Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Book Review (#39 of 2014) The Ancient Church by W.D. Killen

The Ancient Church: Its Doctrine, Worship, and Constitution Traced for the First Three Hundred Years by W.D. Killen, published in 1859 (free at link).

This is a detailed and highly-readable account about the early church, based on what documents were available in 1859 and what we can logically deduce from them. Killen's ultimate goal is to explain the series of events that led to the Catholic prelate. Killen uses the various sources available in Latin, as well as his contemporary commentators, to piece together what the Church looked like in its early days and how it evolved, with special emphasis on how the Catholic prelate came into being. It is clear that Killen reads Latin well (common in 1850s), offering up his own translation of several works but there are Greek citations as well. Every thought and evidence is footnoted and well-documented. It is also an interesting look at what consensus scholarship was in the 1800s. Killen (1806-1902) was an Irish Presbyterian whose various works on church history have been scanned and archived

Archaeological research was pretty sparse in Killen's time as Palestine and Asia Minor were occupied by the Ottomans and the Vatican was pretty picky on who it let dig around Rome. As such, the book relies mostly on the writings known from this period, a few of which had only recently been discovered and a few which had yet to be translated into English. The Didache had not been discovered and would have added to Killen's analysis. These range from intentional histories to epistles by elders to letters written about Christians by governing authorities. 

The first third of the book is a historical retelling of the New Testament, where Scripture is essentially the sole source. What I found most interesting was to compare the scholarship given on the gospels and various epistles to modern-day works, almost none of which quote Killen or even the sources that Killen quotes. This gives the reader a picture of how biblical scholarship has changed over the years as new discoveries have come to light or new modes of thinking come into vogue. I find a few of the dates he gives for some of the epistles to differ from modern texts, but I would recommend this portion of Killen's book as an Intro to the New Testament.


My hope in studying this book was to find "pure" church practice-- how did the Apostles set things up, and how did we later corrupt those practices? Killen cautions the reader against such thinking, arguing that we're better off in modern times to determine correct practice since we have much better access to Scripture and history than those living then.

"Some imagine that in times of Tertullian and of Cyprian we may find the purest faith in the purest form, but a more intimate acquaintance with the history of the period is quite sufficient to dispel the delusion...we cannot reasonably hope to find among (the early disciples) any very extraordinary measure either of spiritual wisdom or of consistent piety." 


One result was that there was "as much diversity in discipline and ceremonies mong Christians as is now to be found in evangelical Protestant Churches." We know remarkably little about the early Church and how it operated, for various practical reasons (emphasis mine):
"(T)hough it was most important that the heathen should be made acquainted with the doctrines of the Church, it was not by any means expedient that their attention should be particularly directed to the machinery by which it was regulated. An accurate knowledge of its constitution would only have exposed it more fearfully to the attacks of persecuting Emperors. Every effort would have been made to discover the times and places of the meetings of pastors and teachers, and to inflict a deadly wound on the Church by the destruction of its office-bearers. Hence, in general, its courts appear to have assembled in profound secrecy; and thus it is that, for the first three centuries, so little is known of the proceedings of these conventions."


Eusebius is a source for much of our information about the ancient church and is cited repeatedly. But Killen notes that Eusebius "is not entitled to the praise of a great historian," and argues his work is an "unsatisfactory performance." Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History was published around 324 A.D., shortly after Constantine bestowed his blessing on Christianity.

There are good explanations of the various heresies that arose during the first three centuries and how they were addressed. I found his description of the various forms of Gnosticism very helpful. The heresies are described in order to explain the change in ecclesiastic constitution over the first two hundred years. Killen takes special care in the last chapters to explain the rise of the Catholic prelate, and to show that it was contrary to the earliest days of church leadership and what had been exemplified by the Apostles.

Early on, churches resembled Jewish synagogues and questions of worship and doctrine were referred to the Apostles in Jerusalem:
"Every Christian congregation, like every synagogue, had its elders; and every city had its presbytery, consisting of the spiritual rulers of the district...(In Acts 15) the parties proceeded in the matter in much the same way as Israelites were accustomed to act...Had a controversy relative to any Mosaic ceremony divided the Jewish population of Antioch, they would have appealed for a decision to their Great Sanhedrin; and now, when this dispute distracted the Christians of the capital of Syria, they had recourse to another tribunal at Jerusalem which they considered competent to pronounce a deliverance. This tribunal consisted virtually of the rulers of the universal Church; for the apostles, who had a commission to all the world, and elders from almost every place where a Christian congregation existed, were in the habit of repairing to the capital of Palestine...In accordance with the free spirit of the gospel dispensation, it appears to have consisted of as many ecclesiastical rulers as could conveniently attend its meetings. But the times were somewhat perilous; and it is probable that the ministers of the early Christian Church did not deem it expedient to congregate in very large numbers."


In Apostolic times, there were presbyters who were in charge of teaching, preaching, and general organization of churches. Each presbytery tended to have a "president" to maintain order, conduct meetings, etc. but "he was the representative of the presbytery--not its master." The presbytery generally submitted to one another-- no one had ultimate authority. Smaller congregations likely had only one presbyter. The president, later "bishop," was initially the oldest member of the presbytery. One wonders how much of that is Asian cultural deference to age and how much was Spirit-led. The presbytery was bestowed by the laying on of hands, and this practice occurred for several men whom were acknowledged to eventually become bishops-- there was essentially an order of succession created for when the previous bishops died, based on seniority. 

The age deference created a problem in that many early churches, particularly the Jerusalem church, saw a high rate of turnover in its presidents. Eventually a system was widely adopted where the presbyters elected a president/bishop, which correlated with an increase in longevity of the bishops according to records. "The law abolishing the claim of seniority came into operation about the close of the second century."

The elections were thought to create a safeguard against heresy. However, the system soon allowed for popular election as popular presbyters campaigned among the entire body for their election. This created a problem as heresies became popular--you might have popular heretics elected to the presidency. Gradually, the bishop gained more power and authority-- baptisms and other ordinances could not occur without his presence or blessing-- over the presbytery. As the church grew, this model was reproduced. Professional presbyters became more common, and even encouraged. How much of this came from pagan Greek (ie: non-Scriptural) attitudes about work (which pervade the church today) is unknown, but it appears evident in the quotes Killen puts forth from the time period.

As heresies arose, the church trusted a few bishops with more power-- it was "for a cure of schism," as Jerome put it. They also became more powerful over church funds, and were supported by the church. Who better to trust than those leaders who had withstood trial and persecution? Rome had one of the biggest heresy problems, and its response of power consolidation was then copied by many of the smaller cities. The term "catholic" later developed to distinguish orthodox from heterodox. "Catholic" simply meant churches who agreed on what "universal" sound doctrine was. The hope was that in enlarging the influence of non-heretics, the heresies could be marginalized. Ultimate power in the hands of the Roman bishop was an outgrowth of the size and influence of the Roman church, and it was later justified on a bogus basis that Peter had been given such a role himself as head of the church at Rome, and his successors therefore inherited his mantle. With power came corruption and political intrigue. This became worse once Christianity was endorsed by the Roman Emperor.

So, the "bishop" of the first centuries was simply the "chief presbyter." He taught, preached, and did the other acts as an "elder" and is not to be confused with the Bishop of several diocese that we see in the modern Catholic church. Killen concludes:
"All the primitive bishops received nothing more than presbyterian ordination. It is plain, therefore, that the doctrine of the transmission of spiritual power from the apostles through an unbroken series of episcopal ordinations flows from sheer ignorance of the actual constitution of the early Church."

One of the first glimpses of Roman prelacy came late in the second century. Differences grew in the celebration of Paschal (Passover/Easter) between the churches close to Rome and those in Asia Minor, creating a schism. Believers in Asia Minor celebrated Paschal to coincide with the Jewish passover, and with fasting, whereas churches in the West argued that the Paschal must only be celebrated on Sunday and without fasting. Between 189 and 199, Victor the bishop of Rome attempted to excommunicate those who celebrated Paschal differently than Rome traditionally did (see link for details). This decision was rebuked by several bishops and seen as a power-grab, and Victor later had to back down. (He's today considered a "Pope" by the Vatican, but that term was not in use then).


"At this time the jurisdiction of Victor did not properly extend beyond the few ministers and congregations to be found in the imperial city. A quarter of a century afterwards even the bishop of Portus, a seaport town at the mouth of the Tiber about fifteen miles distant from the capital, acknowledged no allegiance to the Roman prelate. [340:3] The boldness of Victor in pronouncing so many foreign brethren unworthy of Catholic communion may at first, therefore, appear unaccountable. But it is probable that he acted, in this instance, in conjunction with many other pastors. Among the Churches of Gentile origin there was a deep prejudice against what was considered the judaizing of the Asiatic Christians in relation to the Paschal festival, and a strong impression that the character of the Church was compromised by any very marked diversity in its religious observances." 

The book makes me want to read the epistles of Clement and Polycarp, as well as the histories recorded by Eusebius and Iraeneus. Polycarp (69-155 A.D.), who had known the Apostle John and was bishop of the church in Smyrna, apparently opposed the early consolidation of power he saw in the Roman church and confronted it by letter and personal visit.

The heresies also helped create the modern system of church membership we see today. When a Christian traveled or moved to a foreign location, he took with him letters written by his church attesting to his faith to introduce him to the local church, so he could rely on that church to help him. As the "catholic" church became more firm about what true doctrine was, a member excommunicated by one bishop would not be admitted by another.

Killen argues that infant baptism probably occurred from the earliest days of the church. Even Scripture records people's "entire household" being baptised, and this likely included children. It appears that several elders in the early church were baptised as infants, and it was considered to "supersede" the Jewish right of circumcision. Sprinkling and pouring likely occurred as often as full-immersion baptism:
"Some have asserted that the Greek word translated baptize, [220:7] in our authorised version, always signifies immerse, but it has been clearly shewn [221:1] that this statement is inaccurate, and that baptism does not necessarily imply dipping. In ancient times, and in the lands where the apostles laboured, bathing was perhaps as frequently performed by affusion as immersion; [221:2] and it may be that the apostles varied their method of baptizing according to circumstances. [221:3] The ordinance was intended to convey the idea of washing or purifying; and it is obvious that water may be applied, in many ways, as the means of ablution. In the sacred volume sprinkling is often spoken of as equivalent to washing. [221:4]"
The Eucharist was likely observed at the weekly gathering of the church and presbyters (the terms "sacrament" as well as the doctrine of transubstantiation come much later in church history).

According to Killen, icons and other paintings were not used in worship, nor likely were musical instruments. These practices were likely seen too close as the licentious pagan theaters around them:

"Late as the beginning of the fourth century the practice of displaying paintings in places of worship was prohibited by ecclesiastical authority. A canon which bears upon this subject, and which was enacted by the Council of Elvira held about A.D. 305, is more creditable to the pious zeal than to the literary ability of the assembled fathers. "We must not," said they, "have pictures in the church, lest that which is worshipped and adored be painted on the walls.""
In the church, as well as in the synagogue, the whole congregation joined in the singing; [465:2] but instrumental music was never brought into requisition. The early Christians believed that the organs of the human voice are the most appropriate vehicles for giving utterance to the feelings of devotion; and viewing the lute and the harp as the carnal ordinances of a superannuated dispensation, they rejected their aid in the service of the sanctuary. Long after this period one of the most eminent of the ancient fathers describes the music of the flutes, sackbuts, and psalteries of the temple worship as only befitting the childhood of the Church. "It was," says he, "permitted to the Jews, as sacrifice was, for the heaviness and grossness of their souls. God condescended to their weakness, because they were lately drawn off from idols; but now, instead of instruments, we may use our own bodies to praise Him withal."


Discipline was handled much as described in Paul's epistles to the Corinthians--. Killen contrasts it to the later notions of the Latin Church of permanent excommunication:

"those who were excommunicated should be admitted neither to the intimacy of private friendship nor to the sealing ordinances of the gospel. But it did not follow that the disciples were to treat such persons with insolence or inhumanity...for they were to love even their enemies, and they were to imitate the example of their Father in heaven who "maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust." [228:5] It is obvious from the address of the apostle to the Thessalonians that the members of the Church were not forbidden to speak to those who were separated from communion; and that they were not required to refuse them the ordinary charities of life. They were simply to avoid such an intercourse as implied a community of faith, of feeling, and of interest. "If any man," says he, "obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed. Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother." [229:1] How different was this discipline from that which was established, several centuries afterwards, in the Latin Church! The spirit and usages of paganism then supplanted the regulations of the New Testament, and the excommunication of Christianity was converted into the excommunication of Druidism. [229:2]"
Persecutions are well-documented. All periods of persecution were not uniformly bad, there were relatively peaceful times and relatively harsh ones. One problem the church faced was what to do with those who had recanted their faith during persecution, only to later embrace the faith when persecution relented.This problem led to further schisms requiring common understanding.

Some of the issues of great importance were handled by representatives of churches in meetings called synods. It is unclear from history when and how often the earliest of these occurred, some were regional where others involved bishops from many regions. Over time, these grew into more elaborate affairs and, after Constantine, the involvement of the Roman government itself.

The above is just a glimpse of things I found interesting in the book, though my highlights are numerous. I give this book 5 stars. Like many books from the 1800s, it's a forgotten gem.


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