The Early Christians Who Were They and Why Should We Seek to Understand Them?
What is Christianity? What does the Bible teach? How can we understand the Bible? The epistles of the New Testament were written nearly two thousand years ago, in a land very different from our own. It was a culture vastly different from ours, a language that is different than ours and a time very different from our own. Many Christians today read the Bible and interpret it with a 21 century mindset. This is one reason why there is so much confusion in the church today, one reason why there are so many different denominations. Counting all of the various sects within Christianity there are more than 19000 different sects and denominations. How did the Church get to this point? Jesus said,
Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. John 17:20-21 ( KJV )
Jesus wanted His church to be one, to be unified, it’s not. There are over 19,000 different sects and denominations within Christianity. These different sects and denominations exist because there are different interpretations of the Scriptures. Some denominations say that God chose who would be saved; some say that man has a free will and can choose God. Some say that salvation can be lost, some say it cannot. Some say we go to heaven when we die, some say we don’t. Each group has own their interpretation of the Scriptures, passages that they hold to and then there are those passages that they must try to get around, the passages that seem to disagree with their theology.
For instance, the Calvinist would say that God chose who would be saved before the foundation of the world. He would cite Ephesians 1:4
Ephesians 1:4 ( KJV )
According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love:
While the Arminian would cite 1 John 2:2,
1 John 2:2 ( KJV )
And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world
saying that anyone can be saved. However, each group must deal with both of these passages of scripture.
So, how do we know who is correct? Do we pick a scholar that we agree with? Maybe one who has made a name for himself? What if we had someone who was there, someone who sat under the teaching of the apostles, Someone who spoke the language, lived at that time, lived in that culture, someone to tell us what the apostles meant? Well, we do have someone; we have the writers of the Ante-Nicene church. These were men who fought valiantly for the faith in the first 250-300 years of the church. These are the early church fathers, respected men in the church; some were appointed by the apostles themselves, men such as Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna. These men sat under the apostle John, imagine sitting there and asking questions of the apostle when you didn’t understand something. These men could do that. That is why their writings are so important. They went on to write about life in the early church, how they understood the teachings of the apostles, and they give us an excellent example of what it meant to be a Christian and follow Christ. We will see how they lived and why they lived the way they did. So let’s step back in time and meet some of these men.
First is, Clement of Rome. Clement was a traveling companion of Paul and is spoken of in Philippians 4.
Philippians 4:2-3 ( KJV )
I beseech Euodias, and beseech Syntyche, that they be of the same mind in the Lord.
And I entreat thee also, true yokefellow, help those women which laboured with me in the gospel, with Clement also, and with other my fellowlabourers, whose names are in the book of life.
Clement continued at the church in Rome as the third Bishop, where he wrote an epistle to the Church in Corinth.
Next there is Ignatius of Antioch 30-107 A.D., Ignatius was the bishop at Antioch and Eusibius records him as being appointed to this position by the apostle Peter. Ignatius was a disciple of the apostle John. It is said that Ignatius was the child Jesus sat on His knee. However this has not been verified.
Polycarp c. 65-155 A.D.was also a disciple of the apostle John. He and Ignatius were friends, both being disciples of John. Polycarp was the bishop at Smyrna and it is thought that he was the leader of the church at Smyrna that Jesus had John write to in Revelation.
Papias c. 70-163 was also a friend of Polycarp and possibly a disciple of John, He is said to have been intimately acquainted with the apostles and those who knew the Lord. Most of his writings have been lost; however, we do have some of his writings in quotes from both Irenaeus and Eusibius. He was the bishop at Hierapolis.
Justin Martyr c. 110-165 A.D. was a philosopher before he became a Christian. He was one of the first apologists for the Christian faith and regularly frustrated the Jews by using their own Scriptures to prove that Jesus was the Christ.
Then there is Irenaeus c. 120-202A.D. Irenaeus was a disciple of Polycarp; he was bishop at the church in Lyon in Gaul. He is best known for his work, “Against Heresies”. He vehemently opposed false teachings that were coming against the church. He goes into great detail in explaining the false teachings and how the Scriptures were being twisted by false teachers. Much of the information we will look at will come from Irenaeus.
This the first group, usually called the apostolic fathers. Although Justin and Irenaeus are not actually apostolic because they did not have direct access to the apostles as the others did. However, given their close proximity they are included in this group.
The next group is sometimes referred to as the sub-apostolic fathers. These men were later in the 2 century and beginning of the 3 century.
We have the Pastor of Hermas c. A.D. 160 who wrote some allegorical works.
Theolphilus of Antioch c 115-181 A.D. followed Ignatius as bishop.
Athenagorus c. 177 A.D. who was an early apologist rounds out the early apologists.
Next is Clement of Alexandria c. 253-217 A.D. who basically started the Alexandrian School. He brought into existence what could be considered the first Christian colleges.
Tertullian c. A.D. 145 to A.D. 220, was presbyter in Carthage North Africa and was considered by many to be a brilliant man. It appears before he was a Christian he was a lawyer. He wrote several apologies and his arguments are well founded. Later in life it is believed he joined a group called the Montanists, this movement was stricter than the church but was orthodox in its doctrines. Tertullian has much to offer in explaining the early church.
Origen c. 185-254 A.D. wrote a great amount on Christianity. He was a prolific writer.
Lactantius c. 250-325 A.D. was a teacher of Rhetoric and was called to tutor the emperor Constantine's son.
Melito c. 190 A.D. and was bishop at Sardis. Only fragments of his works remain.
Cyprian c. 200-258A.D. who was bishop at Carthage North Africa was a disciple of Tertullian.
Novatian c. 257 A.D. was presbyter in Rome and wrote several theological works.
Victorinus c. 304 A.D. was bishop of Poetovio in Syria and wrote commentaries on several books of the Bible.
Methodius c. 311 A.D. was bishop of Lycia and wrote several works.
There are others that we will be looking at, however, these are some of the more well known of the fathers.
While looking at the writings of these men we will see how they understood the teachings of the apostles. We won’t just accept what they say because they say it; we will look at the Scriptures and see if what they say is true. You see these men had what Jesus prayed for, unity. This is the only time in the history of the church that there was unity. So, since that is what Jesus prayed for and these men had it, it is in our interest to see what exactly they had that brought the whole church into unity.