We have seen several features of the early church in the past four weeks, and now is perhaps time to take stock of where we've been and where we're going. Some brief points of review:
The word "heresy" comes from a Greek word basically meaning "party" or "faction." You can see this word in the Bible at, for instance, 1 Corinthians 11:19, "For there must also be factions among you, in order that those who are approved may have become evident among you." Or, 2 Peter 2:1, "But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves." It didn't always mean a false heresy, but sometimes just sect, as in Acts 26:5, "since they have known about me for a long time previously, if they are willing to testify, that I lived as a Pharisee according to the strictest sect of our religion."
As the church grew, and apparently there was unity across the empire on the major points of doctrine, it became customary among the orthodox to call themselves the Catholic church and everyone deviating from that, a "party" or heresy.
(At times a division would occur that was not related to doctrine but rather some point of practice. These were called "schisms," or divisions, rather than heresies.)
It is not easy to give the basic doctrines of the Gnostics, since they were not one group, but rather several similar philosophies. This doctrine must have been one of the strangest ever believed by rational people. Here are a few of the leading points:
It is not clear whether Marcion (c. 140) was originally a Gnostic, but he developed a system that was unique and quite deadly to traditional Christian doctrine. The main points were: (derived from Hall, p 37ff, and Pelikan, p. 68ff)
Obviously many church teachers labored to write the longest, most convincing books against the heresies, but rather than listing them here, or even worse, trying to review each one, I want to concentrate on three major developments which at least partly were a response to heresies. Each development had major consequences for the future church.
(Good discussion in Boer, p. 75ff, Shelley p. 46ff or Pelikan p. 108ff)
In addition, it had become customary in most churches to question candidates for baptism using a quick summary of Christian doctrine, based upon the baptismal formula in Matt. 28:19. Perhaps it began with simply, "do you believe in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?" but soon several affirmations were added to make sure that the candidate affirmed the right things about God. These affirmations, at least in Rome, went back almost to apostolic days. Many Christian writers referred to this affirmation, even though the words were not fixed and the same across the empire. The affirmation was called the Rule of Faith.
Because the Rule of Faith was so universal and consistent, writers could use it against heresies. In fact, many of the assertions that worked their way into it were probably inserted specifically in contradiction to various heresies. But the writers could claim that it was the universal faith of the Catholic church, handed down directly from the apostles, and to some extent they were right. [Protestants are rightly concerned that the Apostles' Creed almost totally neglects the necessary doctrines of grace and redemption, but these were not rightly understood in this period anyway. And most Protestant theologians, including Calvin, were anxious to give the Creed high honor so as to demonstrate their basic agreement with the ancient Fathers.]
Quotations from the creedal statements found in various writers shows that in general, the words were not fixed during our specific time period (0-313 A.D.), but that the main concepts were consistent. "Two elements remain constant through the citations, and one or both of them may safely be said to have formed the outline of most creeds: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. These words, according to Origen, 'the particular points clearly delivered in the teaching of the apostles'; apostolic continuity, he argued, did not preclude discussion of other issues, but this central content was not negotiable." (Pelikan, v1, p. 117)
Irenaeus speaks thus: "The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father 'to gather all things in one,' and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race . . ."
These words became more and more traditional until we reached the words of today's Apostle's Creed (late 6th or early 7th century, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.
Hall, p. 20, quoting from Hippolytus, Apostolic Tradition, c. 200, gives this:
"1. Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty? 2. Do you believe in Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was born by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and was dead and buried, and rose again the third day, alive from the dead, and ascended into heaven, and sat at the right hand of the Father, and will come to judge the living and the dead? 3. Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, in the holy church, and in the resurrection of the flesh?"
The OLD ROMAN CREED, as given by Shelley, p. 54 (also see Bettenson, p. 23, who gives the date as c. 340):
I believe in God Almighty,
And in Christ Jesus, his only Son, our Lord
Who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary
Who was crucified under Pontius Pilate and was buried
And the third day rose from the dead
Who ascended into heaven
And sits on the right hand of the Father
Whence he comes to judge the living and the dead.
And in the Holy Ghost
The holy church
The remission of sins
The resurrection of the flesh
The life everlasting.
The final wording of THE APOSTLES' CREED, Latin:
Credo in Deum Patrem omnipotentem; Creatorem caeli et terrae. Et in Jesum Christum, Filium ejus unicum, Dominum nostrum; qui conceptus est de Spiritu Sancto, natus ex Maria virgine; passus sub Pontio Pilato, crucifixus, mortuus, et sepultus; descendit ad inferna; tertia die resurrexit a mortuis; ascendit ad caelos; sedet ad dexteram Dei Patris omnipotentis; inde venturus (est) judicare vivos et mortuos. Credo in Spiritum Sanctum; sanctam ecclesiam catholicam; sanctorum communionem; remissionem peccatorum; carnis resurrectionem; vitam aeternam. Amen. ("Apostles' Creed." Britannica CD. Version 97. Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1997.)
The final wording of THE APOSTLES' CREED, traditional English:
I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth:
And in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord:
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
Born of the Virgin Mary:
Suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Was crucified, dead, and buried:
He descended into hell;
The third day he rose again from the dead:
He ascended into heaven,
And sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty:
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost:
The holy Catholic Church;
The Communion of Saints:
The Forgiveness of sins:
The Resurrection of the body:
And the life everlasting. Amen.
(1945 ed. Book of Common Prayer, Episcopal Church)
Boer summarizes: "By the middle of the third century, then, a great change had taken place in the outward form of the church. In the time of the Apostles there was not test of faith other than belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. The church had been unorganized beyond the local congregation; but the apostles through their knowledge and authority had provided the unity of the church. By 250 there was a firm organization of the church in each main area of the empire, with a bishop at the head of city and district churches. A canon of the New Testament listed the authoritative Scripture. A universally recognized creed taught how the Scripture was to be understood. And all this stood fast in apostolic authority: the bishops ruled in apostolic succession; the canon was apostolic writing; and the creed presented the apostolic teaching." (Boer, p. 77)
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Copyright © 1997, 1999 by Mark S. Ritchie. Permission is granted to use materials herein for the building up of the Christian Church. Bibliographic entries for published works quoted may be found in Bibliography page.