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.
Is this course in what the Early Church believed and practiced practical for us today? What difference does it make to our lives what they believed? How is this course supposed to help me in my everyday living?
Well, it's like this - the Church of today is on a fastrack to Hell - Never in the history of the Church has so many heresies, so many false teachings, and so many soul-destroying practices come into the Church - teachings and practices which are an abomination in the eyes of God. And not only is the modern Church accepting these teachings and practices, the Church is even sanctioning them and calling them Holy!
As a Pastor, it's my duty, even obligation, as an ordained Minister of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, to teach you the faith exactly as it was taught by Jesus, the Apostles, and their disciples (the Fathers of the Church) - or as Jude says, the Faith that was once delivered unto the saints. This is the faith of the Apostles; this is the faith of the Fathers; this is the faith of the Church; this is the faith which has established the universe!
So then, how is this course practical? How is it supposed to help me in my Christian life? Well, if you're looking for a course that will help you be a more effective Christian - this is not it. You need to come to our Sunday morning Church service for that. I'm doing a series on the Fruit of the Spirit.
If you're looking for a course that will help you have a stronger marriage - this is not it. You need to sign up for the marriage course we'll be teaching in January.
But if you're looking for a course that will help you save your soul, that will help you to have the same faith that the Apostle's had, and that will help keep you on the right path to Eternal Life - then you're in the right place. You can't get more practical than that - no other teaching in this world is more important than that.
Last week we began to look at the subject of Holy Tradition: we discovered that tradition meant passed on, or handed over. Holy Tradition, or Sacred Tradition, refers to the Faith (including the beliefs and practices) which have been passed on within the Church from the time of Christ's Apostle's, right down to the present day.
George Florovsky, one of the outstanding theologians and writers of our century, made a statement to the effect that he would not isolate himself to his own age. Too many of us do exactly that – we take our beliefs and practices from what our Church leaders of 100 or 200 years ago told us, rather that going back to see what the original Church, with the Apostles and Church Fathers, have taught us.
Isolating ourselves to our own age is precisely what the vast majority of Christians are doing today. We are ignorant of our own spiritual heritage. We have cut ourselves off from our spiritual roots.
Some of us might remember that there were Church Fathers, but most of us are completely ignorant of what they said and taught. And we know even less about the Church’s Seven Ecumenical Councils, even though the Councils’ decisions and directions were understood to be the guided by the Holy Spirit, and that the entire Church had to follow those decisions and directions.
In other words, large parts of Christendom are not benefiting from what the Church has been, said, or done. We are living and thinking as though the Church did not exist until we got on board, or that the Church of the past is irrelevant and has nothing to do with us today. For many people, it is as though the Church ended in Acts 28 and did not reappear again until the sixteenth century Reformation, or for a few, not until the twentieth century. Some even think that the Church died out after the year 100, and was revived again on Jan. 1, 1901, on Azusa Street – that’s when the Pentecostal movement got started.
So, what I’m saying in all of this is simply that many of us have cut ourselves off from what the Church has called Holy Tradition. This has not only created a weak condition among Christians today, but it has also drastically deformed our concept of what the Church is supposed to be like. When people say, "I wish we were more like the early Church, or the New Testament Church," I realize that most of them haven’t got a clue as to what they’re really asking.
Until I read the Early Church writings for myself, I didn’t have a clue what it was like either. I only thought I knew what it was like back then. You see, it is Holy Tradition that provides us our living connection with the past. We can be like the early Church, if we want to be, but not without Holy Tradition. It is only through learning the Tradition of the Church that we discover what it really means to be the Church.
"I commend you," Paul says to the Corinthian believers, "because you ... maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you".
Now, you need to remember that there’s a difference between what the Scripture teaches about Holy Tradition, and the traditions of men. Jesus taught against the traditions of men which went against what the Church taught. If a tradition started being taught that had no foundation in the Scriptures or in what the Church Fathers taught, then it was to be dismissed as a tradition of man. But in talking about the Holy Tradition of the Church, the Scriptures are very clear – we are obligated to follow all of them, whether they came to us in writing (Scriptures) or whether they were passed on to us orally (by the Church Fathers).
"Let us look at that very tradition, teaching, and faith of the Catholic Church from the very beginning, which the Lord gave, the Apostles preached, and the Fathers preserved. Upon this [Tradition] the Church is founded."
As I mentioned a few minutes ago, once in a while I come across someone who suggests that the early Church quickly became an apostate Church. I’ve even read several books that have suggested that. But what they fail to realize is that, if the Church became apostate after the first century, then the very Bible that we have can’t even be trusted – because it was that very Church that gave us the Bible in the fourth century.
On the other hand, if we can trust that Church to give us the Bible we have today, why can’t we trust them to tell us what we’re supposed to be believing, and how we’re supposed to be worshipping? If we can’t trust their decisions in these areas, then we shouldn’t be trusting their decision to give us this book we call the Bible – we can’t have it both ways. We can’t pick and choose which parts of the Church we like, and which ones we don’t – we are never given that option – we either accept what the Church has taught as a whole (including it’s beliefs and practices) or we have to believe that it went into apostasy, and we must therefore reject all of what the Church handed down to us (including the Scriptures).
So the question, basically, is this - can the Church be trusted, or can’t it?
The Bible says that God has established His Church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it. If the gates of Hell prevailed against it even for one day, then that Scripture is wrong. The Bible also says that the Holy Spirit will always teach and guide the Church, and lead it into all Truth. As Christians we have to believe that that Scripture is true, and that God has always preserved and kept His Church alive and well.
During our Summer of Saints series, one of the Saints we looked at was Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna. Polycarp was a student (disciple) of the Apostle John, and was appointed by John to be the Bishop of Smyrna. Around the year 180, Saint Irenaeus (a Bishop in France wrote these words about Polycarp:
"But Polycarp also was not only instructed by Apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by Apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried (on earth) a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the Apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true."
Saint Irenaeus also says that the true Faith "is being preserved in the Church from the Apostles through the succession of the presbyters." [Presbyter refers to the Bishops and Priests – we get the word "Priest" from "Presbyter"]. This tells us that the Church held the same Faith with one voice as it was handed down by the Apostles and preserved by those Bishops and Church leaders who came after them.
In fact, the Early Church considered the Traditions and teachings of the Church not only to have come from the Apostles, but from the Holy Spirit Himself.
"it seemed good to Holy Spirit and to us." -- Acts 15 (Apostolic Council)
"Tradition which expresses the voice of the whole Church is also the voice of the Holy Spirit living in the Church" (St. Irenaeus). So we need to remember that when the Seven Ecumenical Councils brought forth decisions during the first 800 years of the Church, those decisions were considered by the whole Church to be the voice of the Holy Spirit to the Church.
And if anyone didn't agree with any of these decisions and teachings of teh Councils, then that person was considered to be outside the Church - living in schism - trying to divide the Church. If any local Church rejected any of the Council's teachings, the Church as a whole considered that local Church to be in heresy, and outside the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.
Now, the Church Fathers were the theologians, the teachers of the Faith, whom God raised up to give definition to the truth that had been handed down to them. They preserved and developed the Faith in keeping with the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit.
There were many heresies being taught in those days – just as there is today. So how did the Church judge them to be heresies? One of the ways was to see if these groups that were teaching the strange teachings had any Church Fathers that could trace their teachings back to the Apostles. And because they didn’t, they were judged by the Church to be heretical, and outside the Christian Faith. In other words, the Church called them "innovators" – they were teaching doctrines and practices that were never part of the Christian faith, and that were not handed down to them by the Apostles and their successors – their thinking was not in keeping with the Tradition that the Spirit had revealed and that the Fathers had preserved. And so they were judged as heretics to the Faith.
One man summed it up well in the 18th century, when he was writing a letter to his friend:
"I plead and ask you from my whole heart to have undoubting faith in the Fathers and in the teachings contained in them, for they agree in all respects with the Divine Scriptures and with the minds of all the ecumenical teachers and the entire Holy Church, because one and the same Holy Spirit was working in them."Go to Part 3