Category Archives: Church History

Canon in front of them


In the last class, we discussed heretics. Now, we come to the church’s primary weapon against heresy: scripture.

It can be troubling at first to realize that the canon was a thing which developed over time, but if you think about it for a while, you will realize that it had to happen this way. You doubtless already knew that the various books of the New Testament were written over the course of several decades after Jesus’ death, rather then by Jesus himself. The church needed to time to gather these writings together in a single volume. Additionally, it had to exercise judgment, as forgeries and false writing were also being created.

We can take comfort in the fact that there was no single person who commandeered the process and decided what the canon would be. Given a shorter timespan, perhaps theological fads or a powerful personality could have influenced the process in an untoward way, but instead the process worked itself out over several centuries. By the time the Council of Carthage formalized the canon, the church had already reached a consensus on its contents for many decades. Time has borne out the wisdom of their selection.

Some Non-canonical Documents

  • Class Materials – Though I like to think that my class materials are both useful and pious, they are very far from being canonical.
  • Shepherd of Hermas – A popular book in the early church. Considered helpful, but not canonical.

    “Hear then,” said he, “with regard to the three forms, concerning which you are inquiring. Why in the first vision did she appear to you as an old woman seated on a chair? Because your spirit is now old and withered up, and has lost its power in consequence of your infirmities and doubts. For, like elderly men who have no hope of renewing their strength, and expect nothing but their last sleep, so you, weakened by worldly occupations, have given yourselves up to sloth, and have not cast your cares upon the Lord. Your spirit therefore is broken, and you have grown old in your sorrows.” “I should like then to know, sir, why she sat on a chair?” He answered, “Because every weak person sits on a chair on account of his weakness, that his weakness may be sustained. Lo! you have the form of the first vision.

    “Now in the second vision you saw her standing with a youthful countenance, and more joyful than before; still she had the skin and hair of an aged woman. Hear,” said he, “this parable also. When one becomes somewhat old, he despairs of himself on account of his weakness and poverty, and looks forward to nothing but the last day of his life. Then suddenly an inheritance is left him: and hearing of this, he rises up, and becoming exceeding joyful, he puts on strength. And now he no longer reclines, but stands up; and his spirit, already destroyed by his previous actions, is renewed, and he no longer sits, but acts with vigor. So happened it with you on hearing the revelation which God gave you. For the Lord had compassion on you, and renewed your spirit, and ye laid aside your infirmities. Vigor arose within you, and ye grew strong in faith; and the Lord, seeing your strength, rejoiced. On this account He showed you the building of the tower; and He will show you other things, if you continue at peace with each other with all your heart.

    “Now, in the third vision, you saw her still younger, and she was noble and joyful, and her shape was beautiful. For, just as when some good news comes suddenly to one who is sad, immediately he forgets his former sorrows, and looks for nothing else than the good news which he has heard, and for the future is made strong for good, and his spirit is renewed on account of the joy which he has received; so ye also have received the renewal of your spirits by seeing these good things. As to your seeing her sitting on a seat, that means that her position is one of strength, for a seat has four feet and stands firmly. For the world also is kept together by means of four elements. Those, therefore, who repent completely and with the whole heart, will become young and firmly established. You now have the revelation completely given you? Make no further demands for revelations. If anything ought to be revealed, it will be revealed to you.”

  • Epistle of Barnabas – Probably not actually written by Barnabas, used in a few early churches but ultimately rejected, for reasons that will become apparent upon reading it:

    Now, in that Moses said, “Ye shall not eat swine, nor an eagle, nor a hawk, nor a crow, nor any fish which has no scales on itself,” he included three doctrines in his understanding. Moreover he says to them in Deuteronomy, “And I will make a covenant of my ordinances with this people.” So then the ordinance of God is not abstinence from eating, but Moses spoke in the spirit. He mentioned the swine for this reason: you shall not consort, he means, with men who are like swine, that is to say, when they have plenty they forget the Lord, but when they are in want they recognize the Lord, just as the swine when it eats does not know its master, but when it is hungry it cries out, and after receiving food is again silent. “Thou shall not,” he says, “eat the hare.” Why? “Thou shall not be a corrupter of boys, nor like unto such.” Because the hare multiplies, year by year, its orifices; for as many years as it lives so many it has. Moreover, “Thou shall not eat the hyena.” He means, “Thou shall not be an adulterer, nor a corrupter, nor be like to them that are such.” Why? Because that animal annually changes its sex, and is at one time male, and at another female. Moreover, he has rightly detested the weasel. For he means, “Thou shalt not be like to those whom we hear of as committing wickedness with the mouth, on account of their uncleanness; nor shall thou be joined to those impure women who commit iniquity with the mouth. For this animal conceives by the mouth.”

  • Gospel of Thomas – Neither a Gospel in the sense of being a historical account, nor written by Thomas. This was never well regarded by the early church (or even though of by them much at all), but has become popular to talk about in recent days.

    These are the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymus Judas Thomas recorded.

    1 And he said, “Whoever discovers the interpretation of these sayings will not taste death.”

    2 Jesus said, “Those who seek should not stop seeking until they find. When they find, they will be disturbed. When they are disturbed, they will marvel, and will reign over all.”

    3 Jesus said, “If your leaders say to you, ‘Look, the (Father’s) kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is within you and it is outside you.
    When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you live in poverty, and you are the poverty.”

    4 Jesus said, “The person old in days won’t hesitate to ask a little child seven days old about the place of life, and that person will live.
    For many of the first will be last, and will become a single one.”

    5 Jesus said, “Know what is in front of your face, and what is hidden from you will be disclosed to you.
    For there is nothing hidden that will not be revealed.

    6 His disciples asked him and said to him, “Do you want us to fast? How should we pray? Should we give to charity? What diet should we observe?”
    Jesus said, “Don’t lie, and don’t do what you hate, because all things are disclosed before heaven. After all, there is nothing hidden that will not be revealed, and there is nothing covered up that will remain undisclosed.”

    7 Jesus said, “Blessed is the lion that the human will eat, so that the lion becomes human. And cursed is the human that the lion will eat, and the lion still will become human.”

    8 And he said, The person is like a wise fisherman who cast his net into the sea and drew it up from the sea full of little fish. Among them the wise fisherman discovered a fine large fish. He threw all the little fish back into the sea, and easily chose the large fish. Anyone here with two good ears had better listen!

Montanus to the right of them, Marcion to the left of them

Just about everything in this lesson is wrong, for today we learn about heresies! On the one hand, we have the Gnostics, who sought to empty Christianity of its content and replace it with something more congenial to the current thinking. Marcion in particular sought to jettison the entire Old Testament, along with a good portion of the new one. On the other hand, the Montanists went too far with the gift of prophecy, and in some cases fell into the trap of wanting to jettison the New Testament in favor their own personal revelations. The two groups did not err equally, but they did err, and it was up the Church to find a solution to these problems. In the end, the Church responded by strengthening the power of the bishops, and formalizing the canon, which will be discussed in the next lesson

Documents

Dos, Don’ts, and Donatists

Documents

  • Homilies on Leviticus, Origen
    Origen distinguishes between mortal sins and regular sins. This work is of considerable length.
  • On Modesty, Tertullian
    Tertullian attacks what he sees as the excessive leniency of the church in Rome. Note that he was a Montanist by this time. I can’t claim this one is short either.
  • Sermon 23, St. Augustine
    Augustine preaches on the parable of the wheat and the tares, and uses it to explain why good Christians must tolerate the bad ones. This one is short; read it.
  • Class Materials
    This is perhaps the only Sunday School class ever to use images from both Portal and Street Fighter.

Persecution of the Saints – Director’s Cut

Documents

The following are links to the full versions of the primary sources we used in class. All of them are fairly short, so I encourage you to give them a read.

Further Reading

Martyrdom of James, Brother of Jesus, as part of the Jewish persecution of the Church.

And he answered with a loud voice, ‘Why do ye ask me concerning Jesus, the Son of Man? He himself sitteth in heaven at the right hand of the great Power, and is about to come upon the clouds of heaven.’ And when many were fully convinced and gloried in the testimony of James, and said, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David,’ these same Scribes and Pharisees said again to one another, ‘We have done badly in supplying such testimony to Jesus. But let us go up and throw him down, in order that they may be afraid to believe him.’ And they cried out, saying, ‘Oh! oh! the just man is also in error.’ And they fulfilled the Scripture written in Isaiah, ‘Let us take away the just man, because he is troublesome to us: therefore they shall eat the fruit of their doings.’ So they went up and threw down the just man, and said to each other, ‘Let us stone James the Just.’ And they began to stone him, for he was not killed by the fall; but he turned and knelt down and said, ‘I entreat thee, Lord God our Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’

Tacitus, a Roman (non-Christian) historian on Nero’s initiation of the Roman persecution of the Church:

As a consequence, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but, even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. In accordance, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not as much of the crime of firing the city as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.

Letter between Pliny the Younger, governor of Bythnia, and the Emperor Trajan, on the proper procedures to follow when persecuting Christians:

They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food–but ordinary and innocent food. Even this, they affirmed, they had ceased to do after my edict by which, in accordance with your instructions, I had forbidden political associations. Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition.
I therefore postponed the investigation and hastened to consult you. For the matter seemed to me to warrant consulting you, especially because of the number involved. For many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered. For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms. But it seems possible to check and cure it. It is certainly quite clear that the temples, which had been almost deserted, have begun to be frequented, that the established religious rites, long neglected, are being resumed, and that from everywhere sacrificial animals are coming, for which until now very few purchasers could be found. Hence it is easy to imagine what a multitude of people can be reformed if an opportunity for repentance is afforded.

After Acts – Director’s Cut

Documents

  • The Didache – We made use of this early Christian document in our class to gain insight into how the church used to view some of its rituals. You can read the whole thing here. Give it a try, I promise it’s not too long!
  • Class materials – The slides and notes I used during the class. For when you want to teach your own.

Questions asked in class

  • What did Jewish worship sound like in the first century? We can’t be sure, but here is one possibility.
  • Where was the Didache composed? We don’t really know, we’re not even that clear on the date. This is a decent overview of some guesses regarding its composition. There is not much consensus, so I would take it with a grain of salt.

Bonus Material

Justin Martyr describes a baptism and church service

The Didache gives certain prescriptions for how Christian worship should take place; one of our earliest descriptions comes from Justin Martyr’s “First Apology,” written in 155AD. Of specific interest to us are Chapters 61-67. Here is a small excerpt:

But we, after we have thus washed him who has been convinced and has assented to our teaching, bring him to the place where those who are called brethren are assembled, in order that we may offer hearty prayers in common for ourselves and for the baptized illuminated person, and for all others in every place, that we may be counted worthy, now that we have learned the truth, by our works also to be found good citizens and keepers of the commandments, so that we may be saved with an everlasting salvation. Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss.

There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen. And when the president has given thanks, and all the people have expressed their assent, those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion.

“First Apology” covers a broad range of topics; it is rather long. If lots of reading isn’t your thing, you can listen to it instead.

Church governance

Due to time constraints, I had to cut the section on church governance entirely.

Ignatius’s letter to the Trallians (short!)

Your obedience to your bishop, as though he were Jesus Christ, show me plainly enough that yours is no worldly manner of life, but that of Jesus Christ Himself, who gave His life for us that faith in His death might save you from death. At the same time, however, essential as it is that you should never act independently of the bishop-as evidently you do not-you must also be no less submissive to your clergy, and regard them as apostles of Jesus Christ our Hope, in whom we shall one day be found, if our lives are lived in Him. The deacons too, who serve the mysteries of Jesus Christ, must be men universally approved in every way; since they are not mere dispensers of meat and drink, but servants of the church of God, and therefore under obligation to guard themselves against any slur of imputation as strictly as they would against fire itself.

Equally, it is for the rest of you to hold the deacons in as great respect as Jesus Christ; just as you should also look on the bishop as a type of the Father, and the clergy as the Apostolic circle forming His council; for without these three orders no church has any right to the name.

Letter of Clement to the Corinthians (medium length)

Our Apostles, too, were given to understand by our Lord Jesus Christ that the office of the bishop would give rise to intrigues. For this reason, equipped as they were with perfect foreknowledge, they appointed the men mentioned before, and afterwards laid down a rule once for all to this effect: when these men die, other approved men shall succeed to their sacred ministry. Consequently, we deem it an injustice to eject from the sacred ministry the persons who were appointed either by them, or later, with the consent of the whole Church, by other men in high repute and have ministered to the flock of Christ faultlessly, humbly, quietly and unselfishly, and have moreover, over a long period of time, earned the esteem of all. Indeed, it will be no small sin for us if we oust men who have irreproachably and piously offered the sacrifices proper to the episcopate. Happy the presbyters who have before now completed life’s journey and taken their departure in mature age and laden with fruit! They, surely, do not have to fear that anyone will dislodge them from the place built for them. Yes, we see that you removed some, their good conduct notwithstanding, from the sacred ministry on which their faultless discharge had shed luster.

The Sound of the Psalms

During our opening class today on church history, one person asked if we knew what synagogue worship sounded like back in the first century. I responded that I was pretty sure this information is lost to us now.

Turns out, maybe not! There is at least one person out there who thinks they have decoded the notes used in the Psalms.

I am not remotely qualified to comment on how accurate these reconstructions may be, but I offer this link, where you can listen to them yourselves:

What did the songs of the Bible originally sound like?

Early Church History Syllabus

  1. After Acts
    Life in the early early church

  2. Persecution of the Saints
    How the early Christians took up their cross and followed Jesus. Learn the stories of Ignatius, Polycarp, and Perpetua.

  3. Dos, Don’t, and Donatists
    Is the church a society of saints, or a school for sinners? How should we deal with those who lapsed?

  4. Montanus to the right of them, Marcion to the left of them
    Heretics!

  5. Canon in front of them
    How the New Testament was formed.

  6. Love the Lord with all thy mind
    The early apologists and how they built the intellectual foundations for the faith.

  7. Love not the world
    St. Anthony and the birth of monasticism

  8. By this sign, conquer!
    Constantine the Great, and how Christianity went from being persecuted to ruling the empire.

  9. Who do you say that I am?
    The Council of Niceae and the Arian controversy.

  10. Preachers and Politicians
    The tangled webs of church and state issues.

  11. Saint Augustine of Hippo
    “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.”

  12. The Fall of Rome
    It was the end of the world as they knew it.

  13. Now What?
    Links to resources where you can delve deeper.