Holy Fathers - the Early Church and the Bible
by Fr. Alexey Young
This time I would like to explain a little the attitude of the early Church towards the Bible.
One of the very first anti-Christian ideas was called Gnosticism. Originating with Simon Magus (see Acts, 8), the Gnostics claimed to possess the "true" but "secret" teachings of Christ and the Apostles. They accused the early Church Fathers of Suppressing these "mystic teachings" and deliberately keeping people in bondage to ignorance. They said Christian doctrines were too simple, and they preferred elaborate and exotic explanations to the pure doctrines of the Church.
Another difference between Christianity and Gnosticism was this: from the time of the Apostles the Church had rejected other religions as being false or even demonic; only faith in Christ and cooperation with God's grace can save. But Gnostics said that all religions are basically the same and therefore all are in some sense true. Gnosis, or secret knowledge, was all a man needed; once he possessed this knowledge he would be "saved" and could then do whatever else he wanted.
Gnostics attacked the Church and tried to lure away many of the faithful. The Church had to defend its flock. One of the "generals" in this battle for the souls of men (for that was exactly what it was) was the Church Father, St- Irenaeus of Lyons (140-202 A.D.). He had been a disciple of the martyred St. Polycarp, who was in turn a disciple of the Apostle John.
St. Irenaeus carefully studied the ideas of the Gnostics. He saw that they wished to supplement Apostolic teaching with unwritten, secret doctrines and additional "gospels" (other than those written by the four Evangelists). He came to the conclusion that the Church must do two things: first, the question must be settled as to what the authority for a Christian is. Second, a fixed list of authentic Scriptures must be drawn up.
He realized that the Holy Scriptures, which until then had been widely scattered throughout the Christian communities, simply must be brought together and given some kind of system or order. So St. Irenaeus became the first Holy Father (so far as we know) to give a list of Scriptures that almost completely corresponds to the one we use today! In doing this, the Saint made it possible for Christians to avoid the false "scriptures" of the Gnostics, or others who were outside the Church. This helped all true believers to know what was true and what was false, in keeping with the words of another Father, St. Jerome, who wrote: "The truth has set bounds...but evil and falsehood multiply without end."
On what basis did St, Irenaeus draw up his list of accepted Scripture? What was His authority for including some writings and excluding others? He answers this question himself, and his answer is very important.
He said that the Church of Christ may accept only those writings and teachings which are held in common by the churches of apostolic origin. Isn't it logical, he asked, to assume that if the Holy Apostles had known of "hidden mysteries", "they would have handed them down especially to those to whom they were entrusting the churches themselves"? And would not those first successors have handed those teachings on to their successors, and so on?
But the fact is, St. Irenaeus continues, the successors to the Apostles do not teach such things at all; nor do they use the strange "gospels" which Gnostics use, "We appeal," he wrote, "to that tradition [about written Scripture and oral tradition] which has come down from the Apostles and is guarded by the succession of bishops in the churches."
Therefore, we use only those Scriptures that are used by the successors to the Apostles, and we teach only that which they teach and which had been believed, in unbroken succession, from the time of the Apostles. A "successor to the Apostles," furthermore, is a bishop that can trace his ordination back to one of the Holy Apostles--not a man who calls himself a bishop but who is actually only "self-appointed."
What is fascinating is that nowhere does St. Irenaeus say that the Bible alone is the authority for Christians! On the contrary! He says that it is the authority of the bishops of the Church that validates Holy Scripture. He writes: "Even if the Apostles, had not left their Scriptures to us, ought we not to follow the rule of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they committed the churches?"
This early Holy Father's teachings concerning the Bible and the Church are absolutely crucial for those today who wish to find Christ's True Church. St. Irenaeus puts it this way:
"Since there are so many clear testimonies, we should not seek from others for the truth which can easily be received from the Church. It was there, in the Church, that the Apostles, like a rich man making a deposit, fully bestowed everything that belongs to the truth. She is the entrance to life; all others are thieves and robbers. Therefore, we ought to avoid them, but to love with the greatest love the things of the Church, and so lay hold of the tradition of the truth."
Sincerely in Christ,
Fr. Alexey Young