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Joseph Wolpert: Classical Christianity and Unity

Tradition and the Early Church

The earliest Christian writings extant are the letters of Paul in the New Testament. But it is evident from him that an oral tradition existed - one which he received and was passing on. In I Corinthians we are told:

"For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve..." (I Cor. 15:3-5)

What is important in this citation are the words "what I also received". To say that what follows is simply important to Paul may very well be an understatement because for him there was nothing any more important than the gospel. In his correspondence to the Romans he says:

"For I am not ashamed of the gospel: it is the power of God, for salvation to every one who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, 'He who through faith is righteous shall live.'" (Rom. 1:16-17).

The gospel was believed to be essential to salvation and therefore was to be protected and preserved.

What, then, was the gospel that was preached?

The basic apostolic kerygma derived from a study of early sermons found in Acts (1:16-25; 2:14-40; 5:29-32; 10:34-43) and a study of the Gospels can be stated as follows:

Firstly, God's promises in the Old Testament have been fulfilled (Acts 2:16-21; 3:18; 10:43)

Secondly, the promises have been fulfilled in the incarnation, life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus ofNazareth (Acts 2:22-24; 3:13-15; 10:37- 39)

Thirdly, Jesus has gone to be at the "right hand of God" as Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36)

Fourthly, Jesus will return. In the meantime, there is opportunity for repentence, receiving of forgiveness and the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:38-39; 3:25-26; 5:31; 10:43)

And finally, when Jesus returns, he will judge the living and the dead. (Acts 3:21; 10:42) (Menoud, p 867-868)

Implied within the apostolic kerygma is both the humanity and divinity of Jesus along with the fact that salvation comes through faith in Him. The humanity is implied with the fact that he was "born" and the divinity is implied because it is only through God that salvation can come.

Tradition, which "...refers simultaneously to the process of communication and to its content" (Pelikan, p 7) was just as important to the Apostolic Fathers as it was to Paul.

Clement of Rome writing to the church at Corinth around 96 A.D. implores Christians there to follow their bishop because of the continuity between him and the apostles and ultimately to Christ.

"The apostles received the gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus, the Christ was sent from God. Thus Christ is from God and the apostles from Christ... And so the apostles, after receiving their orders and being fully convinced by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ and assured by God's word, went out in the confidence of the Holy Spirit to preach the good news that God's Kingdom was about to come. They preached in country and city, and appointed their first converts, after testing them by the Spirit, to be the bishops and deacons of future believers. Nor was this any novelty, for Scripture had mentioned bishops and deacons long before. For this what Scripture says somewhere: I will appoint their bishops in righteousness and their deacons in faith.'" (Petry, p 8))

The bishop is therefore both the recipient and guardian of the true tradition that is necessary for salvation. And, this is in keeping with "scripture" according to Clement.

Ignatius writing between 110 and 117 A.D. said in his letter to the Ephesians "...we should regard the bishop as the Lord himself" (Petry, p 9 ) because the bishop was entrusted with the true tradition.

When variations of the apostolic kerygma and its understanding began appearing at the end of the first century and the beginning of the second the idea of "heresy" developed. This was not because there were simply different understandings in themselves, but because salvation was deemed in jeopardy.

Heresies, such as Docetism, Ebionism, and Gnosticism, for example, forced the early church to solidify its position by the establishment of creeds, a canon of scripture, and the doctrine of Apostolic Succession to preserve the deposit of faith.

Roman Catholicism defended its emphasis on tradition until the Council of Trent (1545-63) when it finally decreed that the scripture and "tradition" were co-ordinate and equally important.