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ORTHODOXY and HERESY in the EARLY CHURCH
It is both frustrating and fascinating to study the theological documents of the early period of the history of the Christian church. To the modern reader it is an era remote in time and place, and the issues which commanded most attention often seem obscure. Even the historical boundaries of the period are difficult to determine. Yet this was the formative age of organized Christianity, and it was during these first few centuries that the rudiments of Christian doctrine were formulated.
Originally composed of a small band of Jewish disciples who proclaimed that Jesus of Nazareth was the promised Messiah, the Christian church developed first within the limited confines of Palestine. For the most part, however, Jews rejected the Christian claim about Jesus, and henceforth the church moved farther and farther away from Palestine, spreading into the wider and more diverse world of Greco-Roman civilization. The books of the New Testament provide practically all the information we have about the history, doctrine, life, and organization of the earliest or Apostolic church. In the book of the Acts and in Paul's epistles, problems of doctrinal definition were already beginning to absorb the attention of the first Christians.
The earliest missionaries of the church ("apostle" means in Greek "one sent forth") were confronted with two major challenges. These arose when Christianity became a self-conscious religious movement, defining itself over against other cultures, traditions, and religions. The first challenge was internal, even inherited, for the Christians had to determine whether they belonged within the Jewish religious tradition, or whether they represented an entirely new departure. The second challenge was posed by the Greco-Roman world of speculative philosophy and practical politics.
The theologians and administrators in the early church period were mainly concerned with these two major challenges of culture and thought, and much of the writing in this period was addressed to the issues resulting from this confrontation. Both challenges were resisted; yet each shaped and molded the church's thought for centuries to come. Christianity did not remain a Jewish sect, though it retained the Hebrew Scriptures as part of the Bible, the New Testament books being regarded as fulfilling ancient history and prophecy. Nor did Christianity relinquish its unique interpretation of Jesus as the Christ, even though Greek philosophy demanded a kind of rational defense which Christian theologians were not always willing to utilize. The Roman political establishment forced the amorphous church to adopt administrative structures for its own institutional organization.
Coming out of Judaism with a deep sense of divine calling as God's chosen people, coupled with a sensitive spirit for individual and social righteousness, early Christianity proclaimed a gospel of love and redemption without fear or favor to all who would listen. The appeal often came through rational discourse and argument; sometimes it was exemplified through mystical experience and ethical action; frequently it issued in a martyr's death.
The period of the early church begins within or immediately follows the New Testament itself; but it is not so easy to say when the era ends or merges into the early Middle Ages. Surely Augustine (d. 430) was the last and the greatest of the early church theologians, but the ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451) pronounced a definitive judgment on the doctrine of the two natures of Christ, and therefore it very much belongs within this period. Even the Athanasian Creed, which summed up the disputes on the doctrine of the Trinity, falls within this early period, although the form in which it has come down to us is perhaps as late as the seventh or eighth century. Western, Latin, theology developed more rapidly than its Eastern, Greek, counterpart, and so John of Damascus (d. c. 750), the greatest of the Eastern Orthodox theologians, fits in the early church period because his views on Christ and the Trinity reflect the Augustinian-Athanasian pattern. So, somewhat arbitrarily as to the calendar, but accurate enough as to the development of Christian thought, we may stretch the period of the early church from post-Apostolic times, that is, after the New Testament, until the mid-eighth century A.D.
Frustrating as this early church period may be in many ways, it is also a fascinating period of theological discussion and speculative dialectic. For five centuries and more, Christian thinkers sought to clarify how they understood the person of Jesus Christ. This task of definition required of them not only evangelistic zeal as they proclaimed the gospel to the faithful, but rational precision as they responded to the criticisms of opponents. What may astonish us as we look back at these controversial and confusing centuries is the highly sophisticated manner in which the early Christians argued with the best dialecticians of the day. In this verbal exchange, the record of which has been preserved for us in the voluminous writings of the early church thinkers, a serviceable technique for communicating the Christian faith was gradually devised. The word used to describe the theological technique of the earliest thinkers was "apology." The term was not understood in the sense of making an excuse or alibi, as though Christianity were something of which to be ashamed. The word reminded its hearers of Socrates' "defense" when on trial for his life, the graphic account of which Plato immortalized in the Dialogue known as the Apology.
To make an "apology" for Christianity was to make a defense of it against those who denied its truth, reasonableness, or credibility. Those who wrote apologetic theology were known as apologists; they sought to vindicate Christian truth by demonstrating its intellectual as well as its religious and moral respectability.
Three elements entered into the program of Christian apologetics: (1) a basic affirmation that Jesus Christ was the personification of God's truth; (2) a readiness to come to terms with and even appropriate the thought patterns of the particular people to whom the gospel was being presented; and (3) a rigorous dialectical debate in which the questions of the time were answered with doctrines of Christian faith.
Since the Christian church in these formative years was eager to define its faith not only for itself but against its critics, the early church period is chiefly characterized as a time of controversy between orthodoxy and heresy. Orthodoxy (in Greek, "right opinion") was slowly and gradually achieved through the give-and-take of argument, scriptural interpretation, and the decisions of numerous ecumenical councils. Heresy was not always anti-Christian opinion but was often separated from orthodoxy by only a shade of meaning or emphasis. It was the contribution of the early thinkers to work out a definition of doctrinal orthodoxy which continued to serve as a norm for later theological discussion. The summary deposit of those definitions is contained in the great creeds and decrees of the earliest ecumenical councils. But the theology behind these formal decisions must be searched out in the writings of such thinkers as are represented in the following selections.
It would be romantic and untrue to suggest that all the literature of this period deserves study or acclaim. Much of it is dull and uninteresting; not every thinker was a giant of faith or intellect; not all Christian apologists were of unimpeachable character; not everything written was in deathless prose. Mistakes were made, arguments were lost, words were wasted. The miracle of the early church is that so much was accomplished that endured.
In essence the early church period of Christian history set the theological course for future generations by defining the centrality for faith of Jesus Christ as God and man, two natures in one person. In the selections from the Fathers which follow, special attention is given to this determinative doctrinal issue. To say clearly who Jesus Christ was, what he did, how Christians are related to him in life and thought—this was for the early apologists their most demanding theological assignment.
1 Justin Martyr (c. 100-165)
Following closely upon New Testament times, the earliest written defenses of the Christian faith were attempts to prove its intellectual and philosophical superiority to pagan polytheism and to Judaic monotheism. Justin, Greek-born in Flavia Neapolis near ancient Shechem and trained as a teacher of Platonic philosophy, represents one type of early apologist. He came to the Christian faith through—not in spite of—the philosophic traditions of his day; wearing the philosopher's garb, he opened the first Christian school in Rome. His defense against Roman and Jewish antagonists was not so much devotional as rational.
Christian theology seemed the uttermost nonsense to most educated and cultured Greeks and Romans. At best, the moral sobriety and devotional piety of Christians made them appear unconventional; at worst, their doctrines made them obnoxious and perhaps politically dangerous. To the Romans, Christianity was a sort of atheism because it acknowledged no visible gods. To the Jews, who traditionally worshiped a single invisible God, Christianity was clearly a perversion of the religion of the patriarchs and prophets.
In his Apology, and later in his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, Justin contended against charges of irrationalism, immorality, political subversion, and atheism as well as apostasy from Judaism. This he did by appealing to the heads rather than to the hearts of his antagonists, by using philosophical dialectic and rhetoric rather than homily and exhortation. He reminded the Romans that the Hebrew prophets, whose authority was accepted by both Christians and Jews, were earlier than the Stoics, or Aristotle, or Pythagoras, or Plato, and he tried to convince them that the great Hebrew thinkers were wiser philosophers; he even attempted to show that the prophets were an important source of Greek philosophy. Against the Jews, Justin argued that the doctrine of Jesus as the Christ was the necessary fulfillment of the messianic predictions in their own Scriptures.
It is believed that Justin was beheaded in the reign of Marcus Aurelius for refusing to offer token sacrifices to the Roman gods. But his writings show that he was far from being a fiery religious or political fanatic. He was primarily a thinker who sought to demonstrate the intellectual preeminence of the Christian faith.
PLEA FOR A FAIR HEARING
1. To the Emperor Titus Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus Pius Augustus Caesar, and to Verissimus his son, the Philosopher, and to Lucius the Philoso- pher, son of Caesar by nature and of Augustus by adoption, a lover of culture, and to the Sacred Senate and the whole Roman people—on behalf of men of every nation who are unjustly hated and reviled, I, Justin, son of Priscus and grandson of Bacchius, of Flavia Neapolis in Syria Palestina, being myself one of them, have drawn up this plea and petition.
2. Reason requires that those who are truly pious and philosophers should honor and cherish the truth alone, scorning merely to follow the opinions of the ancients, if they are worthless. Nor does sound reason only require that one should not follow those who do or teach what is unjust; the lover of truth ought to choose in every way, even at the cost of his own life, to speak and do what is right, though death should take him away. So do you, since you are called pious and philosophers and guardians of justice and lovers of culture, at least give us a hearing—and it will appear if you are really such.
9. Certainly we do not honor with many sacrifices and floral garlands the objects that men have fashioned, set up in temples, and called gods. We know that they are lifeless and dead and do not represent the form of God—for we do not think of God as having the kind of form which some claim that they imitate to be honored—but rather exhibit the names and shapes of the evil demons who have manifested themselves [to men]. You know well enough without our mentioning it how the craftsmen prepare their material, scraping and cutting and molding and beating. And often they make what they call gods out of vessels used for vile purposes, changing and transforming by art merely their appearance. We consider it not only irrational but an insult to God, whose glory and form are ineffable, to give his name to corruptible things which themselves need care. You are well aware that craftsmen in these [things] are impure and—not to go into details—given to all kinds of vice; they even corrupt their own slave girls who work along with them. What an absurdity, that dissolute men should be spoken of as fashioning or remaking gods for public veneration, and that you should appoint such people as guardians of the temples where they are set up—not considering that it is unlawful to think or speak of men as guardians of gods.
10. But we have learned [from our tradition] that God has no need of material offerings from men, considering that he is the provider of all. We have been taught and firmly believe that he accepts only those who imitate the good things which are his—temperance and righteousness and love of mankind, and whatever else truly belongs to the God who is called by no given name. We have also been taught that in the beginning he in his goodness formed all things that are for the sake of men out of unformed matter, and if they show themselves by their actions worthy of his plan, we have learned that they will be counted worthy of dwelling with him, reigning together and made free from corruption and suffering.
11. When you hear that we look for a kingdom, you rashly suppose that we mean something merely human. But we speak of a Kingdom with God, as is clear from our confessing Christ when you bring us to trial, though we know that death is the penalty for this confession. For if we looked for a human kingdom we would deny it in order to save our lives, and would try to remain in hiding in order to obtain the things we look for. But since we do not place our hopes on the present [order], we are not troubled by being put to death, since we will have to die somehow in any case.
12. We are in fact of all men your best helpers and allies in securing good order, convinced as we are that no wicked man, no covetous man or conspirator, or virtuous man either, can be hidden from God, and that everyone goes to eternal punishment or salvation in accordance with the character of his actions. If all men knew this, nobody would choose vice even for a little time, knowing that he was on his way to eternal punishment by fire; every man would follow the self-restrained and orderly path of virtue, so as to receive the good things that come from God and avoid his punishments. There are some who merely try to conceal their wrongdoing because of the laws and punishments which you decree, knowing that since you are only men it is possible for wrong-doers to escape you; if they learned and were convinced that our thoughts as well as our actions cannot be hidden from God they would certainly lead orderly lives, if only because of the consequences, as you must agree. But it seems as if you were afraid of having all men well-behaved, and nobody left for you to punish; this would be the conduct of public executioners, not of good rulers.... But though I know that it is not easy to change over at once a mind which is bound down by ignorance, I am encouraged to add somewhat to persuade the lover of truth, being sure that one can dispel ignorance by putting truth against it.
Excerpted from Readings in Christian Thought by Hugh T. Kerr. Copyright © 1990 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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