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Historical Reference:
402 History of the Early Church

The Ideological Competitors of Early Christianity

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 Ideological Competitors of Early Christianity

We have seen some of the drastic alterations in Christian living and church practice that took place during the third and fourth centuries. But what about the Christian faith? What about Christian beliefs? Did they change too? Unfortunately, as we might expect from a period of such sweeping change, fourth century Christian theology also significantly different from the theology of the apostolic church. As with the changes in church practice, fourth century changes in theology have remained in the church until today. But in order to understand changes in fourth century church theology, we should first understand the ideological competitors of apostolic Christianity.

The early church was ideologically at odds with both non-Christian Judaism and the non-Christian Greco-Roman culture around them.

Patristic Literature –
The ante-Nicene period
During the first three centuries of its existence the Christian Church…its distinctive system of beliefs…vis-à-vis Judaism on the one hand and Gnosticism…on the other…

Encyclopedia Britannica

However, even after the church had become a mostly Gentile body, it continued to see itself as a Jewish movement and to hold to Jewish beliefs through the first several centuries.

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...

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 and were all to a greater or lesser extent influenced…by the profoundly Jewish atmosphere that pervaded Christian thinking and practice at this primitive stage... Almost all the Apostolic Fathers throw light on primitive doctrine and practice…But the real key to the theology of the Apostolic Fathers, which also explains its often curious imagery, is that it is Jewish-Christian through and through, expressing itself in categories derived from latter-day Judaism and apocalyptic literature (depicting the intervention of God in history in the last times)
Encyclopedia Britannica

As these quotes attest, early, apostolic Christianity was on the Jewish side of the equation, not the Greek side. However, as the third century dawned, the church began to consider ideas taught by the pagan mysticism of the Hellenistic or Greek world.

Patristic Literature –
The ante-Nicene period
During the first three centuries of its existence the Christian Church had first to emerge from the Jewish environment that had cradled it and then come to terms with the predominantly Hellenistic (Greek) culture surrounding it.

Encyclopedia Britannica

The Greek world that surrounded the early church was dominated by a form of pagan religious mysticism called Neo-Platonism.

Neoplatonism –
the last school of Greek philosophy, given its definitive shape in the 3rd century AD
by the one great philosophical and religious genius of the school, Plotinus. The ancient philosophers who are generally classified as Neoplatonists called themselves simple 'Platonists,'
Encyclopedia Britannica

Neoplatonism –
…a form of mysticism…Neoplatonism may be described as a species of dynamic pantheism.
Directly or indirectly, everything is brought forth by the "One." In it all things, so far as they have being, are divine, and God is all in all…The Neoplatonists believed in the pre-existence, and immortality of the soul…Although the most pure and holy souls would dwell in the highest regions, the impure soul would undergo a purification, before descending again, to be reincarnated into a new body, perhaps into animal form. A soul which has returned to the One, achieves union with the cosmic universal soul, and does not descend again, at least, not in this world period.

"Platonism –
Neoplatonism is the modern name given to the form of Platonism developed by Plotinus in the 3rd century AD…It represents the final form of pagan Greek philosophy…A certain Gnostic
(relating to intuitive knowledge acquired by privileged individuals and immune to empirical verification) tone or colouring sometimes may be discerned in the thought of Plotinus…Moreover, the theosophical works of the late 2nd century AD known as the Chaldean Oracles, which were taken as inspired authorities by the later Neoplatonists, seem to have been a hodgepodge of popular Greek religious philosophy."
Encyclopedia Britannica

"Neoplatonism –
ancient mystical philosophy based on the doctrines of Plato."

Columbia Encyclopedia

"Neoplatonism –
Considered the last of the great pagan philosophies, it was developed by Plotinus (3d cent. A.D.).

Columbia Encyclopedia

Neoplatonism –
The Neoplatonic cosmology also had religious overtones, for Plotinus believed that people…through mystic union would be absorbed in the One itself…
There are thus two reciprocal movements in Neoplatonism: the metaphysical movement of emanation from the One, and the ethical or religious movement of reflective return to the One through contemplation of the forms of the Divine Mind…In the Middle Ages, elements of Plotinus' thought can be found in St. Thomas Aquinas
Columbia Encyclopedia

Neo-Platonism is religious system that viewed God as an unknowable being and held that all creation is ultimately a part of the divine being (pantheism). This being could only be known through subjective, mystical experience rather than through objective experience, rational knowledge, historical inquiry, or written texts. Neo-Platonism included a belief in reincarnation and thought of salvation as emerging from our physical, material existence and re-ascending back into mystical union with “the One.” Neo-Platonists also held that the material world was not directly created by the ultimate God. Instead, they held that a lower deity was the creator of the world that man inhabits.

During the first three centuries of Christianity, various groups tried to fuse Neo-Platonism with apostolic Christian beliefs. This blending or syncretism of Christianity with the pagan mysticism of Neo-Platonism was called Gnosticism.

Simon Magus –
…Gnostics could conceive of salvation as attainable only by escaping their earthly prison.

Encyclopedia Britannica

Gnosticism –
(Greek: gn?sis, knowledge)
refers to diverse, syncretistic religious movements in antiquity consisting of various belief systems generally united in the teaching that humans are divine souls trapped in a material world created by an imperfect god, the demiurge;…The introduction of a distinct creator god. This creator god is commonly referred to as the demiourgós, a technical term literally denoting a public worker, used in the Platonist tradition… The gnostic demiurge bears resemblance to figures in Plato's Timaeus and Republic… Like Plato, Gnosticism presents a distinction between the highest, unknowable "alien God" and the demiurgic "creator" of the material…In many Gnostic systems (and heresiologies), God is known as the Monad, the One, The Absolute…The earliest origins of Gnosticism…include influence from Plato, Middle Platonism and Neo-Pythagoreanism academies or schools of thought…incorporated elements of Christianity and Platonism as it grew...gnostics attempted "an effort towards conciliation, even affiliation" with late antique philosophy…Gnostics borrow a lot of ideas and terms from Platonism…Plotinus' main objection to the Gnostics he was familiar with, however, was their rejection of the goodness of the demiurge and the material world…He accused Gnosticism of vilifying the Demiurge, or craftsman that crafted the material world, and even of thinking that the material world is evil, or a prison…To some degree the texts discovered in Nag Hammadi support his allegations, but others such as the Valentinians and the Tripartite Tractate insist on the goodness of the world and the Demiurge.

"Gnosticism –
The origins of the Gnostic world view
have been sought by scholars in…the allegorical Idealism of the Middle Platonic philosophers…It was only with the rise of Christianity, however, that Gnostic syncretism came to full expression…Gnostic revelation is to be distinguished…from Christian revelation, because it is not rooted in history and transmitted by Scripture. It is rather the intuition of the mystery of the self…This world is therefore alien to God…The Gnostic sects of the 2nd century made use of Hebrew and Christian religious writings, employing the allegorical method to extricate Gnostic meanings from them…The dualistic phase was reached after the expansion of Gnosticism into the Hellenistic world and under the influence of Platonic philosophy, from which was borrowed the doctrine that a lower demiurge was responsible for the creation of this world… thoroughly Hellenized and Christianized and sometimes comes very near to the views of Middle Platonism Encyclopedia Britannica

Gnosticism, Nature –
The Gnostic sects of the 2nd century made use of Hebrew and Christian religious writings, employing the allegorical method to extricate Gnostic meanings from them…
Encyclopedia Britannica

In truth, Gnostic schools merely cloaked pagan mysticism in Christian language. There is little difference between Neo-Platonism and Gnosticism. Both are forms of pagan mysticism. One of them, Gnosticism, was fond of using Christian terminology. Like Neo-Platonism, Gnosticism held that the ultimate God could not be known by means of objective realities or rational inquiry. It interpreted scriptural texts allegorically and was unconcerned with the plain or literal meaning of such writings. Instead, it saw the literal meaning as having only superficial significance. Like the Neo-Platonists, the Gnostics believed that the material world was created by a sub-deity. Both religions called this creator by the same name, the Demiurge. Both religions viewed salvation as leaving our material existence and returning to mystical union with “the One.”

The term Gnostic comes from the Greek word “gnosis” meaning “knowledge.” The Gnostic blending of Neo-Platonism with Christianity began very early in the apostolic era of the church. Early Christians traced the line of Gnostic teachers back to Simon Magus, the sorcerer, mentioned in Acts 8.

Simon Magus –
Samarian magician

flourished 1st century ad
practitioner of magical arts who probably came from Gitta, a village in biblical Samaria. Simon, according to the New Testament account in Acts of the Apostles 8:9–24…Later references in certain early Christian writings identify him as the founder of post-Christian Gnosticism, a dualist religious sect advocating salvation through secret knowledge, and as the archetypal heretic of the Christian Church
Encyclopedia Britannica

1. Simon the Samaritan was that magician of whom Luke, the disciple and follower of the apostles, says…This Simon, then--who feigned faith, supposing that the apostles themselves performed their cures by the art of magic, and not by the power of God;… He, then, not putting faith in God a whit the more, set himself eagerly to contend against the apostles, in order that he himself might seem to be a wonderful being, and applied himself with still greater zeal to the study of the whole magic art, that he might the better bewilder and overpower multitudes of men…2. Now this Simon of Samaria, from whom all sorts of heresies derive their origin,… 5. The successor of this man was Menander, also a Samaritan by birth, and he, too, was a perfect adept in the practice of magic.

1. Arising among these men, Saturninus (who was of that Antioch which is near Daphne) and Basilides laid hold of some favourable opportunities, and promulgated different systems of doctrine--the one in Syria, the other at Alexandria. Saturninus, like Menander, set forth one father unknown to all

The Gnostics denied that Christ and Jesus of Nazareth were a single being. Instead, they held that the two were distinct and that the Christ was a divine being who rested on and joined with the Jewish man, Jesus. They did not believe that the Christ actually became a man. And they taught that the God of the Old Testament was different than the Christ. The apostolic, Christian repudiation of Gnostic ideas begins in the New Testament itself.

In 1 Timothy 6:20-21, Paul instructs Timothy to keep to what the apostles had passed on to the church and to turn away the alternative, which he refers to as “knowledge falsely so called.” The Greek word translated as “knowledge” is “gnosis” from which we get the term Gnosticism. According to Paul those who profess this “gnosis” have “erred concerning the faith.”

1 Timothy 6: 20 O Timothy, keep that which is committed to thy trust, avoiding profane and vain babblings, and oppositions of science (Strong’s number 1108, gnosis) falsely so called: 21 Which some professing have erred concerning the faith.

Likewise, in 2 Thessalonians 2:7, Paul refers to the mystery of lawlessness that is part of the campaign of the Antichrist. The Greek word that Paul uses for “mystery” is “mysterion.” It is related to the concepts and terminology of religious “mysticism” of which Gnosticism is a particular form.

In his epistles, the Apostle John warns against those who denied that Jesus is the Christ. Like Paul, John has Gnostic mystical teachings in mind such as the Gnostic denial that the Christ became a man, that Christ and Jesus are the same, and that the God of the Old and New Testaments is the same. And like Paul, John identifies those teaching Gnostic ideas with the terms antichrists, deceivers, and false prophets. And referencing Jesus’ statements in John 15, John instructs the church to instead hold to and abide in what the apostles had taught from the beginning (1 John 2:18-27, 1 John 4:3, 2 John 1:6-11).

John 15: 4 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me…6 If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned. 7 If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you…9 As the Father hath loved me, so have I loved you: continue ye in my love. 10 If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love.

1 John 2: 18 Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time…22 Who is a liar but he that denieth that Jesus is the Christ? He is antichrist, that denieth the Father and the Son. 23 Whosoever denieth the Son, the same hath not the Father: (but) he that acknowledgeth the Son hath the Father also. 24 Let that therefore abide in you, which ye have heard from the beginning. If that which ye have heard from the beginning shall remain in you, ye also shall continue in the Son, and in the Father. 25 And this is the promise that he hath promised us, even eternal life. 26 These things have I written unto you concerning them that seduce you. 27 …and even as it hath taught you, ye shall abide in him. 28 And now, little children, abide in him;

1 John 3: 24 And he that keepeth his commandments dwelleth in him, and he in him. And hereby we know that he abideth in us, by the Spirit which he hath given us. 4: 1 Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world. 2 Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: 3 And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world…6 We are of God: he that knoweth God heareth us; he that is not of God heareth not us. Hereby know we the spirit of truth, and the spirit of error.

2 John 1: 6 And this is love, that we walk after his commandments. This is the commandment, That, as ye have heard from the beginning, ye should walk in it. 7 For many deceivers are entered into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist…9 Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son. 10 If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed: 11 For he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds.

Here John has identified Gnostic teachings such as their denial that Jesus is the Christ, that the Christ has come in the flesh as a man, and that the God of the Old Testament is the same as the God of the New Testament. Both John and Paul condemn those who teach such things and they instruct the church to instead hold to that which was taught from the beginning by Jesus Christ and his apostles.

It is important to note that 2 John 1:10 specifically states that those with Gnostic teaching should not be allowed into our houses. We have already learned that the church met in their houses. With this historical fact in mind, we can see that John was explicitly telling Christians not to allow Gnostic teaching into the church.

With these apostolic warnings in mind, it’s no wonder that the Apostolic Fathers worked hard to refute Gnostic teachings and preserve apostolic doctrine in the church. Irenaeus, who was taught by John’s disciple Polycarp, valiantly maintains the apostolic campaign against Gnostic infiltration of the church in his five volume work, Against Heresies.

Polycarp, Saint –
a disciple of St. John, who appointed him bishop.
Thus he linked the apostles and such 2d-century Christian expositors as St. Irenaeus.
Columbia Encyclopedia

Irenaeus, Saint –
a disciple of St. Polycarp…Against Heresies establishes Christian doctrine against the Gnostics and incidentally supplies much information on Gnosticism.

Columbia Encyclopedia

Patristic Literature –
The ante-Nicene period
During the first three centuries of its existence the Christian Church…its distinctive system of beliefs…vis-à-vis Judaism on the one hand and Gnosticism…on the other…

Encyclopedia Britannica

In his writings, Irenaeus directly identifies the Gnostics with those Paul had condemned in 1 Timothy 6:20. Here, Irenaeus only slightly modifies Paul’s phrase to “Gnostics falsely so called.”

1 Timothy 6: 20 O Timothy, keep that which is committed to thy trust, avoiding profane and vain babblings, and oppositions of science (Strong’s number 1108, gnosis) falsely so called: 21 Which some professing have erred concerning the faith.

CHAP. XXVI. 2. Let those persons, therefore, who blaspheme the Creator, either by openly expressed words, such as the disciples of Marcion, a perversion of the sense [of Scripture], as those of Valentinus and all the Gnostics falsely so called.

Like the Apostle John, Irenaeus points Christians toward what had always been taught in the church since the time of the apostles and away from Gnostic deviations. In contrast to what the Gnostics taught, which he says is falsely called knowledge (gnosis), Irenaeus calls apostolic teaching true knowledge.

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.

8. True knowledge(4) is [that which consists in] the doctrine of the apostles…by which they have handed down that Church which exists in every place, and has come even unto us, being guarded and preserved(7) without any forging of Scriptures, by a very complete system(8) of doctrine, and neither receiving addition nor [suffering] curtailment [in the truths which she believes]; and [it consists in] reading [the word of God] without falsification, and a lawful and diligent exposition in harmony with the Scriptures, both without danger and without blasphemy; and [above all, it consists in] the pre-eminent gift of love,(9) which is more precious than knowledge, more glorious than prophecy, and which excels all the other gifts [of God]. - Irenaeus, Book V, CHAP. XXXIII

Irenaeus also explains that the Gnostics merely imitated Christian phrases and terms in order to deceive Christians into accepting their false teaching. Again, notice Irenaeus intentionally references Paul’s language saying that the Gnostics “overthrow the faith” of some (2 Timothy 2:18).
CHAP. XV. 2. By these words they entrap the more simple, and entice them, imitating our phraseology…When they have thus, by means of questions, overthrown the faith of any...

CHAP. VIII.1. Such, then, is their system, which neither the prophets announced, nor the Lord taught, nor the apostles delivered, but of which they boast that beyond all others they have a perfect knowledge. They gather their views from other sources than the Scriptures;(4) and, to use a common proverb, they strive to weave ropes of sand, while they endeavour to adapt with an air of probability to their own peculiar assertions the parables of the Lord, the sayings of the prophets, and the words of the apostles, in order that their scheme may not seem altogether without support. In doing so, however, they disregard the order and the connection of the Scriptures, and so far as in them lies, dismember and destroy the truth. By transferring passages, and dressing them up anew, and making one thing out of another, they succeed in deluding many through their wicked art in adapting the oracles of the Lord to their opinions.

In the following quote, Irenaues remarks how the Gnostics felt that they had a superior understanding greater than the apostolic views of the early church. He specifically states that the Gnostics thought that the apostolic teaching was deficient because it was still under Jewish thinking.

...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."

Now that we know that the early church under the direction of the apostles refuted and resisted pagan mystical teaching in form of Gnosticism and Neo-Platonism, we are in a better position to understand the changes that took place in the church after the Apostolic Age. One of the key areas of change was the issue of the apocalypse and the coming to earth of the Messianic kingdom.

Related Outlines
> Church History Study

> Early Church Consensus

> Addendum