Majoring on the minors and minoring on the majors has always been an issue in the Christian Church. When tasked with deciding the most significant issues of the first four centuries of church history, the question must be asked, what is of first importance? In step with the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, the Christian must say the Gospel. A plethora of issues plagued the early Church, but those that assaulted the Gospel and the very foundation of Christianity, are those which created the greatest issues.
As the first four centuries of church history are studied, three issues rise to the service: the Gentile acceptance as Christians, the Gnostic heresy, and the Arian heresy. All three attack some level of first-tier doctrine and thus orthodoxy. It would not be out of place to classify all of the issues under the question, “what is orthodoxy?”
The first issue, the requirements for gentile acceptance as Christians, was so early in church history that it receives attention in the New Testament epistles. The context around this issue must take into account over a thousand years of Jewish history. Abraham received the covenant in Genesis 17:1-14 that through his seed, God would bless the world. Jews did not interpret the fulfillment of that covenant as including Gentiles; thus, they had an extremely esoteric view of redemption.
The Jews relied on their ethnicity and the law as the means by which they would be saved; therefore, Gentiles who have neither the ancestry nor the law were unable to receive salvation. Indeed, there was a reality of Jewish proselytes, Gentiles who converted to the Jewish religion by means of coming under the law and receiving circumcision, but they were never God’s true chosen race in the eyes of ethnic Jews. It was unspeakable for Jews to conceive of Gentiles receiving salvation apart from Judaism.
The crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, and the commission to make disciples of all nations shattered that notion. As depicted in Acts 10-11, Peter was given a clear vision of the acceptance of Gentiles into God’s chosen race. However, the unique demographics of Jerusalem caused confusion. There were those who followed Jesus’s ministry in Galilea, the Judean converts, and people from the Greek Diaspora, and all held different understandings of the law. The prominent leaders in the church who were in the middle of this controversy were James, Peter, and Stephen. Much of the controversy did not get clarity until Paul’s conversion, missions, and epistles.
The early church was so integrated with the Jewish religion that many onlookers saw Christianity as merely a Jewish sect. Indeed, the early Jewish Christians continued to frequent the temple, and the Christians accepted the Hebrew Scriptures as God’s word. The early extracts from the first century did not directly address this issue; therefore, the epistles in the New Testament are the best resources.
Acts provides general documentation of the controversy. In Acts 10-11, Luke documents the story of the gentile centurion Cornelius. God gives Peter a vision that reveals to him that Gentiles are to receive the Gospel. Peter says to Cornelius and his people, “you yourself know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit any one of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean.” Peter continues preaching the Gospel and witnesses the Spirit fall on the Gentiles. In Acts 11, Peter returns back to Jerusalem, and the circumcision party criticized him for associating with Gentiles. However, Peter explained his vision and that he witnessed the Spirit fall upon them after hearing the Gospel.
In Acts 15, there were men from Judea teaching that circumcision was necessary for salvation. Paul and Barnabas debated with the men but soon traveled to Jerusalem to settle the issue with the apostles there. Again, in Jerusalem, believers belonging to the Pharisees made the same claim to circumcision and the keeping of the law as necessities of salvation. Thus, the Jerusalem Council was organized with the apostles and elders of the church to discuss the issue. After a strong testimony from Paul and Barnabas, and a good word of Scripture from James, the Council agreed that circumcision was not necessary for Gentiles.
Paul addresses the issue in his letter to the Galatians, who were a group of Christians called the Judaizers. After what Paul considered to be a period of faithful Gospel living, he delivers the harshest rebuke for their return to Jewish practices. Likely setting the future use of anathemas, Paul anathematizes anyone who preaches a gospel that adds circumcision and the keeping of the law.
The issue, as Paul made evident in Galatians, is a direct attack on the Gospel. Every man-made religion is works based. Indeed, the Jewish religion was instituted by God as he made a covenant with Abraham, but that covenant relationship was by grace through faith. Circumcision was a sign of the gracious covenant by faith, not the means of it. The terms for the acceptance of the Gentiles was caused by an incorrect understanding of the law and God’s plan to bless all nations through Christ. In some cases, the effects were devastating, as some likely preached a false gospel void of power.
Man’s fleshly nature always drifts to works based ideas. Man’s pride wants to convince him that he can do a series of outward things and be saved. A gospel with added works tickles the ears of dead men. A likely effect is a church that professes Christ but still lives relying on human volition; thus, it is dead. In God’s sovereignty, this major issue in the first-century church provided a reason for the apostle Paul to write such robust defenses of the true Gospel. The book of Romans, which was written to a church that contained a mix of Jews and Gentiles, brilliantly displays salvation doctrine in light of both Jew and Gentile pitfalls.
Also, the issue resulted in schismatic and heretical groups who fell in-between Jewish and true Christian beliefs. The two most notable are the Ebionites and the Nazaraeans. The Ebionites were a group of Jewish Christians who followed the apostle James by misunderstanding his attack against a faith that does not produce fruit. They required submission to the Law of Moses. The Nazaraeans were Jewish Christians who did not require Gentile law observance, but they, as Jews, still did.
The Gnostic heresy was a pervasive assault on the orthodoxy of the early Church. Since three different origins theories find credible evidence, the context around the Gnostic movement is convoluted and confusing. The three theories see Gnosticism as either a Christian heresy, a pre-Christian movement, or a Jewish explanation to find eternity. Because of Gnostics internal incoherence and lack of agreement, it may be that all theories present a grain of truth, or that people came to believe similar things through different means.
The primary historical documents that shed light on the Gnostic movement are the Nag Hammadi documents, a group of Gnostic texts discovered in upper Egypt in 1945. The documents provide some evidence for a Jewish origin, though no convincing evidence. Likely, Gnosticism and Christianity developed side by side until they became easily distinguishable in the second century.
Simon Magus, who is considered “the father of all heresies,” is attributed to starting Gnosticism by the Church Fathers, but the evidence is inclusive and lacking. Another man named Cerinthus was seen as a Gnostic proponent by Irenaeus. Among other men whom the Church Fathers attributed Gnostic teaching to, the man most known for his Gnostic beliefs was Valentinus. He is thought to be the author of the Gospel of truth, a sermon included in the Nag Hammadi documents. Regardless of the exact origins and the major proponents of Gnosticism, the Gnostic beliefs were well refuted by Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Hippolytus, and Epiphanius, who were all leading anti-heretical writers in the second-and third-century church.
In light of that reality, the preserved works of these men shed tremendous light on why this issue was so severe. Irenaeus was likely the central anti-heretical writer in the attack on Gnosticism. In his famous work, Against Heresies, he listed four types of Gnostic beliefs: the Syrian, the Egyptian, the Judaizing, and the Pontic.
Irenaeus attributes the Syrian type to a man named Saturninus of Antioch. Included in his beliefs was an unknown father, seven angels who created the universe, the Jewish God as one of the seven angels, and that Christ came to destroy the Jewish God. Furthermore, he taught that marriage and procreation were of Satan.
The Egyptian type is attributed to Basilides. Basilides taught that the mind was first created by the unborn father. Again, the Jewish God is a chief angel who wanted to control all people. The unborn father, thus, sent his first unbegotten mind, Christ, to free people from the Jewish God. Jesus was not crucified but switched appearances with Simon of Cyrene, who was crucified in Christ’s place; thus, to worship the crucified Christ is to be in ignorance.
The Judaizing type was expressed by a man named Cerinthus. His teaching said the world was created by a virtue who did not know the god over all. Jesus was a man born to Joseph and Mary, who had the Christ descend on him in the dove at his baptism. Thus, Christ is only a spirit and not a body. The Ebionites are classified as Gnostic in this regard, and they use only the Gospel of Matthew.
The Pontic type found its teaching from a man named Marcion. Marcion taught that Jesus was from the father above all and not the god that created the universe. He backed his teaching by distorting the Gospel of Luke. He also changed Paul’s epistles by removing any mention of Christ’s true nature and the creation of the universe. He, like many Gnostic teachers, believed that salvation was only of the soul.
Given Irenaeus’s summary of Gnostic teachings, the seriousness of this heresy should be evident. Gnosticism, regardless of the nuances from teacher to teacher, opposes conviction level doctrine. To change the nature of God and Christ is to change the Gospel. The Christian Gospel rests on the reality that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life and that no one can come to the Father but through him. A Christ who is not one with the Father, the maker of all things, and fully God and fully man is not a Christ that saves. Therefore, the Gnostic belief removes any possibility of true salvation. Furthermore, Gnosticism as a counterfeit of true Christianity makes it particularly dangerous. All false religions are of Satan and deceitful, but those who hide under the name of Christ are especially cunning.
The cause of this issue was fundamentally a spiritual scheme of Satan to keep people from true saving knowledge. However, practically, the early church lacked a solid orthodox defense, and thus, was susceptible to heresy. The lack of easily accessible objective apostolic teaching paved the way for subjective experience to shape beliefs. The effect is a philosophized set of ideas, that may or may not be coherent with each other, that ultimately have no basis in Scripture.
The Arian Controversy
The third major issue to plague the first four centuries of the Church was the Arian controversy. Though Arianism itself is a dangerous heresy, it led to a few key events that shaped the church for over a thousand years. The background of this heretical belief is connected closely with the rise of Constantine the Great. Constantine was the first Roman Emperor to profess faith in Christ. In step with his supposed faith, Constantine sought to unite the church and state into a unified and peaceful society known as Christendom. His favor towards Christianity set the groundwork for the Council of Nicaea in 325.
Before the empire-wide favor of Christianity under Constantine, questions of orthodoxy were often dealt with on a congregational level. Christian persecution restricted the possibility of universal councils; thus, a universal stance on certain issues was difficult to formulate. As Constantine enacted his plan to unite the church and state to create a Christian dominated culture, three new challenges for the church arose: the state involved in Church affairs, how to define the Church fundamentally, and the definition of doctrine. With any sort of religious liberty, heresy finds its opportunity to spread. Under the reign of Constantine, both Donatism and Arianism threatened true orthodoxy; and thus, these teachings threatened Constantine’s goal of peace and happiness in the empire.
A man named Arius is attributed to the spread of Arianism. Born a Libyan, he became a leading presbyter in the church of Alexandria. The teachings of Origen on the nature of the Trinity and Christ allowed for a branching of contradictory conclusions. Arius took Origen’s teaching to a conclusion where Christ and the Father are not one. Christ, in his mind, was the highest of the Father’s creations. Arius’s Bishop, a man named Alexander, took Origen’s teaching a different direction, which landed within the orthodox belief of one nature. Arius was quickly condemned, but a dispute was sparked; thus, the Council of Nicaea in 325 was formed to solve the dispute.
The first extract to note the controversy is Arius’s letter to Eusebius in 321, describing the condemnation he received from Alexander. He says, “the bishop attacks and persecutes us” and goes as far as to say that Alexander treats him as an atheist. He then quotes Alexander’s orthodox preaching on Christ. After listing some names of individuals that agree and disagree with his position, he describes his view. Most notable is his stance that Christ has a beginning and that at one point, he did not exist.
A second extract, written by Socrates in 440, describes the initial disagreement between Alexander and Arius. Socrates says that the Bishop was gathered with his presbyters, of which Arius was one of them. After delivering a theological message on the Holy Trinity, Arius, for the sake of controversy, completely contradicted all that Alexander said. Socrates affirmed that Arius asserted that there was once when the Son was not.
Indeed, the creed of Nicaea, which was formulated at the Council of Nicaea, is of great importance. The creed builds upon Eusebuis’s church creed, which he presented at the council for adoption. Additions were made on the nature of Christ as well as a list of the anathematized sayings of Arius.
The Arian Controversy was a direct assault on the nature of Christ, and therefore, the Gospel. Everett Ferguson said it well, “We can better appreciate the significance of the Arian controversy if we remember that it was not only a dispute about the metaphysical definition of the Godhead, but also was a struggle about the very nature of Christianity and human salvation.”
By this point in Church history, many doctrinal battles had taken place, but the religious liberty in the empire meant that heresy could spread far easier than when the church was persecuted. The cause of the controversy could be boiled down to an improper application of Origen’s theology paired with the lack of universal doctrinal formulations. The effects of the controversy are positive and negative.
Simply the fact that the controversy brought about the council of Nicaea is critical. Not only was it the first universal meeting of church leaders, but it led to the development of the Nicaean Creed, a universal formulation of orthodox doctrine. Again, to quote Ferguson, “The Council of Nicaea is one of the most significant turning points in church history.” Though the council was a positive effect of the controversy, the Arian heresy did not stop there. After the council in 325, Arianism continued to plague the church in two more phases. Arianism revealed the reality that many church leaders still did not have a well-formulated understanding of the Trinity.
Modern Ministry Application
Christianity rests on the unchanging truth of Scripture. The foundational doctrines of the faith do not change and have not changed. Logically, Satan’s assault on Christianity will always be directed at undermining the same truths: the doctrine of God, Christ, Scripture, and salvation. Studying the issues of the early Church show that there is nothing new under the sun. The attacks on the Church today are simply rebranded assaults from the first few centuries of the Church.
A modern apologist can take away three insights from studying these early issues. First, the promise of Matthew 16:18 rings true. If the Church has survived and grown through nearly 2,000 years of heresies, schisms, and false religions, it will survive through today’s problems. The growth of Christianity through these issues should encourage and bolden the modern Church to stay true and to fight against the attacks of Satan.
Second, by studying the issues of old, the modern Church should be well equipped at identifying the same heresies in today’s new movements. Mormonism, Jehovah’s witness, Word of Faith, and Romanism may be the new names, but underneath are the same lies. In the first centuries, it was called Gnosticism and Arianism, but today a fashion of the same heretical stance on Christ can be seen in the cults. If the Church is well studied on these issues, their reaction against a false movement should be quicker than if they were not. Knowing the seriousness of the Gnostic heresy, if the church identifies similar beliefs in a movement calling itself Christian, it has a reason to be concerned.
And third, since today’s Gospel assaults are simply rebranded, the apologist can glean from the apologists of old. There is value in studying the great anti-heretical works from the first four centuries. What did these men do that the church is not doing today? What Scripture was central to their defenses? As apologists study the significant issues of the past, they should be reminded of those doctrines which must be defended at all costs. Church history will reveal that the Gospel is of first importance.
Bettenson, Henry, and Chris Maunder, eds. Documents of the Christian Church. 4 ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Ferguson, Everett. Church History: From Christ to the Pre-Reformation. Vol. 1, The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political Context. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013.