What Is the Historic Faith & How Do We Find It?

Why are there so many Christian groups who believe different doctrines? In short, it’s because everyone thinks that somebody has changed Christianity. Just, we disagree who did.

Each major movement within Christianity has looked back to the beginning of the faith to know what we should believe today. This is true of Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and many other groups.

Christians look back to Jesus’ and the apostles’ teachings found in New Testament to understand Christianity better. And this is right—after all, Jesus is the divine Son of God and his word can be trusted, and his apostles had authority from him to found the faith.

But What If We All Disagree?

The teachings of Jesus and his apostles, which are found in the New Testament, are our infallible authority for Christian doctrine, and we don’t need more than the New Testament if we want to understand what’s true (as my post on doctrine and the canon {link to long} shows).

So I believe that Christian doctrine can all be found in Scripture. However, a lot of other people do too—and we all mostly disagree with each other. Even Roman Catholics, who also lean on their ongoing magisterium, sometimes say that their beliefs are all in Scripture.

What’s the answer to our disagreements?

In a perfect world, the answer would of course be better exegesis (interpretation of Scripture). If we all read Scripture more carefully, we should all agree on what is true. However, there are two problems:

  • Most people already are convinced that they read Scripture carefully enough.
  • We don’t all agree on the exegetical principles for reading Scripture.

Some of us are right, and some of us are wrong. Some of us are using the right exegetical principles and are reading Scripture properly, and some of us aren’t. The trouble is that we all think we’re right.

So we should be in respectful dialogue with each other and try to convince each other, at the same time being willing to be convinced. But this is a long process. What if there’s a useful shortcut?

The Early Christians

Somehow we need to get past our own presuppositions. We need to ensure that our biases or interpretative lenses aren’t clouding our understanding of Scripture. The best way to do that is to compare the understanding that we come up with to someone else’s understanding. And, if possible, we should compare it with someone whose interpretation we have good reason to trust.

Fortunately, there is a group of people who have a good claim on our trust—the first generations of Christians after the apostles. The apostles didn’t hand their church a book—they first preached to their followers. Only later did they write down what they had been teaching.

That means that the early Christians got their understanding of the faith from several sources:

  1. The text of Scripture—and many of them actually spoke New Testament Greek as their native language.
  2. The oral preaching of the apostles or followers of the apostles.
  3. The oral and written teachings of leaders that the apostles or their followers had trained.
  4. The understanding of communities of faith that carefully conserved what was taught, not changing doctrines.

Only (1) is infallible. However, (2), (3), and (4) are very useful sources that give context for the doctrines found in (1). Since they had these sources, and since they spoke Biblical Greek, they had a significant advantage over us when they went to read Scripture.

During this time, there were many heresies and crazy beliefs. However, the church as a whole still knew what the apostles had taught. There was major agreement among them as to what the faith actually was. Irenaeus, even in a book where he was refuting dozens of heresies, was able to say the following.

As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth. For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world. . . . Nor will any one of the rulers in the Churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these (for no one is greater than the Master); nor, on the other hand, will he who is deficient in power of expression inflict injury on the tradition. For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one, who can say but little diminish it.  (Against Heresies 1.10.2 ANF)

This wasn’t just Irenaeus’s optimistic opinion, as you can tell by reading the writings of the Christians in his era. The church at that time was undivided on doctrine and in complete agreement on what was essential to Christianity. There was disagreement on minor issues, but no disagreement on major issues. Heresies were able to be chased out of the church as they arose. Of course, this is no longer true today, because not all Christians believe the same doctrines that the early church taught.

There are quite a few writers from this era, including Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Hippolytus, Cyprian, and others. Several of these writers probably even knew the apostles themselves, such as Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Papias, and Polycarp. Many writings have been lost, but a considerable amount has been preserved for us.

Thus, when we read Scripture, we can compare our understanding of it to the understanding of these writers. These writers cannot replace Scripture, and what they write is not infallible. Furthermore, it is quite possible to come to the true faith just by reading Scripture without their help; that’s what movements throughout history like the Anabaptists and the Waldensians did. However, because of their unique opportunity to know the apostolic faith, their witness is very helpful.

The Council of Nicaea—a Convenient Cutoff Point

But when do these Christians stop being “early Christians”? A number of changes came into the church after the Council of Nicaea. With that council, the church entered a new era of state sponsorship, which, as we would expect, brought about changes.

We have very good evidence that, though the faith did not change significantly before Nicaea, it did after Nicaea. Such things as patriotic allegiance to a nation, using violence, and venerating icons were considered unacceptable before Nicaea, as the linked articles show, yet they were accepted not long after Nicaea, and soon became widespread.

So we typically use the Christians who wrote before this council as our evidence for what the apostles taught. Of course, it’s not like Christianity immediately apostatized. There are writings from after the council that are helpful in understanding the faith, such as those of John Chrysostom, who did quite a bit of faithful exegesis from Scripture. But we have to be careful with what we accept from them.

Basically, we draw from post-Nicene Christians when they are in agreement with the pre-Nicene church. Chrysostom is typically in agreement with the historic faith, so we use his writings as a helpful resource—though not when we are defining the faith in the first place. Augustine, however, deviated from the faith in several ways, so we typically stay away from his writings. (Augustine believed in determinism, and he developed beliefs like original sin.) With Chrysostom, the beliefs he had that we disagree with don’t make a big difference in his teaching, but with Augustine, his wrong beliefs do make a big difference in his teaching (so far as I have seen). So I think our position is consistent: when someone has some errors, we can learn from them by eating the meat and spitting out the bones. When someone’s teachings are defined by egregious errors, we tend to stay away from them. There may be more bones than meat.

You may want to see this article, which looks at when we can use post-Nicene sources as evidence for pre-Nicene beliefs and why 325 is a good cutoff point.

When They Disagree

Now, the early Christian writers didn’t all agree on everything. Since they didn’t have apostolic authority—only the apostles had authority to fully confirm what was true doctrine—they were wrong about some things.

However, if every early Christian writer agrees on a particular issue, we can be pretty certain that that was a part of the faith that the apostles handed down. Where there is disagreement among them, we need to dig deeper to find out the truth. But where there is a universal consensus (and there’s that consensus in a number of essential areas), we need to take what they wrote very seriously.

Early Christian Beliefs

Recently, there has been a growing movement to study these early Christians to help us confirm that we aren’t way off in our interpretation of the Bible. For example, there are Kingdom Christians, many of whom gain a lot of inspiration from the Anabaptists. One person who has helped to make the writings and beliefs of these early Christians accessible to everyone is David Bercot.1You can find his books at Scroll Publishing, and some of his lectures on YouTube. Much more oral teaching on the subject can be found at thehistoricfaith.com, which is a great resource that I highly recommend. You can find basically the entirety of the pre-Nicene writings at CCEL as a download of nine PDFs. A very handy resource, if you don’t want to read them all, is A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, which has copious quotations from the early Christian writers.

But I don’t want you to have to go to the amount of research that I need to do in order to understand the faith. So on this website I offer my understanding of the pre-Nicene faith, with notes and quotations, so that you can check up on whether I’m correct or not.

Summary of Early Christian Beliefs

As I said, the early Christians did not agree on everything. But here are several beliefs that they all agreed on. For nearly all of these, the Anabaptists, of which I am one, have also consistently agreed with them.

First, they agreed with the Apostles’ Creed:

I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived from the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary,
who suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried,
descended into hell, rose again from the dead on the third day,
ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty,
who will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic (universal) church, the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

Irenaeus writes of the church’s universal beliefs here (note that many of them are the same):

The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one,” and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, “every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess” to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send “spiritual wickednesses,” and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory. (Against Heresies 1.10.1 ANF)

Here are some further beliefs of the pre-Nicene Christians:

  • Jesus is divine, just like his divine Father.
  • God gave mankind free will, to accept him or reject him. God did not determine who was saved or damned without reference to individual human choices.
  • Christians should take no part in war or violence against anyone (something that few Christians other than the Anabaptists accept today).
  • Christians should practice traditional sexual ethics as defined in the New Testament.
  • Christians should dress modestly and Christian women should wear a head covering.
  • The Old Testament Law is no longer in effect.
  • Almsgiving and taking care of needy Christians and non-Christians is of extreme importance.
  • Baptism and communion have a spiritual significance, rather than just being symbols.

The last point is one of the few doctrines that the early Christians and the Anabaptists have traditionally differed on. Anabaptists have tended to accept the Zwinglian view that communion is a mere symbol, staying well away from the opposite extreme, transubstantiation. However, Anabaptists have still conscientiously baptized and practiced communion, because Jesus commands it. I hold to the pre-Nicene view; however, my opinion is that our view of baptism and communion is secondary to whether we practice them. If we obey God, he will accept that even if we don’t have the correct understanding of why we’re obeying him.

There are also further worldview differences between the pre-Nicene Christians and many Christians today. This website is intended to go into some of them, like the two kingdoms view (termed that by the Anabaptists).

Objections

So we’ve seen that the pre-Nicene Christians can be very helpful. However, some are concerned that Kingdom Christians might over-emphasize the early Christian writings. Here are some objections that people often raise against using the early Christians in our study of Scripture.

Shouldn’t We Go By Scripture Alone?

Some have said that we should only trust Scripture, not the early Christian commentators. Of course, Scripture is our infallible source for doctrine today. Jesus gave the apostles the authority to teach what the faith is, so the New Testament writings can be trusted in entirety. But later writers did not have that authority, as my article on doctrinal authority shows. These writers are an invaluable resource, but we agree that they do not define the Christian faith. We simply use them as a resource for helping to ensure that we are reading Scripture as the apostles intended it to be read.

Some have tried to argue that to use the early Christian writings is to “valorize” or “worship” the early church. But does the presentation given in this article sound like it’s valorizing somebody? Reading and learning from the Patristic writings is simply good scholarship, not worship. Besides, we are not holding up individual writings; we are holding up a consensus among all Christians. If all Christians believed one thing in those days, that is strong support for reading the corresponding Scripture texts in the way that they did.

Wasn’t the Early Church Divided, With Heresies and Sins?

How do we know we can trust the early Christian writings? Wasn’t the early church divided and heretical? After all, the Nicolaitans and the Gnostics rose up very quickly and led many astray. Doesn’t that mean that we can’t trust the writings of people who lived during those years?

Just because some were teaching wrong beliefs doesn’t mean that the right beliefs had become unknown. The Patristic writers, who were early Christian church leaders, did not teach either of those false doctrines. They knew what Gnosticism was and fought against it. After all, the early Christians had the Scriptures just like we do and they could tell that Gnosticism was false.

But the Corinthian church had allowed a man who was sleeping with his father’s wife to remain in the church, and their love feasts were places of gluttony and class distinctions. Doesn’t that show that the earliest churches were not good enough to use as examples for how we should live?

The problem here is that the issues in Corinth cast no doubt on doctrines or teachings. Besides, Paul fixed that church! The whole point of his letter was to get them back on track, and in a later letter, he commends them for listening to him. So Paul’s letters to the Corinthians is an example that church leaders were keeping good watch over the flock.

And again, we do not go by the issues where the early Christians were divided. We use the early Christians where they are in agreement. And consistent agreement among the earliest Christians is a powerful witness.

But This Early Christian Taught This Weird Thing!

Sometimes people who disagree with this approach find one or more examples of individual early Christian writers who believed odd things. Since there were early Christians who believed odd things, can we trust what they wrote? Again, we do not go by the issues where the early Christians were divided. We use the early Christians where they are in agreement. Just because one writer taught something strange or even wrong in a peripheral area doesn’t mean that we can’t be perfectly clear on what they taught as central Christian doctrine.

But That’s Catholic!

When we go this direction, people who hold to Protestant doctrines often object that reading early Christian writings is a Roman Catholic way of finding out the faith. Or they object that the doctrines of the early Christians bring us uncomfortably close to certain specifically Roman Catholic doctrines. On the other hand, in some cases, Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox tell us we should join their church, because their church is what the pre-Nicene Christians were describing.

However, there’s nothing Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox about our approach. We come to our understanding of the faith very differently: we hold that doctrine comes from the apostles’ teachings in Scripture, while they hold that doctrine comes from church decisions throughout time.

Furthermore, this approach yields several areas of disagreement with the Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. You can see some of those areas in these articles.

And just because some of our beliefs happen to be similar to some Roman Catholic beliefs doesn’t mean that they are false. All of us accept doctrines that the Roman Catholics also accept, like the Trinity or the resurrection. In fact, Protestants tend to accept many specifically Roman Catholic doctrines that Anabaptists and Kingdom Christians are less likely to hold.2Such as a Trinity without hierarchy, God’s wrath satisfied by Jesus’ death, etc.

What If We’re Using Quotes Wrongly?

When people use quotations from sources, there are certain mistakes that are often made. In theology, this happens quite often, because the main sources of evidence we have are quotations from Scripture or previous Christians.

  • Some people don’t know how to use quotes properly.
  • Some people typically can quote properly, but they are so used to reading certain quotes and interpreting them a certain way that they may be making mistakes about what they actually are saying.
  • Unfortunately, some people aren’t entirely honest, and will present quotes in such a way that it puts their view in an unfairly favorable light.

The mistakes most commonly made with quotations are

  • Quoting out of context—using a small quotation to argue for something that you would know wasn’t meant to be argued for, if you read the entirety of what the original author was saying.
  • Selective quotation (also called quote mining and cherry-picking)—using only the quotations that appear to support your view, and not bothering to mention some of the best evidence on the other side.

Might those who use the historic faith method be making these mistakes? Quite possibly. We’re human, and you should be careful about trusting us. That’s why I provide easy-to-use links, footnotes, and blockquotes, for you to check them out. I try to include large enough quotes to show what the context is, and I try to provide all the relevant quotes when space permits. But you’re free to dig deeper and verify whether I’m right.

This is by no means failproof, but I do have a degree in English and philosophy (University of Maryland). Both fields, but especially English, are intended to teach the skills to read a text and understand the ideas that are meant to be conveyed or are conveyed without meaning to be. So my training does help me to evaluate sources and use them appropriately.3Note that this approach was pioneered by David Bercot, whose training is in the area of law, another area that teaches textual skills.

I doubt that you’ll find very many out-of-context quotations or quote mining on this website. I carefully check the quotes I use to ensure that these issues aren’t taking place, and you might be surprised at the number of quotes I leave out because they aren’t clear enough which view they support. However, it’s entirely possible that you’ll find places where I misread a quote, and I would be very grateful if you’d point those out and correct me.

Formal Arguments

This is my section for including formal syllogisms that could be used to defend some of the claims in this article. Feel free to skip it.

From early church—transmission

  1. Later church fathers received the apostolic traditions solely through early church teaching.
  2. If a source (B) receives information solely through another source (A), then A is more to be trusted than B.
  3. Therefore, early church teaching is more to be trusted than later church fathers.

If we have enough sources to be able to say what the early church teaching was, and it contradicts what the later church taught, then we go to the early church.

From early church—proximity

  1. Later church fathers were farther removed (in terms of time, place, culture, and changing of hands) from the apostolic traditions than early church teaching was.
  2. If a source (B) is farther removed from the original information than another source (A) is, then A is more to be trusted than B.
  3. Therefore, early church teaching is more to be trusted than later church fathers.

From early church—consistency

  1. Nonresistance (or another doctrine like iconophobia) is both taught by multiple authorized teachers in the first generations of the apostles’ followers and condemned by none.
  2. If a teaching and its negation both claim to be consistent with the teaching of the apostles, and if the teaching (A) is both taught by multiple authorized teachers in the first generations of their fallible followers and condemned by none, it is more to be trusted than its negation (¬A) is.
  3. Therefore, nonresistance is more to be trusted than its negation is.

Summary

Finally, we need to test every teacher, no matter how good their teachings sound, against the apostolic doctrines found in Scripture. So test what I write on this site against Scripture to see whether it’s consistent with the apostolic teaching. If you find something I missed, please contact me.

  • 1
    You can find his books at Scroll Publishing, and some of his lectures on YouTube. Much more oral teaching on the subject can be found at thehistoricfaith.com, which is a great resource that I highly recommend.
  • 2
    Such as a Trinity without hierarchy, God’s wrath satisfied by Jesus’ death, etc.
  • 3
    Note that this approach was pioneered by David Bercot, whose training is in the area of law, another area that teaches textual skills.

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