The Truth of Orthodoxy

The Martyrdom of St Polycarp

The Martyrdom of St Polycarp

My father is a fundamentalist, a dispensationalist, and an ordained minister. For many years he taught courses on a variety of subjects, and has recently collected his lecture notes into a series of books. In one entitled The Kingdom of the Frauds, he describes a number of Christian and non-Christian religions. In the section on Eastern Orthodoxy he writes:

The Orthodox Church traces its development back through the Byzantine or Roman empire, to the earliest church established by St. Paul and the Apostles. It practices what it understands to be the original ancient traditions, believing in growth without change.[1]

Now if what Orthodoxy claims is actually true — if the Eastern Orthodox Church indeed descends from and continues in the teachings of the Holy Apostles — then its truth claims have to be taken seriously. It is not enough to dismiss them out of hand, as the historical evidence is all there. Nor is it enough to claim some great apostasy took place, without pointing to evidence of the early church apostatizing.[2]

My sister recently encountered this all-to-easy dismissal of Orthodoxy. Not long ago she attended her class reunion at Colorado Springs Christian School (CSCS). She was sitting with some of her friends when a former classmate approached. When the subject of my sister’s recent conversion to Orthodoxy came up, her classmate snidely commented: “Oh, they’re the ones who think they are descended from the original Church.” After making this comment, her classmate turned and walked away. My sister’s friends then asked: “So why did you become Orthodox?” My sister replied: “Because I became convinced they are descended from the original Church.” [Cue rim shot.]

The historical evidence is all there. For me, there were perhaps three works that had the greatest impact upon me. The first was the Didache, aka the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles.[3] This is an ancient church order, one which scholars now think could date between 50 – 120 AD, although it seems likely to have been written before the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D.[4] There is a clear continuity of thought and practice between the Didache and other ancient church orders such as the Didascalia Apostolorum, (c. 200-250 AD)[5], the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus of Rome (c. 215A.D., and written by Hippolytus)[6], and the Apostolic Constitutions (c. early 3rd century, with interpolations dating out to 400 A.D.)[7] A comparison of these documents shows a certain creative elaboration, or as my father put it, “growth without change.”

The second major influence was the Commonitorium of St. Vincent of Lerins (c. 434 A.D.) St. Vincent wrote following his participation in the third Ecumenical Council in 431 A.D.; his Commonitorium was written to capture the methods used by the Ecumenical Council to define Orthodox doctrine over against error.[8] The famous rule of Vincent of Lerins is summed up on three words: catholicity, antiquity, and consent. St. Vincent writes:

This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consent. We shall follow universality if we confess 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 manifest were notoriously held by our holy ancestors and fathers; consent, in like manner, if in antiquity itself we adhere to the consentient definitions and determinations of all, or at the least of almost all priests and doctors.[9]

While the protestant translator chose to use the word “universality”, the actual word is “catholicity.” The term “catholicity” has to do with a faith which is whole, complete, and entirely sufficient.[10] This meaning is clearly different than the term “universal”, which term is generally used as a replacement for “catholic” or “catholicity.” The term “universal” has reference to the Protestant doctrine of the invisible church, that which is made up of all saints, whether dead or alive. This hidden or invisible church is by extension the “universal” church, as opposed to the sectarianism of the visible church. But the idea of catholicity is a rebuke to all schisms, sects, and denominations.

Following the rule of St. Vincent of Lerins, we must search out that which is whole, entire, and sufficient (catholicity); we must search out that which is from antiquity; and we must search out that which is of common consent (not new or innovative.) Thus a new doctrine — such as the Roman Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, or the Dispensational Protestant doctrine of the secret return of Christ and the subsequent Rapture of the Church — is automatically excluded. By common consent we refer to the consensus fidelium — the widespread agreement, or the general consensus of the faithful.

The third major influence is The Martyrdom of St. Polycarp,[11] which is a rather obscure reference. St. Irenaeus, in his book Against Heresies, writes concerning St. Polycarp:

But Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried [on earth] a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true.[12]

What I find most interesting is St. Polycarp’s response to the Roman proconsul who had asked him to recant his Christian faith. Polycarp replied: “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”[13] St. Polycarp, at that time an 86 year old man, proclaims himself to have been a Christian for 86 years. In other words, this man who was the companion and disciple of the apostles was baptized as an infant. By extension, then, the apostles practiced infant baptism.

In the Didache we see an ancient church order of the apostolic church, one untainted by the supposed “Great Apostasy.” This church order is liturgical, hierarchical, and sacramental, all of which are anathema to the Protestant church of my youth. In the Rule of St. Vincent we see the manner in which the ancient church determined and maintained the apostolic faith over and against all manner of theological errors and heresies. When applying these principles to the Protestant church of my youth, or the Lutheran church of my adulthood, I was forced to acknowledge them to be weighed in the balance and found wanting. And then the witness of St. Polycarp, while not conclusive in itself, was nevertheless the final straw.

The evidence was all there, right in front of me. I could no longer deny that the Orthodox Church was indeed the lineal descendant of the church of the apostles. The only question was whether I was going to accept the historical evidence and adapt myself to the church, or whether I was going to continue to try and get the church to adapt itself to me and my desires. Despite become Orthodox, this is a struggle that will be with me until the day I die.


 

Bibliography

Ancient Christian Writings. n.d. “Didache.” Ancient Christian Writings. Accessed May 25, 2015. http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/didache.html.

Carlson, Norman. n.d. “The Kingdoms of the Frauds: The Major Religions And Cults Of The World.” The Colorado Free Bible College. Edited by Norman Carlson. Accessed May 25, 2015. http://www.thecfbc.com/sites/thecfbc.com/files/The%20Kindoms%20Of%20The%20Frauds60a.pdf.

Chapman, Henry Palmer. 1913. “Didascalia Apostolorum.” Catholic Encyclopedia. Accessed June 9th, 2013. http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Catholic_Encyclopedia_(1913)/Didascalia_Apostolorum.

Hippolytus. 1997. “The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus of Rome.” Kevin P. Edgecomb. July 8. Accessed May 25, 2009. http://www.bombaxo.com/hippolytus.html.

Martini, Gabe. 2015. “Vincent of Lérins and the Catholicity of the Church.” On Behalf of All. May 24. Accessed May 25, 2015. blogs.ancientfaith.com/onbehalfofall/vincent-of-lerins-and-the-catholicity-of-the-church/.

Schaff, Philip. 1884. ANF01. The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. Edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Vol. 1. 10 vols. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

—. 2004. ANF07. Fathers of the Third and Fourth Centuries: Lactantius, Venantius, Asterius, Victorinus, Dionysius, Apostolic Teaching and Constitutions, Homily, and Liturgies. Edited by Philip Schaff. Vol. 7. 10 vols. Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

—. 2004. NPNF2-11 Sulpitius Severus, Vincent of Lerins, John Cassian. Edited by Phillip Schaff and Henry Wace. Vol. 11. 14 vols. Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library.


 

Endnotes

[1] (Carlson n.d., 167)

[2] When I was a young man, I remember being taught that the “Great Apostasy” took place immediately after the death of the last apostle. The evidence for this was taken from Revelation chapter two, in the letter to the church of Ephesus, where it is stated: “Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love.” (Rev 2:4) Additional evidence is from Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians, where he says there will be “a falling away” before the “day of the Lord.”(2 Thes 2:1-3) No historical evidence was ever provided to back up this claim, even though those making the argument claimed to be using the “grammatical-historical method” of exegesis. As it turns out, the greatest proponent of the “Great Apostasy” occurring immediately after the apostolic era is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, aka the Mormons.

[3] (Schaff 2004, 552)

[4] (Ancient Christian Writings n.d.)

[5] (Chapman 1913)

[6] (Hippolytus 1997)

[7] (Schaff 2004, 573)

[8] (Schaff, NPNF2-11 2004, 207)

[9] (Schaff, NPNF2-11 2004, 214)

[10] (Martini 2015)

[11] (Schaff, ANF01 1884, 65)

[12] (Schaff, ANF01 1884, 688)

[13] (Schaff, ANF01 1884, 69)