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Food for thought from Larry Hurtado:
In the Roman era, “religion” (our term, not theirs) was typically a set of cultic performances, mainly sacrifice/gifts to gods. People liked the gods to do things for them, and the gods liked gifts. So, it was a convenient exchange. You could offer a god a gift to ask for a boon, or in thanks for one. There were also regular sacrificial rites, at periodic times, essentially to keep the god in a positive relationship with you, your city, nation, etc.
This produced physical evidence of “religion.” There were sacred places, and shrines or temples built. There were altars, and images of the gods. There were “ex voto” objects purchased and given to the temple/god in thanks for answered prayers. Substantial gifts would often also involve an inscription (just so the god and other people didn’t overlook who gave the gift). These “dedicatory” inscriptions form the main part of the data that Collar studies on the cult of Jupiter Dolichenus, for example.
But early Christianity (in the first three centuries CE) didn’t have shrines or temples, or altars, or cult-images, and no sacrifice was involved. So, no dedicatory inscriptions or ex voto objects, or whatever. (The earliest church structure thus far identified firmly is the famous Dura Europos one dated in the 3rd century CE. But it didn’t include an altar or image or such.)
Instead, early Christianity was heavily the propagation of teaching about the Christian God’s purposes and will for human life, which included the formation of responsive groups (“ekklesias”) called to exhibit the way of life demanded by the God. There were, to be sure, cultic/worship actions and rites, e.g., baptism invoking Jesus’ name as the entrance rite, and the sacred shared meal. But early Christianity didn’t generate the kinds of physical objects generated/used by other religious groups of the time.
Indeed, some scholars (e.g., Edwin Judge) even urge that early Christianity can’t be called a “religion” in the terms applicable in the Roman world, and should be classified as a peculiar “philosophy” instead. For my part, I still prefer to classify early Christianity as a peculiar kind of Roman-era “religion,” although I grant that it exhibits a number of features that are more commonly found among some philosophical groups of that time.
Phil at hyperekperissou has a nice article about Protestants reading the early church fathers. The article grows out of an attitude that I also sometimes encounter: Roman Catholic or Orthodox Christians of a certain bent seem offended that a Protestant would show any interest in the fathers, or accuse them of cherry-picking the bits we like and leaving the rest behind. In for a penny, in for a pound?
Even if I were not personally offended by this, it would strike me as counter-productive. Have these detractors not considered that many Protestants who have begun to take the fathers seriously have ended up crossing the Tiber (or the Bosphorus)? If I were Catholic or Orthodox and I knew an evangelical who was interested in patristics, I would stock her up with all the best resources I could! I would applaud her baby steps toward the fullness of God’s revelation. I would ask, “What have you learned lately? Where is your study taking you?” and listen respectfully to the answers.
But I’m not Catholic or Orthodox (in the capital-letter sense). I can only speak for folks like me. So let me first acknowledge that Protestants, especially free-church Protestants, and especially evangelical free-church Protestants, have brought some of this surprise and suspicion on ourselves. We have largely forgotten that the early Reformers—Luther, Calvin, and the like—all knew their patristics! Their argument against Rome was not that the fathers were irrelevant but that Rome had misread them!
For Luther et al., the fathers had to be read in light of Scripture, which holds the final authority. Still, they are valuable examples of how people read the Bible in earlier days, and they do carry genuine authority (of a secondary, derivative sort) in settling matters of faith and practice. As my seminary church history professor would say, we believe in sola scriptura, not nuda scriptura.
That is why I celebrate the fact that many Protestants are coming around to rediscover the fathers. In so doing, we are discovering not only our ancient but ourProtestant roots. We are sorting out what is the core of our faith and what is a passing fad.
The Reformers would be proud!