The First Five Centuries

Most Christians today do not have a good grasp of the history of what they believe. They have no real idea of the “old paths,” and this is the source of many errors among us. When you don’t know where you have been, and where you are going, any road will get you there. “Thus says the Lord: ‘Stand in the ways and see, and ask for the old paths, where the good way is, and walk in it; then you will find rest for your souls. But they said, ‘We will not walk in it”” (Jer. 6:16).


We are addressing the history of the post-apostolic church (briefly), and there are two warnings to go with this. We should not infer from this that the Church began with the apostles. The Bible sees a fundamental continuity between the people of God in the Old Testament and the people of God in the New. Pentecost is the time when the church came into her maturity (Gal. 3:23-4:5); Pentecost should therefore be considered the Church’s bar mitzvah and not her birth day. Secondly, we must acknowledge that we have no inspired account of post-apostolic history. Nevertheless, because God is sovereign over all history, we know that history has meaning. This means that our historical knowledge can be genuine (although not inerrant or exhaustive). Moreover, knowledge of God’s faithfulness to His people is biblically required.


As we consider the first five centuries, let us note some of the great victories.


Carthage (A.D. 400): This is placed first because of its importance to the whole subject of Christian historical study. This is the council which recognized the canon of New Testament Scripture. The key word here is recognized. The Church does not create Scripture; the church testifies to it. At the same time, the canon of Scripture presents an insuperable difficulty for modern “anti-historical,” “New Testament” Christians. The Bible is not the book that fell from the sky.


Jerusalem (A.D. 49/50): The first great controversy was over whether a Gentile could become a Christian without becoming a Jew first. The issue was settled in a godly way, and the way was opened for the infusion of the Gentile world into the Church — which is why it assumed the character it did.


Nicaea (A.D. 325): At this council, the Church responded to the heresy of Arius, who denied that Christ is the uncreated God. The Deity of Christ was clearly affirmed.


Chalcedon (A.D. 451): With the Deity of Christ affirmed, a controversy arose concerning the relationship between His Deity and His humanity. Both Nicaea and Chalcedon represent critical points where the early Church resisted a compromise with intellectual paganism. The appeal was to revelation, and not to carnal reason.


Augustine (A.D. 354-430): Augustine was the great church father from this era, and his contribution to the way we think is incalculable. His greatest contribution came from his theological battle with Pelagius, a British monk and heretic. At issue was the depravity of man, and the sovereignty of grace.


Constantine (A.D. c. 288-337): Modern evangelicals find it easy to reckon the conversion of Constantine to Christianity as a unmitigated disaster. But the sanctification of culture is not an exact parallel to the true conversion of a man. True, many serious problems followed Constantine’s his conversion, and so what else is new? It would not have been better had Rome continued to persecute Christians.


At the same time, during this time, there were seeds of future apostasies.


Images: The church was remarkably free of images through the first two centuries. And when images were introduced, they met with stiff opposition. Consider the comment of Epiphanius, bishop of Salamis (c. 315-403). “It is a horrid abomination to see in Christian temples a painted image either of Christ or of any saint.” But the flesh was strong, and this pestilant superstition did enter the Church. The error did not find a firm footing in the church until 2nd Nicaea in 787.


Constantine (A.D. c. 288-337): Power does corrupt. It is easier to corrupt the Church through success than to destroy the church through adversity. The central problem can be described as one of . . .


Covenantal Presumption: In Romans 11:11-24, Paul warns the incoming Gentiles that they might stumble and fall in just the same way that the first Church (the Jews) did. That warning was not heeded by the Church at large, and the stage was set for the decline and apostasy of the medieval church.


As we consider the development of the Church, we should be aware of the fact that the lover of truth does not need to fear the reading of history at all. As R.L. Dabney noted, “In this connection no more is needed than to point briefly to the fact that the best arguments against bad institutions are drawn from their history. The readiest way to explode unreasonable pretensions is to display their origin. Such an auditory as this need only be reminded that the battle against popery in the Reformation was fought on scriptural and historical grounds. Many of the most mortal stabs which Luther gave to mischievous popish institutions were by simply telling the ignorant world where and when they arose.”

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