burden" of the Lord...For the adversary spirit would be apparent from the diversity of his preaching, beginning by adulterating the rule of faith, and so going onto adulterating the order of discipline.
This very thing is demonstrable by us; that the rule of monogamy is neither novel or strange, nay rather, is both ancient and proper to Christians; so that you may be sensible that the Paraclete (Holy Spirit) is rather it's restitutor than it's institutor.
One will notice Tertullian's frequent mention of "novelty", here applied to monogamy, and the wide possibility for application. Any doctrine or practice must show that it is not "novelty" ie. a new invention. If something is revealed by the Spirit, it must be shown to be a restoration of that which was apostolic and ancient, not a revelation of something not before known. This is of primary importance to the church today, since virtually all of the heresies and quasi-orthodox doctrine that we are all dealing with today can be easily shown to be mere novelty. Unfortunately, many in the church today have actually adopted a mind-set that requires novelty and "never heard before" doctrines as a litmus test of spirituality. Many Christians, as described by Paul in 2 Timothy 4:3 as having "itching ears', seek new doctrines and revelations, imagining that God is "doing a new thing". They have been sold a bill of goods that says that God's Spirit will burst the "old wine skins" and require "new wine skins"; meaning that we are to shelf the historic emphasis of the gospel and receive their new version of Christianity. This, however, has only been to the church's detriment. The whole history of the church is replete with examples of our straying from the central core of the gospel, sometimes being drawn away by human tradition, the quest for temporal power, superstition, or even liberal theology. In each case however, the restoration of the church has been affected when determined men and women of God settled themselves to return to the historic fundamentals of the faith. Every revival and reformation has it's root in a return to the apostolic doctrines and practice. The teaching of such revivalists and reformers may have seemed like something new to them or their generation, but in reality, it was merely a return to the ancient "catholic" and apostolic rule of faith. Therefore, to use just one example, Martin Luther's understanding of salvation by faith, although it came to Luther seemingly as a "revelation", was a "restoration" of ancient truth, not a "revelation" of new doctrine. From the Wesleys, to Whitefield, Finney, and Edwards, the essence of what was brought forth was a return to apostolic doctrine and practice. Every reform in the major denominations, including Roman Catholicism, can be shown to be a move back to the center of apostolic teaching. The devil, the deceiver and enemy of truth, is the author of novelty.
In his work "On Fasting", Tertullian mentions that "innovation" with respect to doctrine or practice is "lawlessness", and a device of the antichrist. For the church of his day, the best guarantee of orthodoxy was holding fast to the apostolic rule, and rejecting anything that was later in origin. In another work written to refute a heretic named Praexes, Tertullian spells out what was obvious to the early church; namely, that going back to the earliest, original source (the apostles themselves) is the only guide in determining truth. Doctrine that is not apostolic, is to be rejected.
Tertullian (Against Praxeas 210 A.D.)
This rule of faith has come down to us from the beginning of the gospel, even before any of the older heretics...apparent from (their) lateness of date which marks all heresies, and also from the novel character of our new-fangled Praxeas. In this principle we find a presumption of equal force against all heresies whatsoever- that whatsoever is first is true, whereas that which is spurious is later in date...we keep this rule of faith inviolate."
Lactantius likewise repeats the sentiment that new doctrine is false doctrine. He mentions that the he observes that heresy frequently comes from two primary sources: those who "corrupt sacred writings" and others who are "enticed by...false prophets":
Lactantius (Divine Institutes 290 A.D.)
"Some (heretics) were perverted from the right path, and they corrupted sacred writing so that they composed for themselves new doctrine without root or stability. But some (heretics), enticed by the prediction of false prophets, concerning whom both the true prophets and he (Christ) himself had foretold, fell away from the knowledge of God and left the true tradition."
Today, we don't find many Christian groups trying to re-write the scriptures, but I think that these words from Lactantius regarding "corrupting sacred writing" are applicable today in that we have so many "teachers" today who present novel doctrine by prefacing it with "the Greek (or Hebrew) really means". For years, whenever I have heard that phrase, I have taken careful note to find the Greek or Hebrew word, examine it's usage in not only the biblical context, but in classical, or other religious contexts, so as to see how honest the exegete might be. To our shame, I must state that the majority of times I have heard a Christian preacher say "the Greek really means", it has turned out to be an idiom for nothing more than "here is a new doctrine that is insupportable from the Bible so I will build support for it by claiming that it can only be properly understood by Greek scholars like the one I pretend to be". Less than one third the time have I found that the preacher was handling the word properly, but was instead using the "Greek really means" facade to buttress a weak or even erroneous point in the message. In all fairness, there is a place for in depth Greek and Hebrew word studies, but if the result of such studies confounds the clear and most obvious spirit of a passage, then I would seriously question it. The use of the phrase "In the original language, this word means..." should help to bring out nuances and shades of meaning that are overtly in agreement with the essence of the text, not create a pretext for novel doctrine to rest upon. Understanding the usage of a word may help us grasp it's depth of import, but it should never be used to try to draw a hitherto secret meaning from the plain text. Paul himself said regarding his writing to the Corinthians that
There are no things that we write to you, even that you read and understand (II Cor 1:13).
In this statement, Paul refutes the belief that was frequently held by heretical Gnostic groups that there were secret hidden meanings in his letters beyond what was easily grasped from their appearance. Although it is true that there are instances of typology, metaphors, and special significance to numbers in some instances, we should be cautious to embrace any interpretation that is not safely within the parameters of the essence of the passage and the rule of faith.
The other group of heretics that Lactantius notes, are those who heed false prophets. Today, likewise, there is a huge amount of new doctrine that is being generated by "prophets" who can only support their doctrine with "The Lord revealed to me." If something allegedly is "revealed" by the Spirit of God, it better be verifiable with the apostolic church. We are Biblically obligated to test the spirits (I John 4:1). If it is not Biblical and apostolic, then was not revealed by God.
Just to emphasize the unanimous opinion in the early church regarding what constituted the apostolic doctrine and what was considered orthodox, consider Tertullian's position that only churches in communion with the first apostolic churches, holding identical faith, were to be considered "catholic". St. Vincent of Lerins, in the 5th century, would define Catholicism as "holding to that which was believed by all, everywhere, all the time." (Commitorium). Even the Council of Nicea, in 325 A.D., ruled that with regard to any question of doctrine or practice, particularly with respect to the nature of the relationships between the different churches, that they should
"let the ancient way prevail."
In order to be orthodox, one must hold to the original apostolic faith. To depart from that, is to indulge in novel doctrine. If it is late, it is spurious. If this is true, from whence came the equating of "Roman" with "Catholicism"? A full discussion of the rise of Romanism, the growth of the papacy, will be covered under the section of Leadership ( pg. 88). Rather than speculate here whether any of the church fathers made room for the possibility that the "catholic" church would some day be the "Roman Catholic" church, we are best informed by the eloquent statement of Clement of Alexandria in his chapter on church unity, from The Stromata, Book 7; XVII:
From what has been said then, it is my opinion that the true church, that which is really ancient, is one, and that in it those who according to God's purpose are just, are enrolled. For from the very reason that God is one, and the Lord is one, that which is in the highest degree honorable is lauded in consequence of it's singleness, being an imitation of the one first principle. In the nature of the one, then is associated in a joint heritage the one church, which they (the heretics) cut asunder into many sects.
Therefore, in substance and idea, in origin, in pre-eminence, we say that the ancient and Catholic church is alone, collecting as it does the unity of one faith- which results from the particular Testaments, or rather the one testament in different times by the will of the One God. through one Lord, already ordained, whom God predestined, knowing before the foundation of the world that they would be righteous.
But the pre-eminence of the church, as the principle of union, is, in its oneness, in this surpassing all things else, and having nothing like or equal to itself. But of this afterwards.
Of the heresies, receive their appellation from a persons name, as that which is called after Valentinus, and that after Marcion, and that after Basilides, although they boast of adducing the opinion of Matthew (without truth); for as the teaching, so also the tradition of the apostles was one. Some take their designation from a place, as the Peratici, some from a nation, as the Phrygians, some from an action, as the Encratites, and some from peculiar dogmas, like the Docetae.
Clement here identifies the fountainhead of church unity, namely the "unity of Testaments" that is, the Bible. Some have sought to demonstrate that Church unity in the early church depended upon submission to the magesterium of Rome. This concept will be shown to be false. In the above statement, Clement mentions that the heresies take their name from individuals, places or doctrines. With that being true, it is fair to say that any church that defines itself as following distinctives outside of the apostolic rule of faith is a schismatic faith. Such a charge could be equally leveled against "Lutherans" as well as "Pentecostals" or "Baptists" only inasmuch as they might adhere to non-apostolic doctrine, and elevate such doctrine to be considered essential for their communion. Likewise this holds true for "Roman" Catholicism. The appellation "Roman", as defined by Clementís statement, would clearly and immediately identify the church as a schismatic sect, distinct from the universal "catholic" church. The only redeeming feature (no pun intended) for any such church would rest in itís ability to hold out the apostolic rule of faith, the core essentials of Christianity, without emendation as the sole doctrinal qualifier for inclusion in the church. If a church were to add non-apostolic doctrine as "dogma", such a church would earn itself the distinction of being a sect, separate from the "catholic" church. Such is the position of contemporary Romanism, which has centuries of dogma that has swelled the once pure apostolic doctrine into tomes of Canon Law and medieval tradition. Unfortunately for the Roman sect, the recently defined "Papal Infallibility" (1870 A.D.) has made it virtually impossible for the Roman See to recant several non-apostolic doctrines (such as the Marian doctrines) without completely betraying itís own reason for being. It has bought itself a one-way ticket for sectarianism. On a more optimistic side, there are examples where sects or aberrational groups have reversed themselves from their peculiar doctrine, and reset themselves on the historic Christian faith. In our own time, the World Wide Church of God has distanced itself from the peculiar teachings of itís founder Herbert Armstrong, and reaffirmed the basics of apostolic Christianity. This group stands out as a model example of honest doctrinal evaluation and reform.