In pursuit of a biblical theology I was led back to the Early Church Fathers (Ante-Nicene). Men like Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement, Ignatius, Theophilus, etc. In these men I didn’t find a systematic theology, but I did find something better. I found something completely other than modern theology (anything after Constantine). These men didn’t try to find something in Scripture that had been “lost” or had never been “discovered” in the first place. Instead they sought to faithfully pass on what had been handed down from the Apostles, the Faith that was once and for all delivered to the Church. Most of their writings is either an explanation of this complete faith or a defense of it. They didn’t want to “develop” an intricate and comprehensive theology, they wanted to “maintain” what they called the rule of faith.
Basically, they taught several basic beliefs, and spent the rest of the time teaching how Christians should live. And they taught these things with authority as something that had been handed down from the Apostles. They didn’t simply appeal to Scripture, but they also had the living witness of what all the churches had always taught. It is this practice that the Roman Catholic Church later perverted by teaching that the Church has authority in and of itself. But the early church leaders (100 A.D. – 300 A.D.) maintained that the Church only had authority because they could prove they were still teaching the same doctrines and practices the Apostles had handed over to “faithful men who then taught other faithful men” (2 Tim. 2:2). Because of this confidence the early church did not often quibble over differences. They had very few differences, and on these basic points they didn’t have any. Since they only considered the doctrines and practices handed down by the Apostles as the Christian Faith, they spoke with one voice and that one voice had authority.
They goal of this post, and the ones that follow, is not to convince you of the importance of the Early Church Fathers. Each reader will have to decide that for themselves. I have chosen to submit my perspectives and opinions not only to the Scriptures but also to the overall consensus of the Early Church Leaders. The Bible is my ultimate rule of faith. But reading the Bible in a historical vacuum has lead to the multitude of groups we have nowadays claiming to believe “the Bible only.” The world is not impressed by every believer explaining why their group is the group that is the most faithful to the Bible. The secret is out; the unbelieving world has already noticed that every group makes the same claim. The goal of this series of posts is merely to give an introduction to what the Early Church believed the Christian Faith to be.
It has been argued by some, that Origen in his book “On First Principles” (230 A.D.) gave the Church the first systematic theology. I don’t know if that is true or not. But I have found something very useful in the preface of that book. He explains that there are some things that all Christians had agreed upon for the first 200 years of the Church. These points he said were not disputed by anybody in the Apostolic Church, but all had always agreed these things were clearly handed down by the Apostles. He then gives us a list of these indisputable tenets of the Apostolic Faith. I have read from most of the authors before Origen, and I can testify that Origen’s summary of the teaching of the Early Church Fathers is accurate. It should be noted that we have only about 3,000-4,000 pages of writings before Origen, but there were surely much more writings available in his day. From his summary we get a great testimony that the Early Church experienced a wonderful consensus on what the Apostles taught.
So in this post and the ones that follow I will quote from his summary and they give some comments on his thoughts. Because the translation I have of his book is rather out of date, some of the biblical names are spelled differently. And some of his way of thinking will need to be explained. None of the Early Church leaders were white Europeans living in the 21st century.
One final note before we jump in. Origen eventually came to believe some strange things. For example he believed that everyone, including Satan, would eventually be saved at some point in the course of eternity. As far as I know, he might teach that very thing in the book I will be quoting from. But before he begins on his theological journey in the main body of his book, he first clarifies what ALL Christians knew and believed up until his day. His theological innovations are what they are, but we are not here concerned with those issues. We are just using his summary of the Early Church teachings as a springboard to understanding the Apostolic Faith. So let’s jump in!
In his preface he writes, “The particular points clearly delivered in the teaching of the apostles are as follows: Firstly, That there is one God, who created and arranged all things, and who, when nothing existed, called all things into being- God from the first creation and foundation of the world- the God of all just men, of Adam, Abel, Seth, Enos, Enoch, Noah, Sere, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the twelve patriarchs, Moses, and the prophets; and that this God in the last days, as He had announced beforehand by his prophets, sent our Lord Jesus Christ to call in the first place Israel to Himself, and in the second place the Gentiles, after the unfaithfulness of the people of Israel. This just and good God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Himself gave the law and the prophets, and the Gospels, being also the God of the apostles and of the Old and New Testaments.”
Not much needs to be said here. Christians nowadays agree that there is one God. And that he created out of nothing. That is that matter was not eternally existent, but was created by the Word of God. And we all agree that the God of the Old Testament and the New is the same God. But we agree on these points because of the battles the early church fought for these truths. The Gnostic sect(s) taught that the god who created the physical world made a mess of things. They believed that matter was inherently evil and that another greater god sent Jesus to give us knowledge of this higher god. This heresy still influences how we look down on our physical bodies as “unspiritual.” It is one reason we talk more about “going to heaven” instead of being “resurrected from the dead.” Another sect called Marcionism taught that the Old Testament God was purely just and vengeful. But the New Testament God was only loving and forgiving. Recently I have heard of some preachers preaching what has been termed “hyper-grace.” This is just Marcionism resurrected from the dead. The easy-believism that that teaches that if you say a prayer and invite Jesus into your heart then you are saved no matter what happens afterwards because “you are God’s child and he loves you,” is another form of modern day Marcionsim.
The only other thing I feel is worth noting in Origen’s comments is what he says about God calling the Jews first. This is mentioned often in passages like Romans 9-11. The Jewish/Gentile controversy of the early church was core to understanding the Gospel. Ignorance of these issues has led Calvinism to misunderstand the context of passages like Romans chapter 9 and Ephesians chapter 1. The Calvinist interpretation of these passages never entered the mind of the early church because they were aware of the Jewish/Gentile context of the Gospel.
To Be Continued…