The Early Church
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Specific political and cultural events combined to form a setting when Jesus lived, which can be described as the "fullness of time." In the founding and development of the early church, Pentecost, the fall of Jerusalem in a.d. 70 and the persecution of Christians were significant.
III. Early Christianity to Constantine
A. Fullness of time
1. Political empires
2. Different parties in Judaism
3. Diaspora of Jews
4. Greco-Roman world
C. Question about how much the Gentiles should be bound by Jewish Law
D. The message of the early church
E. The fall of Jerusalem
G. Early heresies
H. Lessons we learn from the early church
Course: Essentials of Church History
Lecture: The Early Church
Greetings in the name of our LORD and Savior Jesus Christ and I welcome you to this study of Church history. In the sessions that follow we’ll be covering church history from the very beginnings to the time of the reformation. And there’s so much that happened in this time period it will not be possible for us to cover everything. So we’ll touch down in some very important place in order to get an understanding of the sweep of God’s saving purpose in the history of the world. Note that church history is really the spiritual side of history of civilized peoples ever since Christ’s coming. In other words, church history is the story of the Christian community and its relationship to the rest of the world throughout the ages.
This study is not merely one that satisfies our curiosity as to what happened in the past times. It is of great practical value for the present. People are essentially the same in every age; although their surroundings and circumstances may differ. They have had essentially the same weaknesses and the same aspirations all through history. In spite of changing circumstances and the presence or absence of certain factors we have varied over the ages.
Our purpose for studying church history is not simply to understand the history of how the church grew from its beginnings in Jerusalem; but it’s also to help us understand how the gospel message can be embedded in culture in our own time. So while the circumstances of our church history study may be very different than our own, there will be places and points in which they’ll be wonderful correspond. And so we want to learn from church history all that we can, so that we can apply the gospel in our own setting.
First, I want to just give a brief outline of where we’re going in this study as it’s always helpful to have something of a roadmap as one begins a journey. So let’s think about church history from the beginning of the apostolic age through to the beginning of the reformation time period. The church started with Pentecost, the preaching of the gospel by Peter in that time when many people received the Holy Spirit. From that moment the early Christian movement went out from Jerusalem and extended over the entire empire of the day and the mission to the gentiles went west, north, east and south. It covered the entire known world of the day. We see how there were persecutions of Christians by Nero, Domitian, and other Roman emperors as they began to persecute the Christians. We’ll also see how early Christians defended the faith against certain kinds of false teachings, and against doctrines that were not consistent with the Bible. We’ll see how the early Christian apologists fought against Gnosticism and how they began to establish the creed, the canon of scripture, and many other factors.
The second phase of our study will take us into dealing with the church after it came out of those persecutions. For we find in 313 A.D. Emperor Constantine who had a conversion experience and embraced the church allowing the Christianity to be one of those recognized religions within the empire. This placed the Christian church under a very different footing that allowed it to grow unhindered. We find that there was an official theology that was set out; there were the beginnings of monasticism, individuals who wanted to be very rigorous in the expression of their faith. They left the cities and the distractions of worldly life and went to the desert. It was also during this period of time that the Christian church had to hammer out their understanding of the God whom they worshipped. So we’ll find that there were a number of ecumenical councils including Nicaea, in 325; Constantinople in 381 and others that helped define the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There arose a number of distinct voices within the church during that time: the great Cappadocians, Basil the Great, also Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus, John Chrysostom and the golden throated Jerome who helped in translation of the Bible into the Latin Vulgate. There was also Augustine of Hippo, one of the wonderful church fathers who had profound effect on the teaching of the church for thousands of years.
Then in the third part we’ll take a look at the rise of Benedictine monasticism, the rise of the Papacy, Eastern Christianity, and the Christological debates. We’ll also see the rise of Islam and the reason for the crusades. We’ll talk about the conditions in Europe that led toward the renaissance and toward a struggle toward reformation of theology. There had been a number of accretions during those preceding centuries and the church needed reform. It needed to become new again and so there were many voices that were urging for those kinds of reforms.
III. Early Christianity to Constantine
A. The Fullness of Time
The Bible tells us that “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law. So that we might receive adoption as sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts crying, Abba, Father; so you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. That’s what Galatians chapter 4:4-7 says. So it’s interesting to note here that the Bible speaks of the fullness of time. The Old Testament prophet’s had looked forward to the day in which God would act in a decisive way to bring about his kingdom. And the authors of the New Testament books were convinced that the coming of Jesus represents the embodiment of that. So what is the fullness of time that Paul is referring to here, in this passage from Galatians?
1. Political Empires
Palestine, the land in which Christianity first appeared has long been a land of strife and suffering. In ancient times this was due mostly to its geographical position; the crossroads of great trade routes that joined Egypt and Mesopotamia and Asia Minor with Arabia. We see that as empires came and went in the Old Testament, they cast a covetous eye on that narrow strip of land and for this reason it’s inhabitants repeatedly suffered invasion, bondage and exile. In the fourth century B.C. with Alexander the Great and his Mesopotamian armies a new contender entered the arena. Upon defeating the Persians, Alexander became master of Palestine. After his death and the dismemberment of his empire two resulting dynasties vied for power over this little slice of territory; Syria and Egypt which lead to fights and conflict between these two superpowers. This caused Israel to be constantly in uncertainty and upheaval in regards to their political fortunes.
Alexander’s conquest brought with it certain advantages. These included the Greek civilization with its language, road system, mail delivery, water works, engineering, culture and legal structure. Many welcomed this influx of Greek culture, this Hellenization of the Middle East. For those cultures began to receive certain kinds of advantages that had been brought by that invasion, a confluence, a meeting of two cultures as it were, this Greek culture and the native culture of the area. From many points of view it was very good. First it standardized the Greek language which was used throughout the Mediterranean for commerce and trade. Because the Jews were not convinced that Greek culture was better than their own, especially as part of that Hellenization, Jews in some instances were forced to worship other gods, though unsuccessfully. But it was never the less attempted and the Jews resisted that. So there was a tension in the region, along with a unifying factor as a result of Hellenism, but there was also resistance and tension that came with that fact.
In 167 B.C. there was a revolt that took place within Israel as an attempt to overturn Jewish practice particularly in the Temple worship when a pig was slaughtered on the temple alter. This so angered the Jews that they rose up in revolt and they were successful in ousting the occupiers for a few short years..
It was the Maccabean warriors who were remembered because of their great courage in standing up against their invaders. Antiochus Epiphanes was the leader of the Maccabees. He gathered them together and he threatened to cut out their tongues and cut off their hands on these brothers that stretched forth their hands and when these Maccabean rebels heard his words they looked up at Antiochus Epiphanes and they said “I got these from heaven, pointing to their hands, I got these from heaven and for the sake of His laws I disdain them and from Him I hope to get them back again”. These early Maccabean rebels were convinced of the Jewish doctrine of resurrection. They believed that God would raise up the true Kingdom and by God winning the victory over the kingdoms of the world would also vindicate them at the end of time. And it was in this context that we find the fullness of time emerging for the presentation of the Gospel.
2. Different Parties in Judaism
Now there were different parties in Judaism; one being the Pharisees who did not enjoy the material benefits of Roman rule and Hellenistic civilization. To them it was important to be faithful to the law. And for that reason they studied and debated how the law was to be applied in every conceivable situation. This led to the charge that they were legalistic. That may be true to a degree, but on the other hand one must remember that they sought to make the faith of Israel relevant to everyday situations. They held doctrines that included a final resurrection and the existence of angels which the more conservative Jews declared to be mere innovations. There were also the Sadducees. These conservative Jews by and large belonged to the Jewish aristocracy. And they were conservative in both politics and religion. In matters of religion their interests centered on the temple which they held with the support of the Romans, who in turn found there political conservatism much to their liking. They also rejected many of the doctrines of the Pharisees as unwanted. There were also the Esseenes, an ascetic group that wanted to practice their Judaism with rigor, separated themselves from others. And they had a very intense expectation that the end was near. And so this eschatological hope was one of the common tenets in their faith. And indeed we would have to say that he Pharisees looked forward to that final victory of God as well. All of these various groups kept the Messianic hope and firmly believed that the day would come when God would intervene in order to restore Israel and fulfill the promise of a kingdom of peace and justice.
3. Diaspora of the Jews
With the destruction of the Temple in AD 70 there came about the diaspora of the Jews. For centuries before the birth of Jesus the number of Jews living away from Palestine had been increasing. From Old Testament times there were numerous Jews in Persia and Mesopotamia. In Egypt they even built a temple in the seventh century B.C. and another five centuries later. By the time of Jesus there were sizable Jewish communities in every major city in the Roman Empire. So the Jews scattered far and wide with strong emotional and religious connection with the land of their ancestors. This is of crucial importance for the history of Christianity, for it was one of the main avenues through which the new faith expanded throughout the Empire.
We see this diaspora as Paul went on his missionary journeys; he entered a new town and go to the synagogue where he would preach from the Old Testament texts describing how it is that this Jesus, this Messiah fulfilled all of Old Testament expectation. And it was on the basis of Old Testament promise that Paul began to preach Jesus. So wherever he went he always touched down in major cities and made contact with the Jewish synagogue. And it was from that synagogue that he would do his preaching and out of that many would come to faith. The Jews in this dispersion began to forget Hebrew, and so they had their Old Testament text translated into a Greek version of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint. It was the Septuagint that they primarily used in their synagogue worship. And it is the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament that is most often quoted in the New Testament.
So as opposed to the Hebrew text otherwise known as the Masoretic text of the Old Testament this Septuagint or the Greek translation of the Old Testament was very important. So it became a place of common conversation and Jews worshipping in their synagogue would know the Septuagint. The early Christians of course shared that document with their Jewish brethren and so it became a point of commonality and it was by virtue of that common vocabulary that common hope of the Messiah which they preached in Jesus became a point of contact between the early Christian Movement. its own self understanding was that of these early Christians believed themselves to be good Jews. They were simply worshipping in the Jewish faith and they believed that the Messiah had come. And so they didn’t see themselves as founding a new religion as though Jesus were somehow had teachings that were set over against the Old Testament, it was simply not the case. Christians saw themselves as a particular sect within Judaism, to begin with. And it was that self understanding that drove them throughout the Greco-Roman world.
4. The Greco-Roman World
Now another factor that helped to produce the fullness of time was the Greco-Roman world. The Roman Empire had brought an unprecedented political unity to the Mediterranean. Although each region kept some of its ancient laws and customs the general policy of the empire was to encourage as much uniformity as possible. This political uniformity allowed the early Christians to travel without having to fear bandits or local wars. When reading about Paul’s journey’s we see that the great threat to shipping at that time was bad weather. A few decades earlier an encounter with pirates was much more to be feared than any storm. By the first century there were well paved and guarded roads that ran to the most distant provinces. Since trade flourished, travel was constant thus Christianity often reached a new region not through the work of missionaries or preachers but through traveling traders, slaves and others. In that sense the political circumstances favored the spread of Christianity. In order to achieve unity imperial policy sought religious uniformity by following two routes;
Religious syncretism, the indiscriminate mixing of elements from various religions and Emperor worship.
Just very briefly, Emperor Worship would often consist of having to affirm that the current emperor was deity: so one would sometimes have to burn a pinch of incense in his name. Of course Christians refused to do that and they were considered quite obstinate and stubborn people because of that fact.
Religious syncretism simply meant that in the Roman Empire there was a pantheon of hundreds of gods to worship. And they thought it rather odd that anyone, including Jews and Christians would say that there was only one God. So the whole concept of monotheism was something that was found to be strange among those committed to the policies of the empire. With this view in mind we can now move forward to our understanding with what happens next.
On the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit falls on the apostles. And, flames, as of fire appear above their heads and they began to speak in other tongues and the text records for us that many of those people were from different lands and countries that were gathered for the Old Testament celebration of Pentecost. They said to their amazement, “we heard the message in our own language, Parthians and Medes and all of these various different individuals. So they heard the Gospel message in their own language. And this outpouring of the Holy Spirit became the initiation of the Christian church.
The Christian faith spread far and wide. Because of that day many came into fellowship in the church and on that very day many were baptized and became part of the church. And also we have to recognize that out of that Pentecost there were a number of other conversions that were very important as well. Saint Paul was converted probably about A.D. 35 when he was on a mission actually to destroy Christians. He was knocked off his horse on the road to Damascus and God confronted him and transformed his life. And Paul who had been a persecutor of Christians then became one of the churches greatest missionaries. It’s stirring as you begin to read through the pages of the New Testament to see how the missionary journeys spread the Gospel.
C. Gentiles and the Jewish Law
Because of an increased conversion of so many gentiles soon after the day of Pentecost there began to be serious problems as to how far these new converts ought to be bound by the laws and ceremonies of the Jewish faith. What we might even call the Jewish church that continued their worship at the temple while affirming Jesus as their Savior. On the one hand, you have Jewish Christians who say “I grew up obeying the Ten Commandments. I have followed God’s command to be circumcised. I continue to value temple worship. And anyone who comes to faith in the Messiah of Israel must also follow the laws of Israel. On the other hand, you had gentiles who had been raised as pagans and had never been circumcised, did not have much contact with the Jewish faith. They had been baptized into Jesus. They had died with Him raised through the waters of baptism. Why then should they be obligated to follow the dietary regulations, the laws of circumcision with respect to Judaism? But this problem was dealt with in Acts chapter fifteen where you have the Jerusalem Council. Peter stands up and tells them about the blessing of God in not only bringing Jews to Christ but also allowed His salvation to come to gentiles. Therefore what God has permitted we ought naught to violate. We therefore need to tell the gentiles to stay away from sexual immorality and meat which has been offered to idols. These were the only two stipulations the Christian church of its Jewish heritage and its gentile lineage joined together affirming the one true faith in the gospel.
D. The Message of the Early Church
This is briefly summed up by Paul in first Corinthians 15. Early Christians never forgot the fact of sin. That men and women, boys and girls are lost. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. There is therefore a need for a Savior. And Jesus is the one who in the fullness of time has been revealed by the Father to come and address our sin and to sweep it away and to come and reside within us so that we might have restored to communion with our Creator and our God.
The early Christian message is a powerful one of the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus and our hope at the end of time. Jesus will come again and He will raise us up from the dead and by means of the resurrection he will go through that process a wonderful act of mighty power. He will renew the heavens and the earth. He will expunge all sin and evil from this world and he will create that space in which we will enjoy his communion, enjoy fellowship with him for all eternity. So the early Christian message was meant to work on the hearers and thus bring them into the church. It’s wonderful as you read the pages of the New Testament about the various in ways in which the biblical authors expressed that faith.
E. The Fall of Jerusalem
An important factor in the life of the church was the fall of Jerusalem. This is critically important because it was a turning point in the history of Christianity.The conflict began when in May of 66 A.D. the Zealots massacred the Roman garrison in Jerusalem. The Jewish Zealots were those who wanted to hold the line against Hellenism, finally they had had enough. They attacked the garrison at Jerusalem and overwhelmed it. In spite of some early Jewish victories, Titus surrounded the city four years later. Remembering Christ’s warning in Matthew 24, the Christians fled to Pella beyond Jordan and thus were saved the final end game when Jerusalem was destroyed. The terrible siege began in Easter when the city was crowded with pilgrims who had come to observe the feast of the Passover and went on till September. Never have men fought with more desperate heroism than did the Jews then. Hundreds of thousands were slain by the sword. And many others died from famine and pestilence. At last the Romans got possession of the temple and ransacked all its treasures including the most sacred vessels of the divine service. Even the Holy of Holies was set on fire and six weeks later all of Jerusalem was completely subjugated. It was the end of an epic and indeed it was a great turning point to move Christianity outward to transform it from a religion shaped in nearly every particular by its early Jewish environment into a religion advancing toward universal significance in the broader reaches of the Mediterranean world and then beyond.
It’s interesting to note that most peoples derived their self-understanding from the geographical area in which they live and also from the language that they speak. In some cases there are distinctive physical features that have to do with physical origins and sometimes it might mean the color of one’s skins or a particular hue. Or there may be a particular kind of hair, there may be a particular way the eyes are shaped but in the case of Christianity the self identity that emerges in the church has to do with the promises of God. It has to do with the person of Jesus Christ who lived, who died and who never will die again. He is alive and it is on the basis of him and his person that the church derives its self-understanding.
Now as we move forward in the life of the church we find that there are a number of persecutions that began to take place in the life of the church. There was persecution in the second century with a disciple by the name of Ignatius. He was known as the bearer of God. He was a bishop of Antioch and he was condemned to death by the imperial authorities. Since great festivities were being planned in Rome they decided to lead Ignatius from his home in Antioch back to Rome. This is a long journey. During the course of that time it became known, the word spread, that Ignatius was making his way to that great festivity and his ultimate demise. He wrote a series of letters to express his deep faith in Jesus. He was quite concerned actually because Christians in Rome were considering freeing him from death. He was ready to seal his witness with his blood. And any move on the part of the Christians in Rome to save him would be an obstacle to his goal. He therefore wrote to them, “I fear your kindness may harm me because you may be able to achieve what you plan but if you pay no heed to my request it will be very difficult for me to attain unto God.” As Ignatius goes on to say his purpose is to be an imitator of the passion of his God; that is Jesus Christ. As he faces the ultimate sacrifice, Ignatius believes that he begins to be a disciple and therefore all that he wanted from Christians in Rome is that they pray, not that he be freed, but that he may have strength to face every trial. “So that I may not only be called a Christian, but also behave as such. My love is crucified, I no longer savor corruptible food, but wish to taste the bread of God which is the flesh of Jesus Christ and his blood I wish to drink, which is an immortal drink. When I suffer I shall be free in Jesus Christ and with him shall rise again in freedom. I am God’s wheat to be ground by the teeth of beasts so that I may be offered as pure bread of Christ and the reason why Ignatius is willing to face death with such courage, is that by so doing he will thereby become a witness.” Ignatius was pointing to the prime role of the imitation of Christ and believed that if he becomes a martyr for the faith, if he loses his life for his Christian belief then his imitation of Christ will become complete. And so in the early Christian centuries one of the things we find is that there is a premium placed on Christian martyrdom. And in large measure it comes through in the life of Ignatius.
There developed a sort of a “no-ask-no-tell” policy on Christians. If you were a Christian you just went about your business, chances were good you would not persecuted. But if someone brought accusation against you, then they would ask you to renounce Christ, to worship other gods and to burn a pinch of incense to the Emperor. If you refused to do that they would execute you. If you agreed to do that then you were set free. Of course this did create something of a problem within the Christian community for those who had capitulated in that harsh moment of suffering. We see that this was a kind of hit and miss basis of persecutions that continued in the early centuries of Christianity.
Another story that’s very interesting is that of the martyrdom of Polycarp. Polycarp had gone to Rome in order to discuss the dating of Easter. Apparently this was one of the early questions that arose within Christianity. When do we celebrate Easter? There were some who continued to celebrate Easter on the 14th of Nissan, using the Jewish calendar. But there were occasions upon which the fourteenth of Nissan would fall during the course of the week and not on Sunday. There were other Christians who worshipped celebrated Easter on the Sunday after the fourteenth of Nissan. Of course Sunday being the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus. But of course, the church had to come together on the dating of this matter and so, Polycarp had gone to discuss these things. And he disagreed ultimately with the bishop with whom he had the conversation, but later when he went back home he was charged with being a Christian. When the soldiers went out to incarcerate him, they got to his home in the evening and he opened the door; he was a kind and gentle man, already well up in years, 86 years of age.
He welcomed them into his home. He asked them “have you had anything to eat?” He offered them food and drink, and he said “Please, allow me time to pray, it’s too late for us to travel back and I will go with you peaceably.” So Polycarp took care of the guards, and he went upstairs and he prayed fervently that night and then he came down. And the next morning they proceeded and went and stood before the proconsul. The proconsul who presided at his trial tried to persuade Polycarp, urging him to think about his advanced age, and told him to worship the emperor. When Polycarp refused, the judge ordered him to cry “out with the atheists”. Now what you need to understand is that the accusation against early Christians was that they were atheist! The Roman Empire with its worship of a hundred gods thought it ridiculous for people to worship only one god. And, they thought that this was something of an atheistic move. So when the proconsul urges Polycarp to say “Out with the atheists” he is as much asking Polycarp to say “out with the Christians”. To this, Polycarp responded by pointing at the crowd around him and saying “Yes, out with the atheists.” Again the judge insisted, promising that if he would swear by the Emperor and curse Christ he would be free to go, but Polycarp replied, “For eighty-six years I have served Him, and He has done me no evil, how could I curse my King who saved me?” Thus the dialogue went on, when the judge threatened to burn him alive, Polycarp simply answered that the fire that the judge would light would last only a moment; whereas the eternal fire would never go out. Finally we are told that after he was tied to the post in the pyre, he looked up and prayed out loud “Lord Sovereign God I thank you that you have deemed me worthy of this moment, so that jointly with your martyrs I may have a share in the cup of Christ. For this I bless and glorify you. Amen.” It’s recorded for us in other places and later on that even the blood thirsty Romans were impressed by the way that the Christians embraced their death in hope and in courage and in faith.
Unlike Islam that says there is only one divine language namely Arabic and their Quran can only legitimately be in that one language. For Christianity the gospel was a message to be recorded in every language and spoken to every nation on earth. And so theirs was a very different self understanding.
We also see that the Christians in that early time period are followed by different persecutions, by different emperors and so, there are many in the early Christian church that become martyrs for the cause and martyrdom has an unusually high place in the estimation of the early church.
G. Early Heresies
Not unlike today, the early church confronted problematic teachings and heresies. One of those was known as Gnosticism which is not simply one teaching but one monolithic teaching where everyone believed the exactly the same thing. Actually Gnosticism is a collection of slightly different ideas of the story which have common themes and common roots. Marcion Apontus was active in Rome in about 140 A.D. where the story had it that the church there rejected him. But the time of his chief activity is not certain nor is his relation to the Gnostic groups that came after him. He had a considerable following by A.D. 150 and his church lasted for some centuries. Marcion did not, as is commonly said, reject the Old Testament; on the contrary, he accepted it as divine revelation and insisted that it be taken literally. It was the work of the God who created the physical world and gave the law to Moses and sent the prophets who did and predicted the various things there attributed to them. And who intended to send his Christ to destroy the wicked and set up his kingdom on earth. But, for Marcion, such a god could not be the God and Father of Jesus Christ, who is absolutely good. Or, as Marcion would say, “the one true God”. Jesus says that “a good tree cannot produce evil fruit” and “that people are not to judge but to be merciful as their Father is merciful.” The behavior of the creator is incompatible with these principles since he does evil to those he hates and condemns, and judges those he hates and displeases him. In other words Marcion was saying that the God of the Old Testament is not “the one true god” because the one true god would not have anything to do with created matter. The one true god is far above, and does not descend into matter or have anything to do with it. Therefore, the creator God of the Old Testament is a lesser god or he is called the creator or he is called the demiurge. He is the worker which creates creation, but he is not the one true God who stands above all creation.
He was also saying the God of the Old Testament who went in and destroyed the peoples that occupy the Promised Land was a God of evil and vindictiveness. That cannot be a good and righteous and just God.
Therefore the God of the Old Testament, this YAHWEH is less than the one true God. Marcion held that this other god , the one true god , unknown, who is pure goodness and love took pity on the unfortunate victims of their unpleasant creator and sent Jesus to put matters right. At first , stupidly mistaking Jesus for his own Christ the creator finally learned his error and came to terms with him exchanging the souls of all those that he had condemned by the law by the death of Jesus, thus began the original gospel of free forgiveness of all the sins done against the law and the abolition of the limitations of the law. The gentiles rallied to the good news, Jesus could not be held by the creator indefinitely, rather he used his death to release all the dead prisoners in Hades said Marcion. But the creator had not finished, frustrated in other ways, he managed to deceive the apostles of Jesus so that they confused his message with the message of the creators Messiah, hence of books of the New Testament are a false amalgam of Jesus’ Gospel with the principles of the creator. Marcion held out that only the original letters of Paul and a short version of the Gospel of Luke genuinely represented the Gospel. Even these had to be corrected, so as to eliminate corruptions introduced by Judaizing enemies. So Marcions gospel has no narrative of the birth of Jesus because if he is consistent in his belief that God cannot participate in matter, then for Marcion the incarnation that is God becoming flesh, is impossible, that’s why Marcion says OUT with the swaddling clothes, OUT with the manger. He wants nothing to do with the birth of Jesus. He loves Jesus grown as a man, who gives secret wisdom and knowledge and that’s why this system of thought is called Gnosticism, or it is Marcions belief and others, including Valentinus and Basilides, that one needed special knowledge in order to attain salvation.
For the Gnostics, salvation was salvation from the material world. It was salvation from the body. And salvation for them was secret knowledge so that you could negotiate those heavenly powers that stood between you and attaining to untrammeled purity in the upper regions; the realm where the one true God lived, far above heavens and earth. Now compare this to the Jewish hope of a new heavens and a new earth, and the Christian hope of resurrection. So you begin to see how this thought form of Marcion really threatened early Christianity in a singular manner. And so, we have the case of Christians who had to really fight against this corrosive teaching of Marcion and others.
Irenaeus, who lived approximately from 170 through 250 A.D. fought against this. He reasserted that the God of Christians is the God who created heaven and earth at the beginning of time. And who promises to redeem all of creation at the end of time. New heavens and new earth is the goal of the promise of God. And here I would urge you Bible students to take a look at Isaiah 65 and Romans 8 where you see the affirmation of resurrection and, the belief that God really desires for the Kingdom to come to be an embodiment. One in which creation is redeemed not set aside. But is redeemed and celebrated because of what God created at the beginning of all time and said it was good; he will once again on the day of his return be able to say it is good once again. And so it is that both Jews and Christians have affirmed that kind of vision, of the new heavens and a new earth. What Adam lost through sin, will be restored through the work of Jesus of Nazareth. Salvation is thus not the abandonment of the material world but precisely its celebration. Resurrection is central in the thinking of Irenaeus, of the Apostle Paul, early Christians so they affirmed that vision of things. Now one of the things that early Gnostics used to say is this, “when I die I am going to go straight to heaven”. The Gnostics paraded as Christians and they basically said that’s my belief pattern. And it’s interesting to note what Justin Martyr (that 2nd century Christian apologist) said , he protested vigorously saying, “some who are called Christians who say there is no resurrection of the dead and that their soul is when they die are taken to heaven”. He calls such people godless impious heretics and he warns his readers not to be deceived by them, do not imagine that they are Christians.
In contrast, Justin Martyr insists “I and others who are right minded Christians on all points are assured that there will be a resurrection of the dead”. It is interesting that Irenaeus discusses the intermediacy saying what happens to you when you die? If you don’t go straight to heaven what happens? He discusses the intermediate state, making the case that all humans enter into Sheol at death. There are no exceptions made for anyone, not even for Christ. And this happens to be the law of the dead, the Lex Moratoria, which states that people decent into their sub earthly abodes before ascending to have a soul gone onto heaven would thus have made them servants above their master. Note here that Jesus is the prototype He lives, He dies, He is buried, and at a point in the Apostles Creed we say Jesus is crucified, dead, and buried, he descended into hell that little phrase he descended into hell simple means that he experienced death in its fullness. It’s only after he experienced death in its fullness that God with his mighty right hand raises Him up, raises Jesus up from the dead from the depths of death and allows him to rise again in newness of life. He says that even those who were afflicted in this life, slain because of their love to God must be revived to reign in that very creation in which they suffer. Thus the consolation of even martyrs is assigned to the earth made new. So that’s the notion that Irenaeus sets forward in his understanding of things.
So resurrection was argued against the Gnostics and we begin to see that one of the ways in which the early Christian church fought against Gnosticism is that they began to set forward the Creed, and here I am referring to the Apostles Creed that went through very many forms before it came into its final form as we have it. And they set forward scripture and the third thing they set forward was the episcopacy. Irenaeus basically said look I learned my theology from Polycarp. Polycarp sat at the feet of Peter. If there is any secret knowledge; that secret knowledge would have come through these tried and true teachers of the church. So Gnostics were listening to teaching that comes from people like Marcion. Marcion does not have a straight line succession with those who walked with Jesus and who have apostolic credentials. So that’s one of the arguments that Irenaeus set against the Gnostics, he said, hey, you can’t argue in the way you do because you simply don’t have that kind of pedigree. You don’t have the apostolic successions standing behind you; you don’t the power of the bishops standing behind you, as you make these kinds of teaching statements. The other argument that he makes based on scripture is pretending to describe or interpret scripture but you have not received all of scripture. You Marcion cut out almost all of, you cut out all of the Old Testament, and you cut out a good portion of the New Testament. And yet you claim to be a person who lives by scripture! This is inconsistent. And so they argue in that way.
And the Creed is one of the most compelling ways in which the early church faced the Gnostic threat. Recall the Apostles Creed, the opening line, I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth. Notice that there is a direct specification of the God whom we worship. Which God do you worship? What do you believe? I believe in God the Father almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth. Marcion would not have been able to affirm that fact. He would not have been able to confess the Apostles Creed. He didn’t believe that. So the early church began to collect the creed not as something over and against scripture but as a statement, a succinct statement, a summary of the content, the very content of Holy Scripture. And so the Apostles Creed that comes to us is found in a Trinitarian form. The first article deals with God the Father Almighty Creator of Heaven and Earth. The second article deals with Jesus Christ. I believe in Jesus Christ His Son our Lord; and it speaks about his atoning work, his death and resurrection. Third article speaks about the Holy Spirit. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.
So there are very explicit statements embedded in the Apostles Creed which helped to reaffirm that early apostolic message that was proclaimed on the day of Pentecost and the church has consistently preached throughout its expansion during the first two centuries.
Now there is much more that can be said about the early church and what has taken place, but I think that this is a good beginning on this first stage. If we think about important moves we can certainly think about the important move affirming Creed. And just think about what it would have been like to be an early Christian during that time period. Actually Christians had to argue in a couple of different directions. On the one hand, they had to argue against the Gnostics. Now the Gnostics hated the God of the Old Testament, but they loved Jesus and his teachings. On the other hand, the early Christian church had to argue against the synagogue and the Jews who did not embrace Jesus as Messiah. Those Jews loved the God of the Old Testament but they weren’t sure about all of this talk about Jesus. They could not affirm Jesus as the Messiah and so they parted company with Christians on that point. Then Christians had to argue in two different directions. And they did this by means of Scripture, the episcopacy that is the rising organization within the church and its line that goes back to the apostles. Because scripture does say that our faith is based upon the apostles and the prophets. And so the early Christians began to move in that kind of direction with their argumentation. Against the Gnostics who claimed you had to have secret knowledge, Irenaeus said we have to have public knowledge. Public knowledge of the preaching and so he set forth the canon of faith or what he called the ‘regula veritatis’. This was the truth of the scriptures, the whole scriptures. And then also the early church set forward the creed.
H. Lessons Learned
One of the things that we need to see is that the early church faced religious pluralism. The early church lived in the time of religious pluralism claiming there is no one way to the divine. There were lots of gods. What is the purpose of God becoming man? The Christians in the early church answered “you think you know God, but the fact is human beings cannot know God unless He reveals Himself to them.” And so Christians in the early church said human beings are not capable of finding God through their own intellect and imagination. God had to reveal Himself in Christ Jesus. And that was a central theme of their preaching. God has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ. God became man and dwelt among us and we beheld His glory, glory as the only begotten of the Father.
One of the other things we learn from the early church is that they learned how to become a community of the forgiving. Christianity had shown itself to be a new kind of community embracing old, young, male and female, slave and free, gentile and Jew. This was absolutely unheard of in that early first century era. The rich and poor had traditionally been separated, the educated and the uneducated separated, but in the church they all came together. The emergence of this kind of non-territorial community was nothing short of astonishing. You see the Kingdom of God was being built by bringing people of differing backgrounds, races, creeds, religions into one family of God worshiping the One True God revealed in Jesus Christ. And so the early Christian church also shows us a salvation worth celebrating. The creation affirming view of salvation of the early Christians challenged the philosophies and the world views of that time. The saving work of God in Christ challenged all paganisms in the claim of Jesus, saying, I AM The Way the Truth and The Life. The historical foundations of Christianity severed the tie with any religious thought that does not take the proclamation of Jesus crucified and risen as true.
In our early session, we have moved from the beginning to the destruction of Jerusalem, through some of the early persecutions of the church and their dealing with that critically caustic and debilitating teaching of Gnosticism to the establishment of the creeds. There was the establishment of canon (the scriptures) and also there was an affirmation of the ongoing work of Apostolic teaching in the life of the church. So in all these ways we see the world which the Christian movement, emerging out of the destruction of Jerusalem and extending itself through all of the various reaches of that early world scene.