Unity between denominations? Part IV: The Witness of the Early Church in the Church Fathers

Previously:
Part I: The Problem
Part II: What kind of unity are we called to?
Part III:  The Witness of the Early Church in the New Testament

Even a cursory perusal of the Church Fathers reveals a Church that considered its visible unity to be of utmost importance. 

1. The Didache (around the turn of the 1st Century)

  • has clear references to a hierarchical structure (bishops and deacons)
  • also makes clear the importance of the sacraments for communion with the Church, as only those baptised may receive of the Eucharist
2. St Clement of Rome (4th Bishop of Rome) (Letter written 96AD)
  • Tertullian tells us he was ordained by St Peter (Ch. 32) himself
  • His Letter to the Corinthians is proto-canonical, which means it was read sometimes in the early liturgies
  • In his Letter to the Corinthians, he says
    • “Our apostles also knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be strife on account of the office of the episcopate. For this reason, therefore, inasmuch as they had obtained a perfect fore-knowledge of this, they appointed those [ministers] already mentioned, and afterwards gave instructions, that when these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry. ” (Ch. 44)
    • he sees no conflict between saying that members of the Church should not exalt themselves over one another, and yet the established order ought to be maintained. (Ch. 38-42)
    • He condemns their schisms, (Ch. 46) which are even worse than they were at the time of St Paul (recall 1 Cor. 1-3 in particular, and that this is the same Church, the Church in Corinth). He goes so far as to say that through their schisms, the name of the Lord is blasphemed.
    • He speaks as though he expects them to obey, even though he is bishop of Rome and not of Corinth, indicating that already, in 96AD, the seat of Rome was accorded some kind of primacy. (Ch. 59: “If, however, any shall disobey the words spoken by Him through us, let them know that they will involve themselves in transgression and serious danger.” See also Ch. 63.)
Church Fathers, a miniature from Svyatoslav’s Miscellany
3. St Ignatius of Antioch: (3rd Bishop of Antioch) (around the turn of the 1st Century)
  • In his Letter to the Ephesians, he repeatedly asserts the necessity of remaining in communion with one’s bishop (Chs. 4-6), even going so far as to say “Let us be careful, then, not to set ourselves in opposition to the bishop, in order that we may be subject to God...It is manifest, therefore, that we should look upon the bishop even as we would upon the Lord Himself.” Big call, dude. He also condemns false teachers numerous times, citing the bishops as the bulwark against their heresies.
  • Letter to the Philadelphians: “I salute in the blood of Jesus Christ, who is our eternal and enduring joy, especially if [men] are in unity with the bishop, the presbyters, and the deacons, who have been appointed according to the mind of Jesus Christ, whom He has established in security, after His own will, and by His Holy Spirit.”
  • This theme is found in all his letters (all of which you can find here, there are just too many choice quotes to include in this post, I’d end up quoting most of the content), except, interestingly, in his Letter to Rome. It is in this letter alone that he does not presume to correct the Church in their behaviour, nor in their doctrines. This fact, along with the overall tone suggests that he was writing to one whom he thought a superior of some kind.
  • On remaining separate from heretics:
    • “They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again. Those, therefore, who speak against this gift of God, incur death in the midst of their disputes. But it were better for them to treat it with respect, that they also might rise again. It is fitting, therefore, that you should keep aloof from such persons, and not to speak of them either in private or in public, but to give heed to the prophets, and above all, to the Gospel, in which the passion [of Christ] has been revealed to us, and the resurrection has been fullyproved. But avoid all divisions, as the beginning of evils.” (Ch. 7 Letter to the Smyrneans)
      Here Ignatius ties unity of faith with the sacrament of visible unity, the Eucharist.

4. St Cyprian: (Bishop of Carthage 249-258 AD)

How St Cyprian viewed Church unity.

5. St Vincent of Lerins: (mid-5th century)

He wrote a detailed work regarding how the unity of faith is to be maintained.

I could go on and on. Here is another list, some of these I have quoted already.

Just to recap the characteristics pertaining to unity that have come out of these brief examinations of the Church in the New Testament and early centuries:

  • There is one universal Church
  • There are local churches
  • It is visible, both hierarchically and sacramentally, and these are intimately connected

Part V: Visible vs. Invisible Unity

+AMDG
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