Where would I have looked to know what to believe about the faith and the Gospel if I were alive as a Christian in the 2nd century of the Church?It leads the reader through the author's thoughts:
Since properly ordained bishops held the truth, I would have believed about the faith and the Gospel what my local bishop taught me.The author draws this conclusion:
In the 2nd century, I would have believed that our God loves us enough to give us shepherds on earth, easily identifiable, that we can follow with trust and confidence. I would have followed the local bishop's explication of the Gospel, and submitted myself to his God-given authority.
I start somewhere near where the author does, though I think by the time he has reached his conclusion, he and I have gone down different road. I hope to use this post to point out where we share the same road and where we take different roads.
I think, if I were a second-century Christian, I would learn from those who had been taught by the apostles, or their next-generation successors as available. The refrain from the early church is that the faithful could distinguish the right teachers of Christ from the wrong teachers of Christ by their knowledge of the apostles, especially those who had known Christ in person. Now it happened at times that someone taught something different; but the consensus of the churches founded by the apostles was enough to reliably distinguish teachings which were not in agreement with the apostles.
What made possible this second-century reliance on the consensus of the apostolic church? It was the fact that a consensus existed: there was unity among the apostolic churches. The great apostolic sees of Constantinople, Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem all spoke with one voice and one witness to Christ and his apostles. In those days when the apostolic churches throughout the world were in agreement, it was an easy thing to distinguish what the apostles had taught us of Christ, and what Christ had taught us of God.
The gold standard of the second century was this: what did the apostles teach? And the guarantor was the united consensus of the apostolic churches -- and a fair chance that the bishop had first-hand knowledge of one of the apostles in person in the earliest days of the church, or second-hand knowledge. As time passed, first the bishop's fairly direct and close knowledge of the apostles was lost. And unfortunately, over time the consensus among the apostolic churches fell apart as well. The apostolic churches maintained unity until Chalcedon where the first serious rift was introduced. They drifted apart further as the centuries progressed, so that by the year 1100 A.D. no more than one or two of those five ancient sees stood together, as it is to this day. I do wish I could look through the lens of the ancient united "one holy catholic and apostolic church" from the 2nd century, but that fellowship was broken before the year 500 A.D. That is one reason why I cannot take my answer "if I were a 2nd century Christian" and apply it to "since I am a 21st century Christian": the terrain has changed much since then, and changed in exactly the points that matter.
Fortunately, before the knowledge of the apostles faded and the consensus of the church fell apart, the church did recognize the writings left behind by the apostles, their companions, and their chroniclers. They set aside these books in a single volume and designated them as uniquely authoritative. They recognized these teachings as the teachings which had been their foundation. All the writings of the apostles, their companions, and their chroniclers were included -- even though a few writings may have been admitted under "benefit of the doubt" clauses of various types. That is another -- and likely the most important -- reason why I cannot take my answer "if I were a 2nd century Christian" and apply it to "since I am a 21st century Christian": when all these writings were collected, the united church recognized them as an authoritative means to know what Christ and the apostles taught.
The gold standard in the 2nd century was: what did the apostles -- the first witnesses to Christ -- teach? The gold standard in the 21st century is still the same: what did the apostles -- the first witnesses to Christ -- teach? But there have been significant changes since the second century, and a method which presumes a second-century environment will not get the best answer in an environment where precisely the relevant points in that environment have changed so substantially.
In the second century, meeting someone who had known an apostle was the most reliable way to answer that question: what did the apostles -- the first witnesses to Christ -- teach? In the twenty-first century, the New Testament is the most reliable way we have to answer that question: what did the apostles -- the first witnesses to Christ -- teach?