The Early Church can be bumpers on the bowling alley of theology

When ever we approach a passage in Scripture or a particular doctrinal claim we want to understand what the correct meaning is or whether that claim is correct. There are a variety of factors that are involved in working through that process.

640px-BowlingballImagine that the process is like tossing a bowling ball down the narrow alley.

We want to get a strike (the correct interpretation or assessment of a doctrine). If we can’t do that we would like to get as close as possible.

For us bad bowlers, we are happy to knock down some pins and often end up throwing gutter balls. In a game that might be fine, but from a theological perspective that would mean we are pretty far off the mark.

In a post last year, I proposed an Agile Manifesto for theology and doctrine. The goal was to offer up some principles to help us approach our theology and doctrine in the best way possible.

One of the proposed principles was: favor tradition and the historic Rule of Faith over novel theological views.  BillAndTed_NapoleanBowling

When we go bowling, we would all do a lot better if the bowling alley had some bumpers. These devices are used to prevent a ball from going into the gutter. Napoleon (of Bill & Ted fame) could certainly have benefited from these.

I like to think of the early church theologians and writings as bumpers in the bowling alley of theology. They can help us make sure we are not throwing gutter balls.

the early church theologians can act as bumpers in the bowling alley of theology

Now you might ask – how do early church theologians protect us from throwing gutter balls?

The Christian faith is based on historical events and key teachings. These were taught by Jesus and given to the Apostles who in turn were to hand that on to faithful teachers. Each person in the chain was to preserve or guard what they had been entrusted with and pass that on.

Paul give these principles to Timothy:

  • Hold to the standard of sound words that you heard from me and do so with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus (2 Tim 1:13)
  • And entrust what you heard me say in the presence of many others as witnesses to faithful people who will be competent to teach others as well. (2 Tim 2:2)

Jesus gave this principle to each of us:

  • Therefore go and make disciples of all nations …  teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.(Matt 28:19-20)

Clement writing in 90 AD to Corinth gives us his view on this same principle:

  • The apostles have preached the Gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ [has done so] from God. Christ therefore was sent forth by God, and the apostles by Christ. … [the apostles] went forth proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand. … [the apostles] appointed those [ministers] already mentioned, and afterwards gave instructions, that when these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry.(chapter 42; 44)

Irenaeus writing in the late 2nd century also notes the careful passing on of sound doctrine:

  • As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth (Ad Haer Book 1 chapter 10).

And around 200 AD, Tertullian wrote in the Prescription vs. Heretics:

  • … it is in the same degree manifest that all doctrine which agrees with the apostolic churches – those molds and original sources of the faith must be reckoned for truth, as undoubtedly containing that which the churches received from the apostles, the apostles from Christ, Christ from God. (chapter 21)

The main point here is that the doctrines that were given by Jesus to the apostles were passed on to other faithful men. Therefore, if we want to interpret a passage of Scripture or evaluate a doctrinal claim we should include as part of our process the thoughts of those theologians who went before us.


  • Some of the theologians of the early church knew the apostles and others were living and less than 100 years after them. If the apostles teachings were available then surely these people would be in a position to hear and capture the doctrines they taught.
  • The theologians of the early church are going to know the language, and the culture better than we ever will. They are likely to catch idioms, usage, and meaning that we will either miss or misinterpret.
  • The early church preserved and identified the books that we know as the Scriptures. Without their faithful work in handing them down, we would not know which books are part of the Scripture. Many of the the theologians we use to track the formation of the canon are the same ones that write on a host of other doctrinal issues. If we trust them to have gotten the canon right, we should be willing to give them a hearing on other matters.
  • Reading other earlier theologians and tracing the history of a particular doctrinal idea: including when it was introduced and how it evolved over time will help us understand how it developed and how various factors may have influenced it.

If we fail to appreciate and understand the historic passing on of the Scriptures and doctrine then to what are we going to appeal when we struggle with a particular passage in Scripture or a particular doctrinal claim?

And if the early church theologians got it wrong to whom are we going to appeal to correct them?

Do we have to accept everything the early church taught? No. That would be going to far in the other direction. We must carefully assess what early church theologians wrote.

Let me share some principles that should help guide us in the use of the early church theologians.

  1. Any doctrine we are examining should have a clear basis in the Scriptures.We should always start with checking to see if Scripture affirms or rejects the ideas that are be studied.
  2. The theologians of the early church are no more error-proof than are the theologians of today. Their writings should not be considered inspired or on the same level of authority as the Scriptures.
  3. Not all theologians or writings in the early church should be given the same weight. Writings by noted theologians (Clement, Irenaeus, Tertullian) or those that were given a high place in the early church (Didache, Letter to Barnabus) should be given precedence over lesser known or respected works.
  4. We do not need to accept everything a theologian proposes just because it is written a long time ago. When evaluating what a theologian has written or proposed the two most important characteristics of the doctrine (besides having its roots in Scripture) are that it should have an early attestation in the church and a consensus among theologians in the church. If the majority of theologians accept or reject a particular doctrine over a large period of time then we should give more serious consideration to it.
  5. When reading the early theologians (or any theologian for that matter) we should always read within context and watch for how they evaluated a particular idea. Often they will note that what they are writing is speculative vs. something that is orthodox.

In the next post we will look at these ideas using some case studies.

5 thoughts on “The Early Church can be bumpers on the bowling alley of theology

  1. Mike,

    Great post and I look forward to the next one!

    “I like to think of the early church theologians and writings as bumpers in the bowling alley of theology. They can help us make sure we are not throwing gutter balls.”

    Great analogy!

    “2.The theologians of the early church are no more error-proof than are the theologians of today. Their writings should not be considered inspired or on the same level of authority as the Scriptures.”

    Agreed. I would just add that when there is a doubt or a conflict between the early church writers and today’s writers, I go with the early church as a default.

      • I really don’t think you can just leave the first item as simply “Scripture”. Scripture needs to be interpreted. Wouldn’t it be more correct to say the following?

        1. My interpretation of Scripture
        2. The early theologians’ interpretation of Scripture and explanation of Tradition
        3. The later theologians’ interpretation of Scripture and explanation of Tradition

      • Restless

        We all interpret when we read.

        When I read Scripture I have to interpret it, just as you or any other reader must. And the theologian I read also must have interpreted the Scriptures just as any other reader must. Further I must also interpret the work of a theologian when I read, just as any other reader must.

        None of us are infallible interpreters.
        None of us are free from presuppositions.
        None of us have the perfect hermeneutic.

        We all must be diligent in trying to accurately handle the word of truth.

        The point is to have a framework through which we can try to do that. And the point of the post was to show that there is a process that should include the early theologians that are often ignored. Interpretations of Scripture are (and should be) influenced by the theologians we read. And what we accept as true from other theologians should be influenced by Scripture.

        Here is a case study on how this might work:

        1) Scripture alludes (given the challenge of interpreting Revelation) to a 1000 year kingdom at the 2nd Advent and before the final judgment. Yet some interpret these passages as being more allegorical and thus see Scripture supporting views that do not include a 1000 year kingdom before the final judgment.
        2) The early church was Pre-Millennial in their interpretation of Scripture and their view of the end times (see Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho chap 80 & 81).
        3) However, Justin Martyr, one of the earliest proponents, admits that in his day not all agreed on how the end times would unfold. We are not told on what points there was disagreement.
        4) Later theologians proposed interpretations of the end times that did not have a 1000 yr. kingdom after the 2nd Advent (ie Amillennialism). Others proposed interpretations that are Pre-Millenial but differ from the early church (Dispensationalism).

        There are other lines of evidence that must be considered. Things like the grammar and genre of the writings, numerous Scriptural passages related to end times, the hermeneutical approach etc.

        Focusing for the moment on just the patristic evidence I would accept a Pre-Millennial view as more likely correct than the Amillennial view. It does not mean that Amillenialism is wrong. However, it does shift the burden of proof onto the Amillenialist to explain why a view that has minimal to no support for the first two or three centuries of church history should be supported now.

        It also does not mean that all versions of Pre-Millennialism are correct. More modern versions of Pre-Milleniallism do not always line up with the views described by the early church. As an example, in this article proponents of Dispensationalism wrestle with some of the differences between their view and the early church.

        BTW: I know this addresses more than your comment here and am in part responding to our discussion from Jim’s blog.

  2. Pingback: Einstein: Know your History | Dead Heroes Don't Save

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s