Claims to first-century Christianity are everywhere. “Churches of Christ are part of a great religious movement launched on the North American Continent in the early 1800s, to restore the pure Christianity of the first century. The pioneers of this movement made it their aim to go back to the Bible for their faith, worship, and practice.”[i] Like a lot of churches and groups of churches Churches of Christ claim their beliefs and practices are the genuine articles tracing back to the first century. This cry for restoration started in Reformation with its cry of “Sola Scriptura”, “By scripture alone.” The claim of modern churches to be a “first-century church” is based on, of course, their stated reliance on the bible as documentation for first-century faith and practice. Churches of Christ are just one example. I have run into it regularly throughout my travels.
But, is it true that the goal of biblical translation is to restore the text to that of the first century? No, this goal has been labeled unachievable. I don’t know that that is true as God has mechanisms in place for the true word of God to be identified but it is a daunting task and not very likely to be universally accepted in the world of myriad denominations with numerous disagreements on the doctrines that make up modern Christianit not the least of which is the trinity with its non-biblical elements that are impossible to be found in scripture at all.
Until relatively recently, the earliest centuries’ manuscript evidence for bible texts has been very scarce as opposed to the relatively abundant evidence of manuscripts from the fourth century on. So how can one say they are the first-century church when they are basing their practice on fourth-century texts? We will discuss below the example of the trinitarian formula for baptism as a verse in all the fourth-century texts while it describes a charge to do a practice that was not carried out thus challenging the assertion that the original text can be completely recovered. The “party line” by proponents of the adequacy of biblical translation is that despite the numerous variations in the text we can still reconstruct if not the actual text the meaning intended by the original text. Not if there has to be at least one existing manuscript to support a variation like Matthew 28:19 without trinitarian phraseology will that be true.
The simple fact that so many theologians have come to different conclusions on numerous issues suggests that either the text was never given to produce a doctrinally unified body of beliefs (which I do not believe) or there are too many variations in the texts to form a single set of unified doctrines.
There is more evidence available when one considers the writings of the early church fathers which are treated as a secondary source but to some degree have been ignored in creating the texts from which Bibles are translated as in the case of Matthew 28:19 below. However, Paul’s warning that “from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them” from Acts 20:30 is a stern warning that some writings of “church fathers” might contain twisted or distorted versions of the gospel that show the disciples being drawn away from the gospel that Paul and the apostles preached and they declared it being received as by revelation of Jesus Christ.
The assumption by many is that there is little, if any, significant difference between fourth-century and first-century Christianity. So, to them, we have a smooth movement both of faith practices and text from the first century to the fourth. Is that a true assessment? When comparing a number of factors the answer is a surprising “no”: Jesus taught the disciples that he didn’t come at that time to be a government leader, yet Christianity took that form in the fourth century and forward. And again, Paul warned that some church leaders will teach twisted or distorted versions of the gospel. (See Paul Warned That There Are Other Gospels That are Distortions of the True Gospel for more)
Then there are the facts that the first history of the early church, the book of Acts, emphasizes the genuineness of the Redeemer, Jesus Christ, as the fulfillment of messianic prophecy in the Old Testament. It emphasizes the gift ministries of the church, especially apostles and prophets. It repeatedly records the workings of the holy spirit and the apostles’ concern that all receive the holy spirit. The apostles continued to teach and preach the Kingdom of God as Jesus had trained them.
He entered into the synagogue, and spoke boldly for a period of three months, reasoning and persuading about the things concerning God’s Kingdom. (Act 19:8 WEB)
In contrast to these elements, by the fourth century (really well before this actually) apostles and prophets were replaced by bishops. Christianity was part of the world government. Bishops were not only spiritual leaders but government officials with worldly power and responsibilities. The emphasis on the genuineness of Christ as fulfilling the prophecies was replaced by doctrinal disputes on the nature of Jesus Christ.
This issue of the nature of Christ had been a subject of debate building in the second and third centuries and was driven to paramount importance in the fourth century, not by the leading of the holy spirit, but by the drive of one man, the Roman Emporer Constantine, to solidify the doctrine of the national religion of the empire. As opposed to the free discussion of the first-century council, opposing the leader doctrinally in a fourth-century council meant the possibility of ex-communication with the additional possibility of torture and death. Instead of being democratic processes council decisions were regularly pre-decided by the council leader. As opposed to the first century, the fourth century was not driven by the concern that all receive the holy spirit with all the manifestations and miracles. By this time, that kind of power was often relegated to a memory, the time of the apostles.
In the centuries between the first and fourth Christianity had been Hellenized, changed from a faith based on Judaism and its monotheistic culture, and incorporated into the polytheistic world of Greco-Roman power and tradition. A paradigm shift was made in Christian theology from Judaistic Christianity with its symbols, types, and analogies to a system with the analysis of the philosophers and a corresponding emphasis on the nature and reasoning of god(s). Systematic theology had been born and the issues of Christianity had changed, incorporating the philosophies of intellectual men. In the fourth and fifth centuries, the doctrines concerning the deity of Christ, the deity of the holy spirit, and Mary as the mother of God overshadowed the priorities of the first century Christianity in Jerusalem.
In this challenging period also, the church issued a “canon” on what were acceptable readings in the church. This list of books was similar to, but not exactly the same as, the list of books that are in the modern protestant bible. (The New Testament books are the same, but the Old Testament are not.) Interestingly, what was also canonized were the acts of the martyrs, which were to be read on their anniversaries. This part of the canon is rarely honored, if at all. The list of acceptable books had grown over the centuries to include not only the gospels, and most of the Pauline epistles, but also previously disputed books like 2 Peter, Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation.
Fourth-century Christianity is markedly different from first-century Christianity. The shift in emphasis developed away from the simple message of the gospel, accepting as Lord this Jewish man of fulfillment, Jesus the Messiah, living a life of holy spirit-led power in a body of Christ ministered to by gift ministries, learning the Kingdom of God. The shift was from that life to that of the fourth century where there were no apostles or emphases on the power of the spirit in the lives of the saints, but rather concerns for the philosophy of the nature of God, Christ, and Jesus’ mother. The focus was on incorporating Christianity into a world power’s, the Roman Empire’s, national religion. Praise the Lord that the terrible persecutions stopped, but this shift makes at least some of the decisions of the time look suspect.
There is evidence in the biblical usages of the early church fathers that needs to be considered in determining what the original versions of the bible books actually had in them. A great example of this is Matthew 28:19, which tradition in the church calls the great commission, to baptize in the trinitarian formula, but is never carried out in the book of Acts and taught in the epistles. (See Matthew 28:19 – Legitimate Verse that was not Carried Out by the Apostles or Scribal Forgery? for more.)
Despite the Sola Scriptura cry of the Reformation that appears to elevate the authority of scripture above all else there is also a dependence on tradition in Christian beliefs that needs to be more closely examined. The Reformation with its Solo Scriptura cry for a return to original Christianity was a vital movement of God. But while it reformed the Church in areas like the stopping of corrupt practices such as indulgences while promoting justification by grace it has also somehow worked to fracture the church into thousands of pieces. The Reformation will only be successful and complete if Christianity is restored not just to the fourth century but all the way to the first century, and it works to produce a singular body of beliefs without all the disputes over what the bible really says.
© copyright 2009-2023 Mark W Smith, all rights reserved. Last Revised 10/25/2023