Early christian doctrine


The momentous period of the first five hundred years in the life of the Church's history were marked with intense theological and biblical endeavours coupled with tradition, in particular to its sources and authority. No doubt that such a development coming from a Christian community built of faith. A faith girded with a firm conviction that the God who revealed himself to the early "fathers,"[1] referring to the patriarch's of the OT. In the present age he has revealed himself uniquely in the person of Jesus Christ his son could be cited in John's prologue.

If one has to take John's prologue seriously which would go against the human reason, how could God be God and yet the word be distinct from God and yet, simultaneous be God? This was further complicated by John in 1:14. How did this Word become flesh? In what way Jesus did was God? How one would account for Jesus humanity in the light of divinity?

Such questions made things worst during the post resurrection event where the promise made by Jesus to send his Spirit as depicted in Acts 1: 7-8. Who is this spirit? Is there a relationship between Father, Son and Spirit? Hence there was a huge responsibility lay on the shoulders of the disciples in playing a decisive role of "spreading the Gospel,"[2] and bearing witness through their life to Jesus' death and resurrection. Under such circumstances the believing community felt the need to make statements of faith while wrestling with its very identity and the related questions of its authority to make such statements.

These questions which threatened the very foundation of faith coupled with issues that needed clarification that the "Christian theology,"[3] came into existence. In the process of expounding the Biblical truths the early Christian community realized that the God encountered in Jesus was mysterious and complex. Hence I would be presenting a brief development of hypostaseis which in turn led to various arguments giving way to different controversies which have contemporary concern to this very day based on Filioque.

As the Christianity spread the early hand book called Didache which guarded the church from true and false prophets, who later termed as heretics. In such a process of defending the faith "One God and three persons,"[4] found in the letters written by the so-called apostolic fathers, "Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Polycrap, Hermas, and the author of 2 Clement."[5] In the process of finding the truth, various questions mentioned above led to a view that was not in line with the church. The first ones to expound the "relationship between Christ to God the Father,"[6] were Apologetics. For Apologetics God the father represented not the first person of Trinity but as Godhead the author of Creation and the Son did not originate from the Godhead but from his emission put forth for the purposes of creation, redemption and revelation and spirit did share as part of the "effluence,"[7] of the deity. The ones who belong to such thinking were Aristides, Justin, Tatian, Athenagoras and Theophilus. I would not be going into minute details here however one should be aware even before the official creed came into existence there were various heresies that accounted for false teachings of Christ from an orthodox perspective.

Hence there were two types of thinking that were prevalent in relation to Father, Son and Holy Spirit. However Tertullian, who resembles Irenaeus, invented the word trinitas for God and was defended against monarchians who insisted on "simple unity."[8] He stressed on the fundamental unity within the Godhead despite of inherent complexity. It is the substantia that unites them and the person is what distinguishes them. They are distinct yet not divided. This formed the basis of the Western church, while in the East following in the idea of Origin, the idea of three beings ousiai prevailed. The Eastern Church in general emphasized the distinct individuality of the three persons and in their interest to safeguard their unity stressing on the fact that Son and the Spirit derived from the Father. Thus the relationship between Father and the Son is seen as "being begotten."[9] On the other hand the Western Church began with the unity of God especially in the work of revolution and redemption and interpreted their relationship as inclusive based on fellowship.

Thus the widest dispute by the second half of the fourth century led to the formation of the Nicene Creed, which seems to have reached a settled consensus on the divinity of the Son, which ended Arianism. In his poem called Thalia, Arius uses term "only-begotten,"[10] leaning heavily on John 1:18, makes it clear that the Son does not share the essential nature of the Father yet superior to all other creatures. He seems to have avoided using words such as logos, wisdom and power, which might confuse the begotten son with the attributes of the father. However Alexander made much error of Arius in saying that, "Christ is changeable or mutable,"[11] contradicts Arius' own letters. This resulted in the anti-Arian Council of Antioch was anathematized, setting a stage for the council of Nicaea.

It is interesting to note the emergence of Constantinople to power was determined to resolve the doctrinal unity in the church, which resulted in his own interest. The creed echoed the Western rhythm, based on Eusebius creed, presented for adoption before his excommunication. The Creed was well accepted except for an additional word homoousios means "from the father and like the father in all respects."[12] There are multiple meanings to the word homoousios. The primary question is how it came to be incorporated into the creed. I would not be going into the details however most of the fathers at the council were quite unhappy with the creed.

Yet further theological consensus was necessary in relation to the Spirit to the Son which could not be ruled out from the Godhead. The Cappodocian father, especially the Basil of Caesarea, seems to have defended the divinity of the Spirit, which laid the final element of the Trinitarian theology in place. Thus the council of Chalcedon was considered to be a culmination of Nicene and the Constantinople creed for the material inserted in response to the recent heresies. Though the council of Chalcedon curiously worked its way in the formation of the creed worked into the Eucharist

  1. Evans, G.R., ed., the First Christian Theologians, Blackwell publishing Limited, 2004, p.vii.
  2. Ibid., p.vii.
  3. Ibid., p. viii
  4. Kelly. J.N.D., Early Christian Doctrine, fifth Edition, Continuum Publishing house, London, 1977, p. 95
  5. Stuart G. Hall., Doctrine and Practice in the Early Church, SPCK publications, London, 1991, p.36-40
  6. Ibid., 4 p.83.
  7. Ibid., p.104.
  8. Ibid., p. 74.
  9. Ibid., p. 120
  10. Ibid., p. 123
  11. Ibid., p. 125
  12. Kelly J.N.D., Early Christian Creeds, third Edition, St Edmond Hall, Longman, 1972, p. 243.

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