Catholic Teachings in the Early Church : Part 2 The Nature of the Church

The Nature of the Church

[Quotes below are listed in Rod Bennett’s book Four Witnesses]

Today’s Catholic Teaching:

Christ, the one Mediator, established and continually sustains here on earth His holy Church , the community of faith, hope and charity, as an entity with visible delineation through which He communicated truth and grace to all….That divine mission, entrusted by Christ to the apostles, will last until the end of the world (Mt 28:20), since the Gospel they are to teach is for all time the source of all life for the Church. And for this reason the apostles, appointed successors.

For they not only had helpers in their ministry, but also, in order that the mission assigned to them might continue after their death, they passed on to their immediate cooperators, as it were, in the form of a testament, the duty of confirming and finishing the work begun by themselves, recommending to them that they attend to the whole flock in which the Holy Spirit placed them to shepherd the Church of God. They therefore appointed such men, and gave them the order that, when they should have died, other approved men would take up their ministry….Therefore, the Sacred Council teaches that bishops by divine institution have succeeded to the place of the apostles, as shepherds of the Church, and he who hears them, hears Christ, and he who rejects them rejects Christ and Him who sent Christ.

~Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, nos. 8, 20

Teaching in the Early Church:

The true gnosis [knowledge] is the doctrine of the Apostles, and the ancient organization of the Church throughout the whole world, and the manifestations of the body of Christ according to the successions of bishops, by which successions the bishops have handed down the Church which is found everywhere; and the very complete tradition of the Scriptures, which have come down to us by being guarded against falsification, and which are received without addition or deletion; and reading without falsification, and a legitimate and diligent exposition according to the Scriptures, without danger and without blasphemy; and the preeminent gift of love, which is more precious than knowledge, more glorious than prophecy, and more honored than all the other charismatic gifts.

~Ca. A.D. 180: Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, bk. 4, chap. 33 no. 8, FEF 1:97, no. 242.

Grant, then that all have erred; that the Apostle was mistaken in bearing witness; that the Holy Spirit had no such consideration for any one Church as to lead it into truth, although He was sent for that purpose by Christ [Jn 14:26], who had asked the Father to make Him the Teacher of truth [Jn 15:26]; that the Steward of God and Vicar of Christ [the Holy Spirit] neglected His office, and permitted the Churches for a time to understand otherwise and to believe otherwise than He Himself had preached through the Apostles: now, is it likely that so many and such great Churches should have gone astray into a unity of faith?

~Ca A.D. 200: Tertullian of Carthage, The Demurrer against the Heretics, chap. 28, no. 1, in FEF 1:121, no. 295.

Christ breathed upon the Apostles alone, saying to them: “Receive the Holy Spirit: if you forgive any man his sins, they shall be forgiven; and if you retain any man’s sins, they shall be retained” [Jn 20:22-23]. Therefore, the power of forgiving sins was given to the Apostles and to the Churches which these men, sent by Christ, established; and to the bishops who succeeded them by being ordained in their place.

~Ca. A.D. 255: Firmilian of Caesarea, Letter to Cyprian, chap. 75, no. 16, in FEF 1:245, no. 602.

In addition to this pious belief in regard to the Father and the Son, we confess, as the divine writings teach us, one Holy Spirit, who moved both the holy men of the Old Testament and the divine teachers of that styled the New. And in one only Catholic Church, that which is Apostolic.

~A.D. 324: Alexander of Alexandria, Encyclical Letter to Another Bishop Alexander and All Non-Egyptian Bishops, no. 12, in FEF 1:301, no. 680.

[The Church] is called Catholic, then, because it extends over the whole world, from end to end of the earth; and because it teaches universally and infallibly each and every doctrine which must come to the knowledge of men, concerning things visible and invisible, heavenly and earthly; and because it brings every race of men into subjection to godliness, governors and governed, learned and unlearned; and because it universally treats and heals every class of sins, those committed with the soul and those with the body; and it possesses within itself every conceivable form of virtue, in deeds and in words and in spiritual gifts of every description.

~Ca. A.D. 350: Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, lec. 18, no. 23, in FEF 1:359, no. 838.

We believe…in one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

~A.D. 363/374: The Nicene Creed, in FEF 1:399, no. 910a.

In the Catholic Church, there are many other things which, most properly, can keep me in her bosom. The unanimity of peoples and nations keeps me here. Her authority, inaugurated in miracles, nourished by hope, augmented by love, and confirmed by her age, keeps me here. The succession of priests, from the very see of the Apostle Peter to whom our Lord, after His resurrection, gave the charge of feeding His sheep, up to the present episcopate, keeps me here. And at last, the very name of Catholic, which, not without reason, belongs to this Church alone, in the face of so many heretics, so much that, although all heretics want to be called Catholic, when a stranger inquires where the Catholic Church meets, none of the heretics would dare to point out his own basilica or house.

~A.D. 397: Augustine of Hippo, Against the Letter of Mani Called “The Foundation”, chap. 4, no.5, in FEF 3:51, no.1580.

Let us love our Lord God, let us love His Church; Him as a Father, her as a Mother; Him as a Master, her as His Handmaid; for we are the children of the Handmaid herself. But this marriage is held together by a great love; no one offends the one and gains favor with the other. No one can say: “Certainly I go to idols, I consult demoniacs and fortune-tellers; but I do not abandon the Church of God. I am Catholic.” While clinging to your Mother, you have offended your Father. Another says likewise: “Far be it from me. I consult no fortune-teller, I seek out no demoniac, I look to no sacrilegious divinations, I do not go to the worship of idols, no do I bow down to stones; but I am in the party of Donatus.” What does it profit you not to have offended your Father, when He will vindicate your offended Mother? What does it profit you to confess the Lord, to honor God, to preach Him, to acknowledge His Son, to confess the Son seated at the right hand of the Father, if you blaspheme His Church?…Cling, then beloved, cling all with one mind to God our Father and to the Church our Mother.

~CA A.D. 400: Augustine of Hippo, Explanations of the Psalms 88, 2, 14, in FEF 3:19, no. 1478.

The disciples receive as their lot the preeminence of celestial judgement, so that, in God’s stead, they retain sins for some and for some they forgive them [Jn 20:22-23]. It was fitting that they be so raised up by God, when they had consented to be so grossly humiliated for God’s sake. See, they who feared the strict judgement of God have become judges of souls, and they who feared that they would themselves be condemned now either condemn others or release them. Certainly it is now the bishops who hold their place in the Church. They receive the authority of binding and of loosing, who have as their lot a degree of governing. It is a magnificent honor, but that honor carries with it a heavy burden.

~A.D. 590: Pope Gregory I, Homilies on the Gospels 12, 26, 4, in FEF 3:323-24, no. 2332.

As mentioned in Part 1 of this series the quotes above represent the “witness” of the Church from it’s earliest days, it’s voice, its understanding of itself, it’s statement of belief. We can see that the understanding of the Nature of the Church from the Early Church is still what we Catholics believe and profess today.

Part 3 will focus on the Papacy.

[FEF: The Faith of the Early Fathers by William A. Jurgen]


About Rob Brock

A Catholic convert with a fire for discipleship, catechesis, and formation that leads to transformed lives in Christ. View all posts by Rob Brock

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