When I first read the early church fathers, I had one major question. I wanted to know what the churches believed about the Bible back when they all agreed with one another.
This was critically important to me. I had just spent a year on a remote assignment in Alaska with just 300 other military personnel. Very few, only five or six, were the kind of Christians who talked about Jesus every day and loved to get together to pray and study the Bible. I gathered them up for a Friday night Bible study and witnessing to the Indians in the local Indian village on Saturdays.
Six week later, our small Bible study had broken up over doctrinal matters.
I’m not your typical convert. I was raised Catholic, and I had no experience with Protestant churches. After my boss (and even more so, the Holy Spirit) led me to Jesus, I was gloriously saved and filled with zeal. I was excited about joining a church that only did what the Bible said.
I was shocked to find out the lack of regard for the Bible. From the pulpit I was told to examine the Bible to see if the sermons I was hearing were true. Yet when I asked questions I was shut down. If I argued for something in the Bible, I was told to find another church. At Bible studies throughout the week, I ran into the same thing. Everyone was defensive of their tradition, and any outrageous explanation was sufficient to defend those traditions against the plain statements of Scripture.
Therefore, when I heard about the early church fathers, I longed to know how they interpreted the Bible. One of them wrote:
“As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth.” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Bk. I, ch. 10, par. 2, written c. A.D. 185)
I became very hungry to know what that one preaching and one faith was.
Of course, I had the completely unreasonable belief that if everyone heard about this one faith, they would all, or at least mostly, switch from their more recent traditions and return to the ancient faith, once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3).
The truth is, though, very few were interested. I am hoping you signed up for this newsletter because you are interested.
Here is a quick peek at things they believed:
Justin Martyr and Obedience to God
Let’s begin with Justin Martyr, a Christian from Rome who converted from the philosophy of Plato to Christianity. If you use this first link, you can get to the other chapters I quote with the arrows in the top right-hand corner.
How to Serve God
Justin spends the first 9 chapters of his “First Apology” (“apology” meaning defense of the faith) arguing that Christians should not be persecuted. In chapter 10, he begins his description of second-century Christianity.
He does not begin with theology, but with “how God is to be served.” These are the ways God is to be served:
- “He accepts those only who imitate the excellencies which reside in Him.”
- “We have been taught that He in the beginning did of His goodness, for man’s sake, create all things out of unformed matter; and if men by their works show themselves worthy of this His design, they are deemed worthy … of reigning in company with Him, being delivered from corruption and suffering.”
Justin then gives an interesting description of how we accomplish these works:
“For the restraint which human laws could not effect, the Word, inasmuch as He is divine, would have effected, had not the wicked demons, taking as their ally the lust of wickedness which is in every man …”
“The Word” here is not the Bible, but Jesus (cf. Jn. 1:1). Justin is describing a war between the power and teachings of the Word, Jesus, against the wicked demons and the wickedness of man.
The Central Content of Justin’s First Apology
In chapter 11 of the same work, Justin says that Christians look for a heavenly kingdom, which is why they don’t mind being killed by the Romans.
Chapter 12 is longer, but the first sentence covers the chapter well, “We hold this view, that it is alike impossible for the wicked, the covetous, the conspirator, and for the virtuous, to escape the notice of God, and that each man goes to everlasting punishment or salvation according to the value of his actions. For if all men knew this, no one would choose wickedness even for a little, knowing that he goes to the everlasting punishment of fire; but would by all means restrain himself, and adorn himself with virtue, that he might obtain the good gifts of God, and escape the punishments.”
In chapter 13, Justin defends Christians against the charge that they are atheists. They were accused of atheism for rejecting the Roman gods. He writes, “We reasonably worship [Jesus], having learned that He is the Son of the true God Himself, and holding Him in the second place, and the prophetic Spirit in the third.”
Finally, in chapter 14, Justin gets to the most important chapter of his First Apology. There he begins a thorough description of Christianity, and he makes it clear that the behavior and the beliefs of Christianity are the same thing. He says we have to “make a strong opposing effort” against the demons “for our own salvation.” We “follow the unbegotten God through his Son,” whom Justin likes to call “the begotten God” (cf. Jn. 1:18 in the KJV or NKJV).
Then, he describes the community of Christians. They no longer serve their own lusts, but they embrace chastity. They used to value wealth, but now they “bring what we have into a common stock and share with everyone in need.” They used to hate each other because of their different manners and different tribe, but now they “share the same hearth.”
He ends the chapter by saying he is going to talk about the simple commands Jesus gave the Christians.
If you read this far, you might find some of Justin’s words shocking. He is focused on obedience to God and doing what Jesus said without any real emphasis on grace or the power of God. It is not because he does not know about the grace and power of God in Christ. This next paragraph is long, but it is well worth reading.
For our own Ruler, the Divine Word, who even now constantly aids us, does not desire strength of body and beauty of feature, nor yet the high spirit of earth’s nobility, but a pure soul, fortified by holiness, and the watchwords of our King, holy actions, for through the Word power passes into the soul. O trumpet of peace to the soul that is at war! O weapon that puts to flight terrible passions! O instruction that quenches the innate fire of the soul! The Word exercises an influence which does not make poets: it does not equip philosophers nor skilled orators, but by its instruction it makes mortals immortal, mortals gods; and from the earth transports them to the realms above Olympus. Come, be taught; become as I am, for I, too, was as ye are. These have conquered me: the divinity of the instruction, and the power of the Word; for as a skilled serpent-charmer lures the terrible reptile from his den and causes it to flee, so the Word drives the fearful passions of our sensual nature from the very recesses of the soul. It first drives out lust, through which every ill is begotten: hatreds, strife, envy, emulations, anger, and such like. Lust being once banished, the soul becomes calm and serene. And being set free from the ills in which it was sunk up to the neck, it returns to Him who made it. (The Discourse to the Greeks, ch. 5)
Of course, that paragraph brings us to one other bit of damage control. Justin Martyr was not a Mormon. He did not believe we would become gods ruling our own worlds. In reading through the church fathers, it is clear they equate immortality with divinity. Any one who becomes immortal because of Jesus’s gift of eternal life is by definition a god. They justified this with Jesus’ words in John 10:34-35. That is why, in a “discourse to the Greeks,” Justin would use terminology that shocks us today.
The biggest takeaway from reading the early church fathers is their focus on living the Christian life. It was not about brilliant speaking or great theology, but living out the things Jesus and the apostles taught. As Athenagoras, an apologist who wrote about 20 years after Justin, said:
“Among us you will find uneducated persons, craftsmen, and old women, who, if they are unable in words to prove the benefit of our doctrine, yet by their deeds exhibit the benefit arising from their persuasion of its truth. They do not rehearse speeches, but exhibit good works; when struck, they do not strike again; when robbed, they do not go to law; they give to those that ask of them, and love their neighbors as themselves.’ (A Plea for the Christians, ch. 11, c. A.D. 177)