Category Archives: Early Faith for Today


EARLY CHURCH ISSUESThe Most Rev. Robert L. Wise


MARY ~ In the post-Reformation world, the subject of Mary, the mother of Jesus, is difficult to approach. Some Protestants groups rail against her veneration in the Roman Catholic world. Other scholars believe the New Testament claims are a misunderstanding of the book of Isaiah while the conservatives call that idea nonsense. Many believers elevate her to the top of the list of saints. At the same time, the Orthodox Churches place the Virgin Mary in an elevated place on their icons with the baby Jesus next to her check.

How can we work through these various viewpoints? The best way is to return to the first century church and discover what they thought and practiced. Here are some insights.

The first non-biblical texts about Mary can be found in the Letters of St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch. He wrote, “And the virginity of Mary was hidden from the ruler of this world, as were her giving birth and likewise the death of the Lord—three secrets to be cried out aloud which were accompanied by the silence of God.” He also wrote that Jesus was born “out of Mary and out of God.” In other words, the earliest writings outside of the scripture affirmed belief in the virgin birth.

In the second century, St. Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyon said even more:

Just as Eve, wife of Adam, yet still a virgin … became by her disobedience the cause of death for herself and the whole human race, so Mary, too, espoused yet a virgin, became by her obedience the cause of salvation for herself and the whole human race … And so, it was that the knot of Eve’s disobedience was  loosed by Mary’s obedience.

In other words, the earliest examples that we have of the convictions of the first Christians affirmed the virgin birth and the most significant role that a woman could occupy.

One of the most interesting affirmations came from the fourth-century hymnist Ephraim the Syrian. He wrote of Mary, she is “your mother, your sister, your spouse, your handmaiden.”

The Church paid such attention to Mary because she provided an important defense against Gnostic denial of the incarnation. Gnostic’s devised rituals to provide an escape from the flesh, but Jesus came in the flesh and that was a troubling problem for them. The Christians proclaimed that salvation was of the flesh. The Virgin Mary stood as a proclamation that Jesus came in the flesh and must be recognized as such. Today she remains a symbol of the importance that the Heavenly Father placed on our bodies as well as our souls. She is picture of the importance of the human body in the eyes of God.

The glory of Mary is that she allowed nothing to take priority over living out God’s will. She said “yes” when the angel came and thereafter entered into an impossible social position. Yet, that was the beginning of the Savior coming and bringing salvation.

We think a “virgin” birth to be strange, but is such a conception really that different from 90-year old Sarah conceiving Isaac? As the history of the Jewish people begins with Abraham and that birth, so the story of salvation begins with Mary.

The time has come to go back to the beginnings of the Christian faith and honor those earliest origins. We can all truly say, “Hail Mary, full of grace!”

Outward and Visible

Contributed by: The Venerable Christopher Brown, PhD


One of the notable developments in the eighties and nineties in American Christianity was the emergence of “Seeker Churches.” These churches focus on reaching the unchurched in a manner that is sensitive to their cultural outlook — thus making it easier for them to assimilate into the Body of Christ. Some have become among the largest and most successful churches in America, notably Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church and the Willow Creek Church founded by Bill Hybels outside of Chicago.  Their philosophy of focusing on the unchurched has become extremely influential and has shaped the outlook of Christian leaders across a wide spectrum of churches and denominations.

In the effort to reach the unchurched, the seeker church approach strives to avoid seeming too “churchy.”  Some even avoid the word, “church,” altogether. A popular alternative is the neutral and secular word, “center.” There is a congregation in my area that is called “Christian Fellowship Center,” and elsewhere I have seen church signs identifying themselves as “worship centers.”  The underlying assumption is that modern people are skeptical and uncomfortable with the institutional church but are still on a spiritual search, and that shedding the traditional trappings of church can raise people’s comfort level. As a result, ritual is radically stripped down, and traditional Christian imagery virtually eliminated.   

Almost invariably these churches come out of the world of American Evangelism.  What is often not acknowledged is that this “stripped down” and minimalist approach is not merely derived from market survey analysis of what unchurched people “are comfortable with.” This approach also coincides with a prior theological outlook that has been typical of Evangelism since the Reformation — namely a deep suspicion of iconography, decoration, liturgical form and church tradition.  


John Calvin on Images
The classic and perhaps most vigorous articulation of this position comes from the 16th century reformer, John Calvin, who argued that human nature “is a perpetual factory of idols,” and that the use of imagery is idolatry — worship as divine of what is merely prideful human creation.  

“Man’s mind, full as it is of pride and boldness, dares to imagine a god according to its own capacity as it slugglishy plods, indeed is overwhelmed in the crassest ignorance, it conceives an unreality and empty appearance as God….man tries to express in his work the sort of god he has inwardly conceived. We must cling to this principle: God’s glory is corrupted by an impious falsehood whenever any form is attached to him.”

Calvin did not reject all Christian art. “I am not gripped by the superstition of thinking absolutely no images are permissible.”  He proposes a qualifier, “only those things are to be sculpted or painted which the eyes are capable of seeing.” What is excluded is “God’s majesty,” which must not be minimized and diminished by human conception.   In theory, this would seem to provide a considerable latitude since images of Jesus, even the crucifixion, stories from the Old Testament and the Gospels are all things “the eyes are capable of seeing.” But in the context of worship Calvin thinks their use concedes too much to corrupt human imagination.  He concedes, “all almost images that until now have stood in churches were of this sort,” nevertheless, “these images had been called forth not of judgement or selection but of foolish and thoughtless craving. Hence even if such images “contained nothing evil” they still had no “value for teaching,” and were driven by essentially faithless need for depiction.

Calvin’s searing critique of imagery had wide influence – even in the Church of England where statuary was removed, and images were painted over and replaced by biblical verses carefully  inscribed on the walls of churches. Only the Lutheran churches were initially resistant to this severe rejection of the visual. (An example is Luther’s own parish of St. Mary’s in Wittenberg, where the altar piece includes a large painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder of Jesus at the Last Supper, in which the apostles appear as Luther and his colleagues.)

The Iconoclastic Controversy
The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century was not the first time images came under attack. Almost a thousand years before, in the 8th century, the “Iconoclastic Controversy” convulsed the Byzantine Church of the Middle East. In 726 the Byzantine emperor Leo III took a stand against the worship of icons, and in 730 their use was prohibited.  It is difficult not to see this as reflecting the influence of Islam, which strictly prohibited all religious imagery, and which had conquered much of the Byzantine empire to become the dominant political and cultural force in the region.  The situation was reversed in 78 when Empress Irene convoked the seventh ecumenical council at Nicaea which condemned Iconoclasm (rejection of icons) as a heresy and reestablished the use of images.


John of Damascus
The Council based its decision on a vigorously argued rationale by John of Damascus  (676-749). John was the greatest theologian of his day and is often called the last of the Church Fathers.  John was fully aware of Old Testament prohibition of images, and he shared Calvin’s view of that God in his eternal majesty is beyond human conception, “Who can make a copy of the invisible, incorporeal, uncircumscribed, and unportrayable God.”

John makes two basic arguments: one based on the Doctrine of Creation, and the other from the Doctrine of Redemption.  In the first place, John reminds his readers, “from the beginning God made man in his own image.” From the start God has endowed our earthly humanity with the reflection of himself.  Even granting that the “imago dei”  (Image of God) is not our actual physical form and God does not have hands and feet as we do, our concrete embodied humanity itself already points to God.  “For what reason,” says John, “do we adore one another, except because we have been made to the image of God?” He quotes Basil of Caesarea, “the honor paid to the image resounds to the original” – a principle that is the foundation of all Christian iconography.

John’s argument from the doctrine of Redemption is based on mystery that in Jesus Christ, the “Word became flesh.” Says John, “through the bowels of His mercy God our salvation was made man in truth…really made man in substance.”  God has made himself tangible, as the Epistle of John says , “we have seen and touched and heard, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— the life was made manifest, and we have seen it.” (1 John 1:1-2) The fact that the incarnate Christ “is the image of the invisible God,” (Colossians 1:15) and that God has become visible in the humanity of Jesus of Nazareth and meets us on our own level, points to the value of visual representation.

John of Damascus puts it this way: “when the invisible becomes visible in the flesh, then you may depict the likeness of something seen; when one who, by transcending his own nature, is bodiless, formless, incommensurable, without magnitude or size, that is, one who is in the form of God, taking the form of a slave, by this reduction to quantity and magnitude puts on the characteristics of a body, then depict him on a board and set up to view the One who has accepted to be seen.”

The classic Protestant suspicion of imagery and use of the visual is based on the conviction that true faith need not rely upon the human proclivity to make sense of the divine in tangible human terms.  But in the divine “condescension,” God chooses to make himself tangible – even material. Hence, the rejection of the “outward” and “visible” risks slipping into a tacit Gnosticism (the heresy that Christ never truly took on material flesh) and minimizing of the Incarnation.

What then?
This is not a polemic against Seeker Churches. There are ways in which Seeker Churches exercise this incarnational principle of meeting people on their own level in innovative and creative ways.  Often the worship in such churches draws from of popular forms of entertainment and is highly media savvy. This is one reason such churches have such a wide appeal – and they have much to teach us.

My point is simply that liturgical churches should think twice about downgrading the outward expression of ritual and symbolism in order to appear less “churchy.” Rather a better approach would be to be more imaginative and invitational in drawing newcomers into the rich outward forms of sacramental worship as something deeply consistent with the Gospel, and with our own human nature.


APOSTOLIC INSIGHT What can the Apostles and Church Fathers tell us about our times? What advice do they have for our problems? Here are some of their thoughts—


Do we mess up? Sure do. Our moral failures dull our minds, hearts, and consciences. The worst part is continued repetitious degrading behavior that leaves us spiritually dead. We often see behaviors on television that might be entertaining to watch, but leave us wrecked if we lived out such behaviors. While we are all guilty of experiences out of the past, the conclusion to be drawn is that we all need the same thing. Forgiveness.

Here’s what the first Christians taught us.

Clement of Rome

Let us then, so long as we are in this world, repent of whatever evils we have done in the flesh, so that we might be saved by the Lord while we yet have time for repentance. For after we have departed from this world, it will no longer be possible to confess, nor will there be then any opportunity to repent.

St. Epharaim

The sins of those who ask for pardon are forgiven. But see that you do not harbor hatred for your brothers when you ask forgiveness of your sins.

St. Thalassios

As wax melts before fire, so does an impure thought before the face of God.

St. Ephraim the Syrian

Do not be ashamed to turn back and say boldly: I will arise and go to my Father. Arise and go!

He will accept you and will not reproach you, but rather rejoice as you return. He awaits you; just do not be ashamed and do not hide from the face of God as did Adam.


The right time has come, and the Kingdom of God is near! Turn away from your sins and believe in the Good News. (Mark 1:15)


APOSTOLIC INSIGHT ~ What can the Apostles and Church Fathers tell us about our times? What advice do they have for our problems? Here are some of their thoughts…


For decades various groups have argued over what makes a person a Christian? Some churches want a special ritual while others only want a verbal affirmation of faith. What can we say?

The first Christians believed they were “new men and women in Christ.” They believed the experience of baptism was throwing away their former self and becoming a new person. (Ephesians 4:22-24) This was done with the greatest sincerity.  Here are insights from the earliest Christians and Church Fathers.

Justin, First Apology

We who ourselves used to have pleasure in impure things now cling to chastity alone. We who dibbled in the arts of magic now consecrate ourselves to the good and unbegotten God. We who formerly treasured money and possessions more than anything else now hand over everything we have to a treasury for all and share it with everyone who needs it. We who formerly hated and murdered one another and did not even share our hearth with those of a different tribe because of their customs, now, after Christ’s appearance, live together and share the same table. Now we pray for our enemies and try to win those who hate us unjustly so that they too may live in accordance with Christ’s  wonderful teaching, that they too may enter into the expectation, that they may too receive the same good things that we will receive from God, the Ruler of the universe.

Aristides  “Apology” 137 AD

They worship no alien gods. They live in the awareness of their smallness. Kindliness is their nature. There is no falsehood among them. They love on another. They do not neglect widows. Orphans they rescue from those who are cruel to them. Every one of them who has anything gives ungrudgingly to the one who has nothing.


Adulters and corrupters of boys want to defame us who live in virginity or in strictly monogamic marriages. … To be just alone is not enough because to be just means to repay like for like, but we have been commanded to go far beyond this, to be kind and patient.

Hippolytus, Church Order in The Apostolic Tradition,  around 218 AD

The new ones to be accepted (in the faith) are questioned by the teachers about the reason for their decision before they hear the word. Those who bring them shall say whether they are ready for it (church membership) and what their situation is … Should we have missed anything here, practical life will teach you, for we all have the Spirit of God.

Matthew 5:16

Let your light so shine before men, that they may wee your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.


What can the Apostles and Church Fathers tell us about our times? What advice do they have for our problems? Here are some of their thoughts— ANGER, GOSSIP, AND SLANDER

We live in a time of upheaval in American society. Politicians lie so constantly they have become unbelievable. Gossip diminishes personalities when what they are spreading is untrue. Often slander is repeated in the name of transparency. Across the nation there is an outcry for help.

Throughout the length of scripture, slander is condemned. The first Fathers of the Church were unanimous in condemning evil spread by the tongue. A vicious tongue can break all restraints. Anger and slanderous intent has cut down many a good person.

Do we mess up? Sure we do. Our moral failures dull our minds, hearts, and consciences. Often what  we see on television what might be entertaining to watch, but leaves us wrecked if we lived out such behaviors. While we are all guilty of such experiences, the conclusion to be drawn is that we all need forgiveness and a change of behavior.

Here’s what the first Christians taught:

St. John Chrysotom ~ What is the use of sparing fowl and fishes if we eat our own brothers?

St. Anthony ~ What is slander? It is every sort of wicked word we dare not speak in front of the person about whom we are complaining.

St. Jerome ~ Where there are no listeners, there are no slanderers; the combat will close for want of combatants.

The Shepherd of Hermas ~ Love truth and avoid anger or slander. Let your mouth speak nothing but the truth and uplifting words to each other. In the Lord there is no falsehood. Liars and slanders wound the Lord.

A Desert Father ~ If you stand by a brother who is being slandered and do not defend him against those who sinfully attack him, you too are a slanderer and guilty of sin.

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