History- Early Church

History: The Early Church

Surviving by the will of God through His Holy Spirit- despite centuries of effort to destroy it- is the message of God’s grace expressed through the virgin birth, sinless life, innocent and substitionary execution, and literal resurrection of the 3rd person of the infinite Godhead, Jesus Christ.

  • How does today’s “church” look in comparison of that early church?
  • What does the 21st century church have in common with the 1st century church of the New Testament?
  • Has the organization of the 21st century church lost the connection with God’s Holy Spirit that characterized the initial “organism” of the 1st century church?
  • Is the 21st century organization of the church centered in the will and design intended by its Creator; or does it look more like the “world” that it is supposed to be set-apart from?

The organization has suffered from the relentless battering of an enemy bent on destroying it, but the “organism” with the aid of God’s Holy Spirit has kept pure the message of reconciliation and salvation through faith a life-changing belief in Jesus Christ. Here is a slice of the history that the “organism” of the church has endured as the “organization” of the church morphed with the times.

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Attributes of the 1st century church

  • –         Was a “mobile” church:Acts 18:1-3, 27:3, Romans 16:1-24
  • –         Comprised of local bodies of believers:Romans 1:7, 1 Corinthians 1:2, Philippians 1:1
  • –         Was a simple organization of local elders, deacons, and pastors Acts 14:23, 20:17-35,1 Timothy 3:1-13,Titus 1:5-9
  • –         No external religious body or hierarchy exercising oversight, was autonomous, self-governing
  • –         Worship and fellowship conducted by small groups of believers in homes:Acts 16:15, 18:7, 21:8, Romans 16:5,Colossians 4:15
  • –         Where homes were not large enough, Christians rented space: Acts 19:9, 20:8-12
  • –         Was under direct authority of apostles who had been with Jesus from His baptism to His ascension Acts 1:21-22;
  • –         Apostolic calling  was basis of their right to teach Christian doctrine (Peter in 1 Peter 1:1, 2 Peter 1:1 and Paul in Romans 1:1, 1 Corinthians 1:1,Galatians 1:1 and Colossians 1:1)
  • –         Earliest church practiced a communal lifestyle and lived from a “common purse” (John 12:6) which folks helped to replenish (Luke 8:1) as reflected by the apostles’ early experience with Jesus: Acts 2:44-45, 4:32-36

What happened with this early church? It seems that, after the growth-spurt of 5000 men plus wives and kids, what had worked in the smaller church didn’t function so well anymore.

Grecian widows began to complain (Acts 6:1), the Jerusalem church suddenly experienced a financial “fix” from congregations in Antioch and Syria (Acts 11:27-30); and the Jerusalem paradigm was never again followed (Acts 11:27-30,1 Corinthians 16:2, 2 Corinthians 8:11, 9:6-11,1 Timothy 6:17-19).

An “organized missionary outreach” was Holy Spirit-inspired in which Paul and Barnabas were chosen to lead (Acts 13:2).

Is it fair to say that, for the organization of the church, it’s been downhill ever since?

The early church fathers contributed 23 letters to the canon addressing a multitude of divisions, dissensions, wrong doctrines, un-Christian behavior, and churches falling from the mark.

Then, from the last “jot and tittle” of approved canon of Scripture, a journey down the history of the Christian church would uncover a very long list incredible atrocities against humanity by an organization originally established by the One God sent as Savior of humanity. How can anyone in the 21st century be so certain that their local organization truly represents the original “organism”?

A comprehensive resource on the history of the early church is found at Bible Study Tools. The following historical information comes from Church History 101.


The Persecuted Church, 90 – 202 A.D.

Persecution of the Roman Empire

The first true Roman persecution under Nero led to the execution of the apostles Peter and Paul (circa 62-64 A.D.) followed shortly thereafter by the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple.

–         Domitian: The end of the first century included one of these times of persecution under Emperor Domitian (81-96 A.D.). The details of the Domitian Roman persecution (95-96 A.D.) are somewhat sketchy, but it appears to have been contained to Rome and in Asia Minor.

  • Most scholars believe that the Domitian persecution is the historical backdrop for John’s Revelation, the closing document of the New Testament. The writer is urging the first century believers to remain faithful in the midst of this persecution.
  • Some very early Christian writings referred to as “The Apostolic Fathers were written by the first generation of Christian leadership after the apostles, thus the term “fathers.” Some of these documents, written in the end of the first century and the beginning of the second century, were considered by second and third century fathers to be sacred and were quoted as inspired text.The early church took these writings very seriously as early witnesses of the faith.
    • 1 Clement
      • This letter, written by Clement of Rome, named later as the bishop of Rome, is sent to the church in Corinth probably in the 90’s. Apparently the church in Corinth had moved to replace their acting leadership and Clement is writing to instruct them concerning apostolic succession. He uses the OT example of Moses, showing that God appoints leaders as He did with the priesthood and those leaders appoint the next generation “with the consent of the whole Church.” (1 Clement 44.2)
      • Points of Interest:It is from 1 Clement 5 that we learn the fate of Peter and Paul in Rome,
        • Through envy and jealousy, the greatest and most righteous pillars [of the Church] have been persecuted and put to death. Let us set before our eyes the illustrious apostles. Peter…endured not one or two, but numerous labours, and when he had finally suffered martyrdom, departed to the place of glory due to him….Paul also obtained the reward of patient endurance, after being seven times thrown into captivity…and stoned. After preaching both in the east and west…having taught righteousness to the whole world, and come to the extreme limit of the west, and suffered martyrdom under the prefects.
      • Clement is familiar with Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians), referring to it in chapter 47, yet no NT text is ever quoted – his biblical citations and illustrations all come from the OT. Although he also quotes from Paul’s letter to the Romans, his view of faith is more in line with James, “being justified by our works, and not our words.” (1 Clement 30.3)
      • 1 Clement is counted in the NT canon for several regions and was included in theAlexandrian Codex. Clement ofAlexandria (cir. 198-202) often quotes from 1 Clement as scripture.
    • 2 Clement
      • This appears to be the transcript of a sermon rather than a letter. It follows 1 Clement in the early manuscripts and has always been connected to the first letter, but the Greek is decidedly less proficient which points to a different author. This author also clearly quotes from the NT (words of Jesus) more freely, this is also different from 1 Clement.
      • Point of Interest: Although this sermon contains some of the canonical sayings of Jesus, there are also some Gnostic-like sayings, “For the Lord Himself, being asked by a certain person when his kingdom would come, said, ‘When the two shall be one, and the outside as the inside, and the male with the female, neither male or female’.” (2Clem 12:2) This saying is very similar to Gospel of Thomas 22.
    • Didache- aka “The Teaching of The Twelve Apostles”
      • This early document could be dated prior to 70 A.D. and bears many marks of being an early Jewish-Christian document. It opens with what is called “The Two Ways” teaching, a derivative of what is found in Qumran manuscripts and The Manual of Discipline. The Didache also relies on Matthew’s gospel and does not put any emphasis on the divinity of Jesus – these characteristics are consistent with the early Jewish movement referred to as Ebionites.
      • Didache is something of an early Minister’s Manual. It gives very practical guidelines for baptism, fasting, prayer, the Lord’s Supper (the Eucharist), and how to take care of traveling preachers and prophets.
      • Point of Interest:This early document gives us an example of a lack of dogmatism:
        • baptize this way: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living [running] water. But if you have no living water, baptize into other water; and if you cannot do so in cold water, do so in warm. But if you have neither, pour out water three times upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit.   Didache 7
    • The Epistle of Barnabas
      • The dating for Barnabas is highly disputed, ranging from 70 to 128 A.D. Some early fathers, like Clement of Alexandria, ascribed this document to the Barnabas named in Acts with the apostle Paul. In fact, Clement refers to Barnabas as an apostle and quotes from Barnabas as inspired text. Most scholars do not accept NT Barnabas as the author.
      • Barnabas has a very negative view of Judaism, believing that the Jews were being punished for crucifying Jesus. The author quotes extensively from the Greek OT and rarely from the NT. The same “Two Ways” teaching found in Didache is found at the end of Barnabas.
    • The Letters of Ignatius
      • Early in the second century, probably during the reign of Trajan, Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch is arrested and is being taken to Rome for trial. Along the way he writes letters to various churches, urging them to remain faithful and to pay respect to the bishop. These letters give us an interesting insight into this period and the development of what is now called monoepiscopacy, the idea of a single bishop over a region.
      • Points of Interest: We saw in the chapter on the first century that Ignatius writes against a group that holds to some kind of docetic view of Jesus, an emphasis that denies his humanity. Perhaps to combat this doceticism, Ignatius expresses a strong Christology, Johannine in nature, but even more pronounced. This represents a continued confirmation of the early church belief in the divinity of Jesus,
        • There is one Physician who is possessed both of flesh and spirit; both made and not made; God existing in flesh; true life in death; both of Mary and of God; first possible and then impossible, even Jesus Christ our Lord.    Ephesians 7
      • In the letter to the Trallians there is an interesting section that points to a very early witness of what becomes known as the Apostle’s Creed:
        • Jesus Christ….descended from David, and was also of Mary; who was truly begotten of God and of the Virgin, but not after the same manner….He was crucified and died under Pontius Pilate….He descended, indeed, into Hades alone….He also rose again in three days, the Father raising Him up; and after spending forty days with the apostles, He was received up to the Father, and “sat down at His right hand, expecting till His enemies are placed under His feet…    Trallians 9
  • The Martyrdom of Polycarp
    • This document tells the story of Polycarp’s arrest and martyrdom sometime in the middle of the second century. Polycarp had a large reputation as the bishop of Smyrna – Irenaeus reports that Polycarp had been a disciple of John the Evangelist. The story related in this document is fantastic in nature and becomes part of a growing body of martyrdom accounts.
    • After being arrested and taken into a stadium to be executed as part of the brutal entertainment in the Roman Empire, the proconsul urged Polycarp,
      • Swear by the genius of Caesar; repent and say, “Away with the atheists.” Then Polycarp with solemn countenance looked upon the whole multitude of lawless heathen that were in the stadium, and waved his hand to them; and groaning and looking up to heaven he said, “Away with the atheists.”    Polycarp 9.2
      • Polycarp is 86 years old, yet is treated roughly, urged to renounce Christ, and is threatened with being burned at the stake. His retort to the officials in the face of certain death has inspired generations of believers,
        • ‘Thou threatenest that fire which burneth for a season and after a little while is quenched: for thou art ignorant of the fire of the future judgment and eternal punishment, which is reserved for the ungodly. But why delayest thou?’    Polycarp 11.2
      • The attendants prepared the fire and as they moved to nail Polycarp to the stake he asked that he be allowed to have his hands free saying that the one who would give him the strength to endure the flames would also give him strength to remain in the fire.
      • Point of Interest: This martyrdom account became immediately popular among Christians of that age and fueled an already growing martyrdom cult. This will be discussed more fully in the next section, but it is important to mention here that martyrs (literally, witnesses) were being given favored status. Their bones were collected and venerated – stories of healings and miracles happening through the use of prayer and these “relics” circulated. Martyrs in prison were seen as having such a high standing that believers consistently visited them, asking for their prayers – this led to some friction within the local church leadership.
    • The Shepherd of Hermas
      • This interesting document was written in Rome sometime before the middle of the second century. The author is Hermas, brother of then bishop of Rome, Pius. This is an apocalyptic document, a series of visions and revelations given to Hermas through an angel, a shepherd.
      • This document seems to have been written as an encouragement to believers to endure persecution, but had a controversial aspect to it – a second chance for repentance. We will discuss this issue more fully in a later section, Second Repentance[1], but for now we can simply acknowledge that this caused The Shepherd of Hermas to be rejected by some early fathers.
    • The Spirit of Martyrdom
      • From the time when “godly men buried Stephen” after he was executed by the Jews, martyrs were treated with great respect. Martyrs, or “confessors,” were believed to have a greater degree of grace from God. There were reports (although some might be considered questionable) that miracles were performed through martyrs: bones (relics) could be used for healing, confessors sitting in prison were reported to have heavenly visions and personal audience with the risen Lord – these could offer prayers of special power, and could even grant confirmation of God’s forgiveness.
      • By the middle of the second century pockets of the Church had followers desiring martyrdom to the point of throwing themselves in the way of officials of the empire, hoping to be selected for the “perfecting” of their faith, execution. This careless attitude had become commonplace enough that Clement ofAlexandria urges believers not to offer themselves to their persecutors, but to flee.
      • Bishops of the second century found their authority being challenged by imprisoned confessors. People were flocking to imprisoned saints seeking empowered prayer and forgiveness for sins. During times of intense persecution many believers “lapsed” into various levels of their former sinful lives, then wanted to come back to the church. Each region had its own method of repentance, which typically depending on the local bishop. When lapsed believers started approaching, and gaining forgiveness through imprisoned confessors the authority of the bishop suffered.

The Initial Heresies and Heretics

–         Docetism

  • Docetic comes from the Greek word meaning “to appear.” Those who proposed this heresy maintained that Jesus really did not possess, or inhabit a physical body, but only “appeared” to have a body. The basis of docetism is that Jesus was truly a spiritual being, and as such, could not have had a true body. Beginning with the apostle Paul, the leaders of the early church had to address wrong headed ideas that threatened the integrity of the gospel message. One of the first, docetism, was mentioned in our discussion of the first century. There are aspects of the New Testament that suggest docetism was already a problem in the first century. Some scholars believe John’s gospel contains some anti-docetic texts, for example in chapter 21 where Jesus eats fish with disciples. It seems that 1 John may have been written to combat this heresy, “…every spirit that acknowledges Jesus Christ come in the flesh belongs to God.” 1 John 4:2  Ignatius of Antioch is clearly writing against docetics when he says, “He was then truly born, truly grew up, truly ate and drank, was truly crucified, and died, and rose again.” Philippians 3

–         Marcion

  • Around the year 85 Marcion was born, the son of a bishop. He traveled around the world as a merchant and moved to Rome around 135 where he became known in the church and began to teach. Marcion observed the vast differences between the God represented in the Old Testament and the God of Jesus in the NT. His answer was to reject the God of the OT, seeing him as the evil craftsman (gk. demiurge) creator of an evil world. Marcion constructed a list that represents the first recorded listing of NT texts, basically his personal canon – he excluded the entire OT, and included only Paul’s letters and Luke’s gospel. He also excluded a few parts of Paul’s letters – anything where Paul refers to the OT in a positive way (Marcion claimed these had been tampered with by Jews) and references to hell and/or judgment (for example2 Thess 1:6-8). It is this unorthodox canon that leads the church fathers to begin naming the “accepted” documents. Marcion’s influence was significant enough for his teaching to be argued against by several church fathers including Justin, Irenaeus, Clement ofAlexandria, Origen, and Tertullian. He worked hard as an evangelist and the Marcionite churches spread throughout the Roman Empire. Marcionite churches held strong until the beginning of the fourth century.

–         Montanus

  • Sometime in the 160’s on the borders of Mysia (western Turkey) a believer named Montanus broke onto the scene. He testified that he had experienced an ecstatic visitation of the Paraclete (the Holy Spirit) and, along with two women (Maximilla and Priscilla), had the ability to deliver prophetic messages from God. The Montanist message, whether spoken or delivered in ecstatic utterance, consisted of: the promise (or warning) of the immanent return of Jesus and the apocalyptic end of the world, a new outpouring of the Spirit announcing this message, and an encouragement to embrace persecution and martyrdom. The church had not discouraged these messages up to this point, and indeed, did not immediately disagree with Montanus. Unfortunately, other messages existed behind these to form a three-part subtext. First, two of the primary characters were women. There are some modern scholars who seize upon this as evidence for a patriarchical stronghold that would deny any leadership to women. There are good arguments against this position, but the early church was a male dominated movement and women certainly did not have equal access to leadership roles. Another subtext was the over-zealous approach to martyrdom. We have already covered the problems with what can be called “the cult of the martyrs.” It is highly likely that Montanists were among the martyrs in the famous persecution scene of Lyons in the year 177. Probably the most problematic aspect of the Montanists was the view that their prophecies carried the authority of the gospels, and of apostolic teaching. Montanus and his two prophetesses did not see themselves in need of the authority of the church. The leading bishops did, however, prevail even after Tertullian defected from the church and joined the Montanists. Around 179 AD Maximilla complained of the treatment she had received, “I am driven as a wolf from the sheep. I am not a wolf. I am word, spirit and power.” (Eusebius, History V.16.17) In the end, Montanism was rejected more for being fanatical than for being heretical. David Wright concludes his study on Montanism by saying, “The reaction against Montanism brought upon the church impoverishment more detrimental than the upset caused by the unbalanced excesses of the New Prophecy. (Wright, David, “Why Were the Montanists Condemned?”, Themelios 2:1, pp.15-22; also www.earlychurch.org.uk/article_montanists_wright.html). Monarchian beliefs enjoyed a great vogue around the turn of the second and third centuries, Their refutation engaged the full vigor of giants like Origen and … the Montanist Tertullian! Was not Praxeas, the arch monarchian demolished by Tertullian in his most significant work on the Trinity, the very one who had at Rome not only ‘introduced heresy’ but also ‘banished (the New) Prophecy’? Tertullian is unequivocal that Montanus and his associates were not condemned for any transgression of the ‘rule of faith and hope’, and professes that the direction of the Paraclete commits him ever more confidently to his exposition of the Trinity. Tertullian records a prophetic oracle which is entirely catholic: ‘God brought forth the Word as a root brings forth a tree, and a spring a river and the sun a ray’ (Sources, pp. 44, 37, 45). ‘Tertullian helped to rescue the catholic church from theological heresy precisely because he was a Montanist’ (Barnes, op. cit., p. 142). Opponents accuse Montanus of ‘prophesying contrary to the manner which the church had received from generation to generation by tradition from the beginning.‘He fell into a state of possession, as it were, and abnormal ecstasy, insomuch that he became frenzied and began to babble and utter strange sounds.’ The two women ‘chattered in a frenzied, inopportune and unnatural fashion‘ (Eusebius, [p.17])

–         Gnosticism

  • Carpocrates of Alexandria was the founder of an early Gnostic sect from the first half of the 2nd century. Basilides is acknowledged as one of the earliest Alexandrian Gnostics. a native of Alexandria and flourished under the Emperors Adrian and Antoninus Pius, about 120-140. Basilides invented prophets for himself named Barcabbas and Barcoph, and claimed to have received verbal instructions from St. Matthias the Apostle and to be a disciple of Glaucias, a disciple of St. Peter.
  • Hippolytus sets forth the doctrine of Basilides as follows:
    • There was a time when nothing existed, neither matter nor form, nor accident; neither the simple nor the compound, neither the unknowable nor the invisible, neither man or angel nor god nor any of these things, which are called by names or perceived by the mind or the senses. The Not-Being God (ouk on theos) whom Aristotle calls Thought of thought (noesis tes noeseos), without consciousness, without perception, without purpose, without aim, without passion, without desire, had the will to create the world. I say “had the will” only by way of speaking, because in reality he had neither will, nor ideas nor perceptions; and by the word ‘world’ I do not mean this actual world, which is the outcome of extension and division, but rather the Seed of the world. The seed of the world contained in itself, as a mustard seed, all things which are eventually evolved, as the roots, the branches, the leaves arise out of the seedcorn of the plant.
  • As with many Gnostic sects, we know of the Carpocratians only through the writings of the Church Fathers, principally Irenaeus of Lyons and Clement of Alexandria. As the former strongly opposed Gnostic doctrine, there is a question of negative bias when using this source. While the various references to the Carpocratians differ in some details, they agree as to the libertinism of the sect. Gnosticism was a curious synthesis of Jewish apocalypticism, Platonism, strains of pagan religions, and early Christianity. There are some indications of an early form of Gnostic thought in the NT, but nothing like what developed in the second century. Gnosticism consisted of an extreme dualism, drawing a distinction between the body and the spirit realm. The “demiurge” was the evil creator of the physical universe, humans were bound in their “evil” physical body, and could only be released from the confines of that body through the gaining of gnosis, or divine knowledge. The seven visible heavenly bodies (Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn) gave rise to a belief in eight heavenly realms. Plato had written about the concept of pre-existent souls in a state of perfection prior to taking on a mortal body on the earth. When the soul is released from the prison of the body it ascends back to the heavenly realm where it is reunited with the realm of ideas. The soul in the Gnostic system must ascend through these heavenly realms in the quest to return to a state of perfection. Along the way the soul must pass guardians of each level; typically to pass into the next stage, or heavenly realm, the soul must recite some of the heavenly gnosis learned during the earthly trek. The eighth level is the place of perfection, the ultimate goal for every soul.

–         The Apologists

  • The following arguments were commonly used against Christianity:
    • Jesus could not have been divine
    • with secret teachings, Christianity is suspicious (Eucharist, the Holy Spirit, etc.)
    • how can God be “eternal” and be known?
  • It is important to understand that intellectual criticism of the Christian faith and doctrine was not uncommon in the second century. This is important for many reasons, but here are two:
    • Christianity has always had critics. What we see and hear leveled against the faith is not new – believers before us had to find answers against critics and so does the contemporary church.
    • The answers we find to the objections clearly indicate that the primary doctrines of the faith were well established before the NT took its final form. Those who argue that the faith being taught in the 21st century is somehow different from what the earliest believers held is simply not true. The virgin birth, the physical resurrection, the divinity of Jesus – we find the same cardinal doctrines of faith in early second century Christianity.
  • This consistent criticism of the faith gave rise to another special group of Christian writers, the Apologists. These writers argued for the faith, and in the process allowed Christians for all ages to know what the second century church believed. The first two men (Justin Martyr and Irenaeus of Lyons) are clearly second century; the influence of the two other men (Tertullian and Clement ofAlexandria) was mainly felt in the third century and beyond, but they are both considered apologists.
    • Justin Martyr (c.100-165)
      • Justin was an ardent student of philosophy (mainly Stoicism and Platonism) and taught philosophy. In his early thirties he met an elderly man on a seashore who impressed upon Justin the trustworthiness of the gospel.Justin investigated the faith and became convinced. He continued to wear his philosopher’s gown and teach philosophy, but now advocating the only true philosophy to be Christianity. Justin is mainly known through his writings:
        • The Apologies – a set of discourses propounding the supremacy of the Christian faith. The first Apology is addressed to the emperor Antoninus Pius (ruled 138-161) and to his son, Marcus Aurelius (ruled 161-180), who himself was something of a philosopher. Justin appeals to these emperors and their sense of decency, arguing against the persecution directed at Christians.
        • Dialogue with Trypho – a treatise again proposing the primacy of the Christian faith, but with more emphasis on how the followers of Jesus represent the “new” people of God. Trypho was an educated Jew and also a student of philosophy.
      • Justin is often criticized for leaning too heavily on his Greek philosophy, but he must have stood out as an intellectual giant among his peers and perhaps dulled some of the sharp attacks coming from the critics of the faith.
      • Justin is also quite important for the role his writings play in the development of the NT canon. He quotes from, or alludes to, each of the four gospels and to many of Paul’s letters. Many early fathers cite Justin as an important early Christian voice. He was arrested and beheaded in Rome and thus receives his name as Justin Martyr.
    • Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 135-202)
      • Irenaeus, a bishop in Gaul sometime in the latter half of the second century is mainly known for his work Against Heresies circa 175-185. The title is actually Refutation and Overthrow of Knowledge, falsely so-called – thus the shorter title. This work is a summary and brief history of all the heresies known by Irenaeus, focusing on Gnosticism. Indeed, Gnosticism was the dominant heresy of that time, even overshadowing the orthodox faith in the Egyptian region to some extent. We learn from the author himself that he grew up in the faith and actually sat at the feet of Polycarp as a young boy(A.H. III.3,4). Eusebius gives us more from a letter of Irenaeus which no longer survives:
        • “For when I was a boy I saw you in lower Asia with Polycarp….I remember the events of that time more clearly than those of recent years. For what boys learn, growing with their mind, becomes joined with it; so that I am able to describe the very place in which the blessed Polycarp sat as he discoursed, and his goings out and his comings in, and the manner of his life, and his physical appearance, and his discourses to the people, and the accounts which he gave of his intercourse with John and with the others who had seen the Lord. And as he remembered their words, and what he heard from them concerning the Lord, and concerning his miracles and his teaching, having received them from eyewitnesses of the ‘Word of life,’ Polycarp related all things in harmony with the Scriptures…I listened to them attentively, noting them down, not on paper, but in my heart. And continually, through God’s grace, I recall them faithfully.”   (E.H. V.20,5-7)
      • What begins as a refutation of Gnostic groups becomes something of a history of the Christian church up until his day. In fact, Eusebius leans upon Irenaeus to a great degree in his church history volume written 200 years later. Irenaeus gives us many details about Christianity during this period that might have otherwise been lost. For example, he recounts the succession of bishops in Rome from Peter and Paul to his day. This is done to combat a claim being made by several heretical leaders that they were in the rightful lineage of the apostles. He gives us the basis for a creed recited during his day (A.H. III.4,2). He cites passages from the four canonical gospels and from almost every other NT book.
      • Many scholars during the early years of the 20th century attacked Irenaeus and his description of these Gnostic groups, accusing him of exaggeration in order to make the Gnostics look far worse. The discovery of Nag Hammadi in 1945 of several Gnostic writings dated from the second century (the Nag Hammadi Library) have proven that Irenaeus was, in fact, not making anything up, nor was he exaggerating.
      • Irenaeus served as the bishop of Lyons until 202 when it is thought he may have died during the persecution under Emperor Severus.
    • Tertullian (c.155-230)
      • It is not known exactly when Tertullian was born, but he was born in Carthage, North Africa, the son of a Roman centurion and the Empire. He was trained in law and apparently served as a jurist in Rome for a while. We do not know how he came to faith, but he does seem to indicate in some of his writings that he was not always in the faith.
      • He is known only for his writings, which are many. Tertullian was a prolific writer and is the first of the Latin Fathers – the first Christian writer to write in Latin. His biblical quotations come from a Latin bible as well. He is a master of the written word and penned some works specifically for the general educated public in defense of Christian faith. Some were written as open letters to the authorities arguing (as did Justin) against the persecution of Christians in the empire. His writings are terse, direct, and always attacking – as he probably argued in courtrooms, his aim is always to win the battle of the argument.
      • Tertullian had a fiery temperament and that contributed to some very strong disagreements with others in church leadership. The most serious issue is known “second repentance.” Basically the church believed that after your initial repentance, baptism, and entrance into the family of faith you could not be formally allowed re-admittance to the church if you commit a “sin unto death.” Typically three sins were considered mortal sins: adultery, fornication, and apostasy (denouncing Christ during persecution).
      • During some of the more heated persecutions of the second century the faith of many believers failed, or “lapsed.” After the persecution calmed bishops found themselves with numbers of the lapsed desiring forgiveness and admission to the church. This number could be in the dozens in the major cities. As in any age, some bishops were more stern than others – some wanted to grant mercy to these penitent sinners. Others wanted to the church to hold to a high standard and demanded that lapsed believers could not be forgiven. Tertullian falls into the rigorous camp, but the issue is not a simple one – he mainly felt that to go easy on an adulterer and to then hold someone at arms length whose faith held failed under torture was just wrong.
    • Clement of Alexandria (cir. 150-215)
      • The final significant second century apologist is Clement ofAlexandria. It is difficult to overestimate the influence of Clement. Although his influence is not focused in the second century, he certainly served as an apologist.
      • Clement’s first major work is titled “Exhortation to the Greeks” and is basically a call to the educated Greco-Roman society to hear the gospel of Jesus. Many scholars say this is Clement’s most graceful piece of writing. This “Exhortation” is filled with numerous citations from the most popular Greek writers, each citation being used to prove Clement’s underlying arguments. The document reads like an anthology of Greek literature, and it is clear that Clement is not new to this literature. He is an educated man and his use of Greek is of a high quality.
      • His other significant apologetic is “Miscellanies,” a strange work that covers a multitude of topics without any apparently clear outline. What is clear in this work is that Clement is attacking the various Gnostic leaders who had made an impact in second century Egypt, chiefly Basilides and Valentinus. He names these men throughout this work, citing texts from their writings and arguing against them.
      • “Excerpts from Theodotus” is another work attributed to Clement. In this work Clement takes large portions of Theodotus, a teacher of Valentinian Gnosticism, and argues against this Gnostic teaching.
      • Although Clement is clearly on the offensive against Gnosticism, it is also clear that some of his views are not consistent with other early writers. This is something a problem with Clement ofAlexandria. He represents a time in the development of Egyptian Christianity when the church was recovering from what appears to have been a 50-60 year period when Gnosticism was the dominant force. Nonetheless, Clement ofAlexandria certainly represents the development in early Christianity when highly educated Christian leaders presented a reasoned defense of the faith.

 


[1] The Issue of Second Repentance

As was mentioned in the section on Roman persecution, there was an ebb and flow in the Roman persecution against Christians. It was not unusual for great numbers of believers to “lapse” during times of intense persecution. Some simply backed into the shadows for fear of being associated with the Christians. Others found it easy to go back to riotous living, the life of excessive drink and sexual indiscretions. Once the persecution lifted bishops would often find themselves faced with literally dozens, sometimes hundreds, of lapsed believers desiring to be readmitted to the fellowship of the saints. Lapsing during a time of persecution was a serious offense, especially when there were others who stood the test and were tortured and/or killed. Lapsed believers were not allowed to celebrate the Eucharist or to enter into the main church meeting, but had to sit in an outside room, or even outside the building or house. They could listen, but could not take part. Some never tried to come back, feeling that they were beyond forgiveness, others decided they did not want to come back.

InNorth Africa, according to Tertullian (On Purity 13), lapsed believers would dress in rags to show their penance, lay prostrate in the outer foyer where the elders would enter, and beg for prayer and forgiveness. Following1 John 5:16,17the elders were not to speak to or even pray for such “penitents,” but were to let them continue in penance until the Lord somehow showed His mercy to them. Some of these lapsed believers would eventually give up, figuring they had lost their souls. Others would spend months, maybe years, in this condition, hoping that God would accept them when they died.

A point I now insist upon is this, that the penance which has been revealed to us by the grace of God, which is required of us and which brings us back to favor with the Lord, must never, once we have known and embraced it, be violated thereafter by a return to sin….Grant, Lord Christ, that Thy servants may…know nothing of repentance nor have any need of it [after baptism]. I am reluctant to make mention here of a second hope, one which is indeed the very last, for fear that in treating of a resource which yet remains in penitence, I may seem to indicate that there is still time left for sin. God grant that no one come to such a conclusion.   On Penitence 5-7 [emphasis added]

This “second hope” Tertullian refers to is the second repentance issue we mentioned earlier in the short discussion on The Shepherd of Hermas. Tertullian refers to The Shepherd in one of his later works, saying it is the only writing “which favours adulterers.” (Modesty 10.12)

In this discussion it is quite important to remember the historical context – Roman persecution. Some believers are seeking forgiveness for what Tertullian calls mortal sins, apostasy, adultery, and fornication, and as we have seen, The Shepherd of Hermas indicates that many were willing to grant such forgiveness. Callistus, bishop of Rome, produced a decree (cir. 217-222) which authorized bishops to allow absolution for penitent adulterers. This idea greatly angered Tertullian. His response was to write On Purity in which he was critical of the idea that an adulterer could receive the same absolution that might be withheld from the one whom savagery has overcome after he has struggled with torments in the agony of martyrdom. It would, in fact, be unworthy of God and of His mercy...that those who have fallen in the heat of lust should more easily reenter the Church than those who have fallen in the heat of battle.   On Purity 22

He paints the picture of a believer being tortured, with a glowing iron held close to his face, being told to deny Christ. He maintains that this believer should be given opportunity for forgiveness before the adulterer. As with other major issues, the Church had to grapple not only with practical application of “truth” in the lives of believers, but also with obscure biblical texts. In the end, judgments had to be made and tradition was established, but getting to that place was not easy. In 251 AD, under Cyprian of Carthage, the “second repentance” issue took on the added significance of who could offer penance and forgiveness to the ‘lapsed.’ The authority of the bishop was again being questioned and Cyprian’s document, On the Unity of the Catholic Church, established the rule of the church followed from that time forward – authority rested with the bishops.

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