Did the Early Christians Get Things Wrong?

You can find countless variations of the claim that early Christians believed Protestant things:

  • Mormons who claim that the early Christians believed Mormon things
  • Muslims who claim they believed Muslim things
  • Non-religious people claiming that they didn’t originally consider Jesus divine
  • And various other religious groups making similar claims about how their teachings were what the earliest Christians really believed.

Almost all of these arguments follow a similar form: the first followers of Jesus got the message right, but eventually, things go wrong, and that’s how we end up with Catholicism.

But notice that all these critiques of Catholicism turn on specific historical claims (or assumptions) about what the early Christians were like. And that makes sense. If you say Jesus’ teachings were good, but the Catholic Church got them wrong, you’ve got to say either that (1) nobody (until you?) understood his teachings or (2) these teachings were originally understood but were eventually misunderstood.

The problem with the first of these two ideas is that Scripture shows that the earliest followers of Jesus did understand the Gospel, at least eventually. Jesus promises the apostles at the Last Supper that“I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you forever,”whom he calls“the Spirit of truth”(John 14:16-17). This“Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you,” and“when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come”(v. 26, 16:13). St. John can thus speak of“the truth which abides in us and will be with us forever”(2 John 1:2) and describe how he has no greater joy than“to hear that my children follow the truth”(3 John 1:4), suggesting that it wasn’t just the apostles who understood Christ’s teaching, but also their spiritual children.

In short, the earliest Christians got the gospel right. That doesn’t mean that everyone without exception got everything right, but it does mean that the truth of the Faith was well known, and widely held, and that the task of the next generation of Christians was to remain firm in this faith and to“contend for the Faith which was once for all delivered to the saints”(Jude 1:3), not to go searching to find were the true Faith had gone.

And contend they did. Although the early Christians weren’t perfect, what we see of them is inspiring. An early (perhaps second-century) Christian author describes the state of Christianity in his day by saying that although“Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs,”like their neighbors with regard to“dress, food and manner of life in general,” there is nevertheless“something extraordinary about their lives”in that they are radically centered upon Jesus Christ:

They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them.1 They share their meals, but not their wives. They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law. Christians love all men, but all men persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again. . . . As the soul benefits from the deprivation of food and drink, so Christians flourish under persecution. Such is the Christian’s lofty and divinely appointed function, from which he is not permitted to excuse himself.

So, how do we answer the second assertion, that“these teachings were originally understood but were eventually misunderstood”?

I’ve generally confined myself to looking at Christianity from about the year 200 and before. It’s not a hard and fast rule, and I bend it whenever it seems justified, but I have a few reasons for sticking with just these earliest of the early Christians. First, Christianity explodes in size after this point, making it difficult (and confusing) to accurately trace the currents of thought throughout the Church. Second, some of you may hear A.D. 280 and think, “That’s plenty of time for the rot to set in.”

Using 200 as more or less the cutoff date means we’re looking at Christianity before it faced many of the most famous of the early heresies. This is Christianity before Manicheanism, Donatism, or Pelagianism existed, and it’s long before Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in the fourth century.

The final reason to look at Christianity in the first and second centuries is that Christians from that time had something that we don’t: living memory.

As the biblical scholar Markus Bockmuehl explains,“the end of the second century was the last time that personal memory of the disciples of the apostles could still be truthfully invoked in order to confirm or challenge a particular interpretation of the apostolic gospel.”At the close of the second century, you still have people who learned from the students of the apostles, and who had personal knowledge of what the apostles meant by their writings, and what they said in their preaching. In Bockmuehl’s words, we find that“a relatively short and identifiable chain of living personal recollection reaches back to the apostles themselves.”In fact, we even know quite a bit about some of these second-century followers of the apostles.

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Jul 1st 2024 Joe Heschmeyer

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