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History of the Early Church
Conclusions, Does God Care About These Changes?
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?
Does God Care About These Changes?
Having seen the drastic nature of these departures from the apostolic church’s faith and practice, we may wonder whether God is really concerned with these types of changes. Some have contended that God approves of these changes or that God Himself orchestrated them through His Holy Spirit. These questions can only be ultimately answered through biblical investigation. However, once again some historical awareness may also be informative.
In this case, we might note that the apostolic church reported that the Holy Spirit continued to give miraculous gifts to the church through the second century.
Didache (a.k.a. The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles - circa 70 A.D.) describes prophets who speak "in the Spirit." (Didache, chapter 11:7-8, 11.)
Ignatius (30-107 A.D.) encouraged Polycarp, "...And as respects those that are not seen, (4) pray that[God] would reveal them unto thee, in order that thou mayest be wanting in nothing, but mayest abound in every gift." (Ignatius, Epistle to Polycarp)
Ignatius’ remarks refer to Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians.
1 Corinthians 1: 6 Even as the testimony of Christ was confirmed in you: 7 So that ye come behind in no gift; waiting for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ: 8 Who shall also confirm you unto the end, that ye may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.
1 Corinthians 12: 31 But covet earnestly the best gifts: and yet shew I unto you a more excellent way.
1 Corinthians 14: 1 Follow after charity, and desire spiritual gifts, but rather that ye may prophesy.
Justin Martyr explains that the Christians still had the prophetic gifts among them. Interestingly, he also uses the fact that non-Christian Jews no longer possessed the gifts as proof that they had rejected correct teaching. In doing so, Justin’s comments imply that if the church should likewise depart from correct teaching, they too would lose the gifts.
For the prophetical gifts remain with us, even to the present time. And hence you ought to understand that [the gifts] formerly among your nation have been transferred to us. And just as there were false prophets contemporaneous with your holy prophets, so are there now many false teachers amongst us, of whom our Lord forewarned us to beware; so that in no respect are we deficient, since we know that He foreknew all that would happen to us after His resurrection from the dead and ascension to heaven.
Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, (110-165 A.D), CHAP. LXXXII.--THE PROPHETICAL GIFTS OF THE JEWS WERE TRANSFERRED TO THE CHRISTIANS.
CHAP. XXXIX. …even so…daily some [of you] are becoming disciples in the name of Christ, and quitting the path of error; who are also receiving gifts, each as he is worthy, illumined through the name of this Christ. For one receives the spirit of understanding, another of counsel, another of strength, another of healing, another of foreknowledge, another of teaching, and another of the fear of God." To this Trypho said to me, "I wish you knew that you are beside yourself, talking these sentiments." And I said to him, "Listen, O friend,(6) for I am not mad or beside myself; but it was prophesied that, after the ascent of Christ to heaven, He would deliver(7) us from error and give us gifts. The words are these: 'He ascended up on high; He led captivity captive; He gave gifts to men.'(8) Accordingly, we who have received gifts from Christ, who has ascended up on high, prove from the words of prophecy that you, 'the wise in yourselves, and the men of understanding in your own eyes,'(9) are foolish, and honour God and His Christ by lip only.
Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, (110-165 A.D)
Irenaeus (A.D. 115 to 202) a pupil of Polycarp (A.D. 70-155), who was himself a disciple of the Apostle John discusses how the apostolic church still had the gifts of the Spirit among them in his day.
For this reason does the apostle declare, "We speak wisdom among them that are perfect," (6) terming those persons "perfect" who have received the Spirit of God, and who through the Spirit of God do speak in all languages, as he used Himself also to speak. In like manner we do also hear many brethren in the Church, who possess prophetic gifts, and who through the Spirit speak all kinds of languages, and bring to light for the general benefit the hidden things of men, and declare the mysteries of God, whom also the apostle terms "spiritual," they being spiritual because they partake of the Spirit."
Irenaeus, AGAINST HERESIES, BOOK V.CHAP. VI
CHAP. XXXII. 4. …Wherefore, also, those who are in truth His disciples, receiving grace from Him, do in His name perform [miracles], so as to promote the welfare of other men, according to the gift which each one has received from Him. For some do certainly and truly drive out devils, so that those who have thus been cleansed from evil spirits frequently both believe [in Christ], and join themselves to the Church. Others have foreknowledge of things to come: they see visions, and utter prophetic expressions. Others still, heal the sick by laying their hands upon them, and they are made whole. Yea, moreover, as I have said, the dead even have been raised up, and remained(5) among us for many years. And what shall I more say? It is not possible to name the number of the gifts which the Church, [scattered] throughout the whole world, has received from God, in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and which she exerts day by day for the benefit of the Gentiles, neither practising deception upon any, nor taking any reward(6) from them Ion account of such miraculous interpositions]. For as she has received freely(7) from God, freely also does she minister [to others]. 5. Nor does she perform anything by means of angelic invocations,(8) or by incantations, or by any other wicked curious art; but, directing her prayers to the Lord, who made all things, in a pure, sincere, and straightforward spirit, and calling upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, she has been accustomed to work(9) miracles for the advantage of mankind, and not to lead them into error. If, therefore, the name of our Lord Jesus Christ even now confers benefits [upon men], and cures thoroughly and effectively all who anywhere believe on Him, but not that of Simon, or Menander, or Carpocrates, or of any other man whatever, it is manifest that, when He was made man, He held fellowship with His own creation, and(10) did all things truly through the power of God, according to the will of the Father of all, as the prophets had foretold.
Irenaeus, AGAINST HERESIES, BOOK II
CHAP. VI. 1. For this reason does the apostle declare, "We speak wisdom among them that are perfect,"(6) terming those persons "perfect" who have received the Spirit of God, and who through the Spirit of God do speak in all languages, as he used Himself also to speak. In like manner we do also hear many brethren in the Church, who possess prophetic gifts, and who through the Spirit speak all kinds of languages, and bring to light for the general benefit the hidden things of men, and declare the mysteries of God, whom also the apostle terms "spiritual," they being spiritual because they partake of the Spirit, and not because their flesh has been stripped off and taken away, and because they have become purely spiritual…But when the spirit here blended with the soul is united to [God's] handiwork, the man is rendered spiritual and perfect because of the outpouring of the Spirit, and this is he who was made in the image and likeness of God.
Irenaeus, AGAINST HERESIES, BOOK V.
From these quotes we can see that the apostolic church continued to have the miraculous gifts bestowed on them by the Holy Spirit. However, the departure from the theology of the apostolic church historically coincided with the loss of the spiritual gifts. At the same time that Christianity was mixing with Greek mystical beliefs and Roman imperial and pagan religious practices, church historians report that the gifts were no longer present in the church. Augustine, one of the chief architects of this syncretism, reports that the church no longer had the miraculous gifts of the Spirit.
How then, brethren, because he that is baptized in Christ, and believes on Him, does not now speak in the tongues of all nations, are we not to believe that he has received the Holy Ghost? God forbid that our heart should be tempted by this faithlessness... Why is it that no man speaks in the tongues of all nations? Because the Church itself now speaks in the tongues of all nations. Before, the Church was in one nation, where it spoke in the tongues of all. By speaking then in the tongues of all, it signified what was to come to pass; that by growing among the nations, it would speak in the tongues of all."
Augustine 354-430 AD, "Ten Homilies on the First Epistle of John
John Chrysostom, bishop of Constantinople who lived during this period of deviation (347-407 AD) also taught that the gifts had passed away. Below is Chrysostom’s commentary on the miraculous gifts and 1 Corinthians 12.
This whole place is very obscure: but the obscurity is produced by our ignorance of the facts referred to and by their cessation, being such as then used to occur but now no longer take place. And why do they not happen now? Why look now, the cause too of the obscurity hath produced us again another question: namely, why did they then happen, and now do so no more?
John Chrysostom, 347-407 AD
Gregory the Great, a man who was instrumental in promoting Augustinian theology in the 600’s AD, also reported that the church no longer had the charismatic gifts.
When commenting on Mark 16:17, Gregory the Great wrote, "Is it so, my brethren, that because ye do not these signs, ye do not believe? On the contrary, they were necessary, in the beginning of the church; for, that faith might grow, it required miracles to cherish it withal; just as when we plant shrubs, we water them until we ace them thrive in the ground, and as aeon as they are well rooted we cease our irrigation.''
Gregory the Great, 600 AD
The loss of the gifts at this same period of great doctrinal and practical change in the church may provide some indications that God is concerned with and doesn’t approve of these departures from the faith of the apostolic church. Perhaps, equally informative is the fact that the New Testament itself prophesies that a departure would eventually come through Gnostic influence and gives instruction for the church not to participate in Gnostic deviations.
In John 14:23-24, Jesus says that those who love him will keep his teachings. In John 15:4-10, Jesus instructs that only if we remain in his teaching can we ask and receive from the Father. Likewise, he says if we do not remain in his teaching we can "do nothing." Both of these sayings necessarily include a reference to the gifts of the Holy Spirit. In 2 Thessalonians 2:15, Paul instructs that we must faithfully keep the traditions that the apostles had established in the church. In 2 Thessalonians 3:6 and 14, Paul instructs the church to have no company with those who do not obey the teachings of the apostles. In 1 Timothy 4:16, Paul tells Timothy to continue in the doctrine that the apostles taught. In 1 Timothy 6:3-5, he states that we must withdraw from those who teach things besides what the apostles taught. Similarly, in 2 Timothy 1:13 and 2:2, Paul commands us to hold to the faith and teachings given by the apostles and to pass them on to other faithful men who will teach these things. In Romans 16:17, Paul states that we are to mark those who teach things contrary to what the apostles taught the church and to avoid them. In Titus 1:9-16, Paul again commands us to hold fast to the sound doctrine the apostles taught in all the churches and to rebuke those who teach otherwise. In Titus 2:7, Paul says that we should not let our doctrine become corrupted. In Titus 3:9, Paul instructs that we must reject those who deviate from apostolic teaching. In 1 John 2:22-28, John repeats Jesus’ commands that we must remain in Jesus’ teaching and not be seduced by those seeking to lead us astray. In Jude 1:3, Jude instructs us to contend for the faith that was once and for all delivered by the apostles to the saints. In Acts 20:29, Paul warns the Ephesian elders that after he left, false teachers would enter the church perverting the gospel and leading away the disciples. In 2 Corinthians 6:17, we are called to be separate from the world and not join in with them. In Galatians 1:6-9, Paul says that those teaching any other version of the gospel than what* the apostles taught are accursed. In 2 Peter 2:1, Peter warns of false teachers who will introduce damnable heresies into the church. In 2 John 1:10, John instructs us that we are not to allow those who do not teach apostolic doctrine into our houses and churches. In Revelation 17:5 and 18:4, God condemns a false religious system associated with mysticism and calls His people to separate from it.
The early church writers documented and fought against this transition, which we see beginning even while the New Testament was being written.
CHAP. XXXV. And Trypho said, "I believe, however, that many of those who say that they confess Jesus, and are called Christians, eat meats offered to idols, and declare that they are by no means injured in consequence." And I replied, "The fact that there are such men confessing themselves to be Christians, and admitting the crucified Jesus to be both Lord and Christ, yet not teaching His doctrines, but those of the spirits of error, causes us who are disciples of the true and pure doctrine of Jesus Christ, to be more faithful and stedfast in the hope announced by Him. For what things He predicted would take place in His name, these we do see being actually accomplished in our sight. For he said, 'Many shall come in My name, clothed outwardly in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves."(1) And, 'There shall be schisms and heresies.'(2) And, 'Beware of false prophets, who shall come to you clothed outwardly in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.'(1) And, 'Many false Christs and false apostles shall arise, and shall deceive many of the faithful.'(3)
Dialogue of Justin with Trypho
CHAP. XV. 2. By these words they entrap the more simple, and entice them, imitating our phraseology, that these [dupes] may listen to them the oftener;… we… keep ourselves aloof from their company; and…we call them heretics?
Irenaeus, AGAINST HERESIES, BOOK III
CHAP. III. 1. It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times; those who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these [heretics] rave about
Irenaeus, AGAINST HERESIES, BOOK III
"...they have apostatized in their opinions from Him who is God, and imagined that they have themselves discovered more than the apostles, by finding out another god; and [maintained] that the apostles preached the Gospel still somewhat under the influence of Jewish opinions, but that they themselves are purer [in doctrine], and more intelligent, than the apostles."
Irenaeus, BOOK III. CHAP. XII., DOCTRINE OF THE REST OF THE APOSTLES.
CHAP. VII. "For whosoever does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, is antichrist;"(18) and whosoever does not confess the testimony of the cross,(19) is of the devil; and whosoever perverts the oracles of the Lord to his own lusts, and says that there is neither a resurrection nor a judgment, he is the first-born of Satan.(20) Wherefore, forsaking the vanity of many, and their false doctrines, let us return to the word which has been handed down to us from(21) the beginning; "watching unto prayer,"(22) and persevering in fasting; beseeching in our supplications the all-seeing God "not to lead us into temptation,"(1) as the Lord has said: "The spirit truly is willing, but the flesh is weak."(2)
THE EPISTLE OF POLYCARP TO THE PHILIPPIANS
CHAP. II. Wherefore, as children of light and truth, flee from division and wicked doctrines; but where the shepherd is, there do ye as sheep follow. For there are many wolves that appear worthy of credit, who, by means of a pernicious pleasure, carry captives those that are running towards God; but in your unity they shall have no place. CHAP. III. Keep yourselves from those evil plants which Jesus Christ does not tend, because they are not the planting of the Father. Not that I have found any division among you, but exceeding purity. For as many as are of God and of Jesus Christ are also with the bishop. And as many as shall, in the exercise of repentance, return into the unity of the Church, these, too, shall belong to God, that they may live according to Jesus Christ. Do not err, my brethren. If any man follows him that makes a schism in the Church, he shall not inherit the kingdom of God. If any one walks according to a strange(5) opinion, he agrees not with the passion [of Christ.].
THE EPISTLE OF IGNATIUS TO THE PHILADELPHIANS
As we can see, the New Testament itself warned of a false teaching associated with Gnosticicm (a blending of Christianity with Greek, pagan mysticism like Neo-Platonism) infiltrating the church. The apostolic church fought against this type of infiltration of Gnostic and Neo-Platonic mystical ideas. However, attempts to hybridize Christianity with pagan mysticism eventually succeeded in the fourth century as exemplified chiefly in the theology of Augustine. With this result, the church departed from the Judeo-Christian understanding of the earliest and apostolic church and instead sought pagan mystical meaning. Concurrent with this period of change in Church belief and practice, the Holy Spirit stopped bestowing the spiritual gifts on the church. Though the correctness of these changes can only be determined through an investigation of the scripture, these historical facts may provide some indication that God did not approve of these changes.
As we conclude, we should note that a study of the Apostolic Writers shows that the early church exhibited a far greater unity of faith than the denominational and doctrinal diversity that we see in the church today.
Ante-Nicene Period -
First century Christianity possessed a basic cohesion based on the Pauline church movement, Jewish character, and self-identification as a messianic movement...
This early consensus combined with what we know of later theologians may be informative. The doctrinal diversity that we see around us today could well be due to the speculation and allegorical interpretation championed by men like Origen and Augustine as they discarded ancient Christian teaching in order to make way for a theology that better fit in with the pagan world around them. Such adaptating of biblical teaching to accommodate man’s traditions is exactly why Christ both condemned the Pharisees and forbid his followers from copying their practices.
Like Augustine and Origen, some today continue to assert that ongoing doctrinal development is necessary, that the earliest and apostolic church didn’t have a clear or complete understanding of Christian theology, that speculation and disagreement is acceptable outside certain issues, and that it is acceptable to allegorically reinterpret what the New Testament plainly teaches. As we evaluate these assertions, we must keep in mind that only the bible can tell us what is true and what God has commanded.
However, in order to avoid having our own cultural affinities interfere with what God has revealed once and for all in His word, it is important that we are aware of the historical context of the biblical periods, of the early church, and of the later church. Otherwise, we may unwittingly fall into the trap of letting our own modern, Christian experience dictate the meaning of the scripture. It is possible that our doctrinal differences today may result from non-Christian influences adjusting biblical teaching to suit our more recent traditions or preferences.
Below is a summary of characteristic features of the faith and practices of the apostolic church from the first and second centuries:
1. They met together in their homes.
2. They ate a full meal for communion.
3. There was interaction and questioning from the men as the leaders presented teaching and instruction from the scripture.
4. Their pastors were not paid professionals, but worked with their own hands to provide for their needs.
5. Music was not a feature of their gatherings.
6. They were martyrs, separatists, and pacifists who did not participate in war or human government and did not pledge allegiance to the state. Although, they were law-abiding citizens, they were not patriots.
7. They believed that salvation was sharing in a coming, eternal, earthly Messianic kingdom when Jesus returned.
8. They held that salvation was available to all men and that all men could be saved through faith. They believed that faith was the result of right reasoning and rational contemplation of human experience, the created world around us, and ultimately the record of God's teaching recorded in scripture. They believed men were born good and always had free will and the capability to believe and obey God.
9. They did not celebrate Jesus’ birthday, Christmas, or any holiday on December 25.
10. They did not tithe, but shared communally with one another to meet each other’s needs.
11. And they did not allow divorce except in cases of adultery. They didn’t allow remarriage in any circumstance besides the death of a spouse.
In contrast, here is a summary of characteristic features of the faith and practices of the church since the fourth century church:
1. They met in basilicas that were first designed to be pagan temples and Roman imperial buildings.
2. The communion meal was reduced to a ritual involving a single serving of bread and wine.
3-4. They sat silently as professional orators delivered finely crafted sermons learned from the art of Greek rhetoric.
5. Trained musicians and singers began their weekly service with a segment of songs modeled after pagan ceremony and imperial pageantry.
6. They became loyal patriots of the Christian state. They served as its statesmen and soldiers. They fought in its wars.
7. They believed that salvation was eternal life in heaven and that there would be no earthly, Messianic, Jewish kingdom.
8. They believed that only some men were destined by God to be saved and others were not. They believed that this divine determination was not a result of human choice or rational conversion, but through an internal, subjective, divine act without the involvement of human will. They believed that man was born wicked, sinful, and unable to have faith or obey God.
9. And they celebrated Jesus’ birthday on December 25.
10. Today, we tithe to the church and a large portion of our contribution goes to pastoral and staff salaries, building costs, maintenance, and mortgage payments.
11. Starting in more recent centuries, the church has allowed divorce and remarriage for almost any reason.
These differences are drastic. If a second century Christian were transported through time to America today and went into any average church on a Sunday morning, what would he think? It is doubtful that he would recognize what he saw and heard as the church he had known 1800 years ago.
Modern Christian theology and practice is the product of history and influence. Our understanding of the scripture, our faith, the way we "do church" did not just jump from Jesus and the apostles to what we have now. Instead, it passed through distinct periods of change. The first, and perhaps the most serious period of change took place about 1600 years ago. The changes of the fourth century church have remained the defining characteristics of Christian theology and church life ever since. The Reformation did not discard them. It embraced them. It developed them. In some cases, it articulated them differently. But the apostolic church of the first two centuries was very different from the church of Augustine and Constantine. It was very different from the church of the Reformers like Luther, Calvin, Knox, and even Wesley. It was very different from the church most of us have grown up in today. Its faith was different. Its church life was different.
To illustrate the significance of our divergence from Apostolic Christianity, we can compare it to a more recent issue of interest to Christians here in America. Conservative Christians in America today often expresses a deep concern and outrage that the United States which they feel was founded on biblical, Christian principles is being changed to conform to secular and ungodly cultural norms of today. They feel that American Christians are obligated to take action against this trend. Those who express these kinds of concerns about America should perhaps be all the more concerned about the drastic changes that took place between the second and fourth centuries that transformed the church. Perhaps we should be all the more concerned about whether it was appropriate for pagan mysticism, in the form of Neo-Platonism and Gnosticism, to influence Christian theology and church life since the fourth century.
These questions are important and we should be concerned about them. If Augustinian Christianity is a departure not only from the early church, but from the bible itself, then how can we persist in Augustinian understanding without falling into the same criticism that we level against Muslims, Mormons, and other religious groups that have diverged from biblical beliefs and practices?
To be clear, the differences between the modern church and the early church do not mean that our modern views are wrong and their early views are right. However, it is important to be aware of these differences as we study the bible in order to learn the truth. Otherwise, we run the risk of letting our own historical context, traditions, and preferences interfere with what God’s word intends to tell us. After all, we want to make sure that we are followers of Christ and not followers of men.
(NOTE: For more quotes from the early church on these topics please see our articles entitled “Early Church Beliefs: The First Eight Writers’ Consensus.”)
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