Do Post-Nicene Fathers Exemplify Apostolic Christianity?

The Eastern Orthodox Church bases much of their theology on the “Fathers.” Typically, this means Christian writers who lived before approximately the 800s. The most influential church fathers for them tend to be those who lived and wrote between 325 and 787, when the first and last of the seven ecumenical councils took place. Some other Christian denominations place a high value on the writings of church fathers as well.

It makes sense that early Christians would be a good testament to what was believed by the apostles, which is the basis of our faith. In fact, I’ve argued that there’s good reason to use the pre-Nicene church fathers as evidence for apostolic Christianity. These are the writers who wrote before the Council of Nicaea in 325, and whose writings show that there was widespread agreement among church leaders as to what the apostolic faith consisted of.

Of course, what church fathers believed is of little value, unless their writings can help us find out what the apostolic faith was. The pre-Nicene writings can. The question is whether the post-Nicene writings can be trusted to attest to the apostolic faith. This article will attempt to answer that question.

Laying the Groundwork

By default, we would assume that the beliefs of Christians after 325 would be representative of the beliefs of Christians before 325, unless we would have reason to think that the church’s beliefs might have changed sometime shortly after that date. Might the church’s beliefs have changed then? In the next sections, I’ll show that

  1. There is good reason to expect changes to happen after Christianity gained state sponsorship in the 300s.
  2. There is good evidence that changes did in fact happen after Christianity gained state sponsorship in the 300s.

Reasons to Expect Changes in the 300s

In 313, the Roman emperor Constantine legalized Christianity, which had been largely illegal before. He soon began to sponsor the church in different ways. In 325, he used his power to bring about a council of bishops from the entire Roman world to decide an issue of doctrine. In 380, Christianity became the state religion, and in time, everyone was expected to join it.

So within the span of an average human lifetime, Christianity went from being persecuted to being the official religion of the Roman Empire. Christians leaders no longer expected martyrdom; instead, they expected popularity and comfort. The hostile context surrounding Christianity transformed to a context that was hostile to anything else. The most powerful enemy of the church became the church’s most powerful friend.

If the context of Christianity completely changed, it seems likely that the situation would put pressure on internal factors to change in order to suit the new context.

Inducements to Change

The following is the reality of those who experience the goodwill of a powerful government. They were certainly benefits offered to those who pleased the Roman Empire:

  • Money
  • Power
  • Reputation, pomp, or fame

Consider that these are powerful motivating factors for people. In fact, they are some of the most common reasons for people to commit crimes, including murder. Surely, they would be powerful enough inducements to fudge things that are much less wrong than that!

So, now that the Roman Empire was turning a benevolent eye toward Christians, there were powerful inducements

  • For people to become Christians even if they weren’t committed to all the definitive teachings of Christianity. These Christians might quite gladly compromise Christian beliefs where it was convenient, because they joined Christianity as much for their own benefit as for their conscience.
  • For Christians to please the state. Since their most dangerous enemy was now a powerful friend, Christian leaders might, with few qualms, allow Christians to do practices that would please their new friend and would keep them in the good graces of the Roman state.
  • Additionally, for Christians to accommodate the huge influx of former pagans. Once the religion became not only state-sponsored, but the official state religion, they would need to bring most of the populace of the Roman empire into the church, and they might, with few qualms, add some practices that would help these new Christians of convenience to adapt to Christianity.

So, even before looking at the evidence, we have good reason to think that some Christian beliefs and practices might change. It’s unlikely that the central tenets of the faith would change, but some of the key beliefs might.

What Governments Want

At bottom, virtually all governments want the same things, like taxes, patriotism, and soldiers. If Christianity was now interested in pleasing the government, it would make sense that there would be a lot of pressure on any beliefs or practices that would prevent Christians from offering the state what it wants.

They wouldn’t necessarily change everything that the state might want them to change—however, they would have powerful incentives to change some of the biggest hang-ups, especially if they could convince themselves that these beliefs and practices weren’t essential to their faith.

If changes did occur, it could open the door to further changes, but the first changes would be the sort that would help them please the government or bring the entire populace into the church. So, when looking for beliefs and practices that might change due to the concerns of the government or of the populace, what would we expect to change?

  1. Any beliefs or practices that prevented Christians from paying taxes to the Roman state.
  2. Any beliefs or practices that prevented Christians from obeying laws.
  3. Any beliefs or practices that prevented Christians from patriotism.
  4. Any beliefs or practices that prevented Christians from filling public office.
  5. Any beliefs or practices that prevented Christians from serving in a wartime military.
  6. Any beliefs or practices that made the public practice of Christianity different from the public practice of the former state religion (this would specifically happen when a huge influx of pagans joined the church due to necessity rather than conscience.

Points 1 and 2 are moot, since Jesus and the apostles taught their followers to pay taxes and obey laws. There would be no need for those beliefs to change. But what about the other points? In the next section, we’ll see that there seem to have been changes, and the apparent changes seem to line up with what we would expect to see if a religion would adapt to government sponsorship.

Evidence of Changes in the 300s

So we have reason to expect changes, and, as I show in previous posts, there do seem to have been a number of changes in Christian belief and practice, beginning in the 300s:

  • Where patriotic allegiance to a nation had been unacceptable, it now became acceptable (expected from points 3 and 4).
  • Where war and the use of violence had been unacceptable, they now became acceptable (expected from points 4 and 5).
  • Where venerating icons had been unacceptable, it now became acceptable (expected from point 6). Note that the use of images was very common to pagan practice.

Feel free to look at the evidence I offered for each of the points above. I think that, for each of them, there is a very strong case that a change occurred, even if we weren’t already expecting changes to occur.

If we just had one example of a change that occurred, we could possibly ignore it. That apparent change could have turned out to be explained by insufficient evidence, or something of that sort. However, we have three well-documented cases where there seems to have been a change—and all three of them are changes that one would expect when a religion adapts to state sponsorship.

Why Use 325 as Our Cutoff Point?

So we have good reason to believe that changes happened in the 300s. Why do I draw the cutoff point at the Council of Nicaea in 325?

Of course, any sort of cutoff point is hard to defend. Pretty much no matter where we draw the line, you could argue that there are good teachings after that point and bad teachings that came before. But we do need to stop somewhere, because the changes to the faith are quite clear and well-evidenced.

Consider that it’s hard to know where the cutoff point is that defines when a child becomes an adult. Is the age 16? 18? 21? You can argue for many different cutoff points. But just because we don’t know the exact point doesn’t mean there isn’t a difference between adults and children—that’s known as the continuum fallacy. Everyone agrees that a child and an adult are different; it’s just that we have to be flexible and nuanced when giving a cutoff point. Similarly, we see that the pre-Nicene faith and the post-Nicene faith had some important differences, without saying that there’s a clear point at which the faith changed.

But I think there are some good reasons to use Nicaea as a cutoff point for where the unchanging faith began to be changed. Most of these reasons are ones of convenience, but there are some reasons of principle as well:

  • Because the Council of Nicaea happened only about twelve years after Constantine legalized Christianity, and it doesn’t seem that much in the way of doctrine changed in those twelve years. After all, one would expect it to take a decade or so for an essentially conservative religion to start changing.
  • Because the Council of Nicaea was itself a change that was indicative of other changes. It opened the door for a worldwide council of bishops to begin to feel they had the authority to define the faith, something that broke apostolic precedent.
  • Because the Council of Nicaea took place at the Roman Emperor’s instigation, indicating the state’s new role as an influence on the church.
  • Because Christian heresy first began to be persecuted by the state at that time.
  • Because it’s a convenient cutoff point that’s often used by the scholarship (for example, the well-known Ante-Nicene Fathers nine-volume work that contains most of the Christian writings pre-dating the Council of Nicaea.

But if you prefer a cutoff point of 313, just to be safe, that makes sense, too.

Can We Expect Further Changes Beyond These?

So, given the argument above, one can see that there’s good reason to expect some changes would occur. But why would the Christian church change from a conservative stance to a progressive one? Why wouldn’t changes stop when the church had adapted to the Roman Empire and its new status of state religion?

I think that there’s reason why changes would continue to occur, even after these first changes had stopped. Here are several reasons why the church might adopt a progressive stance of continued change:

  • When people recognize—and welcome—the entirely new context in which they found themselves, they might feel that living in a new era demanded new policies.
  • When people’s priorities change, they can forget earlier beliefs, or they can see those earlier beliefs as something that belonged to the past. The appeal of presentism or “chronological snobbery” is strong, and people find it easy to believe that the present is better than the past.
  • When people become part of a group which can make authoritative decisions, there can be a heady tug on them to wield their power. That allure has lead to all kinds of abuses. Once the era of the councils began, bishops could sense that they had more power.
  • Changes (as I documented) were occurring already, and that can weaken resistance to further change.
  • The church’s constituency was growing, which can destabilize leadership and make it harder to maintain old ways.
  • The church’s constituency now included people who weren’t entering primarily because of conviction, which means that it would likely become more lenient in some areas (to make it easier for Christians of convenience to join) and more authoritarian in others (to maintain order among unreliable new Christians).
  • Leadership was influenced or infiltrated by people who were not there by conviction, which would weaken leaders’ felt need to stick to the old ways.

If only one or two of these elements had been in place, the church’s change to a progressive stance might not have happened. Yet at least several of these elements were there, and we can expect that this would have had its effect.

When Do Post-Nicene Voices Attest to Pre-Nicene Beliefs?

So, it seems that there were changes after Christianity became sponsored by the state. However, there are cases when it can be appropriate to use sources after an event that brings changes in order to find out what was believed earlier. When might we be able to do that? I suggest the following criteria, which must all coincide:

(1) When we have insufficient pre-Nicene evidence to know whether or not they had the belief

If we have sufficient evidence from the pre-Nicene era to know what Christians consistently believed about a specific doctrine, we can’t throw it into doubt using evidence from after the era of change. We already know from their own lips what they believed. And this is in fact the case for all three of my proposed examples of changes. There are plenty of pre-Nicene sources that we can draw on to evaluate each example.

However, if we have insufficient evidence during that era, it seems reasonable to rely on evidence after the fact. One example of one might be when we have reason to think that a pre-Nicene belief might have been obscured by persecution. If we have reason to believe that, during that era, a particular belief might have been hidden in order to avoid persecution, then we can use evidence from after that era. (Note that if we have sufficient evidence from that era to evaluate an example, this is a moot point, unless we have reason to suspect that deception was taking place.)

So far, I have not seen good reason to believe that any particular Christian beliefs were hidden in order to avoid persecution. In fact, the examples I’ve proposed are places where they suffered ridicule for holding publicly to the beliefs they did! They had no incentive to hide veneration of icons or patriotism, because those were things that their enemies wanted them to do!

(2) When newly attested beliefs are not such that we would expect to arise when a religion adapts itself to a government.

If a belief attested to after Nicaea is one that we would have reason to expect might arise because of adaptation to government, we can’t expect it to be an unchanged representation of the earlier belief. However, if it’s unlikely to have arisen due to that adaptation, we may be able to trust the newly attested belief.

(3) When new attestations are close enough to the pre-Nicene era that they make it unlikely for further drift to have occurred in between.

As a previous section showed, once changes started to occur in Christianity, that could easily set the precedent for further changes to occur. Thus, if someone a hundred years or so after Nicaea attests to a belief, we can’t give their evidence much weight.

On the other hand, if the post-Nicene Christians we draw from are ones who were alive before Nicaea, or knew people who were alive before Nicaea, this makes it possible that their statements would have credibility.

(4) When the new attestations provide sufficient evidence to know what the church consistently believed in their time.

This should go without saying. If in any area we don’t have enough evidence to know what people consistently believed directly after Nicaea, those Christians don’t provide enough evidence to show what Christians believed prior to Nicaea.

Making a Compelling Case

If an example fails in one of the four criteria, we have good reason to doubt that the post-Nicene attestations provide good evidence for what the pre-Nicene church believed. However, if an example matches all four criteria, I think it is perfectly reasonable to use post-Nicene evidence for pre-Nicene beliefs. What might be an example of a successful case?

The New Testament Canon

I suggest that the list of books accepted as authoritative by the pre-Nicene church could be attested to by the post-Nicene church. That’s because

  1. We don’t have enough pre-Nicene evidence for a consistent canon.
  2. It’s unlikely that Christianity would alter what books are considered authoritative to gain brownie points with the government. Especially since the teachings least appreciated by the state are often found in the books that had always been agreed on, without exception, like the book of Matthew. The church couldn’t have thrown out such undisputed books.
  3. We have strong evidence from the 300s, the era directly following Nicaea. Many of the witnesses to the canon knew pre-Nicene Christians.
  4. The consensus from the 300s is remarkably consistent, with very few detractors.

The Trinity

One issue often raised against those who argue for the pre-Nicene fathers is that, if we can’t use the Council of Nicaea as authoritative, we might not have the proper understanding of the Trinity. As yet, I haven’t researched this issue in depth; however, my understanding is that we can have a proper understanding of the Trinity even if we use only pre-Nicene sources. I may be wrong. But whether I’m right or wrong, this doesn’t pose a problem to the historic faith view.

That’s because, on the one hand, if we have sufficient pre-Nicene information to know that Arius was wrong, and that the Son and Holy Spirit are divine, then we don’t need the Council of Nicaea or the post-Nicene writings to resolve this issue. On the other hand, if we don’t have sufficient pre-Nicene information on this issue, this issue meets all four criteria previously given, and we are fully justified in accepting the Nicene consensus while still remaining consistent with a cutoff point prior to Nicaea.

  1. For the sake of the argument, we’re granting that the pre-Nicene evidence isn’t sufficient.
  2. It’s unlikely that Christianity would alter its beliefs about God to gain brownie points with the government. Especially since it seems that the Emperor himself preferred the Arian side, which the council declared wrong.
  3. The Council of Nicaea directly follows the pre-Nicene period.
  4. The Council of Nicaea represented the opinions of many bishops from all over the Christian world.

Thus, the decision of the Council of Nicaea can be used as good evidence for the beliefs of the pre-Nicene church, but we don’t need to appeal to it as authoritative in any way.

Summary

I suggest that these criteria will be helpful when assessing whether post-Nicene evidence is a good indication of pre-Nicene beliefs.

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