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History of the Early Church
The Value of Historical Awareness
The Value of Historical Awareness
Introduction to the Early Church
The Apostolic Church, a House Church System
Fourth Century Changes in Church Meetings
Other Major Changes of the Post-Apostolic Church
Ideological Competitors of Early Christianity
Changes in 4th Century Theology – The Gospel
Changes in 4th Century Theology – Church and State
The Apostolic Church vs. Greek Mysticism
Changes in 4th Century Theology – Determinism, Divorce
Conclusions, Does God Care About These Changes?
The Value of Historical Awareness
We live over 1900 years since the authoritative revelation of God’s word was written in the New Testament. The modern church around us is made up of many different denominations with different points of view. These doctrinal differences even include fundamental issues of the Christian faith like what the gospel is and what the kingdom of God is. This situation brings up questions about how the church got to where we are today.
In our other studies we have spent time investigating various issues of faith and church practice through a comprehensive examination the bible. This study will focus on an awareness of a collection of major changes that have taken place in the history of the church. Particularly, we will look at the earliest church period and how it differs from the dominant form of Christianity which was developed in the fourth century and which has continued until the present. While understanding what is true Christian teaching and correct church practice is a matter of biblical inquiry alone, an awareness of history can be helpful in our scriptural investigations.
One of the key principles of sound bible interpretation is taking into account the historical context of biblical texts. Historical context is important because the authority of the bible is only maintained when the bible is allowed to say what it was intended to say. If we replace the bible’s intentions with our own ideas, we make ourselves and our ideas the authority instead. Without an awareness of history, we risk filtering the intended meaning of biblical teaching through our own modern, American experience and adapting it to suit our own culture and traditions.
Let’s give a few examples of how historical information can be helpful and informative as we study biblical teaching.
Today, Christians living in the U.S. live a very comfortable life. We are prosperous. We constitute a major segment of American society. And we are free of serious persecution, suffering, and tribulation. As a result, some American Christians today have developed the idea that because God loves us, He will not allow us to suffer or be persecuted. A few passages cited in support of this idea include Luke 21:18, 1 Thessalonians 5:9, and Revelation 3:10. These passages inform us that Christians are not appointed to suffer God’s wrath. They promise that not a hair of our head will perish and that God will keep us from the hour of trial. Of course, a further look at the literary and historical context of these passages raises questions concerning how comfortable the Christian life would be.
Ultimately, such a view fails to account for the fact that for more than 250 years, beginning at Pentecost in Acts 2, the church was repeatedly subjected to suffering and persecution. There are numerous passages in the New Testament that confirm that Jesus’ Jewish and Gentile followers suffered persecution and that this persecution had the benefit of purifying their faith. (Matthew 13:21, Luke 21:12-19, John 16:1-4, 33, Acts 8:1, Acts 11:9, Acts 14:22, Romans 5:3, Romans 8:17, 35, Romans 12:12, 2 Corinthians 8:1-2, 1 Thess. 2:14, 3:3-4, 2 Thess. 1:4-6, 2 Timothy 3:12, Hebrews 13:3, 1 Peter 1:6-7, 1 Peter 4:12, 1 Peter 5:10, Revelation 1:9, 2:9.)
And the early church reports this same trend: Christians suffering in this world. The persecutions and struggles of the early church are well recognized historical fact.
For 250 years it was a martyrs' church; the persecutions were fueled by the refusal of Christians to worship the state and the Roman emperor.
We can see how historical context can affect our understanding of the scripture. Today, Christians in America live largely in peace and prosperity. It is easy for us to think that the scriptures promise divine protection. However, even though they had the same scripture, the early church went through persecutions and sufferings for several hundred years. For them, scriptural promises of God’s protection did not necessitate or guarantee prosperity or peace in this world.
For the last 1900 years or more, the Church has been a group comprised mostly of Gentiles. Because of this, it is easy for Christians today to think that the Church is distinct from the Jewish people of Israel. When we read the Old Testament we read about Israel. When we read the New Testament we read about the church. So, the concept that Israel and the Church are distinct from each other seems to be supported as we study and interpret scripture.
However, when the New Testament was written the largest church community was the community of Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. Likewise, Jesus was a Jewish man who lived and taught entirely in Israel. He inaugurated the New Covenant promised to Israel in Jeremiah 31 with his disciples all of whom were Jewish. In fact, during the decades immediately after Christ there was a much larger proportion of Jews in the Church than today. For a time there were many more Jews than Gentiles in the Church.
Likewise, the Greek word for church is “ekklesia.” This word is used in the Greek version of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint. This Greek Old Testament was commonly used by Greek speaking Jews before and after Christ and the earliest Christians.
Church (Christianity) -
in Christian doctrine, the Christian religious community as a whole, or a body or organization of Christian believers. The Greek word ekklesia, which came to mean church, was originally applied in the Classical period to an official assembly of citizens. In the Septuagint (Greek) translation of the Old Testament (3rd–2nd century BC), the term ekklesia is used for the general assembly of the Jewish people, especially when gathered for a religious purpose such as hearing the Law (e.g., Deuteronomy 9:10, 18:16). In the New Testament it is used of the entire body of believing Christians throughout the world (e.g., Matthew 16:18)... - Encyclopedia Britannica
We can see that without these historical facts in mind, it is easy for Gentile Christians today to mistakenly think that the Church is distinct from Israel. And we can immediately see how failure to take this important historical perspective into account forces us to misinterpret the texts in accordance with our own modern experience. But once these historical facts are recognized, it becomes apparent that “the Church” is not a new term, or a new concept, or a new group of people that is distinct from Israel.
John’s gospel begins with a brief history of the Word of God and his becoming incarnate as a man. If we read in the English, some of the significance of John’s identification of the pre-incarnate Christ with the title “the Word of God” may escape us. If we dig a little deeper, we may learn that the Greek term that John used for the title, "the Word," is the term “logos.”
There are several explanations for John’s use of “logos.” One explanation is that John may have been familiar with the Greek philosophical concept of the Logos as the rational aspect of the divine being. A less philosophical, more biblical explanation is that John identifies Christ as the Word of God simply because Jesus is the one who spoke God’s word to men.
However, neither of these explanations takes into account an important historical fact that both John and his audience would have known. In the period before and during Christ’s life and ministry, Jews in Judea spoke Aramaic. And just as we commonly read the bible in English rather than Greek or Hebrew during our modern, church meetings, Jews of this period commonly spoke Aramaic and read translations of the scripture in Aramaic in the synagogues each Sabbath. These Aramaic translations of the Old Testament texts are called Targum.
(Aramaic: “Translation,” or “Interpretation”), any of several translations of the Hebrew Bible or portions of it into the Aramaic language…The earliest Targums date from the time after the Babylonian Exile when Aramaic had superseded Hebrew as the spoken language of the Jews in Palestine…Aramaic was firmly established in Palestine by the 1st century ad…For it was in the synagogue that the practice of reading from the Old Testament became widely observed, along with the custom of providing these readings with a translation into Aramaic…Though written Targums gradually came into being, it was the living tradition of oral translation and exposition that was recognized as authoritative throughout the Talmudic period of the early centuries of the Christian Era.
As we discuss in our Trinity Study, these commonly read translations identify the person of God who appeared to Adam, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, and others as the “Word” of God using Aramaic word “memra.” “Memra” parallels the Greek term “Logos” and the English term “Word.” With this in mind we can see that John, a Jewish man who spoke Aramaic and was acquainted with the Jewish scriptures was identifying Jesus Christ as the same Person of God who was known and worshipped as God by the Jewish patriarchs throughout the Old Testament period. John simply used the Greek equivalent “logos” instead of the Aramaic word “memra” that was commonly known in Jewish circles.
These historical facts are essential. For instance, various groups today believe that the bible teaches that Jesus Christ is a created being, or that He is merely a man, or that He is not the God of the Israel, or that He did not exist prior to his conception within Mary's womb. All of these views are contradicted by the fact that John identifies Jesus as the very Person who was worshipped and called God throughout the Old Testament by the Jewish patriarchs and even by Jesus’ own contemporary Jews. And that fact is made plain through the historical context, illustrated in this example by the Targums.
Ignorance of the Early History of the Church
We can see how being informed or ignorant of historical context can impact our interpretation of the bible. Without historical awareness we may filter the scripture through our own experience to fit with our own culture, traditions, and points of view.
Unfortunately, despite the importance of history to sound bible study, many Christians today have a very poor or limited understanding of biblical and church history. George Barna, founder of The Barna Group, an organization that specializes in surveys and opinion polls of American Christians, has this to say about the typical modern Christian understanding of church history.
George Barna –
George Barna (born 1955) is the founder of The Barna Group, a market research firm specializing in studying the religious beliefs and behavior of Americans…The Barna Group conducts opinion polls, which are generally interpreted from an evangelical perspective, and often cited within evangelical circles…
The Barna Group -
Scientific opinion polls provided by The Barna Group are frequently cited in national and international news media in articles about American religion.
“But what do modern and postmodern Christians know about the history of the church…? Precious little, it turns out. And therein lies the problem…it’s time that the body of Christ get in touch with both the Word of God and the history of the church to arrive at a better understanding of what we can and should do – as well as what we cannot and should not do.”
George Barna, Pagan Christianity, p. xxvii-xxix
As scholars agree, understanding this early period of church history is vital.
Ante-Nicene Period -
The Ante-Nicene Period (literally meaning "before Nicaea")…Nevertheless, this portion of Christianity history is important, having a significant impact on the development of Christianity.
Apostolic Father -
…authors of early Christian works dating primarily from the late 1st and early 2nd centuries. Their works are the principal source for information about Christianity during the two or three generations following the Apostles…their writings are more valuable historically than any other Christian literature outside the New Testament. They provide a bridge between it and the more fully developed Christianity of the late 2nd century.
Patristic Literature (Christianity) -
The works of the Apostolic Fathers contain the earliest patristic literature…early Christian literature exists, and deserves to be studied, as a whole and that much will be lost if any sector is neglected because of supposed doctrinal shortcomings.
Where history is concerned, modern Christians focus on the Reformation’s separation from the medieval Roman Catholic Church. There is good reason for this. Almost all modern churches and denominations have developed from Reformation movements in Europe. The beliefs taught in our churches are the result of what the Reformers like Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, and later John Wesley taught.
But the Reformation started in the sixteenth century. That’s still 1600 years after Christ, the apostles, and the writing of the New Testament. If we include the medieval period occupied by Catholicism, this takes us back to the fourth century. Prominent fourth century church figures like Augustine are recognizable to many today. This also is to be expected since, as we will see, Reformed Theology and modern church practice owe a great deal to Augustine and the fourth century church.
Patristic Literature (Christianity) –
In the 4th and 5th centuries, Augustine of Hippo and others laid the foundation for much of medieval and modern Christian thought.
But the fourth century church is still over 300 years after Christ. This is a longer period of time than the United States of America has been a nation. Think about that. How critical are the first 200 years of American history to our understanding of the United States? Pretty critical. The same is true with the church. Unfortunately, these first 300 years of church history are where the picture usually goes blank for many of us. Most modern Christians’ understanding of that first 300 years of the church is non-existent or quite sketchy.
Typical perceptions of early church history start with Augustine.
Covenant theology –
has roots to various authors immediately following the founding of the Christian church, such as Augustine.
Others describe the earliest church period as a time of doctrinal obscurity. They suggest that although not much time had passed since the apostles founded the Church and although the early Church had the scriptures to guide them, somehow the Church didn’t have an official position on important issues like what salvation was.
Early Christian doctrine is less elaborate and less defined than later formulations. – David W. Bercot, A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, Preface, p. VII
By the middle of the second century, the Christian Church had developed the Apostle's Creed which contained the foundational doctrines, or essential beliefs of the Church. In the 4th century, the doctrines of the Trinity and the two natures of Christ had been established at the Councils of Nicea in 325 AD, Ephesus in 431 AD, and Chalcedon in 451 AD. The doctrine of soteriology however, or the doctrine of salvation and grace had not been clearly and systematically established until the Augustine and the Pelagian controversy in the 5th century in the West... Although the major teachings of God and Christ had been established by the Council of Constantinople (AD 381), what had not been fully established up to this time were the questions "What did Christ accomplish in his life and death?" and "How is this work of God applied to man?" It would not be until the medieval church when the Atonement of Christ was fully developed, but the doctrine of Salvation began to be fully fleshed out with Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo in Northern Africa.
Pelagianism in the Formation and Reformation of the Church
C. R. Biggs
But there is a great deal that we can know about the earliest church. We have a lot of theological and historical writings from that time. Since historical context is essential to sound bible study, why doesn’t the modern church study and teach the history and beliefs of the earliest church?
The modern church is largely the result of Augustine and the Reformers, men who lived and taught 400 years ago. But what was the Christianity that resulted from the teaching of the Apostles?
Church History Study