The popular Evangelical apologist J. Warner Wallace wrote an article titled What the Earliest Non-Biblical Authors Say About Jesus. Wallace begins by posing the intriguing question: “What would we know about Jesus if we lost every Biblical manuscript on the planet?” Wallace goes on to survey “the accounts of those early Christians who learned directly from the Biblical authors.” These include Clement (who Wallace believes to be a student of the Apostle Paul), Ignatius (who, according to most Evangelical scholars, wrote epistles that pre-date the writings of the Apostle John), and Polycarp (who, along with Ignatius, Wallace believes to be students of the Apostle John). Wallace notes that these writings provide us with “the earliest snapshot of Jesus, and demonstrates the story of Jesus was not distorted or modified in the centuries between Jesus’ ministry and the first Church Councils.”
It’s a good article, and does the apologetic work Wallace asks of it. As I read it, though, two thoughts occurred to me: First, a skeptic might simply look at this historical evidence and think, “Since the Church these writers belonged to was the same one that chose which books made it into the Bible, of course the two agree!” Although alternate narratives exist, the fact is the Christian Church was the final authority on what books made it into the Christian Bible. This is a reality that should make Christians who eschew the Church as an authoritative standard uncomfortable – and that realization brought me to a second thought concerning the use of historical evidence for theological claims: If historical evidence is trustworthy enough to count toward one’s conclusion, it cannot simply be ignored when it leads away from it.
Evidence and Authority
Christian apologists often admit any evidence they can find to support their views, and historical evidence is one of their favorites. Evangelicals, however, never give extra-biblical evidence an authoritative status unless it matches what they already think the Bible teaches (Wallace, for example, wisely avoids Church history when it comes to the doctrine of Purgatory). For example, one of the most important Evangelical apologists of the 20th Century, Norman Geisler, represents this methodology when he cites the great Christian creeds dozens of times in his book Conviction Without Compromise, yet writes that these creeds are not “authoritative as Scripture is authoritative. But insofar as they accurately reflect what Scripture teaches, they are helpful ‘measuring sticks’ for orthodoxy” (p. 13). (As I show elsewhere, this distinction actually renders the creeds useless as “measuring sticks for orthodoxy,” since the interpretation of the Bible is the very thing in question in matters of biblical orthodoxy.) Further, Geisler himself was instrumental in the formation of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (which, ironically, Wallace considers a creed) which explicitly states that, “We deny that Church creeds, councils, or declarations have authority greater than or equal to the authority of the Bible.”
The problem of using historical evidence for the Evangelical apologist, then, is one of methodological consistency. As I learned when researching for Geisler’s Systematic Theology, historical evidence is often a problem for Evangelical theology. When one removes the common elements of traditional (i.e., Catholic and Orthodox) and Evangelical theology, the historical evidence begins to work against the latter while remaining supportive of the former. The historic Christian faith is simply not Evangelical in its particulars, thus, the Evangelical apologist can only use it inconsistently.
The Early Church vs. Evangelicalism
Wallace does a good job of finding the common elements of traditional and Evangelical theology in the earliest extra-biblical writings. But there is more to the story, and a survey of the writings that the early Church produced (and even used in the liturgy) shows it. Even in the paltry number of writings we have from the “Big Three” early writers Wallace considers, we can see a traditional theological trajectory. Consider just two elements of early Christian theology that are in clear conflict with Evangelical beliefs: Baptism and the Eucharist.
Baptism as Salvific
We have no writings from Clement of Rome that address baptism (2nd Clement, 6:7 is typically considered spurious), and Ignatius wrote nothing that we know of concerning the salvific nature of baptism – but he seemed to think of baptism as accomplishing much more than a mere symbol ever could:
“Let none of you turn deserter. Let your baptism be your armor; your faith, your helmet; your love, your spear; your patient endurance, your panoply”
(Letter to Polycarp, 6).
Polycarp’s original writings have largely been lost, so much of what we know about him comes from his student Irenaeus. Irenaeus believed that baptism saved, even to the point of blaming Satan’s influence on those who did not agree:
“As we are lepers in sin, we are made clean from our old transgressions by means of the sacred water and the invocation of the Lord. We are thus spiritually regenerated as newborn infants, even as the Lord has declared: ‘Except a man be born again through water and the Spirit, he shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.'”
(Fragments From Lost Writings, 34)
“This class of men have been instigated by Satan to a denial of that baptism which is regeneration to God, and thus to a renunciation of the whole faith.”
(Against Heresies, 1:21)
Justin Martyr (who wrote during the same period of time as Wallace’s “Big Three”) had this to say on the topic of baptismal regeneration:
“As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, ‘Except ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.’
(First Apology, 61)
Further, many other early Church writings clearly point to belief in baptism’s saving properties. One will find the same kind of early evidence for Infant Baptism and different Modes.
The Eucharist is Truly Christ’s Body and Blood
Clement, in the only writing we have from him, called the Eucharist a sacrifice:
“Our sin will not be small if we eject from the episcopate those who blamelessly and holily have offered its Sacrifices.”
(Letter to the Corinthians, 44)
Ignatius was quite clear that the Eucharist was literally the body and blood of Jesus – not just some abstract “real presence,” and certainly not a mere symbol:
“Consider how contrary to the mind of God are the heterodox in regard to the grace of God which has come to us. They have no regard for charity, none for the widow, the orphan, the oppressed, none for the man in prison, the hungry or the thirsty. They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, the flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in His graciousness, raised from the dead.”
(Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 6)
“I have no taste for the food that perishes nor for the pleasures of this life. I want the Bread of God which is the Flesh of Christ, who was the seed of David; and for drink I desire His Blood which is love that cannot be destroyed.”
(Letter to the Romans, 7)
“Take care, then, to use one Eucharist, so that whatever you do, you do according to God: for there is one Flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup in the union of His Blood; one altar, as there is one bishop with the presbytery and my fellow servants, the deacons.”
(Epistle to the Philadelphians, 3:2-4:1)
None of the few surviving writings of Polycarp address the Eucharist. However, his pupil Irenaeus taught that,
“[Jesus] has declared the cup, a part of creation, to be his own Blood, from which he causes our blood to flow; and the bread, a part of creation, he has established as his own Body, from which he gives increase to our bodies.”
(Against Heresies, 5:2:2)
“For just as the bread which comes from the earth, having received the invocation of God, is no longer ordinary bread, but the Eucharist, consisting of two realities, earthly and heavenly, so our bodies, having received the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, because they have the hope of the resurrection.”
(Five Books on the Unmasking and Refutation of the Falsely named Gnosis, 4:18 4-5)
Justin Martyr states similarly that,
“For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour,having been made flesh and blood for our salvation,so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word,and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished,is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.”
The history of the early Church is actually replete with similar statements (and none to the contrary – see The Early Christians Believed in the Real Presence). It was not until the period of the Reformation that this dogma was seriously questioned.
Wallace concludes his survey of early Church teachings concerning elements of Jesus’ miraculous birth, earthly ministry, death on a cross, and resurrection, by pointing out that, “the story of Jesus was not distorted over the years, and even if we lost every Biblical manuscript on the planet we could still re-assemble the ancient details of Jesus’ life, ministry and nature.” Wallace’s standard for this conclusion is that the Early Church Fathers he summarizes agree with the New Testament, and that is fine as far as it goes – for the New Testament manuscripts are, historically speaking, the oldest and most trustworthy of the Church’s writings. However, they are not the only early writings that could be considered – and again, it is ultimately the Church that determined which books were to be counted as Scripture and which were only helpful (or heretical). Thus, their agreement might be expected.
The more theologically problematic element in Wallace’s comparison of the Early Church Fathers to the New Testament is that while they are not in conflict with each other (nor with Catholic or Orthodox theology), they are in conflict with the Evangelical theology Wallace himself espouses. The historical evidence when taken “as is” leads one to the historic Christian faith reflected in Catholic and Orthodox – not Evangelical – theology. To riff off of Wallace’s claim: these writings provide us with the earliest snapshot of the Church, and demonstrate that her theology was not distorted or modified in the centuries between Jesus’ ministry and the first Church Councils. Therefore, even if we lost every Biblical manuscript on the planet we could still re-assemble the ancient details of the Church’s belief.
Since it would, of course, be inconsistent to only acknowledge the “cold case” evidence that happens to match one’s personal convictions, the challenge for Wallace and other Evangelical apologists is to offer a principled (i.e., non-question-begging) approach to the evidential use of the Early Church Fatherss that avoids conflict with their theology while remaining consistent in practice.