What is Early?
Interpreting the Bible is sometimes a difficult venture. Certainly
if it were possible, it would be desirable to inquire of the
apostles or Jesus himself about what was meant by a certain passage.
Failing that, it would be useful to talk to those people who knew
the apostles -- for certainly they were closer and better informed
than we are today. What we are saying is that it would be useful if
we could consult the early Christians so that we can bring our faith
better into line with what our founder, Jesus the Christ, intended.
Fortunately, to some extent, we can do this. Christians of every
age have left writings which we can consult to find out what their
beliefs were. But what time should be our cut-off? At what age
will the purity of belief remain, and at what age are the ancient
Christians no better informed than we are today?
There are a variety of answers to this question.
- The Bible itself represents the last remnant of the pure faith:
This extreme is the position of a person who finds his or her
doctrines at odds
with the writings of the early Christians.
The difficulty of this position is twofold. First,
Scripture teaches that God protects his Church
-- and this viewpoint must somehow be reconciled with this Bible teaching.
Secondly, one must explain how the conflict over doctrines proceeded
without leaving any trace of a struggle. Many doctrinal issues, even
small ones such as the question of which date Easter should be celebrated
on, caused tremendous controversies which left their mark upon history.
We should expect this to be the norm in doctrinal controversy rather
than the exception because Christians have always been strongly oriented
- All ages of Christianity are "pure" : This
extreme position has at least one major problem -- it immediately
selects either the Catholic Church or the Eastern Orthodox Churches
as being the only possibilities (depending on which Church you
regard as being more original).
- Many would probably prefer to select an intermediate position, one that
strikes a certain logical balance between the extreme positions above.
One such choice for an early date to divide Christian history might be
In this year, St. Athanasius penned a letter which contains (for the
first time in recorded history) the correct list of books in the New
Testament. Since the Bible is, in a very important sense, the central
source for Christian doctrine, one would expect that God protected the
Church especially until this momentous event in history had come to pass.
The date has other attractive features as well. At this time in history
the Church had recently settled an important doctrine concerning Christ
and expressed it with the Nicene Creed
(this Creed is somewhat different
from the one at use in Churches today, it lacked the third portion
about the Holy Spirit). The conflict was against the Arians, a movement
which began shortly after the persecution against the Church finally
ended, and which asserted that "Christ was not God." The Church formulated
a response which asserted that Christ was and is one in substance with
the Father, but were different Persons -- this is the doctrine of the
Trinity which has been the touchstone of orthodoxy among Catholic,
Protestant, and Orthodox Christians ever since. Finally, Christianity
had just recently become the official religion, and one might expect
this to have a negative effect on the purity of belief.
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