I’ve had quite a few discussions concerning the trustworthiness of the early Church when it comes to doctrine. On the one side there is the idea that earlier teachings are more authoritative or trustworthy because the Church has taught them from the beginning, or at least for a very long time. The idea here is that the early Church would have a better idea how to understand the Scriptures and the unwritten traditions (paradosis, e.g., 2 Thess. 2:15; 3:6) and therefore its understanding should be accepted.
On the other side is the idea that the early dating of a doctrine is moot, because the Church could have gone wrong at any time. I recently came across an interesting proposal – namely that the Church at Galatia, with its struggle with legalism, provides a counterexample to any claim that early Church doctrines are more authoritative or trustworthy. I do not, however, believe that this tactic produces the desired effect.
The Galatian Problem
In his letter to the church at Galatia, the Apostle Paul is at his most indignant. Galatians is the only letter of Paul’s in which he has nothing nice to say about his recipients. This is all the more shocking when we realize that Paul’s introductions typically follow the standard practice of the day (identify author, state recipients, say some nice stuff about them, and get to the reason for the letter). In Galatians, Paul just skips right to the point – the Galatians have listened to false teachers and have fallen prey to a false gospel. He basically says these false teachers are to be condemned to hell, and that if they insist on following Jewish laws like circumcision they may as well cut the whole thing off (not kidding: see 1:8-9 and 5:12 respectively).
So the point of all this is that doctrinal rror crept in very early (note: I take the early date of Galatians, but even if one accepts the later date, it only dates the letter a few years later). Thus, goes the argument, if error can come into an early apostolic church like the one at Galatia that fast, why think that the post-apostolic Church should be trusted?
I think that this fails as a convincing counter example for a few reasons: it is a flawed analogy, and the original solution to the problem actually argues for the traditional position.
This is basically an argument from analogy, but the important likenesses are sketchy at best. When one references “early church tradition,” he is not usually speaking of a particular group of believers or even a particular early church. Paul was writing to new believers in a local body. Early church tradition comes from official, authoritative sources (primarily Bishops) – not just anyone’s private opinions. Thus, Paul was not writing to admonish “The Early Church.”
Thus, if a teaching is found to be “early” there is considerably more weight behind that claim than simply “this is a thing that some Christians believed early on.” Tradition with a capital “T” is grounded in the writings of the great Fathers of the Church, Bishops in the apostolic line, great theologians whose thoughts were adopted by the Church authorities of later years. The fact that a group of believers in one area got confused by some false teachings (which were then corrected, and never adopted by the Church) really does not mitigate against the historical Church itself.
But even if the analogy were not flawed, there is an even bigger problem for the non-traditionalist.
Even worse for this argument is the solution that the early Church adopted with regard to legalism. In Acts 15 we read of this solution: the apostles and other Church authorities got together and settled the matter in a council. The authorities discussed the matter, ruled upon it, and that was it. Done. Rather than take a vote, they trusted that the Holy Spirit was in the process of the decision and it became official Church dogma. They wrote up a letter to be sent out and out it went.
Those who take issue with authoritative Church Tradition will generally make complaints based on their own biblical interpretations. This is not, however, how the legalism issue was settled in the early Church. We read of no proof-texting, no scriptural exegesis or arguments based on the Scriptures (unless one wishes to count the prophecy quoted by James, which will only cause more problems!) . . . not even a quick original language study!
The process of calling councils to make definitive pronouncements on doctrine continued for the next millennia. Issues of what ecumenical councils are, or whether one can be convened today are not at issue here. The point is that this is the Tradition that is being referenced when the early Church is cited – not a local body of individual believers. Rather, it was the local body of believers that was to submit their interpretations to the Church council.
The first issue with using the Galatian church as a counter-example to the idea that the early Church can be trusted is that the two are not analogous – the church at Galatia was a group of newly minted, local, lay-level believers who got confused by false teachers. The Early Church, as it is referenced in the discussion, is made up of authoritative apostolic Church leaders whose ideas were adopted by later generations of authoritative apostolic Church leaders.
Further, even if the local, lay-level, Galatian problem of legalism was analogous to other theological issues faced by “the Early Church,” the problem was originally settled by an authoritative Church council – just as future issues would be settled by the Church for the next 1,000 years. But this is the very process the non-traditionalist wishes to call into question.
My conclusion is that the problems present in early churches are not simply transferable to the Early Church that fixed them. They cannot, therefore, serve as a counterexample to the claim that the beliefs of the Early Church should be taken as authoritative or at least trustworthy.