The Early Church Fathers, 100-200 A.D. : A Pleasant Surprise

For some years I was, like most American evangelicals, almost completely ignorant of the pulse of Christianity between the close of the Book of Acts (~62 A.D.) and the appearance of the full-fledged medieval Roman Catholic church.  Although there were some admirable individuals and practices associated with it, the  Roman Catholic Church of say 1200 A.D. or 1500 A.D.  was characterized by legalism, ritualism, coercion, and corruption. (I like today’s Roman Catholic church a lot better.)  Since Roman Catholics claim a strong link of succession back to the early church fathers, I assumed that the church fell away from the New Testament spirituality basically as soon as the last apostle passed away.

In actually reading the writings of the second-century Christians, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that I was wrong:  their beliefs and their way of life were very much like what is found in the New Testament. It wasn’t until centuries later, when the Roman empire had fallen in the West, politics became entwined with church affairs, and being a church leader meant power and wealth instead of martyrdom, that the bishop of Rome acquired such a commanding position.

I have been personally edified by reading the works of Clement, Ignatius, Aristides, Justin, etc. Justin provides a description of their Sunday worship services.  I have collected excerpts of their writings, along with some explanatory notes, into a document, and placed it on this blog so others can see what these early Christians were about.  In keeping with the faith/science theme of this blog, I added a paragraph on how they worked observations from the natural world into their discussions.  This document can be accessed by clicking the “Church Fathers” tab at the upper right of the blog window, or just click here.  Two shorter excerpts are given below, to whet your appetite.

HOW EARLY CHRISTIANS LIVED – –  From the Apology (“Defense”) of Aristides of Athens, presented to the Roman emperor, Antoninus Pius, circa 125 AD.  I was impressed by the casual reference to not eating for two or three days in order to provide food for someone else.

Christians know and believe in God as the Creator of heaven and earth in whom and from whom all things exist. They have learned God’s commandments and they live by them in hope of the world to come! For this reason, they do not commit adultery or engage in sexual immorality; they do not give false testimony in court or withhold someone’s deposit or envy another person’s possessions. They honor their father and mother, they are helpful to their neighbors and as judges, they make decisions with justice and mercy.

Christians do not worship idols. Anything they do not want others to do to them, they do not do to others. Christian men do not enter into illegal marriages or engage in sexual promiscuity. Out of love for their slaves and children, if they have any, they encourage them to become Christians, and if they do so, they are called brothers and sisters without distinction.

Christians do not lie. They love one another and take care of their widows; orphans are protected from those who would harm them. They willingly share what they have with those in need. They bring strangers into their homes and welcome them as true brothers and sisters. Christians, as they are able, provide for the burial of their poor when they die. They provide help to those among them who are imprisoned or oppressed because of their faith in Christ.

When there is a person in poverty or need among them and they do not have the resources at hand to help, they will fast for two or three days in order to provide the food needed. The good works they do are not made public to impress others, but, rather, are done unnoticed so that they may hide their deeds as one who finds a treasure and then hides it.

Every morning and at all hours they give praise and thanks to God for the gifts they have received; for food and drink also they give thanks to God. This is the content of the Christian’s law and the way they live their lives.

[This is a modern but loose translation, Copyright 2010 Saint Paul’s Greek Orthodox Church, Irvine, CA    http://www.stpaulsirvine.org/html/howchristianslive.htm  ]

WHAT EARLY CHRISTIANS BELIEVED – – Excerpted from THE EPISTLE OF MATHETES TO DIOGNETUS .      This is another letter explaining Christianity to an outsider. The date of writing is likely between 130 and 200 A.D. The author has a high view of God’s goodness and an “evangelical” presentation of the work of Christ.

[THE MANIFESTATION OF CHRIST.  GOD SEEKS TO PERSUADE, NOT COMPEL US.]

This was no mere earthly invention which was delivered to them, nor is it a mere human system of opinion, but truly God Himself, who is almighty, the Creator of all things, and invisible, has sent from heaven, and placed among men Him who is the truth, and the holy and incomprehensible Word, and has firmly established Him in their hearts.

He did not, as one might have imagined, send to men any angel or other heavenly ruler…, but the very Creator and Fashioner of all things…

Was it then, as one might suppose, for the purpose of exercising tyranny, or of inspiring fear and terror? By no means, but in mercy and meekness, as a king sends his son, who is also a king, so sent He Him.

As God He sent Him; as to men He sent Him; as a Savior He sent Him, and as seeking to persuade, not to compel us; for violence has no place in the character of God. As calling us He sent Him, not as vengefully pursuing us; as loving us He sent Him, not as judging us.

[ AFTER THE SERIOUSNESS OF SIN BECAME CLEAR, THE SON WAS SENT AS A GRACIOUS RANSOM]

When the time had come which God had before appointed for manifesting His own kindness and power… God, through exceeding regard for men, did not regard us with hatred, nor thrust us away, nor remember our iniquity against us, but showed great patience, and bore with us, He Himself taking on Him the burden of our iniquities.

He gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for sinners, the blameless One for the wicked, the righteous One for the unrighteous, the incorruptible One for the corruptible, the immortal One for them that are mortal.

For what other thing was capable of covering our sins than His righteousness? By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified, than by the only Son of God? O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! That the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors!

Having therefore convinced us in the former time that our nature was unable to attain to life, and having now revealed the Savior who is able to save even those things which it was formerly impossible to save, by both these facts He desired to lead us to trust in His kindness  – –  to esteem Him as our Nourisher, Father, Teacher, Counselor, Healer, our Wisdom, Light, Honor, Glory, Power, and Life, so that we should not be anxious concerning clothing and food.

******* FOR FIRST-TIME VISITORS TO THIS BLOG *********

Previous posts are listed on the right hand side of the main window.    Longer essays or letters (e.g. STAN 3) dealing with science/faith issues are accessed by clicking the tabs at the top of the page. Skim the README page to get an overview of what is in these letters.

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About ScottBuchanan

Ph D chemical engineer, interested in intersection of science with my evangelical Christian faith. This intersection includes creation(ism) and miracles. I also write on random topics of interest, such as economics, folding scooters, and composting toilets. Background: B.A. in Near Eastern Studies, a year at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a year working as a plumber and a lab technician. Then a B.S.E. and a Ph.D. in chemical engineering. Since then, conducted research in an industrial laboratory. Published a number of papers on heterogeneous catalysis, and an inventor on over 80 U.S. patents in diverse technical areas.
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13 Responses to The Early Church Fathers, 100-200 A.D. : A Pleasant Surprise

  1. Dave Hilgendorf says:

    Interesting. How far into a Christian life did you begin to look at things like this?

  2. Hi Dave, I have been out of internet contact for a few days, just saw your note.
    In college, only a few years after coming to the Lord, I took a course in church history that initially exposed me to these writers. Then they kind of went off my radar screen. That was decades ago. In recent years I have become engaged in Bible/science issues, and ran across Augustine’s amazing, prescient quote on the subject, which is reproduced at the end of the “STAN 1” essay tabbed across the top of this blog window. That raised my respect for the Fathers and motivated me to re-read them. It’s like finding some new friends, to get inside their heads and realize they cared about the same things I do.
    Best regards, Scott

  3. get a life! u need to jam out to music and never learn anything! drop out of school! 😀

  4. Mark says:

    Hey guys,

    Check out this new passover video on youtube.
    Its filmed in Israel and very inspirational music!

  5. Alois Pieski says:

    Mr. Bucchanan,
    thank you for taking the time to write your piece. I was looking for information as to when/why the Church created by the death and resurection of Christ and the Apostles including the Marys’. began to loose it (first focus then principles then purpose). The reason I am asking is selfish.
    I have been following the community of “Alcololic’s Anonymous” regarding the 12 steps and their 12 traditions. They have as yet not gotten political or dogmatic as a whole….(there are a few pockets of fanatacism and a few ultra conservative groups. I am interested to see how many years it take them to loose their primary purpose which is stated i their Preamble. Also, I see the Christian Church a lot like the founding of our country (USA) the consitution and bill or rights are remarkable feats yet soon after the political fighting began and all became as corrupt as the catholic church did soon after 500ad. Please respond with your thoughts.

    Alois

    • Alois,
      Before about 325 AD, Christians were persecuted by the Roman empire, sometimes very widely and viciously, so when you became a Christian it was with the understanding that you might well be despoiled, tortured and/or killed. Also, there was no political advantage to being a Christian. These factors tended to keep self-seeking, power-hungry individuals out (though not 100%, of course). All that changed about 325 AD or so when Christianity was first legalized, then proclaimed the official religion of the empire. After the empire collapsed in W Europe around 410 AD, the church was left as the only venerable institution, and (rightly or wrongly) stepped into the power vacuum. Things got more and more ridiculous with the Papacy. In the Eastern (Byzantine) empire, the church had enormous political influence, too, and church leaders got their theological opponents exiled, imprisoned, or executed — playing hardball!

      I don’t know much about AA, but they seem on the whole to be sincere, just trying to help each other recover, not impose their agendas on society at large.
      But that said, it is probably not fair to paint any political action by a religious organization as evil or untrue to their roots. It was evangelical Christians who spearheaded the abolition of slavery in the British empire and in America, and black& liberal white Christians who largely led the civil rights movements in the US 1950s-60s. Today’s pro-life activists are operating on the same principles as slavery abolitionists: standing for the rights and lives of a class of persons (slaves on the one hand, unborn babies on the other) , which others find it convenient to designate as non-persons. It was most inconvenient, insensitive, intrusive and costly for those Yankee Christians to try to deny Southern slaveholders the right to treat their “property” (i.e. slaves) as they wished, even as it is inconvenient, costly and intrusive to try to discourage a mother from killing her unborn child. I’m not arguing for or against anything here, just cautioning against misreading political action as a betrayal of purpose.

      Maybe there is huge hypocrisy in the Bible belt (I don’t know), but here in the Northeast US where being an evangelical is not seen as cool, the vast majority of evangelical Christians that I know are good, sincere, helpful people, and the churches put much more effort into feeding the urban poor than in politics. I know some Roman Catholics, too. Much as I am dismayed by the corruption at the higher levels of Catholicism, the majority grass-roots impact I see are people just trying to live good lives (and get to heaven…). So I don’t see all of Christianity as hopelessly corrupt.
      Best regards,
      Scott Buchanan

  6. NJ Pritchard says:

    I am happy you reference the last paragraph about Catholicism especially as an evengelist. I know that sometimes previous Church early history after the Fathers of the Church seems parallel to political gambit now. But in modern terms, all Christian followers – I believe – are always at a frontier of restorative human understanding. So encouragment is important in the Christian world. Not just for the Christian’s sake albeit but for brethren everywhere; even if only borne of a good literary understanding.

  7. Q says:

    In your readings did you come across any references to the gifts of the Spirit?

    • My takeaway is that the gifts of the Spirit were operating in the 2nd century, but kind of fading out.
      The Shepherd of Hermas, early 2nd century, has a passage remiscent of I Cor 12:
      “When, then a man having the Divine Spirit comes into an assembly of righteous men who have faith in the Divine Spirit, and this assembly of men offers up prayer to God, then the angel of the prophetic Spirit, who is destined for him, fills the man; and the man being filled with the Holy Spirit, speaks to the multitude as the Lord wishes.”

      I recall reading in Irenaus c. 180 A.D. that Christians were exorcizing demons and prayer for healing. But by the time of Origen there was not much left.
      I did a quick search on the web and came up with this link:
      http://www.renewamerica.com/columns/popp/091212

      I think the assessment here of the gifts in the early church is accurate (the stuff in the margins may or may not be too conservative for your taste).

      Augustine c. 400 A.D. started off thinking there were no miracles happening anymore. But by the end of his life he changed his mind, because of some miraculous healings he saw or knew about.

      Fast forward to today, there seem to be some places where miracles still happen. On my blog here I posted a write-up of healing deaf and blind in Mozambique:
      https://letterstocreationists.wordpress.com/2010/10/11/study-healing-miracles-in-mozambique/
      (My adult daughter traveled there a couple years ago and reported back to me that this all seems to be legit).
      And…. you be the judge, but here are a set of links to videos of legs growing out under prayer: https://letterstocreationists.wordpress.com/2011/03/10/healings-on-youtube-legs-growing-out/

      and of a nearly-deaf boy getting his hearing back: https://letterstocreationists.wordpress.com/2012/08/14/healing-of-nearly-deaf-boy-on-youtube/
      (I later went on a trip with Randy Clark, the minister in that video, and know him to be a good and sincere man.)

      • Q says:

        Thank you for your response! I’ve also started looking into the church fathers too, which is what lead me to your blog. I have recently come across some cessation doctrine and was curious as to the early church’s stand on the gifts of the Spirit and also the formation of the canon. Cessationests believe that after the New Testament was completed the gifts of the Spirit ceased.
        I believe in the gifts but just wanted to be able to give a defence to those who take the cessation point of view.
        May God continue to bless your ministry and manifest His Son in you!

  8. Scott Delisle says:

    I get a very cordial feel on your blog. That said, I didn’t read any of the creationists parts and as a Catholic its a really open area that most feel as a closed case. (Neo-Darwin-Evolution being taught in about all schools and its only a theory? ? ?) I’ve found a great resource in neo-patristic exegesis. A great site at rtforum.org or maybe .com you’ll find it with just the main title. I would love to hear if the early church fathers have altered your views on ‘sola scriptura’ and or oral traditions of the apostles.

    • Hello Scott (great name!),
      Yes, reading the church fathers was quite eye-opening for me. It showed me how important oral traditions were in the ancient world. Everyone agreed that it was essential to stay connected to the teachings of the first apostles; through the second century, at least, Christians were confident that the leading, established churches in the Mediterranean world were reliable transmitters of apostolic teaching, since less than two hundred years had passed since actual apostles had taught in those very churches.

      This is most clearly enunciated at the beginning of Book 3 of Against Heresies (c. 180 A.D.) by Irenaeus. He seems to put the teachings of the churches of that day on about the same level of authority as the New Testament writings. . He pointed to three churches in particular (in Rome, Smyrna, and Ephesus) as examples of the several “ancient Churches with which the apostles held constant intercourse”, to which Christians of his day could turn for guidance. He did not single any one church out as having the only claim to authentic apostolic tradition.

      My view of apostolic succession is tempered, however, by looking at the full scope of his reasoning there. Irenaeus was not claiming some spooky supernatural protection of the apostolic teaching within the churches. Rather, he was appealing to plain common sense: it had only been only a short time since the apostles had taught in these churches, with fairly short chains of succession to his time. In the case of Smyra, for instance, Irenaeus himself was taught by Polycarp, who had been taught by the apostle John. Irenaeus’ argument makes sense to me, and so I have come to value very highly the writings of the church fathers of that era.

      However, by the same token, the probability naturally grows with each century that non-apostolic notions can creep in. And when I look at all the variations in teaching and in practice in both the Roman and Eastern Orthodox traditions over the past 2000 years, as well as the disagreements within Protestantism, it gives me little confidence that what being taught today is necessarily representative of apostolic teaching. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. The most sure reference point for making that judgment now is the apostolic writings (i.e. the New Testament), since they have not changed since the first century. I understand that you will likely not agree with me, but since you asked my opinion, I offered it to you.

      I did look briefly at rftforum.org. It looks like a valuable resource for bringing early patristic thought to bear on issues of Bible interpretation.
      Best regards….

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