History of Christianity—1
In Acts 1:8 as the Lord Jesus Christ is preparing to ascend to heaven he told His disciples: "but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth." Jesus told the disciples that they would start off as witnesses in Jerusalem, then they would expand their influence into the province of Judea. From there they would go into Samaria and then to the uttermost parts of the earth. That was 2000 years ago. How did that happen? The book of Acts only tells us about the next 30-40 years. By the end of the book of Acts we find Paul in Rome, but what happened after that? How did the gospel get from there to here?
From 100, the end of the apostolic period, to about 600 AD what happened in that period was incredible because Christianity explodes into the world. In 100 they had no idea of a canon of Scripture. The New Testament had been written, it just had not been completely circulated and brought together in a canon. The word "canon" means a rule or a standard. The canon was developed over a period of years. It took about 200 years before the New Testament was really brought together and recognized as the 27 books of the New Testament that we have today. By 600 there was the 27-book canon and it had also been translated into other languages besides Greek. In 100 there was no hierarchy, there was only a very informal church structure in the groups that were scattered throughout the empire. By 600 there is a formal structure and a hierarchy who looked to the bishop in Rome or the patriarch in Constantinople as the final authority. In 100 there are no creedal/doctrinal statements, no technical theological vocabulary outside that which was in the New Testament. They had no word for Trinity, no word for the hypostatic union, no concepts for describing certain theological and doctrinal concepts other than just those words that are used in the New Testament. By 600 there are several formal creeds and a technical theological vocabulary. In 100 they believed in a literal interpretation of the Scriptures and they were pre-Millennial. By 600 they no longer believed in a pre-Millennial return of Christ and they no longer believed in a literal 1000-year reign of Christ; they based that on an allegorical method of interpretation. So we can see that there were a lot of changes in that 500-year period. What took place to bring about those changes and in many way a decline in Christianity away from the truth of the New Testament?
We are going to cover the church from the ancient church to the Reformation church. The ancient church covers that period from the time of Christ's resurrection and the institution of the church on the day of Pentecost to 600 AD. The Medieval church covers the period of time from 600 AD to 1500 AD, and the line shows that there was a steady decline, a deterioration within not only the institutional church but also the doctrine of the church. This when there was the rise of Roman Catholicism. Then there was a reformation in 1500, the beginning of the Reformation church.
The ancient church is made up of three periods: the apostolic age from AD 33 to 100. We will begin with the age of the apostolic fathers, from 100-150. These were called the apostolic fathers because they were closely related to the apostles. Some of these men such as Polycarp and Papias were disciples of the apostle John. In around the early fourth century a man by the name of Eusebius of Caesarea was the first church historian. He had access to a lot of documents that we don't have access to any more and so through him we know of Polycarp and Papias and others who were closely associated with the apostolic fathers.
Who were they? Who are they? What did they write? What was their theology? The term "apostolic fathers" refers to not only what they wrote but who they were. There was Clement of Rome who was the Bishop of Rome, not simply the pastor of Rome. By this time there were several different congregations in Rome. In this period of time divisions began to occur between the local pastors and the bishop. One of the things we will look at in the development of the church is the development of different views of church government. The New Testament talks about "elders," which is really a Jewish term for the leader of the congregation, "bishops" – Greek word episkopos [e)piskopoj] – a term that came from a Greek background for the leader of a group, and "pastors." By the late first century elders and pastors were beginning to be used synonymously. Even though, as Eusebius tells us, the bishops and elders were synonymous in the apostolic period, by this time as a result of the writings of Ignatius a distinction began to be made between elders and bishops. So in a town there might have been several different congregations and of those eventually one man would rise to the surface, and that man would be the bishop who would oversee the work of those several congregations in that area. Because of his authority this doctrine was called the doctrine of the monarchical bishop—monarchy having to do with rulership. The bishop became a separate office set over the local pastors and elders.
Clement was the third Bishop of Rome and the Roman Catholics claim that he was the third pope, although that term "pope" is not used in any literature until into the seventh century. Polycarp who was a disciple of John was martyred, burnt at the stake in Rome in 154 AD. Papias was another disciple of John. Hermas another who wrote a writing called "The Shepherd," a very devotional work which was read in churches and almost treated as authoritatively as New Testament writings. Then there was Ignatius, also a disciple of John; he was bishop of the church at Antioch. He was the one who developed the doctrine of the monarchial bishop in order to provide unity—that is what they were trying to achieve here, unity against opposition. He was arrested in Antioch and as he was taken to Rome he writes letters to seven different churches along the way—Ephesus, Philadelphia, Colosse, some of the same ones that are in the New Testament, and they are very valuable writings for learning about the nature of the churches and the Christians at that time. He was thrown to the lions in the Coliseum.
Other writings during this time include the Epistle of Barnabas, Second Clement which was written by Clement of Rome to the church in Corinth, the Epistle of Diognetus, and the Didache [Teachings] which was the teaching of the twelve and it is a manual for church discipline, what goes on in church worship services—liturgy, communion, baptism, fasting, as well as instruction on what do with practical problems such as false teachers and discipline within the local church.
What was their theology? The thing that amazes many people today is that they expect to go back to these people who studied at the feet of the disciples to find answers to the questions we have, to find clarification. But what we find is just the opposite. They are very confused. One word that describes their theology is "vague." They had fallen away from the doctrines of the apostles. They had no battles to fight. We become crisp and clear in our thinking and we have to argue with somebody and defend our position, but when no one is attacking us, no one is asking us tough questions, then we just go with the flow. That is one reason why over the years many Christians say why is learning doctrine, why is learning theology and the Bible so difficult? Why do I have to develop all this vocabulary and learn all of this? Because over the years people ask difficult questions, such as about the nature of evil, questions about predestination, questions about how a person is saved and what the relationship of works to faith is. To answer those questions we have to think and to develop the vocabulary to explain those and it took hundreds of years to do that. In the apostolic fathers there was none of that. Their thinking wasn't stark, their writings were very devotional, and they simply used biblical terminology without really thinking through what it meant.
When it came to the Scripture they had no understanding of the New Testament canon. They quoted from the writings of Paul and of John but they also quoted other writings that are not in the New Testament. They viewed them all with the same level of authority but they did not look at them with the same level of authority as the Old Testament. When they talked about God they viewed God as monotheistic, God as one, and they also viewed Jesus Christ as God the Holy Spirit as God; but they didn't have an understanding of the Trinity. They spoke of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit without really thinking through what that meant. When they spoke of Christ they believed that He was fully God and fully man but they didn't put it together. They would just talk about the humanity of Jesus and the deity of Jesus but they didn't think it through.
In salvation they tended towards legalism. They believed that baptism washed away a person's sin. They began to lose the concept of grace and grace began to get clouded. In their view of the church they began to talk about the "catholic" church. The term "catholic" simply means universal. That is why when we talk about the Roman Catholic church that is distinct from the catholic church. We are all members of the catholic church, the universal body of Christ, but we are not part of the Roman Catholic church. One thing that is important is that in their view of prophecy they were pre-millennial, but it was not thought through in detail. Remember that the key word for this period is "vague." Their theology and theological terminology is not technical, it is just very vague; they just review and restate the phrasing of Scripture.
After the apostolic age came the age of the apologists. The term "apologist" doesn't mean that they were apologizing. It came from the Greek term apologia [a)pologia], a legal term meaning "defense." From this time they had to defend Christianity from the attacks from outside the church, from various pagan groups such as the Gnostics and others who were attacking the Christians, and there were all kinds of false rumors about Christianity. Christians, they said, were cannibals because of Jesus' words at the last supper—"This is my blood" and "this is my body." They were accused of atheism and anti-patriotic because they would not worship the emperor of Rome. That is what caused many of the persecutions.
Who were the apologists? The main ones were:
Justin Martyr. In his view in trying to understand the Trinity he went into the error called subordinationism. A major question throughout the period from about 150-250 was what was the relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. One of the options which was called subordinationism is that the Father is God and the Son and the Holy Spirit are not quite on the same level as the Father. There are various views of subordinationism. Justin Martyr's error was that the Son was God but not quite as fully God as the Father.
Iranaeus was another. He was born in Asia-Minor and was appointed as bishop of Leon. He was famous for fighting the Gnostics who were some of the most vitriolic and prolific opponents of Christianity at this time. Iranaeus wrote five monumental books against the Gnostics.
Tertullian was another. He is considered the founder of Latin or western theology. He lived in North Africa, was a lawyer by trade so he is very precise in his writings. He developed a couple of terms that we use today: Trinitos to describe the relationship between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; they are a Trinity. He is also the first man to coin the phrase "hypostatic union." Nevertheless, even though he used those words he viewed the Son as something less than the Father. He was also famous for being the first one to articulate the view called traducianism. This is the view that life begins in the womb, that at the moment of conception the soul is already present in the womb. The interesting thing about Tertullian's view of the soul is that he viewed the soul as material. This is the root of the error in his argument.
Origen is another well known and brilliant man during this time. He lived from 185-253. He was born in Alexandria and he was very ascetic. One of the characteristics of this entire age was asceticism. Asceticism tends to emphasize a high degree of morality as a means to spirituality, and it also emphasizes self-denial. Origen is important to use because he changed the nature of Christianity in many ways. He was considered by many to be a heretic. He was the first to shift to an allegorical view of interpretation. He said that Scripture really operated on three levels. Just as we would talk about a trichotomy of body, soul and spirit he thought that there were three levels of meaning to the Scriptures. The body would represent the literal meaning, the soul would be a figurative meaning, and then he would also have a higher level of spiritual meaning based on allegory. Ultimately the meaning of Scripture was a spiritual meaning. It divorced it from the literal meaning of the text. It is from Origen that we owe a shift that covers the entire Middle Age period from literal, historical, grammatical interpretation of the Scriptures to an allegorical or symbolic meaning of the Scriptures. With that we began to lose a pre-millennial view of prophecy and shift to an amillennial view, that Christ is already reigning over the church, that the kingdom is spiritual and not earthly or physical. So in many ways Origen is the one who causes the church to decline even further in terms of its theology. In his understanding of the atonement, of how Christ died and the significance of it and the redemption (paying a price) Origen taught that the price was paid to Satan; so this is origin of what is called the ransom to Satan theory of the atonement—Christ's death was to free us from Satan as opposed to buying us out from the slave market of sin and His death being the satisfaction to God.
What were they defending against? If we can understand this we can understand a lot of things that are going on today. One of the first things they dealt with was Gnosticism. When we look at the theological threads they were twofold. There were those outside the church and those inside the church. Outside the church they fought with Gnosticism, Monarchianism and Neo-Platonism. Inside the church they fought against legalism, Marcionism and Montanism. We have elements of these today. To understand the fight they had then is to understand the fight we have today. We fight with the legalists, those who want to say that salvation is through works, obedience to the law. Those who deny that salvation is by faith alone in Christ alone.
Marcion was one of the earliest liberals and rationalists in the church and was the first person to try to put together a canon of the New Testament. The only books he wanted to keep were the ones written by the apostle Paul and a little bit of Luke. All of the others, he said, were tainted by that terrible Old Testament God and tainted by Judaism. He was anti-Semitic. By using reason as his ultimate authority he began to cut up the Scriptures—just like the 19th century liberals would. When Marcion did that the church had to say wait a minute, it he right or is he wrong? For the first time the people in the church began to think about having a canon of Scripture. They began to think about what was authoritative and what was not authoritative. At the same time they were being persecuted. They would die for the book of Romans but they did not want to die for the Shepherd of Hermas, so they had to make a decision. What is Scripture and what is not? Then there were the Montanists; they were the early Pentecostals.
Outside the church there was Gnosticism. Gnosticism is always difficult for people to understand. In Gnosticism there was an ultimate god who created all these secondary spirit beings that were called aeons. Then there was a kind of secondary god or deity, often identified as Jesus Christ, a good god. The first god was evil, the second was identified as good. Gnosticism really blends with mysticism. The goal in life is for the person to somehow merge himself into or with the deity. There he experiences a higher life. The only way to do that is through a secret knowledge [gnosis/gnowsij] which they learned through mystical means. They believed in a dualism, that in the universe there is an ultimate principle of good and an ultimate principle of evil that are constantly warring together. In their view of dualism there was the good and the evil: the good is spirit and matter or the material is evil. In Christianity we have a doctrine that matter is good—God created the heavens and the earth—"It is good." So when Gnosticism affected Christianity material things became not quite as good, and when that is merged with an emphasis on asceticism you begin to go into self-denial of anything material; you begin to emphasize the value of poverty and become anti-material—it is not good to collect things, you need to give away things and do way with things and live in poverty. It affects marriage. Marriage is good because it solves the morality problem but it is even better to be a virgin, better to be celibate. The only real value in marriage is that it produces offspring, and then they should be virgins and they should be celibate. So marriage is down-played, sex becomes associated with evil because it is associated with the body, and you begin to emphasize celibacy, especially among the clergy. Poverty become a value, a spiritual benefit.
Another of the errors of Gnosticism was that if evil is associated with matter then Jesus Christ could not have truly taken on flesh, because if He took on flesh he would have become sin. This became known as Docetism. Docetism comes from the Greek word dokeo [dokew] which means to seem. It only seems as if Jesus was flesh, He wasn't really flesh.
The effect of all of this, the dangers from outside the church, was to force the church to begin to determine what was Scripture, what was the canon, as well as to determine what they believed doctrinally. So they began to develop certain creeds.
Marcion was also affected very much by the rationalism and mysticism of Gnosticism. He identified the "evil" God with the Old Testament God and saw Him as a punishing and evil God. He identified the "good" God with Jesus Christ. So he had two God's, two Messiah's, each of them sent a Messiah. He said evil is physical and salvation is freedom from the material and begins at baptism; Christ was the one who showed the way. So they had to have an aesthetic view of Christ. Ultimately Marcion was a rationalist who was trying to take away from Scripture. He thought only ten of the books in the New Testament were authoritative.
The church always fights two battles. On the one hand she fights rationalism. Rationalism seeks to take away. On the other hand she fights mysticism. Mysticism says God speaks directly to every individual and you look inside for special spiritual knowledge. Mysticism always wants to add to revelation. In the middle we have true revelation, orthodoxy. Montanists and the charismatics are mystical; they want to add to Scripture. Marcion and the 19th century and present day liberals want to take away from Scripture.
The church at this time emphasized three things: the canon of Scripture, creedal statements which were short, distinct doctrinal statements, and church authority in the form of the bishop. The development of the bishop was to unite the Christian community. They developed a doctrine of apostolic succession. In order to join a church you had to affirm the three. They developed the canon of Scripture. There were three periods of time in the development of the canon. There was the period of circulation from 70-170 AD. This was the time when Paul had written letters to the church at Corinth, the churches at Ephesus and Philippi and Thessalonica. They might have carried the letters back and forth to one another. Some churches had portions of the New Testament but they didn't have all of it. These letters began to be circulated, copied and passed on by other churches. The second period was the period of separation, from about 170-303. This was when they began to separate out. Certain of these documents were to be authoritative and others weren't. They began to make distinctions between, say, the Shepherd of Hermas which they would read for devotional purposes, but it wasn't as authoritative as Paul's writings. The criteria they used to recognize the authority of New Testament writings was first of all its quality in terms of its doctrine. Did it agree with what had been taught or were there problems with it? A second part of the quality had to do with the internal agreement. Did it agree with itself, or were there contradictions within the document? Did it have the testimony that it was indeed written by God through men? A third criterion was its use in worship. Was it valuable and used by the churches in worship and was it widely read? And last and the most important, was it related to an apostle? Did it have apostolic authority?
By 367 Athanasius who was the bishop of Alexandria, in his Easter letter, he mentioned a 27-book canon. That was the first time in history that anybody isolated the New Testament to the 27 books, the same 27 books that we have today. At the Council of Carthage and the Council of Hippo these same 27 books were affirmed and ever since that time there was no dispute. All of the churches recognized those 27 books and no others as the New Testament.
Theologically in relation to the Trinity there were some problems understanding how the Trinity related. One view was dynamic Monarchianism. This view taught that God was eternal but at some time in the past he had created man. Christ was created as a human being but because of His goodness He was elevated to the level of deity and He would live forever. This viewed God as the ruler in the Godhead and Jesus has assumed deity. In other words, it is used of His adoption. Usually it is put at the time of His baptism by John the Baptist: at that time He was adopted by God the Father and was given deity. This was declared to be heretical. Dynamic Monarchianism led to a subordinationism, which was wrong.
A second view was called Modalism. Modalism sees that that there is one God who puts on different masks. One mask is the Father and to the Jews of the Old Testament He appeared as the Father. The second mask they used was that of the Son. He came to earth and appeared as a son. Another time He came as the Holy Spirit. They were the same person but appeared differently. They don't see them as three distinct personalities. This is also known as patripassianism—patri = father; passion = suffering. In this view it was the Father who suffered on the cross. Modalism was declared heretical.
Ultimately, to understanding the Trinity we must realize that on the one hand there was the error of dynamic Monarchianism or subordinationism. That was an error. Then there was the view of modalism. Tritheism, or three Gods, would emphasize the three personalities but it would sacrifice their unity. So what is left in the middle? What is left in the middle is what we believe: God is one in essence but three in personality. How that really works out and what it really means is a mystery that we don't fully understand.
The age of the apostolic fathers was characterized by vagueness; the age of the apologists was characterized by defense. If we are vague in our theology we are going to have trouble when we are trying to defend ourselves. What is necessary in order to defend what you understand? 1 Peter 3:15 Peter said that all of us should be ready to give and answer for the hope that is in us. The Greek word that he uses there for giving an answer is apologia [a)pologia]. We are always to be ready to give a defense for what we believe. The age of the apologists blended into the next age, the age of the theologians.
There are four important men: Athanasius who was the bishop of Alexandria, Augustine who was the bishop of Hippo and perhaps one of the most influential theologians in all of history—both Protestants and Roman Catholics go back to Augustine. Protestants look to Augustine for his views on sin and grace; Roman Catholics look to Augustine for his views on the church. Pelagius was a British monk and a heretic who was in opposition to Augustine. Jerome not only translated the Vulgate but he was also very important in the development of monasticism and asceticism. The basic controversies that we run into here during this time are twofold. Two key questions: a) Who was Jesus before He came? What was His relationship to the Father in eternity past? Was He less than God or equal to God? b) What was he when He came? The solution offered in the town of Alexandria created a controversy that upset the entire Roman empire. In the early fourth century, near the turn of the century, something radical happened in history. For the previous 150 years the church was the enemy. They were the outcasts, the slaves, of the Roman empire. But right around 300 as Constantine was battling for the throne to become the emperor, he came to do battle at Milvian Bridge. He claimed that in the clouds he saw a cross and heard a voice saying, "By this sign you will conquer." At that point Constantine claimed that he trusted Christ as his savior and became a Christian. From that point on the empire recognizes Christianity, makes it legal, and this had the beginning of a false idea of a Christian nation. All of the terrible things that happened through the next thousand years, all through the Middle Ages—all of the persecutions and inquisitions—are all the result of trying achieve this false concept of a Christian empire.
When Constantine became emperor one of the first things he had to deal with was a major doctrinal controversy in the church, known as Arianism. Arius was the pastor of a church in Alexandria. He taught that in eternity past God had always existed, but there was a time in eternity past when Jesus was begotten, and then other creatures were created and Christ is recognized at His baptism by John the Baptist. Arius was one of these people who had a wonderful, winsome personality. He was a musician and he wrote popular songs that were sung throughout the empire. He wrote a little ditty that was sung all over the empire, that there was a time when Christ was not, i.e. Christ was not eternal.
He was opposed by Athanasius. Athansius was a deacon in the church at Alexandria at this time. Later he was a bishop. Constantine called for a church council, to bring in all the pastors in the empire, and they met at a small town outside of Constantinople called Nicea. There were three parties represented: the Arian party who taught that there was a time when Christ was not, the Athanasian party that taught that Christ was eternal, most of everybody else didn't understand what the real issues were. And that is something we will always notice in most churches. Whenever there are these kinds of problems there is always the two groups that really oppose each other and then most of the people don't really understand what the doctrinal issues are all about. Finally, the from pressure from Constantine they came to a decision in favor of Athanasius. Arianism was declared a heresy. Incidentally, Arianism is seen today in Jehovah's Witnesses. Once again, there is nothing new. If we understand what went on in the early church we understand today. They wrote the Nicene Creed:
We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father [from the essence of the Father] ,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made [or, created],
of one Being with the Father.
So they affirmed the full deity of Jesus Christ.
That brought on the second question: What was Jesus when he came? In other words, after Jesus came the Bible says he is God, and He is human. But how does the humanity and the deity relate in Christ. The first solution was Appollinarianism. Appollinarius taught that every human being had three parts: a body, a soul, and a spirit. Christ had a human soul and a human body but He had a divine spirit. What is the problem with that? He is not fully human, is He? He is only partially human and partially God. So Appollinarianism was rejected because they new that a savior had to be fully man to die on the cross for us. That led to the next solution by a man named Nestorius He taught that Christ had a divine nature and a human nature, but as he explained it there was a moral unity between the two but not an organic unity. So they were really two unrelated persons. So Nestorianism was said to be heretical. A third solution to the problem of who Jesus was when He came was Eutychianism. Eutyches taught that He had a divine nature and a human nature, but that they were so mixed together that it was one nature but a third person, not distinct.
We believe that Jesus is fully God and fully man, unmixed but united in one person forever. This was finally articulated at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 where they wrote:
Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from earliest times spoke of him, and our Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the creed of the fathers has handed down to us.