Early Church History


At approximately 100 AD, there were many churches in the Roman Empire, and some had strayed from the beliefs and practices of the early church. False teachers had introduced heresy within the churches. In many churches, they had lost their first love and had become cold spiritually. Many had become worldly in practice, and they were deep in sin. Others were suffering severe persecution.

AD 100 – AD 324

“This period is characterized by immense doctrinal diversity and the age of ‘flux,’” The two natures of Christ were a largely controversial subject during this period.

Note: The following quotes are from “Eerdman’s Handbook of the History of Christianity.  This book was my primary source, and I will quote it often – the quotations will be referenced as (Handbook). I will also quote from the network encyclopedia, Wikipedia, noted as (Wikipedia). The internet will also be used as a source.

“Among the most noticeable features of Christian growth has been the amazing ability of the faith periodically to reform and renew itself. Historians are often struck by the resilience of Christianity and in seemingly inexhaustible capacity to revive after periods of stagnation or decay.  In fact, this has been a major theme of Christian history.”

“Fierce persecution has led to the purifying of the faithful; heresy and aberrations have led to the clarifying of beliefs; intellectual attacks have led to a refinement of practices and emphases.”

“What the apostles taught and practiced became the true pattern for all later teaching and practice and the standard by which they would be judged. For the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox communions, the test of genuine Christianity became the apostolic church – especially the standard of catholicity. The important questions were:  What are the ingredients of a true priesthood?  What and where is the church?  How does the Church convey salvation to mankind?  What is the source and nature of the authority of the true Holy Church?”

“In the case of Protestants, the test of genuine Christianity became apostolic Christianity – especially as revealed in the Bible. The important questions were: What does the Bible teach about the way of salvation, the nature of the true church, access to and communion with God, and the source and nature of authority? In different ways, all Christians look back to the first century for their basis….”

“The basic claim of the early Christians was that they had discovered a different way of life that was better than that offered by the non-Christian world. They believed that Jesus was the promised Messiah or Christ and that he had freed them from their sins and transformed their lives through the power of the Holy Spirit. They were, in the words of the apostle Paul, new creations in Christ….”

“The hallmarks of apostolic Christianity were simplicity, community, evangelism, and love.  It was simple because it had little or no formal organization, maintained no church buildings or membership rolls, taught easy-to-understand doctrines, and followed a plan of financing activities by personal giving.”….

“In addition, the Christian emphasis on the community of love sealed by baptism appealed to many people who were otherwise without hope and desperately lonely.” …”Furthermore, the early Christians were aggressively evangelistic.”

Note: All the above are quoted from Eerdman’s Handbook.

Resurrection faith

“The key to understanding the growth of the early Christian movement is the stimulus of the resurrection of Christ. It is hard to conceive that there would have been any Christianity without a firm belief by the early disciples in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. They were convinced that their master had conquered death and had appeared to many of them in person. Only this resurrection faith explains how the small, motley, demoralized group which Jesus left on earth after his reported ascension could have developed the enthusiasm to sweep all obstacles before them in their bold worldwide mission. A few disheartened followers were transformed into the most dynamic movement in the history of mankind. Without this firm belief in a risen Christ, the fledgling Christian faith would have faded into oblivion.”

“The growth of Christianity after the first century was greatly aided by the fact that it attracted more and more able individuals. These people gave the young faith the intellectual leaders it needed to stabilize it, and it spread to all parts of the known world and attracted more and more people from all walks of life.”

But as Christianity expanded, so did the possibilities for deviations from the faith.  In order to refute the claims of movements such as Gnosticism, Marcionism, and Montanism, the Christian leaders of the second and third centuries attempted to set down exactly what it was that Jesus and the apostles taught. One way of doing this was by trying to trace some kind of direct line back to the apostles. ‘They looked for a connection with the first Christians through a line of pastors, bishops, elders, and teachers. This uninterrupted apostolic succession was seen as the best guarantee of the handing on the genuine apostolic teaching.’”

These leaders, generally referred to as ‘Church Fathers’, also had to decide which of the writings then circulating among Christians were genuinely apostolicOnce identified, these documents were collected together as an authority. In this way, the New Testament canon was formulated and generally accepted in the Christian world.”

“In addition, the cause of genuine Christianity in its struggle with heresy and deviation was aided greatly by the composition and wide use of what was later called the Apostles’ Creed.  Once again, this stemmed from the desire to know what the apostles taught and to instill this teaching into new converts. The creed grew out of an early formula used at baptism, which attempted to state concisely and in easily understandable language the essence of Christian doctrines.  Because it was widely accepted as an authentic statement of apostolic teaching, it became known as the Apostles’ Creed.”

One other vital element in the growth of early Christianity was persecution and martyrdom. Early persecution was sporadic and local.  The first intensive effort by the state to eliminate Christians came after the burning of Rome during the reign of Emperor Nero in AD 64. Nero made the Christians the scapegoats for the disaster, and they were savagely tortured and burned, at least in and around Rome. Empire-wide persecutions came periodically in the third and fourth centuries. Untold numbers of Christians died heroically for their faith; only relatively few recanted. So impressive were the many who died gladly for Christ that they were more than replaced by fresh converts. The Christian writer Tertullian observed: ‘The blood of the martyrs is seed.’”

Source: Eerdmans Handbook to the History of Christianity, Guidepost, Carmel, New York, pp “Introduction.”

Roman Emperors who persecuted The Church

  • Nero – 64-68 (Paul was beheaded under his reign)
  • Domitian – 95-96 (John was exiled during that period)
  • Trajan – 104-117 (Ignatius was burned at the stakes)
  • Marcus Aurelius – 161-180 (Polycarp was martyred)
  • Severus – 200-211
  • Maximinius – 235-237
  • Decius – 250-253
  • Valerian -257-260
  • Aurelian – 270-275
  • Diocletian – 303-313 (the worst emperor of all}

(Source: J Vernon McGee, Revelation 1, pp 76

Practice and Doctrines  

  • “Sunday, the Christian day of worship, was observed from the very beginning of the Christian Church. It was a radical departure from Judaism, which observed the Sabbath (or seventh day of the week).”
  • “The central service of worship on Sunday in the early church was the ‘breaking of bread’ or ‘communion.’ This was a fellowship meal with preaching, Bible reading, and prayer, which culminated in the formal acts taken over from the Last Supper. The aim was to remember Jesus’ death and to celebrate his resurrection. Praise and thanksgiving were uppermost, and for this reason, the name ‘Eucharist’ (Greek for thanksgiving) was often given to the occasion.  Gradually the Eucharist became more formal, and the meal aspect secondary.”
  • “Preaching in the Christians’ own places of worship offered another method of evangelism. The normal Sunday ‘service’ gradually began to split into two parts. The first part was open to all, but the communion which followed was restricted to baptized believers.”
  • “Clement of Rome (about AD 100) also gives evidence that Sunday worship was becoming formalized. Clement included a great prayer of intercession, drawn from the church’s liturgy (a word used for the form of service, normally the Lord’s Supper)”.
  • “Ignatius (about AD 100) also emphasized that the Eucharist is the focal point of the church’s unity, and so must be celebrated only under the authorized church leader, the bishop or his delegate.”
  • “From the third century, Old Testament ideas of priesthood were used by some to interpret the Eucharist as the ‘Christian sacrifice.’ At first, the sacrifice was thought to consist of praises, but gradually it came to be held that an offering was made to God to gain forgiveness of sins.” Note: The church, later, under the Papal system, would create a treasure (both public and private) of grace points. The Eucharist was a way to earn Grace points which could be used to pay for sins. Soon the elements of the Lord’s Supper were considered to be the physical body and blood of Jesus (See John 6:41-52).”
  • “Baptism was originally an occasion for witnessing to faith in Christ on conversion, and was the entrance ceremony to the church, identifying the person with the death and resurrection of Jesus. Only those who had been baptized took part in the communion service.”
  • “The Didache or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, an anonymous book of 16 short chapters, is probably the earliest known written instructions, outside of the Bible, for administering baptism. In particular, it describes the two foundational sacraments of Christianity: the Eucharist and baptism.” “There is general agreement that the New Testament contains no positive evidence for infant baptism, and the requirements made by the Didache on baptismal candidates are typically understood as precluding infant baptism” (Handbook). “The theology of baptism attained precision in the 3rd and 4th centuries.”(Source: Google and Wikipedia)
  • “Then, from an early period, considerable preparation was considered necessary before baptism took place. Candidates often had a period of three years probation to see if they were of good character. Then came a period of intensive instruction in Christian doctrine, often involving memorizing a short statement of Christian belief (the creeds). It was very likely that the creed began in the form of questions put to the candidate before baptism.” “A convert who was martyred before Baptism was regarded as experiencing a better ‘baptism in blood.’”
  • “Baptism was normally by immersion either in the river or in the bathhouse of a large house. The person was normally immersed three times, in response to the three questions about belief in the three persons of the Trinity.”
  • “From the early second century, baptism by pouring of water was allowed in cases of emergency or sickness.”
  • “From the third century, the baptismal service also includes the laying-on-of-hands by the chief minister of the church (the bishop), with a prayer that the candidate would receive the Holy Spirit.”
  • “The first definite mention of child-baptism comes early in third century, and infant baptism was common by the mid-third century.  Both adult and infant baptism were practiced until the sixth century, after which normally, only infant baptism was practiced.”
  • “As early as the end of the second century, some people had come to believe that baptism has a magical effect. Tertullian mentions prayer to ‘sanctify’ the water, and from then on, it was widely believed that baptism automatically washed away sins.”
  • By the end of the third century, “baptism was generally held to cover only sins already committed. A system of penitence was developed to cover sins after baptism. Serous post-baptismal lapses required special treatment. Some Christian leaders claimed that offenses such as idolatry after baptism were unpardonable on earth, but others allowed one such occasion of forgiveness subsequent to baptism.” By this time, it was clear that the Church did not believe in Eternal Security.
  • As Christians committed sins by renouncing Christ, there was a disagreement as to if and how they could be reinstated. Some were required to be re-baptized because, by this time, it was accepted that baptism was required for salvation. A conversely developed about the baptism being valid if the one doing the baptizing was under sin.

Source: Eerdmans Handbook to the History of Christianity, pp 9-10, 85. 79, 110, 127. Other sources as noted.

Heresy and Deviation

Paul encountered the first heresy very early with the Judaizers, who believed Christians had to keep the Old Testament Laws.  The following are considered to be significant heresies after the turn of the century.

  • Gnosticism (Began after 100 AD) – “The Gnostics had a dualistic system of belief holding that the Spiritual and the Material were opposed to each other. They believed that matter was ultimately evil and that Spirit was good” (Google). “The Gnostics were followers of a variety of religious movements in the early Christian centuries which stressed that people could be saved through a secret knowledge (gnosis in Greek)…All Gnostics viewed the material creation as evil.  Most Gnostics, however, had a radically ascetic attitude toward sex and marriage. Humans were originally unisex (Handbook, pp 98).

“Most of the Gnostics rejected the entire Old Testament, at least in any straightforward meaning. They blamed the inferior God of the Old Testament for creating the evil material world” (Handbook, p 101).

  • Marcion – He was born in Sinope, Pontus. He went to Rome in AD 140 and immediately fell under the teaching of a Gnostic teacher who believed that the God of the Old Testament was different from the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. Marcion denied that Jesus was born of a woman and stated that “he suddenly appeared in the synagogue at Capernaum in AD 29 as a grown man.”  He rejected the entire Old Testament and those New Testament writings that favored Jewish readers – Matthew, Mark, Acts, and Hebrews. Christ was not human and was only like humans in appearance. He was anti-Jewish and also stated that God was the author of sin. 
  • Manichaeism – Manichee claimed that his revelation was the final revelation. Manichaeism is a religion founded by the Persian Mani in the latter half of the third century. It purported to be the true synthesis of all the known religious systems. It consisted of Zoroastrian, Dualism, Babylonian folklore, Buddhist ethics, and some small and superficial additions of Christian elements” (Handbook).
  • Montanism – A young Christian named Montanus, in Phrygia, began to attract attention in AD 172 by teaching a doctrine of a spirit-led life.  His followers believed in spiritual gifts, including the gift of prophecy.  To some extent, their teaching came in conflict with the early books of the New Testament Canon.  They were somewhat like the present-day Pentecostal groups.  “At times God spoke through them in the first person, as with the Old Testament prophets” (Handbook pp 74). 
  • Docetists (mid-second century) -They held that Jesus only seemed to be a man and was, in fact, a pure spirit-being, uncontaminated by the material world.
  • Donatists (312 AD) – “The Donatists argued that the church was a body of saints where sinners had no place. This became particularly important when persecution broke out in that the Donatists did not want to allow back into the church defectors who recanted and then recanted of their recantation because of that persecution. The Donatists argued for their exclusion from the church” (Source: Google – “Short Study: The Donatist Controversy”).
  • Arianism – Arius (250-336 AD) taught heretical Christological teaching, which refused to concede the full divinity of Christ. “Arius taught that the Father existed before the Son. This places the Father and Son on a different level and is why Arius believed the Son was a created being. The Son outranks other created beings but is created nonetheless. Arius stresses the unknowability of God to creatures, so for him, it is impossible that Christ knew God in any real sense.  Arius also said that the Scriptures that ‘seem’ to point to Christ’s divinity are just ‘honorific.’ They are simply there to elevate Jesus a little more than most men. The term ‘Son’ then is a metaphor, a term of honor, to underscore the rank of the Son against other creatures.” Source: apuritansmind.com. Arianism continued to be a problem well into the fourth century. Note: This heresy is very close to the teaching of Islam.
  • Other heresies during the 2nd and 3rd centuries included adoptionism, Sabellianism, and Pelagianism.

Early Church Fathers

These are some of the early writers about the early church. They spent a lot of their time defending the faith against heresy. It has been said that collectively, they quoted the entire New Testament in their writings.

  • Ignatius (Bishop of Antioch about AD 69) was probably a student under the Apostle John. It is said that the Apostle Peter requested that Ignatius be named Bishop of Antioch. He wrote seven letters to the Churches in Asia Minor. “The oldest collection of the writings of St. Ignatius known to have existed was that made use of by the historian Eusebius in the first half of the fourth century” (Catholic Encyclopedia). “Ignatius put a high value on the Eucharist, or communion, as a means of ensuring unity and stressing the reality of Jesus’ becoming a man.”  “He argued strongly that there should be one ‘bishop’ in charge of each congregation’ (Handbook, p 20).  “He was also the first, outside the New Testament, to speak of Jesus’ virgin birth.” He was martyred about AD 10 (see Ignatius).
  • Polycarp (Of Smyrna) – A student of the Apostle John. Irenaeus was a student of Polycarp, and we learned much about Polycarp’s life from the writings of Irenaeus. He lived during the most formative era of the church – at the end of the age of the original apostles. Polycarp spent much of his time fighting against Gnosticism. He was martyred in AD 156 (See Polycarp)
  • Clement of Rome – He was one of the earliest Christian writers. He wrote a letter to the Church at Corinth, probably at the end of the first century.  His book “Clement 1” is perhaps the earliest surviving Christian writing apart from the New Testament. Clement quotes from the Old Testament, emphasizing good order in the Christian faith followed by good works. He is one of the first to quote from the Book of Hebrews. He discussed church organizations placing leadership under the Bishop, Presbyters (Elders), and Deacons.  Origen, Eusebius, and Jerome identify him with the Clement mentioned by Paul (Phil. 4:3), making him a particular pupil of Paul. Tertullian, writing in c. 199 AD, states that the Roman Church claimed St. Peter ordained Clement (see Clement of Rome).
  • Justin Martyr (Born in Samaria around AD 100) – He was a student of Plato in his early years and was a pagan. He was converted in Ephesus and became a Christian apologist. His writings defended the Bible against heresy, and he quoted over 300 different scriptures – most from the Gospels. He used the plural to indicate more than one in circulation. “Justin’s dependence on St. John is indisputably established by the facts he takes from Him” (Catholic Encyclopedia). “Justin’s words are valuable examples of the way early Christians interpreted the Bible” (Handbook, pp 108). He taught a crucified Christ and that Christ is God’s Incarnate Word. During the early years, various opinions on Christ being both man and God existed. He taught that living a good life is a mark of Christianity, so good people, whom he views as Christians, should defend the faith in a secular culture. He was martyred in Rome in AD 165 (see Justin Martyr)
  • Irenaeus (Disciple of Polycarp; born in Greece, about AD 115? – 202) – He became Bishop of Lyon in AD 177. He wrote five books against heresies. He wrote to refute the impious interpretations of heretics (Gnostics, Marcionites, and others) that were common that day. In doing so, he defended the Scriptures that were becoming the accepted Canon. “His writings were formative in the early development of Christian theology, and he is recognized as a saint by both the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church.” “He developed the idea that Christ, fully man as well as fully God, retraced the steps of Adam, with a different result.” “His books demonstrated that the basic Christian faith fulfills the Old Testament. He strongly supported Paul’s writings.” “He argued that the Eucharist contains an earthly and a divine reality” (Handbook, pp 76). He quoted from over 2406 Scripture references; he recognized only four Gospels but did not reference Philemon, 2 Peter, 3 John, and Jude (see Irenaeus).
  • Clement of Alexander – Titus Flavius Clemens (c.150 – c. 215) was a Christian theologian and the head of the noted Catechetical School of Alexandria. Clement is best remembered as Origen’s teacher.  He united Greek philosophical traditions with Christian doctrine. “He interpreted Greek philosophy in a biblical sense and maintained that it had prepared the Hellenistic world for the ‘true philosophy’ of the Christian Gospel” (earlychurch.org).  “He is known for his attempt to unite Greek philosophy with Christian teachings and drew a large number of educated pagans to the Church” (Google) (see Clement of Alexander).
  • Tertullian – (From Carthage, AD 160-225) – Tertullian was the first Christian to write in Latin and became the father of the Latin Church.  His most significant work is the “Apology,” which denounced Christian doctrines he considered heretical. He wrote about the extensity of baptism, arguing that baptism was required for salvation, but he criticized the baptizing of children. He was one of the first to write about the Trinity doctrine. He classified sins into three groups: major (where there was no forgiveness), moderate, and minor. Later, the Roman Catholic Church grouped sin into two groups: major and minor (venial).  In 206 AD, he joined the Montanist sect and seemed to have separated from the Church about 211 AD (see Tertullian).
  • Origen – (From Alexandria – AD 185—254) – “He was one of the most eminent of the Greek fathers, born at Alexandria.” “He wrote commentaries on all the books of the Bible.”  “He articulated the first philosophical exposition of Christian doctrine. He interpreted scripture allegorically and showed himself to be a Stoic, a Neo-Pythagorean, and a Platonist.” He fought against heresy and was among the first Christians to write about systematic theology. “Origen’s controversial views on the pre-existence of souls, the ultimate salvation of all beings, and other topics eventually caused him to be labeled a heretic, yet his teachings were highly influential, and today he is regarded as one of the most important early church fathers” (religionfacts.com).” “He accepts only four Canonical Gospels because tradition does not receive more; he admits the necessity of baptism of infants because it is in accordance with the practice of the Church founded on Apostolic tradition” (Catholic Encyclopedia) (see Origen)
  • Eusebius – (Bishop of Antioch (or Caesarea) – about 263 AD – 339 AD) – Was a historian, not an apologist.  He was the first to write a comprehensive history of the Christian Church and quotes from some early writings of the early Church Fathers. He was a close friend of the emperor Constantine and may have changed the course of Church history through this relationship. “He was a keen follower of Origen.” “He dealt mainly with the succession of Christian bishops and teachers from apostolic times, heresies, the sufferings of the Jews, and the persecution and martyrdom of Christians.” He supported the teaching of Arianism (see Eusebius).

Note: It has been said: “All but 11 verses in the New Testament have been quoted by the Church Fathers” (quora.com).

Early Church Councils

Church councils became a tool for determining what was divine and authoritative. Representatives from all the major churches attended and voted. They spent a lot of time defending accepted doctrine against heresy. A significant influence was centered in Rome, representing the Western bloc of churches, and Alexandria, Egypt, representing the Eastern bloc of churches.  

  • Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:2) – Defined the nature of the Church. The Church was separate from Judaism and composed of Jews and Gentiles.  Members were not required to keep and practice the Jewish law.
  • Council of Alexandria (231 AD) – “Councils of Alexandria started in 231 AD as a council of bishops and priests met at Alexandria, Egypt, called by Bishop Demetrius to declare if Origen of Alexandria was unworthy of the office of teacher, and of excommunicating him” (Wikipedia).
  •  First Council of Nicaea (325 AD) – Repudiated Arianism and adopted the original Nicene Creed, which declared that Jesus was fully God and man.  Established Rome as the primary center of Church authority.
  • Third Council of Carthage (397 AD) – The twenty-seven book of the New Testament was approved by the western block of Churches as the official canon and was adopted for public worship. The Eastern Bloc of Churches had adopted the twenty-seven books in AD 393.

New Testament Apocrypha

There are a large number of books listed in the New Testament Apocrypha that were not included in the New Testament because they were not considered authoritative. However, the Roman Catholic Church later used some of them in its literature.

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