Skip to main content

Three Frameworks for Interpreting the Church Fathers

Dr. Kenneth J. Howell
January 14, 2013 One Comment

In this article I attempt to explain three different frameworks for interpreting the Church Fathers (patristic literature) and the consequences for adopting one over the others. I first describe each framework in a general manner and then show by way of illustration how these apply to the task of interpreting the Church Fathers. Secondly, I discuss some key texts from the earliest patristic literature (Ignatius of Antioch, Didache, Clement of Rome) that serve as tests cases for the three frameworks. Finally, I argue for one of these frameworks as the most productive and truest to Christian ideals. The themes presented here are treated in more detail in two works: Ignatius of Antioch: A New Translation and Theological Commentary and Clement of Rome and the Didache: A New Translation and Theological Commentary, both of which are published by CHResources. (( Parts of this article are taken from the books mentioned here.))

Part One: Three Frameworks for Interpreting the Church Fathers
Part Two: The Earliest Patristic Literature
Part Three: Deciding Between Frameworks


This article treats the central problem facing Christian scholars who wish to interpret the early church fathers. The problem concerns how one’s theological framework interacts with, influences, or is influenced by the historical data encountered. My concern is not with extensive documentation but to lay out an argument for consideration and evaluation. Although I will cite various historical facts and times, I will focus on the three earliest expressions of the Christian faith available to us. They are the seven authentic letters of Ignatius of Antioch, the Letter to the Corinthians by Clement of Rome, and the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, commonly known as the Didache.2 I will look at the historical data as they relate to three frameworks of interpretation: the Classic Protestant Framework (CPF), the Modern Critical Framework (MCF), and the Classic Catholic Framework (CCF). I offer this as a working document rather than as a finished product.

It is important to gain clarity on what these three frameworks hold in common and what makes them different. Assuming good will on the part of the historian, we can say that the frameworks have in common the original texts to be investigated along with a desire to interpret them accurately within their historical milieu. Yet, two of these frameworks, the CPF and the CCF, have something in common that the MCF lacks, or at least, does not share to the same degree. The first two share the assumption that the documents named above have some relevance to the contemporary understanding and formulation of the Christian faith. In other words, in the CPF and in the CCF, the scholar attempts not only historical description but theological application.

Part One: Three Frameworks for Interpreting the Church Fathers

Classic Protestant Framework (CPF)

Confessional Protestantism attempts to establish its doctrines and practices on the basis of the Bible alone (Sola Scriptura). The notion of Sola Scriptura, however, admits of two interpretations. One, more recently dubbed solo scriptura,3 insists on using the Bible as the only source and criterion of doctrinal formulation. The other interpretation of Sola Scriptura seems closer to the original intention of the magisterial Reformers (Luther, Melanchthon, Calvin, etc.). It recognizes the necessity and value of secondary authorities such as historical creeds which summarize and organize the biblical truths. The approach of Sola Scriptura has several advantages. One is that the creeds, whether ancient or modern, tend to be a source and impetus of unity in their respective ecclesial communions while the modern fundamentalist solo scriptura carries within it the seeds of radical disunity and individualism. A second is that those who espouse the classic notion of Sola Scriptura also tend to be more hermeneutically self-conscious than the proponents of solo scriptura who simply and facilely identify their interpretations of the biblical texts with “what the Bible teaches.” The CPF seems much more open to considering alternative interpretations of the Bible and therefore using secondary authorities in attempting to grasp the meaning of the Bible. In this article I will not deal with the solo scriptura position.

Protestants working in the CPF are disposed to consider the secondary authority of the church fathers, not as sources of Christian truth, but as conduits of biblical teaching. This is confirmed when one reads the writings of the magisterial Reformers who often cited the fathers. They made extensive use of the church fathers in their theological argumentation. The CPF looks to the fathers as secondary, confirming authorities to reinforce biblical teachings. To the extent that a particular father reflects, reinforces, and develops biblical doctrine, he is to be embraced. To the extent that he does not reflect biblical teaching, he is to be rejected. The CPF tends to view the ancient church as possessing an incomplete and partial understanding of biblical truth with some fathers (e.g. Augustine) being more faithful to the biblical witness than others (e.g. Leo the Great). Their selection of fathers and texts is not always systematic or consistent but it tends to be guided by a prior understanding of the Bible made possible by the confessional tradition in which they live. Let’s illustrate that with an example.

One commonly hears from classic Protestants that there were at least two different views of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist in the early church, one represented by Ambrose and the other by Augustine. In many Protestant accounts, Ambrose is viewed as holding to a physically realist view of the Eucharist in much the same way that the Roman Catholic Church would later embrace. Augustine, on the other hand, is viewed as holding to a more “symbolic” view in which there is not, or at least not as strictly, an identification of the bread and wine with the body and blood of Christ. This supposed difference is only a specific instance of a more general view among classic Protestants that the early church had some teachers who were closer to the biblical teachings while others were farther away. Who each was and how far some departed from biblical truth are matters of dispute. But in most Protestant accounts, there is little or no sense of the whole church adhering to a unified doctrine at any time of the early church.

Modern Critical Framework (MCF)

The emergence of a Modern Critical Framework (MCF) began in the 18th century when the historical-critical approach to the Bible began in earnest. Historians generally believe that the notion of critical history arose in the 17th century but it was not until the 18th that biblical studies began to adopt this approach in a widespread fashion. The historical-critical method began as a “back to the Bible” movement because its proponents believed that interpretation had become encrusted with a Protestant confessional framework. They thought they were continuing and extending the Reformation’s emphasis on Sola Scriptura by casting aside Protestant confessions in favor of finding the meaning of the Bible in the actual history in which it occurred. The same idea was applied to the church fathers. They wanted to transcend the Protestant-Catholic polemics over the fathers. What emerged over time was an awareness of just how difficult it is to jettison a theological framework when dealing with history.

A monumental watershed in the MCF came with Walter Bauer’s 1934 Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity. Bauer wanted to cut through some of the assumed interpretations of early church history in his day. One consequence of Bauer’s research was a greater emphasis on the diversity of belief and practice in the early centuries of Christianity. As an illustration of how the MCF works in practice, consider the positions of Boniface Ramsey and Bauer on Ignatius of Antioch. No one doubts that Ignatius of Antioch expressed a hierarchical view of the church with a threefold structure of bishops, presbyters, and deacons. The question is why he held this view and how widespread it was in early Christianity. The answer to the question of why Ignatius sees the structure of the church as he does and of what importance that episcopal structure holds for modern views of the church remains of vital practical importance. One of the most telling differences exists between those who see Ignatius’s witness to the episcopacy as an inherent feature of the early church and those who see his views as one among many that may or may not have been shared by others.

For example, the patristic scholar Boniface Ramsey once wrote, “Just because Ignatius of Antioch, to take one famous example, emphasizes the role of bishop in the early second-century churches of Antioch and Asia Minor does not mean that anyone else felt the same way about the bishop at that time, or even that bishops existed in other churches at such an early period.”4 Ramsey here expresses a view common among modern scholars of the early church, a view that has roots in the nineteenth-century liberalism epitomized in the theology of Adolf Harnack and furthered by Walter Bauer.

In this view, Ignatius does not stand as a witness to the faith of the early-second century church but as one holding to a somewhat idiosyncratic view of church structure. Bauer discusses Ignatius and Polycarp in chapter three of his 1934 book.5 Bauer assumes without argument that there was no need for a monarchical episcopacy prior to the problems of heresy facing Ignatius. He saw the rise of a hierarchical structure advocated by Ignatius as only necessary when a more collaborative form of church government failed to deal with problems. Bauer tends to see the issue only in terms of the exercise of power.

Bauer’s perspective is alive and well today among patristic scholars of both Protestant and Catholic creeds. In some circles, it is the assumed position that in early Christianity there were only local Christian communities with no single bishop or much, if any, connection to other communities in other places. Bauer still has many intellectual heirs among early church scholars. One of the most radical is Bart Ehrman whom I will mention later but another example is Roger Collins. Speaking of Christianity in Rome, Collins says:

There was … no individual, committee or council of leaders within the Christian movement that could pronounce on which beliefs and practices were acceptable and which were not. This was particularly true of Rome with its numerous small groups of believers. Different Christian teachers and organizers of house-churches offered a variety of interpretations of the faith and attracted particular followings, rather in the way that modern denominations provide choice for worshipers looking for practices that particularly appeal to them on emotional, intellectual, aesthetic or other grounds.6

Now it should be evident that the MCF grew out of and extended the CPF of viewing the church in a piecemeal way. The diversity of the ancient church in doctrine, government, and liturgy implied in many classic Protestant accounts is pushed to a greater extent in the MCF. Although classic Protestants may react to the extreme views of a Bauer or Collins, some of them will find solace in seeing early Christians as diverse and different from one another. This stands in stark contrast to the Classic Catholic Framework.

Classic Catholic Framework (CCF)

An honest historian working within the Classic Catholic Framework (CCF) will face all the diverse and varied expressions of Christian belief brought forth from the relevant texts. He will, however, ask different questions about those texts from those who work in the CPF or the MCF. Central to inquiry in the CCF is the notion of witness. Witnesses point to something greater and more enduring than themselves. In the CCF, the goal is to study the relevant witnesses in order to discover the deposit of faith which is the doctrinal content of the Christian faith. This approach assumes continuity across space and time. That continuity may not be total or exhaustive but it has essential qualities and characteristics which are transmitted over time.

With regard to space, the CCF seeks to understand how at any given period of time, the whole church believed in certain doctrines and practiced certain liturgies or pieties. With regard to time, the CCF seeks to trace continuities of doctrine and practice through the ages in order to see how the Christian faith has been faithfully transmitted. One ancient expression of this approach is found in the so-called Vincentian canon. Vincent of Lerins in the fifth century faced exactly the same problem that arose later in the Reformation and that we still deal with today. The problem is how to decide which interpretations of Scripture are acceptable within the bounds of Christian orthodoxy and which are not. Vincent proposed the following criteria in chapter 4 of his Commonitorium:

Now in the catholic church itself we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all. That is truly and properly ‘catholic,’ as is shown by the very force and meaning of the word, which comprehends everything almost universally. We shall hold to this rule if we follow universality, antiquity, and consent. We shall follow universality if we acknowledge that one faith to be true which the whole church throughout the world confesses; antiquity if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is clear that our ancestors and fathers proclaimed; consent, if in antiquity itself we keep following the definitions and opinions of all, or certainly nearly all, bishops and doctors alike.7

This passage from Vincent is worth sustained meditation. Here Vincent expresses what was widely held in the early church, namely, that the way in which the faith is defined consists of continuity in space (ubique), in time (semper), and in consensus (ab omnibus). It reflects the method used by the early general (ecumenical) councils. At the time of the Reformation, of course, this method was called into question again but the Protestants were not radical individualists. They believed in the objective tenets of the Christian faith as seen in their own councils attempting to define their creeds. They sought consensus among themselves though it was never achieved on a large scale. They sought to root their convictions in the church’s history; thus their appeals to the church fathers.

The Roman Catholic Church at the time of the Reformation was convinced that the Protestants had abandoned the faith “once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 3). A response was necessary. The answer given by the Council of Trent, was “the unanimous consent of the Fathers.” This was another way of expressing the Vincentian canon but applied to the situation facing the Church in the 16th century. The problem posed by the Protestant interpretation of early church history was as follows: how do you know what in the Fathers should be taken as binding and what should not? The Protestant answer was clear if not always easy to apply in practice: measure the Fathers against Scripture. Of course, the learned Roman Catholics believed this was an insufficient answer. How does one know if one’s interpretation of Scripture, which is being used as the criterion of judging the Fathers, is correct? The criterion of “the unanimous consent of the fathers” turned the Reformation’s answer on its head. It said that the way we know what interpretations of the Scriptures are legitimate is by the universality, antiquity, and consensus of the fathers. In this view, what was unanimous among the fathers, such as the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist, was binding on the church. What was not unanimous, such as how the creation narratives of Genesis were to be interpreted, was not binding.

Now this Catholic view is rooted in a different conception of the church from that found in CPF. The CCF sees the church as an institution which has been faithful to Christ in every age and generation. This does not imply that there have been no departures from faith, or infidelity to vows, or lack of consistent teaching, but it sees the church as a whole as faithful to Christ. Christ intended to establish a church that would perdure in truth until his second advent. The classic Protestant assumes something similar but tends to locate faithfulness in individuals like Augustine. The Reformed, for example, see themselves as faithful to the Augustinian heritage but not necessarily to the whole ancient church. The Catholic tends to locate faithfulness in the offices (e.g. bishop) of the church as well as in individuals. This is especially true of the Bishop of Rome.

Part Two: The Earliest Patristic Literature (Ignatius of Antioch, Clement of Rome, The Didache)

With some understanding of the three frameworks for interpreting the church fathers, now let us examine some primary sources and observe how each would treat the earliest Christian writings. Ignatius of Antioch, Clement of Rome, and the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles (the Didache) are among the earliest Christian writings outside the NT itself.

When we examine the whole of these sources there is at least one prominent theme which surfaces in all three, the topic of unity. Ignatius of Antioch emphasizes unity more than any other Christian author in the first or second century. What kind of unity does he propound? First, there is clearly a sense of mystical unity with several dimensions: unity in God himself, unity among believers in the church, doctrinal unity, unity in the celebration of the sacraments, unity of the laity with the hierarchy of the church.

In Ignatius’s mind, these different types of unity are intimately intertwined. In Ephesians 5:1, Ignatius writes, “As the Church belongs to Jesus Christ, and as Jesus Christ belongs to the Father, that all may be harmonious in unity.” The unity of the church with Christ is likened to the unity between Christ and the Father, a thought much like Jesus’s words in John 17:21 “that all may be one, Father, as you are in me and I in you that they may be also in us that the world may believe that you sent me.” The unity of the church with Christ is tied to and modeled on the unity in the Trinity.

Unity is so important for Ignatius that he views himself as “a man made for unity.” (Philad 8:1). Why is unity so important? Because “where there is division and anger, God does not dwell.” (ibid.). To this he adds, “I appeal to you to practice nothing from a spirit of factionalism but only what you learned from Christ.” (Philad 8:2).

Second, Ignatius sees mystical unity as expressed and fostered by sacramental unity. It is unity at the same altar which legitimatizes the celebration of the Eucharist. Ephesians 5 cited above expresses it thus:

Let no one deceive you. Unless someone is inside the sanctuary, he does not have the bread of God. If the prayer of one or two has such great power, how much more does the prayer of the bishop and the whole church” (Eph 5:2).

Ignatius here refers to the liturgy of the church where the bread of God can only be found on the altar on which the Eucharist is celebrated. Similarly, The Letter to the Philadelphians is instructive because of its many exhortations to unity. In Chapter 4 this unity is linked to the celebration of the Eucharist:

So be diligent to use one Eucharist for there is [only] one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ and one cup for unity in his blood. There is one altar as there is one bishop together with his presbyters, and deacons, my fellow servants. This is so that whatever you do, you may do in accord with God. (Philad 4:1).

And this text parallels his condemnation of the heretics who abstain from the Eucharist:

They abstain from the Eucharist and from [set times of] prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, that flesh which suffered for our sins but which the Father raised in his kindness. (Smyrn 7:1).

Notice that unity in this text has two shades of meaning. Absenting oneself from the Eucharistic liturgy is a sign of disunity but there is also the lack of doctrinal unity which refuses to “confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ.” These heretics, whoever they were, at least had the integrity to absent themselves from the church’s liturgy because they were not in doctrinal agreement with it. That in itself is an indicator that doctrinal unity and sacramental unity mutually implied one another in the minds of ancient Christians.8

Third, mystical and sacramental unity is rooted in hierarchical unity, i.e. unity with the bishop, his presbyters, and his deacons. Careful readers of Ignatius’s seven authentic letters cannot miss his emphasis on the hierarchical structure of the church. His copious use of the terms bishop (episkopos), presbyter (presbuteros), and deacon (diakonos) obviously has to do with the structure of the church. His many exhortations to obedience and submission to the bishop and presbytery (e.g. Eph 2:2; 5:3; Trall 2:1,2; 13:2; Polyc 6:1) reinforce his ideal of a church unified in belief and practice around the central figure of the bishop. The appearance of this strong language of a hierarchical episcopacy at such an early date in the history of Christianity has surprised readers for centuries. The lack of unity and harmony in the church is a grievous sin and requires repentance on the part of those who break it. But “the Lord forgives all who repent if their repentance leads back to unity with God and the council of the bishop.” (Philad 8:1).

The judgment of P.Th. Camelot, a French translator of Ignatius, seems justified when he called the Bishop of Antioch the “doctor of unity.”9 I would suggest that the key to understanding Ignatius’ view of the church lies in his broader concept of unity: the unity of God, the unity of Christ, unity with God, with Christ, with the bishop, presbyters, and deacons. This unity is first and foremost a mystical one. It is not a unity within one locale or bishopric; it is an organic unity which flows from God himself and which is communicated through the sacrament of the Eucharist. The structure of the church flows out of that unity.

The question then facing the reader of these letters has to do with how this monepiscopal structure of the church in Ignatius relates to our conception of the church today. It is precisely here that the interpreter’s presuppositions can influence how he assembles and interprets the evidence. Many scholars have seen this emphasis on the monepiscopacy in Ignatius as a departure from the collaborative structure of the church which they see in the NT. As Bart Ehrman put it, “in the early modern period [i.e. Reformation] it was precisely this witness to the monepiscopacy at such an early date that drove scholars to determine whether Ignatius of Antioch had in fact penned all, or some, or any of the letters that appear under his name.”10 Those who questioned Ignatian authorship were motivated by their prior conception of the church as a more democratic organization in its earliest stages of development. Naturally, those who believed that the NT authorized the episcopacy had no reason to doubt the authenticity of the claims of Ignatian authorship found in the letters.

Now let us consider Clement of Rome. After centuries of study, most scholars agree that we have one document which can be reasonably ascribed to Clement of Rome. The Letter to the Corinthians was probably written in the 90s of the first century by a man whom the whole ancient church regarded as the third bishop of Rome after Peter (after Linus and Anacletus).11 Careful study of this letter of approximately 10,000 words reveals that its main purpose was to correct the church in Corinth in its attempt to oust the ordained leaders of the church. Unlike the schism and heresy which Paul faced when he wrote the Corinthians in the 50s of the first century, the same church was riddled with sedition in the 90s. The overriding concern that the author has is to call the Corinthian church back to unity through submission to its divinely appointed leaders.

Clement’s method in addressing the problem of sedition (rebellion) and schism in the Corinthian church is at least twofold. First, he recounts the history of rebellion and its concomitant sins in the history of humanity as revealed in the OT as a negative example of what to avoid. Second, he reminds his addressees that the structure of the church is divinely given, not a human creation. Consequently, rebellion against God’s chosen servants (bishops and deacons) is a rebellion against God.

For Clement, the church is more than a collection of believers or loosely organized congregations; it possesses a definite structure and order. But what is that structure? Clement’s Letter to the Corinthians is one of the earliest and most important witnesses we possess to the notion of apostolic succession. Clement’s fullest and clearest statement occurs in chapter 44, but he adduces examples and illustrations of good order in earlier chapters to lend support to order in the church. This plan always consists of the elimination of jealousy and envy because the peace and harmony of the church are paramount. But what order is necessary in order to keep unity and harmony in the church? To understand chapter 44, we must begin with chapter 42 of Clement’s letter:

The apostles received the Gospel for us from our Lord Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ was sent from God. So Christ was from God, and the apostles from Christ. So both came by the will of God in good order. Once they received commands, once they were made confident through the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and once they were entrusted with God’s word, they went out proclaiming with the confidence of the Holy Spirit that the kingdom of God would come. Preaching in lands and cities, by spiritual discernment, they began establishing their first fruits, who were bishops and deacons for future believers. And this was nothing new because for many ages it had been written about bishops and deacons, as Scripture says somewhere, “I will appoint bishops for them in justice and deacons in faith” (ClCor ch. 42).

According to Clement, the honor that the lay faithful owe to their pastors lies in the dignity of the offices that derive from Christ himself. In language reminiscent of Hebrews 2:4 (“salvation which at first was spoken by the Lord was confirmed to us by those heard”), Clement ties together the preaching done by the apostles with the appointment of bishops (including presbyters) and deacons. He strengthens the connection between proclamation and church structure in chapter 44:

Our apostles knew from our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be contention over the title of the bishop’s office. For this reason, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those mentioned before and afterwards gave the provision that, if they should fall asleep, other approved men would succeed their ministry. Now as for those appointed by them [the apostles], or by other men of high reputation with the approval of the whole church, that is, those who have ministered without blame to the flock of Christ with humility, quiet, and, beyond perfunctory service, those who are well attested by all for a long time, we do not consider it right to eject them from the ministry. It will be no small sin against us if we eject from the bishop’s office those who have offered the gifts without blame and with holiness. Blessed are the presbyters who have gone before us who had a fruitful and perfect departure for they no longer run the risk of someone removing them from their established position. For we see that you have removed some who have ruled well from a ministry that is honored by their blameless lives (ch. 44).

Here Clement details the structure that gives stability to the church. It was the deliberate intention of the apostles to establish continuity in the church through a succession of offices. He links this foreknowledge to Christ by calling it “perfect.” Apostolic succession consists of the endurance of an office and a procedure for filling that office. When he speaks of those “other approved men” who “would succeed their ministry,” he is clearly stressing the continuity between the apostles themselves and their successors. The task of those who follow is clear; it is to continue and to advance the same ministry that they received. The procedure for filling the office consists of (1) a testing or probation of a man and (2) the approval of the whole church.

I will not be able to deal with the question of whether apostolic succession is taught in the NT. I refer the reader to my book where I argue that the notion of apostolic succession is not absent from the NT.12 Yet, it should be evident that this early church father believed that structure serves unity, that the way to peace and harmony in the church was to submit to its properly ordained leaders. This maxim, that structure serves unity, is also apparent in Clement’s quotations from what appears to be liturgical prayers in chapter 59-61 of his letter. If we ask why Clement should give extensive quotations from a liturgy in the midst of dealing with a problem of sedition and schism, the answer is twofold. He is using a principle of theology that would later be called Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi (the rule of prayer is the rule of believing). The saying summarizes the belief evident in many church fathers that how the church prays in its public worship is also how it believes in its doctrine. When Clement invoked liturgical prayers, he was doing more than adding flowery garnish to his hard exhortations. He was reminding the Corinthians of what they professed about God. This is evident in how he brackets the liturgical texts:

If some are disobedient to the things said by him through us, let them know that they will involve themselves in not a little transgression and danger. As for us, we will be innocent of this sin and will with intense request and entreaty ask for the Creator of all to preserve the number of his elect throughout the world unharmed through his beloved child Jesus Christ our Lord. It was through him that he called us from darkness to light, from ignorance to the knowledge of his glorious name. (ch. 59:1-2)

This preface makes Clement’s mind clearly known. The liturgy which he is about to quote is linked with a call to obedience and prayer for the preservation of the elect. Then on the other end of the liturgical quotation Clement sums up his letter thus:

We have instructed you well enough, brothers, about those things fitting for our religion and most useful for a virtuous life for those who wish to pursue a holy and just life. We have handled every topic having to do with faith, conversion, authentic love, self-control, discretion, and perseverance, recalling that you should be completely pleasing to the Almighty God in righteousness, truth, and longsuffering. You should be united in love and peace, forgetting evil [done against you] with earnest forbearance just as our forefathers, shown earlier, humbly did the things pleasing to the Father, the Creator God, and to all men. (ch. 62:1-2)

The long liturgical prayer functions to remind the Corinthians of the urgency to restore peace and harmony in the church. But there is another implication. The fact that Clement quotes from a liturgy suggests that the church in Corinth shared the liturgy of the Roman church and therefore that his appeal would be meaningful to his audience. Or, at least, it suggests that Clement knew there were some liturgical patterns to appeal to which could motivate the Corinthians toward unity. It means that at this early date, the church in both Rome and in Corinth were highly liturgical in their worship. We will return to the implications of Clement’s teaching in section three.

The third major source of early Christianity is the Didache, a document consisting of about 2300 words and usually dated in the late first or early second century. Since its discovery in 1873 and subsequent publication, the Didache has been an object of intense investigation. As with the NT itself, this document has been subject to a wide range of interpretations. Still, the text is there for all to read. That text has the character of a church manual rather than a well-crafted letter or treatise. Many scholars believe that it originates from Syria and that our Greek text may be a translation of an earlier Syriac document.

For our purposes, the Didache contains several chapters that bear on our understanding of the liturgy of ancient Christianity. Chapters 7-10 and 14 show the signs of being pastoral directives given to leaders of a community who are responsible for the worship of the church. That these chapters do reflect a standardized liturgy at this early stage of Christian history is indicated by the directives about baptism in the name of the Trinity (chapter 7), and guidelines for corporate fasting and the recitation of the Lord’s prayer (chapter 8). Most striking, however, are the directives on the celebration of the Eucharist in chapter 9, 10 and 14. Here the noun eucharistia takes on a technical meaning of designating a sacrament or liturgical celebration rather than the simple meaning of “thanksgiving” found in the NT. The Didachist’s use is consistent with the usage of Ignatius of Antioch (see above Philadelphians 4:1; Smyrneans 7:1).

In addition, chapters 9 and 10 contain standardized prayers which bear the marks of Eucharistic prayers found in later liturgies. For example, ancient liturgies always contained petitions for the perfect unification of the church, a fact reflected in this early document:

As the broken bread was scattered on the mountains and then gathered into one, thus let your church be gathered from the ends of the earth into your kingdom because yours is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ forever. (Didache 9:4)

Remember, Lord, your church, to rescue it from every evil and to make it perfect in your love, and from the four winds gather it completely sanctified into your kingdom which you have prepared. (Didache 10:5)

Given the profound concern for unity expressed by Ignatius, we are not surprised to find a similar concern in the Didache. But there are other standard liturgical markers as well. “Hosanna to the God of David” that occurs in Didache 10:6 is a literary form that was pervasive in ancient liturgies. Already transliterated by the Jews into Greek from the Hebrew of Psalm 118:25, as seen in Mt 21:9, hosanna was a plea for salvation. Of course, it was entirely appropriate for the entry of the Messiah into Jerusalem (see Mt 21:1-11). By the adoption of this plea into the liturgy, the early church was expressing its awareness that the church still needed the coming of the Savior to rescue it from danger and destruction. And the guidelines regarding worthy reception of the sacrament known from other ancient sources occurs here as well:

Let no one eat or drink from your Eucharist except those who are baptized in the name of the Lord. For the Lord said about this, “do not give holy things to dogs.” (Didache 9:5)

If anyone is holy, let him come. If anyone is not, let him repent. (Didache 10:6)

On the Lord’s day, once you have gathered, break the bread [of the Lord], and hold Eucharist, confess your transgressions that your sacrifice may be pure. Let not anyone who has a quarrel with his friend join you until they reconcile that your sacrifice not be defiled. (Didache 14:1,2)

These prerequisites and warnings not only reflect Paul’s admonition about unworthy reception of the sacrament (see 1 Cor 11: 27), they are linked in ancient texts to the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist. The verses from Didache 14:1,2 quoted above is followed by a quotation from Malachi 1:11,14:

This is what was spoken by the Lord, “In every place and time offer to me a pure sacrifice because I am a great king, says the Lord, and my name is marvelous among the Gentiles.”

This text is quoted later by Justin Martyr in chapter 41 (sec 3) of his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew to emphasize that Christians have the real sacrifice spoken of by the prophet. This doctrine became a universal conviction of the ancient church that the Eucharist was a true sacrifice offered to God.13

It is of course possible to delve into each of these points in more depth but this survey of the Didache suffices to show that we have valuable information on the beliefs and practices of ancient Christians not found explicitly within the NT. And these pieces of information are seen and developed in later centuries in a rather consistent manner. Most noteworthy of all is the fact that ancient Christians apparently had a standardized liturgy very early. Perhaps these liturgies were given directly by various apostles or their companions to different churches. In any case, these liturgical indicators belie the contention that early Christian worship was free flowing, unstructured, and unpremeditated. All the available indications are that the churches had structured patterns of worship handed on to them from the very beginning of the church.

The end or goal (telos) of teaching, liturgy, sacraments, and governmental structure was unity. The unity conceived and taught was not a monolithic uniformity but a harmonious interplay of the parts in which each member found his proper place. The church, then as now, was always assaulted with disunity, disaffection, and dissolution. Schism and sedition were constantly knocking at the door. The only answer which could match the threat was God’s freely given grace in word and sacrament combined with a God-ordained structure of worship and government. This was the problem and these were the solutions offered by Ignatius, Clement, and the author of the Didache.

Part Three: Deciding Between Frameworks

Now we can step back and ask if these data from the three earliest Christian sources indicate which, if any, of the three frameworks of interpretation is to be preferred. I will argue that only the Classic Catholic Framework does full justice to these and other church fathers. The answers can be partitioned into two broad categories: content and methodology.

The content of these three sources and ones from later centuries favors a Catholic understanding of the deposit of faith (fides quae creditur). There can be no doubt that unity, both as a fact and as principle, was of prime importance. For Ignatius and for Clement, unity was not a vague wish or sentimental hope but a mystical reality and a moral mandate. No doubt the prayer of “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” escaped from the lips of Christians out of a conviction that unity was truly God’s will and not simply human aspiration. Yet, what kind of unity did they pray for? For them, the answer lies in heaven. The unity of God himself is the ground and animating force of unity in the church. It seems that for these early Christians unity was more than a feeling of fellowship and camaraderie; it was a living presence in the midst of the church, Christ’s body. As a corollary of mystical unity, structural unity was thought to be the means toward a greater realization of the unity given by Christ’s presence in the church.

Catholics and classical Protestants see the church as an ordered society wherein believers live out their faith. Protestants differ among themselves as to the nature and extent of this structure but it is hardly possible to deny that some structure exists in the NT to be perpetuated until the parousia of Christ. For some Protestants the structure of the church is a matter of convention while for others that structure results from a divine mandate. Clearly, in Catholic teaching the structure of the church (episcopacy, presbyterate, diaconate) is of divine origin and must be preserved. Among Protestants who hold to church structure as a matter of divine obedience, the purpose of structure may serve the end of unity but not necessarily.

In Catholic teaching, structure serves, reinforces, and preserves unity because the unity of the church in all its dimensions (mystical, sacramental, governmental) is essential to the church. When the Apostles’s Creed affirms belief in “the holy catholic church” and the Nicene Creed in “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church,” they are reinforcing in the minds of believers that Christ founded one church whose presence on earth is a sign of the eschatological unity of redeemed humanity with God. The unity of the church is not a dispensable attribute, nor only a goal to reach if humanly possible. Unity is a gift of Christ to the church. That is why schism and sedition are such a heinous sin. They are injuries to the essence of the church. What unity entailed would only become clearer in time but Ignatius and Clement are clear witnesses to what was sparsely indicated in the NT (e.g. John 17; 1 Cor 1:10-18; Eph 4:1-6).

If my reading of Clement’s Letter to the Corinthians is legitimate, it bears directly on our question of which framework best interprets this early church father. The Modern Critical Framework would see Clement as one among many voices in the Roman church and one especially that felt justified in its overreach to impose its authority on a different church in the East. The Modern Critical Framework may even view Clement’s letter as an attempt to grab power. It would see little or no relevance to Christianity today. The Classical Protestant Framework might appreciate Clement’s extensive quotations from the OT (in the Septuagint version) as evidence of how the church father depended on the Scriptures in a manner similar to the methodology of Sola Scriptura. Yet, with the exception of High Church Anglicans and some Lutherans, the Classical Protestant Framework would most likely view Clement’s insistence on apostolic succession as a misguided and unscriptural addition to the core of Christian belief. It might even fault Clement on two counts. One is Clement’s belief that unity demands submission to a hierarchical authority and that a hierarchical structure is necessary to quell sedition. Clement’s second fault would be his adding to scriptural authority the notion of apostolic succession, a needless and unfruitful tradition which detracts from the sufficiency of Scripture. Those working in a Classical Catholic Framework view Clement and his letter as a witness to the early church’s faith in apostolic succession and the primacy of the Roman church. For them, structure serves unity and so they view Clement’s appeal to ecclesiastical structure as a natural outgrowth of the belief in and desire for greater visible unity.

A second implication of our survey of Ignatius, Clement, and the Didache has to do with their connection to one another. If we view Clement’s and Ignatius’s forms of Christianity as separate and unconnected, as the Modern Critical and even the Classic Protestant Frameworks tend to do, then we will not see any relation between the latter’s exhortations to obedience to episcopal authority and the former’s doctrine of apostolic succession. In these frameworks, moral obedience has little or nothing to do with church structure. However, if we view Clement and Ignatius as geographically diverse witnesses to a common faith, as later writers like Irenaeus tend to do, then Ignatius’s call to obedience is tied to something identifiable and concrete, namely, those bishops who were ordained by the apostles or their successors. The former view with its emphasis on diversity exerts a centrifugal force on the modern mind and tends toward ecclesial diversity and dissolution. The latter view with its emphasis on an underlying unity across space, time, and authors exerts a centripetal force on the modern mind and tends toward ecclesial unity.

If we view the liturgical expressions and doctrines in Ignatius, Clement, and the Didache as originating in and limited to the local communities where they are found, as the Modern Critical and even the Classic Protestant Frameworks tend to do, then they can be dismissed as irrelevant to the worship of the modern church, or at best treated as adiaphora which can be utilized or not utilized according to some modern (local) norm. However, if we view these liturgical expressions and doctrines as witnesses to an underlying structure of a common liturgy with local variations on shared themes, then their commonalities can and often do function as liturgical norms for the modern church. The former view exerts a centrifugal force on the modern mind and tends toward ecclesial diversity and dissolution. The latter view exerts a centripetal force on the modern mind and tends toward ecclesial unity.

The second broad category which argues for the superiority of the Classic Catholic Framework has to do with methodology. How does one come to know the proper content of the Christian faith? The simplest answer is provided by the solo scriptura approach but I have not addressed that here because I have assumed its inadequacy. If one looks to the church fathers at all, as the Classic Protestant Framework does, this question is inevitable. How do we know whether the CCF is a better way of interpreting the church fathers than the CPF or the MCF? The answer is illuminating. The CCF reflects better the views and the assumptions of the church fathers themselves. The CCF naturally claims that the doctrine of the Catholic Church is the same as the church fathers but it also maintains that the methodology used by the Church today is the same as or at least in continuity with that of the church fathers. The church fathers sought unity through universality (ubique), historical continuity (semper), and church consensus (ab omnibus). The CPF does not maintain any necessity of being in continuity with the historic church in its universal dimension. It tends to identify with certain strains of patristic thought, not necessarily with the whole. And certainly the MCF does not.

One example is the Arian controversy of the early fourth century. When Arius, a presbyter in Alexandria, began proclaiming, “There was a time when the Word (logos) was not,” the response was not simply that his teaching was against Scripture. It was that Arius was teaching something contrary to the faith of the whole church. That’s what makes sense of the call to and execution of the first ecumenical council of Nicea in 325. The same was true of Nestorius, the patriarch of Constantinople. When he taught that Mary was not the theotokos, the church responded by proclaiming that this was not the faith of the church. And when the respective councils (Nicea, Ephesus, Chalcedon) were formulating their responses, they appealed to Scripture, to earlier church tradition, and to consensus among the bishops in conscious continuity with the earlier church.

The historian of early Christianity who wishes to argue for the relevance of the earliest writings to our contemporary conception of Christianity is on the horns of a dilemma. He is forced either to accept these doctrines and practices as a natural development of the NT faith or to dismiss them as a devolution and/or aberration from the purity of the NT faith. Accepting these authors and writings as legitimate expressions of Christian belief entails acknowledging the hierarchical nature of church structure, the centrality of the Eucharist in Christian worship, and a number of other catholic notions. Rejecting these early manifestations of catholicity entails the belief that the church was involved in unfortunate (tragic?) departure from the NT faith immediately after the apostolic era. Locating these departures from the purity of the apostolic faith in a later century, be it the fifth or the fifteenth, is not historically or logically possible. The developments that emerged in the subsequent centuries stand in direct continuity with these earliest expressions of the Christian faith. Some may attempt to remain neutral, giving only historical descriptions and generalizations but in that case these students of early Christianity have nothing of relevance to say to the contemporary church.

  1. Parts of this article are taken from the books mentioned here.
  2. For the sake of brevity and readability I shall not quote many of the relevant texts in detail but the reader is encouraged to examine them in online versions or printed translations.
  3. Solo Scriptura is a mixing of English and Latin and does not make any grammatical sense in Latin but does serve to emphasize the point that the advocates of Sola Scriptura wish to make, namely, that their position is not one described in this paper as solo scriptura. 
  4. Boniface Ramsey Beginning to Read the Fathers (New York: Paulist Press, 1985) p. 10. Ramsey does proceed to outline some common themes among the Fathers but these are more problems they all addressed than beliefs they shared in common. 
  5. A second edition of Bauer’s book was issued in German in 1964 and was only recently translated into English. 
  6. Roger Collins, Keepers of the Keys of Heaven: A History of the Papacy (London and New York: Weidenfeld & Nicholson/Basic Books, 2009) pp. 15-16. 
  7. I have taken the translation available at Fordham University’s Internet Ancient History Sourcebook
  8. It is striking that many modern Christians believe that it is perfectly permissible to commune in a church with whose doctrine they do not agree. I have never traced out the history of this notion but I suspect that it is almost entirely unique to the 20th century and explained by the doctrinal indifferentism of contemporary Christianity. 
  9. Camelot, P. T. Ignace d’Antioche. Polycarpe de Smyrne. Lettres. Martyre de Polycarpe, 4th edn. Sources chrétiennes 10. Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1969. P. 19. 
  10. Bart Ehrman The Apostolic Fathers
  11. For discussion of the ancient documents witnessing to Clement as the author, see chapter 1 and 3 of my forthcoming Clement of Rome and the Didache A New Translation and Theological Commentary (CHResources, 2012). 
  12. See note 11. []
  13. For a list of patristic selections referring to the Eucharist as sacrifice, see the section titled “Proof of Sacrificial Priesthood” in Tim Troutman’s article titled “Holy Orders and the Sacrificial Priesthood.” 

Dr. Kenneth J. Howell

(This article originally published at on December 12, 2012)

Dr. Howell earned an M.Div. from Westminster Theological Seminary, an M.A. in Linguistics and Philosophy from the University of South Florida, a Ph.D. from Indiana University in Linguistics and the Philosophy of Science, and a second Ph.D. from Lancaster University (U.K.) in the History of Christianity and Science. He was a Presbyterian minister for eighteen years and a professor at Reformed Theological Seminary for seven years. He was received into the Catholic Church in 1996. He taught in several universities until 2012, the last of which was a decade at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) where he also was the Director of the Institute of Catholic Thought. He now serves as the Resident Theologian and Director of Pastoral Care of the Coming Home Network International. He continues his work of translating and commenting on the early Church Fathers, having already authored Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna: A New Translation and Theological Commentary and Clement of Rome and the Didache: A New Translation and Theological Commentary. In June of 2010 we posted the video of his talk titled “The Issue of Authority in Early Christianity,” which he delivered at the Deep in History conference in 2009.

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap