Why are there so many Christian groups who believe different doctrines? In short, it’s because everyone thinks that somebody has changed Christianity. We just disagree about who did.
Each major movement within Christianity has looked back to find the historic faith in order 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.
Those who seek for the historic faith want to believe what the churches founded by the apostles believed, before any alterations were made to the faith. In this article, I will present a reliable method for finding out what that was.
What if Christians disagree on what’s true?
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 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 by the truth. But this is a long process. What if there’s a useful shortcut?
The early Christians are a useful shortcut
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. All the apostolic doctrines can be found in the New Testament, but those doctrines were also delivered by word of mouth as well (1 Thess 2:15). And we know that the apostles’ hearers had accurately received their teachings. In fact, the apostles wrote, near the end of their lives, that even the young men were true to the faith:
I write to you, fathers,
because you know him who is from the beginning.
I write to you, young men,
because you are strong,
and the word of God abides in you,
and you have overcome the evil one. (1 John 2:14 ESV)
Therefore I intend always to remind you of these qualities, though you know them and are established in the truth that you have. I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to stir you up by way of reminder, since I know that the putting off of my body will be soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ made clear to me. And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things. (2 Pet 1:12-15)
That means that the early Christians got their understanding of the faith from several sources:
- The text of Scripture—and many of them actually spoke New Testament Greek as their native language.
- The oral preaching of the apostles or followers of the apostles.
- The oral and written teachings of leaders that the apostles or their followers had trained.
- The understanding of communities of faith that carefully conserved what was taught, not changing doctrines.
While we receive our doctrines from Scripture, the early Christians had several other useful sources that gave them context for the doctrines found in Scripture. 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 able to maintain a consensus on what was essential to Christianity. There was disagreement on minor issues, but little significant 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.
Note: I’m defining the early Christian writers as those who belonged to the church catholic, especially those who wrote representing it or with acceptance from it, including bishops, presbyters, and apologists. Members of other groups shouldn’t be included.
The Council of Nicaea—a Convenient Cutoff Point
But when do these Christians stop being “early Christians”? While some changes in belief and practice did occur throughout the pre-Nicene era, none of those changes fell far outside the bounds of the apostolic deposit.
However, a number of changes came into the church after the Council of Nicaea, changes that actually contradict the apostolic deposit. 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 full participation in an earthly 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.
What do we do when the early Christians disagree on what’s true?
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 fairly sure 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.
I would define the principle in this way: On any issue of correctly interpreting the apostolic faith, where an early consensus of Christian leaders precedes all disagreement among them, the early consensus should receive priority over competing interpretations. Where the earliest sources show that there was not a consensus, there is unlikely to be an apostolic teaching on the subject.
Is the early Christian consensus identical to the apostolic teachings?
If you’re familiar with my argument on why doctrine comes from Scripture, a question might be occurring to you. I’ve argued elsewhere that only Jesus and the apostles have the authority to define the faith, and that we can find all the doctrines they taught in the New Testament.
So what if we find a case where all early Christians agreed on something, and it isn’t explicitly or implicitly taught by any New Testament writer? Should we conclude that that consensus reflects an apostolic doctrine not found in the New Testament?
No, because I gave several further criteria that an extra-biblical doctrine would need to meet if we are to consider it a definitive apostolic doctrine. The historic faith method is not sufficient to provide the foundation for a Christian doctrine (though this consensus should be very convincing to us).1In philosophical terms, the historic faith method is not able to provide a doctrine with ontological status, but it could provide it with epistemological status. As I pointed out in that article, I am as yet aware of no such doctrines, though theoretically, one could exist.
So then, you might ask, if the historic faith method doesn’t provide us with an ontological foundation for doctrine, what purpose does it actually play?
In answer, the historic faith method helps us ensure that we are correctly interpreting the New Testament—which is the actual ontological foundation for doctrine. This is not as much a method for finding out what is apostolic, and is more a method for assuring ourselves as to the correct interpretation of the New Testament text. Other criteria, listed in my article linked above, would need to be met if we were actually to propose an extra-biblical apostolic doctrine. (Note that the extra Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox doctrines don’t meet the necessary criteria.)
How everyone can be truly “catholic” and “orthodox”
Both Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox often say that the historic faith should lead us to their church. However, it really leads us to catholicism and orthodoxy, not Catholicism or Orthodoxy. But what’s the difference that the capital letters make?
The Greek word “catholic” simply means “according to the whole.” What we’re looking for are the beliefs of the Christian leaders who consistently taught the apostolic truth. To differentiate themselves from the gnostics and other heretics, the early Christians called themselves the “catholic church,” the church that contained all the Christians who held to the faith taught consistently since the apostles.
The Greek word “orthodox” simply means “right belief.” What we’re looking for are the true Christian beliefs that were taught by the apostles. The early Christians called people “orthodox” whenever they held to the apostolic faith.
Later, when the church split in various ways, the churches added the words “catholic” and “orthodox” to their names in order to sound like they were the original church. Instead of describing their relation to the apostolic doctrines, these words became part of the name of their church. That’s why they’re typically spelled with capital letters today.
Although, note that many translations of earlier works anachronistically add capital letters to them. This may or may not be an attempt to mislead readers into thinking that the words meant back then what they do today. Whether it’s intentional or not, it is misleading to many.
This is not unlike a Protestant church today that might call itself the “Apostolic Faith Church.” What they mean, at first, is that they have apostolic faith. However, the words just become part of their name. Eventually they may change their faith and still keep their name.
But the words catholic and orthodox were not the name of the early institutional church, but were descriptions of it. We can be catholic and orthodox in the sense that they were, but of course the churches that have incorporated the words into their names would like to think that you need to belong to their church in order to be truly catholic or orthodox.
The standard of “Everywhere, Always, and By All”
The Eastern Orthodox typically say that they believe the faith that can be found through the “consensus of the fathers.” In other words, they say they believe what all the influential Christians believed, throughout the period where the Christian church had not yet split or changed the faith.
This is often expressed by a quotation from Vincent of Lerins, who wrote around 434:
Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For that is truly and in the strictest sense Catholic, which, as the name itself and the reason of the thing declare, comprehends all universally. This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consent. We shall follow universality if we confess that one faith to be true, which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity, if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is manifest were notoriously held by our holy ancestors and fathers; consent, in like manner, if in antiquity itself we adhere to the consentient definitions and determinations of all, or at the least of almost all priests and doctors. (Commonitory for the Antiquity and Universality of the Catholic Faith)
By Vincent’s time, the faith had already been changed in several areas. However, if we follow the method he laid out, we are basically following the historic faith method that I’ve described above. We can truly follow the faith believed everywhere, always, and by all, before any changes were made.
The faith I set forth on this website will be the one that we discover when we follow the logic of the Eastern Orthodox to its conclusion.
What are the 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.2You 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 to the historic faith method
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.
“To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.”
These are the words of John Henry Newman, a famous convert to Catholicism. The historical method used in the articles on this site, however, show that the answer is not Catholicism.
Is it true that to be deep in church history is to cease to be Protestant?3These quotes by Newman are from the introduction to his essay On the Development of Christian Doctrine. Maybe. Some Protestant doctrines aren’t found in church history before Luther. However, Luther was not the first change to the faith. To be deeper in history is to cease to be a Catholic. To be deepest of all in history is to cease even to be Orthodox. What one becomes when one has arrived at the deepest part of Christian history, you can see on this website.
Newman also says, “And this utter incongruity between Protestantism and historical Christianity is a plain fact, whether the latter be regarded in its earlier or in its later centuries. Protestants can as little bear its Antenicene as its Post-tridentine period.” Again, some Protestant doctrines aren’t consistent with pre-Nicene teachings. However, I show on this website that one can consistently live the ante-Nicene faith—and that one will thereby be something much more like the Anabaptists.
The early Christians were still trying to figure things out. We know more now.
Another strategy employed by Roman Catholics is to paint church history as a progression from confused newbies to today, when much more doctrine has finally been figured out. They point out that the Council of Nicaea defined the doctrine of the Trinity that most Christians believe, and they point out that the consensus of which books should be in the New Testament canon was only reached in the fourth century.
First, these examples don’t constitute a challenge to the historic faith view, as I showed in an article on when we can use post-Nicene sources to understand pre-Nicene beliefs. But this claim fails for a more important reason.
This narrative makes a great story, but it is not a great understanding of history. It only works for those who don’t take the early centuries of the church seriously. The early Christians did actually know the doctrines of Christianity, which they learned directly from the source. There was no concept of doctrinal development. This claim is a poetic, post-Enlightenment view of history, not a historic one. It serves only to make people feel comfortable with the obvious changes that the Roman Catholic Church has introduced into Christianity.
Is this method too suspiciously new or ad hoc?
Is the method of looking for what the churches founded by the apostles believed, before any alterations were made to the faith, and using the pre-Nicene church as an important guide, a new method? Should we prefer the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Magisterial Protestant methods instead, since they’re based on many years of history?
I don’t see why this method is problematic, because it is rooted and based in history. If anything, it’s more historical than the alternative methods, since it focuses on the slice of history that will give us the most historically reliable assessment of the apostolic faith. Instead of confusing things by trusting later writers more than earlier ones, this method gets to the root of things.
There is nothing ad hoc or inconsistent about the historic faith method, either. It just makes a lot of sense to go to the sources that are closer in temporal and cultural proximity to what the apostles believed. Furthermore, as I’ve pointed out, there’s good reason to believe that, around Nicaea, significant alterations were made to the Christian faith.
Does this mean we can’t be in historical continuity with later Christians? What good are the writings of later writers?
We can indeed remain in continuity with the rich tradition of Christian writings throughout the millennia. However, we need to be careful not to ascribe authority to writers that should instead be used as inspiration.
Later Christian writers can help us see things in Scripture that we have missed. Later writers can help us better understand the meanings behind the doctrines we have been given. They can help us figure out how to be faithful to Christ in areas where Scripture doesn’t give us clear direction. However, later writers aren’t of significant value in understanding what was historically practiced by the apostolic church. They are sources that are too far removed from the time and culture in question.
This website is going to be necessarily somewhat unbalanced, because its focus is to recover the original faith, not to discover all the depths of the faith. But that’s a valid pursuit, too, and I highly encourage it. We must just be careful not to let later writers alter the apostolic deposit.
We Don’t Have Enough Evidence to Know What the Early Church Believed
What if we don’t have enough information to know what the pre-Nicene church believed? That would mean that we couldn’t be sure of what the faith was like during that era, without looking at the later eras.
We don’t have all the texts written in the pre-Nicene era any more than we have all the texts written by the apostles and their associates. However, consider that we have something like eighteen times the amount of writing from orthodox Christians before Nicaea than we have in the New Testament.4Rough estimate (should be pretty low): 3.4 million words in ANF. (calculated from word count in v2, which is lower than v1. Took times 8, because there are 9 books. Times 2/3, just in case editor comments, footnotes, and index took up 1/3 of the books. High estimate of words in KJV NT is 182 thousand. Unless you think that the New Testament discusses less than one eighteenth of Christian doctrine that was known between those years, I’m surprised that you’d think that the pre-Nicene writings wouldn’t discuss all Christian doctrine that was known between those years.
What are some of the texts that we have from that era?
- Letters from Christians to other Christians or even to nonbelievers, on all sorts of subjects
- Early Christian commentaries on New Testament books
- “Apologies” containing
- Descriptions of Christian faith and practice for the sake of nonbelievers
- Defenses of what Christians believed and practiced, aimed toward Jews or pagans
- Refutations of heresies, containing
- Descriptions of, and defenses for, the orthodox Christian faith and practice as opposed to what heretics believed
- Christian arguments against heresies
- Treatises written to Christians to ensure that they properly understood the faith
In these texts, the pre-Nicene writers cover the whole gamut of Christian faith and practice. There are a few issues that they aren’t clear on, but they are quite clear on what the contents of the apostolic deposit was—there’s little question of what they believed was essential to the faith.
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.5Such 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.
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 for the historic faith method
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
- Later church fathers received the apostolic traditions solely through early church teaching.
- If a source (B) receives information solely through another source (A), then A is more to be trusted than B.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- Therefore, early church teaching is more to be trusted than later church fathers.
From early church—consistency
- 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.
- 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.
- Therefore, nonresistance is more to be trusted than its negation is.
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.
- 1In philosophical terms, the historic faith method is not able to provide a doctrine with ontological status, but it could provide it with epistemological status.
- 3These quotes by Newman are from the introduction to his essay On the Development of Christian Doctrine.
- 4Rough estimate (should be pretty low): 3.4 million words in ANF. (calculated from word count in v2, which is lower than v1. Took times 8, because there are 9 books. Times 2/3, just in case editor comments, footnotes, and index took up 1/3 of the books. High estimate of words in KJV NT is 182 thousand.
- 5Such as a Trinity without hierarchy, God’s wrath satisfied by Jesus’ death, etc.