THE EARLY CHRISTIAN CHURCH,
TRADITION AND SCRIPTURE
"You should know how to behave in the household of God,
which is the church of the living God,
the pillar and foundation of truth."
1 Timothy 3:15
JESUS CHRIST AND THE APOSTOLIC AGE
The point of origin of the Christian faith is Jesus Christ.
This page reviews the handing on of the Christian faith from Jesus and the Apostles to the formation of the New Testament canon within the Tradition of the early Christian Church.
God has revealed himself to man through Divine Revelation, by sending us his beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. God chose to reveal himself to us so that we may become partakers of his divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). God first made himself known by creating our first parents, Adam and Eve, in his image and likeness (Genesis 1:26-28). Following the Fall of Adam and Eve through original sin, God's promise of Redemption gave them the hope of salvation (Genesis 3:15). In preparing for the salvation of the human race, God made covenants with Noah, Abraham, Moses and the people and prophets of Israel. It is through his Son Jesus Christ that we reach the fullness of all Revelation.
Our appropriate personal response in our relationship with Christ Jesus is what St. Paul calls "the obedience of faith" (Romans 1:5, 16:26)!
There were three stages in the formation of the Gospels: the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, the oral tradition of the Apostles, and the written Word.
THE LIFE AND TEACHINGS OF JESUS CHRIST
In the narrative Gospel of Mark, Jesus calls his first four Apostles, Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John, then formed the Twelve. The first twelve Apostles followed him from the beginning, hearing his words and seeing his deeds (Luke 1:2). He taught them through parables and performed miracles. Christ Jesus is the fulfillment of salvation history, and the mediator and fullness of all revelation. Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the Word made flesh. He is the Authority on Scripture (Luke 24:25-27, Galatians 1:11-12, 2 Timothy 3:15-17, 2 Peter 1:21).
Jesus instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper and in Luke 22:19 directed his Twelve Apostles to
"Do this in memory of me."
Christ Jesus suffered and died on the Cross for our Redemption. Following his Resurrection, Jesus commanded his Apostles to "preach the Gospels to all nations (Matthew 28:19-20)." Jesus spent 40 days instructing his Apostles and speaking about the Kingdom of God (Acts 1:1-3). He informed them that they will "receive power from the Holy Spirit" to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). Christ's life, teaching and miracles formed the faith of his Apostles and disciples, and inspired them to hand on his message of salvation to future generations.
And I say also unto thee, that 'thou art Peter,
and upon this rock I will build my Church,
and the gates of hell shall not prevail
And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven;
and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth
shall be bound in heaven,
and whatever thou shalt loose on earth
shall be loosed in heaven.
Matthew 16:18-19 (King James Version)
"Without parables he did not speak to them,
but to his own disciples he explained everything in private."
Gospel of Mark 4:34
And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them
in all the scriptures the things referring to himself.
Gospel of Luke 24:27
THE ORAL TRADITION OF THE APOSTLES
The Holy Spirit appeared at Pentecost, 10 days after the Ascension of Jesus, to the Apostles and disciples in the Upper Room, and inspired them to proclaim the faith (Acts 1:13-2:4). The Twelve Apostles at the Pentecost were Peter, Andrew, James and John, Matthew, Philip, Thomas, Nathaniel Bartholomew, James son of Alpheus, Jude Thaddeus, Simon the Zealot, and Matthias. This community of the followers of Jesus was the beginning of our Church. Thus the oral tradition of the Apostles was established in the infancy period of the Church, from the time of Jesus (~33 AD) to the written Gospels, and continued through Apostolic succession to subsequent Church leaders, the bishops, presbyters, and deacons. The Twelve Apostles and St. Paul began their work as evangelists, as described in the Acts of the Apostles, spreading Christianity throughout Asia Minor and the Mediterranean world. St. Luke portrays the missions of the Apostles, focusing primarily on Peter, upon whom Jesus founded his Church (Matthew 16:18-19), and Paul, who was converted when he saw the risen Christ (Acts 9:1-9). The beginning of Christianity spread through the faith and oral teachings of the Apostles and by word of mouth!
For a whole year they met with the church, and taught a large company of people;
and in Antioch the disciples were for the first time called Christians.
Acts of the Apostles 11:26
Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. I commend you because
you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even
as I have delivered them to you.
First Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians 11:1-2
If you will give these instructions to the brothers,
you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus,
nourished on the words of the faith
and of the sound teaching you have followed.
First Letter of St. Paul to Timothy 4:6
THE WRITTEN WORD
In order to fulfill Christ's commission to spread the Word to all nations, some Apostles and disciples under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit committed the message of salvation to the written Word.
There were eight named writers of the New Testament: Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Peter, James, and Jude. New Testament writings were considered Scripture in the beginnings of the Church (1 Timothy 5:18). Since no original manuscript by the author of a biblical book has yet been discovered, we cannot truly say when the books of the New Testament were actually written. An important observation is that not one of the New Testament writers mentions the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Matthew 24:1, Mark 13:1, and Luke 21:5-6 recount the prediction of the destruction of the Temple. If they were written after the destruction of the Temple, one could surmise that at least some would have recorded that Christ's prediction was fulfilled. Also, the Acts of the Apostles 12:2 mentions the death of the Apostle James by Herod, but not Peter and Paul, who died during Nero's persecution from 64-68 AD. Since Acts is primarily about Peter and Paul, common sense tells us that Acts may have been written before 68 AD, otherwise the book would have described the deaths of Peter and Paul!
So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which
you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.
Second Letter of St. Paul to the Thessalonians 2:15
And consider the patience of our Lord as salvation,
as our beloved brother Paul,
according to the wisdom given to him, also wrote to you,
speaking of these things as he does in all his letters.
Second Letter of St. Peter 3:15-16
What was from the beginning, what we have heard,
what we have seen with our eyes,
what we looked upon and touched with our hands concerns the Word of life -
for the life was made visible;
we have seen it and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life
that was with the Father and was made visible to us -
what we have seen and heard we proclaim now to you,
so that you too may have fellowship with us;
for our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.
We are writing this so that our joy may be complete.
First Letter of John 1:1-4
THE EARLY CHRISTIAN CHURCH
The heart of Christian tradition and the Christian way of life is Jesus Christ.
The Church is the Body of Christ (Ephesians 5:23, Colossians 1:24) and provides continuity for the Word of God.
Origen (180-254), the Theologian from Alexandria, compared the Church to the moon, in the sense that, just as the moon has no light of its own but reflects the light of the sun, the Church has no light of its own but reflects the light of Christ.
There were three means of transmitting the Christian faith through the early times of the Church: (1) the oral tradition of the Church through the Bishop, presbyter (priest), and deacon in teaching the faithful followers of Christ in the liturgy at community gatherings; (2) the development of the Apostles' Creed; and (3) the formation of the canon of the New Testament, to discern which writings were truly inspired by the Holy Spirit and crucial to instruction in the faith.
Christianity fell under intense persecution in the first century during the Roman Empire, beginning with Nero in 64 AD. But it was the powerful witness of Christian martyrdom that led to continued spread of the faith. Persecution of Christianity under Roman rulers lasted for 300 years, until the Roman Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in 313, which mandated complete toleration of Christianity in the Roman Empire.
The fish became a symbol of the Christian faith, adorning the catacombs and early Christian Churches. In a time when professing the Christian faith was an invitation to death, the fish became a secret code to introduce one Christian to another. One Christian would draw a curve representing half of the symbol, and the other one would complete the cryptic symbol by drawing the second curve (see image).
The fish captures the central meaning, the essential creed of the Christian faith, for the Greek word for fish is ιχθυς or ichthus, an acronym or acrostic for
Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.
The statement "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior" captures both the person of Christ and his mission.
Who Christ is, the Son of God, and His mission, Savior, are both expressed by the ancient symbol of the fish.
St. Ignatius of Antioch about 11O AD described the transmission of the Christian faith through the bishop, priest, and deacon. A canon for the New Testament was not proposed until 180 AD, and not formalized until 397 AD! The possession of sacred texts in times of persecution could mean discovery, imprisonment, and death. Also, it was common for people of that time to be illiterate. In addition, production of written Scripture was a monumental task in itself, as each page of any text had to be hand-written on papyrus! Written Scripture was in the hands of only a few. Thus the oral tradition of the Church and the Apostles' Creed were vitally important to teach and guide the early Christian community.
TRADITION OF THE LITURGY
The traditions of the early Church were passed on to the faithful followers of Christ through teaching in the liturgy at community gatherings, by the bishops, presbyters, and deacons, who received their authority through Apostolic succession.
Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life."
The community would gather on Sunday in the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the celebration of divine worship. The Church assembly would first have a reading and oral instruction or sermon, followed by the celebration of the Sacrament of the Eucharist of Jesus Christ, as described by St. Justin Martyr as early as 155 AD in his First Apology: "And this food is called among us eucharistia - εὐχαριστία ... For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these, but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God...is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh" (66). Justin Martyr continued to describe the celebration, one that would be called the Divine Liturgy in the East and the Mass in the West, and one that remains the same to this day.
On the day we call the day of the sun, all who dwell in the city or country gather in the same place.
The memoirs of the apostles and the writings of the prophets are read.
When the reader has finished, he who presides over those gathered admonishes and challenges them to imitate these beautiful things.
Then we all rise together and offer prayers for ourselves.
When the prayers are concluded we exchange the kiss.
Then someone brings bread and a cup of water and wine mixed together to him who presides over the brethren.
He takes them and offers praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and for a considerable time he gives thanks (in Greek: eucharistian)
that we have been judged worthy of these gifts.
When he who presides has given thanks and the people have responded 'Amen', those whom we call deacons give to those present the 'eucharisted' bread, wine and water and take them to those who are absent.
Justin Martyr, First Apology, chapter 67, 155 AD
THE APOSTLES' CREED
The Apostles' Creed arose in the early Christian Church as a way of passing on the Christian Faith. The Creed, or Rule of Faith, was also an important guide to presbyters as well in interpretation of Scripture.
A creed is a willful and brief summary statement or profession of the Christian faith. The word "Creed" comes from the Latin word Credo, which means "I believe." Examples include the Apostles' Creed or the Nicene Creed. They are also known as symbols of faith.
The tradition of The Apostles' Creed began from Apostolic times, as a profession of faith during the rite of Baptism, recalling the instruction of Jesus to his disciples to "teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19-20)." The Sacrament of Baptism in itself is a handing on of the faith from generation to generation. In accordance with this, the person about to be baptized was asked three questions: "Do you believe in God the Father Almighty...? Do you believe in Jesus Christ, his Son our Lord...? Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church...?" The person being baptized would answer, "Credo" or "I believe."
This three-part profession of faith was gradually developped in the early Christian Church, often in response to heresies, as a defense of the faith. A continuous text resembling our present form of the Apostles' Creed has been referred to by early Church Fathers such as Irenaeus, Cyprian, and Tertullian.
The Apostles' Creed is presented here in 12 lines, representing the 12 essential Articles of Faith for the Christian.
I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried.
He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven and is seated
at the right hand of the Father.
From thence He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church, the Communion of Saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body
and life everlasting. Amen.
THE CANON OF THE NEW TESTAMENT
The canon of the New Testament was formed within the early Christian community, the Church. The Church Fathers were important to the early Church, for they were the ones who had an important role in the process of the formation of the canon of the New Testament, as well in the interpretation of Scripture. Their role was to choose those written books which best reflected the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, as understood within the Tradition of the Church. Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyons, first proposed a canon of the New Testament in his work Against the Heresies in 180 AD. Three Fathers of the Church - Athanasius of Alexandria in his Letter of 367, Jerome in Rome with the publication of his Latin New Testament in 384, and Augustine at the Council of Hippo in 393 - agreed that 27 Books were the inspired Word of God. The Canon of the New Testament of the Bible was confirmed at the Third Council of Carthage in 397 AD.
Thus the Word of God was written within the Church, the Body of Christ,
flowing from the authority and teachings of Jesus Christ
and the oral traditions and writings of the Apostles in the early Christian community.
Thus sacred Tradition and sacred Scripture together form a unity of the faith experience.
Tradition and Scripture are like a mirror in reflecting the Word of God!
The Second Vatican Council reaffirmed these traditional Church teachings in Dei Verbum, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, published November 18, 1965. The Council asserted unequivocally the historicity of the Gospels, and the confirmation that Tradition and Scripture form one deposit of faith. The Council stated the following concerning inspiration and interpretation of Scripture:
"Those divinely revealed realities which are contained and presented in Sacred Scripture have been committed to writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit," and thus teach "without error that truth" necessary for the sake of our salvation. Thus Holy Scripture must be read and interpreted in the sacred Spirit in which it was written," in the light of Faith. We must be attentive "to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture, keeping in mind the living tradition of the whole Church and the analogy of faith."
In reading Scripture we must look beyond the literal sense, the genuine meaning, and search for the "spirit in the letter," the Spiritual sense of Scripture. The spiritual sense is the meaning expressed by the biblical texts when read, in the light of the Holy Spirit, in the context of the Paschal mystery of Christ and the new life which flows from it. Interpretation involves both the explanation of the literal sense and the understanding of the spiritual sense of Scripture to appreciate the Word of God.
"He also it is who has made us fit ministers of the new covenant,
not of the letter, but of the spirit;
for the letter brings death, but the spirit gives life."
Second Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians 3:6
"The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life."
Gospel of John 6:63
Early Christian Churches which now comprise the one holy catholic and apostolic Church enjoy a 2000-year tradition providing both a continuity of the authority and oral teachings of Jesus Christ and his Apostles, as well as an unsurpassed history of interpretation of the Bible, accomplished in the Holy Spirit.
Scripture and Tradition go hand in hand in transmitting the Word of God!
1 Navarre Revised Standard Version of the Holy Bible. Four Courts Press, Dublin, Ireland, 2001-2005.
2 Dei Verbum. Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation of the Second Vatican Council, Pauline Books & Media, Boston, November 1965.
3 Frances M Young. Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture. Cambridge University Press, London, 1997.
4 St. Justin Martyr. The First and Second Apologies. Ancient Christian Writers. Paulist Press, New York, 1997.
5 Pontifical Biblical Commission. The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church. Pauline Books & Media, Boston, 1993.
6 Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Foundations and Approaches of Biblical Exegesis. Origins 17(35):593-601, February 11, 1988.
7 Martin, R. Theological Foundations. Course Lectures and Texts, Franciscan University, Steubenville, Ohio, 2003.
8 Ignace de la Potterie. Reading Holy Scripture in the Spirit. Communio 4:308-325, 1986.
9 Yves Congar. The Meaning of Tradition. 1964; Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2004.
10 Nichols A. The Shape of Catholic Theology. Order of St. Benedict, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota, 1991.