"The wide diversity of early Christianity may be seen above all by the theological beliefs embraced by people who understood themselves to be followers of Jesus. In the second and third centuries there were, of course, Christians who believed in one God. But there were others that insisted there were two. Some said there were thirty. Others claimed there were 365 (Lost Christianities, 2)."
I want to present to you New Testament Scriptures that show the early church had a set standard of orthodoxy and they knew it. Of course the skeptic will say that the group that came to power in the later centuries rewrote history and changed the Bible to fit their theological positions. But this fails when one simply examines the manuscript evidence and the historical data from the patristics. That is a story for another blog post. Below you will find twelve verses that support the Christian position, that orthodoxy was established by the Apostles, not the fourth century church councils.
- James 3:1--Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment.
This statement assumes some sort of objective standard by which the teacher judges themselves. Surely, this is speaking of a future judgment by God but the point remains. How can I, a teacher, know if I am teaching the correct doctrine that will please God? I must have access to the pure doctrine.
- Galatians 1:6-9--I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed!
The good news has specific content. All Gospels are not created equal. For the Christian to be able to discern between two divergent views, they must be able to know what aligns with the truth.
- Galatians 1:11-12--For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
This is not subjective, I-got-a-burning-in-my-stomach, sort of revelation. This is divine teaching handed down from God, directly to man. This is contrasted with something that might have been “taught” (διδάσκω), whose source could only be, by process of elimination, the mind of man or the devil. Therefore, the messages could be distinguished from one another by critical thinking.
- 2 Thess 2:15--So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us.
Here we see a certain doctrinal standard that is commanded to be kept. One cannot separate believing things from doing things. For what one believes will influence how one acts. This doctrinal content was able to be communicated to them orally or through written documents.
- 1st Cor 16:13 & 2 Cor 13:5--Be on the alert, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong...Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you--unless indeed you fail the test?
Here “the faith” stands for the core of essential Christian theology. This blatantly implies a standard to which one must measure themselves against.
- Romans 16:17--Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them.
Here is specific didactic teaching that can be distinguished from other unharmonious teaching.
- 1st Tim 1:3--As I urged you upon my departure for Macedonia, remain on at Ephesus so that you may instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines (ἑτεροδιδασκαλέω)
There is a standard to judge against this “strange” (hetero) teaching. This standard is later brought up in 4:6. The contrast between sound teaching and false teaching is again brought up in 6:3. The standard is identified as the very words of Jesus himself. This becomes more interesting when we realize that Paul claimed that his words were the words of Christ (1 Thess 2:13).
- 2nd Tim 1:13-14--Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. Guard, through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, the treasure which has been entrusted to you.
The standard is again seen as Apostolic teaching. This standard is seen as a good deposit (παραθήκη) for the next generation. But Paul warns it will not always be tolerated (4:3).
- Jude 3--Beloved, while I was making every effort to write you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints.
Jude assumes specific content that was fixed and could not be changed. The idea of “once for all” (ἅπαξ) has the concept of finality. Jude uses the same word in verse 5.
- 1st John 1:5--This is the message we have heard from Him and announce to you, that God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all.
John assumes a consistent and unchanging doctrine, originating with Jesus, taught by the Apostles, and continually handed down to the Church. All one has to do is read 1st John to see the message is specifically theological in nature. The Christian life is grounded in specific theology (1:6).
- 1st John 4:1-2--Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God;
The command for the early Christians to “test the spirits” was related to a Christological test. If John expected them to comply with his wishes, then he assumes a fixed body of doctrine containing propositional theology.
- 2nd John 9-10--Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house, and do not give him a greeting;
Continuing in the teaching of Christ is John’s standard of orthodoxy. The phrase could be either a subjective or objective genitive. The former would mean “the teachings that Jesus taught”, while the latter would be “the teachings about Christ”. John assumes the continuity of both (1:5), therefore, either translation works. Continuing in this orthodox position is necessary to remain in Fellowship with the Father and the Son.
Popular skeptics like Ehrman challenge the historical date of orthodox Christianity. They thrive on sensationalizing the data by portraying early Christianity as a fuzzy picture with blurred doctrinal lines. I’m sorry if the data isn’t as exciting but I’m a promoter for truth over sensational news. The data shows that first century Christianity had clear lines of demarcation to show who was in and who was out. Sure, some of the implications of these theological positions took time to work out (i.e. the humanity & deity of Christ). But the New Testament can still be clear on what is orthodoxy and what is heresy.