So where does this broad sweep of the early Church Fathers bring us? One question that it does raise concerns the Bible itself. Isn’t it meant to be the complete, authoritative, all-encompassing, infallible and eternal Word of God? Yet we see so many rules, regulations, creeds and doctrines added on by these Gentile Christians in the Greek speaking world. Was it because the Bible wasn’t … complete, authoritative, all-encompassing and infallible? Let’s allow our minds to drift back …
Let’s ask ourselves why the gospel writers bothered, why Paul and Peter wrote those encouraging letters to churches, why John recorded the Revelation of Jesus Christ. They did so because God prompted them to do so. God also made sure that these documents were protected and eventually collated together into the canon of Holy Scripture.
Then came the Church Fathers and others. Some wrote letters, some wrote essays, others even wrote gospels. Yet one needs to ask this: if Holy Scripture was sufficient for our needs, why did we need this extra stuff, from Ignatius of Antioch to Origen of Alexandria? The simple answer is that antidotes were needed for the poison of heresy. Folk were being led astray, false teachings had arrived and were messing people up.
Then we ask this: what was the nature of these heresies that required new writers and teachers to explain them away and point people back to the truth? These heresies were assaults on the mind, which was bad enough but the problem was that, once the mind was convinced as to what was true or false, actions followed. And it is these actions, these practices which flowed from these new doctrines and brought confusion. In addition, they led people on – it has to be said – a fast-track to Hell because they had been kept from the simple message of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
As we have seen, these heresies were generally birthed in the admittedly brilliant but sadly pagan minds of the Greek philosophers of an earlier generation. Unfortunately, the Early Church inhabited a World defined by its Greek culture and, once the Jewish apostles had died, the Church … was … gradually … sucked … in!
This is the crux of a big problem that has had repercussions through to modern times, in terms of Church unity, Bible interpretations and Christian practices. You could say that Christianity was hamstrung before it had even started the race. How was this so?
Heresies were one thing and many people presented different views of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and the relationships therein at that time. It was right that the Church Fathers, drawing from their own experiences, countered these aberrations as best they could. But these early teachers too were fallible men and many were throttled by their own training and backgrounds. Most had been exposed, even trained, in Greek Philosophy from an early age and so, when presented with the truths of Holy Scripture, tackled these new revelations with the tools of Greek logic and understanding. Sacred writings birthed within the worldview and language and understanding of Hebrew culture were re-evaluated and re-interpreted in a totally alien way.
It was like using a cheese grater to create mashed potatoes. It was like expecting a brain surgeon to do his stuff wearing boxing gloves. The wrong tools. The Church Fathers and those who followed felt that the Holy Scriptures were not sufficient to give them understanding and that new tools were needed, tools that had been used to dissect the worlds of Homer, or construct a clever rhetoric or classify the World scientifically. These Church Fathers (with the honourable exception of Tertullian and some others who taught in Antioch) proudly called themselves Christian philosophers, but it went further than that. We must remember that one of the key minds of that era, Clement of Alexandria, saw no problem with Christian Gnosticism. Heresy had become mainstream! You couldn’t even tell the poachers from the gamekeepers!
And it wasn’t just about passionate discussions and healthy disagreements. Priscillian, Bishop of Avila, and his followers were beheaded by Church authorities in AD 385 for living and teaching a life in accordance with Scripture, rather than accepting the corruptions of State Christianity. They were said to be the first Christians actually executed by the Church. Sadly, many more were to follow.
Next week we will skip a few generations, to a time when secular society of the known Western world had become Christian, or is it the other way round?
(This is an abridged extract from Steve’s book How the Church Lost the Truth)