Last Updated on : Sunday, October 7, 2012
I believe in God almighty
Who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary
And the third day rose from the dead
And sitteth on the right hand of the Father
And in the Holy Spirit
The remission of sins
The life everlasting.
The earliest preserved form of the "Apostles' Creed", 340 A.D.,
THE purpose of this book is to tell how a number of little-known individuals, groups and religious communities strove to preserve or revive the original Christianity of apostolic times. Their story has interest not only because most of the men and women are little known, but because they were also extremely virtuous -- many of them outstandingly so for the age in which they lived. They were attempting to maintain a standard of virtue which was ethically far superior to even the religious leaders of their own times. These men and communities were not only rejected by their own generation, but have also been grossly misjudged by scholars of subsequent ones. In faith and outlook they were far closer to the early springing shoots of first-century Christianity and the penetrating spiritual challenge of Jesus himself than much
that has passed for the religion of the Nazarene in the last nineteen centuries.
It is necessary first of all to discover what it was that these people considered important to conserve or revive. Among the religious tenets and ethical principles of early Christianity -- before Greek philosophical concepts gradually overlaid and superseded Jewish, especially Old Testament, modes of thought -- nine of particular importance for this study will now be mentioned briefly. Each of them became at some time in the centuries and in the countries covered by this work a key issue; each was considered a point on which conscience could not yield. To each of them worthy men were sufficiently committed in their faith and their search for what they considered ultimate Christian truth that they could not abjure it without abandoning their inner integrity.
The Authority of the Scriptures
When the author of Acts commended the Jews of Berea for "receiving the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily" to test the teaching of Paul, he was describing an attitude typical of the early Christian church [ecclesia] It was a Bible-based fellowship-in the first instance the Jewish Old Testament, but gradually including their own apostolic writings. The earliest Christians held with conviction that God had through the Old Testament promised and detailed in advance the whole life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, and that the same inspiration of the Holy Spirit subsequently revealed the requirements for the spiritual life. They discounted purely subjective mysticism and would have been much more at home in the simple Bible class of Andreas Castelberger described in chapter 3 than anywhere else in Christendom at that time.
The earliest Christian churches which archaeology has discovered possessed not a font but a baptistry. One at Emmaus is ten feet long, three feet wide and five feet deep with a flight of steps to enable both baptizer and baptized to enter the water. The ground-plan of the earliest churches, moreover, is modelled on that of the large Roman house, the baptistry being a development of the domestic impluvium. This certainly takes us back to the "house-churches" of the first and second centuries when, as
the "Pastor of Hermes" informs us, every new member was inducted into the faith by descending into the water to "arise living". In the first age of the church only adults who entered it consciously and voluntarily were baptized. The recurring symbolism in early Christian writings of death and life in association with baptism reflects both the intensity of meaning with which they invested the rite and also the manner of its performance. As will later appear, those scholars who came to make believers' baptism a vital issue in the 16th century, were familiar not only with the Scriptural background but with these early patristic writings also.
The Future Reign of Christ on Earth
"The most striking fact of pre-Nicene Christianity is millennarianism or advent hope, and personal rule of Christ on earth." This comment of the historian Schaff is amply borne out by first and second century writers. "There will be a millennium after the resurrection from the dead", Papias is reported as saying, "when the personal reign of Christ will be established in the earth." Papias, who died in 163 A.D., had known intimately some who had known Jesus personally, and Eusebius emphasises the apostolic origin of this millennial hope. The writings of Tertullian (162-240) abound with references to the millennium and the coming stone that would smite the image of Daniel's prophecy. In fact, he makes quite a remarkable prediction stating that on the basis of Scripture he expected an apostate church with temporal power to grow up in Rome, rising from the fragmented ruins of imperial Rome. Hippolytus (died 236) wrote similarly of a revived Roman Empire under a new guise and governing by Roman law. This particular interpretation was to assume great importance in the 16th and the 19th centuries among the groups considered later in our study.
The hope of future immortality was undoubtedly a powerful evangelising force in early Christianity. There was no assumption of personal immortality, the prospect of eternal life being bound up with acceptance of a risen Christ, who was considered the firstfruits of a later harvest "at his coming". The Report (1945) of the Commission appointed by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, "Towards the Conversion of England", stated: "The central theme of the New Testament is eternal life, not for anybody and everybody, but for believers in Christ arisen from the dead. The
idea of the inherent indestructibility of the human soul (or consciousness) owes its origin to Greek not to Bible sources." Irenaeus (130-202) calls those heretics who maintain the glorification of the saints immediately after death. In Justin's (I00-165) "Dialogue with Trypho the Jew" he states:
"For if you have conversed with some that are indeed called Christians and do not maintain these opinions, but even dare to blaspheme the God of Abraham, and the God of' Isaac, and the God of Jacob, and say that there is no resurrection of the dead, that the souls, as soon as they leave the body, are received up into heaven, take care that you do not look upon these. But I and all those Christians, that are really orthodox in every respect, do know that there will be a resurrection of the body and a thousand years in Jerusalem, when it is built again, and adorned, as Ezekiel, and Esaias, and the rest of the prophets declare."
This passage was later to be of considerable embarrassment to Calvin, who found that others would not abandon Justin's viewpoint as easily as he did when he found it expedient to do so. The Greek view of immortality, introduced soon after the apostolic age-Justin himself is by no means entirely consistent-came to prevail as orthodox, largely through the enormous influence of Origen. His voluminous writings-six thousand different works, taken down by the seven shorthand writers who in rotation were in constant attendance upon him from dawn till nightfall and transcribed by a similar number of copyists -- as Froom has said, "blow hot and cold on the resurrection" and tend to replace the primitive biblicism by allegorisation and philosophy.
The second Letter to the Thessalonians, the second Letter of Peter and the Epistle of Barnabas (c 150), and other early writings which contrast eternal life and perishing or destruction, indicate that the concept of the eternal fiery tortures of the damned as pictured in medieval churches was a later interpretation or addition. The importance of this for the present study will be apparent later.
The Godhead and the Person and Work of Christ
A great deal will be said about this later. But there is much evidence to support the view of Fagginer Auer of Harvard:
"Fourth-century trinitarianism did not reflect accurately early Christian teaching regarding the nature of God; it was, on the contrary, a deviation from this teaching. It developed against constant unitarian opposition and was never wholly victorious. The dogma of the Trinity owes its existence to abstract speculation on the part of a small minority of scholars. In Tertullian's day, he said that the ordinary rank and file of Christians think of Christ as man."
The fact that the leading sixteenth-century reformers at first abandoned and encouraged others to abandon trinitarianism Luther confessed that "nothing to support the dogma can be pointed out in Scripture" -- but later reverted to it, led to a complex trial of conscience as will be pointed out later.
As always happens in controversy, extremes beget extremes, and some have felt that a denial of belief in the trinity is tantamount to a rejection of the uniqueness and divine Sonship of Jesus Christ. This is far from being the case. The early = never ceased to stress, nor do their past and present day followers, that Jesus was and is the Son of God, the unique revelation and mediator of God to man, now made higher than the heavens, glorious in power.
The Ethic of Love
Of tremendous importance throughout the period covered by this study was the ethical challenge implicit in the teaching of Christ on love. The issue over the use of force by Christians, especially in the resistance of evil, or abused power, is a major theme. The fact that Zwingli, for example, can be portrayed with Bible in one hand and massive broadsword in the other, as he is in his Zurich statue, indicates the compromise that was and is possible in this matter. The fact that a church could claim the name Christian did not prevent it from engaging in bloody and revengeful persecutions of those whose consciences would not permit them to retaliate.
For the first and second century church [ecclesia] this issue was not a particularly live one, since its members formed a tiny minority in the empire and were never in possession of power. Not until barbarian invasions did any question of conscription arise. But there is, no doubt that the principles were understood, as the following, written one hundred years after the apostolic age, indicates:
"How shall he (the Christian) wage war, nay, how shall he even be a soldier in peacetime, without the sword which the Lord has taken away? For although soldiers had come to John and received the form of their rule, although even a centurion had believed, the Lord afterwards, in disarming Peter, ungirded every soldier."
"Is it right to occupy oneself with the sword, when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword shall perish by the sword? And shall the soil of peace, for whom it will be unfitting even to go to law, be engaged in a battle? And shall he, who is not the avenger even of his own wrongs, adminster chains and imprisonment and torture and executions? The very act of transferring one's name from the camp of light to the camp of darkness is a transgression."(1)
When full military conscription was introduced towards the end of the 3rd century, there were Christians who were beheaded for refusing to accept the military badge. In the same way, to those who are the subjects of these studies the incompatibility of the doctrine of Christian love and the use of carnal force even in selfdefence, was a cardinal tenet of faith.
The concept of the ecclesia or assembly of believers was an important element in the vitality of the early Christians. Preserving some aspects of Jewish synagogue worship and transmuting them for a wider situation, they kept as their keynote: "One is your master and you are all brethren." The French scholar Auguste Sabatier remarks that:
"We find no trace of a division of (the original) Christians into clergy and laity. All (members) formed the elect people, and conversely, this people was collectively a people of priests and prophets. There were no passive members. The most humble had their share of activity and were by no means the least necessary".
This spiritual egalitarian structure was at one and the same time both ethically and socially powerful and also fragile, subject to
(1) Cited from C. J. Cadoux, The Early Church and the World, by J. B. Norris, in The Christian and War, p. 18. The latter pamphlet is published by The Christadelphian Office.
fairly easy coercion by dominant leaders. This principle of "brethren in Christ" is a fundamental link through the broad sweep in time and place covered by this study. Time and again individuals and groups sought to revisualise and recreate the simple community of the Upper Room as the ideal of Christian fellowship, a tight-knit union of kindred minds transformed by the word of God, owning allegiance only to one Master.
The Table of the Lord
The eucharistic meal, or "breaking of bread" as it came to be known among the groups to be considered in this study, began originally as simple "remembrance", with theories of the mass or eucharistic sacrifice developing gradually over the first two centuries. Much allegorisation was employed by patristic writers which confirms the central nature of the ceremony from earliest times. Those who later viewed the "breaking of bread" as a memorial rather than a sacrifice did so believing that this was its original form, and also that it was more in keeping with a Scriptural view of the Saviour. The tremendous unifying power of this "table fellowship" in maintaining the spirit of witness and stubborn loyalty among those now to be considered is one of the outstanding facts of history.
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