Today we tend to think of Scripture for discipleship primarily in terms of individual Bible Study, but in the early church—which had no complete Bible—Scripture use was much more multivalent. Read more from Steve Bruns as he continues his series on discipleship.
Today we tend to think of Scripture for discipleship primarily in terms of Bible Study, and this is generally the sum total of thinking regarding discipleship. In the early Church, however, Scripture played a much different role for discipleship for one very basic reason: not everyone had a Bible.
It is very interesting how so much emphasis is placed on Bible studies today when the Church spread for at least the first thirty to fifty years without even one Gospel written, and then it took another thirty to fifty years before copies of that Gospel were widespread. And then, once the Gospels were collected and copies of Paul’s letters (and other authors) were collected, only the individual congregations themselves had copies of what would become the Bible as we know it today. There was still no individual Bible study.
Since the earliest decades of the Church had no New Testament, it should come as no surprise that Christians relied on what Scriptures they had to share the message of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection: The Old Testament. The Law, the Prophets, and the Writings that made up the Old Testament were the scriptural basis for the preaching of the Gospels. Even once the books that would become the New Testament became widely circulated within the various congregations around the Roman Empire, the Old Testament was still crucially important for the Christian proclamation.
The use of the Old Testament in the life of the Church was so great, in fact, that when a heresy under the leadership of Marcion of Sinope (ca 85-160) denied that the God of Israel was the same as the Father Jesus described and therefore excised the Jewish Scriptures out of his congregation’s readings (along with any references to them in the Gospel of Luke, Acts, and the copies of some of Paul’s letters he had), he and his teaching were quickly rejected. Even though his interpretation of the Christian message was rejected, his “church” continued to grow and spread. Marcion read the Old Testament literally and came to the conclusion that there was no way the deity that instituted the covenant with the people of Israel, with all of its war and judgment, could possibly be the loving and grace-filled Father described by Jesus.
The early Church, on the other hand, made full use of every passage of the Old Testament for the purposes of teaching, exhorting, and evangelizing. They understood the literal meaning of the Old Testament, but they had no qualms with also reading those Scriptures in an allegorical or typological way. We see this in numerous examples in the New Testament already. “Out of Egypt I have called my son” from Hosea 11:1 easily gets applied to Jesus rather than Israel in Matthew 2:15. The story of Noah becomes a type for baptism in 1 Peter 3. Paul uses the relationship between Sarah and Hagar to describe the Christians and the non-Christian Jews in Galatians 4. Jesus even uses the bronze serpent from Numbers 21 as a type for himself in his conversation with Nicodemus in John 3.
This form of using the Old Testament became widespread and normal in the early Church, so much so that when Ireneaus wrote On the Apostolic Preaching in the mid-to-late second century as a teaching guide for newer converts to show them what the Christian proclamation had been up to his day, the majority of the work is derived from the Old Testament and how Jesus is the focus of all of the Jewish Scriptures. Ireneaus, along with the rest of the Church, took very seriously Paul’s interpretation of Moses’ veil over his face being applied to an unenlightened view of the Jewish Scriptures in 2 Corinthians 3.
The early Church completely integrated the Old and New Testaments and created a poetry to the faith. A cursory reading of almost any of the writers of the first three hundred years of the Church will show a range and depth of meaning and interpretation that is not found in preaching and teaching today. To be sure, there were some that went to extremes, but the reality is that today much of what passes as solid, biblical Christianity is functional Marcionism. We tend to read the Old Testament hyper-literally and then fail to see such connections—such as Mary being equated with the ark of the covenant since she contained the New Covenant, an image that was very popular during this early time (and with some rather interesting implications for interpreting Revelation 11:19-12:1).
For the early Christians, Scriptures were read at length in the context of worship, they were seen as a unified voice spanning God’s work in Israel through the life of the Church, and they were interpreted together, always pointing to Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of every passage. The subject material was Jesus, no matter what book or passage was read, and the application was how, therefore, the followers of Jesus were to live with one another and in the world.