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“What do you want to be when you grow up?” This question is faced by virtually every person at some point in childhood.
When I was a child, the most common answers among boys included “a cowboy,” “a fireman,” or “a baseball player.” Yet few of us ended up as cowboys, firemen, or baseball players. At some point, as a person leaves childhood, passes through adolescence, and enters adulthood, the question “Who am I?” becomes liberated (at least in part) from childhood fantasy and is answered in more sober terms, terms often dictated by the harsh blows of reality.
What is true for little boys and girls is usually true also for institutions. Just as individuals seek an identity, so do organizations. The church is no exception. During the second century of Christian history, the church was busy answering the question “Who are we?” It was a time of amalgamation, codification, and definition. In that century, the church reflected upon its authority base (Scripture), its theology, and its organization.
It is often the case that organizations, even nations, are forced to define themselves with greater clarity and precision by their competitors and/or enemies. Such was true for the church. Early Christian apologists such as Justin Martyr worked to clarify the nature of the church and Christianity in order to offset misconceptions spread about by outsiders such as pagans and Jews. In like manner, “orthodox” doctrine was hammered out on the anvil of heresy. Then, as now, most heretics claimed to be advocates of true Christianity. Their errors and distortions forced the church to define her beliefs more sharply.
In 2001, Hans Küng, the controversial Roman Catholic theologian, published yet another book about the church. This one was titled simply The Catholic Church: A Short History. Küng saw a decisive shift from the activity and self-awareness of the pristine church of the first century to the “institutionalization” of the church in the second century. He notes that, in order to answer the Gnostics, as well as heretics such as Marcion and Montanus, the church set forth clear canons, or standards, about what is truly Christian. They were:
- A summary creed that was customarily used at baptism. The earliest baptismal creed was the simple statement “Jesus is Lord.” Later, the formula was broadened to include affirmations of faith in Almighty God and in Jesus Christ, the Son of God born of the Holy Spirit. The rudiments of what became known as “The Symbol,” or the Apostles Creed, were added at this time. Later, more affirmations were added to form the final version of the creed.
- The New Testament canon. The formulation of the list of authoritative books was provoked in large measure by the work of the heretic Marcion, who produced his own expurgated New Testament. Though the New Testament canon was not finalized until near the end of the fourth century, almost all of it was formally in place by the end of the second century.
- The episcopal teaching office. This evolved as the church moved in the direction of the monarchical episcopate. It became common to appeal to bishops’ teachings to settle theological controversies. Küng argues that this third standard represented a shift from the church of the apostolic age, which was comprised of free communities without a mono-episcopate or a presbyterate. He views the apostolic communities as complete and well-equipped churches, which lacked nothing. Later congregationalist churches (and many Puritans) would appeal to these communities as representing the original structure of the church.
Though in some respects saddened by these historical changes, Küng nevertheless says, “The fact cannot be overlooked that with the three standards mentioned above, the Catholic Church created a structure for theology and organization and with it a very resistant inner order.”
Küng’s assessment does not differ greatly from Protestant analysis. In A History of the Christian Church, Williston Walker notes: “Thus out of the struggle with Gnosticism and Montanism came the Catholic Church, with its strong episcopal organization, creedal standard, and authoritative canon. It differed much from the Apostolic Church; but it had preserved historic Christianity and carried it through a tremendous crisis.”
Incidentally, Küng notes that all three of the standards established by the church in the second century were attacked in subsequent ages. In the sixteenth century, the Reformation raised questions about the episcopal structure of Rome. The Enlightenment then questioned both the canon of Scripture and the creedal rule of faith.
The second-century church also made significant progress toward defining church life and Christian practice. Early in Christian history, the church made a distinction between proclamation (kerygma) and instruction (didache). The apostolic church was a missionary church, reaching beyond the borders of Judaism. The Gentiles were reached by the proclamation of the gospel in its basic outline. Stress was placed on the person and work of Christ—on His death and resurrection. When converts embraced Christ by faith, they were baptized and entered into the church community. Then they were given more thorough instruction in the faith. To this end, a manual of church order known as the Didache, or “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles,” was composed in the second century.
This manual (discovered as recently as 1873) provides simple rules for local congregations, and deals with baptism, abortion (which was regarded as murder), almsgiving, fasting, the Lord’s Supper, and other matters. It sets two ways in stark contrast—a way of life and a way of death. Many of the admonitions found within it are explicit quotes from the New Testament Scriptures.
The Didache came to be used both as a catechetical tool and as a guide for Christian living. As such, it represents the first post-apostolic written code of Christian morality. Though it is not a part of the canon of Scripture, it offers valuable insights into the early church’s self-understanding.
The second-century church developed a strong sense of identity. This process continued well into the third century, when new heresies and new struggles with the state brought even more development and new structures in the church.