Orthodox America

From the Book Shelf - Early Christian Writings  

translated by M. Staniforth; 237 pps.; Penguin Books, 1968.


    One of the fundamental differences between Protestants and Orthodox lies in their respective understanding of the place of tradition in Christian life. While the former often dismiss anything not explicitly stated in the Bible as "manmade" tradition, Orthodoxy teaches that it is precisely through tradition, both oral and written, that the Church received its original foundation; the apostles taught their disciples who in turn taught others, and so the teaching of Christ was originally disseminated simply by word of mouth. As churches were established and Christianity spread, written communication became more practical and epistles written by various disciples and Church hierarchs began to be circulated. In his second epistle to the Thessalonians, St. Paul exhorts his readers to "stand fast and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle'' I1 Thess. 2:15).

    Aside from those epistles now found in the New Testament, other epistles were circulated. An excellent collection of the best examples of these epistles, dating from late in the first century to the first half of the second, is found in the Penguin Classic, Early Christian Writings. Some of the authors of these epistles were direct disciples of the original Apostles, and as a group they are known as the Apostolic Fathers. In his preface the translator states: "In the eyes of the primitive Church the writings of these men were on virtually the same level as Holy Scripture .... their value to posterity is inestimable. For one thing, because of the care they took to hand down intact the truths of the Gospel and the teaching of the Pauline epistles, the outburst of theological activity which followed in the next century found itself in possession of a soundly scriptural foundation. For another, they provide the student of history with the only glimmer of light, in an otherwise completely dark period, on the emerging traditions and organization of the infant Church." Here indeed, we see clearly the link between Holy Scripture and Sacred tradition without which the former can be so easily misinterpreted.

     Included in Early Christian Writers are St. Clement's epistle to the Romans, various epistles of St. Ignatius, Polycarp's epistles to the Philipplans, a very inspiring letter describing the martyrdom of Polyearp, the Epistle to : Diognetus (an excellent apologetical treatise), the Epistle of Barnabas and the Didache which is divided into two parts--the first consisting of an exposition of Christian morality and the second dealing with such aspects of Church life as baptism, fasting, the Eucharist, etc.

    Although written in the earliest period of the Church's history, these writings are very applicable today. Emphasis is made on the need to preserve Church unity by submitting to the authority of lawfully ordained bishops. It can be seen that the early Church already had a well defined hierarchy of bishops, priests and deacons and it was only the ordained clergy who were permitted to celebrate the Eucharist. References are made to the Orthodox traditions of fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays, the commemoration of saints' days, the veneration of relics... All of this is shown to have been included in the general practices of the early Church. Even many contemporary issues are discussed: abortion is explicitly condemned as a sin; warning is made against what today is a very common misinterpretation of Scripture among Protestants--that of "being saved": "No assumption that we are among the called must ever tempt us to relax our efforts or fall asleep in our sins." And the attempt, so prevalent in our time, to combine religion and philosophy or science, is already characterized as a heresy.

    Each chapter is preceded by a good historical commentary and the notes throughout are generally good and unobtrusive. One exception which should be mentioned is a note to the Epistle of Barnabas where the translator reads into Barnabas' text the false teaching of the millenium.

    These writings of the Apostolic Fathers, when read as part of the whole teaching of the Church, help provide the context in which we can more fully understand Sacred Scripture and Sacred tradition which together have preserved and transmitted the true teaching of Christ, the Author and Finisher of our  holy Orthodox faith.

M. Mansur