“If we could match current church practices with what the earliest church understood and emphasized about following Christ, then it would be the purest form of what Jesus talked about his disciples creating after his ascension.” That’s an assumption that many believers readily accept and spend tons of energy attempting to achieve. In fact, numerous denominations have been founded on claims that they accomplished that task – of course they all came up with different ideas and practices and claim theirs is the most original.
Certainly, that was the assumption that I bought into. Have you ever heard the warning to “beware of assumptions”? It’s a lesson that has to be frequently relearned and I just had one of those opportunities. It feels like another time for repenting from what I previously assumed. If you have ever awakened to the fact that assumptions you believed and based your actions on were false, then you realize how foolish it feels. It is both amazingly devastating and, at the same time, eye-opening and energizing about the possibilities of what now seems so obvious.
Thomas F Torrance’s book, The Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers is a careful review of the way some of the earliest church fathers interpreted “grace” in the first century. What he finds is that my unquestioned assumption is very wrong and makes this observation: “there can be no doubt therefore that in the early Church, as in the mission field today, the converts of the first few generations had difficulty in apprehending the distinctive aspects of the gospel, as for example the doctrine of grace. It was so astoundingly new to the natural man. In our times, it often takes generations of careful doctrinal teaching before the implications of Christianity are fully realized, and even then, there’s always the temptation for old pagan ideas, such as the urge towards self-justification, to infiltrate the faith.… in the second century we find everywhere a serious relapse into natural Hellenic thought.”
Oh my! He just shifted my paradigm. No wonder my reading of some of the early church fathers seemed to justify the emphasis on moralism and legalism within the spiritual communities of my youth. And, how incongruent they seem with my current understanding of the New Testament view of grace. I recall reading them at an earlier time and thinking that the church was becoming “institutionalized” very early but not to the depth that I now grasp. Over and over Torrance demonstrates that the early Apostolic Fathers did not grasp fully the completed work of Christ but made salvation into something quite uncertain and a precarious struggle to achieve. So salvation was framed as a future event to be earned through piety, attempted purity, and obedience to the emerging institution-a pharisaical corruption of the gospel.