Did the Early Church Fathers Know the Gospel?

Ligon Duncan teaches a guide to the early church Fathers’ often perplexing views on the gospel. The early church Father’s were best in criticizing disputed areas of doctrine. Heresy served the Church to give the Bible’s perspective. One should respectively and carefully read the Father’s under the authority and lens of Scripture.

The Church Fathers on Sola Scriptura

Nathan Busenitz – original source Arius was arguably the most notorious heretic of the early church.

Though Arius’s heretical views were soundly condemned by the Council of Nicaea (in A.D. 325), the controversy he sparked raged for another fifty years throughout the Roman Empire. During those tumultuous decades, the defenders of Trinitarian orthodoxy often found themselves outnumbered and out of favor with the imperial court. Yet they refused to compromise.

Among them, most famously, stood Athanasius of Alexandria—exiled on five different occasions for his unwavering commitment to the truth. He was joined by the Cappadocian Fathers: Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzas, and Gregory of Nyssa.

But how did these early Christian leaders know that the doctrine they were defending was, in fact, a truth worth fighting for? How did they know they were right and the Arians were wrong? Was it on the basis of oral tradition, a previous church council, or an edict from the bishop of Rome?

No. They ultimately defended the truth by appealing to the Scriptures. Continue reading

Substitutionary Atonement in the Early Church

Bread-and-FishMichael J. Kruger is professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, 2012). He blogs regularly at Canon Fodder. In an article at The Gospel Coalition he writes:

Skeptics commonly criticize core Christian beliefs by claiming that they were not really held by the earliest Christians. Instead, we are told, these beliefs were invented post facto by the institutional church.

The classic example of such an argument has to do with the divinity of Jesus. The earliest followers of Jesus didn’t really believe that Jesus was divine, this argument goes; it was only the later institutional church, under political pressure from Emperor Constantine, that insisted Jesus must have divine status. Thus, some argue, the belief that Jesus is God is not really, well, Christian.

Substitutionary Atonement

This same sort of argument has also been applied to other doctrines, particularly the substitutionary nature of the atonement. Critical scholars, led by the classic work of Gustaf Aulén, have long argued that the earliest Christians did not believe that Christ died as a substitute for sinners. Instead, they say, these Christians believed what is known as the “Christus victor” view of the atonement—the idea that Jesus’s death on the cross (and resurrection) conquered the Devil and other forces that held people in bondage. On this view, Christ did not die in place of rebellious sinners but instead rescued victims from a fallen world.

If Aulén is correct, then when did the substitutionary view of the atonement arise? Peter Carnley embodies the typical critical approach when he says that the substitutionary view “was not known before Anselm’s time.” Thus, Carnley claims, it was not until the Middle Ages, when Anselm wrote Cur Deus Homo (Why the God-Man?), that Christians began to believe Christ died in place of sinners.

No doubt these sorts of scholarly arguments can explain why alternative theories of the atonement have gained popularity in recent years, while the substitutionary view continues to be vilified as un-Christian. Rob Bell does precisely this in his book Love Wins, where he roundly rejects the substitutionary view in favor of other options.

But is it really true that the substitutionary view of the atonement was not found before the Middle Ages? Not at all. Such a claim can be readily refuted merely by examining the writings of the New Testament itself—particularly the letters of Paul. However, it is also worth noting that key elements of the substitutionary view were held by some of the earliest Christian writers. One example is the author of the Epistle to Diognetus from the early second century. The Epistle to Diognetus was written by an unknown Greek author as an apology for Christianity. Below are some excerpts from the author that affirm key aspects of substitutionary atonement. Continue reading

Rivaling The Apostle’s Creed

it is one of the earliest patristic writings we possess. It is a lengthy treatise which compares the God of Christianity with the gods of the barbarians, the Egyptians, and the Greeks.

But, at one point, he summarizes what Christians believe in a manner that would rival even the Apostle’s Creed:

The Christians, then, trace the beginning of their religion from Jesus the Messiah; and he is named the Son of God Most High. And it is said that God came down from heaven, and from a Hebrew virgin assumed and clothed himself with flesh; and the Son of God lived in a daughter of man. This is taught in the gospel, as it is called, which a short time was preached among them; and you also if you will read therein, may perceive the power which belongs to it. This Jesus, then, was born of the race of the Hebrews; and he had twelve disciples in order that the purpose of his incarnation might in time be accomplished. But he himself was pierced by the Jews, and he died and was buried; and they say that after three days he rose and ascended to heaven (Apol. 2).

Aristides makes it clear that Christians affirm a number of key truths:

1. The divinity of Jesus: “God came down from heaven…” In the mind of Aristides, Jesus is not an angel, or a semi-divine being, but the very God of heaven itself.

2. The incarnation: “clothed himself with flesh.” In very vivid language, the author affirms that Jesus is God enfleshed; he took upon himself a real human body (contra the Docetists).

3. The virgin birth: “from a Hebrew virgin.” This doctrine flows naturally from the prior two. If Jesus is God, and he took on human flesh, then his conception would be distinctive from other human beings.

4. The authority of the Gospels: “taught in the gospel…and you also if you read therein, may perceive the power which belongs to it.” Notice for Aristides, there are books called a “gospel” which you can “read” to learn more about the person of Jesus. Moreover, these gospels contain a certain “power” which the reader can discern.

5. The authority of the apostles: “and he had twelve disciples.” Aristides recognizes that Jesus had an authority structure through the twelve that was necessary “so that the purpose of his incarnation might in time be accomplished.”

6. His death on the cross: “pierced by the Jews.” This is a clear reference to Jesus’ crucifixion under Pontius Pilate at the request of the Jewish leadership.

7. His resurrection: “after three days he rose.” Jesus did not stay in the grave but was raised from the dead.

8. His ascension: “ascended into heaven.” Jesus returned to his former heavenly home, in a position of power and glory.

This is a surprisingly thorough and wide-ranging summary of core Christian doctrines at a very early point in the life of the church. And it was this form of Christianity that was publicly presented to the Emperor. Once again, we can see that core Christian beliefs were not latecomers that were invented in the fourth century (or later), but appear to have been in place from the very beginning.

Scripture and the Church Fathers

Here are excellent resources concerning the view of the early Church regarding Scripture.

Turretinfan writes:

Formal Sufficiency of Scripture

Stated and Examined from Scripture and the Fathers, with scholarly confirmation regarding the Fathers’ views.

In an introduction section, we discussed the nature of formal sufficiency that we, the Reformed, affirm. In the next section, we saw Scripture’s own testimony to its own sufficiency. If we were simply establishing the Reformed position, that would be completely sufficient. It would not be necessary to add anything to that.

Nevertheless, our challenger from the Roman side has requested some patristic confirmation. Frankly, we are not sanguine about the possibility that he’ll actually carefully read and consider the evidence that we present, yet perhaps these evidences will be sufficient to help establish that our insight into Scripture is not a novel insight.

Early Christian Writers

Third Century Fathers

Fourth Century Fathers

Fifth Century Fathers

The Gospel According to the Church Fathers

by Nathan Busenitz (from a blogpost California.

After the apostles died, was the gospel hopelessly lost until the Reformation?

That certainly seems to be a common assumption in some Protestant circles today. Thankfully, it is a false assumption.

I’m not entirely sure where that misconception started. But one thing I do know: it did not come from the Protestant Reformers.

The Reformers themselves (including Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and others) were convinced that their position was not only biblical, but also historical. In other words, they contended that both the apostles and the church fathers would have agreed with them on the heart of the gospel.

For example, the second-generation Lutheran reformer, Martin Chemnitz (1522-1586), wrote a treatise on justification in which he defended the Protestant position by extensively using the church fathers. And John Calvin (1509-1564), in his Institutes, similarly claimed that he could easily debunk his Roman Catholic opponents using nothing but patristic sources. Here’s what he wrote:

If the contest were to be determined by patristic authority, the tide of victory — to put it very modestly —would turn to our side. Now, these fathers have written many wise and excellent things. . . . [Yet] the good things that these fathers have written they [the Roman Catholics] either do not notice, or misrepresent or pervert. . . . But we do not despise them [the church fathers]; in fact, if it were to our present purpose, I could with no trouble at all prove that the greater part of what we are saying today meets their approval.

Source: John Calvin, “Prefatory Address to King Francis I of France,” The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Section 4.

How could the Reformers be so confident that their understanding of the gospel was consistent with the teachings of the ancient church? Or perhaps more to the point: What did the early church fathers have to say about the gospel of grace?

Here is an admittedly brief collection of 30 patristic quotes, centering on the reality that justification is by grace alone through faith alone. Many more could be provided. But I think you’ll be encouraged by this survey look at the gospel according to the church fathers.

(Even if you don’t read every quote, just take a moment to consider the fact that, long before Luther, the leaders of the ancient church were clearly proclaiming the gospel of grace through faith in Christ.)

1. Clement of Rome (30-100): “And we, too, being called by His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified by ourselves, nor by our own wisdom, or understanding, or godliness, or works which we have wrought in holiness of heart; but by that faith through which, from the beginning, Almighty God has justified all men; to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.”

Source: Clement, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 32.4.
Continue reading

Justification by Faith Alone (Pre-Reformation)

TurretinFan answers the question, why didn’t anyone realize it before the Protestant Reformers?”

The answer is that while the Reformers may have better systematized, organized, and rendered consistent the doctrines known under the umbrella of “sola fide,” or justification by faith alone, they were not in uncharted territory.

That is not to say that the church fathers were consistent or that they all taught the same thing. Nevertheless, the idea of justification by faith alone certainly wasn’t new to the Reformers.

Chrysostom (349-407): Attend to this, ye who come to baptism at the close of life, for we indeed pray that after baptism ye may have also this deportment, but thou art seeking and doing thy utmost to depart without it. For, what though thou be justified: yet is it of faith only. But we pray that thou shouldest have as well the confidence that cometh of good works. NPNF1: Vol. XIII, On the Second Epistle of St. Paul The Apostle to the Corinthians, Homily 2, §8.

What is interesting about the above is that Chrysostom is denying the necessity of baptism for justification. He’s saying that good works provide confidence but that nevertheless one can be justified by faith alone.

Chrysostom (349-407): That those who were enemies, and sinners, neither justified by the law, nor by works, should immediately through faith alone be advanced to the highest favor. Upon this head accordingly Paul has discoursed at length in his Epistle to the Romans, and here again at length. “This is a faithful saying,” he says, “and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” As the Jews were chiefly attracted by this, he persuades them not to give heed to the law, since they could not attain salvation by it without faith. Against this he contends; for it seemed to them incredible, that a man who had mis-spent all his former life in vain and wicked actions, should afterwards be saved by his faith alone. On this account he says, “It is a saying to be believed.” But some not only disbelieved but even objected, as the Greeks do now. “Let us then do evil, that good may come.” This was the consequence they drew in derision of our faith, from his words, “Where sin abounded grace did much more abound.” NPNF1: Vol. XIII, Homilies on First Timothy, Homily 4, 1 Timothy 1:15, 16.

One reason to include the quotation above is the fact that it refers to salvation by faith alone, and this is explicitly contrasted with good works. Continue reading

Pillars of Grace

GROUNDBREAKING OVERVIEW OF THE DOCTRINES OF GRACE IN CHURCH HISTORY

I wish every Christian would watch this video below to gain a sense of history when it comes to the doctrines of grace. It would be extremely enlightening to so many people.

The fact is, Calvinism did not begin with John Calvin. There was very little in the teachings of Calvin that was not first in Martin Luther (Calvin was merely the one who taught the doctrines in a structured and systematic way). Furthermore, it would be a huge mistake to think that the doctrines of grace started with the Magisterial Reformers. The concept of God’s Sovereignty in grace and redemption has been the constant declaration of the people of God throughout the history of the Church. Yet very few seem to be aware of this.

At a short session at the recent Ligonier 2011 National Conference, Dr. Steve Lawson was asked to talk about his new book. There’s good reason he was asked to do so. The book is the second in a series, the first being “Foundations of Grace” which articulates just about every Scripture verse in the Bible that deals with the doctrines of grace, starting with Genesis and ending in Revelation. I am not aware of another book of its kind.

Now, Dr. Lawson has produced another ground breaking work in “Pillars of Grace.” It is ground breaking because it combines four years of study, delving deeply into the writings of the great gifts of the ascended Christ to His Church through the centuries, men of God who taught the precious doctrines we hold dear.

I cannot recommend this video highly enough. I really hope you can carve out 23 minutes of your time to watch it. For every Reformed Christian who embraces the precious doctrines of grace, it will do your heart and soul much good.

Steven Lawson: “Pillars of Grace” from Ligonier on Vimeo.

UPDATE: Readers of this “EFFECTUAL GRACE” blog are now allowed an EXCLUSIVE 10% discount on ALL purchases at Ligonier. When you place your order online, simply type in the coupon code EGRACE10

For those wishing to purchase the book you can do so by typing in the words “Pillars of Grace” in the “Search Store” feature at the top right of the page at this link: Ligonier Ministries Online Store