1. Review and Preview
    1. Review

      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:

      1. This "Part 1" of the course, remember, covers the church age strictly up to 313 and no further. We are talking about a time in which, until 260, the church was in some sense illegal, followed by a 40 year period of basic legality, which was then followed by a three-to-ten year period of the worst persecution ever seen. At the end of that time, in 313, the emperor Constantine, who had supposedly converted to Christ, issued the Edict of Milan which legalized Christianity for the last time.
      2. We saw how Christianity spread throughout the empire, helped along by providential, historical preparation: a common language, a common sea, Roman roads, etc.
      3. We saw how Christ brought a new lifestyle to the early Christians, leading them to abstain from the ungodly activities of their society, and making them seem very different from their neighbors.
      4. We saw how they worshiped on Sundays, even though our evidence for their practices is pretty fragmentary. We saw how, even though many true doctrines and practices were handed down, elements of works-righteousness and sacramentalism began to creep in. Additionally, we saw the beginnings of new kinds of "virtue" not emphasized in the New Testament, especially celibacy and martyrdom. With the martyrs and the earliest ascetics we see the beginning of the veneration of super-spiritual believers, who later became the "saints."
      5. We saw how local churches were originally governed by a group of elder-bishops and a group of deacons, but soon (110-150) the bishop, now the chief elder, rose above the rest of the leaders in the local congregation, and not long after (c. 180) became in charge of all the churches in a city or region.
      6. We saw how God raised up leaders, some of whom wrote down their teachings, who provided valuable records of the earliest churches. These were the so-called Apostolic Fathers. We are putting off to next week the discussion of the remaining writings of the fathers (150-313).
    2. Preview
      1. Now, in turning to this week's topic, from a possibly too-grim picture of slow deterioration (for which I must apologize if I've drawn it too darkly), to the areas in which, contrary to deterioration, the church stood firm against all kinds of errors, and gradually improved its hold upon the truth. This is in the area of fundamental doctrines and theology.
      2. The early church was soon beset with several kinds of error. We shouldn't be surprised at the errors we've already seen creeping into the early church, because the apostles wrote much of the New Testament to combat one error or another. We should probably, rather, be surprised at the number and extent of errors that did not creep into the church, many of which we will discuss below.
      3. After briefly summarizing the main early heresies, we will deal with three major responses by the orthodox church.
  2. The early heresies and schisms

    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.)

    1. The Gnostic heresy

      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:

      1. Dualism. This was the most basic principle of Gnosticism. Evil was identified with matter, and good with Spirit. Everything depended on this distinction. Because matter was evil, the God who created the earth must also be evil. But Jesus was seen as the spiritual being who had brought salvation. Therefore he must not be the son of the God of the Old Testament, but must rather be indwelt by a higher power.
      2. Docetism was a natural result of this kind of thinking. Jesus could not be thought of as truly a man. Even though he appeared as a man, this must have been only an appearance, not a reality, since the highest good could not truly be united with sinful matter. Therefore, he also did not die, and was not buried. The Christ spirit must have left the man Jesus before his death, or perhaps the death was simply a sham.
      3. The God of the OT was explained by theorizing that the Supreme Being could "emanate" other spiritual beings, who could also emanate other beings. Each level of spirits would be lower and weaker than the previous level. Shelley (p. 51) quotes Charles Bigg as saying there was "'a long chain of divine creatures, each weaker than its parent,' and we come at last 'to one, who, while powerful enough to create is silly enough not to see that creation is wrong.' This was the God of this world, the God of the Jews." This was not the only theory that was advanced, but it serves to illustrate the point.
      4. "Christ" was sent by the good, supreme God, not the Creator of this world. Christianity/Gnosis ("knowledge") was the supreme God's attempt to liberate the spirits of some of mankind from the bondage to matter and to the other foolish practices of this world, many of which were commanded by the Creator of this world. In some versions of the theory, even the serpent in Eden was a representative of the supreme God, trying to save Adam and Eve from the foolishness of the Creator.
      5. Since matter was evil, it contributed nothing to our salvation. In some versions of Gnosticism, this resulted in an extreme asceticism, in which the flesh was denied as much as possible. In a few versions, it was believed that since the body was irrelevant to salvation, one could act as immorally as he wished; behavior and Gnosis were unrelated.
    2. The Marcionite heresy

      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)

      1. The Creator God is the one who inspired the OT scriptures. He is an inferior being who is a God of judgment and justice, and who intended to send his Messiah to destroy the wicked and set up his kingdom on earth. Thus, the OT prophecies and histories are to be taken literally. But this God is not merciful and loving, and is quite inferior to the the true God. The Creator God actually believes he is the only God, when he is not.
      2. The unknown God, the true God of love and mercy, sent Christ. The Creator God actually didn't understand Christ was not his messiah at first, but he later agreed to release souls from the condemnation of his Law in response to the death of Christ. In Marcion's system, the Christ remained with the actual body of Jesus all the way through death. But Christ triumphed even over the death imposed by the Creator, and rose from the dead.
      3. The Creator attempted (and succeeded) in deceiving the apostles about the true message, mixing it with various Jewish elements and connecting it with his OT scriptures. These corruptions must be rejected. Consequently, Marcion, who created the first known canon of New Testament scripture, accepted only the "edited" epistles of Paul and a cut-down version of the Gospel of Luke. He deleted all statements which asserted that the Christian Gospel was the fulfillment of OT prophecy, since it was not the fulfillment of anything promised by the evil Creator.
      4. Marcion believed with the Gnostics that matter was evil, including bodily functions, and thus the ascetic tendency was fully established in the Marcionite churches.
      5. The Marcionite church was set up as a rival to the Catholic church, and it survived for some centuries.
    3. "Unitarian" or "Dynamic Monarchian" heresy
      1. This heresy, which was not all that widespread, but certainly has revived in times since then, held that God was God, and that Jesus was a man indwelt by God (or God's spirit) at the time of his baptism. (Also called "Adoptionism.") Thus it was wrong to say that Jesus was God. Several exponents of versions of this view were condemned in the later 2nd century and during the 3rd. Some of their followers were willing to use Trinitarian language, but only in a reinterpreted way. God was one, and he stayed one. The term "Monarchianism" referred to the fact that there was one and only one divine King. Actually only the next group was called Monarchian by the contemporary writers (Kelly p. 115).
    4. Modalistic Monarchian/Sabellian heresy
      1. This heresy, which is much closer to orthodoxy than the previous one, has been held wittingly and unwittingly by many sincere Christians up to the present day, including some I've met here in Dallas. It preserves the unity of God and the full deity of Christ. It claims that the one God is known as a Trinity because of his three modes of action. Sometimes he acts as the Father, other times as the Son, etc. Father=Son=Spirit.
      2. This was first proposed, so far as we know, by Noetus of Smyrna in the late 2nd century. He was condemned, but the teaching spread, and was systematized by Sabellius in the early 3rd century. He was excommunicated in Rome.
    5. Montanist heresy/schism
      1. Montanus, 2nd half of 2nd century, arose in Phrygia, region in Asia Minor. He taught higher standards and greater discipline in the church (many heretics and schismatics did that), but also proclaimed that the new age of the Spirit had begun. Two prophetesses, Priscilla and Maximilla, joined his movement, and it became the Pentecostal movement of its day, emphasizing new revelations and condemning the traditional church as lax and cold.
      2. Asceticism and celibacy were promoted among the Montanists. They re-emphasized the Second Coming at a time when its imminency was becoming not as big a deal to Christians. Perhaps, even, they caused a reaction in the orthodox churches to eschatalogical speculation, for it is at this time that the Millennium goes out of style as a doctrine. (See Grant, p. 139.) They may also have contributed to the development of the canon of Scripture, since a closed canon is a weapon against prophetic utterance (see below for more on the canon).
      3. Another reaction that may have carried the orthodox church too far, was perhaps an emphasis on order and discipline among the Catholics in contrast to the "new prophecy" of the Montanists. Still, some of the orthodox reaction was correct, and some of it sounds quite modern, e.g. "Does a prophet dye his hair?" (Grant, p. 138, quoting from Eusebius).
      4. Tertullian, the first great Latin theologian, became a Montanist and was very hard on the orthodox churches, which he regarded as corrupt by this time.
      5. Montanists had lots of martyrs, just like the Catholics.
    6. Novatianist schism
      1. Novatian, in 251, had himself made Bishop of Rome in opposition to another bishop, Cornelius. It was a time of persecution, and Novatian's key role was to deny readmittance to the "lapsed," i.e. those who denied their faith during persecution. He broke the church of Rome in two, with the support of many of the "confessors," i.e. Christians who held firm during persecution but were not actually martyred. Once a friend of Cyprian, he was finally divided from him, and his actions induced Cyprian to write a famous book, On the Unity of the Catholic Church, from which come many of the traditional Catholic ideas such as "He cannot have God for his Father who has not the church for his mother," etc., which later results in Augustine's teaching that no salvation exists outside the church.
      2. Novatian's schism was not resolved until much later. The Council of Nicaea gave guidelines for the reconciliation and readmittance of Novatianist clergy.
  3. The Responses

    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.

    1. The Apostolic Succession
      1. Orthodox writers were battling many, especially Gnostics, who claimed to have secret tradition passed down by their leaders straight from Christ and the apostles -- tradition that was not written down in the Scriptures. In response, the orthodox fathers pointed to the major cities, where each church was led by publicly known bishops who had been ordained by those before them, churches whose leadership could be traced back to the visits of the apostles and the founding of the churches. Each of these churches could be counted on to faithfully pass on the traditions that the apostles had taught them. These traditions could be counted on to match the Scriptures, since the source of the doctrines in both cases was the apostles. Additionally, the traditions had been publicly taught from the very earliest days, and were not secret like Gnostics claimed. To whom else would the Apostles have entrusted their traditions, except the very bishops they had appointed over every church? Therefore the Catholic church contained the valid apostolic doctrine, and this was validated by the history of each church.
    2. The Rule of Faith

      (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)

    3. Formation of the Canon of Scripture
      1. Spurred on by heresies, especially Marcion, the Christians began to need to define what the true limits of the Bible were. The word "canon" in Greek just means "rule" -- the same word that was used for the "rule of faith". This "rule" was the rule by which the authentic books of the Apostles would be known.
      2. History of the development of the canon:
        1. As believers in Scripture, we see a vast difference in the canonical and non-canonical writings. Just read some of the Apostolic Fathers, or some of the apocryphal gospels, to see the comparison. So, the first distinction must have come from the books themselves. Christians knew Scripture when the words burned in their heart. But, of course, as an administrative distinction, this was not enough. When heretics or new believers came around, you had to point them to the actual writings.
        2. Evidence for the canon comes not only from early lists of books, but also from the writings that the early fathers quoted. Their quotations will make it clear what kind of authority they assigned to the writings. This evidence shows that the core of what we call the New Testament became "quotable" very early. Some books remained disputed for a few hundred years, however.
        3. Additionally, some writers actually wrote down the names of the books that were considered canonical. Shelley gives a table of these lists (p. 67). I'm not going to repeat all the lists here, but I will list the books that caused some controversy in different parts of the empire: 2 & 3 John, 2 Peter, Jude, Hebrews, James, a few questions about Revelation, and in addition some apocryphal books, including Shepherd of Hermas, Epistle of Barnabas, Didache, and some others. Note that the four Gospels, Acts, and Paul's letters have no indication of ever having been controversial.
        4. The first list written down that exactly matches our New Testaments is in a letter from Athanasius in 367. Councils in Hippo (393) and Carthage (397) ratified the same list (Shelley p. 66).
      3. An interesting sidelight to this topic is the development of the codex, a name referring to books bound as they are today. The codex form of book took over from scrolls during this early Christian era. It was admirably suited to a book like the Scriptures, which needed to be referenced and quoted always, rather than just being read straight through. "Whatever may have been the original reasons for the adoption of the codex, this form proved providential for a 'library of sacred books,' a canon, and Christians seem to have been mainly responsible for making it the standard in the book business" (Ferguson p. 119).

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.