In this section, I propose to deal with two matters, (1) Creeds, (2) Worship and Organisation.
1. Creeds. It is evident from the New Testament that the earliest creed or profession required for the acceptance of new converts was a simple declaration of faith such as was given by the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8: “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God”. An even shorter form was used in some cases, namely, “Jesus is Lord”. But the simplicity and brevity of the statement do not imply a simple Christology. F F Bruce rightly comments: “When the earliest Christians gave Jesus the title Lord they used a divine title. The Greek word kurios was used in the Septuagint (the pre-Christian Greek translation of the Old Testament) as the rendering of [Jehovah] the Hebrew name of the God of Israel.” (2) He continues: “When the early Christians talked about Jesus being now enthroned at God’s right hand, they knew as well as we do that the expression meant that Jesus by His passion and triumph had attained the position of predominant supremacy in the universe”. When Jesus was accepted as Messiah and Lord by Jews and others whose beliefs about God were based on the Old Testament revelation, a simple confession such as we have mentioned was enough to admit them to the Christian community by baptism.
The situation was different when the gospel was carried to complete pagans. They were required to give a more detailed confession of faith than Jews or “God-fearers”. The unity of fundamental belief was maintained largely by the preaching of the apostles and their immediate successors, though little of it was written down. One writer states, “The whole business of the preacher was to tell the story of the cross. The preaching of the gospel was simply and literally the preaching of Christ. It was not a chain of principles but a recital of facts.” (3) In those early days, preaching had to be largely historical. There were no printed Bibles, and no books or commentaries from which men could learn the elements of the gospel.
Some writers are of the opinion that the Christian creeds and confessions of the early Church came into being to repudiate heresies, and there is some justification for this view. However, it may be easier for us too accept that the universal message of the apostles and the post-apostolic preachers is summed up in Paul’s statement about his preaching: “I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures; and that He was buried and rose again from the dead according to the Scriptures (1 Cor 15:3,4). Burns says, “If we accept this view, we shall the more easily understand how, even previous to the existence of any inspired written memoirs, the gospel message, as proclaimed by so great a multitude of preachers in every region of the world, may have possessed an entire unity in the substance and general scope, with the utmost freedom and variety in the detail”. (4)
The most serious heresy the Church had to deal with in this period was the Arian heresy. This heresy is at the foundation of the self-proclaimed Jehovah’s Witnesses. Briefly, Arius asserted that the Son cannot be God. “He was prepared to say that the Son had a beginning, and prior to His creation He did not exist; consequently He is God in name only”. (5) The division caused by the teaching of Arius was so severe that Emperor Constantine feared a schism and called the first ecumenical Council at Nicea in 325 AD. This Council produced the Creed of Nicea, which reads as follows: “We believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, only-begotten, that is to say, of the essence of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten, not made, of the same essence as the Father; through whom all things were made, things in heaven and things on earth; who for us men and for our salvation came down and became flesh and lived among men, who suffered and on the third day rose again, ascended into heaven, is coming to judge the living and the dead; and in the Holy Spirit. But those who say, ‘There was a time when He was not’, and, ‘Before He was begotten He did not exist’, or those who maintain that the Son of God is ‘of another substance or essence’, or ‘created’, or ‘capable of change’, or ‘subject to alteration’, those the holy catholic apostolic Church pronounces accursed.” “Unlike previous credal statements, the Creed of Nicea was not a baptismal confession but an expression of ecclesiastical doctrine.” (6)
Arianism, however, continued to be a source of trouble in the Church and was not finally outlawed in the Empire till the Council of Constantinople in 381 AD. The Creed of this Council is what is now called the Nicene Creed. The conversion of the Emperor Constantine to Christianity was in many ways highly beneficial to the Church. Christianity was not just tolerated, it was protected by the law, and the emperor himself was, at least nominally, a Christian. But, as Bruce says, “the imperial patronage of Christianity was the cause of another momentous and unfortunate precedent. The Christian leaders were so grateful to Constantine for his favour that they allowed him to have more say in internal church affairs than was his due. By this course they unwittingly, but effectively, mortgaged the future of Christian liberty.” (7)
2. Worship and Organization. Much of what we know of the Church of the first and second centuries is drawn from the writings of the Apologists. These writers tried to put the case for Christianity and derive their name from the Greek word apologia – a speech in defence. They sought to explain Christian practices and principles to the Roman authorities. The leading figure among them was probably Justin Martyr, who was put to death in 163 AD. From apostolic times, the worship and organization of the Church was simple, and closely followed the forms of the Jewish synagogue. As Burns wrote in 1880: “As to the form of those early congregations, it was in its main elements identical to what is common to the Protestant churches of our day”.
Every congregation had a number of elders, or presbyters. At a regular Sabbath service there was singing of a psalm and prayer. Justin Martyr describes a typical service as follows, “The memoirs of the apostles (that is, the Gospels) or the writings of the prophets are read as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings according to his ability and the people assent and say ‘amen’ and then there is a distribution to each and a participation of that over which thanks has been given. (8) Renwick comments: “The minister is called president, which shows that he was one of the brethren chosen to preside and not a member of a priestly caste”. (9)
Admission to the Church was by profession of faith in baptism. Other safeguards were adopted in times of persecution, when the dangers and sacrifices of discipleship might have seemed a guarantee against a light, hypocritical confession of the faith: “A protracted probation of from two to three years, during which the candidate was under instruction – hence called a catechumen (one receiving instruction) – preceded his final admission to the Church by baptism. Meanwhile he was already regarded as belonging to the Christian community and might be present at, and take part in, the public services of the Church, with the exception only of the communion, which was the privilege of the faithful alone.” (10)
Of the baptism of the children of believing parents one writer states; “Christian parents, mindful of the welfare of their children, sought to have them included within the fellowship of the Christian Church”. (11) Cyprian, who was martyred in 258 AD, states that it was the practice to baptise infants within a few days of their birth. The Didache (a document called the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles) states that “Baptism is to be in running water but, if this is not obtainable, then other water is to be used. If only a small amount is available then “pour water thrice on the head”. There seems to be no lack of evidence for the baptism of children, and there is warrant from the earliest times for baptism by sprinkling. Of course, there is evidence also for baptism by immersion, especially of adults.
I would like to conclude with an extract from the writings of one of the Apologists, the Epistle to Diognetus, which sets before us how the early Christian Church saw itself, in words which will always be relevant to the Church in the world: “Christians are not distinguished from the rest of mankind by nation, language or custom. They do not live apart in separate cities of their own, speaking a strange dialect, nor do they adopt an eccentric way of life. They live in Greek or barbarian cities, following local customs of clothing, diet and housing. Yet the amazing and admittedly unusual nature of their citizenship is evident. They live as aliens in their homelands, participating as citizens, yet suffering as strangers. For them every foreign country is a motherland, and their motherland a foreign land. They marry and have children like everyone else. They live in the flesh but refuse to define life by reference to the flesh. While they pass their time on earth, their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the law of the land, but their lives transcend mere law. They love everyone, yet everyone persecutes them. They are ignored or condemned, and if they are sentenced to death they are quickened with life. Although they are poor, yet they enrich man. Though in great need, they abound in everything.
“To put it in a nutshell, what the soul is in the body so are Christians in the world. The soul is dispersed through every part of the body, and Christians throughout all the cities of the world. The soul inhabits the body but is not part of the body, and Christians inhabit the world but are not of the world. The soul is invisible, hidden in the body, and, while Christians in the world are recognisable, their spirituality remains invisible. The soul hinders the satisfaction of fleshly lusts, and therefore the flesh hates it and wages war on it, even though the soul has done the flesh no wrong; similarly, although Christians have done the world no wrong, the world hates them just because they oppose worldly pleasures. The soul loves the flesh which hates it, and Christians love those who hate them. Despite being confined within the body, it is the soul which keeps the body together; and Christians are imprisoned in the world, yet the world’s integration is due to them. The immortal soul lives in a mortal body, and Christians are merely temporary residents in a passing world, waiting expectantly for the permanence of heaven.”
1. This is the final part of a paper given at last year’s Theological Conference. The previous section appeared last month. The first article dealt with The Era of Conquest, and the second with The Era of Conflict.
2.The Growing Day, p 14.
3. Islay Burns, The First Three Christian Centuries, p 59.
4. P 61.
5. J G Davies, The Early Christian Church, p 176.
6. F F Bruce, The Spreading Flame, p 24.
7. The Growing Day, p 13.
8. First Apology, quoted in A M Renwick and A M Harman, The Story of the Church, p 30.
9. Renwick and Harman , p 31.
10. Burns, p 177.
11. Davies, p 149.