The ancient church or early church period—stretching from the beginning of the New Testament church to the beginning of the Middle Ages (c. AD 600)—was characterized bloody persecution, the spread of the gospel throughout the Roman Empire and beyond, and the theological codification of the doctrines of the Trinity and of the person and natures of Christ. The New Testament church was born through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and His subsequent pouring out of the Holy Spirit on His disciples, who then proclaimed that all people can be saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. The new covenant church was not entirely new, for it was established in creation and preserved after the fall through the covenant that God made with Abraham in Genesis 12. Thus, the new covenant church is a continuation of the old covenant community, though under the new covenant, God’s people have a greater understanding of the fulfillment of the messianic promises and a fuller experience of the Holy Spirit than those who lived before the coming of Jesus. The earliest Christians devoted themselves to the Apostolic teaching, to the breaking of bread, and to prayers, and “the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). Against the backdrop of heresies and a series of ecclesiastical councils, the ancient church developed doctrinal confessions of faith—the ecumenical creeds—that are still used around the world today.
The early church can be divided between the Apostolic era of the early church, which lasted until the last Apostle of Jesus died in about AD 90 and the post-Apostolic era of the early church, which lasted until about AD 600. The book of Acts provides the inspired historical narrative of the events of the Apostolic era of the ancient church between the ascension of Jesus into heaven and Paul’s preaching the gospel to the highest authorities in the Roman Empire during his first imprisonment in the city of Rome. It focuses especially on the mission and ministry of the Apostles Peter (chs. 1–12) and Paul (chs. 13–28). Peter’s ministry centered in Jerusalem while Paul’s ministry took the gospel to gentiles across the Mediterranean region. Miracles, signs, and wonders accompanied the early spread of the gospel during the Apostolic era as visible proofs of new revelation given (i.e., the New Testament).
Persecution against the early Christians providentially fueled the spread of the early church. After the stoning of Stephen, for example, “there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1, emphasis added). Both Peter and Paul would be martyred for their faith in Christ. During the first century, persecution against Christians ebbed and flowed, though significant outbreaks of persecution occurred during the 60s in Rome and during the early 80s elsewhere in the Roman Empire. Because of the persecution, most Christian communities conducted gathered worship secretly in house churches. (Christians wouldn’t begin worshiping in dedicated church buildings until the late third century).
The Apostolic fathers—the earliest leaders in the church after the Apostles died—were significant figures in the immediate post-Apostolic period. These men included such leaders as Clement of Rome (d. 99), Ignatius of Antioch (35–107), and Polycarp of Smyrna (69–156). These three left a lasting imprint on the succeeding centuries of the church, and all three would die as martyrs. Other first-century documents, such as the Didache, provide detailed description of the teachings and worship of the ancient post-Apostolic church.
During the first several centuries of church history, the central issue debated by theologians and Christian leaders was the identity of the person of Jesus Christ. The emperor Diocletian (244–311)—who had begun a severe persecution against Christians—divided the Roman Empire into two halves in 286: Rome remained the capital of the West, while Byzantium (later renamed Constantinople) became the capital of the East. This division would have lasting ramifications even for the church. Differences in language and culture between these two halves of the empire contributed to the formal division of the church into the Western church and the Eastern church in 1054.
After Diocletian’s death, two co-emperors engaged in a battle to control the Roman Empire: Constantine and Maxentius. At one point in their conflict, Constantine reportedly had a vision indicating that he would win the battle by the Christian cross. Providentially, Constantine did defeat Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in October 312, and he credited his victory to the Christian God. That next year, in 313, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan allowing Christians to worship as they desired, effectively ending the official persecution of Christians that the church had faced intermittently since the day of Pentecost. Constantine himself converted to the Christian faith.
In addition to the threat of persecution coming from outside the ancient church, the church had to deal with internal threats in the form of heresies that departed from the biblical teaching in substantial ways. Gnosticism, one of the earliest heresies to plague the church, taught that the physical is corrupt and the spiritual is holy and pure. Gnostics believed that they were guardians of a secret knowledge of God from the Apostles, a knowledge that translated them beyond the limitations of their corrupt physical bodies. Because the physical world was evil, many Gnostics (in particular, the Docetists) taught that Jesus only appeared to be physically human. Some early church leaders, such as Origen (185–254), wrote and preached against Gnosticism. Origen’s use of allegory would also influence medieval biblical interpretation.
Another prominent early church heresy was Arianism. Arius (250–336), an elder from Alexandria, Egypt, taught that Jesus was not truly God; rather, God the Son was the first created being—superior to all other creatures but nevertheless created by and subordinate to God the Father. Arius’ well-known maxim summarized his theology: “There was a time when Christ was not.” Arianism became so popular—even spreading throughout much of Europe—that emperor Constantine convened the First Council of Nicaea in 325 to address it.
The First Council of Nicaea proved to be a defining event in the history of the Christian church. It also produced an early form of the Nicene Creed, which is still used in many Christian worship services around the world, and it set a pattern for how the later church would address theological and disciplinary questions—by gathering church leaders to deliberate and make decisions corporately. At the heart of the First Council of Nicaea was the issue of the deity of Christ, and the council clearly affirmed that Jesus, the eternal Son of God, is no mere creature but rather is very God of very God. In other words, Christ is the eternal Creator and of one substance (or essence) with the Father. Arius was exiled to Illyria. Athanasius of Alexandria (296–373), who was present at the council, took the lead in defending the council’s theological conclusions when many in the church wanted to return to an Arian position in the first few decades after Nicaea.
In 380, Emperor Theodosius (together with Emperor Gratian) made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. The next year, Theodosius called a second ecumenical council in Constantinople, which provided a decisive answer to the Arianism that remained within the church even after the First Council of Nicaea. The First Council of Constantinople (381) affirmed the First Council of Nicaea, expanding its affirmations to make the church’s position on the deity of the Holy Spirit clear. Thus, the third section of the Nicene Creed was expanded to include a section on the Holy Spirit’s person and work, making it clear that He is fully God alongside the Father and the Son. The Cappadocian Fathers—Basil of Caesarea (330–79), Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 329–90), and Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335–395) were instrumental in creating the final settlement at the First Council of Constantinople. As the chief defenders of Nicene orthodoxy, they formulated language to clarify the unity of the Godhead and the distinctions of the three persons of the Trinity. The result was the form of the Nicene Creed most churches recite today, which is more accurately called the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed because it is the form of the creed given at the First Council of Constantinople.
The next two ecumenical councils, the First Council of Ephesus (431) and the Council of Chalcedon (451), were focused on the natures of Christ. Chalcedon affirmed that Christ has two natures—divine and human—in one person (the hypostatic union). The council formulated the Chalcedonian Creed, which describes Christ’s two natures as “without confusion, without change, without division, and without separation.”
Throughout the ancient church period, several prominent theologians and biblical scholars made their mark on the church. The biblical scholar, monk, historian, and theologian Jerome of Stridon (345–420) became proficient in the original languages of Hebrew and Greek. His most important achievement was the Vulgate, a translation of the Bible from these original languages into Latin, which would become the standard Bible of the Western church until the Reformation. Jerome also wrote many other works, making him the second-most voluminous writer of the period behind Augustine of Hippo (354–430).
Augustine was perhaps the most significant theologian, author, and pastor of the ancient church. His many writings—including Confessions (the first autobiography of its kind), The City of God (the first philosophy of history), On the Trinity (a classic text on the doctrine of the Trinity), and On Christian Doctrine (a guide to biblical interpretation)—continue to serve the church in the present day. Augustine engaged in several highly publicized debates, most notably against Pelagius (354–419). Pelagius taught that original sin did not affect human nature and, therefore, the human will can choose good or evil apart from God’s grace. In response, Augustine challenged Pelagianism, showing from Scripture that humans are dead in sin and carry the curse of the fall. He emphasized the doctrine of God’s gracious election unto salvation, setting the terms for the Western church’s discussion of topics such as sin, grace, and predestination. His writings on the sacraments and his debate with the Donatists were foundational for Western ecclesiology. Augustine’s teachings would have a profound impact on all subsequent Christian theologians in the Western church, with later Protestants and Roman Catholics both looking to different aspects of Augustine’s theology to support their positions.
In our own day, the debate between Pelagianism and Augustinianism may be seen as the debate between humanism and Christianity. Humanism is a warmed-over variety of Pelagianism. However, the struggle within the church now is between the Augustinian view and various forms of semi-Pelagianism, which seeks a middle ground between the views of Pelagius and Augustine. Semi-Pelagianism teaches that grace is necessary to achieve righteousness, but that this grace is not imparted to the sinner unilaterally or sovereignly as is maintained by Reformed theology. Rather, the semi-Pelagian argues that the individual makes the initial step of faith before that saving grace is given. Thus, God imparts the grace of faith in conjunction with the sinner’s work in seeking God. It seems a little mixing of grace and works doesn’t worry the semi-Pelagian. It is our task, however, if we are to be faithful first to Scripture and then to the church’s ancient councils, to discern Augustine’s truth and defend it aright.
At a time when the Gospel is under assault like no other time since the fourth century, it would stand us in good stead to see the patterns of faithfulness from that epoch’s heroes; it would behoove us to learn from their lives and ministries; it would surely be of benefit to follow the footsteps of their greatest battles—that we might be fit to fight our own.
The important thing about these “heresies” is the fact that they are not just permissible variations, options, or choices, but by their very nature so undermine Christian faith that they may well render salvation unattainable for the one who makes the mistake of embracing them.
We would be naive to think the current generation and the next will automatically hold to an orthodox Christology. The Nicene and Chalcedonian creeds have sustained the church through the centuries, summarizing the biblical teaching. The sermons and books of the early church fathers guided early Christians in their theology and worship. We, too, have an obligation to answer the crucial question that Christ asked His disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” We, too, have an obligation to help others answer with biblical fidelity and gospel accuracy. Anything less is infinitely less.