The Church and the World - Part 1

Friday, 14 November 2008 23:39

Over one hundred fifty people recently participated in the Early Church History Seminar near Atlanta, Georgia in September 2008 to examine Patristic figures (the early Christian writers after the apostles) and their literature for what they can tell us about how the early church faced the world.

The weekend seminar was part of an ongoing education program that my friend Douglas Jacoby heads up called A.I.M. The program consisted of these classes:

Introduction to the Patristic World — Douglas Jacoby
The Evolution of Christendom — David W. Bercot
Clement: The Corinthian Connection — Douglas Jacoby
Ignatius: The Episcopacy and Structural Unity
— Joey Harris
Irenaeus: Standard-bearer for Orthodoxy
— Steve Staten
The Spirit of Sectarianism
— David W. Bercot
The Church and the World
— David W. Bercot

I am going to use this event to discuss constructive filtering rather than analyze the presentations. I perceived a need for the novice to hold compass considerations in the study of the early Church Fathers. These considerations help us read ancient literature and hear us modern presenters, of which I was one, in a reflective manner.

David W. Bercot (pronounced Bersoe) was clearly the featured speaker and the reason that many participated. Mr. Bercot became popular within our fellowship in the mid-1990s as many of us read his stimulating work, Will the Real Heretic Please Stand Up?1 Bercot was once a title lawyer who worked for large oil entities in Texas and now lives a simple life in rural Pennsylvania. There is no doubt that he could make large sums of money, but he has admirably embraced a life of simplicity and service. His evolution spans his youth with the Jehovah Witnesses,2 to the desert of Liberalism, to a startup congregation in Tyler, Texas in 1992 including time in the Anglican fold. Associated with the Church of England, this wing appealed to him as the purest stream in success to the apostles. He was ordained as an Anglican priest but left when he recognized some Roman Catholic inheritances. It was surrounding the events of this tumultuous period in which David Bercot wrote Common Sense,3 outlining his hermeneutics in his search to be part of pre-Nicene Christianity. As such, Common Sense does not necessarily represent his tone today, but it is interesting as a snapshot.4 Finally, after further desert years he landed within the Anabaptist tradition, currently attending a Mennonite church. Throughout the weekend David Bercot was very personal, unpretentious and forthright about some of the tough spots in this journey. His humble disposition was just as apparent in private conversation where he came across as a thoughtful listener and great conversationalist.

Introduction and Evolution

On Friday evening Douglas Jacoby, head of the AIM program, encouraged the attendees about the value of the Church Fathers in his Introduction to the Patristic World. Bercot’s presentation The Evolution of Christendom accomplished the same thing as he illustrated how the Church and the World became a hybrid under the rule of Emperor Constantine.

The audience of Jacoby and Bercot were clearly interested. As I listened I wondered why some people are more interested than others. The small percentage of Christians who look into the early church history do so out of curiosity, or for evidence to support their sect’s beliefs, or are disenchanted with forms of Christianity that have less substance. In my mind too few of Christians who are satisfied with their walk show an interest and often the ones that do don’t pursue patristic readings responsibly.

I was originally interested to see where Christianity took a dive. As for my motivations today, I find that early church literature causes me to double-check my assumptions. For many fellow Christians believe that they go by the Bible alone but are unaware of how they bring mindsets from western civilization—America in particular, the Restoration movement or postmodernism—into their readings. It can be valuable to review our biases in light of what other Christians have thought in order to avoid regurgitating our own ideas. This leads to unconsciously following the pied pipers of recent ages and accommodating to our culture. One of my former professors, Bob Webber, who passed away in 2007, wrote this in his final book,

One of the major reasons why the church has fallen prey to a cultural accommodation is that it has become disconnected from its roots in Scripture, in the ancient church and its heritage through the centuries.5

At the same time we read the Church Fathers we should not just read gullibly. These figures were men with feet of clay, just like us except they were closer in connection to the apostolic era. By itself, that does not free them from errors but it clearly matters.

When we understand the location, time and situation of a letter or apology (defense) or catechism (instruction), we are able to get a peak at how the early believers wrestled with their issues. When we read more of them we can see that a consensus emerges on some topics. Until then we should not just jump the gun from one quotation. One clear verse in the Bible has authority for us Christians, whereas one clear passage in the early Church Fathers may be an innovation or beginning of an evolution. The closest we get to the Church Fathers having any authority is where they have consensus. Then it is moral authority, or clout, such as a reputable witness.

Rightfully so, the attendees were warned about the tactic that is often called cherry-picking. In other words we must begin such a journey with the patristic literature with integrity or we will end up citing the early Church Fathers for support in only our preconceived positions. This is the act of looking for cases or texts appearing to confirm one’s particular position, while ignoring the gravity of evidence, the historical context or writings that don’t support one’s view. It is important to admit that our data is limited as we have no second-century equivalent to Acts. And since the churches were well established the Church Fathers have an older patriarchal perspective (most were elder-overseers) and the activities of Evangelists (often traveling) are barely known. The emphasis is often on the role of the overseers, fighting heresy, conversion, enduring persecution or making Apologetic appeals to emperors and other pagans. These written works are good for determining common core values, reading about baptism and rebirth, observing relationships, unity and collaboration. On the other hand, these writings are somewhat limited on what church meetings were like, how decisions were made, how church discipline was accomplished or how money is collected and spent. It is unwise to take the minutia of evidence on such a topic and generalize from mere inferences.


Part 2 will appear next week.

1 - David W. Bercot, Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up? (Tyler, TX: Scroll Publishing Co., 1989). A major theme of RH is about Evangelicalism. Many novel features of the Evangelical Movement and many of its chief beliefs would be unfamiliar to early Christians.
2- The Jehovah’s Witnesses deny orthodox positions on deny of the deity of Christ, are strict Pacifists and believe that Christ came in 1914 among other things.

3- David W. Bercot, Common Sense: A New Approach to Understanding Scripture (Tyler, TX: Scroll Publishing Co., 1992) is out of print and available only as a PDF from Scroll Publishing.

4- From at least the first edition of Real Heretic in 1989 and at until about the mid-nineties Bercot saw the Anglican Church as the purest stream of Christianity.


5- Robert E. Webber, Who Gets to Narrate the World?: Contending for the Christians Story in an Age of Rivals (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 16)

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