I got an email the other day from a guy who’s been debating the Jehovah’s Witnesses about the deity of Christ.
Because modern Christians generally have never even heard about what the early churches believed about the Trinity (almost none, with the possible exception of the Eastern Orthodox Churches), they are very confused when they hear quotes from the church fathers of the second and third centuries. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have taken advantage of this, and they have "quote mined" the early church fathers, putting a spin on those unfamiliar quotes that has nothing to do with what they meant.
Of course, even putting a spin on their quotes isn’t quite enough, so the Jehovah’s Witnesses have done some misquoting as well.
I sent this person chapters 16 and 17 of my book on the Council of Nicea because it provides dozens of quotes, in context, with explanations that make sense of the Council of Nicea. You can’t read those chapters, as well as the story of the council earlier in the book, and not know how accurate they are.
He then wrote back asking specifically about Papias.
Here’s where I really want to show you how good it feels to know what you’re talking about rather than just guessing and hoping that what you believe is true.
Papias was an early Christian elder who had spent time with the elder John, the man who possibly wrote the Book of Revelation. (You may have noticed how different the Revelation of John is from the Gospel and letters.) Early Christian testimony says that there was very likely two Johns in Asia Minor at the end of the first century. One was the apostle, and the other was an elder he appointed.
Irenaeus mentions him several times, saying that he knew him. Eusebius, around the time of the Council of Nicea, includes Papias in his history, mentioning that he’d written a book in five parts. He quotes him several times as well.
That’s all we know about Papias.
So now you know what I’ve got to say about that. I’m a trustworthy secondary source, though you need to make sure you know something about me before you grant me the trust I just said I’m worthy of.
But I can do one better than that.
I sent this man who emailed me a link to the Christian Classic Ethereal Library. That link I just gave you will put you right on the Papias page, where the editors of The Ante-Nicene Fathers have collected all the references to Papias in one place.
Go there, and you can use the navbar on the left once you get there to see all ten fragments referring to Papias.
After that, if anyone brings up that obscure but important figure in early Christian history—such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses—you can say, "Papias is only mentioned by Irenaeus and Eusebius, and there’s just ten fragments available on him."
If you read those fragments, which will take five to ten minutes, then you will have a small taste of early Christian writing, and you’ll be able to add, "And, by the way, I’ve read what little we have on him, and he really doesn’t mention the Trinity specifically, but he sounds just like everyone else in his time. In fact, since Irenaeus claims to have met him and quotes him as an authority, I think it would be fair to say that we can find out what Papias believed by looking at what Irenaeus believed."
It’s nice to know what you’re talking about, and it’s not that hard to know.
Why should we be wondering about what THE APOSTLES’ CHURCHES believed?
Have you ever checked out what some church believed? Have you ever asked a friend, looked a church up on the internet, asked questions of the pastor, or read their statement of faith?
How much more important to do that with THE APOSTLES’ CHURCHES!
I mean, think about it. Christians fight over so many things, wouldn’t it be wonderful to know what the churches believed and practices that were started by the apostles? I think we all believe that they have more authority than anyone.
There’s a letter from the church of Rome to the church of Corinth (you have to use navbar on left when you get to that link to read the chapters) just 40 years after Paul wrote his letters. Have you ever wondered whether they repented at the teaching and writing of Paul?
Another thirty or forty years later, Polycarp wrote a letter to the Philippians. What was going on with them?
In fact, Polycarp was the bishop of Smyrna at least as early as A.D. 116, maybe earlier. While he may not have been an elder in Smyrna when the book of Revelation was written, he could well have been a member (depending on when it was written). Smyrna was one of only two churches that were not rebuked by Jesus in Revelation chapters two and three.
So what sort of advice is given by this leader of one of the best churches in Asia Minor at the turn of the first century? It would take about 20 minutes to find out, at most.
It has always amazed me that church leaders haven’t told their people they can know things like this.