2. Apostolic Christianity and the Early Catholicism model

(Continues the earlier blogpost Apostolic Christianity)

Before presenting my understanding of the DNA of Apostolic Christianity, I will make some qualifications of the concept. As a New Testament exegete, I am well aware of the methodological problems with describing Apostolic Christianity and this will only be a brief sketch, which focuses more on the whole picture than a detailed argumentation. Neither will I discuss the modern apostolic movement, as suggested by e.g. Peter Wagner. My focus in the New Testament church and what can be called the DNA of the New Testament church, Apostolic Christianity. Typically, Pentecostal-Charismatic Christianity always has had a predilection for notions as ‘the original’, ‘apostolic’, the ‘New Testament church’ etc. However, often this goes together with the idea of a happy, primitive, non-institutional past, a preliminary stage to what later deteriorated into a church with institutions, forms; a degenerative movement from the uncomplicated and original, to the complex, and institutional. I believe this description of early Christianity is fundamentally wrong, even though it still prevails in the literature. Ideas like these resemble the thought of a degeneration into Frühkatholizismus, Early Catholicism, as suggested by the liberal theologian Ernst Troeltsch in 1912. To him Early Christianity is divided into three phases: the first is an ideal anarchism; the second is the time of the ‘Pauline paraenesis’, getting more of outward form and discipline; the third is Early Catholicism. According to Troeltsch, this was formed to meet the threats from syncretism and Gnosticism, and Early Catholicism established the quartet doctrine, ministry, sacraments and canon. Developing this idea, the influential exegete Ernst Käsemann Early Catholicism meant that the Spirit was unduly bound to outward institutions as church offices and ordination, sacraments, etc.[1] Here is not the place for any full discussion of this, but I believe with many others that this analysis is fundamentally wrong, building on an idealistic scheme with roots in German Hegelian idealism and Romanticism. However, in an unreflecting way but on different grounds, Pentecostal-Charismatic theology might have cherished similar ideas. How do we consider the quartet doctrine, ministry, sacraments and canon? What is more, the Jewish turn in exegesis of the last 40 years points to a far-reaching continuity between Bet-Jisrael and early Christianity in a range of areas. Early Christianity was more an inheritor and continuation of Second Temple Judaism than was appreciated in the Early Catholicism approach—in fact the Frühkatholizismus hypothesis equally rejected Catholicism and Judaism.

Appreciating the Jewish roots of Christianity things rejected by Käsemann and others become natural: canon, an institutionalised teaching/doctrinal authority, a structured prayer and worship life, be it in renewed ways. The Church did not cut its roots. Not outside, but inside the synagogue Jesus proclaimed the beginning of his ministry, and the early Christians saw themselves as a continuation and a prophetic fulfilment of Israel and the promises, even of the Torah. The Torah of the Lord was not to disappear, but Jesus and his new covenant ethos of love was to become the cornerstone of the whole building of the law, given to Moses, completed by Christ.

Thus, church concepts like that of Troeltsch is neither historically feasible nor spiritually competent to meet the challenges of Christianity.

[1] Ernst Käsemann, “Paul and Early Catholicism,” in New Testament Questions of Today(Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969).

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One thought on “2. Apostolic Christianity and the Early Catholicism model

  1. I am not an academic scholar, but a High School teacher with interests in biblical studies, theology, and ancient political theory.

    I was looking for literature on academic biblical exegesis and anti-Semitism due to curiosity about the origins of the Deutsche Christen movement under the Third Reich, and stumbled onto an online review of your _Roots of Theological Anti-Semitism:etc._–which I hope to get visa inter-library loan (I am too poor to buy much in the way of scholarly works). From there, I came here to your blog.

    I read the above posting with a great deal of interest, for one of the things that struck me quite forcefully with my first serious reading of the New Testament as a young adult was that it was a “Jewish book”. That was quite a few decades ago, but one that has stuck with me ever since. While not of the Charismatic-Pentecostal persuasion, I plan to visit your English blog more often.

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