EARLY CHURCH ISSUES #13
How do we know what is the right source for our faith? The right direction? The right authority we can depend on? The earliest church had to struggle with these exact questions. During the first two centuries, the canon of scripture was still in formation. The writings of the apostles and Paul were out there, but much was not consolidated. How did they find their way with so few road signs?
We get some important clues when we look at Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians. Polycarp had been a student of the Apostle John and a link to the first Christians who followed Jesus. When the Church in Rome was recovering from the martyrdom of Peter and Paul, there was great confusion and fear. Polycarp appeared on the scene and helped the Romans find new stability and recovery of their sense of direction. He also was on hand to rebuke Marcion when the heretic attempted to persuade the Romans to follow his heresy. Polycarp had always been a person they could turn to.
In his Letter to the Philippians, Polycarp had large chunks of material taken directly from Christians behind him. He acknowledged his indebtedness to these earlier authorities. The way in which he used the sources allows us to discover how Christians had begun to use the written form as an authoritative guide for building their faith and practices.
While this is more than acceptable in the 21st century, the practice was unheard of in the Roman world. The pagan cults had never used religious texts in this manner. The ancient cults were polytheistic and were about behaviors that pleased the gods. Because they were practice oriented, doing whatever the correct procedure was took care of the matter. Specific beliefs or writing were not important to them.
Because of their commitment to the Torah, the Jews were the exception to this practice.
. Of course, the first Christians were Jews and this carried the custom forward. Jesus interpreted the Torah and laid the groundwork for the first Christians to do the same. Whether the Romans understood it or not, the ancient writings were basic and became their guides.
In time, the early Christians developed four guidelines to determine what they would consider as authentic scripture. The book had to be ancient from the time of Jesus. Only what was written by an apostle or a companion of an apostle was acceptable. A manuscript had to have the approval of the entire church and not just some segment of believers. Finally, the viewpoint had to reflect correct belief that was accepted by their entire church.
In time, such writings became the canon or law of the church. Today when we turn to The Bible, we are reading what the first Christians affirmed as true and authorities for all believers. Twenty centuries are behind us saying, “It’s the truth!”
Contributed by: The Most Rev. Robert L.Wise