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An Evangelical Introduction to Church History (Part 1)

Updated: May 11, 2020

A Short Summary View

The Amplitheatre in Ephesus mentioned in Acts chapter 19  

Photo by Ken Temple (Ephesus, Turkey)

This article is by no means exhaustive, but here are some highlights from early church history with references and sources for further study that show that Protestant Evangelicals can be deeper in understanding church history properly and more Biblical and stand against the false claim of John Henry Newman, that “to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant”, that has been attracting so many to Roman Catholicism in recent years.

What follows will be a short outline summary of some examples from early church history that lean more toward the Protestant understanding of doctrines and Scripture, rather than the modern Roman Catholic view.  In future articles, Lord willing, I will elaborate more on each issue and writer; for now it is valuable to see an overview of the evidence for an early church that is not Roman Catholic, and compatible with what will later become Protestantism in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Clement of Rome ( 96 AD) – Presbyters and Bishops are the same office – I Clement 44, confirming Acts 14:23; 20:17, 28; Titus 1:5-7; I Peter 5:1-4.

Clement also has an early statement on justification by faith apart from good works wrought by us within us.  I Clement 32.

See also Mathetes, Epistle to Diognetes (9).

Irenaeus (writing around 180-200 AD) – bishop of Lyons, France.  (On the “rule of faith”, “tradition”, “the preaching”, and “the faith”, these are all early Biblical Trinitarian doctrinal statements, similar to what will become the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed; not the Roman Catholic understanding of tradition).

Against Heresies, 1:10:1 to 1:11:1;  1:22:1;  3:4:2  (These summaries are all Biblical content and contain no Roman Catholic dogmas or distinctives that Protestants disagree with.  It is obvious that the early church “rule of faith” was a simple Trinitarian creed or doctrinal statement.

About Gnostic Secret oral traditions, viva voce (living voice) and using other sources and accusing the Scriptures of being unclear – Against Heresies 1:8:1 and 3:2:1.  It is the Roman Catholic church that follows a similar method of the Gnostics, in that they claim there was secret oral (“living voice”) tradition that was spoken by Jesus and the apostles, but was not written down in canonical Scripture (the 27 books of the NT); and yet it “came out” later in church history, in the life, liturgy, and piety of the church.  (Things like praying to Mary, the Eucharist as transubstantiation, penance, priests, the treasury of Merit, indulgences, purgatory, papal doctrines and dogmas, Mary as co-mediatrix, that Mary was sinless, that Mary was Immaculately conceived, and that Mary was bodily assumed into heaven.)

Irenaeus did not believe in the Perpetual virginity of Mary, as demonstrated in Against Heresies, 3:21:10 and 3:22:4.

Tertullian, died around 220 AD – Carthage, North Africa, wrote five books against Marcion and other works against Gnostics and other heresies.

Tertullian understood that Mary and Joseph had a normal sexual relationship within marriage after Jesus was born and so the doctrine of the virgin birth of Christ is biblical and historical, but the “brothers and sisters of the Lord” are truly the children of Mary of Joseph.  (see “On the Flesh of Christ”, chapter 23; On Monogamy, 8; and Against Marcion, 4:19)

For the believer’s baptism or credo-baptism position, Tertullian also cautioned against baptizing young children who could not understand the gospel yet, or repent or trust in Christ yet, see On Baptism, 18.

Tertullian, on the Rule of Faith, similar to Irenaeus –

Prescription Against Heretics 13:1-6

Against Praxeas 2:1-2

Cyprian (bishop of Carthage, died in 258 AD), executed under the persecution of Valerian) (he was right in his disagreement with Stephen, bishop of Rome).

Cyprian did not hold to a primacy of jurisdiction of Rome.  He and 86 other bishops disagreed with Stephen, bishop of Rome, and they wrote, “no one sets himself up as bishop of bishops”.

See the Seventh Council of Carthage under Cyprian: This fact alone is enough to destroy any idea that the early church believed in a Papacy.

Athanasius (died 373 AD) (deacon at the Council of Nicea in 325 and bishop of Alexandria from 328 – 373 AD, when he died)  He was exiled 5 times in his defense of the Deity of Christ and the Trinity against the Arian heretics who had taken over the churches.  (Dr. White/ Webster/King – they all demonstrate that Athanasius, along with many of the other early church writers, had a closer view of Scripture as the final authority – closer to Protestantism than the RCC view of Scripture and tradition; without claiming that he was a full blow Protestant.)

After listing the 27 books of the NT in his famous Easter Letter of 367 AD, Athanasius writes,

“These are the fountains of salvation that they who thirst may be satisfied with the living words they contain.  In these alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness.”  (Athanasius, Festal Letter 39) Notice the word “alone” here.  There is “Sola Scriptura” in a basic, general principle form.
“Vainly then do they run about with the pretext that they have demanded Councils for the faiths sake; for divine Scripture is sufficient above all things; but if a Council be needed on the point, there are the proceedings of the Fathers, for the Nicene Bishops did not neglect this matter, but stated the doctrines so exactly, that persons reading their words honestly, cannot but be reminded by them of the religion towards Christ announced in divine Scripture.”  (De Synodis, 6)  (On the Councils, 6)
“For indeed the holy and God-breathed Scriptures are self-sufficient for the preaching of the truth.”  (Against the Gentiles, 1:3)

Augustine (died in 430 AD – died right before the barbarian Vandals took Carthage.)  Augustine influenced Luther and Calvin on the bondage of the will of man in sin (with John 8:34 and Ephesians 2:1-3); and God’s grace and sovereignty in election and effectively calling and drawing His people.  (Grace must precede repentance and faith and decision for Christ, agreeing with John 6:44 and Acts 16:14 and many other passages.).

(See, for example, Augustine, The Enchiridion, chapter 30)

Jerome (347-420 AD) (his view on the Apocrypha is the right view).

 “As, then, the Church reads Judith, Tobit, and the books of Maccabees, but does not admit them among the canonical Scriptures, so let it also read these two Volumes (Wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiasticus) for the edification of the people, not to give authority to doctrines of the Church. ( Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 2, Vol. 6, St. Jerome, Prefaces to Jerome’s Works, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs; Daniel.)

See also: (NPNF2, Vol. 6, St. Jerome, Prefaces to Jerome’s Works, The Books of Samuel and Kings, pp. 489-490).

Origen (254 AD), Basil (379 AD), and Chrysostom (407 AD) all denied that Mary was sinless.

Basil of Caesarea (379 AD) on Scripture as the final infallible authority over customs/traditions:

“What is my reply? I do not consider it fair that the custom which obtains among them should be regarded as a law and rule of orthodoxy. If custom is to be taken in proof of what is right, then it is certainly competent for me to put forward on my side the custom which obtains here. If they reject this, we are clearly not bound to follow them. Therefore let God-inspired Scripture decide between us; and on whichever side be found doctrine