Continuity in the Earliest Christian Communities

The growing belief that Christianity’s distinctive doctrines took centuries to develop is easily remedied by simply perusing the ante Nicene Christian writings themselves. As one reads through the writings of Clement of Rome (AD 70), Ignatius (AD 110), Papias (AD 120), Justin (AD 150), Polycarp (AD 150), Tatian (AD 170), Theophilus (AD 170), Athenagoras (AD 170) and Irenaeus (AD 180), certain key Christian doctrines are presented repeatedly. Below is a brief examination of the doctrines most mentioned by Christian thinkers in the early church (AD 95-180):

  1. Strict monotheism. This is a constant theme in the Christian writings of the second century. Their position on the matter is impossible to misunderstand. Though other things may be referred to as gods, the position of the early church was that this term simply signified that some things – whether people, mythological constructs, or even statues – were objects of worship. For Christians of the second century however, the God they themselves worshipped was the One and only Being Who was by nature divine.  This clearly contradicts the Mormon claims that original Christianity was polytheistic/henotheistic.
  2. The Divinity of Jesus. Even a cursory reading of the early church writings makes it abundantly clear that Jesus was venerated as fully God centuries before Constantine.  The debate amongst the early Christians was exactly how Jesus was divine.  Was Jesus eternally begotten by God the Father in the sense that this Second Person of the Trinity was contingent upon the Father (eternally generated)? Or was something else going on here? This was the nature of the discussion in the early church. The idea that the Trinity doctrine was the product of religious evolution and legendary accretion appears absurd. Writing about AD 170, Theophilus of Antioch used the word “Trinity” as though it was a term in common use. Athenagoras, writing about the same time, explained that God existed as three divine persons who shared the same essence. This is precisely the Trinity doctrine articulated by Athanasius in the 4th century and affirmed by Christians today. These facts categorically refute the popular idea that Jesus’ divinity was established and enforced by Constantine in AD 325.
  3. Creation for Man’s Sake. The early church understood that for God to be the Greatest Conceivable Being, He would exist necessarily.  This would entail that prior to the creation God was totally self existent and self sufficient. The creation therefore was not actualized to fulfill any need He had, but rather was brought into existence for the benefit of the creature.  On this view, God created the universe for no other reason than to bless man-kind. The very interesting thing to note here is that although the early church stressed heavily the power and sovereignty of the eternal God, they still maintained that the universe was created as an act of love towards His creatures. The early church resisted the temptation to eclipse God’s loving nature by over emphasizing His power and sovereignty. Similarly, they understood that God’s infinite power and wisdom ought not to be ignored or downplayed for the sake of making Him appear maximally loving. The immediate post-apostolic church was taking their theology much more seriously than many are willing to give them credit for.
  4. Creation ex nihilo. The early church seemed to take the Genesis account of creation in the normal and natural way. That is, they understood that God created the universe from literally nothing. This universal conviction of the second century church not only confirms what a straightforward reading of the Bible would indicate, but stands in clear opposition to liberals who claim that the Bible teaches, in common with many ancient cosmogonies, that God simply arranged pre-existing matter in order to make the universe. The position of the early church also contradicts Mormon theology, which holds that space and matter are eternal.
  5. Unity of Doctrine. Though various leaders in the early church debated (sometimes fiercely) various fringe issues, there was great unanimity amongst Christians with respect to the core doctrines of the faith. This unity was strong enough to use as an apologetic against the Gnostic cults, with their many contradictory theologies.
  6. Christian Morality. While defending Christianity to the government leaders, apologists continually made reference to the fact that adherence to Christianity’s moral injunctions made for honest, hard-working, patient and productive remembers of society. Apologists stressed two facts in this regard. First, the competing pagan deities were all rumoured to be engaged in all sorts of disgusting immorality, thereby setting an example which was all too eagerly being imitated by their adherents.  Secondly, it was pointed out that the finite gods of the Greeks were admittedly limited in their knowledge, location and authority. Immoral behaviour therefore might be practised unnoticed (and thereby remain unpunished) by such gods. Contrariwise, the Christian God with His unlimited great-making attributes was impossible to hide from. Knowing that God was always watching, it was argued, was a great incentive to not only abstain from immoral deeds, but to conduct oneself in a Christ-like manner. Emperors and government officials were being asked to consider whether Christians, far from being a detriment to a society, might actually serve to benefit to the total culture. The same challenge might be thrown out to our largely secular leaders today.
  7. Freewill. The recent resurgence of Calvinism in our society is due partly to the fact that many of its adherents claim that Calvinism represents original Christianity. Not only is this not at all obvious from reading the actual Bible itself, but the position of the early church seemed unanimous in its affirmation of legitimate human free will. Recall that on Calvinism, people are seen as so depraved because of sin’s effects, that we are unable to even think straight. In short, we don’t even have the ability to say “yes” to God’s offer to save us. The early church knew nothing of this. In fact, the early church (that is, pre-Augustine) came down very heavy of the side of human free-will. To the early church, humans were capable of making free, legitimate and significant choices.
  8. The authority of the Bible. A common feature of the ante Nicene writings is their constant appeal to the Old and New Testaments as God-inspired and therefore authoritative. A perusal of their writings makes it clear that the official canonical list of New Testament books by Athanasius in AD 367 was simply a ratification of what the church had already recognised. In short, there can be no doubt that the earliest Christians were being edified by the same body of inspired texts enjoyed by the church today.

By : John Feakes

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