Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Early Christianity: Rule of Faith

The Rule of Faith
You might wonder how long it took for Christian beliefs to become so specific. Perhaps Christians were more open-minded prior to the famous Council of Nicea. Was there a time when, for instance, one could be a good Christian without believing that Jesus came in real human flesh?

From the beginning certain beliefs were essential to Christian faith. Cherishing these beliefs meant rejecting contrary beliefs. The New Testament declares that anyone who does not confess that Jesus came in the flesh is to be considered a deceiver (2 John 1:7). The apostles warned Christians to mark and withdraw from those who did not follow the doctrine they had received (Romans 16:17; 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14; 2 Timothy 3:5; 2 John 1:10-11; Titus 3:10). Anyone who came preaching different gospel was to be accursed (Galatians 1:8-9).

Teachings passed down from Jesus through the apostles to succeeding generations of disciples were considered authoritative. Certain central apostolic doctrines came to be known as the “rule of faith” (regula fidei) or “rule of truth.”[1] Some of these doctrinal summaries can be seen in the writings of Irenaeus, Tertulllian, and Origin. Here is just one example of the content of the regula fidei as preserved in the work of Irenaeus (c. A.D. 185):

The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one,” and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, “every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess” to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send “spiritual wickednesses,” and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory.[2]

The very concept of a rule of faith precludes the idea that the earliest form of Christianity was so diverse as to allow all sorts of beliefs. Authoritative apostolic tradition – the rule of faith – existed long before the development of formal creeds. Any teaching that contradicts the content of that tradition has been rejected by Christians from the beginning.          

All Christians everywhere believe many things in common. Hopefully this brief exploration of Early Christian beliefs serves to remind you that all Christians share the Great Tradition.

The Apostolic Fathers did not introduce novel theology. They passed on what they themselves had been taught. Their writings are light on speculation and heavy on exhortation. They remind us to believe and obey the Scriptures, worship Jesus, and expect his Second Coming and Judgment.

Judaism had its doctrinal boundaries and so did its offspring, Christianity. It should be clear at this point that the central teachings of Christianity were established very early on – long before the Nicene Creed was penned. The recent popularity of the idea that orthodoxy was created at Nicea, in 325 A.D., simply lacks historical support.

This study of Early Christianity has been quite narrow in its scope, focusing almost entirely on the writings of the Apostolic Fathers that relate to the doctrines affirmed in the Nicene Creed. Ancient Christian beliefs certainly encompassed much more than those central teachings. Many other Early Christian doctrines and practices such as free-will, spiritual gifts, real presence, remarriage, Sunday worship, war, exorcism, prayer for the dead, veils, kneeling, and Eastward prayer could be studied with profit and interest. Hopefully, this introduction will whet your appetite for further study.

[1] Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines. Chapter 2; Ralph P. ; Davids Martin, Dictionary of the later New Testament and its  developments (electronic ed.; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000). CREEDS, CONFESSIONAL FORMS
[2] Irenaeus, Against Heresies X.1, ANF I p. 330; Other rules of faith include: 1 Clement VII, ANF I p. 7; Irenaeus, Against Heresies IX.4, ANF I p. 330; Ibid. XXII.1, p. 347; Tertullian, Prescription Against Heretics XIII, ANF III p. 249; Ag. Hermogenes I, ANF III p. 477; Ag Praxeas II, ANF III p. 598; Origen, De Principiis II, ANF IV p. 282

For Further Reading
Bercot, David W. A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs. Hendrickson Publishers, 2005.

Evans, Craig A. Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels. Expanded. IVP Books, 2006.

González, Justo L. A History of Christian Thought: Volume 1: From the Beginnings to the Council of Chalcedon. 2nd,Revised ed. Abingdon Press, 1987.

Kelly, J. N. D. Early Christian Doctrines: Revised Edition. Revised. HarperOne, 1978.

Kostenberger, Andreas J., and Michael Kruger. The Heresy of Orthodoxy: How Contemporary Culture’s Fascination with Diversity Has Reshaped Our Understanding of Early Christianity. Crossway Books, 2010.

Lightfoot, J. B. The Apostolic Fathers. Edited by J. R. Harmer. Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2010.

Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vol. 1: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition. University Of Chicago Press, 1975.

Roberts, Alexander, James Donaldson, Philip Schaff, and Henry Wace, eds. The Ante-Nicene       Fathers. Hendrickson Publishers, 1994.