Friday, September 23, 2005

The Unity of the Apostles

Skeptics of Christianity and professing Christians who hold untraditional views often suggest that there was a high degree of disunity among Jesus and the apostles. The writings of Paul are contrasted with what Jesus taught, for example. Russell Moore and Peter Boyles recently debated the death penalty on Lee Strobel's program "Faith Under Fire", and Moore cited Romans 13:4 in support of the death penalty. Boyles' response was to dismiss the passage as the opinion of Paul and to ask for evidence from what Jesus taught. Skeptics often will propose theories about the origin of Christianity that depend on a large amount of disunity among the apostles and other early church leaders. Richard Carrier of, for example, argues that Paul believed in a different type of resurrection than other New Testament authors. I saw one skeptic on America Online argue that the reference to false apostles in Revelation 2:2 has Paul in view. And people will often set Paul's view of justification against James' view, for example.

In response, we can do more than just attempt to harmonize Jesus and Paul or Paul and James. We can also cite a wide range of historical evidence for the unity of Jesus and the leaders of the early church.

Of course, nobody should deny that there was some degree of disunity among Jesus and His earliest followers. Paul gives some examples in Romans 14, and we know that second century Christians, for example, disagreed on issues such as when to celebrate Easter and whether particular sins cause a loss of salvation. Humans are fallible, and there are thousands upon thousands of potential areas of disagreement among us. The issue here isn't whether Jesus and the early church leaders were united in everything, but rather whether they were united to enough of an extent to refute common skeptical and untraditional views of early church history.

They were. And if they weren't, we would have good reason to expect to know it. We know that the early Christians were willing to discuss their disagreements. We know of the dispute between Paul and Barnabas through the reporting of Luke (Acts 15:36-40). We know of the dispute between Paul and Peter because Paul wrote about it (Galatians 2:11-21). We know of the disputes among the disciples of Jesus because the gospel writers mention them (Mark 10:35-41, Luke 22:24, etc.). From passages like Acts 15:2, 2 Corinthians 11:3-4, and Galatians 1:6-9, it seems unlikely that Paul would have remained so silent about disagreements with men like James, Luke, and John if he had disagreed with them on important matters like justification, the resurrection, and the deity of Christ. When Judas betrayed Jesus, he acquired a reputation that left many historical ripples in many places. His betrayal is mentioned in the gospels, Acts, 1 Corinthians 11, the church fathers, etc.

I sometimes see skeptics ask how Christians know that somebody like the apostle Thomas or the apostle Matthew remained a Christian. How do we know that they didn't renounce the faith later in life? After all, while we have reliable early records about the deaths of people like Peter, Paul, and James, we don't have such records for all of the apostles. What if one of them or more than one retracted what he had said about Jesus rising from the dead, for example? The answer is that although the traditions for those other apostles aren't as strong as the traditions we have for people like Paul and Peter, we probably wouldn't see such traditions at all, nor would we see an absence of contrary traditions, if these other apostles had renounced the faith. In other words, if somebody like Thomas or Matthew had gone the way of Judas, we would expect his reputation to go the way of Judas' reputation. Instead, we find people who knew the apostles making comments like the following:

"I exhort you all, therefore, to yield obedience to the word of righteousness, and to exercise all patience, such as ye have seen set before your eyes, not only in the case of the blessed Ignatius, and Zosimus, and Rufus, but also in others among yourselves, and in Paul himself, and the rest of the apostles. This do in the assurance that all these have not run in vain, but in faith and righteousness, and that they are now in their due place in the presence of the Lord, with whom also they suffered. For they loved not this present world, but Him who died for us, and for our sakes was raised again by God from the dead." (Polycarp, Letter to the Philippians, 9)

Similarly, other men who were contemporaries of the apostles write about the unity they had and refer to them collectively as if they had taught the same doctrines: Clement of Rome (First Clement 5, 42, 44); Ignatius (Letter to the Ephesians, 11; Letter to the Magnesians, 13; Letter to the Romans. 4); Aristides (Apology, 2); The Epistle of Barnabas (5); etc. Papias, who probably was a disciple of John, wrote:

"If, then, any one came, who had been a follower of the elders, I questioned him in regard to the words of the elders, - what Andrew or what Peter said, or what was said by Philip, or by Thomas, or by James, or by John, or by Matthew, or by any other of the disciples of the Lord, and what things Aristion and the presbyter John, the disciples of the Lord, say. For I did not think that what was to be gotten from the books would profit me as much as what came from the living and abiding voice." (Eusebius, Church History, 3:39:4)

Papias seems to think that all of the apostles taught the same doctrine, so that he could get one "abiding voice" from examining what was taught by all of them. Polycarp, who also knew the apostle John, speaks positively about the apostle Paul (Letter to the Philippians, 3) and was in good fellowship with a church that had been in good fellowship with Paul (the Philippian church). Apparently, John never told Polycarp of any significant theological disagreement he had with Paul. Skeptics often try to drive a wedge between Paul and Luke, suggesting that Luke misrepresented Paul in the book of Acts or that Luke held a different view of the resurrection than Paul. But Paul and Luke speak positively of one another, as we see from Luke's portrait of Paul in Acts and in Pauline passages such as Colossians 4:14, 1 Timothy 5:18, and Philemon 24. One of the earliest patristic accounts we have of the relationship between the two men is Irenaeus' comment that "Luke was inseparable from Paul, and his fellow-labourer in the Gospel" (Against Heresies, 3:14:1).

The apostles repeatedly spoke of their unity with one another. Paul writes of matters that are "of first importance" (1 Corinthians 15:3), then refers to how all of the church leaders he had just mentioned were teaching the same things (1 Corinthians 15:11). He refers to his unity with James, Peter, and John (Galatians 2:7-10) and the other apostles in general (1 Corinthians 12:28, Ephesians 2:20). He implies his unity with the other brothers of Jesus as well, not just James (1 Corinthians 9:5). Peter refers to Paul's writings as scripture and speaks highly of Paul himself (2 Peter 3:15-16). Matthew, in his gospel, speaks positively of all of his fellow disciples except Judas. The same is true of John in his gospel, and Revelation 21:14 implies the same sort of unity. Some of the early churches, such as the Corinthian church and the Ephesian church, were in fellowship with multiple apostles (Peter and Paul in Corinth, Paul and John in Ephesus, Peter and Paul in Rome, John and James in Jerusalem, etc.).

Perhaps the best illustration of early church unity comes from the writings of Hegesippus around the middle of the second century. After traveling to churches in different parts of the world and examining their doctrines, he concluded that there was fundamental unity among the churches, even several decades after the apostles had died. Other men writing around the same time, such as Irenaeus (Against Heresies, 3:3:1), would make similar comments. We know that this unity consisted of doctrines such as monotheism, the virgin birth, and the Messiahship of Jesus. There were disagreements on other matters. But Hegesippus could write of the church remaining pure under the apostles, then gradually being corrupted over time, yet still refer to a core of shared beliefs in the middle of the second century (Eusebius, Church History, 4:22:1-8). There would be an increasing variety of doctrines with the passing of time, which is inevitable, but that disunity can't be attributed to the apostles.

The best explanation for the unity of the apostolic church is that the message the apostles were conveying was true. What would have united such diverse people as Peter, Thomas, Paul, and James in such difficult circumstances? If they were all defining Jesus without much concern for historical accuracy, why does such a unified message emerge? They claimed to have seen the risen Christ, so how could so many people have been mistaken about such eyewitness testimony? How could they have been so united and have spread the church so far throughout the Roman empire under such adverse circumstances? If they were telling the truth, if their claims were rooted in history and they had witnessed what they were proclaiming, it makes sense.