Early Christians and the Ancient Church

The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer
by Jean-Leon Gerome, AD 1883

I am constantly reminded by Evangelical Christians about their admiration for the Ancient Church and Early Christians.  In fact, the Evangelical church I once attended, and nearly became a pastor for, boasted of a style of ministry that was virtually identical to how the Early Christians believed, preached and practised. Every Sunday we began our worship jam with electric guitars and drums. The congregation would clap their hands, stomp their feet, raise their arms high in the air, and should praise and worship lyrics at the top of their lungs.  Then after a short prayer, they would all sit down and listen to a 40 minute sermon, using a New King James Protestant Bible, followed by a prayer, a few more songs, and then it was out the door and off to the nearest restaurant for lunch.  Communion was only celebrated once a month so as to "avoid ritual and idolatry."  Baptisms were only administered to adults and teens over the age of twelve.  This was a strict "Bible Alone" church, wherein tradition was shunned, and anything that smacked of Catholicism was frowned upon. Yes, for the longest time I actually believed that what we were doing was a modern version of the Ancient Church.  I've even had some Evangelical friends and relatives tell me that recently.  They say "Shane, why don't you leave all this 'man-made ritual' of Catholicism behind and get back to the ancient Christian faith of the early Church?" They say this of course with the implication that I should rejoin their Evangelical church.

Irony of ironies!  How did we get here?  Christians (both Catholic and Evangelical) have forgotten so much history that Evangelicals actually claim their method of doctrine and worship is "ancient," while Catholics are so equally ignorant of history as to not know how to respond to this.  The desire to seek continuity between modern Christianity and the Ancient Church is perfectly legitimate.  In fact, I would dare say that not wanting to find continuity with our ancient Christian past is abnormal.  Every Christian should want to be like the Early Christians. For what greater example of faith is there than that? These people hid in catacombs, and practised their faith in secret, to avoid persecution. They were evangelistic marvels, doubling the size of the Church every few years. To us, they seem fearless. When captured, they refused to deny their faith, and suffered the worst form of torture and martyrdom for Christ. They were burned at the stake, whipped and beaten, even fed to lions!  In every sense they were heroes, and their faith should indeed be something we look up to and aspire toward. Who wouldn't want to be like the Early Christians!?!  Who wouldn't want their local church to be like the Ancient Church!?!  I think such a desire is not only healthy but also commendable.

However, if we all want to be like the Early Christians and the Ancient Church, shouldn't we have a clue as to who these people were and what their faith was actually like?  Evangelicals think they know, because after all, to understand the Early Christians, one need only look at an Evangelical mega-church, right?  Well, maybe that's not exactly right.  In fact, maybe that's not even close.  It seems to me that Evangelical Protestants often have a "make it up as you go along" kind of approach to whom the Early Christians were, and what the Ancient Church was like.  This is because they simply do not know. How many Evangelicals actually study Early Christianity and the Ancient Church?  I dare say very few. In fact, I would be so bold as to say that the average Evangelical Protestant "Born Again" Christian has no clue about Church history after the death of the last apostle in about AD 100.  It seems the most common Evangelical understanding of Church history goes something like this...
First you had the story of Jesus in the gospels.  Then the apostles went out and preached the Word to the Gentiles in the Book of Acts.  Then the apostles got old, and Christians started to get persecuted. Then the Jewish Temple was destroyed in AD 70. Then the last apostle, John, died in about AD 100.  After that came the "dark ages" that lasted 1,500 years.  First Christians were persecuted by the Roman Empire, then by the Catholic Church, and then finally, the "dark ages" ended with the Protestant Reformation in about the 16th century.  The End.
Now before you criticise me for this horribly simplistic characterisation of the average Evangelical understanding of Christian history, you have to ask yourself two questions.  Aside from a small handful of learnt Evangelical scholars, meaning Evangelicals who read a lot of history books, am I wrong? Is this not what the AVERAGE Evangelical thinks?  Do a little test if you don't believe me.  Go to an Evangelical church and do a little survey as people are walking out to their cars after the church service. Ask the people attending if they can name a single significant event in Church history between AD 500 and 1500.  Go ahead. Give it a try and see what you come up with. Then ask them if they can tell you when the Bible was compiled into a single book. See if they can narrow it down to within a century.  (Hint: The answer is between AD 367 - 400).  Then ask them who brought Christianity to England in the Middle Ages. (Hint: St. Augustine of Canterbury) Ask them who brought Christianity to Ireland in the Middle Ages. (Hint: St. Patrick) Ask them if they know who brought Christianity to Northern Europe. (Hint: St. Benedict).  Ask them if they know WHY the crusades were fought. (Hint: to combat Islamic jihad) Ask them who the greatest reformer in Christian history was during the late Middle Ages. (Hint: they'll probably say Martin Luther, but the answer is really St. Francis of Assisi). The truth is, and I dare you to try it and see for yourself, most Evangelicals will just look at you with a blank stare. They won't know the answer to any of these questions. Finally, ask them what the Early Christians believed, and what the teaching and practise was of the Ancient Church. Then they'll go into a litany of all kinds of things that look surprisingly similar to the Evangelical church they just walked out of. So the question must be raised; if these people (God bless them) have no clue about Christian history between AD 100 to 1500, then what makes you believe they know what they're talking about when it comes to Christian history prior to AD 400?  The truth is, the AVERAGE Evangelical doesn't know. The AVERAGE Evangelical can't honestly tell you what the Early Christians believed, because he doesn't know. The AVERAGE Evangelical can't honestly tell you what the Ancient Church practised, because he doesn't know. What is especially sad it that the AVERAGE Catholic doesn't know enough to educate and correct the AVERAGE Evangelical when the opportunity arises.  I do hope this article will go a little way toward correcting that problem.

The thing about early Christians is that they were prolific writers. The wrote quite a bit, and some of those writings have survived to this day. From these writings we can clearly see how what the Early Christians actually believed, and how the Ancient Church actually practised those beliefs. There is no need for guess work. It's all laid out for us in black and white, provided of course that somebody is willing to read it. Many scholars have, and of course, these writings have been translated into English so that anyone interested may browse through them. Below I will cite the writings of ancient Christians on some key topics that will give us a true glimpse of what the Early Christians actually believed, and how the Ancient Church actually practised those beliefs. All these quotations will come from well known and orthodox sources. Ancient heretics wrote some of their stuff down too, but I will not use their writings here. Rather, I will simply pull up approved orthodox Christian writings from the first four centuries of Church history -- written by Early Christians from the Ancient Church, many of whom died for their faith...

The Early Christians were Trinitarian...
"Our teacher of these things is Jesus Christ, who also was born for this purpose, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judaea, in the times of Tiberius Caesar; and that we reasonably worship Him, having learnt that He is the Son of the true God Himself, and holding Him in the second place, and the prophetic Spirit in the third, we will prove." -- Justin Martyr, First Apology,13 (written in A.D. 155)

"For God did not stand in need of these [beings], in order to the accomplishing of what He had Himself determined with Himself beforehand should be done, as if He did not possess His own hands. For with Him were always present the Word and Wisdom, the Son and the Spirit, by whom and in whom, freely and spontaneously, He made all things, to whom also He speaks, saying, 'Let Us make man after Our image and likeness;' He taking from Himself the substance of the creatures [formed], and the pattern of things made, and the type of all the adornments in the world." -- Irenaeus, Against Heresies,4,20:1 (written in A.D. 180)

"The statements made regarding Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are to be understood as transcending all time, all ages, and all eternity. For it is the Trinity alone which exceeds the comprehension not only of temporal but even of eternal intelligence; while other things which are not included in it are to be measured by times and ages." -- Origen, First Principles,4:28 (written in A.D. 230)

"For the kingdom of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is one, even as their substance is one and their dominion one. Whence also, with one and the same adoration, we worship the one Deity in three Persons, subsisting without beginning, uncreated, without end, and to which there is no successor. For neither will the Father ever cease to be the Father, nor again the Son to be the Son and King, nor the Holy Ghost to be what in substance and personality He is." -- Methodius, Oration on the Palms,4 (written in A.D. 305)
The Early Christians baptised their children and infants...
"For He came to save all through means of Himself--all, I say, who through Him are born again to God--infants, and children, and boys, and youths, and old men." -- Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 2,22:4 (written in A.D. 180) 
"And they shall baptise the little children first. And if they can answer for themselves, let them answer. But if they cannot, let their parents answer or someone from their family." -- Hippolytus of Rome, Apostolic Tradition,21 (written in A.D. 215) 
"For this reason, moreover, the Church received from the apostles the tradition of baptising infants too." -- Origen, Homily on Romans, V:9 (written in A.D. 244) 
"Baptism is given for the remission of sins; and according to the usage of the Church, Baptism is given even to infants. And indeed if there were nothing in infants which required a remission of sins and nothing in them pertinent to forgiveness, the grace of baptism would seem superfluous." -- Origen, Homily on Leviticus,8:3 (written in A.D. 244)
The Early Christians believed that the Virgin Mary was Immaculate (without sin)...
"This Virgin Mother of the Only-begotten of God, is called Mary, worthy of God, immaculate of the immaculate, one of the one." -- Origen, Homily 1 (written in A.D. 244)

"Thou alone and thy Mother are in all things fair, there is no flaw in thee and no stain in thy Mother." -- Ephraem, Nisibene Hymns,27:8 (written in A.D. 370)

"Mary, a Virgin not only undefiled but a Virgin whom grace has made inviolate, free of every stain of sin." -- Ambrose,Sermon 22:30 (written in A.D. 388)
The Early Christians prayed to the Virgin Mary...
"For as Eve was seduced by the word of an angel to flee from God, having rebelled against His Word, so Mary by the word of an angel received the glad tidings that she would bear God by obeying his Word. The former was seduced to disobey God, but the latter was persuaded to obey God, so that the Virgin Mary might become the advocate of the virgin Eve. As the human race was subjected to death through [the act of] a virgin, so it was saved by a virgin." -- Irenaeus, Against Heresies, V:19,1 (written in A.D. 180)

"O noble Virgin, truly you are greater than any other greatness. For who is your equal in greatness, O dwelling place of God the Word? To whom among all creatures shall I compare you, O Virgin? You are greater than them all O Covenant, clothed with purity instead of gold! You are the Ark in which is found the golden vessel containing the true manna, that is, the flesh in which divinity resides." -- Athanasius, Homily of the Papyrus of Turin, 71:216 (written in AD 373)

"Recalling these and other circumstances and imploring the Virgin Mary to bring assistance, since she, too, was a virgin and had been in danger, she entrusted herself to the remedy of fasting and sleeping on the ground." -- Gregory of Nazianzen, Oration 24:11 (written in A.D. 379)
The Early Christians called themselves "Catholic"...
"See that ye all follow the bishop, even as Christ Jesus does the Father, and the presbytery as ye would the apostles. Do ye also reverence the deacons, as those that carry out through their office the appointment of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is administered either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude[of the people] also be; by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude[of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church." -- Ignatius of Antioch,Epistle to the Smyrneans, 8:2 (written A.D. 110)

"All the people wondered that there should be such a difference between the unbelievers and the elect, of whom this most admirable Polycarp was one, having in our own times been an apostolic and prophetic teacher, and bishop of the Catholic Church which is in Smyrna. For every word that went out of his mouth either has been or shall yet be accomplished." -- Martyrdom of Polycarp,16:2 (written A.D. 155)

"Nor does it consist in this, that he should again falsely imagine, as being above this [fancied being], a Pleroma at one time supposed to contain thirty, and at another time an innumerable tribe of Aeons, as these teachers who are destitute of truly divine wisdom maintain; while the Catholic Church possesses one and the same faith throughout the whole world, as we have already said." -- Irenaeus,Against Heresies,1:10,3 (written in A.D. 180)

"For the blessed apostle Paul himself,following the rule of his predecessor John, writes only by name to seven Churches in the following order--to the Corinthians a first...there is a second to the Corinthians and to the Thessalonians, yet one Church is recognised as being spread over the entire world...Howbeit to Philemon one, to Titus one, and to Timothy two were put in writing...to be in honour however with the Catholic Church for the ordering of ecclesiastical discipline...one to the Laodicenes, another to the Alexandrians, both forged in Paul's name to suit the heresy of Marcion, and several others, which cannot be received into the Catholic Church; for it is not fitting that gall be mixed with honey. The Epistle of Jude no doubt, and the couple bearing the name of John, are accepted by the Catholic Church...But of Arsinous,called also Valentinus,or of Militiades we receive nothing at all." -- The fragment of Muratori (written in A.D. 177)
The Early Christians celebrated communion regularly, and believed the communion elements of bread and wine became the LITERAL body and blood of Jesus Christ (Transubstantiation)....
"Consider how contrary to the mind of God are the heterodox in regard to the grace of God which has come to us. They have no regard for charity, none for the widow, the orphan, the oppressed, none for the man in prison, the hungry or the thirsty. They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, the flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in His graciousness, raised from the dead." -- Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 6. (written in 110 A.D.)

"This food we call the Eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake except one who believes that the things we teach are true, and has received the washing for forgiveness of sins and for rebirth, and who lives as Christ handed down to us. For we do not receive these things as common bread or common drink; but as Jesus Christ our Savior being incarnate by God's Word took flesh and blood for our salvation, so also we have been taught that the food consecrated by the Word of prayer which comes from him, from which our flesh and blood are nourished by transformation, is the flesh and blood of that incarnate Jesus." -- Justin Martyr, First Apology,66, (written in A.D. 148)

"The Blood of the Lord, indeed, is twofold. There is His corporeal Blood, by which we are redeemed from corruption; and His spiritual Blood, that with which we are anointed. That is to say, to drink the Blood of Jesus is to share in His immortality. The strength of the Word is the Spirit just as the blood is the strength of the body. Similarly, as wine is blended with water, so is the Spirit with man. The one, the Watered Wine, nourishes in faith, while the other, the Spirit, leads us on to immortality. The union of both, however, - of the drink and of the Word, - is called the Eucharist, a praiseworthy and excellent gift. Those who partake of it in faith are sanctified in body and in soul. By the will of the Father, the divine mixture, man, is mystically united to the Spirit and to the Word." -- Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor of the Children 2,2,19,4 (written in 202 A.D.)
The Early Christians followed the Bishop of Rome (Pope) as the successor of Peter, and the leader of the Ancient Church...
"Ignatius, who is also called Theophorus, to the Church which has obtained mercy, through the majesty of the Mast High God the Father, and of Jesus Christ, His only-begotten Son; the Church which is sanctified and enlightened by the will of God, who farmed all things that are according to the faith and love of Jesus Christ, our God and Saviour; the Church which presides in the place of the region of the Romans, and which is worthy of God, worthy of honour, worthy of the highest happiness, worthy of praise, worthy of credit, worthy of being deemed holy, and which presides over love..." -- Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Romans, Prologue (written in A.D. 110)

"Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorised meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organised at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its pre-eminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the apostolic tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere." -- Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3:3:2 (written in A.D. 180)

"And he says to him again after the resurrection, 'Feed my sheep.' It is on him that he builds the Church, and to him that he entrusts the sheep to feed. And although he assigns a like power to all the apostles, yet he founded a single Chair, thus establishing by his own authority the source and hallmark of the (Church's) oneness. No doubt the others were all that Peter was, but a primacy is given to Peter, and it is (thus) made clear that there is but one flock which is to be fed by all the apostles in common accord. If a man does not hold fast to this oneness of Peter, does he imagine that he still holds the faith? If he deserts the Chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, has he still confidence that he is in the Church? This unity firmly should we hold and maintain, especially we bishops, presiding in the Church, in order that we may approve the episcopate itself to be the one and undivided." -- Cyprian, The Unity of the Church, 4-5 (written in A.D. 251)
These are the writings of the people who gave their lives in the Colosseum and circuses of the Pagan Roman Empire.  They gave their lives professing the Trinitarian God, of whom the Second Person of this Trinity gives his literal body and blood to us in Holy Communion.  They gave their lives because they baptised their infant children in this faith. They gave their lives professing that the Virgin Marry was Immaculate (without sin) and they prayed to her, asking for her intercession to God.  They gave their lives professing to be "Catholic," which means "whole and complete," and professing their allegiance to the Bishop of Rome (Pope).  These were the Early Christians, in their own words, in their own writings, written by their own hands. Evangelicals often have some fanciful ideas as to who they were and what they believed, but I have yet to see them produce a single document, written by an Early Church Father that backs such fanciful ideas. Rather, their own pens tell us a different story, a story that is much more consistent with the teachings of another Church -- the Catholic Church. They can turn a blind eye and deny it all they like, but history testifies, beyond the shadow of any doubt, that the Early Christians were CATHOLIC, and the Ancient Church was ROMAN. The evidence is plain and clear to see, and there is no alternative. I defy anyone to try to produce an alternative version of history using the writings of the people who lived during that time. I tell you, it cannot be done.

I think the above is a pretty good primer on what the Early Christians believed and what the Ancient Church practised. It is by no means a complete picture, but it does give us a snapshot. It is admirable that many Evangelical "Born Again" Christians want to emulate, and identify with, the Early Christians and the Ancient Church.  However, they should know who these people were first, what they actually believed, and how their Church practised those beliefs.  I would encourage Evangelicals to do a little more research on Early Christians before they say they are trying to emulate them.  I would likewise encourage Catholics to do the same research in order to point out what Early Christians actually believed and practised.

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Comments

Ann Frost said…
What you have brought out in your blog today strikes me as very important. Too many mistakenly think that early Christianity was not Catholic and that the Catholic Church was a later development or invention. Thank you for setting the record straight.

Sadly, most Catholics today have not been taught and won't research the information needed to refute erroneous opinion, too often accepted as fact. Catholics, therefore, need to be re-evangelised before they can evangelise others. You evidently realise this and are doing something about it.

I am grateful for your blog and intend buying your book, Catholicism for Protestants, when I can afford it. God bless you and please keep going.
Once again Shane another great piece of writing. The catholic church I attend always has on its parish news a quote from the Early Church Fathers,reinforcing all of what you referred to above.
God Bless
Unknown said…
I came HOME to the Catholic Church after a long journey. Born to Methodist parents and married an Episcopalian, which is what I was most of my adult life. Knew I never fit in either church, so God lead me Home....what a Blessing! The greatest Blessing for me has been The Rosary and the Beloved Mother of God......how much I missed not knowing Her personally, as I do now.
I tell people I am a Cradle Catholic born to Methodist parents, for I was not truly with God until I arrive HOME..
Thanks be to God.