When trying to find out what the early Christians believed, we deal with multiple kinds of historical evidence. Our goal is to properly weigh the evidence that we have, so that we come to the correct conclusion as to what they believed.
The evidence that we’re dealing with are mostly written texts. We have letters, treatises, apologetics, and so on from early Christian writers, and these texts often give insight into what they believed to be true. Besides texts, we also have artifacts, like churches, pictures, etc.
When evaluating evidence from historical theology, we need to recognize that some pieces of evidence carry more weight than others. For example, one piece of evidence might only demonstrate what one individual Christian believed. If so, it would only provide limited evidence for what all Christians believed. If another piece of evidence demonstrated what many Christians believed, it would be better evidence for what all Christians believed.
Also, different types of evidence are written with different intentions. If a letter is addressed to an enemy of Christianity, it describe Christian beliefs differently than if it’s written to a friend of Christianity. Knowing this can help us to accurately weigh the evidence that the letter provides.
Properly weighing evidence is important, because we want to accept whatever belief best fits the available evidence. It’s not okay to just ignore certain pieces of evidence and only base out beliefs on what’s left. But if we’re going to include all the evidence, we’ll need a way of categorizing it.
This article will provide some tools for weighing different types of evidence. The examples used will especially be in the contexts of teachings on violence and evidence for the veneration of icons, since those are two areas that are relevant to this website’s project.
Whose Beliefs Matter?
To clarify, we’re not looking for just anything that just any Christians believed or did. The entire goal of this website is to find the correct teachings of the historic faith.
The apostles knew what was definitively true of Christianity, and they passed it on to other Christian leaders, who taught it to lay people. So what we’re looking for is what Christian leaders believed and what was taught as part of the true Christian faith, before any changes took place.
In this section, I’ll look at different things that a text could either say or indicate, and how much support each one gives.
All churches or all Christians believe or teach X—Extremely Strong
If a text indicates that all churches or all Christians teach X, this provides extremely strong evidence for what was taught in Christianity in that time period. It’s very likely that virtually all the authoritative Christian teachers believed X.
This is especially strong, because a Christian writer would be very slow to say this unless it were true. Otherwise, somebody could check up on him and find out that it wasn’t.
The Christian belief is X—Strong
This provides significant evidence for what was taught in Christianity in that time period. If he is able to say what the Christian belief is, it’s very likely that the most authoritative Christians were teaching that.
However, it’s not quite as strong as the last one, because a Christian writer could say this even if not everyone agreed with him. If you found someone who disagreed, he would believe that that person was wrong. But there might be people who disagreed.
These Christians believe X—Good
If a writer tells of a belief that multiple Christians hold, that provides good evidence for what was taught in Christianity at that time.
This might happen when a writer says something that demonstrates that all the Christians around him believe a certain thing.
Or if there’s an artwork or inscription found in a space with shared ownership, like a church, that would provide good evidence for what the people using that space believed.
This individual Christian believes X—Some
If a Christian writes of a belief that he holds or that someone he knows holds, that provides some evidence. It provides more evidence if that person is a Christian leader, and less if that person is a lay person.
Graffiti, or an inscription in a space with private ownership, would fall under this category.
Describing beliefs of past Christians—Weak
Some evidence, if for people in immediate history (within 100 years), but not a lot, unless there is corroborative evidence from there.
If it describes them as disagreeing, the evidence should be taken as stronger, because they’d be undercutting themselves. If it describes them as agreeing, the evidence should be weighed more weakly.
Stories of Lay Christians—Weak
If we have an account that describes what one or more lay Christians did, that does provide some evidence. But it can’t overrule what Christian leaders said.
Gnostic or Heretical Texts—None or Good (depending on context)
If a text was written by someone who at the time was outside of the Christian church, the beliefs of its author cannot be taken as evidence for or against Christian beliefs. However, in cases where it says that Christians held a belief, that is good evidence for that belief among Christians. It’s not the best of evidence, because that person can’t be expected to fully understand Christian teachings as Christian leaders did, but it shows what the Christians were known for, at least.
Writing an “Apology” to non-Christians—Complex
If a text is an “Apology,” defending the claims of the Christian faith to non-Christians, this evidence can cut multiple directions.
- What is said is not likely to be easily disproved, because the apologist will be careful not to say things that would draw his proposal into question.
- The apologist will be careful to represent what at least a significant portion of Christianity believes—or at least to make statements that most Christians won’t disagree with.
- The apologist will likely present an idealized picture of Christianity, mentioning all the good aspects, but not drawing attention to negative aspects.
In some cases, these different motivations contradict each other. In the case of Christianity, which teaches honesty, we can generally trust that 1 and 2 will win out over 3. In the case of other belief systems, results may be similar or different.
Correcting a Wrong Belief Among Christians—Complex
If a text is written by a Christian and is correcting beliefs that other Christians hold, that could provide support either for or against the belief that the author holds.
If the author is a Christian leader, and the parties being corrected are lay people, then there is good reason to expect that the author’s beliefs are representative of Christianity. If the opposite is true, than the author’s beliefs can’t be considered representative.
If textual implications show us that more Christians or more influential Christians agree with the author than with the parties being corrected, then there is good reason to expect that the author’s beliefs are representative of Christianity.
However, if influential Christians are disagreeing on the issue, then we should assume that multiple beliefs coexisted, and there was no one correct Christian belief on that issue during that time period.
Putting Texts Together
Individual texts can go together in different ways to add stronger or less strong support to a hypothesis.
If multiple texts over a wide geographical area teach something, that is a good indicator that the belief was held throughout the church. Conversely, if most texts that teach a belief come from one area, that is a less strong indication that the belief was an essentially Christian one.
Time of Writing
Texts that are describing beliefs held during the time they were written are more likely to be accurate. When people write about beliefs held before their day, they should be counted less strongly than texts about current beliefs. This becomes even more important if there is reason to believe that changes might have happened in between (though we can never entirely rule such changes out unless we adopt the Catholic and Orthodox belief of the indefectibility of the church as an a priori lens, which of course would be a fallacy).
What Will Imply That Multiple Beliefs Coexisted?
We can’t assume that the pre-Nicene church taught entirely consistently on every area of doctrine that we care about today. It could be that, in some cases, some Christians taught one thing and some taught another.
However, if virtually all the Christian leaders who weighed in on a topic agree with each other, then we should expect that belief to be representative of Christianity. In some cases, we may find that they seem to disagree, but when we better understand their views, they may end up agreeing.
The only way that we can be justified in believing that multiple beliefs coexisted is if we know of Christian leaders on both sides of the issue. If we want to consider a belief to be viable, we’ll want to see evidence that a Christian leader or apologist taught it. Just pointing to the actions of lay people aren’t enough. Of course, if a lay person said that their bishop taught it, that could be good evidence.
In this section, I’ll look at some examples and how this methodology helps us understand each case.
In the case of nonresistance, we know of quite a few pre-Nicene Christian leaders who taught against violence. Besides writing against personal violence, some of them specifically mentioned the wrongfulness of war, and some specifically wrote against joining the military.
On the other hand, we have a number of examples of Christian soldiers. Even though many of them may have performed noncombatant duties, some of them seem to have fought.
Since we know that the direct teachings of Christian leaders carries more weight than the individual beliefs or actions of lay Christians, we can conclude that pre-Nicene Christianity was against violence.
In the case of veneration of icons, we have many quotes from pre-Nicene Christian leaders that show that they didn’t believe iconodulia to be a Christian practice. We also don’t have any examples of images in Christian worship spaces that suggest veneration by their content.
On the other hand, there’s a gnostic text that condemns veneration of images from this era. One could use this as evidence that veneration of images was happening in some circles in those days. There is also some graffiti that may be from this era in a Christian church, speaking of iconodulia.
The beliefs of multiple leaders, representing a large amount of the church, definitely carry more weight than a few individuals who aren’t Christian leaders. So we can conclude that pre-Nicene Christianity did not teach veneration of icons.
Is This Methodology Valid?
The principles I gave above are common-sense principles which are often used without being explicitly spelled out. I’m spelling these principles out so that people can see how I come to my conclusions. If you disagree with my conclusions, it may be because you disagree with these principles. In that case, feel free to contact me and let me know why you believe these principles to be mistaken.