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When it comes to controversial doctrines, I have a tendency to pay attention to what the early Church had to say on the subject. Of course, the most important early Church writings are compiled in the New Testament, and, therefore, the New Testament should the first thing to study (together with the Old Testament). In fact, that's exactly what most denominations do. That said, there are certain topics in which the Bible is not as crystal clear as we would like it to be, leaving the door open for different --and sometimes even irreconcilable-- interpretations. When this happens, I personally think that it is a good idea to inform ourselves about what the apostolic fathers and other extra-biblical early Church authors had to say on the matter, especially if they were direct disciples of or at least not too many generations away from the primary sources, i.e. the apostles. In light of this, I was wondering if there are any denominations that have adopted any practice along these lines.

Question: Are there any denominations that defend their doctrines (or at least, the ones which are most controversial) by appealing to extra-biblical evidence from the 1st/2nd century of the early Church?


Responding to concerns raised in the comments:

I think the question could be improved by giving examples of the "more or less ambiguous" passages and asking specifically about those. Currently the question invites a frame challenge because no denomination will accept the ambiguity: all will come down on one side or the other.

Below some examples:

  • Mark 13:29-30, Matthew 16:28, Matthew 24:34, Revelation 1:1, Revelation 22:6-21. These passages include expressions such as 'this generation' and 'soon', that full preterists claim to be indicative of an early second coming. Of course, everyone else disagrees. What did the early Church have to say about this discussion?

  • 1 Corinthians 13:8-9. This passage is commonly cited by Cessationists to argue that the sign gifts have ceased. Of course, Continuationists disagree with this interpretation. What did the early Church have to say about this discussion?

  • Colossians 2:16-17. This passage is commonly cited to argue that Christians no longer have to keep the Sabbath or the Feast Days. Of course, Sabbatarians and denominations that still keep the Feast Days are against this interpretation. What did the early Church have to say on this?

  • There are doctrines such as Intercession of Saints that lack a biblical basis, yet certain denominations endorse them. What was the early Church's position on doctrines like these?

  • Other controversial topics:

    • Trinitarianism vs Unitarianism vs other views of the Godhead.
    • Christology (is Jesus divine, did Jesus pre-exist, etc.).
    • Pneumatology (is the Holy Spirit a person, etc.).
    • Etc.
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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Ken Graham
    Jun 29 at 18:34
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+100

In addition to the discussion of Jesus' nuclear family already mentioned, there are three doctrines that come to mind. Others could be cited; these are the three I've seen most commonly.

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1. Numerous denominations--worship on Sunday

From Justin's First Apology, chapter 67:

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, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought

Debates on the day Easter should be observed may also be relevant...but the early church had a really hard time agreeing on this one, so Justin's comment above is a more direct support of Sunday worship.

Most Christians today continue the tradition of the early church in worshipping on Sunday. In fairness to those with differing views on the day of worship, Justin is not giving a command; he's explaining what was commonly done at the time.

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2. Roman Catholic Church--Apostolic succession & the authority of the Bishop of Rome

From Irenaeus of Lyons:

tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority (Against Heresies 3.3.2)

Irenaeus then proceeds to provide a succession of Bishops of Rome from the time of the apostles to the (then) present day, circa AD 180.

Other church fathers from later centuries could be cited; the early date and prominent nature of Irenaeus' writings make him one of the preferred sources.

The Roman Catholic Church believes in apostolic succession and that the Bishop of Rome holds authority that can be traced back to Peter.

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3. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints--Theosis

(yep, I went there)

From Irenaeus:

our Lord Jesus Christ, the Word of God, of His boundless love, became what we are that He might make us what He Himself is (Against Heresies Book 5, Preface)

From Clement of Alexandria:

the Word of God became a man so that you might learn from a man how to become a god (Exhortation to the Greeks, 1)

Other church fathers from later centuries could be cited as well.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes in a form of Theosis, a point on which it differs from all other major Christian denominations of the present day.

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Conclusion

I should point out that each of these faiths derive their teachings directly from their scriptural texts (e.g. #1 from Acts 20:7, #2 from Matthew 16:18, #3 from Doctrine & Covenants 132:19-20) and from other sources that they consider authoritative--but in each case these claims are bolstered by appealing to beliefs of 1st & 2nd century patristic writers.

The patristics, then, are not the foundation of these claims, but rather, are often used to further support the valdity of a scriptural interpretation (often in discussion with critics).

I find the study of patristics fascinating, but I do not personally believe that any doctrine God intends for us to know (right now) can be derived from the patristic writers and nowhere else.

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  • The Catholic Church basis for Apostolic Succession has its root in Scriptures. The Church believes that this was taught by the Apostles themselves. Irenaeus is simply a historical support in this subject matter. Your link to the Vatican website demonstrates this Catholic Teaching on Apostolic Succession. The Church does not appeal a priori that it basis this on extra-biblical sources. They are simply supported proofs. The same will hold for Sunday Worship.
    – Ken Graham
    Jul 6 at 2:11
  • @KenGraham thanks, did you feel my comments in the conclusion failed to capture this point? If so I'd be happy to reword it. All 3 examples I cited aimed to show that these beliefs are rooted in scripture and are debated by Christians today. Patristic evidence is cited as corroborative when these points are debated. Jul 6 at 2:51
  • @KenGraham after re-reading my conclusion I see that the point I hoped to make may have been unclear. I have amended slightly. Jul 6 at 3:18
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Having read Ken Graham’s excellent answer in the question asking if any of the early church fathers believed they had to follow dietary laws, one would think that the Adventists defend their dietary regiment by appealing to extra-biblical evidence from the 1st and 2nd centuries of the early church.

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  • That was a different question all together! But thanks for the mention!
    – Ken Graham
    Jul 4 at 6:54
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There are a couple of doctrines that appeal to early non-scriptural accounts.

Explanation of Brothers

The Infancy Gospel of James refers to an "old Joseph" and "young Mary". In the story, Joseph is portrayed as a widower with children from a previous marriage.

Subsequent to that, Jerome rejected that explanation and basically invented the cousin's of Jesus to explain the relationship. Jerome believed both Joseph and Mary remained ever-virgin.

Typically, Eastern Orthodox subscribe to the first view, while Roman Catholic subscribe to Jerome's idea.

The Catechism of Catholic Church tries to portray it this way.

500 Against this doctrine [that Jesus was born normally] the objection is sometimes raised that the Bible mentions brothers and sisters of Jesus.157 The Church has always understood these passages as not referring to other children of the Virgin Mary. In fact James and Joseph, "brothers of Jesus", are the sons of another Mary, a disciple of Christ, whom St. Matthew significantly calls "the other Mary". They are close relations of Jesus, according to an Old Testament expression.

Ever-virgin

The same gospel is used to explain that Mary remained a virgin even during the birthing stage. This subsequently was spelled out that Mary was a virgin before, during, and after Jesus' birth.

Here's how Wikipedia explains the same history.

By the 3rd century, the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary had become well established; important early Christian theologians such as Hippolytus (170–235), Eusebius (260/265–339/340) and Epiphanius (c. 310/320–403) defended it. By then the early church did not accept Mary had any children apart from Jesus. Eusebius and Epiphanius held these children were Joseph's children from a previous marriage. Epiphanius adds Joseph became the father of James and his three brothers (Joses, Simeon, Judah) and two sisters (a Salome and a Mary or a Salome and an Anna)[38] with James being the elder sibling. James and his siblings were not children of Mary but were Joseph's children from a previous marriage. Joseph's first wife died; many years later, at the age of eighty, "he took Mary (mother of Jesus)". According to Epiphanius the Scriptures call them "brothers of the Lord" to confound their opponents.[39][40] Origen (184–254) also wrote "according to the Gospel of Peter the brethren of Jesus were sons of Joseph by a former wife, whom he married before Mary".

The apocryphal History of Joseph the Carpenter, written in the 5th century and framed as a biography of Joseph dictated by Jesus, describes how Joseph had with his first wife four sons and two daughters. His sons' names were Judas, Justus, James, and Simon, and the names of the two daughters were Assia and Lydia. Years after his first wife died, he took Mary. Therefore, the brothers of Jesus would be the children of Joseph by his first wife.

The Protoevangelium of James explicitly claims Joseph was a widower, with children, at the time that Mary is entrusted to his care.

The Catholic Encyclopedia, citing the texts contained in the apocryphal writings, writes that:

When forty years of age, Joseph married a woman called Melcha or Escha by some, Salome by others; they lived forty-nine years together and had six children, two daughters and four sons, the youngest of whom was James (the Less, "the Lord's brother"). A year after his wife's death, as the priests announced through Judea that they wished to find in the tribe of Juda a respectable man to espouse Mary, then twelve to fourteen years of age. Joseph, who was at the time ninety years old, went up to Jerusalem among the candidates; a miracle manifested the choice God had made of Joseph, and two years later the Annunciation took place.

Jerome (c. 347–420), another important early theologian, also held the perpetual virginity doctrine, but argued these adelphoi were sons of Mary's sister, whom Jerome identified as Mary of Cleopas. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church mentions a modern scholar, whom it does not identify, has proposed these men were the sons of Clopas (Joseph's brother according to Hegesippus) and of Mary, the wife of Cleopas (not necessarily referring to Jesus' mother's sister).

On the other hand, claiming that the brothers of Jesus were in fact step-brothers (same mother, different fathers), there is this evidence.

Sextus Julius Africanus's reference to "desposyni" (blood relatives of Jesus related to his nuclear family) is preserved in Eusebius of Caesarea's Ecclesiastical History:

For the relatives of our Lord according to the flesh, whether with the desire of boasting or simply wishing to state the fact, in either case truly, have handed down the following account.

This view obviously means that Mary would not have remained in the child-birth state and did not remain an ever-virgin.

Easter Question as it relates to Col 2:16-17

Another early dispute was on how to observe the death, burial, resurrection of Jesus Christ. Asia Minor observed the time following the Jewish calculation as floating days based on the timing of the sun and moon. Those in Rome wanted to observe it on Sundays only.

  1. A question of no small importance arose at that time. For the parishes of all Asia, as from an older tradition, held that the fourteenth day of the moon, on which day the Jews were commanded to sacrifice the lamb, should be observed as the feast of the Saviour’s passover.1687 It was therefore necessary to end their fast on that day, whatever day of the week it should happen to be. But it was not the custom of the churches in the rest of the world to end it at this time, as they observed the practice which, from apostolic tradition, has prevailed to the present time, of terminating the fast on no other day than on that of the resurrection of our Saviour.
  1. But the bishops of Asia, led by Polycrates, decided to hold to the old custom handed down to them.1695 He himself, in a letter which he addressed to Victor and the church of Rome, set forth in the following words the tradition which had come down to him:1696 2. “We observe the exact day; neither adding, nor taking away. -Eusebius Church History-

So, in the Catholic Catechism:

1166 "By a tradition handed down from the apostles which took its origin from the very day of Christ's Resurrection, the Church celebrates the Paschal mystery every seventh day, which day is appropriately called the Lord's Day or Sunday."36 The day of Christ's Resurrection is both the first day of the week, the memorial of the first day of creation, and the "eighth day," on which Christ after his "rest" on the great sabbath inaugurates the "day that the Lord has made," the "day that knows no evening." The Lord's Supper is its center, for there the whole community of the faithful encounters the risen Lord who invites them to his banquet:

As regards Colossians 2:16 (Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days:), we just read that the Easter dispute really wasn't about observing the feasts per se, but was about either observing Passover as a floating period but always on the 14th (like the 25th of Christmas) or was it about trying to always observe the Sunday appearances.

The issue of Colossians 2:16 was about those who continued to teach the necessity of observing the Law to attain salvation. As Peter put it in Acts 15:11:

But we [Christians} believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we [Jews] shall be saved, even as they [the Gentiles].

Adding works to grace has been a non-starter from the beginnings of Christianity, but certain denominations continue to teach the necessity of more in order to be saved.

And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses; Col 2:13

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  • Could you please add a link to the Wikipedia article you quoted?
    – Ken Graham
    Jul 5 at 3:33
  • How do your quotes ”defend their doctrines by appealing to extra-biblical evidence from the 1st/2nd century of the early Church?” The age of St. Joseph is not Doctrine! The Catholic Church has declared an anathema against the Infancy Gospel of James. The exact origin of the tradition of Mary's perpetual virginity is unknown. Her virginity before Jesus' birth is attested in the Gospel of Matthew and in the Gospel of Luke, but there is no biblical basis for her virginity during and after the birth. Ignatius of Antioch discussed it only to argue the reality of Jesus's human birth.
    – Ken Graham
    Jul 6 at 3:46
  • Ken Graham The doctrine of ever-virgin requires an explanation of scriptures' reference to brothers of Jesus. If not uterine brothers, as some in early church taught, then PoJ and Jerome provided alternatives. There is never a question from Christians about the sign (a virgin conceives and carries to term). As you admit, there's no scripture for Catholic doctrine about the brothers, thus you have to look elsewhere.
    – SLM
    Jul 6 at 15:45

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