Crazy Theology: What the early church fathers believed

TL;DR version: Some of the most important early church fathers who first articulated core Christian doctrines also believed in things you think are “heresy.” If you want to call people “heretic” for views that differ from yours, you will cut off the branch you are sitting on.

What most Christians don’t know

What is the most important thing that the average Christian (as a generalization) has very little knowledge about? History. I can say this without being condescending because I myself was in that category for most of my life. I remember about five years ago, before taking my first course on the History of Christianity, I knew virtually nothing about the early church. In my head, I literally had a picture of the Apostles (and of course they were very similar to me and my church, or so I imagined) and then I saw a hazy fog for the next few years… right up until the advent of contemporary Christianity. The first 1,500 years of Christian history were completely absent from my brain. Today I know people who are ignorant of the first 1900 years of Christian history. And what’s even more frightening is that I didn’t even think to question this gap.

In the past few years, thanks to numerous books, courses, lectures, I am learning so much that I did not know, and realizing how ignorant I was. One thing that has profoundly shocked me is how much modern Evangelical Christianity portrays Christian doctrine as a firm, monolithic, unchanging list of truths. Any deviation from this list is seen as immoral and unethical. Yet, the astounding variety of views held by some of the most important early Christians are completely against such a position. Consider the interesting theological doctrines held by the following patriarchs, men who literally defined what Christianity means.

Ask yourself one question, if you met a person who believed such things today, would you consider them orthodox? Would you let them preach in your church? My guess is that you would quickly reject them. Yet, these men clarified and first penned words and phrases that became widely accepted doctrinal confessions. Behold the great irony, contemporary Christians often present Christianity in such a way that the most important early Church leaders and theologians are excluded.

The Heretics who defined Orthodoxy

This list is a tiny foray into a vast expanse of important people and ideas. There are more early church fathers I would love to include, but the amount of time and space this would require is far too immense. Also, even amongst the patriarchs I do include, we only have the time and patience for a small sampling of strange (to us) theological views. This list not exhaustive, it is a tiny page in a vast book of Christian history which is obscure to most Christians.

Justin Martyr (100-165 CE)

Justin is canonized as a saint who died as a martyr for the Christian faith. He was a prolific apologist (defender of Christianity) and is considered the foremost early interpreter of the theory of the Logos. This means that our current theology and understanding of what the Word/Logos in John 1:1 means is developed from Martyrs thoughts and writings. In all things Justin Martyr was a very influential and exemplary Christian that was beloved and well received by the Christians of the Early Church. You could probably compare Justin to someone like C.S. Lewis today, he was widely read and quoted. (1, 2, 3)

  • Greek philosophy is like the Old Testament: “The seeds of Christianity (manifestations of the Logos acting in history) actually predated Christ’s incarnate existence. This notion allowed him to claim many historical Greek philosophers (including Socrates and Plato, in whose works he was well studied, as unknowing Christians.” (4) Justin was not alone in this, another prominent Church Father, Clement of Alexandria (150-215CE), said “it is clear, therefore, that to the Jews was given the law, and to the Greeks philosophy, until the appearance of our Lord… philosophy was necessary to the Greeks as a means of righteousness; now it is useful in the service of piety as a sort of preparation for demonstrating the faith.” (5)
  • Forgiveness can only be had with fasting: “As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them.”  (6)
  • Satan only sinned after Jesus came to earth. Irenaeus (another early church father) wrote: “Truly has Justin remarked: That before the Lord’s appearance Satan never dared to blaspheme God, inasmuch as he did not yet know his own sentence, because it was contained in parables and allegories; but that after the Lord’s appearance, when he had clearly ascertained from the words of Christ and His apostles that eternal fire has been prepared for him as he apostatized from God of his own free-will,” (7)
  • Conditional immortality (the soul is not in itself eternal) and likely annihilationism (that souls die and cease to be, forever). “But I do not say, indeed, that all souls die; for that were truly a piece of good fortune to the evil. What then? The souls of the pious remain in a better place, while those of the unjust and wicked are in a worse, waiting for the time of judgment. Thus some which have appeared worthy of God never die; but others are punished so long as God wills them to exist and to be punished (7)

Tertullian (160-225 CE)

Tertullian was a Christian apologist who is known as “the greatest theologian of the West until Augustine” who was “the first to use the term Trinitas (trinity) to describe the Godhead.” (8) While others had developed the idea of the Trinity before (a few of these theologians will be listed later) it was Tertullian who first wrote down the term that is today considered one of the most essential and sacred words of the Christian faith.

  • Accepted the book of Enoch as Holy Scripture. (9) For reference, “the Book of Enoch describes the fall of the Watchers, the angels who fathered the Nephilim (giant magical beings in Noah’s day). The remainder of the book describes Enoch’s visits to heaven in the form of travels, visions and dreams, and his revelations.” (10)
  • Forgiveness is almost impossible. As historian Eric Osborn says “After baptism there can be only one further forgiveness and this must follow severe penance.. Tertullian never admitted the possibility that God might pardon freely” (11)
  • Promoted many anti sex arguments (even sex within marriage), asking “I cannot help asking, whether we do not, in that very heat of extreme gratification when the generative fluid is ejected, feel that somewhat of our soul has gone from us?” (12)
  • The beauty of women is evil, and jewelry/clothes were made by demons. Tertulian wrote that “the angels who fell from heaven invented jewelry and for this they were condemned to death.” And “The beauty of women was so great it turned the angels away from God. Once they were contaminated they could not go to heaven… from their seed giants are supposed to have been born, and it was they who taught people… how to dye wool.” (13)
  • Misogynistic view of women, said “”Do you not know that you are Eve? The judgment of God upon this sex lives on in this age; therefore, necessarily the guilt should live on also. You are the gateway of the devil; you are the one who unseals the curse of that tree, and you are the first one to turn your back on the divine law; you are the one who persuaded him whom the devil was not capable of corrupting; you easily destroyed the image of God, Adam. Because of what you deserve, that is, death, even the Son of God had to die.” (14)

Origen of Alexandria (185-254 CE)

Origen, born a little over 80 years after the death of Apostle John, was “the Church’s first true theologian and Bible scholar.” (15, 16) He translated scriptures, conducted textual studies, wrote 6,000 scrolls of commentaries and sermons, was the father of Christological typology (17), and his studies were later used to decide which books were canonical (in the Bible or not). (18) He was read and accepted by everyone in the early church, local Bishops would even call him in to publicly defend Christianity against the heretics. (19) Modern theologians admit that “forever is the Church indebted to Origen.” (20)

  • The Bible contains three layers of meaning.Origen spoke of a threefold sense of scripture: body, soul, and spirit. The bodily sense supposedly involved the literal, the outward, the external events. The soul sense dealt with all of man’s personal relationship and experiences with his fellow men. The spiritual sense concerned mans relationship to God and Gods relationship to himself, his world, and especially to mankind.“ (21)
  • Rigid asceticism, even possible self-castration. “Origen, during his time as an instructor, lived the life of a devoted ascetic, sleeping little and eating meager meals.” (22) There are some reports of him actually castrating himself, in obedience to the command of Jesus in Matthew 5:29-30, however, this may have been a false accusation promulgated by his enemies.
  • Universalism (everyone gets saved though Jesus in the end) it is well agreed that Origen was a prominent believer in the universal reconciliation of all creatures to God and spoke of all souls being “restoredunto God. (23) He hypothesized that even satan might join “after having undergone heavier and severer punishmentsimproved by this stern method of training, and [are] restoredand thus advancing through each stage to a better condition, reach even to that which is invisible and eternal” (24)

Gregory of Nazianzus (329-390 CE)

Gregory of Nazianzus was an Archbisop, and a widely influential theologian, who made a significant impact on the shape of Trinitarian theology.” (25) For a short time until his resignation, he presided over the First Council of Constantinople, where the Nicene Creed (faith statement) was written and formulated. (26, 27) The Nicene Creed is one of the earliest, by far the most important, and the most universally accepted Christian creed; it is literally the most well known “standard of Christianity.”

  • Universal reconciliation, or the idea that ultimately all of creation will be reconciled with the Father. This would mean that, hell, should it exist is only a preparatory place that purges men of their sins, culminating in the salvation of all. (28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33) He wrote that “a few drops of blood renew the whole world, and become for all men that which rennet is for milk, uniting and drawing us into one.” (34)

Gregory of Nyssa (335 – 395 CE)

Gregory who is venerated as a saint, was brother to St. Basil, and a bishop of Nyssa who made significant contributions to the doctrine of the Trinity. (35) He was also involved in the formation and defense the Nicene Creed, the most universal standard of Christianity. (36) Not only that, but there is a tradition that he added the clauses to the Nicene creed that are in italics” (37) while others wrote this passed down tradition isn’t necessarily true. (38) Nonetheless Gregory was vastly influential in the formation of traditional Christian doctrine, whether or not he was, as theologian Robin Parry calls him: the “final editor” of the Nicene Creed. (39)

  • Universal reconciliation, or the idea that ultimately all of creation will be reconciled with the Father. This would mean that, hell, should it exist is only a preparatory place that purges men of their sins, culminating in the salvation of all. He wrote “For it is evident that God will in truth be ‘in all’ when there shall be no evil in existence, when every created being is at harmony with itself, and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord; when every creature shall have been made one body. Now the body of Christ, as I have often said, is the whole of humanity.” (40)

Augustine of Hippo (354-430CE)

a bishop and a saint, hardly needs an introduction. His books, including The Confessions of Augustine and the City of God, still remains today, as some of the most read and esteemed Christian books in history, besides the Bible. Many Evangelicals and Conservative Protestants often consider Augustine to be the most important theologian that has ever lived. (41, 42, 43, 44, 45) Augustine’s thought was very influential on the church as a whole, in addition to sparking the doctrine of Calvinism, original sin, just war, and many others.

  • Some parts of the Bible are to be hidden. Believed we should hide difficult texts, or that all Scriptures are not for everyone. Said for there are some passages which are not understood in their proper force, or are understood with great difficulty… these should never be brought before the people at all, or only on rare occasions when there is some urgent reason.” (St. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine Translated By Rev. Prof. J. F. Shaw, 46)
  • The “Apocrypha” is  canonical Scripture. “The whole canon of the Scriptures, however, in which we say that consideration is to be applied, is contained in these books…” [list of “Old Testament” books prior to the Prophets], “and Judith and the two books of Maccabees, and the two of Esdras” [list Prophets and a few more Apocryphal books in between them] (47)
  • Baptismal regeneration. The physical act of baptism caused one to be cleansed from (original) sin. “Baptism washes away all, absolutely all, our sins, whether of deed, word, or thought, whether sins original or added, whether knowingly or unknowingly contracted” If anyone wonders why children born of the baptized should themselves be baptized, let him attend briefly to this. . . . The sacrament of baptism is most assuredly the sacrament of regeneration. The sacrament of baptism is undoubtedly the sacrament of regeneration.” “There are three ways in which sins are forgiven: in baptism, in prayer, and in the greater humility of penance; yet God does not forgive sins except to the baptized (48)
  • Infants should be baptized for salvation. Said: “baptizing infants is certainly not to be scorned, nor is it to be regarded in any way as superfluous, nor is it to be believed that its tradition is anything except apostolic (49)
  • Infants who are not baptized, automatically go to hell, though will suffer the least (A doctrine called Limbo, 50). Augustine said: “such infants as quit the body [die] without being baptized will be involved in the mildest condemnation of all. That person, therefore, greatly deceives both himself and others, who teaches that they will not be involved in condemnation; whereas the apostle says: ‘Judgment from one offence to condemnation’ (Romans 5:16), and again a little after: ‘By the offence of one upon all persons to condemnation’ (Romans 5:18).” (51)
  • Purgatorial fires can cleanse a soul after death. “We read in the books of the Maccabees [2 Macc. 12:43] that sacrifice was offered for the dead. But even if it were found nowhere in the Old Testament writings, the authority of the Catholic Church which is clear on this point is of no small weight, where in the prayers of the priest poured forth to the Lord God at his altar the commendation of the dead has its place” And “some  of the faithful may be saved, some more slowly and some more quickly in the greater or lesser degree in which they loved the good things that perish, through a certain purgatorial fire.” (52)
  • Six day creation is not true. He “concluded that the six days of Creation are not chronological. Rather, they are a way of categorizing God’s work of creation. God created the world in an instant but continues to develop and mold it, even to the present day.” And opened the door for the theory of evolution by saying Scripture has stated that the earth brought forth the crops and the trees causally, in the sense that it received the power of bringing them forth.” (53)

5 responses

    • It is the standard convention in academic literature, even in many of the Biblical texts I read, I suppose I didn’t even realize it rubbed off on me. There is certainly no secret agenda, if thats what you are asking

  1. I wouldn’t call this crazy. I’d say it’s the dynamic and progressive realization of divine action. It wasn’t completed back then, and still isn’t today. Full of fits and starts, but clearly working towards some goal. It shows the modern day fundamentalist with his certainty-seeking faith to be mostly bogus. However, to the more moderate and rational of believers, I’m not sure there is anything shocking here… but definitely some interesting and useful history!

  2. May not be a theological stance but it should be noted that the father of Protestantism said some pretty evil and vile things about Jews. In his treatise, “The Jews and their Lies”, he wrote that their synagogues and schools should be destroyed, that Rabbis should be forbidden from teaching at pain of losing a limb. Very enlightened, yes? I believe John Calvin also had some nasty words for the Jews as well.

  3. It is evident that you implication of history is the history contained outside of the Bible. Although I find it important to mention that the Bible itself contains history, biographies, and even things such as genealogies. So I am inclined to disagree with your statement that the most important thing Christians have little knowledge about is history and I make the claim that it is actually the Bible itself.

    I do agree with you though that Christians should not neglect history, even outside of the Bible. Christians should study history so they can receive a better understanding through the application of historical context. Although, a Christian should not view history in such a way that jeopardizes the authority of the Bible. Just because early church fathers stated things, which there are clear examples you have provided, that doesn’t mean what they stated is true.

    As much of an exhaustive list that you are capable of providing, I could provide an exhaustive list of Biblical passages warning against false teachers. With this knowledge, I still stand with my claim that the Bible is of much more importance than any form of outside history.

    My final statements: If I identify heresy, I can save others from perching on that branch. If we contain knowledge within the Bible, then we will be able to identify heresy more clearly.

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