Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Birth of the Church

Today is Pentecost. The day when the Holy Spirit came. The speaking in tongues as a reversal of the curse at the Tower of Babel. Yet what I want to focus on is the birth of the church. This time between Pentecost and the second coming of Christ is called the Church Age even by protestants. The church is the community associated with the new covenant that Jesus brought. It is the body of Christ. It is breathed into life by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. 

Consider Acts 2:42-43:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 
Here we have a description of what the church is. They devoted themselves to 4 things. The apostles' teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayer. What is missing? Scripture. Why? Well, the New Testament was not written yet. None of it. In fact, it was likely more than 10 years before any book of the New Testament was written. Yet why was it not written? Mohammed wrote the Koran for his followers. Jesus could have written something for the church. He chose not to do that. He chose to form 12 apostles and start His church on their teaching. The word of God continues to be made flesh and dwells among us. 

Notice how the office is emphasized. The apostles teaching is mentioned along side fellowship. In other words there was value in all the members of the Christian community. God speaks through every life so we should honour everyone greatly and ask ourselves what can this person teach me about God. Yet there is a special teaching ministry that is apart from the general fellowship. That teaching ministry is associated with the apostles. So the office matters as the central teaching authority in the church.

When I was a protestant this created a problem for me. This clearly violated Sola Scriptura. Sure we can say that once the apostles all died then the writing of the apostles became central. The problem is that is just a big change. Moving from a human authority to a book is a dramatically different way of answering questions. Think about it. If you have a question in the early church then you ask the apostles. They might give you an answer. They might tell you to pray about it and use you best judgement. Yet if they do tell you what to do then you have to do it. They are the final authority. 

That is just so different from reading a book. You read it and often things still are not clear. So you go through a process of debate and analysis of what the book means. At the end of the day you decide which arguments to accept and which to reject and you arrive at a decision. Nobody else's opinion matters as much as your own. 

Even leaving aside which method is better, the fact that they are different is a problem. This is the covenant community. How the community determines the content of that covenant is very much central to what that community is. That is to say, if you change the central teaching authority from a set of human beings to a set of writings then you really have a new covenant. 

The other question that leaps to mind is when did this change get made? If Sola Scriptora was not true at Pentecost and became true later then when did it start to be true? One answer you hear is the death of the last apostle. It makes logical sense. The trouble is there is just nobody around the time of the death of the last apostle that is making this point. We have writings from Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus, etc. They are all focused on the successors of the apostles and the teachings they have passed on. 

In fact, the New Testament was still not quite ready for prime time. Individual books are floating around and bishops are starting to pay attention to the question of which writings should be read at mass and which should not. Still it is not until the 4th century that we have a New Testament canon. 

So if it is not the death of the last apostle then when is it? Did God change the very foundation of the church and nobody noticed? Nobody until Jan Huss and eventually Martin Luther in the 15th and 16th century? You see the problem? If Luther brought a new covenant then Luther becomes greater than Jesus. New covenants are always greater than the old ones they replace. The new messenger is always greater than the previous one as well. Yet saying anyone is greater than Jesus is unthinkable. So what is going on?

The answer is Sola Scriptora never became the truth. We have successors of the apostles with us today. We need to devote ourselves to their teaching. The church born on Pentecost is still here today. 

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