Using the Early Church as bumpers (Some Quick Case Studies)

In the last post we examined the idea of using the early church theologians as guides to help us make sure that we are rightly interpreting Scripture and evaluating doctrine. In this post we will explore how the principles presented in that post might work when the “bowling ball is thrown down the alley”. Or using the more common expression when the “rubber meets the road”.

Before we go much further let’s make sure we understand what this post sets out to do and what it does not set out to do. Each of the case studies presented in this post are not meant to be a full treatment on the subject.There are other aspects that can be brought into the discussion to provide a more robust examination. Obviously, it is not my goal to settle each of these doctrinal debates in this post.The main point of this post is to highlight how the early church writings can be used as part of a theological argument.


Today there is much debate within Christianity over whether salvation is monergistic or synergistic. In a nutshell, both monergism and synergism teach that salvation is all of God because it is only through Jesus’ death on the cross that our sins can be atoned for. We cannot earn our salvation. Both also affirm that salvation is received by faith based on God’s promise to save all who believe.

The key to using the early church is the Vincentian Canon: that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all

Where they differ is in how a person comes to faith. Mongergism, which means to work alone, affirms that God is the only one working to bring a person to salvation. When a person receives unconditional, irresistible grace from God they will come to faith. Synergism, which means to work together, teaches that coming to faith is a process in which both God and a person are involved in bringing a person to salvation. God provides the prior grace to a person so that they can respond, but a person still has the ability to accept or reject the gift of eternal life.

The debate deals with the differing interpretations of such passages as John 6:37,44, Romans 8:28-30; 9:13-20, Ephesians 1:4-5; 1 Tim 2:4; and 2 Peter 3:9.

For those who frequent this blog, there is a series that explores what several different theologians wrote over the first 4 centuries on this topic. In this post we will just focus on a few.

Irenaeus, writing during the 2nd century, is one of many early theologians to express a view of salvation that acknowledged man’s part in coming to faith:

  • But man, being endowed with reason, and in this respect like to God, having been made free in his will, and with power over himself, is himself the cause to himself, that sometimes he becomes wheat, and sometimes chaff (Ad Haer IV 4.3)

Chrysostom, writing during the 4th century, was a contemporary with Augustine. He also affirms a synergistic view of salvation.

  • All indeed depends on God, but not so that our free-will is hindered. ‘If then it depend on God,’ (one says), ‘why does He blame us?’ On this account I said, ‘so that our free-will is not hindered.’ It depends then on us, and on Him. (Homily 12 on Hebrews)

It was not until the 5th century, after Augustine rejected the synergism he once held, that we find anyone affirming a monergistic view of salvation.

  • When we ask the reason why all men are not saved, the ordinary answer is: Because men themselves are not willing. … as if the will of God had been overcome by the will of men, and when the weakest stood in the way with their want of will, the will of the strongest could not be carried out. (Enchiridion 96)

When we examine the teachings of the early church on the nature of how a person can receive eternal life we are presented with a perhaps one of the clearest examples of the Vincentian Canon. “That which has been believed everywhere, always and by all” is the key to using the early church wisely and the testimony is overwhelmingly in favor of the synergistic model. It is not common to find such strong concurrence on a topic as we have here.

The historical development of this doctrine puts the burden on monergists. As part of their argument they would have to show how the early church “lost” the monergistic model of salvation almost immediately after the era of the Apostles and then demonstrate why we should accept Augustine’s rediscovery of these so-called lost apostolic truths after nearly 400 years?

BillAndTed_NapoleanBowlingFallPapal Infallibility
Catholics claim that the Pope has the ability to teach doctrine with infallibility, that is without error. Let’s use that as a second test case. The doctrine known as Papal Infallibility was promoted to dogma at Vatican I in 1870. That does not mean that the concept did not exist prior to the council, but it was at this time considered a “doctrine [that] is to be believed and held by all the faithful in accordance with the ancient and unchanging faith of the whole Church”.

If we are going to examine this doctrinal claim we need to break it down into its respective parts. These are the main assertions that are made at Vatican I:

  1. Peter is the rock upon which Jesus will build His Church.
  2. Peter was given supreme apostolic authority over the entire Church.
  3. Whoever succeeds Peter as Roman Pontiff obtains his authority over the Church.
  4. When the Roman Pontiff speaks ex cathedra and defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals he does so with infallibility.

The first three points were reaffirming what the Council of Florence (1431-1449) and 2nd Council of Lyon (1272-1274) had already declared. It was the 4th point that was now newly considered dogma.

For the purposes of our case study we will limit ourselves to the passage in Matthew 16:18-19. Vatican I uses this passage to defend the primacy of Peter and therefore the Roman bishop. They also use this passage to support their claim to being able to teach with infallibility (Session 4, Chapter 1.2 & Chapter 4.2).

There is debate over how to interpret what Jesus meant when He said “on this rock I will build My church”. Often the debate centers on whether the rock was referring to Peter or to something else. When we look to early church theologians we find that there is very early and general agreement that the rock is Peter.

Tertullian, a 3rd century theologian tells us that the rock is Peter

  • Was anything withheld from the knowledge of Peter, who is called “the rock on which the church should be built”, who also obtained “the keys of the kingdom of heaven,” with the power of “loosing and binding in heaven and on earth?” (Prescription against Heretics Chapter 22)

Origen, a 3rd century theologian also tells us that the rock is Peter

  • And Peter, on whom the Church of Christ is built, against which the gates of hell shall not prevail left only one epistle of acknowledged genuineness. (Commentary on John Book V chapter 3)

Chrysostom, a 4th century theologian, seems to agree:

  • But see, throughout all, His authority: “I say unto thee, Thou art Peter; I will build the Church; I will give thee the keys of Heaven. (Homily 52 on Matthew)

The interpretation that Peter was the rock was widely held by the early church.

The important thing to remember is, just because support can be found in the early church for one or more of the ideas above does not mean that they were supporting all future developments of the doctrine. As one studies this topic they would see the development of Papal authority grow over time.

Does establishing that Peter was the rock mean that the Pope is infallible?

Let’s consider two observations from Scripture.

  • Consider that at the Last Supper the Apostles were arguing over which of them was the greatest (Luke 22:24). That would tell us that the Apostles did not understand that Jesus had already established the primacy of Peter.
  • In the letter to Ephesus, Paul is explaining the mystery of the church. The church is comprised of Jew and Gentile and is built upon “the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone” (Eph 2:19-20). If the church is actually built on Peter then we have to wonder why Paul chose not to explain that here.

One of the important principles was to read each theologian in context. Let’s examine how our three theologians processed the idea that Peter was the rock.

Chrysostom is a bit cryptic. He tells us that Peter was being made a shepherd but also reminds us that the Church is built on the confession of faith.

  • And I say unto thee, Thou art Peter, and upon this rock will I build my Church;” that is, on the faith of his confession. Hereby He signifies that many were now on the point of believing, and raises his spirit, and makes him a shepherd. (Homily 52 on Matthew)

Peter’s role, according to Origen, is the same as any other disciple of Christ. All who confess Jesus as the Christ are rocks upon which the Church is built:

  • And if we too have said like Peter, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,” not as if flesh and blood had revealed it unto us, but by light from the Father in heaven having shone in our heart, we become a Peter, and to us there might be said by the Word, “Thou art Peter,”. For a rock is every disciple of Christ … and upon every such rock is built every word of the church, …(Commentary on Matthew Book XII Chapter 10)
  • And also the saying, “Upon this rock I will build My church”? Are the keys of the kingdom of heaven given by the Lord to Peter only, and will no other of the blessed receive them?  … And if any one says this to Him, not by flesh and blood revealing it unto Him but through the Father in heaven, he will obtain the things that were spoken according to the letter of the Gospel to that Peter … (Commentary on Matthew Book XII Chapter 11)

Finally, Tertullian acknowledges that the Church was built on the mighty work of Peter (citing his proclamation at Pentecost and the inclusion of the Gentiles) but denies that any rights given to Peter were passed on to others.

  • “But,” you say, “the Church has the power of forgiving sins.” … I  now inquire into your opinion, (to see) from what source you usurp this right to “the Church.” If, because the Lord has said to Peter, “Upon this rock will I build My Church,” … you therefore presume that the power of binding and loosing has derived to you, that is, to every Church akin to Peter, what sort of man are you, subverting and wholly changing the manifest intention of the Lord, … (On Modesty, chapter 21)

Even with strong evidence for the interpretation that Peter is the rock we don’t see any support for the idea that the Roman bishop is supreme over other bishops nor possess the gift of teaching with infallibility.

Hopefully these two case studies (another example that examines the End Times can be found in this comment) provide some guidance in how one might use the early church to work through the interpretation of Scripture and the evaluation of doctrine.

What do you think?

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