What We Believe
i

Church history is a source of encouragement and wisdom for serving God in our own day. Most Reformed Christians already have a keen interest in the subject. We especially love the bravery and insight of the Reformers and Puritans. Four and five centuries later, we still find that we can learn much from them.

The world has changed a lot since the Reformation, though. In that day, Christendom was tragically divided. Both sides of the Reformation conflict had much in common: the doctrines of God and Christ from the ancient councils, the basic moral vision of the Ten Commandments, a biblical understanding of the human person, and of human life from the womb to the grave, and the hope of resurrection.

Today, that world is almost entirely lost, as Carl Trueman has documented in his history of the sexual revolution, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. At the end of that book, Trueman comments that Christians today should look to the church of the second century for inspiration and guidance, because they faced challenges much like our own:

In the second century, the church was a marginal sect within a dominant, pluralist society. She was under suspicion not because her central dogmas were supernatural but rather because she appeared subversive in claiming Jesus as King and was viewed as immoral in her talk of eating and drinking human flesh and blood and expressing incestuous-sounding love between brothers and sisters.[1]

For most Reformed Christians, the second century is unfamiliar territory. Where is one to begin? In this article, I will offer some suggestions about what to read and what to look for in this fascinating period of church history.

A Historical Overview

The best introductory history of the early church currently available is Donald M. Fairbairn, The Global Church[2]. Fairbairn describes the early church’s experience of persecution, its worship and fellowship, its authority structures, and its conflict with heresies. This book is especially good at showing the strong unity and consensus present in the church’s teachings and practices, even across divisions of language, ecclesiastical custom, and various doctrinal disputes. The second century specifically is covered in chapters 3–6. These chapters show that, though the second-century church was not highly organized as it would become a few centuries later, it still enjoyed a truly unified common life in Christ through the gospel of grace.

A more comprehensive treatment of the second century church is Michael Kruger, Christianity at the Crossroads.[3] Kruger’s academic expertise is in the history of the biblical canon, which was one of the most significant issues for Christians in the second century. Today, many scholars maintain that there was no real canon in the earliest period of the church. On their view, the canon as we know it came about when one part of the church achieved enough power to require everyone to conform to their practice (a view made famous by Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code). Kruger addresses this and many other issues very well.

To understand any period in church history, it is very important to know what doctrinal questions were being discussed, and how these questions came about. We will be disappointed if we come to the second century looking for answers based on the Shorter Catechism. We must be prepared to think about different questions, asked in different ways, and answered without the benefit of centuries of refinement and reflection. This context is presented in a very readable way in Donald Fairbairn and Ryan Reeves, The Story of Creeds and Confessions,[4] particularly chapters 2–4, which explain the background to the first two ecumenical councils and the Nicene Creed that they produced.

It is worth noting that there are many significant scholarly debates about the second century church. These issues require discernment, both historical and spiritual. The perspective of the historian is often a significant factor: unbelieving scholars often explain things in a way that does not fit with the claims of orthodox doctrine. Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox scholars will often explain things in a way that Protestants would dispute. This is one reason to start with these three works. These are all written by evangelicals, so they provide “our” perspective on this history. They are not the only good overviews of the subject, but for Reformed Christians, they are a good place to start training one’s powers of discernment in these areas.

These overviews are also excellent preparation for diving into the primary sources.

Primary Sources

Reading old texts can be difficult, but there are good reasons to persevere. First, it is inexpensive! These ancient texts are all freely available online, though you may prefer to buy paper copies, and you may want to purchase more recent editions with better translations. Second, these texts offer a fascinating combination of the unexpected and the familiar. These authors lived many centuries ago, in cultures vastly different from our own, so there is much that will be unfamiliar. At the same time, it is amazing how much they have in common with us. They loved the same God that we love, and they studied the same Scriptures that we read and preach. Third, reading primary texts by great theologians is often easier than reading about them in more recent works. C. S. Lewis put it this way in his preface to Athanasius, On the Incarnation: “the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator.”[5]

In the second century, there are only a few major authors whose writings have come down to us. Three are particularly important to know: Justin Martyr (100–165), Irenaeus of Lyons (140–200), and Tertullian of Carthage (155–220). These men were quite different in background, gifting, and temperament. Justin was a philosopher who reasoned with Greeks and Jews. Irenaeus was a pastor who expounded Scripture and warned against error. Tertullian was a lawyer who used his gift for argument to guard against spiritual and moral decline in the church. Together, these men show us three different aspects of Christian faith and leadership in the second century.

The Philosopher: Justin Martyr

Justin Martyr was a Greek-speaking Christian teacher from Samaria who died a martyr’s death in about the year 165 AD. He converted to Christianity after moving through a series of philosophical schools, and finally converting to Platonism, which captured his imagination with its insights into immaterial reality. Sometime after his conversion to Platonism, Justin met an old man on a beach who told him that there were teachers even older than the Greek philosophers, with even profounder insight into ultimate reality. In fact, this old man said, everything that the philosophers knew, they learned one way or another from these older teachers. These older teachers were the Hebrew prophets, starting with Moses himself. This man led Justin to appreciate not only the deep insight and truth of the Bible but also that Christ had fulfilled Old Testament prophecy, thus confirming its truthfulness. Justin converted to Christianity, his heart burning with a longing for truth. He kept his philosopher’s cloak, though, signaling that he considered Christianity the fulfillment of his earlier search for truth.

The First Apology is Justin’s appeal to the Roman emperor Antoninus Pius that he prevent Christians from being unjustly persecuted by local governors. Major themes in this work include the relation of Greek myth and philosophy to Christianity, the New Testament fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, and the place of Christians in society. Along the way, Justin mentions some of the Gnostic false teachers (Simon Magus and Marcion) who threatened to unsettle the church’s doctrine. Near the end of this work is an early description of Christian worship on the Lord’s Day.

The Dialogue with Trypho is a record of Justin’s debate with a Jewish critic of Christianity. It opens with the narrative of Justin’s conversion, summarized above. It deals especially with the foundational question of the relation between the Old Testament and the New. Justin spends a good portion of the dialogue expounding various Psalms to show how they speak of Christ.

Justin Martyr’s works are in volume 1 of the Ante-Nicene Fathers,[6] which is widely available in print and online. A more recent translation is available in the Fathers of the Church series.[7]

The Pastor: Irenaeus of Lyons

Irenaeus grew up in Asia Minor. His spiritual mentor was the aged bishop Polycarp, who was himself mentored by the aged Apostle John, and who went on to minister faithful decades before being martyred in the first half of the second century. So, Irenaeus was a spiritual grandson of the Apostle John. John said that he had no greater joy than that his children would walk in truth (3 John 4), and he would have found much joy in Irenaeus. As a young man, Irenaeus was sent to serve as the bishop of Lugdunum in the province of Gaul (modern Lyons in southern France). He must have been a promising leader, for he was soon chosen as the church’s delegate to a synod in Rome.

This was a tumultuous time to be an up-and-coming church leader. While Irenaeus was away, the bishop of Lugdunum was martyred. Upon his return, Irenaeus was selected as his successor. He served as bishop for about two decades before his own death. During that time, he wrote the church’s first big theological textbook and a small survey of the Bible. He probably wrote more than these, but these are the only writings that we still have.

Obviously, as with Justin, state persecution was a major issue for Irenaeus. But he focused his writing on combatting false teaching, which he considered an even greater challenge. The church stood firm against violent enemies outside its doors, refusing to capitulate to coercion. Would it likewise stand firm against subtle corrupting influences in its pulpits, or would biblical teaching be fatally merged with elements of false religion?

Irenaeus was just the person to tackle this problem. First, he was painstakingly careful in his research into the various strands of Gnostic error. Second, he was profoundly insightful into Christian doctrine. Whereas Justin had habitually described the Son and the Spirit as lower beings than the Father, (a type of mistake that was common enough at the time, the full implications of which would not be clear until such thinking grew into the heresy of Arianism in the fourth century), the antidote to this error did not need to wait for the Council of Nicaea. Only a few decades after Justin, Irenaeus already improved on his work by describing the three persons as equally divine.[8]

Against Heresies is the first systematic theology and the first biblical theology of the Christian church. It is not always an easy read, partly because of its sheer size and partly because large sections are taken up with the various forms of Gnosticism.

It is entirely worth the effort, though, not least because Gnostic teachings persist in our society. Our culture devalues the human body much as the Gnostics did. This attitude leads us, as it led them, either to indulge every whim of our bodies or to mistreat our bodies severely. Another feature of Gnosticism that we see today is a political elitism shrouded in mystical knowledge. Such elitism is commonplace in history, but the Gnostic version of this is especially relevant because it involved co-opting the Bible to fit their political agenda, just as our nominally Christian leaders often do. Finally, Gnostics were very anti-institutional, though they were also very interested in holding positions of influence. This was a major reason that they wished to co-opt the church—it had an institutional strength that they could never build for themselves.

This work is available in full in a translation from the nineteenth century. This translation is in the Ante-Nicene Fathers series (vol. 1), widely available in print and online. The best way to start reading this book is in the condensed edition by James R. Payton Jr., entitled Irenaeus on the Christian Faith.[9] This edition cuts out a lot of the detail about Gnosticism, putting the focus on Irenaeus’s exposition of Christian truth from Scripture. The translation is also somewhat revised.

The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching is a short work, discovered only about a century ago in a Syriac manuscript. The focus of this work is in showing that the Old Testament prophecy is fulfilled in the New Testament, thus confirming the message of the apostles. I have found it to be the most accessible patristic text available. It is available in a lovely paperback edition in the Popular Patristics Series from St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.[10]

The Lawyer: Tertullian of Carthage

Justin and Irenaeus were clergymen, working in Greek. Tertullian, on the other hand, was a layman working in Latin. In some respects, he is not the best representative of the church fathers. He had a very intense moral and spiritual vision which led him to some extreme views. For instance, he dismissed all non-Christian philosophy, denigrated the institutional church and its ministry, and embraced a charismatic movement marked by prophecies and miracles.

However, Tertullian did contribute a great deal to the church of his day. He was a lawyer, and he employed his legal mind in defending and articulating the faith. His prolific writing includes the first use of the word “Trinity” (trinitas in Latin).

Against Marcion is Tertullian’s most important work. Marcion was a wealthy Christian teacher in Rome who was determined to influence the church but was kept out of the ministry. In response, Marcion founded a rival church and used this as a platform for spreading his distinctive ideas, which were in step with the Gnostic teachers of the day. The most famous characteristic of Marcion’s false teaching was his claim that the Old Testament was about a lower creator-god, and the New Testament was about a higher God, the Father of Jesus. Tertullian shows the falsity of this claim by demonstrating the unity of the Bible.

Marcion rejected the Old Testament entirely, along with portions of the New Testament that he thought were sympathetic to the Old Testament. He thought of Paul as a standard-bearer for a form of Christianity that truly was a Gentile alternative to the Jewish scriptures. Accordingly, he acknowledged only the Pauline letters and the Gospel of Luke, and even in these books he cut out some material that he considered too favorable to the Old Testament. For this reason, a good portion of Tertullian’s work is an extended commentary on Luke and on Paul’s letters, in order to show that Marcion’s view of things fails to understand the Scripture that he himself acknowledges.

One of the best parts of the book is Tertullian’s exposition of 1 Corinthians 15, where Paul teaches the doctrine of the bodily resurrection. This doctrine was profoundly distasteful to Gnostic sensibilities but was at the very center of the Christian Faith. This doctrine is still profoundly counter-cultural, as Silicon Valley consultants dream of uploading the contents of our brains to an immortal cloud server.

Against Marcion is available in volume three of Ante-Nicene Fathers.

Conclusion

The church of the twenty-first century faces many challenges. Our world is awash in sexual immorality and false ideology, and our society holds a sharply negative attitude to the church. Inside the church, many are seeking to steer our institutions towards agreement with the world’s agenda. There is a chaotic aspect to the life of the church today that makes it relatively easy to accomplish that agenda. Many Christians have only a surface knowledge of biblical teaching on many subjects, so they absorb the prevailing cultural “common sense” and dress it up in biblical language—exactly what the Gnostics were trying to get Christians to do in their own day.

This happens in the realm of sexual morality, as Christians struggle to maintain a biblical sexual ethic over against hookup culture, easy divorce, homosexuality, and transgenderism. It happens in the realm of doctrine, as Christians hear from pulpits secular ideas— “Love is love,” “the right side of history,” “your truth”—dressed up in biblical terminology. Many Christians are quite ignorant of the Old Testament, and so they find it plausible that we should (in the words of megachurch pastor Andy Stanley) “unhitch ourselves” from it.

In light of all this, we should be thankful for second-century fathers who taught on the relationship between philosophy and theology, the unity of the Old and New Testaments, Christian worship, sexual ethics, and community life.

The main thing is not to read everything about the second century and its history, but to actually share in the spiritual and intellectual life of the great Christian teachers of that time. They loved the Bible and held to it against the trends of their society. They loved each other and found a way to build lasting communities of worship and charity. They loved the truth and pursued it not only in Scripture but wherever it could be found, thus offering an unexpected fulfillment of the human search for truth that was the heart of ancient philosophy. We may hope that what God accomplished through them he will accomplish again in our own time.

Endnotes

[1] Carl R. Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 406.

[2] Donald M. Fairbairn, The Global Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2021).

[3] Michael Kruger, Christianity at the Crossroads (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2018).

[4] Donald Fairbairn and Ryan M. Reeves, The Story of Creeds and Confessions (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019).

[5] St. Athanasius, The Incarnation of the Word of God, trans. A Religious of C.M.S.V. S.Th. (New York: Macmillan, 1946), 5.

[6] Justin Martyr, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996).

[7] Justin Martyr, Fathers of the Church, trans. Thomas Falls (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press).

[8] On this point see Donald Fairbairn and Ryan M. Reeves, The Story of Creeds and Confessions: Tracing the Development of the Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019), 31.

[9] James R. Payton Jr., Irenaeus on the Christian Faith: A Condensation of Against Heresies (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2011).

[10] Irenaeus, Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, ed. Paul A. Boer, Sr., trans. J. Armitage Robinson (Yonkers NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2019).

Calvin R. Goligher is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian church and serves as the pastor of First Orthodox Presbyterian church in Sunnyvale, California. Ordained Servant Online, August/September, 2023.

Publication Information

Contact the Editor: Gregory Edward Reynolds

Editorial address: Dr. Gregory Edward Reynolds,
827 Chestnut St.
Manchester, NH 03104-2522
Telephone: 603-668-3069

Electronic mail: reynolds.1@opc.org

Submissions, Style Guide, and Citations

Subscriptions

Editorial Policies

Copyright information

Ordained Servant: August–September 2023

The Second Century Church

Also in this issue

The Voice of the Good Shepherd: God’s Method: Proclamation, Chapter 6[1]

Textual Criticism

Commentary on the Book of Discipline of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Chapter 6

Discouragement and the Ruling Elder: Letters to a Younger Ruling Elder, No. 7

Real Differences: The Danger of Radical Individualism: A Review Article

Big Answers to Big Questions

On Mr. Milton's Paradise Lost

Download PDFDownload ePubArchive

CONTACT US

+1 215 830 0900

Contact Form

Find a Church