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History of the Early Church
Introduction to the Early Church
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?
Introduction to the Early Church
In this study we are going to give a crash course on the earliest period of the church. In the process, we will see how truly different the church established by the apostles is from the modern church. Learning about the early church’s faith and practices will help us remember that our own modern, experience of Christianity isn’t the original experience of Christianity. As a result, hopefully we will be better prepared to study the bible without inadvertently reading it through the filter of our own modern, American Christian views and traditions.
Early church history is divided into several key historical periods. The first major category includes the period prior to the council of Nicaea in 325 AD. However, this period is also divided into sections. The earliest period of Christian history is called the Apostolic Age. This period spans from the Book of Acts through the beginning of the second century and is considered to be the formative age of Christianity.
Ante-Nicene Period -
The Ante-Nicene Period (literally meaning "before Nicaea")…the history of early Christianity…with the end marked by the First Council of Nicaea in 325.
Ante-Nicene Period -
the late first century to the early fourth century, with the end marked by the First Council of Nicaea in 325….the preceding Apostolic Age…Christianity throughout the second and third centuries…is usually referred to in terms of the adjacent periods with names as such "post-apostolic" (after the period of 1st century formative Christianity)…
For reference, the Apostles John and Andrew, along with Timothy all died in Ephesus between 98-100 AD.
Saint Timothy –
bishop of Ephesus; born , Lystra, Lycaonia; died ad 97, Ephesus
Then, again, the Church in Ephesus, founded by Paul, and having John remaining among them permanently until the times of Trajan, is a true witness of the tradition of the apostles. - Irenaeus, Book III, CHAP. III.
commonly known as Trajan ( 18 September 52 - 9 August 117 ), was a Roman Emperor who reigned from 98 A. D. until his death in 117 A. D.
The New Testament itself was written during the Apostolic Age of the church. However, during this first age of Christianity, we also have other documents written by Christians at a time which overlapped and continued shortly after the writing of the New Testament. The writers of the Apostolic Age are aptly called the Apostolic Fathers. This title denotes their close proximity to the Apostles. These early writers lived during the time of the apostles, were discipled by Apostles directly, or were the disciples of men who were trained by the Apostles.
Fathers of the Church -
There are several conventional groupings of the Fathers of the Church. One of these is the Apostolic Fathers...
Patristic Literature (Christianity) -
The works of the Apostolic Fathers contain the earliest patristic literature.
The Apostolic Fathers -
According to conventional reckoning, the earliest examples of patristic literature are the writings of the so-called Apostolic Fathers; the name derives from their supposed contacts with the Apostles or the apostolic community…They all belong to the late 1st or early 2nd century
So, who were these Apostolic Fathers? Eight men are typically collected together as the Apostolic Fathers. They include: Clement of Rome, Papias, Polycarp, Ignatius, Barnabas, Mathetes, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus.
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. They were originally called apostolic men (Apostolici)… These writers include Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Polycarp, Hermas, Barnabas, Papias…Letter to Diognetus [Mathetes]…taken as a whole 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.
Ccel.org, or Christian Classic Ethereal Library, a website that provides the writings of the early church free of charge, lists the following grouping of the Apostolic Fathers.
The Christian Classics Ethereal Library –
The Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) is a digital library that provides free electronic copies of Christian scripture and literature texts…"a treasure of primary sources for anyone teaching Western Civilization or more specialized courses in medieval or Reformation history."
Volume I. The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus Clement of Rome, Mathetes, Polycarp, Ignatius, Barnabas, Papias, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus.
Christian Classics Ethereal Library, ccel.org
These eight men are distinguished from the next earliest group of Christian writers, commonly known as the Fathers of the Second Century, the first group of the post-Apostolic Age.
Volume II. Fathers of the Second Century.
Hermas, Tatian, Theophilus, Athenagoras, Clement of Alexandria
Christian Classics Ethereal Library, ccel.org
These eight writers of the Apostolic Age are collected together and distinguished from later writers based on a number of factors that are all related to their unique proximity to the Apostles themselves.
Of these eight men, one is potentially the apostle Barnabas. His letter is dated to before 130 AD.
Barnabas, Saint –
Christian apostle. He was a Cypriot and a relative of St. Mark; his forename was Joseph. Several passages in the New Testament relate that Barnabas was a teacher and prophet in the church at Antioch and the companion of St. Paul on his first missionary journey. He is said to have been martyred in Cyprus. One of the oldest noncanonical Christian writings (about 2d cent. A.D.) is a letter attributed to Barnabas.
Barnabas, Saint –
an early Christian work written in Greek by one of the so-called Apostolic Fathers, Greek Christian writers of the late 1st and early 2nd centuries. Ascribed by tradition to St. Barnabas, the Apostle, the writing dates possibly from as late as AD 130…
Two of these men were discipled directly by apostles:
Clement (of Rome) was a disciple of Paul (and perhaps Peter as well). He was a bishop in Rome while John the Apostle was living in Ephesus and he is mentioned by Paul in Philippians 4:3. His epistle is dated to 96 AD.
Clement of Rome –
died 1st century ad, Rome; first Apostolic Father…Irenaeus of Lyon lists him as a contemporary of the Apostles and witness of their preaching…The authorship of the Letter to the Church of Corinth (I Clement), the most important 1st-century document other than the New Testament…
Clement of Rome, St (fl. c.96), Bp. of Rome…two ‘Epistles to the Corinthians’ have been ascribed to him. The former ( I Clement) is genuine. It was written c.96 in the name of the Roman Church to deal with strife in the Church at Corinth
Polycarp was a disciple of John the Apostle whom John appointed as a bishop in Smyrna. His letter is dated between 115 and 135 AD. Polycarp was in Smyrna when John sent one of the copies of the Book of Revelation there.
Polycarp, Saint –
c.A.D. 70-A.D. 156?, Greek bishop of Smyrna, Father of the Church. He was a disciple of St. John, who appointed him bishop. Thus he linked the apostles and such 2d-century Christian expositors as St. Irenaeus. St. Polycarp was a close friend of St. Ignatius of Antioch…His one surviving work, the Epistle to the Philippians…written c.115, c.135. He was in his time the mainstay of Christianity in Asia Minor.
Ignatius was also a disciple of John the Apostle and was appointed to be a bishop in Antioch by John. His seven letters are dated before his death in 107 AD.
Ignatius of Antioch, Saint - d. c.107, bishop of Antioch…a convert and a disciple of St. John…he wrote the important letters to the churches in Rome and in Asia Minor, and to St. Polycarp. The seven epistles are an invaluable testimony to the beliefs and internal organization of the early Christians.
Two more of the Apostolic Fathers were associates of or taught by John’s disciples:
Papias was an associate of Polycarp and was appointed as a bishop in Hieropolis. He wrote before 130 AD.
fl. A.D. 130, early Christian theologian said to have been bishop of Hieropolis and a friend of St. Polycarp. Papias' five-volume work, Oracles; or, Explanations of the Sayings of the Lord, survives only in fragments quoted by Eusebius of Caesarea and St. Irenaeus. These are valuable sources for the history of the church."
Irenaues, a bishop in Lyons, was discipled by Polycarp. He wrote before 180 AD.
"Irenaeus, Saint –
c.125-c.202, Greek theologian, bishop of Lyons, and Father of the Church. Born in Asia Minor, he was a disciple of St. Polycarp…He was the earliest Father of the Church to systematize Christian doctrine and is cited frequently by later theologians. Only two of his works survive-neither in the original Greek. Against Heresies establishes Christian doctrine against the Gnostics and incidentally supplies much information on Gnosticism.
Introductory Notice - [a.d. 100-200.] –
The Apostolic Fathers are here understood as filling up the second century of our era. Irenaeus, it is true, is rather of the sub-apostolic period; but, as the disciple of Polycarp, he ought not to be dissociated from that Father's company.
A. C. C. December, 1884, ccel.org
The second to last writer in this group of Apostolic Fathers is Justin Martyr. Justin was born just after John the Apostle’s death. His works are dated between 140-165 AD.
Justin Martyr, Saint –
c.A.D. 100-c.A.D. 165, Christian apologist, called also Justin the Philosopher. Born in Samaria of pagan parents, he studied philosophy, and after his conversion in Ephesus to Christianity at about the age of 38…Of his writings (in Greek), only two undisputed works remain, the Apology (with an appendix called the Second Apology) and the Dialogue. The Apology is a learned defense of Christians against charges of atheism and sedition in the Roman state; it contains an exposition of Christian ethics and invaluable records of the customs and practices of 2d-century Christianity. The Dialogue sets forth in the form of an argument with Trypho (or Tryphon) the Jew a philosophic defense of Christian beliefs, particularly with reference to Jewish writings; it has references to the Gospels that have been of much interest to students of the Bible.
The final writer included in the Apostolic Fathers is not given a proper name. Instead, the term “Mathetes” is used to identify the author. Some scholars refer to this work as the Letter to Diognetus. Others like ccel.org refer to it as Mathetes. “Mathetes” is Greek for “disciple” and intended to indicate that he was taught by Apostles. The letter states this directly. It is possible that “Mathetes” was specifically taught by the Apostle John. This is because the words “Jesus” or “Christ” do not appear in this letter. Instead, Mathetes prefers John’s use of “the Word” as an identifier for Jesus Christ. It is traditionally dated to the first century.
Letter to Diognetus –
often included with the works of the Apostolic Fathers, Greek Christian writers of the late 1st and early 2nd centuries, but it more accurately is associated with the early Apologists (primarily 1st century). Both the person addressed and the author of the work are unknown, although at one time the apologist Justin Martyr was erroneously considered the author.
The Epistle to Diognetus –
The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus is probably the earliest example of Christian apologetics, writings defending Christianity from its accusers. The Greek writer and recipient are not otherwise known…among the Apostolic Fathers… "Mathetes" is not a proper name; it simply means "a disciple." The writer is a Johannine Christian who does not use the name "Jesus" or the expression the "Christ" but prefers the use of "the Word."
I do not speak of things strange to me, nor do I aim at anything inconsistent with right reason; but having been a disciple of the Apostles, I am become a teacher of the Gentiles.
Mathetes Letter to Diognetus, CHAP. XI.--THESE THINGS ARE WORTHY TO BE KNOWN AND BELIEVED
These eight men, Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Ignatius, Papias, Barnabas, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, and Mathetes are the Apostolic Fathers. Their distinction from other writers is based on their earliness and proximity to the apostles.
3-6 of them lived for decades alongside the apostles:
Clement, died before the end of the first century
Polycarp, 70-156 AD
Ignatius, died 107 AD
Papias, died 130 AD
3-5 of them were either an apostle or directed taught by the apostles:
Clement, taught by the Apostle Paul and perhaps the Apostle Peter
Polycarp, taught by the Apostle John
Ignatius, taught by the Apostle John
Mathetes, perhaps taught by the Apostle John
5 of them were bishops in the early church. At least 3 of them were appointed as bishops by the apostles themselves. At least 3 them were bishops while the apostles were still alive.
Clement, bishop in Rome appointed by Paul and Peter
Polycarp bishop in Smyrna appointed by John
Ignatius, bishop in Antioch appointed by John
Papias, bishop in Hieropolis
Irenaeus, bishop in Lyons
In addition, Irenaeus was taught by Polycarp who was himself taught by John the Apostle. And Clement is described in the New Testament as a fellow-worker of Paul (Philippians 4:3.)
Imagine being able to say that your pastor was taught by an apostle or that his mentor was taught by an apostle. That would be a pretty incredible credential to say. None of the Reformers can say this. All of them, Luther, Calvin, Knox, Wesley, and others are separated by a millennia and a half from the apostles. Even Augustine wasn’t born until two and a half centuries after the apostles had died. When we consider these fact, we realize how impressive it is for these 8 men to have lived and learned Christianity in such close proximity to the apostles of Jesus Christ.
And yet, despite the proximity of these eight men to the apostles, it is not these men who have the most profound influence on later Christianity. Instead, theologians after the council of Nicaea continue to exert the most significant and lasting influence on both Roman Catholic and Reformation theology into the modern day. Augustine is universally recognized as the greatest among them.
Eschatology, Eschatology in religions of the West, Post-Biblical Christianity, The views of Augustine –
The Protestant Reformers of the Lutheran, Calvinist, and Anglican traditions were not apocalypticists but remained firmly attached to the views of Augustine, for whose theology they felt a particular affinity…
born Nov. 13, 354, died Aug. 28, 430, Hippo…perhaps the most significant Christian thinker after St. Paul. Augustine's adaptation of classical thought to Christian teaching created a theological system of great power and lasting influence…helped lay the foundation for much of medieval and modern Christian thought… His distinctive theological style shaped Latin Christianity in a way surpassed only by scripture itself.
Augustine, Saint –
St. Augustine's influence on Christianity is thought by many to be second only to that of St. Paul, and theologians, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, look upon him as one of the founders of Western theology.
Teaching of St. Augustine of Hippo –
St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) is a philosophical and theological genius of the first order, dominating, like a pyramid, antiquity and the succeeding ages…among theologians he is undeniably the first…Augustine's theological authority, indisputably the highest, dominates all thinkers…
The Catholic Encyclopedia
So, we have these two significant periods in early Christian history. The first is the Apostolic Fathers on one end at around the 100 AD. Throughout this study we will refer to the period of time occupied by the earliest church as the apostolic church or apostolic church period. We do not mean this term to imply that the beliefs or practices of the church of this era are necessarily biblical correct. We only mean to denote the close proximity, connection, and interaction of the church of this early period with the apostles.
The second period begins with Augustine. There is 300 years between the Apostolic Fathers and Augustine – more time than America has been a nation. That is quite a significant amount of time. Imagine all the changes in American culture, ideology, and values that have occurred over the history of this nation. The early church experienced similar trends. After the second century there was a gradual, but drastic transformation in Christian theology and church practice, arguably culminating in the works of Augustine. Consequently, we might refer to this period of time as post-Augustinian. As we continue, we will explore various issues of faith and see how different the post-Augustinian church is from the church of the apostolic period.
Church History Study