Early Church Errors

Dane’s Place copyright 2003 ©

“Describe one or more of the most serious theological errors the early church faced, and the steps it took to defend itself against those errors.”

While the blood of the early Church martyrs, drawn by enemies from without, seemed only to fuel the fires of Christianity, it was the toxic doctrine of false teaching smoldering from within that nearly smothered Christianity’s breath.  What Rome could not do to the Church through the sword of persecution, heresy virtually brought about through the poison of indoctrination.

One particular vial of heretical doctrine, brought before the Church, came by the son of the bishop of Pontus, Marcion, who moved to Rome during the middle of the second century.  Proclaiming to be a follower of Christ, Marcion did not adhere to the traditional understanding of Jesus’ teaching, but began an anti-Semitic movement that gained a substantial following.  Although Marcion acknowledged Jesus of Nazareth as being from God, he taught that Jesus was not the son of the God of the Old Testament.  He also denied certain attributes of Christ, which were commonly accepted by the Church, such as His virgin birth and physical humanity.  Marcion insisted that the God of the Old Testament times was a capricious, arbitrary God, whom Christ had come to redeem humankind from.

These strange claims were in great opposition to what the ancient Church believed, and they greatly troubled the early faithful.  Although he was excommunicated from the Church, Marcion did not discontinue the espousing, or teaching, of these disparate perceptions.  He established an organized church that amassed a large following.  He even began putting together a list of writings, or canon, to support his ideas.  Marcion believed that the God of the Old Testament was an evil God; therefore, he expurgated the entire Old Testament from his canon.  He denied the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and John, since they revealed Jesus as having a harmonious relationship with the God of the Old Testament times, and rejected those writings of Paul which today are known as the pastoral epistles1.  Of the books that he kept in his canon, he purged any passage that might make reference to an acceptance of the Old Testament God or scriptures2.

Although some of Marcion’s views were unique, other concepts of his were not entirely foreign to his contemporaries – both within and outside of the Church.  His ideas seem to have stemmed from a larger, more pervasive ideology of the day, known as Gnosticism.  Gnosticism might best be described as a worldview, rather than an organized religion because it was not centralized, or regulated by any one governing body. Since it held that all physical matter was evil, or at best, illusory, while the spirit of humankind was good, it denied many basic Christian tenets, such as the belief that the world was created good by a benevolent God, or that Jesus was born of a woman, and walked the earth in physical form.  Like Christianity, Gnosticism was intensely focused on salvation.  However, within Gnosticism, redemption was reserved for the elite philosopher and scholar who could achieve it through secret understanding and knowledge – not through faith as taught by the Church.  Being a blend of popular Near Eastern philosophies, Gnosticism was an attempt to reorientalize3 the Christian faith.  It also borrowed from Christianity some of its “language and symbols,”4 enabling it to deceive and confuse many people.

There is evidence that the various authors in our New Testament were encountering Gnostic theology even during the infant life of Christianity5.  However, because of widespread Gnostic popularity, and its challenge of traditional Christian beliefs, there arose a need for the Church to respond with more than just admonishment. Rather, the Church needed to establish bases of recognizable authority whereby it could refute heretical doctrines.

Until the time of Marcion, the Church informally recognized a list of authoritative books, or canon, that was used in worship and teaching.  When Marcion established his canon, the Church reacted by beginning the task of sanctioning for itself a catalogue of books that were already recognized as inspired.  These, of course, included the Old Testament books that the Jews honored, and that Marcion rejected.  The only gospel account that Marcion accepted was Luke’s.  The Church reacted by (eventually6) including all four Gospels.  This became a statement toward the Gnostics that the Church believed the Gospel of Jesus Christ was not secretly handed down or limited in its dispersal, but had been broadly given, and could be widely received.  The differences in detail of the four Gospels, which had been recognized for quite some time, and complained against by the Gnostics, became vivid evidence to the Church that the Gospel was indeed a broadly witnessed and open revelation.

In addition to accepting an inspired canon, the Church combated Gnostic, and Marcion’s, heresy by establishing creedal statements that became “a means of recognition7” among believers.  The Apostles’ Creed’s basic text was probably formulated around the year 150 A.D8, and seems to be a direct response to Gnostic theology, as the creed stressed God’s rule over all the world, Christ’s humanity, the resurrection of the human body, and God’s judgment – all of which were an affront to both Marcionism and Gnosticism.

A delightfully interesting ideological position of the Gnostics and Marcionists seems to have created for them a theological trap of sorts.  Because they believed that Jesus possessed the hidden knowledge needed to attain redemption, and that He secretly revealed it only to His successors, this would mean that only the successors and their disciples would have the knowledge.  The Church was able to respond by clearly showing how it was directly linked to Christ by apostolic succession – yet all of its bishops and elders flatly denied receiving this mysterious knowledge.  The Gnostics, and Marcion, were unable to prove the same divine lineage.  The philosophy of the Gnostics, I believe, completely forfeited its intellectual integrity by claiming secret knowledge that could only come through a column of which it was not a part – akin to the irony of Adolf Hitler discovering his Jewish roots9.  By showing its apostolic ancestry, however, the Church produced an episcopacy that was able to give credence to its early oral traditions, and establish for itself a recognizable authority.

What is most remarkable about the struggles of the early Church during this age is how the heresies actually fostered an environment that promoted an important time of growth for the Church.  Furthermore, the early Church was made, by these events, to demonstrate not only truth, but how important truth was, and still is, to the Church.  Our early Church Fathers illustrated this by intensely combating what they believed were philosophies inconsistent with the teachings of Christ, and His apostles.  They also demonstrated for us their belief in absolute truth.  They would not accept pluralism – a theory accepting one or more kinds of ultimate reality – nor would they willingly receive syncretism – a combination of different belief forms.   The early Church clearly showed us, I believe, that truth is important, worth ferreting out, understanding, and defending.

Gnostic thought, I believe, is still extant, its voice being echoed in some of the philosophies of today’s nebulous New Age Movement, which often denies a judging God, discourages a confession of sin and dependence upon Christ, and consistently seeks to attain redemption through means of self-actualization10.  I believe it is important that we not wed these vain ideologies to Christ, nor accept them as co-truths with our own.

I also believe there is pressure today for the Church to surrender the crown of truth, and don instead the beanie of political correctness.  From the acceptance of lifestyles and behaviors that have been traditionally viewed as sinful, to the embracing of other religions rather than the evangelism of said faiths, even unto the denial of fundamental Christian principles, such as the doctrine of Christo-exclusivity, the Church is being pressed upon from without, and even from within, to continually adjust its traditions, and understanding of truth.

As a pastor, I am encouraged by the model set forth by the early Church in its struggle for the preservation of truth and doctrinal tradition.  As well, I see the current challenges as opportunities for growth, both for my congregation, and me, just as the early Church believers grew in the light of their challenges.

1 International Standard Bible Encylopaedia, Electronic Database Copyright (© 1996 by Biblesoft).

2 Charles M. Laymon, The Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary (© 1971 Abingdon Press), pg. 989.

3 William J. Bausch, Pilgrim Church, (© 1989 Twenty-Third Publications), pg. 30.

4 Ibid, pg. 30.

5 See 1 Timothy 1:4 & 6:20; Colossians 2:8.

6 The four-fold gospel was relatively secure with the early Church.  However, Albert C. Sunberg, Jr., in The

  Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary on The Bible, (© 1971 Abingdon Press), reports that some


over the Gospel of John continued as late as 220 A.D. [pg. 1222].

7 Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity, Vol. I (© 1984 HarperSanFrancisco), pg. 63.

8 Ibid.

9 Ironically, Hitler discovered that his paternal grandfather was Jewish.  He kept the information secret.

Source: Stephen E. Ambrose, The Good Fight, (© 2001, Byron Preiss Visual Productions, Inc.), pg. 6.

10 See: Irving Hexham, Concise Dictionary of Religion, (© 1993 InterVarsity Press), pg. 157.