Early Church History - 3
It wasn’t long after gospel truth began to spread throughout the Roman world that false doctrine arose. The NT presents clear warnings to this effect: “But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them …” (2 Pet 2:1). “Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the truth, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons …” (1 Tim 4:1ff).
Later in the first century John affirms that these prophecies have come true: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 Jn 4:1).
In the second century the truth was opposed by intellectual heathens such as Celsus as well as believers with warped ideas such as Marcion. In response to such attacks, Christian apologists like Justin Martyr, Ignatius, Polycarp, Irenaeus, Tertullian and later Origen, Ambrose, Jerome and Augustine wrote scholarly refutations. Many of the works of the so-called Early Church Fathers have been preserved, and much can be learned from them.
Additionally, early Christians began to feel that their beliefs needed to be formally clarified and restated in response to the controversies that began to multiply. On one level this seems understandable. What could possibly be wrong with simplifying Christian beliefs so that all can be unified on them?
“The word creed comes from the Latin word credo, meaning ‘I believe.’ A creed is a statement of belief. The creed that came out of the Church’s struggle with Gnosticism and Montanism is known as the Apostles’ Creed. It is so called not because it was composed by the apostles, but because it is a summary of the apostles’ teachings … The Church adopted the Apostles’ Creed in order that everybody might know what the Church believed to be true Christian doctrine, in distinction from the false and heretical doctrines …” (Kuiper, The Church in History 53).
The key phrase in the above paragraph is “it is a summary of the apostles’ teachings.” There was a hidden danger in the making of non-apostolic creeds: they gradually led Christians away from the original words of the Holy Spirit and replaced them with “summaries” and restatements of well-meaning but uninspired men.
This trend fits with what we previous covered in articles 1 & 2: a growing movement toward centralization and a sense that the “Church” needed to be something bigger and more organized than what the new testament provided. What followed was a series of religious conventions (or councils) that considered various false doctrines and formulated detailed rebuttals.
The first of these was the Council of Nicaea in AD 325 which addressed the deity of Christ. Arius was an influential teacher who denied the deity of Christ, and his doctrines caused great unrest. “More than three hundred bishops were present. They met in a great hall in the emperor’s palace in a setting of pomp and splendor … The outcome of the proceedings … was that the views of Arius were condemned as heresy. A statement of the true doctrine of the person of Christ was adopted as the faith of the Church. That statement is known as the Nicene Creed” (ibid 57-58).
Other councils followed: Constantinople (AD 381), Ephesus (AD 431) and Chalcedon (AD 451). “These four great councils stand out as just so many signposts along the road of church consolidation” (ibid 74). Kuiper is correct, though he makes this observation approvingly rather than critically. Throughout the Reformation various human creeds have been created. In my library is a three-volume set – almost 3,000 pages – on the history and establishment of creeds including the Augsburg Confession, Luther’s Catechism, the First and Second Helvetic Confessions, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, the Canons of the Synod of Dort and, perhaps most famous, the Westminster Confession of Faith.
Question: Have these creeds succeeded in unifying Christendom under the banner of doctrinal truth? How could they when they are merely the (often erroneous) restatements of men of what God has already revealed?
The bottom line is that there are no shortcuts to the process of learning and putting into practice the precepts of God. Every Christian must become a student on the level of which he or she is capable. Not all intellects are created equal, but God didn’t direct His thoughts to the “intellectuals.” He speaks to the common saint, the honest heart searching for truth and purity amid the morass of lies, deception and the politics of religion.
Further, this process is mostly executed on a local level. We must beware of any attempt to normalize “Church of Christ doctrine” whether through papers, schools, lectureships or other media that overreaches local autonomy and wittingly or unwittingly creates a super-church structure. Remember, it sounded good to have universal councils to settle doctrinal questions, but they ultimately contributed to power struggles, a dumbing down of the masses and organizational corruption that is still ongoing today.