Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A Study of Early Christianity

The Christian faith is ancient. Long before your grandparents were born Christianity had been around for centuries. It is much older than the United States. Yet, many of us know little to nothing about the beliefs and practices of the Christians who have gone before us. Since historical events such as the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus are so essential to Christianity it seems that we should be quite interested in history.
What you are about to read is a brief introduction. It will focus on select writings from the earliest Christians, prior to the first council at Nicaea in A.D. 325, especially the Apostolic Fathers.[1]

Why study early Christianity?
            By “Early Christianity” I primarily have in mind the few generations immediately following the Apostles. Some of those early Christians were taught by people who walked and talked with our Savior during his earthly ministry. Ignatius and Polycarp are traditionally believed to have been disciples of the Apostle John. Clement was probably a disciple of Peter and Paul. Papias is reported to have received teaching from the Apostle John and oral tradition from the daughters of the Apostle Philip.
Some things found in these ancient writings can seem strange to modern readers. So let me give you some reasons why we should take these early Christians seriously. 

They were closer to the source
Standing here, in 21st century North America, we are separated from the world of Jesus of Nazareth and his apostles by thousands of years and thousands of miles.[2] Early Christian interpreters did not share our temporal and geographical disadvantages. The culture of the Bible was not nearly as foreign to them as it is to us. They, at least more than us, lived in the same world as the biblical writers. Their language, racial views, concepts of honor and shame, values, and customs were often shared with the writers of the New Testament. Early Christian writers serve as helpful guides along our journey toward understanding the New Testament Scriptures.
This is not to say that we should consider the beliefs of the early church to be authoritative by default. The Church Fathers were sometimes wrong. Only God and the Scriptures are never wrong. At times the premodern outlook of the early Christians may seem quite foreign to the modern or postmodern observer. Listening carefully to the voices of ancient Christian witnesses (outside of Scripture) does not require that we slavishly accept every detail of their beliefs and practices. All that is required of us is that we patiently and respectfully seek to understand their perspectives.

Growing in unity and love
The first few hundred years of Christian doctrine and practice is sometimes referred to as the “Great Tradition.” Those first few centuries of Christianity are our common heritage – whether we identify ourselves as Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, or something else. Recovering an awareness of the Great Tradition may help us to cultivate and demonstrate greater love and understanding for those who do not embrace the particulars of our specific traditions. That would be a good thing.

A safeguard against deception
There is at least one more reason for learning about the beliefs of the earliest Christians. In recent years there has been much confusion about Christian origins. Some claim that heresy preceded orthodoxy, that the original diversity of theological expression was silenced by political power.[3] Such ideas may sell well in our pluralistic culture, but historical support for them is sorely lacking. This short overview of early writings will show that Christians continued to believe and practice what Jesus and the apostles taught from the beginning.

Early Christian Doctrines
Doctrine is simply “that which is believed and taught.” Contrary to popular opinion, doctrine is quite important and relevant to daily life. The things we learn, believe, and teach are either true or they are not. They either guide us in virtue or they encourage our tendency toward vanity and vice. If truth and virtue are important then doctrine is important.
Though there are many Christian doctrines we could examine, let us focus on the most central of Christian beliefs. These core teachings received significant attention in the New Testament and are delineated in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed.[4]   

Nicene Creed
the Father, the Almighty
of all that is, seen and unseen.
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he suffered death and was buried.
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
and his kingdom will have no end.
who proceeds from the Father.
With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.

[1] These are the earliest extant Christian writings outside of the New Testament. They include Clement of Rome, the Didache, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna, Papias of Hierapolis, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the Epistle to Diognetus. For an brief introduction to the Apostolic Fathers see Justo L González, A History of Christian Thought: Volume 1: From the Beginnings to the Council of Chalcedon (2nd,Revised ed.; Abingdon Press, 1987), 44–55. Unless otherwise noted, all references to Apostolic Fathers and other Early Christian writings are from Roberts, Alexander, James Donaldson, and Henry Wace, eds. The Early Church Fathers. Hendrickson Publishers, 1994.

[2] E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible (IVP Books, 2012).
[3] Andreas J. Kostenberger and Michael Kruger, The Heresy of Orthodoxy: How Contemporary Culture’s Fascination with Diversity Has Reshaped Our Understanding of Early Christianity (Crossway Books, 2010).
[4] Most of this creed was written at Nicea in 325 and is often referred to as the Nicene Creed in spite of the included additions added in 381 at Constantinople. The main change introduced at Constantinople was the addition of the words following “we believe in the Holy Spirit.” It will be seen that the doctrines of the Nicene Creed were not imposed by imperial power. Rather, these beliefs were cherished from the earliest days of Christianity.