Term used by some NT scholars to define a development they perceive in Christian life and thought from expectation of an early end and judgement towards sacramental and continuing institutional norms. What happened in the Church after the death of the apostles? It would seem from the letters of Paul that organization was loose and that members of each Church were credited with different gifts, which they were expected to exercise (1 Cor. 12: 4–11), such as prophesying and healing. However, it is argued by some scholars especially in Germany that this early freedom was gradually transformed: teaching and sacramental ministry came to be concentrated in the hands of authorized ministers who derived their authority from predecessors; sacraments were increasingly emphasized as the means of sharing the life of Christ; justification by faith was replaced by an ethical system. ‘Early Catholicism’ on this view of the history of the Church therefore represents a stage of decline—when the Church was repudiating the simplicity and the expectations of the first generation and was approaching the legalism and hierarchical, institutionalized religion of the Middle Ages. Traces of this so‐called Early Catholicism are said to be discernible in the Acts (14: 23) and in the later epistles, such as the Pastoral Epistles, Ephesians, and 2 Peter. It is not long before Ignatius of Antioch (d. 107 CE) exhibits a passionate conviction that the good standing of each local Church is validated by its having its bishop.
It would be widely agreed that there is in the NT a diversity of forms of ministry and crystallization of faith into set forms. It is, however, unclear whether this ‘decline’ is evident even in the latest parts of the NT. Ephesians rings with a hope of the coming of the new age, and the list of ministries (Eph. 4: 10) are the gifts of the heavenly Christ. The Pastoral Epp. all await the Parousia. In the meanwhile the ascended Christ ensures the continuation of the apostolic ministry.