Archive for the ‘Early Church’ Category

Oral Tradition, The Early Church, and Paul Pavao’s Astonishment

October 12, 2009

I had written (in this previous post):

That’s rather the point about the early church fathers – they did not transmit an oral apostolic tradition to us, rather they were our predecessors in trying to search out the meaning of Scripture. Where they do a good job they are to be commended, and where they err they are to be corrected.

Paul Pavao (affiliation unstated, but not Roman Catholic) responded:

I’m a little astonished you can say this. I’m not Roman Catholic, but the early church’s appeals to the rule of faith/rule of truth are common. Irenaeus (A.H. III:2:2, I think) makes it clear that they referred gnostics to both the Scriptures and the traditions derived from the apostles.

The rule of faith/rule of truth for the early church fathers was normally either Scripture or the creed (which was derived from Scripture). The creed itself was not in ipse an apostolic tradition, though it was based on the Scriptures (the only authentic apostolic traditions that we have). Irenaeus did refer the gnostics both to Scripture and tradition, as we ourselves do when we point back to what Irenaeus did. Irenaeus comment about heretics claiming to follow Scripture and tradition is a dead-on criticism of Roman Catholicism.

Paul Pavao continued:

There was obviously a rule of faith. It’s summarized by Irenaeus, Tertullian, and later writers. Justin refers to it by talking about teachings that came from the apostles. (He even gives a reason for baptism that he said came from the apostles.)

See above regarding the rule of faith. For more discussion, see J.N.D. Kelly’s Early Christian Doctrines, pp. 88 et seq.

Paul Pavao continued:

There was an oral apostolic tradition passed down to the church, as well as an attempt to be Scriptural. So your statement’s confusing because no one familiar with the pre-Nicene writings would agree with you. (There’s a couple summations of the idea of the rule of faith in BakerAcademic’s Evangelical Ressourcement Series; those are Evangelical and they treat the oral apostolic tradition as obvious as well.)

There were, of course, men to whom the apostles preached the gospel. What they preached was not in substance different from the Scripture. However, and this is key, no reliable report of their oral teachings has come down to us apart from Scripture. There are some (extremely scattered) alleged oral traditions handed down from the apostles that we find recorded in the earliest centuries of the writings of the church fathers. Generally speaking, though, we find them relying (as do we) solely on the authority of the written tradition of the apostles (i.e. Scripture) to settle doctrinal disputes among themselves. The untrustworthiness of oral transmission can be seen not only in the Rabbinic traditions that made void the Scripture but also in examples from the early church fathers (example here).

Paul Pavao concluded:

I haven’t even brought up 2 Thess. 2:15.

I have:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4


>The Importance of Irenaeus

March 17, 2009

>An anonymous reader asked: Why are the witings of St. Irenaeus now so suddenly important[?] I thought that his relics were sacked by the Calvinists becaused he was alleged to be a heretic, ie., he is a proponent of Free Will and that his other writings do not support TULIP.

The importance of Irenaeus is merely historical. In many ways, Irenaeus is notable more for what he did not say, than for what he did say. Of course, we have only a limited amount of what he wrote and said, but what we find in those writings is some amount of evidence as to what was believed and held in his day. The process of preserving his writings has not been unbiased, and has been subject to some serious “selection” concerns. Nevertheless, considered with the appropriate caveats, Irenaeus gives us a picture into the mind of some Christians of the late 2nd century.

It (Irenaeus’ writings) is not infallible, and it is not our rule of faith, but it is interesting – just as the writings of Calvin and Aquinas are interesting but not the rule of faith.

Irenaeus’ alleged remains disappeared when Calvinists destroyed a shrine where they were supposedly held. Whether they were actually there or not, we cannot know with certainty. Why the shrine was destroyed is better assigned to the fact that Calvinists oppose the veneration of the dead, more than any antipathy for the teachings of Ireneaus on any particular point. Unfotunately, as far as I know, the details are sparse as to any stated reason for the shrine’s destruction, and no information regarding what happened to the interred remains has come to light in subsequent years.

One would not be surprised if the Calvinists simply buried Irenaeus’ remains in an unmarked grave to prevent further idolatry, just as the bronze serpent was piously destroyed by Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:4) because people had come to venerate it.


Imaginary Patristic Quotation Regarding Mary?

November 12, 2008

Sometimes I like to read what “the other side” has to say about issues like the so-called Immaculate conception. I happened to come across the following argument in a book by Cardinal Lambruschini, who nearly became pope but was beaten out by Pius IX:

St. Cyril of Alexandria, who flourished in the fifth century, expresses himself in a manner still more decisive. Here are his words: “All men, except Him who was born of a Virgin, and that same most holy Virgin of whom was born the Man-God, are born in original sin, and we come into this world afflicted with the most grievous blindness, which indeed we inherit from our first parent, the origin of our race.” And he gives, moreover, the motive for this exception, since he goes on to say: “Who ever heard of an architect, building a house for himself, and giving possession of it to his greatest enemy?”

Evidently, the anonymous clergyman who translated the corresponding Latin felt it fit to include the Latin provided by Lambruschini:

Omnes homines, excepto illo, qui de Virgine natus est, et sacratissima etiam Virgine, ex qua Deus homo prodiit in mundum, exempta, cum peccato originali nascimur, et gravissima caecitate depressi in mundum venimus, quam quidera caecitatem de radice primi parentis contraximus.

His citation was as follows:

In Evang. Joan. lib. VI, adjecto explanationi Cyrilli per Judocum Clichtoveum Neoportuensem, Docterum Theologum, cap. XV, Oper. S. Cyrilli Alexandrini. Basileae, 1566.

The above, of course, is only the Latin and citation for the main portion of the quotation. The part quoted as explanation has the following Latin:

Quis unquam audivit architectum, qui sibi domum aedificavit, ejus occupationem et possessionem primo sui inimico cessisse.

with the following citation: “In. Conc. Eph. N. VI.” (see this link for some interesting discussion regarding the variant issues for this quotation)

Several issues came to mind:

1) The supposed explanation comes from an entirely different and unrelated work.

2) Upon checking the standard collections of Cyril, I noticed two problems. First, Book VI, cited by the cardinal, is a book of a single chapter in all the standard bodies of Cyrillic literature. Second, whether or not one divided that book into multiple chapters, the commentary in question is not to be found in the book. It’s just not there.

3) So, how did the cardinal err? He relied on Josse Clichtove, a Romanist theologian who was not the best academic.

In fact, upon further investigation, I discovered that Josse Clichtove, unable to find a copy of Books V to VII of Cyril’s works, inserted instead the works of other ancient writers, without informing the reader. Erasmus made fun of him for this in Responsio ad annotationes Lei. It wasn’t the only time that Clichtove made such substitutions. See pp. 317-318 of “Contemporaries of Erasmus,” by Bietenholz et al.

I don’t bring this up simply to make fun of the cardinal’s blunder. After all, the Reformed writers of the day also occasionally misquoted a source, particularly when they relied on the work of Romanist scholars in providing the allegedly patristic material.

What is even more interesting is that upon reading the genuine Book VI, I found that Cyril of Alexandria actually said what amounts to the precise opposite, namely that he provided no exclusion whatsoever for Mary:

And yet we could not grant that they [i.e. the parents of the man born blind] were altogether free from sin. For, inasmuch as they were human, it is I suppose in every way likely or rather it of necessity follows that they fell into errors.


Migne’s corresponding Latin from PG73:942 is “Atqui non omnino concesserimus eos immunes peccati. Quippe homines cum essent, necesse fuit ut in peccatum inciderent.” (If you are interested in the Greek, see the facing portion of Migne at column 941, or volume two of Pusey, p. 187, lines 24-27, 1872 ed.)

In point of fact, the supposed sinlessness of Mary was not the universal consent of the ancient fathers. From everything I have seen, the universal consent of the ancient fathers that addressed the issue was that Jesus was the only human not to sin, and this was because he was no mere man, but God incarnate. Only Jesus’ conception was immaculate. He was born of a physically immaculate virgin, but he was made after the likeness of sinful flesh, as the Scriptures teach. Mary had sin, which is why she recognized Christ as her savior.


Ancient Christians and their Bibles

September 24, 2008

A common myth that we hear from time to time from a number of different directions, is that Bibles were in essence Gutenberg’s invention: a testimony to Northern European printing ingenuity, but not an ancient practice. Of course it is true that printed Bibles necessarily followed the development of printing, but Bibles were being made long before then. Likewise, others will claim that even if Bibles existed before the Reformation, they were so extraordinarily scarce that ordinary people could not possibly have them.

Indeed, I recently had the pleasure of interacting with a lay apologist for Catholicism who, buying into the myth, apparently believed that people didn’t have Bibles before the sixteenth century. He didn’t say so, but I think he was somewhat surprised to discover just how many European and non-European languages the Bible had already been translated into before Luther ever nailed his 95 theses to Wittenburg door on October 31, 1517. He seemed to have a mental picture of the Bible surviving from the apostles to the reformers in Latin copy locked away in bishops’ chambers.

But this picture of the world is far from the reality that Bibles were the treasured possession of the faithful since the time of the early church. Even in Europe, before Luther, Wycliffe and his followers produced manuscript (hand-written) English Bibles for the laity in an era and religious climate in which such production could get one killed. Others produced Bibles in the common tongue long before that, with Jerome publishing the Bible in Latin not to place out of reach of the common man, but to place it into the common tongue.

But even if someone is well-versed in the fact that Jerome produced a Bible – one may wonder whether his monumental task of producing a Latin Bible from copies of the the Greek and Hebrew originals was the first time that the Bible had been assembled as such. It was not.

Codex Vaticanus and Siniaticus represent essentially complete “codex” forms in which the whole Bible was assembled as a collection. They are normally dated to the 4th century.

Even earlier, the notable papyrus P72 (which is often dated to the 3rd century) contains what appear to be page numbers at the top, which indicate that the books contained in it were at some point bound together into a book form. It’s less impressive in the case of P72, because in that case Scripture was bound together with other books that are plainly not Scripture.

Nevertheless, it is interesting to note something even more significant than the page numbers: the heading of the section of the papyrus at which 2 Peter begins reads: “Peter’s Epistle 2” using the Greek letter Beta to represent the number two. That single character, Beta, has an important significance for the issue of the canon of Scripture. That single character demonstrates the fact that at least a mental and/or implicit canon of Scripture already existed in which there were (at least) two epistles of Peter.

That is page Kappa Gamma (23). On the facing page, Kappa Beta (22), we have the end of Peter’s first epistle, which is similarly indicated at the foot of the epistle by “Peter’s Epistle 1” using the Greek letter Alpha to represent the number one. Thus, we can see not only that the books were identified by the designations A and B, but they were even bound in that order.

We may take that kind of designation for granted, because we are used to Bibles today with their handy table of contents (canon). Nevertheless, that kind of designation demonstrates already in the earliest documents that we have, a recognition of the fact that there was more than one epistle of Peter, and that apparently as early as A.D. 200 there was already an established convention as to which epistle was A (1 Peter) and which was B (2 Peter), such that someone would use such an abbreviation in the heading of the book. P72 is interesting because, although it is no longer complete, it contained both epistles of Peter as well as the epistle of Jude, which further serves to demonstrate that the epistles did not simply circulate as individual letters in the early church.

Furthermore, P46 (dated to about 250 A.D.) contains a collection of Paul’s epistles, while P45 (of similar date) contains a collection of the gospels and Acts. The only early physical copy of the New Testament is a single fragment (P52) that is from John’s gospel, but which is too small to determine whether it was part of a larger codex.

In short, the physical documents we have speak to the fact of the recognition of the canon by the earliest Christians, and attempts by early Christians to bind the canonical books together into Bibles.

With that archaeological background we should not be surprised to hear Augustine testify:

Call this fancy, if it is not actually the case that men all over the world have been led, to believe in Christ by reading these books.

(NPNF1, Vol. IV, Reply to Faustus the Manichaean, Book XVI, Section 20.)

Nor should our ears be shocked to hear Chrysostom telling his congregation:

Wherefore I exhort you both to obtain Bibles, and to retain together with the Bibles the sentiments they set forth, and to write them in your minds.

(NPNF1, Vol. XIV, Chrysostom’s Homlies on the Gospel of John, Homily 53.)

Of course, we will gladly acknowledge that Bibles in the ancient world were not as cheap and easy to get as Bibles are today. Praise be to God for the printing press and the Internet! And surely in many places today, the population is literate to a greater degree than ever before. Praise be to God for this advance in education! But recall what the solution was in the days of Caesarius, bishop of Arles (470-543):

Moreover, since what a man procures in this life by reading or good works will be food of his soul forever, let no one try to excuse himself by saying he has not learned letters at all. If those who are illiterate love God in truth, they look for learned people who can read the sacred Scriptures to them.

(Fathers of the Church, Vol. 31, Sermon 8.1 of Caesarius of Arles)

And even before Christ, the Word of God was read to the people of God, even if there was not then a full scroll in every hand, Scriptures says that they read from the Scriptures:

Nehemiah 9:2-3
2And the seed of Israel separated themselves from all strangers, and stood and confessed their sins, and the iniquities of their fathers. 3And they stood up in their place, and read in the book of the law of the LORD their God one fourth part of the day; and another fourth part they confessed, and worshipped the LORD their God.

For this is God’s command and the way to preserve the faith:

Deuteronomy 11:16-21
16Take heed to yourselves, that your heart be not deceived, and ye turn aside, and serve other gods, and worship them; 17And then the LORD’S wrath be kindled against you, and he shut up the heaven, that there be no rain, and that the land yield not her fruit; and lest ye perish quickly from off the good land which the LORD giveth you. 18Therefore shall ye lay up these my words in your heart and in your soul, and bind them for a sign upon your hand, that they may be as frontlets between your eyes. 19And ye shall teach them your children, speaking of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. 20And thou shalt write them upon the door posts of thine house, and upon thy gates: 21That your days may be multiplied, and the days of your children, in the land which the LORD sware unto your fathers to give them, as the days of heaven upon the earth.


This is Catholic Internet Apologetics and a Reasonable Response thereto

March 6, 2008

GNRHead posted a two-part diatribe broadsiding Dr. White with a significant number of accusations, even taking time to wave his finger at the camera and insist that Dr. White should be ashamed of himself.

Dr. White posted the video that I have embedded below that makes short work of the bulk of GNRHead’s argument. There is certainly more that could be said, and there are unaswered (though not unanswerable) allegations.

The main point, though, is a good one. It is important for apologists to have a reasonably broad knowledge of church history, because there are all sorts of absurd claims that float about on the Internet.

Here is the video:

I hope you enjoy.

Sola Deo Gloria,


Gems of Calvinism from the Early Church: Ignatius

March 1, 2008

CAVEAT: “Calvinistic” is an anachronism. Calvin wasn’t born yet. The proper chronological way to describe the situation is to say that Calvin was being Ignatian — or (better yet) that both Calvin and Ignatius were being Scriptural.

In my reading of the Apostolic Fathers, another gem from the Apostolic Fathers caught my eye, this one from the Epistle of Ignatius to the Ephesians (opening sentence):

Ignatius, who is also called Theophorus, to the Church which is at Ephesus in Asia, deservedly thought happy, blessed in the greatness and fulness of God the Father, predestinated before the worlds to be for ever for a glory abiding, not to be overturned, united and elect in the true passion, by the will of the Father and of Jesus Christ our God, much joy in Jesus Christ and in blameless grace.



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