Early Christianity


Christianity is unique in the history of world religions.

Christianity is unique in the history of world religions. Its ancestry derives from almost two millennia of Judaism, whose prophets for centuries had foretold the coming of a great religious leader who would establish a new spiritual kingdom on earth; its origins are rooted in extensive historical facts, from the birth of Christ to His crucifixion and resurrection from the dead; its message centers around a core of doctrines which Christ revealed to His followers not as a philosophy of speculation nor even primarily as an ethic for self-conquest, but as mysteries whose inner essence lies beyond human reason, yet on whose acceptance would depend human salvation; its character from the beginning was social in the most comprehensive sense of that term, with a communal structure, a body of truths, rites and obligations that had for their purpose not merely the personal sanctification of those who believed, but their corporate unification and internal consolidation by the invisible Spirit of God.

Messianic Fulfilment

The great hope of the Jewish people nurtured by the prophets was the advent of a great leader whom they called "The Anointed," in Hebrew "The Messiah," whose kingdom would succeed the theocratic government of Israel and extend to all nations, races and classes of people. Membership in this kingdom carried the promise of order and peace in this world and of final beatitude in the next. The Messianic kingdom would be served by priests and teachers from all nations, dispensing an abundance of divine knowledge and a relish for things of the spirit; there would be one sacrifice, offering a clean oblation to the one true God throughout the world. Those who belonged to it were assured the remission of their sins, sanctity of life, justice among people and nations, and an outpouring of divine benediction.

According to the prophets, this kingdom would be established by the Messias who was simultaneously priest, law-giver and king, who would sacrifice himself for the redemption of his people and institute a new order of society, beginning with the Jews and then to be diffused to the ends of the earth.

What the prophets foretold in the Scriptures found reflection in the extra-canonical writings of the Hebrews, like the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, in a passage that was written two hundred years before the coming of Christ.

Then shall the Lord raise up a new priest.
And he shall execute a righteous judgment upon the earth for a multitude of days. 
And his star shall rise in heaven as of a king, Lighting up the light of knowledge as the sun the day, And he shall be magnified in the world. 
He shall shine forth as the sun of the earth, 
And he shall remove all darkness from under heaven, And there shall be peace in all the earth. 
And the knowledge of the Lord shall be poured forth upon the earth, as the water of the seas. 
And he shall give his majesty to his sons in truth for evermore. And there shall be none succeed him for all generations for ever. 
And in his priesthood the Gentiles shall be multiplied in knowledge upon the earth, 
And enlightened through the grace of the Lord.1

Time and again Jesus proclaimed himself the Messias of the prophets, but never more solemnly than when, in reply to the woman at the well, "I know that the Messias is coming," He told her, "I who speak with you am he."2 Already when beginning His public ministry at Nazareth, He opened the scroll of Isaias and read the Messianic text, "the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me," and added, "today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."3

From the dawn of Christianity, the apostles and first leaders of the Church were at pains to verify the origins of their faith and how radically, therefore, the Christian religion differs from the mythology of pagan Greece and Rome. They were conscious of the strength of their position in having a historic center. "We do not utter idle tales," they told their contemporaries, "in declaring that God was born in form of man."

There never was a Mithra, the Romans were reminded; and he never slew the mystic bull. There never was a Great Mother of sorrows to wail over Attis and become a true mother to the suffering daughters of humanity. For all her beauty, Isis was only the idealized product of Egyptian zoolatry. The Logos of the Stoics was a pure abstraction, and of their ideal Wise Man, Plutarch wrote, "He is nowhere on earth, nor ever has been;" whereas for Christians "the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us."

The apostles staked their whole mission on this fact. Peter, writing from prison, assured the neophytes that "we were not following fictitious tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of His grandeur."4 Reproaching the Corinthians for their factious disputes, Paul appealed to historical continuity of his teaching with that of the first followers of Christ. "I delivered to you", he said, "what I also have received." Indeed the facts of Christ's life, death, and especially resurrection are so indispensable that without them the whole Christian faith is vain and "we are of all men the most to be pitied."5

Under pressure from their environment which was accustomed only to Greek speculation and Roman mythology, the early Christians were tempted to compromise, as many did in the Gnostic peril that faced the nascent Church. They were strengthened to resist by the aged apostle John, whose epistles seem almost strained in their effort to vindicate the foundations of the faith. "I write of what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked upon and our hands have handled: of the Word of Life."6

In the same vein, Ignatius of Antioch stressed the need of watchfulness, not to give ear to those who would make of Christ only one of their aeons and something less than a real historical person. Christians must beware of the Docetae who denied the reality of Christ's human actions and therefore of His redemptive life and death.

Stop your ears when anyone speaks to you that stands apart from Jesus Christ, from David to scion and Mary's son, who was really ( alethos) born and ate and drank, really ( alethos) persecuted by Pontius Pilate, really ( alethos) crucified and died while heaven and earth and the underworld looked on; who also really ( alethos) rose from the dead, since His Father raised Him up - His Father, who will also raise us who believe in Him through Jesus Christ, apart from whom we have no real life.7

Throughout his seven letters, written about 107 A.D., Ignatius returns to the same theme. He repeats the term alethos, "really . . . truly . . . actually" the birth, life, death and resurrection of Christ took place, and therefore the faith of Christ is solidly established. In the sub-apostolic and early patristic age, when the vested interest of the Roman Empire reacted against "the persons commonly called, who were hated for their enormities" (Tacitus), Christian apologists spent their energies proving the validity of the Gospel narrative of Christ. "Let us leave untouched," pleaded Polycarp of Smyrna (69-155 A.D.), "the useless speculations of the masses and their false doctrines, and turn to the teaching delivered to us in the beginning."8 Not subjective theories but factual events were considered the mainstay of the Christian religion.

Community of faith and worship

The facts of the Gospel narrative focus on the doctrines which Christ taught as the substance of His message and a condition for becoming His disciple. He proposed His divine Sonship and said He was one with the Father. When the Jews who were scandalized at this "blasphemy" picked up stones to kill Him, "He went forth out of their hands," but without retracting the claim.9

In much the same way He announced the Eucharist, telling the people that unless they ate the flesh of the Son of Man and drank His blood, they would not have life in them. As a consequence many of His disciples left Him, complaining that "this is a hard saying. Who can listen to it?" Yet instead of correcting a possible false impression or qualifying the mystery of faith, He turned to the Twelve and asked them, "Do you also wish to go away?"10

On the subject of marriage, He raised marital union to the sacramental level and added the precept of perfect monogamy, declaring that remarriage while the first spouse is living is wrong, no matter what concessions had been given to the ancient Jews. Again His followers, and this time the apostles themselves, were shocked at the severity of doctrine. Better not marry, they told Him, than to be so bound irrevocably for life. But there was no retraction; only a restatement to the effect that virginity, too, is possible with the grace of God.11

He proclaimed Himself the object of divine worship and demanded of His followers complete dedication. "If anyone loves father or mother, yes, and his own life also, more than me, he is not worthy of me."12 Correspondingly He required that men pray to Him for all their needs, since "without me you can do nothing." But "whatever you ask in my name, that I will do."13

Implicit in all this teaching of Christ is the fact that He is communicating divine revelation to a chosen group of men, and bidding them transmit His message to all nations to the end of time. He is not expounding a purely natural philosophy or a system of ethics founded on human genius, but giving mankind a body of truths which "he who does not believe will be condemned" for rejecting.14

Besides uniformity of faith, Christ taught a community of worship and ritual as substantial elements of Christianity. His followers were indeed to believe in His teaching, but they had also to receive external baptism by water in the name of the Holy Trinity. He compared the effect of baptism to a new birth and emphasized in graphic language that just as in the natural order there is no life without physical birth, so in Christianity there is no life of grace "unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Spirit." In His parting commission to the apostles, He bade them "make disciples of all nations, (by) baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit," thus equating the initial following of Christ with ritual baptism according to a specified formula.

The early Christians stressed the consistency of the Old and New Covenants. Jesus said He did not come to destroy the law and the prophets but to fulfil them. Consequently where the Old Law had its ceremony of initiation in the rite of circumcision, membership in the society founded by Christ was to be effected uniquely through the sacrament of regeneration, which is the door of the Church and the basic external sign of every true Christian.

If baptism was the means for entering the kingdom of God on earth, the Eucharist became the normal condition for remaining in that kingdom. "He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has life everlasting, and I will raise him up on the last day." No other mystery of faith more clearly identified Christianity as a visible society. "Take care," Ignatius of Antioch wrote to the Philadelphians, "to partake of one Eucharist; for one is the flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, one the cup to unite us with His blood, and one altar, just as there is one bishop."15

In order to make the Eucharist a permanent institution and perpetuate the fruits of the Cross, Christ at the Last Supper gave His followers the power and duty to do what He had done, "in commemoration of me." When He ordained His chosen twelve, He was instituting those through whom the graces of the redemption were to flow from the Redeemer to the whole of mankind.

When pronouncing the words of his first consecration, Jesus spoke of "my blood of the New Covenant," to underscore the continuity between the two Laws and the perfection of the Christian over the Jewish dispensation. Among other early apologists, Justin the martyr argued from the Christian Eucharist to a fulfilment of the Messianic prophecies. The clean oblation foretold by Malachy, he said, is "the bread of the Eucharist and the chalice of the Eucharist." The ministry of Christ was to be open to all people, and not limited to the descendants of one family; it was to serve the welfare of all nations, and not only the sons of Abraham; it was to end the multiplicity of sacrifices among the Jews in favor of the one oblation of the Lamb of God offering Himself to the heavenly Father. This would give the Church of Christ a unity and universality that no other religion had ever enjoyed.

For the sins committed after baptism, Christ gave the Church power of remission that would further consolidate His Church as a society with tangible obligations on its members. Appearing to, the Twelve the night of His resurrection, He told them, "As the Father has sent me, I also send you." And breathing on them in a gesture symbolic of the transmission of power, He said, "Receive the Holy Spirit; whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained."16

Kingdom and authority

The historical work of Christ during His visible stay on earth has a variety of aspects that range through the whole gamut of God's revelation of His nature and love for mankind, and of man's duty towards Him in order to return to God. Yet the master idea of Christ's message is epitomized in a single word that was most frequently on His lips, the Basileia of the evangelists, or the kingdom. All that he taught was somehow identified with the kingdom, from the opening of His public life when He began to preach repentance, "for the kingdom of heaven is at hand," to His dying profession before Pilate that "my kingdom is not of this world, my kingdom is not from here." Christ is reported to have used the word "Church" only twice in describing the society He founded. He spoke of His kingdom in almost every chapter of the Gospels, so that whatever concept they give us of the Church must be looked for in this notion of the kingdom.

Yet immediately a problem arises. The clear impression left by the evangelists is that Christ spoke of two kinds of kingdom, an earthly and a heavenly one. When He compared it to a grain of mustard seed that a man cast into his garden, and it grew and became a large tree, He was referring to an earthly kingdom that grows and develops in membership and influence. Or again, when He said that the kingdom is like a net cast into the sea and gathering in fish of every kind, the good and bad, which are later sorted out and the bad thrown away, this cannot mean the kingdom after death. The parable illustrates what will happen at the end of the world when the angels are sent to separate the wicked from the just and will cast the former into hell. On the other hand, Jesus also spoke of a kingdom that is not of this world, or a joy that awaits those who are poor in spirit, of the reward He will give on the last day to those who during life had fed the hungry and clothed the naked in His name.

These two kingdoms are mutually dependent. The heavenly kingdom is the goal and terminus of the earthly society, and the latter a means and condition for attaining the heavenly. It would be stressing the obvious to say that Christ preached the doctrine of a celestial kingdom that will never end and that God has in store for those who love Him. Even Mohammed, who did not accept the divinity of Christ and recognized Him only as a messenger of Allah, spoke of the "rich rewards for those who believe (in Jesus) and performed the works of virtue." They are promised after death a paradise "that is watered by rivers, and whose food and shade are perpetual."17 What is less obvious is that Christ also founded an earthly society that would carry on His mission until the end of time.

Whenever a new society is being formed, the first stage calls for a "getting together" to lay plans for the prospective organization. This is true whether the original impulse to unite for a common purpose is something mutual or comes from a single individual who does the organizing. In the origins of Christianity this impulse came from Jesus of Nazareth.

John and Andrew, the disciples of John the Baptist, were first invited by Christ to "come and see" where He lived, to learn more about this man whom the Baptist had pointed out as the Lamb of God. Later on they were called to "Come follow me, and I will make you fishers of men." At once they left their nets and followed Jesus.

Meantime, Andrew found his brother Simon and said to him, "We have found the Messias." Jesus invited him by changing his name to Cephas, the Rock. Philip was invited with a simple, "Follow me," and passed the word on to his brother Nathaniel, who responded by professing his faith in Christ as "the Son of God and the King of Israel." Matthew describes his vocation while sitting in the tax-collector's office. On hearing these words, "Follow me," he arose and immediately followed the Master. In rapid succession six others were called to join the apostles until the full complement of twelve was filled, in imitation, we may suppose, of the leaders of the twelve tribes of Israel.

They were all from Galilee, as suggested by the remark on Pentecost Sunday, "are not all these men who are speaking Galileans?" Their culture and ancestry were thoroughly Jewish. Even their names were Hebrew and Aramaic derivatives. Nathaniel, "the gift of God"; John, "Yahweh is gracious"; Thomas, "the twin"; Matthew, "gift of Yahweh." The two apparent exceptions, Andrew and Philip, likely had Jewish names beside the Greek ones. In a word, everything about the inner circle of Christ's original company was Jewish, in fulfilment of God's promise that in the seed of Abraham all nations would be blessed, beginning with the Messias and the first ambassadors of His kingdom.

Throughout the public life of Christ, the apostles were His constant, chosen companions. Over thirty times in the Gospels they are simply identified as "the Twelve." When the Master preached to the multitudes, they were with Him, and not just part of the crowd but near Him to receive the message that was intended only for them. When He worked His miracles, it seemed primarily for their benefit, from the first of His signs at Cana where He manifested His glory "and His disciples believed in Him," to His resurrection from the dead when He was most solicitous that all the apostles should be convinced, including the doubting Thomas who was favored with a special visitation. At the Last Supper, the apostles alone were chosen to share in the Savior's final testimony before the passion, and to partake for the first time of the blood of the new and eternal covenant. At the ascension, they received the mandate to go into the whole world and preach the gospel to every creature.

All the extant forms of Christianity consider themselves descended from the apostles and equally recite in the Nicene Creed, "I believe in ... the apostolic Church." They reflect on the teaching of St. Paul to tell the Ephesians, "you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but you are citizens with the saints and members of God's household: you are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus Himself as the chief cornerstone."

But while commonly recognizing their apostolic ancestry, Christians are not agreed on the transmission of Christ's authority through the apostles or even on the fact that such transmission had ever taken place. Catholics believe the Church's apostolicity was climaxed in the person of St. Peter, the "Prince of the Apostles," and continues unbroken in the visible headship of Peter's successor, the bishop of Rome. Eastern Orthodox prefer to invest the whole Church with apostolic authority, in such a way that every Christian shares the right to interpret the meaning of faith, and collectively the Mystical Body is the teaching and ruling organ of all the faithful. Protestants will have the Spirit of Christ in the heart of each believer guide him on the road to heaven, where no human person and no institution but only the Savior has the power to determine man's relationship with God.

Petrine primacy

According to Catholic tradition, Christ had the option of choosing any one of a number of structures for His Church. He might have made it a democracy, or an oligarchy, or an aristocracy. But then He would have established a different Church from the existing one, because the structure He chose was monarchial. From the opening scenes of His public life, it is pointed out, He selected one man to become the visible head of the Christian community.

At the first meeting with the Master at Capharnaum, Jesus looked upon Peter and told him that his name would be changed from Simon to Cephas (Rock) as a foreshadowing of his future leadership. Gradually He accustomed the jealous apostles to Peter's singular position among them. Even among the three who were nearest to the Savior, the sequence was always Peter, James and John; notwithstanding the fact that John was par excellence the beloved disciple.

Peter was regularly preferred for special instructions and admonitions; he was trained above the others in humility, patience and trust in God; his faith was declared essential, in order to strengthen the others; he was recognized as the spokesman for the other apostles, not for any personal traits or natural gifts, but because the Lord had chosen him for leadership from the moment he was called to the apostolate.

Two events in the life of Christ stand out as the guarantee that Peter was intended to carry on the work of His Master with an authority that was shared by no other apostle. The first event took place in the midst of the public ministry and is recorded by the three synoptics, but especially by St. Matthew; the second occurred after the resurrection and is described only by the St. John.

Shortly after the second miraculous feeding of the multitude, Jesus took His disciples to the neighborhood of Caesarea Philippi, on the extreme borders of the land of Israel. Secluded from the crowds of followers, in a territory that was now pagan, He put His apostles to the test, in order to clarify once and for all His position in their regard and determine their role in the work He had in store for them. He asked them, "Who do men say the Son of Man is?" They answered, "Some say, John the Baptist; and others Elias; and others Jeremias, or one of the prophets." When He asked them again, "But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter answered, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God." Jesus then declared,

Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to thee, but my Father in heaven. And I say to thee, thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever thou shalt bind on earth, shall be bound in heaven, and whatever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."18

Set in paraphrase, the essential words of Christ, "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church," would read: I shall make you the foundation of the spiritual edifice I intend to build. Therefore what the foundation is to the building, its source of unity, strength and stability, you are going to be that in the Church which I am about to found. And since the unified strength and stability of any society derive from ultimate authority, I shall give you and your successors all the authority you will need to preserve my Church from harm, for all time, by confirming your judgment on earth with divine ratification in heaven.

This promise must be taken in conjunction with its actual conferral after the resurrection. In spite of Peter's denial of his Master, and the fact that humanly speaking he was anything but the rock on which to build an institution that could resist the powers of hell, Christ was faithful to what He had said a year before. Calling Peter aside on the shores of the sea of Tiberius, Jesus asked him, "Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?" When Peter answered in the affirmative, Christ told him, "Feed my lambs." Then a second time, "Do you love me?" and the same answer, with the same commission. Finally a third time, to which Peter protested, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you," and the closing injunction, "Feed my sheep."

When Christ gave Peter the authority to govern the infant Church, His action was determined by the character of the society He was founding: a permanent institution with a body of religious truths to be kept unchanged as the instrument of salvation, whose members were to be united by the profession of a common faith and practice of a mutual love.

Knowing the need for external ultimate authority in any stable society, Christ desired nothing less for His Church. Accordingly Peter was only the first in the line of visible heads of the Church who, like Peter, would consolidate under Christ the institution whose basic principles were determined by the Savior before He returned to the Father.

By Catholic standards, such was the substantial judgment of believing Christians for ten centuries in the East and fifteen centuries in the West, and is still a cardinal dogma of Christianity. In the words of the first Vatican Council, it is "according to the institution of Christ our Lord Himself, that is, by divine law, that St. Peter has perpetual successors in the primacy over the whole Church," and, indeed, "the Roman Pontiff is the successor of St. Peter in the same primacy."19

Sobornost, Koinonia, and Conciliarity

The Churches in the Eastern Orthodox tradition find their ultimate authority in something less defined than the Roman primacy. For want of a better word, the English "conciliarity" has been coined to translate something of what the Russians mean by sobornost or the Greeks by koinonia. As explained by a contemporary Orthodox theologian, "conciliarity of government," or the mystical union of the faithful through love, is the true notion of the Church's authority.

While there is no official teaching of the Eastern Churches on the nature of sobornost, it is easily found in the stream of Orthodox history and frequently discussed in contemporary writings on the subject.

The classic idea of koinonia grew out of historical circumstances. For centuries the Church was faced with a series of theological crises, raised by those who denied the divinity of Christ, His consubstantiality with the Father, and the necessity of supernatural grace for salvation. With notable exception the crises were resolved, though under papal mandate or approval, mainly through conciliar action whether local, synodal, provincial or ecumenical. If there were many instances when the Popes intervened without the use of a council, the dominant impression in the East was that conciliar rule and teaching should be identified with the ordinary mode of governing the Church.

After the final breach with Rome in the eleventh century, the theory took hold that the first seven ecumenical councils are the final authority for instruction and government of the Church. Pronouncements from these assemblies, 325 to 787 A.D., are normative for the Christian faith and discipline.

Still held by many conservative Orthodox thinkers, the conciliar idea of Church authority has been modified in modern times to include a broader concept of the Church as basically Catholic in essence, yet not subject to Rome or any single visible head. All believers are joined in a mysterious bond of unity, which gives them collectively what is present only in germine in each individual. Sharing what each one has gives the body a new power that its separate members possess only inherently. Together they teach and govern, whereas individually they are only cells of the cosmic whole. In the last analysis, therefore, the government of the Church belongs to the body of the entire Church; so that even the decrees of a general council become valid only when universally approved by the faithful.

A variant explanation that has found wide acceptance in the United States and English-speaking countries begins with the postulate that the Bible and sacred Tradition are valid sources of the Church's doctrinal and governmental mind. The hierarchy has the privilege of applying these sources to contingent situations, since it has been so commissioned by Christ, but not speaking in its own name. Bishops are only delegates of the people and their external voice or mouthpiece for making explicit what resides implicitly in the hearts of all believers. They, and not the bishops, are the "court of last appeal" in matters of faith and morals.

Yet not the bishops alone nor the people of any territory alone enjoy this magisterial power. In the Orthodox view, each local church, headed by its bishop, is the Church of God, enjoying His gifts and forming not merely a part of the Body of Christ, but the whole of His Body in its sacramental reality. Yet no single church can live in isolation from the rest. Unity of origin and faith links the disparate churches together, so that the life of one passes on to the others by means of the episcopacy.

This concept of church authority is sometimes identified with a mysterious sensus fidelium, or "believers' consciousness," that varies with different interpreters but fundamentally precludes anything like obedience to visible, moral power vested in the papacy or episcopacy.

The life of the Church is a miracle which cannot be subordinated to external law. The Church recognizes or does not recognize a given ecclesiastical assembly representing itself as a council: this is the simple historical fact. There are not and there cannot be external organs or methods of testifying to the internal evidence of the Church; this must be admitted frankly and resolutely. Anyone who is troubled by this lack of external evidence for ecclesiastical truth does not believe in the Church and does not truly know it.... The ecclesiastical fetishism which seeks an oracle speaking in the name of the Holy Spirit and which finds it in the person of a supreme hierarch, or in the episcopal order and its assemblies-this fetishism is a terrible symptom of half-faith.20

In other words, in the Orthodox Church the final guardian of the purity of dogma is the Church itself, the Church people, and not any episcopal assembly. Eastern theologians who make the bishops representatives of the faithful may not require universal acceptance by the Church to validate episcopal decrees, but even they allow the people to call the bishops to task for what they teach and even depose their prelates when the Spirit of God so directs them.

Scripture and the spirit

In the Protestant tradition, ecclesiastical authority vested in the Pope or bishops or council assemblies was replaced by the inspired word of God as found in the Scriptures, and by the indwelling Spirit which enlightens every man who comes into this world.

The groundwork on its theoretical side was laid by the Reforners who appealed against the Catholic position by arguing that where Baptism has been received there is no further need for ordination or consecration, or their correlative claims to a specially conferred juridical power from God. "Whoever has undergone Baptism," wrote Luther, "may boast that he has been consecrated priest, bishop, and pope, although it does not beseem everyone to exercise these offices. For since we are all priests alike, no man may put himself forward, or take upon himself without our consent and election, to do that which we all alike have power to do. If a thing is common to all, no man may take it upon himself without the wish and command of the community."21

Protestantism begins with the premise that Jesus Christ was a historical figure, and that therefore the paramount question for theology is posed by the historical gap between God's advent in the world two thousand years ago, and the sources of religious authenticity today. Catholic bodies, it is explained, fill the gap between Jesus Christ and the modern Christian by the authority of the Church and what it calls its magisterium, namely the official teaching body of the Church whose spokesman is the Pope. This position is said to be based on the supposition that Jesus Christ transferred His authority to the apostles and their ecclesiastically certified successors, the Bishops under the Roman Pontiff.

For its part, Protestantism in a sense admits that Christ conferred authority upon the apostles, but it believes that the apostles were unique. Their authority cannot be handed down to others.

On the crucial Petrine text in St. Matthew's Gospel, the growing Protestant stance is to concede that Christ's words, "You are Peter, and upon this Rock I will build my Church," refer to Peter himself and not merely to his faith. "When Jesus says that he will build his ekklesia upon this rock, he really means the person of Simon. Upon this disciple, who in the lifetime of Jesus possessed the specific advantages and the specific weaknesses of which the Gospels speak, upon him who was then their spokesman, their representative in good as well as in bad, and in this sense was the rock of the group of disciples - upon him is to be founded the Church, which after the death of Jesus will continue his work upon earth."22 However, with Peter as with the other apostles, they received authority only for themselves, not authority to be passed on to their successors.

What, then, is the basis for the continuity of Christians today with the authoritative Jesus Christ? The written words of the Bible are the authority, conserving concretely the message of the Savior, and assured constant illumination from the same Savior's Spirit indwelling in the hearts of the faithful. Both facets are important. Implicit in the scriptural testimony is the promise that when the apostles, through their written record, remind the Church of God's presence in Jesus Christ, God will be present by the spirit of Christ. In the graphic words of the Reformers, the exterior spirit of the biblical clinker is re-ignited by the Holy Spirit to make it glow again interiorly in those who believe.

Among the Protestants who clarified these concepts, Kierkegaard was outstanding with his insistence that the authority of God does not require a person to be what he called "a disciple at second hand." Jesus Christ Himself lives again in the spirit of man through the equilibrium of the apostolic word and the invisible divine Spirit. What becomes in that process of the rebel in every man, of that part of man's nature which resents any imposition on its freedom? It does not submit, Kierkegaard would say, as though to a way of life alien to itself. It rather finds the basis of its rebellion, the true ground of its strivings which before were only a chaotic stream of ill-directed desires.

Accordingly faith itself takes on a different meaning than found in the Catholic Church. "Christians do not claim to have the truth. They are claimed by it." And Christian realities are spiritual, personal, historical things; they are not susceptible of dogmatic, in the sense of definitive and irreversible, verbal expression. Truths of faith are called possibilities, they are never necessities. In fact, any compulsion is a contradiction of faith.

The highest truths are the truths which are spiritually discerned, and spiritual discernment, as the Bible says, always takes place in freedom. Christian authority is always consistent with assurance, never with certainty. A quest for certainty in the Christian life is an expression of bad faith. It is the antimony of trust. The corollary of this is that the truth of the Christian faith does not inhere in propositions. Its propositions are always invocations. The proper response to an invocation is not, "I consent intellectually" or "I believe it to be true." It is sursum corda, a lifting up of the heart in willing response.23

In this estimate of faith, authority may seem to reside in human institutions or personalities, but its true presence is only in God. When a Christian submits in obedience to a higher power, he makes sure that his pledge is to no one less than God. Churches and synodical conferences may propose to him what to believe and how to act, but they can never impose upon him to follow their directives. He is ultimately responsible only to the Spirit within him, whom Christ promised to send and by whom the believer is taught all that he needs.


1.      Testament of Levi, XVIII, 2-5, 8-9.

2.      John IV, 25-26.

3.      Luke IV, 18, 21.4. 11 Peter, I, 16.

4.      II Peter, I, 16.

5.      1 Corinthians, XV, 3, 19.

6.      I John, I, 1.

7.      St. Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Trallians, 9-10.

8.      II Epistle to the Philippians, 7. XI, pp. 405-415.

9.      John, X, 30-39.

10.  John, VI, 48-70.

11.  Matthew, XIX, 3-12.

12.  Matthew, X, 37.

13.  John, XV, 5; XIV, 13.

14.  Mark, XVI, 16.

15.  St. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Philadelphians, 4.

16.  John, XX, 21-23.

17.  Koran, Surah, V, 82-85.

18.  Matthew, XVI, 17-19.

19.  Enchiridion Symbolorum, 1825.

20.  Nicolas Zernov, The Church of the Eastern Christians, London, 1942, p. 55.

21.  Martin Luther, Werke (Weimar), XI, pp. 405-415.

22.  Oscar Cullman, Peter, Disciple-Apostle-Martyr, New York, World Publishing, 1961, p. 207.

23.  Carl Michalson, "Authority," in Handbook of Christian Theology, New York, 1962 pp. 27-28.


Father John A. Hardon. "Early Christianity." Chapter 12 in Religions of the World (Westminster, Maryland: The Newman Press, 1963), 283-299.

This chapter is reprinted with permission from Inter Mirifica.


Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J. (1914-2000) was a tireless apostle of the Catholic faith. The author of over twenty-five books including The Catholic Catechism, Modern Catholic Dictionary, Pocket Catholic Dictionary, Pocket Catholic Catechism, Q & A Catholic Catechism, Treasury of Catholic Wisdom, Catholic Lifetime Reading Plan and many other Catholic books and hundreds of articles, Father Hardon was a close associate and advisor of Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II, and Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity. Order Father Hardon's home study courses here.

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