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Early writers shed light on church's beginnings

Early writers shed light on church's beginnings

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Early writers shed light on church's beginnings

Aug. 20, 2007    News media contact:  Tita Parham*    
800-282-8011     Orlando {0723}

NOTE: A headshot of Whitaker is available at

An e-Review Commentary
By Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker**

If I were the pastor of a local church, one of the tasks of teaching I would undertake would be to direct a group of laity in selected reading in primitive Christianity.

John Wesley provided the same service when he published the first of the 50 volumes of “The Christian Library” for ordinary Methodists.

There would be two primary purposes for such a course: to enlighten people about what Christians believed and cared about when the apostles (except for John) had died and to inspire people by the teaching of the primitive Christians.

I have read the writings in primitive Christianity over and over. In them one finds the beginnings of the whole Christian tradition in its faith, doctrine, discipline, spiritual practices and organization.

First, I would examine parts of Eusebius’ “The History of the Church,” written around A.D. 325. This is an invaluable narrative of the primitive church, which contains important traditions not in the Bible.

In this work, of note is the tradition of the origin of the four Gospels, which is at variance with much contemporary scholarly theory. Eusebius says that Mark (see I Peter 5:13) wrote his Gospel based on Peter’s teaching in Rome and Luke wrote his Gospel based partly on information from Paul. He states that the other two Gospels were written by apostles: the first Gospel to be written was by Matthew in Hebrew, and the fourth Gospel was written by John late in his life to record the early stages of Christ’s career and to be a “spiritual Gospel.”

Eusebius’ stories about incidents in the life of John and Jesus’ “brothers,” James the Righteous and Jude, including a report on Jude’s grandsons who told the Emperor they were living off income from 25 acres of land, are also noteworthy. His story of John restoring a bandit to faith in Christ is particularly moving. The value of these selections would be to impress upon people today how close the primitive church was to the New Testament era and to see the figures in the New Testament as real human beings.

Also of value would be a discussion of the letter of Clement, the bishop in Rome around A.D. 90, to the church in Corinth. This letter, which some wanted to include in the New Testament, reveals the emphasis in primitive Christianity on Christian behavior and shows how early Christians viewed the office of bishop as a succession to that of the apostles.

A genuine joy is a study of the letters written by Ignatius, the Bishop of Antioch, to five churches on his way to be a martyr in Rome around A.D. 107. Ignatius’ letters contain the earliest version of the Rule of Faith, the precursor to the creeds. Ignatius is a valuable source because he personally knew John and John’s disciple, Polycarp.

In his Rule of Faith he described Jesus Christ as being “of David’s line, born of Mary, who was truly born, ate and drank; was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate, truly crucified and died … ; who also was truly raised from the dead … .”

His strong affirmation of the virgin birth is interesting because Ignatius was like others who had direct contact with the churches in Asia Minor where John lived; the Gospel attributed to John has no explicit mention of this teaching. Ignatius was a mystic whose language has tantalized the church ever since, such as his description of the Eucharist as “the medicine of immortality.”

A study of the primitive Christian writings would have to include excerpts from Irenaeus, the late second and early third century bishop of Lyons. Like Ignatius, Irenaeus knew Polycarp as a youth and thus had a direct connection to John.

Irenaeus was the first biblical theologian. Central to his teaching is the grand view of Jesus Christ as the recapitulation of the human race, i.e. the new beginning of human existence from birth to death. He also records the earliest mature versions of the Rule of Faith and stresses the church’s commitment to apostolic tradition.

There could be other selections, such as the Didache, the Epistles to Diognetus and excerpts from Justin Martyr, Tertullian and Origen.

The church has developed much since the days of these writers, and it will undoubtedly continue to develop, but its development will be sound as long as it continues to learn from the earliest generations of Christians who lived immediately following the apostolic era.


This article relates to Christian Tradition.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Whitaker is bishop of the Florida Conference.