Can we trust the writings of the early church to have sound theology?
The early church is interesting because of its proximity to the New Testament, but this does not mean it's always right. There is an assumption that the closer you get to the source, the more pure it is, but that's not necessarily the case. There are a lot of danger zones in the early church.
Having said that, we've got to be very grateful for the main areas where the early church helps us, such as canon development, the Christological controversies (which spill over into the Trinitarian heresies), and giving us a solid understanding of how the Scriptures came together and how we are to understand the Scriptures as the Word of God. A solid Christology came to us ultimately in the Nicene and Chalcedonian Creeds. A solid Trinitarian understanding came to us in its fullest flower and blossom in Augustine. Those are areas where we can be very much helped by the early church.
But in some other areas we have to be more careful. For instance, one of the most prominent views of the atonement in the early church was the ransom theory. There is nothing necessarily wrong with the ransom theory, but the question is, “Who is God paying the ransom to?” Very quickly, it emerged that God would be paying the ransom to Satan. That's just bad theology. We see centuries later that the preferred view of the atonement is the substitutionary view. So, to say that the early church was all about ransom theory but substitutionary atonement is “Johnny-come-lately” is a misappropriation of the early church.
There is a lot of promise in the early church, but also some pitfalls. It's like anything else in church history. Ultimately, we have to hold it up to the standard of God's Word to judge it.
This transcript is from a live Ask Ligonier event with Stephen Nichols and has been lightly edited for readability. To ask Ligonier a biblical or theological question, just visit Ask.Ligonier.org or message us on Facebook or Twitter.