Friday, December 19, 2008

A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, David W. Bercot, Editor

A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, David W. Bercot, Editor

I became familiar with this volume thanks to Wayne Jackson and the Christian Courier. Brother Jackson was recommending this book for purchase in the column “The Book Shelf” stating, “This is a tremendously valuable reference tool in the area of church history.” That was all I needed to hear so I ordered a copy the first opportunity I had. The book indeed is a tremendously valuable research tool into the writings of the early church.

For those unfamiliar with the term Ante-Nicene Fathers, this refers to the period directly after the 1st century but before (or ante) Emperor Constantine assembled the church council of Nicaea in 325 AD. The writers of this period include those who were martyred for their faith; e.g., Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian and others. A collection of their writings can be purchased in a ten-volume set; however, this volume provides an excellent way to access their writings more efficiently. Then if one wishes to read more about a writer’s thoughts, they can follow the citation to read directly from the primary source material that is available. This work provides information from the Bible and early church fathers on over 700 theological and historical topics so one can quickly gather key information on a given topic. Plus, the editor has provided cross-references to other materials in the book that are helpful. Basically this is a topical index to the writings of the early church immediately after the period of the apostles. One should be sure to read the Preface of this book in order to gain valuable insights on how to maximize its use. In addition, the editor has provided a “Who’s Who” of the Ante-Nicene Fathers that provides the best estimates of the timeframe the person lived and what we know of their position in the early church. This information is brief but a valuable “snapshot” of the witness.

The adage “Those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it” has again been demonstrated to be true, not only in secular, but church history as well. The firestorm of controversy by the fiction/nonfiction work The DaVinci Code rained longer than it should have because many have neglected church history. This was shown to be true when claims/statements/accusations were not in line with the facts.

A study of this period reveals what the early church did in the years immediately following the apostolic period. One should use caution with this material recalling that these men were not inspired (or guided) by the Holy Spirit as the New Testament writers were. Some afford these men more authority then the apostles and the New Testament, which can be a grave error. Recall the warning Paul gave to the Ephesian elders of the apostasy that they were to watch out for in their lifetime in Acts 20:17ff. This warning would certainly include this period. So one must exercise caution in the use of early church leaders’ works after the first century.

A sample of the type of material one will find is an entry under “LORD’S DAY” which includes a statement by Justin Martyr around 160 AD. Here is what he wrote:

And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read….But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God…made the world. And Jesus Christ our Savior rose from the dead on that same day. (Pages 405-406)
This quotation suggests several points: (1) Sunday rather than Saturday was now the day of worship, (2) Saints assembled together in one place rather than splitting into various homes for study, (3) The reading of the Scriptures was prominent during the assembly, and (4) the writings of the apostles were viewed as equally authoritative as those of the prophets. This one entry contains points that could easily be expanded into a lesson on the public worship habits we should have as Christians if we want to be like they were then. And this is just one passage under one entry of over 700 topics.

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