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Dissertation Synopsis

After about twelve months of intensely researching, writing, and editing, the readers’ draft of my dissertation went out to my committee last week. In an attempt to explain the prolonged silence here, I’ll post up the primary approach the project and then make a few points. My goal is to use much of this research and discussion to continue promoting dialogue here as well as apt fodder for scholarly articles and other works.

The dissertation’s initial title is The Quest for the Historical Church: The Development and Dismissal of Free Church Ecclesiology From Pentecost Through the Second Century.

dissertationMy goal in working on this area is to discuss, via a multi-disciplinary approach, the nature of autonomy of the earliest Christian communities in the first two centuries. As I have been working through some discussions, as well as being part of a larger professional network in my church work, there appears to be a growing gap of literature that accurately engages the realities of the church in this period and also attempts to understand the influences on its hierarchical structure and leadership composition. Since I am a thorough-going Baptist in my ecclesiology, I am keenly interested in whether the earliest churches reflected any kind of early episcopal structures or were they congregational.

My thesis surrounded several key questions: If the apostolic intention was to create one, uniform system of ecclesiology, what happened to that system in light of the rise of the Bishop of Rome? Was this the intended system of the Apostles, or is another ecclesiological form intended? How are we to understand the diversity of forms and offices within the New Testament documents? How did the heretical teachers and false prophets within early Christianity influence the development of authority in the early Church and churches? Is a monarchial episcopacy the ecclesiological form sought by the Apostles?

Ultimately, my research has led to a number of points, not the least of which is abandonment of these kinds of categories for understanding how the churches functioned in this period. One of the primary points of the dissertation was initially evaluating the landscape of New Testament ecclesiology and demonstrating how four distinct ecclesiologies emerge among the earliest Christian communities. These four are: Pauline, Lucan, Johannine, and Matthean. Now, there are likely more sub-ecclesiologies present, and perhaps even some that aren’t mentioned in the documents of the first Christians. However, by establishing this pluriformity of ecclesial forms we start off by acknowledging that there was quite a bit of diversity at the outset of the earliest Christian communities.

Along these lines, I also evaluated apostolic authority, since that is often suggested to be one of the ways that episcopal systems mimic their use of autocracy. Through this step the conclusion is that apostolic authority is rather limited and, particularly in the Pauline usage, often given deference to the freedom of the individual. Of course external influences seem to have impacted early Christianity, just as they do today, and as it relates to the concepts of autonomy and federation between churches Second Temple Judaism and Greco-Roman voluntary associations were also considered.

long bookThe final step was evaluating the documents of the Apostolic Fathers, most specific the Didache1 Clement, and the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, along with other works (Shepherd of Hermas, Barnabas, etc.), for their ecclesiological content. Then the works of the Second Century Apologists were also surveyed, though Ireneaus and Clement of Alexandria were the primary writers to be evaluated.

In the end, I think there is a quite a good case to be made for establishing autonomy, that is the independence of the local Christian communities, as the initial nature of ecclesial relationships within early Christianity. These first communities had no means of establishing external hierarchy, no examples of overwhelming compulsion to the influence of an external leader, and do not appear to make much of other communities, even those existing within the same cities. There is some federated cooperation within these communities, but they are, by and large, isolated from each other and any notion of external influence in their structure and operations.

Now that this project is initially submitted I’m dutifully working on reinforcing some argumentation with professorial critiques in mind as well as tightening up the language. There is much to say about all of this, and hopefully in the coming months I’ll be able to work out bits and pieces on this blog.

I’d love to engage with some feedback on the ideas presented, though this is mightily limited from the 302-page dissertation.

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When Did Apostleship End?

Is the office of Apostle still functioning in the Church and churches? Who gets to appoint Apostles? What is the nature of the Apostolic gift or office? If Apostleship ended, when did this happen?

These are important theological, specifically ecclesiological, questions that are becoming increasingly relevant. In the disparate sectors of the Church across the world, we are seeing more individuals attach “Apostle” to their name. We are also hearing about individuals who have “apostolic” type ministries, while also hearing a clamoring of a return of an Apostle-like individual to help lead the Church and churches. We live amid confusing times.

In the study of the formation and development of the historical Church there is certainly a period where the Apostles existed and had ministries which thrived. Particularly in the testimony of the New Testament, we see a group of leaders who went out and spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ and catapulted this minor sect of Jewish millenarians into the largest worldwide religion. Luke, the author of the Gospel and likely writer of Acts, frames the first century understanding of the nature of the Apostles through the two volume work.  

The Apostles of the Church remain a group that is spoken of often, but still linger in the fog of historical understanding.

For many historians and theologians, there are more questions than answers when it comes to the Apostles. One particularly important document during the first century that illustrates this shift towards the earliest churches agreeing to end the office of the Apostle is that of the Didache. Likely written between 75-90, the Didache is an early manual on church polity, liturgical instruction, and instruction on worship. In the instructions that are part of the Didache, there is much space devoted to the

As we survey the literature from the turn of the second century until the Council of Chalcedon Gogulet Chartin 451, usually the parameters given to the patristic era, we see that there are no references to an ongoing office of the apostles and that nearly all the references are historic in nature.

In his book, The Primitive Church, Maurice Goguel provides a helpful chart demonstrating how the earliest Christian documents deal with the various offices through the early part of the second century. When considering how the earliest documents reflect the status of the Apostles, it becomes clear that once one gets through the Johannine Gospel the references to the Apostles become historical.

It would appear that the early Church made a conscious decision to end the formal office of Apostle by the end of the first generation of the Apostles. Since there are no references to Apostles as an ongoing office past the pre-70 New Testament documents and only a passing reference in the Didache, it is reasonable to posit that the earliest Christian communities found anyone attempting to claim ongoing apostolic authority dubious and dangerous. It is likely that the office of Apostle was indeed expanded beyond the Twelve, there seems to be plenty of New Testament evidence for that, this expansion seems to be wholly contained within the first generation of apostles.

There are indeed implications for our present day ministry environment here as well. Perhaps the most significant question is that if the office of Apostle has indeed ended, or has been closed are there other offices in the New Testament era which have also gone away? And does this possibly show us the nature of ecclesial office was indeed being shaped by the times and necessities of ministry in their era.

As well, it would seem anyone attempting to apply the label of “Apostle” to their own ministry would need to be challenged if they are assuming the same authority of the Apostles. The early church, likely up until Nicaea, spurned the application of the label Apostle to heterodoxical teachers.

So, it seems that the nature of the office of Apostle was one that received direct application in the New Testament era but not outside of it. Likewise, the early Christian communities, scattered around the Mediterranean region (and beyond) seem to have formed some kind of consensus that the office ended when the last Apostle (perhaps John depending on one’s views here) died. As a result, while we can look historically to the way in which an Apostle would have functioned and gone about their missionary work, the office and label are no longer available to anyone today. It is indeed an important historical reminder for how we are to function today. Most certainly we can look and see that the authority of the Apostles bears no new revelation and is best understood through their inscripturated testimonies available in the New Testament.

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Jun 2014
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Review: The Elders by R. Alastair Campbell

Though ecclesiology has been, widely, neglected in historical theological discussions, there is a growing field of research looking back to the earliest Christian communities for insights. Historical ecclesiology remains a growing field that is poised to, hopefully, receive important attention in the coming generation of scholars. If this occurs one work which will surely be included as effective for moving this field forward is R. Alastair Campbell’s The Elders: Seniority within Earliest Christianity.

Arising out of his doctoral thesis, at King’s College in London, this text seeks to evaluate the current state of ecclesiological thought on the role of elders within the earliest churches. Campbell approaches this task by considering the how contemporary scholarship reached its majority opinion on the role of elders, then looks back at the actual Sitz em Leben of elders in the New Testament environment, and then walks forward to the second century to see how the office developed. How the early churches understood elders in their structured ministry offices, or not, will be in focus for the entire text.

Campbell sets out to accomplish this work by way of eight chapters of research. One of the first priorities in the text is describing and making an initial evaluation of Rudolph Sohm’s landmark proposal at the end of the 19th century about eldership and church order. This approach has been adopted by many subsequent ecclesiologists, perhaps most notably by Hans von Campenhausen in his work Ecclesiastical Authority and Spiritual in the Church of the First Three Centuries (1997.) Campbell spends the first chapter covering this information and also providing some essential references for this study.

The  second chapter steps into the ancient Israelite and early Judaistic context for eldership. Following this, in the third chapter, Campbell handles the Greco-Roman context for elders. In both of these chapters the methodology lends itself to a deeper investigation of the language and concepts employed by these ancient societies. As a result, the reader is given a multi-disciplinary investigation of elders in the formative environments for early Christianity.

Chapters four through six (and an appendix to the sixth chapter) move into the literature of the New Testament for the references to elders. Chapter four spends its time looking at the critically affirmed Pauline documents for their references to elders and the fifth chapter considers the Luke-Acts usage of such references. For chapter six, and its appendix, the Pastoral Epistles, not Pauline in their attribution, is evaluated along with the rest of the New Testament.

Chapter seven moves into a post-apostolic view of eldership by helpfully considering texts from Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and a few others pertinent texts. Finally, in chapter eight, Campbell provides a summarization chapter with sections on present day applications. The author’s ending content, works cited, indexes of modern authors, texts, and topical, round out the ending material.

At the heart of Campbell’s proposal is his proposal that the role of elders should be understanding differently the majority of early Christian historians generally believe. While the majority, not consensus, view is that elders indicates an office, or at least a formal role, within the earliest churches, Campbell suggest this is incorrect. The term is a difficult one to pin down and, likely, has multiple meanings in these different contexts. As Campbell summarizes:

The main contention of this thesis is that in the ancient world the elders are those who bear a title of honor, not of office, a title that is imprecise, collective and representative, and rooted in the ancient family or household. To put it another way, we do not know who is referred to by the term ‘the elders’ unless we know the context and even then we do not know whom the term includes or excludes. (246)

Campbell’s text is an example of excellent and meticulous research that, thankfully, incorporates helpful footnotes replete with many works from antiquity and more contemporary scholarship from the 19th and 20th centuries. His handling of the sociological setting from which Christian and Jewish-Christian churches arose is particularly notable. It is not an easy thing to confront a growing body of scholarship and offer a course corrective. Campbell does his task well and presents a text worth reading for those interested in the role of elders historically and in the present churches. With the growth the neo-Reformed movements that enjoy elders over other, more traditional, offices, this is an important read to help offer corrective instruction. His engagement with a wide range of literature is admirable as is the discussions of the underlying factors of contemporary scholarship.

All that said there are a number of points at which I disagree with Campbell. Briefly, there is an admitted pluriformity of church model in the New Testament and for the first four centuries of the growth of the Church. Campbell acknowledges this movement but finds problem with the extent of that pluriformity. Being slightly neo-Sohmian myself, I would suggest the influence of the Jewish synagogues and Temple clerical systems are more influential than Campbell necessarily grants. This is a point worth discussing and hopefully additional resources will promulgate such discussions. Also, the development of the offices of the earliest Christian communities is developmental and elders, or presbyters, do in fact appear to have official capacities in local communities by the end of the first century.

Campbell has provided a valuable text for those interested parties in academia and the church world. While the writing is not overly technical, some of the discussions require knowledge of biblical and ancient languages to be fully appreciated. Though some minor typographical errors exist, the prose of the text is engaging though not overly flowing. This is a fine historical text.

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