When we think of church history, we typically think of the New Testament period, the Reformation, or the more modern history of the church. We may not focus on the immediate post-apostolic times, yet this was a vital time for the formation of Christianity. Lessons from this period should compel Christian leaders to go back to the Word and, more importantly, to its Author.
By the end of the first century, the apostles—the witnesses of the life and resurrection of Jesus—had all died. They had done their job well. They had given their lives in far-flung lands throughout the world, proclaiming that there is a Savior who had risen from the dead.
This all seemed to be working out well in spite of strong opposition from both Roman persecution and pagan philosophic and cultural attacks. But some of the largest threats the church had to face were from the inside—from the “fierce wolves” that Paul predicted (Acts 20:29).1 The apostle’s letters are firsthand evidence that the wolves were already at work, and serious divisions were threatening the church.
Two principal philosophical onslaughts struck at the church early in its life: Gnosticism and Docetism. Gnostics were dualists who taught that matter was bad and spirit was good. Hence, the body was evil and the soul was good. The body was a dead loss; but by acquiring special knowledge (gnosis), the soul after death could leave the body and lead an immortal life—say, up in heaven. The special knowledge that provides such a liberation is something only a privileged few could have, and this knowledge is hidden in the Bible through all kinds of symbols and concealed modes.
Such Gnostic ideas were present even in New Testament times as evident in Paul’s advice to Timothy to avoid “the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called ‘knowledge’ [gnosis]” (1 Tim. 6:20). The Gnostic positions were fought long and hard by post-canonical church leaders from Ignatius to Tertullian.
Closely related to Gnosticism was Docetism. Docetists also taught that the body was bad; in fact, it was so bad that Jesus could not have had a real body because He was God. His human appearance and experiences were just an illusion, and, of course, He could not have really died on the cross. Such false teachings influenced some early Christians, even in the apostolic period, that they doubted the reality that Jesus was indeed God in flesh, so much so that John emphasized in his first letter that he was writing about the real Jesus, whom “we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands” (1 John 1:1). A little later, Ignatius of Antioch similarly argued for the reality of “Jesus Christ . . . who really [alethos] was born, who both ate and drank; who really [alethos] was persecuted under Pontius Pilate, who really [alethos] was crucified and died . . . who, moreover, really [alethos] was raised from the dead.”2 The word translated as “really” is also the root word for aletheia, meaning “truth.” Thus, Ignatius and others like him held that the bodily incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus were real and true.
Gnostic and Docetic ideas were propagated through a multitude of “gospels” and other literature that sprang up within Christianity from the second century and onwards. The following illustrates the nature of some of these texts: in one of them, Jesus is talking about the Crucifixion, and He says, “It was a joke, I tell you, it was a joke,”3 and He then mocks Christians who “proclaim the doctrine of a dead man.”4
Gnosticism and Docetism were wildly popular views within the church, because they seemed to make sense. If salvation was so special, then you needed to know special things in order to be saved. If Jesus was God, then there was no way that He could have really immersed Himself in the evil that was this world. Since the flesh is matter and hence evil, to say that Jesus became flesh in the process of incarnation implies that He became sinful. Hence, Jesus was not really human. All these teachings were in line with the intellectual and cultural paradigms of the day and only supposedly “ignorant” people disagreed with them.
The twin ideas of Gnosticism and Docetism brought serious consequences to Christianity. To look for the plain meaning of Scripture was no longer good enough for many Christians. If only special people could have access to the special knowledge, then it was important to learn only from them, since they held the key to your salvation. If the body was evil, what need was there for the resurrection of the body? Instead, the soul could ascend immediately to heaven. In fact, there was no longer any need for Jesus to come again since it was not just the body, but the whole world that was evil. If Jesus did not really die and rise again, then this could not be the basis of salvation, and the focus shifted to what humans had to know and what they had to do in order to be saved. In this way, the truth of righteousness by faith was obscured.
For these reasons, the “church fathers”—church leaders who lived in the post-apostolic times—had a difficult job in the defense of the gospel as it was proclaimed by the apostles. On the whole, however, they rose to the challenge, and writers such as Justin Martyr, Tatian, Theophilus, Minucius Felix, and Irenaeus, variously mounted strong defenses of the New Testament teachings on issues such as the nature of humanity, the state of the dead, and the end of the world. But even in these writings, the seeds of future problems were sown.
How they interpreted Scripture was part of the problem. Many of them, such as Clement and Origen, saw the Bible as having hidden levels of meaning requiring interpretations that, at times, were far-fetched. By abandoning a clear and literal basis for understanding the Bible, they discarded the hermeneutic boundaries that had guided the writers of the New Testament. Origen, for example, was well known for his allegorical method of interpretation. A simple narrative of the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem (Matt. 21:1–7), in the hands of Origen, became a vehicle to allegorize that the donkey represents the Old Testament and the colt the New Testament.5 While it is true that we can find the allegorical method of interpretation in the New Testament, the New Testament authors displayed a restraint and consistent hermeneutic that is notably absent in Origen and other Alexandrian fathers.6
In addition to methods of interpretation, the church leaders faced another problem: as they engaged with intellectuals of their day in defense of their faith, they obviously used the philosophical language and ideas of the time. Such engagement was not the problem; the problem was that as they did this, they gradually absorbed more and more of those intellectual philosophies and cultural paradigms themselves. Indeed, some of these church fathers, such as Athenagoras and Clement, considered Plato as a kind of honorary Christian and as having been used by God to prepare the way for Christianity.
A dead church—literally!
The church kept growing rapidly and soon ended up consisting of vast numbers of baptized pagans. These were people who professed Christianity but who were essentially pagan in belief and lifestyle. By the end of the second century, the large majority of professing Christians across the Roman Empire did not meet in house churches or church buildings; instead, they met in cemeteries, and celebrated the Lord’s Supper on the graves of the dead, amid nightlong drunken feasts.7
Even the pagans were shocked by the behavior of these Christians, since civilized people went to the temples to pray. We have the record of a pagan mayor of a North African town who, in speaking to the Christians, refers to the cemeteries as the places “where you all make your prayers.”8 You can almost hear the sneer in his voice. Many of the first Christian basilicas, including what is now St. Peter’s Basilica, were built on cemeteries.9
Why did Christians do this? The reason is simple: they were just practicing the traditional cult of the dead as they had always done when they were pagans; and in their minds, they had created their own amalgam of Christianity and their pagan lifestyle and beliefs.
For 200 years, the church leaders tolerated this “Christian” cult of the dead because they could do little else. By the time they started to write against it or ban it, it was too late. Most people did not listen; they were too used to what was by now simply “Christian” tradition. When Augustine, the bishop of Hippo, tried to reform these practices, the people complained: “Why now? Those who allowed it in times past were surely not unchristian.”10 Eventually, bishops like Ambrose and Augustine decided on another strategy; instead of banning these popular practices altogether, they brought them under their control.11 And so the semi-Christian cult of the dead morphed into the official cult of the saints. The offering of the Lord’s Supper on the graves of the saints became the offering of the Mass for the dead on the altars of the large churches, under which the bodies of the saints had been reburied.12
The progressive physical changes to worship, made in the fourth and fifth centuries, corresponded to the official acceptance of changes to the teachings of the church. But these “new” teachings were ones that most Christians had popularly believed for a very long time. The cult of the saints required the church to reduce its focus on a resurrection at the second coming of Jesus, since the martyrs and saints were already in heaven with God; and most Christians believed that when they, themselves, died, they would just go up to join them. Obviously, together with this, the church also had to give up its long-standing battle against Platonic dualism. And if the saints and martyrs could intercede in heaven, then the whole question of Jesus as our Intercessor became rather downgraded since there were other means for salvation with which the people were better able to relate.13 Human works, in terms of keeping the saints in the afterlife pleased, started to take on a lot more importance in Christianity; and, of course, the church needed to find new ways to interpret the Bible because the old ways just did not work for the “modern” times.
The big question remains not whether these things happened, but why, after having fought against them for more than 200 years, did church leaders cave in so stunningly? Why did they betray the New Testament beliefs that those who had gone before them had so strongly upheld? The facts that they interpreted the Bible in allegorical ways and that they had absorbed much of the philosophical paradigms of their day might be counted as factors that contributed to their capitulation, but these facts do not explain it fully. Ultimately, it was not these things, nor was it Gnosticism or Docetism, that caused them to capitulate. The fundamental reason why the church leadership caved in is to be found in numbers. When they saw that the popular positions would win, they took the easy route. Lack of courage went hand in hand with the desire to have the acclaim of the people. They accommodated the views and practices of a vast number of church members.
There were courageous people protested in Italy against the Christian practice of the cult of the dead. As a result, Jerome called him “insane in the head.”14 Nothing that Vigilantius actually wrote has survived, and anything we know about him is from the writings of his enemies. But God always has had His people in every age who have stood up for what is right, and we know that He will have the final word.
Lessons from history
History often repeats itself, and Christians should find this important to remember, for people are still fundamentally the same; they crave acceptance and popularity. It is always easier to accept the view of the majority, but it takes courage for Christian leaders to stand on the principles of the Word of God. If, at one time, Christian leaders capitulated to error one by one, today they must also stand for God one by one.
Of all the important lessons that we need to learn from the history of the early church, one stands out: popular pressure, numbers, and votes do not decide truth; neither do the eminence of people who hold to particular views; nor the antiquity of established beliefs and practices. The Word of the Lord must reign supreme; Jesus must be Lord in our lives and in the life of the church. This concept is no less relevant for the church today than for the church when the apostles lived.
1 All Scripture passages are from the English Standard Version.
2 Ignatius, Trallians 9.1–2, 10, in The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, 3rd ed., ed. Michael W. Holmes (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 220, 221.
3 Marvin Meyer, trans., The Second Discourse of Great Seth, 60.13, in The Nag Hammadi Scriptures: The Revised and Updated Translation of Sacred Gnostic Texts, ed. Marvin Meyer, The International Edition (New York: HarperCollins, 2008), 482.
4 Meyer, The Second Discourse of Great Seth, 60.20, 482.
5 Origen, Commentary on the Gospel of John,10.18.
6 Some of Jesus’ parables, such as the parable of the soils (Mark 4:1–20), are intended to be interpreted allegorically. Paul also used allegorical interpretation in several places in his epistles, as in Galatians 4:21–31.
7 See Augustine, Letter 29.10–11; Sermon 311.5; Paulinus of Nola, Poem 27.542–567, 595.
8 Acta purgationis Felicis 5, in Optatus: Against the Dontatists, trans. and ed. Mark Edwards, Translated Texts for Historians 27 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1997), 174.
9 Ramsay MacMullen, “Christian Ancestor Worship in Rome,” Journal of Biblical Literature 129, no. 3 (2010): 597–613.
10 Augustine, Letter 29.8, in St. Augustine: Select Letters, trans. J. H. Baxter, Loeb Classical Library 239 (London: Heinemann, 1965), 81, 82.
11 Augustine, Confessions 6.2; Augustine, Letter 22.3; 29.8–9; Breviarium Hipponense 29; Concilium Hipponense a., 393.
12 Robin M. Jensen, “Dining With the Dead: From the Mensa to the Altar in Christian Late Antiquity,” in Commemorating the Dead: Texts and Artifacts in Context–Studies of Roman, Jewish, and Christian Burials, eds. Laurie Brink and Deborah Green (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2008), 120.
13 Cyprian, Letter 21.3.2.
14 Jerome, Vigilantius 5.