Posted On August 16, 2012

In the world of early Christianity many questions arose regarding what the Faith was and what it meant. As the message of the Gospel began to spread among the Greco-Roman civilization and beyond, the task of clarifying what constituted orthodox doctrine became important. In this research paper, I will discuss some of the heresies that faced the early Church in the first four centuries, as well as the men who had a strong impact on the councils of Nicea, and Chalcedon.

Before we dive into the history of how the canon came into being and its central importance to the life of Christians and the Christian Church, we must also consider the role of the Old Testament. The Old Testament has thirty nine books of which the Apostles and early church fathers quoted and believed firmly.  The early church held to a high view of the Old Testament unlike those who later in church history will not. The early Christians believed they were following in the footsteps of a Savior who was not only Jewish but whose message universally called all humanity to repentance and faith in Jesus. In this context the early Church carried the message of Jesus, a message that centered on Jesus who was crucified, risen, and victorious. It was to be through Him that the early Church would rise from the ashes of Roman civilization and become a dominant force on the scene of world history.

Irenaeus is an important figure in early Church history. He wrote a book called Against Heresies, as mainly an attack against the growing trend of Gnostic teaching and also to clarify what the apostolic tradition actually was. He affirmed the role of Scripture as it was being read among the people so as to keep them on the “straight and narrow path.” He made important contributions to the cannon by affirming that the Gospels and the letters of Paul, Peter and John were inspired.

Throughout the first three hundred years of the church, various heresies had come and gone. Few if any of the heresies would cause major issues like those of Arianism. Arius had been a presbyter in the Alexandrian Church. The Arians argued that God is by nature essentially uncreated and owes his existence to nothing. That being so, they argued the Son cannot be God, because he owes his existence to something else the Father. And if the Son was begotten by the Father then there was a time when he did not exist, which is hardly compatible with being God. Moreover, how can there be two Gods? [1]

Arius belief centered on how the Son was not divine but rather a creature or an archangel. This of course caused conflict in the church because the church at this time believed that Jesus was both fully God and fully human as Paul had taught in Philippians 2. The Council of Nicea was called to deal with the issues raised by Arius’ excommunication and also to settle the meaning of what exactly was orthodox.

No other figure in church history shines as brightly as Athanasius. Athanasius was born in 295 AD and quickly rose through the ranks of the Alexandrian Church. He became a personal assistant to the bishop and was there at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. This man had a strong faith but also a strong mind. His argument was based on the belief that Father and Son are One. Athanasius argued that the divine Will has nothing to do with the decision of the Will. It is the nature of the Father to beget the Son, just as it is in the nature of the Son to be begotten. This essentially means that the divine nature itself exists in this way on the one hand begetting, and on the other hand begotten. [2] Athanasius was heavily persecuted throughout his life for trying to uphold his belief in the Trinity.

Athanasius was the first to recognize what is now the twenty-seven letters in the New Testament. The first list which has come down to us of the twenty-seven books which embraces only those which appear in our New Testament is in a letter written by Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria in the year 367 A.D. It was not till after that date that uniform agreement on the list was found among all teachers in the Catholic Church by at least the end of the second century a body of writings embracing a majority of the present twenty-seven was being regarded in the Catholic Church as the New Testament and was being placed alongside the Jewish Scriptures.[3]

In 144 A.D. a man named Marcion came on the scene. Marcion was convinced the world was evil but came to the conclusion that the creator must be evil or ignorant. The God of the Old Testament is an arbitrary God who chooses a particular people above all the rest. He is also vindictive, constantly keeping an account on those that disobey him, and punishing them. In short, Jehovah is a god of justice-and of an arbitrary justice at that.[4] All this lead Marcion to put the Old Testament aside in favor of the New Testament. The parts that Marcion didn’t like he changed. The only Scriptures that Marcion recognized were the epistles of Paul, and the Gospel of Luke. All the others in his view were plagued by Jewish views. As you can see Marcion was heavily influenced by Anti-Semitism which still plagues the church today. In light of this the need to clarify what exactly was Scripture and what was not became even more apparent.

At Nicea it was distinctly clarified what the Church would believe. Arius’s views were soundly rejected.  As the Church began to form more attacks came against it, so the need to clarify exactly what was Scripture and what was not became more important. To determine what was Scripture they used the following test. One, the writer had to have been with Christ during His earthly ministry, two, they had to have been apostles those who believed to have been commissioned by Jesus Himself, and three, were authorized to spread His teachings.

Other various heresies and divisions appeared in the first four hundred years of the Church. Among these was the dispute between Pelagius and Augustine. Pelagius was a teacher from Britain who came to Rome and saw its lavishness and moral laxness. Pelagius taught that man was not innately sinful. He believed that it was possible to live without sin if you really put your mind to it. He pointed out that it would be unjust if God were to command us to do what is beyond us and then punish us when we fail.[5] This view was strongly opposed by Augustine who did not approve of the loose living at the time but focused not on the sinfulness’ of man but on the fact that man apart from Christ is sinful and in need of God’s grace. A number of councils were set up to hear the arguments of both parties to which Augustine won.

The Christological controversy raged between two of the most powerful churchmen of the East, Cyril of Alexander and Nestorious patriarch of Constantinople. This debate essentially revolved around who Jesus was, was He fully God and fully man or not?  Essentially the argument centered around the concept of nature. Nestorious insisted Christ had two natures while Cyril branding this belief in two Christ’s said he had only one.[6]

The western church stepped into the situation when, Leo bishop of Rome, wrote a famous letter to Flavian known as the Tome in which he approved of the condemnation of Eutyches. Leo spoke of the two natures of Christ, one divine and one human. He taught that even after the incarnation Christ retains these two natures, but he remains a single person identical with the second Person of the Trinity.[7]

The Christological controversy was settled at the Council of Chalcedon. This council was called by Emperor Theodosidus in 451 AD. This council approved of Bishop Leo’s teaching from the Tome. They put forth the Chalcedon Creed which was basically an expansion of the Nicene Creed. This creed agreed with Cyril that Christ was one person, identical with the pre-existent Son, but it also agreed with Leo that after the incarnation he possessed two distinct natures, one human and one divine.[8]

The first four hundred years of church history were vital to the growth and development of Christianity.  During these years, we see the rise of heresy as well as various leaders, the Lord raised up to meet the challenges to His Word.  The challenges to orthodox formed a commitment by Christian community to forge beliefs that were centered on the Word of God. This would serve the church well in future years when other challenges came to the Faith. This commitment to the Word of God served the development of Christianity well by demonstrating that if Christianity were to continue to grow it would need to be steadfast in its commitment to Truth.

Bibliography

Hill, Jonathan. Handbook to the History of Christianity. Oxford: Lion Publishing, 2006.

Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity Beginnings to 1500, no. 1 (Peabody: Prince Press, 2000), 33.

Hill, Jonathan. History of Christian Thought. Downer Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006.

Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation, no. 1 (New York: HarperCollins, 1984), 33.


[1] Hill, Jonathan. History of Christian Thought. Downer Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006, 66.

[2] Hill, Jonathan. History of Christian Thought. Downer Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006, 68.

[3] Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity Beginnings to 1500, no. 1 (Peabody: Prince Press, 2000), 134.

[4] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation, no. 1 (New York: HarperCollins, 1984), 61.

[5] Hill, Jonathan. History of Christian Thought. Downer Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006, 78.

[6] Hill, Jonathan. Handbook to the History of Christianity. Oxford: Lion Publishing, 2006, 98.

[7] Hill, Jonathan. Handbook to the History of Christianity. Oxford: Lion Publishing, 2006, 98.

[8] Hill, Jonathan. Handbook to the History of Christianity. Oxford: Lion Publishing, 2006, 98.

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1 Comment

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    good stuff – one thing I really liked was how concise you made such a large swath of vital history – the bibliography was helpful too.

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