Second Century Timeline: Introduction

Whoo hoo! Yeah!

This century … will … be … FUN.

You know, I try to write this blog the way I would talk in front of an audience. Outside of church, where I and most others in the church have spoken to 250 to 300 people, the biggest audiences I ever speak to, folks who for some unknown reason come out to hear me on purpose, is 40-50 people.

I do pretty well with them. I can see their faces. I can tell whether they’re really gripped by the subject. If so, I dig in and give them the facts, fast and furious. Everyone’s dazed but happy at the end. If not, we go slow, I throw in a lot of stories, a bit of my own wry humor, which people laugh at about 50% of the time, and I ask the audience questions to keep them focused. We have a good time, and hopefully they learn something, too.

On a blog, I can’t see you. I’ll find this post six months from now and think, “I started a blog with ‘Whoo hoo! Yeah!’?? How goofy is that?”

Does that ever happen to any of you who blog?

Well, today I feel pretty “whoo hoo” about digging into the second century church, so that’s how we’re starting.

We Don’t Speak Great Things, We Live Them

The second century is not about the events. Yes, the Bar-Kochba rebellion is important. Whole books could have and have been written about it. The story of Montanus is really interesting, and so is the doctrine at the root of Montanism. The era of the apologists is important and interesting. Their arguments against the Romans, the emperor, and the gnostic heretics all take surprising turns that we can learn from.

But their lives!

The Christians of the second century got to live a faith that is terrifying to us in North America. We dream of such a faith. We idolize those who have lived such a faith, but few of us really put in the effort that grows such a faith.

It exists in the world today even without a lost ingredient I will talk about throughout this history. U.S. believers who make mission trips to areas where Christians have endured mosquito-infested swamps, then swam across raging rivers pulling a large, plastic-wrapped batch of Bibles into some country where they have forbidden–U.S. believers who make trip to those areas come back profoundly changed. It’s hard to hold onto that change in the worldly, affluent, unbelieving, logical west. We are full, blind, and have all we need. A friend of mine calls the whole USA “Disneyland.”

There was a time when Christians were all like they are in persecuted countries.

Let me say now that we can be that way even in countries where “Christians” are the majority. We’ll talk more about that when we eventually wander into the third century.

Today, I just want to give you an introduction to some of the second century Christians and what they said about the way they live. (Note: in doing so, we are going to include some first century Christians who wrote after the time of the apostles.)

Corinth Repents Because of Paul’s Letter

Who ever lived among you and did not find your faith to be as fruitful of virtue as it was firmly established? Who did not admire your sobriety and the moderation of your godliness in Christ? Who did not proclaim the magnificence of your habitual hospitality? Who did not rejoice over your perfect and well-grounded knowledge? You did everything without partiality, walked in the commandments of God, being obedient to those who led you, and giving all appropriate honor to the elders among you. (1 Clement 1)

This preceded a rebuke that they had fallen into dissension and envy again, putting out a couple of their elders for what Clement (or the church of Rome) felt was no good reason. Nonetheless, this letter gives us a thorough picture of how the Corinthians heeded Paul’s admonishments to them, even if a generation later they found themselves having problems again.

The Godly Lives of Christians

You forbid, yet commit, adulteries; we are born men only for our own wives. You punish crimes when committed; with us, even to think of crimes is to sin. You are afraid of those who are aware of what you do; we are afraid even of our own consciences, without which we cannot exist. Finally, from your numbers the prisons boil over, but there is no Christian there unless he is accused on account of his religion or has deserted it. (M. Felix, The Octavius, c AD 200)

Let me be clear, though, that if we thought wealth was useful for us, we would ask God for it. We are confident that God would answer us in some measure, because he possesses everything. But we would rather despise riches than possess them. What we want is innocence, and what we pray for is patience. We prefer being good to being lavish. (ibid.)

We despise the bent brows of the philosophers, because we know them to be corrupters, adulterers, and tyrants. They have great eloquence, but they’re speaking against vices that they themselves live in. We, on the other hand, who do not carry our wisdom in our clothes, but in our minds, don’t speak great things; we live them. We boast that we have found what they have sought for with the utmost eagerness but have not been able to find. (ibid.)

We who formerly delighted in fornication now embrace chastity alone. We who formerly used magical arts dedicate ourselves to the good and unbegotten God. We who valued above all things the acquisition of wealth and possessions now bring what we have into a common stock and share with every one in need. We who hated and destroyed one another and would not live with men of a different tribe because of their different customs now, since the coming of Christ, share the same fire with them.
   We pray for our enemies and attempt to persuade those who hate us unjustly to live according to the good precepts of Christ. This is so that they may become partakers with us of the same joyful hope of a reward from God, the Ruler of all. (Justin, 1 Apology 14, c. AD 155)

We … continually remind each other of these things. The wealthy among us help the needy, and we always keep together. For all things with which we are supplied, we bless the Maker of all through his Son Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit. … They who are well to do and willing give what each thinks fit, and what is collected is deposited with the president. He helps the orphans, widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in need. [He helps] those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us. In a word [he] takes care of all who are in need. (Justin, ibid. 67)

It is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to label us. “See,” they say, “How they love one another!” For themselves are animated by mutual hatred. “How they are ready even to die for one another!” For they themselves will sooner put to death. …
   No tragedy causes dissension in our brotherhood … the family possessions, which generally destroy brotherhood among you [Romans], create fraternal bonds among us. One in mind and soul, we do not hesitate to share our earthly goods with one another. All things are common among us but our wives. (Tertullian, Apology 39, c AD 210)


Christians … love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonored, and yet in their very dishonor are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honor; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life. (Anonymous, Letter to Diognetus 5, c AD 100)

Don’t you see them exposed to wild beasts for the purpose of persuading them to deny the Lord, yet they are not overcome? Don’t you see that the more of them that are punished, the greater the number of the rest becomes? This does not seem to be the work of man. This is the power of God. These are the evidences of his appearance. (ibid. 7)

I’m going to throw in a comment here. We love logic here in the west, and we use it to persuade the lost, including atheists. Somehow, we think that our careful historical arguments about the resurrection or our salvos against evolution are going to convert them. I’m not saying that logic isn’t a useful tool. I know that discussions of the evidence for the resurrection have had powerful effect on many people, but that is because the resurrection is at the heart of the Gospel.

The anonymous author of the Letter to Diognetus said the best evidences for the truth of our faith are the things we do. Jesus concurred, telling us our love for one another will prove we belong to him (Jn. 13:34-35), and our unity will prove he comes from God (Jn. 17:20-23). Having seen holiness, love, and unity in small groups and a large one, I can tell you nothing softens a heart to the Gospel like saints who let the love of God and holiness come out of them together.

Now it is evident that no one can terrify or subdue us who have believed in Jesus over all the world. For it is plain that, though beheaded, crucified, thrown to wild beasts, chains, and fire, and all other kinds of torture, we do not give up our confession; instead, the more such things happen, the more others—in even larger numbers—become faithful and worshippers of God through the name of Jesus.(Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, a Jew 110, c. AD 155)

How many of our people have borne that not their right hand only, but their whole body, should be burned—burned up without any cries of pain … Do I compare men with [your Roman heroes]? Boys and young women among us treat with contempt crosses and tortures, wild beasts, and all the bugbears of punishment with the inspired patience of suffering. And do you not perceive, O wretched men, that there is nobody who either is willing without reason to undergo punishment, or is able without God to bear tortures? (M. Felix, The Octavius 37, c. AD 200)


The Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying one house, carefully preserves it. She believes these things … and she proclaims them, teaches them, and hands them down with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, I:10:2)

Is it likely that so many churches, and they so great, should have gone astray into one and the same faith? No casualty distributed among many men issues in one and the same result. Error of doctrine in the churches must necessarily have produced various issues. When, however, that which is deposited among many is found to be one and the same, it is not the result of error, but of tradition. Can anyone, then, be reckless enough to say that they were in error who handed on the tradition? (Tertullian, Prescription Against Heretics 28)

There’s a couple things I love about these last two passages …

  1. I knew the churches of the second century were united. Irenaeus ties their unity to their preservation of apostolic truth. The churches were not inventing or developing doctrine, but they were clinging to the teaching of the apostles … and they were living as described in the sections above.
  2. Before reading the books and tracts written by Irenaeus and Tertullian, I would have said I knew the Church, singular and capitalized, was united. I said churches because of Tertullian’s quote above and the rest of Prescription Against Heretics. These were churches, individually clinging to the teaching of the apostles and walking together to hold each other accountable, not one worldwide organization that decreed truth to its member churches.

Unity, love, and obedience to our King are the best evidences against unbelief (Jn. 13:34-35; 17:20-23; 1 Thess. 1:3-10). It is no wonder these impoverished, despised, fringe-of-society Christians triumphed over mighty Rome.

A Second Century Timeline

In the next post, we will go back to making a timeline. There are many more second century writers that I could have used to fill out today’s post. I’ll list them in the timeline in the next post, and give you descriptions and links for them. We’ll probably have to take at least two more days, more likely three or four, with the second century Christians. Not only do you need to be introduced to them, but we should talk about the apologists and then about the two major heresies of the second century, gnosticism and Montanism.

About Paul Pavao

I am married, the father of six, and currently the grandfather of two. I run a business, live in a Christian community, teach, and I am learning to disciple others better than I have ever been able to before. I believe God has gifted me to restore proper foundations to the Christian faith. In order to ensure that I do not become a heretic, I read the early church fathers from the second and third centuries. They were around when all the churches founded by the apostles were in unity. I also try to stay honest and open. I argue and discuss these foundational doctrines with others to make sure my teaching really lines up with Scripture. I am encouraged by the fact that the several missionaries and pastors that I know well and admire as holy men love the things I teach. I hope you will be encouraged too. I am indeed tearing up old foundations created by tradition in order to re-establish the foundations found in Scripture and lived on by the churches during their 300 years of unity.
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5 Responses to Second Century Timeline: Introduction

  1. Evan says:

    I concur with much of your analysis Paul. I graduated from seminary and was on full-time pastoral staff for a few years but I could never reconcile how we “did church” with what I read in the NT. So I resigned and left the institutional church. The following satirical piece depicts some of my frustrations:
    Our Modern Way of Meeting Compared to 1 Cor 14:26-40 – by Rusty Entrekin
    How is it then, brethren? When ye come together, the pastor hath a doctrine, and the minister of music hath psalms. Let all things be done unto edifying.
    If anyone besides the pastor hath a doctrine, let him not speak; let him hold his peace. Let him sit in the pew, and face the back of the neck of the person which sitteth ahead of him.
    Let the people keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith church tradition. But if they will learn anything, let them ask their pastor after the service, for it is a shame for a layman to speak in the church. For the pastor, he hath a seminary degree, and the layman, he hath not so lofty a degree.
    If any man desire to remain a church member in good standing, let him acknowledge that what I write to you is the command of the denominational headquarters. But if any man ignore this, he shall be promptly escorted out the door by the ushers.
    Wherefore brothers, covet not to speak in the church. Let all things be done decently and in the order in which it hath been written in the church bulletin.

  2. paulfpavao says:

    Oh, the growing distinction between bishop and presbyter (overseer and elder): I think the initial distinction is apostolic, coming from John, and perhaps others. Can’t be too dogmatic about that, but it seems the most likely thing to me.

    On the fact that it grew, I have two thoughts. One, some of the distinction is a growing Matthew 23:5-10 problem. That is a terrible human nature problem.

    Some of the distinction is the product of growth. I wouldn’t call that development of doctrine. I would call that adaptation to circumstances. I like the idea of there being a “metropolitan,” or preferably a board of some sort in the area of a city, where congregations could come together to resolve disputes and get help for problems. I like the idea of interactions between such a metropolitan or board with other metropolitans or boards.

    It’s developed a little differently than that. I’m all for the churches adapting to the times, to the difference between small and large congregations, and to local circumstances. I believe God will guide them together into a best solution.

    We don’t ask God for solutions anymore, though. We’re already got systems in place to take care of them. I don’t like the systems, but I can live with them. I just won’t acknowledge them as apostolic, as the church, or as anything other than a system that Christians are using to deal with situations. I find nothing sacred about them, and I wish they weren’t chiseled in rock and could change.

  3. paulfpavao says:

    On the quotations, I picked those from memorable quotes about the fellowship and the bravery of the early church. I am affected by my longing for Acts 2:42-47, which I think is mirrored in Justin’s First Apology 14 and Tertullian’s Apology 39.

    I’m thinking of doing another set of quotes on doctrines of the early church, which will indeed lead me to a couple favorites from Ignatius, but I’m incredibly busy this past couple weeks. There will be a sudden slowdown of posts this December. I’ll be struggling to get anything in between now and the holidays.

    On preservation: I’m basically quoting Irenaeus from A.H. 1:10 and 3:1-4.

    I don’t think Tertullian was developing doctrine. I think he was trying to explain the Father, the Logos, and the Spirit as the apostles taught it. Yes, he added a lot of explanation, but the root remains no more than what’s in the Nicene Creed.

    I think that’s even more true of Irenaeus’ recapitulation teachings. He talks about things that the wise in the church can expound upon and things that they must not add to or take away from. Irenaeus’ recapitulation teachings are teachings, not official church doctrine.

    They’re great teachings, too. There are a few things in the early Christian writings that were not just interesting, educational, or edifying to me, but actually thrilling. Recapitulation in Irenaeus is one of them. Mary recapitulating Eve, Jesus recapitulating Adam, the fall being undone by their obedience … just awesome. That’s not just teaching but something to bask in.

    On local and universal church:

    My perspective is changing because I’m used to the Roman Catholic/Anglican/Southern Baptist idea of broad hierarchy. The Orthodox perspective is much different, at least in word. I am not sure how different it is in action due to lack of experience with it.

    For me, the issue has never so much been with the Orthodox because I don’t know the issues with them nearly as well. I do know what Roman Catholic readers have asked of me repeatedly by email, dozens of times. Becoming RC means acknowledging some doctrines that are impossible to acknowledge and considering the bishop of Rome my/our head.

    I can’t. I consider the bishop of Rome not to be the bishop of Rome but to be the possessor of a politicaly position that has basically nothing at all to do with Christianity except in name and a bizarre lineage of history that includes multiple popes, popes who never saw the city of Rome, and a line of corruption so bad that the story could be written and sold in adult bookstores.

    That’s the worldwide organization I generally oppose. There are Protestant organizations, and the stories coming out of them are just awful. I am not talking about mission organizations or “parachurch” organizations like Campus Crusade for Christ. I mean denominational headquarters. They are occupied primarily by businessmen who have lost their touch with Christianity and are infused into a corporate structure.

    I want two things. I want elders who grew up in the congregation, are known by the congregation, and are selected by the congregation for their godly lives and ability to lead and teach. I also want congregations that put out the wicked from among them, teach obedience to the commands of Christ, and at least try to maintain a pure loaf–meaning a congregation of Christians, not of general citizens who may have had a Christian ancestor. Basically, a church of disciples who at least want to follow Jesus.

    Give me that, and I will flex on almost anything else.

    One caveat: I have been in a church of disciples for years. I know that love means taking in people who have hope of becoming disciples, but who are not. Not knowing whether they are weak or rebellious, we have to love them, care for them, and pray for them, sometimes for years. Sometimes those people, and less often real disciples who stumble or fall away, cause severe problems in real churches.

    But most churches don’t even try. They think they are supposed to be open clubs accepting all who want to be members. That thought, which came in with Constantine, produced the mess we have today, and fixing the mess we have today–practicing 1 Cor. 5–means undoing that mindset.

  4. No Ignatius of Antioch quotation?

    >The churches were not inventing or developing doctrine, but they were clinging to the teaching of the apostles

    What do you mean by “development”?

    For example, would you regard the progression(!) in the language of Trinitarian theology by Tertullian as development (Person, Substance etc)? Also, would you regard Irenaeus’ description of Mary as the New Eve as development? What about the growing distinction in role of bishop and presbyter?

    >These were churches, individually clinging to the teaching of the apostles and walking together to hold each other accountable, not one worldwide organization that decreed truth to its member churches

    I’ve often read your posts and gone away slightly puzzled as to exactly where we part ways when it comes to ecclesiology, since I find myself nodding to a lot of things you have to say…but ultimately reaching a different conclusion.

    I get the impression that you think it’s either/or situation when it comes to a local congregation and worldwide Church. If that’s the case, then I’m not sure why, since Scripture uses the term in both senses, as do the Fathers. It’s true even today in Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism. The Church is a communion of churches. I’d even talk about “the American Church”, “the Californian Church” etc.

    With regards to the question of “decreed truth”, do you regard the teaching of the Council of Jerusalem as binding only to those Christians in Antioch, or was it binding on all Christians?

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