History Matters: The Early Church for Contemporary Christians

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Perhaps one of the greatest ills within evangelical Christianity is its amnesia related to the early Church. If amnesia is too strong, then certainly there has been a major neglect of this era of the church’s history among modern day evangelicals. Contrary to this notion, the theology and events of the ancient church is a part of our history. The early church does not belong to one tradition of Christians; it belongs to all who are members of the universal church by faith in Christ. This is Christian history. So what is ancient Christianity? Here’s a simple definition: ancient Christianity is the period of the church following the apostolic period wherein the biblical doctrine of the church was established and defended, the gospel message of the church was proclaimed and extended, and the culture of the church was developed and commended.

Defending Doctrine

Ancient Christianity is often mischaracterized as letting go of biblical doctrine. Ancient Christians have been accused of everything from syncretism to total dismissal of biblical doctrine. Such allegations are the opposite of the truth. Ancient Christians defended the biblical faith and helped develop our understanding of doctrinal truths contained within the Scriptures. Apologists such as Justin Martyr and Athenagoras of Athens defended doctrinal claims, as well as demonstrated why Christianity was the morally superior religion. Later into the fourth century, as doctrinal claims were challenged from within the church, men such as Athanasius of Alexandria, Basil of Caesarea, and Augustine of Hippo defended the doctrines of the church “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). The ecumenical councils of Nicaea (325), Constantinople (381), Chalcedon (451), among others, developed an orthodox vocabulary based on the biblical deposit of faith. As the church has done in every age, including today, ancient Christians used concepts and words to help communicate and express that which they had always believed but what needed clarification for each new age and cultural situation.

Extending the Gospel

The early church was a period of gospel expansion. But this was not an era of door-to-door evangelism and big tent revivals. So how did the gospel extend to unbelievers in the ancient world? Through patient, everyday, faithful witness. The reality is that Christianity was a countercultural message. Both in its truth claims and its claims on morality, Christianity rubbed against commonly accepted Roman cultural mores. Such a stark message garnished attention by the way in which Christians lived. Tertullian, a third century Christian theologian and apologist, wrote this in regards to Christian behavior, “Everything is in common among us—except our wives.” (Tertullian, Apology, 39.12) This statement spoke against an immoral Roman culture, and revealed a different way of being in the world for Christians. Christians provided a consistent ethic, founded on Scripture, which provided a testimony to the world of their radical departure from culturally acceptable behavior. In their day to day lives, their words and actions provided a “defense for the hope” that was within them (1 Pet 3:15). This was part of early Christian gospel proclamation.

Another way the gospel went forth was through martyrdom. This was the fullest witness to Christ someone could give (the Greek root for martyrdom, martus, means witness). Martyrs testified to the truth of Christ with their lives. Though persecution was not constant throughout the first three centuries, there were numerous instances of martyrdom, providing many Christians an opportunity to give an account of their faith. Though Roman officials believed they were stamping out a seditious sect, “[but] God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; [and] God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor 1:27). Persecution and martyrdom provided a platform for the gospel to extend throughout the known world.

Commending Culture

Christian culture in the first three centuries centered around worship and catechesis (or instruction in the faith). Christians were used to a certain rhythm of life that was, as we mentioned previously, countercultural. To outsiders, Christian instruction came from seemingly unsophisticated Jewish books as well as books written about a first century Palestinian country yokel. There was nothing that spoke of worldly wisdom, complexity, or flowery rhetoric. Christian fellowship included people from all walks of life and nationalities, and Christian worship centered on a crucified and resurrected man from Nazareth. And no one apologized for this. To an outsider, Christian culture was weird, but it spoke a better message of redemption and life.

It’s true that the first three centuries of the church’s existence were a tumultuous time for the people of God. But the fires of persecution cooled as Constantine became the sole emperor and began favoring the Christian religion. With this imperial favoritism came privileges for the church and her leaders. Increasingly, what was once a sub-culture within the cultural cacophony of the Roman Empire, became the accepted and preferred culture. The church flooded with new converts, bishops wielded authority over officials, and Christianity eventually became the official religion of the state. Though the culture of the church developed throughout the first three centuries, including its worship and traditions, major shifts took place within a century following Constantine. What was once weird soon became the norm.

So what?

The age of ancient Christianity is one which deserves a place at the evangelical table. We are a people with a collective memory, a memory which deserves to be preserved, warts and all. When we neglect the early church, we neglect our heritage as the people of God. The doctrinal vocabulary developed in the ancient church still serves to protect against heretical notions of Jesus’s person and work and the nature of the triune God. The witness of martyrs provides an example of Christian faithfulness worthy of consideration in every age. Ancient christian theologians throughout all their works demonstrated a great concern for Scripture and used scriptural arguments to defend the faith and answer the claims of critics. Though ancient Christian thinkers did not always prove helpful in their reflection, its a reminder that in every age of the church we have a calling to adhere to biblical faithfulness in our thinking and practice. The work and witness of ancient Christians affords us a rich foundation of history and theology. When we forget them, we forget ourselves.

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