St. Herman of Alaska Orthodox SoborSt. Herman of Alaska Orthodox Sobor
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Webmaster's note: These are teachings which I gave to a Protestant Church in which I was Pastoring. They were prepared prior to my becoming Orthodox.

Faith of our Fathers: Rediscovering the Faith and Practice of the Early Church
Lesson 1: Introduction and Tradition
Introduction

I have been on a quest for several years – a quest to discover what the Early Church was like. Who were they? What were they like? More importantly, what did they believe and practice, and how is it different from what we believe and practice today. During this past year I have spent more time researching this subject than ever before. And the things I've found out are exciting, life-changing, and very surprising.

For the purposes of this course, we will consider the Early Church years to be from 33 AD to approx. 800 AD. At that point the Church begins to enter into what we call the "Middle Ages." Most of what we take for granted as normal Christian beliefs and practices all came into full development during the first 800 years of the Church. It was during that period that the Church met for many councils to decide exactly what it was that the Church was supposed to believe and practice. Most of these councils were local one – set up in certain geographical areas. But during this 800 year period, seven major worldwide councils were called – these were known as the Ecumenical Councils – and they involved the whole Church around the world. Bishops from around the world would gather at a certain place for a long period of time to discuss major issues and problems that were affecting the Church as a whole, and they would come to a decision that was binding on the whole Church.

Now, very few of our Christian beliefs and practices were fully developed and explained by the time the New Testament was written. For example: the doctrines about who Christ is, and about the Holy Trinity were not developed until the fourth century. The same goes for the putting together of the New Testament, which wasn't done until the late forth century. The major task of the seven Ecumenical councils was defining these doctrines, and writing the Creed, and putting together the books of Scripture that we call the New Testament.

Doctrinal Development: didn't add any new doctrines, but expanded, clarified and fleshed out what was already believed in kernel form – nothing of substance was added or taken away. I.e.: Trinity, Deity of Christ, Two natures of Christ.

Why Study the Early Church?

Reasons for Studying Early Church:

  • Something is drastically wrong with the Church of today. I.e.: Reformed Church of Britain; Methodist; Presbyterians; United; Anglican; - all of these groups, along with many others, are now ordaining gays and lesbians to be ministers of the Gospel. Many of their leaders no longer believe that Jesus Christ is the only way to heaven, but that there are many ways to God (Jesus just being one of them). The following three quotes are a small example of the prevailing beliefs in many denominations:
    • Quote from Alberta Report, May 30, 1994: "Dr. Gerstner laments the open decline in faith among prominent Christians. "The apostasy among church leaders is a horrendous problem," he says. "It’s one thing to have open and respectful dealings with non-Christians, but it’s impossible with people who say they’re Christian, but then deny the most basic claim about Jesus."
    • Quote from Alberta Report, May 30, 1994: "...According to the Globe and Mail report, Reverend Bruce McLeod, a former moderator of the United Church of Canada and president of the council, declared that Jesus Christ is not the only valid way of reaching God. There are many different faiths and all are valid, he said. Indeed, God would probably not be pleased if all Hindus, say, were converted to Christianity."
    • ChristianWeek, June 10, 1997: "Six out of 10 Americans, including 55 percent of self-described born-again Christians, do not believe in the existence of the Holy Spirit. Yet 84% of American adults embrace the Christian faith, according to a new study by the Barna Research Group. 'America appears to be drowning in a sea of relativistic, non-biblical theology,' says George Barna. 'For the majority of Americans – especially born again Christians – to reject the existence of the Holy Spirit, reflects either incredible ignorance of the basic teachings of Christianity, or a pick-and-choose mentality in which people only believe those teachings from the Bible which they like or understand.' Barna describes those who deny the existence of the Holy Spirit as 'a people whose Christianity is superficial, compromised and inconsistent.'"
  • We often talk about Church distinctives – Pentecostal distinctives, Baptist distinctives, Anglican distinctives – i.e.: what makes each unique and different? But what about the Early Church distinctives? Most Churches want to be like the Early Church - the New Testament Church. But do we know what they really believed and taught?
  • To find out what they believed (i.e.: Baptism, Lord's Supper, worship, etc.)
  • 1989 U.N. Census – 23,000 different Protestant denominations in the world (five new ones starting each week) - each saying that their Church is the most Biblical Church. How do we know who to believe? Jesus only built one Church. We need to examine that one Church – what did it look like? How did it worship? What did it believe about God? About Baptism? About Communion? How was that Church structured? Did it have a Pastor and a Board, or something else?
  • I checked five commentaries to get an understanding of a verse of Scripture that Jesus spoke – each commentator gave a different interpretation of the verse. How do we know whom to believe? Who is the authority? When Jesus spoke the words of the particular verse I had looked up, He had only one meaning in mind. But what was it? With at least five "authorities" each saying something different, where do we turn to find out what Jesus was really teaching?
  • We are ignorant of our own past. For example can you name three leaders of the Church in each of these time periods?
    • The last 100 years
    • During the Reformation
    • During the Early Church

Point being: we don't know who our Fathers are, or what they believed. We sing the song, "Faith of Our Fathers," but have no idea what that Faith was.

Key Scriptures

"Remove not the ancient landmark,
which thy fathers have set."
(Prov. 22:28)

"Thus saith the LORD, Stand ye in the ways, and see,
and ask for the old paths, where is the good way,
and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls."
(Jer. 6:16)

"Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the commonsalvation,
it was needful for me to write unto you,
and exhort you that you should earnestly contend for the faith
which was once delivered unto the saints."
(Jude 3)

The Teachings and Practices of the Church that we will be looking at during the next three months will be the exact same teachings and practices that the earliest Christians believed and practiced. It will also be the same Faith that was taught by the Church Fathers – the Faith that Jude says was once delivered unto the saints.

Tradition

"Can any who spend several years in those seats of learning, be excused if they do not add to that the reading of the Fathers? [They are] the most authentic commentators on Scripture, as being both nearest the fountain, eminently endued with that Spirit by whom all Scripture was given." - John Wesley

"It is supremely arrogant to suppose that we, some two thousand years later, have a better idea of God's plan for Church order than did the actual hearers of the Apostles and the second generation of Christian bishops, many of whom were martyred for their faith." - Frank Schaeffer

Today we're going to start talking about a word that bothers many people when they hear it – in fact, rather than have to say this word, some people jokingly refer to it as the "t" word – any idea what it is? - Tradition.

For so long we've talked about how we don't believe in tradition, but only in what the Bible says.

But whether we realize it or not, or whether we want to admit it or not, we all have traditions and rituals that we live by and practice.

Depending on what church we are a part of, we will follow certain traditions that have been developed within that denomination:

  • Reformed tradition
  • Lutheran Tradition
  • Mennonite Tradition
  • Anglican Tradition
  • Roman Catholic Tradition
  • Pentecostal Tradition

And then, within those ‘traditions,’ those various denominations, you will have many different groups and factions that have split off from each other, each following their own set of traditions that they've developed over the years.

For example, in referring to the various denominations, we can look back in history to discover when these various groups started:

  • Lutheran (around 1520)
  • Mennonite (1520 - Anabaptists)
  • Presbyterian (mid-1500’s)
  • Methodist (1700’s)
  • Pentecostal (1900’s)
  • Vineyard (1970’s)

What are some traditions and rituals that we observe and practice in ourChurch?

  • Board members as song leaders
  • Weds. prayer meeting (not talked about in New Testament)
  • Family Nite – last Sunday of month
  • Sunday School (just over 200 years old)
  • Communion first Sunday of month
  • Individual cups during Communion
  • People seated to receive
  • S.S. picnic
  • Baptism – person goes in water once
  • Pews

As we look back to the Early Church, in order to rediscover the Faith and Practices of the New Testament Church, the Original Church, we're going to discover what kinds of traditions they developed over the years (esp. 100 -800).

As we go along, you will quickly notice how that certain doctrines and practices weren't introduced or developed in the Church until many years after the Apostles had all died. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't be doing it, or believing it, just because it wasn't fully practiced until a later date in the Church.

Examples:

  • Doctrine of Trinity (325)
  • Christ is both God and Man (developed in 5th century)
  • Holy Spirit in relation to Godhead (381)
  • Bible itself (397)

But there are some who say that if a certain doctrine or tradition is not clearly spelled out in the Bible, then I'm not going to believe it, or practice it.

Well, let's think of some things we do in our Churches that AREN'T specifically mentioned in the Bible, and yet we still practice them:

  • Churches built around 250
  • Cross as symbol of faith (originally used by mockers)
  • Baptism tanks
  • A completely developed form of church government
  • How to Worship (Bible gives hints and ideas)
  • Having individuals or groups sing special songs
  • Pianos and organs as instruments (and others)

Does the fact that none of these church practices are specifically mentioned in the New Testament invalidate their use in the churches today? Not necessarily. Just because our practices aren't clearly mentioned in the Bible doesn't mean that we shouldn't be doing them. And we'll talk more about that later on.

Other things that were in the New Testament, but are not in the churches today, include:

  • having all things in common
  • communion every week
  • love feasts
  • house churches
  • going to the synagogue for specific times of prayer (Acts)
  • keeping Jewish feasts and rituals (Paul in Acts)
  • Having Bishops in the Church
  • Even the Lord's Supper as prescribed in the New Testament did not consist of individual cups and little crackers. Yet that is common practice in many of our churches today.

So then, the question is not, "Do I believe in tradition or ritual?" but, "Which traditions and rituals should I believe in and practice?"

Definition of Tradition: Tradition as a word means exactly this: it is that which is "passed on" and "given over" from one to another. Holy Tradition, therefore, is that which is passed on and given over within the Church from the time of Christ's apostles right down to the present day.

CLOSING PRAYER

O Heavenly King, O Comforter, the Spirit of truth, You who are in all places and fill all things, the Treasury of blessings and the Giver of life, come and abide in us, cleanse us from every stain of sin, and save our souls, O Gracious Lord.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Go to Part 2
 
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