We live in one of the most unique eras of all time. The increase in technology and knowledge is still running at an accelerating rate, with no plateau in sight. The Biblical prophecies regarding the end of the age are seemingly at or near fulfillment. We stand poised on the edge of time as we know it, as we witness simultaneously startling moves of God and demonic counterfeits, both paradoxically on the increase. Amidst all of this, one might ask, why should we be interested in anything so mundane and tedious as church history?
I can empathize with this question. There frequently is little bona fide value in the memorization of dates, names and places. Most of us can see no eternal difference in knowing anything about an 8th Century monastic order. Yet the early apostolic church is different. In the early church, particularly the first 300 years after it began, we can find volumes of writing from the people who walked with the apostles, or with those whom the apostles themselves ordained. We have letters from men who were on their way to die for the faith. We have letters from those who were responsible for the preservation of the gospel and the church itself. Many people have objected that they feel that the Bible is sufficient by itself for devotional study (and indeed it is) but I contend that there are significant areas of our faith that hinge on understanding the historical position of the church, and the historical context that the Bible was written in. One of the major ailments of the Church of Jesus Christ is that it has divorced itself from it's own history, and has consequently become prey to numerous heresies, cults, and elements of abberrational theology. The apostles were clear that there was ONE faith, that was delivered ONCE, for all, to the saints, and we are to earnestly contest for it (Jude 3).. Unfortunately, we have become addicted to every new "wind" of teaching, which as resulted in the fragmentation of the church, the division of the Body, the multiplication of "isms" (Methodism, Pentecostalism, Presbyterianism, Dispensationalism etc), and we are all the weaker for it.
What is the ultimate aim and fruit of our study in the early church? It is that we might return to the apostolic pattern for the church in it's doctrine and pattern for ministry. The apostolic church is the church par excellence, the only church that was directly founded by the Lord Jesus and His apostles. Her doctrine was received, rather than derived. Periodically, someone will interject that the early church is not a good pattern because they did not have the benefit of advanced theologies and creeds like we do. One pastor said to me "They were still trying to work their beliefs out". However, when I compare the fruit of that primitive, unified, evangelical, self-sacrificing, biblically-literate church with todays self-indulgent, self-centered, emotion-driven, fractionalized, and divided system we call Christendom today, how I wish we hadnt "worked our beliefs out". The fact of the matter is that God gave the apostles the pattern for ministry 2,000 years ago. He instructed them, taught them, commissioned them, and sent them out. The book of Acts of the Apostles attests to their early success. History tells us of the overwhelming power of that primitive church, as it ran rough-shod over the pagan religions, freeing the captives, yanking unfathomable numbers into the Kingdom of God, and ultimately capturing the hearts of an empire. Having come to ascendancy in the Western world, however, the culture of that empire eventually lured the affections of the church from her first love. Thus began the doctrinal and moral decline of the church. Sporadically, men and women of God have sought to reform the church, to bring her back into congruence with the original intent of the gospel. The success of reform has always been contingent to the degree to which the reformer has sought to bring the church back to the original pattern. Reform based upon innovation is not reform at all, but merely substituting one error for another.
Today, there is much talk and desire for revival. Revival is that spiritual force that empowers, quickens, and revivifies the Body of Christ. It is the presence of God that brings refreshing and Life. Yet, this New Wine does not stay well in our Old Wineskins of denomination sectarianism. It does not square with the pattern of ministry from the medieval Dark Ages. It does not conform to 20 point doctrinal statements that are of recent construct. What does hold the "New Wine" of revival? We know from the Acts of the Apostles that the primitive apostolic church did. The early church won over an entire empire, amidst terrible persecution, and cruelty, without the benefit of media campaigns, Cable TV stations, or printing presses. This is not to say that we must all wear sandals, speak only Hebrew or Greek, and operate our churches in 1st century fashion to the smallest minutia. Only that we must regain the substance and the essence of the early church. The forms and the incidentals we are at liberty to modify to our culture, for the purpose of making it conducive to winning the lost. This paper is about finding those traits and essences that are essential to the restoration of that apostolic church.
It is my hope and prayer that all believers can move to the center; to the apostolic faith of our fathers, to find unity, power, and effective ministry together in this earth. If we have allegiance to this vision of restoring Christs church, we can move beyond the extra-biblical doctrines that have separated the Body of Christ for so long. This is not to say that there needs to be an obliteration of all denominations. We will all probably retain a different flavor and style, which is biblical with Gods principles of variety. But what it does require is a common rallying point of unity for the whole church, for the purpose of achieving Gods purposes in these last days. I am reminded of the Israelites crossing the Jordan river as they came into the land of inheritance. Each tribe had its own flavor and role, yet they all moved over together, in one accord and purpose. So may it be with us.
Initially, I wrote this paper merely as a topical index of the early church. I wanted to, for the sake of my own studies, make note of what every early church father said on various subjects and track the patterns of doctrinal development and deterioration. As I did the research, however, I became fascinated by the lives and the teaching of these early church fathers. Virtually every denomination perceives itself as an extension of these earliest post-apostolic churchmen. I saw in them the great opportunity that we are provided with, the opportunity to come back to the center, to the historical Christian church. Most of the references are from the biblical witness and apologists of the first three centuries. In many cases, I have found that after that, there was frequently a significant amount of departure from the original positions. In any case, I will not suggest that any of the early church fathers were specially inspired, or that they are infallible in any case, but only that, due to their proximity to the apostles, many of them had a better or more accurate grasp of the meaning and nuances of various theological questions.
For each area, therefore, I have tried to arrange any reference from
the early church fathers in chronological order, with the earliest writers
first. For my choices in the areas discussed, I tried first to give
priority to issues that were pertinent to the early church, and then
issues that have significant relevance today. Some topics may seem inconsequential
or purely academic for us, but they may have occupied a position of
extreme importance in the second or third centuries. In most cases,
however, the issues that were debated in the first few centuries, still
illicit divided opinions today. As it was resolved then, so let it be
now "Let the Ancient Way Prevail".
Many years ago, when God delivered the Law of Moses, He had that Law written for Moses upon tablets of stone. Those tablets were preserved in the ark of the covenant, which became the central item of worship in the Israelite's religion. All of Judaism revolved around the presence of the ark. It was the visible emblem of God's unchanging law. Immutable. Perfect. Precious. It was gross and grievous sin to treat God's Law or the ark of the covenant in a frivolous way. When Nabad and Abihu, Aaron's sons, offered a "profane fire" before the Lord and were consumed by flames, it became very clear that God was not pleased with the presumptuous creation of man-made ritual (Leviticus 10:1-2). During King David's reign, when a man named Uzzah tried to steady the ark upon a "New Cart" that they had built for it and was struck dead (2 Samuel 6:1-8), we got the message that God's Word is not to be carried about by the "new and improved" methods that we have conceived of. The essence of the Word of God is not up for negotiation or to be amended. Our own clever machinations cannot add to it, nor our reasoning subtract from it.
Just as God laid such importance on the preservation and treatment of His law, we are obliged with the same reverence for the Gospel. We are told that we are to
Contend for the faith that was once and for all
The Gospel is not a part of "living tradition" that can be changed and reworked according to the whim of any individual, regardless of that individual's spirituality. It is not subject to reinterpretation as the culture around it changes. It cannot be amended by any church or denomination regardless of that church's antiquity. It is a sacred trust that was deposited with the apostolic church from the very beginning of the church.
The apostle John exhorts his readers by saying
see that which you have heard from the beginning remains in you. If it does, you will remain in the Son and the Father. (I John 2:24)
The apostolic test for orthodoxy is defined by adherence to the Gospel as it was originally passed on from the apostles. It is clearly understood that departure from the original precepts can only be classified as heresy, and possible disqualification from eternal life. When we look at the earliest days of the church, as found in the Acts of the Apostles, we see the testimony of the church that they "continued steadfastly in the teaching of the apostles". (Acts 2 :42)
As the church matured in the early apostolic and patristic era, the church consistently held on to the principle that the ancient way, that which was originally brought forth by the apostles, was the only true way.
When, as had been predicted by both Jesus and Paul, many "wolves entered the congregation, not sparing the flock, seeking to draw men after themselves" (Acts 20:29-30), the church fought valiantly to protect that sacred trust from the devious schemes of ambitious and unsanctified men. The orthodox Christians wrote volumes against the numerous sects and religions that sought to deceive the early believers. Scores of theological aberrations came forth. The presbyters and bishops of the apostolic church preached and wrote in great detail to assure that what they received from the hand of the apostles would be preserved. Eventually, in the 4th and 5th centuries, as the church began to merge with the Roman culture and came under the oversight of the Roman state, that urgency for preserving the truth dwindled. The politics of the Roman Empire became a important factor in ecclesiastic policy, and even theological debate. The powerful church-state proved that it was not so interested in exactness to the apostolic standards as it was to accommodation to the various cultures and religions in the empire. Thus, it was on a slow and gradual basis, that the slide into apostasy and doctrinal error began.
Many of the critical doctrines of the apostles were entombed in the ritual of pagan mystery religions. Spiritual authority, which once was vested in the presbytery of the individual churches, was centralized into a quasi- religious/political system. In that 1,000 years after the merger of the Roman state and Christian church, the visible Christian church had deteriorated so much, that it in many ways actually assumed the role that the pagan empire had during their early struggle. In the middle ages we find various offices in the church obtained by assassination or bribe, conversions assured by the edge of the sword, great wars instigated for the material or political benefit of the church, and even the persecution and execution of Bible believing Christians by the Roman church officials for not conforming to the pagan elements that had crept into the church.
There are occasional bright spots in church history, that of reformers and leaders in renewal who sought to purify and restore the church. Men like Francis of Assisi, Wycliffe, and Martin Luther, all who tried to recapture elements of the primitive apostolic church, yet all of them had their own frame of reference which was not wholly apostolic. Every movement and reformer has had its own share of cultural baggage that has prevented the Christian religion from returning to the purest representation of Christs church With this being true, the question then remains: What in the contemporary church can we be sure is representative of the apostolic church? What is merely a product of the influence of the apostasy (falling away)? How can we determine what is the historical interpretation of the gospel, and what is a departure from the original faith? In the following pages, we will examine the earliest biblical and post-apostolic sources, to see what they said on various key issues and practices.
In examination of these key elements in the church, it is of the utmost importance to see both the biblical pronouncements, as well as the reception in early church history of each doctrine or practice. The biblical pronouncements, of course, are crucial for the obvious reasons, since the Bible is received by all Christians as the inspired and unfailing word of God. Most people, however, do not understand the dire need for seeing each doctrine or teaching in its historical context. This has led to a significant amount of divisions and infighting in the Christian church. The early church fathers, inasmuch as they hold on to the received apostolic faith and practice, are likewise a common source of heritage for all Christians. Their blood and testimony comprise not only our bridge back to an orthodox understanding of the gospel, but quite possibly the bridge between the multitudes of sects, denominations and movements in existence today. We can find in the early church fathers writings the commentary and analysis of what was received from the apostles, which all Christians confess as the foundation of our faith. The theological contributions and self-less sacrifices of the early church, particularly in the first three hundred years, give form and definition to what the true gospel of Jesus Christ is.
Two thousand years of Christianity has lent itself to a wide diversity of opinion and practice in our faith. Particularly in respect to theological issues that are difficult to grasp, (ie. the Trinity) there is an exceptional range of opinion. One would think that if we all were citing a common source, the Bible, there would be a substantial amount of unity in belief. There is not. If we were to candidly ask why, we would see that most of the divergent elements can be traced back to the claim of a "new" or "unfolding " revelation as a source for such belief. For that reason, the early Christians had a very simple axiom that was always applied to any and every doctrine and practice. This very simple litmus test was the one thing which helped maintain orthodoxy and protect the congregations against the onslaught of perverse teaching and being victimized by the myriad's of false prophets and false teachers. They summed it up in three words:
Novelty is Error.
The early church knew that the fullness of the faith was delivered to the apostles. The Spirit of God had been poured out upon them. They walked in power, and fullness of truth. They themselves had been taught by Christ. The apostles and their successors constantly reiterated that they passed on, with the utmost sobriety and gravity, "all the words of this new life". They didn't hold anything back. Therefore, if anybody came to them with a new (referred to as "novel") teaching; a doctrine or a practice that was not first founded with the apostles as the sacred trust they received from Christ, then it was error, and to be dismissed. The post-apostolic church received the sacred deposit from these apostles. The torch was then passed to them. Many persons would come and go through churches, claiming that their doctrine was the "secret" knowledge that Christ had told the apostles in private. Others claimed that their doctrine was received directly from the Holy Spirit, and was therefore superior and to have precedent over the "letter of the law". But as long as the church held on to the principle that true doctrine was that which was verifiably apostolic and ancient, the church remained safe. Their common faith that was shared was therefore based on the verbal and written teaching of the apostles. Just like the reverence ascribed to the ark, the apostolic and universal (catholic) church sought to preserve that which she received.
Eventually, approaching the Dark Ages (5th to 15th centuries) there was significant deterioration of doctrine, as was predicated. As one would expect, apostasy and heresy came in guise of that which was novel: new, non-apostolic, and non-catholic. As Christians today, having the benefit of not only scores of translations, libraries of theology, and two-thousand years of scholarship, we have little excuse for being flippant about the sacred deposit which the apostles left the church. We can clearly identify that which had no part of the apostolic message. Nor should we merely shrug our shoulders, and complacently accept the abysmal divisions and schisms in Christianity today that are the product of the novelty of doctrine. It is not Gods intention to leave His church split, rent and divided to the end of the age. For our benefit he has placed apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers in the church for upbuilding of the body, "until we all reach the unity in the faith and knowledge of the Son." (Eph 4:13). Jesus prayed that the believers "might be as one" (John 17:21,22) The unity that God desires in not one of merely accommodation, or a superficial acknowledgment of each others right to exist, or even the hollow talk of ecumenism, but true unity and agreement in the faith.
The first great challenge to the churchs unity occurred approximately in 50 A.D. It involved the general issue of the "inclusiveness" of the church; more specifically, could gentiles be numbered equally in the church, even if they had not participated at all in the Jewish religion and culture. The very first apostolic council was called to determine if Gentiles were indeed included in the church, on par with the first Jewish believers. The apostles answered with an unequivocal "yes". If anyone had received the apostolic message of Christ, and God clearly touched their lives, then they were as much saved and redeemed as anyone could be. This was the churchs first clearing of an "ism" hurdle. It was the believers in the church who were a part of the "Pharisee" party (Acts 15:5) that sought to distinguish and exclude those who did not meet their additional arbitrary requirements. We could guess that those in the Pharisee party were probably scandalized by the ruling. Perhaps they wanted to keep their "denominational distinctives". Perhaps they even left and formed their own schismatic sect of messianic Judaism. Whatever happened, those who sought to divide the new church were contradicted by the apostles teaching. James, Jesus' brother, first bishop of the church, and the rest of the apostles instead saw that the church must retain solidarity, without adding the cultural baggage that was not truly a integral and necessary part of the faith. They saw this as a fulfillment of the prophecy to "rebuild David's fallen tent" (Acts 15:16), which was evidenced by the multitudes of Gentiles coming into the church. Today, the mandate has not changed, nor has the core message. Our predicament, however, is that those of various factions, parties, "isms" and sects have overrun the gospel message with elements of their own design. Our primary concern, then, ought to be a restoration of this apostolic rule of faith, and cleansing ourselves from the duplicity of man-made tradition, that nullifies the word of God. It is my sincere hope that an examination of the lives and the beliefs of these early heroes and champions of the church will help you get a better picture of what that sacred deposit actually was. Being merely human, we can keep in mind that they are not all perfect, infallible, or necessarily correct on every issue. However, since many of them were discipled by the apostles, or an associate of an apostle, we need to weigh their words accordingly.