I first started writing something with this title more than 30 years ago. It has often been on my mind. Indeed, as soon as I started learning about the early Church, the Church which the Apostles established and taught, I started to think about the relationship of the thousands of Christian groups which we see around us in the 21st century to this original Church. It’s not a straightforward matter. There is no single answer that just describes everything in black and white terms. I continue to reflect on these things, and though I have come to various conclusions, and have been able to understand the perspectives of the great Fathers of the Church from the earliest centuries, nevertheless there are still many aspects of this question which remain, and will always remain, a mystery in the mercy of God.
In the first place it is necessary to say that a follower of Christ begins the journey of faith from wherever they find themselves. In my own experience, I have been such a follower of Christ from before I have any memory. There has been no time in my life when I did not have faith in Christ, whatever that might be taken to mean. The Orthodox Christian message is one of the renewal and transformation of men and women in the Holy Spirit, and this is not a black and white state that is brought about in a moment. It is a process which begins and continues in this life to our very last breath, even if there are significant periods and events which punctuate our journey. If I have been a follower of Christ since my earliest childhood, then this pilgrimage of my life is one that began long before I had even heard of the Orthodox Church, or had any knowledge of the earliest history of the Church. It is one that continued when I became a member of the Orthodox Church 23 years ago, and which continues today. I have certainly not yet become all that I believe God calls me towards. I have become a Christian, I am becoming a Christian, and I will finally in the glory of God become so united with Christ that he becomes my life and I am truly that person I am myself in him.
It seems to me (and I speak in this way because these are my own reflections, though based on serious study and much experience), that to a great extent what is most important is the direction our lives are taking. I do not mean this in some sort of liberal sense that nothing matters, and that there is no definite truth to be embraced. But I do mean that the value of our spiritual experience is found in the measure to which we are responding to God. I have found that I have much in common with all those I meet who are seeking to respond to the divine calling, whether they are formally members of the Orthodox Church or not. This makes sense. It would be impossible for anyone to become Orthodox if the grace of God only worked upon those who were already members of the Orthodox Church.
Even in the context of the Orthodox Church, those who wish to become members are made catechumens, and enter a period of instruction. They are preparing for their baptism and anointing with holy oil, or chrismation, for new birth in Christ and the gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit. They have not yet become members of the Church. But they are not considered as being not-Christian. They are clearly those who believe and have faith in Christ, or they would not be seeking membership of the Church. Adult Catechumens receive a Christian baptism, with whatever local variations on the full baptism are considered appropriate, because they are clearly Christians already in a real sense. Indeed, the rite for making a catechumen speaks about those coming forward as being your servants, and asks that God would…
Write their names in Thy book, number them with Thy people and them that fear before Thee. Graciously grant them that they may grow in the faith, and remission of sins, preparing them to be a temple of Thine Holy Spirit, through Thine Only-begotten Son Jesus Christ our Lord.
Those who have come to the catechumenate are already spoken of as having a relationship with God and having their names written in the Book of Life. This is not the rite of Baptism. If this is so of those who are receiving the encouragement of the rite of becoming a catechumen, then it is entirely reasonable to conclude that there was already faith and relationship with God in the time before these prayers were offered. Otherwise, the one being made a catechumen would have to be considered without faith or any knowledge of God until after these prayers were prayed. That would make them a form of magic, and not a response to faith. On the contrary, the same rite for the catechumen says,
Let us ask God for … Thy servants who have given in their names, who have entered into the faith by Thy grace, that Thou make them worthy to attain the grace for which they have presented themselves…
This shows us that even before they have come to the point of being made a catechumen they are already considered those who have entered into the faith by the grace of God. This seems to me to indicate that all those who have a living faith in Christ may be considered as Christian in this sense, as those who have entered into faith by the grace of God. I want to suggest that this is how we should respond to the people we meet who belong to other Christian groups. It is certainly not the end of what I want to say, but as a beginning I do believe that the committed and serious members of these other groups have some connection with the Church, as being those who are on the journey of faith in Christ. This does not mean that anyone who belongs to any group at all should be considered entirely Christian, we do not apply this measure even to our Orthodox communities. Stalin was baptised into the Russian Orthodox Church, but he was not a Christian. A Christian is, after all, primarily one who seeks to follow Christ even if it means more than that. So I am not saying that anyone who associates themselves or has been associated in any way with any Christian group or group that uses the name of Jesus should be considered a Christian even in this limited sense. But we should say, I do believe, that those who honour the name of Jesus and confess him as the Word of God incarnate, are Christian in a real sense.
Maybe that is the positive side of things. We should view those who are seeking to be Christian as Christian because the exercise of faith in Christ is the beginning of the Christian life. But it doesn’t answer my question about the relationship of the Church and the various modern Christian groups. We need to consider first of all what the Church actually is. The starting place for such a brief study must not be simply the rehearsal of various Scriptural texts to support an already adopted position. Indeed, one of the reasons that there are 40,000 different Protestant groups in the 21st century is entirely because the idea that Christian doctrine and practice should begin with a personal reading of Scripture to defend an opinion or hypothesis has become so prevalent.
Everyone says that they just read the Bible and follow what it says, but the facts show clearly that this is not what happens at all. People read the Bible and follow what they have decided it says. This attitude towards the Bible became established under Martin Luther, who rejected the authority of the Roman Catholic Church.
If the Church was considered to no longer be living and teaching the Christian life in its fullness and purity then it could no longer be represented as speaking with the authority of God, even if it claimed such authority. How could a sincere and committed Christian come to a knowledge of the truth if the Church was in error? Martin Luther proposed that the answer was to turn directly to the Scriptures and find within them the unadulterated Christianity that the Roman Catholic Church had distorted.
… A simple layman armed with Scripture is to be believed above a pope or a council without it.…Neither the Church nor the pope can establish articles of faith. These must come from Scripture. For the sake of Scripture we should reject pope and councils..
Now perhaps when Luther read the Bible he felt confident that he had understood it correctly, indeed he was willing to insist that his own opinion had more authority in his thinking than that of anyone else. He says…
I will confidently confess what appears to me to be true, whether it has been asserted by a Catholic or a heretic, whether it has been approved or reproved by a council.
So what does Luther mean? He surely means that whatever appears to him to be true will be insisted upon, even if others disagree, even if others have always disagreed. And that even a simple layman, picking up the Bible for themselves, and seeking to understand it will come to a greater understanding of the truth than through obedience and submission to the tradition and teaching of the Church.
Of course the problem with such a view is that if I pick up the Scripture and develop an understanding of some doctrine, what happens if in fact I am wrong? There seems little scope in Luther’s view for dealing with misunderstanding and error. This is understandable when we think of Luther defending himself against the weight of Roman Catholic Church tradition and authority. He is essentially saying, I am so sure that I have discovered true Christianity in my reading of Scripture that nothing will shake my opinion.
But not everyone was Luther, and once the door was opened to the elevation of personal opinion to a supreme authority, because this is what sola scriptura means, then the opinion of a simple layman really did come to be the basis for faith, even if this was not what Luther entirely intended. Luther held to a relatively traditional view of the Eucharist, and of the Scriptures which had always been considered as teaching it. He believed that Christ was truly and really present in the Eucharist. He says for instance…
Of this Sacrament of the Altar, we hold that the bread and wine in the Supper are the true body and blood of Christ, and are given to, and received by, not only the pious, but also to and by the impious Christians.
Now this presentation is not about the doctrine of the Eucharist in particular, but this is a useful means of understanding that as soon as the idea of the supreme authority of personal interpretation of Scripture was introduced it also introduced different authoritative interpretations. Luther had read the New Testament and discovered the ancient and Orthodox understanding of the Eucharist there. Indeed his followers stated in their own confession of Faith…
We believe, teach, and confess that in the Lord’s Supper the body and blood of Christ are truly and substantially present, and that they are truly distributed and taken together with the bread and wine.
There were others who followed Luther in his rejection of an authority beyond his own personal interpretation of Scripture. One of the leading figures was Ulrich Zwingli, a Swiss Protestant. His personal interpretation of Scripture was much more radical than even Martin Luther. He denied that Christ was present materially in the Eucharist and insisted that it was only a symbolic and spiritual representation. He said that since the human nature of Christ could not be present in all places it was not possible to say that the bread and wine offered on the altar could materially become that body and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Within a very short space of time there was an even greater variety of views among these early Protestants on the doctrine of the Eucharist. There were at least four different and contradictory Protestant views even while Luther and Zwingli were alive. Each of those proposing these different views was certain that they were doing no more than reading the Scriptures and explaining what it obviously meant.
Luther’s followers, for instance, held to a view which was close to that of the Roman Catholic Church and insisted..
We believe, teach, and confess that the words of the Testament of Christ are not to be understood otherwise than as the words themselves literally sound, so that the bread does not signify the absent body of Christ, and the wine the absent blood of Christ, but that on account of the sacramental union the bread and wine are truly the body and blood of Christ.
But Zwingli, though willing to agree that Christ is spiritually present in the Eucharist, as he is spiritually present in all places, absolutely denied that Christ was physically and materially present in the bread and wine so that it was truly his own body and blood. He says..
But the very body of Christ is the body which is seated at the right hand of God, and the sacrament of his body is the bread, and the sacrament of his blood is the wine, of which we partake with thanksgiving. Now the sign and the thing signified cannot be one and the same. Therefore the sacrament of the body of Christ cannot be the body itself.
There were even other views, which I will not consider here, which proposed that the Eucharist was only a memorial, a reminder of the passion of Christ. But what all had in common was a definite belief that the contradictory doctrine of the Eucharist which was confessed was the one which was plainly found in the Scriptures. The same teaching of Sola Scriptura was promoted by Luther, Zwingli and the other early Protestants. It was presented as the only proper means of determining the substance of the Christian message, but at the very beginning of the so-called Reformation, using the same method, several mutually incompatible understandings of the Eucharist had arisen.
Luther found the material and substantial presence of Christ in the Eucharist when he read the Scriptures. But Zwingli denied this interpretation and was just as insistent that his opinion was validated by Scripture. He says..
We ourselves… have shown quite clearly that in the teaching brought before us in John 6:43 when Christ referred to eating his flesh and drinking his blood he simply meant believing in him as the one who has given his flesh and blood for our redemption and the cleansing of our sins.
What does this mean? It surely means that the Protestant idea of reading the Bible and discovering what it means does not produce what it promises. It has never produced what it promises. It was introduced as a means of discovering an authority apart from the Roman Catholic Church, and as a means of determining the substance of the Christian Faith free from all human error and directly from the words of the Scriptures.
But it can only ever actually represent the interpretations and opinions of those reading the Bible. If Luther and Zwingli were both absolutely committed to rejecting the perceived errors of the Roman Catholic Church, and both were absolutely committed to allowing the Bible to speak for itself, how is it that using the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, they came up with mutually incompatible and irreconcilable teachings on the Eucharist, and indeed on other important doctrines as well. And this was not a difference of opinion that developed slowly over centuries, it was right there at the beginning of Protestantism.
How could it be otherwise? When we say that the Bible is our guide it does not mean treating the Bible as important, it means, unavoidably, treating particular interpretations and opinions of the Bible as supremely important. This is what Luther and Zwingli were doing. Luther read the Bible and thought it meant one thing, Zwingli read the same Bible and was sure it meant something entirely different.
Over the last four hundred years Protestants have continued to read the Bible and produce an even greater variety of teachings, while all insist that their contradictory teachings are the result of simply reading the Scriptures. Now of course if this way of reading the Bible had brought about a uniformity of interpretation, if almost all Protestants believed the same things, then this would be strong evidence that the Bible could and should simply be studied by all people independently and that it would reveal the same truth to all. But as we have seen, even in the first generation of Protestantism in the 16th century this method of interpreting Scripture led immediately to division and contradiction, and not to any sort of doctrinal unity.
So we can’t say that the Church is simply made up of everyone who reads the Bible and is trying to follow what it says. That would require us to deny that there was any meaningful truth or coherent content to the Christian faith whatsoever. If what I believe is what is true then nothing or everything is true. If I believe that speaking in tongues ceased in the first centuries then it did. If I believe that it is the necessary sign of salvation then it is. If I believe that it is something other than modern descriptions suggest then it is. These significant differences in theology are not found only between Orthodox and Catholic and Protestants. It can easily be shown that Protestantism, as a collection of groups with different teachings and practices, does not agree on anything very much at all. A Pentecostal teacher such as T.D. Jakes denies the doctrine of the Trinity. One report indicates that 75% of Lutherans believe all religions lead to God. A third of Church of England clergy doubt or deny the resurrection of Christ, while half reject the Virgin birth. Only 87% of American Evangelicals believe in the Virgin Birth. Should baptism be by immersion, or by pouring, or by sprinkling. There is no agreement within Protestantism, though all more or less insist that they are simply following the Bible. Is the communion service a symbol, a memorial, or truly the body and blood of Christ. There is no agreement within Protestantism though all use the same Scriptural passages to justify their varied understandings. Even on social issues, there is no agreement within Protestantism about what the Bible says. 33% of American Evangelicals believe abortion should be available to all. Yet 100 years ago almost no Evangelicals, reading the same Bible, would have condoned abortion in any circumstances. An even greater 36% of American Evangelicals now consider that homosexuality is acceptable, yet this would also have been rejected as un-Biblical only a few generations ago. How can the variety of Protestant opinions both now and in the past provide any support at all for the idea that we only need to read the Bible and will discover the unambiguous truth. Protestantism itself shows that this is just another opinion without authority.
It is therefore not a surprise that within Protestantism there is not even agreement about what the Church is, and who is a member of it. It is entirely reasonable, when a Protestant suggests that anyone who honours the name of Jesus is a member of the Church, to insist that in fact not only is such a view not accepted by all Protestants, but it is. like all Protestant teachings and practices, no more than a personal opinion. It is not what the Bible says, but only what a particular person says that the Bible says. This is not a criticism of any Protestants, but it is a matter of fact that the idea that anyone and everyone can just read the Bible, decide what it means, and be a Christian is not true at all. If it is not true then it cannot be the basis for determining the nature of the Church, and what it is to be a member of the Church.
There is another significant issue that has to be addressed before we start to think about a better strategy for determining Christian truth and properly understanding the Church. The Bible on which so much individual interpretation is based within Protestantism is not the Bible known and used by Jesus Christ, the Apostles and the early Church.
The authors of the New Testament and the teachers of the early Church used a version of the Old Testament Scriptures which was a translation into the Greek language made by the Jews in the centuries before Christ. We know this translation as the Septuagint, or the Seventy, because of the tradition that the Pentateuch at least (the first five books of the Old Testament) was translated by Seventy Jewish scholars. By about 135 BC the other sacred writings had also been translated into Greek, or in some cases were written in Greek. This is often very different in meaning to the version of the Old Testament Scriptures which the Jews of Palestine started to adopt as authoritative in the centuries after Christ, and which was finally formalised in about 1000 AD. It was this alternative edition which Protestant translators, teachers and preachers, have depended on, and which has come to be even the usual text in Orthodox Churches, but it is not the text that Orthodox ever used until recent centuries, though it found its way into the Western Church through the translation of the Jewish text made by Jerome in the very late 4th century slowly eroded the use of the Septuagint in the Roman Church.
In the New Testament, the Septuagint edition of the Old Testament was quoted 340 times. It was the translation and version of the Old Testament Scriptures that our Lord Jesus and the Apostles used when they referred to the Scriptures. And it was the version of the Old Testament that was translated into Coptic, Armenian, and even into Latin. The Fathers of the Church used this edition, and it was, above all others, the Orthodox Old Testament.
There are differences which are theologically significant. These are not different translations but different versions of the Old Testament altogether. In Isaiah 53, for instance, v10 says in the New King James version, a Protestant translation based on the Jewish text…
What is this saying? It is that God has chosen to bring pain upon this suffering one whom Isaiah describes. This is certainly what most Protestants teach. Other modern Protestant translations of this verse, based on the later Jewish text, say…
The Lord was pleased To crush Him, putting Him to grief. (NASB)
But the Lord wanted to crush him and to make him suffer. (CEB)
Still, it’s what God had in mind all along, to crush him with pain. (MSG)
This matters a very great deal. It is not too simplistic to say that a Protestant edition of the Old Testament, based on later Jewish texts, will quite naturally teach a Protestant understanding of Christianity. It is the Septuagint, the translation of the Old Testament made by the Jews into Greek some centuries before Christ, which preserves the authentic text which was received by the Orthodox and Apostolic Church, and which is the basis for the Orthodox and Apostolic understanding of the Faith.
So what do we have? The Protestant idea that we can just read the Bible and understand Christian truth unmediated, without any other authority than our own opinion and understanding – even when we are very serious about it – leads only to confusion and division. It has never led to unity of faith and practice. More than this, the Bible which is used by Protestants to determine what might be the truth, in all its varied expressions, is not the Bible which our Lord Jesus and the apostles and the early Christians used.
There must be some other basis for discovering the truth. It seems to me that the only authoritative method must begin with Christ and the Apostles, rather than our own opinions and understanding. Doesn’t this make sense? Not from any partisan point of view, but simply because the Church that Christ established and the Apostles built up, and which is represented by the earliest Christians must surely express Christianity in some authoritative manner. Perhaps, when we look at the earliest Church, it might look exactly like one of the modern Protestant groups, which would surely require us to reconsider the legitimacy of other modern Protestant groups, if we are really concerned about true Christianity. Perhaps it will look like Roman Catholicism. Perhaps it will look like Orthodoxy. Perhaps it will look like no existing Christian group. But if we are serious about discovering what the Church should be like and where it can be found the this is the place where we have to start. Not by comparing our views with each other, but by comparing them to the Church of the Apostles.
This does mean that simply posting passages from Scripture and expressing a view as to their meaning, whether the same or different from those held by various groups, will not be a successful method, since it will simply be the comparison of our own opinions. What we will need to do is consider the actual reality of the Church in the New Testament, and then follow it into the early period of the Christian age. At first then, let us consider the Church from an historical rather than a theological perspective, and having discovered the Church we will then be able to ask the Church what she says about herself from the mouths of the earliest Christians, those taught by the Apostles and their disciples.
We need to start with some facts from the book of Acts. In Acts 2:1 we read,
When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place.
And in Acts 2:36-45 we read more about the earliest community in Jerusalem,
And Peter said, “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.”
And with many other words he testified and exhorted them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation.” Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them. And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. Then fear came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need.
Now avoiding theological explanation for the time being. What we can surely all be agreed upon is that the first Christian community in Jerusalem was gathered together under the teaching of the Apostles and in union with the Apostles. They were together and shared everything. There were not several groups with different teachings and practices that people could choose from. But here, at the beginning, there was one community, following the teaching of the Apostles. I think this must surely be agreed as the historical substance of this passage.
Other passages in the New Testament, addressed to actual Christian communities, provide the same view of coherent congregations in each and every place representing the one Church of Christ. He writes to the saints who are in Ephesus, and doesn’t have to explain what group he might mean, since there is only one. He writes to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, together with the bishops and deacons. Once again, there is no suggestion of a variety of groups with different teachings and practices. Even when he writes to the churches of Galatia it is clear that he means to refer to congregations who share the same teachings and practices and not to a variety of what we would now call denominations. We can be sure of this because St Paul condemns the Galatians for having started to adopt other teachings.
He says in Galatians 1:6-9,
I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed.
These words allow for no possibility of a variety of different Gospels and a diversity of ways of understanding what St Paul meant. Even without going into a consideration of what his Gospel stood for it is clear that he insisted that there was only one way of living it out. There are certainly other ways of speaking about Jesus Christ, but these are entirely incompatible with the true Gospel that he is teaching. Any other group that is not found in the community of those he has established and which teach the truth is to be accursed, or in the Greek, is to be anathema.
What does this word anathema mean? It has the sense of handing or offering something over to God. In the sense used by St Paul it means that someone who teaches another and false Gospel is to be left to the judgement of God and separated from. He gives this instruction again in his letter to Titus, where he says in Titus 3:10,
An heretical man after a first and second admonition have done with,knowing that such a one is perverted, and sins, being self-condemned.
A heretical man is the Greek word hairetikos, and it has the sense of being someone who chooses, someone who chooses his own Christian beliefs, rather than someone who follows the Apostolic teaching. This seems to me to make it very clear that in the early Church of the Apostles there was no support for many groups having different teachings. There was one Church which had the same faith, and those who wanted to choose some other teachings were excluded from the Church as heretics. Now it is necessary to begin to ask what this early and Apostolic church taught. I have already suggested that it is the early and Apostolic Church which is the standard for understanding authentic Christianity. But the idea that it is acceptable to have thousands of groups teaching many different and contradictory things is not consistent with the Christianity of the Apostles, and is therefore not Christian at all.
Part 2 to follow.