Tag Archives: Church History 101 Early Church

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Church History 101: A short history of church history from 64 AD to 600 AD (part two)

There’s a likelihood (or perhaps a possibility) that the exam questions tomorrow will ask about the development of the church in the early year’s it’s probably worth covering that off too… The New Testament Church enjoys the benefits of apostolic oversight. Guys like Peter and Paul are running around planting churches, but they’re supported by a bunch of other people (eg Barnabas, Silas, Timothy, Titus, Erastus, etc), The Council, or “pillars” of the church in Jerusalem can be consulted for major doctrinal decisions (like in Acts 15) – and their word is authoritative. But what of the next generation? Or the generation after that. The so-called Apostolic Fathers were seen as a natural link (and many people think that link established a continuous chain of authority). But obviously, based on looking at some of the primary documents, it didn’t take long for errors to creep in, or disputes to arise. The hotly disputed “Pastoral Letters” (that I still think were written by Paul because the arguments against that are just stupid),1 at the very least, demonstrate that some form of pastoral structures were present in the early church (there were elders, and teachers). There would also be false teachers to watch out for (suggesting that there were a bunch of people jumping on the itinerant preaching bandwagon, or people becoming teachers within a city or town). We know from the New Testament that there were churches scattered far and wide, throughout the Roman world. Developing some form of governing hierarchy became important as heresies began to emerge and spread, throughout the church. Marcion, the gnostics, and the Montanists gained traction across the church, causing the leading intellectuals from the orthodox side of the fence to more carefully define what was right and what was wrong belief. Which meant developing some semblance of a canon. Justin Martyr’s apology outlines the practices of the church a century after the last bits of what we know as our canon are assumed to have been written (unless you’re one of those academic nutbags who thinks they were all written mid second century). But it’s likely that the very diverse spread of the church, and very diverse set of academic, philosophical and social influences on leaders of the early church, meant that there were as many differences in writings and teachings (that were still faithful to the gospel) as there are today. There was much “plundering of Egyptian gold” (as Augustine likes to call it) going on with regard to determining and teaching the truth. Most teachers and apologists whose writings were influential on the church showed a mastery of pagan thought and philosophy, most engaged with Roman law, and with Greek philosophy in their apologies for the Christian faith, and most also had errors creeping in to their theology because of pre-existing commitments to human thought and philosophy. Different philosophical commitments gave rise to different exegetical methods – one man’s passage that required historical reconstruction to point to Jesus was another man’s passage that required allegory to point to Jesus. There was much diversity, but also unity. Approaches to theology from opposite ends of the empire both took the forms of “Apologies for the Christian Faith” directed to the emperor, and showed a love and familiarity for God’s word as contained in the Old Testament, and in the gospels and writings of the apostles. Tertullian’s description of Christian practice, with reference to the early letter between Pliny and Trajan, sounds very much like Justin Martyr’s description of Christian practice, though they were from the east and west sides of the empire. Separated geographically, but united in Christ, and in the way they remembered him. It is likely, based on the way the gospel is presented in works from the period across the empire, that Paul’s creedal confession in 1 Corinthians 15 was normative across the early church. Many prototypical creeds even include reference to Jesus trial before Pontius Pilate, Justin Martyr and Ignatius both make allusions to Pontius Pilate in their definitions of the faith. Ignatius in a letter, and Justin in his First Apology. An element of the gospel message which touches on the other common factor for the church, the Roman Empire, and the challenges that adopting the Lordship of Jesus put in the path of one who was living under the authority of Caesar (or one of them). This unity was encouraged by a continuation of the apostolic tradition of communication between churches (as demonstrated by the letter describing the Martyrdom of Polycarp, sent from one church to another for the purpose of encouragement. Though many modern scholars may seek to liberate early writers from the bonds of heresy, the early church was generally fairly sure of what was orthodox and what was not, though filtering through the philosophical presuppositions of the writers of the early church to find the theological truths leaves much more fool’s gold than real gold in some cases. Redeeming some of the thoughts of minority figures in the early church might be a popular past time, and occasionally baby and bathwater were heaved out together, but in most cases the act of heaving was well worth the effort, and the baby was usually found elsewhere anyway.

Here’s a quick chronology of figures from the early period of the church (up to the third century):
1. Ignatius: “Apostolic Father” lived in the first century, and a little of the second, wrote lots, apparently a disciple of John. Established some sense of rule of order for the church, first to use the phrase “catholic church” to describe the universal church, strongly advocated the real humanity of Christ. Also wrote on the Lord’s Day being Sunday not the Sabbath. Martyred.

“I am writing to all the Churches and I enjoin all, that I am dying willingly for God’s sake, if only you do not prevent it. I beg you, do not do me an untimely kindness. Allow me to be eaten by the beasts, which are my way of reaching to God. I am God’s wheat, and I am to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts, so that I may become the pure bread of Christ.”

2. Polycarp: Also said to be a disciple of John. Martyred spectacularly at a ripe old age, 86 years after becoming a Christian.

3. Clement of Rome: Wrote to Corinth in about 96 A.D to assert the authority of elders and bishops as enshrined by the apostles.

4. Justin Martyr: A philosopher who converted to Christianity and wrote two apologies for Christian belief. Taught that only Christianity was the true philosophy. Converted in 130 A.D.

4. Clement of Alexandria – another philosopher who attempted to convince the gnostics of their error by arguing that only the Scriptures contained true knowledge. Used Platonism to support Christianity. Founded the allegorical method (unless you count Paul’s use of Allegory in Glataians). Born 150 A.D.

5. Tertullian: Also an apologist, differed from Justin in that he didn’t use philosophy to support his case for Christianity, saying “what has Athens to do with Jerusalem. Born in 160 A.D. Helped define the Trinity in Against Praxeus, even though he became a Montanus. Not canonised by the Catholic Church. Father of theology in the Latin West, the first to write in Latin.

6. Origen: Born in 185 A.D. Disciple of Clement of Alexandria, develops his allegorical method, heavily influenced by Platonism. Not canonised by the Catholic Church.

7. Irenaeus: Born early in the 100s, a disciple of Polycarp, Wrote against gnosticism.

8. Cyprian: Bishop of Carthage in the mid third century, hides from Decian persecution rather than objecting to the empire or becoming temporarily apostate, discusses the role of baptism, and the return to the church of heretics. Fights against Roman supremacy of the church,. Doesn’t recognise baptisms by heretical church leaders. Martyred.

Here’s a quick list of beliefs that the church thoroughly rejected in its first hundred years, with very brief descriptions:

1. Docetism – the idea that Jesus only seemed to be human. Rejected by a bunch of people. Quote Ignatius. Who wants people to be sure that Jesus was truly born, truly ate, and was truly crucified. As a man. Jesus can’t save people if he’s not connected to people. Theologically speaking.
2. Marcionism – the idea that there are two gods – the Demiurge (nasty Old Testament God) and the God of the New Testament. Marcion only recognised Paul’s writings as Scripture, and a bit of Luke that he edited himself.
3. Gnosticism – Gnostics claimed to possess certain secret knowledge, again regarding the Demiurge and true God, Jesus was said to be a gnostic teacher, and a bunch of false gospels, or collections of sayings, were produced giving accounts of Jesus gnostic teaching. Gnosticism developed too late to have been addressed by the New Testament, but the church fathers (and even Marcion) attacked it with gusto. Valentinus and Basilides were two gnostic teachers who were fascinated by Christian teaching. They adopted certain elements of the Old Testament as their own heritage, identifying other possessors of the “secret knowledge.”
4. Montanism – Most of the church fathers rejected this teaching outright. Tertullian adopted it. Claimed to be a new “spirit led” movement that superseded the authority of the apostles. It was a “new teaching”… basically a doomsday cult.

1 One of the arguments I hate most is that they were written in a different style, or a different voice, with different idioms. Have none of these scholars ever written an email to a friend? Have none of them then compared the style they employ when writing to a friend with the style they employ when writing a journal? We all use different voices in different contexts. Plus, the arguments regarding theology just make no sense, and the idea that the writings are pseudopigraphal and somehow made it into the canon, slipping past the guys who lived much closer to the fact, and spoke Greek as their actual language… it just stops making sense pretty quickly and becomes easier to dismiss based on potential personal objections to the theology (I don’t think there are many people who don’t think life as a Christian would be easier if the passages about women not being allowed to teach weren’t in the Bible). Anyway. That idea is dumb. I can talk about that later. It’s also possible that language changed in transmission, and the manuscripts we’ve found reflect transmission error – in any case, it takes a pretty low view of God’s sovereignty to suggest that someone posed as Paul, wrote a bunch of letters that made it into the canon, and left us with 2,000 years of error to be cleaned up by some naked academics wearing the emperor’s fanciest new robes.