Prophecy and Office
The principal concern of students of Christianity in modern times has been to discover how and to what degree it is possible to reconcile the spiritual aspects of Christianity with the temporal. Debate, speculation, and research have all concentrated on one problem: to what degree, if any, can or must a spiritual message be implemented by physical organization, formal offices, and tangible ordinances? The two extreme points of view have been magnetic poles, and few were the churchmen who were not drawn either to the one or the other. The one pole was the opinion that the operation of the Spirit precluded the existence of any formal organization, any church at all, in apostolic and early Christian times. The other pole was that the operation of the church completely superseded the unpredictable and unreliable offices of direct revelation. To the one school, the Spirit was everything; to the other the church was everything. Let us consider the first pole first.
The war cry of the liberals was that the idea of direction and government through the Spirit absolutely precluded any idea of a physical church set up on this earth. A favorite argument was that the nearness of the expected end obviated the need for a church. "The eschatology of Jesus," to quote one authority, "was the decisive argument against the founding of a Church by him."1 The fashion of this world passeth away, here we have no abiding kingdom—and here, accordingly, is no place for any such thing as an established church. "If the end was at hand and the Lord was approaching," these men asked, "what need for a church?" 2 To this they added the "spiritual" argument. A leading Protestant divine of our day recently wrote: "The Protestant affirms that God has not placed between Him and man a hierarchy of saints, bishops and priests through whom alone the individual can enter into His presence. On the contrary, we declare that as God spoke to Moses in the burning bush, to Samuel in the temple, to Paul on the road to Damascus by His Holy Spirit, so God still guides men through the still small voice of conscience."3 Both these proofs for the nonexistence of an original church rest in the end on historical assumptions; and on historical evidence they both break down.
To take the latter point first, the historic illustrations just quoted are quite sufficient in themselves completely to refute their author's stand. God speaking to Moses from the burning bush, to Samuel in the temple, and to Paul on the road to Damascus were personal experiences to which three prophets bore witness. If this was God speaking "through the still small voice of conscience," then those three men were grossly abusing that conscience by describing its operation in such extravagant and misleading terms that those who heard their stories were moved to marvel at the strangeness and wonder of them; for though we daily experience the still small voice of conscience, which of us has ever had an experience remotely resembling these? Almost as soon as the Didaché was discovered, Harnack was able to show from it that however "spiritual" the primitive church might have been, it was also highly organized. And he went on to ask the question that should have been natural enough even before the great discovery, namely, what in the world is there to prevent a man who holds an office from being directed by the Spirit? And what is there to prevent a spiritual man from being appointed to an office? Nay, it would seem, Harnack concluded, not only that the power and gifts of the Spirit can be possessed by one holding an office in the church, but also very probably as far as the ancient church was concerned, they must be.4 If the office without the spirit is a dead thing, is not the spirit without the office an ineffectual one?
As to the argument that the primitive Christians would take no thought of any kind of organization, since they expected the immediate end of all things, psychology and the scripture would support the opposite conclusion, i.e., that the fact that they were making a last-ditch stand would tend to draw the saints closer together:5 "Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together," says Paul, "as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching" (Hebrews 10:25).
Forced to admit some sort of organization in the early church, the scholars tended to favor the theory that such organization was a spontaneous local sort of thing—clubs of like-minded individuals spontaneously gathering in various communities, only to be welded into a central church organization through a long process of evolution. Now it is true that modern Christian churches can be plainly shown to be the product of just such a process of growth and adjustment; but it is equally clear that the early Christian church was not an evolved institution. "There," says Harnack, "the development goes from the whole to the part," and not the other way around. "Ecclesia," wrote Sohm, "means Gesamtkirche—the general church—of which the local churches were only copies"; the local church was a scale model (Abbild) of the main church.6 This is plainly seen in the fact that originally all the local churches had the same offices and ordinances, which would not have been the case had they grown up independently; it was only after the Apostles passed away and the general authorities disappeared that each church went its own way, so that by the fifth century Sozomen can report that in his own day, no two churches do things the same way.7 Schermann observed that the mere existence of set rites and ordinances in the early church was itself evidence for a set organization, without which they would be unthinkable.
Of these ordinances Hans Lietzmann pointed in particular to those of initiation into the church as proving beyond a doubt the existence of a close-knit, overall organization. The earliest records speak of definite rules for joining the church, Leitzmann notes, and these rules are fully developed in the Acts and the Epistles, a situation which is quite unthinkable without a rather strict organization.8 Then Karl Holl, pointing to the well-known fact that the Christian church was from its very inception a missionary organization, drew the obvious conclusion that "no missionary church begins with autonomous branches." Missionary work always spreads from some center or other and is concerned with bringing others into a well-defined group.9 As late as 1950, T. W. Manson notes that it is in the earliest records of all, the gospels, that "we begin with the fact that Jesus did gather a community round himself during the course of his ministry; and we may well ask what it was, if it was not the Church. . . . It will not do to regard this group merely as the more or less regular disciples of a somewhat unorthodox traveling Rabbi. . . . The more the Synoptic evidence is studied, the more clearly the fact emerges that what Jesus created was something more than a new theological school. It was a religious community, of which he was leader."10 It has taken the Protestant scholars fifty years to come around to this, and today the strong consensus is that the church was not a product of late and gradual evolution. In all camps, the dependence of the individual on the church rather than the church on the individual is being emphasized. This may be taken as a thread characteristic of the times and seems to favor the second or other pole of theory we mentioned at the outset—that which places the operation of the church above all other things.
In the last analysis the two conflicting schools really agree perfectly on a most fundamental premise, namely that you don't need both the spiritual gifts and a church organization. The nineteenth-century schools, in the name of the Spirit, abolished the church. Their opponents in the name of the church had long before ruled out the gifts of the Spirit. The fathers of the fourth century definitely regard the church as taking over entirely all the functions once reserved to the prophets and to revelation. John Chrysostom said that members of the church were always and everywhere asking him, What has happened to the spiritual gifts? Why do we no longer have the gift of tongues? Where are the prophets? Why are men not chosen for office as they were anciently by direct revelation from above? His answer was always that the church no longer had these gifts because it no longer needed them. They were, he said, like a supporting scaffold which is taken down as soon as the building is finished, or like a prop with which a gardener supports a young tree: as soon as the tree becomes strong and vigorous, the prop is taken away because it is no longer needed.11 Of course neither John nor his hearers were completely satisfied with this answer, for the plain implication of it was that the church of the Apostles was spiritually weaker than the church of their own day—which they knew very well was not the case. Nevertheless, that was the official answer: The church had taken over the offices anciently filled by the Spirit.
St. Augustine has a great deal to say on this subject; we need mention here only his argument that the church has superseded all revelation. Repeatedly he declares that he believes only what the church tells him to believe and only because the church tells him to believe it. This may seem a paradoxical position for the man who himself was prescribing the fundamental theology which the church was to follow for centuries to come, but what other stand can he take, since he insists that revelation has ceased and cannot put himself up as the ultimate depository of divine authority? When we read the gospels, Augustine maintains, Christ, the head, speaks to us through the voice of the church. This is indeed the opposite pole from the claim that he speaks only in the still small voice of the individual conscience, but it is just as far removed from any idea of real revelation. Even though he could speak in his own person, we are told, still, Christ has committed his voice henceforward to the church alone: her voice is his voice.12 In vain you argue! He tells the Pelagians, "for though no reason can explore or speech explain it, whatever is believed by the whole church is true."13 Since Augustine well knew in his long controversies with various sects that the whole church never saw eye to eye on any doctrine, he falls back again and again on his favorite argument for the authority of his church—it is the true church because it is the biggest; among many competing sects it has the most members and is to be found in the most places—therefore it must be the church. 14 That is his favorite and virtually his only argument for the authority of his church in his long controversy of the Donatists. It is a strangely geographical, earthbound argument leaving no room for revelation.
But long before Augustine's day the loss of spiritual gifts in the church had caused grave concern in many breasts. Bishop John Kaye of Bristol has written an interesting thesis on this subject. "The miraculous powers conferred upon the apostles were the credentials by which they were to prove that they were the bearers of a new revelation from God to man. . . . We might therefore infer from the purpose for which they were conferred that they would in process of time be withdrawn." This is Chrysostom's theory, a theory for which neither man can give scriptural authority. Indeed, the scripture says, "these signs shall follow them that believe" (Mark 16:17). Bishop Kaye continues after discussing the gradual loss of gifts in the church, "that the power of working miracles was not extended beyond the Disciples, upon whom the Apostles conferred it by the imposition of hands." As the number of those disciples gradually diminished, the instances of the exercise of miraculous powers became continually less frequent, and ceased entirely at the death of the last individual on whom the hands of the apostles had been laid, at a date which Bishop Kaye places before the middle of the second century.15 The good bishop then proceeds to disprove his own theory of the purpose of miracles by noting that the early Christians were not at all reconciled to the loss of the "spiritual gifts," but missed them sorely. After all, did the missionary work of the church come to an end "before the middle of the second century?" Most Christians would say it was just beginning, and that the specific purpose of miracles was to foster that work. If the church were really being set up on the earth, miracles should not have ceased then of all times! "What, then, would be the effect produced upon the minds of the great body of Christians by their gradual cessation?" our author asks, and answers: "Many would not observe, none would be willing to observe it; for all must naturally feel a reluctance to believe that powers, which had contributed so essentially to the rapid diffusion of Christianity, were withdrawn. . . . The silence of Ecclesiastical history, respecting the cessation of miraculous gifts in the Church, is to be ascribed," Bishop Kaye says, ". . . to the combined operation of prejudice and policy—of prejudice which made them reluctant to believe, of policy which made them anxious to conceal the truth. . . . I perceive in the language of the Fathers, who lived in the middle and end of the second century . . . if not a conviction, at least a suspicion, that the power of working miracles was withdrawn, combined with an anxiety to keep up a belief of its continuance in the Church. They affirm in general terms, that miracles were performed, but rarely venture to produce an instance of a particular miracle. Those who followed them are less scrupulous, and proceeded to invent miracles."16
A most remarkable witness to the cessation of heavenly gifts in the church, and especially of prophecy, was the celebrated Tertullian, the first and in many ways the greatest of the Latin Fathers. He seems to have been a convert—joining the church at about the age of forty in Carthage—and was one of the greatest lawyers of his day. Tertullian was not a man to be fooled; he wanted to know things for himself, and he made himself the foremost authority on the nature and institutions of the original Christian church. Like Clement and Justin Martyr before him, he was predisposed by long and laborious study in the schools of the pagans to recognize and appreciate those special characteristics of the Christian teaching which set it off sharply from all other doctrines. He knew, as they knew, that philosophers, administrators, journalists, scholars, orators, and teachers, if not quite a dime a dozen, can be trained up in any desired numbers. But not so with prophets! The gift of prophecy was for Tertullian the strongest recommendation of the divinity of the Christian church, and it was only when painful experience had convinced him beyond a doubt that the main church no longer possessed that gift that he did an amazing thing: Tertullian, commonly called the Puritan of the early church, the man who placed zeal for salvation above all other considerations and who showed by word and deed that no sacrifice was too great provided only he gain that salvation—Tertullian left the church! In doing so he did not change his mind about the gospel. What he did was to join the Montanists, a strictly orthodox sect which differed from the main church in one important thing: They preached that the gift of prophecy must be found in the church if it is the true church. That was what Tertullian was after. At the time of his going over he wrote a remarkable work in which he accused the main church of having supplanted the authority of revelation by the authority of office and numbers. Because they have the teaching (doctrinam) of the Apostles, he reminds the clergy, it does not follow that they have their authority (postestatem). All men are governed by discipline, but power comes only from God by the Spirit. The Apostles worked not by the formal operation of discipline but by direct power from God. "Show me therefore, you who would be apostolic, some prophetic examples, and I will acknowledge the divinity of your calling." It is true, they have ministerium, an official calling, but that is not imperium, the actual possession of power. The spiritual power of the church is that exercised only by Apostles and prophets, for "the Church is the spirit working through an inspired man; the Church is not a number of bishops. The final decision remains with the Lord, never with the servant; it belongs to God alone, not to any priest."17 Tertullian says much more in this vein. Whether one agrees with him or not, he shows us that the issue was clearly drawn at a very early date. Already there were two factions in the church, those who precluded office by spirit, and those who supplanted spirit by office. The only solution to the problem, as Tertullian clearly sees, is the presence of the power of prophecy in the church.
1. The whole problem has been treated by Olaf Linton, Das Problem der Urkirche in der neueren Forschung (Uppsala: Almquist and Wiksell, 1932), 121.
2. Ibid., cf. Kirsopp Lake, "The Shepherd of Hermas and Christian Life in Rome in the Second Century," Harvard Theological Review 4 (1911): 37.
3. Gardiner Day, Our Protestant Heritage [pamphlet] (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1953).
4. Linton, 123.
5. This is the "Noah's Ark" and "Rock of Refuge" theory of the Church, treated especially by Scheel and discussed by Linton, 179, 180.
6. Ibid., 51, 136, 196.
7. Socrates, Ecclesiastical History V, 22, in PG 67:628.
8. Hans Lietzmann, Geschichte der alten Kirche (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1975), 1:55.
9. Linton, 63—64.
10. T. W. Manson, "The New Testament Basis of the Doctrine of the Church," Journal of Ecclesiastical History 1 (1950).
11. John Chrysostom, De Sancta Pentecoste, in PG 50:453, 455—56, 459, 488; In Inscriptionem Actorum 2, in PG 51:81—82, 85; Expositio in Psalmum 135, in PG 55:402; On Matthew 46 (47), 3, in PG 58:479; On Epistle I to the Corinthians 32, 4—5, and 33, 3, in PG 61:269—71, 279—80; On Epistle I to Timothy 6, in PG 62:529—30; Extracts from Diverse Homilies 9, in PG 63:623, 627.
12. Augustine, Sermon 129 III, 4, in PL 38:722.
13. Ibid., Contra Julianum Pelagianum VI, 5, 11, in PL 44:829.
14. Numerous references to this argument in Augustine are given in the main index, PL 46:264. The argument is lavishly exploited by Optatus and Lucifer against the Donatists and Novatians.
15. John Kaye, The Ecclesiastical History of the Second and Third Centuries Illustrated from the Writings of Tertullian (London: Rivington, 1825), v.
16. Ibid., 92—95.
17. Tertullian, De Pudicitia 21-22, in PL 2:1077-82.