Thursday, March 4, 2010

A Critique of an Early Church Document, the Didache

By Ben Zimmer

Biblical leaders in the early church did not haphazardly include books into the cannon. All writings claiming to be Scripture or to possess spiritual authority, were put to the test against the Old Testament Scriptures and the apostolic “Rule of Faith” (Greenslade, 1996, p.26). If the content of the particular writing did not match up with the biblical teaching, it was considered “spurius” or non-cannonical (Powell, p.123). These writings were recognized to not possess authority over the believer and in many cases to be completely heretical (Powell, p.122-123). The early church document widely known as the Didache is one such book.

In the early days of the Church, church leaders had the important task of sounding an alarm when teachings arose which were contrary to the teaching laid down by Paul and the Apostles along with the Old Testament writings. These men would examine the contents of any given teaching and compare it with the content of the Scripture. When something did not match, or even worse, contradicted the Scriptures, these leaders would hold this teaching separate from Scripture if not reject it all together (Powell, p.122). The Didache bears the very marks of a book which was rejected and laid aside by the early church fathers. Primary warning flags come from the scattered statements within the very document which contradict clear biblical teaching. Such things as drawing distinction between believers and unbelievers based on the days they fast, by stating that itinerant preachers are the new high priests for believers, or by indicating that God loosens His standard of justice as long as people try their best to measure up to His standard of perfection (Staniforth, p.193). These are flagrant signs that the Didache is not to be trusted.

Beyond these direct contradictions remains the problem that the Didache emphasizes almost purely the imperative with no mention or explanation of its connection with the gospel namely the indicatives of Scripture. This pattern is clearly contrary to the pattern laid out in the gospels and all the epistles. Statements of fact or indicatives always precede and inform the imperatives. The fact that the Didache does not follow this clear biblical pattern is the second indication that this work is at best a compilation of misguided thoughts by early church leaders and at worst out-right heresy rivaling the error of Pelagius himself.

In sum, the Didache is a document which was certainly not recognized by the early church leaders as biblically authoritative, and it clearly contradicts the Scripture in its content. Thus, the Didache may be helpful for the study of life and thought in the early church but should be held at a safe distance by any Christian who seeks to remain faithful to the gospel and the testimony of Christ. The usefulness of the Didache must be exclusively limited to this role of an informative sociological document, but must not be used for such purposes as a model for a statement of faith or as a standard for Christian life and thought. Using the Didache for such purposes would not only be injurious to the local church undertaking such task, but would also resurrect that deadly strain of seductive thought, namely Christ defaming legalism. As with any archeological or substantive discovery from the era surrounding the time of Christ, the Scriptures always stand over and against such evidence and must not be interpreted through them. The Scriptures themselves are sufficient for providing a framework for understanding the whole of the Bible. In God’s gracious providence, he has preserved His Word for the edification of His church. This is the hope and confidence of the church both now and until He returns.

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